It was a beautiful evening in Hong Kong. The temperature had not yet become as sweltering as it would be even a month from now. The skies were clear of the clouds that would soon bring the monsoon rains, and the lights of the city reflected brightly in the waters of Hong Kong harbor.
The head of U.N.C.L.E. HK leaned against a railing at the Star Ferry dock and looked appreciatively at the city spread out before him. Richard Yuen may have been born on Lamma Island and educated in Britain, but Hong Kong was his city and he loved all of it, from its shining new office towers to its seamy back alleys.
He was grateful that his informant had chosen this location to meet. He got out little enough these days; the demands of his job seemed to tie him more and more to his desk. It was also invigorating to get out with not a single eager young U.N.C.L.E. agent following him for ‘protection.’ That was another of the problems with being a station head: your people were always trying to protect you, never mind that you had spent the last thirty years looking after yourself.
But tonight he had insisted on going out unaccompanied. His Chief Enforcement Agent had nearly had a stroke. Yuen had gotten his own way when he pointed out that not only would this informant only meet with him, but that he would be a mere two blocks from U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in Central and surrounded by the crowds of commuters taking the Star Ferry from the island across the harbor to Kowloon.
Feeling relaxed, Yuen watched the people flow around him, businessmen carrying briefcases and secretaries wearing brightly colored silk cheungsams. And none of them had the slightest inkling of the secret world that shared the same air with them.
Yuen checked his watch. Five minutes to go. His contact had never in their long acquaintance been late, nor failed to provide useful information. Nor had he agreed to meet with any other agent, even when Yuen had been promoted to the top job in HK. Not that Yuen had tried too hard to change his mind. It was nice to be out in the field, even if he was only a stone’s throw from the office. It gave him the opportunity to pretend he was just another field agent, and not the one making life and death decisions that affected nearly a hundred people.
One minute before the assigned time, he saw a familiar face heading his way, but it was not the one he was expecting. The man approached him purposefully. Obviously their meeting was no accident.
“What’s wrong?” Yuen asked when the man was within earshot. All of his subordinates knew enough to stay away from this rendezvous unless something very important arose.
“There’s been an emergency communiqué from New York.” The man stopped and looked at the crowds beginning to build up around them. “Shall we find someplace slightly less out in the open?”
Yuen nodded, and they moved to a corner of the dock, away from the crowds and beyond the earshot of anyone who might wish to overhear their conversation.
When it was clear they were alone, his companion began to fumble in his jacket pockets.
“I have something for you. Now where is it?”
Yuen flicked his eyes to the right, just for a moment, to confirm they weren’t being observed. And that must have been how he missed it.
There was a sharp pain in his side. He looked down to see the hilt of a dagger protruding from his side, with the other man’s hand upon it.
At first, he was too stunned to do anything but stare stupidly the dagger. He felt a firm hand on his arm, keeping him on his feet as his knees began to buckle beneath him.
The shock lifted and he tried to shout for help and found that he couldn’t. He looked up in confusion.
“The blade is tipped in curare. I’m afraid you can’t speak.” The man looked at him with the curiosity of a predator examining its prey. “In fact, I’m afraid you don’t have long at all.”
Yuen focused on his anger and tried to move, to reach the communicator in his pocket. He might not be able to speak but he still might be able to trip the homing device. Unfortunately, the man anticipated his move. He retrieved the device, and placed it in his own pocket.
“We can’t have our office staging any last minute rescues, now, can we?”
Yuen could feel the neural toxin spreading through his body, shutting his systems down one by one.
“Why?” he mouthed.
Even though he couldn’t make a sound, the other man understood him. He smiled broadly before he answered. “Because you are in the way.” He released his hold and Yuen felt himself slide to the floor.
“Could someone help me,” his killer shouted. “My friend is ill.”
Don’t believe him, Yuen wanted to scream. He’s betrayed me, murdered me. But the poison that was even now taking his life prevented him from making a sound. He could only watch helplessly as the man winked at him, then disappeared into the crowds that were gathering around them.
A woman screamed as she noticed the knife in his side, but it was too late.
Too late for everything.
The Central Market in Riga was one of the liveliest places in the city. The four halls, which had held German zeppelins during the First World War, were now where the residents of Riga came to purchase just about everything. Here, farmers selling homemade sausages or even whole cows vied with grandmothers selling kittens. Pomegranates from the far corners of the Union could be found next to potatoes from outside Sigulda. In the market, you found yourself surrounded by a swirl of humanity, Latvian and Russian, young and old, and all too preoccupied by their own concerns to notice a lone KGB agent lurking in their midst.
Vassili Rodchenko preferred it that way.
He dug his hands into his pockets and tried his best to blend in with the shoppers as he waited for his contact. It was a simple meet, an exchange of information, but nothing about it was ordinary. Instead of one of the countless lower level couriers spread throughout the Baltic, Vassili was here to meet one very special agent.
Nataliya Antonenko was only forty-six, but she was highly placed and respected in the KGB. A veteran of the Great Patriotic War, she had managed to survive the killing grounds of Stalingrad and had risen steadily through the ranks of various Soviet intelligence organizations. She was tough, but with a strong ethical sense that even years of working in the shadowy world of espionage hadn’t been able to blunt.
To Vassili, she was a trusted friend and mentor. It was she who had been his protector when he had helped Illya Kuryakin escape from Lubyanka last fall. And now she had asked for his help. Called him to this city to collect, well, something and take ... somewhere.
Nataliya couldn’t have been more vague if she’d tried. He had no idea what the package was, what it contained, or to whom he was expected to deliver it. All he did know was that Comrade Antonenko considered it important. That was enough.
He shifted from one foot to another and sucked on his teeth as he looked around for the fiftieth time. He was hoping to spot Nataliya’s confident form striding through the stalls, but all he could see were people engaged in the everyday task of buying food.
He glared at his watch. Ten minutes late. He felt more adrenaline pump into his system and tried to calm his anxiety. There must be an ordinary, non-sinister explanation for her delay. A missed train, a traffic jam. Except that Nataliya Antonenko had not been late for an appointment in the nearly twenty years Vassili had known her, had insisted that those working for her not be late either. Lives depended on it, she would assert. And yet she was late now.
Vassili pulled the brim of his hat firmly over his face and examined the crowd. Ten more minutes. Ten more minutes and he would leave, set up an alternate meet. He clenched the hands in his pockets into fists and schooled his features into an impassive mask.
Nine minutes later, she appeared. Nataliya Antonenko was a trim woman of medium height, gray just beginning to show in her hair. Vassili stilled his impulse to wave at her and let her come to him.
She approached with her usual economy of motion, no energy wasted. He balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to greet her, all the while watching the surrounding crowd for signs of too much interest. And somehow, in spite of years of training and even more experience, he missed it.
One moment, Nataliya was walking purposefully in his direction, the next, someone had stumbled against her, leaving her standing stock still, holding her side, an expression of surprise spreading across her face. What he played it over in his mind later, Vassili thought he might have seen a flash of metal, but he would never be sure. And he would never be able to remember the face of the assassin.
Even after Nataliya had stopped, he still wasn’t aware of a problem until she looked straight at him and fell, her knees buckling under her.
He acted without thinking, running to her side.
“Nataliya,” he said, trying to staunch the flow of blood that ran from between her fingers. In the back of his mind, he noted the ripple of alarm that traveled through the crowd, but all his conscious attention was on the woman in his arms. “Stay quiet and I’ll get help.”
She tried to push him away with her free hand.
“No,” she insisted through graying lips. “Too late for me.”
“Shut up.” She clenched her jaw around her pain before continuing. “No time.”
Swallowing his concern for a friend, he followed the order of his superior.
“Pick up package at drop on Elizabetes Iela. Take it to New York.”
“Use Kuryakin. Deliver it to Waverly.”
“To U.N.C.L.E.?” None of this was making any sense.
“Promise me. Only to Waverly.”
“I promise.” He tried to take hold of her hand. “Now let me get you to a hospital.”
“No.” She fended him off with a weakening hand, and convulsed in pain at the effort. “Not safe. Traitors everywhere.”
“I won’t leave you,” he insisted.
Then she did something that he didn’t expect. She grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him towards her with all of her remaining strength. She held his gaze with her green, pain-filled eyes and said one word.
It was the one word he had never expected to hear from her lips. Nataliya Antonenko had never run from a fight in her life, not from the Nazis, not from the Western agents she occasionally sparred with, and certainly not from political enemies in her own country. But he could see knowledge in her eyes, not only of her own death but also of his, if he stayed in this place and tried to protect her.
So he ran. He swallowed the shame and ran and didn’t stop until he knew he hadn’t been followed, knew he was safe.
He would run until he reached New York, until he had delivered the cursed package and fulfilled his duty to the woman who lay bleeding her life away behind him. He would do what Nataliya had asked. Then he would return and find the people responsible for her death.
And he would kill them.
Anyone who knew Illya Kuryakin knew that he could be quite reserved. Some might call him more than that. Reticent, aloof, standoffish, remote, withdrawn and cold were all words that had been applied to the man numerous times. And most of those times Napoleon Solo had laughed at the descriptions and shared the joke with his partner.
He wasn’t laughing now.
Illya seemed determined to break the world record for silence. From the time they had completed their assignment in Los Angeles he hadn’t said a word. Except, of course for the pointed looks that he directed at Napoleon every so often. Those looks spoke volumes. And they weren’t very flattering volumes, either.
Napoleon had at first tried to jolly Illya out of his mood. When that course had produced nothing except several non-verbal, but quite eloquent, death threats, Napoleon had decided that silence was the better part of valor and that Illya could emerge from his sulk in his own time. And ten hours later, he still hadn’t.
As their taxi pulled up in front of their apartment building, Napoleon wasn’t entirely sure if he should heave a sigh of relief or prepare for a battle.
He noticed the wince Illya gave as he exited the cab, and made certain that he was the one who got both of their bags from the trunk. He earned another black look for his trouble, but better that than have his own lack of consideration for his partner thrown back at him later.
They climbed the stairs to the apartment slowly, Napoleon weighed down by their luggage and Illya by his own internal baggage. Illya opened the door and immediately headed towards the bedroom at the back. Napoleon put down the bags and reset their alarms before following his partner.
He found Illya in the midst of throwing his jacket on the bed and gingerly easing his tie from around his neck.
Napoleon was chewing on his lip, trying to think of something to say, when Illya chose to break his self-imposed vow of silence.
“If anyone ever says the words ‘Venice Beach’ and ‘stakeout’ to me again in the same sentence, I shall wring his or her neck.”
The much-anticipated storm had broken. Now, it only had to be ridden out. No longer worried about saving his partner’s feelings, Napoleon decided to wade into the waves and let them do their worst.
“I think Mr. Waverly was trying to give us an easy assignment, for a change.”
“Easy!” Illya exploded. “I question your definition of the word ‘easy,’ Napoleon.” Illya unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off to reveal a torso that was almost precisely the same red as a nicely cooked lobster.
“Playing lifeguard on a California beach isn’t exactly a hardship, Illya.”
“Then why didn’t you volunteer to ‘play lifeguard?’” There was no mistaking the aggravation in Illya’s voice.
Napoleon coughed before answering, weighing his response carefully before returning with the truth.
“You’re a better swimmer than I am. Being ex-Navy, and all.”
“Ex-Soviet Navy, Napoleon. Soviet, not Californian. My complexion is used to northern climates, not the wretched Californian sun. I’m burnt to a crisp.”
Napoleon reached out and brushed a fleck of peeling skin from Illya’s shoulder.
“I, uh, see your point.”
He earned another glare for that comment.
Illya twisted uncomfortably.
“I swear I still have sand in places sand should never go.” He sat on the bed and pulled off a sock and stared unhappily as a small trickle of sand did indeed fall from his foot.
Napoleon successfully kept a smile from his face, only too aware of his fate if Illya should think he was being mocked.
But somehow Illya knew. He always knew. And this time he turned on his partner.
“And what did you get to do all day? Stroll around — fully clothed, I might add — drinking the occasional cocktail and asking a few questions. While I had to fend off hordes of teenage girls.”
“There’s nothing wrong with teenage girls, Illya.”
“They giggle,” Illya said, in the sort of horrified voice generally reserved for descriptions of unspeakable terror. He pulled off his other sock before continuing. “And they kept pretending they were drowning so that I’d go and rescue them. It was horrible.”
Napoleon would have sworn that Illya actually shuddered, if he hadn’t known that such an action was beyond his partner.
“You’re an U.N.C.L.E. agent, Illya. You can defend yourself against any Californian high school girl.” Napoleon knew he was taking his life in his hands, but he couldn’t resist. If Illya didn’t want to be made fun of, he’d have to stop looking so adorable while kvetching.
“Mock me, Napoleon, but next time you get to be the lifeguard.”
Illya stood and stepped out of his trousers, shaking more sand from them, before pulling on a white T-shirt and pair of old jeans. He made such a striking figure, in spite of, or maybe because of the sunburnt nose, that Napoleon found him more irresistible than usual. He tousled the blond hair and planted a kiss on the pouting lips.
“Play your cards right, tovarisch, and I’ll put Noxzema on your sunburn.”
Illya tried his hardest to maintain his glower, but it was obvious that his mood was already turning. A half smile played across his lips as he answered.
“Play your cards right, cara mio, and you’ll get to do more than that.” He turned and padded his way down the hall to the bathroom.
Loosening his own tie, Napoleon lay back on the bed and thought of all the things he could do with his newly tractable partner. Even with the sunburn, he was anticipating a very enjoyable evening.
The shower had stopped, and Napoleon had changed into a pair of khakis and a short sleeved shirt, when there was a knock at their door.
Napoleon froze. When you were an agent for the Command, unexpected knocks at the door were more likely to be an enemy agent with mayhem in mind than a neighbor wanting to borrow a cup of sugar.
He was already pulling his gun from his holster when Illya appeared in the hall, his clothes thrown on, his hair still damp from the shower and in disarray. Illya shot him a questioning look, which he could only answer with a shrug. Illya gave him an exasperated look, and moved to the bedroom to retrieve his own weapon.
Napoleon positioned himself to one side of the door and chambered a round in his gun. Illya joined him and stood to the other side of the door and nodded. They were ready.
Whoever was on the other side of the door choose that moment to knock again, a little more urgently this time. Definitely not a neighbor looking for sugar.
“Who is it?” Napoleon asked, tightening his grip on his gun.
“Napoleon?” Their visitor’s voice was male and had a definite accent. “Napoleon, I need to see Illya.”
Napoleon looked to his partner, whose face bore a look of surprise. In response to his unasked question, Illya mouthed a single name. Vassili.
Napoleon raised his eyebrows as he nodded his understanding. Vassili Rodchenko was a friend of Illya’s from his days in the KGB. He’d met the Russian when Vassili had helped them escape from Lubyanka last fall. But what was he doing in New York?
They both braced themselves, and at Illya’s nod, Napoleon threw open the door. Two guns pointed directly in the face of Vassili Rodchenko.
For a man who was looking directly into two gun barrels, Rodchenko looked remarkably composed, though Napoleon could see signs of strain in the man. His eyes were underlined by the deep bruising of too little sleep and there were lines on his face that Napoleon did not remember from a year ago. This was clearly not a social visit.
“Napo—” Vassili began, before Illya cut him off with a glance. In silence, Napoleon checked the apartment corridor for any other visitors, friendly or not, while Illya patted down his friend. Napoleon found nothing; Illya found only a Stechkin in a shoulder holster. Illya slipped the gun into the back of his waistband and they both hustled Vassili into their apartment. While Illya established Vassili on the couch, Napoleon took extra care in resetting their locks.
Illya didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
“Vassili, what are you doing here?”
“I have a favor to ask.”
“And that is?” No matter how old the friend, Illya was still enough of a pragmatist never to promise something he couldn’t deliver.
“I need to meet with your Mr. Waverly.”
Napoleon gave a low whistle as Illya shot a significant look his way. You had to hand to it Vassili: he didn’t skimp on the favors he asked for. But then again, they did owe him both their lives.
“I can only tell Mr. Waverly that.”
Napoleon finally spoke.
“You have to know that we can’t allow that. We at least have to know the topic of the meeting.”
“I can tell you that it involves the security of both our organizations. And that it might explain some of what has gone on in my country the last two years.”
“We need more than that before we can take you to Mr. Waverly,” Napoleon said.
Vassili sat silently, his hands clasped in his lap, his lips pressed into a tight line. Illya gave him a full minute, then he sat beside his friend and put a hand lightly on his shoulder.
“We have to protect Waverly, Vasha. Even our friendship must come second to that.”
Vassili looked closely at his friend, then let out a deep breath, his decision made.
“I cannot tell you everything, moy droog. The secret is not mine alone. But I can tell you that it concerns several suspicious deaths in the KGB.” He looked over to Napoleon, as if willing him to believe the story. “We now have some evidence that the deaths were assassinations. And that the assassinations are the work of an organization that has been a thorn in the side of both our countries.”
“Thrush,” Napoleon said.
“Bozhe moy,” Illya whispered.
“Will you help me?”
Napoleon traded a wordless communication with his partner. He knew what the outcome would be before they were done.
“Yes,” Illya said.
“Yes,” Napoleon repeated.
“Spasiba,” Vassili said. He closed his eyes and the tension suddenly bled out of his spine. Instead of looking relaxed, though, he merely seemed tired and old.
Looking at Vassili, Napoleon wished that he could somehow still believe in the God of his boyhood. He had the distinct impression that things were about to take a definite turn for the worse, and it would have been comforting to believe in a caring deity. Instead, he was left with his certainty of an uncaring universe with no possibility of divine intervention.
He felt Illya’s hand on his shoulder and immediately felt his mood lighten ever so slightly. If he could no longer believe in God, at least he could believe in his partner.
He took a deep breath and began to think about what they were going to tell Waverly.
He had faced capture, torture and threat of death with equal aplomb. The only thing that could normally disturb him was a threat to his partner, and even then he could generally suppress his emotion until the job was done.
But this time, Illya Kuryakin was truly disturbed. Having an old friend appear on a mysterious mission that somehow concerned the head of U.N.C.L.E. in North America was not an everyday occurrence by any means, even for an Enforcement agent.
Napoleon appeared to be lost in his own thoughts, so Illya decided to see to their guest. All agents, no matter their nation, were trained to deal with their physical needs when they could, a lesson Illya had always taken to heart. He now applied it to his friend.
“Vassili, have you eaten recently?”
As expected, Vassili shook his head, though he seemed reluctant to admit to such a weakness.
“Come into the kitchen. We’ve just returned from a mission ourselves, but there must be something in the cupboards.”
The fridge only contained half a carton of sour milk, which Illya promptly disposed of, and two shriveled carrots. There were, however, several cans of soup in the pantry. (Said cans were there in spite of Napoleon’s objections. Ever a gastronomic purist, he considered soup in a can to be an abomination, however convenient it was.) Illya prepared some chicken noodle soup and then installed his friend in the breakfast nook. After starting the kettle boiling for tea and ensuring that Vassili’s immediate needs were satisfied, he rejoined Napoleon in the living room.
He found Napoleon sitting on the couch, head in his hands, a cross look on his face.
“So, my friend, have you had any great revelations?”
Napoleon started, as if he had forgotten there were any other living creatures in the apartment, but recovered quickly. He drew a hand across his face before shaking his head.
“No, I’m afraid not. We’re just going to have to call Waverly and wing it.”
“That will make a nice change,” Illya replied acidly.
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, cara mio.”
Illya merely shot Napoleon a look that conveyed affection and exasperation in equal measure. Napoleon chose to ignore the look and pulled his communicator out of his breast pocket.
“Open Channel D. Mr. Waverly.”
There was a brief pause, then they heard the unmistakable tones of Alexander Waverly.
“Mr. Solo, I thought you and Mr. Kuryakin were off duty.”
“Ah, so did we, sir. But we’ve had an unexpected visitor who insists that he has a message that can only be delivered to you.”
“Who is this person?” Illya wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but Waverly didn’t seem altogether surprised.
“Vassili Rodchenko. You remember, he assisted Illya and me in Moscow last year.”
“Of course I remember Mr. Rodchenko.” Waverly said, indignantly. “Do you have any idea what his message concerns.”
“He cannot give us the details, but he did tell us it’s about a possible Thrush plot in the KGB.”
“I see, Mr. Solo.” There was a brief pause as Waverly considered the information he’d been given. The pause seemed to stretch longer and longer. Illya, not used to such delay from his superior, began to grow even more uneasy with each passing second.
Finally, Waverly had an answer.
“I will meet with Mr. Rodchenko. Can you have him here in one hour?”
“We can sir.”
“Fine, Mr. Solo. And one more thing. I don’t want any other U.N.C.L.E. personnel to know about Mr. Rodchenko’s visit, so I’d like you to do something rather unorthodox.”
And then Alexander Waverly did something that Illya Kuryakin had never expected to hear: he gave away the location of the legendary fifth entrance to U.N.C.L.E., the one only Waverly and a select few were meant to know about.
The unease that had been growing in Illya’s heart became a fully-fledged bout of dread.
Whatever was going on, it was very bad indeed.
Alexander Waverly kept a firm hold on his pipe and shut out his surroundings and his companions. He ignored his CEA, frowning as he listened to the tape. He ignored Mr. Kuryakin as he neatly and efficiently translated and transcribed the tape’s contents. He even ignored the young KGB agent — Kuryakin’s friend, Rodchenko — as he sat at the conference table, anxious and concerned.
Instead, he concentrated on listening to the tape that had been delivered to him at such cost. His Russian wasn’t good enough for him to understand everything, but he did pick up key words. Assassin. Traitor. Betrayal. But more than the words, he listened to the voice.
Nataliya Antonenko had not exactly been a friend, but she had been a woman he respected and admired. She had always followed her principles and had even been of assistance to him on occasion. He was certain that it was she who had chosen to send Illya Kuryakin as the Soviet’s contribution to U.N.C.L.E. For that alone, he had reason to thank her.
Her voice on the tape was confident and strong and brought her face up in his memory. He remembered her as she had been during the war: impossibly young and utterly assured of her own ability to succeed. And now that confidence, that vitality, had been extinguished.
The voice finally stopped. Rodchenko turned off the tape recorder with a click as Kuryakin scribbled down one last sentence.
Waverly went to speak and found that his jaw was clenched in place. He eased his muscles and placed his pipe carefully on the conference table in front of him before trying again.
“Well, Mr. Kuryakin. What did Major General Antonenko have to say?”
Kuryakin looked up at him, his face more shadowed with worry now than it had been twenty minutes ago, before they had listened to the tape.
“I’m sure you understood some of it, sir.” He shuffled through the papers in front of him. “Major General Antonenko had found increasing evidence of Thrush infiltration in the KGB. Suspicious deaths, unlikely promotions, possible assassina-tions. She was beginning to build up her case, but had to be wary of the political climate. The suspected Thrush were in high enough positions to make things difficult for her.
“Then, this week she received warning that she was to be the target of the next assassination.”
“And she was correct, Mr. Kuryakin.”
“Apparently.” He had to hand it to Kuryakin: he didn’t betray his feelings. “And that wasn’t all.”
“She had heard that Thrush was also infiltrating U.N.C.L.E. in much the same way. She has provided us with a list of suspected Thrush agents in both the Command and the KGB on a microdot accompanying the tape.”
Waverly replaced the pipe in his mouth with a snap and spent a minute lighting it, as he worked to control his own emotions.
In truth, he wasn’t certain what he felt. Certainly not surprise. For some time he had suspected exactly the same thing as Nataliya Antonenko. Perhaps the sensation that gripped at his guts was dread that his suspicions were being proved correct.
He looked at the young men in this room and considered how far he could trust them and where he could best use them.
He had very specific plans for Solo and Kuryakin. Their loyalty was unquestioned and it was unlikely they had yet been exposed to the conspiracy. They would be fresh faces, for the moment.
Rodchenko, though, was more of a problem. His loyalty, though less a known quantity, seemed to be on the right side. Antonenko had had enough confidence in him to entrust him with her message. And he had risked his career and his life to get Kuryakin out of Lubyanka last year. He was inclined to include Rodchenko in his plans. But not right away.
And first, he had to ensure that their conversation would go no further than this room.
“Gentlemen, before I say anything, I must swear you all to secrecy. You must not share what you are about to hear with anyone who is not in this room. Is that understood?”
Kuryakin and Solo nodded immediately, their obedience, in these circumstances anyway, automatic and complete. Rodchenko’s agreement was anything but automatic.
The KGB agent looked searchingly at Waverly, pain mixing with determination in his eyes.
“Are we going to find the ones who killed her?”
Rodchenko closed his eyes and bowed his head. His chest heaved as he took several deep breaths, and then he looked back up at Waverly.
“Then, I too agree.”
Waverly wasted no time on a preamble.
“Thrush is trying to infiltrate all the major intelligence organizations. Not only the KGB and U.N.C.L.E., but also the CIA and MI6. In fact, the espionage agencies of all NATO and Warsaw Pact countries are in danger of compromise. I’ve been attempting to accumulate evidence about this infiltration for some time, but have only heard whispers, rumors.
“But in the last month, the infiltrators seem to have become somewhat emboldened. There have been no fewer than five assassinations or attempted assassinations of senior intelligence officers in the last month, including the head of the Command’s Hong Kong headquarters. Major General Antonenko makes six.
“The time has come to take the fight to Thrush, gentlemen. I intend to send small teams of trusted individuals to the focal points of Thrush activity so that we can shut this conspiracy down before it proceeds any further.”
Waverly paused and closely examined his audience. Rodchenko looked grimly determined, which was only to be expected. He had, after all, had nearly a week to digest this information. Kuryakin was doing his usual best to hide his reaction, but Waverly thought he could detect unease beneath his controlled exterior. And Solo was looking almost openly discomfited. The signs were subtle, but clear to Waverly. They were all taking him seriously. He was glad about that. Failure to consider the risks would get them all killed, and the consequences were too high for him to allow that to happen.
“Mr. Solo, I am sending you and Mr. Kuryakin to Hong Kong. While there, you will investigate the death of Richard Yuen, the head of Section One in the colony. It seems likely that at least some of the senior conspirators can be found in Hong Kong.
“Mr. Rodchenko, for the moment you will remain in the United States, under the protection of U.N.C.L.E.”
Rodchenko cleared his throat.
“You have a question, Mr. Rodchenko?”
“I want to act. It is not in my nature to sit by and do nothing.”
“You will not be doing nothing, I assure you. And if you act at the wrong time, the only thing you will accomplish is getting yourself killed,” Waverly said, far more sharply than he intended. “Think about it, man. Your own superior wasn’t safe in Latvia. Since you were present at her assassination, it is quite likely you will be targeted next, even if you can’t identify her killer.” Waverly shook his head. “If you’re to be of any use, we must use you carefully. And for now, it suits my purposes to hold you in reserve.”
Rodchenko looked on the verge of making another outburst, which Waverly decided to quell before it could happen.
“Mr. Rodchenko, I assure you that you will have the opportunity to risk your life soon enough. I merely request your patience for a short time.”
At that, Rodchenko acquiesced.
“If that’s settled, we have one other issue to deal with. We need a team to work in Europe. Mr. Solo, as CEA, what team do you trust above all others?”
Solo didn’t hesitate for a second before answering.
“Dancer and Slate.”
Kuryakin nodded in agreement.
“Good. I’ll recall them to New York immediately. The two of you can retrieve them from the airport and brief them. Now we just need a European liaison. Mr. Kuryakin, you worked in our Berlin office. Was there anyone there that you considered beyond reproach?”
Kuryakin took much longer to answer.
“I have not kept in touch with many people from Berlin, but I believe that Ingrid Möller was incorruptible. And I heard that she has just transferred from Section Eight to Section Two.”
“Indeed she has, Mr. Kuryakin. She shows much promise. I will contact her and let her know when to expect Mr. Slate and Miss Dancer.
“In the meantime, I want you to take Mr. Rodchenko to a safe location.” He scribbled an address on a scrap of paper and handed it to Solo. “This safe house should serve.”
Solo read the address and a frown appeared on his face.
“You have a question, Mr. Solo?”
“Well, ah, I don’t recognize this address. It’s not...”
“Not one of our standard safe houses,” Waverly cut off his CEA. “I know, Mr. Solo. It’s a location that only I know about. Any other questions?”
“Good. You will also need to get Mr. Rodchenko a new identity and U.N.C.L.E. identification. And I daresay he will need clothes and the like. I don’t suppose you were able to bring much with you when you fled?”
“No, sir,” Rodchenko answered. “Thank you very much.”
“You shouldn’t be thanking the man who is quite possibly throwing you back to the wolves.” Waverly said harshly. “Now, if you would wait outside, I have one last thing to discuss with Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin.”
Rodchenko nodded and let himself out into the room’s antechamber. Waverly waited until the door shut behind him, then focused his attention on his two best agents.
“Gentlemen, there is one last bit of news I’m afraid I must share with you. Dr. Egret escaped from custody three weeks ago.”
Illya frowned, and rightly so. His last meeting with the doctor had nearly resulted in his death.
Napoleon was louder in his displeasure.
“Why weren’t we informed before this?”
“I’ve only just found out myself, gentlemen. It seems her jailers weren’t informed of U.N.C.L.E.’s interest in the case.”
“Damn,” Napoleon said, before meeting his superior’s gaze. “You think she’s involved in this conspiracy, don’t you?”
“I think it highly likely. And I don’t need to tell you both to be careful. She has exhibited a distinct antipathy for you both.”
“We will, sir.” Waverly wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but he thought that his CEA had moved just a bit closer to Kuryakin.
“Now, get out of here, both of you. I’ll contact you when I know the flight information for Miss Dancer and Mr. Slate.”
Both Kuryakin and Solo bowed without a word and left immediately.
Waverly lit his pipe once more and considered his next move.
The unique part of an agent’s job, April Dancer mused, was that you could be bored silly one minute and fighting for your life the next.
At that moment the whine of a bullet tore over her head. Muttering under her breath, she ducked down further and checked the magazine of her gun. Only four rounds left.
An unfriendly head poked up from the smoked salmon display and she shot in its direction.
Three rounds left.
She looked across the aisle of the Fortnum & Mason’s food hall to where her partner was likewise pinned down.
“Mark,” she whispered as loudly as she could, trying not to warn their adversaries that their quarry was in worse shape than was obvious.
He glanced back at her and mouthed a single word.
In answer, she held up her rapidly emptying magazine.
Mark muttered a word that was definitely not ‘drat,’ — she would really have to mention her son’s appalling language to Mrs. Slate the next time they met — and reached into his jacket. A magazine appeared in his hand and he tossed it to her. She caught it smoothly and snapped it in place.
“You cannot possibly get away,” said a voice with an indeterminately European accent. “We have you surrounded.”
She really wished that Thrush would start giving their minions new scripts. The old ones were getting tiresome.
She cast her eyes around, looking desperately for something they could use to get out of here. Somehow she didn’t think the Thrush soldiers would be afraid of flying tins of Oolong tea and caviar.
Then she noticed that the next aisle over was Wines and Spirits and an idea began to bloom.
She signaled her intention to Mark, tucked her gun into the back of her skirt and began to move. Mark laid sparse covering fire with his decreasing supply of ammunition as she crawled closer to her goal. Grabbing her prize, she maneuvered back to her previous position.
Mark’s eyebrows rose when he saw what she held in her hands, but he nodded his understanding at her plan. As April listened closely to determine their foes’ positions, Mark loaded a full clip into his gun. She spared a final look at her partner and then acted.
One, two, three bottles of Dom Perignon champagne were lobbed over the heads of the Thrush agents. And one, two, three bottles exploded as Mark’s bullets found their targets.
There were screams as exploding shards of glass rained down on the Thrush. April and Mark both rushed their enemies, disarming and disabling them all and rounding them up in a group. The five men looked pathetic, soaked in expensive champagne and bleeding from a multitude of cuts. Personally, April thought it was too good for them.
“Nicely done, my dear, though it does seem a waste of good Dom.”
“Fortnum’s doesn’t carry cheap plonk, Mark.”
“You have a point.”
Mark held their friends at gunpoint while she called London HQ to hurry up the cleanup crew. Said crew arrived mercifully quickly and took custody of the Thrush. A senior London agent stayed behind to smooth things over with both the Met and Fortnum’s. April and Mark hustled out of the store before they had to explain why the store was now short three bottles of Dom Perignon and walked back to their car.
And as quickly as that, they were back at the boring bit of the job.
April knew what lay ahead of them. Endless filling out of forms, discussions with London’s Section One staff about the discharge of firearms within the city limits. And then the interrogation of the prisoners, lower level Thrush operatives who probably didn’t know enough to be worth all the trouble they’d caused.
She sighed deeply and took her place in the passenger seat of the Triumph convertible she and Mark had been assigned by the London carpool. Mark must have blackmail material on the London motor pool, since they always got a better than average car when on assignment here. Either that or he was more than usually friendly that nice young girl in the requisitions office.
Mark gave her a long-suffering look and pulled out into traffic, heading towards Piccadilly Circus.
“Back to Headquarters, then?” he asked.
“I don’t suppose you could be convinced to play hooky.”
“If you mean skiving off, no I couldn’t. We’re meant to be responsible little U.N.C.L.E. agents, April.”
“I don’t want to be responsible, and I really don’t want to fill out any forms.” She sighed again. “I bet they have special forms for Americans who shoot up Fortnum’s.”
Mark tried, and failed, to hide his smile.
“You’re probably right. We can’t let you Yanks get away with destroying British institutions now, can we.”
“Ha ha,” she said. Leaning her head back, she closed her eyes and wished they were back in New York facing something relaxing. Like Mr. Waverly’s wrath.
She was so wrapped up in her own misery that she almost didn’t hear the beep of her communicator. Fortunately, she wasn’t quite that far gone and answered the call, hoping it wasn’t the head of London HQ calling for her head on a platter.
“Miss Dancer, is your partner with you?”
She knew that voice. It was Mr. Waverly.
“Yes, sir. He’s right here.”
“Are you alone?”
The conversation was becoming increasingly odd, but she was never one to question her superior.
“Yes. We’re just on our way back to the London HQ.”
“No you’re not, Miss Dancer. You’re to go straight to Heathrow and board TWA Flight 1602 to New York. The flight leaves in an hour and tickets will be waiting for you at the check-in counter.”
April gave her partner a confused look. He merely shrugged.
“But sir...” Waverly cut her off before she could say another word.
“You will not stop to retrieve your belongings and you will not tell anyone else, especially other U.N.C.L.E. personnel, of your destination. You will leave the car in the Heathrow parking lot. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir.” In fact, she didn’t understand any of it and was dying to ask a thousand questions. However, she recognized the tone of Waverly’s voice and knew that there was no chance he would answer her questions and every chance that he’d yell at her.
“Good. Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin will meet you in New York. Do not make contact with anyone else. Waverly out.”
April was left staring stupidly at her communicator, wondering what had happened. She finally managed to replace the cap on the device and stow it away.
“What was that?” she asked.
“I haven’t the slightest, love.” Mark gave her a quick glance before returning his attention to the road. “Have you been doing anything to annoy the Guv?”
“Nothing that bad.” She paused before speaking again. “Have you ever known anyone to be pulled off a mission before it was completed?”
“Never,” Mark said, shaking his head.
“Me either. In fact, Illya and Napoleon are full of stories about being forced to complete missions when they were completely out of their depth.”
“Illya and Napoleon are never out of their depth,” Mark said in a teasing tone.
“Well, I’m out of my depth, right this moment.” She leaned her head back again, hoping against hope that everything would begin to make sense soon.
“At least Illya and Napoleon will be picking us up. Maybe they can explain what’s going on,” Mark said, his voice full of tentative optimism.
“I certainly hope so, Mark. I certainly hope so.”
It had been a pleasant, if unremarkable spring day in Berlin.
The temperature had been warm and the clouds that had been threatening rain all day had failed to deliver on their promise.
Ingrid Möller had spent the day in U.N.C.L.E.’s Berlin headquarters, finishing up the paperwork from her last assignment. She had welcomed the break, but her partner, François Auteuil, had complained bitterly about being cooped up. She didn’t take his complaints too seriously, especially since he was the one who had been injured their last time out and was now stuck with his arm in a sling. The dislocated shoulder had been painful, but would heal fully in a few weeks. In the meantime, she was happy enough to endure desk duty and François’ grumbling.
François had tried to tempt her into dining out this evening — he was always trying to convince her of the pleasures of the French table and had found a restaurant that even she approved of — but she had decided to stay in and nurse her own bruises with a warm bath and an early night.
All told, her life was following the same patterns as she had come to expect working for the Command’s Berlin office. There was chaos and disorder, but even the disorder had a certain predictability.
This evening, all that was about to change.
She would wonder later if there were any omens that she had missed, signs that her life was about to spin so horribly awry. But if the gods had given her any such warnings, she had missed them completely.
So, she was strolling easily through the streets on her way to her flat, blissfully unaware of the forces gathering around her, when a man she had never seem before approached her, carrying a manila envelope.
Which wouldn’t, by itself, have been that unusual. Berlin was a city full of spies, and on any day, someone was selling information to someone else. What was unusual was that at precisely that moment, her communicator gave its telltale beep.
She froze, unwilling to answer her communicator in front of non-U.N.C.L.E. personnel.
“I think you should get that,” the man said, in serviceable, if imperfect German.
Raising her eyebrows, she did just that.
“Ah, Miss Möller,” a man’s voice said. It took a few seconds, but Ingrid at last realized that she was talking to Alexander Waverly, the legendary head of U.N.C.L.E. North America.
Waverly ignored the question implicit in her voice and got straight to the point.
“Do you see the man standing in front of you?” Waverly’s German was quite impeccable.
“Good. I want you to take the envelope from him. I’ll hold while you do so.”
Feeling dazed, Ingrid took the envelope from the man’s hand. He gave her a jaunty salute, then disappeared without another word into the early evening crowds.
“Do you have the package?” the voice on her communicator asked.
“You will proceed to a secure location and read the contents of the package. When you are done, and you have it all memorized, you will destroy everything. You will not return to the office to do this, and you will not tell anyone else about the contents of the envelope or how you obtained it. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir, but...”
Waverly cut her off.
“You will be working directly under me, until further notice. You will take orders from no one else. All other instructions are contained in the envelope. Your superior and partner will be notified of your special situation. I will be in touch.”
The connection was broken abruptly, and Ingrid was left feeling as if she had just tumbled down a rabbit hole. She stood there stupidly for a moment, holding the envelope and her communicator loosely in her hands.
This won’t do , she thought crossly. Rousing herself, she set out briskly for her flat. It was as secure a place as one could find in this city and she suddenly had a need to be in a comfortable and familiar place.
She chewed on her lip as she walked and kept a wary eye on the other pedestrians surrounding her. Suddenly, everyone, from the kindly old gentleman who had just passed her to the schoolgirls skipping ahead of her, book bags carelessly hanging from their hands, had become a possible enemy agent.
She sighed in relief as she reached her flat, securing her locks behind her. Sitting at her kitchen table, having pulled down all the blinds, she ripped open the envelope and read the contents.
If possible, she felt worse once she knew what was inside.
She was to work with agents flying in from New York, Mark Slate and April Dancer, to determine if two individuals in Berlin had ties to Thrush. One person was a KGB operative, the other was in U.N.C.L.E. itself. There were few other details, but Möller could read between the lines. Thrush was planning something big, and Waverly didn’t even trust others within the Command with the information. She wondered why she had been trusted and wasn’t sure whether to be thankful or annoyed that she had been singled out.
Sitting with the envelope’s contents laid out in front of her, Ingrid wished that she could call François and tell him about this. Could share her anxieties with him and have him dispel them in his uniquely Gallic way. But that comfort was denied her. Waverly had specifically forbidden her to talk with anyone about this matter. She would have no one to talk to until she picked up Slate and Dancer at the airport tomorrow morning.
Until then, there was nothing further she could do. She made certain she had memorized the documents, then burned them in her sink and washed the ashes down the drain. That done, she set out to follow her original plan for the evening: a simple meal, a relaxing bath and an early night.
She tried to tell herself that, for the moment, there was nothing she could do, that the best thing she could do would be to get a good night’s rest.
Still, sleep was a long time coming.
Eleven hours after receiving Mr. Waverly’s mysterious call, April and Mark found themselves at Terminal Five of JFK, straining to spot Illya and Napoleon in the crush of well-wishers meeting friends and family in the arrivals hall. In the end, Illya and Napoleon found them.
April was so happy to see her friends that she bestowed a quick hug on both of them. Just blending in with the crowd, she told herself. Mark limited himself to handshakes with both men, though it was clear that he was also pleased to see them.
As the four of them began walking through the terminal towards the parking lot, April could no longer contain her curiosity. She took Illya’s elbow and drew him slightly away from the others.
“Illya, what on earth is going on?”
In response, Illya merely gave her a glaring look and reclaimed his elbow. Before she could be offended, Napoleon touched her shoulder.
“Not here,” he whispered in her ear.
Chastened, and more curious than ever, she nodded and kept pace with the others.
She remained silent as they found the car and drove away from the airport. She sat in the front with Illya; Mark and Napoleon sat in the back.
When they were well on the highway, she peered over the back seat.
“Can you tell us what this is all about now?”
“No,” Napoleon said.
“No?” she repeated, looking at Illya.
“No,” Illya confirmed.
She sighed in frustration. “I know this is a secret organization, but it would be nice to have some idea of what we’re meant to be doing.”
She could have sworn that Illya gave a slight smile, but he stayed silent. Napoleon leaned forward and gave her shoulder a quick rub.
“You’ll find out soon enough. And then you may wish you didn’t know a thing.”
“Great. More mystery. Just what I needed.”
She flopped back against the seat and tried to enjoy the drive back into Manhattan.
She was surprised when their final destination was not Manhattan itself, but a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn Heights. Illya parked the car in front of an unremarkable brownstone.
Looking grim and checking their surroundings in a way that could only mean they were suspicious of being followed, Illya and Napoleon led them inside the building. Napoleon led them into the sparsely furnished living room while Illya ran the most complete check for electronic surveillance April had ever seen.
A thin trickle of fear began to work its way down April’s spine as she realized just how serious this situation must be.
“Everything okay?” Napoleon asked as Illya began packing up his equipment.
“So it would appear.” Illya was obviously in full skeptic mode, but even he seemed satisfied that they were not being observed.
“Then I think it’s time you got our guest.”
Illya nodded and disappeared into the depths of the house.
April shot Napoleon a wordless question. He shook his head in response.
“Be patient, April. All will be explained.”
A mere thirty seconds later, Illya appeared with another man. Napoleon performed the introductions.
“Vassili Rodchenko, I’d like you to meet April Dancer and Mark Slate.”
Rodchenko nodded at them both, but said nothing. He sat down on a threadbare wing chair in one corner of the room, well away from the room’s only window, April noted. She observed him carefully. His name was clearly Russian and his features had a definite Slavic cast to them. He was dressed in khaki pants and a button-down shirt that she suspected had been pulled from Napoleon’s own closet — the two were of a size — and his face was marked by a deep fatigue. She suspected he would look quite dashing under normal circumstances, but at the moment he looked merely haggard.
She and Mark took the places Illya indicated on the couch while Napoleon took the remaining chair. Illya remained standing, and managed to give off the air of a singularly tough shepherd looking after his flock.
“So?” April asked.
Napoleon again took the lead.
“Vassili arrived in New York yesterday. He brought with him a tape from his superior in the KGB. The tape contains details of a Thrush conspiracy too infiltrate both the KGB and U.N.C.L.E. Mr. Waverly has some corroborating evidence, and also believes that the conspiracy may extend further, to all the major intelligence agencies.
“Bloody hell,” Mark whispered.
“Indeed, Mr. Slate,” Rodchenko said, in slightly accented English. His voice was a pleasant, if ragged, tenor.
“What’s our assignment?” April decided to get down to the reason they had been recalled.
“Mr. Waverly would like you and Mark to travel to Berlin and investigate the situation there. Major General Antonenko, Vassili’s superior, supplied the names of several suspected double agents in Berlin, both in our office and the Soviet’s embassy. This dossier contains all the information we have on the conspiracy and the information on the suspects in Berlin.” Napoleon passed her a plain manila envelope.
“You’ll be working with Ingrid Möller, an agent from our Berlin office.”
“Can we trust her?” April asked. If things were as grim as they appeared to be, there would seem to be very few people they could trust.
“I recommended her myself,” Illya said. “I believe she is above reproach. However, even she is not to be considered completely above suspicion.”
“Trust each other.” Napoleon took over. “And trust Miss Möller as much as you have to. But keep your eyes open at all time. The people in this room and Mr. Waverly are the only ones we can really be sure of.”
April took in a deep breath. This was fully as bad as she had feared it would be.
“So, we look for the bad apples in Berlin. And then what?”
“Keep an eye out for any clues as to who is controlling the conspiracy, and from where. If we can find the nexus of the plot, we may be able to pull the whole thing out by the roots.”
“Where will you two be?” Mark asked.
“Waverly’s sending us to Hong Kong. You heard that the head of Section One there was assassinated just a few days ago?”
April and Mark both nodded.
“Hong Kong seems to be the starting point of the conspiracy in the East.”
Illya took over for his partner.
“We will all be operating alone for the duration of this assignment. Communication with Waverly is to be kept to a minimum. You will only contact us if absolutely necessary. And it goes without saying that all communication will be scrambled.”
“Of course.” She paused as she considered everything that had been thrown at her. “When do we leave?”
“Today.” Napoleon nodded at the envelope she held in her hands. “Your tickets are in there.”
She reached in and pulled out tickets for a flight leaving at eight o’clock.
April checked her watch and started making calculations. Forty-five minutes to drive to their apartments. An hour to pack up and prepare, and thank goodness she had a spare suitcase, with hers sitting abandoned in a London hotel room. An hour more to get back to the airport. Yes, they would have enough time to make it. Just.
“One last thing. How will we recognize Möller?”
Illya reached into his pocket and handed her a small snapshot.
“The photo is nearly ten years old, but she hasn’t changed that much.”
The image in her hand showed a much younger Illya Kuryakin with a young woman of about his age. She was agreeable looking, with a round face and short, curly hair. She was laughing uproariously at something. Illya’s mouth was held in that way he had when trying not to smile.
“She was a friend of yours.” Her statement was not quite a question.
“Yes. At the time.” He looked at her seriously. “Things change, April. She is not to be trusted unconditionally.”
“I understand,” April said, and tucked the photo into her handbag, the face already memorized. “Now, could one of you give us a ride?”
“Illya will,” Napoleon replied. “I’ll be staying here with Vassili. Miles Bronowski and Frank Leung are taking charge of him soon.” April raised her eyebrows. “Waverly trusts them, at least enough to give them this assignment.”
“We should be going then.”
“Yes, you should.” Napoleon checked his own watch. “You should have no problem getting your things and getting out to the airport in time. You know how my partner drives.”
“I resent that, Napoleon.”
April threw an arm around an indignant Illya.
“He’s just jealous of your talents, Illya.”
“I won’t dignify that with a response,” Napoleon shot back, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Now, get out of here, you two.”
April stepped forward to give her CEA a decidedly un-businesslike hug.
“Take care of yourself, Napoleon.”
“You too, April.”
She shook Vassili’s hand. Mark said goodbye to Napoleon and Vassili. Then, before she knew it, they were back in the car, heading into Manhattan and deciding who should be dropped at their apartment first and what gear they should take with them.
She concentrated on the business at hand and pushed her unease at this whole assignment to the portion of her mind where she kept all the other human concerns incompatible with the job of an Enforcement agent.
She would do her job, help save the world and then, if she was lucky, she would have the leisure to think about what it all meant.
Mark couldn’t help it. Every time he flew into Berlin, he got a tingle of excitement. There was so much activity going on beneath the surface of the city — more spies per square mile than any other city on the planet — that he couldn’t fail to be energized by it.
Still, the sensation was something of a guilty pleasure. He knew, for example, that Napoleon and Illya hated the city on some level, that they found the constant intrigue that you were inevitably drawn into when you were in the business and in this place more exhausting than exhilarating.
In spite of this knowledge, there was still a spring in his step and a hint of a smile on his face as he and April stepped into the arrivals hall of the Berlin airport.
His partner was looking less happy to be here. More than anything, she was looking tired. Which was understandable, really. They had done two transatlantic flights in the past forty-eight hours and had blessed little sleep in the meantime. Knowing what their assignment was, and its importance, they had made sure that one of them was always awake on the flight to Berlin.
They had retrieved their luggage and were now looking for the woman who was to meet them.
According to the information Napoleon had supplied them with, Ingrid Möller had been working in Section Eight as a research scientist, but had moved to Section Two when it had opened up to women. She was nearly Illya’s age, but had only been working as an Enforcement agent a year.
Mark was curious to meet Miss Möller. He was interested in anyone who had known Illya when he was younger. Part of his interest was, admittedly, the junior agent’s never-ending quest for social blackmail material on his superiors. But he was also genuinely interested in what had made both of his friends the men they were today.
He was also drawn to the women who worked in Section Two. It was an occupational hazard of being paired with the first female Enforcement agent, he supposed. Or perhaps he was naturally attracted to strong women. Either way, he was looking forward to meeting Möller.
There were days when it just didn’t pay to get out of bed, and this seemed to be one of them.
Sitting around the airport in the hopes that a suspected agent would just happen to stroll by had to be one of the worst assignments in the city, but then, you didn’t question the orders of the local Satrapy. Not if you wanted to live out the week.
Josef Schmidt was beginning to think that his dreams of grandeur were going nowhere fast, and that joining Thrush might not have been the smartest thing he’d ever done.
He shifted on the hard plastic seat he was occupying and played with the strap of his camera. He was both bored with his assignment and terrified that his superiors might consider that he hadn’t done it well enough. It was an uncomfortable state of mind to be in.
A flash of red hair caught his eye. He focused more closely on its owner, hoping that it might be a pretty girl. And was rewarded when that owner just happened to be April Dancer, from the New York offices of U.N.C.L.E. He blinked, certain that his eyes were playing tricks on him. He wasn’t used to high profile enemy agents simply appearing in front of him. But no, it was indeed Dancer, and the blond young man beside her had to be Mark Slate.
Schmidt stared stupidly at the U.N.C.L.E. agents for a moment before he remembered his assignment and snapped several pictures of them. He then moved into an alcove to wait and see if they made contact with anyone else. His gambit was rewarded several minutes later when a brown haired woman of around thirty greeted them. He thought he recognized her from the list of U.N.C.L.E. agents from the Berlin office. He quickly took several more pictures and then watched as the trio gathered together and started to leave the arrivals hall.
He waited until he was positive he wouldn’t be observed by them, and then left himself. He couldn’t wait to have the pictures developed. Maybe this would be the break he needed to be given more high profile assignments.
Whistling happily, if tunelessly, to himself, he began his journey to the Berlin Satrapy.
It hadn’t been such a bad day after all.
Mark and April spotted Möller amongst the crowds in the arrivals hall. With her sandy brown hair and her pleasant features, she was an older, if mostly unchanged version of the woman in the photograph Illya had given them.
Möller greeted them with a nod and an extended hand.
“Herr Slate, Fraulein Dancer.”
“Guten Abend, Fraulein Möller. Wie geht’s?” Mark said in his best German. He kissed her extended hand in true continental fashion.
Möller quirked an eyebrow at April in bemusement.
“Is he always like this?” she asked, in English.
“You’ll get used to him,” April replied, an impish expression on her face.
“Ah,” Möller replied.
“Don’t mind me, ladies,” Mark said. “Talk amongst yourselves.”
April linked arms with him.
“He’s really quite a doll, once you get to know him.”
“That’s it. I know when I’m outnumbered. I surrender.”
“You have him very well trained,” Möller offered.
“Thank you,” April said, pertly. Mark rolled his eyes, and was punched on the arm.
“Crybaby,” April said in a stage whisper.
With a brief grin, Ingrid Möller led them out of the terminal.
“I’m afraid, Fraulein Dancer, that we will have to take a cab into the city. The motor pool had nothing available until tomorrow.”
“That’s fine. And you can call me April.” She pointed at her partner. “He’s Mark.”
“And you may call me Ingrid.”
“Will we be going to the office first, Ingrid?”
“I suggest we avoid the office entirely. Mr. Waverly insisted I not bring any materials associated with this assignment there.”
Mark and April nodded in understanding. Illya and Napoleon had told them that the old man had kept Rodchenko’s presence in New York hidden from all but a few, trusted personnel.
“I will take you to your hotel and we can discuss how to proceed.”
They spent the taxi ride into the city chatting about the inconsequential things common to most travelers. If the driver was a Thrush plant, he learned nothing more interesting than the locations of a good coffeehouse and Ingrid’s favorite bierhalle.
The hotel they had been booked into was a small, quiet place in the Western sector, catering to the family trade. They had adjoining rooms that were not overly large, but were impeccably clean. A shared bath was located down the hall.
Before they said a word, they checked the room for listening devices with the equipment Ingrid supplied. Only when the room had been given the all clear did they discuss their assignment.
“I assume you have received the same dossiers on the suspected Thrush infiltrators that I did,” Ingrid began.
“I believe so.” April took the lead. “We were told there are two main suspects: Gregori Makharov and Jonathan Moore.”
“That’s what I was told as well.”
“Do you know either man?” Mark asked.
“Moore was assigned to the Berlin U.N.C.L.E. office three months ago. I haven’t worked with him, but he doesn’t seem like the type to change sides. But Makharov.” Her expression changed to one of disgust. “I could believe anything of him.”
“Have you any concrete evidence?”
“No. But he does seem to have a bit too much cash for a low level KGB operative.”
“That will be something to keep an eye on,” April said. “In the meantime, how do you think we should proceed?”
“In the documents Waverly sent me, he suggested maintaining surveillance of both men’s flats. That might give us a further direction to go in.”
“Sounds good. Though with only three of us, we’ll need a rotating schedule for the observation posts.”
“I can draw one up,” Ingrid offered. “The boys in the lab always let me draw up the experiment roster for the larger labs.”
“How nice of them,” April said dryly.
“Actually, it was. It meant I got to choose the best times for myself.” Ingrid gave a quick grin. “I can also requisition voice activated tape recorders to cover times when we need to leave either post.”
“Then we only need to find places to set up the surveillance and plant the bugs.”
“Which we can start on tomorrow.” Ingrid said, giving the two New York agents a searching look. “You two look total am Ende.”
“Pardon?” April asked.
“Knackered,” Mark translated.
“Oh,” April said, then gave an enormous yawn. “I believe you’re right.”
“I’ll pick you up at 9 a.m. tomorrow.” Ingrid said, heading for the door. “If you’re hungry, there is a nice café across the street.”
“Thank you,” Mark said, and then the German operative was out the door.
They never made it to the café. They were both were asleep minutes after Ingrid’s exit.
Not everyone enjoyed flying into Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport. The runway approach, immediately over and between the high rises of the city itself, could induce a cold sweat panic in the most experienced of travelers.
Napoleon Solo was no exception. He was all too aware of the catastrophe that would result if one jet went even slightly off course. He looked out the window and was jolted as he saw a family of five sitting down to dinner in one of the surrounding buildings.
He turned to his partner, hoping for a little sympathy. He should have known better. Illya was peering around his shoulder for a better view, a look of open curiosity and fascination on his face.
“Exhilarating, isn’t it?” Illya said.
Napoleon gave him a sour look.
“The next time you complain about sea-sickness on the Pursang, I’ll tell you it’s exhilarating.”
Other than Napoleon’s unease, they landed without incident. They retrieved their baggage quickly and ventured out to the arrival’s area.
They were supposed to be met by Hong Kong’s CEA, Martin Lau Ming. Lau had been in charge of the Hong Kong office since his boss’ murder. Napoleon had read the man’s records. He was an exemplary agent and was proving to be an excellent leader. He had done all he could to find Richard Yuen’s killer, though without success so far.
But they were not yet certain that Lau, or any other agent in Hong Kong, was not part of the conspiracy.
To get them into the colony, Waverly had arranged to have them deliver the weekly package of orders from New York. They would remain in Hong Kong under Waverly’s command.
Napoleon was hopeful that they could clear Lau and bring him into their confidence. He looked to be a valuable ally, or a formidable opponent.
Surrounded by a flurry of humanity, Napoleon scanned the arrival hall of the airport. In amongst taxi touts and reunited families, there was one man who stood out by his stillness. Napoleon looked closer and confirmed that it was Lau. He jostled Illya’s elbow to direct his attention toward the Hong Kong CEA, and then they both moved in his direction.
Lau caught sight of them as they approached and gave a slight wave. He was a thin man of average height, dressed in an impeccable charcoal gray suit. Napoleon made a note to get the name of the man’s tailor. Napoleon knew that Lau was in his late thirties, but his face made it hard to guess his age; he still had some of the look of youth, though there were lines around his eyes that gave him an air of weariness.
Illya, with his knowledge of Cantonese, led the way.
“Lau sinsaang, neih hou mah?” How are you.
“Hou hou, Kuryakin sinsaang. Yau sam.” Good, thank you. “But we must not exclude Mr. Solo.” Lau switched easily to British accented English.
“Hello, Mr. Lau.”
“Mr. Solo.” They shook hands.
Napoleon had long ago learned to trust his instincts — it was part of what had made him such a good spy — and his instincts told him he should trust Martin Lau. The man seemed forthright and honest, though he did seem to be holding something back. He hoped they would be able to confirm his instincts soon and bring Lau into their trust.
“You’ve had a long flight. Should I take you to the safe house, or would you like to go immediately to the office?”
“The office, I think. But we won’t be staying in the safe house.”
“No?” Lau said warily.
“Mr. Waverly has arranged our accommodations personally,” Illya offered.
“Oh,” Lau responded. His tone was neutral, but Napoleon could detect a hint of suspicion behind it. “May I ask where?”
“I’m sorry, but he has asked us not to say. Need to know.” Napoleon invoked the phrase that all agents, no matter their allegiance, respected.
“I understand,” Lau said, and immediately changed the subject.
Napoleon was sorry that they could not inform Lau where they were staying. He felt as though they had immediately put a foot wrong with the man.
On the other hand, if Lau was a Thrush agent, they had as much as told him that they were investigating him. All three of them were aware that the courier assignment that Napoleon and Illya had been given was merely an excuse to get them to Hong Kong.
Either way, their hand had been tipped.
There was nothing to do but conduct their investigation and see what happened.
Lau drove them himself. Napoleon relaxed in the back seat, letting Illya be the sociable one for a change. He fell asleep on the ferry ride from Kowloon to Central, but jolted awake when the large boat bumped against the pier. He rubbed his face with one hand, willing himself awake. Sleep was not a luxury he could allow himself for some time yet.
Lau took them to the U.N.C.L.E. offices, hidden behind the front of an import/export business. The building was within sight of the Legislative Council building and the Star Ferry docks.
Once they were safely inside the headquarters and in Lau’s private office, Illya turned over the courier package that was their pretext for being there. Lau locked the envelope into the main safe.
“What would you gentlemen like to do now?” Lau asked, clearly uncertain as to what his guests had planned.
Napoleon caught Illya’s eye and nodded. It was Illya who responded to their host.
“We’re most interested in seeing your facilities here and meeting your staff.”
Lau’s look turned wary, but to his credit, he indulged them.
“Of course, gentlemen. If you’d follow me.”
Lau showed them all of the facilities, from the communications center to the agents’ change room. And he introduced them to every person they met, from every section.
They were lucky. All of their main suspects were currently in the office and they got to meet them all.
Victoria Chan had been Yuen’s personal assistant, a tiny woman who radiated an energetic efficiency and spoke English with a clipped English accent. She was polite to the visiting agents, but not overly friendly. Napoleon got the definite sense that she was holding something back. She was clearly upset at her superior’s murder, but whether she had been the cause was impossible to say.
Yam Kai Fai was a senior Enforcement agent, second in command only to Lau. He was a broad-shouldered man, as tall as Napoleon and effusively friendly. He greeted both Napoleon and Illya with hearty handshakes and an invitation to join him for an afternoon at the Happy Valley racetrack. Napoleon nearly laughed when Illya turned down the invitation with an almost icy politeness.
Will Andrews was their last suspect, an ex-pat Brit who had lived in Hong Kong since he joined U.N.C.L.E. in the late fifties. Napoleon briefly remembered the Andrews had been at the Survival School the year after he had. Andrews had the perfect manners borne of a British public school education, and some of the aloofness.
No single one of their suspects struck him as particularly guilty, though all three seemed like they might be hiding something, even the effusive Yam. But then, all the other members of the Hong Kong team had been similarly reserved and even slightly on edge. Napoleon could understand their reactions; if Waverly had been assassinated, no one in the New York office would have been unaffected.
As they finished the tour, Napoleon felt his long denied jet lag beginning to creep up on him. Illya couldn’t be in much better shape, though he was hiding it well. They both needed sleep.
He made his excuses to Lau, and got the Hong Kong CEA to sign them out a car from the motor pool. He let Illya take the driver’s seat. The Russian knew the streets of the city far better than he ever would.
“Home, James,” Napoleon directed. Illya shot him a sour look, but took the car out into the bustling traffic of Hong Kong.
He fell asleep almost immediately, trusting his partner to get him where they were going safely, and didn’t wake up until Illya’s hand on his shoulder let him know they had arrived.
After a good German breakfast of bread, cheese and hot chocolate, April, Mark and Ingrid spent most of the following day driving through the city, checking out the areas surrounding their two subjects’ flats, accumulating the equipment they would need and subletting two flats to use for the surveillance posts.
One of the worst parts of the job was the fact that the two locations were on opposite sides of the Wall. By the end of the day, the guards at the checkpoint had gotten to know the three U.N.C.L.E. agents rather too well. Though they were stopped each time they crossed, the guards spent more time gossiping with them than checking their identification the last time they passed through the gates.
The most nerve-wracking part of setting up the observation posts had been bugging the flats. They’d had to confirm that each flat was empty, and then send one person in to plant the listening devices while the other two made sure they were not interrupted. April had been planting the bugs in Makharov’s flat when Mark had given her a false alarm about the KGB agent’s return. She had half-jokingly threatened to kill her partner when it was all over.
The flats of both men had been given a cursory search at the same time, but neither had revealed anything of interest, other than Moore’s affection for British football magazines and Makharov’s stockpile of Stolichnaya vodka. Given their countries of origin, neither discovery had been that much of a surprise.
April wished that just one of the men had concealed a large folder under his mattress with the label ‘Thrush Secrets Hidden Here.’ It would have taken the guesswork out of the assignment. And right now, all they had was guesswork.
At the moment, April was observing Jonathan Moore’s very empty and very uninteresting flat. She hated surveillance work. Especially when she had to do it alone. She would much rather throw herself into a role and go undercover, even if it was more dangerous.
She went over the schedule in her head, unhappily realizing it would be nearly three days before she and Mark shared the same post.
Sighing, she peered through the lens of the camera into Moore’s empty flat and listened to the drip of his leaky kitchen faucet through her headphones.
Perhaps, if she was very lucky, she would be shot in a gun battle with the little old lady currently hauling her groceries down the street.
More probably, she would be doomed to watch this apartment until she expired from boredom.
Lau Ming, Martin Lau to his English-speaking friends, sat in his office in the Hong Kong headquarters of U.N.C.L.E. and considered his guests.
Every agent in U.N.C.L.E. knew about Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. They were Waverly’s top team in New York and had worked all over the world. They were as famous for their successes as they were for being an American/Soviet team. This was the first time Lau had met the two personally.
He wasn’t entirely sure what they were doing here, but he could guess. And it had nothing to do with delivering a courier package for Mr. Waverly.
As he saw it, there were two choices.
He hoped they were here to flush out the Thrush spy that he had become more certain than ever had taken up residence within the U.N.C.L.E. offices. He was sick of shouldering that burden alone, uncertain of whom he could trust, if anyone.
He feared that they were part of the conspiracy that had resulted in Yuen’s death. Which led to the even more terrifying conclusion that Waverly himself was part of the cabal.
He would rather have Solo and Kuryakin as allies than enemies, but he tried to prepare himself for either alternative. It would be difficult if he was forced to work against them. He honestly liked both men.
Kuryakin was an agreeable enigma. How a Russian had ever learned quite passable Cantonese was a mystery, even for a spy. He was reserved, but still friendly, and had seemed honestly interested in the sights of Hong Kong that Lau pointed out on the drive to the office.
Solo was as outwardly friendly as his partner was, but Lau had the feeling that there was much that he was holding back. He felt as if Solo were constantly appraising him, passing judgment. But since Lau was making his own judgment on the two men, he supposed he couldn’t complain.
Sipping on the jasmine tea he favored in times of stress, Lau sat back and tried to plan for all eventualities.
Dr. Madelyn Egret stared at the photographs in front of her and wondered if they spelled the doom of her operation, or signaled its imminent success.
Things were entering a dangerous phase. Thrush was making bold moves to consolidate its power and eliminate its enemies in preparation for delivering the final blow. All of which meant that they were more prone to discovery now than at any other time in this whole business. If Slate and Dancer were here in Berlin, it might mean that old fool Waverly was taking things seriously. She would have to proceed carefully from now on.
Egret studied the faces of the young U.N.C.L.E. agents, as if the photograph would magically yield a weakness she could wield against them. When no such mystical solution presented itself, she threw down the photos and did the next best thing. She called down to records and ordered up the files on Slate, Dancer and the German agent, Möller. If divine intervention wasn’t going to provide the answer, perhaps a more prosaic method would prevail.
Three hours later, having waded through the mounds of documents available on the three agents, she had her weapon. Dancer and Slate were not the key. They were both young enough that they had no history she could exploit, but Möller was a different story entirely. Möller had one very interesting weakness.
Egret picked up the phone and began to set her plan into motion.
Illya gave a low whistle as he pulled their car up in front of the house they would be occupying during their stay in Hong Kong. Mr. Waverly had outdone himself this time. It was almost enough to make up for all the times they had been forced to stay in flea infested slums.
The house was set on Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island and the most exclusive neighborhood in the colony. The residence belonged to the British Governor, and was usually used by visiting dignitaries. Waverly had called in a few favors and obtained its use for his two agents because the house’s security system would make sure they at least had warning of Thrush infiltration. That it was a palatial residence, by Hong Kong standards at least, was a fortunate bonus.
The house was built like an English country estate, but with definite Oriental accents that made its location clear. It was surrounded by a lush Chinese garden, with thousands of shades of green shifting subtly through the grounds. Illya found the lack of flowers in Asian gardens a comforting change from the riot of colors that one found in their Western counterparts.
Illya parked the car on the gated grounds before he woke Napoleon up. He was feeling the lure of sleep himself, the inevitable consequence of traveling for over a day. He pushed the feeling away. They had several tasks to perform before they could give in to fatigue.
After stowing their luggage in the bedroom, they both set out to check the security of their lodgings. Napoleon took the inside while Illya checked the grounds. He made sure there were no breaches in the fence, and looked for signs of intruders. When he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he returned to inside the house to find Napoleon sprawled on the couch in the living room, valiantly attempting to remain awake.
“Everything secure?” he asked his exhausted companion.
“Looks like it. You can always trust British security to think of everything.”
“Thankfully.” Illya collapsed on the couch, leaning heavily against Napoleon.
“So, what do you think?”
“About what?” Illya decided to be deliberately dense.
“About our suspects. About Lau.” Napoleon gave an expansive wave. “About the whole assignment.”
“I think we don’t yet know enough to judge our suspects. They all might be in on it. Or it might be someone else entirely.”
“I think he is a good man trying to do his best in a bad situation.”
“You’re sure?” Napoleon looked at him with a mixture of hope and skepticism.
“Not positive, no. But I am inclined to trust him. If the evidence points that way.”
“Evidence. It would have been nice if Major General Antonenko could have provided something a little more concrete.”
“She did her best, Napoleon.”
“You’re right,” Napoleon said. He gave a jaw-cracking yawn.
“In the absent of evidence, what we both need now is sleep,” Illya said, pointing out the obvious.
“A wonderful suggestion.” Napoleon pushed himself off the couch, then offered Illya a hand up. Instead of releasing him once Illya was standing, Napoleon wrapped him in a firm hug. Illya relaxed into the embrace, enjoying the warm comfort of his partner’s arms.
“I don’t like this,” Napoleon whispered in his ear.
“Nor do I. But we have survived worse.”
“Have we? A conspiracy of this size?”
Instead of replying, Illya simply squeezed his partner, his love, hard and then released him.
“Come on. Maybe you won’t be so morose after a good night’s sleep.”
Napoleon snorted, but followed him into the bedroom with no complaint.
They both decided to sleep in just their pajama bottoms, the heat of the day keeping them from wearing more and the dangers of the assignment preventing them from even considering sleeping nude. After making sure both of their guns were placed under the pillows, they crawled into the enormous master bed together. Illya sighed in contentment as Napoleon spooned himself around him. His partner’s breathing drifted quickly into the easy rhythms of sleep.
In spite of his exhaustion, it took Illya a little longer to find the tranquillity of such repose.
Napoleon was right to be nervous. Illya tried to still his own Slavic pessimism and to clear his mind, to concentrate only on the man at his side. There would be time enough for worry.
Ingrid Möller gripped the wheel of her car tightly as she drove toward her flat in the Western sector of the city.
She had just dropped April at the observation post for Makharov’s flat. Mark remained at the post for Moore’s. She was taking one of the unfortunately few breaks their surveillance schedule allowed. She was not due back at the Moore post until the next morning and was planning on taking advantage of the opportunity to shower and sleep in her own flat.
She tried to ease the tension in her shoulders as she considered their assignment. She was having no trouble believing that Gregori Makharov was a possible Thrush agent. The KGB operative had oozed untrustworthiness on the few occasions she had encountered him. She was less blasé about Jonathan Moore being under suspicion. Though the Englishman had only been assigned to the Berlin office for three months, she had always found him a pleasant fellow. She had to force herself to remember that there were few people who were not under suspicion.
She was glad that April and Mark were obviously considered to be above reproach by Waverly. They both seemed like genuinely nice people, and had the added attraction of being friends with Illya Kuryakin. Though they hadn’t stayed in touch, she and Illya had been close companions when they had both been in the Berlin research department. She enjoyed hearing about Illya’s exploits in New York almost as much as she enjoyed supplying the two younger agents with embarrassing stories about the Russian’s early days in U.N.C.L.E.
She sighed, and forced her mind to return to the less pleasant matter of their mission. She started to go over the list of errands she needed to run in the morning. Pick up some extra equipment April had asked for at headquarters. Get breakfast for April and Mark. Drop off April’s breakfast and relieve Mark.
At the next stoplight, she was so caught up in retracing the steps they had taken to bug Makharov’s flat, that she could not react in time when a man opened the passenger door of her car and placed a gun against her side.
“Keep driving,” he said, in a growling voice.
She tried to look more closely at his face.
“Eyes forward,” he barked, as he ground the gun barrel into her ribs. She obeyed.
He directed her through the streets of Berlin with terse commands, punctuated with the threat of his gun. The entire time she kept a sharp eye out for an opportunity to disarm him, but he was professional enough that such an opportunity never arose.
She grew hopeful when they approached Checkpoint Charlie. No one could pass through to East Berlin unchallenged. She tensed, awaiting her chance.
Unbelievably, the guards on both sides of the border waved them through without a second look. Ingrid’s fear ratcheted up several notches as she realized the magnitude of what must be going on. Even after they had crossed the border four times yesterday with U.N.C.L.E. credentials, they’d still had to stop the car and confirm their identity. These guards had clearly been paid off by someone powerful.
They left the outskirts of the city and drove into the countryside. The number of cars became fewer until they found themselves on a seemingly abandoned dirt road. Looking around them, the man ordered her to pull the car over.
“Out,” he said, and this time she didn’t try to resist.
She was made to put on a blindfold and then bundled into the boot of the car. She was briefly glad she had signed out one of the larger American cars out of the car pool, but even the relatively spacious boot became uncomfortable as they bounced along on unpaved roads. She tried to keep track of their route, but that quickly became impossible. Time itself became an indefinite entity, unwinding in fits and starts.
Eventually, the car stopped and she was pulled out of the boot and dragged along by two people. She could tell they were walking on a hard surface, and that they had entered some sort of building, but that was all.
She was sat down on a wooden chair, and then the two people left. As soon as she heard a door close, she removed the blindfold.
The room she was in gave away nothing about her location. It was a grim, featureless cinderblock affair, lit by a single, unshaded bulb suspended from the ceiling. She was its only occupant, though there was a battered desk and another chair in front of her.
She was just about to try the door, when it opened to admit one person.
The woman wasn’t anyone she recognized, but Ingrid would have bet money that she was Thrush. She was a handsome woman in her mid-forties, but her looks were marred by the arrogance that seemed the common character trait of all high-level Thrush. She had a gun aimed straight at Ingrid’s head and an envelope in her hand.
The woman sat at the desk, not taking her eyes off Ingrid as she did so. She opened the envelope with one hand and spread its contents, a number of photos, on the desk.
“Miss Möller,” the woman said in English marked by a flat American accent. “How nice to finally meet you in person.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
The woman ignored her response and gestured at the pictures in front of her.
“I have something here that I thought you might be interested in.”
Ingrid craned her neck forward to look at the pictures. She was expecting pictures of secret U.N.C.L.E. outposts or captured agents. She was not expecting to see pictures of what appeared to be a ten-year-old girl at school and in a park.
“I need some assistance from someone within U.N.C.L.E., and you seem to be the perfect person to provide it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t be so hasty.” The woman gave her an unpleasant looking smile. “Hear me out first.
“What I require is regular reports on the activities of April Dancer and Mark Slate. Since you appear to be their liaison in Berlin, you are ideally situated to provide this service for me.”
Ingrid couldn’t help laughing. The woman was clearly mad.
“And why would I do that for you?” she asked.
The woman’s smile became even more unpleasant. She picked up one of the pictures and threw it into Ingrid’s lap.
“If you don’t, I will have this child killed in the most disagreeable way possible.”
Ingrid was horrified, but she still couldn’t see what special hold the woman thought she had over her.
“Regrettable, but I still can’t help you.”
“You don’t still don’t understand, do you? Take a good look at that girl.”
Ingrid did, and found herself looking at a open-faced girl with short brown pigtails and a faint sprinkling of freckles. There was nothing remarkable about the girl, and certainly nothing about her that was familiar. Unless...
“Now I want you to think back to what you were doing ten years ago.”
Mein gott .
“Good, I see you realize who she is, now.”
Ingrid did. She could see the way the girl’s freckles were exactly like her father’s. How her eyes were exactly the same color as his. And she could see that the girl’s face was exactly the same shape that her own had been at that age.
“How did you find her?” she whispered.
“It wasn’t at all difficult. Once we found out that you had given up a child for adoption nearly ten years ago, it was merely a matter of checking records. A family in Mainz adopted her. She seems very happy. And we are prepared to kill her at any time, unless you do exactly as we say.”
Ingrid tried to breathe. She thought she had put all of this behind her. Had nearly forgotten the grief of letting her child be raised by strangers, of never seeing her again. And now the child’s fate was again being put in her hands.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I’m glad you’re being sensible. As I said before, we want reports on the movement of Miss Dancer and Mr. Slate. Who they are investigating, what they have found. We will contact you at regular intervals to collect the information.”
The woman threw a small metal disk at her. She caught it automatically and held it in her hand as if it were a deadly insect. She knew what it was.
“We also ask that you keep this with you at all times. It’s a listening device and a position marker. We want to ensure that you don’t give our little game away to your U.N.C.L.E. colleagues.”
Ingrid nodded, unable to speak for the moment.
“Good. I’m glad you understand.” The woman snapped her fingers and two men entered the room. “And now we must send you back to your own apartment.
One of the men approached her, his gun raised, butt first. Ingrid tensed, knowing what was coming. He struck her on the side of the head, the pain biting deep. She began to lose consciousness. The last thing she saw, before the blackness claimed her, was the photo of the girl drifting slowly to the gritty, gray floor.
She woke up in her own apartment, sprawled on the living room floor. For a brief second, she was unable to remember how she had gotten there, but then memory flooded back, bringing with it an overwhelming nausea.
She only barely made to the toilet in time.
Afterward, she sat on the floor, her head resting against the cool tile wall, her hands splayed out at her side.
She felt utterly drained and completely alone.
She did not want to betray U.N.C.L.E. More than anything, her position as an Enforcement agent defined her identity. But she could not abandon her daughter a second time. Couldn’t have her killed by some faceless Thrush minion when she could do something to stop it.
So, for the moment, she would play the game. She would give this woman the information she wanted.
But she would not give up hope. She would find some way out of this trap. Find a way to save her child and serve the Command.
Or she would die trying.
The name Chungking Mansions had a grand sound to it. If you had never been there, you might expect it to be the sort of place where millionaires dined out and jet setting playboys indulged in their pleasures.
The reality was quite different.
The Mansions was a sprawling, block long complex of flats and factories, cheap restaurants and cheaper hotels. It was a self-contained slum parked right in the middle of Hong Kong’s main shopping district. It was a place where you went if you had no money or no hope.
Anthony Wong had never considered that he would need to seek out the haven of the Mansions. He had somehow managed to pretend that he was just another middle class worker, with an apartment in the New Territories and a job in Tsim Sha Tsui. He had managed to delude himself into thinking that even though he worked for Thrush and spied for U.N.C.L.E., under the code name Tiger, nothing bad would ever touch him.
Then he had witnessed the murder of Richard Yuen. Worse still, he had been seen by the murderer. And recognized.
Now he was on the run, holed up in a tiny one room flat with leaky plumbing an infestation of insects. And he wasn’t sure how he was going to survive the next week.
His mistake had been to rely on Yuen. He had always thought that if things got too hot, that Yuen could pull him out, set him up some place where Thrush would never find him. He hadn’t considered what would happen if Yuen was dead.
But he had just heard a rumor that might prove to be his salvation. Two U.N.C.L.E. agents had arrived from New York, Solo and Kuryakin. Wong had heard of the two men—their names surfaced frequently in reports of operations gone wrong—and knew that they could be trusted to be loyal to U.N.C.L.E. He was hoping that they could offer him protection in return for the identity of Yuen’s killer.
First, however, he had to find them and arrange a rendezvous with them.
He got out pencil and paper and began to make his plans.
April Dancer leaned back in the rickety wooden chair and rubbed her eyes. She was going to go cross-eyed if she had to stare through the viewfinder of that camera at Gregori Makharov’s flat anymore. And she was convinced that the earphones from the tape recorder were beginning to wear a groove in her head.
“I hate this,” she said with vehemence, throwing the earphones onto the bed behind her.
“I know,” was the muffled response from her partner. He was trying to nap on the massively uncomfortable bed, and had his head buried beneath a pillow to block out the light.
“No you don’t,” she said petulantly. “You have no idea.”
Mark tossed the pillow aside and sat up, his eyes bleary from lack of sleep and his hair in disarray.
“Yes I do, love. You keep telling me. At great length.”
“Well, I really hate it.”
“And I’m extremely bored.”
Mark sighed and stood up.
“Well, as I seem to be awake now, I might as well keep you company.”
April had the grace to look sheepish as well as grateful.
“Don’t be. It is boring and tedious work. You’ve discovered the secret shame of espionage agents everywhere.”
April snorted and turned her full attention back to the flat across the road. Mark put the earphones on her head before pulling a chair up beside her.
“Anything happen while I was trying to sleep?”
“If it had, I wouldn’t be bored, would I?”
“I suppose,” Mark conceded.
“Do you think he’s really part of Thrush?”
“Yes, Makharov.” April waved across the way at the man’s apartment. “Do you think this whole conspiracy is real?”
Mark was quiet for a long minute before answering.
“Something is going on. If not a Thrush plot, then something else. And Makharov’s lifestyle does seem a bit extravagant for an average KGB operative.”
Looking across the street at Makharov’s apartment, April had to agree. The place was not opulent, but had rather more luxuries than one would expect to find in a KGB apartment. Still, having a few comforts wasn’t proof of involvement with Thrush. Not by itself.
April decided to change the topic.
“What do you think of Ingrid?”
“How do you mean?”
“I’m making conversation, Mark. If you can’t keep up your end, go back to sleep.”
“Are we having a conversation? I thought we were relieving your boredom.”
“I swear you’ve been spending too much time with Illya, Mark. Is he giving you sarcasm lessons?”
“I can manage sarcasm without the help of our esteemed senior colleague, thank you very much. And to answer your earlier question, I like Ingrid.” He paused for moment before continuing. “But there is something...” He trailed off, as if he wasn’t certain of how to continue.
“I’m not sure. She seems rather nervous a lot of the time.”
April considered that statement before answering.
“You’re right. Although I’m a bit nervous myself. This assignment is enough to give anyone the willies.”
“Is that an official spy term?” Mark said, laughing.
In response, she reached over and punched him.
They sat for nearly an hour in companionable silence, trading off on watching the flat across the street.
At the end of the hour, Mark stood and stretched in an attempt to get the blood flowing in his body.
“Time for me to go relieve Ingrid.”
“Mark, be careful.” She disliked the fact that they had to cross through Checkpoint Charlie to move between the two observation sites. Moving across the no man’s land between the two borders always made her feel incredibly exposed.
“I will, love.” Mark leaned over and gave her a brotherly peck on the forehead.
“I mean it, Mark. Don’t make me have to come and rescue you.”
“You’re the one stuck in the Soviet sector for the next twelve hours. By yourself.” He squeezed her shoulder. “So, you be careful too.”
Mark closed the door behind him, and April was left alone in the flat. Nothing but the tedium of an observation assignment and the terror of knowing that absolutely anyone could be their enemy. Someone really should warn all the baby spies at Survival School that this was the kind of thing they had to look forward to.
She had received the summons earlier today as she drove from Makharov’s flat back to Moore’s. While waiting at the stoplight, a young boy had tapped on the window of her car. When she had rolled down the window, he had dropped an envelope in her lap and run away before she could question him.
And now she was here, sitting on the platform of the Potsdammerplatz U-Bahn station, waiting for the next train, her stomach tied in knots, her hands shaken by fine tremors.
The train pulled in, and Ingrid stepped into the near empty car and found a seat in one corner. She checked out her fellow passengers, but none of them looked like a Thrush contact. She settled in for the wait and hoped that her handler would join her soon.
Two stops later, the woman who had drafted her into this cabal entered the train and sat beside her. Ingrid clenched her hands into fists. She wished she could simply kill this woman and be done with it, but she knew that would solve nothing. Her daughter would die and she would still be a traitor to U.N.C.L.E.
The woman smiled at her but said nothing. At the next stop, the two remaining people in the car exited. When the doors had closed behind them, the woman turned to Ingrid.
“You followed our instructions well.”
“I had no choice, did I?” Ingrid replied, all too aware of the bitterness in her own voice.
“Of course not.” He smile grew wider and more unpleasant. “Do you have the package?”
Ingrid removed an envelope from her briefcase and passed it to the woman without a word. She hoped it contained enough to allay any Thrush suspicions.
She was playing a dangerous game and she knew it.
She couldn’t refuse to give Thrush any information. That would result in the death of her daughter, and probably her own as well. But she would not give them anything that might help them. So, she had worked very carefully to make sure that she was exposed to as little that was useful as possible. She had arranged the surveillance schedule so that she spent more time at Jonathan Moore’s house, convinced that the British agent was less likely to be a Thrush plant than Makharov. And while she read April and Mark’s reports, she tried not to be around when they discussed their findings. With the bug she was obligated to carry with her, she could not risk the younger agents revealing anything that would be useful to Thrush.
It was a difficult game. And it was taking its toll, even after only four days.
Even her Thrush handler noticed her state.
“You don’t look like you’re getting enough sleep, my dear.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I can look after myself,” Ingrid snapped.
“I have absolutely no concern for you. But if you are not in peak condition you may make a mistake. And that would be my concern.”
“At least you are honest.”
“I’m never anything but.”
Ingrid’s skin itched from being so close to this woman. She craved escape.
“If that’s all, may I leave now?” Ingrid began to stand as the train pulled into the next station.
The woman grabbed her hand and pulled her viciously back down into her seat.
“Not so fast. We have a new assignment for you.”
Ingrid felt a pit widening in her stomach. What she was doing now was hard enough.
“You said you just wanted information.”
“And now we want more. In case you’ve forgotten, we hold all the cards.”
She was right, of course. Ingrid tried to relax in her seat and held her tongue. Perhaps the new task wouldn’t be as bad as she feared.
“We aren’t at all happy with the way things are going. Dancer and Slate haven’t found anything, but they are well placed to discover things that we want to keep from them. It has therefore been decided to eliminate them.” The woman stopped and looked in her direction.
Ingrid nearly bit through her lip trying to remain silent. Mein gott, it was worse than she thought. They wanted her to be their assassin. And she had very little choice.
“I see that you understand what we want from you. That’s good.”
“How?” Ingrid whispered.
“We will leave the details to you. You work with them; you will know what method will be most effective. All we ask is that it be done in the next twenty-four hours.”
“That’s too soon,” Ingrid stalled. “I need more time to plan.”
“It is all the time you have.”
The doors of the train swished open. The woman stepped through the doors, leaving Ingrid frozen in her seat.
“Twenty-four hours,” she said one last time before striding purposefully down the platform. The doors slammed shut and the train started up with a jerk. Ingrid stared after the woman until she had long since disappeared.
The tremors she had tried to control in her hands returned tenfold.
She couldn’t do this. Couldn’t kill a fellow agent in cold blood.
Then she thought of the picture of her daughter, playing in a park, unaware of the forces that surrounded her.
And realized she had no choice.
Got any comments? Send 'em to email@example.com