The LaLa Land Affair
by Linda Cornett
(Appeared in Can You Get Channel D In the Back of a '57 Chevy?
"The insufferable arrogance of the man!"
Benjamin Kowalski's head jerked up at the explosive comment from the normally restrained head of U.N.C.L.E. New York. "Sir?" he asked a red‑faced John Raleigh.
With uncharacteristic force, Raleigh shot a flimsy from the pile in front of him across the polished mahogany conference table to his young chief enforcement officer. Shagging the print‑out, Kowalski read. His dark eyebrows gradually crept toward his hairline.
"Sepheran? How'd he get onto our network? And who is this Piers Castillian?"
"Castillian is one of Sepheran's lieutenants," Raleigh answered. "He was picked up during your raid on the Angelis Dam. Really, Mr. Kowalski, you must pay more attention to details. Castillian has been in our high security detention facility for the past year and he is not scheduled to be released. And now Sepheran proposes that we simply let him go."
"I guess that means no, huh?"
Two days later, it became clear the issue was not a dead one.
"Mr. Kowalski, report to my office immediately," Raleigh barked into the intercom. With a sigh, Kowalski rose and headed for the hallway.
"Today, this." Raleigh, red‑faced again, tossed another yellow flimsy across the table as Kowalski entered the room.
Sepheran, again. Kowalski raised puzzled brown eyes. "Solo? What's he want with Solo? And why are we supposed to care?"
"Mr. Solo may be off active duty, but he has been privy to quite a few years of U.N.C.L.E. secrets," Raleigh said, "many of them still potentially very harmful to this operation. And Mr. Solo has no protective conditioning on which to rely. This could be very troubling to our organization."
"Yeah, not to mention to Solo. So, we give him Castillian and he lets Solo go," Kowalski said with a shrug.
"Mr. Kowalski, you seem to suffer under the illusion that because a man is over 40, he is of no value to either side," Raleigh said coldly "It is an attitude I take rather personally, for obvious reasons. We cannot return Sepheran's most trusted lieutenant to him. We are not going to be blackmailed. Nor can we allow him to root around at his leisure in Mr. Solo's memories."
"So, we take him out?" Kowalski brightened at the prospect of action.
Raleigh winced. "No, Mr. Kowalski, we do not 'take him out.' You quietly and discreetly find where Sepheran is holding Mr. Solo and YOU recover him. Quietly, Mr. Kowalski. We do not want this episode blown out of proportion at this juncture in our funding cycle. It would not do for the attention of our member nations to be drawn to the potential hazards represented by our retired agents. Nor to the potential value or our more notable prisoners."
"Right. Quiet," Kowalski said and left the room. Quietly.
"Ben," Janet Friday snagged Kowalski in mid‑stride as he left Raleigh's office. He turned hopefully, but she coolly handed him a memo.
Illya Kuryakin had called, asking for Kowalski. "What'd he want?"
"Mr. Kuryakin didn't say," Friday said, with a good deal more awe in her voice than Kowalski felt was strictly called for. The man had been retired from active duty for almost 10 years and had spent the time building up an international empire as a fashion designer, for chrissake.
Kowalski tore up the message and dropped it into the shredder on Friday's desk, giving her a "so there" nod before continuing on his way.
Past experience told Kowalski that Kuryakin probably already knew what was afoot, thanks to the apparently infallible information network that continued to supply the retired agent. Hell, he probably knew before I did, Kowalski muttered to himself, somewhat resentfully. He already had to rescue one of the old guys, he told himself, he certainly wasn't going to baby‑sit another while he was doing it.
Kowalski's steps took him to Research where, several hours later, he felt much more closely acquainted with Justin Sepheran than he had ever wanted to be. Kowalski still stung from Sepheran's blunt and unflattering assessment of his talents when they first met, and from Sepheran's two escapes from under his nose.
However, he now had an address from Sepheran's past that just might still be current. And since the address was in Los Angles and the month was February and the weather in New York was lousy, Kowalski decided an immediate visit was required. Within two hours, he was on an airplane heading west.
With a sigh of satisfaction, Kowalski tossed his folded raincoat and small suitcase into a rental car and headed into the heart of Los Angeles.
The address, to his surprise, led him to a used car lot in a strip of car lots, fast food outlets, and cheap motels. "Greenstreet Used Cars" the sign read. It took Kowalski several minutes of pondering the name to grasp the possible connection. When he had made the hops from Sidney Greenstreet to The Maltese Falcon to "The Black Bird", he smiled and slid from the rental car to stroll to the car lot.
Business, apparently, was slow. At any rate, there seemed to be quite a lot of sales personnel and no customers. Kowalski's eye was also caught by the absurdly high prices marked on some of the particularly hard-used cars on the edges of the lot. As he stepped nearer for a closer look, he was startled by a voice from behind his left shoulder.
"Lookin' for anything special, sir?"
Kowalski spun and found himself looking down into the mild brown eyes of a red-haired man in a horrible plaid jacket. The man smiled up at him toothily, and Kowalski carefully removed his hand from his pistol and managed a smile in return.
"Actually, I was thinking of finally giving in and buying a Mustang convertible," he said.
"Isn't that just the way?" the salesman tsked regretfully. "We had a beauty, little metallic blue model, just like new. Fellow drove off with it just yesterday."
Kowalski tsked, too. "Maybe I'll just look around a bit, see if anything else strikes me," he said. The sympathetic salesman, refusing to take the hint, followed him closely from car to car, pointing out one unlikely candidate after another. After a few minutes, Kowalski realized with some surprise that they were quite close to the sales building, almost as if he had been skillfully herded this way. And the other salesmen all seemed to be taking an intense interest in the potential customer.
"You know," the salesman said, snapping his fingers , I just remembered one of the other fellas mentioned seeing a Mustang convertible for sale at another lot. I really shouldn't be steering you to the competition, but I got a soft spot for those old models, too. Let's go ask him where it was." He gripped Kowalski's right elbow firmly and propelled him toward the door of the sales building. The rest of the sales crew clustered just inside the door, waiting.
Jabbing suddenly backwards, Kowalski caught the salesman a sharp blow in the chin with his elbow and ducked behind the bumper of a lime green Datsun as the rest of the sales force poured out, tugging guns from beneath their jackets.
"All right, move in!" Kowalski shouted the bluff loudly enough to be heard over the clatter of feet on the metal stairs. He realized with disgust that he had barked the order into a box of Tic‑Tacs, the first item to hand, but none of the bogus salesmen appeared to notice.
"Clear out!" one yelled, and Kowalski was forgotten as the men dashed to cars scattered around the lot, jumped in, and roared away in different directions. Within a matter of seconds, the lot's stock was reduced significantly and Kowalski was alone on the warm asphalt.
Kowalski entered the pre-fab sales office, finding it empty. No one was hidden under the desks. The doors marked Ladies and Gentlemen led to the expected facilities. The third closed door proved to be a broom closet. A quick examination of the contents of a file drawer turned up a few sales contracts and a lot of blank paper, but no clues to where everyone had gone.
Kowalski stood in the middle of the room, listening to an ancient coffee pot burble, casting his eyes around hopelessly. The building would be examined thoroughly by the L.A. office, but Kowalski had a sinking feeling that whatever useful information existed at this satrap had just driven away in a dozen directions.
Sighing, he holstered his gun and stepped back into the lot. Turning his back to the street, he pulled out his pen and made a request for a clean‑up crew.
The sound of a car honking close behind him brought him around in a spin. A cream‑colored Cadillac was pulled to the curb. A scowling, hawk‑nosed middle‑aged man sat at the wheel, staring straight ahead. Leaning down, Kowalski looked past him to stare into a too‑familiar pair of ironic blue eyes.
Kuryakin let Kowalski see the gun he held on the driver and beckoned him into the car.
Sliding into the back seat, Kowalski demanded with annoyance, "What the hell are you doing here? Shouldn't you be off in Gay Paree trying to bring back culottes or something?'
Annoyance flickered briefly over the Russian's face. "I remembered the address from a past run-in with Sepheran routine field information. Apparently, it is fortunate that I did, since you appear to have alerted the rest of the satrap. And lost them."
Kowalski grimaced, then looked at the thinning hair on the back of the driver's head with renewed interest. "Him?" he asked dubiously.
"Mr. Rennet, was it?" Kuryakin said. "He was hoping to interest me in this rather inefficient, oversized American-made automobile. However, sales is strictly a sideline for Mr. Rennet."
"Yeah?" Kowalski said. "Are you sure you aren't just scaring the bejesus out of some innocent schmuck?"
"We have met before," Kuryakin said, and Rennet turned, startled, to look at him more closely. "Many years ago, and briefly. He was in bad company at that time."
"All right, let's get him to L.A. H.Q. for questioning."
"I really don't think there is time for that," Kuryakin said firmly. "Rush hour is beginning, and Headquarters is across town. However, I do recall a motel not far from here. . . ."
Kowalski considered. Much as he hated to agree with Kuryakin on anything. he also had no desire to turn this interrogation over to the uniformly tanned, mellow and blow-dried agents who made up the L.A. force. He nodded. "But, remember, it's my case I handle the questioning," he said.
Kuryakin registered them at the Cummon Inn, and if the motel clerk thought it odd that three men with no luggage should check into a motel room in the middle of the afternoon, it didn't slow down the transaction.
Kuryakin unlocked the door of the end unit and led the way into the air-conditioned chill. Tossing the keys on the dresser, he stretched out on the gaudy flowered bedspread, head propped against the fake bamboo headboard. His eyes fixed unwaveringly on Kowalski and Rennet. Something in his stillness reminded Kowalski of a cat, endlessly patient and immediately ready to pounce.
Pulling out one of the wooden chairs from the room's well‑worn table, Kowalski handcuffed Rennet securely to the chair, removed the man's wire‑rimmed glasses, and began.
He started, on general principle and to relieve some of his frustration, with a series of blows to the Thrush agent's face. He succeeded only in bloodying Rennet's lip and making his own hand sore.
Rennet glared at him, nearsighted, and Kuryakin watched, impassive.
Kowalski fumbled through his hastily packed suitcase until he found the flat case stocked with the latest in U.N.C.L.E. pharmaceuticals. Selecting a fairly new drug known affectionately at Headquarters as "happy talk," he injected the Thrush.
Within about 15 minutes the scowling Rennet was floppy‑limbed and grinning. "Where is Sepheran?" Kowalski began sternly.
"Try church," Rennet slurred.
"What church?" It seemed an unlikely cover, but Sepheran was an unlikely adversary.
"Any church," Rennet grinned hugely. "Din't cha ever hear of Sepheran and the cherubim?" He snorted with amusement at his own joke and turned to wink at Kuryakin, who smiled slightly in return.
The interrogation did not improve.
Solo may not have been prepared for interrogation, but Rennet certainly was. And, the stern face hid an enthusiastic and maddening affection for puns. When he heard a muffled chuckle from behind him, Kowalski gave up. With a sigh of frustration, he found a stimulant in the med kit that quickly removed the smile from Rennet's face.
When the man was clearly sobered, Kowalski pulled his gun and pressed the barrel lightly against the bridge of Rennet's sharp nose. "Last time where is Solo?" he breathed dangerously.
Rennet stared at him defiantly, silently. Kowalski tightened his finger slightly on the trigger. Nothing. He was tempted for a moment to continue the pressure, but finally gave in with a growl of defeat and holstered the pistol.
"If I may offer a word of advice, Mr. Kowalski," Kuryakin's soft voice spoke for the first time since they entered the room. "Never make a promise you don't intend to keep.*
Kowalski turned on him, glad for a target for his frustration. "Maybe you'd like to give it a try?" he snarled.
"Yes." Kuryakin stood, slow and smooth. He pulled the extra chair up close to Rennet and sat, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his eyes on Rennet's face, intimate as a therapist.
"Mr. Rennet, Mr. Kowalski is a talented agent, but perhaps naive in this area," he began softly. "You and I are more experienced. We know the folly of making rash statements. Therefore, I will confess what we both know I could not kill you. Not here, not when you are our only lead.
"But we are in a hurry and we must have some information from you. Something must be done. You see?*
Rennet smirked but didn't answer.
"So, I could not kill you. but please believe that I will do whatever I say I will do." He paused, looking speculative. "I will...cut off your fingers." Rennet snorted in disbelief. As he gazed into the pale eyes, however, his expression shifted slowly to confusion, then fear.
"You're bluffing, just like he was," Rennet said, hopefully.
"No," Kuryakin said. "I will not enjoy it, I admit that to you, but I will do it because the life of a good friend is at risk. Come, we both have far too many scars already. Why not answer the questions and spare both of us the unpleasantness." He again looked at Rennet questioningly.
Squaring his shoulders and clenching his jaw, Rennet shook his head.
With a sigh, Kuryakin stood. He slipped off his jacket and holster and tossed them on the bed. "Mr. Kowalski," he said as he began unbuttoning his shirt, "would you mind fetching us a bucket of ice? I believe I saw the machine near the office."
Kowalski puzzled over the request for a second. "Sure," he finally said. “You want a pop, too?"
"No, thank you." Kuryakin pulled off his shirt and tossed it on the bed as well.
Not bad shape for an old guy, but he wasn't kidding about the scars, Kowalski judged as he picked up the plastic ice bucket and set out on his errand.
When he returned, the room was empty. A flush of anger froze him in the doorway. That Russian bastard had taken off with Rennet on his own... A metallic clink from the bathroom interrupted his internal tirade.
Rennet was kneeling on the tile floor at one end of the bathtub, his hands inside the tub and cuffed tightly to the spigot. Kuryakin stood behind him, idly tossing something long and black in his palm.
Solemnly, he took the bucket of ice and placed it in the tub beneath Rennet's hands.
"What's that for?" Kowalski asked.
"The fingers. If Mr. Rennet is fortunate enough to get to a hospital before too much time passes, it may be possible for them to be reattached. Microsurgery has advanced remarkably in the past few years. Of course there is the possibility that he will bleed to death first."
Rennet looked like Kowalski felt.
"What about noise?" Kowalski nudged at the man's discomfort.
"At this time most of the rooms are probably empty," Kuryakin said, reasonably, removing his watch and laying it carefully on a shelf above the sink. "And, we are at the end of the building. Hopefully the room is well sound-proofed. However, you might want to find an appropriate program on the television set and be prepared with an excuse in case there are complaints."
He pressed a thumb against the object lying in his palm and a glittering blade snicked out. Kowalski gratefully returned to the other room and shut the door behind him. He found an old western shortly before the soft murmur of Kuryakin's voice gave way to Rennet's, shrill and loud.
The pleading voice soon quieted, replaced by the murmur of voices and then the sound of running water.
The bathroom door opened and Kuryakin was standing there, drying his hands. His eyes were opaque as blue stones. Behind him, Rennet slumped against the tub. Kuryakin picked up one of the thin hotel towels and with casual skill slit off a long piece which he tied around Rennet's face as a gag. Rennet's hands, as far as Kowalski could see, were unmarked.
"Well?" Kowalski demanded as Kuryakin began dressing.
The blue eyes flicked to Rennet and back to Kowalski. "Violence proved unnecessary," he said flatly.
"You mean, he talked and you didn't do anything to him?" Kowalski's voice was skeptical.
"Mr. Rennet is not a stupid man. He recognized the inevitable and made a rational decision to avoid mutilation."
"So? Where's Sepheran?"
"A restaurant, La Grive Mange, on Walnut," Kuryakin said. He tied his tie efficiently and led the way from the room, stopping to slip the "Do Not Disturb" sign over the doorknob.
Kuryakin slid into the passenger seat and Kowalski with a shrug fumbled out the keys and started the engine.
"So, you do this sort of thing a lot in the old days?" he asked nastily as he pulled out of the parking lot.
"No." Kuryakin's voice sounded tight and Kowalski gave him a quick glance. He was staring out the window at the passing strip. His left hand, resting on his thigh, trembled slightly.
"Would you have done it?" Kowalski probed, genuinely curious now.
"I believe so, yes." Kuryakin sounded as disturbed by his answer as Kowalski.
They drove in silence to the restaurant.
They sat in the lavishly landscaped parking lot of La Grive Mange, staring speculatively as the shiny ebony doors set into the pink stucco exterior.
"Well, I haven't had lunch," Kowalski suggested, "and it is a restaurant. . . ."
Kuryakin nodded and they went in.
It was just on 5 o'clock, and the restaurant was practically empty, but the slight, dark‑haired maitre d' twitched his skimpy mustache and fumbled busily with his reservation book for some minutes before he gave in and showed them to one of the intimate tables at the rear of the restaurant.
He poured water with slivers of lemon peel and handed them menus that opened to approximately the size of the New York Times.
Despite the grandness of the menu's exterior, Kowalski found the offerings within somewhat Spartan salads, peculiar soups, and a half-dozen mysterious entrees.
"What the hell is radicchio? Sounds like something they grow around Three Mile Island," he whispered.
"Lettuce," Kuryakin responded tonelessly, but Kowalski noticed he was frowning over the list as well. "Warm goat cheese salad," he muttered. "Calabaza strips with whole wheat pasta. Celeriac with remoulade dressing. Yard‑long beans, egg‑plant, and tomato stew with mint and dill. Bozhe moi."
His eyes strayed to the right-hand side of the page and widened in shock at the price list.
"Gentlemen. I am Gregory, your waiter." The voice was intimate, almost a whisper, and belonged to an extremely skinny black man in a stucco‑pink shirt. The man produced an order pad and waited patiently, his dark eyes tracing over the visible portion of Kowalski's body before settling on Kuryakin, expectantly. "How can I serve you?"
To Kowalski's surprise and amusement, the blond flushed noticeably.
"Hot tea." Kuryakin's voice was cold. "With strawberry jam."
The waiter sighed regretfully. "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't serve jam. We do have tea, however. What flavor would you like?"
The waiter gave a slight smile, one that said he was sure Kuryakin would share his amused embarrassment. "Once again, I must apologize, but we don't serve beverages with caffeine. How about a nice herbal tea? I'll select one for you."
"No." Gregory seemed oblivious, but Kowalski shivered at the tone. "And for you, sir?"
It wasn't easy, but Kowalski talked the man into an order of scrambled eggs and a whole grain bagel, neither of which was on the menu. He had to settle for decaf cappuccino instead of coffee, however.
In minutes, the waiter was back with a foaming, cinnamon‑sprinkled cup for Kowalski and a mug for Kuryakin, who glared down at the steaming, pale liquid. "What is this?" he asked suspiciously.
"Next best thing, sir," the Waiter smiled broadly. "Strawberry Fields Forever." He turned back to the kitchen and Kuryakin pushed the offending cup away.
At least the eggs, when they came, were prepared well.
"Whadya think?" Kowalski mumbled around a mouthful.
"I haven't noticed anything blatant," Kuryakin murmured. "On the other hand, the food is so vile, it can't be a legitimate restaurant." He stopped, looking past Kowalski with suddenly narrowed eyes.
"Our waiter. He just went into the men's room with a rather large paper bag."
"Maybe he's getting off work and going to change," Kowalski suggested.
"Maybe." Kuryakin stood up and headed for the bathroom. With a sigh, Kowalski followed.
Pushing through the black door labeled, Hommes, Kowalski found Kuryakin standing alone in the middle of the sleek black and white bathroom.
"Where...?" he began, but Kuryakin motioned him to silence. Kowalski heard it too, a faint whooshing sound.
Quickly, Kuryakin made his way down the row of stalls, slamming open the gleaming black doors and glancing into each toilet bowl. He stepped inside the third from the end and dropped to his hands and knees. With some distaste, Kowalski joined him. "What're we looking for?"
"Cracks." Kuryakin ran sensitive fingers along the edge of the toilet bowl. “He came in here, I'm sure of it. And the water was moving. Aha!"
Kuryakin pointed to a hairline crack on the floor at the edge of the stall. He palmed the switchblade from its ankle sheath and used the blade to probe into the crack. After a few minutes of fruitless poking, Kuryakin closed the knife and sat back on his heels, frowning in frustration.
Without warning, the floor of the stall began to move, dropping quickly. Kuryakin turned and leapt, catching at the bathroom floor and hauling himself up. Kowalski, attempting a similar maneuver, rammed his head into the toilet paper dispenser and dropped back to the floor. By the time he was tensed for another try, the bathroom floor was hopelessly far above him.
Looking up from his crouched position, Kowalski just had time to see the bottom of the toilet bowl and Kuryakin's face peering down at him before another floor slid into place around the toilet.
Kowalski found himself in a dimly lit shaft. Abruptly, the floor came to halt and a door opened on a bright hallway. The waiter stood just outside the door, an expression of comic surprise on his face. Behind him, a guard quickly put down a plateful of something reddish to snatch up his gun.
Kowalski snagged at his Special, but the waiter was on him before he could pull it free. The two of them went down in a tangle. By the time Kowalski could extract himself from the man's awkward arms and legs, three other guns were fixed on him.
Putting his hands atop his head, Kowalski glared at the waiter. "You blew it, pal," he said. "I'm usually a verrry generous tipper."
He was hustled from the elevator, down a metallic pink corridor and into a small, barren room. Well, he thought, looking at the rather battered man tied to a chair in the middle of the room, I found Solo.
And Sepheran. The Thrush renegade sat at a small table, fork raised halfway to his mouth. Sepheran lowered the fork as a smile formed on his mouth.
"Mr. Kowalski. Won't you sit down?" The guards shoved Kowalski roughly into another of the dining chairs, mates to those in the restaurant above, and handcuffed him securely. Solo didn't move, his graying head hanging limply.
"Have you come to deliver the details of our trade?" Sepheran inquired politely, spearing a bit of salad and easing it into his mouth.
"Yeah," Kowalski growled. "You give us Solo and turn yourself in."
"Mr. Kowalski, you are hardly in a position to make such nonsensical demands," Sepheran said, sipping at a glass of mineral water. "So, you have come for...what? To rescue Mr. Solo? Alone?"
Sepheran looked over Kowalski's shoulder. "Gregory, was Mr. Kowalski dining alone?"
"No, sir," the waiter said. "There was another man with him. Very blonde, slim, with deep blue eyes and . . . ."
"Yes, Gregory, thank you," Sepheran interrupted impatiently. "Kuryakin," he said to the guards behind Kowalski. "I want him."
Two guards left at a trot.
As Kowalski's upturned face disappeared behind the replacement floor of the bathroom stall, Illya Kuryakin straightened. One part of his mind admired and analyzed the smooth, almost silent operation of the elevator. another part anticipated.
Glancing around the bathroom, Kuryakin quickly made up his mind and began climbing.
When the Thrush guards rose, crowded but alert, into the much-used stall, the bathroom was empty. They had a split second to examine the gleaming surfaces before Kuryakin dropped onto them through a ceiling panel.
One of the guards want sprawling, his weapon sliding beneath a urinal on the far wall. The other buckled but fought his way to his feet again with Kuryakin on his shoulders.
Oh-oh, Kuryakin had time to think before he was slammed into the wall of the stall. He slid limply to the floor, then rolled quickly under the partition into the next stall. The Thrush cursed imaginatively and raced around the partition, to find Kuryakin had latched the door of the stall.
The man knelt, shoving his gun and head under the door. Kuryakin, sliding through to the next stall, had plenty of time to slip through the doorway and plant a sleep dart in the man's exposed rump.
Stepping over the sleeping form, he dragged the first guard to a sink and roused him with cold water.
As the man straightened and stood on his own, Kuryakin changed clips in his gun. "No more mercy darts," he said, nudging the gun under the man's chin. "Show me how the elevator works."
The Thrush led him to the doorway, where he flicked the light switch off, then on. Entering the third stall, he closed the door behind them, spun the toilet paper dispenser backwards three times and flushed the toilet.
"...silly,* Kuryakin muttered, as the floor began to drop.
The Thrush shrugged, "I didn't design it."
When the elevator doors slid open, the guard, intent on his supper, failed to notice the slim form behind the Thrush guard until Kuryakin was close enough to slip out and slam the butt of his gun into the side of the man's still‑chewing face.
Kuryakin spun and delivered a similar blow to his guide. Casting a well‑trained eye over the two recumbent forms, he selected the one closest to his own size and, with anxious glances up and down the hall, pulled the man's uniform on over his suit. He dragged the two snoring forms into an empty office around the corner, used a napkin to tidily wipe up the trail of sherbet they had left on the floor, and stacked the dirty dishes on the desk before closing the office door.
Nudged by a familiar certainty that he refused to call intuition, Kuryakin headed to the right. Stopping in front of the third door down, he frowned, then nodded briefly to himself and threw the door open.
Sepheran stared at him, startled, over Kowalski's drooping head. The Thrush slowly lowered his fist, smiling in recognition. He followed Kuryakin's eyes as they flicked to Solo.
"Dead, I'm afraid," Sepheran sighed theatrically. "His heart..."
"No," Kuryakin said firmly, and Solo cooperatively chose that moment to moan and shift in the chair. Kuryakin motioned Sepheran away from Kowalski.
Kuryakin snapped two buttons from Kowalski's shirt and fixed them to hinges of the handcuffs, without taking his eyes from Sepheran or lowering his gun.
"You see how it is," Sepheran said regretfully as he watched the procedure. "Sloppy. I don't suppose you had much trouble getting past the guard in the hall? No, of course not. I can guarantee you our positions would be reversed if Piers Castillian were here with me."
Kuryakin didn't respond, simply triggered the buttons with Kowalski's watch. Kowalski yelped with pain as the buttons blossomed in heat. With a glare at Kuryakin, he freed his hands and used two other buttons to free his ankles.
He went to work on Solo's hands, using the last of his shirt buttons, as Sepheran began speaking again.
"I have it," he said with a sly smile, "why don't you come to work for me, Kuryakin? Handsome pay. Wonderful opportunities for advancement. Generous benefits..."
"I understand your burial plan is exceptional," Kuryakin said dryly. "No thank you."
He turned his attention briefly to Kowalski who was trying to revive the uncuffed Solo. "How is he?"
"Well, he's alive," Kowalski said.
At that moment the door opened abruptly. "Your kiwi flan, sir," Gregory purred in the split second before the room erupted. Sepheran dashed toward the open door. Kuryakin, ready to fire, checked his aim with a curse as Kowalski ran after the fleeing Thrush. Gregory stared after them in confusion, then turned back to find Kuryakin's gun pointed at his skimpy waist.
"You!" he breathed and reflexively held the flan toward Kuryakin, who wrinkled his nose in disgust.
Kowalski returned, then, rushing into the room breathing heavily. "Lost him," he said, and winced at the Russian's expression.
"We'd better take our leave," was all Kuryakin said. He motioned Gregory to help Kowalski heft the still unconscious Solo to his feet.
"Why is it," Kowalski growled, "whenever I end up involved with you two, he's the one I have to haul around?"
"Mr. Solo's luck seems to have deserted him in recent years," Kuryakin said, motioning them toward the door with the barrel of his gun. "Let us hope he has enough good fortune left that anyone we encounter will assume you are helping me remove the body. You," he poked at Gregory with the gun, "will show us the other exit."
"Other exit?" Gregory asked, wide‑eyed.
"Other exit," Kuryakin replied, coldly, resting the muzzle of the gun lightly against the bridge of the man's nose. "Last chance."
Swallowing audibly, Gregory nodded vigorously and led the way to the door. To Kowalski's astonishment one blue eye winked at him. 'Sometimes it works," Kuryakin murmured.
The alarm began as they stepped into the hallway. Guards in Thrush uniforms dashed frantically and uselessly in all directions. Sepheran's voice, choked with rage, came over the loudspeaker.
"The prisoners are escaping!" he screamed. "Stop the prisoners. Plan 5‑B. Plan 5‑B."
The particulars of Plan 5‑B had apparently not stayed with most of the guards, who scurried haphazardly up and down the intersecting hallways.
Gregory led the small group down two angling corridors. One Thrush guard, sharper than her fellows, challenged them with raised automatic weapon. "We caught one of them!" Gregory blurted, after a discreet nudge from Kuryakin's pistol. The woman narrowed her eyes as she looked over Solo's sagging form.
Sepheran chose that moment to bellow from the speaker above their heads, "Bring them to me! Bring the prisoners to me!"
"The man's getting impatient," Kuryakin commented, calmly. "Do you want to explain why we were delayed?"
"I'll come with you," the guard said, and stepped into line behind Kuryakin.
At another discreet nudge, Gregory continued on down the hall. Now what, bright guy? Kowalski pondered with some satisfaction as he tried for a firmer grip on Solo's arm.
Without warning, Kuryakin leaned forward and goosed Gregory. With a squeal of surprise, the waiter dropped Solo and spun around, eyes and mouth wide.
"What the hell's your problem?" Kuryakin demanded in a New York‑accented voice.
"You pinched my..." the outraged Gregory shouted.
"In your dreams," Kuryakin interrupted, managing a tone of insulted innocence.
"Well, someone did, and you're the only one who could have!"
The Thrush guard, fascinated by the exchange, didn't notice as Kowalski let Solo slide to the floor and slipped around Kuryakin to stand behind her. Glancing around for troublesome witnesses, he expertly clipped the back of her neck.
Gregory stopped, open-mouthed, in the midst of an angry tirade, staring as the woman slumped to the floor.
"Shall we continue?" Kuryakin said calmly. Kowalski and Gregory took up their burden and they continued.
Kowalski was becoming uneasy; the restaurant certainly didn't look this big. Finally, Gregory paused before a wall. A nearly invisible metallic door slid open and Gregory and Kowalski hauled Solo inside. Kuryakin hesitated.
"Where does it lead?"
"To the kitchen, Gregory said.
"Why didn't you use it to bring down the food?" the Russian persisted from outside the doors. Kowalski shifted nervously inside the elevator, glancing along the hallway.
"The way they've got this place laid out, it's three times longer," Gregory said, reasonably. After studying the man's face for a moment, Kuryakin shrugged and stepped into the elevator with them.
The elevator did, in fact, open into the kitchen on the opposite side. Kowalski was startled by the sudden rush of noise and heat as his back and he spun to find a restaurant kitchen in the throes of preparing for a supper rush.
Gregory shoved Solo into Kowalski and bolted from the elevator, pointing back at them and shouting, "Shoot them' Shoot them! They're U.N.C.L.E. agents!"
Kuryakin made a dive for him, but Solo chose that moment to rouse himself and push up from the floor. Kuryakin went down over him. Kowalski dove for the gun that had skidded from Kuryakin's grasp, looking around for trouble. To his surprise, most of the cooks either hadn't heard Gregory's alarm over the rattle of pans, or they considered cuisine their first priority.
One burly man, however, took an immediate and intense interest in the visitors. Unfortunately, he appeared to be a chef minceur, for he held a very large and quite sharp knife in his hand. Flipping the knife skillfully, the man grasped it by the tip and sent it flying. Kowalski jerked to the side and felt the blade brush his arm. A small patch of red blossomed on his shirt sleeve.
The man snatched up another knife, but Kuryakin scrambled up and splashed a simmering pot of fish stock on his hand. The knife clattered to the floor as the cook howled and raced for a water faucet.
"What smells so good?" inquired a slurred voice at Kowalski's feet. He glanced down to see Solo peering blearily up.
Kuryakin hauled Solo to his feet. Kowalski took his other arm, and the three of them began sidling their way around the kitchen toward a screen door onto an alley.
Another couple of cooks had abandoned their tasks to take on the fugitives, but Kowalski kept them at bay with the gun. The two began to move apart, however, and soon he was wavering the pistol in an awkward arc.
At a hidden signal, the two made their move as the gun wavered between them. Kowalski swung and fired without thought at the one closest to him. He spun back to see the other man staggering, hands clawing at the pie smeared on his face.
Kuryakin shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. Grabbing Solo's arm, he tugged and Kowalski shoved Solo the last few feet to the door and through it into an alley redolent of garbage cans. Kuryakin slammed them into a nest of full cans that had baked all day in the California sun, as bullets pocked into the stucco wall above their heads.
Squeezing forward, Kowalski picked out the slight movements that gave away the positions of the Thrush gunmen. Taking a deep breath to steady his adrenaline‑charged body, he sighted carefully and began picking them off. One. Two. Three. Four. Just like his record‑setting performance on the target range.
When the silence had stretched for a few minutes, Kuryakin's voice came over his shoulder. "Nice."
Although they were just as tanned and just as carefully coifed as he had feared, L. A.'s U.N.C.L.E. staff were efficient. They managed somehow, to answer Kowalski's summons in only 15 minutes with a dozen agents and enough equipment to ferret out and transport the Thrush contingent.
The restaurant's legitimate customers were quickly cleared out by U.N.C.L.E. agents posing as health inspectors who warned of alar on the vegetables and fruit, strychnine in the mineral water and salmonella in the eggs.
Sepheran, to their dismay but not to their surprise, was not among the captured. A visit to the Cummon Inn revealed that Rennet had also made his escape.
The three New Yorkers were given VIP transportation to the U.N.C.L.E. H.Q., tucked behind a rollerblade shop just a block off the beach. Their reports made and their nicks and bruises bandaged, the three sat in a conference room, gazing out at the parade of tank tops and jams passing below.
"Why do you suppose they get windows?" Kowalski wondered idly.
"Because they've got a view," Solo suggested. A shower and an injection had relieved the dregs of Sepheran's physical and chemical abuse. "It occurs to me," Solo continued, "that I haven't eaten since lunch Thursday. What're you in the mood for?"
"Chinese!" Kowalski and Kuryakin blurted in unison, then looked at each other with surprise.
With a sigh of defeat, Solo looked from one grinning face to the other, pulled on his jacket, and led the way to the nearest Chinese restaurant.