Early Days Affair


The Early Days Affair

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Copyright ©2002 Vicky Loebel
This is a work of fanfiction, intended to be shared freely with all who enjoy. No revenue has been generated from this story and no fee may be charged for it. All material not belonging to the Man From U.N.C.L.E. franchise is copyright Vicky Loebel. Please respect the hard work of authors everywhere and include this copyright notice in any distribution.


Prologue – Davis Monthan AFB, August 14, 1961

“Glad you decided to join us, gentlemen.” Shanghai-Bill Watson lifted himself out of his chair and turned toward the briefing room door. He was a big, salt-and-pepper, no nonsense, take charge kind of guy in a three-piece navy-blue suit. He had a face that said he expected people to do as they were told and a voice that said he wasn’t getting what he expected.

Napoleon Solo, Number Twenty-Five, Section Two N.Y., pinched his lips, shifted back in his chair, and made himself inconspicuous. Might as well watch someone else get called on the carpet. For a change.

On the other side of the government-issue conference table, two agents were entering the room. One he knew—lanky, dark haired Paul Matthews. Australian, four years in the field, something of a hot shot, twenty-eight years old. Easy-going most of the time, with a tendency to shoot his mouth off and get into trouble. Good looking, except for a darkening bruise across his face. He was dressed in borrowed overalls and a barely concealed scowl.

The other agent he’d heard of—a short blond, wearing a cheap English suit, at the moment covered head-to-toe in a thick layer of soot. Illya Kuryakin. Russian, of all things, twenty-six, with three years in the London office. Recently transferred to New York after a run of spectacular missions from which no one else returned. By reputation, efficient and stubborn. By rumor, more than one division chief was ready to bounce him back to the KGB.

Oh goody, he thought. My very own first team.

Under the grime, Kuryakin’s expression was icy. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, in a Cambridge voice, tinged with central Europe. “Our car developed a mechanical problem en route from the airport. We had difficulty explaining to the military police why it blew up at the gate.”

They waited while Shanghai-Bill’s head swung back and forth between Kuryakin and Matthews. Of course, there was no need to elaborate. He had already received a report.

“Don’t they teach you U.N.C.L.E. boys to check under the hood?” he growled, big hands twitching on the conference table. This provoked an accusatory glance from Matthews to Kuryakin, who reacted not at all. Napoleon hooded his eyes. Interesting.

“Yes, sir. I did check,” Kuryakin answered, finally. He paused, letting the silence drag out. “Perhaps I overlooked something.”

“Well, boys,” their host stood up and began to pace back and forth behind his chair. “I’ll keep this short.” He turned towards Solo while Kuryakin and Matthews sank into chairs. “I’m sure you know all about our local top-secret hush-hush facilities?”

Napoleon shrugged. “We’ve heard rumors there’s a Titan II Missile going in south of here.” Two, in fact, and one in the north.

Shanghai-Bill snorted. “Rumors my ass!” He crossed his arms and glared. “Since we started construction on these silos last year, every spook in the Eastern Hemisphere—and a few from the West—has crawled out from under the floorboards to take a look. Construction at the other sites has ground to a halt.” He paced again, waving towards the ceiling.

“Now, the boys upstairs have decided to call in U.N.C.L.E. based on your reputation for being—” he screwed up his face, fishing for the right word.

“Neutral?” Napoleon suggested. “Trustworthy?”

Watson grimaced. “—Economical, to help us clear the local premises of vermin. Since the other sites are closed, it’s a safe bet every rat will wash up on our shore.” He stopped next to his chair long enough to toss an envelope to each U.N.C.L.E. agent.

“This is strictly gate-guard duty,” he stated flatly as the men looked through their documents. “These papers grant you two-day access to the silo grounds and top-level facilities starting tomorrow. You are not permitted down inside the control room or silo construction areas.

“In three days we expect installation to begin on our command equipment. Your job is to nail any and all foreign operatives and hand their asses directly over to me before the com equipment shows up.” He paused again, fixing his stare on each agent in turn, then stalked over and bent low in Kuryakin’s face.

“And I scarcely need add,” he breathed, “that if I catch one single commie-pinko butt-hair out of place on this assignment, I will personally separate its owner from his balls, grind them all up, and leave the whole mess out for the coyotes.”

He stepped back, apparently satisfied. “Any questions, gentlemen?”

Napoleon cocked an eyebrow and checked the table. No hands in the air.

“No,” he shook his head. “You seem to have covered everything.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Solo.” Shanghai-Bill stalked to the door. “I won’t insult you with directions to the site. Do your job, and keep your team in line. Unless U.N.C.L.E. plans to move out of those pretty New York offices and off the North American continent in the immediate future.”

He waved a dismissive hand, then turned back again. “And gentlemen,” he drawled, fixing his glare on Kuryakin and Matthews. “The CIA profoundly hopes a car bomb is the last thing you’ll overlook while you’re in town.” With that, he spun on his heels and stalked off into the hallway.

Napoleon regarded his new associates with growing sense of unease. Running a team of troublemakers might just be worse than getting into trouble himself. “Well, that was brief,” he commented. “Was it good for you, too?”

Act I: The Long, Long Trailer

“I’m sorry, Mr. Solo,” the woman simpered. “But I don’t see how you could have a reservation. Why, we’ve been booked solid for months!”

Napoleon turned the voltage up a notch on his charm. “Well, not a reservation, exactly, young lady,” he smiled and lifted her hand gently in his own. “But I was hoping you could do something for my friend, Mr. Kuryakin here.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “He’s an important Polish scientist who’s just arrived to help out… you know where.” He gave her a wink.

Illya Kuryakin regarded the “young lady”—a portly south-westerner of at least forty-five—and did his best to look scholarly. The Saguaro Inn might not have much to boast of, but at least it was relatively cool and held out the prospect of a shower. Also, it was the only hotel in town. At the moment, Illya’s scholarly look was undercut by a residual layer of grime, but that couldn’t be helped. In any event, the clerk barely seemed to notice him.

“Really?” she glanced briefly in his direction. “Say something in Polish.”

Illya ignored Solo’s cocked eyebrow. “Sto lat, babcia,” he said evenly. Happy birthday, Grandmother. The woman apparently did not speak Polish, for this phrase earned Solo a devoted look.

“I really wish I could help you…” she sighed, hand in hand with Solo.

Illya turned his gaze away from the tiny dark lobby out to the shimmering sedan where Paul Matthews lay slumped in the late afternoon heat. They had agreed that Matthews, the most disreputable in appearance, should stay with the car. This time, Illya added silently, wondering again whether he had really overlooked a bomb in their rented automobile. Or had Matthews left the car unattended when Illya went back for more luggage?

He couldn’t quite fathom Matthews, whom he had met for the first time at the rental counter. Illya was used to getting a cool reception from fellow agents, who automatically took him for KGB. He had learned to focus on his work and ignore personal interactions. But this was different; the man had been openly hostile.

Illya shook his head. Perhaps it was just Australian ego. Matthews, technically his senior, was operationally subordinate for this mission. This gate-guard job, he corrected himself glumly.

His attention was drawn back to the conversation at the desk. “In that case,” Napoleon smiled, “the Airstream will be perfect.” He accepted a bulky set of keys. The desk clerk retrieved her hand with another sigh.

Illya bowed to the clerk. “Dziekuje. Mam nadzieję że się zobaczymy wkròtce.” Thank you. I hope to see you again soon. Solo put a hand on his shoulder and steered him towards the door.

“Don’t overdo it,” he muttered.

Outside, the sun was intense, the air boiler-room hot. Matthew’s six-foot two-inch frame lay slackly across the back seat, feet propped in the open window. He waved his gun languidly in their direction.

“You two secure th’ honeymoon suite?” he asked.

Napoleon raised his eyebrows. “Not exactly,” he admitted. “The rooms are all booked.” He jingled the keys. “I did manage to get the Airstream around back. It’s probably a little cramped for three, but I doubt we’ll all be in at the same time after today.”

“An Airstream, eh?” Matthews grinned. “I’ve been wanting t’ see one of those beauties ever since I Love Lucy rolled over th’ hearts of Australia on the wheels of the silver screen.”

Illya had had enough talk. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have neither heard of nor seen an Airstream. But whatever it is, it has to be cooler than the parking lot.”

In fact, the Airstream turned out to be the parking lot, or at least, some twenty-two feet of it, surrounded by enough potholes and weeds to keep the cars at bay. The bold words International Flying Cloud were emblazoned in cracked gold paint across its metal skin, giving it the look of an unidentified flying loaf of bread—a look that would be encouraged after dark by two long strings of Christmas lights stretching back to the hotel. On the inside, Formica and dingy red carpeting ruled the day. There were two beds on the right and a tiny galley and bathroom on the left, with a table and benches that folded into a third bed opposite the door. A window-mounted air conditioner wheezed away in the corner, struggling to get the temperature under 95º.

Since he was the only one with anything left to unpack, Napoleon graciously selected the folding bed and began stowing his gear. Paul Matthews made a pass at the refrigerator, and then slumped onto his bunk holding a miniature tray of ice to his face. Kuryakin headed for the shower.

“Well, at least th’ scenery’s first rate.” Matthews volunteered. Napoleon glanced skeptically at the low ceiling and scuffed cabinets, wondering if Matthew’s bruise might be worse than it looked.

“Not here, mate,’ Matthews grinned. “Outside. Y’know—the Sonoran desert.”

“Ah…right!” Napoleon agreed. He vaguely recalled mountain ranges on the drive south from Davis Monthan. One in each direction, come to think of it, with a lot of scrubby green trees, and those big cactuses that looked like they were waving down the local posse.

“Kinda reminds me’ a back home,” Matthews continued, “the way one mountain range looms up, then y’ drive a bit and the next thing, bingo, it’s gone, and another one shimmies up in its place.” Napoleon nodded and finished hanging his suits. He hadn’t paid much attention to the scenery. He’d been reviewing his mental list of “every spook in the Eastern Hemisphere, and some from the West,” and wondering who they’d run into first.

“It’s hotter than hell back in Queensland, too,” Matthews continued cheerfully. “I bet they got all kind of bonzer animals around here—snakes, scorpions, spiders, wild pigs.” He shook his head regretfully. “No crocs, though. Too dry.”

His comparisons were cut short by a knock outside the trailer. Napoleon waited while Matthews slid his gun under the pillow, then opened the silver door to a shapely, uniformed brunette laden with bundles.

“Excuse me, Señor,” she said in a charming south-of-the-border accent, “but the packages you call for has arrived, and I bring you more towels.” She stepped inside and handed Napoleon two large bundles wrapped in brown paper, together with a thin stack of linen.

“I am sorry the towels are not good,” she sighed. “My lazy brother does not fix the washing machine, so today we have only pool towels.” She giggled. “Lucky, the hotel does not have a pool!”

Napoleon accepted the stack. “Nothing,” he told her in elegant Spanish, “could be found lacking, when delivered by such beautiful hands.” He lifted one of hers and touched it to his lips.

The maid blushed. “Graçias Señor,” she mumbled, then added in Spanish, “It is not often we have such a gentleman in our hotel.” She accepted his proffered tip and backed demurely down the stairs.

Napoleon passed the stack to Matthews. “Check it,” he mouthed silently, hopping over to the opposite window to watch the maid go back into the hotel. He was sure he’d seen her face in a file somewhere.

“They’re clean,” Paul announced.

The bathroom door opened and Kuryakin stepped through, sliding the safety back onto his own weapon. “What was that about?”

“If I’m not mistaken, that young lady is our first—” Napoleon turned toward the bathroom then paused at his first real sight of Illya Kuryakin, still damp and glowing pink from the shower. Blue-eyed and slim, with a gymnast’s build, broad across the shoulders. He looked a lot younger than twenty-six.

“I believe,” Paul said dryly behind him, “You were about to offer Miss Kuryakin her clothes.”

***

The temperature at the Saguaro Taqueria was a comfortable 75°, but it did little to cool the U.N.C.L.E. agents, seated by a plate-glass view of the sunset glowing red across the Catalina mountains. Above the peaks, heavy clouds were shot through with streaks of orange and pink.

Napoleon turned away from the view to regard his team.

At least they were decently clothed, he reflected. Thanks to the Green Valley Menswear and Saddle Shop, Illya wore a suede vest over blue-checked western shirt, black denim pants, and cowboy boots, while Paul was dressed in sandals, shorts and, of all things, a green Hawaiian shirt. Provided, he added, you admit a pretty broad range of decency.

Paul filled the time waiting for table service by reading aloud from a guidebook in a heavy Australian twang. He had already named off the mountain ranges—north, east, south, and west, detailed the history of the nearby San Xavier mission, and moved on to flora and fauna.

“The ‘geela’ monster,” he informed them, giving it a good, solid ‘gee’
“though highly venomous, is seldom provoked t’ attack a human being.”

Illya, scowling, ate resolutely from a basket of fried tortilla chips.

Napoleon made a determined signal to their waitress, who hurried over flashing a smile and tossing a tangle of blond curls out of her eyes. “Can I get you boys a beer? We got two kinds, Pabst and Pabst,” she winked, “but we serve ’em both cold!”

“Thank you, um, Barb,” Napoleon smiled, reading her tag. “Since you recommend it, I’ll have a Pabst. With a slice of lime.”

“Same f’r me, Miss,” Paul said, offering her a wolfish grin, “but cozy up a shot’ a tequila on the side, just t’ spice it up a bit.”

“Say, are you English?” The waitress looked at Paul more closely. “Gosh, whatever happened to your face?”

“Australian Air Force,” Paul told her, confidentially. “On loan up at DM-AFB. Had a bit of a smash up in my F-100 th’ other day. I’ll tell you all about it later if y’ like.”

“You’re a pilot? Gee, I’d love to!” She turned reluctantly to Illya. “How about you hon? I’ll have to see your ID.”

“Just coffee.”

“What, not drinking, Sheila?” Paul asked him, as the waitress bustled off. “Worried about your Red complexion?”

“I don’t drink alcohol,” Kuryakin said flatly, “except in the line of duty.” He leaned forward and held the basket of chips out to the Australian. “Would you care for a snack? It will give you strength while you work up to your next off-color remark.”

Paul scooped up a handful. “Don’t get your apricots in a twist, mate,” he grinned. “Live and let live, that’s my motto.” He took the basket, then leaned forward himself and plopped it back onto the table. “Up to a certain point.”

“Um, speaking of points, gentlemen,” Napoleon murmured. What the hell was going on? “I’d like to point out that we have business to attend to.” The other two agents sat back in their chairs and slowly turned their attention towards him.

“For starters,” he continued, “I’d like to get our maid away from the motel this evening so one of you can go through her room.”

“I will,” Kuryakin volunteered, relaxing a little. “But I believe your little bon bon has been placed here courtesy of the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure.”

“French?” Napoleon thought about that. “You sound pretty sure.”

“Yes, from her accent in Spanish. The French have a tendency to exaggerate their diphthongs.” He paused for a moment, considering. “Then again, I couldn’t hear very clearly from the bathroom.” His face heated. “It’s possible she might be some other nationality, speaking Mexican-American Spanish with a feigned French accent.” Napoleon felt the stirrings of a headache.

“Whatever she is,” Paul broke in, “we’re not really gonna shop her t’ the CIA, are we? Cause if we do, U.N.C.L.E.’s international reputation is gonna sink lower than a snake’s armpit.”

“That’s what we’re hired for, gentlemen,” Napoleon confirmed, and then added in a lower voice, “Of course, if any operatives we spot figure out they’re blown before the CIA can pick them up…well…they’ll probably clear out pretty fast on their own, don’t you think?”

This brought a glimmer to Kuryakin. “A sort of ‘spook the spooks’ operation?”

“Exactly. And I need hardly tell you, gentlemen, it’s in our best interests not to fill the CIA in on that part of the plan.”

The rest of the meal passed calmly enough, with Paul and Napoleon working out scheduling details while Illya attended to a double bean-and-cheese burrito. Outside, the last vein of red withdrew from the clouds, to be replaced by flickering lightning. Inside, the bartender was stacking Frank Sinatra records for a small dance crowd. The agents were nearly done eating when a tall, lean man of about forty-five strolled over to the table.

“You boys new in town?” he asked in broad western tones, crossing tanned arms in front of his chest. He had washed-out sandy-brown hair and a sun dried complexion. The right side of his shirt said Marek. The left side said Pima County Sheriff.

“That’s right, officer,” Napoleon agreed, trading handshakes. “I’m Napoleon Solo, and these are my associates, Mr. Matthews and Mr. Kuryakin.” He indicated the empty chair between himself and Paul. “Would you care to join us for coffee?”

“No thanks,” the officer shook his head. “I’m just checking up on a rumor that we have a Polish citizen here at this table.” He turned his gaze pointedly toward Illya, whose eyes widened as a last bit of burrito caught in his throat. “And I wondered if you boys realized there’s a law in these parts requiring Communist Foreign Nationals to register with the local police?”

Illya coughed hard. Napoleon leaned over and slapped him on the back, eyes on Marek.

“Of course,” he said smoothly. “But I believe you’ll find Mr. Kuryakin holds a British passport.” He extracted the document from the sputtering Russian’s vest-pocket and passed it over, along with his own, freshly-minted CIA clearance. Beside him, Illya wiped watering eyes and tried for an innocent expression. “And that everything is under control.”

“British!” Officer Marek’s face fell. The sky flashed and the restaurant lights gave a sympathetic flicker. “Aw, hell. My Babcia’s gonna break her heart!”

Illya found his voice at last. “I beg your pardon?” he gasped.

“My Babcia,” Marek repeated. “When we heard there was someone here from the Old Country, she just about bust herself cooking up treats. We’re having a drink over to the bar,” he pointed at a large family gathering, “and she sent me with strict instructions to bring you for cake, and not take no for an answer.”

Illya’s face brightened. “Czy macie ciasto?”

Marek answered with a grin. “Sure thing! Ciasto czekolade!” He turned and waved to the bar. “Mama Lidia! Come here! There’s somebody you want to meet!” A tiny, sweet-faced old lady in a peasant scarf rose smiling from the group.

“Boy, I sure had you going on that commie thing, Sonny,” Marek chuckled as Mama Lidia tottered in their direction. “But I was just kidding. Everybody knows Poland would be a free country today, if it wasn’t for them goddam, heathen, wall-building Russkies.”

Illya stood up and shook Marek’s hand. “I am very pleased to meet with you,” he said, his accent shifted a little toward Eastern Europe. Then he turned to Mama Lidia, put one hand in front and one behind his waste, and bowed.

Dobry wieczór Pani,” he said solemnly. “Czy mogę prosić o ten taniec?” He took her hand lightly in his and lead her to the dance floor, where Frank Sinatra promised the young and old alike, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Well, well, well. Napoleon watched them walk away in stunned bemusement. Why did Illya keep up the Polish routine after he was off the hook? Stubbornness? Showmanship? Or was he just after dessert?

Time for a cigarette. He lit a Winston and looked at Paul Matthews, considering. The man seemed competent. Enthusiastic even. Why was he being such a pain in the ass? “All right, Paul, what really happened in the car today.”

Paul leaned back and lit a filterless cigarette of his own. “We picked up the car about 1:00,” he began, his accent noticeably softened. “Sheila checked it, then went back in the terminal for more luggage while I loaded up. Then we drove the few minutes from the airport to the base.” He stopped and puffed, watching lightening flicker from one dark cloud to the next.

“British passport or no, the gate guards weren’t too keen on letting Kuryakin on base. So they invited him out of th’ car for a few questions. I stepped out f’r a smoke,” he waved the cigarette. “Then, just as I’m lighting up, bammo! End of car. End of luggage. End of story. Except it got us both strip searched for our trouble.”

“You think he missed a bomb?”

“What, Miss Demolitions Expert?” Paul sneered. “I think things are crook in Musclebrook, mate.” He stabbed out the cigarette in Illya’s plate. “I think it was supposed to go off while I was in the car. I think he planted it.”

Napoleon stared. “Planted it?”

“You bet your Sweet Marie,” Paul stated, eyes narrow. “Either Blondie’s a Soviet mole or I’m a kangaroo. Have you seen his file?”

Napoleon shrugged. Of course he had. Paul probably shouldn’t have, but everyone snooped before going out with someone new.

“It’s a bloody blank,” Paul hissed, “No history, no family, nothing about his assignments—not a word about losing half a dozen agents in a row—one shot in the back with his gun, in case you haven’t heard the stories, and one blown to Bullamanka.” He snorted. “There’s nothing in that file but who he reports to, a couple’a target scores, and a list of proficiencies. Which, I might add—” he leaned forward again, “does not include Polish.”

Napoleon thought about that. He had noticed this surprise addition to Kuryakin’s language skills; the Polish Scientist thing at the desk had just been a gag. Then he shook his head. “If he’s KGB, Waverly would know. And he’d never send KGB on this mission. It’s too important to stay in good with the CIA.”

Paul remained adamant. “Oh yes he would, mate, and I’ll tell you why. Number one: the Old Man knows a trap when it’s dangled in front of his eyes, and number two, whether he does or doesn’t wrestle with our golden girl under the sheets, he’s planning t’ let someone else get rid of temptation for him.”

Napoleon put out his own cigarette. “That’s way out of line, Matthews.”

Paul stood, but he wasn’t done yet.

“Waverly’s gonna let the CIA do Miss Kuryakin, and keep U.N.C.L.E.’s hands clean. Dead cert.” He stepped around his chair and slid it back to the table. The lights flickered again. On. Off. On.

“My advice t’ you is, make sure you’re not standing too close when they do.”

Across the room, laughter flowed out from the table where Mama Lidia was cutting big slices of chocolate cake. Outside, thunder rolled across the sky.

***

I thought this was supposed to be a desert. Napoleon coaxed the Imperial through a third flooded dip in the road, then pulled over, squinting into sheets of rain. Just as well he hadn’t sweet-talked that rental clerk out of a convertible.

“I’m sorry,” he told his companion. “It looks like we’re going to have to postpone our drink for a while.” Burst after burst of thunder and lightening cracked overhead, pushing wind hard through the mesquite trees along the road.

Beside him, the pretty hotel maid snuggled close. “Never mind, Señor Solo,” she sighed. “It is romantic, the wild weather, is it not?” She reached a finger up and traced the line along his chin. “The Indians call it male rain—so full of fire! It flashes across the land and then—” she peered sideways, through her eyelashes, “is over as soon as it comes.”

Napoleon clasped her hand in his and kissed each knuckle, lingeringly. Illya was right, he thought. She does slur her vowels. His free arm slid around and pulled her close, feeling her melt against his side.

“Call me Napoleon,” he murmured, turning their joined hands upwards and nuzzling her palm. “Is it always over so soon?”

She lifted her face, offered her lips. “Always, Señor,” she breathed, as he took possession of her mouth.

 

“Maria,” Napoleon said quietly. “Don’t look now, but we have company.” Beside him, the maid jerked awake. She looked left, to the gun in Napoleon’s hand, then right through her own window. Outside, the rain had faded into a few splattering drops that threw up the sharp scent of creosote. A quarter moon lit scattered clouds.

Something man-like staggered out of the shadows. “Carumba!” Maria cried. “It is the Devil!” She pressed back against Napoleon as the figure lurched closer. It had a flattened, oversized head and twisted body, and it walked hunched over, crab-like, dragging a muddy bundle along the ground.

Napoleon reached down and pushed the automatic lock. On the opposite side of the car, the back door swung open and Illya Kuryakin slid, dripping, onto the seat.

“I apologize for the interruption,” he gasped, throwing back the hood of his slicker and holding up a nasty looking gun. “But I believe you were about to be the victim of a crime passional.” He reached down and heaved the bundle across his lap onto the other side of the bench seat. A small, unconscious man, mid 30’s, looking somewhat the worse for wear.

DGSE.” Illya said—a trifle smugly, Napoleon thought. “I found these in her room.” He tossed a slim packet of papers to the front, then leaned forward and peered at the maid, tsk-tsking. “Under the mattress.” Maria let out a small squeak.

“So I took the liberty of packing her things and bringing them along.” He reached out again and pulled in a small suitcase, then shut the car door. “There’s a flight out of Phoenix at 10:00 in the morning. Which gives you plenty of time to drop me at the hotel before you take our friends to Tucson and put them on a bus.”

Maria sniffed. “We will have a taxi, s`il vous plaît. I do not enjoy the bus. And for your information, Monsieur Pete-sec—” she glared at Illya flattening her voice into a American accent, “the proper English word is motel.”

Act II: Titan

Illya Kuryakin was up well before dawn the next morning, planning to run five miles out to the silo and back in time for breakfast. He was pleased to see Paul Matthews still snoring in his bunk. Solo’s folding bed was empty. Perhaps he’d stopped to look up their Section Three contact in town, or found a more comfortable place to sleep. Like the car. Illya laced canvas shoes that reeked of yesterday’s smoke, then headed out, pulling the Airstream door shut with a satisfying bang.

Outside, the air was cool, the parking lot dark. Matthews had pulled the plug on their out-of-season Christmas display sometime during the night, and then quietly searched every car in the parking lot, while Illya watched, uninvited. For a spy, the man makes an excellent petty thief. The search had continued long after Illya grew bored and went to bed; if Matthews had uncovered any secrets, he had kept them to himself.

Illya picked his way onto the road and headed west. The desert was dark and quiet under a canopy of late summer stars, dominated at this hour by Orion. The air was still, with little remaining trace of last night’s rain. A lone coyote trotted onto the road in the distance ahead of him. Illya Kuryakin paced along, doggedly, behind.

***

There are a lot of kooks in the desert. Some get drunk and tell wild stories—government conspiracies, U.F.O. kidnappings, massed rattlesnake attacks—the rest get drunk and write those stories up. Julie Baker had become intimately familiar with both kinds during her tenure at the “Arizona Star,” so it was no surprise for someone to be banging on her door at 4:40 in the morning. She rummaged around her night table for a cigarette and then fished out the antique Luger-Parabellum pistol her Daddy had given her for graduation.

“Link,” she called through the apartment. “That better not be you.” She took a quick look in the mirror. Pink curlers, pink and green pin-striped pajamas, make-up left over from the night before. It’d better not be the Avon lady, either, or she’ll die of shock.

“It’s not Link.” a fellow’s voice came back, muffled.

Julie grabbed a robe and dumped the gun in a pocket, stuffed her head in a curler bonnet and her feet into bunny slippers, and shuffled to the door, opening it on its chain.

“Friend or foe?” she asked, peering blearily out at a dark, handsome man of about thirty. He wore an expensive suit, with just a hint of up-all-night, and had a face that was taped to the bottom of her dresser drawer. The face had arrived in a photo from New York two days before, with the words ooh-la-la! scrawled across it in gold ink.

“Oh…friend, I hope.” His smile made her feel like Cinderella got-up for the ball, instead of Ethyl Mertz dressed for a cold twin bed. “Actually, more of a cousin, I believe.” He flipped a gold card up between two fingers and passed it through the door. The gold card: Napoleon Solo, U.N.C.L.E. He raised his eyebrows and gave her an inquiring look. “Julie Baker, I presume?”

***

The word silo conjures images of agriculture in all its glory, with round towers standing over fields of grain that yield their bounty to the mighty tractor. But to Illya Kuryakin, looking down from a slight ridge in the first light of dawn, the Titan II Missile Silo more closely resembled a giant, unfinished latrine.

It was a square compound, about 100 meters across, surrounded by a simple chain- and barbed wire fence, and situated next to a bluff that filled the air with the sharp scent of copper oxide—a strip mine? The compound was connected to the main two-lane highway by a long access road, with a gate-house on one side and four temporary buildings—worker’s housing, perhaps, on the other.

The silo itself was an unfinished ten-meter hole in the ground. To the west lay a small square building, nearly buried, which was probably the access portal for the crew. The rest of the lot contained miscellaneous construction detritus: truck crane, welding equipment, rolls of cable, and stacks of pipe and steel reinforcement bars.

Illya’s attention was attracted to a group of small birds, running one after the other across the access road. They were—what had Matthews rattled off last night—quail. Except…his eye was drawn out into the desert, to something that was certainly no bird. Illya squinted into the glare of the rising sun… one person, dressed in fatigues, heading towards a pickup truck parked near the road. Security? He wished for his binoculars, but it had seemed wiser to leave them behind. The figure paused and turned in his direction, swinging up an oversized camera with telephoto lens. Not security.

Illya started to run. He was about seventy-five meters behind the photographer, who was, himself, another hundred meters from the truck. Unless the man was very fast, Illya could cut him off at an angle. The desert cover was thick enough to limit the risk of getting shot. But Illya didn’t think there would be that sort of shooting; the man was a photographer, not a sniper. Still, he might have backup in the truck. The best strategy would be to catch him as far as possible from the road. Illya scratched binoculars off his list and wished for his gun, instead.

Within moments both men discovered there is no such thing as a sprint across the desert. The place was a virtual garden of barbed wire, with spikes on every kind of plant, from the smallest weed to the towering saguaro cactus. How could there be so much vegetation in a desert? Even the willowy green trees had finger-length thorns, conveniently placed at eye level. Illya’s dash became a struggling jog around one razor-sharp plant after another, up and down through the channels carved by runoff water. T-shirt and gym shorts offered no protection, and his arms, held up to shield his face, were gouged again and again. Ahead of him, the photographer had a similar problem, half-hopping on one foot while he struggled toward the road. Then the man came to a clearer area and began to run in earnest, shouting and waving his hands.

V pizdu!” Illya Kuryakin put on a burst of speed, his thoughts sliding heatedly into Russian. To hell with the plants. He was not going back to the trailer empty handed, looking like he’d been  beaten by a houseful of whores. There was just enough time to catch the miserable bastard, and when he did, he was going to drag him face down over every god damned thorn in the desert.…

Except—he thought, as his momentum carried him forward headlong into the arms of a barrel cactus—except for the tripwire stretched across the dirt. His howl was as much aggravation as pain.

Ahead on the path, the photographer stumbled, doubled over and gagged from exertion. He clutched the camera to his stomach, heaving, struggling to stay up.

This isn’t over yet. Illya pulled himself back from the cactus—it was easy, he saw, the spines simply stayed in his skin—and staggered onto his feet. “Stop!” he gasped, starting forward again.

The photographer slowly straightened and turned in Illya’s direction. His left hand still held the camera, but he wasn’t taking pictures any more. His right hand held a wavering SIG P210 semi-automatic.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “No witnesses.” He raised the gun unsteadily and added in Hebrew, “May the Lord grant mercy to us both...”

Illya dove as a shot cracked past him—wide by half a dozen meters. He rolled behind a cactus and checked the ground for rocks. After a miss like that, he would bet his life he could throw a rock better than the photographer could shoot a gun.

The gun cracked again, with no visible effect. Six more and he could just walk over and strangle the man. It was a thought that made Illya Kuryakin smile.

But he had forgotten the truck. Now came the noise of a slamming door, the crunching of feet on stones. The backup. Illya squinted against the intense glare of the sun. A man was silhouetted behind the truck, gun in hand. What were the chances this second man would be as useless with a gun as the first? He glanced at the terrain behind him. A few seconds’ sprint would gain him enough cover to either circle around or retreat. It would also give the new man one clear shot.

“Hold it right there.”

Illya groaned and closed his eyes. There was no running from that voice. It was the voice of someone who knew how to handle a gun, someone he could not slip away from in the desert. Napoleon Solo’s voice. He put his head down on his hands, plans evaporating like last night’s rain.

Napoleon stepped from behind the brown pickup truck, Walther P38 cocked and ready, relishing the astonishment of the gunman who had expected somebody else. It was remarkably easy to mistake one truck for another in the early morning light. He spotted Kuryakin stretched on the ground.

“Illya?” he called. “Are you OK?”

The answer was slow in coming. “Splendid.” Illya sounded a little peeved.

Napoleon walked forward and unburdened the mystery spy of his gun and heavy camera, an Israeli model. Well, well, well. The CIA wasn’t going to like this one bit.

“Your Mossad pal left in a hurry,” Napoleon put sympathy in his voice, “but we’d be glad to offer you a lift.” He snuck a glance at the rising Kuryakin, who appeared to be auditioning for the role of human voodoo doll.

“You’re welcome,” he said, earning a look that would have peeled paint.

Napoleon waved the Israeli agent over to the truck and patted him down. No wallet, no keys. No directions to the secret Mossad hideout. They were probably staying at the Saguaro Inn like the rest of the spies. Behind him, Julie Baker had caught up with Illya and was dosing him with an experienced desert-dweller’s sympathy and advice. “Tweezers work, but the best thing is to lift the big ones out with my comb…” From the sound of Illya’s grunts, the best thing wasn’t too good.

“You know,” Napoleon told the Israeli, “you really shouldn’t be wandering around a restricted area like this with a camera. People might get the wrong idea. Do you have a name, friend? Address? Serial number?”

“You will get nothing from me,” the man snarled.

Napoleon sighed; the sun was already hot. He checked his watch: 6:00. Too early for Zionists. “All rightie, then, we’ll call you Fred.” He reached his free hand into the truck and rummaged around for a pair of handcuffs. In addition to a vehicle more suited for local driving conditions, Julie had replaced most of their lost gear.

Fred made a grab for his boot and came up with a tiny Baby Browning. Shit.

“Drop it,” Napoleon warned; but too late. Before he could decide which part to shoot, Fred swung the little pistol up into his mouth and pulled the trigger. The report was little more than a pop, but it was good enough for Fred. His head whipped back as his hands snapped forward. He hung for an instant, back arched, arms clawing at the air, and then toppled over into the dirt.

Illya handed Julie back her comb and limped over to kneel beside the body. He lifted the sticky head with two fingers, examining what was left.

“Lucky shot,” he observed. He stood, wiping his hand on very dirty gym shorts. His mouth quirked. “It appears,” he said, sounding a good deal more cheerful. “Fred has gotten the better of us both.”

Napoleon sighed. Far too early for Zionists.

***

“Well look what th’ dingo dragged in.” Paul Matthews drawled over his newspaper as Solo, Kuryakin, and Julie banged their way into the Airstream, converting the atmosphere from late 50’s kitsch to early 40’s sardine tin. It had taken them five minutes on the replacement radio to get to Shanghai-Bill through U.N.C.L.E. Then another hour in the rising heat, to report to Waverly and wait for the CIA to mop up. Matthews didn’t look like he’d missed them.

“I saved y’ some breakfast.” Matthews gestured toward a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on the table.

Solo passed Matthews the radio. “Find someplace for this, please.”

“Crikey, we got th’ new one!” It was about the size of a hardcover book, with radio dials on one side and a handset cradle that could be used with a telephone.

Illya examined the clothes that had come in courtesy of Section Three. After this morning’s adventure, he was going to need long sleeves. “Next year’s radio will be no larger a cigarette case,” he said. “So field agents can each carry one. I have recently seen the design.”

“A man of many parts.” Matthews commented. “Spend alotta time in Section Eight, do ya? I thought your friends lie more in Section One. Friends in high places, with English public school tastes. Or is that lay?

Illya looked at Matthews. In three and a half years, he had never raised a hand against a fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent. He tried the thought again in French. In three and a half years, I have never raised a hand against a fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent. Then Russian. Then German. When he ran out of languages, someone was going to get hurt.

“Um, Paul,” Solo cut in. “Maybe you could take Miss Baker over to the restaurant and wait for us there. She’s our local Section Three, and brought down new supplies and clothes.…” He eyed Paul’s Hawaiian shirt. “Unless you’d like to change first?”

Matthews refocused on the girl. “Pleased t’ meet’cha, Miss.” He shook her hand, then grinned back at Solo. “No worries, mate; this getup ’ll do me fine.” In three and a half years…

Julie found her voice as they headed out the door. “Hey, you’re reading my newspaper! I’m L3—Martian weather balloons predict drought for Southern Arizona!”

“I was just reading that one,” Paul assured her. “Best article in th’ batch.”

They banged their way out with six languages to spare.

***

The day seemed half over by the time they were all seated for breakfast, though in fact it was barely seven-thirty. Morning comes early in the desert, Napoleon thought, especially if you haven’t been to bed. He regarded the plastic photographs of gooey meat-and-egg combination breakfasts and wondered if they could possibly taste as bad as they looked.

Across the table, Paul had turned Julie’s attention away from the unresponsive Kuryakin to a more appreciated focus on himself. They were now chatting happily away about scorpions, which Julie asserted could survive in outer space. Paul agreed enthusiastically.

“Excuse me, Miss,” Illya held up his cup and displayed pale brown liquid to the waitress. “Do you suppose, if I were to pay for three pots of coffee, I could persuade you to make one pot decently strong?” He smiled up through his eyelashes, taking the sting out of his words.

Napoleon watched him. So, our little Russian can flirt when he wants to. The waitress apparently thought so, too, for a moment later, she led Illya off to the coffee station for a private brewing lesson.

Like Paul, Illya had passed over the regulation two-piece in favor of his fashion look from the night before. This time he wore black jeans and black shirt under a black suede vest that hid his holster. Brown cowboy hat and boots completed a very dubious “Polish Scientist” ensemble.

For his part, Paul had matched his blue Hawaiian shirt with Bermuda shorts, white socks, sandals, and a plastic lei. He had topped the whole thing off with a wide-brimmed outback hat, apparently salvaged from the explosion.

Taken together, the two of them were nothing less than dumfounding. At least this isn’t a covert operation, Napoleon thought. More like a boxing match in a three-ring circus. Lucky me; I get the middle ring.

Napoleon tugged his ear. Neither Paul’s midnight strip-search of the parking lot nor Illya’s silo recon should have been mounted as one-man operations, not when they had the resources to double up. He was going to have to find a way to call off the grandstanding before one of the good guys got killed.

Or was Paul on the right track? Had Waverly stuck him with the gingham dog and the calico cat, hoping one of them wouldn’t make it back onto the table? Which one? Paul’s hints that Waverly might have an unprofessional interest in Illya were highly offensive. Was Paul expected to stick his neck out just a little too far? With a tongue like his, it was amazing he’d lasted four years.

The answer came, and Napoleon felt his stomach churn. This wasn’t just about Paul or Illya—it was a challenge to him. Everything’s been easy, bright boy, the old bastard was saying. If you’re so smart, if you want to rise in Section Two, make these men into a team. Of course, that fit perfectly into Waverly’s “with your shield or on it” attitude. Napoleon grimaced, wondering what life would be like after demotion to Section Three. Perhaps he could join the jet-set, and save the world with a martini glass and courier bag?

Paul caught his sour look across the table and dropped the scorpion discussion.

“Y’ see, mate, I told you,” he winked. Should ’a had those Corn Flakes t’ settle y’r stomach.”

Illya Kuryakin returned to the table, flourishing a triumphant pot of coffee. “Dzień Dobry, gentlemen. I believe the day is looking up.” He smiled, pouring a cup of thick black liquid he looked almost too young to drink. “Our waitress tells me that we are much cuter than the German spies in Room 310, and she has offered me a job as cook.”

“Don’t sell y’rself short, Sheila,” Paul said. “If th’ spy business doesn’t work out, you c’n always join the lasta th’ queer old Bolshies and run a café in gay Paree. I’m sure you’ve got a doting uncle somewhere who owes you a start in business.”

Napoleon closed his eyes. Yes indeed; his wardrobe would transition nicely to a courier job.

Julie, her own eyes wide, looked from one agent to the next, clearly searching for somewhere else to go with the conversation. Section Two was losing another fan. Finally, she settled on the stone-faced Russian. “S-so. How did you?” she asked brightly. “E-end up as an U.N.C.L.E. agent that is.” Ouch.

Kuryakin gave her a long, cold look. “I like to kill people.”

He finished his coffee in silence. “Not bad,” he pronounced, standing up and fixing his gaze on Paul. “And fuck you, too.” He tossed his napkin on the table and stalked out.

Napoleon let out a breath and looked at his two remaining companions. Paul, smug; Julie, pale. Time to throw the little fish back in the pond. “Julie, my love” he said, passing her the rental keys. “Perhaps you’d drive the Imperial back up to the airport for us, and check back later this evening?” She grabbed the key ring like a life preserver and beat a hasty retreat. If she wanted a career as a reporter, she was going to have to work on her timing.

That left Paul. Napoleon reached for Illya’s coffeepot, filled his and Paul’s cups, and took a sip. Not quite Italian espresso, but not bad either.

“Paul,” he said carefully. “You’re pretty well in with the rumor mill. Have you heard there’s a staffing shortage at Greenland HQ?”

Paul snorted. “You threatening t’ have me transferred, mate? Decide y’ want Miss Kuryakin all t’ yourself?”

Napoleon shook his head thinking he’d like to kill people too. “Noooo, it’s more in the line of a prediction. My “Magic 8-Ball” says, if we blow this mission, the three of us could find ourselves on permanent assignment, someplace that’s cold and dark ten months out of the year. Together.” Now there’s a fate worse than Section Three.

Paul eyed Napoleon’s cup with distaste. “Looks like our golden boy has won another heart. I figured you for more ’v a ladies’ man.”

Napoleon let the remark hang, finishing his coffee and patting his lips with the napkin. “Are you done?” he asked mildly. “If not, I suggest you catch up with Miss Baker in the parking lot, because—” he let his voice go hard, “the next provocative comment, Paul, I promise, I’ll shoot you myself.”

The two agents played a staring game across the table. Matthews betting on the nerve that had carried him four years and seven-thousand miles from Queensland. But Solo had three years working under Alexander Waverly out of the “most equal” office of them all. There was never any contest.

“Righto.” Paul grinned, boyish again “We play it your way.” He held out his hand, and they shook on it. “Y’ know, mate, I believe y’ would shoot me at that.”

“Too right, mate,” Napoleon told him, seriously. “Too right.”

***

They caught up with a sweaty, boot-carrying, Kuryakin half a mile down the highway. Napoleon hopped out of the truck, waving Paul on ahead, wondering what sort of snakes might be sunning themselves on the side of the road. Most of the wildlife seemed to have settled down for the day, though. All he heard was the chuck- chuck- chuck of some sort of bird.

Illya spoke first. “I’m sorry. That was stupid.”

“Yep.” Napoleon agreed. Beat one, coax the other. “Only an idiot would think he could walk five miles in new cowboy boots.” That got a ghost of a smile.

“I gather,” he said, “the life of a Soviet U.N.C.L.E. agent is not always a bed of roses….”

“In England, it’s more subtle. One is steered away from sensitive assignments. Not invited to the club. That sort of thing. All very vague, except for the occasional gang of bat-wielding youths.” He smiled, darkly. “But they tried that only once.” Napoleon bit his lip. He’d seen target scores that said Kuryakin could shoot, but the vision of this baby-faced blond in a fight eluded him completely.

“Napoleon…” Illya hesitated. “Mr. Waverly has my resignation letter in his desk. Perhaps you would find it easier to complete this assignment without me.”

Now, there’s a tempting thought. “Where would you go? Back to Russia?”

Kuryakin shook his head. “That is impossible. I have an offer from MI6, which comes with a British passport.” Another small smile. “A genuine British passport.”

“But…?”

“But I would have to defect. There may be nothing for me in the Soviet Union, but at least with U.N.C.L.E I stand for all nations together, not one against the other. I believe in that.”

“So do I.”

Illya sighed. “I do not think I am an asset to this mission.”

Napoleon thought about it. What if working for U.N.C.L.E meant being exiled to the Soviet Bloc for the rest of his life? Never being trusted by anyone? Never fitting in. Would he do it? He might find out if he let Waverly’s pet communist slip through his fingers.

“Ah,” he said, with a gleam in his eye. “I know just the solution, my friend. You need the Napoleon Solo, 100% guaranteed, money-back course in how to win friends and influence U.N.C.L.E. agents.”

“Hmmm. What are your qualifications as an instructor? Does anyone fail?”

“Never.” Not so far. “Although I admit, you’re not a very promising student.”

“In other words, you will make an exception to your admission standards because,” Illya gave him an appraising look, “you believe my success will be useful to your career.” Touché.

“Smart Russian. But it might be useful to U.N.C.L.E as well.”

Illya actually laughed. “Very well, I will enroll for the short course, provided we can start lessons in the truck. This pavement is too hot for stocking feet.”

They caught up with Paul and climbed into the pickup truck, Illya squeezing into the rear seat.

“About time,” Paul grumbled. “You girls ’ave any idea how hot it is waiting in this truck while you gossip about me—oops!” He raised a placating hand. “No worries! I didn’t mean it like that.” He caught Illya’s eye in the mirror. “Truce, right mate?”

“Truce.” Illya leaned forward against the front seat. “And for the record, I neither work for Soviet Intelligence, nor sleep with my colleagues.” He reached over and patted Paul on the shoulder. “Better luck next time.”

***

It was kind of scary to think the future of all humanity might rest in a 155-foot hole in the ground. Or the non-future. Napoleon peered down into the concrete tube that would soon house a nuclear warhead six-hundred times more powerful than the one that took out Nagasaki. The bottom was a maze of half-installed cables and pipes. Beside him, three workmen were using a truck crane to lower a massive concrete door. Well, at least it’s a good, solid hole.

Around the silo, two dozen workers in brown Fluor Corporation overalls were installing prefabricated pieces of concrete and steel, building—according to Lieutenant Corban, their guide—a frame to hold the 700 ton door that would eventually roll back and forth across the silo on railroad tracks.

Paul had opted out of the tour, waving his CIA credentials and grabbing the first free guard to head off for a security inspection. Illya and the Lieutenant were involved in an animated discussion on surface overpressure and spring-loaded flooring. Subjects, Napoleon reflected, that might well get the Russian shot if Shanghai-Bill showed up any time soon. Illya’s enthusiasm for the technical side of this mission seemed a little too genuine. Could the KGB have slipped an agent past Waverly?

Napoleon fanned himself and wished for five or six large aspirin. Three hours ago, trailing the Polish Scientist around in the role of CIA watchdog had sounded like good cover, but by now the only cover he wanted was something that blocked the blazing sun. He felt superfluous. Maybe it would be better to head back and check out the German spies lead, but that meant leaving Paul and Illya together without a nanny. Bad idea. He sighed and sweated. Even Mary Poppins had a parasol to keep off the sun.

“I don’t think those figures are quite right,” a contractor was saying. “We can go back and look up the specs in the office if you like.”

“In the—” Illya caught himself. “Ah, perhaps that would not be such a good idea.” He favored his companions with a confidential smile. “Your government might begin thinking I am spying on you.” That got a laugh from everyone but Napoleon.

“I think, Dr. Kuryakin,” he said, positively, “that it’s time for lunch.”

“Lunch?” Illya said absently, then brightened. “Oh yes, of course. Mama Lidia.”

“Come again?”

“Mama Lidia, the Polish lady who makes such excellent chocolate cake.” He continued, in increasingly high spirits. “I saved you some, by the way, but when you did not come back I made an early breakfast of it. They’re bringing our dinner—didn’t I mention it?”

Napoleon was tempted to feel the Russian’s forehead for sunstroke. Could this much enthusiasm be brought on by the prospect of lunch? “It must have slipped your mind.”

Illya gave a little frown. “I suppose so. How odd. In any event,” he hopped up onto a four-foot pile of rebar and pointed toward the parking lot, “there they are. I gather they know some of the people on the crew and bring food out frequently.” He squinted. “But who is in the limousine?”

Napoleon eyed the stack of thirty-foot long metal bars. “Is that safe?”

“Perfectly. Ten-centimeter steel reinforcement rods are extremely heavy.”

“It’s called rebar.” Napoleon climbed up for a better view. Sure enough, a long dark limo was pulling up to the gate in a cloud of dust. An airman/chauffeur stepped out and held the door for a well-built, middle-aged man in shirt-sleeves and a tie.

“Well, well, well,” Napoleon said, jumping back down to the ground.

“Do you know him?” Illya stepped across the top of the pile to follow Solo.

“Not personally, no, but I’m pretty sure—look out!”

The cowboy boots were Illya’s undoing, one heel catching on a rod near the top. He skated on the pile, lumberjack fashion, as one bar after another came loose and started to roll. Then the whole stack collapsed, and he joined them, sliding over the edge and tumbling into the dirt with a ringing, metallic crash.

“Illya!” Kuryakin lay face down, pinned under a dozen bars. “Illya!” Napoleon was relieved to see the Russian lift a scowling beat-red face.

Chyort vozmi,” he muttered, spitting out dirt. “I don’t suppose you could give me a hand?”

Napoleon eyed the steel bars skeptically. By now several contractors had run up, and more were coming fast. How many men would it take to lift that much steel? Could they use one of the cranes?

Illya, trying to squirm, caught his look. “I do not think it’s as heavy as it should be,” he said, “or I would have been crushed. Perhaps you could try levering the bottom bars where they cross each other.” Several workmen pushed down on the bars, while two more grabbed Illya and slid him out from underneath.

“Keep still,” said one. “Someone’s calling up to the base for an ambulance.”

“Thank you, kindly.” Illya struggled to his feet, brushing at the grime. “But I am quite alright.” He looked around at the astonished faces, then limped to the scattered rebar and lifted one easily. “They are not as heavy as they should be,” he repeated testily. “It appears someone has tampered with your construction materials.”

A few minutes later they left a rising debate among the workers and made their way toward the welcome shade of the ramada attached to the office.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

Illya nodded. “Unless you factor in wounded pride.”

Napoleon quirked an eyebrow. Indeed I do.

“But I admit I am beginning to wonder how this country could have been settled by people wearing such ridiculous boots.”

“You should see real cowboy boots, with two-inch heels. Made—” he answered Illya’s incredulous look, “for digging into mud during calf-catching, or bull-dogging … or some such….”

“In Queensland,” a chipper Paul met them at the gate, “we wear our boot heels three-inches high. Then again, we need th’ extra height f’r stomping on crocs.” They signed out and passed into the gate-house, stopping gratefully at the water cooler. Napoleon considered it. An extra three inches, and Paul would need an oxygen mask.

“Crocks?” Illya asked. “Containing what?”

“Crocodiles. The salties, that is, which ’r particularly nasty. Y’ could probably stomp the freshies—that’s fresh water crocodiles—with just one-or-two-inch heels.”

Napoleon cut in. “You look like you’ve had a happy morning.”

“Too right. We got a couple hot ones outta the barracks over there,” he jerked his chin at the trailers. “Mexican nationals by way of Beijing, if y’ get my meaning. They discovered urgent business in Nogales and headed south one step ahead of th’ law. Left behind a stack ’a documents, which should please old Shanghai-Bill.”

“Well done.” Maybe Paul just needed to work alone. A few agents were like that. Dead ones, mostly.

“And then there’s my friend Bluey here.” Paul nodded towards a dispirited red-head dressed in overalls and handcuffed to the desk. “A local fella who tried t’ slip away just when everyone else was running t’ see your Polish demolition derby.” He snickered. “Something told the guard ol’ Bluey might know where that funny rebar came from. They got a General Schreiber comin’ this afternoon with an x-ray crew t’ check all the steel on site. And when they’re done,” he gave the prisoner a pitying look, “they’re takin’ Bluey back with ’em.”

“It would take weeks to x-ray all the concrete,” Illya pointed out. “And much of it has already been shielded against electro-magnetic impulse between steel plates.” He frowned. “Although I suppose, using one of Section Eight’s micro-units, they could drill in from the top and do a statistically significant survey in a matter of four or five days.”

Napoleon couldn’t take much more. “Will you cut that out,” he hissed. “It is not your job to resolve construction issues!”

Kuryakin looked at him, astonished. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You are right, of course.”

“But that’s still not all,” Paul grinned, leading them out under the ramada, where a luncheon banquet had been laid across four picnic tables, complete with white cloths, blue china, and gleaming covered dishes. Mama Lidia stood dwarfed by Officer Marek and a dozen site personnel, beaming up at the man from the limousine.

Illyek!” Mama Lidia caught sight of them and held out her hands. “Dear boy, we have been so worried about your fall.”

Conversation stopped as everyone looked at the three U.N.C.L.E. agents.

“Allow me t’ introduce,” Paul said with a flourish, “someone else who was in the neighborhood and happened t’ drop in f’r the tour. Dr. Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and father of the modern ballistic rocket. This is Napoleon Solo, from U.N.C.L.E,” they shook hands, “and Dr. Illya Kuryakin, our scientist and, uh, materials expert.”

“Herr Doktor von Braun,” Illya greeted him in perfect German. “It is a great honor and privilege to meet you.”

Well, thought Napoleon. At least that language is on his list.

***

Lunch on the ramada put any European café to shame, with fifteen people served abundantly on spinach soup, golabki cabbage rolls, and sweet pierogi. By the time he finished a poppy seed cake and iced black-current vodka, Napoleon Solo was prepared to take a crash course in Polish and sign on to Mama Lidia’s family tree. She certainly seemed to have adopted Illyek, whom she alternately plied with treats and patted on the head, and was in a fair way to taking on Paul as well.

For his part, Paul mercifully avoided the topics of spying, homosexuality, and natural history. Instead he entertained the company by throwing out Australian idioms, which they translated into increasingly outrageous German. Mama Lidia proved adept at this game, but Napoleon gave up early. German had always struck him as a humorless language.

When the idioms grew thin, Paul moved on to impersonations: John Wayne, J.F.K., and, at Mama Lidia’s insistence, a fairly decent Ricky Ricardo. Napoleon wondered, bemused, if the whole Australian thing was put on. If so, he’d count his blessings. He could have wound up with a six-foot-two, Babaloo-singing, fake Cuban on his hands.

It didn’t bear thinking about.

***

“Such a beautiful rocket they are building,” von Braun sighed. “So great a pity to be aiming it at Earth.” This time they were on the VIP tour, with Lieutenant Corban escorting Wernher von Braun, Illya, Napoleon, and incredibly, Officer Marek and Mama Lidia, whose four-star lunch had won the heart of America’s premier rocket scientist. Paul had begged off in a remarkable burst of good sense.

Illya, on the other hand, was doing his best to get them all shot by engaging in a heated discussion on the merits of liquid- vs. solid- fuel ICBMs, mostly in English, but switching to German when his technical vocabulary faltered. By the end of the rocket debate it was three p.m., and Napoleon’s patience with the atomic age was ticking down fast. At least it had cooled off a little, with clouds blowing in from the southeast to provide relief from the sun.

The parade rested at the access-portal stairs, where Herr Doktor von Braun bearded the guard. “Of course we are all going in!” They apparently disagreed on the matter of security clearances. “The missile and control equipments are not yet here! What harm can there be in viewing a few concrete doors? And besides—” he marched forcefully down the stairs. “The idea of this project is deterrence! If they are spies, so much the better. We should be handing out tickets for spies to come. Then they will go home and tell their people not to start a war.”

Still at the entrance, Illya gave Napoleon a questioning look. Napoleon shrugged. “Might as well,” he murmured, “be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”

“No, Mr. Solo.” Mama Lidia disagreed. “You must hang the lamb! It is better to eat!”

As von Braun had predicted, there wasn’t much to see below ground. The access portal went down to a cableway, still being cabled, that ran west to the empty command center and east to the silo. The contractors down here wore blue overalls with Martin Marietta sewn across the top.

“It is like the nice bank where we keep my silver!” Mama Lidia exclaimed as they passed a second six-inch wide concrete door. Lieutenant Corban was explaining how the rooms were built into a cage that isolated them from disturbances like earthquakes, rocket blasts, and nearby nuclear explosions. The silo crew would have thirty-day survivability in the event of nuclear war. Lucky them.

Mama Lidia had it pegged, Napoleon thought. The facility was about as exciting as a bank vault, minus the loot.

“These pipes,” von Braun led Illya past another door and onto the silo grates, “will spray water for steam, to absorb vibrations from the noise during launch.”

Illya crouched down to examine the jets. “But don’t you have to worry about…” Napoleon let his attention drift away. If I were a spy on the wall, what would I look like? One by one he examined the five men working in the cableway. Nothing obvious there. Nobody whistling “Volga Boatmen,” for example, or waving a hotel room key marked 310 in a swastika-tattooed hand.

But….He shifted for a better sideways view. A green-eyed man had peeled off the top of his overalls to squeeze up inside a nest of cables. And there was a small tattoo on the inside of his arm: a familiar, stylized bird.

Napoleon thought fast. There could be only one reason Thrush would get involved in this project. To take control of the missile. Could Green-eyes be doing something to the wiring? Or the security system?

One way to find out. Napoleon took a step closer, then reached up, wrapping one hand in the man’s t-shirt, sliding out his P38 with the other. He yanked, and Green-eyes fell back against him with a satisfying yelp.

Napoleon caressed him behind the ear with the gun. “That’s an interesting construction technique, you’ve got,” he purred. “I believe I know someone at the CIA who’d like to hear more about it.”

“Help!” Green-eyes shouted. “Murder!”

“What the?” Marek’s voice came from halfway through the silo door. Illya and von Braun were still inside with the plumbing. The rest of the group turned in the cableway to stare.

“This man is a saboteur,” Napoleon said calmly. “We need to take him upstairs and pencil him in on General Schreiber’s interview schedule.”

Green-eyes gave him a poisonous look. “It’s a lie!” he yelled. “I’m Air Force Security! This man has been escorting a Russian spy around the facility all day. Help!”

Russian!” Marek clawed his own revolver out if its holster and swung it wildly left and right. Napoleon prayed he knew how to not shoot it. “Russian! Where?”

“The blond in the silo, you idiot!” Green-eyes snarled. “He’s killed hundreds of men! He’s probably in there planting a bomb right now!” Marek wheeled one-eighty and charged through the door.

“Janek!” Mama Lidia started after him. “Janek what are you thinking?”

“Now just a god-damned minute!” Lieutenant Corban held out both hands, palms down. “Put those guns away and let us sort this out, or you boys are gonna have your asses in a sling!”

“I don’t want to shoot anyone, Lieutenant,” Napoleon tried for a note of authority. “But this man is dangerous and I can’t let him go.”

Marek came back through the door, dragging a hands-on-the-head Kuryakin behind him. So much for backup. “You put that fancy pistol away,” Marek ordered, “or your commie-friend gets it.”

“Janek, put that gun down!”

Illya blinked. “Gets what?”

“Get his gun!” Green-eyes screamed, starting to struggle. Napoleon hugged him tight. “Uh uh uh, naughty Thrush .”

Marek tugged Illya forward and patted under his vest. “He hasn’t got a gun!” That was news to Napoleon. What the hell was Kuryakin doing without a gun?

“Janek Marek, you give me that right now!” Mama Lidia made a horrifying grab for the revolver, which started to slip out of control.

“Mama—”

Illya’s hand flashed out and caught the gun in mid air. He cracked the cylinder, dumped bullets on the ground, then leaned over and slipped it back into Marek’s holster.

“—The Man Is A Russian SPY!” Marek stared down at his empty hands, dumfounded.

“Don’t be an idiot, Janek!” Mama Lidia snapped. “Russian, yes, with a cute accent like that, as you would know if your own Polish weren’t so okropnie. But spy? Humph,” She patted Illyek on the cheek. “Look at that angelic face. Impossible!”

Illya’s face looked more pained than angelic. “What do we do now?” he asked. Nobody quite seemed to know.

The answer came from inside the silo. “That was a very entertaining floor show,” a man’s voice called. “But now I’m ready for dinner and drinks.”

Behind Illya, another worker stepped into view, arming his Thrush  rifle with a chirp and then beckoning them forward. “Won’t you all please join me at my table? Mr. Solo?” He smiled, “I believe my gun is bigger than yours.”

“See!” Mama Lidia said triumphantly. “Look at that ugly face. Now that’s a spy!”

Green-eyes snatched the P38 and turned it on Napoleon. “So long, Solo.”

“Not yet!” Big-gun pulled him up. “Just get them inside.”

They had to pick their way past pipes and grates, but the silo had plenty of room for the original group and remaining—presumably legitimate—workers. Napoleon edged over toward Illya.

“No gun?” he hissed.

Illya shook his head. “I didn’t think your government would appreciate the presence of an armed Soviet tourist,” he whispered back.

“That’s enough,” Big-gun told them. “Now, here’s the plan. My friend is going to tie you all up, nice and quiet, and then Dr. von Braun is going to be our guest for a little off-site excursion. I expect you’ll all cooperate, because the fall-back plan is to shoot our way out, and I assure you, we have the man- and fire-power to do it.”

Von Braun was watching Illya and Napoleon closely. He stood near the door, behind the Thrush  agents, and he had the look of a man who had faced thugs with guns before. “What do you want with me?” he asked.

Big-gun started to turn his way. “Oh, Thrush  is very interested in rockets, I assure—”

Plop! Something whip-like landed on his head.

“Aaaah.” He shouted. “What the hell—” Plop! Something fell on Green-eyes’ neck and shoulders.

Two writhing brown-and-tan snakes lashed themselves wildly, trying to get clear of the struggling men. Illya and Napoleon leapt forward for the guns, as Wernher von Braun swung a wrench from behind his back. Green-eyes and Big-gun sank to the floor.

“Look out!” Illya yelled, stepping back and taking aim at the snakes.

“No worries, mate!” an Aussie voice called down from above. “They’re only gopher snakes! Wouldn’t hurt ’a fly, though maybe a packrat—or a bird!”

***

“They were warned to stay out of the buildings!” Shanghai-Bill Watson was working hard to make his point: hands waving, feet stomping, face turned an earnest shade of red. “These are useless, shiftless, dangerous men. They have stuck their nose in top-secret business where it doesn’t belong, and I want them locked up!”

“I don’t think he likes us,” Paul muttered. “And after all we’ve done f’r him.”

“Perhaps we should try to look more shift-full,’ Illya suggested.

The three agents stood together in a corner of the ramada, not quite detained, not quite free to go. Around them, the site was bustling, with a truck-load of new airmen carrying x-ray equipment in and escorting contractors out. A helicopter whirred in the parking lot, waiting to take Dr. von Braun off to dinner somewhere up in Phoenix, with Mama Lidia as his guest.

“Let me get this straight.” General Schreiber was a well-built, sandy-haired man of fifty-five with a face that could have been carved out of stone. Shanghai-Bill looked like a yapping dog beside him.

“These are the U.N.C.L.E. agents you CIA boys called in, right?”

“As auxiliary support, yeah.”

“To catch the spies that keep slipping through CIA fingers.”

“On a strictly limited basis.”

“And since yesterday they have identified how many foreign agents?”

Paul helped him out. “Two French, one Israeli, two Chinese, two Thrush , and one unidentified saboteur.”

Shanghai-Bill glared daggers.

Schreiber continued, “And they also suggested a short-cut for verifying the integrity of our construction?”

Illya looked smug.

The general raised his voice slightly. It was as good as a roar from anyone else. “Then what the devil are you complaining about, Watson? Give them a pat on the back and send them home to dinner.”

“But they’re spying on us!”

“Oh big deal. So’s the whole damn world.” An airman brought out a portable phone. “Your call, sir.”

He took it. “That you, Alex?”

Alex? Napoleon’s stomach did a flip. Our Alex? He took a breath. It could be some other Alex, someone completely unconnected to them… like the CIA’s chief of interrogation, for instance… Isn’t he Jim something?

“I’ve got one Russian cowboy, one overdressed city fellow, and one loud-mouthed Australian snake lover here who claim they’re yours. Is that right?” He paused. “Right, for the time being?” Ouch.

“You want me to shoot any of them, as long as they’re all lined up?”

Illya’s eyebrows came together in a furrow. “Your government doesn’t really shoot people like this, does it?” he whispered.

“Nope,” Napoleon assured him. “We rig a show-trial first.” He felt a little guilty seeing Illya go pale. Maybe things like that weren’t funny in Russia.

“OK,” Schreiber said. “Good enough for me. Send my love to Mrs. W.” He hung up and gave Napoleon, Illya, and Paul the benefit of his full attention.

“Do we run? Or take a bow?” Illya muttered.

Napoleon elbowed him in the ribs. “Shut up.” The silence dragged. One minute. Two. What had Waverly said?

The general swept up his papers and got to his feet. “OK boys, you’re free to go.”

“But—” Shanghai-Bill sputtered. “But!”

General Schreiber spared him a melting look. “Is there any doubt who has authority in this matter, Watson?”

Shanghai-Bill wilted. “No, sir.”

“Then get all these spies out from under my feet. I’ve got a shitload of concrete to x-ray and a congressional over-site committee to confound. And boys?”

“Yes, sir?” Napoleon spoke for the group.

“Catch the rest of them off my site.”

“Roger.”

Act III: Agent’s Code

“Compared to the prospect of a CIA interrogation cell, the Airstream is positively homely.” Illya threw his cowboy boots and hat on the floor and slouched back on his bunk. “Except, of course, for the beds.”

“Homey,” Napoleon corrected. “Although I suppose your way works too.”

“It almost always does.”

“I’ve noticed,” Napoleon said mildly. “However, the next time your way includes not carrying a gun, would you please let me know? It’s upsetting, watching one’s partner get shot, and I’ll want to remind you to look the other way.”

“Ah, yes.” The contrite look was almost funny. “I am sorry about that. I forgot to tell you.” He jumped up. “I’ll get it out of the truck. After today, there does not seem to be much hope we can finish this mission without shooting our way out.”

“Well, you’ve made yourself very popular, certainly.”

Illya brought Paul back in with his gun.

“Nobody’s home in 310,” Paul said. “But they got a couple’a funny credit cards and two rolls ’a microfilm hidden in their suitcase. Pity though, I accidentally spoiled th’ film before I put it back.”

“Good. We’ll finish them off later,” Napoleon eyed his bunk wistfully. “There’s about an hour of sunlight left, and I think we’d better keep a look-out in the parking lot tonight. We haven’t exactly been making friends left and right.”

Illya sat down and started dismantling and reloading his gun with quick, precise movements. “I’ll go first; I had the most sleep last night. There is a spot near the front where we can see the trailer as well as both sides of the motel.” He grabbed fresh clothes and squeezed into the bathroom.

“I’ll take over about eleven,” Paul said. “I’ve got a date first with Barb the waitress. Always a chance t’ get lucky,” he winked at Napoleon, “and pick up some useful information. You two coming t’ supper?”

Napoleon thought about the pictures of plastic food. “I’ll pass. Maybe we can get Julie to bring down something edible tomorrow morning.”

Illya emerged, once again dressed for the West. He had the suede vest and rain slicker over one shoulder, and his holster, Napoleon noted approvingly, securely in place.

“I do not need to dine out,” Illya said. “I saved some pierogi from lunch.”

“Cheers then.” Paul clapped his hat on his head, straightened the plastic lei, and left serenading: “Lovely hula hands…graceful as the seabirds in motion…”

Napoleon lay back and closed his eyes. Next time he thought, I’m holding out for a more compatible team, like maybe Bart Starr and Cassius Clay. His mouth quirked once before he fell asleep.

***

“Paul,” Napoleon called softly. “Illya?” No answer.

It was 9:15, and he’d waked to Paul’s voice yelling outside the window. Napoleon backed into shadows cast by swinging Christmas lights, avoiding puddles. A rainstorm must have blown through. The water-logged parking lot held a dozen cars, including their brown Chevy pickup. In the distance, Frank Sinatra was having another go at the bar crowd. Maybe they went for a drink? It didn’t seem likely.

“Paul? Illya?”

“Gaaagh.”

Napoleon followed the sound to the shadow of their pickup, where a soggy Illya Kuryakin was struggling to his knees, rubbing his head. Napoleon helped him up.

“What happened? Where’s Paul?”

“Paul?” Illya shivered. “Is he here, too?”

“I thought he was.” Could this be an act? Napoleon felt the back of Illya’s head. There was a good solid lump. He held out his hand. “Are you OK? How many fingers have I got?”

Illya looked at him owlishly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Napoleon. Ten, just like everyone else.”

“You’ll do.” Napoleon slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Get in the truck. I think someone’s made off with our Aussie.”

“Are we going to shoot him? Or give him an award?”

“We’ll have to play it by ear.”

Illya slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine with a roar, turning the heater all the way to the right. “Not that I doubt your wisdom, but do you have any idea where to go?” He eased the truck toward the highway.

Napoleon pointed as the headlights flashed on a strip of blue Hawaiian cloth. It was wedged on something prickly. “He left us a trail of bread crumbs.”

They followed the highway west, back to the silo and past. There were no more breadcrumbs, but no likely place to turn off, either.

“So,” Napoleon asked casually. “Who conked you on the head? Paul? Or the KGB?”

Illya didn’t miss a beat. “I am not sure,” he said dryly. “Everyone’s been so friendly.”

Napoleon let that hang.

“There were two KGB,” Illya told him. “I tried your strategy, suggesting it would be best to leave town before the CIA caught up with them.”

“I take it they didn’t agree with you?”

Illya rubbed his head. “Russians tend to be somewhat excitable,” he shrugged. “Myself excepted.”

Napoleon spotted another blue strip, flapping alongside the road that lead to the copper mine above the silo. “Looks like our friends are in the prospecting business.”

Illya killed the lights and pulled the truck off the road. Now that the engine was warm, it ran reasonably quiet. “Anyone up on this hill will see our headlights coming. I do not believe the agents I spoke to are especially murderous, but they did seem insistent on finishing the mission.”

“Mmm,” Napoleon agreed. He looked at the sky. The clouds were patchy now, washed through with the light of the Milky Way. “Can you drive without headlights?”

“Perhaps. But a road used by mining equipment may be quite rough. It would be safer to wait until the moon comes up in an hour or so.”

Safer, but maybe too late for Paul. “Give it a shot.”

The truck eased back into gear. Napoleon watched a minute, considering. “Illya, this might not be the best time to bring it up, but I don’t think you can afford to lose any more partners right now.”

Illya steered carefully around potholes. The road was rough, and barely wider than one lane. It must be tricky coordinating traffic during the day. On their right, the ground began to fall away.

“Is that your way of asking about my career?” The voice in the dark did not invite questions.

“More or less,” Napoleon admitted. “If you like, I can show you my appendix scar when we get back, to even things up.”

The truck skidded right, then straightened. “Chyort,” Illya swore softly. Rainwater was still draining across the road, covering it with silt.

“Glen Parigi died in Italy.” Illya started. Napoleon raised an invisible eyebrow. He’d gone through Survival School with Glen—had heard he was dead but not how. “We were captured. They planned to kill us both with my gun. But when they shot Glen, the gun jammed and I got away.”

“Glen was a good man,” Napoleon said.

“Good, perhaps, but slow.” Illya’s voice was neutral now; they might have been discussing the weather.

“Second was Gerhard Kreutz. He was sloppy—not what you expect from a German—and we didn’t get along. One day I refused to drive with him, and when he started his car, it exploded. Type-two incendiary. Very effective. Easy to find if he had bothered to look.”

The truck hit a pothole with a bang and skewed to the edge. Illya fought it back onto the road, keeping steady pressure on the gas. He was a good driver at least.

“And number three?” Napoleon prompted.

“We were a group of five under Jacques Michaud. They left me outside. The inside proved to be a Thrush  satrapy.”

Michaud was another lost friend. “It was a setup?”

“Presumably,” Illya said shortly. “But my instructions were to abort if they did not come out by midnight. I waited until dawn and then left with the information we had already obtained.”

The level tone was hard to take. “And which was Jacques?” Napoleon asked, tightly. “Slow or sloppy?” He called up his memories. Perceptive was the word he would have picked.

“Foolish,” Illya said, an edge creeping into his voice. “He should have stayed outside and sent me in. Except—” He closed his mouth, eyes narrow.

“Except?”

“He didn’t trust me. Or at least, the other three didn’t. So he went in my place.”

Napoleon waited a moment. He’d asked. It wasn’t entirely Kuryakin’s fault if he didn’t like the answers.

“What about Paul and me, Illya? Slow? Sloppy? Foolish?”

The Russian shook his head. “I could not begin to categorize Paul.” He considered the question. “You,” he gave Napoleon a little sideways glance, “are reckless.” Napoleon thought about that. He’d been called worse.

Before them, the road fell away where mud had washed down the slope. Illya steered hard to the left, losing one wheel over the edge. The rear wheels spun as the truck fishtailed and sagged right. The wheels spun again before finding traction on an outcrop of rock. The truck eased back onto the road and crept around the gap. Napoleon let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

Illya’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “I advise you to climb in the back and jump out if that happens again,” he said, tensely.

“I would, but this is the last clean suit I’ve got.”

They crept forward. The ground started to dry out and the road improved. The vegetation beside them changed to high-desert—saguaro mixed with larger trees and cacti. Napoleon thought they must be near the top.

“Last question,” he promised. “What happened at the airport?”

Illya frowned. “I wish I knew.”

“Paul thought you planted that bomb.” Illya turned toward him in disbelief. The truck swayed hard to the left. “Hey… take it easy…”

Illya cursed softly and steadily, in a range beyond Napoleon’s colloquial Russian. “And I,” he said tightly, “think it was planted while I went back into the terminal, when Paul was supposed to be watching the car.”

The road widened abruptly and an empty gray sedan loomed in front of them. Illya pulled up behind it, next to a stand of mesquite trees. “But I have never met an Australian who does what he is told. Or a Russian,” he added quietly in that language, “who is valued for what he does.”

Napoleon took a moment to put it all together. He needed to be sure about Illya Kuryakin. Tonight. Here. Now. Because everything came down to whether Kuryakin was or wasn’t playing a double game. Time to roll the dice….

A light flashed in through the window. “You there!” a heavily accented voice called from very nearby. “Raise your hands and climb out of the truck.”

It’s alright comrade,” Illya called back in Russian. “I’ve brought you the other U.N.C.L.E. agent.” Napoleon looked from Illya Kuryakin’s closed face to the P38 in his hand. He finished his thought …and pay the price.

***

It was surprising how cold the desert could be at night, Solo thought glumly. At least, if you were left sitting on the damp ground for any length of time. He and Paul were tied, slightly apart, to something large and full of spikes—teddy bear cholla, Paul told him, pronouncing it “chow-la”—tied with just enough slack to stay unpunctured as long as they sat ramrod straight. The sounds of Illya Kuryakin’s home coming party rang into the night.

Paul didn’t think much of the singing. “If I could just redo one thing in life,” he vowed. “I’d hit that little ratbag harder on the head.”

“I wondered if that was you.”

“He was out jabbering with those Makarovniks, happy as a pig in mud,” Paul said. “I couldn’t hear it all, but my Russian’s good enough when it comes t’ talk about shooting, and our names came up more ’n once.”

Napoleon squinted at the sky, trying to guess how long they’d been tied up. It couldn’t be much later than midnight. He waited for Paul to tell how he’d charged in swinging against three armed intelligence agents and then gotten himself bundled off in a car, but the Aussie seemed willing to leave out that part of the story. Napoleon couldn’t blame him.

The sound of clinking bottles and Russian folksong floated again through the air. A family of coyotes yapped in sympathy.

“So help me,” Paul growled. “If I haft’a sit through one more verse of Polyushko-Pole, I’m going t’ throw myself on this cactus just for a change.”

“I can’t say I plan to copy you.” Napoleon had bumped it more than once already. For something that looked cute and fuzzy, it hurt like hell. “How are the ropes coming?” Paul had found a rock to saw with.

“Pretty good. We’ll be free in two or three days, if th’ bears don’t get us first. You don’t suppose some nice, CIA agent might hear all this racket and come bail us out?”

“Not likely.” But something loud was crunching in their direction, making scuffling noises. Napoleon looked at Paul. “They don’t really have bears in Arizona, do they?”

“Brown bears,” Paul informed him. “Great big ones, and cougars, too. Though…” he added doubtfully, “probably not this close t’ an active mine. Mostly what y’d get here is scorpions and rattlesnakes looking f’r someplace warm t’ cuddle up at night.”

“Oh, goody.”

The crunching grew louder, accompanied by snuffling and giggles. Giggles? A moment later, two bears, one brown and one blond, staggered up to the U.N.C.L.E. agents in a cloud of alcohol fumes.

Which one do we shoot first?” Brown Bear asked thickly in Russian. He lurched to a stop, just out of kicking range. One arm was draped possessively across Kuryakin’s shoulders, the other waved a heavy service pistol.

If I could just get to my lighter, Napoleon thought. I’d have a double Molotov cocktail.

Illya clutched at Brown Bear for support. “The ugly one,” he snickered. His free hand held an almost-empty vodka bottle. “No, wait!” He brought the bottle up and gave his partner a friendly punch in the chest. “That thing’s too loud. Use my pistol.”

Paul glared at him, snakelike. “Didn’t you already try that trick in Italy?” Paul spat, muscles tense. “On Glen Parigi?”

“Not quite the same,” Illya told him coldly. “I shot him in the back.” Brown Bear laughed, spitting vodka.

Illya leaned forward between Napoleon and Paul. “I think I will do you two in the forehead,” he promised. Napoleon felt something sharp press into his hand. A piece of glass?

Brown Bear dragged Illya back by the belt. “Not so close,” he chuckled. “I don’t think your friends like you very much.” He swung Illya around to face him. “Now, me,” he said in Russian. “I like you very much.” He wrapped his gun arm around Illya’s neck, pulling him first into a sloppy embrace, and then up into a kiss. “Very much.”

Behind him, Napoleon worked the broken glass, hoping his hand held out longer than the rope. In front, Illya Kuryakin swung the vodka bottle up hard. It burst in a shower of glass, but Brown Bear hardly seemed to notice. He blinked and shook his head, starting to step back. Then his eyes glazed over and he slumped to the ground.

Illya caught the pistol on the way down, fell to his knees, and pushed the gun, two fisted, against the KGB agent’s head.

Napoleon’s hands came free. He reached over and sawed Paul’s ropes.

Illya leaned forward, breathing hard. His left hand slowly pushed back the hammer. “Illya! Stop!”

Nyet.” Illya shook his head, an ugly look on his face. The hammer caught.

Illya put his hand back down to steady the gun. Now Paul was free. He and Napoleon exchanged glances. Neither of them was going to tackle an U.N.C.L.E. agent with a cocked gun in his hand.

“Illya,” Napoleon said quietly. “The last thing we want is a blood feud with the KGB.” He tried again. “It’s rule eighteen in the Solo School handbook. I’d have to lower your grade.” They waited a long moment while the blond agent’s features slowly relaxed into something more human. He let out a sigh, slid the hammer forward, and climbed to his feet.

“I suppose you are right,” he said. “Take this.” He handed Napoleon the service pistol and retrieved his P38 from Brown Bear’s pocket. “Mine won’t fire; I jammed it.” He started slowly pulling it apart.

Paul grabbed Brown Bear’s hand and shoved it hard against a cactus. Nothing happened. “Just checking,” he said. “For once I’d like t’ know for sure what’s going on.” He picked up the discarded ropes and began tying Brown Bear’s hands behind his back.

Napoleon watched Illya carefully fit his P38 back together. “That’s alright,” he said, casually. “Your gun was empty. I swapped in a blank magazine while we were driving up the hill.”

Illya snapped the magazine into place. “You what?”

“Removed your weapon,” Napoleon demonstrated. “Pulled the magazine,” He did that too. “Slipped in one that’s undercharged.” He dropped the magazine into his suit coat, took a new one from Brown Bear’s pocket, weighed it in his hand, and slid it home. “And tucked it back in your holster while you were busy driving.”

He handed the gun back to Illya, who stared at him in disbelief.

“I didn’t want you to have to worry about which way to point it.”

Illya pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “I believe I am too drunk for this.” He hiccupped.

Paul pulled the ropes tight, then straightened and slapped Illya on the back. “No worries, mate. Y’ did good.” He started to chuckle. “You should ’a seen your face when he kissed you.” The chuckle turned into peals of laughter. “It’s a good job you didn’t go in for an acting career!”

Napoleon and Paul found the remaining two KGB agents snoring under a mesquite tree, trussed them, and dumped them in the back of the pickup under a tarp. Napoleon considered throwing in a teddy bear cholla for good measure, but he had no way to pull one up. Illya joined them as they finished, looking a little less green and a little more sober.

“I tried to dissuade them from killing you.” Illya was becoming positively chatty. “When that failed, it seemed safest to drink our way out. You never know if a Russian can shoot straight, but you can always rely on one to drink himself into a coma.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Napoleon said.

Illya hiccupped. “Except it looked like the third one would outlast me—”

“That’s the trouble with only drinking on duty. It means you can’t hold your liquor.”

“So I decided it was time for the two of you to exert yourselves on your own behalf and brought him down to you.”

“Risky.”

“He had my gun. I was pretty sure he’d shoot you with that, which would give me an opportunity to hit him. Before that he was watching me rather closely.”

“Yes I noticed.” Napoleon shook his head. “And if he hadn’t switched guns?”

“Oh I would have thought of something. I could not let him shoot you before I got my diploma.” Illya’s eyes widened as Napoleon threw his weight against him, knocking him behind the truck.

“Aaaaah!”

“Shhh! Sniper!” Napoleon warned. Another shot cracked against the tree behind them. Illya’s face twisted in pain. “Are you hit?”

“No,” Illya gasped. “Please take your knee out of my kidney.”

“Oh. Sorry.” They crawled apart and peered from under the truck.

“Paul?” Napoleon called softly.

“Behind you,” came the answer. “I caught the second flash, couple’a hundred feet up the road. Keep him busy, I’ll circle around.” A third shot hit the rear truck tire with a bang.

“I thought there were only three of them,” Napoleon complained.

“That is not KGB,” Illya said. “Not with a .22 rifle.”

“Who then?”

“Stay where you are,” a woman’s voice called down. “I have a night scope, and I’ve got you covered.”

Illya darted from the truck to the KGB sedan, a fourth shot kicking dirt at his feet.

“That is my last warning, gentlemen. Next time I pick you off.” Illya threw Napoleon a questioning look and jerked his head at the trees.

Napoleon shook his head. “Um… what do you want?” he called.

“A life for a life,” she answered. “The Agent’s Code. You killed Rabib this morning, so I kill one of you, tonight. I’m giving you a chance to draw straws.” She paused. “Or I can kill you all if need be. I’m a very good shot.”

Ah, the Mossad backup who’d driven off this morning. In that case she was probably telling the truth. She’d know how to handle the rifle.

“I’m sorry about your boyfriend,” Napoleon called. “But we didn’t kill him. He ate his own gun. Which you’d know,” he added cruelly “if you hadn’t run away.”

“I followed orders!” she screamed back. “I did what I had to! Now I will do what is right. Your time is up, U.N.C.L.E.”

“Hold it,” Paul’s voice came, followed by the double-report of rifle and Walther P38.

A moment later Paul walked down the road, carrying the rifle.

“She’s dead,” he said. He threw himself down on the ground and leaned against the truck. “Crikey. I never shot a woman before.”

A heavy Russian accent floated down from the truck. “When you are finished coping with emotional distress,” it said, “would you please to pass again the bottle of wodka. Is very uncomfortable up here.”

They left the Mossad body by the road with a note for Shanghai-Bill and then, tired of games, drove back to the motel and rapped on Room 310. The two fat tourists who opened the door took one look and then graciously accepted the offer of an express ticket to Germany. Thirty minutes later, Julie met them at the stretch of dirt that doubled as local airstrip and helped load five dejected foreign agents and seven bottles of vodka onto one very private flight.

“Well,” Napoleon said, brushing his hands. That, I believe, is that.” Mission accomplished. He was almost too tired to care. “Back to the Airstream for a few hours sleep,” he told his team. “Tomorrow morning we can make a final report and clear out.”

Illya, with a clearly developing hangover, grunted assent. Paul nodded silently.

“Um, Mr. Solo?” Julie ventured. She stepped around into Napoleon’s path and looked up through her eyelashes self-consciously. “That trailer looked awfully cramped for all three of you…. Napoleon quashed his surprise and looked into Julie’s eyes. They were wide and blue against his own. Come to think of it, she was a very pretty girl, minus the curlers and bunny slippers.

“It is…rather cramped.” he agreed, smiling back at her.

“I just thought—” she swallowed, “if you’d like someplace a little roomier to stretch out, I could take you back to my place and drive you down again in the morning.” A very flattering blush crept across her cheeks.

Napoleon broadened his smile. “That’s a lovely suggestion, Julie. Thank you.” He sketched a wave at Illya and Paul—“Tomorrow morning, gentlemen?” —then took Julie by the arm and steered her back toward her car.

After all, the night was still young.

Act IV: Russian Red

“Wake up, sunshine.”

It must be morning, Illya thought blearily, because there was light on the other side of his eyelids, which seemed to be glued shut. His feet were blistered. His arms and legs burned from scratches. His back ached with real bruises left by fake rebar, and he had a sharp pain where Napoleon had kneed him in the side. He added this to his pounding headache and thrashing stomach: another successful mission. Then he smiled. A mission where we all come back alive.

“I said, wake up.”

Illya heard the click of a round being chambered in a semi-automatic pistol. Oops. He forced his eyelids apart. Shanghai-Bill Watson knelt beside his cot, black ski-mask pushed up on his head, Russian Stechkin APS held close to Illya’s side. He swallowed. Make that a fully automatic pistol.

“That’s an interesting weapon,” Illya croaked. “Are you planning to kill a great many people?” Paul’s and Napoleon’s bunks were empty.

“Just one. Sit up.” Illya sat.

Watson reached in his pocket and pulled out a length of wire with handles on each end. He put the gun under Illya’s chin and looped the wire around his neck. “Just like the KGB does it,” he whispered, twisting the handles together with one big hand. “I guess they don’t like little pinko traitors, either.”

“Whom exactly have I betrayed?”

“Both sides.” Watson told him. “Neither. It doesn’t matter.” He started to tighten the loop. It was going to be very hard to hit the man and duck.

“I told you to stay out of the silo, pretty boy, but that doesn’t matter either, really. Your ass was cooked the minute you set foot in Tucson. Or would have been, if you hadn’t got out of that goddam car.”

“That was you?”

Watson smiled. “CIA bombs are real hard to find. You U.N.C.L.E boys don’t know half what we got, and never will.” He twisted some more. “I despise you all,” he snarled, “waltzing around like you owe this country nothing. But I can only get away with killing one.” He smiled again. “The one spying on our ICBM program. So stand up.”

Illya stood. He was a lot shorter than Watson, which made it awkward for the big man to keep the gun under his chin. He could throw his weight down and sweep Watson off his feet—and take fifteen or twenty bullets in the back. He shifted his balance forward slightly.

“Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?” Napoleon Solo slouched against his elbows in the narrow bathroom doorway. He felt Illya’s gaze rake his empty hands. Solo School rule six: Don’t provoke the guy with the biggest gun.

Watson’s eyes twitched in his direction.

“Don’t interfere, Solo,” he growled. “You don’t have to be involved in this.” He twisted the garrote with a little smile of satisfaction. It was starting to look tight.

“I’m not planning to stand in your way,” Solo said, with complete and utter candor. “U.N.C.L.E. has been hoping you’d clean up our Soviet embarrassment all along. Why else would we parade him around a top-secret missile site?” Why indeed?

“Although,” he continued, “I’d prefer you shoot him a bit farther away from my bunk. At that angle, you might ruin my wardrobe.” He saw Illya tense and shook his head out of Watson’s line of sight. Wait he mouthed. They needed to play for time. The Soviet embarrassment wasn’t looking especially patient.

“No shooting,” Shanghai Bill promised, “unless our friend gets frisky.” He twisted again, just a little, apparently glad to drag the execution out.

“The only thing is,” Napoleon used his silkiest voice, “I’m going to have to call this in before you finish the job.”

That got Watson’s attention, but his gun didn’t waver an inch. Sadistic tendencies aside, the man was a pro.

“You what?”

“I need to report this to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. Don’t worry, I’m sure Mr. Waverly will approve your technique.” Napoleon gave the Stechkin an appreciative glance. “That Russian machine pistol’s a nice touch. But—” He slipped his own gun from behind the doorframe. “I’m afraid I have to insist.”

He made his voice harder. “You can have the little faggot, for all I care, but I’m not risking my career.” There. Now, if Watson didn’t kill him, Illya would. And they think they have nothing in common.

Shanghai-Bill took a calculating look in Solo’s direction. Even at six-hundred rounds per minute, he couldn’t be sure to get them both and make it out alive.

Napoleon let him do the math, then slowly reached over and pulled the radio from the closet. He switched it on, set the hotel phone on the cradle, punched numbers, and rubbed his mental rabbit’s foot. Across from him, Shanghai-Bill was staring in disbelief. Illya was breathing hard.

“Waverly here,” a voice crackled out of the speaker. “I’ve been expecting your report, Mr. Solo.”

“Ah, yes, sir. Actually, I’m –ah– calling to let you know we’re in a rather tricky situation, and I was wondering if you could help us out?”

“Of course, Mr. Solo,” the voice said dryly. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Napoleon swallowed hard. Maybe he should have tried shooting his way out of this.

“Well, you see, sir,” he started, “I’m with Bill Watson of the CIA, who appears to have taken a rather strong dislike to Mr. Kuryakin,” he has a lot of company, “and is planning to repaint our trailer in Russian Red… and we were wondering what your opinion is on the subject. If you get what I mean….”

“I believe I do. Can you put Mr. Watson on the line?”

“I’m here,” Shanghai-Bill growled. “But if you think I’m gonna let this goddam commie spy go on the say so of an over-aged international rent-a-cop, you’re all out of your minds.” Silence. Shanghai-Bill twisted the loop again. Illya was rasping now, staring at Napoleon incredulously.

“I see,” Waverly said. “Very well, I’ll have to ask you to stay on the line for a moment, gentlemen. And in the meantime, Mr. Watson, please put your decorating plans on hold.”

“You got three minutes,” Watson snarled. “This whole goddam thing is getting ridiculous.” He pulled Illya up close onto the balls of his feet, apparently planning to enjoy the wait. His face had a satisfied, possessive smile. The big hand, wrapped around the big gun, stayed steady as a rock.

Off balance, Illya was getting into trouble. He swayed a little, his complexion darkening. Napoleon steeled himself for a shot at Watson’s gun. U.N.C.L.E. couldn’t afford killing a CIA agent, no matter how much he’d like to shoot the bastard in the head.

The radio cracked to life. “CDI Dulles,” it said. “You got a Bill Watson there?” Dulles? Napoleon hid his astonishment. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA?

It took Watson a moment to refocus. His voice was husky. “Yes, sir.”

“What office are you out of, Watson?” Napoleon held his breath.

“Um. Denver, under Chesterton.”

“And is Dick Chesterton in the habit of conducting off-the-cuff executions?”

“Uh, no sir, but this is a special case.”

“Negative. We are hands-off re U.N.C.L.E. in this matter. Is that clear?”

Watson sucked in heavy breaths. He shook his head, unwilling to let go of his conquest. Napoleon reconsidered the head shot.

“But sir, the man’s a Soviet—”

“I repeat, hands off! Verification code Langley 1763. Dulles out.”

“Yes, sir.” Watson said to empty air. He held Illya one lingering moment, then pushed him back down with a look of utter disgust.

“Sorry,” Napoleon shrugged. “I guess that puts things in a different light.”

Watson’s complexion went from white to pink to red. “All right,” he said slowly. “We’ll play it your way.” He moved the gun away from Illya’s head and began untwisting the cord. “No hard feelings—”

Napoleon watched Illya gulp in air, eyes shrinking to slits, and wished with all his heart that Watson had put the Stechkin back on safety. The next instant Kuryakin spun, right fist slamming into Watson’s temple with a solid smack.

The CIA agent dropped like a stone, his gun in Illya’s hand.

Napoleon kept his face blank, just as if he hadn’t been about to dive for cover.

Illya yanked the cord off his neck, breathing hard, and stood a long moment over Watson. For once, Napoleon had no words of restraint.

Illya sighed. He pulled the magazine out of the Stechkin and tossed it on his bed. Then he leaned over and patted Watson down, removing two more guns and a stiletto. “No hard feelings at all,” he agreed.

Outside, footsteps shook the trailer and Paul Matthews appeared, waving his P38. He took in the situation and spread a grin across his face. “Did I miss anything?”

Napoleon’s mouth twitched. “Our boy’s got a pretty good right hook.”

Illya looked back and forth between Napoleon and Paul. Under the circumstances, Napoleon thought, he could have been a little more grateful.

“I cannot believe,” he said thickly, “that anyone could have actually been fooled by that childish trick.” He scowled fiercely at Napoleon. “What did you do? Telephone Paul in another hotel room?”

“Room 310,” Napoleon agreed. He was pretty sure Illya wouldn’t shoot him at this point. He’d already unloaded the gun. “We heard it was available.”

“You set this up—how? From the bathroom?”

“Through th’ window,” Paul said. “Though I admit, I added th’ Dulles part on my own. Nice authentic touch, if I do say so myself.” He holstered his pistol, looking smug. “Lucky for you, I’m a natural at doing bureau chiefs.” He winked. “It’s that air of command we share.”

Napoleon grimaced. Lucky for Illya, Watson had been so hot to throttle him he’d barely heard the radio.

He put his own gun away and then reached into the closet and began removing suits. “And on that note, pardners,” he drawled, “I believe we ought to mosey on out of town before our friend wakes up and notices Paul gave him last week’s verification code by mistake.”

For once, Paul had the decency to look abashed.

“Mosey?” Illya asked.

“Cowboy talk. It means to remove ourselves in a leisurely fashion.”

“I believe,” Illya said, “I have had enough of cowboys.” He lifted the cardboard box that was still packed with all his gear, and stepped over the unconscious CIA agent. “Perhaps we could run?”

Epilogue

I wonder if Russians make a habit of being late? Napoleon and Paul were in Waverly’s office, but the chair earmarked for Illya was ominously bare.

The door whisked open. “Sorry,” Kuryakin bustled in, carrying a large paper sack. “I was buying kielbasa for Mama Lidia.” The western look was gone, Napoleon saw with relief. Instead Illya wore dark pants and sport coat, with a black turtleneck to hide his bruises. It was a definite improvement.

“Yes, well.” Waverly began. “Let me congratulate you on your mission, gentlemen. The CIA is very happy—at least, now that I’ve had time to chat with Allen Dulles about your little prank.”

I bet that was some chat, Napoleon thought.

“Bill Watson has been reassigned to Southeast Asia—” Paul’s snort earned him a disapproving glance “—and they sent over a little something for Mr. Kuryakin.” He handed Illya a brown folder.

Illya’s face lit up as he paged through the file. “The specifications for our car bomb!”

“On top of that,” Waverly continued, “we seem to have avoided rousing any real ire on the part of the other agencies we do business with. All in all, a very satisfactory outcome.”

“Thank you.” Napoleon said. “I’m glad to hear that, sir.”

“Mr. Kuryakin, Mr. Matthews, you’re free to go.”

“Thank you,” Illya looked positively thrilled. “We were hoping to get down to the cafeteria in time for lunch. They’re serving pierogi!” They left together in a rush.

Napoleon Solo and Alexander Waverly looked at each other silently across the conference table for a long moment. Napoleon’s head was beginning to hurt. He tried hard not to squirm.

“Well, Mr. Solo,” Waverly said at last. “How did you like your little team-building exercise?”

This time he did squirm. “As compared to being captured and tortured by Thrush, I liked it pretty well. Compared to anything else though, well, I’m honestly not sure.” He thought for a moment above the ache in his head. “Did you ever doubt it, sir? That we’d pull it off?”

Waverly squinted down at his pipe, tapped it, put it to his lips.

“I never doubted for a minute, Mr. Solo.”

He opened a drawer. “Would you care for an aspirin? I find they’re wonderfully useful when dealing with subordinates.” He passed the bottle to Solo. “Keep it,” he suggested. He reached into the drawer again. “And while you’re at it, you might as well keep this too.” He passed over a triangular yellow badge. Section Two. Number Five. “You’re excused.”

Napoleon swallowed hard. “Thank you sir.” He rose to go, then wondered. Did anything in this business ever come without a catch?

Waverly cleared his throat. “Oh one more thing.”

Apparently not. “Yes, sir?”

“I’m going to attach Mr. Kuryakin to New York for the time being. You don’t object to going out in the field with him again, do you?”

Napoleon looked at him, stunned. “Kuryakin, sir?” he croaked. The mission flashed before his eyes: Illya stalking out on breakfast, charging headlong into cactus, collapsing in a pile of rebar, dangling from a CIA agent’s fist. The man was a magnet for disaster.

“Since you did so well together,” Waverly added. “Nobody else seems to like him much. Except maybe, that Australian fellow.”

Napoleon could swear the old bastard’s mouth was twitching. Say no, he told himself. Section Two Number Twenty-five is not so bad. For that matter, a courier job has definite appeal. Then inspiration struck—maybe I can pawn him off on Paul?

“Of course, sir,” he answered. “I’d be glad to.” He went off in search of lunch with a light step.

Alexander Waverly reached in his drawer for another bottle of aspirin and smiled.

The End

Author’s note: The Titan missile silo is a real place, now a museum, located a short distance south of Tucson, AZ. This story takes place about 2/3 into the construction project—which would have more properly been mid-1962. I exercised artistic license and moved it up to catch the agents earlier in their careers.

Thanks to Sandie, Carol, Julia, and Dusky for making my draft into a story.