Illya joined Karina and the entire cast of the evening's performance at the artist's entrance. He had managed to arrive just as the Soviet dancers were emerging from their chartered bus, the chatter and excitement beginning to build among the young artists. Many of Karina's company had also arrived and were scurrying around backstage and in the dressing rooms, preparing for what they perceived as perhaps their most important performance. This union of Soviet and American dancers could do much for the relations between the two nations represented; it was a fervent hope of many that this would prove to be true.
As the Russian UNCLE agent approached his female counterpart, she studied him carefully, attempting to gauge his temperament this evening. Even though they had reached their particular agreement, her heart still managed to flutter almost imperceptibly at the sight of the blond. This was not supposed to happen to her; she was a professional, and her commitment to her duty was the only thing that mattered tonight. She knew the same was true of Illya Kuryakin, and that he would never violate his vows to the agency that had brought him here to America. Politics were, she reasoned, a curse they were forced to live with.
Illya walked up to her and took her elbow in his hand, guiding her into a corner that he felt would be free of listening ears.
"Karina, something has changed. Putkin has allowed himself to become unwittingly exposed, and we will be retrieving the necessary information this evening. You must do your job, do not betray what you know or get involved in whatever may happen here. Do you understand?"
His intensity was enough to convince Karina that he wouldn't tolerate any deviation from these instructions. Still, she was a trained agent, and she might be able to help…
"Illya, what if I can't avoid getting involved? I might be of some use to you and Napo…"
"No, just do as I say! You must remain ignorant of whatever we are doing. I don't want you compromised in any way".
She saw it then, a glimmer of some concern for her; affection even, if she could venture to wish it so.
"I understand, Illyusha. But you must understand this: if I see you in danger, I will step in and save you if necessary. I am a woman, but I am also well trained".
He smiled at that, and nodded his head appreciatively.
"Yes, all right then. But, only if I need saving, which is doubtful to be the case. Napoleon will be close by, as well as… we will be safe".
He didn't need to bring Serena into this. Karina didn't need to know what had transpired between them, even if she might understand the need for it.
Napoleon was in the foyer of the great hall, his eyes taking in the magnificent architecture and elegant appointments. As he turned to look up at a piece of artwork, Serena appeared in front of him. He hadn't noticed her come in, and her presence elicited from him a slightly startled look that mixed with an enduring appreciation for the woman's beauty. She smiled that luxurious smile at him, her eyes gleaming beneath the crystal chandeliers.
"Napoleon, you look more handsome than ever. How do you manage this little trick?"
He smiled, his automatically charming demeanor matching hers.
"Ah, Serena. You, my dear, are all flattery tonight. I must say, you look as luscious as ever".
She was pleased at the compliment; it's obvious intention matching her own seductive overtures.
"I trust you have been made aware of my gift to you. Mr. Kuryakin was very agreeable to accepting my terms, and I have come with the promised documents".
He should have been jealous, and did experience a twinge of discomfort at Serena's obvious tactic. He knew she was not above using today's encounter with his partner as a tool for driving a wedge between them. It wouldn't work, but he had no doubt it was part of her plan for something in the future. Serena was never simply what she appeared to be.
"I am pleased to know you are a woman of your word, Serena. As I am sure my partner will be".
Something in his tone caused a chill to invade the beauty's façade. She knew what Solo was capable of, just as he knew her commitment to Thrush. Not trusting someone merely added another level of excitement to the game.
People were beginning to fill up the lobby, the conversation becoming louder as acquaintances were made or renewed, hands clasped in earnest admissions of forgotten names or faces. A few actually knew each other well; some of the couples were actually married to one another. A social event in New York held more than one type of fascination for the lucky participant. It was sometimes more interesting before the performance began, netting the week's gossip or a glimmer of leverage to be used at the appropriate time.
Serena let the conversation pause momentarily as a man tried to introduce himself while extending his business card; he thought that perhaps they knew one another, or so he said. In truth, the stunning woman was simply too much to resist and his ego to large to accommodate the possibility she didn't feel the same.
"Oh, I am certain I could not forget you, but sadly I will be leaving in the morning. Perhaps next time I am in the city".
He walked away a disappointed man, envious of the good looking one who stepped back into her light. Napoleon knew he could have found any number of interesting women with whom to spend an evening, but tonight was all about Serena and the impending judgment that was about to envelope Anatoly Putkin.
"Agent Putkin has a numbered Swiss bank account that holds all of his earnings from Thrush. I find it incredible that the Soviets have not discovered it, however, for years our accountants have been depositing impressive sums of money into this hidden account. I have the combination to unlock this treasure, Napoleon. I give it to you and leave it up to UNCLE as to how it will be revealed to his superiors in the KGB".
Napoleon mouthed 'wow' before he realized it, a sly grin sliding into place as he imagined the horror that would overtake the slippery Soviet agent. Serena smiled coyly, her own mission now nearly complete.
"You understand, Napoleon, I have nothing personal against this man. However, Thrush Central has determined that he is no longer of use to us, and as he has committed some deeds that your organization find…hmm…distasteful…Well, we give him to you with our thanks for taking him off our hands. He doesn't know enough to be a danger to us, so we have no qualms about what you do with him".
That was it, then. She reached into her sequined bag and produced a white card, elegantly inscribed with her name and what appeared to be a phone number; only it wasn't, and Napoleon tucked Putkin's future into his breast pocket as he gave Serena one last kiss on the cheek.
Backstage, dancers were warming up in various spots; wardrobe people were working on last minute details and repairing loose beading or stubborn zippers.
Karina was all business as she went over the list of dancers and their respective places in the program. The Russians were heard in their language, the Americans in English, French and a few others that ebbed and flowed along with the excitement and anxiety.
At exactly eight o'clock, the lights dimmed and the orchestra, having warmed up for the past twenty minutes, began the opening strains of La Sylphide. Illya contemplated only briefly the story that was told in this ballet; a young man who wanders away from his true love in order to chase after a mythical creature, ultimately causing her death even as he loses the woman he would have married if not for his impetuous and fickle actions. It was a very telling tale, he thought. Certainly each of them, Napoleon, Karina and himself, might all be very much like the errant James.
Karina came upon him just then, and realized the irony of the dance she had brought to this stage. It was a timeless, romantic ode to the foolishness of people when they didn't seize the opportunities at happiness that came all too infrequently.
Illya saw her approach and smiled, holding out his hand to her as she joined him in watching the performance from the left wing.
"They look wonderful, Rina. You have accomplished an impressive feat with this company of dancers. In spite of all of the business that has gone on, the ballet triumphs in the end, does it not".
She was pleased with the compliment, and with the use of her name's derivative. How often would she meet someone who made her feel like this; as though a future could be had that was not burdened with politics and secrecy. But, they were both servants of that system, so all they had was a dream, much like the one being danced on the stage. It would only end in tragedy, much like the Sylphide. One or both of them would lose their wings and eventually die.
"It is good, Illya. I'm very proud of them all".
Illya and Napoleon had spoken briefly before the curtain was raised, so the Russian knew of the bank account, and the secret code for accessing it. The numerical key had been passed on, already, to a courier who had taken it to headquarters. Even now, Alexander Waverly was beginning the process of conveying this information to the head of the KGB in New York. Two agents had been lost to them in the past 48 hours, an unprecedented display of ineptitude and treachery. The repercussions would be felt both here and in Moscow; someone had let this man operate as a double agent for years. It stopped now, but now without taking a few heads in the hunt for answers.
At this moment agent Putkin was sitting in the back of the theater, his eyes trying to catch sight of the American UNCLE agent. He had seen him with Serena, and recognized the woman as one of the Thrush elite; an agent who seemed to not be subject to normal protocols or directives. That she had been conversing with Solo seemed odd, but then spies were an odd lot and one could never really be certain why they did anything…or with whom. Kuryakin, he knew, was still backstage with the Russian woman. He needed a reason to join them, to place his hand literally to the task of eliminating the man who would take the blame for his own duplicitous activity.
As the ballet shifted from La Sylphide to the white act of La Bayadere, Putkin eased himself out of the auditorium and through the double doors into the foyer. He followed a familiar path around and through various corridors until he found himself near the backstage area where Karina and Illya were watching the performance. The Soviet had brought the incriminating evidence with him, and intended to plant it on the other Russian; a simple but effective plan, he thought. Within minutes he would approach the blond agent and take his hand in a false act of congratulations for the excellence of the program. As he covered the unsuspecting agent's left hand with his right one, fully clasping and enclosing it, he would prick it with a hidden needle filled with a quick acting sedative. When the Russian faltered, Putkin would take the opportunity to plant the evidence, insuring that when the man awoke from his drugged stupor, he would be the prime suspect in this hunt being conducted by the U.N.C.L.E.
He crept forward, avoiding a ballerina as she whizzed past him with a male dancer close behind. He loathed these artistic types, with their superior attitudes and condescending words for the lowly state controlled KGB. In spite of whatever fear was engendered, their art still caused a rift between them and everyone else, and a hedge of protection as long as they behaved. Soon Putkin would be away from all of it, and his money would insure that he lived well while in exile from the Soviet landscape. He would not miss it.
Illya was standing apart from Karina now, making it much easier for him to carry out his little scene. The woman was glued to her spot, watching her dancers and letting her body move with them; finding it hard to resist the impulse.
As Putkin approached his target, the American agent appeared, seemingly, from nowhere. The heavy curtains were coming down on this last offering, and the dancers were held in place as it was lowered to the worn, wooden stage floor . He needed to move now, making the most of his moment and guaranteeing the outcome. He had to risk it, or perhaps lose the opportunity forever.
"Ah, Comrade Kuryakin, you have reason to be pleased…"
He reached out his hand to shake Kuryakin's, following what was so firmly entrenched in his mind's eye. Illya hesitated, then reached out to receive the handshake. As Putkin grasped the smaller man's hand he covered it with his own right hand, fully engaging him in the plot. Too late, Illya felt the slight nick of a needle on the top of his hand and knew he had to alert his partner. The formula was quick, though, and as he began to falter, his words were not heard. Napoleon saw his friend begin to sag and then collapse to the floor; Putkin was pushed aside, making it impossible to plant the piece of paper inside of Illya's pocket. He needed to get out before anyone suspected him. The sedative was going to last less than thirty minutes, in which time he could be questioned or searched. As Karina cooed in Russian over the blond, Napoleon stood up and set his eyes on Putkin. There was no doubt now; the KGB man started backing away, trying to ascertain a means of escaping. He finally bolted for the door that led to the alley behind the venue, his only thought now to escape the wrath of UNCLE's top agent. He still had the money, and he would find a way to get out of this country and out of the KGB. He had no choice but to run, and that's what he did.
The steps leading down to the pavement were slicked by a light rain that was falling incessantly now, a larger storm due by the early morning. As Putkin tried to put distance between himself and the illustrious Carnegie Hall, his mind was racing faster than his body would go. Out onto the street, he dodged taxis and random cars, looking over his should only once to gain a view of the relentless pursuer. Napoleon could see the Soviet, and he was certain he could outrun him. One of the section three agents had seen Solo running away from the theater and began his own foot race with the KGB man. Now there were two UNCLE agents chasing the sometime Thrush agent, his chances of escape suddenly seeming dim in comparison to the city lights under which he was an easy target.
"Putkin! Stop, we already have evidence against you. Stop now!"
Napoleon shouted as he ran, hoping to persuade the man to just quit and give himself up. So far it wasn't working, and he increased his speed as he avoided collisions with several irate drivers and their vehicles.
The other UNCLE agent was drawing closer to the CEA, willing himself to be part of the capture. It was only as he came alongside Napoleon that the older agent recognized him.
"Agent Manning…he's not going to stop. Cut him off, will you…he's heading…'
Scott Manning saw their target turn south and cut in between two buildings, looking for a way to lose the damned UNCLE agents.
"I see him sir…I'll take the back way in".
Both men took off at top speed as Putkin began to hesitate, looking for openings and feeling the burn in his lungs as his less fit body began to heave and tremble from the effects of his sudden physical activity.
When Putkin, breathless and faltering, emerged from the alley between a delicatessen and a boutique, Scott Manning was waiting for him. The KGB agent was stunned; he turned as if to go back the other way only to encounter Solo closing in on him. He panicked at that moment, opting for a solution that he had dreaded ever since entering the service of the Soviet state. He produced a pill from somewhere and bit down…hard. By the time Napoleon reached him, he was beginning to enter the throes of a cyanide death. The scene was a cliché from a spy movie: the bad guy succumbing to the death pill while the good guys stood helpless and horrified at the desperation and finality of the act.
Napoleon couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the man, in spite of what he knew of him. He pulled out his communicator and put in the call.
"Open channel D…this is Solo"
"Yes, Mr. Solo. What has happened?"
"Sir, Putkin is dead. He … he had a cyanide capsule and…"
"Yes, I see. That is quite disturbing, but out of our hands now. I'm certain you did all you could, Mr. Solo".
"Mr. Kuryakin is still at the theater. Agent Putkin did something…injected him, I think…"
"You had better return then, and see to your partner. I will send medical there, just in case. Waverly out".
Agent Manning watched as Solo replaced his communicator and heaved a sigh big enough to fill a balloon.
"Scott, stay here…call in the location for a clean up. I'm going back…Good job, by the way".
"Thank you, sir. I'm glad I was able to help. Well, even though he did…well…"
"Yeah, it's ok. We don't make those decisions for them".
Napoleon sprinted back to Carnegie, his tuxedo barely affected by the rain or the physical exertion. When he finally located Illya, the Russian had been moved into a dressing room and Karina was close by, her eyes puffy and red from crying. She hadn't known she could react like this, but when Illya had gone down she feared he was dead. His breathing had remained steady and strong, however, and she realized it was merely a sedative. Now she was waiting for it to wear off, hoping that Napoleon would return unharmed. Too many emotions for her to endure and still think of herself as a professional. For the first time in her life, Karina wondered about what she did for her country.
"Karina, is he awake yet?"
Napoleon's voice held concern but not panic. He couldn't let himself drift into something maudlin at this point. One man was already dead, his partner wouldn't join him.
"Oh, Napoleon, what happened? Where is Putkin?"
"He's dead, Karina. He took a suicide pill…cyanide".
She gasped at that, betraying whatever calm remained within her. This evening should have been nothing but triumph and celebration. Now a man was dead, Illya was drugged and, without a doubt, the freedom she had been enjoying in this country would probably be curtailed because of this one man's actions. Putkin had, she now conjectured, ruined everything. And, he was dead, depriving her of the pleasure of killing him herself.
Just then, Illya began to emerge from his drug-induced sleep. He tried to sit up, but his head was still fuzzy, his throat almost too dry to talk.
"Illya, you missed the action, and the end of our little story'…
Napoleon still shuddered at the memory of the Soviet agent seizing in that alleyway as the cyanide invaded his body, depriving him of oxygen until the heart gave out. Sometimes this business…
"What? Where's Putkin?"
The blond was paler than usual, but the effects were wearing off and he wanted some answers. This day had been full of unexpected incidents, and he was certain another one was going to be detailed for him now.
"Putkin is dead…suicide. Cyanide. It's all over".
Illya was stunned. The KGB agent had been squirreling away money for years, and to just quit…
"Are you all right?"
The American looked drained, strangely unanimated.
Napoleon wondered how many times they could get hit on the head, ingest toxic agents or breathe noxious fumes. How many years of this?
"Yes, just… like you, tovarich. I'm fine".
Two hours later they were seated at the round table over which Mr. Waverly reigned as the head of UNCLE Northwest, and for the most part, all of UNCLE. No one else ranked higher than the old man, no one engendered more reverential fear than the man who had helmed it since time began. Or, so it seemed.
"Gentlemen, this has been an extraordinarily difficult day, and the death of Mr. Putkin has put everyone on edge. The Soviets want a full scale investigation into this incident and have requested the right to question each of you".
Napoleon was shocked at the prospect of a Soviet inquiry, but Illya had blanched to a new shade of pale at the suggestion.
"Sir, is this going to be allowed?"
After all of this, would it come down to being interrogated by the Soviets, here, in this country. He was an UNCLE agent, surely…
"No, it will not, Mr. Kuryakin. We do not serve the needs of the Soviet internal networks. They will have to deal with it themselves, and come to terms with the actions of their agent. You will not need to encounter these men; not while you're under my direction".
An uncharacteristic show of paternal care escaped from the usually staid and unemotional Number One. Napoleon and Illya each recognized it for what it was and were grateful to be under his protection.
"Thank you, sir".
Both men chimed together, each of them thankful for his own reasons.
Neither man had stayed for the remainder of the performance at Carnegie Hall. Their duty demanded that they return to UNCLE headquarters, leaving Karina to immerse herself in her own responsibilities; deciding to not alert the dancers to Putkin's death or the turmoil that had surrounded this event. She was so entirely focused on the successful completion of this program, and the well being of her company that she was able to rise above the trauma of the deception and eventual death of Anatoly Putkin, and her personal disappointments. Illya Kuryakin would go into the file labeled 'what if'. They would not meet again.
Serena knew of Putkin's death before Alexander Waverly did. Her people were close by when the man was apprehended and took his fatal dose. As soon as she was alerted to it, she left the theater and entered the limo that was waiting to take her to the airport, where a private jet was waiting to fly her to London. She had business there, and knew she would see Napoleon sooner than he would have believed or anticipated.
Illya still had a little bit of a headache, while Napoleon was emotionally weary. In the midst of so much beauty and creativity, this ugliness had crept in and made him feel melancholy and sad. What he needed was a drink. Even the prospect of a beautiful woman wasn't going to cure him of this blue state of mind.
"Hey, you want to get something…"
Yeah, he needed his partner. He didn't even have to finish his sentences for the rest of the night.