The Eye of the Beholder

By St. Crispins

Somewhere in Las Vegas. 1968.

Finally, this was it.

After weeks --- even months of promising --- Tim had finally agreed to introduce her to them. Maryanne Williams could hardly contain her excitement. It almost didn't matter if they declined the interview; if she never actually wrote the article she was planning. She was going to meet them at last.

It was well after midnight and the casino was jumping. Over to the right, someone had just hit big at a dollar slot, and the machine's bell was clanging the good news. To the left, a blue-haired granny in a polyester pantsuit rolled a seven at craps and a roar went up from around the table.

Maryanne ignored it all. Everything and everybody around her was a blur. She was having enough trouble following Tim as he wove through the maze of bodies, brass and red velour, shouting instructions over his shoulder as he ran.

"Now just be cool, Mare. Remember what I told you: Keep your voice down and don't talk loud. Don't move around too much or too quickly --- they don't like that. . ."

"I know I know," Maryanne nodded breathlessly, trying to keep up.

". . . And don't put your hands in any of your pockets unless you absolutely have to. If you do, do it slowly, so they can see. Do you understand? Huh? Do you?"

"Yeah, yeah. Okay, okay."

Cripes, she thought to herself, we work for U.N.C.L.E., too. I mean, they're human beings, just like the rest of us.

But of course, that wasn't entirely true and Maryanne knew it. While she and Tim could be technically called U.N.C.L.E. agents themselves, they were almost as far removed from the Section Two operatives as the average man on the street.

Of all U.N.C.L.E.'s many employees, the technicians and researchers, the programmers and interpreters, the supervisors, the secretaries and countless numbers of clerical personnel, only a handful of men and women --- a few hundred or so --- actually fought on the front lines.

The enforcement agents were the shock troops: the war horses, the barnstormers, the knights errant. They were the real muscle of the organization and probably its soul, too. A lot of U.N.C.L.E. personnel carried guns, but those in Section Two slept with them. And while the others swore to uphold the principle of world peace on their honor, enforcement agents swore to it on their lives.

In the short time she'd been working in Section Six, Maryanne had never met an enforcement agent. Oh, she'd heard all the rumors about them, some too wildly romantic to be believed. Rumors about how superstituous they were; how detached and deadly, no matter how nice they appeared to be. How they were tied to one another by some silly mysterious blood oath.

And now, she was going to meet the two most senior men of the section, U.N.C.L.E.'s top guns. Human beings. Just like the rest of us, she reminded herself again.

Yeah. Sure.

Well, at least it wasn't going to be a complete surprise. She'd heard enough about these two to fill a book, never mind a newsletter. She knew who they were, even what they looked like. Although her own red security badge confined her to the lower levels of the New York complex, she'd seen them slipping through Del Floria's, stalking through the corridors: a handsome, well-groomed, dark-haired American with a shorter, slighter, paler blond Russian in tow.

Suddenly, Tim stopped short and Maryanne almost ran into him. "We're in luck!" he hissed into her ear. "Look over there."

He gestured and Maryanne turned in the direction of his pointing finger. The circular bar was packed with patrons.

"So?"

Tim groaned dramatically. "Aw, c'mon Mare. Don't you know who that is?" He didn't wait for her to answer. "That's April Dancer. Aren't you interested?"

April Dancer was U.N.C.L.E.'s senior female enforcement agent. Maryanne was certainly interested.

"You wanna meet her too?" Tim was asking, even as he hooked an arm through his companion's, and dragged her to the bar. Before Maryanne could weigh the pros and cons of such an encounter, she was staring straight into the eyes of a young woman not much older than herself.

"Hi, April," Tim said. If April Dancer was irritated by his puppy dog eagerness, she did not show it.

"Hello Tim," she replied silkily. Her voice was sweet and slightly husky, and her large, expressive eyes raked vertically over Maryanne for a quick appraisal. "Who's your friend?"

Maryanne studied Dancer's face, trying to guess the verdict, but the enforcement agent's expression remained friendly but noncommittal.

"This is Maryanne Williams. She's the new editor of our employee newsletter."

"Oh yes. Now I remember. Let me tell you, Maryanne --- may I call you that ---?"

Maryanne nodded, feeling vaguely uneasy. Dancer had a way of sounding intimate without displaying any genuine warmth.

" --- Your predecessor was not very good at his job."

"Why do you say that?"

"He wrote like a government information officer. No life, no color, no style. I don't think he understood our business. But last month's issue --- that was yours, wasn't it? I read it cover to cover on the plane to Bankok, just before we were shot down. A real improvement. Very nice."

"Thanks. I'm really trying." As Maryanne accepted the compliment, she wondered idly how someone could care about a United Way Drive and the company picnic while plummeting to earth.

April turned to Tim. "And what are you doing here, in this den of sin, and so far from home? It must be long past your bedtime."

Either because he was too intimidated or because he interpreted it merely as good-natured kidding, Tim took no offense at the remark. Instead, he pulled back the lapel of his jacket, to reveal a manilla envelope peeking out from his breastpocket. "I'm supposed to deliver this to Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin."

"Ahhhh, I see." April smiled a secret smile, and shook an index finger. "Be careful. Courier work can be dangerous."

"That's why I brought Mare, here, along." Tim reached out and gave Maryanne's shoulder a confident pat. The girl lowered her eyes to the wine-colored carpet, plainly embarrassed.

"Ever ride shotgun before?" Dancer asked, going along with the joke.

"No. Actually, I was hoping to talk them into an interview for the newsletter."

Dancer chuckled softly, deep and knowing. She twirled on the barstool and slid to her feet in one fluid motion. Her short, swingy yellow dress puckered as she moved, and Maryanne noted a lump, like a small tumor, bulging under the material, halfway up the thigh.

A weapon, Maryanne told herself, but when she looked again, Dancer's skirt was once more as smooth as fresh butter. Now you see it, now you don't.

The enforcement agent reached for her drink, a gin and tonic. "Well, best of luck, darlings. You'll find your quarry back there, in the farthest lounge." She tipped her chin toward the rear of the building, beyond the main casino room.

Tim thanked her and then added, as an afterthought, "Win any money tonight?" April took a ladylike sip of her drink and shook her head. "Mark's up two hundred or so, but you know me, luv ---". She put her hand to the young man's shoulder and leaned in close. "I never gamble."

Then she sauntered off with a trill of laughter while Tim and Maryanne headed in the opposite direction. They pressed on, past the slots, the blackjack tables, the roulette wheels, through two sprawling, crowded cocktail lounges until they reached a third.

This one was small, almost claustrophobic, remote from the rest of the complex, and bathed in the rosy glow of recessed lighting. It was quiet here. A lone pianist picked out a jazzy, melancholy tune while the sounds from other parts of the casino echoed, dull and hollow, in the background. The few patrons sitting around the tables and at the bar, kept their voices low, conversing in hushed, church-like murmurs.

It wasn't hard to spot them. Solo and Kuryakin had a table to themselves in the corner of the room, and they sat back in the deep leather chairs, relaxed and comfortable.

Like lions in their lair, Maryanne thought to herself. It was an apt simile. Even in repose, there was something predatory, almost menacing, about the two men.

Apparently, Tim noticed it too. "Ready?" Tim whispered and nervously squeezed her arm. Maryanne sucked in a breath. It was now or never.

Although they appeared unconcerned, even oblivious to the activity around them, the enforcement agents were rising from their seats long before their younger colleagues even reached the table.

"Ah Timmy, so here you are," the one Maryanne recognized as Napoleon Solo, said. "And with a lovely companion besides."

"Mr. Solo, this is Maryanne Williams. She works for U.N.C.L.E. too."

"The pleasure is completely ours, Miss Williams."

Solo offered her a small, courtly bow. His partner, Illya Kuryakin, made a half-hearted attempt to do the same when he was introduced, then sank back down into his seat. Solo took Maryanne's hand and guided her to a chair next to his. She couldn't resist: not only was his manner uncommonly charming, but he had a grip like a vise.

"You have something for us, I believe," Kuryakin said when they were all settled in, prompting Tim to surrender the envelope. The Russian agent checked the contents, a coded note and a bundle of hundred dollar bills. He scanned the note, thumbed through the money, then handed the package to his partner. As Solo pocketed it, the senior agents glanced at one another and a silent message, private and meaningless to anyone else, passed between them.

Maryanne watched, fascinated. Her first impression of Solo was that he was clean. She'd never seen a shirt so white. He was dressed in an expensive, immaculately tailored tux that fit so perfectly, it might have been sewn right on his body. The only thing out of place on the agent was a stray comma of hair that fell over his forehead, a welcome rakish touch.

Kuryakin, on the other hand, sported a more casual ensemble, a jacket, turtleneck sweater and pants, all black, that contrasted starkly with his blond thatch of hair and pale complexion. He looked less prim, more pleasingly rumpled than Solo. And yet, because he wore his clothes like a priestly habit, the end result was even more austere and unapproachable.

Perhaps if she had met these men in the daytime, on the street, dressed in regular business suits, acting or at least pretending to act, like average citizens, she might have responded to them differently. But here, in this time and place, where there was no need to disguise or repress their true natures, they felt alien to her in ways she hadn't expected.

For instance, there was an absolute stillness about them, a deliberate economy of movement and speech. Some might interpret it as placidity, even nonchalance, but Maryanne knew it had more to do with self-possession than serenity. She could feel the intensity of their personalities. It brought to mind the old clich about still water running deep.

And cold, too. Were these men cold-blooded? Maryanne couldn't decide.

Under the mingled bouquet of scotch and vodka, there was the lingering scent of oiled steel and gunpowder and something else, something more disturbing. Solo wore a light men's cologne which had the same effect as flowers in a funeral home. Was it possible to smell death on apparently healthy people?

The woman didn't want to think about that. She set the question aside to pursue the real object of her journey: the interview. Friends had told her about Solo's wit, his affability. Supposedly, he was the more accessible member of the team, so she turned to him first.

"Mr. Solo ---."

"Would you like a drink Miss Williams?" he inquired. Maryanne looked up to see that a waitress had arrived.

"Just a soda, thank you."

Solo ordered refills on the scotch and vodka and two Cokes for the newcomers. When the waitress was gone, Maryanne tried again.

"Mr. Solo . . .,"

"Call me Napoleon. Almost everyone does." He leaned toward her as his voice dropped half an octave, velvety smooth, rich and resonant.

Uh-oh. You really are a devil aren't you? she thought, remembering Solo's reputation as a ladykiller. I'd better watch myself. She tried to sound more professional.

"I'm the new editor for the U.N.C.L.E. newsletter. You know, our house organ? I understand that you're busy right now, but when you and Mr. Kuryakin get back to New York, I'd love to arrange an interview with the two of you. I think it would make a great piece for the employee profile column."

"Oh really?" Kuryakin muttered sullenly from his corner, but Solo's dark eyes glittered in the cherry-colored light of the lounge. They looked amused.

"And what would you want to ask us?"

Maryanne considered for a moment as she studied the enforcement chief. The photographs in his personnel file did not do him justice.

He really had a striking face. The profile was patrician, well-defined, with a long, straight nose and a strong chin. The sort of profile one might find on a classical Roman statue. There was also a seductive, insinuatingly sensuality to it in close-up, a quality that could never be captured on film.

"Let's see," she began. "I'd probably like to ask how you feel about your work. Your partnership with Mr. Kuryakin. I mean, it is kind of unique ---."

"So they keep telling us," Kuryakin said.

" --- What it's like to be an enforcement agent."

"Are you sure you want to know?" Solo said, fixing her with his gaze. Fleetingly, she thought of a king cobra hypnotizing its prey. That Solo spoke with a sibilant "S" only reinforced the image.

" --- Or that your readers will?" Kuryakin cut in.

Maryanne blinked uncertainly. "Why wouldn't they?" she asked, challenging him.

Everything about the Russian was sharp, from his pinched, aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes, to his manner, his opinions and his incisively quick mind.

However, like Solo, he was an accomplished shape-shifter. One moment his face was as cunning and watchful as a bird of prey. The next it was innocent and ethereal, almost angelic.

"You must understand, Miss Williams," he said gently, "in our business, candor is not always appreciated." He spoke in that same cautious, sensible tone of voice her mother used when discussing family skeletons.

"Surely whatever I write won't come as a surprise to them," Maryanne countered.

"If they thought about it, no. But often, the left hand would rather not know what the right one is doing."

"But they're your friends, your co-workers ---."

"Afraid they'll throw us off the company softball team?" Solo chuckled slyly.

"You know what I mean," Kuryakin shot back as their drinks arrived. He received his glass of vodka from the waitress and took an experimental sip. Maryanne noted the Russian's own hands. They were tapered and slender, like the expressive hands of an artist.

She turned back to Solo, as he set down her Coke in front of her. Despite his general sleekness, Solo's hands, in contrast to Kuryakin's, were chiseled, blunt-fingered and strongly veined --- workingman's hands. The kind of hands that could build a house. Or kill a man with very little effort.

"Illya may be right," the enforcement chief conceded after sampling his own drink. He waved carelessly, a throwaway gesture, and Maryanne's eyes were drawn to the edge of his shirt sleeve by a flash of gold cufflink. Just under the cuff, a band of faded scar tissue encircled his wrist like a hospital bracelet.

"So you won't do the interview?" Maryanne said. It was a more of a statement than a question. She was not at all happy and she made no effort to disguise her disappointment.

"We didn't say that," Solo corrected her, shifting position and emotional gears. He moved close to her again and his eyes hooded and played across her face. Maryanne felt an erotic tension as palpable as an electric current and she went on her guard once more. She wanted to tell him to stop, that he was making her nervous. In fact, both of these men made her nervous.

"Look, Maryanne, maybe we could get together, discuss this over dinner sometime ---."

Suddenly, Solo was interrupted by the distinctive beep of an U.N.C.L.E. communicator. He patted his breastpocket and Maryanne sighed in relief. Saved by the bell.

"That's it," Kuryakin declared. "Time to go."

As Solo switched off the signal and replaced the slim, silver pen, he glanced across to the younger agents. "Care to come along?" he said casually.

"Where?" Tim blurted out.

"A place not far from here. We have a small matter to attend to."

"Right now?" Maryanne asked. She checked her watch. It was one a.m.

"Why not? There are no timeclocks to punch in the field."

"Napoleon, you can't be serious!" This last objection came from Kuryakin and he growled it from across the table.

The enforcement chief shrugged. "In the interest of research ---," he said, sounding eminently reasonable.

"Research, hell."

"They want to know what it's like to be enforcement agents."

"Let them read the manual."

"They should experience fieldwork first hand."

"They could get killed ---."

"--- They could watch the car."

Kuryakin muttered something in his native tongue, clearly hating the idea. Solo watched, sympathetic but unmoved. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he would win this tug of wills. He probably always did.

Kuryakin stared at his partner for a long moment, then looked away. "Very well," he said stubbornly, still unconvinced. "But if anything happens to them, it will be your head that rolls and I shall gladly hold the basket."

"I'll be sure to remember that," Solo replied with a grin. He lifted his drink. "To Thursday, then."

"To Thursday," Kuryakin repeated, resigned. They clinked their glasses together and drained them.

On the way out of the casino, Maryanne grasped Tim's arm and whispered, "Why did they toast to Thursday?"

"Because today is Wednesday," he answered, "and enforcement agents always drink to the next day."

Outside, a Lincoln Continental from the company carpool stood waiting for them in the casino parking lot. Sitting in the front passenger seat, April Dancer was waiting for them, too.

"You're late," she told Solo as he slipped behind the wheel. "I was about to call in a search-and-seize." She twisted to see Maryanne and Tim scramble into the back seat. "And what are they doing here?"

"Don't look at me," Kuryakin grunted as he climbed in behind the younger agents and slammed the door. "It was his idea."

Solo started the engine and threw the Lincoln into gear. "I told them if they kept their mouths shut and stayed with the car, they could come along for the ride."

"You mean like mascots?" Dancer replied. Solo made a face. "Now, now, let's not be bitchy, my dear. What will our guests think?"

The woman agent laughed again, soft and silvery, and shook her head. "You know, Napoleon, sometimes I think you keep picking up civilians just to have an audience."

"His vanity will be the death of us yet," Kuryakin agreed from his place in the backseat.

"They're not civilians," Solo reminded Dancer, ignoring his partner. As the car sailed through an amber light, he pointed to her yellow dress. "And speaking of vanity, is that the best you could do for a wedding gown?"

"With only two hours notice, it is. All the bridal shops were closed." Her eyebrow arched playfully. "Don't worry, luv. I remembered to wear a garter. Want to see?"

Behind them, Maryanne decided she didn't want to see. She turned her attention to Kuryakin squeezed in beside her.

If he was aware of her interest, he didn't acknowledge it. Unlike his colleagues, who continued to banter in the front seat, Kuryakin was busy, preparing assault equipment which Maryanne recognized as gas grenades and various incendiary devices. He worked mechanically, single-mindedly, completing focused on the job at hand.

Months ago, when she first saw his photograph, she was impressed with the Russian's fair, sensitive features and fantasized about dating him. Now, watching him check the clip on his U.N.C.L.E. Special with grim determination, Maryanne couldn't imagine even meeting him for a cup of coffee. She could almost feel his adrenalin pumping, just below the surface.

"Why were they talking about bridal shops before?" the young woman asked Kuryakin, keeping her voice low. Although she had no desire to be a nuisance, her curiousity was killing her.

"Be patient," he said, without looking up. "You'll see."

Minutes later, she did see. They arrived at a garish, twenty-four hour wedding chapel, located somewhere on the edge of town. Two blocks earlier, they had deposited Kuryakin curbside, to allow him to cover the last leg of the journey on foot.

"Give me a few minutes before you make your grand entrance," the Russian had warned his companions before dissolving into the night. Now, Solo took his time parking the car across the street from the chapel. He used the rearview mirror to straighten his formal bowtie.

"This is it, kids, " he told the junior agents in the back seat. "Remember what I said: keep your heads low and stay out of sight."

Maryanne frowned. "But I don't understand. What are we doing here?"

"You might say, we're pulling a bank job." Solo motioned toward the chapel. "That place may look like a harmless marriage mill, but it's really Thrush's version of a savings and loan."

"They service a very special clientele here," Dancer explained. "Before the prospective newlyweds say, 'I do', they deliver little green bundles of joy." She reached out and patted the packet of money that bulged under Solo's right lapel. Behind her, Maryanne and Tim exchanged glances.

"Don't worry," Dancer said, reading the apprehension in their faces. "If it gets too rough, my partner Mark Slate, is standing by with a back-up team."

"C'mon Miss Sunshine," Solo cut in. "Let's make an honest woman of you."

As he climbed out of the car and rounded the hood to open the passenger door, Dancer inclined her head to Tim and Maryanne and said, "That will take more than a piece of paper and a few words." Then the woman enforcement agent slid across her seat to join Solo on the sidewalk.

"Aren't you going to kiss me for luck?" she asked coyly.

Solo sighed. "Not even married yet and already a nagging wife."

"And you love it." She roped her arms around his neck and added, "Make it look good."

He did, and then some.

Afterward, the two enforcement agents linked arms and trotted across the street, looking for all the world like a happy couple who couldn't wait to tie the knot. Back at the car, Maryanne watched them disappear inside the chapel. She ducked down below the window and huddled next to Tim. Five minutes dragged by in silence.

"I wonder how long this is going to take," Maryanne said finally. Her answer came with a volley of shots, punctuated by a loud thudding explosion.

"What the hell was that?" Tim cried.

"I don't know but I intend to find out." Maryanne popped up in her seat for a peek. Across the street, the scene was absolute chaos. Black smoke billowed from the roof, blending with the pink fog of gas that enshrouded the chapel. People ran and shouted, shadows winking past and then lost, while gunfire sang and spat like bolts of lightning in a stormcloud. It was impossible to tell exactly what was happening. Maryanne pulled the door handle.

"But Mr. Solo said we should stay in the car!" Tim reminded her.

"He said we should stay with the car. And I will. I just want to get a better view."

Ignoring his protests, she opened the car door and clamored out. Tim was right behind her.

The night air was thick with nitrate and sulphur laced with the sickeningly sweet smell of the knockout gas. The young agents leaned against the side of the Lincoln to watch the drama enfold before them. "You see," Maryanne said. "It won't hurt if we just stand here and ---."

Her voice trailed off. A figure was running toward them. It was a man, a strange man. Although he was wearing a clerical collar, he didn't look much like a minister. He was squat and muscular and he carried a gun.

Apparently, he was one of the Thrush people, hoping to use the Lincoln to make his getaway. Maryanne shot a quick glance through the side window and saw keys dangling from the ignition.

Damn, she thought. There was only enough time to shout Tim's name before the man in the clerical collar was upon them. Tim grabbed for the stranger's coat but he was inexperienced and clumsy. The man wrenched himself around and caught the young agent on the chin with an upper cut. Tim fell backwards, his head smacking hard against the roof of the car. He slid to the ground, barely conscious.

The man tried for the door handle and found Maryanne there. She looked into his eyes --- desperate, fearful, hate-filled eyes. She felt his sour breath on her cheek and the barrel of his gun jabbing against her collarbone and for a split-second, she was absolutely certain she was going to die. She squeezed her own eyes shut and held her breath.

And then, suddenly, the man in the clerical collar was torn away from her with such force that it made him grunt with surprise. Maryanne opened her eyes and saw Napoleon Solo, just inches from where she stood, with the Thrushman in his grip. It happened so fast: before she could blink twice, Solo's right hand whipped through the air, flat and rigid, slicing straight across the bridge of his opponent's nose. There was the horrible crackling sound of bone shattering, as if someone had bitten down too hard and broken an entire row of teeth.

The enforcement chief paused. Then he hit the Thrushman again. And again. Maryanne watched, too panic-stricken to move or speak. Although the raw brutality was undeniable, there was no malice in Solo's actions, no anger, no passion. He lashed out instinctively, with the same mechanical efficiency that Kuryakin had displayed earlier in the backseat of the Lincoln.

Droplets of clotted blood spurted from the broken nose, spraying across Solo's tux, and the Thrushman shrieked in pain. He dropped his gun and stumbled backwards, hands covering his ruptured face.

Maryanne remembered her earlier impressions of the two senior agents. Like lions in their lair. . .

Still, it was one thing to imagine ferocity, and quite another to witness such a graphic demonstration of it first hand. But Maryanne saw it all. As Solo recovered his balance, the Thrushman writhed in agony beside him. Nearby, a shadow, a new one, materialized out of the night and lunged head-long for the abandoned gun.

"Mr. Solo, look out!" Maryanne cried, finding her voice at last. Solo skipped a half-step to the right and the slug slammed into the pavement harmlessly, skimming past his trouser leg.

The second Thrushman who had retrieved the gun, prepared to shoot again, but he never did. A bullet caught him from behind instead. Part of his skull exploded, splattering Solo's tux with yet another shower of blood and bone.

The agent cursed and spun on his heel. April Dancer sauntered over to him, an U.N.C.L.E. Special still warm in her hand.

"I appreciate the gesture, April," Solo said, "but could you try to be a little neater next time?" He knelt beside Tim who was sitting up, propped against the side of the car, still dazed.

Dancer shrugged. "So send me the cleaning bill. I'll put it on my expense account." She gave the man in the clerical collar a cursory once-over. He was still moaning and nursing his broken nose. Then she joined Maryanne and asked, "Are you okay luv?"

The Section Six agent nodded and Dancer offered her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "That's the spirit," she laughed.

Maryanne studied the other Thrushman, the dead one, who was sprawled on the pavement. His neck was bent at an odd angle and his eyes were open, wide and staring, like a smashed jack-o'lantern. The woman turned away from the gruesome sight and asked, "Why didn't you just shoot the gun out of his hand?"

"This isn't the movies," Dancer commented cooly. "Aiming at the head is more certain and as I said before, I never gamble."

Just then, across the street, several running figures emerged from the swirling pink fog. Kuryakin appeared right behind them, coughing and retching and cursing in three languages. As the running men accelerated, heading down the street, the Russian agent shouted, "Stop! At once! All of you."

The warning went unheeded. Kuryakin repeated the words and counted to three for a response. Then he planted his feet firmly apart, took a two-handed grip on the U.N.C.L.E. Special and emptied the clip into the escaping Thrushmen. He caught two of them in the leg, one in the shoulder and one, who turned at the last second, squarely in the chest. Obviously, Kuryakin didn't like to gamble either.

Satisfied with his efforts, the Russian agent staggered over to the group of agents. His blue eyes were red and watery, and he continued to gag from the effects of the gas. "Why do I always have to be the one who goes through the back door?" he demanded hoarsely. His voice was a croak and he could barely speak.

"Seniority, my dear Russian," Solo replied as he straightened. "Besides, I look better in a tux."

Kuryakin glared at his partner. If looks could strike like lightning, Solo would have been burned to a crisp in the very next instant.

The enforcement chief remained unfazed. He shook out a clean, linen handkerchief and wiped the blood from his hands, taking care around the cuticles. Behind him, two grey vans with U.N.C.L.E. insignias stenciled on their side panels, pulled up to the burning chapel. Fire engine sirens wailed in the distance.

"Ah, the cavalry," Solo said as offered his handkerchief to Maryanne. There was a spot of blood on her cheek. The young woman rubbed it away and glanced over at Tim. Kuryakin was helping her friend to his feet.

"Mark's timing has never been very good," Dancer agreed. She waved to her partner, a spare, blond man, who stood near one of the vans. "Well boys, time for me to run. It's been real."

"Going so soon?" Solo asked. "What about our honeymoon?"

April smirked. "Sorry. The reception was a killer. Catch you next time. Ta, darling."

She blew him a kiss and sprinted back across the street to join Slate and the U.N.C.L.E. clean-up team. Solo turned to Maryanne.

"And thank you for the warning, although I did tell you to call me Napoleon."

Maryanne forced a wan smile. The delayed reaction was finally setting in. She felt sick to her stomach and her whole body was trembling uncontrollably. "I don't feel so good," she said.

"It's just the excess adrenalin," Solo reassured her. "You'll be fine in a half hour or so."

He hooked an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to steady her. Maryanne surrendered gratefully to his embrace. It was like being enclosed by a stone wall: cool and firm and very safe.

Solo pointed to Tim who was now leaning against the hood of the Lincoln, holding his head. "How is he?"

"He's going to have a considerable lump, but he'll be all right," Kuryakin replied. He wheezed and spit out a mouthful of phlegm. "I think we could both use an emergency room."

The blond agent gestured toward the U.N.C.L.E. vans. "We'll go back with them. You can have the car."

Still holding Maryanne, Solo agreed. He watched as Kuryakin slipped a supporting shoulder under Tim's armpit and gently hauled the younger agent away, in the direction of the vans. Then, Solo looked down at his own charge.

"How're we doing?" he asked.

Maryanne tested her legs. They weren't wobbling quite so much as before. "Okay, I guess."

"C'mon," Solo said, as he opened the Lincoln's door, "I'll take you back to your hotel."

In the end, he did better than that. He reclaimed her key from the main desk, guided her into the elevator and walked her to her room. By the time they reached it, she was feeling normal again. She unlocked the door and switched on the light. A hotel room never looked so good.

She turned to Solo, who hung back in the hallway and said, "Would you like to come in for awhile?"

The invitation was ripe with possibilities, and Maryanne knew it. It would be so easy to take him to bed, she told herself. She recalled how he'd kissed Dancer earlier, so urgent and hungry. She was still frightened of him, but that only made her want him more. Suddenly, she felt reckless.

"No," Solo answered, reading her mind. "You've had enough intrigue for one night."

He was right, of course. It was a foolish whim and Maryanne dismissed it. She leaned against the doorjamb. "I don't know how I'm going to write about this," she said.

"Maybe it's better that you don't." His voice was soft and thoughtful.

"But don't you want your coworkers to know what you're really like?"

Solo studied the paisley design in the carpet. "I know what I'm really like. That's all that matters. And I've learned to live with it, as all enforcement agents do, each in his or her own way."

Maryanne shook her head, unpersuaded. "But I don't think the others really understand about the things you people do, the risks you're forced to take. I mean, if they only saw what I saw tonight, they would feel ---."

"--- What? What would they really feel?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "More respect, maybe. Admiration. Sympathy . . ."

"I don't think so, Maryanne. And neither do you." He clasped his hands behind his back. "No, forget the interview. Stick to your company picnics and blood drives. Let the others have their own ideas about us."

"But they're false ideas. They're illusions."

"Are they?" He smiled thinly. "That's the beauty of espionage. We can be anything anyone wants us to be."

"Beauty?" Maryanne replied indignantly, thinking over the events of the evening. "How can you call it that? What you guys went through back there was terrible."

"As they say, it's all in the eye of the beholder."

Maryanne considered this before she said, "Okay, you win. But somehow, I don't think even Waverly knows what he's sending you guys into."

Solo smiled again, a strange, sad sort of smile. "Ever see the Old Man's face?" he said. "Oh, he knows. Believe me, Maryanne, he knows."

The woman reached for the doorknob as the agent prepared to leave. "G'night Mr. Solo," she said quietly.

" --- Napoleon ---."

Maryanne grinned. "--- G'night, Napoleon."

"Goodnight, Maryanne. Don't forget to lock your door. And use the chain."

She closed the door on him and did as she was told. And after she turned the bolt and slid the chain securely into place, she listened. On the other side of the double-locked door, Solo waited for a moment. Then apparently satisfied, he walked away, his footsteps fading down the hallway and back into the night.