Title: Pandora's Box
written for Scrapbook's Halloween Challenge 2013
October 22, 1962.
The UNCLE Commissary was crowded – unusually so, considering the lateness of the hour. People huddled together at the tables, drinking endless cups of coffee and whispering in hushed tones about the Soviet missiles discovered in Cuba, and the likelihood of war if Khruschev refused to back down.
“ – clear photographic evidence” – “emergency meeting of the UN Security Council” – “DEFCON 3” – “President Kennedy addressing the nation tonight” –
Napoleon picked up a tray and got into line, feigning a calm he did not feel. He selected a ham sandwich and a slice of chocolate cream pie without giving the matter much consideration.
“Is the coffee fresh?” he asked Consuela Gonzales, the waitress behind the counter.
“I just put a new pot on.” She leaned across the Formica countertop, lowering her voice. “It's terrible, what's happening, don't you think?”
“Terrible,” he agreed.
“They say there might be a war. A nuclear war.” Her eyes widened in fear.
“I'm sure it won't come to that.” He gave her hand a reassuring pat.
“Of course not,” she nodded bravely.
“Keep the coffee hot and fresh, will you? And Mr. Waverly will probably want sandwiches sent up later. I have the feeling it's going to be a long night.”
“We'll have them ready, Mr Solo. By the way –?”
He glanced back. “Yes?”
Her eyes slid past his shoulder. Her voice dropped to a murmur. “See that young man in the corner? The blond one?”
Napoleon turned, scanning the room. A man in a cheap black suit and tinted glasses sat alone at the farthest table, wolfing down a bowl of macaroni and cheese. He was reading a thick textbook, from which he occasionally took notes. “You mean Agent Kuryakin?”
She nodded. “He arrived two days ago, from our Berlin office, I think he said.”
Napoleon frowned. “Is there a problem?”
“Oh, no! He's a very nice young man, polite and respectful –”
Consuela's mouth tightened in disapproval. “The problem is with some of the other agents. They're upset that Mr. Waverly has 'let a damned Commie spy into UNCLE.' Their words, not mine.”
“'A fox in the henhouse,' one of the agents called him. They're wondering 'what he's really doing here in New York.'”
Napoleon scanned the room again, and this time he noticed what he had missed before – that although the Commissary was crowded, the tables around Kuryakin remained glaringly empty. As though the young man carried a communicable disease.
Illya Kuryakin's record since joining UNCLE had been exemplary. He had proven himself to be an exceptionally skilled operative, acquitting himself with distinction in both of his previous postings. The head of UNCLE's London office raved about his intellectual brilliance, and as for Berlin – well, Harry Beldon was never one to hold back an opinion. He had expressed in no uncertain terms his “extreme umbrage” at what he considered Waverly's “poaching” of his best agent.
In point of fact, Kuryakin himself had requested the transfer out of Berlin, for reasons Napoleon had yet to discover. Waverly had thrown his full and enthusiastic support behind the request, cutting through several feet of red tape to bring the Russian under his wing. That singular endorsement said a great deal about the young man in question, for Alexander Waverly was no fool.
Time to see what all the fuss is about, Napoleon decided, and headed for Kuryakin's table.
He heard snatches of conversation as he passed – “not going to sit with that Russkie, is he?” – “no place in UNCLE for his kind” – “can't trust a Commie – ” Napoleon's jaw clenched, although his smile remained in place. He identified the worst offenders and filed the information away. He'd deal with them later.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Is this seat taken?”
The young agent looked up. “The seat is empty, but I would think twice before sitting there if I were you.”
He waved at the swath of empty tables surrounding them. “I appear to have something contagious.”
“Oh, that.” Napoleon set his tray down and pulled out a chair. “I've had all my shots. Besides, I prefer an unobstructed view. Easier to see the bullets flying.” He held out his hand. “Napoleon Solo.”
They shook. “Illya Kuryakin,”
Napoleon noted that all conversation in the room had ceased. The other diners were watching their interaction with unabashed curiosity. “Why do I get the feeling it's feeding time at the zoo?” he declaimed in a loud voice, and watched dozens of pairs of eyes dart away.
Illya lips twitched in what could have been a smile.
“Mother made me take elocution lessons in grammar school,” Napoleon remarked as he took a seat. “It comes in handy now and then.” He added cream to his coffee, and started in on his sandwich. While he ate, he stole a glance at the textbook in the young agent's hand, Parminter's Hornbook On International Maritime Law. “Doing a little light reading?”
“I am familiarizing myself with current international maritime regulations.” He turned a page.
“Sounds positively riveting. Dare I ask why?”
A shrug. “It interests me.”
“Hmm.” Napoleon took a sip of his coffee, which had cooled sufficiently to drink. “I suppose it must have something to do with your naval background. If I remember correctly, you spent a year on a Soviet submarine?”
Illya removed his reading glasses, and studied the senior agent with narrowed eyes. “I see you have done some 'light reading' of your own.”
“If you mean, have I read your dossier-- yes, I have, Mr. Kuryakin. Yours, and every other agent that walks through these doors.”
“I trust it was illuminating.” Illya bookmarked the open page, and scribbled a note in the margin.
Talk about a Cold War...
Across the room, a burst of raucous laughter drew their attention. Illya muttered something under his breath.
“Careful,” Napoleon remarked mildly. “I should warn you, I speak a fair amount of Russian.”
Illya favored him with a thin smile. “You speak fluent Russian, which you learned while stationed in Korea.” He shrugged. “You are not the only one who reads dossiers.”
Napoleon couldn't help but laugh. “Well, well. Waverly warned me you were full of surprises! Touché!” He glanced at the group of agents clustered together on the opposite side of the room. “A word of advice, Mr. Kuryakin – don't let their antics get to you.”
“'Antics?'” For an instant, Illya's eyes blazed, and Napoleon caught a glimpse of just how dangerous the man could be. Then, just as suddenly, the fire was gone, replaced by a cool propriety that felt every bit as dangerous as the anger. Napoleon realized he had struck a nerve.
Napoleon realized he had struck a nerve. “I apologize if my choice of words offended you,” he said.
“Not at all,” the Russian replied, his voice a silky purr. “It is merely that 'antics' seems a pale description of their behavior. They are hardly schoolboys, after all.”
“No, they're not. Their rudeness is inexcusable, the more so because they're UNCLE personnel. It won't be tolerated – I can promise you that.”
Illya sat back, exuding an icy calm that Napoleon imagined must serve him well in interrogations. His eyes were shards of blue glass. “Why are you here, Mr. Solo? Clearly, this is no chance meeting in a cafeteria. Am I under investigation?”
The question surprised him. “Actually, this meeting is very much by chance. Consuela was worried about you. She asked me to make sure you were okay.”
“Consuela?” Illya glanced toward the counter, where the young woman in question stood watching. His expression softened. “My apologies, Mr. Solo. I assumed you had been sent to interrogate me. I had enough of macho power plays with Strothers in Berlin.”
Ah, so that's what happened. A piece of the puzzle fell into place. Gerald Strothers,* Chief of Security for Berlin HQ, was a relentless, nit-picking son-of-a-pit bull. Kuryakin, as the sole Soviet in all of UNCLE, must have been unlucky enough to ping his radar.
“You wouldn't be here if Mr. Waverly wasn't entirely satisfied with your credentials,” he assured the young agent.
Illya relaxed visibly.
Napoleon abandoned his rather tasteless sandwich, and reached for the slice of chocolate cream pie. “I'm glad I finally got the chance to meet you,” he said as he sampled the rich confection. “By all rights, I should have been on hand when you arrived from Berlin but, with the Cuban crisis exploding all over the news, my schedule's been a tad unpredictable the past few days.”
“Has there been any progress?”
“Afraid not.” He paused. “I'm due at a meeting upstairs in a couple of minutes – Waverly's actually managed to talk the the Secretary of State and the Soviet Foreign Minister into sitting down at the same table – miracle of miracles.” He sighed. “They'll probably spend the night arguing over who gets to sit at the head of the table.”
“Sanity rarely has anything to do with politics,” Illya replied, his voice tinged with bitterness. He shrugged. “Forgive me. I have had this conversation before, too many times.”
Napoleon thought that the young Russian looked tired. Like someone who's been swimming against the tide his whole life. He took another bite of pie, and chewed thoughtfully. “I wonder – while I'm waiting, I'd be interested to hear your impressions of the situation. Frankly, I could use a fresh perspective.”
“Of course. What is it you would like to know?”
"Well, for one thing, what does Premier Kruschev expect to get out of this confrontation?"
“His primary objective appears to be the closing of the American missile bases in Turkey. He claims they are too close to the Soviet border, and could be used to strike at targets within the Soviet Union.”
“President Kennedy has refused to close the bases, and this refusal has made Khruschev angry. I am told the Premier has a summer home in Sochi, and does not appreciate having ballistic missiles 'aimed at his dacha.'”
“Somehow I doubt that's the real issue.”
Illya snorted. “The Premier is first and foremost a politician, so there is always an underlying text. I suspect his real concern is the discrepancy in the number of nuclear warheads the United States possesses, vis à vis the Soviet Union – a ten to one ratio at last estimate. That imbalance will have caused considerable concern within the Kremlin. Khruschev believes that placing long-range nuclear missiles in Cuba will shift the balance of power back to the USSR, consolidating his position with the Party heads in Moscow.”
“Unlikely. The Premier is shrewd, but he has made a serious miscalculation this time. President Kennedy is not the weak and ineffective leader Khruschev imagined him to be. He learned a great deal from the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, with elections coming up in two years, he is determined to appear strong. Also, Kennedy is genuinely alarmed. He knows that missiles launched from Cuba have sufficient range to destroy targets as far away as New York or Los Angeles.”
“Faced with a clear threat to national security, President Kennedy has no choice but to act, demanding that Khruschev shut down the site.”
“Backed into a corner in full view of the world, the Premier has no choice but to refuse. Stalemate.”
Concise and to the point. Napoleon felt a cold dread settle upon his heart. The two superpowers were on a deadly collision course, with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance. Was there still time to make a difference – to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat?
Illya sighed. “Pandora's Box.”
“The Greek myth. Pandora opens a box she has been warned never to open, releasing a terrible swarm of evils into the world.”
Napoleon recalled the tale, read years ago in a Bullfinch's Mythology. Pandora, formed of clay, clothed by Athena and gifted by the gods with unshakable curiosity, had been unable to resist opening the box. The evils released by her action doomed mankind to eons of misery and suffering. It was an apt analogy. “Worst case scenario?”
Illya's eyes were bleak. “Kennedy and Khruschev stubbornly stand their ground, and wait too long to negotiate. Pandora's Box is opened, releasing a horror, the likes of which the Greeks never dreamed. The world burns to ashes.”
It was a chilling prospect, and one that had haunted Napoleon's dreams in recent days. “Do you see a way out?”
Illya steepled his hands before him. “It might still be possible to diffuse the situation, if a way could be found to do it without either party losing face. Perhaps through an intermediary, on neutral ground –”
“Would Premier Khruschev be open to negotiation, assuming it could be done discreetly?”
“Difficult to say. The Premier cannot afford to look weak. His decision to ship missiles to Cuba was ill-considered, and has created a political firestorm for him. If he prevails in this confrontation with the US, he will be hailed as a hero, but if he does not, he loses face with the Party. He becomes an embarrassment, and will not long remain in power.”
“You sound very sure of that.”
“I am. Premier Khruschev is a proud and desperate man. He knows he has made a serious blunder, but it is not in his character to back down. If your President Kennedy does not back down either, there will be war. And there are enough war-mongering generals on both sides of the conflict to assure that the world will be a burnt-out cinder by the time they are through with it.”
The image of a city in flames flashed before Napoleon's eyes, smoke blackening the horizon in a terrible holocaust of unimaginable destruction. It was his worst nightmare, the ghastly vision that woke him in the small hours of the morning, shivering and damp with sweat. A portion of his brain sought to identify the city – was it New York, or LA, Leningrad or Moscow? In his heart, he knew it didn't matter. All the cities would be gone. “Do you think war is inevitable?” he asked.
“War is never inevitable,” Illya responded quietly. “It is only fear that makes it so.”
They sat in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts. Illya pushed his half-eaten meal away. Napoleon's coffee went cold.
Napoleon's communicator whistled, startling him. “Solo here.”
“Mr. Solo, the Section One heads are waiting for you in the conference room. The Secretary of State and the Soviet Foreign Minister have just arrived.”
“On my way.” He stood, gathering up the remains of his meal. “No rest for the weary,” he smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Kuryakin. You've given me a lot to think about.”
Illya dipped his head in acknowledgment. He opened the Hornbook, licked the tip of his pencil, and resumed reading.
Napoleon wound his way through the sea of tables, heading for the exit. To his fellow agents, he seemed preoccupied, oblivious to his surroundings. A group of stenographers called out greetings, but he ignored them. They whispered among themselves as he passed, wondering whether his somber mood was an indication of bad news.
Abruptly, he stopped. He took a deep breath, and then another. “Why not?” he murmured. His jaw set. “Why the hell not?” He turned, and retraced his steps to the corner table where Illya sat, engrossed in his studies.
“Mr. Kuryakin,” he said, “I've just had a thought.”
Illya glanced up in surprise. “Did you forget something?”
“In a manner of speaking. I wanted to ask you to accompany me to the meeting.”
A single eyebrow arched. “Forgive me, but wouldn't that constitute a rather serious breach of protocol? Level One meetings are closed door, authorized personnel only, and I lack the necessary clearance to –”
Napoleon held up a hand. “Let me worry about that. As CEA, I have some say as to who gets in.”
“But why would – ?”
“With the two superpowers threatening to blow each other to Kingdom Come, we can use a few level heads in that conference room, and you, Mr. Kuryakin, are as level-headed as they come. ”
Illya sat back, studying the senior agent. “You are serious, aren't you?”
“Very. You have an excellent grasp of the crisis, and I think the Section Heads ought to hear what you have to say. Not only that: the representatives of the two superpowers will get to see an American and a Soviet working together as a team – proof that it's possible for competing ideologies to find common ground.” He smiled. “I suspect they could benefit from the lesson, don't you?”
Illya felt a surge of pride at the words, and something more – the adrenaline rush that always preceded a difficult mission. “You are determined to do this?”
He stood, and gathered up his books. “Then I suggest we do not keep them waiting. With any luck, perhaps it is not too late to close Pandora's Box.”
“That's the spirit. 'Screw our courage to the sticking-place, and we'll not fail.'”
“Playing on my affinity for Shakespeare?” Illya muttered in mock chagrin. “Yet another detail plucked –?”
“– from your dossier.” Napoleon grinned. “If you must know, I've got the damned thing memorized.”
They crossed the Commissary together, striding past the curious faces of their fellow agents, and the smiling countenance of Consuela Gonzales. An avalanche of conversation sprang up in their wake.
They passed through the Commissary's double doors, and left the sudden burst of chatter behind. “Incidentally,” the senior agent said as they approached the bank of elevators, “since we're going to be saving the world together, maybe we could do it on a first-name basis?” He smiled. “I'm Napoleon.”
“Illya,” the Russian replied with a crisp nod as the elevator dinged its arrival.
*Gerald Strothers appears in the Season Four episode, “The Summit Five.”