Lion of Ngambo Affair
"The successful revolutionary is a statesman. The unsuccessful one, a criminal." --- Erich Fromm
Ngambo, East Africa. March, 1969.
There were no eyewitnesses. No one saw the actual explosion. Or, if they did, they preferred, either from politics or prudence, to keep that fact to themselves.
Nevertheless, from the various depositions taken later — some under duress and some, not — and from the evidence found in the wreckage itself, the capital security police were able to quite literally piece together the story. It was a simple one.
A few minutes shy of 9 a.m., Natasha Fyodorovna Makarova, wife of the newly-appointed Soviet ambassador to Ngambo, left the diplomatic residence, situated on a quiet stretch of Bishop's Street, accompanied by her two children, Fyodor and Katya. It was a hot spring morning on a Tuesday. Tuesday was market day in the capital city of Pembe. Apparently, judging from the shreds of basket weave found in the shell of the car, the ambassador's wife was going out to shop.
Waiting beside the limousine was a native chauffeur, a trustworthy, dependable man and a long-time resident of the city. The entire family climbed into the back seat. He probably held the door for them. Then, he slipped behind the wheel in the front. By that time, it was exactly nine o'clock. He might even had checked the hour on his new Timex watch, a present from his employer.
When he turned the ignition key, a crude but effective homemade bomb was triggered. The electrical charge traveled along a wire running from the starter to a detonator attached to six sticks of dynamite. The limousine exploded, sending a fireball into the cloudless blue morning sky. None of the occupants of the car survived. The sound of the blast was heard everywhere, even in the congested, tin-roof shantytown located on the outskirts of Pembe, on the other side of the city.
And though they didn't dare say so aloud, everyone who heard it was thinking the same thought: James Simba, the self-proclaimed "Lion of Ngambo," had struck again.
The way to deal with vermin
Three days later, Illya Kuryakin leaned against a cool stucco archway between the sitting room and a second-floor verandah in the presidential palace, and followed the progress of a tembo beetle. The beetle was black and shiny and as big as a grown man's thumb. Its journey across the tiled ceiling, while slow and meandering, seemed infinitely more interesting to the U.N.C.L.E. agent than what was going on below it.
"Of course, it was all a mistake," Martin Ndogo, Ngambo's president-for-life was saying to Kuryakin's partner, Napoleon Solo, who sat beside him. "Most probably, the bomb was intended to kill the American ambassador, Mr. Taylor. He has been receiving death threats for many weeks now, you see. Recently, he sent his family back to the United States and moved to an apartment in the business district. The house was too fine to lay neglected, so we offered the use of it to Mr. Makarov when he arrived."
"Did you also happen to mention the death threats to the Soviet ambassador?" Solo asked, knowing the answer. Ndogo's plump brown cheeks inflated around a falsely innocent grin.
"Why, no. Why should we? With those troublemakers at large, there are always threats. Life would come to a virtual standstill if we took every one of them seriously."
Ndogo paused to pour himself another cup of tea. He offered to refill Solo's cup, but the agent declined. "Now, perhaps our Russian friends will understand how dangerous this man, Simba, is," the president said.
Oh, the Kremlin got the message all right, Kuryakin thought to himself from his place beside the terrace. Nothing like a carefully engineered international incident to get one's point across.
The blond agent glanced down to the enclosed courtyard below, another echo of the Islamic influence that pervaded the architecture of the old city. Surrounded by several heavily-armed guards, the president's wife was working among her rows of flourishing rosebushes. Kuryakin wondered idly where she found enough water to maintain such a garden. Ngambo was currently in the monstrous grip of a devastating two-year drought. He turned back to check on the beetle and found it creeping cautiously under the whirling blades of the overhead fan. "So you are here to eliminate this outlaw presence in my
country?" President Ndogo continued. It sounded more like a declaration than a question.
"We're here to bring James Simba to justice, to make him stand trial before an international court of law," Solo corrected him.
"And his confederates?"
"No one else has been formally charged."
Solo offered no comment. The internal affairs of insignificant, backwater countries like this one did not usually concern him nor his organization. His boss, Alexander Waverly, regarded the Simba affair less as a problem of politics than as a violation of global etiquette — a case of dreadfully bad manners.
First, there'd been the kidnapping of the American industrialist. Then, the attack on the British hunting party, followed by the execution of a pair of German arms dealers, the slaughter of a busload of private school children, caught in a guerrilla crossfire, and now, the murder of the Soviet ambassador's family. James Simba had orchestrated the atrocities in order to draw attention to the political situation in his country, much like a child throwing a temper tantrum in a four-star restaurant. He'd finally won the attention of the superpowers at the expense of their patience. Although Simba was an avowed Marxist, even the Soviets considered him a loose cannon and had washed their hands of him. "We understand that you arrested one of Simba's men in connection with the bombing incident," Solo said, changing the subject. "Yes, a farmer from the foothills. He was discovered a few blocks from the ambassador's residence, minutes after the explosion."
"When can we see him? We'd like to question him."
Ndogo shrugged his round shoulders apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mr. Solo. He is no longer in custody. He was a sickly boy, you see. With the drought, many in the villages are." He grinned again, showing a flash of white teeth. "The interrogators tell me he had a weak heart."
Although the agent's manner remained outwardly polite, over by the terrace, Kuryakin noted the undercurrent of tightly-controlled contempt in Solo's voice. At times like this, the Russian was perfectly content to ride shotgun, leaving the diplomatic chores to his American partner. His eyes wandered upward. The beetle had survived the gauntlet of the fan and was edging into a corner, to head down the wall.
"There is no need to worry, Mr. Solo. Admittedly, the boy's death was inconvenient. It will not affect your mission, however. We know he was from the Tandela River district, you see. We have arranged a cover for you and your associate. Both of you will join a local Peace Corps-funded irrigation project which is currently underway, there."
"Thank you," Solo replied wearily. There was nothing else he could say. Although he'd just spent two months in a private health clinic, recuperating with Illya from a nearly botched assignment in South America, he suddenly felt very, very tired.
How many corrupt, tin-pot dictators like this one had he been required to placate during his career? Small men, with small hearts, propped up by large egos and even larger Swiss bank accounts. Like tyrannical husbands, they raped and beat their helpless countries into submission until the latter finally rebelled or perished, then they ran away under cover of night, howling for political asylum.
Because U.N.C.L.E.'s charter directed it to protect and defend the peace of the world against terrorism, and because its agents were sworn to an oath that demanded absolute, unquestioning obedience, Ndogo could now use them to remove the threat posed by the insurgent Simba. Well, Solo told himself, he might have to do his job, but he didn't have to like it. For two cents and Waverly's permission, he would have gladly shot this fat little bastard, himself.
"It appears our business is concluded," Ndogo said, rising, and Solo rose with him. Taking his cue, Kuryakin left the relative comfort of the archway to join his partner. He stole a last peek at his beetle. The intrepid insect had descended the length of the wall and was now traveling along a crack in the marble floor.
"Do you truly expect to arrest James Simba, Mr. Solo?" Ndogo asked, as he escorted the two agents to the door.
"Those are our orders."
Nodogo shook his head, unconvinced. He was a short man, even shorter than Kuryakin, and very stout, and he walked with his back arched, chest thrust forward, hands clasped behind him. Dressed in that ice-cream colored suit, he reminded Solo of a rather large, well-fed duck.
"I don't see how you can possibly succeed. I believe you will be forced to kill Simba, instead. And that will be for the best ---."
Ndogo looked down and noticed the tembo beetle, just beyond the toe of his polished shoe. Without a second thought, he casually lifted his foot and stamped it down. Kuryakin tried not to wince as the beetle died with a loud crunch.
"There is but one way to deal with vermin, you see," Ndogo said. Then, with an expression of deep satisfaction warming his moon-shaped face, he turned and waddled away.
Nafasi is the Swahili word for opportunity, but it can also mean simply "spare time." Each Saturday, when she drove into town with her friend, Kesia Nyeusi, for supplies, Victoria Haywood wondered all over again which definition the original founders had in mind when they named it. Certainly, the few people who lived in Nafasi had plenty of spare time, but scant opportunity to put any of it to good use.
The place wasn't much. A post office. A bar that served only locally bootlegged maize beer. A general store with a sheet metal roof, a single petrol pump outside, and little else but dust on the shelves within. If it weren't for the weekly open air market and the airstrip, the young woman told herself, there'd be no reason to come to town at all.
Although the vendors from the upcountry shambas were chanting the praises of their meager wares in the distance, at the moment, it was the airstrip that occupied Victoria's attention. Slouched behind the wheel of the battered Land Rover, she chewed a bit of miraa weed and watched a twin-engine Cessna with "Gaylord Air" stenciled along its fuselage touch down on the narrow runway. The plane bumped once, twice, then bounced unsteadily over the clumps of grass sprouting through the uneven tarmac, before taxiing to a halt. Victoria chuckled to herself. Jack Gaylord still couldn't land a plane decently to save his soul.
"Do you think they're onboard?" Kesia Nyeusi asked aloud, nervously, from the Land Rover's front passenger seat.
"I sure as hell hope so."
The two women waited together in companionable silence, as dissimilar in appearance as they could possibly be. Victoria was a white, Eastern-bred Yankee, and very tall --- what some men might consider statuesque. Kesia was petite and African, with a pretty face the same shade as Victoria's chestnut hair. Yet, despite their differences, physical and otherwise, they enjoyed the easygoing camaraderie that came with a deep, long-standing friendship.
"There they are," Kesia said as the hatch of the Cessna opened and Kuryakin stepped out. "My goodness. Will you look at all that blond hair? And he's rather cute, too.
"Too short for my taste, little sister," Victoria observed. "You're welcome to him." As she draped one long leg casually over the side of the Land Rover, she saw Solo emerge beside his partner.
Now, this one is interesting, she thought. Although he looked too much like the smartass Harvard lawyers she'd known, something about him nevertheless intrigued her. She liked the way he moved.
"Hello," Solo hailed them breezily as he and Kuryakin approached the Land Rover. He held out his hand to Victoria. "My name is Nicholas Stone. You can call me Nick."
"The word for greeting around here is 'Jambo,'" Victoria informed him as she shook his hand. "I'm Victoria Haywood. You can call me Miss Haywood until we see if you can dig a trench."
Solo's smile dissolved into an unspoken question that was answered by Kesia's laughter, honeyed and musical. "Don't mind Vicky. She's only kidding. I'm afraid we haven't had much luck getting help out here."
"We've had no luck at all," her friend muttered. The agents tossed their bags into the back of the Land Rover and climbed in.
"I'm Kesia Nyeusi," the young African woman introduced herself. "Joseph Kurowsky," Kuryakin offered in return.
"I hope you fellas brought some of your own equipment along," Victoria said, turning to Solo. He was ready for her this time.
"We remembered our toothbrushes, if that's what you mean."
"You're going to need more than toothbrushes to survive out here. Do you have any hard currency on you?"
"Will American dollars do?"
"Dollars will do just fine."
The Land Rover's motor had been running all the while. The temperamental transmission groaned in protest as Victoria threw it into gear and announced, "Time to go shopping."
In the tumble-down general store, they bought cots and towels, mosquito nets and kerosene lamps, cans of coffee and --- at Victoria's urging --- three cases of powdered milk. From the vendors in the open-air market, they bought handfuls of hard candy, armfuls of undersized fruit --- mangoes, bananas and green oranges --- and several heavy burlap sacks stuffed with beans, maize, and millet. As the agents piled the goods into the back of the Land Rover, Solo wondered idly how they could ever expect to consume so much food during their stay, but he kept his peace, allowing the women to haggle with the vendors and decide the purchases.
The Land Rover was not similarly cooperative. When they were ready to leave at last, the engine balked and refused to turn over.
"Goddammit, no! Not again!" Victoria cried in disgust. She gave the dashboard a punitive whack.
"Does it do this often?" Kuryakin inquired softly.
Kesia answered for her friend. "All the time."
Without another word, the Russian scrambled down from the vehicle and yanked open the hood. After a few seconds, he called for pliers. Victoria pointed to a toolbox on the floor behind the front seat. Solo found a pair and lobbed them to his partner. Kuryakin disappeared under the hood again. Another few seconds passed.
"All right. Try it now," he said finally. Victoria did. The engine ground, caught and roared to life. Kuryakin slammed the hood and returned to his place beside Solo, while the women blinked at one another in surprise.
"You have a loose connection in the solenoid," he said matter-of-factly. "I used the pliers to bridge the spark." "Maybe you two will work out, after all," Victoria conceded as they pulled away. Kuryakin glanced at Solo. The latter discreetly held up a thumb, enjoying the small victory.
"How many workers have you had before us, anyway?" Solo asked, squinting against a steady blast of fine dust. He had to raise his voice over the whine of the engine and the jouncing of the Land Rover.
"Let's see," Kesia said thoughtfully, twisting in her seat. "There was the man who caught malaria. The couple who developed dysentery."
"--- The guy who found the lion in his tent ---," Victoria added, with a knowing chuckle.
"Oh, yes. The history teacher. He was here for only two days. I always forget about him."
Suddenly, they hit a shallow pothole and Solo felt several of his internal organs rearrange themselves. The road, which hardly deserved the name, alternated between a pair of parallel dirt tracks and stretches paved with corrugated crushed rock. It didn't help matters that Victoria drove with all the finesse of a New York cabdriver.
"Why don't you simply recruit men from the village?" Kuryakin asked reasonably.
"I'm afraid there are none left to recruit," Kesia said. "Those who haven't been shot or drafted by Ndogo's army, have run away to the hills to join the rebels. And some have just run away." She shook her head sadly. "The women who remain do what they can, but all of them have elderly parents and children to tend."
"So you fellas had better take real good care of yourselves," Victoria interjected. "Take your anti-malaria pills and your salt pills. Watch out for the sun, and use those mosquito nets at night. Don't drink any water without boiling it or adding a few drops of iodine to it, first. And don't go swimming in any streams or lakes. Those bilharzia worms are no joke."
Solo almost responded with a "Yes, m'am." He would have liked to inform her that he and Kuryakin had visited the continent enough times to know what precautions to take, but their cover stories wouldn't allow it.
"They told us you're both from Chicago," Kesia said, changing the subject. "What did you do there?"
"I was a chemist for a cosmetics company," Kuryakin said.
"And I edited children's books," Solo added.
"Why did you join the Peace Corps?"
The American agent shrugged. "Guess I just needed a little adventure in my life."
He heard Victoria suppress a scornful laugh. From the time they had landed, her attitude toward the agents had been patronizing, even rude, and Solo suspected the reason was something more than simple frustration.
He'd known his share of Victoria Haywoods --- children of position and privilege, accustomed to taking charge, but also used to having everything go their way. From the patrician tilt of her head, to the stylish cut of her khaki bush shorts, the girl reeked of money. Old money. Solo took a guess and asked lightly, "Ah, you said your name was Haywood. Any relation to the Haywoods of Boston?"
"Not any more," Victoria replied, effectively ending the conversation.
They drove for an hour through a countryside in which the predominant color was brown. Brown parched savannah with brown mountains in the distance. Thin, brown, undernourished children playing beside the road, scolded or carried by brown mothers. The mothers had brown troubled faces, as worried parents always did, all over the world.
Sparse brown herds of antelope and Thomsen's gazelle browsed aimlessly through the brown grass. A small pride of scruffy brown lions, ribs clearly visible, lapped at the last puddles of water in a brown muddy riverbed. Even the flamingoes flocking along the encrusted shore of a dried-up soda lake seemed a sort of brown-tinged, rusty pink.
Although most of Ngambo looked rather worse than the agents expected, their destination, a medium-sized village nestled close to the Tandela River, looked rather better. There were about thirty round straw-thatched houses in all. A few, located on the edges, were abandoned, but the rest were neat and tidy and kept in good repair. The children who ran to greet the Land Rover appeared to be in better health than their surrounding neighbors.
Victoria slowed the vehicle long enough for Kesia to wave to the children and distribute a portion of the hard candy. Then, she pressed the accelerator and moved on, skirting the perimeter of the village.
The camp was a trio of tents situated halfway between the houses and the river. "You two can share my place," Victoria said, pointing to the tent on the left. "I've moved in with Kesia. The third tent is for storage."
They all pitched in to unload the Land Rover. While Kesia and Kuryakin put the supply tent in order, Victoria led Solo down to the river. They halted before a sprawling patchwork of gently graded fields, embroidered with a latticework of furrows and ditches. About a quarter of the acreage was still unexcavated, decorated with lengths of string stretched between small wooden stakes.
Beyond the fields, the Tandala River was only a steady, narrow trickle running down the center of the riverbed, like a dividing line in a highway. Nevertheless, a system of newly-built earth dams and sluices lay ready and waiting to control and direct the expected overflow. Victoria surveyed the project with the unselfconscious pride of an artist contemplating a masterpiece in progress.
"I know what you've been thinking," she said to Solo, after a moment. "Another spoiled little rich girl doing charity work among the exotic downtrodden."
Solo lowered his eyes, guiltily. She was right, of course. That was exactly what he'd been thinking. She didn't wait for him to tell her so.
"Well, I never joined the Junior League. I don't even own a pair of white gloves. I may not have been raised in poverty, but I do know something about integrity and hard work."
She waved a hand over the cluster of vest-pocket farms. "These are the village's shambas --- their farms --- all the land they have to feed themselves. Kesia's family lives in that village. They're her people. And she's the best friend I've ever had, so now, they're my people, too."
Victoria studied the bright, unclouded sky. "The rains will come this year. What else will come with them, who can say? But the rains are coming. By the end of this month or the beginning of next, the river is going to rise and swell. And when it does, this irrigation project must be finished. It will be finished, even if I have to dig the rest of the damn thing myself."
Standing there, listening to her, Solo had no doubt that she could do it, too. Victoria possessed enough determination for all of them. When she turned to face him, challenging him to contend otherwise, he merely smiled and said, "Vassar?"
"No, Radcliffe," she confessed, with a deflating sigh. "Class of '65." And they both laughed.
It didn't matter if they were brown or white, Slavic or Bantu, Illya Kuryakin reflected. Grandmothers were the same everywhere.
Murimi, Kesia's grandmother, was smaller and darker than her granddaughter. Wiry wisps of snow-white hair framed her high forehead and her skin clung to her frail bones like crinkly carbon paper. She was a little blind, but she saw what she wanted to see. A little deaf, but she heard what she wanted to hear. She couldn't understand more than a few phrases of English or standard Swahili, but she studied the agents' faces intently whenever their words were translated, as if she were listening with her bright, black eyes and seeing with her ears.
Following the custom of African hospitality, she'd invited the entire group to join her for the evening meal. They sat outside her house in a circle, sharing a large communal dish, Keisha and Kuryakin on one side, Solo and Victoria on the other with Murimi in the central place of honor.
"Mla, mla," the old woman urged them --- eat, eat --- although she, herself, only picked out a few morsels from time to time.
"Grandmother is nervous," Keisha murmured to Kuryakin. "Men and women don't normally eat together. She's not used to it, but she says she's trying to be modern, for my sake."
The Russian smiled. He noted that Kesia had exchanged her khaki shorts for a traditional wraparound kanga skirt, no doubt as a reciprocal gesture to please her grandmother.
"Mla, mla," Murimi said again, and even though he was more tired than hungry, Kuryakin ate. He always did. When he'd first left the Soviet Union as a graduate student, he ate for pleasure, because the tastes and textures of the foods were so much more varied than what was available at home. Now, as an agent, he ate from necessity, because opportunities on assignment were often few and far between.
The bowl on the ground in front of him contained something Murimi called ugali, a mushy maize porridge topped with a spicy meat stew. The meat probably was butchered from a scrawny village chicken, slaughtered for the occasion. The maize came from the sacks purchased earlier that afternoon, in town.
No wonder the children here look so well, Kuryakin reasoned as he scooped up a handful of porridge. Evidently, Victoria and Kesia were keeping the village alive with their own money and whatever else they could scrounge.
It suddenly struck him what a sizable investment providing for two grown men represented, and he felt ashamed. The villagers would feed the agents grain from their meager stores and meat from their precious few chickens, and in return, the agents would feed them lies. Even now, at that very moment, Napoleon was spouting some nonsense about the difficulties of publishing good children's books.
That's one of the differences between us, Napoleon, the Russian thought, not paying his partner too much attention. I always loathe cover stories, while you can't resist embellishing them.
"Grandmother would like to know how many children you have," Kesia was saying to Solo.
"Tell her none. I'm not married. Neither of us are."
As Kesia translated, Murimi frowned, obviously displeased. The old woman eyed the agent critically and shook a withered finger. When she was finished speaking, Kesia interpreted her answer.
"Grandmother says you are wasting your life. She says a strong, healthy man like you should have at least four wives and a dozen children."
"Don't take it personally," Victoria cut in. "She's always telling me to get married, too."
Solo offered the old woman a helpless shrug and everyone laughed, except Kuryakin. He tried, but his heart wasn't in it. After a few more minutes of small talk, he excused himself, picked up a kerosene lantern and padded away toward the tents. Stifling yawns, Solo soon followed.
"So, what do you think, Mama?" Victoria asked after the men were gone. When Murimi failed to respond, the young woman impatiently pressed her.
"Do you think they're mercenaries or soldiers of some kind?"
"No. They are not soldiers. Soldiers have little imagination."
"Could they be policemen?" Kesia joined in.
"Policemen have even less."
"Then, perhaps you're wrong, Vicky," Kesia said. "Perhaps they're exactly who they say they are."
Victoria rocked back on her elbows, unpersuaded. "I might believe they're embassy flunkies or undercover reporters looking for a good story, but two regular guys from Chicago? Uh-uh. If Nick really edits children's books for a living, I'll eat my Aunt Marjorie's entire collection of pillbox hats." She turned back to Murimi. "C'mon Mama, who do you think they are?"
The old woman sat for a moment in silence, considering her answer. "I think they are moran," she said, referring to the proud young warriors of their nomadic neighbors, the Maasai.
"Moran?" Victoria exclaimed. She didn't say so, but she was wondering if Kesia's grandmother had finally gone senile.
Murimi smiled a serene, nearly toothless smile. She looked pointedly from one young woman to the other, to demonstrate that she hadn't gone senile at all.
"And I believe they have come here to hunt lion."
A man who always rises to the occasion.
The next day, work on the project resumed in earnest. That afternoon, several of Kesia's female cousins came down to the river with their older children in tow to help with the digging. One of them invited the agents to supper.
On the third day, prompted by curiosity and attracted by the novelty of having young men in the village again, more women appeared with more children. There were three invitations to supper that night.
On the fourth day, Solo's spade clanged against a substratum layer of solid rock.
The agent stopped working and waved to Victoria. On the opposite side of the field, Kuryakin and Kesia saw his gesture and abandoned their own ditches. As he watched the three of them pick their way across the field, Solo leaned against his spade and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.
The rock aptly symbolized their current state of affairs, he told himself. Although progress on the irrigation system continued apace, the mission itself had ground to a virtual standstill.
They hadn't accomplished very much in the past four days. Illya was learning a complicated game that involved bowls and pebbles called 'mbao' from the little local boys, and nursing a miserable sunburn. Napoleon had acquired a rudimentary Swahili vocabulary, the grudging respect of Victoria Haywood, and a mild case of the runs. Neither of them had developed even the flimsiest lead on Simba or his rebel army. Solo could feel a headache coming on each time he made one of his twice-daily reports to the office. Because he had nothing of real interest to pass on, Waverly no longer took his calls. Still, as he bantered with Wanda about trivial matters, Solo sensed the Old Man's wrath reverberating over the channel, like a snuggled signal.
Good God, man. What in blazes are you doing out there?
. . . Ah, we're digging, sir. . .
"Volcanic rock. The place is riddled with it," Victoria was commenting as the agent drifted back to reality. "It's going to be tough to break through."
Kuryakin pawed the ground with the toe of his boot, scraping away the soil, and pushed back his broad-brimmed hat. "We could blast it loose," he suggested, thoughtfully.
With what? Solo wondered to himself. A little squeeze of nitrate toothpaste? A couple of exploding shirt buttons? That would really blow our cover --- literally.
It might've been worth flaunting one or two of Simpson's inventions just for the pleasure of seeing Victoria Haywood's square jaw drop open, but it wasn't going to happen. Not this trip, anyway. All the agents had with them were their communicators and their U.N.C.L.E. Specials, buried deep inside their suitcases.
"A stick or two of low-grade dynamite would probably do it," Kuryakin said. He looked from Victoria to Kesia and added, with deceptive innocence, "Is there anyone around here who might have explosives on hand? A mining operation, for instance?"
As the young women hesitated, exchanging nervous glances, Solo watched their faces with dawning awareness. They knew something! Nice going, Illya. Score one for our side. It was all he could do not to cheer out loud.
Kesia deliberated for some time. Then, making up her mind, she said, "Wanjohi might know where to get some."
"Wanjohi?" Kuryakin asked.
"He owns the tavern in town," Victoria explained. "He knows everyone in the district."
Kesia glanced at her friend uncertainly. "Should I go to see him today?"
"No time like the present," Solo said with a shrug, masking the excitement he felt. Kuryakin checked his watch. It was nearly two. "I'll clean up a bit and go with you," he volunteered, and Kesia appeared visibly relieved. She didn't like taking the Land Rover out, alone.
As his partner prepared to go, Solo murmured, "You know, I can tickle a solenoid, too."
"Yes, but you're needed here to shore up morale." Kuryakin gestured toward the group of village women who had gathered to see what all the fuss was about. "I think they prefer you over me as crew boss. So does Vicky."
Solo sighed. "Okay. But keep your eyes and ears open."
"That was my intention."
The American agent gathered himself together and turned back to the waiting women, claiming their attention like a prince with his harem, a film star surrounded by adoring fans. "All right, everyone, let's go. C'mon. Tafadhalini, mabibi. Time for all you very lovely ladies to get back to work. Twende."
He herded them gently, ignoring Victoria's smirk, while the village women smiled and flirted, tittering like teenage girls. Behind him, Kuryakin followed Kesia back to camp, in search of the Land Rover.
Kesia hissed the word, leaning close, keeping her voice low as she could, in a tone Kuryakin had heard too many times before in his life. The words and the circumstances changed, but the tone was always the same. Kesia wasn't just wary. Clearly, she was frightened.
"Do you think they'll give us trouble?" Kuryakin asked, perfectly calm but wishing he'd brought along his automatic.
"I don't know. They're unpredictable."
The agent shifted in his seat and gripped the steering wheel tighter, as the Land Rover jounced and seesawed over the corrugated pavement. It was a lot like trying to drive over an old-fashioned washboard. There was a trick to it. If you maintained a certain speed, about forty miles an hour, the tires skimmed across the crests and valleys, and the ride was relatively smooth. Kuryakin was still getting the hang of it.
The squad was small, only four soldiers walking along the side of the road, dressed in the maroon and grey uniforms of Ndogo's national army. Two of them sported jaunty berets. All of them shouldered American-made M16 rifles. Kuryakin gunned the engine ever so slightly, but the soldiers were too busy talking among themselves to give the Land Rover more than a passing glance. Draped over the back of her seat, Kesia watched for a long time, until the soldiers became mere specks in the distance.
"I hope we don't meet them again on our return trip," she said, allowing herself to relax. "I'd hate to think what would happen if they found us carrying dynamite."
"We'll just tell them that we need it for excavation," Kuryakin said evenly. Kesia laughed deep in her throat.
"Oh, yes. And three months later, someone will be excavating us."
She perched sideways in the passenger seat, one leg tucked under the other, and studied her companion. She could imagine him in a lab coat, scholarly and reclusive, puttering around tables crowded with beakers and test tubes. He did look rather like a chemist or a scientist of some kind, despite what her friend, Vicky, thought. As he drove, he was silent, but Kesia liked his silence, too. So many Americans were forward, ill-mannered, and artificially friendly. While Victoria considered his shy diffidence a royal pain in the ass and said so, Kesia welcomed it with relief.
"What do you think of the political situation, here, in my country?" she asked off-handily, taking a chance.
Kuryakin analyzed several responses and probable chains of optional dialogue before answering. He knew she was testing him. "Are you referring to the policies of the current government or the problems with the terrorists?"
"They're not terrorists. They're freedom fighters."
Kuryakin noted the terminology. When speaking in the first person, one always said 'our' freedom fighters, while in the third, it was always 'their' terrorists.
"I stand corrected," he apologized, trying to concentrate on his driving. There was a particularly rough stretch of road coming up. Kesia continued. "The foreign newspapers make it seem like a series of civil disturbances, but's it's much more than that. It's a civil war, a popular revolt against tyranny, pure and simple."
She leaned toward Kuryakin, bracing herself against the dashboard as the Land Rover lurched to avoid a row of craters. "You do think people have a right to fight against oppression, don't you?"
"I believe people have the right to political self-determination, yes," he agreed, as he down-shifted to a lower gear. The transmission squealed and the vehicle bucked like an unbroken mustang. "If a state no longer has the support of its citizenry, well, those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable."
"Isn't that a quote from Karl Marx?"
"No," he replied, wrestling with the wheel. "Actually, John F. Kennedy."
Kesia seemed disappointed. She sat back again as the road leveled out. Ahead, Nafasi was a cluster of ochre-colored shadows in the afternoon sun. "The only one who enjoys any self-determination in this country is President Ndogo. You can see what's he's done to his people."
"Ndogo didn't create the drought," Kuryakin reminded her.
"But he's exploiting it to his own advantage. He won't request foreign aid. There is only one other irrigation project like ours in the entire country. He wants the shambas to fail."
"Why? What could he possibly hope to gain?"
Kesia snorted, bitterly. "Money, and more money. You saw the volcanic rock. There may be coal or oil or who knows what else out here. The multinational conglomerates are interested in the land for speculation purposes."
"And if the farmers starve, the land will become available?"
Kuryakin nodded to himself. Now, he understood. He glanced around the parched savannah and thought of the lush palace rose garden. Guards or no guards, he told himself, if he ever came near those rosebushes again, he'd rip them out by their accursed roots.
"So you see," she said, "all the violence so far --- it's only the beginning. Many more people are going to die before this is over."
They turned into the town's dusty main street. There were two more soldiers lounging on the verandah of the general store. "Well, you know how the saying goes," Kuryakin said. "A revolution isn't supposed to be a dinner party."
"Thomas Jefferson?" she asked.
"No." He parked the Land Rover, and turned off the engine. "Mao Tse-Tung."
If Wanjohi's bar didn't promise much from the outside, it offered even less within. The single room was low-slung and stifling hot, with a counter, four stools, two tables and three chairs. The counter was warped, and bowed in the middle like a pregnant woman. At one end, two elderly locals tottered on stools with uneven legs, while Wanjohi himself fought a losing battle against a swarm of horseflies.
The bar owner was a big man with skin the color of bituminous coal. He wore a loose, collarless print shirt and he smelled faintly of bhang, Ngambo's version of marijuana. As Kuryakin eased himself onto a stool next to the counter, Wanjohi asked the blond agent in Swahili what he wanted to drink .
"Just give him a beer," Kesia cut in. Whispering, she added, "Wanjohi, I must speak with you, privately."
The big man filled a glass with a cloudy, straw-colored lager, set it down on the splintered countertop. Then he followed Kesia into the rear storeroom, ducking behind a tattered curtain. Kuryakin hunched over the lip of the counter, straining to listen, but the curtain was heavier than it looked. He could hear voices, but no distinct words. They sounded as if they were quarreling, Kesia's silvery murmurs vying with Wanjohi's baritone grunts.
The argument, if there was one, didn't last long. Before Kuryakin could finish his glass of beer, the curtain swished aside and Kesia reappeared. There was a rolled, brown paper sack tucked under her arm. It looked as if it contained candles.
"Let's go," she said, and locked her free arm around Kuryakin's. She hurried him from the bar, before he could pay for the beer. Outside, they quickly climbed into the Land Rover.
"What was that all about?" Kuryakin asked Kesia.
"Nothing. Just drive."
Very well, the agent thought. But on the way home, I'll have a few questions to ask.
Surprisingly, the ignition caught on the first try. He threw the transmission into gear, and took his time pulling away, hoping not to attract too much attention. No one loitered outside the bar, but across the street, at the general store, Colonel Daniel Nyoka, the army commander of the district, pushed open the crooked screen door to watch them go.
He had a few questions to ask, too.
Like all Russians, Illya Kuryakin firmly believed in the restorative powers of steam heat. He was always dragging his partner to a Finnish-style sauna, particularly after rough assignments. Solo found the trips pleasant, but unnecessary. He already knew two very simple ways to relax.
One of them was a warm bath.
So, it was almost as if Victoria Haywood had read Solo's mind when she led him back to her tent that afternoon, to offer him the loan of her one secret luxury: a steel washtub. After almost a week of making due with improvised bucket showers, Solo thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
Left alone in the tent, he wasted no time peeling off clothes that were saturated to the seams with dried mud and sweat. He lowered himself into the tub, leaned his head back against the rim and exhaled a deep sigh of pleasure. The water had been boiled hours earlier to destroy any parasites, but the warmth still lingered, seeping into his pores and soothing his aching muscles. He closed his eyes and floated, buoyant and peaceful. An hour or so of this, he thought, and he might just feel human again.
"You forgot the soap," a voice called out, breaking the silence.
He'd heard her coming a split-second before the tent flaps parted, but by then, it was too late to do anything about it. A fresh white bar of soap plopped into the water, between his knees. Solo opened one eye and saw Victoria Haywood standing above him, holding an unlabeled green bottle in each hand.
"Want some bootleg beer?" she asked, smiling smugly, watching for any telltale signs of embarrassment. He wasn't about to give her the satisfaction. Somehow, he managed to resist the temptation to reach for a washcloth and remained perfectly still in the water.
"Sure," he replied evenly. Victoria handed him one of the bottles. The beer was tangy but not too bitter, and packed an agreeable kick.
"Ah --- don't you know it can be dangerous, surprising a man like this?" Solo said, between mouthfuls. She couldn't know how dangerous. At another time, in another place, with his U.N.C.L.E. Special close at hand, he might have accidentally shot her.
Victoria, however, was unconcerned. "I thought we were friends."
"We are ---."
"Good. Then you won't mind if I join you."
Before he could respond, she set down her beer bottle and began to unbutton her chambray shirt. She didn't turn away, but faced him, head-on, daring him to watch her. Solo took the dare. The shirt fell away, then her bra. Then her shorts came unzipped, dropped to her ankles, and were kicked away. He sloshed back against the side of the tub and made room for her as she settled in at the opposite end.
"There's a drought, remember," she reminded him. "We have to save water whenever we can."
"Oh, no problem. I'm all for conservation." Solo cleared his throat and took another healthy swig of beer. Right now, he really needed it.
What the hell was going on here --- besides the obvious? he wondered. Come to think of it, Kesia had been unusually eager for Illya's company. To what end? A game of girls against the boys? Divide and conquer?
"Dear Lord, what happened to you?" Victoria exclaimed, studying his collection of scars. This was the first time she'd seen him without a shirt.
"They sent me to South America before this. I was caught in a war."
"Several wars, I would imagine." She pointed to a St. Christopher medal that hung from a chain around his neck. "I didn't think you were religious."
"I'm not. It was a gift from a friend, a missionary nun." He didn't say how good a friend Sister Eugenia had become during the months of their correspondence after the San Cristoval affair. Nor did he bother to mention the letter that was waiting for him when he returned from his recent stay at the Swiss clinic, informing him of the nun's death in a hospital fire.
Nevertheless, Victoria searched his eyes and saw that he was telling her the truth. Maybe she was wrong after all, she told herself. If he really knew a nun in South America, maybe everything else about him was true, too. "I met a missionary, once," Victoria remarked. "A priest. He'd been imprisoned and tortured. He had scars on his wrists, just like yours."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather not talk about it."
The shortness of his reply caught her unprepared. While she mentally regrouped, mumbling sincere apologies, Solo seized the advantage. Unexpectedly, his face broke into an easy smile. "Actually, I'd rather talk about you."
"You've probably guessed most of my story already. It's practically a cliché," she sighed. "Ever hear of Clinton Haywood ---?"
"Of United Oil?"
" --- Among others. That's my father. He sits on the board of directors of at least a dozen corporations, most of them Fortune 500, and he's a major stockholder in a dozen more. When I was a kid, the blue-chip fairy left me a share or two whenever I lost a tooth."
She reached down for the beer bottle waiting beside the tub. After a long, thoughtful swallow, she said, "Daddy didn't have any sons, and he didn't want his eldest daughter to be a debutante. He had no use for a debutante. What he needed was an engineer, who could work side by side with him, building empires."
"So what happened?" Solo asked. Victoria shrugged and took another sip.
"I fell in with the wrong crowd at Radcliffe --- or developed a political conscience, depending on your point of view. I met Kesia there, too. We pledged the same sorority. By the way, Kesia's mother grew up in this village, but her father is an American, a doctor. He came here for the World Health Organization. Her mother worked with him as a nurse. They live in New York City these days.
"Anyway, Kesia and I shared a dorm room for four years and a cold water flat for two, not to mention fourteen months out here in the bush. When you live with someone that long, you grow to either love them or hate them. She's closer to me than my own sisters. So, to make a long story short, I ended up here, digging irrigation ditches, instead of designing refineries and hydroelectric plants."
"And how does your father feel about that?" Solo asked, anticipating the answer.
"Oh, I'm afraid I'm a real disappointment to him. To all the family, in fact. 'Pariah' would be too charitable a term to describe my current status."
Finishing her beer, she replaced the empty bottle on the ground. "Funny thing: even though I hate my father, I still can't help but admire him. His strength, his dogged determination. He's never afraid, never discouraged. When he wants something, he does everything he can to get it. In some ways, he's a lot like you."
"Me?" Solo said.
"Uh-huh. A man who always rises to the occasion." Slouching down below the waterline, she trolled for the bar of soap, her playful pout inviting him to help. Solo wasn't interested.
"You'll have to excuse me," he said flatly, "but I prefer to choose my own occasions. Thanks for the beer."
And with that, he climbed out of the tub.
Kuryakin found his partner sometime later, dressed in clean clothes, damp hair brushed back, rummaging through the supply tent. "Have you seen the powdered milk?" Solo asked irritably. "We bought three cases the other day. Now, where the hell are they?"
"Not here, I'll wager. Victoria probably gave them to the village women, to feed the children."
"I just wanted enough for one cup of coffee," Solo said, collapsing against a packing case in defeat. Kuryakin sat down on a crate of tools next to him and held up an unlabeled green bottle.
"How about a beer, instead?"
"No, thanks. I had one."
"I never had the chance to finish mine." Kuryakin searched briefly for an opener and couldn't find one. As Solo watched, he hooked the bottle against the edge of a crate and knocked off the cap.
"Find out anything in town about our friends, the rebels?" the American agent asked.
"Kesia calls them 'freedom fighters'."
Solo cocked an interested eyebrow. Between sips of warm beer, Kuryakin told him about the ride into town, the soldiers, the bar and the dynamite. In return, Solo told him about Vicky and their conversation in the tub.
"Sounds as if you had a better time of it than I did," the Russian agent observed, without sarcasm. "Kesia wouldn't answer any of my questions on the way home."
Solo shook his head. "The girls are more involved in this thing than they're admitting. They're the key to this mission, Illya, I know ---."
His voice dropped off in mid-sentence as he paused to listen. Somewhere, in the distance, a woman was screaming. Then, several more women screaming.
The agents exchanged puzzled glances. Without a word, they left the tent, the question still hanging silent between them. Outside, Victoria rushed past, gripping an old Remington hunting rifle with both hands.
"What's going on?" Solo called out. She answered without breaking stride.
"Trouble --- in the village."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Don't know yet."
Solo raced off in pursuit of Victoria, while Kuryakin headed in the opposite direction, back to the other tent, where their U.N.C.L.E. Specials lay waiting, at the bottom of their suitcases.
Victoria continued to run toward the village, her long legs carrying her across the sun-scorched fields so quickly, that it took Solo a minute or two to catch up with her. As they neared the first outlying ring of houses, she abruptly slowed from full-gallop to a loping trot.
"Oh no," Victoria whispered under her breath, "soldiers!" She gestured with the rifle.
The village was in chaos. Women were darting between the houses, screaming, sobbing, dragging older children after them or cradling howling babes in their arms. Intermingled with the cacophony of female voices were deeper shouts and grunts, and every so often, Solo could make out the silhouette of a male body, the thrust of a rifle barrel, or the flash of a maroon and grey uniform.
"They're searching for something," the agent said, discerning a pattern. "What could they possibly want here?"
"Kesia," Victoria gasped, supplying the answer. Several yards away, a soldier in a peaked cap and colonel's uniform was dragging the girl from her grandmother's house.
"Where! Where is he?" the soldier shouted, as he pulled Kesia into the common space between the houses. "Where is Simba?"
"I don't know! I don't know!" she wailed back at him.
Murimi appeared behind them and pounded her withered fists against the soldier's shoulder blades, but he smacked the old woman away easily, as one might swat away an insect. Murimi stumbled and fell to the ground, dazed, but the man in the colonel's uniform never noticed. He turned his attention back to Kesia, yanking her close, imprisoning both of her small hands in one of his.
"You are lying! I know of the dynamite."
"I told you! It was for the project!"
"Mwongo! Liar! Kahaba! Whore! Traitorous bitch!"
He screamed the accusations at her, alternating between English and Swahili, punctuating each one with a solid, flat-handed slap to the face. Solo and Victoria arrived just in time to witness the beating in progress. Barely able to contain his anger, the agent pointed to Victoria's rifle and asked, "Do you know how to use that thing?"
"Sure, but I hope you're not expecting me to open fire on government troops. They'd execute the whole village out of hand."
"Just cover me," he replied, and as Victoria watched, she saw his body tense and tighten, coiling like a spring. The man she knew as Nicholas Stone seemed to be changing, mutating into someone else ---something else --- before her very eyes.
It's like watching Clark Kent transform into Superman she thought to herself, as an image flickered, half-formed, through her mind.
Or, maybe Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.
"But that's Colonel Nyoka!" she cried, finding her voice as she realized what the agent intended to do. "He's the commander of the entire district!"
Solo didn't seem to hear, or if he did, it didn't matter. He was on Nyoka before Victoria finished the warning. His left hand caught the colonel's wrist in mid-swing, immobilizing it. Startled, Nyoka twisted to meet his attacker and Solo noticed the thin, pale scar that ran down the left side of the colonel's face, bisecting a milky, sightless pupil. As Nyoka tilted his head, Solo realized the colonel was blind in one eye. Then the agent hit him, a good, solid right cross to the jaw.
Nyoka staggered backwards, momentarily stunned by the impact. Kesia screamed and tore herself from his grasp. Nyoka's hand flailed wildly after her, but she angled away, out of reach, and retreated to where her grandmother was still sitting on the ground, nursing her head.
It took Nyoka a few seconds to recover. Solo circled, keeping his distance. From behind Murimi's house, two soldiers suddenly appeared, rifles ready.
"No! Don't shoot!" Nyoka croaked. He wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth and glared at Solo, favoring the agent with his good eye. "Leave this dog to me."
Solo backpedaled cautiously, relaxed but ready, inviting the colonel to make the next move. They were almost evenly matched in size and weight.
Nyoka accepted the invitation. Launching himself at his opponent, he charged into a headlong tackle. But Solo was quicker. He neatly sidestepped the colonel, closed his fists together and clipped Nyoka along the side of the head as the latter rushed past. The colonel was down before he knew what hit him.
Three more soldiers joined the pair watching the fight. For one of them, the sight of the colonel scrabbling around on his belly in the dust was just too much to take. Despite Nyoka's orders, the soldier started to raise his M-16, but as he did, an authoritative, well-placed shot sprayed dirt along the edge of his boot. The young man froze.
Nearby, Victoria, spun on her heel to see Kuryakin. Like Solo, he, too, had changed. The shy, intellectual Joseph Kurowsky was gone, replaced by a grimly professional gunman. There was an expression of cold determination on his face and a black, spidery-shaped scoped rifle in his hand. The muzzle was pointed directly at the soldier.
"You heard your commander," the Russian said. As he raised his voice to address the others, the tone remained flat and dispassionate. "The next man who puts a hand to his weapon, loses the hand."
Victoria glanced over to Kesia, but her African friend was too occupied tending Murmimi to notice. Feeling oddly shaken, Victoria hefted her Remington and turned back to the fight.
Once again, Nyoka was on his feet and on the offensive, and once again, Solo hung back. The agent appeared wary but unruffled, moving easily, confidently, as if he knew he couldn't lose.
Nyoka attacked, fists furiously flying. He landed two good punches, one to Solo's eye and one to his shoulder, before the agent could retaliate. Encouraged, Nyoka moved in closer. It was a mistake. Solo regained his balance just in time to block a third swing and the blow landed wide.
Now the agent had the advantage and he used it to finish Nyoka off. Solo rammed his knee hard into Nyoka's stomach, and as the colonel jackknifed forward, the agent drove his elbow hard and deep into Nyoka's back, knocking the wind out of him. Before Nyoka could take another breath, Solo aimed a foot toward the colonel's knee and kicked it out from under him. Nyoka went down for a third and last time.
"Show's over, gentlemen," Solo announced as he stepped away from his groaning opponent. He caught the extra U.N.C.L.E. Special Kuryakin threw to him, and waved it at the soldiers. "Kindly drop your rifles and get the hell out of here. And take your colonel with you."
In the background, Kuryakin and Victoria cocked their own guns for emphasis.
"Do you understand English?" Solo growled. The soldiers put down their M-16's to demonstrate that they did.
"All right. Now, get out! All of you. Toka!"
The soldiers stirred, muttering in Swahili among themselves. Two of them offered assistance to Nyoka, who was struggling painfully to his feet. The colonel pushed them away. He studied Kuryakin's fully assembled U.N.C.L.E. Special and said, "When they told me you were coming, I knew it was a mistake. And I was right. One should never trust spies."
Victoria stiffened even as she remembered to keep her rifle barrel level. "Spies? What are you talking about? They're helping with the irrigation project. They're working for me."
Nyoka rubbed the back of his neck and laughed humorlessly. "They may be helping you, Bibi, but they're working for someone else." Victoria didn't bother to argue the point. She'd come to the same conclusion herself, already. "No doubt the president will be interested to learn that you have joined the insurgency," Nyoka said again, to Kuryakin.
"This has nothing to do with politics," Solo cut in. "I believe an attack on women and children is a cowardly act, even in war." Nyoka wheeled and fixed the senior agent with his good eye.
"And now you have begun your own war," he hissed. "I know who you are, Solo --- and I will remember you. Believe that."
Then the colonel grunted an order to his men and hobbled away, leading them back to a pair of jeeps, parked just outside the entrance to the village. As the jeeps roared off toward the setting sun, groups of women began to materialize, with frightened children cowering in their arms or clinging to their skirts. Victoria could almost hear the village heave a collective sigh of relief, but she couldn't share in it. The anger was boiling so high in her throat, she could taste it.
"So, just who are you working for, Mr. Stone? Or whatever your name is ---.
"The name is Solo," the agent replied wearily. "Napoleon Solo." He gestured toward his partner. "And this is Illya Kuryakin. We're agents for the ---."
"CIA!" she exclaimed, cutting him off.
"No. Now, just wait a minute and listen ---."
But Victoria was through listening. She slapped the stock of the Remington against her thigh in disgust, talking aloud to herself. "Christ, a spook! I knew it. I just knew it!"
"And what does that make Illya?" Solo retorted. "KGB?"
"Why don't you tell me? I'll bet his parents didn't come through Ellis Island."
"You're Russian?" Kesia asked, turning to Kuryakin. She was standing beside Murimi, lending the old woman an arm for support.
"Yes," the agent replied, glad to end the charade. "I'm sorry we were forced to deceive you."
But Kesia didn't seem sorry at all. She stared at him, fascinated.
"We work for U.N.C.L.E.", Kuryakin continued, as Victoria railed at his partner in the background. "We were sent here to find James Simba." "Find? You mean capture him, don't you?" Victoria shouted, redirecting her wrath toward the Russian. Kuryakin shifted uncomfortably.
"It's true that several nations have issued warrants for his arrest ---."
"But he's not a criminal, he's a patriot," Kesia said. Her voice was soft, imploring Kuryakin to understand.
"Then he should prove it by not acting like a criminal," Solo said, as he joined the others. "He should come forward and make his case. If U.N.C.L.E. listens, so will the world." He placed a hand gently on Kesia's arm. "We must find James Simba before the situation gets any worse. Colonel Nyoka seemed to think you know where he is."
"I should," the young woman said, hesitantly.
"Don't ---," Victoria warned her.
"After all, I'm his fiance."
"Kesia, no!" Victoria cried, but it was too late. The agents looked at one another.
"We have to talk," Solo said.
Some time passed before they could. Still aching from being knocked about herself, Murimi inspected the others for injuries. Kesia reassured her grandmother that she was unhurt, but when Solo tried to do the same, Murimi protested vigorously.
"She wants to treat your eye," Kesia told the agent, translating the old woman's stream of words. "And you are bleeding."
Solo's hand automatically touched the gash above his eyebrow where Nyoka's fist had connected. "It's nothing. Tell her I'm okay," he said, even though he knew the eye was beginning to swell and purple.
Murimi remained unconvinced. She continued to insist, and because he was too tired to fight yet another battle, Solo relented. He followed the old woman back to her house and sat patiently while she mumbled consolations and cleaned the eye with a damp rag dipped in some vile smelling salve.
"Mtu mzuri . . . good man," she declared, patting his shoulder, when she was finished. And then she added pointedly, "Simba good man, too."
It was dark by the time Solo finally trudged his way back to camp, navigating through the African night by the glow of the far-off lanterns. Outside the women's tent, he stopped for a moment and listened to the conversation going on within.
He heard Illya's voice, calm and measured as always, delivering the usual spiel about U.N.C.L.E. For once, the Russian seemed to be doing just fine, even enjoying it. He heard Victoria's, sounding less sharp and indignant, more reasonable, even conciliatory.
However, it was Kesia's voice that interested him the most. Evidently, she hadn't yet revealed James Simba's whereabouts, but Solo guessed it was only a matter of time before she did. He could hear it coming. There was something in her responses to Illya --- what was it? Growing admiration? Affection? Something indefinable.
Solo considered joining them, then decided against it. He was too sore, too worn out, and his eye hurt like hell. He had no particular desire to tangle with Victoria again and besides, Illya was going great guns without him. So, he kept moving, and retired to his own tent.
Two hours later, Victoria ducked into the men's tent in search of Solo. She found him still awake, lying on his back on the cot. The glowing tip of his Marlboro flitted in the shadows, like a firefly trapped in the mosquito netting. He was still dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, as if he was expecting her. Victoria turned up the light in her lantern and held it aloft.
"Be careful with that cigarette," she said, with a nervous laugh. "Murimi's salve may be flammable."
"Is that what you came in here to tell me?" Solo asked, not bothering to otherwise acknowledge her presence. Victoria shook her head and her voice turned serious.
"No. I'm here to apologize. Your partner has been explaining who you are and what you're doing here. I realize now that I was very unfair to you earlier. I hope you'll forgive me."
Solo seemed too preoccupied to offer a reply. Instead, he asked, "Does Ndogo know about Kesia's relationship to Simba?"
Victoria shrugged. "He must. The whole district knows, including Colonel Nyoka. I'm sure the information was passed along."
And so the fat little bastard just happens to send us here, to work undercover, Solo told himself. How convenient. It was just as Waverly had taught him: never trust coincidence. The agent pressed on.
"Tell me, Vicky, when Ndogo approved your irrigation project, did he know about you? Who you are? Who your father is?"
"And does your father know where you are? What you're doing?"
Victoria frowned, obviously uncomfortable with this line of questioning. She almost spit out the answers. "I send postcards; write letters. He never answers them." She took a deep breath. "I told you before: I hate my father. And he hates me."
"Nevertheless, your connection to Clinton Haywood --- and more specifically, United Oil --- is the reason Ndogo allows you to play the great white goddess. Just as your friendship with Kesia protects her, and the two of you protect this village."
All very neat, Solo thought. Like carefully positioned chessmen safeguarding one another.
He took a long drag on his cigarette, then chuckled ruefully. "I don't know who's using who, but it's a very cozy arrangement."
On the other hand, considering the status quo, Nyoka's rampage earlier that evening didn't quite make sense. The colonel knew about the girl. He claimed to know about the agents. And yet, when Nyoka saw Kesia and Illya with the dynamite, he immediately assumed they were collaborating. Why? A simple overreaction? Or was there more to it than that?
"Does someone necessarily have to be using someone else?" Victoria protested indignantly, interrupting his train of thought. "I think you've been in the spy business too long. It's warped you, made you cynical. That's why you won't go to bed with me. There's nothing to gain from it."
"Maybe," Solo conceded. "And maybe I just don't want to be another piece in your private Tinkertoy set." He finished his cigarette and stubbed it out against the metal frame of the cot.
Victoria watched him, feeling alternately annoyed and chastened. She didn't want it to be like this. Despite all the deception --- or perhaps, because of it --- she felt intensely attracted to him. Now that the truth was out, couldn't they at least become friends?
"Kesia and that partner of yours are still talking," Victoria said, swallowing her pride. It went down like a lump of indigestible porridge. "I think they're going to debate Marx and Engels all night." She pointed to Kuryakin's empty cot. "Do you mind if I sleep here?"
Solo turned over on his side. "Suit yourself," he said, carelessly, his back to her. "It's your tent."
Truth and Consequences
If it wasn't the rudest awakening Napoleon Solo had ever endured, it was certainly high on the list. Long accustomed to sleeping on a hairpin trigger, he'd been roused instantly by the first, faint stirrings in the tent. But then, remembering the events of the night before, he relaxed, assuming it was his partner.
"Illya?" Solo muttered, wondering what time it was. He couldn't tell. The tent canvas was too heavy to let in much light. Dropping an arm along the side of the cot, he groped for his wristwatch, resting on the floor nearby.
The intruders, however, thought the agent was reaching for a weapon and they were taking no chances. There was, in fact, a gun stuffed under his pillow, and that is exactly where his hand went next, when his sixth sense caught their rush of movement in the background.
But just as Solo's fingertips brushed against the edge of the thin mattress, someone landed heavily on his back and straddled him, pinning him face down on the cot. A muscular knee dug into his spine while a pair of hands held his head rigid, pressing his face to the pillow.
Solo arched and squirmed in an effort to throw his attacker off-balance, but it was no use. More hands materialized. They seized his legs. They yanked his arms backwards, lashing his wrists together tightly with splintery sisal ropes. They threaded a length of rag around his head and over his face, covering his eyes.
"Understand your situation, Bwana," the man on top of him said, after the blindfold was in place. The voice spoke in English, but with a halting, local accent. "We wish you to come with us. We would prefer if you walked, but if you continue to resist, we will be forced to bind your ankles as well. Then, we will push a pole through your hands and feet and we will carry you that way. It will not be pleasant."
Solo didn't doubt it, and since he had no desire to be transported like a hunting trophy, he ceased in his struggles. If they'd intended to kill him, he reasoned, they would have done so, already.
"Do you agree to cooperate?" the voice asked again, and Solo grunted affirmatively, into the pillow. The hands --- the agent counted at least three pairs --- jerked him roughly into a sitting position and slipped on his boots. Solo wondered if they'd have dressed him, too, if he hadn't fallen asleep in his shirt and shorts the night before, but he decided not to ask. In the next moment, he was pulled to his feet and shoved through the door of the tent.
Outside, Solo heard more voices and sensed the movement of more men. They were all soldiers, judging by their manner and the sulfurous reek of gunpowder that clung to their sweaty clothing. From overhead, hazy sunlight seeped through the weave of Solo's blindfold while nearby, feet shuffled in the dust. Solo recognized a familiar snort and called out, "Illya?"
"I'm here, Napoleon ---."
The order came from the same man who'd jumped Solo moments before. Obviously, he was the leader of the group. Behind his own blindfold, Kuryakin reluctantly closed his mouth. A woman pleaded, "Don't hurt them," softly in the distance. It sounded like Victoria.
Kuryakin strained to pick out Kesia's voice too, but he couldn't. Earlier that morning, just before he'd fallen asleep on Victoria's cot around dawn, Kuryakin had heard the girl slip out of the tent. Apparently, she still hadn't returned.
In response to another order, the milling troops lined up, single file, spacing Solo and Illya alternately between them. Then the leader barked, "Twende!" --- let's go --- and they did.
Surprisingly, they weren't met by any jeeps, but continued to walk all the way. Kuryakin desperately wanted to tell his partner what he suspected --- that these were rebel and not government troops --- but there was no opportunity. It didn't matter. By the time they'd hiked two hours, Solo had come to the same conclusion.
During the third hour, the air turned cooler, the surrounding vegetation grew thicker, and the land began to rise under their feet. Separately, the agents realized that they were heading into the mountains.
Near the end of the fourth hour, the terrain became extremely rugged and the soldiers were forced to prop the bound and blindfolded agents between them. As he stumbled painfully up a steep, rocky incline, dragged along by strong, impatient hands, Solo almost wished he'd chosen to be carried, instead.
The trek ended a short while later, deep in the central highlands of Ngambo. From the sounds and smells around them, Solo guessed they were in a rebel base. The time was probably somewhere around noon.
"Simama!" --- stop!--- the group leader said, and the agents obeyed. He circled them and tore the blindfolds from their eyes. Solo blinked to clear his vision, and beside him, Kuryakin did the same. Still bound, Kuryakin teetered off-balance, and bumped against his partner.
"Oh, please! Untie them, please," cried an approaching voice. It was Kesia, who was now dressed in khaki fatigues with a heavy, cartridge-filled bandoleer slung over one shoulder.
"Is that some kind of radical fashion statement?" Solo muttered dryly as the young woman joined them.
"I'm sorry, about all this, Napoleon, but my fiance is a careful man." Her slender fingers set to work, tugging at Kuryakin's knots.
"Leave them!" an unfamiliar male voice called out. "Search them first."
"But they can't possibly be armed."
"You don't know the U.N.C.L.E. like I do, girl. Their spies always carry devices."
Two soldiers appeared and elbowed Kesia aside. A quick pat-down revealed only a communicator pen in the right pocket of Solo's shorts, which was immediately confiscated. Satisfied, the soldiers sawed through the ropes with commando knives and set the agents free.
As Solo massaged the circulation back into his wrists, he watched Kesia retreat to a small cluster of soldiers. Like her, they were dressed in the green and brown camouflaged fatigues of the rebel forces. The man in the center of the group was taller than the others. He was lean and broad-shouldered, with piercing black eyes and a cleanly handsome face. It was a face that drew the eye and held it, the rare sort of face that might be equally comfortable on a movie screen or a campaign poster.
"James Simba, I presume," Solo said.
Simba grinned. He was young, not more than twenty-five years old and probably less. The grin made him appear even more boyish. He swaggered between the agents, inspecting them.
"You must be the one who defeated Colonel Nyoka," Simba declared, noting Solo's discolored eye. Silently, he measured himself against the agent, then added, "Did you see the scar on his face? It was I who put it there."
He confronted Kuryakin. "And you must be the one who quotes President Kennedy and Chairman Mao."
The Russian agent declined to answer. He seemed more interested in picking out the sisal splinters imbedded in his hands. Annoyed, Simba turned back to Solo again.
"You see? I know a great deal about the both of you."
"Good," Solo said. "That makes us even."
Simba glanced back at his fellow soldiers, bristling with assault rifles and ammunition belts, and smiled broadly. "Is that so? Well now, Bwana Solo, exactly what do you know about me?"
"Oh, quite a number of things." The agent paced slowly, surveying his surroundings through the corner of his eye. Although the trees and foliage hid most of the base, it looked and sounded like an awfully big one.
"For example, we know that your real name is Musa bin Kimane and that your father was an illiterate farmer. We know that you and your older brother, John, were baptized by Christian missionaries and that you quit their school before completing the eighth grade. Should I go on?"
"Please," Simba said, his grin fading. Solo obliged.
"Your brother founded Ngambo's liberation front in 1965. Two years ago, you both were arrested and held at an Army detention center. John died there, shortly before you escaped. Your brother was a firm believer in passive resistance, but you seem to have turned his movement into an excuse for terrorism."
"Ndogo is the real terrorist," Simba protested sullenly. "It is he who acts outside the law. But now, finally, his corrupt regime is ready to fall. I need only to say the word."
"You may never get the chance," Solo retorted. "Nine nations, four of them major powers, are determined to put you on trial for crimes against their citizens."
"Those were not crimes. We are in a legitimate state of war."
"Did you consider the Soviet ambassador's wife and children combatants when you blew them up?"
Simba shook his head, disgustedly. "Of course not. Those deaths were not intended."
"And what about the busload of schoolchildren?"
"That was also a regrettable accident."
Solo snorted, unconvinced. "You'll forgive me, Mr. Simba, but you seem to be unusually prone to accidents."
"And you may suffer an accident, yourself, if you continue to speak so recklessly. I do not fear you, Bwana Solo. Not you, not your organization. Why, I could ---."
" --- James!" Kesia cautioned him from the background. Simba took a deep breath. He studied the ground for a moment, then rejoined his rebel companions. Draping an arm around the girl's shoulder, he drew her close to him.
"It is because of my Kesia that you are here, but since I trust her judgment with my life, I shall now confide in you a great secret."
Simba shifted his attention to Kuryakin. "She told me why you went to town yesterday, but your timing was unfortunate. Wanjohi had just returned with a shipment of explosives. Your visit alerted Colonel Nyoka. He arrested Wanjohi and confiscated the shipment. No matter. We shall do without it. In less than forty eight hours, we plan to launch a major offensive."
"Against what?" Solo asked.
Simba hesitated before answering. "For weeks, we have planted rumors that our target will be Port Salama on the coast. As you may know, it is a rich city, the country's largest, and there are many foreign businesses there. If Wanjohi is forced to talk under interrogation, he will confirm the rumors."
"But you're going after Pembe, aren't you?"
"Correct. So, I will make you a bargain."
"What sort of bargain?"
"You will grant me my forty-eight hours. In return, I will allow you to accompany me. If the revolution succeeds, you may decide to abandon your mission. If it fails, I will return with you voluntarily, for there will no longer be a reason for me to live."
"But you don't believe it can fail," said Kuryakin, suddenly. "You expect the people to rise up and support you."
"Ah, so you do have a tongue!" Simba exclaimed. He folded his muscular arms and drifted back toward the agents. "No, Bwana Kuryakin, it will not fail, and if you come with me, you will see it all for yourself. On the day after tomorrow, when we enter the capital, the regular army will throw down their weapons and the people will welcome us with open arms."
Then, more soberly, he added, "Kesia tells me that you are honorable men, but I warn you: if you betray my plans to the authorities, or try to stop me later, I will kill you."
"And if we don't agree to your offer, you'll simply kill us now," Solo said, prompting Simba laugh.
"You are correct again, Bwana Solo." He gave the agent a congenial slap on the back. "You have the instincts of a revolutionist, after all!"
He turned to Kuryakin, who was deep in thought.
"So? What is your decision?" Simba inclined his head toward the agent. "If you truly believe the things you told my Kesia last night, you know in your heart you want me to win."
Kuryakin considered for a moment. He thought of Nyoka and his men in the village. Ndogo crushing the tembo beetle underfoot. The starving children he'd seen lined up along the roads. Those damn roses in the garden of the presidential palace.
Simba was right. Despite the young rebel's strutting arrogance, Kuryakin did want him to win. He couldn't help it. Back in the Soviet Union, the Marxist dream of a fair and decent society was little more than a hollow shell, corroded from the inside by years of rigid bureaucracy, stupidity, and corruption wrought by simple human greed.
But here in Ngambo, it was 1917 all over again, and a part of Kuryakin, the part that still stirred whenever he heard the opening strains of the Internationale, wanted very much to see it happen.
"I don't think we have a choice," the agent said. He sounded matter-of-fact, but when he looked at his partner, he saw Solo read his mind. And he knew that Napoleon knew what he was thinking.
"It seems you have a deal, Mr. Simba," Solo said grudgingly, without taking his eyes off Kuryakin. Then he looked away, and didn't speak another word again for the rest of the afternoon, even during the long walk back to the village.
"What if he won't come with us?" Kesia asked nervously as she watched Kuryakin stuff the last of his things into a knapsack.
"Then I'll leave without him."
"Can you do that?"
The Russian agent frowned. He buckled the straps of the knapsack and tossed it on the cot. "Technically, he's my superior, but Napoleon has never pulled rank before. I doubt he will now."
"We must be gone before nightfall. The mountains are dangerous in the dark."
"I know," Kuryakin assured her. He parted the tent flaps and stood between them. Outside, the animals of the savannah were awake and actively pursuing their evening meal. A lion roared. A flock of sparrows chittered noisily in a scrawny thornbush. Several grey baboons squabbled over a piece of fruit in the gnarled branches of the baobab tree. And in the distance, nearer the river, came the steady cadence of metal scraping against dry, hard-packed soil.
"Just give me a couple of minutes with him," Kuryakin said and left the tent. He found Solo knee-deep in a freshly excavated irrigation trench. The oil lamps were lit, strung on wires like Chinese lanterns, and they looked strangely festive against the dusky rose of the African sky.
"Are you going to call Waverly?" Kuryakin asked, watching Solo work.
"I can't. Simba still has my communicator."
"Take mine, then." The pen flew past Solo's shoulder like a small, silver missile and landed with a plop in the ditch. Silently, Solo bent down and scooped the pen up. Dropping it into his shirt pocket, he returned to his digging.
"Of course, we don't have to call," Kuryakin said softly, squatting down on his haunches. "We've been out of touch for longer periods before. It's not unusual. By the day after tomorrow, it will all be over --- one way or another."
There was no response. Instead, Solo's spade continued with a fiercely mechanical rhythm. He wasn't just breaking ground. He was attacking it. Annoyed, Kuryakin tried again.
"We can't pretend to be blind to the situation here. We owe these people at least that much." The Russian took a breath. "Yesterday, you almost killed Nyoka yourself."
"But I didn't. This isn't our fight, Illya. We can't get involved."
"We're already involved! And we both know that James Simba is the best hope this country has."
"I only know my job is to follow orders."
"Like the Germans did?"
It was a low blow and they both knew it. Solo paused for the briefest of moments, but he offered no reply and kept on working. Kuryakin ran an anxious hand through his blond thatch of hair.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon, that wasn't fair. But dictators succeed when good men stand by and do nothing."
"Don't start reciting political slogans to me!" Solo rasped as he swung a spadeful of soil. He seemed to be digging faster and harder now. Bands of sweat streaked his shirt. "I've heard them all and you know I don't give a goddamn about any of them. That's why I joined U.N.C.L.E. in the first place, and that's what has kept us partners all these years."
Kuryakin straightened. He gazed off, toward the horizon. Already the sun was dipping below the mountains.
"Are you telling me that you're prepared to stop this revolution?" he asked. Now that they'd pinpointed Simba's position, an elite U.N.C.L.E. commando team could take out the rebel leader, dead or alive, within a matter of hours, reducing Ngambo's liberation movement to an historical footnote.
"No," Solo admitted. The pace of the digging slowed. He exhaled heavily. "Look, I don't know what good it will do, but I'll try to explain it all to the Old Man."
"And suppose he doesn't agree? Perhaps he can't. He has other pressures, other considerations --- not to mention a board of directors representing nations with counterbalancing interests here. Or suppose he just doesn't understand? What then? He's not infallible, Napoleon. He's not God."
"Neither are we," Solo said. He resumed his struggle against the rocky soil with renewed determination.
Kuryakin couldn't stand it anymore. Frustrated, he skipped into the trench and grabbed the handle of Solo's spade with both hands, halting its motion.
"Will you cease this infernal digging and discuss this with me?" the Russian cried, standing head to head with his partner. "The entire country is about to explode like a powderkeg! Why are you so interested in this damn ditch, anyway?"
By comparison, when Solo's voice came back, it was almost a whisper. "Because it's real," he said.
The agents stared at one another for a long time. Then, Kuryakin opened his hands and released the spade. Shaking his head in defeat, he climbed out of the trench and left to find Kesia.
Solo kept working until night enveloped the savannah, so dark that even by the light of the lanterns, it was nearly impossible to see. When he returned to the tent, he found Victoria waiting for him.
"You're not angry because you think he's wrong," she told him, not unkindly. Solo tore off his grimy shirt and lobbed it into a corner. "You're angry because you think he's right."
The agent's shoulders sagged. "It was easier in the old days. The bad guys were required to wear black hats."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Sixteen years," he replied and suddenly, it seemed far too long. Gently, Victoria laced her arms around Solo's neck, and this time, he didn't resist. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked sympathetically.
He pulled her close with the same decisiveness, the same deliberate single-mindedness he'd displayed in fighting Nyoka. And just as she had the night before, when she saw him drop his cover, she felt a shiver run up her spine.
He nudged her lips open with his. He kissed her hard and kept on kissing her, as if he were drawing life and breath from her. Their fingers stroked and explored and tugged at each other's clothing. Though they didn't speak, she realized that he was communicating with her, nonetheless --- with his mouth, his hands, his body --- telling her what he couldn't, for whatever reason, put into words.
She was as tall as he was, perhaps even a shade taller, but she suspected that, if he chose to, he could pick her up easily. Instead, he lifted only her thigh and entered her standing up. And as he clung to her, steadying himself against her, she understood that it wasn't just the sex, but the connection, the act of merging, that he sought so desperately.
Quite unexpectedly, Victoria felt deeply moved. How many women had he reached for, in the same way, over the years? she wondered. Hardly a virgin herself, she'd slept with her share of lovers. A teenage gardener. A fellow student. A professor. Two lawyers. Her father's widowed accountant. She thought she knew everything there was to know about what men could offer in bed.
That night, Solo was a revelation.
For the second morning in as many days, Napoleon Solo was awakened by the sounds of arriving soldiers, but this time, he was ready. He heard the whine of the approaching jeeps and knew they were coming for him. There was no use in trying to hide. They'd search the area until they found him.
"Wake up, Vicky," he said to the sleeping woman wedged beside him on the narrow cot. Victoria stirred lazily in his arms. She opened one eye and smiled, but Solo didn't return her smile.
"Put on your clothes and do it fast."
"Please. We don't have much time." The jeeps were getting close. Victoria sat upright and listened, and heard them too. Hurriedly, she scrambled for her clothes, piled at the foot of the cot.
"It's Nyoka, isn't it?" she hissed as her head popped through the neck of her t-shirt. "He's coming back."
Solo slid next to her, already dressed. "Here, take these for safe keeping." He dropped his Special and Illya's communicator into her lap. "All right, get going. Run for the river. And no matter what happens, no matter what you see or hear, don't come back until they leave."
"What if they never leave?"
There was no time for discussion. He forced her down and pushed her out the back of the tent. She wriggled through the space between the canvas and the ground, her bare feet disappearing just as the jeeps pulled up. Solo turned and prepared to meet his visitors.
Colonel Nyoka entered first, wearing a clean, well-pressed uniform and smoking a fat cigar. Two soldiers, brandishing M-16's, followed him in.
"Ah, Colonel, just in time for early tea," the agent greeted him. "It is General now," Nyoka said off-handily. Obviously, he had other matters on his mind. He glanced over at Kuryakin's smooth, still-made cot. "Where is your friend?"
"Who knows? When I woke up, he was gone. He's like that sometimes. Just gets an idea into his head and zoom, away he goes."
Nyoka rolled the cigar between his teeth thoughtfully.
"Is that so?"
The two soldiers moved to flank Solo, pinioning the agent's arms behind him. Outside, more soldiers circled the tent.
"I do not believe you," Nyoka said. "I think your friend is with Simba and I think you know where they are, too." He paused, studying his prisoner. "Tell me they are headed for Pembe."
Solo shrugged. "They're headed for Pembe," he replied flippantly, confident that Nyoka wouldn't believe him. He was right. Without warning, the general swung and struck Solo hard, across the face.
"The most recent man who defied me like that, died for it."
So: Wanjohi was dead. As he shook his head to clear it, Solo wondered what the big bartender had told them before he died. Had Wanjohi broken under interrogation? Had he lied, to corroborate the rumors? Or had he remained silent, to the last? Whatever was said, apparently Nyoka didn't entirely believe it, or the general wouldn't be here now. Solo needed some answers in order to fashion his own.
"Is that what happened to John Simba?" the agent asked, hoping to catch Nyoka off-guard. If he could provoke Nyoka, --- make him angry enough --- the general might make a careless slip.
Instead of being disturbed, however, Nyoka merely laughed. "I did not kill John Simba. His brother, James, did it for me, before he escaped my custody."
When Solo's face went blank, the general laughed again. "I see no one has told you this. I am not surprised. Unpleasant facts are always treated like bastard children. But understand: I am speaking the truth now, because you are a dead man, Solo, and I have no reason to lie to a dead man."
Nyoka leaned in close. Even without the scar and the milky white eye, he was an extremely ugly man. The smoke from his cigar billowed into Solo's face, causing the agent to cough. "Does this information change your mind?" the general asked.
Maybe it should've, Solo thought, but it didn't. He'd lain awake half the night, trying to sort it all out. In the end, he never called headquarters, and when his communicator beeped, sometime during the wee hours of the morning, Solo ignored it, as difficult as that was.
His decision made, Solo offered a thin smile. "Sorry," he said, without regret, then steeled himself, anticipating the blow to come.
The agent was not disappointed. Enraged, Nyoka hit him again, even harder than before, and Solo staggered, tasting blood.
"You are as stubborn as the other troublemakers!" Nyoka growled. "We shall see if you are just as stupid, too."
"Bwana General, should we take him back?" one of the soldiers inquired.
"No, we will question him here." Carefully, almost delicately, Nyoka held his lighted cigar so close to Solo's cheek, the agent felt the heat. "We will improvise."
Solo closed his eyes against the smoke and felt his training kick in. Already, his senses were beginning to shut down; his mind, to automatically withdraw inside itself, like a Kansas farmer retreats to a root cellar when a twister is coming.
"Tie him down," Nyoka ordered his men. "Quickly. We have very little time." As they hustled him back to the cot, Solo fervently hoped that was true.
Somewhere in the central highlands of Ngambo.
It was a good plan, at least on paper. Propped up on one elbow, Illya Kuryakin leaned over the rickety table and studied the large, hand-drawn map of Pembe.
Fifteen hours from now, a crack team of guerrilla saboteurs would set to work, isolating the city --- cutting telephone and telegraph wires, blockading roads and disrupting the single railway line that linked Pembe with Port Salama in the south. Seventeen hours from now, Simba's main force would leave the mountains, heading northwest, toward the capital. At about the same time, a small but highly-trained detachment of rebel soldiers, hiding in the hills of neighboring Ntumba, would cross the border and push southeast. Nineteen hours from now, sometime around dawn, both armies would attack Pembe from opposite directions. If all went well, the two groups would meet in the town square by noon, a block from the presidential palace, effectively dividing the city in half. If all went well. . .
"I've brought you something to eat," Kesia said as she joined Kuryakin, breaking his train of thought. "It's too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. I suppose it's --- what do they call it?"
"Brunch," the Russian agent offered, helpfully.
"That's right. . . brunch."
She passed him a deep-fried triangular pie and a cup of traditionally brewed tea. The pie was filled with vegetables and bits of spicy meat. The tea was strong and heavily sugared.
"I'm afraid the food here isn't much better than in the village," she apologized, "but at least it's nourishing."
"That's all that matters," Kuryakin agreed. He bit off a corner of the pie and motioned toward the map. "Your fianc is quite a strategist. I just hope he's correct in thinking that the regular army will join the revolt."
"They will," Kesia assured him. "The city's military commander, General Barasa, is James' brother-in-law."
"Does President Ndogo know that?"
"Of course. Barasa and Ndogo are cousins." She noted the incredulous expression on Kuryakin's face and grinned. "In a small country such as this, everyone is related to everyone else in one way or another." Then, becoming more serious, she asked, "Do you really think James can succeed?"
Kuryakin shrugged. "There's a chance, as long as Barasa supports him and Nyoka takes the rest of the troops south. Simba must also try to close down the airport as quickly as possible. He couldn't fend off an air attack, however small. And, if a loyalist escapes in a plane or helicopter to warn Nyoka before the rebels control the city, the result would be disastrous."
As the Russian agent continued to contemplate the map, calmly sipping his tea, like a veteran long-experienced in such matters, Kesia watched him, impressed. Her gaze wandered, to the ridge behind him, which offered a panoramic view of the countryside. Above the miles of flat savannah, the sky was still clear, but far to the west, pearl-grey clouds were beginning to gather. In less than a week, the dry season would end.
"If this revolution does succeed," she said quietly, "we will owe it all to you."
Kuryakin tried to dismiss her comment with a wordless flick of the hand, but the girl was adamant. "No, Illya, I'm speaking the truth. I've heard you giving James advice. I know what it cost you to come here. I know how difficult it was to leave Napoleon last night. He is more than just a friend, isn't he?"
"He's my partner," Kuryakin replied simply, as if that explained everything. Nevertheless, Kesia understood.
"We have a word for it in Swahili: chanjiana. It means a blood friendship. As the saying goes: Chanda na kidole --- inseparable as fingers and toes."
Kuryakin offered no response. Kesia changed the subject. "Have you been in the spy business long?"
"We prefer the term 'Intelligence', and the answer is yes, all of my adult life."
Fascinated, Kesia perched on the edge of the table, hugging one knee. "And how does one become a spy --- I mean, an intelligence agent?"
"They recruit you."
"And then what? Do you attend some sort of class or something like that?"
Her questions were asked with such innocence, that they made Kuryakin smile. Amused, he regarded her as he drained the last of the tea. Despite the camouflage fatigues, she looked very pretty today, with her hair braided in neat, beaded cornrows, her dark eyes bright with interest.
"Well, when you join U.N.C.L.E.," he said, lowering his voice ominously, "they send you to a very special training school on a secret island."
"Where is it located?"
"I told you: it's a secret."
"And what do they teach you there?"
"That's a secret, too."
Kesia's mouth puckered with mock indignation. "Oh, really? And when you're on this secret island, learning secret things, where would your wife stay, if you had one?"
"Enforcement agents aren't allowed to marry while they work in the field," Kuryakin replied. "We must be available to leave on a mission at a moment's notice. To go anywhere, do anything, obey any order without question. We take an oath. . ."
He shifted uncomfortably as his voice trailed off, but Kesia didn't notice. "It does sound like the life of the moran," she said. "I beg your pardon?" "The warriors of the Maasai. They're initiated in groups. Afterward, for twenty years, they live together, tending their cattle, defending their villages, hunting game. Only when they become senior members of the tribe are they allowed to take a wife."
Kuryakin shook his head, ruefully. "Twenty years is a long time to remain celibate."
"Oh, they aren't celibate," Kesia replied with a knowing grin. "Just unmarried."
And then catching herself, she paused. What must he think of me to say such things to him? she wondered. If Grandmother were here, she would scold me for being so shameless!
But Kuryakin merely laughed, and the awkward moment passed.
"The courage of the moran is legendary," Kesia said, recovering the thread of the conversation. "They use no poisons in their hunting, as others do. They face the lion alone, with only their shields and spears ---."
"So this is where you are!"
It was Simba. Kesia stiffened. Guiltily, she hopped down from the table edge, putting some space between herself and Kuryakin, but it wasn't necessary. The rebel leader was in exceptionally high spirits, filled with eager anticipation for the battle to come.
"Kesia has been giving me a lesson in your culture," Kuryakin explained. He made an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a yawn.
"And apparently, a very boring one at that," Kesia observed.
"On the contrary, I found it --- enlightening. It's just that I haven't been to bed since yesterday."
"Then you must sleep," Simba urged him. "We have a long fight ahead of us."
The agent nodded. He yawned again and tapped his index finger against the map. "Don't forget what I said about the airport."
"I shall remember."
"Grandmother was right," Kesia said softly, when Kuryakin was gone. "He is moran."
Simba frowned sourly as he rolled up the map. "Don't romanticize, girl. He's only a policeman doing his job."
He glanced over at Kesia. She was still watching Kuryakin pick his way through the trees, back to the main camp.
And Simba saw the fondness in her smile, and read what was in her heart.
Promises to Keep
In her worse nightmares, in the darkest corners of her mind, Victoria Haywood could never have imagined a more terrible twenty minutes. Cradling Solo's gun and communicator protectively against her chest, she lay face down in an irrigation ditch and listened to the sounds coming from the camp.
At first, there was nothing except the movement of the soldiers, checking the immediate area. Victoria kept her head down and her body pressed close to the stony ground. She couldn't tell exactly how many soldiers there were, but she guessed it was a small group. Two remained outside as look-outs. The rest followed Nyoka into the farthest tent. There was silence for a few seconds, and then voices --- Solo's and Nyoka's. Although she couldn't distinguish their individual words, it sounded as if they were having a conversation, but Victoria was not fooled by the deceptively cordial tone.
There was another silence, then more garbled conversation, punctuated by something that sounded like a single clap of hands. Solo's voice was barely a murmur, but Nyoka's grew louder and increasingly tense. A fit of coughing followed. Another round of clapping. A rumble, a clang, a shiver of metal springs, as if someone had tripped over one of the cots. A pause.
Then it started. Nyoka's voice, badgering, bellowing, alternating with Solo's, which retaliated in short bursts, sometimes as a gasp, sometimes, a snarl. The pace of the questions quickened, along with the answers, until Victoria was certain she couldn't stand any more.
And then came a minute of absolute, dead silence that was more dreadful than all the previous shouting. Victoria held her breath, praying for the men to begin again. When they finally did, she almost cried out loud with relief, herself.
The interrogation continued that way, in cycles, like rolls of thunder from an approaching storm. Each time it returned, Nyoka's voice escalated in pitch and intensity, until it rose to something between a shriek and a roar, but it was Napoleon's voice --- growing hoarser, thinner, more constricted, more animal-like --- that frightened Victoria the most.
They're killing him, she thought, as the realization that she was listening to a murder in progress, suddenly hit her. She had to do something, but what?
She remembered Solo's orders: No matter what happens, no matter what you see or hear, don't come back until they leave. All right, then, Victoria told herself, she would find a way to make them leave.
As her fingers closed around the butt of the U.N.C.L.E. Special and found the trigger, a plan formed in her mind. She clawed the tab release and checked the magazine. The clip was full: eight rounds. Snapping it back into place, she scrambled to her knees and peeked over the edge of the irrigation ditch.
A little more than fifty feet away, two soldiers still lounged between the waiting jeeps. They looked bored and unconcerned with what was happening inside the nearby tent.
Gripping the Special with both hands, Victoria braced her wrists against the side of the ditch and aimed in the soldiers' general direction. She didn't really think she could hit anything. The gun felt too heavy and unfamiliar. She only hoped to get their attention.
Her first shot accomplished more than that. It ricocheted against the grill of one of the jeeps, smashing one of the headlights. Her second shot was even better. It caught one of the soldiers in the arm, shattering his elbow. The young man screamed. Victoria crawled along the irrigation trenches for a few yards, stopped, aimed, and fired again.
Inside the tent, General Nyoka paused at the sound of the shots.
"The rebels have returned," one of the soldiers whispered,
anxiously. In the next instant, the uninjured look-out poked his head through the flap to confirm it.
"Muturi has been shot! We are under attack, Bwana General."
Two more shots zinged against the hood of a jeep. "We might be trapped here," the first soldier pointed out. "We should leave quickly."
"Very well," the general agreed. "I have all the information I need."
The soldiers raised his rifle, aiming at the unconscious Solo, but Nyoka pushed the barrel aside. "No. No bullets, no broken bones. This dog is an U.N.C.L.E. agent. There will be questions. His death must appear to be an accident."
"Will this do, Bwana General?" a second soldier asked, holding up a kerosene lantern. Nyoka nodded. His pushed his cigar, now little more than a blackened stub, under the glass, and ignited the wick.
"Farewell, Mr. Solo," Nyoka said, to the agent bound to the cot. He didn't expect a response and he didn't get one. "It seems you have been useful to us, after all."
From her vantage point, hunched down in the irrigation trench, Victoria watched the soldiers climb into their jeeps, three in one vehicle, the fourth behind the wheel of the other. She saw Nyoka emerge from the tent and hurl the lighted lantern to the ground, setting the canvas on fire.
"Oh God, no!" Victoria moaned low in her throat, as she emptied the last of the clip. Urged on by the shots, Nyoka swung into the second jeep, beside his driver, and the two vehicles roared away.
Keeping the tent between herself and the departing soldiers, Victoria threw down the Special and raced across the field, back to the camp. It was a short sprint, but by the time she reached the tent, the front half was nearly engulfed by flames.
Panicking, she almost tripped over a shovel lying on the ground near the supply tent. She fell to one knee and found a pick alongside it. Stumbling to her feet, she hefted the pick and swung it with all her strength, slicing through the back wall of the burning tent. The canvas split apart with a screech and Solo suddenly appeared and fell through the hole. He collapsed, coughing, into her arms. Victoria dropped the pick as she caught the agent. She tried to haul him away from the tent, but he couldn't stand, so she dragged him along, on her knees. In the background, she could hear the shouts of the village woman. Alerted by the fire, they were coming with buckets of water, to douse the flames.
"Oh Lord, Napoleon. What did they do to you?" Victoria exclaimed when they were a safe distance away. He was alive, but it seemed just barely. He was sweaty and gagging, his cheeks streaked with soot, and that wasn't the worst of it. His t-shirt was riddled with a line of selectively-spaced burn holes that ran down his chest and stomach, continuing past the waist of his unzipped shorts. A loosely knotted leather army belt still dangled from his left wrist.
"Nyoka wanted to know which city Simba was going to attack," Solo croaked, between breaths, as he crouched on all fours.
"And what did you tell him?"
"Port Salama, what else?"
She had to wait for an answer. Solo was overcome by another fit of coughing and it took him a minute or two to clear the smoke from his lungs. Victoria tried to steady him, but she withdrew her hand quickly when she touched his armpit and saw him wince.
"Of course I lied," he said, finally, in disgust, as if he couldn't do otherwise.
"But I don't understand. If you weren't going to tell them the truth, why did you let them torture you?"
"I had to make Nyoka believe me." Solo cracked a wan smile. "Do you think I was convincing?"
"A little too convincing if you ask me," Victoria replied soberly. Now that the coughing had subsided, his body began to tremble from the affects of the ordeal. Victoria unknotted the belt from his wrist and felt his hand. It was cold and clammy.
"I'd better find Murimi," she said, as she rose to her feet. Still trembling, Solo rolled painfully on his back. "Do that," he muttered, closing his eyes.
Kesia never thought she would ever meet a stronger, braver man --- a man more worthy of respect --- than James Simba. And yet, here was such a man, sleeping before her, alone in the shadows of a makeshift rebel tent.
Reluctant to disturb the agent, Kesia stood motionless and studied him. Kuryakin was cut from the same cloth as Simba, but he also had other qualities --- kindness, maturity, a serenity that was both worldly and otherworldly --- that her fianc decidedly lacked.
Awake, the Russian agent reminded her of one of those spirits Murimi used to tell her stories about. Fierce, warrior spirits, who traveled the earth riding the four winds, unencumbered by the limitations and obligations of mortal men. Asleep now, his blond hair reflecting the torchlight, he looked ethereal, almost luminous, like the angels in her old mission catechism book.
How would it be to make love with such a man? she wondered. Would his touch be sure? Would his embrace be firm or gentle?
Impulsively, she leaned over the cot to kiss him. But as her breath warmed Kuryakin's cheek, the agent came abruptly awake. He snapped to attention, his right hand snaking under the knapsack that served as his pillow. Kesia yelped in surprise and jumped back a step.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Illya. Forgive me, I didn't mean to startle you. James sent me to fetch you."
"S'all right," Kuryakin muttered, as he relaxed again. Groggily, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "What time is it?"
"After two in the morning. We're almost ready."
Kuryakin nodded to himself. As Kesia watched, he drew his U.N.C.L.E. Special from its hiding place and slipped it into his shoulder holster. Rising from the cot, he took a few seconds to straighten his shirt and run a quick hand through his hair.
"Let's go," he said.
The rest of the surrounding tents were empty. Everyone else was assembled in a nearby clearing. As they made their way through the rebel stronghold, Kesia and Kuryakin could hear James Simba's voice, ringing through the night, exhorting his troops:
. . . They say we are small. Powerless. Insignificant. But remember: the locust is small. The driver ant is small. And yet, a swarm of locusts can devastate a field. A column of driver ants can kill a sick bull and strip the carcass in a single night.
So, comrades, we shall be like the locust; like the driver ant. We are hundreds. Thousands. Millions. We will swarm over Pembe and it will fall before us, like a sick bull before the ants. . .
Reaching the edge of the sprawling crowd, they saw Simba above them, standing on a stack of ammunitions crate, silhouetted by the torchlight. When someone passed the rebel leader a pitcher of water, he jumped down from the crates, and poured the water into the ground.
To my father; my mother; my brother. To your fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. As they spilled their blood for us, so now, I pour a libation to their spirits.
He handed back the pitcher. Then he reached down, grasped a fistful of muddy soil, and pressed it against his chest, over his heart.
And I promise them: this land will be ours again!
As long as we march --- together.
As long as we struggle --- together.
As long as we triumph --- together.
He held the clump of mud aloft and shouted, "Together! Pamoja!" and the crowd took up the chant:
"Pamoja! Pamoja! Pamoja!"
The words were still lingering in the air as Simba finally left his place to join the Kuryakin and Kesia. "There is good news," Simba told them. "Even as we speak, two divisions of the national army are headed for Port Salama."
He produced an assault rifle and a box of shells and offered them to Kuryakin. "Here. You will need these. Real ammunition is better than those darts you carry in your clip."
"You trust me?" the agent asked, suspiciously. Simba grinned.
"The enemy of my enemy is my one true friend."
"Thanks all the same, but I'll stick with my sleep darts. I'm not even supposed to be here, remember?" Simba shrugged in a suit-yourself gesture and shouldered the rifle.
"So Wanjohi persuaded them to turn south, after all," Kuryakin went on.
"No. I have spies in the presidential palace. They tell me that before he died, Wanjohi broke under interrogation. Nyoka was forced to choose between the false rumors and Wanjohi's true confession. It seems he made the wrong choice. "
The Russian agent narrowed his eyes. "That's odd. Do you happen to know Nyoka's last position, before he moved out?"
"Our reports say his army was camped a few miles south of the Tandela River ---."
"Oh no!" Kesia gasped, covering her mouth with one slender hand.
"--- Of course, Nyoka might have gone in either direction. Fortune is with us."
The girl glanced at Kuryakin, who lowered his eyes. "What is wrong?" Simba asked, noting the by-play.
"Nothing," Kuryakin replied, while he thought: I shouldn't have left.
Just then, someone called out to the rebel leader and regretfully, he retreated to oversee the last minute loading of some explosives. As Simba faded away into the milling crowd, Kuryakin quietly slipped a comforting arm around Kesia's shoulder.
"I'm certain Napoleon and Vicky are all right," he lied. Although he couldn't know for sure, Kuryakin suspected that it wasn't Lady Luck who'd redirected Nyoka and his army to the south. Apparently, Solo had finally bought into the revolution.
But at what price?
"And so you pretended to pass out?"
Solo glanced at Victoria and shrugged. "It's an old trick but it still works. When I heard the shots, I thought it might give them even more encouragement to leave, and I was right. I knew I could yank my wrists free of the belt, but I didn't count on the fire. If I may say so, your timing was impeccable."
"Not quite impeccable enough," Victoria sighed as she threaded her arm through the agent's. The support was welcome but unnecessary. Walking between Victoria and Murimi, Solo's steps were slow and awkward, but he seemed to be managing on his own. Behind them, the morning sun still hung low in the sky. Murimi murmured something and Victoria translated.
"She wants to know how the dressings are holding up."
"Tell her they're fine," Solo said. In treating his injuries, they'd used every bandage, every bit of tape and gauze from the camp's three-month supply. "What did she smear on me anyway?"
"It's an antiseptic ointment, made from mineral oil and some kind of ground-up herbs and leaves. They use it after circumcision ceremonies." "How appropriate," Solo chuckled ruefully. He tugged at the leg of his freshly-washed, cotton twill trousers.
"And where did you find these clothes of mine?" The fire had destroyed the entire tent before it was finally brought under control. Everything inside, including the contents of Solo's suitcase, was a total loss.
"In the corner of my tent. You left your pants and shirt behind when you abandoned me in the tub the other day, remember? Grandmother scrubbed them clean in the river for you."
As they reached the Land Rover, Murimi spoke again, shaking her head. "What is she saying now?" the agent asked.
"She thinks you should rest for one more day. She keeps repeating that you're crazy." Victoria cocked an eyebrow. "But you already know that, don't you?"
Solo laughed. "I've been informed, yes." He took Murimi's boney hands in his. "Don't worry about me, Mama, and thank you for everything."
As he kissed her on the forehead, the old woman blushed. Embarrassed, Murimi's mouth widened into a grin. She patted him on the arm, and then ambled back to her house. When Solo turned to Victoria, his expression was more serious.
"Did you and Kesia know what happened to John Simba?"
Victoria toed a pattern in the dust with her shoe. "We heard the rumors, of course, but we never believed them. I can't honestly tell you if Nyoka was telling the truth about John's death or not."
"But Kesia and Simba are engaged, for chrissakes. Didn't she ever ask him about it?"
Victoria sucked in a thoughtful breath. "Napoleon, you must try to understand. Even though she went to school in America, Kesia is still very traditional. Things work differently here. James and Kesia are third cousins. They played together as children. They were practically betrothed, and yet, there's still a distance between them. Always has been. Probably always will be."
"But if she's going to marry him, she must love him," Solo protested.
Victoria considered for a moment. "You know something? I don't think she's ever really thought about it."
She didn't know what else to say. Solo shaded his eyes and looked up at the sun. It was time to get moving. The morning was slipping away. Somewhere to the north, a little more than two hours away, Pembe was already under siege, and if Nyoka hadn't lied, Illya was in danger. A man who could kill his own brother wouldn't think twice about blowing away a meddlesome stranger. All night, Solo had chided himself for not going along in the first place, but it was too late for regrets.
Carefully, painfully, he maneuvered himself into the front seat of the Land Rover. "Are you going to be all right?" Victoria asked as she watched him ease his body behind the steering wheel.
"I suppose, although this should put a crimp in my social life for several weeks, at the very least."
The girl laughed, her mood lightening. "I'm glad we had the chance to make love the other night."
"So am I," Solo agreed. "And I'm glad you ignored my warning and came back for me."
Victoria nodded, her smile fading. "So am I." She passed him the U.N.C.L.E. Special, her old Remington rifle, and Illya's communicator. "Sorry I used up all your bullets. And by the way, that pen beeped twice last night, but I didn't know how to work it."
"Just as well."
Solo placed his equipment on the seat beside him. He hit the ignition twice, and pumped the accelerator. Victoria gripped the door panel, hauling herself up level with the seat, as he leaned sideways to give her a kiss.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye," she said afterward.
"Not at all. When this is over, I'll be back to help you finish the irrigation project. I promise."
"Forget it," she shouted over the engine. "I mean, it's only a ditch."
"Sure it is," Solo said as she slammed the door. He threw the Land Rover into gear and pulled away.
The road to Pembe was deserted and unnaturally quiet. No grazing livestock, no gossiping women, no little children playing in the drainage ditches. The surrounding villages were cloaked in a deathlike stillness, too. Not even a bird twittered. Nothing moved. Either the people had evacuated, or they were hiding, out of sight and out of range.
As he drove along, Solo switched on his communicator and adjusted the receiver to the low AM band. The local radio station was broadcasting jubilant announcements of a rebel victory. According to the reports, the entire city was now under the control of the Popular Liberation Front.
Solo thumbed his communicator to the higher, short-wave band, on which sporadic conversations between rebel officers told a far different story. Although the commander of the city garrison, a General Barasa, had joined the insurgency, a loyalist division of the national army was launching a counterattack, somewhere between the airport and the university. Inside the city, pockets of resistance were still causing trouble in the affluent neighborhoods along Bishop's Street, but the real battle was at the presidential palace, where Ndogo's company of hand-picked bodyguards was dug in for the duration.
The agent encountered his first military roadblock five miles south of Pembe. The guerrillas standing guard were undisciplined farmboys, quite young and quite naive. Stowing his weapons under the front seat, Solo told them he was a Western journalist and talked his way through, easily.
The next roadblock, two miles later, presented more of a problem. These guards were older and more experienced, and demanded to see his press credentials. Solo had no identification with him, not even a passport. It'd all been lost in the tent fire.
Hoping to find something, anything, that looked official, he rummaged through the Land Rover's glove compartment, and came up with one of Victoria's land excavation permits. It wasn't much, but it was obviously an important document covered with seals and signatures.
Feigning impatience, Solo waved the crumpled paper with a flourish, muttering darkly about rank-and-file stupidity, and threatening to write a future expos in some unnamed newspaper. He'd learned over the years that you could go anywhere, do anything, so long as you acted as if you had the right.
The gamble succeeded. Intimidated, the guerrilla soldiers conferred among themselves, then gruffly waved him on.
As he neared Pembe, Solo actually heard the fighting before he saw it. Bursts of gunfire chattered over the soft, dull thudding of exploding shells. Columns of thick black smoke choked the clear blue skies, while an acidic haze pervaded the air and gave it a sting.
At the very edge of the city, he found himself headed for yet another checkpoint. Mobbed with guerrillas, their weapons glinting in the morning sun, it was obvious that here, discipline would be strict and security, tight. He knew he couldn't bluff his way through this one, and it would be downright foolhardy to even try. Turning off the communicator, he tucked it into his shirt pocket, and prepared himself.
"Papers?" the young sergeant shouted as Solo pulled the Land Rover to a halt.
"Look, my name is Napoleon Solo. I'm a friend of James Simba." The sergeant blinked, unimpressed. "We are all friends of James Simba, sir. Your papers, please."
"Just tell me where I can find him."
"If you have no identification, I must ask you to step out of your vehicle." The sergeant reached for the door and yanked it open.
"Now wait a minute. I can explain ---."
"Step out, please, or we will be forced to drag you out."
Solo could see it was no use. He turned off the engine and slid slowly from the seat to the ground. A guerrilla soldier shoved him hard against the side of the Land Rover.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," the agent said, wincing.
"Search the vehicle!" the sergeant shouted.
"But that's ridiculous. I'm a journalist. A reporter, you understand? Ah, mwandishi wa --- um --- gazeti."
On the other side of the Land Rover, one of the soldiers found Victoria's hunting rifle and held it high, for all to see.
"And do you use that to take photographs?" the sergeant asked sarcastically.
"It's for protection. There's a revolution going on, you know."
Another soldier fished out Solo's U.N.C.L.E. Special from under the seat and tossed it to the sergeant. "This is not a common weapon," he declared, examining the gun.
"It is where I come from," Solo said.
The sergeant studied him thoughtfully, trying to make a decision. Then, motioning in Solo's direction, the sergeant issued an order and two soldiers seized the agent by the arms.
"Hey, you're making a big mistake!" Solo exclaimed as they hurried him away, but the sergeant ignored him. Of course, in the confusion and excitement of war, mistakes were often made and innocent people often died. For a few brief moments, Solo was convinced he was going to end up as a casuality statistic. The soldiers led him into a narrow courtyard and pushed him roughly against a stone wall. Solo groaned.
"I thought I told you not to do that."
And suddenly, someone called his name. Solo closed his eyes and exhaled a deep rush of breath as he recognized the voice. It was Kesia.
"Bibi, this man says he is a friend of Bwana Simba," one of the soldiers explained, uncertainly. Kesia assured them that the stranger was telling the truth and that she would be safe with him. After sending the soldiers away, she turned to Solo.
"Napoleon, what are you doing here?"
"Looking for Illya. Do you know where he is?"
"With James, at the presidential palace. James insisted that he go along." She saw a pained expression cross Solo's face and asked, "What's wrong? Is it Vicky? Is she all right?"
"She's fine. The village is fine. I have to talk to Illya, that's all."
Kesia folded her arms, unhappily. "You didn't risk your neck to come here for a chat. You'd better tell me the truth." She leveled her gaze at him. "Because I'm not going to help you until you do."
The siege of the presidential palace seemed to be taking longer than the morning's entire offensive. Parked at the rear of the compound, Illya Kuryakin sat alone in a jeep, monitoring the progress of the rebel assault over a short wave radio. Things weren't going as well as expected. Ndogo's palace guards were heavily armed and extremely tenacious.
"The canisters of tear gas are in place, Bwana Simba," a field sergeant reported over the channel.
Finally, Kuryakin thought as he listened.
"Good," Simba said, his voice struggling against gunfire. The rebel leader was positioned somewhere near the front gates. "You will explode them on my command. Then you will attack immediately."
"But Bwana, should we not wait for some sign of surrender? Some officials and their families are inside ---."
Simba snapped back sharply, cutting the sergeant off. "Do you hear what I am saying? I want you to take the palace! Let no one escape. If they try, shoot them down. Those are my orders. Do you understand?"
"No!" Kuryakin exclaimed, though there was no one around to hear him. He switched on the radio's transmitter. "James, this is Kuryakin. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Ready?" Simba's voice asked the sergeant.
"You can't slaughter unarmed people!" Kuryakin shouted into the hand mike.
"On my mark. . ."
"Simba, you bastard, I know you can hear me. Think for a moment!"
"Open the canisters. . ."
"Simba --- !"
"Have you gone out of your bloody mind?!"
The only response on the channel was static. Kuryakin threw down the mike in disgust. He heard a chorus of muffled thumps as the tear gas canisters exploded. And then the steady whine of automatic gunfire.
And then the screams.
Furious, Kuryakin vaulted from the back of the jeep and raced through the iron gates. Inside, the palace was a madhouse. People were running everywhere: men in business suits, in grey and maroon uniforms, in camouflaged fatigues. Occasionally a woman or a child would materialize, cry out, and fade back again, into the brownish-yellow haze.
Kuryakin shook out a handkerchief and pressed it to his face, squinting through watery eyes against the last sour traces of the gas. He didn't know where Simba was, but he could guess. He headed for the main staircase.
Above him, on the second floor, Simba arrived at a door just as Ndogo slipped inside. Kuryakin sprinted up the staircase, taking two steps at a time. He saw the rebel leader kick in the door, just seconds ahead of him.
In the sitting room, Simba found Martin Ndogo leaning over the balcony, gesturing to someone below. At the sound of the door crashing in, the president straightened and turned. He held up one plump hand and said, in a trembling mew, "Please, no ---."
Simba shot him right between the eyes.
Then, without hesitation, the rebel leader stepped over the corpse and gazed past the balcony. Kuryakin did the same.
Below in the ravaged garden, between the rows of trampled rosebushes, ran a terrified woman and two young children. Kuryakin recognized the woman as Ndogo's wife.
"Don't do it!" the agent warned, but Simba ignored him. Calmly, the rebel leader raised his rifle and shot all three dead, hitting them as easily as targets in a shooting gallery. Driven by the force of the bullets' impact, their bodies pitched forward and hung bleeding, impaled upon the rosebushes.
Kuryakin squeezed his eyes shut, too sickened to speak. Simba stood on the terrace, studying his handiwork. "Pups grow into jackals," he explained dispassionately, "And jackals always return to scavenge."
"You're an animal, too," Kuryakin murmured.
Simba pivoted on his heel and leveled his rifle at the agent, just as Solo and Kesia arrived at the edge of the garden below.
"Look!" Kesia said, pointing to the balcony where Simba and Kuryakin were framed within the arches.
"We have to get up there," Solo said. "C'mon."
At that moment, in the sitting room, Kuryakin instinctively drew his U.N.C.L.E. Special. Simba chuckled, unperturbed. "Kesia calls you moran. Perhaps she is right. And so, in the life of every warrior comes the time when he must face the lion, alone."
"The revolution is a success," Kuryakin said, reasonably. "You have no reason to kill me."
"Kesia is in love with you. Is that not reason enough?"
The remark caught the agent off-guard. Although he'd done nothing to encourage a romantic relationship, he suddenly realized that Simba was right.
"Do not deny it!" Simba lashed out angrily, before Kuryakin could respond. "I have eyes!" He gestured toward the U.N.C.L.E. Special. "Go ahead. Shoot at me with your darts. Will your sleep potion stop me before I pull my trigger?"
"No, but I will," Solo said as he appeared in the doorway. Kesia was beside him, an assault rifle cradled in her arms. She tossed the gun to Solo. In one fluid motion, he caught it, cocked it, and aimed it at Simba.
"What are you going to do now?" Solo asked the rebel leader. "Murder us all, like you murdered John?"
"Who told you that?" Simba thundered back. He looked at Kesia.
"Is it true?" she demanded, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes.
For a moment, Simba seemed at a loss for words. Then, his shoulders sagging slightly in defeat, he said, "Yes, I killed my brother, but it was not murder. While we were under arrest, we were kept in separate cells. The guards treated me fairly. I spoke to them every day. Some listened. When the opportunity came for my escape, they looked the other way."
Simba stared into the distance, his eyes unfocused, as if he could actually see into the past. "I found John in his cell. He was weak, ill, half-mad. They'd cut pieces from him. Fingers. An ear. The parts that make one a man."
Simba's voice caught. Now there were tears in his eyes, too. He swallowed hard and went on. "I could not take him with me, you see, so I killed him. I smothered him with my coat. Better a martyr for the revolution, than a feeble-minded invalid for life."
"And do you know? He died forgiving all of them. Including me. But I swore an oath that day, that I would not forgive, and I would never forget."
Bitterly, he wiped away the tears. His voice rose, defiant again. "Who are you to judge me, any one of you? You don't know what it is to grow up with hunger, with terror. To eat insects for breakfast because there is nothing else. To see your village burned, your mother raped, your father lying dead, in the middle of his fields. First, the whites took our lands. Then, came our own corrupt brothers, the Wa-Benzi, the tribe of the Mercedes-Benz. But the blood-soaked stones cried out for vengeance. I am that vengeance!"
With his rifle still trained on Simba, Solo dipped into his shirtpocket and clicked on his communicator. "Your forty-eight hours are up," the agent declared flatly. "Open Channel D, overseas relay. . ."
Simba snorted and shook his head. "You see? We all play God a little."
Solo ignored him. The communicator crackled with static, before a familiar voice came on.
"Mr. Solo? Where the devil are you?"
"Ah, in the presidential palace, sir. We finally caught up with James Simba."
Oddly enough, Waverly didn't seem interested. "We've been receiving reports that President Ndogo is dead. Can you confirm them?" Solo glanced down at the president's corpse, sprawled beside the draperies.
"I can, sir."
"Then Mr. Simba is in control of the government?"
The agent made a face. "It appears that way, sir."
"Mr. Solo, as you already may be aware, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations are poised to recognize Mr. Simba's regime. However, the southern coastal district is threatening to secede from Ngambo, with some fellow named Nyoka as its head of state. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet within the hour to decide whether or not to send in a force of peacekeeping troops."
"And what shall we do with James Simba in the meantime, sir?"
"Good god, man! Protect him, of course! And render any assistance he may require. I want you and Mr. Kuryakin to remain in Ngambo until this situation stabilizes. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly," the agent said. "Solo out."
He switched off his communicator. In the distance, they could hear a steady, rhythmic chant. As it grew louder, one word stood out distinctly, repeating, over and over again:
Sim-ba. Sim-ba. Sim-ba.
The rebel leader smiled with satisfaction. "My people are calling for me. If you will excuse me, gentlemen . . . "
Neither agent made a move. Eyeing their guns for a moment, he shouldered his own rifle and walked away.
"That man doesn't need our protection," Kuryakin muttered bitterly, "He doesn't need anyone."
"You're wrong," Kesia said, knowing what she had to do. She paused and took a breath. "He needs me." She glanced at Solo, then at Kuryakin, with fond regret. "Farewell, Illya. Kwa heri."
As the agents watched, Kesia followed in Simba's wake, across the sitting room and down the long corridor. Simba heard her coming and waited, allowing her to catch up with him. When he stepped out, on the far balcony, Kesia was at his side, and they waved to the crowd, together.
Sometime later, Solo found his partner, sitting alone on the steps of the presidential palace. Near the gates, a guerrilla mop-up detail was collecting corpses. Two photographers from the foreign wire services were snapping pictures.
"They say that new nations are born like children, with tears, and pain, and blood," Kuryakin remarked softly. "If only it were otherwise."
Solo shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned against a railing. "Well, the country should be better off with Simba."
"But for how long? How long before he becomes a tyrant, too?"
Solo shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe a long time. Maybe never. Maybe with Kesia's help, he'll become as good a political leader as he is a military commander."
Either Kuryakin wasn't entirely convinced or he didn't want to talk about it. He changed the subject.
"So what do we do now, my friend?"
Solo shifted uncomfortably. Under his clothing, he could feel the bandages peeling away from itchy, blistered skin. "I don't know about you, but first, I'm going to find a decent hospital. Then, I'm going to borrow a jeep. I'm sure Simba can spare one."
"You're going back to the village, aren't you?"
"I promised Vicky," Solo said. "Oh, and by the way --- here." He reached into his pocket and passed Kuryakin his communicator.
"You know, Napoleon, the Old Man may never find out exactly what we've been doing for the last two days, but if you go AWOL, he'll certainly know about it."
"So? What can he do?" the American agent replied. "Suspend me? Dock my paycheck?"
"Reassign you to Antarctica."
Solo shrugged again, seemingly unconcerned. Kuryakin wondered if there was more to it than simply keeping a promise, but he let it pass. Instead, he asked, "How long do you think it'll take to finish the project?"
Solo considered. "A week, maybe two. If some of the village men return, maybe less."
"And if I come with you, even less than that."
Kuryakin juggled the slim pen between his fingers, thinking. It took him exactly ten seconds to make up his mind. He unscrewed the tip of the communicator and dropped it into his pocket, effectively disabling the receiver.
"All right," the Russian said, "let's get going, before those photographers start taking pictures of us. I believe there's a hospital a block from the town square."
"And what about Antarctica?"
Kuryakin sighed, resigned. "I hear it's rather pleasant this time of year."
The rains came. The women mourned and buried their dead. Most of the men who had left to join the guerrillas drifted back to the villages, though fighting continued in the South. The wealthy copper-rich coastal district declared itself a sovereign nation with Port Salama as its capital, and General Nyoka as its president-for-life. When Nyoka appealed to the United States --- and more particularly, to the CIA --- for help against Simba's socialist regime, the crisis reached international proportions. It was some months before Ngambo was reunited again, with Nyoka meeting his end in a roadside ditch, a victim of his own lieutenants.
But the rains came, and for the people living near the Tandela River, that was all that mattered. With Solo, Kuryakin and the entire village working together, Victoria finished her project in time to greet the new season.
The rains came first as pleasant showers, then as teeming downpours. They swelled the river, driving the waters over the banks, through the sluices, along the trenches and into the furrows. On the final day of the work, the villagers stood in the fields, soaked but triumphant. Victoria hugged the agents as the village men embraced their wives. The children squealed and played among the ditches, and the women sang.
The next morning, Jack Gaylord's twin-engine Cessna swooped in low and made a rough landing on a patch of flat, open savannah.
"Jack, what are you doing 'way out here?" Victoria greeted him, as he trudged from his plane. Gaylord, a ruddy-faced, burly man, reached under his jacket and produced a wrinkled telegram.
"I was paid to deliver this personally," he explained. Victoria squinted against the drizzle, trying to read.
"It's from my father," she announced to Solo and Kuryakin, who came up behind her. "He wants to know if I'm okay."
"Extending an olive branch?" Solo observed slyly.
"Something like that."
"Are you guys Solo and Kury-something-or-other?" Gaylord asked.
"Yeah," Solo said. "Why?"
"I got a telegram for you, too. It ain't signed." The agents exchanged knowing glances.
"A message from God," Solo murmured, as he accepted the slip of yellow paper. There were only two words on it:
"Is he going to fire you?" Victoria asked, anxiously.
"Only if we're lucky," Solo replied, and beside him, Kuryakin chimed in, "No doubt he's planning something infinitely worse."
With the project finished, there was no excuse to remain in the village any longer. While Gaylord waited, the agents packed their things, said good-bye to Victoria and climbed into the plane.
When they were airborne, Kuryakin sat back in his window seat, studying the view. "I must confess, Napoleon, I don't know who won this time."
Solo gestured toward the window. Below them, the tops of the thatched houses were small buttons, with the irrigation fields spread out behind them, like delicate needlework.
"They did," he said. "And that's how it should be."
Kuryakin sighed, shifting in his seat. "Perhaps, but sometimes, I think it's like trying to empty a lake with a soup ladle. How long can we go on saving the world one village at a time?"
Solo had no answer. Kuryakin turned back to the window, not expecting one. As Gaylord's plane banked west, Solo saw a faraway look in his partner's grey eyes, one he'd never seen before, and he wondered what it meant.