Nsandik's Third Level Man from U.N.C.L.E. Universe

The Missing Dragon Affair

by Nsandik

(originally published in Credentials, 2000)

Monday, November 20, 1972

Illya Kuryakin left the elevator and ran for Alexander Waverly's office. Avery Bates and Misha Stalin were right behind him. They burst into the office where Mark Slate, April Dancer, Tuula Crighton and Dennis Treacle were already assembled.

"Where are they now?!" demanded Kuryakin.

Waverly moved to the map on the flip chart and thumped at a red dot near the intersection of two state highways. "Here," he said. "We wouldn't have known if the driver hadn't managed to raise us on his communicator with his last breath. Four of the rookies were killed defending Mr. Solo. But the driver said Solo was alive when they took him off the bus." Waverly sounded suddenly very tired.

Kuryakin paced furiously the length of the briefing table. He rubbed his palms on his thighs, flexing his fingers over and over. "It was a bus ride!" he shouted. "A stupid bus ride!"

Stalin and Bates exchanged glances. Waverly had sent Solo to the airport with an U.N.C.L.E. driver to retrieve eight new graduates from Survival School. Kuryakin wanted to go, but Waverly said no. Kuryakin's time was better spent in the lab.

No one expected Thrush to try anything with a bus, in Manhattan, in broad daylight.

"Here are the names of the surviving rookies," said April. She read them off and Slate flashed a slide of each as she named them.

"Butterworth, Randall. Age 24. Recruited right out of MIT, sir." Butterworth was a very young-looking African-American with serious eyes and crooked front teeth.

"Chan, Willie James. Chose New York instead of his home town San Francisco to escape the stigma of his father's involvement with one of the Tongs there. Vietnam vet. Age 25." Chan was 5'7" tall, a wiry fierce-eyed young man with a white scar across the bridge of his flat nose.

"Castillo, Jose Antonio. Mexico City. Age 24. He joined U.N.C.L.E. straight out of college, in honor of his father, a field agent killed fifteen months ago in a Thrush attempt to assassinate the Pope." Castillo was a medium-sized Hispanic male with wire-rimmed glasses and a mournful expression.

"And Tamaguchi, Yoshiko. Age 23. Electronics expert from Tokyo." The image of a tiny Japanese female with short black hair and a mildly bewildered expression barely filled a third of the screen. April added bleakly, "Miss Tamaguchi weighs 91 pounds."

Kuryakin was standing still for the moment. He had a white-knuckled grip on the back of a chair. No one spoke for several seconds.

At last Tuula Crighton made an exasperated noise. "For Christ's sake, doesn't U.N.C.L.E. have height and weight requirements?"

Mark Slate said, "Not since the Board decided that too much physical similarity made us too easy to spot undercover." He added sadly, "The four rookies who were shot were all over six feet."

Avery Bates drawled, "The sumbitches hauled away the ones who were easiest to handle."

"With one exception," said Waverly. "They also took Mr. Solo."

The intercom buzzed. "Mr. Waverly? I have Mr. Candotti on the line, sir."

"Candotti?" Slate frowned. "Isn't he the head of Thrush operations on the East Coast?"

Waverly gestured for silence and put Candotti on the speaker phone.

"Mr. Candotti. This is Alexander Waverly."

Candotti was trying not to sound impressed. "Mr. Waverly. What a surprise. What can I do for you?" Candotti's voice was educated New Jersey.

"I am calling you, sir, about a grave breach of our recent uneasy ceasefire. Three months ago, you called this office with a request that we rethink our militant approach toward Thrush here in New York. You spoke convincingly of a trend toward legitimate business enterprises. And as a token of your good faith, you promised that Thrush would stay out of the drug trade on the East Coast."

Candotti confirmed, "Yes, that's right. And we have stayed out of it."

"I know you have. We've been paying close attention."

"I see." Not as friendly now. "Then what's the problem?"

"One of my top agents and four... trainees... have been kidnapped. Four others and a long-time U.N.C.L.E. employee have been killed. Murdered." Waverly's temper was barely controlled. His voice trembled on the last line, "And I am not pleased, Mr. Candotti. Not at all."

"I haven't ordered any raids on your people, Mr. Waverly. Your agents have been treating my people with more respect than any U.N.C.L.E. HQ on the planet, and frankly, my people like the current status quo. Gunfights at the O.K. corral went out with the horse and buggy. Modern times call for modern methods, Mr. Waverly."

The Old Man exploded. "Then who killed my people?!! And who took my agents?!"

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then Candotti said, "It wasn't me, and it wasn't my people."

Waverly was livid. "No one attacks U.N.C.L.E. agents for sport, Mr. Candotti. I thought that lesson was learned decades ago. If my decision to ease our pressure on Thrush has left someone with the idea that U.N.C.L.E. has gone soft, I fully intend to remedy that situation. Do you understand? I want my people back unharmed. If they are not in my office in four hours, alive and well, I will mobilize the largest army of U.N.C.L.E. agents ever assembled in peace time and I will raze your operation to the ground, Mr. Candotti. And my people will be instructed to take no prisoners."

"Hey, now wait a minute! Mr. Waverly, I told you, I didn't have nothing to do with this!"

"Four hours," growled Waverly, "and counting." He cut the connection.

Illya was pacing again. "I am not waiting for that Thrush bastard to rescue our people." Kuryakin's fury was also on a short leash.

"No, of course you're not," said Waverly, finding his chair and lowering himself into it. He rubbed a big hand across his eyes. "Dear God. Five people dead in broad daylight, and five more taken!" Foam collected at the corners of Waverly's mouth. He pounded the table with a fist. "Mr. Slate! Put our people on full alert. Crighton, get on the satellite relay. I want every U.N.C.L.E. office in the Northern Hemisphere to contribute to this effort. If there are any regional agents close enough, have them sent here at once. Top priority. We need man power. And I want their latest information on all Thrush activities in the U.S. for the last two weeks. No, wait. Crighton, you're going with Kuryakin. Dancer, you make the calls. And do it fast. You and Mr. Slate will work communications."

"May I ask where Illya and I are going, sir?" asked Tuula.

"That's what Mr. Slate and Miss Dancer will be finding out!"

"Yes, sir." Mark and April left at a trot.

Waverly sat back and gazed pensively at Kuryakin.

"I owe you an apology," he said at last. "You and Solo are Third Level, and I've known about it for years. But I've been so damned busy trying not to play favorites. And the two of you hide it so well. The devil of it is, knowing what must be going through your mind right now, I shouldn't let you leave the building, much less head a rescue party."

Illya's eyes were wild, and his nerves were on overload. When he spoke, his voice was cold steel, but his surplus of emotion sabotaged his grammar. "You know what we are? And still you do this?" Then it dawned on him. "Yes, of course. If you had doubts, then that D.R.E.A.M. machine of yours must have ended them for you last month. Your spies were in that house. Bigelow got his memory back, yes? So you know." His worry was consumed by the flame of his anger. "And even knowing, for last two weeks you treat us like First Level rookies. You send my partner out with different agents. He doesn't sleep for three days. And now you admit you know we are Third Level?! Why don't you just take out gun and shoot us!!?"

Bates took a firm hold of Illya's upper arm. "Easy, now, pardner."

Illya whirled on him. "No!! You and Misha are Third Level, and you watched him do this to us! I asked you to talk to him, and you say he must have reasons. What reasons!?"

Illya turned his venom on Waverly again. "Napoleon Solo has done everything you ever asked him to do. And so have I. But this is the last time. I'm going after my partner. We will come back together, or you will bury us together. Either way, you will never send us out alone again." With that, Kuryakin yanked himself loose from Bates's grip, turned his back on the Old Man, and left the room.

Silently, Crighton and Treacle followed him out. Stalin shifted nervously from one foot to the other, waiting for his lanky, balding partner.

Bates stood staring at the toes of his cowboy boots, his hands on his hips. The lamp from Waverly's desk glinted off the silver belt buckle he wore, commemorating the Battle of the Alamo.

Waverly was hoarse. "Go on, what are you waiting for? He's in no condition to pilot a helicopter!"

Avery's gray eyes were dark with anger. "Me and Misha, we're in the same damn boat them two is in," he drawled. "We're gonna find Solo, and we're gonna bring him back. Him and Illya both. And when we do, sir, we'd like to ask a few questions. That's all." He turned and left, and Stalin went with him.

Alexander Waverly slumped in his chair. He opened a drawer concealed beneath his briefing table. In it lay a loaded UNCLE special. He moved the weapon aside and took out a red folder. He opened it and stared long and hard at the list of changes mandated by the latest meeting of the Board. He should never have let the other Section One heads talk him into sharing the responsibility of UNCLE with a multinational board. The strangest combination of bleeding hearts and hardliners to ever sit at the same table, and they were playing games of political compromise with his organization. And what's worse, with his people. He read the lines of their month-old memo and felt the rage growing within him. Those fat-bottomed desk jockeys were ordering him to treat all his agents alike. No favoritism. No perqs. No more grooming certain agents for ascension to Section One. Everything would be done on the basis of competitive exam, seniority, cooperation, all the democratic crap that had weakened one agency after another until field agents from the FBI to the CIA to MI5 and Interpol were practically interchangeable with each other and with the clerks in the record rooms.

Waverly exhaled, a long controlled excretion of fury. No more. He was not going to take it any more. He took the memos out of the folder and tore them, one by one, into pieces of meaningless paper. He piled them in an ashtray and lit a match to them. A symbolic fire. He felt cleaner afterward, but not by much. He would have to do more. He picked up the weapon, hefted it, let the grip settle in his palm. He checked the magazine and spoke out loud in the empty room.

"This is all I have left, Klaus. The only thing I kept. We fought a lot of battles together, old friend. But we couldn't win that last one, could we?" He leaned his head against the cool leather of his chair. "We never thought it would end like that, did we? Cancer. Hell of a thing."

He leaned forward long enough to speak into the intercom. "Lisa? Hold all my calls until further notice. I'm in conference."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Waverly."

He chuckled wryly. "God love her, she believes every word I say." He leaned back in the chair. "Too bad my wife wasn't more like her." He closed his eyes. "I need your advice, Klaus. Not the first time, eh?" His eyes strayed to the file credenza and a small framed photo of a toddler. "Little Norman. No more than a photograph to me." He shook his head. "A man should know his grandchildren, Klaus. But then, he's got to know his children first, doesn't he? My wife never understood about the job. And she never knew what it was like for us back then, out in the field." He snorted softly. "The great irony is that I loved her desperately. When it ended... Well, you of all people know what that was like. You were there, old friend." His wife was dead now. And so was Klaus, buried in a private plot less than an hour from HQ.

He got up, the stiffness in his knees forcing him to use the table for leverage, and walked to the window, still addressing the memory of his old friend. The window was an illusion. Security dictated that Waverly's office be a bunker. He pressed a button and the view of the New York skyline slid out of sight. Behind it, snugged against the metal wall, was a large manila envelope. He carried it back to his chair and opened it. He fished inside, his aging fingers fumbling to find the edge of the paper. At last, he pulled the photo out and stared at it.

"My God," he mumbled, "I forgot we were ever that young." He carried the envelope back to his chair and sank into it with a sigh. He hefted his gun in his right hand and thought about Solo's expression when Waverly had ordered him out that morning on a routine errand. Solo thought he was being punished for something. He'd even asked what he'd done wrong. But he didn't complain. He didn't say, By the way, I'm Third Level, and you are pushing me to the psychological brink with your concerted effort to separate me from my partner. No. He said nothing. He just stared at Waverly, his dark eyes full of questions, his features wan from lack of sleep. He'd been on one petty mission after another, two nights away and one night back, for three weeks. Waverly knew he couldn't sleep without his partner nearby. But he kept sending him out. He kept following the Board's recommendations. Blindly. Unfeelingly. Like some mindless bureaucrat.

That morning, in this office, Solo had turned his face away to keep Waverly from seeing his eyes. Almost fast enough, but not quite. Waverly saw. And he sent him out anyway.

Something would have to be done. He squeezed the pistol grip, feeling the weight of it in his hand, and his mind filled with memories of Klaus.

Illya was already on the roof, commandeering the helicopter that waited on the pad.

Misha broke into Russian, talking a mile a minute, gesturing to convince Illya that there was no point in leaving yet.

Avery Bates never broke his stroll, never said a word. He simply reached into the cockpit and switched off the ignition. When Illya flared, he held up one big palm. "Mark and April ain't got us a location yet, so there ain't no point in burning fuel. I don't be telling you what to do, son, but may I suggest a trip to the arsenal is in order while we wait."

As usual, Illya took a few seconds to interpret Avery's English. During that time, he composed himself. "Yes, you're right. The arsenal. We need weapons." Calm. In control. He would have to keep his head in order to save his partner.

"Misha here will stay with the chopper and get her ready to fly. You and me, we'll go load up on fire power. Tuula's already there, checking on magazines and specials and explosives. When we find the bastards who took Solo, I want to know we can blow'em off the face of the earth, don't you?"

"Da, da. Fire power."

Back indoors, in the elevator, Avery said, "We'd better take a FADE kit."

Illya's jaw clenched and relaxed. "How did you know what I was thinking?"

"You get that same look on your face every time you remember what they did to him in France. What was it? Two years ago?"

"Two years and four days." He shifted his gaze to examine the upper left corner of the elevator box. His voice was barely audible. "I nearly lost him."

Avery nodded. Mark and April had filled him in on the details of the mission that Illya had not included in his final report. Dark days. Solo was rescued, but he came back a broken man. And a week later, Thrush had bombed his apartment. Their apartment. Solo's recovery took months. He'd never really been the same since, as far as Avery was concerned. And for all that Solo suffered then, they were no closer to erasing Thrush from the world. And for all that Illya was suffering now, Avery felt a twinge of guilt that he was thinking about himself. That broken man could have been him. It could have been Misha. He cleared his throat. "Yep, that Field Agent's Drug Evaluation kit has saved a lot of lives. I'll take one with us."

The elevator doors opened, and they nearly ran head-on into Tuula. "Dennis and two of my other people are bringing weapons to the choppers. How many Section Two agents are in town?"

Illya rubbed his forehead in frustration. " K'chortu. Napoleon does the people managing. I do not have numbers for that."

"Don't worry," said Tuula. "I was just curious. April will reach them all on Channel D. Even so, that's not quite an army. Add my Section Three people, and we're looking better. I asked Juanita to call in all off-duty personnel."

Illya moved past her into the corridor.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

Illya lifted his hands in the air and shook them in frustration. "I cannot stand still! Get the FADE kit. I need something from my office." Our office, he thought. If I believed in miracles, I would wish to open the door and find him sitting there at his desk.

Tuula jogged after him. "This sucks big time, Illya. I'm so sorry."

"Nyet! Do not say it like that. Not like he is dead already."

"Shit! I didn't mean it that way. Slow down, okay? April and Mark are working as fast as they can. I just meant I'm sorry we didn't execute our plan last weekend like we wanted."

"Da, da. Thank you very much for reminding me that my postponement may have cost Napoleon his life." Illya skidded to a stop and gave the automatic doors time to open. He pounded on the wall as if that would speed them along.

Tuula looked horrified. "No, no, oh, crap, I'm not... I didn't mean..."

Illya bolted through the doorway and began pulling open drawers on his desk. "Where are they? Where are they?!"

"I just meant, retirement is sounding pretty fine about now," she finished weakly.

Illya was going through the drawers of Napoleon's desk now, tossing papers in his rush. At last he made an exuberant noise. "There you are!" He turned and held up a matched set of brass knuckles. "These also came in handy in Bayonne."

Tuula nodded, afraid to open her mouth again.

Illya was breathing hard, ready for action. Stymied, because they had no idea where to begin looking. Not yet.

Tuula dropped her eyes to the floor.

Illya averted his gaze. The silence between them grew to awkward proportions. At last, Illya said very softly, "Izvinite, I'm sorry, my flamboyant Finnish queen." It was the same line he'd used on her in the basement of the big yellow house.

Tuula smiled in spite of herself. "That one always tickles me," she whispered. "You regained your title with it. King of Flattery." She passed a hand over her quivering lip. "Sorry. I'm blithering."

Illya stepped closer and hugged her. "I apologize. I did not mean to spray you with my anger."

Tuula hugged him back, pressed her face against his shoulder to rub the tears off her face. "It's okay. I'm not making much sense myself." She clapped him on the back, then moved away. "Got to get a grip." She smoothed her cheeks. "Head of Section Three is not supposed to cry like a girl."

Illya's eyes narrowed. "You were right, though. About retirement." Then his face lit up with the brilliance of his idea. "Retired agents! How many of them live in the area?"

They stood for a moment staring at each other. Then, in unison, they were out the door in search of April Dancer.

Waverly wondered if he had dozed off. A glance at his watch reassured him that his mind had only wandered. He hadn't dropped the gun, but the photo of himself with his old friend Klaus had slipped from his fingers into his lap. He picked it up and replaced it in the envelope where other memories resided. Klaus's last letter, to be opened after his death. His will. His postumous confession.

"We're only human," grumbled Waverly. "More's the pity." He sighed heavily. He needed time to think. He knew Lisa would not interrupt him here, but the place was in crisis. Interruptions would come, fast and furious. In his youth, he could think around it, but lately he needed solitude and silence for making decisions. "I'm getting too old for this, Klaus."

He pressed a button on the underside of his briefing table, then heaved himself to his feet again as the couch against the wall shifted silently three feet to the right and the wall behind it slid open. He carried the gun and the envelope into the secret passage, the same one his cousin had used to test Headquarter's defenses, and depressed another button inside to close the panel and return the couch to its original position. Once the panel snicked softly shut, a series of low-watt bulbs illuminated the passageway. He took his time. The exit was on the other side of the block, into the bedroom closet of an U.N.C.L.E.-owned apartment. It was getting to be quite a walk for him.

The passage was safe and familiar. His mind wandered to the last time he'd walked it. Right after Bigelow reported to him on the D.R.E.A.M. machine they had tested in the big yellow house. Was that only a month ago? When the experiment was over, Solo and Kuryakin had come to his office with questions. More and more questions, those two.

"Sorry to bother you, sir," said Solo, "but if I might have a word?"

"Yes, of course, Mr. Solo. Come in."

Kuryakin was at his elbow as usual. They sat.

"I was wondering if you had a special reason for singling us out as targets for the D.R.E.A.M. machine experiment. Tuula told us it didn't work, but when she mentioned what it was intended to do, we naturally had questions."

Waverly kept his eyes studiously on the budget appropriations sheet before him. "You were available, Mr. Solo. And given the number of risky missions I've sent you out on in the past, I thought it might be a nice change for you to relax in a safe house for a couple of days."

Solo and Kuryakin exchanged glances. Waverly caught it on the edge of his vision. They weren't buying his explanation. He pushed the budget sheets aside. "And of course, there was the question of security."

"Security, sir?" Solo's face ran through a lightning fast series of calisthenics. Self doubt, irritation, anger, confusion, disbelief. It settled on a questioning frown.

"Security, Mr. Solo. For U.N.C.L.E. If that device had worked as it was intended to, you would eventually know about its success, just as you learned of its failure. Just imagine. If it had worked, we could have hooked up any and all Thrush captives to it and discovered all sorts of secrets, even those buried by the deepest programming and the strongest drugs. The machine after all was intended to read the dreaming subconscious mind, you see. It would have given us a formiddable advantage, gentlemen. Knowledge of such a machine had to be limited to its inventors and our most trustworthy agents." He turned a hand over. "But it failed. It did not read your dreams."

Solo fidgeted in his chair. Kuryakin remained perfectly still, except for a thumb worrying a ragged cuticle on his middle finger.

Waverly continued. "As you can imagine, I am severely disappointed by the machine's failings. However, my disappointment is offset somewhat by your suggestion that we use it to secure the programming of our own agents' undercover identities."

"Oh. Good." Solo pulled his jacket sleeves down over his shirt cuffs. "Well, that explains a lot, sir. It's good to know that Bigelow reported our suggestion."

"Oh, yes. Mr. Bigelow reported everything you told him to. A pity that the recording device malfunctioned."

"Yes, sir," said Kuryakin. "Quite a snarly, smoking mess."

Solo cleared his throat. "Yes, awful. I can still smell it."

"Anything else, gentlemen?"

Solo glanced sideways at Kuryakin, then said, "Er, no, sir. That was all."

"Very well. I'd best get back to these appropriations. Dismissed."

After they left, Waverly leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. He wondered who actually burned the video tape. Not that it mattered, but he suspected Tuula Crighton did it. Her loyalty to Solo and Kuryakin was legendary. He smiled to himself at the thought that his agents believed they could keep information from him. There was, of course, a secondary recording device secreted in the machine. He'd had it added himself. His cousin was quite a talented operative in his own right, and keeping him below the usual radar had proved invaluable over the years. No one else knew about the secondary tape. No one else had seen it. Once Solo retired from the field, he would give the order for continued tests on the machine, and within a year, it would be ready to install downstairs in the interrogation rooms, ready to use.

Waverly turned the last corner and pressed another button on the wall. The door concealed in the back of the apartment closet slid open and he entered. In the comfortable little living room, he opened a series of cabinet doors to reveal monitors and communications equipment recessed into the wall. He flipped a series of switches, then poured himself a brandy before settling into a much-used yellow wingback chair. He put his feet up on the footstool, positioned his brandy on the little table at his elbow and entertained himself for a bit by watching the screens. The manila envelope slid to the floor. The U.N.C.L.E. special remained in his lap as he checked on the status of his team.

The people in translation were devastated by the sad news. No work happening there today. Women crying, men in shock. Slate and Dancer were busy following his orders. That was good to see. Kuryakin was in very bad shape but managed to hold it together in the elevator.

He didn't expect to see misbehavior or malfeasance from his trusted employees. After all, they knew the security cameras were in place, and he had even overheard them discussing who might be checking the tapes, joking about no sex in the elevators. No, he didn't really need or want to spy on them. But here, in this sanctuary, even here he wanted to feel involved. He watched the screens because he needed these people. In fact, he suspected that he was quite fond of most of them.

And that was becoming a problem.

Thrush suspected it, too. They had seen the loyalty his people demonstrated toward him, and they had begun to undermine it every chance they got. He closed his eyes and remembered the satellite conversation with Kuryakin two years ago, reporting in about Solo. He remembered his carefully phrased instructions. "Your report on this matter must contain no indication that you have exceeded the bounds of U.N.C.L.E.'s charter. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Kuryakin?"

He could almost hear the knowing smile in the Russian's response. "I assure you, sir, my report will contain nothing of the sort."

That was a dark day. He fully expected to lose them both. He never thought they would come back alive. And when they did, when he saw what a mess Solo was, he grieved again because he suspected they would both leave the organization within a few weeks. But Solo's strength was astounding. He inched back. He kept working. He was not the same man as before, but he persevered.

But he never really trusted Waverly again. Kuryakin reported to him the abuse and the psychological games they had played with Solo. Using the GE-4 to make him supremely susceptible, then filling his mind with doubts about Waverly on every level, Waverly's intentions, Waverly's ploys, his use of his agents to fulfill some secret agenda.

Waverly felt he had lost a dear friend after that mission. Almost like losing Klaus. But Solo was still alive, still taking orders, still going through the motions. And asking questions that he had never asked before.

Mark Slate cradled a phone between his left shoulder and his ear. He had an open communicator in his left hand and the U.N.C.L.E. communications center microphone in his right. He was talking on all three at once.

Illya, Tuula and April moved off to the side so they could hear each other.

"I've called in everyone," said April, "all our off duty personnel, regardless of department."

Illya nodded brusquely. "Excellent."

Tuula said, "We have an idea."

"Retired agents," said Illya.

April frowned, causing her lips to purse. "Retirees? But the whole point of extra manpower is the possible need in the field, and retirees aren't allowed in the field."

"Except in special circumstances," said Illya. "Napoleon and I have worked with more than one, you know."

April's expression softened. "Yes. He blackmailed Waverly to make sure he was involved. But for this? I'm not even sure we can reach them all. Some are in witness protection programs."

Tuula spread her hands. "Come on, April, you know they all stay plugged in. They may not be able to legally do the field work, or physically either in some cases, but they could be an enormous source of information! Every time I talk to a Section Three retiree, they amaze me with how much they know about our operations and our people. They're connected! We should use that information."

Illya added, "We need possible locations for sequestering five U.N.C.L.E. agents. Mark is gathering information as fast as he can, but time is of the essence." He paced back and forth, unable to stand still.

A flash of pain darkened April's features. Time was of the essence for Napoleon. She knew what Illya really meant. She nodded. "All right. I'll try anything. After all, I'm already breaking rules and circumventing policy to call in every employee." She paused and bit her lip. "Some of the departments downstairs are struggling to keep it together. We don't lose five people every day. And Napoleon..." She bit off the rest of it before she jinxed him. Napoleon was two days away from his fortieth birthday. She took a breath, stiffened her spine, and resumed her businesslike tone. "So how do we get in touch with these retirees?"

Illya and Tuula looked at each other for a long moment. Then the hint of a dark smile appeared on both their faces.

Tuula moved a finger between them. "Same thought?"

Illya echoed her choreography. "Napoleon always says, if we think of it, then Waverly has also thought of it at some time. So there must be a way."

They looked at April and chorused, "Open Channel R."

April blinked at them. "There is no Channel R."

"Not officially," said Illya, "but that doesn't mean anything. For God's sake, just try it!"

April was already moving. She shooed Amanda away from her station. "Sorry, dear, I need the main panel. Can you continue at Station C? Thanks." She looked at Illya. "But what frequency?"

"It doesn't matter," said Illya. "Waverly is not going to flip through a book to find a frequency. If he wanted to reach those people, what would he do?"

"He would simply ask for the channel." April's eyes lit up with the possibility. "He would have set the whole thing up so that he could simply..." She stopped talking and flipped some switches. Then she adjusted a knob and announced into the microphone, "Open Channel R?" It was more a question than anything else. She cleared her throat and tried again, with more confidence. "Open Channel R."


Illya looked triumphant. "You see? We have a frequency."

"But it's just static," said April.

Illya couldn't stand it anymore. He wiggled his fingers at her, a silent demand for the microphone.

Tuula pressed her hands together in a silent prayer for success.

"This is science fiction," said April. "We can't simply--"

Tuula whispered, "They do it on Star Trek all the time."

April rolled her eyes. "They cancelled that series, you know."

"Shh," said Tuula.

Illya spoke into the mike. "This is Illya Kuryakin, Section Two, Number Two. If you are receiving this transmission, we need your help." He paused. More static. He looked around at the others. The whole room was quiet now, everyone's attention on him. He began again. "I repeat, This is Illya Kuryakin. You may not have heard yet, but U.N.C.L.E. has suffered a terrible loss today. Five of our agents have been killed in broad daylight. Five others have been taken prisoner. Candotti claims his people are not responsible, but it has all the earmarks of Thrush. Please. We know you all keep up with what's going on. Please answer this call. If you hear us but cannot respond on channel, come to headquarters if you are able. We need all available personnel to assist in this crisis."

More static.

Glimmers of disappointment began to appear.

Then a voice from the speaker. Tentative. Hesitant. "Hello? Is this a joke? Daniel Imbutu, if you're fooling around again--"

Smiles of relief all around.

Illya broke in. "No, sir, this is not Daniel." He paused and let the details of Daniel's personnel folder flash through his mind. Imbutu, Daniel. Native of South Africa. Thirteen years in Section Two. Sidelined at thirty-eight after losing a leg to a Thrush land mine. Opted to stay in New York and chauffeur able-bodied agents around the city. "I'm afraid I have some bad news. Daniel Imbutu was driving the bus that was attacked. I'm sorry to tell you that Daniel is dead."

"Oh, God." Grief in the voice. "Jesus. Did you say five? Five dead in broad daylight?"

"Yes. Please, we need all our retired people to let us know if they have seen anything unusual. We are working our usual sources, mining information, but time is short. Four of the captives are rookies. It was their first day on the job."

A groan of dismay from the speaker. "Oh, my God. Who's the fifth one? Not the Old Man! Did they get Waverly?"

"No, not Waverly," said Illya. In his heart of hearts, he almost wished they had. With Napoleon at his side, Waverly's chances of surviving such an abduction were much higher than Napoleon's were. "They took Solo. Napoleon Solo."

Silence. Then a long sigh of sadness and disgust. "He's two days away from forty," said the voice.

Illya registered a flicker of surprise.

Tuula whispered, "I told you they were plugged in."

"Will you help us?" asked Illya.

The voice on the speaker took on a new timbre, a flash of steel beneath the rust of years. "Damn straight. Me and everyone I can get hold of. You got me on R?"


"Cusack? I know you're listening, you old fart. You never leave your communicator. This is Trimble. You heard Mr. Kuryakin. We all know his reputation. This is for real. Angus, Tony, Raymond, you guys get on the horn. Mr. Kuryakin, what kind of info are you looking for?"

"We need to locate our people as fast as possible in order to launch a rescue operation. We have tried Mr. Solo's communicator. There is no response. Nor did he have time to open a channel. If he had, we would be able to use the signal to locate him. Anything you can add to our information about possible locations where this type of operation might be going on would be a great help. And we need it quickly!"

"Gotcha. We're on it. Hey." He paused.


"Look, uh, I know it's personal, but...er, rumor has it you guys are Third Level. Is that right?"

Illya let out air. What did it matter? Waverly already knew, and any fellow agent who had worked with them had already figured it out. "Yes, Mr. Trimble, that is correct."

"Okay. I'm coming in. Close Channel R."

And Trimble was not the only one. Within twenty minutes, they began checking in. Somber faced, businesslike. Tuula assigned Dennis to set up a hasty team to check their bonafides and pass them on to Mark with their information.

Illya was working very hard to conceal his growing frustration. He prowled the halls, visited the helicopter pad three times, and tried not to scream at his colleagues. Everyone was on edge.

In the information room, Mark was sticking pins in a wall map of New York and surrounding areas for a radius of a hundred miles. It felt like an impossible task.

When Trimble arrived, Tuula called Illya downstairs to meet the man.

"Mr. Kuryakin?" Trimble was six feet, comfortable looking with the slightest hint of a paunch. He had a full head of hair, gray at the temples. He looked like an ordinary fifty-year-old man, except for the twisted remains of his left ear and the stump where his left wrist should have been. He held out his right hand.

"Call me Illya." They shook hands as the information in the file Dennis had given him coalesced with the image of the man. Trimble lost his hand and his ear and nearly his life while removing a small explosive device from the vicinity of Waverly's car back in 1957.

Trimble said solemnly, "Solo was still wet-behind-the-ears when this happened." He lifted the stump. "They gave me a hook, but that just scares little kids."

"Thank you for coming," said Illya.

Trimble cleared his throat. "Yeah, well. Once an agent, and all that crap." He looked away and cleared his throat again. He saw the wall map. "That your info so far?"

Mark said, "Yes. Can you add to it? The red pins are possible locations from our usual sources. The yellow pins are contributions from our retired agents." There were almost as many yellows as reds, which did not really help much since most of them were indicating the same locations as the red ones.

Trimble thumped the map with an index finger. "You need a pin here."

Mark examined the area. "Isn't that a school?"

"Yeah. An old high school. Big campus. Big fire about four years ago. I drive by there every day."

Tuula frowned. "Don't you think that's a little public for a Thrush activity?"

"I taught there," said Trimble. "I may be retired from U.N.C.L.E., but I'm too young to put out to pasture. I teach high school math and science. That school is scheduled for demolition, but they keep postponing it. The trees are thick around it, the campus is big, football field, parking lots, and so on. It's all locked up, but we all know that doesn't mean squat to Thrush or anyone else with chain cutters and a few bucks to buy replacement locks. It's not all that visible from the road, but like I said, I used to work there. And my U.N.C.L.E. training makes me suspicious of vehicles and other activity. Over the last few days, someone has been in and out of there several times. I called the District to see if demolition had been moved up, or if they had inspectors on site, but no. Nothing. I left it at that until I got your call. Something is up there, and it's only forty-five minutes from here by car. I know you have to go through channels, but give me a couple of my fellow retirees and we'll go check it out."

Illya barely let him finish his sentence. "We'll go with you. Tuula, bring people in your chopper. Trimble is going with us."

"You going in by air in broad daylight?" asked Trimble.

Illya tapped his watch with enough vigor to rattle the glass. "They've had them for three hours. Do you remember what they can do to people in three hours?"

Trimble's voice was hard. "I remember. Let's go."

Something in Kuryakin's voice made Waverly open his eyes. "Why, that clever little Russian! What do you think, Klaus? Has he got a crystal ball? He guessed at Channel R and hit it on the head."

A few moments later, Waverly listened to the broadcast on Channel R at the same time as he watched his agents conduct the conversation via the security monitor.

"Trimble," muttered Waverly. "There's a name I haven't thought of in years. Poor man. He was a bloody mess after that explosion. Saved my life that day. Glad to hear he's still around."

By the time the retirees began to trickle into U.N.C.L.E., Waverly had made a decision. He sat forward now, watching intently as Trimble reported on the status of the condemned high school to Slate and the others. He glanced at his watch. Time to get back. But first, a phone call.

"Lisa? Get me Mr. Candotti again, please.... Thank you."

Fifteen minutes later, the walk back to his office did not feel like a chore at all. His decision was made. He knew what he was going to do, and that filled him with energy.

As the helicopters took off, Illya pulled inward. The noise of the rotors made normal conversation impossible, and he had no desire to engage in personal topics over a radio headset. Misha and Avery sat in the pilot and co-pilot seats. Trimble and six Section Two people occupied jump seats, as did Illya. Everyone was armed, and at their feet lay an organized pile of tools, weapons, and close-proximity explosives. At last they were in the air. Illya finally felt like he was doing something, and yet he could do nothing until they reached the old high school.

And what if Solo wasn't there? What then?

He forced himself not to think about it. Either way, he would know in about fifteen minutes. He turned his face away from the others and let his mind wander.

"You're not relaxing," said Napoleon.

Illya shrugged apologetically. Napoleon's arms penned him in, his back against the wall. Solo's face was an inch away from his own. He could feel Solo's breath, smell the garlic from his dinner. He could feel his erection, as well, pressed against his thigh when Solo leaned against him with his lower body.

"You're not in the mood," said Solo, disappointed.

"We are on assignment," countered Illya uncomfortably. "I am supposed to speak English when we are working. I can't make love in English." It was a lame excuse-- after all, they often enjoyed each other without uttering a coherent word in any language --but he felt he had to say something.

Napoleon slumped. He sighed loudly and pressed his forehead against Illya's.

"I'm sorry," said the Russian.

Solo nodded his understanding, but he couldn't speak. He didn't dare. His disappointment would make his voice caustic and sharp. He tried to move away, but groaned loudly and shifted a foot to the left, still leaning against the wall.

Illya slipped away and paced nervously to and fro. The hotel room was like a hundred they had been in before on one mission or another. No personality. Just a place to sleep between stake-outs or shoot-outs.

"You don't need it like I do." Napoleon formed it as a question but it came out an accusation.

Illya flinched and crossed his arms defensively. "No, I guess not," he lied.

Napoleon managed to straighten up and turn around. He leaned his back against the wall and rubbed his face with both hands.

"Did we make a mistake?" he asked.

There it was. What Illya had been waiting for. What he had been fearing. His blood pounded in his ears, and in his chest, a terrible ache made his ribs hurt.

"Mozhet bit'." Maybe. He couldn't look Napoleon in the eye. He hugged himself tighter and moved to peer through a crack in the curtains at the dark street below. Anything to hide his face.

Behind him, he heard Solo move into the bathroom. The sound of water running was muted by the closing of the bathroom door. Napoleon was going to take a shower.

Illya slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. The touch of Napoleon's hand startled him.

"Easy, easy," crooned Solo. He brushed the blond bangs away from Illya's forehead. "It's all right." He pressed his lips against Illya's temple, then pulled the Russian into an embrace. "Tell me what's wrong," he whispered.

Illya struggled to regain control. His voice was husky. "Your water is running."

"It's for you." He kissed the other temple. "It's a bath." He kissed the Russian's left eyelid, tasted the salt on his lips. "We don't have to make love every night." He kissed the other eyelid. "I just want you so much."

Illya shrugged. "I feel so out of control."


"I hate that feeling."

Solo smiled. "Me, too."

"But you are not out of control."

Napoleon pulled back and looked a puzzled frown at Illya. "Umm, out of control. An English phrase, right? Meaning, having no control over something?"

Solo's bepuzzled pup face always made Illya want to laugh. Two soft sounds erupted from his chest.

"Yes," he said. "That's the phrase."

Napoleon gestured toward the other wall. "What do you call what happened over there? I watch you walk across the room and I get an instant erection and I want to bang you up against the wallpaper. That sequence of events was not under my control."

"The tub is still running," said Illya.

Napoleon looked triumphant. "You agree, then."

Illya nodded. "You were not in control. The water, please."

Solo took Illya's hand and pulled him along behind on his way to the bathroom. He turned off the faucet. The tiny room was filled with steam.

"It's too hot for you now," said Napoleon. "I'll put some cold in it."

Illya snaked his arms around his partner's ribcage. "It will cool on it's own."

Napoleon raised a brow. "Really?"


"But you weren't--"

Illya looked sheepish. "I thought I was the only one out of control."

Napoleon blinked. Then it dawned on him. Illya was using "out of control" as a euphemism for being in love.

"Ah." A syllable of realization. "I get it."

Illya nodded. His voice was a whisper. "I am a silly romantic Russian, and I was afraid you would lose respect for me."

Napoleon smiled. "Romantic and crazy. My crazy Russian."

"But of course. Don't they go hand in hand?"

Avery's voice crackled over the radio headset and jarred Illya out of his reverie. "Trimble? I know we're close, but you could step up here and point it out."

Trimble unfastened his safety harness and moved forward like he'd been riding in helicopters every day of his life. Once an agent, always an agent.

"Down there, to the right. See the old football field?"

"Hoo, daddy, you was right about them trees. It's practically a jungle down there."

Misha's Russian hit Illya's ears like an old song from home. "I see the bumper of a vehicle glinting in the sun. A van, I think. It's covered by a tarp but the bumper is showing."

"I see it," said Avery in English, for Trimble's benefit. "Trimble? See the bumper?"

"Yes. No one would spot that vehicle from the road. They had to park it on grass back there. It was deliberately hidden. Not official."

"I agree," drawled Avery.

Illya's instinct was to go down fast and hit hard, but his training told him that would be a disaster. "Avery, we must fly past the school and find somewhere else to land. If we land now, at the school, Thrush will hear us coming and shoot our people before they run."

"Makes sense to me," said Avery. He addressed their colleagues in the companion chopper. "Tuula? You hear that? We're doing a fly-by. Let'em think we're National Guard or something."

"We copy," said Tuula. "Dennis will follow you anywhere. Find us a spot to set down."

"Okay, Mr. Trimble," said Avery, "you know the area. Where else can we land?"

"Head north. Just a few blocks. There. See it? That park with the baseball field? This time of day, no one's using it."

Illya swore under his breath. "Seven blocks away in broad daylight. We'll have to take only the weapons we can carry."

"And conceal," added Trimble. "People in this neighborhood would call the cops in a heartbeat if they see you guys running down the street armed to the teeth."

"Perhaps we will not have to run," said Illya as the choppers approached the baseball field. He pointed toward the parking lot. A lone station wagon was parked by the field. A hundred yards away, a woman sat reading as three young children played on the swings and the jungle gym. The kids looked like brightly colored plush toys from the air, bundled in their little jackets against the November chill. The sound of the choppers drew the woman's gaze skyward for a moment, but the children were very small and she showed no inclination to leave them just to satisfy her curiosity. "Her view of the car is blocked by vegetation on the ground. Five of us and as many weapons as we can load into the back can go by car. Me, Avery, Misha, Trimble and Dennis. Tuula, you head up the second party. You must travel by foot or steal another car."

Tuula's voice crackled over the radio. "Will do." As she spoke, both helicopters settled gently to the ground.

"All right, cowboys," said Avery. "Let's get this rodeo started."

Misha showed great skill at breaking into the car and starting the engine. In less than a minute, the initial party had transferred from helicopters to stolen station wagon and were heading for the condemned buildings of the old high school.

No one spoke during the brief journey except Trimble's "Turn here" and "Pull up next to the charred office." Once they stopped, he said, "For what it's worth, there are 38 classrooms in the building. There used to be a library in the basement. Sixteen classrooms and three administration offices on the first floor, nineteen classrooms on the second floor. At the south end, where we saw the bumper of the van, that's the gymnasium."

Illya nodded, eager to get moving. "Good. You will show us how to get in the building, then wait here for the second group and show them."

Trimble started to object, then realized that Illya hadn't told him he couldn't join the party. He just wanted him to wait for the others. "Will do," he said.

Illya said, "Dennis, give Mr. Trimble an U.N.C.L.E. special. All right. Let's go."

Trimble led them around the back of the burned administration office to a set of stairs that led up to double doors. They were padlocked and chained shut.

Avery cradled the chains and lock in his hands while Misha used the bolt cutters. Without so much as a clink, Avery set the useless lock and chain on the step. Dennis opened one of the double doors. An old stench of charred wood and linoleum greeted them. It was actually colder inside the building than out.

Illya and Avery took turns clearing corners and checking the rooms they passed through the little windows in the doors. It was going to take time to check them all. They came to the first stairwell. The walls were black with soot but the steps were concrete. Illya motioned to Avery and Misha to keep checking the downstairs rooms. Then he waved Dennis to follow him up the stairs.

When they got to the top of the stairwell, they flattened themselves against the wall and listened. Illya fancied that he could hear footsteps and muffled whispers, but he could also hear his heart thumping, so it might have been his imagination. Nonetheless, he tapped Dennis on the arm and pointed to his ear and asked the question with his face.

Dennis closed his eyes and held his breath. After a couple of seconds, he opened his eyes and nodded yes. He heard something, too. They could see quite a ways down the right-hand corridor, but the longest part of the building was to their left and the only way to check that hall was to show themselves around the wall.

Illya motioned that he would go first, low around the corner. He took a moment to center himself and focus, then he dropped to a crouch, extended his neck just far enough to peek down the left corridor, then pulled back. He squatted there for a second, a puzzled look on his face. Dennis mouthed, "What?" Then Illya relaxed, fought back a smile, and stood up. He stepped out into the hallway as if nothing were wrong.

"I see that my concern for your safety was unnecessary."

Napoleon Solo dropped the muzzle of his automatic and grinned from ear to ear. "Oh, I wouldn't say that."

At the sound of his voice, a slightly bewildered looking quartet of rookies emerged from rooms on either side, and Dennis emerged from the stairwell. "Thank God," muttered Dennis.

Illya and Napoleon locked gazes. Illya walked up to him and extended a hand. They shook, warm and hard. "You impatient Americans can never wait for back-up," said Illya, letting his eyes express the feelings he did not want to voice in front of the rookies. "I trust that our adversaries are incapacitated?"

"You could say that," said Napoleon. His clothes were askew, as if he had dressed hastily. His feet were bare.

Dennis ran down the stairs and called to the others. Footsteps ran in their direction.

Before the rest of the rescue party could emerge from the stairwell, Illya gave Napoleon's hand a final squeeze and said sternly, "Never do this to me again."

Napoleon's features softened, and he replied, "You have my word."

Illya glanced down at Napoleon's feet, then noticed that the others also looked hastily dressed. "I take it the five of you will have an interesting story to tell."

Napoleon nodded. Then he lost color and his knees buckled just as Dennis, Avery and Misha reached the hallway. Illya caught him on the way down and lowered him gently to the floor. Napoleon leaned on his left hand and offered his weapon to one of the rookies. His bravado was gone, his voice was rough. "Illya, I'd like you to meet the next generation. This is Willie Chan. Randy Butterworth. Jose Castillo. And Yoshi Tamaguchi."

Illya nodded to each in turn.

Then Napoleon managed half a smile as he addressed the young agents. "This the Crazy Russian."

Avery was on his communicator. Tuula and her group were already coming in the door of the school with Trimble. "I'm getting our medics over here," said Avery. "Where are the bastards that killed our people?"

Solo tipped his head back a half inch to indicate a room across the hall. He pulled his lips back in a weary smile. His throaty laugh sounded like a growl. "Guess what I want for my birthday."

The rookies exchanged uneasy glances. Tamaguchi spoke up, her respect for Solo evident in every syllable. "Because of him, we are alive. The men who took us were arguing, debating what to do. Their orders did not include us. They wanted to shoot us right away. It was Mr. Solo they were after."

Napoleon shifted his weight and winced.

"Rib?" asked Illya.

He nodded. "Maybe two. They stripped us to keep us docile." He chuckled darkly. "Guess you know how well that worked."

Illya grinned but the sound he made was like a snarl. "Idiots."

Tuula's team came up the stairs with Tuula in the lead. She swept her gaze over the scene and headed straight for Tamaguchi. "Yoshi, are you all right?"

Tamaguchi continued, as if she hadn't heard the question. "He kept us strong. He was like a warrior." She shook her head in wonder. "On the bus, he was just this middle-aged man in a business suit. Then the attack came, and all of a sudden, he was like a dragon breathing fire." She glanced down at Napoleon, then looked away. "So many scars."

Tuula put an arm around her. "Come on over here, Yoshi. Let's have a girly talk." She pulled Yoshi aside.

Misha stepped into the room Solo had indicated, then reappeared and rattled off a short report in Russian.

Avery nodded. "Good. Let'em sleep a while." To Solo, "I assume the tape Misha mentioned was used on you all. Do you have the energy to tell us how the hell you overpowered three goons with machine guns while naked and bound with duct tape?"

Solo wagged a half-hearted finger at Avery. "That will teach you to miss staff meetings." His head lolled back against Illya's shoulder. "Any water?"

Misha blurted something else and headed downstairs.

"He will bring it," said Illya, resisting the urge to wipe his hand across Napoleon's forehead.

Napoleon nodded. Then he murmured, "They pounded on Randy pretty hard. He was headed for the lab, not the field."

Illya looked up at Butterworth. He looked pale, especially around the mouth, and one eye was swollen shut. "Our medics are on their way."

Randy leaned against the wall. The relief of being surrounded by U.N.C.L.E. personnel was hitting each of them, and with the relief, their fa'e7ades of control were slipping away. "Mr. Solo called one of them Favre. He said you were going to do to him what you did to Tourneau. Something about France."

Illya, Avery, and Tuula all chorused, "Bayonne."

Then Illya added, "Nothing would give me more pleasure. Too bad the bastard is unconscious."

Misha appeared with a bottle of water. Napoleon took it and drank tentatively, then gave it to Illya. "There should have been more of us," he said bitterly. "Sending me out alone..." He let it hang for a moment, editing what he was about to say. He started again. "I was their target. Our rookies died because of me."

Chan shook his head. "No, sir. These rookies lived because of you." He looked around at the others. "Yoshi was right. He was like a dragon. They were so afraid of him, they couldn't see straight. They thought they would just overpower the driver and take him, see? Three to one. They didn't know the bus would be carrying the rest of us. They... maybe I'm wrong, but it looked like they panicked and started shooting. And four of our friends died trying to keep them away from Mr. Solo." He ran out of air when he realized what he'd said.

Castillo interjected, "He told us to stand down. As soon as he saw what was happening, as soon as their van cut us off, he headed for the front of the bus. He told us not to interfere, they probably wanted him. But we all knew who he was. If we'd been in the front of the bus instead of the back, we would have done the same thing." He glared at Chan. "It wasn't Mr. Solo's fault."

"I know that," said Chan, his voice rough with feeling. "It's been a tough day, okay?" He swallowed hard. "I haven't seen that much blood since Vietnam."

Illya's eyebrows rose. "What did you do, my friend?" he asked Napoleon.

Before Napoleon could answer, Yoshi said, "Dragon fire."

From his place on the floor, where Dennis Treacle was pressing a cold cloth against his neck, Butterworth said, "That guy Favre was holding Mr. Solo while the big guy, Rudy, was using him as a punching bag. Sick bastards. They were just playing some twisted game, passing the time, getting their kicks." He addressed Kuryakin. "He said it was too bad they didn't kill you both when they blew up your apartment. He said Thrush was going soft. They even made a deal to let you go in Elko last August. Favre was there, too. Then he started making ugly comments about you, sir. Mr. Solo... I thought he was going to pass out. Then all of a sudden he just..." He searched for the word. "Exploded." As soon as he said it, he looked away, as if afraid it might happen again.

Napoleon tried a nonchalant shrug, but it ended in a wince. He cleared his throat. "They really pissed me off."

Illya and the other agents exchanged knowing looks, then covered their smiles. They'd all seen Napoleon lose his temper. They'd all felt the frisson of fear that came with being within inches of that lethal power out of control.

"That reminds me," said Napoleon wearily, "I may have a concussion. I threw my skull into Favre's nose. I was trying to shove his bone into his brain, but he was behind me and my aim was off. He fell hard to the floor, but his heart kept pumping blood all over the place, so I think he lived."

Trimble had stationed himself in the doorway of the room where the Thrush assault team lay on the floor. The sound of approaching vehicles drew him to the windows. A moment later he reappeared to report. "Two ambulances, several cars. Waverly got out of one."

Napoleon was breathing slowly, careful of his ribs, but he pulled himself together and said to Illya, "Help me stand up."

When the Old Man reached the second floor, they were all on their feet.

Waverly didn't say a word. He went to the room where Trimble stood and surveyed the damage from the doorway. Then he turned and asked, "Are they alive?"

Napoleon managed to answer. "I think so, sir. Forgive me for not checking pulses."

Waverly snorted. His eyes swept the rookies. "Nothing life threatening?"

They exchanged glances, then looked to Solo, who said, "We'll live."

Waverly nodded. "Good. Then you won't mind waiting for your aspirin and compresses. Mr. Bates, drag those men out here."

Intrigued, Avery, Misha and Dennis did as instructed. They dragged the three bound Thrush agents into the hall. They were still unconscious, but Waverly didn't seem to care. His expression was hard and cold as he stared down at them. "You did a thorough job on these fellows, Mr. Solo, considering you were supposed to be their prisoner."

Napoleon wondered if the Old Man was going to rake him over the coals in front of everyone for damaging potential informants. That seemed to be the way Waverly worked lately. He wondered how much paperwork he would be saddled with for defending himself and his charges. He wasn't in the mood, but he only had two more days. He could feel Illya next to him, renewing his grip, keeping him upright. Waverly seldom pulled theatrics in the field. It wasn't businesslike. Napoleon wanted to slump to the floor, but he refused to do so in front of Waverly. The urge to mutter "Get on with it" was powerful. He bit it back.

As if he'd heard the thought, Waverly began. "I'll make this brief, Mr. Solo. I'm not in the habit of apologizing to my agents. We sign on to do a job. All of us. And you all do yours with great skill and dedication. My job, however, has been changing over the years, and the demands made of me have affected my treatment of you. I should never have allowed it. So I apologize to you, Mr. Solo, for sending you out alone. The responsibility for this mess lies with me, and I will not soon forget it. My next painful apologies will be to the families of the young people we lost today.

"As for these murdering cutthroats..." He waved a hand at the trio of battered assassins. "Our charter prevents us from executing them out of hand, especially with so many witnesses present. I just wanted you all to know that I have arranged for a special reunion for them. I have spent some time on the radio during my journey here. Once we leave, a group of envoys from Mr. Candotti's office will arrive to deliver them for judgment. You see, Mr. Candotti's hands are not bound by the same rules as mine. And I've made it clear to him that I expect to see a certain amount of evidence with regard to his treatment of these three."

Yoshi frowned in confusion. "You mean you're letting them go?" She looked horrified.

Napoleon laughed. It was the first sound he'd made in a long while that resembled his old self. "No, Yoshi. He's not letting them go."

Illya smiled darkly. "If U.N.C.L.E. detains them, they will go into the justice system. They will be supplied with lawyers and due process. But if Candotti gets them..."

Avery nodded. "Frontier justice, I expect. Make trouble for the big boss, and the big boss makes trouble for you."

Illya patted Napoleon's shoulder. "Happy birthday."

Waverly waved the medics forward. "Mr. Solo needs attention," he said gruffly. "Take him home to our clinic. Take them all home. U.N.C.L.E. takes care of its own."

"Are you awake?" Illya stood at the door to Napoleon's room in the cozy security of U.N.C.L.E.'s in-house clinic.

Napoleon smiled. "Good news. No concussion. Bad news. I didn't hit the guy hard enough."

"Have you been inundated with well-wishers?"

"As a matter of fact, I have. A non-stop stream of people. Even Mandy from Translation came by."

"How are the ribs."

"Cracked, not broken, thank God. What time is it?"

"Nine p.m."

"Oh, no. Don't tell me I have to stay the night?"

Illya spread his arms. "You wish to leave the bosom of your dearest Uncle?"

"I'm hungry," grumbled Napoleon, "and I need to get some sleep."

Illya looked impish. "As for sleep, I am not leaving either. When the lights go out, I am locking that door and putting on the 'Do not disturb' sign. As for hungry..." He clapped his hands with a flourish.

Dennis and Tuula appeared at the door.

"Pizza," said Dennis.

"And chicken," said Tuula, handing Napoleon a large white take-out bag.

He unfolded it and inhaled deeply. "And fries, oh, my." He looked up. "What, no beer?"

Illya wagged a finger. "They gave you pain meds, they told me. No beer."

Napoleon sighed as deeply as his ribs would allow and relaxed against his pillows. "I guess there's nothing like going out with a bang," he said quietly. "I just wish..."

Illya nodded. "I know. Come on, you'll feel better after you eat something."

Tuula and Dennis retrieved chairs from the outer room. Their meal was pleasant but subdued. Considering the events of the day, too much good humor felt wrong.

"Oh, say, one of my visitors was a retired agent name Trimble."

"Yes," said Illya. "He told us where to find you."

"He seemed surprised that I remembered him," said Napoleon. "Isn't that funny? How could I forget him? I was there when that bomb exploded and took his hand." He used a paper napkin to wipe his fingers. "Fifteen years ago. Wow. He said you guys stole a car to get to me. How did Waverly take that?"

Illya cleared his throat. Tuula and Dennis feigned nonchalance.

Napoleon waited.

At last Illya said, "Do not expect a gold watch on the occasion of your retirement. It seems that U.N.C.L.E. is using the money to make reparations to the lady whose car we stole."

They ate in companionable silence for a long time, each one just happy to be in the same room.

By nine-thirty the food was gone. Napoleon was looking weary.

"Well," said Tuula, "I guess we'd better go, Dennis." She looked meaningfully first at Illya, then Napoleon. "Are we on for this weekend? Avery and Misha said they're supposed to be in town. Mark and April, ditto."

Dennis held up a finger. "Question? I know you guys have talked this all through and I think it's a great plan. But if Illya is going to marry someone to stay in the country, why not Napoleon's sister?"

Tuula patted him on the head. "Because she's a nun?"

Illya glanced at Napoleon, who nodded his go-ahead. "Because she's a civilian, Dennis. And a nun. That can be a problem when contemplating marriage. But anyone connected with us might be a target in the future, and we prefer that our targets are capable of defending themselves."

"Besides," said Napoleon, "Illya says Tuula will bear strong children."

Tuula's chin dropped to her chest.

Napoleon laughed out loud, then instantly regretted it. "Ouch, ouch, ouch."

Tuula recovered. "I already have Percy and Ruby, the papillon children, and that's enough," she said. "All right, then, we'll assume we are on for the weekend?"

"Funerals," said Dennis.

All three said, "Oh."

"Wednesday," said Napoleon. "We'll do it Wednesday."

"On your birthday?" asked Tuula.

Napoleon glanced at Illya. "Better sooner than later. Today was a reminder that we never know what's going to happen."

"That's for sure," said Tuula. "And after Illya's tirade in Waverly's office this morning, lord only knows how long before he's deported."

Illya glared at her.

"Even more reason not to wait," said Napoleon. "And peace of mind is a great birthday gift."


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