The Deadly Playground Affair

by Benzadmiral



Act I

"Code Maildrop . . . Mark and Move."


October 10, 1964: 9:14 p.m. Upper West Side, New York City

Looking back on that strange evening, Fran Baxter would later tell her husband Bud, "You know it's going to be a bad night when -- before you can even get a cab -- some guy sticks a gun in your face."

It was Friday, a soft evening. Fran stood at the curb outside Captain Wu's, their favorite Chinese restaurant. An earlier rain had left Amsterdam Avenue damp, and the neon of the restaurant sign cast weird red and green patterns on the wet black street.

Cars hissed by as Fran peered south along the avenue. Behind her, the door of the restaurant opened, and Bud crossed the sidewalk to her. "Found a cab yet?" he said.

"No. Bud, why do you have to argue with the waitress about every little thing on the check? It was only sixty cents!"

"I'm an accountant, hon." Bud's usual cheery smile had vanished. "Comes with the territory. When they charge you for won ton soup you didn't order, you can't let `em get away with it, can you?"

"Whatever you say." Fran felt cold. She pulled her coat a little closer.

"You're still mad at me," Bud said quietly. "It's because of the promotion, right? You ought to be thrilled. More money, a chance to move to a better place, to get Wendy into a better school --"

"Only one problem with all that." Fran's eyes flashed as she turned to face him. "It means staying in this city. It's not good for us, Bud!"

"What are you talking about?"

Fran sighed. "I don't know how to say it. It's bad for us. Bad memories."

Bud's cherubic face grew hard. "So you're bringing that up again? Let me tell you something, lady --"

A voice broke in. "Don't move, either of you."

A tall thin man had climbed out of a dark sedan at the curb. He wore an expensive-looking dark brown suit and a matching stingy-brimmed hat; he looked like any one of a million New York businessmen -- except for the gun he was leveling at them.

Fran's heart beat very fast. She stared at the man's narrow, pock-marked face, and then at the flat black automatic pistol. She knew about guns. Her father had been a part-time deputy sheriff in rural Virginia, where she had grown up. A mugging, she thought. We're being mugged. But common robbers were often jittery, hopped up on drugs. This man was as cool as if he were shopping for groceries.

"Mr. Baxter?" The stranger's voice was pleasant. "Bud Baxter?"

"What do you want?" Bud's face was pale, and his voice shook a little. His arm went around Fran's waist, and he drew her a little behind him.

The stranger nodded. "Wanted to check."

He lifted the gun and aimed it straight at Bud's chest. To Fran, the world slowed, like a special effect in a movie. Every detail was etched on her mind: the pock-marks on the man's face, the film of oil on the gun. She drew breath to scream.

Splat!

A tiny noise, almost lost in the background roar of the city. At first Fran thought she had imagined it. Suddenly the gunman's eyes rolled up in his head. The gun fell from his hand to the sidewalk. His knees buckled and he followed the gun down, collapsing like a discarded marionette against the railing of the areaway behind them. His fedora rolled free. Squinting, Fran could see a tiny needle protruding from the gunman's neck above his shirt collar.

"Mr. Baxter!"

A man -- no, two men were racing across Amsterdam toward them. Fran had time to note that one was dark and one fair before the dark-haired one sprang to the curb in front of them. "Are you hurt?"

Bud's mouth hung open. He shook his head.

"And you, Mrs. Baxter?"

Close up, Fran saw that this man was quite good-looking in a dangerous sort of way. He reminded her of the swarms of well-dressed young executives she knew thronged the streets of Manhattan every workday: about Bud's age, crisp dark hair, well-cut light grey suit, red-and-blue striped narrow tie -- except for the snub-nosed automatic pistol in his hand.

Fran found her voice. "W-we're fine. What is all this?"

The dark-haired man smiled. "Excuse me a moment," he said, and turned. "Illya?"

The fair-haired man had gone straight to the fallen gunman and scooped up his gun. Now he straightened. Like his companion, he was of medium height and carried a short-barreled pistol. Unlike his companion, he was blond, with shaggy hair like those English musicians Fran had seen on Ed Sullivan. Under his charcoal suit, he wore a dark turtleneck sweater. The combination made him look alien and exotic.

"We can hardly leave him lying here, can we?" His accent made it Ve can hartly leaf him. Russian? Fran wondered. As she watched, the two men each took one of the gunman's legs and dragged him several yards back, into an alley next to a shuttered jewelry store.

"What is this?" Bud burst out. "Did you -- did you kill that man?"

The dark-haired fellow shook his head as he came back to them. He snapped up the gunman's fedora and scaled it to the blond man, who tossed it neatly after its owner.

"Sleep dart," the dark fellow said. "Five hours, and he'll wake up with nothing worse than a bad headache."

Behind him, his blond friend -- "Illya" -- drew a silver cigarette case from his inner jacket pocket with his free hand. With the other, which still held his gun, he twisted something inside the case Fran couldn't see. Then, astonishingly, he spoke into it as if it were a radio microphone. "Open Channel L."

A woman's voice sounded from the little box. "Channel L. Go ahead, K."

"Code Maildrop," the Russian said crisply. "Amsterdam next to Weinstein's Jewelry. Mark and move."

"Executing," said the woman's voice. "Standing by. Channel L out."

Next to Fran, Bud blinked and shook his head. "What is this?" he asked again. He sounded as astonished as she felt.

"Sorry for the jargon," the dark-haired man said. He glanced up and down the street. "It's probable we're being monitored. Standard directive: no uncoded communications while in the field. A team from our headquarters will collect our friend and keep him locked up for a while."

He turned to Bud. His voice was rapid, no-nonsense. "You're C.C. Baxter, known as Bud to your friends, coworkers, and your lovely wife Fran here. Served in the Navy during Korea. Clerk, then a junior executive at Consolidated Life Insurance until 1960. Now employed at the Carswell Corporation on 54th Street, where you've recently received a promotion."

"Yes, but --"

"And for some reason we have yet to discover, your boss sent our unconscious friend back there to kill you. My partner, Mr. Kuryakin, and I are going to keep you alive. Oh, and my name is Solo, Napoleon Solo, of the U.N.C.L.E. Any questions?"

Act II

"More Rapid Than Eagles . . ."


October 10, 9:31 p.m.

Fran fought a near-hysterical urge to laugh in disbelief. "Kill us? Someone's going to --"

"Mr. Baxter is their target," Solo interrupted. "Though if you're a witness, they'll be quite willing to dispose of you too."

"I don't believe it!" Bud burst out. "This is insane. That fellow was just a common robber."

"No," Fran said. "Did you ever see a common thief dressed so well?" To Solo: "I still don't know where you come in. How do we know you aren't criminals too? Friends of that guy?"

Solo nodded. From the back of his watch he extracted a small silvery disk and held it up. Incised into it was a symbol: a skeleton globe like the Pan Am Airways logo, flanked by a shadowy dark-suited figure armed with a gun. As if guarding the world, Fran thought.

Under the symbol were the letters U.N.C.L.E.

"You can take this to a major police station anywhere," Solo said. "It's a special alloy. They'll test it and you'll know. Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, we don't have much time. No doubt our friend was supposed to check in after he shot you. When he fails to, his colleagues -- Thrushes rarely work alone -- will come looking for him. We have to get off the street, and now."

"Thrushes?" Bud shook his head. "What do birds have to do with --"

"Napoleon!" Kuryakin shouted.

A small beige sedan careened around the corner from 79th Street, tires crying on the wet pavement. Something long and dark protruded from the window behind the driver.

"Down!" Solo roared. He thrust Fran and Bud down into the areaway behind them, then crouched at the railing, his gun leveled. Raw white light sparkled from the window of the speeding sedan. Fran expected to hear the chattering of machine-gun fire, like in a gangster or war picture. Instead all she heard were multiple spangs as bullets hit metal somewhere above them, and much nearer, a steady blap-blap-blap-blap from Solo's and Kuryakin's guns as they laid down their answering fire.

Then the sedan flashed past, screamed around the corner of West 80th, and was gone.

Fran closed her eyes, feeling weak. Bullets, real bullets. She gripped Bud's hand and concentrated on picturing their little daughter's face.

"Bulletproof," Kuryakin said. He straightened from his crouch behind a metal garbage can. Fran saw the can was dented, as if a madman had taken a hammer to it. She realized he was talking about the car. "I tried for the tires, but they were traveling too fast."

"Machine gun?" Bud's face was pale. "But it was silent!"

A window to the below-street apartment screeched open. A head poked out, adorned with curlers and a hairnet. "What the blue blazes? Keep it down, whycantcha?" The head withdrew and the window screeched back down.

"Not silent enough, it seems," Solo murmured, and Fran again felt a wild urge to laugh. "Thrush has been equipping its field troops with internally-silenced weapons for some time." He held up a hand as Bud opened his mouth. "We'll explain. Will you trust us now?"

Fran was shivering. She looked at her husband, who looked steadily back. She drew a deep breath and said:

"What other choice do we have?"




The sign above the little shop on West 82nd read QUERCIOLI'S BAKERY. Even without the sign, Fran would have known what it was. An aroma of fresh-baked bread wafted to her nostrils: a delicious reminder of a world where people didn't shoot silenced machine guns at you, or tell your husband men were coming to kill him. . . .

A single dim light burned within the bakery; clearly Quercioli's was closed. But Solo rapped on the glass door where the hours were posted. In a few moments a tiny gray-haired woman shuffled out from a curtain behind the counter. When she glimpsed Solo, her wrinkled face broke into a happy smile. She hurried forward, suddenly spry, unlocked the door, waved them in, and shut and locked it behind them.

She reached up, patted Solo's cheek, said, "Signor Napoleon!", and added something in what Fran supposed was rapid-fire Italian. "Mama Elena," Solo said with a grin. He leaned down, kissed her forehead, and replied with more liquid syllables. Fran had no idea what they were saying; she recognized the Italian because Bud liked Fellini movies. The only words of any foreign language she knew were the five or six words of Polish her parents used to swear in. This exchange, however, sounded affectionate.

"Are they related?" Bud murmured to Kuryakin.

"Not at all." The Russian seemed amused. "Mr. Solo is not Italian. He tends to have that effect on women . . . of all ages."

The little old woman stepped back and looked at all of them. "Trrouble." It was not a question.

"Si, Mama." Solo was grave.

She gestured to them, went around the counter, and pushed aside the curtain. They followed. In a dark hot hallway redolent of chocolate and yeast, she opened a door in the left wall and waved them ahead of her. Another dark corridor with a squeaky linoleum floor led into a garage smelling of oil and gasoline. Twin work lights burned down onto a gleaming dark Buick sedan facing an overhead door.

Mama Elena plucked keys from a ring by the door. She handed them to Kuryakin, sketched a little bow, which he returned with equal solemnity, and then disappeared back into the hallway.

"Is she . . . one of your agents?" Bud sounded dazed. "Of the You-Enn-Whatever-It-Is?"

Solo shook his head. "U.N.C.L.E. No. We have several redoubts, `safe houses,' here in the city. In return for certain considerations --"

"Not always financial," Kuryakin put in.

"-- Mama Elena and her family keep supplies, weapons, and a vehicle such as this one ready for our use." From his jacket he drew a cigarette case like the one Fran had seen his partner use. "Illya, will you keep our guests company while I check in?" He stepped around the trunk of the Buick, already speaking into the case. "Open Channel L . . ."

"No doubt," Illya Kuryakin said, "you are confused."

He stood in dark suit and turtleneck, calmly, expecting questions -- like the lecturer in that course in Modern Art Fran had taken at City College. She reminded herself there was a gun under this man's coat, and she had seen how swiftly he could use it. "Yes," she said. "Why is Bud's boss trying to kill him? Right after giving him this oh-so-special promotion?"

"Christ, Fran," Bud snapped. "Let it go, okay?" He turned away, rubbing his hand across his jaw, and Fran wanted to bite her tongue.

"Because," Illya said, "your Mr. Carswell is a dangerous criminal."

Bud whirled. "Criminal? That's crazy. Mr. Carswell is a businessman. Real estate, manufacturing, all legitimate. I mean, he has to cut corners sometimes, all businessmen do. But a criminal?"

Kuryakin nodded. "He has, as you would say, a finger in many pies. Though his real work is as a member of Thrush."

"Thrush?" Fran repeated. There was something scratching at the back of her mind, but she couldn't identify it.

Illya Kuryakin's face was somber.

"A supra-nation," he said. "A consortium of scientists, intellectuals, politicians, power brokers, and -- at its lowest levels -- outright criminals. Thrush is their country. It has no geographical borders; every country on earth, even my own Russia, is inhabited by them. Our organization is at war with them wherever we find them. For their purpose is to control the earth."

"And Mr. Carswell sent these gunmen," Bud said slowly, "to kill me."

"Yes. We have had agents within the Carswell Corporation for some time. All our intelligence has pointed to some power struggle within Thrush, centering on Carswell. When he detailed his men to dispose of you at your favorite restaurant, Mr. Solo and I moved to keep you safe. We need to get you to our headquarters near the U.N., so that we may `debrief' you -- find out what you know that Carswell fears so much that he must silence you."

"Can you do it?" Bud's voice was quiet. "Get us there in one piece?"

Illya smiled. "If anyone can, Mr. Solo is the one to do it."

"Wait a minute!" All at once Fran knew what had been bothering her, and a cold horror seized her heart. "You say they were sent to kill us `at our favorite restaurant.' So they didn't follow us. They know about us! All about us!" Her voice rose in terror, and she gripped Bud's arm. "They know where we live!"

"Wendy," Bud said in a thick voice. "Our daughter, Mr. Kuryakin. She's only three. We left her with a sitter -- Beverly, a Columbia grad student our neighbors recommended --"

"No need to worry," Napoleon Solo said.

Smiling, he came around the trunk of the Buick and held out the cigarette case radio to Fran. "Talk to her. Here."

Fran seized the case and said into it, too loudly, "Beverly? Beverly, how is Wendy?"

As always, Beverly Alm's voice sounded calm and competent. "She's sleeping like a lamb, Mrs. Baxter, tucked in with her little stuffed horse. The last thing she said to me was, `I hope Mommy and Daddy have a good time tonight.'"

Fran's throat hurt. It was Bud who spoke, his voice rough. "That's good, Beverly. Listen, now, and don't panic, but it's possible --"

"- we're in danger," Beverly interrupted. "Yessir, Mr. Baxter, I know. That's why I'm here, and why Mr. Solo has two more Enforcement men outside. Nobody will get to Wendy, I promise you."

Bud and Fran blinked in puzzlement at Solo, who took the case back and said into it, "Good work. Code Seven, Miss Alm."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Stand by." Solo smiled at them. "Miss Alm is a Section Three, Enforcement and Intelligence. She's expert with a gun, and I've instructed her to use real bullets instead of sleep darts." At Fran and Bud's astonished expressions: "We saw to it she was recommended to you. We've been planning this operation for quite some time."

"You don't miss a trick," Bud said.

"I'd better not." Into the case again: "Miss Alm, phone contact only with Section One. Status: tracer --"

A warbling screech burst out of the case. It made Fran's ears hurt. Solo made a face and fiddled with tiny knobs; but the screech continued until he at last shut it off and slid the radio into his jacket. His expression was grim. "Jamming frequency, Illya. We're cut off."

"More rapid than eagles his coursers they came," the Russian muttered.

"Hold it," Bud said. "I was in Communications in the Navy. To issue a jamming signal, you've got to know within a hundred and eighty degrees where the signal you're jamming is coming from. Doesn't do much good to send a jamming signal east if your target is west of you."

Napoleon Solo nodded.

"Quite right, Mr. Baxter. Thrush no doubt has a very good idea where we are, and that we'll try to reach U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters on the other side of Manhattan. Every field agent Carswell has will be trying to stop us. . . ."

Act III

"The `One Riot, One Ranger' Rule."


October 10, 1964: 10:14 p.m.

The big Buick hummed west along 83rd. Kuryakin swung the car south onto Broadway and then back east along 82nd with total attention and a light grip on the wheel. Next to him Solo murmured, "They'll expect us to take the shortest route to HQ: south and then crosstown. We'll do better to run north, around the park --"

"-- then take the FDR south," Illya said. "Or First Avenue."

In the rear seat, Fran paid little attention. Part of her mind was still focused on Wendy, hoping she was safe. The other part was aware that Bud had fallen silent, as if he had withdrawn from her and the world.

Shouldn't have snapped at him, Fran thought. I should know by now he never takes that well.

At Consolidated, Bud had been a junior clerk, but he had not planned to remain one. In a bid to jump up the corporate ladder, he had allowed several high-ranking, married executives to use his apartment in the West 60s for meetings with their mistresses.

It would have worked in time, Fran realized. Then Jeff Sheldrake, the head of Personnel, had moved to grab the apartment for himself and his girl on the side. Revolted at last, Bud had quit the job, and against all odds, she had found solace, and love, with him.

I can hardly take the moral high ground about his plan, Fran thought now, with a sour feeling in her stomach. Especially since I was Jeff's girl on the side.

She clenched her hands. I hate this city. Too many bad memories. But Bud thinks this is the best place to live. . . .

Kuryakin swung north onto Central Park West. On their left, high-rise apartment buildings marched into the distance; on their right lay the darkness of the park. Traffic was minimal, with an occasional cab cruising under bright streetlights. As they passed the park entrance at West Drive, the traffic light at 86th turned green.

Without warning, an engine roared. A silvery tanker truck reading HERON OILFIELD SUPPLIES lumbered out of 86th. With a hiss of air brakes it stopped dead in the middle of the avenue, blocking the north- and southbound lanes. It left only one way to go forward: into the park at 86th.

Kuryakin didn't take the bait. He spun the wheel, sending the Buick into a fast U-turn that threw Bud against Fran in the back seat. The sedan swayed and bounced. Fran felt and heard a scrape of metal on metal on her side as Kuryakin sideswiped a parked car on the west side of the avenue. Then the sedan leaped forward, swerved across all four lanes, cut off a cab whose horn blared indignantly, and dived into the park at West Drive.

They shot around a curve as the drive swung south. Kuryakin yanked the car over to the curb, stopped in a pool of darkness between streetlights, and switched off the engine.

" 'Heron'?" Solo growled. "Another example of our avian friends' inexhaustible sense of humor."

"Juvenile," Kuryakin agreed, "but still humor of a sort."

"I don't understand!" Fran cried. Her heart was galloping. "Are they coming after us?"

"Yes, and they're ahead of us too." Kuryakin reached under the dash and flicked a switch. The car's radio lit up and then went dark again. "They wanted us to go into the park at 86th; no doubt they have a car stationed there." Gun in hand, he levered open his door and slid out.

"And they'll have another," Solo said, "along the 79th Street Transverse to the south. Classic pincer movement. They know we came into the park here, and they'll be moving in. Come on."

He sprang out and held the rear door for them. Fran crawled out and breathed cooler night air. Twenty yards to the west, cars growled by on the well-lit avenue. In all other directions around them lay the darkness, and to Fran, the mystery, of the park. Wind rustled in the trees and bushes.

"Mr. and Mrs. Baxter --"

"I think we've gone beyond that, Napoleon," Bud said. "Acquaintance-wise, that is."

"All right then. Bud, Fran, you live nearby; I expect you've brought your daughter to the park here on occasion. Illya and I know the roads, but we don't know the layout. Where are we? What's nearby?"

Fran peered around. "Everything looks so different in the dark!" She pointed west, where the ground rose. "Summit Rock is over there, I think. And, wait, isn't that playground over to the east? Storyland?"

Bud nodded. "I brought Wendy there last week while you were at the dentist." To Solo: "Instead of the usual slides and monkey bars, it's got all kinds of figures from storybooks. A castle, a big dragon, the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland on a big mushroom, the Little Mermaid. Anything you read about as a kid, it's probably there."

Napoleon Solo grinned. "Storyland, eh? I've gone to ground in stranger places. Okay, lead on."




Fran led them across the road and up the hill, Solo on her right, Bud behind them, Illya padding along in the rear. Bushes loomed up in the darkness, and they detoured. A dim security light glimmered between the trees to the northeast; she thought that might be the playground, and she aimed for it. Thank goodness I didn't wear high heels tonight, she thought.

"What now?" she asked Solo. "Can you and Mr., I mean Illya, hold them off?"

"We'll try." Solo moved smoothly, like an athlete, gun ready. His eyes scanned the darkness around them. "Our boss, Mr. Waverly, believes in the `One riot, one Ranger' rule -- he thinks one U.N.C.L.E. agent is worth a squad of Marines or Special Forces. Usually he's right. But Carswell's men will find the car, and they'll look under every bush until they find us. What they don't know is that we have help coming."

"How?" Fran ducked under an oak branch.

"Illya activated a tracer on the car which will trigger alarms at our headquarters. HQ will send out a rescue team. We just have to hang on until they get here."

Ahead, security lights shone on the playground, bringing it out of the night as though it were a movie set. As they hurried toward it, outsized shapes resolved out of the shadows: the brown-vested White Rabbit from Alice, the long hulk of Captain Hook's pirate ship, and more. A blonde-braided Little Bo Peep, twice as tall as they were, with a shepherd's crook and a sheep the size of a buffalo, flanked the arched entrance. It proclaimed in large letters: STORYLAND.

A paved path framed by bushes wound among the figures, and oak trees blocked the sky, their branches casting shadows under the security lights.

"Did Wendy like it?" Fran asked her husband.

"She loved it. Oh, she was a little scared of the whale." He cocked a thumb toward the big blue whale with Pinocchio riding atop its head.

"Heck, I'm scared of it." Fran eyed the whale's sculpted mouth. In daylight, she thought, the teeth and tongue would be welcoming and fascinating to children. Now, in the shadows, the mouth was a black and gaping maw.

"Brings back memories, hey, Illya?" Solo was smiling. " 'School days, dear old Golden Rule days --` "

"Perhaps for you." The Russian scowled at an outsized figure of a black-and-white cow in the process of leaping over a pale crescent moon. "In Russia, we did not have time for such things. A Russian child will ask how it can even be possible for a cow to jump over the moon. As our cosmonauts can tell you, there is no air in space."

Solo laughed. He nodded toward a colossal pink-and-blue shoe, two stories tall, with sculptured children swarming over it. "Well, tovarisch, while you were memorizing Marxism for Young People, Bud and Fran and I were learning about The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe. And I dare say we're as culturally rounded as you are. Besides, I've seen you reading Beetle Bailey in the comics when you thought no one was watching."

Illya snorted and turned away; but before he did, Fran thought he looked amused. After a moment, he spoke again in a very different tone. "Napoleon. Look here."

He stepped over the path to an enormous gray mound that rose almost two stories. Steps led to its crest, where a brightly painted boy and girl with a steel pail stood by a well. Illya put a hand to the big gray hill. "What is this? The material, I mean."

Solo joined him and tapped the fingers of his free hand against the surface. "Concrete," he said. "Reinforced, you think?"

They looked at each other, and Fran felt something, some kind of special awareness, flash between them.

"I think," Illya murmured, "we are thinking the same thing."

"Doubtful," Solo said. "I don't know the Russian words for `bunker' or `fort.' Let's see what we have."

Steps wound up the "hill." At the top, at Jack and Jill's feet, the "well" gaped in the light from Illya's pencil flash: a wide hole five feet deep, with a wooden ladder leading down one side. A grating lay at the bottom to drain rainwater and melted snow.

"Concrete," Bud said happily. "Several feet thick, and reinforced by steel! Ha!" He grinned at Fran and started down the ladder.

"And a commanding view of the entire area," Solo said. "We couldn't ask for a better redoubt." He holstered his pistol and followed Bud.

"Meaning they won't be able to shoot us, but we can shoot down on them?" Fran asked Illya. "We can hold out until your men arrive?"

"Exactly. Mrs. Baxter?"

"Yes?"

Illya's voice was very quiet. "The Arabs have a saying. `Three things can never be hidden: Love, a mountain, and a man riding on a camel.' "

"Huh?"

"He loves you. And I suspect you love him. Such a thing is rare. If I were you, I would not waste it."

He gestured, and Fran, her head whirling with new thoughts, turned and climbed down into the well.




The well was large enough for all four of them to sit and stand; the lip was about shoulder high. On tiptoe, Fran could peer over the edge. She could see all the playground figures, the Little Mermaid atop her rock in a splashing pool, the hookah-puffing Caterpillar, and a Little Red Schoolhouse topped with a bell.

Two spyholes, the designer's thoughtful addition, tunneled through the concrete, giving views south and north.

"And fields of fire," Solo said. As he spoke, he took a series of devices from his back under his coat and began to attach them to his gun. In moments it was transformed into a compact spidery rifle, with a long magazine and a shoulder stock. "What did they call those things in medieval castles? Slits in the walls, for firing arrows? Anyway, Fran, Bud, stay well back from them. Our friends might get a lucky shot."

"Arrowslits," Fran said. "Or loopholes." She had settled next to Bud on the cold concrete floor of the well, her feet tucked under her. At Solo's and Illya's looks: "I teach fourth grade. My kids are learning about the Crusades and the Middle Ages."

She spoke automatically. Her mind was still occupied with what Illya had said.

"Napoleon?" Bud was not smiling. Fran could see sweat on his forehead. "I think maybe I should have a gun. In case."

Oh, no, Fran thought in horror. She remembered the story Bud had told her long ago. He had bought a pistol, planning to commit suicide after a failed love affair, and had only managed to shoot himself in the leg. She opened her mouth to say so, but then closed it.

"We have the gun your assailant was about to use." Illya's manner was grave. "If it becomes necessary, Bud, we will have it for you. Please look out for Fran, while we prepare."

Solo set up his watch southward, along the length of the playground and toward the darkness of the trees stretching toward 79th Street. Illya, his gun also fashioned into a compact rifle, took up the opposite point: standing on the ladder and looking north, watching the steps that led up to the crest of the hill. They assumed these posts wordlessly, with no more than nods and glances, Fran noticed; as if they were on some shared mental wavelength she and Bud could not read.

They waited. Fran found herself counting her heartbeats. Her hand crept out and closed around Bud's, and he squeezed back.

It was almost a relief to hear the footsteps approaching. Bushes rustled, and a man's voice cursed softly as its owner banged into one of the sculptures in the dark. Then another voice called, "Baxter? You there? . . . Mr. Carswell sent us. You might as well come out."

Act IV

"Shut Up and Pack."


October 10, 1964, 11:02 p.m.

Bud stiffened. He whispered, "Napoleon . . . I know that voice. It's Mr. C.'s driver. A big guy named Horgan."

Solo nodded. "We know him too, Bud. A former wrestler, now a hired gun. Unlike a lot of Thrush musclemen, he's smart." He raised his voice. "No Baxter here, Horgan. Run away home and try again another day."

"Solo?" Horgan laughed. "One of my guys said he saw you on Amsterdam. You have that Russian with you?"

"At your service," Illya called. He did not move or take his eyes off the steps. Suddenly a foot scraped on concrete outside. Illya's pistol went Blap! Something large and heavy thudded and scraped its way down the steps, then silence.

"One down," Solo called cheerfully. "How many can you spare?" He lowered his voice. "He's smart, as I said. He had his men surround us before he spoke." Louder: "The shots will attract attention, Horgan. The police will be here even before our reinforcements arrive."

Fran felt a glassy fear in her chest. She stared at Bud, who stared back and tried to smile.

"Solo and Kuryakin, huh? Mr. C. didn't tell us we'd have to deal with you." Murmurs in the darkness, then Horgan spoke again. "As for the shots, your guns make more noise than ours do --"

Something went chuff! against the outer concrete surface. Fran jumped. As before, there had been no gunshot.

"- but you know New Yorkers," Horgan went on. "Even if they hear something, they won't want to get involved. Baxter!"

Bud swallowed. When he spoke, his voice was firm. "I'm here."

"We only want you. Our orders don't cover tangling with Solo and Kuryakin. Plus we've got no beef with your wife. Come on down, and we'll let the others go."

Solo spoke fast. "Bud, I hope you don't believe him. Fran is a witness, and Illya and I are enemy agents. Once they've disposed of you, we'll all be next."

"Oh, I see through it," Bud said. "I've had plenty of experience. Liar-wise, that is."

"Good." Louder: "No deal, Horgan."

Silence. Then a fusillade of chuffs and thuds sounded, making Solo duck and Illya slide farther down the ladder. Concrete dust from the shots puffed into the air, showing against the security lights like flour outside a bakery. The noise went on for almost a full minute, though to Fran it seemed like an eternity.

The noise stopped. Fran saw that the edge of their concrete bunker was chipped and jagged now. But nothing had penetrated the thick walls.

"Stalemate!" Solo shouted back. "Our forces will be here before long, Horgan. Time for you and your little bird friends to scurry back to your nest."

Horgan's voice came. It sounded angry, but cold. "Not yet, my friend."

More silence. Fran leaned forward enough to peer along the tunnel of the southern spyhole. Figures moved in the shadows near the Old Woman's Shoe. Solo nudged her back. "Easy, Fran."

They waited. More ringing silence. A night wind blew; dead leaves fell into the well. Then something below went chark! and Fran heard a brief whistling.

An object clattered into the well at Bud's feet. At first she thought it was a child's chocolate Easter egg. But metal gleamed on it as it rolled toward her.

Bud made a wordless noise as if Fran were yanking on his ear. He scooped the metal egg up like a ground fly ball and hurled it up and over the concrete edge. Even as he dropped to cover Fran, the explosion came, frighteningly loud, rattling her teeth. She gasped and smelled burned powder.

"Grenade!" Bud snarled. "Son of a bitch, a gr-"

Solo and Illya opened up. Blap-blap-blap-blap-blap-blap-blap! Fran stared as they directed a steady barrage toward their attackers. She hadn't imagined their pistols could fire on automatic, like machine guns. She heard bullets ricochet from the storybook figures below, heard one of the Thrush men cry out, and another. Then silence again.

The agents crouched, switching magazines even as they did so. "Good reflexes, Bud," Solo told him with a grin. "Something tells me you're a dynamite softball player."

"Grenades," Illya muttered. "Mr. Horgan and his men came prepared for anything. Which we did not."

"Check and mate, Solo!" Even with her ears ringing, Fran could hear the triumph in Horgan's voice. "We've got more pineapples where that one came from. Eventually you'll miss one, and bye-bye, U.N.C.L.E. boys. Want to surrender?"

Solo and Illya exchanged glances. Astonishing Fran, both smiled. "We can't say we didn't give them a good run for it," the American said.

"I would rather live," the Russian said, "to attend next week's Prokofiev concert at Carnegie Hall. Still, things are what they are." He fished the first gunman's pistol from his waistband and handed it to Bud. "It is loaded and the safety is off. Use it when you see an opportunity. Fran?"

"Wh-what?"

"Please accept our apologies for not keeping you safe . . . and remember what I said about the camel and the mountain."

And Illya Kuryakin nodded to Solo, and gripping his gun, hoisted himself back into position on the ladder. Napoleon Solo lifted his own gun in a salute to Bud and Fran. Then he swung back into position, weapon leveled.

Fran Baxter felt that glassy fear again, so deep it seemed to be restricting her breathing. She looked steadily at her husband.

"You trying to memorize me?" Bud said with a little laugh. In his hand, the gunman's pistol shook the tiniest bit.

"Yeah." With care Fran leaned over, put her hands to his cheeks. "I want it to be the last thing I see."

"Same here."

"It's been a good life, huh?" Over the ringing in her ears, Fran heard a steady soft roaring. It seemed to be getting louder, so she leaned in close to Bud's ear. "Did we love?"

"You better believe we did," Bud said.

Fran opened her mouth. But the roaring was too loud; it wasn't in her ears. She swung around and stared.

A long yellow helicopter came racing toward them above the trees of the park. A spotlight kindled in its belly as it swept nearer. Cold white light sent shadows flicking ahead of the `copter.

And on its side Fran read the letters U.N.C.L.E.

She leaped up to peer over the rim of the well. The spotlight swept across the outsized figures. Dark human shapes scattered like mice. The `copter banked and hovered, and now Fran saw a gunbarrel protruding from a port. Gunfire flashed, inaudible over the whirlybird's engine.

Bud was laughing; Solo shouted and fired again and again, adding his own fire to the hail of bullets from overhead. The `copter banked again and swung away -- east toward the Great Lawn, Fran thought. Below, several bodies sprawled on the path. One human shape leaped from the shadow of the Little Red Schoolhouse and scurried into the darkness.

"Well," Illya Kuryakin said. He sounded surprised. "It seems I will have use for that Prokofiev ticket after all --"




"That's how we put it together, sir," Napoleon Solo said. "This Carswell knew an audit from Thrush Central would reveal how much of their funds he had been skimming. So he first promoted Mr. Baxter --"

"-- thinking," Bud put in, "to take suspicion off himself. `After all,' he'd say, `if I had anything to hide, I'd leave that senior accountant position vacant.' Then he was going to, well, eliminate me."

"Make it look like a mugging gone wrong," Fran added.

"Thus ensuring confusion," Alexander Waverly said. "He would tell his superiors at Thrush Central, `Baxter knew where all the books were. Give me some time.' He was gambling on being able to replace those funds before Central audited him."

It was early Saturday morning. Fresh October sunlight gleamed on the city view outside the tall windows of Waverly's office. Fran and Bud sat at the big rotating teak desk, clean and rested from a night in one of the Command's apartments.

"Not a foolproof plan," Illya Kuryakin observed. "Central might well have seen through it at once."

Waverly tapped his pipe stem against his teeth. Since meeting him, Fran had decided one thing. Solo and Kuryakin's boss might look like an absent-minded professor, with his baggy tweeds and fooling with his pipes. But she'd caught the sharpness of the gaze in that bloodhound face and sensed the razor mind behind it. She'd hate to be called on the carpet by this particular old man.

"Ah, well," Waverly said. "We can be grateful for at least this: that our adversaries are rarely super-geniuses. . . . Mr. Solo, is it safe for Mr. and Mrs. Baxter to return home?"

"Yes, sir." Like Bud, Solo was attired in fresh clothes, but he looked weary and unshaven. "We've had word that Carswell shot himself this morning. Thrush will only care about whatever funds he squirreled away, not about the Baxters. Though we will keep them under surveillance for a time, as a precaution."

"Good work." Waverly's face creased into a smile. "Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, we thank you for all your help. Our continued good wishes to you. Mr. Solo, if you would see them out?"

As they followed the two agents through a steel-walled corridor, Fran saw the sliding doors had no signs, and wondered how these people found their offices every day. Never mind, she thought. It's their world, and I'm glad to be out of it.

Solo and Kuryakin deposited them in a windowless but comfortable lounge with armchairs and lamps. "We'll be back in a moment. Good luck to you." A swift handshake from both men, and the American and Russian were gone.

Bud Baxter and Fran Baxter looked at each other. Fran felt suddenly shy. She cleared her throat. "Uh, Bud, there's something I've got to tell you." That Illya was right. I'll live with you anywhere you say, whether it's New York or Nairobi. But she didn't know how to say it.

"Can it wait? Let me go first, hon." Bud ran a hand through his crisp wavy hair. "Pretty obvious I'm at loose ends now. Employment-wise, that is. It occurred to me last night -- well, an accountant can find work, good work, anywhere. You're right, Fran. You've always been right. Living in this city is for the birds."

Fran felt a joy as sharp as last night's fear. "You mean it?"

"Uh-huh."

"What . . . what changed your mind?"

Bud shrugged. "Something that Napoleon said. It doesn't matter. What do you think?"

Fran Baxter stood quietly, smiling at her husband. "Remember that first night we . . . spent together? You said to me --"

"Yeah. `Miss Kubelik, I absolutely adore you.' And you handed me the cards and said, `Shut up and deal.' I remember."

Fran stepped up and slid her arms around him. "Mr. Baxter, I absolutely adore you."

C.C. "Bud" Baxter grinned suddenly.

"Shut up and pack," he said.




In Reception Station Three, the one that led from the parking garage, Solo and Illya watched on the wall-mounted security camera as Bud and Fran Baxter, their arms around each other's waists, hurried across the garage toward the waiting Command escort car.

"Good people," Solo said. "They'll have a good life."

Illya nodded. "Possibly. What did you tell him?"

"What makes you think I told him anything?"

"I know you, my friend."

Solo chuckled. "I merely pointed out that he'd been through a world of trouble with his previous employer, and now his current one had painted a target on his back. I wondered aloud if Somebody Was Trying to Tell Him Something about living in New York. He stared at me as though that had never occurred to him before. Maybe he'll take it to heart."

They turned and began to trudge up the corridor leading to the U.N.C.L.E. complex proper. It had been a long night, and they were weary.

"So you spoke to him as if you were, what is your expression, a French uncle?"

"Dutch uncle," said Napoleon Solo. "A Dutch uncle."

"Ah. Such a strange language, English."

"Keep trying, my friend. You'll get the hang of it."

THE END


(We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose assistance this narrative would not be possible.)

benzadmiral@yahoo.com




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