It's not often you get to meet a legend, and I had a hard time deciding what to wear. Dress overly formal and you look like an anal retentive; too casual, and it lacks respect. Besides, I look about fifteen in casual gear.
I don't normally have much to do with field agents. I work in translation. But the boss really liked the articles I wrote for Intell – that's our in-house magazine – so come the fiftieth anniversary issue, he got me clearance to interview Kuryakin.
"Write something inspirational, kid," he said. "The guy's one of the best agents we ever had. Get him to pass on some tips to the new blood."
I figured it could be a great article, and I had about a million questions planned. What was the technology like back in the day? Was it true what they said about Survival School? Had he known Alexander Waverly personally?
(Illya Kuryakin, a man who our readers will agree needs no introduction, talked openly to Intell in an exclusive interview about his years with UNCLE.)
Of course, what I really wanted to know was what everyone else really wanted to know: what was it like working with Napoleon Solo?
I didn't dare ask him, though, because of the way the partnership ended. There's kind of a black cloud of mystery hanging over it, because no-one really knows what happened. They were both in this Thrush holding cell together facing execution. Kuryakin got out, Solo didn't. End of story.
I looked it up in the files, of course. But the open access files just say that Mr Kuryakin did his duty and came straight back to New York. It doesn't say why it was his duty to come straight back, when his partner was about to be executed. It doesn't say how he got out. It doesn't say anything. You can see why I didn't like to raise it with him. He might have gotten pissed at me.
Still, maybe he would let something slip. It would be a real scoop if I could get the low-down on that.
(Kuryakin's career at UNCLE has included ups as well as downs. He has known tragedy and failure as well as triumph.)
In the end, I wore a tie, but I didn't button my jacket. Smart, but not finicky. Professional, but friendly. That kind of look.
I needn't have bothered. Kuryakin hardly looked at me anyway. I mean, he gave me the once-over when I first arrived, and I'm sure that brain of his took in every tiny detail, but he didn't actually care.
He's a little guy, with a British accent, and the sharpest eyes you ever saw.
(In spite of his advanced years, Kuryakin still preserves the trim agility and mental quickness of his youth.)
"Joe Schmoe, isn't it?" he said, when he opened the door. (I don't want to give my real name. I do work for UNCLE, after all.)
"Yes sir. I'm here to interview you for Intell."
"Ah yes, the UNCLE magazine. I've read your articles."
He didn't say if they were any good. I decided I didn't like Kuryakin much.
He answered my questions willingly enough, though, and even told a funny story about Alexander Waverly and his pipe tobacco. Apparently this kid was sent out to get a new pipe or something, and ended up carting a valuable microdot all round Manhattan, with enemy agents in hot pursuit. According to him, she worked in translation. I didn't like the way he looked at me when he mentioned that.
"How come she got hold of a valuable microdot in the first place?" I asked, thinking it wouldn't happen nowadays that a guy like me could get his hands on Section Two stuff.
To my surprise, Kuryakin smiled. I hadn't thought he was the type.
(Fond memories of his time as a field agent still warm Kuryakin's declining years.)
"That was Napoleon's fault," he said. "I take it you've heard of Napoleon Solo?"
"Napoleon Solo? Oh my God, yeah, hasn't everyone? It must have been amazing working with him... I mean…" I broke off, because he was giving me a look, like I was a big furry puppy with a wet tongue that was bouncing all over him. "I mean, I looked him up while I was doing research for this interview," I finished real cool. "He played a key role in the expansion of UNCLE's field operations in the 60s."
Kuryakin nodded. "He did."
"I read in the files that you were on his last mission with him," I said, taking the plunge. He might still bite my head off, but at least it wasn't me who'd brought the name up.
"I was," said Kuryakin flatly.
"Sounds like it was a real botch job," I said, remembering what I'd read in the files, and then felt myself flush. Tactful, Joe, real tactful.
He still didn't bite my head off, though. Instead he said, "It wasn't a complete loss. We managed to get hold of some information we weren't supposed to find. From a certain perspective, that might be considered to have made it worthwhile."
He had a funny way of talking, like every sentence was a minefield, and he had to tiptoe round the words in case they blew up in his face. It made him kind of hard to follow, so I cut to the chase.
"You were in the cell with Solo the night before he died," I said.
That earned me another funny look, but he didn't actually stop me, so I carried right on.
"You knew Thrush was planning to execute the both of you next morning. What does a man talk about at a time like that?"
He went very still, and for a moment I thought he was going to throw me out, but then he said, "Chess."
"Chess? Wow." Seemed like an odd thing to talk about on your last night on earth. It certainly wasn't what I'd choose.
(A tip for young agents: in stressful situations, you can distract yourself from your fears by thinking about intellectual diversions such as chess.)
"Napoleon was very fond of chess." Another smile, but a small one. "He was an outstanding player, so needless to say he didn't play against me very often."
I could see I'd gotten him hooked. He was still talking, but more to himself than to me. Actually, I think he'd forgotten I was there. I kept still as a mouse so as not to remind him and ruin my big chance at getting the story.
In response to my questions, Kuryakin's gaze turned inwards, back through the fog of the years. What was he seeing?
Napoleon is going to win. That was a foregone conclusion, of course, but now things have reached crisis point. He sets down his knight with a flourish, then looks across at his partner.
"Illya," he says, "if it's me who…"
He pauses, apparently uncertain how to continue. Illya ignores him.
"The condemned man is traditionally supposed to eat his last meal," he says, with a disapproving glance at the chess board.
The observation is a strategic attempt at distraction from the game. Illya has sacrificed his queen, in a rather hysterical defence, and now Napoleon's knight has come swooping in from nowhere to pin down his bishop, and he's looking defeat in the face.
Napoleon, however, refuses to be distracted. "The mind needs feeding as well as the body," he says smugly. "Mate in two."
Illya glares at him. "You don't know that," he says.
"Yes I do," says Napoleon, even more smugly, and how he manages to radiate self-satisfaction whilst sitting in a condemned cell two hours from execution is something only Napoleon will ever know. "The position you're in is technically known as zugzwang. If you move your rook, you'll lose the game, but there's no other move you can make. And you have to make a move. Look, Illya, I want you to know that if it's you who…"
"Don't be so sure," says Illya, hastily running through possible sequences in his head. He doesn't have to move his bean. If he threatens Napoleon's carrot – queen – with his remaining pea… If he sacrifices his french fry… "There are at least, oh, three moves I could make that won't produce that result."
"You won't make them, though," says Napoleon, sounding faintly irritated. "That would only delay the inevitable. Move your pawn and my knight will take it, and you'll still have to move your rook. The same is true of your bishop. It won't be mate in two because you've overlooked a possible move, it's because of who you are."
"Because of who I am?" echoes Illya foolishly. Napoleon has always had the knack of raising unexpected topics of conversation in unexpected circumstances, but this one takes the biscuit. He isn't sure if he wants to rise to the bait or not. Knowing Napoleon, there's bound to be a hook concealed in there somewhere. On the other hand, talking about something – anything - will at least postpone the ending of the chess game.
"Where did you acquire this arcane knowledge of my personality?" he asks. "Don't tell me you've been reading my horoscope. I saw you with your nose in the newspaper yesterday, but I thought it was the comics page that had you gripped."
"Contrary to my reputation," says Napoleon, "I do not read the newspaper solely for the funnies and the Workings of Fate. Stop trying to change the subject by attacks on my character. Anyway, that's not how I know it's going to be mate in two. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves."
Now Illya knows Napoleon is up to something. It's an infallible sign, when he starts quoting Shakespeare. Illya really should know better, but he asks anyway.
"So what is my fault, then?"
His tone is light, but Napoleon's isn't.
"You're a fatalistic Russian who believes that life is a zero-sum game, and that defeat is not only possible but, sooner or later, inevitable."
Illya blinks. He should have known better than to allow Napoleon even one shot; he has a habit of hitting right between the eyes.
"With that penetrating psychological insight, you should set up as a psychiatrist," he says, recovering his balance. "You could earn a fortune telling rich capitalists that they aren't greedy, they're just compensating for the love they never got in their childhoods."
"Ah, childhood," says Napoleon, peering over invisible spectacles in what he evidently imagines to be an impression of Sigmund Freud. "How interesting zat you should raise zis issue. Tell me, Mr Kuryakin, vot happened to you in your childhood to make you so convinced zat you vill inevitably lose at life?"
"Nothing," says Illya irritably. "This is a silly game, Napoleon. Even sillier than chess with vegetables. Besides, the tiles are much too wide to make a good chess board. Look, I'll have to crawl halfway under the bench if I want to move my fry."
As a distraction gambit, its value is nil. "Don't you sink it is significant," says Napoleon, still in that dreadful accent, "zat you are so reluctant to talk about your Kindheit? Nun gut, since you von't tell me about it, I vill tell you."
Illya asks himself if listening to Napoleon's blather is going to be worse than the alternative. The alternative, unfortunately, is to sit in silence, brooding on the fact that he's about to die. Since the two of them have already searched every inch of the cell, for hidden cameras, microphones and possible escape routes, there is no useful activity left in which to engage. Which leaves brooding. There are various inventive ways in which Thrush might carry out his execution, none of which he particularly wishes to dwell on. On balance, he supposes, the blather is the lesser of the two evils.
"Go ahead," he says.
"You grew up," says Napoleon, mercifully dropping the accent, "behind the Iron Curtain, in a country that was forcibly incorporated first into the Soviet Union and then into the Thousand Year Reich."
"Your knowledge of history is astounding," says Illya. "You'll be telling me next that Germany lost the Second World War."
Napoleon rides straight over that defence. It was weak anyway.
"Anyone who has lived in an occupied country knows that things happen over which they have no control. Your file doesn't say how, but I know you lost both your parents during the war."
"It was a war. People die," says Illya.
"You were only a child. You saw villages burned and fields salted, you saw people die of starvation, people shot, people herded off in cattle trucks," says Napoleon. "And you were helpless to stop it."
Illya stares hard at the chess board. Perhaps he should move his bean after all. This isn't a conversation he wants to have, not when the prospect of his impending death is unsettling him. He's already having trouble stopping some of his nastier memories from crawling out of the woodwork, and Napoleon's inane remarks aren't helping.
"I expect," says Napoleon conversationally, "it was something like that you saw, when you got that dose of quadripartite gas. Fear alone wouldn't have done that to you. You must have regressed emotionally, somehow."
Illya would like to hit him, but that would be undignified. He would like to laugh, but there's a risk it won't come out right. Instead he says, "Actually, the cold was probably the biggest killer during the war. Russian winters can be very bitter."
He knows it won't help. Once Napoleon gets his teeth into an idea, he'll worry away at it until it's torn to shreds.
Sure enough, "That kind of experience would be enough to teach anyone that there are things they can't fight," Napoleon goes on relentlessly. "Things they can't change. And that's why you're going to lose this game. You already believe you've lost, so you'll make the move you think you've got to make, and watch as fate hammers you into the ground. Go on, move that rook. Or else you can resign, of course. Throw in the towel. Concede the game to me."
"No," says Illya, stung into defiance. "There's such a thing as fighting for a lost cause."
Actually, sometimes he thinks all his causes are lost. And right now, this seems to be one of them.
"Ah yes," says Napoleon. "How romantic and doomed and Russian. The Siege of Odessa, the Battle of Uman…"
"The Kiev Defensive Operation," says Illya, not to be outdone. Every schoolchild can quote the statistics of Soviet losses, so Napoleon needn't think this is getting under his skin.
Napoleon doesn't look wrong-footed, however. In fact, he looks quite unbearably pleased with himself. "The flaw in your argument," he says, "is that you can only know in retrospect that a cause was lost. If you think you've still got a chance while you're fighting, then it's not a lost cause. And you, my friend, give up when you realise your cause is lost. You accede to the will of fate."
"Whereas you," snaps Illya, giving up the attempt to keep this impersonal, "are an over-privileged American who believes nothing and nobody can ever get the drop on him."
"Not quite," says Napoleon thoughtfully. "I'll give you over-privileged – well, privileged anyway; I'm not sure it's possible to be over-privileged – but not the drop part. Of course people can get the drop on me. The difference is, I don't ever believe it's over. I know I can always find a way of gaining an advantage. I think laterally. I redefine the parameters."
"And I suppose I can't?" says Illya indignantly.
"I know you can't," says Napoleon gently, so gently that Illya doesn't even notice it's an insult until it's too late to respond. "Maybe it wasn't the war that taught you to believe in inevitability. Maybe it was that steady diet of Marxist-Leninism at school. The march of world history. The triumph of the proletariat. All that garbage."
"Maligning my education proves nothing," says Illya. "I'm not an ideology, you know."
"Have I still not convinced you?" says Napoleon, in mock surprise. "Then indulge me in a thought experiment, Illya. Suppose we were in a situation where we had discovered absolutely vital information, information that had to be got back to HQ, no matter what. Suppose you had to get it back within six hours or watch the Soviet Union be destroyed."
"A situation oddly similar to that in which we currently find ourselves," says Illya drily.
"Very perceptive. Shall we say a meteor was going to be directed to crash there? And then suppose that, like now, we found ourselves captured and unable to deliver the code that would stop it. Suppose that THRUSH was determined to execute one of us but, unaware of the crucial intelligence we were carrying, decided to send the other one back with an ultimatum. An ultimatum you knew they had no intention of keeping. Do you think, under those circumstances, that if I were the one who was released I would leave you behind?"
Illya stares at him. He wants to say, "Yes, of course you would!" He wants to say, "You couldn't possibly take that risk!" He wants to say it, and he wants it to be true.
"No," he says. "You wouldn't."
"And you think I would be wrong," says Napoleon equably.
"Of course I think you're wrong! If we don't stop the meteor, millions of people will die. What does my life matter compared to millions of people? And yet you can't drop your ridiculous sense of personal responsibility. You think you can change things! You think you matter!"
He breaks off, and swallows hard. Emotional hysteria is the last thing on earth that will convince Napoleon.
"You overestimate your importance in the grand scheme of things, my egotistical friend," he says lightly. "Even you can't win them all."
He pushes his rook forward.
"What did I tell you? Zero-sum thinking," says Napoleon. "You believe I only have a binary choice, your life versus those of millions of Russians. But I know there's always another way. I can save your life and those of your fellow countrymen.
"You can't!" hisses Illya. "Not this time! We don't have time to play around, Napoleon. You have to get back to New York in time to stop the impact. You can't waste even an hour trying to figure out a way to get me out."
"See?" says Napoleon. "What did I tell you?" He picks up his bishop. "Oh, by the way – checkmate."
"Fine, you win. It was mate in two. And how, in your brilliant, unconventional, redefining-the-parameters opinion, should I have avoided losing without throwing the game?"
Napoleon gives him his patented smirk. Then he reaches forward, picks up his king and eats it.
Before Illya can react, there's a scrape of bolts on the other side of the door, the sound of feet in the corridor, voices. Napoleon jumps to his feet and grabs Illya's arm.
"They're coming," he says urgently. "Illya, listen to me. This is important. I wasn't trying to change your mind. I just wanted to you to know that I understand, okay? I understand."
Kuryakin fell silent, just as it was getting to the good part, with the guards coming in at the door and everything.
"So then what happened?" I asked.
Kuryakin looked at me blankly. I don't think he understood the question, because he didn't answer it.
"What happened? I should have thought it was obvious," he said. "Napoleon was right."
I could see that was all I was going to get out of him.
"So that was all you talked about? This… this zoogzwang?" I said, trying not to show my disappointment. You can't make a story out of a chess problem, however good a journalist you are. You couldn't show it to junior agents, to be an inspiration. They want daring acts of heroism, last-minute rescues, the good guys winning and getting out alive. They don't want to read about thought experiments and no-win situations. I mean, how would I title a story like that? "Every way you look at it you lose"?
So I left all that stuff out. It was an okay article, but it wasn't what I'd hoped for.
(Being an UNCLE agent is no bed of roses. Sometimes you find yourself in difficult situations, sometimes you have to make tough calls. But it's men like Kuryakin who make the world a safer place for all of us, and they don't regret the sacrifices they make to keep it that way. That's why these guys are legends.)