THE SAMOVAR AFFAIR
Alexander Waverly tried to light his pipe for the third time in as many minutes. As with both previous attempts, the sacred ritual was interrupted by the annoying beep that signaled an incoming telex.
“Blast. Is it too much to ask for a moment of world peace to allow me to light my pipe?” He blew out the match and began to read, muttering to himself as he scanned the coded message. His eyebrows rose and fell, rose and fell.
Never a good sign, those eyebrows, Napoleon Solo thought to himself. While he waited for the fate of the world to be decided yet again, he rose from the conference table, and poured himself a cup of much-needed coffee, wishing there were a way to jury-rig an intravenous drip. As meetings went, this was going to be a long one.
“Damned fool politicians! The Congo is a veritable powderkeg, Tshombe's supporters are revolting in Kisangani, and twenty senators want to know 'what's in it for them!'” Waverly dropped the telex into the shredder, and flipped the intercom switch to the “on” position. “Miss McNabb! I am still waiting for that report on the border skirmish in the Balkans.”
“Yes sir,” came the tinny response. “Right away.”
He gazed longingly at his pipe, but made no attempt to re-light it. “A diplomatic nightmare, that's what it is. Heaven save us from politicians and bureaucrats!”
The Old Man was in rare form this morning. Napoleon settled back, sipping his Kenya dark roast blend - a gift to Waverly from the new Prime Minister of Burundi - and waited for the long diatribe that was sure to follow.
The door to the conference room slid open, and Heather McNabb hurried in, looking unusually harried this morning. She placed a thick file on the table.
Lovely Heather, thought Napoleon, with that luxurious mane of dark hair, her green “come hither” eyes, and those astonishing - -
“Sir,” she said, “I think we might have a problem.”
Waverly scowled. “A problem, Miss McNabb? Indeed, that would be a rarity.”
Heather blushed at the reprimand.
“Come, come, we haven't got all day,” the Old Man prompted impatiently. “Is it the conflict in West Papua again?”
“Uh, no sir.” She straightened, once again crisply professional. “Communications has received an - unusual - message on the ESL. The Emergency Secure Line.”
“UNCLE receives any number of cryptic messages over the ESL. What's so unusual about this one?”
“It's not from any of our agents, sir.”
Solo sat up. “You mean to say that we've received a message on the ESL, the use of which is reserved for field agents in dire need of assistance, but it's not from any of our agents?”
“That's about the size of it, Napoleon. It appears that some unknown person has phoned the UNCLE emergency phone number.”
“A stranger using the ESL? How is that possible?” Waverly's eyebrows rose along with his ire. “Good heavens, young woman, it's not as if we're in the phone book.” He reached again for his pipe, but thought better of it. “All right, Miss McNabb, best get on with it.”
Heather hesitated, having no desire to step in front of the bus twice. “The woman - wanted her samovar back.”
“Her samovar, sir. It's a Russian teapot.”
“I know what it is, Miss McNabb.” Waverly seized his pipe, and began to draw on it absently, although it remained unlit. “Do we have a recording of the voice?”
Heather nodded. “Yes sir.”
“Let's hear it.”
She handed a small cassette to Napoleon, who inserted it into a slot in the computer console looming along the back wall. He pressed several buttons, then resumed his seat to listen.
“This is Theodora Frost,” the reedy voice warbled, “with a message for Mr. Waterloo. I am calling in regard to the antique samovar you recently sent.” The voice wheezed slightly, and went on. “Unfortunately, it never arrived, and I have received no word as to its status. I am becoming concerned that it may be missing, perhaps damaged beyond repair. I should hate to think that such a lovely samovar might be lost forever. Please be so good as to check into the situation. I will call again.” A few seconds of white noise followed, and then the recorder clicked off.
“Communications is running the voice print through recognition protocols,” Heather said. “No match yet, but the voice is definitely female.”
“Electronic alteration?” Napoleon asked.
“Our technicians are working on that possibility now, but it's unlikely.”
“What about the message? Could it be some kind of code?”
Heather shook her head. “If it is, it isn't in our data banks.”
For reasons Napoleon had yet to define, the message was setting off all sorts of mental alarms. “You've traced the call, I presume?”
“Of course.” Heather consulted her notes. “The call was made at nine-thirty-two A.M., from a telephone at the Brookville Rest Home. It's on Long Island. We've checked, and they do have a patient registered there by the name of Theodora Frost.” She shrugged. “Maybe that's all this is - an old woman who got confused, and dialed the wrong number.”
“Not likely. To begin with, the number we're talking about has too many digits to be confused with an ordinary phone number. And our agents have to enter a special access code before dialing, or the system automatically shuts down. That access code is top secret, known only to a handful of the top brass, the agents, and a few senior technicians in the Communications Department. The odds of someone accidentally dialing the entire sequence correctly would be - - ”
“ - - astronomical. Quite right, Mr. Solo.” Waverly lit a match, and held it to the bowl of his favorite pipe. For a few seconds, the only noise in the room was a discreet chuffing sound.
Solo's fingertips drummed a jittery cadence upon the conference table. Something was niggling at him. “So, we know that someone at a nursing home on Long Island - someone who is not an UNCLE agent - got ahold of a top secret phone number, and used it to put in a call to Headquarters regarding a - what was it, Heather?”
“Hmm. An odd message, to say the least.” He turned to Waverly. “How do you want this handled, sir?”
The Old Man had finally gotten his pipe lit. A wreath of grey and fragrant smoke drifted upward, gently encircling his tired face. “Perhaps it's nothing,” he murmured, and ran a hand through thinning hair.
Waverly sighed. “Miss McNabb, locate the file on that new THRUSH satrap - the one in the Bowery.”
“Right away, sir.” She hurried from the room.
Napoleon frowned. “The Bowery satrap? Isn't that Illya's assignment?”
“Yes, Mr. Solo. We've received information that THRUSH is shipping the components for a deadly new megavirus into New York City sometime within the next forty-eight hours. The Bowery satrap is involved up to their feathers - no surprise with Emory Partridge involved again. Mr. Kuryakin is working undercover as a Catholic priest at the local parish in order to investigate the extent of the threat.”
Napoleon suppressed a smile. Illya as a priest! The gods did have a sense of humor!
“We have a narrow window in which to recover the toxin,” Waverly went on. “Heaven only knows what chaos might result if such a virus should - - ”
The intercom buzzed. “I have the file you wanted,” Heather announced crisply.
“All right, Miss McNabb, let's have it. When was Mr. Kuryakin's last scheduled check-in?”
“One moment, sir.” Heather consulted the mission schedule. “Two days ago, just before he initiated surveillance.”
“And when is he due to report in again?”
“His next scheduled check-in is noon today.”
“Thank you, Miss McNabb. That will be all.”
Napoleon's smile faded. “You think the message could be about Illya.”
Waverly's eyebrows rose into the stratosphere. “Don't you, Mr. Solo? 'Waterloo?' 'Russian samovars?' The combination seems tailor-made to attract our attention.”
A chill began to worry its way up Napoleon's spine. “I suppose 'Waterloo' could refer to me,” he said. “Napoleon's downfall, and all that. As for missing 'Russian samovars' - -” Damaged beyond repair. Lost forever.
Waverly's keen eyes caught and held the agent. “Too many coincidences, wouldn't you say?”
“And you don't believe in coincidences.”
Mr. Waverly sighed. “No, Mr. Solo. I do not.” He turned away as the telex began to beep again. “Look into it, Mr. Solo. Miss McNabb will brief you in depth on Kuryakin's assignment. If he's in trouble, we need to know about it. And pay a visit to that rest home. Find out how someone managed to use our emergency contact number to send that message. And why.”
Napoleon parked his Piranha coupe in the circular driveway of the Brookville Rest Home, and casually scanned his surroundings. The facility, nestled in a small glade of elm trees just off the main highway, seemed cheerful and well-kept. A patch of mums still bloomed in the small garden framing the entrance to the facility, their bright golden color just beginning to pale. White-capped nurses escorted a few hardy souls along the small path to the shuffleboard court. The place seemed authentic enough - probably not a front for THRUSH - but it was best to be careful.
The main lobby was large and cozy, with overstuffed sofas and club chairs that some misguided decorator had attacked with a pattern of pink cabbage roses. A fish tank bubbled in one corner, next to a color television with the sound turned off. Patients dozed in the comfortable chairs, played Scrabble, or wandered here and there, leaning on their walkers. As Napoleon approached the main desk, a young candy striper looked up from her work. Her eyes sparkled with interest, and she favored him with a flirtatious smile.
“Good afternoon. May I help you?”
He returned the smile, noting the name tag on the pretty young woman's uniform. “I certainly hope so – ah - Jennifer. My name is Napoleon Solo, and I work for Sloan and Portnoy Securities.”
The young woman tilted her head expectantly.
“This is rather awkward.” He hesitated, just long enough. “You see, our office received an odd phone call this morning from a person at this facility. A woman by the name of 'Theodora Frost.' Do you happen to know where I can find her?”
“Oh, dear.” Jennifer's face fell. “She's done it again.”
“Done what, exactly?”
“Gotten hold of the desk phone. Please tell me it wasn't a toll call. My boss is going to be furious if there are any more long distance charges!”
Napoleon smiled placidly. “Strictly local. She does this often, does she? Makes unauthorized calls?”
“Oh yes, all the time! 'Frosty' - that's what we all call her - loves to use the telephone. She's not supposed to use it unsupervised, but sometimes the receptionist has to be away from the front desk for a few minutes, and that's when she does it - sneaks up and make the phone calls.” Jennifer giggled. “She's pretty devious, actually.”
Napoleon nodded as if this made perfect sense. “Okay, she loves making phone calls. But why would she call our office? She doesn't have an account with us, and no one there seems to know who she is.”
Jennifer clapped a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I am sorry. I should have explained. Miss Frost is one of our long-term residents. She's elderly, and quite senile. Sneaks in to use the phone at least once a month, but she has no idea who she's calling - just picks the numbers at random. Confidentially, I think she likes to hear the phone ringing on the other end.” The young woman smiled. “Frosty's a sweet old dear, really she is.”
“I'm terribly sorry if she's caused you any inconvenience. The staff will make certain it doesn't happen again.”
Napoleon smiled his most brilliant smile. “Well now, if she hadn't made that call to my office, I wouldn't have met you, would I?”
Jennifer beamed as though she'd just won the Irish Sweepstakes.
“Miss Frost sounds like quite a character,” Napoleon observed casually.
“I'll say! When she was younger, Frosty was one of those, you know, psychic palm reader types, like that Jeanne Dixon who's always in the New York Post. At least, that's what she claims. You see, our patients sometimes make up stories when they can't remember things. Once she told me she sang at the Metropolitan Opera. Imagine! And another time - - ”
Napoleon had heard enough. “Do you suppose it would be all right if I said 'hello', as long as I'm here?”
“Oh, that would be lovely. Frosty doesn't get many visitors. Her mind's a bit jumbled, you see.”
* * *
Theodora Frost's room was bright, if a bit too warm, with a window that looked out upon a small garden. The garden was brown and bare now that winter was coming on, but Napoleon thought that the view might be pretty in Springtime. The room itself was sparsely furnished. A twin bed took up most of the available space, brightened by a cheerful crocheted afghan, and a green vinyl recliner had been positioned by the window, where the light was better. A dusty collection of family photos covered the surface of a small bureau, looking rather forlorn.
The old woman sat on the edge of the bed, humming a melody that Napoleon recognized as Tatyana's famous “Letter Aria,” from Tchaikowsky's “Eugene Onegin.” An obscure opera, to be sure. This was - had been - a woman of culture and learning.
The old woman continued to sing, her hands twisting the frayed ends of the afghan as her frail body rocked back and forth, back and forth.
Napoleon sat down beside her on the bed. Ever-so-gently, he removed the tangled afghan from her hands. Her fingers, he noted, were tinged with blue, and ice cold. “Miss Frost, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“Oh, is it intermission already?” The old woman peered at Napoleon over the rims of her spectacles.
“That's right,” he agreed smoothly. “Ah - while we're waiting for the curtain to go up again, I wonder if we could talk about the telephone call you made this morning.”
“Count Lensky died.”
“Excuse me?” Who the hell was Count Lensky?
“In the opera. Count Lensky died. Weren't you paying attention?”
“Oh.” Napoleon tried to recall the convoluted plot line of the opera. “Yes, I suppose he did.”
“In Act Two.”
“That reprobate Eugene Onegin shot him.”
Somebody shoot me.
Miss Frost sighed happily. “I always did like Tchaikowsky.” She cocked her head. “Who are you?”
Napoleon felt a headache coming on. “Napoleon Solo. About the phone call, ma'am?”
The old woman began to sing once more, this time Liza's arioso from “The Queen of Spades.” Her reedy soprano quavered precariously on the high notes and, occasionally, she gave a little wheeze as she ran out of air but, try as he might, Napoleon could get no more out of her. At last, he gave up and exited the building to the parking lot. The sky had darkened; it felt like rain.
“Open Channel D.”
A voice pierced the light static. “Waverly.”
“Solo here. Any news from Illya?”
“Not a word. He missed his scheduled check-in an hour ago, and he doesn't answer his communicator.”
It was the confirmation Napoleon had been dreading. Illya was in trouble.
The Old Man harrumphed. “I trust that you, at least, have something of value to report?”
“I'm afraid not, sir. There's nothing here- - just a sick old woman.”
“Well, Mr. Solo, that sick old woman is the only lead we have in this affair, and her phoning us on the Emergency Secure Line is NOT a coincidence. Theodora Frost has something to tell us, I'm certain of it. Go back; talk to her again.”
“But sir, Illya's out there somewhere, maybe in trouble. Wouldn't it be best if I - -?”
“You have your orders, Mr. Solo. I want answers. Do I make myself clear?”
Napoleon sighed. “Perfectly, sir.”
He slipped back into the building through the maintenance entrance in order to avoid being spotted by Jennifer at the main desk. The perky candy striper would have been suspicious to see him visiting the old woman twice in the same day. He wondered if he would find answers this time, and if the answers would come in time to help his friend.
He found Theodora Frost sitting in her bilious green recliner, watching a flock of crows peck for seeds in the garden. “Peck, peck, peck,” she warbled. “Find all the seeds. My, my, so hungry today.”
“It's the change in the weather, I expect.”
The old woman glanced up, her smile sweet and childlike. “A visitor? How nice. I don't receive many visitors these days. All my old friends are gone.”
“My name is Napoleon Solo, Miss Frost. I was here earlier, and- - ”
The sweet smile vanished. “Who are you? Are you from the IRS?” she demanded. “Because if you are, I have nothing to say to you. Vultures!”
He stifled his frustration with an effort. “My name is Napoleon Solo,” he explained yet again. “I'm here to ask you about a phone call you made.”
“Do you know Enrico Caruso? He was such a lovely man.”
“I'm sure he was. About the phone call - - ”
“A real gentleman, too. Quality will always tell. They say he's dead now.”
This was getting him nowhere.
“I met my first husband, Carlo, at the opera. So dashing - he was a basso profundo, you know. Wonderful chest voice. I was completely smitten.” She sighed. “He's dead too.”
“I'm sorry,” Napoleon murmured, only half-listening. His thoughts were of Illya, battered and bleeding somewhere, while he wasted time talking to a senile old woman.
Theodora Frost rambled on. “I do so miss the old days. People were kinder then, don't you think? Nowadays, people are in such a hurry; they don't have time to stop and be kind. I think that's sad, don't you?”
He was running out of time.
“Who are you?” she asked again.
Napoleon drew a photo of Illya from his wallet, and held it for her to see. “Ma'am, forgive me, but have you ever seen this man before?”
Trembling fingers touched the shiny surface of the photograph. “Ooh, he's rather dashing, isn't he? Haunting eyes. Reminds me of the Tsar's little boy, the hemophiliac. Did I tell you about the time I sang Prokofiev's 'Maddalena' at the Bolshoi - -?”
Napoleon's patience snapped. “Have you seen him?”
“No need to shout, young man.” She stared at the photograph for such a long time, he thought she had forgotten the question. “I'm not sure,” she said at last. “Why? Is it important?”
“Very important. He's a good friend of mine, and he's missing. I need to find him.”
She peered searchingly into his eyes. “Who are you?” she asked.
Napoleon sighed. He was wasting his time here, and time was something he didn't have a whole lot of. He tucked the photo into his wallet, and stood to leave.
“Answer me,” she said. “You have to answer.”
He turned, caught by some indefinable quality of her voice.
“Who are you?” she demanded again. “Who. Are. You?”
And something, some instinct, made him say the words. “I'm Mr. Waterloo. Can you tell me where the samovar is?”
The change in her demeanor was instantaneous. Her body went rigid; her eyes stared blankly past him. Her head canted back, and her breath came in shallow gasps.
“They have him. Those men.”
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't this. Napoleon had been played by charlatans before, and nursed a healthy skepticism to cover his wounded pride. But intuition told him that this woman was the real deal. This was no parlor trick. “Did you see them take him?” he asked urgently. “Is that how you - -?”
“He knew you would come. Your friend.” Her breathing grew deep and slow once more. “Evil men took him.”
“Where? Where did they take him?”
“They're not with him now. He's alone.”
“Where?” Solo repeated. “Can you tell me where he is?”
“I see it.” Her bony hands reached out, clutching at the empty air. “Dark. A wet place, very old, with rotting beams. Water. At the - he's at the - - ”
Napoleon's skin crawled with the urgent need to be moving, but he forced himself to be silent.
“Numbers on a sign. At the - twelve, and the thirty-eight. It's west. West!”
“Please, I don't understand.”
“Cow tunnel.” She gasped. “He's very cold. You'll have to hurry.”
It was over as suddenly as it began. The old woman sank, trembling and pale, into her green vinyl recliner. “I'm very tired,” she whispered.
Napoleon's hand flew to the emergency call button. “We need a doctor in Room 214. Now.”
He left Theodora Frost in the capable hands of her physician, with assurances that she would be well cared for, and sprinted toward the parking lot just as the first drops of rain began to fall. “Open Channel D. Research Department. Emergency Top Priority.”
“Research,” came the woman's tinny reply. “Jeanine speaking. How may we assist?”
“What information do you have on something called a 'cow tunnel?'”
“I'll check, sir.” He could hear the whir of the computer's circuitry as it searched its vast database for relevant information. “Here it is,” the woman replied with her customary efficiency. “'A cow tunnel is an underground structure, built by farmers in the late eighteen-hundreds, in order to provide a safe means of transporting livestock from one place to another when a geographical obstacle, such as a river or major road, was in the way. Cow tunnels were generally made of packed earth, supported by heavy wooden beams similar to structures found in mines, although in rare cases, brick was used. As the railroad system grew, cow tunnels fell out of use, and had become obsolete by the nineteen-twenties. A few cow tunnels, such as the one in Boston, Massachusetts, have survived the test of time, and can be found on the National Historic Registry - - '”
“Stop. Check the Registry for cow tunnels in the Bowery.”
“Checking.” A brief pause. “None listed, sir.”
“Expand Registry search to the entire Tri-State area.”
“Nothing. I'm sorry, sir.”
“Damn.” Instinct told Napoleon that time was running out for Illya. His mind darted about, seeking a solution to the cryptic puzzle, but there were too many missing pieces.
“Maybe the tunnel isn't in the National Registry,” Jeanine suggested reasonably. “Maybe it hasn't been found yet.”
He could have kissed her! “Okay, let's try the following: Cow Tunnel, New York, twelve, thirty-eight, water, west. Look for commonalities.”
The computer whirred once more as the technician keyed in the data. It took longer this time, but finally the whirring ceased. There was silence as she scanned the data card.
“Maybe this will help,” she said at last. “It's only a myth, a sort of urban legend, you might call it, but there is a rumor regarding an abandoned cow tunnel over on the West Side, near the Railyards. It was built in the eighteen-seventies to transport cattle from the farms in Weehawken, New Jersey, under the Hudson River to the slaughterhouses on Twelfth Avenue.” She continued scanning. “No one has ever found the actual tunnel, but rumors continue to persist. Supposedly, there were two entrances to the tunnel on the New York side - one located at Thirty-Fourth Street, and the other at - here it is - Thirty-Eighth.”
Thirty-Eight! And Twelfth Avenue ran along the banks of the Hudson River. Water. On the West side. “Contact Section Two. On my authority, I want teams searching Twelfth Avenue between Thirty-Fourth and Thirty-Eighth Streets for the entrance to an abandoned tunnel. Advise them, THRUSH is on the scene, and we have a captured agent trapped somewhere inside.”
“Right away, sir.”
“And Jeanine,” he added as he gunned the Piranha's powerful engine, “when this is over, I owe you a very expensive night on the town.”
Tires squealed in protest as Solo sped toward the Expressway, and the city where his friend waited for rescue.
The area once known to New Yorkers as Hell's Kitchen held the ruins of the old stockyard, which had been used to house cattle marked for slaughter, and the remains of the now defunct West Side Railyard, at one time the main hub for the distribution of fresh beef across the Northeast. Napoleon was relieved to see a discreet search and rescue operation already underway when he arrived.
A team of agents had spread out along Twelfth Avenue, checking structures along the river for hidden entrances. An UNCLE engineer worked with experts from the Department of Public Works to decipher the complex schematics of the New York City Sewer and Gas Systems. Still other agents searched the subway system, the underground sewers and access corridors, or talked to people who lived in the neighborhood, asking whether they knew of any hidden tunnels in the vicinity. A few old-timers had heard the legend of the West Side Cow Tunnel, but none had ever seen it, nor did they know of anyone who had.
Solo grabbed ahold of one of the newer agents as he passed, carrying a thick stack of architectural blueprints.
“Anything to report, Lee?”
The man hesitated. “Not yet, sir. But we've just begun to search. There's over a hundred miles of pipe down there, and that's just the stuff that's still working. The DPW doesn't even know how many miles of abandoned pipe there are. Some of the access tunnels haven't seen the light of day in fifty, sixty years.”
The thought of Illya trapped in such a dark and narrow place terrified Napoleon. “Signs of THRUSH in the vicinity?”
Lee Chang nodded. “They were here all right, but they appear to have cleared out fast when they saw us coming.”
That was something, at least. If THRUSH had been there, Illya had been, too. “What's our current status?”
“We've just received word that our agents have shut down the THRUSH satrap in the Bowery,” Chang replied, “but Partridge wasn't there. Dancer and Slate are out looking for him now. However,” he added with a broad smile, “we secured the container with the megavirus as it was coming off the Lincoln Tunnel Ferry. THRUSH was so surprised that we found them, they just left everything and ran.”
Solo's estimation of the Frost woman's information rose a notch. He came to a decision. “Lee, I want our men to concentrate their search on the Thirty-Eighth Street end, near the wharves.”
“Any particular reason, sir?”
“Call it a hunch.” And because that's the number Theodora Frost saw.
“I'll pass it on.” Lee Chang glanced toward the search area. “We'll find him, sir. Count on it.” He dashed off to rejoin his team as, with an ominous rumble of thunder, the skies opened up.
The rain came down in buckets, and kept coming, a miserable, icy downpour that quickly became a torrent. The bare ground turned to mud under their feet, and the streets were deserted within minutes as even the most curious passersby were forced indoors by the deluge. The agents, for their part, continued to work on, executing a painstaking grid-by-grid search for the whereabouts of the missing UNCLE agent. “Searching for a gas leak,” residents were told, not that they believed a word of it. In this corner of the concrete jungle, a cop was clearly a cop. The proprietor of Fiorello's Restaurant eventually took pity on the men, and set up a table with fresh, hot coffee under his sidewalk awning.
Hours went by, and the storm showed little sign of abating. If anything, the wind had picked up. Dead leaves and bits of trash blew everywhere, hampering the search for clues. There was no sign of a tunnel, or of Illya.
Day turned into night; temperatures dropped. Drenched, and discouraged, Solo fought to hold onto hope. It had been nine hours since his friend officially went missing, and who knew how long THRUSH had had him before that.
At last, the senior agent on the underground Search and Rescue team dared to approach him. “Sir,” he said, “this isn't getting us anywhere. The men have searched for hours, and now the overflow relief valves have shut down. The guy from DPW says the system has exceeded capacity. It's becoming too dangerous to work down there.”
“Just a little longer, Conrad.”
The agent rubbed his hands to warm them. “One more hour or ten, Napoleon, it's not going to make a difference. We've searched the sewer and gas lines under Twelfth Avenue, from Canal Street all the way to the Coliseum. There's no tunnel. Kuryakin's not down there, if he ever was.” He met Solo's eyes stoically. “If you tell us to keep looking, we will. It's your decision. But you risk losing another agent, and maybe more than one, under these conditions.”
Napoleon knew the man was right. As CEA, he was responsible for the safety of his men. He couldn't ask them to put their lives in danger needlessly. “Okay,” he said, hating the words, hating that he had to be the one to say them. “I'm calling it. Keep the above-ground search going. Send the rest of the teams home.” He turned and started back toward the search area.
“Sir,” Conrad called after him, “what about you?”
Solo never looked back. “I'm staying until I find him.”
He crossed the street in silence, passed the darkened railyard and the old stock pens. His shoes squelched with every miserable step. His fine Italian loafers were ruined, his hand-tailored suit was stained with mud, and his cashmere coat was torn from where it had snagged on a chain link fence. None of it mattered. Just let Illya be all right.
It felt as though the weight of the world was crashing down upon him, crushing his spirit. What if he's not all right? What if - -? Solo buried his face in his hands, too tired even to cry. He's not dead. He said it aloud. “He's not dead.” I would know.
A flurry of activity near the wharves shook him from his dark reverie. He could hear shouting, whooping, calls for more light. He took off at a run. The crowd, buzzing with excitement, parted to let him through.
“We think we found it,” Lee Chang exclaimed. “A dirt tunnel with oak beams, just like you said.”
They clambered down a rocky breakwater to the narrow beach, the sand soaked from the recent high tide, and littered with old fishing lures and soggy clumps of cordgrass.
“It was here all the time,” Lee said, “concealed behind some pilings from the old pier, only we couldn't see it until the tide went out.” He pointed to a narrow opening just above the tide line. “There. See it?”
Napoleon moved in for a closer look.
“It's only visible from the beach, sir. At street level, it's completely hidden. No wonder we couldn't find it.”
The tunnel, about six feet by eight, was made of packed dirt, reinforced with brick and supported by ancient, wormeaten oak beams. It appeared to be reasonably stable, although with the torrent of rain pouring down, there were no guarantees. The tunnel stretched away into darkness, sloping sharply down as it burrowed under the Hudson River.
This was it. Napoleon could feel it in his bones. Adrenaline surged through his body, wiping away all traces of fatigue. “I'm going in after Illya,” he informed the men as he stripped off his sodden coat. “Chang, you're with me. Somebody notify Headquarters to be ready for a possible medical evac.”
Amid calls to bring in a generator and more lights, Chang and Solo seized emergency packs and flashlights, and stepped across the threshold into the unrelenting darkness.
The first thing Solo noticed was the smell, like old peat moss, a faint, musty odor that reminded him of childhood visits to his uncle's farm. He shone his flashlight upon the walls and floor, searching for the source. Hay. And dried manure. They were walking on excrement left behind by the thousands of cattle who had passed by on their way to slaughter. Bits of grain and desiccated spoor were still recognizable amid the thick layer of dust.
“I wonder if the poor beasts knew it was their time,” Lee murmured.
They walked on in silence.
The tunnel sloped steeply downward, and the walls and floor became slick with moisture. More than once, they slipped and fell, and before long the pair was covered in foul-smelling mud.
“I hope the tunnel hasn't sprung a leak,” Lee Chang remarked with sincerity. “I'm a terrible swimmer.”
“Probably just condensation,” Napoleon replied, fervently hoping it was true.
“How far do you suppose the tunnel goes?”
“No idea. The Hudson River is nearly two miles wide at this point, so I imagine the tunnel is a bit longer than that.” Napoleon checked his watch; they had been in the tunnel a little over six minutes. “Let's hope we find Illya before we reach New Jersey.”
“Amen to that.”
The tunnel grew level once more, having reached its maximum depth below the mighty river. It was easier to travel now, and the pair of agents increased their pace to a brisk jog.
Solo froze at Lee's urgent cry. He looked down. A thin strand of copper wire, partially buried, stretched across the narrow tunnel, less than six inches ahead of his left foot. Another step and - - !
“Thanks, Lee.” He played his flashlight over the walls and floor; a few yards ahead, another wire was faintly visible. “The whole place is booby-trapped. They were counting on us to rush in - - ”
“ - - where angels fear to tread?”
“Something like that. Any experience with defusing bombs, Lee?”
“Some. I had Mr. Kuryakin for my Demolitions Instructor at Survival School, if that counts for anything.”
“Good enough for me,” Napoleon said, and took a deep breath. “Okay, let's get started.”
Their progress slowed considerably after that. Fortunately, whoever had built the bombs had been in a hurry, so their construction was crude, making them easy to disarm. It was while they were working on Number Four that Napoleon noticed another problem. The floor of the tunnel was now quite wet.
“We've got water coming in,” he said. “THRUSH must've sabotaged the tunnel up ahead. We'll have to hurry.”
“What if there are more booby traps?” Chang asked, his face gone ashen.
Solo smiled grimly. “We'd better hope there aren't,” he said, and jogged forward, eyes alert, his flashlight playing the ground ahead of them.
He saw it. A shape. A pile of clothes. No, a man. Illya.
Kuryakin lay face down in the mud, his unconscious body bound tight with heavy gauge steel wire. His priest's raiments hung off him in mud-drenched tatters, and his white clerical collar was spattered with blood and mucus. His lips and fingernails were blue, his pulse, thready.
“Cyanotic,” Solo said, already reaching into his rucksack for wire cutters. Illya's bonds had cut deeply into the flesh around his wrists and ankles; it was clear that he had tried for some time to free himself before lapsing into unconsciousness. Working as carefully as time would allow, Napoleon snipped away at the bloody wires until, at last, Illya was free. Lee Chang passed him a thermal blanket without comment. Solo wrapped it lovingly about his friend.
“Illya? Wake up, tovarisch.”
“Wake up, Illya! This is no time to fall asleep on the job.”
Illya's eyes struggled open. “Na-- Napoleon?” He seemed dazed, almost giddy. “You're late,” he slurred. “Again.”
“ You can buy me a new watch for Christmas,” Solo replied softly. “In the meantime, let's worry about getting you out of here.”
“Later. Want to sleep.”
Napoleon sighed. “They drugged you, didn't they, tovarich?”
Illya nodded. The small movement caused him to pale even further. “Oh, Napoleon, I don't feel very well - - ”
Meanwhile, Chang was eyeing the water, which continued to rise. “Sir - - ”
“I see it, Lee. Illya, can you sit up? Because this tunnel is filling up with water, and we really need to go. Now.”
“Of course,” came the reply. “Jus' watch me.” Illya sat up, and promptly passed out again.
“Looks like we'll have to carry him,” Lee said, reaching for his feet.
They portaged him back down the tunnel as fast as conditions would allow, while Solo signaled news of Kuryakin's recovery to the agents on the surface.
“The medical chopper is fueled and ready,” came the swift reply.
The water was up to their knees, and rising fast. They knew that, should the integrity of the tunnel give way entirely, they would be inundated, instantly crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the water.
A light pierced the darkness ahead. They heard voices, the whine of a portable generator.
“I see them!” someone shouted.
Scrabbling up the final steep and muddy incline, they passed Illya up to the waiting medics, and were pulled out themselves, just as the tunnel's wormeaten supports gave way with an enormous whooshing sound. The mouth collapsed with a roar, flinging dust and debris high into the air. In a matter of seconds, all traces of the tunnel were gone.
Cups of hot coffee were pressed into the agents' hands as they were helped up the breakwater. Thermal blankets found their way onto exhausted shoulders. Solo watched as the medics worked on his friend, strapping him to a transport board, and hooking him up to an IV and heart monitor.
“He's coming 'round,” one of the medics said.
Napoleon knelt beside the stretcher. “We've got you,” he said softly. “You're safe.”
Illya looked up at his friend, and his eyes grew inexpressibly sad. “Oh, Napoleon,” he sighed. “You've ruined another suit. Mr. Waverly will not be pleased.”
Two weeks later, and Illya's wounds had healed sufficiently for him to be cleared to return to light duty. The doctors remained concerned, however, that the deep cuts on his wrists and ankles would leave permanent scars.
“Do not trouble yourselves,” Illya told them as he made his grateful escape from Medical. “I have so many old scars, no one will even notice the new ones.”
He spent his last off-duty evening stretched out on the sofa in his apartment, drinking cheap vodka and listening to the new Chick Corea album. As “Tones For Joan's Bones” floated brilliantly from the speakers, he watched Napoleon prowl the perimeter of his small and spartan living room, sipping a scandalously expensive brand of single malt scotch.
“So Partridge was hoping to do us in, along with the entire City of New York?” Napoleon summarized their conversation of the last hour. “I wonder if THRUSH knew about his personal agenda?”
Illya tossed back his vodka. “Probably not. Apparently, the man has never forgiven us for ruining his little fiefdom in East Snout.”
“Bad form, that.” Solo sipped his scotch, appreciating the fierce warmth. “And let us not forget our annoying interference in their South American oligarchy. Little wifey Edith was pretty upset with us for fomenting the revolution that deposed them.”
“Ugh,” Illya shuddered. “The Sadist and the Snob - what a marriage those two must have.” He rose to refill his glass.
“So Partridge recognized you at the church, and decided—what? That you'd do nicely as bait to lure me in? How many times does that make? Six? Seven? You'd think THRUSH would be more inventive.”
“It is getting a bit too familiar,” Illya agreed. “Next time, I think you should be the bait.”
Napoleon snorted. “Thanks, but I'll pass.”
Illya downed his vodka. His watery eyes drifted shut; he seemed to be asleep.
Amazing, how he can just go to sleep like that.
Napoleon wandered about the small apartment, enjoying a second glass of scotch as he perused the bookshelves for something to read. “Hey,” he said, lifting a large box from the corner shelf. “What's this?” He put it to his ear, and shook it.
Illya was on his feet in an instant. “Please be careful, Napoleon. It is quite valuable.” He took the box from his friend, and placed it carefully upon the coffee table.
Solo followed, intrigued. “Why? What's in it?”
“Must you always be so curious?” Illya scowled.
“It's a curse I have to live with.”
The Russian sighed. “Very well, if you must.” He opened the box, and gently brushed aside a confection of pink tissue paper.
The samovar was small and pear-shaped, made of brass, with a hinged lid and an elegant fluted spout. Its graceful curves were ornamented with an intricate filigree of etched cyrillic characters, and the large handle was shaped like the wings of a swan, each feather a work of art.
“I found it in a little antique shop in the Village. It's Russian, from the early nineteen-hundreds.” Illya shrugged offhandedly. “I thought I would take it out to Brookville after work tomorrow - a 'thank you' gift for Miss Frost.” He smiled his coy smile. “She did save my life, after all.”
“Yes, she did. She's full of surprises, our Miss Frost. Turns out she really did sing at the Metropolitan Opera. And the Bolshoi. She was a member of the Met opera chorus.”
Illya refilled his glass with unsteady hands. The bottle, Solo noted, was nearly empty.
“How do you think she did it?”
“Knew where I was being held? Knew where to find me?”
Napoleon observed his friend with interest. Illya had asked the question casually, as though the answer didn't really matter. But in his gut, Napoleon could feel that the answer did matter, very much. He contemplated the amber liquid in his glass. “I can't explain it, not logically, anyway. What I do know is that it wasn't done with smoke and mirrors. It happened. It was real.” He paused, choosing his next words with care. “As to why your fate should be tied to her gift - two complete strangers? Random coincidence, maybe? Karmic Law? Or a Higher Power?” He sighed. “Honestly, Illya, I just don't know.”
Oddly enough, Illya seemed to find comfort in the words. “Perhaps I shall ask her when I see her,” he remarked quietly.
Solo thought that it would be an interesting discussion.
“You are welcome to join me,” Illya added in a lighter tone. “That is, unless you have made other plans.”
“Thanks, but I've got a date with Jeanine from Research tomorrow evening.” Napoleon brushed a stray piece of lint from the hem of his trousers. “Dinner and dancing at 21 Club, and then on to El Morocco. And after that - - ”
“Jeanine? Is she the one with long red hair? Or the blonde with the big - heart?”
“She's the clever one who helped me save your life.”
“Ah, that one.” Illya nested the samovar in its box, and rearranged the tissue paper with great care. “Well, if you're sure you won't come?”
“I'm sure.” Solo leaned back, studying his friend. “You know,” he said, “for a former KGB agent, you are becoming quite the sentimentalist. Visiting old ladies in nursing homes - what would Moscow say?”
“My government would no doubt applaud me for showing courtesy to my elders,” Illya replied, looking vaguely affronted. “We Russians have a strong tradition of respect in that regard.”
“If you say so.”
“Wiser minds than mine have said it better. Illya caressed the rim of his glass. “'Old age,” he quoted with great solemnity, “'is the most unexpected of all things that may happen to a human being. The burden may be borne with greater ease when one is not left to face it alone.'”
Leave it to Illya to find a quote to fit the occasion. “Thoreau?”
Illya shook his head.
“Emerson?” It had to be Emerson.
“Bernard Baruch? The Pope?” He wracked his brain. The Dalai Lama?”
Cool blue eyes stared back at him.
Solo sighed. “Okay, tovarisch, I give up.”
The Russian smiled in victory. “Leon Trotsky,” he said, and drained his glass.