Napoleon Solo slunk through the door at DelFloria's, his body sore and bruised from his narrow escape the previous evening. The bell above the door tinkled cheerfully as he entered; he winced at the sound. His empty stomach roiled ominously, and his head felt as though someone had set up a mining operation inside his cranium -- lingering effects of the knockout drug Angelique had slipped into his post-coital brandy. He removed his dark glasses, and groaned. Why did it have to be morning? And sunny?
“Buon giorno, Mr Solo.”
He waved half-heartedly to Giovanni, and groped his way toward the changing booth, drawing a curious stare from the canny old man.
He smiled weakly. “You could say that.” He closed the curtain before he was forced to answer more questions. A turn of the coat hook, and the reinforced steel doors to UNCLE's New York Headquarters slid open.
Goodness, Mr. Solo!” the receptionist exclaimed as she selected a yellow badge from the display on her desk. “You look like something the cat dragged in!”
“I don't think even the cat wants me this morning,” Napoleon replied, accepting his badge from the buxom redhead. He shook his head to emphasize the point, and his eyeballs exploded in pain. “Oh, Christ. Got any aspirin, Ginger?”
“Just a sec.” She rummaged through her drawers, and came up with a bottle of what, to Napoleon, looked like the Holy Grail. She shook two tablets into her palm. “Here you go, you poor thing.”
He dry-swallowed the aspirin, grimacing at the chalky, acrid taste, and waited for the pain to subside.
“Gosh, Napoleon, I don't think I've ever seen you look quite so bedraggled,” Ginger observed with wry amusement. “Must've been some night.”
He shrugged. “Must 've been.”
“Mr. Waverly has been asking for you. Something about the Partridges setting up shop in Northwestern Canada.”
“Oh, and a package was delivered for you a little while ago. I sent it up to your office.”
“Mm-hmm. No return address. Security deemed it suspicious, so they checked it over. They say it's safe to open.”
“I'll check it out, thanks.” He tried to smile, but it required too much effort. “Who knows -- if I'm lucky, maybe somebody sent me a case of aspirin.”
The box waiting on Napoleon's desk was large and unremarkable, wrapped in brown paper and secured with twine. It was addressed to N.Solo, c/o DelFloria's Tailor Shop. No wonder Security was suspicious. Napoleon knew that the bomb squad would have unwrapped the outer layers, opened the box and checked the contents for booby traps and the like, so the fact that they had seen fit to re-wrap the item once they were finished was odd, to say the least.
He reached for a pair of scissors, and cut the twine. No explosions. So far, so good.
He eased the brown paper away from the box, and examined it. Regular, nondescript brown paper, the kind sold at shipping depots and office supply stores. Nothing special there.
He peeled back the tape holding the box's flaps together, and folded open the lid. All at once, a cloud of thick white vapor poured forth. Napoleon recoiled in alarm.
He hit the room's emergency ventilation switch and held his breath, shocked that the bomb squad could have missed something so obvious as gas. He wondered how much he had already breathed in, and what the noxious stuff would do to him.
Slowly, the cloud dissipated.
Napoleon took one cautious breath, and then another. His head throbbed and his eyes refused to focus, but he was too busy being absurdly grateful for his life to care. That was a close one. He stepped toward his desk, and peered carefully into the box.
Dry ice? Not poison gas, but harmless vapor. He breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Well, this day is certainly off to a roaring start.”
Now that he knew the box presented no danger, Napoleon turned his attention to the contents. A package, oblong and approximately two feet in length, rested upon the quickly evaporating block of dry ice. It was wrapped in several layers of thick, waxy paper, and secured with masking tape. A pink bow sat prettily on top. He lifted the object from its icy bed, surprised to find that it was heavier than it appeared. He sliced through the tape with his letter opener, and folded open the paper. And stared.
Staring back at him was a large, frozen trout.
And not just any trout -- a cutthroat, native to the Pacific Northwest. It was a fine specimen, plump and muscular, it's green scales glistening like emeralds under the room's fluorescent lighting. Tiny black dots covered its dorsal surface, and the characteristic slash of bright red around the gills confirmed its species. A thin sheen of melting ice crystals dotted its length.
Napoleon knew virtually everything there was to know about cutthroat trout. As a teenager, he had spent summers at his grandparents' cabin at the base of the Tetons, casting for cutthroat in the ice-cold Yellowstone River. He knew when to use a Caddisfly for best results, and when to switch to a midge or a brown dun; how to compensate for the glint of sunlight on water, or the muddy swirls that roiled the river after a rain. Those summer days spent in hip waders, the freezing water numbing his toes, had been some of the best of his life; in his humble opinion, nothing tasted better than fresh-caught trout, the delicate pink flesh seasoned and grilled to perfection over an open fire.
Trout almondine, coming right up, he grinned, but his stomach lurched unexpectedly at the thought. Maybe tomorrow, he amended hastily. With traces of Angelique's drug still in his system, food didn't hold the same allure it normally did.
And questions remained to be answered. Napoleon's grandparents were gone now, and to his knowledge, no one but his immediate family knew about those long-ago vacations. So who the heck sent me this fish?
He examined the box again, and this time he noticed a small, cream-colored card wedged into one corner. He picked it up.
The door to the office whooshed open.
“Where have you been?” Illya declared testily. “Do you have any idea what time it is? I have been making excuses for you all morning with Mr. Waverly. He is positively apoplectic over your failure to attend the ten o'clock briefing.” He glanced at the box. “Napoleon, why is there a fish on your desk?”
Napoleon shrugged, which set his head to throbbing once more. “Beats me. It came with the morning Post.”
“Someone mailed you a fish?” Illya frowned. “Who?”
“Dunno, but they included this card.”
Illya scanned the message. “Poisson d'Avril?”
“Even I know enough french to translate that. 'The fish of April.' But what does it mean?”
“Well --” Illya thought for a moment. “This is April. Perhaps it refers to the month.”
“Okay, but why? What does a fish have to do with the month of April?”
“Opening Day of fishing season?”
“Not for another two weeks. And anyway, it's been years since I went fishing for anything besides compliments.”
Illya thought some more. “Catholics eat fish on Fridays during Lent, do they not?”
“They eat fish every Friday. However, today is Monday. And I'm not Catholic.”
“Curious.” Illya shrugged. “Do you have a better idea?”
“No, and trying to think of one is making my head hurt.” Napoleon popped another aspirin into his mouth.
“Are you all right, Napoleon? You look a bit green around the gills.”
He grimaced. “Angelique.”
Illya's glance sharpened. “When?”
“Not another spider?”
“No. This time she slipped a Mickey Finn into my brandy. Fortunately, I was able to get away down the hotel fire escape before the drug took effect.”
In a state of dishabille, no doubt.”
“Buck naked, if you must know.”
Illya rolled his eyes. “Oh, Napoleon, when will you learn to stay away from that evil woman?”
He shrugged. “I'm a slow learner, I guess. Anyway, no harm done.”
“No harm done? Your eyes are bloodshot, your tie is askew, there is a coffee stain on your shirt, and your shoes are scuffed. Clearly not one of your best mornings, sartorially speaking.”
“Kind of you to notice.”
“It would be impossible not to, since you are sporting a hangover the size of a small whale.”
“Nothing a few aspirin and a good dose of caffeine won't fix. Now stop worrying about my wardrobe, and help me figure out who sent me this damned fish.” Napoleon stared at the trout, now beginning to thaw on his desk. “Obviously, it's a puzzle of some sort, and this card is a clue. 'The fish of April ---'” He tested the phrase on his tongue. “The fish. Of April. Thefishofapril.” He sighed. “Nope. Nothing. I'm drawing a blank.”
“The message was in french,” Illya noted. 'Poisson d'Avril.' Perhaps it is an anagram. 'Valid iron sops.' 'Prison IV loads.' 'Solo vain drip.'” He smirked. “The last one has possibilities, I think.”
“That's your idea of help? Come on, Illya, quit kidding around and put that expensive education of yours to good use.”
“In case you have forgotten, my PhD is in Quantum Physics -- hardly helpful here.”
“Yeah, well, my law degree's not much use, either.” Napoleon shook his head. “Two highly trained UNCLE agents, tops in our profession, and we can't figure out why somebody sent me a dead trout.”
“What about your sisters, or your Aunt Amy?”
“I thought of them,” he admitted. “Aunt Amy has been known to send some pretty unorthodox gifts in her day. She sent me a shrunken head once from Timbuktu. Turned out to be made of papier maché.” He chuckled at the memory, then winced as his teeth started to throb. “As for my sisters -- well, suffice it to say that they learned everything they know from their aunt. But they would have signed the card.”
"Perhaps it is a 'thank you' gift from a grateful Innocent."
"I doubt it. They generally express their gratitude in -- more enthusiastic ways."
“It is an intriguing puzzle. A fine kettle of fish, in fact.”
Napoleon groaned. “I'll pretend you didn't just say that.” He headed for the coffeemaker, but the pot was empty. He put a fresh pot on to brew. “Do you suppose the fish could be from someone with a more sinister agenda? Emory Partridge, for example?”
“Only if his manservant hand-delivered it to HQ on a silver platter. What about Angelique?”
“After last night?” Napoleon sighed. “Who knows? Christ, I can't think straight. My head feels like it's caught in a vise.”
“The spider woman's mandibles, more likely. Let this be a lesson to you, Napoleon. Mating with a black widow never turns out well for the male of the species.”
“Yeah, I got that.” Suddenly, his eyes widened. “Of course! Why didn't I see it before?”
“The fish of April!”
Illya smiled tolerantly. “Perhaps you should lie down, Napoleon. You are beginning to ramble.”
“No, really! Don't you get it? The fish of April? April's fish -- April Dancer!”
“You think April mailed you that trout?!” Illya's expression said it all.
“Why not?” Napoleon persisted. “In this business, things are never what they seem. Maybe there's a message hidden inside the fish. Or a microdot concealed on one of the scales. Or --”
“If there was a hidden message, Security would have found it when they searched the package.”
Napoleon visibly deflated. “Oh. You're right, of course.”
“Besides, April is currently on assignment in Guatemala. When would she have time, much less the inclination, to mail you a trout?”
“It was just a thought.” He sighed.
“And you complain about my jokes?”
“I am merely embracing the spirit of the occasion. You know, now that I think about it, perhaps the fish in question is --" Illya's eyes danced merrily. "-- a red herring.”
“Oh, please stop.”
“You know what they say, Napoleon: 'Good things come to those who bait,' and frankly, this is more fun than -- what is the phrase you Americans use? Ah, yes. 'Shooting fish in a barrel.'”
“Enough with the puns. Let me grab a cup of coffee, and --”
The door whooshed open.
Alexander Waverly stepped into their small office, his craggy face a storm cloud of displeasure. “How kind of you to grace us with your presence. And only two hours late. I presume you have a compelling excuse for your tardiness?”
“Uh, sorry, sir. I had a run-in with Angelique last night -- she tried to drug me. I'm still a bit under the weather.”
“So Mr. Kuryakin has informed me.” Waverly peered at his CEA. “Naturally, what you young men do on the weekends is your own business. However, I do expect my senior agents to exercise good judgment. You appear to have had a lapse in yours, Mr. Solo.”
Napoleon lowered his gaze.
“Perhaps a visit to Medical is in order. I'm sure I can find someone else to fill in on the mission to Canada if you are unwell.”
“I'm sure that won't be necessary, sir,” Napoleon replied hastily. “I'm good to go.”
“I'm gratified to hear it.” He glanced pointedly at Napoleon's poorly knotted necktie. “In the future, Mr. Solo, I would counsel you in the most emphatic terms to choose your -- companions -- more carefully.”
“Yes sir.” Dressed down by the old man, he thought dismally. If this day was a fish, I would throw it back.
“Heaven knows, as CEA, I expect wisdom and maturity from you, Mr. Solo, not --” Waverly's bushy eyebrows rose. “Is that a fish on your desk?”
“Um, yes sir. A trout. It arrived with the morning mail. We were just trying to figure out who sent it.”
“It came addressed to Napoleon,” Illya said, “in care of DelFloria's. Personally, I think the whole thing smells rather fishy, don't you?”
Napoleon groaned. Shoot me now.
“Waverly picked up the card. “What's this? 'Poisson d'Avril.'”
That's the card that came with the trout, sir.”
“Indeed?” Waverly stroked his lantern jaw. For an instant, the briefest of smiles crossed the old man's face. “Well, gentlemen, I'll leave you to it, then. Although I'm sure it would be pleasant to spend a lazy afternoon speculating over the origins of a frozen trout, time and tide wait for no man. I have other fish to fry before the day is out, notably one Emory Partridge. As the saying goes, it is time to fish or cut bait.”
First Illya, and now Waverly? Napoleon's gaze darted uncertainly from one man to the other. What am I missing here? “Uh, sir --”
“You look confused, Mr. Solo, no great surprise considering your indisposition. In the future, you would do well to emulate Mr. Kuryakin's admirable self-discipline. For heaven's sake, stay home occasionally. Order chinese takeout. Read your journals." He sighed. "Much misery could be avoided if you were less of a social butterfly."
He turned toward the door. "By the way, Mr. Solo, you might want to brush up on your french idioms. 'Poisson d'Avril' is the french colloquialism for 'April Fool."
“April --?” Napoleon's glance slid to Illya, and the lightbulb went off. Never mind the fish. I smell a Russian rat!
The door slid open at Waverly's approach. He turned. “Oh, and Mr. Kuryakin?'
The Old Man winked. “Well done.”
Illya's answering grin was positively radiant. “It was, sir, wasn't it?”
(Author's Note: Poisson D'Avril (literally, "Fish of April") is the french version of April Fool's Day. The term is meant to convey that something is rather "fishy" about a situation--usually a prank being perpetrated on an unsuspecting mark.)