Among The Eagles
Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. July, 1968.
"Are you all right, April?"
Above and ahead of her, Napoleon Solo gripped a protruding rock with one hand and extended his other, his dark eyes lit with concern. It wasn't necessary. April Dancer had already recovered her footing.
"I'm okay," she said, allowing his hand to hang in the air.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm fine. Keep going."
Satisfied, Solo angled away from her and turned his attention back to the narrow ledge. "You have to watch out for that loose gravel," he added, almost as an afterthought.
"Yeah, I know."
And just ignore the bears and the cougars, she told herself. And the altitude. And the fact that this trail is the width of a pantry shelf and we're practically hanging off the sheer side of a cliff.
Dancer sighed. What she didn't do for U.N.C.L.E.
Of course, things could have been worse. She could have been back in New York, in the heat wave, simmering in the steel and concrete, inhaling the aroma of pressure-cooked garbage. At least up here, the air was cool and fresh and the weather, agreeable. She glanced up to the sky. There wasn't a cloud in sight.
If only their mission were half so clear. Even the Old Man seemed a bit muddled on this one. For weeks now, Hannah Prentice's name had been cropping up in routine Thrush dispatches, with maddeningly few particulars attached. Which raised the question: what could Thrush possibly want with a highly-respected but determinedly reclusive ornithologist?
"That's what I intend for you to discover," the chief had informed them, three days earlier. "It won't be easy, I daresay. Dr. Prentice resides in a ridiculously remote area of the Rocky Mountains. Studying eagles, if we can trust the reports. She's probably not even aware of any hostile interest in her."
Dancer remembered how Waverly had tapped his pipe against the conference table, his irritability barely controlled. "You should also be forewarned: she is deeply suspicious of security agencies."
"Including ours, sir?" Solo had asked.
"Especially ours. Fears of Big Brother apparently, and all that radical nonsense. Although she's agreed to see two of our agents after repeated requests, I might note I doubt you will find her very congenial."
And then the old man had looked at them, fixing them with his rheumy gaze, as he so often did when he wished to make an impression on his subordinates. It never failed to give April a small chill.
"Nevertheless, you will find her, Mr. Solo and Miss Dancer. Find out what she is doing on that confounded mountain. Convince her of our benign intentions. Charm her, conjole her, debate her I don't care how you do it. Just make that woman understand. She must cooperate with us on this whether it suits her politics or not !"
And so, armed with that vague mandate, here they were now, making their painfully slow ascent to the good doctor's cabin, located a stone's throw south of the timberline. They wouldn't reach it before tomorrow, however. The sun was already kissing the western peaks.
"We'll stop and make camp as soon as we reach solid ground," Solo promised as they continued to edge toward the top of the ridge. Behind him, Dancer nodded wearily. Her shoulders were cramping under the weight of her backpack and a tender hotspot on her heel was threatening to become a blister. The altitude was affecting her, too. Since late afternoon, she'd been dizzy and slightly nauseous.
Solo, on the other hand, was having a wonderful time.
Men always get into this back-to-nature crap, Dancer reflected acidly, as she searched for a handhold in the rocks. Must be the testosterone.
But then again, after that nasty Vegas affair, it was clear that Solo was in desperate need of a vacation, or at the very least, a change of scenery. Even Dancer had noticed it. No doubt, Waverly had, too.
Although she'd harbored some initial misgivings, teaming with Napoleon on this assignment was turning out to be rather enjoyable, after all. The higher they climbed, the more his gloom seemed to lighten and thin, along with the air. Soon, he was teasing and flirting with her, cracking the usual bad jokes.
Still, Dancer always felt a little odd without her regular partner, the Brit, Mark Slate sort of off-balance and incomplete, as if she'd left behind her favorite handbag with her wallet in it. Now, she was feeling a little guilty, too. She didn't miss Mark, not at all. Mark was easy. Mark was constant. Mark was like a brother. If he'd come along instead, they probably would have ended up around the campfire, laughing and bantering, sharing gossip and stories and singing Cockney drinking songs.
If it'd been Illya Kuryakin, Solo's Russian partner and the third significant male in April's life, the conversation would have been more edifying, if also more subdued. Kuryakin, a cultivated, intelligent man, could be downright fascinating, when he was in the mood to talk.
But it was Napoleon Solo, her friend and superior, who inched along ahead of her and that made all the difference. For, while Mark was fun and Illya was interesting, it was Napoleon who listened, and counseled and consoled.
And afterward, if she wanted it, he would make love to her, too.
They set up camp beside a swift-running stream, in a sheltering stand of tall pine trees. Using a collapsible pole designed by the U.N.C.L.E. lab, Solo managed to catch a trout before darkness fell. He returned to Dancer's sputtering fire, quite pleased with himself. To preserve their supplies, supper was kept spartan. They ate only the fish, some dried fruit and a helping of lumpy instant rice.
"I think I'm getting a blister," Dancer complained after the meal was over. She peeled off her left sock and inspected her heel gingerly. Solo leaned back against his rolled sleeping bag and watched.
"I told you to coat your feet with shaving cream," he reminded her, between sips of his coffee. When Dancer made a face at the suggestion, Solo gestured carelessly. "Suit yourself. But it's an old trick I learned in the service. Reduces the friction. I would have been crippled in basic training without it."
"Just pass me the first aid kit, please."
Solo obliged, then poured himself another cup of coffee and settled back against his bedroll.
"I was sorry to hear about Nate Cassidy," Dancer remarked as she dug through the kit for a Band-Aid. "I know how much he meant to you."
A Yale-educated gambler and OSS veteran, the urbane, sophisticated Cassidy had been a legend in Section Two, one of U.N.C.L.E.'s thirteen original field agents. He'd also been Napoleon's mentor and good friend.
"They just shot him in the head and left him there, in the desert," Solo said, fingering his cup. "A carcass for the buzzards to scavenge. At least Illya and I found the body in time."
"What a horrible way to go."
"The worst," he murmured, under his breath, and April was reminded of Napoleon's drunken, bitter words following Johnny Coleman's funeral, last spring: If an agent dies in the field and no one is around, does he make a sound?
As she finished dressing her blister, the woman agent looked across to her friend. For a brief moment, the expression of grief on his face, betrayed by the firelight, was so terribly raw, so unguarded, Dancer couldn't decide whether to put her arms around him or turn away.
But before she could do either, he noticed her interest and the mask dropped down again. The Napoleon Solo she cherished but seldom glimpsed, receded and the other Solo, the professional one, the one who was as smooth and impervious as tempered steel, snapped firmly back into place. When he spoke again, his voice was cool and self-possessed.
"So, how's Tom?" he asked, changing the subject.
"His name is Jerry."
Dancer frowned. "He's gone." When Solo raised a questioning eyebrow, she heaved a deep sigh.
"He woke up one morning before me and saw my gun on the nightstand. He said it made him nervous, like sleeping with a black widow spider. Can you imagine? So, anyway, he left. For good."
Solo shrugged philosophically. "What can you expect from an accountant?"
"He was a financial analyst."
"Whatever." He swallowed the last of his coffee and set the cup aside. "Don't worry. You're an attractive, desirable woman. You'll find another boyfriend in no time."
"Oh, finding one is easy," Dancer laughed. "It's keeping him around that's a problem. Men have such fragile egos. They're so insecure. They always feel threatened when they find out what I do for a living."
"Then don't tell them," said Solo, making no attempt to defend his gender. Partly because his own ego was large and uncommonly durable, and partly because he knew it, he was unoffended and automatically considered himself exempt from Dancer's complaints.
"My last name isn't Rockefeller," the woman agent pointed out. "Sooner or later, they're bound to ask how I pay the bills."
"I tried that. I told one guy I was a high fashion model. I thought that might explain all the globetrotting and last-minute trips. But models don't come back with their bones fractured and their faces rearranged." She pressed a hand to her sore shoulder and rubbed it, idly.
"What's the matter?" Solo asked.
"Oh, nothing. I've got a crimp from the backpack, that's all."
Dancer shifted closer and gratefully offered her back to him. She relaxed as he began to massage the muscles, just below her collarbone. "Why don't you date men in the Business?" Solo asked, returning to the subject.
"From which side?"
She chuckled at her own joke as she rotated her neck. He was kneading both shoulders now. "Just kidding, Napoleon. Actually, I did go out with Sven Ebersberg for awhile, last year. You remember him, don't you? Worked out of Oslo?"
Solo grunted affirmatively. He'd met Ebersberg during the Nillson affair.
"He was nice. Tall. Blond. Blue eyes. Played with an amateur soccer club on weekends. Very sweet. But he ended up floating face down in the Grand Canal in Venice, so that was that." Dancer closed her eyes and groaned. "You have great hands, you know that?"
Solo ignored the compliment. "What about someone closer to home? Maybe from the lower sections. Someone less at risk. Someone who doesn't carry a gun."
"Take a maiden aunt to bed? No, thanks. I gave at the office, already. Besides, I have a reputation to preserve. I don't want my sex life to become a hot topic of speculation around the water coolers."
"You mean, like mine?" Solo said quietly, behind her. Dancer blushed.
"Oh, you know how it is the old double standard. You can play the virile Don Juan while I'd be labeled a tramp or worse."
The woman threw her head back, inhaling the breeze. The sky was clear and choked with stars, but at this altitude, even in July, there was a stinging nip in the air. "I've heard our cousins in the Company call you guys 'munks.' What does that make me? A nun? No, probably more like a vestal virgin." She sighed again, for the hundredth time that day. "I've sacrificed everything else on the altar of U.N.C.L.E. I guess I might as well sacrifice my womanhood, too."
A moment passed in silence. Then, Solo leaned close to Dancer's ear and whispered, "Wanna fool around?"
"Yeah," she agreed, smiling in spite of herself. "I wanna fool around."
Releasing her shoulders, he wrapped his arms around her and drew her close. She felt him nuzzle her shirt collar, his lips gently grazing the nape of her neck. Dancer collapsed against him, laughing low in her throat.
"Oh, Napoleon, what would I do without you?"
"Probably find yourself a dependable lover and settle down like a good little girl."
Dancer squealed with indignation. "The bloody cheek of the man! That you, of all people, should be offering such advice!"
But Solo was too tired to engage in any more verbal jousting. "C'mon," he said with a yawn. "We have to be back on the trail bright and early. Let's go to bed."
They rinsed off their cookware, stoked the fire and put the camp in order. Then they zipped their sleeping bags together, tucking one U.N.C.L.E. Special into each side, pulled off their clothes and climbed in.
"Just relax," Solo said as she crawled into his arms, his voice a soft, soothing hiss. Dancer took it as an order. He kissed her deeply and she opened her body to him, experiencing once more the deliciously liberating thrill of letting her guard drop. His hands and mouth began their gentle invasion, and she surrendered effortlessly, switching the sixth sense inside her head to automatic pilot, confident that Napoleon would stay alert for them both.
It was a luxury Dancer could rarely afford, but she could trust Napoleon. She knew him not completely, but well enough and she found it all so very comforting. The familiar scars and bones and hollows. His touch, his scent, the sounds he made. The way his sex pressed against hers. The way he entered. The way he took his time. The way he finished.
She also knew that to most other women, Solo represented risk, drama, even a modicum of danger. But in April Dancer's looking-glass world, where normal expectations frequently stood on their heads, Napoleon was convenient, reliable, and marvelously safe.
Which excited Dancer, nonetheless. For those who plied the espionage trade, security was the greatest turn-on of all.
The sound of a twig snapping underfoot awakened Solo first. His eyes fluttered open briefly, just before he had the presence of mind to shut them again.
Lying on his back, he continued to feign sleep, while he carefully eased his hand along the seam of the bedroll, in search of his U.N.C.L.E. Special. Beside him, nestled within the crook of his arm, Dancer stirred. Solo tightened his grip on her shoulder and gave it a quick, firm squeeze. Although she was still groggy, she understood the warning and remained immobile against him.
In the next instant, Solo's right hand closed on the butt of his automatic. Using Dancer for leverage, he shifted slightly. Then, in one fluid motion, he slid the gun smoothly along the side of his body, clicked off the safety and prepared to fire.
But, there was never even time to aim. Just as the Special cleared the lip of the sleeping bag, Solo opened his eyes and found himself staring into the muzzle of a double barreled shotgun.
"Hold it right there, buddy," a voice from behind the shotgun said, and Solo's right hand froze in response. The voice was hard and raspy, but undeniably female.
"Who the hell are you?" the woman demanded. Solo looked up at her face and recognized it immediately. Relieved, he offered her his most charming smile.
"Ahh...who would you like us to be, Dr. Prentice?"
Now it was Hannah Prentice's turn to be caught by surprise. Her no-nonsense blue eyes narrowed and the shotgun dropped a fraction of an inch, but the expression on her long, lean face made it clear that she wasn't about to be taken in by any stranger, no matter how charming.
"You seem to have me at a disadvantage," she admitted.
Solo glanced down at the twin barrels, positioned to blow two rather large holes through the center of his chest. "That depends on your point of view, doctor," he commented, dryly. "My name is Napoleon Solo. I'm a field agent for the U.N.C.."
Solo cocked his head. "You're half right." With the danger obviously passed, he nudged April. Reluctantly, she turned over beside him. "This is my associate, April Dancer."
Dancer brushed a stray clump of hair from her cheek. "Umm, nice to meet you, Dr. Prentice," she said, wanting desperately to sink to the bottom of the sleeping bag, instead.
Hannah Prentice laughed as she stepped back and lowered her shotgun. She was a tall woman, all bones and angles, with tanned skin the texture of weather-beaten leather. Her hair was streaked with silver and sun-bleached gold, and gathered into a floppy ponytail at the neck. Solo guessed her age was hovering somewhere on either side of fifty.
"Sorry if I frightened you, but I've been having trouble with poachers lately. They're after my eagles," Dr. Prentice apologized. She paused, then added, almost to herself, "Spooks I might have known if I'd spotted you on foot. I can usually tell you people a mile away."
"Oh?" Solo replied, while he unobtrusively tucked his Special away, out of sight.
"Sure. It's the way you move, even out here. Like you're walking on eggs, always looking over your shoulders."
"Can't imagine why we'd do that," Dancer muttered against Solo's neck, but he ignored her. He was too busy studying the ornithologist, taking her measure. Her clothes, a cotton shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, were clean and practical, but almost certainly expensive. She wasn't pretty she had a sharp chin and an overbite and probably never was. Still, she had class, she had grit, and the nicotine stains on her fingers suggested that she had her weaknesses, too.
"My cabin's up there," Dr. Prentice was saying. She gestured to a nearby ridge. "Follow this creek until you come to a lake. Take the path that begins at the far shore. Just make yourselves at home. I'll be back after sunset."
"Where are you going?" Solo asked.
"To work." Dr. Prentice indicated the binoculars that hung around her neck and the notebook jammed under her belt. "Look, Mr. ah..."
" Solo, right. I'm not sure how much your boss told you about me, so I'm going to make my apologies in advance. I have a lot of strong opinions and I tend to ask a lot of questions. Some of them are bound to be rude. Don't take it personally. It's my business to pursue truth, just as it's yours to conceal it. I'm blunt, but I'm always honest and I expect the same courtesy in return."
She pointed to the agents' backpacks. "I see you both brought along provisions. Good. You can stay with me until your supplies or my patience runs out whichever comes first. Now, if you'll excuse me, my eagles are waiting."
"Well," Dancer said, with a sigh of frustration when Hannah Prentice was gone. "We're certainly off to a really great start, here. I wonder how she found us, anyway."
"Probably saw our campfire, last night," Solo said as he settled back under the flap of the sleeping bag. Dancer shook her head.
"You know, Napoleon, just once just once! after we go to bed together, I'd like to wake up calmly and leisurely, like normal people."
"Yeah, but just think of all the fun you'd be missing." He leaned over, gathering Dancer into his arms, and gave her a playful kiss.
"Shouldn't we get moving?" the woman agent asked with a grin. Clearly, Solo was in no hurry, none at all.
"You heard the lady: she won't be back before sunset."
He kissed April again, more ardently than before. They burrowed deep down into the sleeping bags and didn't emerge until noon.
Hannah Prentice appeared at her cabin, right on schedule, just as the last rays of sunlight receded below the treetops. She found Solo and Dancer sitting on the crooked front steps with their backpacks beside them, waiting for her.
"You could have let yourselves in," she informed them, as she pushed open the door.
"Don't believe in locks, do you?" Solo observed.
"Why should I? What burglar in his right mind would hike all the way up here to steal a typewriter, some books and a few pots and pans?"
Inside, the log cabin was small and cluttered, but comfortable enough for one person. Next to the stone fireplace was a plump feather bed, a small camelback loveseat and a Hitchcock rocking chair. An unfinished table doubled as a desk. Although the shower and toilet were located outside, next to the woodshed, the single-room cabin did contain an efficiency kitchen and enough nooks and cupboards to hold several months of provisions, not to mention a considerable library.
For supper, Dr. Prentice reheated a pot of leftover stew, while Solo and Dancer shared a can of franks and beans. The mealtime conversation was light and determinedly superficial, but afterward, when they retired to the fireplace, Solo saw an opportunity to make his pitch.
Before he began, Dr. Prentice produced an elegant briar pipe and lit it. "My physician says I shouldn't smoke up here, what with the altitude," she explained between puffs. "Bad for the lungs, you know. But I'm can't seem to kick the damn nicotine habit yet. A pipe's not so bad if you don't inhale. Besides, I've always liked the smell of pipe tobacco." She sat back in the rocker and motioned to Napoleon. "Go on, Mr. Solo. You were saying . . ."
The agent spent the next hour trying to impress upon Dr. Prentice the gravity of the situation. Dancer added little. She knew the spiel by heart herself, but for the moment, it was Napoleon's show.
Dr. Prentice listened politely, asking few questions and offering no comments. Mostly, she puffed and rocked and stared into the crackling fire. Only after Solo was finally finished, did she speak.
"I'm afraid you've come a long way for nothing. I'm not leaving here. I can't see why anyone would want to kidnap me."
"Perhaps they're not interested in you," Solo pointed out, "but something in your research. Are you working on anything that might be perverted for sinister purposes?"
Dr. Prentice chewed her pipe thoughtfully, in a way that reminded Dancer of Waverly. "No, but even if I was, I wouldn't allow such a thing to happen."
"You might not have a choice, doctor."
"There is always a choice, Mr. Solo, as long as we in the scientific community have the courage to make it. Last year I co-sponsored a resolution at the AAS convention encouraging researchers to shun all intelligence-related projects. Alex must have told you that. Frankly, I'm beginning to think this whole thing is a ploy to get me to cooperate with U.N.C.L.E."
"Sure, why not? Right now, even as we speak, Naval Intelligence is training dolphins for underwater demolition, all in the name of national security."
Solo made a face. Hadn't she heard anything he'd said so far?
"U.N.C.L.E. isn't like that, Dr. Prentice. We're different. We care."
"About peace, about life on this planet. About the self-determination of all nations, large and small."
"Self-determination, my foot." Hannah Prentice laughed her harsh, raspy laugh. "And who decides what really goes on in this world? Why, the super-powers of course. Don't they all have representatives on your board of directors?"
"U.N.C.L.E. is multi-national," Solo explained, growing visibly annoyed. "We defend and protect all nations without regard to political orientation. We're allied with almost every security agency in the world."
"And that's exactly what makes your organization the most dangerous of all! Need I remind you that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? I don't believe in the Just War theory. The ends never justify the means. There's no such thing as a good war."
Dr. Prentice leaned forward in her rocker and asked, knowingly, "Do you ever involve innocent by-standers in your operations?"
"Sometimes," the agent replied. Beside him, Dancer shifted uncomfortably. She could see where this was going.
"Ever get them killed?"
"We take every precaution with civilians, but yes, it's happened." Dancer glanced at her watch and wondered when it would be time to turn in, but Solo pressed on with his defense. "We use every resource available. We have to, if we're going to defeat a powerful global menace like Thrush."
"Oh yeah, right. Sorry, I forgot about them." Dr. Prentice snorted, derisively. "The great shadow conspiracy. The secret Evil Empire. Satan's minions in the flesh!"
"This is no fantasy," Solo shot back. "Those who belong to Thrush care less about humanity than the poachers care about your eagles. They take their master-race philosophy very seriously. If they ever manage to seize a country of their own, they're going to make Hitler look like a piker."
"But I don't understand, Mr. Solo. Who are these people, anyway? Where are they? I don't read about them in the newspaper. I never see them on the six o'clock news."
That did it. Dancer glanced at Solo. He was angry now. In fact, she'd seen him this angry only twice before. Both times, someone on the other side ended up dead.
"Gee, it's getting late," Dancer said, checking her watch again, but neither of her companions seemed to hear. Solo's voice dropped to a flat, even tone.
"Let me tell you something, doctor: two months after I started working in the field, I saw my first U.N.C.L.E. agent die. He was younger than me, and he died long and hard, a terrible death. Do you know how the Eskimos strip a whale of its blubber? That should give you some idea what Thrush did to him. A senior agent named Nate Cassidy and I buried what was left. We had to dig the grave in the snow with our hands to do it.
"Last month, I buried Mr. Cassidy as well, and I've attended too many funerals in-between. Now, if all those good men and women gave their lives for a hoax, then we have no business coming here, taking up your time. But if there really is something out there, something evil, and that something wants you, then you'd better get your stubborn ass off this mountain. Or we'll be attending your funeral, too."
Solo didn't bother to excuse himself. He walked out of the cabin, leaving Dancer to say the goodnights.
Later, after the lights were out, he returned and slipped into the bedroll next to Dancer's, near the kitchen stove. The woman agent reached out in the darkness and patted his shoulder.
"Go to sleep, April," he murmured, but Dancer was undeterred.
"You shouldn't take what Hannah said, personally," she whispered back, knowing that he did. With some men it was their car, their salary, or their athletic prowess. With others, it was their cause, but in the end, it all came down to the same thing.
"I'll go with her tomorrow. You know, try to talk to her, woman-to-woman."
There was only silence. Finally, Solo said, "Yeah, maybe you should do that." She couldn't tell if he was still bitter, or merely resigned. Before she could ask which, he turned over and went to sleep.
"Look, April, over there . . . can I call you April?"
"Of course, doctor."
"And you call me Hannah, all right? I hate unnecessary formality. Now, quick, to your left! About ten o'clock."
Hannah Prentice sounded as excited as Dancer felt. They were perched precariously on a rocky outcropping, several hundred feet above a deep, hidden canyon. The agent adjusted her position carefully, to keep her balance, and redirected the field glasses to the left.
"I see it!" Dancer exclaimed. There, in the center of her lens, a bald eagle soared effortlessly about a half mile away, riding the thermals that rose from the canyon below. The bird was enormous. From tip to tip, its wingspan looked about the length of a full-grown man. It was beautiful, too. Dancer loved the way the bird drifted along, majestically self-assured, the wings scarcely moving at all. It let out a long, trailing cry, then dipped back below the ridge and out of sight.
"So, how'd ya like my eagles?" Dr. Prentice asked proudly.
"Oh, they're quite wonderful. I only wish we could get closer."
"Sorry hon, but outside the nest, eagles are pretty anti-social. They don't even mix much with their own kind. Martha there, has two fledglings and I don't think she'd be very pleased if we disturbed them."
Dr. Prentice shrugged self-consciously. "Well, her official designation is WYV-2B, but I like to call her Martha."
"She was so big, I thought she was a male."
"It's hard to tell with bald eagles. They build the nest and raise the young together, and their markings are the same. But actually, the females tend to run a bit larger. They're more aggressive, too."
Dancer chuckled ruefully. "Too bad our two species don't share the same traits. In my business, I could use an edge." She settled back against her haunches and surveyed the surrounding mountains. "You said this was a good place for eagles, because of all the lakes and streams. How many are there? Have you ever counted?"
"Besides Martha and her mate, George, and their brood, there are three nesting pairs and two subadults."
"So few?" The agent's eyebrows rose in surprise.
"I told you they were endangered," Hannah Prentice reminded her. "Alaska still pays a bounty of two dollars for each pair of eagle feet, sad but true. Here in the lower forty-eight, of course, the hunting's restricted. But if the poachers don't get them, then the pesticides will."
"It must be very frustrating for you," Dancer observed with a sympathetic sigh. She watched as Hannah Prentice produced two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their knapsack and passed one to her. Dancer unwrapped it and took a bite.
"If you don't mind me saying so, Dr. Prentice um, Hannah you lead a rather unusual way of life, particularly for a woman. So rugged. So isolated. What attracted you to it?"
"I might ask you the same question."
Dr. Prentice unwrapped her own sandwich and added, thoughtfully, "I didn't expect Alex to send a woman, you know." Although she hated to admit it, even to herself, Hannah Prentice had the feeling that Alexander Waverly had outmaneuvered her yet again. "There aren't many of you, are there?"
Dancer shook her head. "No, but lately U.N.C.L.E.'s been making a real effort to recruit female field agents. I was the first, actually."
"You don't say? Then I suppose Mr. Solo is a more typical agent. He isn't your regular partner, is he?"
"Uh-uh," Dancer grunted between mouthfuls. "I have another. His name is Mark Slate. He's British. Napoleon's partner, Illya Kuryakin, is Soviet."
Dr. Prentice cocked an eyebrow. "No kidding? Hmmm. That's interesting." She uncorked a thermos of iced tea and passed it to Dancer. "Then, what is he to you? Napoleon, I mean."
As she poured the tea into a collapsible tin cup, the agent groped for an answer. She really didn't know what to say. "Well, he's the chief of our enforcement section, which makes him my superior. He's also my friend."
"And your lover?"
Hannah Prentice's question was so completely unexpected, Dancer nearly spilled her tea. "Good Lord, no, doctor," the agent exclaimed.
"But you sleep with him. Is it necessary?"
"You did say he was your superior. It wouldn't be the first time that a girl was forced to use more than her brain to maintain a career."
Sputtering helplessly, Dancer wasn't sure whether to feel insulted or amused. She finally chose the latter. From the concerned expression on Dr. Prentice's face, it was obvious that the older woman intended no malice. But the idea that Napoleon would require her to. . . or even expect her to . . . well, it was just too absurd to think about.
"Please, you must understand," Dancer said, after she found her voice again, "there's nothing even remotely like that going on, here. Napoleon doesn't need me to spice up his social life. He does just fine without me."
"And what about you, honey? Are you doing as well?"
Ah, now, that was certainly hitting the nail on the head, April told herself.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to," Dr. Prentice assured her, quickly. "I'm sorry for being so personal. It's just that before I can trust your organization, I have to understand what sort of people I'm dealing with, first."
That was reasonable, Dancer decided. She considered carefully, trying to formulate an equally reasonable answer. She suspected that a lot was riding on what she said next.
"Doctor —Hannah — I don't know how much you knew about U.N.C.L.E. before we arrived, but what Napoleon told you last night was all true. It's hard to describe what it's like out there, in the field. Sometimes, it feels like everyone is trying to kill you. Sometimes, they are. I'm not Wonder Woman. I wish I could say that I am, but I'm not. Every once in a while, I need a little companionship, a little affection, a little…"
"Sex?" Dr. Prentice prompted. Dancer smiled sheepishly.
"Yes, that too. Napoleon and I are just friends, but he knows how to make me happy. We're good together."
The agent drew a knee up and hugged it. "It must sound terribly shallow, even downright immoral to an outsider. I can't imagine what you thought, finding us like that yesterday morning, but in my world, moments like those are all too precious. When Napoleon sleeps with me; when Mark teases me; when Illya leaves a note on my desk, it tells me that someone cares whether I live or die. A hug. A kiss. A few tender words. One night, sharing a sleeping bag. It's not much, I realize that. But for me right now, it's enough."
"Too bad you didn't come up here in the spring," Hannah Prentice declared, after a moment.
Silently, Dancer cursed herself. Her little speech must have offended Prentice and now the doctor was trying to find a delicate way to change the subject.
"Mmm. Eagles mate in the spring. Do you know how they do it?"
The agent blinked. "I would guess in the usual way."
Dr. Prentice shook her head. "Not at all. It's really something to see. First they chase each other around diving, swerving. You can't believe birds could fly that fast. Then, the male swoops in close, so close that he can almost tap the female on the shoulder. It looks like he's attacking her. She turns, and their talons lock.
"For a short time, a very short time, they're together in midair. They begin to fall, whirling, spinning, one tumbling over the other, dropping straight down to the ground. But then, an instant before they hit, they spread their wings and separate. And each bird soars away, alone once more, because that's the only way it can fly."
Dr. Prentice gathered up the thermos and sandwich wrappers and stuffed them back into the knapsack. "We don't know if they actually copulate in flight. Some researchers think they do, but I have my doubts. What does it matter where they finally do it? It's the foreplay that counts."
She glanced over at the agent. "Sure, I know. It doesn't sound very romantic to a human. But take my word on it: to an eagle, it's one hell of a good time."
The ornithologist laughed slyly and all at once, Dancer understood, and she began to laugh, too.
They made their way back to the cabin late in the afternoon, a bit earlier than Solo expected. When Hannah Prentice poked her head through the door, she found him down to his shirtsleeves and shoulder holster, and up to his elbows in gutted trout.
"Looks like you've had a productive day," she said, as she watched Solo scale the last of the fish. The women had gone off that morning, leaving him with a stack of uncut firewood and a sink full of dirty dishes. Now, not only was the wood chopped and the dishes done, but the agent had caught their supper, too.
"I didn't seem to score any debating points last night," he explained, "so I thought I'd try to impress you today with my homemaking skills."
"You've succeeded: I admit I'm impressed." Dr. Prentice shook her head. "My heavens, all this and a sense of humor, too. And I hear you're pretty good in bed."
"It's a wonder some sweet young thing hasn't snapped you up already."
"U.N.C.L.E. agents are very dedicated to their work."
"So I've noticed."
As he wiped up the bloody remains of the fish, Solo's smile faded. He had something else on his mind. "Doctor, about what I said to you last night ."
"No apologies, necessary," Hannah Prentice declared. "It was as much my fault as it was yours. I wanted you to be honest, and you were." She tossed him a towel and a new bar of Ivory soap. "Why don't you go down to the lake and wash up? April's there. I'm sure the two of you will want some time together alone to compare notes."
"But what about this mess?
"I'll take care of it. Now, go." She shooed him away in mock fury. "Did you hear me? Get the hell out of here. I can't stand having a man in my kitchen when I'm trying to cook!"
Solo held up his hands in surrender and beat a hasty retreat. He followed the path to a small, secluded lake where he found Dancer, just as Dr. Prentice said he would. The woman agent was floating, lazy and peaceful, under a sun-dappled canopy of oak trees and evergreens.
"Bring any shampoo?" Dancer called out, when she saw him.
"Nope. Just soap."
"That'll have to do, I guess." She stretched out her arms, like an outfielder, the curve of her breast defined by the waterline. "Here, pitch it to me."
Solo decided he would do better than that. He left his gun and his clothes beside Dancer's, next to a nearby rock, and waded in to join her. The water was crystal clear, a little cold but not too deep, about chest high. "Service with a smile," Solo announced as he drew close. "What more could you ask for?"
Dancer crinkled her nose. "You smell like Fulton's on a Friday morning."
"I rescue you from another dreary meal of franks and beans and that's the thanks I get." He raised his hands to his face and sniffed. April was right: they did smell pretty rank. He dipped them into the lake and rubbed the soap into a thick lather.
"Don't grind it to a nub, okay?" Dancer warned him. "I still want to do my hair." Squatting all day on the rim of a canyon had left her auburn mane tangled and windblown, and gritty with dust.
"Here, let me," Solo said. "I'm feeling domestic."
Dancer tilted her head back, low to the water, and closed her eyes. As she felt Solo's fingers work methodically through her tresses, she thought of another reason why she liked him so much. Most men were either too shy or too eager with her, usually for all the wrong reasons. But Napoleon wasn't afraid to touch. He hugged her, held her hand, cradled her face whenever he kissed it. And because she spent so much of her time maintaining a professional distance, Dancer needed to be touched.
"That feels nice," she murmured.
He flicked a spot of foam from the tip of her nose and kissed it. "Consider it foreplay."
"Hmm, I don't know about that."
"April, my darling, we're five thousand feet above sea level, in the middle of the Rockies, with no one around but a couple of deer."
"And bears -- don't forget the bears."
Solo chuckled and spun her gently in the water. Dancer drifted into his arms.
"It's kinda chilly."
"We'll warm up soon."
"And what if Hannah comes looking for us?"
Amused by the prospect of being caught together in a compromising position yet again, Solo grinned. "She's liberal-minded. Maybe we'll ask her to join us. Then she can observe the mating habits of U.N.C.L.E. agents at close range."
His confidence made Dancer laugh out loud.
You're always so sure that I'll want you, she thought. It was as if he could read her mind. Of course, Napoleon would have backed off in an instant if she'd resisted, but he invariably chose the right moments to approach her, so she never did.
She kissed him long and deep, her body locking itself around his, in a floating embrace. A warm breeze whispered past, rippling the water. Overhead, the tree branches stirred, their leaves shivering in the sunlight. And suddenly, for no apparent reason, Dancer's sixth sense switched on, intruding on the kiss.
We're not alone. . . she told herself.
It wasn't necessary. He'd felt it too. As Solo twisted in her arms, she opened her eyes, and looked past him.
A stranger was standing on the far shore, next to their discarded clothing. He flung Solo's Special into the lake, which sank with a loud plop, and held up something in his right hand. There was the unmistakable click of a revolver being cocked.
"Christ!" Solo said.
He plunged under the water, taking Dancer with him, just as the man on the shore aimed and fired. The slug tore across the surface of the lake, barely missing their heads. Submerged, the agents broke apart and swam furiously, searching for cover.
Dancer headed for a rocky outcropping, and didn't come up for air until she was safely on the other side. Gasping for breath, she pressed her cheek against the largest rock and risked a peek around the edge.
From what she could see, their attacker was tall and blond and very slender. He also looked surprisingly young. Judging from the gun's apparent weight and considerable recoil, Dancer guessed he was armed with .44 Magnum. All his attention was focused on Solo now, who had nowhere to go. If the young gunman had been more self-assured or a better shot, he might have dispatched the U.N.C.L.E. agents with very little effort.
Fortunately, the man was neither. He held the .44 in a shaky two-handed grip, and followed Solo's movements, like a nervous harpooner hunting a whale. When the agent's head bobbed to the surface, the gunman pulled the trigger twice, missing both times.
"Napoleon! Over here!" Dancer cried. The rocks wouldn't shelter them for long, but at least it was a place to gather their wits until they could devise a decent defense. Solo heard her and changed direction. He ducked under again, geysers of water exploding in his wake.
Finally, the hail of bullets ended, replaced by the clicking of empty chambers. Solo took the opportunity to cut across the lake to join Dancer, while the gunman paused to reload. As he dug into his pockets for more shells, two well-placed shots broke the silence. One ripped up the ground near the young man's feet. Another slammed into a tree near his head, spraying buckshot. After a few seconds' hesitation, the gunman jammed the .44 under the belt of his pants and ran for it.
"Are you people all right?" Hannah Prentice called out. She emerged from the brush, a smoking double-barreled shotgun broken over her arm. "I heard gunfire. Looks like I came just in time."
She watched as Solo and Dancer sloshed their way to shore.
No one around but a couple of deer, indeed! Solo was cursing himself and his own negligence and didn't seem to notice he was naked. Dr. Prentice tried not to notice, either.
"The boy came up to my cabin," she explained as the agents quickly pulled on their clothes. "Knocked on my door, just as polite as you please. He asked me where the U.N.C.L.E. agents were, as if he knew you were here. I thought he was a messenger from Alex."
"We don't need messengers," Solo muttered, zipping his trousers. "That's why we have communicators."
"Oh, yeah. Right." Hannah Prentice frowned. "Sorry, but he looked so harmless. He couldn't have been more than seventeen, eighteen tops."
"Thrush recruits them even younger than that," Solo said. He glanced at Dancer. "Must've followed our tracks."
"But why didn't he take Dr. Prentice?"
Solo shrugged. "Probably decided to dispose of us first. Then he could do what he wanted with her."
"And what might that be, Mr. Solo?" the ornithologist inquired pointedly.
"I told you before, doctor: we don't know. But now, we're damn well going to find out."
"If he is Thrush, he must be even greener than he looks," Dancer remarked, as she finished dressing. "He should have thrown this away, along with your gun." She held up something that looked to Dr. Prentice like a transistor radio.
"Is it still loaded?" Solo asked. Dancer nodded.
"Full clip five darts."
"Good. We can take him alive." He turned to Hannah Prentice. "Doctor, is there a way down this mountain other than the way we came up?"
"Not without climbing equipment."
Solo nodded to himself, satisfied. "Okay then. We'll catch him on the trail." He studied the sky. They still had a few hours of daylight left. "Let's go," he said, and the three of them hurried off.
Solo's prediction was correct. They arrived at the top of the cliff just as the escaping gunman was beginning his descent. Dancer recalled their own climb two days earlier. There was only one way to walk that treacherously narrow path: slowly.
Withdrawing to the edge of the trees, the trio huddled for a last minute strategy session.
"You'd best stay here, doctor," Solo said. Reluctantly, Hannah Prentice agreed. As she passed her shotgun and a handful of cartridges to him, Solo inclined his head to Dancer and whispered, "We'll try the civilized approach first. If that doesn't work, then it's Plan B."
Dancer pressed a button on the side of her transistor radio and a barrel and trigger popped out of the little box, transforming it into a gun. Dr. Prentice wasn't quite sure what "Plan B" was, but she decided it was prudent not to ask.
The agents split up. Dancer kept to the high ground, skirting the ridge, while Solo, with his head bent, the shotgun hugged close to his chest, crept among the rocks. Below them, less than a hundred feet away, the young gunman continued to inch his way down the mountain. Indeed, so intent was he on his own progress, that he never noticed Solo until the latter appeared beside him.
"Hold it right there," the agent said, pointing the shotgun for emphasis. When the gunman turned his head, Solo could understand why Hannah Prentice had trusted him so easily: he did have a callow, choirboy face. Even the blond hair on his cheeks was soft and fine, but there was also a bird with wings spread in a fighting stance tattooed on his right forearm. Solo had seen that particular symbol too often not to know what it meant.
"Put your hands up now."
Solo used his most intimidating voice, but the young gunman didn't frighten easily. As he raised his hands, he regarded the agent with undisguised belligerence.
"You ain't gonna shoot me, Mr. U.N.C.L.E. man. Not this close."
"Don't tempt me."
The gunman was right, of course. Solo had no intention of killing him. U.N.C.L.E. would need him alive for questioning later. Besides, even if he was Thrush, even if he did try to murder both Solo and Dancer back there at the lake, he was still just a kid.
"All right now, walk this way slowly." Solo gestured with the shotgun as he took a step backward.
"Okay, man, sure. I'm comin'."
With his hands still raised to chest-level, the gunman followed Solo and waited for his chance. When they reached the first turn in the path, he got it. Suddenly, he dropped down, below the barrel of the shotgun and rushed forward, ramming Solo hard in the midsection. The agent saw it coming, but there was no room to maneuver, so he rolled with the tackle.
The shotgun tumbled away. They wrestled desperately on the edge of the cliff, Solo flat on his back, the gunman straddling him, his hands clawing at the agent's throat. The boy was thin, but much stronger than he looked. What flesh he had, was all muscle.
"So much for the civilized approach," Dancer told herself as she watched from her vantage point, some yards above them. "Time for Plan B."
Her little gun's range was limited and its accuracy decreased with distance. Trying to compensate for windage, Dancer aimed the best she could, and pulled the trigger.
The shot would win no prizes at the target range, but it was good enough. The sleep dart imbedded itself in the gunman's left calf. Higher, and the drug's effect might have been nearly instantaneous. As it was, the gunman felt a sharp prick, like a bee sting, then a warm, numbing sensation began to creep up his leg.
He swayed off-balance, and abruptly lurched sideways.
"Give me your hand!" Solo shouted, as he realized what was happening. But the gunman wrenched away, reaching for the revolver jammed under his belt, even as he lost consciousness.
Jesus, don't try to be a hero, Solo thought. Thrush isn't worth it...
As the gunman rolled away, Solo grabbed for an arm, missed, grasped a fistful of shirtsleeve instead. Under them, the ledge slowly disintegrated, crumbling into a shower of rocks and gravel.
"No!" Dancer cried from the ridge. Without a second thought, she scrambled halfway down the side of the cliff, and leapt the last ten feet. Landing hard on Solo's legs, she hugged his thighs and hung on. The force jerked Solo back, but the momentum continued to propel the unconscious gunman in the opposite direction.
The shirtsleeve shredded, then tore apart entirely. The gunman dropped, leaving Solo to dangle halfway off the narrow ledge, his fist closed tight on an empty swatch of flannel. With Dancer's help, he dragged himself back from the brink. Somewhere in the distance, they could hear Hannah Prentice calling to them.
"Thanks," Solo said.
Dancer gulped down a breath. "No problem."
The agents peered over the ledge. Several hundred feet below, the young gunman lay at the base of the canyon, his body splayed, his skull cracked open, his limbs bent at odd angles, forming a sort of human swastika.
"Damn," Solo muttered in disgust.
Night was falling. For the time being, there was nothing more they could do, so they returned to the cabin. Hannah Prentice fried the trout, but no one had much of an appetite. After supper, Solo called U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to file a status report, while Dancer took her coffee outside, to drink it alone.
Enforcement agents learned to cope differently with the violence in their lives. Some drank. Some slept. Some couldn't sleep, so they stayed awake in other people's beds. Dancer's partner, Mark Slate, would withdraw for hours to strum aimless chords on his guitar.
Dancer herself, liked to count stars. Somehow, contemplating the vastness of a clear night sky always put events, like that afternoon's, into proper perspective.
"They're sending out a forensics team in the morning," Solo said as he joined her. "Should be here the day after tomorrow to retrieve the body, unless the scavengers get to it first."
Dancer wondered if they'd ever find out who the gunman was. He probably was carrying phony papers and like all Thrush agents, his fingerprints would have been obliterated.
But even if they did eventually make a positive I.D., what would they find? A drop-out? A drifter? A local boy gone bad? Like some demonic chess player, Thrush often moved in mysterious ways. Sometimes, the agents could penetrate the strategy behind the scheming, the method behind the madness. Sometimes, they never did. More than likely, the gunman would end up as a closed file in Section Four just another sacrificed pawn, another aborted play in the great global game.
Solo leaned against the trunk of an evergreen tree and exhaled a deep breath. "This is no business for amateurs. You can't get in it too soon or stay too long."
Dancer knew that he was thinking about Nate Cassidy again. Enforcement agents were always hired after college and retired from the field at forty. Only a few old veterans like Cassidy, who were covered under a grandfather clause, ever managed to escape the mandatory forty-and-out rule.
Cassidy was 54 when he died, still sharp, still confident but maybe not quite as sharp, not quite as confident as he should have been. It made one appreciate the wisdom behind U.N.C.L.E.'s personnel policies.
Just then, a whiff of pipe tobacco signaled Hannah Prentice's approach. The agents smelled it even before they heard her footsteps.
"Is this a private party, or can anyone be miserable?" the ornithologist asked aloud. She looked from one disheartened agent to another. "That was quite a demonstration of U.N.C.L.E. in action today."
Solo winced. "We usually manage it better."
"Oh, no doubt." Chewing on her pipe, Dr. Prentice sidled close to him. "If you'll indulge me, I'd just like to ask you one more thing."
"What's that, doctor?"
"When you were hanging off that mountain, trying to save the boy, were you thinking about his life . . . or the information he possessed?"
Solo glanced at Dancer, who lowered her eyes, guiltily. "I don't really know," he admitted, after a moment. Dr. Prentice smiled.
"A good answer and an honest one. There's hope for you yet, Mr. Solo." She tapped the bowl of her pipe against the trunk of the evergreen. "Well, I guess, it's time I started packing."
"Packing?" Dancer's head snapped up in surprise. "But I thought you didn't trust our organization."
"I don't — not yet, anyway. But if the rest of U.N.C.L.E. is anything like the two of you, I may be inclined to give it at least the benefit of the doubt." Dr. Prentice winked and wished them both goodnight.
"Fancy that," Dancer murmured to Solo, when they were alone again. She shook her head ruefully. "I wonder what Hannah would say if I told her that personally, I wasn't thinking about the boy at all. My only concern was saving you."
Solo draped his arm across her shoulders and pulled her close. "Don't feel bad. That's the way it's supposed to work."
"Uh-huh." He kissed her lightly on the top of her head. "That's why Mr. Waverly always sends two agents, instead of one."
They rose early the next day and spent several hours helping Hannah Prentice board up the cabin. It was almost mid-morning before everything seemed secure.
"I never expected to leave here, voluntarily," Dr. Prentice said as she inspected their handiwork. "But I'll bet Alex knew all along. He's always been a clever bastard."
Despite her choice of words, the remark sounded affectionate.
"Forgive me, doctor, for asking," Solo said, "but it's part of my training to be curious. Just what is your relationship with my superior?"
Instead of answering directly, Hannah Prentice offered him a cryptic smile. "Did Alex ever mention his cousin, Lester Baldwin?"
"As a matter of fact, he did. You know Baldwin was murdered, don't you?"
Dr. Prentice nodded.
"We tried to prevent it. Mr. Waverly seemed to feel obligated to help his cousin. He said that Baldwin knew about some 'slight indiscretion' that he'd committed a long time ago."
The ornithologist harrumphed to herself. "Oh, really? Is that what he calls it these days? Well, that's Alex Waverly for you!"
Solo held his peace, less shocked than amused.
"I suppose it did happen a long time ago," Hannah Prentice conceded with a sigh. "Long before your boss became omnipotent."
"And yet he's still trying to protect you."
"You have a point."
She rested her hand on Solo's forearm. "Promise me you'll never consider April a 'slight indiscretion'?"
"I promise, just as long as she always thinks of me as her friend."
Dr. Prentice gave his arm a firm pat, glad to see that he understood. As Solo went back to the cabin for a final check, Dancer brought Hannah Prentice her backpack. Above them, two eagles suddenly appeared in the sky, circling and crying out to one another.
"I hope the poachers don't come back while I'm away," Dr. Prentice said.
"I hope so, too," Dancer agreed. "Those birds are too magnificent to kill."
"They are, aren't they?" Dr. Prentice tilted her head back to watch the aerial ballet. "Noble predators: like moral spies, it seems like a contradiction in terms. And yet there are my eagles. . . and here are you two."
Before Dancer could respond to the compliment, Solo called out, "Ready?" The women said they were. Dancer took one last look at the eagles. She hoped it was Martha and her mate, but of course, she couldn't be sure.
Take care of yourself, ol' girl, Dancer thought. Then she hefted own backpack and hurried down the trail, to catch up with the others. Up in the sky, the two eagles turned wing and soared off, into the morning sun.