Temple of Mammon Affair
by Linda Cornett
(Appeared in My Kingdom for an UNCLE, Vol. 10
"Mr. K. welcome to Consumer Central." Napoleon Solo held the glass door to the shopping center open for his partner.
"How big is it?" Illya Kuryakin asked, his blue eyes flickering around the cavernous interior.
Solo shrugged. "Two hundred thousand square feet, 128 stores, two levels. Climate controlled. Parking for a couple of thousand cars. And muzak."
Kuryakin grimaced at the syrupy strains filling the air of the mall. "Popular place." He nodded toward the mid‑morning crowds strolling the aisles, laden with packages.
"One of the first enclosed malls in the country." Solo informed him. "And out here," he gestured back through the doors at the flat and empty farmland surrounding the mall, "there isn't much else to do. Well, let's get you to your job, shall we?" He led the way toward the department store at the far end of the mall.
Dodging through the crowded aisle, Kuryakin fell into step beside his partner. "Explain to me again why it is I have to work while you wander around and ogle women shoppers," he demanded.
Solo smiled engagingly at a woman shopper. "Illya, I've told you before I'm not ogling. I'm feeling out the situation. THRUSH is up to something naughty here, the Kansas City office determined that much. I think we both agree that I'm more skilled at, um, making friends. And you, partner, are a natural for electronics sales. Someone on the inside, someone on the outside."
"There isn't an outside," Kuryakin observed dryly, glancing at the roof of the shopping center.
"Nope. That's the beauty of these places. No rain, no snow, no wind..."
"No sun, no fresh air, no sense of time," Kuryakin added.
"Exactly. It's like a Las Vegas casino. Lets you concentrate on one thing."
"Buying things," Solo corrected. Glancing over Kuryakin's outfit, he added, "You might want to look around a little during your lunch break..."
Kuryakin scowled and led the way into the department store, then stopped when he reached kitchenwares, looking confused. Solo pointed him in the direction of the store office, tsking that Kuryakin's usually infallible internal compass had deserted him in this place.
Solo set out to make a circuit through the mall.
Their information about Thrush’s unsavory connections to the shopping center had come in a roundabout way. The Kansas City UNCLE office had staged a raid on a THRUSH research center. A surprisingly staunch defense outside the lab had allowed time for much of the contents to be spirited away. Among the items left behind, however, had been several bags of merchandise from stores in the Crossroads Shopping Center.
The find might have been dismissed if there had not been so many bags. And, if the bags had not been carefully labeled with recent dates and names, apparently of THRUSH shoppers.
Solo and Kuryakin had discussed the possibilities the previous night as they drove out to Rolfe, one of the small towns clustered around the rural area where the huge mall had been built. Rolfe was distinguished from its rustic peers only by the fact that it boasted a motel, the agents' destination.
"Maybe they're using the shops as a post office," Solo suggested as wheat fields, motionless in the still of dusk, gave way abruptly to small shops lined up along Rolfe's main drag. "I leave a message or a package for you at the shoe store and when you buy a pair of shoes with the right code word or credit card, the clerk makes the delivery."
"Possible, but this is a rather out-of-the-way location for a 'post office'," Kuryakin replied. "And, one can use only so many pairs of shoes. Perhaps there's a THRUSH facility in the back of one of the shops, or under the mall itself. "
"Then, why all the shopping bags?" Solo eased the car into the nearly empty parking lot of the Wheat Land Inn.
Kuryakin shrugged. "Cover, perhaps?" He slid out of the car, stretched and sauntered into the office to check them into the motel for an indefinite stay.
"Well, " Solo continued the conversation when they were settled in number 6 and had scanned for bugs, "you'll have a chance tomorrow to check for hidden entrances and nefarious comings and goings backstairs." He bounced experimentally on one of the twin beds.
"And you," Kuryakin said, sliding his toothbrush into the bathroom holder, "will have a chance to try out your code words on the shoe store clerk."
They had a greasy and substantial supper at a nearby cafe and in the morning, drove to the mall. It sat like a huge walled city at the juncture of two arrow-straight country roads. Kuryakin was right, it was a popular place; by the time the mall opened the parking lot was almost half filled with farm trucks and cars bearing license plates from as far away as Kansas City.
Now, negotiating his way through the crowds, Solo sent his eyes darting left and right, looking for anything unusual. Although the ever-present muzak made it difficult to hear, he managed to eavesdrop on several unenlightening conversations.
By his second circuit through the mall, he found himself moving mechanically, eyes glazed. The dim half-light of the mall, the stultifying sameness of the glittering shops, the meaningless mumble of conversations in the crowd, underlaid by the uninteresting background music combined to form a timeless ocean of sensation in which he swam around and around with hundreds of others. When the woman he had smiled at earlier slipped by, he scarcely noticed.
Stopping himself somewhat unsteadily, Solo ran his hands over his face. He recalled that he and Illya had flown in just yesterday from New York, and the day before that they had arrived from assignment in Stockholm. He ought to be used to it by now, but travel still sometimes threw off his body rhythms.
Hadn't there been a coffee shop somewhere around here? His gaze fell instead on a shoe store, the fifth or sixth he had seen. He remembered Illya's words from the night before and started toward the shop. He needed socks, anyway.
Kuryakin leaned on the glass counter over the camera display, keeping an interested eye on the gray-haired woman standing before the bank of televisions. On a dozen glowing screens. a beautiful and perfectly coiffed young woman sat at the hospital bedside of a man attached to a remarkable number of tubes and monitors. Whispering words of encouragement to the unresponsive figure, she clutched his hand tightly as tears traced down her cheeks without disturbing her makeup.
The viewer sniffed audibly and wiped her nose with a tissue pulled from the pocket of her sweater. When a commercial for dog food replaced the soap opera, she turned and smiled wanly at Kuryakin.
"My favorite." she said, nodding toward the televisions. "I hope you don't mind?"
"Not at all," Kuryakin said in what he hoped was a friendly‑salesman voice. "You're welcome to stay if it isn't over."
"Oh, it's never over for that poor girl," the woman said, just a trace of wry self‑mockery in her voice. "But, the show's over for today."
"In that case, is there anything I can show you?"
"Oh, I don't know." The woman looked around vaguely. "Maybe...a tape recorder?"
It seemed an odd sort of impulse purchase, particularly for a woman of a certain age, but Kuryakin shrugged and pulled out a few samples. By the time the woman left, with a cassette player and earphones tucked under her arm, Kuryakin knew that she was widowed, that her three children had moved to the coasts, that her job as a clerk at the five‑and‑dime in nearby Felton had been cut to halftime because of competition from the mall, that in spite of that she and her friends spent most of their free time here and considered the mall "just like home."
Kuryakin was frowning as he put the woman's money in the cash register.
As arranged, Solo picked his partner up at quitting time outside the south entrance to the mall. Kuryakin sank into the passenger's seat of their rental car with a sigh of relief.
"Rough day?" Solo asked mildly as he eased the car into the stream of traffic leaving the parking lot.
Kuryakin found he had just enough energy left to glare. "So, did you make any friends today?" he asked, carefully slipping his shoes off his aching feet.
"Several, as it happens," Solo said, "but none of them had anything interesting to say. Just a bunch of very happy shoppers. You?"
"Aside from learning the life story of a soap opera fan and being exposed to a great deal more television than I prefer, nothing. Business is certainly good, considering how expensive everything is."
Solo glanced over at him in surprise. "I thought the prices were very reasonable."
Kuryakin shrugged. "Perhaps it's just my department. We were shorthanded and I didn't get to leave all day, so I didn't see much of the mall. I didn't even get a lunch break."
He made Solo drive through Rolfe to an even smaller town named Medford, home to a restaurant a customer had recommended. It had, Solo discovered, an all‑you‑can‑eat buffet, which explained a lot.
When they pulled into their space at the motel. Solo walked to the rear of the car and unloaded several bags from the trunk.
Kuryakin's eyebrows arched. "I see you did a little shopping."
"Well, I had to have some excuse for nosing around the stores." Solo told him as he dropped the bags on his bed. "Besides, I needed this stuff."
"All of it, Napoleon? Mr. Waverly is not going to be happy with our expense report."
"I'm paying for it all. And there may be a clue here somewhere," Solo said defensively. "And some of it is presents." He dug a plastic‑wrapped package from one of the bags and tossed it onto the bed where Kuryakin was stretched out with his tired feet on the pillow. "Here, this is for you."
Kuryakin picked the package up and squinted at it. "You bought me underwear?" His tone was measured and a bit ominous.
"Well, Illya, everybody needs underwear."
"I have underwear, thank you," Kuryakin said coldly, "and if I need more I can buy it myself."
Solo shrugged. "Okay, so I take it back tomorrow. Another excuse for nosing around."
Vaguely annoyed, Solo set about stowing away his purchases. Kuryakin watched, his eyes narrowed assessingly.
Solo was engrossed in a late movie on the room's black‑and‑white set and Kuryakin was sleeping soundly when the Russian's communicator warbled shrilly.
"Kuryakin here." His voice sounded crisp as always, but his eyes were half‑closed and his hair stuck up at odd angles.
"Mr. Kuryakin, Delany from the Kansas City office. We're finally getting somewhere on the paper trace on Crossroads shopping center. The gun is definitely smoking."
Kuryakin stared blearily at the communicator for a moment. "What?"
"THRUSH has an ownership interest in the center. It's complicated and we're still untangling the mess, but there are enough familiar names that we're sure of their involvement."
"Ah. Thank you. Kuryakin out."
"So," Solo said.
"So. Well, I suppose it's possible THRUSH could be branching out, going legit." Kuryakin mused.
"'Going legit'? Where'd you pick that up?"
"Um? Oh, they're running an old gangster movie marathon on a local television station. It would be quite a quandry for us if THRUSH did decide to operate within the law, wouldn't it? Our fiat doesn't include tinkering with legitimate operations."
"Nah, they'd never settle for normal profits, bless their greedy little hearts," Solo said. "There's got to be more to it than a simple business investment. Maybe a little midnight shopping is in order. Hmm?"
Kuryakin shook his head. "What would we look for, Napoleon? It's a very large building. Let's give it tomorrow and hope you have better luck with the ladies. Besides. I need my sleep if I'm going to practice godless capitalism all day."
Once again Solo swam with the crowds. stopping in a dozen stores he had skipped the day before, and one that he had visited. To his embarrassment, an attractive young woman was at the underwear counter.
She stared down at the package resting on the counter between them. "Do you have the receipt?" she asked.
"Um, no. I'm afraid I threw it away."
"Uh‑huh." Skeptically. "Reason for return?"
"They're the wrong size."
"So this is an exchange?"
"No, actually. They're not my brand."
Her carefully plucked eyebrows rose. "You bought the wrong size and the wrong brand and you didn't save the receipt?"
Solo felt his face flush. "What about your no‑questions‑asked return policy?" he demanded, taking refuge in the offensive.
"You're thinking of some other store," the clerk said. "We ask a lot of questions here." She smiled and Solo sighed with relief. Here was familiar territory.
He smiled back and leaned toward her on the counter, lowering his voice seductively. "What else do you want to know?"
"Name." Pen poised. she pulled a form from beneath the counter.
With an employee from hardware keeping watch in the electronics department. Kuryakin quickly set out for the employee lounge. Finding himself in lingerie, he hurriedly backtracked his steps until he saw the discreet door leading to the store's employees-only area. A quick check, all that he had time for in the remaining minutes of his break, turned up a well-stocked storage room, a tiny lounge with plastic chairs, a pot of coffee that looked and smelled like tar, two untidy bathrooms, but nothing nefarious.
During his lunch break a luxurious hour to make up for the lack of a break the previous day, his supervisor explained he decided to branch out and strolled into the mall.
Solo was considering making a trip out to the car to stow his purchases when, "Napoleon!" drifted over the noises of the mall. Glancing around, he finally spotted Kuryakin above him, leaning precariously over the railing of the second level. "Wait there," Kuryakin shouted. "I'll be right down."
When Kuryakin reached him, he steered Solo into the relatively quiet eddy of a bookstore.
"Look at this," Kuryakin demanded, holding up a bag.
"Okay. What is it?" Solo asked.
"A set of bath towels." Kuryakin's tone indicated this was damning information.
Solo peered. "Nice color. So what's wrong?"
Kuryakin's voice was exasperated. "Napoleon, I bought them. Why would I buy a set of bath towels?"
"Well, perhaps. But why here? Napoleon. I wasn't in the mall more than 15 minutes before I bought these. And I don't shop."
"Noooooo." Solo drawled thoughtfully, "you don't. What do you think? Some sort of subliminal conditioning?"
"You said it when we first arrived a place where you can concentrate on one thing, buying. It could be broadcast through the mall, masked by the music. It would explain why an elderly woman on a small income would buy a tape recorder she doesn' t need, and why I've sold four televisions today alone and why a teenager who was in looking at stereos was nearly frantic to come up with the purchase price. It would explain my peculiar behavior. And yours."
"Mine?" Solo followed Kuryakin's nod toward the packages filling his arms. "Oh."
He leaned meditatively on the nearest rack of best sellers. "It fits. The clerks I've talked to said business started out really slow, but it's been growing steadily. A lot of repeat business. Myrna at the toy store told me the center's owners have started advertising on radio and there's been a big jump in business from that. They're probably using it in the ads, too. And the employees are among the biggest shoppers. Gail in underwear told me..."
He trailed off at Kuryakin's startled look. "'Gail in underwear'?"
"You know what I mean. We met over your briefs she wouldn't take them back, by the way and she said she's thinking about quitting because she spends so much of her salary she hardly has any take-home. 'Out of control' is the way she described it, but she seemed really reluctant to leave."
"I think tonight would be an appropriate time for a shopping trip," Kuryakin said, grinning. He slipped his towels on top of Solo's burdens. "Put that in the car, will you? And, Napoleon?" Solo turned back. "Better give me your wallet."
Exposed as the mall was, jutting out of the flat fields, it was impossible to approach unseen, even in darkness. So, they decided not to leave.
Solo drove away, stowing the car in a small copse about three miles from the shopping center. He hitched a ride back with a farmer who, judging from his sweat‑stained clothing and the wheat stalks clinging to his cuffs, had hurried directly from his tractor to get in an evening's shopping.
A careful application of a sophisticated chemical, deftly introduced into a cup of coffee, rendered the night electronics salesman unwell. Kuryakin genially offered to fill in until closing and the supervisor shot him a grateful glance before helping the wobbly salesman out to his car.
At 8:30, a well‑dressed, dark‑haired man strolled casually into the electronics department. He spent the half‑hour until closing stuffed uncomfortably on the rather dirty floor under the cash register while the accommodating blond salesman eased a series of customers toward the door before turning out the lights and joining the stream of sales clerks heading toward the door. He disappeared en route.
Napoleon Solo cautiously tensed and relaxed his cramped muscles, listening in the dark for the murmur of voices and shuffle of footsteps to indicate that the sales force had finally made their way out of the store.
Finally, reassured by several minutes of silence, he scooted out of the box‑like space where his partner had stowed him. Brushing grimly at his ill‑used suit and stiffly stretching out his legs and arms, he waited.
Solo jumped. The whisper was at his shoulder. He spun to find Kuryakin's amused eyes gazing at him in the near darkness. The eyes were about all that was visible: Kuryakin was dressed in black, from rubber‑soled shoes to a sweatshirt with a hood that hid his hair.
"Nice outfit." Solo commented. "Where'd you get it?"
"Men's casual wear," Kuryakin said. "Here. I've brought one for you, too."
"Thoughtful." Solo felt the soft material thrust into his outstretched hands.
"Well, I haven't forgotten the underwear, Napoleon."
"You're welcome," Solo said dryly, slipping on the black sweatpants.
Stowing their clothes in a television cabinet, the two set off toward the center's business offices. They were repeatedly forced to find shelter in nooks and crannies as heavily armed security guards made their rounds.
Finally, however, they were regarding the inconspicuous door to the mall offices.
Two guards had chosen that moment to share a bit of gossip just outside. From their perch inside a snack kiosk, Solo and Kuryakin waited.
Several minutes later, on a burst of shared laughter, one of the guards moved off still chuckling, leaving the other on duty. Bracing his arm against a cold popcorn machine, Solo took aim and placed a dart in the man's chest.
With a comic expression of surprise, the man tucked his chin to look down at the front of his uniform shirt, then continued to fold up until he settled untidily on the floor.
Sprinting across the slick tiles, the agents reached the guard and slid his inert form to the shelter of a large planter where they stripped off his uniform. Solo pushed into the shirt and pants while Kuryakin tucked the guard beneath the concealing leaves of a large philodendron.
With Kuryakin crouching at his feet and to the side, Solo knocked authoritatively at the door. Overhead, they heard the hum of a monitor camera shifting position. Kuryakin tried grimly to look like a shadow, and prayed that the monitor had been pointed elsewhere when they dealt with the guard. After a delay that was becoming worrisomely long, the door opened.
"Well?" The impatient voice belonged to a sunken‑chested man with thick glasses and thin hair. He was dressed in wrinkled brown pants and a short‑sleeved white shirt.
"Um, just checking, sir," Solo mustered all his servility. "I thought I saw someone moving through the mall. Did you see or hear anything suspicious?"
"No. Security is your job, remember?" the thin man snapped irritably. "Have you checked the pet store? Perhaps one of the gerbils is loose."
"Yessir," Solo responded, sternly refusing to give in to the temptation to shove a gerbil down this jerk's scrawny throat.
The door was closing. Solo heard a soft chuff from the direction of his knees, and with a look of annoyance, the irritable man sat down abruptly and then fell back, his head meeting the floor with a thunk that made Solo wince.
"Come on." Kuryakin was leading the way into the room.
The outer office was unnotable industrial carpet, two chairs, a small table with brochures extolling the wonders of the shopping center, a small reception desk. Behind the desk, a frosted door drew the agents' attention.
"The question." Kuryakin murmured, eyeing the door, "is whether he was working alone."
Solo reached resolutely for the handle. "Can you imagine anyone being able to work with him?"
The second room was larger, with two desks piled with papers. A quick rifling revealed nothing more damning than lurid advertising copy.
If the unpleasant fellow had taken the trouble to close the door to the third room completely, they might have spent hours looking for it. It was, in fact, hidden behind the bottom three drawers of a tall file cabinet that stood in a row of five identical file cabinets. It required a bit of a stoop and would not accommodate anyone much heftier than Solo, but would be virtually invisible when closed. Kuryakin nodded admiration as he slipped through the opening.
This room, about the size of the advertising office, was packed with consoles, reel‑to‑reel tape machines, monitor cameras.
"I wonder what our friend was up to?" Solo said, glancing around the cluttered space.
Kuryakin moved to the three chairs at consoles around the room, laying his hand on the seat of each. "Here," he said, returning to the warm second chair and taking a seat.
"Smart Russian," Solo muttered.
Kuryakin ignored him, methodically flipping a series of switches. Finally, one of the reel‑to‑reel recorders hummed to life. Solo slipped the attached pair of earphones onto his head and smiled beatifically.
"Listen to this," he said, handing the earphones to Kuryakin.
"It's fun to be at Crossroads shopping center," a pleasant, anonymous male voice murmured intimately. "The prices are low. The shopping center is just like home. You need something, and you can find it here. You can afford whatever..."
Kuryakin snatched the earphones off, glaring at them. It was the sort of look Adam and Eve probably gave the snake just before their eviction, Solo decided with amusement.
"Well, that's it," Solo said. "Considering how long I listened to that garbage I think I showed remarkable restraint. So, this place is a cash cow for THRUSH. They buy up rural land, cheap, jack up the prices on everything, hypnotize people into spending every cent they've got and skim off the considerable profits. It's not conquer‑the‑world stuff, but it pays the bills and it's still naughty."
"Um." Kuryakin was looking at the far bank of equipment, but his mind was clearly occupied elsewhere.
Kuryakin sighed and shook his head. "It's too simple, Napoleon."
"Simple is good, Illya. Sometimes things just are simple."
"Agreed, but I'm not sure... Napoleon, subliminal conditioning just isn't that effective. It's not enough."
"Well, what else do you need?"
Kuryakin shrugged. "Something to make people more susceptible. A drug, maybe."
"'Something in the water,' you mean?"
"The water, the air..."
Solo smiled. "Climate controlled, remember? They're pumping it into the air circulation system."
Kuryakin nodded. "It could be done, I suppose, especially if it were pumped in at floor level so it didn't disperse too much."
He glanced around at the control panels. "The question is, which of these controls turns it off?"
"Who wants to turn it off?"
Slowly. Kuryakin's lips curved into a smile to match his partner's.
The blond guy in electronics sure was conscientious, the store manager noted the next morning as he strolled the floor. After working the late shift last night, he had been the first employee on the floor this morning looking a little tired and rumpled, but that was understandable. Reassuring to have someone steady on the floor on a day like this, which seemed to be shaping into a record-breaker in a series of record-breakers.
A gray‑haired woman in a pastel sweater was keeping the clerk's attention, while a dark‑haired man casually looked over the merchandise. The manager narrowed his eyes suspiciously. The dark‑haired man wore a well‑cut suit, but the suit was in need of a cleaning and the man's cheeks were darkened ominously by a beard shadow.
Closing in on the suspicious character, the manager heard the woman's voice rising in anger. "...advantage of a widow on a fixed income. Junk. that's all it is, and the prices higher than anywhere around."
The blond clerk nodded sympathetically, murmuring reassurance to the woman, and finally opened the cash register and counted out a handful of money. With a curt nod, the woman stowed the money carefully in her pocketbook and stalked out of the store.
Watching the browser from the corner of his eye, the manager approached the counter. "Trouble?"
Red‑rimmed blue eyes looked at him and then glanced after the woman. A curiously satisfied smile played over the lean face. "Just a dissatisfied customer," the clerk murmured.
The manager jerked his had toward the dark‑haired man. "What about him?"
"What? Oh, yes sir. I've been watching him."
"Good eye. Let me know if you need security."
"Yes sir." The smile was back, broader.
An hour later, when the manager was rushing from housewares to automotive, dealing with a peculiar rash of returned merchandise, he noticed that electronics was deserted.
Fresh from a nap and a shower and a change of clothes. Napoleon Solo was in the parking lot of the Wheat Land Inn, trying to fit his suitcase into a car trunk already crowded with packages. Hearing Kuryakin behind him, he braced for a caustic comment about his costly shopping excursion. Instead, Kuryakin cursed softly.
At Solo's questioning look, he said, "The towels. I meant to return them. I expect it's too late; the Kansas City team will have closed the mall by now."
"Keep them," Solo said magnanimously. "We'll fit them into the expense account."
"Towels? Don't you think Mr. Waverly might be suspicious?"
"Illya, give. me credit for a little inventiveness. How about...clean up costs?"
With a groan, Kuryakin tossed his suitcase into the back seat and slid behind the wheel. He shifted uncomfortably. The new underwear tended to ride up.