"Are you telling me that Enrique Cebollero actually went out in public in that mess? He is a social icon, a member of the Spanish royal family. How on earth..."
Illya scowled at his partner's rant on the fashion scene. Well dressed was fine and good, but his socialist conscience would not allow him to dwell on such nonsense. It was embarrassing to be so concerned about the man's suit.
"Don't' give me that look. Illya. Something is not right when a man of his standing and fashion sense arrives at a world class function in..."
Words failed him, so he resorted to simply pointing at the offending picture.
The newspaper article was describing a social event at which several heads of state as well as celebrities were in attendance. The occasion had been a reception for the king and queen of Wildemar, a small little principality that traded on goodwill from the United States in exchange for a key logistical site housing several intelligence and military personnel. The details were not widely known, but part of the niceties included a White House event that had dazzled all of those in attendance. The current administration had attained its own type of dazzle that attracted celebrities like a hot option on a bestseller.
Featured in this particular article was a photograph of the man Napoleon was scolding for his lack of fashion sense; Enrique Cebollero would not seem to be a man of much global consequence, as the Spanish throne had devolved primarily into one of posturing rather than real political clout, and Cebollero was rather far down the line. Socially, however, he was a bit of a celebrity among the rich and famous; his good looks and adventurous living the stuff of tabloids and female fantasies. Among those "in the know", as was Mr. Solo, he was a real presence on the scene of international design and trends. To have your work seen on the back of Senor Cebollero could mean millions in the bank, not to mention the prestige of the larger fashion houses.
Illya was still growling beneath his breath, always conscious of the number of people whose lives depended on just a few dollars a day in contrast to men like Cebollero, who spent on one suit what many would take a year to earn. He had no regard for this folly, and admitted to a thread of resentment that his friend and partner gave heed to it.
"Napoleon, can you give me one good reason why this should alarm you so? It is clothing, nothing more. I am not completely ignorant, you know, concerning fashion. I merely choose to not let it dictate what I do and what I wear."
He added that last as Napoleon looked up from the paper, regarding his longhaired, turtleneck-wearing partner as though he were a child pleading his case for breaking curfew. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that this man had come from the Soviet Union. He looked more like a member of some rock group...
"Illya, I'm looking at this, and commenting on it because it is completely out of character for this man to wear something so entirely...off the rack, as it were. It is, to me, a signal of something more than just the clothing. He has been influenced, by someone or something, to come out in public like this."
The eyebrows on the blond shot up, partly in exasperation but yielding slightly to the notion that his partner could be on to something sinister. As ludicrous as it seemed to him, if Napoleon found it noteworthy, then he would have to listen to the theory.
"All right. How, who, what and why? Those are the first questions for you to answer."
Napoleon smirked a half satisfied expression, then asked...
"Not where? Why did you leave that out?"
Illya's own smirk appeared, lightened by the sparkle in his blue eyes.
"I imagine that will be answered when we get the call..."
At that instant, the phone rang in Napoleon's office. Both men looked at each other, grins appearing in full now, the absurdity that Napoleon might be right not lost on either of them.
"Hello...yes, we'll be right there."
"Gentlemen, it would appear that Thrush has launched a new, curiously threatening attack on the fashion industry. Please look at the reports in front of you... tell me what you think of this."
The older man tamped at the tobacco without purpose, his own seemingly interrupted by the accounts now being read by his two top agents. The grey walls did little to help his mood, nor did the refusal of his pipe to light at times such as this. Damned infernal...
Illya looked up from the papers he held in his hands, a look of complete confusion wrinkling the broad brow beneath too long blond hair. Waverly had never understood the man's insistence on this look of his. Damned Russians...
"Sir, are we to understand that Thrush has some type of ... "
The maligned blond head shook, partly in frustration at an inability to phrase his question, and in a barely concealed amusement at the subject matter.
"If I may, it sounds as though Thrush has discovered something akin to the emperor's new clothes. You know, the old fairy tale...you know?"
Napoleon's earnest expression did not earn him an immediate response from his partner. Illya was still trying to find words for his assessment of this latest development. Mr. Waverly nodded his head in agreement, however. A harrumph of displeasure accented the motion.
"Yes indeed, Mr. Solo. It does appear to resemble something fantastic and slightly more related to the Brothers Grimm than anything remotely as earth shattering as is usual for our feathered foes. It is, in fact, exactly like the invisible clothing worn by the unfortunate man in that fairy tale."
With that pronouncement, he turned to his console and brought up a picture on the oversize screen behind him. On it, the obvious point of reference was a man clothed in a shabby three-piece suit; the proportions were wrong and the fabric was a shiny but poor attempt at reproducing expensive silk blended sharkskin. Napoleon winced visibly at the atrocity, while Illya considered his own highly prized grey suit, something he had bought at his partner's insistence. He was glad, at the moment, to be able to see the difference between his and this awful imitation.
"So, the world is being inundated with cheap clothing. That's nothing new, although it continues to be a hazard to one's fashion health."
Napoleon grinned irrepressibly at his own humor, gaining a scathing look from Illya and a wisp of indrawn breath from Mr. Waverly.
"No, no Mr. Solo. It is, to my utter amazement, much more diabolical than it sounds. It is a matter of mind control, and in these beginning stages, the stooges, so to speak, are the world's foremost fashion aficionados, the fashionistas, if you will."
Waverly's use of a term that would not be common for several decades was a surprise to his men, causing Kuryakin to pause as he translated the probable meaning into something useful for this assignment. And then, he wondered, what the assignment would be.
"Sir, what exactly are we to do about this...situation? It seems improbable that we can counteract a current fashion trend.'
He paused, considering how to approach the problem...
"Do we know how they are influencing people to...buy ugly clothes?"
Napoleon had been silent, pondering the situation and wondering what would make a person think that the item of clothing on the screen was good taste.
"Sir, I take it we are going in, as it were, and try to capture whatever device it is they're using to create these suggestions of appropriate style choices. Unknown or not considered by most is the impact that the fashion industry has on society. The choices of color and length of a woman's skirt may seem inconsequential, but if the mood of the world suddenly turned to all black, we might see a downturn in productivity and social unrest..."
Illya fairly growled beneath the icy stare. Black? Socially dangerous and promoting a lack of productivity? Was he serious?
Napoleon caught the glare, and then realized what he had just said.
"Illya, I am talking about society at large, not you as an individual of obvious intelligence and professional integrity."
"Well, yes quite so, Mr. Solo. I believe you two have your work cut out for you. Find this device, whatever it is, and destroy it. We are facing a disaster of universal proportions if this damnable thing continues to make appearances via the victims Thrush has chosen."
With that the old man turned his attention to another folder, dismissing them by his lack of interest.
When the two agents were outside Waverly's door and within hearing of the secretary de jour, Napoleon nudged Illya and motioned that they should continue this meeting in their office. Even if the subject matter seemed benign, the idea that strong willed individuals who routinely impressed the world with their wardrobes were being subjugated somehow, and their choices controlled, meant that more important issues would be addressed in the future.
Thrush didn't know how to do half way.
Not surprisingly, the two UNCLE agents found themselves on a flight bound for Paris. It would seem that the conspiracy to rob the rich and well dressed of their good taste had a home in the City of Lights. How ironic that such a dark cloud of fashion disasters could be found there, of all places.
Napoleon Solo looked elegant as always. He was like a clone of the famous Arrow Collar man; his profile matched the sharp lines and illustrator perfection of that revered image. Next to him, less spectacular but nonetheless memorable, his partner Illya Kuryakin was clothed in his standard black ensemble, so befitting the dour image he had cultivated for most of his life.
The shiny mop of blond hair was a complete contradiction to the somber attire, and every stewardess on board the Pan Am flight had made some effort to gain his attention. Not that they were neglecting the brunet, because he was happily entertained by their continual concern over his comfort, supply of drink and general well-being.
Illya was trying to read the most recent report they had received concerning their mission, and earnestly attempting to understand the entire concept. He was still puzzled over the use of this fashion medium as a Thrush mind or behavior control tool. To his less than fashion savvy esthetic, it was a bizarre starting point for a potentially hazardous situation. If he could apply a quantum theory or other reasonable scientific hypothesis to it, something that actually made just a little bit of sense, then he might find a way to combat it.
"Excuse me, M Kuryakin, is there anything you would like from the bar?"
The lovely young woman hovered over him, addressing him in French and with a twinkle in her hazel eyes. Inwardly he smiled, while responding to her in French, requesting only tomato juice.
"Oui, avec plaisir."
Right away sounded excellent to him. He let that small wisp of a smile escape, charming her even more than had his aloofness. She sighed as she turned to the galley, wishing he would invite her to dinner.
"Mon dieu, ces yeux."
She wished to gaze into those eyes for a very long time...
Napoleon observed it all, wondering if he could ever pull of that beatnik look, deciding quickly that he could not, nor had he any desire. Things were just fine the way they were.
"So, Illya...any new insights in that new report?"
The blue eyes rolled heavenward, his normal response to questions like that from his partner.
"You might have tried reading it yourself, rather than depend on me to ferret out the details."
The smug look on his friend's face didn't exactly charm him, but he had no doubt about the intent.
"That smile may work on the ladies, but they don't have to work with you. I should let Thrush have their way with you, see how you dress the next day."
Now a smug expression of his own derailed the previously confident Solo; would Illya actually do that?
At that moment the stewardess returned with Illya's tomato juice, her hand brushing across his as she relinquished the glass. Although he remained unaffected, if not genuinely flattered, a shiver of delight ran through the girl, a slight flush evident up to her hairline. It was endearing, and the Russian did not discount what it cost a woman to expose herself in that way. He would never be unkind in this situation.
"Monsieur, your juice."
She smiled, hopefully...
He responded, fueling that hope.
"You are most kind. Perhaps, should our schedules allow, you might find time to meet me for coffee or...something."
She thought that, if possible, his eyes were even bluer than before.
She managed to reply and give him the number already prepared for this exact moment. Her hopes had not been in vain, she was happy to know.
"Merci. I will call if I am able. Is that agreeable?"
She nodded, giddy and happy and...
"Oui, monsieur. Perhaps it will be our fate to spend some time together."
He looked her in the eyes, holding her there longer than necessary...
Napoleon watched the entire scene, captivated himself by the coolness of his friend and the effect it had on the otherwise, very professional stewardess. Maybe if was the hair...
Two hours later they had a car and were checked into their hotel, ready to head back out to the Paris HQ. They hoped that their Paris counterparts had some information new to the case. It was always an exercise in diplomacy when they came in on what had been in the jurisdiction of another region. Waverly didn't spare feelings in situations like this, however. Paris had not been able to make a dent in this affair, and it was going on three weeks since the first incident. The world's fashion elite were falling like dominoes and the source had to be located and put out of business.
Their accommodations this trip were a pleasant surprise. There were actually two beds, and room to walk around both of them. The window was small, but had a nice little view of some similar buildings, and a sidewalk that boasted a café, a small market and some other retail establishments. Typically French and remarkably unremarkable to the two world travelers, it was more than they had hoped for.
A careful check had uncovered nothing suspicious; both men would have liked to lie down and take a nap but their duties wouldn't wait. The sooner they checked in the better their chances of solving this mystery.
As they were heading out, Illya stopped in the doorway, thoughtful about something.
"Napoleon, do you think this might be the work of someone we already know? I have this strange little...um...comment voulez-vous dire... l'intuition?"
Napoleon wrinkled his nose at that, surprised that his friend hadn't known how to express it, and always amused that he assumed the language of whatever country they were in.
"An intuition? You mean, you have a feeling about who's involved?"
Illya rubbed his forehead, the hand he held there threatening to cover his face. The affect of an approaching headache...
"I don't know for certain. Something about this just seems...familiar. But, it's not, we've never encountered this...quite."
"Illya, are you all right? Perhaps you should take some aspirin before we leave. We'll probably have a late night going over this."
There was a grunt of disapproval, the denial that anything could be wrong with him. Outside there were clouds, the threat of rain a constant during this time of the year. January was a miserable time to travel. But that wasn't why he had a headache.
"I'm fine. I'm just puzzling over this; better go and see if anyone else has a clue."
Napoleon nodded, still wondering about Illya's l'intuition. His partner was a man who generally stuck to hard facts and scientific accuracy. Gut instincts were more his own style, although they usually meshed with a well-constructed strategy of his design.
"All right then, I suggest we get ourselves gone before the rain overtakes us. Why don't we grab some food; we can get it to go and eat at headquarters."
He saw a light of approval in the blue eyes, a sign of imminent recovery. Without any more conversation they locked the door behind them and headed into the afternoon rains, and an encounter with another force quite beyond nature.
By the time they had their evening meal under cover of a brown paper bag, the rain was coming down in sheets. The thunder was distant, accompanied by lightening that, even to jaded eyes, was a show worth watching. Illya shuddered almost imperceptibly at the noise and flashes of light, his own memories of war and chaos intermixed with natural wonders. Napoleon noted it, knowing better than to pass it off as a reaction to the dampness within the little Renault.
They had stopped in a little café and ordered the winter Soup au Pistou, full of potatoes, leeks, parsnips, turnips, and fennel. A crusty baguette was also in the bag as they headed into the offices of Paris HQ, the aromas of the soup and still warm bread creating a heady effect as the two New York agents headed into the bowels of the French command center.
An office had been delegated for Solo and Kuryakin for the duration of their stay in Paris. Although they were here to intercede in an affair that was slow in achieving a desired end, there was no lack of respect for the two men. Within a short period of time their success rate had garnered attention from most of the Section II agents throughout the Command; whether admiration or jealousy depended on the mettle of the men themselves. To most, this seemingly awkward combination of Soviet and American had been at first a curiosity, but was now full blown appreciation for their ability to work together in pursuit of the altruistic goals they all embraced.
Francoise DeLemonde was acting as Bureau Chief in the wake of his predecessor's death, the result of a suspicious accident. There was still some question regarding the circumstances around M Vincent's fatal fall from the Alexander III Bridge over the Seine River. The fact that it had a curious amount of irony attached in the name of that structure was additional to the mystery of why the man had been there, and what had caused him to be cast over the side and into the water below. Nothing had been proved, but no one considered it an accident.
To his credit. M DeLemonde had assumed the position in a mood of humility and genuine grief, Frederic Vincent having been a good friend and mentor to the younger man.
They met with DeLemonde briefly, out of courtesy if nothing else, before heading back to their temporary office. The man was a few years past forty, tall and elegant in a way reserved for certain Frenchmen alone. Napoleon felt a twinge of something...not jealousy, he knew...but an appreciation for the other man's carriage and style. He was a few inches taller than the American, making him a half a head taller than the Russian. Illya was used to it, his lack of height a matter of no more concern than the color of his hair. His lessons in life had been learned early.
DeLemonde gave them a brief overview of the results they had garnered in this affair, as well as the sketchy details of Frederic Vincent's death. He was not long winded, to their relief, and had given them a crisp account in less than fifteen minutes. He dismissed them to their evening meal and the pursuit of whatever answers they might find, assuring them that he was available to them for whatever needs might arise.
In reviewing all of this (at the same time they were consuming the hearty soup and bread), Napoleon and Illya were certain that the incident of M Vincent's death and the mind altering, fashion-bending affair, were somehow related. As to the particulars, it would take more than a few hours and a bowl of soup to determine those.
Sometime around midnight, at which time they were feeling the onset of time changes, the men from New York decided to close the files in front of them and head back to their hotel. A good night's sleep was in order, and they expected to have more insight in the morning.
The sun was streaming through the lone window, filtered by the sheer white organza that fluttered in a cool morning breeze. The rain from the night before had left the air fresh and invigorating; the aroma of fresh baked bread was wafting through the brisk air, a reminder of their location near the little café on the street beyond.
For Illya, that was all the alarm he needed to be instantly awake. The seduction of a cup of French pressed coffee, cafetière à piston, encouraged him to crawl out from beneath the warmth. A French Press was his favorite method, and generally unavailable in the United States, much to his regret. It took him less than ten minutes to shower and dress in black jeans and turtleneck, black boots and leather jacket. All of this served to wake his partner in the process but not enough to prod him out of his warm bed. Napoleon still remained mostly covered, his head only partially visible beneath the plump duvet and white matelassé coverlet. It was the only time during any given day that his dark hair could be seen in disarray, something the blond often threatened to capture on film.
Not this morning, however. He was more interested in coffee and croissant, and was quickly downstairs, out the hotel doors and heading for the café when a spark of something made him look to his left. In an instant, he was down on the pavement beneath the projectile of a .45 calibre gun; he heard it whistle past him even as the sound of an engine gunning its way past let him know that their presence had been acknowledged.
The bullet lodged in an ancient bit of stone, adding to the texture and, most fortunately, not doing any additional harm. The Russian agent got up slowly, his appetite duly quelled by the early morning assault. He removed his communicator...
"Open channel F...Napoleon?"
"Solo here...What's wrong?"
"I was just shot at by what I assume is the object of our quest."
"Are you all right? Where are you, by the way?"
"I'm right below the window to our room. I was on my way for coffee and croissants. Someone took a shot at me from a speeding car. It's all rather...I would say, predictable."
Napoleon thought it over, fully awake now, and anxious to get some answers to this mystery.
"Are you still going to get the coffee and croissants?"
"Oui, certainement, avec plaisir."
With pleasure, indeed. Napoleon heard the smile, and couldn't hide the relief that the man on the other end of the conversation was safe.
"Merci. See you when you get back."
By the time Illya returned with the promised coffee and croissants, Napoleon had showered and was just slipping into his trousers. He found the desired shirt and finished dressing before sitting down with his friend at the small table beneath the window. The coffee was decidedly Parisian, dark and luxuriously blended to insure optimum flavor. The addition of the buttery croissant was all they needed to feel as though their French mission was well underway. It was uncanny how food could transform the attitude, and even with miles of experience, the two were both affected by the sensory triggers that announced their location.
They determined to start the investigation with Frederic Vincent. Each of them had spotted, within the missing information regarding his death, something of interest that piqued a curiosity about the man's activities in the days prior to that fatal fall from the Alexander III Bridge. It was too uncanny, too coincidental, that he should have plunged from an edifice of that name. Thrush loved to send cryptic messages, and no doubt this was one of them. Perhaps the Paris operatives had been too close to the man to pick up on the clues.
Whatever the reason, now was the time to re-examine the details and ferret out the reasons why.
Frederic Vincent was fifty-eight years old when he plunged into the icy waters of the Seine River from the Alexander III Bridge. As Napoleon and Illya began to trace his movements in the days prior to that fatal event they noticed a series of incidents remarkable for their lack of notation by the agents who had investigated.
First to get their attention was the fact that he had altered his regular routine of arriving at the Paris HQ and having coffee in his office. Instead, and very much out of character, he had been detouring to the home of a woman whom he had met recently. They knew this because of his Section III escorts. Whether it was because he was French and some things were not seen as out of the ordinary, or due to a misplaced sense of loyalty to the man's memory and privacy, they didn't know or care. It was a change, and within a few days the man had been dead under suspicious circumstances.
"It is inconceivable to me that this should have been left out of their report. What do you make of it, Napoleon?"
The two men were studying the files they had been given, the earlier incident of the sidewalk assault set aside for now. Being targeted by Thrush (for it surely must be that group at work) was not unexpected, and each suspected that the two events were related. Napoleon had interviewed Vincent's Section III escorts, obtained the name and address of the woman he had visited and was planning to go to her home later in the morning.
"I'm not sure what it all means, tovarisch. This woman, Agnès Ormond, must be involved somehow. I don't believe in coincidence."
Illya's eyes were attempting to bore a hole through the page in front of him; the information he needed to see there was not forthcoming. What was it about this affair that gave him a sense of ...
"Déjà vu. That's what I'm experiencing. I keep having the feeling that we've already done this before. Do you...?"
The question remained unfinished, and Napoleon wondered about this reaction that was hanging on. Illya didn't often yield to the unknown; his need for proof and scientific veracity was part of his stolidly immobile grasp of the real world. Déjà vu seemed completely out of the realm of Illya Kuryakin.
"If you're feeling something as elusive as that, then we're all in trouble.'
The look on his partner's face told him he was serious, and Napoleon wasn't about to ignore whatever this meant to them.
"What, exactly, conjures up this feeling? I don't have any memory of anything remotely like this."
"It's hard to locate. But there's a familiarity to it that makes me... it's almost as though I've done this before, been here in this circumstance. I can't explain it, and it is not the type of thing I enjoy. There is something distant, too far to reach and yet close enough to brush against my memory.'
He sighed, raising his eyebrows into an expression that spoke volumes about his exasperation with the puzzle before them.
"Okay, let's go see Miss Ormond; perhaps she'll jog your memory into something useful."
The Renault Dauphine was compact and serviceable, although neither man considered it his dream car. It was one of many, however, which meant they were less obvious when in traffic. Rather than the luxurious and sporty models favored by spy novels, UNCLE agents were more likely to be in a family sedan than a hot and sexy vehicle. There was something to be said for economy, and even more for the relative obscurity of the more common models.
As Illya pulled into traffic, he began to consider some of the ironies in this case. He started with the Alexander III Bridge.
"Napoleon, are you aware that this bridge was named after Tsar Alexander III? It was he who orchestrated the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892. His son Nicholas II laid the foundation stone in October 1896. It's all rather uncanny, don't you think, for the nationalities and names to fit so well into our own circle."
"And that adds up to...what exactly?"
The irony was not lost on the namesake of the French emperor who had tried to subdue Tsarist Russia. Nicholas was close enough to Nickovetch, aside from the fact that Illya was Russian, to warrant investigation. Alexander... that went without any need of explanation.
"So, you're suggesting that this is personal? Why would they target Frederic Vincent in an effort to get to us? And...why us, exactly?"
Illya winced at the puzzle of names and seeming coincidences. Another headache was framing itself around the lack of understanding.
"I am not quite certain...yet. But, there is a connection. Like you have said...repeatedly, I might add... I don't believe in coincidence."
Traffic was whizzing by the nimble Renault; or perhaps it was they who were doing the lighting quick driving. Illya reached their destination while Napoleon prepared to charm the woman they were going to meet, straightening his cuffs and pushing back the eternally stray lock of hair that preferred his forehead to the restraints of brylcreme.
"I suggest that you not attempt to romance this woman, Napoleon. She has, at least on the surface, just been subjected to the loss of a man whom we can presume was her lover."
The blue eyes could chastise his partner without words, but this was a not too subtle warning of his impending disapproval. Napoleon merely sniffed, curling his lip into a smile that warranted yet more eye rolling on the part of the Russian. The man was incorrigible.
"Just let me follow my... instincts, if you don't mind. I promise not to scandalize the U.N.C.L.E. However, what better way to console the woman if not over dinner and fine wine?"
The headache again. Something about this day was a little more disturbing than usual for the blond. While his partner strolled up to the front door in the exclusive Paris neighborhood, Illya lagged behind, still trying to correlate the various clues within this affair. Trying to tie it all together with the original concern about fashion faux pas and mind control schemes from Thrush was producing something akin to a migraine; next was watching Napoleon launch into a seduction.
He longed for lunch.
Dr. Hans Von Etske sat in the small room that doubled as his laboratory and contemplated the scheme he had concocted. Walls streaked with age mirrored his own appearance, mottled by abuse and wear that only long years of isolation and bitterness could equal. He bore the marks of his failure in San Rico as well as the unnerving luck of an evil genius; escaping from the blast atop that mountain had been lucky indeed. He hadn't bothered to try and save Gurnius, but what he was doing now bore a distinct dedication to the man, a perverse allegiance to the long dead ideals they had embraced. Nothing else mattered to the grizzled old man; the only purpose of life, his life, was to vanquish the men who had foiled the grasp for a domination that would have changed the world.
Napoleon located the doorbell and rang with a tangle of emotions roiling from deep inside. Whoever this woman was, she was most likely complicit in the death of a fellow member of UNCLE; a man whose life had been dedicated to the same ideals he embraced and risked life and limb to accomplish.
At the same time, the anticipation of meeting the woman in the photographs he'd seen caused a stirring of familiar origins, and he was trying valiantly to quell the excitement. Even an old hand such as he still had some butterflies when it came to beautiful women.
Agnès Ormond answered the door herself, something that was oddly satisfying to the American. Perhaps it wasn't the act of it so much as the delight he derived in viewing her within that framework. She was very beautiful, and the effect was similar to a life-sized portrait reaching out to him, beckoning...
"I am Napoleon Solo, of the U.N.C.L.E. I believe you may be familiar with our organization...and with Frederic Vincent."
Illya was standing a few feet behind his partner, his observation of the scene like someone taking notes on a lecture. He didn't need to see Napoleon's face to know what expressions were crossing it, and judging by the woman's response it was purely academic as to the probable outcome of this meeting.
"Oh, this is my partner, Illya Kuryakin. May we come in?"
The gesture of welcome was made, and the two men entered upon that invitation. As they each passed, the vague whiff of a fragrance was observed: Lily of the Valley. Illya knew it immediately, and the essence drew from his memory a day spent with a girl he had known at the Sorbonne; a lunch of brie and sweet, dark bread flavored with molasses. She had baked it herself. The pungency of the brie contrasted by the bread had been delicious and ripe...as had she. He smiled so openly that Napoleon, seeing his reflection in a hall mirror, was momentarily puzzled.
Agnès Ormond saw the smile as well.
"Please, gentlemen... we can talk in here."
She directed them through the foyer of the home and into a room filled with light. The southern exposure boasted a wall of glass that was a clever combination of windows and French doors; all of them paned and almost impossible to differentiate. Upon close inspection, one could see the handles to the doors and gain access to the garden beyond.
The upholstered furniture was all in varying shades of white, with only an occasional accent of pale blue. The woman herself was almost like a part of the room, blond and blue eyed, with skin the color of cream. Napoleon was, of course, smitten. He thought he actually detected a slight glow around her, but then realized it was merely the diffused light that filtered through a large, twining wisteria that hung gracefully from the trellised eaves. Something about all of this...
"No, no... Agnès, please."
The smile was intoxicating...
"Yes...thank you... Agnès."
His own smile was ingratiating and somehow, thirsting...
"We, well we are here about the death of Frederic Vincent. I understand you were...friends?"
She lowered her eyes, gently wiping her finger beneath them as though...
"Yes, my dear Frederic. We had only just met and then...too soon, he was gone from my life. I am still... comment dites-vous? My heart is broken from this loss..."
Napoleon offered her his handkerchief in response to the tears. He felt his own heart miss a beat as he offered it to the shattered woman. What was that scent...?
"I am so sorry for your loss. He was a fine man, and is greatly missed within our own organization. Is there anything you can tell us, any observation or memory that might help us to sort out...give us an explanation for why... how he died?"
Napoleon was having difficulty organizing his thoughts. Illya wasn't helping any, and he felt himself struggling to maintain his distance from this woman. He wanted to reach out and caress the cheek upon which her tears longed to ...
What the hell? Fight it, Napoleon! He realized, almost too late, what was happening. How had she...?
"Do you mind if we take this conversation outside, Agnès. It is such a beautiful day now that the rains are gone and the sun is shining."
She looked startled by that, but not having a good reason for remaining indoors, she acquiesced to his suggestion. She gently opened the doors and led them onto the patio, indicating they should sit on the stone benches.
"Ah, I was thinking we could perhaps ... stroll through the garden. We so seldom have opportunities such as this."
Illya was following, and as the fresh air hit his face and lungs, the stupor that had held him began to dissipate. With that liberation came the recognition of where he had been and how easily he had slipped from the present into the heady memories he had entertained just minutes before.
Whatever was in that Lily of the Valley fragrance, it had the properties necessary to change a person's state of mind. This, it would appear, was the source of the fashion disasters that had led them here. How easily one could infiltrate an entire room full of people...
Agnès was trying to find a way to lead them back into the house, to regain the now evaporated control. She needed Solo and Kuryakin in order to complete the plan, to gain the vengeance so long overdue.
Her father was waiting...
As the effects of the fragrance began to wear off, Illya noted his return to the present, and the manipulations his partner was working upon the situation. As long as they remained out of doors, they would be safe from the suggestive powers that might have been implemented had they remained under the influence of this latest weapon.
At least now they had solved the puzzles that brought them here. The front page fashion disasters that had first alerted Napoleon to this dangerous new tool was easily explained, if their reaction to the lily of the valley fragrance was any indication of its potential to warp a person's thoughts and actions. How easily Illya had succumbed to the intoxicating effect...
Napoleon was hovering over Agnès Ormond as he began to question her, unraveling the details of this affair. Chasing after loose threads, twisted threads of deception and clever scientific discoveries, Illya reckoned that they had stumbled upon this one almost blindly. Why hadn't anyone else investigated...?
"Who else has been here asking questions? I believe that you might have dissuaded them as you almost did us."
Illya had stumbled upon that one as well. Of course, with the power of this fragrance to manipulate thought and action, the others were probably merely steered in another direction and relieved of whatever impulses they might have had to investigate Agnès Ormond and her relationship with Frederic Vincent.
"M. Kuryakin, I assure you..."
Napoleon laughed, a little too intently, and returned his attention to the interrogation.
"You, mademoiselle, are a liar. This house of yours is the trap, and the means by which you caused the death of M. Vincent. I hold you entirely responsible, unless of course you wish to implicate the real force behind this...'
"It is a scientific marvel, and you, M. Solo, and your partner, are the real prey upon whom it was intended to work. What can you offer me in exchange for the information I have?"
Both agents were amazed at how quickly she was willing to give up her associates. Even Thrush usually held out for longer than this; she was giving up without a fight.
Napoleon was cool in his appraisal of the woman; her beauty would have been intoxicating enough without the addition of the mind altering fragrance. How was she connected, he wondered.
"All right, if you want to cooperate, I suppose we can work out some type of deal...set you up someplace away from the authorities who will otherwise deal with you."
She blanched at the inference of prison, a life devoid of the luxuries she had learned to depend on and embellish on herself. Her affect was demure and kitten-like as she practically purred to the American...
"Dr. Hans Von Etske..."
Both Napoleon and Illya were startled to hear the name of a man they believed to be dead. What could be the connection?
"He is dead, has been for more than a year. We were there when ..."
She shook her head, cutting her eyes to see the effect on the two men, taking some pleasure in the shock she was administering to their egos.
"No. You only thought he was dead, you did not see a body. Est-ce exact?"
Napoleon looked at Illya, both men mentally asserting that she was correct. Illya sighed, his memories of that day, that mission, still disturbing as he considered what misery he had subjected his partner to during the masquerade he had performed as Nexor. Napoleon knew instinctively what the blond was thinking, and shuddered inwardly at the memories.
"So, you are telling us that Von Etske is still alive, and has concocted this little essence...for us? Why did he kill Vincent, if we were his targets?"
Agnès looked from one to the other of the two men in her garden. What use was it to lie? The man she knew as her father had barely cared for her until he had needed this ... intervention. The wealth she enjoyed came from her mother, long dead but not forgotten. The little man who claimed her as his daughter had emerged from a prison..."bon dieu...a little rat of a man", she now remembered thinking.
"I will tell you what I know, mssrs. I have not very much allegiance to this man, except...he is my father.'
Once again the UNCLE agents exchanged looks, neither of them anticipating the details as they were hearing them from this woman. It was only a little difficult to believe the man they had met in San Rico could be the father to this beauty. Stranger things had come their way.
She sighed, obviously ill at ease with this disclosure. She wasn't proud of her lineage, at least on this side. Her parents had married before the war, before the atrocities...
"I cooperated only with regard to the very slight affection that a daughter must have concerning such things. However, I did care for Frederic, and had no prior knowledge that he would be killed. The suggestion that he leap into the Seine was done without my cooperation...do you believe me?"
Napoleon did mostly believe her, his natural instincts prevailing when it came to beautiful women. Illya was not so easily convinced, and wondered if the tendency to evil intentions did not lie rather closer to the child of the scientist than she was admitting.
"Perhaps you can tell us why, in any event, you cooperated at all in a scheme that you must have known would have dire consequences. Just what did you think would happen by administering this mind-altering chemical to unsuspecting victims? Surely, you cannot expect us to believe you are entirely innocent in these evil events."
Illya wanted to understand completely the device and purpose behind this invention of Von Etske's. Perhaps, if she feared the worst, more information would be forthcoming. At the very least, they needed to confiscate the device and the fragrance for testing. The question was how, since to go back inside they might possibly be subjected to it again. They could not completely trust Agnès to help them.
"M. Kuryakin, I will do whatever you ask. The man has not been a part of my life...ever. He came to me with only partial information, and a plea for forgiveness. There was never the disclosure of evil, as you say it. I will tell you what I know of him, except I do not know where he is staying. That part, he has kept a secret."
Napoleon shut his eyes, trying to picture the situation in his mind. There was a way to capture Von Etske, he just had to figure it out.
His eyes popped open and he raised his hand, snapping his fingers as it came to him. He did know how, and they could begin now to put it into action.
Illya recognized that, and the wary perception of it somehow involving him and the words 'don't worry', crept over his expression, just as surely as the lily of the valley had summoned up his earlier pleasant memories.
"Here we go again..."
The first thing that Napoleon needed to know was how the fragrance worked. It had hit them suddenly, and he remembered the look on Illya's face as they entered the foyer of the house.
Agnès had been in the same room with them, exposed for longer than they without a doubt. Was she also being controlled in some way that she didn't recognize?
"When did your father approach you about this scheme of his? And, what did he expect to gain from this, if we are the target of his mind controlling weaponry? The men in the newspaper, Cebollero and the other fellow...Aumont...what was the purpose of that?"
The woman looked dizzy from the barrage of questions being lobbed at her from the American. Her English was good, but he was talking so fast that she knew something was missing as she listened and interpreted.
He shook his head and smiled...
"Oui, Napoleon, that at least I understand quite well. As for the other, this man who is my father, in name only I must add, gave me no explanations except to say that you had done grievous harm to him and his associates. He had contacted some organization that he sought out for help, but they refused him. He was quite discouraged, and came to me for something like a little consolation, perhaps.'
She shook her head also, searching for something in the brown eyes that met her own.
"Je ne sais pas...I just do not know."
Illya was growing impatient, which was out of character for his usually stoic self. He wondered how long his partner would coddle this woman, possibly allowing the enemy to come upon them as they waited for her to explain.
"Mademoiselle, how is it that you are unaffected by this...this fragrance? You seemed not to suffer at all from being in its center, and out here is the only place that is not full of the reminder of lilly of the valley. Certainly, you must have an explanation."
Napoleon was a little surprised at the tactless tone, the abrupt accusation against Agnès. He himself was quite satisfied to give her the benefit of the doubt, and wondered that the Russian considered her guilty without allowing her a chance to deny it.
Illya felt the displeasure emanating from Napoleon, knew that the other man would rather he not question her in that manner.
"Perhaps the lady is immune...or something..."
Illya shot his friend a look that would have shattered glass, the hard edge of his glare causing Napoleon to step back slightly.
"Illya, what's going on with you? She doesn't know how it works, obviously, and has been duped the same as the other people we know were affected and influenced by Von Etske. Agnès is just as much a victim as..."
First one, and then the other of them looked around and realized that the lovely blonde was no longer with them. While they had argued and exchanged scathing looks with one another, she had escaped.
"Fine, that's just fine."
Napoleon was furious with himself, and with his partner. Each of them...
"It's no use, Napoleon. She outsmarted us, and now has run off to wherever Von Etske is hiding out. I guess it's lucky for us that I planted a homing device on her."
"Wha... oh...Well then, I guess you're still a smart Russian. It's nice to know you haven't completely lost your skills along with your socialist aesthetics."
Illya managed to scowl at the other man, but it was more of a smile by the time he nodded and acknowledged that he was far removed from the idealistic young man who had first encountered Napoleon Solo six years earlier.
"Yes, well...someone has to use the head containing his brains. I think you were about ready to embrace her and the stories she was telling as though it were the absolute truth."
A winning smile crossed the features of the American, his eyes lit with amusement at their banter.
"You know, Illya, she could be telling the truth. Agnès might be under the influence of this mind control agent, just as much as we were beginning to be. She might be acting out of obedience to instructions that have been planted through the use of the fragrance. We just need to find out how it works and why. How did he introduce it to those socialites, and..."
"Yes, I get it, Napoleon. We need to find Von Etske before he invades any more fashion shows. The homing device should work to get us going in the right direction, at least. Hopefully it won't be discovered for a few hours. I placed it...amazingly, I might add, in her brassiere."
Napoleon nearly guffawed at that, but quickly realized that Illya was serious.
"How, I must ask, did you manage that?"
The smug Russian merely held up his hands, gesturing like a magician might during some fancy sleight of hand.
Illya continued, his secrets still firmly intact.
"He's going to be looking for us, it would seem. Perhaps one of us, and I shudder to think which one, should be used as bait. That way the other can track and rescue."
Illya heaved a sigh signaling his resignation to being the bait of which he spoke. Napoleon hadn't even had to come up with the plan; it seemed he was practically volunteering.
"Do you intend to play the part of the goat? I imagine that Von Etske's biggest gripe is with you, since you were the one who portrayed Nexor and then betrayed Gurnius. It was all sort of your fault, in a way..."
The blond squinted his eyes, viewing his friend from within the small portal of vision that he allowed in doing that. He hated to admit it, but Napoleon was probably right about everything. The girl was being manipulated, his deception as Nexor made him the logical target, and Napoleon was going to have to rescue everyone from whatever misery Von Etske had dreamed up for the UNCLE agents. One of them needed to stay out of his reach.
"All right. Who's going to report in to Mr. Waverly? We have to let him know that we lost Agnès; he won't be happy."
Illya furrowed his brow into the innocent expression he used on doctors and women just before he got what he wanted. One was early release, usually, and the other was...well it wasn't usually early.
"For you, tovarisch, I will make the call. Just figure out how you're going to make yourself available to whatever thugs get sent to collect you. Speaking of, I think we should take a look around and see if we can locate the source of the ... gas. Is that what we should call it? "
Illya shrugged his shoulders, not thinking the designation mattered. He had thoroughly enjoyed the effect, but the damage that could be done was considerable, and if they could locate a sample of it here, the labs at the Paris HQ could start working on isolating the formula.
"Perhaps an acronym...LOV...short for lily of the valley."
Napoleon wrinkled his nose, surprised at his friend's suggestion.
"Love potion? Are you serious, Illya? Sometimes you do surprise me..."
He naturally headed back towards the house, ready to enter through the same glass doors that they had cross through not very long ago.
"Ummm...Napoleon? Are you certain you wish to go back inside? Perhaps we should let a team come back with the proper paraphernalia and clothing..."
Napoleon laughed, then a slight shiver went through him as he considered stepping into that ... lov potion... and possibly ending up without a lucid thought in his head.
"Okay, back to headquarters, and then into the breach. We need to get you captured."
They headed through the garden and around the low fence that bordered the finely landscaped grounds. It was a longer walk, but worth avoiding the fiasco of being in contact with Von Etske's formula.
As they neared the car, a scrupulous examination of the street was made by each of them, and then a mutual sigh of relief at not finding anything sinister close by. Napoleon felt some trepidation about what was ahead, but he also had a confidence in their abilities and partnership that buoyed him beyond concern.
With a wink, he was in the car as Illya walked around to the driver's side of the Renault. The blond knew for a certainty that there was one thing he needed to be sure of before any plans got hatched; he wanted some lunch.
It might be a while before he ate again if it all went as they hoped.
The ride back to headquarters found both men unusually quiet. They were used to spending time together and not feeling pressured to converse, but right now there was an intense amount of concentration regarding the next few hours.
Napoleon was strategizing, his mind occupied with the possibilities, the things that might go wrong. He always had to consider the innocent in this, whom he presumed to be Agnès Ormond. Even if Illya didn't agree...yet...there was something about her story that rang true to the agent's sensibilities. Von Etske had been in prison since the end of the war, and she was...
He started to mentally calculate the years between Von Etske's imprisonment and now, and the fact that he had been married to Agnès' mother before the war. Agnès looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and that seemed right.
"Illya, how old do you think Agnès is? According to her story, she would have been born sometime before '39, so..."
Illya was maneuvering the Renault into a parking space near a little café he intended to patronize. The coffee and croissant from early that morning had evaporated along with the rain. He needed to eat something, and felt a little lightheaded for having missed a mid-morning snack. There were a few problems with high metabolisms that people failed to understand. He ate because he needed to eat, in spite of Napoleon's teasing about the voracious appetite.
He quickly did the math concerning his partner's questions, and reckoned that the woman in question was around thirty, younger than he and Napoleon were by a few years.
"I know you believe her, or want to believe her. I am holding my opinion of the story until more is revealed. With luck, I will be able to ascertain that very shortly."
Napoleon felt a sudden dread wash over him as the reference was made to their still fledgling plan. Illya would be an easy target, especially since they'd already taken a shot at him. What if they didn't want to use the gas on him; what if Von Etske merely wanted him dead?
"Illya, perhaps we should..."
He didn't finish the sentence, looking instead into his friend's eyes and trying to gauge how the Russian really viewed all of this. He didn't want to risk his life, not if there was another way.
"Thank you, Napoleon. I appreciate your caution in this. However, it seems that we have little choice in the matter. Even Mr. Waverly agreed, did he not?"
Their superior had heartily agreed that a ruse involving Illya would be most useful in gaining entrance to the center of this mystery. If Von Etske still thought of Illya as Nexor, whether in disguise or as a traitor, he would pose the most probable choice for luring the scientist out of his hiding place. They now had a location from the homing device in the girl's dress. It appeared to be a storefront of some sort, and was being watched by two of the agents from the Paris office. They didn't think she lived there, but rather had fled to it as a temporary hiding place.
"She must be following orders of some sort. I know that neighborhood, and it isn't the type of place where she seems to belong, considering the house we just left."
Illya and Napoleon had sat down at an outdoor table, all the while watching the street and aware of the various passersby. They each ordered a roast beef and Roquefort sandwich, to which no additional condiments were allowed, and a glass of burgundy.
"Do you think they're lurking about, watching us eat our lunch?"
Illya's eyes were hidden behind dark glasses now, but his hair, as usual, was like a beacon even at mid-day. What was it about his blond hair that outshone everything else? Napoleon wondered about it, remembering the times he had been relieved at the sight of it, never mistaking anyone else for his partner.
"I think it's possible. Even though we have people keeping an eye on Agnès, we must assume there are others. Certainly it wasn't Von Etske himself who took that shot at you this morning."
Illya shook his head, that small little motion that was uniquely his way of saying 'no'.
"I couldn't see into the car very well, it all happened very fast. I believe there were two people, however. It seems unlikely to have been him and his daughter, which means two other people. Perhaps one or more of them will emerge from the building being watched."
He paused in his chewing, set the sandwich back down on the plate, and sipped his wine. The headache was back, a result of not eating soon enough, he thought. Napoleon caught the slight furrowing in the blond brow, not sure if he should ask...
"Illya, you've been plagued by a headache ever since we arrived. What's going on?"
From behind the dark glasses it was impossible to see what was expressed in the blue eyes. Illya put down the wineglass and stared out across the street at something beyond.
"I am fine, Napoleon. A headache, it is a small thing. Perhaps due to the change in climate, or the rain... or merely..."
Napoleon waited but the sentence was never finished. At that moment a black sedan pulled up in front of them and within a few seconds, it seemed, they were overrun by three or four men (neither would recall later on), and hustled into the car as their food crashed to the ground amidst breaking glass and startled screams from the people sitting nearby.
Almost instantly the two agents were injected with sedatives, causing them to be almost instantaneously unconscious. They were completely unaware of their surroundings as the car traveled out of the city and into a rain drenched countryside that bade farewell to Paris and the UNCLE headquarters to which they would not report.
As agents had continued to watch the building where Agnès had entered, she slipped out of a shop several doors down the row. An inside corridor connected them and allowed her to emerge in disguise, so that the only person observed on the sidewalk was an old woman with faded red hair, and a basket over her arm filled with bread.
She hobbled down the little street, passing along in front of a few storefronts, a little boulangerie, and finally, fatefully, into a waiting sedan.
Agnès Ormond slid gracefully into the back seat, easily fitting next to Napoleon as he sat slumped in his drug induced stupor. Illya was on the other side, leaning against the door as the sedan sped into the Paris traffic and then out of the city.
Von Etske viewed the three people curiously from his twisted position in the front. His driver had remained with him after letting off the other two men who had been complicit in the kidnapping of the UNCLE agents. They would meet them at his hideaway later. For now, handling the two men who had ruined his and Gurnius' quest for greatness would not be difficult to handle. Agnès was likewise under his control, her actions the result of his instruction while she functioned at the whim of his beautiful creation.
The idea of utilizing a pleasant fragrance as a vehicle for his mind altering formula had been his first foray back into his first love; the events in San Rico had stifled his creativity for months, his grief over lost opportunity taking him into a despondent mood that had only been overcome by the discovery his daughter.
She was a beauty, as had been her mother. The memory of that woman was one of thankfulness and regret. She had left him, taking the child with her, when his involvement with the Nazis had been discovered. His wife had been French, and not one who sympathized with the enemy. She had managed to disappear and, according to Agnès, remarried shortly afterwards. After the war, her new husband had been in a position to make some profitable business moves and had left her with a considerable fortune when he died.
This 'fortune', the one now left to Agnès, was the source of Von Etske's funding. He had maneuvered her into his clutches and was now siphoning off her money in pursuit of vengeance and a still active desire for some type of domination in the world. His entrance into the fashion world had been via his beautiful daughter, whose many social contacts included men like Cebollero and others of note among the fashion elite, as well as politically well-placed individuals.
Utilizing his new discovery among her friends and acquaintances had been a simple thing, and the obvious message sent to UNCLE had netted him the desired response: Solo and Kuryakin.
Now, watching the UNCLE agents sleep off the sedative while his daughter sat mute and, seemingly, unthinking, the old man visualized the outcome once more. He would send these two back to New York well conditioned to do his bidding, feeding false information into the network and sending back to him everything he needed to topple the giant law enforcement agency.
They had underestimated him, as had Gurnius and certainly the bastard organization known as Thrush. They would have done well to keep him as an associate, but it was too late now. He would have his vengeance on that group as well. Had they handled things better in the first place, and not sent that imbecile Brown, everything might have turned out differently. As it stood now, it was up to him to set things right. Marshall Gurnius would have approved.
The drive took just over an hour, and as they pulled into the little pathway that served as a drive for the cottage beyond, the men in the back were stirring. Napoleon reached for his head, the thought of somehow rubbing away the ache hampered by the discovery that he was handcuffed to his partner. Illya flinched involuntarily at the jostling, groaning audibly as the pain in his own head superceded the previous headache he'd endured for two days.
Agnès remained un-attentive, her eyes staring off into some unknown scene. Napoleon looked at the woman, a quizzical expression covering the handsome features even as he responded to the moan from his friend on the other side. Caught between them, he realized, finally, that they were in a car and that looking at him from behind the seatback was the fugitive they'd been after since before San Rico.
"Dr. Von Etske, I presume."
The lack of respect was evident in the flippant remark, and Von Etske determined that he would deal with Solo first, in spite of his hatred for the man who had masqueraded as the young Nexor. Perhaps the most misery could be inflicted by letting him watch the process as the American was subjected to the formula, the anticipation of his own endurance vexing him.
"You and your partner thought yourselves to be so clever, so superior in both skill and purpose. You see now, do you not, that I am the better man. I survived, and now I will still have my moment of conquest. I have the means by which to control those who control the world, the financial institutions...all of it, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon thought the man had the same disease common to most villains and Thrush madmen: he liked to hear himself talk.
The interior of the car was dimly lit, but as they pulled up to the cottage where Von Etske did his work, the lights began to flicker and a large opening appeared in front of them, the ground giving way to an entrance that led them down beneath the house and into a well lit, concrete structure. Three more men were waiting, guns in hand, motioning the car forward until they signaled for the driver to stop.
Illya was just becoming fully alert, and his eyes widened as he took in the sight of their surroundings. This was a well executed plan, obviously. Von Etske had done this in a relatively short amount of time, less than a year by his estimation. Unless...
"How long have you had this waiting for use, Von Etske? I doubt you could have had it built in the time since we last met."
The scientist grinned, nodding his head and pleased at the effect his marvelous facility was having on these two.
"Yes, Gurnius and I planned all along to have this as a back up, in case... Well, you understand. Nexor knew of it also, and would have come here with me had you not killed him. You, Mr. Kuryakin, ruined everything. You are going to pay for that now."
Illya's face remained passive except for the almost unseen response to the pain he was experiencing. Napoleon recognized it, wondered how long Illya could hold out against torture with an already severe reaction to the doctor's formula of sedation. How much could they learn from Von Etske before they were under the drug's influence?
As they were hauled from the car through the door on Illya's side, Napoleon reckoned they would find out pretty soon.
The concrete walls whizzed by, it seemed; the force of their eviction from the sedan into another smaller vehicle was a blur of activity to the two agents. They remained shackled together, and Illya felt the effects of their speedy departure from the car down this oddly efficient rail system in the back of his head. The pain was beginning to travel much like they were, with precision and speed.
Napoleon nudged his partner, and realized that the man's slowed responses were a result of whatever Von Etske's men had shot into him. He was not having a similar reaction, and began to wonder if there had been two versions of the sedative. He couldn't imagine why, at this point, but nothing was ever outside the realm of possibility with these types of villain.
Conversation was not really possible now. Von Etske sat in the front next to a driver, the UNCLE agents in the back. The little cart that carried them was on a track, similar to an electric train track. Napoleon could see a set of doors up ahead, and with that he felt the vehicle begin to slow, decelerating until they stood in front of them. Marshall Gurnius and Von Etske had certainly not skimped on the details when they built this, and much like their large planetarium inspired compound in San Rico, he imagined this one was also equipped with various means of torture.
"You, Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, please come with me. I'm afraid the best part of your visit is just about over. It is now my turn to administer my own brand of justice. The deaths of Marshall Gurnius and young Nexor will be avenged, and by your own blood, I assure you."
Von Etske definitely had that deranged affect in his voice; the announcement of his dastardly deeds was almost as much a part of his plan as was the plan itself. Napoleon braced for the worst as Illya maintained his stoic expression. Behind the wall of indifference his head was pounding out a beat that announced an impending battle. If it didn't stop soon, torture would almost be a relief.
The corridor beyond the doors through which they passed was almost identical to the one they had left behind, except there were not tracks upon which to carry another car. Periodically a door would appear, but along the length of it was mostly more concrete wall. Illya spotted their destination before his partner did. Double doors marked Labor-Mitarbeiter Nur (Lab Technicians Only) were pushed open by the little scientist, and held as the captives were pushed in from behind by the still present driver.
"Oh, gee...what a nice place you have here. I suppose you've already made our reservations."
Napoleon's smug remark brought an equally smug smile to Von Etske's lips. He understood false bravado. His years of research and discovery during the war years had exposed him to many forms of it. Most of it was useless, as would be this man's attempts.
"Yes, Mr. Solo. You and Mr. Kuryakin have been expected. I assure you, all of my details are worked out, and ready to implement. You will see soon enough."
As Von Etske spoke, Illya began to heave violently, his body unable to remain passive any longer. He fell to his knees, retching and convulsing to the horror of the doctor. The scientist motioned for his man to hold on to the blond even as Napoleon was reaching for him, still attached by the handcuffs they wore.
Whatever was wrong with the man, it wasn't going to spoil this moment of triumph. Napoleon's obvious concern was all it took for the madman to make up his mind to a course of action.
"Take him! Unfasten the handcuffs and separate them. Get him ready, he will soon forget this misery."
He laughed at the sight of the stricken agent being hauled to an unseen destination. Napoleon tried to follow, but two more men had joined the scene and were forcefully holding him back.
"What? What is it you're going to do, Von Etske? You aren't going to get away with this, you know. UNCLE knows where we are, what you're doing."
It was an empty threat, a bit of bluff in the midst of this crazy scenario. He didn't know what was wrong with Illya, but the presence of a headache and nausea indicated a bad reaction to whatever he'd been shot up with. If the Russian could recover, just a little, before they were able to... do what? He didn't know, didn't want to have to find out.
"You are na*ve, young man, to think you can stop me. Everything is already in place. All that I require is to send my lovely daughter into the places she is already accepted; government functions and society gatherings. It is all too perfect, and incredibly easy. She will do whatever I ask of her, and never even realize the deeds that are done as a result of it. Brilliant, if I do say so myself. And, I do."
That smug look again. Napoleon was prepared to wipe it off his face. Just a tiny opening was all that he needed.
It came suddenly, that opening he had asked for. In the distance there was a loud 'bang', and then the wailing of a man as something crashed to the floor. Von Etske looked alarmed, his previous gloating demeanor now wiped clean as he listened to something like Armageddon in the next room. The two thugs holding onto Napoleon hesitated just long enough for him to thrust his elbows backwards and low, into their abdomens. They both doubled in unison, allowing Napoleon to make a quick turn and hammer both of their necks with a precise karate chop. Both of them fell, unconscious but alive, onto the concrete floors as Von Etske watched in horror.
How could this be happening again?
Illya came through the doors like a locomotive, a vapor following him that looked incredibly like smoke. It was smoke, and the room behind him was engulfed in flames. The effects of his earlier discomfort seemed to have been overcome; rather quickly, if Napoleon had time to consider it, which he didn't.
"I suggest we hurry. There will be a series of explosions very soon upon us, and this will be more like the floor of a volcano I'm afraid."
He was slightly breathless, but the message wasn't lost by his lack of volume. Napoleon was on Von Etske immediately, demanding to know where Agnès had been taken.
"Tell us now, Von Etske. She's your daughter, and I can't believe that even you will let her die for this demented dream of yours!"
Another explosion sounded from the room in the distance. More smoke, and the smell of chemicals, was beginning to invade what mirage of safety was left in the atmosphere of this room.
The doctor blanched, his body slumping into a near collapse as he realized the end of his vendetta and the loss of his ultimate conquest. He wouldn't go back to prison, but he would not allow his only child, no matter their estrangement, to die in an inferno.
"She is in the cottage... up above. Go, get her and take her to safety. But I will remain here, in my glorious accomplishment!"
Without warning, he pulled a small revolver from the pocket of his labcoat and shoved it in his mouth. Neither Illya nor Napoleon could reach him in time, and the pop from the gun thrust the little man backwards to the wall; blood splatterings behind the now excavated skull competed with smoke emitted by the open mouth, much to the agent's repulsion.
"Go, Napoleon. We can't stand here and eulogize the man. We must get to Agnès before the building erupts completely."
The two agents ran at breakneck speed back down the corridor they only recently traveled. They burst through the double door at the edge of their runway, and headed back to where they had left the sedan; they searched for the controls, not instantly aware of the way to exit this concrete tomb. If they didn't find it soon...
"Here! It's over here, Illya!"
Napoleon was pressing buttons, waiting for the opening to appear, motioning for them to be ready to head up and into the night air. As the ceiling above them receded and they saw their escape route, the roar of another explosion was followed by the appearance of flames licking at the concrete and chasing a lone man as he fled from its death hunt.
Just as Napoleon would have reached back to help the terrified man, Illya was pulling him upwards, not willing to sacrifice his partner for someone so recently intent on doing them harm. Watching the secret entrance close for the last time, both agents were aware of the close call; Illya even more aware that he had created it.
They didn't waste time on speculation or guilt. They had to get to Agnès before the entire site blew up, and the cottage was at risk right now. One of Von Etske's men burst out of the door, and another was pushing the doctor's daughter ahead of him as smoke started spilling from behind them.
Napoleon was behind the wheel of a car; the two men who had been left behind in Paris had made it here, only to be witness to the destruction of their employer's dream. Now he had the engine running as Illya pulled Agnès from their grasp and shoved her into the waiting vehicle. They left the others behind, on the ground trying to recover from the smoke and fumes as the car hurtled away from the remains of what was and still threatened to be.
A thundering explosion rocked the countryside as the three people were speeding away, leaving little doubt as to the fate of those in its wake.
"I thought you were really sick when you started shaking and..."
The look on Illya's face told Napoleon that it had been real.
"How...how did you get over it so quickly? I didn't think you'd have been able to stand up by yourself after the way you looked out in that corridor."
Illya's lapse of facial expression had been brief. He had been sick, wretchedly so. But, after expelling all of the toxins the effect of the drug had simply disappeared. The headache was gone, and with a few minutes to regain some strength, adrenaline had kicked in and it was business as usual.
"I had rather serious objections to being hooked up to the machine to which they were leading me. It reminded me a little too much of San Rico..."
"Ah. Yes, I can see where you wouldn't want..."
"Yes. I imagined you would understand."
Amazingly, that was about as much as had ever been said regarding that unpleasant encounter. The understanding that passed between them was eloquent, at least to each other.
Agnès was seated with them in the little café, sipping her wine and feeling very fortunate to be with these two handsome men. She had very little memory of what had transpired, but was content to believe them when told she was now safe and still in possession of her great wealth.
"Gentlemen, you have been so wonderful to me, and seem to have encountered such great peril on my behalf. I do not think it possible to ever thank you adequately.'
She took, by turns, each man's face, accompanying her demurely spoken 'Merci' with a delicate kiss on two nearly perfect pair of lips.
Her smile was, once again, intoxicating to Napoleon as he began to search for the perfect way in which to invite her for a late supper. Illya was well aware of this moment, and hoped to usurp the opportunity and ask her out himself; he fancied that she had actually preferred him to his overly confident partner.
"Oh, and here is someone I wish for you to meet. Henri, mon amor..."
As she reached out for the elegant man, he took her hand and kissed it and then her mouth, fully and completely, to both agent's dismay.
As the two exchanged looks of acknowledgement to their failed bid at romance, they greeted the newcomer and politely excused themselves, claiming the need to return to headquarters. As they walked away, the sound of two lovers cooing and adoring one another reached their ears.
"So, are you going to call that stewardess whose number you collected the other day?"
"Hmmm...oh. Oh, her? No, I am not quite up to it, I think. And you?"
"No, I don't have any plans. Say, I bet we could still catch a ferry across the channel and go see a show in London. I hear..."
And so the two friends walked back into the sights and smells of Paris, happy at evening's end with some food and wine, and the contentment of their fraternité.