The confrontation with Parker occurred on Thursday, and it was the last time anyone saw the mysterious Miranda Denault. Napoleon was attempting to not be obsessed with her, and reverted to his normally cool affectation when questioned by Illya about it. Luckily for Napoleon he didn't have to spend much time with his partner; the erstwhile agent was playing the role of jockey again, and had spent the past two days working out on Dawn's Tomorrow in anticipation of his ride on Sunday.
Napoleon worried a little about Illya's future aboard the big grey. Thoroughbred races could be dangerous, and with a broken rib and, being honest about it, the lack of real experience, there was a chance that Kuryakin could get seriously injured.
Both men had been wracking their brains for some type of explanation as to why the race was of such importance to THRUSH, and to Ian Parker. That criminal had already admitted that he would be watching the results, and had obviously wanted Illya out of it. Napoleon still suspected that there was something personal in that ill will, but his friend wasn't giving any explanations. It was to be hoped that if it could affect this assignment then the details would be forthcoming. One could hope.
Illya had spent three days aboard his horse, and he felt confident that the race would come off without a hitch; at least from the standpoint of the horse and the rider. Whatever else he encountered was beyond his control.
Alexander Waverly had spoken daily with Sturgess Harewood, getting updates and appraisals on his man. The business with Parker was troubling, mainly because it was impossible to pinpoint the importance being attached to this race. Now, with Illya very nearly in the starting gate, there was still no sign of the Denault woman, and Parker wouldn't talk in spite of several truth serums and a parade of interrogators. The man was good at his subterfuge, and Waverly silently cursed him for it.
Angelique LeChien was in the private box of a very wealthy man whose own horse was running in the eighth race alongside Dawn's Tomorrow. This Fall meet at Syracuse had all the makings of a classically endowed event, with wealthy socialites and Broadway actors and actresses, all of them sporting the latest fashions and doing their own type of jockeying as the press sought out the most recognizable faces.
Angelique adored this type of environment. She herself was targeted once or twice, demurred politely from the offer to have her photograph taken, saying she was simply there for the horses. In truth, she was there for one horse in particular. Although she had put money into the syndicate backing Dawn's Tomorrow, the horse she was here to see race was a big bay gelding named Bird of Prey. It was so obvious that she wondered UNCLE hadn't spotted it for what it was: a THRUSH entry into the world of horseracing. Those men had been so focused on her and luring her into their little plan that they had completely missed the real focus of today's event.
Ian Parker had wanted in on this one as well, and sabotaging the UNCLE entry by trying to eliminate Kuryakin had been an effort to increase the odds in Bird of Prey's favor. It was completely coincidental that the two men knew each other, in spite of whatever might have been concocted as a grudge match. Parker merely wanted to get rich, and gaining control of the THRUSH horse was just one more step up in his efforts to topple his former associates and take over their spot in this new venture. He didn't intend to invest in their horse, he would simply take it from them.
As Angelique surveyed the crowd with her binoculars, Napoleon Solo walked up to her and as sweetly as he could, whispered an endearment that she immediately decided to accept.
"Mr. Solo, you must think very highly of yourself to assume I would be so easily persuaded."
Her crooked smile was charming in a way that Solo could not define, but he found it nearly irresistible. No, it was completely irresistible.
He managed to flash a smile that almost put her off her considerable guard.
"Perhaps I just think very highly of you, and only hope that you can be persuaded."
That pleased Angelique. 'An UNCLE agent' she thought, 'of all the ridiculous things that could happen to a girl'.
"Darling, we may have to break a few rules, you and I. Now, what about that unpleasant partner of yours, do you really intend to let him ride in this race? There are still dangers out there, even if you do have Parker behind bars."
Napoleon wondered what else was involved here, why this woman was here in the wide open, as though she had nothing to fear. He could easily have taken her in and been done with this affair.
"Now, why are all of you so interested in horse racing? I've been thinking about this for days, and I still can't figure it out. I was hoping that you might help me out, since we're so… hmmm… Simpatico."
Angelique laughed at that, the charm of the man was ridiculously inviting. She debated telling him the whole scheme. It wasn't as though he could do anything about it now. That race was almost ready to begin.
Illya and Tom were with their trainer, Josh Montagna, and Sturgess Harewood. Even though Napoleon was listed as the owner, it was not necessary for him to be here; he wouldn't have been of any particular use at this point. Another Section II agent named Skip Daniels was serving as an outrider for this race. Everyone had decided safety was not to be overlooked, down to surrounding Illya as much as possible with back up out on the track.
Tom was calm for his race day, and Illya was decked out in the red and white silks of Harewood Farms. That hadn't changed with the sale, and everyone conjectured that this was a new partnership being forged between Worthington Pike and Harewood Farms. The syndicate had added to the speculation about the future of Sturgess' racing plans.
As Illya mounted up, he noticed a face in the crowd of people around another horse. The handsome bay named Bird of Prey had an entourage that included Victor Marton! Why hadn't anyone noticed that name before now? Illya looked around in vain, searching for some sign of his partner. Even though they had agreed that Napoleon would head up to the stands, Illya now wished fervently that his friend might have had a change of mind and stayed close to the action down in the paddock area.
Illya kept his eyes on Bird of Prey, trying to remember the name of the jockey. Evan Dubois. Damn, that was the horse everyone was betting on, not Dawn's Tomorrow. He was just in the way, something that was reflected in the odds: Tom was running at 2:1 odds, and Bird of Prey was farther back at 5:1. Dawn's Tomorrow was the favorite in this stakes race, and as such had been targeted by this THRUSH effort to move into the legitimate racing business.
Marton was standing at the edge of the paddock area, watching his horse parade past as he held up his hand in a wave to Dubois, the jockey. As Illya neared the THRUSH Frenchman, he attempted to remain calm even as his heart was racing. Marton caught his eye and winked. It was threatening for all of the seeming friendliness, but Illya knew what that meant, and he steeled himself for the race ahead.
Napoleon and Angelique had moved to Sturgess' box and were awaiting the announcement of the parade of horses. The crowd cheered as the track began to fill with thoroughbreds, their riders all dressed in the various colors of their owners. After parading in front of the grandstand the horses headed back to the starting gate, where Dawn's Tomorrow was guided into the number one position, right on the rail. Illya contemplated the difficulties he might encounter in this position, especially with Bird of Prey situated immediately to his right in the number two slot.
Tom went into his gate easily and it was locked behind him. Bird of Prey was a little more agitated and reared up once before being handled with a firm touch and similarly guided into his space. The rest of the horses went in without incident and the final gate was closed behind the number nine horse.
Within seconds the alarm went off and the announcer was heard above…
"Aaaaannndddd…. They're off!"
Victor Marton had assumed his spot in the box where Napoleon had found Angelique. Upon seeing the THRUSH chief, a sudden realization hit the agent and his eyes began to search for the grey horse and his friend. Agitated, he placed a hand on his companion's arm, causing her to flinch slightly.
"Tell me now, what is your real name?"
Her eyes widened, then she lowered her lids…
"Angelique. Angelique LeChien. We have our own horse, darling. Watch, you'll see."
Napoleon allowed himself a few seconds to digest the name, to make note of how it was perfect for this woman. And then, with some anxiety lurking behind the smile, he looked down onto the track.
Illya was hunched over his mount, his position textbook as he rode with a perfect rhythm that defied his lack of real experience. The exhilaration was undeniable, and had he let himself think about it the blond would have surmised that he did indeed thrive on the excitement of his work, and the danger of assignments such as this one.
But he didn't allow it, instead keeping his senses and sights on the horses around him. Illya felt more than saw peripherally that Bird of Prey was coming up on his right. What he couldn't see was the whip in Dubois' left hand that he struck out with, not hitting his own horse but lashing it across Illya's right arm.
The stricken rider was stunned by the unseen assault, and he felt the sting of air as it reached through the cloth of his shirt and into freshly cut flesh. It wasn't a regulation whip that Dubois carried, but something created by THRUSH for this very occasion. Marton had no intention of losing, especially not to a horse ridden by an upstart UNCLE agent..
Illya dug in, urging his horse to go faster. This race couldn't depend on the grey's usual tactic, not with Bird of Prey chasing them. If Illya didn't keep his horse out in front then something bad would certainly happen to them both.
Napoleon and Angelique were sharing the binoculars as the horses rounded the quarter mile turn. The blonde THRUSH agent thought she saw Dubois use a whip on Kuryakin, and she had a sudden twinge of regret that the blond might be injured in this mad race.
Napoleon was trying to keep up with the changing places, but the distance made it difficult. Illya seemed to be in the lead, but there was another grey horse in the race and that one was dead last.
Dawn's Tomorrow was running like the champion he was. With the sound and sensation of the other horses the big grey was catapulted into high gear. Illya felt as though he might fly out of the saddle at any moment, but he was steadfastly hanging on, both hands on the reins with his whip in the right one. He didn't dare jeopardize Tom's future by breaking any rules, but Dubois was a nuisance and a dangerous one at that. As the horses were nearing the half-mile mark, the Frenchman made another attempt to thwart the UNCLE agent and his horse.
Napoleon had the binoculars now as the horses ran on the backstretch. He saw Illya clearly, in the lead but working hard at keeping ahead of the THRUSH entry. As he watched, he was horrified to see the jockey aboard Bird of Prey pull alongside Dawn's Tomorrow and extend his hand towards Illya, leaning slightly and plunging something into the Russian's back.
Illya was concentrating on the race, trying to keep an image of where Bird of Prey was on his right. The horses were tightly grouped as they ran down the backstretch with five of the nine close enough to make a race out of it. The UNCLE agent knew that Dubois was close to them again, and as he yelled at Tom to quicken his pace he felt a searing pain in his right side, almost toppling from his position when the blade of a knife was withdrawn and tossed into the infield.
It was all he could to keep from losing his seat, but Illya kept on, kept urging his horse onward. The finish line was less than a quarter of a mile ahead and as the horses rounded the last turn it was as though Dawn's Tomorrow had a new surge of energy that was now propelling him ahead of the other horses. Only Bird of Prey was keeping pace with him, and without any other means of attacking Illya, Dubois was left with the challenge of simply riding for the victory.
Angelique had one eye on the race and the other on Victor Marton. She had gotten into this with Victor because she was privy to an unsavory event in the man's life, something for which she had documentation; something that went even beyond what was acceptable to THRUSH. That was what had been in the locker, and when Parker had managed to get his hands on it the clever blonde had no other choice than to join his team. Luckily she was able to abscond with the documents and leave the others behind.
Now, standing here and watching this race play out, Angelique knew that her position was secure no matter who won the race. She found herself hoping, perhaps foolishly, that Napoleon's side would win against Marton's. Either way, she had a stake in Dawn's Tomorrow and a career with THRUSH.
Illya was fighting to remain conscious aboard Dawn's Tomorrow. The gallant horse pulled ahead, almost as though he sensed the danger of being within range of Bird of Prey. Dirt was flying from beneath his hooves as Tom widened his lead; not even the vengeful bay with the menacing emblem on his jockey's silks could keep up with the brave grey warrior. No longer merely a race, Tom's DNA reached into his ancient past and produced the heart and determination of a conquerer. With a final burst of speed the big grey shot forward and crossed the finish line a full ten lengths ahead of the THRUSH horse that crossed seconds later, just ahead of the others.
Napoleon was already on his way to the winner's circle with Angelique in tow. She had cast a flirtatious look at Marton as she passed the scowling Frenchman. How he hated to lose, and how he now hated that Russian UNCLE agent.
Dawn's Tomorrow could tell something was wrong with his rider, and so could Skip as he came out on his own horse to catch up to the winners. Illya was barely hanging on now, his silk drenched in blood from the wound inflicted by Dubois. That Frenchman had his own troubles as Marton dispatched two men to deal with the unsuccessful jockey. There was no room for the Win, Place and Show of racing. To Marton there was only the win.
As Skip came up beside Tom and Illya, he was able to steady the Russian, keeping him upright in the saddle until they could get him on the ground. Napoleon was waiting for them as they rode up, and he could see that Illya was a paler shade of white than normal. Angelique, for her part, had some remorse for the damage to the young agent, although his disagreeable nature made her less inclined to actual sympathy.
"Skip, help me get him down…"
Illya glared at his friend and then at Skip.
"Nyet. I am perfectly capable…"
But he wasn't. He fell rather unceremoniously out of the saddle and into the waiting arms of the other two agents who lowered him to the ground amid whispers from the gallery of people behind them.
"It's okay folks, he was riding with a terrible case of the flu. He did a fine job, though, didn't he."
Napoleon schmoozed the crowd, smiling and congratulating them for their wise investment. They all cooed and sent comforting words for the jockey's recovery, never noticing that most of the red in his jockey silks was from the blood.
Skip helped Illya to stand a little straighter and then walked him back to the dressing area to check him out. Although there had been significant blood loss, nothing vital had been hit. Dubois' aim was a little off, surely an indication of more to come for the unfortunate man.
Skip helped get some bandaging around the Russian's torso after cleaning the wound. He also had a pill to dispense, a little something from the labs intended to help a wounded agent bounce back. Illya dressed, glad to be in jeans and a turtleneck rather than the silky shirt and trousers he'd deposited in a trash bin. He was fine, always fine, plus he was hungry.
Napoleon wrapped an arm around Angelique's waist as he left the winner's circle, his charm now winding down from its performance in that rare spot. He knew this charade was over, and that there was a reckoning in order concerning Angelique. And to think, all of it had been because THRUSH had their own horse…
"Napoleon darling, you know we can't walk out of here together. I have my people, you have yours…"
Her lopsided grin made Napoleon's stomach flip. Between the danger and the possibilities lay an exciting what if.
"You, my love, have made my life suddenly very complicated. But, you're right. I need to see about my partner…'
He noted the hint of a scowl and smiled in return.
"… and you had better tend to Mr. Marton. He didn't look any too pleased. Would I be correct if I were to guess that whatever is in that envelope has something to do with that rascal of a Frenchman?"
Angelique admired a man with a quick mind, among other things.
"You, my dear UNCLE agent, are a very clever man. I don't think you need to know exactly what is in there, but rest assured it will keep me safe for a very long time. I hope I can expect to receive my due financial reward for the investment I made in Dawn's Tomorrow. UNCLE is good on its word, I trust."
Now Napoleon had to smile. As much as he really did like Angelique, something about what he had to tell her was strangely satisfying.
"Well, my dear little THRUSH agent, you wrote that check and signed it Miranda Denault. As far as UNCLE is concerned that is a person who is long dead and therefore unable to invest in our horse. I'm afraid you've outsmarted yourself… darling."
Angelique pouted a little at that. Oh well, easy come…
"Very well, Napoleon. Just don't expect me to like it. Until the next time…?"
Napoleon brought her closer and kissed her, leaving her gasping slightly and sorry, just a little, that she had to leave.
"Au revoir, darling."
With that the two parted, Angelique angling off towards where Victor Marton's car was waiting, and Napoleon to find his partner.
Illya was waiting in a parking lot set aside for the jockeys and other track personnel. Napoleon found him sitting in Harewood's red Jag.
"Wow, don't tell me you get to keep it."
Napoleon was suitably impressed by the sight of his friend in the beautiful car, but he wondered about the why of it.
"No, not keep it, but Sturgess has lent it to me for the ride home. He says he'll have someone pick it up eventually. I believe he left with someone he met, an actress or a model. I don't recall."
Napoleon wondered how it was that a man could not pay attention to whether a woman was an actress or a model. Being Russian must take its toll at times.
"I am hungry, Napoleon. We are going to eat."
"Ah, of course. I bet you are hungry, and I'll be glad when you gain some of the weight back. And, please, put your hair back where it belongs, this has been very unsettling for me seeing you in this…"
"You like my hair? Napoleon, I never knew."
A smirk landed on the American's face, but he had to laugh.
"Just start the engine, you Bolshevik."
And Illya did start that engine, taking off like a driver on the Autobahn. But, that's another story.