Welsh Rabbit Affair


The Welsh Rabbit Affair

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


Prologue – U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters, April 1962

“Illya, do you know anything about these?” Napoleon Solo paused in the threshold of the five-man junior agents’ office holding a pair of struggling rabbits wrapped up in a towel. No one was in save his sometimes partner, blond head buried in a book.

Sometimes partner did not look up.

Napoleon scanned the room. It held the usual assortment of quasi-personal junk—Dick Miller’s sports memorabilia, Andy Andreakos’ collection of flags, a few books and neglected plants.

Illya’s desk in the back corner was characteristically bare, sporting only a snow globe, his elbows, and the book he was reading. Someone had painted a dripping red hammer and sickle on the wall behind him.

Diagonally opposite, Paul Matthew’s Australian home away from home was a shrine to disorder, piled with offerings of paperwork and gadgetry, and surrounded by whatever animal life Paul could slip past security. This changed regularly, but currently included a fish tank and a couple of terrariums full of spiders and snakes. Napoleon eyed the latter with concern—like good U.N.C.L.E. agents, Paul’s pets were adept at escaping confinement. Today all seemed secure.

Napoleon tried again. “Illya.”

The Russian kept his head in the book. “Go away, Napoleon. I’m off duty.”

Napoleon sighed. He was going to have to go in, and sterner men than he had quailed at the prospect. He scanned the room for traps, taking a moment to transfer the rabbits to one arm, run his fingers over the door jam, and pull out a set of keys and toss them through.

Nothing happened. The fact that Illya was sitting calmly at his desk only meant there were no traps the Russian didn’t already know about.

Napoleon ducked into the room and picked up his keys. He skirted Paul’s desk and walked over to Illya’s, still holding the rabbits. Their combined shadow fell across the open book.

Illya looked up. “Please clarify your question.” He took off black-rimmed glasses. “Are you asking whether I know what sort of rabbits you are holding, why you are holding them, or where they come from?”

“All of the above.”

“In that case,” the glasses dropped back into place, “no.”

Illya returned to his book. Napoleon squinted down at the text. A Vietnamese grammar, for pity’s sake; just what every off-duty agent needs to unwind.

“Why don’t you ask Paul?” Illya suggested.

“Everyone does,” an Australian voice agreed cheerfully, “sooner or later.” Paul Matthews strode into the room cradling another pair of rabbits in one long arm, getting fur all over his sports coat. “What sort of advice t’ the lovelorn can I offer ya t’day?”

Paul walked over and leaned against the front of his desk, radiating outback vigor. Napoleon watched him, amused. The Aussie always made the most of his six-foot two-inch frame when he was in the same room with Illya. They were neither enemies, exactly, nor friends. More like flint and steel.

He lifted the rabbits toward Paul. “Do you know anything about these?”

“English spotted,” Paul answered in the exaggerated accent that presaged a dose of natural history or worse. “Lagomorpha Leporidae Oryctolagus. Raised for show and sometimes meat. One of th’ few breeds common both here and in the United Kingdom.” He winked. “I looked it up.”

Paul dumped one rabbit onto his desk and held the other up for display. “Note the distinctive coloring,” he said. “White with black spots, eye circles, and herringbone pattern down th’ back.”

Napoleon had to admit it. They had spots.

“Now yours,” Paul shook his head sadly at Napoleon, “are charlies on account’a they’re missing the show stripe down the back.” He lowered his voice in fake confidentiality. “Meaning their reproductive futures are limited.”

Napoleon walked over and piled his rabbits on Paul. “Their corporeal futures are limited; and if we don’t find out where they came from, ours might be too. I don’t think Hutch is going to find the transformation of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters into a petting zoo very amusing.” And if things went up a level from their CEA to Mr. Waverly, it might be a long time before any field agent laughed again.

“Aw come off the grass, mate.” Paul chucked the rabbits under their chins. “It’s only a couple Easter bunnies.”

“Four bunnies,” Napoleon said.

“Six bunnies.” Alice Shea, Hutch’s secretary, stepped in carrying a large cardboard box. She was a small lady, barely 5’ 2”, with green eyes that looked out through librarian-style reading glasses and thick auburn hair piled up on her head. She smelled gloriously of orange blossoms and had been known to knock unwary field agents out cold in the gym. Her position as gatekeeper to their CEA gave her tremendous power over the men of Section II: a benign power she seldom exercised, but never let them forget.

As now, for example, when she pushed her box at Napoleon. “And I don’t think it’s funny. I’ve just spent ten minutes crawling around the conference room floor cleaning up bunny souvenirs in time for the West Coast evening tele-conference.” She brushed her hands and peeked into the box. “Course, now that they’re somebody else’s problem, I admit they’re kind of cute.”

“Huh uh.” Somebody else was definitely not Napoleon. “I’m due in the conference.” He turned back to Illya, who was still pretending to read. “Rank has its privileges.”

Illya closed his book and stood up. “Despite your rank privileges—” that got a snort from Paul “—I am still on leave. I believe I will go find someplace quieter to study.”

Alice put hands on her hips. “Say, weren’t you supposed to use this time to find a place to live?” Her tone chilled. “Or did I spend hours yesterday updating our housing security report for my own amusement?”

Illya knew better than to amuse Alice. “I am most grateful for your efforts, Miss Shea.” He gave her the earnest blue-eyed look. Napoleon could hardly believe an old hand like Alice would fall for it, but she melted like butter in the sun. “In fact, I have your list right here—”

Illya opened a side desk drawer, and then paused, staring down in disbelief. Then he opened the other side and took out a stack of half-chewed papers.

“Eight bunnies,” he said, pulling one from each drawer.

Act I: What’s Up Doc?

“Paul.” Three voices said it together.

Napoleon added his box to the clutter on Paul’s desk. Illya put his rabbits in the box. Alice stepped forward and crossed her arms. They looked, as one, at the Australian.

“Snakes in the cafeteria,” Napoleon said, jerking his head toward the terrarium.

“Funnel-web spiders in the chemistry lab,” Illya added, going back to his desk.

“Millipedes in the ladies’ washroom,” Alice put in.

“You do seem,” Napoleon remarked, “to know more about these rabbits than anyone else.”

“That’s my curse.” Paul patted the rabbits in apparent unconcern. “Always a couple’a steps ahead a’ the field.”

And usually running, Napoleon thought.

“I’ve noticed that, Mr. Matthews,” a voice came from the hallway.

Napoleon suppressed a groan. It was a bad sign when the CEA came slumming, but here Hutch was at the door—average height, average weight, slightly receding brown hairline, unremarkable suit. No one who saw him ever suspected he ate babies for breakfast. No one who knew him ever forgot it.

“Which is why I’m sure I can count on you to clear up this problem immediately.”

Paul jumped off his desk, scattering bunnies. “Yes, sir,” he said, making history. There were no previous recorded instances of Paul answering simply or directly.

“We are due in a meeting, Mr. Solo.”

“Yes, sir,” Napoleon kept things simple himself.

“And I believe,” Hutch added, “Mr. Kuryakin has plans to find an apartment.”

“Yes, sir.” Illya made it three for three. Only Illya regarded their CEA with anything like his normal facial expression. But then, Illya’s normal expression was politely neutral, so he had an advantage.

Napoleon stepped toward the door, then stopped short. Illya’s face was changing from polite, to puzzled, to astonished.

Vnimanie!” He pointed low to where a little black nose hung in thin air. The nose coalesced into a face, and then a head, and then a white and black bunny, hopping out of nowhere and into the room.

“It’s a door!” Illya dove forward, skidded face first across the floor and crashed into Paul’s terrarium stand. The glass tank teetered above him. Another black nose appeared in the space he’d passed through.

“Illya, watch out!” Alice leapt to help as Illya jumped up and caught the tank in his arms. The first rabbit, solid now, ran straight under Alice’s feet. Alice staggered into Illya; Illya fell against the stand. Man, secretary, bunny, and serpents began to descend in a tangle.

Illya hit the ground first, on his back, terrarium clutched to his chest. His expression wasn’t politely neutral any more. Everyone knew the sort of pets Paul Matthews lavished his attentions on. Venomous ones. Something small, green, and deadly slithered onto Illya’s exposed throat.

“Gaah!” Alice howled and began to scoot backward. She reached the spot where the bunnies had appeared—a look of horror spreading over her face—and began to dissolve.

“Alice!” Napoleon threw himself after her, grabbed empty air, and toppled forward onto a rabbit. Clawed feet raked his neck and dashed away, leaving him alone in the middle of the room.

Silence descended for a long moment while Paul retrieved his snake, slid it lovingly into its home, secured the wire screen, and placed the terrarium back on its stand.

“Right’o, mates.” He turned to face the three men still staring at the place where Alice Shea had recently been. “I’d like t’ see ya pin this one on me.”

***

Alexander Waverly switched off the security tape and looked at Napoleon, Hutch, Paul, and two white and black rabbits that had just hopped into existence on the circular conference table.

“Well, gentlemen,” he asked thinly, “what do you suggest?”

There was a moment of silence during which the door swished open and Illya entered the room. He was wearing a white lab coat, holding a field medical kit, and grinning like he’d just cured the common cold.

Oh, goodie, Napoleon sighed to himself. All we needed was a Russian in mad scientist mode.

“I have a theory, sir,” Illya announced, “about why Miss Shea went through the door, whereas Napoleon and I did not.”

He plopped the medical kit down on the table, took out a syringe, and filled it from a little glass bottle. Next he broke open a box of empty darts, selected one, and loaded it using the syringe.

“I believe it’s because she was terrified of Paul’s snakes, whereas the rest of us were merely concerned.” He took out his gun, pulled the magazine, replaced the top dart with the one he’d doctored, and reloaded.

That wasn’t quite right, Napoleon disagreed, frowning. When Illya missed the door, the snakes were still in their tank. And after the snake crawled on him, Illya hadn’t tried to go through the door. No question about it, though, Alice had been scared.

“Rabbits have a very high metabolic rate,” Illya continued. “And being frightened increases the metabolism.”

Illya seemed to be running pretty high himself; Napoleon had a bad feeling about where this was going.

“So logically, I believe if we can create a sense of agitation or fear in one of us, he should be able to pass through—for example—that doorway right now.”

They looked. Another bunny was starting to materialize on the conference table, surrounded by a faintly shimmering rectangle of light.

Illya picked up his gun and looked at Mr. Waverly. “Of course,” he said, “I’ll need a volunteer for the experiment.”

Waverly’s voice was dry. “You may proceed, Mr. Kuryakin.”

Illya nodded. He turned a calculating expression toward Napoleon, who leveled his own gaze right back. There’d better be something a lot stronger than a sleep darts in that gun if he thought he could shoot Napoleon and get away with it.

Illya’s mouth twitched. He turned and shot Paul point blank in the chest.

Paul’s face flushed scarlet. “Why, you little Russian son of a bitch!” He leapt to his feet as Napoleon lunged for his arm.

Illya set his P38 on the table and raised his hands, palm out, placatingly.

“Now Paul, be reasonable,” Napoleon cooed. “Illya’s just trying to scare you.”

Reason wasn’t figuring large in Paul’s state of mind. “What was in that dart you bastard?” He plunged forward, shaking with fury. Napoleon’s feet swung off the ground.

“Adrenaline.” Illya stepped backward, cocking his head. “It appears to be working.” He ducked a punch, and then stepped in to grab Paul’s other arm. Illya and Napoleon hoisted Paul onto the conference table, pinning him flat on his back.

Paul stopped struggling. The look of fury disappeared from his face. Napoleon doubled his guard.

“You might need this.” Illya tucked a small box into Paul’s shirt-pocket, narrowly dodging a kick aimed at his head. “It’s the new radio communicator.” He patted Paul on the cheek. “Ask for Channel D.”

“One…. Two.… Three!” They launched Paul across the conference table in the direction of the shimmering rectangle. The field agent slid to where another rabbit was materializing—lay expressionless for a few seconds—and then vaulted back to the floor.

“How curious,” Illya said, frowning at him. “It didn’t work.”

“He’s too big,” Hutch said.

Napoleon squinted at the space in question. Hutch could be right. He turned to look at Paul and then froze, heart plummeting at the sight of a gun in Paul’s hand.

“Scared, eh?” Paul’s first shot missed Illya’s foot by an inch. Alarms began to wail. Illya held very still. The steel door behind him slid shut with a bang.

Napoleon took a step forward. “Paul!” This wasn’t funny. Paul’s hands were shaking too hard for a game of field-agent “chicken…”  even assuming he intended to miss.

Paul pointed his gun at Napoleon. “Back off.”

Napoleon backed. Those were not sleep darts Paul was firing.

Paul swung back to Illya. “I’ll give you scared!” He sent three more rounds into the floor. Illya swallowed visibly, holding his ground. He was definitely looking concerned.

Paul fired at Illya’s chest, jerking his gun away at the last instant. The glass coffee pot behind Illya exploded. No doubt about it, now, Illya was frightened.

“Mr. Matthews,” Waverly’s voice cut through the room.

“Bastard!” Paul aimed directly at Illya’s head.

“That’s enough, Mr. Matthews,” Waverly interrupted. “I believe we’ve accomplished our goal.” Napoleon couldn’t swear about Illya; he was scared shitless, himself.

Paul holstered his gun. Illya paused a moment, nodded, jumped onto the round table, and began to dissolve.

“Wait!” Napoleon snatched the radio out of Paul’s pocket and followed Illya up, pressing the device into his hands. Hands that were no longer there. Shit. He looked around, urgently, for some way to send the radio through…and then stopped. Because around him, too, the conference room was fading away.

The last thing he saw was the smirk on Paul Matthew’s face.

***

The other side of nowhere was cold and dark. Napoleon lifted his head and breathed in the strong scent of animals. He was on hands and knees in a thick bed of straw, a streak of blond hair faintly visible in the darkness beside him.

Napoleon flicked his lighter and held it over his head. They were in a pen of some sort, ten feet square and four feet high. The top and sides were covered in chicken wire. The bottom was a wood platform two feet off the floor. Twenty or thirty rabbits milled around them in straw that was far less than clean.

“Well, Illya,” Napoleon snapped the lighter shut again, “this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Act II: Down the Rabbit Hole

“I don’t suppose,” Napoleon said, “ it would do any good to point out that you almost got us both killed back there?” The reality was starting to sink in. “Not to mention what Waverly’s going do to us after that scene in his office.” On second thought it hadn’t sunk in. If it had, his hands would be wrapped around Illya’s throat right about now.

“I had the right idea.” Illya shrugged with his voice. “You didn’t have to back me up.”

Goddam Russian. Napoleon made an effort to get his temper under control. He could punch Illya after all this was over. Twice.

A door banged open nearby.

“Hide!” Napoleon hissed, shoving his partner into the straw. He drew a certain pleasure from Illya’s grunt of disgust at burrowing into the dirty bedding.

A flashlight played across the cage, stopping on Napoleon’s face. He squinted into the beam.

“Right, I told you,” a man’s lilting voice accompanied the light. “Tacks something big ta short owt power.” Napoleon couldn’t place the accent. English? Scots maybe?

Footsteps crunched over to the cage. The light probed its corners.

“I thought you said the receiver cycled twice.” The second voice was pure King’s English.

“Must’ve bin a bunny coming back through then.”

“Hmm.” The footsteps crunched away. Napoleon heard a metallic noise, and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling blinked on. He shifted from his knees to a squatting position and wallowed to the front of the cage.

They were in a barn, in the middle of a group of four large curved mirrors, arranged to face the pen. He saw a couple of stalls with horses, a couple more with cows, and a control panel with buttons and dials.

Somehow he’d expected the setting to be a little more scientific.

Three men walked up to the pen. The first had a back-country, English look to him. He was thin and bent, and had an air of deep anxiety. A wool cap was pulled down low over his ears. The farmer, no doubt. The second man was in his mid-twenties, wore a gray uniform, and held an armed Thrush rifle close to his chest. The third was middle-aged, dressed in a dark gray suit and matching fedora. He had thin frizzy hair, big ears, and tiny, wide-spaced eyes, all of which combined to give him the look of a weasel. His weapon of choice was also a Thrush rifle, clasped loosely in one hand.

“Excuse me,” Napoleon said. “I wonder if you could direct me to Row-C Mezzanine?”

“Good evening,” Weasel-eyes told him. “I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you, but the balcony seats are sold out.” He waved the Thrush guard back to cover them. “My name is Dawson.” He unfastened a latch and opened the door to the pen. “Would you care to join me on the main floor of the house?”

“If you like.” Napoleon turned his back to Dawson, took off his suit coat and ducked through the door. “Only I seem to have misplaced my program.” He put his coat on again. “Can you tell me what’s playing?”

“Through the Looking Glass.” Dawson’s weasel eyes peered into the straw. “Are you attending alone?”

“Well, I wasn’t.” Napoleon glanced around. “There was a lovely young lady at the theater—um Katie…or Karen…or was it Karla?”

Dawson patted Napoleon down, removed his wallet, and flipped it open. He didn’t find a badge or U.N.C.L.E. ID card; Napoleon had ditched them in the straw.

“I’m sorry to inconvenience you,” he read the driver’s license, “Mr. Solo?” Napoleon bowed. “But perhaps you can find another date.” His eyes suggested he had someone in mind. Alice? Napoleon didn’t know whether to hope she would or wouldn’t be here.

Dawson cocked his head. “Do you like bunnies?”

Napoleon smiled. “I’ve known them to make excellent playmates.”

“Have you?” Dawson asked. “Personally, I can’t abide them. I hope you won’t find this distressing.” He lifted his rifle and aimed into the straw.

Napoleon leapt forward to knock the barrel away. Something hard hit him between the shoulder blades. He staggered as Dawson clubbed him with the rifle butt. Napoleon fell to his knees.

“Hold it!” The Thrush guard pushed his own rifle against Napoleon’s ribs. He froze, heart pounding, as Dawson carpeted the floor of the cage with a rapid sequence of shots, reloaded, and emptied a second magazine. When it was over, there was nothing alive in the pen.

Blood began to pool and trickle out under the straw.

“Come along, Mr. Solo,” Dawson said, waving him into the night. “You don’t want to keep your date waiting.”

***

Illya Kuryakin lay buried in filth and cursed his bad luck. Why did these things happen to him? Why, especially, when he was working with Solo? He lifted his head and spit out some very nasty animal bedding. Didn’t whoever owned these rabbits ever cart away the droppings?

Apparently not, because when he’d pushed his way under the wire at the edge of the pen, he’d landed in approximately a year’s worth of leavings. They were sodden, as well, as if whoever cleaned the cage just hosed everything out and was done with it.

A dirty people, the British. Good solid builders though. No Russian would have wasted heavy oak planks on the floor of an animal cage.

Illya stuck his head up and took a look at the charnel house scene. Two dozen dead rabbits and bits of dead rabbit lay scattered all over the straw. He felt little sympathy. It was infinitely better than two dozen bits of dead Russian.

He grabbed the edge of the platform and pulled himself up to his feet. His head hurt, his back was gashed, he was covered in muck, and he had a sneaking suspicion there was trouble yet to come over the gun battle in Mr. Waverly’s office.

How like Paul to fail to vanish on schedule. And to top it off, Illya’d left his gun on the conference room table.

Then again that might not be a problem. He was pretty sure he could overpower any adversary on the basis of odor alone.

***

Napoleon sat beside a blazing farmhouse fire, admiring the tea placed before him in an antique saucer and cup. He couldn’t actually drink it, as his hands and feet were tied securely to a sturdy kitchen chair. Across from him, Alice Shea had received similar treatment, though her hands were merely tied together and she was drinking tea.

Alice was in fine form. She’d dropped the glasses down on their chain and was calmly watching Dawson toast bits of cheese over the fire using an old-fashioned wire basket with a long metal handle. She kept her green eyes wide and conversation light. Somehow a couple of buttons had come undone at the top of her blouse, and her auburn hair had tumbled out of its perennial bun and fallen, luxuriously, around her shoulders.

She’d pretended not to know Napoleon. It was a good act, and it was buying them some time, but if Dawson got wind that she was secretary to their CEA, there would be hell to pay.

***

“Open Channel D.” Illya turned the dial on the communicator and listened to static. He tapped the false cigarette case and tried again. “Overseas relay—open channel D.” Nothing happened. That was the problem with experimental equipment. It was sometimes designed to work with satellites that hadn’t been launched yet.

Illya peered out of his haystack and took another look at the sky. The North Star glittered high above the horizon. Given that, and the mild weather, he guessed they must be somewhere in Great Britain. Wales, perhaps, if one factored in the accent of Napoleon’s farmer friend.

He looked back through the barn door at the bustle of activity. The parabolic mirrors had been moved away from the pen to an empty space on the floor, and two technicians were busying themselves adjusting equipment. It looked like someone had immediate plans for the gateway device.

Illya tried the radio again, running the dial through the alphabet. He wasn’t sure what the various settings were supposed to do, but it didn’t really matter. Anything was better than nothing.

“Open channel L.” Static…. “Open channel M.” Static….“Open channel T….” But there was something there. Someone answering him.

“Channel T?” a British voice said. “M13BG tuning in. Is this frequency in use, luv?”

Luv? It appeared he’d linked to an amateur radio operator. Section Eight would be thrilled.

“Not exactly,” Illya answered the radio. “But I wonder if you could do me a very great favor….”

***

Dawson offered Alice a bit of toasted cheese. He refilled the basket and propped it close to the flames.

“What I would like you both to tell me,” he said in friendly tones, “is exactly what U.N.C.L.E. knows about our operation.” He laid a hand on Alice’s shoulder. “With as little suffering as possible.”

“Uncle?” Napoleon answered. Without ID, Dawson had no reason to connect him to U.N.C.L.E—apart from simple common sense. “Uncle who?”

Alice’s eyes opened wider. “I’d like to tell you, honestly,” she quavered. “But like I said, I was just sitting at my post by the security screen when a bunny popped in on the floor. I reached down to get it, and next thing I knew, I was here.”

Dawson gave them both a pained look. He fingered Alice’s badge, still pinned to her blouse, then slapped her hard. She yelped and looked away.

“This is a high-clearance security badge, young lady,” he said in schoolmaster tones. “Don’t take me for a fool.” He slapped her again. They needed to get Dawson’s attention away from Alice. That put Napoleon at the head of the punching bag line.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Alice whimpered. “You can’t monitor a high-security area without a high-security badge. Just ask Napol—” She glanced at Solo and bit her tongue with a little cry of dismay.

Good. Napoleon did his best to look incredulous. “She’s crazy,” he laughed weakly. “I’m just a guy from the theater.”

“I don’t think so.” Dawson locked onto Napoleon now, joy of joys. He reached over to the fireplace and took out the wire basket. The cheese inside had burned to a crisp.

An interesting variation, Napoleon thought, on the old hot-poker-in-the-face routine.

Dawson walked to Napoleon, waving the basket “Perhaps you’d like to explain what U.N.C.L.E. knows about my pet project?”

Napoleon eyed the glowing red wires. Unfortunately, he didn’t know a damn thing he could blab. Why was Thrush playing games with bunnies, anyway? April fools?

“We…ah… know enough,” he stalled, thinking fast under Dawson’s sharp scrutiny. The explanation couldn’t be that hard to find. Across the room, Alice drew a small knife from under her skirt. Napoleon sucked in a breath. “We know you’re planning to invade U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters.”

Dawson’s face lit with rage. Alice sliced through her ropes. Bingo.

“How?” Dawson raged, swinging the basket with two hands like a club. Napoleon ducked and the blow hit the back of his chair. His suit coat sizzled. The basket fell to the ground.

“Hold it right there!” Alice grabbed Dawson’s hair and yanked, pressing her knife to his throat. But she didn’t have the training to kill him. Dawson wheeled, knocking the blade away, drawing his gun. He slammed the butt against Alice’s head, released the safety and took aim while she stumbled.

That made it Napoleon’s turn. He rocked his chair forward, balanced on two legs, and tumbled against Dawson’s legs. The shot went wide; Dawson fell; Napoleon crashed down beside him. But that was all he could do. He tugged his ropes, helpless, as Dawson put the gun to his head. He opened his mouth, fishing for the exactly the right words…. Goodbye cruel world?

“That’s enough!” Something flew through the door. Something that looked and smelled like the Devil. Dawson fired another wild shot—he was clearly no hand with a gun—and then the Devil was on him, pulling him upright with one arm clamped under his chin. “Drop it,” warned a voice like the breath of hell

Dawson dropped it.

Alice grabbed her knife and began to slice Napoleon’s ropes. He tried to ignore how unsteady her hands were. Illya’s body was filthy and his face streaked in dried blood. He reeked of something that should have been buried a long time ago. Apart from that, he looked pretty damn good.

“Bout time you got here,” Napoleon grumbled. He rubbed his wrists as Alice cut the ropes on his ankles.

The Russian shoved Dawson against a wall, pinning him with one forearm in front of his throat. Dawson’s weasel eyes grew as wide as an owl’s. “I was studying your interrogation technique,” Illya admitted. “I kept waiting for the part where the villain unveils all his plans.”

Napoleon picked up Dawson’s gun.

“Where did you go wrong, do you suppose?” Illya asked him.

“I believe,” Napoleon said slowly, walking over and locking the door, “I forgot to say please.”

“Is that right?” Illya looked thoughtfully at Alice’s battered face and then back to Dawson. Under blood and dirt, his expression was hard.

“Yep.” Napoleon was feeling rather hard himself. He handed the gun to Alice and took her knife in return. Alice nodded and held the gun ready. Her hands were steadier now.

Napoleon picked up the wire basket and put it into the fire. Then he moved close to Dawson. “Please.” He hit him. The man jerked against the wall. Illya held him tight. They waited, briefly.

“I still don’t think you asked the right way, Napoleon.”

“I’m a little rusty.” He slid the knife under Dawson’s tie and sliced it away. Then one by one he cut off the man’s shirt buttons and flicked them down to the floor. Inside the white undershirt, Dawson’s chest heaved up and down.

“Do you like bunnies?” Napoleon murmured, slicing the undershirt open, leaving the barest red line behind the tip of his knife.

Dawson moaned.

Napoleon looked at his blade. “I could carve one on your chest as a memento of our visit.”

Illya shook his head. “I don’t think so Napoleon. Remember what happened the last time you tried to be artistic? You made a mess, and the man died of shame.”

Napoleon shrugged. “He didn’t complain to me.” He bit his lip, measuring the knife against Dawson’s chest.

“You could burn him with the hot basket,” Alice suggested. “The wires would leave a mark like a rabbit cage.”

Dawson gaped at Alice. He shrank against the wall. “You’re all mad,” he hissed.

“I think you’re right,” Napoleon said, retrieving the basket, now glowing red once again. “But I’ll have to line up the wire marks very carefully or it will spoil the effect.”

Dawson groaned. “You’re too late, in any event,” he said, squirming. “When we found out Dr. Morgan had betrayed us, I called the strike force in for tonight. They’ll be here any moment.” He twitched under Napoleon’s gaze. “If I were you, I’d run, while I still had a chance.”

That, at least, had a ring of truth.

Illya leaned closer, putting pressure on his arm. “Why send rabbits?”

Dawson gasped. “Morgan claimed he needed to run his field test and let the transmitter burn in. But he switched the controls. The rabbits went to U.N.C.L.E. instead of Thrush.”

So that was it. It had been a sort of a warning. Too bad Dr. Morgan hadn’t pinned a note to one of his bunnies.

Dawson was still spilling his guts. “Morgan hid the lady—” his eyes went to Alice “—when she came through. We didn’t know what happened until you shorted the power.”

Alice took up the story. “Dr. Morgan contacted us last week asking for protection,” she said. “Mr. Waverly looked after the matter personally. I guess Dr. Morgan tried to hide from Thrush out here in the country.” She shook her head. “He’s upstairs now. Dawson shot him.”

Illya raised an eyebrow. Napoleon nodded. He took the gun from Alice and aimed it at Dawson. Time was critically short.

Illya slid something out of his pocket. He yanked Dawson away from the wall and re-wrapped his arm around the man’s neck. Dawson’s face blanched in fear.

Illya looked at Alice again. His eyes narrowed. “You did very well with the knife, Miss Shea,” he told her. “But there’s a secret to threatening someone’s life.” He put his mouth close to Dawson’s pale ear. “Is there not, my Thrush friend?”

Illya jerked his arm. Dawson’s head snapped back and he sagged, gurgling, down to the floor.

“You must also be willing to take it.”

Act III: Splitting Hares

Alice sank down in a chair. “Can I faint now?” she asked, plaintively.

Napoleon flashed his best smile. “You’re doing great.” He frowned at Illya, adding, “But I don’t know what I can do about you.” He shook his head as he bent to lift Dawson’s feet. “I could have seen you palm that dart three miles away.”

“When it comes to carnival tricks, Napoleon, I admit I shall never be your equal.”

Alice perked up. “He’s not dead?”

Illya grabbed Dawson’s arms. “Unfortunately, not.” He grinned, briefly, teeth flashing white against his dark face. “But he thinks he is.”

They dragged Dawson off to a quiet corner of the pantry.

“If this happens again,” Napoleon advised, “please just shoot the party in question.”

“Ah.” Illya cleared his throat. “I couldn’t. It appears I left my gun in Mr. Waverly’s office.”

“I know.” Napoleon tapped his deplorable shirt. “That’s why I left mine in the rabbit cage. I slipped it off while I had my back turned to Dawson.”

“You did?” Illya’s eyebrows shot up. “That was very clever of you, Napoleon. It’s a pity, you forgot to mention it.”

“Nobody’s perfect. Speaking of which….” Napoleon took a closer look at Illya’s head. There was a nasty gash in the scalp, now matted with blood, but it didn’t look like anything urgent. “Aren’t you supposed to be imitating a Swiss cheese right about now?”

Illya stared at him, blankly.

“Full of holes?”

“Not at all,” Illya flashed the ghost of a smile. “Remind me to have a chat with Section Eight one of these days. I believe they have overlooked the defensive potential of a good solid rabbit cage.”

***

They found Dr. Morgan in an upstairs bedroom, a pale, shrunken man with a blood-soaked bandage wound around his chest. Napoleon walked over and saw watery blue eyes not long for the world.

“Did you come through?” Morgan’s voice was low. “Did you come from U.N.C.L.E?”

“Yes,” Napoleon told him, “from New York.”

A look of sublime happiness crossed Morgan’s face. He touched Napoleon’s arm. “Knew it was working,” he whispered. “Once some of the rabbits survived.”

Some survived? Napoleon didn’t like the sound of that. From outside, the distant chopping of helicopter blades reached his ears. He didn’t like the sound of that, either.

“But not working for Thrush,” Morgan said weakly. “When they came, I tricked them into running the field test to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.”

Illya felt the man’s pulse. “I don’t think we dare move him.”

Alice ran in with a wet cloth.

“We had the idea,” Illya told Morgan, keeping his dirty hands away from the bandage, “of increasing our metabolisms with adrenalin.”

The scientist focused on Illya. “Like the bunnies,” he agreed. “Anyone can go out, but you need a high metabolic rate to come back.” The speech exhausted him. He faded into the covers.

A new voice chimed in behind them. “I’ll thank you to step away from my son.”

It was the wool-capped farmer from the barn, standing in the doorway and clutching a shotgun. Napoleon and Illya raised their hands and stepped in opposite directions. Alice stood her ground.

“We’re trying to help,” Napoleon said. The man had been working with Dawson. Which side was he on? Helicopter sounds were distinct now. They had maybe five minutes.

“It’s all right, Dad,” Morgan whispered. “They’re U.N.C.L.E.”

The farmer seemed to collapse in on himself. “Well, thank God.” He walked up to his son.

Napoleon drew Illya aside. “Even if headquarters is on full alert, there’s no guarantee they can stop an attack from inside the building.” He rubbed his chin. “We’ve got to find a solution at our end.”

“Agreed.” Illya had  plastique ready and was stripping off one of his shirt buttons. “We’ll have to blow up the transmitter.”

That was no good. “Getting trapped here with a Thrush assault team is suicide.” Napoleon thought about that some bunnies survived comment. “And I’m not particularly keen on leaving the way we came in.”

Blue eyes met his, waiting to hear a better idea. Napoleon glanced from the pale man in bed back to his partner.

“How fast can you shower and shave?”

* * * * * * * * * *

A lot can happen in five minutes, Napoleon reflected, adding one more Thrush guard a heap of unconscious men in the stable. A satellite can move across the sky. A spy, covered in filth, can become a tweeded Welsh physics professor. A dying scientist can take his last step away from the light—

Morgan Senior was talking to Alice. “Tried to ’ide ’im here,” his voice was sad but calm, “when them Thrush fellers came, but it weren’t no use.”

“Yes, it was,” Alice promised. “For what it’s worth, we won’t let Thrush have his work.” The old man nodded. Napoleon handed Alice a rifle and waved her down out of sight.

—and a helicopter full of commandos can burst into a room.

“Good evening,” Napoleon walked up to the Thrush captain and extended his hand. “My name’s Dawson. Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”

***

It was a simple plan, Illya reflected dismally, pushing his ball of plastique out of sight beneath the control panel. A plan almost certain to get them all killed. He would set the coordinates to some random location. The Thrush team would walk into the transmitter field and poof. They would disappear in a shimmer of electronics, only to reappear at some random point on earth.

Hopefully quite high up in the air.

Like most of Napoleon’s plans, this one had glaring flaws. First, Illya hadn’t even seen the controls yet, let alone discovered how to set them. Second, if any of the Thrush men knew Dawson or Morgan, they were finished before they got started.

The third problem had to do with their bomb. It was a new, three-tiered system: his watch signal would fire the detonator button which, in turn, would set off the plastique. But the buttons had proved unreliable in magnetic fields—such as those produced by a strong electrical current. Cycling the transmitter fifteen times could produce…unintended results.

***

“Are we ready?” The Thrush captain shook Napoleon’s hand. “I understand you had some trouble early this evening.”

Some, Napoleon agreed silently, but just wait and see what we’re going to cause now. He nodded confidentially. “Nothing we couldn’t handle.” Napoleon waved Illya over with his gun. “Permit me to introduce Dr. Morgan.” He grabbed Illya’s hair and pulled him forward, displaying the gash. Illya hissed. “I’m afraid we had to get a little rough with him, but he’s cooperative at this point, aren’t you, Dr. Morgan?” He shoved Illya back toward the console.

“What choice do I have?” Illya growled.

“None at all.” Napoleon held his breath. Alice had Illya’s watch. If Thrush didn’t buy their act, she was supposed to trigger the bomb and run like hell.

The Thrush captain smiled. “Good,” he said. “Then let’s do this quickly please. There’s a backup team coming behind us, and I have every intention of taking U.N.C.L.E. headquarters without them.”

Illya flicked a switch and brought the transmitter to life. The space between mirrors coalesced into a swirl of metallic color. Napoleon hadn’t seen it operate from this side before; it was rather fantastic.

The sound of helicopter blades once again reached his ears.

Illya hesitated over the controls. Napoleon dragged Morgan Senior to the panel, putting his gun to the old man’s throat. “No tricks,” he warned. “One whiff of trouble and we make this your father’s final resting place.”

“Which one?” Illya muttered, and Napoleon saw the problem. There must have been someplace to set real coordinates on the machine, but the front had only two settings—one marked Thrush, the other U.N.C.L.E. The labels had been wiped away and rewritten more than once.

Illya reached out and set the dial to U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon stuck the gun in his face. “I’m warning you!” The technicians had moved the equipment after Dawson found out about Morgan’s trick. It stood to reason they had reset the controls.

Illya shrugged and turned the dial the other way.

“Go!” Napoleon told the Thrush captain.

One-by-one the assault team stepped into the field and dissolved. Each time the light flickered, went out, and came back on. By the time the Thrush captain disappeared, the second helicopter was roaring outside the barn.

“If the second team has radio contact with Thrush, they may already know the first group came out at the wrong location,” Illya shouted. “Assuming we sent them to Thrush and not to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters after all.”

Napoleon nodded. He turned the transmitter switch back to U.N.C.L.E.

“Let’s set your bomb and go through.” He dragged Alice out of the stall, tossed Illya the watch, and said a prayer to lady luck.

“Go!” he told her. Alice went. The lights flickered.

“Go!” Morgan Senior was next. The lights flickered again. Sparks shot out from under the panel. Illya ducked down to look.

“It’s the detonator!” he yelled. “Six seconds—please hurry Napoleon—fivefour.”

Napoleon dove into the field. The noise faded away….

And there he was, just inside reception at U.N.C.L.E. Alarms were blaring and doors slamming shut. Paul Matthews was swinging Alice around in a circle with an idiot grin on his face.

Napoleon stared at the shimmering rectangle behind him. What happened to Illya?

ThreeTwo. The field flickered. One.

Security lights flashed. A half dozen agents rushed into the area, guns ready. Paul set the astonished Alice back on her feet.

Zero. And Illya appeared, staggering out of nowhere in a cloud of smoke and dropping down to his knees. Alice ran to him, ignoring the bristling weaponry around her. Napoleon joined them. The Russian looked no worse for wear.

They were greeted by Wanda’s voice, from reception. “Why, Mr. Solo! Mr. Kuryakin!” She ran down the hall to confront them them. “You know you’re not allowed back there without your badges!”

Act IV The Writing on the Wall

Illya Kuryakin sat at his desk, blond head buried in a Vietnamese grammar.

“Light a match,” he said without looking up. “Unless you wish to be doused with hiccup gas.”

Napoleon took out his lighter, spun the wheel, and thrust the flame into the doorway. The answering click probably meant the trap du jour had just been disarmed. Or armed.

Only one way to find out. He held his breath and hopped through, and then walked over and sat down, casually, on one corner of Illya’s desk. The dripping red hammer and sickle on the wall had been joined by a bright golden star.

Illya closed his book. “It is rather pitiful to see senior agents cower at the prospect of entering this office.”

Napoleon shrugged. He’d noticed junior agents were a mite cautious themselves.

Across the room, Paul’s workspace shone like a new minted penny, with nary a trace of un-filed paperwork. Even the snakes were stretched out neatly beneath their sunlamps. And the terrariums, Napoleon noted with approval, had been bolted to the wall.

“How’s the head?” he asked. Dr. Nguyen had taken one look at Illya and strapped him down for a course of IV antibiotics.

“I appear to have narrowly escaped amputation.” Illya said. “I was scrubbed with steel wool instead. And as nearly as I can tell,” he tapped the book, “the next time I get shot in the head, rubbing decomposed rabbit droppings in the wound is contra-indicated.”

Napoleon noticed she’d taken pains to spare the golden hair. “You spent three days studying Vietnamese just for that?”

Illya nodded, frowning a little “Or else she recommended eating the rabbits first. I’m not sure which.” He shook his head. “And please don’t exaggerate, Napoleon. It was closer to two days. You cannot possibly hold the time we spent in Wales against me.”

Napoleon wasn’t at all sure he agreed. Still…. “I won’t if Hutch doesn’t,” he promised. “But don’t count your chickens. Our U.N.C.L.E. team was a tad put out that we nearly blew them to bits after they moved heaven and earth just to rescue us.”

Illya stared at him. “My amateur radio call! I forgot all about it!” He was quiet for a minute. “In that case,” he said slowly, “I suppose they were displeased by the demise the transmitter.”

To put it mildly. “Blown transmitter. Dead scientist. Shot up conference room. I think the three of us can forget any big promotions in the foreseeable future.”

“Three?”

“Paul,” Napoleon smiled, “is getting the lion’s share of discredit for your gun battle.”

“I see.” Illya didn’t look pleased. Perhaps he knew the rest of the discredit was his.

“But it’s OK.” Napoleon patted his shoulder. “Winnie wrote you up as a concussion. They’re putting your miserable performance down to permanent brain damage.”

“Oh.”

“G’day mates!” Paul brought his irrepressible good humor into the room. He lit a cigarette in the doorway, dumped a load of junk on his desk, turned, and surveyed Illya’s wall.

“New artwork?”

“I rather like it,” Illya smiled. “I think I will leave a note on my desk asking for a glowing portrait of Lenin to be added next.”

“Might as well ask the artist in person,” Paul said. He tossed a manila envelope to Illya. “Makes me kind’a nervous when people sneak around the office at night. Y’ never know what they get up to.”

Illya opened the flap. Napoleon peeked over. Inside was a grainy photo of Illya’s office mate, Andy Andreakos, redoing the décor.

“Paul,” Napoleon turned to face the Australian. “Is this legit?” He’d never noticed trouble between Andy and Illya.

Paul nodded. Illya sighed and put the photo away.

“You want me to beat him up for ya?” Paul offered. “Let him know I have sole rights of abuse?”

“No.” Illya’s mouth twitched. “Violence never solves anything.”

“Glad to see you’re feeling better, Mr. Kuryakin.” That was Hutch, stepping in at the door. Paul sprang forward and lit his cigarette a second time. Something went click.

“We discourage smoking in Section Two, Mr. Matthews. It’s bad for your health.”

“Yes, sir.” Paul put the cigarette out.

“I believe there’s a car waiting for you downstairs.”

“Yes, sir.” Paul picked up his papers.

“Off on assignment?” Napoleon asked, innocently.

“Rough duty, as always,” Paul grinned back. “I’m off t’ give a four-week Survival School seminar on th’ art of diplomacy.”

“Those who can’t,” Illya murmured, “teach.”

“And those who can’t teach,” Paul agreed cheerfully, “get to baby sit my pets.” He dropped the papers in front of Illya. “Those are th’ instructions. Alice will be along later with this week’s supply of baby mice.”

He stopped and looked at Illya for a second, and then smiled. “Take this, too.” He unbuckled his belt, pulled it off, and set it on Illya’s desk. It was unusually thick and had a little metal box fastened in back.

Illya eyed the belt as if it were one of Paul’s snakes.

Paul leaned over and patted his cheek. “You might need it.” He walked lightly back to his desk, collected his stuff, and ducked out the door.

Gordon Hutchinson stood a long moment inside the room. Napoleon waited, envying Illya his innocent face and musing on Paul. The man had been altogether too cheerful for someone about to spend four weeks with Jules Cutter.

“I thought you both might like to know we recovered Dr. Morgan’s notebooks,” Hutch said finally. “Although nobody seems to know what to make of them.”

Napoleon decided this was kindly meant. “I’m glad to hear it, sir,” he said. He realized that didn’t sound quite right. “That they were recovered…that is.” Illya had the gall to look amused.

But not for long. “I am sorry about the rescue team,” he said frankly. “That was entirely my fault.”

Hutch nodded. “We seem to be putting it down to concussion,” he said. “Take better care of your head next time.”

“Yes, sir.”

Napoleon bit his tongue. Hutch knew the odds of that second team being U.N.C.L.E. had been tiny. They were being spanked for the scene in the conference room.

Napoleon didn’t take well to being spanked by men.

“Ah, there you are, gentlemen.” Now it was Waverly’s turn at the door. The U.N.C.L.E. chief had the good sense to stand outside. “I see Mr. Matthews left his toy.” He waved his unlit pipe at Paul’s belt. “Take it down to Section Eight when you get the chance, will you? They seem to think studying the receiving device will help them understand Dr. Morgan’s work.”

Napoleon stiffened. Receiving device? What was it Alice had said back in that kitchen? Mr. Waverly looked after the matter personally.

Illya’s frowned.  “Do we know anything about how it functions yet, sir?”

“Not really,” Waverly answered. “We know the transmitter field always appeared close to where Mr. Matthews was standing. The mechanics, however, are a complete mystery.”

“I see.” Illya lifted an eyebrow. Napoleon added it up. He didn’t much care for the sum. No wonder Paul had been laughing.

“May I ask, sir,” he said slowly, “when you decided to field test Dr. Morgan’s device—and our security response—at the same time, did you know Thrush was involved?”

“Unfortunately not, Mr. Solo,” Waverly looked at his pipe. “We were as much in the dark about that part of the operation as you and Mr. Kuryakin. Still, that is the whole point of a security test, isn’t it? To see what will happen when things go awry?”

Maybe, Napoleon thought grudgingly. But he wished they could see what happened to somebody else once in a while.

Illya tilted his head. “Then Paul failed to pass through because he was wearing the receiving device?”

“That is presumably the case.”

“And…” He thought some more. “The rescue team arrived so quickly because…”

“Yes, quite, Mr. Kuryakin.” Waverly agreed. “They already knew where you were. In fact, we dispatched the team soon after you failed to report in from Wales. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to contact you on the radio. You seem to have left it on an unauthorized frequency.”

“Ah.”

“So while we’re not entirely satisfied with the results, gentlemen, it does appear that things could have gone much worse.”

“For example,” Napoleon couldn’t keep the edge out of his voice. “Alice, Illya, and I could be dead, and U.N.C.L.E. headquarters could be in the hands of Thrush.”

Waverly regarded him impassively. “Fortunately for all of us, you did not allow that to happen, Mr. Solo.”

There was no arguing with that.

“Carry on, gentlemen.” Waverly walked off down the hall.

Waverly’s departure brought Hutch back into focus. He looked at Illya who was examining the belt. “I suppose you’ll need another three days to locate an apartment, Mr. Kuryakin?”

Poor Illya jerked his head in surprise. He’d obviously forgotten about finding somewhere to live. He opened his mouth and then closed it.

Like rain in the desert, Alice appeared in the doorway. “That’s all taken care of.” She smiled. “Mr. Solo and I are helping Mr. Kuryakin move this evening, right after Mr. Andreakos finishes painting.” She gave them all her most innocent look. “When I suggested it this morning, he was very eager to help.”

Of course, Napoleon thought. Nothing ever happened at headquarters without Alice knowing about it. She’d make a great spy.

“I see.” Hutch was mildly pleased. “Good.” He let Alice drag him off in search of other prey.

The room was quiet for a few minutes while it all sank in. Napoleon pondered Waverly’s management style, which sometimes smacked of too many years in the OSS. Still, as Waverly would have put it, there was no arguing with results.

Illya tapped the cover of his book absently.

“I wonder,” he mused, “where I am planning to live?”

Napoleon shook off his speculations.

“Downstairs from me.” He pulled a key from his pocket and tossed it to Illya. “In the low-rent section of the building. Bill Daniels transferred out a couple of weeks ago, so there was a place available with security already set up.”

“Oh.” Illya nodded. “Thank you.”

“Want to drive over and see it? You’ve still got the day off.”

Illya shook his head. “Since you have already made the commitment in my name, what difference does it make whether I see it now or later this evening?”

“We could check in on Andy. I think a little chat might be in order.”

Illya looked unconvinced.

“And I could buy you lunch. There’s a great Polish restaurant just down the street from the building.”

Illya smiled and rose to his feet. “Sold,” he agreed, “for the price of a meal.” He glanced at the mural behind him. “I suppose someone will have to paint a dollar bill up there next.”

The End

 

Originally published in “Kuryakin Files 21.”   Many thanks to Dusky, Sandie, and Carol.