The Getting of Wisdom Affair
Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom; at the cost of all you have, get understanding. (Proverbs, 4:7)
Rio de Janiero. Beginning of March, l967.
Napoleon Solo unlocked the door with an elaborate bow. "After you, m'lady," he said. April Dancer answered with a maidenly curtsy and entered first.
The ceiling above them danced with colored lights, diffused from the streets below. The hollow sound of wild music and laughter echoed in the background. "Look at this mouse hole!" Dancer exclaimed as she surveyed the tiny hotel room. Solo weaved a wobbly path to the window and opened it to let in some fresh air. He pulled the shade halfway down.
"Be grateful, kid. This was the only available mouse hole in the entire city tonight."
"And look at the size of that bed! It wouldn't fit one person comfortably, never mind two."
Solo gave the narrow iron cot only a cursory glance as he rounded it and gathered Dancer back into his arms. "We don't need a bed," he whispered into her hair.
"Well, I don't know where else we can go. This room is the size of a closet."
"Didn't you ever do it in a closet?"
"No. Did you?"
When Solo's eyebrow arched wickedly, the woman agent added, "No, wait. Don't answer that. I don't want to know."
Solo laughed and hugged her close. "April, my angel, tonight I could make love to you standing up — with both hands tied behind my back."
Dancer chortled in spite of herself. "That's the wine talking now. I'm sorry, Napoleon, but even with your admittedly seasoned capabilities, I sincerely doubt that. After all that Madeira, I'll bet you can't stay on your feet for more than ten more minutes."
Solo pulled back a little and stroked her cheek.
"Ah ... is that a wager I'm hearing? Very well, Miss April Dancer. Listen to me carefully: I'm going to make incredibly mad, passionate love to you. And, if you're not completely satisfied with the results, I promise to bring you breakfast in bed tomorrow morning."
"And if I am satisfied?"
"Then you fetch breakfast for both of us. Deal?"
"Fine. Now take off your clothes."
Dancer hesitated but Solo was already unknotting his tie. "C'mon, c'mon," he coaxed her. "I won't do it for you."
The woman agent frowned and did as she was told. When they were finished, Solo came back. "Here — this is just to keep us both honest," he said and took her hands in his. "Now remember: whatever you do, don't let go."
Then he pressed her firmly against the wall and captured her mouth with his. Dancer closed her eyes and kept them closed. After the kiss ended, she felt his lips slide delicately along the length of her throat.
"What are you doing?" she murmured.
"U.N.C.L.E. agents are highly skilled and extremely versatile. I intend to kiss every part of your body."
"Mmmm ... maybe some parts twice."
Dancer leaned back. She felt his tongue tickle her breastbone and stray slowly southward. She shuddered and tightened her grip on Solo's hands.
"Hmmm ... ?"
"About breakfast: how do you like your eggs?"
They awoke the next morning to the sound of birds chirping and the distinctive beeping of an U.N.C.L.E. communicator. Still half asleep, Solo reached for his coat draped over the bedpost. He moved carefully, in an effort not to disturb April, but she'd heard the call too. She yawned and the sheets rustled as she stirred against him in the narrow bed.
"What time is it?"
Solo checked his watch. "Almost ten," he told her as he uncapped the communicator and held it aloft. Dancer rested her chin on his chest and leaned close to listen.
"Good morning Napoleon," a liquid, feminine voice sang to him. Solo smiled in recognition and Dancer made a face.
"And good morning to you, too, Wanda. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Just calling to confirm your plane reservations. You and Miss Dancer are booked on the six p.m. flight this evening."
"Acknowledged. Anything else?"
"No, not really. I was just wondering if you've seen Illya."
Solo ran a hand through his hair. "Why? Should I have?"
"No, but he's on assignment down there, too, and I thought you might have bumped into each other."
"Haven't seen hide nor blond hair. But then, this is a big city, Wanda, dear, and it is the beginning of Carnivale. The place is packed."
"Did you have a good time?" the communications specialist inquired. She sounded a little envious.
The mission to apprehend Francisco Alvado, Thrush's South American sector chief, had gone extremely well. So well in fact, that Waverly, in an uncharacteristically benevolent mood, had given his two enforcement agents the rest of the weekend off.
Solo pulled April closer and kissed her on the curve of her shoulder. "Pleasant," he replied simply. Dancer grinned.
"No doubt. The streets of Rio must be littered with the broken hearts of young senoritas."
"Really, Wanda. You wound me."
"Oh-ho, I know you, Napoleon. You never waste any free time. In fact, I'll bet there's someone in bed with you this very minute."
Dancer chuckled and before Solo could stop her, she offered the communicator a loud, extravagant yawn.
"I heard that!" Wanda shot back, almost immediately. "I was right! Anybody I know?"
"As a matter of fact..." Solo began, narrowing his eyes at April, but he lost the opportunity to even the score when Wanda cut him short. Her voice dropped to a hushed whisper.
"The Old Man just walked in. Gotta run. Be a darling and pass on the info to Miss Dancer for me, will you? Take care, Nap —."
The transmission went dead. Solo capped the pen and sighed.
"I think I just got Wanda into trouble again."
Dancer was unsympathetic. "Serves her right for using the channel for personal business."
"Now, now," he chided her as he re-pocketed the communicator. "You of all people have no reason to be jealous."
"I'm not. Actually, I'm a little disappointed. She didn't even suspect that it was me, here with you."
Solo slipped an arm back under Dancer and she rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Just as well," he said. "You have a reputation to maintain, 'Princess'."
"I despise that nickname, you know."
"I know." He offered her a quick hug of apology. "But we all have to live with office gossip."
Dancer nodded and rolled on her back. Solo shifted in the sheets to accommodate her. They lay quietly for a few moments, bathed in the warm sunlight streaming through the open window. Random street noises drifted in on the wisp of breeze. Dancer's eyes traveled from the gently flapping shade to the walls. The stucco was the color of fresh, creamy buttermilk in the morning light.
"I'm growing very fond of this room," she sighed contentedly. "It's so peaceful, so private. I wish we could stay here forever."
"I thought you said the bed was too small."
"I could live with it. What I can't seem to live with is always sleeping with a gun under my pillow."
"An occupational hazard."
Dancer turned and pressed closer. "Well, if you ask me, this job has too many occupational hazards." She propped her head up on one hand. "The constant danger. The uncertainty. And worst of all, the loneliness. How do you handle it?"
"I sleep with beautiful women."
Dancer laughed and fingered his cheek. "No, c'mon Napoleon. Really, be honest."
"I am being honest. You asked me how I cope."
"You mean that sex is some sort of a safety valve?"
Solo folded his arms under his head and studied the ceiling. "More like therapy, I think. Life requires balance and ours is filled with so much violence and ugliness. We need a little gentleness, a little sweetness, just to keep sane.
"And what could be sweeter than to give pleasure to another human being? I enjoy holding a woman in my arms. Feeling her tremble with desire, with satisfaction. For a couple of hours — a night, at least — I can forget that I sometimes have to kill people for a living."
"But you can never forget completely, can you?"
"No, not completely. That would be suicide. But we're talking about temporary withdrawal from the field here, not total surrender. It can be managed."
"I suppose. Still, having only casual romances isn't much better than none at all. It seems so empty — callous, even."
"I never make a secret of my intentions," Solo replied evenly. "And no woman was ever the worse for knowing me."
He replaced his arm around Dancer and looked her in the eye.
"Do you feel misled or ill used?"
"Of course not."
Satisfied, Solo settled back and hugged her. "I like women. I really do. I like their company, their conversation and of course, the comfort they offer. Someday, when I retire from the field — if I live that long — I'll find a wife and settle down. I think I'd like to have a home, children. But until then, I'll take my TLC where I can get it."
Dancer exhaled a long breath. "You make it sound so easy. For a woman — especially one in my position — things are so much more complicated. There are so few opportunities. Everyone is either my colleague or my competition. Sometimes, he's both. I've just about given up on having an adult love life. I don't know why I even sleep with you."
Solo laughed and wrapped both arms around her. "You share fleeting intimacies with me, my darling," he said as he kissed her, "because I'm safe. I won't put a bullet through your pretty skull or a proverbial knife in your professional back. And I'm accessible. With me, you don't compromise a regular working relationship."
He pulled her close and whispered into her ear. "And I'm also the best lay you know in the Western Hemisphere."
She squealed, giving him a hard shove that pushed him perilously close to the edge of the bed. Solo gripped the bedrail for balance.
"Okay, okay," he laughed. "The continental United States then."
Dancer gave him another vigorous nudge then collapsed against her pillow, arms folded in frustration. "Oh... and just when I thought you were beginning to take me seriously."
"Never," he said, regaining his place next to her. "And you mustn't take yourself too seriously, either."
Dancer moved to make room. "That's what Mark always tells me."
"He's right. We are what we are, love: players in a difficult, high stakes game and the odds are stacked against us. We're just trying to survive the best that we can, as long as we can. Considering the circumstances, a sense of humor is essential equipment. Don't forget that."
Dancer closed her eyes as a warm breeze washed across her face. "Right now, I'd like to forget the stakes, the odds and the whole stupid game. I'd rather think of us as two very good friends who have a long, blissful day to waste in bed." She cuddled close and her voice turned silky. "Napoleon, you don't really want me to go out and get us breakfast now, do you?"
Solo smiled and rolled toward her. "What else did you have in mind?"
"Oh, maybe I'd like to pay you back for last night."
"Okay. I'll take it out in trade."
Dancer roped her arms around his neck and pulled him down. They kissed deeply and it was several seconds before they heard the faint but steady tapping at the door.
"Did you order room service?" Solo asked. When Dancer shook her head, he snorted and raised his voice. "Go away, por favor. Ah — favor nao incomodar!"
But it was no use: the tapping persisted.
"Christ, are they deaf?" Solo said and pivoted on his elbow. Behind him, Dancer looked across his body to the door. The knob was starting to turn.
"Look, Napoleon. Someone is picking the lock."
"Goddammit. I hate it when they try to kill us before breakfast."
The heel of Solo's hand skidded wildly under his pillow and connected with the waiting U.N.C.L.E. Special. He had it cocked and ready just as the door cracked open and a figure slipped in.
At the sight of the gun, the intruder threw up his arms and flattened himself against the wall. "Don't shoot! Take it easy, Napoleon. It's only me."
Solo narrowed his eyes and the gun barrel drooped in his grip. Dancer likewise sank slowly under the sheets.
"Illya? What are you doing here?"
"The office told me where you were staying and I thought you'd be up and about by now. Hello April..."
The woman agent's hand rose from behind Solo's shoulder in a limp salute.
"... and, well, forgive me for interrupting your holiday like this but I need a place to lie low for a while. There are three, very big, very nasty thugs following me and —-."
Kuryakin's eyes began to roll and his knees buckled.
"He's hurt, Napoleon," Dancer cried. She followed Solo as he sprang to his feet. They caught the Russian before he hit the floor and carried him to the bed.
"I'm really very sorry about this..." Kuryakin murmured and passed out just as his head touched the pillow. Dancer's fingers burrowed into the blond hair and came up bloody. She held them up for Solo to see. He was already half dressed.
"How bad?" he asked, strapping on his shoulder holster.
"Can't tell. Bad enough."
"Well, you stay with him here. See what you can do. I'm going outside and have a look around."
Dancer tried hard to stifle a disappointed groan, but Solo heard it anyway. He bent to give her a quick peck on the cheek.
"Sorry, darling, but I don't have to say it, do I? Duty calls. For both of us."
"But couldn't it have called a little later?"
She didn't expect an answer and Solo didn't offer one. As he pulled on his jacket, he shot a worried glance at his unconscious partner. Dancer adjusted the pillows and gave the Russian a sympathetic pet.
"Napoleon?" she called before he was out the door. "I want to come back here someday and spend an entire week. And not let anything or anybody in the world disturb us."
Solo smiled. "Don't worry. We will," he told her.
But they never did.
New York City. Five days later.
"Two weeks restricted duty, just for a mild concussion," Illya Kuryakin growled from his place in the car's passenger seat. He stared sullenly out the window, watching the Forty-second Street scenery drift by.
"A mild cerebral contusion," Solo corrected him. "And don't blame me. It wasn't my idea."
"You signed off on the order."
"I didn't have much choice. The Old Man is worried about you. He thinks you've been clunked on the head once too often."
Solo arched a skeptical eyebrow as he eased the silver Dodge Charger through the lanes of afternoon rush hour traffic. "Aren't you still suffering from those bad headaches?"
"No," Kuryakin snapped, even though he was. Although he wouldn't admit it, even under torture, he'd been experiencing periods of blurred vision, too. But the periods were very occasional and very brief. Maybe he just needed to change the prescription of his reading glasses.
Solo wouldn't argue the point. He didn't even try. There was no dealing with Illya when he was in one of his black Russian moods.
At Tenth Avenue, Solo turned the Charger right and swung north. It was some time before either of them spoke again.
"I understand that Rio was an unqualified success," Kuryakin remarked sourly as they inched past the rear of Lincoln Center. The traffic was abominable and there were wet snow flurries in the air.
Solo wasn't quite sure how to respond to that statement. He wondered if what he was hearing was simply professional annoyance that he and April had completed not only their own assignment but Illya's as well, or a sarcastic commentary on the shared sleeping arrangements. Solo decided it was easier and simpler to assume the first.
"It did go very well, all things considered," he conceded.
"And how is it to work with a woman?"
Most of the male enforcement agents had been asking the same question ever since Dancer's entry into the section. Lately, the issue had assumed a more particular urgency. At least half a dozen women would be graduated with this year's survival school class in June.
Solo shrugged. He'd already partnered Dancer twice before.
"Not all that much different. She's physically weaker of course, but not in any way that really matters. She also tends to be a bit less aggressive and a bit more cautious — especially when it comes to gunplay."
"That's not necessarily a fault."
"No, it's not," Solo agreed. Rookie agents tended to be overeager and somewhat trigger-happy, which could be dangerous not to mention a real pain in the ass. "She's also very intuitive and sometimes, her gender can be used to advantage."
Ah, so there it was, Solo thought, the moral disapproval he'd been waiting for. As Tenth Avenue became Amsterdam, the traffic finally began to thin. Solo saw an opening in an outside lane and used it to make a left hand turn. As he squeezed the Charger through an amber light, he tried to formulate a response.
There'd been no discussion about the hotel room discovery since leaving Rio, none at all. Solo had been caught in compromising positions by Illya before — the first time they ever met, in fact. But this incident was different and they both knew it. Not only was April Dancer Mr. Waverly's pet project, but she was also a comrade in arms. The scar on her right hand made her one of them, and the unwritten code warned that one should never screw a fellow field agent, figuratively or otherwise.
Although Kuryakin remained his usual tight-lipped self, Solo could hear the questions forming, unspoken, in the air between them: Couldn't resist, could you? Couldn't let even this one get away? Ever consider what the Old Man would do if he found out? Was it really worth the risk?
And Solo wanted to protest: But you don't understand. It wasn't what it appeared to be. Forget the booze and the atmosphere. This wasn't just another one-night stand. It's been more than that. It's part of a relationship ... though he couldn't quite find the words to describe what exactly that relationship was.
Well, what the hell, he thought. It didn't matter anyway. He knew he'd never get the chance to argue in his own defense because Kuryakin would never actually bring the subject up. And if Solo did himself, the discussion would end as soon as it began. On more than one occasion, Illya had declared, firmly and clearly, that as far as he was concerned, every agent's personal life was his own private affair. Period.
Still, Solo couldn't allow things to stand as they were. The silence was killing him. As he double-parked in front of Kuryakin's West End Avenue apartment building, shifting the car into neutral, he said simply, "I just want you to know that it was her idea, not mine."
"If you say so," Kuryakin replied. This time, there wasn't the slightest hint of sarcasm. He hit the door latch and climbed out.
Standing in the street, Kuryakin paused beside the open door. He ducked his head below the roof, waiting. Solo leaned sideways across the front seat.
"No one else knows about this, not even Mark," he said. The expression of genuine concern on his face pleaded for understanding. It almost prompted Kuryakin to smile. Once more, the Russian was reminded of why, despite everything, they remained such good friends.
"And no one ever will. Good evening, Napoleon. Thank you for the lift."
Nothing more needed to be said. The passenger door slammed shut with a solid thump and Kuryakin walked away.
Although he felt oddly comforted by Illya's promise to keep the secret, Solo couldn't get his mind off April and the Rio affair all the way home. It hadn't been the first time they'd slept together and probably wouldn't be the last. But he hadn't lied to Illya: it had been her idea right from the start. And it hadn't been a dreamy acquiescence to a seduction either, but a clear-minded decision, soberly made and deliberately acted upon.
Solo went over his conversation with Illya once more as he turned into one of the winding transverse roads that cut across Central Park. Characteristically, he and his partner lived on opposite sides of town. Illya hadn't seemed especially surprised by his little discovery the other morning in Rio, but Solo knew he was. Surely, his other colleagues would be, too, if they ever found out. Which they wouldn't. But then again, what did they expect the poor girl to do? Remain a virgin all her life? Women had needs too, goddamn it, Solo told himself. Did the Old Man think they were still living back in the days of bustles and hoop skirts?
The Old Man —.
Waverly was a stickler for propriety. He might turn a blind eye to some frivolous flirting with the clerical help, but a serious, on-going affair between field agents — Christ, the old bastard didn't even approve of friendships between partners of the same sex. He liked his people focused, singularly dedicated to U.N.C.L.E., and free of all other emotional ties.
Solo tried not to think about what would happen if — God forbid — his boss ever did find out. And he was still trying not to think about it long after he'd parked his car and rode the elevator to the third floor of his East Side apartment building. Walking briskly down the hallway, he suddenly heard a small, feminine voice call out.
The agent looked up from the ring of keys in his hand. A young girl about seventeen was standing right outside his apartment door, apparently waiting for him. He'd been so immersed in his own thoughts, he hadn't noticed her until they were almost toe-to-toe.
"Hi, Marcy," he said, recognizing his neighbor from one flight up. Marcia's mother, Evelyn Whittaker, was a commercial artist with good looks, bad debts, a nasty ex-husband and an even nastier boss. Somehow the woman managed to survive with her sense of humor intact. He and Evelyn went out to dinner from time to time whenever he wanted a pleasant, uncomplicated evening and she needed a sympathetic ear.
"What can I do for you?" he asked, remembering to smile. It didn't help. The girl kept shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
"I have to talk to you Mr. Solo. It's important."
"What seems to be the problem?"
"No, not out here." She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "In private."
His curiosity piqued, Solo nodded. "All right." He unlocked the door, snapped on a nearby light switch and ushered her in. The clock on the wall said it was after seven and with the single light, the apartment seemed rather cold and dark. After hanging up his topcoat, Solo turned on the table lamp near the sofa and motioned for Marcy to sit down.
"Would you like a soda?" he asked.
Solo headed for the kitchen to get himself a beer. "So what can I do for you?"
Sitting on the very edge of the sofa, Marcy hesitated. She seemed to have gathered herself together into one tight bundle. One hand gripped the book in her lap while the other fingered a patch on the knee of her jeans. When he didn't hear an answer right away, Solo ducked his head back in. The girl looked a little pale. Something was definitely, seriously wrong.
"Your mother's not in trouble is she?" he asked apprehensively. The nasty ex-husband had an annoying habit of popping up when least expected. For the first time that evening, Marcy smiled. "No, no, Momma's okay. This has nothing to do with her. Well, actually, it was her idea for me to come down to talk to you. It's about a boy at school..."
Oh, great, Solo thought. Was Evelyn expecting him to play Dear Abby to her daughter too? He couldn't seem to manage his own sex life lately, never mind anyone else's. He grabbed a clean glass and poured himself that beer. Now, he really needed it.
"His name is Bryan Pritchard. He's the smartest kid in the whole school."
Must be a genius, Solo told himself. If he remembered correctly, Marcy attended the Henry Hudson High School of Science, a magnet school for gifted students.
"He'll probably be valedictorian this year —."
"And you like him?" Solo cut in gently as he joined her on the couch. Marcy stared at him, surprised.
"No! I mean, not like that anyway. Nobody likes him. They call him 'Prick hard' around school." She lowered her eyes, embarrassed. "It's not nice, I know, but he is kinda weird. All he likes to do is watch horror movies. He doesn't have any other friends except me."
Solo sipped his beer, waiting for her to go on. Obviously, there was more to this than a simple teen romance.
"Lately, Bryan's been acting weirder than usual," she continued.
"I don't know how to describe it. Like he's keeping a big secret. Like he's involved in something bad."
"Could it be drugs?" Solo guessed but Marcy shook her head.
"Bryan knows better than that. I kept thinking it might have something to do with where he's going to college next year. It's what we all talk about all the time. I've been accepted by Vassar, you know —."
"Your mother told me. Congratulations. Where's Bryan planning to go?"
"That's just it, Mr. Solo. I don't know. He never says. Never! But with his brains, it must be someplace important."
"Maybe he's just being modest," Solo said with a shrug. Marcy made a sour face.
"Not Bryan." She glanced down at the book that was still cradled in his lap. "And then, the other day, he loaned me this book. It's for my English term paper on Mary Shelley —." The cover read, The Annotated Frankenstein. Marcy paused. "You're sure your apartment isn't bugged, aren't you?"
The question caught Solo off-guard and he almost choked on a mouthful of beer. Evelyn knew he worked for U.N.C.L.E. but he never expected her to pass that tidbit of information on to her daughter.
"Ah — yeah, I'm sure. Why?"
"Well, I found this in Bryan's book. I don't know what it means, but when I showed it to Mom, she told me that I should give it to you right away."
Marcy cracked open the thick volume and tugged a small business card out from between the pages. She passed it to Solo. On one side was an imprinted Manhattan phone number. On the other was the familiar image of a bird, beak open and wings spread in a fighting stance.
"Jesus," Solo hissed.
U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters. The next day.
"So you believe they're out to recruit him?" Mark Slate asked as he juggled the Thrush business card between his fingers. He leaned forward over the edge of the large polished conference table in Waverly's office.
Solo shrugged. "Seems like the most logical conclusion." He glanced over at Kuryakin, who gave a slight nod in wordless assent.
Slate shook his head as he studied the card again. It appeared so plain, so innocent looking. "Shameless buggers, aren't they? Imagine, trying to rope in a bloke even before he's been to university."
"Oh, they try to get them earlier than that —."
"Indeed, Mr. Solo." Waverly's voice cut in as the steel doors swished aside. The chief entered the room trailed by April Dancer. "Let us not forget young Bartlett Warshowsky."
"Or the École Figliano," Kuryakin added with a wince. Waverly took his usual seat at the head of the table while Dancer found one at the other end between Kuryakin and Slate. It was ninety-thirty a.m. on a Saturday morning. The chief snapped on the office intercom and ordered coffee brought in before getting down to business.
"So then Mr. Solo, you've brought this problem to us. Now that you've had the night to mull it over, how do you propose we solve it?"
Solo sat back in the thick leather chair and rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. This was only a formality and they all knew it. Although Waverly would hear his people out, most likely he'd already determined a tentative course of action himself.
"Well, even if it's a wild goose chase, I think we're obligated to check it out. As you said, we almost blew it with Warshowsky —."
"I didn't say we 'blew it,' Mr. Solo. I merely remarked that we should keep young Bartlett's case in mind."
"Ah — yes sir." Solo's eyes darted quickly around the table to his fellow agents for support, but no one met his gaze. He was on his own for now. He forged on. "The telephone number turned out to be a public pay phone in Times Square. We've assigned surveillance on it, but it looks like a dead end to me. I'd suggest sending an undercover agent into the school. Although it's not our usual procedure, I'd avoid contacting the school's administration. We can't be sure who's involved with Thrush. It could be anyone — the principal on down to the janitor. We certainly don't want to scare them off."
"But surely we should alert the superintendent of schools."
Solo shook his head. "I'd recommend against it. This recruitment effort might be citywide — maybe even larger. Henry Hudson could be just the tip of the iceberg.
"And what role should our own agent play?"
"We'll want to place him so he can mingle with the student body, maybe even get close to Pritchard. I'd say a faculty position is the obvious choice."
As he listened, Waverly flipped open a file and scanned its contents. "Are you volunteering, Mr. Solo?"
"If you think I should —."
"Mmmmm, no. Perhaps not." The old man reached for his pipe as he continued to read through the file. When he looked up finally, there was a twinkle in his black eyes. "Don't be offended, Mr. Solo, but you lack a certain pedagogical quality. Besides, your previous association with our informant, your neighbor, Miss Whittaker, might give the game away." Without waiting for Solo's reaction, the chief turned in Kuryakin's direction and asked, "By the way, how are those headaches?"
"Ummm, fine, sir."
"Good. Perhaps we can involve you in this little project."
The coffee arrived. Wanda set down a stainless steel pot and several china cups and left. Waverly returned to the file, his fingers busily stuffing Isle of Dogs No. 2 into the bowl of his pipe. "It says here the school is currently in need of a girls' physical fitness instructor who will also coach the girls' gymnastics team..."
Illya blinked. Although he'd been on the gymnastic team while at university, he still lacked one important qualification for the job. "Sir, shouldn't that position be filled by a woman?"
"No doubt, Mr. Kuryakin. I was thinking of Miss Dancer." He looked across the table. "So, what do you say? Do you think you can lead a losing team to victory? According to the dossier, their record so far this season is oh and three."
"I'll try, sir," Dancer laughed nervously. "But what about my current mission? I'm supposed to fly with Mark to Majorca on Monday."
"Mr. Solo will take over your assignment. As for you, Mr. Kuryakin —" His pipe bowl properly filled, Waverly patted his suit pockets in search of a match. "— I believe a posting on the science faculty should suit you nicely. It says here that the physics teacher is an avid skier. Surely he'll welcome an all-expense paid trip to Vermont."
"Yes sir," Kuryakin agreed gloomily. He'd been itching to be taken off restricted duty, but the prospect of spending several weeks in a crowded American high school, even one filled with gifted students, did not particularly appeal to him.
Meanwhile, Waverly had finally located a book of matches. As Solo and Slate exchanged glances, he struck a match and touched it to the tobacco. Suddenly, the intercom buzzed. Waverly put aside his pipe to hit the switch.
"Yes, Miss Rogers?"
"It's Berlin, sir, Mr. Beldon for you. Top priority."
"One moment, please —" He motioned to his subordinates. "Well, you have your orders. Carry on gentlemen, Miss Dancer." The agents were on their feet and exiting the office before he finished the sentence.
As soon as the doors whooshed shut behind them, Slate held out his hand to Solo, palm up, as they walked.
"Pay up, mate. This one's mine."
"Not so fast. He had the flame to the bowl."
"The tobacco didn't ignite. Not a whiff of smoke."
"A technicality." Napoleon turned to his partner trudging along beside him. "What do you think?"
The Russian shrugged. "I couldn't smell anything."
"Sorry, Napoleon. Mark wins this time."
"Hah!" Slate laughed triumphantly. "There, you see?"
"Traitors, the both of you," Solo muttered as he surrendered a five-dollar bill. "You deserve to be tossed into Brooklyn while Mark and I bask in Marjorca. By the way, what's the weather forecast this week?"
"Sunny and pleasant, in the sixties," Slate replied. He sounded almost gleeful.
"And for the tri-state area?"
"They're predicting snow by the end of the week."
"Very funny," Kuryakin observed sourly. "I still don't see why he wants me for this assignment. April can certainly handle this one by herself."
"I could always use back-up."
"Sure," Solo chimed in. "Haven't you heard the joke going around Section Four? How many field agents does it take to change a light bulb?"
Illya made a face. "All right, I'll bite: how many?"
"Two," said Slate. "One to screw in the bulb and the other to keep him from putting his finger in the socket."
"Or hers," Solo added. He reached for April's hand and kissed a fingertip. "And such a lovely one at that. Just remember darling, screw it in but don't screw it up. Hasta luego, muchachos."
"And try not to inhale too much chalk dust," Mark called out. Then he and Solo trotted away down the corridor. April and Illya slowed their pace as they watched their partners go.
"It won't be so bad," she said.
"Yes, it will," he sighed.
"You're right. I hate them."
"So do I."
Henry Hudson High School, Brooklyn. Four days later.
"And that's Curry with a 'C'?"
"No, Kerry with a 'K'. Joseph Kerry."
Miss Merriweather, the school secretary, looked up sharply, and studied him with a penetrating stare through her wing-tipped eye- glasses. "Funny, you don't look Irish."
"My mother was Polish."
"I see." She went back to her writing. Elbows bent, Kuryakin leaned against the chest-high counter that divided the school's main office, separating those who worked there from those who did not. He watched her, waiting for the next flurry of questions. She was an elderly woman, all bones and fastidious habits, the sort who drapes an unbuttoned sweater around her shoulders, whose eyeglasses hang from a pearl chain when not in use, and who inevitably licks one fingertip whenever she turns a page, as she was doing now. In the Soviet Union, such women were fatter and more poorly dressed, but just as tyrannical.
"And you'll be taking all of Mr. Weinstein's classes?"
"So I've been informed."
There was no response as she continued reading through a file, page by moistened page. Idly, Kuryakin wondered if this woman could be a Thrush agent. She was certainly unpleasant enough, acting superior to all she surveyed. So small and thin too, one might even say bird-like.
The sound of her reedy voice startled him out of his reverie. She'd crossed the short distance between her desk and the counter and was now nearly face-to-face with him. Instinctively, he pulled back, but not before he caught a whiff of peppermint breath and mothballs. In the empty space on the counter that he'd vacated a moment ago, she slapped down a forbiddingly thick pile of forms.
"You'll need to fill these out, Mr. Kerry. Here is your W2, your social security, your pension plan, your union approval, your temporary status report, your lesson plan templates — we'll need these in triplicate — your class schedule, lunchroom monitor schedule, hall monitor schedule ..."
She kept going without taking a breath while Kuryakin watched, flabbergasted, as the rainbow colored papers shuffled past him.
"... hall passes, library passes, detention reports, absentee reports, homeroom seating chart — also to be prepared in triplicate — requisition forms for supplies — please use sparingly. Also, here is your homeroom key, your lab key, your faculty room key, your faculty restroom key......"
He kept nodding, not knowing what else to do.
"... And last but not least, the assembly schedule. Today is Wednesday. There is no assembly on Wednesday. Most of our assemblies are on Friday, except when there's a holiday on the Friday of that week, then it's rescheduled for Thursday. There are seven periods, except on assembly days when there are eight. The periods run one to seven ..."
She eyed him irritably but never broke her rhythm. "... except on days of early dismissal. On those days, first period becomes seventh period, second period becomes sixth period and so on. If there are more than two days of early dismissal that week, however, then on the second day, first period remains first, second remains second and so on. Any questions?"
Kuryakin couldn't think of any. His head was spinning too fast. This bureaucracy was more Byzantine than U.N.C.L.E.'s. "I'll let you know if any occur to me."
"They'd best occur to you soon." She glanced meaningfully at the clock. It was eight twenty a.m. School began in ten minutes. As he scooped up the sheaf of forms, she added, "I'll need you to fill those out before homeroom, if you please."
And then, with an imperious turn of her heel, she retreated back to her desk, apparently to devote her precious time to more important business. Resigned, Kuryakin dropped the papers back down on the counter, extracted a ballpoint pen from the pocket of his sports jacket and began to furiously scribble the answers into the first blanks he found.
One form gave way to another. Scribble, scribble And another. Scribble, pause, scribble, scribble. And another. As he filled in carefully memorized lies, he couldn't help thinking of Napoleon and how much his partner hated paperwork. Kuryakin chuckled bitterly to himself. What if this assignment had been yours, my friend?
His mind thus occupied with imagined fantasies and itemized trivialities, Kuryakin almost missed the conversation that drifted from the far corner of the office, some yards beyond Miss Merriweather's domain.
"This is the last time, Pritchard —."
At the sound of the name, Kuryakin's ears pricked to attention.
" — I'm warning you."
"Don't worry, sir."
The pebbled glass door that led to the vice principal's office was opening. Two voices, one heavy and male and a second, also male but considerably younger, leaked out.
" — I mean it. Next time, I'm callin' in your parents."
"I understand, Mr. Hirsch. Won't happen again. I promise."
The voices were moving, becoming louder and closer. Kuryakin's eyes strayed from the forms in front of him to the opened door. The owner of the younger voice, who was quite possibly Bryan Pritchard, emerged first. He was a short, soft-bodied boy, not overweight exactly, but distinctly unmuscular with a bad case of acne. He wore black-rimmed glasses that had been broken recently and he looked a little rumpled, as if he'd been in a fight. The man following behind him had the appearance and demeanor of a tough soccer coach from Newcastle. They paused at the door's threshold, just inside the main office.
"Look, Bryan," Hirsch said, his tone moderating to a friendlier growl, "you can't walk around all the time with a chip on your shoulder. If someone says something, ignore it. Sticks and stones, y'know what I'm sayin'? Just let 'em roll off you like water off a duck's back. You might win a battle but hell, you keep this up, ya gonna lose the war. I'd hate to see ya kicked outta here. You're too smart a kid for that."
"There won't be any more problems, Mr. Hirsch."
"There better not be. Three strikes an' you're out."
"Okay, son. Go to class." His store of clichés apparently exhausted for the moment, the vice principal forced a craggy smile and thumped Bryan Pritchard on the back. The boy returned the smile but only so long as Hirsch was in view. As Pritchard crossed the industrial-quality carpeting and let himself out through the counter's swinging door, Kuryakin distinctly heard him mutter, "Jerk."
Suddenly a buzzer sounded, vibrating from an overhead clock. Two minute warning bell, Kuryakin remembered from his briefing notes. Just like American football.
He jotted his signature on the last form and announced, "I believe I'm finished here." The old secretary glanced up at him, not looking pleased. "Where should I leave the forms?" he asked politely. She pursed her pale, unadorned lips in response.
"Right there will do, Mr. Kerry, but I warn you: if you've neglected to fill them out properly, I shall track you down before the end of the day."
"I have no doubt of that, Miss Merriweather."
He offered her the sort of knowing smile Solo might in the same circumstances and quickly left before it could register fully with the intended recipient. Pritchard had a slight head start, but Illya managed to catch up with him without seeming to.
"Excuse me, I'm new here. Could you direct me to Room 214?"
Bryan Pritchard half-turned as he walked, apparently still brooding over his previous encounter. "It's on the second floor, B-wing." He slowed a bit. "Hey, that's Weinstein's room."
"Yes. Mr. Weinstein is on sick leave. I'm his substitute."
"Whatsa matter with him?"
"A minor accident, they tell me. Nothing serious."
Pritchard chuckled, the gloom fading. "What'd he do? Fall down a mountain skiing? "
"I really couldn't say."
"That's probably it. He's pretty clumsy, always dropping stuff in class." The boy laughed again, a deep, sneezy kind of laugh. He wasn't entirely unpleasant as Kuryakin had expected, but there was something off-putting about him just the same.
"Umm, about those directions?"
"Oh yeah, sure. Hang a left at the end of this corridor, then a quick right. You'll see the stairs. The one on the left is the up-staircase."
"I beg your pardon? The up-staircase. I always believed staircases went both ways."
"Man, you are new at this, aren't you?"
If only you knew, the agent thought, but he simply smiled and thanked Pritchard for the information.
"I got Weinstein for seventh period physics, so I guess I'll see you then."
Kuryakin nodded, allowing the boy to hurry on his way. By the time he found the central staircases, the agent understood why they'd been designated one-way. The students moved quickly, loudly, and close together. As he was helplessly swept up into the flow, Illya decided he'd been in the midst of riots more disciplined than this.
Somehow, he managed to locate the physics lab a split-second after the second buzzer. Homeroom went reasonably well, although he never really did make sense of the seating chart.
And now it was eight forty-five and he was facing his first genuine class. "Today, we'll begin the chapter on periodic motion. I see by Mr. Weinstein's lesson plan that a quiz is scheduled for Friday..."
There was an audible groan from the class. Illya chose to ignore it. "That being the case, we'd best not waste any time getting started." He popped on his reading glasses and took a deep breath.
What I do for U.N.C.L.E...
"Please open your books to page 301 and follow along with me. Now then: One of the simplest systems that can undergo periodic motion is a mass attached to a spring as illustrated in figure one..."
Two days later.
Kuryakin slipped off his reading glasses and sighed. It was seventh period on a late Friday afternoon and the students in his third physics class of the day were busy finishing up the promised quiz. He glanced at the clock overhead: about ten minutes remained before the final bell. His gaze dropped down to idly scan the room.
How earnest they all looked while struggling mightily with their simple harmonic motion equations. How young, too. And yet, he reminded himself, in just a few short years, they'd be ripe for picking by the various intelligence services. Is this how he, himself, had appeared to Suslikov when the crafty old spymaster recruited him?
And which of them belonged where? With nothing better to do, he chose a few at random. Michael Walters, sitting in the back row: a slick and clever operator, an ends-justify-the-means type and something of a cheat, which was rather unusual in this particular school. Even now, Walters' eyes couldn't help wandering in the direction of his classmates' papers, ever alert to take advantage of an opportunity if one should present itself. No doubt, the CIA would pluck this boy up in a New York minute.
And then, a few rows up, in the middle of the room, just where'd you'd expect him to be, was Gerald Trask. Dutiful, unimaginative, buttoned-down, completing every assignment on time and exactly to specifications. Definitely FBI, Kuryakin thought.
To one side, near the window, sat Izzy Jacobsen: quiet, unassuming almost nebbish, but tenacious, with a photographic memory and a head for details. He could be British Intelligence certainly, the Brooklyn accent notwithstanding.
On the other side, Tony Largarino: a big boy, dark and sullen. An overachiever clawing his way out of a poor, working class family, but also a cynic with a permanent chip embedded in his shoulder. If he hadn't been an Italian from Bensonhurst, he might have felt right at home in the KGB.
And then, of course, there was Bryan Pritchard wedged into the corner. Over the last few days, Kuryakin had been watching the boy so closely, he'd memorized every tic and bad habit, of which there were several. Pritchard was the classic misfit, all right. Barely tolerated by his classmates, he barely tolerated them right back. He was also smarter than them all, and they knew it. Paranoid, angry, unpleasant, immature, brilliant — Bryan Pritchard was a walking poster boy for Thrush.
And what about a future U.N.C.L.E. agent to oppose him? Kuryakin swept the room several times and couldn't find a single likely candidate. He remembered Jules Cutter's words: I wanna kid with the hell-bent nature of a delinquent and the conscience of a boy scout.
Or girl scout, Kuryakin corrected himself. After all, times had changed. Sadly, there were no potential April Dancers among the girls, either.
Suddenly, the buzzer sounded. "All right. Hand in your papers," Illya announced. A flurry of commotion followed as ballpoint pens were clicked, chairs scrapped against the worn linoleum, and papers found their way to his desk to form a semi-orderly pile. "Don't forget to read the next chapter on elasticity," he reminded them, "and answer the study questions on page 350. See you all on Monday."
There were some muttered goodbyes while a herd of feet rumbled off to the promise of another weekend. Afterward, Kuryakin sat perched on the edge of his desk for a moment or two, enjoying the quiet. Then he glanced down at the pile of quizzes and frowned. So much for my weekend, he told himself. He gathered up the papers, stuffed them into his briefcase with those from his earlier classes, and went in search of April.
As he expected, he found her in the gym, supervising an after-school practice for the gymnastics team. Not wanting to disturb her, he found a seat on a bleacher and sat back, enjoying the sight of a dozen nubile young women in leotards contorting themselves into positions Solo could only dream of and probably did. After awhile, April noticed him and sauntered over. She was also wearing a leotard with a towel draped around her neck.
"Checking out our facilities?" the woman agent asked. She glanced around to make a quick appraisal herself. The equipment was ancient and the cinderblock walls badly needed a new paint job. Obviously at this school, athletics wasn't a priority.
"No, as a matter of fact, I was thinking of Napoleon." He cocked his chin toward the practicing girls and chuckled. "This would fuel his sexual fantasies for a month."
Dancer offered him only a strained smile in return, and Kuryakin silently chided himself for his faux pas. This working with a woman agent was tricky. He was glad when she changed the subject.
"How do you like teaching?"
"It's somewhat more difficult than I expected. I spend at least two hours every night preparing for class. And you?"
" 'Bout the same." She dabbed at the sheen of sweat on her cheek with the towel and motioned toward the group of girls. "I don't know if we're going to be ready for the next meet. They're eggheads, not athletes, and they need a lot of work."
Kuryakin turned his attention back, this time with a more discerning eye, and had to agree. The little blond vaulter with the pigtails was turning too soon during her cartwheel and needed to keep her eyes on the horse when she hit the contact board. The redhead practicing a stride split for her floor exercise kept landing rather unceremoniously on her rump. However, the lean brunette swinging through the uneven parallel bars looked promising and Kuryakin said so.
"That's Marcia Whittaker," Dancer commented. "You know, our informant."
"Oh really?" He watched her with new eyes.
"Mmmm. Nice kid, and sharp, too. Which reminds me — " Dancer dropped down beside him "— any leads?"
Kuryakin shook his head.
"Any new ideas?"
He shook his head again.
"He's not going to be happy," Dancer observed. Like God, Alexander Waverly didn't need to be named to be invoked.
"I was hoping we could get together to compare notes. Maybe vet the faculty one by one." Kuryakin hesitated. Oh, what the hell. "How about over dinner tonight?" Inwardly, he cringed, hearing his own voice echo his partner's. "I know a nice little Italian place in the Village —."
"I can't. The meet's next week and look at them —" She gestured in disgust. The redhead had fallen hard on her backside again. "I'll be lucky to be out of here by midnight!"
"Tomorrow night, then?"
"Sorry." Dancer's smile was sincerely apologetic. "I have a date with the guidance counselor, Howard Bialecki."
Kuryakin stared at her in disbelief. "You mean the guy who wears the Nehru jackets and the huge flowered ties?"
"One and the same. Hey, he's the guidance counselor, right? A likely suspect if there ever was one. After I pump a few drinks in him, I'll ask him what he knows about birds. Don't worry — it'll be strictly business."
"Yes, but Howard Bialecki..." He rolled the name around in his mouth like a sourball.
"I know, I know," Dancer chuckled, undisturbed. She patted his hand. "Look: how about brunch on Sunday? My place. You bring the food and I'll cook."
"All right," Illya agreed uncertainly. He'd heard jokes about April's cooking.
"We can hang out all day, read the papers and spin theories."
Just then, they both became aware of another presence. In one seemingly choreographed motion, they looked up together and saw Marcia Whittaker standing before them, a pair of jeans pulled over her leotard. "The girls want to take a break and get something to eat," she told Dancer. "We're going over to the deli. Is that okay?"
"Sure," Dancer said.
"Want us to bring you back anything?"
"Maybe just a Tab." Dancer turned to Illya. "I'm sorry, but my purse is in the office. Do you happen to have some change?"
Obliging, Kuryakin dug into his pocket and came up with two quarters. He passed them to Marcia and smiled. She smiled back.
"Are you an U.N.C.L.E. agent, too?" she asked.
Kuryakin's eyebrows arched as he shot an accusatory glance at Dancer. The woman agent was equally shocked and she began to protest. "I swear: I never said anything about —."
"Oh c'mon," the girl laughed. "I talk to Mr. Solo, then you guys show up a couple of days later." She laughed again. "Don't worry, I won't tell anybody."
"You'd better not, young lady," Kuryakin warned her. He tried not to, but he sounded annoyed. Exactly with whom, he couldn't say.
"Funny, but you don't look like a secret agent."
"Oh?" This from Dancer, who was couldn't get over the fact that their covers were already blown. If Mr. Waverly ever found out, he'd send them both back to Remedial Spying 101.
"Not you, Miss Fields. I mean you, Mr. Kerry — that is, if that's your real names." Marcia appeared very pleased with herself, but at least she had the good grace not to ask what their real names were.
"And exactly how should a secret agent look?" Kuryakin asked wearily.
"I dunno." She cocked her head, considering. "Suave and sophisticated, sorta like James Bond. Y'know, 'shaken not stirred.' Like Mr. Solo, I guess."
The Russian agent groaned deep in his throat. He'd had enough. Rising from the bleacher, he bid good evening to them both and hefted his briefcase.
"Marcy?" a voice called out from behind him, a familiar voice. Kuryakin automatically pivoted to see Bryan Pritchard standing in the entrance to the gym, poking his head in from the outside corridor. The boy ignored the adults. "Marcy, are ya still goin' with me to the Thalia tomorrow afternoon?"
"Sure. Double bill: Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Crawling Eye. Wouldn't miss it. Meet ya there at two, okay?"
"Okay. See ya."
As Bryan moved on, Marcia looked at Kuryakin. "You'd better hurry."
"I beg your pardon?"
"To catch up with Bryan, I mean. He stayed late today for the Math Club meeting so he's probably on his way home. Lives in Manhattan, the East Side — his family's got money. Takes the Lex every day. Maybe you could kinda ride with him. Maybe he'll talk to you or something."
Dancer shrugged. "Worth a try," she agreed, prompting Kuryakin's blue eyes to roll heavenward. After all the indignities of the day, now he was being instructed on tradecraft by a teenage girl. But there was no time to gripe about it. The suggestion was a good one and he set off in pursuit.
"Don't forget: Sunday, my place," he heard Dancer sing out. It wasn't until he was halfway to the subway station that he realized he hadn't the slightest idea where she lived.
Too embarrassed to call Dancer for her address, Kuryakin queried Section Six instead. On Sunday morning, he journeyed to Brooklyn Heights to find a small, red brick apartment house on a quiet, tree-lined street not far from the river promenade. At the sound of the buzzer, April ushered him into a cozy one-bedroom apartment located at the rear end of the ground floor. Despite its size, the living room was uncluttered and comfortable, filled with modern Swedish design furniture and lots of overstuffed pillows. Late morning sunbeams streamed in through a large window overlooking a private vest-pocket garden.
"Very nice," Kuryakin said as he surveyed his surroundings, "except for that window and the location. You really should've taken something on a floor above."
"I know," Dancer conceded, "but there was nothing else available at the time. The neighborhood's nice and the building's rent controlled. I just couldn't pass it up. George Dennel's people installed a level two security system for me and everything's been fine so far."
Kuryakin let the 'so far' hang in the air. He'd brought two heavy bags of groceries which he deposited on a small dining table nudged into a corner of the living room. Like most New York City kitchens, the one that lay beyond the table was serviceable but tiny. Kuryakin volunteered to cook and when Dancer didn't argue, he guessed there was some truth to the jokes. Not long afterward, several blinis were frying in a hot buttered skillet.
"Caviar, sour cream, fresh fruit, my goodness," she exclaimed as she unpacked the rest of the supplies. "Is this what Russians eat for breakfast?"
"No. It's what Russians would like to eat for breakfast if they had enough money and some properly stocked stores. Mostly, they make do with black bread and tea." He watched the batter as it browned, wishing he'd remembered to purchase some buckwheat flour. All April had was commercial pancake mix and he'd been forced to improvise. She leaned against a counter and observed his progress.
"It's funny," she commented idly, "you and Napoleon can both cook and I'm pretty worthless in the kitchen."
And has he cooked a morning-after breakfast for you here, too? Kuryakin wanted to ask but didn't. Instead, he replied, "Being able to prepare your own food is a necessary field skill. There isn't always a restaurant around and the locals are often eating something you couldn't look at when it was alive."
The blinis were almost ready. Dancer passed him two dinner plates. "So did you have a good time on your date with Bialecki?" he asked as he scraped the pancakes from the skillet onto the plates.
"Ummm, I suppose. As good a time as you can have with a guy who parts his hair just above his left ear. He pops his gum, too."
"Yeah. Loudly and often, like a machine gun. Kept me jumping like a rabbit all through dinner." They shared a laugh as Kuryakin followed her back to the dining table. She sat down and he found a seat on the opposite side.
"Did you at least learn anything of value?"
"Nothing concrete, but I've got an odd feeling about him."
"No doubt. He's an odd person."
Dancer grimaced and shook her head. "No, it's something more. I can't prove it yet, but I've got a hunch he's involved. If he's not on the payroll, he's taking hush money from them."
"Section Four checked out all the financial records of the entire faculty and staff. Bialecki's bank statement shows no unusual deposits."
"Then he's stuffing it under a mattress somewhere." She eyed her friend. "But you don't believe in hunches, do you?"
"Only when there's nothing else to go on."
"Well, we don't have much now, but I'll get something better on Thursday. Howie and I have another date."
Kuryakin mouth puckered into a teasing grin. "Oh, now it's Howie —."
"Can you believe it?" Dancer sighed and rolled her eyes. "God, I hope I don't have to sleep with him!" She tasted the caviar. Not one hundred dollar an ounce beluga, but certainly respectable. She wondered how much he'd spent on the food and decided to give him half later. "Have you ever had to sleep with a suspect to get information?"
Kuryakin continued eating, unperturbed by the question. "No, that's Napoleon's department. I'm usually the one waiting for him on the fire escape in the pouring rain."
April straightened and put down her fork. "Why do you always do that?"
"What? Wait on the fire escape? Because Napoleon isn't partial to threesomes."
"No, not that. I mean why do you make jokes about his sexuality all the time?"
Kuryakin shrugged. "Everybody does."
"Well, I think they're all just envious. Are you?"
"Envious?" Kuryakin asked coolly, between bites. "Of a man who dates models and debutantes, who's slept with at least one woman in every city in the world, and whose love life makes Hugh Heffner look like a monk? Why would I be envious?"
April smiled but she didn't laugh. Her voice became soft and vaguely sad. "He's not like they say he is, you know."
"I know," Kuryakin said evenly, because, in fact, he did. Still, he didn't want to turn such a pleasant breakfast into a seminar on his partner, particularly with Solo's latest conquest, so he redirected the conversation back to the business at hand.
"Tell me your other hunches: outside of our friend Howie, who else might be working for Thrush?"
They spent the rest of the day trying to answer that question. Together, they pored over the detailed dossiers prepared by Section Four on every employee at Henry Hudson High, from the principal on down to the part-time evening janitor. There were a few points of interest. Mr. Munson, the biology teacher, liked to play the ponies. Mrs. Williams, the school librarian and Mr. Karcheski, the boy's gym teacher, were engaged in a torrid love affair behind their respective spouses' backs. Miss Calumet, the French teacher, had been picked up twice for shoplifting. Mr. Tripp, the drama and music teacher, frequented gay bars on the weekends. And finally, rather surprisingly, it turned out that the prim Miss Merryweather had something of a drinking problem.
April hated background checks like this and said so. It was like turning over rocks to see what was slimy and crawling underneath. Even worse, afterwards you were expected to talk to the rocks face-to-face as if you'd seen nothing at all. Kuryakin, as always, maintained a professional, unsympathetic distance. Any one of the aforementioned people could have been ripe for blackmail, he said, pointing out the obvious, but as in Bialecki's case, none of their bank accounts, credit card statements, or habitual movements offered even the slightest hint of Thrush.
So the agents spent the late afternoon walking along the river, exchanging stories about their newly acquainted colleagues, comparing general impressions and sharing speculations. Towards evening, they ordered Chinese take-out and ate it out of the cartons on the floor of Dancer's living room. By the time the last shrimp roll was eaten, they'd realized that they were back in exactly the same place they'd started from that morning.
"How was your ride home with Bryan on the subway the other afternoon?" she asked.
"He's wasn't particularly forthcoming. We talked mostly about the physics quiz. He thought it was too easy."
"Well, you keep working on him, and I'll work on Howie. There's really nothing else we can do."
"I haven't a clue what to say to him," Kuryakin confessed.
"Appeal to his better nature — if he has one."
"Indeed." The Russian agent leaned back against the seat rail of the sofa. "The strange thing is, I can empathize with the boy. I know how he feels."
"You don't look so maladjusted to me."
Kuryakin chuckled softly. "I hide it well."
Lounging against a lopsided tower of pillows, April Dancer sighed in return. "Yeah, well, I know what it feels like to be an outsider, too."
"Sure. When you and Mark and Napoleon get your into your male bonding mode, I feel like Wendy among the lost boys."
Kuryakin laughed again. "I suppose everyone is an outsider in one way or another."
Illya took the suggestion under serious consideration. After a moment or two, he nodded. "Yes, I think so. Even Napoleon. As you observed, he's not what they say he is. And they do say a lot, don't they?"
"So we're all victims of office gossip, all insecure and isolated, all maladjusted in some way." She picked up the leftover fortune cookies and began to crack them open in her fist one after the other. "What makes us different from Bryan then?"
"Maturity," Illya ventured. "Good judgment. Self-awareness. Personal insight. He's intelligent, possibly a genius, but he's still not much more than a child. He has no real experiences in the larger world to draw from. If he had, he might recognize membership in Thrush for the treacherous quagmire it is."
"Apparently, the Mott Street cookie stuffers agree with you."
She held up a slim slip of paper between her fingers and read aloud: Knowledge without wisdom is information without meaning.
"Amen," Kurykian intoned. Now, how did one create meaning in the sad, limited life of a unpleasant, neurotic, embittered, possibly criminal and potentially dangerous seventeen-year old boy?
It was late Thursday afternoon, and he still didn't know. A background check of the Pritchard household confirmed Marcy Whittaker's assessment — there was money, all right. Parents married twenty years: he came from a well-connected family; she didn't. Father was now an international investment banker. Mother headed her own advertising agency with billings approaching two million. Either or both of them were out of town or out of the country at least eight months of every year. Bryan was an only child.
It's a wonder they even had time to conceive him, Kuryakin thought as he listened to Sarah Johnson tick off the particulars over his communicator. "There's a long list of servants," Sarah added. "We've vetted all of them employed within the last twelve years. No apparent connections with Thrush. Want more details?"
"No, I get the picture," the Russian agent said with a sigh. Add 'lonely' to Bryan's list of attributes.
"Anything else?" she asked brightly. Thursdays were usually slow in Intelligence. No one knew why.
"Not for now. Thanks."
"By the way, Napoleon says 'hi' from Kabul."
"Kabul? In Afghanistan? I thought he and Mark were in Majorca."
"They were, until Mark was kidnapped and carted off in a carpet."
"How —?" Illya caught himself. "Never mind," he told her and signed off. He was sure he'd hear the whole crazy story eventually, probably over a bottle of something potent. Maybe several bottles.
Wedged into an alleyway a few blocks from the school, his back to the street, he capped the pen and headed home. Since the previous Friday, he'd confined himself to the subway as his preferred mode of commuting. Not only did it match his cover as a lowly, poorly paid secondary school teacher, but it made it easier for him to steal time with Bryan.
Finding Bryan alone wasn't difficult. There was no human interference to run. The boy ate alone, studied alone, and traveled alone, both inside the school and out. Virtually his only friend was Marcia Whittaker, whom he saw on weekends when they either went to the library or a museum or took in a movie, usually an old one at a revival house. On Marcy's advice, Kuryakin boned up on his previously miniscule knowledge of classic horror films and re-read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, which Marcy claimed Bryan had read "at least a gazillion times" and knew by heart.
Marcy was also kind enough to provide Bryan's schedule for all the hours of each day, guessing at what she didn't know. Her guesses were good ones. Kuryakin maintained a discreet distance during the school day, but he did manage to time his afternoon departures to coincide with Bryan's, in order to find a seat on the same subway car.
On Monday, the boy answered friendly queries with monosyllabic answers and the ride up the east side of Manhattan was uncomfortable to say the least. But on Tuesday, Bryan was more responsive and on Wednesday, he was almost sociable. Now, as Kuryakin approached the underground platform and picked out Bryan in the milling crowd, he had the distinct impression that the boy was waiting for him.
"So did you find this one a little bit tougher than the last?" Kuryakin asked. He'd given another quiz in physics class an hour before. Bryan lowered his eyes, too embarrassed to answer.
"Hmmm." Kuryakin pursed his lips in mock indignation. "The next one — just you wait until the next one. I shall concoct questions so diabolically difficult, they will make your palms sweat just thinking about them."
Bryan glanced up with a mischievous half-smile. The expression on his face said he doubted it, but he was acting too uncharacteristically polite to say so aloud. Kuryakin harrumphed in exaggerated defeat. Then, more seriously, he observed, "You don't belong in that class, Bryan."
"You don't either, Mr. Kerry."
"I beg your pardon?" Kuryakin noted that the boy wasn't being insolent, just honest.
"You know a lot more than the stuff you're teaching us. I can tell. Bet you have at least one Ph.D."
Kuryakin didn't deny it.
"What'd you do your post grad work in?"
There was no use dissembling. In espionage, it was better to offer a little truth in order to preserve the bigger lie, so Kuryakin did just that. "Quantum mechanics." He didn't add that the application was to nuclear physics.
"Are you a refugee from eastern Europe or something?"
"Why do you ask?"
"You talk like Mrs. Sadowski. She used to be our housekeeper and she had an accent like yours. She snuck out through the Iron Curtain. Did you?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"You ain't illegal, are you?"
"No, not at all." Illya wondered if the boy would consider turning him in to the immigration officials if he'd said yes. Fortunately, the line of questioning was interrupted by the arrival of the train. When it resumed again inside the car, the topic of conversation had switched back to physics, much to the agent's relief.
"So you know a lot about quantum mechanics?" Bryan asked.
"Ever see a scanning tunneling microscope?"
"I got one."
Kuryakin arched a skeptical eyebrow. He'd heard rumors and theories about such a device, but no one, to his knowledge, had ever actually built one. According to quantum mechanics theory, particles have the properties of waves and vice versa. The idea that particles "tunneled" or moved through potential energy surface barriers, had been advanced some forty years before. In order to see images of such tunneling patterns on surfaces, a microscope would need a remarkable fineness of detail, the resolution comparable to the size of a single atom.
"And where would you get such a device?"
"I made it."
Kuryakin twisted in his seat, unable to contain his surprise.
"It really wasn't that hard," Bryan added, more in defense than out of modesty. "Come home with me, an' I'll show you."
Even if he wasn't trying to establish a relationship with Pritchard, this was an invitation Kuryakin couldn't resist. He remained on the train past his own fictional midtown stop and when Bryan got off the train at the Eighty-sixth street station, the agent went with him.
The Pritchard manse was located a block or two east of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The neighborhood, crammed with various consulates and institutes, was toney to say the least. Bryan's home, a more modest three-story brownstone, was nestled between two high-priced apartment buildings boasting marble lobbies and uniformed doormen.
"My parents aren't home at the moment," Bryan said as he let them in by the front door. Kuryakin caught himself before he responded automatically, I know. "Dad's in Singapore and Mom's at her branch office in L.A. Pitching a new client or some stupid crap like that." The boy made only a minimal effort to disguise his resentment.
Inside, they were met by a severe Teutonic housekeeper who was less interested in meeting Bryan's physics teacher than scolding the lad for leaving his bed unmade. She offered Illya only a perfunctory greeting and marched off after Bryan promised to pay more attention to the condition of his room.
"Not very friendly, is she?" the agent asked, bemused.
"She's a pain. I wish Mrs. Sadowski was still here."
"Why did she quit?"
"Mom fired her. She was nice, but she drank. Come on, this way."
The boy led Kuryakin to a door in the hallway just short of the kitchen. The door was locked and double bolted, but Bryan had the key.
"This is my laboratory," he said, switching on a light. "Watch your step."
A steep, crooked wooden staircase led downward to the brownstone's cellar. Some of the walls had been covered with unpainted plasterboard, but occasionally, the old stonework peeked through. Three banks of fluorescent lights hung haphazardly from the low ceiling beams.
Despite the low-tech interior, the general atmosphere was reminiscent of Section Eight on a busy day. Rows of worktables overflowing with gadgetry, spare parts and piles of tools crammed nearly every bit of floor space. Voltmeters, gas thermometers, conductors, capacitors and various other pieces of equipment not all immediately identifiable were scattered among several interrupted projects. Here were the innards of a crude, disassembled laser system. There, the beginnings of a homemade photocopying machine. Maneuvering through the narrow aisles that ran between the tables was akin to negotiating a particularly tricky maze.
Laboratory, indeed, Kuryakin thought. More like the lair of a mad scientist.
"Over here, Mr. Kerry." Bryan's voice guided the agent to the far corner of the basement. As Illya drew near, the boy pointed to the object of the visit.
"Here it is."
It wasn't especially grand to look at, but Kuryakin hadn't expected it to be. The body of the device looked more like a standard workshop vise than a true microscope. For instance, there was no eyepiece, just a conducting probe hovering above a plate mounted within a cylindrical sample dish. From the microscope extended a snake's nest of wires that ran to a plain metal box that Illya guessed was some sort of image processor, and then on to an old Philco black and white television set. The arrangement was certainly primitive, but it didn't matter. Kuryakin's eyes were drawn to the pattern of wavy lines that appeared on the television screen.
"That's a graphite surface, isn't it?" he asked, recognizing the rings of carbon atoms.
"Yup." Bryan was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat.
"What's the resolution?"
"I can get almost two angstroms, but I have to keep the probe tip very sharp."
Two angstroms was equivalent to two times ten to the minus ten power meters, immensely more sensitive than an ordinary optical microscope. "And how do you do that?"
Bryan shrugged. "Real fine sandpaper usually does the trick."
The expression on Kuryakin's face let Bryan know that the agent was enormously impressed. "Has anyone else seen this yet?"
"Uh-uh. I was going to enter it in the spring science fair but there are still a few bugs to work out. The way it operates now, the scanning takes a really long time and if the sample moves even a tiny bit, you get image distortion. Also, there's no way to copy the image from the monitor and preserve it."
Kuryakin said nothing but inwardly, he almost laughed at the utter absurdity of the situation. Here was work worthy of a Nobel Prize and the boy was talking about high school science fairs.
The question caught the agent by surprise, and he broke off his inspection of the device. "Yes, I suppose I am." His internal clock told him it was sometime around five.
"We could get something to eat."
"From your housekeeper?" The pungent aroma of kraut cooking somewhere above seeped through the wooden rafters.
Bryan made a face. "I'd rather go out to eat if you don't mind."
They ended up sharing a pie with the works at a crowded neighborhood pizza parlor located on Third Avenue.
"So are you headed for MIT in the fall?" the agent asked as casually as he could between bites.
"I dunno." Bryan sought refuge in his pizza slice for the moment as if he were searching through the tomato sauce for an answer. "I've been accepted by a couple of big schools. Just haven't decided yet."
"Where do your parents want you to go?"
"They don't care. Any place, so long's I board."
Pritchard was trying to be his usual cocky, smartass self but an ingenuous, aching, little-boy-lost undertone resonated through his voice and tugged at Illya's heart.
"You should show your microscope to your father," the agent said, more gently.
Bryan shrugged. "He wouldn't appreciate it. He's a banker. All he cares about is money."
"Well, it does have commercial applications —."
"You don't understand, Mr. Kerry. My Mom, she tries sometimes, but to her, to him, all my stuff's just expensive toys to keep me occupied and out of their hair." There was that undertone of suffering and loneliness again. "It's always been that way."
"My parents didn't understand me either," Kuryakin said, changing tack. "My father was a military man, a soldier. It wasn't money for him; it was duty and marching off to war."
Bryan's interest was genuinely piqued. "How 'bout your Mom?"
"Stepmother. I'm afraid she didn't like me very much. At least you're fortunate to be an only child. I had three stepbrothers, all older, bigger and stronger. They enjoyed bullying me whenever there was an opportunity."
"So how'd you get away?"
"A professor at university took an interest in my talents." Kuryakin declined to mention that the professor, Viktor Suslikov, was also a high-ranking KGB officer. Suddenly, fragments of a speech from Frankenstein, spoken by the monster, intruded on his train of thought: "Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded... misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall be virtuous again."
Make me happy. And another word for happiness was optimism, and another word for optimism was hope. He recalled April's question: What makes us different from Bryan then? Now, he had the answer.
Hope — the promise of a life that was richer, fuller, more interesting, more purposeful — was what Suslikov, and later, Waverly, had offered him, and what Thrush was probably offering Pritchard now. Thrush's was a perverted, twisted kind of hope of course, but to a boy without any hope whatsoever standing at the side of the road, it was only a matter of chance who came along first: God, or the devil.
"So you see Bryan, circumstances can change."
"But people are the same everywhere."
"That's right. Everyone feels alone under his own skin. And paradoxically, because of that, we all have something in common."
"Maybe." Bryan chewed at the crust of his pizza, decidedly unconvinced. "The other kids don't like me much. The ones in college probably won't either."
"What about that girl I saw you with the other day? What's her name? Marcia?"
"We just bum around together."
"That's a start. Friendships often develop into something more serious."
"I doubt it." Bryan was back to being obstinate again. "Marcy would never date someone like me."
"You never know."
"I wouldn't even know how to ask her." The boy finished off his crust. It was getting late; time to go. They gathered up the grease-stained paper plates and crumpled napkins. "What about you?" Bryan added, a bit tentatively. "You got a girlfriend?"
"Not at the moment."
"But I saw you with that new gym coach. Why don't you go out with her?"
Kuryakin smiled, but declined to answer. Like you, Bryan, he thought as he carried the empty pie tray back to the counter, I'm not sure I would know how to ask her.
Still, April Dancer was on his mind when he returned to his own apartment. He felt pleased with himself for making inroads with Pritchard and the night was suddenly full of possibilities. He thought to call her, and then remembered she was out with the guidance counselor. As he pulled off his jacket, the communicator in the pocket abruptly began to beep.
He heard April's voice, her apparent calm betrayed by a breathy undertone. "Remember that joke about U.N.C.L.E. agents screwing in a light bulb?"
"Well, I think I'm about to be electrocuted."
"Where are you?"
"My apartment. Come through the garden. Someone may be watching the front door."
Possibilities, indeed. "I'm on my way."
It was after ten and beginning to rain, but he was lucky and managed to hail a cab right away. Once in Brooklyn Heights, he told the driver to drop him off around the corner from April's block. As she had instructed, he came over the garden wall and climbed through the living room window. No alarms sounded, so he assumed she'd turned off the security system. There was only one lamp on near the sofa and another glowing from inside the kitchen. As his feet touched the hard wood floor, Dancer suddenly appeared beside him and hooked a hand around his arm.
"No time to explain. Come this way."
Quickly, she led him through the apartment, back toward the tiny kitchen. A tangy, coppery scent that his mind only registered subliminally was replaced by the much stronger, more easily identifiable smell of gas. Dancer headed straight for the stove and lifted up the metal cook top. "Look at this," she said, pointing.
Kuryakin looked and sucked in a breath.
Piggybacking the pipe that led to the left front burner was a compact little bomb package of Thrush design. "How did this happen? I thought George installed a level two security system."
"Yeah, well, I'm going to have to speak to George. The bomb doesn't have a timer, so I assume it's rigged to go off when I turn on the burner."
"How did you find it?"
"I came in to heat a pot of coffee and caught a whiff of the gas. I thought my pilot light was out."
Kuryakin watched as Dancer pushed back a stray lock of hair from her forehead. She looked more disheveled than usual and there were brown stains on the front of her red silk blouse.
"Hasn't been a good night, has it?"
"You have no idea," she groaned. "This was only icing on the cake. So tell me: should I evacuate my neighbors?"
Although he tried not to, Kuryakin chuckled. "No, I think I can defuse it." He bent down so that the top of the stove was at eye level and as he did, April crouched beside him. "This is a fairly common design," he commented. His index finger flitted lightly around the deadly package. "See? Here's the detonator, and here's the fuse. Remember how a cigarette lighter booby trap works?"
"Well, this is essentially the same principle only your stove provides the necessary fuel." It took a few minutes for Kuryakin to sort through the various parts of the mechanism and to separate the fuse and the detonator. As Dancer watched, he carefully, gingerly, pried away the explosive, which looked like a small lump of Silly Putty wrapped in cotton wadding.
"Ballpark estimate: how big a bang?" she asked as they straightened up together. Kuryakin juggled the plastic explosive in the palm of his hand.
"They would've heard it across the river in Manhattan." He deposited the separate components of the bomb on the counter. "You said something about this being 'icing on the cake'?"
April snorted. Crooking a finger, she guided him back to the living room. "There's the cake," she said in the disgust. Howard Bialecki's poorly dressed but very dead body was sprawled in a heap a few paces from the front door.
So that explained the coppery scent he'd noticed as he entered the apartment. The smell of blood, Kuryakin told himself. As he drew closer, he could see Howard's glassy eyes were still wide open and staring in surprise. One neat bullet hole in the side of his head had leaked enough to created a crusted cowl of dried blood.
"Did you shoot him?" he asked evenly.
Dancer shook her head. "No, but I would've liked to. He walked me to my front door and wanted to come in. For a 'nightcap' he said. Pretty persistent, ol' Howie was. I had to fight him off and slam the door in his face." The rebellious lock of hair fell across her cheek again and she pushed it back irritably. "I waited for a minute, hoping he'd go. Finally, he did. Next thing I heard was a muffled pop — a shot from a silencer. I opened the door and found him slumped over his car fifty feet down the block."
"Did you see anyone?"
"No, just heard someone running, then a squeal of car tires off in the distance. There were footprints on the sidewalk. Men's shoes, about size twelve. I didn't have time to see much else. I had to drag Howie's body back into the apartment as unobtrusively as possible."
"Did anyone see you?"
"I don't think so. I draped one of his arms across my shoulder. If we attracted the neighbors' attention, I'm sure they thought he was ill or drunk."
Kuryakin circled the corpse and inspected it more closely. He tried not to notice Bailecki's abominable taste in clothes, but it was hard to miss. Where did one buy a maroon paisley print sports jacket anyway?
"This was a professional hit," he said.
"Uh-huh, clean and fast. Whoever it was didn't even try to make it look like a mugging. His wallet is still in his pocket."
Dancer sat down heavily on the arm of the sofa and considered. "You know, he was probably shot because he was walking away from the trap. If I'd invited Howie in, he might still be alive."
"Or you'd both be dead — along with half the residents of this block. You'd have put on the coffee and been too distracted to notice the gas."
Dancer didn't argue. It was obvious that Kuryakin had no patience with guilt or regrets or worrying about what-might-have-been. "Well, at least the case is solved," she said.
"Howie is — or rather, was — Thrush's man on the inside. I don't think he was a full-fledged member, but he was taking their money all right. He drove me home in a Mercedes, which I'm sure, on his salary, he couldn't afford. It's still parked out front. His wallet was also stuffed with cash."
"And you think killing the two of you was merely a means to tie up loose ends?"
Dancer shrugged. "Seems that way to me." She cocked her head as she studied her friend. "You don't think so, do you?"
Under a fringe of blond hair, Kuryakin's brow furrowed. He abandoned Bialecki's corpse and joined her on the sofa. "If that's so, it leaves us with a question and two problems. The question is: Was Howie a one-man operation? By killing him, they close it down — " he snapped his fingers "— just like that. Would they really want to do that?"
"And the problems?"
"First: what to do about the body..."
"And the second?"
"What to do about you. Obviously, they've tagged you as an U.N.C.L.E. agent."
A chill ran down Dancer's spine and she shivered visibly. "Then they'll be back to finish the job — them, or whatever professional help they've hired."
"There is that distinct possibility."
The woman agent's shoulders sagged. "Ohhhh great," she sighed.
They settled the problem of the body first. While April changed out of her bloodstained clothes and took a shower, Illya called U.N.C.L.E.
"Headquarters is sending a squad of body baggers in an ambulance," he told her when she emerged from the bathroom. "They should arrive around three a.m."
Dancer glanced at the clock on the wall. It was only twelve-forty. "Why can't they come sooner?"
"Apparently it's the best hour to attract the least attention. If some of your neighbors do happen to ask, tell them Bialecki suffered a seizure. Tomorrow's police blotter will report the incident as an aborted attempt at automobile theft." As he talked, April continued to towel her auburn hair dry and Kuryakin tried hard not to notice how good she looked in a bathrobe.
"What about Howie's car?"
"Someone from Section Five is coming for that, too. It'll be searched for evidence before they turn it over to the police."
Satisfied for the time being, Dancer dropped the damp towel into a heap on a nearby stool and produced a hairbrush from the pocket of her robe. "Want some coffee?" she asked.
"All right. Do you have anything to eat with it?"
The woman agent laughed as she canted her neck and brushed out her hair, one side and then the other. "God, Napoleon's right. You do have a bottomless pit for a stomach." She padded barefoot into the kitchen and Kuryakin heard several cabinet doors click open and slam shut in quick succession.
"One powdered cruller and a soggy jelly doughnut from this morning," her voice sang from the other room.
"If you don't mind, I'll take the cruller."
Over coffee and stale pastry, Kuryakin recounted his afternoon spent with Bryan Pritchard. He described in detail the family situation, the makeshift laboratory, and Bryan's primitive but still impressive scanning tunneling microscope.
"So he is a genius," Dancer affirmed as she poured them both a second cup of coffee.
"Then they're not going to let him go just because Howie is dead. You think there's an accomplice?"
"I'd bet on it."
"So would I." She cradled her cup with both hands. "How do we flush this other bird out?"
"I suppose I could lean on Bryan. When I asked him what school he would be attending next year, he was nervous and evasive. He's too intelligent not to suspect that something unsavory is going on here."
"Well, just don't lean too hard. He looks brittle; he might break." Dancer paused, thinking. "Maybe we should contact his mother — enlist her as an ally. She sounded more sympathetic than the father. Considering Thrush's move on Howie and me, Bryan may be their next target."
"You think they might try to kidnap him?"
Dancer shrugged. "If he's as good as you say he is, they won't wait until fall semester to collect him. Besides, his mother has a right to know her son could be in danger."
Kuryakin agreed, nodding. Dealing with the mother would require some official diplomacy. He made a mental note to call Waverly first thing in the morning.
"So that leaves our last problem," Dancer said.
"Which is —?"
"Me, remember? I still have a gymnastics meet tomorrow evening."
"Shouldn't be difficult to stay in the open and keep to crowds," Kuryakin teased.
"Gee, thanks. And what about tonight? Whoever booby-trapped my stove, dismantled the control box to my security system. The whole thing's shot to hell. I'm a sitting duck."
"After the Section Five people pick up the body, you could check yourself into a hotel."
Dancer shook her head. "Nah. If Thrush does comes back, I want to nail 'em." As she set down her empty coffee cup, she leaned sideways and lightly bumped her shoulder against Kuryakin's. "Hey, I got my pride, y'know?"
In response, the Russian agent tucked his chin and lifted his eyes to her. With a lowered voice and just the right amount of sibilance and hesitation, he said, "Ah — then I suppose I should, umm, stay the night."
April squealed and covered her mouth with both hands. "Oh my God! That's perfect!" She began to laugh hard, and Illya couldn't help but chuckle along with her.
"Does Napoleon know you can imitate him like that?"
"No. I'm saving it for his retirement dinner."
"You do have some hidden talents, don't you?" She stared at her companion wide-eyed, as if she were seeing him in a new light. Suddenly, there was a buzz at the door and their smiles faded.
"What time is it?" Dancer asked.
Kuryakin consulted his watch. "Two thirty-five. They're early."
The premature arrival of the body bag squad was certainly a blessing. The odor of Bialecki's cheap cologne combined with the smell of his decomposing body was beginning to permeate the apartment. Of course, if it is wasn't the squad. If it was someone else ...
As Dancer rose to answer the door, she glanced over her shoulder. Kuryakin already had his U.N.C.L.E. Special in hand. She heard the safety snap off as she called out: "Who is it?"
"You called for an ambulance?" a deep male voice asked from behind the closed door. Dancer undid the locks, took a deep breath and steeled herself for a nasty surprise. It wasn't necessary. When she opened the door, she discovered two big and burly Section Five men dressed in EMS uniforms. She didn't know their names, but she'd seen them before in the lower U.N.C.L.E. corridors. Her own hallway was bathed in the flickering red glow of the lights of the ambulance parked outside. Back at the sofa, Kuryakin holstered his automatic.
"Where's the stiff?" the lead one asked. He barged into the apartment and nearly tripped over the corpse.
"I think you just found it," Dancer told him dryly.
His slightly shorter, moon-faced companion, who followed him in wheeling a stretcher, gave Bialecki's body a quick appraisal. "Rotten clothes, looks like a real loser. Nice shot, though. Yours?"
"Sorry," April said, declining the compliment. "Enemy fire."
The Section Five man clucked his tongue against his teeth and shook his head. "Still a nice shot. Was he a Thrush guy?"
The taller man produced a ballpoint pen and a folded paper from his back pocket. "Here. Fill this out and sign it." The transfer form was in triplicate and Dancer knew there'd be more forms waiting for her back at headquarters. Resigned, she scribbled in the blanks. When she was finished, the tall Section Five man took the form and passed it to Kuryakin.
"You sign it, too, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Why? I arrived later."
"Don't matter. You're here now, the body's here and that makes you either a witness or an accessory. Mr. Waverly likes homicides well documented —"
"Yeah," the other Section Five man chimed in, "even for scum like this. Whew! Was this guy wearin' perfume or somethin'?"
"Cologne," Kuryakin corrected.
"Whatever. He really stinks."
Grudgingly, the Russian agent signed the forms knowing that his compliance meant he'd have more paperwork of his own.
"Okay, that's it. We're outta here," the shorter one announced brightly. "They'll come for the car in the morning." He and his companion lifted Bialecki's body onto the stretcher, arranged it, covered it with a blanket, and strapped it down.
"Anyone from the neighborhood outside?" Dancer asked, trying to peek around the men to see beyond them. The taller Section Five man shrugged. "Just a little ole biddy in curlers peekin' down from the landin' upstairs."
"That's my landlady."
"Don't worry. We'll make nice on the way out and tell 'er epilepsy."
As he pushed behind the stretcher, the shorter man eyed Dancer's bathrobe and offered her and Kuryakin a parting wave. "You folks have a good night." Dancer shut the door behind them and reset all the locks. "So much for the evening's comic relief," she said. Then, sighing wearily, she added, "I'll get you some blankets and a pillow."
In Dancer's absence, Kuryakin unstrapped his holster, kicked off his shoes and tested the softness of the sofa. It wasn't too bad; he'd slept on much worse. He gathered up a few of the throw pillows and propped them against one arm.
"Y'know, I know what you're thinking," Dancer declared as she returned, a pillow under one arm and a blanket under the other.
Kuryakin narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?" She sat down next to him and leaned in close until they were nearly nose-to-nose. "You're wondering why I sleep with Napoleon while all you get is the lousy couch."
"No," he responded in honest protest, "I would never —."
But in the next moment, her lips were on his, her arms locked around his neck in a passionate embrace. At first he was too surprised to pull away and then he didn't want to. As the kiss grew warmer and deeper, he went with it and responded in kind. His arms encircled her and he felt the curve of one breast press through the robe and against his chest. Since she'd initiated the kiss, he decided it was up to her to end it. Eventually, she did, but it was a good full minute before they both came up for air. With her arms still around him, she gazed into his eyes.
"Did you enjoy that?" she asked. Her voice sounded like a low purr, liquid and husky.
"And if we kissed like that again, would you feel something the second time, too?"
He nodded to indicate it was unavoidable.
"And if afterward, we went to bed together, would you respect me in the morning?"
"Most definitely." He was smiling now, but she wasn't.
"I mean, would it mean something to you? Would it matter —?"
"I think so, yes," he replied with genuine emotion.
"— Or are you just another one of those love 'em and leave 'em types?"
"April, you know that I'm not. I couldn't —"
Now, it was her turn to smile, a sad, wistful sort of smile. She disengaged her arms from his neck and slumped back a little. "I know, tovarisch," Dancer said. She laid her hand flat against his shoulder, patting it affectionately. "And that's why I will never sleep with you."
"I don't understand," he said because he didn't.
She sighed in response. "Napoleon's wonderful in bed — fun, caring, passionate. But when I look into his eyes the morning after, nothing's changed. We're still just good friends, no more, no less. When I meet him in Waverly's office, or sit across from him at the conference table, no matter what we've done together, it's like nothing ever happened. Like it was something entirely separate, out of time, and I prefer it that way. That's why I sleep with him — why I can sleep with him. He's safe. With Napoleon, it stays simple and uncomplicated, because for him, intimacy is as easy and natural as a handshake.
"But you, luv, I think deep down under that cool, practical, exterior beats a raging romantic heart. And that makes you a very dangerous man. At least, to someone like me."
She kissed him again, this time, just a light peck on the lips, and before he could say another word, she was on her feet, arms hugging her shoulders, the robe gathered tightly around her. "Good night," she said softly, reluctantly. She turned off the lamp and padded off to the bedroom.
Kuryakin sat upright and unmoving. It took a moment or two for her words to sink in. "Damn," he muttered to the empty room.
And then, because it didn't occur to him to do anything else, he propped himself up against the pillows, his automatic cradled in his lap, and burrowed under the blanket to settle in for the night. It took him longer than usual to fall asleep, and when he did, he drifted off cursing his own nature, because he knew what she'd said was true.
"Bryan? Could I have a word with you please?"
It was late Friday afternoon again and the last period physics class was shuffling out the door, with Pritchard, as usual, trailing the pack. At the sound of his name, the boy slowed but registered no surprise, as if he'd been expecting Kuryakin to call it.
"Please close the door," Illya said. Bryan did but remained where he stood, forcing the agent to come to him.
"Did you hear about Mr. Bialecki?" Kuryakin asked as he zigzagged through the rows of desks. Bryan shrugged carelessly.
"Sure. It was in the morning paper. It's all over the school."
"Do you know what happened?"
Another shrug. "He was mugged."
"No, Bryan he was murdered. By the same people who employed him."
"Y'mean the Board of Ed?"
Bryan's smirk was so infuriating, that Kuryakin was sorely tempted to slap it off his face. All right, smart boy, the agent thought, no more kid gloves. When he asked his next question, his voice was cold and uncompromising.
"Bryan, what college are you attending this fall?"
The change in Kuryakin's manner had an immediate effect. Pritchard eyed him nervously, then looked away, aware that the man who confronted him was no longer a substitute teacher but someone formidable, even dangerous.
"I — I dunno ," the boy stammered.
"Oh, I think you do." When Kuryakin took one step forward, Bryan automatically took one back. "Just as you know the people who killed Howard Bialecki."
"I don't know what you're talking about." The boy glanced over his shoulder, as if calculating the distance to the door.
"Tell me, Bryan."
"Tell you what?"
"I want the name of that school."
"I dunno. I didn't ask."
"I don't believe you." Kuryakin advanced again, and again, Bryan retreated. "What is it called?"
"I dunno. Some kinda institute."
"I don't remember the name."
"Where is it located?"
"I dunno, I dunno." Bryan's voice rose in pitch and thinned to a whine. "Mr. Bialecki — he didn't give me any details. He didn't, I swear it. He only told me not to worry. That everything would be taken care of."
"And you went along with this?" Kuryakin felt himself slipping into his interrogation mode and his questions came hard and fast. "An intelligent young man like you? A genius like you? You expect me to believe that?"
"It's the truth."
"You never asked? You didn't wonder?"
"Sure, maybe. Sometimes."
"You were going to allow strangers to whisk you off to a strange place without knowing anything about who they were or where they were taking you?"
"Just like that?"
"You never told your parents?"
"Weren't you afraid?"
"A little, sure." The boy was almost in tears.
"But you were going to go?"
"Because I didn't care!" Bryan screamed his answer, then turned away, adding miserably, "I just wanted to get away, that's all. It sounded good."
Just wanted to get away. Suddenly, Viktor Suslikov's gruff, gently mocking voice rattled through Kuryakin's mind like a chill wind: So my dear young volchonok, what future do you have here? I will tell you: none. But I can help you make something of yourself. Do you want to stay in this land of bureaucrats and backward peasants? No, of course not. You want to be free — to run and to howl your own song, and to see the world.
And of course, the old sukin sin had been right. Illya had wanted that, and more. Wanted it so desperately that he never considered the price.
You will not be coming back to me, Masha had warned him tearfully that last night in Tblisi as she gave him back his mother's ring. If you think Papa is your friend, you are a fool. And like her devious, conniving father who wanted no grandchildren with Illya's gypsy blood, she'd been right, too. He never saw her again.
...Or are you just another one of those love 'em and leave 'em types?... You know that I'm not.
But he had been with Masha, hadn't he? Though he never intended to be and would never be again.
"What did Bialecki offer you?" Kuryakin asked, more calmly, kindly. Bryan sniffed and rubbed at his eyes. "Free tuition. A nice place to stay. Grant money. He said I could have labs, equipment, anything I wanted. He said it was a small institute and I'd get a lot of special attention."
Kuryakin snorted. No doubt.
Once again in control of his emotions, Bryan eyed the agent resentfully. "Why should you care? Who are you anyway?"
"I work for an organization called U.N.C.L.E. Have you ever heard of it?"
Pritchard shrugged as if the name sort of rang of bell, but he wasn't quite sure. "Are you a cop or something?"
"Or something. I know these people. I've fought against them for a long time. They're evil. They want to use you."
"Like you've been using me?"
Kuryakin made a sound deep in his throat. He supposed he deserved that. "I haven't lied to you, Bryan. Everything I told you about myself was the truth. I just didn't tell you the whole truth." He took another step forward and this time, the boy didn't retreat. "But you must believe me now when I tell you that you may be in danger. The people who killed Bialecki may try to kidnap you. Do you know if any other students were similarly recruited?"
Bryan shook his head.
"Was Howard Bialecki working alone?"
"As a matter of fact, I'm not. There's an entire organization behind me. We've been watching you since Bialecki was killed in order to keep you safe. What are your plans for this evening?"
"I'm going to the gym meet at six. Marcy's competing. I thought I'd hang around at the library `til then."
"Good. Don't leave the school grounds." Kuryakin reached into his pocket and produced a small silver disk the size of a half dollar. "This is a homing device," he explained. He rubbed the edge with the tip of his index finger. "Now, it's activated." He dropped it into the palm of Bryan's hand. "Feel the pulse?"
The boy nodded.
"Squeeze it three times, hard, in your fist."
"Notice how the pulse changed? Now, it's faster and stronger. That's an emergency signal. If I pick that up on my receiver, I'll know you're in trouble. Okay, squeeze it again. You'll feel it reset to normal. "
The boy did as he was told and tucked the homer into the fifth pocket of his jeans. He reached for the doorknob, then paused, the beginnings of a grin playing at the corners of his mouth. "If you're thinking of breaking into the guidance office tonight to take a look at Mr. Bialecki's files," he said, "the janitors take a break around six-thirty."
"How do you know that?"
"All the kids do. When we stay after for meetings and stuff, we like to slide down the hallways right after they polish the floors."
Kuryakin smiled. "Thank you for the information."
"You're welcome." Pritchard opened the door and paused again. "What's your real name?"
Illya told him.
"So I was right. You are a refugee."
"No, Bryan," the agent replied. "Just someone who wanted to run away from home like you."
And like you, not wise enough at the time to understand the consequences.
Afternoon had turned into evening and now Kuryakin was sitting on the end of a bleacher seat near the gymnasium's door, waiting for an opportunity to commit a crime. As crimes went, breaking and entering barely registered on his professional conscience. For U.N.C.L.E. agents, it was as common an occurrence as driving over the speed limit was for a long-haul trucker. If he'd been breaking into a Thrush facility, he wouldn't have thought twice about it. Afterward, he usually blew the place up anyway.
But a public school's guidance office was civilian territory and the fine line between what he could legally do and what he couldn't was a little fuzzy. He'd had to get permission from Waverly for this one. Of course, if he did find evidence of Thrush involvement in Howard Bialecki's file cabinet, the city's educational bureaucracy would be too embarrassed to complain about how U.N.C.L.E. came by the information.
"So, what's the update?" April Dancer asked as she sidled up to his seat. The gymnastics meet was scheduled to begin in ten minutes and she looked a little tense.
"Headquarters contacted Bryan's mother in L.A. this morning," Kuryakin reported. "The Old Man talked to her himself. She caught the first plane out — ETA at LaGuardia is seven p.m. I also received clearance to search Bailecki's office, which I intend to do —" he checked his watch "— approximately forty-five minutes from now. Other from that, I've equipped Bryan with a homing disc, your blond vaulter still looked a little slack in her warm-up, they're predicting sleet for tonight, and happy St. Patrick's Day."
Dancer let out a soft, rueful sigh. "Sounds like you have everything under control. Wish I could say the same. Do you think we can call for back up later to escort Bryan home? After this is over, I think I'm going to need a drink."
"I don't see why not. Vic's should be open late tonight. I'll buy you a beer."
"Thanks, but I was thinking of something stronger."
Dancer glanced across the gym to the opposite bleachers where Bryan Pritchard was talking to Marcy. The girl was dressed in her team leotards and was shifting from foot to foot, nervously anticipating the upcoming competition. Apparently, Pritchard was there to offer encouragement and moral support. As Dancer watched, he leaned into Marcy and lightly kissed her on the cheek.
"Y'know Bryan isn't really so bad," the woman agent mused aloud. "All he needs is a pair of contacts and a better haircut."
"There are some who might say the same about me," Kuryakin observed. April arched an eyebrow and offered him a sideways glance.
"Are you trying to make me feel guilty about last night?"
"Not at all. I wouldn't dream of it." At least, not consciously.
Dancer changed the subject. "Want me to keep an eye on Bryan while you're occupied?"
"If you can manage it with everything else going on here."
Just then, the other team from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Fine Arts and Drama, appeared on the floor, followed by a pair of judges who took their seats.
"Gotta run, luv," Dancer said. "Wish me luck."
Kuryakin did, and then with nothing better to occupy his waiting time, settled back to watch. The Henry Hudson girls performed decently enough during the floor exercise routines, but they were no match for the budding ballerinas of the Thomas Jefferson team. Rather unexpectedly, the vaulting went considerably better, with the little pigtailed blond executing a perfect Yamashita. When Kuryakin abandoned his bleacher seat about halfway through the match, the score was about even. Bryan Pritchard slipped away a few seconds later. As he did, Dancer clicked on her communicator and called up the local channel.
"Illya? Bryan just left. I think he may be joining you shortly."
From somewhere in the school, Kuryakin replied, "Thanks. I'll be expecting him."
After the Russian signed off, Dancer capped her pen and took her place beside the balance beam in order to spot her team's first performer.
The guidance department was located next to the main office on the other side of the school and Kuryakin had no trouble locating it. He had even less difficulty picking the door lock. It was a common pin tumbler type, and it took less than a minute to rake the pins and pop the mechanism. As the agent straightened up, dropping the picking tools into his pocket, he heard footsteps approaching from behind him. Only every third light had been left on overhead and the corridor was dim. Kuryakin could barely make out Bryan's approaching figure. He decided to act surprised.
Pritchard grinned in response but Kuryakin wasn't pleased.
"You shouldn't be here. You could get into trouble."
The boy shrugged. "Thought you could use my help. After we talked, I remembered that Mr. Bialecki's file cabinet had a secret compartment. He went into it every time he was looking for my file."
"What sort of secret compartment?"
"C'mere. I'll show you."
Pritchard opened the door and with a backward glance at the still, empty corridor, Kuryakin went in after him. They didn't bother to switch on a light. The agent snapped on a small flashlight and allowed Bryan to lead the way.
The file cabinet in question was a six drawer steel unit built into the wall. Bryan reached for the handle of the top drawer and tugged.
"It's locked," he said.
"Stand aside and give me room."
This time, the lock was a simple warded type, which yielded to Kuryakin's burglary tools in even less time than the door. As the drawer clicked open, Kuryakin directed the beam of his flashlight across the tops of the overstuffed file folders. All the tabs were labeled with students' names beginning with the letters A through D.
"Bryan, I don't see —."
"Wait," the boy said. He studied the cheap wood paneling for a moment, mentally counting off inches from the edge of the cabinet. Then, he made a fist with his right hand and punched the wall as hard as he could.
The opened file drawer squealed loudly on its track and catapulted out a half foot more.
"See?" Bryan said with a grin. Kuryakin aimed his flashlight into the drawer. Beyond the false rear wall was another narrow compartment crammed with folders.
"Oh, indeed I do," the agent muttered, nodding. Judging by the number of files, Bryan Pritchard wasn't Thrush's first recruit at Henry Hudson, nor would he likely be the last. Apparently, the organization had been a presence at the school for several years at least. He reached into the compartment, picked out a folder and fanned it open. The file was filled with several sheets of paper.
And all of them were blank.
He picked out another file. More blank paper. And another. And another.
"What the —?"
Suddenly, the office's overhead light came on, bathing the room in fluorescent light. Startled, Kuryakin pivoted, elbowed Bryan out of harm's way and reached for his gun all in one motion.
"Hold it right there, Mr. Kerry, or should I say, Kuryakin?"
At the sound of his real name, Illya's hand froze in mid-gesture, just as his fingertips grazed the butt of his Special. Standing at the door was the vice principal, William Hirsch, a nine-millimeter semi-automatic in his right hand aimed directly at Kuryakin.
At that moment, back at the gym, April Dancer was positioning the members of her team for the meet's last event. They'd done well on the balance beam and were now a few points ahead. How they performed on the uneven parallel bars would make or break the match.
"It's up to you, kiddo," Dancer said. She gave Marcy Whittaker's shoulder an encouraging pat but the girl looked far from comforted. The agent took the girl aside and asked, "What's the matter? Nervous?"
"Yeah, but not about the meet." Marcy pointed to an empty spot in the bleachers. "It's Bryan. He's gone."
"But he promised to stay for my event, Miss Fields."
"Maybe he went to the men's room," the agent said, even though she knew he had not.
The girl lowered her eyes and shook her head, still unconvinced. Dancer frowned. "I'm not supposed to show you this but —." She reached into her team jacket and withdrew her communicator. "Hear that beep? Slow, steady and strong. That means Bryan isn't very far away. He's still in the building."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive, now don't worry." From the corner of her eye, Dancer could see one of the judges signaling impatiently. She didn't tell Marcy that she, too, was a bit concerned. She'd almost called Illya again, but then thought better of it. He probably had his hands full at the moment and if Bryan hadn't shown up, no doubt Illya would have called back. Besides, the match would be over in a few short minutes and then she'd go investigate herself.
Wrapping an arm around Marcy's shoulders, Dancer steered her toward the uneven parallel bars. "C'mon, let's blow 'em away."
The girl offered her a weak smile in return. "I wish I could get Bryan out of my mind."
"You'd better. You'll need all your concentration."
"It's just that when he kissed me —."
"Well, he never did that before. It felt like goodbye."
"So you must be Howard Bialecki's partner in crime," Illya Kuryakin observed calmly. The vice principal matched his coolness.
"The only crime I see here is a felony in progress."
"Misdemeanor at best." Kuryakin gestured to the blank pages scattered around his feet. "Apparently, someone's cleaned out the place ahead of me."
"Now, you didn't really believe we were going to let you raid our little cookie jar, did you?" Hirsch cocked his head in Pritchard's direction and added, "Take his gun, Bryan —."
Kuryakin glanced at the boy, only mildly surprised.
" — It should be under his right armpit."
As the U.N.C.L.E. agent felt Bryan's stubby fingers burrow under his sports jacket and relieve him of his weapon, he cursed himself for allowing his sympathy for the boy to interfere with his professional instincts. Informing him of when the janitor's took their break, indeed! No wonder Pritchard had been so helpful. A shiver of anger rippled through Illya's body, prompting the vice principal to take two steps closer.
"Don't move, Kuryakin. I won't hesitate to shoot you as a burglar."
"Oh?" The agent's internal clock was ticking inside his head. If only he could stall until the janitors' return. "And how will you explain to the police how you happen to be carrying a gun?"
"No problem," Hirsch replied. "I have a permit. I work weekends off the books as a security guard for my brother's warehouse. Vice principals don't earn much." He smiled thinly. "But after checking my financial records, I'm sure you know that."
"What about your income from Thrush?"
"I work strictly on commission."
"After all these years, you must have quite a nest egg saved for retirement."
Hirsch chuckled deep in his throat. "My mattress is getting real lumpy," he agreed.
Kuryakin turned to Pritchard who now held a gun leveled in his direction as well. "And you accused me of lying," the agent said. "It seems you've also done your share."
"I didn't lie, I just didn't tell you the whole truth," the boy responded with a smirk, echoing Kuryakin's earlier words.
"And you're certain about your decision to join them?"
"Only one more initiation ritual to perform," Hirsch chimed in. He tipped his chin at Pritchard. "Bryan, take the safety off." The boy obeyed.
"That's right, good. Now, aim at Kuryakin's head." Only a few feet separated them. At this distance, even a blind man couldn't miss.
Rather unexpectedly, the boy said, "Mr. Kuryakin, could you move over there, a little closer to Mr. Hirsch please?" He motioned with the gun barrel. Confused, Illya sidestepped the open file cabinet and drifted a few inches back.
"Very good, Bryan, you seem to have a knack for this." Hirsch grinned, pleased with the boy's apparent control of the situation. He relaxed his own stance, his right arm dropping slightly downward. "Now, whenever you're ready, pull the trigger. Don't worry. His gun has a silencer, see? No one will hear. Okay?"
"Time to kill your first U.N.C.L.E. agent..."
"Bryan —" Illya murmured uncertainly, but the boy ignored him. Holding the U.N.C.L.E. Special with two hands, Pritchard steadied himself. Then, slowly he swiveled, making a half turn until his weapon ended up pointed directly at Hirsch.
"Ummm, if you don't mind Mr. Hirsch, I'd like you to drop your gun too."
The vice principal's face turned to stone. "I don't understand —."
Stunned, Hirsch allowed his heavy weapon to fall from his grip and clatter loudly against the linoleum floor. "What are you doing, you little maniac?"
Bryan was unperturbed. "Just exploring my options. It's kinda like when they draft those basketball players, y'know? Everybody seems to want me on their team." He cocked his head at Kuryakin, challenging him. "So tell me: what're ya offering?"
"Nothing," Illya said firmly. His mouth was set; his manner, grim. "There is nothing I can offer. Your life will be what you make of it, Bryan. No one can do it for you. Think: you're not like one of those mindless monsters in the horror films you love so much. You're a human being, and the choices you make ultimately determine who you are." Kuryakin paused and leveled his gaze. "So choose wisely. You may not get another chance."
Bryan glanced uncomfortably from one man to the other. Obviously, the Russian agent's words had made some impact. It was too much for Hirsch.
"I don't believe this!" he exploded. "Thrush is offering you money and power —."
"But not my freedom," Pritchard said softly.
"Jesus Christ, kid, you'll be able to do anything you want —."
"Except quit. That's right, isn't it Mr. Hirsch?"
But the vice principal was no longer in the mood for questions. The game was lost and he knew it. "You stupid, ungrateful, snot-nosed freak," he growled. "You really are a loser —."
Suddenly, in the background, they heard the rumble of approaching voices. Must be seven o' clock Kuryakin told himself. The janitors are returning. Standing next to the agent, Hirsch had come to the same conclusion.
"Hell," he roared and in the next instant, he turned and rammed his elbow hard into Kuryakin's ribcage. The agent saw it coming too late and although he braced himself, Hirsch was taller and heavier and Kuryakin rocked backward with the blow.
"Shoot!" the agent cried to Pritchard as he slammed against a nearby wall, but no shot was fired. Kuryakin groaned with the impact and in the split-second he needed to recover, Hirsch fled the guidance office, his footsteps thudding away down the corridor. Pritchard was still standing in the middle of the room, his shoulders sagging, the gun drooping from his hands, tears filling his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he wailed at Illya.
"It's over, Bryan. You made the right choice."
"But I couldn't shoot him. I just couldn't."
"That was the right choice too." Kuryakin grasped Bryan's shoulder and asked, "Do you still have that disk I gave you?" The boy nodded and dug into his jeans' pocket. He handed over the homing device and Kuryakin squeezed it three times, thus tripping the emergency signal. Then, he retrieved his gun from Bryan's hands and took off after Hirsch.
Just as Marcy Whittaker completed a full twisting Hecht dismount off the high bar, landing gracefully with a soft thump on the gymnasium floor, Dancer's communicator began to beep fast and furiously.
"Uh-oh," the agent muttered to herself. Behind her, the Henry Hudson girls were gathering in an excited knot around Marcy, squealing and hugging each other. For the first time that season, victory was in the air.
"Miss Fields! Miss Fields!" one of the girls called out. The others echoed her, wanting to share their happiness with the woman who made it all possible, their new substitute coach.
But the coach had other things on her mind at the moment. "Ah, I gotta run girls —."
"But Miss Fields?"
"Marcy did it, didn't she?"
"We're gonna win, aren't we?"
The questions came at Dancer at a rat-a-tat pace, like bullets from a Thompson's machine gun, and one gymnast even tugged at April's jacket arm.
"Be right back, girls," the agent said as she literally tore herself away from the crowd. She backed up a few steps then turned and broke into a run, past the bleachers and out the door.
"Wait up!" Marcy cried and took off after her.
"What's with her?" the pigtailed vaulter asked her friend.
"Beats me. Maybe she got her period."
"Y'mean both of them at the same time?"
Outside in the corridor, Dancer quickened her pace. As she galloped toward the center of the school, she pulled the communicator from her pocket. The signal continued, loud and relentless. When she reached the first corridor junction, Dancer halted and poked the pen into the air like a divining rod in reverse. Marcy came up beside her.
"Where are you going?" the girl asked, heaving deep lungfuls of air.
"Not sure," April said. She pointed the communicator left. Nothing. Then right. Nothing. Then straight ahead. The beep abruptly intensified. "This way!" the agent exclaimed and took off again with Marcy close at her heels.
As they headed toward the other end of the school, the signal became even stronger and louder. At the same time, they could hear two sets of running feet pounding in their direction. As Dancer approached the last corridor junction that led to the school's lobby, a large heavy man sprinted across her path some twenty feet away and raced into a nearby stairwell, ascending the stairs two at a time. In the space of two breaths, Kuryakin appeared, running at the same speed and in the same direction.
"Illya?" Dancer called out from the middle of the corridor.
"It's Hirsch, the vice principal!" he shouted. It was all he had time for. An instant more and he'd disappeared up the stairs. Dancer moved to go after him but Marcy grabbed her arm.
"Miss Fields —?"
"April. My name's April Dancer."
"April Dancer? Cool." Marcy smiled as she tried the name on for size. "April, Mr. Hirsch is probably going up to the roof."
"Wanna head him off at the pass?"
"How? Show me."
Marcy took the agent's extended hand and led her away from the stairwell, toward the school lobby. "I don't understand," Dancer murmured uncertainly. They'd passed two rather surprised janitors and were now exiting the school's front door.
Outside, the weather had turned cold and nasty. Sleet was falling and as Dancer leaned her head back to follow Marcy's upwardly pointed finger, she felt the icy pellets bounce off her cheeks and forehead.
"See how close the buildings are?" Marcy Whittaker asked. Dancer studied the cityscape and suddenly understood what the girl was trying to tell her. The street ran north to south with the school situated on the eastern side. To their right, at the school's north end, lay a wide, empty lot. But to their left at the southern end, began a row of buildings that ran, unbroken to the corner, with only narrow alleyways in between.
"The guys fool around up there all the time," Marcy said. "They like to jump from one roof to the other."
Hirsch's escape route, Dancer realized. "What sort of building is on the end?" she asked.
"An apartment house."
"Does it have a fire escape that goes to the roof?"
Marcy grinned. "Yeah, it does."
"Thanks. Now get inside before you catch your death." Dancer gave the girl's shoulder a grateful pat, then, gun in hand, took off down the block.
Inside the school, the chase led Illya up a flight of stairs, across the entire second floor, then up another flight. By the time he reached the third floor, Hirsch was no longer in sight. Quickly, the agent combed the corridor, checking each classroom door but all of them were locked. At the end of the corridor, he found another stairwell, and imbedded in its ceiling, a trapdoor with an iron ladder leading up to it. Apparently, the trapdoor was used by the maintenance people to gain access to the roof. Right now, it stood open, wind and sleet whipping through the hole.
Kuryakin paused and hefted his automatic. He wasn't fooled by the apparent silence. Hirsch could be waiting for him on the roof, just outside the door. Even though the vice principal was unarmed, he was certainly strong and fit enough to knock Kuryakin out when the agent poked his head through.
Cautiously, Kuryakin tiptoed up the last remaining steps and as quietly as he could, began to climb the ladder.
One step. Two. Three.
Kuryakin tensed, waiting for an ambush, so he wasn't surprised when it came. Suddenly, the trapdoor groaned on its hinges, propelled by an unseen hand, and slammed down hard above Kuryakin's head. The agent ducked instinctively so the heavy plywood only bumped the top of his head instead of crashing into it. He shook away the pain, repositioned his U.N.C.L.E. Special so that he was ready to fire and set his shoulder against the door. One monumental heave and the trapdoor flew outward with Kuryakin jumping through.
He met no resistance. The tarpapered roof around him was empty.
Frustrated, Kuryakin pivoted in a one hundred and eighty arc, scanning his surroundings. He was up above the level of the streetlamps and the edge of the school roof was outlined against a halo of bluish light. Wind blew icy pinpricks across his face, forcing him to squint.
"Hirsch!" he shouted into the night. "Give yourself up."
His only answer was a tattoo of running footsteps. Kuryakin turned toward the sound. He could just about make out the silhouette of the vice principal at the other end of the roof. Hirsch paused, looked back over his shoulder, then turned and leaped into the blackness. Kuryakin took off after him.
The edge of the school roof came up a little too fast and the tarpapered surface was slick with sleet. Kuryakin skidded to a halt and banged his shins hard against a parapet. He cursed and wobbled unsteadily. In the misty blue glow of the streetlamps, he could see that Hirsch had jumped to the second roof and was already halfway across it. Sighing, the agent backed up for a good running start then bounded across the narrow chasm to the second roof.
As soon as he landed, a trio of bricks rained down upon him. Kuryakin cursed again and threw his arms over his head to protect himself. Hirsch may not have been able to shoot back, but he certainly wasn't giving up, and his tenacity was really becoming aggravating. Kuryakin would have shot the Thrushman in the leg, but there was no time to take decent aim to fire.
Two more bricks were lobbed in Kuryakin's direction. One bounced painfully off his right shoulder. The other landed harmlessly an inch from his toe.
Then the chase was on again. Hirsch sprinted for the end of the second roof and sailed over the next alley to land on the third. Ignoring the throbbing in his head, his shoulder and his legs, Kuryakin did the same.
The third roof was covered by both men in a straight run and then it was on to the fourth and last. In the middle of this roof, Hirsch found a pile of discarded building materials, apparently left behind by workers after they'd installed new drains. The Thrushman plucked a long metal pipe from the pile and as Kuryakin barreled toward him, he swung it in the agent's direction. Illya ducked the first swing and tried to sidestep the second, but the pipe caught him across the knee. The Russian cursed yet again as he felt his leg buckle. He threw his body in Hirsch's direction, tucking for a tackle, and the two men fell backwards together in a tangled heap. The pipe flew in one direction and Illya's gun skidded off in another.
The men wrestled and Kuryakin managed to land a solid right to Hirsch's jaw. The Thrushman cried out and wriggled away, crawling on his knees. Frantically, he searched the roof for the lost pipe, his hands scrabbling against the black-tarred surface.
"Don't move, Mr. Hirsch," a voice suddenly warned. "Don't even take a deep breath or I'll kill you."
Hirsch froze. Slowly, he raised his head to see April Dancer looming over him, her automatic aimed directly at his head.
"You have Napoleon's knack of showing up at the last possible moment," Kuryakin muttered as he tottered painfully to his feet.
"You should be grateful I showed up at all."
"Mmmm. He always says the same thing." Kuryakin scanned the area for his gun and found it. "Where did you come from anyway?" he asked.
"The fire escape." April motioned to the iron railing. Aching and winded, Kuryakin limped over to where Hirsch was still kneeling with hands resting on the top of his head.
"I'd like to shoot him right here," the Russian growled.
"Sorry, luv, but we need him alive for debriefing. The Old Man would be very unhappy if we brought back a corpse."
"How about just a kneecap?"
"And who's going to carry him down three flights of stairs?"
Kuryakin didn't think he was in shape for it himself, so he bowed to Dancer's superior logic and settled for the satisfaction of taking Hirsch prisoner. They maneuvered the Thrushman between them through the apartment house to the ground floor lobby. Outside on the street, Bryan, Marcy, the gym teams from the two schools, both judges, most of the spectators, and about half the neighborhood was waiting for them, along with three patrol cars with red lights flashing. Evidently, someone had called the police. Both U.N.C.L.E. agents dug automatically into their pockets to produce their official I.D.
"What are you charging him with?" one officer asked Dancer, indicating the captured Hirsch.
"We can start with murder."
"I didn't kill Howard Bialecki," Hirsch protested.
"No, you're probably not that good of a shot," Kuryakin agreed. "But you hired the person who did." He slipped his communicator out of his pocket and dialed headquarters. "Security? This is Kuryakin. I need a custody van at —."
Just then, a taxicab appeared at the other end of the block. It roared down the street in their direction and pulled up to the curb, tires screeching. A well-dressed middle-aged woman in expensive shoes, pearls and a Chanel suit nearly flew out of the backseat. She made a beeline straight to Bryan.
"Baby," she cried, taking his face in both hands, "are you all right?"
"Mrs. Pritchard, I presume," April murmured to Illya through the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah sure, Mom, I'm fine." Bryan shrugged away from her, embarrassed, and offered Marcy a helpless what-can-ya-do-about-parents grin. Mrs. Pritchard gave her son a thorough once-over and then, satisfied that he'd told her the truth, she pivoted on her well-turned heel to confront Hirsch who was flanked by the U.N.C.L.E. agents on either side.
"So you must be the bastard who's after my son," she declared. Before either Kuryakin or Dancer could confirm her statement, the woman hauled off and slugged Hirsch right in the eye. Unprepared, the Thrushman staggered backward from the blow and might have collapsed entirely if the agents hadn't caught him by the armpits. The unexpected move made Illya smile. He couldn't help it: he'd wanted to do the same thing himself. Drawn to his obvious sympathy, Mrs. Pritchard looked at him and shook her head.
"Teenagers!" she exclaimed, in exasperation. "They never tell you anything!"
Saturday night, a week later.
The man in the immaculately cut Brooks Brother suit was as out of place at the high school dance as a bottle of Mouton Rothschild in a malt shop. April Dancer noticed him as soon as he came through the gym's main door. With her elbow, she nudged Illya, who was lounging against the wall next to her.
"Look who's here." She strained to raise her voice above the level of the music. The band was playing an ear-splitting version of the Young Rascals' Good Lovin."
Nonchalantly, Kuryakin shifted his gaze in the indicated direction. Although the little available light was colored by pink and green gels and the area in front of him was packed with bouncing, gyrating young bodies, he had no problem picking out his partner.
"Probably came to gloat," the Russian muttered.
"Think we can hide?"
"He'll find us eventually."
There was no point in delaying the inevitable. Moving in concert, the two agents abandoned their stations near the fire exit and drifted toward the main door.
"Slumming are you?" April asked by way of salutation. Napoleon Solo smiled.
"Just thought I'd venture into the blackboard jungle to see you both in your natural habitat."
"Last opportunity. They were a little short of chaperones tonight, so Illya and I volunteered. We'll be back on regular duty on Monday." She pointed to Solo's bandaged forehead, a wordless question forming on her lips.
"Incendiary bomb," he replied. He gestured toward Kuryakin's limping gait.
"Drain pipe," the Russian responded. Dancer glanced around.
"By the way, where's Mark?"
"Convalescing," Solo said. "Mild concussion, two cracked ribs, one badly sprained ankle. Take my advice: never allow yourself to be rolled up in a Persian rug. They don't travel well."
April shook her head. "I think they should issue us all crash helmets." She watched as Solo scanned the room, his practiced eye picking out individual faculty members. "Who's the blonde in the black miniskirt?" he asked with casual interest.
"Miss Calumet, the French teacher."
"Forget it, Napoleon," Illya said wearily. "She's a kleptomaniac."
"Pas d'probléme. Then she can steal my heart."
April laughed and squeezed Solo's arm affectionately. "You're incorrigible." Kuryakin noted the gesture and sighed. He could see where this was going.
Just then, the music ended and they were joined by Marcy and Bryan. "You looked very nice together out there," April told them warmly. She noted that Marcy had her hair done for the night and Bryan was wearing a spanking new, crisply cut sports jacket.
"Thanks," the boy said, "but I've never been to a dance before. I feel so stupid and awkward."
"It's not noticeable," Dancer assured him. In response, Marcy slapped him playfully on the shoulder and said, "See, I told you! Wait'll the prom."
"So, Marcy," Solo broke in, "I hear you've been quite a help during this affair." His right arm slid around the girl's shoulder.
"Yeah, well, I knew stuff about Bryan an' all —."
"U.N.C.L.E. has a program for young people like you." Solo's left arm encircled April. "Did you tell her about it?"
"Um, no," Dancer admitted. "We haven't exactly had the time."
"It's a good program, and it won't interfere with your school work." Solo now had his arms wrapped around both women and he began to walk as he talked, drawing them with him. "Mr. Waverly is very enthusiastic about it. He thinks that —."
"Who is that guy?" Bryan groaned to Kuryakin as both of them watched their dates for the night drift away.
"Jeez. What nerve! Doesn't he tick you off?"
"Not usually." At the moment, Kuryakin was more amused than annoyed. After all, it was difficult to be angry with someone so obviously well suited to his profession. Indeed, it was something to admire. When Napoleon conjured up the tradecraft magic, the only thing one could do was to get the hell out of the way. And Kuryakin usually did.
But not tonight.
Reaching into his breast pocket, Kuryakin thumbed the switch on his communicator, called headquarters, and asked for Section Four.
"Hi, Illya." She sounded bored. "What's up?"
"Remember that favor you promised me? I need it now, please."
"Sure thing," she giggled, brightening. "No problem. Give me a sec, okay? Out."
Satisfied, Kuryakin replaced his pen and composed himself, waiting. He began to count silently. One. Two. Three...
"Illya?" Bryan asked uncertainly.
The Russian held up a warning finger and murmured, "Wait." Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Suddenly, another communicator began to beep several feet away. Kuryakin watched as Napoleon excused himself and detached himself from the women. A few moments later, Solo was patting Marcy and offering April a kiss on the cheek. He came up to Kuryakin.
"Looks like I gotta run," Napoleon said, apologizing. "The Old Man's away and Connie says something's come up. I'm needed at headquarters."
"Too bad," Kuryakin replied with as much sympathy as he could muster. "See you on Monday."
As Solo disappeared out the door, Bryan turned to Kuryakin. "You engineered that, didn't you?"
Only the faintest shadow smile played across the Russian's face. "I told you Bryan: life is what we make it." The music was starting again, this time, the Righteous Brothers' Soul and Inspiration. Smoothly, Illya held out a hand to April as she rejoined him.
"Care to dance with a dangerous man?"
Dancer chuckled. "I guess I can risk it."
But out on the dance floor, Kuryakin couldn't help think about his partner again.
Some spies are born and some are made, Jules Cutter once said. Illya Kuryakin knew to which group he belonged. Agents like Napoleon wore the life like a customized tux, while those like himself chafed at the seams and constantly required adjustments.
Born or made. Fate or chance. Instinct or choice.
But what did it matter? Bullets didn't discriminate. So in the end, when they stood on either side of a gun, all U.N.C.L.E. agents looked the same.
In 1986, an IBM research group led by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). Unlike other Nobel Prizes that are given decades after the original work, this one came just six short years after the group's first experiments. Bryan Pritchard was a member of the group.
Marcia Whittaker retired from active fieldwork in 1990. She is now station chief of U.N.C.L.E.'s busy regional office in Los Angeles.