Test Drive

The winner ain't the one with the fastest car; it's the one who refuses to lose.

Dale Earnhardt

Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?

Jack Kerouac

1.

A Sub-level Basement, U.N.C.L.E. HQ, New York. December, 1966.

"Wow."

Napoleon Solo let out a long, low whistle, the sort he reserved for very beautiful women or very large explosions. "That's some car," he observed approvingly, because it was.

The vehicle parked at the center of the room was as sleek and shiny as a spire point bullet. Built low to the ground with only two seats, its round, smooth shape suggested a cross between an elongated turtle shell and a flying saucer. The headlights were hidden, the grillwork was minimal, and the roof was mostly formed by the wrap-around windows of the gull-wing doors. And the color! Not just blue, but a brilliant cerulean blue, the color of the sky over high mountain peaks on a piercingly cold winter's day. It was like no car Solo had ever seen before outside of a sci-fi movie or the Futurama ride at the New York World's Fair.

"And, at the moment, the only one of its kind," said Illya Kuryakin as he stepped back, a clipboard cradled against his forearm. In his borrowed lab coat, he looked the very model of a research scientist. "It's a prototype."

"You mean there are more like this one?"

"Not yet. But perhaps, eventually."

Recovering from his initial surprise, Solo began to circle the car, eyeing it more critically. He could imagine himself driving it, taking cliff side curves and accelerating on wide-open highways, the wheel responding to his touch. Driving a good, fast car was one of the great pleasures of life. Better than drugs — better even, possibly, than sex, if the road were clear, the weather, favorable, and the traffic, light.

"How fast?"

Kuryakin smiled. He knew that would be the first question. When it came to automobiles, it always was. "Fast enough. Zero to sixty, as the Americans say, in six point eight seconds. Top speed is around 240 kilometers per hour."

Solo did a quick mental calculation: around 150 mph. Not bad. Kuryakin leaned over and knocked on the fender. "The fact that the body is made from a polymer makes it lighter and more aerodynamic."

"You mean it's made of plastic?"

"If you prefer the term. Bullet-resistant plastic, fiberglass-reinforced." Anyone who worked with guns — U.N.C.L.E. agents especially — knew there was no such thing as truly bulletproof. "It can retard a shell from a .44 Magnum."

As the agents continued to circle the vehicle, Kuryakin pointed to the curved windows. "And that's not glass, but a high optical-quality polycarbonate. They're using it to build the cockpit canopy for the latest generation of jet fighters."

"Gull-wing doors," Solo noted. They were hard to miss, the car's most obvious and distinctive feature.

"Or portes papillon, as the French say. Same as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. They're supposed to allow for much better egress than conventional doors."

"And what happens in a roll-over and we end up with our tires sticking up in the air?"

"Then we kick out the windscreen. It's removable."

Solo wasn't completely convinced. "Those doors don't look all that convenient to me."

"They would be if you were floating down the Hudson."

Floating? That brought Solo up short. "It's amphibious?" Kuryakin led him around the car, to the rear. "See the propellers? And as with an airplane, the seats can be used as flotation devices."

Solo let out another whistle, smaller and shorter this time. "Damn." The engine compartment, which was also located in the rear, looked a little small and he said so.

Kuryakin shrugged. "It's equipped with a V6, but it has a supercharger that, they tell me, can give it a short-lived but very powerful boost." He pointed to the license plate holder. "There's a packed parachute behind that."

The agents exchanged glances and Solo added, "Don't tell me it flies, too."

This made Kuryakin chuckle. "No, but that would be something to see, would it not? And the parachute may be over-reaching. You know the lab boys."

Yes, Solo knew the lab boys all right. They all were currently at lunch in the commissary, and Illya had taken the opportunity to sneak his partner in for a quick look-see so that Solo wouldn't have to deal with the young Section Eight staffers jostling each other, eager to impress the Chief of Enforcement.

The preliminary inspection over, Solo began to consider this newest addition to the U.N.C.L.E. arsenal. He leaned against a reinforced concrete pillar, folded his arms and casually asked, "What's the sticker price?"

"The car itself is worth about $100,000 American dollars, but the R&D costs are around a million and change."

"And what about a deluxe accessories package? I assume there is one."

Solo sounded like a customer on a typical new car lot and Kuryakin was tempted to adopt the stance of a salesman doing his pitch. Instead, he merely replied, "Fairly extensive. What you might expect: machine guns, flamethrowers, smoke screen ejectors, rear bullet shield, even a rocket launcher or two."

"Rocket launchers? Really?"

Kuryakin nodded, circling again, this time, to point through the windshield. "And that's a laser built into the interior roof of the car, but Simpson hasn't got it working properly yet."

"More over-reaching?"

"Apparently." Kuryakin leaned down, tugged at the door handle on the driver's side, and swung up one of the gull-wing doors. "Here. See how it feels. Climb in."

Climb was definitely the operative word. Solo found that it was more like stepping into a boat than a car. As he slid into the snug space behind the wheel, he resolved to find a way to enter and exit the car more gracefully. Kuryakin doubled back, deposited the clipboard on a nearby desk, and slipped into the passenger seat beside him.

Solo glanced around, checking the placement of the gauges around the dashboard. Those visible were the expected ones: speedometer, tachometer, gas, oil, battery, engine temperature. The switches located on the center console near the stick shift operated the trunk, hood, horn and doors. "Where are the weapon controls?" he asked.

Kuryakin pushed a button and the panel right above the central console flipped around, revealing a screen and an array of switches. "Machine guns, smoke screen, shield ..." He ticked them off one by one, enjoying Napoleon's reaction. As he did, he felt like a magician performing tricks for an appreciative audience.

"Impressive."

"There's more." Kuryakin tugged at the dashboard, dropping the dummy panel. Behind it were radar and sonar screens, and various knobs for the rocket guidance system.

"Looks like Mr. Simpson has been seeing too many Bond films," Solo cracked, but he was smiling.

"Not at all. This vehicle was three years in development. But you know how gossip travels in espionage circles. The filmmakers borrowed from us." He glanced sideways at his partner. "So? What do you think?"

"I think we should take it for a spin someday soon."

"How about tomorrow?"

Solo shook his head. "Sorry. The Old Man wants me to go up to Albany and lobby some state assemblymen about increasing the appropriations for the city's fire and police departments. We've been causing a wee bit too much damage lately on the streets of New York, and Mayor Lindsay says it's straining their emergency budgets. After that, I thought I might take a short hop across the border and see if there's any skiing in Vermont."

This was clearly wishful thinking on Napoleon's part. He'd been talking about getting away for a few days ever since he and Illya put Chairman Koz on a plane for home. But while temperatures in the city were currently seasonal, the week before, they'd risen to a record-breaking 66 degrees. The uncharacteristic if abbreviated heat wave had even made the front page of The New York Times. The chance of snow on the ground, even in Vermont, were slim.

"Oh, I know. Mr. Waverly said I should go with you."

"And take this car?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. Mr. Waverly thinks it might be a good opportunity for a test drive."

"Great —" Solo caught himself. "Ah —what's the catch?" There had to be a catch. Waverly wasn't usually so magnanimous as to send them away for an entire weekend driving a million dollar automobile.

"Only to make one stop tomorrow night after we're finished with our business in Albany. Section Four received a peculiar inquiry from someone who says he has some valuable information to sell to us."

"And Waverly wants us to check the guy out? Where is he located?"

"About two hours north of the state capital, in the Adirondacks. I have the address here." Kuryakin dipped two fingers into the breast pocket of his lab coat and produced a folded scrap of paper. He passed it to Solo.

"North Pole, New York?" Solo looked askance. "A ski lodge?"

"Mmmmm...no. Apparently, it's something colloquially known as a 'Santa village.'"

"How appropriate." Solo chuckled ruefully. Christmas was only ten days away.

"Could be something; could be nothing —"

"— Could be a trap."

"Always a distinct possibility. But we'll have the car to tip the odds in our favor."

Test drive, my foot, Solo thought as Kuryakin flipped the panels back in place, concealing the elaborate instrument controls. "You have to admit, Napoleon, it is a considerable incentive."

"Only if I get to drive, too."

Like many Russians, Kuryakin loved cars, all cars, but especially Western sports cars, even though he didn't own one himself. Solo did, so he left the driving to his partner, even though often the most dangerous part of the mission was riding in the passenger seat with Illya behind the wheel.

"We can split the trip. You drive one way; I'll drive the other."

"All right. We'll flip a coin," Solo said. "Heads, I drive first. Tails, you do."

Kuryakin shrugged to indicate that was fine with him. He knew the way things would go even as he watched Solo rummage in his pocket for a quarter.

Ah well, he thought with a sigh. He could always study the owner's manual on the way as they traveled upstate.

2.

The next day proceeded pretty much as expected. Most of the afternoon was taken up by meetings with what Solo irritably described at one point as "a lot of tight-ass, tight-fisted provincial upstate bureaucrats." Kuryakin could certainly sympathize; he'd dealt with enough prime examples of the species in his own country.

But the drive up that morning was pleasant, with only partly cloudy skies and none of the predicted precipitation. Because they could wait until after rush hour was over to leave, traffic on the New York Thruway was moderate and they made good time with Napoleon — who had, indeed, won the coin toss — at the wheel.

Cruising through the Catskills, Solo settled back in his bucket seat, enjoying his freedom from the claustrophobic maze that was U.N.C.L.E. HQ. With the air stream sliding past their oversized windows and the V-6 purring like a jungle cat, the narrow windowless steel-lined corridors seemed a distant memory, both in time and space.

"This is the life," Solo sighed contentedly. Beside him, in the passenger seat, Kuryakin was reading through the car's formidable instruction manual. Balanced on his knee, it was as thick and stuffed with as much fine print as a bible.

"Can't you see us hitting the open road?" Solo continued, undisturbed by his partner's lack of response. When they were alone together, it was often Solo's task to fill up the silences. "We could be like those two guys on that show with the Corvette. Roaming the highways of America with only a suitcase strapped to the luggage rack."

See the USA/ In your Chevrolet he sang softly, just under his breath, mimicking the commercial jingle.

"I don't believe that Corvette is equipped with flame throwers," Kuryakin observed evenly, his eyes still on the page, bursting Solo's bubble but not his good mood.

"Maybe they could use some. Maybe it should be standard equipment."

The afternoon of meetings soon blended into an evening of drinks and a long business dinner. Solo did his best to schmooze— borrowing the word Mitzi, his secretary, always used — the lawmakers, while Kuryakin chimed in when necessary to demonstrate U.N.C.L.E.'s considerable knowledge and competence. Together, they managed to convince their now less reluctant hosts that U.N.C.L.E.'s New York agents were not a bunch of reckless, above-the-law daredevils who thought nothing of blowing up a building or two, but a combination of sophisticated diplomacy and technological expertise with a bit of bonhomie thrown in for good measure. When the long day of lobbying finally ended, there were handshakes all around as the assemblymen agreed to vote for a supplemental appropriation when it came up in committee after the Christmas break.

By the time the agents finally peeled themselves away from Jack's Oyster House (established in 1913, the legend on the front window boasted), their nerves were ragged and their sociability reserves severely depleted.

"Want to drive?" Solo asked as they neared the lot where they'd parked the car. Kuryakin shrugged, indicating that he was willing to resume his usual place behind the wheel. The meter had run out an hour earlier, and a cream-colored ticket flapped against one of the wiper blades, tugged by a stiff chilly breeze. Solo scooped up the card and stuffed it into his breast pocket, wondering idly what the ticketing officer must have thought of their car. Obviously, even though it looked like something the Jetsons might drive, the cop had not been discouraged from doing his duty.

Despite their edgy exhaustion, the agents still had another two hours of traveling ahead of them on the Adirondack Northway. The directions from Section Four eventually took them away from the Northway to more scenic, less traveled roads that wound through the mountains. Cold, wispy sleet sizzled against the surface of the car and the oversized windows were no longer as welcome. Kuryakin turned on the car's multiple defrosters and dialed up the heat.

It was nearly midnight when they saw the first roadside sign decorated with happily cavorting elves inviting them to Visit Santa's Workshop! and informing them it was just two more miles before they arrived at the storied North Pole. Then it was one mile, and then a half mile, and then it was time to turn left at the large column labeled "North Pole," which was indeed candy cane striped and equipped with a neon lit oversized arrow pointing the way. Even in the dark and icy rain, it was difficult to miss.

The little theme park was nestled against the side of a mountain, a small cluster of houses painted primarily with shades of red, white and green. Twinkling holiday lights lined every roof, window, doorway, shrub and tree, and though the place was closed and the day's visitors long gone, all the lights were still blazing brightly.

Kuryakin pulled the car into the tidy parking lot that was located adjacent to the dollhouse-shaped Post Office. A huge snowman held a sign that said: Send Santa a Letter! Tell Him What You Want for Christmas!. Solo read it as he clambered out of the car and tried to imagine what it must be like to be a parent whose child was determined to follow the command.

Kuryakin aimed what looked like a small metal bar of soap at the car and the doors locked automatically. "Remote controller," he told Solo as he pocketed it.

The entrance turnstiles were locked and secured with chains, but the agents vaulted them easily. A ten-foot live Christmas tree, elaborately decorated with bows and oversized balls, greeted them in the village square, but the rest of the scene was eerily silent. Only the wind whistled through the eaves of the storybook houses. Feeling distinctly uneasy, both agents pulled out their guns and checked their clips. Then, Solo tugged down the brim of his hat, squinted against the freezing rain, and led the way.

They found the first body, a young male employee dressed like an elf, next to a candy cane signpost. He'd been killed with one shot straight to the heart, bloodstains outlining a necklace of jingle bells.

A professional hit, Solo thought, and Kuryakin's wordless nod offered support for that assessment.

The second body, a female elf, was lying next to the pathway leading to Santa's workshop. She, too, had been taken down with one shot, this time, between the eyes. They were still open, her pretty, full-lipped mouth frozen in an eternal "O" of surprise.

Saw it coming in that last second, Solo guessed. A third body, middle-aged and male, was lying half in and half out of the open paddock of the Reindeer Barn. Inside, three large deer with impressive racks of antlers had been summarily executed as well. One was in a stall marked Rudolph.

The fourth body, also male and a decade younger then the reindeer handler, was just outside the building that was supposedly Santa's own private house.

Like following bread crumbs... Solo thought morbidly.

The tin mailbox was labeled Mr. and Mrs. Claus in a seasonal font. The ornate front door was closed, but unlocked. Cautiously and as quietly as possible, Solo nudged it open with his elbow and, grasping his Special with a stiff-armed, two-handed grip, stepped in. Kuryakin, similarly poised for trouble, followed close behind him.

The lights were still on, but the house had been ransacked. Cupboards were thrown open, gaily painted furniture overturned, and various plaster and wooden props that adorned the cozy comfy parlor setting had been strewn across the floor. There was only one other room in the house, a kitchen with a gingerbread theme, and both agents moved toward it as one.

Inside, they found two more corpses. A man in a rumpled Santa Claus costume minus the beard was tied tightly but haphazardly with strings of outdoor Christmas lights to a chair. He was dead, but the corpse was battered, indicating a rough interrogation. The end had been neither quick nor merciful. A woman who looked like Mrs. Claus — but after a prizefight — lay sprawled on the floor nearby. Solo checked her for signs of life and found none. She hadn't been dead for long, maybe an hour, two at most.

"Whoever did this was looking for something," Solo said, stating the obvious.

"But did they find it?" Kuryakin asked aloud. "Perhaps we should —"

"Are you from U.N.C.L.E?" A short, slender youth in an elf costume suddenly appeared behind them and it took a second or two for the agents to realize that he'd somehow slipped out of a nearby walk-in pantry. Their gun barrels went up automatically.

"Who are you?" Solo demanded. The kid looked to be somewhere around college age, but he might have been older.

"My name's Tommy. Tommy Flynn. I work here. Or, at least I did up until tonight."

"Were you in there all the time?"

"No. I was hiding out back, in the woods." His elf costume was torn at the knees and elbows and heavily soiled. Solo believed him. Obviously, not only had he been crawling through the mud and brambles, but he looked more than a little shell-shocked.

"How did you get in here?" Kuryakin wanted to know. Tommy hooked a thumb over his shoulder and gestured toward the pantry. "That's the employees' entrance. I saw you movin' around in here. So, are you from U.N.C.L.E.?"

"Why? What do you know about U.N.C.L.E.?" Solo asked warily. Still holding his gun level, he reached into his pocket and held up his gold identification card. Kuryakin didn't bother with his; Tommy seemed satisfied with the sight of just one.

"Mr. Larkin — him— " the kid pointed to the dead man in the chair without actually looking in his direction "— he said you were going to come. But they came instead. At first, we thought they were you." He held up a black spiral-bound ledger that would have looked perfectly ordinary if were not for the symbol of a bird in a fighting stance embossed in gold on the cover. "He told me to take this and run for it. So I did."

"What is it?" Solo asked again, his curiosity piqued. He exchanged a sideways glance with Kuryakin who was at a similar loss.

"He said I should take care of it, guard it; that you'd pay good money for it, that I shouldn't give it to anyone else."

"But what is it?" It'd been a long, difficult day and night and Solo was just about at the end of his patience.

"I don't know exactly." He held the ledger at arm's length, offering it to the agents. "Here. See for yourself."

Kuryakin took it and quickly rifled through the pages. "Names," he told Solo. "There are columns of names. With addresses and phone numbers. And notations. About food, liquor, various accommodations, all with dates." He looked up. "It appears to contain the guest list for every important Thrush function held during the last ten years."

"And you say it belonged to Santa — ah, Mr. Larkin there?" Solo asked.

"Yes, sir. I don't know any more than that. I live a mile up the road. On the other side of the mountain. I've been doing the elf thing for about a year. It's a good place to work...was a good place to work." His voice trailed off. During the entire time, Solo noted, Tommy had managed to avoid looking at either the man tied to the chair or the woman's corpse on the floor. Then, steeling himself, the kid adopted a half-heartedly belligerent stance. "What about the money?"

"What about it?" Kuryakin countered.

"Mr. Larkin said you'd pay."

"Why should we?" Kuryakin gestured around the murder scene. "Our communication was with him. How do we know you aren't the one responsible for all this carnage?"

"What?" Tommy's face went pale and his eyes began to brim with tears. "You think I killed them? Mr. Larkin? Mrs. Larkin? Are you nuts?"

"There's a girl lying outside —" Solo pointed out.

"Yeah, I know. That's Annie. She's my girlfriend... was..." Tears were streaming freely down Tommy's cheeks now, and when he wiped the snot from his nose with his sleeve, it jingled. Solo felt sorry for him and reached into the breast pocket of his overcoat for the envelope containing cash. "I only have a thousand dollars. It was supposed to be a down payment."

"That's enough," Tommy managed to croak. "I gotta get away from here. It ain't safe no more."

"You should come with us."

"Are you kidding? I saw the car you pulled up in. Where are ya going to put me? In the trunk?"

"He has a point," Kuryakin conceded.

"S'okay. I can take care of myself."

Before Solo could answer, Tommy snatched the envelope from the agent's fingers and disappeared into the open pantry. In the next moment, he was gone, the hidden door to the outside closing with a soft, barely discernible thump.

"Well, that went well," Kuryakin observed a few minutes later as they followed the path back to their parked car, the ledger in question tucked under his arm.

"We'd better call Headquarters," Solo said, ignoring his partner's sarcasm. "Let them contact the local authorities. I'm too tired to deal with — uh-oh."

At the entrance, just inside the turnstiles, there were four very large, very dangerous looking men in topcoats waiting for them.

And in the cheery glow of the flickering Christmas lights, the agents could see that all four had their guns drawn.

3.

"Gentlemen — " Solo began, determined to buy a little time while he and Illya maneuvered to regain the upper hand, but the tallest topcoat wasn't interested.

"You found what we were looking for," he said, pointing toward the prize currently in Kuryakin's possession. "Hand it over."

"Now, wait a minute..."

"We don't have a minute. And neither do you."

The man spoke with a heavy Hoboken accent and looked like a movie mobster straight out of central casting. He even wore a soft grey felt fedora with the brim pulled down close to his eyes. Solo didn't recognize Mr. Topcoat or, indeed, any of his companions.

Must be contractors, he thought. Ever since Vince Carver had been carted off to jail, Thrush's New York operation had been in chaos and there were at least three candidates vying for the position of local satrap.

"You," Mr. Topcoat said to Kuryakin. "Give it to me."

"With pleasure," the Russian agent said and then he hissed to Napoleon: Get down!

Solo did so, automatically and without thinking, and was very glad he did. Because in the next moment, a blaze of machine gun fire opened up, spraying across the admission kiosks. Glass shattered and wood splinters flew and one topcoat went down with a groan while the other three scattered for cover.

"Go!" Kuryakin shouted, just as the machine gun fire stopped abruptly. He began to run in the direction of the parking lot and Solo ran with him.

"Who the hell was shooting?"

"Not who — what," Kuryakin replied breathlessly, leaping over a turnstile and landing on the sidewalk. He brought out the controller from his pocket, aimed it at the parked U.N.C.L.E. car, and suddenly, the engine roared to life. As the agents rounded the car on either side, the gull-wing doors released and rose, allowing them entry. Solo nearly tumbled into the passenger seat. Kuryakin was already behind the wheel and he hit a button on the no longer concealed center console that set off another round of machine gun fire to cover their escape.

Then the agents yanked the doors down and Kuryakin floored the accelerator, peeling out of the little parking lot with a spray of icy gravel. Solo twisted in his seat to look behind them. Already the topcoats were coming back to life, rising and shouting and snapping off shots from their automatic weapons. But it was too little too late, and the few bullets that hit their target pinged harmlessly off the car's trunk and rear fenders.

Solo hung on as Kuryakin raced the car back up the winding entrance road, narrowly missing the North Pole sign as they passed it. Soon, they were back on the Northway, driving through sparse traffic and freezing rain.

Their pursuers didn't show up until they were an hour south of Albany.

4.

"We have company," Solo announced.

"How do you know?" Kuryakin asked. He'd just started to finally relax. Suddenly, a bullet pinged against the trunk, and he pressed a button on the console and to raise the rear shield.

"Oh, just psychic I guess," Solo said, but he was studying the image in the side-view mirror. "It's the black Caddy that was parked at the North Pole. I noticed it as we pulled away."

"There was a Pontiac GTO coupe next to it," Kuryakin reminded him. "We can outrun a Cadillac. I'm not so certain about a GTO, especially if it's been customized with a 389 engine."

Two more shots whizzed by, both missing the U.N.C.L.E. car. "Can we use the machine guns again?" Solo asked.

"No. They're only mounted in the front."

"Well, that's kind of dumb, isn't it?" Solo said. "What was Simpson thinking?"

"Why don't you ask him when we get back?" Kuryakin shifted to a higher gear and pressed the gas pedal for more speed. Freezing rain continued to sizzle against the windshield, making it harder to see. Fortunately, the only other vehicles on the road at this time of night were a handful of long haul tractor trailer trucks. One was lumbering along in the right lane and the U.N.C.L.E. car zipped around it easily, for the moment out of range of the pursuing Caddy.

"Flamethrowers then?" Solo asked.

"Only if they get closer than six meters."

"Then what can we use?"

"How about the rockets?"

Solo's eyebrows rose. "Isn't that a little overkill?"

Kuryakin shrugged. "Not at this speed and distance." The needle on the speedometer was inching past 90.

"Okay," Solo agreed. "Where are the rockets?"

"Didn't you read the manual?"

"No. I was driving this morning, remember?"

Kuryakin heaved a sigh, annoyed. "The launch tubes are embedded in the doors."

"The doors?"

"Yes. You just open them and the rocket will launch. There's an extra rocket stored in a compartment in the floorboard to the right of your seat. And the line-of-sight beam riding guidance system is in the glove compartment. You can target manually."

"Great," Solo muttered. He flipped the panel, revealing two monitors and several rows of controls. "Works like a missile?"

"Essentially yes. Allow me to get us into a better position."

While Solo made the adjustments, Kuryakin steered toward the left lane, away from the slower-moving trucks. There were no other cars around except the Caddy bearing down upon them. "Here they come," Kuryakin said.

Solo set the controls, then unlocked his gull-wing door and cracked it open just enough to clear the rocket tube. The image of the Caddy in the side view mirror was growing progressively larger. This better work, he told himself. He waited for Illya to straighten and steady the car, and then he stabbed the launch button.

The small rocket fired with a loud whoosh. Three seconds later, it slammed into the Cadillac's front left fender and tore along the door. Not a direct hit, but good enough. The impact was enough to propel the Cadillac sideways, where it went out of control, careened off the Thruway and crashed, head-on, into a stand of old evergreen trees.

"Bull's eye on the first try," Solo laughed, feeling fairly pleased with himself.

"Lucky shot," Kuryakin complimented him. "Hope you have another in you —" he gestured toward the rear view mirror in which the image of another car was emerging from the smoke "— because here comes the GTO."

Just then, they were the high pitched squeal of a police siren. "That would be the State Police," Solo said.

Kuryakin groaned. "We don't want them involved."

"Then how about releasing a smoke screen and getting the hell off the Thruway?"

"Good idea. Press that button there."

Solo did, dense grey smoke billowed out of the rear of the car, creating a cloud of near-zero visibility. An exit was coming up and Kuryakin took it, zooming up the ramp and right past the toll booth.

Now they were on local roads again, whipping past picturesque farm houses and charming clapboard houses with darkened windows. Whole towns were sleeping, which wasn't surprising since it was past three in the morning.

"There's a blip on the radar," Solo said as he checked the screen. "Coming up fast. I don't think we shook the GTO."

"I was afraid of that," Kuryakin said matter-of-factly as he accelerated, skidding through the curves on screeching tires. "I'm betting they attached a tracer to our car while we were still in the Santa village. That would explain how they found us so quickly on the Thruway."

"Now what?" Solo sounded disgusted. "Whoever is driving that GTO is going to stick with us no matter what."

"Perhaps we can use that to our advantage," Kuryakin said, thinking aloud. "How close are we to the Hudson River?"

Solo switched the radar screen to a map overlay. "Very close. In fact, if you make the next left coming up, we'll be on a route called "River Road." It runs right along the cliffs overlooking the Hudson."

"Perfect."

Solo glanced over at his partner, genuinely alarmed. "You're not considering that we —"

"Why not?" Kuryakin's lips quirked into an impish smile. "And really, do we have a choice? Perhaps it's time to give her a true test drive." When he downshifted, it was with renewed determination. Solo turned back to the radar screen.

"The bad guys are gaining."

"Good. Let's give them some rope to hang themselves." Kuryakin looked ahead, his eyes following the steel guard rail that gleamed in the headlights. It didn't look very strong and had serious dents in spots. Still, if there was a break —.

There. About a half mile ahead, where the road curved.

"Put your seatbelt on, Napoleon," Kuryakin said, his foot easing on the brake pedal ever so slightly. "Then push the button marked amphib."

"I think we should give them the smokescreen again, too," Solo said as he buckled in. The rain was still coming down, but lighter now, and visibility was somewhat better. He tapped a large blue button on the console and they heard the supplemental locks on the gull-wing doors clamp into place while the air pressure changed ever so slightly inside the car.

"Yes, smoke would be helpful," Kuryakin replied, his attention split between the guardrail, the road, and the sound of the staccato bleeping of the radar screen. He was mentally committed now, but it all had to be timed just right.

"Ready?"

"Are you sure about this?" Solo asked dubiously, his index finger hovering over the smoke screen control.

"I suppose we'll find out."

Kuryakin aimed for the break in the guard rail that was coming up fast. As a huge plume of smoke spewed from the rear of their car, he hit the supercharger and pressed the gas pedal. Missing the edge of the rail by inches, the car roared like a rocket and was suddenly airborne.

"Holy —" Solo blurted out, but before he could add the appropriate expletive, they had landed with a loud splash in the cold, black waters of the Hudson River. Behind them, the GTO had followed a similar path. But, blinded by the smoke and without the aid of a supercharger, it tore through the guard rail, arced over the cliffs and then went tumbling down the side, exploding just before it hit the water. The wreckage floated briefly, wheels up, as what was left of the GTO drifted along the shallows of the shoreline.

"Well," Solo said, exhaling a long breath, "that went better than I expected. And we didn't even need the parachute."

"Oh ye of little faith," Kuryakin intoned as he switched on the propellers. They whirred softly with a pleasant purr.

"I always have faith in you, tovarisch. It's the lab boys about whom I have my doubts." He scanned the night sky overhead. The rain had finally stopped, and though the clouds overhead still concealed the moon, the sky was beginning to lighten. "We'd better make Manhattan before dawn," Solo said, "or the folks on the Circle Line are going to get an eyeful."

"I'll put us ashore before we reach the Tappan Zee." Kuryakin settled back in his bucket seat. "In the meantime, I suggest we enjoy the ride. It isn't every day one gets to cruise down the Hudson River in one's car."

5.

"Mr. Larkin" turned out to be Roscoe Lagarino, who ran an event planning business and had counted Thrush as one of his best customers. He'd been on the run ever since Thrush decided to cancel their account — permanently. Lagarino had become employed as Santa Claus the previous summer when the North Pole's owner, who usually played the role, was hospitalized after falling off a ladder while repairing a drain pipe. The woman costumed as Mrs. Claus was not Lagarino's wife, but had a history with him, along with a substantial rap sheet for petty crimes. The murdered reindeer keeper and the three dead elves, along with Tommy Flynn, were local residents. Flynn had been last seen crossing the Canadian border.

"Event planner for Thrush," Solo reflected as he and Kuryakin left their debriefing meeting with Waverly. "That's like being chief caterer for the Devil."

"Perhaps you should call that Santa school, Napoleon. It appears that there will have a job opening upstate."

"Ohhh no. Between dealing with Chairman Koz and our little trip to the North Pole, I've had my fill of Santas for one season, thank you very much."

As they continued through the HQ corridors, Kuryakin said, "I told Simpson that you complained about the placement of the machine guns."

"Was he annoyed?"

"He said he'd take it under advisement. I think he was simply relieved that we brought back the car in one piece."

Just then, April Dancer passed them, hurrying in the opposite direction and heading toward Waverly's office. "Don't forget the party next Wednesday!" she sang out without breaking stride. Solo spun on his heel as she went by.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," he called after her.

"You'd better not. Remember, you're playing Santa this year!"

And then she disappeared through a set of sliding doors and was gone.

Solo just stood in the middle of the corridor for a long moment, before he declared flatly, "I think I'm going to run away."

Kuryakin laughed and leaned in close, patting his partner's shoulder. "Don't worry. You can always take the car."