(Published in two parts due to LJ size constraints. This is Part 1. Part 2 follows.)
“This is ridiculous,” Illya whispered furiously as they sat in the outer offices of the House of Lilù, portfolios in hand. “We are enforcement agents, not fashion models.”
“We are whoever UNCLE says we are, tovarisch,” Napoleon whispered back. “HQ suspects that THRUSH is somehow using this fashion house as a conduit for disseminating classified information here in London. It's up to us to find out how they're doing it.”
“As male models?” Illya rolled his eyes. “Why couldn't they send us undercover as buyers? Or tailors? I would rather sew a garment than prance in it.”
"As models, we'll have better access to the collection, not to mention the employees and the backstage area at Lilù,” Napoleon replied for what felt like the thousandth time that morning. “We need to find out if the stolen information is being sewn into the garments like it was the last time.*”
“It's no use arguing. Sir Winston asked for us specifically, so try to make the best of it.” He straightened his raw silk tie and settled back to wait. “Relax. Enjoy the view.” He winked at a rail-thin blonde in a Mary Quant shift dress that left little to the imagination. The young woman sniffed and turned away, apparently content to munch on her carrot stick.
“You are losing your touch, Napoleon.”
He shrugged. “Who can blame her. It's probably the first decent meal she's had all day.”
“Starvation diets; another thing to hate about the fashion industry.”
“Mr. Solo? Mr. Kuryakin?” the receptionist announced. “Master Lilù will see you now.”
They picked up their portfolios and trotted past the dozen or so hopefuls who had received callbacks that morning. Twelve sets of eyes followed them through the heavy brass doors. “Remember,” Napoleon hissed, “act haughty, disinterested, like you don't give a damn whether you get the job.”
Illya snorted. “I don't.”
They stepped across the threshold.
Auguste Lilù's salon was an homage in black and white -- dramatic, starkly elegant, and undeniably sensual. A pair of curved leather sofas dominated the room, their ebony legs sinking deep into the plush white carpet. The sofas flanked a coffee table of hammered brass. White lotus blossoms floated in a crystal bowl atop the table; their petals gave off a heady scent. A fainting couch of tufted black leather, set off to one side, completed the tableau. Black and white photographs of past collections lined the walls.
The ceiling of the salon was high and arched, the plaster decorated with ornate carvings of mythological beasts. The floor to ceiling windows were draped in black and white striped dupioni silk; were they open, they would have provided a lovely view of nearby Regents' Park. In the corner stood a red-lacquered grand piano, the single note of color in the room. A scattering of candles provided the only light.
“Please be seated, gentlemen,” said the severe-looking man at the window. I am Auguste Lilù.”
He gestured toward a group of two men and a woman already seated on the sofa. All three were dressed in black, the woman's attire accented by crimson lips and scarlet nails, as though she had dressed to complement the room. Or perhaps, thought Napoleon, the room had been designed to complement her. “My sister and muse, Anna. My partners, Dalmat Galico and Pjetër Cana.”
Lilù extended his hand -- to shake, Napoleon assumed, and extended his own.
“Your portfolios, please.”
Napoleon recovered quickly, and handed over the folder. Illya raised a single eyebrow, and handed his over as well.
“Nice bone structure on the blonde one, don't you agree?” said the sister, Anna. “Rather delicious.”
“A bit on the thin side, and too pale, one thinks,” replied the one identified as Dalmat, a doe-eyed glitteratus in a Nehru jacket and black dancer's tights. He turned to Illya. “Take off the shirt.”
“Shirt. Off. You do speak English, don't you?” Dalmat snapped his fingers.
Illya lifted his chin but, at a warning glance from Napoleon he complied, slipping first, his jacket and tie, and then the crisp white shirt from his shoulders.
“Oh, look, he's blushing,” exclaimed Anna. “How lovely. All that blood rushing to his face.”
“Mmm, yes,” said Dalmat. “Perhaps you're right, dear. He'll photograph well, with those angular cheekbones.”
“Let's see the other one,” said Pjetër, who until now had remained silent.
Napoleon obediently removed his blazer, tie and shirt, and laid them neatly over the edge of the sofa.
Pjetër circled him, somewhat like a tiger stalking its prey. “Masculine. Toned. Graceful.” He turned to the other three, nodding. “This one has runway potential, and from the cut of his trousers, decent taste.”
“Very well,” Lilù said, sounding bored. “I'm satisfied. Sign them both.” He turned, dark eyes sweeping the room, and Illya was struck by the powerful energy emanating from the man. “Welcome to the House of Lilù. You'll be helping to show our Fall collection. Talk to Clarissa at the front desk. She'll provide you with the standard contracts and waivers.”
“A regretful necessity,” Lilù remarked easily. “Catwalks can be fraught with peril, you know. One slip --”
“Not to mention the fittings,” Napoleon added sardonically. “All those sharp pins --”
Lilù laughed. “Ah, charming. I knew you would understand. And now, gentlemen, I have a number of other appointments this morning --”
Sensing their dismissal, Illya and Napoleon retrieved their clothes, and restored themselves to a semblance of decorum.
Anna held the door open for them. She smiled as they passed. “Mmm,” she sighed, reaching up to caress the pulse racing at Illya's throat. “Good enough to eat.”
“Well that was creepy,” Napoleon said as they waited for the elevator that would take them downstairs, into the bowels of the fashion house.
“Creepy?” Illya glared. “It was beyond humiliating. I felt like a slab of meat. And those people --” He shuddered. “There was something 'off' about them. Didn't you feel it?”
“The elitism of haute couture, I suppose. Tell a man he's brilliant enough times, and eventually he'll start to believe it.”
But Illya shook his head. “No, it was something more. Something --”
The elevator pinged its arrival just then. “Oh well, at least they bought our cover story,” Napoleon said. “Let's find out what we need to know about THRUSH's activities here, and get the hell out before somebody asks us to strip again.”
“Or sticks us full of pins,” was Illya's muttered reply.
The head tailor looked up from his work table, examining the newcomers with a curious eye. “You the new models?”
Napoleon nodded. “That's right. Napoleon Solo. And this is Illya Kuryakin. We were told to report to you.”
The old man stood, and took a moment to work the kinks from his back. He held out his hand. “Maxwell Perlmutter, but most o' the models jus' call me Max.” He brushed aside a pile of unfinished patterns and located his tape measure. “Let's get yer measurements, and then we'll see what's what, shall we?” When the men didn't move, he cocked his head, waiting.
Napoleon and Illya exchanged looks. “Do we, uh --?”
“Down to yer skivvies.”
Illya sighed. “Again?”
“New to this, are ye?”
Napoleon nodded. “Does it show?”
The old man shrugged. “No worries. Ye'll get the lay of the land soon enough. An' ye both have 'The Look.' Master Lilù must've been right pleased to get 'is hands on you.”
The men disrobed for the second time that morning, and the old man began measuring inseams and arm lengths, chattering away as he worked. “Good to see some new blood around here fer a change. Most o' the models are pretty stand-offish. Bunch o' skinny snobs. At least the pair of ye got a bit o' meat on yer bones. An' we've been understaffed for models, ever since --” He turned away to mark down a set of numbers, leaving the sentence unfinished.
“Since --?” Illya prodded.
Max glanced up a bit sheepishly. “Sorry. We're not supposed to talk about it.”
“It? Mr. Perlmutter, if something is going on --?”
“Max. Call me Max.” He blew out a long breath. “I suppose ye deserve to know.” He sat down, suddenly looking older and more careworn. “There've been -- disappearances. Lilù models goin' missing. A half-dozen over the past year, all in the vicinity of Regents' Park. The youngest was barely seventeen -- Emily, her name was. Jus' up an' vanished one night on 'er way home from work.” He snapped calloused fingers to demonstrate. “The police never found no bodies, neither.” He shook his head sadly. “It's getting hard to find models willing to work at Lilù nowadays. Word gets around, ye know?”
“Please don't let on that I told ye, gents. Master Lilù frowns on gossip. It'd mean me job.”
Napoleon smiled his reassurance. “Our lips are sealed, Max. And thanks for the warning. We'll be careful.”
“Jus' don't go walkin' through Regents' Park after dark. It ain't safe there no more.”
Once their measurements had been taken, Illya was sent off to Photography for some preliminary shots, while Napoleon was scheduled for the first of several fittings with Master Lilù in the main salon. They agreed to rendezvous for dinner at the pub near their hotel.
Illya was dismayed to learn that Dalmat Galico had been placed in charge of the photo shoot. The man gave off a strange, off-kilter vibe, almost like a pheromone, that left him feeling slightly nauseous whenever he drew near.
“Put him in the black ribbed turtleneck,” Dalmat ordered the dresser. “Black jeans. And be quick about it.”
The poor girl practically genuflected in her haste to obey.
“Let's begin with some head shots.” He placed Illya against a black wall, arms folded across his chest. “Now then, how best to highlight that magnificent bone structure --?” He took his time, tilting Illya's face this way and that, his hand occasionally lingering just a bit too long on cheek or jawline. Illya's eyes grew hard.
“There!” Dalmat exclaimed at last. “Now, hold that. Cue fog.”
A light, cool mist surrounded Illya almost at once. Dalmat slipped behind the camera and began to click off shot after shot. “One likes the intensity of the eyes,” he said. “Predatory, yet charmingly vulnerable.” Click, click. “Moisten the lips a bit. Lower the lashes. That's it.” Click click.
Illya did as he was instructed, but his jaw clenched in anger.
At last the interminable shoot was over. “Master Lilù likes to examine the test shots over supper,” Dalmat said as he gathered up the rolls of shot film. “One thinks he will be pleased with these.”
Illya couldn't get away fast enough. Some part of him was desperate -- almost to the point of panic -- to break out of the cloying confines of the miserable, decadent place, and to escape into the open, where he could breathe clean, fresh air once more. What is wrong with me? he wondered.
Napoleon was waiting for him when he arrived at the Lamb & Kipper. The senior agent had selected a table near the back, and ordered shepherd's pie for both of them. Now Napoleon's food sat before him, untouched. Illya thought he looked tired.
“Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix,” Napoleon said. “I had no idea modeling was such hard work.”
“You should try photography. An afternoon in Dalmat Galico's clutches, and I am in need of a long, cleansing shower.” Illya took a swallow of ale, and tucked into his pie with a vengeance. “So, did you uncover any evidence of our feathered friends in your travels?”
Napoleon stared. “Feathered friends?”
“You know, THRUSH. Those annoyingly persistent thorns in our collective sides?”
“So, did you find anything?”
Illya looked at him oddly. “Are you alright, Napoleon? You seem -- I don't know --”
“Tired, that's all. I'm tired.” He threw some cash down, and rose from the table. “I think I'll turn in. If it's all right with you, we can compare notes tomorrow.”
“Of --” Of course, Illya started to say, but Napoleon was already gone.
He seemed better in the morning, laughing and joking as the pair made their way back to the House of Lilù.
“I must have had a touch of jet lag or something last night, but I'm fine now.”
“I was worried,” Illya admitted. In truth, he still was. He had never known his partner to suffer from jet lag before.
They crossed Regents' Park, and were passing the Royal College of Physicians when they spied the knot of Scotland Yard Inspectors clustered in conference beside Park House. Yellow crime tape fluttered in the breeze.
“What do you suppose that is?” Illya asked.
“Dunno. Let's go find out.”
They sauntered closer, joining the growing throng of passers-by. “What happened?” Illya asked an older woman with curlers in her hair, who was out walking her King Charles Spaniel.
“Strange doings in Regents' Park these days,” was her cryptic reply.
She nodded vigorously. “All them mur-ders! Ain'tcha heard? An' then, last night, some fella saw -- well -- a grey figure roamin' about in the mist.”
Illya nearly laughed out loud. “I see.”
The woman shook her finger at him. “Ain't no laughing matter, young man. Fella saw a tall man in a hat, too, and another man on a bicycle. And a woman in a white dress!”
“I am afraid I don't understand the problem. It is a public park, after all. Why shouldn't they be here?”
“In the middle of the night? And he claims he heard bells ringing, and voices chanting.”
“Again, it is a public park.”
The woman stared Illya up and down. “And now, just this morning, mind you, some jogger found a den of foxes, all with their throats slit, the blood drained out of them. Bone dry they were! Explain that!” she humphed. “Gives me the willies, it does!” She shook her head. “I won't walk my Chauncey in this park anymore.” The woman trudged away, her yipping spaniel in tow.
Illya stared after her. “That was strange.”
Napoleon clapped him on the back. “I'm sure Scotland Yard will sort it out eventually. Come on, tovarisch, our new employers won't appreciate it if we're late for work.” He took off at a brisk clip toward Regent Street, leaving his partner hurrying to catch up.
Illya couldn't stop thinking about the dead foxes.
Once again, they were separated -- Napoleon sent to be photographed in a selection of fur-lined outerwear while Illya learned the ins and outs of runway protocol. They agreed to compare notes over supper at the Lamb & Kipper. Meanwhile, Illya explored as much of the building as he dared, but found nothing whatsoever to indicate a THRUSH presence at House of Lilù.
When it was time to leave, Illya breathed a sigh of relief. He changed into street clothes, and made his way upstairs to the main desk, anxious to be away from the oppressive atmosphere of the fashion house. “Excuse me,” he called to the receptionist, “do you know where I can find Mr. Solo? We were supposed to meet for supper, but he seems to be running late.”
“The dark-haired man with the sad eyes? Oh, he left.”
“About an hour ago. Said he felt sick. Poor man, he did look awfully peaky.”
Illya's radar went off the charts. He summoned a cab to take him back to the hotel, and paid the driver an extra five pounds to break the speed limit.
Their room was dark when he entered, the curtains drawn. Napoleon lay curled up in the bed, shivering, despite being wrapped to his eyeballs in the hotel comforter. He looked pale, and there were dark circles under his eyes.
Illya reached over to turn on the bedside lamp.
“You are sick, Napoleon.”
“Flu. I'll be fine tomorrow.”
Napoleon's hair was damp with sweat. His eyes were feverish, unfocused.
“You are sick,” Illya repeated, reaching for the phone. “I am calling the doctor.”
“No!” Napoleon seized the handset, replaced it in the cradle. “No doctor. Please, Illya. I'll be fine tomorrow. You'll see.”
Part 2 is HERE