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The City of Lies Affair
There are some jobs in which it is impossible for a man to be virtuous. — Aristotle.
Somewhere in Berlin. l967.
It was cold and it was snowing lightly, and the little window on the face of his calendar watch read December 25. For Napoleon Solo, however, any resemblance of this dull, gray morning to Christmas Day was purely coincidental.
After spending half the night in fog-bound Heathrow Airport, and the other half aboard a crowded commercial flight, the only remnant of holiday spirit the agent had left was his bright red tie, a gift from April Dancer. The white-knuckle landing at Templehof hadn't improved his mood — the airport's ridiculously short airfield was a nightmare even in good weather — and he was tired and aching and nursing a miserable head cold.
"I thought only cough syrup was supposed to be shaken well," Illya Kuryakin said from the driver's seat of the rented BMW. Solo looked down at the small bottle he'd been rolling absently in his right fist, the pills rattling around like agate stones in a rock tumbler. "Sorry," he mumbled back and pressed the hand against his knee.
He wasn't surprised at Kuryakin's testiness. They were in Berlin, after all, and things were never quite right between them in Berlin. This was Die Stadt von Lügen, the City of Lies. Everyone who ever plied the espionage trade, eventually passed through, and the spies were as thick as roaches in a cold-water flat, scuttling through the urban woodwork.
Here, deception was more than a craft, more than even a higher art form. It was a Zeitgeist, a way of life. Here, espionage wasn't just a sideline but a prime industry. The vast patches of boarded-up buildings and crumbling bombed-out ruins that scarred the landscape outside the BMW's windows were more than sad relics of a past war. They mirrored an inner, existential rot.
On a list of Solo's favorite cities, this one placed absolutely dead last. During his previous visit some four months ago for the Summit-Five Affair, the chief enforcement agent had even been accused of working as a double for Thrush. No, nothing was ever simple in Berlin, and Solo usually avoided it like the plague.
But orders were orders. The CIA and the KGB were in the midst of a ferocious tug-of-war with a defecting Czech scientist between them and the man, tired of being a human pull-rope, had literally run to U.N.C.L.E. for help. Alexander Waverly's instructions were maddeningly simple: work out an agreement to everyone's satisfaction but do nothing to upset the international balance of power.
"I'll leave the details to your discretion, gentlemen," the Old Man had commented from behind his unlit pipe.
In other words, Solo now told himself: do what you have to but don't screw up and start World War III. He chuckled ruefully. Although Waverly frowned on Solo and Kuryakin's friendship, he never missed an opportunity to exploit it to U.N.C.L.E.'s advantage.
If he had a choice, Solo preferred fighting Thrush. At least with the battle lines clearly drawn, there were no amenities to observe, no politics to play, no toes to step on. You could shoot first and ask questions later.
Coming in as a benevolent uncle to mediate a quarrel between cousins, on the other hand, was going to be terribly difficult and infinitely more dangerous. In the middle of a family feud, one could easily get caught in the crossfire . . .
"Are you going to take one of those or not?" Kuryakin asked aloud, breaking his partner's train of thought. Suddenly aware of the nervous rattle of the pills again, Solo stilled the motion of his hand and contemplated the bottle.
"They won't make you drowsy. The doctor promised," the Russian added, a bit more gently, reading his friend's mind.
"I don't trust doctors."
"Take one anyway."
Solo dry-swallowed a decongestant tablet, and shoved the rest of the prescription into the pocket of his black topcoat. He looked out the window as the BMW rounded a corner and turned east, toward the low-rent Neukölln district. Ahead and to the left, beyond the snow-frosted buildings, beyond the gutted tenements, the blackened shell of the former Anhalter railway station, and the desolate lots filled with rubble and squatters' shacks, was Die Mauer: the Wall.
From where they drove, Solo couldn't actually see the Wall but there was no denying its hulking presence. Some twelve feet high, it was an ugly patchwork of cinderblock, mortar and barbed wire that snaked through the center of the city, constricting the Western sector in a murderously impassive embrace.
In this place, where East nudged against West like two surly drunks in a German Bierhalle, the Wall forced everyone to mind his manners and remain civil. To Kuryakin and his fellow Communists, the Wall was a necessity, a way to preserve the economic and political integrity of the East. But to Napoleon Solo, it was an atrocity that mocked him personally, and he hated it with an intensity he reserved for very few things. The Wall made all that he valued, all that he believed in — his job, his friendship with Illya, his own hopes for world peace, the dedication of his life — worse than self-indulgent fantasies. It made them all lies.
Stadt von Lügen indeed, Solo thought bitterly as his partner glanced into the rearview mirror.
"I think we've picked up a tail."
"Already? That was quick. CIA?"
The Russian studied the image of the gray Audi trailing discreetly behind them, almost two car-lengths back. "Difficult to say. Should I try to lose them?"
"No. Let them play their game."
Solo hunched his shoulders down, burrowing deeper into the warm folds of his topcoat. "Cold?" inquired Kuryakin. Napoleon shook his head but Illya knew better and turned up the heat.
"I hate this city," Solo murmured under his breath. And after a moment, Kuryakin's soft voice came back over the staccato slap of the windshield wipers: "So do I."
Their destination was a cheap, rundown residence hotel in Neukölln, about eight blocks from the Wall. It rented rooms by the hour and by the month, the sort of place that young men came to meet their mistresses and old men came to die.
Kuryakin found a parking space half a block away, on the opposite side of the street. As they emerged from the BMW, the Audi that had attached itself to them soon after the airport, slowed a bit. Solo turned and casually saluted the driver, who then gunned the engine and sailed on by.
"Recognize him?" Kuryakin asked, locking the car door. His partner shook his head.
"No, but he looked British. Probably MI6."
As they walked the short distance to the hotel, Solo gestured toward a van parked near the corner. Although it bore the logo of a television repair service on its side panel, even an agent-in-training would recognize it as a CIA surveillance unit.
"Company's here, too," Solo said matter-of-factly. "Now, where's the competition?"
Kuryakin cocked his head toward a group of men, conspicuously huddled in an alleyway, barely sheltered from the falling snow. There were four, all of them big and broad-shouldered and dressed in ill-fitting, indifferently tailored wool suits.
"KGB?" Solo wondered aloud as they reached the hotel's front stoop. Kuryakin shook his head.
"Too clumsy. The Bulgarians I expect."
"Doesn't the Dajnavna Sigurnost give its operatives a clothing allowance?"
"Just ignore them, Napoleon. They are just so many shavki," Kuryakin replied, using the KGB's derisive term for low-level agents. Actually, he was pleased to see them. Their presence meant that his own countrymen were having the good grace to keep a respectful distance.
If the hotel looked seedy from the outside, the inside was downright depressing. Graffiti, some of it obscene, and stains of indeterminate origin obscured the faded flowers on the ancient blue wallpaper and the halls had a vague, sour smell that set Solo's teeth on edge. A young U.N.C.L.E. agent from the Berlin office was on guard at the foot of the staircase. Another met them on the first landing and escorted them to a cramped railroad flat at the end of the hall.
"Guten Morgen, mein Herren," a short, balding man with a florid complexion greeted them at the entrance to the parlor, his right hand extended. "Fröliche Weihnachten."
"If you say so," Kuryakin replied sullenly, avoiding the hand. Solo moved past his partner and took it instead. The short man disregarded the interplay and grinned, switching to English.
"Ah, Herr Solo. I've heard so much about you and Herr Kuryakin, here. I am Günter Bohne, Chief of Station, Berlin."
"A pleasure," Solo answered without meaning it. Although they'd never met before, the enforcement agent had heard about Bohne, too. According to the European grapevine, the station chief was a Radfahrer, the kind of man who ingratiates himself to his superiors and browbeats his subordinates. The German staff considered him only a slight improvement over his unlikable predecessor, Gerald Strothers.
Bohne began to inquire about the agents' trip and their hotel accommodations, but Kuryakin had neither the time nor inclination for small talk. He cut the station chief off abruptly.
"Where is Vransky?"
"In there, in the bedroom," Bohne said, pointing. He led them through the flat, past two more local operatives, hurrying to stay one step ahead. "Herr Vransky was already here when he contacted us. We did not know who he was at first. When New York informed us of his importance, I took charge of the operation immediately, of course."
"Of course," Solo agreed as they reached the bedroom door. He didn't know how much bureaucratic bungling Bohne was attempting to cover up with the cheery patter, but he could guess.
No wonder Waverly was so determined to get us here as soon as possible, Solo thought, but he kept his suspicions to himself. When this was all over, he intended to ask some hard questions and the answers would be in his report.
"The doctor is in here," Bohne announced and opened the door. "His English is poor and his German is worse. Since none of my men can speak Czech, we really haven't been able to converse with him at any length."
The room was small with one window and a single narrow bed. There was yet another young German agent positioned beside the window. Dr. Josef Vransky, late of the Prague Institute of Advanced Studies, sat alone on the far edge of the bed.
"Dobry den, profesor," Kuryakin said pleasantly, and Vransky turned to confront his visitors. He was a slight, pale man with wisps of thin, ginger-colored hair, thick glasses and a hollow-cheeked, angular profile. Although he was some years past his thirtieth birthday, his face was still boyish and he might have been attractive — even handsome — if not for his sickly pallor.
To Solo, who had met his share of scientists and intellectual heavyweights, Vransky had all the signs of being that rarity, a true genius. In the bright, penetrating eyes, in the lanky, slightly-stooped frame, in the long, delicate fingers that knotted and unknotted anxiously together, one could still see the shy, awkward boy treasured by his teachers and teased unmercifully by his fellow students.
"Jak se va'm dari?" Kuryakin continued — how are you getting on? — but Vransky's eyes widened behind the thick lens as he whispered, "Jsi Rus." It was a statement, not a question.
"Ano," the Russian nodded, acknowledging his nationality.
"Ne, profesor. Jsem U.N.C.L.E. Agent Illya Nikolaievich Kuryakin." He motioned toward his partner, standing beside him. "To je Agent Napoleon Solo."
Solo tipped his chin to the scientist and smiled. The senior agent knew some Russian and a smattering of other Slavic languages, but even if he couldn't understand every word that Illya was saying, Solo could certainly read Vransky's body language.
"Go easy on him," the senior agent cautioned his friend, keeping his voice low, "The guy is scared out of his wits."
Vransky heard him anyway and the Czech's pallid face broke into a wide grin. "American?"
Napoleon laughed. "It's pretty obvious, isn't it?"
"Yeh, yeh. Good. Come here," the scientist said, waving them into the room. Kuryakin sat on the bed beside Vransky while Solo pulled up the lone wooden chair.
"You can go now," Solo told the agent lounging by the window. The young German began to object but then thought better of it, and reluctantly left the room. Vransky looked relieved.
"Hear English; understand," the scientist explained to his new-found friends, "but speak no good." He turned to Illya and asked, "Mluvite dobre cesky?": do you speak Czech well?
Kuryakin waved carelessly to indicate that his facility with the language was passable. Satisfied, Vransky settled down and with expressive, fluttering hands, began to tell his story, answering questions as they arose.
Solo did his best to follow the conversation with Illya translating snatches of narrative whenever he could, but it was difficult with Vransky speaking so excitedly and so fast. Finally, Solo gave up and wandered over to the window to peek outside. He listened with half an ear while he watched the Bulgarians shiver in the snow.
The gist of the story was this: Vransky, whose specialty was nuclear deterrence and defense technology, had been working for several years on a top-secret military project of his own design.
"But the implications of his work frightened him," Kuryakin explained. "He wanted to quit, to give it up, to retire to his dacha and grow orchids."
Solo shook his head. "I'll bet that went over big at the Kremlin."
Forced to continue with his work against his will, Vransky decided to defect and a CIA undercover agent agreed to help. "The decision was actually made months ago," Kuryakin pointed out, "but not until the International Conference on Strategic Defense, held last week in East Berlin, did an opportunity present itself."
"Well it looks like he made it," Solo said from the window. "What's the problem?"
The problem, Kuryakin went on, was that Vransky appended a condition to his arrangement with the CIA: he made them agree to smuggle out his lover as well.
"And they failed?" Solo guessed.
"Apparently the KGB got wind of the operation and arrived first. They pulled a switch."
"Not very sporting of them."
"The CIA demonstrated a similar lack of manners. When they realized that they had brought out the wrong person, they refused to rectify the error. The Professor here, was riding along in a Company limousine when the subject came up and the truth came out. He says he was so outraged that he went 'a little crazy' and jumped out of the car as it stopped for a light. He ran here and managed to contact U.N.C.L.E. before the others showed up."
Solo studied the scientist while the latter beamed back at him, as innocent as an altar boy. The agent chuckled. "Our friend has a quite a temper. Too bad he doesn't have better taste in hide-outs."
Dipping into his shirt pocket, Solo produced a fresh pack of cigarettes. He offered it to Vransky and the scientist took one gratefully. The Czech looked tired. The friendly interrogation had worn him out a bit.
Solo returned to the chair. "During the conversation," he said to Illya, "I kept hearing the word zapisnik. That means 'notebook' doesn't it? What was he talking about?"
"Yeh, notebook," Vransky cut in, gesturing with the cigarette. "Most important. Tell, tell," he urged Kuryakin.
The Russian sighed. "It seems, Napoleon that when the professor made his rather dramatic exit, he forgot to take his notebooks and left them behind. They contain all of his theories, all of his work and he's very worried about what the CIA might do with them."
"I see," Solo said as he rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. "Well, I suppose we should retrieve the notebooks first, and then concentrate on helping the girlfriend to defect."
"It's not a girlfriend," Kuryakin corrected him.
" — I don't understand. You said his lover — ."
"It's Vransky's male lab assistant. The professor is gommoseksualnyi," Kuryakin said, groping for the proper word as he mentally shuffled between languages. "He's a homosexual."
Solo let out a breath: So that explained the CIA's half-hearted cooperation. "Does Waverly know about this?"
Kuryakin shrugged. "Most likely. Does it matter?"
"Not to me," Solo said and stalked back to the parlor where Bohne and his men were waiting. The station chief did not look pleased.
"Herr Solo, I must protest this cavalier disregard for my authority — ," he began but Napoleon was not interested in his protests.
"Who's the CIA station chief here?"
"A man named McCall. Why?"
"Time to pay Mr. McCall a visit, don't you think?" Solo said to Kuryakin, who appeared behind him and nodded.
"May I ask what we are to do in the meantime?" Bohne inquired. His earlier toadying had deteriorated to a half-hearted belligerence. This time, it was Kuryakin who answered.
"We would appreciate it greatly, if you could keep the professor safe and sound, a little while longer."
"Of course. We'll take him to headquarters and —."
"No! You mustn't move him, whatever you do."
"But he'll be safer. . ."
"Maybe," Solo broke in, "but you'll be intercepted long before you reach the Ku'damm. It's a jungle out there right now, and the scent of blood is in the air. If the lions don't get him, the jackals will."
"We'll be in touch," Kuryakin promised as he disappeared into the hallway. Solo was right behind him.
"Oh, and Herr Bohne?" the senior agent said, almost as an afterthought. "About my disregard for your authority? On the contrary: if anything happens to Vransky while we're gone, I'm holding you entirely responsible. Auf Wiedersehen."
As they hurried down the rickety staircase, Kuryakin eyed his partner slyly. "Sometimes you really can be an arrogant bastard, you know that?"
Solo laughed. "That's why I'm a spy and not a diplomat."
Regardless of Napoleon's Solo's true vocation, it took all the diplomatic skills he could muster to secure them an unscheduled appointment with McCall. After leaving Vransky's flat, the agents went straight to the Bristol Hotel Kempinski, where there was a reservation waiting for them.
The elegant old Bristol, the Grande Dame of Berlin, was located on the Kurfürstendamm (or "Ku'damm" as Berliners preferred to call their main street), not far from U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters. While Kuryakin checked them in and saw to their room and luggage, Solo made repeated phone calls to the U.S. consulate. Finally, after two hours of alternately intimidating and cajoling a series of temporary secretaries and assorted junior foreign service officers — apparently they were the only ones on duty that morning — he was told to appear promptly at noon.
"I feel like we've been granted an audience with royalty," Solo observed as they pulled into the sprawling American complex, located on the Clayallee, on the Western end of the city. Kuryakin reserved comment. He suspected their reception would not be a warm one.
He was right, too. Chief of Station Robert McCall was waiting for them in his office and from the look of his busy, cluttered desk, the agents knew immediately that he had been there all morning.
The old run-around, Solo concluded, as he shook McCall's hand. "You're a difficult man to see, Mr. McCall."
"My apologies, Mr. Solo, but it is a holiday, you know."
"We hadn't noticed." Surprisingly, the station chief spoke with an English accent.
The CIA must be paying higher salaries than MI6, Solo reflected fleetingly as he introduced his partner. When McCall favored Kuryakin with little more than a curt nod, the Russian took the hint and decided to let Napoleon handle this phase of the negotiations. He, himself, felt distinctly ill at ease here, and he was certain that the CIA chief wanted him to remain that way.
"May I?" Solo asked, indicating a chair on the opposite side of the desk and McCall replied, "If you must."
Uh-oh, Illya thought. No one offered the blond agent a seat but he took one anyway, next to Solo, anticipating the inevitable clash of wills. Certainly, the two supposedly friendly adversaries who took each other's measure from across the desk, were evenly matched in intelligence, authority, and stubborn determination.
Knowing his friend's methods only too well, Kuryakin guessed that Solo would make the first move, approaching obliquely, to test the defenses of the opposition. He was not disappointed.
"We're really very sorry to disrupt your Christmas celebration like this—" Solo started to say, but McCall cut in, impatiently.
"Oh, come off it, Mr. Solo. We both know why you're here so let's get to the point, shall we? You have Professor Vransky but the KGB has his little boyfriend and I have the notebooks."
Interesting, Kuryakin thought: feint, parry, thrust. Would there be a counter-thrust? The Russian studied his partner, trying to second-guess what he would do.
A bit taken aback by the directness of the response, Solo coughed and cleared his throat. The effects of the decongestant tablet were weakening. He paused and shook out a handkerchief, using the opportunity to re-evaluate his strategy.
McCall watched him, mentally circling, awaiting the next move. The CIA chief was not a tall man but his ramrod-straight posture, his bulldog tenacity and his steely cold, unwavering stare made him seem more physically formidable than he actually was.
I would not want to face this man on the wrong end of his gun barrel, Solo told himself.
"Well, that sums it up rather succulently," the U.N.C.L.E. agent admitted. "What do you suggest?"
"I have no suggestions. Correct me if I've been misinformed, but I was led to believe that this was precisely the reason you fellows were brought in. I would never presume to do one's job for him."
Solo coughed again, this time, in frustration. This verbal sparring was getting them nowhere. It was time to change tack.
"Do you mind if we at least examine the notebooks?"
"Oh yes, I do. I do mind." McCall glanced pointedly at Kuryakin. "I mind very much."
Solo made a sound deep in his throat. His patience was wearing thin and his sinuses were closing up. "Then I have no choice but to contact my superior. . ."
"Ah, the ubiquitous U.N.C.L.E. communicator," McCall said as Solo reached into the breast pocket of his suit. "And Waverly will call Langley and Langley will call God-knows-who in Washington."
The CIA chief laughed dryly. "How very convenient: it seems the pen is mightier than the sword. Very well, Mr. Solo. I will save everyone the trouble. You may have it your own way — this time — but the notebooks must not leave this office. Is that understood?"
McCall pressed a button on a nearby desk intercom and issued a terse order to someone named Donaldson. Less than a minute later, a young man in a pinstriped business suit appeared with two notebooks under his arm.
"Ted, this is Mr. Solo from the U.N.C.L.E. He wishes to peruse the notebooks. Allow him to do so."
Donaldson handed them over to the U.N.C.L.E. agent and left. The two notebooks were of average size, bound with tattered brown covers of imitation leather and undetachable pages.
Solo offered them only a cursory inspection before passing them to his partner, much to McCall's obvious annoyance. Kuryakin put on his reading glasses and began to skim over the lines of equations and tightly spaced Czech script, while Solo continued the conversation.
"Look Mr. McCall, as you pointed out earlier, it's our job to work out some sort of compromise between you people and the other side. I would also like to keep Professor Vransky's interests in mind."
"I am not inclined toward charity, I assure you."
"Nevertheless, since it was Vransky who came to U.N.C.L.E. for help in the first place, he is my prime concern at the moment."
"Perhaps we might trade these notebooks for the lover," Kuryakin ventured softly, from behind his glasses. McCall narrowed his eyes in an expression of undisguised contempt.
"You would like that, tovarish, wouldn't you? Oh yes. Yes, I see your scheme now."
He reached down and snatched the notebooks from Kuryakin's lap, snapping the top one closed with a loud slap. Then he turned and addressed himself to Solo:
"Let me remind you that we did not recruit Professor Vransky. He approached us, and we did what we could. Perhaps the professor does not believe our efforts were sufficient, and therefore, in retaliation, he intends to withhold his expertise. So be it: he is free now and he may do as he pleases. That's one of the advantages of living here in the West, isn't it?
"As for these notebooks however, if you think for one moment that I would jeopardize the future security of America and her allies, just to satisfy the habits of a goddamned Red fairy, you are sadly mistaken."
"You mean, as opposed to a blue fairy?" Solo inquired flippantly.
"Oh, cute, Mr. Solo, very cute. I shall try to remember that one. Now sir, I believe this interview is over. Good day to you."
But McCall was not quite finished and as the U.N.C.L.E. agents walked to the door, the CIA chief called out, "Oh, and Mr. Solo . . ."
"If you have reason to return — though I fervently hope you do not — be sure to come alone. Conditions may be lax in New York but here in Berlin, with the Wall so near, the Cold War is not quite so cold. Your 'colleague' there still holds rank in Soviet Naval Intelligence. Don't deny it: I checked. If he puts one foot on these grounds again, he will be shot on sight. I'd advise you both to take this warning seriously."
"Oh, don't worry, Mr. McCall," Solo said, "we will."
The door slammed shut behind them.
"Now what?" Kuryakin asked aloud as he drove them back toward the Kurfürstendamm, but Solo did not reply. Instead, he thumbed the communicator and called up the local channel. When Berlin answered, he placed a request for a mobile transport unit to meet him at Vransky's hotel in thirty minutes. As he capped the pen, he said to Illya, "Pull over. I'm out of cigarettes."
Kuryakin looked to where Solo was pointing and frowned. All the shops were closed. Then he remembered that earlier, his partner had offered a fresh pack to Vransky. Now he understood: Solo was worried that McCall had bugged their car.
Kuryakin eased the BMW to the curb, set the brake and left it with the motor running. Solo slipped out behind him and the two agents ducked into a doorway. The snow had tapered off to a flurry but the wind was blowing harder. The Russian turned up the lapels of his coat and jammed his hands deep into his pockets.
"So what do you really plan to do?"
Solo wiped a few stray snowflakes from his face and grinned. "You mean after I send the mobile unit on its merry way?"
Kuryakin nodded. He knew that Solo would use it as a decoy. They couldn't depend on Bohne. The man was a fool.
"I'm going to take him to Greta Schiller's," Solo declared, after a moment. The name caught Kuryakin by surprise. He could make at least a dozen arguments against involving her. Instead, he merely scratched the snow-covered sidewalk with the toe of his shoe and said, "Do you think that's wise?"
Solo shrugged. "I don't see that we have much choice. McCall and the others aren't going to wait around forever. We have to move Vransky beyond their reach — and soon — or we'll lose the only bargaining chip we have."
"But why Greta? It's been almost four years."
"She was never a regular operative for anyone and she's been out of circulation for awhile. They won't even think of her, never mind connect her with me."
Illya shook his head. He still had misgivings but he couldn't propose a better alternative. "All right. Take the car back to Vransky but don't use it to move him. No one followed us from the consulate, which means that along with the bug, McCall probably planted a tracer as well."
"Okay. And where are you going?" Solo asked, although he knew the answer.
Kuryakin stared off into the distance. "East. I have a man to see. His name is Suslikov."
"You know the KGB Rezident here?"
"Quite well. He was my professor at university." The Russian handed the car keys to Solo and added, "He taught poetry."
When Solo returned to Neukölln, he found an U.N.C.L.E. van waiting for him, in front of the hotel. The Bulgarians were still nearby, waiting for him too, but the CIA surveillance unit had shifted to the other side of the street.
The agent swung the BMW to the left, turned down an adjacent block and parked the car in an alleyway behind Vransky's hotel. Although the Bulgarians had probably missed his maneuver, Solo was fairly certain that the CIA had not.
Inside the building, the U.N.C.L.E. contingent was down to four operatives. Two of them were newcomers. Bohne was nowhere in sight.
Solo found the professor exactly where he had left him earlier: huddled on the edge of the bed. Vransky sat motionless, like a frightened rabbit transfixed in the glare of the headlights of an oncoming car. When he saw the American agent, his face broke into an anxious smile.
"We go now?"
"Soon," Solo said. He offered the Czech his pack of cigarettes again and added, "You might as well keep them. I can hardly breathe as it is."
He tapped the side of his nose and the scientist nodded, understanding. With trembling fingers, Vransky held one of the cigarettes to Solo's lighter.
"Nervous?" the agent asked. Vransky nodded. With a helpless smile, he licked his lips and said, "Is dry mouth."
"That's okay. You're doing just fine."
Solo gave Vransky's shoulder a light pat and called out to one of the agents in the parlor, "Get this man a glass of water."
"There are no glasses, Mein Herr."
Then Solo turned to a second agent and offered a quick appraisal. "You look about the right height and weight and your hair's the right color."
"Wie bitte Mein Herr? I beg your pardon?"
"Just come in here."
As the young German entered the bedroom, Solo spoke to Vransky slowly, enunciating each word. "Listen to me Professor: somewhere along the line, a homing device may have been planted on you. I don't have time for a decent body search, so I want you to exchange all your clothing — your suit, your shoes, even your underwear — with this man here."
Behind them, the young agent blinked and began to protest. "But Herr Solo! This suit I am wearing is new."
"You'll be reimbursed. Do it."
Reluctantly, the agent undressed and the switch was made just as another agent appeared with a chipped china teacup filled with water. Vransky accepted it gratefully.
Moving to the parlor, Solo assembled his subordinates and outlined his plan. Afterward, he waited for questions. There weren't any.
"All right, gentlemen, we're going to play a variation of the old nutshell game, with the professor as the pea. We'll have to move quickly, before our friends outside realize what's going on."
Two of the operatives, including the one dressed in Vransky's clothes, left first. They climbed into the U.N.C.L.E. van and sped away. Seconds later, a black sedan appeared from nowhere. The Bulgarians piled in and the sedan headed off, in hot pursuit.
Solo watched the action from the bedroom window and smiled to himself. It was just as he surmised: somehow, sometime, the Soviets had placed a tracer on Vransky.
That should keep one side busy for a while, Solo thought. He pressed his cheek against the glass and strained for a view of the corner. The CIA surveillance unit was still there. Now for phase two.
Solo sat down on the bed next to Vransky. "Ready Professor?"
Vransky exhaled a shuddered breath and nodded. He looked even paler than usual. For want of something better to do, Solo grasped one of the Czech's quaking hands and gave it a firm, reassuring squeeze.
"You must go where and when I tell you to go, and do exactly as I say, Josef. Trust me, I'll protect you. I promise. Do you understand?"
Vransky nodded again and after a moment, he said in halting, fragmented English, "Pan Solo, you are not, um, you do not. . . with men, I mean?"
The agent shook his head and smiled. "No. I'm sorry."
"I am sorry also."
Solo laughed softly and signaled to the second pair of agents. He listened as the two men hastened down the creaking staircase and exited the hotel by the rear door.
Two minutes later, the rented BMW appeared on the street below. As Solo watched once again from the window, the car accelerated. It breezed on past the CIA van, heading in the opposite direction.
As the BMW disappeared around the corner, the van's motor suddenly roared to life. The CIA unit made an illegal U-turn and took off down the block, in an effort to catch up with the retreating car.
"That's it. Let's go," Solo said. He pulled Vransky along, hustling the scientist through the hall and down the stairs, to the first floor.
When they reached the back door of the hotel, Solo paused and peered into the alleyway. Everything seemed quiet but other watchdogs from other agencies might be out there, waiting for them. There was no way to be sure.
"Is coast clear?" Vransky murmured from the safety of the doorway, and his words made Solo smile. Well, it's now or never. . . the agent told himself. "Yeah. The coast is clear. C'mon."
An entrance to the U-Bahn, Berlin's subway system, was located only three blocks away. They might have taken a cab or an S-Bahn bus instead, but Solo felt the trains were safer than the streets. In the circumscribed area of a waiting platform, it would be easier to spot a tail — or lose one in a crowd, if necessary.
The escape route was clear in his mind: five stops to the Mehringdamm station and then back a few blocks, northwest, deep into the Kreuzberg district. When Solo saw the familiar blue sign with the "U", he felt a faint wash of relief. They were almost home free.
Luck was with them and they didn't wait long for a train. Considering the time and the holiday, the one that pulled up almost immediately was fairly crowded.
With Vransky sitting silently beside him, Solo scanned the passengers. Many were carrying brightly wrapped packages. Some held babies in their arms or balanced young children on their knees. All of them appeared to be harmless.
All, that is, except one man at the far end of the car. He was dressed in a nondescript gray coat and he acted no differently from his fellow passengers, but Solo's practiced eye noted the cool alertness and the air of calculated disinterest. The man was an intelligence agent. There was no doubt about it.
Solo thought fast and as the train pulled into the Hermannplatzstation, he saw his chance. The U.N.C.L.E. agent knew that at Hermannplatz, passengers could transfer from one line to another. He hoped their pursuer knew it too. As the doors opened, Solo sprang to his feet.
"Come Josef, we're getting off," he said, keeping his voice low. Surprised, Vransky found himself nearly dragged off the train, but outside on the platform, Solo suddenly stopped, and Vransky almost ran into him. From the corner of his eye, the U.N.C.L.E. agent saw the man in the gray coat materialize on the edge of the crowd, a few yards away. The man loitered casually, waiting to see what direction his quarry would take.
Solo stood, poised and ready, adrenalin pumping through his system, his heart pounding in his chest. He had to time this perfectly, to the last possible moment. He listened for the preliminary telltale click of the train doors. Then, a split-second before they closed again, Solo grabbed Vransky and shoved him backwards, into the subway car. Solo followed, the hem of his coat barely whipping free of the doors.
"Jesu!" the scientist exclaimed breathlessly as the train pulled away but Solo didn't hear him. The agent was too busy watching the man in the gray coat, who was left stranded on the platform, his face a mask of utter disgust. The rest of the ride was uneventful, and not long afterwards, Solo and Vransky emerged in the heart of Kreuzberg.
Although it was Berlin's smallest district, Kreuzberg was also the most populous. The maze of dreary, prewar tenements and post-war rubble provided a home for Berlin's outcasts and dropouts and everyone else who lived on the fringes of proper German society.
For some, like the militant students, the bohemian artists and the extremists from both ends of the political spectrum, this was the neighborhood of choice. They weren't just living here; they were making a personal statement.
But for the rest, like the poor squatters in the derelict buildings near the Wall or the Turkish immigrants (euphemistically referred to as "guest workers") with their large families and small herds of livestock, the district was a last resort. There simply was nowhere else to go.
One could easily get lost in Kreuzberg and Solo was counting on that. He guided Vransky through the slush-covered streets, past the long-haired young men and the women swathed in heavy coats and veils; past the galleries and the sex shops and the Turkish rug shops, all doing business side by side, in uneasy coexistence.
They wandered about and doubled-back a few times before they found the right address. The house number was partially obscured and the gate latch was broken. Except for two dark-eyed children throwing snowballs in the shadows of the cramped courtyard, no one was around.
The doorbell was broken, but Solo's knock was answered by a soft pad of footsteps. As the agent glanced behind them one last time, to make sure they still weren't being followed, the door opened.
The woman recognized Napoleon first, and said his name matter-of-factly, as if she were expecting him. Solo turned, looked into her face, and forced himself not to react. Scar tissue covered nearly half of it, stretching from the left cheekbone to beyond the collar of her blouse.
Although he'd known about the accident from her letter, he wasn't prepared for this. It took him a moment to recover his voice.
"Greta, I need your help. This is Dr. Josef Vransky. Half the intelligence agencies of Europe are looking for him."
"Oh?" Greta Schiller returned coolly. "What did he do?"
"He defected and they want to take him back across the Wall."
It wasn't much — he'd tell her the whole story later — but it was enough. With only a moment's hesitation, the young woman held open her door.
"Thank you," Solo said as he and Vransky slipped inside. Greta did not reply.
The afternoon sun was just breaking through the clouds as Illya Kuryakin arrived at the international entry point to the Soviet Sector, the famous "Checkpoint Charlie." Visitors from the West usually registered before passing through, but when the Allied border guards saw the agent's U.N.C.L.E. card, they waved him by.
As Kuryakin walked along the few yards of road that separated the gates of the two opposing control posts, he glanced across to the Wall. He studied the lower concrete barrier that lay behind it, and the no-man's land of guards and watchtowers and dog runs that stretched in-between.
Was it truly an "Antifascist Protective Rampart" to prevent the encroachment of capitalism or, as the critics maintained, a "Wall of Shame", a monument to the failure of Communism? Who could say? And what did it matter? After six and a half years of name-calling, the Wall was still there and the anger on both sides of it nearly spent.
The East Berliners ignored it, the West Berliners scrawled graffiti on it and Western travelers sought it out as a tourist attraction. None of them seemed to notice the few scattered makeshift markers memorializing those who died trying to flee across. But Kuryakin did, and they made him uncomfortable. He turned away.
The eastern side of the crossing was manned by the Vopos, the East German People's Police. Here, border regulations were strictly enforced.
The Vopo sergeant who checked Kuryakin's credentials was impressed neither by the U.N.C.L.E. identification card nor by the special diplomatic passport. He was even less pleased by the fact that the agent was carrying a concealed weapon.
"Ze gun ist verboten."
"I have a permit —."
"No matter. You cannot continue mit it."
Kuryakin shook his head in frustration. The afternoon was getting on, and he had no time to cater to a self-important petty bureaucrat. He switched to Russian.
"Listen to me: I have an appointment with Viktor Suslikov. If you are determined to make me late for it, perhaps you might call him yourself and explain the delay."
Technically, it was a lie. Kuryakin had no official appointment, but the bluff had its desired effect. At the sound of Suslikov's name, the Vopo stiffened. "You may proceed," he said as he handed back Kuryakin's credentials.
"Danke." As Kuryakin continued down the Friedrichstrasse, he thought he heard a faint sigh of relief behind him.
Despite the tighter security controls, Kuryakin actually preferred the eastern side of the city. The streets were quieter and less crowded, the traffic was lighter, and the occasional Cyrillic signs reminded him of home.
He strolled to the Unter den Linden, squinting against the glare of the sun, reflected in the melting snow. To the left, at one end of the broad, sweeping avenue, was the Brandenburg Gate and a complex of modern and baroque government buildings that included the Soviet Embassy.
However, the embassy was not his destination. Kuryakin's business lay elsewhere. He turned right and headed across the wide boulevard to the Central House of German-Soviet Friendship, tucked between the university and the Museum of German History.
The agent found Viktor Mikhailovich Suslikov just as he knew he would, at the rear of the Central House's small restaurant, eating his midday meal. As Kuryakin came into the room, one of Suslikov's deputies, a man named Demin, appeared and demanded Kuyakin's Special.
"Nyet, nyet," the old KGB chief called out, "He is svoi — one of us," but Kuryakin gave up his automatic anyway, as a gesture of good will. The restaurant was well heated and nearly deserted. The U.N.C.L.E. agent took off his coat, grateful to be out of the cold, and joined Suslikov at the rear corner table.
Although they hadn't seen one another for almost a decade, Suslikov hadn't changed very much. He'd lost some more hair. Except for an ivory fringe cut neat and short at the back of his head, he was now almost completely bald.
But he was still a big man, with large ears, a prominent nose and a gently mocking manner. In many ways, he was still the uchitel — the teacher — of Kuryakin's youth and the years had only softened him, making him appear even more benign, almost grandfatherly.
"Are you hungry? Order whatever you wish." The old chief motioned for a waiter. "The Eisbein is fresh today," he said, indicating the pickled pigs' knuckles on his plate, "and the veal is very tender. Or perhaps a little Schnapps to warm the blood, eh?"
Kuryakin politely declined and ordered a cup of black coffee.
"Ah. Not tea, but coffee," Suslikov observed softly, "like a Westerner." The KGB chief studied Illya, green eyes sly and glittering as a cat's.
"So, what is it to be, my little volchonok? Shall we speak in Russian or German? Or perhaps, from your habits and the look of your fine American clothes, English would suit you better, eh?"
The U.N.C.L.E. agent smiled thinly. Volchonok — wolf cub — was an old nickname but though Suslikov said it affectionately, the word had an edge to it.
"It does not matter which language we use, uchitel, so long as we speak plainly."
"Very well," Suslikov laughed, "we shall speak in the mother tongue so that there will be no misunderstandings between us. Now, say what you have come to say."
Kuryakin sat back and steepled his fingers. "I am here to make you an offer that I know, without a doubt, you will not refuse."
The KGB chief laughed again, this time, more heartily and sipped his beer. "Oh, my goodness, who is now the uchitel? Tell me, please: how does one acquire such knowledge?"
"From a pair of notebooks," Kuryakin said softly and Suslikov stopped laughing. He put down his fork.
"You have seen them?"
The U.N.C.L.E. agent nodded. "Yes, but only for a moment. It was enough. I know what they contain."
"Then you know how serious our situation is."
Kuryakin's coffee arrived. He stirred in a sugar cube. "Yes, but I am also concerned with Professor Vransky's situation."
"It is one of his own making," the KGB chief commented as he began to eat again. Kuryakin declined to argue the point.
"He wishes to be reunited with his friend —."
" — Then let him come home. We will welcome him back with open arms, like a prodigal son."
"It was your possessive embrace that drove him out in the first place," Kuryakin countered. "He will not come home again, but perhaps his notebooks might . . ."
". . . If I give you the 'friend.' "
The agent nodded once more and watched as Suslikov chewed his food thoughtfully. "You are like this with the Americanski," the old man said, crossing two fingers tightly together. "Oh yes, it is well-known. And you still have the cunning heart of a gypsy. Why should I trust you?"
"I said it before: because you have no choice."
Kuryakin folded his hands and leaned forward, his blue eyes cool and unblinking. "It will take years and the work of many experts to make sense of those notebooks, but it can be done. At least then you will have something. Now, with Vransky and his theories available to the West just for the asking, you have nothing. Indeed, you have worse than nothing."
His bargaining done, Illya leaned back and waited. He finished his coffee, giving Suslikov time to consider. Finally the old man said, "Very well. But the exchange must take place tonight. Demin will see to the details." He paused. "Unless, of course, you wish to tell me where your partner has hidden the good professor."
Kuryakin smiled and shook his head. "I'm sorry."
Suslikov shrugged good-naturedly. "I had to try. Clearly, the volchonok runs with a different pack now, eh? So, with our business concluded, you will at least join me for dessert?"
Kuryakin pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. "No, thank you. There is much to do yet before tonight."
And then, almost too lightly, he said, "By the way, how is Masha?"
Suslikov grinned, knowingly. "Living in Moscow with four fat babies. Her husband has done very well for himself. Do you still think of her?"
"No. It was so long ago. There is only razbliuto," Kuryakin answered, using the wistful Russian word for memories of a love no longer felt.
"Good. It is better that way." Suslikov reached for his dessert, a slice of honey-almond cake.
"A man like you could not have made my daughter happy."
"That is a strange thing to say, Viktor," Kuryakin observed as he pulled on his topcoat, "since it was you who made me what I am today."
On the way out, he received his U.N.C.L.E. Special from Demin and slipped it into his shoulder holster. "I came in by way of the Friedrichstrasse," Kuryakin said. "I am certain that there will be Company men waiting for me there, watching for my return."
Denim nodded. "Then take the S-Bahn out."
"It is not usual procedure to enter one way and leave another."
"We will make an exception in your case. I will see to it that you encounter no difficulties."
"Thank you. We shall speak again," the U.N.C.L.E. agent promised. Then he was gone.
It was short and squat and rather ugly, a shade of green that would never be seen in an actual forest. The artificial branches were spindly and indifferently decorated with cheap plastic ornaments and a string of colored lights. About half of the bulbs were burnt out.
"It's a rather poor excuse for a Christmas tree," Greta said aloud as she came down the staircase. Solo sat alone in the parlor, staring listlessly at the thing. The sound of her voice and the creak of her foot upon the step gave him a start. His fingers tightened around the butt of the U.N.C.L.E. Special that rested heavily in his lap.
"Forgive me for startling you," she apologized as she slid next to him, on the tatty sofa. Solo relaxed slightly, and settled back beside her.
"Herr Vransky was very hungry," she went on. "He ate two bowls of soup and most of the bread. He is really a very sweet man."
"Is he still upstairs?"
"Yes. He is napping, as you should be. You look tired."
The agent tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "It's the decongestant pills." So much for doctors' promises.
"I could make you some hot tea with lemon."
They sat quietly together for a few minutes before Greta said, "I moved. I changed my name. I am no longer in the telephone book. How did you find me?"
"There was a return address on the letter you sent me. I have a good memory."
"Not quite so good. There were two letters," she corrected him. "I thought you might want to know what happened to Karl and me. When you did not answer, I thought you were dead."
Solo opened his eyes. Although she tried to disguise it, he heard the bitterness in her voice.
"I'm sorry," he said, meaning it.
"For what? For not answering my letters or for not being dead? Why should someone like you care about the fate of two children? That's all we were really, Karl and I and the others. Just children. Stupid children playing reckless games. Calling ourselves the 'Travel Bureau Incorporated' — imagine! Smuggling people out as if it were a frivolous fraternity stunt."
"You helped a lot of your fellow students to escape."
Greta frowned, unpacified. "In the end, in the larger scheme of the world, we made very little difference. Not like you and that other, der Russe. . . "
She tucked one leg under the other and hugged a throw pillow to her chest. "Karl idolized you, you know. He used to say: 'Stay with him, Greta. Learn all you can from him. We are just amateurs, but Mr. Solo, he is a professional.' " She said the last word as if it were an obscenity.
"Poor Karl. Poor foolish, idealistic Karl." Greta shook her head. "He never knew about us. Never even guessed. But then, there never really was an 'us,' was there?"
"Did you two ever marry?" Solo asked, changing the subject.
"No. We intended to. We even became engaged. But then Karl said, 'Let's take the van through one more time.' And it was a cousin of a friend, so I went along.
"But it was one too many crossings for Karl. They recognized him. When he tried to rush through the checkpoint, they shot the gasoline tank. Only I survived."
Greta squeezed the pillow tighter and buried her chin in it. It was some time before she spoke again. "So I teach in the Grundschule for the little Turkish children. What else can I do? We Germans cannot tolerate the inadequate or the unsightly: they offend our sense of neatness."
Solo turned and studied her face. He remembered the spirited coed with the flaxen hair and the flawless complexion. Now her skin looked like a swatch of fine silk that had been savagely crumpled in a giant fist.
"Why do you stare at me like that?" she whispered. "Am I so ugly?"
His answer coaxed a smile. "You always were a good liar, Napoleon."
What do women want? Freud supposedly exclaimed in exasperation. Obviously, the man was an idiot. Solo knew exactly what women wanted: a kind word, a warm gesture, the smallest demonstration of interest and affection. It was so simple — like throwing a bone to a starving dog — that it was downright embarrassing.
Women required reassurance and reinforcement and though other men considered it all a great nuisance, Solo had realized long ago that it was well worth the trouble. The rewards, sexual and otherwise, were considerable. It was second nature to him now. He acted without thinking.
The agent reached for her. He cradled her face in both hands and kissed her lightly on the lips.
"You always did that well, too," she said, then pulled away abruptly. "And I let you, but that was before I realized that for you, sleeping with women is just psychological first aid."
"No!" Her voice cracked but she did not cry. "How can you do this to me? You are like those awful men the French call frotteurs, who rub themselves against anonymous women in crowds and then move on."
"That's not true," he said gently as he retreated, "and you know it."
Solo was right. She did know it. Although Napoleon made no promises or commitments before or afterward, in bed, his lovemaking was never impersonal or selfish. For those few hours, his efforts to share and satisfy were as genuine and as deeply felt as those of the most devoted husband.
When Greta was younger, this apparent incongruity in Solo's temperament — the cool, professional detachment coupled with a desperate need for connection, however fleeting or superficial — seemed poignant and terribly romantic. Now she recognized it for what it was: an aberration, a distorting crimp in his fabric, as tragic in its way as her own disfigurement.
Not all scar tissue is visible, Greta thought to herself, and she almost felt sorry for him. She looked down at the gun between them and recalled how he had slept with it. And with her.
"Do you still suffer from bad dreams?" she asked, less angry.
"But as the years go by, does it not become easier?"
"No. There is more to dream about."
This time, it was she who approached him. Slowly, Greta laced her arms around Solo's neck and his eyes hooded and played across her face like a soft caress.
He's going to kiss me again, she told herself, recognizing the familiar habit that always signaled his advance. A shiver ran down her spine. "No man has touched me since Karl died," she told him, "or even cared to."
"I care to." He pulled her into an iron embrace, kissing her deep and full on the mouth.
And all at once, she wanted him again. Wanted him to fill her, to drive out the hate and the horror. To make her feel pleasure again. She drew him down upon her, leading him with her mouth. But in the next instant, there was a knock at the back door and the opportunity was lost, perhaps forever.
Solo snapped bolt upright, tense and alert, the U.N.C.L.E. Special already in his hand. "Go ahead. Answer it," he hissed close to her ear. Greta climbed off the sofa and went into the kitchen. She peeked through the curtains and saw Illya Kuryakin in the blue twilight, waiting on the stoop. He had a suitcase with him.
"You are not welcome here, tovarisch," she said as she opened the door.
"I'm not staying. Where's Napoleon?"
The senior agent appeared behind Greta in the kitchen. At the sight of his partner, Solo slipped the automatic back into his shoulder holster.
"Were you followed?"
"For a time."
Denim's statement that Kuryakin would encounter "no difficulties" hadn't been entirely accurate. As soon as he passed into the Western sector, Illya realized he had exchanged one tail for another. This time, it was a pair of Soviet agents.
"Don't worry. I shook off the dogs crossing the Tiergarten," Kuryakin said, dismissing Solo's concern. He had more serious matters on his mind. "We must talk, my friend."
"Talk over supper," Greta cut in, from the stove. She reached into a pantry and produced an armful of dishes. "Are you hungry?"
Kuryakin arched an eyebrow. "Yes, but I thought —."
"Sit. I am sure you both have not eaten all day."
Solo shrugged and the two agents sat down at the table. Over a meal of wurst, bread and Greta's rich potato soup, Kuryakin summarized his meeting with Suslikov, leaving out the personal details. All through the story, Solo was uncharacteristically silent and when it was finished, several moments passed before he felt ready to comment.
"I don't know about this, Illya. Breaking into the American consulate. Stealing highly classified documents. Maybe we should call the Old Man for clearance."
"We can't. If they're all keeping us under such close surveillance, no doubt they're also monitoring U.N.C.L.E. transmissions. If word of this proposal leaks out, well, even Suslikov's neck will be on the block. I suspect he is acting against orders just to work with us and salvage the operation. Besides, Mr. Waverly did leave it to our discretion."
Solo frowned, still unconvinced. "I don't know. . ."
"Napoleon, listen to me: you don't understand what's in those notebooks. But I do." Kuryakin's voice was earnest and deadly serious. "They contain the technological basis for a highly-advanced defense system. This system would be launched into space, like a satellite. It would be equipped with a directed-energy weapon, probably some kind of laser or neutral particle beam. During a nuclear attack, it would have the ability to intercept attacking ballistic missiles and completely destroy the nuclear warheads."
Solo whistled softly and Kuryakin went on. "Of course, that's just a simplistic overview. The whole project would be enormously complicated."
"But will it work?"
"Oh yes, it will work all right. Vransky's a little ahead of current development in space technology but it's just a matter of time before the world catches up. His work will accelerate that development. The heavens will become a battlefield."
"Sounds like science fiction."
Kuryakin shook his head. "This is no fantasy, my friend, but it could be a nightmare for the opposition, whomever that will be. I don't have to say it, do I? Whichever side develops this weapons system will have a tremendous tactical advantage — to virtually eliminate the opponent's first strike capability."
"But you said it was for defense," Greta, who had overheard the conversation, pointed out. Kuryakin laughed ruefully. "We have an old saying in my country: when one has an umbrella, one never worries about the other guy getting wet."
He turned to his partner again. "Mr. Waverly's orders were clear: help the professor but more importantly, maintain the balance of power. There's only one way to complete this mission, Napoleon. We must give those notebooks to Suslikov, and you must steal them."
"Is right, Pan Solo," said a voice from behind them. It belonged to Vransky, who stood in the doorway to the kitchen. "No good, one side having. Both must have. Books go, or I go back."
"And what about your friend?" the dark-haired agent asked softly.
"I explain to him. Vilëm understand."
Solo covered his face with his hands and sighed. "How the hell am I going to locate those notebooks in that complex? It would take a couple of days just to search the consulate building alone. They could be anywhere."
"It will be easier than you think," Kuryakin said. "You see, while I was examining the notebooks, I had the foresight to insert a homing pin in the binding of one of them."
"And how do I get into the place? Walk up to a guard and say, 'Excuse me, I've come to borrow a cup of sugar and some top secret documents?' "
"No, but you might give him this. " Kuryakin held up an elegantly engraved, cream-colored invitation in his hand. "Apparently, there's to be a gala Christmas party at the consulate tonight."
"Where did you get that?" Solo asked, narrowing his eyes.
"From the Soviets. They have a mole in the American consulate."
The mole was the last straw. In all the years of their partnership, Kuryakin had never seen the expression that now crossed Solo's face. It was a blend of contempt, and confusion and hurt — a bewildered sense of betrayal.
How can you do this to me? it said. How can you put me in this position? Kuryakin felt the accusation drill itself downward, deep into the pit of his stomach. He wanted to protest — Because it is necessary, Napoleon! This is not something just between us! — but Illya could not bring himself to utter the words. Instead, he merely pointed to Solo's suitcase, waiting beside the back door, and said, "I had one of Bohne's men retrieve your bag from the hotel. I hope you remembered to pack your tux."
Later, after he had changed into his evening clothes Solo returned to the kitchen. He found Greta behind her ironing board, pressing his jacket. Vransky sat at the table, but Illya's place was vacant.
"He left," the young woman declared, reading Solo's mind. "He said that he would wait for you at the checkpoint, from nine o' clock until when it closed at midnight."
"I go too," Vransky announced. Solo tried to object but the scientist was adamant. "Must be sure is Vilëm. Tonight, is no tricks."
"I have a car Napoleon," Greta volunteered. "I'll bring the professor."
Solo plucked the jacket from her hands and thanked her. Greta watched as he slipped it on.
"You can refuse to do this," she told him and in the time it took to whisper the words, a memory flashed through his mind. He saw himself as a young man, swearing a solemn oath, promising to protect and defend any nation — all nations — regardless of size or importance or political system.
"No," Solo replied, "I can't."
There's no particular virtue in sacrificing one's life for one's country, Jules Cutter once said, so many years ago. A country is just an extension of one's self. You wanna be noble? Then go sacrifice your life for some other guy's country.
Solo rolled Cutter's little sermon around in his mind as Greta walked him to door. Outside, she hugged her shoulders against the evening chill and said, "Tonight, when this is all over, come back to me."
"All right. If that's what you want."
"I don't need charity, Napoleon," she reminded him. He kissed her lightly on her unblemished right cheek.
"Neither do I."
The night was clear and the stars burned like sharp pinpoints in the sky as Solo finally managed to flag down a taxi. It hadn't been easy to find one. Even after he walked to the main thoroughfare, the passing cabs seemed few and far between. Somehow, he still managed to arrive at the consulate on time.
The place was packed with guests. At first, Solo feared he might be checked for weapons, but the security guards at the door had their hands full. Behind him, the late arrivals were anxious to escape the biting cold. Ahead of him, a well-dressed couple was protesting some trivial point of protocol. The soldier who accepted Solo's invitation shifted his attention to the couple and never offered the agent a second glance. Solo waded into the glittering crowd, one more anonymous face, bobbing in a sea of gowns and tuxes.
As it turned out, Kuryakin had been correct. The homing pin was not difficult to locate. Solo's communicator detected it almost immediately. The syncopated beeps led him down a familiar corridor, to McCall's office. He picked the lock and let himself in.
Inside the darkened room, the homing signal grew stronger and more regular. On the far wall, there was a small landscape painting, concealing a wall safe of sturdy but relatively simple design. Solo twisted the dial, allowing the device in his right cufflink to monitor the sensitive vibrations of the tumblers. In less than a minute, he had the correct combination.
There wasn't much in the safe: a codebook, a few files, two sealed manila envelopes. Underneath the envelopes was the object of his search, but just as he reached for Vransky's notebooks, Solo's hand froze in midair. The doorknob was turning.
Quickly, the agent sprinted back across the room, and flattened himself against the wall. The door opened slowly, but even before he saw the profile in the halo of light from the hall, Solo knew exactly who it was.
"If I were you, Mr. McCall, I'd stand very still and very quiet."
McCall's fingertips retreated smoothly from under his left lapel as he felt the muzzle of Solo's automatic press against the collar of his dinner jacket.
"Mis-ter Solo. Of course," the station chief sighed wearily. "I can't say I'm pleased to see you again. You don't mind me asking, do you? Is that thing armed with those silly toy darts or did they issue you real ammunition this time?"
"Why don't you move and find out for yourself?"
"Come now, my dear fellow. Do you really think you can shoot me and get away with it? Here? Tonight? With an enhanced security force on duty and a mob of guests right above us?"
"I might. It would be worth leaving you here unconscious, to explain how you managed to lose a valuable Czech scientist, his assistant and his notebooks, all within forty-eight hours or so."
Solo kicked the door shut behind him and locked it. As he flipped on the light, McCall spotted the open safe.
"Well, well, well. My compliments. It seems you number safe cracking among your many talents. Along with illegal trespass, extortion, breaking and entering — not to mention treason." McCall shook his head sadly. "That Sov partner of yours put you up to this, didn't he? And spare me that U.N.C.L.E. brotherhood rubbish. Don't you see that he's using you?"
"Not at all. And I didn't have to break in," Solo corrected him. "I was invited."
"Oh, really? By whom?"
"Someone on your staff who happens to be drawing two paychecks — one from you and one from the other side."
McCall cocked an eyebrow. He tried hard not to betray his surprise but it was there, anyway. "Indeed? And who might that be?"
Solo settled back on the edge of the desk and smiled, confident that he had the upper hand at last. He didn't know the identity of the double agent, of course, but he was certain he could find out. If Illya refused to give him the information later, well, there were other ways to get it. Right now, Solo needed to apply all the leverage he could.
"Not so fast. I want to make a deal first."
"What sort of 'deal'?" McCall hissed. He was angry, but he took the bait.
"One that will make everyone happy, all around — including you."
"Oh, I doubt that —."
"Wait. Hear me out," Solo said, holding up a hand. "Your assignment was to land Vransky. You can still do that. The professor has reconsidered. He is willing to work for the United States —
" —How very generous of him —."
"— if we trade his notebooks for his lab assistant. By the way, do your superiors know about any of this?"
"Not yet," McCall admitted, "what with the holiday and all . . ."
Solo laughed. "I suspected as much. Okay, so: let's say Vransky left the notebooks back in Prague. Who's to know?"
McCall's mouth tightened. "I'll know."
"Ah Christ, be reasonable. What the hell good are those notebooks, anyway? You'll have the real McCoy."
The CIA chief paused and considered. "Reasonable. I see. You want me to be 'reasonable.' " He rolled the word around on his tongue, thoughtfully. "All right, all right, I shall try to be 'reasonable.' I will admit, your proposal is tempting . . ."
Then suddenly, making up his mind, McCall crossed to the wall safe and pulled out Vransky's notebooks. "Very well. Here they are. Do what you will with them. But I want the name of that mole, d'you hear me?"
Solo chuckled. "You'll have it —" he checked his watch "— in about an hour."
"That's right." The U.N.C.L.E. agent leveled the barrel of his Special at McCall again. "You're coming with me. Now, may I have your gun? As insurance, you understand."
Apparently, McCall did. He reached under his dinner jacket and handed over his Walther. Solo pocketed it. As the station chief gathered the notebooks to put into a briefcase, Solo said, "Wait a minute." The U.N.C.L.E. agent took out his communicator, switched on the explosives detector and waved it over the empty briefcase. There was no telltale signal. This time, it was McCall's turn to laugh. "Still don't trust me, do you?"
"If it's any consolation, I don't trust anyone in this city. Let's go."
They walked together, through the crowds of partygoers, all the way to the front door. There, the security guard stopped them and asked to inspect McCall's briefcase. The CIA man held it open but the guard wasn't satisfied. He wanted to examine the contents. The two intelligence agents exchanged sidelong glances, but there was nothing they could do.
Fortunately, McCall's assistant, Ted Donaldson, happened to be nearby. Quickly sizing up the situation, he came to their rescue.
"Oh, Mr. McCall? The Secretary is on the phone. He wants those notebooks right away."
"Thank you, Ted. Tell him we're on our way." McCall turned to the guard. "May we go?"
The guard hesitated, but the pressure to let them pass was too great. With a crisp, decisive flick of the hand, he waved them by.
Neither agent said anything but Solo made a mental note to himself. He didn't know before, but he knew now: Donaldson was the mole.
Outside, Solo told McCall, "We'll take your car." The CIA chief instructed the valet, who returned with a black Lincoln Continental. McCall slipped behind the wheel. Solo slid in beside him.
As they turned onto the Clayallee, McCall said, "I assume we're going to Checkpoint Charlie."
"Good guess." Solo peered into the rearview mirror. He wasn't surprised by what he saw. "There's a car following us. Your men?"
McCall shrugged. "Possible. They are quite efficient." Solo nudged the U.N.C.L.E. Special against the station chief's ribcage.
McCall did as he was told.
Peace on earth — good will toward men.
The message was scrawled in German, on the western face of the Wall, in seasonal red paint. There was another beside it, also in German: Darling, we love each other. Why worry about this?
Illya Kuryakin read the graffiti in the passing beam of a roving searchlight and sighed. He checked his watch. It was after ten.
The Russian agent pivoted and retraced his steps back to the Eastern checkpoint. He couldn't seem to decide on which side to wait. Somehow, his indecision seemed all too appropriate.
He remembered Demin's cryptic warning from earlier that afternoon:
"I tell you, Comrade, a cat who sits on a picket fence may find himself impaled upon it."
Indeed, Illya thought now. Or picking splinters out of his backside at the very least.
This time, as he returned to the control post, he noted that the gate was red and white striped, like a candy cane. This, too, seemed so entirely appropriate — almost macabre — that he wanted to laugh out loud.
"Radee Boga," he muttered to himself, "let's get this damn thing over with!"
And then, as if in answer to his plea, McCall's black Lincoln pulled up at the corner of Kochstrasse. Kuryakin saw Solo emerge from the passenger seat. The dark-haired agent had his U.N.C.L.E. Special in one hand and a briefcase in the other.
Illya exhaled in relief. He raised a hand above his head and waved to the darkness behind him. A few yards up the Friedrichstrasse, the headlights of Suslikov's limousine blinked twice in response. Then, a rear car door opened and a thin, bespectacled young man climbed out. As he walked the short distance to join Kuryakin, a blue Volkswagen appeared beyond the western checkpoint. It parked near McCall's car, on the other side of the street. Greta stepped out, followed by Vransky.
Well, the scene is set. The principal players are all assembled, Kuryakin told himself. It's time for our little drama to begin. "Ready?" he asked and the young man beside him nodded. Kuryakin put a hand on his companion's shoulder and guided him past the gates of the Soviet Sector. Solo was already striding briskly toward them. The three men met halfway between the checkpoints, surrounded by the flat, desolate no-man's land, stretching away, in either direction.
"This is Vilëm Novak," Illya said, introducing Vransky's lab assistant to Solo. The senior agent acknowledged the Czech, then held up the briefcase.
"The notebooks are inside. Go ahead and look. I scanned the case for explosives myself."
Kuryakin smiled the faintest of smiles. "I don't have to look, my friend."
He took the briefcase and Solo gestured to Novak. The U.N.C.L.E. agents headed off, in opposite directions.
On the Allied end of the Friedrichstrasse, Novak ran ahead of Solo and his reunion with Vransky was a joyful one. The two men wrapped their arms around one another, laughing and jubilant, while Greta and McCall watched from their respective cars.
At the same time, a few yards into the Soviet Sector, Kuryakin approached Suslikov, who was standing next to his limousine. The blond agent surrendered the briefcase.
"So you trust this man, this Americanski?" the KGB Reszident asked as he received the prize.
"With my life."
"Then I suppose I should trust him too." Suslikov climbed heavily into the back seat of the car. As Kuryakin shut the door, the old man scowled and shook his finger, once more the uchitel of years gone by.
"All the same, a word of advice: trust no one with your life, volchonok. Remember that: no one. Das vedanya."
Kuryakin watched the car drive away and checked his watch again. There was still an hour and a half left before the border closed for the night. He pulled up the collar of his overcoat and began his short walk back. There was no hurry now. As the Russian agent ambled along, he idly scanned the rows of boarded-up buildings that lined the Friedrichstrasse.
He was well past the Eastern checkpoint when he saw it: four stories up. An open window where shuttered boards should be. And centered within, a glint of metal, caught in the sweep of the searchlight, like a silver tooth in a gaping mouth.
"Napoleon! Look out!" Kuryakin cried as he dug under his coat for his gun. The sound of his voice shattered the silence of the night and snapped Solo to attention. The dark-haired agent twisted instinctively and then lunged toward Vransky, but there was just too much distance to cover.
There were three shots, well placed and tightly spaced. They caught Vransky in the neck and the chest. They barely missed Novak, who stood, eyes wide with horror, beside him.
"It's a sniper! Shoot!" McCall shouted to Solo, but it was Kuryakin who managed to fire. He emptied half a clip, but it was too little, too late. There was a shadowy movement in the window and then the deadly glint vanished.
"Son of —" Kuryakin began but never finished the curse. Suddenly, something exploded, somewhere in the streets of the Soviet Sector, behind him. The concussion shook the pavement under Illya and threw him to the ground. The Russian rolled on his back and saw a huge ball of fire, hurtling upward, into the cold night sky.
As he struggled to his feet, Kuryakin heard Greta screaming to the Allied border guards to call an ambulance. He staggered back, stumbling his way past Checkpoint Charlie, to where Vransky lay sprawled in the center of the street. He saw Vilëm sobbing and kneeling beside the body, and Kuryakin knew that the professor was dead, just as surely as he knew Suslikov was dead, too.
He blinked and slowly became aware of Solo and McCall, standing near the Lincoln, shouting at each other at the top of their lungs.
"Goddamn you, McCall! It was in one of the notebooks, wasn't it? Wasn't it!"
"Of course, you bloody fool! I knew they would attempt something like this. Do you think I could allow them the upper hand?"
"The upper hand!" Solo pounded his own fist against the fender of the Lincoln. "You stupid bastards double-crossed each other! Now, no one has anything."
"That's true," McCall admitted, lowering his voice, "but a draw is preferable to a loss."
Solo stabbed a finger in the direction of Vransky's corpse. "Tell that to him!"
McCall bristled. "No, Solo. I will tell it to you." The CIA chief folded his hands behind his back and straightened, drawing himself up to his full height. "Ever since you and your so-called 'partner' there arrived this morning, you have been nothing but trouble. Offering to expose Donaldson — why the idea is downright laughable!"
McCall noted the startled expression on Solo's face. "Yes, yes, I know about Donaldson. Of course I know. He was turned back to us years ago. Now he's an extremely useful channel for sending disinformation to the KGB. He comes in handy for other errands too."
Solo shook his head. "How can you live like this? How do you keep it all straight?"
"It's not so very difficult. You throw in your lot; you choose a side. This is a game for adults, not for overgrown boy scouts who tramp about, attempting to right all the wrongs in the world. You must face it, Solo: you can't save everyone. Even to try is naive."
McCall opened the driver's door of his own car. "I'll have my gun back now," he said. Solo almost threw it at him.
"This is U.N.C.L.E.'s mess, so I shall leave you to clean it up." The CIA chief shook his head with mock concern as he climbed into his Lincoln. "I don't believe you'll be earning a merit badge for this one."
He pulled away just as the ambulance arrived. Solo watched the medics work on Vransky but it was hopeless. Soon, they gave up, put the body on a stretcher and covered it. Greta passed Solo on her way back to her Volkswagen.
"I'll be waiting for you," she whispered sadly, knowing that tonight, he would need her more than she needed him. She gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze and left.
Solo walked over to the ambulance. Novak was still crying, miserable and grief-stricken. Kuryakin helped him into the vehicle. Then silently, the two U.N.C.L.E. agents climbed in after him.
It was well after midnight by the time Solo drifted into the lounge of the Bristol Kempinski. Kuryakin was already at a table, a glass and a bottle of vodka near at hand. The bottle was half empty. Solo stood beside the table, not bothering to sit down.
"So?" Kuryakin asked, between mouthfuls. Solo had just finished his verbal report to Waverly.
"Well, he wasn't pleased, of course. But he said that we accomplished our mission by default."
The Russian shook his head and mumbled something to himself.
"I'm going to Greta's," Solo said after a moment. "Pick me up on the way to the airport in the morning."
Kuryakin nodded. He understood. This night, he wished that he, too, could lose himself mindlessly, in the sweet, urgent rhythms of a woman's body.
"But before I go," Solo added softly, "I think we should talk." He shifted from one foot to the other. "I need to know the truth: did you know — did you even suspect anything — about the sniper?"
Kuryakin studied his glass as he said, "No. Did you know about the bomb in the notebooks?"
"Then there's nothing to discuss. I will believe you and you will believe me." The Russian raised his eyes to his partner. They were red-rimmed and rheumy and heavy with liquor. "We must, Napoleon. It's all we have."
Solo left with Kuryakin's words still hanging in the air between them. Illya watched him go. Then the blond agent drained his glass and poured himself another drink.