The Aluminum Christmas Tree Affair
Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown, maybe painted pink.
- Lucy Van Pelt
Waterloo Regional Airport, Iowa. Four days before Christmas, 1965.
Of the dozen years that Napoleon Solo had been an U.N.C.L.E. agent, he would have estimated at least a third of that time had been spent in airports. They ranged from those like Heathrow, as busy and sprawling as small cities, to crumbling windswept shacks tucked beside a single airstrip. A few, like
J. F. K. International, with its new Pan Am "Worldport," were sweeping, modernistic monuments to the Jet Age, but most were small, homey regional affairs that were lucky to be served by a major airline or two.
It was this latter type in which he found himself at the moment, four days short of Christmas and eager to get back to New York City. But bad weather in the Midwest had cancelled one flight last night, and engine trouble, another this morning.
And so now he waited, forced to be patient — there really was no viable alternative — for the next Braniff flight to Chicago scheduled just after lunch. Overhead, Nat King Cole sang of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but there were no chestnuts, fireplaces, or anything else around even remotely warm or cozy. Solo shifted uncomfortably in the stainless steel-framed loveseat as two shapely stewardesses strolled by.
Well, at least the scenery's distracting, Solo thought, a sharp contrast to Iowa's grey wintery landscape just beyond the windows of the observation deck.
"Likely, they won't be on our flight," Kuryakin observed, slipping into the molded plastic chair beside his partner.
Solo made a face. "Barely noticed them."
"How could you not?" It was impossible not to pick out the Braniff stewardesses, who stood out in the crowd dressed in their new Pucci-designed pink uniforms, complete with short skirts, matching gloves and high kicky boots. They were all part of the airline's new "End of the Plain Plane" eye-catching marketing strategy. The waiting 707s lined up outside were as brightly colored as jelly beans with wings.
"Actually, I was thinking: if we're lucky, we'll land in O'Hare by dinner, report to HQ by midnight, and still make it home in time to sleep in our own beds."
"Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht," Kuryakin replied evenly, quoting the old Yiddish proverb: Men plan; God laughs.
"Always the optimist. Is that my coffee?"
"Or what passes for it." Kuryakin handed him one of two cardboard cups.
"No Chock Full of Nuts?"
Kuryakin shook his head. "And not even fresh-brewed I'd wager."
Solo took a sip, confirming his partner's assessment. "If someone ever establishes a chain of decent coffeehouses in America, he'll make a fortune."
"If they also serve a proper cup of tea, so much the better."
Solo chuckled. "Is our tea really so bad?" He didn't know; he was a confirmed coffee drinker himself.
"It's not so much the tea as how it's prepared. Even in the best restaurants, they set down a cup of hot water with a tea bag beside it."
"Napoleon, you bring the teapot to the kettle, not the reverse. And when the water hits the tea, it should always be boiling."
"Is that how they drink it in Russia?"
"No, in England. In Russia, we have samovars. The brew is much darker, stronger and more concentrated: "zavarka" we call it. You add it to the kipyatok, that is, the water kept at an ideal temperature. Drinking zavarka undiluted, you risk a heart attack. The Baltic underworld traffics in tea-based narcotics, you know."
Solo let out a low whistle. "No, I didn't. But I can't imagine anyone getting addicted to Lipton."
"Nor I. It's vile. Ever see the image on the box? In my country, we call bad tea 'postman's tea.' "
"A shot of vodka might help."
Kuryakin wasn't about to argue. "A shot of vodka always improves any situation."
"We could use some right now," Solo said, growing serious. He drained the coffee cup and crushed it, then found a nearby trash bin and tossed it away.
"I assume he was not pleased." Like God, Alexander Waverly could be identified by a single pronoun.
Solo shrugged. He'd been on Channel D making their report while Kuryakin was combing the small terminal in search of a source of caffeine. "Of course not, but there's not much to be done outside of chartering a private plane. Since it's the end of the fiscal year, that's not going to happen unless it's an emergency. Needless to say, he wants those seeds safely deposited in an U.N.C.L.E. lab."
"I don't wonder," Kuryakin said. The seeds in question were corn seeds from genetically modified plants, created by a Professor Otis Henderson, an eccentric reclusive genius who taught part-time at Iowa State's College of Agriculture and This particular strain of corn was hearty enough to grow in colder climates or to be harvested later in fall. Solo had dubbed it "Christmas Corn," although Frankenstein Corn might have been a better nickname. Right now, the handful of seeds rode in a small manila packet tucked away in a secret compartment in the left sleeve of Solo's suit jacket.
"Are they really that valuable?" he asked, and Kuryakin nodded gravely. "They will be for my country. Expanding the corn production was a pet project of Chairman Khrushchev and this new strain would certainly make that possible. 'Kernels in the hand means a pork chop in the mouth' he used to say."
"Too bad he didn't survive in office long enough to see it."
There was a short, uncomfortable silence while Kuryakin disposed of his own empty coffee cup. They seldom talked politics and Solo was careful never to query his partner on Soviet power struggles or where his political sympathies might lie. Two months ago, Khrushchev "retired" to his country dacha and Mr. Brezhnev was now in charge and that was that. Solo changed the subject.
"Anything else you miss besides samovars?"
"Not much. I suppose I've been away from home too long. But around the holidays, I do experience a distinct craving for oranges, and those little round tea cakes with walnuts covered in powdered sugar. Fortunately, D'Agostinos takes care of one desire, and the Polish bakery around the corner, the other."
Solo chuckled appreciatively.
"And you?" Kuryakin knew that Christmas was a delicate subject with Napoleon. The latter's family memories were not altogether pleasant. "Is there anything in particular that you miss this time of year?"
"Christmas trees," Solo said, which took Kuryakin a bit by surprise. Behind them, a ten-foot sparkling silver Christmas tree towered over the observation deck, decorated with bright pink and gold glass balls and sparkling in the ever-changing glow of a rotating color wheel. Solo followed his gaze.
"No, I mean real Christmas trees, and that wonderful scent of fresh pine. All the trees around now are artificial. Plastic or — God forbid—" he turned for emphasis "— aluminum." He said the last word like an obscenity.
"Oh, I don't know," Kuryakin returned, a puckish smile tugging at his lips. "An aluminum tree is such a perfect symbol for capitalist society: shiny, efficient, indestructible, modern."
"It's ugly," Solo observed flatly.
"So, often, is capitalism."
"Touché," Solo said with a tip of chin. His eyes wandered up to the tree again. "Personally, I think they're all a Thrush plot."
"You are too much a traditionalist, my friend," Kuryakin chided, amused.
"That's me: Mr. Sentimental." Solo checked his watch. "We still have some time until the flight. Hungry?" They both knew such a question was unnecessary. Asking whether or not Kuryakin was hungry was like asking if the Pope was still Catholic.
The Russian agent nodded and started to rise, but Solo motioned him back. "My turn. I'll go rustle up some grub."
"Considering the apparent resources of this terminal, I'm afraid 'grub' may be an all too apt description."
"You just didn't look hard enough." Solo slid out of his seat, and began to study their surroundings. He narrowed his eyes and squinted, trying to see to the very end of the terminal. "We're in farming country. Cows and pigs by the mile. There just has to be some decent food around here somewhere."
"If you manage to locate it, I volunteer to underwrite lunch."
"Deal." Solo was grinning now; it wasn't the money, but he always loved a challenge. "I predict you will eat your words along with a hearty ham on rye."
But it was not to be. Halfway down the length of the terminal, Solo made a detour to the men's room and that's where the Thrush agents were waiting for him.
Kuryakin was equally prepared for Solo to return in either defeat or triumph. Considering his partner's usual luck, he was also resigned to paying the entire tab. A five dollar bill was already folded and waiting in his pocket.
What he did not expect to see was Solo limping back to the observation deck, his hair mussed and his topcoat rumpled, with a thin trail of blood clotting the corner of his mouth.
"Nap —?" Kuryakin catapulted out of the chair, then caught himself. It was best not to attract attention and Solo was doing his utmost to appear perfectly normal. He wasn't quite succeeding, but fortunately, none of the other travelers hurrying past seemed to notice.
As Solo gratefully regained his previous seat, Kuryakin's voice dropped to a husky whisper. "What happened?"
"Two goons. Jumped me by the rest room."
"And the seeds?"
"Still safe." Solo tugged a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and ruefully wiped his split and bloodied lip. "I managed to dart them both and left them sleeping in a janitor's closet." He shook his head. "I knew I was in trouble when I read the name of this airport…"
Kuryakin ignored the joke. "We'll have to alert airport security."
"Not yet. Just wait…" Solo held up a weary hand. "Just give me a minute, okay?"
The other agent retreated, unappeased. "You realize this is the third time that something like this has happened in a month —"
"I know," Solo sighed. They'd been followed from the airport in Miami the week before and nearly run off the highway outside of Houston the week before that. And they weren't the only ones. Other U.N.C.L.E. agents had encountered similar problems.
"— And it's always around airports —"
"I know, I know, but cripes, Illya. We're out in the middle of Iowa for God's sake. How did they even find us here?"
Kuryakin didn't know but he was already turning the mystery over in his mind. "Where were you when you made that call to Waverly earlier?
Solo finished wiping the blood from his face and ran a shaky hand through his hair. His head was pounding; he really could have used an aspirin. Maybe a handful. "Right here."
"Here? You mean where we're sitting now?"
"Yeah. I was here when you brought back the coffee, remember?"
"I just wanted to be sure." Once again, Kuryakin's gaze settled on the nearby tree. "What?" Solo demanded.
"Consider: in every single airport where we've encountered trouble, there was an aluminum Christmas tree. They all looked a great deal like this one. Remember the one in Miami? Beside the fountain? And in Houston? There was a giant cowboy boot filled with presents next to it…"
Solo stared up at the tree in dawning recognition. "But that's nuts."
"Well, you did say you thought it was part of a Thrush plot —"
"You're kidding, right? You think they've bugged the Christmas decorations?"
"Not bugged exactly…" His eyes fixed on the tree now, Kuryakin abandoned his seat and moved, focused and determined, like a bloodhound following a scent trail. As Solo watched, the Russian agent hopped the low decorative fence that surrounded the seasonal scene, waded through the fluffy cotton puffs of fake snow and made a beeline for his quarry. His proximity to the tree suddenly attracted a uniformed security guard's attention.
"Hey! Mister! You can't go there," the guard shouted. "Get away from that tree." As he crossed the terminal, he was joined by two other men: another in a guard's uniform and, running from a corner office, one in a brown business suit with a holly patterned green tie.
Seemingly oblivious to everything else that was going on around him, Kuryakin continued on his quest, leaving it to his partner to intercept the men. Solo met them beside the little snowflake decorated fence with his wallet open and the gold U.N.C.L.E. card flashing.
"Ah — gentlemen. Please forgive the intrusion—" Smoothly, Solo eased into his public relations persona, ignoring the irony that while he'd been nearly murdered in the men's room fifteen minutes ago, the security guards only appeared now when their tacky tree was threatened.
"I'm the assistant manager of this airport," the man in the brown suit announced. "I could have you thrown out of here —"
"— but we're authorized to investigate any unusual activity —"
"Oh yeah? And who the hell are you?"
"Agents from the U-N.-C-L-E." Solo nearly pushed the card into the assistant airport manager's face so the man couldn't miss it.
"U.N.C.L.E?" the airport manager repeated, taking the card to study it. He passed it back to Solo. "You guys work for the government?"
"In a manner of speaking." Hoping to defuse the situation quickly, Solo had no desire the correct the manager on a technicality. Fortunately, the attention of the two guards were on him and not Illya.
"We apologize for the inconvenience, but it's necessary that my partner inspect your tree. My organization will reimburse you any damages."
"Damages?!" one of the guards blurted out and his attention snapped back to Kuryakin and the tree. Solo spun on his heel and said a silent prayer that his partner was not in the process of dismantling it. The security guards didn't seem to be in a mood to stand by and watch that happen.
Fortunately, the aluminum Christmas tree was still intact. Only one branch was bent as Kuryakin examined it closely.
"Find anything?" Solo asked as he approached, trailed by the other three. Kuryakin's brow was furrowed.
"Is there something wrong?" the airport manager inquired sheepishly, intimidated by Solo's apparent authority.
Kuryakin sized him up as a the probable petty bureaucrat in charge and asked, "Do you know where this tree came from?"
The manager paused. "I dunno… my secretary handles the holiday prep."
"You must have signed a purchase order," Solo added not unkindly in an attempt to be helpful. "Can you remember the company on the form?"
The manager paused again, making a genuine effort to summon up a name. "Let me see … Holiday Something. Holiday — Rush! Now I remember! The Holiday Rush Company."
"The… Holiday… Rush— " Solo repeated slowly.
The agents exchanged glances. "Brazen buggers, aren't they?" Kuryakin allowed with a smirk. He tapped the end of a branch. "Remember the transmitting modules in Sandy Wyler's apartment this past summer? The ones they used to eavesdrop on Waverly's office?"
"This tree is filled with them." He pointed to a branch tip that ended in a button surrounded by a tinseled pom pom. "Here —" and then to a pink glass ball "—and here —" and then motioned. "All throughout."
"So it is bugged," Solo said.
"Not simply bugged. The entire tree is a transmitter." Kuryakin pointed to the formidable steel trunk. "And that's the antenna."
"An antenna?" The assistant manager was trying to grasp the gist of the conversation. "Here? In Iowa? The Communists are tapping into our communications?"
"Not likely," Kuryakin said. Apparently, none of the airport personnel had noted his own accent. "This transmitter isn't meant to interfere with your routine operations. It's tuned to a particular frequency outside your range."
Channel D, Solo thought, but didn't say so aloud. Instead, he merely observed, "And I'll bet there's one in every airport."
"At least those in the United States," Kuryakin agreed. "We'd best inform headquarters immediately."
"We'll have to do it on the way," Solo said, already ready to leave. When his partner looked askance, he added, "Remember my earlier conversation over the communicator? If Thrush was listening in, they not only knew were we were, they know where Henderson is as well. And what he's been up to."
"Hey! Wait!" the manager said as the agents hurried past him. The security guards watched in confusion, not knowing whether to grab the retreating agents or stand aside. Without stopping, Solo stuffed a business card into one guard's outstretched hand. "Call that number. Someone will explain."
And in the next moment, they were gone.
U.N.C.L.E. HQ, New York. Christmas Eve.
"That was quick thinking, gentlemen," Alexander Waverly complimented Solo and Kuryakin some days later. The two agents exchanged glances across the rotating table. Must be the season, the expression on Solo's face said. Compliments from the Old Man came few and far between.
"And I'm sure you gentlemen will be relieved to hear that Prof. Henderson is alive and well and relocated to a safe house in Western Australia."
"The last time we saw him, "Kuryakin commented evenly, "the professor was complaining rather pointedly that the destruction of his lab and the subsequent loss of his notebooks would set his research back thirty years."
"And if we hadn't arrived in time," Solo countered, "he would have lost a lot more than that."
"Quite so, Mr. Solo," Waverly confirmed, "quite so. "And with the seeds restored to his possession, perhaps the professor will be able to reconstruct some of his work once he settles in." He reached for his pipe. "More importantly, your discovery of Thrush's plot to tap into our communications network at all the major North American airports was absolutely invaluable in returning our continental operations back to normal. I dare say, you saved a few missions, not to mention lives. "
"And I assume The Holiday Rush Company —" Kuryakin consulted the dossier "— of Columbus, Ohio is no longer in business?"
"All production has ceased and the inventory, confiscated. Local authorities have the president, vice president and the entire management staff in custody. We are also currently investigating several other manufacturers of aluminum Christmas trees for evidence of possible Thrush involvement."
"That should put a dent in the aluminum Christmas tree population," Solo said, trying not to gloat.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it did," Waverly observed, turning his full attention to his pipe. That was usually their cue that the meeting was over.
"If there isn't anything else, sir —" Solo said, hoping there wasn't. He closed his own copy of the file and placed it on top of Kuryakin's. Distracted, it took Waverly a moment to respond.
"Hmmmm…? Oh, yes. Of course." The tobacco in the bowl suddenly sparked to life. Waverly took a deep, satisfying draw, the sweet scent of Isle of Dogs No. 2 rising lazily into the room.
…The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath… The words coalesced , unbidden, in Solo's thoughts. "Have a good holiday, sir," he said, rising.
"Oh, thank you. And… the same to you." A light blinked on the communications panel behind Waverly and he swiveled in his chair to answer it.
"We will sir," Solo assured his superior, whose attention was drifting elsewhere, then retreated behind his partner who was already at the sliding door.
Two floors below, they reemerged from behind the curtain in the middle booth in Del Floria's. It was nearly six in the evening, but Del was still behind the presser, finishing up a stubborn crease on a pair of good black trousers. On the counter nearby stood a tiny silver tinsel tree.
Solo looked at Kuryakin. "Ah — Del? Where did you get your little Christmas tree there?"
The tailor shrugged. "Woolworth's, where else? Why?"
"Mind if we borrowed it?"
Del Floria gestured irritably. "Go ahead. Take it. I don't need it any more. I'm closing in five minutes."
Solo thanked him and wished him Merry Christmas. Once outside, he tossed it unceremoniously into a nearby trash can. "Better safe than sorry. One just never knows."
"Apparently," Kuryakin agreed. It had been a strange week. "So what now?"
"Now?" Solo brightened. "Well, tonight, my dear tovarisch, I have reservations for dinner for two. At the Russian Tea Room."
Kuryakin's shadow smile appeared. "That sounds promising. Any particular reason for the choice?"
"Oh, I just thought you might be appreciate some food from home for a change —" Solo rested a hand on his partner's shoulder "—and perhaps, a proper cup of tea."
"With a shot of vodka."
"Which always improves any situation. " Solo surveyed the sky. The night was unseasonably mild. Judging by the clouds gathering overhead, it probably would rain. Distinctly un-Christmas-like, even for New York "If only it could make it snow…"
"Don't worry, Napoleon," Kuryakin said, his spirits rising. "With enough tea and vodka, in an hour or two, it won't matter. Even the artificial trees will begin to look real."
Solo laughed. "Heaven forbid."