The Best Revenge
It was Christmas Eve and Napoleon and I were still in town, which probably counted as something of a miracle. We were seldom home for Christmas, and while New York was not exactly home for either one of us, it was a reasonable facsimile. All the previous week, we'd waited for calls that never came, crises that never occurred. Indeed, many of our fellow field agents were enjoying the same idle period, either by taking vacations or wandering around headquarters with nothing much to do but catch up on their monthly reports. Apparently, Thrush — like Death — was taking a holiday.
Napoleon spent the time productively, if doggedly, tending to the administrative duties of his position as Enforcement chief that he so often neglected. As for myself, I found time to slip away to the lab, where they were performing preliminary tests on a new communicator, one shaped like a ballpoint pen.
"Well, it's certainly more portable," Napoleon observed as he juggled the cylinder, sleek and silver, between his fingertips. His curiosity piqued by my increasingly enthusiastic reports, he'd dropped by R & D to see the new equipment for himself. It was still morning, just at the start of our regular coffee break.
" — and more easily concealed," I noted as I watched him experiment with placing and replacing the pen in his breast pocket. He appeared pleased, as I knew he would be. The current standard A-3 communicator, which was shaped like a lumpy cigarette case, bulged in the pocket, thus ruining the line of a well-tailored suit.
"And you say it doesn't need to be attached to anything?" he asked. I nodded. This feature far outweighed any aesthetic improvements. Locating a suitable electrical source in order to power the communicator caused us field agents no little share of grief. I mean, consider if you will: where does one find a table lamp in the middle of the Sahara desert?
"And the range is much, much better, too," I pointed out, feeling like one of those shirt-sleeved salesmen in an American discount appliance store. But the pitch was unnecessary: Napoleon was already impressed. He touched the hollowed-out tip of the plunger. "What's this for?"
"That's where we store the suicide pill."
He cocked an eyebrow at me, not quite sure if I was kidding or not, then satisfied, tossed the pen my way.
"I assume you have plans for this evening," I said as I caught it.
"Indeed, my dear tovarishch, I do. I made reservations for seven p.m. at '21.'" He paused, then added casually, "Care to join me?"
"What? Was there no feminine companionship available?" I teased, trying not to sound surprised. "You couldn't entice anyone from the secretarial pool away from her fruitcake?"
"I never make dates on Christmas or New Year's," Napoleon replied, unoffended. "If something comes up, I don't wish to ruin someone's holiday." He looked at me expectantly. "Well?"
"Oh, Napoleon —." The prospect of an overpriced dinner at the 21 Club, that bastion of snobbery and conspicuous consumption, did not appeal to me in the least. There, a simple, single hamburger cost as much as three hours of a workingman's wages. It was ridiculous and I said so. But it wasn't just the prices. I would also feel distinctly uncomfortable and out of place: all those minks and diamonds rubbing together creating a lot of static friction in the air. Certainly, I can maneuver quite well through such establishments when duty demands it, but why subject oneself to such a cultural straitjacket for the so-called "fun" of it?
I tried to suggest several perfectly good alternatives — a new, very promising trattoria had opened in Little Italy and Napoleon loved Italian food — but he would have none of it. "I'm going to do what I do every Christmas," he told me. I thought I caught an odd note of determination in his voice. "I'm going to go to the best restaurant in whatever city I'm in, order the most expensive dinner on the menu, choose the best wine, and follow it all with the richest dessert they serve."
This sounded more like a mission than dinner plans to me. "If you don't mind," I said after a moment of consideration, "I'll pass."
If he was disappointed, he was too proud to let me see it. He merely shrugged and said, "Suit yourself. The invitation stands." Then he changed the subject. "Are you going to Vic's for lunch? Everyone will be there."
I was already aware that a group from the office and the lab was planning an ad hoc Christmas party at Vic Alessio's bar, our favorite hangout. Napoleon and I had tried to stay away — it wasn't safe for field agents to follow predictable patterns of behavior in our private lives — but Vic's antique billiard table was just too wonderful to ignore for long.
"Isn't that against the rules?" I said, smiling again. There was an unwritten law that no more than three field agents should congregate in the same place at the same time. Nevertheless, we broke it quite often.
Napoleon shrugged again. "We'll try to blend in with the maiden aunts."
Oh swell, I thought. Then the bomb can take out Sections Four through Eight along with Section Two, but I said nothing. No doubt, the Old Man was aware of the arrangements — nothing went on within the city, never mind the building, without his knowledge — so it was not my place to advise caution.
"We'll play Nine Ball," Napoleon said, fully aware that he was offering me a temptation I could not resist. "Call the shot or lose the turn. Quarter a ball on every game you win."
"That could become expensive," I replied, doing some quick calculations. Nine Ball was the choice of pool hustlers: fast and furious. There'd be a lot of games and a lot of balls.
"Dime, then." It wasn't the sum of money that was important to Napoleon, but the mere fact that there was something at risk.
"All right," I agreed.
"I'll be there around one," he said drifting off. "See you later." He departed with a careless wave of his hand and the steel door swished shut, leaving me with more to ponder than just my unfinished cheese Danish.
The bar was located on the corner of a side street on the lower East Side, just north of Little Italy. It was dark and cramped, with neon signs advertising Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon in the porthole windows, and scarred knotty pine paneling the walls. The cracked crystal ashtrays were always overflowing, and every other chair and barstool seemed to have one leg too short. In addition to the hard liquor and the cold beer on tap, the menu consisted of pizza, French fries, and two types of hamburgers — with cheese and without.
Vic's was a neighborhood establishment like a thousand others, a safe, familiar haven that attracted postmen taking time off from their routes, construction workers on their lunch hours, and lonely old retirees on Friday nights coming in to watch the fights on the ancient overhead TV. Not the sort of place, mind you, that one would expect to find international spies, or at least, certainly, not a spy like my sophisticated bon vivant partner.
Which, I suspected, was why Napoleon loved the bar so much.
Because the air conditioner broke down often and the furnace was unreliable, Vic's was always either too hot or too cold. Today, despite the frigid temperatures outside, the air was stifling. I arrived a quarter past one to find Napoleon already at the table practicing, his tie loose, his shirtsleeves rolled, and a look of steely concentration on his face. This gave me pause. The fact that he was also making shots that would impress Minnesota Fats was also not very encouraging.
I glanced around the room to survey the crowd. George Dennel was there with his crew at one table, and Dr. Simpson was there with his at another. Strategically located toward the rear of the bar, a group of enforcement agents had also gathered around two tables pushed together. Somehow they'd positioned themselves so that not one of them sat with his back to the door.
Closer to the billiard table, a dozen young women from the lower sections were crowded around two large pizzas, chatting and laughing and throwing flirty comments Napoleon's way. Most were complimentary and why not? In the few minutes I'd been standing there, he'd performed two tricky bank shots, a reverse draw and a showy cut shot with an impressive amount of English. The latter drew a delighted squeal from the office girls, which prompted some of the men to look their way to see what all the excitement was about. My wallet was feeling considerably lighter already.
At first, watching him, I thought Napoleon was playing to the female audience, but soon I realized he was oblivious to them. Indeed, he seemed oblivious to everything not located on that nine feet of felt-covered slate. Nearby, a cigarette lay in one of those ubiquitous ashtrays, smoldering and abandoned. The beer glass next to it was still full and untouched.
I ordered my own glass of beer from the bar and retrieved it before Napoleon even noticed I was there.
"Ready?" he asked, passing me a cue stick. He still seemed uncharacteristically distant, preoccupied. He barely glanced my way.
Was I? I wondered. It didn't matter; there was no time to retreat. My partner was already setting up a nine-ball rack.
And so we played, and he continued to shoot like a man possessed, as if playing billiards was a Thrush torture test and his life depended on making each and every shot. I'm sorry to say I did not entirely rise to the occasion. He offered me the first break, but I scratched on the four-ball and he cleaned up the rest. He won the next two games after that, running the balls almost without a miss. I won the third game, but it was purely dumb luck. I sank the nine-ball on the break. The fifth game was close, but in the end, he won that one, too.
By the sixth game, my attention had begun to wander. It's difficult to maintain a high level of enthusiasm, when you're getting the kaka beat out of you. The conversation around us was waxing nostalgic. Almost everyone, it seemed, had some sort of ethnic roots buried in his or her family background — a grandmother, a great-aunt, a cousin from the Old Country — who kept the faith and carried on the traditional observance of the season. Reminiscences led to the inevitable comparisons of pierniki and Christollen, panettone, kourambiethes, cugnots and Irish soda bread. And in the midst of all this talk of food, someone threw a question in our direction.
"You grew up in Canada, didn't you Napoleon?"
"Uh-huh." My partner paused as he studied the shot.
"Montreal wasn't it?" Mandy added.
"Ah — no. Quebec City. Three in the side."
He leaned over the table and concentrated on his aim, not offering to volunteer any more information. I observed this with some interest. I had never known Napoleon to be so taciturn. Apparently, it surprised Mandy as well, and prompted her to try to engage him further.
"Didn't you have something up there called Riveillon?"
"Reveillon," he corrected her, using the French pronunciation. Then he hit the three-ball with a sharp snap, banking it against the opposite cushion. The ball dropped into the side pocket with a loud plop.
"Yes, that's it," she agreed. "A big dinner on Christmas Eve."
"Oh, like — what do they call it? Wiglia— that's it," Sarah said, joining in. "My Polish relatives always observe a fast, but they eat lots of fish and pierogies before midnight mass. Like that, Napoleon?"
"Just like that, except for the fact that it comes after midnight mass, not before, it goes on all night, and there's a lot of meat."
Now, he was acting downright surly.
"Well, I'll bet they both have one thing in common," Sarah laughed, trying to ignore his sourness. "Lots of relatives!"
"Yeah, right — lots of relatives," he muttered softly as he prepared for his next shot. The four-ball lay against the left rail, tantalizingly close to the corner pocket. Napoleon looked up and abruptly became aware of the effect his ill humor was having on his audience. Tempering his tone, he began to elaborate about savory pork stews and meat pies, doughnuts filled with wild fruit jelly and pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar. And then, warming to the topic, he talked about a big house filled with guests; about long tables set with fine linens and heirloom silverware; about his father going down to the wine cellar to choose the perfect wine for dinner; about his mother supervising the cooking for days before the holiday.
I kept my peace and listened with perverse curiosity. When asked about something of a personal nature, my habit is usually to play it close to the vest. Napoleon, on the other hand, will respond by talking a blue streak. It is only later, after he's moved on, that you realize that he's told you nothing substantial at all.
And this night, he was acting true to form. I won't bother to repeat the particulars here, because it was all a performance: he was making it up as he went along. Perhaps because this was exactly what they all expected to hear, no one seemed aware of the lie. Apparently, none present knew what I knew — that Napoleon's parents had been disowned by their respectable, wealthy families before he was born. As an only child, he'd grown up, not only without brothers and sisters, but without the benefit of an extended family as well.
When he'd run out of details gathered, no doubt, from his imagination and second-hand hearsay, he turned back to the game, leaving Mandy and her friends no choice but to switch their attentions to me, as I knew they would.
"You don't celebrate Christmas in the Soviet Union, do you?" Mandy asked, a note of pity coloring her question.
"Well, we do actually, after a fashion," I said, concealing the indignation I suddenly felt. For some irrational reason, I resented her sympathy. I explained that Russian children have a Santa figure, too, called Dedushka Moroz — Grandfather Frost. I told her that he dressed in blue instead of red, and that he placed the toys on the tree, not under it; that he was assisted not by elves, but by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, the "snow maiden."
Mandy and her friends smiled, delighted and amazed that such whimsy still survived in the bleak landscape of godless Communism. The discussion shifted from food to experiences — various social gatherings, unexpected guests, presents gained, lost, or desired and never received.
"Do you have a favorite Christmas memory?" a young receptionist named Jill asked me, guilelessly. "Say, from your childhood." I glanced sideways at Napoleon who was rather too deliberately concentrating on his game. He'd driven the four-ball along the rail, sending it neatly into the corner pocket. Now he was preparing to do the same with the five.
"Oh. My childhood," I replied with a sigh. "Well. Those were hard times in my country." But Jill looked so sweet and pretty, sitting there in her red sweater and Christmas corsage that I didn't have the heart to tell her just how hard they were.
Still, when she and the others began to look disappointed, a story did occur to me, and not a bogus one as Napoleon's had been. I don't know if it was the odd, empty feeling I'd gotten from listening to my friend spin his counterfeit yarn. Perhaps it was just the spirit of the moment. In any case, I decided to answer the question.
"Actually, yes, I do have one very good memory, " I said. "It happened during the war. Hitler's forces were invading. My father was away, serving at the front, so my mother took my baby sister and I to live with my grandmother in Leningrad. I was ten."
"The Siege of Leningrad," I heard Napoleon murmur under his breath as he pocketed yet another ball with a decisive snap. I ignored him. Most of the women around the table were too young and too American to understand what his remark implied.
"The Germans had surrounded the city since autumn and food was growing very scarce," I continued. An understatement, to say the least. I heard Napoleon harrumph, once again, under his breath. "We'd all been living on reduced rations since November — scraps of stale bread and handfuls of moldy cereal."
...And leather, tree bark, pine needles, even sawdust and wallpaper paste — anything that could be boiled into a soup or pounded into pancakes to provide a source of calories. The starved bodies of the old and the weak lay everywhere, while bony children, younger than myself ran, orphaned and homeless, through the streets. But the women sitting before me, with their plump cheeseburgers and frosty glasses of Coca Cola before them didn't need to know that part.
As Napoleon pocketed yet another ball in his unbroken run, I went on.
"Despite the revolution," I said, " Grandmother, like many of her generation, still practiced her religion in private and still kept Christmas. And that Christmas Eve, she showed us a small cache she'd squirreled away: four potatoes, an onion and several pinches of salt, just enough to make a thin potato soup.
"Now I should tell you, that my father's mother and my own mother had never gotten along. Perhaps it was because my mother did not come from a 'good' family, or because she was not an ethnic Russian. Or perhaps it was just because they were two very proud, very strong-willed women.
"Whatever the reason, that night, they made a truce between them and they cooked the soup together. I heard them talking and laughing, and when we sat down to eat, they put their heads together to remember some words from some of the old carols that they could still recall."
As I spoke, I conjured up the scene, still so intensely vivid in my mind. We were in Grandmother's apartment — two tiny rooms in a huge house that had once belonged entirely to her and her family. There was no heat, no source of warmth except for a few scraps of tattered blankets, an old threadbare oriental rug, and the clothes on our backs. The only light came from a wick jammed into a chunk of tallow my grandmother had also hoarded for the occasion.
"Afterward they cried over the years they'd lost and talked well into the night, long after I'd fallen asleep in a chair between them. And you know: the soup had been so unexpected, and the emotions so heartfelt, so genuine, that as strange as it may seem, considering the war and the difficult, even dangerous circumstances, it was — and still is —one of the happiest times of my life."
When I was finished, I noticed that Mandy was sniffling and Sarah was dabbing at her eyes. "That was really beautiful, Illya," Jill said, sighing aloud, but in the next moment, her words were punctuated by a sharp crack of a billiard ball being hit. I turned just in time to see the nine-ball disappear into the far corner pocket. During the few short minutes it had taken to tell my story, Napoleon had won yet another game.
He won several more that afternoon and by the time we'd finished playing, the score stood ten to four, his favor. The penalty was five dollars and a slightly bruised ego. I counted out the dollar bills on the billiard table, swearing to myself that I'd force a rematch by New Year's.
"That was quite a touching story you told," Napoleon observed as he rolled down his shirtsleeves and replaced his cuff links. "Of course, you left off the epilogue. Your sister died of pneumonia the following spring, and your mother was lost and presumed dead not long after." As he passed me on his way to the coat rack to retrieve his suit jacket, he leaned in close and added, "I've read your file."
"Well, at least my story was true," I shot back, reaching for my own coat. "And I've read your file, too."
The expression on his face said, Touché, then softened. "What else could I tell them? You think they'd want to hear about how my mother cooked other people's meals, and my father hung other people's decorations? How I spent the season hiding in the corners of that damn hotel while my parents worked overtime with barely a minute for themselves? "
He sighed heavily. "And that wasn't the worst of it. The worst was the Christmas Eves when my father wasn't needed to unfreeze the pipes and unstop the toilets. Those years, he usually ran out with a bottle under his arm, and didn't come home until supper the next day. Then my parents would quarrel and scream at each other the rest of the night."
He forced a pained grin. "If I'd told Mandy all that, I'm sure she would have accused me of ruining her holiday."
"As well she might," I teased him. "This time of year, people generally prefer not to think about what is, but what should be."
We were preparing to leave, bundling up against the cold. Everyone else from headquarters had gone.
"Was it always so bad?" I asked as we left the bar, knowing that Christmas must have been more important to his childhood than mine.
"Not always. I used to steal sweets off the trays and had my fill of food from the kitchen. And it was fun to peek at the well-dressed folks in the dining room. The place was always festive, and there was always snow on the ground outside. The Old Town is beautiful and even more so in December." He shrugged carelessly. "But somehow, even during the best times, Christmas always seemed like something borrowed to me — like hand-me-down clothes."
"And does it still?" I asked.
He looked at me slyly. "Only when I have to eat alone."
I smiled, cheerfully resigned to my fate. "Well, you won't have to this year. For what time did you make the reservation?"
"Seven. I'll pay — consider it a present. Do you mind?"
I shook my head, chuckling. "Not at all. I'm a socialist, not a fool."
So his tradition became my own as well. And for all the years we worked together, we always spent Christmas Eve together, too, seeking out the very best dinner we could find. That night, we feasted on foie gras and beluga cavier, veal filet and the 21 Club's famous rack of lamb, accompanied by bottles of Chateau Margaux '47 and Dom Perignon. And despite the size of the bill at the end, Napoleon left a tip so generous, the waiter returned to discreetly inquire if there'd been an error.
Afterward, as we walked the few blocks to the Rockefeller Center tree, Napoleon told me about the Christmas when he first became a field agent. His father was dead by then, but he'd taken his mother to the Hotel Frontenac to eat in the main dining room, escorting her to sit and dine among the patrons she'd worked for so many years to serve.
"I envy you that experience," I said. "I wish I could have done something similar for my own mother." Obviously, he believed in that old adage, "Living well is the best revenge," and I told him so.
"It depends upon what you mean by 'well,' " he replied thoughtfully. "For me, it means good food and clothes, but it also means working for U.N.C.L.E."
"The personal becomes the political," I recited.
"I suppose. Maybe we can't really, ultimately, save the world." We'd reached the tree by then. He tipped his chin in its direction and added, "They say it's been done already, right?
"So, maybe, in working for U.N.C.L.E., our purpose is simply to make things a little more livable, just a little more fair."
"Fair?" I laughed.
He looked at me and smiled. "Sure. Level the playing field. Keep the bastards among us at bay. Hell, that's good enough for me."
And despite the fact that he and I had been born worlds apart, both literally and figuratively — that we'd grown up in entirely different cultures, under entirely different circumstances — I understood exactly what he meant.
And I didn't have to visit Section Six's file room, and peruse the personal histories of our fellow Enforcement agents, to know that more than a few of them would have, too.