To John- with love: glad that you had "World enough, and time".
Part I: Where the Heck Is Sandalia?
U.N.C.L.E. HQ in New York is a fortress without windows. The air supply, too critical to be trusted to simple apertures guarded by metal and glass, is piped in, with a variety of artificial "natural" scents, and kept within precise gradients of humidity and temperature at all times. Daylight never fails within these walls: an array of recessed ceiling lights banishes all shadows from the shiny metal interior of building. No less important is the other function of windows; and, no less ingenious the solution. More than half the "windows" are clever simulacra: hologramic images of as disparate sites as the New York City skyline and moonlight on the Taj Mahal.
The remainder of the windows is viewing screens for 'round - the - clock monitoring of external cameras on sensitive areas outside. Illya Kuryakin leaned morosely against one of these viewers, keeping an eagle eye a fledgling courier who was doing some assigned extra practice in pursuit and evasion. His pursuer, another trainee, had just tagged him for the third time in an hour.
The chaser grinned upward at the concealed camera, and flashed a quick thumbs up before continuing the chase. The target straggled on, oblivious, which sight made Illya wince, and turn away from the scene. "That bad?" Napoleon Solo inquired mock-sympathetically from his lounging spot the sagging leather sofa on his side of their shared office space. "I don't know why keep volunteering for these exercises. They only make you harder to live with, and some of these kids will never get the idea."
"They are the ones who wind up dead," the Russian replied dolefully, turning resolutely back to the sorry spectacle outside. "The reason I do it is to reduce their chances of getting killed on assignment. As for being hard to live with, you never complain. Besides, charm is your forte."
"Lucky for you, you have me," Napoleon agreed, planting his feet on the floor with a decisive thump. "I've noticed that your dance-card isn't exactly all filled up, and none the secretaries on this floor will even speak to you since that fiasco last week."
"Last week?" Kuryakin's expression was bland, his innocence patent. "What happened last week?"
"You insisted that we switch secretaries, remember? Just as quickly, you made change back, and fired them both two days later. You're lucky you haven't been poisoned at the water-cooler!"
A faint rosy flush of annoyance appeared under Illya's collar. "I exchanged them because Sally wanted to work a later shift, and everyone knows your secretary often works late."
Solo glanced sharply at his partner then, but the bland, innocent expression was firmly in place. "I only changed them back when I realized that your secretary couldn't type! As for firing both, I merely suggested that they might be happier in a situation that made better use of their talents, which, I might add, may be considerable, they aren't secretarial."
Solo ignored his partner, settling in a swivel chair, and turning neatly out of range of those accusing eyes. "Unfortunately, the U.N.C.L.E. Finishing School is booked. So..." Coffee-colored eyes alight, Solo prepared for his coup de grace; "That's why I did it!"
Keeping his tone neutral, and his eyes fixed on his struggling protege, Illya replied, "Did what?"
"Suggested you for Waverly's latest plum. He is looking to repay some sort of very important favor, and he needs a tag-along for some VIP: female-type. He said it's a cake-walk, which means it's a suicide run, so, naturally, I thought of you."
The full mouth quirked briefly. The eyes did not change expression. "Naturally. Just a tag-along? I may be accused of hubris, but it seems to me that my talents are better employed elsewhere." Kuryakin turned back toward his view-screen. "I have useful work to do."
"Waverly says he needs a baby-sitter, and you're so trustworthy." The word was an insult.
"You, on the other hand, are untrustworthy with anyone who doesn't have cartoon characters printed on her underwear," Illya observed. "In fact, I'm not certain that the one with the chewing gum...What was her name? Bambi? Candi? Or was it ...Bunny?"
"It was Sandi, and her under-things are no concern of yours." Illya coughed abruptly, but said nothing. "I was talking about your new assignment," Napoleon reminded him.
"Sandi," Illya repeated bemusedly, as if this made his point. "Did this mysterious person ask for you, or me?"
" She didn't exactly ask for you, no, but she did ask for a senior agent, and she didn't ask for me, so that makes it perfect," Napoleon went on, unperturbed. If Solo was looking for a reaction, he was disappointed.
"I fail to see how exchanging my known proclivities for yours makes it `perfect'," Illya said dryly. "I expect that anyone who wanted one would find the other rather a disappointment. I have no small talk, and, as you observed, my lack of popularity with the secretarial pool must mean something.
"How is it that we are so well known to begin with? Have your secretaries been circulating a `Wanted Poster? Has THRUSH published the reports from my personnel dossier? "
"I don't know," Solo admitted. "She won't be working for you. In fact, it will be other way around, so maybe you can be servile, if not charming. Try it. Mr. Waverly seemed to think it would serve whoever it is right. He seemed quite taken with idea, in fact. So, you are in, and I am going to try some damage control around here.
You've been charming the stuffing out of the help again, and it's time for another dip in secretarial pool. The old man wants to see you to discuss the new assignment, first after lunch."
Illya abruptly developed a compelling interest in the scene outside. "Good hunting, Napoleon. Try to find one who can type, this time." Silence and the smooth closing of an electronic door answered him.
The courier-trainee was trying his hand at a bit of diversion now, attempting to blend in with a crowd of late morning shoppers. His objective was to pass by another whose assignment was to pick up and trail anyone he identified as suspicious. Illya watched dismally from above. Forlornly, and sincerely, his volunteer instructor wished the hapless student luck.
At that moment, a distraction was making its way up the street, and Illya was drawn from his gloom by appreciation for her style. Take that woman with the huge bouquet he said to himself. A marching band could suddenly appear behind her, and no one the street would hear a note. At the same time, no one will see her face, or what she is wearing! I should archive a film of this, and show it to my trainees when they come in. She's a perfect illustration of creating invisibility by creating a commotion. She's handling that flower arrangement like a pro, and could give Reynolds and Whitman a few pointers. He flipped a switch to mark tape for copying and archiving, then went back to his post. He wondered idly what the woman was attempting to divert from, and who it was she was deceiving.
Kuryakin could never say afterward when it was that he recognized her, shielded by an array of yellow mums and scarlet asters. Somewhere, halfway between the foot the stairs he galloped down two at a time, and the front door of Del Floria's he was almost sure; and by the time he had reached the street, he was certain. The woman behind flower basket was Jessie Taylor!
She appeared not to see him as he approached, skirting her floral shield carefully. Illya was as sure as he knew his name that she had seen him, processed the information, and prepared a reaction to his presence. She did all this in the few steps between Del Floria's to the corner where she stood, balked for the moment by a "Don't Walk" sign.
"Illya Nickovetch!," she panted, shifting her unwieldy burden to free a hand for to kiss. "Wherever did you come from?"
He bent low over her hand, and brushed it decorously against his lips. It was chilly and small, and carried the bitter scent chrysanthemums and some more subtle sweetness. "I might ask you the same thing. Where are you going? Can I get you a cab?"
"I am here purely on vacation, and, to see a few old friends, though I meant to surprise you. Now, it is all a ruin." Her voice was sad, but humor sparkled in those fog- colored eyes.
"You certainly did surprise me," Illya said, realizing that he still held her cold, fragile hand. He dropped it at once, and it disappeared into the huge bouquet. He felt something light as a whisper, smooth, and fine brush across his wrist. Silk, he thought, and the word sang in his memory. She's wearing silk, just a shade browner than her hair.
"Are you in the city alone?" The question was rude, and the implication insulting. If she was really on vacation, she wouldn't be alone; there would be people lining up around the block to go with her, people who wouldn't take `no' for an answer. If she was alone, she was lying about being on vacation. For this woman to travel unaccompanied meant that she had reasons for vanishing from her establishment in the Austrian Alps which had nothing at to do with sightseeing. She lowered the bouquet, allowing him a glimpse of her face. There was no smile, in the eyes or the mouth. Taken singularly, her features were none of them beautiful, except for the extraordinary smoke-gray eyes, but the whole was harmonious. Illya could no more describe which part conveyed the beauty than he could pick out `beautiful' notes in a piece of music.
Suddenly, she smiled, and raised her floral screen to conceal it archly. "Just me this time, my dear old friend. I am on a lark, and have no one to answer to but myself." She was in the mood to ignore the implications of his question. The rudeness might be ignored, this once. Enchanting, she appeared, and winsome in her plight, but a distraction is meant to conceal, and a wary eye out for whatever she might be hiding was only good procedure. Illya could see nothing in the least unusual on the street around them, though he caught and followed for a moment the unsteady progress of Whitman. The trainee was making most of his teacher's apparent abstraction to head for base in an embarrassingly direct manner. He'd have to make sure to call the boy on that.
Jessie, too was making the most of her chance. She had moved just out of reach, was preparing to slip under his guard and away. "I can see that you are not so happily unencumbered. I have interrupted your work, and I am sorry." She looked at him with real contrition. "Can you forgive me?"
"Anything," he replied gallantly, stepping into her path in a skillful display of clumsiness. Emotion made his voice husky, his tone sharp. "Now, where are you going?" That tone of brisk command worked on some women: Jessie Taylor was not one of them. "One of the old friends I am here to see is very near," she replied, forgetting her disguise, and gesturing, which made the whole edifice tremble dangerously. "Thank you for your so-kind offer, but I won't need a cab."
"At least let me help you carry this thing. Are you going to a funeral after lunch?"
"I suppose I should have had these delivered," she said absently. She balanced her burden precariously on her hip and freed a hand to brush loose strands of mahogany-colored hair out of her eyes. "It isn't heavy, just a bit bulky, you know. Would you be so kind? I'm meeting my friend at `La Demesne Prohibe.' Do you know it?"
Kuryakin knew the place by reputation. It was exclusive and expensive enough to supply its clients with their every whim, and the seclusion which some of those whims demanded. "I know it well, Miss Taylor, and you have either misjudged the distance, or wish to be rid of me. It's the other direction, about 10 blocks. I will assist you, if insist on walking, but I think you would be more comfortable riding in a cab, or in my own car if you prefer."
She sighed, and he heard a rustle behind the flowers, as if she leant into them to breathe in inspiration with the bright, sharp, scent. "I suppose a cab is what's wanted, then. I can hardly pull you away from your work for my foolish errand." Her voice took on an air of finality. Clearly, this meeting was over. "I'll say good-bye here, then. It was good seeing you, Illya Nickovetch. We must talk again before I leave."
Kuryakin whistled and gestured curtly for a cab. When the vehicle slid into the curb, he blocked the back door, and would not let her pass. He reached past the hand, which hesitated, about to clasp the door handle, and clutched at her sleeve, crushing the delicate fabric until he could feel her muscle tense under his hand, anticipating pain. He saw her eyes widen at his audacity then spoke in a hurried undertone.
"Miss Taylor, Jess, whatever you're doing here, don't just disappear. Tell me where to reach you!" She sighed again. In that instant, she made a decision. He could hear regret in voice, and an urgency that matched his own.
"I'm at the Woodbridge, just across the Park, Illya. Call me this evening--we have much to talk about, so much to catch up on!" Clearly, he would get nothing else from her now. He opened the Taxi door for her, and helped her position the gigantic floral offering, careful not to rumple her dress any more. It was not until she disappeared around the corner, waving gaily through the cab's rear window, that his mind returned to the more mundane concerns of work, the training, and the trainees who were making their more or less subtle return from several directions at once. Illya ignored them, turned on his heel, led the way back into Del Floria's, and spoke not a word on the elevator. Whitman glanced at Illya's grim expression, and shuddered, certain he was due for the dressing-down of his life. Kuryakin was legendary for sharp tongue and scathing review-sessions when a trainee screwed up. Certainly, he merited his trainer's scorn this afternoon. To his amazement and relief, all Kuryakin to him was "Try again, tomorrow." The aspiring UNCLE agents assumed their mentor had retreated into one of his black moods and none of them dared remind him that he usually offered a detailed critique. The tape in the tape-editing room only deepened the mystery. Here, in dim seclusion of the viewing booth, Illya could watch the farce dispassionately, without distractions. Except for Whitman's erratic performance, there was no sign of "activity" on the street. Apparently, Jessie Taylor had not been lying about being in the city alone. If she alone, why the need for the floral production? If it was not to screen a confederate, was it to draw attention to herself?
Whose attention? He sighed in exasperation, and returned the tape cassette to the `erase and re-use' rack. Wherever the answers lay, they were not on the film. Waverly had said "first thing after lunch", which meant he had no time to spend in idle speculation. No matter what that woman was up to, he had work to do. Perhaps a trip to some distant place, and a bit of body-guarding or a trifle of work for whoever Waverly owed a favor would wash the whole thing from his mind. A sinking feeling in his stomach warned Illya, however, that Jessie represented a complication, one that wasn't going to be exorcised by hard work or a change of location. For a man who had spent his life avoiding complications, the prospect was daunting.
Waverly's office was empty, when Illya arrived. As he waited for Waverly's return, Illya found himself studying the room he had been in so often before. The image of the UN building gleamed in its usual place, the glycerin lamp shiny rained shiny drops, and the world's myriad troubles were reflected in yellow and red on the graphic representation of the spinning globe which occupied a wall-sized screen. He would just tell the Chief that he would prefer to stay in town, he told himself. After all, Napoleon hadn't done nearly his share of grunt assignments this year. It would do Solo good to travel and, besides, he had the class of trainees to watch. Kuryakin was sure that given the choice, Solo would much rather take on whatever "favor" Waverly than undertake the mother-henning of a clutch of nervous trainees. So intent was he in his thoughts that it was several seconds before he noticed an unusual scent in the air. That fragrance, crisp, sharp, and vital came from somewhere near his boss's console. Kuryakin turned to look at it, and gaped at what he saw. There, arranged with loving art was the huge bouquet of scarlet and yellow flowers he handed into a taxi not 90 minutes ago!
At that moment, Mr. Waverly swept in, and seated himself at the round conference table, ignoring both the flowers and his Agent's narrow-eyed stare.
"You're prompt, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Yes, Sir. Napoleon told me you have an assignment for me," Illya said softly, bowing to Fate. Who it was Waverly owed something to was now appallingly clear. All thoughts of shifting this particular grunt work onto his partner were completely blown out of head. If he could both do his job and find out what Jessie was up to, so much the better: for he was going to find out. Or die trying, the skeptical voice which was his constant companion whispered in his mind, and you might do just that. He forced the whisper of his more cautious self from his mind with an effort of will, and began paying attention to Waverly just in time to hear him say "Sandalia."
"Sandalia," Waverly repeated, pressing a button on his console which brought the to globe a smooth stop, and highlighted an irregular yellow spot in dotted lines which outlined the disputed territory. "Sandalia" is a provisional name adopted by a small but armed faction of Cypriots in Greece. Of course it has no official status, but the situation is unstable enough that anything can happen."
" Since when is this an UNCLE affair? You'll pardon my saying so, Sir, but the minor coups and counter-coups in that part of the world are usually resolved over tea at breakfast. Why are we concerned?"
"Ordinarily, we wouldn't be," the UNCLE chief replied. "Indeed, we weren't involved until two weeks ago. The unhappy coincidence of three things at once put whole mess on our plate: first, a Greek customs officer was kidnapped and taken into disputed territory now being called `Sandalia'.
Arrangements were being made for his release when, abruptly, talks fell through; second, we intercepted a THRUSH communiqué which hinted that THRUSH is stirring up trouble in both governments for of its own; and, third, I was asked for my help by a young lady of our mutual acquaintance, and I am not, unfortunately, in a position to refuse."
A dusky flush was creeping up into Waverly's face. He was obviously uncomfortable, and didn't want to answer any questions.
Illya had only one. "Am I correct, Sir, in assuming that the lady in question is the same one who gave you that bouquet of flowers?"
For a moment, Waverly looked taken aback by the agent's question. For only a moment. "You are," he said cautiously. "I believe you know more about this than I."
"I know Jessie Taylor," Illya replied with some heat. "I also know that whatever she's up to, it isn't what it appears to be. She certainly has the resources to accomplish anything she wants, herself. Why aren't her own people doing whatever it is?"
Waverly harrumphed. He was unused to being questioned by subordinates, even brilliant ones. "She did not take me into her confidence. I assume that they are not involved because she did not involve them. Alternatively, perhaps because she has involved them, and they are reluctant, I honestly do not know. However, the fact remains that I owe her, and she has called in the debt. I was not in a position to bargain at the time I incurred the debt, and I am not in a position to question her now."
"She's rather notorious for switching sides at a moment's notice, Sir. What do we have that she's not working with THRUSH?"
"None at all," Mr. Waverly said, wearily. "That is one of the first things I thought when Miss Taylor came to me with her request. That is also why, when she asked me a senior agent to accompany her..."
"No, Mr. Kuryakin. I refused." The Old man fumbled in a drawer, extracted a pipe, and began to fill it from a humidor on his desk. "But, the assignment," Kuryakin spluttered, "I thought..."
"You are entirely correct, Mr. Kuryakin, I do want you to go with Miss Taylor to Sandalia, or wherever this affair might lead you. You will be able to counteract any interference, and monitor Miss Taylor at the same time. On no account are you to let on to her that we distrust her, of course."
"Of course," Illya echoed unhappily. "In the meantime, won't she be distrustful if I happen to follow her there? She knows very well who I work for."
"That is precisely why I refused. I am not ordering you to go along on this wild goose chase. In fact, I am quite distinctly ordering you not to go." Waverly drilled Illya with a fierce under-the brows glare, and growled. "You are not, under any circumstances, to accompany Miss Taylor to Greece or anywhere else in furtherance of any schemes she may have invented."
The rugged face cleared, and Waverly came very near a smile, eyes warm and fond. "You know the consequences of disobeying orders, Mr. Kuryakin. If you are caught, I can't spare you. Still, the young woman can be persuasive. I can only hope you will be very persuasive, as well. You are likely to be invited, if you show any interest in her plans. If you must follow her without her knowledge, of course you shall, but I think you stand a good chance of being invited if you exercise your charm a bit."
Illya gulped, stiffened his back, and traded his superior glare for glare. "Are you asking me to allow myself to be seduced?" How absurd that sounded! As if he was some shy virgin in the clutches of a villain in a melodrama! As if he had any virtue left to defend! Still, the idea rankled, the affront to dignity stung, and he wanted his position spelled out in punishing detail, so that there could be no mistake about how much of a pawn he was, and how little his dignity mattered.
Waverlys gaze did not flinch. "You are to do whatever is necessary to accomplish your aims, Mr. Kuryakin. Your sexuality is not a matter I have ever inquired after. Is it matter of concern to us now?"
Kuryakin did not answer. Certainly, he had no particular shyness on that account, but notion of trading his body for political advantage had never been so coldly discussed. At least, a disloyal fragment of his heart replied, anything Jessie did, she did with passion.
"Charm was always Napoleon's department," Illya said half to himself.
"Perhaps," Waverly said gently, "you underestimate yourself, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Perhaps, Mr. Waverly, we are both underestimating Jessie Taylor."
The old man put the curved stem in his mouth, and sucked at the unlit pipe thoughtfully.
"There are few things as unpredictable as women," he observed, "young women in particular. I refused her request, because the situation is too nebulous for an official stand on either side. I am sending you because the threat to our interests is not in the least nebulous, no matter which side wins. Miss Taylor is a joker in the pack. It is to keep track of her, because the extent of her influence is unknown that I am sending you. I expect you to locate her sometime this evening to discuss the details. Do you any questions?"
"None, sir," Illya said unhappily. The implications of his assignment were clear. He was on an "unofficial" assignment, and he was expendable if anything went wrong. He excused himself as politely as he could, and went back to his apartment to pack.
His apartment was cool and silent, all the security lights reassuringly green. A quick shower, then, and a change of clothes. It wouldn't do to seem eager. The water was hot and the simple process of washing did much to improve his mood. It wasn't as if he hadn't done everything Mr. Waverly implied and more on his own initiative, and without being asked. It was just... well, disconcerting to think that something so intimate could have very public repercussions. Still toweling his hair, he padded into the bedroom to select appropriate clothes. Dinner would likely be somewhere expensive, but a tuxedo would be too formal, his work clothes were too ordinary. Sighing, he selected a midnight blue blazer, pants to match. The shirt would be white, but a soft knit, not starched cotton. At least, with this, he wouldn't have to wear a tie. Ankle-boots, he decided, not shoes; a nod in the direction of fashion. A swift glance in the mirror confirmed that he had chosen well. His gun and holster did not spoil the cut of his blazer. Holster bulges were not only unfashionable, they could be misconstrued so easily. The effect would that he was off-duty, if not off-guard, and he would look deliberately casual, not underdressed.
Feeling much more like a sacrificial lamb than he liked, but determined make the best of it, he left his own car in his building's parking garage, and took a cab to the Hotel Woodbridge.
Scandal Part 2