(Appeared in Kuryakin File #12)
"Tim, you're wanted in Number One's office, ASAP."
The mechanical tone of the speaker on Tim Foster's phone wiped out the intimacy from the secretary's voice, but it was there; Foster just knew it was there.
He quickly typed in the last bit of information on the case report he was working on, shipped the report to the records queue and clicked off his computer.
"Uh-oh, youngster, called to the principal's office." Doyle Eggert, who shared the cramped cubicle with Foster, looked up from his own drudgery to tease the newest of U.N.C.L.E. New York's field agents.
"Guess again, Doyle," Foster said as he pulled his jacket on and straightened his tie. "Number One only sends for the best when there's something important on the agenda."
He hurried through the door before Eggert had an opportunity to continue the exchange. Striding down the hallway, Foster unobtrusively crossed his fingers.
"Go on in," Number One's secretary (Rita? Rhoda? No, Rhonda) gave Foster a pearly smile.
He returned it, smoothing his dark hair and raising one eyebrow in query.
"You look fine," she assured, sounding more like a fond older sister than a potential date. No time to worry about that now.
Foster squared his shoulders and marched into the large office that had belonged to Number One, North America for as long as there had been an U.N.C.L.E.
Number One stood at one of the room's windows, ignoring Foster's entrance. The young agent studied the thick, silver hair, sternly erect neck, straight shoulders, and cleared his throat nervously.
April Dancer, Number One, Section One, turned her cool gaze on him. "Have a seat, Mr. Foster." She gestured to the gleaming Queen Anne table where decisions were made every day affecting the lives of unaware millions.
Foster slid onto a brocade cushion. Number One took her accustomed place at the head of the table. "Mr. Foster, I have a somewhat delicate and personally important assignment for you," she began, and Foster felt a grin forming on his face.
"You have heard of a former agent named Illya Kuryakin?"
"Yes, ma'am. He was teamed with Napoleon Solo. Retired, what, 10 years ago? Whenever Solo died."
"Twelve years, yes. He has become quite a well-respected writer in the interim international relations and terrorist activity. Mr. Kuryakin is making a visit to New York this week, a speaking engagement at SUNY. Although he would be the last to agree, I believe he requires protection while he is here."
Foster felt the grin slip away. "Protection? You mean, like bodyguard?"
"I mean very much 'like bodyguard,' Mr. Foster."
"But...well, he's been out of the game for 12 years. Are you sure he needs a bodyguard?"
"Mr. Kuryakin made some remarkably stubborn enemies during the years he worked for this organization, and new ones have surfaced with each of his books. I do not intend for them to interfere with the pleasure and peace of his visit to Now York. He is owed. And, he is a personal friend. Am I understood?"
"Yes, ma'am." Clear as a bell.
"Mr. Foster." He turned from the opening door. "Mr. Kuryakin may be somewhat...reluctant to accept your services. I expect you to be persistent. And don't worry, I have a feeling he may like you." Number One's eyes, almost, sparkled.
Foster took up an unobtrusive post in the echoing vault that was Penn Station. Finally, he spotted the man, looking remarkably like the exit photo in his file. It was only as he closed the distance between them that Foster noted the wrinkles, the scattering of silver in the blond hair, something in the eyes...
Some still-functioning agent's sense brought Kuryakin's head around to fix on the man closing in on him.
"Dr. Kuryakin? I'm Tim Foster. Ms. Dancer asked me to meet you."
Kuryakin's eyes remained wary. Foster fished out his identification card with the holographic globe. Large, blue, nearsighted eyes flickered over the card.
"I assume U.N.C.L.E. has not taken on a social director. Why are you meeting me?" The posh-sounding voice was cold as flint.
"Well, as a bodyguard. Ms. Dancer is concerned that you may have some 'remarkably stubborn enemies' around her words."
"Ms. Dancer is mistaken. I'm sure your talents could be better put to work elsewhere." With that dismissal, Kuryakin turned and continued his traverse of the marble floor.
Foster hustled after him, catching at the handle of Kuryakin's suitcase. The Russian turned on him with a glare.
"Mr. Foster, I have no need of your assistance. I have cared for myself for a good many years. I have come to New York to deliver a speech and to visit some old friends. I do not need a bodyguard. I do not want a bodyguard. Go. Away." He turned and started off again.
Sighing Inwardly, Foster hurried after him, catching at a surprisingly solid arm. "I'm sorry, sir," he said firmly, "but Ms. Dancer was quite clear about her desires. She told me you might object but she also told me to be persistent, and frankly I'm more scared of her than I am of you. Now, can I get that bag for you?"
Kuryakin made soft noise in his throat (a chuckle?). He paused, giving Foster an uncomfortably thorough glance over. "Your people are not, by chance, Canadian?"
"Urn, no," Foster replied, mystified. “We're from Arizona."
"Ah." Kuryakin nodded solemnly and finally handed over the suitcase.
Foster steered him toward the entrance where Richard Mutzebaugh, whose large freckled hands were capable of driving just about any wheeled conveyance with the skill of a master choreographer, waited patiently. Today, Mutzebaugh's talents were being wasted on a nondescript sedan.
Kuryakin regarded the carrot-topped, heavily muscled six-foot-four that was Mutzebaugh. "Two of you? The budget must be quite a bit looser these days."
"Yessir," Mutzebaugh murmured shyly, holding the door open. Stowing the suitcase in the trunk, Foster spared an amused glance at Mutzebaugh (whose large head topped Kuryakin's by almost a foot) as he stared down at the slender older man with a chastened expression.
Mutzebaugh dropped them at the Plaza. Kuryakin's room turned out to be a suite on the tenth floor. Foster's eyebrows rose. SUNY's budget must have loosened up quite a bit, too, since he was a student. Maybe U.N.C.L.E. was footing the bill, or Kuryakin himself. From what Number One had said, he could probably afford it better than any of them.
Foster laid the suitcase on the bed in the spacious bedroom. Kuryakin opened the curtains, staring down at the bustle of New York with a curiously wistful expression. He turned from the window, seeming surprised to find Foster there.
"Thank you, Mr. Foster. Perhaps you could show yourself out?"
The younger man shook his head. "Sorry, sir. You're stuck with me. I'II be as unobtrusive as I can, but I'm not leaving."
"’…a piece of furniture,'" Kuryakin murmured so low Foster scarcely caught the words. The Russian sighed. "Very well, make yourself comfortable in the other room. I assume I may bathe alone?"
"Yes, sir." Foster walked into the sumptuous drawing room and took advantage of the opportunity to look around.
He was sitting on the cushy couch, his feet on the glass-and-chrome coffee table and a rerun of "Get Smart" on the television when Kuryakin emerged from the bedroom, pulling a black suit jacket over his clean shirt. The blue eyes fixed critically on Foster's feet, and the young agent quickly dropped them to the floor.
"I have made a reservation at the Russian Tea Room," Kuryakin began abruptly. “Will Mr. Mutzebaugh be joining us?"
From which Foster assumed that he was invited to dinner. "I doubt it. He'd probably rather grab a hamburger."
Kuryakin led the way out the door.
They crowded into the foyer of the plush restaurant along with a crowd of well-dressed couples waiting for tables. The harried maitre d', a small man with curly while hair and a nose like a potato, checked over his list of reservations and glanced up, his gaze fixing on Kuryakin.
His face broke into a wide smile and he pushed through the crowd to grab Kuryakin’s arm and pump his hand in enthusiastic welcome, all the while talking quickly in Russian.
Kuryakin smiled and answered something. The old man, still holding onto the other man's arm, pulled him through the crowd and toward a table halfway down the long room. Wincing under the glares of the other diners still waiting at the door, Foster followed.
When he seated himself across from Kuryakin, the Russian introduced him briefly, giving a lengthy name for the old man that Foster couldn't quite catch.
Gesturing with regret toward the door, the host bustled away, patting Kuryakin proprietarily on the shoulder as he hurried past.
Without offering explanation, Kuryakin buried his face in the menu.
"Been here before, huh?" Foster finally asked.
The Russian laid the menu on the table. "Many times. Shall I order for you?"
Foster glanced at the menu. "Uh, yeah. That might be a good idea."
The food, when it arrived, was generous, unrecognizable and buried in a sauce composed primarily of butter and cream.
"Whoa, cholesterol city," Foster murmured, poking at the large serving before him.
Kuryakin glared, and Foster quickly filled his mouth. He was just about to compliment the mysterious meal when the old man returned and pulled up a chair, chattering away in Russian.
When they had finished, and chugged two shot glasses of vodka with the equally friendly bartender, Kuryakin reached for his wallet. Eyes widened with horror, the old man pushed his hand back into his pocket.
Escorting them to the door, the white-haired man suddenly pulled Kuryakin into a tight hug, his eyes welling with tears. To Foster's surprise, the ex-agent allowed the mauling, even patting the old man on the back comfortingly before gently extricating himself.
Mutzebaugh, summoned by Foster's communicator, was at the door in minutes.
"The Plaza?" Foster asked.
"The Met," Kuryakin corrected.
There were two tickets waiting. Foster, no fan of ballet, volunteered to babysit the car. Mutzebaugh ran a hand anxiously over his unruly fuzz and straightened his tweed jacket over his hips before following Kuryakin across the plaza. Watching them, Foster grinned; a rumpled St. Bernard trailing a sleek, blue-eyed Siamese was the image that came to mind.
He was nearly napping behind the wheel in a diplomatic parking spot when his communicator warbled and he pulled away from the curb.
"…that woman in the red dress danced alone. THAT was incredible!" Mutzebaugh was babbling enthusiastically, all his shyness vanished, when Foster pulled the car up next to the ballet-goers. Kuryakin smiled indulgently as he slid into the back seat, but turned his face toward the window, effectively cutting off the conversation. Foster wondered abruptly for whom the second ticket had been intended, and why Kuryakin was willing to drop his plans to accommodate them. Ah, well, he'd probably done his share of bodyguard duty, standing hungry and unobtrusive against a restaurant wall or pacing the hallway outside a theater, trying to stay awake until a performance ended.
"The Plaza?" Foster asked again.
"The Blue Note, I think. The south side of Washington Square," Kuryakin directed.
A parking space suddenly opened up just two blocks from their destination and Foster quickly nabbed it.
Down three steps and through a neon-lined doorway was the Blue Note, a tiny jazz club that had escaped Foster's attention before.
They found an empty table and ordered-mineral water for Foster and tomato juice for Mutzebaugh, who were, after all, on duty, and vodka for Kuryakin.
Foster had never been much of a fan of jazz, either, and judging from the look on Mutzebaugh's face, neither had he. But as the quartet spun its meandering music, Kuryakin leaned back in his chair with closed eyes and sipped at the vodka and looked happier than Foster had yet seen him.
When a waiter set another vodka on the table, the blue eyes snapped open. Kuryakin followed the waiter's gesture toward the bar, and one blond eyebrow arched.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said, just loud enough to be heard above the noise the band was making. He wove his way through the crowded room to stop next to a blonde woman in a snug blue satin dress. She was perched on a bar stool, shapely legs crossed and her firm rump rocking slightly to the music.
To Foster's surprise, when the woman turned around he saw that she must have been near Kuryakin's age. A rather heavy application of make-up was a momentary distraction from the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth and the sag of her neck. There were no hugs or handshakes this time. Kuryakin kept his hands carefully in his pockets and the woman clasped hers around her glass in a way that looked like habit. They talked quietly for a few minutes before Kuryakin turned and made his way back to the table.
"So, another friend," Foster probed.
Kuryakin didn't answer, but took a rather large drink from his original vodka.
"Who is she?" Might as well be direct.
"Waft a minute," Mutzebaugh said, "I remember her. She was a Thrush agent, right?"
"I believe she still is," Kuryakin said.
Foster stared at him. "Do you think it's smart to be fraternizing with a Thrush agent?"
"Mr. Foster, I have learned it is much safer to confront Angelique than to turn my back on her."
"Yeah, well what'd she tell you?"
He shrugged. "Superficial chit-chat. I complimented her appearance. She assured me the vodka is not poisoned."
Mutzebaugh and Foster stared at the glass. "Are you going to drink it?" Mutzebaugh finally asked.
"Of course not."
The encounter had apparently broken the Russian's mood, and in a few minutes they headed for the door. Foster glanced back and found the woman at the bar staring after them. Before he could analyze her expression, her eyes fixed on his face. Her red lips curved into a broad smile and she nodded, as though at an old friend. Puzzled, he returned the nod, and stepped up to the street.
When they reached the car, Kuryakin produced a tiny flashlight and played it over the door before allowing Mutzebaugh to open it. "A bomb?" Foster asked incredulously.
"When Angelique is nearby, I prefer to be cautious," the older man said, popping the hood and running the flashlight over the engine, then crouching to check beneath the car.
Apparently satisfied, he slid into the car. Feeling somewhat uneasy, Foster did the same. The car started without incident.
Back at the Plaza, Mutzebaugh dropped them off and went to park the car for the night.
Inside the hotel room, Foster began a quick search while Kuryakin dragged off his jacket and headed for the bedroom. "You don't worry she might have left a bomb in here?" Foster called out.
"Mr. Foster," Kuryakin sounded shocked, "this is the Plaza."
When Foster had satisfied himself that no new equipment had been added to the suite, he settled on one of the chairs. Kuryakin, in sleeveless t-shirt and trousers, stepped into the bedroom door. "I take it you are planning on staying the night?"
"Yes, sir. We’ll be quiet."
In a moment, Kuryakin was back, dropping a pillow and blanket on the couch. "Take turns," he directed tersely, returned to the bedroom and shut the door firmly.
The rattle of a wheeled cart woke Foster. Kuryakin, dressed except for his jacket, followed the waiter to a table and chairs by the window.
"Ah, Mr. Foster. I wasn't sure what you would want, so I ordered only for myself.”
And, not much, at that, Foster noted. The cart bore only a teapot and cup, a glass of orange juice, and the New York Times.
"Um, I'll have two eggs, scrambled, bagel with butter, side of sausage, coffee with cream," Foster mumbled to the waiter.
"’Whoa,'" Kuryakin quoted with irony, "’cholesterol city."'
"Where's Mutzebaugh?" Foster asked, sitting up and running his hands over his face.
"I sent him home," the older man said, taking a seat at the small table by the window. As Foster opened his mouth to object, Kuryakin continued, "It is my intention to stay here until lunchtime. You also may feel free to go home if you wish."
"Forgive me, Mr. Foster," the blue eyes looked him over somewhat critically, "but you really do need to clean up."
Foster picked up his jacket and produced a razor, toothbrush, comb and clean underwear from the pocket. "Can I use the bathroom?"
Kuryakin's face was blank. "As you wish." He carefully poured out a cup of tea and settled back with the Times.
After breakfast, Foster took over the newspaper while Kuryakin scribbled on the typed pages of his speech. At noon, Kuryakin pulled on his jacket and led the way downstairs where Mutzebaugh waited with the car. "The Masque Club," he directed. Mutzebaugh and Foster looked at him blankly. "0n the south side of the headquarters building."
"Oh, Cottoneye Joe's," Mutzebaugh said.
"It's a country bar now," Foster explained. Kuryakin grimaced.
Kuryakin cast a critical glance over the rough wood railing and hay bales that lined the nearly empty room, and the hostess' jeans, plaid shirt, and six guns. But his face broke into a wide smile when his eyes fell on the woman waiting at a table near the windows. Number One. Foster, and Mutzebaugh beside him, stared in disbelief as Kuryakin crossed the room, opening his arms as a smiling Number One rose to meet him.
"Jesus," Mutzebaugh breathed. "She does leave the office sometimes." The younger agents were seated at a table near the door. Foster tried not to stare at the other table, but the sound of Number One's laughter drew his attention several times.
Lunch finished (not bad barbecue, if you were a barbecue fan, but the slaw was a little dry), Foster glanced over for a sign when they would be leaving. Number One was leaning forward across the table, talking earnestly to Kuryakin, her hand over his. Kuryakin was shaking his head, smiling apologetically. Foster quickly looked away.
The afternoon was exhausting.
Kuryakin politely declined Number One's invitation to visit headquarters. Instead, he directed Mutzebaugh to Little Russia, where he wandered from shop to shop buying unrecognizable canned or bottled food, breads, cassette tapes and books. He spoke Russian with shopkeepers and paused occasionally, apparently just taking in the sights and smells of the small neighborhood. Foster carried packages and waited. Finally, with a glance at his watch, Kuryakin led the way back to the car.
After a quick shower and change, they were on their way to SUNY. Kuryakin, freshly shaved and smelling slightly of a spicy aftershave, stared out the window. Nervous? Foster wondered, then promptly dismissed the notion.
He was surprised at the large crowd waiting for the Russian. “Quite a well-respected writer," Number One had said. Apparently she wasn't exaggerating, and an agent with his eyes on being chief would know that, he reminded himself sternly.
From the wings of the small stage, Foster looked over the crowd, standing room only at the rear. Most were young, probably students, as he had been…was it just four years ago? He spotted Mutzebaugh's red hair at the back of the room as he moved through the crowd, looking for anything suspicious. Kuryakin was seated on stage on a folding chair, legs crossed elegantly, horn-rimmed glasses resting on his aristocratic nose.
Seated beside him, a tall, rumpled man leaned close and whispered something and he smiled politely. Finally, the rumpled man stood and introduced the speaker. Foster was too busy watching the room to pay close attention, but it was a lengthy introduction. Apparently, Kuryakin had been busy since leaving U.N.C.L.E., since most of his work for that organization was still classified.
The audience quieted as the speech began. Foster's attention was caught by a young woman in the third row, her large brown eyes fixed on Kuryakin, her impressive chest rising and falling slowly as she listened, enraptured. He briefly considered approaching her after the speech You're on duty, son, he reminded himself, and added ruefully, and you're not the one she's interested in.
His gaze moved on, from face to face. Anything unexpected? Anything suspicious? Anything?
Movement caught his eye. Standing with others in the back of the room, a dark-haired woman shifted restlessly. She wasn't tall and seemed to be having trouble seeing clearly. She edged her way along the perimeter of the room and Foster's eyes followed her. There was something stiff in the way she moved. Something...
He sought out Mutzebaugh, caught the man's eyes, directed his attention to the woman, who was now leaning against a concrete support post. A comfortable position for listening, or a good brace for a gun arm.
The woman's hand came out of the pocket of her jacket. Metal glinted. Foster tensed his muscles, preparing to tackle Kuryakin if necessary. But Mutzebaugh was there, behind the woman, closing his large paw around her wrist and pulling her inexorably toward the doors ad the back of the room.
Foster sagged with relief. At the podium, if Kuryakin had noticed, he didn't show It. Foster's eyes scanned the room again. Anything? Mutzebaugh returned, alone, and nodded at him. So, it had been a gun and the woman was under control. Kuryakin was taking questions from the audience now, stepping out from the partial shelter of the podium, strolling up and down the stage, listening and answering while Foster tried to keep an eye on a hundred faces and bodies at once.
Eventually it was all over. The applause was enthusiastic. A couple of dozen people crowded close to the stage, clambered onto it to surround Kuryakin with questions. Foster pushed his way through the crowd in time to see someone thrust one of his books at the Russian, asking for an autograph. He scrawled something unrecognizable and handed it back with a smile, but his face was tired, his body tense and Foster suddenly realized how uncomfortable the reserved agent must be with this random and uncontrollable physical contact.
"Okay, folks, we've got to go," Foster called out in a casual tone. Kuryakin looked at him with relief. Foster began forging a path toward the wings of the stage, pushing firmly through the bodies with Kuryakin following. Suddenly, he was jerked violently backward, landing hard on his rump on the stage. Above him, a man in corduroy pants and loafers leaned over, arms thrusting toward Kuryakin. There was a startled exclamation from someone in the crowd. The wall of legs around Foster swayed. A knee caught him hard in the ear as he tried to get to his feet, and he fell back with his head ringing.
Something heavy fell across his feet and the crowd backed away. A woman screamed.
A heavy-set man with thinning brown hair lay across Foster's legs, a knife pinning a woven tie to his beige shirt.
A hand, sticky with blood, was thrust at him. Foster looked up into Illya Kuryakin's impassive face, took the proffered hand and scrambled to his feet. Mutzebaugh was there, finally, looking guilty and worried. "Got caught in the crowd," he said lamely. "Are you okay?"
Foster nodded, then noted that Kuryakin was keeping his left hand under his jacket, pressed against his ribs. He pulled the jacket back. The spotless white shirt was stained with blood. It's just a cut," the Russian said, his voice calm.
Police officers pushed forward, organizing the crowd. A paramedic knelt by the man on the stage and pointed out the knife to the officer standing behind him. Suspicious eyes were fixed on Foster and Kuryakin. Damn.
"Get someone to check him out," Foster whispered to Mutzebaugh, jerking his chin toward Kuryakin. "I'll take care of the rest."
Mutzebaugh nodded and tugged Kuryakin away from the scene.
It took a lot of talking, but in the end Foster convinced the police officers that the dead man was an assassin, that he and Mutzebaugh were on the side of the angels, that Kuryakin was an innocent victim with some skill at defending himself, that further questions could wait.
He found them in the back of an ambulance parked in the alley behind the building. Kuryakin, bare-chested, sat on a cot inside the ambulance, his left hand closed around a strap hanging from the ceiling while a paramedic in a red uniform stitched up a long gash on his left side. Mutzebaugh was carefully looking in the opposite direction, his face pale, but Kuryakin was watching the operation with professional interest.
He raised his head as Foster approached. "All okay?"
Foster nodded. "How bad is it?" He indicated the wound.
"It will do for today," Kuryakin said and the paramedic snorted.
Several minutes later, the paramedic sank back on his heals with a sigh, flexing his fingers. "Well, that oughta hold you," he said. "It'll probably leave a scar, but I guess that's not a problem."
Foster followed the man's eyes to the bared skin, a map of past wounds.
"Thank you," Kuryakin said politely, pulled on his slashed, bloody shirt and hid it beneath his jacket. "Mr. Mutzebaugh, is the car nearby?"
While the agent loped off to fetch the car from the parking garage, Kuryakin and Foster waited in the alley. Kuryakin tilted his head up, gazing at the starry gash of sky visible between the buildings. "Full moon this weekend," he murmured.
Foster gave him a suspicious glance. "Are you all right?"
"Of course. I am always all right."
At the Plaza, Mutzebaugh dropped them off and headed for home, promising to pick up clean clothing for Foster in the morning.
Kuryakin disappeared into the bedroom and came out in a few minutes in worn jeans and a white turtleneck sweater pushed up over muscular forearms. He crossed to the well-stocked liquor cabinet and asked casually, “What will you have, Mr. Foster?"
Except for a certain care in the way the man moved, the night's events might never have happened. Foster, viscerally remembering the feeling of that dead weight over his legs found himself vaguely annoyed.
"I'm on duty, remember?" he snapped.
"Oh, I think we can relax a bit now," Kuryakin prodded.
"Jim Beam, no ice," Foster said, caving in.
When Kuryakin handed the heavy crystal glass filled with brown liquid to him, Foster's eyes were caught by the white bracelet of an old scar around Kuryakin's wrist. The strong hand was clean, the blood washed away. Foster raised the glass in silent salute and Kuryakin nodded acceptance.
Returning to the liquor cabinet, Kuryakin pulled a bottle of vodka from the freezer of the room's small refrigerator, picked up a glass and dropped into one of the roomy armchairs.
He poured a glassful of clear liquid and raised it in the air. 'To...the full moon," he murmured and took a large swallow.
Foster stared at the former agent. "That man is dead, you know. And you almost were."
If he was hoping for a reaction, he was disappointed. "Why are you so surprised, Mr. Foster? It was what you expected, was it not?"
Foster shivered. "Not exactly."
"Ah. Your first death?"
"My first that close," the younger agent admitted.
"But it gets easier?"
Kuryakin gave him a sharp glance, then shook his head slowly. "No, it never gets easier. One develops a certain skill at putting it aside, with time."
"Why did you grab me? I'm the bodyguard, remember?"
A shrug. "It was reflex. You didn't recognize the man. I did."
"You knew him?"
"In a manner of speaking. I knew his face from a past encounter."
"And the woman at the back?"
"No." That troubled him, Foster could see it in the blue eyes that were beginning to lose their incisive edge. That was his vulnerability, 12 years out of the game and not recognizing the enemy when they were right in front of him.
"What the hell did you do to get these people so pissed off at you anyway?"
"I really have no idea, Mr. Foster. Perhaps it has nothing to do with a specific retribution. Perhaps I am merely a symbol of times past."
"How much of this goes on? I mean, is it like a constant thing?"
"Oh, no. They no longer harry me at my home. It is only when I venture onto their...turf, that they make a try at me. Who knows, perhaps someday there will no longer be anyone who remembers and I will be left alone." It wasn't clear from his expression whether he preferred the attacks or the anonymity. Perhaps he didn't know himself.
"So what's the deal with that woman in the bar?" Foster sipped at the Jim Beam, welcoming the warm comfort of it in his stomach.
"Angelique." Kuryakin's lips curled into a small smile. "We have been enemies for so long, we are almost friends."
"A friend you don't dare turn your back on."
"No one can hurt us like our friends; they know our weaknesses." Kuryakin's voice was a murmur, his eyes lost in the past.
They sat in silence for a minute. Foster was surprised to find his glass empty and rose to fill it again. Behind him he heard the faint clink as Kuryakin did the same.
When he returned to the couch, carrying the Jim Beam bottle, Foster was amused to find the Russian's feet, in clean white socks, up on the coffee table. Foster pushed off his loafers and did the same.
"How did Solo die?"
"It is in the files." Kuryakin obviously didn't want to talk about it. Tough luck.
"Were you there?"
"I was there."
'Was it your fault?"
The glance he got in response to that question set Foster's hand shaking. He carefully sat the glass on the arm of his chair.
"No, Mr. Foster, it was not my fault. He was careless. He took one chance too many and I was not close enough to prevent its consequence." The Russian was angry, that was clear, but the target had been dead for a dozen years. "It happens in our business."
"Yeah." Foster mentally listed off the four members of his training class who hadn't even made it to their first anniversary. "'One develops a certain skill at putting it aside, with time.' Right?"
After another silence devoted to drinking, Kuryakin spoke. "Are you married, Mr. Foster?"
"No. Not yet. I'm still looking." Foster smiled as he contemplated that on-going search. He pulled himself back with an effort. "What about you?"
"'Had I but world enough and time..."
"What does that mean?"
"Why not?" The question, which would have been unthinkably intrusive this morning, seemed perfectly appropriate now.
Kuryakin looked at him slyly. "Perhaps you have heard something that would explain why not?"
Foster felt his cheeks flush. Even now, many years later, the rumors circulated when the Solo/Kuryakin team came up.
The blond head nodded with what looked remarkably like satisfaction. "Not true, but it proved useful on more than one occasion."
"People, especially men, and especially in our profession, tend to underestimate homosexuals. It gave us an edge that proved useful."
"But you aren't…?'
"No, and neither was Napoleon. Oh, my no." Kuryakin smiled at some memory.
"Well, why aren't you married?"
"Whom to marry, that is always the problem, isn't it? Marry an agent and when would you ever see each other and how well could each function worrying about the other? And what are the odds against growing old together? Marry an outsider, and you spend your life playing bodyguard. No, it is best not to be too vulnerable."
Kuryakin didn't respond. Well, it wouldn't be like that for him. The game had changed; the world had changed. It wouldn't be like that. But he realized he could count on one hand the number of fellow agents who had a family.
"Is Mr. Mutzebaugh your partner?"
"No. I don't have a partner."
Foster shrugged. "Don't need one. I work better on my own."
Kuryakin's shoulders shook slightly and Foster thought for a moment the man was choking on the vodka he had just taken in. After struggling for a moment to swallow, he leaned his head back against the chair and laughed aloud. It was a pleasant laugh, if a little unused, Foster decided.
"What?" the younger agent demanded. "What?"
Wiping at his eyes, Kuryakin regained control. "I am sorry, Mr. Foster, but you are so very much like him."
Illya was sober now. "Yes, Solo. You have somehow the look of him, but also so many of the characteristics. I saw it at the station. April sees it, too. Even Angelique. Fascinating."
"Yeah? Like what kind of characteristics?"
"Vanity, arrogance, ambition, supreme self-confidence. And incredible luck."
Kuryakin smiled at him, and Foster realized he was being played, and found he didn't much mind.
"He was also generous and courageous and charming and very competent, which probably explained most of the luck Does that sound like yourself, Mr. Foster?"
"Actually, it sounds like you."
That stopped Kuryakin cold.
"Maybe partners are like married couples and they get to be more and more like each other," Foster continued.
"Perhaps. I should like to think that."
"So, when he was killed you just quit?"
"Yes, I quit."
"You could have gotten another partner. Had your pick, I expect."
"There was not another Napoleon available at the time, and I find I am not a particularly adaptable person. I didn't have the will to start over."
"You could have worked alone."
"I did, for six months, but whatever other characteristics I picked up, I did not acquire Napoleon's luck." Kuryakin shifted, wincing, as though remembering old injuries.
"You're still alive, and he's dead," Foster pointed out.
"Yes." The Russian buried his attention in the vodka and gave Foster time to fill in the silence with the rest of the answer and which was the lucky one?
"I understand you're doing all right as a writer."
"Yes. I make a great deal of money."
"But you don't enjoy it?"
Slender shoulders shrugged. "I am accustomed to it. Napoleon always would leave me with all the paperwork."
"You live, where is it? Connecticut?"
"Yes. A charmingly picturesque little town."
"You live in a white clapboard house with a big porch and green roof shingles and you have a cat named...Napoleon?"
A soft chuckle. "I live in a red brick parson's cottage with a slate roof and the cat's name is Alexander."
'What do the people in Grover's Mill, or whatever it's called, think you are?"
"Just what I am, a somewhat reclusive bachelor author who places peculiar orders with the bookstore."
"What about the arrogant, impatient, courageous and very efficient secret agent?"
"He is long dead."
"After what happened tonight, I'd have to argue with you."
Kuryakin snorted dismissively. "Reflex, Mr. Foster."
"The sort of reflex that's wasted in a parson's cottage, wouldn't you say?"
"Are you suggesting I rejoin the dance?"
"I guess so. I certainly don't think you belong in some little tourist haven crouched over a typewriter."
"Ah, there, you see, there is that arrogance I mentioned." Kuryakin's voice was hard. "You do not know me, Mr. Foster, and yet after an acquaintance of 30 hours you presume to direct my life?"
He really ought to back oft at this point, Foster mused, staring into the icy eyes, but he took another sip of the Jim Beam and followed his instincts. "Somebody needs to do it," he said. "You're miserable, whether you know it or not. When you got off that train yesterday, it was like 'Night of the Living Dead.' Do you have any idea how much you've changed since you've been back here? It's like you got a transfusion or something."
Foster was seized with sudden inspiration. "Number One sees it too, doesn't she? That's what she was talking to you about at lunch, right?"
"The subject of my conversation with Ms. Dancer is none of your business, Mr. Foster. Nor is my emotional state."
"You probably saved my life tonight. I probably saved yours," Foster responded. "Like it or not, we are responsible for each other."
Kuryakin snorted derisively. "Is this where we cut open our thumbs and become blood brothers?"
"This is where you realize you could write your bestsellers just as well in a New York apartment as in a parson's cottage in Mayberry. Better. And you could spend some time helping out the organization that apparently used to mean a lot to you."
"I am 55 years old, Mr. Foster. Are you seriously suggesting I should be running around saving the world again? My gout is likely to act up at the worst possible moment."
"Bullshit. You don't have gout. And, no, I don't think you should pick up where you left off. You ought to be head of operations, at least; MacKendrick is retiring, you know."
Some flicker in Kuryakin's face tipped him off, and Foster's lips spread into a smile. "That's what she was offering you, isn't it? Number One wants you to take over operations. But you won't do it. Why not?"
"When one is very young, Mr. Foster," Kuryakin began, looking directly at him, and Foster was aware of being subtly insulted, "very complex matters can appear very simple."
"When one is too smart for one's own good," Foster replied with heavy sarcasm, "very simple answers can get lost in a lot of complicated bullshit."
Kuryakin almost smiled, then dropped his feet to the floor and stood just a bit unsteadily. "Good night. Please make yourself comfortable."
The Russian carried the nearly empty vodka bottle to the bar and carefully set it on the counter with the empty glass, then walked into the bedroom, his shoulders bent and head drooping. Watching, Foster realized that for the first time he looked every bit of his age.
Squeezing his eyelids tight together, Foster pondered an irritating insight New York seemed capable of producing a blindingly sunny day only when he had a hangover. The sun showed no signs of disappearing behind a decent screen of pollution, so he surrendered and opened his eyes.
Kuryakin sat at the small table by the window. He was dressed in sharply creased slacks and a blazingly white shirt with a conservative tie. There was a pot of tea by his elbow and the Times was resting on his crossed legs. He was regarding Foster with clear, alert eyes.
"Are you all right?" he asked mildly, and the accented voice echoed painfully between Foster's ears.
"Of course," Foster mumbled, struggling to untangle his legs. "I'm always all right."
The Russian smiled. 'There is aspirin in the bathroom cabinet, I believe," he said helpfully.
By the time Foster had showered, swallowing a handful of aspirins by the simple expedient of opening his mouth beneath the shower head, Mutzebaugh had arrived.
In clean clothes, with his face scraped smooth and his hair combed, Foster was ready to make a tentative approach to the world.
Coffee and croissants had arrived in his absence, and Mutzebaugh was bent over a crumb-filled plate, his eyes angled to the tabloid that was his newspaper of choice.
Foster eased his body carefully onto a chair and Kuryakin handed him a cup of coffee. There was just the slightest hint of smugness in the angular face.
"Why do you look like that?" Foster demanded truculently, burning his tongue on the black coffee.
"Like you don't feel like I feel."
Kuryakin shrugged. "My body seems to deal rather efficiently with alcohol. I am fine."
"I hate you."
"I know," he said solicitously. "Napoleon used to say that, too."
On the way to Penn Station, Foster sat in the front seat with his window wide open, the mixture of vehicle exhaust that passed for fresh air in the city just allowing him to keep the aspirins and coffee in his stomach.
In the side mirror, he caught a glimpse of Kuryakin, the wind lifting the longish hair, the blue eyes on the images of the city scrolling past. His expression was unreadable.
As Foster pulled the suitcase from the trunk of the car, Kuryakin said goodbye to Mutzebaugh. Foster returned in time to hear him encourage the taller man to invest in season tickets to the ballet. "It's a very impressive date," he confided. Mutzebaugh grinned.
The train wasn't leaving for an hour, but the Russian insisted on boarding so Foster could leave.
Handing over the suitcase with a shrug of resignation, Foster said, “Well, it's been a pleasure. Maybe pleasure isn't the right word. An experience, anyway."
Kuryakin grasped the outstretched hand with surprising warmth. "An experience to remember, Mr. Foster. I wish you every bit of Napoleon's luck; the rest I believe you already have."
"Thanks. Good luck with the writing. Maybe I'll see you next time you come to the city to make a speech."
"Sooner, perhaps. I am planning a move."
Foster stared in disbelief. "You mean back here? When did you decide that? Maybe I missed something, but the last thing I remember I was an uninformed, arrogant wet-behind-the-ears armchair analyst who ought to mind his own business. Why didn't you tell me when I had you convinced? You could have saved me about half of this hangover."
"There is that arrogance again," Kuryakin said mildly. "The decision was my own, reached after rational consideration. It required only a visit here to convince me I can write my bestsellers in New York and be of some service to an organization that still means a good deal to me."
Foster glared at him. "You are the stubbornest person I ever met."
"Fascinating. Napoleon used to say that very thing."
"A lot, I bet," Foster said dryly.
"Constantly, as I recall."
With a reserved wave, Illya Kuryakin boarded the train back to a picturesque little town where a cat named Alexander waited to be packed up and delivered to his new home.