Icy shards were being spit into his face as the blades of the chopper spun repeatedly, stinging with a fierceness that defied any attempt to protect his skin. Napoleon Solo was not dressed for the mountains, his shoes inappropriate for the hostility of the frozen stuff beneath his feet. It was a good thing he didn't have to go far.
Eight Hours Earlier…
The day had started out on a sunny balcony overlooking a nearby lake. An assignment in the beautiful Lake Tahoe region on the Nevada side had seemed to Napoleon a perfect respite from his recent foray into the Sahara. Even his stoic partner had smiled at the sight of slot machines and Ponderosa pines in one idyllic setting.
"This is an incredibly beautiful place, Napoleon. Why have I never been told of this treasure? Lake Tahoe… I never expected to find something like this in the West."
Napoleon smiled at the incredulity of his partner's response to their location. Leave it to Illya to wax poetic over a lake while he misses the beautiful woman walking past.
"Illya, do you mean The West in general, or our geographic location?"
The Russian pretended to need time for reflection on his friend's question, causing Solo to laugh. It was beautiful here, and the air was invigorating, unlike the smell of exhaust and ethnic cooking that permeated much of New York City. Here it was pure and …
"It smells good here, doesn't it? Pine trees and … air. Just air."
Illya raised an eyebrow at the sudden expression of out of doors enthusiasm. Napoleon generally preferred indoor activities and whatever accompanied them.
"I am impressed, my friend. And, for the record, I meant west as in Out West. I tend to always think of desert and coastline rather than…'
An expansive arc of the blond's arm attempted to illustrate the vastness of the lake and dense woods that surrounded it.
"… all of this. It is exceptionally beautiful, perhaps rivaling anything in Europe."
That was high praise indeed, and Napoleon nodded in agreement. Lake Tahoe was a revelation of sorts.
In spite of the beautiful scenery, there was a mission to be accomplished. THRUSH had decided to establish a satrapy here in this nearly pristine environment, buying a ranch in the region just on the border of California and Nevada. A faux Dude Ranch had been established, and a number of THRUSH personnel were receiving training behind the scenes of what passed for a vacation destination for unaware travelers. While vacationers went on trail rides or sang at the evening campfire, new recruits were being instructed on how best to follow their marching orders to a goal of world domination.
Between Solo and Kuryakin, it had been decided that the Russian was best suited for the job of infiltration. Donning a disguise that turned his blond hair a light auburn, Illya also wore glasses to augment the change of appearance. Napoleon would retain the suave image of a businessman seeking out investment opportunities for a client, specifically something like a dude ranch.
The Circle T Ranch was situated deep in the woods in a clearing at the base of a mountain topped with snow. At this time of year the weather was cold, and snow had already fallen in record amounts. The agents, although prepared for their assignment, had not expected to be surrounded by this winter wonderland. Farther into the Sierra Nevada range, the snowfall was record breaking, prompting warnings of avalanches to skiers and cross-country hikers.
Illya arrived early with a plan of inserting himself into the group of recruits that arrived on a blue bus normally used to transport paying customers. Waiting alongside the road, the Russian had run to catch up as the big bus pulled into the parking lot, just as the doors opened and noise young men and women emerged. None of them could have known, really known, what they were getting involved with.
Not yet attired in THRUSH uniforms, Illya easily mixed into the group, assuming a conversation in which excited voices tried to imagine the great adventure ahead of them. Illya knew, but didn't say.
Napoleon was also on the scene, pulling up in a jeep he had rented to make this trip into the woods. As was his habit, the agent was wearing a tailored suit and soft Italian loafers. Not the best wardrobe for this particular day or location, but it was Solo's way. He scoffed at his partner's warning about the weather and terrain, noting that he wouldn't be hiking today, merely exploring business opportunities.
It had all looked like a routine task, and the two men were going about their respective roles with ease and precision when, without warning, two armed THRUSH guards emerged from bunkhouse with a woman in tow. She was screaming bloody murder and thrashing within the grasp of the men who held her, although with some difficulty.
"Get off of me you cretins! I am a reporter, and my people will be looking for me…'
A few of the guests ducked into their respective rooms, while the new arrivals, Illya among them, stared at the unfolding scene. Napoleon shut the door to his jeep and hoped that the gyrating female wouldn't see him. Unfortunately, it was a vain hope.
"… I said get off … Hey! Napoleon, over here!"
The young woman saw the UNCLE agent and thought she was saved. As Napoleon went for his gun, a firm grip was placed on his arm and another voice hailed him from behind the now sagging, self-proclaimed reporter.
"Well, what do we have here? It's Mr. Napoleon Solo. Thanks for stopping by, Mr. UNCLE Agent. You're just in time."
Napoleon was stunned. Standing there in the Nevada Mountains and not in the prison cell to which he was last assigned stood L.C. Carson, the bigoted THRUSH chief from the peculiar Indian Affairs Affair. How had the man escaped, and why hadn't Napoleon and Illya been informed?
"I see you're wonderin' where I've come from. That's a long story and one not likely to be told here, Mr. Solo.'
The drawl was familiar, and the threat very real.
"Fellas, take Mr. Solo and … what's your name, honey?"
The young woman was still sputtering and squirming, her camera swinging on its leather strap was threatening to injure someone.
"Terry Cook. And if you know what's good for you, then you'll let me go right now. My editor…"
L.C. Carson laughed at the threat, indicating to his men that they should take both Terry and Napoleon to a pre-arranged holding spot.
"Don't call me, missy… I'll call you."
That set off a round of laughter among the THRUSH personnel, all of it in view of the group that had just come off of the blue bus. Illya stood in the background and watched as his partner and Terry Cook were led off into the bunkhouse, probably to a holding cell of some sort.
L.C. Carson approached the group in front of the bus, his smiling face not fully in concert with the devious plans he envisioned for these people. He noticed a redhead in the back; something familiar about the face that wasn't drawing a name made the recently liberated THRUSH chief suspicious. It would come to him… eventually.
For his part, Illya tried to look interested without seeming knowledgeable, always a tricky thing for him. The glasses helped to shield the intelligent eyes from close scrutiny, and the visage of youthful enthusiasm was aided by his uncanny ability to appear innocent and unworldly. It also prompted one of the girls in the group to point him out to the only other two females in the busload of recruits. They giggled and winked, all of them in unison, at the pale redhead in wire rimmed glasses.
Napoleon and Terry were pushed through several doorways until they arrived at a cell fitted out with iron bars and a single bunk. At their refusal to be herded into the little space, the two were unceremoniously shoved from behind, causing them to end up entangled on the meager mattress. Terry's camera had been ripped from around her neck, eliciting a yelp of reproval.
"Gee fellas, is that any way to treat a lady?"
Solo attempted to cajole his way into something like good graces, but these THRUSH types were rarely of the witty variety. Instead, the two goons slammed the door shut and warned Napoleon that any funny business would result in some nasty repercussions.
Terry stood and straightened her mini dress, bemoaning the loss of yet another camera. It was some little comfort that at least Napoleon was here with her, although she couldn't see much benefit at the moment.
"So, Napoleon … how have you been?"
Napoleon rolled his eyes and scowled at the question. He had been so close…
"What exactly are you doing here, Terry. Wasn't Europe a big enough playground for you and your … photography?"
The twist in his lips indicated disapproval, something that Terry thought was uncalled for, especially considering their circumstances.
"You know, I thought you were a pretty great guy, Napoleon, but right now I'm not so sure. I am a bona fide photographic journalist, and have every right to be here. I've heard some rumors about this place, and coming here…"
"Coming here was a mistake, Terry. It's THRUSH, and it's dangerous. Right now we're in a lot of trouble and that guy out there…'
Napoleon pointed towards the door, as though out there was clearly visible.
"Carson is dangerous, and he's capable of doing us great harm. I only hope…"
Terry's eyes popped wide open. Of course! Illya was out there somewhere. That made her shiver slightly, remembering the last time she'd seen Kuryakin in action.
"Is Illya …."
Napoleon slapped his hand over the girl's mouth. In case they were being monitored he didn't need to remind Carson of his partner's ability to disguise himself, or to suspect that Illya might be close by.
"No more talk. Just do as I tell you when the time comes. Do you understand?"
Terry nodded. Napoleon Solo was the most exciting, handsome man in the world and right now, Terry Cook was willing to do whatever he asked of her.
Meanwhile, the new recruits were ushered into the bunkhouse where they each took a bunk and began the process of unpacking the few belongings they had been allowed for this venture. Illya was careful to remain as unobtrusive as possible; he thought there had been a momentary sign of recognition from L.C. Carson and he couldn't afford to let that go any farther. He needed to disassemble this place as quickly as possible, but first the legitimate tourists needed to be evacuated. That wasn't going to be easy, but Illya knew he had to try.
In the midst of his planning, a tap on Illya's shoulder caused an involuntary shudder to assault his spine. The room had become very quiet, and as the redhead turned around he faced the bloated features of L.C. Carson, formerly of Oklahoma, and more recently an inmate in a federal prison.
"You know, I was thinkin' to myself… L.C., that feller sure looks familiar to me. Something about the color of his hair… '
Illya maintained an expression somewhere between bored and sick. Carson let his own expression illustrate his delight in finding this unassuming looking young man.
"… And then it hit me. Why, this feller used to be an injun back on my ranch in Oklahoma. I remember when you took of that wig and, well… I reckon you just can't hide that face no matter what color your hair is. Ain't that the truth, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Before Illya could acknowledge the deceit, a blow came down from behind, crippling the agent's ability to act and sending him to the floor. Someone grabbed him and raised him up, only to deliver a punishing blow to his midsection. It was several minutes of uninterrupted pummeling by what seemed countless fists, and then Illya was spiraling into a bottomless abyss.
Two ranch hands in THRUSH style western wear picked up the stricken UNCLE agent, dragging him through the same doorways and corridors that Napoleon and Terry had traveled. Illya was unconscious, his body dead weight as he was thrown into the same cell with his partner.
Terry screamed at the sight of Illya's lifeless form, Napoleon immediately knelt down to check on his friend and partner. Groaning from the cyclone in his skull, the blond turned redhead suddenly thrashed out at the hands trying to help him. Reflexes that could not always be controlled served as a reminder to Terry that these men were dangerous … all of the time.
"Yeah, it's me Illya. Can you stand up?"
Two attempts convinced everyone that he couldn't.
"Here, let me help you…"
Napoleon took Illya by the arm, helping him to stand, albeit unsteadily, and then led him to the lone bunk in the small cell.
"What happened here? I … Oh wait. Miss Cook happened."
Terry started to smile before realizing she was being blamed for their unhappy circumstances.
"Wh… wait a minute. Where do you get off blaming me? I was just doing my …"
Illya looked up, blue eyes more frigid than the cold air outside.
"Doing you job? When are you going to finally learn that THRUSH is not a job for a reporter? Photographer. Whatever you are, you're not equipped. And now you've dragged Napoleon into this and…"
Illya felt another pang of discomfort. His skull felt as though it was cracked. When was he going to learn?
Napoleon intervened; arguing wouldn't help anyone at this point.
"Look, obviously Carson would have recognized both of us. Terry being here isn't why we were spotted, but it does raise the very real problem of how to get her to safety.'
Napoleon turned to Terry, whose demeanor had become decidedly less aggressive. This was real trouble. Again. Journalism or no, this wasn't exactly how she expected to spend her professional life.
Illya leaned back against the wall, his eyes closed against the invading light.
"Do you have something in mind, Napoleon? This place is full of armed men and women, and we must consider the handful of innocents who are here for a vacation. We can't endanger them."
Before Napoleon could answer, Carson appeared with two guards at his side. His smile was cold, and the three prisoners felt a new chill in the air as he started to speak.
"Gentlemen, Miss Cook, I thought you'd like to know your presence here will not be wasted. THRUSH has developed a new way to produce natural disasters, and I am privileged to be chosen to conduct the first experiment. We are going to set off an avalanche here in the Sierra Nevada mountains.'
There was no response from his audience, so Carson continued.
"You, Mr. Solo, will be the one to inaugurate this very special tool. I expect you to object…'
Carson held up his hand as though to stop the trio from speaking.
"… but destiny is calling out your name once again, Napoleon. As for Miss Cook and Mr. Kuryakin, well… I have plans for them as well. Guards…'
Carson pointed to Napoleon and indicated to his men to take the dark haired man.
"… You will take Mr. Solo up to our observation tower. From there, Napoleon, you will watch as your partner and Miss Cook are stationed at the base of the mountain in preparation for the final cataclysmic event of their sorry lives."
Terry backed into Napoleon's embrace, her strength drained at the imagery provided by Carson's description of the avalanche he was going to provoke. Illya remained stoic, his expression never changing with the ominous threat. Only Napoleon spoke in response to Carson's braggadocio.
"Carson, no matter what scheme you think you can achieve here, you will be stopped and put back in that prison cell. Or worse. I have no intention of pushing whatever button you have up there on your mountain top observation post. You'll have to kill me first, and as you've previously discovered, that isn't easy to do."
Illya couldn't help himself and he rolled his eyes; it created a pain in his head that demanded regret for the motion.
Carson recoiled slightly at the implications of Napoleon's statement. Indeed, this man was a difficult target, but this time Carson had the upper hand.
"Take him. Goodbye Mr. Solo, and good riddance."
After a momentary show of resistance Napoleon relented and went with the armed guards. Illya and Terry watched as the American disappeared through the maze of doorways, then turned to watch Carson as he preened with what he assumed was a victory over UNCLE.
"Y'all just enjoy yourselves for the last few minutes you have left. Bye-bye."
Carson walked away, his remaining guards following close behind. Illya felt nauseous and settled on the inevitability of a concussion. Terry seemed less concerned with his condition and instead began to chatter about her career and poor Napoleon and on and on until finally, with the meager amount of strength remaining in his battered body, Illya loudly demanded that she be quiet.
"Enough. Please, just be quiet for a moment and let me think."
Terry started to pout, but as she recognized developing bruises on the pale Kuryakin and the look of real pain in his eyes, she realized that he was truly hurt. Who were these men? Knowing even the little she had ascertained during the Gurnius debacle, Terry wondered how they had even survived between then and now; certainly Illya was bearing the brunt of this particular mission, unlike the previous encounter.
"What will we do, Illya? Just tell me, and I'll do whatever you say. I promise."
That did make Kuryakin smile, just a little.
Carson's plan called for a helicopter to take Napoleon to the top of the mountain, to a tower that THRUSH had constructed for the purpose of monitoring the area and installing the avalanche device. Considering how easily an avalanche could be triggered, Napoleon wondered why they were so proud of what seemed, at best, a superfluous machine. Only THRUSH could envision a need for doing what was already so easily obtainable. Perhaps it was the location.
The second phase of this dramatic event would be to drop the other agent and the lady photographer onto a lonesome stretch where they could either try and outrun the avalanche or simply wait for the inevitable: death. Either way, Carson would be rid of all of them soon enough, for after Solo was dropped off at the tower, the structure would be instantly destroyed. It was elaborate and mostly unnecessary, but Carson had a lingering hatred for the men who had ruined his ranch and his pursuits of glory. He was rebuilding an empire within THRUSH that would only benefit from eliminating the two top men in UNCLE.
As Napoleon was ushered into the red helicopter he noted the size and then how few guards were on this trip. The chopper wouldn't allow for enough men to keep Solo in line, and it was a matter of a few minutes before the wily agent had freed himself from the handcuffs and was poised to take out the man sitting beside him. No one had bothered to check on the arsenal of tools that he carried, so the pin prick he deftly applied to the guard at his side went mostly unnoticed. The co-pilot was similarly dispatched, leaving only the pilot who, much to his amazement, ended up hanging from the cable on which Solo had been scheduled to use as he dropped into the observation tower.
In one smooth movement Napoleon was able to attach the harness to the pilot's belt and shove him out of the open hatch. Without missing a beat the chopper obtained a new pilot, and Napoleon headed back towards the ranch. The trip had been about thirty minutes in duration thus far, with random chatter coming across the radio. Now Solo picked up a conversation that he recognized was dealing with Illya and Terry.
"… at the gorge, yes and leave them there. Out."
"Roger. Coordinates are …"
Napoleon mentally recorded the numbers and headed for the place where his partner and Terry were to be left. Murder, same old THRUSH tactics. Napoleon hoped that the innocent people back at the Circle T would remain unaffected by all of this. If only …
Napoleon continued towards the drop off point where he would find Illya and Terry. At the same time he was fiddling with the radio, attempting to find a channel that would connect him to UNCLE headquarters. At last, after brainstorming and fiddling while keeping his eyes on the snow covered ground beneath him, Napoleon hit his mark.
"Channel E… who is on this channel, please."
The voice was unfamiliar, but it was one of his own.
"This is Napoleon Solo. I am in a THRUSH aircraft, attempting to locate agent Kuryakin and Miss Terry Cook. The Circle T Ranch in Lake Tahoe, Nevada is a THRUSH satrapy with innocent civilians on site. I repeat… there are innocents on the grounds. L.C. Carson is in charge there, and his device is designed to create avalanches."
"Copy that, Agent Solo. A team from San Francisco will be on the scene within the hour. What else can we do for you?"
Napoleon sighed with relief, smiling to himself as he came within view of two small figures below. One had red hair.
"Expect us there on the scene. Solo out."
Down below, Terry and Illya were left without proper clothing in the vast, snowy terrain. The sound of a chopper made its way towards them, alerting the pair of something approaching. Illya shouted to Terry to run, thinking it might be THRUSH coming to finish them off without benefit of an avalanche. When the bird closed in on them, Illya looked back to see Napoleon at the controls.
"Hey! Terry, stop! It's Napoleon."
Relief flooded the Russian. In truth he had very little energy left, and the thought of fleeing from anything had all but zapped his reserves.
"Napoleon? Oh it's Napoleon!"
Terry almost cried, she was so happy to see the handsome American emerge from the helicopter. She ran to him as best she could, stumbling in the snow and finally falling into his arms. Illya approached more slowly until finally, in his last few steps, he faltered and fell.
"Illya! Terry, help me get him up…"
Napoleon covered the space between them, icy snow blowing into his face as the chopper blades whirred. It was cold and, once again, his suit and shoes were ruined. It looked as though they had survived, however, the agents and Terry.
Napoleon hoisted his partner up into the aircraft, mumbling to himself about crazy Russians and bird-brained photographers.
He couldn't wait until he was someplace warm again.