AN ACTOR PREPARES

"Dymkova, drink this glass of water," said Arkady Nikolaievich, holding out an imaginary glass, and Miss Dymkova raised it to her lips.

"There's poison in it," warned Arkady Nikolaievich.

Instinctively, Miss Dymkova broke off the movement.

"Do you see?" said Arkady Nikolaievich, triumphantly. "That was not a simple If, but a magical If, that immediately triggered an instinctive reaction."

Konstantin Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares.

With a sigh, Illya pushes the file on Colonel Nexor to the back of his desk. This isn't getting him anywhere. It's all facts. Place of birth, date of joining the Nazi party, war crimes, massacres, purges. He already knows what the man did, he just doesn't know why. And Colonel Nexor is any case one step removed from the person he's really trying to get at. Maximilian Nexor junior. Whose UNCLE file is so slim, the thickest part of it is the cardboard cover.

Most of what content it has consists of photographs. They're the only ones UNCLE has of Nexor junior, and they were taken when he was already dead. Close up, he doesn't look that much like Illya. Oh, he's fair and blue-eyed all right, and he's got that overly large forehead and rather beaky nose, but the resemblance ends there. It was the uniform, Illya thinks, that made him look so freakishly similar. The cap, especially. Uniforms bleach out differences, they make everyone the same. That's the whole point. And when it comes down to it, a Nazi cap and a Soviet cap are almost identical, give or take a few badges. At one period of his life he saw a face like that, under a cap like that, every time he looked in the mirror.

Apart from the scar, of course, but make-up have done a bang-up job on the scar. It looks eerily real. Put him in uniform, add a pair of school-masterly spectacles, and Gurnius might not realise straight away that he's not Nexor. But there has to be more to it than that. Nothing in the Marshall's file suggests that he's a trusting individual. External appearance alone won't be enough to sustain the illusion. He has to get Nexor on the inside as well. To overcome his paranoia, Gurnius has to believe. As he, Illya, has to believe.

The door slides open, and Illya starts.

"We got you that book you wanted, Mr Kuryakin," says the archivist, dropping a battered volume onto the desk. It lands with a bang that sets dust motes dancing in the neon light. There's no dust on the polished steel of the desk, so they must have come from the book itself, a leather-bound monstrosity, embossed with gold Cyrillic type. Illya finds it hard to believe it's the right book. The KGB copies were all cheap paperbacks, their covers yellow and curling, their spines broken from constant use.

"About time," he says, snatching at it. "Mr Waverly wants to see me in half an hour for the mock interrogation."

The archivist bristles. "So sorry to have kept you waiting, but we had to get the Soviet Ambassador to intervene directly with Moscow University Library, seeing as an English translation wasn't considered good enough."

"Have you ever read any English translations of Russian? They bear about as much resemblance to the original as Smirnoff's bears to vodka."

"Never drink the stuff," says the archivist. "I'll have to take your word for it. I still don't see what good a book on play-acting is going to do. What are you hoping to find in there, anyway?"

"A magical If," says Illya.

"You must," explained Arkady Nikolaievich, " be able to honestly believe in the genuine possibility of such a life in the real world, you must become accustomed to it to such an extent that you become fully acquainted with this stranger's life. If you succeed in this, then authentic feeling will manifest itself within in you with no effort on your part."

Illya looks at the file again. Apart from the photographs, it contains only a single sheet of paper, and that sheet has only a single paragraph of typescript. Underneath are notes in his own handwriting.

Maximilian Adolf Nexor.

A clone of his father, Colonel Maximilian Nexor.

Born?

Grew up: South American jungle, raised by fanatical followers of his father.

Died, America 1965.

It's not much of a life. It's taken him all of thirty seconds to become fully acquainted with it. A man created and raised to be a carbon copy of his father: Colonel Maximilian Nexor, brilliant strategist, dedicated Nazi, and card-carrying sadist. Genetics alone wouldn't do the trick. Identical twins share identical DNA but not identical personalities.

What was he like, this Nexor junior?

An actor playing a character very different from himself - a murderer, let us say, like Macbeth, or a traitor, like Marquis Posa – does not ask himself, "In what way am I like this man?" Instead he must ask himself, "What would have to happen to me for me to behave in such and such a way? What events, what experiences, would change me so that the character's behaviour becomes understandable to me, even reasonable?"

Illya stares into space. He's standing on the sandy floor of a compound, strung around with barbed wire. Outside is the jungle, aggressively green. Above his head, the sun burns a hole in the sky. Sweat trickles down his forehead and into his eyes as he stares straight ahead of him, avoiding the gaze of the man in uniform looming over him.

"What's this, Maximilian? Tears? For a skinned knee? What would our glorious leader say to such a disgrace? An Indian brave knows no pain! And nor does a warrior for the Cause! Stop that noise! When I have finished with you, you will know what real pain is. And there will be no more tears."

"The puppy, Maximilian? Yes, you can have him back. Here, this is the puppy. A big boy like you mustn't be afraid of death, you know. You use death to make other people afraid of iyou/i. Stop snivelling! It won't bring the puppy back. And you know what happens to boys who cry!"

"Maximilian, these are bad men. They tried to break into the compound. Do you know what we do with bad men? Do you remember the puppy? Look, Maximilian, the man is crying. See how ugly he looks. His eyes are red, and there's snot on his face. You don't want to look like that, do you? So pull the trigger."

"Hold still, Maximilian. I have to rub salt into the cut, otherwise there will be no scar. Keep still. You want to look like your father, don't you? You don't want to let him down. You mustn't be afraid of pain. Pain gives you power. Pain is how you exert control."

"Ask him questions, Maximilian. Ask him how he got here. You can see he's afraid of you. Teach him to be even more afraid. Teach him what real pain means. But be careful that he doesn't die."

"Well done, Maximilian, well done! Your father would be proud of you! You are an artist, like him. A credit to our glorious leader!"

A hand reaches out, to clap the boy on the shoulder, and Illya flings up his arm.

Don't touch me!

The intercom on his desk buzzes and he blinks, like a man emerging from a darkened room into bright sunlight.

"Mr Kuryakin? Mr Waverly says are you ready?"

"Um, yes," says Illya, and rubs his eyes. "Yes, I'm ready."

He's about to step into a long tunnel. The walls will close in around him, the light behind him will vanish, and he doesn't know if he will ever reach the other end. But even if he does, even if there is light shining somewhere outside, it won't be the same man who walks out into it.

One moment of real life sets the right tone for the whole performance.

He's ready to be Nexor now.