The Secret of My Partner's Success

New York City. August, 1967.

Sigmund Freud was not the first man to ask what women want, and surely, he will not be the last. Indeed, men have been scratching their heads over that one since they began sharing their caves. It was doubtful then, that a problem of such immense magnitude would be solved in a single afternoon, despite the storehouse of accumulated worldly wisdom assembled around the barroom table that day.

There was George Dennel, our chief of computer security, and Scott Ward, his young assistant. George had been married at the beginning of the summer, while Scotty's idea of the height of romance was a trip to a drive-in in Jersey, a fresh foil of Trojans, and a six-pack of imported beer.

There was also Mark Slate, who worked with April Dancer, and John Coleman, who wouldn't have accepted a woman partner even if Waverly doubled his salary. Finally, rounding out the group, there was Wes Lerner, a surveillance man who never could seem to line up a date, and my own partner, Napoleon Solo, who often juggled two or three at a time.

And then of course, there was me. As usual at this sort of clubby gathering, I was wishing desperately that I could be somewhere else.

Laboring as a team, all of us had just spent four and one half miserable days conducting the semi-annual system-wide inspection of headquarters' security. You must understand that running a check on even a limited security procedure can be tedious and trying. To do so for an entire system was beyond drudgery — it was heart-rending travail. Still, the entire system had to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb twice a year, though my friend Napoleon, who despised detail work, dreaded the inspections with a passion he reserved for few other things in his life.

But now it was Friday afternoon and the agony was over. All the tests were finished, the final report — in triplicate — was written, signed, and sitting on the Old Man's desk, and we'd repaired to Vic's, to compensate ourselves for a job well done with a modest reward of sandwiches and beer.

The conversation began decently enough, with a general postmortem of the inspection, followed by a lively debate over what recommendations might be made for upgrading procedures in the future. Wes and George were of the opinion that the system was presently performing well above satisfactory levels, while Napoleon, who'd been acutely embarrassed by the Hemingway affair some three years earlier, was not entirely convinced. Since I'd shared Napoleon's mortification in seeing all our best security measures so easily subverted, I, too, expressed a certain degree of skepticism.

This shoptalk was short-lived, however. As the afternoon wore on and the beer continued to flow, the level of discussion deteriorated rapidly to the usual office gossip, elbow-to-the-ribs appraisals of several new female employees, and veiled references to who was — or would be — sleeping with whom. If it was not quite locker room talk, it was the next best thing.

Eventually, the focus of attention centered on Scotty and his difficulties in securing a date with the new girl in Cartography named Trisha Sterling.

"Oh man, would I like to explore her geography!" Scotty said with his usual boyish charm. He also had a rather novel facility with the English language. The remark prompted me to think about the pile of paperwork that still waited for me back at the office. I began to devise strategies to extricate myself from the group as politely as possible.

Unfortunately, no opportunities presented themselves and Scotty continued on, describing the current object of his desire in elaborate and rather uncomfortably intimate detail. Apparently, neither Mark nor John was familiar with the lady in question and they provided Scotty with an avid, interested audience.

"If you guys could just see her," Scotty marveled, "she's so —."

As he groped for the precise terminology that would truly express his bursting admiration, I realized that we'd moved beyond mere lust to serious infatuation.

"— so luscious, like a butterscotch sundae, know what I mean?"

In point of fact, although I didn't usually share Scotty's juvenile enthusiasm, I knew exactly what he meant. Trisha Sterling had an almost visceral attractiveness that could only be properly described with gastronomical imagery: creamy skin; hair like melting honey; a candy apple smile, sweet but not sugary, a natural disposition as effervescent as good champagne. When she was deep in thought, she had a habit of running the tip of her tongue along the edge of her upper lip that sent a delicious shiver up the spine and made you wonder why a woman like that would be so enamored by maps.

Although George attempted to provide a voice of experience, no one at the table (or anywhere else for that matter) considered him particularly skilled in romance — his marriage notwithstanding — and he was largely ignored. On the other hand, Mark and John, both of whom boasted respectable track records when it came to women, were only too happy to offer advice on how to win this one's heart, and — as Wes so indelicately put it — score.

Now, I should point out that ever since the conversation had shifted from professional to personal matters, my friend and partner had not uttered a single word. And even as the rest of the group proposed and argued over several courses of action for Scotty to take, Napoleon continued to eat his veal parmigiana sandwich. Occasionally, between sips of beer, he would nod and smile, but it was the smile of a Cheshire cat — bemused and knowing, and decidedly above it all.

This sort of behavior was not as uncharacteristic as you might think. Napoleon is sometimes willing to discuss the fairer sex in general terms, but never in specifics, and despite the tendency toward sexual promiscuity that is so essential to his nature, his discretion is as legendary as his libido. Whatever secrets a woman brings to bed with him, remain safely there, between the sheets.

This isn't very surprising either, when you think about it. To use again one of those baseball metaphors that American males are so fond of, when you're constantly hitting them out of the ballpark, you don't need a scoreboard.

Once in the past, when I jokingly commented about his reluctance to share his considerable expertise with those of us less fortunate fellows, Napoleon contemptuously muttered something about refusing to cast pearls before swine and the subject was dropped. Nevertheless, he was continually sought out for counseling in matters of sex and love, and the few vague answers he offered only fueled more speculation.

For example, it was rumored that Napoleon's little black book not only listed the names of every available woman worth knowing who worked for U.N.C.L.E. world-wide, but was also annotated, with detailed notes on each woman's willingness and preferences — both sexual and otherwise — and even the dates of their cycles.

Ah, the fantasies frustrated men will indulge in...

On the other hand, as his partner, I knew the rumor was true. Napoleon depended a great deal on his astonishing good luck, but when it came to romance, he left nothing to chance. I also knew that if he ever died in the line of duty and willed that book to me, I could auction it off for a tidy sum and assure myself a comfortable retirement.

Because of our close partnership, I was privy to other secrets as well. The previous spring, I'd literally stumbled upon the fact that Napoleon was sleeping rather regularly with Slate's partner, April Dancer, a situation of which no one else in U.N.C.L.E., including Mark himself, was aware. And, I also knew that no matter how carefully the current battle plans were being laid, ultimately, they were doomed to fail. Scotty was mobilizing far too late. Napoleon was already deeply involved with the aforementioned Miss Sterling, and even had a date with her that very same evening.

But I kept silent about all of these things. My penchant for discretion is legendary, too.

"Did you try asking her to join you for tea?" Mark was asking as they reviewed the strategies Scotty had previously employed.

"Coffee, Mark, not tea," John corrected.

"Uh, sorry, slipped my mind." Because he still spent so much time working in his native U.K., Mark sometimes forgot which side of the Atlantic he was on.

"Coffee, hell," Wes Lerner snorted. "Invite her to your place for dinner and nail her after dessert."

Wes, it seems, could provide a quaint turn of phrase as well.

But Scotty was shaking his head. "I did that — I mean, I asked her out to coffee, lunch, dinner. I tried it all. Her answer's always the same: too busy. Every time I come by her office, she shoos me away. Same old story: busy, busy, busy..." His voice trailed off in disgust.

Surreptitiously, I stole a sidelong glance in Napoleon's direction. If my partner was feeling enormously pleased with himself, as well he should've been, it didn't register on his face. Not even a flicker of satisfaction — his expression remained congenial but coolly neutral.

No wonder the man has risen so high in his profession, I thought.

George sighed. "Your girl doesn't want your attention. My wife complains I don't pay her enough." His voice was strained, sour. Evidentially, the honeymoon was over.

"Maybe you don't," Napoleon said softly.

Ah, finally, a few words from my partner. All the heads around the table swiveled with interest.

"My wife's Italian, remember?" George shot back. "It's kinda hard to ignore her."

That provoked sympathetic chuckling from the others, but Napoleon didn't join in. He narrowed his eyes and studied his beer glass with the same degree of serious concentration one might require when trying to decide whether to cut the red wire or the blue. He hesitated, just as he always does before saying something he regards as important.

"Women aren't like us, George," he said. "They're … wired differently. Their senses are sharper and they tend to be more perceptive — more in tune with what's really going on between people." He turned to Slate and added, "Don't you find that's so, Mark?"

Slate shifted uncomfortably. He was considered a sort of Benedict Arnold by many of the male enforcement agents who resented April's rapid advancement, Coleman among them. To a somewhat lesser degree, because of our friendship with April, Napoleon and I were implicated in the imagined conspiracy, too. I liked John: he was smart, companionable and we shared a passionate interest in jazz. But because he was also black and had battled his own share of discrimination, I found his prejudice against the tiny minority of female agents somewhat ironic.

When an answer was not immediately forthcoming, Napoleon didn't bother to wait for it and went on. "Women are more intuitive," he observed. "Probably, that makes them better spies. If they ever learn to be more aggressive, we'll all end up with nothing to do but clean their guns."

"Women's intuition couldn't save Greenwood," Coleman replied bitterly. Napoleon was taken slightly aback, but I was not. I'd been expecting some comment like that. Rick Greenwood's death earlier that month had hit the field agents hard, many of whom regarded the death as unnecessary at best and the result of gross negligence at worst. Rick had been shot on a rooftop in Kyoto, but he died from the subsequent fall. April had apparently tried to grab him before he dropped, but lost her grip.

As Chief of Enforcement, Napoleon had conducted a short inquiry and filed a report absolving April of all responsibility. He was satisfied that the incident didn't reflect upon her professional competence and after reviewing the circumstances myself, I agreed. However, many others in the section did not, and the psychic wound was far from healed.

"Oh, c'mon, John," Napoleon said. "She was in a tight spot. That could have happened to any one of us."

"Maybe," Coleman muttered grudgingly, still not persuaded.

"All right, all right," Wes Lerner cut in. Like most of the members of the lower sections, he considered field agents a pack of reckless prima donnas, and couldn't care less about an intramural feud.

"Let's get back to Scotty, here," he said. "Are we gonna help this poor guy out or what?" Wes turned pointedly to Napoleon. "So, whatta ya say, Don Juan? You seem to know something the rest of us don't, so c'mon, spill it. It's only fair. How come they're falling all over you? What's the goddamn big secret?"

Napoleon disliked Lerner even more than I did, and Wes' occasional baiting was usually met with a sarcastic retort cleverly designed to cut the man down to size. But this time, by the look on his face, I could see that my partner was preparing a serious and honest response, and even I found myself leaning forward a little.

"Women like to talk," Napoleon said simply, "so you have to talk to them."

For a long moment, there was absolute dead silence at the table, accompanied by a circle of blank stares. You'd have thought the Delphic Oracle had spoken. Then Lerner said, "That's it?"

"Ah, no," Napoleon allowed, cocking his head to one side. He took a sip of his beer for dramatic effect. "Sometimes, they like to talk to you, too. Then you have to pay attention and listen."

There was more silence and more blank stares.

"But what do you talk about?" Scotty wanted to know. Napoleon shrugged. "That depends on the individual woman." He took a last sip of his beer, draining his glass. "Oh — and humor. They like humor. They don't mind it a little risqué, but they don't like cruelty or ridicule."

John looked at Mark and asked, "Is that true? Does April want to talk a lot?"

"I suppose..." Mark said, clearly at a loss, and no wonder: his relationship with Dancer had been strictly professional right from the start. They argued and bantered like siblings, but if Mark was aware of April's sex, he was oblivious to her sexuality. Indeed, I doubt he even thought about it.

"So you talk them into bed," Lerner concluded, trying to make sense of it all.

"That's not what I said," Napoleon replied evenly.

And as he tried to explain again about the importance of maintaining communication, I began to slowly understand. All the chitchat and small talk and personal discussions; the storytelling, the trading of tidbits of gossip, the sharing of confidences. All the compliments to the secretaries; the flirtatious exchanges over Channel D with Wanda and Maggie; the seemingly aimless conversations with stray, lonely women everywhere we went — there was a reason for it all. Sometimes the talk led to other things; often it didn't. But that didn't matter — at least to the women. Napoleon was saying that for them, talking wasn't a means to an end as it was for men, but an end in itself. It wasn't part of a relationship. It was the relationship.

No wonder they trust him, I thought. It must have been difficult — like cracking the Rosetta Stone — but somehow, Napoleon had learned to speak their language. And the rest of us had no right to be envious, since we'd never bothered to make the effort.

Predictably, Wes was having none of it. "You might be able to bullshit the typing pool, Solo," he said, "but you can't bullshit us. You've got a lot of tricks up your sleeve; I just know it. I heard that your apartment has more equipment than a Mexican bordello."

"Just the usual ropes and trapezes," Napoleon murmured disdainfully. "But I never work with mirrors."

Clearly, the seminar was over. As he glanced over at me again, the expression on Napoleon's face said: Well, I tried. Then patting the empty breast pocket of his suit jacket, he rose and went off in search of a cigarette machine.

It was my turn to buy the next pitcher of beer and we met, just the two of us, over at the bar counter.

"Trish will be at my place tonight," Napoleon said. "We're cooking dinner together." He passed me a dossier folder. "Here, this will give you a good excuse to come over. Make it around nine. I know you want to get to know her better."

He was right, of course. I did want that, very much. But I protested that I didn't understand — because I didn't.

Napoleon sighed. "She's a nice kid, but frankly, she's not my type. She loves classical music, opera, the ballet. She's played the piano for years, and I've just about exhausted my limited knowledge of Mozart." He eyed me slyly. "You two should have a lot to talk about."

"That doesn't mean she'll necessarily like me," I pointed out.

Napoleon leaned in close and said, conspiratorially, "I have it on good authority from my spies in the Level Two powder room that Trish adores foreign men. She'd probably be interested in Mark, too, but he hasn't saved my life lately."

"But won't my timely arrival seem a bit — contrived?" I asked.

Napoleon agreed wholeheartedly. "Oh, no doubt. But the idea that you'd go through so much trouble just to meet her will endear you to her — take my word on it."

I did take his word, and the folder. I watched as Napoleon broke open the cellophane on a fresh pack of cigarettes and lit one.

"You know I don't need charity," I informed him, stubbornly. "I can get my own dates."

Napoleon shrugged and exhaled a long stream of smoke. "Fine," he said. "Then don't show up tonight."

And with that, he left the bar.

He knew I'd be there, and really, there was no reason to pass up such a golden opportunity. This wasn't a matter of one-upmanship. He was doing me a friendly favor, just as I might do one for him. And I knew he wasn't expecting payment of any kind in return. We'd stopped keeping accounts on each other years ago.

"Where's Napoleon off to?" Mark asked as I returned with a new pitcher of beer.

"He has an engagement this evening," I replied.

Wes Lerner snorted. "I'll bet. Probably gonna get laid by a Swedish girls' volleyball team."

"Close, but they're from California," I laughed.

Scotty shook his head ruefully. "Doesn't it drive you crazy having a guy like that for a partner?"

As I thought of Trisha, running the tip of her tongue over that luscious top lip, I could barely suppress a smile.

"Not at all," I said.