Deuce in the Side Pocket
Somewhere on the Lower East Side, New York City. l962.
"Deuce in the side pocket," Napoleon Solo declared as he circled the billiard table and studied the shot one last time.
"Never happen, Solo."
Wes Lerner's raw, basso voice carried across the quiet bar room. It was late afternoon - still too early for the regular crowd - and Lerner was alone as he leaned against the ancient wooden counter. Solo hefted his cue stick and offered his fellow agent a sly, sidelong glance.
"You have a big mouth, Wes. Think there's any room left to put some money next to it?"
Lerner snorted, reached into his pocket and shoved a crisp twenty-dollar bill under one of the cheap crystal ashtrays. "What the hell? It's payday," Lerner shrugged. "Twenty says you won't make that shot."
"You hear that Illya? The man is volunteering to pay our tab."
Standing at the other end of the long expanse of green felt, Kuryakin heard and stifled a grin. Although he, himself was still something of a novice at the game, the Russian agent could see that his friend played billiards like he did everything else in life: with too little caution and too much seat-of-the-pants bravado. Napoleon had a definite preference for showy, seemingly impossible shots, often scorning easier positions and then relying on his good eye, steady hand and sheer luck to sink the ball.
Still, Kuryakin had learned the hard way that his partner came through more often than not, particularly when there was money or something valuable at stake.
"Sure you don't want to reconsider, Wes?" Solo asked aloud as he continued to size up the shot. The baby blue ball was sitting frozen against the cushion, overhanging the pocket. Lerner knew enough about pool to understand that a soft tap wouldn't drop the ball. Neither would a sharp cut. The Section Five man shook his head deliberately and took a long swig of beer.
"I don't think so, Solo."
You should, Kuryakin thought to himself as he watched his friend's elaborate dance around the table. He knew that Napoleon was stalling, milking the moment for all it was worth to make Lerner's humiliation all the more complete. There was no denying that it was a tricky shot, but Kuryakin suspected that it was actually easier than it looked. He had seen Solo make more difficult ones for far less incentive.
The Russian agent chuckled to himself. Napoleon had more than a bit of the hustler in him. If anyone else had been sitting at that bar, Kuryakin might have felt an obligation to warn him.
As it was, Wes Lerner did not merit the effort. The man was an expert in surveillance who could wire an apartment so thoroughly that you could hear a cockroach skittering across the linoleum, but he left something to be desired as a human being. Kuryakin didn't like him very much and remained characteristically silent.
As Solo bent to aim, Illya had no doubt that his partner would make the shot. He wasn't disappointed. Solo hit the cue ball hard at six o' clock, striking the number two dead center. The cushion compressed under the force of the shot and the bright blue ball dropped magically into the side pocket.
"You lucky son of a bitch," Lerner hissed through his teeth but Solo was already moving into position for the next shot. "Luck is just knowing the limits of one's own abilities. Take the man's money, Illya."
Kuryakin set his cue stick down carefully and reached under the glass ashtray. As he folded the twenty into his shirt pocket, he commented quietly, "That was a sucker shot, Wes."
It was a good-natured remark but Lerner was in no mood for teasing. He glared at the Russian, then turned to Solo. "Uh-huh. Teaching the boy our lingo, I see. Soon he'll be talking as good as the rest of us."
At the end of the table, Solo was preparing to shoot. He paused and his expression went sour. "That's supposed to be 'well' Les, and I sincerely hope not." It sounded like just another cheerful insult, but Solo was obviously annoyed. His concentration broken, he scratched on the shot, an easy long one.
"Your turn, partner."
Solo crossed to the bar and picked up his beer. He stared down at the floor, disgusted with Lerner and angry with himself for letting this vulgar Neanderthal throw off his aim. "Cold War's over for us. Haven't you read the U.N.C.L.E. by-laws?" Solo asked, between sips. Lerner shrugged and kept his voice low.
"I still don't think you can trust them Reds. Look what they're doing in Cuba. Wouldn't turn my back on one."
"I'd sooner have Illya behind me than anyone else. Any time, any place."
Kuryakin pretended not to hear the conversation at the bar as he lowered himself to his haunches, his eyes level with the table. He didn't need Napoleon to defend him. He could take care of himself against stupid, bigoted agents like Wes Lerner and often did, when necessary.
Right now, however, he was more interested in the game and he let the entire episode pass without comment. Unlike his partner, Kuryakin approached billiards the way he approached life: carefully, methodically, analyzing each individual shot. Checking all the angles. Calculating the percentages. He had only begun to play seriously a year or so ago, but already he loved the game. It appealed to the technician in him. He appreciated its simplicity and precision.
He also loved the table they were playing on. It was practically an antique, with dark mahogany rails, net pockets and a smooth, reliable slate bed. Kuryakin chose a bank shot, aimed for the twelve and knocked it easily into the corner. The cue ball rolled into position for the nine, just as he had planned.
The Russian smiled to himself, satisfied. The two agents at the bar continued to exchange jibes but he ignored them. Lerner could go to hell. Kuryakin wasn't about to let some self-important circuit jockey interfere with his enjoyment of this game. After all, leisure time was too valuable to waste.
Just as he prepared to take his second shot however, Kuryakin's thoughts were interrupted by a chorus of male voices and shouts of greeting. He looked up in spite of himself and saw George Dennel, one of the supervisors of internal security, enter the bar. Dennel was accompanied by his assistant Scott Ward and two Section Six men. Kuryakin didn't know either one of them.
The men called to Solo and he smiled and waved back. Then he turned and shot his partner a quick glance. A pained expression flashed across his face.
Kuryakin understood at once the meaning behind that expression, and nodded in wordless agreement. They were going to have to be more careful in the future. They couldn't be spending too many idle afternoons here anymore. Too many of their colleagues were adopting the bar as a favorite watering hole. It wouldn't be long before other, less congenial eyes were drawn to the place, making it a certain deathtrap.
Agents from other departments could enjoy the pleasure of public camaraderie, but enforcement operatives had to be more discreet. They were easy targets with too many enemies and too little protection. By necessity, they were forced to lead wary, isolated, almost paranoid lives. Kuryakin didn't mind much, himself. He was solitary by choice, but he knew it was a strain on Napoleon who was naturally more gregarious.
Peals of friendly, hearty laughter drifted by as Dennel and his companions joined Solo and Lerner at the bar. Too bad, the Russian agent thought as he settled down to shoot. He was just beginning to get used to the little downtown tavern. It was comfortable, nondescript and conveniently off the city's beaten track. The owner was a second cousin of Del Floria's, on his wife's side. There weren't many places an enforcement agent could go to unwind, have a few beers, and maintain a low profile.
Too bad, Kuryakin sighed again. He tapped the nine-ball lightly, sank it, and moved on to the fourteen. As he readied his third shot, he eavesdropped on the group at the bar. George Dennel and his friends were congratulating Napoleon on his recent promotion to chief of Section Two. There was lots of backslapping and rib nudging. Even Lerner was offering some grudging good wishes.
The warm feeling was genuine, too, Kuryakin knew. Although all high level promotions were completely at Waverly's discretion, Solo was a popular choice. He was well liked throughout the New York office, from the labs to the lunchroom, and more importantly, by the chief himself. It was an open secret that the Old Man was grooming Napoleon to succeed him in the top spot some day. Waverly often tolerated behavior from his protégé that would have earned another agent a reprimand at the very least.
Kuryakin liked Solo, too. They had been partners for almost three years now, and despite the stark differences in their temperaments and lifestyles, the two worked well together. They complemented each other, like vinegar and oil, and they always got the job done. Their recent string of successful missions was currently a hot topic around the office water coolers and probably one of the reasons behind Solo's promotion.
Being hitched to a rising star hadn't hurt Kuryakin's career either, boosting him precociously from the obscure ranks of Section Two to the elite coterie of top field agents in a few short years.
Still, Kuryakin was not the kind of man to bask in reflected glory. Although Napoleon was clearly the senior member of the pair, Illya was doing good work in his own right. It was only a matter of time before the number two spot in Enforcement would be his.
But advancement and mutual professional interests were only a small part of their relationship. Already chance and circumstance had bound them together so closely, that they were becoming interdependent, effortlessly thinking and acting as one.
Though even Waverly could see the logic in keeping a winning team together, he frowned on their friendship. The chief always discouraged personal relationships for his enforcement agents, but Kuryakin wasn't worried. The Russian knew that Solo was not about to give in to the whims of an ornery old man and although he wouldn't admit it, even to himself, Kuryakin was secretly grateful. During his bleak, lonely childhood, his older stepbrothers had either antagonized or ignored him. Here, finally, was the fraternity he had yearned for but had never known.
Kuryakin made his third shot but missed his fourth. Solo ordered another round of beers and joined his friend at the table. He went through the motions of preparing for his next shot, but it was obvious, at least to Illya, that his heart was no longer in the game. Solo was doing his best to hide his disappointment over giving up their afternoon matches, but the Russian could read it all over his face.
Solo sank one ball, then missed, and abandoned the game to his opponent. Kuryakin cleaned up the last two balls and easily pocketed the eight ball. Now they were even: two games each.
"Time for a tie-breaker?" Kuryakin called to Napoleon, who had returned to the group at the bar. Solo glanced at his watch and nodded, somewhat reluctantly.
"Okay, but it will have to be a quick one."
"I'll rack them. It's your turn to break."
Solo nodded again, took a healthy swig of his beer and lit a cigarette. Squinting through the smoke, he watched as Kuryakin arranged the balls in a neat triangle. When Solo retrieved his stick and bent to the cue ball, there was an expression of renewed determination on his face.
Kuryakin stood aside with the wooden rack in his hands, grinning in anticipation. Napoleon was clearly back in the match. This was going to be a good one.
The cue ball hit the waiting balls with a solid, resounding crack, but though Solo managed to drop one into the corner, the others remained tightly spaced. The agent put down his cigarette to stalk the table, searching for a decent shot.
Kuryakin joined his colleagues at the bar and discovered a new arrival, Carl Hickey, another member of Section Two. "Carl just got engaged, Illya," George Dennel informed him and patted Hickey on the back. The Section Two agent was a big, burly bear of a man and Dennel only came up to his shoulder.
"That's nice," Kuryakin observed coolly from behind his beer glass. Dennel wasn't really a bad sort, but the mousy, bespectacled security supervisor had an annoying habit of fawning over enforcement agents. Kuryakin found Dennel's toadying slightly unctuous, but Napoleon liked George so the Russian tolerated him.
"Na zdorovye, Carl," Kuryakin said, and the big man grinned wide and lifted his beer glass. One of the Section Six agents proposed a toast and that led to yet another round of slapping, nudging, and loud, raucous laughter. Kuryakin decided that all this forced chumminess was making him a little ill.
"Wanna see the bride-to-be?" Scott Ward asked and handed Illya a snapshot. Kuryakin didn't really care, but he took the picture just to be polite. He glanced down and found a smile staring back at him that was vaguely familiar.
"Is there a reason for that silly grin on your face?" Solo said as he squeezed an arm through the crowd to reclaim his glass of beer. Kuryakin cocked his head, embarrassed.
"Oh, it's just this photograph of Carl's fiancée. She looks so much like a girl I once knew at the university. Her name was Masha."
Solo arched an eyebrow, intrigued. The Russian was always so close-mouthed about his past. Must be the beer, Solo decided. He took a long drag on his cigarette and offered an encouraging "Oh?"
As Kuryakin studied the snapshot in his hands, it was obvious that he wasn't seeing Hickey's girl, but someone else's face. When he spoke, his voice was wistful, almost dreamy.
"She was lovely, delicate. Big doe eyes. Ivory skin. Hair as soft as corn silk. Her father taught poetry at the university." He didn't mention that Viktor Mikhailovich Suslikov was also a KBG chief who'd recruited him into espionage. "He didn't approve of me, but it was very sweet while it lasted. We were both very young and innocent..."
Solo leaned on his cue stick. "How innocent?"
"I was her first, and she, mine."
"A late bloomer, huh?" Solo laughed, sipping his beer. The question snapped Kuryakin out of his reverie. He passed the photograph back and scowled.
"Oh, and I suppose you're going to tell me that you were still in knee britches when you discovered sex. Playing physician with the little neighborhood girls."
"It's 'playing doctor' my friend, and no, I'm not. As a matter of fact, my first time was with a woman over twice my age. She worked at the hotel with my mother as a maid and, ah, supplemented her income in the evenings. She was very experienced. Took me under her wing, so to speak. She told me that she would teach me things about women that some men never learn in a lifetime. I had just turned fifteen."
Kuryakin tried hard not to betray his surprise. He was not entirely successful. "I see. A sort of Madam Chips."
Solo made a sound deep in his throat in response. "Mmmm...that's a good one. But don't you think you're pretty cocky for a man with five balls on the table to my one," As he pointed, Illya blinked: he had almost forgotten about the game.
As Kuryakin returned to the table, he heard Ward call out to Solo, "Any words of wisdom for Carl, here?" Solo held up a hand and shook his head. "Sorry, not my area of expertise, gentlemen. I never sleep with married women."
"Ah, c'mon Napoleon," Dennel whined. "You even went up the aisle yourself once, didn't you?"
From his position at the foot of the table, Kuryakin shot Dennel a cold, disapproving stare. The utter insensitivity of the question appalled the Russian and he made no attempt to hide it. That kind of thing won't do much to get you in Napoleon's good graces. He glanced over at his friend and caught a split second of undisguised grief as it flickered across Solo's face. But the emotion was gone as quickly as it appeared and when Napoleon spoke, his reply was calm and off-handed.
"Now George, really. You know my wife was dead before we could break in a mattress properly."
Suddenly realizing his mistake, Dennel's face drained of color. The security man did his ingratiating best to recover. "Oh Jeez, Napoleon. My goodness, I forgot. I'm so sorry for bringing it up."
The other agents around the bar grew quiet, but Wes Lerner saw his opportunity to jump into the breach and retaliate for his lost twenty dollars. "Seems like you've been making up for lost time ever since, Solo."
"Cut it out, Wes," Dennel cautioned, but Lerner would not be dissuaded. He was enjoying the attention at Solo's expense.
"Well, after all, it's common knowledge that Napoleon here treats the typing pool like his own personal harem. Going to tell us your secret?"
Napoleon turned a jaundiced eye on Lerner, his contempt for the surveillance man barely concealed. Solo could never be accused of modesty, but he was no braggart either. Despite the fact that his freewheeling libido was often the subject of considerable office gossip, Solo himself was the absolute soul of discretion. Kuryakin believed that was one of the reasons for his friend's estimable success with the opposite sex. The Russian could only guess at the other reasons.
Uh-oh, Illya thought to himself, here it comes. He knew his partner's apparently easy-going demeanor could be misleading. Solo had a long memory, a formidable temper, a sharp wit, and an even sharper tongue to match. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he was certainly not a man to be crossed.
Solo straddled a barstool next to Lerner and his smile turned poisonous. "No secret, Wes. Women hate men who are loud, cheap, unpleasant and pushy. So, it's really very simple: keep your voice down. Bring enough cash to cover the check. Wear a clean shirt. And always let the lady set the pace." Solo paused for effect. "In other words, Wes, you have about as much chance of dating Wanda as a snowball in hell."
Lerner's face went livid. He'd asked the pert little communication specialist for a date that very afternoon and had been turned down cold. Previous engagement, she had told him.
"How the hell do you know, you son of a bitch?" Lerner shouted, but Solo calmly finished his beer.
"Like you said, they're all mine. And a man should always know what goes on in his harem."
There was a low groan of unsuppressed glee from the rest of the group and Lerner flushed and shut his mouth. Kuryakin laughed to himself and went back to the game.
Solo slipped off the stool and studied the table. Four successive good shots had left the Russian with just one ball.
"You see, Napoleon. There's always hope. You can't win all the time," Kuryakin chuckled as he bent to put the lone twelve away. But he was wrong. He missed his aim and sliced the ball too sharply. It ricocheted off the cushion and tapped the eight ball neatly - and prematurely - into a corner pocket.
Solo frowned. He hated winning by default. When Kuryakin tossed a five- dollar bill on the green felt top, Solo brushed it aside.
"Keep it," he said as he rolled down his shirtsleeves and snapped the gold cuff links back in. "Buy her a drink on me tonight."
Kuryakin picked up the money and replaced the cue sticks in a nearby wall rack. Solo buttoned his collar, straightened his tie and slipped his jacket back on. Then he summoned the bartender and paid his and Illya's tab with Lerner's crisp twenty. He looked up to the television set suspended above their heads. The evening news was on:
"... Once again, the president emphasized that the blockade is only an initial move," the newscaster was saying. "He added that he would take whatever steps were necessary to protect the security of the United States. In Moscow this morning, the official Soviet news agency, TASS, continued to deny all reports of nuclear warheads in Cuba..."
Solo listened for a moment, and then shook his head. He received his change and pocketed it.
Lerner watched him moodily. "You're taking Wanda out tonight, aren't you?"
"Wes, old man, why don't you stop making lousy bets and save up for a decent suit? Maybe if you didn't dress like you had a revolving charge account at the Salvation Army, you might have better luck." The enforcement agent fingered the right lapel of Lerner's blue polyester sports jacket.
"Some of us don't get clothing allowances like you glamour boys in Section Two," the surveillance man muttered.
Solo smiled slyly. "That's because no one shoots at glorified electricians."
Lerner nearly choked on his mouthful of beer, but before he could respond, Kuryakin nudged his friend from behind. "I hear your car is in for repairs. Need a lift?"
Solo shook his head. "No thanks. She's picking me up and then ... ah, here's my ride now."
He glanced over the shoulders of the assembled agents, across the bar, to the front entrance. Seven pairs of eyes followed his gaze.
"Gentlemen: all of you have a pleasant evening," Solo said as he took his leave. "I know I will."
The men watched as Solo threaded his way through the tavern to meet the voluptuous blonde in the full-length mink who waited patiently at the door. When the elegant woman reached for the agent, a diamond bracelet sparkled on her wrist. She offered Solo a deep, passionate kiss and then the two of them disappeared into a Porsche, double-parked outside.
From his stool at the end of the bar, Dennel whistled out loud. "Will ya look at that!" he said.
"That's not Wanda," Lerner growled into his beer.
"No, it's not."
It was Kuryakin this time. "Actually, I'm the one who's taking Wanda out tonight," he told Lerner as he pulled on his own jacket. The surveillance man stared at him, incredulous.
"Hmm... I'm taking her to the ballet. The Bolshoi is in town. You see, Wanda says she adores anything Russian."
Kuryakin leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, "Just between you and me, Wes, I think she thinks I'm rather exotic."
Then the Russian agent beat a hasty retreat. When he reached the front of the bar, he stole a last peek at Wes Lerner. The surveillance man's ruddy jaw was still hanging slack.
"I'm going to miss this place," Kuryakin said to himself.