The Angel of Death Affair

"I don't think I'm going to like this," Napoleon Solo said as he looked across the tarmac, at the figure standing beside the U.N.C.L.E. plane.

"Nonsense," Illya Kuryakin replied as he came up behind his partner. "It's not like he's going to give us the Evil Eye or something."

The blond agent set down his overnight bag next to Solo's, and ran a careless hand through his unruly thatch of hair. "We're lucky that he was going our way and we could share the ride. Personally, I wasn't looking forward to flying all the way to Seattle, wedged into one of those narrow commercial airline seats."

Solo nodded. Illya was right, of course, but then, "luck" wasn't a word usually associated with Michael Butler.

It wasn't Butler's fault. The Section Six man wouldn't have hurt a fly, never mind a human being. But as U.N.C.L.E.'s Bereavement Officer, whenever a field agent died in the line of duty, it was Butler's job to break the bad news to the family.

"He looks rather ordinary," Solo observed. The man waiting patiently for them on the runway was short and on the plump side, with a round, cherubic face, bright eyes and salt-and-pepper hair.

"Of course, he does. He's only a maiden aunt," Kuryakin said, using the enforcement agents' term for personnel in the lower sections who weren't licensed to carry weapons. "What did you expect? The boogeyman?"

No, Solo thought, but someone who was lean and somber. Maybe someone who looked more like Boris Karloff.

"There goes 'Bodybag Butler'," all the agents would laugh with typical gallows' humor up in Section Two, when they saw him. Butler's presence could mean only one thing: a death had occurred, and usually, not a pleasant one. Was it any wonder that so many of them confused the message with the messenger?

"Do you know what they call him?" Solo asked uneasily. He remembered that "Bodybag Butler" was not the worst of the nicknames. Butler had another.

"So what?" Kuryakin snorted, hefting his suitcase. "Really Napoleon, this is not like you. Now, come on. We shouldn't delay the plane any longer."

Solo picked up his own case and followed reluctantly. He wasn't particularly superstitious, even though his very survival so often depended on sheer chance. On the other hand, this wasn't simply a matter of black cats and broken mirrors.

After all, it wasn't everyday that one hitched a ride with the Angel of Death.

***

Except for a quick stopover in Chicago to drop off some medical supplies and a bit of turbulence over the Great Lakes, the flight was smooth and uneventful. After a nap, Solo made himself a sandwich in the galley, grabbed a beer and wandered into the main cabin. Butler was hunched over the low table, busily writing. Illya was settled into a comfortable chair, near the window, reading a book.

"There's some food in the fridge," Solo announced as he took abite of the sandwich. When no one answered right away, Solo found himself a seat opposite Butler on the couch.

"There's cheese and cold cuts and fresh bread in the galley, Mr. Butler," Solo said as he set his bottle of beer on the table.

"Michael, please," the little man replied, his attention still on his work.

"Michael," Solo corrected himself. "I could make you a sandwich if you're busy."

"No, that's all right. I'm not very hungry, Mr. Solo."

"If we're to be on a first name basis, it's Napoleon."

Butler looked up and smiled self-consciously. He seemed a bit nervous.

Napoleon was suddenly aware that he and Illya had their jackets off, leaving their guns and shoulder holsters clearly visible. The agent reminded himself that their more timid colleagues in the lower sections often avoided the enforcement operatives, even to the point of giving them wide berth in the U.N.C.L.E. corridors.

Are we making him uncomfortable? Solo wondered as he eyed his own suit jacket, draped over a nearby chair. He toyed with the idea of putting it back on.

"If you'd rather be alone..."

"Oh no, Mr. Solo."

"— Napoleon —."

"Sorry, Napoleon. No, I welcome the company. It's a nice change. I like being with field agents but understandably, they're not so fond of me."

Solo glanced over at Illya, a guilty expression on his face. Kuryakin peered over his glasses for a moment, then shook his head slightly and went back to his reading.

Butler straightened as he finished his writing. He was using an old fashioned fountain pen and he blotted the entry before closing the cover of the thick ledger before him.

Solo tilted his head, straining to inspect the volume without appearing to do so. "Is that it?" he asked, almost too lightly. "Is that the 'Book'?"

Butler nodded as he capped his pen.

"May I see it?"

Butler nodded again. "But please, be careful," he said, and handed it over like someone juggling a carton of eggs.

As Solo reached with both hands, he looked over at his partner again. Illya's frown behind his glasses was almost imperceptible. But Napoleon saw it and knew what the Russian was thinking: go ahead. Satisfy your morbid curiosity.

He didn't care. He took the book anyway.

So this was it: the legendary ledger. The infamous "Black Book."

Solo thought back to his early days as an agent. He had been a bit too daring for his own good, even then. He remembered breaking cover under heavy fire in Cairo that hot summer morning, and he could still hear Ben Toomey's sandpapery growl roaring in his ears:

"What the hell is wrong with you, Solo? Do ya wanna end up in Butler's Black Book?"

It was a warning he had heard again and again, over the years. Older agents shouted it at younger agents or repeated it to each other, usually with a comradely pat on the back or a sly poke in the ribs. Solo had said it himself a dozen times without knowing exactly what it meant.

But now, here it was, in his hands.

The book was smaller than he had expected. And it wasn't black but a dark, burgundy red. Blood red.

The leather cover was old, soft and pliable, and the pages were translucent onionskin. They seemed thin and fragile and they crackled loudly when they turned.

The entries ran down each page in two columns, inscribed in jet-black India ink, as neat and orderly as tombstones. Each one listed the agent's name, age and section, as well as the cause, place and date of death. Sometimes, a line or two, a sort of epitaph, was added. Most of the writing was in Butler's clear, precise script.

Solo flipped to the last name on the last page. The ink was barely dry.

"Donald Pierce, 25, Section Four," Napoleon read aloud. "By fire. London. October 10..."

The day before yesterday, Solo noted to himself. He hadn't known Pierce but that didn't matter. It always hurt to lose a fellow agent.

Silently, he turned back to the first page of the book and read the entry at the top left hand corner:

"Russell Barker, 42, Section Two. Of gunshot wounds. Berlin, August 4, l946. And there's an epitaph: 'The last of all Romans, fare thee well. It is impossible that ever Rome should breed thy fellow...' "

"That's Shakespeare isn't it?" Illya mumbled from behind his book. Solo smiled to himself. So Kuryakin was listening, after all.

"Yes, it's from Act Three of 'Julius Caesar'. But there's another line to the quote, I believe."

Solo closed his eyes and recited, " 'Friends, I owe more tears to this dead man than you shall see me pay' "

He opened his eyes and looked puzzled, but Butler understood.

"Barker was a close friend of Mr. Waverly," the older man commented. "He was also your predecessor, Napoleon. The first chief of enforcement. The organization was barely eight months old at the time."

Napoleon's index finger returned to the book and skimmed over the bubbly onion skin until it settled on another name: "Cecilia Kwan, 23, Section Three. Of shrapnel wounds to the head. Shanghai, April 23, l949. 'Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.' That's from Emily Dickinson."

Solo paused. "Hmm, Section Three," he murmured. "She must have been a courier."

"Caught in the Chinese Communist Revolution, no doubt," Kuryakin volunteered again, his eyes still stubbornly occupied with his own reading. "The People's Liberation Army crossed the Yangtze River that month."

Napoleon sighed. He turned to the next page, and scanned it.

"Ah, here's one of your countrymen, Illya," he said and read aloud to his partner:

"Ivan Popovich, 32, Section Two. Of stab wounds. Paris, February 5, l952. The epitaph is written in Cyrillic."

With some difficulty, Solo translated: "... And as the sun begins to set, my eyes turn East, toward home."

"It's a line from a poem by a Siberian poet," Illya said softly as he closed his book. He set it down in his lap and took off his glasses. There was no use disguising his own interest any longer.

"My, my. Siberian poets, Dickinson, Shakespeare — they certainly were literary in the old days," Solo chuckled. He pointed to the page. "You didn't write these early entries, Michael. Who did?"

"The man who was my superior then, the first head of Section Six. The Command was relatively small in the beginning and this was the only form of record keeping. Later on, of course, long after my boss retired, we switched over to computers."

"But you continued keeping the book," Solo said. "Why?"

Butler shrugged his shoulders and smiled sadly. "You know, you guys in the field, you're the lifeblood of this organization. But a name goes into the files and it's lost and forgotten forever. It didn't seem right, somehow. I guess this book is a sort of portable memorial."

"Do you happen to know how many names are in there?" Kuryakin asked, even though he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear the answer.

"Eight hundred and eighty nine. And six hundred and fifty three of them are enforcement agents. I counted."

Solo shook his head and returned to his skimming. He traveled down the page, randomly picking out a name here, a date there, until one entry at the bottom caught his eye.

"Benjamin Toomey, 45 — ," he began aloud, but his voice caught. He ended up reading the rest to himself:

— Section Two. Of interrogation. Budapest, October l7, l956... Now cracks a noble heart.

Indeed, Solo thought. The young apprentice agents had called him "Tough-as-nails Toomey" behind the old veteran's back.

... I'll bet you took a long time to die, Ben. How ironic, after all your reprimands, that it should be me, reading your name...

"What's wrong, Napoleon?" Butler asked apprehensively. He glanced over at Illya but the Russian's face was expressionless.

"Nothing," Solo said quietly, after a moment. "I just found somebody I knew, that's all."

The senior agent forced a thin smile for Butler's sake and turned the page.

And found another familiar name.

"John Ripley, 31, Section Two. Of exposure. Barrows, Alaska, November 26, l962."

"You knew him too?" Butler asked.

Solo nodded slowly. "He was in my survival school class. A tough kid from Brooklyn. He died a long way from home."

Illya studied his partner. He didn't need more than few seconds to make up his mind. "Come with me to the galley, Michael," he said abruptly, jumping to his feet. "After we land, we'll have a busy evening ahead of us. You should put something in your stomach. A cup of tea at least."

He reached out a hand and gently tugged at Butler's arm.

"Sure, okay, Illya," the Section Six man agreed as he stood up from his seat on the couch. He started to follow, then hesitated.

"Let's leave Napoleon alone for awhile," Kuryakin said, keeping his voice low. He nudged his companion again. Butler took the hint.

As they headed towards the back of the plane, the stout little agent stole a peek over his shoulder. Solo was still staring down at the book in his hands. He didn't seem to notice them go.

***

Later, as the plane neared its destination, Kuryakin returned to the main cabin, now bathed in the amber light of the setting sun.

"The pilot says that we'll be landing in ten minutes," he announced to Napoleon, who was sitting motionless in the shadows, still reading. The half-eaten sandwich remained on the table. The beer beside it was untouched.

Kuryakin walked over and rested his elbows on the back of one of the chairs. Solo's head was down but his eyes were glassy in the fading light.

"George Tenley, 33, Section Two," he read. "Of hypnosis ..."

Solo's voice failed him. He swallowed hard and tried again.

"Of hypnosis-induced catatonia. New York..."

He trailed off. It was useless to continue. They both knew the rest.

"They're all here, Illya," he whispered. "McAllister and Dancer. Nmana and Louis. Eliot. Kitt. Nate Cassidy. On and on and on."

Solo closed the book and looked away, embarrassed by the emotion he felt. The Russian agent watched his partner and sighed. Kuryakin had known this was coming from the moment he first saw the book. That was the reason he had avoided looking through it, himself.

Still, he resisted the urge to say I warned you and decided to offer some words of comfort instead.

"In my country, there are many memorials honoring the dead," Kuryakin began thoughtfully. "Hundreds of them. The smallest village has one. The children are encouraged to bring flowers and stand guard, even in deepest winter.

"When I was young, I would see the little ones, standing there with their red neckerchiefs and earnest faces, all cold and wet with snow. And I would think: how pointless. They are risking pneumonia for nothing. All the monuments in the world won't prevent the living from going off to war.

"But now that I'm older, I think I understand. It's necessary, you see. For human beings at least, it's not enough to bury the dead. We must remember them, too."

Solo put a hand to his mouth but he didn't answer. He was too ashamed to admit to his friend that the tears were not because he had remembered.

But because he had forgotten.

***

After the U.N.C.L.E. plane touched down in Seattle, Kuryakin stayed behind for a few minutes to call the office and leave instructions with the pilot for their return. Solo and Butler went on ahead to pick up the rental car that was waiting for them at the main airport terminal.

"Know where you're going?" Solo asked as he tossed the car keys to his partner. Kuryakin nodded and slipped behind the wheel of the Pontiac Catalina. Solo slid in beside him and Butler climbed into the rear passenger seat. The Bereavement Officer had changed into his work clothes: a white shirt, a dark tie and a conservatively cut black suit.

"Have they sent back the body yet?" Solo inquired, trying to make conversation, as they drove northeast from the city, into the mountains. The night was almost upon them. Kuryakin switched on the headlights.

"No. It's coming tomorrow, on the morning supply run from Heathrow. They had to use Pierce's dental records to identify it. I'm afraid there's not much left."

Solo thought of the family. "Any children?"

"Two boys," Butler replied soberly. "One is four, the other is nine months old."

Christ, Solo thought, a young widow left with two babies. No wonder there were rules against enforcement agents marrying while working in the field. He didn't relish the evening ahead. First, Butler was going to tell her that her husband would not be coming back and then Solo was going to grill her on the whereabouts of a certain missing codebook.

"Let me have a few minutes alone with her," Butler said. "Then I'll introduce you two. Okay, Napoleon?"

Solo nodded. He went back to staring at the darkened highway ahead and wondered idly which of them had the lousier assignment.

The isolated house was nestled in the mountains at the end of a steep, winding road, modest, comfortable and determinedly private. The woman who answered the door was plain but pleasant-looking. Her brown hair was cut short and she wore jeans and no make-up. A baby was sleeping fitfully against her shoulder and from somewhere upstairs, there was the distinct drone of another child crying.

The agents flashed their gold U.N.C.L.E. identification cards and she let them in.

"Is there somewhere we can speak privately, Mrs. Pierce?" Butler asked immediately and the woman turned and led him into the parlor. He closed the door behind them, leaving Solo and Kuryakin to wait in the hallway.

"Maybe it's my imagination, but she didn't seem too surprised to see us," Napoleon commented as he walked an aimless circuit along the wall. Illya leaned against a closet door, folded his arms and shrugged.

"She's probably aware of what her husband does for a living. She'd expect a visit like this."

"I don't know," Solo said slowly, still unconvinced. He tilted his head for a moment and listened. The sound of the crying was muffled now but still audible. Odd, that the mother hadn't seemed very concerned and all but ignored it.

"Something's not right, here," Napoleon said aloud but before he could translate his misgivings into action, the parlor door opened and Butler silently ushered them in.

Kuryakin hung back and allowed Solo to go ahead of him. Inside, he stayed in the background, beside the front window, while his partner joined the young widow on the sofa. The Russian didn't mind playing second fiddle here: Napoleon was better at this sort of thing.

"I told her that you need some information, Napoleon," Butler said, reclaiming his seat in a side chair, "and Jean is willing to help if she can."

Solo laced his fingers together and took a deep breath. He paused diplomatically and then said, "Mrs. Pierce, forgive us for intruding on you at a time like this, but we're looking for a book. A very special book. A codebook. We don't know exactly what it looks like but we know it must be small and compact."

"I don't remember ever seeing it," Jean Pierce said thoughtfully. She was making a valiant effort to keep herself calm and under control, and Solo liked her for that. Still, he detected something else besides grief in her manner. Although she seemed to be telling the truth, there was also a definite undercurrent of anxiety.

She's hiding something, Solo told himself, and persevered.

"Nevertheless, we have reason to believe that it's in this house. Before he died, your husband said that he concealed it in one of his boots."

The baby in the young woman's arms began to fuss. She shifted him to her other shoulder and considered for a moment.

"Don had a pair of old hunting boots but we threw them out last spring when we cleaned out the basement. He doesn't have any others. Unless he meant his ski boots."

"Do you know where they are? Can we see them?" Napoleon asked as he reached into his breast pocket and fished out his case of cigarettes. He offered one to Mrs. Pierce but she shook her head.

"No thank you," she smiled, "I don't smoke —."

The woman suddenly froze, but it was too late to catch the slip. Solo glanced down at the coffee table and its overflowing ashtray and then back up at the widow. All the color was draining from her face.

The case dropped from his fingers as Solo sprang to his feet. His hand snapped back to burrow under his lapel, but he wasn't quite fast enough.

"Uh-uh, Mr. Solo," a familiar voice cautioned him from the doorway leading into the dining room.

"Hold it right there or we're going to get blood all over that brand new suit."

A slender, dapper gentleman sauntered casually into the room. There was a silk handkerchief in his blazer, a silver cigarette holder clenched between his teeth and a Thrush rifle in his hands. The rifle was pointed directly at Solo.

"It is new, isn't it?" he grinned, knowingly. Solo cocked an eyebrow and held out his arms in surrender.

"I thought so," the Thrush chief chuckled and turned his attention to Kuryakin. The Russian had his own gun out but it was no use: four other armed Thrush goons had appeared and were circling the U.N.C.L.E. agents nervously. One of them extended a hand to Kuryakin, who sighed and passed him the U.N.C.L.E. Special.

"Very good, Mr. Kuryakin," the Thrush chief said. His voice was cheerful, almost chummy. "By the way, nice to see you again."

Kuryakin raised his hand in a careless salute. The Thrushman leaned close to Napoleon and whispered sotto voce, "How does he manage to stay so thin?"

"Birdhunting is good exercise," Solo replied. He remained perfectly still. Only his eyes moved as he studied their captors. "Speaking of hunting, you're a bit far afield, Heacock."

Glen Heacock usually worked out of San Francisco as one of Ward Baldwin's more effective and deadly lieutenants. Heacock was homosexual and made no bones about it. There was no love lost between the sedate strait-laced Baldwin and his more flamboyant assistant, but Heacock was loyal and dependable and he wasn't reluctant to do the satrap's dirty work.

"And you're a long way from New York, Napoleon, with your partner riding shotgun, no less.

Apparently, this codebook is considerably more valuable than my boss led me to believe."

The Thrush leader turned to Mrs. Pierce. "Hon, do what Mr. Solo requested. Get those ski boots please."

Despite the genial tone of the request, Jean Pierce hurried from the parlor, hugging the baby still in her arms.

"And see what you can do about stifling that child upstairs," Heacock called after her. He rolled his eyes and looked to Solo for sympathy. "Really, we couldn't get the little monster to shut up. He almost gave the game away."

"Almost," Solo agreed and cursed himself for not acting on his instincts earlier.

"While we're waiting, I would appreciate it if you three would empty your pockets and place your weapons — all your weapons — on the table there."

Heacock watched as Solo and Kuryakin reluctantly obeyed, an expression of self-satisfaction on his handsome face.

"I'd frisk you myself," he smirked at them, "but we're pressed for time right now and you know what they say: business before pleasure."

"What about him?" one of the Thrush goons muttered, gesturing with the Thrush rifle at Butler. The Section Six man had thrown down all he had: his wallet, his fountain pen and his keys.

"He's doesn't carry a gun," Kuryakin said but the Thrushman remained suspicious. He upended Butler's briefcase and a flood of papers spilled out, all over the floor.

"See?" Kuryakin shot back. The big henchman angrily clenched his fist in reponse, but Heacock pointed and wordlessly warned his subordinate back. Then the Thrush chief reached out a hand and casually fingered the lapel of Solo's suit.

"Yes, very nice. Very nice indeed," he purred. "Good material, too. My compliments to your tailor. You must give me his name before I kill you."

Solo made a face, but before he could offer a comeback, Jean Pierce returned with the ski boots and both of her sons. She set the boots on the table and sat back down on the sofa, her children huddled against her. Solo settled in beside her.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Solo," she whispered to him, over the sobbing of the four-year old. "They just snuck up on me before I knew they were even here."

"S'right," Solo consoled her although he couldn't completely disguise his disgust with the situation. "Happens to the best of us."

"I hope we haven't gone through all this trouble for nothing," Heacock was commenting as he juggled the left boot in his hand. "I honestly do." He looked at Jean Pierce with real sincerity.

"You realize of course, dear lady, that if the codebook is not here, I'll be forced to tear the house apart, room by room. I wanted to avoid that because I like what you've done with the place."

He scanned the parlor appreciatively and shook his head. "Well, let's be optimistic. Maybe your homeowners' insurance will cover the damages."

***

"I can't believe it wasn't in those boots," Illya puzzled aloud. He kept his voice low, but not too low. It wasn't necessary. They were at the far end of the basement where they had been dumped rather unceremoniously, an hour ago. The floorboards over their heads vibrated and rumbled with the racket in the house above. Apparently, the ambitious Thrush wrecking crew had just demolished the kitchen and was moving on to the dining room.

"Maybe she lied," Michael Butler said, squinting in the darkness. He could barely make out Kuryakin's face.

The Russian agent shrugged his shoulders. "It's possible but I don't think so. What do you think Napoleon?"

"I think you should stop moving around so much."

Heacock's men had tied the enforcement agents back to back. Solo had managed to pop the spring-loaded razor out of his left cuff link and was now hard at work on their ropes. His progress had been steady but agonizingly slow.

"Sorry"

"Maybe Pierce lied," Butler guessed again, as he squirmed uncomfortably against the wall. He, too, was bound hand and foot and one of his legs had fallen asleep.

"That wouldn't make sense," Kuryakin replied. "I saw the report. Pierce mentioned the codebook in his dying breath. Why would he make such an effort merely to lie?"

"Maybe he meant another boot," Butler said, trying a third was an off-handed suggestion but it gave Kuryakin pause.

"Another boot... hmmm. Michael, I think you may have something there."

Illya twisted to speak to Napoleon behind him. "Did you hear what he said? Another boot. You know, I think we may be the victims of a faulty translation."

"We're going to be victims, period, if you don't quit wiggling around. As soon as they're finished up there, Heacock's going to come back for the three of us, and it won't be for a game of bridge. Now for God's sake, Illya, hold still!"

"Sorry," the Russian apologized again and forced himself to keep his arms rigid.

"What did you mean 'faulty translation'?" Butler asked after a moment. "Pierce died in London."

"Yes, and he was born in the U.K. as well. As I discovered when I learned to speak English, the British and the Americans use different words for the same thing.

"We may be dealing with just such a case here. Suppose Mr. Pierce actually said that the book was hidden in the trunk of his car. The British call it a 'boot'. So: London reports the phrase, using their term and our American agents in Section Four interpret it literally."

"Sounds like that game, 'Telephone' I used to play as a kid. The message never came out the way it went in."

"Exactly. When we arrived, I noticed a garage at the rear of the yard. I'll wager there's a family car in it."

"Got it!" Solo suddenly hissed in triumph as the last stubborn strand of rope shredded. Kuryakin pitched forward slightly as the agents broke apart. It took another precious minute to unravel their bounds and two more to free Butler.

"What's our next move?" the Section Six man asked as he stood up and brushed the dust off his suit. "Illya thinks we should look in the garage —."

"Yeah, I know. I heard the etymology lecture too," Solo said as he searched for an escape route in the dark. He soon found it: a dirty, narrow window set high in the cinderblock wall. He scrambled up the side of the washing machine and marshaled all his strength to open it.

"The theory sounds plausible but there's only one way to find out for sure."

Solo groaned as he struggled with the casement. Kuryakin looked up and shook his head.

"Won't budge, huh?"

"Not an inch."

"I'll look for a hammer," Butler volunteered, but Solo hopped off the Maytag and stopped him.

"Don't bother. We don't have time for a scavenger hunt."

Standing beside his partner, Kuryakin strained to see in the dim light. He studied the overhead plumbing. "That pipe might hold me," he observed.

"Worth a try," Solo agreed and watched as his wiry partner grasped the iron pipe like a trapeze and pulled himself by his arms. He swung his legs toward the window.

"Won't they hear him upstairs?" Butler asked nervously.

"Not if he times it right. Illya, try to avoid breaking the glass if you can."

Kuryakin grunted and matched the rhythm of his kicks to the pounding coming from the dining room above. He kept at it, stamping the window frame over and over again. On the sixth kick, the wood finally splintered and gave. The Russian let himself down and then climbed up and through the window.

"C'mon Michael. You're next," Solo said and formed a stirrup with his hands. Butler hesitated, sucked in a breath and then allowed the two enforcement agents to help him through the cramped opening. Solo pushed from below while Kuryakin, kneeling on the grass, pulled with both hands. It was a tight squeeze but the plump little Bereavement Officer made it. Solo followed close behind him.

Once outside, the three men sprinted across the yard while the sounds of hammering and sawing echoed in the night. The door of the garage was locked but Illya found a window around the back. This one opened easily, much to Kuryakin's relief. Butler was not as pleased.

"Oh no, not again," he moaned, but Solo just laughed. "Gotta watch those desserts, Michael, if you're going to work in the field," he said and went in first.

As Kuryakin had predicted, they found a car, a bronze Chevy Corvair, parked and waiting. Kuryakin circled to the front of the car and tested the trunk lid. It was locked. He dropped to one knee.

"Do you still have your all-purpose pass key?" he asked aloud. Solo slipped off his tie-clip and fanned it open.

"Here," he said, tossing the miniature tool to his partner. "I'll let you do the honors." He turned to Butler and found the gray-haired agent staring at him.

"What's the matter?" Solo asked innocently.

"You're like a walking Swiss Army knife, for heaven's sake."

Kuryakin chuckled from behind the Corvair's bumper. "Forget about your tailor, Napoleon. I'll reserve my compliments for your jeweler."

The lock surrendered without a struggle. Illya opened the lid and looked inside. There wasn't much there: a spare tire, a jack, a slim metal toolbox and a pile of rags. He checked the spare, shook out the rags and inspected the toolbox — and came up empty.

"Perhaps it wasn't so clever a theory after all," he said sourly. As he tossed the spare back into the trunk, the tire bumped against a side panel with a hollow thump.

"Bingo," Solo exclaimed when he heard the sound. Kuryakin removed the tire again and watched as Solo tore out the vinyl wall that lined the trunk. There, just above the left tire, they found a secret compartment built into the car.

With his pass key, Solo jimmied the lock and flipped open the cover. Inside was a book that resembled a grimy, well-thumbed paperback novel.

"That's it?" Butler asked, surprised. It didn't look like much. He had expected something more sinister.

"That's it," Solo confirmed quickly as he rifled through the curling pages. He passed it to Butler. "Here. Keep this safe."

Butler dropped the codebook into his coat pocket. "Where are you guys going?"

"Back to the house, to rescue Mrs. Pierce and the children," Kuryakin said.

"I wouldn't mind bagging Heacock as a bonus," Solo observed.

Kuryakin allowed himself a faint grin. "That would ruffle old Baldwin's feathers."

"It certainly would. But we're going to need a diversion."

Without a word, Kuryakin cocked his head toward the Corvair. Solo nodded and turned to Butler.

"Michael, how would you like to help us out here?"

"Sure. What do you want me to do?"

"Not much. Just back the car out of the garage, down the driveway and into the street."

Butler hesitated. His eyebrows knitted together. "Gee, Napoleon, I don't know..."

"It has automatic transmission," Solo said with a shrug. Kuryakin was at the other end of the car, tinkering with the engine. "After Illya gets the car started, all you have to do is throw it into reverse and step on the gas."

"But won't Heacock and his men hear? They'll think we're escaping."

"Of course, they will. We're counting on it."

Butler considered. He almost said "no," but just as he opened his mouth, the engine suddenly ground to life. Solo wrapped an arm around the shorter agent's shoulder and maneuvered him toward the car.

"Don't worry," he assured Butler, "it will be a cinch. I have the utmost confidence in you."

"I'm glad somebody does," the Bereavement Officer mumbled to himself. He wasn't entirely convinced but before he knew it, Kuryakin was popping the front door lock and Solo was gently but firmly nudging him into the driver's seat.

"You guys missed your calling," Butler chuckled as he listened to the steady idle of the Corvair. "You could have made a fortune stealing cars."

"How do you think we intend to supplement our pensions?" Solo laughed with a wink. "Now after we leave, count slowly to thirty and then pull out as fast as you can. I want to hear those tires squealing."

"Okay", Butler nodded and offered a brave smile. He still had his doubts about the whole thing, but he thought of Jean Pierce and her sons and decided he had no choice.

"Good boy," Solo said, patting Butler's shoulder through the lowered window. At the other end of the garage, Kuryakin had cracked the door and was now peeking outside to see if anyone in the house had heard them. Apparently no one had. The sounds of demolition were drowning out the drone of the car engine.

Kuryakin eased the garage door open and signaled to Solo.

"Remember, Michael: thirty seconds. No more," Solo reminded him one last time and then slipped back into the night.

Butler shifted in the driver's seat, took a tight, two-handed grip on the wheel and wondered if he was too old to switch to some other line of work.

***

Without the stout little Section Six man to slow them down, the enforcement agents made it back to the house in half the time. Illya halted at the kitchen door and positioned himself beside it, while Solo sprinted around to the front. All the time, Napoleon's internal clock was ticking. Ten seconds. Nine seconds. Eight...

He gained the porch with barely a moment to spare. Just as Solo flattened himself between a window and the front door, he heard Butler pull out of the garage. The Corvair tore down the long driveway, heading straight for the narrow road.

Inside the house, the sound of the departing car had its desired effect. The noisy destruction halted abruptly, replaced by shouting voices.

"What the hell — ?" one of the gunmen cried.

"Hey! Mr. Heacock! They're getting away!"

"Well, don't just stand here," the Thrush chief shrieked at the top of his lungs. "Stop them!"

The group split up. The largest of Heacock's henchmen galloped heavily through the kitchen and ran out the side door. Kuryakin heard him coming. As soon as the door began to swing open, the Russian slammed his shoulder hard against it, catching the Thrushman's head in the frame and cracking his skull. Kuryakin paused only long enough to relieve his victim of his .45 automatic. Then, gun in hand, the U.N.C.L.E. agent raced to the front yard to join his partner.

Solo needed the help. The rest of Heacock's men had chosen to come his way and he had his hands full.

As Kuryakin rounded the corner of the house, he instantly sized up the situation. One of the Thrushmen lay sprawled in the shrubbery, shaking his head back to consciousness. A second had a hammerlock on Napoleon's neck and was threatening to snap it and a third was just emerging from the front door. Kuryakin saw the last Thrush goon draw his gun and point it in his partner's direction.

Solo was too intent on freeing himself to see the danger but Kuryakin did. The Russian didn't hesitate: he positioned himself, aimed quickly and shot the Thrushman in the heart.

Next to the porch, Solo finally broke his opponent's hold and rammed an elbow deep into the Thrushman's chest. The man screamed and staggered backwards and Solo took the opportunity to deliver a right cross to the jaw.

Wobbling on unsteady legs, Napoleon took a deep breath and prepared for another round. Behind him, the first Thrush agent was rising to his feet. Kuryakin decided the fight had gone on long enough. He fired the .45 into the air.

"Hold it right there, please," he shouted and the two Thrushmen who were still alive slowly raised their hands above their heads.

"Thanks," Solo said, wiping his bloody nose. "I owe you one."

"You owe me several," Kuryakin added as he confiscated another automatic from the Thrushman near the shrubs and tossed it to Solo.

"Are you two okay?"It was Butler. He was hanging out the window of the car, now idling in the street in front of the isolated house. "What should I do next?" he asked, plaintively.

Solo looked at Illya and shook his head. In the heat of battle, they had completely forgotten about Michael.

"Just stay put for —," Solo began, but he was interrupted by Jean Pierce.

"Mr. Solo?"

The agent turned to see the woman hurrying down the porch, her baby in her arms.

"Where's your other son?" he asked.

"Right here."

This time, the voice belonged to Heacock. The Thrush Chief stood in the doorway, with one arm clamped around the screaming four-year old and the barrel of his gun pressed against the boy's temple.

"Drop your weapons, gentlemen," Heacock said and the U.N.C.L.E. agents did as they were told. Solo sighed as he watched Heacock's henchmen retrieve their guns. He looked from Jean Pierce's frantic eyes to the terrified child in Heacock's grip to his partner, standing motionless beside him. Illya's face was a mask of bitter frustration.

Solo shrugged helplessly. There was nothing they could do.

"Look! Here! I have what you want!" Butler called again from the waiting Corvair. Everyone turned to the street.

"The codebook," Heacock gasped.

"That's right." Butler waved it out the window for all to see. "Come and get it," he said, then threw the car into gear and stepped on the gas.

Heacock watched, stunned, as his precious codebook sped away, down the road. It took him a few seconds to recover his voice. "Idiots! What are you waiting for?" he cried to his subordinates. One of them was still shaking his aching head, trying to clear it."Go after that car! I want that codebook!"

The Thrushmen obeyed immediately. They scrambled into the rented Pontiac, still parked at the curb, and took off in pursuit.

As the car peeled away in a spray of dirt and gravel, the child in Heacock's arms suddenly saw his chance. He bit the Thrush chief on the hand and wriggled free.

"Donny! To me!" Jean Pierce called out to the running child. Heacock flung out an arm to recapture the boy but he missed and dropped the gun instead. Solo made a dive for it and beat Heacock to the .45.

"The car they came in — it's parked over there, in the woods, Mr. Solo," Jean Pierce said. Solo looked in the direction she was pointing. He could barely make out the metallic gleam of a grill in the darkness.

"The keys, Heacock," the agent demanded, gesturing with the gun. Reluctantly, Heacock threw them into the grass and Kuryakin scooped them up and raced away toward the car.

"Do you know how to use this, Mrs. Pierce?" Solo asked. Jean Pierce looked at the gun and nodded.

"Good. Cover this guy until we return."

Solo handed her the automatic and smiled encouragingly. Behind him, Illya was pulling up in a late model Chrysler.

"Try not to let him get away," the U.N.C.L.E. agent said and ran toward the car. He hated leaving the woman alone like that, with Heacock and the children, but he really had no choice.

"That was a very brave thing for Michael to do," Kuryakin commented as Solo slid into the seat beside him.

"And pretty stupid, too," Napoleon growled. "At the airport, when we rented the car, he told me that he never learned to drive."

Kuryakin looked up in surprise.

"That's why I only wanted him to back it out."

Illya cursed to himself in Russian and floored the accelerator.

***

The U.N.C.L.E. agents finally caught up with the chase about half way down the mountain.

"There they are," Kuryakin said. The Pontiac was a good quarter mile ahead.

"And there's Michael," Solo added, picking out another pair of taillights in the distance. Butler's car swerved perilously close to the edge of the road as it took the turn. There wasn't much of a shoulder. On the left, the forest rose steeply upward. On the right, was a sheer drop.

"This road is treacherous even for an experienced driver," Illya commented as he maneuvered through a sharp turn. A screech of their tires drove home his point. "They're going to catch him if we don't slow them down. Do something."

"We left the only gun we had back at the house," Solo reminded him. "What do you want me to do? Throw stones at them?"

"Well, I don't know. You're always coming up with brilliant solutions to seemingly impossible situations. Can't you think of anything?"

Solo thought.

"I wonder if this is a rented car?" he said aloud, after a moment.

Kuryakin frowned as he steered into another tight turn. "Why the hell should that matter?"

"Because, my dear tovarisch, if this is not a rental but a Thrush company car, it might be equipped with some interesting options."

Solo reached out and clicked open the glove compartment. "Ah," he grinned. "Here we go."

Kuryakin took a split second to glance over and saw a control panel of six unmarked buttons."But we don't know what they operate."

Solo shrugged. "Let's find out." He peered through the windshield. The distance separating the three cars was dwindling and the Pontiac was almost directly ahead of them. Solo's finger hovered over the panel. "Eeeny, meeny, miney... moe."

His index finger stabbed the red button on the end. The Chrysler bucked and something popped out from under the right front headlight. There was a swish and a trail of smoke.

"What was that?" Kuryakin cried, but he had his answer almost before the words left his lips. Something detonated against the Pontiac's right rear fender. There was an explosion and the car swerved sharply.

"Apparently, some sort of missile," Solo replied.

"A direct hit on the first try," Kuryakin muttered, shaking his head. "You know, Napoleon, sometimes you amaze me."

"Sometimes I amaze myself," Solo smiled, but his moment of triumph was short-lived. The Pontiac lurched forward, careening wildly out of control.

As they approached yet another curve, the big sedan containing the Thrush agents rammed the Corvair hard from behind. The Pontiac veered to the right, then left the road and sailed off, over the 's car skidded in the other direction, bounced against an embankment and barreled into the trees.

Kuryakin slammed on the brakes of the Chrysler and screeched to a halt, ending up sideways across the road. Solo was out the door before the car even stopped moving. He hit the ground running with Illya close behind.

The agents rushed to the Corvair but they couldn't reach it in time. The engine exploded, sending up a roaring tongue of fire that almost instantly consumed the car and the forest around it.

Solo threw up an arm for protection and squinted against the heat and light. He stared at the burning wreckage. "Ah, Michael," he groaned sadly. What a terrible mess.

"Over here."

"Did you say something?" Solo asked his partner but Kuryakin shook his head.

"I said: I'm over here!"

It was a faint but familiar voice. Solo narrowed his eyes. "I must be going crazy," he said. "I could've sworn I heard Butler."

"Then they'll need strait-jackets for both of us," Kuryakin assured him. "I heard him too."

The Russian raised his voice. "Michael?"

They searched through the underbrush, calling and ducking the flames until Kuryakin shouted, "I've found him. He's over here."

Solo joined them. Illya was kneeling near the side of the road with Butler sprawled beside him. The Section Six man was bruised and bloody, but he was also alive and conscious, too.

"I didn't know what to do, so I jumped out of the car," Butler murmured to them. "I think my legs are broken."

"You're lucky your neck isn't broken," Kuryakin said, as he checked the agent's body, trying to assess the damage. "Can you move your head?"

Butler did and Kuryakin sighed in relief. Suddenly, from behind them, the Pontiac at the bottom of the canyon blew up, sending another fireball into the night sky.

"I'm getting tired of explaining these accidents to the rental car companies," Kuryakin grumbled wearily but Solo was thinking of Jean Pierce.

"I'd better get back to the house," he said and Kuryakin nodded.

"Call an ambulance, Napoleon. I'll stay here with Michael."

Solo went back to the Chrysler and drove off. Illya sat down heavily on the grass, next to Butler. He observed gently, "That was a very foolish thing to do back there, Michael."

"I know," Butler said. "But I did end the stalemate. I saved Mrs. Pierce and the children. And the codebook is still safe in my pocket. Not bad for a 'maiden aunt', wouldn't you say?"

The Bereavement Officer grinned even though it almost hurt too much to do so.

"Not bad," Kuryakin agreed. He, too, was finding it hard not to smile.

***

Solo couldn't find either one of their communicators, so after a hasty and futile search, he gave up and used the kitchen phone. He called the emergency squad and the local fire department then dialed the special number for the U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in Seattle. Just as he was finishing his preliminary report, Jean Pierce appeared at the kitchen door. She looked exhausted.

"I finally got the kids to sleep," she said as he hung up. "There's a corpse on my front porch and one on the back. Donny will probably have nightmares for years."

She placed the .45 on the kitchen table. "And by the way, you can have this back. Want some coffee?"

Solo nodded. "If you're making some for yourself." He slipped the gun into his empty shoulder holster. "Where's Heacock?"

The young woman shrugged helplessly. "Gone. I'm afraid I'm not very good at this."

Solo leaned against the table and watched her fill the coffee pot with water. "We'll have to replace your car," he said.

"Can you replace my husband too?" Jean Pierce shot back. She dropped the pot into the sink, hung her head and broke down into tears. Solo put a comforting hand to her shoulder and the young woman turned into his arms. He held her for a few minutes and let her cry.

"That wasn't fair, I know," Mrs. Pierce sniffed, after she was in control again, "and I'm sorry. I'm sorry about Heacock, too. Right after you people left, he started backing away and I just couldn't shoot him. He ran off, into the woods."

"It's okay," Solo told her. "We'll get him next time."

He was actually feeling a little relieved himself. The agent didn't say so, but he was thinking that he'd had enough of death for one day.

***

A few hours later, Michael Butler was settled as comfortably as possible in a hospital bed with two broken legs, several cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder.

"Next time you decide to initiate a car chase," Illya instructed him from his bedside, "please Michael, let your fellow agents know in advance. You almost ended up in your own book."

"Speaking of which —," Napoleon said and produced Butler's briefcase. He took out the leather bound journal and handed it to Butler.

"Take good care of this. Despite the jokes, we field agents really appreciate your efforts."

"What efforts?" Butler grumbled. "Tonight, now that was real work. All I ever do is wait, safe and sound back at headquarters, jotting down names. It seems so pointless, so macabre..."

"On the contrary," Solo said, shaking his head. "Your job is extremely important. You're always there for us. You record, you console, and most of all, you care. I don't think anyone else could do it as well. Remember Michael: they also serve who stand and wait."

***

"That was a nice thing you said to Michael," Kuryakin observed later as they drove toward the airport. It was almost dawn. The first rays of sunlight were breaking through the clouds.

"I'm just glad it didn't turn out to be his epitaph," Solo said. He stretched his arms and yawned.

"Sort of makes you wonder what they'll write for us."

"I don't wonder," Kuryakin replied. The rumbling in his stomach reminded him that he was hungry. They had a little time yet before the U.N.C.L.E. jet was scheduled to take off. He decided to look for a diner. "I'm going to die like my grandfather," the Russian added, searching the roadside. "In my own bed, at the ripe old age of ninety-three."

"Not me," Solo chuckled as he settled back and closed his eyes. He couldn't wait to get on the plane and go to sleep. "Carry me home on my shield like the Romans, to the cheering of comrades and the wailing lament of women. Maybe I should think of something appropriate for Michael's book."

"How about: 'So many women, so little time,'" Kuryakin suggested with a sly grin.

Solo made a face. "No, no. Something stirring, elegiac. Something from Shakespeare. 'Hamlet' perhaps: 'To die; to sleep. To sleep, perchance, to dream..."

Kuryakin shook his head as he spotted a neon sign up ahead. "I don't believe what I'm hearing," he muttered as Solo warmed to the subject.

"Or how about John Donne? 'Death be not proud, though some have called thee.'"

"You're out of your mind, do you know that?" The sign coming up fast advertised a restaurant that was open twenty-four hours a day. It looked clean and inviting. "Let's get some breakfast," Illya said.

But Napoleon was still thinking aloud. "Or maybe one of the poets from the Romantic Period. They were always hanging out in churchyards..."

Kuryakin knew it was useless to interrupt. He snapped on the directional signal and turned into the parking lot.