The humidity was almost unbearable, and the temperature had too many numbers to keep count. For the blond man who was enduring this torture, it was a toss up as to which element of the weather was the worst. He had heard people from dry climates brag about the heat being less oppressive if not burdened additionally by the presence of excess moisture… dry heat, that's what they called it. Even indoors, which he was, Illya Kuryakin didn't tolerate the heat any better than if the sun were beating down on his aching body.
A voice broke into the Russian's contemplative mood with a predictably snide comment. THRUSH must need to pass a personality test for deviant humor, he mused. That, and the proclivity to tell all when it came to bragging about how they would conquer the world… this time.
"I see you're beginning to warm up to the subject at hand, Mr. Kuryakin. Perhaps that will help jog your memory about the Thermo-Reductor Projector Inhibitor project, hmmm…. What do you say?"
Quite a mouthful and all of it annoying to the agent who was hanging like a Christmas ornament over an open vat of …
"What exactly, if I may ask, is this substance over which I find myself?"
Illya had a bad feeling about it, whatever it might be. He also realized that the contraption from which he was hanging seemed to be descending ever so slightly, perhaps every ten minutes or so.
The beautiful maniac du jour smiled pleasantly as she surveyed the scene: A slim and terribly attractive blond man (stripped down to his skivvies), and that deliciously wicked vat of odorless paint thinner was enough to make this woman giddy with sadistic delight. She had been so happy to see whom UNCLE sent in their vain effort to stop her little operation. The only problem, predictably she now admitted, was the success of the little Russian (little to her, although small packages were her favorite), in stealing the plans for her glorious design. She could rule the world if only her machine could be built.
"Dear, dear Mr. Kuryakin… you really ought to just concentrate on how best to please me. Certainly you understand that in order to survive my little scheme, the one that has left you hanging, so to speak…'
She giggled like a girl at her little joke.
"You will need to turn over to me the plans for my invention. THRUSH will not stop until we have produced it and…"
Illya laughed, not loudly, just enough to stop the long winded speech.
"Why are you laughing? Are you laughing at… at me?"
She reached across to the lever that controlled the device from which Illya was dangling. It went down suddenly with a jerk, causing Illya's head to bang against the metal, threatening to knock him unconscious.
"Not so funny now, my little white Russian. Now, what are you laughing about? Tell me immediately!"
Images of the Red Queen filled Illya's vision as he labored against the threat of drifting into a fog filled haze. His head hurt, but the transformation of the woman in front of him into the character from Alice's journey down the rabbit hole made him smile, a lopsided smile filled with near incoherence of his predicament.
"Madame, I am late for my…'
More snickering from the blond was cause enough to lower him another notch. This time Illya banged his head so hard he was knocked unconscious, leaving the newly crowned queen to fume and complain that nothing ever went her way.
Napoleon Solo had followed a tracking signal to this storefront in the little town of Evanfield, Indiana. Illya had been silent for too long, something that required action. Napoleon had been watching the little shop for several hours as he sat in the coffee shop across the street. A few people came and went, although not with any signs of purchasing anything. He found that peculiar, and began to wonder just how many THRUSH there were here in Evanfield.
"You want another refill on that coffee?"
The question came from the cute waitress who had been pouring refills for the handsome man for the last two hours. She found him interesting, unlike most of the men who came in here. He seemed to possess a … hmmm… Sophistication! That was it, and no one in Evanfield had any of that. This guy really stood out from the crowd.
Napoleon looked up, flashing a smile that made the girl wish she could sit down and join him. She didn't elaborate on that, not even to herself.
"Oh, no… No, thank you… Cassie. I think maybe a piece of pie now, if there's any left."
Cassie would have baked him a pie if need be. This was one good-looking man, and the mystery of why he was in this coffee shop made her look at him a little too long.
"Is there something wrong?"
"Oh! Good Lord, no… I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to stare, I just… I mean…. Well, what kind of pie would you like, Mr…?"
"Napoleon. Napoleon Solo. And I think Lemon meringue if you have it."
Cassie took a deep breath and smiled. Lemon meringue. She had to concentrate very hard in order to keep her mind from wandering…
"Okay then, let me get that for you… Napoleon."
Their smiles competed with each other as each one reached maximum wattage for bright and shining. Cassie turned so that her blonde ponytail flipped out and followed her, while Napoleon breathed a sigh of relief that, once again, his charm had overwhelmed curiosity.
Meanwhile, Illya was slowly coming back from his dreams of white rabbits and blonde girls in blue dresses. The Red Queen had subsided and now he was dreaming, at least he thought he was dreaming, of the girl in the coffee shop and the pecan pie he had enjoyed while she sat with him after her shift. She had been nice.
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, you are awake now, are you not? I need to speak with you. Now!"
The red queen was back, and her voice aggravated the pounding in his head from the two blows he had taken. Not even from a proper pounding either, simply the stupid contraption he was hanging from.
Illya opened his eyes, tried to focus when the room swam in circles around him. He winced at the intrusion of light, a new feature now as it pointed at him and cut off his vision.
"Now, if you will so kindly tell me, Eeelya (she clipped off the a as though her tongue were a pair of scissors), where is my formula?"
Illya grimaced at the pain in his head and eyes. No matter now, he might as well break the bad news.
"Your plan is faulty, madam, it will not work. You're actually lucky I found out before you took it to THRUSH Central. They would most certainly not be pleased with it."
The red queen (Illya didn't know her name, and continued to give her that ignominious identity), gasped at the disclosure of her failure.
"How do you know it won't work? Who are you to… to…"
Illya smirked a little, and then shifted his weight to try and take some of the strain off of his aching wrists. Why did they always string him up like this? No wonder his arms were unusually long.
"I am a physicist. Trust me, it won't work."
And just like that, the woman was completely deflated from her imperious stature as she slumped down into a conveniently close chair and let out a sigh worthy of a deposed megalomaniac.
"Really, it is a complete…and utter failure. I am sorry, I see that it comes as quite a disappointment."
The queen pulled a lever and the doohickey on which Illya was swinging began to move towards a platform that, upon reaching it, supported his weight enough to allow him to stand. The relief to his wrists was enormous, and now he waited for, hopefully, a complete release from this dilemma. He wondered at the change, deciding that good manners and just an inkling of compassion did wonders in some situations.
Illya flinched a little when she released him from the cuffs that had held him for the past several hours. He almost collapsed, the relief was so encompassing. The woman grabbed his shoulders, steadying him before he could fall.
"Thank you. Ummm… what next?"
Although a bit crestfallen about the news of her failed plans, the woman was not completely deterred from her pursuit of glory.
"I think, Mr. UNCLE agent, that you are going to help me make the corrections necessary to my plans. The machine will work, and since you're a physicist, you can help me finish building it."
Illya rolled his eyes, unable to fathom how or why this woman would want to continue after being told she had failed. Perhaps he should not have mentioned his credentials.
She looked as though he had shot her.
"What do you mean no? Did I indicate that you would have a choice? I don't think so. You will help me or … I'll put you back over that vat of paint thinner and we'll just do this all over again."
Illya had to look at her with his trademark glare. Just how did she think she would get him up there again? He wasn't knocked out this time, not sleep darts handy and he certainly wasn't about to climb up there voluntarily.
"I think not. You have lost, and you should just admit that this is over."
Illya did not like to waste his words, and this woman was becoming annoying, to say the least.
Back at the coffee shop, Napoleon had managed to get some information out of Cassie about the shop he was watching. She said that people often went in and out, but never bought anything. She thought it was because the owner was sort of creepy.
"What do you mean, creepy?"
Cassie pursed her lips, wanting to say nice things about people overruled her observations about them sometimes.
"Well, she doesn't really talk to people, and she has something going on in that basement of hers. I've heard people say that often when they go in there, she comes in through a door that leads to the basement. I don't know what she does down there…"
She let that trail off a little, sort of wistful as she thought about it. Napoleon brought her back with another question.
"Cassie, have you seen a man go in there lately… a blond man, smaller than me and wearing a black turtleneck?"
Cassie's eyes lit up and Napoleon knew immediately that she had already met his partner.
"Yes, in fact he was in here the other night. He was so nice…"
She trailed off again, and this time Napoleon knew exactly what she was thinking.
"Good, that's good Cassie. He's my friend, and I'm looking for him. He was supposed to meet me here, but he hasn't shown up. Do you have any idea where he might be?"
Cassie nodded her head, the ponytail bouncing behind in agreement.
"I did see him go in there, but then I finished my shift and I don't know… I never saw him come out, Napoleon. Do you think he's in there?"
Napoleon did think Illya was in that shop, and he figured down in the basement was where to find him.
While Napoleon was making his way across the street to rescue his partner, Illya was continuing the conversation with his captor. She seemed intent on gaining his cooperation to build her machine while he stalwartly refused to give in to her demands.
"I shall not be forgiving, Mr. Kuryakin. I need your help, and I want to build this machine. It's my only way in."
Illya raised an eyebrow at that.
"In to where?"
The woman was slow in answering. When had it all become so arduous and unfulfilling?
"I need to get into THRUSH, and I need this machine in order to do that. THRUSH is the answer, Mr. Kuryakin, and I want to be a part of the answer."
Now Illya had a puzzled expression on his face. It was not characteristic of him to show a response in these situations, but something about this person made him particularly uneasy. Standing there in his underwear caused a shiver to run over his flesh, looking at her sent one through his innermost being.
"What answer, exactly, are you referring to?"
This caused the woman to close her eyes. She seemed to be seeing something within herself, and Illya pressed her for an answer.
"What? Oh, the answer… THE answer. Why don't you understand?"
More puzzlement and the creeping sensation that the woman was, like so many others, completely insane. Illya wished fervently that he was not in his boxers, but that wasn't going to stop him from making a move to get out of this predicament.
"You must tell me about it, for I am not aware of the answer to which you refer. Perhaps we might discuss it upstairs, I…'
Illya looked around, trying to gain some advantage. He saw none, and hoped that this woman would follow his lead.
"I am tired of things as they are, so if you wish to explain your point of view to me, we might be able to find some agreement."
He was moving towards the door, hoping to get to it before she came out of her stupor. Whatever she was thinking, her attention had diverted from the Russian to contemplating the answer.
Illya had his hand on the doorknob when it was jerked open, causing him to be pulled forward into his partner who had found his way downstairs, and had been listening to the conversation from the other side of the door.
It was all Napoleon could do to keep from falling backwards, but he managed to remain upright as he caught Illya. One look at the blond let the UNCLE agent surmise what his friend had endured, making him want to have a session with the person in charge.
"Illya, where is…?"
The unfinished question found its answer when he saw a woman hanging precariously from a contraption of some sort that was situated over a yawning hole. Illya turned in time to see the woman he had dubbed the Red Queen fall to the depths below, a strangled cry of sudden awareness before the sickening splash, then silence.
Illya broke the grip that Napoleon had on his arm and ran over to the edge of the vat he had only an hour been looking into. There was no sign of anyone, only a vague image of something glimmering from deep down in the well.
"Who was that? Is she the one who… Illya?"
The blond felt spent, exhausted from the ordeal he had endured here and the emotional toll of another life gone. With no knowledge of the thing she had been seeking, her death had no resolution to grab onto, nothing to point at and say 'that is why she did it'.
"I don't know, Napoleon. She kept talking about the answer, but never explained it, or the question to which it pertained."
Napoleon spotted his friends crumpled clothing, a black heap in the corner of the room. He walked over to them and picked up the jeans and sweater in one hand, grabbed Illya's boots in the other.
"Here, get dressed. We'll figure it out later."
Illya looked at his friend, nodded in a distant way that let Napoleon know the Russian would be deep in thought over this for some time.