Stone Bridge Affair


The Stone Bridge Affair

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Copyright ©2007 Vicky Loebel
This is a work of fanfiction, intended to be shared freely with all who enjoy. No revenue has been generated from this story and no fee may be charged for it. All material not belonging to the Man From U.N.C.L.E. franchise is copyright Vicky Loebel. Please respect the hard work of authors everywhere and include this notice in any distribution.


December 29, 1962

Statistically speaking, a man is three times more likely to choke to death in his own kitchen than to die in a high-speed automobile chase down a winding road in southern New Hampshire.

Martin Vanderhof tightened leather gloves on the steering wheel and recited his actuarial tables. Twice as likely—there it was again, a flash of chrome as the afternoon sun pierced the clouds and lit the tattered ash trees behind him. Twice as likely to be killed (combining indoor and outdoor incidence) in an electrical storm.

Twenty-five times more likely to drown.

The light dimmed and Martin squinted at the roadway ahead. It had been a mild autumn, but today snow was in the air. Soon the few leaves that had stubbornly clung past their time would be buried under the inescapable dull gray of winter.

For now, though, the pavement was dry. Martin coaxed a little more speed from his beloved Cadillac Coupe de Ville as he entered the last curve before the old bridge that gave Stonebridge Hill Road its predictable name. Half as likely to be crushed by falling debris. He tensed his foot on the gas pedal, ready to ask for everything once the road became straight.

Three hundred and eighty six times more likely to die working for Thrush.

Martin suppressed that thought before it led to an even grimmer statistic—the probability of death after you could no longer stomach working for Thrush. His mind raced ahead to the bend that came after the bridge. It would be followed, in quick succession, by several easy-to-miss turnoffs. With enough lead, he had a good chance to lose his pursuers. And if he couldn’t…well…he knew how to handle a gun. He’d choose his ground and settle things with the men behind him, one way or another. He wouldn’t lead them to Mary.

The Cadillac roared out of the curve. The stone bridge leapt into view. Martin floored the accelerator as sunlight plunged one last time through the thickening clouds, making a brilliant tableau of dark maple trees, blue water stretching right and left into the distance, and the picturesque bridge…and glittered menacingly off an unexpected gleaming layer of darkness. Black ice.

It was too late to maneuver. Martin yanked the gearshift to low as his front tires bounced on the uneven approach to the bridge. The car came down hard. The steering floated free in his hands, and the world began a slow arc, in reverse, past his windshield—water, gray again, reflecting snow in the sky—brown earth cloaked in a red carpet of maple leaves—and the steep, mocking curve of his path down the hill. The rear bumper connected with stone and Martin’s head snapped back, helplessly, to stare at the interior roof or the car. And then slowly, slowly, though he knew it could be no more than an instant, the scream of crumpling metal rose and fell in a clatter of masonry. The rear tires dropped off the pavement, sending the Cadillac onto its belly. The sky tilted into front and side windows, and the river exploded behind him, throwing his seat forward, crushing his breath against the weight of the steering column.

The world faded to a place of dim light and peaceful resolution.

Windows. An icy trickle nudged Martin awake. He should open a window. The chance of escaping a submerged vehicle decreases as pressure increases outside the door. He knew the statistics. He didn’t need fists pounding the glass to remind him. Martin fumbled awkwardly for the electric button, gasping as the window inched down and freezing water cascaded in. The door swung outward. The car sank. He had barely time enough to draw one last, ragged breath before the vault of the river closed over him.

The man outside chased the sinking car down, catching the door frame, hauling himself forward in a swirl of pale hair. Martin watched in vague disapproval as one white hand took a grip on the steering wheel and the other snaked down to unbuckle his seatbelt. The chance of third-party rescue from a vehicle under the water is effectively zero. The man paused, and for an instant Martin thought he had sensibly abandoned his efforts. Then a knife flashed. The belt parted. The man braced both feet against the driver’s seat, reached forward and wrenched Martin, bodily, out of the car.

And all for nothing. With quiet detachment, Martin watched the rippled surface travel toward him while pink bubbles from his ruined chest trailed out behind. It was no effort to hold his breath under the water. There’d be little enough need for air once he was out. Martin closed his eyes against the blur of the river and smiled. His secret was safe. The rescue had failed.

It was comforting, somehow, to know he hadn’t beaten the odds.

***

It is not theoretically possible to freeze in less time than it takes one to drown. Illya Kuryakin repeated this fact, silently, as he struggled to get his limp burden up to the surface. True, most of his underwater experience had been in tropical waters surrounding Survival School, where one was unlikely to freeze under any circumstance. And drowning was beginning to look like a real possibility.

Illya gritted his teeth, kicking bare legs and socks against the unrelenting grasp of the river. The water he’d dived into was neither fast-moving nor excessively deep, but it was cold. Heart-stoppingly, mind-numbingly cold. And the body, the man, he insisted stubbornly, slack in his arms was a difficult bundle to tow.

Difficult…but not impossible. Bit by bit, as the urge to fill his lungs became almost irresistible, he left the depths of the river behind. Then sky at last. Illya plowed to the surface, forcing Vanderhof’s face up beside him, and gasped in three minutes of life.

Bozhe moi. A blast of wind hit him and drowning became unimportant. Illya tugged Vanderhof’s lolling head onto his shoulder, clamped an arm across the man’s collar bone, and side-stroked for all he was worth toward what he hoped was the shore. It was hard to tell, with the featureless gray clouds pressing down on him and the wind buffeting—first one ear and then the other—like a madwoman, struggling frantically to stay out of her straightjacket.

Painfully…searingly…the bridge crept past overhead as Illya thrust his arm through the cold water and kicked…arm and kick…arm…. He’d endured interrogations less effective than this. Not that freezing was a good way to extract information. To get answers, a subject needed to remain fairly clear-headed. In cold like this, one could barely remember one’s….

“Illya!”

Napoleon’s voice, faint above the roar in his ears. That was good. It meant the shore was there…somewhere. Illya closed his eyes and kicked harder. It really wouldn’t do to veer off course and swim the entire length of the river by accident. He had a vision of the two of them, himself and this dying man, locked in one another’s embrace, drifting down the St. Lawrence Seaway….

“Illya!” Napoleon again, reaching out for them, chest deep in the water. He pulled the man into his arms and floundered, churning mud, toward the shore. Illya put his feet down and floundered after them. Ten steps. Fifteen. Forty-five. The effort was consuming vast stores of energy. Then the riverbank was in front of him. He stopped, the wind raking head and shoulders, and stared stupidly at the steep grassy slope.

“Hold on a minute.” Napoleon thrust the unconscious man at Illya and then scrabbled up and over the bank, turning and creeping partway back down on his belly. “C’mon.” He gestured urgently. “Pass him up.”

Illya frowned. To reach Napoleon, he’d have to lift, at least part of the man’s dead weight, a good two and a half feet over his head. Well then. He took a deep breath and squatted under the water—shuddering all over again at the icy shock of it—gripped the man by the shoulders, braced his feet, and rose in one long heart-wrenching motion, impelling the man’s upper half into the air, arching back as the lower half of the body slumped onto his face.

Illya closed his eyes, gasping, against a torrent of gritty water.

“Higher,” Solo demanded.

Illya made a valiant effort to stand on his toes. The mud made a valiant effort to suck his feet downward.

Sixty seconds. He began to count silently. One…. Two…. Three. It was a professional axiom that anything could be endured at least sixty seconds. Four…. An axiom which, rather unfortunately, tended to point the mind in the direction of the things had been endured. Five…. Illya set that unencouraging line of thought firmly aside. Worse than this, he summarized broadly. I’ve been through far worse. Last week, alone, there had been a remarkably odious Section Three briefing….

Six…. The wind cut his wet undershirt like a torturer’s knife.

“For pity’s sake, Napoleon, hurry!” He regretted his outburst at once—less because he knew perfectly well his partner was doing his best and more because of the trickle of mud that found its way into his mouth. Eight….A shower of pebbles traced an uneven circle around him. Ten….

He wasn’t going to make it to sixty.

But that was all right; field agents were trained to be flexible. Thirty seconds. Illya shortened his axiom as lights began to flash at the edge of his vision. Anything could be endured at least thirty seconds.

Eleven—and then relief, blessed relief as Napoleon began a steady pull upward. Illya squatted again, wrapped his arms around the man’s shins and shoved, grunting triumphantly as their prize slid up the bank and onto dry grass, sputtering as the effort drove his feet sideways and sent him under the water once more.

Dry. For a moment he was certain he’d never be dry again. He wasn’t certain he cared.

Still, one had to try. Once more, Illya thrashed his way up to the surface, and then at last it was his turn to exit the river. He hugged his arms tight to his chest and set his mind to puzzling over where, precisely, the exit had gone; the water seemed to end in some sort of grayish-green wall.

The wind roared around him, a furious burst filled with stinging bits of debris, and Illya noted, almost absently, that he hardly minded at all. He noted—a little less absently—that standing waist deep in frigid water, without minding it, was not conducive to one’s continuing health.

In point of fact, it would be a very good idea to come up with a plan.

Climb.

A clod of dirt bounced off his shoulder. Illya glanced up to see Napoleon peering over the edge of the riverbank with a surprisingly old-womanish look of anxiety. His partner’s mouth moved soundlessly behind the curtain of wind.

Get the fuck out of the water.

Illya snorted. U.N.C.L.E. didn’t teach vocabulary like that at lip-reading school.

He shook himself and set about scrabbling up the steep slope, clutching tufts of grass with hands that were numb to sensation, using eyes to judge the strength of his grasp, feeling better now that he was active again. Keep moving. That was the best short-term defense against cold. As he knew perfectly well, having once spent an unreasonable period of time—for a submarine lieutenant—developing cold-weather expertise. He reached the top of the bank and threw himself down on the ground for a couple of blood-pumping push-ups. Counting them off.

Zero…. Zero point…. zero.

Illya rested his nose in the dirt, thinking his naval career would have been more profitably spent developing warm weather expertise which—if not helpful—would at least have provided a storehouse of fond memories.

He lifted eyes to where Napoleon was struggling, mouth-to-mouth, to blow air into the shattered man’s lungs. Vanderhof, Illya reminded himself, struggling up onto hands and knees. Not some anonymous man. Martin Vanderhof. The Thrush actuary they’d been following with strict orders to bring back alive.

Oops.

Abruptly Illya felt much more alert. He managed a half-dozen low pushups and then scrambled onto his feet, blowing, if not heat, then at least a small measure of life into his hands. “Miortvii?”

Napoleon shot him a haggard glance. “He’s alive. Just barely. Get the medical kit. I’ve already radioed for help.”

Illya tracked Napoleon’s wave along the riverbank to a jumble of possessions halfway back to the road. He considered the distance. Fifty yards? Seventy-five? It seemed an unreasonably long way. He took a couple of uneven strides, stumbled, and paused to collect himself thinking just once it would be nice for heroics to be met with a warm mug of tea.

And a couple of sandwiches.

“Hurry!”

Right. Illya spurred himself into an awkward jog. “Don’t try to press the water out of his chest,” he called back in Russian, thinking of the swirl of blood around Vanderhof in the river. A man could be stabbed to death by his own broken ribs.

Hurry.

He set his eyes doggedly on Napoleon’s jumble and started to run in earnest, stripping off first his undershirt crackling with ice, then his socks, and finally even his briefs as he hopped and skipped along the dormant grass bordering the river. If he had to die naked, so be it. At least he’d freeze to death dry.

But no. Hard though it was to believe—Illya stopped short, surprised by his temper. As expected, he amended—his partner had come through. Napoleon had brought down clothes, gun, and even the overcoat Illya had shed on the top of the bridge. He shuddered his way into trousers, turtleneck, holster, and sports coat, and then took an extra moment to shake the ice, violently, out of his hair and scuff his bare feet into shoes.

That was much better. It wasn’t warmth, by any means, but it shifted the danger of freezing a small distance into the future. He collected Napoleon’s gun and their overcoats, stuffed the medical kit into the crook of one arm, and sprinted—faster this time—back toward Solo, scooping up his wet underclothes and wringing them out as he ran.

Napoleon was sitting, muddy and drenched, legs stretched out, supporting Martin Vanderhof in his lap. He’d gone into the river fully clothed, Illya realized, which had been rather stupid; he should have at least stripped off….

Illya eyed the distance between their dropped things and the point they’d finally clambered out of the river. About sixty yards. He whistled softly. Perhaps he’d been swimming for the St. Lawrence Seaway, after all. He returned Napoleon’s gun silently, draping one coat across Solo’s shoulders, wrapping the other around the man on the ground.

Hypothermia, Illya thought clinically. Blood loss, shock, broken ribs and almost certainly a collapsed lung. There was a nasty welt on Vanderhof’s forehead, and while his arms thrashed a little, his legs didn’t, which might mean he’d injured his spine. Illya sighed. There’d been no choice, but he hated to think he might have crippled the man, wrenching him out of the car.

He dropped to the ground and opened the medical kit.

Vanderhof moaned, twisted, and vomited blood and water onto the grass while Napoleon held him. “Go wait in the car,” Napoleon said, reaching over and grabbing the oxygen mask. “Your skin’s turning blue.”

Solo wasn’t looking all that rosy himself. He slid one end of a tube onto the mask while Illya hooked the other end to a tiny cylinder and twisted the valve. Thirty minutes of oxygen. Illya doubted Vanderhof would need all of it.

He rose to squatting and cocked one eyebrow at Napoleon. “I bet you say that to all the Eskimo girls.” He checked his P38, scanning somewhat belatedly for signs of trouble in the woods on either side of the river. There had been three cars in that chase down the hill. “Did you happen to notice what became of our friends?”

Illya waited while Vanderhof gagged. They could hardly have chosen a more exposed spot if Thrush was lurking nearby.

“They kept driving,” Napoleon answered. “Skidded straight over the bridge. Stopped long enough to watch you go down with the car and then sped away up the road.”

Illya nodded. Unfortunately, Thrush had an all-too-valid reason to abandon them here. If they thought Vanderhof was lost, they’d move on to the next most obvious target. The ex-wife.

And was Vanderhof lost? Illya shifted close to Napoleon. “Did you…?” A blast of murderously gritty wind scoured past them. Napoleon ducked forward to make a tent over Vanderhof’s head. Illya buried his head in his arms. Then without warning, the air softened. “Did—” Illya lowered his voice. “Did Headquarters say how long help will take to arrive?”

“Thirty minutes, plus or minus, for a helicopter.” Assuming a helicopter could reach them at all through low clouds and unpredictable winds. “Wanda said she’d try the local rescue service, too.” Napoleon tossed a lock of stiff hair out of his face and half-suppressed a shiver. “Jesus it’s cold.”

“You have a talent for stating the obvious.” Illya frowned at the pink froth collecting around Martin Vanderhof’s mouth, at the waxy tone of his skin. He looked appraisingly at the thickening clouds. It was one thing to risk their lives for the sake of a living, breathing man; that was natural. Or for the sake of an assignment; that was expected. But to freeze to death on behalf a corpse was nothing more or less than poor professional judgment.

“If we make a sling out of one of our overcoats….” Illya began. It was extremely unlikely Vanderhof would survive the awkward trip back to the road.

Napoleon set his jaw. “I told you,” he said, “go wait in the—”

“Snow.” Vanderhof’s voice interrupted, faint but clear. “Feels colder when we haven’t had snow.”

Illya thought it unlikely snow was going to make him feel warmer. Still…if Vanderhof could speak…. Illya reluctantly reclassified the man as living and breathing. In which case, they needed a source of warmth, immediately, here where they were. He had matches. Illya glanced at the trees. There ought to be plenty of available wood.

The wind began to howl again, setting dead leaves into a chaotic series of spirals around them. Illya shook his head. Fire would be of little use while they were exposed to the weather.

“Take it easy, Mr. Vanderhof,” Napoleon said gently. “Help’s on the way.”

Illya considered the sharp grade between the riverbank and the road. If they couldn’t carry Vanderhof up, they could drive their vehicle down and take shelter inside. They’d be stranded though; nothing short of a winch would get the car up and driving again.

And what if the helicopter didn’t arrive?

“Thrush help.” Vanderhof’s bitter laugh ended in a soft keen of agony. “No thanks.”

Illya climbed to his feet, finding it rather more difficult than he’d expected, and then bent double, hands on knees, as a wave of dizziness rose and subsided. Enough. Even if the helicopter couldn’t take them out, even if it meant camping on this blasted riverbank until the spring thaw, their best chance was to wait inside the car. He took one step and put a hand into his pocket.

No car keys. Each of the other pockets, one-by-one, yielded…nothing. Yet he was sure he’d had the keys when he’d stripped to dive off the bridge.

There were times working for U.N.C.L.E. could be rather depressing.

Illya sank to the ground and let his eyelids close heavily. “Did you?” He jerked his head up and nudged an elbow into his partner. “Do you have…?” But he couldn’t remember the question.

He returned his mind to the issues at hand. Shelter. Fire. Both could be improvised, easily enough, by moving a short distance into the trees.

“We’re from U.N.C.L.E, sir, not Thrush.” Napoleon held his ID in front of Vanderhof’s dull gaze. “Mr. Waverly sent us. He gave us the code word, ‘lifespan’.”

“U.N.C.L.E.” Vanderhof grunted as the wind rose to a distant wail. No, not the wind. Sirens. “U.N.C.L.E. or Thrush… no difference.” The words provoked a wretched spasm of coughing.

Illya watched the trickle of blood from Vanderhof’s mouth gush and subside into harsh labored breathing. There were two sirens—Illya could distinguish them clearly—growing louder, second by second. He looked back at the road. At any moment, two police cars were going to hit the icy bridge and skitter off and into the water. He couldn’t possibly reach the road in time to warn them away. He began numbly to unbutton his sports coat. If this kept up, Headquarters was going to have to start stocking field-agent vehicles with diving suits.

Napoleon pulled the coat off his shoulders and draped it over the man in his lap. “There is a difference, Mr. Vanderhof,” he insisted. “We know where you were headed. You’re seventy-five miles from your old home, Martin. Seventy-five miles from Mary. If we’re here, where do you think your Thrush associates drove off to?”

A pair of flashing vehicles—one sedan, one station wagon—emerged on the near side of the bridge and rolled to a stop. Illya breathed a sigh of relief and pulled his sports coat back on. The doors opened. Three state patrol officers jumped out, unfolded the tailgate on the station wagon, and began removing a stretcher.

“Mary has no part in this.”

“She has now. It’s your organization. You know what happens if they don’t get what they’re after.”

“No!” Vanderhof struggled to rise. “I wasn’t going there…. I was…I was leaving the country.”

Metal rattled as a gust of wind caught the stretcher and bore it away down the slope from the road. The three officers skidded on their heels down the slope after it.

“I don’t believe you,” Napoleon said flatly. “And Thrush won’t believe Mary, no matter how innocent she may be. Tell me what you took from them, Martin, and where to find it. I promise you, I’ll protect Mary.”

Vanderhof lifted one hand and grasped Napoleon’s lapel. “Promise.” He coughed convulsively. “Stop them. Promise.”

“I give you my word.”

The man shrank back into Napoleon’s lap, eyes fluttering shut. Illya reached over and took his cold hand.

“Ground.” Vanderhof whispered. “I put the certificates into the ground.”

Certificates? Stock certificates?

Napoleon looked equally puzzled. “What certificates, Martin? And where?”

“Land…. Lodge….” The man rasped out one long, final, rattling breath and was still.

Napoleon bowed his head, averting his eyes.

Illya swallowed his own bitter disappointment. It was inevitable, he reminded himself, releasing Vanderhof’s hand. Almost inevitable. Somehow with Napoleon he’d grown use to cheating fate. He rose laboriously and transferred the second overcoat from the corpse to Solo’s shivering shoulders. Then he settled down to sit back to back with his partner.

One hundred yards away, the officers recaptured their stretcher and began hustling along the embankment.

“Do you know,” Illya pulled his legs close, tucking cold hands between chilly knees and half-frozen chin, “at this precise moment, today, I was scheduled to arrive at a meeting on geothermal physics in Natal, Brazil?” He summoned the picture to mind: golden sand, blue ocean, blazing white sun in the sky, ice-cold drinks…. Ah well, nothing was perfect.

Blowing leaves filled a long empty pause.

“You don’t say,” Napoleon answered heavily. The wind caught the stretcher a second time and sent it, kite-like, into the air. Somebody had forgotten to tie on a string.

“There is a hotel there,” Illya continued, “beside a charming little nudists’ beach, with a great many balconies facing the sea.” He painted a few delightfully oiled ladies into his picture…basking on towels…and added one or two diving into the waves for good measure. “Avid swimmers, Brazilians.”

Napoleon cleared his throat. “I heard Paul Matthews got that job, escorting Dr. Krantz to Brazil.”

“He did,” Illya agreed. Napoleon heard nearly everything. “He pleaded himself out of the infirmary on the grounds that sunshine would be more beneficial than resting in bed.” An early release, Illya suspected, that owed much to the fact that the gratingly enthusiastic Australian had been occupying a hospital bed next to his boss. “In any event, Section Six had already cancelled my ticket. Miss Drosten declared that thirty-five thousand air-miles in one month exceeded health and welfare guidelines by eighteen percent. I am restricted to ground transportation until the end of the year,” he added dryly, “for the sake of my welfare and health.”

He didn’t expect a laugh, but somehow not getting one left him exceedingly drained. Illya summoned the resort’s image again. There had been one delightfully oiled lady, last year, in particular. “Between sessions…” she’d been a natural redhead who couldn’t afford too much time in the sun “…the geophysicists gather outside the hotel and contemplate new ways to generate heat.”

He felt his eyelids drift shut. Curious. Under the right conditions, a winter storm sounded exactly like waves on the shore. “Brazilian conferences,” he murmured, “contain a great many breaks between sessions.”

Napoleon shoved backward, knocking Illya’s arms off his knees. “I know that place,” he commented as Illya righted himself. “The one where the monkey rides up and down all day long on the lady elevator operator’s shoulder.”

Illya lifted his head. “You’ve been there?”

“Mmmm. You know Leila? The, ah, little Brazilian girl working the cafeteria?”

“The college intern in charge of dessert?” A rather charming young thing, with excellent discernment in flan.

“I see…” Napoleon said, rather suggestively if one discounted the chattering teeth, “…that you do.”

Yes, he did. She’d spent a long evening improving his knowledge of Brazilian cookery terms. Illya felt his eyebrows draw together gradually. The girl was barely eighteen. Far from home. Vulnerable. Surely Napoleon hadn’t taken that child to a hotel in Natal?

Solo nudged him again. “Hmmm?”

Had he? Illya swung around to stare at his partner’s smirking expression.

Napoleon winked.

Illya’s frown slid irresistibly into a scowl. Promiscuity was one thing. There was hardly any alternative in a life that didn’t allow even short-term commitments. Seducing children was something else altogether. Seducing children and then boasting about it with a dead man in his lap while their lives drained away into the cold ground.

“You couldn’t possibly—” Illya began.

“Her father,” Napoleon cut in, “is station chief of U.N.C.L.E. Sao Paulo. Her aunt owns the hotel.”

It took a moment to grasp the facts.

He’d been set up.

“Oh.”

And he’d fallen for it—as the Americans said—hook, line, and lead weight. Illya crossed his arms and turned his back on Napoleon. Next time, he’d let Solo freeze to death without trying to cheer him up first.

He was startled by the sound of footsteps directly in front of him. It was followed by the sight of six matching black boots.

“You men look a tad chilly.”

A blanket settled over his shoulders, and one of the officers squatted in front of him, pulling the fur cap off his own head and tugging it down onto Illya’s. He placed Illya’s hands on an open thermos of coffee. “Careful, that’s hot.”

Illya took a sip. Hot and sweet. He braced the thermos against the ground as he began to shake all over again. He hadn’t realized he’d stopped shivering.

The officer moved on to Napoleon with a second blanket and second thermos of coffee, this time removing his woolen scarf and wrapping it around Napoleon’s ears. Illya ignored the conversation that grew up between them. Warmth crept back slowly, tentatively, and brought a sharp ache to…well…everything, and he huddled into it gratefully, making the most of this small chance for recovery. One never knew what might come next.

The other two officers had transferred Vanderhof onto the stretcher, wrapped him in blankets, and were going through the traditional motions of resuscitation. Bit-by-bit, hope diminished, until they reluctantly gave up and covered his head. The one who had donated his hat and scarf—he couldn’t be much over twenty—snuffled loudly and strode a few paces away. The older two pulled Napoleon stiffly onto his feet. They exchanged a few final words and then lifted the stretcher and began the solemn march back to the road.

Illya let the young officer help him up. “Thank you,” he said, hugging the blanket around him. “You’ve been very kind.”

The man let him go a little reluctantly, as though fearing another unforeseen death. “There’s a doctor in Bartlett,” he said, “seventeen miles up the road where you fellows can get medical help and file an accident report. Would you like a ride in my car?”

Illya caught Napoleon’s questioning glance and gave a slight shake of his head. They could both imagine what Mr. Waverly would say on hearing they had not only lost their objective, but been carted to town like a pair of invalid grandmothers afterwards.

Better to jump in the river all over again.

“No…thank you.” Napoleon smiled thinly. “We’ll drive.” He shook the officer’s hand. “You’ve been very helpful.”

The man nodded once and jogged after his friends. Napoleon and Illya trudged side by side, slowly, behind him. There was a brief flurry of activity, up on the bridge. Then the police vehicles roared to life and headed away.

“It seems a dirty trick,” Illya commented as they picked their way up the steep slope to the road. The policemen had set out traffic cones, he noted gratefully, and sprinkled salt on the bridge. No more afternoon swims. “To accept that young man’s aid when we have no intention of driving to Bartlett.” There was a Thrush team ahead of them; they couldn’t wait for bureaucracy.

Napoleon shrugged. “Headquarters will sort it out. After all, Alice got Paul out of his jail cell today.”

“Paul was arrested? In Brazil?” Napoleon nodded. “Already?”

There was little point in questioning how he’d gotten the news.

“What for?” Even Paul ought to be able to sit on a plane for a few hours without running foul of the law. Then again, it was a long flight. And Paul Matthews tended to fidget.

“Smuggling dangerous animals. Customs frisked him and found his pet snake.”

“Ah.” The little boa constrictor. “It’s not really dangerous, you know,” Illya commented. One of Paul’s few pets that did not produce venom. Then, because it was expected, he let Napoleon finish the story. “What did Alice do?”

“Got the snake its own plane ticket and visa. Claimed it was in Brazil visiting family.”

“I see.” Illya stopped to catch his breath at the top of the bridge. What lies we tell, he thought, looking into the distance. And how easy it is. He drank the rest of his coffee and took a step toward the car.

The locked car.

Illya felt a stab of alarm as he looked urgently at the bare pavement where his keys ought to have fallen…at their securely locked car… at the rural road empty of traffic.

How long was the walk into Bartlett? He pressed his lips together and drew a ragged, confessional breath.

Napoleon stepped up beside him, dangling a spare set keys.

Illya accepted them, weakly, sagging briefly against what was left of the bridge’s stone wall. He wasn’t sure he could walk the last six yards to the car.

Perhaps Alice could round up some Brazilians to carry him?

The wind fell away abruptly; the world grew silent and still. They stood there, shoulder to shoulder, as a single fat snowflake drifted down through the sky to the gray water concealing Martin Vanderhof’s car. Then a dozen large wet flakes made the journey. Then a thousand dozen, everywhere, each emitting a tiny hiss as it touched down and froze to the ground.

It did feel warmer, somehow, this companionable snow. Tendrils of white fog began to form and rise out of the river. Illya pulled himself straight.

Napoleon patted his overcoat for a pack of dry cigarettes. “This job changes you,” he said, lighting one, staring out over the picturesque landscape.

“Does it?” That was wet clothes talking. Although maybe it did. Wet clothes and lost keys and doomed men trapped under the water. What if he hadn’t stopped to strip on the bridge? What if they’d been gentler getting Vanderhof out of the river.

What if the cloud of death grew too large, year after year?

Well…. Illya shrugged. At least he knew a good place to retire in Natal. He wondered, a little vaguely, what the comrades back home would think of the notion. Guest quarters would clearly be an imperative.

“I for one,” Napoleon interrupted his reverie, “will never look at a Currier and Ives print the same way again.” He dropped his cigarette butt and stepped on it.

“C’mon, tovarishch.” Napoleon took him by the arm. “We have a long way to go.”

The End

 

Originally published in Credentials. Thanks Dusky, Sherri, Carol, Nan & all the U.N.C.L.E. crew.