by Barbara Zuchegna

There is always a letdown. The job is finished. The world is saved once again. The adrenalin has been churning furiously for hours or days, the muscles hair-triggered, and suddenly there is no outlet. There is no danger. The bright colors fade, and the sounds dull, and something inside itches maddeningly for something, anything, to blow off the built-up head of steam.

Napoleon Solo stared glumly down at the plate of prawns in front of him, repressing the urge to lift the damned thing and hurl it across the room. All around him, the noise and alegria of the feria crowd swirled. Men in the old-fashioned traje corto, women in layers of ruffles, everybody jabbering and excited, thrilled with the afternoon's corrida, joyously anticipating tomorrow's. Streamers of garish red and yellow, the national colors, swayed overhead in the smoky, agitated air and hung from every available open space on the walls. The pale, potent wines of Andalucia flowed exuberantly everywhere, in raised toasts and in secret corner trysts, giving an extra, tipsy glow to every smile, a deeper, resonating wail to the cante hondo singer trying to make himself heard over the noise of the crowd.

"This was a mistake," Illya Kuryakin said.

Solo lifted his eyes from the prawns and regarded his partner with no greater enthusiasm. Maybe he should try throwing Illya across the room. That at least held the promise of a certain amount of risk.

"Sevilla at feria time is no place for a man in your mood," Illya said pragmatically. "We should have had dinner sent up to the room and just gone to bed early."

The problem, of course, was that they couldn't get a plane out until morning. On a plane, at least they would have been moving. They could be looking ahead to the next job. Mr. Waverly had already said something about a situation in Vancouver that he wanted them to attend to. Just the prospect kept the nerves in check. But their flight didn't leave until ten o'clock tomorrow morning. That left twelve hours to kill...somehow.

"I think," Napoleon Solo said, "if I were confined to a hotel room tonight, I would set fire to it."

Illya nodded, unperturbed. He was no less affected by the end-of-job letdown, as Solo knew very well. But he was a whole lot better at not letting it show.

It wouldn't have been so bad if this had been an ordinary night in Seville. Spanish towns tended to go to bed early, most of the year, and the quiet would have been easier to take. But it was spring, and it was Holy Week, and the yearly fair was in full blossom...parades and bullfights every afternoon, partying every night, and no one at all in bed until well after daylight. Everyone was just so...happy. It was maddening.

There was a sudden, increased swell of sound and activity from the front of the cafe. The gypsy singer and his accompanists fell silent, as did most of the patrons, everyone craning their necks for a better look at what was happening at the door.

"Ah," Illya murmured, with a note of some surprise. "The Maestro."

The man's name was Diego Vara, but he was known throughout the Spanish-speaking world as "El Maestro", the greatest matador, it was widely acknowledged, since the still-deeply- mourned Manolete. He had fought two bulls earlier that day and cut ears and tail from both, putting the other toreros on the bill to shame and the watching crowd into paroxysms of ecstasy. From the desk clerk at the hotel to the waiter who served their dinner, it was all anyone wanted to talk about, and now the great man had deigned to honor this very cafe with his presence.

And his horde of hangers-on. These came in all shapes and sizes and sexes and swirled around him like multi-colored confetti. In the center of the maelstorm, the man himself was curiously somber, very dignified in his conservative, dark, three-piece suit, with a look on his face that hinted at a crushing headache. He looked, in fact, Solo thought, as if he would rather be just about anywhere else in the world than where he was. Solo could certainly sympathize with that.

The crowd swept on into the cafe, noisy and in constant, frenetic motion. In its center, like the eye of a hurricane, Vara moved with almost eerie calm. He was not a handsome man, but he moved with immense dignity and a certain inborn grace. His face, long and thin and dominated by huge, sorrowful eyes, could have come straight out of an El Greco canvas. Surrounded by laughing, chattering, elegantly dressed sycophants, he was as clearly separate from them as if he had been a priest at a rock festival.

All around, the other patrons of the cafe maintained a respectful, subdued silence. On the small dais at the very back of the room, the gypsy musicians began an enthusiastic blowing and strumming, a poor man's imitation of the dianas, the music played in the bullring to celebrate a matador's triumph. Vara acknowledged this with a small, tight nod to the musicians, but otherwise ignored everything around him as if he were utterly alone. That was very much the impression he gave, Solo realized, in spite of the crowd around him. The man seemed to be entirely alone.

"Now there's a thought," Illya said suddenly.

"Hmmm?" Solo turned to look at him. Illya, he saw, was watching the somber Vara, too. "What's a thought?"

But Illya didn't answer. He pushed back his chair and stood, watching Vara approach with his retinue. Solo saw Vara's eyes sweep this way, drawn by the movement, and then widen in shock. There was an instant of absolute disbelief, and then Vara's face lit with an almost joyous smile and he came to sudden, purposeful life, pushing people out of his way with single-minded determination as he headed straight for the table where Solo, frowning, was watching a small, affectionate smile appear on Illya's face.

"Rusito!" Reaching Illya, Vara caught his shoulders in both hands and drew him into an enthusiastic embrace, the stiff, male-bonding abrazo with which Spanish males everywhere greeted each other. Illya responded with more reserve, but he was clearly pleased to see what was, apparently, an old friend. Watching them, Napoleon Solo was struck once again, as he so often was, by how little he knew of where Illya went, and what he did, when he wasn't working.

There was a moment of swiftly-chattered Spanish flowing back and forth between the two men. Solo's Spanish was pretty good, but it was Castilian, and the slurred and mumbled, consonant-dropping Andaluz dialect was gibberish. Not, obviously, to Illya. But then, Solo had watched Illya, in Arkansas on a recent memorable occasion, speak fluent American Ozarkese without difficulty, so Andaluz was probably a snap by comparison.

"Vaya!" Vara said sharply, to one of his group who dared to pluck at his arm, trying to get his attention. He made a gesture with one imperious hand that shooed the entire bunch of them. "Dejame solo!" he said with stern authority, and it was clear that he wasn't using a proper name.

The group receded like seawater flowing back from a beach, rolling away to cluster around the large table toward which the cafe's owner had been urging them. Vara watched them go with a fierce eye, discouraging any attempt to draw him with them. When he was certain they'd given up on him, he turned back to Illya with a much happier and oddly younger expression and the flood of Andaluz resumed.

"Napoleon." Illya turned to him at last, fully aware of the disgruntled expression darkening Solo's face. "May I present Diego Vara? Diego, mi compadre y amigo, Napoleon Solo."

Vara actually clicked his heels as he bowed, very formally, and then smiled and took Solo's hand. The smile, for Solo, was more restrained, but there was a likeable warmth in it. What was more striking, though, was the impression of overwhelming sadness that filled the man's large, intensely dark eyes, a sadness not at all lightened by his obvious pleasure. Vara said something, again in Andaluz, but Solo could catch part of it this time, a sort of "Any friend of the little Russian's..."

"Diego," Illya said. "Napoleon's Andaluz is not very good."

"Ah." Vara nodded apologetically. "Senor Solo, I'm very pleased to meet you." His English was unexpectedly good, and British accented, and rather formal. His voice was strikingly deep, almost sepulchral, and very soft. Everything about the man, Solo thought, spoke of rigid self control, maintained with obvious strain, from the soft voice to the squared shoulders, from the tight smile to the brief handclasp.

"Please," Illya said. "Sit. Have some wine."

Vara sat, as did Illya, but shook his head at the offered wine bottle. "Forgive me, my friend," he said. "I'm still fighting last night's hangover. Tomorrow there will be Urquijos...monsters. I'm trying to clear my head. Were you there today?"

"No, sadly." Illya looked at Solo. "We to attend to."

"We've heard that you triumphed, matador," Solo said.

"Pah!" Vara's expletive was not quite spitting, but very close. His disgust was evident. "Calves," he said. "It is the shame of my profession, Senor Solo. Napoleone? Napoleone. The impresarios cheat the public and the toreros with calves. These, today, were hardly more than two years old. If it had not been feria, I would have refused to fight. But tomorrow....tomorrow there are Urquijos. This, I demanded before I would agree to appear here at all this year. At least one corrida of four-year-old Urquijos. And they are here, in the corrals at La Maestranza."

Solo was lost. "I'm sorry," he said. "But what are Urquijos?" The Maestranza, he knew, was the local bullring, one of the largest in the country.

It was Illya who answered, and Solo realized that he didn't look thrilled. "The biggest bulls in Spain, Napoleon. Very old-fashioned. All the bull ranches have been breeding smaller animals for years, but the old man who owns the Urquijos has refused to do so. His bulls are hardly ever used anymore."

"Yes," Vara said, nodding. "The old marquis has kept the strain pure. These are the great animals Joselito and Belmonte fought, before the Civil War. But they are never bought for the bullring unless the torero insists, and most are happy not to do so." He turned back to Illya, smiling again. "But how wonderful to see you here again, amigo. Is your business complete? Will you be there for tomorrow's corrida?"

"No. I regret it, but we must leave for New York tomorrow morning. Suerte, Diego."

"Thank you. Is there no way you can stay for one more day? Wouldn't you like for me to dedicate an Urquijo to you?"

Illya shook his head. "It would be an honor, but it isn't possible. But, Diego, I was thinking, if you are not occupied tonight....?" Illya's eyes drifted over to the now-sullen group of people who had come in with Vara, and who were watching from their table with distinct dislike for the foreigners who had stolen their matador.

"Them?" Vara made a small, dismissive gesture. "Ignore them. There are one or two members of the press with them, and my remember Ramon?...insists that I be agreeable. But I no longer feel agreeable, Rusito." His smile, in spite of a touch of happy mischief, did not touch the aching sadness still there in his eyes. "You have something in mind?"

Illya looked across the table to his partner. "Napoleon," he said to Vara, "is bored. I thought, if you had a little free time tonight, that we might entertain him." He dropped, suddenly and deliberately rude, into rapid Andaluz, perfectly aware that Solo could not understand. Vara obviously did, and his face lit with delight. It was as if years of hard experience and grief had fallen suddenly away.

Laughing, Vara jumped up from his chair. "Vamanos!" he said joyously, and headed for the door.

Puzzled, irritated, but feeling a certain reckless eagerness, Solo rose, with Illya, who had the foresight to grab the wine bottle, and followed.

They took Vara's car, a huge, stately Rolls that had to be thirty years old but was in perfect, show-room condition. "It is not so much pleasure to drive as some others I own," Vara said deprecatingly when Solo admired the monster, "but it is necessary. We fly when we can, but there are few towns with airports, and usually it is necessary to drive from one corrida to the next, and this little car has room for me to sleep in the back and to carry much of our tools in the boot."

They were all sitting in front, with Illya in the middle. There was room for another two or three people, in case they ran across anyone interesting. "Are you contracted for so many fights this year?" Illya asked. "I had understood that you intended to retire, that there would be only a few of the big ferias this season."

Vara's smile disappeared. "Pues...things do not often work out the way we plan, compadre. But this is the last year. And this time, I will not change my mind."

They were driving south, out of the city, across the broad Guadalaquivir, its sluggish water glittering in the gentle light of the spring moon, and on through the dark, empty countryside of rural Andalucia. Into the small silence that followed Vara's words, Solo said, "Is anybody going to tell me where we're going?"

"No," Illya said. He reached forward and turned on the car's radio. Immediately, the eerie wail of gypsy music filled the car, accompanied by a woman's harsh voice and the strangely arhythmic clicking of castanets.

"Ah," Vara said approvingly. "La Angustia. Remember her, Rusito? She is very famous now, on the television every weekend. Not the little girl you knew anymore." He began tapping the steering wheel with one hand as he drove, keeping time to the complicated rhythm.

Solo leaned closer to his partner and spoke in a low voice. "Will you at least tell me where you know each other from?"

The blue eyes swung toward him, vivid even in the small light from the dashboard. "I was stationed in Cadiz at one time, Napoleon. A long time ago; a job that wasn't important and ended badly. The cover was that of a junior consular official, which deceived no one at all. Diego was one of the local laborers who had been hired to build the wall around the new consulate there, and he was kind enough to take pity on a rather dissolute young foreigner with no head at all for the local wines."

Vara laughed. "No head for wine, but too much an eye for the women, eh, amigo?"

This was a picture Solo could not remotely connect to the Illya Kuryakin he knew. As Illya's head swung back around, resolutely straight forward, Solo continued to study his profile. In all the years of their partnership, he had never seen Illya drunk, nor had he ever seen him approach a woman who was not sending out overt and determined invitation.

Since Illya's thunderous silence seemed to indicate a certain reluctance to explore the subject further, Solo settled back in place, watching the moonlit countryside whip past through the big, square windshield. The land was gradually rising, plains giving way to gently rolling hills. Ahead, higher, sharper crags made black silhouettes against the midnight blue of the sky. Vara was driving very fast, on roads that appeared to be otherwise deserted, and though he had no idea what they were rushing toward, Napoleon Solo felt the restless turbulence inside him questing eagerly forward...toward whatever Vara and Illya thought of as "entertainment", and to, perhaps, a glimpse into the past and the rigidly controlled psyche of the man beside him.

part two of Torero