Merrily We Roll Along


Merrily We Roll Along

Want to read this in ebook form? Download here.

Copyright ©2005 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 notice in any distribution.


For I read it in the rose-light of the everlasting glow:
“Cloudy; variable winds, with local showers; cooler; snow.”
  —Hell’s Weather Prediction, as quoted in “The Devil’s Dictionary”

There is an art to driving an automobile down a steep mountain slope in a blizzard that is almost impossible to acquire as a member of the Soviet Submarine Service. I plucked the wool beret from my head and erased a small circle of steam from the windshield in front of me, peering out of the misty world inside the car to the pale afternoon blankness beyond. The road, faintly luminous under my tires, began a slow curve to the right, and my vehicle and I shifted gears and slithered after it.

The question followed: do I serve in a Soviet Submarine, or am I doing a good job driving the car?

I pondered methods to arrive at the answer as the road straightened and I risked a small increase in speed. So far, the accumulation of snow was slight, enough to make steering treacherous without impeding my progress. But if the storm continued—as I felt certain it would—there might be deep patches soon and drifts that would favor the black utility truck looming behind me. And I had no need to ponder questions and answers to understand this would be a bad thing.

For now, however, my Citroen DS had the advantage of speed and maneuverability. The road switched round to the left and I eased into a sliding arc past a dark sweep of trees. One curve back, the black truck wallowed and lost ground, and I took time for another quick swipe at the windshield. The damp, confined atmosphere inside the car smelled familiarly of loaned socks and under-washed men…of narrow spaces and the hint of ozone hovering around an electric radio set…. I probed the image and in short order produced a long list of submarine terms. This was good news, as far as unraveling my identity, but not such good news for the car, which skewed violently in response to my divided attention.

Still, submarine terms led to mathematics, Latin, and French. I knew the best places to eat in New York. I could call to mind street maps of Moscow, London, and Rome. I had no idea where I was.

What I did have, abruptly, was the understanding this was not the first time—that I’d had to knit myself together before—and that this, too, was an art seldom acquired in the Navy. Was I suffering some sort of disease? Repeated seizures might account for my befuddlement, for the aches and bruises I’d been trying to ignore. Had I misinterpreted lights… needles…guards? Fled a situation designed to protect me? Abducted an innocent man?

I shuddered, and the car fishtailed wildly in protest. This was followed by a soft thud as my passenger fell to the floor of the back seat. Don’t fight yourself, someone else’s words rang in my mind. Let threads of memory and logic untangle naturally.

Drive.

“Uh—”

The sound was punctuated by the crack of a bullet as it pierced the rear windshield and buried itself, with a small puff, in the upholstery next to my thigh. And inside me, something that had been coiled very tight loosened and smiled. Because guns were another item I could make lists about, and while I wasn’t thrilled, precisely, to be targeted, it was at least good to know I’d dodged bullets before. I knew, too—though the memories wavered—that what had begun as a desperately blind bid for freedom had been no misinterpretation. And there was no going back.

The road curved again. I had a better feel for it now and hugged the mountain close in an attempt to reduce the truck’s line of fire. A kaleidoscope of rock, pavement, and snow swirled about me, visibility shifting between mere inches and eight or ten lengths of the car. Each time the storm closed in, I fought a rising sense of confinement, a nagging voice that whispered road and car had no part in reality, that when the clouds lifted, I’d find myself tethered, still, amidst the white-plastered walls of dementia.

“That’s enough,” I muttered, setting my words against the drone of the car. And after all, what good could come of persuading myself escape was imaginary? I’d be no better off if it were, and considerably worse if it were not. “Altogether enough.”

“I altogether…” the click of a cocking revolver sounded behind me and an instant later, a gun barrel touched the right edge of my jaw “…agree.” I hadn’t searched the car before tossing my passenger in. That was beginning to seem like an oversight.

The black truck swung into view some distance behind us, and I weighed the virtue of evasive driving against the potential vice of jostling the gun.

My companion’s breath flowed hot along the back of my ear. “Pull over. Stop.” He had the ragged voice of a man who has endured a bad cold or prolonged bout of screaming. Like the car’s smell, his accent tugged at my memory, but it had no name in any words I could find.

I accelerated instead, putting more distance between myself and those screams. “If you believe you can fire, my friend, drag my body out of the way, leap the seat, and avert a plunge over the side of the mountain, then by all means pull the trigger.” I knew he couldn’t. As with searching the vehicle, however, the idea he might consider it possible occurred to me rather too late. “Otherwise, perhaps you could put the gun away long enough to discuss it.”

There was a pause while I took the next curve fast and wide, fingers gripping the wheel as though that might encourage the Citroen’s grip on the road. Spin…catch…spin…. The car began to twist; we skidded sideways, blind, through the last quarter turn. And recovered. And continued, but I was forced to give ground on our speed.

The revolver traced a line forward to rest on my chin. “What I believe,” he growled, “is you’re the sort of fellow who will bring us both to a safe stop alongside the road even after I’ve blown away a piece of your jaw.”

I was beginning to rather dislike the man. “And set the parking brake after,” I answered, thinking this was not the discussion I’d planned. “And have the presence of mind, before I’m done, to draw and fire my own gun.” If I’d had one, alas. The unconscious fellow who’d provided my overalls had not been carrying a weapon. “Are you quite certain your revolver is loaded?” After all, I’d been lax about details.

But my passenger had not been so rushed. “Quite,” he nudged my chin, “certain. Now,” his voice lowered to barely more than a hiss. “I’m counting to five. One….”

I swallowed, wondering whether there was traction enough to allow me to brake hard and throw his gun hand clear of my face. And then what? Bite his ear? These were not the best conditions for hand-to-hand combat.

The black truck emerged from the turn and began to draw near.

“Two….”

“You do realize,” I remarked, “there’s a vehicle full of armed men closing in on us?”

The heat left my neck as his head twisted. The revolver in his hand never wavered.

My companion turned back at last. “You don’t want them to catch us,” he rasped. “That makes me think maybe I do.”

A hail of bullets rang out against the rear of the car.

That was one trouble, of course. Maybe he did. I’d had little reason to rescue him, had not clearly understood I was rescuing myself, at the start, or that the two people—the jailors—who’d collapsed in front of me like punctured balloon men had been dropped by my hand. All I’d had was a deep sense of urgency and…as my gaze had fallen across this other man, cast aside on a metal gurney, as I had been, unconscious and bruised…a sense of deep moral anger.

So I’d wheeled him along and tumbled him into the car.

My enemy’s enemy may not be my friend. Which complicates matters. But in this business—I frowned, still puzzling over what this business might be—in this business, one must sometimes act first and work details out later. The thought made me chuckle. If the last hour could be taken as evidence, I must be at the top of my field.

“Three….” His word trailed into a chorus of gunshot.

Though I might not stay on top for long. We were crossing, the pair of us, the gulf stretching between my opening move and its ultimate consequence. Gun or no gun, I had to keep the initiative.

“Four….”

“Wait!” I hesitated over the brake pedal, understanding a fight now meant death for one or both of us—but more likely for him, as he pitches forward and my right elbow drives into his throat. The vision frightened me in its clarity, for murder was apparently one more skill I had mastered, and I most suddenly and desperately wished to disown it. “You’ve got the revolver,” I reasoned. “You’ve got me. There’s a long road ahead, and the men behind are unlikely to alter their course. For the sake of my widowed mother, who can’t afford to help with hospital bills…” for the sake of a few moments before I find out I’m a killer… “could you at least count to ten?”

“Allrightie…Boris,” —but no, that wasn’t my name— “If you want to chat, let’s start with why a man, speaking flawless Russian, is racing a French car through the Swiss Alps a short distance ahead of a truckload of uniformed men.”

A furious burst of automatic fire exploded behind us. The rear windshield shattered and fell. The car rocked as the wind tested our revised aerodynamic properties, and my companion cursed proficiently in flatly unaccented English. But since his revolver remained steady, I presumed the annoyance arose from the sting of snow against bare skin, and not from that of lead.

“Because they’re firing American guns?” I quipped, switching the conversation to English. Nevertheless, his question rattled me. For I knew now where I was: The West. And I knew, with the certainty of a Soviet spy, that to lapse into my native tongue in front of a stranger had been an irredeemable slip.

“And if you don’t mind my saying so…” I continued. No, not a Soviet spy. I felt a rush of vertigo that had nothing to do with my driving. A spy…and a Soviet and…the windshield blurred into a hypnotic, colorless spiral…and something else.

I shook my head. Whatever that something else might be, I had no way of knowing.

“If you don’t mind my saying so,” I tried again, “those bullets are as likely to hit you as they are me.” More likely, in fact, as he was seated directly in back of me. A fact I might have found comfort in, if not for his gun.

We skated into the next curve, the black truck two lengths behind, as the storm tightened its grip, suffocating mountain, pursuit, sky, and road in a single obliterating gesture. But as the outside world vanished and the car flooded with snow, my inner vision began to grow stronger. The West. I laughed out loud. For although I could not name the mountain, the country or, with any certainty, the continent we were driving on, I had a sudden and intimate picture of the course of that road. I was possessed of its secrets, knew the bedrock it rested on as surely as though we had lain together, many nights, in concealment. I could negotiate its twists and turns as I had once been drilled to negotiate equipment and bulkheads by means of touch, scent, and dead reckoning alone.

Possibly.

Calculations of speed and direction flickered to life as I matched the route we’d traveled thus far to the map in my mind. Like a pilot on instruments, I pinpointed our location, there, and then eased the vehicle forward…forward…a bit more until the subtle bank of the road announced a curve to the left. No matter that my only instrument was a half-fogged car speedometer, or that the equations I muttered, one after another, smacked as much of litany as of navigational aid. All that mattered was the invisible band of life between mountain and sky.

Between our car and the gunmen behind us.

But I’d been correct in the first place; heavy weather favored the truck. Like an insect, its black hood beetled out of the blizzard, hesitated, and then slammed into the rear of our car. The Citroen shuddered and leapt forward. The ground fell away. I fought a surge of unreasoning panic—we were almost certainly inside a curve—and then rocks and gravel sputtered under our tires. The right fender shrieked and buckled up against the mountain and my companion echoed its yell, tumbling headlong over the passenger seat toward the front of the car. Above it all, I heard a gentle snap as the revolver clicked empty, felt the impact of metal on bone….

The car recoiled, hit the truck, and was propelled forward again to scrape the cliff face in a shower of sparks. I fought for control as the truck fell back and then deliberately rammed us a third time, sending the Citroen into a spin. We swung around in a half-circle, crashed against the rock wall in reverse, rebounded, and began a ragged, backwards skid away from the mountain. Grill to grill, the black beetle pursued us—barely under control itself—driving our sedan back slowly, inexorably, at an angle across the slippery pavement. Brakes, gas, and steering offered no resistance against the truck’s larger momentum.

How far to the outside of the curve? Fifteen feet? Ten? Beyond that—my mental map had elevations marked clearly—was a drop off the edge of the world. I wiped my windshield for a final look outward. I could jump. Would do so as a last resort, gambling my fate beneath the wheels of the truck. My associate, however, now hopelessly pinned upside down between the crumpled right dashboard and floor, would have no such opportunity.

Time slowed, as when we’d first bounced on the road, but for the present, I’d left panic behind. I squinted up into the taller vehicle, searching for vulnerabilities behind snow-shrouded glass. There were five occupants, three heads dimly visible in the rear, the driver, staring past me in search of the precipice, and a man with a heavy beard, struggling to bring up an M3 submachine gun.

What I needed was a gun of my own. I glanced between the thrashing legs of my passenger and spied the revolver, still clutched in his hand, partly wedged between the seat and the crease of his thigh. Was it loaded? The first chamber had been empty, but that proved nothing except, perhaps, a commendable element of caution on the part of my friend.

The bearded man smiled—a gap-toothed, malicious grin—and with a start, I recognized one of my two ex-jailors, one I clearly hadn’t punctured firmly enough. He hoisted the M3 up to his shoulder, angled the barrel, and braced the tip against the inside of his own windshield as I helped myself to the revolver.

I sent a round toward the driver’s left shoulder and ducked low, in the same instant glass, snow, and gun fire exploded into the car. The Citroen convulsed as the truck’s driver jerked his wheel to the left and the two vehicles began to pirouette apart. There was a second roar, the machine gun shattering my side window, and then our car skittered a short distance and stopped.

I threw my door open and launched myself, belly first, onto the road, sliding painfully through a slush of glass and spilling gasoline and snow, rolling sideways, sheltering the revolver in the dry space between my cupped palms. Five well-armed men, at least. Even if there were four bullets left in my gun…even if I could engineer a good game of hide and seek in the storm…the odds were against killing all five of them.

Still, I was willing to try.

I sprinted fifty paces up the road, letting the storm wrap around me like camouflage, leaving a trail of blood from a half dozen minor cuts for my playmates to follow, I checked the revolver—only three bullets—and then crouched low, listening for the truck, or shouts, or the soft crunch of trudging feet following my trail. Not that I truly expected sounds of pursuit to carry over the weather. My plan was to spot my enemies at the exact moment they spotted me, and to shoot faster.

Minutes trickled by as the wind howled and I hunched over hands and revolver. Nothing came. Snow began to accumulate on the back of my overalls and to melt and seep into my shoes. I was damp now; before long I’d be wet. Thus far something—discipline? experience? fear?—had saved me from really feeling the cold, but in the back of my mind I knew the storm was a serious enemy. One I could neither lay a trail of blood for nor shoot with my gun. One I needed to find shelter from, soon.

I couldn’t wait. I rose stiffly and began to creep down along the mountainside, keeping my original track in sight, squatting from time to time to collect a few stones. At length the track vanished. I turned back into the wind, my arm shielding my eyes, and saw only the indentation of my last few footsteps, filling with snow. I faced downwind and squatted again, considering logistics. It had been fifty paces, running up the road, and about seventy walking down. Allowing for different strides, I should be near the vehicles now.

I shuffled away from the cliff wall, gently kicking the top layer of snow aside, and located my trail. Five paces further on, the snow was studded with glass. I found the car’s tracks, the slush of gasoline, and the flat place where I’d skidded along on my stomach, but neither sedan nor truck was in sight. I stumbled upwind and discovered the track of a single truck’s tire, a forlorn and nearly obliterated line, cutting straight across the course of the road.

Our car had convulsed as the truck’s driver jerked his wheel left in response to the pain of my bullet. The two vehicles had pirouetted apart. There’d been a second roar, the submachine gun shattering my side window, and then the Citroen had skittered a short distance, facing the precipice, and stopped.

Of course, I’d had the presence of mind to take my foot off the accelerator.

I trudged along in the truck’s wake, no longer bothering to be careful, until I reached the point where the track disappeared from the pavement. I wondered, briefly, if my mental map could be relied upon. It could. The drop was nearly half of a mile.

I didn’t smile. The loss of five would-be assassins troubled me not in the least, but I’d been counting on the use of that truck. Without shelter, my prospects were little better than theirs.

I shivered then, and had a long hard moment balanced on the edge between self pity and survival. One vehicle gone. But there had been two. I knew the Citroen hadn’t plunged over the edge. At any rate, not here. And between the leaking gas tank and the deepening snow, I didn’t think it could have driven very far.

What’s more…. I started back along my footprints once again, fighting the wind that clawed my face and shoved me from the side, checking carefully along the tire tracks to be certain no one had escaped from the truck.

What’s more…the man I’d left behind, wedged head-first in the compressed space between dashboard and floor, his naked, glass-pricked derriere thrusting upward, legs thrashing wildly—I did smile now, the picture struck me as quite funny—my domineering friend, my rescuee, was probably quite near. I need only fall in line behind the Citroen.

The wind swung and boxed my left side. I blinked down at the unblemished snow surrounding me.

Lost.

I’d missed my trail. I could be anywhere. I took a few steps, trying to sense the road’s slope, but with the wind veering, now one way, now the next, I couldn’t get my bearings. For the first time since the storm had swallowed the terrain, despair crept up on me. I dared not move. I dared not stand. I dared not crawl and dissipate what warmth I still possessed into the snow…and all around, at any moment, the earth might fall away to nothing….

But fear is not a satisfactory companion and having met mine, I abandoned it. There was little choice but to continue forward until I either found a landmark or fell off the mountain. Resolutely, I began a scraping, counting shuffle, blinking ice out of my eyes, digging each step down to verify the scuff of asphalt underneath my soles. The steps were small, but I was sure the narrow roadbed knew their number.

Thirty. Thirty-five. The wind dropped, and rose, and settled on my right. That was good. Assuming that it blew as it had blown before, the rock face should lie straight ahead—

The pavement ended; my foot jerked back from open air. Wind flared about me and I slipped and stumbled on the road’s uneven shoulder, toppling sideways, flailing as I landed in the snow. My elbow cracked into the ground and the revolver—half-forgotten in my hand—exploded in a blast that crashed against the mountain and kicked back bits of stone that pricked my skin. The shot reverberated, triggering a landslide of many hours’ accumulated misery. I rolled into a shuddering ball.

Get up.  Get up. Get up. The howling could have been the storm’s or been my own. I couldn’t stop it either way. My thoughts pursued each other like winds inside a hurricane, each one an incoherent roar. Get up; get up.

And yet my private maelstrom had its center, a place of quiet rationality. The echo of my shot, the flying rocks, amounted to my landmark. I was clearly up against the mountain and could follow it, in safety, down the road. The man I’d rescued, and the shattered car, would not be far.

What’s more, beyond this curve, the mountain broadened. There’d be trees and many types of shelter to be found. I could construct an igloo—but no, the snow wasn’t really deep enough, and for some mad reason I was afraid I’d burn it down—a lean-to of some sort. I touched my breast pocket, which contained the cigarettes and matches that had been my guard’s. If they were dry enough…a half an igloo, maybe, and a fire….

“For Christ’s sake, never mind about the igloo,” someone yelled, “just get up!”

I uncurled, prying open one half-frozen eye. “Napoleon?”

My not-so-naked friend was tugging at my arm. “Forget him, too,” he rasped, above the storm. He’d found a sweater, somewhere, and a set of tweeds and homburg hat.

And rubber boots.

And gloves.

I looked around for champagne and a picnic basket, but they were not in evidence.

“Come on.” He pulled me up as all the pains I’d been denying for the last hour crowded in. My arms, my legs, my left eye, which was swollen nearly shut, my body…every muscle ached as though I’d fallen off the mountain, instead of merely tripping over it. Long hours of questioning. The drugs and beatings, the confusion, flying glass, and freezing cold. I touched the large lump on my temple where I’d hit the steering wheel and closed my eyes to listen to the drumming in my head.

I think, perhaps, I’ve never felt more miserable.

Nor had a greater wish to hide it. “No,” I told him, shaking off his hand. “No, you’re Napoleon.”

My memory yielded up his name but not my own. This was the first time since escaping that I had seen his face, and I paused now for a better look—dark hair, exasperated hazel eyes—searching for the secret of our locked identities; but my examination came to nothing. And to be sure, unless he habitually bore the aspect of a man who’s fallen down a flight of steps, it wasn’t all that strange I failed to recognize him.

At last I looked away. Whatever our connection, the sight of this man, bundled as he was against the cold, was almost physically painful. Beyond the two of us, the world remained a wailing blur of white, overshadowed by the looming rock wall of the mountain.

“Where’s the car?”

“This way,” he yelled. He started down the road and I fell in behind, glad to follow in the trail he beat out with his boots. There was no visible path. We hugged the shoulder, plodding single file for what seemed close to an eternity, and I considered that he must have wandered for some time, as I had done, reading traces of the accident, until he’d found my footprints or perhaps had heard my shot. Despite my growing conviction that we knew each other, I did not attribute this to friendship. He’d been looking for—

“Wait!” I stared down at my empty hands. “I dropped the gun.”

He turned and blinked. “Where?”

The wind crashed as I faced back up-road, frowning. “If I’d noticed where,” I answered, though I doubted he could hear, “I would have picked it up.”

I hadn’t noticed. Still, the possibilities were limited. It must have fallen within an arm’s length of our trail. I forced one painful step and then another, kicking snow about, as I had done before, to be certain I missed nothing. The track was clear; the hike, against the storm, was going to be a struggle.

Napoleon tugged my arm. “Forget it. It’s not important.” His grip grew tighter. “Illya, stop.” He stepped around me, cutting off the wind; the relief was so intense, I nearly fainted. “Forget it!” He shook my shoulders, once, then twice, and I began to bridle at excessive handling. “It’s not worth freezing for.”

I paused, struck by his words, uncertain as to why. Was the gun worth freezing for? Without it, when Thrush came, we’d be defenseless. Whatever Thrush might be. I shook my head, unable to enlarge upon the thought. Whatever Thrush was, I was sure that, when it came, we’d want to shoot it.

His gloved hands urged me backwards. “Illya, go!”

I stood my ground, frozen, captivated by a sudden, paralyzing mental struggle. When Thrush came…. The echo of my train of thought pursued me. When Thrush came…. But Thrush had come before.

Forget.

I felt my own expression harden, staring at the contradictions of this man…of Thrush…. Something was terribly wrong about Napoleon. Something incorrect. The hat, the tweeds, they didn’t suit him, didn’t fit him, for that matter, couldn’t be his own. Had he attacked some other person on the road and stripped his clothes? The question made me shiver more than all the blasts of wind preceding it; I had an irrepressible and urgent need to know the answer.

I stretched my hand and fingered his lapels, reached past to touch the sweater underneath. A whiff of pipe tobacco teased my nose. I knew these clothes…this face…these clothes.

And Thrush.

Forget everything….

I shut my eyes and summoned up a mental picture of the man in front of me and then, with concentration, forced the images of man and clothes apart. Like separate channels of a stereo projector, two views emerged. One held the naked figure of my partner. The other held the empty clothing of my boss.

The vision spun abruptly, casting out a constellation of disintegrated images. The half-remembered sting of an injection. A disc’s inexorable, outward spiral. A voice, commanding—

Forget everything you know….

A voice that rose above the echo of explosions. As Thrush….

“Illya!”

I shook him off. I almost had it. As Thrush broke in….

Forget everything you know about U.N.C.L.E….

As Thrush broke into U.N.C.L.E’s newest, nearly unmanned, installation, bulldozed past defenses only partly armed. So that our only choice had been a hopeless battle or still more hopeless capture and the risks interrogation would entail.

Forget everything you know about U.N.C.L.E. until you absolutely….

Unless Napoleon and I could detrain ourselves and hide the secrets Thrush would need to hold the lab. Without that knowledge, within four hours, U.N.C.L.E. would be pounding at the door.

Forget everything you know about U.N.C.L.E. until you absolutely, positively, need to remember it.

I’d readied the equipment. Napoleon had picked the wording of the tape.

And so we had forgotten. The codes. The information access keys. Escape routes, none of which was fully functional. The hidden vault where Alexander Waverly and the secret group of VIPs he’d brought along to tour the lab had gone to ground.

“Dammit, Illya. Move!”

I snapped back to the present. Illya. Did Napoleon remember? Did he realize, as I had done, that rather than escaping, we should be rushing back up to the lab? I cleared my throat. I opened up my eyes.

I should have ducked.

In this business, one’s partner sometimes acts first and leaves details to be worked out later. If I hadn’t, for the first time all day, really trusted him, he never could have caught me with that punch.

* * *

It was a dark and mournful affair waiting in the car which, in his haste to hide so he could come and search for me, Napoleon had driven off the road, down an embankment, and only partway through an insufficient gap between two trees. The trees’ broad branches offered some protection from the storm, to which Napoleon had added rafts of pine boughs that he’d cut and lashed across our broken windows. So that by the time I woke we had a reasonably solid—if unaesthetic—shelter.

True, it was less snug than an igloo, but the seats were arguably better padded. I found myself lying across the back one, stripped of wet Thrush overalls, wrapped in a wool blanket and a canvas tarpaulin, and it struck me how very difficult it is to keep your clothes, from one hour to the next, when you’re a spy.

But then, it’s difficult to keep a lot of things. Your looks—my throbbing face informed me that I’d turned significantly purple—your memories—your partner—your professional integrity—

The trunk groaned shut. Napoleon staggered past my door, manhandled a wood crate into the front seat, and then leaned upon it, coughing from exertion and cold air. The car’s interior light pushed back the dusk, illuminating his haggard expression.

A flashlight flared and blinded my good eye. I winced.

“You could help,” Napoleon said, a trifle sourly. The light clicked off. He went away.

I pondered his suggestion. Could I help? I felt indifferent. At the moment, I was neither cold nor warm, tired nor energetic, worried nor secure. Disinterest lay heavily upon me, and while I knew my torpor wouldn’t last, the dumb show that my partner was performing, our survival, seemed irrelevant. At any moment we would have to tramp back to the lab to try to rescue Mr. Waverly, and the hike or storm or Thrush or—on the weak assumption that he wasn’t dead—our chief would kill us.

Still, I knew I ought to want to help, and sometimes knowing what one ought to want is all the moral compass life provides. I struggled up to sitting, muscles creaking from abuse and cold and inactivity, and rearranged the blanket on my lap.

That seemed quite helpful. I closed my eyes and took a nap against the door.

* * *

The smell of English tea awakened me. Hot black tea, mixed with whisky and condensed milk. My partner had a tiny kerosene stove burning on the floor between us. I weighed the positives and negatives of living. On the plus side, there was little risk involved as survival would, in all likelihood, be temporary. On the minus side, Napoleon would have to help me with the cup.

He held the first one. It was wonderfully reviving. I took the second, along with several aspirin, on my own. The hot, sweet, alcoholic drink set my head to hammering but at the same time brought me to my senses. How long had I been napping like a baby? I checked my guard’s watch; it was nearly six. We’d fled from Thrush—or was it U.N.C.L.E?—no, from… I tabled further definition of our exile. We’d fled a little after four. Close on two hours.

Humanity has its purchase price; mine left me blushing for my lack of industry. I dressed, in silence, in the woolen underclothes, starched white shirt, and baggy pants that had been draped across the seat in front of me, reminding myself forcibly that weakness is as much a part of life as fortitude and that to waste time in remorse over the one means failing in the other. I tied a length of rope into a belt and—avoiding the direct gaze of my partner—reached up to turn the dome light on and inspect the car.

The scene inside the Citroen was…arresting. In the hurry of escape, I hadn’t noticed much beyond its decent handling. Now I surveyed wide seats and sleek wood paneling, leather trim, and in front of me a—presumably inoperative—fold-out telephone. In front of Napoleon, there was a clearly operative fold-out bar. Beside Napoleon, the gleam of a revolver caught my eye. Our revolver of the snow. He must have picked it up where he’d first found me before remembering who I was.

My raised eyebrow received, in answer, the ghost of a smile. At least I knew, now, why he hadn’t thought we ought to search for it.

I turned my gaze back to our shelter. In addition to amenities, the Citroen must have stocked survival gear. The front was littered with tools Napoleon had used: a knife, an axe, more rope, kerosene for the stove, batteries, flashlight, and a small box of emergency provisions. Mr. Waverly’s open suitcase occupied the driver’s seat. The passenger’s seat held Napoleon’s wooden crate. A crate which, I now saw, was packed with caviar and champagne, no doubt intended for the christening of the lab.

Underlying this veneer of luxury and supplies lay the destruction of our several accidents: the dashboard, neatly crumpled up against the wooden crate, our leftward tilt, bespeaking two flat tires or worse, the shattered windows, and the outline of a pine-tree trunk, impressed upon the driver’s door. The overall effect was, taken with the moaning wind and dust of snow that filtered through our greenery, not unlike the ambiance one might have once found on Titanic.

In an air pocket. Several hours after she sank.

“The motor pool,” I said at last, “isn’t going to like at all what we’ve done to their luxury car.” Of course, I’d only damaged half of it, but I suspected that Napoleon and I would equally receive full blame.

“I’ve got bad news,” my partner answered, still sounding—despite the hot drink—like he’d been eating gravel. He laced the last bit of tea with milk and whisky and passed the cup to me. “Harry Beldon drove Mr. Waverly to that laboratory, personally.” Mr. Beldon was Mr. Waverly’s European counterpart. One of the five top men in U.N.C.L.E. “This is his car.”

This was his car.

I felt a fresh thrill of alarm. Beldon? What had he been doing here? As far as I had been informed—not far, apparently—this trip had been of small significance. A nod from Mr. Waverly to a few research VIPs, whose names had not been shared with me.

It had been coincidence that I’d had some time between assignments and had been sent from Bern to study blueprints and advance security. It had been of small importance when I reported only minimal defenses would be ready for the tour. An empty lab was not much target, after all, and Mr. Waverly always traveled with protection. A few hours in a lab in Switzerland would pose no special threat.

At least, it shouldn’t have.

“Well?” I set down my drink and began to search the floor for soggy socks. “What are we waiting for?” If Mr. Waverly and Mr. Beldon had both been there…Napoleon had locked two-fifths of U.N.C.L.E’s command structure inside that vault.

The secret vault that I’d discovered on the blueprints, just in time to give directions by communicator.

The blueprints that I’d burned when it was clear we would be captured.

Napoleon leaned forward, grimacing, and extracted cheese and caviar, bread and crackers from the wooden crate. These he spent some time arranging on a silver tray between us, before spreading caviar on a square of bread and eating it.

I held my tongue. Clearly he was leading up to something.

“It’s not just Waverly and Beldon,” he said finally. “They’re all there. Don’t you see?”

I didn’t see. Or rather, I fondly hoped I was beginning not to.

“This was their private annual meeting,” Napoleon continued. “This was Summit Five.”

It seemed incredible. “All five of U.N.C.L.E’s top men are in that lab?” Could he possibly be joking? “Together?”

The surreal quality of Napoleon’s nod, delivered past a bite of caviar, made me stop and wonder just how hard I’d hit my head. I shook it, experimentally—pretty hard—but not quite hard enough to be hallucinating. “All five?” I caught myself repeating. “In one half-finished installation that had almost no security?”

“They had you,” he answered dryly.

And so they had. And Armand Grass and Francis Bauer, two good men, both dead. And several others we’d lost contact with who, like my partner, had been escorting VIPs. Against at least a hundred Thrush.

“And me,” Napoleon added as an afterthought. He sighed, and his expression dulled. “It seems they put their faith in secrecy this time, instead of security.”

“And both failed.” Clearly, somehow, their plans had leaked to Thrush.

Napoleon shrugged. He pushed the snacks around his tray with little interest and then shifted back and closed his eyes.

“Napoleon!” This was no time to let my partner lose morale. I considered—with some satisfaction—the idea of shaking both his shoulders. Vigorously. “For pity’s sake, we can’t just leave them there!”

We had the suitcase, I realized. U.N.C.L.E. luggage invariably concealed some useful toys. No doubt Napoleon had searched for a spare gun or communicator, but there were lock picks and other items hidden in the hardware and an explosive could be assembled from the lining.

Napoleon said nothing. I leaned across and nudged his arm. “Now!”

A gust of wind howled past the car to underscore my urgency.

“No.” His bruised face, tipped toward the window, was dull gray with exhaustion. “No, Illya, think about it. What time did Thrush attack?”

I knew precisely. “Twelve-seventeen pm.”

“And we lost external communications before we could call for help.”

“Yes.” As he knew. I couldn’t guess where this was leading. “So?”

“So, all five U.N.C.L.E. chiefs missed their security checks five hours ago. Unless…” he squinted at me  “…you told Thrush something I should know about.”

Of course I hadn’t. No matter how willing, at times, I might have been to tell.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” I said, hiding a shudder. It had been impossible to reveal, then, the secrets I’d forgotten. And it was pointless fretting, now, about what might have been.

I sighed, worn out with too much second guessing. “I suppose you mean, Bern doesn’t need us, ” I said slowly. “Because Headquarters has had time to mount a rescue of its own.” That seemed a trifle optimistic.

“But, listen to me, Napoleon. There must be something wrong. The storm…or….” I couldn’t quite think what. I shook my head again. It hurt again. “In this weather, a rescue team would have to come by road. There’d be a dozen vehicles, at least. I don’t see how we could have missed them.” Not even in a blizzard.

“I think we probably would have met them,” Napoleon drawled, meeting my gaze at last, “if you had chosen to escape along the highway, instead of driving down this miserable, god-forsaken mountain track.”

Along the…? A final piece of memory tumbled into place. The highway was the main route to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters—an easy ninety minute drive from Bern.

I had forgotten it.

“Very well,” I grumbled. “If U.N.C.L.E’s brain trust has been rescued, fine. It makes no difference. As long as we’re not sure, we have to try.”

“We can’t try, Illya. Look out there.” That was unnecessary. I was perfectly aware of our surroundings. “We can’t risk dying in the dark.”

That gave me pause. “We can’t?” Lack of expendability is seldom a field agent’s problem.

Napoleon said quietly, “The architect of that laboratory died.”

Together with the two men from security. “Yes.”

“You burned the blueprints.”

“Yes, but—” I felt my own face drain of color. Who knew how long a rescue team would need to order duplicate blueprints from U.N.C.L.E’s library in Geneva? Or whether they would even bother. They might, quite reasonably, assume the five chiefs had been captured, in which case U.N.C.L.E, worldwide, would be in a cataclysmic uproar. The small lab Thrush had pillaged might be abandoned and forgotten.

“Our chiefs cannot escape that vault unaided,” I said dully. “They’ll suffocate.”

“But not before tomorrow night.” Napoleon sat up, suddenly. “You weren’t exaggerating when I shoved them in there, were you? Forty hours of oxygen? They’re safe till midnight?”

“That’s right.” Provided they were careful not to exercise. Or talk too much. “Perhaps tomorrow afternoon,” I amended, “would be safer.”

He nodded. “Then we go back tomorrow morning, when we’re rested and run less risk of freezing or walking off the mountain on the way.”

His logic was unassailable. This is quite unusual, in Napoleon.

“And in the meantime,” I concluded bitterly. The choice to wait—no matter how correct—was going to look like cowardice. “We drink champagne and gobble Mr. Beldon’s caviar?” It seemed a trifle callous, even to someone dressed in Mr. Waverly’s winter underwear.

Napoleon shrugged. He ate another bite of caviar and then leaned against the door and once more closed his eyes. “Suit yourself.” He sighed. “For my part, I thought I’d stick to caviar and skip champagne. The vintage Beldon provided is beyond my budget.”

Fair enough. I could muddle through on Harry Beldon’s whiskey. I took a crystal glass out of a padded pocket in the bar and poured myself a generous measure discovering, with the prospect of immediate action out of reach, that I was ravenous. Ravenous and—although it seemed incredible—rapidly recovering my spirits. I was alive and reasonably warm and dry. We had abundant food and drink, a place to sleep, a plan to follow in the morning.

Part of a plan. But that was no great obstacle. I called the blueprints to my mind. There was a side entrance, fifty meters past the main gate, that would very likely be unguarded.

I spread a cracker and consumed it, spread another and offered it to Napoleon. “Beluga?” He didn’t stir; I ate it myself, following it with several more, noting privately that Mr. Beldon’s caviar was as far beyond Napoleon’s budget as his champagne.

I hoped there’d still be U.N.C.L.E. chiefs to reprimand us when the time came to file expense reports.

The wind shifted, rattling the vehicle, and snow began to sift down through our makeshift barriers. I carefully adjusted branches on the inside until the car was once more dry.

An igloo would have been sturdier, true, but all in all I found the Citroen preferable.

I tucked the canvas tarp that had served as my extra blanket around Napoleon, reached up and doused the dome light, and then closed the fuel valve on the little stove. It was wisest to conserve our resources.

I settled back to rest.

“Do you always do that?” Napoleon mumbled.

I waited.

“Drive with your eyes closed?”

“Ah, that.” I shrugged. “It hardly mattered since I couldn’t see the road.”

“It scared me shitless.”

“And do you always,” I challenged in return  “leave the first chamber of your gun unloaded?” The memory of that fateful click against my jaw would interrupt my sleep for many nights to come. Bravado can only buoy one up so far.

“I was short two bullets.” He yawned. “And anyway, I didn’t want to have to tell your widowed mother no one else can quite drawl like Napoleon; it’s conceivably the one talent I envy him, “—that you were dead.”

“Thank you,” I said. I paused to see if he’d thank me for rescuing him, or perhaps apologize for knocking me out. But then, I thought, I’d either have to thank him for dragging me back to the car or else apologize for leaving him to build our shelter. It was all a little puzzling.

It was all part of the job.

Napoleon began to snore—another of his talents, and one I’ve never envied—and I frowned, and ate more caviar, and leaned my head against the door and closed my eyes.

Somewhere U.N.C.L.E. might be struggling for survival. Thrush might have destroyed our laboratory, or still be fighting for it, or might have given up and fled. Our five chiefs might be locked up with a dwindling air supply, or comfortably sipping tea in Bern. I couldn’t do a thing about it. I was going to sleep.

In the morning, Napoleon and I would go and see.

 

The End