U.N.C.L.E. agents are not born but made, although there was a joke going around HQ in those days that my partner was born with a communicator in one fist and a lucky penny in the other. They are made, usually in the twenty-third or twenty-fourth year of their lives, at a secret training school on an officially uncharted island, seven hundred miles off the nearest shipping lanes. No doubt, you've heard all those stories. Agents often talk about how they began their careers. Few talk about how careers end.
But end they do, as do all things in life. In those days, some ended quietly, soon after a fortieth birthday, with a promotion to a nice leather chair parked behind a desk in a district office of varying size, or with a signed retirement agreement, complete with two year's severance pay and a generous pension plan.
But many others, sad to say, ended prematurely, and far less peacefully, in the midst of blood and horror, with no time or opportunity for even the comfort of a few last words.
Richard Greenwood was not yet thirty when he fell to his death in August of 1967 from the roof of a twelve-story building in San Francisco. John Coleman, five years older, died in a shack thirty miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, the following April. The cause of death was listed as severe blood loss, but only because they slit his throat and left him to bleed to death after interrogating him for fifteen hours. Nate Cassidy, who was over fifty and had been grandfathered in after the rules changed, died that same year in the middle of the desert, just outside of Las Vegas, with one bullet to the back of the head, execution style. Napoleon and I found the body and sent it home ahead of us, on an U.N.C.L.E. courier plane.
At the request of his family, Rick's body was sent home to St. Paul, Minnesota, to be buried next to his brother, who had died in Viet Nam. Johnny's wake was at a funeral parlor in Harlem where he grew up. He was later buried in a small church cemetery in the Bronx.
Nate, who came from an enormously wealthy and well-connected family, was laid out in a funeral home on the East Side of Manhattan, as sophisticated and sumptuous as a five star hotel. And that's where Napoleon and I found ourselves, on an unusually hot evening in June, 1968, so humid that the streets outside steamed between cloudbursts, and glistened like sweat on black vinyl.
Unlike at Johnny's wake, twenty-five mostly white and mostly young males in business suits were not particularly out of place, though the management was a bit nervous knowing that we were all armed. When an Enforcement agent dies, we make an effort to see that he's sent off with at least a proper farewell from his fellow field agents. It's not always possible, of course. Sometimes, there is no funeral. Sometimes, there's not enough left of him to bury.
I say "him," because at that time, there were only a handful of women Enforcement agents. April Dancer was the only one assigned to New York, and she was out of town that weekend, working in the field, though her partner, Mark Slate, was there. The contingent that showed up on that hot, humid night was all male.
It was the last viewing, the night before the funeral, and traditionally, that's when we, the field agents, come. The funeral is for the family, the relatives, and the friends from the other part — the visible part — of an agent's life. Occasionally, the family will request that Mr. Waverly say a few words at the service or at the graveside, and he will, but that's the only sign, the only proof, of what the deceased did for a living. The rest of us generally skip the funeral entirely, so as not to intrude. But the night before is reserved for us.
So, when the official viewing time ended at nine, and the doors of the funeral home were closed, we — all twenty-five of us — stayed behind. Mr. Waverly left early with the others mourners. He had no hairline scar that paralleled the lifeline on his right hand you see, and so, despite the fact — perhaps, even because of the fact — that he had absolute power over our lives, he did not belong there, and he knew it.
When the doors closed, Napoleon went to the front of the room while the rest of us found seats gathered close by. As head of Section II and therefore, the ranking agent, it was his place to deliver the eulogy, though even if he'd had less seniority, he would have been invited to do so anyway. Nate was his spiritual father as Viktor Mikhailovich was mine. In this, as in most things, Napoleon had been luckier than I.
But Nate meant a great deal to me, too. He was the one who first saw the potential in our partnership, and he'd encouraged Waverly to bring me to New York and match Napoleon and me together. So, even though I was on medical leave and still limping from the affair in Las Vegas, I would not have missed this for the world.
Asa Carpenter, the World War II pilot who was probably Nate's closest friend, was there, along with Karl Berglund, another veteran who'd flown in from Sweden. Only Auguste Delage was missing; he was not in good health and would not travel by jet plane even if he were. They were all that was left of the original thirteen. The other ten, including Nate, were all dead and gone.
I remember that despite the head wound, there was an open casket. The funeral director had performed wonders, and Nate was dressed in a white tie and shirt and his best Saville Row suit, looking better dead than most of us did alive.
Despite his apparent composure, I knew the evening would be difficult for Napoleon. I sat in the front row, within his line of sight, so I could offer some silent encouragement to help him get through it.
As he had done for Johnny Coleman and so many others, Napoleon began by telling a story. Actually, he invited Asa to speak, but the old pilot was never one for words, so Napoleon did it for him. It was the one about how Nate cleaned out a Nazi general one night playing baccarat on the French Riviera during the Occupation. Most of us had heard it before, or some version of it, but it was fitting because it summed up Nate so well. Only he would have had the audacity to risk winning such a considerable sum from a prominent Nazi, and then turn every cent over to the local Resistance to finance their operations against the Vichy regime.
Napoleon told other stories, and told them well. The daring smuggling operations and dangerous rescue missions behind enemy lines during the war; the affairs afterward that contributed to making U.N.C.L.E. a viable, respected force in the world. In those early years of the organization, whenever something important happened, Nate was involved.
Napoleon spoke from experience, too — of the times they had shared, on and off the job. "Nate taught me a lot of things," he said. "How to read a face, pick a pocket, forge a signature, choose a wine, bet a horse, tie a formal bow tie, and mix a decent martini. He also taught me never to draw to an inside straight, literally or figuratively. Never to assume a game is lost until it is." Napoleon paused for effect. "And never to keep a lady waiting under any circumstances."
This last line drew an appreciative chuckle from the crowd. It was well known that Napoleon and Nate both possessed a taste for the finer pleasures in life, and that included the company of attractive women.
"But of all the lessons Nate ever taught me, two were more important than all the rest put together. The first was how to calculate the odds. 'Risk what is possible, do what is necessary,' he said, 'and make damn sure you know how to tell the difference.'
"And the second was never to give up hope. 'Son,' he said, 'when you're in the save-the-world-business, pessimism is a luxury you just can't afford.' I've always remembered that."
Napoleon wasn't simply being sentimental; he was telling the truth. Optimism and the willingness to take risks were an integral part of him. It was as if Nate had passed on those traits to him through some invisible bloodline. Although I preferred not to, it did make me wonder fleetingly what Viktor Mikhailovich had passed on to me.
Now came the part of the evening that we all dreaded. As the rest of us rose to our feet, Napoleon approached the casket. Like most agents, Nate would be buried with his identification card and communicator in his breast pocket and his U.N.C.L.E. Special holstered and fully loaded. It was symbolic of course, and smacked faintly of pagan superstition: one never knew what waited on the other side of Death.
Carefully, Napoleon drew out the familiar pen from Nate's pocket, unscrewed the tip and reversed it, thus disabling the communicator. As he tucked it back into its proper place, you could feel the mood shift dramatically within the room. As much as we all railed about that infernal communicator going off at the most inopportune times, there was something terribly poignant about watching one being turned off permanently. It meant there would be no more summons, no more calls. The lifeline that had tied Nate to his duty, to his work, to U.N.C.L.E., and to the rest of us, was severed forever. Now he was free, finally, but also very much on his own.
Nate's right hand had been left deliberately turned, palm up, and Napoleon pressed his own right palm, scar meeting scar, against the other. "Goodbye, old friend," I heard Napoleon murmur. "Godspeed."
And then, he stepped aside to allow the rest of us to come up, one by one, and do the same. And as we did, each slowly filing past to press the palm and say our own individual farewell, Napoleon recited aloud the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare's Henry V. There'd been so many funerals of late, that he no longer needed a text. He could say it from memory.
"That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us..."
Although no one wept openly, there were sighs and snorts, cleared throats and glassy eyes. Some agents muttered the words under their breath along with him. Nate had been much beloved.
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother..."
As I listened to Napoleon's voice, surprisingly clear and strong considering the circumstances, it occurred to me how much the words had come to mean to me personally. I'd been attracted to the organization, its ideals. Thrown in with mostly Western agents, I hadn't trusted them, nor had they trusted me. I didn't take part in the initiation ceremony that last night at the Survival School. I'd made the mark afterward, myself.
But over the years, as the painful reality of our efforts to keep the world peaceful and safe sank in, I found myself valuing the people — my partnership with Napoleon, my fellowship with the other field agents — as much as the work, perhaps more so. Like all fighting men down through the ages, I'd come for the war and remained for my comrades.
Only when everyone had said goodbye was the service finally over. As the others filed out, Napoleon lingered, so Mark and I loitered in the lobby to give him a few last moments of privacy. When he was finally ready to leave, we paused on the steps of the funeral home and I could see that Napoleon's eyes were shining in the streetlight, as slick as the rain-washed pavement. Tears escaped down his cheeks before he could stop them.
"Are you all right?" I inquired gently. Obviously, he wasn't. Napoleon seldom allowed his emotions to get the best of him.
He blinked, shook out a pocket handkerchief, and wiped his eyes. "Let's go get drunk," he said. And we did, raising our glasses and toasting to tomorrow as Nate had taught us, and remembering him with more stories exchanged far into the night.
History tells us that the Roman legionnaires were carried home on their shields. The Vikings were placed in their boats and set aflame. The Crusaders were buried in their armor. Certain Native American tribesmen were placed on high platforms with their spears and bows, facing the sky and the Great Spirit.
We had no shields or ships or armor, no bows or spears. We wore no uniforms, represented no one government or political movement, so there would be no flag draped casket, no honor guard, no anthems, no 21-gun salute.
All we had was a gun, a silver pen, and a gold card and the absolute certainty that what we were doing was just and right. We left life as quietly, if not as easily, as we slipped through Del Floria's each day, unremarked upon and unnoticed by those we lived among and died for.
Still, we were warriors, and every warrior culture, from the beginning of civilization, has had a way to honor its fallen while encouraging those still standing to wade back into battle, renewed in their confidence and determined to prove that their comrades had not died in vain.
This was ours.