The Devil's Attic Affair
"Slay them all; God will know his own."
--- Papal legate Arnald-Amalric before the massacre of the Cathars at Bezière.
La Rive Gauche, Paris. 1952.
Friendship among spies, Gregory Von Linden once said, was as impossible as honor among thieves, but Ivan Popovich never believed such foolishness. Von Linden too often played the cynic. In espionage, one was simply obliged to choose one's friends more carefully.
True, it'd been difficult finding suitable comrades among his plotting, paranoid colleagues in Beria's NKVD. But then, Popovich had met Stefan Lenski of the Polish Resistance during a Balkan operation, and a bond of trust and mutual admiration was formed almost instantly between them.
They'd spent the next nine years fighting side by side, first against the Nazis, and now, against Thrush. But Nazis, Thrush, what difference did it make? Evil was evil. What mattered was living among men you loved and respected. And dying among them, too, if it came to it. Popovich's only regret in joining U.N.C.L.E. was that, as a field agent, he was forced to spend too much of his time working alone.
So it was with considerable pleasure and anticipation that Popovich proceeded to his rendezvous with Lenski that warm evening in early autumn. He found his friend browsing through the secondhand bookstalls that line the Seine. All around them, soft breezes rustled yellowed pages and plucked at postcards displayed in metal racks. In the background, the spires of Notre Dame soared against a rose-colored sky.
"Here you are, in the world's most beautiful city, filled with the world's most beautiful women, and all you can think about is books!" Popovich laughed with good-natured exasperation. Lenski shrugged and smiled self-consciously. Even during the war, he'd carried a book under one arm and his assault rifle under the other.
"You should take care. All this reading is destroying your eyesight," Popovich said, gesturing to Lenski's wire-rimmed spectacles, a new addition. Popovich wasn't surprised to see them. He'd noticed his friend squinting over a train schedule the last time they'd worked together, almost a full year ago.
"And you look like Joe Stalin with that mustache," Lenski observed. Popovich was Georgian, with dark, almost Asian features, and though his mustache was as thick and black as his hair, it was also faintly tinged with gray.
We're both getting old, Lenski told himself.
"Nonsense. I've been told the mustache makes me appear more dashing. You don't agree?"
Lenski shrugged again, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He seemed sullen, preoccupied, and Popovich knew the reason why. The Russian wrapped an arm around his wiry friend, who was at least a half foot shorter and forty pounds lighter. They began to walk west along the river.
"Tonight Stefan, we shall --- how do the American tourists say it? Ah, I remember: We shall 'paint the town red.' Appropriate, yes? Drinks at Shéhérazade. Dinner at Maxim's. And then on to the Lido for the late show. I know a girl there. She will be perfect for you. She has large eyes and small breasts --- or maybe it's the other way around. No matter. And she's Jewish, too! You should be grateful to me. Do you know how difficult it is to find a Jewish stripper in Paris?"
"No, but I can guess," Lenski agreed, with a smile. Popovich never failed to lift his spirits, and this time was no exception. "I suppose she's a good Party member, too."
"But of course, my dear tovarisch!"
Lenski shook his head, unpersuaded. "But Ivan Vasilevich, surely you didn't summon me all the way from Algiers just to fix me up with a date."
"I heard of your accident. I thought you might appreciate some diversion."
"It was no accident," Lenski shot back angrily, "and anyone who told you otherwise is a damn fool."
Popovich's black eyes danced with amusement. Ah, this was better. This was more like the feisty little resistance fighter he knew so well.
"Those brakes were tampered with. It was attempted murder, pure and simple --- and it wasn't the first time, either."
"If you're quite certain of that, then I think I know who is behind it." Popovich paused and took a breath before adding softly, "I think it's Louis."
Lenski halted in his tracks, thunderstruck. "You've seen him?!"
"No, but I may know where to find him."
"Have you informed Waverly yet?"
Popovich shook his head, ruefully. "Everything is very vague, very confused. I wanted to hear your opinion first. Come: we should find a quiet place to talk."
He led Lenski along the quay, expertly weaving through crowds thick with tourists. They'd almost reached the place St. Michel, where atop the Second Empire fountain, Michael the Archangel remained locked in perpetual combat with the dragon. Students clustered around in chatty groups while elsewhere in the plaza, people with easels did their best to avoid the people with cameras.
The Russian enjoyed living here, in the Latin Quarter. He'd always fancied himself an artist, sketching portraits and forging documents with equal aplomb, so he had no trouble fitting in with the locals.
"I know a good cafe on the boulevard . . ." he told Lenski.
Perhaps if he'd felt less comfortable in his surroundings, Popovich might have noticed the assassin sooner. But as it was, his guard was down. The dagger seemed to appear from nowhere, a sudden flash of steel that raced, like a bolt of lightning, straight for his friend.
"Stefan!" Popovich cried.
He lunged instinctively, elbowing Lenski out of harm's way, and was caught in the path of the blade himself. Thrown off-balance, Lenski twisted just in time to see the dagger that'd been meant for him, drive deep into Popovich's broad chest. Grasping the hilt was a hand, knobby and square, which belonged to a stranger in a beige trenchcoat. But then, in the next moment, the hand was gone and so was the stranger, melting away, into the crowd.
Popovich staggered backwards and collapsed with a gasp, dragging Lenski down with him.
"Help! Au secours!" the Polish agent shouted from the pavement to the gathering onlookers. "Appelez un medécin, vite! Someone call an ambulance, quickly!" he said, even while he knew it was hopeless. He could hear the blood gurgling in his friend's lungs.
"Don't try to speak, Ivan," Lenski whispered, but Popovich persevered. Seizing Lenski's wrist in his weakening grip, the dying agent rasped:
"Louis --- svinya."
Svinya, of course, was Russian for pig. But Lenski also knew that, among those who worked for Soviet Intelligence, it had another, more particular meaning: traitor.
It was the last word Ivan Popovich ever uttered.
"To everything there is a season. . ."
Somewhere in the French Pyrenees. Seven years later.
Ever since her mother's death left her sole owner of the inn, Sabienne Boissard had spent every Wednesday exactly the same way. She rose early and put on one of her three best dresses. Today, it was the blue one. Then, leaving old Mrs. Thiers to manage the inn, she climbed into her battered Citroen and set off alone, for Toulouse. It was a long drive --- some three and a half hours --- with almost half of it spent negotiating rugged mountain roads.
She usually arrived in the city around nine, just as the shops were opening. Despite the temptation they represented, business always came before pleasure. And so, after depositing the week's receipts at the bank, the rest of the morning was devoted to paying bills, placing orders and arranging for the delivery of new supplies at the various wholesalers. Depending upon the week, that meant visiting the pork butcher at place St. Etienne's; the baker on rue St. Pantaléon; the cheesemaker near the marché des Carmes, and of course, the wine merchants located at the very center of town.
After that, the rest of the day was hers to do with as she pleased. She always visited St. Sernin's to say a prayer for her dead parents, lighting one candle for each. Then she ate lunch at a good cafe --- a different one each time --- where she studied the menu, searching for dishes that might be adapted to her own kitchen at the inn.
The few hours left were usually spent at the museum or window-shopping. Sabienne liked to walk. When she was young, she'd felt self-conscious about her limp and cried when the village boys teased her on the way home from school. But her mother had explained that the American president, Monsieur Roosevelt, was also a victim of polio, so there was no reason to be ashamed.
"Besides," her mother said, "when you are grown, you will be so beautiful that people will forget your leg and notice only your face. You will see."
And Sabienne did see. Nowadays, she was hardly aware of her limp at all.
By the time the brick buildings of Toulouse began to glow blood-red in the fading afternoon, she was ready for the long trip home. It'd been a Wednesday like any other --- with one exception. Before she left the city, she stopped at the main post office and dropped a letter into the slot. A very special letter.
Then she drove out to the main highway, which followed the Arìege River south, and headed back to the mountains.
Somewhere in the Haut-Médoc region, north of Bordeaux.
Auguste Delage looked up from where he was kneeling. His grandson, eight-year old Guillaume, was waving to him from the other end of the vineyard. There was something clutched in Guillaume's small hand.
Delage squinted, but his eyesight wasn't what it used to be. The boy was shouting something, too, but Delage couldn't quite make it out. Working in such close proximity to explosives, first with the French Resistance, then with the U.N.C.L.E., had robbed him of his hearing in one ear. Although he was only fifty-three, Delage already felt like an old man.
He began to gesture to Guillaume to come closer, but before he could, the boy broke into a forward run. Delage sighed. Heavily, he lowered himself back down to the pebbly ground and returned to his vines. It was the first week in November. The harvest was in, the festivals were over, the tourists were gone. It would be a good vintage year and judging by the new wine, perhaps even a great one. Not much to do now but push the earth back against the stocks to protect them against damaging frosts, and fertilize the soil for the season to come.
Grape-growing had long been an occupation of the Delages. This particular vineyard had been owned by the family for over three generations. Some of the vines, like the one he was working on, were as old as Auguste himself. After every harvest, he needed to touch each individual vine, showing his appreciation for a job well done and tucking them in, like children, for their winter sleep.
"So what is all this excitement about?" Delage asked as Guillaume arrived. The boy was puffing hard.
"An important letter for you, Grandpapa."
Delage eyed him slyly. He loved this grandchild more than the others, perhaps because this one was the first. He turned his head slightly, so that his good ear was toward the boy.
"And how do you know it's important?"
"Grandmama said so. She said to bring it to you right away."
As the older man struggled to his feet, Guillaume surrendered the letter. It was plain and white and unopened. There was no return address, but it was postmarked Toulouse. Delage wondered why his wife would think it a matter of such consequence. No friends or members of their family lived in Toulouse. Still, she may have recognized the handwriting.
Watching his grandfather inspect the letter, Guillaume murmured, "Who is Cousin Louis?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Grandmama said something about a Cousin Louis."
"That's impossible," Delage replied absently. "Louis is dead. He died the year you were born."
But then again: there was something familiar about the handwriting. The backward slant. The way the writer crossed the t's too high.
It couldn't be. . .
Delage ripped open the envelope. Inside, on a single sheet of neatly folded paper, there was one scribbled line:
Ecclesiastes 3, verse 1.
"Grandpapa?" Guillaume cried in alarm. His grandfather's ruddy face had gone as white as the stationery in his hand.
"My God," Delage said, after a moment. "It's him."
U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters, New York City.
"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted . . ."
Nate Cassidy's voice trailed off. He closed the borrowed bible cradled in his lap and leaned back in the chair, thoughtfully.
... To pluck up that which is planted...
"And you say there was nothing else in the letter --- only the citation?"
His boss, Alexander Waverly, nodded. "For reasons of security, when Louis Delage went deep cover with Thrush, his cousin, Auguste, was to be his only contact. They arranged a code. That particular passage was to be Louis' request for extraction."
"But can we be sure the letter is genuine?"
"Our handwriting analysts in Section Four believe it is. Of course, it has been a while . . ." While Waverly fiddled with his pipe, stuffing a pinch of tobacco into the bowl, Cassidy considered.
"Twelve long years," he muttered. Waverly changed the subject.
"You worked in the south of France during the war, Nate. Ever been to Toulouse?"
"No, I never operated that far west." The agent grinned. "Though somehow, I have the feeling I'm about to visit the place, momentarily."
Charm and good humor came easily to Cassidy. He'd grown up in that rarefied world of the very rich --- a world in which men were glib, women were thin, everyone dressed for dinner and no one raised his voice. After breezing through Yale, Cassidy had done his postgraduate work at the world's fashionable casinos, studying the finer points of roulette wheels. During the war, his colleagues in the OSS found him refined but not snobbish, utterly incorruptible, (because money meant nothing to him), and uncommonly brave. The only thing Nate Cassidy ever feared was boredom.
If Waverly heard the joke, he chose to ignore it and went on:
"The letter was posted from Toulouse. Two of our agents from the Paris office spent the better part of a week, checking the city for Thrush infiltration. No trace, nothing."
"And the surrounding area?"
"They scoured the region, as far west as Bordeaux and east to Narbonne. Still nothing." The U.N.C.L.E. chief touched a match to his pipe and puffed experimentally. Cassidy waited. He'd worked long enough with Waverly to recognize a dramatic gesture when he saw it. With his pipe working to his satisfaction, Waverly reached for a manila folder.
"However, a reconnaissance flight that circled south of Foix, over the foothills of the Pyrenees, yielded this ---."
Inside the folder was a sheaf of photographs. Waverly selected one and carefully placed it on the table, in front of Cassidy. The aerial shot revealed a small, rural village huddled against the snow-capped mountains. It didn't look like much. Cassidy could make out a church steeple; the roofs of a few houses, none over two stories high; rows of fences marking the boundaries of several outlying farms.
"The village of Autier," Waverly intoned. "Estimated indigenous population, two hundred or so. Nothing particularly suspicious. That is, until we looked closer ---."
In place of the first photograph, the chief substituted a 12 by 16 inch glossy enlargement. It was the same picture except now, one might discern the square silhouettes of barrack-like buildings, carefully camouflaged and clustered close to the foot of a nearby mountain. There were also specks that looked like vehicles and fuel supply tanks.
"A military base?" Cassidy wondered aloud.
"The locals claim it's a school for ski patrol police. However, we have reason to believe otherwise. Quite likely, it's the European training camp for those newly recruited to serve in Thrush's private army."
Cassidy whistled softly. Waverly passed him yet another photograph. This one showed a structure that looked like a castle, situated on the summit of the mountain, high above the village. The peak was formed by an outcropping shaped like a sugar-loaf and the sides leading to it were sheer and steeply angled. The castle appeared to be totally inaccessible, except for a cable car line that stretched between the jagged summit and the village below.
"What is this?" Cassidy asked.
"Just what it appears to be. But perhaps, I should allow an expert to explain." Waverly touched his the buzzer on his intercom and said, "Miss Richards? Send Father Andolino in, please."
The office's recently-installed steel doors slid aside and a young man wearing a black suit and a Roman collar appeared. Waverly made the introductions.
"Father, this is Nate Cassidy, of our Enforcement section. Nate, this is Father Dominic Andolino of Vatican Intelligence."
"A pleasure," Cassidy said, shaking the priest's cool, dry hand. Next to U.N.C.L.E., the existence of the Vigilanza or "Little Vigilance" was the world's best-kept secret. During the war, Cassidy had crossed paths with a number of Vatican undercover agents --- or Holy Spooks as they were called by the less reverent members of the espionage community --- so he was not surprised to meet this one.
Andolino took a seat next to Cassidy at the conference table. A serious, even austere man, the priest had no inclination toward small-talk and plunged ahead with the briefing.
"You are looking at L'Abbaye de St. Germier," he said, indicating the photograph in Cassidy's hand, "located on the summit of Montsalat, near the river Salat. That's about twenty kilometers southwest of Foix, as the crow flies. The peak rises 300 meters high, and except for a narrow, exposed path on the western flank, the climb is straight up."
The priest allowed himself a small smile. "Medieval texts refer to Montsalat as La mansarde diabolique --- 'The Devil's Attic' --- and for good reason. The place has a rather colorful --- some might say, notorious --- history. It was one of several châteaux built at the end of the twelfth century by Raymond of Pereille, the Count of Foix. It wasn't an abbey originally, of course. Raymond was a Cathar."
"Cathar?" Cassidy asked.
"A heretic. The Counts of Foix were leaders during the Albigensian revolt."
Cassidy wasn't quite up on his French history, but he let it pass. Andolino continued: "Near the end of the war, the last of the Cathar rebels escaped to their refuge on Montsalat. Forces loyal to the French king and the Church laid siege in 1244, but as you can see, the fortress was built to be impregnable."
"And was it?"
"Very nearly. Unfortunately for the Cathars, there was a traitor in their midst. Someone opened the gates of the castle and in the ensuing battle, all the Cathars was massacred."
"Every crowd has a spoilsport," Cassidy said.
"Afterward, the Church assumed control of the castle and gave it to the Cistericians as an abbey. It was known as St. Germier for the next five centuries, until the French Revolution. At that time, the region was in the grip of intense anti-clericalism. The monks were forced to abandon the abbey, but before they could flee, someone let the mob in, this time through a secret passage in the mountain. Once again, the residents were massacred down to the last monk."
"Are we seeing a pattern here?" Cassidy inquired dryly.
"St. Germier remained more or less deserted for the next century and a half," Andolino went on. "The Resistance used it as a base for their southern operations during the Vichy regime. However, when Vichy collapsed in '42, the Germans planned to set up their own intelligence headquarters there. They were the ones who installed the cable car system, but they never stayed long enough to use it. As you well know, the Allies invaded in '44. St. Germier lay abandoned for the next nine years."
At this point, Andolino stopped and Waverly, who'd been chewing thoughtfully on his pipe, picked up the story.
"Around 1953," he began, "a Swiss entrepreneur tried to refurbish the place as a ski resort. He repaired the cable car system --- got it running, in any case --- but he went bankrupt before he could accomplish anything else. Three years later, the castle was taken over by a corporation which currently claims to be developing another ski resort."
"But it's a dummy corporation --- a front for Thrush," Cassidy said, way ahead of his boss. Waverly smiled.
"It appears so."
Cassidy turned to Andolino. "What's the Vigilance's interest in all this?"
"Well, pragmatically, St. Germier is a valuable property that the Church would very much like to reclaim. In addition, recent historical research has also led us to suspect that the abbey may contain some very important sacred relics."
"I see," Cassidy said, even though he wasn't sure that he did. "Thank you for the briefing, Father," Waverly said. "It's been enlightening. We'll be in touch."
Andolino nodded, shook hands with each man and left. When he was gone, Cassidy turned back to Waverly.
"What's really in that castle?" he asked.
"We don't know."
"Is Louis up there?"
"It's quite possible, but of course, we don't know that either."
"Louis could be trying to tell us something --- trying to draw us in."
"Again, who can say? Our contact with Mr. Delage ended abruptly in 1951, four years after he joined Thrush."
"Unless you count that incident in Paris in '52," Cassidy said. Waverly dismissed the comment with a wave of his pipe.
"Speculation and hearsay. There was never a shred of hard evidence that Louis Delage was responsible for Mr. Popovich's death."
"Stefan Lenski believed he was."
"Do you?" the chief asked.
Instead of answering, Cassidy shook his head helplessly and made a sound deep in his throat. Waverly was right: no one really knew for sure if Louis had fingered a fellow agent and probably, no one ever would. Lenski had died the next year before finding any proof.
"I want you to go to Autier, Nate," Waverly said, his gaze drifting toward his office windows. They were the only windows in the entire U.N.C.L.E. complex, a fortress that seemed, at the moment, as impregnable as St. Germier's. "See if Mr. Delage is still alive. Re-establish contact, if you can. Bring him out, if you must. And if at all possible, find out what's in that castle."
"That's a lot of if's, Alex," Cassidy said. His voice grew even softer than usual. "You know, this could be a trap."
"There's that distinct possibility. That's why I've chosen you for this mission."
Cassidy chuckled. He leaned back in his chair and crossed one well-tailored leg over the other. "I didn't realize I'd become that expendable."
Waverly eyed his friend and subordinate, a man he'd known for almost sixteen years. "Let's just say I trust your instincts," he said.
Nate Cassidy returned the next morning to finalize plans for the mission. It was going to be a dangerous one, no doubt about it. Over a working breakfast in Waverly's office, the two men discussed possible candidates for the small infiltration team.
"I suppose Auguste will want to go," Cassidy observed as he stabbed a slice of bacon with his fork. Despite his years in England, he'd never developed the same taste for kippers that Waverly had.
"No," Waverly replied. "As a matter of fact, he's already declined the invitation."
Cassidy arched one eyebrow, surprised. Then his face melted into a self-confident smile. "Oh, he's just being his usual obstinate self. I'll go to France. I'll talk with him."
"You're welcome to try, though I don't think it will do much good."
"Well, there should be at least two of us from the old days who can recognize Louis on sight, just in case anything happens to me. Louis may not look much like his personnel photos anymore."
"I'm considering assigning Mr. Von Linden --- ."
Waverly waited to see Cassidy's reaction, but the agent continued to eat, seemingly unconcerned. Only Waverly called Von Linden by name. To everyone else, the German would always be Herr Major. He was a difficult, complex man with complicated loyalties. The son of an aristocratic count, he'd served in the elite SS only to witness his father's execution for plotting to kill Hitler. Disgraced, the younger Von Linden was transferred to the Eastern front and attached to the command of General Reinhard Gehlen. Ironically, it was a lucky move. As a member of Gehlen's network, he'd managed to survive the war.
" --- He's expressed an interest in the affair," Waverly went on, "and he says he visited the castle twice when it was in Nazi hands."
"You don't say?" Cassidy remarked, still casual. If he had any reservations about working with Von Linden, he wasn't showing it. "Okay, he can ride shotgun. Considering this is supposed to be a training camp, though, the rest of the team should be young."
Waverly opened a file folder and leafed through the pages. "London has a man named Christopher Peyton-Smythe. A year out of survival school."
"That's too young."
"They say he's bright and very promising."
"All right, but I don't want any more agents that green."
"Brian Morton's available."
Cassidy shook his head. "He's a good man but he's too damn tall. Sticks out like a sore thumb. We'll have to blend in with the crowd on this assignment."
"How about Mr. Wescott?"
"Too obnoxious. He gets on my nerves." The agent sipped his coffee, thoughtfully. "Since Auguste may not be coming along, do you have anyone on that list who's a bang-and-burn expert?"
Waverly checked the file again. "There's Illya Kuryakin."
Waverly nodded. "He's almost as young as Peyton-Smythe --- class of '56. A bit of a loner, too. But he's certainly capable and experienced with explosives. Mr. Cutter kept him an extra six weeks to instruct the demolitions class."
Cassidy laughed. "I would never presume to argue with Jules Cutter. Okay, he's in."
"Paris says it can loan you an agent named Jean-Pierre Joubert. He's a native of the Languedoc region and he can speak the local dialect."
"Fine." Cassidy finished his coffee and set the cup down on the saucer with a decisive click. "And I'm going to need a ramrod. I want Napoleon."
Waverly frowned, sourly. He'd known this was coming. "This mission is too delicate ---."
"C'mon Alex, he's good and you know it.
"Mr. Solo is too --- cavalier."
"You once thought the same thing about me. "
"I still do," Waverly retorted. "Why do you think I chose you to lead this mission?"
"He's too sure of himself."
"He's ready to take risks."
"Too bloody ready. He's reckless."
Waverly held out his hands in defeat. "All right," he sighed, "but don't say I didn't warn you."
Cassidy smiled. "You know, Alex, someday, that boy will be the linchpin of your entire operation, here."
"God help us all," the chief said, rolling his eyes heavenward. Cassidy pushed back his chair, preparing to leave.
"Well, I guess that's it. Thanks for breakfast."
"Ah, one last thing ---," Waverly cut in. "You'll also be taking Father Andolino."
"The priest? Why?" Then, Cassidy began to nod to himself as the reason dawned on him. "That was part of the deal, wasn't it? They help us, we help them. One hand washes the other?"
Waverly didn't need to answer. With breakfast over, he was already searching his pockets for his pipe. "Apparently, Father Andolino has studied some old maps of the castle so he knows the general layout. Frankly, I think he knows even more than he's telling us. He might be useful."
"Might be," Cassidy agreed with a shrug. "What did he call this place anyway? The Devil's Attic? Think we'll meet the devil, Alex?"
"Perhaps a reasonable facsimile," Waverly remarked absently, as he found his pipe. The meeting was effectively over. Cassidy took his leave, knowing that his superior's mind had already moved on to other matters.
It was a picture-postcard day --- not too warm and not too cool. Buttery sunlight washed over the stony slopes and soft, temperate breezes stirred the withered leaves in the dormant vines. You'd have to look at a calendar to know it was the middle of December, Nate Cassidy told himself. He unbuttoned his overcoat and sighed. If only Auguste Delage could be half as agreeable as the weather.
But the old Frenchman was acting even more difficult than Cassidy had expected.
"I want no part of this affair," Delage was growling even now, as he stalked through his vineyard with Cassidy dogging his every step.
"Be reasonable, Auguste ---."
"This has nothing to do with reason. The man is a traitor!"
"We don't know that for certain."
"I do. I spoke with Stefan a week before he died. There was evidence --- nothing that might stand up in a court of law, but evidence nonetheless. I listened, and believed. Louis betrayed Ivan Popovich. Possibly, he betrayed Lenski as well."
"But, he was playing a double game," Cassidy pointed out, trying another tack. "Maybe he was forced to do what he did. Maybe he had no choice.
"There are always choices."
"But we really can't judge him until we know the extenuating circumstances."
"I can ---."
As they reached the end of a row of trellises, Auguste abruptly halted in his tracks. He turned to confront Cassidy, who took a step backward. Auguste was not a man to be trifled with when his Gallic temper was up.
" --- And I say to hell with your circumstances!" the Frenchman spat. "That is what those who collaborated with the goddamn boches always claimed ---."
Suddenly aware that he'd used the Resistance's contemptuous word for the Nazis, Delage glanced over at Gregory Von Linden. The German agent had been standing nearby, silently watching the scene.
"No offense intended, Herr Majeur."
"None taken," Von Linden replied coolly. A bit more subdued, Delage turned back to Cassidy.
"Consider: Louis loved beautiful things, and one needs money to buy beautiful things. It is not difficult to see why he deserted U.N.C.L.E. for Thrush. Alex Waverly is sending you on a fool's errand. Worse: into what we called in the old days la souricière --- a mousetrap."
"But he's your cousin for God's sake!" Cassidy protested. "You grew up together, fought together during the war. Surely, blood must mean something."
"Ah oui, bien sûr. It means everything." Delage held out his right hand, palm up, displaying the thin scar that paralleled the lifeline.
"Perhaps you have forgotten, but I have not. When we swore our oath together, our bloods became one. And so, when Popovich was murdered, it was also my blood, and Herr Majeur's --- and yours, too --- that was spilled on the banks of the Seine."
Delage put a conciliatory hand to Cassidy's shoulder. "Listen to me, my friend. More than friend: brother. It is your face I see, but it is Alexandre Waverly's words I hear. He is not one of us. He will never understand. We must forget Louis. Louis is dead. And if he is not, he should be."
Cassidy shook his head. "I can't forget about this. I have a job to do and I intend to do it, with or without you. I'm sorry."
"I am sorry, too," Delage agreed. There was nothing more to say. He watched as Cassidy slowly walked away.
"Sometimes orders are not enough," Delage remarked to Von Linden, who remained motionless at the end of the trellis row. "You know that better than anyone, eh Herr Majeur? Nat', he is too much l'américain, I fear. He does not listen to his heart, as we do."
"Come now, Auguste," Von Linden said matter-of-factly. "You know that I have no heart." For the first time that day, Delage smiled.
"C'est bon. Then, when the time is right, you will kill the bastard traitor --- for all of us."
Von Linden tipped his chin once, though there was no emotion in either his voice or his clear, blue eyes.
"You have my word on it," he said.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot."
Somewhere in Toulouse. December 30th, 1959.
The pension was comfortable rather than fashionable, and a little off the beaten track --- the sort of place a guidebook for sophisticated travelers might recommend. Still, it didn't seem to be lacking in holiday guests, sophisticated or otherwise. The lobby was packed, and it took several minutes to attract the attention of the desk clerk.
"Eh, Monsieur Napoléon Solo, s'il vous plaît. Quel est le numéro de sa chambre?"
Quickly, the harried clerk ran an index finger down the register book. "C'est quarante-neuf. Au quatrième étage."
"De rien," the clerk said, already moving on to his next customer.
Illya Nikolaevich Kuryakin turned from the lobby desk and checked his watch. It was 5:40 p.m. He was twenty minutes early, which left him two options: he could go up to the room, or wait here, in the lobby. Just then, an overweight matron in a flowered dress picked up her suitcase and swung it too wide, neatly clipping him across the shin. Kuryakin jackknifed, but managed to swallow the curse before it came out.
"Oh! Excusez-moi, mon cher garçon!"
Her mouth, heavily rouged with lipstick, widened into a flirtatious smile. He could read it in her eyes: Such a nice boy, she was thinking.
If she only knew.
He gestured to indicate that no damage was done, and the woman, still smiling, moved on. Kuryakin leaned back against the lobby desk, and a moment later, felt an anonymous elbow jab him in the ribs. This time, there was no apology.
That did it. Enough was enough. Kuryakin angled his way through the crowd and headed for the central staircase.
As he climbed to the upper floors, the traffic thinned, then disappeared entirely. He found the fourth floor hallway entirely deserted. Most of the rooms lay vacant, awaiting their guests.
As Kuryakin scanned the doors, ticking off the numbers to himself, he slowly became aware of a woman's voice. Faint and whispery at first, it grew louder as he approached the end of the hallway. In fact, it was coming from the very room he sought.
"Oh, Monsieur," she was saying, "avoir pitié, s'il vous plaît."
Her voice sounded plaintive, strained, almost breathless. The small hairs on the back of Kuryakin's neck prickled. Something was very wrong here.
He knocked on the door. There was no answer.
"Please, I can't bear it. Please . . ." she cried in French.
Kuryakin knocked again, harder this time. "Mademoiselle?" he called out. Still no answer. He rattled the ancient doorknob.
Inside the room, her voice rose in pitch and intensity. Now, it was almost a thin, drawn-out scream.
"Oh. . . I shall die . . . oh, please . . ."
Alarmed, Kuryakin slid his hand under his jacket and pulled the U.N.C.L.E. Special from his holster. He took a step backward.
"Oh, I am dying . . ."
He aimed his foot.
"Oh dear God. . . oh. . . oh. . !"
He kicked out, hard. The lock gave way with a sharp, metallic clunk and the door burst inward. Gun drawn and ready, Kuryakin rushed into the room. The woman suddenly shrieked and a man cursed aloud, and in that instant, Kuryakin realized his mistake.
"Bozhye Moy," he groaned to himself, staring down at the couple in bed. The woman was obviously in no distress. Quite the contrary. It was also painfully clear that he'd interrupted them at the worst possible moment.
"Eh . . . vous vous appelez Napoléon Solo?" Kuryakin stammered.
"Yeah, and who the hell are you?!"
Solo was twisted into a firing position, balanced on one elbow, a twin of Kuryakin's Special aimed straight at the Russian's heart. The young woman beneath Solo whimpered, and ducked her head under the sheets.
"My name is Illya Kuryakin," the blond agent said, switching to English as smoothly as he could. Judging by the name, he hadn't expected an American. His hand, which still held the automatic, dropped limp at his side. "I'm your, um, colleague. From U.N.C.L.E. I believe I'm supposed to accompany you to our meeting at six."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"So am I."
Solo stuffed his Special back under the pillow with a disgusted sigh. "Tout va bien, mon chérie," he muttered to the woman under the sheets. Then, to Kuryakin, he said, "Give us a few more minutes, would you, please?"
Sheepishly, Kuryakin holstered his own automatic and shrank back across the room. As he reached the doorway, Solo called out from the bed: "And could you do me one more favor?"
"Shut the goddamn door!"
Kuryakin grasped the knob with both hands and pulled. The damaged door closed behind him with a solid thump.
At exactly six o' clock, the couple emerged from the room, in considerably better spirits than he'd left them. Waiting at the far end of the hallway, Kuryakin didn't know if they'd finished what they'd begun and truth be told, he didn't want to know. When the woman smiled conspiratorially in his direction, and wriggled her fingers at him, he blushed. He turned away as the couple kissed, but when she passed him in the hallway, Kuryakin noticed the woman walked with a noticeable limp.
"I'm really very sorry," Kuryakin apologized again as Solo joined him.
"So you said." Solo shrugged amicably. "Forget it. It was only business." They left for their meeting, Kuryakin falling into step behind Solo, while the latter led the way.
It was a diverse group that assembled that evening in the private rear diningroom of a snug little restaurant on the Rue Ninau. Kuryakin took a seat between Jean-Pierre Joubert, the pock-faced baker's son from Armagnac and Christopher Peyton-Smythe, the green-stick nephew from London.
Joubert was tough and dependable, but temperamental. Peyton-Smythe was eager, extroverted, and unrepentantly ambitious. He also fairly reeked of good family, good schools, and good breeding. Kuryakin knew them both through personal experience, while the other agents present he knew only by reputation. The priest from Vatican Intelligence, of course, he didn't know at all.
"This is our destination," Father Andolino said, after the brief introductions were done. He placed the twelve by sixteen glossy enlargements of Autier and St. Germier Abbey in the center of the table, then launched into an abbreviated version of the briefing he'd delivered in Waverly's office the month before.
Kuryakin glanced around the table at the others, feeling outclassed and distinctly uncomfortable. After all, sitting opposite him was the legendary Texan, Asa "Ace" Carpenter, who'd trained every U.N.C.L.E. pilot worth his wings. On Carpenter's right, the notorious Major Gregory Von Linden tilted back in his chair, silent and watchful, sucking smoke through a silver cigarette holder, his square-jawed, Teutonic face as impervious as if it'd been cut from stone. On Carpenter's left, the equally renowned Nate Cassidy brushed a speck of stray lint from the cuff of his Saville Row suit. Soft-spoken and impeccably tailored, the senior agent reminded Kuryakin of the lead actor he'd seen in a recent Hitchcock film, an American movie star whose name he's couldn't remember.
Despite the fact that he was well past forty, Cassidy was at the pinnacle of his long career. He referred to Waverly as Alex --- even in the Old Man's presence, it was rumored --- which was the equivalent to being on a first name basis with God. By now, the senior agent should've been Chief of Enforcement at New York Headquarters, the most coveted position in the entire organization, and he would've been, too, if he hadn't turned down the promotion four times.
For Kuryakin, the only truly unknown quantity in the group was Napoleon Solo, who was hunched forward next to Cassidy, studying the photos as Andolino droned on. Kuryakin had heard Solo's name repeated over and over again during his own stint at the U.N.C.L.E. survival school. Apparently, Solo, who'd graduated three years before Kuryakin, had been Jules Cutter's favorite pupil.
Such a superior reputation didn't quite square with Kuryakin's rather disappointing first impression of the man. Choosing tonight to squeeze in a quick romantic tryst was certainly sloppy tradecraft, and Kuryakin's embarrassment had already given way to indignation.
The Russian agent had also revised his estimate of Solo's nationality. Unlike an American, Solo spoke French with the facility of a native, yet his accent was worse than provincial, and haltingly enunciated rather than smoothly slurred. The only other time Kuryakin had heard the language similarly spoken was by an agent from Montreal, so it was reasonable to assume that Solo originally hailed from Canada as well.
"Enough of this history lesson!" Joubert announced suddenly. "Please, mon père, what is the point of all this?"
Andolino blinked in surprise. He was barely halfway through his narrative.
"Patience, dear boy," Von Linden hissed from the corner of his mouth. "On this assignment, where we are going ist nearly as important as why."
"Je suis désolé, Herr Majeur, but I am a practical man. Again, I ask: what is the point?"
"The point," Nate Cassidy cut in smoothly, "is that tomorrow night, we are going to infiltrate one of history's most impregnable fortresses, made even more so now by the presence of several hundred Thrush soldiers. It will be a wham-bam-thank-you-m'am operation: quick in and quick out. And we have just one objective: to bag this man."
Cassidy produced a yellowed snapshot and placed on the top of the pile of photographs at the center of the table.
"Who is it?" Peyton-Smythe asked.
"His name is Philippe Bernier and we believe he is one of the most powerful men in Thrush. He may even -be- Thrush."
There was a sharp intake of breath followed by soft whistles from the younger agents. The elite members of the great shadow conspiracy were rare prizes, indeed. Few, if any, were identifiable, so opportunities to capture one came few and far between.
"And that's why he must be taken alive --- at all costs. Is that understood?"
There were nods all around.
"Good," Cassidy said. He turned to Andolino. "Please, continue Father."
There were no more interruptions. After his narrative was finished, the priest moved on to a detailed physical description of the abbey and surrounding countryside that he'd gleaned from medieval writings. Von Linden, who'd visited the place twice during his SS days, updated Andolino's research where he could, then Cassidy rounded out the briefing with U.N.C.L.E.'s latest intelligence.
"We've confirmed what we suspected from the early photographs: Autier is being used as a Thrush training installation. We've also learned a bit about their schedules, procedures and day-to-day operations --- what they're uniforms are like, for example.
"We know that the security is extremely tight and that most of the villagers are being paid to keep quiet and collaborate. Finally, we know Bernier is definitely in charge of the operation and that he spends most of his time up in the abbey."
"But how can we know all this?" Kuryakin protested.
"Napoleon has been operating here for weeks ahead of us, cultivating a source."
It was then that Kuryakin recalled Solo's words, earlier that evening: It was only business. Of course! So that explained the girl. Cultivating a source, indeed!
Mollified, the Russian watched as Cassidy patted Solo's shoulder, indicating a job well done, and Solo grinned. Kuryakin could see there was a bond between the two men, and he understood. He'd felt the same way about his old mentor, Viktor Mikhailovich, in his days before U.N.C.L.E. It made sense, too. Cassidy and Solo were like two coats cut from the same cloth, even if Solo had to work harder to conceal the seams. Although the younger agents of the team were supposed to be equals, Kuryakin now realized that some were more equal than others.
"There's going to be a New Year's Eve celebration at the village," Cassidy continued. "We're hoping security will be more lax than usual. Tomorrow evening, Mr. Carpenter will fly us to a point two miles northeast of Autier. We will parachute in, wearing Thrush uniforms and carrying Thrush I.D. Bernier is expected to put in an appearance at the party. If he does, it will save us the trouble of trying to drag him down from that infernal abbey."
"And if he doesn't?" Peyton-Smythe asked.
"Then we'll play it by ear." Cassidy smiled. "Keep your fingers crossed."
After another recap of the plan and a few words of encouragement, Cassidy wrapped up the briefing. Father Andolino and the younger agents were sent on their way with instructions to rendezvous again at eighteen hundred hours the next day at Blagnac Airport, located outside the city. When they were gone, a waiter appeared with three servings of cassoulet, a savory regional stew, and several bottles of a local wine. The senior agents settled down to their dinner.
"I noticed you didn't tell 'em much about the girl," Carpenter drawled, uncorking the wine. As the owner of the village inn, Sabienne Boissard had proved a cooperative and valuable fount of information. A Thrush request to stock extra cases of wine and beer had alerted her to the planned New Year's Eve celebration.
"Nor that Philippe Bernier is actually an U.N.C.L.E. agent named Louis Delage," Von Linden pointed out.
Cassidy shrugged. "They know all they need to know. The chances of getting collared on this mission are pretty high. This should make things easier for the boys and harder for some Thrush interrogator, if it comes to that." He accepted a glass of wine from Carpenter and took a sip. The wine was dark and full-bodied, and packed an agreeable kick. Cassidy sighed contentedly.
"As for Louis," he said, turning his attention to the stew, "we don't know whose side he's on. If he's been turned, they'll be prepared. If he's cooperative, well, so much the better."
Carpenter poured another glass of wine, this one for Von Linden. He passed it to the German and asked, "So what's botherin' you?"
"I don't like the priest," Von Linden said, scowling. "There was another Andolino, an archbishop, involved in Operation Paperclip after the war. Possibly, a relation. He smuggled Reich scientists through the Vatican. I'll wager this one's a fascist, too."
"Well, y'all were a fascist once, and we don't hold it against you," the Texan laughed. Von Linden snickered grudgingly.
"Winds of change are blowing through the Church, Major," Cassidy allowed. "It's not like the old days. Don't you read the papers?"
"I don't need a newspaper to tell me what I see. That man has the look of a zealot."
"Well, zealot or not, we're stuck with him. So let's make the best of it, shall we?"
"How's ol' Bert Sully doin'?" Carpenter inquired, changing the subject. Cassidy's face clouded over.
"Not well. After that botched affair last year, Alex transferred him down to Section Four. He hasn't been the same since."
"And what 'bout our boy, Nino?"
"The blackouts are worse. He's got a steel plate in his head now and he's in and out of the hospital at least once a month."
Carpenter shook his head, sadly. "So much talent wasted ---."
"--- Or lost, altogether," Von Linden observed.
"It looks like we're all that's left, gentlemen," Cassidy agreed. He waited as Carpenter refilled their glasses, then he raised his.
"To old friends," he said.
"To old friends," the other two echoed as they clinked glasses. Then, after a pause, Von Linden growled, "Goddamn them all."
His colleagues just laughed.
L'Abbaye de St. Germier. Somewhere in the French Pyrenees.
The tersely worded, five-line message from Thrush Central came in at 10:14 p.m. It was decoded from 10:15 to 10:22, then rushed to the desk of the garrison commander, Colonel Ellipsis Zark, at 10:23. By 10:25 p.m., a little less than two hours after the U.N.C.L.E. agents ended their meeting, Louis Delage --- alias Philippe Bernier --- knew they were coming for him, exactly who was coming, and when.
"Well, well, well. Cassidy, Carpenter and the Major," Delage said, reading the message by the light of a kerosene lantern. The electric generators were down again. "No doubt they'll wish to raise a glass to auld lang syne."
"You know these men?" Zark asked, mildly surprised. Delage noted the absence of the word "sir." Although the Frenchman was Undersecretary for Internal Affairs, one step away from sitting on the council itself, Zark never paid him the proper respect. Delage couldn't decide whether his subordinate was acting deliberately insolent or he was merely rude by nature. Certainly, there was no love lost between the two men.
"Ah yes, I knew them once," Delage replied, enjoying the opportunity to one-up Zark, "but that was in a previous lifetime." He scanned the transmission again. "I see there's no mention of Monsieur Coltrane's little project here?"
Zark nodded. "No mention. You are definitely their sole target."
"Good. Perhaps we can clean this up before Monsieur Coltrane returns from his visit to Central, yes?"
Zark shrugged to indicate that it was possible.
"And what about this, eh . . . this informant?"
"Difficult to say. It could be any one of the villagers. Shall I pursue it?"
"Not immediately. Perhaps, after tomorrow night, it won't be necessary. We shall see." Delage struck a match, touched the flame to the message and watched it ignite. "That's quite an efficient mole we have in U.N.C.L.E." he observed. "Any guesses as to who it might be?"
"Don't you know?"
"Only the Council member responsible for counter-intelligence knows and you can be sure he's not telling anyone. Who can say? Perhaps there's more than one mole, eh?"
Zark offered no opinion either way. He watched as the last of the message was consumed by the flame. Delage tossed the blackened cinder into an ashtray and delicately brushed his fingertips together.
"You may begin your preparations for tomorrow night. However, I should like to lead the welcoming committee myself."
"Whatever you say. It's your party."
Ah, that insolence again, Delage thought. He really hated Zark's hard, reptilian eyes and insinuating purr. Although only in his thirties, a rare childhood disease had left Zark completely bald. Delage considered him not only boorish but also physically grotesque, and was more than happy to dismiss him.
For his part, Zark was equally happy to be dismissed. He'd heard the rumors about his superior's "previous lifetime," and he had nothing but contempt for the Frenchman, his position as undersecretary notwithstanding.
Once a traitor, always a traitor, Zark told himself as he headed back to the radio room. Durand, the night man, had just come on duty.
"I wish to send a message to Thrush Central," Zark said to the radio operator. "Text as follows: 'Follow-up query on U.N.C.L.E. mission. Please clarify objective and specify: termination, apprehension --- or retrieval?'"
"Is that all, Colonel?"
"That should be enough. Notify me immediately when you receive a reply. I'll be in my quarters."
"It might be several hours."
"You may wake me if necessary."
The operator said that he would. Zark began to leave and then, as an afterthought he added, "Oh, and Mr. Durand? I'd appreciate it if you kept this strictly confidential. Don't mention it to anyone --- not even to Mr. Bernier. D'accord?"
"Pas de problème," the operator said through a toothy grin and touched a finger to his temple. Zark returned the salute and left. He had plans to be make.
Blagnac Airport, Toulouse. December 31st.
Asa Carpenter was waiting for them at the rear of the airfield, in a corner tucked away behind the air cargo hangar. Except for the pre-flight activity around their own plane, however, this end of the airport stood as silent as a graveyard. Because of the holiday, all freight operations were shut down and only a skeletal maintenance crew was on duty.
Head tilted back, Carpenter studied the evening sky. Behind him, two members of an U.N.C.L.E. ground crew finished the refueling and moved on to perform the usual routine checks.
"Front's comin' in," the Texan observed laconically. "Gonna be a bad night." Cassidy, who was the last to arrive, couldn't see anything beyond the runway lights, but he took Carpenter's word for it. After almost two decades of flying together, he was convinced that his friend could see in the dark.
"Clouds are too flat. Looks like snow." He sniffed the brisk air, musty with moisture and heavily laced with gasoline fumes. "Smells like it too."
Cassidy noted the pilot's appearance --- the lanky frame wrapped in a leather aviator jacket, the white silk scarf carelessly knotted at the neck, the full head of silvered hair blowing in the breeze --- and he couldn't help but laugh.
"Bit theatrical, wouldn't you say?" Cassidy remarked, fingering the scarf. Carpenter shrugged, unapologetic.
"Gotta look the part. Tends to inspire confidence in my passengers."
"Ah, so that's been the trick all these years?"
"Yup, that's it. Ready to join your team? They're already on board."
Carpenter gestured to the waiting plane, a twin-engine, prop-driven Lockheed L.14 Super Electra. The low-wing plane was painted a dull, gunmetal gray and looked a little sad next to the larger, sleeker aircraft.
If this plane were a human being, Cassidy told himself, it'd be old enough to apply for social security.
"I expected a DC-3," the senior agent commented. Douglas DC-3's had been the military's preferred all-around transport during World War II and Eisenhower himself maintained that he couldn't have won the war without them. U.N.C.L.E., as well as several airlines, still kept a few in service.
"Overrated," Carpenter said, dismissively. "The Electra's smaller, and lighter." A knowing grin crept across his face. "And it's a mite faster, too."
Cassidy wasn't about to argue, though he secretly hoped that Carpenter's preference for vintage aircraft wouldn't be their undoing. Nearby, the members of the maintenance crew finished their chores and withdrew. As the two agents walked to the plane, Carpenter reached into his pocket and produced a small homing device that looked like a steel bar of soap.
"You see this gadget? When you're ready for pick-up, just push this here switch. That'll activate an electronic beacon."
"Check. What's the range?"
"Don't worry. I'll find ya. But just remember: between the time you throw the switch and the time I reach you, it's gonna be twelve minutes."
Cassidy chuckled confidently. "I think we can manage that."
"Never you mind. Twelve minutes can seem longer'n the wait at a two-whore cathouse on a Saturday night when you got the enemy breathin' fire up your ass --- as I'm sure y'all will. So don't cut it too close, okay?"
Cassidy promised he would try and followed Carpenter through the cabin door in the rear. As an ex-military plane, the Electra's accommodations were spartan, offering little else but twelve metal seats bolted to the floor, six on each side of the aisle. Even with five seats empty, the narrow cabin seemed cramped. It was uninsulated, too, but the agents didn't seem to mind. They were dressed in snow parkas over winter-weight Thrush uniforms and were carrying two parachutes and several pounds of gear each.
Leaving Cassidy with the others, Carpenter continued on to the flight deck and settled himself into the pilot's seat. His co-pilot was a sober-eyed, red-headed lad he'd trained two years ago. The boy hadn't bothered to offer his name to the rest of the team, and no one had asked for it.
The take-off was relatively smooth and uneventful, and after they were airborne, Cassidy unbuckled his seat belt, stood up and called for attention.
"I don't have to tell you, this is going to be a tough one," he began, his soft voice barely audible over the thrum of the Wright- Cyclone engines, "but I know you've all guessed that, already. This is the belly of the beast, gentlemen, and we're going in for some exploratory surgery.
"Now I know what you've been taught --- that your individual lives are worthless, that everything must be sacrificed for the mission --- and that's true as far as it goes. But if this thing blows up in our faces, I want you to abort the mission immediately, and to get the hell out of there. Repeat: Immediately. Is that understood?"
There were hesitant murmurs, followed by a nod or two. Cassidy glanced deliberately in Solo's direction, but the latter was staring out the window, as if there were something of interest in the opaque blackness beyond.
"Please remember that you're more valuable to U.N.C.L.E. as a survivor bringing back vital intelligence, than as a prisoner of Thrush or worse yet, as a corpse. All right?"
This time, there was heartier agreement. Even Solo nodded, though his attention remained fixed on the window.
"All right, then. Good luck to us."
"And the Lord protect us all," Father Andolino said, by way of benediction, and made the sign of the cross. Cassidy returned to his seat opposite Von Linden.
"I liked your little analogy," the German said. Cassidy didn't answer. He was never quite sure when Von Linden was being sarcastic and when he was not.
"It ist a kind of surgery, ya? Like cutting a cancer from a man."
"Rather the reverse, I should think," Cassidy replied. Just then, Carpenter's voice broke in over the intercom.
"We're comin' up on 'er now, boys. Five minutes to drop."
"Let's get ready," Cassidy said, and they did.
Illya Kuryakin never cared much for jumping from planes. He'd do it, but he didn't enjoy it as some agents apparently did. There was an element of chance involved, a strong sense of being out of control, that Kuryakin's cautious nature couldn't appreciate. During jump training, they usually spent an hour explaining how safe it was, and the next six describing all the things that could go wrong.
Even more, he didn't like using a parachute he hadn't packed himself. The deployment of this one, however, had been smooth. First came the pilot chute, then the main canopy blossomed, and finally, he felt the characteristic jerk as his body was plucked from freefall. Kuryakin squinted in the dark, checking the parachute above him as best he could. The lines were straight and untwisted. He turned his attention to landing.
The target was a small meadow, situated just behind a stand of evergreen trees. Because he was one of the last of the team to exit the plane, Kuryakin found himself a little too long, and tried to compensate by running with the wind.
But the elevation and the weight of the U.N.C.L.E. gear accelerated his descent. Kuryakin's canopy grazed the crown of an evergreen, caught, and redirected his drop. Fortunately, he crashed all the way through the tree and ended up hanging less than a foot from the ground.
"Are you all right?" someone asked as the Russian agent released his harness and hopped to his feet. It was Solo. The priest was with him.
"I'm fine," Kuryakin said, unable to hide his annoyance. With Solo's help, he dragged the parachute down from the branches and buried it. The snow cover was thinner than he'd expected, no more than three or four inches at the most. In this part of the Pyrenees, Mediterranean winds moderated the effects of the higher altitudes, and deep winter didn't arrive until January. With the parachute properly concealed, they trudged through the trees to join the rest of the group.
Once the entire team was assembled, Cassidy ordered a quick weapons check. Each U.N.C.L.E. agent was carrying a modified M1 carbine assault rifle, the Thrush camp's current weapon of choice, as well as his own silenced U.N.C.L.E. Special tucked away under layers of clothing. The only exceptions were Von Linden, who preferred his own custom-made, ivory-handled Luger, a souvenir from his SS days, and Father Andolino, who chose to carry only an old style Mauser-type Special loaded with sleep darts.
"Okay, let's get moving," Cassidy said when all was in order. The team headed southwest, walking single file, keeping parallel to --- but well back from --- the main road.
"Do you hear something?" Solo said, after they'd gone about half a mile. Cassidy, who was in the lead, halted to listen.
"What ist wrong?" Von Linden hissed from the rear.
Von Linden elbowed his way to the front of the line.
"What is it?!"
Cassidy held up his hand for silence. Through the stillness of the mountain night, drifted voices, laughter and the clink of metal.
"It's coming from the direction of the road," Cassidy said. He motioned to Solo. "Napoleon, take a look."
Solo scuttled away in the darkness and was back within minutes with a surprise.
"There's a truck broken down. Looks like a flat. I could make out four guys. I can't be sure, but I think they're Thrush soldiers."
"What bloody good luck!" Peyton-Smythe exclaimed with a grin.
"Not luck --- Providence," Andolino corrected. Beside him, he heard Von Linden harrumph scornfully.
"You don't believe in Providence, Major?"
"I believe in nothing," Von Linden muttered.
"All right, all right," Cassidy broke in, clearly irritated. "If they're fixing a blowout, it's not going to take them all night. C'mon."
The agents moved ahead to a low rise, then flattened themselves, belly-down, to peek over the edge. Solo had been right. Two hundred yards below them, a pair of Thrush soldiers leaned against the hood of a covered transport truck, talking and smoking cigarettes, while their two companions struggled with the right rear tire.
"Can't pick them off from here," Cassidy observed, thinking out loud.
"I might be able to, sir," Kuryakin said.
"Maybe, but let's not take any chances. And we can't lob a grenade at them, either. We'll want that vehicle intact." He turned to Peyton-Smythe. "You look harmless enough. Go down there, talk to them, distract them, get in close. And take Mr. Joubert with you."
The two agents left. They backtracked, circling wide so that they could approach the truck from the direction of the village. As they walked casually up the road toward the two loitering Thrushmen, Joubert noted a fifth man sitting in the cab, behind the wheel.
"Beware the driver," Joubert whispered to Peyton-Smythe before switching to French to address the Thrush soldiers. "Bonsoir, mes amis. Comment ça va?"
One of the soldiers smoking cigarettes looked up. "What'd you say?" he asked in English, with a heavy Yorkshire accent.
"Eh, I asked what was happening here," Joubert said, quickly shifting languages.
"Where'd you two come from?" the other Thrush, an American, wanted to know.
"From Autier," Peyton-Smythe volunteered, his young face as innocent as a choirboy's. "They said you chaps were overdue and they sent us out to look for you."
"We've a bloody puncture," the first soldier explained, but his companion wasn't quite so ready to accept their story.
"Who sent you?" the second soldier asked suspiciously.
"The colonel," Peyton-Smythe lied, taking a chance. He and Joubert were almost in swinging range.
"Oh yeah? Where'd you come from? I didn't hear no engine."
"No? Well, it's right back there."
"There, down the road," Peyton-Smythe said, pointing. And then he hit him.
Reacting on cue, Joubert rushed the other Thrush soldier. He grasped the soldier by the hair with both hands and slammed the head hard against the grill of the truck. From the corner of his eye, Joubert saw the driver throw open a door, scrambling from the cab with a weapon. Suddenly, there was a loud pop. The door window shattered and the driver fell back into the front seat, a bullet embedded above his right ear.
At the other end of the truck, the soldiers who'd been fixing the tire, jumped to their feet. One lifted his rifle, ready to fire, while the other barely managed to unsling his. Two more pops from another direction and they were both lying dead on the ground.
"Good shooting, Major," Joubert complimented Von Linden, who'd killed the driver. The German nodded and walked over to inspect the soldiers that Peyton-Smythe and Joubert had knocked unconscious.
"These two are still alive," Von Linden declared. He sounded almost indignant, like a meticulous housekeeper who discovers an unmade bed. Without a second thought, he aimed his Luger and shot both Thrushmen in the head.
"La Madonna!" Andolino cried.
"You have a problem, Mein Herr?" Von Linden responded evenly. Unlike the others, he refused to address the priest as Father.
"Yes, I have a problem!" Andolino began, but Cassidy moved quickly between them, taking control of the situation.
"Major, take Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Peyton-Smythe with you and get these bodies buried --- pronto. Go with them, Father. I'm sure you'll want to say a few words." Behind him, Joubert and Solo were hard at work on the tire.
Fifteen minutes later, the agents working burial detail rejoined the truck and climbed into the van with Solo. Joubert was already behind the wheel. Cassidy sat in the cab beside him.
"This transfer order is for five men," Joubert observed, scanning the top sheet on the driver's clipboard.
"Make the five into a six," Cassidy said. "We'll bluff our way through and tell them you aren't included in the count."
Joubert found a ball-point pen on the dashboard and did as he was told. Then he rolled down the broken window, threw the truck into gear and pulled away. In the rear van, the rest of the team jerked forward slightly with the motion.
"You shouldn't have shot them," Andolino murmured to Von Linden, who was sitting beside him on a bench.
"You would have preferred if they awakened to warn the others?"
"No, of course not. But we might have secured them to a tree. In their condition, I don't suppose they were going anywhere."
"This way was more merciful than leaving them to freeze, or perhaps, to bleed to death in the snow." Von Linden looked across the aisle at Kuryakin. "You agree, don't you, tovarisch?"
"I didn't think mercy was a particular concern of yours, Herr Major," the Russian agent replied softly. Von Linden chuckled, unperturbed at the insult. He lit himself a much-needed cigarette. When he exhaled, his breath mingled with the smoke in the frosty night air.
"You don't like me very much, do you, Herr Russe?"
Kuryakin declined to answer. Von Linden studied him thoughtfully. "You sound like Oxford by way of Moscow, but I also hear Kiev in your speech. So: which one was it?"
The truck lurched as it hit a bump. "I beg your pardon?" Kuryakin asked, genuinely confused.
"Which one of your parents was slaughtered by Nazis? Father?"
Kuryakin's pale face colored visibly. "My father is a retired colonel ---."
"Ah. Mother, then. My sympathies."
Kuryakin found himself unable to respond. He choked back words that lay half-formed and bitter in his throat, and looked away. The others avoided his gaze in silent embarrassment, except for Solo, who stared at him frankly, taking in the scene. Veiled by the shadows of the van, Solo's expression was unreadable but just for an instant, Kuryakin thought he saw a flicker of empathy in his fellow agent's face.
A fine, wet snow was falling by the time they reached the first checkpoint. Because this was, after all, a public road, the sentries were hidden. Without identifying insignias, their non-descript gray uniforms resembled those usually favored by utility companies. Joubert didn't notice the sentries until he turned a curve and one flagged him down with a flashlight, accompanied by garbled warnings about road problems ahead. Once the Thrushman peeked into the cab however, and saw the agents' black berets, the pretense dropped and his manner turned all business.
Carefully, he read through the orders twice. He circled the truck, inspected the van, counted the agents sitting in the back, checked the orders again. He inquired about the discrepancy in the numbers, directing his questions to Cassidy, who wore a uniform with captain's bars on the collar. Cassidy offered his rehearsed lie about Joubert being merely a driver who wasn't scheduled for transfer, himself. The sentry listened and said nothing. He examined the van again, playing the beam of his flashlight over the agents' stoic faces. Somehow, he missed the extra U.N.C.L.E. gear crammed under the benches and returned to the orders yet a third time. Finally --- satisfied or not, Cassidy couldn't tell --- the sentry waved them on.
"If the next guy is any more conscientious than that one," Cassidy commented to Joubert as they drove away, "this mission will be over even before it begins."
The second checkpoint was located at the far end of a bridge crossing over a tributary of the River Salat. This one had a permanent gate and sentry box, but surprisingly, the guard was more congenial, even friendly. When he accepted the clipboard, Joubert caught a whiff of wine on his breath.
"Where are you coming from, comrade?" the guard asked conversationally in heavily accented French. He sounded East European, probably Polish. Cassidy was struck by the international mix of the Thrush infantry they'd encountered so far.
"North," the senior agent replied simply, not knowing what else to say. The point of origin on the order had been printed in code.
"Then you must be cold and very tired after so long a drive," the guard said. He handed back the clipboard without bothering to check the numbers or inspect the van. "If you're not assigned immediate duty, try the inn. The wine is good and the owner is pretty. And there's going to be a little celebration there, tonight. It's New Year's Eve, after all."
"Happy New Year," Joubert said, feigning weariness, as the Thrushman waved him on.
The road angled right and dipped sharply, heading downward, into a valley. The snow continued to fall, crackling like grains of sand against the windshield. Far ahead, twinkling pinpoints of light appeared, earthbound stars seemingly attached to nothing. Cassidy leaned forward in the passenger seat, straining to see through the blurred glass.
"There it is," he whispered finally. The pinpoints had swelled to form a glowing halo over Autier, which floated, remote and isolated, like an uncharted island in a sea of inky blackness. As they drew closer, Cassidy began to distinguish the village from the Thrush training camp, the camp from the mountain, and the mountain from the surrounding Pyrenees. Autier had about fifty buildings in all, including a church and what looked like a town hall. The barracks, supply shacks and other structures that formed the Thrush encampment beyond, ringed the base of Montsalat like a collar.
"The cable car system appears to be operational," Joubert remarked. In Autier's reflected light, they could see a tiny oblong box edging its way upward, suspended from a thick, steel thread. Cassidy's eye traveled ahead of it, along the line to the terminal point.
Somehow, perched on its bleak, lonely summit, St. Germier's looked more sinister and far more forbidding than it had in the photographs. Unlike the fabulous castles of Bavaria, it had no graceful turrets, no soaring spires, no gingerbread ornamentation reminiscent of a fairytale or theme park. The architecture was stark, humorless, ugly --- squared, massive walls with one unadorned tower that loomed belligerently over the landscape. And, because it had been built with Montsalat's black stone, the abbey didn't appear man-made at all, but seemed to rise, organically, from the mountain itself.
That Swiss entrepreneur was doomed from the start, the senior agent told himself. He could never have transformed this into a ski resort. It's a terrible place --- cruel, wicked, cursed --- and it will never, never be otherwise.
There were lights on in the abbey. Was Louis up there? Cassidy wondered idly. Perhaps, even at that moment, the Frenchman was looking out a window, watching the progress of their truck and knowing it was them.
"There's the inn," Joubert said as they entered Autier's main street. He pointed to the left, to a modest two-story building with a sign that said Boissard's. The cobblestone walk in front was crowded with people, many dressed in Thrush uniforms. The inn's windows overflowed with light, music, and laughter.
"Let's find a nice deserted alley, if we can," Cassidy said. They passed the inn, turned a corner, and headed down a quiet side street. Eventually, the truck pulled to a stop next to a car repair garage housed in a converted barn.
No one else was around. Cassidy and Joubert hopped down from the cab and circled back to the van. The other agents were already climbing out.
"All right," Cassidy said, keeping his voice to a whisper. "Mr. Joubert and Mr. Peyton-Smythe, you're in charge of transportation. Stay with the truck. If you're ordered to move it, do as you're told. Try not to arouse any suspicions, but stay within sight of this vehicle. We'll need it for a quick getaway. Understood?"
The agents nodded.
"Mr. Kuryakin, do you have your explosives pack with you?"
"I want you and Mr. Solo to fix up a suitable diversion for us. No doubt we're going to need one later. Look around the village. Maybe you can get near those fuel tanks we saw in the reconnaissance photos. The Major and I are going to the inn to try to get a lead on Bernier."
Cassidy checked his watch. "It's 7:30. We'll rendezvous back here in an hour and compare notes." He turned to Andolino. "Father, you'll stay with me. Now let's get moving."
After the group dispersed, the senior agents and the priest retraced their route back to the inn. A festive, party atmosphere pervaded the main streets and everywhere they went, they saw soldiers in black berets laughing and mingling with the locals. Thrush had, quite literally, overrun the town and no one seemed to mind.
"It reminds me of the war," Von Linden said with disgust as he watched a young Thrush soldier steal a kiss from an auburn-haired beauty. "The French are such cowards. They will sell their souls and their women to anyone with a gun who comes along."
Cassidy said nothing. He was concentrating hard, studying the passing faces, searching for one that might look particularly familiar.
When the agents reached the inn, they found the celebrating crowd gathered outside had grown even larger, forcing them to elbow their way through. Inside, the situation was even worse. Every seat was taken and the patrons at the bar were packed shoulder to shoulder. A choking cloud of tobacco smoke filled the room to the wooden rafters, while a group of English-speaking Thrush soldiers were clustered around a piano, singing at the top of their lungs and contributing to the general din.
At the sight of Cassidy's captain's uniform, some of the younger recruits stepped aside. Near the bar, a pair even willingly vacated a table. The agents and the priest slipped into the empty seats. Von Linden positioned himself with his back to the wall so that he had a clear view of the door.
"What would you like, gentlemen?" a women asked in French, as she materialized out of the haze. She had full lips, creamy cheeks, wavy jet-black hair and the most gorgeous violet eyes Cassidy had ever seen. Although he recognized Sabienne Boissard immediately from Solo's description, the senior agent's tone remained perfectly neutral.
"A bottle of Jurançon wine --- the best you have."
"The best was consumed hours ago," Sabienne replied with an easy smile. If she knew who the agents were, she was not letting on. "How about the second-best?"
"Only if you promise to deliver it, personally."
"But of course," she laughed and was gone.
Cassidy settled back and casually scanned the room.
"Is Bernier here yet?" Andolino asked.
"I don't see him."
Over in the corner, near the staircase, a Thrushman with sergeant's stripes was taking considerable liberties with a waitress. Nearby, the soldiers around the piano had begun a drunken chorus of "Auld Lang Syne".
"We should mix with this scum, I suppose," Von Linden sneered. "Find out if ---."
Suddenly, his words were cut off by a crack of gunfire. Two shots. Then three. Then two more, followed by shouts and the wail of a warning siren. The piano music ceased in mid-chord and a rumble of surprise rolled through the crowd.
"Uh-oh," Cassidy said, through clenched teeth. He pushed back his chair, preparing to make a quick exit, but it was too late. The shouting outside in the streets was already very loud and very close.
His eyes still focused on the inn's doorway, Von Linden motioned discreetly to his friend to sit back down. Just as Cassidy did, the door burst inward.
"Ecoutez, s'il vous plaît! Achtung! Attention please!"
A Thrush soldier appeared, bellowing orders in three languages. "There has been a breach of security! Please stay calm. Remain where you are!"
In response, the crowd parted, leaving a clear path down the center of the room, and sucked in a collective breath. The Thrush soldier stepped aside to reveal two more. They were holding a slightly bruised Peyton-Smythe propped between them.
"They have our English boy," Von Linden told Cassidy, who dared not turn to risk a peek.
The captured U.N.C.L.E. agent was dragged aside to reveal yet another man in a Thrush uniform. This one's collar was stamped with gold bars, and gold braid decorated the fighting bird symbol above the peak of his officer's cap. He surveyed the inn, acting as if he owned the place.
"Gott in Himmel," Von Linden rasped. His expression froze, then went blank as ice.
He watched as the man, who was obviously in charge, marched into the room. Flanked by two subordinates armed with M1's, the Thrush chief circled the patrons, inspecting each one. He took his time, weaving in and out among tables, progressing slowly but surely towards the bar. No one spoke to him. No one moved. The room was absolutely silent.
Cassidy remained pinned in his seat, unable to watch the little drama playing out behind him. Still, he could hear the rustling of the Thrushmen's movements and when they halted abruptly, he could sense their presence just beyond the range of his vision.
"Well, what have we here?" someone said in accented English. Cassidy recognized the voice, and felt his stomach drop to his boots. He twisted in his chair. Louis Delage --- or something that used to be Louis --- was staring down at him with a death's head grin.
"Allô, Nate," the thing said. "Long time, no see."
"You really have a death wish, don't you?"
So this is what treason does to a man, Nate Cassidy thought to himself as the car crept slowly along the cable.
Though he was growing accustomed to this new Louis, it required some effort. The first sight of his old friend had come as a shock, and the Thrush uniform, flaunted so shamelessly, was only a small part of it.
Louis had gone gray, all gray, the color of cigarette ash --- not only his hair and mustache, but also his eyes, his cheeks, his lips, his skin. Cassidy was reminded of an agent named Bryce during the war, who'd been slowly poisoned by his Nazi-sympathizing mistress. Near the end, Bryce had looked as if he'd been bled dry then embalmed, more a waxworks figure of himself than a living, breathing human being. Delage looked like that, too.
If the initial encounter had been disturbing, the journey to the abbey was downright surreal. It was strange to hear Louis, the once jaunty boulevardier, sternly ordering the Thrush soldiers to strip the prisoners of their weapons and hustle them from the inn. Outside, the agents were confronted with Joubert's bullet-riddled body, dumped on the ground in front of them like a sack of potatoes.
"He was a hot-headed fellow, wasn't he?" Delage commented, before he motioned to the guards to drag the body away.
Poor Jean-Pierre, Cassidy thought. You deserved a better epitaph --- and a stone to carve it on. But there was no time allowed for mourning. There seldom was.
Now, on the ride up to the abbey, accompanied by several armed guards, Delage proudly showed off his uniform. "The right costume is nècessaire in the theatre of war. The SS knew that, eh Herr Majeur?"
Von Linden refused to dignify the question with an answer and continued to stare out the window of the cable car.
"It's just for the benefit of the troops," the Frenchman admitted, turning to Cassidy. "I hold no military rank, though I do serve very close to the Council. But of course, you know this, yes?"
Cassidy didn't know. He'd lied to the junior agents during their briefing the day before. He really had no idea exactly how Delage was positioned within the Thrush hierarchy, but he filed this scrap of information away for future reference.
At the header station at the top of the mountain, they were met by more armed Thrush soldiers. Delage introduced Colonel Zark, the garrison commander, a loathsome creature as bald as a cue ball with a supercilious sneer and eyes like black marbles.
"I've just received word from the village," Zark reported. "No more infiltrators have been found."
"Tell the men to keep searching," Delage replied, annoyed. "U.N.C.L.E. agents are like roaches. When you find one or two, it means there must be others crawling in the woodwork." Then he gestured to his captive guests, the soul of hospitality once more.
"This way, gentlemen, s'il vous plaît."
The knocking was light and barely audible, tapping out a shave-and-a-haircut rhythm. As soon as she heard it, Sabienne Boissard hurried to the rear of the inn and ripped open the door. Solo and Kuryakin were waiting outside, flattened against the side of the building.
"Sacre bleu!" she exclaimed. "Don't you know they are searching for you everywhere?"
"Yeah," Solo replied ruefully, "we know." The night was filled with the echoes of roving security squads and their barking guard dogs.
"Come, come. Inside --- quickly!"
As the agents slipped past her, Sabienne stole a last cautious peek before shutting the door behind them. She led them into a small stairwell behind the kitchen.
"Down to the wine cellar?" Solo asked. They'd switched to English in case the kitchen help was listening.
"Non, too obvious. That is the first place they will look. This way --- to the attic."
Single-file, they ascended a crooked, narrow flight of stairs. The second floor of the inn contained four modest guestrooms, all vacant, and a large, dusty storeroom filled with crates, barrels and several steamer trunks. With some difficulty, Sabienne upended one of the trunks, climbed on top and pressed her fingertips against the ceiling. A panel, invisible to the eye, slid aside to reveal an opening to a secret garret under the roof.
"My father was a maquisard," she explained as Solo helped her down from the trunk. "He had this built during the war. I will hide you here this night."
"Thanks. Do you know what happened to our friends?"
Sabienne nodded. "Two of them --- the two with le camion, the lorry --- they were discovered first. One resisted. He was killed. The others were captured here, at the inn."
"How did Thrush find them?"
"Monsieur Bernier, he knew your friends on sight. I heard him call one by name. They have all been taken to St. Germier's."
Solo squeezed his eyes shut and murmured, "So it was a trap ..." "Trap? What are you talking about?" Kuryakin asked, but the other agent ignored him.
"Sabienne, is there another way into the abbey besides the front gate?"
"Mais oui, the mountain, she is riddled with passages. Do you have climbing equipment?"
Solo shook his head with real regret. Most of their gear had been left behind in the truck. No doubt by now, it'd been discovered and confiscated, as well.
"It does not matter," she consoled him. "The entrances to the caves, they are difficult to find. In the dark, in this weather, it would be impossible. En plus, the soldiers are everywhere, all around."
"I don't care. I have to get into that abb ---."
He stopped to listen. Old Mrs. Thiers was calling Sabienne's name from the bottom of the staircase. The young woman frowned. "It may be soldiers returning to search again. Quickly: into the attic!"
At her urging, the agents scrambled up the steamer trunk and through the hole in the ceiling. After they replaced the panel, Sabienne pushed the trunk aside and hastened to answer Mrs. Thiers' call.
The hiding place was extremely cramped for two grown men dressed in bulky parkas and carrying rifles. The roof hung too low to allow them to stand, so the agents crouched opposite each other, with knees drawn up. A sharp, icy wind whistled through a frame of ventilation slats. Solo peered down at the village, the light from below painting zebra stripes across his face.
Kuryakin watched his companion until he was unable to contain himself any longer. Pitching his voice just above a whisper, the Russian said, "I understand the information about this mission is available only on a 'need-to-know' basis, but considering the current situation, I think I need to know. You mentioned a trap. Could you please fill me in?"
Solo didn't respond at first. Kuryakin wondered if he hadn't heard the question at all, before realizing that a decision was being made. Patiently, the Russian agent gave him time, and finally, Solo spoke.
"Philippe Bernier is an U.N.C.L.E. agent --- or at least he was."
"His real name is Louis Delage," Solo went on, in the face of Kuryakin's incredulity. "Nate knows him, Carpenter knows him. All the senior agents do. Delage was one of the original seed team.
"Twelve years ago, he went undercover with Thrush. Four years later, he broke contact and was never heard from again. That is, until last November, when U.N.C.L.E. received a coded message from Delage requesting extraction. Mr. Waverly sent a reconnaissance team in to check it out. They found Autier --- and the Thrush base."
"Is that where you came in?" Kuryakin asked.
"Not quite. The team kept the village under regular surveillance. They noticed that Sabienne left every Wednesday and drove to Toulouse on business. When Nate took charge of the affair, he sent me in to make contact with her, casually. You know: strike up a relationship, find out what I could, maybe win her confidence --- the usual thing. As it turned out, she was unhappy with the village's collaboration with Thrush. Her parents had fought with the Free French, and she agreed to help us.
"Over the next few weeks, she gave me what information she could. She described the chief of the operation, even identified him from an old photograph. Of course, I never told her his real identity, but it was Delage, all right. When we heard about the New Year's celebration, Mr. Waverly thought it might be a good time to go in. And here we are."
"But now you believe the message was a trap," Kuryakin observed.
"Nate warned me that it might be."
"But why draw us in? For what purpose?"
"I don't know," Solo admitted, "but a more important question is this: even if it was a trap, how could they know we were coming --- and when? There was no further contact either way, yet obviously, Thrush was prepared for our visit."
"What about the girl? Perhaps she's playing both ends against the middle."
Solo looked surprised. "Sabienne? Well maybe, but I don't think so. I trust her."
Kuryakin didn't share his colleague's confidence. He tried to put it as delicately as possible. "Are you certain that your feelings aren't influencing that judgment? Perhaps you've fallen a little in love with the girl."
"I don't fall in love --- not even a little," Solo snapped back. Then, more reasonably, he added, "It's hazardous to my health."
Unwilling to argue, Kuryakin dropped the subject. The next instant, they heard a rap against the panel. Kuryakin reached down and moved it aside to allow Sabienne to poke her head through the opening.
"I must leave you now. I've been summoned to St. Germier's," she told them. "Monsieur Bernier wants me to cook dinner for him and his guests."
"Sort of a last meal for the condemned?" Solo cracked.
"Perhaps. Le seigneur is known for his peculiar sense of humor."
"Are you going up by cable car? Think we might hitch a ride?"
"That will be difficult. The soldiers ---."
"You leave the soldiers to us," Solo assured her. "Just let us know when you're ready to go."
Sabienne retreated and Kuryakin set the panel back in place once more. "Mr. Cassidy ordered us to abort this mission if anything went wrong," he reminded Solo soberly. "Going to that abbey is suicide."
"I'm not leaving here without the others."
Solo looked through the ventilation slats again, his jaw set with grim determination. Kuryakin sighed, resigned to the inevitable.
"Then I suppose I'm going with you."
There was an awkward pause.
"What's wrong?" Kuryakin asked. He narrowed his eyes as it dawned on him. "You don't want my help, do you?"
"Is it because I'm Russian? Because I'm Soviet?"
Solo took a deep breath, then reluctantly plunged on. "Peyton- Smythe told me that when he was at the survival school, he heard rumors about you. That you resisted the initiation the night before graduation . . ."
"That's true," Kuryakin replied flatly.
"And that you refused to take the oath. Or make the mark."
The Russian agent held out his right hand, palm up, as proof. In the dim light leaking through the ventilation slats, Solo could see a hairline scar paralleling the lifeline.
"All right," he said.
And in that moment, though neither man was even remotely aware of it, a bargain was struck, one that would affect everything they did for the rest of their lives.
"It's a complicated story," Kuryakin added, by way of explanation.
Solo cocked an interested eyebrow. "Someday, you'll have to tell me about it."
The buildings of the abbey were arranged roughly around an oblong courtyard and completely surrounded by high parapets. To the north was a large, cruciform-shaped church, its nave pointing westward, toward the well-protected main gate. Along the eastern wall lay the cloisters, dormitories and guesthouses; on the western side, the gardens, offices and storehouses. The cable car system connected to the mountain on the southern face and between the station and the central courtyard, were the stables, kitchen and refectory. At the southeastern corner, stood a formidable round stone keep about six stories high.
"What's in the tower?" Cassidy asked casually as he tried to mentally map his surroundings.
"The past --- and the future," Delage replied with an enigmatic smile.
The prisoners were herded into the refectory. After they were ordered to sit at a long trestle table near an oversized fireplace, their Thrush guards dispersed to take up positions beside the room's four doorways. In the welcome warmth of a blazing fire, the agents watched as Louis Delage acted the role of congenial host.
"Would you like coffee?" he asked. "Something to eat?"
This, from Von Linden, who hadn't spoken a word since the inn.
Delage gestured toward Peyton-Smythe's battered face. "Perhaps a steak for the boy's eye."
"I'm fine," the young British agent announced gamely, though his right eye was discolored and puffy.
"Then, later perhaps. I've sent for a cook. The night, she is young. We still have four hours until midnight." The Frenchman began to pace, slowly circling the table. "So how has life treated you these long years, Nate?"
"Not bad. Yourself?" Even when he wasn't sure of the rules, Nate Cassidy could never resist playing the game.
"Obviously, quite well, or you would not have come here to kidnap me. To be the target of such a mission, it is very flattering."
Cassidy noted there'd been no mention --- not even so much as a hint --- of the mysterious letter requesting extraction. Indeed, Delage seemed totally unaware of its existence.
But if Louis didn't send the letter, who did?
"I'm surprised to find that Auguste did not come with you," Delage mused aloud. He produced a pack of Gauloises, offered one to Von Linden, and lit it with a pocket lighter. "How is my dear cousin?"
"He wants to see you rot in hell," Von Linden replied, exhaling a long stream of smoke. Delage sighed.
"Auguste was never a sentimentalist." No one else wanted any cigarettes. He moved on.
"And you must be the one called Peyton-Smythe, eh?"
"I'd rather not say, actually."
Delage clucked his tongue against his teeth and shook his head. "So young, so idealistic . . ." He looked across the table to Cassidy. "Still recruiting crusaders, I see."
"Just can't help myself," the senior agent admitted with a good-natured shrug. Delage didn't seem to hear. He paused for a moment, studying the high ceiling, the wooden rafters, the wrought-iron candelabras rewired with electric light bulbs, as if he were seeing the room for the very first time.
"Do you know what this place used to be?" he asked.
"A cafeteria for monks?" Cassidy guessed.
"No, no. I mean before that, before the abbey. This was once a great chateau, a citadel, one of the last strongholds of the Cathar heretics."
"So we've heard."
Delage smiled indulgently. "Ah, yes. Your Vatican priest there, he must have told you."
Cassidy exchanged glances with Andolino, trying to disguise his rising alarm. How could Delage know so much? From the girl? But she hadn't been privy to the names of the individual agents, unless Napoleon had told her, and Cassidy doubted that. There had to be someone else --- someone working as a mole, deep within the U.N.C.L.E. organization itself.
Damn, the senior agent thought. Now it was imperative that they get out alive, in order to warn Waverly.
"They called themselves Cathars --- or 'pure ones' --- from the Greek katharos," Delage went on, "and they didn't consider themselves heretics at all, but reformers. They believed that a cosmic war was being waged between two great powers: the higher God of the spirit and an evil god called Rex Mundi, the creator of the material world.
"They decided that since Christ descended from the god of light and was a spirit Himself, he couldn't really be crucified. So they rejected the sacraments, the clergy --- the entire dogma of the Roman Church!"
"It was a deeply misguided heresy," Andolino said. "And extremely dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Delage laughed dryly. "Yes, the Cathars, they were dangerous. They were vegetarians. They meditated. They were devout. And because they were reluctant to bring any more children into this cruel, malignant world, they were chaste, too. Certainly, they were better people than the venal, debauched, corrupt priests of the time period. Isn't that so, mon père?"
"Perhaps," Andolino conceded.
"And what did the Church do with these perfecti, these bonne hommes as others called them? The Pope joined with the King of France and declared a great crusade against them. The entire southwest of France was laid waste by war. Whole cities were put to the torch and all their inhabitants, orthodox and Cathars alike, were murdered."
"What ist the point of all this?" Von Linden demanded, irritably.
"I am coming to it, Herr Majeur. You see, among the leaders of that crusade were the members of the Knights Templar. You've heard of them, eh? Bon, I thought you might have. Then, can you envision them now, these warrior-monks? Bearing down upon the defenseless populations, swords singing, blooding splattering their snow-white tunics? Fighting the good fight for Pope and King, sworn to absolute vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? Sounds familiar, yes?"
The Frenchman grinned nastily and for that brief moment, Cassidy hated him enough to kill him, himself.
"Ah, but here is the irony: a half century later, these same knights were accused of blasphemy, heresy, and devil worship --- just as the Cathars were. They suffered the same fate, too. Their leaders were roasted over a slow fire and the entire order was obliterated."
Delage leaned close to Peyton-Smythe and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "So mon cher garçon, do you understand the moral? You can never truly know who you are serving --- God or Rex Mundi. There is no help for it. And placing your trust in Pope and King will do no good, for when they are finished using you, they will burn you, too."
"I think we've had enough lecturing for one night," Cassidy broke in. He yawned extravagantly. "Could you show us to our quarters, please?"
"You don't wish to see in the new year?"
"If it's all the same to you, we'd rather not."
"Very well," Delage said, sounding disappointed. He motioned to the guards. "Lock them in the penitent cells. We shall give them time to contemplate their sins before the real Inquisition begins. Bon soir, gentlemen."
The prisoners were led away, across the courtyard, to the cellars below the large dormitory building. The group was divided, two agents to a cell. As the heavy bolt locking their own door clunked solidly into place, Von Linden turned to Cassidy.
"What do you make of all that?" the German growled.
But Cassidy only touched a finger to his lips and pointed. High up in the corner, where the ceiling and the stone walls met, they saw a glint in the shadows . . . the glint of a tiny microphone.
The agents' voices cut off abruptly, replaced by the gentle hiss of white noise. Ellipsis Zark tore the plug from his ear and threw it down in disgust. From a special internal surveillance console installed in his quarters, he'd been monitoring events at the abbey since the agents arrived and he, too, was not sure what to make of the evening.
Was Bernier up to something? There was no reason to believe he was. The follow-up query to Thrush Central had only confirmed the objective of the U.N.C.L.E. mission. The team had been sent in simply to apprehend Philippe Bernier. Period. And nothing Zark had overheard during their conversation in the refectory contradicted that. Indeed, there'd been enough tension between Bernier and his old colleagues to fry the receiver wires.
Still, Zark remained suspicious. It was a gut feeling he just couldn't shake.
It was Durand, the night radio operator. He handed Zark a slip of paper. "From Thrush Central, mon colonel."
The decoded message was short and to the point. Coltrane's business was done and he was scheduled to return tomorrow, at seventeen hundred hours.
Good, Zark told himself. Let Coltrane deal with Bernier and this U.N.C.L.E. nuisance. Now, all he had to do was hold the fort for twenty more hours.
"What about the reports from the sentries?" the colonel asked.
"Both checkpoints responded. Corporal Pulaski claims there were only five U.N.C.L.E. agents, despite what the transfer orders said, but Corporal Croix insists he counted seven."
Croix was a better man than Pulaski, and far more dependable. Either Pulaski was lying to save his worthless hide, or part of the infiltration team had slipped away somewhere between Checkpoint Alpha and Checkpoint Beta. Either way, that meant there were at least two U.N.C.L.E. agents still at large in the vicinity of Autier, possibly more.
"Order the security teams to comb the perimeter of the village," Zark told Durand. "And double the guards inside the cable car stations and at the main gate."
"Oui, mon colonel. Toute de suite. ."
Zark replaced the plug in his ear and listened, but the cells were quiet and there was nothing to hear. Apparently, the prisoners had gone to sleep. Even they didn't expect to be rescued, which was obviously an impossibility.
After all, St. Germier's was impregnable, wasn't it?
Kuryakin whispered the word into Solo's ear. Huddled against the side of a deserted garage, they watched as Sabienne entered the cable car station.
The station wasn't much more than a large, square shack with a sloping roof, enclosed on three sides. Flat wooden slats substituted for windows. The interior was lit by several overhead bulbs. Between the cracks, the agents could make out a flock of gray Thrush uniforms, four or five at least. The motor whined and the suspension cables hummed as somewhere, high above their heads, a car made its labored descent from the abbey.
"There are too many soldiers," the Russian observed. "We'll never get into that car with her."
Solo shrugged. "Then we'll ride on top of it."
Kuryakin looked at him, unwilling to believe what he'd just heard. "You really have a death wish, don't you?"
Solo didn't answer. He squinted into the darkness, and spotted a slow-moving shadow. The car was almost there.
"C'mon," he said.
The two agents headed off into the night. Kuryakin wasn't even sure where they were going, but he was beginning to see that if he didn't follow Solo's lead, he'd be left behind. They sprinted across an alleyway and circled wide, approaching the station from the rear. Solo pointed to a nearby toolshed and they scrambled up its side, using the shed as a convenient means to gain the station roof. Once there, they dropped to their stomachs and crawled forward to the edge. The cable car arrived and glided past, just under their chins, then ground to a halt. The station vibrated with the drone of the idling motor.
While they waited for the car to move again, Kuryakin slung the rifle closer to his shoulder and pulled up the hood of his parka. He felt awfully vulnerable here on the roof. If any Thrush soldiers should happen by and glance upward, the agents were as good as dead. Fortunately, the bad weather was keeping everyone indoors. The snow was changing over to sleet and ice pellets pinged against the station's drainage gutters. A fine, slippery glaze was beginning to coat everything in sight.
Abruptly, the lift motor engaged, and the drone rose to a high-pitched shriek. Solo nudged the Russian's shoulder. This was it. The agents drew themselves up, boot heels skidding as they swung their legs over the edge of the roof. The top of the cable car crept under their dangling feet. The suspension bracket appeared. Both men reached out for it, jumped, and hung on as the bracket tugged them off the station roof.
They landed on the car with a double thump. The heavy steel gondola swayed slightly, and continued on its way. Had they been noticed? Kuryakin wondered. There was no way to tell, though the sleet made visibility poor and the night was dark and moonless.
Positioned on either side of the bracket, the agents once again flattened themselves belly down. A cold, wet wind blasted their faces and nipped at their clothes. Kuryakin peeked over the side and saw the lights of Autier fall away in a dizzying blur. The agent shook his head against the vertigo.
"Afraid of heights?" Solo said just under the scream of the wind.
"Not usually," Kuryakin replied. This was certainly a hell of a time to ask, he thought. He ducked his head against his arm and hugged the suspension bracket for dear life.
This business attracted two kinds of men, Kuryakin reflected, as the cable car carried them steadily upward: the reckless and the cautious. The reckless were loners. The cautious were usually company men. The reckless succeeded by their own good luck; the cautious, on the bad luck of others. Kuryakin had always felt at a disadvantage because he didn't fit easily into either category. He suspected that the same might be said of Solo, which made him feel a certain affinity for the man. Still, Kuryakin reminded himself, the cautious collected pensions while those who continuously pulled stunts like this one, ended up dead.
He lifted his head again. The mountain loomed large and terrible, filling the entire field of his vision. A faint halo outlined the abbey's fortified stone walls while a sharper blob of light illuminated the header station located just below them. From the other side of the cable car, Solo nudged Kuryakin again.
"Take out your knife," Solo said as he unsheathed his own. The station was coming up fast. It was an exact twin of the other except this one was embedded into the side of the mountain, its sloped wooden roof jutting out from solid rock. As the car rode along the last few yards of cable, the two agents eased into crouching positions, bowie knives ready. They tensed, and then as the car seesawed and cruised into the header station, they jumped, leaping from one roof to the other.
Kuryakin hit hard as he landed. He rammed his bowie knife deep through the thin snow cover into a wooden shingle with his right hand, while he searched for a handhold with his left. His gloved fingers hooked a protruding beam and caught, but suddenly, there was the sound of splintering.
He felt the blade of his knife break free from the rotted wood, felt the weight of his body shift backwards and slide. The knife clattered away. His other hand lost its grip.
No! Kuryakin thought. He was falling. From the corner of his eye, all he could see below him was black nothingness.
But then, another hand shot toward him and clamped, vise-like, over his right wrist, snatching him back from the abyss. Kuryakin heard a loud grunt that was not his own as his body jerked. The toes of his boots scrambled desperately for purchase, slipped, slipped again, and finally found it. The hand on his wrist squeezed even harder, fingers digging in, between the bones, cutting off his circulation. With another agonized grunt, it hauled him upward to safety.
"Thank you," Kuryakin said, as he regained his perch. Solo lay spread-eagled, his cheek pressed against the roof, momentarily winded from the effort.
"Don't mention it," he gasped.
The agents paused only long enough to catch their breaths. Painfully, they dragged themselves the rest of the way up the roof. At the base of the walls, they unfurled small grappling hooks, threw them, then used the attached ropes to clamber up and over the walls. It was a slow and difficult climb, made even more treacherous by the icy sleet. Only when they reached the top of the parapets did they stop to rest.
"Where to now?" Kuryakin asked. Solo scanned the buildings that ringed the courtyard. "Sabienne said she was summoned up here to cook, so I guess we should look for a kitchen." He pointed to the long, dormitory-like structure to the right.
Kuryakin sniffed the air experimentally and shook his head. He tipped his chin toward the square house directly below them.
"No. That one, I think."
Kuryakin's choice turned out to be correct. They found Sabienne in a primitive stone kitchen, stirring a large iron kettle over an open flame. The young woman looked up from the fireplace as they slipped through the door. She was alone.
"So: you are not dead after all," she said, her anger tempered by relief. "Each time the cable car swayed, I thought one of you had fallen. Mon Dieu, that was an idiot thing to do!"
"Not at all," Solo replied, ignoring Kuryakin's sideways glance. "Nate once told me how a team of Allied agents infiltrated the Schloss Adler during the war the very same way. I figured if they could do it, we could do it, too."
Sabienne threw up her hands in disgust. "Agh! Men! You are all such fools!"
Solo chuckled, unoffended. He changed the subject. "What's in the pot?"
"Soup, for the prisoners, and it is almost done." Sabienne tapped the spoon against the rim. "You would like to help me deliver it, yes? Eh bien, take off your coats and help me with this."
After she replaced the lid on the soup, the agents poked a rough-hewn broomstick through the handle and hefted the heavy kettle between them. Sabienne gathered up an armful of pottery bowls and cheap metal spoons.
"Bon, now you will come with me. We will use the passageways under the abbey." She appraised them critically. "Straighten your uniforms and try to look like guards."
At the rear of the kitchen, they descended a staircase that led downward, to an underground tunnel. Indifferently-spaced lanterns were strung along the walls. Some were lit, some were not. They encountered only one guard on duty, just beyond the foot of the kitchen stairs. An apathetic sort, he yawned aloud as he waved them by.
In the limited available light, Kuryakin could see that some portions of the passageway had been excavated by human hands while others were formed by natural caves. The sound of running water, an underground spring perhaps, gurgled in the distance. The air was fetid with dampness and decay. Studying the hollowed-out crevices in the wall, Kuryakin wondered if these tunnels had ever been used as catacombs.
After a several a hundred yards or so, the passageway took a sharp dogleg to the left. It continued on for another dozen yards, ending abruptly in an underground vault filled with rotted casks. No doubt, it had once served as a wine cellar.
A maze of corridors led away in various directions. Sabienne chose one on the right. The natural dirt floor gave way to crudely shaped tiles and the lighting improved. Occasionally, the stone walls were interrupted by thick oak doors. Each door was decorated with a tiny iron mesh window and a massive iron bolt.
The agents recognized a cellbock when they saw it, so they weren't surprised to encounter another pair of guards. With a weariness that was only partly pretense, Solo and Kuryakin put down the soup.
"Monsieur? Do you have the key?" Sabienne asked the guard who was lounging against a wall. As he fingered the ring that hung from his belt, Solo hit him from behind, breaking his neck. Simultaneously, Kuryakin made short work of the other guard. Sabienne directed them to a nearby door.
"Mr. Cassidy? Major Von Linden?" Solo called out in a hushed whisper as Kuryakin fumbled with the keys. The darkness and the thick grillwork on the door made it impossible to see inside. There was no reply. Kuryakin threw the bolt and Solo pulled open the heavy door.
"Nate!" Solo said when he saw him, but Cassidy put a finger to his own lips, effectively cutting him off. The older agent motioned to the ceiling of the cell. Solo understood.
The others? he asked, mouthing the words silently. Von Linden appeared behind Cassidy and crooked a thumb at the adjacent cell. Kuryakin went to work on the second lock. In less than a minute, the door swung open and Peyton-Smythe and Father Andolino emerged into the lit corridor.
"Such a happy réunion! a voice observed in the stillness of the corridor. "I am touched."
The agents all turned and froze. Louis Delage was standing behind them, a .44 automatic in one hand and a leather satchel in the other.
"A job well done, Sabienne, mon chérie. I knew I could depend on you." The young woman acknowledged the compliment by blowing a kiss. Delage gestured to Solo and Kuryakin with the barrel of his gun.
"Is this the last of your team, Nate?"
"Gang's all here," Cassidy admitted, reluctantly.
Solo and Kuryakin began to slowly unsling their assault rifles in defeat, but Delage shook his head and waved them back. "That will not be nècessaire, gentlemen. Keep your weapons. You will need them, yes? Regardez: I have brought the rest."
He threw down the satchel, and the top opened to reveal the others' confiscated automatics. The agents exchanged puzzled glances as Cassidy spoke up.
"If this is some sort of bad joke, Louis, I don't think I get the punchline."
Delage laughed. "All life is a bad joke mon ami, but you have my word, I am in earnest." He holstered his own automatic and snatched one of the lanterns from a wall bracket. "You will instruct your men to retrieve their weapons, yes? Then, I will show why you were summoned."
"So you did send the letter?" Cassidy asked as they walked along the tunnel, retracing Solo and Kuryakin's steps.
"Mais oui, but of course. Who else would send it? Sabienne posted it for me, herself."
"Then why the elaborate charade?"
"Why not? Your man, Solo, when he contacted Sabienne, we had no way of knowing his true allegiance. He might have been playing a double game, himself, yes? One must be careful, Nate. Thrush has agents everywhere, even in U.N.C.L.E. I do not know who they are, but I know they are there. When they informed me of your coming, I prepared."
"But why call us in now?"
Delage smiled enigmatically, as he did earlier. "For the treasure, of course." When Cassidy stared back at him, perplexed, Delage asked, "You mean to say you know nothing of the legend?" He turned to Andolino and eyed him slyly. "But of course you do, don't you, mon père?"
"I've heard of it, yes," the priest conceded coolly. "It's only a foolish myth."
"Ah, I see. So foolish, that you'd crawl out of your safe little hole in the Vatican to come here and see for yourself, eh? Forgive me, mon père, but you don't strike me as a foolish man."
Andolino said nothing. Von Linden broke in, impatiently. "What are you talking about, Delage? Speak plainly: what legend?"
"The great Cathar treasure, Herr Majeur. All medieval literature tells of it, but only one obscure text, the Apocrypha Perfecti offers clues to its location. I discovered a copy of the apocrypha five years ago, while pursuing my hobby, collecting illuminated manuscripts." He turned to the priest again. "When did you stumble across your copy, mon père? More recently, I would expect."
They'd arrived at the dogleg of the tunnel. Instead of continuing to the right, however, Delage halted the group before a blank stone wall. Holding his lantern high above his head, he gingerly ran the fingertips of his other hand over the smooth surface, until he hit a particular spot. There was a mechanical clunk, then a fissure magically appeared, then a flat slab of a door cracked open, no longer flush with the wall.
"Voila!" Delage exclaimed with satisfaction. It took both Cassidy and Von Linden to drag open the door halfway.
"Hold it right there, all of you!" someone said --- someone who did not belong to the group. From behind the door, Cassidy peered out. The loathsome garrison commander was standing in the center of the tunnel, covering them with a gun.
"Let's go. Get over there --- now!" Zark said. He moved closer, next to the door. Delage and Cassidy stepped back, to join the rest of the group.
"What alerted you to our little escape, Colonel?" the Frenchman asked. "Are you clairvoyant?"
"There was a microphone in our cell," Cassidy said.
"Ah, so the mystery is solved." Delage clucked his tongue against his teeth, loudly. "I didn't expect such treachery from you, Zark."
"No, but I expected it from you." Zark unclipped a Thrush communication unit from his belt, preparing to call for reinforcements. But before he could, Von Linden, who'd be hiding on the other side of the door, suddenly rammed his shoulder against it and pushed. The stone revolved with a groan, slamming into the startled Zark and catching his arm between the door and the wall.
Zark screamed as his left hand, which held the communicator, was crushed to a pulp. He attempted to fire his gun, but Cassidy was on him, and redirected the aim. Although the gun went off, the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off some nearby rocks. Von Linden grasped Zark by the collar and smacked the bald head hard against the wall, as one might crack an egg. When he released the colonel, the Thrushman's body crumpled into an unconscious heap. Von Linden turned to Delage.
"As you were saying --- ?"
Delage shook his head. "I see your reflexes remain as murderous as your instincts, Herr Majeur. Come, let us move inside. Only one other man knows of this passage, and he is away at the moment. Once we close the door again, we will be safe."
They took Zark's unconscious body with them and dumped it after the panel swung shut. The corridor that met them was narrow and straight and would have been pitch black if it were not for Delage's lantern.
"You noticed the tower, gentlemen, yes?" Delage continued as he led the way. "The Cathars, they built a secret chamber within it, four stories above ground, three stories below. When they were vanquished, the monks discovered the treasure house. They safeguarded it until the Revolution, then took the secret to their graves. The treasure was lost, even to the Church. The Nazis missed it entirely. Until I arrived, no one living outside the monks' community had entered this place for seven hundred years."
He stopped before a massive wooden door. A giant fleury cross had been carved upon it. Above the door, a stone plaque had been added, proclaiming the message:
Fides Ante Scientia --- "Faith Before Knowledge."
"Un moment, s'il vous plaît," Delage said. "The monks, they boobytrapped the door against the rest of the world. If opened incorrectly, we are all destroyed."
Carefully, he touched each splayed tip of the cross in the right sequence, as if bestowing a blessing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Somewhere, a latch released. The door popped inward, slightly ajar. Delage let out a shuddered breath, then held out his hand.
"Gentlemen, entrez. I give you: the curse of Montsalat, the secret of St. Germier, the lost treasure of the Cathars . . ."
"Fides Ante Scientia"
"Books!" Cassidy exclaimed.
Along with the others, he gazed upward, at the narrow, vertical chamber ringed by balconies. In the burnished glow of a jury-rigged light system, he could see that every bit of available space --- every nook, every shelf, almost every inch of the ground floor --- was crammed with books.
"Naturellement! What else would you expect from a people who despised the material world?" Delage replied. "The Cathars, they believed that intellectual discourse could lead to the understanding of the one true God."
As the group spread out through the secret library, Delage closed the door behind them. Father Andolino reached for a volume bound in tattered leather and examined the title on its spine.
"The Gospel According to Judas Iscariot," he read aloud. He picked up another. "Lucianus. Why, these are the condemned writings of Lucianus the Roman!" More quickly now, he scanned each volume in the pile. "The Epistle of Themison the Montanist. The Gospel of the Ebionites. The Acts of Thomas. Dear Lord! At one time or another in history, all of these books were banned by Holy Mother Church. The copies were supposed to be burned centuries ago."
"Indeed, mon père," Delage said as he walked past. "It seems the Cathars valued the pursuit of knowledge more than your popes did."
Up on the third level balcony, Kuryakin took a random volume from a shelf, blew the dust from its cover and opened it. The first page he encountered was not old at all, but rather new. And it listed the names of all Thrush agents operating in Trieste, Yugoslavia, since 1925. He flipped the page, then flipped again. Between the ancient yellowed sheets of parchment, were inserted new, typewritten pages which continued, in detail, the biographical data of the Trieste agents.
"Look at this," the Russian agent said to Solo, who was next to him.
"What is it?" Cassidy called out from the second level.
"Records, sir," Solo replied. "Thrush records."
The other agents opened the books in their own hands and found much the same thing. Tucked away between the pages of each volume were documents describing one small portion of the entire Thrush organization. Cassidy looked up from his own discovery, a list of communication codes, and stared at Delage, who joined him.
"Ingenious, yes?" the Frenchman asked, obviously pleased with himself, "and inspired, too! What better place to store Thrush records than in the forbidden books of a heretical sect, hidden away in the Devil's Attic?" He began to laugh uncontrollably, until tears filled his eyes.
"Is this everything?" Cassidy asked incredulously, as it all began to sink in.
"Oui! Yes! Everything! Everything! All of it! From the very beginning!" Delage continued to be convulsed by fits of laughter. Cassidy shook his head.
"I have to call U.N.C.L.E. immediately."
"You can't, not from here. The abbey, she is covered by an electronic jamming blanket."
"But we can't carry all these volumes away ourselves. There aren't enough of us."
"Carry away?" Andolino broke in. "What do you mean carry away? Aren't you going to destroy this library instead?"
"Not on your life, Father. Everything U.N.C.L.E. needs to defeat Thrush, once and for all, is right here."
"Then these books will survive," Andolino said.
The priest grew quiet and wandered away through the stacks. Cassidy turned to matters at hand. "When Alex Waverly hears about this, he'll send in more men, a larger assault force."
"He must do it soon," Delage warned. "Our archivist, Charles Coltrane, is away at Thrush Central, making the arrangements for the transfer of these records. He is scheduled to return tomorrow." The Frenchman leaned in close. "They are building a machine. . ."
"A machine, a thinking machine --- an infallible computer, to direct Thrush operations. Some are calling it the 'ultimate' computer, because it will be greater than any mind on earth, human or otherwise. They will use all the information gathered in this library to program it."
"How long do we have before they move the records?" Cassidy asked.
Delage shrugged in response. "Who can say for certain? Two days, three. A week at the most. But believe me, mon ami, once they are finished setting up that machine, nothing can stop them. Not you, not I, not all the U.N.C.L.E. agents in the world. Thrush will be invincible."
Invincible! Cassidy was staggered by the thought.
"You see why I called you in? Alexandre, he wanted me to remain undercover until I should reach the council. I waited until this project was complete, but then, I could wait no longer. You understand, yes?"
Cassidy glanced at Von Linden, whose expression was grim. Yes, they both understood very well. As he quickly considered their next course of action, Cassidy heard the sound of a fist connecting with flesh, followed by a loud grunt. The commotion was coming from somewhere below them, on the ground level.
The senior agent spun on his heel, just in time to see Father Andolino knock young Peyton-Smythe to the floor.
"Hey!" Cassidy shouted, but neither man heard him. The priest flung himself on top of the young British agent and the two wrestled together, in a tangled heap, near the door.
"Excuse me a moment," Cassidy said to the others beside him. He hopped over the balcony railing and raced down the narrow stairs. By the time he'd reached the scuffling men, Andolino had his Mauser-style Special out. Cassidy grabbed the priest by the shoulders, in an effort to tear him away from Peyton-Smythe, but Andolino hadn't seen him coming. Startled, the priest twisted and accidentally fired.
There was a familiar thunk, then a stab of pain as Cassidy felt the sleep dart embed itself in his bicep. Reality melted into a swimming haze. Cassidy clutched at his own arm. He watched the priest's face change from anger to surprise and saw something else --- what? doubt? sorrow? --- before everything went black.
From the third level of the library, Solo and Kuryakin watched the little drama play out below them in stunned amazement.
"What the hell ---?" Solo said.
As Cassidy went down, Andolino took a step backward to regain his balance. Behind him, sprawled against the wall, his head still lolling to one side, Peyton-Smythe drew his own Special. The priest turned, ready to shoot again, but the British agent was quicker. Peyton-Smythe's gun roared in the silence of the library chamber and a bullet slammed into Andolino, just to the right of his heart.
The priest staggered, rocked by the impact. Dropping the dart-loaded Special, he pivoted, then lurched toward the huge wooden door, flailing out blindly.
"Non, ce n'est pas possible," Delage murmured in disbelief.
But it was true: even as he stumbled forward in the throes of death, the priest was reaching out --- and purposefully so --- for the image of the cross carved on the inside of the door.
"What did you say?" Von Linden demanded, thoroughly confused by the turn of events.
"The priest --- the door --- the cross: it is like the one on the outside. If he touches the wrong end first, he will kill us all!"
But apparently, this was exactly what Andolino had in mind.
Delage raised his voice. "Someone: stop him! Stop him, now!"
In response, Peyton-Smythe fired again. The shot caught the priest in the left shoulder, but it didn't stop him. He kept going. His hand stretched out and touched the tip of the cross' horizontal bar. There was a faint click. Satisfied, Andolino finally collapsed to the floor and died.
Almost immediately, something began to snap, over and over again, in quick succession. It sounded like applause, followed by a low gurgling and the whoosh of rushing water.
"Mon Dieu!" Delage rasped in horror. "All is lost."
Sabienne appeared next to Von Linden.
"What is happening?"
"I don't know," he replied, just as Solo and Kuryakin descended one level to join the group.
From their vantage point on the balcony, they could see precise streams of water surging across the ground level. The water was traveling along shallow indentations that formed an intricate pattern in the floor. Kuryakin had noticed the gutters earlier and thought their function was to drain water out of the library. Now he realized he was wrong. They were meant to bring water in.
The gutters filled and overflowed. Water gathered around Peyton- Smythe, who held his head painfully as he struggled to his feet, and around the unconscious body of Nate Cassidy as well. Suddenly, there was a loud pop, like a lightbulb breaking. Then another. And another. And another. And another . . .
Frightened, Sabienne groped for the safety of Delage's arm, but the Frenchmen stood petrified, like a statue, so she grasped Solo's hand instead. From somewhere overhead, a sealed glass flask was released. It plummeted past her. Sabienne screamed. The flask smashed as it hit the floor and exploded. Fire danced on the surface of the water, inches beyond Peyton-Smythe. The agent stumbled to the foot of the stairs, and began to climb.
Another flask fell. And another. And another.
Small islands of flame floated along the gutters as the water level rose. It was now about three inches deep. The flames spread, licking at the piles of books.
"Pure magnesium, stored in an oil," Kuryakin said as yet another flask dropped nearby. "When the metal hits the water, the chemical reaction ignites the oil."
"We have to get out of here," Solo said. He glanced down at the huge wooden door with Andolino's corpse beside it. Already, both the corpse and the door were engulfed by flames. Von Linden nudged Delage with the barrel of his Luger.
"Ist there another way out?"
The Frenchman stared straight ahead. He didn't even blink. Von Linden repeated the question louder and this time, there was a response: "On the third level. It is only an exit, not an entrance."
"That's all we need," Solo said. Peyton-Smythe had arrived at the balcony landing. He looked dazed and disoriented.
"You take the three of them," Solo told Von Linden. "Illya and I will catch up."
Von Linden nodded. He didn't need to ask where the younger agents were going. Cassidy was still on the ground level floor. Solo vaulted over the balcony railing. After passing their guns and his knapsack to Von Linden, Kuryakin did likewise.
The ground floor was quickly becoming an inferno. Fire climbed the bookshelves like vines on trellises, hungrily consuming the dry parchment pages. Solo and Kuryakin waded through the ankle-deep water, sloshing aside the patches of burning oil. They found Cassidy lying on his back, unconscious but unharmed. A natural rise in the uneven floor had miraculously re-directed the water away from him. The two younger agents hoisted the body, shouldering the dead weight between them.
"All right?" Solo shouted over the roar of the blaze.
Kuryakin nodded. It was now or never.
They hurried to the staircase as fast as the burden of Cassidy's body would allow. A burning bookcase broke away from the wall and crashed to the floor, spilling its contents and adding more fuel to the fire.
The agents gained the stairs. More shelves collapsed and more books fell, almost catching them in an avalanche of ancient volumes. They kept going. The fire pursued them, devouring the wooden supports for the stairs. Just as they reached the first balcony, the staircase collapsed. The agents never looked back.
On the second balcony, they halted long enough to gulp some much- needed oxygen. The air was clearer here, but the smoke and the heat were rising fast.
"Look: over there," Kuryakin said, between breaths. Solo peered across Cassidy's head, which hung limp from the neck. A bookcase had been pushed inward, revealing a doorway.
Below them, the beams supporting the first balcony splintered and broke away.
"Let's go for it," Solo said.
The agents steeled themselves for one last effort, then made a break for the exit. The fire seemed to howl in a rage behind them, hurling flaming books and timbers.
They plunged into the passageway. At once the searing heat and smoke was replaced by cool dampness. Von Linden shut the door behind them. Solo and Kuryakin sank to their knees and eased Cassidy's body to the ground.
"He's going to be out for two more hours at least, isn't he?" Peyton-Smythe observed miserably. The British agent had the pale, moist, unfocused appearance of someone with a concussion.
"What happened in there between you and the priest?" Von Linden asked.
Peyton-Smythe tried to shake his aching head. "Don't know, Major. He was muttering something about the books, and then he just went bloody crackers."
"Well, now what'll we do?" Solo asked aloud as he got to his feet.
"That depends on you, boy," Von Linden replied. "Nate appointed you the ramrod. You are in charge."
Solo glanced at Kuryakin as the realization sank in. The Russian agent nodded gravely, offering silent support. Solo turned to Sabienne.
"Back at the inn, you said the mountain was riddled with passageways, that we could avoid the front gate."
"Ah oui, I played in these passages as a child. But it was so very long ago --- I don't know if I can remember the way out."
Sabienne smiled helplessly to indicate that she would try. As Solo and Kuryakin reached down to lift Cassidy, Von Linden seized Delage by the arm.
"Come, Louis ---."
Delage drew back. "Oh no, I won't go with you. I can't."
Von Linden laughed harshly. "You have no choice."
"Ah, but I do. I always intended to remain in Thrush. I. . . I will name Zark as the traitor. Oui, of course: Zark. I will say that he let you in. He is responsible. He . . ."
"They won't believe you."
"Yes, they will. They must." Panic seemed to grip Delage as he groped for the words. He flinched repeatedly, his cheek seized by a nervous tic. "I. . . I can't go back to U.N.C.L.E. I can't. I have work to finish here. I can't. . ."
Von Linden's voice was cool and firm. "Enough of this nonsense. With that library destroyed, you are all we have left. Do you hear? You know the information that was in those records --- at least the important ones."
Delage began to protest that he didn't know anything, but Von Linden raised his Luger and placed the barrel next to the Frenchman's head. He leaned in close, so that Delage could feel his breath.
"Don't tempt me. For if you are as useless to us as you claim to be, then you can die right here."
That settled it for the moment. With Sabienne leading the way, the little group set off into the tunnels.
The acrid smell of smoke seeped into Zark's nostrils and nudged him back to consciousness. The Thrush colonel opened his eyes. Although the narrow corridor in which he lay was filled with a thin haze of smoke, the place wasn't as dark as it should have been. Light was coming in from some unknown source. The walls glowed a deep crimson red.
Zark tried to raise his head and felt a wave of nausea roll through his body. Fighting against the vertigo, he forced himself upright. He reached out with his left hand, then screamed from the pain, rolling over again like a beached whale.
He remembered now. They'd crushed his hand.
He tried again, this time favoring his right side, and struggled to his feet. It was only then that he realized he was sweating. His back was toasty warm, as if he were standing too close to a furnace. Zark twisted to look over his shoulder. The large wooden door at the other end of the long corridor was alive with flames.
So they'd set it on fire. Purposefully or accidentally? It didn't matter. Three years of work gone down the drain, quite literally. Someone's head would roll for this. Zark was going to make sure it wasn't his.
He tucked his ruined hand against his body and lurched unsteadily in the opposite direction. It took him a few seconds to find the mechanism that worked the secret panel. He didn't stop at the tunnel, but kept on going, until he found his way to the outside.
"Colonel!" someone shouted in English. The sleet was still falling, but Zark didn't mind. It was good to inhale clean, fresh air. He leaned against the side of the refectory building for support and waited for his subordinate to arrive. The pain in his hand was excruciating, he couldn't seem to think straight, and his vision was blurry. He squeezed his eyes shut several times to clear it.
"Colonel, we have an emergency situation," a Thrush lieutenant informed him. Obviously, Zark thought, though he didn't have enough energy to reprove the man's stupidity. The colonel looked toward the stone tower, which sparked and flared in the night like a giant Roman candle.
Were Bernier and his U.N.C.L.E. friends trapped in there? Zark didn't know, but he wasn't taking any chances. He vaguely recalled his superior once mentioning a secret back door.
"While you get that fire under control, station guards along the walls, in the cable stations and around the main gate," the colonel ordered, wincing. It was an effort just too speak. "Send two squads to search the tunnels and two more to search the abbey. Bring me anyone they find. And fetch the goddamn medic."
The lieutenant saluted and left. Only when he was gone, did Zark sink slowly to the ground. He grit his teeth and closed his eyes, unable to endure the double vision. Hatred, hot and bitter, coursed through his body like adrenalin and kept him conscious.
Bernier, or whatever his real name was, and that Nazi bastard. The bitch from the village and the others. And who were those two new ones and where had they come from? He reviewed their faces, one by one, imagining their heads mounted on pikes. This mountain was as good as an island, Zark told himself. If they'd escaped the library, they wouldn't escape him now. He'd see them all in hell first.
A sharp, icy breeze wafted through the passageway, stirring the air currents and the agents' expectations. They'd been wandering through the mountain's maze of shafts and grottoes, pushing steadily downward and eastward, hoping to locate an access route to the outside. Their progress had been slow however, and there'd been too many wrong turns and dead ends.
"I think this may be it," Kuryakin said, encouraged by Sabienne's quickening pace.
"It'd better be," Solo replied. Cassidy was still out cold and his body was beginning to feel like a ton of bricks. They didn't have much time left, either. Already, in the distance, they could hear the faint echoes of Thrush security squads. Sooner or later, the U.N.C.L.E. agents knew, one of those squads was bound to find them.
"C'est ici! Ici! Here!" Sabienne announced excitedly. She had Kuryakin's small commando flashlight and its meager beam revealed an opening up ahead. Despite her limp, she began to hurry toward it.
"Wait, girl," warned Von Linden, who was bringing up the rear. When she didn't seem to hear, he pushed past the group and trotted after her. "Mademoiselle Boissard?"
"But Monsieur Majeur," she said laughing, "We are here. We have arrived. We ---."
Abruptly, she halted in her tracks. The tunnel had ended, but so had the ground underfoot. Her body tottered, propelled by the forward momentum, but Von Linden managed to snatch her hand and yank her back.
"Sacre bleu!" Sabienne cried.
"What is it?" Solo asked. He and Kuryakin carefully deposited Cassidy in a corner before joining the others. They'd reached the eastern side of Montsalat all right, and the countryside stretched before them like a carpet of black velvet --- 150 meters below their feet. They were standing on the edge of a cliff with no way to get down.
"Bloody Christ, another dead end," Peyton-Smythe groaned in despair. He sat down next to the unconscious Cassidy, resting his own injured head against a wall. Delage stood nearby and said nothing. Ever since they'd left the library, the Frenchman had been moving like a somnambulist, his eyes fixed in an empty, half-lidded stare.
Solo sighed heavily. He didn't have to say it: they were in deep trouble. They had one man unconscious, one with a split skull, and one slipping into catatonia, and now they were cornered on the side of the mountain.
"Do you want to retrace our steps again?" Kuryakin asked reluctantly. He knew it was useless. They'd either get lost or run into a Thrush search party.
"No," Solo said. "We'll make our stand here."
"I still have those plastic explosives in my knapsack."
When Von Linden cocked a questioning eyebrow, Kuryakin explained, "Mr. Cassidy wanted us to blow the fuel tanks back in the village, as a diversion. We never had the chance."
"We could wire the other end of this tunnel," the German said thoughtfully. "Then, if they find us, we can seal it off --- or at least, take a few of them with us."
The other agents nodded in agreement. While Kuryakin rummaged through his pack for the explosives, Solo rooted through Cassidy's clothes to locate the homing device. He found it in the senior agent's left trouser pocket.
"After all that water, let's see if it still works," Solo said. He held up the smooth, steel box and hit the switch. The electronic beacon began to throb with a low, constant pulse.
"We're probably still within the range of that jamming blanket," Kuryakin reminded him.
Solo looked out, over the edge of the cliff. Wind whipped up the side of the mountain, spraying sleet in his face. "I could toss it out there, but it might smash on the rocks."
"It ist your decision," Von Linden said. He motioned to Kuryakin. "Come, boy. We have work to do in the tunnel."
As he followed the German agent back into the mountain, Kuryakin stole a peek over his shoulder. Solo was poised at the mouth of the cave, still studying the sky. He said something to Sabienne and she answered. He listened to her for a moment, juggling the homing device between the palms of his hands. And then, almost on impulse, Solo wound his arm back like a baseball pitcher, and with all his strength, flung their last, best hope into the night.
Throwing out that beacon was a desperate gamble, Kuryakin reflected as he jabbed a last lump of plastic explosive into a rock crevice. He was glad he hadn't been called upon to make such a decision. He'd never want the responsibility.
Von Linden stepped back and surveyed the Russian's handiwork. The circuit of charges had been strategically placed to ring the passageway at its junction to the main tunnel.
"Very nice. You have a definite talent for this."
When Kuryakin didn't answer, the German added, "A word of advice, Herr Russe: if you don't speak very much, others will think you don't feel very much."
Kuryakin didn't want any advice, particularly from the likes of Von Linden. After he finished with the charges, he took out a blasting cap and unspooled a fuse.
"We don't have an electric detonator, and I'm afraid this fuse is rather a short one. I hope the blast doesn't kill us all before ---."
Von Linden held up a hand. "Listen. . ." he hissed.
Kuryakin paused and sucked in a breath. He heard voices and random footfalls. Approaching Thrush soldiers, no doubt. They were getting closer. But then Kuryakin noticed another sound, steady and persistent, almost like the drone of an insect. He realized he'd been hearing it for some time.
A helicopter. Someone was arriving in a helicopter!
"You'd best go back to the group," Von Linden said. "They'll need you. I will finish here." He took the fuse from Kuryakin's fingers. "Do you have a pistol?"
Automatically, Kuryakin clawed under his clothing for his Special and came up empty. He'd depended for so long on the M1 assault rifle, he hadn't noticed that his Special gone. He'd probably lost it on the cable car ride.
Von Linden pulled out his own Luger and checked the clip. "Here, take mine, and give me your rifle. Now, go. They will not wait for you."
Kuryakin tried to protest. Judging by the pounding boots, a squad of Thrush soldiers was very close.
"Go, boy, go. Save your mother's son," Von Linden said. "Now, in your life, all ist in balance." He almost smiled.
Kuryakin took off. By the time he reached the cave at the other end of the passageway, the thrum of the helicopter was deafening. It was a Sikorsky utility transport, the kind used for sea rescues and for retrieving astronauts after splashdown.
"Happy New Year!" Solo laughed in triumph, his arms thrown wide. Kuryakin glanced at his wristwatch. It was only ten minutes after midnight, which surprised him. It seemed as if a lifetime had passed since they'd parachuted from the Lockheed Electra.
At the moment, Louis Delage and Cassidy's unconscious form were being hauled up to the helicopter by an electric winch. Carpenter's red-haired co-pilot was hanging out the main cabin door, operating the controls. Carpenter, himself, was barely visible through the cockpit canopy, fighting to keep the Sikorsky stable against the updrafts.
Smart move, bringing in a rescue transport, Kuryakin thought to himself. They'd never have been able to climb a ladder under these conditions. He thought of Carpenter with even more respect.
The power-drive of the winch engaged and the leather sling descended again. This time, it was Sabienne and Peyton-Smythe's turn. Solo grabbed the sling, steadied it and helped them into it.
"Where's the Major?" he shouted to Kuryakin.
"Still in the tunnel, setting the fuse. He should be finished shortly."
"I sure hope so."
Suddenly, a shot whined near Solo's head and tore into the rocks, punctuating his sentence. "Well, Thrush knows where we are now," the agent said.
A shower of bullets rained down as Sabienne and Peyton-Smythe were hoisted into the helicopter. Solo and Kuryakin returned covering fire the best they could. The winch reversed again. It was their turn.
This is going to be some ride, Kuryakin told himself as he climbed into the sling. Close beside him, Solo hooked one hand around the winch cable and continued firing with the other. The power-drive engaged and they were jerked upward.
The short ascent seemed to last an eternity. The shots came thick and fast from the soldiers who were fanned out along the abbey walls. Bullets zinged past the agents' heads and ricocheted against the helicopter's fuselage. Finally, they arrived at the cabin door.
"Any more?" the red-headed co-pilot asked.
"Just one," Kuryakin said as he scrambled out of the sling.
"Well, where is he? We can't wait here all night."
Almost in answer to the question, Monsalat was suddenly rocked by an explosion. Jarred by the concussion, the helicopter drifted sideways. Carpenter battled to bring it back. Braced against the cabin door, Kuryakin peered downward. Black smoke billowed from the mouth of the cave and spilled over the side of the mountain.
"We gotta get out of here," the co-pilot said.
"Ten seconds more," the Russian agent pleaded. He squinted against the dissipating smoke, searching for a blond head.
And found it.
"There he is! Quickly: lower the winch!"
The co-pilot did, just as a barrage of bullets screamed their way past the hatch. With an arm shielding his face, Von Linden emerged from the cave below. Another series of explosions detonated behind him, nearly catapulting him off the edge of the cliff. Von Linden jumped, threw out both hands and caught the sling suspended above his head.
"We have him! Bring him up!" Kuryakin cried, but there was no response. The agent turned. The red-haired co-pilot was lying dead on the cabin floor, a bullet hole neatly centered in his left eye. Kuryakin slammed on the controls himself and reversed the winch. The cable retracted, lifting Von Linden.
"A little more. . . a little more . . ." Kuryakin murmured.
"Do you have him?" Solo called out.
"Almost. . ."
Kuryakin knelt down on one knee and stretched out his hand. In the beam of the winch's spotlight, he could see Von Linden's face. Just then, a line of shots, this time rapid and heavy-gauge, cut a wide swatch across the cabin door and down the cable. Dropping to his belly, Kuryakin saw the gunfire rip through Von Linden's body, jerking it like a puppet on a string. The German agent never knew what hit him. For a brief second he dangled, then his lifeless fingers opened and his body plummeted earthward. When the sling arrived, it was empty. Kuryakin shut off the winch.
"Go! Go!" he heard Solo signal to Carpenter. The helicopter's turbine engines roared in response. As Kuryakin closed the cabin door, the aircraft swung wide and soared away.
"Didn't make it, huh?" Solo said, indicating the co-pilot's body. "Where's the Major?"
Kuryakin let out a deep breath. "He didn't make it, either."
At that moment, somewhere high up on the abbey's stone walls, Colonel Zark watched the helicopter fly away with mixed emotions.
So much for the Nazi, he thought. He would remember to recommend that gunner for a medal. From the airfield at the base of the mountain, a trio of small pursuit choppers rose into the sky. Zark allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction. U.N.C.L.E. may have won this skirmish, but it wasn't over yet.
"I need a co-pilot up here, pronto," Asa Carpenter sang out from the pilot's seat. "Anybody gonna volunteer?"
"I will," Kuryakin said as he slipped into the co-pilot's seat.
"So: run down the scorecard for me, son."
"I'm afraid it's not very good. Joubert and the priest were killed. Peyton-Smythe was injured. Mr. Cassidy was shot by an U.N.C.L.E. sleep dart --- I'll explain later. And we just lost the Major coming out."
"I'm going to miss that cynical old sonofabitch," Carpenter said, shaking his head. "I told Nate not to cut it so close." He shot a quick glance in his side mirror. "Looks like we got company comin'."
Kuryakin studied the images in his own mirror. Three customized two-man choppers were bearing down upon them. They were faster than the Sikorsky, and unlike the rescue craft, no doubt they were heavily armed.
"We'll never outrun them," Kuryakin said, but Carpenter was calm.
"I don't intend to."
Solo poked his head into the cockpit and asked, "Ah --- by the way, do you guys know we're being followed?"
"We know," Carpenter said. "Tell the others to buckle themselves in and hang on tight. I want 'em ready to move when we land."
The two younger agents looked at each other, then Solo wordlessly withdrew.
"Did you say when we land?" the Russian asked.
"Uh-huh. That's right."
Land where? Kuryakin wanted to ask. They were smack in the middle of a mountain range. As the helicopter dropped in elevation, Cassidy switched off the lights, inside and out. Only the control panel remained illuminated. The night closed in around them like a burial shroud. Kuryakin stared straight ahead. He couldn't see a thing.
His eyes glued to the little radar screen, his face underlit by the ghostly green glow, Carpenter maneuvered the craft as they gradually descended. They swooped left, then right, then sharply left again. Far behind them, a thunderous fireball lit up the sky as one of the pursuing choppers missed a turn and collided with the side of a mountain.
Cassidy sucked a tooth loudly and chuckled, "Amateurs . . ."
They zigzagged through several more ravines until finally, they entered a narrow glen. Carpenter landed the helicopter and quickly shut everything down. Kuryakin thought the pilot planned to play possum, but he was wrong.
"Okay, let's head 'em up and move 'em out," Carpenter said. He sprang from the pilot's seat and threw open the cabin door. Kuryakin saw that they were situated on the far side of a flat meadow, probably one used for herding sheep. Next to them, something large was parked and waiting. Kuryakin studied the outline and realized it was the Lockheed Electra, covered by canvas tarpaulins. The Thrush choppers were nowhere in sight --- yet. The sleet had let up.
"How's brother Nate doin', Mr. Solo?" Carpenter asked.
"Still out like a light."
"No problem, then. After you and Mr. Kuryakin, here, get him loaded onboard my plane, I want you to tend to those tarps. Start at the front. If any of the others are up to it, get 'em to help. Shake a tail, now, y'hear?"
After Cassidy was safely deposited in the main cabin of the Electra, Solo and Peyton-Smythe hurried outside to pull off the canvas covers. Sabienne volunteered to help too, but Louis continued to stare into empty space, so they left him inside. Kuryakin followed Carpenter forward, into the cockpit.
"Ever fly one of these ol' gals before, son?"
"I trained on a Lisunov once."
"Close enough. Sit yerself down and grab that clipboard."
Carpenter unlocked the controls, just as Solo and Peyton-Smythe pulled off the front canvases.
"We're all clear," he told Kuryakin. "Turn the mag switches on."
"Now for the throttles. Give me one quarter manifold pressure."
"Full prop pitch."
Kuryakin continued down the list, hitting the proper switches to pump fuel to the engines, adjusting the stabilizer and setting the brakes. Carpenter hit the starter. The left engine roared to life. The pilot raced it, then calmed it back to an idle. He did the same with the right. Kuryakin listened for the sound of the pursuing Thrush choppers, but he couldn't hear anything over the whirr of the propellers.
Outside, the tarps were free. Solo pulled the chocks from the wheels and followed the others back into the plane. In the cockpit, Kuryakin nervously watched the heat temperature needle as it slowly moved from red to green. His internal clock ticked away the seconds.
"Ready?" Carpenter asked. The Russian nodded. With its running lights still off, the Electra taxied slowly onto the field and turned into the wind.
"Set the flaps at 20 degrees," Carpenter said.
Kuryakin did, even as he cringed at the angle. He couldn't believe they were really preparing to take off. Even ignoring the altitude and the bad weather, the runway was rough and impossibly short. Kuryakin estimated it at around six hundred meters. Ahead of them, was a dense stand of evergreen trees.
Carpenter kept his feet pressed to the brakes and gave it full throttle, allowing the engines to rev as high as they could. Everything began to vibrate so violently, Kuryakin's teeth chattered. Carpenter kept two hands firmly on the controls, holding the Electra back. Kuryakin understood. With such a short runway, they would need to attain a high enough speed or they'd stall.
Somewhere on the far side of the field, gunfire abruptly chewed up the ground. "Our friends are back," Carpenter announced matter-of-factly. He waited for the wind, then he released the brakes.
They began to race forward, tail up, nose slightly down, seemingly in sheer defiance of the trees. The pursuit choppers circled overhead, and fired two more volleys. Carpenter ignored them.
"Get those wheels up on my mark. Ready?"
The Electra left the ground. The nose angled sharply upward. There was no turning back.
"Now!" the pilot said. Kuryakin retracted the landing gear. As the plane climbed along an impossibly steep line of ascent, the propellers clipped the crowns of the trees. A few stray branches brushed along the belly of the fuselage and all at once, it was over. They were gaining altitude at almost four hundred kilometers per hour, flying too high and too fast for the choppers to catch them.
Kuryakin leaned back in the co-pilot's seat, utterly amazed. "You just worked a miracle," he said.
Carpenter shrugged modestly. "I've had lots of practice.
The first thing Nate Cassidy saw when he opened his eyes was Napoleon Solo's face.
"Where am I?" the senior agent asked.
"In a plane headed home, cruising at 9,000 feet."
"How long was I out?"
"A little over two hours."
Cassidy sat up unsteadily. Someone inside his skull was attacking his temples with a jackhammer. He groaned. "Did Father Andolino shoot me with a sleep dart?"
"Yes, unfortunately. He's dead, now."
"Major?" Cassidy called out, looking around the cabin. Solo lowered his eyes. "Ah ??? I'm sorry, Nate, but I'm afraid he's dead, too."
"And what happened to the library?"
"Totally destroyed by fire."
Cassidy slumped back in his seat. "Christ, I really did miss the party, didn't I?"
"I'm afraid so, sir," Solo said, the hint of a reluctant smile playing across his face. He couldn't help it. It was such a relief to hear Nate's voice again.
Cassidy rubbed his cheeks hard, with both hands, in an effort to shake off the effects of the sleep drug. Something was nagging at the back of his mind, something he was supposed to tell Alex Waverly. Oh yes, now he remembered: the mole . . .
"Where's Louis?" he asked. "We did bring him out, didn't we?"
Solo nodded and jerked a thumb toward the front of the plane.
"Well, we accomplished that much, at least," Cassidy said, then he eyed his subordinate.
"Maybe you'd better see for yourself."
Cassidy struggled to his feet, determined to do exactly that. Solo offered a hand, but the senior agent refused it. He made his way down the aisle, using the backs of the seats for support. Louis was huddled against a window two rows from the cockpit door, wrapped in a woolen blanket against the cold of the unheated cabin. Cassidy slipped into the nearest seat, just across the aisle. Solo stood behind them, leaning against an armrest.
"Louis?" Cassidy said. There was no response. He tried again. Delage's head swiveled, but the eyes remained focused on the floor.
"You are mistaken, Monsieur. My name is Philippe Bernier. You have brought out the wrong man."
Solo sputtered with surprise. "What? I don't understand ---."
"Shhh!" Cassidy said, because he did understand. He'd seen minds fragment under stress before. A sudden chill washed though him that had nothing to do with the temperature of the cabin. His voice turned firm, but gentle.
"I want to speak with Louis Delage."
"I am a loyal member of Thrush. I will tell you nothing."
Undaunted, Cassidy persevered. "Do you know where Louis is?"
There was a pause, before Delage replied, "Hiding. He has gone undercover again. He is very good at that, yes?"
"Mr. Bernier, I need a name."
Delage chuckled low, under his breath. "They always want names, don't they?" It was difficult to tell if he was talking to himself or to someone only he could see. His eyes strayed sideways. His voice dropped to a flat, hollow monotone, devoid of any emotion. "They asked Louis for a name. He said he had none to give. Alors, they asked again, and they continued asking. And asking.
"And so, he gave them one. Just one. A small one --- sans importance. No one with whom he was acquainted, personally. But it frightened him all the same, yes? He said to his people: 'take me back.' But he was told, 'It is too soon.'
"After a while, the others, they asked again, and to protect himself, he gave them more. The second name was easier than the first. The third was easier than the second."
"Did Alex Waverly know this was happening?" Cassidy said, afraid to hear the answer.
Delage shook his head. "Oh non, Louis, he was too ashamed. But he pleaded with Monsieur Waverly, 'Let me come in, s'il vous plaît'. And the answer came back: 'It is too late. We are too close to success.'
"And so he remained in the cold, fearing even his own people. Eh bien, what would they do to him if they knew what he'd done? He ceased all contact with them. He was alone. . .
"And then one day, the others, they asked about an important name, and this one --- ah, this one, Louis knew all too well." Absently, Delage began to finger the hairline scar on the palm of his right hand.
"You betrayed Ivan Popovich," Cassidy said, flatly. He'd guessed this was coming.
"It was Louis. He betrayed his friends, not I. And before Popovich, he betrayed the Basque, Aguirre. And afterward, Stefan Lenski. And Benjamin Toomey. And Antonio Martucci. . ."
"Nino isn't dead. He survived the explosion."
"Nevertheless, Louis betrayed him. And there were others: Pierre Tissot . . . Michel Lemieux . . . Oliver Lawton. . .
"Oh my God," Solo breathed.
The roll call of field agents continued. "Romain Gagny . . . Nashif Tobrouk . . . Andrew Nevin . . . François Perrot. . .
Cassidy said nothing. He was too numb with shock.
Aguirre, ambushed in Barcelona. Popovich, stabbed. Lenski, shot. Toomey, his big, Aussie heart finally bursting under torture in a filthy cell in Budapest. Poor Nino, lying in a hospital bed, his brain pierced by a fragment of steel. And now Von Linden was dead, too.
Nearly half the original group, betrayed by one of their own, by a man who'd mixed his blood with theirs. The enormity of the horror was almost too much to bear.
As Cassidy watched, Delage's body began to tremble violently. The names trailed off, replaced by a choking, gargled sob. The Frenchman tried to speak, but no sound came out. His mouth hung open, saliva drooling from his bottom lip, his face frozen in a silent scream. His arms dangled limp at his sides.
Cassidy dropped to one knee before him and grasped Delage firmly by the shoulders. "Louis, I know you're still in there. Listen to me: it's over, now. Do you hear me? Whatever happened, it's over! Forever."
Delage covered his face with his hands, sucking up air in short, spastic gulps.
"Forget Philippe Bernier. Burn him. Let him go. Save yourself. Come back to us. We want you to come back. You can begin again, starting right now. Tell me the name of the mole in U.N.C.L.E. Who kept you informed about our mission? Who?!"
"Idon'tknowIdon'tknowdon'tknow," Delage wailed.
"Louis, please. Louis!"
"He's telling the truth," Peyton-Smythe's voice observed calmly, "He doesn't know, actually. But I do."
Cassidy and Solo twisted to see the young British agent standing at the rear of the plane. He had Sabienne beside him, her arm wrenched painfully behind her back and the barrel of his U.N.C.L.E. Special pointed directly at her temple. He no longer looked very ill.
"You see, my dear brothers, it's me." Peyton-Smythe smiled wickedly. "U.N.C.L.E. places a mole in Thrush and now it seems, we've returned the compliment. Round and round it goes and where it stops ---."
"It stops right here," Cassidy said.
"Indeed." The smile faded. "Gentlemen, you will deposit your weapons on the seat, there."
Reluctantly, Solo and Cassidy surrendered their Specials.
"Thank you. Now all three of you will come here, quickly, and do as I say."
Cassidy reached for Delage's shoulder and gently guided the Frenchman to his feet. The three agents walked slowly down the aisle, with Solo in the lead. Peyton-Smythe cocked his head toward the rear wall of the cabin.
"Mr. Solo? Do you see that parachute there?"
"I want you to help Delage into it. But before you do, you will carefully remove the ripcord assembly, bend the pins, and then replace it. Do you understand?"
Angrily, Solo nodded again. With the pins sabotaged, the ripcord would jam and the chute would fail to open. The agent hesitated. Peyton-Smythe angled Sabienne's arm sharply for emphasis, causing her to whimper. Solo opened the ripcord assembly and jammed the tips of the pins against the steel armrest of a seat.
"Don't hurt her," Delage murmured miserably.
Peyton-Smythe shook his head. "You really are a pitiful sight, old man. And you're right, you know. You can't go back to U.N.C.L.E. So, I'm actually doing you a favor."
"You'll never get away with this," Cassidy said as Solo eased Delage into the parachute harness and buckled the straps. It was only then that the senior agent noticed that Peyton-Smythe was wearing a parachute, himself. "Your cover's blown."
The young British agent chuckled. "Not necessarily. It's true, I never expected to be chosen for this mission. That was a damn bloody fluke. Thrush let me come along even though we knew the risks. That priest for instance, he almost gave the game away."
"But I thought ---," Cassidy said.
"That Andolino intended to burn down the library? No, not at first. He may have been bloody-minded pious, but he wasn't daft. He caught me trying to leave, so he wanted to warn you against me. You can see why I had to shoot him. When he knew he was dying, I suppose he sprang the trap as a last resort."
Peyton-Smythe sighed dramatically. "Ah well, as Mr. Delage would say, c'est la vie. Thrush still has an investment in me. I'm one of U.N.C.L.E.'s rising young stars, don't you know?
"So, it's really quite simple: I've planted a Thrush standard-issue bomb aboard this plane. Mr. Delage and I will jump --- I, to safety and he, of course, to his death. Parachute failure: it happens. No one will weep for a traitor. When I am rescued some days from now, I shall tell U.N.C.L.E. that the bomb was set by Delage as part of his desperate escape. Since I was near the door, I grabbed a chute and jumped after him. Sadly, the plane exploded before my dear companions could also escape."
"It's flimsy. Waverly will never accept it," Cassidy growled.
"True, it is a rather weak story, but it'll bloody well be the only story. And the basic facts will check out. Eventually, any cloud over my professional head will dissipate, and I'll begin my rise through Section Two."
Delage was ready. Solo took a step back as the Frenchman stumbled like a sleepwalker to the cabin door. Peyton-Smythe motioned for Solo to throw it open.
Just as he did, inside the cockpit, a red warning light flared on the instrument panel. "Sir?" Kuryakin said uncertainly, "Someone's opened the cabin door."
Asa Carpenter narrowed his eyes. "What the hell's goin' on back there? Go take a look --- but be careful."
Kuryakin rose from the co-pilot's seat. He carefully cracked open the cockpit door and peeked through. At the rear of the cabin, all the agents were gathered in a group.
"Well, Mr. Delage," Peyton-Smythe was saying, his gun pointed at Sabienne's pretty head, "you really didn't want to live anyway, did you?" He tipped his chin toward the open hatch. "After you ---."
There was no time for Kuryakin to pull his automatic. Instead, he shouted over his shoulder, "Mr. Carpenter! Give us a right bank --- now!"
Carpenter didn't bother to ask why. The panic in Kuryakin's voice was reason enough. He jerked the controls hard, sending the Electra into a sudden twenty degree roll.
The plane lurched. Back in the cabin, the floor under the agents' feet tilted and the group broke apart. Instinctively, Solo gripped one side of the hatch for support while Peyton-Smythe clutched at the other, losing his gun in the process. Along with Cassidy and Delage, Sabienne was thrown away from the open door, and away from Peyton-Smythe. His advantage lost, the young British agent knew what he had to do.
"Cheerio, Napoleon," he said jauntily. And then he jumped.
As the Electra leveled off, Kuryakin left the cockpit and raced down the center aisle.
"There's a bomb aboard!" Cassidy cried. "It must be somewhere in the cabin!"
Kuryakin dropped to the floor, searching the undersides of the seats. Cassidy asked Sabienne, "When did Peyton-Smythe seize you --- and where?"
The woman pointed to a small, narrow door at the rear of the plane. "He came from in there," she said.
The lavatory! There wasn't much time. Cassidy flew into the little compartment and headed straight for the toilet. His hands skittered along the edges of the tank. He found the little ticking package wedged behind it. Cassidy didn't know whether the bomb was controlled by a timer or could be triggered by the escaping Peyton-Smythe himself, and there was no time to find out. The senior agent ripped it from its hiding place. He called to Solo who was positioned near the cabin door.
He tossed the bomb to Solo, who pitched it out the open hatch. And not a moment too soon. In the next instant, the bomb detonated, rocking the plane a second time. Once again, the agents were thrown off-balance, this time, to their knees.
"Y'all all right back there?" Carpenter called out from the cockpit when the concussion had passed.
Kuryakin struggled to stand in the center aisle. "We're fine," he said. But over by the open hatch, Solo was not quite so sure. He looked at Delage, who stared back at him. There was a strange cast to the Frenchman's eyes and the lids hung so heavily, it seemed to require an effort just to hold them open.
"The English boy was right," Delage said softly. "I can't go back." He looked back to Sabienne. "Je suis désolé, mon chérie."
Solo realized what Delage meant to do, a split-second before he did it. Still on his knees, the younger agent threw himself in the direction of the retreating body to stop it, but it was no use. The Frenchman just seemed to slip way, and with the parachute pack providing a heavy counterbalance, Solo was almost sucked from the cabin himself. He felt himself falling forward and then, just as abruptly, he was yanked back from the brink. Solo twisted to find Kuryakin flat on the floor behind him, the Russian's arms wrapped around his legs.
"Thanks," Solo said.
"Don't mention it," Kuryakin replied.
Below them, Louis Delage continued to drop in freefall through the night. It took almost two minutes before he hit the ground.
Somewhere in Toulouse. Fifteen hours later.
"So: what did Alex have to say?" Carpenter asked as Nate Cassidy returned from delivering his report. They were back in the private rear dining room again, in the cozy restaurant on the Rue Nineau, but this time, there was only two of them at the table. Cassidy slipped into the opposite seat. Dinner had arrived. Carpenter was already digging into a savory crayfish stew.
"What could he say?" Cassidy asked with a shrug. "Considering the odds against us on this one, I'd say we did rather well. We destroyed a vital Thrush operation and set them back three years, possibly more. We uncovered a traitor in our midst, and we took back a blown agent of our own."
Asa Carpenter listened quietly as he continued to eat. To anyone else, Cassidy's assessment would seem inappropriately nonchalant, even callous, considering all that had happened. However, Carpenter understood that for his friend, professional coolness was a defense mechanism. He would never forget the expression on Cassidy's face just after Louis Delage jumped from the plane.
"Alex would never admit to it, of course," the senior agent went on, reaching for his fork, "but sending Louis into Thrush so deep and for so long was a bad idea all around. I don't think we'll be running that sort of operation again."
The pilot shook his silvered head. "So many victims . . ."
"Yes, and Louis was the first."
Just then, Napoleon Solo appeared with Sabienne in tow. Kuryakin was behind them, bringing up the rear.
"Care for some dinner?" Cassidy asked. "The civet de Langouste is ---."
"No, thank you sir," Solo said. "Sabienne tells us she knows a superb little bisto ---."
Cassidy smiled knowingly and let the invitation drop.
"Any word on Peyton-Smythe?" Kuryakin inquired.
"We're still looking for him. We hear Thrush is, too."
From Carpenter's side of the table, there came a bitter laugh. "That boy'd better hope our side finds him first."
Kuryakin changed the subject. "Sir, Major Von Linden gave me his service Luger before he died. Perhaps you might like to have it."
"No, if he gave it to you," Cassidy said, "he must've wanted you to keep it." The senior agent turned to Sabienne. "I'm very sorry about Louis. I think he really did care for you."
The young woman held out her hands. "Who can say, eh? When we met, he was dead already, yes? I should liked to have known him when he was alive."
"And so you won't be going back to Autier?"
"Non, Monsieur. Too many bad memories. It was very generous of your organization to purchase the inn from me."
Cassidy waved dismissively. "Not at all. When we finish cleaning out that Thrush base, Alex will probably sell the business at a profit. But where will you go now?"
Sabienne inclined her head, considering. "To America, perhaps."
"Ah, now there's a thought." Cassidy cocked an eyebrow in Kuryakin's direction. "What do you say, Mr. Kuryakin? Would you like to come back with us to America, too?"
The Russian agent blinked, too surprised for words. "But what about Mr. Beldon, sir, and the London office?"
"Beldon's a lunatic," Carpenter broke in. "Besides, you'll be more useful in New York. So, what'd you say?"
Kuryakin groped for an answer. "Um, yes, of course, yes. I'd like to go to New York --- very much."
"It's settled, then," Cassidy declared, returning to his meal. "I wish you all a pleasant evening."
As they walked away, Kuryakin leaned close to Solo and asked, "Can he do that? Get me transferred --- just like that?"
Solo laughed. "Nate Cassidy can do anything he wants." He thumped the Russian's back and reached for Sabienne's hand. "C'mon. Let's celebrate. I'm buying tonight."
At the rear of the restaurant, Cassidy raised his wineglass and recited the usual enforcement agents' toast. "Here's to tomorrow, Ace."
"To tomorrow," Carpenter agreed.
Cassidy tipped his glass in the direction of the younger agents as they departed, flanking Sabienne on either side. "Those two are going to do great things together," the senior agent said.
"Think so, Nate?"
Cassidy smiled confidently. "I'd make book on it."