Solo’s Luck


Solo’s Luck

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Copyright ©2003 Vicky Loebel
This is a work of fanfiction, intended to be shared freely with all who enjoy. No revenue has been generated from this story and no fee may be charged for it. All material not belonging to the Man From U.N.C.L.E. franchise is copyright Vicky Loebel. Please respect the hard work of authors everywhere and include this copyright notice in any distribution.


There’s a piece of paper in my hand bearing a number I can’t read, and that number, those two, or three, or four numerals—look—I can’t even tell you the magnitude—that writing marks the number of my sins.

Who’d have thought it?

In life, I considered myself a fair man. No saint, mind you; mine was a harsh service, and there were times I was forced to be harsh. I did things I knew I’d eventually regret. But of course, I always imagined I’d live to regret them. My mind’s eye painted a moderate, aging remorsefulness, played out beside a comfortable hearth, graced by memories of worthy goals, dear friends, and extremely agreeable ladies.

Reality dealt me this cold, twilit emptiness.

 My Russian partner once said that some Bolsheviks considered themselves the ultimate proof of man’s accountability to God—exterminating without mercy in their turn, only to be mercilessly exterminated by the machine they created. This idea of heavenly justice—moreover, of being compelled to watch the sword fall in the last moments of life—appealed to me greatly. We drank a good deal more wine  than men in our line of work ought to discussing it and arranging, on God’s behalf, the various fates of friends and acquaintances.

Later, we made our way to a bar where some of those less friendly acquaintances could often be found and described for them, in gory detail, just exactly what they had coming—though by then we dispensed justice solely in the name of religion and left the Godless Communists out of it. I won thirty-five dollars, that night, playing pool before slipping out the washroom window while my partner engineered a diversionary fire on the street. And so nothing bad came of our drunken indiscretion.

But luck like that can’t last forever.

I’ve wondered many times if it was true about the Bolsheviks discovering God. Or maybe it was just one of those tales you get out of pie-eyed expatriates. But my partner never reopened the subject and I knew not to ask. A few months later he drowned in his own red circle of truth without telling me what God held in store for ex-Soviets.

I nearly quit then, knowing the future would be empty of pool halls and bonfires and drunken stories—though not quite imagining one empty of life itself. But…you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So I carried on a short while without him. And then I didn’t, and the future no longer mattered.

But I puzzle over those Bolsheviks still. Were they deluding themselves, or did they really find God in the end? For the ultimate irony is, death brought me neither triumph nor retribution. All I got was a small scrap of paper.

How many sins are recorded here? By whose yardstick do I meet my measure? What happens when the last one ticks away? Death is a dark country, even after you’re dead.

One by one I count my sins down, from here until the end of myself. One by one, I watch and regret, wait and remember. Through the mist I still see Manhattan pressed flat against a gray dawn sky. I slide the tip of my finger along the curves of a beautiful woman, hear the splash of taxis against traffic cops in the rain, smell July garbage, October egg-fu-yung, and the scent of new-mown hay as I creep through tall grass with a gun in my hand.

And I still feel the ants marching over my body, reducing skin, blood, and muscle to dust.

Life is gone, yet it’s here at the edge of my grasp.

Pity me. Touch me. Take me back.

Mid July, in the Woods of Wisconsin

When we went off the road, I knew we had to be close to the drop.

It was risky, of course. I’d hoped our prisoner would do the obvious and go for my gun. So I’d played up the bump on my head from our previous scuffle, sagging against the rear door, jerking back and forth from groggy to alert. Only I played it a little too well. Trout was half over the seat with his foot in my groin before I had a chance to react. He plowed right over Illya, driving an elbow into his throat, yanking the steering wheel and sending our car tumbling sideways into the shallow ravine—even as he tucked his knees and rolled like a circus performer, making his escape through the passenger door.

I guess I got out then. I guess Illya got out too, because in the glare of flames I could see him lying close to the car, crumpled and covered in blood, feet drifting into the slow creek, eyes open to the empty night sky.

Crazy bastard. Crazy bastards, all of us.

Things go in fits and starts in an emergency. Sometimes, like while I fought the door and the grass and the pain in my balls, everything flashes by on instinct and I can barely remember what happened. Other times the simplest action stretches out and there’s plenty of time for clear thinking.

Hours ticked by while I fumbled for the gun loaded with darts, snapped off the safety, and lined Leonard Trout up in my sights. The darts were new stuff, designed to provide options when a target might be useful awake. One dart caused pain and local paralysis. Two sent a man to the ground, helpless for a couple of hours. Three—not recommended—stopped his heart. I wanted Leonard Trout dead—but since when does what you want have anything to do with being a field agent?

So I waited with the ants in the dry grass at the top of the bank, watched fireflies call for female companionship in the weeds by the creek. And when Trout struggled out of the ravine and began his slow jog toward cover on the opposite side of the road, I shot him square in the thigh. He stumbled and fell, and I left the ants and went to get him, thinking it had been a pretty good weak-handed shot and that if Illya had been there to see it, he would have had to forego his usual pithy remark.

My right hand wasn’t working too well. I decided I didn’t want to know why.

We’ll skip the details of how I dragged Trout back to the bank and made him look at what he’d done to my partner. They’re not pretty. If you’re a field agent, you’ve already got the idea, and if you’re not, you probably think I was out of my mind with grief. But that’s not so. Grief is something you feel looking at fathers pushing swings in the park. This was business.

Trout had to understand he had one remaining purpose in life, and that purpose was to get me to the Thrush drop point and recover the package he’d been sent to pick up. If he did, there was a small chance he’d be alive in the morning.

A very small chance.

“All right, get up,” I told him after I figured we’d done business enough. “Let’s go.”

It took everything I had to walk away from that scene, but that was what the job called for. So I murmured a silent prayer to whatever might remain of my luck, wrapped my good arm around Trout’s ribs, shoved the gun into his side, and settled his weight across the back of my shoulders. Then, dragging Trout’s useless foot behind us like the tail of a three-legged rat, we set off down the dark road together.

 

And in the emptiness, my paper counter reduces by one.

 

A Nearby Farm, Earlier That Day

“Susan….” Napoleon pressed his cheek into silky waves of pale hair and shrugged at a trickle of sweat chasing itself down the length of his spine. “Susan….” July was hot this year. Record-settingly, tar-meltingly hot. Even out here in the country, even this late in the day, even through a pleasant filter of lemonade, lace curtains, and window screens, heat reached into the living room the way a fat tomcat reaches into a goldfish bowl—not hungrily, but with lazy confidence, knowing that if today doesn’t serve you up on the menu, tomorrow will do. The air was heavy with the rich scent of mown grass and the buzz of cicadas.

“Susan….” She nestled closer and he pressed his lips to the nape of her neck. Sweet Sue.

Outside, afternoon sunlight poured golden across the edge of a cornfield, flowed along an expanse of sparse lawn, and flooded the fence rails surrounding an empty dirt paddock. Inside, a faint breeze carried the rustle of maple trees slapping at bugs. There was a gravel drive, empty and baking, that led off to the highway. There was a porcelain cuckoo clock keeping time on the living room wall.

Napoleon shifted his gaze from the yard to the clock. It was nearly seven—eight o’clock in New York—which might account for the empty pit in his stomach, if it hadn’t been years since he’d kept any kind of regular schedule. Eight or seven; either way, time was running out.

We must have that package, tonight, Mr. Solo, whatever the cost. Napoleon’s eyebrows climbed at the memory; it was unlike his boss to be so direct. Whatever the cost. Napoleon sighed. Phrases like that didn’t apply to field agents. Field agents were a run of the mill charge to the budget.

Susan tilted her face, and he kissed her under the disapproving gaze of the cuckoo. One cuckoo—full on the lips. Two cuckoos—under the base of the chin. Five- six- seven—tracing the delicate path between the head and the heart. Her head hadn’t wanted to listen but her heart was all ears.

“Susan.” He shifted her to the crook of one arm and stroked the edge of her cheek, trying not to think of the two open windows behind them. “I know this is hard, but you’ve got to believe me. Geoffrey Fisher is only interested in one thing.”

Susan scuffed a stockinged toe over the braided cloth rug. “His package,” she pouted.

“It’s not his,” Napoleon corrected. “But yes, the package he’s picking up somewhere near here. Tonight.” He lifted her chin and made her look in his eyes. “Now, you’ve seen my credentials and I’ve told you as much as I can.” Too much, probably, over the course of the long afternoon. And she’d told him things in return—who worked the neighboring farms, which seniors failed to make it to the end of the school year. Many things, but not the one thing he needed to know.

Where?

Eventually, the stillness had oppressed him, and he’d slipped discreetly out of gun, holster, and suit-coat. Eventually, Susan had slipped into his arms. He’d understood what it would take to persuade her.

“What about you, Napoleon?” She sighed, laying her head on his shoulder. “Are you only interested in one thing?”

Napoleon smiled. “Not only one.” He kissed her hair, wondering when twenty-two had started looking so young. “But yes, I have to give first priority to my assignment.”

“That’s what Geoff said, exactly.” She looked up again, the challenge plain on her face. Prove you’re sincere. Prove you’re the man I should trust.

“I can’t prove anything,” he murmured, thinking of the many times he’d been rivals with Geoff—though seldom over a lady. “Except…” he guided her face to his “…this….” Her lips opened and he took the kiss she offered and just a little bit more, crossing and re-crossing the line between consent and surrender, teasing them both to the edge of good sense. “And this.” Her top three blouse buttons parted and he ran fingertips over unguarded skin.

Then he pulled back and let sultry air fill the inches between them—between a man from U.N.C.L.E. and a girl who should have grown up to marry the malt shop.

Cuckoo. The clock announced seven-fifteen.

“I can’t promise anything, either,” he told Susan, pretending the truth made it all right. “I can’t tell you I’ll be here tomorrow.”

But she was already half in love with him and the heat and the summer air were clouding her judgment. Her mind had already closed to the truth. They undid one another’s shirt buttons, slowly, and Napoleon gathered her to him in earnest, tasting youth, drinking the heady aroma of clean laundry and soap. It had been a long time since he’d held a woman who didn’t douse herself in French perfume, and for a moment he was sixteen again and madly in love. Then the illusion shattered and he was just another field agent using sex as the fastest way to get what he wanted. A textbook case for Jules Cutter to paste into his files.

And finally, since that image was unthinkable, he made it untrue, opening his heart, reaching tenderly for places only a lover should know, letting her feel—if not love—at least his sincerity in wishing to love her. She answered with her mouth and her hands and her own tiny cries for possession.

It was almost more than he could bear to answer the signaling communicator.

Susan jerked in his arms. “What is that?”

They separated, and for an instant he didn’t know who this girl was or why the hell he was sitting on a chintz sofa next to her. Then he sighed and patted the suit coat he’d placed within reach. He bit the cap off of his communicator and reversed it with one hand, keeping the other arm wrapped companionably around Susan’s shoulders.

“Yeeees?” It had to be Illya. He’d turned off long-range transmissions.

The Russian voice held no trace of irony. “It’s been a while. Have you had any luck with the girl?”

Susan made an indignant, strangling sound and began to do up her buttons.

“No,” Napoleon drawled. Nor at this rate was he in any way likely to. “I’ve been speaking to her about our…ah…mutual acquaintance, but so far she isn’t entirely—” he winked, leaning over and kissing her cheek, and the frown that had been gathering quirked into a smile “—sure whom to trust.”

Susan finished her blouse and Napoleon averted his gaze while she straightened her stockings. He tucked the communicator under his chin and reached for his gun.

“Speak faster,” Illya urged. “There’s a pickup truck with two men in it approaching through the cornfield on the west side of the house. You have about two minutes before making a very disagreeable foursome.”

The cornfield? Napoleon shrugged into holster and suit coat, thinking he should have paid more attention to alternate routes. He’d left his car behind a clump of bushes that were out of sight from the driveway, but it would be plainly visible in back of the bungalow. Two against one were not odds he favored—even assuming Susan wouldn’t switch sides and conk him over the head. He glanced out the front. No cover for maybe five hundred yards down to the road. But the cornfield was pretty close, and it was tall enough to hide in.

“How far away are you?” He heard it now—the slow crunch of tires as they rolled to a stop. The soft opening of car doors that were not going to slam shut. There was no question Geoff and his partner knew he was here.

“Too far,” Illya answered, and Napoleon put the communicator away.

“Run now,” he whispered to Susan. “Ask questions later.”

She nodded, eyes round in the filtered living room light.

Napoleon put a finger to his lips, leading her to the front of the bungalow, opening the screen door and guiding her silently onto the porch. He glanced down. Thank goodness she’d slipped into sensible shoes. “Wait for my word,” he whispered. “Then down the steps and run like mad for the cornfield.”

Susan nodded again.

Napoleon drew his gun and snapped off the safety, ducking low and sliding below the dining-room windows, creeping to the edge of the porch. One of the Thrush men would almost certainly come around the side of the house. But which side?

The back door creaked.

“Now!”

Susan leapt the stairs and hit the ground running like a professional track star. Napoleon threw himself over the porch rail, landed, rolled, and came up on his feet. Nothing. He followed Susan then, sprinting for all he was worth, catching up and propelling her forward in front of him.

Twenty-five feet. Fifteen feet. Five. He clamped a hand over Susan’s mouth and dragged her down to the ground as the corn stalks closed over them.

Napoleon gestured deeper into the field with his gun. “Keep going,” he said softly, “and stay low.” He reached over and planted a light kiss on her cheek before sending her on her way with a nod. Then he turned and started crawling back toward the house at an angle. It would be just like Illya to charge up the driveway and get himself killed right about now.

“Very predictable, Napoleon.” The words came from somewhere behind him—

And then there were no words, and no lights, and no sounds.

* * * * *

He was an ear of corn, and the rain made him grow.

“Wake up, Duchess.”

He shook wet hair, and the ache in his head wished he hadn’t. It was dark and his bound wrists pressed unforgivingly against the base of his spine. From far on high, rain poured down again.

Something poked his ribs. “C’mon, Solo. I didn’t hit you half as hard as I should have.”

Napoleon sputtered while Geoff Fisher emptied a bucket of water onto his face, pinning him to the floor with the sole of one shoe.

Susan’s living room floor. Susan.

The deluge stopped, the foot went away, and Napoleon squirmed to a seated position in a puddle with his back to the wall. Not dark, he realized, just dim in the twilight collecting outside Susan’s lace curtains. He couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a couple of minutes. Susan.

The sofa and coffee table had been shoved away from the side wall and into the center of the living room. Susan was sitting there, facing Napoleon, eyes on the hands in her lap. The hunch of her shoulders and jut of her chin were…defiant, he thought, and maybe a little confused, but not really frightened or hurt. So far so good.

Napoleon drew a slow breath, collecting his wits. Geoff Fisher wasn’t really the type to slap a woman around, but the new partner was completely unknown. And where Thrush was concerned, unknown could be very unpleasant, indeed. He sagged a little, doing his best to look beaten, and studied the two men carefully under veiled eyelids.

Geoff was his usual captain-of-the-football-team-turned-Thrush-agent self. Tall, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, his fortiesh blond hair beginning to darken toward brown. His face was more lined than the last time Napoleon had seen him, his expression more guarded, but mostly he seemed to be holding his own. They’d bumped into each other many times over the years and not always as enemies, thanks to a certain shared interest in games. As bad guys went, Geoff wasn’t the worst of them.

Take now, for example. Having made it clear who was boss, Geoff stepped away and busied himself at the front picture window, giving Napoleon some breathing space to figure things out.

The other man was a different kettle of fish. Shorter, younger, over-armed, and more conservatively dressed, the only team he might have creditably been captain of was a midnight execution squad. His gaze paced restlessly from his partner, to the windows, to Napoleon, to Susan, to his partner again—the MAT-49 submachine gun he held fairly begging out loud to be used. Every once in a while, his right hand twitched away from the trigger and sought a faint bulge underneath his left cuff. His mouth moved rhythmically up and down, up and down, working a wad of tobacco.

Knife man Napoleon decided, watching the fingers make their third trip to the sleeve. That could be good. It might slow the guy down if he followed instinct and switched weapons when push came to shove. On the other hand, it might make him light on the trigger, in which case push would come to large holes in somebody’s head.

Napoleon inventoried his own weapons, carefully, one by one, which were…none. No gun, no wrist watch, no exploding shirt buttons, not even his shoes. There was a pile on the coffee table, between him and Susan, into which had been dumped his suit coat, communicator, wallet, extra ammunition and assorted odds and ends. Geoff Fisher knew him a little too well. With a sinking feeling, Napoleon watched the two Thrush men take turns at the windows, Geoff at the front, the knife man at the back, splitting the two side windows between them. They were being careful not to stand in the same line of fire. Geoff knew Illya a little too well, too. The U.N.C.L.E. agents were going to have to play nice.

Cuckoo – cuckoo – cuckoo. Susan’s clock told the three-quarters hour. Seven forty-five. The room faded against the lingering light in the sky.

Time to do his bit for the troops. Napoleon shook his head again, pleased to find the pain was subsiding. Then he lifted his eyes. “You know, Geoff,” he drawled, ignoring the way the partner’s gun snapped to attention. “You’re a swell guy and everything, but…we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

Geoff Fisher turned toward him with a bleak expression that made Napoleon shiver. Then he pasted a grin on his face. “Hullo, Duchess.” Geoff crossed his arms, tucking his gun under one elbow. “Only, consider the alternative—which, right now, is for you to be dead.” He stepped back and perched on the armchair in the corner behind him, letting his gun rest on his thigh in a deceptively casual grasp. “How’s life on the opposite side of the tracks?”

“Oh, I can’t complain.” Napoleon probed the edge of the rug with his fingertips, carefully searching the bare floor behind him, but Susan had neglected to hide any weapons there. “The food’s good, and I get abducted to all the best parties.”

There was a snap from outside—like the shattering of a tree branch—and the knife man spun, dropped into a crouch and pushed his gun against the rear side-window screen. “Twenty yards.” He jerked his chin toward the driveway. “Short, blond, and if he steps out from behind that tree one more time I’ve got him.”

“He won’t.” Geoff shrugged, not bothering to look. “I’m sure Mr. Kuryakin has as much interest in getting out of this alive as the rest of us. Just show him your gun, Len, and move to where he can’t stop you from using it.”

“Whatever you say.” The knife man produced a burst of automatic fire that sent the window screen spinning away to the ground. He spit tobacco juice through the opening before stepping back with a thin smile. “He saw it.”

Geoff pretended to shake his head sadly. “That’s the youth of today for you, Duchess,” he sighed. “No subtlety.” The remark drew a barking laugh from his partner.

Geoff twisted and took his own turn waving at Illya before resuming his perch on the chair.

“Napoleon Solo,” he gestured with his free hand, “meet Leonard Trout. I won’t waste time introducing my somewhat duplicitous fiancée, as I believe you are already intimately acquainted.”

Napoleon’s heart skipped a beat. He followed Trout’s smirk to the cuckoo clock over his head and stifled a groan. Sound. They had the living room wired for sound.

“Although I’d be glad,” Geoff continued, “to tell her a thing or two about you.” He left his place and leaned over the back of the sofa, resting one elbow on each side of Susan, exposing his back to Illya’s direct line of fire. “For instance, would you like to know why I call him Duchess, baby? Because he digs his sharp little chin into my neck first and looks for morals afterwards.”

Napoleon watched uneasily as Susan scowled.

“Duplicitous,” she spat in a low voice.

“Um….” Napoleon cleared his throat. “Fisher and Trout? I bet you two take a lot of good natured ribbing about that.” He kept his voice smooth, his face smiling, and his eyes clear of any sign that he was hoping for help from his partner.

Leonard Trout’s hand went to his sleeve. “No,” he said flatly. “We don’t.”

Napoleon sighed.

“Duplicitous!” Susan clenched her fists and twisted around on the sofa. “You’ve got a nerve throwing names around after the lies you fed me.”

Not that his partner could help unless Napoleon somehow shifted the odds. If Trout took a couple of steps forward, for example, Illya’d have a clear shot at both Thrush agents at once.

Leonard Trout took a couple of steps back.

Geoff’s face was calm, but there was a dangerous look in his eye. He put an arm around Susan’s neck. “I told no lies, baby.” He pulled her to him and nuzzled her cheek. “Not one lie, Susan.” He kissed her. “Not one.” He let go and she pulled away from him but not very far.

Napoleon tugged his ropes and stared into Trout’s gun. He cast his mind around, wondering…. That Duchess bit suggested certain unsavory possibilities. There was a way you could look at a guy—a leer—that bought immediate tickets to your own getting-clubbed-to-the-floor show. Napoleon swallowed hard with a dry mouth and leered.

Trout’s answering glare booked them in for the late seating.

Oh, goodie. Napoleon slitted his eyes and leaned back against the wall, trying to reason with his own sense of urgency. In theory, their position wasn’t that bad as long as Illya kept the Thrush men pinned down. Nobody could get the package, and sooner or later Geoff would have to make a deal for his skin.

That was the theory, but the pulse in his ears told him different. The room held a bad mix of personalities; there were too many side bets. And the jittery partner was more likely to shoot first and face Illya afterward.

Whatever the cost, Mr. Solo. Which was fine if you spent your life saving the mission. There was no sense dying on credit.

Geoff and Susan were still winding it up, angry tears crowding onto Susan’s pale cheeks.

“Napoleon never told me he loved me!” she accused.

Geoff pulled out a handkerchief and wiped at her face. “And I did.”

“He never said he’d marry me.”

Geoff reached into his pocket again and took out a gold band. He dropped it on Susan’s lap.

“And I did.”

Napoleon ran the scene forward and didn’t like what he saw coming.

Susan cradled the ring in her hand. “What about the package you’re after, Geoff?” she demanded. “Napoleon showed me documents. You said it was black market medical supplies.” The tears sprouted again. “And it’s not! It’s a nerve gas that only kills children!”

Trout’s glance moved unhappily from Geoff to the window behind him. “I don’t like this,” he said. “I think we should get back to business.”

Napoleon opened his mouth and then closed it as Trout rattled his gun.

“I said medical research supplies.” Geoff tilted Susan’s face up to look at him. “Which is the absolute truth. And you might like to know, this nerve gas is a weapon developed by our very own government—a weapon the State Department is beside itself to hang onto, so that only kids in other countries will die. All Thrush wants is to even the board.”

“Thrush,” Napoleon cut in, “wants to throw all the pieces on the floor and then stomp on them.”

“Shut up, Napoleon.” Geoff took his handkerchief again and stroked Susan’s cheeks. “I had it all worked out, baby. My last job, my exit from Thrush, even the inscription on our wedding rings: Happily ever after. How could you just throw me away?”

The bleak look was back. He let the handkerchief fall and straightened, testing the weight of his gun. His gaze traveled slowly from Susan across to her cuckoo clock and then down, bit by bit, to settle on Napoleon’s chin. He raised the gun, eyes devoid of emotion.

“You went too far this time, Solo,” he said flatly.

 “Geoff!” Napoleon filled his own voice with compassion. “I was sorry to hear about Alek.”

The effect was like he’d thrown his own bucket of water—or maybe acid. Geoff recoiled, a naked look of pain flooding his face. Then he cut the look short and stared at Napoleon bitterly, withdrawing into himself.

“Yeah, sure,” he said finally, putting a hand up and rubbing his shoulder. “So was he.”

Napoleon swallowed his heart back down into his chest. He was getting too old for this. Sooner or later he was going wake up dead or—possibly worse—looking out of eyes haunted, like Geoff’s.

“It’s almost dark,” Trout broke in. “Let’s get on with the job.”

So it was. Napoleon looked around, realizing the gloom wasn’t all in his mind. There was barely enough light left to make out Leonard Trout’s impatient expression.

“Right.” Geoff’s voice was cheerful again. “Susan, be a good girl and fetch the Duchess’s pen.”

Susan blew her nose in the handkerchief and sorted through Napoleon’s possessions. She got up, walked around the sofa and put the communicator into Geoff’s hand.

“I don’t understand all this,” she said. “But I’m sorry. Truly I am.”

“That’s OK,” Geoff answered. “I understand for the both of us. It isn’t your fault.” He retrieved the sodden handkerchief and tucked it into his pocket. “My offer’s still good, Susan. You can come with me and we’ll sort things out between us—no strings attached—or you can stay. I won’t lie and promise I’ll make you happy.” He ran his thumb lightly over her shoulder. “But I’ll tell the truth and swear my damnedest to try.”

Susan’s uncertain posture seemed answer enough. Geoff slid an arm around her and steered them both to the nearest side window. Then he opened the communicator and spoke into it.

“You got me lined up in your sights, Kuryakin?”

Silence, followed by Illya’s clear tones. “Yes, I do. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to line your partner up next to you.”

“Very perceptive, for a little guy,” Geoff answered. “I wouldn’t. How about you, Illya? Why don’t you come in and let us tie you up, peaceful-like? I’m a man of my word; I can promise nobody gets hurt.”

Nobody but the children Thrush tests that nerve gas on. Napoleon held his tongue. It wasn’t a deal Illya could make.

“I’m rather comfortable where I am at the moment. Another day, perhaps.”

Geoff shrugged and moved away from the window. Trout unsheathed his knife and came around the furniture, crouching low, pressing the tip behind Napoleon’s ear. He set the gun on the floor, pursing his lips with the clinical look of a taxidermist. “You call him in.”

“Sorry—”

Napoleon grunted as his head hit the wall. Christ. He hadn’t even seen the fist coming. He sagged forward, blinking at red drops splattering onto his buttonless shirt, wondering stupidly if his throat had been cut. But no, it was only a bashed nose. “—wrong number.” He was ready for Trout’s second blow and rode it to impact, letting the floor tilt up and support him over the roar in his ears.

“I hope you realize….” he paused, considering the effect of his words on the rug. Minimal. “I hope you realize,” he began again, jerking himself back to a seated position, “you’re spoiling my prospect of a very agreeable Friday night on the town.” The Copa being somewhat inflexible when it came to matters of personal grooming. He wondered if Sarah’d be in the mood to console him?

Trout shifted back and played one-handed catch with his knife, spinning it and grabbing it out of the air. “If you won’t call your partner,” he said finally, “I’ll be forced to ask the young lady.”

“Stow it, Len,” Geoff cut him off. “There’s still plenty of room for discussion.”

“By all means, do let’s discuss,” Illya’s voice came again. “Because if you harm my friends, I shall comfort myself by shooting you both when you come out of the house. And in case you’re wondering, gentlemen—” The wall cracked and the cuckoo clock plummeted past Napoleon’s shoulder, shattering on the wood floor beside him. Trout grabbed his gun and made a dash for the window. “—I seldom load darts.”

Geoff pulled Susan back to the shelter of his armchair while Trout fired burst after burst into the trees. Susan wrapped both arms around her lover and huddled against him. Napoleon strained for the clock. It had broken in half, exposing jagged edges of porcelain. He slid it behind him and began to saw hard at his ropes.

“That’s enough,” Geoff said during a pause while Trout was reloading. “Get the gasoline.”

Gasoline?

Trout vanished into the back hallway, returning, seconds later, with a five-gallon can.

Geoff took a moment to stroke Susan’s hair, their combined shape silhouetted in the last of the light. “Still in business out there, Kuryakin?” he asked the communicator.

“Temporarily. I think I should warn you, I have a backup team due any moment.”

“Good for you,” Geoff laughed. “I hope it’s not the local police.”

Napoleon hoped not, too. Things were complicated enough as they stood.

Leonard Trout unscrewed his can and began sloshing gasoline over the sofa and rug. Pungent fumes flooded the air. Napoleon’s gut tightened.

Susan took a step forward. “Stop that! What are you doing?”

Geoff tugged her back. “Now here’s the plan,” he spoke into the pen. “Napoleon stays by the front door, while my partner and I go out the back. You collect the Duchess, we collect our package, and everybody goes home happy.”

If he believed that he didn’t know Alexander Waverly. Napoleon rubbed his ropes harder, ignoring the jagged edges that chewed at his wrists. Whatever the cost, Mr. Solo. One strand broke free and tickled the heels of his hands, and then two.

“And what is to prevent me from ambushing you in the back,” Illya said.

“Well, you could,” Geoff admitted. “But in that case, the fire we set will make an awful mess of your partner. You’ll have, maybe, thirty seconds to rescue him, if you care. And there’s no guarantee you’d get both of us, anyway, is there? Which means Napoleon dies a very unpleasant death for no reason.”

There was a long silence. “What about the girl?” Illya asked finally.

“That’s up to her.” Geoff reached for Susan. “How about it, baby? We’ve still got that inscription.”

“You’re going to burn down my house?” Susan’s voice shook.

“That can’t be helped if we all want to get out of this alive. And we’d have to run, anyway, Susan. You knew that before. Everything I said was on the level.”

Susan nodded, slowly. “I believe you—” she said.

Napoleon gritted his teeth and forced apart two more strands.

“—But I want you to give the package to U.N.C.L.E.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Yes it is! It’s like you said—we have to run, anyway. Prove I mean something to you, Geoff. Give up the job now before I have to live with my conscience. We can make a clean start without your horrid nerve gas between us.”

Geoff shook his head, face hidden in shadow. “No.”

“Fine.” Susan snatched the communicator out of his hand. “If you won’t, I will. Listen out there! The package—”

The gas can clanked to the floor. “Shut her up,” Trout growled.

“Susan.” Geoff’s voice was exasperated. “Don’t play games.”

“—is in the culvert—”

Trout leveled his gun. “I said shut her up.”

Geoff lunged for the communicator. “Put that gun down, dammit!” he shouted to Trout.

Susan twisted away from him, “—past the four mile post—”

“No!” Geoff threw himself forward, tackling Susan as Trout unleashed a hail of bullets onto the place where she’d been. There was a sickening thud in back of the sofa.

“Geoff!” Susan screamed. “Geoff!”

Napoleon grimaced. He couldn’t see, but he had a pretty good idea what was happening. The fifth strand parted. One left.

Trout stalked forward and stared down for a moment. “Shit!”

“Geoff, I’m so sorry. Please get up.”

“You dumb bitch!” Trout reached down with one hand and hauled something heavy. Geoff’s body.

The rope split. Napoleon groped desperately behind him.

Trout fired even as the cuckoo clock sailed through air. Then, a half second too late, he pitched forward in silence.

Light vanished and the crickets took over the night.

* * * * *

He got the guns first, because that was the drill, and then he looked at them, Susan and Geoff, because that was his punishment. The side of Geoff’s face was gone, and in a way that made it easier. It made him a thing in the dark, not a man. But Trout had fired an evenly spaced line of bullets across Susan’s breasts from shoulder to shoulder—the same line Napoleon had traced with his finger less than an hour ago. Her heart had stopped instantly, the white blouse barely dotted with blood, lips open in gentle surprise.

On impulse, he bent down to kiss her goodbye and the knife that should have buried itself in his neck merely flashed past his head.

A gun coughed and Trout collapsed on the floor.

Illya hopped onto the side windowsill, blond hair bright in the moonlight behind him. “That was a bit too close.” He slid his feet through and ducked into the room, kneeling over Trout and shining a pen light into one eye. “Out cold.” He stood and reached for a lamp. “Napoleon? Are you all right?”

It was a fair question, but he couldn’t come up with the answer. His head ached, abominably.

The light clicked and the carnage assumed another dimension. Napoleon took it in, a piece at a time. The disarrayed furniture. The broken clock. Lace curtains spattered with blood. The braided rug under what used to be Geoff. And far away, in the middle of it, one perfect dead girl.

Illya stepped up close beside him. “Oh, my,” he said softly.

Yes, Napoleon blinked. Oh, my. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Susan. The blood and the brains, the sharp scent of death mingling with gasoline. These were nothing. He was a field agent. He killed, and someday he’d be killed. But the girl didn’t….The girl shouldn’t…. Whatever the cost, Mr. Solo.

Illya was watching with a guarded expression.

Napoleon straightened and examined the limp form of Trout. Darts. He tried to say it but words wouldn’t come.

Illya knew what he meant. He held up the snub P38 he sometimes wore on his ankle. “I thought it imprudent to kill the last person who knows where our package is.”

Imprudent. So it was. Maybe even, very imprudent. Suddenly Napoleon was angry. No, not angry, furious. He fed the rage growing inside him with a sort of grim satisfaction. Prudent – imprudent – expedient – necessary—words out of a field agent’s handbook. Professional words hiding the monstrous truth about who they were and what exactly they did for a living. A flood of words; a cascade of dirt to bury a dead girl.

Fuck prudence. The package is in the culvert past the four mile post…. That was information enough. They didn’t need Leonard Trout.

Napoleon drew his gun.

Illya stepped in front of him, mouth set in a line. “The way I see it.” He took the gun, removed the clip, and ejected the round from the chamber. “I believe we need to play some sort of trick on our prisoner, to let him think he can still finish his mission. After all, the consequence of failure with Thrush is as bad as any punishment we might inflict on him.”

Maybe so, maybe not. Napoleon closed his eyes and listened to the hammering inside his skull. It would be lovely to kill Leonard Trout. It would be lovely to sit down on the sofa and weep. It would be pretty good just to curl up for a nap in the corner.

But here was the living warmth of his partner in front of him, and he couldn’t just push that aside. He had a job to do. He had a good friend who needed him. He couldn’t fall apart now.

So he followed Illya away from the bodies to Susan’s bright kitchen, sat down at the table with a bag of ice for his head, watched—almost absently—as his partner found a roll of gauze and bandaged the cuts on his wrists. They looked painful, Napoleon decided, but he could not feel a thing.

Illya sat on a kitchen chair and looked at him, biting his lower lip. “You have about ten minutes left of self pity, Napoleon,” he said finally, “before I have to awaken our friend. So if you want more nursing, if you’d like me to pat your hand, or feel your forehead, or fix bouillon or something, do speak up. Then I’m going to go finish our job.”

That was his cue to bestir himself. Napoleon forced a laugh. “Whatever else,” he said slowly, “for pity’s sake, don’t cook.”

Illya’s look of relief pricked his conscience. The blond head nodded, solemnly. “Here’s my plan. I’ve loaded your gun with blanks.” He took the holster and gun off the table and waited while Napoleon put them on. Then he put his ankle gun in Napoleon’s hands. “And I loaded this one with the new paralysis darts—” he glanced up “—so don’t be stupid and shoot yourself in the foot.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re a pain in the ass?”

“On more than one occasion. In any event, Mr. Trout will have to make some move against us before we get to the package. It’s his only small hope of success, versus suicide if he takes us the whole way.”

All right. That made sense. Napoleon followed Illya’s hand to his pocket. This time it came out with a couple of homing pins. He tucked one under Napoleon’s collar.

“When our friend makes his move,” Illya continued, frowning thoughtfully before tucking a few more pins around Napoleon’s person, “I play dead and the two of you continue without me. I’ll follow a short distance behind to make sure you don’t injure yourself.”

I presume you think he’ll go for my gun. “What if he shoots me instead? What if he shoots both of us?”

Illya opened his mouth and closed it again. “Good point.” He took the pins across the back hallway and into the living room. Napoleon got up slowly and followed, forcing himself to watch Illya hide pins on Trout.

Illya glanced up. “The receiver’s here.” He patted a pocket before attaching the last pin to his own lapel. “If I end up with Trout, I’ll drop the receiver in the dirt for you. That way our plan is entirely flexible.” He stood up and reached for Napoleon’s suit coat. “But the best strategy is to hit him with a paralysis dart first so he’ll need help to get to the package.”

That would work. They’d keep one man with Trout, letting him think he might come out on top. It should be enough to get him to cooperate. It should guarantee they’d get the package tonight, which might not happen if they had to scour the countryside for a culvert and a four-mile post.

Only something was wrong. Napoleon put on his suit coat, privately amused as Illya tugged it into place over his torn, filthy shirt. The job of half dragging Leonard Trout down some road to his pickup point was less than appealing. “How come you get to play dead?”

“Because,” Illya bent and collected the gasoline can, “forgive me for mentioning it, Napoleon, but you aren’t moving very fast right now.” He shook the can and grinned as it sloshed. “Which makes it my job to blow up the car.”

Napoleon laughed. He should have known any plan of Illya’s would have a bomb in it—

Then his gaze fell on Susan. His vision narrowed to two tiny pricks of light.

“Napoleon!” Illya’s voice was far away. “Napoleon!”

He couldn’t breathe. He had to get out of the bungalow. “Give me that.” He took the gas can from Illya. Better to wire the bomb than to stay here with Susan. “You deal with Trout.” He wheeled and staggered through the back hallway, slamming through the screen door, stumbling three steps down to Susan’s back yard, gasoline fumes burning his lungs like the flames of damnation.

It’s all right, he told himself dismally. It would be at least ten minutes before they could wake up Trout and move on. Ten, maybe fifteen. Plenty of time to get a grip on himself and wire the car to explode.

Which was lucky, because the vomiting lasted a very long while.

 

There was a slogan hanging in the mess hall during my Service days, back when I was fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Something helpful like: “Don’t trust luck; Make sure you duck.” We used to call it out to each other, as we lay on our guts with our chins buried deep in the mud. A lot of us thought that was funny. A lot never got home alive.

I wonder, now, if every kid who made it had some stiff out in limbo, recounting his sins? Lucky you, if the guy who dies next to you has to pay for his crimes. Too bad, if the one who lives sends your angel to heaven.

 

Later That Night

So Trout and I set off down that road together, and before long my only hope was that we wouldn’t have far to go. He was heavy, after the beating I’d given him, and I wasn’t feeling too spry either, but I was damned if I’d give up now and kill him. He was going to pay—more than I had paid, more than Illya had paid, more than Susan. He was going to suffer down this miserable road with me, grasp his moment of triumph and—when it hurt most—watch me take it away from him. Then he’d die in the creek with eyes dark to the sky.

Or maybe I’d paralyze him, and leave him for Thrush.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking we staged that accident and that I didn’t really walk away and leave my partner dead in a ditch. But if you’re sure, you know a lot better than I did. My mind kept going back to it, over and over, to the blood and the open glow of his eyes—blue reflected in yellow flames. And my heart knew. He would have chosen to lie farther away. The fire should have been in the back of the car. He was gone. And if you still think he’s not dead—because neither one of us is supposed to die in these stories—then consider this: innocent girls aren’t supposed to die either.

The minute that happens, all bets are off.

So don’t be so sure. I wasn’t. The air was still, and all around me the world felt lifeless and empty, as if even the ghosts of trees had packed their bags and gone someplace more profitable. No crickets chirped and no fireflies flew up to brighten our way. There was only the moon and the road, the two of us and the faint mocking ripple of the creek down below.

Step-step-drag. Step-step-drag.                            

Trout’s voice came in gasps. “You think you’re a lot better than me. Don’t you, Solo?”

Step-step-drag. I’d wired that gas tank myself. Illya’d filled a hot-water bottle with ketchup to use as stage blood.

“Not better.” I poked him in the ribs with my gun and we staggered. “Just a lot better armed.” He was on page seventy-three of the handbook. Establish contact; get your captor to lower his guard. My writing came in invisible ink. Screw the prisoner.

“That crazy bastard, Geoff, had a death wish ever since I joined up with him. And that crap with the girl. The two of you dragged her into this, you know. She meant nothing to me.”

I knew it. “In exactly the same way you mean nothing to me.”

“Maybe,” Trout admitted. “But you can’t blame me for not wanting to die with him.”

No, I thought bitterly. Not with him. Die with me. We struggled on, and before long I was too tired for either thinking or bitterness. All I knew was the uneven stride that threw Trout’s weight across me every third step, the jarring pain that shot down my bones to my wrists, and the ache in my head.

Nice plan, partner. Let Trout believe he can come out on top. The only problem was, what if he actually did? A little more of this and he’d be dragging me, not the reverse. I put my head down and concentrated on the shadow in front of me. Step-step- like a child’s game, when I caught up with myself, the walking would end.

Step-step- Trout halted and pulled his weight off my shoulders. The relief was incredible. There was a small, wooden bridge in front of us, and a mile post with the white number 4. It took a moment to sink in. We’d arrived.

Did I need him? How hard would it be to find the package from here on my own?

“Down below, under a rock.” Trout gestured into the shadows. “But you’ll never find it without me. How about a chew of tobacco, before we take on the slope?”

“It’s gone,” I said, and the words woke me out of my lethargy. Gone, gone, gone. It was no effort at all to start the rage bubbling inside me; it had been lurking there, biding its time, all along.

“Everything you had is gone.” I stepped forward and rammed my left elbow into his ribs as he tried to hop clear. “Everything you cared about—” I threw a weak right, ducked in, hooked his good leg with my foot and swept sideways “—is gone.” He sailed backwards, hands closing on the gun in my fist. No doubt about it, the bastard was fast.

But no matter. I smiled and sailed right along with him. “Everything you ever hoped to achieve, gone.” The only place to go was the road. He got there first. I landed with one knee on top of him—choking back a yelp of astonishment as the knife he’d concealed in his waistband bit into us both. Son of a bitch, he’d been saving it up all this time.

“Gone!” I bounced and Trout got the worst of the knife. His mouth opened in agony and I yanked the gun free and shoved it all the way to his tonsils. “Just like it’s all gone for Susan!”

The round was chambered. All it needed was a squeeze of the trigger. Trout’s eyes were grim with the knowledge of death.

His uppercut nearly put my chin through the roof of my mouth. My finger twitched, but the gun was out of my hand. Jesus. Trout bucked and flipped and I came down on my head and for a minute there was nothing but a blinding light that flashed in front of my eyes.

Trout swam into view over me.

“I tried things his way,” he said raggedly. “Honor among thieves, respect for the enemy. But you know what? Those rules don’t mean anything more to you bastards than they do to me.” He put the gun against my bare chest where the open shirt couldn’t hide me.

“So fuck Geoff Fisher, and fuck you too, Napoleon Solo.”

Shots rang out. Twice. Three times. The world slowed, as my back twisted and arched.

I’d let him take the dart gun, instead of my U.N.C.L.E. special, loaded with blanks.

If I’d had any control, I’d have laughed myself silly. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, Illya’d said. One dart causes pain and local paralysis, two incapacitates, three stops the heart.

A spasm hit, and my arms and legs gave a twitch like the severed limbs of a puppet. Then Trout put his hands on my ass and rolled me across the road and over the edge of the ravine; and I tumbled, unfeeling, through the dark grass to the splash of weeds in the water below.

But I wasn’t alone. The ants were there, waiting.

And the package was there waiting, too, behind a rock under the bridge in the culvert. It might have taken hours to find on my own, or minutes or days, but Trout limped right up to it. And since I couldn’t move, and my head was mostly out of the water, why, lucky me. I got to watch the whole thing.

He threw the rock away as something funny crept into my bones. Not pain exactly, more like petrifaction, and it struck me that life is motion and stillness is death. Then Trout bent down and lifted what so many people had died for. A parcel, about the size of a shoebox, tied up with a string.

And my partner emerged from the shadows and took it away from him.

The knife. When your eyes won’t move, you can’t see, but I couldn’t stop trying to say it. Illya watch out for the knife. And then my heart stopped and I didn’t try anymore.

So you see? You were right all along. It wasn’t Illya who died. It was me.

 

Epilogue: New York City, Three Days Later

“Oh, ye, of little faith.”

Illya Kuryakin pressed his foot on the gas pedal and sped through the light. It was late. They were late. They’d been late all day. Late out of the hospital, late to the airport, late home. Late, for the most part, because his partner had been creeping along like a geriatric patient who’d just run the four-minute mile—although there had been other causes as well. That stewardess, for example, who’d kept them an extra half hour applying beefsteak to Napoleon’s eye….

To top it off, Solo had insisted they retrieve his convertible, clinging to its jaunty exterior—Illya suspected—the way a toddler clings to its security blanket. And now this argument over the parking garage. It made no sense. The odds against finding a space on the street were astronomical.

Illya braked sharply and swerved between a bus and a taxi cab, ignoring the blare of rush-hour horns. “I haven’t any faith,” he asserted. “But if I did, it would in no way be related to parking.”

Not that he blamed Napoleon, entirely. Traffic ground to a halt and Illya glanced at his partner. Shoulders tense, chin set, eyes turned away. The job got to everyone sometimes; they were only human. But there was an unspoken agreement between them: what happened in the field stayed in the field. You didn’t bring it home to the office. You didn’t show the Old Man. It would have been wiser for Napoleon to stay the extra few days in the hospital.

“Well,” Solo countered, “I have faith, and I’m telling you it’ll be faster to park on the street.” He shifted, unconsciously easing sore muscles. “We’re going to need every second if we want a private word with Mr. Waverly concerning that bullet hole you left in Trout’s head.”

Illya shrugged. He doubted Mr. Waverly would object any more strenuously than the local police had, after seeing the evidence. “It was lucky I did, after you childishly left him armed with a knife.”

“It was lucky you were too terrified to give him a chance to fight back.”

“It was lucky—” Illya paused. Napoleon’s joke wasn’t far off the mark. The three darts followed by his partner’s body tumbling down the ravine. The absolute necessity of making sure he had the package in hand. Not terror, exactly, but he’d had no time to waste recapturing Trout.

Illya pushed away the image of Napoleon, dead in the water. It was lucky that injection of adrenaline saved you, tovarishch. It was almost a miracle. “Well, I suppose it was lucky you goofed and let Leonard Trout get the dart gun instead of your U.N.C.L.E. Special. At such short range, blanks might have proved lethal.” He made his tone lighter. “You astonish me, Napoleon. Did you forget to let him shoot you from farther away?”

“I had a lot on my mind.” Napoleon’s hand rubbed his chest. “I thought you were dead, you know. What the hell were you thinking, lying so close to the car? And where’d you get all that blood?”

Illya shrugged again. The crash had gone well enough, though he’d landed hard with little time to choose his position. But the explosion had been all wrong. He couldn’t fathom it. There’d been no choice but to lie there and make the best of things, and he had the singe marks to prove it.

“Yes, well,” he admitted sheepishly. “That was coffee. I salvaged a Thermos from Geoff Fisher’s pickup truck.” He shook his head. “Those bottles are not nearly as leak proof as the manufacturer would have you believe.”

The entrance to the parking garage was blocked by a delivery van. Napoleon gestured emphatically and Illya changed lanes. It was faster to sneak in through the exit, in any event, and the guards rarely fired on them.

“And that explosion,” Napoleon went on. “How’d you manage to botch that? I set it up to burn the back of the car.”

Illya turned his head sideways to stare. Was he joking? Brakes squealed, and he swung his eyes back, dodged a Buick, and narrowly missed his last chance to turn into Headquarters.

“Well?” Napoleon insisted.

There was nothing for it. They’d have to circle the block, and they’d really be late. “You wired the bomb?”

“Yes,” Napoleon answered patiently. “Like I said I would, when I left you inside with Trout. By dropping a detonator button into the gas tank.”

“I don’t think you actually said that, Napoleon.” He thought back over the sequence. Napoleon had been sitting on the back stoop, clutching the gasoline can, when Illya’d come out.

“Of course I—” There was a long pause. “You mean…you wired it up separately?”

Illya nodded. “With the gas can in the front of the car.” Which was infinitely safer, though perhaps this wasn’t the best time to mention it. “I see,” he added thoughtfully. “My watch signal must have set off both bombs at once. You very nearly killed me, Napoleon. I spent two days picking bits of windshield safety glass out of my skin.” Though the nurse who’d helped had been wonderfully consoling with baby oil.

Napoleon shuddered. “I’m sorry,” he said slowly, looking away. “I guess I really bungled things.” He closed his eyes and tipped his head to the afternoon sun.

Illya cruised slowly past the brownstone buildings east of Del Floria’s. The street was packed with parked cars.

“Still….” Napoleon perked up. “Que sera, sera. Things could have been worse. All in all we were amazingly lucky, wouldn’t you say? And something tells me we’re about to be lucky again.”

He lifted his hand and made an elaborate show of crossing two fingers. A yellow sedan pulled away from the curb, just in front of them.

There was simply no justice.

Illya maneuvered their car into the parking space while suppressing a sigh. This was exactly the sort of coincidence that led his partner to take unreasonable risks. He opened his mouth to protest—to demand acknowledgement of statistical truth—and then closed it again, unwilling to disrupt the smile spreading over Napoleon’s face.

“What did I tell you?” Solo reached out and patted the dashboard. “You can’t argue with luck.”

 

And in my hand, one number after another is counted away. The gun, the knife, the bomb, the tumble down the ravine, the parking space. It’s a wonder, Solo, how you ever got on without me. Heaven knows what you’ll do when I’m gone. Get some other schmuck killed, maybe, and make him into your guardian angel. Did I die because you had a cosmic vacancy to fill?

 I guess I should really be angry.

But I’m not. The choices that led to that moment were mine, and, in the end, they were my choices that failed me. I lost the one thing that mattered—and wherever I, or Alek, or the Bolsheviks end up, I’m sure Susan’s with God. Thank you for kissing her good bye for me.

But don’t get too cocky, Solo. Don’t burn up your good fortune on parking spaces. There’s no knowing how many favors you can count on one small piece of paper.

And luck like that can’t last forever.

The End

Acknowledgements: As usual, this story owes a bundle to beta. Thanks to Sandie, Dusky, C.W. Walker, Nancy, and Sherri for advice, support, the occasional kick in the pants, and reading more drafts than any mortal should be forced to endure.