The Trouble With Amphibians
(Part One of THE TEN PLAGUES AFFAIR)
Act I: A Frog in the Hand...
It was Spring, the season of hope and rebirth, whose promise should have brought forth visions of yellow daffodils swaying in the fields out on Long Island, and sunny afternoons spent playing Frisbee under the budding maple trees in Central Park. Instead, it was raining. Again. Ten days in a row. A cold, dreary, endless rain, with more predicted for the weekend. A misery of rain, Illya thought sourly as he slowed to cross another flooded intersection. Like a murder of crows. A wave of muddy water briefly inundated the DeLorean's windshield as a sedan fishtailed by, speeding in the opposite direction
"You tell 'em, tovarisch." Napoleon leaned back, sipping his coffee, his arm stretched casually across the leather seatback. "A tad grumpy this morning, are we?"
"It is raining. What is there to smile about?" Illya turned onto East 45th, and began looking for a parking space.
"Maybe it's a THRUSH plot. Another of their evil weather machines, designed to wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting world. Remember how much fun we had, blowing up the last one?"
"Please, Napoleon, spare me your good cheer. I think I may be coming down with something." Illya sneezed to emphasize his point.
"Serves you right for forgetting to take an umbrella. You're soaked to the skin."
"I gave away my umbrella when I left London. Perhaps it is time to buy a new one." He pulled into the perpetually available space in front of Del Floria's Tailor Shop, and cut the engine. "Still raining." Illya peered through the windshield at the leaden skies. "And those clouds look ominous."
"Ah, well, you know what they say: 'into every life, a little rain must fall.'"
"The key phrase being 'a little rain.'" He flipped up the collar of his jacket. "I suppose we ought to make a run for it."
"No time like the present." Napoleon raised the DeLorean's gull wing door. "Come, tovarisch, let us 'screw our courage to the sticking place.'"
Illya sighed. "'Once more into the breach.'" Sneezing, he followed his partner down the steps to Del Floria's Tailor Shop.
"Gentlemen," the old man nodded as they entered. "Not a fit day for raising chickens, as my old nonna used to say."
Illya sneezed again.
"Oh-oh, Mr. K, you're not looking too good this morning."
"It's this miserable weather, Giovanni. Even the rats are drowning."
"And look at your suit! Tsk tsk." Del Floria shook his head at the sight of Illya's drenched and rumpled clothing. "Lemme press that jacket for you."
"Thank you," he replied, shrugging off the offending garment, "but I can manage." Holding it by the sleeves like a garrotte, he twisted and wrung the poor thing to within an inch of it's life. Del Floria looked on in dismay.
"You can stop now, Mr. K. I think it's dead."
"So that's where all the wrinkles come from," Napoleon observed blithely. "And here I thought you were just messy."
"The tag says 'wash and wear,'" Illya replied, as though that settled the matter.
"Hey, Illya, take a look at this."
He turned, alert to the change in his partner's tone. Napoleon was staring at something -- an object of some kind -- attached to the doorjamb. "What is it?" he asked, edging closer. "Some sort of listening device?"
Napoleon laughed. "Nothing so insidious. It's a little frog. Or a toad. I can never tell the difference." He wagged a finger at it. "Hey there, li'l fella. How did you get in here?" The frog's throat swelled in response.
"He probably missed the Ark, and is looking for someplace to dry off until the waters recede." Illya leaned in to study the creature. "Hyla chrysoscellis."
"Commonly known as a gray tree frog. See the small white spot under the eye?"
"It makes the species relatively easy to identify. Tree frogs are quite common in this part of the country. They are harmless little creatures."
"And cute as a button." Napoleon shifted position, and watched the frog's limpid eyes follow him. "If he's a gray tree frog, why is he green?"
Illya shrugged. "Perhaps it's his breeding color." He stifled another sneeze. His eyes had begun to water.
"Well he can't stay here," Del Floria declared firmly. "I got customers coming in and out all day. Can't you gentlemen escort him from the premises? Gently, of course."
"If you wish." Illya held out his hand. "Bud'te spokojny, little one." With a happy chirp, the frog hopped onto his palm.
"Gee, tovarisch, I think the little guy likes you."
Illya's arch expression spoke volumes. "Come, little hyla chrysoscellis. Do not listen to that annoying man. Your liberation is at hand." Cradling the frog in cupped hands, he opened the shop door and stepped outside, just as the skies opened up once more.
"Try not to sneeze on the poor thing," Napoleon called after them.
Act II: ...is worth Two in the Stew
The dismal weather seemed to be having an adverse affect on everyone. In the Commissary, normally a lively and boisterous place, people sat around sniffling and coughing, picking at their food occasionally, but not doing much else. A general air of listlessness hung over the place; even the normally vivacious clique of translators having lunch at the corner table looked gloomy -- Mandy, particularly so.
"I doubt even you can cheer them up, Napoleon," Illya said as he followed his friend through the lunch line, balancing a bowl of Irish stew atop a prodigious stack of reports. "Unless, of course, you can promise them a sunny day tomorrow."
A fit of coughing took him by surprise; the bowl of stew wobbled and would have fallen, had Napoleon not been there to steady it. Illya took a seat, and closed his eyes gratefully. "I think I'm getting laryngitis," he said, his voice falling to a gravelly whisper.
"Frog in your throat?"
"Very funny." He stifled another fit of coughing. "Is it too much to ask, Napoleon, that our next mission be somewhere in the Caribbean?"
"Your mouth to God's ear."
He dry-swallowed two aspirin. "Alas, I do not believe your God is listening."
"You know, maybe you should go home, tovarisch. There's nothing much going on today, and you really do look terrible."
Illya's eyes crept open. "Leave? Who is going to finish all these personnel reports? You?"
"I thought not." He took a spoonful of stew, grimacing as he swallowed. "This is terrible stew. And now my throat hurts."
Napoleon knew when he was beaten. "All right, Illya. You win. I'll finish half of the reports, but I can't promise more than that. I have a date at seven with Whimsy Darlington -- "
"Whimsy Darlington. Surveillance Department? Gorgeous brunette? Built like Elke Sommer?"
Illya shook his head.
"She's a transfer from one of our Midwest offices. I bumped into her in the Commissary last week. A delightful young woman, warm and clever, and with the loveliest violet eyes you've ever seen. Come on, Illya, you must have noticed her in the halls."
He frowned. "I'm certain I would remember meeting someone named 'Whimsy.' It is an unusual name."
"Short for 'Wilhelmena,' she says. She laughed when I told her mine. Said that with names like ours, we were bound to be kindred spirits." Napoleon grinned rakishly. "I sincerely hope so."
Illya took another spoonful of stew. Abruptly, his face paled. "Chyort!" he exclaimed. "There is a frog in my stew!"
Napoleon rolled his eyes. "Doing the backstroke?"
"I'm serious! Look!"
Indeed, a small green frog floated, face up, amidst the peas and diced bits of ham.
"It's dead, poor thing."
"From the cuisine, no doubt." Illya prodded the tiny carcass with his spoon. "It's another tree frog, like the one in Del Floria's. I can see the white spot beside the eye."
Napoleon relaxed a fraction. "But what's it doing in your food?"
"It must have gotten into the kitchen through the plumbing or ventilation systems. I'll have Maintenance check it out." He reached for his communicator.
A shriek, long and piercing, had every agent in the room on their feet, weapons drawn.
"¡Consiga lejos de mi!" the woman at the cash register screamed. ¡Aléjate!" Copper pennies flew everywhere.
Napoleon ran toward the distraught woman, with Illya following close behind. "Mrs. Gonzales, what's wrong? Mrs. Gonzales? Consuela!"
The woman's head snapped up at the sound of her name. "Si?"
"Cálmate, Consuela," he soothed and, after a moment, the woman relaxed somewhat. "Now, what seems to be the trouble?"
Consuela took a deep breath, and launched into a rapid-fire monologue in Spanish. Napoleon managed to catch a few words, something about "My God," and "opening a door," but that was all.
"She says that she opened her cash drawer to count the change in the till, and a frog jumped out at her. She doesn't know where it went. Now she's going to have to pick up all the coins she dropped."
"Another frog? That's the third one today."
"At least this one didn't eat the stew." Illya took the woman's shaking hands. "¿Por favor, señora, de qué color era la rana?"
Mrs. Gonzales looked at him as though he had lost his mind. "Verde, Señor Kuryakin, con uno punto blanco, aquí." She pointed to her cheek.
"¿Era grande, o era pequeño?"
"Muy pequeño." She held out her hands to show him. Al igual que este."
He turned to Napoleon. "She says it was a small green frog with a white dot."
"Another tree frog? Good grief, where are they all coming from?"
"Perhaps the rain is driving them indoors," Illya replied as he crawled under the food bar to search for the creature. "I hate to say it, but it looks as though we may have an infestation of tree frogs on our hands."
"Oh, great," he groaned. "Waverly is going to love that."
"Fortunately for me, you are the one who has to tell him."
"Gee, thanks." Napoleon had a sudden thought. "You don't suppose this could be another prank by that brother-in-law of his -- what was his name?"
"Hemingway. Ambrose Hemingway."
"Right. Remember the guppies in the water cooler?"
Illya glanced up, scowling. "Another test of our security systems? He wouldn't dare."
"No, but Waverly might. Let's make it a priority to find out." Napoleon shouldered his Walther, and turned to face the roomful of agents. "Okay, folks, stand down. The excitement's over for this afternoon. Mr. Chang, will you please call Maintenance and let them know that we are having a slight problem with some frogs in the --"
Another shriek. And another.
"The food prep area!" Weapons drawn once more, they sprinted toward the back kitchen.
The screams grew louder. "Get offa me, ye miserable git," someone howled, "before I beat ye halfway ta next Sunday!"
Napoleon took a deep breath, and pushed through the swinging double doors.
The fluorescent lights shone brightly, illuminating a state-of-the-art kitchen with gleaming appliances and large stainless steel storage lockers. An older woman stood in the center of the once-immaculate room, her white hair in disarray, bifocals askew, waving a wooden spatula and screaming obscenities for all she was worth. A large stock pot lay at her feet, its contents spilled across the linoleum, water and raw vegetables splattered everywhere. Frogs, dozens of them in a variety of sizes and colors, hopped about, splashing gaily in the puddles of water, climbing the counter legs and crawling under the gas stove. A robust chorus of croaks filled the air.
"Mr. Chang, would you please find this poor woman a place to rest, and make her a cup of tea."
"Right away, Napoleon." Chang removed his jacket and placed it around the woman's shoulders. "It's going to be all right, Patsy," he murmured as he escorted her from the room.
"But me kitchen! All those frogs in me be-yoo-tiful kitchen! The Board of Health --"
The double doors swung closed.
"It looks as though you were right about the infestation, Illya."
Illya shook his head. "This is not an infestation, Napoleon. Someone put these frogs here deliberately."
"What? How do you --?" And then he saw it. "These aren't gray tree frogs. They don't even look like they're related to one another."
"They are not. I count at least thirty different species of frogs here, and not one of them is native to the Northeast." He pointed to a brownish-green frog. "That one is a Chiricahua Leopard Frog. It lives in the mountains of Southern Arizona." He pointed to another, dangling from the water faucet above the kitchen sink. "That is rana pirica hokkaido, found only in Japan. There are frogs here that live only along the coast of New Zealand, or in the Caucasus Mountains of Turkey. The fat one climbing the pantry shelves is a tree frog, but it is from Tasmania. Napoleon, they could not all have found their way here by accident."
His expression grew grim. "A breach of our security system?"
Illya nodded. "I'm afraid so."
"And I thought it was going to be a boring day." He sighed, and bent to pick up the stock pot. "Eye of newt, anyone?"
Act III: 'Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog...'
Alexander Waverly harrumphed as he read the reports. It was not a pleasant sound. "Gentlemen, we now have confirmed frog sightings in all Departments, and on all Levels. The blasted things are everywhere, it seems. The Commissary has been closed until further notice, and we've found it necessary to halt several important experiments in the Science labs due to possible cross-contamination of the results. As if that weren't trouble enough for one afternoon, a gaggle of the creatures seems to have taken up residence in the bowels of our main computer, and are using the punchcards for nesting material."
Waverly's eyebrows rose. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"The correct term is a chorus of frogs. Or a colony. Also an army."
"I'm not remotely interested in what it's called, Mr. Kuryakin. I want to know what you gentlemen are doing to get rid of them!"
"Yes sir." Illya sneezed twice in swift succession. "Our biologists are working on a way to recapture the frogs, perhaps by using pheromones to lure them to a central site, but that will take some time, as many different species are involved. On the positive side, The Bronx Zoo has expressed an interest in taking the frogs off our hands, once we have them all secured. They offered to help us trap the frogs, but of course we had to decline for security reasons."
Waverly harrumphed again. "Anything else?"
"Yes sir. Maintenance has finished checking the plumbing and ventilation systems. They failed to find anything amiss."
"I see. Do we know anything, gentlemen? Anything at all?"
"Illya removed his glasses, and massaged the bridge of his nose. "Of one thing we can be absolutely certain: this was not an accident of nature, but a deliberate attempt to penetrate UNCLE Security. "
"Sabotage." Waverly reached for his pipe, as he often did when agitated. "The question remains: why? For what purpose?"
"I suspect that when we uncover the 'who,' we will also discover the 'why,'" Napoleon interjected. "THRUSH certainly is high on our list of suspects, but -- "
"But? Do go on, Mr. Solo. I'm not getting any younger, you know."
"We -- ah -- wondered if your brother-in-law might be testing our security systems again?"
"Ambrose? Don't be ridiculous. His previous foray into UNCLE's corridors was done at my request, not on his own initiative. Ambrose would never set up one of his experiments without my express permission, and I have not authorized any such test." He glared at the two agents. "Although, in retrospect, perhaps I should have."
"What about Angelique?" Illya suggested, searching for something to deflect Waverly's ire. "She loves creepy, crawly things."
"Napoleon shook his head. "I have it on good authority that her taste runs more to spiders."
Illya conceded the point. "Perhaps Dr. Swan? Mozart is dead, but with Swan's unfortunate gambling addiction, he could have been lured into working for THRUSH again."
"I doubt it. He'd never trade in his rare and glorious bees for something as mundane as a frog."
"A pity these frogs don't respond to Cumberly honey," Waverly remarked irritably. "We could recapture them easily." He twisted the stem of his pipe as though he wanted to strangle it. "Gentlemen, we're getting nowhere with this. We need answers, and quickly."
"Have any of our other Headquarters been similarly affected?"
"Just this one, gentlemen, and thank goodness for small favors. A broader assault could have crippled our organization globally." He reached for his humidor, cradling it in his arms as he twisted open the lid. "Six thousand frogs, gentlemen. Six thousand. This is no longer a mere inconvenience. The day-to-day workings of our agency have been disrupted, and that, gentlemen, is unacceptable. Mr. Solo, I expect that your Section will act swiftly to find the perpetrator of this unfortunate --"
The lid came off with a pop. Half-a-dozen tiny frogs leaped onto the table, croaking loudly as they raced across the table toward freedom.
"Frogs in my humidor?!" Waverly bellowed as he slid back from the table. "That's going too far!" He sniffed, and made a face. "What is that rank odor?"
"Uh, I think it might be your tobacco. Sir."
Waverly peered into the humidor. "Ruined! My 'Isle of Dogs Number 22' custom blend tobacco is ruined! Oh, this is too much!" The Old Man's face was redder than Napoleon had ever seen it. "No more shilly-shallying, Mr. Solo. I want whoever is responsible for this heinous act caught! Do I make myself clear?"
He winced. "Perfectly, sir." He switched on the intercom. "Lisa? Napoleon here. Could you please call Maintenance and let them know that the frogs appear to have found Mr. Waverly's office. And humidor. He would appreciate their assistance in removing them from the premises, ASAP. Oh, and please have someone retrieve a fresh supply of Mr. Waverly's special blend."
"I'll get on it right away, Napoleon," Lisa Rogers replied, her sarcastic tone a near-perfect imitation of the Old Man's. "Perhaps Mandy can go."
Illya, meanwhile, was using his coffee cup and briefcase to trap the frogs, which had scattered into various nooks and crannies around the room. "I could use a little help here, Napoleon." He swore as another tiny frog eluded his grasp.
"Well, since you asked so nicely --" Napoleon got down on his hands and knees, mindful of the crease in his trousers. "You know, when I was in grade school, my sisters and I used to spend the summer months at grandfather's farm in Connecticut. Nothing to do but read books or go swimming and fishing --"
"'Blessings on thee, barefoot boy.' A little less nostalgia, and a little more effort, if you please."
"We used to love catching bullfrogs down by the pond. Once, I even got my little sister, Artemesia, to kiss one. I told her it was a prince in disguise, and only she could restore his true nature. She swore that frog gave her chicken pox."
"I'm sure the years of intensive therapy will have helped her. Speaking of frogs, have you caught any yet?"
"Not yet." Napoleon sighed. "Frankly, it seemed a lot easier back then. Oh wait, there's one." He reached out to snag the little yellow frog, hopping nervously beneath the legs of a swivel chair. "Come here, li'l fella. I won't hurt you -- "
Illya's voice shook with urgency. "Get away! That is not a harmless little tree frog. It is a Golden Dart Frog. Phyllobates terribilis, the most poisonous vertebrate on Earth."
Napoleon leapt to his feet and backed away, reaching for his communicator. "Are you sure?"
"Open Channel D. We have a Class One security breach in Mr. Waverly's office. We are stuffing the goose. Repeat: we are stuffing the goose."
"Message received," came the response. "Evacuation Procedure enabled. Code WWW Calvados. Help is on the way."
"Have them wear protective gear," Illya ordered as he upended the contents of an ashtray onto the carpet, and dropped it down over the lemon-colored frog. He looked about for something substantial to weigh down the ashtray, finally settling on a first edition of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Napoleon flipped the intercom on. "Lisa," he said without preamble, "there's been an attempt on Mr. Waverly's life." He heard her gasp. "He's fine, but no one is to enter this office without Level 1 protective gear until further notice."
"He turned to Waverly. "Sir, we need to evacuate you immediately."
"I hardly think --"
"Sir," Illya cut in, "the skin of a Golden Dart Frog is incredibly toxic. Its glands secrete batrachotoxin, an alkaloid poison so powerful that the merest touch is lethal. One milligram is enough to kill two bull elephants. Or twenty humans."
Waverly's eyes widened.
"There are credible reports that people have died simply from touching a piece of paper on which the golden dart frog has rested. If those reports are true, everything in this room the frog has touched is now contaminated with batrachotoxin. Your entire office must be considered an environmental hazard."
"Sir," Napoleon insisted softly, "this was an attempt on your life. And it very nearly succeeded."
After a moment, Waverly nodded. "Very well, Mr. Solo. We'll use the private exit. But I want the perpetrators of this outrageous act caught. Earn your salaries, gentlemen. And find a way to get rid of those damned frogs!"
IV Fur of Bat and Isle of Dog...
Napoleon watched as Illya's nimble fingers ran another series of calculations. "Come on, tovarisch. Please tell me you've found something we can use."
"Kindly do not breathe over my shoulder, Napoleon. When I know, you will know."
"Sorry." He rubbed his weary eyes. "We've evacuated the building as a precaution. Essential personnel, Maintenance crews and Security remain behind, and of course, your research team. To be on the safe side, they've all been equipped with Level 1 hazard gear."
"At least it's quiet." Illya coughed as he flipped through the pages of a biology textbook, one of a growing pile atop the lab table. "Chyort. This would be easier if I had access to our own computer, instead of having to contact London constantly for help with the research. Any chance of restoring service to the lab?"
"Sorry, Illya. We haven't found a way to lure the Indian nesting frogs out of the circuitry." Napoleon sipped a cup of ice-cold coffee, his fourth in as many hours. "UNCLE's various branches worldwide have been notified of our situation, and are beefing up their own security in case whoever did this decides to repeat their little stunt somewhere else."
"At least no one has died."
"Thank God for small miracles. So far, the only poisonous frog has been the one in Waverly's office. Let's hope it stays that way."
"Mr. Waverly and his family have been sequestered at an undisclosed location until this affair is over."
"With a supply of his favorite tobacco, I trust."
"And a brand-new humidor. He complained all the way to the safe house. So," Napoleon ventured after a moment, "why didn't the pheromones work?"
"The chemical makeup of the pheromones is not the same for all frogs. Each species has its own uniquely enticing calling card. here was no way we could duplicate the chemical composition of all six thousand of them."
"Yes, I can see how that would be a problem. Plus, if you got it right, you'd have an awful lot of amorous frogs on your hands." He took a bite of the very soggy egg salad sandwich Lisa Rogers had procured from the diner down the street, and chewed thoughtfully. "Illya?"
"Frogs are sensitive to temperature changes, aren't they?"
Illya glanced up. "Very. As are all cold-blooded creatures. Why?"
"Couldn't you do something with that? Turn up the thermostat or something? Use their temperature sensitivity to make them move?"
He shook his head. "It would work initially. However, being cold-blooded, the frogs would quickly adjust to the change. Raise the temperature too high, and the frogs will simply burrow more deeply into the infrastructure of the building. Lower it too much, and they will hibernate."
"That's good, isn't it? I mean, if they're hibernating, wouldn't they be easier to catch?"
"Yes, assuming they didn't die first." Illya took the other half of Napoleon's sandwich, and wolfed it down. "If all the frogs were of the same species, we could probably manage it. However, there are several hundred species involved, many of them exceedingly rare and fragile. There would be a huge outcry from the scientific community if, through our actions or our negligence, we allowed them to die. It's why we cannot use any sort of knockout gas on them. The more delicate species would not survive such aggressive countermeasures."
Napoleon whistled. "Someone's laid a pretty effective trap for UNCLE. No matter what we do, we piss off somebody."
"Indeed. Our opponent is quite knowledgeable, someone who understands both the political climate and the physiology of cold-blooded -- " He gasped. "Otlichno!"
Napoleon sat up. "You've thought of something."
"I should have seen it before. Temperature is the key, but not for them. For us."
"Oka-ay. Do you want to elaborate on that?
"Oh, Napoleon, don't you ever read your journals?" Illya sighed. "Thermography is a technology that allows us to detect the amount of heat radiating from an object, and compare it to the amount of heat in the surrounding environment."
"Uh-huh. So how does that help us?"
"All living things emit infrared radiation -- what we think of as heat -- in varying degrees. Using infrared technology, we can locate objects -- in this case, frogs -- that are warmer or cooler than their surroundings."
"Like using our night vision goggles to locate a target in the woods."
"Precisely. Illya's eyes blazed with enthusiasm. "Nature is full of creatures who have adapted in this way. Rattlesnakes, for example, have infrared sensors on their snouts that allow them to sense the heat signatures of their prey. And pit vipers -- "
"I get it."
"The point is, what works for a snake will work for us."
"But frogs adjust to their environments, Illya. You said so yourself. Wouldn't they simply readjust their temperature and blend in?"
He favored Napoleon with a rare grin. "Under normal circumstances, yes. But if we fluctuate the temperature in the building every five minutes or so, it will keep the frogs' systems busy adjusting to the new conditions, while our Maintenance teams locate and retrieve them using infrared sensors.
For the first time in hours, Napoleon could see the light at the end of the tunnel. "Will it work?" he asked.
"I will wager a bottle of Stolichnaya on it, my friend."
Napoleon smiled brightly. "You're on. You know, if this does work, there's going to be one hell of a heating bill at the end of the month. I'll let you explain it to Mr. Waverly."
Epilogue: Exodus of the Frogs...
Waverly settled back into his leather desk chair, pipe in hand. It was good to be back. Outside the window, the shining façade of the United Nations building rose majestically into the morning sky. "Well, gentlemen," he said, "now that those beastly frogs are the official property of The Bronx Zoo, it's time we took care of a little business."
Illya and Napoleon exchanged glances. "Business?" Napoleon ventured cautiously.
"Yes, Mr. Solo. Business." He lifted a folder from the pile on his desk, and passed it around the table. "Mrs. Forbush in Accounting forwarded several disturbing items to me this morning. I trust you can explain these exorbitant expenditures to her satisfaction?"
Napoleon glanced briefly at the heading on the folder, and slid it to his left. "Illya?"
Illya smiled thinly. "Thank you, Napoleon. You are true to your word, as always. Ah, the heating bill."
"And the electric bill, Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly puffed vigorously on his pipe. "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"
Napoleon sipped his coffee and prepared to enjoy the show.
But Mr. Waverly was not done. "While Mr. Kuryakin is considering his response, Mr. Solo, perhaps you and I could discuss a Miss Wilhelmena Darlington. I believe you know her?"
"Whimsy? From Surveillance?" A puzzled frown replaced the smug smile. "I, ah, met her in the Commissary, last week. We shared a salad."
"How romantic," Waverly declared in a tone that implied otherwise. "Whimsy. A charming nickname. I understand you were to have a date with her last Friday evening."
"That's right. We were going to the theater to see 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,' and after that --" He stopped. "She's okay, isn't she?" he asked uneasily.
"I assume she is fine."
"Assume? You mean she hasn't reported to work this morning?" He started to rise. "Has someone checked her apartment? She could be hurt."
Illya glanced up, perhaps sensing blood of a different sort.
"That would be difficult, Mr. Solo. You see, there is no address listed in the Greater New York area for anyone by that most unusual name."
Napoleon sat down again. "Excuse me?"
"Furthermore, no one by the name of Wilhelmena Darlington, aka 'Whimsy,' is currently employed by UNCLE, either here or at any of our other branches. In fact, according to our Records Department, Wilhelmena Darlington does not exist anywhere in the world."
"That's impossible! She was here in our New York office for over a week. Eating lunch in the Commissary." He tried, and failed, to get his mind around it."If her badge was counterfeit, why didn't it set off the alarm?"
"A very good question, Mr. Solo, and one I hope you'll be able to answer before too long. In the meantime, I suggest you take a look at this." The table spun again. "Security brought it to my attention in the course of their investigation. A most intriguing letter, Mr. Solo. Perhaps you should read it."
Napoleon picked up the long envelope, slid the single sheet of stationery into his hand:
Sorry I couldn't stay for our date, but I know you'll understand, being a kindred spirit and all. Please be kind to Nostradamus.
Until we meet again,
"Who's Nostradamus? Is she referring to the French apothecary who made all those obscure predictions?"
"We were hoping you could tell us, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon shook his head. "No idea."
"There's more I'm afraid," Waverly went on. "This was received at our drop box barely an hour ago." He rotated the table on its axis, passing another sheet of stationery to his agents. "Notice that this stationery is identical in every way to that of the letter."
Napoleon glanced at it, and frowned. "'A plague o' both your houses.' How cheerful." An uneasy feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. "It's a quote from Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene i. Mercutio speaks the line just before he dies."
Illya snatched the paper from his hands. "There is something else here -- symbols of some kind, very faint -- concealed in the watermark." He squinted to make out the faded lettering. "It's in Hebrew. Just one word." He sounded out the letters. "'Tzfardeyah.' It means 'frogs.'"
"It is also the second of ten plagues described in Exodus 8:1, gentlemen: 'I will smite all your territory with frogs. And the river will bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into your house, into your bedroom, into your ovens and into your kneading bowls.'"
An uncomfortable silence filled the room.
"Sir," Napoleon ventured, "are you saying that Whimsy -- or whatever her real name is -- isn't finished yet? That we can expect nine more plagues before this is over?"
"It's entirely possible." Waverly scowled at his pipe, which had gone out without his noticing. "And not only that. The message reads 'a plague o' both your houses.' Gentlemen, I suspect that whoever this woman is, she has decided, for reasons known only to her, to bring down both UNCLE and THRUSH."
"A third player?" Illya was astonished. "Who?"
"That, Mr. Kuryakin, is what I want you and Mr. Solo to find out." Waverly tamped a fresh measure of tobacco into his pipe. "Well, gentlemen? What are you waiting for? You have your assignments. Oh," he added as the men rose to comply, "be sure to stop in Accounting on your way out. Mrs. Forbush is most anxious to speak with you."
* * *
"At least the frogs are gone," Illya remarked as the pair headed for the bank of elevators.
"Good, because I think I may have" -- Napoleon stifled a sneeze -- "caught your cold."
"Nothing a little vodka wouldn't cure. Or a lot."
"A fine idea, tovarisch. Let us face the parsimonious Mrs. Forbush, save the world, and catch the bad guys. That should leave the rest of the afternoon available for medicating. God knows, we'll have earned it."
He pressed the button, and they waited in silence -- punctuated by an occasional sneeze from Napoleon -- for the elevator to arrive. At last, the doors opened.
The placid eyes of a tortoise blinked up at them.
"Oh no. Illya, is that what I think it is?"
"Probably not. It is, however, a gopher tortoise, a small variety of land turtle endemic to the Southeastern United States." He bent to retrieve a slip of paper, taped to the back of the reptile. "Ah. I believe we have located 'Nostradamus.'"
As they stared in consternation, the animal sauntered across the threshold, and began to shamble down the corridor, collecting a growing crowd of gawkers at it passed.
"Well," said Illya, "at least this one will be easier to catch."