Just a Nice, Private Affair
U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters, New York. February, 1967.
"A small one —."
"Sorry, luv. Not even a crumb."
April Dancer watched as her partner, Mark Slate, dragged his plate of apple pie away from her, to the other side of his tray. She chewed her empty fork and sighed.
"Oh Mark, after all we've been through together, how can you be so cruel?"
"Why don't you buy your own dessert?" Illya Kuryakin asked reasonably from his commissary table, which had been pushed together with theirs. He'd finished his own lunch a while ago. Now, he was hunched over the outspread sheets of the New York Times, reading the editorial pages.
"I can't," Dancer replied. "I'm on a diet."
Again? Kuryakin thought, though he didn't say so. Dancer was lean and muscular — almost boyish — and certainly physically fit. Yet she seemed to adopt new diets as often as Napoleon Solo changed girlfriends.
"Well, this time, you're not going to blame me for tempting you to cheat," Slate told her with mock indignation.
"But what's one teeny, weeny piece?"
"I think you're enjoying this."
Slate offered her a crooked grin. Kuryakin chuckled to himself and turned the page. Knowing her cause was lost, at least for the moment, Dancer shifted her attention elsewhere. As she scanned the busy commissary, her face suddenly lit up.
"Ah, here comes Napoleon." She eyed Slate, triumphantly. "I'll bet he won't mind sharing."
She gathered up the dirty plates and crumpled paper napkins to make room at the table as Solo, tray in hand, elbowed his way through the noontime crowd to join them. The Enforcement chief was not in his usual good spirits. He appeared noticeably preoccupied. The other agents waited for him to volunteer an explanation. In their business, it simply wasn't good manners to ask.
"The Old Man wants to see all of us," Solo said, after he settled into a seat opposite Dancer. "One thirty, sharp."
All of us? Slate wondered as he exchanged sideways glances with his partner. It must be something very serious, indeed. "Can you tell us what's up, Napoleon?"
Solo took his time answering. He poured himself a ginger ale, then offered Slate a rueful half-smile. "George Dennel is getting married."
"Gorblimey! You don't say?"
Slate sat back in his chair. Nearby, Kuryakin looked up from his newspaper and peered over his reading glasses to listen.
"George told me, himself, this morning," Solo went on, while Dancer reached across the table and plucked a French fry from his plate. Solo didn't seem to notice. "He says he wants just a nice, private affair. Apparently he's made all the arrangements — the church, the banquet hall. The date is June 17th."
"How lovely!" Dancer declared, but none of the men seemed to share her delight.
"Can't say I fancy the timing," Slate said, annoyed. "What with that bloody mess in China and the Middle East a powder keg, ready to blow. And don't forget that meeting they're trying to arrange between Johnson and Kosygin. Should happen around that same month." The British agent shook his head. "Who's he marrying anyway?"
"His girlfriend, no doubt," Dancer cut in, dryly. She stole another one of Solo's French fries and popped it into her mouth. "Don't you remember? Her name's Cathy Orsini. We met her at the Christmas party."
"You mean the little mousy thing with the teeth and the glasses?" Slate turned to Solo. "Does he have to?"
"What an awful thing to say!" Dancer exclaimed. "She's a very nice girl."
"I'm sure she is, luv."
" — If you like the type," Solo allowed between bites of breaded veal cutlet. He glanced at Dancer, who was nibbling her third French fry. "Aren't you on a diet?" he asked, innocently. The woman agent glared at him.
"But this is rather short notice, don't you think?" Slate continued. "I mean, are we talking shotguns here or what?"
"Oh, Mark, really!" Dancer gave her friend's shoulder a punitive whack, but Kuryakin was more philosophical.
"It's happened before." The Russian agent cocked an eyebrow in his partner's direction. "Quite recently, in fact."
"Don't remind me," Solo muttered. Kuryakin was referring to the mix-up over Pia Monteri during their affair in Italy, an embarrassment best relegated to the confidential files. Solo returned to the main topic. "No, it's just your average engagement. No threats, no plots, no coercion involved. Nobody in her family even owns a gun. Her father's an optometrist from Queens. We checked it out —."
Dancer held up her hands in exasperation. "Then I don't understand. Why all this doom and gloom? What's the problem?"
"The problem is, dear girl," Slate began gently, "that George Dennel is chief of Section Four. And knowing George, he'll probably invite everyone from the whole bloody building to the thing. Even Waverly will be there. Working out the security logistics alone should take months."
He looked to the other male agents for support. "Remember Carl Hickey's wedding?" Solo and Kuryakin nodded in unison.
"Well, this all sounds like nothing more than sour grapes to me," Dancer said. "Just because the three of you have this unnatural aversion to the institution of marriage, it doesn't mean that poor George should end up a lonely, bitter old bachelor, too." She snapped up one last French fry and bit into it deliberately, for emphasis. "And I, for one, believe a June wedding is terribly romantic."
Slate rolled his eyes at Solo, who made a sound deep in his throat. At the next table, Kuryakin returned to his newspaper.
"It will be a nightmare," the Russian said, under his breath.
"And that's precisely what I'm determined to prevent," Alexander Waverly declared as he tamped down the tobacco tightly, into the bowl of his pipe. "I'll not have this wedding turn into a three-ring circus, as Mr. Hickey's did. Is that understood?"
Perched on the edge of circular conference table, Solo nodded gravely.
"Excuse me, sir," Dancer said, "but I'm sort of the new kid on the block. Exactly what happened at Carl's wedding?"
Dancer knew that Carl Hickey had tied the knot years ago, before the edict barring Enforcement agents from marrying went into effect. He and his wife were currently expecting their second child. Besides Carl, however, Dancer could count the married field operatives she knew on the fingers of one hand. Even in the other sections, key personnel wearing wedding bands were few and far between. Now, she suspected, she was going to find out why this was so.
Sitting next to her, Slate doodled an endless series of tic-tac-toe boards on a yellow legal pad while behind her, Kuryakin leaned against a windowsill and watched the snow fall on the city in lazy flurries. Both men looked to Solo to provide an answer, which he did, after his customary hesitation.
"Ah. . . well, you see April, a couple of agents from the local Thrush satrap decided it might be fun to crash Carl's wedding. They managed to infiltrate a local limousine company as drivers, and tried to abduct the bride."
"Very nearly succeeded, too," Kuryakin growled.
Slate reacted with a grin and continued doodling. "Lucky for us, luv, the limousine company was rather derelict in maintaining its vehicles properly."
"The caddy blew a rod during the chase," Solo said to Dancer, by way of explanation. He seemed embarrassed and eager to forget the entire affair.
On the other side of the conference table, Waverly touched a match to his pipe and began to puff. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he observed. "That's why I've called you all here this afternoon." The tobacco glowed in the bowl and the aroma of Isle of Dogs
No. 22 wafted through the room. Satisfied, Waverly settled the pipe sideways, between his teeth, so that it rested comfortably at the corner of his mouth.
Slate saw the freshly-lit pipe and frowned. He and Napoleon had an on-going bet over whether Waverly would actually smoke the bloody thing or not. Each time the Old Man succeeded in getting his pipe going, Slate lost five dollars.
"I'm appointing the four of you to serve as a special security task force, with Mr. Solo in charge."
"But George wants me to be his best man, sir," Solo said.
"Good. That will work to our advantage. It should provide you with ample opportunity to keep an eye on the arrangements from the inside. You'll also be responsible for the safety of the wedding party."
"George has asked me to serve as an usher, too," Kuryakin said. Waverly shook his head.
"Out of the question. It's imperative that you remain free to maneuver, Mr. Kuryakin. You and Mr. Slate will be responsible for running background checks on the prospective guests and vendors."
Waverly indicated a pile of dossiers on the conference table. Slate plucked the top file from the stack, the one labeled "Guest List", and opened it. The densely-typed computer printout looked as long as the entire Queens telephone directory.
"There must be three or four hundred names and addresses here," the British agent exclaimed, trying to contain the annoyance in his voice. It leaked out anyway.
"Two-hundred and eighty-two," Waverly corrected him. "Although Mr. Dennel's family is small, as you can see, his fiancée's is not. Of course, not everyone will accept an invitation, but we have no way of knowing in advance who that will be."
"Perhaps we might persuade George to plan a slightly more intimate affair," Slate said hopefully as he tossed the guest dossier back on the pile.
"Mr. Dennel and his bride shall have whatever sort of wedding they desire," Waverly replied sternly. "Need I remind you all that he is one of this organization's most valued employees? It's not our place to interfere, only to see that everything proceeds smoothly, on schedule, with no unpleasant surprises. Do I make myself clear?"
There was a muttered chorus of "yes sirs."
"And please, gentleman," Waverly added, a bit gentler now, "do try to employ a little discretion as you go about your business. We don't want to give the impression to the Orsini family that their daughter is marrying a member of some sinister secret police."
"And what about me, sir?" Dancer asked, feeling somewhat left out. "What should I be doing?"
"Never fear, Miss Dancer, I haven't forgotten about you. Indeed, you will play a vital role on this task force, since only you can do what the rest of us here cannot." Waverly smiled a rare smile as the pipe stem clicked against his teeth. "You can follow the bride into the ladies' powder room."
Sometime later, after the meeting was over, the agents emerged from the sliding steel panels to find George Dennel waiting for them. Standing beside Lisa Rogers' desk in the outer office of the executive suite, he glanced from one agent to the other. They were all carrying thick file folders. None of them looked happy.
"How'd it go, Napoleon?" Dennel asked anxiously, but Solo ignored him. At the moment, the Enforcement chief had more important matters on his mind. He inclined his head toward Slate and whispered, "Pay up."
Grudgingly, the British agent dug into his trouser pocket and peeled a five dollar bill from his money clip. He passed it to Solo, who flourished it in triumph.
As the agents continued along the corridor, single file, Dennel fell into step beside them.
"So it's going to be all right, guys? I mean with the arrangements and all? Cathy wants a big wedding. But it's okay, isn't it? Isn't it?" Solo halted in his tracks and clamped a hand to Dennel's shoulder. Behind his horn-rimmed glasses, Dennel felt the strength in Solo's grip and winced. Although he considered Napoleon one of his closest friends, he was always acutely aware that this particular friend could kill him with a single, well-placed blow.
"George, we took a vote and it came out unanimous."
"Uh-huh. If you don't elope before June, we're going to shoot you."
Dennel froze, the color draining from his face.
"You're kidding," he said after a beat. Solo's expression remained unreadably neutral as he turned and walked away. Kuryakin and Slate followed, streaming past on either side.
"He's kidding, right?" Dennel said to Dancer. The woman agent crooned to him, sweetly, "Don't worry, George, dear. You still have time."
She trotted briskly after the others, leaving Dennel to stand alone in the middle of the corridor.
Four months later.
The shot whined loudly as it ricocheted off the concrete wall of the indoor range.
"About six inches to the right, two o'clock," Dancer said.
Solo squinted through the scope of a fully-assembled U.N.C.L.E. Special and fired again. This shot was closer, but still missed the target, some thirty feet away.
"Still wide. Why don't you use a bore sighter?"
"I did," Solo replied, annoyed. "But something's wrong with this one. It isn't worth a damn."
He pushed the defective sighting instrument aside in disgust. He hated losing a gun on a mission. Lining up the scope on a new one was almost more trouble than it was worth. He turned the adjustment knob slightly, then hunched down and fired a third time. The bullet tore a chunk off the corner of the target.
"Better," Dancer observed. "At least you're on the paper, now." She paused. "I hate to bother you, Napoleon, but do you have a minute? I need help filling out this report on last month's Istanbul affair."
Solo set his gun down on the padded counter before him. The headquarters target range fell silent. This morning, they were the only agents there.
"What's the problem?" Solo asked.
"I'm don't know whether to use a J-Hac or a U-Mac to report a casualty."
For enforcement agents employed by a bureaucracy as large and complex as U.N.C.L.E., paperwork at the office was as much a part of their lives as the dangers they encountered in the field. For example, for legal reasons, they were always required to account for all deaths occurring as a direct result of their missions.
Dancer held up two sheets of paper. One was hot pink and bore the title, "Justifiable Homicide/Abrogating Circumstances". The other was canary yellow and read, "Unavoidable Manslaughter/Mitigating Circumstances." With typical gallows humor, field agents commonly called them "score cards."
"Was he a belligerent or a civilian?" Solo asked. Civilian deaths were not usually counted on the pink forms, since — with rare exceptions — the deliberate murder of a so-called innocent was never justified.
"Belligerent," Dancer replied. "He tossed a grenade at me, and I tossed it back."
"Did you mean to kill him?"
Dancer arched an eyebrow, genuinely offended. "Certainly not. It was purely a reflex action."
Solo shrugged. "Then it's manslaughter. Use the yellow one."
Just then, the door slid aside to admit Rick Greenwood, who had a weapons acquisition form for Solo to sign. Greenwood offered Dancer a mumbled "hello," before turning his back on her.
As the two men conferred, Dancer waited patiently, resisting the impulse to make a crack about poor manners. After almost two years in Section Two, she was used to it. Greenwood wasn't a bad sort, but like many of the male enforcement agents, he was still uncomfortable in Dancer's presence, so he usually ignored her.
"Is it all set for tonight?" he asked Solo, keeping his voice low. "Did you hire the, um — the y'know?"
Solo knew, and from the tone of Greenwood's nervous laughter, Dancer knew, too. Men can act so dumb sometimes, she thought. "Everything's been taken care of," Solo replied smoothly as he scribbled his signature at the bottom of the form. He handed it back to Greenwood.
"That's great, Napoleon, thanks. See you tonight. Uh, 'bye April."
The agent waved in Dancer's general direction and left. Solo returned to the problem of adjusting his scope. Dancer propped up her chin on her hand and eyed him slyly.
"So: you found them a stripper for the bachelor party," she said.
"I didn't have a choice. You should've heard what they were planning originally. Probably would've landed us all in jail."
Which might have been especially inconvenient, Dancer told herself, considering that George's wedding was the very next day.
"It should be all right," Solo went on. "I called Lilly. You remember her, don't you?"
Dancer nodded, approvingly. It was a good choice. For a call girl, Lilly was real class and as honest as they came. She could be trusted to keep the boys in line.
"By the way, how was the bridal shower?" Solo asked. Since she'd filed her report on it the week before, Dancer wondered if he was really interested, or just making polite conversation to compensate for Greenwood. She gave him a capsule summary of the largely uneventful event. Compared to the excitement of tonight's impending festivities, the details of cake, coffee, and chatty conversation seemed downright inane.
"Afterward," Dancer went on, "we took the two toasters, three irons, the dozen bed sheets, the two dozen towels, the set of china — complete service for twelve, mind you — the silver-plated flatware and the matching mint-green bath ensemble and loaded it all into the back of Mr. Orsini's station wagon. And then I took my trusty bomb detector and thoroughly checked the entire haul." Dancer sighed. "Will this earn me a merit badge at least?"
"Sounds as if you didn't have a good time."
"Oh, it was all right, I guess. I just felt out of place, like I didn't quite fit in."
She watched as he hunched forward again, bracing the stock extension of the U.N.C.L.E. Special against his shoulder, and fired off a full clip. This time, all the shots found the target, well-grouped and decently spaced. Solo grunted with satisfaction and reached for another clip.
"The bride certainly looked happy," Dancer mused aloud, between volleys. "I almost envied her."
Solo had retrieved the tattered target and was now rummaging for another. He couldn't seem to find one.
"Here, use this. I saved you a souvenir."
Solo chuckled as Dancer presented him with a tiny pink umbrella. He snapped the party favor into the target clip and reeled it back down the wire.
"It must be nice to be in love," Dancer said wistfully, "even for awhile." The U.N.C.L.E. insignia hanging above their heads caught her eye. The skeletal globe and the little man poised protectively beside it, were positioned side by side, like the bride and groom dolls atop a wedding cake. Funny, she'd never noticed that before.
"I thought you were in love with something else already — a cause," Solo said, leaning forward, his elbows locked.
"Causes are for men — at least, that's how the conventional wisdom goes, doesn't it? Maybe women need something more. A husband. A family. Something solid. Something tangible."
Solo concentrated, preparing to aim, but just before he pulled the trigger, Dancer quickly drew her own Special from a back holster and fired full-auto.
"Not bad," Solo remarked, blinking, as the sound and the smoke died away. At the other end of the target range, the tiny umbrella had been completely blasted away. "Ah — isn't that tangible enough for you?"
Dancer holstered her gun and replied with a smile, "It'll do for now."
The private backroom of Sal's Bar. Somewhere in Queens.
They spent the first two hours toasting the bride and the next two, toasting the groom. Then Lily Matthews did her act, the same one she'd performed during the lean years of her youth at the Club Miami in Hoboken, New Jersey. Like her boa, the bump-and-grind routine was a little frayed around the edges, but no one in the enthusiastic audience seemed to mind. Afterward, she stayed for a few beers and some laughs, just to be a good sport, but when they began to toast the bride again, Lilly decided enough was enough. She'd more than earned her fee for the evening.
"Lilly's tired. I'm going to take her home," Solo told Slate, sometime around one.
"Are you coming back?
"That depends. Think I should?"
Slate regarded Lilly, wrapped in her mink and waiting patiently by the side door. He knew that she and Napoleon were friends — well, even a tad more than friends — and that when they went to bed together, as they did from time to time, no money changed hands.
"No, I should think I can handle things here on my own."
Solo eyed the British agent dubiously. At the moment, they were the only two sober men in the room. Somewhere in the background, someone was calling for a Russian toast. Apparently, they'd exhausted all the English ones. Kuryakin obliged in his native tongue.
"What the hell does that mean?" Greenwood demanded.
"I believe a loose translation would be: 'May your wife never weigh more than you do.'"
A roar of raucous laughter went up from the group.
"George's dog weighs more than he does!" Scott Ward, Dennel's young assistant shouted. There was more laughter. "Ain't that right George?"
Dennel didn't answer. He was curled up in a corner chair, fast asleep. Slate turned back to Solo and shook his head.
"This can't go on much longer. They've only one more case of Budweiser."
"Okay," Solo said, still not entirely convinced. "I'm leaving you in charge. But if there's a problem — any kind of problem at all — give me a jingle."
"Will do," Slate replied, adding: "Have a good night." As he watched Lilly link her arm through Napoleon's and leave, Slate had no doubt that they would.
The British agent drifted back to the party and found himself a seat behind an empty table near the back of the room. Now the men were toasting anything that came to mind, from the glories of the female form, to the convenience of pop-top cans. The center of attention had shifted, too. The focus was no longer on the groom, who was still dozing peacefully in the corner, but on Kuryakin and Sal Orisni, the owner of the bar and oldest brother of the bride. The two men were matching each other, drink for drink, toast for toast, egged on by the encouraging hoots and hollers of their respective cheering sections.
Kuryakin was drinking vodka. Orsini, who was well over six foot and probably outweighed the Russian by at least a hundred pounds, was swigging straight bourbon. Occasionally, at other places around the bar, a dollar bill or two would materialize discreetly between an U.N.C.L.E. agent and a member of the bride's family.
A mug's game, Slate told himself. He had no doubt who would win. He'd seen Kuryakin perform this little parlor trick before. As long as the Russian agent kept to his vodka, he could bloody well drink anyone under the table — including Sal, his two muscular brothers, and all the rest of their clan.
Slate tipped his chair back and propped his feet comfortably against his own table. There was nothing else to do but wait for the liquor to run out. He reached into his pocket, fished out his communicator, and switched it on.
"Open Channel L," he said, keeping his voice low. And then, after a moment: "April? Are you sleeping yet?"
"I was until you called," Dancer's voice came back, groggily.
"Sorry, luv. Just checking in."
The woman agent stifled a yawn. "No problems to report here. I tucked the bride in around ten, and it's been quiet ever since. How's the bachelor party?"
"Somewhat of a bore, actually."
"Mmmm. . . really?" Dancer replied dully. She didn't sound very sympathetic.
Slate scanned the room just as Scott Ward appeared at the storeroom door, brandishing two long-necked green bottles in either hand.
"Hey guys, look what I found! And there's more where this came from!"
"Oh, good Lord!" Slate muttered to himself. "I was rather hoping we'd be ready to call it a night soon," he told his partner, "but now it seems that Scotty has located a fresh case of champagne."
"Then why don't you be a good lad and pinch a bottle for me?" Dancer yawned again, and this time, she made no attempt to suppress it. "And try not to stay out too late. We'll need you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning."
Indeed! Slate thought, indignantly. I shall count myself lucky to be home before dawn, but he missed the opportunity to say so aloud. Dancer had already signed off. He capped his communicator just as Ward popped the cork on one of the champagne bottles.
"Get me a glass, quick!" the Section Four specialist cried, lapping at the overflow. Wes Lerner, a surveillance agent, dutifully produced a used tumbler and sent it skidding along the bar. When it reached the end of the counter, the glass sailed off and crashed to the floor. It took three more tries before one finally arrived intact.
"Thanks," Ward said. He poured himself a glass — and promptly passed out. The bottle slipped from his grasp.
Nearby, Malcolm McNan watched as the young man collapsed into a heap in the midst of the shattered glass, the champagne puddling around him.
"The hell with him, Mac," Lerner called out. "Save the champagne!" But McNan, who'd served as an army medic before joining U.N.C.L.E. as a field agent was more concerned. Unsteadily, he dropped to one knee beside Ward and declared softly, "Something's wrong."
"Obviously," Greenwood snickered. "He's drunk. Throw some water on him."
"No, Rick, I mean it."
McNan placed his hand on Ward's chest, held it there for a few seconds. "Illya," he said aloud, automatically addressing the highest ranking agent in the room. "Scotty's not breathing."
Before Kuryakin could stagger to his feet, Slate had sprinted across the room and elbowed his way through the gathered circle of men. Bending low over Ward, McNan had already begun mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"I'll call an ambulance," Sal Orsini volunteered, and reached for the phone.
"No!" Slate shouted. "We'll contact our own people." He whipped out his communicator again, thumbed the dial and said, "Open Channel A. Top priority —."
"Jesus Christ, what's the matter with you, man? Can't you see the guy's dying?"
"Sal's right," Kuryakin told Slate, and signaled to Orsini to complete his call.
"But Illya, it might be a Thrush trap —."
Kuryakin nodded. He was sobering up quickly. "I know, Mark, but we're too far from headquarters. Our medical team will probably arrive too late. If we don't want to lose Scotty, we'll have to take the chance."
Reluctantly, Slate agreed, and thumbed to a different channel. He glanced over at McNan, working desperately on their fallen colleague.
"Any luck, yet?" Kuryakin asked from the background. A few of the men gathered around McNan and Ward shook their heads, gloomily. Slate turned his attention back to his communicator as it chattered to life.
"Solo here," a voice said. It sounded thick and a little out of breath.
"Napoleon? Sorry for the interruption, but you'd best pull your trousers on. We've an emergency here, Code X-12." Already, he could hear sirens approaching in the distance. Even Dennel was waking up.
At the other end of the transmission, there was a pause, followed by a muffled curse.
"I knew it," Solo said.
"I knew something like this was bound to happen, I knew it! I warned Mark last night."
"Stand still, for God's sake."
Solo forced himself to remain motionless long enough for Dancer to reposition the stickpin in his ascot. "You read the report," she told him soothingly. "Scotty's going to be all right. Mac started him breathing and kept him going until the ambulance arrived. And Dr. Tower brought the antidote to the hospital in time." She smoothed the lapel of Solo's gray cutaway coat and straightened the boutonniere. "There, now. Everything's going to be fine, you'll see."
Solo made a sound low in his throat and checked his watch. It was twenty minutes to ten. "Where the hell is Mark anyway?" he said.
They were standing just inside the vestibule of the Our Lady of Perpetual Peace Roman Catholic Church, surrounded by arriving guests and well-wishers, on a Saturday morning that could only be described as beautiful. Shafts of buttery sunlight streamed in through the open church doors.
"At least the weather is holding up," Dancer remarked. Outside, she saw a familiar figure trotting up the walk. "If only we could say the same for Mark."
Exhausted and red-eyed, Slate looked as if he'd been awake all night — which, in fact, he had. Before Solo could speak, Slate held up a hand.
"Don't say it, Napoleon. We're on top of the situation. I've just come from the banquet hall. A demolitions squad has been there since six, going over the place, plank by bloody plank. Everything's under control."
"You said you could handle it last night, too," Solo reminded him irritably. "Was the entire case of champagne contaminated?"
"The lab's not through testing all the bottles, but yes, it appears so. Ten cc's of Clu-Tox 7 in each."
Derived from the natural poison of the Pacific thread herring, Clu-Tox 7 was a standard Thrush toxin that paralyzed the victim's respiratory system. It was odorless, fast-acting and extremely deadly.
"Do we know who purchased the champagne?" Solo asked. "Where did it come from?"
Slate shifted uneasily. "I haven't a satisfactory answer to that one, yet. Sal swears he didn't order it and, for what it's worth, the case hadn't been stored with the regular stock. Apparently, it arrived yesterday, late in the afternoon. Sal's bartender accepted delivery. There was a handwritten note from the bride accompanying it."
"What?" Solo and Dancer said together, in concert. Slate nodded.
"I popped by the Orsini household to question her about it, but naturally, she denies having sent either the note or the champagne. Intelligence is following it up."
Dancer looked from one man to the other. "Oh, you don't really suspect Cathy, do you?"
"At this point," Solo growled, "I suspect everyone." He glanced pointedly at the doorway of the vestibule leading into the nave of the church. The arch had been wired with a metal detector, and a technician inconspicuously stood by, monitoring the readings. Those who wished to pass through armed, were required first to show good cause why they should be allowed to do so.
Dancer peered through the doorway. Most of the pews were filled, primarily with U.N.C.L.E. personnel from the technical sections and Cathy Orsini's relatives. Evidently, near-sightedness ran in the family. Dancer had never seen so many people wearing eyeglasses in one place, before.
As usual, the high-ranking chiefs and enforcement agents trying to impersonate regular folks were easy to pick out of the crowd. Carlo Venerdi had flown in from Rome; Paul Wescott, an ex-New York hand, from Paris. Nate Cassidy, the Las Vegas station chief, was also there, with a leggy blonde half his age, on his arm.
"I see Nate brought a showgirl to keep him company," Dancer commented dryly.
"That's his number two," Kuryakin told her, as he joined the little group in the vestibule. He leaned close to Dancer. "That woman's hands are registered lethal weapons."
"I'll just bet they are," Dancer smirked. Like Solo, the Russian agent was dressed in striped trousers, a gray vest and a gray cutaway coat. With Scott Ward still recovering from the poison, Kuryakin had been recruited to replace him. He was also the only agent thin enough to fit comfortably into Ward's rented clothes.
Kuryakin eyed Slate and observed, "You look worn out."
"I am. But everything is finally under control."
"Isn't that what you said last night?"
"Oh, sod it all! I've had just about enough of this!" Slate rasped, trying to keep his voice low. "Might I remind you, mate, that while I remained slavishly on duty, you were otherwise occupied, getting royally pissed — ?"
"I thought I was acting rather friendly," Kuryakin replied with an innocent shrug, while Solo came to his defense.
"Take it easy, Mark. He was only kidding . . ."
But Slate was having none of it. " — And as for you, well, good manners and mixed company will not permit me to mention what you were doing at the time!"
"What were you doing?" Dancer asked Solo, but he cut her off abruptly.
"Shhh. Everyone settle down. Here comes the Old Man." The Enforcement chief stepped forward to greet their superior.
"Glad to see you could get away from the office, sir."
"Oh, I never miss an agent's wedding, Mr. Solo." Waverly seemed in particularly good spirits. He almost smiled.
"And where's Mrs. Waverly today, sir?" Solo asked, more out of courtesy than genuine curiosity. For security reasons, Waverly seldom brought his wife to U.N.C.L.E.- related functions. Solo himself had only met the woman twice.
"At home, I'm afraid. Her blasted allergies are kicking up again." Waverly changed the subject. "I hear you had some trouble last night."
"Ah, yes sir." Solo's eyes shifted sideways to Slate and Kuryakin. "But everything's under control now."
"Good, good. Well then, I will see you all later." There were polite nods all around.
"Oh, and Miss Dancer?"
"Why thank you, sir."
As their chief disappeared into the knave of the church, the four agents let out a collective sigh of relief. "If you'll excuse me," Kuryakin said, "I should attend to my ushering duties."
"And I suppose I'd better find George," Solo said. "Last time I saw him, the man was a walking bundle of nerves."
Just like the rest of us, he wanted to add, but didn't. Instead, he gave Dancer's peach chiffon a quick appraisal. "That is a nice dress."
"How kind of you to finally notice," she laughed, and offered him a small, lady-like curtsey. "Do you have the ring?"
Solo patted his vest pocket. "By the way, what's my maid of honor like?"
Dancer smiled slyly. "You mean Cathy's cousin from Detroit? Oh, she's tall, rather interesting looking. Her name's Mildred."
Solo rolled his eyes heavenward. "Mildred, huh? Something tells me it's going to be that kind of day." Resigned, he left Slate and Dancer and went in search of the groom.
Pacing back and forth, along the length of the sacristy, George Dennel looked nervous enough to wet his striped pants.
"Oh Jeez, Napoleon, there you are. I was beginning to worry. I mean after last night and all . . ."
Solo reached out a reassuring hand to his friend's shoulder. "It's okay, George. Everything's under control."
Maybe if I keep repeating it, Solo told himself, I might start to believe it, myself.
"Do you have the ring?" Dennel asked.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, George. It's right here."
Why was everyone asking him that? Solo wondered as he held up the simple gold band, pinched between his fingertips. He was tempted to point out that this wasn't the first time he'd been entrusted with someone's crown jewels.
From the choir loft at the rear of the church, an organ began to play. Dennel jumped at the sound of the opening chord. Despite the sheen of sweat on his forehead, he rubbed his hands together like a man freezing in sub-zero temperatures, and resumed his pacing.
"Oh Napoleon, I'd rather this were you than me."
Oh yeah? Solo thought. And I'd rather be jumping out of a plane without a parachute at ten thousand feet. In some ways, you're a braver man than I am, George.
"What music is that?" Dennel asked aloud, trying to make conversation and keep his mind off the impending ceremony. The organist was noodling the keyboard, playing something for the assembled guests that sounded appropriately spiritual. Solo didn't recognize it. The priest, who was pulling the white surplice over his cassock, didn't know the piece either.
"Our regular organist usually plays a Bach prelude," the priest added helpfully.
Regular organist? A chill washed over Solo as if he'd been hit by a bucket of ice water. Trying his level-best to sound casual, the agent asked, "Ah, Father, am I to understand that there's been a change in personnel around here?"
"Oh, didn't you know? I'm sorry. I suppose I should have told you. Tony was in a car accident yesterday evening. It wasn't too serious, thank heaven. Lucky for us, a friend of his came by this morning, to fill in."
Luck, my foot! Solo thought bitterly. Withdrawing to a corner so neither the priest nor Dennel could overhear, Solo bent his head to a button-sized communicator, clipped to the underside of his lapel.
"I'm here, Napoleon."
"Check the organist, pronto. He's a last minute sub."
"Right. On my way."
"What's wrong?" Dancer asked, when she saw Slate screw the silencer onto the barrel of his Special. He checked the clip and snapped off the safety before slipping it back into his holster. Outside, the bride's limousine was just pulling up to the curb.
"Napoleon wants me to vet the organist."
Slate noted the concerned expression on his partner's face and smiled. "Don't worry, luv. It's probably nothing."
Then he glanced at the staircase leading to the choir loft and his smile faded. He didn't have to say it: the fact that the staircase led away from the vestibule, completely by-passing the metal detector, occurred to both of them at the same time.
"On second thought," Slate said, "perhaps you should be prepared for anything." He motioned toward the door, where Kuryakin and the other ushers were clustering around the arriving bridesmaids. "Tell Illya to stay with the bridal party."
Dancer offered him a discreet thumbs-up signal. Cautiously, Slate climbed the narrow wooden stairs.
At the top, he found the choir loft unexpectedly spacious. He walked between the organ, set midway to the railing, and the row of ancient pipes lined up behind it, along the back wall. The pipes were no longer in use, but remained merely for ornamental purposes. The Wurlitizer organ was a large one, with four curved manuals and at least a hundred stops, and a console so tall, it obscured all but the crown of the organist's head.
"Beg your pardon, sir," Slate said, addressing himself to the head, which bobbed in time with the music. "Could I have a word with you?"
The organist looked up. "Sure," he said. The music tapered off to a few prolonged notes, then ended entirely. The man stood up.
He was six foot five and built like a front row prop from South Wales. Slate swallowed hard, dark memories flashing from his rugby days. He planted himself more firmly, balancing on the balls of his feet, and prepared himself for the worst.
But the organist seemed friendly enough. He even grinned pleasantly as he met Slate near the staircase and asked, "Is there a problem with the music?"
"Not the music precisely," Slate replied. "You see —."
He never finished the sentence. A fist that felt like a lump of iron seemed to come out of nowhere, catching Slate hard in the jaw and slamming him backward, against the row of organ pipes. Dazed, the agent shook his head, trying desperately to clear it, but before he could, the organist was on him again, delivering two more pile-driving blows. Slate grabbed for his Special, and felt a meaty hand lock, vise-like, around his wrist.
They struggled, the gun pivoting between them. One instant it was pointed toward the organist. The next, it was aimed at Slate. Then, back again. The organist was stronger, but Slate was more agile. He managed to prevent the gun from being wrenched from his grip, and kept one finger wrapped around the trigger. When the opportunity finally came, the agent wriggled away from his larger opponent and fired.
The bullet drilled the organist in the side, just below the ribcage. The big man staggered, crying out in pain and surprise. He rammed his weight against the agent one last time, throwing Slate off-balance, then turned and ran for it.
Dancer was waiting for him, mid-way down the staircase. Roaring like a wounded bull, the organist lashed out with one powerful arm and shoved her aside. Dancer's own gun went flying as she hit the wall. Taking the steps two at a time, he then launched himself across the vestibule floor, racing past the group of gathered bridal attendants, before any one of them could even think to scream. In fact, he was nearly through the church doors, when suddenly, a soft thunk stopped him dead in his tracks. The organist arched as a sleep dart embedded itself in his spine. He went rigid and dropped, face down, to the top of the stone steps, fracturing his nose.
As the big man lay unconscious and bleeding, all eyes turned to Kuryakin, at the center of the crowd of attendants. Somewhat embarrassed, the Russian agent smiled sheepishly and holstered his gun.
"Did you get him?" Dancer asked. She stood at the bottom of the staircase, cradling a bruised shoulder. Kuryakin nodded and said, "You'd better call for an ambulance."
"All right, but if he dies on the way, I'm not doing the paperwork."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the church, Solo cracked open the sacristy door and peeked out. The organ music had stopped a while ago, replaced by the apprehensive rumbling of the crowd. Solo strained to see what was going on in the choir loft, but the organ was set too far back and the loft's solid wood railing blocked his view.
"What's happening out there?" Dennel whispered.
"I'm not sure," Solo said. Up in the choir loft, Dancer appeared and circled her fingers to form an OK sign. The organ music began again, this time more tentatively, with a few wavering chords of Wagner's traditional wedding march.
"That's our cue," Solo said, concealing his relief. He waited for Dennel to join him.
"Well, this is it, George. You know I wish you both the best."
Dennel sucked in a deep breath. "Were you this nervous when you got married?"
"Of course," Solo lied. Actually, at that moment, he couldn't remember how he'd felt, and it wasn't until he saw the white veiled figure of Dennel's fiancée that some of it came back to him.
Watching the procession wend its way down the main aisle, Solo was reminded of yet another young bride, one who never lived to celebrate her first anniversary, and the boy in him who died with her. There was no sorrow left, no grief. It was difficult to regret something lost so many lifetimes ago. The man he was now, had been born at a secret training school, on an uncharted tropical island, seven hundred miles off the nearest shipping lanes.
He raised his eyes to the choir loft, where Dancer was dabbing at her own with a hankie, and Slate was doing his damnedest to knock out a decent melody. No, Solo had no regrets. He knew where he belonged. Still, when he saw Cathy Orsini leave her father to take her place beside George, some vague, half-remembered joy tugged at his heart.
But then, Solo noticed the maid of honor who, contrary to expectations, had the measurements of a life-sized Barbie doll and the largest blue eyes he'd ever seen. When he smiled in her direction, she smiled right back. Then he heard the priest ask the ritual questions.
"I will," answered the groom.
"I will," answered the bride.
Solo looked at Cousin Mildred and thought wryly, "If I play my cards right, so will I."
"So whatta ya think, Mr. Slate?" the young man called out as he put the last finishing touches on the wedding cake. The whipped cream swirls on the second tier had been seriously smudged in transit by the delivery men, but now the repairs were almost complete.
"Looks smashing, Nick," Slate replied. He'd spent enough time vetting the kitchen staff to be on a first name basis with all of them. Nick Mancini was a kid from the neighborhood who was currently attending one of those culinary trade schools, hoping to become a pastry chef.
"Wish my teacher could see this. You don't happen to have a camera on ya, do ya?"
As Mancini stepped back to admire his handiwork, Slate swept a pocket bomb detector over the length of the cake. There was no response from the meter. The needle remained stationary. Satisfied, the agent nodded to himself.
Another crisis averted.
"All right, she's clear and ready to go," Slate said. "I'll be back in the Dorato Room, if anyone needs me."
"Okay, Mr. Slate. See ya later."
Exiting the kitchen, Slate picked his way back down the corridor, past the velour-flocked wallpaper and the wine-colored carpets of the La Fontana restaurant, located deep in the heart of Queens. Actually, the place was more than a mere restaurant well-known for serving good, dependable food. Beyond the main dining room, there were also several attached banquet halls that varied in size, depending upon the configuration of the accordion wall dividers.
The Dorato Room was the largest. As Slate circumnavigated the crowded dance floor, the five piece combo smoothly segued from a bluesy rendition of Moon River into the bouncier rhythms of The Girl from Ipanema. Although there were a few deserters, most of the dancers stuck with the shifting tempo. On the left, Carlo Venerdi was monopolizing his extremely desirable secretary, Gemma Lusson, while on the right, Mandy Stevenson was trying valiantly to teach her friend, Donald Baker, a few elementary steps. Behind them, Kuryakin was still partnered with Cousin Millie from Detroit and having an uncharacteristically good time.
Slate found Solo sitting alone at a table, nursing a dark, distinctly unparty-like mood.
"It appears that Millie has a thing for blond men," the British agent observed brightly, needling his friend, but Solo didn't respond to the jab. Slate changed the subject.
Solo gestured toward the dance floor where Dancer and the suave, silver-haired Cassidy were doing a mean Bossa Nova. Slate studied them thoughtfully and said, "You know, Nate really does resemble that movie star — that what's-his-name." He turned back to Solo and grinned.
"Ah, the fickleness of the female heart."
"Your lip is bleeding, again," Solo replied flatly.
He fished out two ice cubes from a nearby glass, wrapped them in a cloth napkin and passed them to Slate. The British agent's face still bore the visible effects of the pounding he'd received at the hands of the counterfeit organist earlier that day. Of course, the damage would have been a lot worse if the organist had actually gotten around to using the Swedish-made submachine gun they later found stashed in the Wurlitizer's console.
Watching Slate press the ice to his swollen lip, Solo asked, "So what've you got to be happy about?"
"Why shouldn't I be? In exactly ninety-three blessed minutes, this will all be over — just another fading memory — and I can go home and go to bed. I'm completely buggered."
"This wedding may end, but it won't be over, not by a long shot," Solo said with a decisive snort. Slate stared at him, waiting for an explanation. After a moment, Solo gave him one. "Intelligence called while you were gone. They spent the morning going over the telephone records of Allied Security Systems. They found a call to an out-of-state liquor distributor and traced it."
Allied was Cathy Orsini's employer and the installer of U.N.C.L.E.'s new ground level security system. In fact, that was how she and George had met. Slate knew what was coming next. Solo didn't have to say it, though he did.
"The champagne at last night's bachelor party was ordered from Cathy's office phone."
So there it was. "Bloody Christ," Slate said, softly. He put down the napkin, sodden with melted ice. "Have you told George yet?"
Solo poured himself another glass of champagne, emptying the bottle. The champagne was flat. He drank it anyway.
"What can I tell him?" Solo said helplessly. "The liquor distributor appears to be legit, at least for now. Intelligence is checking further, of course."
"The champagne might have been juiced, en route."
"True, but either way, the evidence against Cathy is circumstantial."
"Oh, Napoleon, this is terrible," Slate groaned, shaking his head. He was still shaking it when April Dancer wandered over to their table. She collapsed into a nearby seat, slightly sweaty and cheerfully out of breath. She looked from one man to the other.
"What's the matter with you two?" she asked.
And they told her.
"I still don't believe it," Dancer said, swigging the last of her rum and Coke. The ice cubes tinkled like little bells in the empty glass. Dancer turned to Kuryakin and asked, "Do you?"
The Russian agent, who'd abandoned Cousin Millie to join this impromptu powwow, shrugged. "I prefer not to draw conclusions before all the facts are assembled."
"Don't forget that note from the bride, luv," Slate pointed out.
"Section Four said the handwriting analysis was inconclusive," countered Dancer. She looked to Solo for support. "Anything from the organist?"
"He's in critical condition and still out like a light."
"So we don't know who hired him yet. Even if Cathy does have ties to Thrush, it would make more sense for her to lie low and use the marriage to her advantage. Besides, what woman would want to sabotage her own wedding? "
"Is that your intuition talking now?" Solo asked irritably.
"Oh, sure," Dancer shot back, "when it comes from a woman, it's intuition. When it comes from a man, it's 'from the gut.' Well, you taught me that sometimes you have to go with the gut, and right now, my gut tells me that someone else is behind this."
"Who, then?" Slate demanded in frustration. "Certainly it's none of our own people and we've run security checks on half the bloody population of Queens."
"I dunno, I dunno," Dancer conceded wearily, "but it must be someone on the inside. Maybe someone close to Cathy. Maybe someone in the wedding party." She turned back to Kuryakin. "What about Millie? She's the maid of honor, after all. She knew all the plans."
"I don't think so," Kuryakin replied simply.
"Oh, really? A couple of tangos and you can read the woman's mind? Now who's using intuition?"
"All right, all right," Solo said, cutting off the debate. "This bickering is getting us nowhere." At the other end of the banquet hall, the door to the kitchen swung open. Apparently, they were ready to bring in the cake. "Let's table it for now. Illya and I have to get back to the wedding party. The photographer will want to take pictures."
After Solo and Kuryakin walked away, Slate went to the bar for a refill on Dancer's rum and Coke and a much needed drink for himself, leaving his partner to stew all alone.
Men! Dancer thought sourly. She liked her three friends well enough and enjoyed working with them individually. But when they were all together, she always felt outnumbered, as if the male agents had something between them, something she couldn't share.
But suppose they're right? She looked over at George, blissfully unaware of the intrigue that swirled around his blushing bride. Cathy, a Thrush agent? Dancer dismissed the idea. It was much too awful to contemplate.
Just then, a woman guest sitting at a table near the door, abruptly rose and left the room. It was rather odd timing, Dancer told herself. Didn't the woman want to see them cut the cake?
With a vague sense of unease, Dancer pushed back her own chair and hurried after the departing guest.
"Where are you off to, luv?" Slate asked, a drink in each hand, as Dancer swept by him on her way out, but she could spare no time for an answer.
Out in the corridor, she saw her quarry striding briskly away, toward the restaurant wing of the building. Dancer thought the woman was headed for the main dining room, until she turned a corner and changed direction.
Who is she? Dancer wondered, trotting along. The agent mentally flipped through the file of guests. She'd seen this woman before. Somewhere. At the bridal shower — that was it. The woman's name was Claire. No, Claudia. Claudia-something. She was a friend of Cathy's. They worked together at Allied Security Systems.
Dancer quickened her pace.
The pursuit continued around two more corners and down one long corridor, ending with a door marked by the familiar symbol of a skirted silhouette. As Claudia-something disappeared into the ladies' room, Dancer slowed to a halt.
False alarm. Dancer sighed to herself. Probably just the usual feminine emergency, nothing more. She almost turned back to the wedding reception, when her sixth sense brought her up short. Something told her to keep going, so she did. Cautiously, she pushed open the ladies' room door.
The comfortable anteroom, filled with mirrors and plush upholstered chairs, was empty. The white-tiled bathroom beyond seemed equally quiet. Only the door on the end booth was closed. Dancer canted slightly, expecting to see two feet and finding none.
Suddenly, a creak broke the silence. It sounded like a window opening. Dancer reached under the hem of her dress and slipped a small .22 automatic from her leg holster. Taking a step backward, she prepared herself, then kicked down the steel door.
There was a sharp clunk as the flimsy lock gave way, followed by the ringing clang of the door smacking hard against a side panel, metal scraping metal. Inside the booth, Dancer found Claudia-something, with one foot balanced precariously on the top of the toilet tank, the other already out an open window.
"I suggest you hold it right there," Dancer said, leveling her automatic, "or I guarantee you're going to miss a lot more than dessert."
Thirty seconds later, the lapel of Solo's cutaway coat began to beep. As discreetly as possible, the agent leaned close to the button-sized communicator and whispered, "Solo here." In the background, the band was accompanying the guests as they sang a second chorus of The Bride Cuts The Cake. The tinny crackle of Dancer's voice was barely audible.
"Napoleon? There's a bomb in the cake. Do you hear? A bomb! And it's ready to blow."
Solo glanced at Kuryakin, standing beside him.
"I heard," the Russian agent said, and immediately went into action. He vaulted over the edge of the main table and headed for the cake, sitting on a stainless steel cart. Behind it, George and Cathy were posed, ready to cut the first slice.
"Smile!" the photographer said.
Before the tip of the bride's knife could pierce the top layer, however, Kuryakin hit the cart running. He kept going, leaving the problem of crowd control to Napoleon, who was following close behind.
This isn't worth it, Kuryakin told himself as he ran, aiming the wheeled cart for the kitchen doors. Weddings were supposed to be joyous and life-affirming, not exercises in commando survival techniques. Everything is always so complicated for us — and George isn't even a field agent. And even if the bride isn't a double agent, there's no guarantee that any marriage will last. Nothing is worth this much trouble . . .
They were in the kitchen now. Desperately, Kuryakin searched for some sort of sink or vat, hopefully, a large one.
"No!" Solo shouted to him. "Too dangerous in here. Too close to the others and we'll never submerge it completely. Take it outside!" All right, Kuryakin thought, but if the stuff inside this cake is anything like our experimental M-4, it won't matter where we go. We'll take all of Queens with us.
Solo held open the exit doors as Kuryakin and the cart careened through.
"Now what?" Kuryakin said as they plunged into the parking lot. Frantically, Solo scanned the area for open space. An empty lot would do, but the neighborhood around them was composed almost entirely of small shops and closely-spaced, single family homes.
"Napoleon! Quickly! We don't have the time!"
Solo spun on his heel. Then, through the cracks of the fence next door, he saw something that was even better than an empty lot.
"C'mon," he said to Kuryakin. "This way."
Kuryakin wheeled the cart around and followed. He had no idea where they were going, but he'd learned long ago to trust his partner so he didn't bother to ask.
Back in the kitchen, Mark Slate took a hurried head-count of the panicked staff and came up one short. Nick Mancini was missing.
"Damn," Slate cursed aloud. He went through the same exit that Solo and Kuryakin had just seconds before, but when he reached the parking lot, he dashed off in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, Kuryakin found himself hurtling up the walk of a neat, well-manicured yard toward an imposing redwood fence. Solo didn't waste precious time toying with the lock. He just shot it off and kicked open the gate. Kuryakin sailed on by.
It wasn't until he entered the enclosed backyard that Kuryakin understood the method to Solo's madness. In front of him stretched a lovely in-ground swimming pool. It was filled to the brim with clear, chlorinated water rippling in the sunlight.
"What the hell do you guys think you're doing?" someone shouted. As the apparent owner, a short, balding man, came through the gate, Solo intercepted him.
"Ah, sir. Excuse me, but for one day only, we're offering an all-expense paid, beautiful backyard pool, completely installed."
"Whatta ya crazy? I got a pool already!" the man screamed back.
Not for long, Kuryakin thought as he wheeled the cart to the edge and dumped the cake in, bride and groom dolls and all.
The explosion that followed sent a geyser into the sky. Two blocks away, you could see the crest of the water as it arched above the roofs, and in the surrounding buildings, the windows rattled.
"Just like the fourth of July, isn't it, Nick?" Slate said.
Mancini twisted to find Slate standing behind him, the barrel of an U.N.C.L.E. Special pressed against the back of Mancini's head. The young man raised his arms in defeat.
"I knew you couldn't leave the area without watching it go off," Slate went on. He clucked his tongue against his teeth. "That's the true mark of an amateur. How much did they pay you to activate the device after I left?"
"Three hundred dollars," Mancini replied. "I needed the money for tuition."
"You should have asked for more. Three hundred won't even cover your bail." He motioned with the gun and said, "Let's go."
The freshly painted words Just Married were still wet on the car's trunk while a row of tin cans and old shoes dangled on strings from the bumper. As George and Cathy Dennel came through the door of La Fontana's main entrance, the guests lined up in the parking lot to wish them good luck and wave good-bye.
"Good grief, Napoleon, what happened to you?" Dennel asked when he saw his friend waiting beside the car. Solo's left eye was blackened and almost swollen shut, and the sleeve on his cutaway coat was torn at the shoulder.
"Ah, Mr. Ponticelli next door took some exception to our using his swimming pool for a bomb tank," Solo said.
"But don't worry George," Kuryakin chimed in. "He finally calmed down after Napoleon explained to him it was all for the good of humanity — and your wedding."
"Was Claudia really working deep cover for Thrush?"
"So it appears," Slate replied, as he handed Solo a handful of ice cubes wrapped in a cloth napkin. Solo held the napkin to his injured eye. Slate continued: "Claudia was planted in Allied for another purpose, but when Cathy announced she was marrying you, our little Thrush bird decided to exploit the opportunity. She was the one who forged the note and had the champagne poisoned."
"You fellas didn't honestly believe that my Cathy would have anything to do with bombs and poisons, did you?" Dennel said.
Dancer grinned. "Of course not, George, not for a minute." She glanced over at her male companions, but not so coincidentally, all three of them just happen to be looking the other way.
Dennel extended his hand to Solo. "Well, I just want to tell you what a swell job you all did. I really appreciate it. Thanks."
"You're welcome," Solo said ruefully. He tucked the ice cubes under one arm and shook Dennel's hand. "Have a nice honeymoon."
Thank God we don't have to go with him, Solo thought as he watched Dennel climb into the car.
"I should like to echo Mr. Dennel's sentiments, Mr. Solo," Alexander Waverly said, joining them. "Two Thrush agents and a collaborator in custody and no lives lost —. "
"And no extra paperwork," Dancer added, sotto voce, to Slate.
" — Your team certainly deserves a day off."
Unaccustomed to receiving compliments from his boss, Solo looked back at the others. The troops had sustained a number of battle injuries. In addition to his own black eye, Dancer's arm was bruised from shoulder to wrist. Slate's jaw was still puffy and discolored. And Kuryakin, who was covered from head to toe with dripping whipped cream, fairly reeked of confectionery sugar and chlorine.
"Why thank you, sir," Solo finally managed to say.
Suddenly, there was a loud bang, like the sound of a gunshot. Instinctively, all the Enforcement agents in the crowd ducked, while the rest of the guests released a collective gasp of alarm.
But the excitement was only momentary: the noise was simply a backfire from Dennel's Chevy. As the bride and groom pulled away, the guests recovered themselves, tittering with embarrassment. Then the crowd broke up and everyone drifted away to their respective cars.
"What'd the Old Man have to say?" Kuryakin asked Solo, when they were alone again.
"He said we did a good job and we should all take tomorrow off."
Kuryakin ran a hand through his sticky hair and snorted in disgust. "That was generous of him. Tomorrow is Sunday."
So finally, it was all over.
The band members were packing up their instruments. The busboys were clearing away the last of the soiled tablecloths. Napoleon Solo sat alone in the nearly deserted banquet hall, sipping a warm, diluted scotch, finding himself once more amid the remnants of someone else's happiness.
From another room, he could hear the music of another orchestra, another wedding reception in progress. The melody sounded hollow and far away. He listened anyway, hardly noticing Dancer as she slipped into the seat beside him. When she saw the expression on his face, she read his mind.
"Feeling a little sentimental?" Dancer murmured.
"Hmmm. . . a little. Where's Mark?"
"Supervising the transfer of Claudia and the Mancini boy."
"Went with Millie to her hotel room. She invited him." Dancer leaned close and purred, "I think she said something about licking the icing from his hair."
"Then I suppose I'm elected to take you home."
"Oh, no you don't," Dancer said. "When you get in this sort of mood, I'm safer with Mark."
She propped up her chin on one hand and sighed. "I must confess, though, weddings always leave me a bit misty-eyed, too. Can't help but wonder if I'll ever be a bride."
Solo reached for her other hand and squeezed it. "Marry me, April Dancer. Have my children."
He sounded half-serious, which prompted Dancer to laugh out loud. "Not on your life, Napoleon. But I will dance with you."
Solo smiled. "Fair enough."
He held out his hand to her as the distant orchestra played the first sweet strains of As Time Goes By. They began to dance, oblivious to everything and everyone else around them, even to Mark Slate, who stood in the doorway, watching.
"Waiting for someone?" a passing waitress said to Slate.
The waitress, who was probably old enough to be his mother, peeked in. "Friends of yours?" she asked.
"Such a nice young couple."
Slate chuckled to himself. He didn't have the heart to tell her that together and separately, that nice young couple had probably killed enough people to fill the entire banquet room. And that even now, as they waltzed among the debris, sweeping across the floor in lazy, graceful circles, they were both wearing guns.