Small Kindness (Christmas)


Small Kindness  (A Christmas Story)

“When guns, guts, and the end of the world are a man’s bread and butter, it’s small kindnesses that count.”

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©2004 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.


Christmas Eve, 1961

Life is mostly froth and bubble
Two things stand like stone—
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in our own.
          – Adam Lindsay Gordon

Paul

Peace on earth, good will toward men.

Some people tell you it’s harder to work out of Section Three than Section Two, and in a funny way that’s right. When you’re Section Two, there’s no grass under your feet. Each job is in, out, and off like a bride’s nightie, and it’s no small irony that we call our cases affairs. But the men in Section Three—they make the beds and take out the garbage. What I mean is, they get their share of action but the problems tend to be long term. More bureaucratic. Sort of day-to-day slogging that’ll put a man in the ground quicker than a missus, five kids, and a dog; and a lot of them have that, too, come end of the week. There’s even a saying about how U.N.C.L.E.’s your girlfriend on the one hand and your wife on the other, which I’d probably best not repeat.

Of course, in Section Two you get the living suitcase bashed out of you every so often, and then it’s less like having a mistress and more like being the boy who earns his rent back of the alley. But in the end, the infirmary food’s pretty good, and there’s a generous supply of ladies ready to kiss and make better while a fellow’s laid up.

Other sections have their problems, too. Security’s a nightmare, with people in and out of the building all the live-long. Communications handles a level of traffic that makes Western Union look like a cup and string operation. Research has to scramble for money and deliver the goods. Even Personnel’s got a plateful—high attrition, background checks, insurance problems. Spanning all these groups are the secretaries and my word, they work themselves blue in the face, all the time knowing those guns aren’t strapped to their backsides just to show off their figures. Those ladies end up in the front if security fails, and more than one has taken a bullet, over the years, for her boss.

Then there’s the poor relation, Section Seven, U.N.C.L.E.’s charity front. I can’t tell you what all they do because, truth to say, I never paid much attention. A lot of it revolves around kids and schools. They’ve got ties to other international programs like UNICEF. And here in New York, they fund Miss Leslie Mittens’ Home for Children.

But I’m ahead of myself. As I said, each section’s got its share of trouble, and I honestly can’t say one group’s better or more important than another, though I’m pretty sure each one thinks it is, because you get that way after a while, tight with your mates, cut off from people in other departments. Happens to everyone.

Only once in a while we all get thrown into the same boat, and this was one of those times.

Our boat was the second floor of the Mask Club—the gentlemen’s club attached to, but not quite part of, headquarters—closed today for a Christmas Eve party. The boat’s captain was Gordon Hutchinson, CEA of U.N.C.L.E. Northwest—a man who each year forges chains to Hell that make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a bush leaguer, but who likes to beat off a few links with good deeds over the holidays. Our sailing orders were to bring Christmas cheer to sixty-five toy-obsessed orphans. And as for galley slaves, locked below decks, rowing on dry bread and water, they were all unassigned personnel of all sections, no exceptions. Namely, us.

“It still isn’t straight, Napoleon.” That’s Mandy Stevenson, pouting and biting her finger, looking more like a sugar plum in her green sweater and red Santa hat than is right for a lady who spends the day up to her neck in reports from Brazil.

Technically, I was an exception, since I was on sick leave after a guy named Marton lent me some powder that burned away part of my lungs, a loan I dearly hope to repay someday with compound interest. But it wasn’t catching, and I mostly didn’t feel that bad, and good food or no, the infirmary’s a lonely place this time of year. So I figured, might as well bolster the boys and girls in the trenches, and there’s no doubt I liven the place up. You may say they’re laughing at me, not with me, but my view is get your giggles where you can. Tears enough tomorrow.

Across from Mandy are the other crewmembers drafted from Section Two: Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo, alias Blondie and Dagwood. Note the fine sense of harmony between them as they tug an eighteen-foot Fraser fir in opposite directions, failing to raise it to vertical. Dagwood’s the dark-haired bloke in folded-up shirtsleeves whose manly features hold just the right hint of long suffering as needles rain down upon him. Blondie’s the shaggy runt in black t-shirt, rolling his blue eyes in ridgie-didge Russian disgust. Don’t think for a minute either one of ’em stripped to bare shirt and holster to keep dirt off their jackets. Every sheila in the room’s got her eyes on them. I probably would have stripped down myself, except the infirmary staff locked my gun away with my clothes. You just don’t get the same effect, unarmed, in red scotty-dog pajamas—with or without the matching red robe.

Mandy sucked her finger some more. “That didn’t do it.”

Blondie and Dagwood wiggled the fir tree around a bit, smearing sap on their shirts. I could have told them it was hopeless. One of the branches was jammed against the ring that screwed into the trunk, a small but important detail they couldn’t see from their angle. But I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t like to spoil the fun all those ladies were having watching the show.

I took a pull at my beer instead and looked down to my fourteenth faked note from Santa.

Dear Sam,

A cocker-spaniel’s a sissy dog, and I’m not technically permitted to abandon anyone in the frozen ice floes of the North, but I did manage to come up with your third choice item, the Jackie Kennedy glamour doll. Tell Hank, take turns on the top bunk, or next year it’s charcoal for the pair of you. Peace on earth, good will toward men. Love, Santa.

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Alice Shea, Hutch’s secretary, pulled up to admire my handiwork. She has dark red hair that she piles on her head, huge green eyes, and pointy glasses, our Alice, and looks very trim, indeed, with a gun strapped to her backside. If you ever wanted anyone pulling strings while you risked your neck in the field, you’d want her. When I’m standing she hits me about mid chest, but sitting, I was probably safe from assault—which was just as well because in my current state I wasn’t sure I could take her.

Alice put a hand to my forehead. “You’re not giving that note to an orphan?”

“Too right,” I told her. “Kid needs bucking up. What kinda ten-year-old boy asks for Jackie dolls and frou-frou dogs?” That wasn’t even counting his fourth choice, Pongo and Perdita.

“Maybe it’s short for Samantha?”

“Not sharing a bunk bed with Henry it’s not. And that ice-floes thing. The future’s dark for a boy who writes like that.” I took another sip of beer and admired the pink color coming out under Alice’s freckles. “If the lad can’t hear it from Santa, then who?”

Alice opened her mouth, but Sarah Johnson, from Intelligence, slipped in on the other side of my chair and plucked the note out of my fingers.

“Nice outfit,” she murmured, which was no more than the truth. It was the spitting image of the robe and jammies my mum couldn’t afford for Christmas when I was nine. Eighteen years later she still cared enough to hunt them down. Mums are the best.

Sarah dragged her eyes away from the men at the Christmas tree, read my note and shook her head sadly. “Let’s try again, baby bear, shall we?” She leaned over, put her hand on mine, and we wrote something together. I honestly can’t tell you what, as my attention was divided between her crisp white blouse, also snugged down with a pistol, and her Chanel #5—rumored gift of Napoleon Solo—which was searing away the last functioning cells in my airways. For all I knew, I could have been writing my own suicide note, but what a way to go.

“There.” Sarah pressed a little harder against me, taping our note onto gift-wrapped Jackie Kennedy. She lifted the package and turned, calling for pickup. “Jerry!”

Jerry Preston was Section Three’s contribution to the orphans’ party and, as usual, was doing his best to give the department a bad name. Like Blondie and Dagwood, he’d lost his sports coat and was showing off the hardware and muscles—both a tad too unseasoned for the effect he was after. Not that I’ve got anything against working out. I do a fair amount myself, because when you’re my size, it’s muscles or fat and no two ways about it. But the weights are a means, not an end, if you get the difference. Jerry never would.

Instead of stacking presents, Jerry was entertaining a couple of Security blokes while they took out the partitions that normally gave the restaurant its air of clandestine privacy by singing, mostly for my benefit:

   I’ve waved the thing all over the place,
   Practiced till I was black in the face,
   I’m a big disgrace to the Aborigine race,
   My boomerang won’t come back.

Now, this song was a big hit in Australia, and I’m sure the pommy bas—the Englishman—who wrote it didn’t mean to insult a culture that goes back thousands of years, but there you have it. You might sing it in all innocence because it was a cute song with catchy lyrics. You might sing it as a kind of national jibe, like whistling “Star Spangled Banner” under your breath when one of J. Edgar’s boys walks into a bar. Or you might sing it because you were a racist son of a bitch. Take your pick.

Sarah repeated her call. “Jerry, package!”

This time Jerry’s head came around and he trotted over with a simper for Sarah and a long look at my getup, as if he hadn’t seen me, lo, these past two hours. The simper got him nowhere, so he gave me a solid thump on the shoulder, instead.

“Hey, buddy, how’s the chest?”

Sarah passed him Jackie Kennedy and edged away with a look in my direction that said her job didn’t include being tortured. Though in an odd way, I rather welcomed old Jer. The jolt of dislike was reviving after Sarah’s perfume.

“Doc gave me six hours to live,” I told him, paraphrasing the actual threat. “I hear Waverly’s combing Section Three for my replacement.”

By now the fir tree had lain down for a branch-ectomy, and the newest member of the team, George Dennell, was squatting next to it opening a case. He looks a bit like Superman, George does, and talks like Clark Kent. He’s Section Four, working mostly with document security, but the man’s also a gadget nut, always pulling one new thing or other out of his pocket. George’s jacket was off, too, but George does not wear a gun and wasn’t drawing a lot of female attention.

George put on a pair of dark glasses. “I couldn’t find a saw, but I think this will do.” He lifted a miniature blowtorch and lit it in exactly the same number of seconds it took the rest of us to picture life after reducing U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to ash.

“George!” There was a general surge in his direction.

If you’re not Section Two, if you’ve never been beaten or shot at, jumped from a train, squeezed through a ventilation shaft, been stuck so full of junk you don’t know your own name, or listened to Ethel Merman belt out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” nineteen times in a row, then taking a blowtorch to a fir tree sounds like a horribly dangerous idea.

If you have been those things, it still seems pretty risky.

Nevertheless, three of us were used to disaster and did not immediately panic. I stayed at my table, since I was officially in the infirmary and clear of all blame. Blondie moved discreetly toward the nearest fire extinguisher. And Dagwood waited calmly where he was, broadcasting his willingness to trust George. Up to a point.

George noticed none of this. He glanced at the brilliant blue pinpoint of flame, made a quick slicing motion, and amputated the limb, leaving behind a faint whiff of cauterized fir. All would have been well except Jerry Preston chose that exact moment to play fire marshal, tackling George and knocking man and blowtorch, both, full into the tree.

Fire leapt up like the Devil on holiday. In the blink of an eye, it flickered from needles to branches. George threw himself forward and rolled in a foolhardy attempt to smother the flames while Jerry subdued the already extinguished blowtorch. The fir smell was joined by burnt clothing and sap, and it began to look like there might be roast George on the menu for supper. Which was a shame, as he was a good sort, really.

Another shame was that the burning tree was between me and the exit. Worse yet, I was barely halfway through my beer.

I admit that sounds crook, me sipping beer and watching George Dennell go up in flames, but there was no point in my wading into the fray. Through the thickening smoke I could see Blondie pull the fire extinguisher off the wall, check the charge, whistle, and toss it to Dagwood. Five seconds later we had white Christmas and that was that, except for the mess.

George suffered a mussed suit and minor burn to one arm. Later he’d find out how much even little burns hurt, but for now, being fussed over by the ladies seemed to compensate for spoilt clothes and injury. The room survived, too, with smoke on the ceiling and a bit of singe on the silver and black carpet. Even the tree was salvageable, although it was going to end up nearer twelve feet than eighteen.

Jackie Kennedy would never be the same.

“You ought to watch that, George.” Jerry had escaped without so much as a sharp stick in his eye. “You ingénues aren’t trained to handle dangerous materials.” He tapped George on the chest where an enforcement agent’s holster would be and walked away, leaving the Section Four man sputtering, half outraged and half abashed. Blondie and Dagwood, pushing chairs around to make a new place for the tree, exchanged a dark glance.

At this point, maybe I should describe old Jer. He’s twenty-three, a couple inches shorter than me—about six feet—and proportionally lighter, weighing in around a hundred and ninety. He’s got that odd combination of black hair, blue eyes, and skin white as snow you mostly hear of in fairy tales. He wears expensive clothes and carries his regulation P38 in a two-hundred dollar Italian leather holster. The latter gives anyone who’s done field work a laugh, because in our business you’re lucky if you can hang onto your underwear from one day to the next, let alone fancy accessories. Jerry has two complaints in life—that none of the secretaries will let him get between her and her gun belt, and that Jules Cutter refused to wave the minimum age requirement of twenty-four and recommend him for Section Two.

I know for a fact Jules got extra Christmas gifts this year on that sole account.

Alice helped George towel white stuff out of his hair, Sarah put a gauze pad on his arm, and Mandy produced a black turtleneck from somewhere, which looked pretty good on Georgie, even without the P38. All the while, George cradled his blowtorch like a mother who’s just been told her son’s got big ears. “It’s safe for precision cuts,” he protested any number of times, “as long as you don’t let flammable vapors build up.” Each time he said this he got a pat from one of the ladies.

By now the crowd was breaking up and some good Samaritans started in cleaning the carpet. Jerry made his way to the bar in the back of the room and came it the hero to a couple of cafeteria workers who were setting out biscuits, drawing his gun and waving it around to illustrate how he could have shot us all to save us from burning. The guy was damaging my reputation as most obnoxious of them all, and I had a fair mind to ram his face into the bar mirror where he was admiring himself.

“Jer!” I retrieved what was left of Jackie Kennedy and considered my options. Punching a guy you work with is tricky, especially when you’re running on about twenty-five percent normal oxygen levels and, whatever else, Jer was no slouch. He’d do me over in a long fight. On the other hand, while not really angry, I was mad enough to have a bit of an edge and maybe get my licks in first. I threaded my way around the leather armchairs that make up the smoking and drinking part of the club, and as I did Blondie and Dagwood fell in behind me. That made it three against one and put an end to my plan of giving Jerry a kick up the khyber. I can’t tell you if backing me up like that was insult or compliment. Probably they didn’t want to clean my blood off of the carpet.

“Don’t be an idiot, Paul,” Blondie hissed. But I wasn’t interested in generalities.

“Jer.”

Jerry faced us, holstered his gun and leaned back on the bar.

Technically, if you counted the biscuit ladies, it was three against three.

Still, I’m nothing if not diplomatic. “We have a problem.” I held out the package displaying burned paper and melted Mrs. President feet.

“Sorry.” The baby blues didn’t look sorry to me. “We usually try to limit civilian casualties.”

Now Jerry’s not stupid, or at least not unintelligent. He knows a field agent’s worst nightmare is keeping the day-to-day violence from spilling into innocent lives. It’s something that keeps you up at night, something you pray over. And it’s never, ever a joke. The man was wearing a gun. It should have been his nightmare, too.

He smirked, and I decided to cut out his heart and track down an evil queen to send it to. I grabbed his unbuttoned silk collar and twisted it into a chokehold, used my free hand to catch his counter swing, yanked the arm across his chest and leaned into him, pinning him against the bar. His lips went pale. If he’d kicked me, I would have been done for, but he was too busy gasping for air. A few seconds later I ran out of air myself and it became even odds who’d keel over first.

The biscuit ladies disappeared like wet sugar on toast.

Solo stepped up on my left. “The thing is….” He slid his hands between us and pushed me back. On the other side, Kuryakin tugged my elbow and I let Jerry go. I glanced down and received a look of disgust, but whether for trying or failing to kill Snow White I can’t say.

Solo reached out and smoothed Jerry’s collar. “The thing is, there’s an orphan due soon who won’t have a gift because of your mishap.”

“So?” Jerry rubbed his neck. “Give him a different one.”

Solo cocked an eyebrow at me. I reached into my pocket for Sam’s letter and felt a little tickle as something stirred and slid up my wrist. Rosy, my thirteen-inch boa constrictor, waking up from her nap. And before you think I’m starkers, carrying a snake around in my bathrobe, let me explain that she was (a) harmless, (b) used to being handled, and (c) temporarily without shelter after a misunderstanding between my nurse and her cage. I gave Rosy a minute to get under my sleeve before passing the letter to Solo, who was looking at me like something had just crawled up his arm.

Solo and Kuryakin read Sam’s letter, skipping over the first two requests. Solo shrugged. “The boy wants a Jackie Kennedy doll. Either that or Pongo and Perdita Colorforms, whatever they are.”

“Vinyl dog figures from a children’s film,” Kuryakin told him. He made his own shrug in response to Solo’s broad stare. “I helped Alice with the shopping yesterday.”

Solo shook his head, looking like he thought maybe Sam needed some manly words from Santa. But he didn’t say so.

“I don’t care what the kid wants.” Jerry tugged the overpriced holster. “And I don’t see how this is my fault. All I did was put out a fire.”

“I’m not saying it’s your fault…exactly.” Solo took a money clip out of his pocket and peeled off a bill. “That’s a matter for Security to decide if and when they look at the tapes.” Sam’s letter and the money made their way into Jer’s hand. “But, seeing as we’re all in this together, please buy one of the gifts on this list before the stores close.”

Jer spent a couple of seconds fishing for an effective way to tell Solo to rack off, but the lad just didn’t have it in him. He stuffed letter and money into his pocket, grabbed his coat, and left, narrowly avoiding Gordon Hutchinson, our CEA, who was coming in with a round tin tucked under one arm.

The three of us watched Jerry go and I’ll tell you, we’re not always best mates, Blondie, Dagwood, and me, but that small gesture—backing me up, making sure a kid got his present—in a lot of ways it meant more than saving the world.

Kuryakin picked up a tea tray and offered us each a blue star. When no one accepted, he took one for himself. “You realize the security tapes are probably useless as evidence,” he said cheerfully, biting off a point and gesturing with the rest of the biscuit. “These cameras are designed for low light.”

“I think that’s just as well.” Solo flicked his gaze to me. “Don’t you?”

We turned our eyes toward the CEA, now striding purposefully in our direction, and I wondered if I’d be in worse trouble if I’d have smashed Jerry’s nose? Or maybe I’d hit the limit coming to the club in the first place.

Of course, we found out later the real trouble hadn’t even got started.

“Let’s just hope,” Solo muttered, “Jerry doesn’t come back with a puppy.”

 

Napoleon

Anyone with an ear for gossip knows that Hutch and Miss Leslie Mittens have been an item for years. I’d somehow missed all the previous orphans’ parties and had never seen them together, but the pre-party evidence was intriguing.

If you don’t know Hutch, he’s…well…hard to describe. Neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, outgoing nor excessively cold. He’s sharp, but not in Waverly’s see-through-lead-walls sort of way. Sympathetic, except in matters of duty, which he performs with that unblinking remorselessness you see in agents who came out of the war. His right hand was crushed on an ugly mission a few years back, turning him into a leftie and pretty much taking him out of the field. I’ve never heard him raise his voice, laugh out loud, or cry. The dark suit and silk tie he had on for the party were a real departure from his usual dull look.

I should add that Hutch is due to retire from Section Two before long, and it’s an open secret between us that I intend to replace him. To his credit, he seems not to resent it. He’s a practical man and resentment’s an impractical sentiment. Besides he knows, as do I, neither one of us determines the outcome. We’re both Waverly’s dogs.

Standing next to us that afternoon, Hutch’s imperturbability got a workout as his gaze took in George, the scorched tree, Fire Sale Jackie Kennedy, and Paul in red robe and pajamas. Paul’s snake was mercifully out of sight. Most of Paul’s pets—he has many—are venomous, and I found myself hoping this one would bite him and put him out of my misery for a week or ten days.

Hutch’s gaze traveled to me. “Is there a problem?” I had to backtrack to realize he meant Jerry’s departure.

“No…” I said slowly. Jerry was a problem, of course, but I wasn’t sure how much of one. Like a lot of recruits, he was half piss and half promise—pardon the phrase—but a quick glance around will show you field agents in general are difficult, arrogant men. I understood Jerry’s frustration. Section Three’s a big group with little love for hot shots who want to scramble upward and out. Except for the gun waving, I’d have said Paul owed Jerry an apology, Jerry owed George one, and that would be that. But the gun thing made matters more serious. If Hutch had been here, Jerry’d probably have his butt in deprogramming.

“Not a problem, exactly,” I hedged. “I think we’ll be ready on time.” I slid a hand into my pocket and played with the roll of quarters I’d brought to pass out to the kids. “Are the orphans still coming at four?”

“I was about to go meet them.” I watched Hutch consider whether to flee the scene or stay and crack the whip while George Dennell fired up his blowtorch for another go at the tree. George is an old friend, a very smart, very loyal man whose brain does not run on the same rails as everyone else’s. For the briefest moment, I considered lending him Paul’s snake.

“Everyone be calm,” George said loudly and slowly. “It’s going to be all right.”

This time Sarah and Alice stood watch over him. They made an interesting contrast in their matching white blouses and dark skirts: Sarah, black-haired and sophisticated, handling a fire extinguisher with the same panache she’d show a glass of champagne. Alice, small, pink and keyed-up, ready to pounce and beat the fire out with her fists if she had to. She’d do it, too. I toyed with the thought of getting Illya and Alice to join Sarah and me for Christmas dinner at the Four Seasons, but the idea was probably hopeless. My Russian friend has no notion of paying for atmosphere.

Hutch winced slightly and turned his back to George. He handed the round tin he was carrying to Paul. “Security cleared this for you.”

“Thanks.” Paul tucked it under Jackie Kennedy with an innocent look, as if we didn’t know what was inside. His mother’s fruitcake had been a big hit the previous Christmas. This year, word had gone out before the package even made it to X-Ray.

There was a pause while Paul didn’t offer to share.

Hutch let it pass. “You are planning to go back to bed before the children arrive?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine.” Hutch picked a line of retreat. “I’ll be back in an hour.” He glanced casually toward George who, sure enough, was neatly lopping off branches. Then he looked back at me. “I trust you’ll keep things in order.”

An interesting commodity, trust. We field agents seem to get it when our bosses have lost all sense of control. “Yes, sir.”

Hutch lifted an eyebrow. “Good luck.”

Sarah

By three-forty the Mask Club—that bastion of male sensibilities—had become suitable for the book-strap and bobby-sox set. Twelve red and green circular tables gleamed under second-best china. Our tree glittered proudly along the front wall, half buried under sixty-four packages. The tables and leather chairs near the bar were dressed in garlands and stripped of lewd magazines, and even the so-called wall art—silver cutouts suggesting the feminine form—had been disguised with green branches and tinsel.

Most of the volunteers had gone, leaving only a few sacrificial lambs to manage the party, and so we gathered around one of the unused tables: Napoleon, Alice, Mandy, Alice’s Russian, and me. Paul Matthews was there, too, although we expected Security to drag him away any minute. The Russian—Illya, since we’d all become rather chummy—poured everyone a second round of vodka on our new theory that orphans were a dish best served drunk. The man had hardly said boo since he’d come to New York, but at that moment his face lit up and I saw he was good looking, so maybe Alice is on to something after all. He didn’t much seem to notice her, though, and with enforcement agents, there’s no point in wishing and waiting. Here today, gone tomorrow, man and chance both.

Napoleon scooted his chair close to mine. “Nice perfume.” He put an arm around my shoulders and glanced up at the mistletoe, making me wonder if more vodka was such a good idea. I took a sip anyway and tossed him a look. It’s not like he’d try anything in front of sixty-five orphans.

“I’m off tomorrow,” he murmured in that breathy voice that makes my toes shiver. “All day.”

Fortunately I’m a big girl and not given to fainting. “Mentally?” I smiled. “Or physically?”

He answered with a pained look, but I knew perfectly well I hadn’t wounded his feelings. Napoleon’s a great guy, and a lot of laughs, and he knows how to entertain a lady in exquisite style. If you ask him, he’ll say the same, in reverse, about me. Neither one of us is dumb enough to let things get beyond that.

Alice toyed with her vodka glass, more cautious about drinking than I was, with less reason. She’s not a beautiful girl—cute, maybe, with the green eyes and glasses—but Alice is a champ. She knows everyone, hears everything, and she’ll move heaven and earth to help an agent out of a jam if she can. It’s probably just as well she’s shy about dating. Any guy who broke her heart would have forty-five heavily armed field agents to answer to.

Alice glanced sideways at Illya a couple of times, gave up, and scanned the room with a sigh. “Has anyone seen George?”

Napoleon leered at me slightly, running his thumb over my shoulder and I began to regret Chanel #5. Then he turned and smiled lazily toward Alice. “George who?”

Alice frowned. “George, who went to pick up your Santa suit.”

Right on cue, a figure appeared at the top of the stairway, wearing multiple layers of overcoat, wool scarf, earmuffs, and thick gloves, and struggling to hang onto two boxes. George Dennell, voted Class of 1953—boy most likely to get tangled up in his own clothes.

Napoleon didn’t even blink. “Not a chance.”

Mandy slid her chair close on the other side. “But Napoleon….” She took his free hand, batting her eyes, and Napoleon’s smile slid toward her, the skunk. “But Napoleon, you know Dr. Towers was scheduled to be Santa, and he got called away when that cosmetics display exploded this morning.”

The damage was no more than two agents with highly unlikely tattoos. But Dr. Towers is a conscientious man, especially when he’s supposed to play Santa.

Mandy worked her coy routine a little more, using just the right amount of breathlessness. I could have told her she was wasting her time, but hey, she’s a big girl, too. Don’t get me wrong. I like Mandy. But she’s got a lot to learn about working at U.N.C.L.E. where being gorgeous and smart just makes you one of the pack.

Napoleon was unmoved. “George can do it.” I gave him an eyebrow and he returned Mandy’s hand to her lap.

“Do what?” George pulled out a chair and dropped his boxes on end before stripping his earmuffs. He accepted a vodka, lowered an elbow to brace the packages, and used his free hand to unwind the wool scarf.

“Oh no, he can’t,” Alice said firmly. “George played Santa last year. He gave one of the boys a harmonica that shattered every piece of glass in the building.”

“Now, that’s not fair.” George unbuttoned his coat. “That harmonica was supposed to repel dogs. Nobody in the lab said anything about glass.” He pulled out his handkerchief and sneezed. “I really think one of you fellows better do it, though, so I don’t expose the orphans to this cold I’ve come down with.” He sneezed again, with a little sideways wink at me. Then he dumped his coat on the chair and fished out one of the boxes. “I found a doll for your orphan, Paul.”

Paul eyed Barbie’s blond ponytail and ballet costume. “Thanks, mate.” He slid her under his seat with the unopened fruitcake tin, put a fist to his mouth and swallowed a yawn.

Napoleon’s voice was thin. “Illya can do it.”

George opened his second package and removed a combination white wig and beard. “Here’s the hair.” He set it down on the table.

Illya glanced at the wig and back to Napoleon with a completely unreadable expression. “No,” he said flatly, “thank you.”

Napoleon astonished me by letting that pass. He was beginning to look desperate. “How about Hutch? It’s his party—”

George shook out the fluffy red and white hat. “Here’s the cap.”

“Don’t even think it,” Alice growled. “Hutch is having his special evening with Miss Mittens, and that’s final.”

Alice’s final carries a lot of weight with field agents. Napoleon’s gaze turned slowly toward Paul. After a minute he pushed his free hand through his hair, sighed, and said nothing.

George plunged one last time into the box. “And here’s the…” His voice faltered as he lifted out something that was unmistakably not Santa. It was yellow, fuzzy, and more than seven feet tall. He whistled softly and put an innocent look on his face.

“…Easter bunny.”

 

Illya

I’ve been an enforcement agent for nearly four years and assigned to New York one-eighth of that time, but I admit, until the night of the Christmas party, I never understood U.N.C.L.E. Northwest.

It’s a madhouse.

Well-oiled and effective, pleasant at times, and holding any number of records for success, but a madhouse nevertheless. This contrasts curiously with my previous assignment to London, where the personnel are politely restrained and the chief is insane.

I don’t mean disrespect toward Harry Beldon. He’s a charismatic leader, a brilliant strategist, and highly regarded by the people who work for him. Without his backing, it’s unlikely I would have found a place in the organization. I merely assert the man would fail any clinically administered sanity test. Perhaps the same might be said of many great men.

One can’t help but be struck by the apparent contrast between Beldon and Waverly, and the genuine contrast between Beldon and Gordon Hutchinson, our CEA. That the latter two were teamed in the field is remarkable, to say the least. Yet it’s undoubtedly true. I’ve heard the stories from Beldon himself, late at night and far into the bottle of vodka.

That’s what you need, Illya, he’d say at the end of our drinking sessions. Find a free-thinker like me to team up with, and you’ll be unbeatable. My tenure in Europe offered no such teammate, and I was beaten more than once.

Still, that dual image compels me: Beldon, flamboyant and impulsive, Hutchinson, intellectual and withdrawn. I can’t picture them together, and I believe they must have been different years ago, milder, less stratified versions of themselves. Long service with U.N.C.L.E. has pushed them both to extremes and forged them into something they might not have been.

It’s a grim thought—that in the end all that’s left of an agent is the small core that won’t sear away. I reject that future, judging myself to be whole, no single piece more assailable than any other. If I’m killed, I intend to die all at once, not bit-by-bit.

Perhaps I’m an exception, or perhaps my presumption’s unfounded. Either way, I was deeply sorry, that night of the party, to see our CEA lose another small piece of himself.

***

“Really, fellas, it’s not my fault.”

It was a quarter to orphans and George Dennell was helping himself to the last of the vodka. The ladies had withdrawn into a small conspiratorial group, while the gentlemen remained at the table—Napoleon rubbing his head as he does to avoiding lashing out at someone, Paul wearing the smirk of a criminal who can’t be linked to a crime, and George, the picture of blissful ignorance.

Not that our CEA has a terrible temper. Quite the reverse. As far as I know he has absolutely no temper at all. But most of us understood the evening was a rare intersection of Mr. Hutchinson’s personal and professional life, and we were sorry to let him down with our bumbling.

I put my chin in one hand and fingered the rabbit suit with the other, hardly able to believe there were two American holidays that called for ridiculous outfits. Yet the evidence was there before my eyes, indisputably yellow and fluffy.

“Maybe we could dye it,” Paul suggested with his usual satirical lack of wit.

Napoleon—who does have a temper, although he hides it well—sent Paul a veiled look that the man unwisely chose to ignore. Paul has his good points, and the fact that he balances them with constant foolishness no longer particularly grates on me. But Napoleon will put up with only so much and no more.

“I suppose we’d have t’ cut off the paws and ears first.”

Napoleon lowered his hand and pushed back his chair. I considered letting him hit Paul a few times, but I’d just spent two weeks traveling with the Australian, and I knew he really was ill. Napoleon would have felt guilty afterwards.

“But George,” I lifted the bunny hood, letting the pink satin ears provide a distraction, “didn’t you think to look in the box?”

George was unreasonably cheerful. “I did look!” He drank his vodka, choked, and pounded his chest while Napoleon settled back into his seat. “That is, I kind of looked…at least in at the top part. The shop was crowded, and there was a guy following me, so I thought I’d better come straight back with the goods.”

Napoleon shook his head in disbelief. “Someone followed you into the costume shop?”

“I know it sounds crazy.” George scratched his chin. “But there was a fat guy in a trench coat standing next to the door. He followed me all over the shop. And let me tell you, it was dog-eat-dog in there. There must have been three would-be Santas fighting over every available outfit. I nearly got a black eye!” He pointed to a scuff on his cheek. “The guy tailed me halfway back to headquarters.”

“Perhaps he was after the suit,” I suggested.

“Well, that doesn’t make sense.” George shook his head. “It must be easy to get Easter suits this time of year.”

The ladies finished whispering, returned to us, and surrounded Paul’s chair.

“We have a solution,” Mandy Stevenson announced.

“Please.” Napoleon gestured her on. “I can’t wait to hear it.”

Sarah Johnson put a predatory hand on Paul’s shoulder. “We’ve got the gifts all ready to go.”

Alice gripped the other side. “And the Santa beard and the hat.”

Paul tensed, no doubt correctly perceiving a trap.

“All we need,” Mandy leaned forward and batted her eyes, “is some big dumb guy in red to pass out the packages.”

 

Mandy

I was a little disappointed when my friend, Sarah Johnson, invited me to help with the orphans’ party. I mean, at first I was thrilled because she told me there’d be field agents there—real agents, from Section Two—and in four weeks working for U.N.C.L.E., I’d never even talked to a field agent, let alone worked with one.

But after I thought about it, the orphan part was kind of a letdown. Not that I minded helping out; I’d just imagined my first official party would involve a yacht, or charter jet, or tuxedos and champagne at least. Orphans and roast beef sounded dull.

See? There are so many ways a girl can be wrong.

I did know Paul Matthews, of course—everyone knows Paul—but I’m not sure you can call him a real agent. He’s more like a big kid with a gun, and frankly, I don’t think they let him put bullets in it.

Anyway, the party wasn’t remotely dull. First let me report that Mr. Napoleon Solo is even more handsome than the picture Wanda keeps under her desk and that he lives up to his reputation in full. He was gracious and charming, not only with me, but with Miss Mittens, and he was sweet to her kids, which I think really tells something about a guy. My Grandma used to say, to learn a man’s character, watch how he talks to his butcher. I got the impression Napoleon treats everyone well, although I need a little more research to be sure. And I’m fairly certain he’d like to help in my studies.

The other field agent, Illya Kuryakin, was harder to fathom. He has a blank way of looking at things that sent a chill up my spine, even if I don’t believe half the things people say about him. But once we sat down in a small group, Illya was more relaxed, smiling and pouring drinks, and he got positively friendly when he found out I have a smattering of Russian. He even made a pun in decent Portuguese, and I thought, well, maybe he’s just slow to warm up?

Back to the party. I felt bad about teasing Paul, because he buried his face in his hands and choked until tears dripped down onto the table. It was pretty shocking. Everyone stared, and I hugged him and said I was sorry. Then he wiped his face and we saw he was laughing and loved the idea. To tell you the truth, I thought we should call it off after watching him falling apart like that. But nobody else seemed to think much of it, and he swore he’d be fine.

So Alice and I took Paul to the empty first floor of the Mask Club and dug up some linen napkins to tack onto his robe for white cuffs. He slipped off the robe, reached into the pocket, and—I swear to God—pulled out a two-foot long snake.

No matter how odd you think Paul Matthews is, he always manages to be just a little bit odder.

I admit, I jumped, but Alice merely crossed her arms and looked at Paul as if he were a child with soiled pants.

He winked. “Mandy, meet Rosy; Rosy, Mandy.”

“Um, hi Rosy.” I wasn’t about to shake hands. I found myself puzzling over how I’d landed down here with a snake while Sarah Johnson was upstairs with the men. It couldn’t be chance.

Paul wrapped Rosy around his neck, settled into an armchair, closed his eyes, and went slack while I wondered what else he might have in his pockets.

“Is he dead?” I leaned close to make sure he was breathing.

“Don’t worry. They all do that.” Alice is my age, shorter than me, and from Wisconsin to boot, but she’s still sort of bossy. “Just don’t touch him without waking him up first.”

“Oh, come on.” That sounded like something from an old war movie. I put my hand on Paul’s shoulder and gave it a shake. Nothing happened.

Then I noticed his eyes staring out of tiny cool slits.

He didn’t move or speak. Just looked, and something told me to back away slowly. I bumped into Alice and stifled a squeak. “Ahem.” I tossed my hair, rummaged around in my handbag, and pulled out a sewing kit, ignoring Alice’s I-told-you-so look, which I don’t think I deserved under the circumstances. It’s not like he’d broken my arm or anything.

“White, do you think?” I held up the needle and thread. “Or red?”

We sat down to sew, and I decided maybe Paul is a real field agent after all.

 

Napoleon

Between crises that afternoon, I’d wondered what sort of woman would both administer an orphanage and consort with our dried stick of a CEA. Mature, I imagined, broad, tight faced and large bosomed, of Viking stock, with a riding crop tucked into the elastic band of her stockings.

In the event, Miss Leslie Mittens surprised me. She was young for a mother of sixty-five, early thirties, with pale blue eyes and a halo of ash-blond hair pulled loosely back under a comb. Not trying for beautiful, but good natured and pretty. Her orphans were like her, clean, cheerful, reasonably well behaved, each wearing a fresh uniform and gleaming black shoes. One or another was constantly running over to show off a prize or collect a hug, and they were all ridiculously pleased by the party favors Alice and Mandy had arranged on the tables. I squirmed a little, thinking my budget for Christmas dinner would feed every kid in the place for a week.

“So….” I tipped the marbles that had collected on my dinner plate into a glass and gave her a nice-but-not-after-the-boss’s-girl smile. We were seated together—Hutch on one side of Miss Leslie and I on the other—which seemed odd, as I doubted Hutch was recommending my acquaintance. However, a quick inventory of my colleagues cleared up the picture: the girls dressed in Santa hats, elf ears, and bells, George wearing reindeer antlers made out of tin-foil and playing catch with the dinner rolls, Illya directing the construction of a table-top fortress out of bits of string, playing cards, dominoes, and other small toys.

Clearly I’d been put here to block Miss Leslie’s view of the party.

“So,” I tried again, “how do you and Hutch know each other?” The CEA’s eyes narrowed, but I ignored it. Putting me here had been his idea, not mine.

“Gordon?” Miss Leslie smiled and Hutch’s face softened. “We both grew up in the Children’s Home—didn’t you know?”

I most certainly did not.

“It wasn’t called ‘Mittens’ then, of course. It was ‘Helm’s Refuge for Boys,’ which was rather inaccurate, since we had boys and girls both. When U.N.C.L.E. sponsored us, Gordon surprised me with the new name.”

She took a sip of her wine. “Gordon left for France while I was still very small. We didn’t meet again until six years ago when he encouraged me to apply for U.N.C.L.E. funding.” She blushed prettily. “I’m afraid our finances were a mess. I was only seventeen when Mr. Helms left me the home. It was a long time before I learned how to manage.”

“That’s very young for such a large responsibility. Didn’t you mind?”

“Oh no. I never wanted to do anything else. I mean, like work or raise a family. I feel I make a difference where I am. That it’s my chance to do good in the world.” She looked down at her plate. “I suppose that sounds silly.”

“It doesn’t sound silly at all.”

Leslie’s smile crept back, and I cut off a quick stab of envy for Hutch, grinding it under a metaphorical boot heel. My score in the game of true love is lousy—one dead, one gone in a huff—and a man should stick to what he does well. I caught Sarah’s eye as she wiped gravy off a series of small chins and winked, promising we’d both do what we do well before the evening was over. Sarah’s answering look wasn’t as wholesome as Leslie’s, but all in all, I preferred it.

Leslie brought me back to the orphans. “Sometimes I do wonder if I’m cut out for this. Even with the financial trust Mr. Helm left and U.N.C.L.E.’s kind support, ends don’t always meet. The rain spoiled everyone’s shoes this fall and if not for a last minute donation the children might have shown up here barefoot.”

“That’s because,” Hutch cut in, “you run a home for sixty-five children on a budget for fifty.”

“Well, I can’t dump them out on the street.” She turned back to me. “Gordon thinks I should apply for amended funding, but if the state turned down the new permit, we’d have to cut back. As things stand, I can keep fifteen extra children as long as they’re temporary.” She shrugged. “And they’re temporary as long as they’re not funded.”

Illya’s helpers had been slipping away to other tables on discreet collecting trips with the result that they now had a large supply of small toys. I watched them run a yo-yo suspension bridge through the leaves of a poinsettia and prepare to renovate the opposite side. Illya seemed to be having as much fun as the kids.

It amuses me, this animated side of my friend. We’ve worked together a few times. He’s a good partner if you don’t mind constant, fast-paced, near disaster. In the field, he’s quiet—until the exact moment mouthing off will cause maximum trouble—but every now and again, especially at meals, a sort of manic cheerfulness comes out.

That usually gets us in trouble, too. Lucky for him, getting out of trouble is one of my specialties.

I sat for a few minutes watching kids who, construction projects and flung dinner rolls aside, were behaving well enough to make any mom or dad proud. I couldn’t imagine raising fifteen of them, let alone sixty-five. Not on any budget. It seemed criminal for Leslie to have to struggle.

“Hmmm.” I wracked my brains, sorting through friends in high places. “I know someone in the Governor’s office.” Permits would be putty in the fair Mitzi’s hands. But was I in her good graces? Probably…. Come to think of it, yes. Oh yes. Not only that, but she owed me a favor. “Do you meet the requirements for the new permit?”

Leslie nodded. “Easily. It’s a huge old house. My dream is to have a permit for eighty so I could let the older children stay and attend university.” She pointed out two teenagers. “David and Susan both have scholarships for tuition next year, if I can find a way to support them.”

It seemed to me she had enough worries without trying to put her orphans through college. Still, you had to admire the sentiment. This time I gave her the full smile.

“Well, I’ll have to talk to her first, but if anyone can guarantee your permit, ah, this lady can.”

“I hate to put you to trouble.”

“Not at all. It would be embarrassingly easy.”

I poured us each a second glass of wine, watched Illya’s work gang lay a foundation of jacks, and wondered how far I could pump Leslie without getting my butt kicked halfway to U.N.C.L.E. Southwest. Hutch gave me a bland look that said not very far. I never found out, though, for right then a clatter arose in the hallway and Paul burst in, throwing candy and calling out somewhat faint ho-ho-hos. He was wearing the wig, beard, and hat, and the girls had stuffed him a little and added white cuffs to his sleeves. The overall effect was of Santa, dragged out of bed after a very long bender. If Mrs. Claus were there, she’d have died on the spot.

The orphans stared in amazement. Somebody giggled.

“Is this a joke?” Hutch’s voice was deadly serious and I realized sweet little Alice had left me holding the bag.

“No, sir.” I made it sound like pajama-clad Santas were a pretty usual sight. “No joke. It’s simply the best we can do.”

 

Hutch

I never lied to Leslie, about my job, or anything else. She knew it was dangerous. We’d become friends, in fact, while I was recovering from having my hand broken, when Alex shifted my responsibilities away from enforcement toward operations. And let me assure you, switching dominant hands was nothing compared to giving up field work. It nearly killed me. I must have resigned fifty times during those first six months, but U.N.C.L.E.’s not a job you walk out on, any more than is Thrush. If Alex says sit, you sit. If Alex says stay, you stay.

Looking back, I see he grounded me because I would have been killed, and I’m grateful. Not just for myself, but for whoever would have died with me—Harry Beldon, probably, since back then Harry made my welfare his personal crusade. Harry’s death, at least, won’t overshadow my grave. There are plenty of others that will.

After a while, between Alex and Leslie and Harry, life rebalanced and I found satisfaction on the operational side of the fence. I still do enforcement from time to time, but the heart’s gone out of it. I’ve been tortured without tears and saved lives without joy. I can’t tell you if that’s good or bad. My record’s clean. My teams mostly come back. I leave it at that.

So Leslie knew there was danger, on one hand, but on the other she didn’t.

It wasn’t something we discussed. I didn’t come home from the office and tell her whose lives I’d played with during the day. I didn’t come home to her at all—we just met quietly, now and again, for drinks and conversation, or sometimes a show. I was busy and, if anything, she was busier, and we agreed to leave things that way until I left the field once and for all. She had all the children she wanted. There was no need to rush.

But in the six years that we cared for each other—while she told me her problems and wept over each small new scar—in those years, even though I made it clear she might lose me, I never once paced back and forth in front of her and spelled out the details. I never warned her that sixty-five children might die because of her affection for me.

I look back at that Christmas Eve table and ask myself why.

“You’re quiet tonight, Gordon.” Leslie rested her hand on mine briefly and smiled. She was beautiful, blond hair pulled loosely back, wearing a blue dress fresh off the sewing machine that had been my Christmas gift. Her fifth sewing machine—the children made all their own clothes. “Gordon?”

“Sorry.” She was right. I was worried about Stanley and Livingston, my number two and three agents, earning their nicknames by being overdue for their twenty-fifth consecutive affair. Istanbul was going to have to move in to complete their mission if we didn’t hear by morning, with guaranteed casualties. I tried to smile back. “Just business.”

“Do you need to go?”

“Not right now. I might have to later.”

Leslie nodded. She knew what it meant to have commitments that can’t be ignored.

Next to Leslie, Solo caught my eye. “Would you like me to check in with Art Lindsten?”

Solo is Alex’s protégé. Charming, cavalier, and undisciplined—not unlike Alex himself—and in my private opinion a disastrous choice for the next CEA. He has a brilliant field record, with only one death on any team he’s been part of in the last four and a half years. But that’s exactly the problem. As CEA, I doubt he’ll be in the office more than one day in seven. Operational responsibility will fall back on Alex, who’s not as young as he used to be and might even buckle under the strain. And then where will we be, Harry, Gabhail, Carlo, Sugitani, Matovu, and me? It will be ten years at least before the organization can stand without the Old Man.

Under different circumstances, I’d prefer the Russian for CEA, Illya Kuryakin, a much steadier fellow. Granted, he’s too young, and given his background and the wringer Harry ran him through in Europe he’d be an unpopular choice. Two years might see him through all that, though.

Alex seems to think Solo and Kuryakin will end up together and balance the load, and maybe he’s right. He usually is. In the meantime, my clear responsibility is to hold the fort until the last possible second.

Doubtless, that’s part of Alex’s master plan, too.

I toyed with my wine glass and considered Solo’s offer—to spot check Art and see if he’d botched up anything big. Art Lindsten is head of Section Three, meaning he gets operational control about six nights a month, and every one of those nights is a nail in my coffin. I itched to say yes, but sending Solo would be a slap in Art’s face. I calculated the odds that Art needed slapping. About one in three. Not good enough.

“I’m sure Mr. Lindsten will let us know if he needs us.”

Solo’s mouth twitched but he held his tongue. I had to admit he’d grown up lately. I almost felt sorry for him.

At last Solo kicked into social mode and entertained Leslie, as I’d hoped he would, telling a mostly-true anecdote about himself and Kitt Kittridge guarding a boatload of artifacts on its way down the Nile, chain smoking Egyptian cigarettes and throwing them into the river. They didn’t discover until Cairo that the artifacts were munitions and the boat was leaking gasoline all over the water.

Leslie laughed. Solo laughed. But I didn’t, because in all my years running operations there’s one thing I’ve learned. You can feel almost as much grief over what nearly happened as over what actually did.

 

Illya

Photographs are stock in trade in this business and a photographer’s eye is an asset. A military base here. A compromising rendezvous there. Seemingly innocent snapshots that travel like currency from the pockets of one agent to another. I was reasonably certain that an U.N.C.L.E. Christmas party with Santa dressed in bathrobe and dog pajamas would fetch a good price on the espionage market, perhaps eight or nine hundred dollars if Gordon Hutchinson stepped into the frame. Twice that if he sat on Santa’s lap. Quadruple if Mr. Waverly happened into the picture. Such a photograph would reveal nothing and be useless for blackmail, and yet, men are such that I knew a number in high places would feel great personal satisfaction simply viewing it.

Mr. Hutchinson wisely steered clear of Paul, and spared me the temptation of greed.

“Are you really Santa?”

“Too right I am.”

Dinner was nearly over and Paul was on his twenty-sixth orphan. I’ll say this in Paul’s favor: he doesn’t balk at excess. One-by-one children were excused to visit Santa. The little ones climbed into his lap. The big ones shook his hand. Alice and I retrieved a gift matching the child’s whispered nametag. Paul cracked jokes, gasped out holiday wishes, and eventually sent the child back to his or her table to open the present.

I handed Paul a package marked Lucy.

“You don’t look like Santa.” Lucy pointed to the jolly red and white housebreaker portrayed on her gift wrap. She was a lap-orphan, about six years of age.

“Yeah, well. My regular suit’s in the wash. But have a go at this.” Paul pointed a thumb toward me. “I brought my own elf.”

Lucy’s critical gaze fell on me, but I felt no urge at all to look elfin.

“He’s wearing black.”

“He’s a grim elf.”

“He’s too tall.”

Paul lifted the squealing child onto a shoulder and gave her the standing view, never failing to be impressed with his own height.

Lucy stared down at me, half persuaded. “Say something in elf!”

I kept it simple. “You are riding an ass.” Paul’s Russian is deplorable.

“OK.” She gave Paul a sticky kiss on the way back down. “Merry Christmas.”

“Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas.”

Lucy scampered away. I put a hand out to brace Paul as he lowered, breathing hard, into his chair. This was ridiculous; another thirty-nine children would kill him, and while I quite cheerfully envision Paul’s death from time to time, it seemed imprudent to put a damper on the CEA’s party.

I caught Napoleon’s eye as he wandered among tables, magically extracting coins from small ears, and nodded toward Paul. Before Napoleon reached us, however, Alice Shea returned, her own Santa hat charmingly askew over the red hair and glasses.

“Just five more.” She patted Paul’s shoulder. “Sarah’s going to deliver presents to the kids over twelve.”

“No worries.” The ho-hos had used up most of Paul’s voice. “Me and the elf are having so much fun, we might give U.N.C.L.E. away and take up the Santa business instead.”

I used simple grammar. “When hell freezes.”

“Thanks, Paul.” Alice hugged him and looked as though she’d like to hug me, which seemed a nice idea until I reminded myself the boss’s secretary is off limits. More to the point, Alice is a very sweet, very smart lady who would never be happy with the sort of romance a field agent can offer.

She straightened Paul’s hat. “I’ll walk you back to the infirmary later and you can reward me with fruitcake.”

Paul grinned at her. “When ell-hay eezes-fray.” He turned back to shake the hand of orphan twenty-seven. Sam Brown.

“Uh oh,” Santa muttered under his breath. “We’re in for it now.”

 

Paul

There’s a mood you get into, when you’re knackered. A sort of forward groove that stretches thinner and thinner underneath while the surface stays mostly intact. Soldiers know it, and refugees. Policemen. Doctors and nurses. Anyone who’s ever simply had to go on. Not that the orphans’ party was life and death; nobody would have blamed me for leaving. But I’d been in that groove so long by the night of the party, I’d forgotten there might be a way out.

Anyhow, spending time with kids is a treat.

Sam Brown was ten, that awkward age where they’d still like to sit on your lap but don’t think they should. I held out my hand and he shook it.

“Ice floes Sam?”

“You read my note!”

“I’m Santa. I read everyone’s note.”

“Oh yeah?” He looked a little skeptically at my outfit, and then jerked his head back toward his mates at the table. “What’d Toby ask for?”

I had no idea which one was Toby. “Puppy.” I guessed. Either that or a gun. They were safe choices at this age, like starting with ‘E’ and ‘T’ in a game of hangman. For that matter, puppy and gun would have headed my own Santa list, right after ten minutes alone with Victor Marton.

“Maybe,” Sam admitted. I’d scored a point, even if he wasn’t impressed by the suit.

“Sit down, Sam. Santa’s got a little pressie problem to discuss.”

Sam took a seat on the footstool. “I wasn’t expecting a puppy.” He watched me closely.

“Worse than that,” I admitted.

“I know you can’t really freeze my bunkmate.”

“Not without good reason, I can’t. I’ll talk to him, if you think it’ll help.”

He shook his head in disgust. “Then I guess you must have burned up my Jackie Kennedy doll.”

I was struck dumb, which is pretty rare for me.

“It’s sticking out under your chair.”

I looked down. Sure enough. I’d forgot it was there. I pulled out the scorched package.

“Just the feet,” I showed him. “One of the elves went out for a replacement, but he’s sort of late, so I might need an extra day or two for delivery.”

Sam shrugged in an I’m an orphan, I’m used to it way that nearly finished me off. I couldn’t send him packing like that.

“In the meantime my pal, Illya the Elf, is going to give you five bucks for your trouble.”

Sam’s jaw dropped. “Five bucks?” We turned toward Illya, whose vodka was not sitting well on his tummy. But what could he do? All I had in my pocket was a boa constrictor.

“Hit your kick.”

Kuryakin scowled into his wallet and rummaged around, finally coming up with five ones.

“Gee, thanks!” Sam told him, forgetting I deserved most of the credit. He glanced back down at the floor. “Can I keep the burned doll, too?”

“I reckon.” I wondered if that would get me in bad with the orphan police. “But I gotta ask, Sam. What kind of toy is that for a ten-year old boy?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s for my sister.”

“Your what?”

“Lucy, my sister. She’s six.” He lifted his head. “I didn’t have money to buy her a present, all right? So I asked for something to give her.” He turned away. “You don’t have to make a federal case out of it.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or pass out. They all sounded good. I mussed his hair, instead.

Sam recovered his spirits. “Say, what else is under that chair?” He reached down and opened Mum’s tin.

“Fruitcake!” His voice filled with greed. “This smells great; I love fruitcake.”

I put a hand on the lid. “Not a chance.”

“I’ll pay you five bucks for it.”

“No.”

About then, the Elf moved in and aimed Sam, Jackie, and the five dollars off toward a table. I blinked away spots.

Four orphans to go.

 

Alice

I don’t know what I expected when I first came to U.N.C.L.E. Not to help save the world, because you don’t find that out right away. Not glamour or adventure—I’d already learned a new life means a new set of problems. Certainly not to spend six weeks learning to duck pursuit, throw a punch, and wrestle a gun out from behind my back in three seconds flat.

Mostly I just thought the men I met as a physical therapy aide were a whole lot more interesting than my chemistry finals. There were only a few of them, scattered amongst our regular patients, and they didn’t say much, but there was something about them, something beyond handsome and wounded and charming that set them apart—a sense of conviction, a good-natured determination to go out and get hurt again, that made me think they had a cause they believed in. At eighteen, with my mom’s dream of nursing school crumbling around me, I desperately wanted a cause.

So I decided to learn more about them. I told a joke here, asked a question there, and entertained them with tales of my folks back in Racine, Wisconsin. Those men had a huge appetite for stories with lakes, kids, and dogs, and even then I could see the one thing field agents most cherish is the thing they can’t have—an innocent life. Before you knew it I’d learned…a lot more than anyone realized.

But the more I knew them, the less I could bear seeing them hurt. Finally I confronted one—a quiet man who came twice a week trying to regain the use of his hand—and asked him, what could I do? How could I keep them from getting bashed up in the first place? He laughed, but on his next visit I got an application packet as thick as my thumb.

That was Hutch, of course, and I take pride in being one of the few people who found him interesting right off the bat, because he takes so much pride in acting dull. I asked him once, didn’t it bother him being overlooked all the time? His no got me thinking. It’s sort of an ace in the hole. Hutch draws just as much attention as he intends to. And whether you notice or not, when you’re around him you usually do what he wants.

Napoleon Solo could learn something from Hutch if he cared to, but naturally, Mr. Know-All does not. If Thrush ever really wanted to get Napoleon, they could just arrange five minutes out of the limelight and he’d fall over dead.

OK, ten minutes.

I don’t mean to be hard on Napoleon—he’s a great guy with a knack for bringing out the best in people, and, unlike some agents, he never talks down to those of us who aren’t in the field. When Napoleon asks for something—coffee even—you really do feel like you’re saving the world. Men and women alike work their butts off to please him and say thanks for the privilege afterwards.

They work hard for Hutch, too, but I admit I’ve never heard one say thanks.

I guess Napoleon’s flashy charm is as much a false front as Hutch’s discretion. Neither one of them gives you the time of day unless it suits them. And sometimes, that drives me bananas. I mean, do you really have to search for hidden meaning when someone asks for the time? I prefer a man who simply answers or doesn’t, without all the scheming. If he happens to have blond hair, a dreamy accent, and a face like an angel so much the better.

I admit Illya doesn’t bring out the best in people, but that’s because they don’t give him a chance. He’s kept me company more than one late night at headquarters, chatting and helping with logistical nightmares that make me want to rip out my hair. I know for a fact he does it only from kindness, because as far as attraction goes, trust me, I’ve tried.

But they’re all kind, every last one of them. Even Paul with his half-witted goading. Even Harry Beldon who still calls twice a week to make sure Hutch is OK.

I met Harry Beldon once. He came to New York and whisked Hutch off for an evening of what they called drinking, but I suspect was something a lot less respectable. They were in Hutch’s office at dawn the next morning, laughing and finishing a bottle of slivovitz as if that were the most natural thing for Hutch to do in the world. I wish that it was.

I’m supposed to be talking about the party, but my heart isn’t in it.

This was the fifth children’s party I’d done, and we were running about par for the course. One fire. One fist fight. No Santa. And Paul, who has neither charm, nor discretion, nor a face like an angel, but somehow you can’t help but like him, though in a way I’d prefer not to. Some agents are like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You just know they’re not going to make it.

Sarah says there’s no point in worrying because none of them makes it. She says there’s only one activity worth staying up all night for, and it’s not chartering emergency helicopters out of Yugoslavia. Sarah’s my friend, but sometimes I could slap her, because there’s one thing that’s certain. Not one of those boys ever gasps out with his last breath, “Gee, Alice might as well have gone home early six weeks ago.”

Do you really think they stay up all night? I mean, wouldn’t they be tired?

Anyway, I’ve noticed Sarah’s in no hurry for me to leave when Napoleon’s life is in danger.

We were all in danger the night of the party, but nobody knew it when Paul finished his own version of Santa a short while after dinner. I took his arm, hoping not to get a handful of snake, and hauled him to the top of the stairs. Napoleon followed us out to the landing.

Paul stripped off the Santa wig and sat down on the top step, looking beat. But when he saw Napoleon, he sat straight and patted his robe pockets. “Just my luck. No fags.”

Napoleon blinked before turning toward me. “Do me a favor?” He tugged the collar of my blouse and laughed when I gave him my don’t-even-try glare, lifting his hands in surrender. “Stop by…casually…and see if Connie’s had word from Stanley and Livingston.”

It seemed an odd request. If Connie’d had word from our missing team, then Art Lindsten would have had word. And if Art had word he should have called Hutch. Should have, but not necessarily would. Napoleon was asking me to do an end run around the bosses, and since it was not his business, I found myself wondering why. Hutch was the one who—

I felt a pang of guilt, realizing Hutch must have been worrying all night and that I should have thought to check with Connie earlier. The party had put the whole thing out of my mind. Then it hit me: Napoleon was asking for Hutch’s sake. I almost kissed him.

“Sure.” I winked, instead. “I’ll bribe her with a nice piece of fruitcake.”

Paul’s answer was thin. “Not a chance.” He slumped again, putting his cheek on the banister.

Napoleon looked down and sighed. “I’ll come with you.” He pulled Paul up and we all started down together.

But we never made it. A few seconds later a dark figure came barreling in through the lobby doors and charged up the base of the stairs.

“Jesus Christ!” Jerry Preston yelped as he froze and stared up at three guns: mine, Napoleon’s, and Paul’s, which he’d pulled from an ankle holster he shouldn’t have been wearing. Jerry was holding a big box and had a wild look on his face. “Go!” he yelled starting up two stairs at a time. “Go! Go! The street’s crawling with Thrush!”

 

George

Hardly anyone knows I’m a good dancer. In fact, people hardly know a lot of things about me. I play tennis. I’m good at chess. I have solid marks on the target range—just because a fellow doesn’t carry a gun doesn’t mean he can’t shoot one. I can quote every technical specification of every U.N.C.L.E. device developed over the last fifteen years, and I’m an alternate in the St. Thomas Church men’s choir.

Alice doesn’t know I’m a good cook, although I’ve offered to fix her dinner three or four times.

Jerry Preston doesn’t know Art Lindsten’s my brother-in-law.

Sarah Johnson hardly knows I exist.

I guess that sounds cranky, but the fact is, I’m happy at U.N.C.L.E. It’s the sort of place where a guy like me can write his own ticket, professionally speaking, where I can work for the good guys and play with every toy under the sun, and what could be better than that? If I don’t get a lot of attention, well, that’s just because everyone’s high caliber. They’d notice pretty quick if their documents weren’t secure, believe you me.

Anyhow, I pick up the story just after dinner when Mandy broke out the record player under the bar, and yes, I thought it was locked, too, but Mandy said something to Napoleon and Napoleon said something to Illya and it appears I was wrong. So we pushed some more chairs out of the way, popped Chubby Checkers onto the old turntable, and showed the orphans a new twist or two on the…well…twist.

Turns out Mandy’s a good dancer, too.

Napoleon and Sarah joined in, and Miss Leslie—let me digress just for a second here to mention what a nice lady she is; I really hope she won’t cut her ties with U.N.C.L.E. just because of what happened—Miss Leslie danced, too. Then some girls got Illya going and pretty soon the only party poopers were Mr. Hutchinson (who changed records) and Alice and Paul, who left. I found out later Paul was sick. At the time I took the pajama thing for one of his jokes. Anyhow, Napoleon left, too, but you can’t call him a pooper, since as I said, he’d been dancing up to then.

This is the good part, where I save the day.

All that dancing made the kids’ new shoes pinch their feet, so Miss Leslie said they could take them off and line them up next to the door, and there was just something wrong with those shoes.

“Geo-orge.”

Why do people say my name like that? Mandy was giving me that don’t-embarrass-us eye roll she has.

“Geo-orge, it’s not polite to handle other people’s shoes.”

“They’re not right.” I held one out to her. “The heels are crooked.”

Mandy tried to put the shoe back. “They’re orphans, George,” she whispered. “They probably can’t afford decent shoes.”

About that time Napoleon, Alice, and Paul came back in with Jerry Preston, who was holding a big cardboard box, and the enforcement agents went into a huddle next to the bar. I took the orphan’s shoe and joined them.

“John Varner’s custom Cadillac, I swear,” Jerry Preston was saying. “Parked halfway down the block. I know the makes and license numbers of all the Thrush bigwigs. And they’ve got two men on the street and a fat guy in a trench coat in the Italian restaurant opposite Del’s. I waited fifteen minutes, but they’re not doing anything special apart from keeping an eye on the building.”

I held out the shoe. “Napoleon? There’s something wrong with this.”

Napoleon held up a hand. “Not now, George.” I could see they were getting into Enforcement mode, and once they’ve done that it’s hard for ordinary guys to get a word in edgewise. But Napoleon and I go way back. I was pretty sure he’d listen to me.

“Napoleon.”

Illya frowned. “Should we send out a team to check?”

“Not yet,” Mr. Hutchinson told him. “We don’t want to force Varner’s hand.”

“Hutch,” Napoleon said slowly. “Maybe you should go back to headquarters. Things between you and Varner tend to get a little…personal.”

“Napoleon, I think there’s something wrong with these shoes.”

He looked at me like I’d sprouted horns. “Is this important?”

“You see—” I nodded and, sure enough, those tin-foil antlers fell off my head. “You see, these are high quality patent leather with an expensive polish.”

Napoleon pinched his lips together in what I guess must have been an effort at patience.

“And the nails. Cheap shoes are glued—the same kind of glue you get from horses hooves, by the way—but good shoes are nailed, like these.” I let him hold it and see for himself. “It’s just inconceivable so many of the heels would be crooked.”

“Ten second summary, George.”

“Well.” I swallowed. “Well, I think somebody took off the heels and put them back on. The way we do, I mean, when we want to hide something. Only we’re neater, of course.”

I had his attention now. In fact, the whole lot of them stopped talking and stared at me.

Mr. Hutchinson held out his hand. “Let me see that.” He turned the shoe over and looked at the nails. “He’s right.” He handed the shoe to Illya. “Are they all like this?”

Illya moved to a corner, took out a pocket knife, and began prying gently at the edge of the heel.

“About half,” I said. “But that doesn’t prove anything. They could have done a better job on the rest of them.”

There was a moment while everyone added things up and then Illya returned with the shoe heel. I peeked over and let out a whistle. Plastic explosive, sure enough, packed with a tiny radio detonator.

“How big is the charge?” Mr. Hutchinson asked.

“If they’re all the same?” Illya glanced at two neat rows of shoes. “Enough to destroy this building and Del Floria’s as well. I doubt headquarters would be affected.”

Personally I think he overestimated and that Del Floria’s would have been left partly intact.

“Crikey.” That was Paul.

“But,” Illya said slowly, “if they’re outside with a transmitter, why haven’t they set it off? What are they waiting for?”

Napoleon rubbed his chin. “If John Varner’s behind this, he’ll want to boast first.” He gave Mr. Hutchinson an odd look. “Don’t you think?”

That’s when the phone on the bar started to ring.

 

Illya

That first call was Security, confirming Jerry Prescott’s intelligence. John Varner, Hutch’s local Thrush counterpart, had parked his car down the street and there were three likely Thrush agents outside. Hutch ordered Security to stand down and stay out of sight.

Unfortunately, we had no way to evacuate. To leave the Mask Club, one must walk downstairs to the lobby and then either exit or take the lift up to the after-hours entrance in U.N.C.L.E.’s third-floor charity office. Anyone watching who saw us move sixty-five children, or even sixty-five pairs of shoes, would doubtless simply trigger the bombs.

George Dennell offered to use his torch to cut a hole through the ceiling and gain access to the night entrance. Jerry Prescott volunteered to slip out and lead a strike force against the men watching outside.

In the moment it took Mr. Hutchinson to discard these ideas, Napoleon, Paul, and I began disarming the bombs. Hutch, George, and Jerry Prescott quickly joined in. It was the only viable option.

Six men at an average of forty-five seconds apiece for one hundred and thirty individual bombs.

We’d need about sixteen minutes to finish the job.

 

Leslie

What hurt most was that nobody even looked surprised.

One minute we were in a fantasy of good food, presents, and dancing. The next the children and I were herded into the farthest corner of the room while U.N.C.L.E. people started quietly ripping apart shoes. I didn’t know why at first, but it was obviously serious.

I settled the boys and girls in the corner and then followed Sarah Johnson back to the bar.

Gordon spared me one glance. “It would be safer to stay back.” Then he ignored me and went back to clipping wires.

“How can I help?”

Sarah handed me a shoe and a screwdriver, and showed me how to pry off the heel and set it on the bar for the men. They were all clipping wires now, Gordon and Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, calm and intent, Mr. Dennell and the young black-haired man who’d just come in, wide-eyed and serious, and the one in pajamas, tall and pale, who only looked tired. I found myself wondering stupidly where they’d gotten so many sets of little tools—screwdrivers, wire snips, and so on—did they carry them around in their pockets?

Which of course, it turned out they did.

Mandy ran back and forth collecting and counting the shoes. Sarah, Alice, and I pried off the heels, and I gradually realized that each pair had been meant to kill one of my children. Even the smallest shoes were packed with tiny explosives.

“Can’t we get the children away?” I hated sounding so normal. I wanted to scream, but after fourteen years running an institution, you’re either a screamer or not. I’d forgotten how to raise my voice.

“We can’t move anyone,” Solo said. “They’ll trigger the bombs if they think you’re trying to escape.”

The phone rang again.

“Mask Club.” Alice tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder and kept right on prying off heels. “Why, Mr. Varner, are you planning to drop in on our party?” She paused. “What manner of speaking did you have in mind?”

Varner. Gordon had said that name when I asked about the cast on his hand. An accident named John Varner.

“He’s in the restroom. A little too much rich food at dinner, I think.”

There had been other accidents, since that first one, but I’d learned not to ask after their names.

“Why don’t you hold the line; I’m sure he’ll be right back.”

Why? The word stuck in my mind. Why would anyone kill orphans? No one wanted us alive, let alone dead. I felt I was in one of those dreams, the ones where something horrible happens, but part of you knows it can’t be real.

Kuryakin caught the pajama man’s arm. “Blue wire,” he said evenly.

The man swore, put down his snippers and wiped his hands. Then he picked up the snippers and started again.

“Mr. Varner, that almost sounds like a threat. A demonstration?”

There was a loud crack, like a tree-branch falling, and a flash of light on the floor. Solo and Kuryakin both dove onto the unfinished pile of shoes. The smell of scorched leather spilled past them. Some of the children started to cry.

“Alice,” Gordon said, “scream.”

“My God, oh my God, what have you done?” Alice babbled into the phone.

Solo and Kuryakin hopped back up, rubbing their heads, and each grabbed a fresh heel.

“Free sample,” Kuryakin muttered.

A free sample. One child killed, free of charge. For a brief moment, I wished Mr. Kuryakin were dead.

“I’ll get Hutch. He’s coming.” Alice put the phone to her chest.

This was too awful to be a dream. The dream had been Gordon and U.N.C.L.E. This was just waking up. John Varner, whoever he was, would kill us as pawns in a feud we had no part of.

Gordon took the phone. “John. It’s been too long.”

There were tears on my cheeks by then. Not for me, not even for the children, but for Gordon and the rest of these terrible men who disarmed bombs with no more fuss than I washed off skinned knees. They were damned for luring us here, just as much as John Varner, outside, was damned for holding the button.

“But you don’t know for sure. This call could be patched through to me anywhere inside headquarters.”

His voice blurred then. I couldn’t listen. All I could do was stoop down, pick up a shoe, pry off the heel. It seemed to go on for hours, although the clock said just a few minutes. I’ve never been so tired in my life.

And then the shoe pile was gone. We’d done it. The children were safe.

“All right,” Gordon said into the phone.

Sarah threw her arms around the black-haired boy, and Mandy kissed Mr. Dennell. The pajama man sank onto a barstool and lay his head in his arms.

Solo and Kuryakin kept their eyes glued to Gordon.

“I’ll come out, and you’ll let the kids go. Agreed.” He hung up.

I turned and walked slowly back to the children, feeling a hundred years old.

“Well, Mr. Solo.” I left Gordon’s cold voice behind me. “Time to earn your promotion.”

 

Hutch

We threw smoke bombs out the front door and tried to outflank them, but our advantage was gone when they realized they couldn’t blow up the building. After a moment of gunplay, the Thrush presence melted away. I survived with one scar to add to the collection.

Kuryakin and Solo managed to stuff a couple of heel-bombs into John Varner’s tailpipe, which made a nice flash. Varner escaped. Now we won’t know what car he drives until intelligence catches up and it will be just that much harder to track him, but since Solo took it on himself to unruffle Art Lindsten’s I’m-in-charge-of-operations-tonight feathers, I’m prepared to cut him some slack.

Jerry Prescott acquitted himself well under fire. I believe I’ll give him to Kuryakin for a few weeks and see how things go. If he survives working with Solo, Kuryakin, and Paul Matthews, Section Two probably deserves him.

Mandy, Alice, Sarah, and George offered to sponsor the puppy in Jerry’s cardboard box, so for the first time Leslie’s kids have a dog. There was a little confusion over breed. The one Jerry picked looked more like a collie/Labrador mutt than a spaniel, but with sixty-five kids to play with, big is probably better.

Paul Matthews was carted back to the infirmary and handcuffed to bed.

Stanley and Livingston reported in, dead drunk, from Ankara. I’d have suspended them both, but Alex needed a team in Athens the next day—something that no doubt played into their timing.

Security cleared the bus and the Children’s Home itself around midnight. The kids went home heel-less but happy, buoyed up by two rounds of ice cream and their new puppy.

Leslie and I said cordial goodbyes.

I don’t expect to see her again.

 

Paul

About the last thing I remember is the wires going gray. That’s never happened before, all color draining out of the world, and if it happens again, I hope I’m not disarming a bomb at the time. I did a few more shoes, I think, with Sarah checking the wires before I cut them, but it’s sort of a blur.

Next thing, I woke up in an oxygen mask with Kate’s brown hand in mine. She was talking to Snow White—Jerry Prescott, that is—who was wearing the same star-struck expression most men get around Kate. Jer caught my eye and blushed scarlet up to the hairline, so maybe we won’t be hearing that bloody boomerang song any more.

“Where—” I had to hunt around for my voice. “Where’d you come from?” Kate owns a bar in New Orleans and does occasional business for U.N.C.L.E. We don’t see each other a lot.

“Illya called. He said handcuffs wouldn’t keep you in bed.”

“Too right.” The image of bombs and orphans came to me, and the sound of gunshot out on the street. “What happened? Where are Blondie and Dagwood?” I tried to sit up but between the handcuffs on one side and Kate on the other I couldn’t get out from under the mask.

“Everyone’s fine,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”

Which I did.

***

That must have been Christmas, because I didn’t really wake up till the day after. Kate was in a chair nearby, reading over some pages of music. Hutch was propped up in the other hospital bed with a stack of reports on his knees, looking about how I felt. Later I learned he’d taken a bullet in the shoulder, slapped on a field bandage, chased John Varner a half mile down the street, and then walked back and organized ice cream for the kids, all without saying more than two-dozen words.

It was good to see familiar faces, because waking up that way—cuffed to a bed—gives a bloke a turn. I suppose they mean well, the docs, but they don’t know what it’s like.

One by one the gang trooped in to check on Hutch. Alice and Sarah brought him flowers. Mandy delivered a half dozen newspapers. George Dennell wheeled in a document safe so Hutch could keep right on driving us cattle from bed, thank you very much. Even Mr. Waverly came down to visit, and with so many people in that room it was a wonder they managed to leave space around his chair, but they did.

“I thought you might like to know I’ve transferred sponsorship of Mittens’ Home for Children from Section Seven to an independent and irrevocable trust.” Waverly tapped his pipe, but it was too much to hope he might light it. I indulged the brief fantasy of stuffing a large number of cigarettes up Victor Marton’s nose.

“I also had a long private talk with John Varner’s superior this morning,” Waverly continued. “I believe we can be certain the orphans are permanently off limits to Thrush.”

Hutch didn’t even look up. “That’s good news.”

My eyes met Kate’s and my stomach twisted. At least she knows the score, thank God. At least she doesn’t have kids.

Alice had a get-well pressie for me, too. King-sized white pajamas with little red and blue snowmen.

“Wear these.” She winked at me. “They’ll throw you out of the infirmary in no time.”

She’s a bonzer girl, our Alice.

A short while later, Blondie and Dagwood joined the party, and strike me pink if Dagwood wasn’t cradling Rosy, fat and sassy in a brand new glass cage. “Next dinner party,” he slid the cage onto my night table and used that low voice that means business, “no snakes.”

It hurt too much to laugh, so I settled for grinning.

Then I found myself staring. Blondie was also carrying something—Mum’s fruitcake, which I hadn’t until that very minute noticed was missing.

He set the tin next to Rosy. “You owe me another five dollars. I had to sneak onto the bus and ransom it from Sam.”

“Really?” I could hardly believe him. “Dinky die?”

He nodded.

“Thanks.” That pulled me up a bit, to tell you the truth. If a man saves your neck, well, it’s part of the job. But saving your mum’s fruitcake is a more serious matter. When guns, guts, and the end of the world are a man’s bread and butter, it’s small kindnesses that count.

“You’re lucky the man carries a gun,” Sarah put in. “I’ve had nothing but peanut butter and jelly for two days, since Mr. Rockefeller here,” she jerked her thumb at Napoleon, “decided we should all chip in our Christmas pennies to buy new shoes for the orphans.”

“Blame Illya,” Solo held up his hands. “He’s the one who insisted moral satisfaction should outweigh creature comfort.”

Kuryakin made his little half-smile. “Especially when we weigh my moral satisfaction against your creature comfort. By the way,” he caught my eye, “as the infirmary food is free, we committed you to a fifty-dollar donation.”

I thought about that. Even cuffed, I could just about hit him.

“Sign me up, too.” Kate pushed down on my arm. “We’ll have our imaginary belated Christmas dinner Dutch treat.”

I gave in, wondering if they’d searched my pajamas and vowing the handcuff would be off before lunch. Lunch…though in fact, I had no idea at all what time of day it was. It could be dinner, or brekkie, or tea….

Their eyes were all on me: Kate, Alice, Mandy, George, Sarah, Hutch, Napoleon, Illya—even Mr. Waverly, and Snow White peeking in at the door. I was lucky. They were a great group of people. But even though I’m remarkably handsome, under the circumstances, I didn’t think they were admiring my looks.

“I guess we better cut into it then.”

I didn’t have to ask twice. They’d even brought plates and forks, the bastards. But I didn’t get my back up. For one thing, I was too tired, and for another…well, at least this year they saved me a slice.

It tasted just like home.

 

The End

 

Acknowledgments: Originally published in Kuryakin Files #22. Many thanks to test readers Dusky, Sherri, C.W. Walker, Sandie Giraud, and Carol Lynn.