The St. Christopher Affair
Somewhere in the highlands of Querido, South America. May, 1968.
Napoleon Solo had seen a lot of death in his time. Too much, if the truth be told. But real murder, the senseless, savage, deliberate destruction of an innocent life, still turned his stomach. Solo looked down at the dead woman and felt sick to his very soul.
How old had she been? Sixteen? Seventeen? Surely, no older than that.
The agent reached out a hand and gently brushed aside her long ebony hair, revealing the face of a peasant madonna. He studied the high cheekbones; the long, graceful neck; the sun-washed skin marred only by the gaping hole in the center of her forehead. Her beautiful black eyes were transfixed in terror, a silent scream still frozen on her lips. Peeking out from under her shawl, within the bloody folds of her bodice, a tiny, lifeless baby was clutched tight against the curve of her full bosom.
It was Illya Kuryakin. Solo rose slowly and watched his partner pick his way through the charred remains of the village. "No," Solo said. "I couldn't find anyone alive."
"Neither could I," Kuryakin agreed. He surveyed the gruesome scene with melancholy resignation. The burned and blackened landscape was littered with at least fifty corpses, maybe more. Kuryakin had long since stopped counting.
They had been farmers, all of them, with their overworked wives and undernourished children. "You look like you could use one of those," he remarked as Solo fished out a fresh pack of cigarettes. The dark-haired agent patted the pockets of his bush jacket, searching for a book of matches and came up empty.
"Here," Kuryakin said. He nudged Solo and lit his partner's cigarette with a smoldering slab of shingle.
"Thanks. How many guns do you think?"
Kuryakin shrugged. "Difficult to tell. Six well-armed men could have done the job. And a thorough one at that."
"Yeah," Solo muttered, "Very thorough."
He was staring down at the dead girl again. Kuryakin shifted his own rifle to the opposite shoulder, tipped back his hat and squinted up at the morning sun. He tried to estimate the time: seven, perhaps eight o' clock.
The bodies were still warm. The huts were still smoking. That meant the squad had struck early, some time around dawn. Not too long ago. They couldn't be more than an hour or two away. We'd better stay alert, Kuryakin thought to himself.
"Revolutions are never very tidy affairs," he commented aloud.
"This isn't a revolution," Solo shot back angrily. "It's a farce; a travesty. You know it and I know it. But unless the rest of the world does too, this is only the beginning..."
"All the more reason for us to make haste, my friend." Kuryakin patted the ordinary camera case slung under his arm that contained more than an ordinary camera. "The longer it takes us to get this into the right hands, the more villages will burn."
"And the more peasants will die," Solo said. "Yeah, I know. You don't have to remind me." He took a last drag on the cigarette and pitched it into the crumbling shell of a hut. Then, almost as an afterthought, he knelt down beside the beautiful corpse and carefully, tenderly, covered the woman and her child with the ragged edge of her shawl.
"Rest easy, mi bella niňa," he whispered. "Ready?" Kuryakin called from behind him.
"Let's go," Solo said, hefting his own rifle.
And they went.
Father Jack McCutcheon was on the roof of the little mission church when the soldiers arrived. He didn't see them and neither did Tomas, who was stationed on the ground below.
The deacon shifted nervously against the base of the ladder and listened to the uneven cadence of the hammer above. He was well aware of the priests' nearsightedness and fear of heights. Each time McCutcheon scrambled too close to the edge, the deacon mumbled a heartfelt prayer and squeezed his eyes shut.
There was nothing else he could do. The gringo priest was a good man but a stubborn one and it was obvious that he was determined to fix that pesky leak once and for all.
In fact, so intent was McCutcheon on the task at hand that Sister Rosa was forced to shout several times, as loud as she could, just to get his attention.
"Padre? Can you hear me, Padre?"
McCutcheon peeked over the eave and sighed aloud. How could such a sound come from so small a woman?
"Sister, I'm certain even the good Lord in heaven can hear you and is, no doubt, at this very moment, reaching for an aspirin."
Sheepishly, the petite nun dropped her large, black eyes and McCutcheon regretted his outburst. Sister Rosa was such a sweet, sensitive young woman. Although she was a native of Querido, she had been born into a wealthy, cultured urban household. Living in this little mission at the edge of the tropical rain forest, she seemed almost as far from her home as McCutcheon was from his.
"What is it Sister?" he said, this time more gently.
"Six men are in the yard." She lowered her voice and added, "They have guns."
Sister Rosa shook her head. "I don't think so. They wear no uniforms. They must be guerrillas."
McCutcheon nodded, feeling somewhat relieved. For, although Colonel José‚ Santiago was the Scourge of Querido, the Terror of the Mountains and the leader of the rebel movement in these parts, he was also an ex-altar boy and a practicing Catholic. He respected the clergy and the sanctity of the mission compound and even offered food and a helping hand from time to time.
It was more with curiosity than concern then that McCutcheon clamored down the ladder as Tomas clutched a rung and shut his eyes. Maybe they'll even help with the roof, the priest laughed to himself.
When he reached the yard, however, he realized how foolishly naive his good humor had been. The men waiting for him were not the sort who worried about leaking roofs.
Two of them were filling their canteens from the mission well. They had not even offered the courtesy of requesting permission. Three others were lounging about with deliberate disinterest while a fourth, apparently the leader, was leaning on his rifle, lighting the fat stub of a cigar.
Sister Rosa had been correct: the men were not regular soldiers. They were dressed in mismatched camouflage and the war surplus German Mauser 98k's they were carrying were not standard army issue. Although they looked like rebels, McCutcheon was wary. He couldn't quite put his finger on it but he knew, instinctively, that something here was very, very wrong.
"Can I be of some service to you gentlemen?" he said, disguising his apprehension. Although he hadn't lived in Dublin since boyhood, he still retained a faint brogue.
The leader finished lighting the cigar and tossed the match away. "Sí, Padre. We are evacuating the district. You must leave right away."
"Leave?" McCutcheon blinked in surprise. He spread his arms helplessly. "But where can we go? We have over a dozen children here."
The guerrilla leader shrugged. "Send them back to their families."
"But they have no families."
"I am sorry," the guerrilla said, though it was obvious that he was not, "but we have our orders."
The tall, young priest remained unconvinced. "Orders from whom?"
"Then there must be some mistake. Colonel Santiago knows the situation here. If you'll just help me get a message to him, I'm sure we can straighten this whole thing out."
The leader hesitated. Behind him, his companions unslung their weapons and wordlessly spread out through the compound. McCutcheon didn't notice them go. He pressed on:
"It was Colonel Santiago who sent you, wasn't it?"
"Sí, yes. Of course."
The guerrilla leader shifted from one foot to the other and glanced discreetly around, searching for his companions. McCutcheon narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"Oh sí, Padre. We are from the village of Gallina, just over the hills."
"No, I don't think so. I know everyone in Gallina."
"Not everyone, Padre," the guerrilla assured him as he suddenly cocked his rifle and thrust it straight into McCutcheon's face. The priest swallowed hard and froze.
"Enough of this chitchat. My men will assemble everyone here in the courtyard. Kindly instruct them to cooperate with us."
McCutcheon forced himself to remain calm and looked around. The other five guerrilla soldiers were coming back, accompanied by Tomas, Sister Rosa, Sister Eugenia and most of the sixteen resident children. The men acted like malevolent shepherds, herding their prisoners with their rifles.
"What's going on, Father?" Sister Eugenia demanded as she joined the priest. This young nun was everything that Sister Rosa was not: confident, vigorous and aggressively American. She was never afraid to speak her mind and in most circumstances, McCutcheon liked her for that.
"They say we must evacuate," he told her simply.
"But that's ridiculous."
She turned to the leader, ignoring his brandished weapon, and tried to explain as reasonably as she could, "Our children are orphans. It's useless for you to threaten us because we have nowhere else to go."
"Perhaps this will persuade you, Hermana," the leader growled and gestured to his men. Three of them disappeared again and less than a minute later, the acrid smell of burning wood drifted across the compound.
Sister Eugenia sniffed the air. "What are you doing?" she cried to the leader, but McCutcheon knew. He twisted just in time to see one of the counterfeit rebels set a makeshift torch to a corner of the mission school. The fire caught immediately and within seconds, the front entrance was engulfed by a column of flame.
"Oh no," Sister Rosa whispered and made the sign of the cross, but the leader was unmoved. He signaled to another one of his men, who headed toward the church.
"Not the church!" Tomas said when he saw what was happening. Without thinking, he broke away from the group.
"No, Tomas, no!" McCutcheon shouted but it was too late. The squad leader aimed and fired twice. The first shot hit the deacon square in the back. The second blew off his right ear. Tomas staggered and toppled over, in the middle of the yard.
The leader turned back to his group of prisoners. The children, none of whom were more than nine years old, were screaming hysterically and hiding themselves within the folds of the nuns' skirts. The three adults just stared ahead, speechless.
The soldier with the cigar still clenched tightly in his teeth, smiled. "Now that you all understand the situation, let us have no more heroics. Agreed?"
"You are not Colonel Santiago's men," McCutcheon muttered bitterly as two of the little boys hugged him, one at each leg. Behind them, the invaders were torching the last building that served as a combination kitchen and convent.
"Does it matter?" the guerrilla leader asked as he cocked his rifle again. His companions did likewise. "If you have any last prayers, Padre, say them quickly."
He leveled his weapon, but before he could pull the trigger, a shot rang out. Stunned, the rebel leader looked at the priest in utter disbelief. The cigar dropped from his lips and he fell flat on his face in the grass, a bullet neatly imbedded in the back of his head.
Another shot came from nowhere and another guerrilla died. The yard collapsed into chaos. The mission residents scattered between the burning buildings with the four remaining soldiers snapping at their heels.
One of the guerrillas halted long enough to scan the surrounding landscape, in an attempt to locate the hidden sniper. He found him. He saw a blond man standing beside one of the trees. The blond man calmly aimed his rifle and in the next instant, a bullet slammed home into the guerrilla's chest. Now there were only three invaders left.
On the other side of the compound, Sister Eugenia was running as hard as she could, pulling a flock of children along with her. As they raced past the burning schoolhouse, one of the guerrillas suddenly appeared and grabbed the nun in a stranglehold from behind.
"Run! Andalé!" Sister Eugenia shouted at the children as she struggled with her assailant. He dragged her backwards, yanking her habit and cutting off her wind. But then, all at once, someone was on him and the guerrilla's arm spasmed and slipped away. The nun staggered, trying to regain her breath and balance. She felt strong hands grasp her shoulders to steady her. She spun on her heel and came face to face with a bearded, dark-haired stranger.
"Are you okay Sister?" he asked gently in English. The nun nodded but before she could speak, he was gone. Sister Eugenia coughed and glanced down. The guerrilla who had attacked her was lying dead at her feet with a broken neck.
Several seconds later, Sister Rosa had a similar experience. Hoping to salvage at least part of the mission, she and Father McCutcheon had begun to douse the flames of the convent with water from the well. However, just as the nun was refilling a second bucket, two shots ricocheted against the lip of the well, inches from her head.
The nun straightened and saw one of the guerrilla soldiers bearing down upon her. Before she could react, someone popped up by her shoulder and swung a rifle butt like a baseball bat. It smashed the guerrilla's face, snapping his head back with a sickening crack. The man was dead before he hit the ground. Sister Rosa gasped and dropped her bucket.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you like that," an unfamiliar voice apologized. The nun peeked around her veil. The handsome dark-haired man was standing beside her, smiling. He had his rifle in one hand and her bucket in the other.
"Do you have another one of these?" he asked, indicating the bucket.
With all his companions dead, the last guerrilla knew he had to run for it. He skirted the schoolhouse and took off for the nearby mountains. Two hundred feet behind him, Illya Kuryakin saw the escape and resolved to do something about it. He lifted his rifle one more time but just as he prepared to fire, one of the children tugged at his pants leg, throwing off his aim. The shot landed wide and hit the retreating guerrilla in the left shoulder.
"Seňor!" a small voice cried out.
Kuryakin aimed again and missed. The enemy soldier was hurt but he still mobile.
"Seňor, por favor!"
Disgusted, Kuryakin glanced down at the wiry, black-eyed boy beside him.
"What is it?" he hissed.
"My sister. There."
The boy pointed toward the burning schoolhouse. Apparently, it had also served as a dormitory for the children and through the flames and smoke, Illya could discern the outline of a head in one of the second floor windows.
Kuryakin took a last look at the retreating guerrilla and made a decision. He would have to let the man get away. The blond agent reversed direction and headed for the schoolhouse.
With the soldiers neutralized and no longer a threat, all attention turned to the burning buildings. Even the children pitched in, but it was futile. In the end, they only managed to save the kitchen and storage pantry. The other two rooms of the convent as well as the church and the schoolhouse, were a total loss.
Sister Eugenia didn't care. Buildings could be replaced. At least the children were safe, and she took some comfort in that until she counted heads and came up two short.
"Miguel! Anita! Where are they?" she asked Sister Rosa, but Miguel himself, supplied the answer.
"We are right here, Hermana," he giggled as he approached the group, walking beside the thin, blond stranger who had rescued his sister. Three-year old Anita sat cradled in the stranger's arms, clutching his jacket with her tiny fists.
"We seem to have a penchant for dramatic entrances today," Napoleon Solo observed from his perch on the lip of the well. "By the way, do you still have those matches you stole?"
Kuryakin nodded. He passed the little girl to Sister Eugenia, dug into his pocket and tossed a tattered book to his partner.
"Just who are you people anyway?" Father McCutcheon demanded as he looked from one man to the other. Both of the strangers sported scraggly beards and wore bush jackets and rumpled khaki cotton fatigues. They also carried light carbine rifles and obviously knew how to use them. To McCutcheon and the nuns, Solo and Kuryakin looked every bit as menacing as the guerrillas they had so recently dispatched.
"We work for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement," Solo replied as he finished lighting his cigarette. "You may have heard of it."
"U.N.C.L.E.?" McCutcheon said, recognizing the name. "It's some sort of security organization, isn't it?"
"That's right. I'm Napoleon Solo. This is my partner Illya Kuryakin." The Russian tipped his chin, acknowledging the introduction.
"Oh Sister, you should have seen him!" Miguel broke in enthusiastically. The oldest of the children, he was all of ten years old. "The schoolhouse was burning and Anita was crying and wouldn't come out. And you know that big tree? Well, the Seňor, he climbed right up and..."
Kuryakin turned away and coughed several times to clear his lungs. He was dirty and hot and his clothes were not only three days old, but they smelled like it, too. He would have given anything to trade Miguel's adulatory tale for a nice cold shower.
"...Not more than two miles from here, an entire village was butchered and burned to the ground," Solo was explaining to the priest by the well. "So, when we saw the smoke, we knew it meant trouble."
"But you didn't know that these were the same soldiers," McCutcheon pointed out. Apparently, the priest was not happy with the fatalities.
"Perhaps we should have waited until they massacred you all, Father," Kuryakin said dryly. "Then we would have been certain."
Suitably chastened, McCutcheon shook his head. "I still don't understand this. Colonel Santiago is our friend."
"Colonel Santiago is dead," Solo said soberly.
"Are you sure?"
The agent nodded as he exhaled a long stream of smoke. "He was murdered two nights ago. We saw it and we have the proof. The insurgency forces have been infiltrated and taken over by outsiders. That's why we have to get to the capital and tell the president."
"Then you haven't heard," Sister Eugenia cut in.
"There was an assassination attempt last night. The government's in turmoil." Solo glanced at his partner and Kuryakin arched an interested eyebrow.
"Does Angela Abaca still live?" the Russian asked.
"Yes," McCutcheon answered. "According to the reports, she's in serious but stable condition. It's been on the news constantly. Don't you fellows listen to the radio?"
"We were... temporarily detained," Solo said. He turned to Kuryakin. "So: they're playing both ends against the middle."
"And it doesn't matter who wins," Illya agreed. "They get the country in either event. And the oil." He didn't bother to say who "they" were.
Napoleon frowned. The situation was even more serious than the agents had realized.
"Now, if you two gentlemen will excuse me," McCutcheon declared, "I have my mission to attend to and the dead to bury."
He walked away to join Sister Eugenia who was kneeling beside Tomas' body. Sister Rosa and the children had retreated to what was left of the kitchen.
"We must get across the border. It's our only chance," Kuryakin said after the priest left. Solo snorted in agreement.
"We might use that old smugglers' road, if we can find it," the Russian continued. He surveyed the smoldering ruins of the mission. "But what should we do about them? That soldier who escaped will warn the others. They'll be back. These people know too much to be left alive."
Solo considered for a moment as he finished his cigarette. "We'll just have to take them with us," he said finally.
"Napoleon! You can't be serious! It's thirty kilometers to the border. Thirty miserable kilometers of mountains and jungle."
"Well, we can't leave them here alone. You said so yourself."
Kuryakin took off his hat and ran a fretful hand through his hair. It was more unkempt than usual.
"There must be at least a dozen of those children."
"Sixteen. It'll be slow going," Solo conceded, "but we'll make it." Then he grinned. "Just think of it as an adventure."
Kuryakin grunted in defeat, knowing it was useless to argue, but determined to have the last word. "You know," he muttered, "sometimes your unmitigated self-confidence can be a royal pain in the ass."
Father McCutcheon insisted on giving all the bodies a decent Christian burial, so they spent the rest of the morning digging a mass grave for the soldiers and a single one for Tomas. After McCutcheon said the last rites, the nuns fed the children lunch from the kitchen. They packed what was left of the corn meal cakes and fruit into improvised knapsacks and filled as many canteens and portable containers with fresh water as they could carry. The agents were anxious to leave before any new visitors arrived, so sometime around noon, the entire group set off for the border, heading due northeast.
The first portion of the journey was mostly downhill and fairly easy, taking them from the cool highlands to the low-lying tropical rain forest. With a combination of perseverance, a good memory and sheer luck, Kuryakin located the remnants of the smugglers' road, now little more than an overgrown footpath. By late afternoon, they had left the mountains far behind them and were well under the dense jungle canopy.
They walked more or less single file, with Solo leading the way and Kuryakin bringing up the rear. However, whenever they encountered a particularly thick patch of vegetation, the Russian hustled to the front of the line to help his partner clear the path.
"We're fortunate that the weather has held so far," Solo commented as he hacked his way with a machete scavenged from the remains of the mission storage shed. Although it was the tail end of the rainy season, the day remained humid but clear.
"Don't worry," Kuryakin assured him, uprooting a stubborn vine. "I'm sure it will pour before nightf — ."
"Shh," Solo hissed. "Listen."
Kuryakin listened. "I don't hear anything."
"It sounded like little footsteps."
"That's the children," the Russian reasoned, but he was wrong. Suddenly, a dozen copper-skinned men materialized from out of the foliage, encircling the agents. They wore only loincloths and bright green paint and they each carried a long, thin tube.
"Don't move, Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin," Sister Eugenia called out from the path, a few feet behind them. "Please. Not a muscle."
Both men obeyed. Motionless, Illya rolled his eyes at Napoleon. "Most likely, there are poisoned darts in those blowguns," he said, under his breath.
"Take it easy, gentlemen and let me handle this," Father McCutcheon volunteered. The agents were only too willing to oblige. While the priest proceeded to speak to the Indians in their native language, Sister Eugenia crept up next to Solo's shoulder and explained:
"The Europeans named these people the Lagartija because they're small and they paint themselves green like a lizard. We've met them before and they don't mind us traveling through their territory. Unfortunately, they're suspicious of the two of you. They know you're not clergy and you have guns."
"What's Father Jack saying to them?" Solo asked. Sister Eugenia chewed her lip. "He's trying to convince them not to kill you."
The agent closed his eyes and murmured fervently, "I hope he knows what he's doing."
He did. Although there were some tense moments, the brief negotiations finally ended amicably with Father McCutcheon offering his watch and a package of chewing gum as a gesture of good will. As the Lagartija melted back into the rain forest, Solo exhaled in relief but Kuryakin was thoughtful. "I wonder which one of us was worth the watch," he mused aloud.
It wasn't easy playing Pied Piper in the jungle, the agents soon discovered. No matter how hard they tried to keep the group together, someone always seemed to be wandering off.
"Here we go again," Kuryakin grumbled as he settled down beside Solo, during a rest stop, some time around sunset.
"Who are we missing this time?" the senior agent inquired patiently. He was growing accustomed to the routine.
"Sister Eugenia and about half of the female contingent."
"Are you going to go look for them or should I?"
"It's your turn. I supervised the last round-up."
"Okay," Solo said, resigned to his fate. He abandoned his comfortable seat under the tree and set out in search of the lost souls. He had a pretty good idea where they had gone and why. It was just about time for what the nuns modestly referred to as "a potty break".
He found them a few yards west of the path, discreetly screened by a shelter of low ferns. When the children became aware of his approaching presence, two of them squealed and withdrew further into the undergrowth.
"Really Mr. Solo," scolded Sister Eugenia, who was standing guard. She hooked her hands on her hips. "Little girls must have their privacy, too."
Solo pivoted and made an elaborate display of averting his eyes. If only this would happen to me with bigger girls, he thought to himself.
"I'm sorry Sister, but you have to stop traipsing off like this without informing us," he said aloud. "The jungle is a very dangerous place."
As he idly scanned the treetops, Solo suddenly realized how right he was. A large, well-muscled jaguar with glowing yellow eyes and a coat as black as pitch was staring back at him, from a branch high above.
"Christ", Solo whispered.
"I beg your pardon?" Sister Eugenia said and then she spotted the big cat too.
"Do you think he sees us?"
The agent nodded. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind. Slowly, carefully, he eased the rifle from his shoulder.
"Can you shoot him?" the nun asked and Solo didn't have the heart to tell her that even if he could manage to get the weapon into position, he would probably have time for only one shot. It was going to take a helluva lot more than one bullet to stop so large a predator.
The jaguar recoiled and growled low in its throat. Without taking his eyes off the beast, Solo released the safety and cocked the carbine as quietly as he could.
It was Luisa, one of the little girls. She ran up behind them, crashing loudly through the bushes. The sound startled the jaguar and the great cat reared back and sprang.
Solo swung the rifle up and fired. He managed to pump two good rounds into the cat before it was above them. As the agent lunged to the side, taking the nun and the child with him, out of harm's way,
Solo heard the crack of another shot. Somewhere, in midair, the jaguar roared in pain and died, its body dropping heavily and lifelessly to the ground.
A few seconds later, Kuryakin appeared. He draped his rifle over his shoulder and casually inspected the corpse. Under other circumstances, it would have made a magnificent trophy.
"Nice shot," Solo remarked as he rose and brushed off his clothing. Behind him, Sister Eugenia scrambled to her feet and hurriedly rounded up the girls.
Kuryakin watched her with amusement. "I don't think we'll have any trouble with stragglers from now on. And by the way, you owe me some ammunition. That was my last round."
Solo reached into his pocket and passed him a loaded cartridge. "That and the six shots in my clip are all that we have left."
The Russian didn't answer. He was more interested in the drops that had begun to bounce off the brim of his hat. "I knew it was going to rain," he sighed.
Later, when the last child was finally tucked in for the night, Sister Eugenia went searching for Napoleon, who was serving the first watch. She found him a few yards from camp, huddled in the undergrowth with his jacket suspended overhead to form a temporary shelter. It didn't help much. His hair and beard were damp with drizzle.
The agent looked up. He didn't seem surprised to see her.
"Are all the kids sleeping?" he asked and the nun nodded.
"Yes, finally. But I can't seem to fall asleep myself. Do you mind?"
"Not at all. I could use a cup of coffee, but I'll settle for the company," Solo said. He made room as Sister Eugenia slipped under the jacket. She eyed him slyly.
"You didn't even flinch at my voice. How did you know it was me and not some wild animal?"
Solo suppressed a grin. "Your rosary beads rattle. It's a dead giveaway."
He paused. In the far-off glow of the sputtering campfire, he could barely make out the outline of her head. The silhouette had changed.
"What happened to your veil, Sister?"
"Oh, Sister Rosa and I used the cloth to make a tent for the youngest children. It's not much, but we have to make due."
She patted a hand self-consciously against her closely cropped hair and Solo smiled to himself. It was as he had surmised: she was a redhead.
"And speaking of making due, I brought something for you." Sister Eugenia dipped into a sleeve of her habit and produced one of the corn meal cakes. "Here. You and Mr. Kuryakin haven't eaten all day."
Actually, the truth was that Solo hadn't eaten for almost two days. And now, with decent food and water in short supply, the agents had decided to subsist on any fruits and nuts they could scrounge in their travels, leaving the regular provisions for the others. They'd found a guava tree and a cache of Brazil nuts but most of what they'd seen was inedible, unidentifiable or out of reach.
"We've managed on less before," Solo told her. "Besides, we wouldn't have brought anything if we had continued on by ourselves."
"But you would have reached the border in a third of the time," she reminded him. Solo conceded the point and accepted the food.
As he ate, Sister Eugenia peered into the darkness and listened to the sounds of the jungle. Somewhere, not far away, a jaguar was hunting. The nun shuddered, remembering the incident earlier that afternoon.
"You two are pretty good with those, aren't you?" she commented, pointing to the rifle balanced across Solo's knees. The agent shrugged. "Comes with the job. Did you happen to bring a canteen with you?"
She handed it to him and watched him wash down the remainder of the meager meal. "Father really admires you, you know. He says that you both took a solemn oath to dedicate your lives to work for the welfare of mankind."
"That's essentially true," Solo agreed, somewhat embarrassed, "although I wouldn't put it quite so, ah, melodramatically." He passed the canteen back. She set it down between them.
"Are you policemen or security agents or something like that?"
"Something like that. Actually, we have about as much in common with the average cop on the beat as you have with your cloistered sisters."
Sister Eugenia chuckled. "I see. Same church, different pew, huh? And you travel all around the world?"
"Wherever I'm sent. Every week or so, a different place. Sometimes, several different places."
The nun gathered her skirts around her and hugged her knees, revealing a pair of fraying, black high-top sneakers. "It sounds very exciting and romantic."
Solo sighed and wiped some droplets of rain from his forehead. "The reality is often less so." He gestured carelessly. "It's a living."
"How did you get into this business, anyway?"
Solo shifted the rifle to a more comfortable position. He was beginning to regret eating the corn meal cake. It had whetted his appetite and now he was hungrier.
"Well, the Korean War was over. I was discharged from the Army and not sure what to do next. So I joined U.N.C.L.E. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"No wife? No children? No family?"
"Nope. No ties, none. My superiors frown on that sort of thing."
They both laughed together and Solo tilted his head and studied her. She was a lovely woman with a fair, fresh Irish face.
"And what about you?" he said, turning the question around. "If you don't mind me asking, what's a pretty girl like you doing in a habit?"
Sister Eugenia smiled at the compliment. She rocked back and listened to the beat of the rain on the jacket overhead as she considered her answer.
"Oh, I don't know. A broken home, a dead-end career, a canceled engagement. The usual youthful discontentment. As you said before: it seemed like a good idea at the time."
"No divine calling? No urgent message from the Almighty?"
Sister Eugenia grinned and offered him a sidelong glance. "Now who's being romantic, Mr. Solo?"
"Sorry. It's a weakness of mine."
"So I see. No, there was nothing very supernatural about it. I was just little Katie O'Donnell from Chicago — that's my other name and in my neighborhood, women married young, had lots of babies and moved four blocks away from where they were born. I wanted to do something more. I guess I'm a bit of a romantic, too."
"No regrets then?"
The nun shook her head. "Not really, except I must confess, there are a few things I crave. Like Hershey bars. And chocolate malts. And hot fudge sundaes. I absolutely lust for a hot fudge sundae."
They laughed together again and then she said, "And you, Mr. Solo? Surely, yours is a very demanding job. What do you miss?"
The agent fingered the barrel of his rifle thoughtfully. "I don't know what to call it. It's just that my life seems to be an endless series of arrivals and departures. I meet so many people, but then the affair is over, and I move on and never see them again. Nothing and no one is permanent."
"God is permanent," the nun observed softly. "Do you believe in God, Mr. Solo?"
"Yes, but I don't consider myself especially religious."
"And what about Mr. Kuryakin?"
Solo snorted and shook his head. "Illya was raised a dedicated Communist, though frankly, I suspect he puts more faith in a full clip and a well-oiled gun then in the revolt of the proletariat. We agree on many things, but the existence of a Supreme Being, or whatever you want to call it, is not one of them. He says it's a psychological crutch."
"But you don't agree."
The agent's voice turned serious as he stared off into the night. "I've seen great Evil and I have to believe there's some greater Good to balance it out."
"You may be more religious than you think," the nun told him. "In fact, we're a lot alike, you and I."
Solo shook his head again. "Don't flatter me by comparing yourself to me, Sister. I'm a very sinful man and you're doing God's work."
But the nun would not be dissuaded. "Everyone who earns an honest living is doing God's work and we're all sinners, Mr. Solo."
Some time later, when his shift was over, Napoleon returned to the main part of the camp and nudged his partner's shoulder. It wasn't necessary. Kuryakin was already awake.
"An interesting traveling companion, our Sister Eugenia," the Russian remarked as he reached for his gun.
"Hmmm..." Solo said noncommittally. He pulled his jacket over his head and tried to lie down as comfortably as possible. The rain was annoying but at least it discouraged the insects. Illya persevered.
"But the name doesn't quite suit her. It sounds somewhat masculine and she's much too attractive a woman, don't you think?"
"I hadn't noticed," Solo mumbled and drifted off to sleep.
Although it continued to rain steadily the next day, the morning was blessedly uneventful. The path grew wider and more accessible. Apparently this portion had been used recently. Solo allowed himself to relax a little and enjoy the exotic beauty of his surroundings. When he happened upon a cluster of wild orchids, he broke one off and presented it to Sister Rosa. The nun ducked her head modestly and accepted the impromptu gift with a delighted trill of laughter.
"Sister Rosa already refers to you two as our brave caballeros," Sister Eugenia told him a short time later. "Now you have won her heart forever. She loves flowers."
"I have one for you, too," Solo declared. He offered her a fragrant bloom the color of sweet cream and her cheeks flushed warmly to match her hair. She tried to stifle a smile and was not entirely successful.
"Do you always bring flowers to your lady friends, Mr. Solo?"
"Yes, and sometimes, if they play their cards right, I bring them chocolates, too," he replied with a wink. Sister Eugenia changed the subject.
"Your friend certainly has made an impression on the boys."
Solo glanced behind them. Illya was walking with Anita perched on his shoulders, which pleased her older brother, Miguel, no end. Now the boy had an excuse to march proudly beside the mysterious, valiant stranger who had defeated the soldiers, confronted a raging fire, unafraid, and had brought down a pouncing jaguar with a single shot. Obviously, this was a man worthy of respect.
As Miguel reviewed these feats with his younger male companions, scrutinizing and embellishing the details, Solo dropped back along the line.
"Looks like you have quite a fan club, there," the dark-haired agent commented to his partner, in undisguised amusement. "I hear they all want to be U.N.C.L.E. agents when they grow up."
"Foolish misguided youth," Kuryakin muttered, squinting through the drizzle. Anita had confiscated his broad-brimmed hat for herself.
Napoleon shook a cigarette from his pack and surveyed the group with cautious satisfaction. Ahead, the nuns were talking and laughing together and Father McCutcheon was pointing out a troop of monkeys to some of the children.
"All things considered, they seem to be enjoying the trip," he observed, but Kuryakin was less than cheerful.
"We still must cross the river and this rain is going to work against us."
Solo's grin faded. "I know," he said softly.
The river in question was the Río Lagarto — the Alligator River — one of the hundreds of minor tributaries that empty into the mighty Amazon. Late that afternoon, it abruptly reared up before them, cutting the smugglers' road in two, as green and ugly and treacherous as its namesake.
As the agents had feared, the rain had raised the water level, and now it rushed past like boiling pea soup, swelling and slopping against the banks. Even at its narrowest point, the river was about two hundred feet across.
Kuryakin pulled off his jacket and boots and waded in experimentally. "If you see anything moving in the water," he told Solo, "shoot it." Although he didn't expect to encounter any alligators, water snakes and even piranha were not unheard of in these parts.
The murky water was warm and but not too deep, about chest level for the compact Russian. The passage would be difficult but not impossible.
By the time Illya was back on shore, Solo had already stripped off his own jacket and shirt. "It's deeper on this side than on the other," the blond agent reported as Solo pulled off his boots. "The current is fairly strong and there's an undertow." He scraped a layer of muck from his arm. "And it's pretty foul, too."
"What do you intend to do?" Father McCutcheon inquired, watching them with interest.
"We'll form a human chain and carry the children across. By the way Father, can you swim?"
"I can't," Sister Rosa said meekly but Solo smiled at her reassuringly.
"Don't worry, Sister. We'll take you across first. You can keep an eye out for predators." He turned to Sister Eugenia. "And what about you?"
"I was on the university swim team," the nun smirked and held up her fingers. "Four medals."
"Good. Then you and Father Jack can take positions near each bank. Illya and I will take the middle."
He looked down at her long habit. "But you'd better gather up that skirt and veil. When they're wet, they'll weigh you done like a millstone."
"I'll do better than that," Sister Eugenia told him. "May I have your shirt please?"
Surprised, Solo started to hand it over, but Kuryakin was quicker. "Take mine. It's a better fit," he said and tossed a damp ball of khaki cotton to her.
"Be right back," the nun declared and disappeared into the bushes. A few seconds later she emerged, stuffing Illya's shirt into a pair of beige canvas walking shorts, her veil and habit draped over one arm. As she unlaced her high-top sneakers, Kuryakin cocked a curious eyebrow at his partner. Solo shook his head and smiled appreciatively. Although he tried not to, he couldn't help but notice that Sister Eugenia had nice legs.
They helped Sister Rosa across the river first, along with the food supplies, the guns and Kuryakin's all-important camera case. Then they concentrated their efforts on the rest of the group, passing the children along, one by one. It was slow, tedious, physically demanding work, particularly for the agents, who had to hoist the little ones above their heads while they fought the force of the current.
An hour later, they were still at it, tired and dirty and soaked to the skin with sludge and sweat. As Kuryakin transferred Teresa to Sister Eugenia's arms, he looked across the river to Solo. The dark-haired agent was heading toward the opposite shore to receive the last child from Father McCutcheon.
Thank goodness, the Russian thought to himself. And then he heard it: the low, ominous rumble of surging water.
His head snapped up just in time to see a thundering floodtide of olive-green foam and debris rolling straight for them. "Napoleon!" he cried. "Look out!"
Solo heard it too. He halted in midstream and furiously cast about for an anchor. There was a partly submerged tree trunk poking through surface of the water nearby. He grabbed for it and hung on.
The murderous wave of silt and water came roaring past, engulfing the agents and overflowing the higher ground. Sister Eugenia and Teresa scrambled up a muddy slope, but the torrent caught them. It ripped a chunk of loose riverbank out from under them, and the nun and the little girl slid helplessly into the raging river.
Solo came up, sputtering for air, just in time to see their heads disappear below the crest. "Get the kid!" he shouted to Kuryakin, but the Russian was already diving to the rescue.
Some distance away, Sister Eugenia bobbed to the surface, battling the current. She was only a few feet from shore when a large, floating branch slammed into her, clipping her across the temple. Her head jerked to one side and drooped. As Solo watched in horror, the water swamped her body and swept it away. The agent abandoned the safety of the tree trunk and swam off in pursuit.
Meanwhile, Kuryakin searched blindly underwater for the drowning child. Teresa was a frail four-year old and her slight wisp of a body almost eluded him. But then, he felt a telltale ripple of movement near his shoulder. The agent changed direction, reached out and ensnared her in his arms. He felt Teresa squirm against him, alive and breathing. Triumphantly, he squeezed her tight and propelled himself upward.
The situation downstream was considerably more desperate. Solo treaded water, maneuvering along the swift-flowing current. Ahead of him, a row of jagged rocks stretched like a string of moss-covered pearls across the neck of the river. Wedged between two of them was Sister Eugenia.
Solo felt a momentary flutter of hope. She didn't look alive, but somehow, he knew she was. Now, if only he could get to her in time, before she became dislodged and lost forever.
The tide flung the agent against the butt of the natural breakwater. Cautiously, he edged along the chain of rocks, using them as a brace against the churning waters. The nun was unconscious when Solo reached her, but as she floated into his arms, her eyes flickered open.
"It's me, Sister. I have you now," he told her gently. She seemed to understand and closed her eyes again. He seized the nun with a good, firm grip and towed her across the river. It took all the strength that he had left to climb up the riverbank and haul Sister Eugenia to safety.
Once more on dry land, Solo crawled to her side and checked her condition. He found a pulse, faint and rapid, but only weak signs of respiration.
Automatically, Solo bent low to begin resuscitation, but as he looked down at her face, he hesitated, for the briefest instant.
I'm acting like an idiot, the agent chided himself. She may be a nun but she's a woman too, and she's going to die if I don't do something.
With revived determination, he tilted her head back, pinched her nose shut, pressed his mouth against hers, and forced life-giving air into her lungs. He heard them inflate and followed the first burst with three more short breaths.
Solo broke away, waiting for her to respond. "Sister Eugenia," he said but she just lay there, unmoving. He grasped her shoulders tight. "Katie!" he shouted, more harshly. "C'mon Katie! Fight! Goddamn it, don't give up on me now!"
He renewed his efforts and this time, they were rewarded. Sister Eugenia came to her senses, gagging, choking, and gasping for oxygen. She rolled over on her side and spit out a mouthful of phlegm and filthy water. Solo steadied her and watched her retch with a mixture of sympathy and relief.
When she was finally finished, the nun sat up, trembling with mild shock. Solo wished he had a jacket or shirt to throw over her. He fingered her temple and grinned.
"Looks like you're going to have quite a lump there," he said, but instead of returning his smile, the nun's eyes unexpectedly brimmed with tears.
"What am I doing here?" she sobbed. "I should go home. I should go back to Chicago."
Solo tried to calm her. He knew it was just a nervous reaction: he'd experienced it himself after his own first brush with death, years before.
"Shh...easy. It's over. You're going to be all right." He patted her hand but she refused to be consoled.
"I have no right to be here. How can I care for these people? Look at me. I can't even take care of myself!"
Weeping bitterly, she buried her face against his chest, clinging to him like one of the children. Solo's back stiffened and he held out his hands awkwardly, uncertain of what to do next. He had embraced countless women in the past eagerly, without a second thought, but the idea of embracing this one made him distinctly uncomfortable.
And yet, not to do so seemed the greater sin. After all, this was a human being in pain and in trouble, he told himself, and what he would or should or should not feel, was of little consequence. She needed him and that was all that mattered. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close and let her cry.
When they both had recovered sufficiently to walk, Napoleon and Sister Eugenia hiked back upstream on unsteady legs, to where the rest of the group was waiting for them. There were still a few hours of daylight left, so after some deliberation, the adults decided to try to push on.
The ordeal of the river crossing however, had taken its toll. Everyone was worn out and after trudging one more seemingly endless mile, Kuryakin decided that it was cruel to march the group any further that day. Reluctantly, he called for a halt and they pitched an early camp.
A supper from the dwindling supplies of fruit and corn meal cakes was distributed quickly and eaten in silence. After most of the children were bedded down for the night, Father McCutcheon volunteered to take the first watch, allowing the agents a few hours of much-needed rest. Sister Eugenia sat with the priest for a while, but soon, her eyes were closing, too. She said goodnight and went back to the main part of the camp.
With the rain finally over, the night was clear and warm. Overhead, the stars were out, and somewhere, mingled with the sounds of the rain forest, someone was softly singing.
As the nun approached the little clearing, she realized it was Kuryakin. The agent was sitting, propped up against a tree, with Anita and Teresa dozing peacefully in his lap. At least a half-dozen other sleeping children were crowded around him. His voice was pleasant and soothingly melodic and Sister Eugenia told him so.
"Is that a Russian lullaby?" she asked and he nodded.
"My mother used to sing it to me, whenever I had bad dreams."
"Where's Mr. Solo?"
Kuryakin pointed. The other agent was sprawled face down, exactly where he had collapsed, spent and exhausted, earlier that evening. Sister Eugenia looked at him and sighed. "He has saved my life three times in two days and I have yet to thank him."
"It's not necessary," Kuryakin assured her. Anita stirred fitfully in her sleep and he shifted the girl more comfortably against his shoulder.
"Did Mr. Solo say anything about this afternoon?"
The Russian offered her an impish grin. "Just that you have nice legs, but don't tell him I told you."
The nun smiled sadly, appreciating his tactfulness. "The truth is, Mr. Kuryakin, I behaved pretty miserably. I couldn't think of anything but myself and that I was going to die. I was so frightened."
"You had good reason to be. Survival is the strongest human instinct."
"But I don't like being a coward."
"You're not and someday, when the time comes, you'll prove me right. Now go to sleep, Sister. Tomorrow, we have another long day ahead of us."
The nun rose wearily. "Is it okay if I wear your shirt for a little while longer?" she asked. "I seem to have lost my habit in all the excitement."
"Be my guest," Kuryakin chuckled. "Keep it as a souvenir."
He resumed the lullaby and Sister Eugenia found Sister Rosa and settled down beside her.
"They're such strange men," the American nun remarked aloud as she closed her eyes. "They save our lives during the daytime and sing to us at night."
But her companion did not think the situation was odd at all. "And why not?" the little nun replied matter-of-factly. "They are our guardian angels, are they not?"
Even with a full night's sleep, a third day of arduous walking proved too much for many of the children. Rest stops grew longer and sudden tantrums more frequent. By early afternoon, the adults had begun to carry the five youngest, along with the guns and provisions.
Although everyone was too tired to notice, Sister Eugenia remained unusually quiet. She was still preoccupied with the question of courage — or the lack of it — and after lunch, she raised the subject once again with Napoleon.
"Are you ever afraid Mr. Solo?"
"Sure, all the time," he answered her truthfully.
"Oh, I don't believe that. What could you possibly fear?"
Solo considered the question as Raul, one of the twins, bounced along on his shoulders. "Failure. Not getting the job done. Being hurt or captured or injured in some permanent way that ends my career. Right now, I'm worried that we might not make it to the border and hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent lives will be lost as a result."
"But what about your own life? Aren't you ever afraid of dying yourself?"
"No, never." Napoleon shrugged absently, as if the question was meaningless. "I signed my life away years ago. You can't be concerned about something that no longer belongs to you."
"But that sounds so terribly grim. I thought you worked for the good guys."
"Let's just say that everyone has his price," Kuryakin said, from behind them, "and the devil isn't the only one who makes bargains. But then, you know that, Sister, as well as we do."
The rain forest ended as it had begun: surrounded by highlands. The smugglers' road rose and wound through the gently rolling hills and the group followed it. By pure chance, they discovered a small, spring-fed waterfall that offered them an opportunity to refill their badly depleted canteens.
Father McCutcheon and the nuns supervised a pleasant hour of swimming with the children and while the little ones splashed around them, the agents stood under the waterfall fully clothed. Solo would have given anything for some soap and a sharp razor, but it was a relief just to throw his head back and let the clean, clear water wash away a week's worth of grime.
Refreshed and invigorated by the swim, the group's pace quickened. At times, the path was steep and difficult, but the air was cooler and the safety of the border lay invitingly close, just beyond the hills.
"There it is," Kuryakin said at last as the sun dipped below the horizon. He lay on his belly on the ridge with Solo crouched nearby. Below them was the northern border of Querido, a necklace of chain link steel and barbed wire that stretched in either direction, as far as the eye could see.
"That must be a guard post," the Russian guessed, indicating the two squat buildings positioned near the fence. "The antenna means that they have a radio. There doesn't seem to be many soldiers around. I make it three at most."
"Mmm," Solo agreed. "I like the odds."
As Kuryakin rolled over on his back, Solo searched his pocket for his cigarettes. "Last one," he said and squashed the pack into a tight ball. He lit it and began to puff thoughtfully.
"What do you think we should do?" the Russian agent wondered aloud. Solo took a deep drag and shrugged.
"Apparently the government is still intact. We might as well introduce ourselves. If courtesy fails, we can always use some more aggressive means of persuasion. The worst they can do is arrest us. That will still put your film into official hands and get us a ride out of here."
The ride was important: it was still another ten miles to the nearest town and their food supplies as well as the children's endurance had just about run out.
"All right. But we'll leave the others here, just in case."
Solo laughed ironically. "Now, what could possibly go wrong?"
They found out soon enough. As the agents cautiously approached the main guardhouse, they saw two soldiers lounging casually on the flat cement porch.
"They don't look threatening," Solo whispered to Kuryakin, then raised his voice in greeting. "Buenos noches, gentlemen. We seem to be in need of a little assistance. Can we speak to your commander?"
Another man with his arm in a sling, appeared in the doorway. "Of course, Señors," he smiled. "Come right in and make yourselves at home. We've been expecting you."
Kuryakin froze. It was the same man he had shot and failed to stop, three days ago.
"Napoleon —," he said, but it was too late. Two more soldiers appeared with weapons drawn. It wasn't clear whether they were imposters or had been co-opted by the enemy, but in the end, it didn't really make a difference. The agents were surrounded.
I knew I should have killed that guy, the Russian thought to himself, right before a rifle butt connected with the back of his skull.
"Something's wrong," Sister Eugenia fretted after two hours had passed and the agents still hadn't returned. "I'm worried."
"They left strict instructions to stay here," Father McCutcheon reminded her, but it was obvious that he was worried too.
So, after a brief review of their options, Sister Eugenia took Miguel and slipped down the side of the hill to investigate. They peeked into the main guardhouse first, but found only three soldiers: two playing cards at a table and one, with his arm in a sling, fiddling with a transmitter.
The nun and the boy stole silently across the yard to a rear building that appeared to be a combination garage and storage shed. There was only one narrow, glassless window, high up, near the overhang of the roof. Sister Eugenia boosted Miguel on her shoulders.
"They're in here, Hermana," he told her, after a moment. The wiry boy scrambled through the opening and unlocked the front door. In the shadows of the shed, they found Solo and Kuryakin, slumped against a roof support, back to back. The agents were secured to each other and to the post by a length of light steel cable.
"Dear Lord, what did they do to you?" exclaimed Sister Eugenia.
"Don't ask," Solo replied as his head lolled to one side. His lower lip was split and someone had blackened his left eye. "Quick, Sister. Get the wire cutter. Over there. Hurry."
The nun rummaged through the hardware on a nearby workbench and found it.
"Didn't you tell them who you were?" she asked as she sawed through their bonds. After a minute or two, Solo extricated himself from the cable and rubbed the circulation back into his arms.
"It's difficult to reason with a man nursing a grudge," he told her. He circled to Kuryakin and shook him.
"C'mon boy, the cavalry has arrived."
"I should have killed him," the Russian mumbled as he came awake. He was in slightly worse condition than Solo. His angular face was puffy and looked like it had been used for sparring practice.
"You can repent later. Right now, we have to retrieve the film and get out of here."
"But your camera!" Sister Eugenia cried as she looked back at the workbench. The expensive equipment had been smashed and the roll of film lay unraveled and exposed in a twisted heap.
Illya picked through the mess, not at all concerned. "The outer body is just a dummy, a decoy," he explained. He snapped open a secret compartment near the base of the camera, popped out a tiny roll of microfilm and tucked it into his jacket pocket. Solo turned to Sister Eugenia. "Where's the rest of the group?"
"We left them back on the ridge. Father wanted to come, but I was afraid he'd be recognized if we were caught."
"But of course, you're traveling incognito yourself," he chuckled. The nun lowered her eyes self-consciously. She was still dressed in Illya's shirt, the walking shorts and high-top sneakers.
"Two of the soldiers went in the jeep, Señor," Miguel informed the agents. "Hermana and me waited until they were gone."
"Good. That means we'll have to deal with just three of them."
Solo checked his matches. There were only two left. He passed the book, along with a gas can and a rag, to Sister Eugenia.
"Here, take these and the wire cutters. The fence isn't electrified. Tell Father Jack to cut through a few hundred yards from here. Then, after you're all clear, soak this rag with gasoline. Tie it near the opening and light it, so that Illya and I can find the hole when we're ready. Got it?"
"Got it," Sister Eugenia said, nodding. "And what are you two going to do?"
"We want a crack at that radio to call for a chopper," Kuryakin explained as he shook his head to clear it.
"We'll also need a diversion," Solo added. He surveyed the shed thoughtfully. "I suppose we could blow this place up."
Kuryakin groaned. "Do we always have to blow the place up? Can't we skip it this time? Besides, an explosion will attract every soldier for miles."
"Do you have a better idea?" Solo inquired, but it was Sister Eugenia who said,
"I do. Give us a couple of minutes, okay?"
"Okay. Now, get going." Miguel and the nun went.
The agents counted ten minutes before they trotted from the safety of the shed and flattened themselves against the side of the main guardhouse. In the front of the building, there was some commotion going on. Two of the soldiers had abandoned their cards, leaving the man with the sling at the communications console, all alone.
Without a sound, Kuryakin hopped through the window, hooked an arm around the man's neck and broke it.
"I should have done that days ago," he remarked with satisfaction as he pushed the body aside and sat down behind the console. Solo confiscated the dead man's rifle and peered though the front door.
Outside, flanked by Miguel and José, sweet little Sister Rosa was arguing loudly with the two soldiers. With Father McCutcheon's shirt, a few of the children's shawls and her veil wrapped around her waist like an apron, the nun had concocted a fairly convincing peasant disguise.
"Do you know what the hell she's saying?" one of the soldiers asked in exasperation, but the other just scratched his head. "Beats me. I don't understand that highland Indian dialect."
"Allow me to translate," Solo said from the doorway as he leveled his rifle. "Gentlemen, kindly drop your weapons, put your hands behind your heads, and lie face down on the ground."
As they did so, Napoleon turned to Sister Rosa. "Thank you Sister for a brilliant performance. Now you and the boys had better get out of here. We'll be along shortly."
The nun nodded and the three figures retreated. Solo kept the guards covered until Kuryakin appeared next to him.
"U.N.C.L.E. is sending a helicopter to pick us up," the Russian said. "They'll be here in twenty minutes. And by the way, Angela Abaca has recovered sufficiently to take control of the government again."
"All's well that ends well," Solo recited and narrowed his eyes. He could just about make out the flare of the burning rag, hanging on an eastern stretch of fence.
"Not quite," Kuryakin said, grasping his partner's shoulder. "I hear a jeep."
He was right. The other soldiers were returning, heading back along the picket, from the east.
"We'd better make a break for it," Solo concluded and the agents took off. Behind them, the soldiers scrambled to their feet and searched for their guns. Straight ahead, the jeep barreled toward them, on a collision course. The soldier sitting beside the driver stood up and opened fire.
This is going to be a close one, Solo told himself, as bullets tore up the ground around the running agents. The opening was just yards away but the jeep was also converging on them fast.
And then suddenly, a gasoline can stuffed with a burning rag came sailing over the fence. It landed in the grass, just beyond the agents. The grass ignited and the flames raced along a pre-soaked trail of gasoline, creating a wall of fire to cover the agents' escape.
Solo and Kuryakin ducked through the rent in the fence and accelerated, sprinting in a zigzag pattern down an incline and across an open field. Gunfire flashed behind them, from the border, but soon, the soldiers gave up and the agents disappeared into the night, out of reach and out of range.
Applause and laughter greeted them as they joined the mission group on the other side of the field. The children crowded around and clutched at the men, while Sister Eugenia shook her head and Sister Rosa blessed herself with a deep sigh of relief.
"Nice hook shot, Father," Solo complimented McCutcheon, between labored breaths. The lanky priest smiled, unable to hide his merriment. "It was nothing, really," he said. "I used to play ball for Notre Dame."
As soon as the helicopter landed in the capital city, the agents reported to the local U.N.C.L.E. branch and surrendered the microfilm. They shaved and showered and caught a good night's sleep. The next morning, after a decent breakfast, they stopped at the hospital on their way to the airport, bringing candy for all the children.
"They'll just be here a few days for observation," Father McCutcheon assured the agents as he and Sister Rosa walked them to the door. "Everyone's fine, thanks to you fellows."
"But we helped," Miguel reminded the priest. He saluted Kuryakin and the Russian touched a finger to his temple in return.
"Where's Sister Eugenia?" Solo asked and Sister Rosa pointed to a side door near the garden. "Here she comes now."
"Excuse me," he said and broke away from the group.
"I see we're both back in uniform," the American nun observed when she saw him. She was dressed in a crisply pressed habit. Solo was wearing a new suit of ivory linen. "You look very handsome, although I think I liked the beard."
"I'll consider growing one in the future," Solo said. The nun clasped her hands together and studied them.
"Well. I suppose this is another in your endless series of arrivals and departures. Where are you off to, this time?"
"Back to New York, and then on to Vienna. And you?"
"I'll stay here for awhile, and then I've been reassigned to a hospital in Valparaiso, Chile."
"Here's something to take with you." He produced a box of Hershey bars from behind his back and at the sight of it, the nun broke up, laughing.
"And I, too, have a going-away present," she declared, after she caught her breath. She held up a St. Christopher medal, suspended on a chain.
"According to legend, St. Christopher carried the child Jesus across a raging river. He's also the patron saint of travelers and tradition has it, that anyone who looks upon his image will suffer no harm that day."
"I'll hang it over my shaving mirror every morning," Napoleon promised.
"I'd like to write to you, Mr. Solo," the nun said after a moment.
The agent shrugged. "I'm afraid I'm not much of a letter writer. You won't get many replies."
"That's all right. I have no one else to share my adventures with, such as they are. No one who would understand. Besides, it might be fun having a spy for a pen pal."
"Okay," Solo relented. He reached into his breast pocket and gave her a business card. "If you send them to this address, your letters will reach me. And if you're ever in New York, I'll buy you a hot fudge sundae."
"I just might take you up on that offer." She extended her hand to him. "Goodbye Napoleon Solo, from the U.N.C.L.E. God keep both you and Mr. Kuryakin safe."
He took her hand and squeezed it tight. "Goodbye Katie O'Donnell from Chicago..."
There was nothing more to say. Behind them, Illya was leaning on the horn of the jeep. "Let's go, Napoleon. We have our own higher authority to answer to, and he's not known for his patience."
Solo turned to go. Then, all at once, he stopped, and thought to himself : Oh, what the hell .
He spun on his heel, leaned over and offered the nun a quick peck on the cheek. Startled, Sister Eugenia looked up and blinked, but the agent was gone, already climbing into the jeep.
"Just couldn't resist, could you?" Kuryakin grunted as he threw the vehicle into gear and floored the accelerator. The sound of Solo's laughter was lost in the breeze.
As the jeep roared away in a cloud of dust and gravel, the agents raised their hands in farewell. Standing by the garden wall, Sister Eugenia returned the gesture.
Sister Rosa joined her and tilted her veiled head. "He kissed you, didn't he?" she whispered.
"Yes, but I don't think I'll confess it," Sister Eugenia said as the nuns exchanged secret smiles. "Guardian angels don't count."
Solo never expected to see her again but as it happened, three months later, the agent was sitting in Waverly's office for a routine morning briefing, when Lisa Rogers appeared with a message for him.
"You have visitors, Mr. Solo, down at the tailor shop." The secretary hesitated. "Uh, two nuns..."
"Nuns did you say, Miss Rogers?" Waverly demanded.
"Yes, sir. We had them scanned and they appear to be genuine."
The idea of scanning two nuns for weapons made Solo smile. He shot a sidelong glance at Kuryakin. Behind the tinted lenses of his reading glasses, the Russian's eyes danced with amusement.
"What the devil do they want?" the chief asked. "This is highly irregular, even for you, Mr. Solo."
"Ah yes, well ... I, ah, believe sir, that it may have something to do with that Querido affair last spring. The one involving the mission school?"
Waverly leaned back in the black leather seat and nodded, his bushy eyebrows knitting together.
"So, if there's nothing further to discuss sir, I should like to be excused..."
"Oh yes, quite. By all means, go Mr. Solo. We mustn't keep the good sisters waiting."
Solo rose and tapped his partner's shoulder. "C'mon Illya. She brought a date for you."
They discovered Sister Eugenia with a companion, waiting for them outside Del Floria's, in the hot muggy August afternoon.
"Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin!" she cried as they emerged from the front entrance.
"Hello, Sister," Solo greeted her. "You seem surprised to see us."
"I think I am. Sister Agnes and I are meeting with a U.N. committee and I thought I'd look you up. I must admit, I came mostly out of curiosity but when we found only this tailor shop... well, it seems the Lord isn't the only one who moves in mysterious ways."
"We like to keep a low profile," Illya agreed. Sister Eugenia turned to Napoleon.
"And thank you for the postcards. I'm the envy of the convent."
"You're welcome. Is there time for us to buy you two sisters lunch?"
The nun cocked her head. "That would be very nice but actually I'd prefer —."
" A hot fudge sundae," Solo grinned, finishing the sentence for her. "Yes, I remember. How does the phrase go? 'Ask and you shall receive.' " He glanced over at Illya. "Do we know any good ice cream parlors?"
For the next few months, she wrote letters to him, sometimes as often as once a week, and Solo scribbled short notes on the backs of postcards when he could. And then one day, the letters stopped. A month later, a package arrived. The accompanying letter was brief, formal and to the point:
Sister Mary Eugenia, it informed him, had died on the twenty-first of February, in a fire in Valparaiso, Chile. A firebomb, apparently meant for a government building, hit the hospital next door instead. Sister Eugenia had been working in the children's ward and she stayed behind until every last patient was evacuated. They found her body later, near an exit. Evidently, she had been overcome by the smoke.
At the bottom of the official letter, there was a handwritten note. It read:
"Dear Mr. Solo: I'm sending you Sister Eugenia's personal possessions because as you may know, she had no close living relatives. In the event of her death, she designated you as her next of kin.
"I would only like to add that Sister Eugenia was, without a doubt, the bravest woman I have ever known. I shall always remember her in my prayers. She was a good friend and all of us here will miss her."
It was signed by a local mother superior.
Solo unwrapped the package and looked through the box. It didn't contain much: rosary beads; a prayer book; a sewing kit; several cotton handkerchiefs; a bag of Tootsie Rolls; a pair of white, high-topped sneakers, and a stack of his postcards, neatly tied with a string.
He wasn't surprised: those who had bargains to keep always traveled light. "Ah, Katie," he said aloud to himself. "You were right. We were a lot alike."
Napoleon gathered the items together and placed them back into the box. Then he flipped the intercom, told Mitzi, his secretary, to hold all his calls and spent the rest of the morning in his office.