The Uncertainty Principle
Love demands infinitely less than friendship.
— George Jean Nathan
There is an old joke that says in heaven, the Swiss are the organizers and the French are the lovers. In hell, it's the reverse. Now while it may be true, as the American writer William Faulkner maintained, that the Swiss are less a nation than a neat, clean, quite solvent business, I've always thought that the joke was just a bit unfair. After all, a people who could envision and then build a rail line straight through the Alps must have at least some measure of romantic adventure in their hearts. But then again, perhaps it was just simple, stubborn, determination. Along with being honest and frugal, precise and efficient, dull to the point of tears and punctual to the point of insanity, the Swiss are noted for that, too.
Since I have often been accused — particularly in my youth — of cultivating those same qualities, I suppose I've had an affinity for the Swiss and always felt right at home in their country. Over the years, I've made many visits. The first is but a vague memory — a quick, nerve-wracking courier drop when I was studying at the Sorbonne — but the second I remember as if it happened yesterday. As well I should.
I think if someone would ever ask me when my friendship with Napoleon began, I would be inclined to shrug off an answer. Our first mission together? The night we met? The first time he saved me? The first time I saved him? Who knows? Any relationship, all relationships, begin and end in gradual stages, one stage flowing, unmarked and uneventful, into the next. Still, if I were hard-pressed, I would chose one particular weekend, in Switzerland, in late winter, in that very early period of our partnership when we'd begun to grow accustomed to each other's habits without much notion of the psyche behind them; when we knew what the other drank, but not what he swallowed whole. By that time, we'd shared close quarters, toothbrushes, incendiary devices, and small talk. We'd peered into each other's closets, suitcases, shaving kits, passports and personnel dossiers.
But not into each other's souls.
That weekend, finally, we did. And it changed who and what we were, to who and what we would be ... forever.
Somewhere between Lausanne and Brig. 1961.
Swiss trains are the most dependable form of transportation on the face of the planet and ours that morning was no exception. We'd left Geneva after a leisurely breakfast and made our connection in Lausanne at exactly 12:17, just as the timetable promised, headed for a weekend of skiing.
Since I'd been to Switzerland only once before on business, I left the choice of resort up to Napoleon. He really wanted to go to Verbier because it attracted fewer tourists, but the chalet whose proprietor he knew was undergoing renovation. St. Mortiz was too pricey and too far for our limited available time. Crans Montana, too crowded and unchallenging. And Zermatt was definitely out — since the Disney movie a few years before, the place was overrun with American families snapping photos of the Matterhorn. He finally settled on Saas Fee which we could reach by late Friday afternoon.
And so now we were sitting in the dining car, awaiting the imminent arrival of lunch, and I was taking in the scenery and wondering idly how Napoleon had managed to squeeze even so short a vacation out of our boss, Alexander Waverly. I'd only been assigned to New York for a year, but that was long enough to know that time off — any time off — was a rare and precious thing. Unlike my previous superior in London, Harry Beldon, Mr. Waverly did not believe in the need for taking vacations since he did not indulge in the practice himself. Indeed, it was debatable whether he even slept.
"What time does the bus leave from Brig?" my partner asked from across the table, interrupting my line of thought.
"Four," I replied for the third time that day. In hell, Napoleon would keep the itinerary and I would choose the ski resort.
"I hate taking the bus. Maybe we should rent a car."
I merely raised my eyebrows and cocked my head — a "whatever" gesture — in return. Not only was Saas Fee car free, which meant we would have to park at the village entrance, but it seemed an extravagance to rent a car for what was essentially an hour's ride. Still, I was becoming accustomed to Napoleon's immoderate way with money. With his non-distinctive good looks and sophisticated traveler tastes, he might have been mistaken for a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but he definitely did not act like a Swiss.
Although I didn't voice any of this aloud, Napoleon read it off the expression on my face.
"Mmmm..." he murmured with a nod, indicating that he'd take my opinion under advisement. That meant if we did end up renting the car, he'd volunteer to pay the entire fee and not hold it against me if I allowed it. Usually, if somewhat begrudgingly, I didn't.
Just then, the waiter arrived with lunch — veal cutlet for Napoleon and butter-fried trout for me. I would have been content with making do with a single bottle of wine, but Napoleon wouldn't hear of it and ordered one for each of us, a light red Goron and an Emitage, a regional white. He pointed out that since we were off-duty, we might as well indulge a little and for once, I conceded the point.
As the last views of Lake Geneva slipped behind us, I settled back contentedly with my fish and my wine and returned to my musing.
"A centime or Rappen for your thoughts," he said after a few moments, "depending on how quick you answer." I smiled at the joke: sometime during our trip that afternoon, we would cross from the French-speaking to the German-speaking part of the country.
"I was just thinking of how you cajoled the Old Man into releasing us for four entire days." We were due to board a return flight from Geneva to New York on Monday night.
Napoleon shrugged his shoulders modestly. "Wasn't anything I said exactly. He just did it to piss off Carlo." Carlo was Carlo Farenti, the regional chief of Europe, who was known as even a harder taskmaster than our own superior. Farenti was based in Geneva and we'd been "loaned" to him just for the purpose of the previous mission. Approving a last minute vacation as a reward for good work had been Waverly's way of re-claiming his agents and re-asserting his authority. The five regional chiefs were supposed to be equals, but whoever occupied the New York seat, was a little more equal than the others.
"I suspected as much," Napoleon went on, "so when the opportunity presented itself, I just exploited it."
"But you do that so well."
"Situations, circumstances, people ..."
Napoleon offered me a rueful grin. "Gee, thanks."
"I'm sorry," I apologized quickly. I hadn't intended it to be a back-handed compliment. "I just meant that you seem to have an enviable talent for making things go your way."
He shrugged again, between bites. "I guess I just don't like a no-win scenario."
"So you never accept it?"
"I didn't say that," he replied, his dark eyes growing even darker against the blinding sunlight streaming into the dining car. His voice went vinegary soft: "I said I didn't like it." It would be another year before I learned the details of his wife's death, two more after that before I met Clara, and altogether a baker's dozen before I truly came to understand exactly what he was telling me.
But that day, the splice that joined us was still too new and green, and so I took the hint and steered the conversation away from the personal.
"Well, take the Baslers, for example." Otto and Dominique Basler were the middle-aged couple we'd recruited for the mission that had just ended. Childless career employees of one of the country's leading banks, they'd helped us unearth a multi-million dollar Thrush account at considerable risk to their personal and professional lives. "They seemed so staid, so quiet, so bourgeois." So very Swiss, I might have added. "And then you spoke to them and the next thing we know, they're learning to defuse bombs in a bank vault. Considering what they were like when we first met them, I never would have expected to see them become such enthusiastic collaborators."
Napoleon chuckled. "And so you're trying to decide whether they were born spies or simply rose to the occasion."
"Or your little pep talks coaxed them into doing so."
"Well, I don't think I can take the credit for this one," he admitted. "Or any of them, for that matter. Why individual people do what they do, I really can't say. What I do know is this: whenever we cross the paths of ordinary Joes, we affect their lives. We change them. I've seen it over and over again. A war correspondent I knew in Korea told me he experienced the same thing. Whenever he interviewed someone or pointed his camera, he influenced the event he was covering. And he could never know what might have happened if he hadn't been there to report on it."
Napoleon finished his glass of wine and poured another. "I guess it's like chemistry: you mix ingredients together and bang, a reaction occurs."
"No. It's more like physics, actually," I said. I asked him if he'd ever heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. He responded rather fuzzily that he'd only heard the term, so I proceeded to explain the concept that is so fundamental to quantum theory.
With classic Newtonian mechanics, one can easily and accurately measure the position and velocity of something like a baseball. However, for a subatomic particle, it is quite a different story. In order to see an electron, at least one photon of light is needed. But that photon will bounce off the electron and thus transfer energy and momentum to it.
"So you can't observe the electron without affecting its movement," Napoleon said, rephrasing the idea more simply.
"Essentially, yes. And therefore, it's impossible to accurately determine both the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously."
"Which means all measurements are, at best, a guess," he concluded, and I nodded in return.
"Doesn't sound very 'scientific.'"
"Well, the Heisenberg Principle was debated for years. Einstein hated it. That's what prompted his famous statement that God does not play dice with the universe. But eventually, everyone had to resign himself to the fact that in quantum physics, certainty has limits."
"As it does in human affairs," Napoleon added, his gaze drifting past my shoulder. "And, ah — speaking of uncertainty, here comes a walking enigma now."
He was watching someone approaching from behind me, but the expression on his face was curiously mixed and unreadable. My interest piqued, I straightened to attention, prepared for anything.
The fact that the voice was female was not entirely unexpected. To live and work in the vicinity of Napoleon Solo, especially then, meant acting the bystander to a veritable parade of starlets, ingénues, adventuresses, and sirens of various shapes and sizes. Although he favored blondes, his taste was eclectic so long as the woman in question had a reasonably good physique, a quick smile, and a spark in her eye that meant she was game for just about anything. The virgins, the plain Janes, and the wilting violets, he graciously left for me.
The blonde who hovered over our dining car table now fit all the usual qualifications, but as soon as I locked eyes with Angelique, I knew she was trouble.
"Such a small world," she observed to Napoleon while looking me over.
"Isn't it just?" he replied in a tone that belied a belief in coincidence. "Traveling alone?"
"For the moment. And you?" she asked, obviously anticipating the answer.
As we were introduced, Angelique offered her hand for me to kiss, but I merely tugged at the blood-nailed fingertips. With her haute couture skiwear, platinum hair, and creamy skin the color of bisque, she looked like a cross between a poor man's Marilyn Monroe and jet-setting Eurotrash. Even though she had a pseudo-sophisticated, languid quality, I realized almost immediately that it was all a pose. She was favoring me with that same, quirky, off-kilter, half-amused gaze I have come to know all too well, exuding perversity and predatory hunger like expensive perfume.
"Soooo," she asked, talking to him while continuing to stare at me, "are you out and about on business or pleasure?"
"We're going skiing for the weekend."
"Hmmmmmm, I see. On holiday with your new partner. How absolutely fraternal."
Napoleon ignored the insinuation. "And you, my sweet?"
"Daaarling," she purred, and it was only then that she finally turned to him. "You know that my business is my pleasure."
"Ah. So gauche of me to forget."
They continued to spar, playing a two-handed game of seemingly pointless small talk whose subtext, for the moment, escaped me. When she asked for a chair, I almost volunteered to give her mine and leave. I found it deeply unsettling just to be around her. But Napoleon dragged one from an adjoining table and the game continued for another twenty minutes, right past coffee and dessert. Finally, they seemed to declare a draw and Angelique vacated the field, but not before passing Napoleon her business card.
"I'm staying in Sierre, in that musty old hotel," she told Napoleon. "You remember, don't you?"
"Vaguely," he replied. This provoked a pout from her, as he knew it would. Producing a pen, she scribbled on the card. "Well, here's the name to jog your memory." She looked over at me, quite put out. "It's the only one in town with bathrooms that aren't off the hall. You'd think he'd remember." She sighed extravagantly. "Honestly, this is such a backward country."
"I hadn't noticed," I said.
"Oh really? That's because you're not a woman. They haven't even given us the vote here yet."
"The Swiss are wiser than they're given credit for," Napoleon observed, in an obvious attempt to annoy her, but she refused the bait.
"Screw you, darling," she told him sweetly, mouthing his cheekbone. I'd never thought a kiss on the cheek could be erotic until then.
"Anytime," he laughed softly, pocketing the card as she slinked away, the promise of a future engagement drifting in her wake. My relief was counterbalanced by his sudden seriousness. "I wonder what she's up to," he said thoughtfully.
Now it was my turn to smile. "Isn't it obvious? She's trying to seduce you."
"Of course she is," he replied irritably. "But something else is going on." He plucked her business card from his pocket again and studied it, as if he could decode her intentions from her handwriting. Finally, he said, "Well, that cuts it. We're renting a car. With Angelique on the prowl, I want to be free to maneuver."
"Who does she work for, anyway?" I asked, horribly naive. She was obviously in The Game. "An arms merchant? The Mafia?" Because she lacked a certain professionalism, I wasn't guessing a formal service but one of the big international players.
To his credit, Napoleon didn't condescend, for which I was grateful. He merely flipped the card between his fingers quickly, like a prestidigitator, so I could see the logo on the front.
It was the symbol of a bird, wings spread in a fighting stance: THRUSH.
"Chort," I blurted out: the devil.
"She is indeed," he replied, oddly wistful. And the way he said it, combined with my memory of the intimacy of her earlier kiss, made me realize that not only was he planning to sleep with her, but he had slept with her already.
Now, I'm no innocent. I've met professional honeytraps like Angelique before. But sleeping with the enemy was one thing; having carnal relations with a succubus was quite another.
I looked at him, trying not to appear disturbed and failing miserably. He returned my gaze with that serene, cat-caught-the-canary grin I've seen many times since. At a loss, I rummaged for the check and muttered darkly, "Does Mr. Waverly know about this?" To which Napoleon only chuckled again and said, "Of course. It was originally his idea."
So that was my first genuine glimpse of the paradox that is my partner, the man who would become my closest, most trusted friend. But as I said earlier, this weekend was a learning experience. There were more surprises yet to come.
We arrived in Brig promptly at three in the afternoon, right on schedule, dropping from the door of the passenger car directly into a roiling sea of bundled-up humanity. Brig is an important regional crossroads, not to mention a major stop along the Glacier Express line from St. Moritz to Zermatt. This being a Friday afternoon, it was mobbed with skiers heading off to a weekend holiday, just as we were. I motioned with my leather grip in the direction of the bus stop, but Napoleon wouldn't hear of it. He pivoted in the opposite direction, aiming for the car rental office, and I followed without argument. To be honest, the idea of spending an hour crammed into a bus like a can of woolly sardines didn't appeal to me either. Besides, I'd already begun to trust his instincts. Angelique's unexpected appearance had unsettled him too, even if he didn't show it.
Predictably, the car rental office was a nightmare. There was only one clerk on duty in an impossibly small office, and as we found a place in line, I was already resigning myself to Plan B and the bus. But Napoleon's luck prevailed again — or so it seemed. Right before we reached the counter, a second clerk came on duty just in time to serve us. Perhaps because we were distracted by the stress of the situation, we didn't think anything of it except to feel relief.
The clerk was efficient if not particularly friendly, but that was to be expected. After all, we were now in the German-speaking part of the country. At first he told us there were no vehicles available but was coaxed to search his records again after Napoleon slipped him a few Swiss francs. Magically, a car suddenly became free.
After completing the usual paperwork and paying the usual fees, we circled the building and found a battered old Volvo waiting for us. "Want to drive?" Napoleon asked lightly. I didn't, and obviously he didn't, so we flipped a coin. Needless to say, I lost and after we tossed our bags in the trunk, I climbed behind the wheel. When I turned the key, the engine made a terrible grinding sound and died.
"Not very promising," my partner observed, stating the obvious. I remember scowling and thinking that I'd be damned if we'd missed the four o'clock bus for nothing. With renewed determination, I gripped the key and set my foot to the gas pedal, ready to gun it to life. But this time, when I turned the ignition, the only sound was a loud hiss and the familiar rotten candy-apple smell of knockout gas, escaping from a heating vent. We both fumbled to get the windows opened, but the gas was fast-acting and there was little time. The last thing I heard was Napoleon's head thumping against the dash, and his voice growling an obscenity.
I awoke six hours later. Of course, I didn't know six hours had passed. All I knew was that the room was dim, the bed was soft, and my head was splitting. There was one lamp lit, a small one. I looked across to see Napoleon coming to, on a similar bed with a similar headache. His eyes opened and immediately caught mine.
When you wake up after being hit with gas, you not only feel sick, you feel foolish. And then, after a moment, you feel afraid. It's not like being knocked out in a brawl, which more often than not, is the result of someone throwing a lucky punch. Gas is rarely accidental. Gas is deliberate. Gas means someone wants you. The fact that they probably want you alive is small comfort.
We didn't speak at first. In such a predicament, there is no way of telling who might be listening. Playing possum also gains you a few precious minutes to assess the situation, which we proceeded to do. Surprisingly, neither of us was restrained in any way. Our scarves and parkas had been removed and hung on convenient wall hooks with our traveling bags parked beneath. Our communicators had been confiscated, but we still had our shoulder holsters, though they were empty.
We checked the windows and found no bars. There were no telltale wires or metal strips that might betray the presence of an electronic barrier. We couldn't see outside because it was night and it was snowing. The room's single wooden door looked ordinary, and when Napoleon tried the knob with the lightest touch possible, he found it unlocked. Looking up at me, his face was a mask of confusion.
"Thrush?" I asked, mouthing the words silently. He only shrugged, at an absolute loss, and returned to his perch on the bed. Everything apparently was as it appeared to be. We'd awakened as guests in the comfortable bedroom of a rustic Alpine chalet, unarmed perhaps, but also — except for the side-effects of the gas — unharmed in any way. There were no shackles, no means of confinement, no cameras in the ceiling, no bugs in the walls, no sounds of guard dogs, and no sign of guards.
Still, we were not alone in the chalet, and our movements had attracted someone's attention. Abruptly we heard approaching footsteps from beyond the door. Napoleon sat up straight and expectant, as if daring our mysterious hosts to appear. In short order, they did.
There were two men, but the voices of several others could be heard from behind them, talking and laughing, somewhere in another part of the house. The man in the lead was sharp-featured and handsome in a dark, saturnine way. He was a stranger and yet, he seemed oddly familiar, too. He was accompanied by another, taller, pale-faced man who appeared to be British and, in fact, was.
"So: Monsieur Solo, Monsieur Kuryakin, you are awake," the leader greeted us. He had a pronounced Gallic accent — from southern France I guessed correctly. "Bon soir."
"Good evening," Napoleon replied, with only the slightest edge in his voice. My partner is always polite to our enemies. Perhaps that's why they don't abuse him so much.
The Frenchman was carrying a bottle of white pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other. "First things first," he said, passing both to Napoleon who was nearer to him. "You will probably need a few of these."
"What are they?" my partner asked suspiciously, which prompted the visitors to laugh.
"Why, aspirin of course," the leader said.
Slowly, Napoleon shook out two and passed the bottle to me. He juggled the pills in the palm of his hand, stalling for time. "Very considerate of you, mister — ah — you seem to have us at a disadvantage."
In more ways than one, I might have added, but didn't.
"My name is Jean-Marc Joubert."
That gave us both pause. "Any relation to Jean-Pierre Joubert?" Napoleon asked casually, still contemplating the pills. Joubert was a field agent we'd worked with during the Devil's Attic Affair a little over a year before. He'd been killed during the mission.
"I am his younger brother." Of course, that explained why the man looked familiar. The family resemblance was strong. "And like him, an U.N.C.L.E. agent."
We exchanged surprised glances, my partner and I. As if in response, Napoleon downed the aspirin with a choking gulp of water, then passed the glass to me. I did the same. "Are you in the habit of shanghaiing your colleagues, Mr. Joubert?" he asked, now clearly annoyed.
"Sorry for the inconvenience, mate," the other man, the pale-faced one, broke in. He spoke English with more than a trace of Yorkshire. I can better recognize British accents over French since I've spent more time in the UK than in France. "We won't be keeping you from your holiday for too long."
Napoleon arched an eyebrow. "And I take it you're an agent, too?"
The taller man nodded and as if to counter Napoleon's obvious skepticism, he and Joubert produced their gold identification cards. Napoleon and I inspected them in turn. They were real. The British agent's name was Cary Sears.
"So we're not prisoners."
"Not at all."
"Then, would you mind —?" Napoleon said, gesturing to his empty shoulder holster.
"Oh, but of course." Joubert turned to Sears. "Return their weapons. Our apologies — we wanted no 'accidents' before we could explain the situation."
As Napoleon and I resettled our Specials, my partner gestured to the noisy room beyond the door and asked, "So what is the 'situation' exactly? I take it everyone in there is also an agent."
Joubert answered in the affirmative.
"Then you didn't need all this cloak and dagger stuff. You might have just invited us to the party. We were going skiing anyway."
"Yes, we know," Joubert said. "We checked. Again, our apologies, but I'm sure you will understand. The rather unorthodox means of bringing you here was necessary, both for time and secrecy. There are ten of us in all, you see. And you and Illya here" — I noted the deliberate switch to using our first names — "the two of you make twelve." Then, more gravely, he added, "It is a quorum, mon ami."
I watched my partner suddenly stiffen, and I didn't know why. My own English was decent by this time. And I thought: "quorum" — the number needed for a formal assembly. What other meaning could the word possibly have?
Before Napoleon could respond, Joubert was motioning us to rise and leave the bedroom. "Come, you must be hungry. The headache, she is fading already, yes? We will debrief you over a late supper."
Automatically, I glanced at my watch. It was almost ten p.m. Late supper indeed, I thought. As we left the room, I drew close to Napoleon and keeping my voice low, I asked, "Quorum? What does it mean?" He held back a bit and angled toward me, whispering, "They've caught a traitor."
Now I understood. Certainly, treason is a serious matter any time it occurs, but it is especially so with us. In U.N.C.L.E., things are different because we are all so different. The members of brother intelligence services, by definition, share common nationalities, politics, and loyalties, but all that binds us together is a common vision and a unique and fragile web of trust. For this reason, the betrayal of that trust is a sin so heinous, nothing, not the worst crime you can think of, can compare.
"This could be very touchy," Napoleon said, though the warning was unnecessary. "Emotions will be running high; tempers will flare. Be very careful what you say and do. Try to leave the talking to me."
I had no problem with that. He had more experience, both in the field and fraternizing with other agents. It occurred to me that he might also have another sort of experience as well.
"Have you ever been part of a quorum?" I asked.
"No. But I witnessed one."
"What happened to the traitor?"
Napoleon looked at me as if the answer was obvious. "He died," he said.
Now I should explain, the gathering of a "quorum," in field agent parlance, is unofficial, unsanctioned, and illegal. That is why outside of Napoleon and myself, I will only name the agents involved in this affair who are deceased or gone from the organization.
Any agent caught participating would be severely disciplined and summarily dismissed, and that is still true today. For a number of reasons, however, few ever were. The code of silence among U.N.C.L.E. field agents is even more formidable than those found in urban police departments and the military. Which is not surprising, since as "enforcement" agents, we have more in common with other frontline peacekeepers than with traditional spies. And so, like them, we are joined by a kinship (sisters, now, as well as brothers) that is stronger than mere blood — a kinship that, for better and for worse, takes care of its own.
At this point in my career, however, I was only dimly aware of such fellowship. Needless to say, nothing like it existed in the KGB or the GRU. Back in the Soviet Union, treason was an uncomplicated affair and dealt with in an uncomplicated, if brutal, way. And since my initiation at survival school had been unorthodox and incomplete for reasons that will be explained later, I didn't know what to expect on this particular night. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
We were led to a large, centrally located room. It had a steep ceiling supported by thick, heavy timbers. I remember gazing upward and noticing a railed balcony encircling three-quarters of the room. There were several doors beyond it, indicating a second floor.
The chalet was rustic, but in good repair. There was a roaring fire in the huge stone fireplace, surrounded by several comfortable sofas. The other end of the room functioned as a dining area.
"Are you hungry?" Joubert inquired, indicating a long trestle table. We were. It was after ten and there was an aroma of Italian cooking wafting in from a nearby kitchen. A few of the other men we'd overheard earlier were sitting around the table. The rest were up and about, paired off in corners or milling near the fireplace. This made sense since all of the heat and most of the light was being generated by the fire. Perhaps, if it had been brighter, we might have noticed the figure in the high back chair positioned in the center of room. As it was, we very nearly and quite literally stumbled upon him.
"The guest of honor," Napoleon remarked to me, keeping his voice low. To the rest, he said, almost too brightly, "And who is this?" "Why don't you tell us?" one of the two Germans asked from the table. His name was Eric Stangl and I recognized him as the ranking Enforcement agent from Berlin. The other, because he is still with us, I shall simply call Mann.
Accepting the cryptic invitation, Napoleon drew closer to the figure in the chair. The prisoner was tightly bound to it, strong nylon rope immobilizing his arms, legs, and torso at several points. He was blindfolded with a rag torn from a bed sheet, and he made no intelligible sound for he was gagged as well. Napoleon circled, giving the stranger a quick once-over, then returned to the front to study the visible part of the face with more care. While he conducted a brief inspection, I performed my own as well. The others around us stopped whatever they were doing and watched us intently. Even the Italian agent — actually, he was Ticinese — who'd been preparing a meal in the kitchen, appeared in the doorway. The man in the chair was small and portly, about my height but easily over one hundred kilos. Though we couldn't see the color of his eyes, the complexion was swarthy and the hair that mopped over the blindfold was dark brown speckled with some premature grey. He wore a grey cable knit sweater, black corduroy trousers, and scuffed hiking boots. His age was difficult to determine, but I'd have estimated mid-thirties.
Napoleon shrugged, his gesture a concrete expression of my own reaction. "I've never seen him before," my friend said.
"And you?" Stangl asked me pointedly. I replied the same.
And yet... there was something about him, something that tugged at the memory. Like Joubert earlier, there was something... familiar. Napoleon was careful not to look my way, but I could sense his unease even standing a few steps behind him. Apparently, Joubert could, too, for he confronted us and said, "Are you certain?"
We both nodded.
The thinly veiled threat behind the question brought Napoleon up short. Calmly, he flashed his teeth in a half-smile. In a situation like this, Napoleon's calm and the friendliness of his smile are in inverse proportion to the intensity of his anger. "I would say yes a third time, but you sound as if you know otherwise. So friend, perhaps you should tell us who you think this is."
Joubert approached the prisoner from behind and reached for the knot in the blindfold. "We — all of us—" he gestured around the room "— we believe this is Christopher Peyton-Smythe."
And at the same moment he said the name, he ripped off the blindfold. The prisoner blinked, but almost immediately locked eyes with Napoleon, who was closer than I. Stunned, it took a moment for my partner to recover. The eyes that were staring back at him — at us — were a clear, frosty blue.
"So?" Joubert demanded.
"Ah... I don't know," Napoleon stammered as he continued to stare. The eyes certainly didn't match the rest of the face.
"You said you believed it to be Peyton-Smythe," I noted, coming to my friend's rescue. "You're not sure?"
"No. That is why you have been brought here."
"We require confirmation," another agent chimed in. This one had a dark complexion. He looked North African — Algerian, perhaps. I will call him Ali.
"Is this to be a trial, then?" I asked.
"Oh no," Joubert replied, shaking his head. "Merely an inquiry. A trial is unnecessary. We know his crimes and he has already been convicted by his own words and deeds. If this is Peyton-Smythe, all that remains is determining his sentence."
"Which will be death," Napoleon added.
"Naturally. But an execution, not a murder. That is why we must be certain of his identity. None of us present have ever worked with Peyton-Smythe nor have known him personally. Both of you have. So now, look closely and tell us: is this the man who accompanied you last year during the infiltration of the Thrush stronghold on Montsalat?"
With the stakes so obviously high, Napoleon concentrated and began a second, more systematic inspection. I remained where I was, conjuring Peyton-Smythe's former face in my mind, comparing and substituting pieces of this new one. It wasn't difficult. Although the Devil's Attic Affair was the first time we'd worked together, we'd both been assigned to the London office under Harry Beldon. At least once a week or so, I'd passed Peyton-Smythe in the corridors.
Could this be him? I asked myself over and over again. And the answer that kept coming back, as incredible as it seemed, was: yes, quite possibly, it could.
"The man we knew was much younger, around twenty-five, twenty-six," Napoleon remarked casually. "And he was blond."
Joubert shrugged. "So? He has dyed his hair."
"He was also very slender —" I broke in. "He has gained weight."
" — with better teeth —."
"He's had regressive dental work done."
"And a very pale complexion."
"His skin has been chemically pigmented."
I shook my head slowly, denying the reality to them if not to myself. "All the same: the man we knew had a differently shaped face. A straighter nose. No jowls. A sharper profile."
"Ever hear of plastic surgery, mon ami? The doctors, these days they can do wonders."
"Suppose we tell you that Peyton-Smythe was a Negro?" Napoleon mused aloud as he circled the prisoner once more. This caught Joubert by surprise and the others murmured nervously around us. "Was he?" the French agent asked.
"No," Napoleon added with a crooked smile. "But I have a feeling if we did, you'd tell us he'd dipped himself in a vat of bleach."
Now Joubert grew angry. "This is no laughing matter, Napoleon."
"No," my partner agreed with a sigh, "I don't suppose it is." He straightened, his inspection completed. "But vengeance can blind men to see only what they choose to see."
"Ah: so this is not personal for you, eh? You are above such petty emotions. You, whose mentor almost died because of this man's betrayal. You, who were very nearly killed by him yourself. You feel no need for retribution, for justice?"
Napoleon shifted uncomfortably. Obviously, they'd read the report — or at least, the official report — and knew the details of the ill-fated mission. "I didn't say that," he corrected Joubert. It suddenly struck me for the first time that Napoleon had more of a stake in this than I did, and he just might want to see Peyton-Smythe dead, too. "So, then, what is it that you see?" Joubert asked pointedly.
"Well, at the moment, a very frightened, apparently middle-aged man who probably is frightened, but not necessarily middle-aged."
"Then you agree it is a disguise?"
"I agree that it could be a disguise. What do you think, Illya?"
Napoleon was moving in my direction and when he drew close, he looked at me. His back was to the others, but even if they'd seen the expression on his face, they would not have guessed what he was really thinking.
But I did. Even in that brief moment, I saw it immediately in his eyes: his instincts told him that this was, indeed, Christopher Peyton-Smythe. He knew it without knowing exactly how, just as I did. And though outwardly, I remained equally non-committal, he also knew that I'd come to the same preliminary conclusion. So the question that hung between us was not what we both thought, but what we were going to do about it.
"I would like to hear more evidence, if there is any," I said. At this point, stalling seemed the best strategy. I will also admit to a certain amount of curiosity. If Peyton-Smythe had gone through so much trouble to alter his appearance so radically, how could they have discovered him at all?
"Still don't trust anyone, do you?" a voice piped up behind me. I recognized it and so, automatically, I turned. William Duffy, once my fellow classmate at survival school, emerged from a shadowy corner.
"Hello, Bill," I greeted him coolly, careful not to betray my disgust. Duffy had done his best to make my stay on that island as miserable as possible.
He smiled with that same, smug if groundless superiority I remembered. Despite his exemplary military service record, he was nothing more than a swaggering street tough from the south side of Chicago. I'd always found his attitude reminiscent of those vulgar American tourists who trot about in baseball caps and cheap plaid shorts and consider the rest of the world "backward."
"Well, I suppose it's a holdover from your days in the KGB," he said.
"I was never KGB, Bill. You know that. I came from Naval Intelligence — just as you did."
The smile faded. But not the same Naval Intelligence his expression shot back. "I told them you'd be difficult, just as you were in training," Duffy continued as he approached the center of the room where we were all gathered. "I told them all about it — and about you."
Now, it was my turn to be angry. How could he say such a thing? We'd spent nine months together and not as friends. "You know nothing about me," I replied evenly, maintaining my composure.
"I know enough." Duffy turned to Napoleon. "I can't believe you took this guy on as a partner. D'you hear what happened the night of graduation?"
"He told me," Napoleon said, even though I never had, not really. During the Devil's Attic Affair, we'd been hiding in that attic, hunted by Thrush soldiers, when the subject came up.
I've...heard rumors... that you resisted the initiation the night before graduation...
... that you refused to take the oath. Or make the mark.
That untrue... it's a complicated story.
Someday, you will have to tell me about it ...
But I never did and Napoleon never asked again. And now he was facing down Duffy, acutely aware that everyone else in the room knew a story that he didn't. At that moment, I wanted nothing better than to take him aside and explain everything, but obviously, that wasn't possible. I deeply regretted not sharing with him information that, as my partner, he had every right to have. I hadn't meant to be secretive. It just never occurred to me. I don't consider myself very interesting, and chatting about personal matters is not my habit. Nevertheless, I resolved then and there to be as candid as possible with Napoleon in the future.
Which, of course, did nothing to alleviate the present situation. But as usual, my partner finessed his way through it.
"He has a scar on his right hand and a gold card in his pocket," Napoleon said, clearly annoyed. I suspected it was less with Duffy than with me. "If there are any other requirements to be included in this group, I'm not aware of them."
"Show us," Joubert said, motioning to me. I held out my hand, palm up, the scar parallel to the lifeline on display for all to see. The murmurs that followed indicated that Duffy and his tales out of school had now lost a considerable amount of credibility. Bill's jaw had dropped with surprise, and while it still hung, slack and open, Napoleon seized the advantage.
"And if you're insinuating there's a problem because Illya is a Communist," he added, "well, you're going to be mighty uncomfortable if you check the party sympathies of your other colleagues in this room. Xenophobia does not become an U.N.C.L.E. agent."
That seemed to settle it, at least for the time being. Still, when my partner shot me a quick glance, I knew I owed him more than a simple explanation. But that was for later.
Just then, the agent who'd been working in the kitchen emerged with several steaming dishes and without ceremony, set them down on the table. "Eat," he said simply, then disappeared to retrieve the wine. It was typical Ticinese cooking — veal, pasta, a side dish of polenta, which always looks like yellow mashed potatoes to me. From their various places in the big room, the agents converged on the trestle table, jockeying for seats. Joubert claimed the chair at the head, but before anyone was seated, a voice rang out, stopping all of us in mid-motion.
"Oh, but of course — yes. Eat. Drink. Talk more. Delay more." The voice not only dripped with sarcasm, but if was female, too, which gave Napoleon and I a start. At this point in the organization's history, there were no female agents in the field.
"How much longer must I wait before this matter is resolved?" the woman demanded. She descended the staircase and joined all of us at the table, taking her place opposite Joubert, just to the left of Napoleon's elbow.
"And whom, may I ask, are you?" my partner inquired, tempering his tone in deference to her gender.
"I am Solange Joubert."
"Jean-Pierre's sister?" I asked.
She looked me over with obvious contempt. "His widow."
"Jean-Pierre didn't have a wife," Napoleon said. When she shifted her attention to him, he cooly returned her gaze. For a moment, they took each other's measure, like two swordsmen preparing for a duel.
"He did," said the woman. "We were married in secret."
This was before Waverly's edict against field agents marrying so there was no reason for such secrecy and Napoleon said so. "Au contraire, Monsieur," she corrected him. "In your business, a family, a wife — even a lover — is a liability, no? Men who require such companionship are often passed over for promotion, and my husband was ambitious."
"Perhaps too much so," Napoleon noted with some sympathy, but Solange Joubert would have none of it.
"Oh? And how many lovers have you had? Lovers — that mattered?"
Wisely, Napoleon didn't offer an answer and Solange didn't require one. She was an intense, sharp-featured woman in her late twenties or possibly, early thirties. Her lips were rouged and she favored heavy eye mascara after the fashion of many Parisian women of the time. Under her black sweater and ski pants, she appeared angular and athletic.
And there was no doubt she was angry. And bitter. Very, very bitter.
In this volatile atmosphere, such an attitude could be dangerous, and the fact that she was a civilian, and therefore untrained and unpredictable, didn't help the situation. So I was not surprised when Napoleon turned to Jean-Marc and said, "She has no business being here." He spoke without emotion or rancor, which only infuriated Solange even more.
"How dare you!" she hissed at him. "You think because I do not have your mark? So important! Oh yes, I heard you all before. But I have something just as good — better."
She held up her left hand, displaying a plain gold wedding band on the fourth finger. "I make a promise too, you see? A real promise — to a real human being. And I hold a real hand in mine. Not some silly pledge made to —"
"Solange!" Joubert cried sharply. "Enough!"
His sister-in-law glared at him, hot tears glazing her eyes, but she complied. "Let's eat," Joubert said wearily, and once again, we settled into our seats. Napoleon held Solange's chair for her, a gesture of good will, and I heard him whisper to her with genuine regret, "I'm sorry." To which she murmured, "You will be, if you forget your duty."
The food was good and I was hungry. Nevertheless, it was one of the worst dinners I've ever had to endure. The tension around the table was thicker than the veal. As we ate, Napoleon motioned to the prisoner still isolated in the chair and asked, "What about him? When does he eat?" Judging from the way he watched us, it seemed as if it'd been a long time since the prisoner had consumed anything, even water. In response, Solange spat a French obscenity too crude to repeat here. Fleetingly, I was reminded of her dead husband's formidable temper. It must have been an interesting marriage.
No one else seemed to be concerned, but Napoleon persevered. "A condemned man is usually allowed a last meal."
"We can't untie him," Joubert said. "It took too long to restrain him."
"Couldn't you release just one hand and the gag?"
"Too dangerous — he is not to be trusted," Ali said as if he knew what he was talking about. And he probably did. I noted an ugly purplish bruise on the Algerian's right temple.
"Napoleon chuckled dryly. "How much of a threat could he possibly pose with twelve armed agents surrounding him?" Across the table, Duffy leaned forward and added pointedly, "Maybe we just don't want to let him go."
"What would you have us do, Mr. Solo?" Cary Sears asked with an unctuousness I'd begun to expect from him. "Treat him like a dinner guest?"
"No, but surely—"
"If you are so concerned that he should eat," said the Ticinese agent who'd prepared the meal, "then feed him yourself."
"You gonna do that?" Duffy asked, grinning.
Napoleon hesitated, glancing around the increasingly hostile faces at the table. Clearly, the last thing he wanted to do was alienate them, though at the time, I didn't know why. All I knew was that this sparring back and forth was ridiculous and irritating. Indeed, the entire situation was getting on my nerves. Abruptly, I scooped up an empty plate, filled it with veal and polenta and got to my feet. "I'll do it," I said and went to the prisoner.
I was aware that I was taking a chance — that my actions would not endear me to the others and probably add to their distrust of me — but I didn't care. I'd agreed to work for U.N.C.L.E. particularly to get away from this sort of mundane cruelty.
"What'd I tell you?" I heard Duffy mutter to the others, loud enough for me to hear. I saw the warning in Napoleon's eyes, but I deliberately ignored it. I was beginning to wonder where his loyalties lay.
Removing the gag, I fed the prisoner with fork and knife. The resentment in the gaze of the others was so palpable, I could feel the heat of it on my back. When I returned to retrieve a glass of wine, one of the German agents said to me, "He doesn't deserve your pity."
I shrugged in return. "Perhaps Peyton-Smythe doesn't deserve it, but we still don't know for certain that this is Peyton-Smythe, now, do we?"
Picking up on the cue, Napoleon turned to Joubert. "You said you had evidence —"
"Yes, mon ami, we have reams of it."
Indeed they did. Already, thick manila folders were being piled on the table. With dinner over, the Ticinese agent cleared away the used dishes and replaced them with cups and saucers. In the air, there was the scent of coffee brewing. After allowing the prisoner to eat his fill, I held the wine glass as he drained it. Then I refilled the glass and he drank that one, too. No doubt, he was going to need the fortification for the ordeal ahead.
"Replace the gag," Joubert ordered.
"I would like to hear what he has to say," I protested. "There will be time enough for that. We want no interruptions. Replace the gag."
When I looked to Napoleon, he offered me only a small, helpless shrug so I did as I was told. Just before the cloth was in place, however, the prisoner raised his eyes to me and croaked a "thank you."
I nodded, feeling vaguely guilty even though there really was no reason to be. If this was Peyton-Smythe, as I so strongly suspected, the German agent was right: he deserved no pity. Still, there was something about the sound of that "thank you" that nagged at me, though at the moment, I didn't realize what it was. As I returned to my place at the table, the de-briefing began.
The last time Napoleon and I had seen Christopher Peyton-Smythe, he was parachuting from our plane, leaving a hidden bomb behind. Luckily, we'd found the bomb in time and threw it out before it exploded. If we hadn't, Peyton-Smythe would have been the mission's sole survivor. He would have gone back to U.N.C.L.E. with a tale about how the bomb was set by someone else and then continued his career as an U.N.C.L.E. field agent — truly a ghastly thought.
The Devil's Attic Affair had not been a success for U.N.C.L.E. to be sure. We'd failed in our objective to bring out the U.N.C.L.E. mole, Louis Delage. Poor Louis, who'd suffered psychological damage from his years working undercover as a trusted member of Thrush, committed suicide on the return trip. Because Peyton-Smythe had kept Thrush informed of our plans, we'd also lost nearly half the team, including Jean-Pierre Joubert and senior agent, Gregory Von Linden. Nate Cassidy, our team's leader and not so incidentally, Napoleon's friend and mentor, had also nearly died. And finally, as a result of Peyton-Smythe's further treachery, the top secret Thrush record archive that we'd discovered was completely destroyed by fire.
On the other hand, the mission had been even more of a disaster for Thrush. They'd lost personnel and an all-important base of training operations, not to mention the archive, which they intended to use to program their Ultimate Computer. Because of our actions, the Ultimate Computer's coming on-line was delayed by some five years.
All of this was recounted to us in much greater detail than I will offer here. Sears read from the official mission report — no doubt, obtained unofficially — requesting affirmation or clarification from time to time from Napoleon and I. We both complied. Then came the intriguing part, at least for my partner and me: the story of what happened after the mission. Of course, U.N.C.L.E. was interested in apprehending Peyton-Smythe, but he was only one of a long list of wanted criminals. For the younger Joubert and Eric Stangl, who had been Von Linden's number two in Berlin, however, this was a personal matter and they were not inclined to wait for protocol. Working on their own time, they began their own pursuit and apparently, picked up the fugitive's trail about a month later, in Marseille. Napoleon and I listened as each of the field agents around the table related his piece of the story. Peyton-Smythe had led them on a merry chase, from Marseille to Corsica, then to Algiers and through North Africa. His escape route continued through Morocco, back to Spain, then to Lisbon, Portugal, where he took a flight to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
At this point, the European agents turned the narrative over to their counterparts who operated across the ocean. The South American agent in the group, whom I will merely call Juan, nearly caught up with Peyton-Smythe in Rio, but then lost him. The chase continued through Venezuela and Colombia, then up into the Caribbean Islands, where the second British agent at this gathering was posted. This man — call him Hugh — tracked Peyton-Smythe through every vacation spot in the area until they ended up in Acapulco with another close call.
After Mexico, the chase turned northward and crossed the border into Texas, where Bill Duffy, my old classmate, was enlisted to help. Then to New Orleans, then a flight back to Europe and more pursuit, eventually ending up in Bern. There, Peyton-Smythe closed out a numbered account at a bank only several blocks away from another bank where coincidentally, Napoleon and I had just completed our most recent mission. Afterward, he was trailed to Sierre, where he was finally cornered in an alleyway and captured for good.
It sounded like a relay race and it was, but of the most serious kind. I have summarized a tale which was, in the telling, very long and very involved with few triumphs and many set-backs. To provide evidence for the truth of the narrative, manila folders were opened and documentation produced. It was all there — from bar tabs to hotel bills to invoices for visits to plastic surgeons. Sometimes there were signatures, sometimes not. The aliases were many; the handwriting, at least to someone not expert in such analysis, forever changing. There were photographs too, but always blurry, or out of focus, or from behind, or from a distance. And the figure in the photographs, supposedly the same man, was as variable as his alleged handwriting.
It was an impressive case all right, as good as any legal prosecution and it took almost two hours to present. Even more impressive was the fact that this global manhunt had apparently been conducted by little more than a dozen agents in their spare time, using U.N.C.L.E. resources and confederates in other sections when they could, but without the authorization or even the knowledge of Section One. The last point, as hard as it was to believe, had to be true. For, if Waverly or Farenti or any of the other chiefs had ever gotten wind of this rogue operation, they would have either closed it down or taken control, not to mention asking for the resignation of everyone involved. Needless to say, nothing like that had happened.
One had to admire such tenacity and enterprise and Napoleon said as much when the presentation was finished. "So, then you are convinced," Joubert said. It was a statement not a question.
"Well..." Napoleon hesitated, cocking his head to one side, though I thought he sounded as if he were ready to concede. When Joubert turned to me, I admitted that although the wealth of evidence was considerable, it was, in the end, completely circumstantial. There was not one scrap of paper with the name or signature of Peyton-Smythe on it, not one clear, recognizable photograph of a man I could identify as the one we'd worked with a year before. And not one of the agents involved in the investigation — not one — had ever actually come face to face with their quarry until the very end.
Needless to say, everyone at the table was annoyed with my assessment. That is, everyone except Napoleon, who remained inscrutably and uncharacteristically silent. Across from me, Duffy leaned forward and tapped the table with his forefinger like a scolding parent. "You mean to tell us that two hours of evidence isn't enough?"
"I'm afraid it isn't, Bill," I said. "Not if I'm to deliberately execute a man. He's innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
"Is that what they teach you in Russia?"
"No," I replied calmly. "I learned it from you Americans. It's a system of justice I much prefer to gulags and kangaroo courts, don't you?"
Then I asked if they had any more objective, scientific evidence. This was a few years before we had access to audiograms and voice analysis, and more than a decade before retina scans and DNA testing. Still, there were other methods available. Had there been an attempt to match fingerprints? The answer was no: the prisoner's prints had been obliterated from his fingertips. Had they done a blood test? If the prisoner had the same blood type as Peyton-Smythe, of course, that wouldn't prove anything. But if he didn't, we'd at least know we had the wrong man. But again no, no blood test. A professional handwriting analysis? No, not even that.
"This sounds as if you wish to speak for the defense," the Swiss agent, whose family owned the chalet, remarked.
"No," I said, "actually, I would like to hear the defendant speak for himself." I turned to Joubert. "You said there'd be time."
"Yes, Jean-Marc," Napoleon chimed in, finally speaking up. "I'd like to hear what the son of a bitch has to say."
I glanced at Napoleon. Had he turned against my position, too? Was he really contemplating murdering this man out of hand? But his expression remained neutral, unfathomable, and in the next moment, Joubert was motioning to me to remove the gag.
As I went to the prisoner, Solange complained, "What good will it do to listen to him? He speaks nothing but lies."
"Perhaps we make more certain that he tells the truth," said Sears.
"Do you have a polygraph?" Napoleon asked. I listened for the answer hopefully. Although in those days, most law enforcement agencies routinely relied upon so-called "lie detectors," I knew the technology was unreliable. A practiced, professional deceiver like Peyton-Smythe just might pass the test. And that would give Napoleon and I an excuse to escort him from the chalet and take him to the nearest U.N.C.L.E. office for a proper interrogation.
"No," Sears replied with a chuckle, "I was thinking of more 'old fashioned' methods." This prompted the group to share a laugh. Even Napoleon joined in.
"How about a little truth serum?" Stangl asked quietly just as I removed the prisoner's gag. Napoleon was immediately interested. "You have some?"
"That really won't be necessary, fellas," the man in the chair announced a bit nervously. "Look: I don't know who this whatchamacallit-Smith character is, but I'll save us all any more grief. My name is Harry Coombs." He swallowed hard. "And yeah, Jesus, okay, I'm a Thrush agent."
The sound of those words gave me pause and I realized why I'd been subliminally disturbed by the earlier "thank you." Not only was the voice much coarser and deeper than I remembered, but there was something else. Once again, I looked to Napoleon, who was sitting straight up in his chair. He'd noticed it, too. The Christopher Peyton-Smythe we'd known always spoke like the blue-blooded Oxford graduate that he was. But this man, who identified himself as Harry Coombs, had an unmistakably flat, American mid-western accent.
"Get the truth serum," Napoleon said.
Now let me be perfectly clear: I wanted Peyton-Smythe punished for his treachery just as much as everyone in that room. But I wanted it done legally or at least, with the organization's official authorization. In that regard, I had several concerns.
The first was, obviously, that the man we had wasn't really Peyton-Smythe. To be perfectly honest, my instincts still told me that he was. True, his physical appearance and his voice, right down to the accent, had changed dramatically. But have you ever had the experience of meeting someone you knew from school or from your childhood? The person may have aged considerably — grown older, lost or gained weight, height, or even hair — and you may not recognize him at first. After a moment, however, you begin to see it: that indefinable something that jogs the sense memory.
Well, it was like that now with Peyton-Smythe. Still, there was a chance — slight, but still a chance — that Napoleon and I could be wrong.
Assuming that we were both right, however, there was a more important matter that I have yet to mention. You see, Peyton-Smythe was not merely a young agent gone bad. He'd been bad from the start. That is, he wasn't just a traitor. He'd been a Thrush agent — a mole, a double agent — who'd somehow managed to get himself accepted into the survival school and then proceeded to perform like a star pupil. If the Devil's Attic Affair had not gone so terribly wrong or even occurred at all, it is quite possible that Peyton-Smythe would have risen quickly in the ranks of Section Two, no doubt with disastrous consequences.
The fact that he was a mole and not simply a traitor was not contained in any official report. Only the Section One chiefs and the survivors of our mission knew, and Waverly felt it was prudent to suppress the information to preserve confidence in the ranks and overall morale. If an agent turned traitor, it could be considered the result of a weakness in the nature of that individual human being. But if Thrush could plant an agent in the heart of U.N.C.L.E., that would mean the entire organization was vulnerable. Waverly preferred the first perception to the second, so much so, that when Thrush almost succeeded in planting another mole in the survival school again in the mid-60's, Waverly very nearly shut down the entire school for good.
Technically, then, Peyton-Smythe was not eligible for this ordeal. He was the enemy and always had been, and therein lay the dilemma. If Napoleon and I revealed this information, we might have brought the current proceedings to a screeching halt, but we would have betrayed Waverly's trust. On the other hand, if we kept silent, as we had thus far, we would be failing in our duty to bring in an enemy agent with valuable information for interrogation.
So the bottom line was: whether the man before us was Peyton-Smythe or, less likely, some other Thrush agent named Harry Coombs. Either way, he needed to be brought in alive and safe, and Napoleon and I had to find a way to do it.
Only my partner didn't seem to be thinking that way at the moment. He appeared to be just as intent on unmasking the prisoner once and for all as the others were, and a dose of truth serum just might do it. But the question nagged at me: why? Napoleon was in the midst of building an extremely promising career. He was a favorite of senior agents like Cassidy and over the past year, he'd won the grudging respect of The Old Man, too. In the time we'd worked together, he'd always put the job and the interests of the organization first, no matter what. It was a professional credo we both shared. Was he actually willing to risk throwing it all away just for the satisfaction of revenge? I couldn't believe it.
In any event, despite the prisoner's protests, they had his sleeve rolled and the serum prepared. The injection only took a moment; the slow slide into twilight consciousness as the drug advanced through the bloodstream, a few more. Within ten minutes, the prisoner was ready and the questions began.
They asked him his name and he replied, "Harry Coombs." They asked him if he was a Thrush agent and he said yes. They asked him how long he'd been with Thrush and he said five years — which was well before Peyton-Smythe's graduation date. They asked him if he'd caused the death of Joubert. He said no. They asked if he'd caused the death of Von Linden. He said no. They asked if he'd been responsible for burning down the abbey on Montsalat, the place where Thrush had located its archive. He said no once more.
And the wonder of it was: even if he were really Peyton-Smythe, technically all the answers were the truth. Smythe had belonged to Thrush. Maybe his real name was even Harry Coombs — who knows? It was possible.
He'd probably been a trusted member of Thrush long before he was sent to infiltrate our survival school. He hadn't actually killed Joubert or Von Linden: Thrush soldiers did. And the abbey had been set ablaze by another member of our team, a priest from Vatican Intelligence, who'd discovered Peyton-Smythe's duplicity and was killed in the struggle.
As the questions continued, I developed a new-found respect for Napoleon's strategy. I didn't have much experience with Thrush's conditioning of its operatives, but Napoleon did, and I realized that he'd guessed correctly how the interrogation would proceed. The serum used by U.N.C.L.E. Northeast during this period was not as effective as later formulations. Although the drug worked internally unlike a polygraph which gauged external reactions, for an experienced or conditioned enemy agent, the results were similar. If you could beat one, you could probably beat the other.
The problem with a polygraph test is that it merely measures stress, but not the reason behind the presence or absence of that stress. A subject who is comfortable with lying, or believes the lies he tells, will register as telling the truth. Alternately, a nervous or apprehensive subject, even if he is telling the truth, will fail the test.
As I discovered later, Thrush had found a way to routinely "condition" its personnel against our early truth serum with intensive treatments of hypnotic suggestion. As with the polygraph, if the subject believed the lies he told, or was induced somehow to believe them, he would feel no pain, no compulsion to speak otherwise, and suffer no ill effects from the drug except a vague, warm haziness. U.N.C.L.E. soon caught on to this strategy and returned the favor by conditioning its own field agents.
But this was still early 1961, and such full-scale psychological warfare was at least a year away. So the prisoner talked and everyone listened with interest. His responses were calm, rational, if not entirely unambiguous. As the session dragged on and the minutes ticked by, answers came out that were more elliptical, fragmented, confused and cryptic, and there were more hesitations.
Nevertheless, Napoleon's strategy had worked. There was now enough counter-evidence to confuse the issue and introduce a modicum of reasonable doubt. Any position of absolute certainty had been seriously compromised.
Solange realized what was happening and she was not pleased. She'd observed the interrogation with suspicion and increasing agitation, and now she could hold her tongue no longer. When the prisoner paused for the briefest of moments in denying for the fourth time that his name was ever Peyton-Smythe, Solange exploded.
"This is ridiculous!" she cried. "Obviously, he has manipulated his mind as well as his body. He has been prepared for such as this. It proves nothing!"
Although no one actively challenged her, I could see by some of the men's faces that a few of them no longer agreed. Joubert opened his mouth to defend her, but before he could say anything, Napoleon beat him to the punch.
"Madame Joubert is right," my partner said, to my utter disbelief. "I think the prisoner has told us just about everything he can, or will. We now have the advantage of more information, though not necessarily a confirmation either way. There is nothing more to learn."
"Then it is time to vote," Joubert said, stealing a peek at his watch. We'd talked and argued most of the night. At least, it certainly felt that way. "I will state the proposition: I say that no matter what his history before or after, this is the agent known as Christopher Peyton-Smythe, late of the London office. He turned traitor and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of three agents: Jean-Pierre Joubert, Louis Delage and Gregory Von Linden. In doing this, he has violated our covenant, a crime for which there is only one punishment: death at the hands of his others. As we defend and preserve each other's lives, so we can also choose to take life away. Who among us agrees?"
There was silence at first. Then Joubert raised his hand. Stangl followed. Then another agent's hand went up. And another. And another. Some hesitated, some were visibly reluctant, one or two even looked guiltily in the prisoner's direction but slowly, surely, ten hands were held up, signaling agreement. And then Napoleon's rose too, to make eleven.
All eyes turned toward me. Solange, who could not vote though her sentiments were clear, said simply, "Well?"
I shook my head and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry," I said. "I can't." She looked at me with as much contempt as she could muster and called me a fool. It was then that Napoleon intervened. He turned to Joubert.
"Ah — could I have a word with my partner? Alone?" Joubert pointed to the bedroom from which we'd emerged hours before, but this didn't suit Napoleon.
"We would prefer more privacy."
"There's an old shed in the yard," the Swiss agent, whose family owned the chalet, suggested.
"It has no heat."
"The fresh air will do us good," Napoleon said. Before I could even squeeze out a protest, he had me by the arm and was dragging me back to the bedroom to retrieve our parkas. Inside, he threw my coat at me while he slipped his arms into his. "Not a word," he said, holding up a finger to halt any arguments I might want to make. Then we were heading out the door.
"Your weapons, please," Joubert said. It was a demand, not a request. We both surrendered our Specials, although I didn't understand the purpose. Did he expect us to return, guns blazing?
"The effects of the truth serum will wear off in thirty minutes," he added. Someone, I don't remember who, passed us an oil lantern. "You have until then. Explain to your friend what will happen to him if he does not change his vote."
Napoleon only nodded, yanked open the door of the chalet, and pushed me through, into the cold and snowy night.
"So," I growled at him a few minutes later, "what will happen to me? As if I couldn't guess."
We were standing inside an old weather-beaten shed that was now being used as a makeshift garage. Our rented Volvo was parked there, along with two other cars. We'd given the shed and the cars a quick inspection for bugs, though we didn't expect to find any.
The door was closed, but the glass in one of the windows was broken, allowing a sharp, icy wind to whistle through. It was sometime around three or four in the morning and outside, the snow had tapered to flurries.
"Well, you'd be shunned for starters," Napoleon said, quite matter-of-factly. "No one would work with you voluntarily. If you requested aid on a mission, no one would respond. And if you attempted to report what happened tonight, an accident would probably be arranged. Even if no deliberate action was taken, you still wouldn't survive in the field very long."
"Oh, that's sounds great. Wonderful. And would you shun me as well?"
Napoleon shrugged. "I wouldn't have a choice." He shivered and folded his arms more tightly against the icy wind. "Let's talk in the car. It's warmer."
Of course, I was in no mood to talk. I was feeling angry and betrayed and confused and I wanted to have it out, here and now. But it was very cold, so I relented and climbed into the passenger seat of the Volvo.
Once inside, however, I noticed that Napoleon's attitude was anything but confrontational. Despite what he'd just declared to me, something else was on his mind. I choked down my anger and asked him the question I'd wanted to ask all evening: "Do you think that's Peyton-Smythe?"
"Of course. He still bites his nails — didn't you notice?"
No, I hadn't, at least not consciously. But now that he mentioned it, I realized that was part of the indefinable "something" that had cued me. "So I'm correct in assuming that you suspected he might be able to withstand the truth serum?"
"Uh-huh. At least, for a while. But his mental defenses were beginning to weaken. That's why I sided with Solange to end the questions."
Ah-ha, I thought.
"I was hoping an interrogation would muddy the waters a bit, and it did."
"Then for heaven's sake, why did you raise your hand with the others?"
He grinned. "Because I knew you wouldn't."
"But suppose I had?"
"Well, then I guess we'd still be back in the house, helping to tie the knot in a hangman's noose."
"That's not funny," I said.
"Sorry." He gave my shoulder a pat. "Don't worry. We'll figure something out."
"Hell, if I knew that, we wouldn't be out here freezing our asses off."
That made me smile. It felt good to finally be able to speak openly and candidly. I was already regretting my earlier misgivings about him. "Peyton-Smythe certainly went through a lot of trouble to change his appearance, didn't he? An amazing job of it, too."
"Desperation is the mother of invention. He was running for his life. And not only from us. He's also been running from Thrush." Napoleon was right of course, but still, I had to admit a grudging admiration for managing such an effective transformation.
My partner nodded absently. He was thinking. "If only there were something about him now that was different and couldn't be accounted for. Something that just couldn't be changed — couldn't be done or undone. Something we could use to convince the others that he was someone else."
"It's a little late for that, isn't it?"
"Not necessarily. I was calling for his blood, too, remember? As far as the others are concerned, I'm on their side. A few of them were beginning to waver. Did you notice?"
I said I did.
"Maybe we can exploit the situation." He looked at me pointedly. "You said I was good at that."
"And what about me? It's obvious I'm not on their side."
"Maybe we can exploit that, too."
I let out a deep sigh. "This reminds me so much of what happened at survival school."
"Oh yeah?" he asked, picking up the cue. " So: what did happen?"
Considering the events of this evening, I thought I'd better tell him and I did. "You know what initiation night is like. The way they ambush you; the way they hustle you out there, into the jungle. The suddenness of it all, the confusion. There's no time for discussion; no time to even think properly. Well, I just told them that if I was going to swear any blood oaths, I didn't want to be rushed into it. This had to be my decision, my choice."
"Did Cutter get wind of this?"
"He must have. He kept me a month after graduation on the flimsy excuse that he wanted me to instruct the explosives and demolition class."
"And eventually you made the mark yourself, when you were good and ready."
I nodded and asked how he knew.
"I guessed from the surprised reaction of your old chum, Duffy. He didn't expect you to have a scar." He chuckled and shook his head. "Damn, you are one stubborn Russian."
"I take it, then, you approve of this vigilantism."
"I don't know if I approve exactly, but I respect it." I was well aware of how close he was to Nate, who'd been there, back in 1946, at that first, legendary dinner, when U.N.C.L.E. was truly born. "Look," Napoleon said, growing serious, "in the beginning, those guys, those first enforcement agents, they were afraid to trust one another. And no wonder: they'd just finished fighting on opposing sides during the war. They weren't saints, after all. They knew all the rules and policy statements in the world wouldn't mean a damn thing, so they made a pact, just among themselves. Unfortunately, what's happening tonight is the legacy of that pact."
"But didn't you hear Joubert?" I protested. "Life defended can be life taken away."
"There is a down side," Napoleon admitted. I told him that was the understatement of the year.
"Now, c'mon," he argued back, "isn't it sort of comforting to know that if you are betrayed, every U.N.C.L.E. field agent who's asked will cooperate in hunting the traitor down?"
"No," I replied, "and if I survived the incident, I'd quit U.N.C.L.E. rather than be connected in any way with some international posse."
Which is exactly what I did, many years later, after that affair in Yugoslavia involving Janus.
Napoleon shrugged. "Well, like it or not, ultimately, it's what holds the organization together."
"And is it what holds us together?" I asked quietly.
"No," he said. "But it's what made us possible in the first place."
He checked his watch. "We'd better be getting back," he said. He leaned close. "And no matter what happened to you at survival school or since, tovarisch, for once you're going to have to put that pig-headed skepticism of yours aside and trust someone completely: me. I'm going to look for an opportunity, and when I see it, I'm going to take it. So stay alert — because I may not have time to explain to you what's happening. You'll just have to figure it out for yourself."
As we began to leave the relative warmth of the car, I couldn't help but ask, "Napoleon, tell me the truth: knowing as you do that it's Peyton-Smythe in there, if I wasn't here, would you have gone along with the group?"
He considered for a moment. I can still remember how his breath showed up as small fingers of fog in the glow of the lantern. "I honestly don't know. But when you and I are together, obviously, we have an effect on one another." He smiled. "It's like physics, right?"
"Yes," I agreed, remembering our conversation on the train that morning, so many hours ago. "Like physics."
When we returned to the house, preparations for the night's main event were already under way. Still bound to the chair, Peyton-Smythe was rather more lucid than he'd been a half hour ago, and they were force-feeding him strong coffee to clear up any residual grogginess. They wanted him completely aware and alert, all the better for him to endure what they had planned.
The feeling of excitement and nervous anticipation that filled the room was almost palpable, and despite the fact that I despised Peyton-Smythe myself, the sight of the other agents hovering around him sickened me. If it is the image of shining nobility that attracts us, recruits us, seduces us to join U.N.C.L.E., it is something else — deep, dark, and vaguely unclean — that keeps us in The Game. That something was on display that night, for all to see. It was not pretty. We — all of us — were trained predators and the scent of blood was in the air.
"You can give us our guns back," Solo told Joubert as we took off our coats. He motioned in my direction. "He's with us."
Joubert turned and eyed me with suspicion. "Let me hear you say it."
"My vote is yes," I replied levelly, without visible emotion.
"But with reservations —"
"Of course." Despite my best efforts, irritability crept into my voice. "There should always be reservations when a human life is at stake."
He didn't seem to want to restore our weapons to us, but finally, he did. "Take care, mon ami," he said as my Special passed between us. "Such hesitation in pulling the trigger can mean your own death."
"I never hesitate," I said. "And I always shoot with my eyes wide open."
Our exchange was interrupted by a commotion from the others. They were ready. The coffee had worked its effect. Needless to say, the prisoner himself was less than enthusiastic and not inclined to cooperate. He pleaded, he cursed, he struggled, he cried. The gag muffled his protests but did not stop them. It took two men to release his bonds, and another four to get him on his feet and hold him steady while Joubert intoned the sentence. It was devilishly appropriate: because he had alienated himself from the agents' fellowship, Peyton-Smythe would be tossed out into the cold. Not only figuratively, but literally.
Stangl flung open the door of the chalet. The icy wind howled, sharp gusts tearing through the warmth of the room like a volley of knives. About six inches of snow lay on the ground and more flakes were still coming down.
"Strip him," Joubert ordered, "but replace the gloves and leave his boots. Bind him with tape at the wrists and ankles. We want no rope burns. "
Thrown naked and helpless into the cold cruel night, it wouldn't take long before the prisoner died of exposure. Poetic justice, indeed, I thought. Then no doubt, after he was dead, they would redress the body and arrange some sort of accident scene. And a few days from now, the ski patrol would find a lost hiker frozen in a snowdrift.
Standing to one side of the doorway, Solange watched the drama, gloating in triumph. Napoleon was in the midst of it all, apparently as determined as the others to get the deed done, though I knew otherwise.
For myself, I'd had enough. As they began to unbutton the prisoner's shirt, I asked the Swiss agent where the toilet was. He told me it was upstairs.
"Where are you going?" Joubert called out.
"To the john. I gave you my vote, I witnessed the sentence." I gestured to the group of agents struggling to wrest away the prisoner's clothes. "You don't need me for this," I said. Then I turned on my heel and didn't look back. I heard Duffy spout some vulgar insult but I didn't care. To hell with him, I told myself. To hell with them all.
Upstairs, away from the fireplace, the air temperature was considerably chillier. I used the facilities and then turned on the tap of an ancient washbasin to splash cool water on my face. All the while, daring scenarios for rescuing Peyton-Smythe played through my mind: I would rush back down the staircase and surprise them, and hold them at gunpoint while Napoleon claimed custody of the prisoner. Or: I would escape from the bathroom window, slither down a drainpipe, drag Peyton-Smythe from the snow and certain death, hot-wire the Volvo, and spirit him away. Or — well, you get the idea. I knew they were all futile fantasies, but I also knew we had to do something.
What I didn't realize was, we already had. Or rather, Napoleon had put the wheels in motion. Distracted by my reverie, I hadn't really been paying attention to the sounds and voices coming from downstairs. In fact, I didn't even hear the hurried footsteps advancing in the hall until they were right outside the bathroom. Suddenly, the door was ripped open and the South American agent, Juan, poked his head in.
"Kuryakin," he said, breathing hard, "tell me: do you know if Peyton-Smythe was circumcised?"
Juan's appearance was so abrupt and the question so strange, it took me a second to focus my thoughts. I stammered, "What?"
"Quickly! Was he circumcised or uncircumcised? Do you know?"
And in the space of a heartbeat, faster than I could actually hear them in my mind, I remembered Napoleon's words: Something that couldn't be done... or undone.
And I knew this was the opportunity that Napoleon had warned me about. And I knew I had to make the right choice because Peyton's Smythe's fate depended upon it. And even though I did not, in truth, know the correct answer, there was only one logical response. "Circumcised," I blurted out. "He was circumcised."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes," I lied, feigning as much sincerity as I could muster, "I am." And then, for good measure, I added, "He told me his mother was Jewish."
Another lie, of course. It was a good thing that I didn't have that truth serum racing through my veins, I told myself ruefully.
"Ay, mierda!" Juan muttered in disgust and trotted away. Curious, I followed.
Weeks later, after this affair was over, I heard what had transpired while I was upstairs: how they'd pulled off Peyton-Smythe's trousers; how my partner had announced with shock that this couldn't possibly be the traitor because Peyton-Smythe had been circumcised and this man clearly was not; how the agents had debated before Juan sought me for confirmation. By the time I descended the staircase, Napoleon was already locked in heated debate with Joubert, while the others circled anxiously around them. A blanket had been thrown over the prisoner who was shivering with cold and fear, still shirtless, his trousers unzipped, with his arms still bound behind his back. He was being guarded by Ali, who had his gun drawn and aimed at the prisoner's chest.
"You see?" Napoleon was saying. "You do have the wrong man." Joubert was angry, but I could see that his confidence was wavering. Solange could see it, too.
"He's lying!" she screamed at her brother-in-law. "Can't you see?" When she heard me coming down the stairs, she wheeled in my direction. "They're both lying! It's a conspiracy! They concocted it together outside in the shed."
"They may have talked, but not about this," said Juan. "When I came to him upstairs, there was true surprise on Kuryakin's face. Judging from what we have seen tonight, he is not all that good of an actor." "Peyton-Smythe did have a Jewish mother," Cary Sears volunteered quietly. "I once saw his file."
I was stunned when I heard this. Incredibly, I'd made a wild guess that turned out to be true. I don't know what made me think of it: perhaps I'd heard something in passing once and the information had been stored in my subconscious. It was only years later that we discovered that although she had been Jewish, the mother had been an atheist and a free-thinker who cared not a wit for religious custom. But no one knew that now.
"Stop this!" Solange cried in frustration, but Joubert wasn't listening to her. He was looking at Napoleon, who had seized the advantage and was using it for all it was worth.
"You've been tricked, Jean-Marc," my partner was telling him, telling them all. "You've been led on a wild goose chase. It's an old ploy — maybe you had the real Peyton-Smythe in the beginning, but somehow, along the way, he mislead you — threw you this two-bit, second-rate operator as a decoy. And you swallowed the bait."
"Son of bitch," I heard Duffy growl. He was buying the story. So were the brothers.
"Look at him," Napoleon laughed harshly, pointing to the prisoner. "Does this look like someone who could make prefect scores on the island? Someone who could impress Jules Cutter?"
A few of us glanced over. My partner definitely had a point. It was hard to imagine the pitiful, paunchy, man shivering before us scaling the formidable barricades or crawling through the machine gun field at the survival school. I was almost convinced, myself.
"Mon Dieu, I don't believe this!" Solange cried out in frustration. "Have we not established that this is a disguise?"
"Maybe it is," Napoleon replied, calm and eminently reasonable, "but not all of it. To put it bluntly, my dear Madame, you can cut a foreskin off but you can't glue it back on, no matter good a plastic surgeon you have."
"You are a lying pig," she snarled back at my partner. "You —."
Joubert silenced her as he had earlier with a curt, "That's enough, Solange." She shot him a murderous look, barely able to contain her rage.
"So what'll we do now?" Duffy asked. He sounded like a kid who'd thrown a baseball through the neighbor's window. "We can't let him go. He is Thrush, after all."
"And particularly after what he's seen tonight," Hugh agreed. "He's too great a threat to us."
"He'll still be a threat if we bring him in," Mann pointed out. "You know how the chiefs feel about quorums."
The others nodded gravely. It was one thing to risk a career to uphold and preserve the brotherhood. It was quite another to throw it away on a mistake.
"I don't understand," Solange said, irritably. "Why don't you just kill him? Arrange an accident as you were going to with Pey—"
She caught herself. The way the men were looking at her, thoroughly appalled at the suggestion, she knew she'd just said something terribly wrong.
And she had. I glanced at Napoleon and he arched an eyebrow in return. She'd just given him an opening, an opening he was going to exploit.
Defensively, she added, "Well, he is the enemy, is he not? He, himself, said — he admitted to being a Thrush agent."
"Sears shrugged. "But we don't know what sort of agent. He could be a simple courier."
Solange didn't see the distinction and said so. Napoleon turned to her, ready to explain what the rest of us implicitly understood. "He might not deserve killing."
"There is a difference between murder and self-defense," Joubert added quietly but firmly. "Executing a traitor is an act of self-defense."
"Self-defense?" she shot back. "You hypocrite! You wanted revenge just as much as I. As well you should. And now you speak of fine distinctions. You? You kill a man every week of your life!" She pointed, her accusing finger sweeping across the entire group. "And so do you. And you. And you. All of you."
"That's right," Napoleon agreed, "we do. And that is why it is important to make distinctions, to recognize the limits of our mandate, to follow the rules at all costs. Not to do so, well, that's a sure road to hell."
Solange narrowed her eyes. "Oh, and a devil like you would know, wouldn't you?"
Joubert cautioned her yet again, but my partner was unfazed. He shook his head, oozing sympathy, and offered her a wickedly pained smile. "That's all right, Jean-Marc. We can't expect an outsider —an innocent — to understand."
If Solange had been armed at that moment, I have no doubt she would have shot him. And to be honest, I could certainly understand why she would. She was correct in everything she said, but it no longer mattered. No one was listening to her. I felt sorry for her even while I was relieved that she was destined to lose the fight.
As for Napoleon's considerable gifts for sophistry and invention, I had more than a grudging respect. Less than a half hour before, I'd nearly given up hope of coming out of this with our ethics, our careers, and our lives all intact. But now, the possibility was there. I have been known to tease my partner or complain about his shortcomings, which are several, but never, never in regards to his skill at making the best of a bad situation. And in years to come, every time I watched Napoleon manipulate people to our advantage, I would remember this night and always be very, very, glad that he and I were on the same side.
The discussion returned again to the subject at hand, that is, what to do about the prisoner. "I don't see many options," Sears admitted.
"Neither do I," Napoleon agreed. "In fact, I think we have only one." My partner had played this affair like a hand of poker and now it was time for him to use his ace in the hole. "Illya and I will take the prisoner."
"Give him to you?!?" Joubert exploded. "And what can you do that the rest of us can't?"
"Not a lot except —" Napoleon paused for effect " — I can go to Nate."
Well, that stopped the discussion cold. Of the thirteen original field agents, you could count the survivors nearly on one hand. And of that number, two were retired, one was institutionalized, and two took only very specialized assignments. That left only Nate Cassidy still working regularly in Section Two. Although he was never the Chief of Enforcement because he refused to be promoted, if you were looking for a "dean" of field agents, Nate Cassidy was it. Everyone knew Napoleon was Cassidy's protegé And they also knew that Cassidy was on a first name basis with Waverly.
"Do you think he can set this right?" Joubert asked.
"Well," said Napoleon, "if anyone can, he can."
"And you think he will be sympathetic?"
Napoleon allowed himself a soft chuckle. "Oh, I'm sure of it." And though he didn't say exactly why, I could guess.
It seemed like a possible solution and everyone — including myself, but for different reasons, of course — seemed relieved. Everyone, that is, except Solange who looked at the faces of the men who surrounded her and realized that her opportunity for revenge was quickly evaporating with the coming dawn. All that night she'd been scolded, patronized, and ignored, and now she was being denied all together. It was too much.
She howled the word, "Noooooo!" and before any of the agents realized what was happening, she dove in the direction of her other-in-law, who was standing next to her. Her hand went to his side, just below his armpit. She clawed at his shoulder holster and her fingers closed around his U.N.C.L.E. Special. Joubert reacted to the attack, but at first, he misinterpreted her movement as merely an attempt to vent her anger. Only when he felt his weapon slide along his ribcage did he understand what her true intentions were: to shoot Peyton-Smythe.
Instinctively, he lashed out and with a growl, grabbed for his weapon while thrusting her away. Solange lost her grip on the butt. The gun went flying and so did she, both of them sliding along the wooden floor in opposite directions.
Joubert began to curse, calling her names, calling her crazy, his anger a match for that of his deceased brother. Solange ended up on her knees near the fireplace, but although she was in tears, she was far from finished. Oh no: for whatever else she was, Solange was strong and very determined. In any other circumstances, I would have been glad to have such a woman along on a mission.
As Joubert turned his back on her to retrieve his lost weapon, Solange reached for the poker that hung from a bracket next to the hearth. Sears thought she was going to strike out at her brother-in-law and moved to intercept. But in a flash, she twisted and swung in the prisoner's direction. The latter did his best to get out of the way, but having his arms pulled back made movement difficult. The iron rod missed his knees and instead, slammed him across one ankle.
The prisoner screamed and there was the sickening sound of bone cracking. Off balance and in pain, his legs buckled. Caught by surprise, Ali, the only agent who had his gun out, fired a warning shot in her direction. But Solange was fearless. She swung the poker again, clipping the prisoner along the temple.
In the next instant, two agents were on her, pinioning her arms and ripping the deadly iron bar from her grasp. Joubert, in a blind fury, delivered the coup de grace, slapping her so hard across the face that the two agents at her sides swayed and released their grip on her.
"Jean-Marc, please!" Napoleon called out, snapping the Frenchman back to reality and bringing a halt to any further abuse. Solange wheeled and collapsed, sobbing piteously, into a nearby chair. I knew her tears were less from emotion than from the bitterness of defeat.
It had all happened so quickly. For a moment, everyone took a breath. I saw Joubert eyeing the prisoner who was sprawled, slumped over and bleeding, on the floor. Before anyone else could, I rushed to the fallen man's aid. His body was hunched forward; his face was down. I tilted his head and pulled back an eyelid: nothing but white. The eyeballs were rolled back.
"How bad?" Joubert asked. I shrugged. "Hard to say: he's unconscious."
"Does it really matter?" Napoleon said, seizing the advantage once again. "The man's seriously injured. We have to get him out of here. Right now."
Right now, I thought, before anyone has time to think and consider another course of action. To add a note of urgency to the situation, I pointed out that the prisoner was bleeding badly. But then, head wounds, even less serious ones, usually do.
Joubert acquiesced with a silent nod. He signaled that we should go. I turned back to the prisoner, freed his hands and with the help of another agent, redressed the unconscious man. Someone produced a ski parka and I tugged that on, too, all the while hoping ferverently that no one would suddenly change his mind.
But it seemed that damage control, rather than revenge, was the group's major concern. "You will take care of this?" I heard Joubert say to Napoleon as I worked. "Discreetly?"
"You have my word on it, Jean-Marc," Napoleon replied.
"And what will happen to the rest of us now?" Duffy asked, not afraid to be blunt. He looked at Napoleon, then at me. It must have galled him to know that while I was protected through my connection with Napoleon, his position, like those of the others, was far more precarious.
"Don't worry," Napoleon said. "Your careers and your reputations will be safe. We'll see to it."
"We owe you," Stangl said, with no apparent resentment.
Napoleon offered him a careless forget-it wave in return, and added, "There are no debts between brothers." Years later, when Napoleon became Chief of Enforcement for New York, those not in-the-know often wondered how someone as freewheeling as Napoleon could be so respected, so popular with his fellow agents and so trusted by Section One. But I never did. Not after this.
The prisoner was still unconscious and it took three agents to carry him out to the car. Napoleon lagged behind and before he left, he approached Solange, who was still sobbing in the chair. He'd bested her, but when he leaned close to talk to her, there was no sense of triumph in his voice. I heard him tell her that he sympathized with her grief. "This business is not terribly kind to decent, normal relationships," he said. "And despite what you might think, I know something about how you feel. I've lost people I cared about, too.
"But Jean-Pierre loved you and you obviously loved him. That's more than most people can say, whether they're in the business or not. You'll always have that... and I'm afraid, that will have to be enough."
However, a few minutes later, in the car, Napoleon commented, "If Joubert had really loved, he wouldn't have married her. He would have let her go."
I never knew what Solange's reply was, or even if she had one. And as to her fate, that, too, remains a mystery. I never heard of her again.
We hit the road just as dawn was beginning to break. The snow had finally tapered off to a flurry. Neither one of us had any notion of where we were. The road was bad and not well used, and it was fortunate that the Volvo had come equipped with chains as well as snow tires. It was only after we passed a sign for the Grande Dixence Dam that Napoleon realized why we'd seen no cars nor trains, nor any sign of human movement.
"I know where we are," he announced. I told him that was good and since I was driving, he should tell me, too. Napoleon explained that beyond Hérémence, the road to the dam as closed in winter. We decided to head north, to the closest town, which was Sion.
"We're not out of the woods yet," he said, not intending a pun. We were driving through a rough, mountainous area. "This is going to be an extremely delicate matter."
He didn't have to tell me that. If it ever got around the field sections that we'd deliberately lied to rescue Peyton-Smythe, we'd be in trouble. On the other hand, we couldn't possibly tell Waverly what we'd been doing for the last twelve hours.
"Are you going to contact Nate?"
Napoleon nodded. We'd collected our communicators along with our coats and bags before we left, but I knew he wasn't going to risk using the regular channels. "We're going to have to avoid the local offices and somehow, get this weasel straight to Waverly."
I tipped my chin in Peyton-Smythe's direction. "And suppose he spills everything? Names names; tells what happened tonight. The Old Man will not be pleased, to put it mildly."
"That's where Nate comes in. We may need him as a go-between. Personally, I don't think Waverly will demand to know what happened, and if he finds out anything, he won't act on it. He'll keep this guy under wraps because after all, Waverly has a secret of his own to preserve, right? I mean, if Joubert and the others had known they had a Thrush agent all along, there wouldn't have been a quorum." My partner shrugged. "In the end, the whole thing will be a wash."
Before long, we heard a groan. Napoleon glanced over his shoulder at the figure lying prone in the backseat. "Sun's up, sleeping beauty," he remarked aloud. "Time to rise and shine."
"What —ooooooh, bloody Christ." Then the voice flattened. "Where am I?" The prisoner was muddled and in obvious pain, but had enough presence of mind to maintain the disguise. By now, it was probably an ingrained habit. As we hit a rut, his hands went to cradle his head.
"In a car," Napoleon replied. "You're safe for the moment. It's just Illya and me. So you can drop the masquerade, Christopher. We both know it's you."
The Midwestern American twang disappeared, replaced immediately by the more rounded tones of British English. Peyton-Smythe turned on his side and his wracked face split into a lopsided grin.
"Can't kid a kidder, isn't that what they say?" As we bounced along, he groaned again and wiped his fingertips across his skull. "I'm bleeding."
"Yes, you are," Napoleon agreed. "Actually, you're quite a mess."
"Where are we going?"
"First, to a hospital?"
"To the deepest, darkest hole U.N.C.L.E. has, my friend."
"If you were going to bring me in," said Peyton-Smythe, "why'd you save me back there?"
"We wanted you for our very own," Napoleon said in his most oily, threatening tone. "After all, you did leave us on that plane with a bomb."
"It'll be a waste of time to interrogate me," our prisoner countered. I might add that his speech was still very broken and slurred, and his eyes fluttered hazily. "I don't know much that's worthwhile about Thrush."
"Oh, that's all right," my partner chuckled. "Then we'll interrogate you just for the fun of it."
"I think I'm going to be sick," Peyton-Smythe moaned and Napoleon laughed again.
"He probably is going to vomit," I warned my partner. "No doubt he has a concussion. We should pull over."
But Napoleon didn't want to stop. We were very close to Sion now, just on the edge of the city. Peyton-Smythe continued to complain until we couldn't endure it any longer and decided it was expedient to save the upholstery. As we neared a stop signal, Napoleon told Peyton-Smythe to roll down a rear window.
"Are you serious?" our prisoner groaned. He dragged himself miserably across the seat, barely able to sit up. He couldn't seem to reach the window so as we rolled up to the light, Napoleon pulled up the knob and told him to crack the door.
That was a mistake, and I'm almost too ashamed to tell you what happened next. One moment, we heard the door open. Then Peyton-Smythe bolted from the car and the next moment, the backseat was empty.
Napoleon and I exchanged glances, absolutely stunned. Either this was a man with superhuman reserves, or he'd been performing one hell of an act.
"Son of a bitch," Napoleon growled and took off after him. I threw the engine out of gear, set the brake and followed.
But we were already too late. Sion is an old medieval city with cobbled streets and a maze of side-alleys. By the time we'd raced a few dozen yards from the car, our quarry had turned down one of the narrow alleys and disappeared out of sight. I remembered that Peyton-Smythe had also pretended during the Devil's Attic Affair to have a head injury more serious than it actually was, but Napoleon warned me not to remind him.
"He's still running lame," my partner said. "Even if it's just sprained, he can't travel on that ankle for too long — no matter how determined he is." He suggested splitting up to cover more ground and we did.
Napoleon turned out to be right about one thing: Peyton-Smythe could not remain long on foot. So as we searched for him, he double-backed and jumped into the waiting Volvo. Of course, I'd left it running, keys still in the ignition. I had just come upon a dead end when I recognized the sound of someone gunning our car engine. Horrified, I circled back just in time to join Napoleon in watching the Volvo speed off.
"He won't get far," I said. "The fuel gauge needle was hovering on empty."
Sion is a popular tourist destination and though it was still very early in the morning, there were people up and about. If we were lucky, Peyton-Smythe might use up what little petrol he had in traffic and be forced to abandon the vehicle.
"Then he'll probably head toward the train station," Napoleon said. "Let's see if we can intercept him there."
Once again, my partner's guess turned out to be correct. We found the Volvo parked along a side street, a block from the train. We continued on, searching the station and the platforms, but it was no use. Two morning trains had already come through, one going east and one going west.
"I'm beginning to understand why our colleagues wanted so much to kill him," Napoleon declared as he stared off, looking down the tracks in disgust.
"He could be going anywhere," I said. After what we'd been through the night before, I was feeling exhausted and defeated. I sat down heavily on a bench, and Napoleon dropped down next to me.
"Okay, okay," he said. "Now let's think about this. Name me some towns along the rail line."
Imagining a map in my mind, I ticked off the towns lying immediately east: Aproz, Saxon, Martigny. Then I recited those lying west: Sierre, Visp, Brig —"
"Sierre," he said thoughtfully. "Now why does that ring a bell?"
I reminded him that Joubert's group had captured Peyton-Smythe in Sierre.
"Yeah, that's right. But there's something else — something." Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. He reached into his breastpocket and produced the calling card that Angelique had given him the day before.
"See?" he said, pointing. "She said she was staying in Sierre, remember?"
"A coincidence?" I wondered aloud.
"Not on your life. If Thrush was after him too, I'll bet Angelique was in on the chase."
"But even if she was, why would Peyton-Smythe go back to that town?" I asked. "It wouldn't make sense."
"It would if he had left something valuable hidden there. Say, somewhere in town. Or maybe, even in a hotel room. Joubert said they'd caught him just after he'd closed out a Swiss bank account. That means he probably was in possession of a large sum of cash, yet there was no mention of it all night."
I suggested that maybe the agents had found the money and kept it to divide among themselves, but Napoleon didn't think that was likely. Vengeance had been on the agents' minds, not robbery.
In any case, Sierre was our only lead and we decided to try it. We had nothing to lose: the situation couldn't have been any worse. At the very least, we might be able to join forces with Angelique, as distasteful an idea as that was. We knew we had to catch Peyton-Smythe or we were dead men. If Joubert and his friends didn't kill us, surely Waverly would.
It took some time to get the car running again. We had to locate a service station first, bring back a can of petrol, then drive the car to the station to fill the tank. It was nearly noon by the time we reached Sierre. Since Angelique's hotel was the only address we had, we went there first. The desk clerk greeted us in French. Napoleon flashed his U.N.C.L.E. identification card and told him we were looking for a man named Harry Coombs. The clerk, an unusually polite young man, checked the registry. No, he said, no one by that name had stayed at the hotel during the past month. If we could wait, however, he offered to search the back records for the year. Napoleon thanked him, but told him that wasn't necessary.
"Our man probably used an alias," my partner explained. "I'll describe him to you: in his thirties, a little under average height, brown hair —"
But even as he rattled off the description, the clerk frowned. "I'm sorry Monsieur," the clerk told my partner, "but I've seen dozens of guests that fit that description."
Napoleon abandoned his line of inquiry and asked if a woman named Angelique was staying at the hotel. The clerk scanned the guest book and his face lit up. I think he was pleased he could help us in at least some small way.
"Oui, Monsieur. She was registered here. But you have just missed here. She checked out an hour ago."
"Could you tell me what room she was staying in?" Napoleon asked. "Just a moment," the clerk said, and turned back to the file box arrayed with waiting keys. We heard him exclaim in satisfaction.
"Ah. It seems the lady in question left you a message. You are Monsieur Solo, are you not?"
Napoleon said that he was and received a plain white envelope. Intrigued, we thanked the clerk and drifted away from the desk. Napoleon opened the envelope. Inside, was another one of those infernal Thrush calling cards, only this one had only the embossed Thrush symbol with no personal name accompanying it. However, Angelique's flowing script was immediately recognizable. On the blank side was scribbled a short note:
Don't say I never do you any favors, Darling. And below the words, was a number: 205. "It's a room number," my partner guessed. Peyton-Smythe's room? I wondered aloud. There was only one way to find out.
We went upstairs to the second floor. The room was located at a far corner, on a quiet stretch of hallway. Discreetly, we reached under our jackets for our guns.
"Ready?" Napoleon asked, preparing to break down the door. But before he did, he tried the door knob, just to be sure it was locked. It wasn't. The door swung inward with a soft click. There was no response from anyone inside the room: no sound, no movement.
"Uh-oh," I muttered under my breath.
There was good reason to be apprehensive. Either Peyton Smythe was long gone, or he was dead.
As if turned out, he was indeed, very, very, dead.
The scene that met us was straight out of one of those trashy True Crime stories. I have seen corpses that looked so peaceful that they might have been sleeping. Peyton-Smythe's wasn't one of them.
We found him lying face down in the parlor, literally up to his ears in a pool of his own blood. His arms and legs were bent at odd angles, as if he'd died flailing away. Splashes of blood and bits of gore were everywhere: flecking the walls and curtains, staining the aging grey carpet the color of cheap wine.
"Your lady friend has an unusual way of expressing her affection," I remarked, surveying the murder scene.
"Ours is a strange and wonderful relationship," Napoleon intoned, his voice flat and without emotion. After working so hard all night to save the traitor, he wasn't pleased to see it all come to naught. As for myself, ironically, I felt a guilty sort of relief that the situation had been resolved, once and for all.
Drawing closer to inspect the body, we realized why everything was such a mess. Peyton-Smythe been brutally battered and his face, beaten to a pulp. Indeed, he had no face left at all. At least, none in which we could distinguish any features. But it was him all right; we recognized the clothes.
So this is Thrush's version of poetic justice, I thought. Bits of teeth and bone, like shards of broken china, were sprinkled about and as we circled, they crunched underfoot. The carpet was soaked with so much blood, it squished like a sponge. Needless to say, it was probably one of the most grisly scenes I'd ever witnessed.
"How long would you say he's been dead?" Napoleon asked.
Judging by the lividity and the fact that rigor mortis had not yet set in, I estimated somewhere between one and two hours. My partner clucked his tongue and sighed.
"She murdered him and still had time for a quick shower before she left."
"Angelique couldn't have done this alone," I said.
Napoleon shrugged. "She probably had her henchmen take him down, but I'll bet she finished the job herself."
That prompted a shiver to run up my spine. After all, my partner had apparently slept with Angelique.
"Napoleon," I said gravely and I might add, rather naively, "you should be careful with this woman."
He looked at me and his mouth quirked into a sardonic, knowing grin.
"Always," he agreed.
We notified the clerk at the desk who, soon after, called the police. The local inspector found a brass vase with blood on it and decided that this was the murder weapon. An empty money pouch was found among the victim's belongings and so the motive was reported as robbery. Decades later, the Swiss authorities have yet to arrest any suspects and the case remains on the books, unsolved.
As for the two of us, we'd lost the taste for fun and except for one quiet dinner, spent Sunday sleeping in our respective hotel rooms. We flew back on Monday, returned to work on Tuesday, and immediately filed a report on Peyton-Smythe's untimely demise. Of course, we said nothing about what had transpired during the twelve hours before. Mr. Waverly didn't have much to say publicly about the murder. Thrush's acts of vengeance as a penalty for failure were so common as to be routine. However, during a regular staff meeting, our chief did let drop rather casually that since Peyton-Smythe betrayed both Thrush and U.N.C.L.E., he was glad to see it was a Thrush agent who had found the fugitive first. Needless to say, no one else at the meeting offered any comment.
Napoleon and I never filed a report on the non-existent Harry Coombs. However, we were careful to plant unofficial information on the field agent grapevine that Coombs had died of his head injuries and that the loose ends had been tied up discreetly. The subject was never raised again by anyone, even in jest.
Peyton-Smythe's death brought closure to the Devil's Attic Affair and in some ways, it also brought an end to an era. Of the remaining old guard, Nino Martucci committed suicide in 1966. Albert Sully, who was called back briefly into service, died in a suspicious auto accident in 1967. Nate Cassidy was murdered in the desert outside Las Vegas in 1968 and his longtime friend, Asa Carpenter, retired a few months after that. Napoleon and I witnessed all of it.
Which was entirely appropriate since it was to us that the baton, so to speak, was passed. Napoleon became Chief of Enforcement in 1962 and I was promoted to the number two spot soon after. Now we were the ones to whom other agents came for support or advice.
But those working in the field changed, too. The flamboyant mavericks and guerrilla warriors of the glory days of the S.O.E. and the O.S.S. eventually retired or died, replaced by more sober, bureaucratic-minded college graduates, both male and female. Incidents, such as the one I've described here, became even more rare. I suppose a bit of the old maverick spirit of our mentors survived in Napoleon and me, and perhaps that's why we became legends in the eyes of others.
For ourselves, none of this adversely affected our professional relationship, which grew stronger by the year. I know some have wondered how two seemingly different men could work so well together and remain so long as friends. But it's not so surprising, really. The answer can be found, once gain, in a metaphor from physics.
Remember that Heisenberg's so-called "uncertainty principle" is less a question of uncertainty than indeterminacy. That is, the problem is not that a property has a definite value unknown to the researcher, but that a property may have no definite value at all. It is always in flux, and can be affected by various operations, such as the mere act of observation.
Human beings are in constant flux as well. And we are not always what we appear to be: we are often quite a bit more. Just as Einstein demonstrated that light can have particle-like properties, de Broglie showed that matter can have the properties of a wave. Wave and particle; particle and wave. Which nature becomes apparent depends upon the circumstances — such as when the waves from two sources pass through the same region of space. Then, they are likely to interfere with one another, and the particle nature of one becomes more apparent.
And so it is with Napoleon and me. People like to describe us as two sides of the same coin, yin and yang, but they are wrong, for this denotes opposites. And as I learned from the Peyton-Smythe affair and from every affair afterward, my partner and I are — like waves and particles — merely different forms of the same substance. Which form is apparent at any particular moment — well, just as in physics, that depends upon the circumstances. But in the end, isn't that what the nature of all good and true friendship is ultimately about?