Quelle Belle Vie
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Copyright ©2003 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.
This story contains heterosexual sex with light bondage and includes reference to off-camera torture. I rate it a mild “R.” You’ve been warned.
New Orleans, November 1961
It was a big house in the Garden District. Not the biggest, and not the best address, but big enough and good enough to command respect. There were plenty of bedrooms, dining rooms, libraries, and billiard rooms, and a music conservatory that had been featured in the Sunday section of the Times-Picayune. In front, a two-story sweep of windows overlooked an even grander sweep of lawn; in back, a garden threaded its way up the trunks of magnolia trees and flowered back down onto neoclassical balconies and patios.
There were servants’ quarters that dated to a time when the word did not mean hired help, paintings chosen for just the right combination of collectability and color scheme, and furniture from three centuries mixed together in the style commonly referred to as “more money than sense.”
There were a lot of places to hear things, and there were a lot of things to be heard.
Holly Doucet climbed onto the back of her favorite leather armchair, grabbed the edge of the built-in bookcase behind it, and pushed herself up and over the top. Pressed down flat behind the three-inch molding, she could listen to the voices coming out of the air conditioning vent with almost no danger of being spotted from below.
“That girl’s been in my office, Tom.” Uncle Walter’s voice had an edge to it. The one that said twelve-year old girls should be neither seen nor heard. The one that made Aunt Patrice’s face turn gray.
Her Daddy’s voice came out like butter. “Don’t be foolish, Walter. Holly’s got no reason to mess around up there. It was probably just mixed up from that ol’ U.N.C.L.E. agent, and he isn’t gonna bother anybody any more.”
“Maybe. But you keep her downstairs, you hear? You know the rule. No gators, no wives, no kids.” No Negroes, no Jews. But those words didn’t need to be said.
“Sure, Walter….” Her Daddy changed the subject, as he always did when Holly’s name came onto Walter’s lips. Like the way he sometimes stepped in front of her to keep Walter’s eyes away. She felt a little spurt of pride mixed with guilt, because she had been spying, just a tiny bit. And once you started spying it was hard to stop. She sat upright on the bookcase and put her ear against the vent.
Her Daddy was still talking. “—I told you blowing up that office last year was risky, even if it was a cute way to fudge the body count. Now they’re down here again, like the stink on ugly.” There was a pause and a rattle of ice cubes. Holly bit down on the knuckles of her hand. “Not that I mind cutting those nosy parkers up for you, but sooner or later they’ll get smart and send a crew that’s too hot to handle. In the end, there’s more of them than there is of us.”
Walter laughed, making a sound like a hyena. “Only when they buddy up, Tommy boy, and that they never do. Those gu’mint agencies will chase each others’ tails round the bush to kingdom come. Anyhow, I keep telling you, three more weeks and this will all be behind us. I just firmed up the schedule with Central. After that, this two-bit little satrapy’s gonna be chicken feed to us.”
“Well, that is good news, though I’ll miss New Orlins in a way. It’s been a good fifteen years.” Their glasses clinked, then her Daddy’s voice came again. “Speaking of our project, if you’re about done with that colored boy, I thought maybe we could collect him and Patrice and head up to the lodge for some off the record fun tonight.”
“You got traps to check?”
“Naw, Big Ed already cleared ’em. He said we got a nice one, though, about three-foot long. I thought Patrice could do it up for that guy from Central when he comes.”
“You know three weeks is too soon. She could maybe give him the one she’s working on now. I think she’s painting that one. A nicely mounted gator could be just the thing. Why don’t you bring the van around ’bout 9:00. I’ll tell Patrice to quit the bar early and meet us at the warehouse.”
“It’s a date. But there’s still one matter I need to talk to you about.” Now her Daddy’s voice had that edge. Holly tasted blood, looked down at her knuckles and switched hands. “Holly’s been asking about Candy again, and I’m pretty sure Patrice put her up to it.”
Silence. Holly picked another knuckle.
“Well, hell. I guess we’ll have to have a talk with her at the lodge then. But you know I’ve said this before. You really ought to get rid of those pictures. It’s a foolish risk keeping them around.”
“Oh now, I think they’re safe. Safe as those precious records you’re saving up for Central. Anyhow, I like to take them out and look at them once in a while to remind me what a bitch she was, and how hard she died.”
“Served you right. Marrying the Queen of Twelfth Night, for Christ’s sake.” He did the scary laugh again. “Still, you did end up with the only debutante in town could ever hold her own tongue.”
“How’d a pitiful creature like that produce my blond little angel, I never will know.”
“You are kinda dark, Tommy. Could be she catted up the wrong tree.”
There was a crashing noise. Then something Holly couldn’t hear. “OK, OK. You know I didn’t mean it. Put that thing away. Go find the princess and we’ll take her to lunch at Arnaud’s in honor of our imminent success.”
Holly caught the sound of footsteps and a door as she vaulted off the bookcase and into the easy chair below. She brushed dust off her overalls and buried her nose in To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Well, there you are, honey.” Daddy caught her up in his arms. “Goodness, you’re as cold as ice. Where is that girl Ellen? Why didn’t she bring you a lap rug?” He set her down and held her at arm’s length. “You OK, honey? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m all right. Just cold from reading.” Holly straightened her feet on the carpet and hid her hands behind her back. “I think I’d like to lie down for a while.”
“Well, you do that, honey.” He kissed her head. “Uncle Walt and I are going out for lunch. You want anything from Arnaud’s?”
“No, thank you.”
“I’m gonna be out of town tonight, but you can have Charlie take you to that glamor film you’ve been wanting to see.”
Holly Doucet walked her father and her uncle to the door and watched them get into the Cadillac. Then she climbed slowly up the stairs to her room, sat down on the bed and cried her last three cries. Once for her father. Once for her mother. And once for herself.
Sunday, November 19, 1961
Rain poured onto the neon-lit street, splashed across awnings, ran down gutters, puddled red, orange, and blue against the curb, and crowded into overflowing storm drains to be pumped out to the sea. Water cascaded over signs propped in the middle of the sidewalk, dripped down billboards promising “Live Tonight,” shoved tourists and the sound of jazz off the pavement and back into the dubious shelter of one clip joint after another along the glittering reach of Bourbon Street.
Napoleon Solo tugged his trench coat up and hat brim down and sloshed past rows of cigarette-lit doorways to where neon tubes gave way to strings of colored light, and signs were hand-drawn chalk on slate. His footsteps slowed before a glowing green alligator wagging its tail up, down, up, down.
A half-dozen middle-aged women had also chosen this spot to come to rest, huddled together under a sagging green and yellow canopy. They might have been waiting out the downpour, if they’d faced the other way. Instead, they jostled up one after another, peering through the open doorway, sipping booze out of waxed-paper cups.
Napoleon snagged on a heavily made-up redhead. “Pardon me,” he asked, “is this the Marais Celeste?” Even in French, “Heavenly Swamp” was an odd name for a bar.
“Sure is.” She jerked her chin toward an unlit sign and flashed a smile that pricked the hair on Napoleon’s arms. “Excuse me a minute, but it’s my turn to peek.” Her pink-gloved hand clutched his elbow for support as she pushed up on the toes of her pumps, peering over the brunette at the front of the pack.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Napoleon retrieved his arm, “why don’t you go in?”
The redhead arched painted eyebrows. “Too cheap,” she admitted, echoing Napoleon’s sentiments. She pointed to a chalkboard sign propped under the alligator in the window.
No Carry-ins No Exceptions
“Beaupré will have our heads if we bring go-cups.” She waved her drink. “So we stay in the doorway.” She squeezed over a bit, offering Napoleon a chance to see inside.
The Marais Celeste had the appearance of a locals’ hangout, with a polished cypress bar stretching down the right and green plastic booths lined up on the left. There were about thirty customers, mostly female, mostly arrayed around a yellow baby grand where a pianist was dragging them laboriously through “I’m in the Mood for Love.” The ceiling was hung with Spanish moss, the walls mounted with dead animal heads. All the comforts of home.
Napoleon didn’t much like the prospect of having to shove his way in and out through the door. He offered the ladies a general smile. “Perhaps I could invite you all inside for a drink?”
He escorted them past the doorway, hefted coats and umbrellas into a cloakroom window, and led the way to the bar. Behind its gleaming surface, two identical, sharp-eyed women waited side-by-side beneath a pair of matching bobcats. The women had dark braids coiled tightly on their heads and white lace collars wrapped around their throats. Napoleon put their age somewhere between forty and seventy-five. Under their gaze, the street ladies froze like bunnies being tracked by snakes.
“Beaupré!” the redhead squeaked, attempting to hide her go-cup against an inadequate bosom.
Napoleon slid a twenty across the bar.
“Miss Beaupré?” He used his smile. “Would you please provide these ladies with a refill of…whatever it is they’re drinking?”
“Don’t got no wood alcohol—” one Miss Beaupré began.
“—but we can find some sloe gin I bet,” the other finished.
That sounded good to the redhead, who abandoned her game of hide the cup. “Gee, thanks—?”
“Napoleon,” he told her. “Solo.”
“Napoleon Solo.” She blew him a kiss and fell in line for the drink while Napoleon scanned the room. He didn’t find what he was looking for. The street ladies collected their replenished cups and giggled off to the piano. Napoleon sketched them a salute.
“Dis here be yours, cher.” Beaupré passed him a glass. He sipped it cautiously. Bourbon, thank heavens. Not bad.
“Thank you.” He leaned against the bar. “Tell me,” Napoleon glanced between them, “are you both Miss Beaupré?” He worked his smile again—the likable young rake. The sisters stared back—not fooled for an instant.
“Gauche,” said the one on his right.
“Droite,” said the one on his left.
“Nobody call us Beaupré but dem yats.” Meaning the born-and-bred locals.
Gauche gave him a speculative look. “Vous êtes un Acdienne?”
“Not Cajun,” Napoleon answered in French, “but I’ve been down here many times.”
Napoleon winced; he wasn’t supposed to be so transparent. He took a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet. “I was wondering whether you’ve seen a man with a moustache tonight?”
Gauche slid the bill behind the bar. “No moustache, cher,” she told him.
“Hardly no man a-tall,” Droite added, “since we got dat beb piano player.”
“Nothing but ladies, cooing like doves—”
“—drinking like fish—”
“—and chantent comme les pigeons de mer.” They chuckled together.
Napoleon couldn’t agree. Seagulls sang better than this crowd.
“Merci.” He turned and scanned the room again. There were a few men in the bar, mostly neglected and sulking into their drinks. Definitely no moustache. One of the more sober looking walked casually to a side door at the end of the bar and disappeared.
His eye was caught by a floor-to-ceiling terrarium built into the rear wall. Tiny green lights twinkled around an enormous sheet of plate glass holding back a jungle scene of twisted branches and vines. The overgrowth trailed down onto a brackish pond and artificial sandbank where a five-foot long alligator basked in the glow of an underpowered sun lamp.
Napoleon squinted. “Is that thing real?”
“King Bob—” Gauche told him.
“—Le Roi du Marais Celeste.”
Bob didn’t look like much of a king, but then, the Marais Celeste wasn’t much of a kingdom.
Napoleon lifted his glass to the Beauprés and walked his bourbon in the direction of the piano where a score of ladies jostled together, branding the yellow surface white with their drinks. A lengthy bench held the beb pianist, bracketed by a pair of beehived platinum blonds, both on the wrong side of forty, each with an arm around his waist.
The pianist sat very erect, picking out Peggy Lee’s “Fever” for a heart-faced soloist with blood-red fingernails.
Romeo loved Juliet, Juliet she felt the same
When he put his arms around her, he said Julie baby you’re my flame.
Thou givest fever, when we kisseth, fever with thy flaming youth
Fever, I’m afire, fever yea I burn forsooth.
Napoleon eyed the singer appreciatively. She had hazel eyes and rich black hair pulled up into a French twist. Her dress was a form-fitting red, lined with just a touch of gold along the low-cut bodice. Nice figure. The voice was pretty good, too. Napoleon considered the possibility of a duet. The women in the crowd were immune to her charms, however. They shifted and chattered in neglect. One of the Beehives got up to powder her nose, and Napoleon slid partway into her seat. He tossed a quarter into an overflowing jar.
“Buy yourself some lessons,” he suggested.
Illya Kuryakin glanced in his direction and hit a wrong note. “This is harder than it looks.” He shifted to prop up the remaining Beehive, now molded, eyes closed, to his right shoulder.
What a lovely way to burn.
Heart-face finished setting herself on fire, and Illya shook out his hands. He eased his sleeping seatmate forward to rest against the treble keys.
“I’m surprised to see you,” he told Napoleon. “I thought this was Paul Matthews’ affair.”
Paul Matthews had done the New Orleans advance work. In typical Paul fashion, the Aussie had left a file that was less than half a page long—just long enough to hint that there was more than bayou décor contributing to the creepy atmosphere of the Marais Celeste.
Napoleon shrugged, reached out, and fingered a boogie-woogie bass line. The crowd at the piano began to break up. “Change of plans,” he told Illya. “Paul dropped off the face of the Earth last Wednesday. Or at least, off the face of a boat near Chicago.”
“Who dropped him? Them or us?”
Illya and Paul had a colorful history. On their first mission, Paul had accused Illya of being a Soviet traitor who murdered his partners and slept with his boss, and Illya had handed Paul over to the KGB to be shot. Illya’s remark was about par for the course.
Napoleon tsk-tsked. “Not so long ago, people said things like that about you.”
“They still do. Regularly.”
True enough. “I take it he hasn’t washed up here?”
“No.” Illya shook his head and stifled a cough. “And I’ve been waiting for nearly five days. I saw him last in October. He was wrapped in brown paper and tin foil and claimed to be an extra large Russet potato.”
Napoleon had heard about that party. “Well,” he looked at his fingers, “we can’t all be Jiminy Cricket.” He watched two men break away from their dates and disappear through the side door. It was beginning to look like a pattern.
“Rhett Butler,” Illya said icily. “And only because Miss Shea persuaded me to escort her as Scarlet O’Hara.”
Napoleon believed it. Alice Shea was Gordon Hutchinson’s secretary, and Hutch was CEA. When it came to persuasion, Alice had few equals.
Illya took up Napoleon’s bass line and played something that was probably a boogie, sticking to the bottom half of the keyboard. “What was Paul doing in Chicago, anyway? He is supposed to be an accordionist with the Cajun band that comes on at 10:30.”
“Presumably following a lead from down here. I was hoping you’d fill me in.”
Illya scowled. “I’m just the entertainment. Nobody tells me anything.”
“Well, keep your eyes peeled. And if someone offers you a ride north, turn ’em down.”
“Where would I be without you to think these things through for me.”
“Dead,” Napoleon reminded him. “Twice.”
That netted a glare. “It was once only. I had the first situation under control.”
Napoleon recalled an ugly scene in the desert and marveled at Illya’s definition of control. Still, there was no point in bickering. “OK, once,” he agreed. “No need to get all prickly about it.”
Red fingernails wrapped themselves around Illya’s eyes. “Nick, sugar, that was wonderful.” Heart-face put her mouth to Illya’s ear. “Play another one for me, honey.”
“Hello, Patrice,” Illya said glumly. “You’ll have to release your headlock, first, so I can stare at the keyboard.” She moved her hands to the collar of his turtleneck, running her fingers over the cloth, straightening it unnecessarily. Illya steadfastly ignored her.
“How do you do…Patrice?” Napoleon stood and took one of her hands in his. It was delicate and smelled of jasmine and—something else—paint thinner? “I’m Napoleon Solo, an old friend of Nick’s. You have a lovely voice.” His eyes said other parts were lovely, too.
The freshly powdered Beehive shoved onto the bench while Illya started something soft and unsingable. At the bar, the Beaupré twins handed out pairs of drinks and collected cash in unison. Not identical, Napoleon noticed. Mirror images—one right handed, one left.
Patrice scanned Napoleon up and down like a cat with a new dish of cream.
“How lovely to meet you, Mr. Solo.” Patrice’s voice spoke of the deep south. Mississippi, or Georgia, maybe? Definitely not the sharp local dialect. “I’m Patrice Doucet. Maybe you can convince Nick to comply with my wishes?” Her free hand slid possessively to Illya’s shoulder.
Napoleon did his best to look like cream. “I’m afraid he hardly ever listens to me. May I buy you a drink instead?” He gazed at his reflection in her eyes. “And please, call me Napoleon.”
“Why, aren’t you a darling.” She removed the hand Napoleon was holding and touched the fingernails to Illya’s cheek. “Yes, please. But I must warn you, my heart belongs to Nick.”
Illya kept his eyes on the piano. “I thought it belonged to your husband.”
Patrice smiled. “Why, that’s funny, so does he!” She let Napoleon lead her away while Illya struck up “Que Sera Sera.” Ladies around the room gaped their mouths open and swam in his direction.
Napoleon picked up a Sazerac—and a look of derision—from the Beaupré sisters. He led Patrice to a booth with a view of the side door just as another man ducked through.
“So.” He tried a seductive smile. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
She sipped the drink and held it next to her cheek: red fingernails, white skin, red lips, framed against black hair. Her perfume was an alluringly unsubtle musk. There was something a little feral about her, overall. But no harm there. Napoleon had a wild streak of his own.
Patrice’s eyes glinted green and gold. “My brother, Tommy, owns this bar, and I’m the manager.” She leaned back invitingly and waved at the room. “What do you think of our décor?”
Napoleon dragged his eyes from her cleavage to the heads on the walls. “You have a good eye for trophies.”
He expected a riposte, but Patrice only nodded. “It’s all my work, even the taxidermy. We’re in a lot of travel guides.”
Napoleon offered her a cigarette. “Doucet’s a Creole name, isn’t it?” He lit hers and took one for himself. “How do you come to be running a Cajun bar?” From what he knew, the French Creole were hardly buddies with their bayou cousins.
“Oh, the Cajun bit’s just for tourists, and it’s an excuse for Tom to keep his baby.” She sucked in smoke and blew in the direction of King Bob. “Anyway, it hardly matters nowadays; French has been outlawed in school for decades. People who count,” the cigarette underscored her point, “speak English and live in the Garden District.”
Napoleon wondered what Gauche and Droite would make of that. He suspected they didn’t live in the Garden District, and thus wouldn’t count. “There are some lovely old mansions in that part of town.”
Patrice rolled her eyes. “Yes, but darling, you wouldn’t believe the upkeep in this climate. We have to repaint every year, and the gardener works almost full time just trimming the weeds.” She leaned forward, tapping her cigarette on a snapping-turtle ashtray. “For two cents, I’d chuck the whole thing and return to Jackson, but Walter and Tommy won’t hear of it.” Her chest rippled in an elaborate sigh. “You know how it is—men and business.”
A broad black hat appeared alongside the table about four and a half feet off the ground.
“Good evening, Patrice. Father’s asking for you.”
Under the hat was a very erect, very blond little girl, wearing a sleeveless black cocktail dress with long gloves and a six-strand pearl necklace. Napoleon recognized the look. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was the height of fashion right now in every New York restaurant.
“May I ask you to present me to your gentleman friend?” She turned bright blue eyes toward Napoleon. “Or shall I introduce myself?”
One of her black-gloved hands held a shot glass of bourbon. She offered Napoleon the other, along with a mischievous smile. She looked about ten.
“Napoleon Solo.” He put her glove to his lips. “Do I have the honor of addressing Miss Audrey Hepburn?”
“This is Holly Doucet,” Patrice said sourly. Side-by-side, Napoleon could see a resemblance, Patrice’s heart-shaped face echoed in Holly’s elfin one.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Solo.” Holly did a curtsey that had cost someone a bundle in ballet lessons. “I hear you’re a friend of Nick’s.”
“That’s right,” Napoleon agreed. That news had traveled remarkably fast.
Holly beamed at him. “Then we have something in common already.” She turned toward Patrice. “Daddy’s quite livid. He’s having trouble with the chickens.”
Patrice smoothed her face into a smile. “All right, darling.” She watched Napoleon out of the corner of her eye. “I think you’d better have Charlie drive you home. Don’t you have studying to do?”
“Mais oui.” Holly smiled innocently. “I’m waiting for Nick to help me with my French.” She didn’t seem to expect Patrice to approve.
Patrice didn’t; she frowned. “Grown men don’t like to play school with little girls.”
“Don’t they?” Holly cocked her head. “We’re meeting after he’s done at the piano. What game shall I suggest instead?” She glanced at a tiny gold watch. “Do you want me to tell Daddy you’re busy?”
“No thanks.” Patrice slid out of the booth, stepped around Holly, and draped an arm across Napoleon’s shoulders, providing an intimate view of her bodice. She squeezed him a little. “Another time, perhaps?”
Napoleon admired the scenery and resisted the temptation to squeeze back. “At your service.” He watched her go, amused in spite of himself.
Holly climbed into Patrice’s spot and studied Napoleon without speaking.
Napoleon put out his cigarette. “I, ah, got the impression French was outlawed in the schools.”
Holly took a sip from her shot glass of bourbon. “Only in public schools, Mr. Solo, and only if your parents speak it at home. At the Louise McGehee school for over-privileged girls it’s de rigueur.” She couldn’t possibly be ten, Napoleon thought. Maybe an undersized twelve?
“Is Patrice your mother?”
Holly’s eyebrows went up. “My mother died two years ago, when I was ten. Patrice is my father’s sister by birth and his cousin by marriage. I think that’s enough burden of kinship between any adult and child, don’t you?”
A little more than kin and less than kind.
Holly was watching him closely. “Are you truly a friend of Nick’s?”
“Uh huh.” At least as much as anyone. He had the oddest feeling she was weighing his character and he fought the temptation to sit up and straighten his tie.
“Do you find Patrice attractive?”
Now there was a loaded question. “Yes, very,” Napoleon said seriously. “But it’s been a long time since I let my eyes make up my mind.”
Holly’s lips curved up in a smile. She started to speak, then stopped herself, still cautious. She was probably a gold mine of information about this place, but Napoleon couldn’t bring himself to press her. He sipped his bourbon instead and wondered what sort of life she led in the shadow of Marais Celeste. There was a slightly brittle quality about her. In a grown woman he’d have called it desperation, but in a child it was hard to say. Maybe it was just part of the movie star act.
Holly checked her watch, stood up, and touched a black-gloved finger to his wrist.
“In that case, I hope your heart will tell you to be very careful.”
It did indeed. Napoleon left his glass at the bar, collected his trench coat, and walked into the rain. Outside, he read the note Illya had slipped him: “10:30, Kate’s.” There was a bar by that name a couple of blocks up Bourbon Street. Napoleon had half an hour to kill.
He turned to examine the tail-wagging neon alligator. It didn’t took like a Thrush agent, but there were plenty inside who did. Napoleon read the chalkboard sign again:
Nick Curry – From Russia With Love
No Carry-ins No Exceptions.
He wondered if Illya knew he had Paul Matthews to thank for his cover.
Kate’s was a more traditional Bourbon street bar. The neon was bright, the lights low, and the girls serving drinks couldn’t have mustered one legal outfit between them. Napoleon dodged a couple of expensive propositions and sat in a dimly-lit corner to nurse a whisky and listen to the band. The singer was an elegant, dark-haired lady with a rich contralto that drifted through the room like smoke and called to Napoleon like nicotine. He wished he could close his eyes and drift along with her.
Illya materialized on schedule, holding a triple-decker sandwich and a glass of orange juice.
“I came through the rear entrance,” he answered Napoleon’s look. “Kate is my landlady. She’s on retainer to Section Three, so the place is reasonably secure.” That was news to Napoleon. He wondered what other bits of information he’d missed when he picked up this case.
Illya settled into the chair on Napoleon’s left, extracted a frilly toothpick, and started to eat, somehow managing to make neat work of the enormous pile of meat, cheese and bread.
Napoleon cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t they feed you back there?”
“I’m sure if you were thinking things through, you would advise me not to eat in a Thrush satrapy.” He watched the waitresses as they moved among tables, flirting outrageously with the customers.
“I like this bar,” Illya said. “It is refreshing to watch the patrons fondle someone else for a change.”
Napoleon chuckled. “You’ve attracted some dedicated fans.”
“I have never been handled so much in my life.” Illya coughed and shook his head. “I’m reduced to wearing an ankle holster—so don’t expect fancy shooting.” The scaled-down gun that fit an ankle holster was no match for a Walther P38.
Napoleon clucked at Illya’s pitiful look. “It’s the novelty. They don’t get many blond Russian pianists in this neck of the woods.”
“Well, it has to be something.” Illya nodded at the band. “They certainly aren’t interested in my technique.” No doubt about it. The music here was better than at Marais Celeste.
Illya finished the first half of his sandwich, ate a pickle, and started in on the second half.
“So,” Napoleon asked casually, “how was Tibet?” Illya hesitated an instant and then carried on eating. For a moment, Napoleon thought he wouldn’t answer.
“Cold. I nearly lost a hand.” The backs of his fingers were still raw. “But on the bright side, everyone survived. Tell me, do you read all the files, or am I specially blessed?”
“My lofty position in the department carries with it certain responsibilities. Hutch had me book your flight home.”
Illya lifted his eyebrows. “Whatever for?”
“Beats me.” Though he suspected he’d been appointed Soviet babysitter pro temps. “Maybe Alice told him to take a hike. He’s been working her pretty hard.” Napoleon imagined the little redhead telling off their CEA and suppressed a grin. She might actually do it someday.
“If she did,” Illya smiled, “I am sorry I was not there to see it.”
“He also had me close out your file.” Illya’s expression turned wary. “You seem to have neglected to get medical clearance.”
“I arrived Tuesday and left Wednesday. There wasn’t time.”
Napoleon let that hang while Illya coughed again.
He shifted forward in his chair. “Illya.” Napoleon pinned him with his gaze. “Dance around Hutch and the medicos all you like. I applaud your dedication to duty. But my life depends on knowing how fit you are.”
Illya thought about it, sipping his juice. “Some frostbite,” he conceded, “and a mild case of bronchitis. Dr. Nguyen gave me antibiotics for it. I’m fine outdoors, but bar smoke makes me cough.”
“It was mostly lack of time,” he added morosely. “It’s been years since I played piano. Prior to Wednesday, my repertoire consisted of Bach, Chopin, ‘Lillie Marlene,’ and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipparary.’”
“I see you’ve branched out.”
“I’ve been trading French lessons to Holly Doucet in exchange for advice on popular music.” He sighed. “They had to send me, Napoleon, sick or not. The way Paul arranged things, no one else fit the description.”
“He certainly set you up.”
“Yes, he did. Pity I never got a chance to thank him. Do you suppose he’s really dead?”
Napoleon was trying not to suppose. Oversized and under-restrained, Matthews had spent four years at U.N.C.L.E. just begging to be throttled. It was amazing he’d lasted this long.
“No corpse.” Napoleon shrugged. “But I believe they found a six-foot two-inch hole in Lake Michigan. Someone from Section Three is running it down.”
“Drowning is really too good for him.” Illya thought a minute. “I suppose,” he said slowly, “if you sent me back on medical grounds, I could detour north and help look.” That was as close as Illya would get to admitting he was worried.
Napoleon couldn’t do it. “I need you here.”
They stopped and listened while the singer wove a melancholy story. Napoleon closed his ears to the words and enjoyed her clear, sweet tones. It didn’t matter what tale of woe she told; there were plenty to go around.
“Tell me about your Heavenly Swamp,” he said at last. “I got the impression it’s not a nice place to visit and you definitely wouldn’t want to live there.”
Illya shook off his gloom. “It’s what we used to call a widow’s bar,” he said. “Couples come in. The ladies stay downstairs to drink. The gentlemen go upstairs to gamble and sleep with whores.”
“Or hatch plots for world domination.”
Illya nodded. “You met the lovely Patrice.” His voice was sarcastic. “She manages the business. Her husband, Walter Doucet, has a small mention in our files and makes an appearance at least once every night. Her brother, Tom Doucet, owns the bar and may or may not be Thrush. I’ve never seen him do anything but throw live chickens to the alligator.”
“Are you serious?”
“Oh yes.” Illya did his impassive Russian face. “At 10:15, before the Cajun band comes on. They have a surge of tourists at that time.”
“Charming.” Napoleon paused. “I had an intriguing chat with Holly Doucet. Is she always like that? Twelve going on twenty?”
“For the most part. She’s rather well educated for an American. I gather her mother was an actress, and encouraged her to read classics. She spends afternoons by the piano, quoting Greek tragedy.”
“Maybe she wants you to become well educated for a Russian.” Illya didn’t seem to think that was funny. “She’s genuinely fond of you. Your name came up early and often.”
“I’m a bit worried, actually. Holly’s undertaken some sort of vendetta against her family and assigned to me the role of mysterious foreign spy—you, by the way, are now my dashing assistant. I’ve ignored her hints, but if Marais Celeste is involved with Thrush, the situation could become complicated.”
It could indeed. Napoleon sipped whiskey and continued down his list. “What about the Mademoiselles Beauprés? I liked them.”
Illya’s expression turned sour. “They are beyond my estimation,” he admitted. “But their story makes alligator feeding sound tame. Patrice claims they are Siamese twins whose father chopped them apart when they were four years old.”
Napoleon winced, remembering their left and right handedness. “That makes a kind of sense. Do you think they’re Thrush?”
“I cannot tell you, Napoleon. I made the mistake of speaking French, and they didn’t care for my accent. They called me a Parisian whore.” He shrugged. “We haven’t exchanged two words since.”
Apparently Napoleon’s accent was more to their liking. “Perhaps you’ve grown on them,” he chuckled. “They called you a doll.” Or perhaps they didn’t buy Illya’s cover and wanted to keep him at a distance. For that matter, it was hard to imagine anyone buying Illya’s cover, except maybe the besotted Patrice.
A graceful lady with olive skin, high cheekbones, huge dark eyes, and short black hair approached their table—the singer from the band. She wore a shimmering gold gown and held a steaming cup and saucer in one elegant hand.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” Her voice was honey-sweetened wine. She placed the cup in front of Illya. “I’ve brought your tea.” Now there was a bosom that would be equal to any concealment. Napoleon tried not to stare.
“Thank you.” Illya glanced up by way of introduction. “Kate—Napoleon, Napoleon—Kate.”
Napoleon stood and offered his hand, feeling the warmth of her touch spread up toward his heart. “Enchenté.”
Kate pushed him gently into his seat and took the chair on his right. “In New Orleans,” her smile was the envy of angels, “a white man does not stand up for a lady of color.” She gave Napoleon an appreciative look. “Though he may lay down for her, if it’s very, very private.”
Napoleon felt the heat reach his smile. “Then I can at least half approve of your customs.” Her chuckle was better than a dozen one-night stands.
“Kate,” Illya cut in, “has been treating my cough with tea brewed from hemlock.”
She tsk-tsked and patted his arm. “From ginseng and licorice.”
“It is somewhat effective.” He switched to Russian. “But it tastes like dung. She is Paul’s girlfriend, by the way.”
Napoleon was surprised by a heavy wave of regret. He changed it into a flood of relief. Better to leave this one alone while there was still enough blood left in his brain for straight thinking.
Kate frowned suspiciously at Illya. “I’m sure you’ll want to thank the chef,” she said. “Drink up and go on in the kitchen.” She lowered her voice. “There’s a man with a moustache asking for you.”
Illya finished his tea as Kate moved off to chat at another table. “Tell me,” he asked sharply, “do you pursue every female who crosses your path?”
“Not at all.” Napoleon watched their hostess with a wistful smile. “Only the very special ones.”
They rose together and headed for the kitchen.
Moustache was a heavy, florid man somewhat past his middle years, pale now and squirming anxiously in the light of a single yellow bulb.
“Did you bring the money?” He was waiting in the small private kitchen that had stairs leading up to Kate’s apartments. It was a cheerful, slightly shabby place with white metal cabinets and a red arts déco table surrounded by four sturdy chrome chairs. Illya made a circuit of the room, lowered the window shade, and leaned against the cast iron sink, arms crossed, missing his shoulder holster. He needed to be more careful to change after working at Marais Celeste.
Napoleon and Moustache sat down on the chairs.
“I brought the money.” Napoleon dangled a white envelope like a fat worm on a hook. “But….” He laid down the bait, sliding it across the marbled red surface as Moustache’s hand darted forward. “…I need the story first.”
The man licked his lips. “I already told that big guy, Matthews.”
“Again, please.” Illya’s voice was firm.
“I work for LaSalle’s.” Moustache’s eyes tracked Napoleon’s hand. “It’s a placement service for apprentice chefs.” He rubbed his jaw while the wall clock ticked away seconds. Illya added sixty of them to the five days he’d spent waiting for information. After that, he was ready for answers.
“You assist those who wish to learn the New Orleans technique of cooking with too much grease?”
Moustache glanced up nervously, missing Napoleon’s frown. “Nearly three months ago a man brought a list of candidates for us to place. Young men with dubious credentials.”
He paused, massaging his jaw once again. Illya started to speak, caught a dry glance from Napoleon, and shrugged. By all means, try it your way.
Napoleon’s way was all sympathy. “So naturally,” he smiled, “you refused.”
Moustache appeared shocked at the suggestion. “Of course not. I raised our fee.”
“I see…. And you placed the apprentice chefs?”
“Fifteen of them, in the best restaurants in town, on three month internships. After that, they can get jobs at fine restaurants anywhere in the world.” He twitched in the direction of the money. “But a little while ago, my boss found out, and something terrible happened to him.”
“No.” Moustache shook his head. “He changed his mind.”
Napoleon’s smile stiffened a bit. Perhaps it had finally dawned on him that this might all be a practical joke. If so, Illya did not envy Paul.
Moustache took the icy look personally. “You don’t understand! One minute he was eating dessert with my contact and me, swearing to expose the whole scheme. The next he was in favor of it.”
“Perhaps somebody greased his palm,” Illya offered, “as well as his food.”
“That’s just it! His food!” The man was nearly in tears. “They’re putting something in food to control people’s minds.” He gripped the metal band around the table. “This week they’re testing it here in town, and next week they’re sending those chefs all over the world. They’re going to make people change their minds about things. Elections, atom bombs, God knows what!”
An instant brainwashing drug?
“That sounds very alarming….” Napoleon started.
“I have proof!” Moustache insisted. “But I need money.”
Napoleon’s hand got to the envelope first. He pressed it flat against the table. “What proof?”
Moustache reached under his shirt and removed a small waxed bag, half full of white powder. Illya plucked the bag from his fingers and poured a small amount into his hand—an unexceptional white crystal, dry, with no obvious odor.
“They call it Lagniappe powder because it’s like sugar but with a little something extra. That’s why they only put it in desserts. Try it. You just need a tiny bit.”
Illya frowned. It seemed harmless. But then, so did rat poison, and Illya had no wish to play rat.
Napoleon released the envelope and rose to his feet. He drew his gun, flicked off the safety, and cocked it with a theatrical click. Then he pressed the barrel to Moustache’s head and nodded in Illya’s direction.
“Oh, very well.” Though he didn’t find the prospect of taking Moustache with him all that comforting. And he doubted Napoleon would shoot, in any event. Illya measured a pinch of the stuff into his palm and licked it off. For a drug, it was remarkably well disguised.
Moustache, at least, took Napoleon’s threat seriously. He stared cross-eyed at the P38. “W-wait a minute,” he stammered, “and tell him something to change his mind.”
Illya closed his eyes. He felt light-headed and his face was beginning to sweat. It occurred to him, now, that if Moustache was telling the truth, he’d exposed himself badly. Illya suppressed his anxiety. Napoleon had many failings, but malice wasn’t one of them. Rather he was too aggressively nice, a bit too inclined to meddle in private affairs. But he had little idea of the pitfalls surrounding a Soviet. There was the constant danger of recall and arrest, the very real threat to family and friends, and no telling what might trigger disaster. A bad report, an unguarded remark, some bureaucrat’s urge to create a diversion. It could be anything.
Illya opened his eyes and waited, maintaining a carefully neutral expression.
“Paul Matthews,” Napoleon said smugly, “is your favorite person on Earth.”
A joke, naturally. Illya frowned, both relieved and annoyed. He liked Napoleon. The man was level headed and good with people. Brilliant, even, except where women were concerned. Determined. Efficient. But he was also capricious. Even Paul, who couldn’t exhale without a sarcastic remark, took a more logical approach to assignments. With Paul, sarcasm was mostly a smoke screen. Underneath he was refreshingly linear. You could trust Paul. In fact—
“Chyort.” Illya choked off the thought. Could he possibly be thinking of Paul? Worse yet, would he have to admit it? Suddenly the Lagniappe plot sounded a great deal more sinister.
Napoleon read his face and put away the gun.
Illya scowled at Moustache. He stepped forward, crossing his arms and postponing an impulse to break the man’s neck. “Are the effects permanent?”
“Not for a dose like that.” Moustache shrank in his chair. “A teaspoon lasts about a week. Repeated doses usually make it permanent. And the suggestions have to be made within fifteen minutes of taking the drug. I heard them talking.” He put his head in his hands. “I don’t want to be part of this. Please let me take the money and go.”
Illya turned the waxed bag over and examined the opposite side. A small bird was stamped in the corner. He tossed the bag to Napoleon, who tucked it into a pocket.
“Who is your contact?” Illya asked. “And where is he keeping the drugs?”
Moustache’s face drained of color. “It’s a—” He swayed slightly. “It’s a local businessman by the name of Walter Doucet. I think they’re keeping drugs at the restaurants—but I really don’t know.”
Napoleon waved his payoff envelope under Moustache’s nose.
“We need the names of the restaurants and apprentice chefs.”
The man’s hand flashed out. “Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Galatoire’s.” This time, the money fell into his grasp. “Masson’s Beach House.” Moustache tore open the envelope and counted the cash. Illya felt his eyebrows go up; crime apparently paid. “Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace—” The money disappeared into his wallet. “I-I can’t remember, exactly, but I have a list in the car.”
Napoleon walked to the back door, lifted the shade, and stared into the rain.
“Well,” he sighed. “It’s a beautiful night for a stroll.”
Illya took a moment to retrieve his P38 from upstairs. When he returned, Napoleon and Moustache had switched off the light and were waiting in their overcoats, peering through the darkened kitchen window into the service yard between Kate’s and the alley.
Napoleon glanced his way. “Our friend thinks he might have been followed.”
Now he tells us. “I’ll go first and see if it’s clear.” Illya’s hat and coat were still dripping by the door. He pulled on his hat—the coat was too heavy to maneuver in—and drew his gun, sheltering it under his sports coat.
Napoleon swung the door open slowly, gun in hand. The unlit yard was a solid wall of water falling straight from the sky.
Illya counted to three and then dashed through the door, running half-blind in the rain. But he’d paced this off before. Five steps down from the stoop. Twelve across the yard—he made it thirteen, sloshing through ankle-deep water. A hop onto the trashcan—holster the gun. His hand felt for the top of Kate’s chain-link fence. Then a short vault—either up and over to land in the alley or sideways onto the post anchoring the neighbor’s wooden fence. He twisted right, opting for the fence, slipped on the wet wood, and pitched forward, catching himself, outstretched along the top rails. Probably should have walked through the gate. He clung for a moment, mindful of the neighbor’s two dogs, but they appeared to be taking a break. Not even dogs would be out in a rain storm like this.
Illya maneuvered up onto the post, found his balance and crouched, gun ready, peering into the downpour. This was madness. He didn’t see anything threatening. He couldn’t see Napoleon. He couldn’t even see Kate’s. He couldn’t hear, either, above the pounding of rain and the muffled jazz beat from the bars. And he kept breathing in mouthfuls of water. His cough hit and he started to fall as the dogs punched back in on the clock. He grabbed the edge of the fence and swung down to the alley, dodging muzzles that flashed up past his face. The dogs began shredding his hat.
Illya froze as a gun pressed itself under his ear.
“Don’t startle me like that.” The gun pulled away.
“Sorry.” Illya leaned against the fence, trying to get a dry breath. “Next time I’ll whistle.”
Napoleon tucked the gun under his coat, eyeing teeth through the gaps in the wood. “Don’t they bark?”
“Guard dogs are trained not to. Not until you are cornered or dead.”
“Charming.” A hand patted his shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Illya straightened. “More or less. Your drug seems to have left me a bit dizzy.” He looked around. “Where’s Moustache?”
“With me—” Napoleon glanced quickly right and left. No Moustache. “C’mon.” He pounded off down the alley. Illya gave him a couple of meters—as far as he could see—and then matched him stride for stride. The water grew deeper, halfway up to their knees, before dropping as they came to the street. The night was brighter here and visibility was better beneath a gas lamp that hissed and spat at the rain. Both agents slowed to take advantage of the cover provided by large, yardless buildings at the end of the alley. A short distance away, Bourbon street pulsed to the music of Dixieland and the light of passing cars.
A yellow sedan was parked alone on the street, counter to traffic, with its left wheels on the curb and right wheels in what now was a running river. Beside the car, Moustache was fumbling with keys. Napoleon strode into the light and leaned over Moustache’s shoulder. Illya couldn’t hear what he said, but Moustache leapt back, dropping his keys in the gutter.
Illya retreated a pace into the alley as a man with a sawed-off Remington shotgun stepped out of the shadows, pumping the hand guard and shouting out indistinct orders. Napoleon turned slowly, head cocked, and let his P38 drop with a splash. The man moved forward, putting the shotgun to Napoleon’s chest before tucking the stock under his arm and extending a hand.
Illya hesitated, biting his lip. Darts were risky against a man in position to fire. And this man might well have a backup—someone remaining in shadows as Illya had done. He pressed closer to the wall of the building and edged forward, squinting out over the street.
Napoleon reached his left hand into his coat, extracted a wallet, and passed it over. Wrong side, Illya noted. That isn’t his wallet. Where was the Thrush backup? Illya hoped the false wallet wasn’t loaded with gas. In this rain it would be ineffective.
There! The glint of a rifle, in the opposite alley.
The wallet flipped open with a pop and a flash, and the gunman threw it away, howling. Napoleon knocked the shotgun aside into the gutter, stepping up to attack.
“Stay low!” Illya fired—once at the rifle and once at Napoleon’s gunman, who slumped to the sidewalk. A rifle bullet slammed into the building behind him. He joined Napoleon and Moustache crouching beside the sedan as the rear window shattered. Moustache’s car provided some cover, but their position was weak, pinned under the light, with no other vehicles nearby, and one vaguely dry hand-gun between them. Illya edged sideways, risking a glance past the rear bumper. A taillight exploded and he threw himself back.
“Keep him busy!” Napoleon called.
Oh sure. Illya reloaded with bullets, holding a spare magazine in his hand. Then he lay down on his back and slid under the car, shivering as the cold water rose over his chest. Drat. He hadn’t realized the curb was so high. He squeezed onto his right shoulder, soaking the last bone in his body and wishing he’d saved more ammunition. Still, the dunking had its advantage. Moustache’s engine was warm and would draw the man’s night scope. He squirmed between the rear tires, rubbing water and mud from his eyes. There was no real chance of stopping the rifleman by shooting blindly out into the rain. But Illya’s job was sitting duck, not sniper. He unscrewed the flash suppressor from his P38, squinted, and started to fire.
Sixteen shots. Illya laid down the first eight in quick succession, hoping Napoleon would stay out of the way, snapping the spare magazine in as he fired the last round. Eight shots. A half-dozen bullets tore into the back of the car. Seven. A shot ricocheted off the tail pipe and parted the wrong side of his hair. Six. Two wild rounds hit the engine over his feet. There was a hiss and the smell of hot motor oil. Five. The tire in front of him exploded with a bang, and the car sagged toward the street, threatening to pin him. He rolled to his back, slithering sideways. Four. A shot tore the sleeve of his sports coat. It was time to withdraw. Three. Illya squirmed to the curb, and wriggled onto the sidewalk. Moustache was huddled between the front door and their unconscious assailant, chanting a prayer. Two. Illya twisted onto his stomach and continued firing around the remaining rear tire. He couldn’t see a damn thing, and Napoleon was out there, so he aimed at the ground. One—
The alley on the opposite side of the street burst into a string of explosions.
Fireworks? Illya jumped to his feet and dashed around the sedan, running for all he was worth. He reached the opposite side of the street and flattened himself against a wall, breathing hard. He’d lost track of the target, which was a pity. Any moment now that rifle was going to cut him in two. He would have liked to have seen it coming. He reloaded with a wet magazine on the off chance it would fire.
The smoke cleared fast, revealing Napoleon flattened against the opposite building and the Thrush rifle abandoned on the sidewalk between them. Napoleon moved sideways, edged cautiously around the corner and started picking his way down the alley. Illya went after the rifle. Three rounds left in the clip. He holstered his P38 and walked back to the building, leaning against the stucco, tipping his head up and letting the rain wash the mud from his face. There was no point in looking for shelter. He had nothing left to keep dry.
Napoleon waded toward Illya alone, looking snug in his trench coat and hat.
“What was that?” Illya waved at the site of their fireworks display. “It sounded like bullets.”
Across the street, Moustache had retrieved his keys and was again fumbling with the car door. It looked like he was planning to leave. Illya wondered briefly whether the rifle was too wet to fire. He lifted it and blew out the front tire. Apparently not. Good thing there weren’t any police in this town.
“Old Boy Scout trick.” Napoleon tapped his watch, grinning. “I blew up a magazine loaded with blanks.”
He must have been a remarkably well-armed Boy Scout. Illya peeked at the watch. “Is that the new shirt-button detonator system Section Eight’s been promoting?”
Now Moustache was squeezing into the driver’s seat. There was something endearingly optimistic about a man who would flee on two wheel rims.
Illya raised the rifle. He would let Moustache pull forward and then hit the other rear tire.
He glanced at Napoleon. “The shirt buttons that have a 3.6 percent chance of exploding each time they’re exposed to an electro-magnetic field?”
“They what?” Napoleon’s expression was worth two dunkings under a car. His hand clutched his coat. “Are you serious?”
Illya nodded. “Per button.” It paid to read the full lab reports, not just the memos. He leaned toward Napoleon’s ear. “If I were you, I’d temporarily suspend tucking in shirt-tails. Or avoid thunder storms. Or both.”
Napoleon stared at him.
Moustache cranked the sedan’s engine.
A shower of sparks burst into the sky. Light flashed and a hubcap slammed into the building beside them, bringing with it a very loud boom. The yellow car crackled and burned.
Illya looked at Napoleon, who shrugged. They watched the fire take hold while the roaring in their ears faded away.
“C’mon.” Napoleon tugged Illya’s arm. “This is bound to attract attention, even in New Orleans.”
Illya nodded, pushing wet hair out of his eyes. They made a circuit and approached the car cautiously. The shotgun man lay next to the burning sedan, looking substantially dead. Illya ducked in, felt for a pulse and then quickly backed away from the flames, shaking his head. “I think he’s out of a job.”
They waded together toward Kate’s, Napoleon surreptitiously stripping off shirt buttons under his coat. When he’d finished, he patted the pocket containing their sample.
“One of us had better get this stuff up to New York tonight.”
“One of us.”
“While the other one stays here and plays for his supper.”
Napoleon left for the airport while Illya indulged in a long hot shower. Kate brought him a robe—Paul’s, he realized, the thing hung on him like a blanket—and a mug of her hideous tea, this time thick with milk and honey. Illya sat cross-legged on the narrow bed tucked into his small garret room and drank the bitter stuff gratefully. Even up here, the air was heavy with smoke, and he had to admit it, the coughing was wearing him down.
Paul’s robe. The thought brought a twinge of guilt. Kate had also been waiting for Paul. He called the Australian to mind, wondering just how much damage the Lagniappe drug had done to his sanity. Tall, brown-eyed, curly brown hair, perpetually grinning—Illya exerted some effort and changed the thought to smirking. Enthusiastic—gratingly enthusiastic—about nature, first, and almost everything else, second. Indiscreet beyond belief. There had been times when Illya would have quite cheerfully murdered him. There were other times when Paul’s blunt, laissez faire attitude compared favorably to Napoleon’s intense, self-centered competitiveness.
Illya sighed. He wasn’t sure how much the drug was affecting him. Why couldn’t Napoleon simply have brainwashed him into liking Kate’s tea?
“You’re hot.” Kate took her hand away from his forehead. He hadn’t noticed it was there, but he missed it, now that it was gone.
“It’s my constitution,” he said truthfully. “I’m always like that.” He smiled. “In Paris, I was the envy of Madame Gisette’s School for Ballet because I could eat all day and never gain weight.”
“Did you study ballet?” Are you queer? Illya shook his head. Kate hadn’t meant it like that.
“I was at the Sorbonne before I joined U.N.C.L.E. The girls were my neighbors.” He smiled again at the memory. A very charming group of ladies. True, the bathroom had often hung with their stockings, and they threw shoes if he so much as mentioned croissant. But theater women had refreshingly liberal ideas. About Communists. About sex. About Communists and sex. His education that year had involved so much more than mathematics.
She brought a damp cloth and patted his face. It occurred to him to resent being fussed over, but the cloth smelled beguilingly of bay leaves and mint, and Kate was extremely disarming. There was something almost Gypsy about her. He felt at home here in a way he had once felt at home with the Gypsies. That had been Paris also, but a lifetime ago, during the war. They were good people, rough, even cruel on the outside, fiercely loyal and kind underneath….
Illya sat up abruptly, pushing the cloth away. What on Earth was he doing? He was not normally given to wool gathering. Was he really that ill? He didn’t think so. He’d been light-headed since tasting the Lagniappe crystals. Perhaps this was an effect of the drug.
He should try to sleep it off, but he had to tell her first.
“Paul’s missing, Kate.” Three easy words, but he’d omitted a few. “Presumed dead. Napoleon didn’t have details.”
She was quiet a moment. “How dead is presumed?”
“That’s difficult to say. Most of us practice presumed a few times before it actually happens.” She winced and he kicked himself. Couldn’t Napoleon have done this? He reached for her hand. “Have you heard from him since Wednesday?”
“No.” Her fingers were cold. “That’s a long time, even for Paul.”
“Yes, it’s a long time.” Too long. Illya’s stomach twisted before he blocked the response. He had plenty of experience losing agents. Paul was no different from the rest. Damn Napoleon and his drug.
“You should be careful with security Kate. Thrush may know about us here.”
“You mean, if he’s been tortured, he’s probably told them our names.”
Illya looked in her eyes. She was reasonably calm. “Yes,” he said. “That is exactly what I mean.”
Suddenly he needed action. “I’m going to the bar.” Illya jumped up and looked at his watch. 12:00. Kate’s would be busy for four or five hours, but Marais Celeste emptied out early. There was a chicken coop under a rear window that would provide cover for watching the building. When it was quiet he’d go in through the window or up the stairway inside. Illya reached for his holster. The time had come to find out what went on upstairs at Marais Celeste.
“Tomorrow.” Kate pushed him back to the bed. “Monday morning is better. Everyone in town will be sleeping it off. And we’ve got to do something about that cough.” She walked out of his room and softly down the stairs.
Illya put his chin in his hands. She was right. He wasn’t thinking clearly, which was rather unusual. Charging into the bar would not help Paul. And the cough was a problem. Perhaps he should call Dr. Nguyen and ask for codeine or something similar? But he barely knew her—barely knew anyone here in the States. She might yank him out of the field for a day he couldn’t afford. He dry swallowed a couple of the antibiotic tablets she’d given him, and lay down in the bed, hoping sleep would clear things up. It usually did; he was an excellent sleeper.
Kate returned with another steaming mug. This one smelled really foul. “Drink up.” She drew a gun from under her skirt. “And move over. I’m going to keep watch.”
Illya drank and squeezed next to the wall. His cough vanished. The room started to fade. He ought to say something to Kate.
“Spasibo,” he muttered.
“Pazhalooysta. Cpokoinoi nochi.”
Monday, November 20
Like many New Orleans bars, Marais Celeste never closed, but, as Kate had predicted, at 7:00 am the place was deserted. Even the off-hours bartender—a gorilla named Jack, more suited to crushing bones than chipping ice—merely stuck his head out and grunted “you’re early” before ducking back into the kitchen. That was good. Illya didn’t think he’d been identified last night in the rain, but it was always pleasant not to be greeted by a gun in the ribs. Assuming their gunmen had been from Marais Celeste in the first place. Illya was tired of assumptions. He wanted facts. He needed to pin down the connection between Walter Doucet, Marais Celeste, and Lagniappe.
He walked along the cypress bar, past the door leading up to Tom and Walter’s lair, and on through into the kitchen. Jack had returned to the table, eyes glued to a children’s television program on a set at the far end of the room. Illya hung his wet coat on a rack behind the swinging kitchen door. Over the last few days he’d noticed a loose wire, much patched with electrical tape, running along the baseboard below the coat rack. He’d already traced it and deduced this was (a) the wire for the buzzer on the front and rear doors and (b) frequently stepped on and broken.
A quick scuff of his foot confirmed hypothesis (b).
Good. “Is there coffee?”
Jack waved his thumb at the counter. “Add some whiskey. It’ll help you get rid of that cough.”
“Thank you.” Illya poured himself a cup. He passed over the whiskey bottle, opting instead for cream from the industrial-sized refrigerator. American coffee was pitiful, thin stuff as a rule, barely drinkable black, but in New Orleans they brewed the real thing.
Illya skirted the table and opened the door to the alley. No buzzer. That took care of hypothesis (a) and added the comforting observation that Jack was too absorbed in his program to notice. Not that Illya cared about doors—he was planning to disable the whole system. But he needed an excuse for the alarm to fail if anyone came in or out of the bar while he was searching upstairs.
Illya looked out into the rain. Marais Celeste had a fenced yard, like Kate’s, with room for a car on the right and chickens on the left. The chicken coop was attached to the main building and the window above it was—unusual for New Orleans—unbarred. He could escape that way, if need be, though it was exposed and might mean ruining his cover once and for all.
That thought gave him pause. If Paul had been tortured, Illya’s cover would already be blown. Therefore Paul must be dead. The implication bothered him no more than it should. The Lagniappe drug had worn off.
He closed the door. “It appears the rain may be ending.”
Jack grunted noncommittally.
Illya scanned the kitchen, looking for a chance to be helpful. There was a stack of liquor boxes waiting beside the TV.
“Would you like me to put these into the storeroom?”
Illya grabbed a box and elbowed his way past the door. The storeroom held rows of steel shelving stacked with booze, bar snacks, and rudimentary cooking supplies—lard, ketchup, mustard, hamburger buns. Marais Celeste did not run toward haute cuisine. The junction box for the alarm system was wedged in a corner next to the fuses. Illya unscrewed the cover and clipped in a jumper wire that bypassed the circuit to the alarm. That was that.
Unless they had a backup built into the system. But everything he’d seen in the last few days indicated an informal approach to security. Marais Celeste relied on muscle, not technology. The question was, would there be muscle upstairs at this hour of the day?
Illya hauled the remaining crates into the storeroom, reached down, and moved the pistol from his ankle holster to his pocket. He felt his lungs clear as adrenalin began to kick in. Illya smiled. Apparently burglary was a more effective tonic than Kate’s tea. There was a row of large burlap sugar sacks stamped Oiseaux de Marais Imports under the shelves. Illya thought a moment and then teased two of them open with his pocket knife, grabbed some foil from a box, and took samples.
The storeroom door swung open behind him. “Hey, Nick, get this.”
Illya heaved the last box onto a shelf and followed Jack to the kitchen table.
“Watch this guy.” Jack pointed to the television, where a man in a floppy suit was pulling watermelons out of his pants. He took out more things: pineapples, grapefruit, a banjo, while transforming his suit into a train conductor’s uniform.
“Watch this, I love this part.”
The man took a bunch of bananas from his coat. Then two. Then three. He stepped away from the camera and assembled his props into a train. Then he loaded the remaining items on board and, with a puff of smoke, the whole thing chugged off screen.
A lady started to advertise hand soap. Jack beamed in Illya’s direction.
“That guy breaks me up. I bet you Russkies don’t got anything like him.”
“No,” Illya agreed. “Very impressive.” He poured some more coffee. Jack liked to chat during station breaks. He’d have about thirteen minutes to get upstairs and back down again, after which he might be missed.
Illya raised an eyebrow at Jack. “They don’t eat those watermelons, do they?”
Jack refilled his own cup and added a generous measure of whiskey. He snorted, giving Illya’s shoulder a playful shove.
“You’re a pretty funny guy, you know? You should tell some jokes or something while you’re out there murdering the piano.”
Illya grabbed a towel and mopped coffee off his shirt. “I will try to think of some.”
“Hey, just steal ’em. They’ve got a bunch in Reader’s Digest every month.” Jack went back to the table. “By the way, the boss lady left you a present.” He nodded at a box on the counter.
Patrice? Illya opened the box and lifted out a shimmering black silk shirt with gold buttons that extended only halfway up the front. Around the collar was a gold men’s neck chain. Bozhe moi.
Jack’s program resumed, but he had time for one last smirking glance. “I guess somebody thinks you’re cute.”
Illya picked and relocked the door, taking the steps two at a time. One of the steps shifted under his weight, probably indicating a pressure alarm. Illya ignored it. The stairway opened into a generous lounge with a central table and chairs surrounded by sofas, armchairs, end tables, ash trays, and, of all things, a full-sized punching bag. There was a small wet-bar along the opposite wall, a locked gun case holding Thrush rifles, and a table piled with newspapers and magazines. The right wall held four evenly spaced doors.
The room was empty. He lowered his gun. Twelve minutes to go.
Illya moved to the front of the building, planning to work back to his emergency exit.
The first door was unlocked. It led to a room containing a narrow bed and wide chest of drawers. A lamp and telephone stood on top of the chest, a supply of condoms and adult toys lay within.
The second room was a lavatory and full bath. The third, a bedroom like the first.
The lock on the fourth door was a twin of the one on the stairs. It guarded an office with a pair of matching mahogany desks and a double-drawer filing cabinet. On one desk sat a professional photo of Holly Doucet wearing a white leotard, en pointe. On the other was an amateur snapshot of a very young Walter and Patrice.
The lock on the filing cabinet gave Illya some trouble. He wiped away sweat and controlled the urge to break it open. He had plenty of time, and it was far, far better if no one knew he’d been here.
The files were Thrush personnel records. Names, addresses, pay scales. Performance reviews? Another time it would have been fascinating.
Illya closed and relocked the file. There was either a safe or he’d stuck his neck out for nothing.
Two paintings on the wall. One safe behind a painting. The lock on the wall safe meant business but so did Illya. He pressed a miniature amplifier to the door and hit the combination on his fifteenth try.
Still, it was unlikely Jack would look for him. Illya was pretty sure American television programs followed one right after the other, so Jack would remain busy. The real danger was that someone else would come in and notice the disabled alarm.
The safe swung open. Inside were more file folders. Illya grabbed the first, flipped through it—and stopped in stunned disbelief.
It was Holly—or someone like Holly about fifteen years from now. Holly’s mother, then. In the first photo, she was standing outside a bungalow, smiling and waving at the camera. In the rest she was carefully, painstakingly, tortured to death.
Illya closed the folder and leaned against a desk, shutting his eyes, building an emotional wall while the coffee lurched in his stomach. He thought of the war, of the first time he’d seen someone killed. Of the many, many times since that day. Of the five agents who had died on assignments with him in less than two years—a standing U.N.C.L.E. record—and of Paul, who most likely set the total at six. He’d seen dead people before.
He looked at the safe. There were twenty or thirty neatly stacked folders. Probably none of them would relate to Lagniappe. He could close the safe and walk away without blame.
One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.
Time was up. Illya was going to be late.
Holly Doucet brushed a speck of dirt from her white and black checked skirt and watched the sky weep outside her window. They were riding in the limousine together, Auntie Rat, Uncle Rat, Super Rat, and her. One big happy family on their way to the bar. It was unusual for the Three Rats to be up and about so early. In fact, it was unusual for them to be up in the morning at all. Ordinarily, she’d stop by Marais Celeste alone and leave some new sheet music for “Nick” before running errands, or—if absolutely necessary—going to school. She liked to play through the songs and imagine Nick sitting in the same spot on the bench, practicing and thinking of her.
Well, all right. He wasn’t thinking of her. She knew better than that. He was thinking of ways to destroy Marais Celeste and send the Rats up the river for a hundred and fifty million years without cheese. But he might think of her later, while they rotted in jail. Might remember her fondly over the next few years while she finished growing up.
She tried his real name, Illya, which she’d found in his wallet along with his U.N.C.L.E. ID. Really, you’d think spies would be more careful about things like that. Illya Kuryakin. Then she locked the name safely away. They could kill her before she’d betray him.
Anyway, Nick might remember her. And he might need help someday…trapped in a blinding snowstorm in the Ural mountains, when Holly…on vacation from her studies with the Bolshoi Ballet…would ski gracefully down a slope nobody else dared attempt, and find him, and help him to an abandoned ski chalet…. Did they have ski chalets in Siberia? Maybe a woodcutter’s hut.
Holly shook her head sadly at her own reflection in the limousine window. Daydreams were for little girls. Spies were supposed to pay attention.
“…told you I’m busy this week, Patrice.” Walter was talking. “You show up tonight, make a good impression, and don’t bug me till Friday.”
“You’re busy. I’m bored.” It was hard to believe Patrice could be bored. That was like saying an ant could be short. Holly kept her face turned away. If you don’t look, they think you aren’t listening.
“Then entertain yourself.” Walter laughed. “But keep out of the way. Hear?”
“Sure, honey.” Why the smug tone? What was Auntie Rat up to? Holly glanced across the limousine and saw Patrice smirking at her. But Patrice was no threat. Holly was the darling of Super Rat and knew just how to stay under his paws.
Besides, Patrice is a thumping bore.
“Where’s your school uniform, Holly?” There. A typically pitiful thrust.
“Daddy said I can read at the bar today.” She held up her book, Recherche du Temps Perdu, in French, no less. It was pretty dull stuff, but it worked magic in a family that judged books by the pound. “You ought to read it, Aunt Patrice. You and Monsieur Proust have the same appetite for sweets.”
Auntie Rat snickered. “Not exactly, I hope.” Holly bit her lip.
Her Daddy put his arm around her. “You could do with a few sweets yourself, Princess.” He reached for her chin. “I swear you’re thinner every day.”
She made an effort and gave him her snake charming smile. “I’m almost a teenager, Daddy. I have to watch my weight.” He was looking a little too closely. Holly climbed onto his lap and made her voice into a stage whisper.
“We Doucet woman blow up like blimps. You wouldn’t want that.”
He hugged her, laughing. “Lord, no. But too much is enough. You come along with us tonight and eat a proper dinner. We’re meeting a very important business associate.” He smiled into her face. “I need my Princess along to add some class to the table.”
Holly snuggled against him, remembering a time when she hadn’t been playing a part. He’d been just as evil then. Not knowing hadn’t made it untrue.
The limousine stopped outside the bar as the sky let down buckets of rain. Charlie came around with an umbrella, and Super Rat scooped her up to carry her over the wet sidewalk. Holly watched her image approaching the shiny glass door. Her dress was white. Her gloves were white. Her hat was white. Everything was perfect. There was not a spot on her.
How could she possibly feel so dirty?
He set her down in the bar, but she knew he would never let go.
By the third file, Illya had a system. He opened each folder, memorized name, face, date, and essential facts, and then photographed the contents with as little thought as possible about what he was doing. There were thirty-two files in all, each as carefully documented as the first. Several were U.N.C.L.E. agents, but thankfully no one he’d met. Many of the sessions began as interrogations. Most carried on long after the relevant information had been obtained. All of them ended in death.
Illya stacked the folders neatly and closed the safe, considering his options. The Doucets were very likely to come here today. Perhaps alone, perhaps not. If he waited in the office, he could kill them both on the spot. But Tom and Walter came to work late. His chances were slim of hiding all day undetected. And the Doucets might not show up together. He’d have to put that plan on hold.
Illya took a deep breath, forcing his anger away. It was time to leave. He locked the office and headed down the stairs, where he ran into the obvious flaw in his plan. There were voices on the other side of the door.
“Oh Tommy, honestly.”
The Rats were arguing about something. Her, possibly, or dinner. Holly wasn’t listening. She was looking over the sheet music on the piano trying to convince herself someone had touched it. Rearranged it. Turned the pages. But no. It was exactly the way they’d left it last night.
Yet Nick’s coat was hanging in the kitchen.
Holly walked to the rest rooms, took a breath, and ducked in to Hommes. Empty.
Perhaps he’d forgotten it here? She returned to the kitchen and felt the heavy fabric. Soaking wet. She stared out the window into the rain. No one would go out for a cigarette in a downpour like this. And anyway, Nick didn’t smoke. She looked down and saw the alarm wire broken by her feet. And she knew, absolutely, for certain he was cornered upstairs.
Holly walked to the bar in a daze. They were drinking and laughing now, in high spirits. She couldn’t follow the conversation. Nick had cut the alarm and gone upstairs to search for evidence that could be used against Marais Celeste. At any minute, he’d step through the door and be murdered by her father. Just as the other U.N.C.L.E. agents had been murdered. The ones her father and Walter had spoken of, on that day when their lies finally crumbled to dust.
Not that I mind cutting those nosy parkers up for you.
There had to be some way to warn Nick not to come through that door. Warn him and lead the Rats away. Holly climbed onto her favorite bar stool and put her chin in her hands, running through the possibilities.
She could start a fire. But a small fire might not drive them out of the bar, and a big fire might roast Nick alive.
Gauche and Droite lived in a flat across the street. She could run over and beg for help. Then what? The Rats might as willingly murder their bartenders as their pianist.
There was Charlie, out in the limousine. Poor Charlie was a simple-minded dear and would do almost anything for her. Only it wouldn’t be right to trick Charlie in a way that would get him in trouble. And, of course, he wouldn’t deliberately cross Uncle Walter.
This spy stuff was harder than she’d thought.
Gauche and Droite kept a gun in the till.
Holly considered the gun. It was a big revolver—a lot heavier than the ladies’ pistol Charlie had taught her to fire. In theory she could aim it and shoot it. In practice she wasn’t so sure.
The Rats had nearly finished their drinks. She was out of time. She’d have to use the gun.
Holly hopped up and swung her feet over the bar, sliding down to a crate the twins kept for her on the opposite side. She jumped off and shoved the crate across the floor to the cash register. Under the bar, there was a radio they sometimes played in the afternoon. Perfect! Holly switched on the radio, turning the volume up full.
Illya pressed his ear against the door and considered his position. If this was the Doucets, he could simply wait until they opened the door and settle things here. If. But if not? Or if they weren’t alone? How many people was he prepared to gun down in cold blood? Jack? Patrice? The Beauprés? The answer was obvious. None.
Which left the window. He retraced his steps to the office. Below him, a radio flared, playing pop music impossibly loudly. Holly? Illya let himself into the office, frowning. If Holly was here, she’d have looked for him, first, as she usually did. She’d almost certainly have noticed his coat. Then what? Holly knew he was watching the bar. Would she guess he was searching the office? Try to warn him not to come down? He walked to the window with a mounting sense of unease. She was an odd, determined little girl. She might try to warn him, but he doubted she’d leave it at that. What would she try to do next?
Hit the Road, Jack. Don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more….
“For Christ sake, girl, turn that thing down!” Her uncle’s words were like a punch in the stomach.
Holly lowered the sound. “Sorry Uncle Ra— Uncle Walter.” She stared at the dial, not quite daring to look up.
Her Daddy came over between Walter and her and turned off the radio. He lifted Holly onto the crate and opened the cash register. “Get some quarters, Princess, and play the juke box instead.” Then he put his hand on Walter and steered him back down to Patrice. Holly blinked at the register. She couldn’t seem to move.
You always get scared on stage, honey. But her mother hadn’t ever been afraid. Not even as Antigone, when people had laughed in her face. She’d laughed right back, and before the end she’d had them all in tears. She hadn’t been afraid. She’d been…she’d been…alive.
Holly reached into the register and scooped up a handful of quarters. She put her left hand in past the cash to the place where the twins kept their gun. This was not going to work. They’d never take her seriously and she didn’t have the guts to shoot them all dead.
Our altars are polluted by flesh brought by dogs and birds, picking from Polynices’ corpse.
She put her right hand on the cash drawer and slammed it shut just as hard as she could.
The windows were locked and sealed. Hence no need for bars. Illya stared dumbly at the security glass. It was as thick as his thumb and threaded with tiny steel wires—the same stuff they used in Waverly’s office at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. It must have cost a fortune to install. Ah well. As you cooked the porridge, so must you eat it. He’d have to bluff his way out with the gun—declaring open war on Thrush in the process.
Napoleon was not going to be happy.
Illya went down the stairs and picked the door lock one last time. He flicked the safety off his gun and reached for the knob just as a thin, high-pitched scream sounded out in the bar.
Illya counted to three and stepped through the door, gun ready. The Doucets were all there. Holly, on the floor behind the bar. Walter, Tom, and Patrice, clustered around her. No one was looking his way.
“Don’t stand there, dammit! Call an ambulance.”
Illya slipped the gun in a pocket, turned, and relocked the door.
“Calm down, Tommy, she’s only pinched her hand.”
Jack barreled out of the kitchen with a handful of towels. Illya stepped past him through the swinging door. There was nothing he could do for Holly that her family wouldn’t do. He walked into the storeroom and repaired the alarm. Then he got a bowl and some ice from the freezer and went out to the bar.
Holly was sitting up on the floor, cradled in her father’s lap.
“I brought some ice.” Illya held out the bowl. Holly’s eyes snapped to his face. She stared at him, shivering, white as a sheet.
Walter was twisting her hand. “Nothing broken. Wrap it in a hot compress and she’ll be fine.” He took a bottle out of his pocket, shook out a pill, broke it, and handed one half to Holly, who washed it down with a large drink of bourbon.
Patrice sidled over to Illya at the end of the bar.
“Well, where did you come from?” She put an arm around his shoulder and breathed alcohol into his ear. “Did you get my present?”
Holly was watching them, blue eyes as wide as a deer’s. Patrice shot her a poisonous glance.
Illya swung Patrice around and relaxed against the bar. “Yes, thank you. But it’s more than I can possibly accept.”
“Don’t be silly, it’s for your performance.” She slid her hand to his hip. “I’d be happy to help you take it off later though.”
For pity sake, her husband was five paces away. Illya turned again, not sure which way to jump. Walter had just finished wrapping Holly’s wrist. He didn’t seem to have much interest in his wife.
Tom Doucet picked up Holly. “I’m taking her home.”
Walter put a hand on his arm. “She’s fine. Let Charlie drive her home in the limo. We’ve got business.”
“I don’t want her riding alone.”
“Nick could take me,” Holly piped up. “He could ride in the limousine, and Charlie could bring him right back.” She looked over at Illya. “Couldn’t you, Nick?”
What was it with all of these women? He was beginning to feel like a football.
Tom Doucet noticed Illya’s existence for the first time all week. Wonderful.
“You work here, right?”
Tom stepped closer, Holly still in his arms. He stared hard into Illya’s face. “Would you mind taking my little girl home? We’ll call the housekeeper to be ready for her.”
“That’s my pianist, Tommy. He’s here to practice.” Patrice looked at Tom and fell back with a shrug.
Holly’s eyes were unbearably hopeful.
“Yes, of course,” Illya said. “I don’t mind.”
Illya collected his coat and followed the Doucets to the limousine. For once the rain had stopped completely. He looked up at the solid gray sky. It wouldn’t last.
“Now, Princess, you call right away if you need anything.”
Illya slid onto the seat next to Holly. Tom Doucet leaned over and pressed a bill into his hand.
“I appreciate this.” Tom lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes. “If you touch her, you’re a very dead man.” He slapped Illya on the shoulder and backed out of the limousine.
“Fair enough.” Illya pulled the door shut.
The limousine muscled its way onto Bourbon Street. Holly lay down with her head in his lap.
“Quel rat!” she said, under her breath.
Illya showed her the bill. Fifty dollars. “It seems you are worth a great deal of money.”
Holly grinned and switched to French. “You should pay a reward to me. I just saved your—your—comment dit-on ‘butt’ en français?”
Illya hesitated, glancing toward the front of the limousine. “Your chauffeur might not approve of such talk.”
“Don’t worry. Poor Charlie just barely speaks English. He’s sweet, in his way, but impossibly dull.” She peered under her eyelashes. “I did save you, didn’t I?”
He ought to say no. “Yes. Thank you. But that was a foolish thing to do. Let me see your hand.” Illya unwrapped the towel and removed the hot compress. There were ugly red stripes on the front and the back. It was swollen and starting to bruise. “You could have torn a vein open and bled to death on the spot.” It was a miracle she hadn’t.
“Je ne comprends pas.”
Illya traced the purple lines on her wrist. “Ici.”
“Ah. Très romantique! You would attend the—ceremony of my death?”
“Les funérailles, as in English.” He pressed the bones gently with his thumb. No obvious breaks. “No, I wouldn’t come. Does this hurt?”
Her eyes rolled up in her head. “Holly?”
“It’s marvelous.” Holly snapped awake. “Everything’s marvelous. You are marvelous.”
She was feeling Walter’s pill. Illya sighed. He wrapped her wrist again without the compress. “At home, put on ice. It’s better for swelling. Tell them you learned it at school. All right?” He had to repeat himself in English.
“Very well.” She caught his hand and rubbed her fingertips across the ring. “Est-tu marié?”
Illya was out of his depth “No. It was my mother’s wedding ring.” What kind of a spy couldn’t lie to a twelve-year old child? “My mother is dead, too, like yours.”
“I’m sorry,” she said in English. “I suppose you think I’m very brazen or tres fou or something?”
Illya smiled down at her, shaking his head. “Or something. Definitely or something.”
She sighed and settled down in his lap, still clutching his hand. “It’s OK. I’m not in love with you, or anything like that. We’re pals, is all. Right? Just pals?”
“Yes,” Illya told her skeptically. “Just pals.”
“C’est bon.” Holly closed her eyes and went to sleep.
Victor Marton stepped out of his private jet and into the faltering light of the sun. New Orleans, at last. He’d always intended to visit her, this natural daughter of France, last bastion of gentility in a continent grown hopelessly gauche. And here he was, six steps above pavement that lay a remarkable five feet below sea level, wrapped in the tendrils of a welcoming breeze. It could almost be Martinique, with her delicate trade winds—les alizés—that greeted each traveler like a long lost paramour. Here were the same moist flower scents reaching up over the fumes of the aircraft, the same wild birds calling from beyond the perimeter of the tarmac, the same comfortable black faces moving about on the ground, the same blood red puddles of sunset collecting against the earth.
He glanced at the ceiling of clouds, breaking now as after a long hard storm. Very much like Martinique, albeit flatter. A charming place by all reports. It would be a welcome change from the dreary Windy City where he’d found himself tethered these last eighteen months, rubbing shoulders with men who kept Tommy guns stashed in the basement and reeked of the gin they’d been baptized in.
Victor permitted himself a small smile. Chicago was nearly a thing of the past. This week promised the triple pleasures of fine dining, a master stroke for Thrush, and a sweet act of personal revenge. And the near future would see him home again in native France, one rung up the ladder to Central, ideally placed in the government to make use of Thrush’s intriguing new drug.
He looked over to the gleaming American limousine parked at the edge of the airfield and the gleaming American family standing beside it. Walter, Tom, and Patrice Doucet, and a young girl dressed in polka-dotted white. He’d never met them, but they were known in Thrush circles for running a tight little satrapy. Highly regarded in the matter of recalcitrant guests. Under their tutelage, more than one scientist had been persuaded away from foolish idealism, and the last had provided a prize of significant value. As a reward, the Doucets had been allowed to cultivate the Lagniappe information and would soon be moving up themselves.
Privately, Victor had reservations. The Doucets were reasonably discreet, generally ruthless, and unquestionably effective—at what they did. But he’d seen Walter’s reports, which were mechanical and lacking in vision. And the other two, the brother and sister, were mere hangers on. Yes, they’d be promoted and moved to Chicago. But the regional office would eat them alive, and then Thrush would have to find itself a new set of investigative specialists. But ah well, American matters would soon be out of Victor’s hands, and torturers were not so very hard to come by.
“Will you be taking a bodyguard, sir?”
Victor glanced back at the pilot, who was unlocking the weapons rack. There were six dependable men on the plane, and normally he’d take along two. But he didn’t want to step on local Thrush toes. And he was quite certain he could handle the Doucets.
“Not just now, thank you, but keep a close watch, monitor the usual frequencies, and be ready to leave on short notice.”
“Yes, sir.” Short notice was standard procedure in this line of work.
Victor walked to the limousine to meet the subordinates on whom his immediate future depended.
Walter held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Victor.” It appeared they were already chums. “I’m flattered you came down in person for our dog and pony show.” Doucet perfectly matched his reports. Expensively but unimaginatively dressed, with a broad face and resolute eyes. The sort of man who’d make a good mid-level officer during a war, well liked where he chose, but ruthless beneath the veneer.
“My pleasure, Walter.” Victor returned the firm handshake. “I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for anything.”
The answering smile was a shade too thin, which was careless of Walter. One might infer he didn’t like sharing credit. However, the sour look was fleeting.
“This here’s Tommy.” Walter clapped a hand on Tom Doucet’s shoulder.
Thomas was a sallower copy of Walter, a bit vague in the face, with a stronger odor of tobacco and American whiskey. Softer looking, yet by all reports it was Tom who was really talented in a prisoner’s cell. His handshake was decidedly clammy. The daughter—a pretty, self-possessed thing whose arm Tom possessively clutched—was an obvious weakness.
Tom leered, showing stained yellow teeth. “We hope to offer you a great many opportunities in New Orleans, Mr. Marton.” He laughed as if making a joke. “I’m sure we can make this a memorable visit. Can’t we, Patrice?”
Patrice Doucet shoved herself forward. “Monsyur Mar-tone, so lovely to meet you.” She was an attractive woman in her early thirties, rather oafishly dressed in a skin-tight leopard print dress and mink stole. Reports on her activities occasionally made it across Victor’s desk, too. But as they were only peripherally related to Thrush and not, apparently, at odds with her husband, Victor ignored them. She was clutching a three-and-a-half foot long package wrapped up in brown paper.
Patrice shifted her bundle awkwardly into one arm and wafted the red nails of the other.
“Madam Doucet.” Victor squeezed her hand and let go. “Charmed.”
“I made this for you.” Patrice thrust the package in Victor’s direction, leaving him no choice but to accept it. She stepped forward and pulled open the top, exposing a reptilian eye. “It’s one of my mounts.” She opened the paper a bit farther revealing a bright green alligator, with a full head of sharp teeth. “I named him Victor-y, in honor of your visit.”
Patrice twisted the alligator upside down in his arms and tore apart more paper to reveal an inscription painted in gold. There it was, “Victor-y for Victor” complete with decorative flourishes. Patrice, Tom, and Walter all beamed at it proudly.
“How…remarkable.” Victor schooled his expression. He turned toward the girl. “And this must be Miss Holly Doucet.”
So, the creature was bilingual. Victor made a note to be careful around her.
“Endurable.” He glanced at the clouds. “I am not fond of flying.” He started to step toward the car.
“One must walk in the air to look down on the Gods.”
Victor paused. She was rather short to be quoting Greek comedy. Holly caught his gaze through her eyelashes and he looked at her closely.
“Are you a student of Aristophanes, Mademoiselle Doucet?”
“Not really.” She shook her head gravely. “I prefer Oedipus Rex and Antigone. At my age one must be permitted a taste for tragedy, n’est-ce pas?” Her blue eyes regarded him evenly.
“But a lovely young lady, in so lovely a town. I’m afraid you must quite often be disappointed.”
“Sometimes.” She tipped her head sideways. “But I don’t believe your visit will be funny at all.”
She held his gaze, neither squirming nor looking away. What a wholly remarkable child. She’d be perfect for Thrush.
Victor nodded to Holly, acknowledging the point. Perhaps her father could be persuaded to board her in Paris. He knew just the right place for young ladies who were too smart for their own good.
“That’s enough, Holly,” Patrice snapped. “You don’t want to bore Mr. Marton.”
“Not at all.” Victor handed his trophy to Walter and offered an arm to Patrice. “Your niece is perfectly charming. I can see you’ve been a strong influence.” He escorted Patrice to the limousine and allowed her to slide unnecessarily close, suppressing a small inward sigh. In addition to the business at hand, it appeared sordid family politics would be on his agenda this week. C’est la vie. Victor would get the gentlemen alone as quickly as possible and make sure his plans were in motion. The rest hardly mattered. Inconveniences were tolerable when success was assured.
Tuesday, November 21
Napoleon made it to New Orleans in time for breakfast Tuesday morning and met Illya outside Café du Monde under the faded neon “Coffee and Doughnuts” sign. The unseasonable rain had passed, leaving a glorious blue sky and warm sun that glowed pink against the buildings of the French Market, flashed off the windshields of passing cars, and sent wisps of steam rising from the damp pavement.
He watched an elderly man move among the iron tables, wiping away the last bits of moisture with an equally aged yellow towel. As each surface came dry, the man muttered encouragement and gave the towel a pat, as one might do a wife of many years. Napoleon wondered how long the two of them had been together. Had they grown up and then old, polishing away traces of coffee and powdered sugar? Or was this the fate of their declining years, the reward, perhaps, for one too many conks on the head?
He handed the man a dollar and put the thought away as they carried beignets and chicory flavored coffee to a table in the sun. Napoleon eased muscles still cramped from his pre-dawn flight onto an unforgiving chair and surveyed Illya’s two bags and two cups of coffee with a jaundiced eye.
“Extra hungry today?”
“Something like that.” Illya smiled enigmatically and slid onto his seat with a careless ease that set Napoleon’s teeth on edge. The Russian was always his most cheerful before a meal. He lifted a bag with “Café Du Monde” printed on the side. “Holly tells me the girls call these ‘beignet barf bags.’ One eats the beignet, and then barfs into the bag. In order,” he clarified, “to remain slim.”
“I get the picture.” Napoleon’s plan was to skip the eating part. He brought out a small bottle, squeezed a drop of blue liquid onto each of their pastries, yawned, and passed the stuff over to Illya.
“Section Eight’s contribution to the war effort. If it turns red, put cotton in your ears.”
The drops stayed blue. Illya took the bottle and held it up to the light. He sniffed the liquid, gave the bottle a shake, and squinted at the contents. Then he unwrapped two small foil packets and added a drop from the bottle to the white powder they contained. Nothing happened.
Illya shrugged in response to Napoleon’s questioning look. “Sugar, apparently.” He sighed, tucking the bottle into his sports coat. “I don’t suppose Section Eight came up with something really useful, such as an antidote?”
“No such luck. How are the piano lessons coming?”
“Consultations.” Illya took out his beignet. A little crowd of birds fluttered over and hopped expectantly around his feet. He shooed them away, not sharing. “Quite well, thank you. I can now play two hundred and fifty-three songs that should never have been written, as well as twenty-six that are fairly worthwhile.”
From the sample he’d had of Illya’s playing, Napoleon doubted it mattered whether the songs were any good or not. He took a grateful sip of strong coffee, beginning to feel awake at last. The birds tried their luck on his side of the table, and he tossed them a few doughnut crumbs under Illya’s disapproving gaze. Apparently birds were supposed to get their own breakfast.
“I brought you something else from HQ.” Napoleon opened a small case. “One of Winnie’s miracle inhalers for your cough. Do you know how they work?”
Illya’s face slipped into a frown. Napoleon ignored him and demonstrated. “Shake it and then squeeze the end while breathing in the spray. Go easy on it though; it can make you pretty jumpy.” He snapped the case shut and started to toss it to Illya. The icy blue expression pulled him up short.
“Don’t worry,” he said placatingly. “I didn’t name any names.”
“Just height, weight, and hair color?”
“Just nothing.” Napoleon held out the inhaler and did a little conjuring trick. Case – no case – case. “I pinched it.” A small green car cruised past in front of them, ignoring the open parking spaces on the street. The driver was an overdressed man in sunglasses. He’d been around once before.
Napoleon tossed the inhaler to Illya. “Dnyom razhdyenia.” Happy birthday.
They worked on their coffee while Napoleon fed the birds and wondered where he’d gone wrong. Kuryakin had more “keep off” signs than the White House lawn, most of them written in invisible ink…and some just begging to be knocked down. The trick was knowing when and where to push. He tapped his fingers on the table.
“And don’t tell me I shouldn’t know when your birthday is,” he said finally. “It’s one of the few pieces of information in your file.” He saluted Illya with his cup. “Mine’s January seventh, and in the absence of pressing medical needs, I like silk ties.”
That got a flicker of a smile. “I’ll keep it in mind.” Illya stretched in the sun. “Did New York have anything else to contribute?”
“Not so far. They confirmed the Lagniappe drug is only effective for about fifteen minutes after it’s eaten, doesn’t dissolve well in water or alcohol, and, as you noticed, tastes like sugar.”
“So most likely it will be added to sweets.”
“Mother always said dessert was bad for you. Incidentally, Waverly’s in on this now. He and Hutch would like us to please save the world at our earliest convenience.”
“Of course. By the way—” Illya shifted in his chair. “We can rule out Marais Celeste as a source of the drug. I searched the first floor offices yesterday. There was nothing relating directly to this affair.”
That was an interesting way to put it. “We say second floor in the New World.” Napoleon waited a bit. “But you did find…?”
Illya’s face gave away nothing. One of the birds flew up to the table and snatched a crumb from beside his white bag. He watched it absently. “There used to be an U.N.C.L.E. office here?” The flat tones were chilling.
“It blew up fifteen months ago.” Napoleon rubbed his forehead, recalling the report. “They were messing around with an experimental weapon at the time. It looked like an accident, but the records were destroyed. Twelve people died. Section Five identified all the bodies. Nobody ever tied it to Thrush.” Before now.
“Section Five was mistaken. Four of our people survived the explosion. By several weeks.”
Illya brought out a roll of film and handed it over. “I found files documenting thirty-two murders over the last twelve years, including eight U.N.C.L.E. agents and several other law enforcement officers. Most began as interrogations, but a few victims were civilians, murdered for no obvious reason. He paused a long moment, looking away. “I believe Holly’s mother was one of them. It was extremely ugly.”
Thirty-two murders? Napoleon let out a whistle. “The place ought to be crawling with cops. Did the documents happen to include who did it?”
“Not specifically.” Illya looked him in the eye. “But it would be a simple matter to pick off a few of the opposition to settle the score. Starting with Walter and Tom Doucet, I think. The documents were in a safe in their office.”
Napoleon kept his expression neutral. “Gruesome stuff, huh?”
“Was Paul one of them?”
“No. The last was July. They may keep more recent records somewhere else.”
Great. Just great. “Why didn’t you pass this up to Hutch yesterday?”
Illya regarded him coolly. “I wanted to discuss options with you first.”
Was he seriously proposing to shoot the Doucets? “Ad hoc executions aren’t exactly part of the U.N.C.L.E. charter.”
“I have read the U.N.C.L.E. charter, as well as the charter of the United Nations and the constitutions of the Soviet Union, United States, the writings of Mao, and several other political manifestoes. Would you like me to quote them to you?”
“Later, maybe. For now our business is to track down and close the lab. Pass your film up and let wiser heads decide what to do with it. At the moment, it’s not our problem.”
“Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”
That was ridiculous. “Are you proposing Stalin for your model of justice?”
“Not exactly.” Illya sighed, blowing air up into his bangs.
“Look, I trust Waverly. I even trust Hutch, though I can’t say I like him a lot.” Illya’s eyebrows went up at that. “They’re good men. They make good decisions, and more often than not they squeeze a victory out for the good side.”
Illya wasn’t convinced. “Passing that film on while the Doucets are still alive changes a moral issue into a political one.”
Napoleon’s head was starting to ache. He couldn’t imagine the murder of eight agents getting lost in a political shuffle, although Waverly made no secret of the fact they were expendable one-by-one. He studied Illya’s pale face and closed expression, thinking it over. Was Illya truly expecting to be endorsed in a vigilante murder spree? Or was he just looking for someone to apply the brakes? That could be a questionable long-term strategy. Call him on it.
“OK, tough guy,” he said mildly. “You shoot the Doucets and I’ll look for the lab.” He kept the fingers of one hand crossed under the table and threw back the film with the other. “Better make sure you burn this first.”
Illya’s face flickered through a slide show of emotions: surprised, annoyed, rueful. Touché.
“I don’t suppose I have the stomach for it either.” He shrugged, passing the film back with a “problem dismissed” shake of his head. Then he took another bite of his beignet, cheerful again. “What would you have done if I’d gone through with it?”
Ah, what if. “Looked for the lab, of course,” Napoleon said. “I never welsh on my bets.”
He watched Illya file that fact and wondered if he should have played the hand closer to his chest. Next time the Russian might raise instead of fold.
Napoleon slipped the film into his jacket, banishing thoughts about what it contained. People died in this business. It was better not to make it personal. He tried to recapture the pleasant feeling of sun on his face, failed, and fed the birds instead.
“Is your cover still good at Marais Celeste? It’s sounding less and less like a healthy hangout for U.N.C.L.E. agents.”
“As good as it ever was. I played my usual set last night without difficulty.” Illya smiled almost fondly. “I may owe a debt of gratitude to my ladies—they make it hard for anyone to get in close with a weapon.”
“Well, that’s something. And I can watch outside tonight to back you up. For today, we’ll start with the restaurants.” They had Moustache’s six restaurant names to go on. Not much, but it was a lead of sorts.
Napoleon drank some more coffee and watched the green car make its third pass down the street. This time, it pulled over. He watched, eyes narrowing, as the driver opened a newspaper on the steering wheel.
“Don’t look now, but I believe we have company.”
Illya didn’t seem surprised. “One of those economy cars named for courage?”
“Valiant,” Napoleon agreed dryly.
Illya nodded. “Dave Kaminski, from FBI counter-intelligence. He follows me around from time to time. The FBI is concerned for my well being. They fear I may become lonely in your country.”
“I’m Canadian,” Napoleon told him. “It’s pretty lonely up there, too, though. Is he going to be trouble for us?”
“Probably.” Illya sighed. He gave Napoleon an unreadable look and then picked up the untouched coffee and beignet bag and walked over to the green car. A moment later he returned with coffee, bag, and Dave.
Napoleon traded firm handshakes with Kaminski, who folded his newspaper, took off the sunglasses, and settled with his back to the light. He was a sandy-haired, brown-eyed man of thirty with an athletic build and crooked nose that belied his mild expression. His dark blue three-piece was cut just full enough to show it came off the rack and covered a gun. Napoleon made his height about five-ten.
“To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Kaminski shrugged and opened his paper bag. He took out the beignet and leaned forward for a bite, sending a puff of sugar into the air. “We got another dispatch.” His voice was pure Jersey.
“I beg your pardon?”
He was chewing now, so Illya helped him out. “My countrymen like to add me to their dispatches from time to time, to remind everyone whose side I’m on.” He polished off his own beignet and licked his fingers. “Especially the dispatches they intend to fall into the hands of American intelligence. What is it this month? Am I suspected of raiding the presidential pumpkin patch?”
Kaminski took a sip of coffee. He must not have liked it much because he grimaced, put his fist to his face and belched discreetly before pulling out a roll of Lifesavers and popping one into his mouth. He offered the roll to Napoleon and Illya, who both shook their heads.
“Why are you in New Orleans, Nick?” he asked finally. “Aside from the musical gratification of your public, that is. And how long are you planning to stay? Wednesday? Thursday, maybe?” He broke off a piece of his beignet and tossed it to the birds, who immediately pounced and squabbled.
Illya raised an eyebrow at Napoleon, who pulled the conversation his way. “You know you have to go upstairs for that kind of information.” He toyed with the beignet in his hands and then set it firmly down on the table.
Kaminski threw another crumb. “If he’s here on U.N.C.L.E. business, maybe. If he’s planning to shoot somebody in the back, maybe not.” Kaminski gave Illya a speculative look and returned his gaze to Napoleon. “And I gotta warn you, the upstairs channel to U.N.C.L.E. ain’t working so good right now, what with the changing political climate.”
Shoot somebody in the back? The idea was dumfounding. Napoleon snapped his mouth shut. Of course, a moment ago Illya had proposed to do more-or-less exactly that. He needed a minute to think all this through.
“I will have to check my appointment book,” Illya said blandly. “I can’t remember if I have any assassinations scheduled this week or not.”
Napoleon let out a slow breath. Why couldn’t the man just sulk quietly? This conversation was racing away like the last bus in the rain. U.N.C.L.E. had a long-standing official relationship with the FBI, which usually kept agents from stepping on each other’s toes. Still, the political climate was changing. The FBI had begun pouring more and more resources into domestic intelligence, and there were rumors Waverly had made quietly scathing remarks on the subject in high places. Could that have been enough to bring the whole system down?
Kaminski brushed powder off his vest. “I want to see your passport, Mr. Kuryakin.”
Uh oh. The bus screeched to a halt, but Napoleon didn’t want to get on. Illya slowly pulled out his passport and handed it to Kaminski.
Kaminski paged through the document carefully. “I see you haven’t been out of the country since September.” He looked pointedly at Illya’s hands. “Kind of early in the season for frostbite, wouldn’t you say?”
“An unfortunate accident with a cake of dry ice.”
“Is that a fact?” Kaminski snapped the passport shut. “Well, I’m afraid I’ve got to send this to the State Department for validation. It looks a little suspicious to me.” He slipped it into his jacket. “You should hear from them in a week or two. Meantime, make sure the INS knows where to find you.”
Was that a warning or threat? “Hold on a minute.” Napoleon touched Kaminski’s arm and tried a friendly smile. We’re all pawns in the same game. “You know Illya’s passport is good. What does this accomplish? Aside from setting my friend up for a run in with the local police?”
Kaminski shrugged, not without sympathy. “Orders is orders.” He pulled his arm away. “If I were you, I’d steer clear of the law for a while, maybe even head up to the Big Apple and lie low.” He looked Napoleon in the eye. “The guys that make the weather aren’t going in much for sunny and mild this week.” He wrapped the remainder of his beignet in a napkin and stood up, scattering the birds at his feet. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll see you around.”
Napoleon watched him walk to his car. “Nice guy.”
Illya reached across the table in surprising good humor and helped himself to the remains of Napoleon’s doughnut. “My heart warms to any intelligence agent who refrains from wrapping wires around my neck.” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, pushed one up, and dropped the pack on the table. A high-pitched squeal came from his lapel.
“Tut, tut.” He removed the surveillance bug, dropping it in Kaminski’s abandoned cup. The squealing stopped.
For once Napoleon felt glum. “I don’t like it. He’s setting us up for something.” But what? What good would it do to get Illya arrested and thrown in an INS detention center? Waverly’d have him out again in nothing flat. Unless, of course, they didn’t bother with detention. Getting him out of the Soviet Union might be more of a problem.
Illya took it philosophically. “At a guess, I’d say handing me a tourist-class ticket to Moscow.” He finished the second beignet and emptied his cup. “And with the price of international travel so high, how could I refuse?” Illya poured Kaminski’s coffee onto the concrete and stepped on the bug. “Never mind. We’ll find out what they want when the police drag me away in a meat wagon.”
Napoleon stood up and straightened his cuffs. “Meat wagons are for dead people. I think you mean paddy wagon.”
Illya shrugged. He removed a blue card from his pocket and handed it to Napoleon. On its face were the United States Seal, a serial number, and the words “Government Permit – Do Not Tow.”
“In the meantime, Dave has kindly loaned you his parking pass.”
Napoleon had reason to be grateful to Dave when he swung his rented Nash Metro into a fifteen minute loading zone opposite LaSalle’s—located not on LaSalle Street as it turned out, but a block away at Philip and Freret.
It was a two-story job, white in the sunshine, with a business entrance downstairs and a pretty wrought-iron balcony setting off a second floor flat. Ornate grillwork shielded tall French windows from burglars, while heavy red curtains discouraged prying eyes. A sign on the entrance read “Closed Sunday through Tuesday.”
Napoleon pushed the bell and pressed his ear against the door. Nothing. He eyed the tight space between buildings for a moment, thought of his suit, and then walked to the end of the block and returned through the alley.
From behind, LaSalle’s was less well kept. A ramshackle bare-wood garage leaned precariously against the house, supported by a couple of wormy posts. A short flight of stairs led up to a wide stoop and sturdy back door. The grillwork on the rear windows looked more functional than decorative. At the foot of the stairs, a harmonica playing brass monkey kept watch over the weeds in the yard.
Napoleon peeked into the garage through its single, broken window. Inside were a large pile of newspapers and a crate of empty beer bottles, but there was no sign of a car. He walked up the steps and tried the back door. Locked. He ran his fingers over the door jamb and under the welcome mat, and then turned and surveyed the yard again, trying to decide whether it was worth breaking the lock and leaving, in effect, his U.N.C.L.E. calling card.
The brass monkey caught his eye again, and he hopped off the stoop for a closer look; two minutes later, the backdoor lock clicked open in his hand. Napoleon restored the key to its hiding place in the harmonica, gave the monkey a grateful pat, and trotted up the stairs into the filtered light of the hall.
There had been a time when, out of regard for his father, Illya Nikolaevich Kuryakin had considered a career as a structural engineer. The fitting together of design and material, nuts and bolts, into objects of functional beauty had appealed to his childish imagination, much as the fitting of subatomic particles into probability theory later appealed to his adult intellect. It was only after he’d grown a bit and realized no one wished him to repeat his father’s career that his studies had turned elsewhere.
So it was he found himself squinting up at the gleaming turquoise turret atop Commander’s Palace restaurant and trying to match it either functionally or aesthetically with the building’s white columns, gabled roof, and French windows. He failed. The Victorians had many admirable skills, but, to Illya’s thinking, construction was not one of them. Russian architecture was either fanciful or functional. This building was merely foolish.
He returned his attention to the portly assistant manager who was leading him through the dining patio and around a goldfish pond to the kitchen entrance. Illya had chosen this restaurant because it was on his list and close enough to LaSalle’s for Napoleon to give him a ride. Its appearance was irrelevant.
“I don’t really understand why you’re here, Mr. Kuryakin,” the manager said—eyeing the false health department ID as if Illya were attempting something underhanded. “We haven’t failed an inspection in over one hundred years, and our next isn’t scheduled until January.”
“Yes, well.” Illya tipped his head up and tightened his lips, peering at the man through tinted glasses. “Things change. We have received complaints about the number and size of your cockroaches.”
The manager turned gratifyingly pale. To a man reared in the Soviet Union, out-bureaucratizing an American restaurateur was child’s play.
Within minutes, Illya found himself loose in the series of inter-connecting kitchens that serviced the restaurant. It was relatively quiet, with three or four junior chefs finishing off the morning baking before lunch got under way. He paused a moment to savor the tantalizing scent of hot French bread and then reluctantly schooled his stomach, got out an empty specimen jar and tweezers, and began poking into anything that might contain a stockpile of sugar.
The lower half of LaSalle’s consisted of a grimy kitchen, a reception area, dim in the curtain-filtered light, and two private offices—one large and lavish, with Martin LaSalle inscribed in gold paint on the glass door, the other small, forlorn, and unlabeled—Moustache’s, presumably. Napoleon opened the door to the large office and surveyed its contents—desk, credenza, and a promising row of filing cabinets. He rubbed his chin and mapped out where to start.
“If you’re going to invite yourself in, you could at least make a girl a drink.”
Napoleon resisted the urge to reach for his gun. Instead, he turned slowly back to the reception area, leaned against the doorframe, and let a lazy smile spread over his face. The lady was draped in the shadow of an overstuffed chair. Black-stockinged and blonde, she wore a camisole that her gauzy white morning jacket neither tried nor managed to conceal. A single ray of light pierced the curtains behind her, tracing a bright line of dust through the air to her feet.
A bar cart outside the office stood permanently at attention. Napoleon stepped over and picked up the gin. “Martini, with a twist of lemon?” The glasses were warm, but he supposed they would do.
She crossed long legs, moving a red lace garter into the beam of light, and tossed a cloud of golden shoulder-length curls. “That would be lovely, Mr.—?”
“Napoleon Solo.” He fixed two drinks, crossed to her side, and sat on the arm of her chair. “Forgive me for startling you. I had an appointment with Mr. LaSalle.” They touched glasses together and sipped.
“Did you?” She laughed softly. “Poor Martin has so many appointments lately. I’m afraid he’s mixing them up. He’s off to Baton Rouge for the day. I’m his wife, Linda LaSalle.”
“Yes, isn’t it.” She wrapped her hand in his tie, spoiling the crease. “I don’t quite like the taste of my drink, Mr. Solo,” she said breathily. “May I try yours?” Napoleon let her pull him down and flick her tongue against his lips. She had a generous mouth and he was more than willing to share.
She pushed him back, pretending to pout. “Why, I don’t taste a thing. You’ve hardly touched your drink.”
Napoleon took the lead this time, kissing her again, keeping it slow.
“He who does not give himself leisure to be thirsty,” he stroked her cheek with his thumb, “cannot take pleasure in drinking.”
“How lovely.” Her eyes twinkled. “And are you a philanderer, as well as a philosopher?” They were nice eyes, gray, flecked with gold. Not overly made up.
Napoleon quoted from Selden, “Philosophy is nothing but discretion.” He slid a hand behind her shoulders and pulled her to him, feeling her sigh and relax into his arms. Then, as the Mickey Finn he’d slipped her took effect, he kissed her sweetly to sleep. He felt a little guilty resuming his search, but at least the dose he’d given her was a light one. She’d sleep for half an hour, and then, if she was still interested, he’d make it up to her.
Illya squeezed his shoulders in between two oversized kitchen ovens and pretended to hunt for bugs. The plan had sounded good this morning. Napoleon would try to track down information at LaSalle’s, while Illya started checking the restaurants Moustache had named. Unfortunately, Illya had found what he was looking for. One of the men who was industriously piping roses onto a cake was a regular at Marais Celeste, and there was no doubt he would recognize Nick Curry, given the opportunity. Which was why Illya was crouching down low and stepping on his only tie. Because they hadn’t quite decided what to do with Thrush agents once they found them.
He risked a glance over the top of the ovens and then squeezed in deeper while the pastry chef completed a wreath of flowers worthy of the gardens at Versailles. Didn’t anyone ever clean behind these appliances? The squatting position was murder, but he couldn’t bring himself to kneel in the heavy layer of grease and dust.
At long last, the chef finished his task. Illya listened as he pushed the cake aside, tossed his utensils into the sink, and mercifully left the room.
“Are you done, Inspector?” The assistant manager was back, his tone clearly indicating he’d prefer a whole room full of cockroaches to even one Kuryakin.
“Yes.” Illya staggered out from his place of concealment, straightened self-importantly, and held up his empty jar. “Everything seems to be in order.”
“I’m happy to hear it.” The manager held out an envelope. “We’ve filled out the usual forms.” Illya slid the envelope into his pocket with a officious nod. Taking bribes was another natural Soviet skill. In fact, Napoleon had planned what would doubtless be an exorbitant lunch at Antoine’s. They might as well let the first restaurant on their list pay for a meal at the second.
The manager gestured to the glass patio door. “You know the way out, I presume?” Illya did.
Napoleon didn’t find any files marked “Thrush,” but there were folders for all the restaurants Moustache had named. Each one had placement records with dates, fees, and—of all the luck—photographs of the apprentice chefs. Further snooping turned up eighteen additional restaurants that fell into the same range of dates, any of which might be included in the remaining nine Moustache hadn’t specifically named.
He took out a tiny camera and photographed the whole mess and then, humming a little tune, put everything neatly away and headed out to the reception area.
The patio exit was locked. Illya gave it an extra tug and then sighed, leaning his head against the door. It appeared he had ruined his tie for nothing. He put his hands on his head and turned around to face the man reflected in the glass. It was the pastry chef he’d seen at Marais Celeste, but the Luger in his hand had nothing to do with dessert.
They walked together through the kitchen to a narrow supply room, stopping in front of a stainless steel door with a small, thick window.
“In you go.” The chef gestured at the handle. Illya opened the door and eyed stacked ice-cream cartons with distaste. He really was in no mood for another round of frostbite.
“Get in, or I’ll shoot you and throw your body in myself.” The chef cocked his gun—too far away to attack, too close to miss his shot.
Illya walked into the freezer.
“Too bad they don’t make them like this any more.” The man smirked. “Nowadays freezers all have latches on the inside. Don’t worry though. They restock ice cream in the kitchen every night at closing time.” He slammed the door shut and walked away.
Napoleon ran his tongue along Linda’s smooth pink skin, holding her snugly in one arm, exploring soft curves with the other. It always surprised him a little, the generosity of women. The way they gave themselves over to intimacy, offering hearts and minds as well as bodies. The tenderness that blossomed from desire.
He had vowed long ago to be gentle with them, but more often it was they who treated him with care, holding him lightly and letting him go. In turn, he gave them what he had. The pleasure of love. The richness of desire. He pulled Linda closer.
“Baby,” she sighed. “You are so hot.”
“Soixante-neuf, soixante-dix.” Illya stopped jumping and tucked his hands into his armpits. He knew he was in trouble when he started thinking in French.
It was very cold. His chest hurt and he was already shivering uncontrollably. He could stop worrying about frostbite, because he was going to freeze to death in about thirty minutes. He looked around again for something to break. There was an unlit bulb inside a wire cage, but the switch was outside the freezer. So much for shorting out the power.
He had his gun. He might attract attention by shooting out the small window, but there was no reason to think that would work better than the pounding and yelling he’d already done. Still, it was worth a try. He stood back, sent a shot into the glass and shouted through the hole until his lungs gave out and he had to double over coughing.
Nothing. The supply room outside his door was silent as a tomb. Next time he was going to carry explosives himself, regardless of the detonation problems. Also, he was going to carry one of those really big guns. The kind that could pick off an elephant from one-hundred and fifty meters away. Then again, if he had an elephant, he could use it to break down the door….
“Chyort.” Illya jumped off of the box and started to jog, tucking his aching hands in his armpits. Why would they keep ice cream this cold? He had a feeling the thermostat had been lowered in his honor. In fact, Illya could hear the condensers whining away full blast in the back of the freezer.
Condensers. He stopped jogging and started pulling boxes out of the way. There seemed to be hundreds: strawberry, chocolate, orange sherbet. He was definitely never eating ice cream again.
He cleared a path at last and pressed his hand against the rear wall, feeling the heat and vibration of a beautiful antique condenser, shielded behind a thin metal plate. Illya fumbled the P38 out of his holster, took a two-handed grip, stepped behind a stack of French vanilla, and emptied his magazine into the wall.
The condenser shuddered and died. Outside, the hallway went dark. Inside, water began to spray through the holes he had made. Illya moved to a dry corner and huddled down into his own body heat, resting his head on his knees. The room would warm eventually. With luck, he’d still be alive when it did.
Napoleon sat in the bar at Antoine’s, sipping tomato juice, and watching the time. 12:10. It was nothing new for Illya to be late, but less usual for him to be late for a meal. He borrowed a phone and called Kate’s. No messages. In a moment, he’d have to go into the dining room alone, or they’d lose their reservation. And there was a dish of Oysters Rockefeller waiting in there with Napoleon’s name on it. He pursed his lips and considered. What were the odds Illya had gotten himself into trouble in the three hours he’d been on his own?
Napoleon put a bill on the bar, stood up, and headed out to the street. He gave Antoine’s one wistful backwards glance, then drove away with a philosophical smile. Lunch or no, the day had not been entirely wasted.
“Hey, wake up.” Someone was shaking his shoulders. He wished it would stop. “Ukhodi.”
“C’mon, get him out of here.”
Illya opened his eyes and stared down past his knees to the floor. He was sitting in a puddle of pink goo—melted strawberry ice cream. It should be wet, but he couldn’t feel a thing apart from the throbbing in his hands.
Two men pulled him up by the shoulders and bundled him out into the hall. Illya forced himself awake. They were government types, in tidy three-piece suits. Not from the restaurant. Not Thrush. Not FBI. CIA? How many three-lettered organizations were there in this country? At the moment, he couldn’t remember.
Illya coughed, fumbled for his inhaler, used it and recovered his voice. “Thank you.” He was still shivering, but less than before. The spraying water must have raised the temperature in the freezer.
“Are you all right, Mr. Kuryakin?” The young one with glasses was peering at him. “You’re lucky we noticed that hole in the door. You could have died in there.”
“I believe that was the general idea.” Illya breathed into his hands, welcoming the warm restaurant air that seeped into his clothes and burned against his skin. The ache in his chest was a pleasure, and the returning feeling of ice cream dripping down his legs a relief. He didn’t even mind that these men who knew his name were going to be trouble.
The older of the two frowned at him. “Mr. Kuryakin?” He reached into his coat and took out a government badge. “Mark Denby, Immigration and Naturalization Service. We’d like to see your passport, please.”
Napoleon drove the two and a half-miles from Antoine’s to Commander’s Palace twice, keeping an eye on the St. Charles neutral ground in case Illya had decided to splurge seven cents on a streetcar. The beb pianist was nowhere to be seen. He parked illegally in front of the ornate Victorian restaurant, propped Kaminski’s parking pass on the dashboard, and went in for a look.
Illya made a show of patting down his jacket pockets and acting puzzled, following it with a look of sudden comprehension. “Ah,” he told the INS. “I must have dropped my passport in the freezer.” Like lambs, they turned and walked before him into the dark. He really, really hated shutting the door behind them. But at least it wouldn’t be for long. He’d call the restaurant as soon as he could get to a phone.
“I’m sorry,” the manager told Napoleon emphatically. “Mr. Kuryakin was here hours ago, but he left around eleven. Now please—as you can see we’re having trouble with the power and I’m terribly busy.”
Illya turned the handle on the door leading out from the kitchen. This time it was unlocked. His hands hurt like hell.
“You disappoint me, Mr. Curry. I relied on you to be dead by now.” Illya heard the pastry chef work the slide on his Luger and felt a surge of adrenalin that banished the last of his shivering. The man was becoming an annoyance.
“In my country we have a saying—” Illya kept his back turned and put a hand to his holster. He was relieved to find his gun in place. He didn’t remember putting the P38 away, neither did he remember reloading. And given his hands, he was by no means sure of his aim. Still, nothing was certain in life, except death. “—Chickens are counted in autumn.”
Somehow, that didn’t sound right in English.
He studied the chef’s reflection in the glass, noting the distorted glare of his gun. Then he dropped, rolled, and fired. The chef’s shot shattered the patio door, just as Illya’s shot shattered his head.
Napoleon was sitting in the Nash Metro, top down, tapping his fingers on the wheel when the side door to Commander’s Palace exploded out into the sunshine.
That would be Illya.
The next minute the Russian walked down the steps, between the crowded patio tables, and around the goldfish pond. His pants were dripping, his hands and face were bright red, and his tie sported an ugly grease stain. He opened the car door gingerly and put his jacket on the upholstery, then settled down onto the passenger seat, crossing his arms.
Napoleon shook his head disapprovingly and started the engine. “You know what this means, don’t you?”
Illya gave him a quizzical look.
“We’re going to have to settle for carryout.”
Napoleon dropped Illya at Kate’s for a shower while he picked up lunch and had the pictures from LaSalle’s developed. U.N.C.L.E. didn’t have many contacts left in New Orleans, but fortunately a reliable photo lab was one of them. Illya’s film stayed undeveloped in his pocket. If the pictures were as bad as Illya said, it would be better to pass them “eyes only” to Hutch.
He returned to find a freshly washed Kuryakin, wrapped in an oversized white robe, drowsing head down on the table in Kate’s private kitchen. Illya’s skin had faded from red to pink, and his look of contentment as Kate massaged his shoulders gave Napoleon a quick stab of envy. He pushed it aside, making a mental note to lock himself in a freezer the next time they passed through town.
Kate waved the food away with an elegant gesture that was wasted on a spy—it could have parted water. “Later.” She touched Illya’s head. “He’s asleep.”
“I am not.” Illya opened his eyes. “And I’m famished.” He sat up and examined the bag with interest. “Does that contain sandwiches?”
“Not sandwiches,” Napoleon corrected. “Po Boys, from Acme Oyster House. A blessed creation that is to the mere sandwich what fine champagne is to beer.”
Napoleon tossed him one. He caught it stiffly and dropped it on the table. “Hot!” They were barely warm.
Kate directed a smile toward them both. “Fine food, like fine gentleman, should come home heated.”
Napoleon’s slow smile was meant only for her. He put a sandwich in her hands without letting go. “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot. That it do singe yourself.”
Illya wrapped his Po Boy in a napkin. He frowned and looked up. “Is that Shakespeare?”
“Ah.” He thought a moment. “It’s good in English, too.” He bit his sandwich and looked up in surprise. “I believe there is something to be said for cooking with grease, after all.”
Napoleon unwrapped his own Po Boy, suddenly remembering he’d skipped breakfast. The smell was nothing short of divine. He gave himself over to the heavenly combination of fresh bread, tart dressing, and crisp fried oysters, musing on the comparative pleasures of food and women. Comparative, fortunately, but not competitive. Both were available in abundance.
By the end of his Po Boy, even Illya had to admit there was virtue to be found in New Orleans, at least for a price. Kate tucked the remainder of her own sandwich in the fridge and left with an affectionate pat to Illya’s head.
Napoleon watched her go, wondering how she managed to transform the Russian from puma into pussy cat. Not that it was so much of a mystery—simply the natural product of all that beauty, grace, and charm. Napoleon, himself, would have to stick to low cunning.
He pushed a last bit of sandwich away and brought out his stack of pictures. “In an act of mercy directed toward the remaining ice cream freezers of New Orleans,” he said, “LaSalle’s has provided us with the names and photographs of all their chef trainees.”
“Excellent.” Illya paged through the photos and began sorting them into stacks. “However did you persuade them to cooperate?”
“Oh, I did the owner a favor, and she proved grateful.” Also, what she hadn’t known didn’t hurt her.
Illya rolled his eyes. “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.”
He finished sorting and handed Napoleon a stack of fifteen photographs. “These men have been in the Marais Celeste during the last six days.”
“And this one,” Illya pointed to the top, “is most definitely dead.”
Napoleon looked at the face in the picture. It didn’t seem like much of a loss. “So the sixty-four dollar question is, what next?” He thought about it, rubbing his chin. “We could go round to all the best restaurants in town and gun down the remaining fourteen chefs—”
“—in cold blood.”
“But at the end of the day we’d be left with fifteen dead clues and one live Thrush plot. We need to find out where they’re making the stuff and shut down the lab.”
“Of course you realize a formula can be written down and preserved. Closing their lab doesn’t erase the existence of the Lagniappe drug.”
“Not erase,” Napoleon agreed. “But hopefully we can destroy their stockpile and set them back long enough for U.N.C.L.E. to develop an antidote. And we ought to be able to derail this restaurant scheme of theirs.”
Napoleon looked through the photos again, memorizing names, restaurants, and faces. Next to LaSalle’s, the trainees were probably Thrush’s weakest link. They could be picked up and interrogated, but would they know the location of the lab? Quite possibly not. And would Waverly spring for a team to handle mass interrogations? Almost certainly not. The Old Man would no doubt tell him to find an approach with more finesse.
Kate returned with a stack of clean clothes for Illya. She held up his black turtleneck with the slightest of frowns. “I preferred your suit this morning,” she chided. “But I gather you’re attached to the bohemian look?”
A frown like that would have sent Napoleon scrambling to the closet. Illya merely shrugged. “Who am I to disappoint my public?” He flexed his swollen hands and winced. “Although I rather think I’ve derailed Holly’s efforts to improve my playing.”
“I rather think,” Napoleon said, “you and your public will have to do without each other from now on. We know who the bad guys are. It will be more productive to get one of them to lead us to the lab.”
Illya nodded, looking relieved. He straightened his robe, picked up the clothes and started for the stairs. Then he stopped and turned back, cocking his head.
The answering look was heavy with pity. “Why,” Illya elaborated, “did Dave Kaminski ask if I would be in town until Thursday, directly after suggesting I might be involved in an assassination attempt? What is special about Thursday?”
Ah. “Thanksgiving Day?” Now Illya looked blank.
“It’s an American holiday. People not otherwise engaged in saving the free world get together with their families to eat turkey and watch TV.”
“I do not see a connection to shooting.” Illya frowned. “And for the record, we are also engaged in saving the socialist world.”
Napoleon held up a hand. “The whole world has my permission to be saved. And no, I don’t see the connection between Thanksgiving Day and assassinations either.”
“Perhaps,” Kate suggested, a little too amused, “someone’s planning to do away with de Gaulle?”
Napoleon raised his eyebrows. “Charles de Gaulle? Tall fellow? Pompous? President of France?”
Kate nodded. “Didn’t you know he’s in town? Or will be, for Opening Day at the Fair Grounds.”
Napoleon still wasn’t with her.
“Thanksgiving Day is the opening of the horse racing season. Everyone goes—the mayor, the governor—and this year President Charles de Gaulle is expected to attend.” She hunted around for a newspaper and handed it to Napoleon. There it was, right on page one. Next time, Napoleon would read the local paper on the plane and let the stewardess do the crossword alone. Although he had owed her for upgrading his seat….
He shook his head. “That doesn’t explain why the FBI’d be after Illya, though. Moscow and Paris are pretty chummy these days. If there’s a contract out on de Gaulle, it’s more likely to be one of his Algerian buddies than a Soviet.”
“It could make sense,” Illya said slowly. “If the KGB heard something, they might decide to warn American intelligence and throw a little grief into my way as a piece of the bargain.”
“Mmm. Part of the bargain.” Having seen Illya in action with the KGB, Napoleon was prepared to believe anything. It was definitely something to think about. Better yet—inspiration struck—it was something to bump up to headquarters. Surely someone there knew whether or not de Gaulle was planning to get shot. He’d call it in to Hutch—or preferably Alice—as soon as he got out to the car.
Kate broke the silence. “Well, the band is booked to play Opening Day, so if someone shoots de Gaulle, I’ll have a front row seat.” She smiled. “We get a lot of these functions. We’re popular with the local gentry, who like their jazz au lait.”
Meaning not too black.
Napoleon frowned, feeling suddenly jaded. “I’m sorry,” he said. They didn’t need Thrush here; the entire South was corrupt. No wonder the place—the whole damn country—seemed ready to erupt into flames.
Every once in a while Napoleon wondered if Thrush didn’t have the right idea. Subjugate humanity and be done with it. Take this affair. In the right hands, the Lagniappe drug could end racial prejudice practically overnight. Of course, in the wrong hands, it would be a disaster. He tightened his lips. Sometimes it seemed like there were just too many wrong hands. Chop one off and two grew back—nasty, brutish, and long.
His surge of cynicism didn’t spread to Kate, however. She watched him—looked through him—with the same tolerant expression. We live with it, Napoleon read in her smile; we’ll change it, he saw in her eyes.
Illya had his own brand of cynicism. “You should try Russia,” he told Kate, straight-faced. “There it is Whites who are unpopular.”
“Ah.” She kissed his blond head. “But I can’t abide the balalaika.”
Kate went out to the bar, leaving Illya smug in his bathrobe. Napoleon frowned. All he’d gotten was a pat on the shoulder, and Illya was making no attempt to pretend he hadn’t noticed.
Napoleon turned his attention to Illya for a moment, curious, and saw nothing that special. Boyish good looks, maybe—there were times when he seemed closer to seventeen than twenty-seven. The blond hair and blue eyes were striking enough. But he’d never known anyone so slightly built to be so pursued by women. Illya even had Alice wrapped around his finger.
And he knew it, too; beneath the studied indifference, Illya was quick on the uptake. It was what made him good to work with, despite his tendency to jump out of his skin every time Napoleon used words like “us” or “partner.” That, plus fast reflexes, and a really first-rate intellect. But for all his strengths, the man needed to be managed. On his own he invariably sailed straight into trouble.
Come to think of it, maybe it was that combination of competence and helplessness that attracted women. Napoleon wondered if it would work for him, personally, and rejected the idea. Illya might be in front when it came to getting kissed on the head, but Napoleon was usually looking for something a lot less maternal. More often than not, he found it.
“All rightie,” he decided, pushing away side issues like women and the dispensation of humanity. “You need to rent a car, and I need to pass our information up to Hutch. Tonight we’ll stake out Marais Celeste and each pick a bird to follow home to its nest—preferably Tom and Walter Doucet. Do you have a radio you can put in the car when you get it?”
Illya nodded. “It’s upstairs. I called in my shooting incident, by the way, but I suppose I’d better call in again, now that we know the name of the dearly departed.”
“Mmm. I’ll take care of that on my way to the airport. I need to talk to Alice about de Gaulle, anyway, and I’ve got my radio in the car.”
“All right. I do wish Section Eight would hurry with the portable models.”
Napoleon wasn’t so sure. What would life be like with Waverly and Hutch peering constantly over his shoulder? He could foresee a long string of interruptions in potentially delicate situations. “Well, for better or worse, they say sometime next year.” He got up to go.
Illya frowned. “Napoleon….”
“No. Not wrong exactly.” Napoleon waited, letting Illya choose his words.
“I would like to return to Marais Celeste and talk to Holly. We have an appointment to practice piano together at 4:30. She will be worried if I,” he hesitated, finding the phrase, “stand her up.”
That didn’t sound smart. As a matter of fact, it sounded exactly like one of those hazards Illya needed to be steered around. Displaced Russian suckered in by cute kid. “Call the bar and cancel.”
Illya’s gaze was cool. “Which Thrush shall I ask to take my message?”
“They’re all Thrush, Illya.” Unfortunately, that was his point. “And after this morning, there’s a good chance they know you’re U.N.C.L.E. It’s probably bad for her to even talk to you.”
“Perhaps.” Illya was unmoved. “But I’m afraid she’ll think I’ve been killed and cause trouble. She is a remarkable little girl, and she’s already endangered herself once on my behalf.”
No. No. No. No. No.
Napoleon evaluated Illya’s stubborn expression and sighed. “OK. I’ll meet you there at 4:30 and ride shotgun.”
Illya looked surprised. Then puzzled. Then pleased.
“Excellent.” He smiled. “Load both barrels. You can protect me from Patrice.”
She of the red fingernails. Napoleon laughed. “You really don’t like her, do you. She seemed quite charming.”
“So did Stalin,” Illya said acerbically. “But I didn’t enjoy being alone with him, either.”
Was he serious? “You met Stalin? Really?” That had to be one hell of a story.
Illya remained silent.
Napoleon lifted his eyebrows. No way he could pass on an opening like this.
“C’mon, fess up—” He winked. “I’ll tell you what happened to George Dennell, Hutch, and the life raft when they tested our new shark repellant off the coast of Iran last month.” Even Waverly had balked at putting that one in the files.
The temperature in the room began to drop. Illya took a step back, pulling his bathrobe more tightly around him. His posture was closed, but his face still looked interested. Does that mean no, or yes? It was hard to tell with Illya. He might pull away in a Soviet snit, or take the bait and be lured out with a joke.
Napoleon decided to go with the bait. He leaned forward, confidentially, resting his hands on the table. “You see, there was this camel that had been raised as a pet by the local sherif….”
Illya shook his head with a jerk. “Forgive me,” he said sharply, “if I prefer not to become one of your little anecdotes.”
Oops. He’d walked straight into that. Napoleon assessed damages fast. Maybe he could tease his way out? “Little?” He grinned. “Do you have any idea what the lovely young Alice offered me for that story? Three months—”
It was the wrong move. Illya was genuinely angry now, features drawing into a scowl.
Napoleon kicked himself and tried to backpedal. “Illya, look.” He made his voice earnest. “I’m not trying—”
Illya’s own voice was frigid. “I don’t want to hear it.”
But Illya wasn’t done. “I don’t want to discuss it, Napoleon. Why can’t you settle for that? I don’t want to tell you my life’s story. I don’t want an American pal. I don’t want to be conversationally out-maneuvered a half a dozen times every day. I don’t need someone to share off-color office jokes with—”
He’d wound up for the pitch. Napoleon braced himself.
“—and above all, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I have absolutely no wish to hear how you’re using Alice to screw your way to the top of the organization.”
He’d expected it, but it was still a slap in the face. Napoleon bit back his response. They couldn’t afford to both lose their tempers. He pinched the bridge of his nose and counted to five, then ten, then twenty. “Is that what you think?” he asked finally, meeting Illya’s gaze. “That I use women to advance my career? That I’d do that to Alice?” The words left a dirty taste in his mouth.
“Women. Colleagues. Anecdotes. Goats.” Illya’s voice was going up. “Take your pick. Does anything ever stand in your way?”
“It was only a joke.”
“It was a trick. Like all the other cheap tricks you employ, one after another, from your first cigarette until you maneuver some woman out of your bed and into a taxi at night. I will not be a pawn on your career ladder, Napoleon. I do not choose to be used.”
“I see.” So the gloves were off. Just who does he think he’s sparring with? Napoleon walked around the table, closing the distance between them, keeping his expression level. “Then maybe you ought to give cooperation a try. Because if I have to choose between using you or tagging along until I’m dead like everyone else you’ve worked with, there’s no contest.”
Illya flinched but Napoleon was not letting up. “I’m sorry if my personality isn’t to your liking. You’re no Albert Schweitzer yourself, but I’m boss here, Illya. Get it through your head or catch a plane to New York.”
“I am not disputing your authority. I’m disparaging your character.”
That was all he could take. “There’s no distinction.” Napoleon crossed his arms and looked Illya slowly up and down. “If you don’t want to be coaxed like a girl,” he drawled, “then stop acting like I’m trying to get under your dress.”
Illya’s hand shot out and clamped onto Napoleon’s wrist. He twisted it into the narrow space between them and looked down in contempt.
“Your hand is under everyone’s dress, Napoleon. However do you keep it clean?”
Napoleon stared at him. At Illya’s pale face and squared shoulders and at the hand gripping his wrist. His thoughts flashed to Café du Monde and to wondering if he’d taught Illya not to back down. Then he stopped thinking and let his own hand curl into a fist.
There was more than one way to teach a Russian to back down.
He felt the change in Illya’s stance as an extension of his own flood of anger. This was what the man wanted. No tricks. No strategy. And if he wasn’t goddam careful, no teeth either. Napoleon took one last look at Illya’s lethal expression. If he hadn’t been murderous himself, he’d have run for his life.
He felt the blow coming. Here goes.
Then, astonishingly, Illya gave way. His face rippled in frustration and settled into a hollow-eyed calm. Illya dropped Napoleon’s arm and stepped back. “I’m sorry.” His voice was brittle. “It’s not really personal.”
“The hell it’s not.”
Illya backed up another step and lifted his chin. “I will meet you at 4:30.”
Napoleon bit his lip and slowly nodded agreement. Illya spun and stalked away, footsteps sounding like gunshots on the stairs.
The kitchen seemed unnaturally bright. Napoleon glanced around, but there was no one handy to punch, so he sank down on a chair instead and looked at his hands. They were shaking. Not one of my better conversations.
What on earth had they been playing at? But that wasn’t right—not playing. Not playing at all.
All right, then. Why had he pushed Illya so hard?
He rubbed his jaw, knowing perfectly well why. Because he couldn’t let Illya take a shot at him and walk away free. U.N.C.L.E. might not be a military organization, but there was a hierarchy, and right now, that made Napoleon top dog. Illya’s accusations had been….Napoleon winced, though he supposed he’d said as bad or worse. He winced again, remembering Illya’s lost look just before he pulled back. Then a third time, rubbing his wrist, reminding himself the Russian was no child. Had Napoleon been treating him like one? Jollying him along? Playing games, instead of taking him seriously?
However do you keep it clean? That remark had been serious enough.
Top dog. Napoleon sighed. Which meant he was in no way free to indulge his temper, as he had most emphatically just done. And why? Because Illya didn’t like his jokes? But that didn’t make sense. He did like the jokes—unless Napoleon had read him totally wrong, humor was almost always the key to getting Illya uncoiled.
Maybe Stalin wasn’t the best subject to tease him on.
Napoleon sighed again, put his arms down on the table and his head on his fists. He was going to have to square things with Illya before they went out, but heaven only knew how. Maybe he could offer to share his peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Go halvsies on a pack of candy cigarettes? He closed his eyes, wishing for a comfy padded mat and wondering if a plate of milk and cookies would be good for his headache.
A moment later, Kate’s rich voice floated in from the hallway. “As I’ve already explained, gentlemen, Mr. Kuryakin does come here, but I haven’t seen him this afternoon.”
Napoleon sat up. Nap time was over early today. He let out a slow breath and banished the image of Illya Kuryakin dropping slowly into a vat of bubbling acid.
“Yes, ma’am. We’ll look around for ourselves, if you don’t mind.”
Two men stuck their heads into the kitchen and came Napoleon’s way.
They were cops of some sort—one young and skinny, with a bad complexion and horn-rimmed glasses, the other pig eyed, carrying a heavy burden of middle age. From the cheap cut of their suits and the sticky sound of their walk, Napoleon recognized Illya’s INS playmates, more or less fresh from the freezer.
Pig-eyes walked to Napoleon’s chair and looked down his nose. “You would be?”
Napoleon stood, hiding a predatory smile. If these guys thought they could get under his skin, they hadn’t spent enough time with his partner. “Pleased to introduce myself,” he said, holding out his hand. “Napoleon Solo, of the U-N-C-L-E.” He spelled it out. My organization is bigger than your organization. “And you would be?”
“Mark Denby.” The old guy shook hands, lips twisting down to show how pleased he was. “INS. We’re looking for your cute friend, and we know he’s in here somewhere.” To prove the point, Horn-rims wandered around the room, peering into cupboards. Maybe he thought Illya had turned into a packet of chee-wees.
First they’d tracked Illya to Commander’s Palace, and now here. Denby was too well informed—even if the “cute friend” designation was a little out of date. This was the FBI’s doing. Napoleon wrote a mental promissory note in the name of Dave Kaminski and filed it under unfinished business.
“Sorry.” Napoleon held out his arms. “Nobody here but us chickens.”
“Humph.” Denby and Horn-rims poked around in a few more cupboards. When they were done, they squelched their way up the stairs. Napoleon settled down at the table to wait, putting the odds at forty to one on Illya.
Ten minutes later the INS squelched back down, sans cute friend.
“Listen up, Solo.” Denby stuck a card in Napoleon’s face. “We’ve got an express ticket across the Iron Curtain waiting for your pal up in Hammond, and an APB that went out an hour ago. He’d be advised to turn himself in before he racks up another charge of resisting arrest.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Napoleon took the card and placed it on the table. Tempting though it might be, deporting Illya was not the solution to his problems. Shooting him, maybe.
He watched the immigration cops go out the door. Almost 3:00. He’d better get moving if he was going to show up at Marais Celeste in time to protect Illya’s virtue.
Otherwise the Russian might find himself screwing his way to the top of a Thrush satrapy.
Illya Kuryakin scowled through the windshield of his rented sedan. The omission of traffic lights from the French Quarter would have doubtless created a charming, old-world effect, if not for the failure to also omit traffic. He nudged the vehicle around the corner of Dumaine Street, narrowly avoiding a frilly woman in a beribboned hat and dress who was leading a duck on string. And for the failure to omit people.
Illya finally managed to park within sight of Marais Celeste on his third circuit of Bourbon Street. He checked his watch. 4:15. He checked his mirror. A light green Valiant was settling into a no-parking zone behind him. He closed his eyes and took long breaths while the urge to put a bullet in Kaminski’s gas tank subsided. It wasn’t really Kaminski he wanted to shoot. And it was no help to know the impulse was almost completely unreasonable.
In any event, his hands were too sore to pull the trigger.
Illya sat a moment, considering whether to wait until 4:30. If Kaminski was here, the INS couldn’t be far behind. He grimaced at the thought of being arrested under Napoleon’s nose. No thank you. Better to go in now. Besides, he was through with the Nick Curry charade. He patted the comfortable bulge under his jacket. If he had any trouble, he could quite cheerfully shoot Tom and Walter Doucet, sore hands or no.
So be it. Illya got out of the car, walked into the swamp, ducked under the gaze of the evil twins, and sat down next to Holly at the piano.
Napoleon sealed his envelope and passed it to a lovely young lady wearing a blue uniform and little gold wings. She was one of the stewardesses who sometimes did courier work for U.N.C.L.E., and she had an hour and a half before her flight to New York. He ran a finger lightly along her pouting lips. She nipped at him and he pulled his hand away, then pulled her chin to him, kissing her nose.
“Another time, Daphne, my love. Duty calls.”
He winked and walked slowly away, making sure to glance back in regret, only quickening his step after he moved out of sight down the concourse. Then he broke into a jog. He had just enough time to make the drive from Moisant Airport to the French Quarter, and the feeling there would be hell to pay if he were late.
Moon River, wider than a mile….
Holly looked up from her music into brilliant blue eyes, and then down to the hands in Nick’s lap. They were ghastly—all swollen and red.
“You poor darling,” she said in French. “You’ve hurt your hands again.” She touched a finger to his arm, but Nick only shrugged.
“Très un peu. How is your wrist?”
“Dramatique—all black and blue.” She made a face and struck a minor chord on the piano. “I’m being treated like royalty, though. As if I’d broken my neck instead of…to squeeze my hand. It is good to surprise the Rats from time to time.”
“Pinching my hand.” Nick corrected. His eyebrows arched adorably and Holly tried not to faint. He switched to English. “You find it useful being top banana in the shock department?”
“Oh! You saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Isn’t Audrey Hepburn divine?” Holly considered that, sternly refusing to blush. “But you’re a Communist, aren’t you? Perhaps she seemed awfully…materialistic—though I believe she suffered privations and defied the Germans and things during the war. She was in Holland, and they were quite overrun with Germans, you know.”
Now she did blush. Of course he knew about Holland. He’d have been almost her age during the war.
Nick looked amused, however, not offended at all.
“Miss Hepburn seemed very European, at any rate, and a trifle high strung. But that can be forgiven in one who has endured privation and defied the Germans.”
“You are laughing at me.”
“Just a bit. I have a present for you.” He took out a paperback book, A Tree of Night and Other Stories. “I thought perhaps you already had Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
She did, hidden under her bed. Holly looked at the book, wondering why she didn’t want it. Then she knew.
“You’re going away.” She turned to her music and opened the pages she’d brought him. Something jazzy, as he hadn’t cared for most of her popular music. She should have seen it immediately. He couldn’t play with those hands, and he’d already searched the bar. He was done here. Except—except somehow she’d thought there’d be sirens, and police cars, and the Rats would go first.
He said something; Holly didn’t know what. Something about not going far. But that didn’t matter, really. Wherever he was, he’d be doing his job, just like he’d been doing it here. He’d never been interested in her. That was just a game she’d been playing. Holly sighed. She didn’t even know what his job was, really. She’d assumed he was after her family, but it could be something else. Some other U.N.C.L.E. matter. Still—she bit her lip and thought things through—whatever he was working on must be related to Marais Celeste, and he must still need information. Otherwise he’d leave town altogether.
“I could be more useful if I knew what you were looking for,” she offered. “They treat me like a pet. I hear a lot of what they say.”
“Absolutely not. You’ve already been hurt once.”
His face was half sorry and half sorry-no-argument. Well, she didn’t need pity. She didn’t cry over the Rats and she wouldn’t cry over him. Holly sat straight on the bench and looked Nick in the eye. Ballet taught you that—no matter what, one could always be straight.
“Very well. I shall continue to operate on my own.” He could put that in his pipe and smoke it.
“You should keep busy with piano and reading, Holly, and not be involved in all this.”
That was nervy, not to mention ridiculous. “They’re my family. How can I not be involved?” She lifted her chin. “Anyway, as we’re not working together, I must choose for myself, oui?” Perhaps she’d take Monsieur Marton up on his offer and go to Paris at the end of the week. True, Marton was a Rat, but he might be a useful one. She could send Illya Kuryakin a postcard in care of U.N.C.L.E. New York: “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.” She was pretty sure Nick wouldn’t like that at all.
But now he looked pitiful, and she couldn’t stand that. Besides…come to think of it…she knew where they lived—Nick and his handsome assistant. She’d followed Nick, Sunday, and seen them together at Kate’s.
It might not be so easy for Mr. Curry to get rid of her after all.
Holly smiled her most charming smile to show there were no hard feelings, and opened the box she’d brought from home. “I also have something for you—pralines—I made them myself.”
His skeptical look made her laugh—like he’d never seen candy before.
“You eat them, silly! Have one. Then I’ll play you a song and we’ll say au revoir.”
Napoleon drove up Bourbon Street past the green Valiant and returned Dave Kaminski’s curt nod. Something told him it would be a good idea to find a legal parking place this time, and, as luck would have it, a sedan pulled out just a few spaces ahead of him. He whipped the Nash into the spot, set the brake, and gave the dashboard a friendly pat. The thing might not be much, as sports cars went, but at least it could park on a dime.
Napoleon checked his watch—two minutes to spare. He’d have to go straight in, which meant postponing a much-needed chat with Kaminski, but that couldn’t be helped. He slid the stolen parking permit into his suit jacket for safe keeping, loaded a mental shotgun, and headed for Marais Celeste.
Illya walked into the men’s room and splashed water on his face. It had been a long day, and he was starting to feel the effects. His hands throbbed and his chest hurt. The cold air in the freezer had revived his bronchitis. He used his inhaler and forced a breath into his lungs. That helped, but it made him unreasonably dizzy. He went into the stall and vomited, and then his knees buckled and he slid down with his back to the door, chiding himself. What on earth was he doing? It was disgusting, sitting on the floor of a public lavatory. Just slightly less disgusting than lying down on the floor and passing out.
Napoleon blinked his way into the Marais Celeste, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. The bar was almost empty, with only a few patrons scattered among the booths. Holly was here—this time in a floppy white hat—playing “Moon River” dreamily on the piano. Behind the bar, the Beauprés waited, side by side, with eyes like coal.
Napoleon approached the bar.
“Ah, it’s our Canadian man,” said Gauche.
“Le maudit vieux macreau.” He didn’t know the phrase, but the leer that came with it was pretty explicit.
“No moustache all this week, cher.”
“That’s OK,” Napoleon told them. “I believe he’s been trimmed.”
Droite poured tonic water onto ice and passed it over. Napoleon sipped it gratefully. He took a closer look at the ladies in the room. Several were drinking alone, and one—a silky brunette—was particularly lovely. She caught his eye and tossed her head invitingly. Napoleon slouched against the bar and returned her smile.
“You’re wasting your time there, cher—” Droite said in his ear.
“You should leave off chasing dem skirts—”
“—and visit us—”
“—sometime between the holidays.”
“We got time off coming for good behavior.”
They cackled behind him in perfect unison.
Illya lifted his watch, blinked, forced the dial into focus. 4:30. Napoleon would arrive soon. Unless something had come up. A woman, perhaps, or any other excuse to avoid renewing their confrontation. The man was infuriating. Illya had seen through his game from the very first minute they’d met. He coaxed and bullied, chatted and teased, lured people in with his ingenuous comments until every single one of them was eating out of his hand. If one approach didn’t work, he’d back away, and the next thing he’d say would be perfect. Friendly. Irresistible.
It was rather fun to watch.
Illya shook his head and regretted it as the room swam. There was an integrity beneath it all that made Solo hard to dislike. He asked for large measure, and gave large measure back in return.
Far better to rely on oneself.
Illya looked at his watch again. Still 4:30. He was sweating now. It was impossibly hard to breathe. Had he contracted pneumonia? He was quite definitely ill. Or poisoned. Or drugged.
If the drops turn red put cotton in your ears.
Illya groaned and staggered to his feet, too miserable to curse. He was an idiot. He hadn’t tested Holly’s candy. And from the way he felt, someone had loaded it with a lot more than the recommended dose.
Holly. His thoughts were painfully slow. Had she eaten the candy? He didn’t think so. An overdose for him might be lethal for a little girl. He couldn’t wait for Napoleon. He had to find Holly and get out of Marais Celeste before someone caught up with him and started giving him ideas.
At the piano, Holly finished her song and looked around for applause. Napoleon obliged her, sauntering over.
“That was very nice.”
“Hello, Mr. Solo, how lovely to see you again.” Holly smiled and offered him her white-gloved hand to kiss. She was dressed today in an off-the-shoulder, black and white checked Givenchy knock-off. The broad silk scarf of her hat was draped across her slender neck.
“Is it your turn, now, to spy on my father?”
Napoleon sat down next to her on the bench, amused. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh,” she waved carelessly, “someone always is, and the position appears to be vacant.” She played the rhythmic, pounding bass line of the theme to “Peter Gunn” and switched to schoolgirl French. “Things go on in my family that bear watching.”
Napoleon suppressed a groan. “Things go on in most families it’s best not to see.” He put his hand over the keys, cutting her off. “I’m afraid I already have a job.”
Holly’s look was speculative. “Like Illya, I think.” She pouted a little. “Although I can’t say I’m very impressed with the staying power of U.N.C.L.E. agents. I hope you’re more determined than your boss. He seems to have withdrawn just as things were heating up.”
“Holly—” This was getting out of hand.
Holly clanged her elbows down on the keyboard and put her chin in her hands. Arranged like that, her head barely topped the baby grand. “There’s no point in denying it, Mr. Solo. I know who you are. Illya and I have no secrets. We’re soul mates.”
I bet. Napoleon frowned. Couldn’t he have even one simple conversation all day? And where was his boss, anyway? When Illya got here, they were going to have a chat about security and American girls.
Napoleon felt the Beauprés’ laughing eyes on his back, sighed, and resolutely sipped his tonic.
It took Illya hours to wash his face and walk to the lavatory door. He braced himself and pushed. The door flew open, and he lurched against…Patrice.
Illya shuddered, trying to step to the side.
Patrice reached for him. “You poor baby,” she crooned, touching his cheek. “Come with me. Let me help.”
He took one more step before staggering into her arms.
Napoleon tried a new topic. “Nick said you’ve been giving him music lessons.”
“Oh yes!” Holly wriggled, caught herself, and gave him an arch look. “He’s ever so much improved. Do you know, he only has to play a piece once to remember it perfectly? C’est magnifique!” She looked doubtful, then added, “Though I have rather had to scold him on his style. Too much Chopin, too young—I’m afraid it affected his mind.”
There was no arguing with that.
Holly sat back with a sigh. “But I forget myself.” She offered Napoleon a box of candy. “Would you care for a praline? I made them myself.” She smiled indulgently. “I have to watch my waistline, but it’s lovely to bring pleasure to others.”
Her waistline must have been all of fourteen inches. “Yes, thank you.” Napoleon checked his watch—4:35. “Um, speaking of Nick, have you seen him today? I rather thought he’d be here with you.” He palmed his little bottle and sprinkled a drop on the candy.
“Oh, he is here! He just went to the restroom—” She faltered. “Of course, a lady doesn’t notice these things, but it was rather a long time ago.” Now she frowned. “Come to think of it, he didn’t look well at the time. Do you think we should be worried?”
Napoleon looked down at the bright red drop on his candy.
Yes, he thought. Very worried indeed.
They checked the restrooms, the alley, the kitchen, the supply room, and the freezer. Holly kept up a steady stream of chatter while pretending to give a grand tour.
Napoleon returned Holly to the piano. “Now listen,” he told her seriously. “I want you to do me a big favor and go on playing as though everything were normal. I promise I’ll let you know when I find him.”
Holly bit her lip and nodded. “Yes, of course.” She sat like a princess and looked at him with big blue eyes. “Thank you for not pretending it’s all right.”
Napoleon sketched a bow. Audrey Hepburn had nothing on this child.
He walked over and leaned his elbows on the bar, eying the side door speculatively. The period right after a kidnapping was critical. How far in could he get with the ammunition in his pocket? And how much trouble would come from blowing the mission right here and now?
Not far enough, and far too much.
The Beauprés passed him a bourbon. He took a sip.
“Don’t be foolish, cher—”
“—dat beb pianist ain’t up dem stairs.”
Napoleon gazed at them coldly. Everyone in this town was too damned well informed.
“He left out the alley—”
“—with his hand up—”
With Patrice. “Where?” Napoleon asked again. The Beauprés gave him two pitying looks.
“Don’t know where she take dem, cher—”
“—but dey don’t come back.”
Napoleon walked out of the bar with the feeling he’d left far too many people still living inside. The green Valiant was gone. So was Napoleon’s Nash Metro. No, not quite gone—it was just disappearing around a corner, strung up behind a tow truck.
Another promissory note in Dave Kaminski’s name.
He scanned the cars up and down the street. About a quarter of them were rentals. He walked along, checking decals. Three belonged to the company used by U.N.C.L.E. One was a sports car, one a luxury, and one was a plain blue Chevy.
Napoleon walked up to the Chevy, removed a stiff wire from his key chain, slid it in, and popped the door lock. Twenty seconds later the engine was running. Another minute and he was waiting at the neutral ground for a left turn into Canal Street.
Fifteen minutes after that he pulled up in front of the blackened remains of LaSalle’s. The police barricade in front was abandoned and the spectators had all gone home, but Napoleon could still feel heat reaching out for him like a bad conscience.
What Linda LaSalle didn’t know hadn’t hurt her.
Napoleon sat thinking a few minutes, tapping his fingers on the wheel. Then he reached under the seat for Illya’s radio and made his report.
Illya awoke face down in bed, coughing, with a bitter taste in his mouth.
Drugged? He shivered. His arms were stretched above his head—tied, presumably, since he couldn’t make them move. He pushed his fingers onto pins and needles. They all seemed to be there. He tried again, and was rewarded with a faint sense of pressure as his circulation responded. That was good. He looked up. He was handcuffed to the bars of a sturdy-looking iron bed. Not so good.
He tried his feet. They were fastened, as well.
“Darling.” A hand rubbed gently between his shoulders. Illya twitched and twisted to see….
“Patrice?” he asked, confused. What was he doing with Patrice, and why wasn’t she wearing any clothes? For that matter, why wasn’t he…?
“I’m glad you’re awake.” The hand became an arm, then a woman’s body, sliding against him. “I’ve been so worried, darling. That girl got the recipe wrong and it made you sick.” She massaged his back and shoulders. Illya groaned. He couldn’t believe how good it felt. This isn’t right.
“I have to go out soon, but I need you to love me first, my darling Nick.” The voice licked at his ear. “You do love me, don’t you?” Illya shuddered. He felt a treacherous heat spreading out from her touch.
Let me help you, she had said. Come with me. You love me. Put cotton in your ears.
“Chyort,” he hissed, trying to pull away. She’d been brainwashing him, and making a poor job of it. He blushed suddenly—twice—remembering the things she’d said in the bar. He could beat this…if the room would just stop swimming. He felt sweat break out on his face. She must have dosed him again.
Patrice moved her mouth close to his ear.
“Don’t fight me, darling,” she cooed. “We can be so good together.”
Illya pulled up a screen of contempt. If there was one thing he knew how to resist, it was a sexual advance. But it was hard with her breath on his neck. He was used to heading things off somewhat earlier in the game.
“You love me, Nick, and I love you.”
He had to hang on. He imagined their CEA, Gordon Hutchinson, standing by the bed, watching with an expression of vague disapproval that meant he planned to take off someone’s balls. We expected better of you, Mr. Kuryakin. The image was decidedly un-erotic.
Patrice stroked his bangs. Good. He hated people taking liberties with his hair. If only she’d stop talking. Her voice was rich and silky, as soft as the thick black curls that fell onto his shoulders like waves of desire. A voice as full of promise as the light in her green-gold eyes.
No. His own eyes teared in frustration. It might help to concentrate on how thoroughly he had screwed up the assignment. Picking a fight with Napoleon, and letting himself be caught like a recruit, twice in one day. The memory of the freezer triggered his cough and he gave in to it, letting it wrack him, hoping it would discourage Patrice. But she only held him and murmured endearments.
“You love me, Nick.” At least Solo would have had sense enough to test the candy. They couldn’t both make the same stupid mistake. That’s what working in a team was about—having people around to cover your mistakes. Too bad it never seemed to turn out that way for Illya.
“You have to love me.” She’d been working him for about five minutes. That left ten to go. He coughed again, burning thirty seconds. Had Patrice been part of a larger trap, designed to catch him and Napoleon both? The pralines were an amateurish trick. And I fell for it like an amateur. Was this a Thrush trap at all? Photographs of dead U.N.C.L.E. agents came unbidden to his mind and he heard himself moan. He had to get away.
“You love me.” He shuddered under the weight of her words. Damn. He threw himself against the cuffs, gasping at the pain in his sore hands. He tried again, then stopped. Hurting himself was stupid. There were rules for these situations. Survive and escape. If you can’t beat ‘em—Jules Cutter would say, after crushing some poor kid into the ground—go around ‘em. How very long ago that seemed. How easy it had once been, to be faster, tougher, smarter than everyone else.
Outsmarted by Patrice.
“You have no choice but to love me.” She pushed down again, covering his body with her own. Desire flashed through him. It’s just sex, he thought. Just—
“I love you, Nick.” Patrice sighed against him. “And you love me.” She reached up and did something to the handcuffs, and suddenly he was free. He twisted, caught her wrists and flipped her over, pinning her close to the headboard, forcing her hands toward the cuffs.
Patrice squeaked and tugged uselessly against him. She was in his power, and she knew it. Her eyes widened in fear.
“It’s Illya,” he whispered, melting into her kiss.
“Everyone knows Patrice Doucet,” Kate said. “If they’re in the Quarter we’ll hear about it.” She hesitated. “And she’s sure to turn up Opening Day.”
Napoleon sat at Kate’s kitchen table, tapping the replacement key for Illya’s car against his U.N.C.L.E. radio. It was Tuesday evening. The race track opened at seven on Thursday. The average life expectancy of an U.N.C.L.E. agent held by Thrush was thirty-six hours.
He couldn’t wait for Opening Day.
He picked up a stray deck of cards, spread them face up, and began ordering the suits.
Have you got any Russians?
His call to headquarters hadn’t been much help. So far, the Lagniappe drug was consistently effective, though field agents had been better at resisting it than the other volunteers. It wasn’t really brainwashing in the traditional sense. They couldn’t program Illya to shoot someone on sight. But, for example, they could make him hate Napoleon’s guts.
Come to think of it, that was about where he and Illya had left off.
He should have patched things up between them before they separated. Would have, if Illya hadn’t ducked out to avoid the INS. And if Napoleon’s own temper hadn’t still been half out of control. That almost never happened, but “almost” wasn’t going to do Illya any good.
He collected the cards, practiced a few false shuffles, and spread the deck out again, still in original order. Hutch hadn’t said it, but they’d already counted Illya out of the picture. Meanwhile would Solo please locate and destroy the lab as soon as possible?
He realized Kate was waiting for a response.
“Thank you.” He dealt the aces. Then the tens. Then three fives and a four. Oops. “Did you ask about Kaminski and the Valiant?” He fixed the deck, did a faro shuffle, turned it over. Ace-Eight, Ace-Eight, Ace-Seven, Ace-Seven…. You can’t hold your partner in a mechanic’s grip.
Kate nodded. “We’re set there, too. The hustlers have an excellent eye for men in cars.” She leaned over onto the table. “But if they find him, you’re going to have to pay.”
He shuffled again and held out the deck. If they find him, Kaminski is going to have to pay. This crap with the INS was tipping the scales in Thrush’s favor. Too bad he hadn’t saved any of the Lagniappe drug. He could have dosed Kaminski and his INS buddies and told them to jump in Lake Pontchartrain.
Kate chose a card and put it back in the deck. Napoleon did a double undercut and forced it to the top. Queen of Hearts.
Kate was chuckling. “However, they’ll bed you into the price, if you so desire.” She smiled. “Depending on who it is, I’m told it can be quite an experience.”
This time she kissed his head. Of course, he was the last man standing. She turned to go.
“Kate,” Napoleon called her back. “This is getting ugly. Beyond anything Section Three’s supposed to handle.” She wasn’t even Section Three, really. Just a business woman on retainer. U.N.C.L.E. had a lot of arrangements like that in places where there wasn’t an office nearby. Anymore. People like Kate weren’t expected to go out on a limb.
“I’m moving out before Thrush decides to target us here.”
She wasn’t surprised, but she didn’t agree. “No.” Her black eyes met and held his gaze, daring him to push and promising he’d lose. It had been a long time since Napoleon had met a woman who could hold her own against him. Or a man, for that matter. And even longer since he’d let anyone get away with it.
Kate crossed her arms. “It’s my duty to serve a good cause,” she said, unwavering. “And my privilege to serve with good men.”
Napoleon leashed his reaction and gazed at Kate a long time, considering. Would he pick up a photograph a week from now and find Kate’s mutilated body staring up at him? Was it his choice to make? Was that the real issue, or did he just want to make her back down, like everyone else?
It was his decision, and he did want to back her down. Hell. First Illya, then Kate. Was he planning to dominate all of Enforcement? Of U.N.C.L.E.? Of Thrush? He had a pretty big ego, but it was supposed to be based on teamwork and strategy, not on crushing everyone in his path.
“All right.” He couldn’t believe how hard it was to say those two words. “But I want you to carry a gun.”
Kate chuckled and pulled up her long skirt, showing an enviable holster nestled snug against her thigh. She winked. “Try not to make me use it, though. I can lose my liquor license for shooting white boys in this town.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Why hadn’t he done that with Illya? Eased off instead of pushing him over the edge? Of course, Kate didn’t quite have Illya’s tongue.
Kate returned to her work and Napoleon returned to his cards. Four aces. Four tens. Four fives. He shuffled again and dealt in sorted order, resisting the urge to tear the cards to bits. Losing partners was Illya’s department. Napoleon Solo brought teams back alive. It said so in his file. It was a lynchpin of his career.
The hell with his career.
The radio beeped. Napoleon doubted it was going to say anything good. He put down the deck and picked up the microphone.
“Hiya handsome.” It was Alice. “I have the addresses and phone numbers you asked for.”
Walter and Tom Doucet. “Thanks, Alice.” At least she wasn’t counting anyone out. “You don’t have a couple of agents handy to help me run them down, by any chance?”
“You know how it is. You guys are always tied up. I have a sister who knows somebody in New Orleans, though, so I’m working the local angle for you.”
Napoleon smiled, pulling himself out of his funk. “Alice, you’re a saint. Promise when I’m CEA you’ll belong only to me.”
“I’m planning to play the field in my dotage; would you settle for something on the side? Wait, hold the line a minute.” She switched off the mike, and Napoleon listened to static. “You’re not going to believe it, but I have a phone call to patch through to you.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Probably—” meaning it was a woman. “She says her name is Linda LaSalle.”
Patrice had been solicitous before she left, bringing his inhaler, the pocket sized Selected Works of Shakespeare he’d purchased after renting a car, and his reading glasses. Apparently clothes were not an option. It took her only a minute to retrieve the items, so he knew his pants and, with luck, his gun were somewhere nearby.
There was a Thrush guard outside the door, which raised nearly as many questions as it settled. Even by Thrush standards, Patrice’s behavior seemed extraordinary. If this were some sort of field test of the Lagniappe drug, the suggestions she gave him ought to have been more…practical.
Surely there were more efficient ways to obtain the services of a lover?
His location was also a puzzle. He was in a long, narrow room which, in addition to the iron bed, contained a lavatory, closet, and a counter with a hot plate and sink. The opposite end of the room held a worktable piled with tools, art supplies, assorted bones, and the partially-restored form of a small alligator. Photographs and water-color animal studies were tacked to the walls. The room smelled of turpentine, sex, and death.
She’d left him shackled to the foot of the bed by an ankle manacle on two meters of chain. It slid far enough for him to get to a barred window on the right and the lavatory on the left. Patrice’s workshop was lamentably out of reach.
The ceiling started to close in and Illya sat down on the end of the bed. He rested head and arms on the iron foot rail, fighting dizziness, trying not to pass out. His balance was off, and he was having trouble concentrating. Rather as though he were drunk, though he seldom drank heavily and even less often became noticeably drunk. Russians were expected to hold their liquor.
Illya pushed himself straight and counted breaths while the roaring subsided. Better.
They didn’t hold their liquor, though, his countrymen, not really. Just became gradually, perpetually drunken. He’d hated those long nights of drinking, with their parallel rise of false sentiment and real ethnic tension. The knowledge that at least one person in the room was in the pay of intelligence.
How ironic to end up a spy.
Illya shook his head and brought his mind back to the room. Bed. Window. Workbench. In any event, it was different, belonging to U.N.C.L.E. As long as an organization like U.N.C.L.E. existed, there was hope. For the Soviet Union. For America. For the countries caught in between. And for him.
He sighed, feeling like a machine that was slipping its gears. Clearly the Lagniappe drug had aftereffects headquarters hadn’t reported.
And what of its primary effects? Was he in love with Patrice?
Illya jumped up and clanked to the window, categorically refusing to consider it. He didn’t want love—it was not possible in his chosen profession. True, he’d had affairs, but the liaisons were good natured and short. Fairly passionless. Which was odd, in a way, as he had rather a weakness for women. More than one had engaged his affection by being kind hearted and by not taking his first no for an answer.
Well, Patrice hadn’t taken no for an answer, and he had passion now. Her image came to him, lying unclothed on the bed, appallingly beautiful. Was it love that made beauty compelling? He’d barely registered her appearance before, and now he couldn’t forget it. He stared glumly out the dark window, missing her, wanting her, hating her.
Illya leaned against the bars, forcing his anger away. First Napoleon, then Kaminski, now Patrice. Was he becoming irretrievably ill tempered? Or just having a really bad day?
The Devil take it. Illya steadied his breathing and felt his thoughts come more clearly. Patrice was a problem, but realistically, love gave her limited influence. It was easy to believe she’d be safer without him. The drug could wear off, in which case he’d strangle her. Her husband could walk in on them. Or—most likely—Thrush would come for him and endanger Patrice. He had to escape. He could return for her later, though heaven knew how he’d explain to Napoleon.
Napoleon. Illya sighed. He had to admit it—right now he could use an American pal. And he’d willingly provide a few stories of Soviet oppression in exchange for the keys to his cell.
The next time Napoleon struck him as manipulative, he’d be sure to remember Patrice.
Illya straightened and turned to examine the iron bed more closely. It was as sturdy as it looked, welded together and bolted to the floor. There were springs underneath that could be worked free to make a lock pick or crude weapon.
There were blood stains on the mattress under the sheets.
Illya sat down on the bed, feeling suddenly worn. He had to face facts. The cuffs on the bed frame weren’t new. His ankle manacle was rubbed and even dented on one side. And the bed had been covered in blood. He wasn’t the first lover Patrice had brought home, and it was certain their affair wouldn’t last.
He ought to try picking the lock on his ankle, but he’d simply hit his limit. He curled up on the deceptive white sheets and fell asleep missing Patrice.
At 8:00 pm, Napoleon was in position outside Marais Celeste, planning to tail Walter Doucet—possibly to Illya, if Walter and Patrice were in this together, or, failing that, hopefully to the lab. If Walter didn’t show, he’d follow Patrice’s brother, Tom.
Linda had been frightened on the radio, claiming her husband was dead and she’d barely escaped from the fire. Napoleon should meet her at the local amusement park tomorrow at noon. She’d been a smart cookie to trace him through HQ when the card he’d left only listed his name and answering service. A little too smart—he hadn’t mentioned working for U.N.C.L.E. One thing had the ring of truth, though. Alice confirmed a body had been recovered from the ashes and identified. Martin LaSalle would not be changing his mind, ever again.
By midnight, neither Walter nor Tom Doucet had put in an appearance. Napoleon knew he was at a dead end.
At 12:20 Hutch called and chewed him out in mild terms. Napoleon wasn’t fooled. Hutch might appear soft, but he was the most ruthless, cynical bastard Napoleon had met this side of Thrush. For the last year Napoleon had reported more or less directly to Waverly, but every once in a while, as in this mess of Paul’s, he and the CEA got stuck with each other, to nobody’s great satisfaction.
When Hutch was done, Napoleon shot back that sending two un-briefed agents with no local support into a veritable U.N.C.L.E. bone yard wasn’t the best planning on record—and they left it at that. What the hell. If he was going to end up in Antarctica, he might as well go out with a bang. Then he had to laugh to himself—if he blew this one, Hutch’s career might not take any great leaps forward, either. There was some satisfaction in that.
At 1:00 am a taxi pulled up beside the car. Holly Doucet tapped on his window, passed him some papers, and drove off before Napoleon had a chance to spank her.
“Moon River.” It was the sheet music for one of her songs. He leafed through it, checked the edges, and carefully separated the two sheets that made up the front cover. What he read was as concise as a field agent’s report: “Searched households of Tom and Walter Doucet with no results. Patrice still missing. Important demonstration scheduled Thursday for rather nice Frenchman named Victor Marton—currently staying with Walter at a local hotel. Will attempt to pin down details.”
That little girl was going to get herself killed.
A small amount of traffic continued to flow in and out of the bar, but the adult Doucets never showed. At 3:00 am, Napoleon gave up and headed home to Kate’s. She’d had his things unpacked into one of the tiny upstairs apartments and—bless her—steamed out the wrinkles in his neglected suits. He fell into bed without even changing, listening to the soft late sounds of jazz.
Wednesday, November 22
Illya worked the stiff latch and pushed up the sash of his window. It didn’t do any real good—the opening was covered with the same iron grillwork that made every local citizen a prisoner in his own home—but the cool, damp air was bracing, and the muddy smell of the Mississippi reminded him of his childhood. A ship’s deep horn sounded nearby. He felt its looming presence, but the shape was lost in a heavy pre-dawn fog.
He stretched, feeling surprisingly restored, really alert for the first time since he’d come out of the freezer yesterday. His hands were still sore, but less swollen, and the cough had nearly disappeared. Patrice had brought a Thrush medical kit the previous evening and insisted he swallow a number of pills, so perhaps that accounted for it.
Illya checked the grillwork more carefully and discovered it was hinged and padlocked. Three minutes’ work with a bedspring took care of the lock. He pulled it off and relocked it in front of the hasp, and then carefully slid the sash down into place. The difference was barely noticeable. They were on the first—no, second—story. It would be a simple matter to hang from the bars and drop to the ground.
The manacle around his ankle was more of a problem. It required a special, round key, which he didn’t think he could improvise.
And there was the problem of not wanting to go.
He put his emotions carefully away and risked a look at Patrice, still asleep on the bed. Red fingernails, red lips, long black curls. An oddly-shaped face that displayed her kinship to Holly, but a full woman’s body that Holly, with her modern ideas, would never aspire to or achieve. His anger against her had faded, leaving…not love; she’d failed in that. Affection, perhaps. Perhaps pity.
His hand was stroking her cheek.
Illya threw himself backwards off the bed, stumbled over the chain and landed in a heap on the floor. The woman was implicated in the deaths of more than two dozen people. That would be his fate, if he couldn’t get himself under control.
He tucked his lock pick under the mattress. Sleepy green eyes appeared at the edge of the bed. Could she possibly have been involved in those murders? Could she possibly be innocent of them?
“Nick, honey, what are you doing down there?”
Patrice sometimes struck him as less than bright. “I fell.”
“Well, I see that, sugar.” She wriggled to the foot of the bed, reached out and ran her fingers along his thigh. “Never mind,” she smiled. “It’s time to get up again.”
It never occurred to him to say no.
“OPEN THANKSGIVING WEEKEND.”
The banner fluttered in a mid-day breeze, right under big orange letters welcoming all comers to Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park.
Napoleon’s morning had been as unproductive as his evening. He’d bought breakfast for a couple of plainclothes cops that Alice had tracked down, bless her heart, to help him keep an eye on things the night before. Despite the questionable reputation of the local police, these two had been professional and sympathetic. But all their surveillance of Tom and Walter Doucet’s houses had uncovered was a little girl who came and went at odd hours.
Headquarters had a substantial file on Victor Marton, an up-and-coming Thrush official. French, but currently operating out of the Midwest. Alice had confirmed Marton’s registration at the Royal Orleans and passed on Hutch’s stern orders to look for the lab and leave Marton alone.
So there went the obvious ploy of a hostage exchange. Hutch would not go head-to-head against Thrush Central over one missing agent. One missing, nine dead. Napoleon narrowed his eyes. Fine. Maybe Marton was off limits. Maybe there were valid political reasons not to escalate this affair to a regional level—such things led to the sort of large-scale violence both U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush tacitly avoided. But the Doucets were a local matter and therefore fair game.
And Napoleon would see them in hell before he was done.
Napoleon took a drag on his cigarette, thinking he ought to quit smoking. But oh well. A man was entitled to one vice…or two.
He smiled. Alice had sent him Marton’s photo via Daphne the willing stewardess, together with an amusing ad for winter survival gear and a cryptic note saying they were still looking into his question regarding de Gaulle.
No doubt Holly’s “important demonstration” would be something to do with the Lagniappe drug.
All roads were leading to Thursday. Did Thrush have plans for Opening Day at the Fair Grounds? Horses liked sugar; Napoleon wondered idly if they could be brainwashed into winning or losing a race.
The crowd started in through the amusement park gates and he spotted Linda, wearing a tight yellow dress and matching veiled hat. Behind her, right on schedule, were three Thrush stooges: Curly, Larry, and Moe.
Napoleon stepped on his cigarette butt and walked forward as the first trainload of screaming children clattered its way up the wooden roller coaster beside him. Zephyr, the sign said, but what sort of wind would it blow his way?
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”
They were together in bed, leaning against a stack of pillows Patrice had retrieved from Illya-didn’t-want-to-know-where, exploring the less volatile aspects of love. With an arm around Patrice, now draped in something feminine, and the Works of Shakespeare propped on his own bare knees, Illya could almost imagine he had found his heart’s desire.
Almost, but not quite. The illusion wavered each time she spoke.
“I love those glasses.” Patrice turned and pushed the glasses up onto his head to prove her point. “They make you look so brainy.”
“I am brainy,” he told her, pulling his glasses back down. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and summer’s lease hath all too short a date—” Not that he had any real illusions. Rough winds were bound to blow, and if Patrice seemed oblivious to that fact, Illya was not. Perhaps because it was his own May buds in jeopardy. Unfortunately his attempts to pick the lock on his ankle manacle had failed. For the moment, he was going nowhere, and he saw no reason not to go there in as pleasant a manner as possible.
“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines—”
“Do you think,” she ran fingers through his hair, “our children will be blond like you? Or dark like me?”
Children? Illya swallowed. “Two of each. But won’t Walter object?”
“He never does.” She kissed him. “He’s busy. And anyway, who’s to tell? He could have a blond baby. Tom’s dark and Holly’s blond.” She frowned in disgust. “And honey, you never saw anybody dote on a child the way Tom dotes on Holly.” Patrice thought some more. “Only, Holly’s mother was blond. Maybe I’d better bleach my hair first.”
It sounded like she’d been reading Lysenko. Illya laughed and nuzzled her neck.
“Elope with me instead. We’ll go tonight, and you won’t have to spoil your beautiful hair.” He tried a little fantasy of his own. An apartment in New York for Patrice. Two fat babies. He could shoot things on the way home from work for Patrice to stuff and sell to tourists…squirrels…pigeons?
He tried again, searching for something more plausible. Perhaps Waverly would put them in the same padded cell?
Patrice was shaking her head. “I’d love to, honey, but Tom and Walter would never let me get away. We’re safer here.”
He wasn’t sure he was part of that we. “I can’t stay in this bed forever.”
“I don’t see why not. I can bring you books and things.” Patrice took away his glasses and his book. She wrapped her hand in his. “You have beautiful fingers. You can help me with my mounts. We’ll have food sent in from all the best places.” She climbed onto his lap. “And I’ll make sure you get plenty of exercise.”
What more could any pet need? Too bad he’d been adopted by a household of vivisectionists.
There were bruises on Linda’s face behind the veil and sunglasses. Napoleon gave her some credit; it looked like she’d put up a fight. Then again, looks weren’t everything, not even in a woman.
Linda shook her head in his direction. “Go away,” she mouthed. Instead he took her arm and steered her into the light crowd. She walked stiffly, with no trace of yesterday’s languid grace. Napoleon tightened his lips. “Are you OK?”
“It’s a trap, Napoleon, I couldn’t tell you on the phone.”
“Mmm. I sort of figured that out.”
“You did?” She stopped. “Then why’d you come?”
He propelled her forward again. “It sounded like you needed help.” And, sad though it might be, she was his best and only lead.
Someone had neglected to teach Curly, Larry, and Moe their manners. They were shouldering determinedly through the groups of families and teenagers milling beside the ticket kiosks. Each Stooge had a hand tucked in a folded newspaper. None of them looked smart enough to read. Napoleon doubted even Thrush would start a gun battle in a park full of kids. Still, he needed to lose the goons and get Linda away as fast as possible.
Napoleon pulled her toward the roller coaster and scanned the layout. There was a large empty waiting area, divided into switchbacks by a railing that snaked across the blacktop. The line was short, and the chain had been refastened to make a straight path up to the loading platform. Behind the platform, the white lattice of the Zephyr reared itself up against the midday sun, balancing on a forest of wooden supports. Beyond that stood the tall fence defining the park boundary. A quick glance showed Mo and Larry covering the exit, while Curly trotted through the entrance behind them. They were boxed in.
He kept Linda moving, ducking around a pale family of tourists in shorts and a gang of beer-drinking teenagers, homing in on a couple of sticky boys at the front of the line. The park had been open ten minutes and already their shirts were smeared with ice cream and cotton candy. Napoleon reached into his mental bag of tricks.
“Hey, kids, can you help me?” He squatted to child level, pulling Linda down beside him.
The boys regarded him suspiciously.
“Help!” A tiny voice cried from Napoleon’s jacket. “Lemme outta here!” Their eyes opened wide.
Napoleon patted his pocket. “I’ve got a ten-dollar bill that’s scared to death of roller coasters. How about giving me your spot and setting it free on the midway.”
“You can’t make me ride!”
Napoleon showed them the bill. Two grubby hands flashed out. Two grubby boys tossed down their tickets and vanished like magic. Napoleon and Linda stepped up to the train.
“See.” Napoleon winked at her. “Money talks.”
Linda rolled her eyes. “I’ve got news for you,” she said, eyeing the empty row of cars. “Your money’s not the only thing that’s afraid of roller coasters.”
They stepped through the turnstile and a girl on a loudspeaker encouraged everyone to walk forward, sit down, and enjoy the ride. “Not to worry.” Napoleon dragged her over to a seat. “I have a plan.”
“Does it involve talking money?”
“No, something even slicker than that.” Not to mention less of a sure thing. They climbed aboard just as Curly materialized, throwing dollars into the crowd and leaping into the last car in the train. Napoleon nodded. These guys were making sure he and Linda didn’t sneak out at the top of the track.
“Napoleon,” Linda warned. He put a finger to her lips. Up and down the train, riders were pulling iron bars across their laps. The loudspeaker girl walked the length of the platform, locking each bar into place. Napoleon fussed with the hem of his pants and waved her past.
Click. Click. Click. The lap bars were down.
A pair of bobby socks approached their car. “Sir, we have to lock you in.”
“Oh…I forgot.” Napoleon pulled Linda up and out of the car. “I can’t ride without my kewpie doll!” They headed for the entrance at a run.
“Hey, you!” Curly struggled in his seat. “Come back here! Come back here!” Across the platform, Mo and Larry joined him, yelling and waving their hands.
Napoleon put some tourists between himself and the exit and then jumped the railing that separated the line from the roller coaster supports. As the train began to clank its way up the first rise, he ducked behind a pillar, drew his gun, and fired a sleep dart into the back of Curly’s thick neck.
One knucklehead down. Two to go.
“Poor guy,” he yelled over the rattle of the chain as he jumped into line and pulled Linda toward the entrance. “Some people just can’t take the big rides.”
Linda shook her head, skeptical behind her veiled hat. “I’ve got to admit,” she called back. “I had a completely different impression of you yesterday.”
Napoleon winked at her. In his business, it paid to be versatile.
Illya Kuryakin had never had a high opinion of romance, and it was sinking by the minute.
This time he was cuffed on his back, hand and foot, to the bed. That made things easier, in a way. It was nearly impossible to harbor romantic illusions about a lover who called in Thrush guards to arrange her sexual positions. Not even when said lover was sucking his lip.
He shifted uncomfortably under Patrice’s weight, feeling somewhat battered. It had probably been a mistake to take a swing at two guards while still chained to the bed. Still, one never knew. They might have tripped over each other and broken their necks. And despite the room’s obvious charms, Illya was past ready for a change in scenery.
“Illya,” Patrice said huskily. So it’s Illya now. “Do something for me.”
He’d like to do something to her, and it wasn’t what she had in mind.
“What do you want?”
She caught his tone and pouted, then moved in a way intended to drive him wild. It hardly did at all.
“I want you to tell me about U.N.C.L.E.”
Predictably, Mo and Larry abandoned their friend and hung tight to Napoleon’s tail. Also predictably, they were gaining ground. Napoleon cast around for another diversion. “Zebra the High Diving Tiger” had potential, but that act wasn’t on for an hour. His choices were the midway to the left or the walk-through-funhouse to the right. Napoleon gave the towering clown’s head a speculative look. Funhouse it was.
A line of people stood in front of the entrance, and Napoleon didn’t think his expense account could take another ventriloquist act. This time he led Linda around to the back.
“Hah-hah-hah, hah-hah-hah!” The witch at the exit must have been reading his status reports. Napoleon and Linda threaded their way against the flow of weeping children being shepherded past a lineup of horrors by their parents. Glowing vampires, bobbing spiders, and a genuine, rotting, papier-mâché mummy all wailed disapproval into the darkness.
Sure, it was easy to criticize, but how long would any of them last in the field?
They pushed past a Jolly Green Giant pounding a stack of bones and stopped to catch their breath in the hall of mirrors. What they needed was an emergency exit. What they got was twelve exits, each reflected in a different shape and size.
Crack. One of the mirrors shattered and slid to the floor. That left eleven exits to choose from. Crack. Ten exits. Someone was paring down their options. Napoleon pulled Linda back and looked for the source of gunfire. The wails of children were joined by the shouts of panicking adults. A moment later, the emergency exit slammed open, letting in a broad gash of light, and a mob began stampeding out the door.
“Wait.” Napoleon grabbed Linda before she stepped into the sunshine and pulled her into the relative darkness behind a mirror. “Stay here.” He drew his gun and began to make his way toward the source of the shots.
Crack. Crack. Crack. More glass broke, and the ghost at Napoleon’s elbow gained a hole in its sheet. Crack. This time he caught the flash. He ducked, fired, and was rewarded by a moan and a thud as Larry’s face landed in a reflected ray of light, eyes closed, down for the count.
That made it Moe who butted Napoleon from behind, sending his gun skittering over the floor. He smashed face-first into the oversized pile of bones, rolling sideways just as the giant’s club came down with a crash. For a funhouse prop, it hit pretty hard.
Moe aimed a kick at Napoleon’s head. He blocked it, caught Moe by the knee and yanked, throwing him forward. Moe stumbled past as Napoleon jumped to his feet, twisted, locked his hands together and slammed them into the back of Moe’s neck. The Stooge staggered, turned, clawed at his holster and brought up a gun.
Bang. The giant’s club caught Moe on the head. He took two steps, fell to his knees, and collapsed to the floor.
Napoleon retrieved his own gun and darted Moe for good measure, silently revising his assessment. The Jolly Giant might make it as a field agent, after all.
The funhouse was rapidly losing its charm. Napoleon straightened his cuffs and walked to the mirror where Linda lay huddled on the floor.
“C’mon, let’s go.” He reached out for her, smiling, but Linda ignored him. Napoleon knelt down and touched her, wincing as both hands came away sticky with blood. He felt her pulse—fast and weak. He looked for the wound—she’d been shot in the back. Napoleon hesitated, afraid to move her or even apply pressure. Back injuries were tricky. It might be better to get help.
“Hands up, Solo.” A fourth Stooge stepped out of the shadow of an unbroken mirror. Shemp, of course—Napoleon should have known. He raised his hands and stood up slowly, looking from Linda to Shemp’s gun and then to his own distorted reflection. There was something else in the mirror, too. A shock of blond hair, crouching low. Napoleon’s blood ran cold.
Shemp leveled the gun. His hand tightened on the trigger. Napoleon dove to the floor.
A double set of shots rang out and glass showered into the air. Napoleon felt the heat of a bullet creasing his back. He pulled his own gun out, rolling in time to see Shemp stagger away from the mirror, clutching an arm. A stream of red drops sprayed through Shemp’s fingers into the light from the exit. Napoleon fired a dart and Shemp joined the mess on the floor.
He found Holly a few feet away, dressed in an oversized sweater and pigtails, hugging her hands to her chest. Her blue eyes were wide and staring in the dim light. Napoleon picked her up. “Holly!” She couldn’t freeze now. “I want you out of here.”
Holly’s arms clamped, vice-like, onto his neck. “He was going to kill you,” she whispered.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Is he dead?”
“He’s fine.” Maybe. “You hit the mirror.” Napoleon loosened her grip and looked into her face. “I shot him with a dart to make him sleep.”
“It’s George. He works for Uncle Walter. I followed him.”
“Walter doesn’t need to know you were here,” Napoleon said. “Can you find a bar called Kate’s on Bourbon Street?”
“Go there, ask for Kate, make sure nobody hears you, and tell her what happened. Ask her to call Hutch, and wait to go home until she says it’s OK. Can you do all that?”
Holly nodded. “What about you?”
“I’ll talk to the police.” Napoleon picked up her gun. “But I’m not going to tell them about you. Is this gun yours? Can it be traced to you?” It was a .45. He could barely believe she’d fired it.
“I took it from the one who got hit on the head.”
“Good girl. Off you go.” He hugged her hard and set her on her feet. Holly collected herself, brushed her sweater, and gave her pigtails a shake.
“OK.” Her gaze swept Napoleon like a searchlight. “You haven’t found Illya?”
“No. But I promise, I will.”
Holly nodded again. She pulled Napoleon down and kissed him on the cheek and then ran for the exit.
“Holly—” She stopped and looked his way. “No more of this. It isn’t a game.”
She lifted her chin. “I never thought it was.” The pigtails turned and scampered out the door.
Napoleon went over to Shemp. He’d been cut by a shard of the mirror and his arm was bleeding freely. Napoleon sighed and tucked the arm under Shemp’s body to slow down the bleeding. No doubt he’d live to stooge another day.
Linda stirred on the floor. Napoleon still didn’t dare touch her wound. He draped his jacket over her, sat down and took her hand instead.
“Try to keep still,” Napoleon told her. “Help will come in a minute.”
Linda’s eyelids fluttered open. “They burned him. Martin. Before the fire.”
“Sorry.” She sighed. “So was he. Christ, I need a drink.”
“I’ll owe you one.” He touched her face. “We’ll spend a long afternoon on the beach. Oysters and champagne, and a walk in the moonlight.” His fingers left a smear of blood on her cheek. Maybe Illya was right; maybe he couldn’t keep his hands clean.
“Mmm.” Linda smiled and then moaned. “Bastards. He didn’t go to Baton Rouge. Followed them. Wanted more money.”
“Where, Linda? I need to find them. To stop them.”
She looked at him dully. “Warehouse…Wahso…birds….” She sighed again and sagged against the floor.
Napoleon bit his lip. “Birds? Oiseaux?”
Jesus, where were the cops? It seemed like they’d been waiting forever, though it was probably only five minutes since the gun battle started. Still, even in New Orleans, that should be enough time for justice to sweep into motion.
In answer to his thoughts, the lights snapped on and the sound of pumping shotguns echoed through the hall.
“N.O.P.D.,” a voice shouted. “Everybody in there freeze!”
Victor Marton patted his forehead with a blue silk handkerchief and let out an inaudible sigh. It had been a trying two days. Doughnuts instead of croissant, coffee with some sort of tree-root ground up in it. A tad too much forced bonhomie interwoven among long political negotiations with Walter Doucet. The man had proven rather sharper than Victor expected—which in itself had its positive side. Walter might yet be a success at the regional level, and that was a good thing for Thrush. It was not always easy to come by smart, aggressive leaders in an organization where retirement was notoriously early and permanent. So many unscrupulous men opted for government service instead. Still, it had all been excessively tiring.
Yet there had been agreeable moments. Snapper one night at Masson’s and a very fine Trout Marguéry at Galatoire’s.
He’d had two fascinating conversations with Holly Doucet. Such a pretty thing, unusually graceful, with conversation that bordered on brilliant. It was shocking that no one around her had noticed, but that would soon change. Her custody was now part of the deal. Victor smiled. There was an art to coaxing young ladies to the bosom of Thrush. A little disillusionment. A little flattery. A taste of the power Thrush offered. At the right age, it was easily done.
There had been agreeable music, too, in the evening after the ladies had gone, and even more agreeable female companionship. Victor was not much given to personal indulgence—his tastes ran mainly to willing young Thrush ingénues in a rush to advance their careers—but he planned to use the Lagniappe drug, and he’d needed a practical demonstration. His session with Walter and Tom had been instructive indeed.
He reluctantly brought his attention to the matter at hand.
“Very impressive, Walter.” Victor glanced down at the corpse at his feet, relieved he hadn’t been spattered with blood. It was all well and good to remove scientists who were no longer needed, but Victor preferred to be warned to step back. “I thought you couldn’t give someone a direct order to kill himself.”
“That’s right.” Walter smiled. “But it isn’t all that hard to persuade a man suicide’s his easiest option.”
Apparently not. Victor watched Walter retrieve his small knife, wiping it on the victim’s not-so-white coat. He’d never seen a man actually cut his own throat before.
“I trust you wouldn’t have killed your star scientist unless the Lagniappe formula was safe?”
“We’ll be transferring the drugs to your limousine, as agreed, where Charlie can watch them.” Walter held out a small notebook. “The research journals have already been burned. This is the formula itself.”
“Excellent.” Though no doubt you’ve got a copy stashed away for insurance. Victor thumbed through the pages and tucked the book into his suit coat. Things were wrapping up nicely.
“Now, what of this U.N.C.L.E. agent you’re holding for Denver. They’re most anxious to get one alive. Is he still in one piece?”
“More or less.” Walter showed his teeth. “We’ve provided light entertainment. Do you want to see him?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. Load him in my plane Thursday night, please, bound and unconscious, and I’ll pass him along.” Victor patted his forehead again and tucked the handkerchief neatly away. “Have you looked for his partner? This sort of trouble usually comes in pairs.”
“Oh, he’s got one, all right, sniffing at the edge of our business, but we’ll catch him. They all show up at the bar sooner or later. You want dibs on the second one, too?”
“No. As long as Denver gets a live one, you can do what you like to the other. But don’t take too long. We’re all expected in Chicago Saturday evening for our victory dinner.”
“I’m not likely to forget about that.”
“No, Walter.” Now Victor smiled. “I’m quite sure you’re not.”
Patrice was gone. That was good. Possibly gone to get dinner, which would be even better. Meals had been irregular since yesterday’s Po Boys, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to escape on an empty stomach. Unfortunately, if Patrice returned with dinner, it followed that dinner returned with Patrice.
And if Patrice did not return, the odds were whoever came next would be even less pleasant.
They had settled into an odd system of interrogation, with Patrice feeding him spoonfuls of the Lagniappe drug and handfuls of information while coaxing him to talk about U.N.C.L.E. He’d spit the stuff out as soon as she looked away—under pillows or into the sheets—the bedding was sufficiently mussed that it didn’t seem to matter. Meanwhile he’d let her think he was about to succumb.
Their evening had gone something like this:
“Tell me about U.N.C.L.E., honey. Do it for me.”
“How would that help you, Patrice?”
“For us both, then. Tell me everything you know. Then they won’t want you any more, and I can keep you.” Her voice had lacked conviction, but Illya’d had no trace of a doubt.
“Why ask now, Patrice? Why not before tonight?”
“I only found the ID in your wallet this morning, and I didn’t tell anyone else until tonight.” Patrice had laughed at the joke. “You should’ve heard Tommy cuss. He’d probably have cut me and you both to pieces on the spot, if not for that Victor Marton running everyone ragged.”
Victor Marton? The Thrush agent from France?
“If everyone’s busy, we have a chance to escape.”
She’d laughed at that, too. “Don’t be silly. If everyone’s busy, I have a chance to show off. I’ve got it all figured. Tell me your U.N.C.L.E. secrets, and they’ll owe me a favor, and then I’ll ask for you.” She’d kissed him playfully on the nose. “You will tell me, won’t you, darling? Because I’m simply not tired of you yet.”
“I am sorry to disappoint you, Patrice, but I’m a junior Soviet agent who got kicked out of Europe. The one secret in my possession is that Harry Beldon takes cream in his coffee, which I only know because they used to send me to fetch it.”
“That’s cute, honey.” And she’d dosed him again. “I love it when you lie to me. But I’m determined to get to the truth. And after all,” she had twined herself around him like a snake, “we’ve got the whole night.”
And so it went.
Eventually he’d felt the drug creeping up on him, so he had deflected Patrice’s attention, asking for and receiving a lecture on taxidermy.
“Men and gators,” she’d said at last, climbing on top of him. “It’s just a question of finding the right mount.”
He only hoped he wouldn’t develop a compulsion to stuff lizards.
Illya sighed, exhausted, dizzy, yet somehow keyed up. He could not understand Patrice. Was she foolish? Venal? Evil? Deeply stupid? Whatever the answer, time was up. There was no chance she would help him escape. He was going to have to find some way around her.
At least she had opened his ankle cuffs. That left only the wrist cuffs and shackle to go. He reached up and grabbed the bars his hands were locked to. They were more lightly welded than the frame of the bed and a little bit loose. Probably someone had lain here before him and failed to get free. He grabbed one bar in each hand and started twisting.
Thursday, November 23
“I’m sorry to wake you, Napoleon.”
It was Kate.
“Oops, sorry.” He released her arm and put his gun away. He must have fallen asleep at the kitchen table. Any other woman would have slapped him after having a gun shoved in her face, but Kate’s expression stayed mild. She was dressed in a red and gold caftan, clearly not long out of bed herself.
Napoleon checked his watch, 8:00 am. It had been after 2:00 am when he’d finished with the police and staggered home to Kate’s. He’d probably be locked up now, despite some belated intervention from headquarters on his behalf, if his two plainclothes cops hadn’t finally shown up and vouched for him. They’d also checked on Linda’s condition—serious but improving—and they’d helped arrange a transfer of the Four Stooges into U.N.C.L.E. custody.
He was glad he hadn’t skimped on their breakfast.
He’d returned to find Holly had delivered his message and then pulled on her eternal gloves and left, claiming to be more use at home. Kate had been sorry, but Napoleon didn’t hold it against her. Stopping Holly was like subduing a force of nature. Still, he would have been happier if she’d gone into U.N.C.L.E. custody until all this was over.
After talking to Kate he’d checked in with Research in New York. They were looking for a warehouse with connections to the Doucets, “Birds,” or “Oiseaux.” So far, nothing had come up, but a lot of the local records were on paper and could only be accessed during business hours. Which meant Friday. Which was not good. Not good at all.
Napoleon yawned and brought his attention to Kate.
“This just came.” She offered him coffee with one hand and a thin manila envelope marked “Solo” with the other. First things first. He took the coffee, nodded his thanks, and drained the cup in one go.
The envelope was too small for a bomb, but he moved away a few steps, just in case. It held two photographs. One, a grainy through-the-window shot, showed Illya alive and well and in bed with Patrice. They looked like they were having a pretty good time. The other was the front of a building: Oiseaux de Marais Imports. Someone had written in an address on Saint Peters.
“That’s on the river,” Kate said over his shoulder. “Fifteen minutes from here.”
There was a note on the back of one picture: “Keeping it downstairs. –D.”
Dave Kaminski, in the right place at the right time. Napoleon stamped two promissory notes paid in full.
Oiseaux de Marais Imports was a small, two-story warehouse set in a row of buildings along the levee that held back the Mississippi River. Napoleon counted five cars in the parking lot and six security cameras along the roof. Thanks to the holiday, the rest of the neighborhood was deserted. He let himself into an empty building next door and went upstairs to take a look.
A few minutes later he used a grapple line to swing across the six-foot space between buildings, pulled up hand-over-hand, and clipped himself to the grillwork outside an empty second-story room. It wasn’t the one in Kaminski’s photo, but it was hidden from the cameras and the parking lot, and that made it as good a place to start as any.
Unfortunately, he was in full view of the street. If someone came along, he’d have to pretend to be a window washer.
Napoleon used a pocket torch to cut the lock on the grillwork, swung the bars open, and pushed up the sash. The whole operation took less than three minutes. He twisted in over the sill and straightened—against the business end of an armed Thrush rifle.
“Um, excuse me for dropping in like this.” Napoleon smiled at the baby-faced guard. “You don’t have an extra bucket and squeegee lying around, do you? I forgot mine in the truck.”
Patrice had a lovely voice, but she was singing the same old tune.
“Illya, honey.” He wished she’d just call him Nick. “I really, really need to know about U.N.C.L.E.”
“I’m sorry, Patrice. I have nothing to say.”
“Then make up something quick, baby.” For the first time her expression turned sharp. “Because time’s up. Any minute now, Tommy’s going to come through that door, and you are not going to like what he does.”
This was hardly surprising, but it made things a little more urgent.
“Yes. I’ve seen his collection of photographs.”
“In the office? You did?” So, she knew.
“And by now, another dozen law enforcement agencies have seen them as well. It is the three of you who are out of time, Patrice. Whatever happens to me, this operation will be closed by tomorrow.”
“That’s a lie.”
Illya made an effort to be charming. “Help me now and I will protect you.” He smiled at her, mustering the heat he could barely remember. “Unlock the handcuffs, Patrice. We can go out the window together.”
She considered it, wavering. “I don’t have a key to the window.”
“It’s already unlocked.” Damn the cuffs. He needed to touch her, to coax her. “Let me help you, Patrice. We can stay together. I’ll protect you from Walter and Tom.”
Her face froze when he mentioned their names. She was shaking her head no, cutting him off.
“You never could, baby, not from them.” She stroked his cheek lightly. “I’m sorry, Nick. I hadn’t meant for it to turn out like this.”
“That’s very consoling.” Men’s voices sounded outside in the hall. The Thrush guard, probably talking to Tom.
“I really thought Tommy’d leave you alone. He promised he’d just torture your partner.”
He what? Illya felt his own muscles freeze. His mouth went dry. “Partner?” He could barely choke out the word. Were they both here? Both he and Napoleon? He’d been so sure his partner was free.
“But now Tommy wants you.” Patrice sighed and pulled back her hand. “And he gets what he wants. You were so pretty. No one’s ever pretty after Tommy gets done.” Her face was growing gradually blank. As if Illya were dust on a chalkboard, erased.
“My partner.” But he’d never worked with a partner.
Napoleon, then. Had he been lying here, using Patrice, letting her use him, while Napoleon was turned into one of Tom Doucet’s photographs? Why had he assumed Solo was safe? The man was an agent just like anyone else. He could be captured and tortured and killed. If you pricked him, he’d bleed. And who would be backing him up?
Not the associate who’d stormed out. The practical Soviet with a long string of dead agents behind him.
The agents who hadn’t been fast enough, smart enough, careful enough to survive working with Illya Kuryakin.
Glen Parigi. Illya stretched up past his handcuffs.
Gerhard Kreutz. He wrapped the iron bars in his fists. Patrice read his expression and jumped back. But slowly—like a film gradually wound in reverse. Behind her, the door started to swing open.
Jacques Michaud. And his teammates who hadn’t been willing to tell Illya their names. He pulled on the metal. The bed had seemed solid before, but now it was nothing.
Paul Matthews, damn him. The right bar popped free and rolled out of his grasp. Illya needed those bars. He twisted left, taking a two-handed grip.
The left bar came loose in his hands.
“Hold it!” In the doorway, Tom Doucet was lifting a gun. But there was no turning back.
Illya threw his bar, slamming it into Tom Doucet’s chest. Doucet staggered back and went down.
Illya dove for the bar on the floor and swung it hard at the dented spot on his shackle. Once. Twice. Three times. The metal started to twist.
Walter Doucet pushed in through the door, flanked by two fully-armed guards.
“Stop!” Walter cocked a pistol and Illya looked into his face. It might be better to be die now, was almost certainly better to die now. And Walter might hesitate to kill him. He hit the cuff again and the ankle chain snapped.
“That’s far enough!” Walter stepped up and put his gun against Patrice’s head. “In five seconds I will blow my wife away and then shoot you in both kneecaps. Put down the bar.”
Patrice at least believed him. The blank look melted into one of pure terror. Illya tossed the bar to the floor with a clang, slid his hand under the mattress, and palmed his lock pick.
Walter took the handcuff keys from Patrice, who retreated, white-faced, to the shelter of her workbench. He re-cuffed Illya, hand and foot, to the frame of the bed.
“Take Tommy home,” he ordered. The guards left with a staggering Doucet between them.
Walter stood over the bed and crossed his arms, looking down at Illya in silence. Illya stared into Walter’s hard eyes. He decided the man would, indeed, have shot his wife.
“You’ll have to forgive me a moment of awkwardness, Mr. Kuryakin. This sort of thing is really my brother’s line of work, and I’m on a tight schedule. Why don’t you make things easy and just provide the usual list of agents and codes up front?” He looked at his watch. “That would be more efficient for everyone, don’t you agree?”
“Sorry, but no.” Illya frowned. “I thought Tom was your cousin.”
“Well, we had to put something legal on the papers. We’re a cozy family, isn’t that so, Patrice?” Walter glanced at his wife, who was sitting and watching them warily.
Keep him talking. “This is a…very impressive satrapy you’ve got.” Not that he’d seen much. Maybe someone would give him a tour?
“We make do.” Walter smiled. “Though I have to apologize for neglecting my duties as host. We’re very busy this week. It’s been hard to entertain all our guests.”
“I hate to trouble you. Perhaps I could come back at a more convenient time?”
“Oh, no, this is no trouble.” Walter sat on the edge of the bed. “This is pleasure.” A riding crop slid smoothly into his hand. He lifted it up to the light, examining the tip.
These violent delights have violent ends.
“Do you like the races, Mr. Kuryakin?” Walter ran his hand over the crop. “I was just trying on my dinner jacket for the party tonight.”
“Very flattering.” Illya felt cold. “Will you be clearing tables or working at the betting counter?”
Walter swung the riding crop. Illya hissed.
Walter smiled. “Now that was funny.” He leaned close, touching the crop to Illya’s chin. “I can see why my wife was attracted to you, Illya. Did you enjoy her very much?”
“Her conversation is a bit narrow.”
Walter swung the crop again. Illya hissed again. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the lock pick still hidden in his fist. This had the makings of a long, professional beating—but such things could be borne. The ankle manacle was gone. And if Walter was really pressed for time, he might stop while there was still chance of escape. And they might still be holding Napoleon, somewhere. He couldn’t give up.
Illya looked up when the expected blow failed to come. Walter had removed his jacket and exchanged the crop for a small gleaming knife. His expression was smug.
Patrice whimpered in her chair. Walter ignored her.
“You see, I don’t really need another U.N.C.L.E. agent to send up North. That makes you expendable.”
Illya swallowed. Not so long, perhaps, and not so professional. He resisted the urge to jerk at the bed frame.
Walter touched the knife to the hollow of Illya’s throat, teasing out a tiny drop of blood. “I believe I’ll make sure you never cuckold anyone again.”
Illya’s world collapsed to three inches of steel. He watched the knife lift away from his throat, glitter in the light from the window and then start its descent. He’d been frightened before in his life, many times, but this sensation was new—beyond courage or fear. His mouth opened. He was ready to talk. To say anything, admit anything, but nothing came out.
It didn’t matter. He’d seen their files. He knew information never bought the Doucets. He could not save Napoleon, and he could not save himself.
There was simply nothing to be done. Illya began to withdraw from the scene.
If you don’t like it, Jules Cutter’s voice growled from out of the past, go somewhere else.
Kiev, perhaps. He hadn’t been home in a very long time.
Someone started to scream.
“Illya, wake up!”
It was a long way back. Someone was slapping his face.
“He did that himself. He isn’t drugged, I swear!”
He was sitting up, covered in blood. Part of a man’s body lay sprawled on his lap. Not my body. Illya shook his head. Not my blood.
The cuffs fell away from his feet. “C’mon, tovarish, snap out of it.”
“Napoleon?” Illya’s vision cleared. He looked down. Walter and Walter’s blood, not Illya and Illya’s blood. Patrice was still huddled at her workbench.
Survive and escape. He felt a sweet rush of joy.
Napoleon let out a breath, the worried look fading. “I see you took your Survival School training seriously.”
“Of course.” Illya fought with his grin, lost, and settled for not kissing his American pal.
He climbed out of the bed, wincing at the room’s brightness. “I’m fine.” He answered a look. “Walter was just warming up.” Napoleon was dressed in his usual light suit and looked remarkably tidy. “I don’t suppose you brought a spare set of clothes?”
Napoleon eyed the blood soaked bed. “Hmm. I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on your host.” He pulled Walter out of his trousers while Illya wiped himself with a corner of the sheet, scraping off blood and brains as well as he could.
Illya took a moment to scowl. “Next time, would you please rescue me a little more neatly?”
“Sure,” Napoleon agreed. “If you don’t mind waiting a few extra minutes while I set up my shot.”
Illya considered that briefly. “Forget I asked.”
Napoleon flashed a quick grin. He glanced out the door. “You’d better hurry. I was lucky on the way in, but there’s no telling how many Thrush are around.”
Illya stepped into spattered black pants. They were excessively large. He cinched Walter’s belt.
“The building’s almost empty,” Patrice volunteered, edging warily past Napoleon and into the lavatory. “Walter sent his men to the race track to get things ready for tonight’s party.”
“Race track again.” Napoleon eyed Patrice thoughtfully. “Everyone seems to be going to Opening Day.”
Illya shrugged into Walter’s dinner jacket and rolled up the sleeves. There. He couldn’t possibly look more foolish.
“This town defies comprehension,” he grumbled. “Not only do its citizens spend their lives in a permanent alcoholic haze, they squander a good opportunity to stay home and eat by going to the race track and betting on horses.”
“They eat there, too.” Patrice came out of the bathroom, makeup repaired, reaching for Illya.
He ignored her. “Hot dogs and Coca Cola.”
“Oh no, honey, you couldn’t be more wrong. Opening Day buffet is a hundred-year old tradition. All the restaurants in town provide dishes, and people gossip for months about whose food is best. It’s the kick-off of the holiday party season, and there’s a whole lot of catering money at stake.”
Patrice took Napoleon’s arm and looked coyly in Illya’s direction. Now he had to ignore Napoleon’s penetrating gaze. He cuffed his pants, more than equal to the task.
“So,” Napoleon said slowly. “The restaurants do the cooking, and the bigwigs turn out for the buffet?”
“Mm hmm,” Patrice agreed. “It’s very exclusive. Walter had to pull some pretty hard strings to get our whole crew in to replace the regular security.” She frowned at what was left of Walter. “I guess I need an escort.”
Napoleon looked like he’d swallowed a bug.
Illya walked over to the pair of them. “Close your mouth,” he advised his partner. “It’s more dignified.” He extracted Patrice and let her pull him into an embrace.
“Darling, this is wonderful. Now if you kill Tom, we can be together forever.”
“Tell me.” Illya lifted her head from his shoulder. “Are Walter’s men handling all the security? Won’t there be any police?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Maybe some FBI men in charge of de Gaulle. Anyhow, a lot of Walter’s men are the police.”
Thrush and FBI. Wonderful. Illya steered Patrice toward the bed. She looked at the mess in confusion.
Illya cuffed her to the frame.
“Nick! Honey? Baby? You can’t leave me like this!”
Illya bent over and kissed her goodbye. “You should have convinced me,” he said calmly, “to like you.”
“You bastard!” Patrice swung her free hand in his direction. Illya caught it easily and cuffed it next to its mate. He turned his attention to Walter, pocketing the gun, a set of keys, the knife, and a Turf Club invitation in the name of Mr. & Mrs. Walter Doucet.
“You son of a bitch!”
He passed the invitation to Napoleon. “You get to be Mrs. Doucet.”
Napoleon had an odd expression on his face. As a matter of fact…his demeanor was completely insufferable. Illya crossed his arms.
“Oh, nothing.” Solo had never been so innocent. His gaze took in Illya’s bare chest and splattered pants. “But we’re not dating until you shower and change.”
If Napoleon was going to mock him, he could ignore that, as well.
“How do you manage to look so fresh, by the way.” Illya felt a swell of annoyance. “Did you bribe Tom Doucet to torture you neatly?”
Illya faced him. Something didn’t make sense. “How long did Thrush hold you?”
“Not more than a minute or two.” Napoleon shrugged. “They jumped me on the way in, but I jumped back.”
“A minute—” Illya stopped. He looked from Napoleon to Patrice.
“Illya, are you sure you’re all right?”
Illya shook off the question, thinking. What had Patrice said? He promised he’d just torture your partner.
“Napoleon,” he said slowly. “They’ve got Paul.”
Napoleon thought about that. “I see.” He looked consideringly at Patrice. “Do you want to wait outside?” This to Illya. He was holding up well, but Napoleon didn’t want to push it.
“No thank you,” Illya said. “I’ll break her arms myself.”
Napoleon looked closely. He’d seen that ugly expression on Illya’s face once before…almost…. This time it wasn’t quite genuine.
“Oh,” Napoleon purred. “I don’t think it will come to that.” He stepped close to the bed. “Will it, Patrice? Tell us what happened to Paul.”
“She already told me. They’ve been torturing him. Isn’t that so, Patrice? Only I thought she meant you.”
Ah. Napoleon felt his own expression go hard.
“You boys wouldn’t hurt a lady?” Patrice squeaked.
Illya moved closer, too, arms still crossed over his blood-smeared chest. “Try me.”
She stared at him, eyes wide, like a fox in a trap. “Downstairs in the basement where they keep prisoners. They’ve been holding him for Mr. Marton.” She turned, pleading, toward Napoleon. “We didn’t know there were three of you. We didn’t know Nick was U.N.C.L.E. until yesterday, honest. He’s just been here as my guest.”
Illya snorted. Napoleon glanced his way and raised a questioning brow.
“That could be the truth,” Illya conceded. “In any event, she started asking about U.N.C.L.E. sometime yesterday.”
“OK.” Napoleon considered their options. “We’ll have to clear out the building.” He tapped his chin, looking at Illya. For someone who’d spent a couple of days chained to a bed, the Russian seemed amazingly spry. “You feeling up to a little mayhem?”
“More than up to it.”
Napoleon nodded. He took out his P38 and changed magazines. “These are sleep darts,” he told Patrice. “They won’t hurt you.”
“Allow me.” Illya held out his hand.
Was he serious? Apparently so. “Shoot her twice. It’s best if she sleeps until morning.”
He handed over the gun with only the slightest misgiving. Illya checked it and fired two quick shots. Patrice’s eyes glazed. She sagged onto the bed, head tipped in Illya’s direction
“I hope you realize,” she sighed, “our affair is quite definitely over.”
In addition to Patrice’s studio, the top floor held four small apartments—all deserted, aside from the guard Napoleon had overpowered. They stopped just long enough to grab a set of clean Thrush overalls for Illya.
There were three men on the ground floor. Illya acted the part of diversion. He dashed half-way down the wrought-iron staircase, leapt the railing and landed on one guard, and then sprinted around past the stairs, dodging the other two. Napoleon picked off his pursuers.
Illya met him at the bottom of the stairs, plucking a dart from the loose fabric of his sleeve. He handed it to Napoleon.
“Must have been the crosswind from all that running.”
They dragged the guards into the office.
“Stairs?” Illya asked.
Napoleon shook his head. “Files.” He got a stubborn-Russian look in reply, but ten extra minutes weren’t going to matter to Paul. “We’ve got to do this right.”
Illya frowned and started looking through drawers. “Why start now?” he muttered.
The files were unproductive, but they had better luck with a strongbox set into the desk. It yielded Illya’s and Paul’s wallets and two Walther P38s complete with shoulder holsters.
“Well, well,” Napoleon said. “I guess we’re on the right track.” He loaded fresh darts into his gun and tossed a magazine to Illya.
Illya threw it back. “No darts,” he said. “They’re inaccurate, and they lack authority.” He checked his gun and fished a couple of magazines out of the box.
Napoleon raised an eyebrow. “No one knows what you’ve got loaded.”
“They find out when I shoot them.”
Napoleon let it drop. It was time to get Paul.
There was a heavy cellar door next to the office. Walter’s keys took care of the lock, and Napoleon led the way down. No wrought iron here—the brightly lit stairwell had a shiny industrial quality. It ended in a blind hallway. Apart from the hush of the air conditioning, the place was entirely silent.
Illya tapped Napoleon’s shoulder and pointed up. A discreetly place camera was staring their way. Napoleon shrugged. He took the last step, crouching low, to look out past the stairwell.
Above them, an alarm started to shriek. Napoleon threw himself back and joined Illya, gun ready, waiting to see what would come next. Nothing did. He crouched again and moved forward, risking a quick glance into the hall. Right—guard station and lab—empty. Left—three-doored hallway—empty. He stood up and walked out of the stairwell, feeling decidedly foolish.
Illya moved past him to the guard station and shut off the alarm.
Illya followed Napoleon’s gaze toward the lab. Business first, of course. The room contained a small-scale chemical factory, with beakers and Bunsen burners on the shelves next to a stack of lab notebooks. There were empty boxes lined up along the wall with Chicago shipping labels. Aside from that, the lab had been stripped clean.
“We’re too late.” He held up one of the notebooks, flipping the pages. It was blank.
Napoleon joined him in making a search of the cupboards. There was nothing to find. Thrush had moved its base of operations.
“Swell.” Napoleon summed things up with his usual flair. “OK. Let’s find Paul.”
Illya nodded and took the lead, feeling his stomach tighten into a knot. Now that it was time, he wasn’t eager to move down the hall. He said he’d just torture your partner. Illya had seen too many photographs of Tom Doucet’s work. He wasn’t sure he could face the real thing. He set his resolve and moved forward.
Walter’s keys opened the first door, revealing what was clearly a cell. Empty.
Second cell, also empty.
The third cell had a blood-soaked body curled up on the cot.
“Paul—” Illya stepped forward.
A Thrush guard grabbed the front of Illya’s overalls and swung him hard against the wall. He felt the air explode out of his lungs. The room flashed and he folded, launching himself forward against a pair of gray-uniformed legs; the Thrush went down, kneeing Illya in the gut. They landed together, Illya on top, the guard grunting heavily. Illya rolled away, gasping for breath.
Why wasn’t Napoleon shooting his blasted darts? But no. He was shouting something. Something like—
“Cut it out, you two!” The air around him went gray.
And then white.
And there was Paul Matthews, hovering over him, grinning like an Australian baboon.
“Strike me pink! If it isn’t th’ little Russian Casanova I’ve been hearing so much about these last couple’a days.” He had two black eyes and looked terrible, but there he was, towering like Colossus while Illya squirmed on the floor.
“The way my Thrush mates were talking, I kinda figured they’d a minced you up for bird seed by now.”
Illya tried to catch enough breath to swear as the Australian hauled him up to his feet. He couldn’t quite manage. He doubled over, clenching his teeth, waiting for his lungs to inflate.
Paul gripped Illya’s shoulders, bending down with an idiotic grin.
“Sorry about that. Should’a known you were too shrimpy for Thrush.”
Illya stared upside down at the body he’d taken for Paul. “I suppose that’s your guard,” he gasped.
He forced himself up and shook off Paul’s hands. “The door—” He looked over and saw the spot he’d been ambushed from. Beyond the door, Napoleon stood watching, his expression rigidly blank. Illya groaned, inwardly. There was simply no justice. He eyed Paul and then himself, each convincingly dressed in Thrush overalls. He couldn’t even blame the man. Much.
Then again, people sometimes suffered when they were not fully to blame.
Behind his bruises, Paul radiated good will like a dog bounding in out of the mud. He pulled Illya into a bear hug and lifted him up off the floor. Illya’s sore ribs screamed. The urge to kick Paul in the shin was growing to irresistible proportions.
“Comrade Kuryakin,” the Australian laughed, setting him down hard and ruffling his hair. “You’re th’ prettiest damn communist my eyes ever beheld.”
Illya drew a long ragged breath. He couldn’t punch the face of a man with two black eyes. It would have to be the stomach. His fists clenched and started to draw toward his chest. He heard Napoleon clear his throat and glanced toward the doorway.
Illya paused a moment, looking at the door—a security door that latched on the outside. He looked from the guard on the cot, to Paul, dressed in the guard’s undersized clothes, and back to the door. The urge to gut Paul like a dead fish began to subside. Illya’s mouth curved itself into a small smile.
Paul had knocked out the guard and locked himself back in his cell.
Perhaps there was some justice, after all.
The agents made another pass through the lab before admitting the Lagniappe drug was not to be found. There were recent blood stains on the linoleum floor, but—given the Doucets—that could mean anything from the wholesale slaughter of their staff to an unusually rowdy office party.
Napoleon locked the door to the warehouse and put Walter’s keys in his pocket, feeling frustrated. Where was the drug stockpile? Paul’s guard had boasted there were sixty pounds of the stuff. They couldn’t be using it all to make dessert for the race track buffet. He rubbed his chin, watching as Illya did a security check on their car. The Lagniappe stockpile would have to be guarded, and most of the satrapy had gone to the track. Had they moved the drug there for safekeeping?
Illya climbed into the car and turned the ignition. The engine caught and ran smoothly. Napoleon let out a breath.
“You’re improving, mate,” Paul said, easing into the rear seat and lighting a cigarette with a sigh. “Maybe you’ll grow up t’ be a big spy yet.” Illya ignored him.
Napoleon slid in behind the wheel, pushing Illya firmly out of the way. “Take a break.”
Illya shrugged, sliding over. “I’m fine, actually.” His hands looked much better. “My two-days’ rest appears to have done me some good.”
Paul snorted at that, but Napoleon nodded, relieved. He wasn’t so sure about tackling Tom Doucet and his minions alone.
“OK.” He eased the sedan onto the empty street. “We’ll drop Paul at the hospital, report in, and then wrap things up at the track.”
Paul blew out a long stream of smoke, prompting Illya to roll down his window. “Buckley’s chance a’ that, mate. I’m all right. I made sure t’ spill my guts early on, so they wouldn’t hit me too hard.”
Napoleon pulled over to the curb and turned to face the rear seat.
“I want the truth for once, Paul. The whole story. Now. Or you’re out.”
Paul’s purple face split with a grin. He’d lost a couple of teeth. “Not that much to tell.” He took another drag on the cigarette. Napoleon could have used one himself. “I trailed Walter up to Chicago, bit over a week ago, where he was meeting some bigwigs from Thrush.”
“French?” Napoleon put the car back in gear. “Victor Marton?”
Paul shook his head in the rearview mirror. “Nah. These were locals. Anyhow they had a yacht party, and I sorta took a bullet and went into the lake. Must’a been a dart, cause next thing I know I’m back here, with old Tommy goose-stepping around, saying how lucky I am Denver needs an U.N.C.L.E. agent who’s still got his skin on. Been in that cell ever since.”
“It looks like they kept you amused.”
“Couple’a backroom waltzes, but I barely saw the Doucets. My guard and I got pretty chummy during the long cold nights, which is how I came t’ hear, number one, about th’ boss lady’s blond boyfriend, number two, how they twigged he’s from U.N.C.L.E., and three,” he chain-lit a fresh cigarette, “how Tommy had our boy scheduled f’r emergency surgery without all the fuss of an actual emergency.”
Paul concentrated on his cigarette for a couple of puffs. Napoleon waited.
“So I figured I oughtta do something about it, but as you saw, plans went a tad screwy, and that’s that. Here I am, watered, fed, and ready to trot.” He looked at his face in the mirror. “Course, if this is a fancy party, I may hav’ta fight off all the ladies askin’ for my beauty secrets….”
“We’ll pass you off as a stable boy,” Napoleon promised, “or maybe a horse.”
Paul snorted again—it would have to be horse.
“…but I’m willing to whale into a whole room full of sheilas if that’s what it takes t’ nail Tom and Walter Doucet.”
“Walter is dead,” Illya volunteered. “Napoleon shot him—” he glanced sideways “—as an act of due process.”
Napoleon felt Paul’s smirk without looking. He mulled over the story and then glanced at the rear seat.
“They didn’t try the Lagniappe drug on you?”
Paul’s expression seemed perfectly open. “Nope. I guess that was part of th’ orders.” He leaned forward. “But I hear Patrice used it to produce some novel effects.”
Illya swung left, putting his head close to Paul’s. “Tell me,” he said evenly. “Am I going to have to endure a great many ribald remarks?”
“Very well.” Illya faced forward, crossing his arms. “Please let me know when you are done, because I have a story about Washington that Napoleon might like to hear.”
Paul choked on his cigarette. “Washington?” He rolled down his window and threw out the butt.
“Yes. And a pair of giant South American centipedes—”
“Washington’s a lovely city.” Napoleon smiled. “Didn’t you have an assignment there recently, Paul?”
“In the Japanese Ambassador’s garden,” Illya continued. Paul was still coughing. “Eating frogs, during a reception—”
“Pretty dull place, Washington.” Paul cut him off. “And, come t’ think of it—” He settled back. “Probably th’ less said about assignments the better, eh mate? Security issues, and all.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Napoleon said thoughtfully. “There’s something to be said for the occasional professional anecdote. Keeps us human.” He raised an eyebrow at Illya. “Do centipedes really eat frogs?”
“Apparently, they make quite a mess.” Illya paused. “But on consideration, I agree with Paul.” He smiled slightly. “The less said, the better.”
“Mmm. I suppose so.” Napoleon shrugged. He was pleased, really, to see Illya and Paul come to terms. It would have been worth missing a story, even if he hadn’t already heard the whole thing.
Beside him, Illya sagged back with a sigh.
Napoleon frowned. “You don’t have to do this tonight, Illya, if you’re not feeling up to it.”
“I’ll be fine after a nap,” Illya said evenly. “It’s just the excitement wearing off.” He closed his eyes. “In any event, our invitations is for two, Mrs. Doucet.”
That got a third snort from Paul. “Watch out, mate. He shoots people f’r saying stuff like that.”
“If he can hit them,” Illya muttered.
Napoleon made a right onto Decatur and headed toward Kate’s. Life was back to normal. But, he had to wonder, is that a good thing?
Kate’s was closed for Thanksgiving. She handed Napoleon a bourbon and Illya a stack of sandwiches before leading the grotesquely grinning Paul upstairs to her apartment. For physical therapy, no doubt. Napoleon frowned and shook off the thought. He never bothered with jealousy; there were too many delightful ladies waiting ’round the bend…perhaps not quite the equal of the lovely Kate, however.
Sing hey nonny, nonny. He saluted them with his glass.
“To Paul and Kate,” he answered Illya’s look.
“One of life’s mysteries.”
Napoleon retrieved the radio and made his report. He had to argue with Hutch, but he managed to keep Illya and Paul on the job. Sure, they might both have been brainwashed, but without them he had small hope of success. The best thing would just be to close down the Opening Day buffet, but apparently that was beyond U.N.C.L.E.’s power. Three highly trained agents, Mr. Solo, are expected to hold their own against a whole table of cakes.
Napoleon wondered briefly what he would have done if Hutch had been cuffed to that bed. Then he laughed and stretched out for a nap. The Turf Club opened at 7:00.
When Napoleon came down, he found Illya, scrubbed and dressed in his familiar black, eating at the kitchen table with Holly. Or rather, Illya was eating at the table, while Holly perched on top of it. She was wearing another black and white Paris look-alike—polka dots this time—reclining on the inevitable long white glove. A sandwich lay untouched on her plate while she took tiny sips from Napoleon’s abandoned glass of bourbon. There were two suit boxes on the chair at her feet.
“You see,” she was saying, “I heard you escaped, so I brought you something to wear for Opening Day.” She leaned over and touched Illya’s bruised wrist.
“Poor darling,” she sighed. “Are you terribly wounded?”
Illya tugged down the sleeve of his turtleneck. “I try to bear it.” He picked up Holly by the waist, planted her on the opposite chair, and returned to his sandwiches. “And we spies are used to this sort of thing, you know.”
“Well, well.” Napoleon cleared his throat. “I see we have company.”
“Hello, Mr. Solo.” Holly offered her hand. “I’m glad to see you’re unharmed. You wear size thirty-nine, do you not?”
“Thank you.” Napoleon squeezed her glove. “Yes. You have a good eye.”
“Oh, I can’t take the credit.” She waved airily. “I have a tailor friend who helps me design my clothes.” She smiled and tipped her head. “He insists I practice sizing men up.”
“Very commendable.” Napoleon reached for the bourbon. “But here’s one habit I insist you not practice.”
Holly stared up in surprise. “Why, Mr. Solo! I hardly drink at all! Never more than two bourbons.” She looked at him earnestly, then hopped up, took the glass, and carried it off to the sink.
“Very well, I shall adhere to your words like the Bible. No more booze.” She smiled broadly, brushing her hands before floating back to the table. “You gentlemen need to change clothes if we’re going to make it to the Fair Grounds in time for 7:30 post.”
“Of course, you must take me along. No one is going to fall for that phony invitation.” She gestured toward the tattered envelope on the table, causing Napoleon a brief pang of guilt. It was splattered with her uncle’s blood. “But Commissioner Alton is an old friend of mine, and I know all the guards. I can get you right in.” Holly paused a moment, regarding him gravely. “You do have to get in, Mr. Solo, don’t you? It’s the only way to stop the demonstration.”
He was starting to feel outmaneuvered. “Which demonstration?” Though he already knew.
“The one for Victor Marton. The demonstration where they brainwash the guests into contributing a million dollars to Thrush.”
Napoleon nodded. He’d figured something like that. Some stunt that could be pulled off in a legitimate setting. It would be tricky to stop, though, unless they wrecked the buffet.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Paul made his entrance into the kitchen, washed, brushed, and dressed in a sober blue suit. Someone had put makeup on his face, hiding most of the damage. The remaining puffiness gave him the look of a habitual drunk. But no problem there, Napoleon thought. He’ll blend with the locals. He wasn’t moving too fast, but didn’t look like he was going to keel over, either. Napoleon confirmed his earlier impression: not seriously hurt.
“If I’d a known we had a famous actress in our midst, I’d a got dressed faster.” Paul leaned stiffly down over the table. “May I have your autograph, Miss?”
“Paul!” Holly squealed, launching herself into the air. He caught her, and she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. Paul twirled Holly in a circle and then held her for a moment as she clung to him, shaking. “There now.” He patted her head. “It’s all right. I’m all right.”
Holly didn’t let go. “Really truly?”
“Honest injun. Takes more’n a couple’a rounds of amateur boxing to knock an Aussie outta th’ ring.” He set Holly down in her chair and held his arms out for general approval. “How do I look?”
“Hideous.” Illya smiled shallowly. “The restoration is remarkable.”
Paul bent over and draped an arm across Illya’s shoulders. “So much wit, in such a short package.” He helped himself to one of Illya’s sandwiches, took a beer out of the fridge, and went around to the empty chair, somehow managing to give an impression of tipping back and propping his feet on the table without actually doing it.
“Ta, mates.” He held up the bottle. “I owe ya both a beer.”
Napoleon opened one of Holly’s boxes to reveal a black tux. He lifted the jacket—peak collared and single breasted, in a style that had been popular around 1900. It was probably just right for a Southern turf club. At the Aqueduct, he’d be taken for a waiter.
“Now, that’s what I call sharp.” Paul’s voice was a little too cheerful.
“It’s very nice,” Napoleon said smoothly, resigning himself to his fate. “Thank you, Holly. Mr. Kuryakin, however, will be wearing his own clothes.” He turned to Illya. “Waverly wants you to join the French security team. He thinks someone on the inside is planning to take a shot at de Gaulle.”
“Me?” Illya stared in dismay. “The FBI think I am planning to take a shot at de Gaulle.” He frowned. “Think?” he asked. “Thinks?”
“They shouldn’t think at all; it steams up their sunglasses.” Napoleon passed Illya the notes he’d taken. “Wear black. And load darts.”
Illya made a face, read the notes, borrowed Napoleon’s lighter, and burned the paper to ash.
“Don’t worry,” Napoleon promised. “The FBI’s opinion of you is bound to improve once you save President de Gaulle and deliver the real assassin.”
Illya put his chin in his hands. “I’m not convinced attending Opening Day is our best course of action,” he said glumly. “The Lagniappe demonstration is a single event, whereas the formula and stockpile of drugs constitute a long-term threat. It seems inelegant to focus on one problem while ignoring the others.”
“I can’t speak to th’ formula,” Paul put down his beer and shook a cigarette out of its pack. “But the stuff’s got to be somewhere around Victor Marton. My guard complained they had t’ pack it all up twice—first time to ship t’ Chicago, and then a second time when Lord Muck decided t’ take it along on his plane.”
“Ah.” Illya brightened. “Can we get someone to hold Marton’s plane at the airport?”
“Not unless you have an army up your sleeve,” Holly offered. “I’ve been there. It’s extremely well guarded.”
“No army.” Napoleon didn’t have to check his sleeves. “And we’re under strict orders to steer clear of Marton unless we have his fingerprints on a lead pipe with Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, and Professor Plum as sworn witnesses.”
“Is a corpse optional?” Illya asked dryly.
Napoleon ignored him. “And there’s still the question of locating the formula.”
“The formula for making the drug?” Holly asked. “I’m afraid I don’t know much chemistry. Is it just a list of lettery sorts of things?” She held her palm out flat. “Could it fit in a small notebook about the size a man’s hand?”
“The chemical equations could, certainly.” Illya frowned, considering the question. “But one also requires the protocol for producing the drug. That might be anything from ‘combine and shake vigorously’ to very long and complex indeed.”
Napoleon pictured the lab. “Their facilities weren’t very sophisticated.” Illya shrugged his agreement. “Have you seen a small notebook, Holly?”
“Monsieur Marton is carrying one in his dinner jacket, on the right, buttoned into an inside front pocket.” Holly smiled. “I saw him take it out and put it away again thirty minutes ago.”
Illya Kuryakin planted a black beret on his head, slid sunglasses over his eyes, straightened his collar, and checked the results in a mirror. Black suit, black silk shirt, narrow black tie—the definitive look in espionage wear, if the four identically dressed members of the French security team could be believed.
According to Waverly, one of them could not.
He glanced around the pale yellow changing room, normally reserved for Turf Club weddings, and reviewed his introduction to the team. Soblet, the chief, had been surprisingly friendly. He was forty and thin, with prematurely gray hair and nicotine stains on the fingers of his left hand. He seemed to think Illya was there to smooth things over with the local authorities—an idea so ludicrous it robbed Illya of speech. Soblet had taken Illya’s warning about drugged food to heart, however, and arranged for de Gaulle and his staff to discretely avoid the buffet.
The other three agents—Hébert, Lemelin, Vachon—had been cordial enough. Like all Frenchmen, they took Illya for a native solely on the strength of his French accent, a national failing that gave rise to endless mirth in the Soviet Union—a failing that meant one of them might easily be a foreign spy.
Not that it would take a foreign spy to assassinate de Gaulle. He was infinitely more likely to be murdered by a Frenchman.
Waverly’s source was positive the assassin was one of the security team, not one of de Gaulle’s half-dozen personal bodyguards. All Illya had to do was figure out which one, preferably before the President was killed, and positively before the INS—last seen skulking at the base of the clubhouse stairs—talked themselves past the Turf Club guards and into the ballroom, thus ending Illya’s party for good.
The Turf Club ballroom occupied an open-air pavilion atop the double-tiered Fair Grounds grandstands. From the staircase entrance, Napoleon saw an empty VIP dais, a buffet and dining area, a dance floor, and the inevitable cash bar, placed conveniently in the center of the room.
On his left, facing the track, was a section of white padded seating for anyone who might care to watch the races. The far wall held an unobtrusive betting window, a service entrance, a guarded door claiming to lead to “Private Boxes,” and a low bandstand. There were propane heaters spaced strategically around the room to fight off the evening chill. Napoleon took in the crowd of several hundred well-dressed people who were already circulating through the room.
“I thought you said it was hard to get in,” he murmured.
“That’s how New Orleans works, Mr. Solo.” Holly arched her eyebrows. “Nobody gets in, but everyone’s here.” Napoleon suspected he’d been had.
They were stopped at the entrance, however, by a pair of burly security guards. Napoleon didn’t quite like the scent of their aftershave: Eau de Thrush. For that matter—he did a second quick scan of the room—he could count six or eight additional tough guys without even straining his eyes. Lovely party.
“Hello, Teddy, darling,” Holly cooed to the larger thug. “Allow me to introduce my new bodyguard, Mr. Napoleon Solo.” She gave Napoleon an innocent look by which he understood he was to make nice with the bad guys. “Has my father arrived?”
“Not yet, Miss Holly.”
Napoleon shook hands. A sour look suggested Teddy didn’t quite like Napoleon’s scent, either. He stuck an enameled pin shaped like the grandstand onto each of their collars and waved them unenthusiastically through. Napoleon eyed the pin warily. A lot could be concealed in a small object like that—poison needles, microphones…. It appeared to grant them clubhouse access. Nevertheless, he made a point of accidentally bumping into Teddy-darling and switching pins.
A bell rang out from the track.
“Fourteen minutes to post.” Holly reached up and took Napoleon’s arm. “As I’m on the wagon, Mr. Solo, may I trouble you for lemonade? I believe some friends of ours are working the bar.”
The Beauprés set out two drinks side-by-side, one lemonade, one tonic. Holly hopped up to sit on the counter and took an elegant sip, smiling and waving discreetly to people she knew who passed by.
“No bourbon tonight, cher—”
“—though you might need a stinger.”
“Comment les cannes sont?”
Napoleon’s sugar cane was doing pretty well. He took the drink. “Mieux que ça et les prêtres seraient jaloux.” – Any better and the priests would be jealous. “It’s nice to see a friendly face.”
“Enjoy it now, cher—”
“—not many friendly faces tonight—”
“—but maybe one pretty face.” They chuckled together and moved down the bar.
Illya appeared at his elbow. “I need a favor.”
Napoleon took in the noire et noire outfit. “A bit late in the day for sunglasses, isn’t it?”
“I have sensitive eyes.” He turned and lounged against the bar. “President de Gaulle is making an appearance for the first race, and I would like you to create a diversion.”
“Um, what sort of diversion?”
“Anything that keeps security busy for five minutes while I search the locker room. The President is coming out for the first race only. After that his party will move into their private box with the governor and mayor.” Illya indicated the door near the bandstand. “I won’t have another chance until he emerges for the 10:00 speeches.”
Napoleon frowned. Diverting the entire French staff didn’t sound like the healthiest job in the world. Maybe he could just ask them to cover their eyes for five minutes?
Illya started to go.
“Oh yes,” he paused, raising the sunglasses. “If you can forestall any assassination attempts while I’m busy, that would be a plus.” The sunglasses came down and he faded into the crowd.
“That beb pianist, now he’s a beb cop.”
“I think he always be a beb cop.”
“He plays piano like a cop.”
Napoleon turned on them. “You two seem to know an awful lot.”
“For true, cher.”
“We know beaucoup—”
“—like could be Miss Muffet—”
“—should go off to her tuffet—”
“—before Monsieur le Cocodrie get here. He be snapping people up tonight for sure.”
“Pardon the interruption.” Holly leaned over from her perch on the bar. “But if you’re speaking of the Rat formerly known as my father, I believe he’s already here.”
Napoleon jerked his gaze back to the room. Tom Doucet was striding purposefully toward him, flanked by two more Thrush goons. That brought Napoleon’s thug count to thirteen. Doucet’s face was twisted into a congenial mask that did not quite cover the murder in his eyes. The silencer peeking out from his folded overcoat didn’t look friendly either. He drew to a halt three paces away from the bar.
“Step away from my girl, Solo, and we’ll four of us go out the door together.”
Napoleon held his ground. “I don’t think you’ll shoot me here, Mr. Doucet.” He nodded toward the empty VIP dais. “You wouldn’t want to break up the party.”
Doucet shook his head, smiling. “I got no need to kill you right off. You U.N.C.L.E. boys aren’t the only ones who can load darts.” He stepped closer, his expression crumbling to pure evil. “Though you let that law-and-order halo slide off long enough to shoot my brother in the back of his head.”
He must have awakened Patrice. Or perhaps they’d missed a security camera. Either way, this was not the start of a beautiful friendship. Where were Illya and Paul when Napoleon could use a little unbridled aggression? Ah yes. Illya was playing duck-duck-goose with the French. And Paul? Napoleon slid his eyes to the bandstand. Empty. You never quite knew what Paul was doing.
Doucet gestured with the gun under his coat. “I’ll give you two choices, Solo. Walk out and die hard, or get carried out and die harder. Now me, I prefer option two.”
“All right.” Napoleon’s stomach tightened but he kept his face calm. Walking was better. Paul or Illya might decide to help him out. Or maybe Doucet would stumble and shoot himself in the foot. He put down his drink.
“Why, Daddy, there you are!” Holly piped from behind Napoleon’s shoulder. “We’ve been looking all over.”
Doucet pulled the nice-guy mask over his face. “It’s time to go home, missy.”
“You’re not leaving already? Surely you’ll have a drink with Napoleon and me first.”
“But you have to drink our health first, Daddy.” She passed him a glass from the Beauprés and rested her hand and cheek on Napoleon’s shoulder. “We’re engaged.”
Napoleon’s life flashed before his eyes.
Charles de Gaulle, flanked by six bodyguards, four security agents, an FBI team, the governor, the mayor, and half a dozen reporters made his entrance through the private door. The crowd surged in his direction amidst a flurry of popping camera bulbs.
Outside a bugle sounded Call to Post.
Holly was still talking. “Of course, we had originally planned to wait, but I think it’s just as well to have children right away, don’t you agree? Even if the seamstress does have to fudge the waistline of my wedding gown a bit?”
Tom Doucet stared at his daughter open mouthed. He looked at Napoleon, who was having trouble getting his own mouth closed. Doucet’s eyebrows flattened into a line over his nose; his cheeks, chin, and neck blushed bright purple. Napoleon swore there was steam coming out of his ears. One of the Beauprés pulled Holly behind the bar.
“Ils sont partis!”—They’re off.
Napoleon knew how they felt. He edged out into the open, but there was nowhere to run.
“You filthy Yankee son of a bitch!” Doucet threw his drink, gun, and coat at the bar and wound his fist. The crowd in the grandstands below started yelling as Beau Soleil claimed the lead by a length.
Napoleon ducked. A couple of party guests scurried for cover.
The Thrush goon behind him took it on the chin and staggered into his partner. Napoleon slammed his elbow back and stomped an instep, sending both of the Thrush down in a tangle.
He blocked a punch from Doucet and sidestepped a kick from the ground, risking a glance over his shoulder to see if anyone was waving a gun at de Gaulle.
A circle of spectators was forming around them. Bayou Oyster came up on the outside.
Tom Doucet hit him hard in the stomach, then across the back of the shoulders.
Ouch. Napoleon staggered under Doucet’s guard and aimed a karate chop at his solar plexus. The man howled and jumped back—that must be where Illya had clipped him with the bar. Napoleon smiled, regained his balance, and snap-kicked the same spot for good measure. Doucet tumbled back against a cocktail table, sending drinks and hors d’oeuvres into the air.
He had Doucet on the floor, but the goons were up on their feet. The first one grabbed a bar stool and swung it up over his head. The second one was clawing at his holster. Someone else grabbed Napoleon and pinned him from behind, while a fourth man buried his fist in Napoleon’s gut. A woman screamed. He felt his knees buckle and watched as the stool started to arc toward him. Napoleon winced. This was going to hurt.
In a circle around them, four black clad French agents aimed four big black French guns.
The crowd in the grandstand went wild. Napoleon straightened slowly, raising his hands, and his opponents followed suit with bad grace. Their audience began to break up.
Beau Soleil won it by a nose.
“Can I talk to you a minute, Charlie? About something terribly important?”
Patrice Doucet slid into the limousine, locking the door firmly behind her. Poor dumb Charlie was sitting alone in the armored section in back, guarding the car. There were tears on his face. He brushed at them, turning his head.
“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered. She scooted over and patted the flat place he’d been dropped on his head as a baby. He was a good boy, Charlie. Very careful about following orders.
“I just thought you might be feeling blue, after what happened to Walt, so I brought you some cake. And I thought we’d sit here together a minute. That OK?”
Patrice watched him devour the cake and thought about Tommy. He’d been friendly as pie all night, while he needed her, but she’d seen the look in his eyes. She had to move fast to protect herself, and there was only one way to control Tom.
Charlie broke into a sweat right on schedule.
“There now, you feel better don’t you?”
“I want you to feel better, Charlie.” Now she had his attention. “And I want a few other things, too.” Patrice unfolded a scrap of paper with notes. She had to get this just right. “Do you know someplace safe, Charlie? Someplace nobody could ever do you any harm?”
He thought for a minute. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. I want you to think of that place. Now, don’t tell me where!” Then Tommy has no way to find out. “Are you thinking of that safe place, Charlie? Now I want you to think about taking Holly there.” She waited for that to sink in. “Holly’s in danger, Charlie. That Victor Marton wants to take her away. You heard him talking to Walter about taking her, didn’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He was sniffling again. Charlie’d been following Holly around like a big dog for years, which made this even more perfect.
“We can’t let Mr. Marton take Holly. We have to protect her. You want to protect Holly, don’t you, Charlie? You want to take her to your special place and don’t tell anyone—not even me or Tommy—where that place is. That way Mr. Marton can’t find her. Only,” Patrice moved closer and made her voice low, “only she might not want to go. You might have to force her, Charlie. You might have to grab her.”
“I couldn’t hurt Miss Holly.”
“Oh, not hurt her much.” Patrice smiled. “You want to force Holly to go to your safe place to protect her. You want to keep her there, so you can come back here and no one will know. You’ll have to lock her up to protect her until Mr. Marton goes away. Then come back and don’t tell a soul—not even Tommy—because he’d have to tell Mr. Marton.
“Can you lock her up in your safe place, Charlie? Do you know how to keep Holly from getting away, so she’ll be safe?”
“Tell me, Charlie. Tell me what you are going to do.”
“Make Miss Holly go with me to my safe place to protect her.”
“That’s right, Charlie. And then you’ll come back and not tell anyone. Only me, and only later, in a few days. No matter who asks you, don’t tell anyone. You don’t want to tell Tommy because he’d have to tell Victor Marton.”
“Take Holly, and lock her up, and don’t tell.”
“That’s good, Charlie.” Patrice hugged him. “And you might want to hurt her, a little. She might like it.” Patrice smiled. The little bitch had been panting all week to get Nick into her bed. Let’s see how she likes Charlie. “I’m pretty sure Holly’s in love with you. She’s only been waiting for the right age to tell you. But you know, she’s almost thirteen. She’s a woman now, Charlie, ready for someone to love. But not Victor Marton. He shouldn’t have her. She loves you, and you want her. She might be afraid to go with you, but really she loves you.”
Charlie put his head in his hands. Patrice frowned. She looked down at her paper and read through the list. One more time.
“Listen to me, Charlie. You love Holly. You want to protect her. You want to take her to your safe place and not tell anyone but me. You have to hurt her a little—because she wants you to—and then lock her up safe. You want to come back and pretend you know nothing about it. You have to do these things, Charlie. Walter wants you to. I want you to. And Tommy—we can’t trust Tommy now. He doesn’t care about us. He doesn’t care about Holly. Only you and I care about Holly now, and she’ll be our secret.”
Patrice was getting tired. It was hard keeping all of this straight. She crumpled her sheet of paper and opened the door. So much for the Princess.
“Now wait, Charlie. Wait here for Holly. I’ll send her to you.”
“We’re a family now, Charlie. Call me Patrice.”
For snappy dressers, the French were a remarkably untidy lot.
Illya did a quick search through three lockers, turning up an assortment of guns and gun cases, razors, ammunition, radios, batteries, condoms, cigarettes, skimpy underwear, chewing gum, and little alligators in glass balls that were stenciled “Greetings from Louisiana.” The alligators had white flakes that floated around like dandruff. Illya shook one, unenlightened, and then stuffed it back in its place. When it came to consumer goods, he had no hope of understanding either the Americans or the French.
The fourth locker belonged to Soblet, the security chief. Aside from an alligator ball, it contained several items of interest. An empty box with space inside for a five-inch stiletto, a much-handled, apparently blank sheet of paper tucked into the box lining, and a blue handkerchief holding a half-dozen peppermints. Illya brought out his bottle and tested the mints. They were drugged.
He put the mints and the paper away in his pocket, closed the locker, and headed out to the club.
“I hope you will forgive my fiancé, Monsieur Soblet,” Holly said in charming, if slightly inaccurate, French. “He has solemnly promised to stop drinking after our marriage.”
Napoleon took the bag of ice proffered by Gauche and pressed it between his aching shoulder blades. Tom Doucet had limped off to his private box with a parting look that made Napoleon weak at the knees, leaving Holly to work her own brand of damage control on the French security chief. Napoleon scanned the room, moved his probable Thrush count up to eighteen, and caught a nod from Illya, just emerging through the private door.
He brought his attention to Holly, who had Soblet in orbit like a moth around a candle—or maybe a bat around a belfry. Napoleon was getting tired of his own part in the steeplechase.
“I ope zer weel be no more drinking tonight?” Soblet gave Napoleon a no-nonsense French look. “You weel control yourself, monsieur?”
Napoleon looked at Holly. “I’ll give it a shot.” Holly’s eyes got wider and Napoleon felt the warm glow that comes from intimidating a sixty-five pound child.
“You two,” Soblet snapped his fingers and threw some French across the bar. “No more booze for this one tonight, understand?”
The matching glares from Gauche and Droite gave Tom Doucet a run for his money. Despite everything, Napoleon almost laughed. If that was how they responded to Illya, no wonder he kept away.
Soblet bowed over Holly’s glove and went off to guard the Fifth Republic. Outside, the fourteen-minute warning bell rang for the second race. Shortly thereafter, de Gaulle and his entourage headed off to their private box, and his crowd of hangers-on dispersed through the room.
Napoleon set Holly up on the bar. She started to speak, looked at him, and grew abruptly fascinated by her glass of lemonade.
“Now see here, young lady.” He took her chin and drew her gaze up to his. “No more games. I’m going to have Gauche and Droite call a cab to take you home.”
Holly faltered, but she didn’t back down. “I can’t go home, Mr. Solo. Not ever. My father killed my mother for less offence than I’ve given him.” She drew herself up about a sixteenth of an inch. “Tonight I shall bury my dead, and when that’s done, I’ll go away. I have money, and my mother’s sister in California is expecting me.”
Napoleon fought a rising sense of panic. It might be true she couldn’t go home, but he couldn’t let her wander off either. What if they didn’t manage to settle things here with Doucet? A little girl and her aunt would be sitting ducks, waiting for Thrush. Assuming she even got away. More likely, one of Doucet’s goons would just grab her and carry her home here and now.
The ache in Napoleon’s shoulders traveled up to his head.
“It’s too dangerous, honey. You simply can’t stay.” He combed his hair with his fingers, wishing for the thousandth time they had more local support. Could he put her in a cab for U.N.C.L.E. Houston? Or get his plainclothes cops to take her up to New York? Would he even be able to get her out past the Thrush guards?
A seltzer bottle clanked on the counter behind Holly.
“You leave Miss petit gâteau to us—” Droite said, picking Holly up and setting her down on a low stool behind the bar.
“—We’ll take her on into the kitchen.”
“We got friends watching the exits who can keep her inside; she be safe for tonight.”
Friends watching the exits? Napoleon rested his elbows on the bar and gazed deeply into four matching eyes. They were serious, he decided. They must know the staff, and they would look after Holly. Napoleon felt a weight fall away from his heart. There was something going on with these two, but just at this moment, he didn’t care what it was.
“Ladies,” he told the Beauprés, “I owe you both a night on the town.”
“We hold you to dat, cher—” they cackled.
“—Nous avons un bon coup de fourchette!”
Napoleon blew them a kiss. If he was alive tomorrow, he’d satisfy both of their appetites. For now, he had desserts to test.
Illya Kuryakin eyed the middle of the room uneasily. There was a steady flow of customers up to and away from both sides of the Turf Club bar, yet somehow the Beauprés managed to serve drinks, collect money, and suck up to Napoleon, all at the same time. He frowned, shaking his head and wondering why so many of the English colloquialisms he’d picked up while working for U.N.C.L.E. couldn’t be spoken out loud.
Ah well. He was simply going to have to ignore the Beauprés and move in. He picked a spot to Napoleon’s left and walked resolutely over. Mercifully, the twins shifted away.
“Are you planning to do any spying tonight?” he asked. “Or have you started a career as a bar fly?” Napoleon didn’t seem to find this amusing, so Illya brushed an olive slice off his shoulder instead of winking and elbowing him in the ribs. “But I forget myself. I hear congratulations are in order.”
Napoleon still wasn’t laughing. Illya would have expected him to be more cheerful, now that he’d had some exercise. But all he said in answer was, “Don’t push your luck.”
“I never do.” Illya brought the mysterious white paper out of his jacket. “What do you think of this?”
Napoleon held it up to the light. “It looks blank.”
“That must be why you’re the boss.” Illya took it back. “It doesn’t smell blank, however.” He bit his lip, took off the sunglasses, and approached a Beaupré. “May I have a book of matches, please?”
She passed him one, flashing a row of pointed teeth. Illya stepped back wondering, not for the first time, what Napoleon saw in these harpies. He lit a match and moved it slowly under the paper. A list of annotated numbers began to appear: a Swiss bank, a flight to Mexico, a telephone number in Argentina.
“Hmm,” Napoleon mused over his shoulder. “How very incriminating.”
“Just so,” Illya agreed. “A bit too incriminating. I found it in an empty stiletto case, possibly belonging to Monsieur Soblet.” He held out the handkerchief with the mints. “I also found these. And yes, they are drugged.”
“Ah.” Napoleon was quiet for a moment, thinking it over. “This sort of puts things in a new light.”
“Yes, it does.” Illya crossed his arms. “Although there are arguably reasons other than assassination to drug the security staff.”
“The French security staff?” Napoleon shook his head. “I doubt it. It must be de Gaulle. The question is, was Soblet eating or using the candy?”
“My guess would be using it. If he had been brainwashed into killing de Gaulle—and I’m not sure that’s possible with Lagniappe—why the flight and bank account numbers?”
Napoleon made a face. “And if he’d brainwashed someone else into killing de Gaulle, still why the flight and bank account numbers. That paper smells like a plant.”
Illya considered Napoleon’s words. He must mean false evidence, which was perfectly true. “The clues do not fit together.”
“No.” Napoleon sighed, rubbing his head. “Still, you’ll have to keep a sharp eye on Soblet.” He tapped his lips with one finger. “Let’s try this another way,” he suggested. “You’ve talked to Soblet more than I have. Do you think he’s the stiletto type?”
“Judging personality is not my department. But since you ask, no. I don’t think he’s an assassin at all. He’s too nervous.”
Paul’s voice interrupted behind them. “Planning t’ kill your boss might make y’ nervous.”
“I can’t say,” Illya said evenly, turning around. “I don’t normally set my sights up that high.”
Paul flashed his grin and Illya stepped sideways out of head-patting range.
He had to give Matthews some credit. The man had appeared out of nowhere simply by walking over like an ordinary person. He seemed shorter, too, and narrower through the shoulders—almost nondescript. It was the first credible glimpse he’d had of Paul as a spy. Napoleon’s frown at being taken off guard was rather amusing.
“In any event,” Illya continued, “I don’t see this as a knife killing, assuming our man intends to escape afterward. The only exits are the staircase here and the elevator at the end of the hallway. They are bound to become chokepoints in an emergency.”
“There’s th’ railing,” Paul pointed out. “Now me, I’d pick him up, chuck him over th’ edge, jump off, and use ’im to break my fall. I’d have a good chance t’ get out through th’ grandstands before they could seal off th’ track and, failing that, I could blend in with th’ crowd.”
Napoleon wasn’t convinced. “Disregarding that the man’s at least six-foot four, I don’t think de Gaulle’s bodyguards are going to let anyone pick him up and carry him around.”
“No,” Illya confirmed, rather staggered by Paul’s line of reasoning. “Neither will they allow him near the railing, due to the risk of a shot from below. Still, the grandstands seem to be the only avenue of escape.”
Napoleon was nodding. “It looks that way to me, too. A quick shot and over the edge. That or a bomb.”
“Ah, I suppose you’re right.” Illya hadn’t been thinking in terms of mass murder. Apparently, neither had Paul, who whistled softly and contorted his face.
“I got a pretty good view from th’ bandstand of everything west’a the bar. If you keep your Parisian pals in my line of sight, I can watch for mysterious packages.”
Surprisingly, Napoleon agreed. He turned to Illya. “See if you can get Soblet to restrict his team to the area between the stage and the bar. If he’s not our man, he should be willing to take a few more precautions.”
It seemed that was the best they could do. Illya summed it up, glumly. “So we watch for anyone in a black beret and sunglasses who lounges by the railing or wanders about with a valise.”
The plan was dismayingly crude.
Which troubled Paul not in the least. “Sounds good t’ me. Meanwhile I’ve got an appointment t’ rosin up the old banjo with Singing Governor Jimmy Davis.”
Illya was pretty sure rosin and banjos did not go together, even in Australia. But Napoleon was nodding again.
“OK. Keep sharp, you two. Tom Doucet seems determined to drag us out of here, dead or alive. And I, for one, do not care to end the night in his little shop of horrors.”
Illya couldn’t agree more.
The kitchen was a pretty dull place, but Holly supposed it was better than being stuck under the bar. At least it was warm—not like that drafty old ballroom. And the food was amazing. A steady stream of it flowed up through the dumbwaiter where it was loaded onto catering carts and wheeled out to the buffet. Nearly three-dozen staff members were bustling about handling the dishes.
“Excuse me, miss.”
Holly ducked past a man carrying a plate of shrimp that were as large as her fist. “Is that for President de Gaulle? Will he be at the buffet?”
The man looked down his nose. “Government officials dine separately.”
“Oh, I see.” She smiled beautifully up at the waiter whose face softened a bit. Since it was just for the crowd, she might as well snitch. She wrapped a napkin around one of the shrimp and added a crab puff from the next tray in line. Then she hopped up on the end of a metal table and wished for champagne.
“Hello, Holly, darling.” Holly leapt to her feet. Patrice was there, leering behind her—wherever had she come from? She was dressed in a hideous gold-lame evening gown that made her look practically pregnant, and her hair was pulled up tight like a witch’s. Holly could smell whisky from four feet away.
“Hello, Patrice. What are you doing in the kitchen? Moonlighting?”
Patrice frowned. “I’m looking for you, Holly. We have something important to talk about.”
“I doubt that. I don’t speak ‘evil slut.’”
Patrice’s hand twitched while Holly watched warily, edging toward a tureen of hot gumbo. She was pretty sure Patrice would look better in soup than that dress. Patrice took a step toward her and then stopped, held out her hands, and astonishingly burst into tears. Holly stared at her, dumbly.
“God help me, Holly,” Patrice sobbed. “You’ve got to help me stop Tommy, or he’ll kill me. He’ll kill me later tonight.”
The evening wore on as people circulated among the betting window, the buffet, and the bar. Tom Doucet kept out of sight, presumably off in a private box, licking his wounds. An uneasy truce settled between U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush. Napoleon spotted four FBI agents mingling and keeping an eye on the crowd. They were joined, periodically, by Dave Kaminski who popped in, checked with the team, and popped back to the land of de Gaulle. The guests became gradually and steadily drunk.
Kate sang blues with her band and Napoleon did his best not to listen. Her voice carried, mellow and sweet, despite the impersonal setting. It was a voice that said taking a woman to bed should mean more than one night’s satisfaction. A voice that could make a man forget about saving the world. Mercifully, Kate sang only now and again between dance tunes. And when Governor Jimmy and Paul took the stage and launched into You are my Sunshine, it was obvious the world was in danger, indeed.
Napoleon tested each dessert twice, still untouched under glass on the buffet. The sweets were not drugged, yet he was certain that must be Doucet’s plan. He chain smoked and mingled and fretted. He’d missed something, clearly, but what?
The bus boys had a predictable rhythm. Load the shelf, push the button, turn away. Load the shelf, push the button, turn away. Holly was nearly invisible now—she’d been in here forever—so they were unlikely to notice. She stripped off her gloves and tucked them away in her handbag.
Load the shelf, push the button, turn—Holly whipped up her skirt and hopped into the dumbwaiter as it started to drop. She landed in a mess on the china, and ducked low. There was plenty of room.
The Lagniappe drugs for Monsieur Marton were being kept in the limousine. And Illya needed those drugs.
Patrice had confessed, claiming she wanted U.N.C.L.E. to help her escape—and Holly’d trust Patrice just as far as a snake—but from bits and pieces she’d heard, she knew it was true. Charlie was guarding the drugs. And Charlie was Holly’s oldest, dearest friend. She hated to trick him, but she’d have to. She was a spy now. She’d have to trick him and find a way to protect him later, even if it meant shooting her father herself.
It was a question of saving the world.
Holly felt the remains of someone’s boeuf bourguignon soaking into her tights. Somehow she’d imagined espionage would be more glamorous.
She’d tried taking the elevator first, of course, but a strange man in a business suit had turned her away. Apparently Mr. Solo had enlisted a baby sitter to keep Holly in line. She smiled. Mr. Solo was devilishly handsome, and quite sweet, but simply not on a par with his boss. Illya would never have expected a man at the door to keep Holly inside.
The dumbwaiter banged to a stop and Holly jumped through the window. She swept a low curtsey to the ladies washing dishes and dashed out the door.
Free. And there were the stairs to the private garage. And here was the limo.
Napoleon had just spotted Patrice when he felt a prick in the back of his neck. Damn.
“Why, Mr. Solo.” She appeared in front of him. “Have you had just a little-ol’ too much to drink?”
It didn’t knock him out, but he couldn’t quite stay up either. Some men began muscling him in the direction of the private door. Napoleon frowned in concentration and took a head count. Three men, plus Patrice. He looked into the blurry face that was cooing and hovering next to his own. The world spun, and he landed someplace soft.
A couch, he told himself. I am lying on a couch. He liked to keep track of details. Small things, like Patrice’s red fingernails wrapped around a glass. She was forcing bourbon down his throat. He spit some out and got punched by one of her pals, but Patrice only laughed and waved her playmates away.
She leaned over and kissed him, lapping at the taste of bourbon in his mouth, and he went along with the joke, certain it was better than whatever else lay in store. He should grab her and take her hostage, but his hands felt like lead. Numbness was creeping into his bones. Patrice moaned.
“Such a waste,” she sighed, stopping for air. “You would have been fun to take to the cabin.” She brushed at the lock on his forehead. “Did Nick tell you what we do to U.N.C.L.E. agents there? I know he’s seen Tommy’s pictures.” She licked his ear and moaned again. The woman was seriously oversexed. She leaned across him, breathing heavily, put her hand out and squeezed. “Would you like to play with me, in exchange for a few more weeks of life?”
Napoleon dug out his voice and tried for suggestive. “I like to play games.”
A regretful smile slid over her face. “You did me a favor, Mr. Solo. You killed my husband. So I’m going to do you a favor and save you from Tom.”
It was hard to feel grateful. Patrice stood abruptly.
“Throw him off the balcony.”
Napoleon launched himself after her, but it was no good. She stepped aside easily, dumping bourbon all over his neck. The next thing he knew he was face down over the railing, staring into the grandstands below. It was just fifteen feet—hardly a lethal drop—but Patrice seemed to have planned for that.
“Break his neck first, Jack.”
Illya might not have much people sense, but the next time he called someone a monster, Napoleon was going to listen. Too bad the opportunities for chit chat were running out fast.
“Should’a splattered your brains when I had the chance,” he muttered.
Napoleon heard movement behind him and jerked sideways. Jack howled as the edge of his hand hit the railing.
Patrice’s other goon spun Napoleon like Fred Astaire and bent him back over the rail. Somebody whistled. Napoleon kicked his dancing partner’s shins, lurched forward and head-butted the man in the stomach, taking them both to the floor. He saw a pair of black shoes land beside him, heard the cough of a silenced P38, spitting darts. Four Thrush. Four shots.
He ought to get up and give the shoes a hand, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember how.
Holly rapped on the glass, peering into the limousine window.
“Charlie?” she called, glancing around. There was no one nearby. “Charlie? I need to see something inside.”
Charlie opened the back door. He had a gun on his lap and tears on his face—he’d been crying over Walter, poor dear.
“Charlie, there’s something I need and it’s very important.”
He holstered his gun and stepped out of the limo.
Holly dove into the back. There was a catch underneath that opened a big secret compartment. She’d seen her family stash things there more than once. “Charlie, dear, listen, this is hard to explain, but we’ve got to find something—”
The door shut behind her. Holly looked up, astonished, and saw Charlie climbing into the front.
“Charlie? What are you doing?”
She heard the click of the door locks and the glass on the windows went dark. She’d never seen it do that! Holly yanked on the door. It was locked. What on earth was he doing?
Patrice had set some kind of trap.
“Charlie,” Holly pounded on the front window. “Charlie, stop! Please, let me out!”
“Don’t worry, Miss Holly.” The chauffeur’s speaker crackled to life. “We’re going to my safe place to protect you from Victor Marton.”
“Up! Up!” Somebody was pulling Napoleon to his feet, only they’d missed the fact he didn’t have any. He pitched forward.
“Give it another minute t’ work. Their stuff’s not quite th’ same as ours.”
“Get up, Napoleon!” His vision lit and he recognized the burning feeling of U.N.C.L.E.’s generic “wake-up” drug. The stuff you gave a guy who’d been shot with sleep darts, if you didn’t have any wild horses to drag him behind.
Or wild Russians. Illya’s grip was ruining his lapels. Napoleon pushed him away and staggered as far as the couch, then waited for his tunnel vision to clear.
His heart slowed to only three or four times its normal rate. “Thanks,” he gasped. “I think.”
Across the room, Paul was wrapping duct tape around one of Patrice’s goons. The lady herself had already gotten the sleeping mummy treatment. Illya dragged her through a side-door to a connecting private box.
Napoleon thought about getting up to help.
“I hope they realize this means war.” He took his handkerchief and mopped at the bourbon Patrice had dumped on him.
“Not much room for a shooting war.” Paul picked up the last body and literally tossed it across the room to Illya, who caught it in a sort of backwards stagger through the door. There was a suspicious thud in the connecting box. “As long as th’ Fifth Republic insists on standing in our line of fire.”
“Mmm. This might be a good time for de Gaulle to de camp.”
Illya limped back in, scowling. “I have already tried to persuade them to go. President de Gaulle insists on keeping to his schedule.” He checked his watch. “Speeches with the governor from 10:00 to 10:45, handshaking 10:46 to 10:55, depart for Moisant at 11:00.”
“Just be glad there aren’t any babies around t’ kiss,” Paul said cheerfully. “Or he’d never rack off.”
“Come.” Illya tugged Napoleon by the arm. “This box belongs to Thrush, but the next one over is a French security buffer.”
They went into the connecting box and Illya closed and locked the door. This one was identical to its neighbor—two short rows of padded seats in front, a couch, two chairs and a table in the back. There were seven sleeping bodies lined up on the floor.
Paul grinned, following Napoleon’s gaze. “Had’ta clear a few out of the hall on my way in.”
That put current odds at twelve-to-three. But the real question was, how aggressive would Thrush be in a room full of people? Napoleon remembered his funhouse gun battle and winced. Still, Doucet had a social position in New Orleans to consider. He should be eager to keep a low profile.
Paul peeked out the door to the private hallway. “Coast is clear,” he said. “I’d better get out t’ Kate. Governor Jimmy might have need of my talents.” He tossed the tape to Illya. “Try not t’ get shot without me.”
“For the sake of good manners, I will allow you to be shot first.”
“There ya go, mate.” Paul winked. “But no worries, I’ll save you a serving’a bullet holes.” The door shut firmly behind him.
Illya dropped the duct tape in a corner. “If you’ve finished your nap, we’d better go out as well. The President is about to emerge.” He raised a disapproving brow. “I may be too busy to save you next time, so be more careful, will you?”
“You’d better be careful yourself.” Napoleon shook off the last of his cobwebs. “You’re starting to sound like an American.”
Illya eyed the rumpled tuxedo. “As long as I do not dress like one—” He flattened his voice. “I figure I’m OK.”
Napoleon chuckled and tugged on his cuffs. Not his usual sartorial excellence, but it would just have to do. “Right. Let’s go.”
Illya stopped at the door, arms crossed, expression suddenly wary.
Illya paused, opened his mouth, paused again.
“I was sixteen,” he said finally. “With a group of university students receiving awards.”
Napoleon kept his face neutral.
“Stalin spoke to each of us privately in a room with two doors—one to the bus, the other to the execution yard.”
He tried to picture it. Surely not even Stalin would shoot a whole bus full of children.
Illya read his look and shrugged. “In the end we all went home that day, but no one ever forgot. The Boss had made his point.”
Napoleon let out his breath. “Thank you.” He nodded. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have asked.”
“You shouldn’t have asked.” Illya made a half-smile. “But I should have answered.” The blue eyes were suddenly earnest. “You do not need to trick me into liking you, Napoleon.”
Napoleon smiled back. “I appreciate that.”
“It’s futile, in any event.”
“Hmmm.” Napoleon put a hand on Illya’s shoulder and steered him into the hallway. Three against twelve just might not be so bad.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be up here, Charlie.”
Poor Charlie was very confused. They were upstairs in a bedroom at Marais Celeste. He had brought her—dragged her, practically—with tears on his face, glancing at her as if she were a kitten about be drowned. If Uncle Walter had looked at her like that, she’d have dropped dead on the spot. But not Charlie. He was just a big kitten himself.
He had stopped crying now and was sitting on the bed with his head in his hands. Holly walked over and put her arms on his shoulders.
“Dear Charlie.” She looked into his face. “Please tell me what’s wrong.” She brushed the soft brown hair away from his eyes. It was overgrown and she felt bad about that; she was supposed to remind him to cut it. “Please tell me why we’re here.”
“Miss Patrice said take you someplace safe and don’t tell.” So Patrice was behind this. Now Holly felt cold. Patrice had sent her to Charlie. What was that succubus up to? Had she done something to Charlie? Brainwashing, like they were planning to do at the party?
Charlie lifted his head and stared at her. He wasn’t crying, but his eyes were all funny and hard—the way a tom cat might stare at a bird. Holly took a step back.
“Charlie?” This was silly. She couldn’t be frightened of Charlie. They’d been friends all her life. It was wrong to let him think she was scared.
She stepped forward again and hugged him, putting her head next to his.
“Please tell me, Charlie. Tell me what Patrice said. We can figure this out.”
Charlie closed his hand on her arm and yanked her down to his lap. His other arm came around her like a steel band, squeezing her to him
“She said you want me to hurt you.” He started crying again, onto her shoulder.
“It’s all right.” He was crushing her, breaking her ribs. Holly tried not to squirm. It was hard to get air.
“I know you won’t hurt me,” she gasped. “You’re just sad about Walter, and a little mixed up. You do feel mixed up, don’t you, Charlie?” She felt drunk and there were flashes of light. “Loosen up, Charlie, and tell me what Patrice said.”
His arms relaxed, just a bit. Holly gasped in a breath.
“She said, take you someplace safe, and don’t tell, and to hurt you until Mr. Marton goes away.”
He squeezed her again, making her squeak. Then he twisted and shoved her back on the bed and lay down on top of her. She’d never thought about how heavy a grown man would be. How ever did grown women bear it? His mouth was on her face now—her forehead and eyes, and Holly was nobody’s fool. She knew what came next. Her hat crushed to pieces behind her.
Holly closed her eyes, admitting at last she was scared.
But that’s what it meant, being a spy. It meant you kept going even when you were wet, or cold, or frightened, and your tights smelled like somebody’s dinner. It meant doing things when they were almost too hard.
Her chest hurt and she wanted to cry, but instead she thought of Patrice. This was Patrice hurting her, really, not Charlie. Patrice, that miserable, vicious, promiscuous cow. Patrice was not going to win. Holly opened her mouth.
“You’ve hurt me already, Charlie. You’ve done a good job. You can stop.”
The Turf Club proper was filled with people nibbling dessert. Napoleon looked at the sticky plates and forks in consternation—the glass-covered pastries on the buffet were untouched.
“Would you like dessert?” A waitress pushed over a cart loaded with all manner of sweets. Napoleon accepted a big piece of pie, got his bottle, and watched with a sinking feeling as his drop changed from blue to bright red. They’d been suckered. The desserts on the table were a decoy. Thrush must have brought out the carts the minute Patrice hustled him off. And Paul and Illya had been too busy saving his neck to notice.
As if on cue the private door opened, and de Gaulle and his entourage stepped through. They were followed by an elegant, thin man who hung back while de Gaulle’s party took their seats on the dais. The thin man walked confidently to the microphone on the floor in front of the bandstand. Napoleon recognized his face from the photo and sighed. It was Victor Marton.
The weight went away. Holly opened her eyes. Her head was pounding, but she didn’t know if that was terror or just shortness of breath. Charlie was sitting on the edge of the bed watching her. Holly’s stomach twisted. She was sorry she’d eaten that shrimp. She took a few careful breaths, sitting up and putting the part of her that was still frightened firmly away.
“You see, Charlie?” She patted his hand. Hers were shaking. “The hurting part’s over. Now I just stay here till Mr. Marton goes away.” And when her father found her here she’d be a goner for sure. She leaned over and rested her head in his lap. Charlie patted her shoulder.
“Patrice said lock you up, Miss Holly.”
Holly closed her eyes. She was terribly tired. “That’s OK, Charlie. You’ve done a good job. I’ll stay here…only….” Holly thought for a minute and then sat up and smiled. “Only I think Mr. Marton’s already gone.”
“No, miss, I have to drive him.”
“Oh, I know that was the plan, but—but I heard him tell Daddy he was taking a cab—because he didn’t like to fly too late at night.” Oh Lord, that was awful. Couldn’t she lie better than that?
Even Charlie looked doubtful. He was watching her, face scrunched up hard like he was thinking.
“I know!” A better lie came to her. “I’ll call Patrice, Charlie. I’ll call her and ask.” Holly edged to the phone on the dresser. Charlie’s face was still scrunched. She dialed numbers at random.
“Patrice?” she said carefully. “Charlie brought me to a very safe place. And he hurt me. Is it OK to come back?” She held her breath. Charlie was watching. “It’s OK? Monsieur Marton went away?” She covered the phone. “It’s OK, Charlie. She says to come back now.”
Charlie’s face lit in a beautiful smile. Holly breathed out a sigh. It was over.
She was going to murder Patrice.
Then she had an idea.
Holly took out her handkerchief and walked over to wipe tears off of poor Charlie’s face.
“It’s all right now, Charlie. Everything’s over. You took good care of me. Thank you. But we’ve got to help Daddy. There’s something he wants downstairs in the storeroom, Charlie. I need you to help me again.”
Illya’s palms were itching. All four black-clad security agents were stationed next to de Gaulle near the dais; none was anywhere near the balcony seating. Yet there was only a short while left to make an attempt on the President’s life. Either Waverly was wrong about it being one of the security team, or they had inaccurately assessed how it would be done, or—he looked sharply at the black outfits and sunglasses worn by each team member—or one of them had switched clothes with a civilian. The assassin was no longer dressed all in black.
Illya swung his gaze to the railing—and onto the face of Emil Vachon. His hair was darker now and he was wearing a white shirt and dinner jacket similar to Napoleon’s. Vachon’s position was screened from de Gaulle’s team by one of the structural posts on the balcony. His eyes narrowed when he saw he’d caught Illya’s attention. Vachon shrugged, reached down to a seat, and lifted a long-barreled gun.
“May I have your attention, everyone?” Marton spoke in a warm, cultured voice. “In a moment it will be my pleasure to introduce our distinguished guest of honor to you all, but first—if everyone will look this way, please?” Around the room people slowly lowered their plates and turned toward Marton. The air was cool, but the crowd was beginning to sweat.
Napoleon looked around urgently. Everyone had turned toward the stage, making it hard to tell if they were all under the effect of the drug. Had the entire room eaten dessert?
“Thank you.” Victor Marton straightened his cuffs. “I’d like to say a few important words about a little-known philanthropic organization called Thrush.”
“But this is an outrage!” President de Gaulle strode forward on the dais, throwing the ranks into confusion. “What is that criminal doing here? I had him stripped of rank personally two years ago!”
Marton threw an icy glance at de Gaulle.
“Do sit quietly, Charles. This will all be done shortly.”
Napoleon started to turn—and then stopped as a gun barrel pressed into his belly. It was joined by one in the back.
“We’ll be happy to oblige your death wish, Mr. Solo,” a gruff voice said behind him. “If you’ll just wait fifteen minutes.”
On Napoleon’s left, near the balcony, Illya burst into action.
Illya made it to the top row of seats, drawing his P38, cursing himself for forcing Emil Vachon’s hand. He fired, hitting Vachon in the chest. Vachon ignored him, calmly racking the slide of his gun. Chyort. This was the result of loading darts. The man must have protective clothing. Illya threw himself forward as Vachon’s weapon steadied on de Gaulle. His tackle caught the Frenchman in mid shot and they staggered against the balcony railing. The two of them hung for a moment, grappling for the gun.
Then Vachon deliberately threw his weight back, taking them over the railing together.
Napoleon watched, helpless, while Illya and the assassin got off one round apiece and went over the rail. He swung back to the dais, where President de Gaulle was collapsing under his security team. Around the room, four FBI agents put their hands to their holsters, took one step, and sagged into the arms of Thrush henchmen. Napoleon held his ground without moving. Bullets or darts made no difference. He couldn’t afford to get shot.
“Everyone get down on the floor!” Kaminski had his gun out on the dais, but he was in a losing position. Did he know how many Thrush were in the room? Napoleon caught his eye and flicked his gaze from de Gaulle to the private door. A few people ducked under tables.
Kaminski nodded. “Get him out of here.” He helped de Gaulle’s security team pick up the President, mercifully unharmed, surround him and march for the exit.
It was easy to tell, now, who was drugged with Lagniappe. Most VIPs were jumping ship with de Gaulle. About two dozen guests made a break for the stairs. But all the rest stood, oblivious, watching Marton.
It was barely a four-meter drop to the grandstands. Illya decided to be grateful for this. And for falling onto the relatively wide aisle, rather than hitting the bench seating. And even for the beer-soaked cushion someone had tossed aside that exploded into chicken feathers around him.
He was a trifle less grateful for landing on the bottom.
Vachon recovered first. He jumped to his feet and pointed the gun at Illya.
Get up! Illya’s brain commanded. Kick! Roll! Illya’s body did not appear to be listening.
Vachon lifted the gun, emptied it harmlessly into the air, and dropped it. Ten steps took him to the edge of the second tier grandstand. He slipped a grapple onto the railing, nodded farewell, and disappeared over the side.
“Attention, please, attention, I have an announcement, everyone!” Victor Marton ignored the commotion as de Gaulle disappeared through the door. Both de Gaulle and Marton looked extremely annoyed.
“My message this evening,” he patted his forehead with a silk handkerchief, “is that Thrush is a great instrument for good and deserves your full personal and financial support.” The room had grown unnaturally quiet. People stared, transfixed by Marton’s elegant voice.
“I want you all to support Thru—” Marton’s microphone died. A tall, puffy-faced technician hurried over to help.
“—world peace.” Kate’s lovely contralto completed the sentence. “Which is why we have decided to forgo the speech and ask everyone to join together in a very special song.”
Around the room, twelve Thrush guns came up and pointed at Kate. There was a series of sharp fast shots from below in the grandstands. Napoleon had to do something. He twisted, jabbing his elbow into the Thrush agent behind him. The one in front grabbed his lapels and slammed him down to the floor.
Illya closed his eyes as his body began to report in. Unfortunately, it was all still there. He dragged himself onto his knees, blinking, trying to clear his double-vision.
A crowd had formed around him. People pulled him up, brushed feathers off of his suit, pressed drinks into his hands—the universal cure. He pushed the cups away and walked stiffly to the railings—there seemed to be one extra—but there was no sign of Vachon.
“Did you see that? He stopped that assassin.” People were shaking his hand and slapping his back. A young woman pulled him into a embrace. He waved more drinks away.
“You’re a hero, boy, you pushed that killer right off the roof.”
“I saw the whole thing! His brains smashed all over!” People started looking for pieces of Emil Vachon’s brain. Illya watched them, feeling a bit muddled. Where did they think the rest of Vachon’s body had gone? He felt a strong urge to sit down.
“Mr. Kuryakin?” He was still seeing double. This time two sets of hands tugged at his shoulders. A couple of badges passed in front of his face.
“INS,” Mark Denby announced. “You are under arrest.”
Illya looked at the railings and tried to work out which of Vachon’s grapples he could use to escape. It was hopeless. He sighed and turned back. “Don’t you four ever give up?”
“No,” Denby told him, taking handcuffs out of his coat. “Not ever. Immigration and Naturalization is not a pawn of intelligence.”
“Hey, buddy,” a tall gentleman said. “You can’t arrest him. He just saved the mayor!”
Illya thought of his gun and rejected it. Shooting law enforcement officials was keenly discouraged, and after all he only had darts. He reached into his suit.
“Wouldn’t you like to see my identification first?”
Denby snorted. “We know who you are. But if it makes you feel better, yeah. Pass it over.”
He accepted the wallet. Illya took a deep breath of cool air. Horn-rims leaned over Denby’s shoulder.
The gas caught them both full in the face.
Illya reached out and caught Horn-rims by the jacket before he fell to the deck. Denby wasn’t so lucky. Still, Illya reasoned, he could afford to fall harder—he was fatter. Illya ran the cuffs around the base of the railing and locked Denby and Horn-rims together. Then he patted Denby down, took his keys and tossed them over the railing. Someone started to clap. A couple of well-wishers poured their drinks on the INS for good measure.
“Baby, that was so cool!” The friendly brunette came over and hugged him again. Illya retrieved his false wallet and sat down on the stairs with his chin in his hands. “Are you married?” The brunette sat down beside him and passed him a beer.
Illya watched the party atmosphere settle onto the crowd, despite the two men on the ground. He took a sip of beer, realizing there were other men sprawled in various places throughout the grandstands. Unconsciousness appeared to be rather common. He was starting to think he could do with a little himself. He passed the cup to the brunette and considered a nap with the nagging feeling he’d forgotten something important.
Illya stood up, rubbed his head, and followed the chain of events backward. From the brunette to the beer—the beer to the handcuffs—the handcuffs to Denby…to the railing…Vachon…feathers…balcony…to Napoleon’s face, staring at Victor Marton.
“Bozhe moi!” They still had to stop the Thrush plot.
Napoleon stared at the floor, biting his lip in frustration. There was a knee pushing into his kidney and a gun on the back of his neck. Illya was hurt, if not dead. Paul was the only card left, and if the Aussie didn’t make a move soon, they were all finished, starting with Kate.
“Stop! Hold your fire!” Marton’s voice at last.
Napoleon hoped those instructions included his own party of thugs. He pushed himself up, shrugging his jacket more-or-less into place. Paul had one arm hooked around Marton, whose chin was a bit higher and eyes a bit larger than they should have been. Around the room, Thrush men scowled understanding. The last of the dessert skippers was just diving out through the stairway, unhindered by Thrush. Everyone else listened intently to Victor Marton.
“All right, people.” Marton lifted his voice. “We’re declaring a truce. Put your weapons on the floor and go out the back way. Peacefully, now, you all know the drill.”
The Thrush henchmen looked at each other and began to comply. That was one good thing about totalitarian organizations, Napoleon had to admit. Employees knew how to take orders. To his astonishment, a large number of party-goers also began emptying weapons out of pockets and purses. Napoleon stared. Nearly half the guests must have been armed.
Paul gave Victor Marton a punitive jerk.
“Not everyone, please,” Marton amended. “All original guests please keep still.”
The crowd turned back to stone as the Thrush agents filed out the door. Napoleon stepped over to watch them walk down the hall. There was a body in front of the elevator—with a start, Napoleon recognized one of his plainclothes detectives. He frowned, hoping the man was OK. So far Thrush had been pulling its punches, which was a blessing, although sleep darts were not so great in themselves. There were going to be some very cranky law enforcement officials to deal with when all this was over.
Illya got the grapple to catch on his second try. He climbed on a bench and jumped for the rope, wincing as his arms took his weight and glad neither Napoleon nor Paul could witness his miserable performance. It was only two meters. He’d go up centimeter by centimeter if he had to.
Below him, a couple of men caught his feet. Now what?
“Hang on, buddy,” they called, clutching him tightly. “We’ll get you up!”
“No, honestly!” Illya tried to protest.
“This isn’t necessary!”
He flew up past the railing, shot his arms out, got one elbow over and hung on. Below him, people cheered. A fusillade of disposable cups shot into the air, raining alcohol on all and sundry. He must have lost his beret in the fall, because there was beer dripping into his eyes.
“Thank you,” he gasped. He kicked up a foot and rolled over and onto the balcony floor.
On stage, Kate began to sing.
“Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
“Sing with me,” she called, and everyone joined in.
“Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be.”
With one eye, Napoleon saw Illya pull himself up to the railing and flop onto the floor. With the other, he kept watch over a proliferation of guns and a reduction in Thrush. All-in-all, the action had taken less than five minutes. The drug would be effective for at most ten minutes more, depending on when people had started eating. He heard sirens faintly over the crowd’s singing.
The last Thrush straggled past him and down to the elevator, as the singing ground to a halt.
“My turn to go, if you please.” Victor Marton gestured in the direction of the door with his handkerchief.
“Sorry, mate,” Paul told him. “I don’t believe your hide was part’a th’ deal.”
There was a sound of crashing glass.
“Then it’s time—” Tom Doucet’s voice rang out “—for a new deal!” He was standing on top of the bar, feet apart, eyes wide, brandishing an M1 Thompson submachine gun that he swept slowly over the oblivious crowd. So much for Doucet keeping a low profile.
“Put your guns down, gentlemen, and don’t dawdle. I got nothing to lose.”
Paul and Napoleon traded glances.
“I don’t think so.” Paul cocked his P38 with his thumb, sliding the gun to one side of Marton’s head while leaning close to his ear. His arm went around Marton’s chest. “Send Doucet out with the rest of ’em, mate, or this is the end of your ride.”
“Um, Paul—” The Thompson came to rest on Napoleon. “I think we’d better do as he says.” Napoleon threw his own gun to the floor. Holding Marton hostage was all well and good, but he found standing in the line of fire wonderfully convincing. And there were a lot of innocent people between Napoleon and Doucet.
Doucet drew the bolt on his gun. Napoleon considered a dive through the doorway. “Paul!”
Victor Marton sighed. “Oh, come now, gentlemen.” He pushed the Australian’s arm away with a look of distaste, plucked Paul’s gun out of his hand, flicked on the safety, and tossed it away. “I think we’ve had enough drama for one evening.”
Marton eyed Tom Doucet’s perch on the bar. “Thank you, Thomas,” he said primly, stepping away from Paul. He brushed himself with his handkerchief, then snapped it in Paul’s face, sending out a small puff of smoke. Paul went gray under his makeup and fell to his knees, choking.
Napoleon clenched his fists as Paul sank to the floor and lay still. He turned cold eyes toward the smirking Doucet. Illya had been wrong. Ad hoc execution was too good for this man.
Victor Marton tucked his handkerchief neatly away. Then he also turned toward Doucet.
“Please let us know when you are able to arrange a more suitable demonstration.” He stepped over Paul and walked to the private door. “On second thought, don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
He shut the door firmly behind him.
A low growl sounded from on top of the bar. Tom Doucet gestured toward the door with his gun. “You and I go out together.”
“I agree,” Napoleon said. “In fact, I insist.”
There was a flash of blond hair on the opposite side of the bar.
Napoleon looked coldly at Doucet. “Shall we go?”
The man sneered back. “I believe I will—”
Illya stood, brought his P38 up in a two-handed grip, and shot, point blank, at Doucet.
The dart went wide. Illya fired again and missed again.
What the hell? Napoleon dove for his gun.
Doucet whirled and opened fire in Illya’s direction—a hail of bullets that reduced the entire bar corner to matchsticks. Illya disappeared with a shout. Napoleon scrambled to his feet. The Beauprés were over there somewhere, and there were people on the other side of the bar. A red stain flooded across the floor.
Napoleon took aim as Doucet swung the machine gun his way. If they both started shooting, twenty or thirty innocent people would be caught in the crossfire. On the bandstand he saw Kate, gun in hand, but her worried look told him she wasn’t going to fire.
Doucet’s face proclaimed that he was.
Dave Kaminski appeared in the stairway across from Napoleon, leveling his pistol.
“Wait!” Napoleon yelled. He threw up his hands. “Stop—”
Like geniis, Gauche and Droite materialized behind the bar on either side of Doucet.
“Freeze!” They pressed matching revolvers to the backs of his thighs.
“N.O.P.D!” Droite shouted.
“—One move and we shoot off your butt!”
Napoleon found Illya, eyes closed, around the back of the bar.
“Hey, sleepy.” He patted his friend’s face. “Wake up. We need someone to jump off the roof a couple more times.”
Illya groaned and opened his eyes in slits. “You’ll have to push,” he said weakly. “I’ve developed a terror of heights.”
Napoleon checked Illya more closely. No blood and no obvious holes. He touched the red stain on the floor—Bloody Marys. Napoleon grinned and pulled the Russian up to his feet.
“It’s like riding a horse,” he said, dragging Illya across to the bandstand. “The only cure is to do it over and over.”
“Mm,” Illya gazed blearily at the room full of hypnotized people. “Did we win?”
“We won.” Napoleon eased him down and propped him against the side of the bandstand by Paul, who was slumped on Kate’s lap, breathing into a mask. “Should I call for an ambulance?”
Illya squinted, rubbing his head. “No, it’s better. What happened?” He frowned. “I think I shot the wrong Doucet.”
“We had some surprise backup.” Napoleon peered into his eyes. They were a little unfocused. “Remind me not to stand in your line of fire next time you fall off a balcony.”
He turned to Paul. “How about you?” The Aussie seemed more dead than alive.
Paul gave a feeble thumbs-up and pulled off his mask. “No worries, mate. Never better—” Kate pushed the mask back as Paul sagged against her.
Napoleon frowned, looking closer. The gray color was starting to give way to Paul’s leathery beige. Considering the place might be surrounded by Thrush, he’d rather keep both of them here. He’d check back in a minute and see how they were doing.
Meanwhile, an agent’s work was never done. He stood up and looked at the time. Exactly twelve minutes since Marton started to speak. The room was beginning to fill with policemen and confused conversation.
“I’m sorry, too.” Kate’s voice was troubled. “I wasn’t much help. I was afraid I’d miss my shot.”
Napoleon patted her arm. “You were fine. More than fine.” She wasn’t convinced. “It’s always like that in the field—indecision, mistakes. If you’re lucky, not too many regrets. You have to know your limits.” He looked pointedly at Paul and Illya on the floor.
“Worse than knowing them,” Illya sighed with closed eyes, “is admitting them to your boss. We’d better make a fast call to New York in the hopes they can stop Marton’s flight. He’s still got the drugs and the formula.”
Napoleon cringed at the thought. With the corner of his eye he saw Holly Doucet walk into the room and start toward them.
“You’re half wrong there, mate.” Even ashen, Paul still managed to smirk. He tossed a notebook Napoleon’s way. “I picked Marton’s pocket while Doucet had you pinned like a bunny.”
Napoleon paged through the notebook and whistled. “Well done.”
Illya scowled. “But that still leaves the drugs.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Holly Doucet put her hand on Napoleon’s elbow and squeezed. He looked down and felt a shock of alarm. She had a bruise on one cheek, the dress was a mess, and her hat and gloves were nowhere in sight.
“Holly?” He knelt down and touched her chin with his fingers. “Are you all right? What happened?”
Beside them Illya’s scowl deepened.
“Nothing much,” she said, trying to sound arch. “I convinced Charlie to replace Marton’s drugs with sugar, is all.” She looked from Napoleon to Illya. Then she launched herself into Illya’s arms. He held her, and she wept on his shoulder.
“It’s all right, sweetheart.” He patted her back. “It’s all right.”
“Marton drove off to the airport with six bags of sugar.” Holly was laughing and sobbing. “The drugs are in the store room at Marais Celeste.” She gripped Illya for all she was worth. “You see? I saved your butt once again.”
“We could really do it—we could make the world a better place.”
Around the room, people were filing out past the police and engineering world peace. Napoleon wished them luck. After explaining events to his fifth government agency, his personal store of good will was exhausted. He made a mental note to get himself on the casualty list next time and let someone else do the mop up.
He had a brief exchange with Kaminski once the big wigs had been spirited away. Kaminski yielded Illya’s passport; Napoleon yielded the Doucets. Not that he had much choice. All he could do was paste a smile on his face and hope Waverly would rejoice in the spirit of happy inter-agency cooperation—instead of skinning him alive for coming home empty handed.
Well, not quite empty. Napoleon smiled. Things had worked out pretty well.
The hapless civilian who’d found himself dressed in Emil Vachon’s clothes had been dosed with Lagniappe. He remembered Vachon offering him mints and proposing the hilarious idea of a swap. The security staff, itself, seemed to be clear of the drug.
So Vachon had simply planted the evidence on the French security chief, much as they’d guessed.
When it looked like official proceedings might drag on for hours, Napoleon decided to send the troops home to bed. Kate was onstage with her band, directing the cleanup. Holly was curled on a pile of spare tablecloths. And Illya and Paul were still propped by the bandstand—slumped, heads together, fast asleep. Napoleon pursed his lips and struggled with temptation. They’d been a good team. They deserved his respect.
Then he knelt down and pulled out his miniature camera.
Next Halloween, the costume designs would be his.
It took two hours for the last cop to fill out the last sheet of paper. At length Napoleon escorted Kaminski, along with a heavily shackled Tom and Patrice, down in the elevator. He felt angry and tired.
Arrest isn’t enough.
He thought of Tom Doucet, ready to gun down a whole room full of people. Of his smirk as Paul collapsed to the floor. Of Illya, chained to a bed, covered in blood. Of Linda LaSalle, and Holly, and thirty-two file folders of murder. Arrest isn’t nearly enough.
He was sorely tempted to draw his P38 and settle things here. Sleep darts would kill, fired point blank, if you knew what you were doing. And Napoleon knew. No one would even raise an eyebrow—resisting arrest in close quarters. It wouldn’t cost him a single night’s sleep.
They were expecting it, too. Patrice white-faced, Tom sullen, and Dave with his head turned away.
Napoleon smiled mirthlessly at the Doucets. The elevator crawled toward the ground.
It had hurt more than he’d expected, watching Kate walk out the door. So he’d joked with her. What has he got that I haven’t got? And she’d smiled.
Kate was gone. If he killed the Doucets would she be surprised? Would she care?
What has he got, that I haven’t got.
And she’d answered him. Failings.
He laughed suddenly, shaking his head. Patrice squeaked and shrank away. Tom Doucet stood his ground glaring, silent, with the eyes of a snake. Napoleon laughed in his face.
He had plenty of failings, but this wasn’t one of them. The FBI was welcome to Tom and Patrice. He wished them a long and miserable future together. Hell would be waiting.
Call me if you come to your senses. But of course she already had.
The elevator opened. Kaminski collected a police escort and hustled the Doucets into a car. Napoleon rode back up alone.
He walked to the bandstand to gather the rest of their gear. Then he sat down, looking over the post-party wreckage, and waited.
One sat on his right; the other sat on his left.
Napoleon sighed. “I’m sorry you ladies didn’t get the collar.”
“That’s all right, cher,” Gauche said amiably.
“We owed you one for losing your beb friend.”
“Tell him, sorry we were unfriendly—”
“—When he walked in Marais Celeste with that neon cop sign over his head—”
“—we thought he’d best keep back from us.”
“Only that fool Patrice could have missed it.”
They shook their heads in unison. “Really, cher, who ever thought of that terrible cover?”
That from a pair of Siamese twin bartenders. Though he had to admit their story had been more convincing than Illya’s.
“We heard from the bar, by the way. Our team found enough evidence upstairs to hang the Doucets twenty times over. When you spooks finish with them, we’ll be ready.”
Napoleon shook his head. “Are you two really undercover detectives?”
They chuckled. “For true. From a long line of cops.”
“N.O.P.D.’s been trying to get into that office for years, but we never could get a warrant. Those Doucets may not be smart, but they had New Orleans sewn tight. That’s why we finally had to resort to the circus act.”
Napoleon tried not to cringe. “Did your team find Lagniappe in the storeroom?” He could hardly believe Holly had done it.
“Officially, there exists no such thing—”
“—but they’re holding six bags of something—”
“—that isn’t quite sugar for U.N.C.L.E.”
“Thank you.” Napoleon lifted his eyes and looked back and forth between the Beauprés. Their dark hair hung loose and they’d changed into blue silk blouses over form-fitting gray slacks. Their eyes were as sharp and black as ever, but neither looked a day over thirty. There was intelligence, even elegance, where all he’d noticed before was…he had to admit it…the circus act. He’d been completely and thoroughly tricked. And they knew it.
He couldn’t remember when he’d felt such a fool.
But oh well. He cut the self pity short. He’d been suckered before and no doubt he’d be suckered again. You couldn’t win every time—you could only get pretty damn close.
Napoleon grinned, cocking a satirical eyebrow. “At least tell me you really are twins.”
Droite smiled back. “That we are.”
“And Cajun born.”
“And bartenders, too, once upon a time—”
“—that’s how we paid our way—”
Droite linked her arm into his.
“But what you really want to know, cher—” Her voice was inviting.
“—there’s just one way to learn.” Gauche took the other arm. Their fingers were warm through his jacket as they stood up, urging him forward.
“You show us your scars, cher, and we will show you ours.”
Napoleon held his breath and took a moment to ponder. It was tempting. Hutch would be after his scalp if he didn’t report in tonight, but that wasn’t anything new. And he’d had a gift from Waverly once, long ago. Five words that he’d held in his heart. Cover your indiscretions with success.
Napoleon let the Beaupré twins draw him forward. It had been close. It was always close. But they’d had success in abundance tonight.
“Ladies.” He put an arm around each of them, smiling with pleasure and promise. He had a few tricks of his own, and there was one activity at which he never looked foolish. “I’m all yours.”
It’s a good life, he thought as they walked together into the night. Quelle belle vie.
Saturday, November 25
“Will you sit down, Napoleon.” One would think an examination gown would stop the man’s eternal woman chasing, but it didn’t seem to deter him in the slightest.
The woman in question was a very small, very fierce Vietnamese by the name of Dr. Nguyen—a.k.a. Winnie—and Napoleon was chasing her as she paced indignantly back and forth across the examination room.
Illya frowned. They were already late for their meeting with Mr. Hutchinson. Napoleon’s interference wasn’t going to help things along.
“OK.” Dr. Nguyen slapped the side of her head. “How many times I tell you Section Two boys, blow to head is no laughing matter?” In her short, clipped tones, it came out more like “bo to heck is no lacking met ’er” and Illya had a great deal of trouble following her. He considered her question, counted up the ten minutes they had previously spent together, and reached a total of zero. Perhaps she meant all the boys in Section Two combined?
“We believe you.” Napoleon deftly held his gown closed while ducking to peek at her clipboard. “But we can’t seem to convince the bad guys to stop hitting us.”
Dr. Nguyen spun around. “You!” She pushed Napoleon back step by step before her. “Is your name ‘Stupid’? You let partner sleep with bleeding into his brain, good chance he not wake up!”
Napoleon was still in retreat. “Umm?”
Illya took pity. “I felt much better after my nap.”
“Hah!” she whirled and confronted him. “You were lucky.”
Napoleon slipped around and made another try for the clipboard. Dr. Nguyen froze him with a glare.
“You got question?”
“Well, yes—” He reached out again.
“In his awkward way,” Illya explained, “Mr. Solo is asking whether or not you intend to clear us for duty.”
“Hah!” She whacked Napoleon’s hand. “You fine. I can’t cure stupidity. Go out and get yourself shot. OK!”
Illya was careful not to smile, which made Napoleon’s suspicious look completely unwarranted.
“And Mr. Kuryakin?”
“Oh, him.” She checked her list. “Head OK, hands OK, lungs so so—” she took Illya by the chin. “Good thing you had that new inhaler, hey? Or you in hospital now. Funny thing I lose one just this week.”
If she thought he could be drawn out by such an obvious ploy, she was sadly mistaken.
“Couple ugly bruises.” Dr. Nguyen slapped his back. Illya refused to react. She waved her hand. “Hey, you a baby, bruises heal on their own anyhow.”
“So!” She reached over and switched off the recorder. “You tell me, Section Two boy. You want be cleared, I clear you. You want be few days off, OK, no question ask.”
Illya bit his lip and threaded back over the conversation. Had he missed something? He looked at Napoleon, who shrugged.
“Thank you,” Illya said. “I should prefer to be cleared.”
“OK, no problem, it your funeral.” She signed and handed them their forms. Napoleon edged into the dressing room.
“These are not toy drugs. Most you can’t even get outside U.N.C.L.E.” The pacing started again. “OK. You sick? I want to know. You don’t tell me, maybe I give you wrong thing, make that yellow hair fall out.”
She stopped again, giving Illya time to catch up. Perhaps it would be simpler to learn Vietnamese.
“You listen up,” she said more slowly. “You got something you don’t want in file, OK, no problem, maybe my hand sore that day, but I need to know.” She tapped a finger to her forehead. “OK?”
No one else had ever offered to falsify records on his behalf. Illya felt oddly touched. “Yes,” he agreed. “OK.”
“How bout you, Charlie?” She turned to Napoleon who was stepping, fully clothed and tidy, from behind the drapes.
“Umm.” He had lost the conversational thread.
Yes, Illya mouthed.
Napoleon nodded. “Yes. Absolutely. I’ll see you around.” He headed out the door.
Illya slid off the exam table, certain his own gown was not staying discreetly in place. Fortunately, he was immune to embarrassment. He retrieved his clothes and followed Napoleon’s example.
Napoleon was pacing the corridor when Illya came out.
“C’mon.” He set a fast pace for the elevator. “Waverly and Hutch are both waiting.”
Illya jogged to catch up. “Both of them?” He wondered if that meant a new mission. He wouldn’t have minded a few days to catch his breath and perhaps track down a book on Vietnamese. Oh yes, and find someplace to live. He’d been in New York so little, he was still camped in the dormitory.
“Mmm.” Napoleon reached out, pushing the call button. “Just for debriefing, I think.” He squinted critically and brushed Illya’s shoulders. “Thanks for calling in the report Thursday night, by the way. I don’t know what you said, but Hutch has been almost human.” He tugged Illya’s tie, straightening the knot unnecessarily.
“Thank Miss Shea. She begged me to intercede for you, in order to prevent the secretarial pool from deserting en masse for Antarctica.” At the time, he’d been too tired to resist. “So I related the entire affair to Mr. Hutchinson and explained how we’d barely escaped total disaster. By the end he was weeping in relief.”
Napoleon’s jaw dropped. “You didn’t!”
To make Napoleon suffer, you had to hit his career. “No. I didn’t.” Illya stepped around him into the elevator. “I simply explained you were involved with the local authorities.”
“Ah. Well, thanks just the same.” Now his hands went to Illya’s lapels. “You know,” he mused, adjusting the crease, “we really need to get you a few better suits.”
“I can’t afford better suits.” What on earth was he on about? “They keep getting ruined.”
“So?” Napoleon shrugged. “Expense it.” He reached out again.
Illya stepped sideways. “I believe I’m sufficiently groomed,” he said levelly. “And as for suits, the expense is the problem.” They rode to the conference room floor in silence. Illya wondered if he should enlighten Napoleon as to the things a Soviet was expected to do with his pay. Gifts. Kickbacks. Bribes. More gifts. Not that Illya minded it much. Unlike Americans, he knew there was a price tag on freedom.
Napoleon stepped out of the elevator, cocking his head. “Illya, are you honestly telling me you don’t know U.N.C.L.E. will pay for your clothes…up to a point, which I suspect is substantially more than you spend? It’s considered part of your salary.”
Illya stared at him. “It is?” He had to jump to avoid being hit by the door.
Napoleon seemed completely sincere.
“I didn’t know,” Illya said simply. “I’ll look into it.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Come in.”
Napoleon shook Waverly’s outstretched hand, hiding surprise. The conference room was decked out with a champagne bucket and five tall fluted glasses. Paul was here, looking decidedly battered, twirling an empty cigarette pack in the fingers of one hand and biting the nails of the other. Hutch was here, too, round-shouldered and pale with his jacket draped over the chair behind him and an P38 glittering under his right shoulder. The CEA spared one thin glance at the door and continued murdering a stack of reports.
All work and no play makes Hutch a dull boy.
“Sit down, please.” Waverly gestured toward the round table that was a copy of the one in his office. “I have to thank you young gentlemen for a package that came express from Paris this afternoon.” He pulled a champagne bottle out of the bucket. Dom Perignon ’52. “A whole case of it, which I must say was very decent of Charles. Very decent, indeed.”
Napoleon accepted a champagne flute, betting secretly this was the first and last of de Gaulle’s gift the three agents would see. He was going to make the absolute most of it.
Illya tasted champagne and lifted an eyebrow. “Nice.”
Paul wheezed out a laugh, spilling a third of his glass.
Illya ignored him. “I gather Victor Marton was involved in the assassination attempt at some level. Did we catch him?”
“Unfortunately, he fled the country, Mr. Kuryakin, and U.N.C.L.E. isn’t quite certain where to. Martinique, perhaps, although we can’t confirm the rumor.” Waverly sat down and took a sip of the Dom, pausing to savor the taste. “But yes, Victor Marton and President de Gaulle were old cronies from the early resistance. Marton tried to join the government when it formed…oh…one or two years ago…but apparently he was too corrupt for even de Gaulle’s cabinet to stomach, and they threw him out….” He sipped again from his glass. “In disgrace, as it were.”
“So,” Napoleon added it up, “Marton wanted to kill de Gaulle and rejoin the government?”
“Indeed,” Waverly confirmed. “Where he could have used the Lagniappe drug to cause all kinds of mischief. Fortunately for us, someone on Marton’s staff tipped off the KGB to the plot, and the rest is, as they say, history.”
Napoleon set his glass on the table and leaned forward, cupping the stem in both hands. “Has the FBI found out from Tom Doucet whether Thrush had additional copies of the formula?”
“Tom Doucet died in custody early this morning, Mr. Solo.” Waverly furrowed his brow. “I’m afraid the truth of that matter is lost to us now.”
“Ah.” So Tom and Walter were both dead. Napoleon looked sideways at Illya, who picked up and passed over his still half-full glass of champagne. Napoleon tipped the glass carefully into his own.
Illya made his half smile. “Well, it’s justice of sorts.”
Waverly slapped his palm on the table. “Justice be damned, Mr. Kuryakin!” He scowled at the champagne bucket, which amazingly neglected to cower. “I would have very much liked to get my hands on that fellow.” Waverly sighed and relaxed in his chair, forcing the harshness out of his face. “Still, I suppose there’s always the sister.”
Illya reached for his empty glass and examined the rim. The intercom beeped and Waverly toggled a switch. “Yes?”
“I have your call from Geneva, sir. Will you take it in there?”
“Oh, ah….” Waverly looked around as though he’d misplaced the phone. “No. In my office, please. Excuse me, gentlemen. It’s about that girls’ school in Switzerland we’re arranging for Holly Doucet….” He stalked out to the hall muttering, “Died in custody my Aunt Fanny….”
The door whooshed shut behind him.
That left Hutch, who picked up the champagne bottle and poured a glass for himself.
“Gentlemen.” He lifted the flute ever so slightly. “I’m both amazed and relieved to see everything turned out for the best.” He examined Illya and Paul with a deceptively myopic gaze. “I haven’t seen Winnie’s report, yet, but something’s come up. How’s your health?”
“I’m fine, sir,” Illya said quickly. “Cleared for duty.”
“Restricted,” Paul grumbled. “No smokes for six weeks.” He waved the empty cigarette pack and wheezed at his joke. “Otherwise, fit as a Mallee bull though, sir.” He gasped for breath. “Clean as a bell.”
Hutch lifted his eyebrows at that. But he only said, “Good. When you’ve finished your drinks will you please go see Alice? She’s got all the information you need.”
They didn’t have to be told twice. Illya and Paul jumped to their feet.
“I’ll want your reports before you leave, if you please.” Hutch added insult to injury. “And do them together.” His gaze took in all three agents. “I hate it when the lies don’t match up.” He waved his hand in a gesture reminiscent of Waverly.
“Yes, sir.” Illya and Paul beat a hasty retreat.
Napoleon winced and tried not to resent his abandonment. He prepared himself mentally to hold his own ground. Nothing—not Hutch, not Thrush, not Waverly, not even the end of the world—would make him guzzle Dom Perignon ’52.
He crossed his legs, straightening his trouser seam, and sat back, meeting Hutch’s dry gaze over the table, awaiting the razor-sharp tongue.
“I’d like your opinion of Kate Johnson,” Hutch said at last.
“Kate?” Napoleon shifted gears. As in Kate of Kate’s bar? He hadn’t even asked her last name. Napoleon ignored his mixed feelings of surprise and regret and considered the question.
“In what way?”
“In a competence way, Mr. Solo.” Hutch frowned. “The Old Man wants to train her for Section Two, if she’s willing to do a year of Survival School. He’s thinking of sending Jules a hand-picked group of female candidates next fall.”
“Lady field agents?” That was news to Napoleon, although the idea came up every so often. Thrush had women out in the field, but Thrush was notoriously indifferent to the fate of male and female agents alike. “That could be a tremendous asset to U.N.C.L.E.”
“It could be,” Hutch agreed. “But the scheme seems just a bit cynical to me. I thought you might line up against it, considering what the three of you have just been through in New Orleans.”
What Illya had been through. The words pricked Napoleon’s conscience. A woman would have been even more vulnerable in the hands of the Doucets. And yet. He remembered Kate’s reluctance to shoot at the moment of crisis. As things stood, women were pushed into the field without proper training. They took genuine risks but got none of the credit, which hardly seemed fair.
But it was hard to see Kate as career Section Two. Napoleon frowned, mulling it over. Kate had Section One practically stamped on her forehead. He’d bet a month’s pay Waverly’d already marked her for the top spot in some branch office or other. Only, Christ, that would be rough. He could spare her a boatload of misery if he pronounced her unfit for it, here on the spot.
“Umm.” He couldn’t quite do it. “She’s a remarkable woman, but isn’t that asking a lot? Considering there are race issues to boot?”
“Mr. Waverly seems to think she will flourish despite obvious problems.” Hutch actually sighed as he sipped his champagne. “But with all due respect, our boss sometimes engages in social engineering without regard to the personal cost.”
With Illya as the sterling example. Napoleon wondered suddenly why Illya kept stumbling across every government agency under the sun. Was it coincidence really? Or was Waverly throwing them together in the hopes they’d learn to live with each other? He felt his face tighten in resentment. It was dangerous. It was outrageously unfair. And—he hated to think—it might work.
And did Illya know he was some sort of social experiment? Napoleon considered his friend’s careful behavior. Clearly, he did. And would Kate throw herself under the wheels of political progress? Napoleon hated to think what it might do to her.
But it had to happen sooner or later. Different nations, different people, if they couldn’t work together at U.N.C.L.E. then where? There was only one answer.
“I suppose the lady would have to decide for herself.”
“Perhaps, Mr. Solo.” Hutch nodded reluctantly. “Perhaps you and Alex are right.” His face sagged. “I thought we were here to protect people, but it seems the best we can do is put everyone in danger together.”
Hutch cleared his expression, picked up half of his files, and spun the conference table, passing the rest to Napoleon.
“And perhaps, as you’re planning to be CEA in the immediate future, you’d like to practice and close out these affairs?” He smiled thinly. “This job is not all women and glory, you know.”
“Yes, sir.” At least not in all cases. The day Napoleon leashed himself to a desk they could shoot him dead like a dog.
Still, that wasn’t what Hutch really meant. He was saying there would be Illyas and Kates in the future, with Napoleon deciding their fates. Pushing them into bad situations without backup or local support. Scolding them at two in the morning from a lifetime away. Drinking champagne with them. Getting them killed.
He savored the last drop in his glass and stood up, nodding his head.
“Yes, sir.” Napoleon picked up the files. “I understand.”
Holly Doucet slid off of the airport waiting-room seat, straightened her black dress, and took a last look at the life she was leaving behind. She stretched out her bare hand.
“Good bye, Mr. Waverly. Thank you for all of your kindness.”
He’d been more than kind, really, providing two U.N.C.L.E. agents for her short stay in New York. She’d felt the compliment keenly. President de Gaulle himself had only had three—and they’d also been saving the world. She could almost feel grateful to Victor Marton for his invitation to visit, hand delivered the day she’d arrived in New York.
Almost, but not quite. A week ago she would have sworn Marton was harmless, but now she wasn’t so sure. He’d tried to kill Paul for no reason. He was beyond her experience, and Holly wasn’t quite as prepared to make take wild risks as she had been last Thursday. She was going to be more pragmatic.
But if she wasn’t grateful to Marton for his interest, she was grateful to U.N.C.L.E. for theirs. She glanced at Illya and Paul fondly. True, as agents went they were both pretty ragged. She couldn’t help noticing how stiff Illya was, and poor Paul could barely walk down the street without gasping for breath. That was the price of getting old, Holly supposed, one took a long time to recover one’s health.
After the first morning dragging around, she’d taken pity and had a piano sent to her room, and they’d spent the rest of the time playing music and board games. It had been wonderful to see Illya’s progress in the piano department. Even Mr. Solo had noticed. He’d come by and offered to get Illya more assignments playing in bars, which Illya had politely declined. Holly blushed a little. It appeared Mr. Solo was Illya’s boss, not vice versa, which was obvious once you saw them together. She was glad they were friends and could look out for each other once she was gone.
“Farewell, my dear.” Mr. Waverly shook her hand from his seat. Now, here was a man who was everyone’s boss. He oozed authority like an old dragon. “Have a good flight. Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Matthews will see you as far as Geneva. Say hello to the headmistress. She’s a dear old friend of mine.” He leaned toward her. “I look forward to hearing good reports of you from L’Ecole Ennui.”
Holly bit her lip and counted her blessings. L’Ecole Ennui was by far the most flattering term she’d come up with for their maximum security prison. Not that she minded going abroad. Her mother’s sister had practically fallen over herself signing U.N.C.L.E.’s custody papers. And who could blame her for not wanting a Thrush brat?
But honestly, schools were so dull. Holly had been thinking more St. Moritz. She had the money for it, or would, after the lawyers were done separating her mother’s and father’s estates. Super Rat’s money was going straight to some charity or other. Perhaps the Bolshoi Ballet?
Holly looked into Alexander Waverly’s kind-but-no-nonsense face. St. Moritz was clearly out of the question.
“Yes, all right.” She acknowledged both orders, to say hello and be good. It all sounded so easy, but there were times when a school full of girls scared her more than a roomful of Thrush.
“What will I say to them?” Holly asked quietly. “All those famous scientists’ daughters locked up in the Alps for protection?” Let me look in my files, perhaps my father cut up someone you know.
She saw a flicker of sympathy on his face. He did understand.
“Tell them—” Waverly patted his pocket and took out a rectangular Tiffany’s box. “Tell them your Uncle Alex discourages too many questions.” It was a beautiful silver and cloisonné bead bracelet, which he fastened around her right wrist. “And wear this, day in and day out, as a memento from me. It’s quite waterproof.”
“Tiffany’s! You old darling!” Holly threw her arms over his neck. “Thank you!” She touched the beads lightly. Perhaps they held a secret transmitter! Or a microfilm!
Or perhaps they were just a reminder to be good. Well, she would be, if it killed her, which it might.
Mr. Waverly showed her a business card, tucked in the box. “You may use this number to reach me,” he put the box in her hand, “if ever you need to.” He stood up, becoming a dragon again. “Memorize and destroy it on the plane, if you please. I don’t care to have it bandied about.”
“Yes, sir.” She wondered what he’d seem like when she was an agent. Old dear? Or dragon? From the way Illya and Paul glanced at him, she suspected the latter, but that wasn’t for years and years yet. Holly took Mr. Waverly’s hand and they walked toward the gate. She breathed in carefully, steeling her nerve. This was her chance.
“I’ve been thinking, Uncle Alex, about this trip to Geneva, and what a terrible shame it will be to change planes in Paris without even catching a glimpse.”
Mr. Waverly listened in silence.
“You see, I missed most of New York—” she shouldn’t tell why “—with the lawyers and things. And I’ve never been anywhere else in my life. So I thought perhaps, since it’s so much trouble to make the headmistress come to Geneva, we could stop off in Paris for a day or two. And then Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Matthews could drive me up to the school.”
She peeked through her lashes but his face was giving nothing away.
Holly sighed. “It would be wonderfully consoling to have Paris to think back on after I’m locked up in the snow and the ice.” And those school girls would die when she showed up with Illya in tow.
They had arrived at the gate. She could tell it was not going to happen.
Mr. Waverly stopped behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Young lady, the weather in New York is unseasonably sunny and mild.” He turned her gently to look out the window. “Please save the snow job for the Alps.”
Holly kept herself perfectly still. She deserved that, she supposed. The right thing would be to say something breezy, but she just couldn’t do it.
He patted her shoulder. “Good bye.”
“Good bye.” She heard him collecting his Section Three bodyguards, but she didn’t look back. It was brilliantly sunny. The stewardess opened the door and cool November air flowed in around her, a reminder of what lay in store. Still, it couldn’t be all bad. Perhaps the mountains would be very grand.
Illya and Paul stepped beside her in front of the gate.
“We’re ready for boarding.” That was the stewardess.
Illya ducked down. “Come on.” He tugged her jacket and draped her black silk scarf over her hair. “We need to find our seats early and tuck Paul in with a pillow and blanket before he falls over.”
Holly glanced up with a small pang of guilt. Paul did look exhausted, poor dear. She was lucky not to have his blood on her hands. It was petty to sulk about Paris.
“Yes, of course.” She turned back and smiled her good bye. He was rather invincible, old Mr. Waverly. She was glad they were on the same side. “Thank you again.”
Holly took hold of one elbow apiece and they walked to the door.
“Mr. Matthews.” The Old Dragon pulled them up short. “It’s not a very pretty picture when one of my agents is asleep on the job.” Mr. Waverly had pulled out his pipe and he waved the stem at them now.
“No, sir.” Paul stiffened. “Sorry, sir. We had a bit of a late night playing Scrabble.”
Holly nodded, though you couldn’t honestly call 10:30 a late night. In New Orleans, that was barely late supper.
Mr. Waverly harrumphed. “I hope you’ll be more alert escorting Miss Doucet around Paris. I will take it personally amiss if she gets into trouble.”
Holly caught her breath. She peered at Waverly’s face. “Really?” But he must mean it. He had no reason to lie.
He actually winked at her. If he’d grown wings and a halo Holly couldn’t have been more astonished.
Then the dragon was back, fixing Illya and Paul with his glare. “Use a car from the Paris motor pool, if you please, gentlemen. This organization is not made of money.” He squinted into the bowl of his pipe. “I’ll expect you both back in one week.”
She caught a rueful exchange as the two agents turned toward the plane: Another week of babysitting. Well, nuts to that. They were stuck with her, and for once she was going to have fun.
“Come on.” Holly tugged at their sleeves. “Paris won’t wait forever! And anyway, it won’t be so bad. I’ve got a book of Greek poetry we can read out loud in the car.” She couldn’t help laughing at Paul’s sour expression. Behind them, Mr. Waverly chuckled as well. She winked back.
“Can’t catch me,” Holly teased, turning and running into the sun.
This story is deeply indebted to four brave souls who waded enthusiastically through draft after draft, pointing out things that were wrong, until at last we got most of them right. Many thanks to Sandie Giraud for knowing what I wanted to say, C.W. Walker for keen insights on timing and plot, Dusky for improving the language, and Carol Lynn for keeping me honest. Without them, Quelle Belle Vie would never have made it out in the world.
About half of the local color in this story is based on research, and half is pure fabrication. No disrespect or editorial comment is intended toward any real place—particularly Commander’s Palace, which is doubtless well run and attractive. As far as everything else is concerned, from New Orleans reminiscence, to advice on champagne and fancy dress, a big thanks to Channel W. Thanks to Anushka, for help on Russian phrases, to Brigitte, for helping me patch up the French, and to Loretta for some very sage last minute advice. And of course, thanks to the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose assistance, a great deal of fun would have never been possible.