The Long St. Crispin's Day

XXXXX1/15/69 XXXXX 6AM LOCAL XXXXX OPEN CHANNEL C/ TRANSCONT RELAY/ BUENOS AIRES TO NEW YORK SEC ONE NUMBER ONE/ TOP PRIORITY/ RE: DESESPERACION PRISON ASSAULT/ OPERATION COMPLETE/ CASUALITIES: ENEMY:8/ UNCLE: NONE/ AGENTS SOLO AND KURYAKIN FOUND ALIVE/ REPEAT: SOLO AND KURYAKIN ALIVE/ MEDICAL STATUS: CONDITION SERIOUS/ EMERGENCY TREATMENT UNDERWAY/ RECOMMEND SUBSTITUTES FOR COMPANY SOFTBALL TEAM/ THESE MUCHACHOS WILL BE OUT FOR THE SEASON/ UPDATE AND COMPLETE REPORT TO FOLLOW/ AWAITING FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS/ NEW YORK COPY/ RELAY/ HERNANDEZ OUT XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Five days later. Somewhere in Switzerland.

The new admissions arrived early on Monday morning, but whether they were on schedule or not, was difficult to say. For security reasons, no one at the exclusive private clinic knew exactly when they would arrive or even if, in the end, they would come at all.

Nevertheless, sometime after breakfast, a helicopter with a black skeletal globe emblazoned on its fuselage, swooped down through the mountains, preceded by the distinctive thrum of its engines. The sky was a brilliant azure blue and absolutely cloudless. As she watched the chopper descend to the small landing pad, Dr. Ellen Crane was forced to put a hand to her forehead and squint against the sunlight reflecting off the drifts of fresh snow.

Despite the good weather, the air was crisp and clean and bitter cold, so thin and pure, it seared the lungs and made one dizzy to breathe. Even though she'd been at the clinic for almost a year now, Dr. Crane still wasn't used to it.

The woman pulled her white coat around her tightly and wedged herself between the jamb and the open glass door. Outside, on the landing pad, the clinic's silver-haired director, Dr. Jean-Claude Garnier, surrounded by a covey of anxious orderlies, braced against the wind of the whirling rotor blades. The man who had been sitting in the co-pilot's seat, hopped down from the cockpit and shook Dr. Garnier's hand. A clipboard was passed, several fluttering pink pages were signed and some hurried words were exchanged. Dr. Crane leaned forward, straining to hear, but the distance and the whup-whupping of the chopper blades made it virtually impossible.

The paperwork completed, the cabin door slid open with a grating metallic thump and the chopper's team of medics began the transfer of the new patients to the group of waiting orderlies.

As far as Dr. Crane could make out, there would be two of them. A slim, pale man with shaggy blond hair was carried from the chopper on a stretcher, then shifted to a rolling gurney. The orderlies worked carefully, so as not to upset his leg --- which was in traction --- and the two IV's hooked to his right arm. Even discounting the leg, he appeared to be in pretty bad shape.

The second patient, a taller, dark-haired man, was able to walk, but just barely. Under his flapping bathrobe, his chest and mid-section were heavily bandaged. His left arm was wrapped and taped, while the other arm was strapped against his body to immobilize the shoulder. He moved slowly, painfully, pausing every few seconds to catch his breath. It took three orderlies to ease him from the cabin into a wheelchair.

A third man also climbed out of the chopper, but he was clearly not a patient. Dressed in boots and a heavy, cream-colored fur-trimmed parka, with a high-powered rifle slung over one shoulder, he trailed the orderlies silently, like a ghost in all-weather gear.

Dr. Crane observed the progress of the newcomers with concern and rising excitement, tinged with a sneaking sense of guilty pleasure. Although she had no idea who the visitors were, with all the security and secrecy, it was obvious they were important. Garnier had also hinted that, as staff psychiatrist, she would have more than enough work to do in the coming weeks.

That was just fine with Dr. Crane. January was the clinic's slow season. There were only a few patients in residence and none who required her attention. Tired of treating neurotic rich women and their anorexic daughters, Crane had welcomed the break.

But this --- this was going to be different. The two men coming her way, surrounded by solicitous orderlies, might be survivors of a plane crash or some other catastrophic event, and studying such people was her peculiar field of interest.

With its mission accomplished, the helicopter took off, heading into the blazing sun, while on the ground, the little party proceeded to the rear wing of the clinic. Dr. Crane held the door open as they passed, then tried to join the parade and nearly bumped into the man with the rifle.

"Mi scusi, Signorina," he mumbled sheepishly, and tipped his cap to her. He lowered his eyes and retreated a step, allowing her to walk ahead of him.

One of the V.I.P. suites had been prepared. Indeed, it had been left vacant and waiting ever since the initial inquiry, less than thirty-six hours earlier. There were three rooms in all: two large bedrooms with attached bathroom facilities for each and a comfortable, well-furnished sitting room located between them.

As the orderlies settled the blond man into one of the beds, the other man climbed out of his wheelchair. When a nurse tried to stop him, he waved her away impatiently, refusing her advice or assistance.

Leaning against the doorway, Dr. Crane watched, fascinated, as the man began to walk a deliberate circuit around the room. He was obviously in tremendous pain, and the woman found herself gritting her teeth every time he winced or sucked in a breath. Yet he continued, doggedly, inspecting every part of the room, running a practiced eye over the walls and the floor, noting the relative positions of the lamps, the windows and the various pieces of furniture.

"Is there anything wrong?" Garnier asked hesitantly. The French doctor's English was excellent and only lightly accented. The patient let the question hang in the air. Instead of answering, he called out, "Salvatore?" The man with the rifle appeared. "Sí Signor?"

"É sicuro?"

The man with the rifle paused, then shook his head with distaste. "No Signor. Non mi piace."

"I don't like it either," the patient muttered to himself, shifting to English. He turned to Garnier. "I want the bed from the other room moved in here. Then I want you to seal off the other two rooms."

"But I don't understand. Don't you wish some measure of privacy, for yourself and your companion, Monsieur?"

"Doctor, he is my partner. There is nothing I can do, or that you can do to me, that hasn't been done in his presence before. The same is true the other way around."

Garnier gave a shrug of surrender. "As you wish, Monsieur. We shall make the adjustments immediately." He gestured to the orderlies. "Vite."

As the hospital staff set themselves to the task of altering the room arrangements to his satisfaction, the dark-haired patient turned to the man with the rifle and dismissed him. "Bene, Salvatore. Grazie. Ci lasci."

The man called Salvatore nodded and slipped out of the room.

"About your friend, there," Garnier said, "if we see him around, we might ---.

"Oh, he'll be around all right," the patient said, cutting him off, "but you won't see him. Don't worry about Salvatore, Doctor. He will take care of himself."

"Tres bien, Monsieur." The Frenchman bowed slightly. "Will there be anything else?"

"Yes." The patient motioned to the second hospital bed as it was rolled into the room. "Tell them to put it against this wall. I never sleep opposite a window."

Then, without waiting for Garnier's reply, the patient went over to his companion, lying peacefully in the other bed. The blond man's head turned slightly and his eyes opened.

"Are we there yet?" he asked groggily.

"We're here." With his free hand, the dark-haired patient gave his companion's shoulder a gentle pat. "Go back to sleep. We'll be all right."

"Who are those guys? Are they gangsters?" Ellen Crane wondered aloud later, as she and Garnier strolled down a corridor leading away from the suite. Garnier's grey eyes twinkled behind his rimless spectacles and he chuckled softly.

"No. They're field operatives for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement."

"U.N.C.L.E. agents?"

Garnier nodded. "Apparently, two of their top men. They must be very valuable. We were instructed to spare no expense on their care."

"And what about the guy with the rifle?"

"You mean the Corsican bodyguard? Obviously, there are others who believe they might be more valuable dead." He eyed his colleague slyly. "Intrigued?"

"To say the least," she admitted. "But why were they sent here?"

"Their superior read your monograph on stress reactions to traumatic life events. He wants you to do a psychological evaluation while they're here. See what you can find out."

"How long will I have?"

"Two months, perhaps. Feeling flattered?"

"A bit." Crane considered for a moment. "What happened to them anyway?"

"See for yourself."

Garnier handed her the clipboard. Crane took a moment to flip through the charts. She read the scribbled entries to herself: Napoleon Solo. Age: 39. Height: 5 ft. 11 in. Weight: 175 lbs. Blood type: A. . .

"He's an American," she declared aloud, confirming her earlier suspicions. Garnier offered her a friendly nudge.

"Et tres beau aussi, ma chere."

Crane shrugged off his teasing. "Now don't start that again, Jean-Claude. You know I'm perfectly content to be single."

Besides, she thought to herself, with all those bruises, the two blackened eyes and the week-old beard, it was hard to tell exactly what the man really looked like.

She scanned the injury report. It read like a laundry list: Simple partial fracture, twelfth rib. Simple complete fracture, ninth rib. Dislocation, closed reduction, left shoulder. Dislocation, torn ligaments, open reduction, right shoulder. Perinephic hematoma, right kidney, caused by blunt trauma. Superficial lacerations, left and right wrists. Contusions to upper abdomen, caused by blunt trauma. Contusions to lower abdomen, caused by blunt trauma. Contusions to pelvis . . to thorax . . to scapular . . . to mandible . . . to malar . . . to orbits . . . to cranium. . .

"Jeez," Crane hissed under her breath. She thumbed to the next case:

Illya Kuryakin. Age: 37. Height: 5 ft. 9 in. Weight: 159 lbs. Blood type: B. . .

"A Russian?" Crane asked, surprised, and Garnier nodded.

"Soviet?"

Garnier nodded again.

"But I heard the other guy say that they were partners."

Garnier nodded a third time and Crane sucked a tooth thoughtfully. Now her interest was really piqued. She ran down the list of injuries. As she suspected this one was even worse: Simple displaced fracture of left tibia/fibula; fibula impacted on tibia shaft. Open reduction to be scheduled. Lacerations of pancreas, complicated by peritonitis. Contusions to the anterior abdomen, caused by blunt trauma. Contusions to pelvis. . . to left flank . . . to right flank. . . to left thigh. . .

The story was much the same as the other with one general difference. Except for the almost identical lacerations of the wrists and a cerebral concussion, most of the damage tended to be lower on the body.

"Cripes," the woman exclaimed as she closed the file.

"So, ma chere, what do you think?"

"Gee, I don't know. It looks like someone strung them up like two sides of beef and used them for batting practice."

"That's exactly what someone did," Garnier said.

XXXX

Somewhere in Manhattan. January, 1946.

"So, what d'you think, Nate? Will the Tigers do it again this year?"

Albert Sully, recently detached from the now defunct American Office of Strategic Services grinned and ran a quick hand through his hair, patting a troublesome strand back into place. Although he was only one month short of his twenty-ninth birthday, his hairline was already receding. The ex-operative tried not to think about it.

"It's really too early to say, Bert," Nate Cassidy replied, his eyes still focused on the chess game before him, "but I predict they won't come anywhere near the Series this time out. Forget Detroit. My money's on St. Louis, although Boston looks awfully good, too.

Sully knew that his old friend and colleague from the OSS meant that literally. Although he'd never sat on a bleacher in his blue-blooded life, Cassidy bet heavily on a wide variety of sporting events. He liked gambling, women and living well --- not necessarily in that order --- and as an astute observer of the human condition, Cassidy was extraordinarily lucky with all three. He always seemed to know when to play it close to the vest and when to stake the family fortune. In matters of romance, it also helped that he bore a striking resemblance to the movie star, Cary Grant.

"I shall never understand the fascination you Americans have with the game of baseball," Karl Berglund declared, hunching over the other side of the chessboard.

With his sandy hair, wire-rimmed spectacles and conservative three-piece suit, Berglund was exactly what he appeared to be --- a middle-aged Swedish banker. But more importantly, he was also that rarity, a successful businessman with a social conscience. For many European resistance groups and countless refugees, Berglund's quiet courage and cool head for numbers had spelled the difference between survival and extinction.

The Swede advanced his black bishop, then sat back in the leather upholstered wing chair, clearly satisfied with his move and his life.

"I don't mind some cricket now and again," Cassidy allowed as he carefully weighed the outcomes of several possible countermoves, "but it takes much too long to collect on the winners. Those damn matches can go on for days." Finally settling on the boldest strategy, he captured the rook with his white queen.

"I believe I have you in check, Karl," he said.

That figures, Sully thought to himself. Although he envied his friend, from his full head of wavy black hair, to the knife-edge crease in his immaculately cut trousers, Sully couldn't bring himself to hate the man. Nothing about Cassidy was ever petty or parsimonious.

With his amiable, generous nature, and a self-deprecating wit as dry as the martinis he favored, Cassidy was enormously good company. Of course, that didn't make him any less of an assassin than the rest. He could lie and murder with the best of them, and often had. Still, by the end of the war, even the Nazis grew to like Cassidy --- along with wanting to see him dead. Thanks to the dapper operative's uncanny good luck, they never did.

"I prefer soccer myself," Berglund said, studying the board with deep concentration mixed with a hint of desperation. "I find it more stimulating."

" --- But only when it's played by Australian rules," Benjamin Toomey laughed heartily as he approached the group. A veteran of the Burma campaign, Toomey was a huge man with a huge handlebar moustache and a voice to match. It carried clear across the quiet men's club.

"What are Australian rules?" Sully inquired gingerly and Cassidy smiled.

"Two teams kick the hell out of each other and the one with the most players standing at the end of the game, wins. Isn't that so, Colonel?"

"Right y'are, mate," the big Australian laughed again, nearly popping the buttons of his faded bush jacket. "But it's no longer colonel. I'm a civilian now."

He leaned over Berglund to pass Cassidy his usual drink, an extra dry martini with a twist of lemon peel and one pearl onion. Next to Nate's expensive dinner jacket and Berglund's well-tailored suit, Toomey felt decidedly out of place. Well, he told himself, at least he had remembered to wear a tie and his khaki uniform was clean.

"When you goin' to order a man's drink?" Toomey grunted as he took a healthy swig of his own bourbon and branch water. Actually, he liked Cassidy, even though the latter crossed his legs at the knee like a swishy Brit and spent far too much time in the company of women.

Cassidy chuckled, unoffended. Toomey had the bellow of a bull, but he had the heart of one, too. No Japanese internment camp had ever been able to hold him.

"You'll never change, Ben," Cassidy said and repositioned his queen. "That's check again, Karl. And mate, too, I'm afraid."

Berglund tipped over the black king and shook his head. "I do not understand. You defeat me every time we play."

"You concentrate too much on defense," the American observed. "You should try to play more aggressively."

"But how could you risk your queen like that? Suppose I had set a trap?"

Cassidy smiled slyly as he sipped his martini. "Not you, Karl. You don't have a diabolical bone in your body." He looked up to see a tall, lanky figure dressed in a leather flight jacket and a loosely knotted tie, ambling toward the bar. Cassidy motioned to Sully and said, "Look who's here."

Sully turned. "My God, it's Ace." He called out, "Ace! Over here!"

Asa "Ace" Carpenter offered a careless wave in their direction. Then, scooping up a scotch on the rocks, he headed toward the group with his characteristic leisurely lope.

Carpenter never moved fast and he never said much. On the ground, he was singularly unimpressive, but in the air, he seemed to have the natural instincts of a bat. He could fly a reconnaissance plane through fog so thick it pressed the eyeballs straight back into your skull, and no matter how heavy the enemy fire, he always came home.

" 'Lo," Carpenter greeted Cassidy and Sully in his soft Texas drawl. He didn't know the others and it took a few minutes for everyone to get acquainted.

"This is certainly an eclectic group," Cassidy commented when the introductions were done. Carpenter found a seat next to Toomey on the couch and glanced around the room, as if he were embarrassed to be there.

Ace probably doesn't even know what 'eclectic' means, Sully thought idly, though he was feeling more than a bit outclassed himself. As a courier in occupied France, Sully's greatest asset had been his absolute mediocrity. He looked so dull and ordinary, no one had ever noticed or remembered him.

"You have made an excellent choice of words, Nate," Berglund agreed. In addition to the club's staff, there were at least seven other guests scattered about the room. The Swede pointed to one man in particular, an aristocratic German with platinum hair, a chiseled marble face, and Aryan features so perfect, they would have brought tears to Der Fuehrer's eyes.

"Do you know who that is?" Berglund asked his companions. They didn't, so he told them. "That is Major Gregory Von Linden. He was SS --- and one of the best officers working for General Gehlen's eastern network."

"You Yanks released Gehlen, didn't you, when he agreed to cooperate with the Allies?" Toomey said, straining mightily to keep his voice low. "A devil's bargain, if you ask me."

"We needed him in Berlin against the Russians," Cassidy replied matter-of-factly.

"They say Von Linden was involved with the plot to kill Hitler," added Berglund. "And speaking of the Russians, do you see that man standing by the fireplace?"

Cassidy glanced discreetly over his shoulder. He saw an unassuming young man with black hair and a boyish smile.

"I believe his name is Popovich. He is a Georgian, like Beria. He is also an agent for the NKVD."

"Jesus H. Christ!" Toomey roared, then dropped his voice as the others hushed him down. "Krauts. Bolshies. What in blazes are we doing here, anyway?"

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I received a written invitation signed by Alex Waverly himself," said Cassidy.

"Me, too," Carpenter mumbled and Sully added with a nod, "Something about a new network they're setting up."

"Who's setting up?" Toomey demanded.

Cassidy drained the last of his drink. "I suppose that's what we're here to find out."

"Perhaps," Berglund cut in, "we will have some answers now."

He inclined his head toward the front entrance hall where three men were taking off their topcoats. Two of them were immediately recognizable to everyone in the group, if not the entire room. There was no mistaking Alexander Waverly's compact silhouette and bloodhound countenance. Anyone who had ever worked for, with or against British Intelligence could probably identify the smell of his favorite pipe tobacco with their eyes shut.

Russell Barker, the man beside him, was also a familiar face and a welcome one. A few years younger than Waverly, the two shared many traits in common. Both were pragmatists, with keen, incisive minds and astonishingly accurate photographic memories.

Physically and emotionally, however, Barker could not have been more unlike his friend and superior. With his curly red hair, his moon-shaped, freckled face and toothy grin, the younger man seemed warmer, more accessible somehow.

It was said that Barker's parents had been buskers --- street musicians --- until the father died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four, leaving behind a widow and six children. Barker had grown up in the slums of East London and every so often, his Queen's English would slip to betray his Cockney origins. Close associates also knew that he could be coaxed into belting out a tune after several glasses of stout.

"That's Waverly of course, and I've worked with Barker," Cassidy said, "but who's the other guy with the glasses?"

"His name is Hemingway," Sully answered. "He's married to Waverly's sister. That's all I know."

"Looks like some sort of college professor to me."

There was no time to say anything more. Flanked by Barker and Hemingway, Waverly halted in the center of the room and addressed the other twelve puzzled guests.

"Thank you all for coming on such short notice," he said. "I know this appears absurdly cloak and dagger but I assure you, before the night is out, all your questions will be answered. We have a great deal to discuss."

He gestured toward the far end of the room, where a uniformed attendant waited by an open doorway. "And now, gentlemen, shall we retire to the dining room?"

XXXX

He heard the day nurse coming down the corridor, long before she reached their room, wishing a clipped "Guten Morgen" to everyone she met. Kuryakin looked up from his book and sighed.

"Bonjour" would have meant it was the pretty French nurse with the big eyes and the hoop earrings. " 'Ow's it goin' mate?" would have been the English one --- a plain, even homely girl, who nonetheless had wonderful hands and gave the most sublime backrubs.

But "Guten Morgen" signaled the approach of Frau Hausner, the head nurse, whom Napoleon had dubbed "the Red Baron" in one of his less charitable moments. There had been a lot of those lately.

Kuryakin glanced over to the bed next to his own. Oblivious to the rays of fierce morning sunlight streaming in through the nearby window, Solo continued to sleep. He lay awkwardly on his side, favoring the bad shoulder, with his left hand jammed deep under the pillows, as still and rigid as a corpse. The Russian regarded his partner sympathetically, making no attempt to wake him. The night had not been a good one.

"Guten Morgen, Herr Kuryakin!" Frau Hausner sang as she marched briskly into the room, carrying her little tray of medicines. Frau Hausner did everything briskly. With her crisp, spotlessly clean uniforms, her helmet of closely-cropped copper hair, and her infatigable bedside manner, she was the very image of the energetic, efficient caregiver. In his present condition, Solo couldn't abide her. Kuryakin had to admit that he didn't like her much, either.

"And how are we on this glorious day?" she asked as she swept past the blond agent's bed.

"We are tolerable, thank you," Kuryakin answered, returning to his book. Yesterday, they had finally gotten around to setting his leg. It was a bad, if relatively clean, break and the surgery had required general anesthesia. Still, all things considered, he felt rather decent, though he was not about to give her the satisfaction of hearing that.

"But what ist this?" the German nurse exclaimed upon discovering Solo. "Still asleep? It will not do."

"Perhaps you should leave him alone for a while longer," Kuryakin suggested gently.

"Why do you say that?"

"He didn't sleep very well last night."

"And he will be unable to sleep tonight if he continues to do so now."

Kuryakin could see it was hopeless. "If you are determined to wake him, then please, don't shake him."

"What?"

"I said: don't attempt to touch him. Just stand beside his bed and say his name several times in a calm, conversational tone."

Frau Hausner shook her head and clucked her tongue indignantly. "Such nonsense," she muttered to herself, loud enough for the Russian to hear. She reached down and gave Solo's shoulder a firm, businesslike jog.

The result was something akin to triggering a beartrap. The sleeping agent snapped like a coiled spring. In one fluid motion, he jerked bolt upright, while his hand automatically drew the U.N.C.L.E. Special from its hiding place under the pillow.

Frau Hausner jumped back with a terrified scream, the water glass and the pill bottles catapulting wildly from her tray.

"Meingott!" she cried. She clawed at her heart beneath the bodice of her starched uniform.

"Christ," Solo gasped, trembling from the adrenalin surge, the gun still clutched foolishly in his fist.

Behind them, in his own bed, Kuryakin remained unperturbed. He didn't even bother to look up from his reading.

"I warned you not to shake him," he said.

XXXX

Outside, the snow fell, thick and heavy, like flour sifting through an aluminum sky. Inside, however, the library was as warm and private as a cocoon, lit by amber reading lamps and a crackling wood fire burning in the hearth. In the burnished glow of the retreating afternoon, Napoleon Solo browsed through the leather-bound stacks, searching for an appealing title.

"Oh, there you are Mr. Solo," a woman's voice called softly from the door. Solo glanced up and automatically smiled. It was the doctor he'd seen around. She seemed pleasant, if a bit too serious, and at thirty, probably too young for the authority she wielded.

"I'm Ellen Crane," she said, extending her hand. It was as white and square as a nun's.

"I know," Solo said, taking it. "I'd prefer it if you called me Napoleon."

"Okay. Napoleon." Crane offered him a nervous laugh and blinked behind her horn-rimmed glasses. She had brown hair, styled short and simple, and a clean, narrow face unadorned by cosmetics. The agent couldn't detect even a hint of perfume.

Solo noted this all to himself. He had met her type before: smart, earnest and overworked, with no time to fuss with mascara and no guile or natural instincts when it came to men. He would remember to play fair with her.

"I'm sorry for that little incident this morning," Solo said, genuinely apologetic. Crane laughed again.

"Well, the staff does find it disconcerting to be confronted with loaded guns. Frau Hausner has volunteered to find you an alarm clock."

"It won't happen again, I promise."

"And do you always sleep with a weapon?"

Solo didn't care to explain that he and Kuryakin had made far too many enemies over the years. With both of them laid up here, injured and therefore vulnerable, he expected an assassination attempt any day, and he suspected that Waverly did, too. No doubt that was the reason for hiding them here, high up in the Alps, instead of sending them to a more accessible clinic in the Caribbean.

Without answering her question, the agent reached up for a book and felt all the torn muscles in his left shoulder scream in protest. Crane watched as he drew back his arm, suppressing a groan and said sympathetically, "Here, let me help you."

The volume was a large one and out of curiousity, Crane inspected the name on the spine. "Ulysses? " she read, obviously impressed. That's a rather ambitious undertaking."

"It's not for me. It's for Illya. When he's convalescing, all he does is eat and read." Solo chuckled. "Come to think of it, that's all he usually does, anyway."

"And what do you do, Napoleon? Here, I mean."

Solo shrugged awkwardly, his right arm still in the sling. "Sleep mostly. And think."

"The nurses tell me you've been refusing to take your Demerol."

"It makes me sluggish. I guess I prefer the pain."

He hefted the book in his good left hand and studied it. "The truth is, Doctor, I haven't been sleeping much lately. Too many bad dreams."

"Oh? Do you want to talk about it?"

Maybe it was the way she said the words --- reflexively, as if she had said them so many times before --- or how her voice changed tone, deliberately kind and coaxing, that set the alarm bells ringing in Solo's head. He narrowed his eyes.

"You're a psychiatrist, aren't you?"

"Why yes, of course." She blinked again, innocently this time. "I thought you knew."

Apparently, he didn't, and the expression on his face made it clear that he was far from pleased with the news. "I don't need a psychiatrist. I'm not crazy."

"No one said you were," she replied quickly, as she felt him emotionally disengage. It was time for damage control. If she didn't do something right away, she was going to lose him for sure.

He tried to turn away from her, but Crane caught his elbow, making him wince. She pulled back her hand.

"I'm sorry. . . but please don't go. Not yet. Your boss Mr. Waverly said ---."

She didn't have to finish the sentence. Just saying the name was enough. Solo sighed, defeated. She suddenly felt sorry for him.

"Please, come sit over here," she said. "Let's talk for a moment."

She edged toward a pair of overstuffed chairs positioned near the fireplace. Reluctantly, Solo followed.

"Are you comfortable?" Crane asked as they settled down. Solo frowned.

"I'm never comfortable during interrogations."

The woman laughed, another short, nervous laugh. "Oh my, Mr. Solo --- Napoleon --- is that what you think this is? An interrogation?"

Solo stared past her, his face reflected by the flickering firelight, and asked sullenly, "What would you call it?"

"An exploration, maybe."

"I'm not virgin territory. As you can see, I've been 'explored' before."

There were two ways to deal with his resentment. She could tackle it head on, or try for an end run. She decided to use the second strategy first. Perhaps, in the course of their conversation, it would dissipate.

"May I use a tape recorder?" Crane asked, reaching into the pocket of her white lab coat.

"I prefer not to be taped or photographed." When she glanced up, he smiled thinly. "Professional reasons."

"Oh, right." Crane flipped open a small stenographer's pad. "Do you mind if I take notes instead?"

"If you must."

"Then, I would like to start with the question I asked you earlier: how long have you slept with a weapon?"

"Since I joined U.N.C.L.E."

"How long ago was that?"

Solo leaned back against the headrest. "I graduated survival school in '53. I guess that makes it about sixteen years now."

Sixteen years! she thought to herself. What must it be like to sleep with a gun for sixteen years?

She studied the man in the chair beside her. He wasn't old, barely ten years older than herself, and yet it seemed as if he'd lived at least two of her lifetimes. Now that his face was clean-shaven and almost healed, she could see that he was indeed an attractive man. Smooth. Sophisticated. Intelligent.

No, she corrected herself. The word is cunning.

"And do you like your job?" Crane asked. "Are you happy in your work?"

"Yes, but you'll forgive me if I don't jump up and down with enthusiasm." Privately, he'd already revised his earlier resolution to go easy with her. Now that he knew her true purpose in seeking him out, all bets were definitely off.

The psychiatrist paused as she changed tack. "But you said you were having bad dreams. What do you dream about?"

"People who died."

"People you killed?"

"Sometimes. Sometimes, people who tried to kill me."

"Do you regret killing those people?"

"Not at all," he said with a certainty that surprised her. "I kill only in self-defense or in the line of duty. In other words, when it's necessary."

"But those deaths must affect you in some way."

"Of course they do. Would you consider it healthy to be able to take a human life, however scurrilous, and not feel something?"

Touché she told herself. If she wasn't more careful, he would completely outmaneuver her.

"Do you ever re-live past experiences, Napoleon?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you think about what happened during the night you spent at Désèsperacin? Would you like to tell me about it?"

Solo shifted in the chair. The deep, dead ache in his shoulder had returned. He probably should have taken the Demerol after all.

"There's not much to tell, really. They wanted some information. We refused. They tried to persuade us to change our minds. A few bruises. A few broken bones. Everything will heal."

Dr. Crane didn't need to re-read her files to know that his answer was a gross simplification. His physical condition alone told her so.

He's sublimating she reminded herself. He's still in a recoil phase.

She closed her steno pad and said, "I can see you're not ready to discuss this yet."

"I told you: there's nothing to discuss."

"Napoleon, you're an intelligent man. You must realize that this was probably one of the most traumatic life events you could have ever experienced. Surely, there has been nothing else to compare with ---"

She looked up from her notebook and stopped. He was laughing --- humorlessly, mockingly, softly, under his breath. He eyed her as if she were too dense to get the joke, then shook his head.

"Look ---," he began, but was interrupted when Miss Fielding, the English nurse, poked her head through the door.

"Mr. Solo? Could you come with me, please? It's time to change those bandages."

Crane was not ready to give up yet, however, and when he retreated, she traveled along with him, down the corridor.

"Tell me Doctor," the agent said, aloud, his mood lightening, "why do you want to know all this anyway?"

"Sometimes, after a crisis, it's therapeutic for survivors to talk out their experiences."

"The best therapy for me would be to get back into the field."

"I'm afraid that's not possible yet." She was tempted to say, And it may never be, but she resisted the impulse. Instead she explained, "Your superior has requested a complete psychological assessment and evaluation before I make my recommendation."

Solo looked at her sharply, and she added, "Don't worry. I understand these things."

"Do you, now?" It was more of a statement than a question.

As they reached one of the small examination rooms, Crane tried to take her leave, but Solo called her back. "Don't go yet, Doctor Crane. Stay a minute."

Crane exchanged glances with the waiting nurse. She watched as Miss Fielding helped him off with his robe.

"You asked me before if I've experienced any other traumatic 'life events,' " Solo said casually, as he unbuttoned his pajama top.

"Napoleon, really, I don't see what ---."

But then, as Miss Fielding helped him ease out of a sleeve, Dr. Crane began to see all too well. In the harsh, unforgiving glare of the fluorescent lights, the pajama top fell away to reveal a terrible mosaic of scars.

His body was like a ravaged battlefield. There was an acid burn on Solo's chest. The jagged bite of a large animal just above his lacerated left wrist. A cross-hatch of lash marks extending from his shoulders to his lower back, with an assortment of old wounds left behind by blades and bullets, scattered among the rest.

Solo waited for a response, silently challenging her, but Crane remained outwardly composed, determined not to betray any shock.

"It makes no difference," she declared finally. "I'll still have to ask you questions."

"Go ahead," Solo snorted as he watched Miss Fielding cut away the bandage encircling his chest. "I'm used to it."

XXXX

"Here's your book."

Solo tossed the thick volume of Ulysses on the foot of Illya's bed. "They didn't have any Thomas Mann but they had some Joyce."

Kuryakin peered over his glasses. He checked the title, acknowledged his friend's efforts with a tip of the chin, and returned to the book he was currently reading. Solo circled his own bed, leaned against the frame of the large window, and looked out.

Night had fallen but the snow continued without let-up. He couldn't see a thing past the clinic's border lights.

"Switzerland in January," Solo sighed aloud. "Nothing to do up here but ski."

"Mr. Waverly always did have a sense of humor," Kuryakin observed drily.

Solo raised his eyes to where the surrounding mountains lay, enshrouded now by a powdery grey fog, and thought of Salvatore. Somewhere, up there, their intrepid bodyguard was camped out, probably freezing his ass off.

From behind his book, Kuryakin watched his partner without appearing to do so. He knew the pattern well. When Solo wasn't on assignment or avidly pursuing one of his hobbies, he could be trying company indeed. The irritability, the bottled-up nervous tension, the days spent prowling aimlessly about, the restless, interrupted nights --- it was enough to drive anyone else to distraction.

Napoleon needed something to occupy his mind and work off some of that excess adrenalin, Kuryakin decided. A woman would help. A woman always helped.

"Have you managed to meet that lady doctor yet?" the Russian asked lightly. He guessed that his partner must have established at least a passing acquaintance with the woman by now, if not a budding romance. Solo's talent was almost preternatural where the opposite sex was concerned. Even on those rare occasions, when he didn't take an active interest in them himself, the women flocked to Solo anyway, like the proverbial moths to an open flame. Kuryakin no longer tried to analyze the phenomenon, for that was what he considered it, but simply accepted it as a fact of life.

"I met her all right," Solo answered with an unexpected bitterness. "She's a goddamn shrink."

"Oh," Kuryakin replied under his breath. He nodded to himself as if, for that instant, the entire world suddenly made sense.

"She's asking questions. A lot of questions."

Kuryakin shrugged. "Routine."

"No. I checked around. She's a specialist."

Although he didn't say so, the Russian knew that his partner had been expecting something like this. They both had. At thirty-nine, Napoleon was at the end of his long tenure as enforcement chief. In less than a year, U.N.C.L.E.'s mandatory rule would bar him permanently from the field.

Solo sat down heavily on his own bed and rubbed his cheek with his good hand. Although his shoulder was healing well, it still hurt like hell and his right arm remained in a sling to support the injured muscles.

"I don't have much time left, Illya," he said soberly, "and I want all of it."

Kuryakin nodded again. He could empathize completely. Time was growing short for him, too.

Since the prospect of retirement was a topic that neither agent wished to discuss, Kuryakin returned to his book as Solo tried to stretch out comfortably in the other bed. The only illumination in the room was the faint pool of light created by Kuryakin's reading lamp. The Russian agent listened to the sound of rustling pillows and creaking bedsprings and knew what was coming.

"You should request a sedative," he said.

"I'm tired of being drugged. I can't think straight anymore." After a moment, Solo asked, "What are you reading?"

"Cervantes' Don Quixote."

"Do you mind reading some out loud? It'll give me something else to concentrate on besides this damn shoulder."

"All right, if you think it will help."

Anything to avoid a repeat of last night, Kuryakin thought. In a calm, measured voice, he began to read:

". . . Then, covering himself with his shield and putting his lance in the rest, Don Quixote urged Rocinante forward at full gallop and attacked the nearest windmill, thrusting his lance into the sail. But the wind turned it with such violence that it shivered the weapon into pieces, dragging the horse and his rider with it, and sent the knight rolling badly injured across the plain. Sancho Panza rushed to his assistance as fast as his ass could trot, but when he came up, he found that the knight could not stir, such a shock had Rocinante given him in their fall. . ."

"Sometimes I think that's what we've been doing all these years," Solo murmured, his words drifting through the darkness. "Tilting at windmills."

"It wasn't a windmill that broke my leg."

"Yeah, but in the end, we're not much different from that mad old knight, are we?"

"An interesting analogy," Kuryakin remarked. He heard Solo turn over. "You should bring it up the next time you see that psychiatrist. What do you think she'll say, Napoleon? Napoleon?"

But there was no answer from the other bed. Solo was already fast asleep.

XXXX

"Are we boring you, Mister Delage?" Alexander Waverly inquired pleasantly from the head of the long table. At the far corner, Louis Delage stifled a yawn.

"Forgive me, Monsieur. Non, it is not ze company, I assure you. It is ze effects of our flight from Paris. Such an exhausting, barbaric way to travel. An ocean cruise is so much more civilized."

"I, too, am sorry, Mr. Delage --- for any inconvenience my invitation may have caused you. I know you are a busy man, but of course, it couldn't be helped."

Delage accepted the apology with a gracious nod and both men returned to their dinner. Sitting at the foot of the table, Russell Barker listened with growing apprehension. He wasn't deceived by the cordiality of the exchange nor by the general high tone of the evening thus far. Under the cloak of gentlemanly courtesy, rumbled a murderous, almost unbearable tension. No doubt, it was an omen of things to come.

This simply cannot succeed, Barker told himself gloomily. This time Alex, you really have gone off your bloody rocker.

He stabbed at his slice of chateaubriand. The beef was uncommonly tender but a little too rare for the Englishman's taste. Despite the small fortune it probably cost per pound, he would have gladly traded it for a nice, well-done pot roast.

Straining hard to catch the bits of small talk sputtering here and there, around the table, Barker stole a surreptitous peek to see how the others were faring. He studied one face after another and thought: My God, what a bloodthirsty mob we are. Monsters in dinner jackets --- like something out of the rogues' gallery at Madame Tussaud's.

Except for Professor Hemingway, the brilliant cryptogropher who ate at Waverly's right elbow, and Berglund the banker, one seat beyond, the rest constituted a sublime collection of thieves, murderers, terrorists and saboteurs, experts in the deadly art of covert action.

For example, on Barker's left, next to Berglund, sat Nino Martucci, aptly named since at twenty years old, he was the youngest of the group. The angelic-faced Sicilian had achieved his first kill, a despotic local padrone, on his fourteenth birthday, eventually graduating to the Italian Communist underground as one of its most daring assassins. Although he seemed a likely candidate for recruitment by the Unione Siciliano, his current politics made him the black sheep of the family.

Javier Aguirre, the short, stocky bow-legged Basque in the ill-fitting suit at Martucci's right, knew something about sheep himself --- real sheep, that is. A devout Roman Catholic and a deeply religious man, he had started out in life as a modest shepherd.

But then a makeshift bomb, which blew his wife and four children to pieces during the Spanish Civil War, changed all that. Aguirre became a dedicated anti-fascist guerrilla, and years later, crossed the Pyrenees to offer his talent and relentless determination to the French Resistance.

At the moment, the Basque was engaged in a rather heated discussion with the man on his right, a Polish Jew named Stefan Lenski. Such discussions were par for Lenski. A young, intense, contentious man, he was one of the handful of resistance fighters to survive the Warsaw Ghetto. He never forgot that fact --- and he never let anyone else forget it, either.

The chair left vacant beside Lenski served as a symbolic no-man's land between the rest of the group and the last guest to Barker's left, Gregory Von Linden. If the proud German resented this subtle ostracism, he did not show it. Rather, he sat quietly after finishing his meal, a silver cigarette holder clenched between his very white teeth, taking in the scene around him. Occasionally, he glanced toward Barker, his eyebrow arching enigmatically through a swirling haze of smoke.

With the exception of Popovich, Barker knew every man on the right side of the table personally. At one time or another, he had worked with all three Americans --- Cassidy, the Yale-educated gambler, Carpenter, the unflappable pilot, and Sully, the quintessential "grey man" --- as well as Toomey, the big, blustering Aussie.

Closer at hand were Auguste and Louis Delage, cousins who worked with the BCRA, the French Resistance, during the war. One hailed from the country and the other, from the city, just like the mice in the fable.

Auguste was a grape-grower by trade and a demolitions expert by vocation. Whenever a stranger asked what he did for a living, the Frenchman would simply answer, "I blow up trains."

Louis, in striking contrast, was an upper-class Parisian lawyer who collected Renaissance art, wines and ballet dancers. He detested Hitler and Picasso with almost equal emnity, and apparently, also nursed a strong grudge against airplanes.

Finally, wedged between the towering Toomey and the plain-speaking Delage cousin, was Ivan Popovich of Soviet Intelligence. His hobby was forgery --- or cobbling, in the parlance of his service --- and it was said that his false passports, his "shoes," could take a spy anywhere in the world.

Unlike some of his Russian colleagues, Popovich was sophisticated and well-traveled, with a quirky sense of humor. It was hardly a secret that the sunny Georgian, who couldn't resist a good practical joke, had the heart of a con-man and the tastes of a capitalist.

And now here we all sit, Barker thought to himself as the attendants cleared the table for dessert, Waverly, his brother-in-law, and a bloody baker's dozen of misfit spies. How could anyone possibly believe that we could work together?

The Englishman recalled his conversation with Waverly earlier that day:

"But these men have fought on opposite sides, Alex, trying to kill each other off for decades. Some of them are still trying!"

"Why should that matter? If my family hound can learn to tolerate my wife's cat, surely human beings can practice a superior form of coexistence."

"But they may not want to coexist."

"Rubbish."

And then, Barker remembered, Waverly had placed a hand on his shoulder and said, "Trust me on this one, old fellow. Some things transcend even politics. These are good men, men of principle, who not only act upon what they think, but think about why they act. They are men who need a reason to be alive. We shall give them one."

He had made it sound as if he were doing them all a favor. Now, as Barker looked across the table at his superior, he wondered if Waverly genuinely believed that.

The coffee arrived, along with a pot of tea, a freshly baked apple pie and a large chocolate torte. And after the cups were poured and the desserts sorted out, the club attendants closed the doors to the private dining room and withdrew, leaving the guests alone.

Waverly tapped his spoon against the edge of his saucer for attention and cleared his throat, and fourteen pairs of eyes turned toward him.

"Gentleman," he began, "it is time to move on to the main business of the evening. I asked all of you here tonight so that I could describe to you, in detail, the plans for a new intelligence network."

"What sort of new network?" Ben Toomey huffed through his thick walrus moustache.

"One, the like of which, Mr. Toomey, the world has never seen before."

Here we go, Barker told himself. He crossed his fingers within his folded hands and sat back to listen.

XXXX

Illya Kuryakin was just finishing his lunch when Ellen Crane discovered him, alone in the solarium, enjoying the warmth and light of the mid-morning sun. He looked like he needed it. After three weeks of confinement, he was paler than ever.

Yet, in many ways, Crane found the Russian even more attractive than his partner. Solo's aggressive sexuality was enticing but vaguely threatening, as if he were daring her to come too close. Kuryakin's charm was far more subtle: it just sort of crept up on you. In the battle between the sexes, Dr. Crane imagined, Napoleon was the gung-ho campaigner, eager to plunge into the fray, while Illya was a rear-guard guerrilla, a little bewildered by all the commotion and wishing he'd stayed at home. Crane was afraid she was already losing her clinical objectivity with both of them.

In fact, this entire assignment was turning out to be considerably more difficult than she had anticipated. Since their first prickly encounter, Solo had been doing his best to avoid her, playing a shrewd, complicated game of hide and seek, which frankly, he was winning. She was tired of being "it", so now that Kuryakin was up and about, she decided to shift her attention to him.

"Hello Illya," she said aloud. "How are we doing today?" Crane, along with the rest of the staff, had learned the hard way that it was prudent to simply announce one's presence when approaching the agents.

"Why are inquiries about my well-being always phrased in the plural around here?"

His petulance, as usual, was a sham. Crane could see that he was smiling. She chose to apologize anyway.

"I'm sorry. That did sound rather patronizing, didn't it? Chalk it up to force of habit. Doctors are so used to feeling omnipotent."

Her remark had the desired effect. He chuckled softly and pushed back the lunch tray as Crane pulled up a seat beside his wheelchair. Kuryakin could get around on crutches, but with his leg still encased in an unwieldy cast, the wheelchair made things easier.

"I'd like to talk to you a little about your work with U.N.C.L.E. Would that be okay?"

Kuryakin shrugged amicably, indicating that he had nothing better to do.

"What year did you graduate from the survival school?" She was beginning to know what questions to ask.

"1956. You can read it in my dossier."

"I know, but I wanted to talk with you first."

Kuryakin shrugged again, a suit-yourself gesture.

"And how do you feel about your job?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, do you like it? Do you enjoy it?"

"Am I supposed to?"

Crane hesitated. She searched his grey eyes to deduce what his answer might imply, but his expression was a pleasant, ambiguous blank.. Since Solo seemed to prefer honesty, however blunt, she decided not to waste any time in hedging.

"Are you saying you don't like working for U.N.C.L.E.?"

"No. I'm simply asking what possible relevance my personal gratification might have to my professional performance."

"Oh, but Illya, it can have a great deal. Numerous studies have shown that when people are happy in their jobs, they excel in their chosen careers."

Kuryakin studied the bruised knuckles of his right hand. After a moment, he asked quietly, "Have there been any complaints about the quality of my work?"

Obviously, he was misinterpreting her concern. Crane suddenly felt bad. "Oh, no, no," she reassured him quickly. "At least, not that I'm aware of."

"Then I don't understand the purpose of this line of inquiry."

She didn't want to remind him that he and Napoleon had just lived through what was undoubtedly a shattering ordeal. Judging from the scars Solo had shown her, it was probably only the latest in a series.

The psychiatrist also knew that it was important for Kuryakin to confront the experience in order to deal with it, but she couldn't force him. He had to make that decision himself. She could only lead him to it.

Crane reached out a comforting hand and wondered fleetingly if, under his robe and pajamas, Kuryakin's body was as battered as Solo's.

"Illya, I've been asked to examine you and and Napoleon and to make a psychological evaluation. Can you think of why your superiors might have ordered such a thing?"

"I was hoping you'd tell me."

Despite his apparent ascetic detachment, the Russian was far from naive. She realized that he was toying with her now, and it annoyed her considerably. Somehow, she managed to keep her temper in check.

"You know, they tell me that you're one of the top men in your field," Crane coaxed him gently. "Surely you must have some idea why others might want to know if you are satisfied with your job."

"I can't imagine why, for if the research you cited earlier is correct, I should think the answer would be obvious."

That did it. Crane surrendered and jotted down "enjoys work" in the appropriate space. She sighed wearily.

It was going to be a long two months.

XXXX

"The coast is clear, Napoleon," Kuryakin sang as he set up the chessboard. From the corner of his eye, he could see a dark head poking through the door of the solarium. "She's gone now."

"Gone where?" Solo asked suspiciously. He eased himself into the room, cautiously glancing around. Although he resisted the temptation to say so, Kuryakin wondered if Napoleon actually expected Crane to ambush him from behind one of the ornamental ferns. The Russian agent allowed himself a small smile.

"Back to her office to ruminate, I expect."

Solo snorted as he wandered over to the south side of the room where the wall of floor-to-ceiling glass panels provided a breathtaking view of the mountains. Outside, it was a spectacularly beautiful afternoon. "I'll bet you didn't give her much to ruminate about."

"I did my best," Kuryakin said as he continued to arrange the chessmen. "I think I failed my Rorschach test, though."

"And how did you manage that?"

"I spent most of the time analyzing the texture of the paper and the quality of the ink."

Solo chuckled in spite of himself and Kuryakin pointed to the book nestled in the crook of his partner's arm. "Is that for me?"

"No, but you can read it. I'm just about done." Solo tossed the book to him. Kuryakin scanned the title and frowned.

"The Spy who Came in From the Cold. How appropriate." He still couldn't understand his friend's fondness for espionage thrillers, and Le Carré was always so depressing.

Kuryakin placed the book down on a nearby chair. "No thank you. I think I'll pass on that one."

"Sorry. There wasn't much recent fiction. It was either this or Dr. Zhivago, and I saw the movie."

The agent turned back to the window as Kuryakin finished setting up the gameboard.

"I heard from Salvatore today," the latter said, reading Solo's thoughts. "He called to check in, just before noon. He'd just shot a rabbit and seemed very pleased with himself. He said everything is peaceful."

"Mmmmm . . ." Solo grunted, the sound coming from deep down in his throat. There's too much glass in this place, he told himself irritably. For a well-placed sniper, it would be as easy as picking out fish in a fishbowl. After a moment, he said softly, "They're out there. I know it."

"Don't think about it. Sit down and play chess."

Reluctantly, Solo pulled up a chair and found that Kuryakin had assigned him the white. He opened by advancing the Queen's pawn. Three moves later, to make conversation, he asked, "So what else did Madame Headshrinker want to know?"

The Russian paused as he took Solo's pawn with his knight. "Oh --- the usual things. She asked about my work. My hobbies. My love life."

That must have been interesting, Solo thought. Maybe he should have come by earlier.

"She asked me what I thought of your love life, too," Kuryakin added with an impish grin. He took another of Solo's pawns with one of his own. "Apparently she's been briefed on both of us, but I couldn't determine to what extent."

"And what did you say?"

"I told her that since it required neither my attention nor my cooperation, I didn't think about it at all."

Solo leaned back as he watched his partner maneuver the black bishop into a strategically enviable position. "So if you aren't thinking about sex and you aren't thinking about us being murdered in our beds, what do you think about all day?"

"Well, before Dr. Crane showed up, I was thinking about how I was going to take revenge on you for my ignominious defeat in yesterday's game. You know how bloody-minded we Russians can be."

He advanced his bishop and captured Napoleon's knight.

"I hadn't noticed," Solo deadpanned.

XXXX

Alex Waverly had been wrong, Russell Barker decided as he stirred a sugar cube into his third cup of tea. The family hound might tolerate the cat, but he will never help her rid the house of vermin.

For two solid hours, Waverly had been describing in elaborate detail the plans for establishing an international, multi-national, intelligence organization. It would be called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Its interests would be diverse and catholic, and its reach would literally span the globe.

However, as far as Barker was concerned, Waverly was doing more than merely recruiting a bunch of prospective joes in an out-of-the-way dining room at a quiet New York men's club. Rather, the craggy spymaster was trying to inspire an eccentric group of disaffected, disconnected, soldiers-of fortune to unite and march together in a secular crusade.

What he was offering them, was nothing less than a vision, a noble cause. An opportunity to turn a grand design for world peace and cooperation into a concrete reality, and more incidentally, a chance to redeem and rekindle their professional souls.

But they weren't buying it.

Barker looked around the table, from one man to the other. Although they listened with polite attention, the expression on their faces ranged from guarded skepticism to outright scorn.

"It ist an attractive fantasy, Herr Waverly," Von Linden acknowledged when the briefing was over, "but surely, it can be no more than that." He took his time to replace the cigarette in his holder with a new one, making no effort to disguise his contempt.

"Of course, I have witnessed the situation first hand, myself," he went on, "but certainly, everyone here ist aware of the tensions in Berlin, in the Innere Stadt of Vienna.

"Indeed, there is trouble everywhere among the so-called Allies --- in Europe, in China, in India, in Palestine. To be blunt, Mein Herr, which side shall dominate this enterprise?"

"The U.N.C.L.E. will rise above petty regional politics," Waverly answered with a touch of irritation. "The oversight board of directors will be composed of representatives from a variety of nations, much like the Security Council of the United Nations. All the major intelligence organizations throughout the world will be expected to contribute to U.N.C.L.E.'s efforts and resources."

"Then it shall be similar to Interpol?" Berglund asked. Waverly shook his head as Hemingway responded.

"No, not precisely. Interpol is primarily a clearing house for information to facilitate the apprehension of criminals. The Command will be much more. It will have the capacity, indeed, the mandate, to act as well."

"And that's where we come in?" Sully said. "We'll be the spies in the field?"

"We prefer the term, 'enforcement agent'," Waverly corrected him gently. "Our enforcement agents will be expected to function as security officers, as intelligence gatherers and yes, sometimes, as specialists in counterespionage operations."

Cassidy glanced around the room and chuckled. "Even considering the wealth of talent available here tonight, that's a pretty tall order for fourteen men, Alex."

"Thirteen. Professor Hemingway will be available only for technical support. However, Mr. Cassidy, to answer your question: You men are only the beginning --- a prototype, a seed team. In time, we hope to substantially increase our number of enforcement agents, drawing from many foreign and domestic services."

"And will you be our chef de station?" Louis Delage inquired.

"Who will be appointed to the key positions in Section One has yet to be determined. Nevertheless, I have taken the liberty to nominate Mr. Barker as Section Two's first enforcement chief --- if that meets with your approval, gentlemen."

There were shrugs and uncertain nods all around. The men were still trying to sort through the particulars of Waverly's proposal. Most of them hadn't even decided whether or not they wanted to join this new organization yet, much less ratify the choice of a superior. Waverly didn't seem to notice.

"Excellent, gentlemen," he said, satisfied. "Now, if we might move on to ---."

"Sir, forgive me."

It was Aguirre, the Basque. "I am not like others here. They are educated men, but I am just a poor, ignorant shepherd. I do not understand. Explain to me, please: on what side will we be fighting?"

Waverly smiled. He exchanged quick glances with Hemingway beside him. "At the risk of sounding trite, Mr. Aguirre," he announced, his self-possessed voice rising an octave, "we shall be on the side of Good, of justice --- the side of the angels."

Snickers of cynicism were stifled around the table as Sully leaned close to Asa Carpenter and whispered, "Just like Superman."

Waverly offered no indication that he was aware of Sully's little joke and continued:

"Gentlemen, we are entering a new age, with a new world order. Mr. Truman has hailed the United Nations as a vital instrument of peace, and so it is. But if that august assembly is to be the world's forum of reason on this planet, then U.N.C.L.E. shall be its conscience, the paladin of international law. The crimes that will concern us will be those that know no political boundaries: piracy; currency manipulation; terrorism; illegal cartels and syndicates; smuggling; the narcotics trade."

"Genocide?" Lenski asked quietly, although the question sounded more like a challenge.

"I think we can safely assume that the systematic extermination of an indigenous population would not fall beyond our parameters. It may not be within our power to stop a madman like Mr. Hitler, but we will certainly do our best to bring such activities to the attention of the world community."

"Joe Stalin might not be pleased to hear that," Sully muttered to Carpenter again. This time, it was Popovich who overheard the comment, and the Georgian scowled. Waverly, noting the by-play, resolved to defuse the tension before things went any further.

"Need I remind you gentleman, that there are forces at work in the world today that are antagonistic to us all? They have no flag, no national frontiers, yet they eat away at the vital organs of international society, like a malignant cancer."

Waverly didn't name the cancer. It wasn't necessary. Anyone who had ever worked in espionage since the end of the first World War, had heard of the great shadow conspiracy, the elusive enemy called Thrush.

"These people have made themselves outlaws of the world community and we shall pursue them relentlessly and prosecute them mercilessly."

"Like the sheriff in one of those American westerns?" Popovich chuckled.

"If you like," Hemingway cut in. "But I believe the Canadian Royal Mounted Police might be a more suitable model."

"Policemen don't involve themselves in family problems," Lenski said, raising the genocide question again.

He's like a terrier worrying a bone, Barker told himself and said aloud, "They do if a bloke is bashing the hell out of his missus and kiddies."

"Indeed, Mr. Barker," Waverly said, clearly grateful for the well-chosen words. "Still, domestic intervention requires tact, we must all agree. Therefore, Professor, if you please ---."

On cue, Hemingway reached into the briefcase sitting beside his chair and produced a weapon that looked like a Mauser pistol.

"Our enforcement agents will carry the most advanced equipment available," the tweedy academic explained. "For example, we're currently developing a special weapon based on the 1934 Mauser that will be modified to U.N.C.L.E. specifications. It will fire full auto and in addition to regular and incendiary ammunition, it will utilize clips of sleep-inducing darts."

"Christ!" Toomey roared as he studied the modified Mauser. "You mean to say that you're going to send us out there with bloody tranq guns?!"

"If the situation demands it," Waverly replied calmly. "Live ammunition can be extremely impolitic. Really, Mr. Toomey, you don't want to be murdering innocent civilians, now do you?"

Unpacified, Toomey continued to swear under his breath while beside him, Cassidy juggled the gun lightly in the palm of his hand. He looked across the table to Berglund and remarked, "It has nice balance."

"Don't pass it to me," the banker said with an embarrassed grin. "I know so little about such matters."

Apparently, young Martucci did not share the Swede's reticence. He accepted the prototype weapon from Cassidy, inspecting it with obvious expert interest.

"And speaking of killing ---." It was Von Linden again as he lit yet another cigarette. "During the war, British Intelligence was notorious for burning low-level agents to save those who were more valuable. Tell us Herr Waverly, will it be you or Herr Barker who decides which of us ist most --- expendable?"

He ended the question with an insinuating hiss that set Barker's teeth on edge. Waverly was not similarly disturbed.

"No authority will ever make such a decision. No U.N.C.L.E. agent will ever be sacrificed without his knowledge." The older man smiled thinly. "There will be no need to engineer such sacrifices in secret, since our agents will make them voluntarily themselves."

"Are you expecting us to be saints, Alex?" Cassidy laughed.

"Good heavens, no, man. What you all do in your private lives is your own affair."

"I'm relieved to hear that," Cassidy grinned and those around the table who knew of the ex-operative's fondness for plush casinos and pretty women, grinned, too.

"Well, then, gentlemen," Waverly said at last, signaling that the meeting was coming to a close. He watched as the prototype gun continued around the table, and made no attempt to retrieve it. Auguste Delage had it now. He inspected it with a certain amount of care and affection, as one might handle a newborn babe.

"Professor Hemingway and I must be on our way. We have business to attend to, elsewhere. Please give our proposal your careful consideration and inform Mr. Barker of your final decision tonight, before you leave."

As he stood up, Louis Delage declared, "I think I will need more time to make such an important decision. After all, Monsieur Waverly, do you realize what you are asking?"

"Of course," he answered. Beside him, Professor Hemingway hefted his briefcase, forgetting the Mauser, which still lay at the center of the table.

"I am asking for a simple professional commitment."

"A helluva lot more than that," Cassidy called out as Waverly and Hemingway headed for the door. He turned to Sully and frowned. "If we agree to this, we won't be able to make another commitment to anyone or anything else, ever again."

"I think that's the idea," Sully replied.

XXXX

The weights rose and fell with comforting regularity. Lying flat on his back on the bench, Solo sweated against the shoulder press, totally absorbed by the sound of his breathing and the straining of his strengthening muscles. He was still in pain, but it was a good pain. Each day he left the clinic's small gym, he could feel his body restoring itself. He had no particular desire to become Charles Atlas. His only goal was to get everything back into reasonable working order.

Somewhere behind him, a door opened and closed and Solo's senses snapped to attention, instinctively alert. The gym was always deserted at this time of the day. Without appearing to do so, he scanned the room through the corner of his eye and caught sight of Ellen Crane advancing toward him.

Damn the woman! She always managed to track him down. Of course, that was no great feat since the clinic complex was small and he was running out of places to hide. He pitied Illya, who was still hobbling around on crutches and couldn't easily escape the good doctor's probing. But then again, the Russian had a talent for being evasive without moving so much as an inch.

Crane had been seeing the agents separately, fifty minutes a day, three days a week, whether they liked it or not. After six weeks of playing psychological cat and mouse, no one was yet willing to concede defeat. The game went on and so did the questions:

Did he love his mother? Did he resent his father? Did he like his job? Did he secretly hate his superiors? On and on and on. . .

Solo was sick of her questions. He was sick of her. He'd even ceased to entertain sexual fantasies about her.

And speaking of sex, judging from the nervous glint in her eye, Solo could bet what subject was next on the agenda. As she settled down on a stool beside him, Solo continued to exercise, preparing himself for another long siege.

"They tell me you're quite a ladies' man," she began.

The opening gambit, Solo thought, and not a very original one at that. He also noted that she didn't bother to mention who "they" were.

"How would you characterize your sex life, Napoleon?"

"In terms of quality or quantity?"

"Quality first."

"Diverting." Dr. Crane offered him a short, knowing chuckle. "Merely 'diverting'? Oh c'mon Napoleon, don't do this to me again. Just tell me: how many women have you been sleeping with?"

Well, there was one consolation, he told himself. At least she was playing it straight now: simple, direct questions, read right off the notebook. He gave her a simple, direct answer.

"Two dozen or so, give or take a few."

She scribbled a memo to herself and asked, "Two dozen? You've had two dozen lovers since when? Late adolescence?"

"No. Since last year. I thought you meant recently."

She paused to look at him. From under the rising shoulder press bar, he grinned back and added, "It was a busy year. I needed a lot of diversion."

"Okay, I get it. Real cute," she said in a weary sing-song. "And so, how many lovers have you had overall?"

"Counting from when?"

"Well, when did you have your first sexual experience?"

"You mean what is euphemistically termed, 'going all the way'?"

"Yes. All the way."

"I had just turned fifteen."

"Then how many women have you slept with since you were fifteen?"

Solo closed his eyes to perform some mental calculations. Finally he replied, "I don't know. Three hundred, maybe four hundred. Give or take a few."

Dr. Crane paused again and for the next ten seconds, the only sound in the room was the metallic swish of the weights rising and falling back into place. She studied Solo's face. trying to decide if he was teasing her again. Apparently he wasn't. Crane composed herself and made several more notes. As she wrote, she said, "Tell me Napoleon: now why do youthink you've slept with four hundred women?"

" --- Give or take a few."

"Give or take a few."

"Just lucky, I guess."

The psychiatrist shook her head, still taking notes. "And in all this time, hasn't there ever been a woman, one woman, you cared deeply enough to stay with? Maybe even marry?"

"I'm not allowed to care deeply. It's in the U.N.C.L.E. by-laws."

"But you were married once. I read it in your file."

This time, Solo had no response and Crane smiled to herself, secretly triumphant. Finally: she had hit a nerve. "Ever think about marrying again?"

"No. I need a wife like a hole in the head. Can we move on to the next phase of today's inquisition?"

"All right," she agreed, jotting down a reminder to herself to return to the subject sometime in the future. Switching gears, Crane asked flatly, "Have you ever participated in any form of variant sexual behavior?"

"You mean, do I wear my scuba gear to bed?"

"Something like that. Let's see ---." Her fingertip slid down a pre-composed typed form. "Have you ever had any homosexual experiences?"

"No. I like my blondes to have breasts."

"Have you ever ---?"

"Wait a minute," Solo said, sliding out from under the exercise equipment. He wiped his forehead with a nearby towel, slung it around his neck, and held out a hand. "Let me see that list, please."

With a slight hesitation, Crane tore out the page and passed it to him. Solo studied it for a moment, patting his face dry with the towel. Then he plucked the pen from her fingers and began to answer the questions aloud, scrawling quick checkmarks along the side of the page.

"No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes --- the lady requested it. No. Yes --- the lady requested that, too ---."

But then, he thought to himself, Angelique's tastes always did run to the exotic.

"--- No. No. Yes ---." He leaned close to Crane and pointed out an item on the list. "Ever do that?"

The woman shook her head, feeling a warm red flush spread across her cheeks.

"Hmm, I didn't think so. I have, once or twice. Don't worry: you're not missing much." Solo went on, recording each answer and enjoying himself enormously at her expense.

"All done," he announced proudly when he was finished. He handed the page and the pen back to her as he rose from the exercise bench. "Well, I hope that's it, unless you want to continue this in the shower."

He looked up at her. She didn't.

"Frankly," he added, more soberly, "I don't understand why you need to know this kind of information. For what it's worth, I can honestly say that my private life has never interfered with the performance of my duties."

As they crossed the gym with Solo in the lead, Crane said softly, "But there can be subtle psychological connections. I mean, considering your profession ---."

Solo narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he walked. "What about my profession?"

"Well, you have to admit that espionage is a rather odd, even perverse business. At times, you may be called upon to do things that

are outside the so-called 'normal' morality. It seems to exploit our darker, um, emotions and inclinations and ---."

"Whoa, hold it right there," Solo said, halting dead in his tracks. He was angry now, and he wanted her to know it. He pivoted on his heel to confront her.

"Look Doctor, I know what you're driving at --- in your usual genteel way --- and I don't think I like it. Let's get something straight right now: I don't derive any pleasure from hurting people or being hurt. I've killed people --- I'll not deny it --- but I have never enjoyed it. Never.

"No matter what some of those half-baked colleagues of yours say, I don't get a rush when my gun goes off. Just a kickback and powder burns. It's not a phallic substitute. The real thing works just fine, thank you.

"And as for why I've slept with so many women, the answer is very simple: they asked me to. I've never raped a woman. Or forced a woman. I've never even talked one into bed. I don't have to.

"You're right about one thing: my profession does have its drawbacks. I can't share my past or promise anyone a future. Most of the time, I can't even discuss what's going on in the present. The only real intimacy I can offer is sex. But I'm damn good at it, and most women sense that."

"But do those women really know what to expect?" Crane asked. "Are they really aware of the emotional risks they run when they become involved with you? I don't think so."

Solo stared at the floor as he listened. When she was finished, he laughed ruefully and shook his head. "You know, Ellen, you're a good one to talk about risk. You study people who have lived through

terrible crises, while you sit up here in the mountains, all safe and snug in your little clinic. You're like some goddamn voyeur. You're afraid to take some risks of your own. Even those neurotic rich women you hold in such contempt are braver than you. At least they're trying to survive. You just exist."

He began to walk away but Crane pursued him. It was her turn to be angry. "You want to talk about fear? Fine! Let's talk about it. Sleeping with four hundred women? That isn't romance, that's a form of cowardice, too. Your partner sleeps with no one. You sleep with anyone, everyone. It's all the same thing."

"No it's not."

"You're right. What you do is worse."

They had reached the door. Crane had to gulp to catch her breath. "Napoleon, tell me truthfully: have you ever considered what it must be like to be one of those four hundred women?"

"No," he said, his hand on the knob, "but I have this afternoon free. If you want to experiment with anything on that list of yours --- purely in the interest of research, you understand --- let me know. Otherwise, I'll put you in touch with U.N.C.L.E.'s personnel department. You can always send out questionaires. Now if you'll excuse me, I believe our fifty minutes are up."

Before Crane could say another word, Solo left, slamming the door solidly behind him.

XXXX

A residue of anger still clung to the agent as he emerged from the suite's private shower, some time later. He pulled on his bathrobe, stalked back to the bedroom and found Yvette, the French nurse, standing in the center of the room. She seemed poised expectantly, like a nervous fawn.

"Are you looking for something?" he asked as he belted the robe. She turned to him and her large blue eyes grew even larger.

"As a matter of fact, Monsieur, I'm looking for you."

Then all at once, she was embracing him, her arms wrapped tight around his neck, her legs entwining themselves around his. She was a small girl and as he kissed her, Solo lifted her easily. He grasped her by the thighs and carried her to his bed.

"Oh Monsieur, I have wanted you since I first saw you," she purred in a breathy whisper, wriggling on the mattress beneath him. "Je t'aime."

Solo didn't believe her for a second and later on, he intended to give the room a thorough going-over to see if anything had been added or taken away. Right now however, his mind was occupied by more pleasurable matters. After six weeks of enforced celibacy, Yvette felt like an oasis in a desert.

And a parched man does not pass up an oasis in a desert, however unexpectedly it may appear. He hoped that Illya had the prescience to stay away for at least another hour.

"I think you'd better lock the door," Solo murmured as he undid the buttons of her uniform, one by one. He pressed his mouth against the delicious curve of her breast, his encounter with Crane all but forgotten, and felt Yvette untie the belt of his robe.

"I have already," she said. The agent smiled to himself. It wasn't going to be such a bad day, after all.

Meanwhile, at the same time that Solo's afternoon was turning out to be more enjoyable than he could have imagined earlier, Ellen Crane was conferring with Garnier about her patients.

"They are two of the most infuriating men I have ever met," she cried in frustration. "Kuryakin is like a sphinx. His answers are polite but deliberately vague, ambiguous and elliptical. And Solo is downright hostile --- that is, when he's not trying to manipulate me or get me into bed."

Garnier watched her from his seat behind the large mahogany desk, bemused. "It sounds to me as if both men are uniquely qualified for their work. It also sounds as if you like them."

Crane dropped into a nearby chair with an exaggerated sigh. "You're right Jean-Claude. I do like them, and despite all that they've suffered --- and all the grief they've made me suffer --- I think I envy them. There's an intensity, a passion in them, that's so seductive, it's almost contagious."

"And that is a problem?"

"I think so. How can I make an objective evaluation? What standards do I use?"

"The same standards you always use, ma chère. They are human. They laugh and cry, eat and bleed, just like other men. Have you studied their case histories?"

"Thoroughly. There's nothing in either one of their pasts that could provide the basis for anything more than a common neurosis."

Crane folded her arms over her chest and shook her head. "But they don't live like common men, Jean-Claude. I want to understand them. I wish they would trust me enough to show me what makes them tick."

"Is it such a difficult puzzle?"

The woman nodded. "Their boss, that Mr. Waverly, wants to know if they're normal and well-adjusted enough to do a job that no normal,

well-adjusted person would choose to do. He wants to know if they're sane."

She looked at her superior. "But my question is: compared to whom?"

XXXX

"He must think we're out of our goddamn minds," Toomey fumed as soon as Waverly and his brother-in-law left the room. "The side of the angels is no bloody side at all."

"We'll be isolated," Sully agreed. "We'll be pariahs, we'll ---."

"We'll be slaughtered, that's what!" Toomey growled, cutting him off.

". . . I send you out as sheep among wolves," Aguirre recited softly, but on the other side of the table, Louis Delage chuckled.

"Sheep with lupine hearts. Remember, that, mon ami."

The Frenchman cleared aside some of the dirty dishes, retrieved an uncorked bottle of wine, and poured himself a drink. At the other corner of the table, Nate Cassidy reached for the brandy and did the same.

"If you ask me," Von Linden said as he chewed his cigarette holder thoughtfully, the silver mouthpiece clicking against his teeth, "it ist Herr Waverly who ist insane. To assemble us here, like this ---."

" --- A last supper as Kafka might envision it," joked Popovich.

"Do not blaspheme," Aguirre warned the Georgian angrily.

"Forgive me, Comrade, I did not wish to offend. But there is a resemblance, is there not?"

He looked to Russell Barker, seeking support. Barker nodded half-heartedly. The similarities were not lost on him, either.

"What do you think, Russell?" Nate Cassidy asked conversationally

from the far corner. He sounded amused. "Is Alex insane?"

All eyes turned to Barker, who fidgeted under their gaze, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. With Waverly gone, the authority had shifted to his end of the table and he didn't like it, not at all.

"I'm sure it's not for me to say," the Englishman replied, thinking he sounded rather spineless and wondering why his superior had placed so much faith in him. Why hadn't Waverly chosen Nate, who might have charmed them into compliance? Or Ben Toomey, who could have welded them together into a cohesive unit, through the sheer force of his intimidating personality?

Since Barker's integrity was not only unimpeachable but also reflexive and unselfconscious, the logic behind the decision remained a mystery to him. Nevertheless, Barker resolved, if Alex Waverly wanted him to lead them, then by God, he was determined to do it.

"It ist all so much empty rhetoric, anyway. Such an organization as this U.N.C.L.E. will never exist," Von Linden declared contemptuously again, dismissing months of planning and hours of discussion with a careless flick of his hand. Barker thought the proposal deserved better. He narrowed his eyes, annoyed.

"Oh, it'll exist all right, with or without us. All the major powers have consented in principle . . ."

"Good intentions will not protect us from the other networks," Popovich reminded him and Lenski added, " --- Or from each other."

So there it was: the crux of the matter, the real issue before them. The Jewish resistance fighter glanced meaningfully around the table.

"That is what we are all thinking, isn't it?" he asked, but his question was greeted only by averted eyes and guilty silence. He turned

to Barker and observed sadly, "You see? You may throw stones and potatoes together in the same pot, but you cannot call it stew."

"Precisely my point!" Von Linden broke in. "Despite romantic notions to the contrary, there can be no honor among thieves, friendship among killers, or trust among spies. And nothing shall convince me otherwise."

"Nothing?" Cassidy asked.

"No, Mein Herr. Nothing."

"I agree with ze major," Auguste Delage said soberly, speaking up for the first time that evening. "Trust does not come easily to me, as well."

Cassidy leaned forward in his seat, angling around his American colleagues. "But why? You worked with Louis, here, throughout the war. And very successfully, I might add."

"Zat was different. He is blood."

"My uncles, they speak the same way," Nino Martucci remarked. Cassidy twisted to face his younger colleague.

"But what about the men who work for your uncles? Aren't they to be trusted?"

"Si, but they become la famiglia. They make, eh. . ." he turned to Berglund, searching for the right word.

"A promise?" the banker offered, obliging him.

"Si, si, exactly. Grazie, Signor." Martucci gestured to Cassidy, patting his heart. "A promise of loyalty. On their blood."

"And this is what is necessary for civilized men to have faith?" Aguirre grunted next to Martucci. "So be it." He held out his hand to the Italian, a hand as thick and flat as a spade, and said, "Give me your knife."

Martucci hesitated.

"Come, boy, I know that you have one. Give it to me."

Reluctantly, Martucci bent down, burrowed under the cuff of his trouser leg and unsheathed a knife from his boot. It was long and thin and wicked-looking, with a smooth, razor-sharp blade.

He presented the knife to Aguirre, who tested the point with his fingertip. Apparently satisfied, the former shepherd closed his right hand around it, sliding the blade along the calloused thumb. When he opened his palm again, there was a thread-like streak of crimson paralleling the lifeline.

Aguirre displayed his hand for all to see. Then, he reached for the Mauser, which still lay in the center of the table. He gripped it tight and solemnly announced:

"As the knights of Castille swore on their swords centuries ago, so now I swear on this weapon with my blood. Any man who does the same, from this moment forward, I will call him brother. He will have no reason to fear me. Nor I, him.

"But the man who breaks this covenant, he will have much reason to fear. And it will be better that he should take his own life --- and quickly --- for it will be worth less than the mud on his boots. So help me God."

The Basque withdrew his hand, sat back down in his seat and waited. Once again, an awkward, uneasy silence descended upon the room. No one spoke. No one moved. No one knew what to do or say. The remaining twelve lowered their eyes, not daring to even exchange glances.

And then, abruptly, someone muttered, "Ah, hell."

It was Asa Carpenter. He extended his own boney, large-knuckled hand to the Basque, and as it hung in the air between them, the Texan said, "C'mon. Gimme the damn knife."

And Aguirre did.

XXXX

One moment he was a child again, running through the streets of Kiev, frightened and breathless, trapped in the irrational vortex of a recurring dream. The next, he was staring upward, at the darkened ceiling of his hospital room, both eyes wide open.

Illya Kuryakin blinked once, to orient himself. Like Solo, he always came awake instantly, alert and ready, his senses poised to function. It was a discipline that all agents tried to acquire, but few finally mastered. He couldn't count the number of times it had saved his life.

Trying to locate the cause of his interrupted sleep, the Russian agent held his breath to listen, but there was nothing to hear. The room was quiet.

He rolled over, and caught a glimpse of the alarm clock, positioned on a nearby table. The illuminated face read twenty minutes after two. Kuryakin strained to see across the room, to the other bed. He wasn't surprised to find it empty.

After several weeks of relative peace, Solo was having trouble sleeping again, and with good reason. For the past few days, Dr. Crane had sequestered herself in her office, putting the final touches on her report on the agents. Tomorrow --- or actually, later today --- she would submit her recommendations.

Kuryakin wasn't worried. Not only was it contrary to his habitually pragmatic nature to fret over things he could not control, he also knew that he hadn't given her much to evaluate. Napoleon however, who was remarkably intuitive with people in general and women in particular, was deeply concerned. Evidently, the senior agent sensed her verdict would not be in his favor.

The Russian propped himself up on one elbow, trying to decide what to do next. He had two options: he could seek out his friend and try to provide a sympathetic ear, or he could turn over and go back to sleep.

Although he was more inclined toward the latter, Kuryakin knew his decision was as inevitable as the course of events in his dream. With a resigned sigh, he climbed out of bed, pulled on his robe and reached for his cane. He probably wouldn't be expected to provide more than a sounding board anyway, Illya told himself as he left the room. Napoleon would have enough to say for both of them.

The clinic was shaped like a squared-off figure eight, with the reception area located at the intersection of the two rings, and the patients' suites clustered around the larger, lower courtyard. The agents' own suite was tucked away on the outside of the rear west corner.

Kuryakin headed north, to the smaller administrative ring, with the muffled tap of his cane and the limping pad of his slippered feet the only sounds in the empty corridors. Very few people were up and about at this time of night. There was only a skeleton staff of two, monitoring the board at the nurses' station, a few feet beyond reception. One of them was Yvette, the French nurse.

"Monsieur Kuryakin!" she exclaimed in surprise, as the agent shuffled past. "Why are you up so late? Is something wrong?"

"No, it is nothing, really," he assured her, with a smile. "Don't be concerned."

He continued on toward his destination, a nest of staff offices on the east side of the complex. He was following a hunch, a hunch which turned out to be wrong. He found the door to Dr. Crane's office locked and the office itself, deserted.

Disappointed, Kuryakin circled back, completing his circuit, to the nurses station again, then past the pool, the gym, and the solarium. Everything was secure and quiet, but as he neared the end of the southeast wing, he heard sharp, angry voices, stabbing through the stillness, from the direction of the library. He walked closer and saw a door cracked open. A weak dribble of light seeped into the corridor.

Kuryakin smiled to himself in triumph. So he'd found them at last.

Ellen Crane's voice seemed uncharacteristically shrill as she cried, "My God! Do you think you're the only field agent U.N.C.L.E. has?"

"No," Kuryakin heard Solo snap back, "but I'm the best they have, and that's not arrogance, lady. It's a fact. You have to send me back."

The Russian agent edged closer, just outside the door and peered in. There was only one lamp on, and no fire in the fireplace. Solo and Crane were going at it in the center of the room. The agent was dressed in pajamas and a bathrobe. The doctor was still wearing her usual outfit, a straight skirt and a tailored blouse, with a report folder clutched in one hand. Neither of them seemed to notice Kuryakin's presence.

"Why? Why should I?" Crane demanded. "Look at you. You're battered. You're exhausted. You're tense as hell ---."

"It's only cabin fever. You should have released me a month ago."

"To what? A world full of enemies breathing down your neck? You can't even get a decent night's sleep. Don't you see? Your superiors are determined to squeeze the last ounce of blood out of you."

"It's not over yet," Solo hissed at her, furious. The sibilance in his speech was always more pronounced when he was angry. "I still have ten months left."

"Ten months to do what? To try and get yourself killed?"

Dr. Crane paused, as an incredulous expression spread over her face. Her voice dropped off to almost a whisper.

"That's it, isn't it?" she asked. "You're hoping you'll die before they can retire you. Am I right? Say it! I'm right, aren't I?"

Solo didn't care to dignify her question with a response. Although he wouldn't admit it to himself, he wasn't really sure what his answer would be. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his robe and stared down at the carpet instead.

Crane studied him, waiting for a reply. When none came, she retreated, feeling helpless and nearly at a loss for words. She shook her head and ran a nervous hand through her hair.

"Jesus, you're not just a maniac. You're a suicidal maniac."

"Is that your official diagnosis, Doctor?"

"You don't want to hear my diagnosis!" Crane shot back, renewing the battle. "If I wrote down in that report what I really suspect, they wouldn't just confine you behind a desk. They'd lock you up in a padded cell and throw away the key!"

"The result would be the same," Solo said. His voice turned flat and profoundly tired. "Doctor, all these weeks you've been badgering us to tell you what happened that night in Désèsperacin prison. Well, now I will."

Outside, in the corridor, an icicle drilled itself into the pit of Kuryakin's stomach as he forced himself to listen:

"There was this chain," Solo began. "It was high up, and it ran through a hole in the wall, along a beam in the ceiling. And they hung us up with it, Illya and I, one at each end, alone in adjoining cells. We couldn't see each other, but we could hear. We could feel each other moving, too.

"And then they beat us. With fists and clubs and wooden planks --- anything they could lay their hands on. Not indiscriminately, but carefully, methodically, because they wanted us alive. And not simultaneously, but alternately, so we could listen to each other scream."

Solo squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, but the tone of his voice remained matter-of-fact. "The beating was nothing," he added. "I've been beaten before. The worst part was hanging there, hearing Illya, hearing his leg break, feeling him collapse . . . and not being able to do a damn thing about it."

He glanced over to the door, and was surprised to find his partner standing there. Then he turned back to Crane. "And now you're about to hang us up, all over again," Solo told her. He pointed to the report in her hand. "You've even brought along your own chain."

There was nothing more to say. Solo stalked out of the library, leaving Kuryakin and Crane to stare at one another.

"Well," she said finally, exhaling a deep breath. "I handled that rather poorly, didn't I? I don't know why, but that man always seems to bring out the worst in me."

Kuryakin hooked the cane on his wrist, and leaned against the doorjamb. "Napoleon is frustrated," he observed with a shrug. "He doesn't know how to make you understand."

"--- That he has to live on the edge? Oh, please! Spare me the hoary cliches, Illya. You're too intelligent to sound like a convincing B-movie."

The Russian smiled ruefully. "Thank you for the compliment, but if you'll permit me to say so, you're proceeding from the wrong metaphor."

"I don't understand."

"Yes, I know. That's why you speak of the edge as if it were a cliff, overlooking a precipice. But a man can back away from a precipice."

Kuryakin folded his arms. "Try to think of it as the Hindus do, as the blade of a sword, a razor's edge, suspended over nothingness.

" 'A dangerous path is this', the sacred texts warn, and yet, for some men, there is no other choice but to follow it. The slightest deviation and they fall into the abyss. And as they crawl along the edge, it splits them open."

He cocked his head. "You see, Dr. Crane? You ask questions for which there are no answers. You asked if we enjoy our work, but this is not what we do. It is what we are."

"And it's killing both of you!" Crane exclaimed.

"Yes," Kuryakin conceded. He was beginning to realize that she meant to ground him, too. "Just as the man who grips the razor's edge is eventually impaled upon it. But what does that matter? Existing so close to death, one can better appreciate life. The Hindu Upanishads promise that he who loses his life, gains it. And he who moves beyond fear, finds --- transcendence."

You're just as crazy as he is, Crane wanted to say, but she never had the chance. Suddenly, Kuryakin straightened.

"What was that?" he grunted.

"What was what? I didn't hear anything."

Kuryakin listened and heard it again. A soft, muffled plunk. He knew the sound all too well.

"Illya? What is it?" Crane asked. She could see the alarm in his face, but there was no time for explanations. Cursing under his breath, the agent hurried from the library, leaving the doctor no choice but to follow.

XXXX

As soon as he heard the plunk of a silenced rifle shot, Kuryakin knew where to go first. He remembered the corridor with the rows of large windows on both sides. It ran along the rear of the complex, connecting the two remote south wings, like a tunnel of glass.

He yanked open the heavy corridor door, knowing what the scene would look like before he saw it. The outside wall of reinforced glass panels weren't as damaged as he had expected. The splintered, spider-web patterns were small and neat, and an icy wind whistled through the gaping bullet holes. One of the two overhead lights had been hit, too, and in the eerie glow of the remaining recessed bulb, Kuryakin saw Solo sprawled face down, behind a large potted rubber plant.

"Dear Lord!" Dr. Crane cried, and rushed past Kuryakin before he could stop her. It was only a short sprint to Solo. Even before she reached him, Crane felt a hand grip her by the ankle and yank her leg out from under her. She dropped down beside the fallen agent with a painful thump and they rolled together, hunching behind the potted plant for cover.

"Well, well, doctor," Solo murmured as he pushed her head down, close to his. "I didn't know you cared."

"I thought you were dead!"

Solo glanced up at the line of professionally-spaced bullet holes and said, "I was sort of hoping our friend out there would think the same thing."

"Are you all right?"

This, from Kuryakin, who was wedged into the narrow space between the corridor door and the first glass panel. Solo offered him a discreet affirmative wave.

"I'll go for help," Kuryakin volunteered. He pulled at the door handle, but it wouldn't budge.

"It must have locked accidentally," Crane said, as she watched Kuryakin's futile efforts.

"It's no accident," Solo replied. "The door at the other end of the corridor is locked, too."

"Then we're trapped here?"

"It certainly appears that way." Solo looked at her and asked sympathetically, "Frightened?"

Crane nodded, although oddly enough, the sensation wasn't entirely unpleasant. "What are we going to do?"

Solo didn't answer. He was too busy thinking, reviewing their options. As Crane watched him, she could hear her own heart pounding away, triple-time, in her chest.

By contrast, Solo was unnaturally calm, almost serene. The tension of the past few weeks had dissipated. He'd been expecting an assassination attempt. Now that it was here, he was grateful for a chance to get it over with, once and for all, no matter how this came out in the end.

"We could try screaming for help," Crane said, knowing the suggestion was lame even as she proposed it. If the sound of shattering glass hadn't been enough to bring anyone running, shouting in a remote, fireproof corridor wasn't going to do it either.

For his part, Solo wasn't particularly eager for help at the moment. He wanted to resolve the problem, not postpone it.

"We need a way to goad the sniper into shooting again," Solo explained, thinking aloud. "Then Salvatore can see where he is and nail the bastard."

"So what are we waiting for?" Crane asked anxiously. Solo grinned.

"Take it easy, doctor. I don't know about you, but I'm in no particular hurry to have my head blown off. That sniper missed me the first time. He won't miss again."

"But why didn't he shoot me?"

It was a fair question. The one recessed bulb cast only a dim halo of light. Even through a scope, they would all appear as virtual shadows, indistinguishable from one another.

"Maybe he didn't see you," Solo said.

"Maybe he's not there anymore. Maybe your man, Salvatore, killed him."

Or maybe our Corsican bodyguard is lying dead, somewhere himself, Solo thought, as a blood-stained image flashed across his mind.

He dismissed it immediately. This was no time for pessimism. Solo glanced over at Kuryakin, who was flattened against a narrow strip of solid wall, puzzling over the same problem.

Unlike his partner, the Russian agent felt a more urgent need to find a solution, and quickly. He knew the corridor door hadn't locked automatically. Someone must have done it manually, right after the door closed behind Ellen Crane. That meant the sniper had an accomplice on the staff --- an accomplice who might return to finish the job himself.

Solo tipped his chin at Kuryakin, who offered a small shrug in reply. There didn't seem to be much choice.

"One of us is going to have to draw his fire," Solo whispered to Ellen Crane.

"Maybe I should do it. The sniper doesn't seem to be interested in me anyway." When the agent arched an eyebrow in surprise, Crane added,

"Well, I can't stand being stuck out here, like a sitting duck."

"So you'd rather be a moving target in a shooting gallery?" Solo chuckled softly. "Honestly, Doctor, if you keep this up, they'll be doing a psych work-up on you, too."

His throwaway joke hit Crane like the proverbial ton-of-bricks. It was true, she realized. She was feeling foolishly reckless. Where could such a feeling come from? She had experienced a similar rush of exhilaration only once before, the time she climbed to the top of the towering maple tree in her parents' front yard. Her father had cursed, her mother had cried, and little Ellen never did anything to disappoint or upset them again.

Crane looked over at Kuryakin, and wondered what he was feeling. Pressed against the wall, trying to peer around the edge of the window frame, he appeared more grim than exhilarated. As he angled for an experimental peek, the back of his cotton robe caught the light of the overhead bulb and reflected it, producing a faint, iridescent flash.

"That's odd," Crane muttered to herself.

"What is?" Solo asked.

"Illya's robe. I thought I saw something on the back, like a design. My eyes are playing tricks on me. It must be my nerves."

But Solo didn't think it was her nerves at all. Squirming around in their cramped hiding place behind the rubber plant, he offered the back of his own robe. "Tell me if you feel anything," he said.

Crane slid her fingertips back and forth, between his shoulderblades, until she located a slightly grainy patch. "Here. It feels like a stain of some kind, but I don't see anything."

Solo snorted. "You could if you had a Thrush infrared scope."

"You mean it's some kind of invisible target? And that's what the sniper is aiming at?"

The agent nodded. "As convenient as a bull's eye."

Signaling to Kuryakin, Solo tapped on his own shoulder and mouthed the words, "Thrush". The simple pantomime was enough. The Russian narrowed his eyes. And then, all at once, he understood.

Quickly, Kuryakin pulled off his robe and poked his cane through the sleeves, to form a makeshift scarecrow. When he was ready, he nodded to Solo. The latter pushed Crane down, under him, shielding her with his body. Then he nodded back to Kuryakin, and ducked his head. Kuryakin took a deep breath and thrust out his cane.

The response to the dangled robe was instantaneous. A barrage of shots ripped the cloth to shreds and jerked the cane from Kuryakin's outstretched hand. The Russian fell backwards, against the safety of the door, as the rifle fire continued, cutting a jagged path through the row of windows. The safety glass exploded with a bell-like crash and the shards rained down upon Solo and Crane in a tinkling shower.

The shots kept coming, spraying in a wild, zigzag pattern, expressing the murderous determination of the unseen assassin. Crushed between Solo and the sturdy ceramic pot, Ellen Crane was convinced that it would never stop until they were all dead.

But suddenly, she heard three shots --- just three --- that sounded different from all the rest and the barrage ended as abruptly as it had begun.

Kuryakin abandoned the safety of his corner long enough to take a cautious peek out of one of the shattered windows. High up in the moutains he saw the pulsing blink of a flashlight.

"It's Salvatore," the Russian agent announced, interpreting the signal. "It seems he killed our sniper."

"We should recommend that boy for a bonus," Solo declared as he helped Ellen Crane to her feet, amid the clumps of broken glass. Behind him, someone was pounding loudly on the door. They could hear Dr. Garnier shouting in the wing beyond.

"What happened? Mr. Solo! Mr. Kuryakin! Are you all right?"

"We're fine," Kuryakin called back to the opposite door.

"They are bringing the keys. We will have you free in a moment."

"No hurry, Doctor."

"Speak for yourself," Solo said irritably. He brushed some bits of glass from his hair. "It's freezing in here."

Kuryakin smiled and leaned back against his own door. Near his elbow, the handle clicked and began to turn. "Ah," he said, "better late than never I suppose."

The Russian agent retreated a step, as the door swung open to reveal Yvette, the French nurse. There was a sweet smile on her lovely face, and an automatic pistol gripped in her slim right hand.

Solo reacted even before he saw the gun. A split-second before the woman fired, he tackled Crane to the floor, out of the path of the bullet.

In the next moment, Kuryakin responded to his partner's maneuver without fully understanding why. Hidden behind the door, he rammed his shoulder hard against it and pushed. Yvette screamed and dropped the gun as she was caught between the doorframe and the closing door. At the opposite end of the corridor, Dr. Garnier pulled open the other door and rushed in, followed by a team of orderlies.

"Mon Dieu!" the head doctor exclaimed, "What is going on here? Gentleman! Ellen! Are you all right?"

"You asked us that already, doctor, remember?" Solo reminded Garnier, as the agent helped Crane up for the second time in as many minutes. Then he sauntered over to where Yvette was kneeling on the floor next to Illya, awash in tears and cradling her fractured arm.

"Gee, I guess this means the romance is over," he sighed. She glared back at him and spat, "Espece de salaud."

"Do you think she was the one who put those targets on your bathrobes?" Crane asked.

Solo laughed. "Uh-huh, and I think I even know when."

He watched as the orderlies escorted the pretty nurse away. Beside him, Ellen Crane began to tremble with unused adrenalin. She hugged her shoulders tight, but the shaking only seemed to get worse.

"It'll stop soon," Kuryakin said. He patted her arm reassuringly, and moved on. Crane turned to Solo.

"You know, you just saved my life."

"I know," he said.

And then, with a wink, he added: "Now you owe me one."

XXXX

In the end, no one ever knew why they did it. Generations of agents who came afterward often debated the point, but the real truth was, the thirteen men never even knew themselves. For a few of them, it was a confrontation with Fate, a final acceptance of their destiny, but for the rest, it was nothing more than a bravado gesture, an impulse, spurned on by the rush of the moment.

Back and forth, crisscrossing the table, went Martucci's knife as one by one, each man slit his hand in turn, repeated the oath and sealed it with his blood. From Carpenter to Cassidy, who wiped his fingers afterward with a silk handkerchief. From Cassidy to Berglund, then back to Sully, who felt rather foolish, like a child playing red Indians. From Sully to Toomey; from Toomey to Martucci; from Martucci to Barker, who reached out boldly, in order not to be last.

Would they have hesitated or reconsidered if they had glimpsed their future that cold, bitter January night? Would they have fled the room if they could foresee that eventually, one of them would go mad and one would turn traitor, and that only three of the thirteen would survive long enough to die of natural causes? Probably not, though some of them would ponder those same questions in years to come.

From Barker, the knife passed to Louis Delage and his cousin, then on to Popovich, who would one day save Stefan Lenski's life and in doing so, lose his own.

Finally, there was only one man left. Lenski, turning to his right, looked across the empty chair, a space as wide and daunting as an actual chasm and said, "Well, Herr Mahyor. Will you join us or are you too afraid to pollute your Aryan blood with that of a Jew?"

Gregory Linden plucked the cigarette holder from his mouth and juggled it between his fingers, observing how the silver caught the light. "It ist not your blood I fear, Jude. I have seen enough of it spilled in my time."

He paused, and then, without looking up, he said, "I shall be thirty-two years old this month. I spent sixteen of those years --- exactly half my life --- serving Adolf Hitler. The last three, I spent despising him utterly.

"But still, I continued to fight, as was my duty, all the while, telling myself that when the war was over, I would be finished. With dreams. With causes. With optimism. With hope. These are lies reserved for naive young men. No more, I said. Never again."

He turned to Lenski. "And now you tell me to join you, you of all people. Why?"

Lenski shrugged. "The world goes on, Herr Mahyor, even I can see that. And though we are no longer naive, we are still young men, are we not?"

The former resistance fighter held out the knife to the former Nazi as the others waited. Von Linden surveyed them all, his impervious gaze sweeping around the table, and he murmured, "Goddamn you all to hell." Then he reached across the chair to Lenski, and took the knife.

"And bless us, everyone," Sully intoned, with a short laugh.

"I'll drink to that," Cassidy said, and poured himself another brandy. He held up his glass and added, "Here's to tomorrow."

"But will there really be a tomorrow for us?" the gambler wondered aloud some time later, as he stepped out into the freezing night.

Russell Barker, who would be killed before the year was out, admitted that he didn't know. He shrugged his shoulders, much as Lenski had earlier and said, "Alex seems to think so."

"The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement --- UNCLE," Cassidy repeated with obvious relish. "It has a nice ring to it." He took a deep breath and inhaled the frosty air.

"It's going to be exciting, just to be a part of it," Barker agreed.

"Yeah. Like taking off on a mission in one of Asa's flying coffins."

Barker chuckled and Cassidy turned to Asa Carpenter, who was coming through the men's club door, zipping his leather flight jacket.

"I've always wanted to ask you Ace, just what do you think about when you're taxing down the runway in a rattletrap plane?"

"That I'd better bring the damn thing back," Carpenter replied simply, prompting his companions to laugh.

"And you always do, don't you, mate?" Barker said, giving the pilot's shoulder a friendly slap. "May we all be as stout-hearted."

"Or at least, as lucky," said Cassidy. The two men laughed again, and Barker began to recite:

"And he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man's company,
That fears his fellowship to die with us. . . "

"What the hell is he talking about?" Carpenter asked, but Cassidy knew.

"Henry the Fifth, right?"

Barker nodded and Cassidy joined him, picking up the verse, their voice echoing into the night, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers ..."

XXXX

". . . For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England, now abed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon St. Crispin's day."

"That's Shakespeare, isn't it?" Ellen Crane asked. Napoleon Solo nodded.

"An old mentor of mine made me memorize it. I dreamt of him last night. His name was Nate Cassidy and he worked for the OSS in occupied France, during the war. He once cleaned out a Nazi general, playing baccarat."

"Sounds like quite a guy."

"He was."

"So are you, you know."

Surprised, Solo tipped his chin at the compliment. "Thank you, Doctor," he said, and added, " --- for everything."

They stood together in the mid-morning sun, braced against a stiff Alpine breeze. Behind them, a few yards away, an U.N.C.L.E. chopper waited. Solo held out his hand to Crane.

"You shouldn't thank me," she observed as she took it. "I'm really not doing you a favor. You've probably pushed your luck too far, already."

Solo smiled. "Well, as old Nate used to say, the sucker bets may put money in your pocket, but it's the long shots that keep you alive."

"And is 'old Nate' still alive?"

The agent's smile faded. "No. He was murdered last year." For a fleeting instant, Solo pictured the body as he had discovered it, lying in the desert, on the outskirts of Vegas. He turned away. It was time to go.

"You see what I mean?" Crane called after him, but Solo only waved goodbye and headed toward the chopper.

"It seems you have allowed sentimentality to influence your professional judgement, Doctor," Illya Kuryakin teased as he came up beside her. His leg was nearly healed and his limp was barely noticeable.

"Not at all," Crane protested with mock indignation. "Your Mr. Waverly wanted to know if the two of you could function efficiently under pressure. The other night was a very convincing demonstration."

She smiled. "Personally, I still think you're both certifiable."

"Well, at least we have each other," Kuryakin replied. He shook Crane's hand, and hurried past.

Back at the chopper, Solo was anxious to get moving, himself. As he motioned impatiently to his partner, the agent glanced down at his hand, at the faint scar just below the thumb, that ran parallel to his lifeline. Of all his scars, he was proudest of this one.

He had acquired it, as enforcement agents still did, at the beginning of his career. Despite official efforts to suppress it, the tradition endured. On the eve of graduation, before they swore allegiance to U.N.C.L.E., the young candidates still met in secret --- to make the mark and take an oath that would bind them to each other and every agent in the field.

"Can I have a little help here, please?" Kuryakin shouted, over the whine of the chopper blades. He tossed up his suitcase and the American agent caught it. Then Solo leaned out of the cabin, his hand extended, and Kuryakin, who had a scar of his own, gripped it firmly.

And for just the briefest of moments, their matching scars met and pressed together, to form a single, continuous, unbroken line.