Chinese Shoes

If you're going to San Francisco

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

If you're going to San Francisco

You're gonna meet some gentle people there.

For those who come to San Francisco

Summertime will be a love-in there.

John Phillips & Scott McKenzie

Somewhere in Chinatown, San Francisco; Summer, 1967.

They sat there, nestled together in a lidless box, red and shiny and inviting, like a pair of cherry lollipops recently licked. Each shoe was decorated with a delicately twisting pattern of lotus blossoms on golden threaded stems, etched by machine or by hand in a sweat shop somewhere in Hong Kong, it was difficult to tell which.

For April Dancer, it was love at first sight.

"How much?" she asked the tiny Asian woman who ran the little store, its fourth wall open to the street trade to take advantage of the cool breezes blowing in from the bay.

"Four dollar," the woman said in broken, sing-song English, smiling and gesturing with surprisingly graceful fingers. She wore a tunic top and her grey-streaked hair was caught up in a bun, held in place by a comb with the enameled image of a bird on it.

A heron, April noted with some relief, not a thrush.

"But for you, missy, maybe two, yes?"

"How can you shop at a time like this?" Illya Kuryakin asked, taking note of the exchange.

"Why not?" April asked innocently as the Russian agent drew nearer. "We're supposed to look like tourists, remember?"

"Mmmm, don't remind me."

They'd spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon acting out the charade at the most obvious places, following a wearying circuit that began at Fisherman's Wharf, wound through the Presidio, then Golden Gate Park and Land's End, then through Haight-Ashbury, the Mission Dolores, and finally hopping a street car back to the center of the city. The only tourist site missing on their Fodor's-like tour was the row of Victorian houses in Alamo Square, but they deliberately avoided that neighborhood. Ward Baldwin, the formidable satrap of Thrush San Francisco, kept a private home there. Perfectly respectable, it was even listed in the city's historical registry.

But not for long, Illya had declared determinedly over a breakfast briefing. Because sometime today, one of Baldwin's senior accountants, a Matthew turned Judas, would sell out his powerful employer by passing to U.N.C.L.E. a micro-dotted file of the local satrapy's extensive tax shelters and money laundering operations. Section Four was a little hazy on exactly where or when it would happen, and there was no intel to tell them by what method the microdot would be transferred. All the agents knew was they should make themselves as available as possible. At least, that was the general gist of Waverly's characteristically vague orders.

"But how will we find him, sir?" April had asked, to which the Old Man responded cryptically, "He'll find you."

But now, they were in Chinatown with still no sign of their contact. Despite his attire — slacks and a collared knit shirt with a camera hanging on a strap looped around his neck — Illya's mood was anything but casual. His eyes traveled restlessly, constantly moving, his gaze tireless and expert as it scanned the facade of buildings along Grant Avenue, all the while, his face offering only an expression of slightly detached boredom.

"So what do you think?" April asked, and Illya's attention returned to her only with grudging reluctance. He shrugged carelessly.

"Tarted up workers' shoes."

April had the idea that Illya might have approved if they'd been a good, plain, Maoist black.

"They're practical." She slid her fist into one and inspected it, noting the flat rubber soles and simple round-toed design shaped like oversized Mary Janes. "Good for walking and running, especially with these hills."

"The color will clash with your dress," Illya observed off-handedly, though his interest was elsewhere, once more wedded to the street. April sniffed. He was right of course — she was wearing a kicky short shirtwaist dress with a psychedelic swirl of bright pink, orange and yellow — but that was hardly the point. If this were Napoleon, he'd at least humored her. Mark, of course, would have playfully joined in the fun, maybe even purchased one of those garish robes with a dragon on the back for himself.

"Well, I like them," she declared, making up her mind. Illya shrugged again, this time, a suit-your-self gesture. He didn't bother to watch as she dug in her oversized purse for two wrinkled dollar bills. The proprietor smiled, glad to receive them, and, ever accommodating, offered a paper bag.

"For shoes."

"Thanks," April said, "but I think I'll wear them."

"Other shoes, missy."

"Oh." Of course. She slipped off her pumps, yellow paten leather with buckles and fashionable heels, and replaced them with the red satin Mary Janes.

"Velly pretty." The older woman nodded approvingly.

"And comfortable," April agreed, admiring each foot in turn. After their all-day tour, her calves ached and her ankles were beginning to give out.

"You walk velly fast now. Enjoy city."

"Thank you. I will."

Out on the sidewalk, Illya was still keeping vigilant watch by pretending to snap pictures with his filmless prop camera.

"Anything?" April asked. The Russian agent shook his head. In his viewfinder appeared a gaggle of youths, two men with wispy beards and long hair and a blonde with braids in a peasant skirt. Although they looked no different from the thousands of other young people throughout the city, particularly those that congregated around the Haight, here, among the resident Asian population, they stood out like love beads on a kimono.

"Flower children," April said. This summer, the city was bursting at the seams with them, much to the annoyance of the local police.

"Overindulged children," Illya corrected her, letting the camera drop to his chest.

"They've a taste for socialist ideas. You should appreciate that."

"They may chant about workers of the world uniting, yet they never do any work themselves," Illya said dismissively. "Play-acting at revolution, as if it were a game."

The trio approached the agents, open, friendly smiles lighting up their young faces. "Peace," one of them said in Illya's direction, forming a V with his fingers. The agent sighed but said nothing. He'd been hearing the same greeting from passing strangers for most of the day.

When there was no response, the taller youth asked with some concern, "Hey man, you okay?"

"Just a little tired," April cut in helpfully. "We've been sightseeing all day, that's all."

"Wanna take our picture?" the blonde asked brightly. "Y'know, for a souvenir."

Before Illya could decline, April jumped in between them to play along. "Why thank you for the offer. What a nice idea." She tilted her head toward Illya, posing. "How's this, darling?"

Forced to play along, the Russian agent made a half-hearted pantomime of adjusting the focus and snapping the shot.

"Thanks again," April said as the group broke apart. The blonde presented her with a limp daisy.

"No problem," the taller youth said. He slipped an inexpensive chain with a large peace medallion from around his neck and passed it to April as well. "Give this to your boyfriend, there. He looks like he could use it."

"Oh, we couldn't —"

"Go on, take it. Share the love."

Offering waves, peace signs and more smiles, the group moved on, leaving Illya with his camera and April with the daisy and the medallion.

"Foolish children," Illya muttered sourly, shaking his head.

"Oh, they're just having a little fun," April said. "Remember what it was like to be young?"

"I was never that young."

She sidled up to Illya and draped the chain over his head. "Here, then maybe you should wear this. Blend in with the natives."

"Make love not war?" he asked. April patted the medallion as it rested on his chest.

"Sure, why not? What's so bad about that?"

"Well, for one thing," he replied, his voice, gently teasing, "It would put us all permanently out of business."

"And that wouldn't be such a bad thing either, right?"

April quirked an impish grin in order to coax the shadow smile that she knew was coming.

"No," Illya agreed, "I suppose not." And in the next moment, the smile was there, finally, and then abruptly gone, like a freshly lit candle suddenly being snuffed out.

"Heacock," Illya hissed as he stared down the street, toward the bay. A few blocks away, three Caucasian men in business suits were striding purposefully through the afternoon crowd. Two of them were tall and beefy, flanking a shorter one in the middle who wore a creamy linen summer suit.

"What?"

April began to twist on her heel, but Illya grabbed her by the shoulder to halt the motion. "Don't turn. Don't look. It's Glenn Heacock, Baldwin's man. He has two gorillas with him."

"What's he doing?" April asked, unable to see for her self.

"He appears to be looking for something..."

And suddenly, Illya knew what that "something" was.

"He's probably looking for us," April said, all business now, her agent's sensibility switching gears. Rehearsal was over; it was time for the main event.

Illya glanced down at the peace symbol still dangling from around his neck.

"No, I think they may be looking for this."

April blinked. Of course! Give this to your boyfriend there. He looks like he could use it. "The microdot?"

"Probably embedded inside the medallion."

Heacock and his men were getting closer. Only a block and a half separated them from the agents although, fortunately, the crowd on the sidewalk afforded them some cover.

Quickly, Illya tore the medallion off and pressed it into April hand. "You take it. Heacock doesn't know you, but he does know me. I'll serve as the decoy."

"Okay." It wasn't the best plan, but it was all they had. Instinctively, she tried to angle to steal a peek down the block, but Illya restrained her again.

"Stay back. Don't let them see you. Deliver this to the U.N.C.L.E. field office. Do you know where that is?"

April nodded. "Beach Street. Down by Fisherman's Wharf."

"All right, then. We'll rendezvous there."

Heacock and his men were almost upon them. Illya gave April a shove into the darkened shelter of the store. "Now go — quickly!"

And he was off, darting away, across the street, in the opposite direction. April heard shouts from the distance and knew Illya had been spotted. A stampede of footsteps rumbled against the sidewalk in pursuit.

April turned to the proprietor and asked, "Does this shop have a back door?" The woman said it did and pointed toward a rear aisle filled with half opened boxes, colorful plastic wrapped fans and parasols spilling out of the cardboard containers.

"Thanks," April said. Then she dropped the daisy and the bag containing her yellow pumps, grasped the medallion tightly in her fist to steady it on its chain, and ran like hell.

San Francisco. A chilly winter's day, many years later.

She remembered running, so long and so far that day, up and down so many steep hills, that her lungs felt scorched for hours afterward from the lack of oxygen. She remembered riding the cable car, not sitting in a seat, but climbing on the roof and then, slipping off, clutching the back railing for dear life. She remembered the Thrush goon, one of Heacock's men, who finally cornered her at the end of a pier. She remembered killing him.

It all came back, a blur of memory, rushing past as fast as a Japanese bullet train, as she stood just inside the shop in Chinatown and stared down at a pair of red satin Mary Janes. It was the same shop on the same street, but of course, not the same shoes. These new ones weren't half as nice, with less padding inside, and the design on the toe was simpler and more obviously machine-made.

"May I help you?"

The Asian woman who approached April now was much younger than the proprietor so many decades ago. This one wore a fashionable turtleneck sweater with her hair cut stylishly short, and she had a small, spunky toddler in tow.

"Oh, I was just admiring the shoes," the ex-agent said. "I saw them in the window." The clerk eyed her dubiously, taking in April's expensive cashmere coat, although she was too polite to ask what a woman of such obvious means would want with cheap rubber-soled cloth shoes.

April caught the unspoken question. "You see, I bought a pair here, in this very shop, decades ago. They were very ... comfortable."

And they saved my life, she wanted to add, but didn't. How could she explain that it would have been impossible to climb on top of that moving cable car with heels? "An elderly woman wearing a comb in her hair sold them to me." Funny, how she remembered such a small detail like that comb.

The clerk's face brightened into a knowing smile. "Ah. That was my grandmother. She still owns this establishment."

"Really?" April asked, amazed. The old woman must be over ninety at least.

"Yes, but I run it for her." The clerk gestured toward the shoes offered for sale, still displayed in lidless boxes. "Perhaps I could help you find your size?"

Together, they rummaged through the boxes until April located a red pair in size seven.

"How much?" April indicated the tag. "Sorry, I don't have my reading glasses with me."

"Twenty dollars," the clerk said. "You wish to purchase them?"

"Yes. For old time's sake."

"Then you may have them for ten." The clerk smiled. "For old time's sake."

"That's very kind. Thank you."

With the shoes purchased and wrapped in a brown paper bag, April tucked them under her arm and crossed the sidewalk to an idling limousine that was waiting, illegally parked, at the curb.

"Find what you were looking for, misssus?" the driver asked pleasantly.

"Yes. I think I did."

"Glad to hear it." He sounded relieved. "Where to now?"

"Back to the hotel, Max." As she slid into the roomy rear passenger seat, she checked her diamond studded Cartier watch. "I have a date for drinks at four."

"Yes, m'am," the driver said, and then threw the limo into gear.

She arrived early with several minutes to spare, but he was already waiting for her, perched on a stool at the long polished bar. It was still two weeks to Christmas and the bar, along with the rest of the hotel, was tastefully decorated with pine branches, gold balls and poinsettias. As she approached him, he caught her forearms in a quick embrace and she planted a kiss on his cheek, both actions awkward because displays of affection had never been a regular part of their relationship.

"Impressive," Illya Kuryakin said, indicating their surroundings with a swirling fingertip. The hotel was arguably the best in the city.

"Sorry," she apologized, feeling vaguely embarrassed and not knowing why. "Obviously, I've been thoroughly seduced by capitalism."

"So has the rest of the world." He sounded wistful but resigned. "I ordered for you. I hope you don't mind." He nudged a glass toward her before retreating to his own, a vodka and tonic.

She took a sip and laughed delightedly. "Rum and coke. You remembered!" Finding a seat on the stool next to his, she unbuttoned her coat and settled in. "I confess I was surprised to receive your message at the front desk this morning. How did you find me?"

"I still have my sources, and they all read the society columns." He offered her a grudging smile and the shape and timing of it sent a sudden shock of deja vu up her spine. It'd been years since she'd seen that exact smile and, like the sight of the Chinese shoes earlier, the deluge of memories it summoned made her feel slightly light-headed, as if she were in free fall. "You're not exactly living in obscurity, you know."

"No," she laughed, abashed," I suppose not. How is Napoleon?"

"Well, the last I heard. He travels a good deal on business and believe it or not, that computer company is actually flourishing. And Mark?"

"Still living in Connecticut with the wife and kids. They even have a picket fence. He sends me photos."

They laughed together, shaking their heads over the absurdity of it all. Lifting his glass, Illya motioned with it toward the small parcel sitting on the bar near her elbow. "What's that?"

"Oh, just shoes."

"Shoes?" Illya was intrigued.

Feeling embarrassed again, she slipped them halfway from the wrinkled paper bag, revealing the embroidered red satin toes.

"Chinatown, 1967," he said immediately, quicker than she would have expected. April nodded.

"The Summer of Love, isn't that what they called it?

"Perhaps, but I don't remember much love that summer, just an unwelcome dip in the bay, a black eye, and a dislocated shoulder. Didn't you lose those shoes when you nearly fell from the pier?"

"Just one of them." She remembered limping into HQ wearing only one shoe, her dress torn, her stockings ruined. "These are new. I bought them today."

A quizzical expression shaded his face for a split second, and she thought he might ask her Why? but then the answer occurred to him so he didn't.

"I'm not much for nostalgia," Illya observed. "Not one to look back."

"You never were," she chuckled, remembering the chase past Fisherman's Wharf. When he ran, he never looked back either, as if time and the enemy were the same thing.

"Heacock got away in the end that day, didn't he?" April said, remembering. "What ever happened to him?"

"Died of AIDS in the early 80s." Illya's voice was flat, matter-of-fact.

"And Baldwin?"

"Lived until 91. Buried respectably here, between a local philanthropist and a city councilman."

They sipped their drinks silently for a moment before she ventured to ask, "Do you ever miss it?"

"No." He sounded sincere. "Do you?"

"No, but I think I might if there weren't compensations."

"Speaking of which —" Illya wanted to change the subject and April let him "— are you staying here alone?"

"Oh? Something your sources didn't tell you?"

"They have their limitations," Illya conceded, his blue eyes twinkling.

"Jon is in Tokyo, working on a merger. He's flying in tomorrow."

"Ah. That means you have the evening free. So do I. Dinner?"

April smiled, pleased with the invitation. "Hmmm... maybe later. I think I'd like to do more sight-seeing first. It's been years since I really had time to wander through the city."

"A lot has changed," he agreed. Slipping off the stool, he asked, "Where do you want to go?"

"I don't know. Hmmm... let's see : Is U.N.C.L.E. HQ still in the same place?"

He shook his head. "There's a store called The Spy Shop there now. They sell pricey surveillance gadgets and tourist trinkets."

"Oh no," she said, grasping the arm he offered as she slid to her feet, and they both laughed together again, this time at the irony.

"The joys of conspicuous consumption," Illya added. He finished the last of his drink and set down the glass with a satisfied clink. "I have a car..."

"I'd rather walk."

"It's fairly chilly this evening."

"But the rain has stopped." She motioned with the contents of her paper bag. "Besides, I have walking shoes."

They were in the plush lobby now and, as Illya watched, April slipped off her high heel pumps and replaced them with the flat satin shoes. "There," she said, buckling the straps with a note of triumph.

"And this time, they match," Illya observed, indicating her red designer knitted wool dress.

"They do, don't they?" she said, pleased that he should not only notice, but remember. She stuffed the discarded pumps into the bag and left them at the front desk, with the accommodating concierge.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Illya asked uncertainly as they headed toward the front door.

"Absolutely." April had no doubts, none at all. Slipping her arm through his, she began to sing:

So won't you please play a song, a sentimental song

For my sentimental friend over there

We've been so long apart, make it go right to the heart ...

"Herman's Hermits," he guessed, which made April laugh out loud.

"Yes! Illya, luv, you never cease to amaze me."

Then, her arm still linked through his, she stepped out on the pavement in her red Chinese shoes and felt young again.

.