The Double-Blind Affair
It was the smell that woke him, though he didn't realize it at first. He opened his eyes and found himself lying on his back, looking up at an ornately-carved ceiling. He lowered his gaze and saw he was in a bedroom.
No, he corrected himself, not a bedroom. A hotel suite. Nearby, faint sunlight and street noises seeped in through the crack in the heavy damask draperies.
The room was fairly large with a small foyer beyond, and furnished with a tatty, baroque, Old World elegance. The bed was large, too an oversized double, covered with well-worn satin sheets. He could feel their silky smoothness against his skin.
Lazily, he rolled over. There was a woman lying next to him, on the other side of the bed. With her face obscured by tousled waves of raven hair, she appeared to be naked as well. A voluptuous swell of ivory breast peeked out from under the bedclothes.
He smiled to himself. Reflexively, without thinking, he leaned across the pillows, and offered her a gentle kiss.
The lips that met his were cold and dead, and rubbery as a clam.
Startled, he pulled away. The woman stared back, as if she could see right through him, into eternity, her liquid green eyes frozen wide in never-ending surprise.
What the hell ? he asked himself. It was then he noticed the smell slightly salty, slightly sour, almost metallic. He lifted his right hand. The palm came up crimson red. He ripped away the quilt. Beside him, just below her pillow, a sticky pool of clotted blood had soaked through the blue satin sheets, staining them the color of burgundy wine.
The man rasped the words aloud. As he retreated, scuttling crab-like, to the foot of the bed, the mattress undulated, disturbing the dead-weight of the corpse. The woman's head lolled to one side, revealing clumps of bloody, matted hair near the back of the neck. On the other side of the bed, the pillow next to hers tumbled away, and an automatic pistol with an "S" engraved on the grip, slid into view.
Still naked, the man scrambled to his feet while he searched his mind for answers and came up empty. He couldn't seem to recall who the woman was or how and when she died.
Panic rose so high in his throat, he could taste it. He backed away, into the adjoining bathroom and nearly stumbled over a second body sprawled on the black and white checkerboard tiles, just inside the doorframe. This corpse, another stranger, was male and fully dressed. Unlike the woman in the bed, he'd been shot through the forehead, neatly, right between the eyes.
The naked man clutched the edge of the free-standing porcelain sink for support and stole a glance at the image in the mirror. It was then it hit him:
He couldn't remember his own name. He had absolutely no idea who he was. Or where he was. Or how he'd got there.
Suddenly, there was a soft knock at the door of the suite. The man stiffened and held his breath. He wasn't sure how to answer or even in what language. What country was this, anyway?
A moment passed. He heard another knock, harder this time. A woman's voice whispered from the hallway, "Napoleon? C'mon, hurry up. It's me, April!"
Napoleon Solo— for that was the man's name, though he didn't know it yet — hesitated. Before he could decide what to do, the decision was made for him. He heard the tumblers in the lock clunk into place. As the door began to open, a terrycloth robe hanging on a hook caught Solo's eye. He grabbed for it. At the other end of the suite, a pretty young woman dressed in a black maid's uniform appeared, a pass-key dangling from a chain in her hand. She slipped in quietly, closing the door behind her. Solo met her in the small foyer as he belted the robe.
"Didn't you hear me calling in the hall?" she asked, annoyed. Dropping the keys into the pocket of her apron, her eyes raked him from head to toe. "Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep. Where's Illya?"
"What do you mean, Illya who?"
She grinned, her voice dropping into a sarcastic sing-song. "You know: blond, Russian. Illya, your partner. Illya, the man you were supposed to pass the information to..." She stopped. The grin faded. "Now, don't start playing silly games with me, Napoleon. We don't have time for it."
Solo stared at her blankly.
"You really don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"
"I don't even know who you are," he replied, obviously meaning it. He watched as the woman considered this.
"Tell me your name," she demanded.
"You're guessing. What's your last name?" He couldn't say. That did it. "Where's your suit jacket?" she asked. Helplessly, he glanced around and found a man's grey suit hanging inside an open armoire. He took out the jacket, not knowing whether it was his or not.
"Show me your communicator."
"Your pen. Check the inside breast pocket." He found the silver pen and passed it to her. With one enameled fingernail, she plucked out the long, thin plunger from the pen casing and examined it. Extended, the plunger looked like a small antenna. The tip was apparently missing.
"Just as I thought," she said to herself, nodding with satisfaction. Taking both of his hands firmly in hers, she looked him straight in the eye. "Listen to me, carefully. Your name is Napoleon Solo. I'm April Dancer. We're in a country called Dubrovia and we're both agents working for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement. Evidently, you've taken a drug, a pill, called Capsule B, that induces amnesia. You were supposed to rendezvous with another agent named Illya Kuryakin, but you probably can't remember if you did or not, so we have a problem."
Solo lifted her hand in his and displayed their palms, now both tacky with blood. "That's not our only problem," he said soberly, and led her across the suite, to the bed.
"Good Lord," Dancer exclaimed, when she saw the corpse. "That's the Premier's wife."
"There's another body in the bathroom. A man's."
Dancer followed his pointing finger. "Did you kill them?" A memory flickered briefly in the blackness of his mind, like a firefly in the night, then winked out.
"I don't know." The woman agent scooped up the automatic from where it lay on the bed and snapped open the clip. "There are two rounds missing," she declared matter-of-factly and tossed the gun to him. "Do you remember how to use this?"
He caught the weapon, cradling it awkwardly. Another firefly flitted past. He groped for it. Gone.
"Take it anyway," she said, when he didn't answer. "Now, get dressed. We have to get you out of here."
The grey suit was a perfect fit. He also found shoes, socks, a white silk shirt and a striped tie in the armoire. A gold watch, a pair of plain gold cuff links and a wallet waited on the bureau nearby. While he dressed, he could hear Dancer in the foyer, talking to someone over the pen communicator. The voices were too muffled to make out clearly. He concentrated on knotting his tie.
"Okay, here's what we'll do," she said, coming into the bedroom, just as he finished. "Don't bother to check out. Let the hotel keep your passport. I've brought another one for you, with another alias to get you across the border. Use the rear service entrance. I think I can stall the maids long enough to give us a decent head start. Hey, aren't you forgetting something?"
She held up a black leather shoulder holster between her hands. Sheepishly, Solo took off his jacket and allowed her to help him into it. The holster felt tight and restrictive, like a harness. The automatic was oppressively heavy. He flexed a shoulder muscle to settle it.
"When you leave the hotel," she continued, "walk four blocks west, until you reach a fountain. There's a boarded-up flower shop across the street. Wait for me. I'll pick you up there. Got it?"
When Solo nodded dully, Dancer sighed. "Oh, Napoleon, I hate to see you like this." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Then, once more in control of her emotions, she said, "Good luck. Now, go."
And he went.
Illya Kuryakin's awakening that same morning was somewhat less traumatic, but far more painful. The agent came to his senses slowly, with the sounds of chirping birds above him and a sensation of clammy wetness below. He raised his head.
Sunbeams streamed down through the leafy branches from the clear sky overhead, stabbing like hot needles, into his eyes. Blinded, he squinted against the light while a fiery headache blazed across his skull from temple to temple. Apparently, he was curled up against the side of a drainage ditch that ran through a small stand of birch trees. Kuryakin dropped his right hand and felt it sink into three inches of cold, muddy water.
"Chort!" he grunted in disgust, not realizing that he'd reverted to his native Russian. At that moment, as he floundered in a mental limbo, such distinctions had no meaning for him.
He shifted his weight on the hand, and clawed at the side of the ditch with the other, searching for leverage. It was slow-going. His body felt leaden enormously heavy. His brain was working sluggishly too, and there seemed to be a noticeable delay between his thoughts and his movements. Marshaling his strength, he untangled his feet and tried to stand. A shock of pain suddenly jolted up his left leg, from ankle to thigh, and he cried out, collapsing back into the mud. The wind knocked out of him, Kuryakin sat in a heap, trying to decide what to do next. His mind felt like it was packed with excelsior. He rummaged around, unable to locate a coherent thought.
Then, somewhere, a dog barked. And barked again.
Instinctively, the agent cocked his head. He heard another bark, this time, much closer. Kuryakin slitted one eye open, risking a peek. He saw a blur of black and white fur. A wagging tail. A wide open mouth, full of flashing white teeth.
The barking continued, horribly, excruciatingly loud. Kuryakin held his head, covering his own ears with his muddy hands. And now another sound broke in, a voice: softer, gentler, human, female.
What language was she speaking? he asked himself. Although he couldn't identify it by name, he realized that he could understand her individual words. "Stop it, Hocha, stop it!" the woman said. "Get back. Leave him alone!"
The dog's barks modulated to anxious yips and whines. Kuryakin felt someone stoop down, close beside him. Through the dank mustiness that filled his nostrils, seeped the sweet scent of vanilla.
"Are you all right? What happened?" Abruptly, he was aware these last words were addressed to him. He concentrated, making an effort to respond, but he couldn't find anything to say. "Can you walk?"
Finally, a question he could answer. "I don't think so," he replied, grateful he could match the language.
Her fingers traveled down his leg, taking inventory. "It's the ankle," the woman said, almost to herself. "Not a break. Just a sprain. You're lucky."
Cool hands wafted past his cheek, settling against his forehead. Her tongue clucked twice against the roof of her mouth. "You have a fever, too."
Kuryakin twisted fitfully, but her hands pressed him down. "No. Don't get up. You mustn't put weight on that ankle. Stay here. I'll be back." She raised her voice. "Come, Hocha, come with me." The woman hurried away, leaving a basket of mushrooms nearby, on the grass. Kuryakin forced his eyes to follow her. In the receding figure, he could make out a flowered headscarf and a fringe of blond hair. A beige cotton blouse. A faded brown skirt and black boots, with a small black and white dog trailing behind.
It seemed a long time passed before the woman in the headscarf returned. When she did, the dog was no longer with her. She climbed into the ditch again, draped Kuryakin's arm around her neck, and offered him a shoulder for support.
"You must get up now. Slowly. Take care with the ankle."
Keeping his weight on his left leg, Kuryakin leaned against the woman and hauled himself to his feet. An ancient flatbed cart waited, hitched to an equally ancient mule. Kuryakin hopped the short distance and climbed into the back of the cart. The woman placed her basket of mushrooms next to him. Then she took the mule by the bridle and began to walk.
The road was unpaved and deeply rutted. Wracked by pain and fever, Kuryakin clutched a sideboard and hung on. He couldn't think. Rather, he floated in a muddled sea of sense impressions. Creaking planks and squeaking wheels. The soft rush of breezes stirring crowns of flowering fruit trees. A wordless melody hummed in a pleasant alto, keeping time with the steady clip-clop of the mule.
When they arrived at the woman's house, there were different sounds and smells. The grunt of pigs and the cackle of chickens. The barking of that dog, again. The sour stench of manure, mingled with new grass and old hay.
Inside the house, the stale odors of last night's supper vied with the powdery sweetness of fresh, baked cake. A radio playing classical music blared flat and tinny in the background. A man grumbled objections he sounded very old. The woman scolded him impatiently, ordering him to be quiet, as she helped Kuryakin across one room and into the next. Their destination was a bed. After Kuryakin lowered himself down, to sit on the edge of the mattress, he heard the woman say, "Your clothes are damp. You must take them off or you'll catch your death."
He was in no condition to argue. He fumbled with his shirt buttons, but the woman's fingers were quicker and far more efficient. He managed to open his shirt, and she removed the rest.
Finally naked, Kuryakin rolled half-under the blankets, while the woman busied herself with his leg. The sheets smelled good and clean. The bed felt wonderful.
"My name is Anna," she told him, conversationally, as she stacked some pillows under his swollen ankle for support. "What's yours?" He didn't answer. He hadn't a clue who he was. Half-heartedly, he reached for a memory. It dribbled through his mental grasp and melted away, and oddly enough, he didn't care. He drifted along, on the ebb of consciousness, with an overwhelming sense of release. Here was solace. Here was peace, a refuge and a place to rest. And that was good, because the only thing Illya Kuryakin knew, if he knew anything at all, was that he was very, very tired.
The headache began soon after Solo left the hotel, and rapidly increased in size and intensity. By the time he'd found the public fountain which was little more than a rusted, concrete tub filled with brackish water, he was nursing a full-blown monster of a migraine. The agent huddled in the alley next to the abandoned flower shop for almost an hour before April Dancer arrived, driving a non-descript grey Lada sedan. By then, Solo had developed a fever as well. Shaking with chills, he dropped into the passenger seat of the compact car. He noted with only passing interest that Dancer had traded her maid's uniform for a simple skirt and blouse.
Leaving the city, they drove all afternoon, though Solo had no idea where. The rural scenery flashing by the windows made him dizzy. He closed his eyes and dozed. Dancer kept asking him questions about the dead woman in his bed, about their mutual uncle, about someone called Illya none of which he could answer, and so he dozed to avoid the questions, too. Now it was evening. He still couldn't recognize his name, but that was the least of his problems.
"How do you feel?" Dancer inquired from behind the wheel.
"Like someone should do me a favor and shoot me."
They'd stopped for a brief time earlier, in a small village, to pick up some food, and Dancer was finishing the last of a meat pie. Solo couldn't eat anything. Just the smell of the meat made him ill.
"That's the drug working on you," she said. "The side effects are similar to the symptoms of encephalitis: headache, double-vision, fever, fatigue."
"Charming. How long will this last?"
"The side effects, about twenty-four hours. The amnesia, about three days, though it's hard to say. The old Capsule B had an annoying tendency to wear off too soon. The new improved formula is more potent, but of course, the effects are stronger."
"It feels like my brain's on fire, ready to explode."
"It's nasty stuff all right," Dancer agreed. "One certainly needs a good reason to take it."
"Well, I can guarantee you," Solo muttered miserably, "if I survive this with all my marbles intact, I'll never take it again."
The woman agent chuckled. "Oh yes, you will, if you have to. This time, you probably did it to protect Illya."
The flickering fireflies in Solo's mind had mutated into bolts of lightning. Now, at the sound of that name, one of the bolts seared, white-hot, across the darkness, cauterizing a stray memory, sealing it off before it could mature. Solo squeezed his eyes shut and put a trembling hand to his forehead. "Ah, could you run that by me again, please? I've forgotten. Exactly who is this Illya?"
"Your partner and your contact. You were working undercover, gathering information on a Thrush network, here in Dubrovia. Your last call to headquarters indicated that you were ready to rendezvous. But then we heard nothing from either one of you." Dancer's voice turned grave. "Napoleon, we have to find out what happened. More importantly, we have to find Illya. We can't leave here until we do."
"I'm sorry," Solo apologized. "I don't remember anything."
Dancer let out a breath. "Never mind. We'll try to work something out tomorrow, when your head is clearer." She paused, considering. "I suppose we should stop somewhere for the night."
"How about a nice hospital?"
Dancer chuckled again, in spite of herself. "They'd probably misdiagnose your symptoms and throw you into quarantine. A hotel is out, too. The security police are no doubt looking for you." Through the windshield, she scanned the surrounding countryside. The night was pitch-black. Except for the stars overhead and the car's own headlight beams, there were no other lights around.
"This area looks pretty deserted," Dancer observed. "I think I'll just pull off the road, okay?"
Solo shrugged carelessly, to indicate that it didn't matter much to him. He felt the Lada slow and veer off to the left. Sticks and gravel crackled under the tires, while shrubbery branches scraped against the steel body. The car rolled to a halt. Dancer turned off the ignition and pocketed the keys.
"You might prefer the backseat," she told him. "There's more room."
Solo decided to take her suggestion and unlocked the door. Stumbling with vertigo, he abandoned the cramped front seat to crawl into the rear, and found Dancer there, waiting for him. She nudged his shoulder and coaxed him to lay his head in her lap.
"You must be running a hundred and two, at least," she said, touching his fevered cheek. The night was warm and spring-like, but lying there, Solo shivered under his suit jacket. Dancer took off her own coat and covered him with it.
"Take it easy, Napoleon. Try to sleep. I'll keep watch. Don't worry, we'll be safe tonight."
With his eyes still closed, Solo reached for her hand, and gripped it tightly in his. Her hand felt comforting, both strange and familiar. It seemed he'd held one like it, in the same way, many times before.
"I owe you for this, April," he murmured, and felt her other hand stroking his face again, pushing aside a comma of hair.
"Nonsense," she said. "What else are friends for?"
The drying mushrooms hung in front of the window, dangling from their string, like a necklace of ivory corks. Illya Kuryakin stared at them, for the moment, transfixed.
"Good morning, Mr. Kuryakin," Anna greeted him. "And how are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you."
Kuryakin continued to stare past her, at the mushrooms. The image plucked a chord deep inside him, resonating with a music it seemed he hadn't heard in a long time. The woman didn't notice. "I expected to hear you say that," she replied with satisfaction, "though I admit I was concerned last night before the fever broke. Still, you must be careful with that ankle."
Standing in the doorway to the bedroom, the agent abruptly ended his reverie. He blinked in confusion. "Um… Anna, isn't it?"
The woman nodded. "Anna Sloveska."
"Anna, how is it you know my name?" Particularly, he wanted to add, since I don't know it, myself.
"Ah, so you've caught me, haven't you?" She cocked her head, guiltily and wiped her hands in her apron. "I will confess, then. I peeked at your passport. It's over there, next to the lamp, with the rest of your things."
Kuryakin followed her pointing finger. The house wasn't much. Low and wooden, with a well-patched tin roof, it had two small bedrooms attached to one larger, common room. One side of the common room functioned as a kitchen. The other, with a couch, a table, and a lamp, provided a parlor of sorts. The house had electricity, but no indoor plumbing. Through a window, Kuryakin saw an outhouse nestled halfway between the vegetable garden and the barn.
His passport was waiting for him on the lamp table, along with a wallet, a holstered automatic and a slim, silver ball-point pen. He pocketed the passport, the wallet and the pen, but he didn't know what to do with the gun, so he left it there.
"Your clothes were filthy. I washed them, but they're still hanging out to dry. I'm afraid you'll have to wear Papa's old clothes today."
"No problem," Kuryakin said. The threadbare cotton trousers and shirt were a little too big, but not much. Favoring his good leg, he limped back to the kitchen table and sat down.
"Would you like some breakfast?" Anna inquired. "I can offer you some eggs and a slice of sausage."
"That sounds good."
Kuryakin watched as she bustled about the wood-burning iron stove. Her face was a bit too round, her nose, a bit too long, her mouth, a bit too wide to be considered pretty. She was blond and big-boned, sturdy but not quite stout, with strong, expressive hands and a quick smile.
Suddenly, there was a loud thump at the door. Kuryakin jumped in his seat, scraping the chair leg along the bare wooden floor. Inexplicably, his hand snaked to his opposite armpit, only to close on empty air.
"It's nothing, just Hocha," Anna assured him. She opened the door and a scruffy mongrel skittered in, yipping happily and wagging its tail. Embarrassed, Kuryakin sank back and offered the dog a friendly pat.
"Hocha is the one who found you, you know," Anna said as she returned to her frying pan. She flashed an approving smile as the dog nuzzled the agent. "She likes you, Mr. Kuryakin, and she has always been a good judge of character."
Breakfast consisted of two undersized eggs, a thin slice of sausage, a chunk of black bread and a cup of watered-down milk. Just as Anna placed the plate before him, a cantankerous voice called out from the second bedroom, growling obscenities and demanding immediate attention. Kuryakin felt his body tense automatically again, but he managed to control the reflex. When Anna excused herself and retreated, the agent took the opportunity to open his wallet and privately inspect its contents.
A gold card and an international driver's license identified him as Illya Nikolaevich Kuryakin, a representative of an organization called The United Network Command For Law Enforcement. In addition to an American Express card bearing the same name and a wad of bills in assorted currencies, there was a hastily scrawled, but carefully folded note. The note read:
Your name is Illya Kuryakin. You are an UNCLE agent. For your own protection, you have taken a pill that induces amnesia. Another agent named Napoleon Solo will meet you at the Moldar marketplace at 8 a.m. He will use the code words: 'Return to life.' Do not destroy this paper.
Trust no one.
Kuryakin glanced at his wristwatch. It was five minutes to eight. Too late to meet anyone today, even if he were so inclined. Refolding the note, he stuffed his wallet into his pants pocket, just as Anna returned. A radio now echoed softly in the background. "I must apologize for Papa," the woman said, self-consciously. "He doesn't mean to act ill-tempered. His eyes are weak and his mind is failing him, too."
"You and your father live here alone?"
Anna nodded. She sipped a cup of sugarless tea as Kuryakin ate. "My brothers and sisters all married and moved away, to the city. I was the youngest. When Mama died, I stayed to cook and care for Papa."
"That was a very kind thing to do."
"Well, I couldn't leave an old, blind man to starve, could I?"
"Your brothers and sisters did."
Anna changed the subject. "And what about you, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Call me Illya," the agent said, trying to get used to the name.
"All right Illya. How did you come to be in that ditch?" Finishing the last of his meal, Kuryakin said, "I don't know whether to tell you the truth or make up a good lie." He exhaled a deep breath. "I can't seem to remember what happened to me yesterday or any day before yesterday, for that matter. I can't even recognize my own name."
Anna took some time to reply. "You'll forgive me for speaking so bluntly," she said, choosing her words carefully, "but I find it difficult to believe you. You carry a gun. Your name is Russian, but you have an American-issued passport. You react to every loud sound, like a nervous cat in heat, and last night, you mumbled some very strange things in your sleep."
"I'm sorry," Kuryakin said helplessly. "Truly, I am, but I'm afraid I can't tell you any more than you already know."
"I see," Anna said. It came out as a soft hiss, indicating that she wasn't pleased. Silently, she took the dishes and rinsed them clean in a basin of water. Then she reached for her shawl.
"I must work in the fields today. Papa will be content with his radio. As for you, Mr. Kuryakin — or whomever you really are — if you wish to remain in this house, I suggest you use the time to recollect more truth, or at least think up a better lie."
When Anna was gone, Kuryakin rummaged through the kitchen trash, looking for something to write on, and found a wrinkled piece of brown paper. With his silver pen, he scribbled a few random words, and signed his name. Then, he unfolded the note from his wallet again, and compared the two messages. The handwriting was the same.
"Trust no one," Kuryakin repeated, re-reading the original note. Not even myself? he wondered.
Just as Kuryakin's fever had broken sometime during the night, Solo's faded the following morning, and his health improved steadily throughout the day. Dancer kept asking him questions, prodding his memory as she drove them farther into the countryside, but it was no use. When they stopped for lunch in a small town cafe, the woman agent listened to the radio playing and easedropped on the conversations of the locals. "Nobody seems to have heard about the murder," she remarked to Solo over a meal of coarse bread and thick vegetable soup. "I guess the Premier would prefer not to spread the news that his wife was found dead in the bed of her lover."
"Lover?" Solo asked, between mouthfuls. He'd finally developed a weak appetite. Dancer patted his hand.
"Just concentrate on getting your strength and your memory back. We'll go over the whole thing later."
It began to rain heavily soon after lunch. Dancer decided to take the risk and put a decent roof over their heads for the coming night. They found an inn in an isolated village and told the innkeeper they were newlyweds, on their way to spend a honeymoon by the sea.
Now, after a much-needed shower in the narrow stall at the end of the hall, Solo stood before a mirror shirtless, and contemplated the stranger in the glass. The image both disturbed and fascinated him. Brown eyes, brown hair, with a faint sprinkling of grey. Straight nose. Strong chin. He ran his fingertips along the edge of his own face, exploring the contours like a blind man..
Me and not-me: him.
He studied the mosaic of scars on his torso with a certain detachment, as one might examine a treasure map, searching for clues. If only he could remember the story behind each scar, he might be able to piece together a past ...
"Well, you seem to be getting back to normal, I see," April Dancer laughed as she let herself into the room. She dropped the key and a folded newspaper on the table, and joined Solo at the mirror.
"How are you feeling this evening?"
"Like I don't really exist anymore. I look in the mirror, and all I see is a plastic surgeon's nightmare."
"Oh I don't know," Dancer chuckled. She gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. "I like your scars — kind of swashbuckling."
"Oh yeah?" Solo said, through a crooked grin.
"Mmmm, but then, my taste tends to run to morbidity."
There was a knock at the door.
"That should be the innkeeper's wife," Dancer said. "She offered to bring up a tray so we could have a romantic late supper alone. I thought it might give us a chance to talk. C'mon, put your shirt on."
The innkeeper's wife came and went with discreet haste. They pushed two chairs and an end table together and sat down to eat. Solo had been hearing fragments of the story for the past two days, but now, over boiled chicken and cabbage, Dancer assembled the facts in order.
"Thrush — the bad guys, remember? — has been running a tidy little nest here in Dubrovia for some time, with the wife of Premier Tuchek playing protective mother hen. Recently, the Tucheks' marriage hit the proverbial skids: her boredom, his temper. Mr. Waverly, our boss, thought the flock might be ripe for plucking. He sent you in as a honey trap for Madame Premier, to get what information you could."
"Seduction and blackmail."
"Ah," Solo responded softly, as he carved the chicken. "And I suppose I'm known for that sort of thing."
Dancer grinned. "Rather notorious in some circles, actually. Anyway, your jet-setting playboy routine worked like a charm and the mission was an apparent success. We know from your last transmission that you had the entire roll-call of Dubrovian Thrush agents probably contained on microfilm in some form."
"You say 'apparently'?"
"Mmm. You thought Thrush was on to you late in the game, so Illya Kuryakin was sent in to receive the pass — um, the information, I mean ."
"I understand. What happened next?"
"We don't know. For security reasons, Illya was maintaining radio silence. He never broke it, and your own channel flat-lined. I was wrapping up an assignment just over the border, in Poland, so I went Mayday Operational to bail the two of you out. And here I am." Solo considered for a moment. "Well, I must have given the microfilm or whatever to this man, Illya, because I certainly don't have it now. I've checked my clothes, my pockets everything." He groaned, and put a hand to his brow. "Oh, why can't I remember any of this?"
"I told you, it's the Capsule B," Dancer replied. "Look, the way it was explained to me, the drug works like this: inside our minds, new ideas, experiences and impressions are linked, systematically, to information that is older but similar. Our memories are stored along continuously growing mental daisy chains. That's why, when we forget something, we often go back to the beginning of the chain and follow it, in order to find the right link.
"Now, as agents, we undergo a rigorous and unique system of training that slowly but surely welds our identity directly to our work, completely integrating the two."
"I spy, therefore, I am?" Solo quipped.
"Something like that. By obliterating the agent's identity, Capsule B also effectively cuts off all access to knowledge related to U.N.C.L.E. further down the chain."
"But this amnesia isn't total. It's selective," Solo argued. "I can still remember my French and Italian, how to count currency, and what I learned in fifth grade history. I also remember hearing that memory is organized like a web. That means there must be other pathways into that so-called U.N.C.L.E. knowledge."
Dancer shook her head. "Capsule B implants a temporary fail-safe system of built-in, psychological circuit-breakers. No doubt you've experienced them already."
Solo thought of the occasional lightning bolts inside his head. "I'll say, but this is so frustrating. I can recall so many things, but nothing that's personal."
"Do you have any memories of me?" Dancer asked, thoughtfully.
An aurora borealis shimmered to life in Solo's brain, then dimmed to a misty glow. "It's all very hazy, like looking through a veil. I have this general, physical outline, and a vague sense that we've been very good friends."
Dancer smiled. "And what about Illya?"
The name prompted a lightning bolt again, brief but ferocious. Solo strained to see past it and couldn't. He winced from the effort and shook his head in wordless defeat. Dancer sighed.
"I guess all we can do is sit tight until your memory returns, or until Illya finds us first." She looked worried as she glanced toward their open window. Outside, the rain had moderated to a lazy drizzle. "I only hope he's all right. This is no place to be injured or arrested. Dubrovia is not a signatory to the U.N.C.L.E. charter."
After supper, Dancer gathered up the dishes and decided to take them back downstairs. Left to his own devices, Solo scanned her folded newspaper. There was no mention of a murder, involving the Premier's wife or anyone else. He tried to read, but he wasn't quite fluent in the language and his headache was back, so he soon gave it up. When Dancer returned, they were both ready to turn in.
"I'll curl up in the loveseat," she volunteered. "I'm shorter. You can have the bed." There was only one in the room, a rather narrow, cast-iron double.
"Why don't we share it?" Solo said, then he paused. "Ah, we have slept together before, haven't we?"
"That depends on what you mean."
Solo was more amused than offended. "I assure you, April, I'm too tired to have anything but honorable intentions." He held up three fingers in a mock boy scouts' salute. "I promise that I want nothing more than for both of us to get a good night's sleep."
"Okay," Dancer relented. Stripping down to her underwear, she turned off the light and climbed into bed. Solo was there ahead of her. He leaned in close as she settled down beside him.
"Now, Napoleon, you said..."
"Shhh, I know what I said." He ran a knuckle lightly along her cheek. "And you should know how much I appreciate all you've done for me. I'd probably be rotting in some jail cell or waiting for a firing squad, if it weren't for you. I just wanted to tell you that."
Actually, he wanted more, but this would do. After all, a promise was a promise. He felt Dancer relax and took the opportunity to plant a small kiss on her lips. She didn't reciprocate, but she didn't resist.
"Don't tell me I've never kissed you before," Solo said with an innocent smile, as he retreated. He could barely discern her face in the darkness.
Dancer hesitated. She seemed to be struggling with something inside. "I just think it would be better if you didn't do it right now."
There was a lie lurking somewhere in those words, Solo thought to himself, but he was too exhausted to pursue it. He turned over and fell fast asleep. That night, he dreamed of a woman, her face obscured by a heavy veil, who smelled of gunpowder and Chanel No. 5.
A few hours earlier, just after sunset, Kuryakin opened the door of the little farmhouse and ducked his head out. The rain that had been falling since noon, was finally letting up. Beyond the weathered wooden stoop, the yard was a sea of mud. Still conscious of his limp, Kuryakin carefully picked his way around the vegetable garden and headed for the barn, in search of Anna.
He found her sitting on a low stool, preparing to milk the first of three cows. "Easy Nina," Anna said, when the cow lowed nervously at Kuryakin's approach. She offered Nina a few soothing pats, then began to tug at the full udder in earnest.
Kuryakin watched silently, absorbing the scene. He listened to the tap-tapping of the rain on the roof, the deep snuffling of the cows, the rhythmic hiss of the milk splashing raw and fresh, against the bottom of the tin bucket. The old barn smelled musty with moisture and unmucked hay, but it was a good smell just the same. Natural. Comfortable. Familiar.
"Do you want something?" Anna asked, addressing herself to the agent. She didn't bother to look up from her work. Kuryakin moved nearer, into her line of vision.
"Only to say that I didn't lie to you this morning. I couldn't remember what happened to me because I took a drug. The note in my wallet says so. Didn't you read it for yourself?"
"No. I looked at your passport," Anna replied impatiently. "A wallet is private."
Kuryakin unfolded the note and held it out to her. "Then read it now." Anna gave the paper only a cursory glance before passing it back to him.
"I can't. I can't even make sense of the letters. It looks like gibberish to me."
Kuryakin reexamined the note and saw that she was right. It was written in another language, one that used a different alphabet. Strange, he thought, that he should think in one language, speak another and write in yet a third. He translated the note to her aloud, all except the last line, then refolded it neatly and tucked it away.
"So?" she declared with a shrug, when he was done. "That message proves nothing. You might have written it, yourself."
"That's just the point: I did write it. I checked the handwriting against my own this morning." The cow named Nina stamped abruptly. Anna stroked the beast's ribcage again and resumed her milking.
"What is this 'U.N.C.L.E.'?"
"I don't know."
"And Napoleon Solo? Who is he?"
"I don't know that either. I suppose I'll have to go to Moldar to find out. Do you happen to know where the place is located?"
"It's a village, not far from here. Five, ten kilometers perhaps. They hold a dance at the Party center there every Saturday night." As she finished with Nina, Anna stood up and dragged her stool over to the next cow. A sturdy calf idled close by.
"Do you have another stool?" Kuryakin asked. Anna pointed. The agent retrieved a second stool, scooped up one of the empty pails and sat down beside the last cow. The cow snorted and took a step back.
"Her name is Veruska," Anna said.
"Easy, Veruska," Kuryakin murmured. He placed a firm hand on the cow to steady her, before he reached for the udder. The teats were warm and pliant to the touch, but somehow, just as familiar as the smell of the barn. After a few practice pulls, the milk came out with a satisfying squirt.
"Verushka trusts you, like Hocha," Anna observed when she joined him a while later. "You have gentle hands."
Kuryakin's last bucket was nearly full. Anna showed him where to empty it. At the rear of the barn stood a large refrigerated tank. "My neighbor, Ladislo, will come by later to take the milk to the dairy," she explained.
"The same man who stopped by earlier today in a grey truck?"
"So this is part of a larger collective farm?"
Anna nodded again. "Papa and I may keep the vegetables from the garden and a sixth of the milk. The rest belongs to the state." She changed the subject. "Excuse me for saying so, but you don't look like a farmer. Where did you learn to milk a cow?" They were walking back to the house now, taking their time. The rain was little more than a satiny mist.
"My grandfather lived on a farm," Kuryakin replied automatically.
"But how do you know that?"
Confronted once more with a question he couldn't quite answer, the agent ran an anxious hand through his damp hair. How could he explain it? It seemed as if heavy drop cloths had been thrown over all the furniture in his mind. Sometimes, when he lifted a corner, a memory was there. Sometimes, it wasn't.
"I'm not sure, but I think I saw the farm last night, in a dream," he said. "I was a boy, and I was playing around a barn, much like yours. An old man was calling to me. He was supposed to be my grandfather, but he wasn't. You know how confusing dreams can be. He wanted me to do my chores, but I ran away and hid in a loft. It all felt so real, that I think it must have been grounded in some kind of reality."
"Then your memory is coming back," Anna said, hopefully.
"Not necessarily. The amnesia appears to be selective."
"I suppose it would have to be. If you had forgotten everything you'd ever learned, you'd be feeble-minded. Can you guess the reason you took that pill?"
Kuryakin sighed, deeply. "I haven't the faintest idea." He felt so lost, so powerless. Anna seemed to understand.
"No matter," she said. "Thank you anyway for your help with the milking. And thank you for caring for Papa today, while I was gone. He told me you ate lunch with him, and talked to him about the war."
"He did all the talking," Kuryakin laughed. "I just listened."
"Nevertheless, I'm grateful. You have been very kind to all of us here, and I intend to repay your kindness. Tonight, I'll cook you a nice supper and make up a bed for you in the parlor." She eyed him wryly. "I hope you won't mind sleeping on the couch now that you're well."
The agent grinned. "The couch will do fine."
"Good. Tomorrow, I'll borrow Ladislo's truck and I'll drive you to Moldar. Perhaps we'll find your Mister Solo."
They'd reached the wooden stoop. From inside the house, Anna's father was calling to them, loudly demanding to know when the hell he should expect to eat. Anna slipped off her muddy boots as Kuryakin held the door for her. A sudden headache was beginning to hammer at his temples. He tried to ignore it..
"And what if we don't meet anyone at the marketplace, tomorrow?" the agent asked, concerned. "What then?" Despite her father's growling in the background, Anna couldn't repress a smile.
"We shall see, Mr. Kuryakin," she said. "We shall see."
The dream was savage, disturbing, weirdly distorted, filled with people he didn't know, telling him things he couldn't understand. He struggled within it, wrestled against it, and when someone shook him awake, he emerged from the dream like a drowning man coming up for air
"Napoleon! Get up. Get up right now!"
Solo opened his eyes. April Dancer was bending over him, fully dressed, her face a study in controlled panic. She gave his shoulder another jog for good measure.
"The security police are here," she said.
"How do you know?"
"Two men in suits are talking to the innkeeper downstairs at the desk, and there's a black Volga parked outside."
She didn't bother to elaborate, nor did she urge him to dress quickly. It wasn't necessary. Solo grabbed his shirt and trousers, as Dancer retreated to the other end of the room. Wedging their door slightly ajar, she listened to the muted voices that drifted upward from the first floor. After a few seconds went by, she announced, "They're coming up."
Solo was nearly dressed. "Is there another exit to this place?"
"I didn't see one."
"Then close the door and lock it."
"Now give me a hand with this loveseat."
The Victorian-style loveseat was unwieldy to handle and felt as if it was constructed from concrete rather than wood. Together, the agents dragged it across the room and pushed it hard against the door. It wasn't much of a barricade, but it would have to do.
Dancer threw open a window as Solo collected his holster and suit jacket. They both peered out.
Their room was located three floors up, at the rear of the inn, with a scenic view of a scrubby yard and an ancient outhouse. Several clotheslines, heavy with freshly-washed bed linens, were strung between weathered posts too far out of reach to do much good.
Solo pointed downward to a roof that covered the back porch, almost a full floor below them. The roof ran the length of the inn. "I suppose we could jump," Solo said.
Dancer frowned and fingered the strap on her shoulder bag. "I hate heights."
"As much as you hate rats?"
She blinked at him in surprise. "How do you know that?"
Solo wasn't sure, and with the security police already hammering at the door, demanding entry, there was no time to puzzle out an answer. "Never mind," he said.
He hooked a leg over the windowsill, angled his body through the narrow frame and dropped heavily to the roof below, bruising his knees. Dancer followed, landing more softly and surely behind him. Solo noticed that she'd taken her low-heeled pumps and stuffed one into each side pocket of her skirt.
In the distance, there was a splintering of wood and plaster as the security police broke down the door. The agents crouched low, and scurried along the roof.
"Where's the car?' Solo asked.
"Down the street a bit."
They'd reach the end of the roof. Around the corner, a solidly-mounted drainpipe beckoned invitingly.
"You make a break for the car," Solo said. "I'll keep them busy here while you do."
Dancer twisted, ready to protest. "I won't leave you, Napoleon."
Just then, two shots tore up the shingles near Solo's feet. The agents ducked their heads instinctively. Solo stole a peek over his shoulder. One of the security men was firing from the window of the abandoned third floor room.
"You don't have a choice," Solo said, pushing Dancer out of the security man's line of sight. If he could just focus attention on himself, the agent thought, April might have a chance. He nudged her toward the drainpipe.
"Pick me up at the front door as soon as you can. Now, go!"
Dancer began to object again, then thought better of it. This was really no time for a debate. Another pair of shots zinged across the iron gutters. Dancer swung around the corner of the building and stretched a hand toward the drainpipe while Solo dove, head-first, through an open, second floor window. He landed beside a naked couple, entwined together in a cast-iron bed even more cramped than the one in which he'd spent the previous night.
As the springs groaned under the added weight, the couple broke apart. The woman screamed, the man cursed, and Solo scrambled off the bed and got to his feet with as much grace as he could muster.
"Ah. . . did either one of you request a wake-up call?" he asked innocently.
The woman screamed again and clutched the quilt to her chest. The man growled, picked up a size twelve boot and threw it. Solo dodged to one side.
"No? My mistake. Sorry for the intrusion."
He was through the door before a second boot thumped against it.
Outside in the hallway, Solo paused at the top of the stairs to catch his breath. He could hear the heavy clump of stampeding feet as his pursuers descended the staircase at the opposite end of the inn, hoping to intercept him. He was sharply, acutely alert, but he felt no fear. Indeed, except for those first brief moments after waking, he'd felt strangely at ease since the chase began. Everything he'd done, every action and reaction, had come automatically, setting him on well-worn course, like a phonograph needle dropping into a groove.
One of the security men suddenly appeared at the second floor landing, and just as he did, the doors of several curious guests cracked open.
"There he is!" the security man cried, spotting Solo. The man pulled out a gun and fired. All the open doors slammed shut in unison. Solo half-remembered an old Marx Brothers' movie and laughed as he flattened himself against a wall.
Now the second security man arrived, also with gun drawn. He shouted, "Freeze!" — or the Dubrovian equivalent — but Solo had no intention of doing so.
The agent glanced down at the treacherously steep staircase before him. A young woman in a headscarf and a maid's apron, was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the wooden steps, a bucket of soapy water beside her. He looked back down the hall at the advancing security men. It was time to improvise.
Taking the steps two at a time, he seized the bucket from beside the startled maid and heaved its contents with all his strength. The soapy water flooded the floor of the narrow hallway, and cascaded down the stairs like a foaming waterfall.
"Sorry, honey," Solo apologized to the maid, as he hurried away, just ahead of the flow. He meant it, too. The poor kid would probably spend the rest of the morning cleaning up the mess.
The staircase made a sharp left turn near the bottom. Solo vaulted straight over the bannister and into the parlor that served as the inn's lobby. Above him, the security men negotiated the slick second floor hallway with a chorus of grunts and curses and skidding footfalls. One of them lost his balance at the top of the stairs and his rump hit the landing with a satisfying thud.
Solo laughed again. This was turning into the Keystone Cops. As he made a last dash for the door, he passed the innkeeper and his wife, standing utterly bewildered behind the front desk. The agent dug into his pocket and found four crumpled currency notes and a handful of coins.
"Thanks for the hospitality, " Solo said as he tossed the money their way. "Hope this covers the bill."
He looked up to see one of the security men galloping down the wet staircase. Solo grabbed an oversized ceramic vase and threw it. The vase exploded against the steps with an earsplitting crash, forcing the security man to fall back. Solo turned to the innkeeper.
"I'll wire you the damages," he promised and ripped open the door.
For an instant — one tiny, fleeting instant — he was afraid that Dancer wouldn't be there. It was an odd premonition. He didn't even know where it came from.
But she was there. The grey Lada was waiting, parked at the side of the street, passenger door wide open and motor humming. Solo raced across the porch and along the path that led away from the inn at breakneck speed.
He was almost to the car, when Dancer abruptly popped up from the driver's seat and leaned across the roof. She held a small caliber automatic in a two-handed grip, and seemed to be aiming it, point-blank, at him.
Solo slowed, but he couldn't move out of the way in time. The woman agent pulled the trigger and fired. The bullet whined past, mere inches from Solo's right ear, and somewhere behind him, a man screamed. Solo spun on his heel. A security policeman, one he'd not seen before, pitched forward less than ten feet away with a bullet hole centered neatly in the forehead. The man must have been lurking outside, in the yard.
Dumbstruck, Solo stood staring at the corpse.
"So, are you coming?" Dancer called out irritably. She lifted the hem of her skirt and holstered the small automatic against her thigh. Then she dropped back behind the wheel of the Lada.
Before Solo could reply, the two security men he did know all too well, burst through the front door of the inn. Solo sprinted to the car, and jumped into the passenger seat. Dancer floored the accelerator before he had a chance to completely shut the door, and the Lada took off in with a spray of dirt and gravel.
"Thanks," Solo said as their car roared through the village. "I guess I'm not quite up to speed, yet."
"Oh, I don't know. You seemed to be doing pretty well on your own." Intent on her driving, Dancer tore her eyes from the road for a second to offer him an encouraging smile.
"What's the matter?" she asked, studying his face. Solo guessed he must have gone pale.
"Ah, I'm not sure. For a moment back there, I thought — ."
"Don't think, Napoleon." She shifted hard into a higher gear. The Lada's transmission squealed in response. "You may not remember your training, but it's still there, inside you. Just do what comes naturally." She allowed herself another smile. They were on the outskirts of the village now. "By the way, that was rather gallant of you to act as decoy."
Solo shrugged. "You had the car keys."
As Dancer glanced into the rearview mirror, her good humor faded. "And you have a gun. Why don't you use it?"
"Take a look behind us."
Solo twisted in his seat. The sleek black Volga was bearing down upon them. It was still a half mile back, but it was gaining. Clearly, the Lada was no match. With four cylinders to the Volga's eight, it was only a matter of time before the Volga overtook them.
Don't think; act, Solo told himself as he pulled the U.N.C.L.E. Special from his shoulder holster. He'd almost forgotten he was carrying it. Now he wondered if he could hit anything.
He wound down the window. The Lada veered past a farm, barely missing a squawking flock of chickens, and headed for the main highway. The Volga stayed right on its tail.
Facing the back of the passenger seat, Solo kneeled awkwardly and leaned out the open window. Wind whipped through his hair. He braced his arm against the edge of the door. As his grip on the Special tightened, the Lada hit a pothole in the road and seesawed.
"Sorry," Dancer apologized over the whine of the little Fiat-made engine
Solo recovered his position and concentrated on the closing Volga. He could feel his own internal gears grinding, meshing, falling into place. His thumb automatically flipped off the safety. The Special became an extension of his arm.
Don't think. . .
He squeezed the trigger.
His first shot blew the Volga's front right tire. The second shot destroyed the left. The black car swerved first one way, then the other, careening wildly out of control, bare metal wheels screeching against the asphalt.
"Bull's-eye! Give the man a kewpie doll !" Dancer exclaimed in triumph. She watched in the rearview mirror as the Volga crashed through a fence and barreled down a gulley, out of sight.
Solo settled back properly in his seat. Dancer tapped the brakes, and the Lada's speedometer needle gradually sank as the car slowed to shade above the speed limit. "How do you feel now, Mr. Napoleon Solo of the U.N.C.L.E.?" she asked slyly.
Solo grinned. "I feel just fine," he said.
Moldar was a cluster of tumble-down shacks, none higher than three stories, intersected by a maze of muddy streets. There was a battered old church anchoring one end of the village and a Communist Party meeting hall at the other. The hall was in considerably better repair.
Although Anna appeared to be acutely self-conscious of the shabbiness around them, Kuryakin didn't mind it at all. He felt he'd been to Moldar before or at least a dozen Moldars. There was something honest in the unvarnished, workaday poverty. Something ingenuous. Simple. Decent. When you stood on a street in a place like Moldar, well, you knew exactly where you stood.
The beauty of the surrounding countryside pleased him even more. They'd driven to town through glistening fields of ripening wheat, stirring in the breeze. Meadows dancing with daffodils. Cascades of wildflowers covering broken stone walls, like drifts of pink and purple snow.
Although it would probably rain again before the day was out, the marketplace was warm and bright in the hazy morning sunlight. Kuryakin wandered with Anna among the crowds of buyers and sellers women in their headscarves, men in their caps and heavy boots and felt oddly at home. "This is where they hold the dances," Anna said, indicating the white-washed meeting hall. She sounded wistful. "I haven't gone to one in a long time."
"Why not?" Kuryakin asked. He continued to scan the rows of vendor booths, less to try to spot a particular face then to simply savor the atmosphere.
"I'll be twenty-nine next month," Anna replied evenly. "That's too old to flirt with the peasant boys and too young to sit with the matrons in black. I'm afraid there's no place for me there."
"Even with an escort?"
Anna offered him a sideways smile. "Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, you are certainly a man of surprises. First you show up, half-dead, in my drainage ditch. Then you amuse my father and milk my cows. Now, you want to take me to a dance. "
"But only if you promise to start calling me Illya."
"All right, Illya. I accept, if you think your ankle is up to it. But I will need a suitable dress."
They combed the dry goods stalls for fabric, examining bolts of inexpensive lightweight cotton until Anna found a print she liked. They purchased food, too, though the cheeses were undersized, the fruit was overpriced, and the meat was less than prime. Despite Anna's repeated objections, Kuryakin supplemented her purse with some hard foreign currency of his own, which the vendors were only too happy to accept.
It was while Anna was buying the last item on her list, fifty grams of tea, that Kuryakin saved the old woman from the falling crates. It happened so quickly. The old woman was standing beside a neighboring produce stall, counting her change. Nearby, a busy vendor unloading his wagon, bumped into a towering stack of heavy crates. The stack swayed. There was a groan of shifting weight and a telltale crack of splintering wood, and Kuryakin reacted before he even knew what he was doing. Instinctively, he twisted and pulled the woman out of the way as the crates came crashing down behind them, a landslide of potatoes and red beets.
"How could you know so quickly what was happening?" Anna wondered aloud to Kuryakin, after the old woman had thanked him profusely and went on her way. "No one else did."
The agent shrugged as he relieved Anna of her overflowing baskets. "I seem to have all these uncommon reflexes, but like an appendix, I don't know what they're for."
"Sometimes, you remind me of Ladislo's hounds," Anna remarked, not unkindly. "Always keen, always vigilant. One of them brought down a wolf last winter. Ladislo will not allow them into his house. He says it would ruin them for hunting and make them soft and lazy."
"But you let me into your house," Kuryakin said as he loaded the baskets into the grey truck. "Do you regret it?"
"Of course not." Anna paused, and added thoughtfully, "But perhaps, you may."
On the way home, she reminded Kuryakin that no one had approached him in the marketplace, but then the conversation turned to the old woman and the crates, the village, the local Party, and the weekly Saturday night dance. By the time they returned to the farm, they'd almost forgotten the original reason they'd gone.
Once they were free and clear, Solo and Dancer decided to ditch the Lada. Dancer pointed out that the two security policemen had probably survived the accident, no doubt bruised, angry and even more determined to make their arrest than before. Solo agreed. There'd been more than enough witnesses at the inn and in the village who could provide a description of the car and its passengers. It was a safe bet that someone had jotted down the license plate number, too.
They drove another half hour into the rural countryside as long as they dared before turning off the main road. Dancer coasted the Lada down a hill, easing it into a ravine, under a sheltering canopy of evergreen trees. They covered the rest of the car with loose brush, then picked up a shallow stream, wading up its middle, to conceal their tracks. Around noon, they paused for a pit stop, and Solo wandered off into the woods, allowing them both a few minutes of personal privacy. When he returned, he found Dancer sitting at the edge of the stream, taking inventory.
"These are completely ruined," she muttered, extending her legs to display the runs in her tattered nylons. Solo cocked his head, appreciatively.
"They look pretty good to me," he teased.
Dancer chuckled at the compliment. Then, with a regretful sigh, she rolled down her stockings one by one, gathered them up into balls, and stuffed them into her shoulder bag. As she wiggled her bare toes in the water, Solo sat down beside her.
"At least it's a nice day for a walk," he observed, squinting against the hazy sunshine.
"If only we knew where we should be walking to."
"How about Moldar?"
Dancer glanced over at him. "Is your memory coming back?"
Shaking his head, Solo passed her a slip of paper. It looked like a fortune from a fortune cookie. On it, were printed the words: Moldar 8 a.m.
"Where did you get this?"
"Just now from my, uh, digestive tract," Solo said, trying to put it as delicately as possible. "The message was contained in this." He showed her an empty capsule he'd washed off and broken in half. It was made of pink plastic and looked large enough to tranquilize an elephant. "Apparently I swallowed it at the same time as the amnesia pill."
Dancer was thoughtful. "Moldar I've heard of the place. It has a big farmers' market." She studied the position of the sun and pointed east. "Should be about thirty miles from here — in that direction."
"Of course, the chances that someone might still be there, waiting for me, are pretty slim."
"A slim chance is better than none at all. I just wish we didn't have to travel the entire way on foot." Dancer wiggled her toes again for emphasis. A few of them were scraped and bleeding slightly, bruised by the sharp pebbles in the stream.
"I could carry you," Solo offered, and Dancer laughed.
"You would, wouldn't you?" Although she seemed to be chiding him, there was genuine affection in her voice. Solo shrugged easily.
"I don't know. You tell me. You probably know more about me than I do."
"And I seem to be learning more all the time. No, that's all right, Napoleon. I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."
And with that, Dancer pulled out her pumps from her shoulder bag and carefully broke off the heels. She slipped on her shoes and stood up.
Solo was more than ready. He felt the best he had in days like a junkie after a much-needed fix. There was still some residual adrenalin left in his system from the morning's chase, and now it would serve a useful purpose.
"Here," Solo said to Dancer, who was wobbling between the stones in the stream, slightly off-balance, in her makeshift flats. He held out his hand to her, and this time, she seemed more than pleased to take it.
Finally! Solo told himself. Life was beginning to make sense again. A purpose, a destination and a pretty companion to boot. If only he could remember who the hell he really was, things would have been perfect.
"What was that?"
Anna looked up from her needle; Kuryakin, from his game of solitaire. "Did you hear something?" Anna said. Kuryakin nodded. They both paused to listen. The sound came again. A clump. Another clump.
"Papa!" Anna cried, her face tight with panic. She flew to the small bedroom, with Kuryakin close on her heels.
They found the old man sprawled flat on the floor and immediately expected the worse. But Anna's father was unhurt. He'd merely fallen out of bed.
Kuryakin picked up the frail old man and carried him back to bed.
"I only wanted my eyeglasses," Anna's father protested. He flailed about, blindly. "They should be there, on the bureau. Your mother always misplaces them!"
Anna glanced at Kuryakin and bit her lip. "I know, Papa. I know. Now go to sleep. I'll stay with you until you do."
Kuryakin went back to the kitchen. When Anna joined him some time later, she was still upset. "I'll make us some tea," she said. Despite her best efforts, her voice trembled. She put the kettle on while Kuryakin dealt himself another hand of solitaire.
"He seemed perfectly lucid earlier this evening," the agent observed, as he matched a seven of spades to an eight of hearts. "Does this sort of thing happen often?"
Anna gathered herself into a chair beside Kuryakin, and raised a hand to her forehead. "Sometimes, I worry that Papa will die. And other times, God forgive me, I wish that he were dead, already."
She seemed on the verge of tears. Kuryakin said nothing and continued to snap down the cards. He was more than sympathetic, but he had no desire to press her. She needed time to compose herself, and he gave it to her, watching her through the corner of his eye. The silence was finally broken by a kettle whistle. The tea was ready. Anna poured them both a cup.
"What will you do when your father dies?" Kuryakin asked as Anna returned to her sewing. She'd been working on the dress all afternoon, since they returned from Moldar, cutting and shaping the fabric. Now her needle flashed and dipped, joining one cloth field of tiny blue daisies with another.
"I suppose I shall be forced to leave here."
"Why not marry Ladislo?" Kuryakin teased. "From what I've seen, he seems quite fond of you."
"Yes, but I'm sure his wife and five children would have something to say about me moving in with them." Anna sighed. "No, I will probably go to live on one of those huge, state-run farms. They're modern and more efficient, but they remind me of factories. The brick houses are cleaner and better heated, but uglier, too."
She laughed, ruefully. "It's difficult to imagine anything uglier than this farm, I know, but nevertheless, it's true. You must think I'm an idiot to want to stay here when it's so dreary and desolate."
Kuryakin shook his head as he sipped his tea. "Not at all. I find it all rather peaceful." Actually, the word he had in mind was "uyutnost." It meant something like a snug, homely coziness, but in the end, the word was untranslatable.
"Well, it wasn't always so run-down," she continued. "My sisters tell me this was once a fine farm, a great farm, with good, fertile land. Acres of cherry orchards. An entire herd of fat dairy cows. But that was when Mama was alive and Papa was strong. Before the war, before the Russians came and destroyed everything…"
Anna caught herself. "Forgive me. I've insulted your heritage."
But Kuryakin was unperturbed. "Don't apologize. At the moment, I don't know that I have any heritage to insult."
Anna paused in her sewing and sat back to reflect. "It must be very strange to lose your memory. To not know who you are, what you should be doing, where you should be. No responsibilities. No obligations. Only to yourself. It must be strange — and wonderful, too."
"Liberating," Kuryakin agreed quietly. His game of solitaire was going nowhere. Defeated, he reshuffled the cards into a neat pile and glanced at his watch. "It's getting late. It's almost eleven, and we must be up early tomorrow, remember."
"So you intend to try the marketplace once more?"
Kuryakin nodded. This time, it was Anna who asked, "And if no one comes, what then?"
"I haven't decided yet." His face broke into a half-smile. "But there's always the dance on Saturday."
Anna smiled in return. "And so I must work extra hard on this dress tomorrow, if I'm to finish it in time." Regretfully, she hung the half-sewn dress over the back of a chair, then gathered up the playing cards and her sewing box to put them away. Kuryakin retired to the sofa in the parlor.
"Good night, Illya," she said, as she switched off the overhead bulb.
Outside, it was raining again. A roll of thunder echoed in the distance, dull and sluggish, as thunder usually is in spring. Inside the house, there was only the sound of Anna, stirring in the bedroom. Kuryakin settled into the couch, trying to find a comfortable position between the lumps, but it was as hopeless as his solitaire game. He decided to ask Anna for another pillow before she retired for the night.
He knocked on the door, and waited for a moment before pushing it aside. "Anna?" he said, keeping his voice low.
She stood in her robe by her dressing table, her back to him, a hairbrush in her hand. At the sound of her name, she straightened. Then slowly, with shoulders squared, she turned to him. In the dim glow of the table lamp, he saw that her robe was open and that she wore nothing underneath. Kuryakin remained where he was. They stared at each other for a long moment.
"Am I anything you'd want?" Anna whispered softly. An ache ran through her voice like a vein of color through marble.
"I might ask the same question."
Kuryakin waited again, trying to interpret the expression on her face, but it was unreadable. Another long moment passed. Finally, Anna said, "Close the door. I don't want to wake Papa."
"Are you sure about this?"
The door closed behind him with a nearly inaudible click. He padded across the room to join her, but as he drew near, she retreated half a step. It wasn't just modesty. She wanted him, he knew that. But she was afraid of him, too. He could see it in her eyes. He wondered what she sensed in him that he couldn't perceive in himself.
He held open his arms to her and she reached for him tentatively. "It's been a while, Illya. I may be out of practice."
"It doesn't matter."
He kissed her deeply and she groaned, as if she were in pain. With trembling fingers, she tugged open his shirt buttons. He watched as she traced the scars on his chest. He was almost surprised to see them. He hadn't really noticed them before.
"Who are you?" she murmured. "What are you?"
"That doesn't matter either," he said, believing it. He wanted to make her believe it, too. He kissed her again, harder, deeper, crushing her against him. The past, which stretched out behind him, as black as the storm outside, meant little to him. The future meant even less. What mattered was that they were here, now, in this house, in this room, feeling, touching, holding, needing.
He followed her into her bed and made love to her slowly, methodically, taking his time, roaming where he chose, lingering when she wanted him to. And he did it gladly, willingly, with nothing to bind him except her legs, wrapped around his waist, and her arms, encircling his neck.
And when it was over, he lay against her, quiet and content, wondering if either one of them had ever felt content before. Later, he wanted to make love again, but she'd fallen asleep, and he couldn't bring himself to wake her. So, he sat with Anna curled up beside him and listened to the rain taper off, until he fell asleep himself.
Solo and Dancer's night was spent in considerably less comfortable surroundings. All afternoon, under gathering storm clouds, they followed the meandering course of the stream, expecting to be ambushed by the security police. But they met no one, not even a farmer.
They sloshed their way through pleasant countryside, cool forests and flowering meadows, until the stream became a creek, and the creek became a pond. Sometime after dusk, it began to rain and they found shelter in an abandoned mill, huddled at the edge of the forest, where the pond turned into a creek again.
The mill was old and the roof was riddled with holes. The waterwheel still turned occasionally, nudged along by the current, but inside, the gears were worn and the vertical shaft was rotted. Isolated from its power source, the huge grindstone stood immobile and useless.
"Well, it's certainly not the presidential suite," Dancer declared, inspecting their accommodations for the night.
Solo concurred with a sullen grunt as he wedged two broken timbers together, to barricade the door. His good spirits had fallen, along with the barometer. The earlier manic high had slowly deteriorated into an irritable depression. The tedious march of hours annoyed him. He wanted to end this business once and for all, but the closer they came to Moldar, the more it seemed to recede in the distance. Viewing it in his mind's eye was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
But that wasn't the worst. The worst was knowing what he didn't know. Now that no longer felt like an animated corpse, he was acutely aware of the dark, dead space — the psychic no-man's land — that lay within his mind. He might skirt its boundary, but he could not cross it. Each time he tried, he was driven back by the mental lightning bolts and punished with the pain.
Solo had plied Dancer with questions about himself, and she answered him when she could, but without the illumination of memory, the facts she provided seemed flat and leaden. His very name remained a cipher.
And he hated all of it. He hated not knowing who he was; where he belonged in the scheme of things; what place he held in the universe. His only consolation was Dancer's reassurance that he worked for the good guys, and he held on to that scrap of information, clinging to it for comfort.
A streak of lightning flashed, bathing the interior of the mill for an instant, in a shimmering glow. Dancer yelped.
"What's the matter?" Solo asked.
The woman agent pointed and when the lightning flared again, he could discern the bulk of a split-open grain bag covered with squirming, furry shapes.
"Rats," Dancer hissed. She hugged her own shoulders.
"C'mon," Solo said. "Let's look upstairs."
They climbed a rickety ladder to the second floor of the mill. Columns of rain poured through the leaks in the roof, but at least this level was free of vermin. The agents found a dry corner and settled down together.
"This storm won't last," Solo observed. It was a small comfort. Both of them were tired, cold and drenched to the skin. Even their shoes squished when they walked.
"You know, April, I've been thinking," Solo went on. "Maybe I should stay here, at the mill, while you go on to Moldar. The police will still be looking for me."
Is this prudence or cowardice talking? he wondered as the words came out. He tried not to dwell on an answer.
"I shot that security man, remember?" Dancer reminded him. "So, they'll be looking for me, too. No, I don't think it's wise for us to separate. We're safer together. Besides, Illya will be expecting you, not me."
Solo wasn't sure he agreed, but he didn't feel qualified to argue. Too many questions were troubling him. He couldn't quite sort through them all. Dancer didn't seem to notice. She yawned and moved closer.
"Do you mind?" she asked.
"No, not at all."
Solo opened his arms and made room. And as she nestled herself against his chest, her hair brushing against his chin, he felt such a strong sense of deja vu, it made him wince. Determined not to lose it, he concentrated and formed his thoughts into a mental fist.
The musty smell of weathered boards. Do you mind if I take a little nap? No, be my guest. Straw. Pigs. To be or not to be …
The pain in his head was excruciating. Solo gritted his teeth and hung on.
… Beds. Lots of beds. Miles of beds. Continents of beds. Old and brass. Hard and wooden. Large. Narrow. Low on the floor. Flat on the ground …
The effort tore a whimper from his lips.
"Is something wrong?" Dancer asked, concerned, and his stream of consciousness broke off with a pop. Solo let out a breath.
"No . . . nothing."
Dancer twisted in his arms and pressed a hand to his cheek. "You're trembling."
"It's just the rain and the cold," he lied. She studied his face in the flickering shadows and when they locked eyes, he knew she would kiss him.
One kiss became another. And another. And another. He circled her body with his, as tightly as he could, inhaling her scent, soaking in the steamy dampness from her clothes and skin. His scattered, indistinct feelings, began to coalesce. She was tapping into a reservoir, something that had been purposely sealed off and buried deep. Now, like an underground spring, his emotions welled up inside him and bubbled forth. He kissed her with passion, but with tenderness, too. He wanted her to know that this wasn't mere lust, but the stirrings of something better, truer, more enduring.
"No! I can't !" she cried out suddenly, and wrenched herself away. "I'm sorry Napoleon, but I just can't do this. I can't."
Solo watched as she tried to compose herself. She'd appeared so eager, so willing. Was it something he did or the way he did it? He couldn't believe she was misinterpreting his good intentions. She had to understand. He would make her understand.
"April, I don't want to force you or hurt you. That's the last thing I'd want to do. I mean, after all we've been through together. When this is over, I think we should seriously consider —."
"No! Stop it!" She seemed to understand all too well. She raised her hand, as if she were warding off a physical blow. "You don't know what you're saying. You're empty now, so you think you can fill yourself up with me."
Maybe that was true, Solo reflected, but he didn't care. He had real feelings for her and he told her so.
"And did you feel the same way about Irina Tuchek before you killed her?"
Solo stared at Dancer, open-mouthed, too horrified to answer.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon," she added quickly, "that was cruel, I know. But I need to make you see. This is a dangerous, unpredictable racket we're in, and I've learned that my heart is too vulnerable to risk. If I sleep with you tonight, I won't be able to do my job in the morning. When your memory returns tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, all of this will mean nothing to you. But it will still mean something to me."
"It will still mean something to me, too," Solo protested. Resolving to make one last attempt, he reached for her hand. "Please, let me love you."
She tugged her fingers away from his. "No, I won't." And then more softly: "I can't. And if you were yourself, you'd know better than to ask."
Slowly, almost apologetically, she retreated to the other side of the room. Solo curled up, in his own dry corner, wanting desperately to sleep. He felt angry and confused, but that would pass. What wouldn't pass what was almost too awful to bear was the sense that, for the first time since this all began, he was profoundly and utterly alone.
After a few moments, Dancer murmured his name, but he heard his own voice snap in the darkness, cutting her off. "Forget it. Go to sleep." And then, trying to sound more reasonable, he added, "It's all right."
But it wasn't all right, and they both knew it.
Wet. Anxious. Breathing hard. Running through trees bathed in the electric blue light of an approaching dawn. Behind him, another set of lungs laboring, another pair of shoes pounding against the ground. He turns for an instant. His foot lands, expecting to connect with solid earth and finding none. Empty air. Stumbling. Falling. Pain. Mud. Pain. Hands, strong hands, grasping. How bad? . . Bad enough. It's no good, Napoleon. I'll need time . . . Then we'd better split up for now. Here, take this . . . A torn piece of paper passing between them. No! . . Look, Illya, it's safer with you. They know about me, already. If we're going to play a hot game of fox and hounds, I should be the fox . . . But I came here to bring you out. You won't make it, alone . . .
A deep sigh of consternation. All right. There's a town a couple of miles from here. Well, not much of a town. It's call Moldar. The locals sell their stuff at a farmer's market. I'll meet you there after I shake off the hounds. Say around eight . . . They might find me here, in the meantime . . . Maybe, maybe not. Take the pill. For insurance . . . But then, how will I remember our appointment? . .
A laugh. You've got some notepaper there. Write yourself a memo . . . If they find it on me, they'll find you . . . Not if you write in some obscure Himalayan dialect. Don't worry. You'll remember enough to translate it . . . But I won't recognize you when I see you . . . No need to. I'll find you. And I'll use the code words …
A shake of the head. So much trouble for one shred of notepaper . . . Not just any notepaper, my friend. When the Old Man sees what's on that microdot, he may even do handsprings . . . And if they get you before you reach Moldar? . . .
A parting slap on the shoulder. Then you'll bring out my legacy. Take care, tovarisch…
Alone now. Pain. Falling rain. The woods alive with sounds. Sounds of pursuit. Closer. Closer. The pen, scribbling. Quickly. Quickly. The slip of paper, folding. The pen, again. Hesitation. The antenna, extended. Apprehension.
The void …
Kuryakin awoke with a start. He heard a rumbling, low and ominous. It wasn't coming from outside. The storm was over and day was breaking. Nor was it coming from inside the bedroom. Anna slept, undisturbed.
The sound was coming from inside his skull. Pounding, surging, rushing toward him. Clenching his teeth, he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the heels of both hands against his temples as it bore down upon him, like a Japanese bullet train.
And then just like that, it was over. The sound was gone and his memory was back. And once again, he knew all he'd known three days before.
The agent blinked. The room looked the same, shrouded in deep shadows. Anna continued to sleep peacefully beside him, but for Kuryakin, reality had shifted. Suddenly, the world was different and everything had changed.
Taking care not to wake Anna, he eased himself from the bed and retrieved his clothes. In the parlor, he dressed. His automatic was waiting for him on the table. He no longer felt comfortable without it, so he slung the holster over one shoulder, and noiselessly slipped out the front door.
The pearl-grey morning was still very young. Wisps of ground fog rose, like smoke, and drifted lazily across the fields. Kuryakin walked a few yards from the house before he took out the slim silver pen, and pulled down the antenna. "Open Channel D, overseas relay," he said. "Kuryakin reporting. Please scramble."
The pen communicator crackled in response. "One moment please, Mr. Kuryakin," a female voice told him. "We're scrambling." He waited for the burst of static to subside before another voice came on. This one was male and considerably older.
"Mr. Kuryakin! Where are you? Good God, man, we'd given you up for lost!"
The agent smiled. He could count the times on one hand when he'd heard such obvious relief in his superior's voice. "Still in Dubrovia, I'm afraid, sir. I was forced to take Capsule B."
He told Waverly everything: how he'd met Napoleon at the rendezvous point. How he'd fallen into the ditch and twisted his ankle. How Napoleon had passed him the microdot containing the list of Dubrovian Thrush agents, then ran off, to act as a decoy. How he'd been missed by Thrush after all, and found the next morning by Anna, instead. "And you say you've not had any contact with Mr. Solo during all this time?" Waverly asked.
"No, sir. I'm loathe to admit it, but I fear he may be dead."
"Oh, quite the contrary, Mr. Kuryakin, unless our Mr. Solo has returned as an avenging ghost. He's currently wanted for the murder of Irina Tuchek, the Premier's wife. Her body was found in a hotel suite registered to Mr. Solo's alias, not more than seven hours after he left you."
"Do you believe he did it, sir?"
"The evidence is circumstantial at best. Dubrovia's security section are not cousins of ours, as you well know, but they're no friends of Thrush, either. We did manage to obtain the police report. The woman was killed with a small caliber weapon, a .22 automatic, most likely. Shot through the head, execution style. An unidentified male corpse was also found in the room, killed the same way."
Kuryakin recalled that the Premier's wife had been Napoleon's key to uncovering Thrush's budding underground network. "Sounds as if someone was doing a little housecleaning," the agent remarked drily.
"My thought, exactly. Do you still have Mr. Solo's microdot with you?"
"Yes, sir." The note with the microdot, was tucked safely away, in Kuryakin's wallet. Afraid of damaging it, he'd left the microdot on the notepaper and simply scribbled his message around it, using it to form the "i" in "life".
"Good. Not only is the information it contains vital to our interests, but it will be of some use in defending Mr. Solo in the unlikely event of a trial."
"He's been arrested then?"
"Not at all. It appears he's still 'on the lam,' so to speak. He hasn't been responding to our signals. We believe his communicator is disabled. However, he has been seen with a woman ."
"Naturally," Kuryakin muttered.
" Whom, we have good reason to believe, is working for Thrush."
"I don't think I understand, sir ."
"Neither do we. This entire affair has become too damn peculiar, if you ask me." Waverly harrumphed, irritably, and in the background, Kuryakin could hear him tapping his pipe. "Do you think there's any possibility of intercepting Mr. Solo before he gets himself into any more trouble?"
"Well, there's still the Moldar lead," Kuryakin said. "I intended to go there, this morning, and try to find him one last time."
"Then do so. And if he fails to appear, leave Dubrovia immediately. I want you out of that infernal country before we lose you and the microdot and the whole blasted game."
"Yes sir. I'll do my best."
"All right, then. Godspeed, Mr. Kuryakin. Waverly out." Kuryakin switched off the channel and pocketed his communicator. When he returned to the house, he found Anna, waiting for him in the yard. She stood in the mud in her carpet slippers, wrapped in her robe.
"You know who you are now, don't you?" she asked. "And what you should be doing? And where you should be?"
There was no use denying it. He wanted to say more to her, but all he could manage was a reluctant "yes."
"I have just one more question. That ring on your finger does it mean that you're married?"
"No," Kuryakin replied.
Apparently, Anna believed him. Nodding to herself, she turned and went into the house, and never looked back to see if he would follow.
For the second time in as many days, Anna borrowed Ladislo's truck and drove Kuryakin to Moldar, but less than a kilometer before they reached the village, he told her to stop. Anna pulled over to the side of the road and kept the motor idling, as if she knew what was coming.
"I'm going to leave you here," Kuryakin said. "Please: don't follow me. It might not be safe."
"You think that someone will try to hurt you?" Anna asked, surprised. Apparently, the idea that his rendezvous might be dangerous hadn't occurred to her before.
"There is always that possibility," Kuryakin conceded, then regretted bringing the subject up. He was upsetting her unnecessarily. "Don't worry," he said, forcing a smile. "I'll be all right."
He stretched out a reassuring hand, but both of hers remained firmly planted on the steering wheel. Her voice dropped low, flat and toneless.
"I'm never going to see you again."
"Never is a long time."
Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. She tried to ignore them, until one rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with her fingertips. "Too long for false hopes. Whatever happens in Moldar, you won't be coming back to me."
She turned to Kuryakin. "I wish it was your memory that was never coming back. Isn't that wicked of me?"
The agent shook his head. "No, Anna, it's not wicked. I almost wish the same thing." He stared off into the distance and heaved a wistful sigh. "I think I might have been happy here."
"And yet, still you go!"
"Yes, yes, I remember. Your duty to U.N.C.L.E. You explained it all very well over breakfast. I still can't understand."
Kuryakin didn't reply. There was no use in arguing. It was almost seven-thirty. He had to go.
"You know," Anna said as he reached for the door handle, "they say that a person in love is blind. But a person who loves that which cannot love him in return, is doubly blind."
Groping for something conciliatory to say, Kuryakin changed the subject. "So, what will you do today? Will you finish the dress?"
"There is no longer a reason to." The tears were over now. Her voice was neutral again.
"Finish it anyway."
Moving closer, he went on. "Anna, listen to me. You're a good, kind, loving woman. You shouldn't be so alone. I think you should finish the dress. Go to the dance. Find someone who can give you what you need, someone who can bring some warmth, some joy, into your life. You deserve to be happy."
"And I think you should listen to your own advice," Anna retorted coolly.
The discussion was over. She was right; she couldn't understand and she never would. Kuryakin leaned across the seat to give her a kiss, but she kept her eyes straight ahead, so he ended up kissing only her cheek. Then, he climbed out of the truck and slammed the door. He stood for a moment, reluctant to leave. She was going to cry again. He could see the tears glistening in her eyes.
What should he say to her? That he'd grown very fond of her yes, even felt real love for her? And that he was deeply, terribly, sorry for causing her so much pain by allowing her to fall in love with him? Somehow, he thought, telling her such things would only make the situation worse, so he simply said goodbye and left.
Throwing the truck quickly into gear, Anna made a U-turn and drove away in the opposite direction. And as she watched his image recede in her rearview mirror, Kuryakin continued to walk, neither fast nor slow but steadily, towards Moldar, his mission, and his fate.
The marketplace at Moldar was a great deal busier than Solo had anticipated, but he didn't mind the crowds. Indeed, he welcomed them. We must look a sight, he told himself, tugging at his rumpled, water-stained suit jacket. Dancer was still hobbling around in her broken-heeled shoes and he was acutely aware that he badly needed a shave. Nevertheless, the anonymous crowd absorbed them, sheltering them within its undulating embrace. In such a sea of humanity, who would notice a slightly weather-beaten young couple? Besides, no one else's clothes appeared particularly natty, and most of the men hadn't shaved in days. Still, the agents deliberately kept to themselves. Although they were both starving, they avoided purchasing anything at the produce stalls to eat. Vaguely aware of Dancer at his side, Solo wandered through the marketplace as if in a trance. He caught snatches of gossipy conversation this one's cow was dry, that one's husband should be while he mulled over the events of the previous night.
He'd acted like a goddamn fool, he could see that now. What should have been a quick, satisfying roll in the hay with no strings attached had turned into an emotional donnybrook, and it was all his fault. After three lousy days together, did he really believe she'd declare her undying love for him? It was absurd. Where could such an idea have come from? Solo glanced over at Dancer, who was otherwise occupied, surveying the crowd. She'd been quiet all morning, maintaining a polite but obviously cool distance.
Idiot, Solo berated himself. He saw a uniform flash just beyond the row of stalls, and the muscles in his neck tightened. Security police? The agent narrowed his eyes. No, only an overweight local constable, out for his morning stroll. As the fat man yawned, Solo relaxed and veered away, in the opposite direction, just to be safe.
Casually, almost listlessly, his eyes continued to comb through the shuffling bodies, dressed in rough wools and cheap cottons. He was bored and tired and he really didn't expect to see anyone or anything of interest. Perhaps that's why the neat, Western-cut suit nearly escaped his notice.
The man in the suit was slender and somewhat short, with a mop of blond hair and sharp, well-defined features. Solo's eyes swept past him once before doubling back, drawn less to the man's appearance than to his air of purpose.
Security police, Solo's mind registered again, and this time, he was sure. He'd seen that attitude of professionalism at the inn, that calculated blend of inward determination and outward nonchalance.
But then, Solo remembered his reason for being in Moldar. Dancer's words, spoken in the hotel suite three long days ago, clicked into place: You know: blond, Russian. Illya, your partner…
Could it be? Gingerly, he prodded the wreckage of his memory, scavenging for clues, and came up empty.
He turned to April for a conference, but there was no one at his side. He was alone, deserted. He started to panic.
Desperately, Solo scanned the crowd, searching for Dancer. Where could she be? Why had she left him?
And then he found her, sidling along near the stalls, at the edge of the main traffic. He tried to wave discreetly to her, but she didn't notice. Her attention was elsewhere. He followed the line of her gaze, and it led him back to the blond man in the suit.
Surprisingly, the blond man was now staring straight at Solo with an expression of dawning recognition — and something else relief? — on his pale face. He even smiled.
Enemies never smile like that, Solo told himself. He looked back at Dancer, expecting to see a similar sign of recognition, but she was all grim resolve. She turned slightly, her body canting, as her right hand snaked under the hem of her skirt. Solo knew what she was reaching for. He had to make a decision. And quickly.
Dancer or the blond man: which one to trust?
He concentrated hard, fighting against the mental block, hoping to snatch a least a scrap of information that might help him choose.
Which one which one oh Christ which one?
But the Capsule B continued to drive him back. His eyes teared from the effort. The headache was so intense, it made him nauseous. Don't think … act.
There was nothing else he could do. The hand that went for his gun seemed to belong to someone else. On the other side of the square, Dancer was already swinging her automatic up in that familiar, two-handed grip.
The milling crowd parted slightly, opening a clear, narrow path between Solo and Dancer. He felt the U.N.C.L.E. Special slip from his shoulder holster and cross his chest smoothly, as if traveling by its own volition. He saw it rise and aim itself. He heard it fire.
The shot slammed into Dancer's left shoulder, knocking her to her knees. Her own gun went off, but the bullet thudded harmlessly, into the dirt.
Nearby, people screamed and shouted, trampling one another as they struggled to get out of the way. A police whistle shrilled. The path between Solo and Dancer widened until no one and nothing stood in their way.
Blood gushed from her wounded shoulder as Dancer floundered on the ground, helplessly, like a fish out of water. Forgetting the gun, still clenched tight in his fist, Solo began to move toward her, to offer assistance.
"April?" he said uncertainly. The woman twisted into a sitting position, and in the space between two winks of an eye, her face seemed to mutate. The expression of disbelief gave way to anger, then hatred. Then the hatred drained away, leaving behind a detached, deadly calm. If I sleep with you tonight, I won't be able to do my job in the morning …
"Bastard," she murmured, but there was no emotion in her voice. Her right hand whipped around, and aimed the automatic, directly at his heart.
But once again, Solo fired first, and this bullet killed her.
The woman's body snapped backward, spasmed and lay still. Solo staggered, rocked by a sudden vertigo. His shoulders sagged and the U.N.C.L.E. Special tumbled from his grasp. Sometime in the next few minutes or so, he knew he was going to be sick. He heard more whistles and shouts in the distance, footsteps thundering closer. The overweight constable flanked by two men in black trench coats were elbowing their way through the galvanized crowd, while the blond man in the suit was trying to intercept them, waving a gold card in the air.
A hand came out of nowhere and settled on Solo's shoulder.
"Are you all right?" someone said gently.
It was the blond man in the suit, the man whose life Solo had just saved, and whose identity he still couldn't remember. Solo nodded vacantly.
"Who was she?" the blond man asked. Solo stared down at the beautiful corpse.
"She told me she was April Dancer."
Three days later. Somewhere in Paris.
"Her real name was Sonya Zinkovsky, a free-lancer who favored the shady side of the street. She was young, she made mistakes, but she was tough and she had talent. I'm certain that in a few years, she would've been a major player in the game."
Napoleon Solo sat back in his seat as the waiter cleared away the luncheon dishes. He ordered espresso for himself and April Dancer. Only Kuryakin wanted dessert.
"Did she really look like me?" Dancer asked.
"There was a passing resemblance," Kuryakin allowed, with a careless shrug. Solo went on:
"Thrush hired her to keep an eye on Irina Tuchek. Maybe they no longer trusted Irina. Maybe they never did. Sonya became her private secretary, about a month before I arrived with my traveling dog and pony show."
Dancer laughed softly. "And this Sonya Zinkovsky was suspicious of you?"
"Not at first. Sonya knew about the Tucheks' marital problems. Everybody did. She probably thought I was just a harmless fling."
"What changed her mind?"
"Irina, herself, most likely. Not intentionally, of course, but the two women were friends. I did my best to persuade Irina, as discreetly as possible, that her involvement with an international band of criminals was not particularly beneficial to her country. She didn't need much persuasion. She'd only done it to get back at her husband, anyway, and now she was having second thoughts. Eventually, when I told her who I really was, she was more than willing to help me."
"And Zinkovsky put two and two together," Dancer said.
"That's right. She probably arrived at the hotel room that night, just minutes after I left Irina who was, by the way, still very much alive. Who knows what happened? Sonya probably confronted Irina. Maybe Irina tried to bargain for her life by betraying me. It didn't work. Sonya shot her anyway."
"Our rendezvous was six kilometers west of Moldar," Kuryakin interjected. The coffee and dessert arrived. The Russian agent attacked his apple tart with enthusiasm.
"And that's where Zinkovsky finally caught up with you," Dancer said. Solo nodded.
"After Illya and I split up, Sonya bagged me on the road. She had a big hired goon with her. He had a very solid right hook." Solo rubbed the side of his jaw for emphasis, as Dancer laughed again.
"Anyway, they took me back to the capital in their car. At least I think they did. To tell you the truth, the rest of the night is pretty fuzzy. They worked me over and searched me at least twice. They wanted to know if I'd passed on the information, and to whom. I had to cut Illya some slack, so the first opportunity, I popped Capsule B. And well, you've heard how the new stuff works I went out like a light."
"Zinkovsky must have been furious," Dancer observed. "I'll bet she regretted shooting Irina."
"No doubt, and with her own gun, too. That was a mistake. It would've worked better if she'd waited and actually used mine. I suppose she was desperate by the time she concocted the murder scenario. It did have a sort of spur-of-the-moment quality to it."
"But why did she shoot her own hired man? He was the dead guy in the bathroom, wasn't he?"
"Why not?" Kuryakin cut in. "Bear in mind, the object of her mission was to preserve Thrush's fledgling network at all costs. If we were on to their agents, then the secret police would soon be, too. She had to tie up all the loose ends before she fled the country and that included the goon."
"And you," Dancer reminded Kuryakin.
"Yeah, and that was her real problem," Solo said. "Apparently, Thrush guessed Illya would be my contact. They probably gave Sonya his name and description when she radioed them for a consultation.
"But that's about all she had," Kuryakin pointed out.
"And that's what finally tipped it," Solo said. "I couldn't understand why she insisted that I accompany her to Moldar. Since I was wanted by the police, I was obviously safer at the mill. If she was such a long-time friend and colleague, why couldn't she just find Illya, herself?"
"Because she didn't really know what he looked like," Dancer answered. "And of course, he wouldn't have known her. She needed you to draw him out."
"Well," Kuryakin declared, pushing aside his empty dessert plate, "if this little de-briefing is over, I'll be on my way. I have some errands to run." He turned to Solo. "I'll meet you at the airport later. Our flight leaves at six remember?"
"I'll try," Solo replied with a grin. Kuryakin tossed down several francs to cover his meal. Beside the Russian agent's chair, a parcel waited. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, ready to be posted. He hadn't volunteered any information about it, and no one had asked. Now, he picked up the parcel without comment and left.
"Ah, what's in the package?" Solo remarked casually, to Dancer, when his partner was gone.
"Why didn't you ask him, yourself?"
"Illya enjoys being enigmatic. I don't like to spoil his fun."
"Well, if you must know, it's a woman's dress, size twelve." Dancer was pleased to see Solo's eyebrows arch in surprise over his cup. "That's right. He asked me to help him shop for it, this morning. He spent almost a thousand francs on it, too. I don't know who the dress is for, but it certainly seemed important to him."
Changing the subject, Dancer inclined her head and asked conspiratorially, "And speaking of secrets, why don't you tell me what really gave Sonya's identity away? You didn't have your memory back, yet. That was a big chance you took in shooting her."
"A calculated risk," Solo admitted, finishing his espresso.
"Even so, I know you. You must've have been pretty damn sure that she wasn't me."
Solo smiled a confident smile. "Ah, but don't forget, poor Sonya was at a disadvantage. She knew that we'd worked together. Beyond that, she was forced to improvise. There are some things that just don't appear in a Thrush dossier. For example, I kept wondering why, if we were such dear, old friends, she was so reluctant to sleep with me. She said that we shouldn't make love, while somehow, I knew we had."
"Shhh," Dancer whispered, touching a finger to her lips. "That's highly classified information. And, as long as it is, you'll always know when it's me."
She watched as Solo studied the check, mentally calculating the tip. "You know, Napoleon," Dancer added, "it sounds to me as if Sonya fell in love with you. Did you fall in love with her in return?"
"Do you really want to know?"
She'd asked the question lightly, but the gravity in his voice brought her up short.
Do you really want to know?
Did she? Did she really want to hear him admit that he could love someone he'd mistaken for her? It was like opening Pandora's box, and it didn't matter whether he said yes or no. One answer would be as bad as the other, and either one would change their relationship forever.
"I don't suppose I do," she said after a moment. When she stood up abruptly, Solo reached for her hand.
"No, you're right."
"But, maybe —"
"Please. Let's not talk about it, okay? Look, I've a room upstairs, in the hotel." She checked her watch. "And your plane doesn't leave for four more hours, at least. Let's not waste the time, shall we?"
As they left the cafe, Dancer hurried ahead of him, afraid to linger, afraid to give him a reason to stop. She knew that if he tried to kiss her before they reached the hotel room, before they could submerge their personal feelings in the urgent rhythms of impersonal hunger, it surely would have made her cry.