Story: A is For Andy

Story: A is For Andy

By St. Crispins

San Rico, 1967
So they are going to do this and Solo still can't believe it. He hasn't even grown accustomed to the image of Illya with that scar and those glasses yet, but already things are moving way too fast.

Was that really Illya? he wonders, knowing the question is foolish, paranoid, ridiculous. The real Nexor is dead, both son and father before him, and the monster that bared its teeth at Solo is really his partner, U.N.C.L.E.'s ace in the hole, swathed in a costume of evil and cunning.

Of course it is Illya.

It had better be.

Because now there are hands all over Solo, strong fingers locked around his biceps, dragging him, pushing him, hustling him down corridors with the fury of a runaway freight train. He tries to turn his head to see how Terry is managing behind him and nearly suffers whiplash.

Schnell! Schnell! the guards are telling each other. Keine Zeit!: No time, no time.

Their little parade has reached a claustrophobic room lousy with snaking cables and blinking consoles and Solo wants to say out loud:

Stop. Wait. Let's reconsider this.

But there is no opportunity, nor will there be. As soon as he and Illya had locked eyes in that corridor, an invisible Rubicon was crossed. There will be no turning back.

So now the guards are stripping off his suit jacket and yanking the knot in his tie and slamming him against a tall, black slant board that reminds him of the bottom of a coffin without the sides. And now they are buckling his wrists and crisscrossing his chest with unforgiving leather straps that press his rib cage and nip the sides of his throat.

And now they are sticking three pads trailing wires to his forehead, one at each temple and one right between the eyes.

Oh, this is bad, he thinks. Very, very bad.

The gel on the pads is cool and moist, matching the beads of perspiration on his forehead. Somewhere in the room, a switch is thrown and a console hums, low and insidious, like angry bees stirring in their hive.

His voice rising over the din, the disguised Illya is lecturing - stalling for time - and the old man in the uniform - Marshall Gurnius, Solo reminds himself, remembering the debriefing - is stupidly nodding like a proud professor beaming over his star pupil. The bearded man, who calls himself Brown but is obviously Thrush, is not quite so pleased, but the other two don't seem to notice or care.

The trigeminal nerve is the fifth of twelve pairs of cranial nerves innervating the face ...

Solo lets the words race by, unexamined. He's more interested in watching Illya perform, mesmerized by the occasional flash as the false Nexor's wire rimmed spectacles catch and dance in the light.

...causes episodes of intense, stabbing, electric shock-like pain in the areas of the face where the branches of the nerves are distributed...

Illya is not happy; he avoids Solo's eyes, but nevertheless, he's playing the role to the hilt. And he'd better, for both their sakes. Kill him - meaning Solo - Mr. Brown had protested earlier, and the expression on the Thrushman's face says he hasn't changed his mind. One slip, one mistake, and the rest of the monsters will descend upon Illya and rip him to shreds just as surely as they are preparing to enjoy the torment of their prisoners now.

... trigeminal neuralgia is sometimes called the suicide disease...

From his makeshift Golgotha, Solo looks down at Terry sympathetically. Strapped to a gurney, she's visibly frightened, wide-eyed and silent, frozen with cold terror, and he would like to wink at her, or offer her an encouraging smile, except he's too damn worried about the situation himself.

... universally considered to be the most painful affliction known to medical practice...

As Illya circles closer, finally offering his victims a glance, the words that have been registering subliminally finally sink in. Solo realizes that in addition to being a stall tactic, there's been another reason for the pedantic lecture. It hasn't just been directed at the monsters, but at himself, as well.

As a warning. A warning of what is to come.

Illya fires off an insult and Solo answers in kind and they spit venom at one another for a moment or two. It's what's expected, after all. And then Illya asks a question -What does U.N.C.L.E. know? - and Solo ignores it, because that's expected, too.

This sends Illya retreating to the console, and a dial spins and the bees grow louder and angrier and suddenly, pain wallops Solo like a bolt of lightning, so hard and so fast, it rattles his skull and momentarily takes his breath away.

Oh Jesus.

Gasping, Solo remembers the threat in the corridor -You are going to regret the day you were born - and now he understands and believes.

Another question arrives like an unwelcome missive, but Solo is still recovering from the first onslaught and doesn't quite catch it. Not that it matters. In this sort of interrogation, the questions are only a formality and everyone knows it. Even Terry, whose only experience with torture up to now is dealing with a demanding editor and the agony of a fogged strip of film.

But they've set up the fiction of a blood feud, he and Illya - Do you know each other? Like a hunter knows its prey - because it is necessary. Because without it, there would be no good reason to keep Solo alive.

Gurnius, the sadist, understands of course. Just like your father. And if Illya were really Nexor, this would be about power and satisfaction, about seeing Solo brought low and broken in two.

Solo knows he can't allow that to happen, even as a pretense, because once he does, the game is won and therefore, over, and his life is beside the point once more.

Illya's hand at the dial twitches, and the pain comes roaring back with a vengeance. It feels like someone is driving an iron spike through the top of his head, clear down through his brain, into his teeth. Ten dentists with ten drills, working without Novocain could just about match it.

Solo's head snaps back against the board and he cries out, the sound coming from clear down in his gut - he can't help it - and tears spring from his eyes and snot from his nose, an automatic response.

Oh my God. Desperate, he thinks back to the reason for the earlier rush: less than an hour to target time. That, according to Brown.

Less than an hour. Solo tries to calculate how many minutes have already gone by. Ten? Fifteen? There must be at least forty minutes left, forty minutes of spikes and lightning bolts and as the current increases, perhaps something even worse.

I can't do this, Solo tells himself.

But he must. There is no alternative.

Another question and another spike and Solo groans, gritting his teeth against the pain, sparkling lights dancing before his eyes, and he thanks God that his stomach and bladder are empty.

Illya is still going great guns and Solo silently cheers him on even while he knows the better Illya plays it, the worse it will be for himself. He's completely at the mercy of his partner's judgment, as the false Nexor balances the monsters' expectations against what he estimates Solo can take, all the while searching for a way to safely abort the charade. As for Solo himself, he's as helpless and vulnerable as a babe in arms, and there's little else he can do but play his own part, which is simply to endure and survive.

I trust him with my life. They've said it, both of them, to outsiders and to each other many times. And yes, there have been moments of hanging off high cliffs and speeding trains, of last minute rescues in defiance of odds and orders.

But nothing like this.

If it were anyone else at that dial, even another agent, even Waverly himself, Solo would be panicking. As it is, he is still on the verge, and so he must find a way to go with it, bracing against the recurring pain, so ruthless and relentless, and then relaxing to take a breath and regroup before the cycle begins again.

A distraction would help. Say prayers. Count sheep. Envision a gorgeous summer's day on the Sound. Think of girls. Sex. Anything. He needs something to concentrate on, something for focus. But at the moment, Solo can barely think straight, never mind harness his imagination, and he's afraid the stress will squeeze something out- a word, a name, a piece of information - that will undermine all of Illya's efforts.

Numbers. No, letters. The alphabet. Running through a book. His book, the little black one that's tucked away in the bottom drawer of his bedroom bureau.

A: Solo conjures the letter through a haze of misery, clutching it mentally as if his mind were a fist.

A is for Andy. Andy with her doll-like face and long model legs. In her tiny Village apartment, where the heat never works right, and the air conditioner is always broken, and they shiver or sweat whenever they climb into her narrow bed.

A is for Angelique, all fire and ice. Always unpredictable, making love to her is like wrestling a cyclone and trying to force it to follow a prescribed path.

A is for Anna. With big, soft doe eyes and a softer heart, she coos when he caresses her and squeaks with his most intimate touch.

A is for April, cool and calm, who knows what he knows and yet still finds him interesting.

A is for Audrey, Ava, Ayesha...

The session continues and so do the names. Mentally, Solo matches faces, recites addresses, remembers annotations, grasps at details.

He moves on to the Bs: Barbara, Betty, Betsy, Bonnie, Bunny... on and on.

And then the Cs: Cecille, Cecilly, Clemency, Connie, Cricket...

Some time around the Js - Jackie, Jill, Jojo - he remembers sitting in the back of Janet Jarrod's acting class and watching one of those silly exercises. A student would close his eyes and fall backwards into the waiting arms of another. Every one of them did it, over and over again, and Solo watched it all with superior bemusement, declining to join in. What was the point? It's easy to trust when the only thing at stake is a bump on the head.

It occurs to him now that perhaps it wasn't so easy, and that the reason he didn't do it was because he couldn't. Couldn't sacrifice so much as a smidgen of that hard-won professional control.

But here, he finds himself in another acting exercise, one with a far more deadly purpose and potentially fatal outcome. And he is falling backward and allowing it to happen because he believes with all his heart that Illya will not give him up, will not let him go, will deny the mission until the very last possible second, a moment past the time Solo would have given up hope himself.

So he closes his eyes now and lets go, surrenders, retreating into the march of alphabetized names. Addresses, phone numbers, faces and bodies, virtues and foibles.

...Laura, Lavinia, Leslie, Lisa, Lynn; Mandy, Margaret, Mara, Maude. And Mimi, and Nancy, Narcissus and Nellie...

Eventually through Salty and Sandy, Sarah, Serena and Suzy. If Illya is his anchor, the women are his lifeline, pulling him along, from here to there.

...Verity, Victoria, Veronica ...

Sometime around Wanda, he's abruptly aware of Illya's proximity. The false Nexor is leaning close, the light glinting off thick lenses. Can't stand much more, Solo hears himself mutter, and it is the truth. He's almost to Zia.

You're not as young as you used to be, Mr. Solo, Illya shoots back, which is also the truth and thank God for it. When he was younger, his black book was much thinner.

But the quip is also a signal that they've entered the end game. The countdown is nearly over, the monsters' moment of triumph is at hand. Mr. Brown attempts to throw his weight around and ends up dead on the floor. Marshall Gurnius leaves the room, heading for what he thinks is greater glory, and they are finally alone long enough for Illya to feed Solo a capsule that will catapult him into a welcoming and painless void.

The blackness fades with a pinprick and soon, Solo is swimming up to the surface of consciousness, literally wet though he doesn't know why. And Terry is free and releasing his restraints as she natters on, and Solo can barely register what she's telling him until she thrusts a hastily drawn map in his face, handing him the key to accomplishing their mission.

Hours later, after the fights and explosions, the battle won even as the war continues, Solo finds himself on a plane, sitting next to his partner, with a view of the southern sky at his elbow and a glass of Jack Daniels in his grasp. Despite all that's happened, nothing has changed, not really, and life will go on as before.

Solo pops two aspirins and Illya's eyes shift sideways.

Are you all right? the Russian asks. Solo nods because he is. The torture was excruciating, but neither fatal nor maiming, and Solo has been lucky again, as perverse as that sounds.

I'm sorry, Illya says after a moment. It is regret but not guilt, for there is no reason to feel guilty.

I know, Solo replies.

I tried, Illya says because he needs to say so aloud.

And you succeeded, Solo reminds him. You saved my life. You, Solo thinks, and my little black book.

Maybe you shouldn't trust me any more, Illya jokes, a nervous laugh betraying something deeper.

On the contrary, Solo says and there is no accompanying laughter.

With everything said that needed to be, they observe a moment of silence as they bury the mission, granting it the respect so close a call deserves.

I don't want to do that ever again, Illya sighs, reaching for his vodka and tonic.

Neither do I, Solo agrees.

But they both know they will if they have to. It's just more prudent not to say so aloud, because Fate is always there, waiting to be tempted.