Advice From a CaterpillarPRIVATE

By

Pat Foley

Chapter One

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

"Who are You?" said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, Sir, just at present -- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then."

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The early summer sun dipped down below the sharp-edged peaks of the Manhattan skyline as the long shadows lengthened into dusk. In Central Park, not far from the secret Headquarters of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, the exiting wheels of hotdog and hot pretzel carts tracked through licorice tar made tacky in the afternoon sun. Birds with sooty wings fluttered into dense bushes and settled for the night. Like the slowing of a runner's heartrate after a race, the pulse of the city didn't cease. Still, the street traffic in the cities main arteries dipped from the frantic pace of the daylight hours to the smooth thrum of evening. In a collective sigh, the office buildings disgorged their throes of workers. Then, block by block, like a woman jeweling herself for a dazzling evening, the streetlights winked on.

In one of the few narrow, blast-reinforced windows of U.N.C.L.E., the Chief of Policy and Operations, Number One of Section One, stood framed. Smoke wreathed around his head before he took the pipe out of his mouth and regarded it thoughtfully. Then Alexander Waverly turned back to his desk, found the little silver tool he needed and tamped the burning tobacco down. When he had the briar drawing well again, he went back to work.

Although the evening was well advanced in New York City, he placed a call to an area six hours behind Eastern Standard time. Moscow was enjoying mid-afternoon sunshine, and there the birds were building nests in cubbyholes formed by missing bricks in the Kremlin. Beneath Red Square, the subways were running with more efficiency than the phone system and with fewer bugs. Alexander Waverly expended more than a little time and effort in reaching his intended person, and even then the dialogue was necessarily straitened by the awareness of listening ears not intended to be party to the conversation.

"Peter Ivanovich?"

"Alexander Waverly." The head of GRU intelligence verified the line was secure, then said cautiously. "I am surprised to hear from you."

"Circumstances require it, I am afraid."

"Is there something wrong with the --" Ivashutin paused, reconsidering his words, "the item you were sent?"

"Not at all. But it seems to be attracting some unusual attention from your neighbors."

"My neighbors?" Ivashutin questioned.

"Indeed," Waverly's response was quite definite.

Beneath the window where Alexander Waverly picked up the phone for his first call, a convertible car stood waiting directly outside of Del Floria's Tailor shop. Presently, two men climbed the concrete steps and passed through the shop's shabby wrought iron railings. The first man who bounded up those steps was taller, with neat dark hair and a sharply pressed suit. He was Napoleon Solo, the Chief Enforcement Agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Though he had been through a rather harrowing day, his pride as well as his policy was never to show it. The man following more slowly, surveying the territory with a practiced eye wore torn and travel-stained black and carried a battered duffle bag, but his blond hair gleamed through the twilight like a newly minted coin. He was Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin, a new agent fated to be the first official Soviet representative to the Command. Some of his compatriots hadn't made the journey easy for him. But he was to find traversing the distance in philosophy almost as harrowing a trek.

"Get in," Solo said. "Toss your bag in the back."

"Don't you find a convertible a somewhat visible conveyance, for a 'secret agent'?" Kuryakin asked, as he settled himself into the front passenger seat, his emphasis on the last words showing his disapproval.

"That's part of the charm," Solo glanced across at his companion. The smile teasing his lips faded at the lack of response from the Soviet agent. He shrugged and started the engine. He drove through the cross-town streets.

General Peter Ivanovich Ivashutin picked up his heavy briefcase as his driver brought him to Staraye Square. He grunted a command to the chauffeur to wait for him, then exited heavily from the Zil limousine. An early summer shower darkened his uniform with splattered raindrops from heavy gray clouds; he hurried to move out of the wet, his mind on his upcoming meeting and the man who had summoned him.

Although Kir Gavrilovich Lemzenko had once been an operative with the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence, he was not Ivashutin's superior. Rather, the two held largely equivalent military rank and both served on the Central Committee. But there the similarities ended.

An almost legendary spymaster, Kir had often concealed his true self behind a facade of normalcy. Average in face, height, build, he could fade into any background, yet when he revealed his strength of will, razor-sharp intellect and cunning mind they far transcended his medium looks. No one who had access to his highly classified record of informational finds and foreign agent conquests could easily reconcile it with his appearance. Until they came up against him as a competitor, and then they never forgot how deceptive looks could be.

Now that he had climbed the ranks to the Central Committee, his colleagues preferred not to stir the giant within. Kir's word alone would make or break an officer or agent in any service. His strength and staying power was attributed to the fact that he generally exercised his full powers judiciously, deftly avoiding an ostentatious abuse that could result in a coup against him. Those that did see the true Kir rise from beneath his prosaic exterior either rarely lived to speak of it, or preferred not to.

Ivashutin disliked crossing swords with his former comrade-in-arms. While he, himself had considerable military power and a infrastructure of favors, bribes and promises to keep his nexus intact, Kir held political power in the Party that far outstripped his own, and nothing transcended Party affiliations. Further, Lemzenko had the KGB in his pocket as well as the GRU, for none of their officers could be posted abroad without Kir's sanction.

A rugged, almost burly man, Ivashutin felt he was essentially a hard-working soldier at heart. Although he had cunning, he succeeded mostly by an enormous capacity for work, an ability to pick loyal subordinates, a knack for guessing which superiors to back, and a talent for building and maintaining a strong network of alliances. He also had nothing on which the KGB could use to discredit him, a requisite for a man at his level. Few men could boast that, for the KGB had more spies and set as many traps for GRU officers as did the GRU itself.

But in spite of his own strengths and abilities, Kir still outclassed him with his political connections. In any dealings with Kir, Ivashutin knew he would have to proceed very carefully. But why had Kir summoned him?

The KGB were in disfavor now in the highest Party circles, with the result that Ivashutin held a rank higher than his KGB colleague who also sat in the Central Committee. The Committee had also given Ivashutin permission to open relations with the U.N.C.L.E., a coup the KGB resented. More interested in civil, internal affairs, the KGB were diametrically opposed to the notion of an international security agency. With its international, military scope, the GRU was hungry for the intelligence briefings U.N.C.L.E. provided to member nations.

So the GRU had won, but Ivashutin was well aware that the KGB never forgot a defeat, or ceased to avenge it. But Lemzenko had backed the Committee on the U.N.C.L.E./GRU proposal. It would be hard to say that Kir was tacitly disposed to favor his old GRU colleagues. One reached pinnacles of power such as Kir's by favoring only oneself Perhaps he was using it for a private revenge against the KGB. Or perhaps he had his own interest in U.N.C.L.E.'s information.

But regardless of Kir's backing, the KGB had not waited long to retaliate. While he, Ivashutin, was a risky target, the agent slated to join U.N.C.L.E. was not. According to Waverly's report, the KGB had moved against Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin almost as soon as he'd stepped off the Aeroflot flight from Moscow. Ivashutin had the reports in his briefcase. The agent had survived and the GRU in New York had acted quickly to neutralize the KGB assassins. But the incident had been unfortunate. Yet if Kir was angry over that, he had called the wrong intelligence head to task.

As he stepped into Lemzenko's office on Staraye Square, Ivashutin frowned as he always did at its understated elegance. Kir was unpredictable, wrapping his true intentions in layer upon layer of intrigue. So it could be hard to tell if his office was a true reflection of his tastes or merely geared to make most of the Central Committee, born of proletarian roots, uncomfortable. They also plundered from the past, but few could carry it off with Kir's success.

"Ah, Peter Ivanovich," Kir came out from behind his gilt-edged desk, a relic of some despoiled palace. The gilt had faded and was chipped in places, but Kir kept it, some said as a symbol of the triumph of Communism over the old Romanov dynasty. Some said it was delusions of grandeur, but they said that much more quietly. "Good of you to fit me into your schedule, and on such short notice."

"Not at all," Ivashutin replied. He laid his briefcase down. He had suspicions on why Kir wished to speak to him, but the man delighted in springing things unexpectedly, so he had his assistants prepare reports on almost every conceivable issue.

"I am glad to hear it," Kir gestured him to a chair. While Ivashutin wore uniform, Kir preferred to dress simply in a tunic and trousers bare of ornament. "The responsibility for military intelligence is a heavy task, but then, you handle it admirably."

"We all serve the Soviet Union," Ivashutin replied evenly. The response, the standard reply to all officers receiving an order, was trite at their level. Yet it served to notify Kir that if he had a game afoot, at the moment Ivashutin was unaware of it.

"In our various ways," Kir responded. "Some, perhaps, more devotedly than others."

"Which 'some' are you referring to?" Ivashutin asked, his backbone stiffening slightly.

Kir smiled.

Taking one's attention off the hellacious New York City traffic was in itself almost as dangerous as ignoring Thrush bullets, yet Solo paid almost as much attention to the traffic behind and to the side of him as he did to the cars in front. He did it for good reason: the man at his side, the first agent the Soviets had openly sent to the Command had almost become a casualty, not of the cold war between the West and the Soviet Union, but of the rivalry between the GRU, who had sent the agent, and the KGB, who violently opposed Soviet participation in U.N.C.L.E. Nor had the opposition been purely theoretical. Solo himself had collected a bullet crease in one of his favorite suits merely trying to collect Illya Kuryakin from the airport. Not that he held that against the Soviet agent; he'd ruined a lot of suits in his tenure with U.N.C.L.E., much to Waverly's occasional consternation at the expense. He rarely minded a few bullet holes in those suits, as long as he kept his birthday suit intact.

Whatever assassins were waiting for Illya Kuryakin now, though, they seemed to have called it a night, or at least taken a dinner break. The ride from headquarters to his apartment house was uneventful, except for one close call: an almost fender bender caused by Solo's trying to decide if a nearby bus passenger was a well-known Thrush agent. He lost sight of the agent when the bus pulled away in traffic and he had to slam on his own brakes to avoid a delivery truck double-parked in his own lane. In the passenger seat next to him, Illya Kuryakin rolled his eyes slightly and pointedly stared out the side window, as if to disassociate himself with his chauffeur. Solo thought of explaining what his interest had been, then shrugged it off. Kuryakin would learn all of that soon enough.

He turned into the parking garage of his own apartment building with a little sigh of relief. One of U.N.C.L.E.'s various quasi-controlled buildings, it had some updated security, as well as being called home by some U.N.C.L.E. personnel. Not that it was completely filled with U.N.C.L.E. people. That would make it too easy a target. Yet with one fifth of its residents being affiliated with the Command, sweeping it for bugs, monitoring it for microwaves, radio-transmitters and radioactive materials, and generally keeping a sharp eye on the various residents and visitors, it was probably as safe, or safer, than headquarters itself. Solo was realistic; HQ was a popular target.

After the assassination attempt on Kuryakin, Waverly had detailed Solo to keep an eye on the Soviet agent until Moscow had settled the internal scuffle between its rival agencies. Solo considered it one of the drawbacks of being acting Chief Enforcement Agent, but he had every confidence that in a few days, certainly not more than a week, Waverly would have charmed, manipulated or threatened the KGB into compliance, and Kuryakin would be no more his concern than any other Section Two agent.

As it was, Kuryakin hadn't even been issued firearms yet. Waverly had put that off until tomorrow, having suffered political, diplomatic and police commission problems enough dealing with the dead bodies of Kuryakin's two assassins. After an eventful day, the Russian agent had been issued little more than the key to a furnished apartment and a promise of full U.N.C.L.E. orientation tomorrow.

Solo turned the key into second floor apartment assigned to Kuryakin, took his gun from his holster, and surveyed the empty living room before ushering his companion in. Kuryakin went, sidling past him to stand just next to the door, long muscles tense, his nostrils flaring as if trying to scent danger. Not exactly the trusting sort. Solo approved.

"First things first. You reset the security system like this," Solo demonstrated, turning various dials to a numbered combination. "Whenever you go out or in. Do you understand?"

"I watched your hands," the Soviet agent replied dismissively, while his gaze moved away to study the apartment. He appeared to have less faith in the security system than in his own senses. His fingers rubbed his thumbs nervously.

"Well, I'll go over it again before I leave. Let's check out this place." He turned to the room and sighed at the accommodations. "Rather bleak. But then Mr. Waverly isn't known for ostentatious coddling of his agents. He said it was furnished, he didn't promise how." Solo walked into the room. "Living room. Keep the blinds drawn, you don't want to attract a sniper, just in case your countrymen still have designs on you. Later we can fit the windows with a special film that lets light in but shows a diffused, almost opaque front from the opposite side. That way you can enjoy the sunlight without paying for it with your head. Costs a bit, but I think it's worth it."

"I can keep the blinds drawn. There is nothing outside I want to see."

"Suit yourself." Solo looked around the room. A rather battered sofa sat on an indifferent rug. One lamp sat on one end table. One chair squatted next to that. Whoever had selected the items had a singular mind. A small coffee table evenly bisected the space between the sofa and the chair. "He didn't splurge on furnishings, did he?"

Kuryakin didn't reply, crouched down beside a tiny bookcase jammed with a motley collection of cheap paperback spy thrillers and flying saucer stories, plus some dog-eared board games. After fingering a lurid cover depicting a robot carrying off a swooning blonde, he rose and folded his arms in what Solo had come to recognize as his Soviet Sphinx act.

Solo shrugged, "Beats the Daily Mirror. Bedroom, over here, I guess." He stepped across and paused. "And the door is closed." Taking his gun again from his holster he spared a brief glance and a raised eyebrow for the Soviet agent. "Just in case," before flinging open the door and pointing the gun at the empty room. He looked back to Kuryakin, "False alarm. Unless there's someone under the bed." He leaned down and lifted the bedspread with the tip of the gun. "All clear. Closet door's open, it looks empty." He tipped the door open further with the muzzle of the gun, "and so it is." He smiled at the Soviet agent, sober and silent in the doorway. "So far, so good. Except for that bed. You'd think they'd have given you something bigger than a single. I can tell the office girls didn't have anything to do with this."

"I have no plans to entertain."

"Don't be too hasty," Solo countered. "You may not, but your female colleagues at U.N.C.L.E. definitely have other designs." He sauntered on. "Bath looks okay, even a few towels and things in the linen closet. Oh, tip for you. This place can get a little short on hot water around 7:30 or so in the morning. Complaints to the janitor don't seem to have much effect. So you might not want to delay your shower too late in the morning."

"I am used to cold showers."

The CEA spared him the briefest glance "I'll just bet you are," He walked on. "Kitchen. One small table, two chairs. Well, that's cozy dining for you. Good thing you're not the sociable type." He tipped the muzzle of his gun around a door. "No assassins waiting in the broom closet. No fiends squeezed into the oven."

"Who's things are in this apartment?"

Solo was opening the refrigerator door and frowning. "No one's. We keep a few furnished apartments for transient agents. Apartments can be hard to find. In the city, short lease rents are astronomical. And our boss, as you may have noticed, isn't the extravagant type."

"There are possessions here as well as furniture. Books. Other things."

Solo shrugged. "They must have been left by the previous tenants. Most agents travel light." Solo laughed suddenly, at a memory. "But not all. I remember one agent, name of -- well, it doesn't matter. He and his group had been following a mob counterfeiting racket and they came into town for a few weeks for a special surveillance of a new 'banking branch'." He closed the refrigerator door and methodically checked the freezer. "They set up in a spare room next to the meeting site. Brought a hi-fi, a parchesi set and a popcorn maker. Those guys played a lot of parchesi and made a lot of popcorn before they closed that case." He closed the freezer door and looked across at his companion's disbelieving face. "It was a sound-proofed room. Speaking of food, you don't seem to have any here. I guess furnished doesn't mean the kitchen is stocked."

"I am not hungry."

Tipping open kitchen cabinets and drawers, Solo revealed some china, flatware, and even a few pots and pans, but not so much as a box of cereal or a canister of tea. There were a few canisters, but they were as empty as the refrigerator, except for a cockroach laying belly up in one, apparently dead of starvation. "Don't know where this came from. Security is usually good at keeping out bugs, both animal and mineral." Solo flicked it, with a grimace of distaste, down the drain and followed it with a rush of water. "Damn. I suppose I should have thought of food. We could have picked up something. Though, frankly, I'd prefer to defer the offer of your head as a target again at least until tomorrow." He chuckled a little at his own joke.

"I can skip a meal for tonight."

"What?" Solo took his head out of a cupboard he was rummaging in. "Don't be ridiculous," He stared at the telephone, thoughtfully. "You could order out, but that would mean you'd have to let someone in. After today's fireworks, I'm not keen on that." He shrugged. "You're about to be accorded a singular honor, Mr. Kuryakin. Since your arrival left me without time to procure a date for my own dinner, I'll make dinner for us both. Be assured it's a distinction usually reserved for the finest of ladies."

"Thank you, but that is quite unnecessary."

"On the contrary. Speaking only as the head of Section Two, I can't let you dine alone on your first night in America. I'd rather have arranged a couple of charming ladies to join us, but the life of an international spy has these hardships and shortfalls from time to time. Not often, thank heavens."

"Mr. Solo--"

"Napoleon. Come on, what else can you do? Starve?"

Kir leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. "Come, Peter Ivanovich. Are you going to tell me that in your heavy briefcase, you have not one report describing the situation of our newest active operative?"

"What situation is that?" Ivashutin returned.

Kir laughed. "No doubt you will next ask me, 'What agent?'"

"If you are referring to the U.N.C.L.E. operative, he has reported to his agency."

"Not without incident," Kir commented. "Still, I have taken care of that." He nodded at Ivashutin's muted expression of surprise. "Yes. Illya Nickovetch's troubles were not of my doing, nor do I take lightly those who have taken action. They will be dealt with. That is not my purpose, however. What reports have you received from the field?

The GRU officer frowned. "None, of course. The agent has no instructions to make contact. In fact, he's been instructed to avoid all contacts."

Lemzenko sat forward so abruptly that Ivashutin flinched, before both men recollected themselves. "Who gave that order?" Kir asked. "Surely it was not intentional?"

"The purpose of membership in U.N.C.L.E. was to gain the intelligence reports available to Network nations," Ivashutin reminded the other, restating the claims he had made to the Central Committee when he had first proposed the agreement. "Not to infiltrate U.N.C.L.E. We are not interested in law enforcement operations."

"What you are interested in does not concern me," Lemzenko snapped. "My interests are more varied."

"Those interests weren't stated in committee," Ivashutin argued. "In fact, the proposal argued otherwise. We agreed it would be foolish to jeopardize our member nation status for such purposes."

"Of course the written agreement mandated non-involvement! Must we begin each meeting restating who and what we are? Do you expect to advertise our interests to all and sundry?" Kir collected his breath. "Surely it was obvious the agent's purpose was to infiltrate and report back. More than obvious," He rose from his chair. "I approved the operation with that goal in mind."

"The agent is on detached duty."

The spymaster turned back from his pacing. "No agent is that detached!"

Refusing to be intimidated, Ivashutin deliberately leaned back and returned Lemsenko's stare. "This agent is. No contact by residents. No contact with residents. He is expendable, Kir Gavrilovich, marked for sacrifice. Even if he's recovered in the future, he'll be debriefed and eliminated. We could never be sure of his loyalties, or what heresies he might have picked up, or what programming he might have had implanted. He is theirs, and to welcome him back would be to trust a counterspy."

Lemzenko brushed the argument aside. "Don't speak to me of futures. I am thinking of the present. For now, he is our counterspy."

"No. He is not. That was the agreement. One detached agent, plus membership fees, was the minimum for member nation status in U.N.C.L.E. And the expense is more than justifiable. The first intelligence briefing that we received from U.N.C.L.E., which we used for nothing more than confirmation of our own intelligence forces, has contained information far more valuable than the cost of training one novice agent. Even extrapolating his possible worth over several years. It was a judicious expenditure of assets."

"You presumed too much. When does the Soviet Union receive only fair value for its investments? I expected much more."

"Nevertheless, the bargain has been made; the agent has been dispatched. Perhaps future agents --"

Pacing, Kir held out a hand, and Ivashutin stopped talking.

Solo ushered Kuryakin, sans duffle bag, into his own well appointed apartment. The furniture, rugs, drapes were all tastefully chosen to give the rooms a richness of comfort completely lacking in the barren apartment below, but Solo didn't seem to notice the contrast. "It'll just take me a minute to do the security check. Then I'll get you a drink."

Kuryakin watched while Solo made a practiced circuit of the rooms. "You do this every night?"

"You will too," Solo said, checking behind the brocade drapes. "In your apartment, in your car, in every hotel room you stay in. Eventually you develop a routine so ingrained you can do it in your sleep. And probably will. Or you won't live long."

Kuryakin looked thoughtful. "In my service --"

"Yes?" Solo came out of the bedroom.

"Nothing."

"You were probably thinking no one shoots at Soviet recruiters. Or at least, very rarely. You might have been arrested, or deported, but never shot."

Kuryakin said nothing, his eyes narrowed. What he had been actually thinking had been that Soviet agents had to be very careful searching for bugs, because the better chance was that their own superiors had planted them, and removing then could be considered an act of subterfuge.

"Well, you're right." Solo went on. "This business is probably riskier than the one you were trained for. Much riskier. Then, besides the personal danger, we have the more constant problem of being spied upon that you're probably familiar with. So, Mr. Kuryakin, trading the relatively cushy job of political espionage for life as an U.N.C.L.E. agent wasn't the safest of career moves." Closing a closet door, Solo missed the fire that briefly sparked in his colleague's blue eyes before being banked over. "But then," Solo continued, "our rewards are more than just compensation."

"And what rewards are those?" Kuryakin had recovered quickly from the slur against his courage, and now his cool gaze roved insultingly over Solo's handsomely furnished apartment. "Besides the more obvious ones, of course," he added pointedly.

"World peace. Saving lives. Not just putting one nation above another, but making them all a little safer." Finishing checking out a lamp, Solo snapped it on, then, meeting Kuryakin's eyes, shrugged at the Russian's closed face. "And as for the your last remark, I'll take your comment as a compliment to my home. I work hard, Mr. Kuryakin. Very hard. When I'm home, I like to think I've earned my comforts." Kuryakin didn't reply, and Solo let it go. "Well, what about that drink?"

The Soviet agent looked, if anything, even more forbidding. "No, thank you."

"I'm not trying to get you drunk and compromise your integrity." Solo said. "Very old fashioned tactic. I'd consider those methods crude and fairly ineffective, in today's world. I was simply offering you a drink. I'm having one myself." He poured himself a scotch. "Sure you won't have anything before dinner? Something non-alcoholic then? Juice, milk, tea?"

"Water is sufficient."

"Water it is." Solo went into the kitchen. After a moment, Kuryakin followed and watched Solo fill a glass at the tap.

"Thank you." Kuryakin took the glass and sipped.

"You're welcome. Now to consider dinner."

"Please do not take any trouble on my account."

"I have to eat too. And it is late to be searching for feminine companionship. Sometimes that can't be helped," Solo opened his freezer and looked within, "but one hates to risk insulting a lady. And inquiring if a lady is unengaged for dinner, so late in the evening, is rather gauche. I do it," Solo took a wrapped package out and laid it on the counter. "But only when circumstances force me."

"Why should you be forced?" Kuryakin inquired.

"Eat alone? Not if I can help it." Solo countered. "Life is too short to waste opportunities."

"What sort of opportunities are you speaking of?"

"Not the business sort. Just companionship, beauty," the Chief Enforcement Agent beginning unwrapping the frozen meat. "Wine, warmth, pleasure. In this business, you grab all you can, when you can, since you can never be too sure of tomorrow." Solo continued. He glanced at his companion's tight mouth. "I can see you're not convinced."

The Soviet agent didn't shrug, but the flick of his eyebrow lent the equivalent meaning. "Your philosophy is not consistent with my service."

"You forget, your service is U.N.C.L.E., now. Though I can't say my philosophy is exactly consistent with theirs either. Mr. Waverly will probably warn you not to take me too completely as a guide," Solo smiled slightly. "He doesn't always approve of my activities, though, judging from what I've heard, he's had quite a past himself."

"You are very frank, Mr. Solo."

"Napoleon."

Kuryakin didn't respond to the overture, staring at Solo forbiddingly. "Or you like to give the appearance of frankness. Do not think I am so naive I will be induced to trade actual confidences for apparent ones. Your lack of reserve doesn't obligate me to respond in kind."

The tone was even but the words were cold enough that Solo blinked, momentarily non-placed. The easy smile didn't leave the CEA's face, but his eyes hardened. "You're very blunt, Mr. Kuryakin. I don't wonder that you were traded to U.N.C.L.E. It doesn't seem to me, with your manners, that you'd make much of a recruiter."

"Perhaps you know less of my training than you might think."

"Or maybe you just don't care to show it. To me."

"I assure you my training was very thorough in what you Americans call 'small talk'. But I didn't suppose, as a colleague, you would wish to have such practices employed on you. Unless you are interested in evaluating them?"

"I was making conversation," Solo demurred, declining the challenge. "Not testing you. I haven't been ordered to do that," he raised an eyebrow. "Yet."

"What sort of conversation can two strangers have, Mr. Solo? Where I come from, not much of one. What kind of conversation can two spies engage in? That must be even more circumspect."

The tight jaw had jutted out a little. Solo found himself suddenly aching to put in back in line, say with a well-placed fist. Surprised at how quickly his ire had risen, he replied. "We're not trading information."

"Aren't we?" Kuryakin asked archly. "I think we are. I think we have. I've already learned a few things."

Solo paused a beat and then accepted the hostility. "True, any conversation become an exchange of information. However slight. Or, in this instance, any contact. Considering we aren't having much of a conversation."

For a moment the two glared at each other. Then the ring of the telephone made them both jump.

The Chief Enforcement Agent went to answer it, while Kuryakin turned away.

"Solo." Napoleon paused to listen, then sighed. "No, it's all right, Shaffer. He's with me. Yes. I'll inform Section Five when to start monitoring."

Solo came back and laid the two steaks out on a chopping block. "Security was checking by infrared and had no body heat sources in your apartment. They don't like that; makes them think an agent might be dead," he smiled as Kuryakin stiffened. "I let them know you'd be up here for awhile." He paused, then added, continuing their former conversation. "Perhaps some of my associates were correct. You do belong in Section Three."

"Is that supposed to mean something to me?"

"You lack a certain sophistication I've come to expect from my colleagues in Section Two. But don't misunderstand me. Mr. Waverly says you are Section Two material, and I'll back him. And you, too, Mr. Kuryakin. Publicly."

The Russian didn't reply, but after a moment he put his glass of water down and turned.

"Don't go." Solo laid the two steaks on a broiler pan. "You can't anyway. We're supposed to work together on preventing any further assassination attempts."

"That doesn't mean you have to feed me."

"No, but I should escort you down to your apartment, and I don't like to stop in the middle of cooking dinner. Stay."

"I won't be drawn, Mr. Solo."

"I can see that."

"So you were testing," Kuryakin said. He didn't ask, he commented.

"Perhaps it's inevitable," Solo said evenly.

"Yes. It is."

Solo raised his glass and toasted the Russian agent. "But I do think I was right about one thing."

"If you wish to tell me, by all means, do."

"Someone has to hold up the conversation," Solo replied. "Actually, I was thinking you are going to be a disappointment to the ladies at headquarters. Not that I think that matters, to you, at least. Or for myself, for that matter. More of them for me." Solo took another sip of scotch. "I'll endeavor to console them in their disappointment."

"I want him brought back into the fold," Kir Gavrilovich ordered.

"He has already been given his instructions, and they are to avoid contact," Ivashutin argued.

"You may have given him such instructions. I have not."

"Did you--?" Ivashutin turned to stare at the man.

"What I did or do is none of your business. I want him contacted. He is to be told of his change of orders. By your people in New York, so he is aware that this is not another KGB plot."

"And what are we to tell U.N.C.L.E.?"

"We tell them nothing."

"Surely, they follow up on their agents as we do. They will notice if one has regular contacts with their former intelligence services. We are risking the loss of U.N.C.L.E. as an intelligence source."

"On the contrary," the old spymaster declared, "we are going to fully exploit it."

Chapter Two

"What do you mean by that?" said the Caterpillar, sternly. "Explain yourself!"

"I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."

"I don't see," said the Caterpillar.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin stood wedged between one end of the kitchen island and one of the tall stools that turned the overhanging edge of the islands far counter into an eating space. In addition to a large rectangular table in the formal dining room, a round table and chairs occupied one end of the long kitchen. He wondered cynically how many dining areas a single man needed. But he was too wary and uncomfortable to keep up the superior attitude that such cynicism required. Nor could he allow himself to sit, with Solo circling the area like a hawk above the treeline waiting to pounce. He kept to his feet, tension keeping his own weariness at bay.

Solo seemed very at home in his kitchen. He reached for seasonings and cutlery with a smooth familiarity that suggested he was telling the truth about his culinary tendencies. Illya watched his preparation warily. Though Solo's orders presumably negated his candidacy as an assassin unless the KGB had him on retainer as a double agent, Kuryakin didn't put Solo or any of his other colleagues past inflicting the practical jokes so commonly practiced on new trainees in Spetznatz: from the petty tricks such as the field kit with a spoon containing a hole in the center, engraved "For training purposes only", to more serious, life-threatening ones. His early experience and connections had allowed him to avoid the worst of those. But he had no benefactors here.

Although he was hungry enough he believed he could devour almost anything, innate caution and a history of disappointments made him leery of careful substitutions on Solo's part that could render his half of the meal inedible: salt substituted for sugar, motor oil for molasses, sawdust and paste for flour and lard. He knew all the tricks, had practiced some himself, though he hated to indoctrinate otherwise good foodstuffs.

As the meat sizzled under the broiler flames, his stomach leapt up and roared like a waking tiger. He sternly ordered it to silence, conscious that the delicious odors promised one thing, but that Solo's laughing eyes and sneering smile might deliver something distinctly different.

"How do you want your steak?" Solo was asking.

"How?" Kuryakin stumbled over the question.

"Rare, medium or well done?"

"However you prepare yours," he said, not wanting to give him any reason for treating his meal differently.

"Rare it is, then," Solo replied.

His eyes discerned no ominous substitutions, and Solo appeared to concentrate on his preparations, ignoring him. Nor did he consult his guest in anything else, seemingly creating a meal for his own satisfaction. He steamed some rice in consume and some vegetables: baby carrots, snow peas, sugar snap peas. He even made salads, small dishes of romaine and endive, garnished with tomato and raw mushrooms, muttering to himself in disgust when some ingredient he had hoped for proved absent, then setting everything out, with dishes and silverware, on the round kitchen table.

Illya did nothing. His own cooking experience was slight. He could boil kasha, though he usually had bread for breakfast. Lunch was usually whatever unappetizing thin stew or soup was available in the junior officer's mess or at his residency or worksite. For dinner, he liked his meat as well as any Russian, but like most Russians, he couldn't often find it for sale, or afford it when he could. He usually ate bread and cheese, or if he was lucky, bread and sausage, sausage being the type of meat that most often surfaced in the usually empty butcher shops. He liked vegetables, but vegetables in his country didn't come cleaned and prepared like the frozen ones Solo had taken out of white paper Birdseye boxes. Turnips and carrots from Soviet markets were huge things, with their green tops still on, and the dirt and clay from the fields clinging to the unwashed roots. And such vegetables took a long time to prepare in the ramshackle communal kitchens, time he had never had.

Solo must have important connections, to be able to set so fine a table. And so casually too, on such short notice. Illya would have suspected some sort of collusion, except that nothing in Solo's manner suggested a wish to impress, and the man's cabinets and refrigerator seemed stuffed with similar ingredients. And Kuryakin could see a wooden rack loaded with wines, as well as the many bottles of liquor on the bar in the other room. No, this Solo was very wealthy, and he must have important connections in the government too, to be able to lay in such supplies.

But Kuryakin was not too disheartened. Even though his salary would undoubtibly be meager, like other Soviets he had learned supplement his scanty food supplies by identifying in his travels through the cities, the woods and parks where one could dig up mushrooms or gather windfall apples. He was always scouring for dead-drop sites anyway, or trying to wait inconspicuously for a pickup. Even in the well stocked cities of Moscow or Kiev, it was a favorite task of the citizens to supplement their diets in this way.

To follow their examples served as good cover for him, and provided an welcome boon to his diet. He had often managed to fulfill his duties and also bring home a parcel of mushrooms to dry, or fruit to dice into his kasha. And, as luck would have it, Solo had driven past a vast great park which promised possibilities, especially as it was the season for berries to be ripening. No doubt, in such a great city, many bushes would be well gleaned, but he had always had luck in Moscow. He defied New York City's Central Park to withhold what the Lenin Woods had yielded.

He watched as Solo turned the meat under the broiler flames, seasoning it again. He couldn't see any sleight of hand to dose any half of the food. The older agent put the rice aside in its covered pot, and then tossed the gleaming orange and green vegetables beside the meat for a final searing in the thick juices. Illya's stomach danced in anticipation, and his mouth filled with saliva like a dog's. He swallowed hard as Solo removed the broiler pan, and dished the vegetables and rice out onto two waiting plates.

"Which one do you want?" Solo asked politely, offering the pan.

Illya pointed to the smaller one, and watched disbelievingly as the entire steak was forked onto his plate. He had thought Solo might be preparing food for several days, to hold in his magnificent refrigerator for future meals, but Solo forked the second, larger one onto the other plate, and carried both plates to the table, setting Kuryakin's at a place opposite his.

"Sit down and dig in." The Chief Enforcement Agent pulled his own chair out. After doing the same, and scrutinizing the seat carefully, Illya also cautiously sat.

He worked his way up to the meat, by way of bites of salad and vegetables, his nose quivering in anticipation. The lettuce had none of the rotten, decaying tang that the old, rusty leaves from the markets often did. The fresh greenery crunched under his molars, rather than yielding limply to them. The fluffy rice, often rare in the Soviet Union, complemented the delicately sweet vegetables, and the consume and beef juices on both tantalized his taste buds. He cut a square of steak, watching the red juices trickle from the tender meat. He could almost have cut it with a fork, not at all like the gristle-filled sausage of his experience. He put the piece in his mouth and then closed his eyes as the flavor burst in his mouth. He had never had a religious experience in his life, but he thought this might come close to it. The meat melted on his tongue like butter. He now knew what the babushkas' meant when they spoke of dying and going to heaven.

"Is it all right?"

His eyes snapped open, brought sharply back to earth. The bourgeois U.N.C.L.E. agent was looking at him.

"Not too rare for you?" Solo asked again, pointing with his fork at the large square of meat from which only the smallest slice had been cut. "I can put it back under the broiler."

"It is fine," Illya said, "Delicious," he added, with a touch of conscience, then wondered if he had been too indiscreet. He probably should have guarded his tongue. His behavior was decadent indeed, to have a piece of meat on his plate that in size alone would have been the ration for a family of four for a week. And such meat that only those with the highest Party connections could get. Yet if this was capitalism, how delicious it was.

Although he had never been tempted by women, or religion, or money, and he had been tested with such lures often before being cleared for foreign service, he had been glad he had never been seriously tested with food. When he had, it had mostly been with sweets or fancy liquors, which he had never favored. In the Soviet Union, he had steered clear of all bourgeoisie foods on general principles. He'd been careful to shop only in state stores, rarely even taking advantage of the privileges of his late military rank. As a spy, he had known spies were everywhere, and many would have been checking after him. Still, he had done nothing wrong here but eat a meal provided by his supposed superior. His conscience clear, he worked at filling his stomach.

"Good." Solo dissected another piece, and forked it into his mouth. "Steaks make wonderful quick meals, fast and easy. Fifteen minutes from freezer to table, though it can be tricky learning how to cook them frozen like that and not have them end up tough. They're better, more tender, when defrosted first. But that can be a luxury in our business."

Working his fork through the delicacies on his plate, Illya wondered how life could afford more luxuries than a full belly of food like this. He kept silent though, and Solo, also disinclined for conversation, followed suit. They devoured their meat down to the red-pooled bones, for all the world like two wolves sharing a kill. He felt it an apt analogy. Solo was like a hostile predator, reluctantly accepting a new wolf into the pack. And he was the same, wary of his new pack-members, scuffling for his position. Not pack-leader, but he was no whipped puppy either, as Solo had found out.

He paced his meal so that he finished along with Solo, but he wished he had some bread to sop up the juices. And if he had been alone, he would have gnawed on the bones and sucked out the marrow, too. He watched Solo clean up the meal and toss the bones down a disposal machine that chewed them into nothing with a mechanized whine that echoed his own internal lament at such waste. Americans were foolish. Marrow from a fine beefbone, seasoned with salt and pepper and spread on bread, made a tasty sandwich. To throw away even the tiny bit in the brittle steakbones was incredibly dissipate.

But then, so was eating a whole steak. Had he already crossed the line?

The streetlights were unaccountably out on this section of the theater district. But it didn't affect the press of traffic going to and fro. It only shrouded it in a kind of veiled gloom. Shop lights and carlights lit up islands of warmth in the street, and above the summer stars twinkled through a haze of New York City air pollution. But neither the stars nor the irregularly sparsed lights lit up the face of the man who walked to a black limousine and slipped inside.

"Alexander Waverly. How good of you to meet with me." General Dmitry Grigorevich Aivasovsky, head of GRU intelligence at the New York City Soviet Mission reached forward with his hand outstretched.

"The pleasure is mine, General Aivasovsky. It seems a meeting is beneficial to both our organizations."

"I trust that Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin arrived at your headquarters safely?"

"Yes, indeed. Though I confess I don't have a complete understanding of the forces trying to prevent his arrival."

"I can assure you, Mr. Waverly, that my government's intention to honor its agreement with U.N.C.L.E. is sincere. We have a great deal of interest in the intelligence reports and briefings available to member nations and will meet the obligations necessary to receive them."

"I am gratified, General Aivasovsky. But U.N.C.L.E.'s charter is dedicated to more than merely providing intelligence."

"Of course, You must understand that I am not authorized to speak for my government in any official capacity on matters of policy, Mr. Waverly."

"Certainly."

"That is Moscow's purview. Still, I do believe that the goals of your organization regarding internationally based threats to world stability are not in conflict with any Soviet political agenda. Therefore, we can mutually coexist. Even benefit one another."

"That is U.N.C.L.E.'s intention."

"Excellent. My government wishes me to assure you they have made a firm commitment to providing the financial support, as well as supplying representative personnel. We regret the events of today that prevented the smooth arrival of our first agent. The local elements that caused that problem have been dealt with."

"I am grateful for your government's assurances. But the orders to act were not generated locally. Do you have a conviction of how deeply entrenched the dissent is regarding a Soviet presence in U.N.C.L.E.?"

"Unfortunately I cannot give you that information at present."

"I see."

"I can assure you that in addition to the crushing of all local opposition, the surrounding consulates in neighboring states and areas have been sent directives forbidding any further counteractions. Your agent is as safe as that. But there are many KGB in this country, some of them illegals, who are under looser control. There may be rogues with secret orders. Like the CIA and the FBI, there are those with private agendas. It will take time to root out the opposition."

"Time we have, General Aivasovsky. I have waited some time to welcome a Soviet presence in U.N.C.L.E. It is another step to joint cooperation between nations, that I hope will eventually lead to greater understanding in the world community," Waverly smiled slightly in the darkness. "You do not need to agree, General. I am aware your organization has different aspirations."

"The Soviet Union is a member of the United Nations, Mr. Waverly. As a military man, I can only say that the peace which you and they proscribe is only possible with mutual strength, and strengths can only be appraised correctly through intelligence. Whatever our goals, our paths coincide for a distance. Both I and my government agree to that."

"Excellent. If you will give my regards to your government, General?"

"Certainly. And you have our gratitude that this little altercation has not created ill-will."

"Not at all. Quite understandable. Mr. Kuryakin will be advised to maintain a circumspect presence in the city."

"Good. My government will advise you when the situation is resolved. In the interim, to compensate you for this temporary limitation in the use of the agent sent, we will increase our payment, as a token of goodwill." The Soviet passed an envelope over.

"I accept, General Aivasovsky. And I will keep you advised of any further attempts." Waverly slid out of the limousine.

Solo gathered the dishes from the table, wondering at the look Kuryakin gave his plate as it was taken away. The Soviet agent had gobbled every scrap, or Solo might have thought he was taking the food away before he was finished. But the was nothing on the plate but bones and a pool of juices from the meat. Solo carried the dishes carefully to prevent himself from spilling. He had a distaste for blood on his floors, though usually he was binding up his own.

He put the bones down the Disposall, the dishes in the sink, and began filling the basin with hot soapy water. Going back to collect the glasses and silverware, he added those to the suds and left them to soak, bringing back a washcloth to wipe off the table. Like all spies, he was habitually tidy. He needed to be able to identify, upon entering any one of his rooms, if it had been disturbed. And no agent stayed long in the business if he left papers or documents out. Solo had carried the necessary compulsion of office and home into every facet of his life, even his fastidious standards of dress.

Kuryakin had risen as Solo wiped off the table. Now that he'd been fed, he'd lost a little of that lean and hungry look that made him appear more dangerous. Solo could see the shadows under his eyes. Of course, it was after ten here, and Moscow time was six hours behind Eastern Standard, so Kuryakin probably hadn't slept the clock around. Not to mention it had been a fairly eventful day.

"Would you like some coffee and dessert?" Solo asked.

"Should I help --" Kuryakin gestured toward the dish filled sink.

"No. I'll do all that later. It won't take a minute. How about dessert? I probably haven't got much. Maybe some ice cream?"

"Thank you, but no."

"No sweet tooth, huh?" Solo wasn't adverse to getting shed of the Russian. Ten o'clock wasn't late for him. A number of little dancing clubs didn't open till then, and didn't really get going till eleven. He'd found a pretty little hostess in one of them, a regular, who kept him informed with all sorts of useful information. He didn't like to neglect her for too long. She'd find someone else, probably an antagonistic competitor, to pass it onto if he did. He could drop in on her for an hour or so. Perhaps longer. The night was still young. "You probably want to get settled in downstairs," he suggested.

"Yes."

Solo glanced surreptitiously at his watch. A brief recap of Kuryakin's security system, and a few minutes to freshen up. He'd definitely make the club before eleven. "I'll take you down."

Kuryakin walked through the sparely furnished rooms. From hallway to living room to dining area, to kitchen to bedroom to bath. The place seemed a palace. He had never lived anywhere with a bath of his own. In Paris, he had stayed at the GRU residentura. Taking the Ph.D. at Cambridge, he had lived under a cover identity, with illegals: Soviet secret agents under cover themselves. The Council flat in which he'd ostensibly 'rented' a room had been only a cold water flat. Post-war rationing hadn't long relaxed its grip on England, and he'd found English food barbaric anyway, almost as terrible as Russian. In Paris, the food had been better, but he hadn't had much access to it, or even a few francs in his pockets to spend on it. He hadn't eaten or lived abroad any better than he had in the Soviet Union, so this seemed luxury indeed.

He peered into the private bath. The bathtub looked positively sybarite, somehow transformed into something as big as a swimming pool merely by the realization of his singular possession of it. But he was too tired and keyed up to for a soak now. Restlessly pacing into the kitchen, on impulse he turned the controls on the oven to broil, as Solo had done. The gas flames leaped to life, startling him a little. He turned it back to bake, and felt the top compartment heat up. He could bake potatoes in here easily. And potatoes were cheap. Turnips even cheaper. He hoped they were as available in New York City as they were in Moscow. He'd have to get a ration book and find out where the shops were.

Pacing into the bath again, he looked longingly at the tub, then recklessly turned the water on. A virtual geyser of water came out of the tap, not all the rusty trickle he was accustomed to. In a moment, it was hot and steaming. He found the rubber plug and ran himself a tubfull. Then he discovered that although the place had come with towels, there was no soap. He went back to his duffle and took the sliver of soap from his toiletries bag, and laid the bag, with his comb, toothbrush and toothpowder and shaving items on the sink.

The water steamed in the small room, and he stripped, laying his travel stained and worn clothes aside carefully. Then he stepped into the tub, wincing at first at the boiling water that turned his toes a bright crimson. But he was used to the banya, the Russian baths with their steam room and pools of hot to par-boiling water, and with only a few moments grimacing he adjusted himself to the water.

Then he soaked. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the tub, his belly full, his aching muscles soothed. If the KGB came through the tiny window to drown him, so be it. If this mysterious Thrush of which Waverly had spoken so grimly appeared to exterminate him, he didn't care. He soaked and steamed his pores and let his aching, travel-strained muscles relax.

He almost fell asleep in the delicious liquid. He wondered how many Americans drowned in this way. No one could do so in a banya, with its crowds waiting in line to get in, and the gossiping, jostling bathers. Nor was it possible in the squalid surroundings of the typical Soviet communal bathroom, with its rusty tub and tepid water and constant knocking on the door. There, you were fortunate to snatch five minutes in a tub, and they weren't very enjoyable minutes either.

He woke up when his head dropped below the waterline and he breathed in liquid. Coughing and sputtering, he sat up and found the washing flannel he had laid carefully to the side of the tub. He scrubbed his skin and hair with his sliver of soap. Then he ducked his head back under the water, shaking the soap from his hair, then rose, water streaming off him like a dolphin, and rubbed himself and his hair dry with one of the towels he had taken from the linen closet.

Then he wrapped the towel around himself. The water poured down the drain with a throaty gurgle, rather than a slow, recalcitrant seepage. He combed his hair, and after a careful consideration of his limited wardrobe, he settled for sleeping in a clean pair of briefs, with his spare set of fresh clothes laid nearby. He walked into the bedroom, his toes curling in anticipation. Rarely had a bed looked so sweet or inviting, even those who'd contained the pretty girls of his limited past.

He pulled the thin chenille bedspread back, his mind already circling down toward sleep. Out from the folded line of the tucked in topsheet fluttered a white card. He picked it up, wondering if it were a laundry bill, or some such. Then his blood, warmed from the bath, turned to ice in his veins. The card was small square, imprinted on one side with the English logo and address of a bar and grill. On the other side was written, in the Cyrillic characters of his native tongue, a date and time two days hence. And the card was signed with the code name of the Navigator for the GRU in New York City.

He memorized the details then hastily ripped the card into shreds and flushed it down the toilet. Then he worried that perhaps he should have better burned it in the oven. Then he ripped the bedspread and sheets from the bed. No more messages appeared, and a thorough search of the apartment revealed nothing. Finally, exhausted, he went back to the bed and slept.

But the question burned in his mind.

If the GRU could infiltrate UNCLE security, the KGB could too.

Chapter Three

"I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly," Alice replied very politely, "for I can't understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing."

"It isn't," said the Caterpillar."

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Illya Kuryakin left U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters and chose a direction at apparent random. He considered it his duty to learn the streets of New York as well as he learned the corridors of headquarters. If he had been a GRU operative assigned to the city, he would have had a month before he would have been given a detailed exam, covering not just the major thoroughfares and landmarks but every cross street, taxi stand and bus route. Not to mention the subway system. If the failed the first exam, he'd be allowed a second chance a month later. But failure then would mean evacuation. Of course, now he was with U.N.C.L.E. They didn't seem as concerned with his knowledge of the city. They kept him busy in other areas. But not too busy for private research.

He had studied maps of the city before he arrived, but he was finding it difficult to obtain actual experience in navigating them. Considering the unusual circumstances of his tenure with U.N.C.L.E., he allowed himself to be somewhat behind in his goal of learning every part of the city within a month. But not too far behind. The knowledge might save his life someday.

He didn't have eyes in the back of his head, but his peripheral vision was more than average. He saw the tall, dark-haired Section Two agent following him. Daniel Akers was very good. Kuryakin gave him credit for a certain amount of ingenuity. But a single man could always lose a tail, given enough time. Especially if that tail were only another single man. He'd passed very stringent exams with that point in mind. Of course, the shedding could involve some risk. But then, so said the snake as he was wiggling out of his own skin when the hawk carried him off. The trick was slipping away at just the right moment.

"This is insane," General Dmitry Grigorevich Aivasovsky stared at the message the First Cipher Clerk had lain before him.

"Are our friends up to more mischief?" asked Colonel Erik Karlovich Gerasimov from his own desk.

"The orders regarding the U.N.C.L.E. agent have been rescinded," Aivasovsky growled.

"What, are we to kill him now?" grumbled Gerasimov. When there was no answer he looked up from his work. "Mitya?"

"That would be almost be easier. The contact order has been revised. He is no longer on detached duty."

"How can he be otherwise?" The First Deputy asked. "He is an U.N.C.L.E. agent. If he is not detached, then he would be a double agent. Who is he taking his orders from?" He paused, considering the statement, then looked across at the GRU Navigator. "Mitya? Who are we taking our orders from?"

"It is signed Ivashutin. But I don't see Ivashutin's hand in this. I can think of only one person who would countermand his orders."

"Kir," Gerasimov said. He picked up the paper and stared at it, as if it would talk.

"Kir."

Daniel Akers followed the Russian agent. He'd been tailing the man off and on for days. Illya Kuryakin knew he was being tailed. The Soviet agent had tested his tailer with a few exercises and subterfuges that told Akers the newcomer wasn't as wet behind the ears as some said. So far, Kuryakin hadn't tried hard to lose him though. He'd just been checking Akers's intent, and to a certain extent, his professionalism.

Akers approved.

He disapproved the Soviet's destination though, as he followed the Russian down into the subway. Subways were terrible places to tail someone. Too close and you could easily be picked off by a bullet, not to mention that it really was bad form to be within speaking distance of the person you were supposed to be surreptitiously tailing. But in the subway, any farther and it made it too easy for the subject to slip on one train and leave you behind.

Akers was willing to risk the bullet, since it was an unlikely risk from a colleague. As for tailing a fellow agent, one didn't become a spy without a certain thickness of skin. Kuryakin knew he was being tailed anyway. Akers could bear the slight embarrassment of future contacts and the chance meetings with his subject in hallway or cafeteria. Especially if he continued to successfully tail the Soviet agent, and the Russian himself continued to do nothing incriminating while he was tailed.

It was, after all, business as usual in the life of a spy. Tail and be tailed. By friends as well as enemies. It was a system that kept everyone honest.

Subways were the same everywhere, Kuryakin thought, universally depressing. Except in Paris, for the French couldn't seem to create anything without throwing ten thousand flowers over it, dousing it with perfume, and calling it art. That wasn't quite accurate, but certainly Paris subways were a cut above the Soviet Metro, the London Underground or the range of shabby to squalid trains that served the New York City Transit Authority.

He joined the throngs crowding into a train, well aware of the shadow following him. Well, let him. He had a surprise for his fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent. Let him see how the Soviet GRU were trained. And let him explain the loss of his target to Napoleon Solo. That hawk was going to find his talons empty.

He wanted to stay by the door, and that was easy to arrange, since the train was crowded, he simply slowed as he entered the train and let the flow of people move past him. He spared a glance to see the U.N.C.L.E. agent had followed him into the next car but one, and was also poised by its door, looking at him through the tiny windows that connected the cars, ready to exit whenever he did. He was pleased at that and at the fact that U.N.C.L.E. had assigned him the same tail. He'd carefully trained the man to expect a certain predictability. And now that he had need to escape his tail, he was going to teach his man why one should never trust a tag to be predictable.

It had taken him a trip in the wee hours of the morning to perfect his technique. He hadn't found it too difficult to slip out of his apartment at night. The building was monitored, but it wasn't set up to imprison, but protect the agents within. It had taken him some thought to dodge the infrared system, but he'd managed it with three temperature controlled heating pads wrapped up in a blanket, all bought at a local drugstore. He'd made his way to the subway, and explored the system thoroughly, liking the anonymity of it, the extensive routes, the crowds. All of it was very promising. That left the trains, and it had puzzled him for some little time how to get the fail-safe on the doors to short briefly without engaging the automatic breaking system on the train. He did discover it, though, and he'd practiced it twice, in an empty car on an almost deserted train. This, of course, was going to be riskier.

The train stopped at a station, and began to disgorge it passengers. Kuryakin held tight by the doors as the crowds snarled and fought their way around him, in and out. He saw Akers still doggedly holding his own position as well. The doors began to close and he made his move. The train was picking up speed as he pushed people backwards, out of danger. With the subsequent startled screams, he jimmied the doors, and slipped through the opening, bending his knees and jumping backwards as the train speed forward along side of him. As his feet touched the ground in his backward fall, he ran forward with the train, the adrenalin racing and the blood pounding in his ears. He didn't stumble or fall under the train wheels. He didn't hit the third rail that carried the electricity to power the train and would fry him like a griddlecake. He managed it beautifully, and once the train had passed it took him only a moment to scramble up the side and blend into the crowds.

But he was young and well coordinated. And he'd been taught to jump off trains going more than sixty miles and hour. This subway train hadn't been going more than thirty, he estimated. Aside from the dangers of the third rail, it was no special feat.

He'd only wished he'd had the time to see the look on Akers's face as he saw his tag disappear.

But he would see Solo's face in compensation.

Perhaps. If his survived this interview.

"I'm impressed with his marksmanship," Solo clarified. "Whomever trained him, trained him well. I'm not sure that he'd learn much from Survival School in any of the easily quantifiable areas. That doesn't mean I think he couldn't do with some training. Though I'm not sure what good it would do."

"Come, now, Mr. Solo. Say what you mean, don't bandy about the bush."

"Very well, sir, since you ask. I don't think Cutter would have graduated him from Survival School. His social skills are practically non-existent."

"Perhaps you've confused that institution with Miss Porter's School for Young Ladies, Mr. Solo. Highly as you regard it, deportment is not a survival skill."

"But judgment is. He's so suspicious and mistrustful he'll go thirsty rather than ask for water. Even of me."

"I see. Are you sure this is not simply a personality conflict between you and Mr. Kuryakin?"

"I'll not deny that Mr. Kuryakin is not my idea of a Section Two agent. Section Three, certainly. He has all the ordinance and technical skills necessary to be very successful there. But people skills are just as valuable, in my opinion."

"To enforcement, Mr. Solo?"

"To espionage in general, sir."

"Perhaps you are being overly censorious. Your own 'people' skills, as you call them, are perhaps better developed than the average agent. You might be holding Mr. Kuryakin to too high a standard."

"I can't believe you said that, sir."

"Not at all. He hasn't had your advantages."

"Perhaps not. I won't deny he's at a disadvantage compared to every other agent in this organization. He hasn't had the equivalent background, training, or experience. That's precisely my point. He shouldn't be in Section Two." Solo stopped as Waverly's phone rang. After a short conversation, Waverly hung up.

"You take a great deal of pride in your department, don't you, Mr. Solo?"

"I think I do, sir. I hope with good reason."

"And you believe you are in control of it?"

"It's never easy to manage Section Two agents, as you well know, sir. But I think I have as good a handle on them as anyone could."

"Then perhaps you could tell me where Mr. Kuryakin is now, Mr. Solo."

"What?"

"He left the building, Mr. Solo, and slipped his tail -- Mr. Akers, one of your best Section Two agents, by the way -- quite easily. That was Mr. Akers just reporting in. He has no idea where Mr. Kuryakin has gone. He lost him in the subway. The man could go anywhere from there."

Solo didn't answer.

"Do you wish to continue your recommendation to refer Mr. Kuryakin to Section Three? Or perhaps you'd like to retrieve him first?"

Illya entered the delicatessen and chose a booth at the far back. After a moment a shadow detached itself from the dark corridor near the restrooms and slid into the booth opposite.

"We meet at last, Illya Nickovetch."

"We meet at your designation, Comrade --" Kuryakin's voice swallowed the last syllable whole, while Aivasovsky nodded.

"Yes, better avoid all names and titles. And speak Russian. Don't think that is either damning or revealing here. People in New York speak many languages without fear. This way fewer can take our meaning if we are overheard. But don't take such tolerance as a given. I have heard that elsewhere in this country, particularly in small towns in the South, a Russian accent can get one lynched."

"I will keep that in mind."

Aivasovsky sat back. "So, you survived to meet with your uncle. Your relatives from home were pleased."

"Thanks to your intervention."

"Hardly. Mostly it was your own resources. And you are here. Does your uncle let you out alone, so soon?"

Kuryakin said nothing.

"So. How safe are you at present? Need we hurry?"

"No. I lost my tail quite irrevocably."

"Indeed. I think, perhaps, we were slightly too generous to your uncle. But then, I have not seen his offerings in turn."

"I have no gifts to present to you. That was never part of the arrangement."

"Have I asked you for any?"

"You asked to see me. That alone is --"

"Imprudent, at best."

"My orders in Moscow were to avoid contact with residents."

"Yet you are here."

"The circumstances surrounding my arrival in this city did not exactly coincide with my previous orders. And your card made it clear my attendance was desired. I thought it possible the situation had changed."

"Or perhaps you decided to come and ask for yourself how large of a target is painted on your back. And who is aiming for it. Could not your uncle tell you?"

"I am here at your request."

"You took a risk coming."

Illya stood up, "If you have nothing to say worthwhile to counter the risk, then you'll forgive me if I take my leave."

"Sit down, Illya Nickovetch. You are rather young and consequently prone to impatience. But I counsel you to master it, or you'll never live to be old."

The agent hesitated, then slowly sank back down into the booth.

"That's better. I have brought a gift for you."

"A gift?"

"All the way from Staraye Square."

Staraye Square was the home of the Central Committee. The hair rose on Kuryakin's neck. "Forgive me, but perhaps this gift is not for me. I know of only one person from that location. And he can have no interest in me."

"You are too modest, Illya Nickovetch. Many people have become very interested in you. Here is your gift. I cannot stay to see you open it. We will be speaking in future, but we should avoid prolonged meetings. Neither of us could find them conducive to health," Aivasovsky put a package on the table, rose and walked away.

Illya Kuryakin put his hands on the package. His blood was pounding in his ears. At the top of his mind was the thought of risk. He'd been ordered not to contact Soviet intelligence forces in New York. But he had not done so. They had contacted him. They requested this meeting. He was on detached service. Detached. How detached was detached? Could there even be such a thing for a Soviet agent? Or could it be that he was considered a double agent? Double agents usually had untidy ends.

Still Aivasovsky had said that their meetings were incompatible with health. A warning? And he had left. What did the package conceal? An explosive? Or something more personal, such as a poisonous gas? What game was being played?

The KGB had tried to kill him. But Aivasovsky was GRU, he was on his side.

No. He was with supposedly with U.N.C.L.E. and that meant no one was on his side.

With shaking fingers he slid open the manilla envelope. He turned over the paper within, then dropped the photograph on the table with an indrawn gasp.

The paper was made of a special substance that darkened, in room light, in less than a minute. But it was more than long enough for him to recognize the photograph of a man he had never met, but knew from his briefings before he'd left Moscow for New York. The man had been in charge of the KGB at the New York Soviet Mission. Presumably, he had passed on the orders to the KGB agents who had tried to kill him shortly after his arrival. The former KGB navigator was strapped to a wooden platform on a metal conveyor. Beyond him Illya could see the flames of a furnace. As the treated paper darkened with exposure to the light, the flames seemed to move and change like real fire and the image of the man slipped into the darkness and was swallowed by it. Below the photograph, a line in script was also being swallowed by the consuming overexposure of the paper.

Remember we are watching

Kir

He didn't know how long he sat there. But when he rose to go, the paper had disintegrated into nothing he could even hold in his hands.

"I'll put out an all points bulletin for him, sir," Solo said, "We'll find him."

"Send every free agent after him? Whatever for? Mr. Kuryakin is on his own time. He's committed no crime against U.N.C.L.E."

"He slipped his tail."

"Which you presumably put on him for his own safety, correct? He is not, after all, a Thrush agent, not even a rogue U.N.C.L.E. agent."

"He'd have to have slipped his tail deliberately. Akers is good. He wouldn't have lost him unless Kuryakin tried something."

"No doubt. But you put Mr. Kuryakin under surveillance without informing him, presumably. Isn't that correct?"

Solo said nothing.

"It is correct. I don't approve, Mr. Solo."

"His safety --"

"Yes, quite. He is at risk. But your failure to inform him of the benevolent nature, so to speak, of his tail was hardly calculated to reduce his sense of being at risk." Waverly rose. "I think you have let your dislike for this situation, and for Mr. Kuryakin, cloud your judgement. I don't approve. I won't deny that Mr. Kuryakin lacks a personable manner, at least on early acquaintence. But there is such a thing as an excess of personality. Be careful where yours leads you, Mr. Solo." Waverly shook his head slightly. "That's all, for now."

"What do you want to do about retrieving Mr. Kuryakin?"

"We will wait, Mr. Solo. Merely wait."

He was going to kill that Russian himself. One Soviet agent, and his department was at eachother's throats, his judgement was suspect with Waverly, and he couldn't even keep tabs on a colleague. He returned to his office to hear Akers's report.

"How did you lose him, Daniel?"

"I'm sorry, Napoleon. I had him. He did know I was trailing him, I couldn't help that. In the subway, you can't stay too far away, or the tail'll jump on a train and leave you."

"I know. What did he do, slip off at a stop?"

"No. He jumped off the train."

"What?"

"That's right. Jumped off a moving train. Somehow he jimmied the door open without triggering the emergency brake. He must have cut a wire or shorted something. I was in the next car down. I couldn't stop him, but I saw what he did. He swung out the door and hit the ground running. The train was doing at least thirty."

Solo sighed. "A neat trick."

"Well, it's a new one to me. I can't say I'd care to try it on a subway. He was lucky he missed the third rail on the opposite track or he'd have ended up one fried Russian. Ten thousand volts are nothing to play with. Not to mention the risk of being run over by other trains. Sorry, Napoleon. Do you want me to write up the report on this?"

"No. No report, Daniel."

"Want me to pick up the tail again after he resurfaces?"

"I don't think so. I'm going to try another tack."

Chapter Three

"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis-- you will some day, you know-- and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?"

"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.

"Well, perhaps your feelings may be different," said Alice: "all I know is, it would feel very queer to me."

"You!" said the Caterpillar contemptuously, "Who are you?"

He was going to die. Illya Kuryakin walked the streets of New York City and felt all the injustice of his fate. He had hardly expected, in his profession, to survive for many years. But to be picked off at the outset of his career, for the poor luck of being chosen for this rogue enforcement agency. To have every Soviet intelligence officer out for his throat. To be tarred with the same brush as a bunch of bourgeois capitalists with whom he shared not the slightest political or sociological tenet. Men like that Solo, who lived such a dissipate, self-indulgent life. No, he had not merited such a fate as this.

That made the justice of it all the more Soviet of course.

He had no doubt that Kir in Moscow was well amused.

He stood in the center of a crowd of people, all pushing past him and wanted --

He didn't know what he wanted. He'd been taught not to be self-expressive, to keep his feelings within until he felt at times he'd almost explode from the pressure.

He sighed, very deeply and deliberately, relaxing every muscle, at least all that he could relax and still walk down a public street. Aivasovsky was correct that he had a tendency toward temper and impatience. He struggled hard to conceal it, behind as blank a front as possible. Some cautioned him for that, saying the less a man revealed, the more he was concealing. But he used what worked for him. Survival. An agent had to survive. To be ready for future adversities, he had to take what opportunities lended themselves to rest, refuel and regroup.

He had to go back to U.N.C.L.E., where an interrogation no doubt waited for him. But he did need to think of what and how he was going to respond to that interrogation. He also needed to relegate Kir's message to its proper place in his mindset. And he needed lunch. If he were going to be interrogated this afternoon, he didn't want it to be on an empty stomach.

Ahead of him, flashed one of New York's ever present signs, winking in sequence. Bar! Jazz! Food! It sounded good to him. A sandwich, a little vodka, and some music.

He could always say he'd gone out for lunch. After all, Solo did.

Heather McNabb, one of Waverly's office assistants, stuck her head through Solo's office door, and held her hand across the electronic lock. "You look like you could use a break. How about a hot dog and a walk in the park?"

"What I could use, would be --" Solo trailed off in favor of discretion.

"This doesn't sound like the Napoleon Solo I know. Confident. Suave. Always in control." Heather paused a beat. "I think I like him."

Solo shot her a look. "Thanks. I'll send you a membership card in the Illya Kuryakin fan club."

"Napoleon," Heather chided.

"Sorry. You picked the wrong day for lunch, Heather. Take a rain check?"

"Not at all. You need to go out. A little fresh air, a little food, a little flirting--"

"Who are you bringing along for me to flirt with?"

"Don't be petty, darling. It doesn't become you."

"Sorry."

"I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself. Be at the agent's entrance in five minutes."

Ten minutes later they were walking, hot dogs in hand.

"This isn't the kind of lunch I wanted," Solo said, wiping mustard off his hand with a napkin and peering down with some concern at his hand-painted silk tie.

"We're not here to eat, as much as talk."

"Talk is all that's happening. Who could think one Russian agent could set all of Headquarters up in arms?"

"Very little of Headquarters, actually. But from what I gather, Mr. Kuryakin's appointment has some far-reaching implications, from Moscow to here."

"So Mr. Waverly says."

"Napoleon, I won't deny Illya tends toward the abrasive at times--"

"Girls-only pool is disappointed, huh?" Solo eyes held a flicker of a smile.

"Not yet. We're giving him a little time. Like Mr. Waverly, we think he has potential." Heather said primly. "But in other areas," she added with a warmer smile.

"Great."

"This isn't like you, Napoleon. I've seen you work with people you dislike before, and handle it beautifully. What is it between you two?"

"I'm not sure."

"Can't you at least try to be courteous? You're usually even more so when you dislike someone."

"Studying me, huh? But that's the point. There's no way to be succeed with Illya Kuryakin. Try to be civil and he throws it back in your face. The more civil, or courteous, as you put it, that I try to be, the less civil he becomes."

"Never thought you'd meet someone impervious to your charms, did you Napoleon? After criminals, gangsters, Nazis and Thrush have fallen sway to it, Illya Kuryakin withstands it. That must be hard for you."

Solo stopped walking. "What?"

"I said Mr. Kuryakin seems resistant to your usual charm," Heather turned. "What is it, Napoleon?"

"Heather," Napoleon was smiling. "You may have hit the nail on the head."

"I have?"

"What do you say to a night at the best restaurant in town?"

"I'd say when?"

"Right after I try your theory on the resistant Mr. Kuryakin.

Illya stepped into the door of Del Floria's. The old man behind the steam press nodded to him. One more person who recognized him in a city of strangers. After a moment, Illya gave a curt nod in return before stalking to the changing booth and turning the coathook.

Wanda, the pretty girl behind the security desk, was talking on the telephone, but she smiled to him in welcome. Instead of putting his triangular badge on him personally, as she did for Napoleon Solo, she took it from the rack and handed it to him. She knew his preferences. He thanked her gravely, before affixing it to his shirt.

In his GRU training, they'd taught him that each person was defined by the reality of those who perceived him. That a man could be a murderer, a traitor, a GRU recruiter, a seller of secrets to the Soviet Union, but all that could be hidden most of the time, and revealed only sporadically, and to a chosen few. People never saw a whole being. They saw only snatches of a person, as if each personality was reflected in a broken mirror. A man could be a thousand things, a thousand different, slightly distorted reflections. He need only choose to show himself in the bits of the mirror that revealed what he wanted others to see. And, his instructor had emphasized, that is easier than one might think. Most people will only see what they wish to see, what they expect to see. They will resist seeing anything that contradicts those wishes. Always use that, his instructors warned. Be what people want you to be. Then you can be as many people as the size of your acquaintence.

He'd learned that lesson very well. Too well, perhaps. There were times, now, when he felt as if he no longer knew himself. He saw his face reflected so differently in so many pairs of eyes that he felt as if he could drown in the sea of reflections, with no solid ground in sight.

But those were weak thoughts.

"Mr. Kuryakin?" Wanda hung up her telephone receiver. "Mr. Waverly would like to see you immediately in his office."

Another reflection he had to show. Did one ever become overwhelmed by them? Forget which one was appropriate in each situation? Was it possible to navigate that sea?

"Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly put down in phone and looked searchingly at the agent he had brought to America. The first representative of Soviet Intelligence to report to his agency. "Sit down."

"Thank you, sir," the Russian stepped to the circular conference table. His movements were controlled and deliberate. He sat precisely in the seat indicated at the round conference table, back straight, and folded his often revealing hands.

"I understand you went out for lunch today."

"I did." After a pause, Kuryakin added, "Yes, sir."

"Perhaps you could tell me where you went."

There was silence for a moment, before Kuryakin replied. "Is that necessary, sir?"

"I think it is, Mr. Kuryakin."

"I did nothing to compromise this agency."

"Let me be the judge of that," Waverly countered. "Whom did you see?"

The Russian was stubbornly silent.

"Illya Kuryakin," Waverly said, after waiting long enough to see the agent needed further inducements. "Do you know who you are?"

Kuryakin looked sharply at Waverly, almost doing a double-take. "Sir?"

"What you are?"

The blue eyes narrowed. Waverly could see he had somehow touched a nerve. "I am a Captain Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin, of the Soviet --"

"No. You are Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin, Section Two of the United Network Command of Law and Enforcement. You are my agent, now."

Kuryakin said nothing.

The old man frowned. "You seem unconvinced, Mr. Kuryakin."

"With all due respect, Mr. Waverly, if a man lends you a glove, you may wear it. You may stretch it, tear holes in it, lose it, throw it away. But, is it not still the other man's glove? It can be returned. Its return can be demanded."

"I see." Waverly rose from the table and crossed to the window, staring out thoughtfully through the blast-reinforced glass. He turned back then. "But a glove is not animate. It serves the borrower as equally as the lender. Are you inanimate, Mr. Kuryakin?"

"Perhaps not as much as I should be, in this instance, sir."

Waverly looked over the rigid countenance, as stoic as if waiting for a firing squad. "Is that the message General Aivasovsky gave to you today?"

Illya Kuryakin waited long enough to consider all the ramifications of answering. "The messenger is immaterial. The message was not from Aivasovsky. And the truth of the message we both acknowledge. I am a GRU agent, temporarily on loan to U.N.C.L.E."

"I must confess, I had not considered your situation in this depth," Waverly said thoughtfully. "I share with your former superiors a tendency to consider my subordinates as somewhat," Waverly tasted the word, "inanimate. At least in once they have made a commitment to this organization." The old man looked shrewdly at the agent. "Perhaps we simply differ in our interpretations of 'temporary'. You are different than other U.N.C.L.E. agents in that most are recruited for this organization after displaying a combination of both appropriate skills and an affinity for its ideals. Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly fixed the blue eyes as they raised to his, "You have only recently become acquainted with those ideals. What have you to say about them?"

"Nothing at all. I have no opinion to give. Mine has been previously committed elsewhere."

"Mr. Kuryakin, you are a hard case."

"Yes, sir."

"You realize, of course, that in answering these questions of mine as you have, that you have neither committed yourself to U.N.C.L.E. nor completely shielded the GRU from possible claims of undue influence on you."

"It seems clear to me that I am a GRU agent, and I have limitations on my commitment to UNCLE."

"You are fairly truthful, Mr. Kuryakin, though it is hardly to your benefit in this instance."

"The truths of which we speak are items which I could hardly hope to conceal. I will serve the Soviet Union in this agency. But I do serve the Soviet Union."

"That certainly is true. But you are incorrect, Mr. Kuryakin when you speak of being lent. Perhaps you should consider your position not so much as being lent, but given. All foreign agents receive residency papers from the country of their Headquarters, courtesy of U.N.C.L.E.'s charter with that nation. Your visa, Mr. Kuryakin, is not a Soviet visa, but an U.N.C.L.E. one. Your government neither grants nor can they withdraw your visa. I can, however."

"With all due respect, Mr. Waverly," Kuryakin replied softly. "papers are important, but perhaps not all important. There are other mediums that are more persuasive."

Waverly cut to the chase. "Have you been asked to provide information to your government regarding this agency or any other subject?"

"No, sir." Not yet was unspoken, but clearly heard.

Waverly returned to his desk, as if his decision had been made. "Has another meeting been set up between you and your former intelligence service? Or any other agent?"

"No, sir."

"Hmm. But you expect that it will." Waverly gestured abruptly as Kuryakin shifted slightly in his seat. "Did you receive orders to serve as a double agent before you left Moscow?"

"That, sir, is a leading question."

"Yes, of course. Did you?"

"No," Kuryakin denied softly. "And I have not now."

"But you expect to be," Waverly commented thoughtfully, then frowned slightly as the Soviet agent drew a sharp breath. "Don't take this amiss, Mr. Kuryakin. I expect you will as well. Something has changed since I last spoke with your superiors. Perhaps it has to do with this KGB trouble. Perhaps not." He eyed the younger man. "But you realize I cannot have a double agent within U.N.C.L.E.'s ranks. Tell me, from what you know of your agency, what solution do you suggest for resolving this dilemma?"

"I don't see that there is a solution, sir."

"Hmmphf. This agency specializes in solving the insolvable, young man. You'll be expected to do better than that if you intend to be a success here." Waverly motioned him away. "You may go. Oh, and Mr. Kuryakin? I'd appreciate it if you lunched in for the next few days."

The Russian paused halfway to the door, then turned and sketched a brief half-bow. "Yes, sir."

Solo stepped through the doors of Waverly's office and stopped short at the sight of the Soviet agent coming out. Kuryakin nodded with formal distance, and continued on his way.

"Come in, Mr. Solo," Waverly called. "Don't stand in the doorway."

"Sorry, sir."

"I believe it might be a very good thing for U.N.C.L.E. if we developed some sort of exchange training program with the Soviet Union. With every conversation I have with him, I become more convinced that Mr. Kuryakin has as strongly developed sense of self-preservation as I have ever seen. Though perhaps no more so than any other Soviet agent."

Solo sat down. "Is that a good thing? I would imagine it would conflict with U.N.C.L.E.'s interests."

"Indeed such an attitude might, if it were not tempered with a sense of duty."

"True. Still, I haven't noticed Mr. Kuryakin showing any overwhelming enthusiasm for the goals of this organization."

"In time, Mr. Solo. I have confidence that Mr. Kuryakin will prove an asset. And I would certainly find suspect any too ready embrace of the U.N.C.L.E. charter. Only a chameleon can change it's spots so rapidly, and that shows a tendency to change them again when the wind blows ill."

"Yes, sir," Solo answered. But it was clear he didn't agree.

Chapter Four

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. Alice felt a little irritated at the Caterpillar's making such very short remarks, and she drew herself up and said, very gravely, "I think you ought to tell me who you are, first."

"Why?" said the Caterpillar.

Here was another puzzling question, and, as Alice could not think of any good reason, and the Caterpillar seemed to be in a very unpleasant state of mind, she turned away.

"Come back!" the Caterpillar called after her. "I've something important to say!"

This sounded promising, certainly. Alice turned and came back again.

"Keep your temper," said the Caterpillar.

Solo parried forcefully enough to knock his opponent off balance, and thrust, knocking the man's own foil away and tumbling him on his back. He chucked the man under the chin with his own rapier. "A touch, I fear."

The man drew backwards away from the sword and rose to his feet, not at all discomfited. "Not bad, Napoleon. You're coming along very well. Though you're still winning as much by force as by skill."

"In my business, you win by whatever means you can. Do we have time for another bout?"

"I have a lesson in fifteen minutes and I need to make a pit stop. Next time. Practice that last move until then, less force, move leverage. And I'll practice trying to stay off my ass." The fencing master saluted Solo with his foil, wiped his brow and headed out the door. Solo gathered up his own equipment walked out of the fencing cage after him, into the larger gym, then swerved and came to a stop.

On the mat beside the pull-up bar, Illya Kuryakin was doing sit-ups, counting under his breath, just rising enough to contract the muscles isometrically. He scowled when he saw Solo standing over him, but didn't break his rhythm, going on until he reach some pre-determined number, while Solo waited him out. Kuryakin finally sat all the way up and pushed his damp hair out of his eyes. "Did you wish something?"

"I see you found the gym," Solo remarked, observing Kuryakin the way a farmer regards a prospective draft horse. For all the Russian's slimness, he had a well-developed musculature that proved he worked out often and hard.

"It was on the tour." Even though sitting on the mat put him at a disadvantage, and having to look up at the Chief Enforcement Agent must have given him a crick in the neck, the Russian stubbornly refused to rise to his feet. Though he wasn't in a charitable mood, Solo gave him points for refusing to be intimidated.

"How do you like it?"

"I'd like to use it." Kuryakin replied pointedly. He rubbed at a sweat mark on the front of his gray t-shirt, deepening it, then irritatedly pulled the clammy material away. The garment was standard U.N.C.L.E. gym issue, so new Solo could still see the creases in it, the ones that hadn't been dampened out by sweat. But the sneakers the Soviet was wearing had holes in the toes, and Solo frowned absently at them. Since U.N.C.L.E. agents could hardly be burdened with lugging gym bags to work or dirty clothes home for a wash, U.N.C.L.E. provided minimal workout clothes: t-shirts, sweatshirts, pants and shorts. Shoes were the agent's responsibility and Kuryakin had obviously brought the frayed canvas ones from Moscow with him. Solo wouldn't have taken them farther than the nearest trashcan, much less 6000 miles. Mr. Waverly didn't approve of scruffy appearances, yet Kuryakin hadn't had the benefit of Survival School indoctrination lectures. He debated giving Kuryakin a word of advice on the subject, then decided it wasn't the time or place.

"If you don't mind, I'm getting chilled," Kuryakin snapped.

"How about doing something more interesting?"

"Such as?"

Solo slipped out of his own shoes, and flexed his toes in the mat. "We appear to both be warmed up. In more ways than one. Care to spar?"

Kuryakin didn't move. "Is that all we are about to do?"

"No." Solo watched the faint tightening in the Soviet agent's face. "We might settle some things as well."

Kuryakin considered a moment, then shrugged. "Are there rules, or do we try our best to kill eachother?"

"Certainly there are rules," Solo said. "Waverly considers each of us valuable assets. He doesn't like to see his assets wasted. He told me to tell you, by the way, that the next time you're in action, try not to destroy any newsstands." Solo referred to the stand that had been ruined when Kuryakin at been attacked by KGB agents at the airport. "It was expensive to replace."

Kuryakin's face revealed nothing. "What has that to do with this?"

"Not a thing. I just decided that I'd had enough of your smug, supercilious attitude."

"Surely mine can't compare with that of your own."

"I'm allowed. I'm CEA."

"I have been told that your position is temporary," Illya informed Solo coolly. "That Mr. Waverly is rotating several agents through that position."

Solo smiled, not at all drawn. "Smug and supercilious, as I just said. However, I will let you keep on being smug and supercilious."

"Indeed?" The Soviet agent raised his chin just a bit at the challenge in the standing man's voice.

"If you can take me. I'll even give you a break, since you're such a greenhorn. One of three. You just have to take me once."

Kuryakin shrugged indifferently. "Whenever you can manage to stop talking, I'm ready."

"Get up off the floor then." Solo held out a hand, which the Kuryakin shunned, scrambling to his feet on his own.

"So mistrustful. Just one thing more. No broken bones or debilitating injuries. Waverly also doesn't care to lose field-certifications through over-enthusiastic excesses in the gym."

"Sounds tame," Illya crossed his arms, his chin stuck out just enough to raise hackles on the back of Solo's neck. The blue eyes were very dark, almost gray. And gleaming in a direct, almost obnoxious challenge. There was something atavistic and primitive in the way he held Solo's eyes, and the CEA was positive Kuryakin knew exactly how his stance affected his superior. "I wonder how you prepare for the field," Kuryakin continued.

"Oh, we manage," Solo promised, thinking of how much he'd enjoy knocking that chin back into line. It seemed he'd been waiting to do it practically since he met the Russian. "Take your shoes off, Illya. I'm done talking now and you're keeping me waiting."

"Then I had better be worth waiting for, hadn't I?" The Russian bent to unlace his own sneakers without taking his eyes off of Solo, half crouched like an animal waiting to spring. He too tossed them to the side of the mat.

"On three, alright?" Solo asked. There was a faint smile on his face. "One"

"Dva," Kuryakin whispered, rising to the balls of his feet.

"Three!"

An alarm interrupted them in mid spring. Without a glance backward, Solo pounded out of the room, leaving Kuryakin staring after him, shaking out his own frustration-enhanced adrenalin.

"Hey, another day, buddy."

Kuryakin turned to stare at a massive U.N.C.L.E. agent lifting weights in the corner of the room. "What?"

"You'll get your chance. He's not going anywhere. That man's got phenomenal luck. You'll get your rematch. I just hope you got the same luck."

"I don't believe in luck," Kuryakin said, grabbing for his shoes and leaving the gym.

But as he went to change, he knew the real problem wasn't that he didn't believe in luck. It was just that he didn't think he had any. Or it hadn't shown up in any noticeable form until now.

A few pairs of men bent over chess boards. Others hid behind newspapers with pipe or cigar smoke issuing over the tops of the pages as if from a chimney. Formally dressed waiters dispensed spirits and tobacco with white towels draped over one arm. The scent of fine tobacco, excellent vintages and money pervaded the air. The scents of money had its vintages too, old, new, inherited, earned, legitimate, clandestine. It added to the excitement. The club could have been a transported from Britain, but it served a thriving, if exclusive, clientele in New York City. Alexander Waverly's keen gray eyes studied the room as an over-zealous attendant tried to relieve him of his umbrella.

"No, thank you, my boy. I'll keep it with me. Never know when an unexpected shower might crop up."

"Of course, sir," the attendant just managed to keep from rolling his eyes. "Your usual?"

"Yes, thank you." Waverly's gaze lingered on a man examining a case of darts in a secluded corner, a tall man with gray streaked blond hair and a brown tweed suit draping his long, English-like frame.

"Dmitry?"

"Alexander." The man turned and shook hands. "Have you been given a drink? Yes, they are bringing it. So have I, you see. The service in this club is excellent."

"I would be happy to sponsor you in membership."

Aivasovsky chuckled. "Thank you. But it would hardly be wise for me to frequent such a bourgeois place for personal reasons alone, and I doubt you would appreciate my making use of it for professional ones."

"It's not U.N.C.L.E.'s purview to concern itself with such matters. No doubt there are several agencies who'd be interested in interviewing any contacts you would make here, though."

"Too true. And my usual cover, you know, is hardly prestigious enough to support my admittance. So I am indebted to you for this glimpse of it."

"I am glad then I chose this place then for our meeting. I hope I didn't keep you waiting long."

"Not at all. I have been admiring these darts. See how fine the feathering is? Exquisite work. The English do this sort of thing very well."

"Perhaps you'd care for a game?"

"Perhaps later. After we have discussed our business."

"Yes, our business." The older man turned to the case, almost idly. "These darts are very fine," Waverly picked up a dart, examined it, and sent it into the target. "Refined for a specific purpose." He examined the bull's eye he had made. "And you see how well they perform. Because they were designed with that performance in mind."

"I think you give too little credit to the wielder of the dart," Aivasovsky said, looking from the target to Waverly with a touch of respect. "You are talented my friend. But I will rise to the challenge." He threw his own dart into the target, which landed two rings away. "Although, as you see, this is not quite my game."

"They dip a little in flight," Waverly commented. "Without the velocity of a bullet, the weight of the head brings them down more. And, of course, they lack target sights. Try aiming a little higher. And this is no challenge, just a friendly game." Waverly tossed his dart into the bull's eye, followed by another, and yet another.

Aivasovsky scowled slightly at the darts bristling from the bull's eye, and then at the dart in his hand. After a moment, he let it fly. It hit the second ring, just outside the bull's eye.

"You see, you're getting the feel of it." Waverly retrieved his darts from the target and laid them out as precisely as a surgeon arranges his instruments.

"How are your darts, Alexander? Especially the new one just sent you?" Aivasovsky questioned softly.

"As fine as these, I think," Waverly studied the target, picked up his dart, and looking at Aivasovsky, flung the dart into the target, "but I seem to have only borrowed it."

"A neat trick," Aivasovsky commented. He walked to the target and pulled the dart out of the bull's eye. "It should serve you well enough, even borrowed."

"The darts of which we speak are not quite so inanimate," Waverly countered. "Fine as they are, I can't risk one wavering away from a target. When I ask for darts, I cannot substitute a boomerang. However fine a boomerang it might be," Waverly smiled a trifle, "it is not quite the same thing."

Aivasovsky considered. "I see. But you ask for something outside of my power to give. Your arrangements were not made with me, and I cannot adjust them."

"I intend to communicate the same message to Moscow. But given the recent confusion regarding your government's commitment to my organization, I prefer sending such a message along more than one channel."

The GRU General inclined his head. "Certainly such a message can be transmitted for you. I will see that it is sent." He raised his dart, and after a moment's study, sent it into the bull's eye.

"You see?" Waverly commented softly. "The adjustment isn't difficult to make."

"Not for me. But then, this is only a game." Aivasovsky retrieved his darts from the board and handed them to the U.N.C.L.E. chief. "Good luck, Alexander, with your more animate darts."

Chapter Five

The Caterpillar was the first to speak.

"What size do you want to be?" it asked.

"Oh, I'm not particular as to size," Alice hastily replied; "only one doesn't like changing so often, you know."

"I don't know," said the Caterpillar.

Alice said nothing; she had never been so much contradicted in all her life before, and she felt that she was losing her temper.

"Are you content now?" said the Caterpillar.

Ivashutin was arguing for his agency, not for his agent. He would normally have never chosen to counter Kir, but here the spymaster was wrong. The U.N.C.L.E. liaison had too much potential to risk it for petty counter-espionage tricks whose sketchy gains couldn't begin to compensate for the inevitable loss. He had made a good deal, and he resented Kir for jeopardize ING it. He also wondered if Kir himself was regretting giving the GRU that win, and was seeking to lessen it. Regardless, his thoughts were strategic and political. He wasn't thinking of his agent, but his agency.

"Waverly has made his position irrevocable," Ivashutin stated, not bothering to sit in this latest meeting. Kir was going to have to be frustrated, and with Kir in that mood, his meeting had better be brief. "He insists that his agents must be completely under his control. He is not interested in any reciprocity of duties or information other than the standard briefings all member agencies receive."

Kir Gavrilovich Lemzenko scowled slightly. "Why does it necessarily follow that what Alexander Waverly wants we must deliver?"

"I think in this case, it does. If we do not agree to the pledge, then Waverly will return the agent and there will be no further briefings forthcoming."

"We have other double agents. Kuryakin would simply be one more. Surely you're not implying that a graduate of the Military-Diplomatic activity can't perform such a role. Why must Waverly be informed at all?"

"But our double agents are adequately prepared. Kuryakin was instructed to avoid all contact with illegal and legal residents. He wasn't trained for the operatives, codes or locations in New York City. Waverly's position makes it all the more difficult to bring him up to speed."

"But not impossible."

"Our New York contacts report that Kuryakin is under constant surveillance. Between that and his current knowledge gaps on who and how to contact the local operatives, the prospects of successfully pulling off a dual operation grow remote. His ignorance would not only endanger the U.N.C.L.E. endeavor, but our local operations as well. If Waverly were less adamant, we might have more room to maneuver."

Kir was silent for so long that it was clear he was seriously displeased. He rose and studied a 15th century religious tapestry that had once hung in a St. Petersburg cathedral before adorning his own wall. Finally he spoke.

"Very well."

Ivashutin hesitated. Kir's bare agreement, without conditions or codicils, signalled trouble. "There is always the chance to place a second agent, well-trained in counter-espionage in U.N.C.L.E. once Kuryakin has been absorbed into U.N.C.L.E. Many member nations supply more than one agent."

Kir waved a hand in dismissal. "Go. Go, before I change my mind."

Ivashutin frowned in impatience, then rose, collected his briefcase and left the room.

Kir absently raised a hand and traced a line in the fine wool of the tapestry. Then he turned and picked up his phone.

"Send Colonel Krastov to my office." Replacing the receiver, he shrugged. "There are all sorts of ways to absorb an agent."

It didn't take long for Lemzenko's special KGB aide to arrive. When he did, Kir didn't bother to rise from his desk or welcome him, such courtesies were unnecessary with this operative, but instead he came right to the point. "I have a assignment for you."

"Of course."

There is a problem with the KGB agent we recently sent to U.N.C.L.E. "I want him eliminated.

"Forgive my confusion, Comrade General," Krastov ventured, a fine line appearing between his brows. "But was not the KGB navigator from New York recently evacuated for ordering the death of that agent?"

"Yes, but there is a difference. Colonel Medyev attempted to kill him without my sanction. This time, you will be operating with it."

"I see."

"That changes the situation, does it not?"

Krastov nodded. "It makes all the difference in the world."

Solo hit the intercom button at the unit's soft chime. "Yes?"

"Kuryakin's at the agent's exit." George Dennel, the Security technician on duty, spoke in a sotto voice, even though his booth was completely soundproof and bulletproof.

"Oh," Solo looked at the work piled on his desk and sighed. He'd given orders that the next time Kuryakin "lunched out" he wanted to be called. This was the first time he happened to be in the building since he'd given the order. He supposed it was too much to hope that the first free afternoon he had to make a dent in his paperwork, Kuryakin would keep to Headquarters. His rancor against the Soviet agent increased, but he reined it in. "All right. Thanks for notifying me, I'll be there as soon as I can. Try to delay him for a few seconds, so he doesn't have such a head start."

"Delay him?"

"Yeah. Hold him up. I don't want to give Kuryakin too much of a lead. Now get moving, before he makes it out of there."

"But what do you want me to do?"

Solo blinked in surprise at this question, then remembered he was dealing with security and not a fellow agent. "I don't care. Pretend you found something on the scanners and run him through again."

"But he isn't carrying anything, Napoleon."

"Then just say there's something wrong with the equipment," Napoleon added patiently.

"Oh, okay!" Dennel's voice rose in enthusiasm. "I can just short out this one circuit and it will look like --"

"No, no, George!" Solo caught his breath in exasperation. Waverly picked his security officers with an eye to ethics, but in his brief acquaintence with him, Solo had found George Dennel to be particularly unyielding in that regard. It might make for a good security officer, but it had repercussions in other areas. "Don't break the equipment, George, just pretend that it's broken."

"Oh. Right. Sure, Napoleon, you got it. Whatever you say. We're always happy to oblige Section Two and --"

"Just get on it, before he's out the door, George! Hurry!"

Kuryakin narrowed his eyes at the profuse apologies of the security technician, and took his leave abruptly when he was released, shaking off Headquarters like a duck shaking water from its feathers. He was still GRU at heart. U.N.C.L.E. didn't penetrate.

He didn't quite believe Dennel when he said his equipment was malfunctioning, but then, the man was so transparent and obtuse, that it was also hard to believe he could lie. Regardless, Dennel had made Kuryakin behind schedule for his appointment. He was nervous about the meeting anyway.

He'd found the note in the bag of groceries he'd purchased at the local corner store. The signs of Moscow were unmistakable to him. But he couldn't tell if the signature was KGB or GRU, and that might mean life or death to him.

Nor was he happy about the time or place of the meeting, which left him little time for doubling back and verifying that he wasn't being tailed or followed.

It was a bad situation, all around. But then he'd come to believe that his situation was impossible. Solo, his immediate superior, disliked him. Waverly was as cagy and guarded as his GRU representatives, which boded well for U.N.C.L.E., but as a potential counterspy within U.N.C.L.E., did not bode well for him. Others within U.N.C.L.E. were variously friendly or cold. He distrusted both groups, certain those that were friendly had their own reasons for being so, reasons that probably didn't coincide with his own interests, and regarding the antagonistic ones as potential enemies.

His duties at Headquarters were tedious, and he was certain his apartment was under surveillance, if not actually bugged. All par for the course in the life of a spy, but at least in his own service, he would have been striving for an ideal. The security of his nation, at least, if not some higher goal such as the spread of communism. He didn't see much point in U.N.C.L.E. so far. An international security agency? Some sort of glorified police force? Guarding whom? And from what? So far he had been told precious little, and understood even less.

It's only purpose at present seemed to be to get him killed.

Solo followed the Soviet agent, growing concerned as Kuryakin led him down to the docks. Kuryakin seemed to be in a hurry, doing only the most perfunctory checks for a tail. Solo avoided those checks with ease, but he grew increasingly uneasy over Kuryakin's behavior. This wasn't the same agent who had successfully duped Akers. This was an agent who was letting his guard down, his back uncovered. Was it that Kuryakin had grown tired of the game so quickly? Was it that he didn't know whom to guard himself from and decided not to guard himself at all? Still, it was sloppy work, and if Kuryakin had been his agent, he'd have reprimanded him for it. Then he remembered Kuryakin was his agent.

Solo faded back a bit and watched as the Russian paused in a secluded alley, apparently checking his surroundings against a previously given set of instructions. He destination must be the abandoned warehouse he was scrutinising. Kuryakin's black clothing melted into the grimy surroundings, but Solo could easily keep track of him by the blond head that gleamed like a new coin. He'd have to remember to ask Kuryakin to cover it if they were ever on a night mission together. The Soviet agent might as well be carrying a flashlight on his shoulders.

Kuryakin moved to the side of the building, and started to shimmy up a rusting fire escape. Solo sighed heavily and moved to follow, keeping well back. Kuryakin might not be in too much danger, seeing as how he must have received detailed arrangements on the meeting. But Solo disliked heights, he was especially fond of the tie he was wearing today, and he hated the thought of being covered with dirt, rust and grease. He was going to have to talk to Kuryakin about cutting these Soviet ties, if they were going to lead him into places like this.

Why would someone ask to meet him here, except for an execution? Kuryakin thought, as he wound his way up to his rendezvous. And if I know that it is an execution, then why am I going? If this were Aivasovsky, we would have met somewhere public. If he wanted to kill me, he wouldn't care where. But this, this has the hallmark of our neighbors in the KGB. So why am I going?

And yet he went, something perverse in him insisting on it, demanding that he resolve the issue, even if that resolution meant risking death.

"Illya Nickovetch."

He turned, his gun in his hand, to face a person he knew. At least he had seen him before.

"Colonel Krastov,"

The man raised an eyebrow. "You know me?"

"I met you once before, Comrade Colonel. Before my posting to the Sorbonne. You were in General Lemzenko's office." The words that came out of his mouth sounded incredible to his ears, polite and deferential, yet his hand tightened on the gun in his hand, and his finger inched toward the trigger.

"I don't recall, but I trust in your excellent memory. How did you like the Sorbonne, Illya Nickovetch?"

"You were KGB," Kuryakin continued quietly.

"I still am."

"So." Kuryakin said in confirmation, as if that settled it. "I have a weapon," he pointed out.

"But have you license to use it?" Krastov asked easily. "What crime have I committed against you, Illya Nickovetch? What excuse would you give Kir for having murdered his associate, when next you stood before him?"

"The possibility of my standing before him again grows more and more remote," Kuryakin answered. "Your comrades have moved against me, for no crime on my part. I am innocent of any wrongdoing, and have a right to know what charges have been made against me."

"You speak with the idealism of a schoolboy, Illya Nickovetch, not a GRU officer. I almost see the red Komsomol kerchief around your neck. It amuses me."

"But I am not amused, Comrade Colonel. If you have a message for me from Kir, then speak it quickly. Otherwise my finger is growing very tired pausing above this trigger."

"Come with me," Krastov said.

"For what purpose?"

"You wish this business to be concluded, do you not? Then come. I have something for you from Kir."

"Bring it here, instead."

The man's easy manner vanished. "Don't be a fool, U.N.C.L.E. agent. Do you think because you have a gun in your hand, you control the situation? Can you move against all of the KGB and GRU with one weapon? Who are you to dictate to me?"

"A fool, Comrade Krastov," Kuryakin began.

Solo decided to slip into the building and follow the fire exits up. The doors were chained and padlocked but he found a rotten window that yielded to his efforts, and he ran soundlessly up the stairs. The building sounded empty, and smelled unaired. At the top floor he peered out and saw Kuryakin's distinctive blond head on the third floor fire escape. Another man with gray, colorless hair was with him. Kuryakin had a gun trained on him, but the man was carrying as well.

They were talking but Solo couldn't hear what they were saying. He undid the simple window latches and tugged at the sash. The window refused to yield, and he swore softly. Mindful to avoid noise, he put pressure on the frame at strategic places, and rocked it slightly. The next time he tried, the window slid up. He climbed through it to the fire escape outside, and crouched down, straining to hear. The voices were soft, muted, and he leaned forward. Then the ancient structure he was kneeling on shifted as the iron supports rocked in their brick and concrete housings, giving out a tremendous screech. Solo flattened himself against the shaky platform, his hands grasping for a grip, and hoped the whole fire escape wouldn't let loose from the side of the building.

Kuryakin ducked instinctively as the structure above him squealed and shuddered. In an instant, the KGB agent struck, knocking Kuryakin's weapon from his hand. The fire escape let partially loose from the wall with a terrible squeal. Kuryakin slid across the platform, scrabbling for a handhold, and found it on a projecting pipe. He ended up hanging in midair, scrambling with his feet for a purchase on the rapidly deteriorating structure. Then he looked up to see his own weapon in the KGB agent's hands. Pointed at him.

"I suppose this means you aren't going to help me up," Kuryakin asked dryly.

Krastov laughed. "This is fitting. I had intended merely to shoot you, but perhaps a long fall is more appropriate."

"You might at least tell me my crime," Kuryakin grunted, tightening his grip on the pipe to keep himself from slipping.

"The crime is not necessarily yours, but your leaders.

"Why kill me, then?"

"Oh, you're hardly innocent. No doubt you enjoyed your bourgeois lifestyle in Paris and Cambridge.

"I lived in a cold water flat owned by Soviet illegals in Cambridge, and in a similar situation in Paris," Kuryakin panted.

"Then you didn't take much advantage of your freedom, and you are going to die too soon. But every man is guilty of something, Illya Nickovetch. That is the motto of the KGB, you know. You are no different. You must have some secret disloyalty in your soul; you're simply too clever to be caught in the act. But your death will teach your leaders to think twice about assuming that an agent can be detached from the service of the Soviet Union. Once you are detached, you see, you are dead." He leaned down to look at the struggling agent. "How are you enjoying your service, Illya Nickovetch? Are you detached enough yet?"

When the structure stopped shuddering, Solo rose to his hands and knees and peered over the edge, and swore softly "Hang on, Kuryakin," Solo muttered, inching forward, trying to find an angle that would give him a shot at the KGB agent that would leave Kuryakin in the clear. But the figures were too close together. Then the structure he was on shuddered again and he realized his weight was contributing to the instability. He slowly edged his way toward the window, pausing at each shudder. He eased himself back inside the building. Then he swiftly made his way down to the floor the two Soviet agents were located at.

"So it happens with traitors to the Soviet Union," Krastov was saying dismissively as Solo came up to the window they were at. The KGB agent didn't seem concerned about the instability of the structure. But then he had one hand wrapped firmly about the piping, and he was only a foot or so from the window.

"I am not a traitor," Kuryakin swore. His hands were slipping on the greasy pipe, but his eyes were on his U.N.C.L.E. issued weapon in the KGB agent's hands. He looked down at the ground below and back up to the man holding his weapon on him. There wasn't fear in his eyes as much as desperation. "I was assigned to U.N.C.L.E."

"By traitorous leaders. It's unfortunate we couldn't arrange a 'trial by fire' for all of you. Your superiors, you see, are a little too highly placed to be dealt with directly. You should be honored, for you are providing a necessary example, Illya Nickovetch. And I think this is a more appropriate death for a 'detached agent'"

Kuryakin grip slipped almost an inch on the short length, and frantically kicking out for some purchase, he swung his legs out far enough to wedge them up against the platform of the fire escape. But his arms were at a cruel angle, increasing the torque against his hands, which began slipping rapidly down the pipe. Without help, he couldn't keep his grip much longer.

Solo appeared in the window at the same moment. "Drop your weapon," he ordered.

Krastov turned quickly, raising his gun and firing a shot at the Solo. At the same time Kuryakin kicked out with his feet, kicking the platform hard enough to knock Krastov off balance and ruin his aim. The structure groaned and shuddered horribly.

Solo didn't bother with niceties then, he shot the KGB agent in the head, spattering the area, and Kuryakin with blood and brains. The KGB agent's body fell heavily, against one of the supports of the fire escape and the structure groaned again. Crumbling concrete spilled out from the loosening bars set in the wall and the platform shifted further, becoming nearly perpendicular instead of horizontal. Kuryakin flinched as the Krastov's body slid past him and fell threw the air to the ground far below.

"Can you get up?" Solo called.

Kuryakin swung his feet up, scrambling for a purchase. His hands slipped and he let them swing down, tightening his grip.

"Hang on," Solo ordered. "I'll come after you." He moved carefully out on the disintegrating structure.

"You'll only bring it down," Kuryakin said. "And yourself with it."

"No, I won't." Solo wrapped his tie around his ankles and secured it to the pipe, then leaned down, offering his hands to Kuryakin. "That's silk, it's strong enough to hold both of us if it has to.

"I can't reach you." Sweating, Kuryakin tried to move up the pipe, but his hands kept slipping down. The fire escape groaned again. "I'll end up pulling you down with me."

"No, you won't. Move it! This thing isn't going to hold on forever."

"I can't"

"Yes, you can. Damn it, Kuryakin, since I've been CEA, I've never lost an agent on a mission yet, and you're not going to spoil my record. Now, move!" A shower of concrete dust sprayed over them, whitening their hair as the piping came loose again. The grit covered Kuryakin and the pipe he was clinging to, giving him a bit more purchase. Whether it was the grit or Solo's demand, he moved the extra few inches to grasp Solo's hands. He swarmed up the Chief Enforcement Agent like a monkey, then pulled the CEA up after him, moving to untie Solo's ankles from the pipe as Solo pulled himself upright. As they climbed through the window, the fire escape worked its way free from the wall and crashed down on top of the KGB agent. Solo peered down to look at him.

"I'd say that's detached."

"Thank you," Kuryakin said, breathing hard. He looked dubiously at his cut and bleeding hands.

"Don't mention it," Solo replied. "But you could do me a favor?"

"Yes?" Kuryakin said cautiously.

"The next time you get an invitation for lunch, refuse it, okay?" Solo brushed off his suit, ending by fingering his collar, then settled for unbuttoning the top shirt button.

Kuryakin's eyes followed his actions, then looked back to where the Chief Enforcement Agent's tie still hung, irrevocably stained with grease, soot and rust. "I'll replace it," he said, though the offer seemed to choke him.

"Couldn't possibly. Got it in Milan. A token of appreciation from a very pretty girl," Solo grinned. "Anyway, it'll all come out on the expense report. Stairway's over here." He pushed open the fire door, and started down, his words echoing back up the starcase, "Never let Budgeting tell you silk isn't worth it, Illya." He glanced backward at Kuryakin's tieless back turtleneck. "Wash and wear might save you on the drycleaning bills," he added mildly, "but a yard of silk rope, at the right time, can save your life."

Kuryakin debated killing him, but decided gratitude for saving his life meant he'd at least have to wait for another day.

"Come in, gentlemen," Waverly looked up from his paperwork and stared. "My word, Mr. Solo, what's happened to you? And you too, Mr. Kuryakin? Don't tell me the KGB tried another assault?"

"No, sir." Illya Kuryakin settled into his seat at the table.

"Thrush?" Waverly queried.

"No, sir." Solo picked up the folder at his place.

"I read of no hostile altercations in the daily report."

"This wasn't business, sir. It happened in the gym. Just a question of settling something," Solo replied, blithely.

"I see," Waverly's sharp eyes went from his Chief Enforcement Agent to the Soviet agent next to him. "And were things settled, gentlemen?"

Both agents turned to look at eachother. "I think so, sir," Solo replied.

"I am glad to hear of it. You know I don't approve--"

"Of the wasting of resources, yes, sir. I explained that to Mr. Kuryakin some time ago."

"He did, sir," the Russian agent added quietly.

"Very good." Waverly looked from one to the other. "Well, gentlemen. If everything is, as you say, settled, perhaps we can finally get down to business."

"What business is that, sir," Solo asked, looking toward his superior.

"Business for the two of you. I have received a message from Moscow," Waverly nodded as Kuryakin sat straighter in his chair. "It comes via a very reliable source, and it is addressed to both of you. But since it concerns Mr. Kuryakin most, I'll let him see it first.

Kuryakin frowned at the sheet of paper as Waverly sent it around the lazy susan toward him. He picked it up and read it, then passed it to Solo.

"Does this mean what I think it means?" Solo asked.

Waverly took the paper back. On an insignificant sheet of white bond, a few sentences glowed darkly.

My compliments, Illya Nickovetch, to you and your uncle. You have won your freedom. For the moment.

Kir

"I would say it means Mr. Kuryakin will no longer have to worry about his Soviet compatriots," Waverly commented.

"Well, that's good news, right?" Solo turned to Kuryakin, who was staring into space, his eyes unfocused in thought. "Right, Illya?"

"Well, I should like to be a little larger, Sir, if you don't mind," said Alice: "three inches is such a wretched height to be."

"It is a very good height indeed!" said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).

"But I'm not used to it! pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone.

"You'll get used to it in time," said the Caterpillar, and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

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