The map room was relatively quiet, just a few agents scribbling information into notebooks, and the dry rustling of paper being carefully folded and unfolded onto the large tables dotted in an orderly arrangement throughout the room. A clerk whom Illya vaguely recognised from his last visit there, handed him the maps and books he had requested, her approving gaze lost on the Russian who with a polite nod, returned to his table and unfolded the first map on his list.
The State of Louisiana opened before him like an undiscovered world, his eyes immediately driven in turn towards its astonishing tendril shaped coastline creeping into the sea, then to the vast areas of swampland and marsh extending northwards into very different, more gentle country. His fingers circled the great towns and cities, tracing the road between the State Capital Baton Rouge to the great crescent city of New Orleans itself. Illya smiled at the familiar, foreign names of places; the story of invasion, empire and settlement reflected in its communities, large and small.
By his side lay a small selection of books detailing the history of the region. He opened one, staring at the old photographs of grand mansions. Their wealth, so his socialist heart assured him, had been gained on the backs of the slaves he saw working in the fields on subsequent pages. Putting it aside, he pulled out a book he had secreted under all the others. ‘Dixieland Jazz – a short history.’ He smiled to himself in anticipation, but not before a firm hand had gripped his shoulder.
‘And if thy hair offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that it should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. ‘
Illya continued to stare at the book, his gaze unwavering.
‘I can’t quite recall St Mark mentioning that particular part of one’s anatomy in his gospel.’
Napoleon swung down onto the chair opposite, unabashed by a loud shushing sound coming from the next table. After the visit to the house on Grove St, he had abandoned his normal weekend routine and had spent most of Sunday either poring over books and films, or taking notes from the combined wisdom of Mr and Mrs Newton Fisher III, late of UNCLE Section Four, and now running a Baptist Mission in Harlem. He smiled, continuing to watch the Russian reading for a while, until eventually, he looked up.
‘Well, what is it?’ Illya said frowning. ‘Unlike you, I haven’t been able to spend all weekend perfecting my hellfire sermons. I have a great deal to do before next week, as you know.’ Napoleon reached across and put his hand on his partner’s arm.
They retreated to the comparative privacy of their own office, Carole having been called to the typing pool to collect something, or so it said on the note on her desk. Illya had remained silent from the moment they had walked out of the map room until the door had slid shut behind them, Napoleon presenting him with a large coffee from the percolator on the table behind their desks.Napoleon had an innate sense that all was not entirely right with the Russian, and was unwilling to embark on the new mission without understanding, at least in part, what had taken place over the weekend to make Illya so prickly. Unlike many of their Section Two colleagues, Napoleon found it relatively easy to differentiate between his partner’s naturally reserved but cheerful mood, and the one he was presenting now. All was not well, but insisting on Illya telling him was going to achieve nothing.Despite his mood, however, he did look remarkably well groomed, from the sharp haircut he was now sporting down to the rather elegant grey suit with its rather daring red lining and soft black shoes finishing the ensemble. For one horrible moment, Napoleon imagined his worst nightmare; that Kuryakin had indeed proposed, that Marion had accepted, and that he was on his way to tie the knot. Pushing this out of his mind as absurd bordering on insane, he sipped his coffee and sat back, waiting for the other man to begin. Whatever it was, he was taking his time; sipping his coffee, his eyes hooded and unreadable. At last, he put down the cup and sat back, looking steadily at his partner.
‘Before you ask’ he began slowly, ‘I am not engaged to her nor ever will be. That moment has passed.’ Napoleon looked back, continuing to sip his drink.
Illya leaned back, his eyes now closed, a kind of dull pain seeming to drift across his features.
‘Of course. I may have made the worst mistake of my life, but,’ he said sighing, ‘it is done now and so I am determined to have only good memories of her.’
‘They’ll be others.’ Illya sat up and cupped his face between his hands.
‘I doubt it, and even if there are, perhaps I’m just not able to make the kind of commitment that leads to a lifelong, well , er . . marriage I suppose.’
Napoleon smiled and leaned forward from his side of the desk.
‘Now if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times not to use the ‘m’ word too often about women, or worse still, around them.’
Illya rolled his eyes heavenward and stood up as the door opened, revealing a man of about his own height and weight grinning broadly, a row of sparkling white teeth gleaming against the dark luminosity of his skin.
‘Vaz’ Illya said. ‘Napoleon, this is Vaz Fernandes, remember? He was in London with me.’
‘Delighted, old chap’ Fernandes said, beaming. ‘Any friend of old Illya’s here . . .’
‘Right’ Napoleon said, squinting slightly at Vaz, who was now searching in the pocket of his jacket for something. He drew out a set of keys which Napoleon recognised as those belonging to Illya’s apartment.
‘What did you think?’ Illya said, ignoring Napoleon’s stare.
‘Absolutely fine, old chap. Price include the stuff in the kitchen?’ Illya nodded happily, an amused smile coming to his lips.
‘I’ll move my things out this afternoon; Napoleon will help me.’ Vaz sailed out happily as Illya began stacking the cups beside the percolator.
‘What was all that about? I thought you weren’t interested in moving.’ Illya turned round, a more serious expression settling onto his face.
‘On the way back from my weekend off I had time to reflect’ he began. ‘Vaz needed somewhere to live which was cheap and convenient for work, and I wanted, well, a little more space, though your suggestion might prove to be a rather extreme contrast to my present apartment.’
‘It’s really not that much bigger, just a few more rooms; the kitchen’s really quite tiny, though we thought the main rooms were spacious, really fine.’ Illya frowned, as Napoleon delved into his pocket.
‘You’ve been there already, haven’t you?’ he said accusingly, looking at the brochure Napoleon thrust across the desk at him. ‘And who’s ‘we’?’ Napoleon came round to his partner’s side of the desk, leaning over his shoulder as the Russian slowly turned the pages of the brochure.
‘You don’t need to buy it immediately. UNCLE is going to use it as a safe house for the summer, and then you can have it at a reduced price. It’s a bargain Illya, and, Sabi and I noticed that there is a convenient Jazz Club at the end of the street, perfect for lonely Russians needing a break from the stresses of the spy business.’
‘I have the money, but it still seems awfully large for just me’ Illya murmured, putting down the brochure on the desk. ‘The furniture will fit in well though.’ He sighed, taking off his glasses and feeling the back of his head. ‘All I have to do now is to find someone to marry me and give me six children.’ Napoleon glared at him, turning Illya round to face him.
‘I told you. No ‘m’ word. Not now, not for a very, very, very long time, kapich?’
‘So where are we heading, where are you going to live for the next three months or so, and what are you going to put into your latest apartment, seeing you’ve just sold every stick of furniture you ever owned?’
The car Napoleon had taken out of the UNCLE car lot had proved more than adequate for the task of moving the Russian’s possessions, now residing in its boot and on the back seat as they moved slowly across town in the afternoon sun.
‘The answers to all your questions should be forthcoming in about . . . three minutes’ Illya said nonchalantly, turning right, the apartment coming into view at the same time as Napoleon’s expression turned from puzzled to clear. He had changed clothes at the old apartment, carefully folding the grey suit and packing it away before replacing it with an older, and more comfortable pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt. He combed his hair forward a little with his fingers, wishing that Marion had been more merciful with her scissors, but even that memory now seemed fond to him.
‘You’re living here?’ Napoleon blinked slightly at him as Illya pulled up tightly in front of the apartment and got out, opening the back door and dragging the larger of his two suitcases out as Napoleon pulled out the other one from the other side.
The apartment seemed unchanged from the weekend, except that Illya noticed almost immediately Marion’s personal effects had been removed by some unseen hand, presumably over the last couple of days. It was as if the place had had its personality removed; now just an apartment, no longer her apartment. Without comment Illya dumped his case down in the bedroom before coming back and retrieving the other one from Napoleon, and then, his partner following, going downstairs again to bring up his remaining belongings; the precious vinyls, a couple of boxes of journals and books and then a smaller box of assorted oddments of, it seemed, a more personal nature. For once, Napoleon was relieved that he had given in to the Russian’s plea to store his academic journals in their office.
Napoleon pushed his way through the bead curtain and reached for the kettle, the tea and coffee facilities still there, as if waiting for them. He could see Illya through the curtain emptying books onto the sofa, before carrying them up the stairs to the bookcase on the mezzanine floor, and then finally taking the smaller box away into the bedroom for opening later in private, he didn’t doubt. As the kettle boiled, Kuryakin returned.
‘So when was this little arrangement made?’ Napoleon said, handing Illya his tea in a mug with a rather lurid picture of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on it. Illya smiled, sipping the tea before placing it down on the table behind him.
‘She’s moving to California’ he said baldly. ‘Do you remember that man at the party here with the vodka? She’s staying there.’
Napoleon frowned. Whenever Kuryakin finally did start talking about anything personal, it always came out in such tiny portions, like toothpaste being squeezed from the bottom of a tube. In order to have the whole story, it was necessary to either squeeze him harder, or just accept the morsels offered at the rate he wanted you to have them. Napoleon sipped his tea and waited.
‘I don’t know if it will come to anything, but sober, he seemed like a nice man’ he continued, staring over Napoleon’s shoulder. ‘I can imagine she will be happy in a warm sunny place’ he added after a moment. ‘I told her that I was thinking of moving so she offered me the use of this place and anything here I wanted’ he ended, glancing round.
‘Very generous of her. I suppose with a film producer in tow, she doesn’t need to worry about a few items of furniture’ Napoleon replied. If Illya was surprised by his knowledge of Fred Zillenburger, he didn’t show it, merely shrugged vaguely in his direction and kept up his rather absent stare over his partner’s shoulder. Napoleon tried to remember the last time he had felt as deeply for a woman as the feelings he was now sure his partner was exhibiting for the woman who had so recently inhabited the place they now stood in. There had been a few who had merited more than his usual date and discard policy; a couple of his colleagues at UNCLE had held his attraction for longer than a night, and he had even spent a fairly passionate few days with a Hungarian agent which at times threatened to lead to something. But it didn’t, and he had now largely rejected the possibility that any woman could persuade him to commit himself to something more permanent. Illya, on the other hand, was beginning to exhibit the signs, however deeply hidden, that one day he might contemplate, even yearn for a family of his own.
Napoleon put his mug down on the kitchen top and looked at his watch.
‘OK, you get sorted out here, and I’ll go and do some shopping, since the fridge is only marginally less empty than your old one and I’m sure that before very long your stomach will be making its feelings known to both of us.’ Illya came back from whatever place he had been in and suddenly smiled.
‘You don’t have to; I could, er, get something later’ he murmured, looking round as if he had just realised where he was and being surprised at being there.
‘No, I insist on it’ Napoleon replied, smiling back. ‘As it says in the good book, ‘It is more blessed to receive than to give, sayeth the Lord’ he added, his voice taking on a ringing tone for the last words. Illya’s face took on a pained expression as he pushed through the curtain into the living room behind his partner.
‘Does that extend to Stoli?’ he asked hopefully.
He waited until he heard the door close before walking into the bedroom. He had spent several, but not enough nights in this room with Marion, but despite the deep pink candlewick bedspread which he had often grimaced at, it had never felt particularly feminine. Marion’s taste in furniture was eclectic, if that adequately described the unusual mix of styles on show. Everything from Louis XIV style chairs to pop art low relief works of art had sat strangely together in the apartment, a reflection of its former owner’s wide and individual taste. Illya pursed his lips and frowned, realising that for the first time in his life, he was now contemplating buying somewhere of his own and choosing items to fill it.
He instantly thought of Marion, a slow smile returning to warm his features. She had visited his last apartment once, vowing never to return. He could hear her now, scolding him for his Spartan living space, so devoid of anything that could be said to be expressive of him as a human being with interests and passions beyond that of the organisation he worked for.
‘It’s tidy, I’ll give you that’ she had said, her voice rising as it did when she got going about something, ‘but where is the Illya Kuryakin I know and love in all this?’ He had been momentarily transfixed by the words ‘and love’, not thinking until that moment that he had been any more to her than just another boyfriend in her whirlwind world. They had always met elsewhere afterwards, but the memory of that visit had no doubt led eventually to her generous offer, and by offering him such a gift, the hope that he would eventually find somewhere which would be more than just a resting place.
He opened the wardrobe and unpacked his clothes; even with Marion’s additions, a fairly quick exercise. Coming back to the bed he sat down again and slowly opened the lid of the smallest box. He gazed at the contents beneath the cardboard flaps, Marion’s words about his former apartment still in his mind as he realised that here, hidden away from her, even from Napoleon, was all that could be said to be his life until now.
Very slowly, he lifted a very battered looking, small brown teddy bear from the top of the pile. He felt an instant rush of emotion as he felt the furry body of the toy, an uncontrollable tear forcing itself out of his eye to dash itself over the waiting bear.
‘Welcome to New York Comrade’ he murmured, stroking the beloved bear gently before propping him by the side of the box. Underneath, a black lacquered box lurked. Illya opened it, the little badges inside reminding him of a different, long-ago world. He picked up his Komsomol badge with its little red flag design and the staring profile of Lenin embossed on top.
‘Shall I wear it?’ he asked the bear, whose benign expression advised him to return it to its box. There were other papers stuffed underneath; in a manila folder, the story of his academic achievements in a series of original certificates which he placed on top of the dressing table at the side of the bed for filing in a safer place. Then, in a stiff envelope, a small set of photographs.
There were not a lot, compared to the fat album which Napoleon had showed him once. Unlike the never-ending snaps of a smart, well-fed boy in immaculate clothing growing up amidst adoring relatives, these faded shots looked as if they been taken in another age. It was certainly a very different and more dangerous childhood than the one his partner had been brought up in. In one tiny frame he peered out at the camera, a rather wistful blond scrap of a boy, the background a period apartment that he knew, alongside so much of his home city, had been pulverised and rebuilt in the turbulent years of his lifetime. There were other pictures of his childhood in Kiev; an amusing one of him and his best friend Misha, the two children almost identical as they stared at each other, and another of himself and his mother. He could see so much of her now in his adult face that it made him wince momentarily. He ground his teeth slightly at the thought of their separation, before laying down the photograph sadly.
In the next one he had grown into the beginnings of adult life. Of his adolescence there was almost no photographic evidence, it was as if he had miraculously developed from child to man overnight. He sighed a little, knowing the reason for it. The years of his growing up on his uncle’s farm were not, like Napoleon’s, the time when a record could be taken. He frowned, searching quickly through the remaining images for something which he felt sure was there. With a smile he finally retrieved it from the pile, and with his finger, counted the figures.
‘Uncle Andrei, Aunt Yelena, Sergei, Ivan, Boris, Pavel, Grigor and . . . Anastasiya.’ There had been two older cousins, or brothers as he thought of them, the word ‘cousin’ not existing in the Russian language. Luka and Petya had been transported west for forced labour in Germany, never to be seen again. Anastasiya was in fact his second cousin, the only child of Luka and his wife Valentina. Illya smirked at the photograph, taken on a long, hot summer day during one of his University vacations, an annual experience in which he returned south to once again resume the agricultural work he had first learnt as a child.
In the final images he was a man, although by the look of himself in naval uniform, only just one. He cringed slightly at the shaved hair and his rather gaunt appearance, putting down the picture in favour of a later, and more flattering one. Yet again, years had flown and the man looking at him now was Illya Kuryakin, newly recruited UNCLE agent. He recognised the background, his old flat, or rather room in a large converted Victorian house off Clapham Common in South London. He was scowling slightly, the reason, as he now remembered, being that the taker of the photograph wanted to go to bed with him and he wanted to eat. With a faint smile, he reflected that his desire to eat had won out, at least on that occasion.
He tidied up the photographs and shoved them back in the envelope, putting them on the bed before picking up the box and beginning to flatten it. A dull thud alerted him to the fact that it had not been quite empty. A small drawstring bag made of rather faded brocade fabric sat incongruously on the modern bedspread, its contents spilling out slightly through the half-closed opening. Illya sighed again, and extracted a long gold chain from the bag. He was not greatly fond of jewellery, wearing his father’s wedding ring occasionally but otherwise, considering it something that got in his way. But the chain had been in his father’s family and his mother had insisted he have it, along with the ring, before he left for Paris. He had never worn it, thinking that it somehow lacked something, so it had remained in its bag, following him around with the other mementoes of his life in the box.
He put down the chain and continued flattening the box, putting it on the floor before going to the dressing table and opening one of the large drawers beneath. There were a few sweaters he had left out, thinking to put them away, and he needed to hide the rest somewhere before Napoleon returned, radar no doubt switched on for anything he could wheedle out of his reluctant comrade.
He was taken aback slightly by a small wrapped box sitting in the top drawer, a label clearly affixed with his name written on in unmistakeable handwriting. He lifted the box out of the drawer and retreated to the bed, tearing open the paper carefully. A strange mixture of annoyance and disappointment filled him as he stared at the gift. It was a music box the kind given to adolescent girls he imagined, who were keen on this sort of thing. On the top was a tiny, delicate looking, marquetry ballerina, and he guessed that inside might very well be a three-dimensional version which would turn in the most annoying way once the music began. It had already been wound he discovered as he opened the lid, for, as he had predicted, a similarly tiny figure began to twirl as the music started.
Despite himself, he remained riveted to the little box. Unlike other similar and less expensive items, the music played sweetly, its own wind-up version of Odette’s music from ‘Swan Lake’. He had played this very music on his oboe, knew its mournful, gripping melody as it told its story of love, evil and enchantment. Eventually the music and the ballerina stopped, breaking the spell and causing Illya to look inside the box more carefully.
A small coin like object was inside, wrapped in thin paper on which was the same, exhuberant writing he knew well.
Darling! You found it, how clever of you! It was a bit of a risk hiding it here, as you could have left this behind. It’s not really your sort of thing, is it? Do you remember telling me about your grandmother’s chain? Now you have something, if you want to, to add to it, as you said. My father gave it to me so now I’d like you to have it darling, to remember us by. Perhaps St Blaise will guide and protect you in the way I could not. I’m sure you will be making that awful face you do when confronted with someone or something you don’t like, but please accept the music box too. It was very special to me once, and I like to think that one day you can give it to a little girl who might be special too. Take care, Illya, don’t let that partner of yours lead you into too much danger, but above all, don’t forget the words of that song. She is out there somewhere, I am sure.
The music box closed with a gentle deep clunking sound. Illya sat for a while, the coin and the note enclosed in his hand, before, very carefully, he folded the letter and added it to a small packet of envelopes next to the photos that he had decided not to open. Taking the chain, he slipped the medal on and then slid the chain over his head. The saint, familiar to Illya through the Orthodox calendar, held two crossed candles carefully in his hand, symbol of his martyrdom and his power to heal. Illya kissed the medal and then pulling his t-shirt open, pushed the chain closer to his heart.
The predictable ding-dong of the bell followed by the usual smooth but emotionless announcement was accompanied immediately by a rather severe dig in the ribs from his neighbour in the next seat, enough to alert Illya that the plane was making its final preparations to land.
‘Seatbelt’ the perpetrator owning the very sharp elbows said in a very slow stage whisper, pointing to her own belt, which she was in the process of wrenching over her rather expansive waist. Her name was Angela ‘but you can call me Angie, everyone does’. When she had discovered he was French, she had spent some considerable time regaling him with stories from her latest trip to Europe, until Illya’s eyes had fluttered and he had yawned despite desperately trying not to.
‘Oh Excusez-moi, Gabriel’ she had said again in the loud slow voice she obviously reserved for foreigners, ‘you rest those lovely baby blues and Angie will let you know when we’re there, OK?’ She had insisted on calling for a blanket and then tucking him in like an infant, but at least he had earned a little peace from her, for a while.
He sighed and looked out of the window, grateful just to see the expanse of flat terrain below him coming into focus. At times it seemed that Louisiana and indeed the whole mission were to remain in some far distant place never to be gained, but now, nearly two months after he had expected to see it, the place was rushing towards him at a rapid, exciting rate.
Almost as soon as he had settled himself into Marion’s apartment a whole series of other, apparently more urgent missions had landed themselves onto their desks, culminating in his partner being removed to Langley for an urgent meeting with representatives of American national security organisations where the Russian was most definitely excluded.
‘Don’t take it personally’ Solo had said, frowning at his partner’s frown. ‘We have to keep in with these boys so we can operate without them poking their noses in every five seconds.’
‘By ‘we’ I suppose you mean ‘me’ Illya had said wearily, wondering for the hundredth time since he had arrived on these shores when these organisations would catch up with the enlightened attitudes he had met at UNCLE.
‘They’ll come to love you eventually’ Napoleon had replied, before sauntering out.
He had been kept busy with a plethora of assignments, Waverly calling him to his office on a regular basis.
‘When Mr Solo returns from Langley, I think it’s about time we got down to sorting out what is going on in Louisiana’ he had begun only the week before, Illya calculating by his comment that he knew exactly when Solo would return. They had reviewed the case and decided on initial areas of investigation, before Waverly began to rummage in his jacket, bringing out a small envelope, which he slid over the table towards Illya. ‘Dorothy wondered whether you’d be free tomorrow evening’ he said nonchalantly, the mere mention of his wife’s name inviting a rather sweet expression to lighten his face. ‘We’re having a mixed group, and she thinks you might like to meet a few of the younger members of the family.’
Illya had looked down at the card he withdrew from its envelope. At home was printed on the top, then his name carefully written beneath, with the additional message, ‘oh do come, I haven’t seen you for ages’ written beneath. Dorothy Waverly, a gentle and quintessentially English woman who reminded him of the wife of one of his dons at Cambridge, had seemingly taken a close interest in everything to do with Illya Kuryakin or ‘that sweet boy’ as she referred to him when talking to her husband. Going to their house was like stepping into another world, a world he knew and felt secure in. He had smiled his acceptance and promised to be there on time.
He had heard from Napoleon eventually when the party was in full swing, a distant English relative of Waverly’s by the name of Daphne about to pin him to a wall outside the French windows of the dining room as his communicator heaved in his pocket.
‘Oh hello, for once your timing is perfect’ he gasped, after ducking Daphne’s lunge and escaping into the shrubbery. They had talked for quite a while, just the bantering sound of his partner’s voice reminding him of how much he had missed his companionship in the few weeks they had been apart. As he had predicted, Napoleon was due back very soon, but not soon enough to join him on the flight which had already been ordained for him from on high.
‘Perhaps it’s as well we don’t go together’ he had said, calculating the time it might give him to explore New Orleans free of his partner’s suggestions for what constituted an evening’s entertainment. But as he strapped himself in for the final descent, he knew without question that at least some of that time would have to be spent on UNCLE business.
He waited until Angie had left her seat, accepting a little card she had written with her name, address and telephone number on it and trying to sound at least partially genuine when he promised to get in touch. As he smiled at the stewardesses and turned towards the open door of the aircraft he felt a sudden and extraordinary change in the climate. The controlled coolness of the plane gave way immediately to the kind of heat even New York at its worst couldn’t summon up. By the time he had reached the bottom of the stairs he could feel his shirt gripping his back, the oppressive heat catching in his throat like hot steam.
Illya scrabbled in his jacket for his dark glasses. His eyes were beginning to hurt in the intense light dancing off the tarmac as he trudged towards the terminal, unpleasant beads of sweat beginning to run off his forehead and neck as he followed the weary snake of travellers in front of him, all desperate to reach the comparative cool of the arrivals lounge. It was hard not to long for the sadistic winters of Kiev, or even the less glacial but damper English January as he wrenched off his glasses and wiped his face with a handkerchief wrenched out of his jacket pocket. He suddenly envied his partner’s ability to remain imperviously cool in these climates whilst he invariably sank into a misery of sweat and heat rash.
The oasis of the arrivals area finally beckoned him after a slightly delayed sojourn round the luggage carousel where he tried to render himself invisible to Angie’s eyes and failed. After another promise to be in touch he managed to get through to the arrivals lounge fairly rapidly, the astonishing atrium-like interior suggesting ‘aircraft hangar’ to the Russian’s hot mind. At the far end of the hangar wall an interesting pattern of concrete and stained glass caught his eye, the zig-zagging arrangement of chairs in front dwarfed by its immense size. Illya put down his suitcase and the canvas satchel type bag he had slung over his shoulder and looked round cautiously. It was easier to think in the delightfully cool interior and an inner, professional voice was calling him to think now about why he was there and put that first. There were the usual knot of people waving placards at those approaching from the luggage area, but he was convinced that Emmanuel Laurence would not be one of them. He saw Angie walking away arm in arm with a rather jolly looking red-faced man in a blue cotton hat and smiled, consigning her to the list marked ‘people met once and never seen again’. Suddenly he felt tired and dirty, as if his brief dalliance with the Louisiana climate had diminished him physically and mentally in only minutes. He shook his head, his hair falling across his forehead as quickly as it took him to be aware that someone was very close.
‘Monsieur Kuryakin? Bienvenue à New Orleans. Emmanuel Laurence à votre service.’
Illya blinked. A man, slight in build, with the darkest, most luminous skin he had ever seen smiled serenely at him through enormous deep brown eyes, while simultaneously lifting his suitcase and signalling towards the exit. He was wearing a very crisp and extremely cool looking linen suit of a deep cream colour, his straw hat pitched at an angle which gave him a definitely laid back appearance in contrast to the hot and dusty Russian.
‘Merci’ Illya stammered in spite of himself, grabbing his satchel and following Laurence obediently out of the building.
His car, a gleaming white Buick Roadmaster belonging to the previous decade, stood waiting in a lot just outside the Hilton Inn, the hotel sign proclaiming itself with two jaunty rectangles set at angles to each other on a pole outside the entrance. Without another word, Laurence opened the capacious boot and threw in Illya’s case before slamming it shut and motioning him towards the front where an extremely comfortable leather bench seat of an astonishing violet hue beckoned him in.
‘Like my Miss Kitty?’ Laurence began as Illya took in the sumptuousness of the interior. ‘Murielle calls her my white paramour’ he added, before giving a deep treacly laugh as he backed Miss Kitty out, and with a screech of her white-walled tyres, pointed her large bonnet in the general direction of the city.
Illya sat back as Laurence talked, the other man’s deep rich tones lulling him into an astonishingly mellow sense of being, as if the frustrations and the personal pain of the last three months had just shifted and slid off him like hot tar oozing off a roof in the sun. He shook his head slightly again as Laurence continued his guided tour, and then sank back gratefully into Miss Kitty’s soft violet embrace.
‘These neighbourhoods are nothing fancy, but nearer in, she starts to show herself’ he said, as Illya squinted at a succession of the usual combination of out of town stores and rather nondescript housing he had seen in numerous towns throughout the country. The car rode the tarmac well, Illya warming to her blousy charms in a way he had never thought possible before. After about ten miles of more or less straight highway, the road began to develop a more urban appearance of a distinctly more European tone. The sun’s unrelenting rays became tempered by rows of trees reminding Illya of boulevards in France, the houses classical and elegant as Miss Kitty slowed to allow his appreciation. It was soon very clear that Laurence was an expert on the city he loved.
‘Course, this is what I like to call a complex city’ he began, ‘a melting pot if you like of so many different cultures; Catholic in religion, French speaking, but so much more’n that, so much more’ he added, in a voice that invited, almost demanded the listener to ask more. Illya sat up, fascinated by the story, brought to life in the way the rather desiccated text-book he had read in the library at UNCLE never could.
‘So where do you fit in, in the story?’ he said haltingly, not wishing to offend the man he was warming to every bit as much as he was to his car. Laurence turned, his eyes now gleaming with acknowledgement of the blond man’s interest.
‘Me? Why, did you think my people came from slave stock?’ he said, Miss Kitty slowing down to a faint purr and then turning into a narrower but still elegant street.
‘No; not from your name. Um, I thought you might be, well, Haitian, perhaps?’ Laurence smiled and instantly nodded his head in a way that seemed to denote approval.
‘Napoleon said you were smart, and you just proved him right’ he said, beaming. ‘Yeah, we’re from that fair country; free blacks always have been’ he added, a serious tone entering his voice as he spoke. ‘Then you know too that this city was the centre of that trade right from the eighteenth century, and being the smart man you are, you will also know that there is still a long way to go in that particular struggle.’
‘I do’ Illya said simply, suddenly aware that they had stopped outside the most delightful house. At first it appeared to be only one story until he noticed the ground floor rooms to the side of the garden hedges, neatly arranged either side of a rather imposing set of central stairs leading to the porch and so to the solid looking front door on what was effectively the first floor. Six pillars completed the classical façade, behind which stood four handsome sash windows which reached down to the floor and through whom one could conceivably step into the house from the long open porch outside. Four large hanging baskets filled with delicate looking ferns were suspended from the porch ceiling, completing the picture.
‘Chez toi?’ he said, turning back to Laurence as the front door opened.
‘Chez nous’ Emmanuel replied.
A young girl, willowy in appearance, with hair braided across her head in an intricate pattern stood on the threshold, biding her time until the two men had scaled the second flight of steps to the door.
‘Illya, meet my eldest daughter, Françoise. Françoise, this is Mr Kuryakin from New York.’
‘Enchanté’ Illya said, and he was.
She had her father’s astonishing skin tone and beautiful eyes, but, from the look of her, she had also inherited a kind of elegant grace of movement which contrasted sharply with most of the children he had had the misfortune of travelling with on the plane journey.
‘Entré, Monsieur Kuryakin’ she said simply, picking up his French in a natural way and leading them into a room off the main hallway, its coolness a result of both the fan churning away in the ceiling and the shade from the porch outside. Like Françoise, the room had an elegant look about it that someone knew how to achieve by the choice and arrangement of furnishings Illya had could only marvel at. At one end, a small grand piano stood invitingly, a selection of instruments laid out on the top of bookshelves on which he could see a very large amount of sheet music stacked neatly in small piles.
‘You like music?’ Emmanuel murmured, motioning him to sit down on a huge cream linen sofa, Françoise disappearing only to reappear again magically with a huge tray of what looked like some kind of deep orange coloured water.
‘Iced tea?’ she enquired of him, gently proffering the glass. ‘Un specialité de la region’ she added, a faint smile animating her face. After a look from her father she withdrew to the end of the room and began to play the piano, the sort of music that Illya remembered well from the hours he had practised at a similar age.
‘She plays well’ he said after a while. ‘How old is she?’ Emmanuel leaned back on the sofa facing him, a smile on his face that Illya imagined a happy father would have if he had such a daughter as Françoise.
‘Eleven’ Emmanuel replied, putting down his glass. ‘And I have two other beauties of six and four, who I’m sure, will introduce themselves to you tomorrow morning.’ Faint noises from above confirmed his statement, together with a slight roll of his eldest daughter’s eyes at the piano.
They chatted amiably for a few minutes, Illya noticing that Laurence seemed perfectly happy to talk about anything that didn’t involve the reason the Russian agent was sitting opposite him on a hot August evening. Eventually he got up, and after rummaging in a bureau behind him, turned back to Kuryakin.
‘I have some papers upstairs. I’ll just check in on the situation above if you and Françoise here can keep each other company for a while.’
Illya craned his head round just as Francoise began playing a piece of music he recognised as the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime’. She was managing the melody quite well, but that was all it was, a simple melody which ached for something else to set it free. Getting up, he wandered over to the bookcases and selected a clarinet, lying on top already assembled. The oboe, his classical instrument of choice, didn’t really lend itself to improvisation, but the clarinet was different.
He could see her watching him out of the corner of her eye, and as he put the mouthpiece to his lips she slowed slightly, allowing his softer improvisation to blend with her melody. Lowering his eyelids he allowed the music to absorb his soul for the next few minutes, until he was suddenly aware of a change in the piano, the melody now becoming the improvisation as he effortlessly slipped into the melody behind it. Emmanuel had returned and was now sitting at the side of his daughter, her arm slung across his shoulder as he played.
When they had been playing for a while Illya eventually became aware of a woman at the doorway, the same elegant kind of woman that Illya was sure the little girl sitting on the piano stool would one day become. After raising her eyebrows in mock amusement at the scene, she came in and sat down in one fluid movement, Francoise sliding off the piano stool and joining her on the sofa. As they finished she stood up again and faced them.
‘My, you play like that and you won’t never wanna leave here’ she said, the same slow smile playing on her face. Illya laid the instrument down as Emmanuel came up beside him.
‘Murielle, this is Illya Kuryakin, and I’m sure he has a longing to sample some of your fine cooking’ he said, nodding very faintly to Françoise who seemed to know without being told that it was her time to retire to bed.
‘I told her she could wait until you came’ he said when he had refreshed Illya’s glass, ‘but we need some private time now, and by the look of you, the time to eat is also way overdue.’ Illya smiled, trying to control the inevitable response of his stomach to the smells now emanating from the kitchen.
‘It won’t be long’ Emmanuel said. ‘You eat fish?’
‘I eat anything’ Illya replied.
They ate in another room at the back of the house, looking out at a long meandering garden in the back, a beautiful frangipane tree dominating the other, smaller bushes and plants around it. Murielle turned out to be as good a cook as her husband had said, serving them a beautifully arranged plate of filleted trout which lay attractively on a bed of potatoes and onions, a rich, spicy tomato sauce providing the delicious and powerful accompaniment, together with what she described as ‘greens’ nestling in large bowls by each of their plates.
‘We have our own dishes, but this is typical food of these parts’ Murielle said as she slid Illya’s plate towards him. ‘And you certainly look like you need some solid Southern food to fill that skinny frame of yours’ she added, sitting back approvingly as Illya concentrated on showing his appreciation of the cuisine.
Eventually, he put down his knife and fork and sat back, the fiery taste of the sauce lingering in his mouth.
‘We call it ‘red gravy’’ Murielle murmured, looking at his slightly flushed face in the deepening shadows of the evening, and gently pushing another glass of iced tea towards him. It was easy to see how one could be so easily distracted here from the task he had been sent to do. The humid heat of the place, the buildings, even the food and certainly the music was inducing a kind of torpor in him which pushed aside all thoughts of what was to come in favour of the sheer indulgence of his senses. He took a gulp of the tea and shook his head, scraping the chair back and standing up.
‘I think before I fall asleep at the table after your wonderful hospitality, we need to talk’ he said, looking at Emmanuel, who seemed to have known from the start that this would happen at that precise moment.
‘Naturally’ he said, rising from his place and leading the way into yet another room, a small study along the corridor with similar views across the now darkening garden.
‘I imagine you will want to explore the offices of the Arachne Foundation’ Emmanuel began, spreading out a map of the city between them on the large desk in front of the window. ‘As it so happens, that building is directly on our route into town’ he said, pointing at a spot on the map he had already marked. He drew out a set of images as Illya stared at the map. The house, for that is what it had obviously been prior to its current use, was yet another classically elegant mansion, this time with two floors both pillared, the first floor possessing a delicate wrought iron balcony which ran across the whole of the façade. The style echoed Laurence’s house, but on a much grander scale altogether.
‘Where’s the front door?’ Illya asked, pulling on his glasses and peering at the set of photographs.
‘Round the side. It’s difficult to see from this angle, but there’s an entrance in the side road, see?’ Illya nodded. A long, high hedge ran along the side of the house, only broken by a high iron gate like door, while at the front, unlike the Laurence house, only a narrow garden separated the broad sash windows from the gaze of the public on the pavement.
‘It doesn’t look particularly secure’ Illya said, putting down the photographs.
‘It isn’t, which leads one to think that there is nothing there to find of any consequence’ Emmanuel said slowly, emphasising the last word. Illya frowned. Usually THRUSH buildings were either in remote locations, or in some way securely protected from those around them. This house seemed the opposite; its location, on the corner of two busy streets, seemed to suggest an arrogant confidence that nothing, as Laurence said, of any interest to an inquisitive UNCLE agent, would be found.
‘The Foundation is becoming well respected here’ Lawrence began, ‘on account of the fact that they are making extremely generous donations to a number of educational institutions across the state in general, and to one town in particular.’
‘Which is also doing the political prospects of Senator Chauvin no harm either’ Illya muttered, receiving an affirmative nod from Laurence.
‘There is a history here of Governors carrying out great public works in the State’ Emmanuel continued. Illya sat up, looking at the other man now virtually submerged into the shadows of the room.
‘Governor Long?’ he said.
‘Yes’ Laurence replied. ‘ Huey Logue, the present Governor, has carried on the great plan, so he thinks, building that grand new Governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, but I get the feeling that Chauvin and the Arachne fellas have more ambitious ideas.’ He sank back into the armchair, his eyes closed, only the sound of cicadas in the garden disturbing the peace between them.
‘We have someone inside that organisation’ Emmanuel began again, name of Terrebonne, Emil Terrebonne. He’s working as a chauffeur and general handyman, you know the type. He’s been there some time. We guessed that eventually we would need to look closer and we sure don’t want them knowing we’ve been doing it. He will be able to assist you when the time comes.’ He leaned forward, his face suddenly taking on a harder, more serious appearance. ‘These are becoming seriously influential people in this State, Illya’ he said, ‘not your usual half a bubble off plumb THRUSH boys if you take my drift. If we get this wrong, then there will be nothing stopping Chauvin from heading for the Governor’s mansion any time soon, and then . . . .’
‘The White House?’ Illya said, Laurence yet again signalling his agreement with a slow, serious nod of his head.
‘Uh-huh. Emil has no access to their records, but from what he says, they are acting as a legitimate organisation which a lot of people have an admiration for. You will need to be careful if you want to look round the place, as you don’t want them to recognise you when you go for your interview.’
‘What interview?’ Emmanuel laughed, lighting up the room with his teeth.
‘Man, it’s in Napoleonville where you’ll work it all out’ he said, ‘and in order to do that, you’ll need to be a hard-working member of society, not one of those long hairs’ he added, looking Illya up and down with an expression that caused the Russian to rub his hand through his hair and glance down at his now stained and rather crumpled clothes. ‘Arachne pays and thus controls the educational positions in that town’ Emanuel continued, ‘including the library. And it just so happens that Miss Evangeline works in that very place.’
Illya was grateful for the darkening gloom in the room which hid the flush he felt coming to his face at the name. For the life of him he couldn’t understand why this woman he had only glimpsed in a photograph should make him feel like an adolescent schoolboy. His thoughts rushed back to the last few weeks, to his conversation with Napoleon about marriage, and then to Marion. Setting his lips into a thin line, he determined to cast these things from his mind completely and focus on more important matters, on his mission and not on the near disaster that his personal life seemed to be in at the moment. Marriage, children, these were things that did not, could not combine with life as an UNCLE agent. Yet sitting opposite him, Emmanuel Laurence seemed to confound these thoughts, contradict them. He shook his head and stood up.
‘Can we continue this in the morning at the office?’ I . . .’ Laurence jumped up, his face concerned at the appearance of the man opposite.
‘Course. This is what I call a long-term one; it’ll wait a few more hours, I think’ he said, grasping Illya’s arm and guiding him out of the room towards the stairs. His bag had disappeared already, and Illya was more than happy to follow it up to a small bedroom at the back of the house.
‘’Fraid you’ll have to share the family bathroom’ Emmanuel said, pulling back the sheet off the bed, as Illya wearily dragged clothes from his bag. ‘Get some rest now man; I imagine that tomorrow evening, before your partner arrives, you’re gonna want to hang out in the French quarter a little?’ A tired smile on Illya’s face confirmed his conjecture.
When Emmanuel had gone, Illya took out the rest of his belongings and then, after using the rather charming old facilities of the family bathroom, removed his remaining clothes and threw himself onto the bed, his gun and communicator safely stowed between the headboard and the mattress. Despite the heat, the sheets felt wonderfully cold and he let the ceiling fan waft cool air over his body for a while before reaching for his communicator.
‘Solo.’ The familiar voice cut out the sounds in the garden, bringing the reality of the situation to Illya more effectively than the conversation with Laurence had done.
‘So, how are you enjoying Dixie?’ Napoleon asked, listening to his partner’s detailed descriptions of Laurence, his family and even his car, before he eventually got round to discussing the mission.
‘I’ll be there by Sunday, in time to watch your back at the Arachne Foundation, so don’t jump the gun, OK?’ He could imagine the glare without being able to see it.
‘I’ve only ever done that once, and that was on our first mission together, if I recall’ the arch comment came back. ‘So please make sure there are no young ladies keeping you from making it on time.’
‘Touche’ Napoleon replied, smiling. ‘Feeling a little hot and bothered tonight, are we, comrade?’ Illya hesitated, for once unsure of what to say. It was difficult to explain how he felt, but usually that wasn’t necessary with Napoleon; he just seemed to know. Tonight was no exception. ‘Get some rest, and we’ll talk later’ he said more seriously. ‘Miss Evangeline and the nice folks at Arachne will expect to see a freshly scrubbed young student on Monday, not a scruffy guy with black circles round his eyes.’
Illya closed his communicator and lay on the bed for a while. The outside sounds, the chattering of insects, even a distant clang of what he imagined to be a streetcar and the thump of a more modern vehicle on the road outside, dulled as he became aware of a deeper, gentle roaring of some fan in the house that seemed to be sucking the cool air of the night inwards. He shuddered slightly, surprised that he was now feeling a little chilly. Pushing back the sheet he stood up and after discovering his clothes neatly arranged in the closet, dragged out a pair of blue cotton pyjamas and returned to the comfort of the bed. As he drifted off to sleep he decided that on this mission, in fact on all missions for the foreseeable future, girls, any girls would be strictly reserved for the eyes of his partner only. From now on, Illya Kuryakin’s world would revolve round work, and work alone.
Despite the fact that his eyes were closed, Illya knew that someone was standing very close to his head; in fact he could feel their breath on his face, which led him to one very obvious conclusion. Very slowly he opened one eye and then the other.
‘Hello girls’ he murmured sleepily.
Two pairs of rather beautiful deep brown eyes surveyed him from the side of the bed, the smaller of the two wedging her head on top of the mattress, a rather baleful look on her face. Illya smiled and closed his eyes momentarily, before he suddenly felt a small hand beginning to stroke his hair rather firmly as if he were a particularly large and beautiful pet cat.
‘Benny, ‘quit doin’ that!’ Illya opened his eyes again to witness the hand of the little girl called ‘Benny’ being firmly removed by her sister. Illya sat up slightly, but not before the girls had levered themselves up onto the bed, the older sister pushing forward a book which she had been clutching, while her younger sister clambered straight over Illya and nestled herself firmly into the pillow on his other side.
‘D’ya read?’ the older girl said, while he felt Benny’s hand beginning to creep towards his hair again. Illya nodded, glancing towards the bedside cabinet where his glasses lay, which were instantly grabbed by the book’s owner and passed to him. He took the book, noticing the name ‘Dominique Laurence’ written inside as he opened the cover.
‘Wiley and the Hairy Man’ he read, a sardonic smile already forming on his lips as he pushed his hair from his face. ‘How appropriate.’
He had just finished the story when Murielle appeared in the doorway.
‘Oh Lordie, girls! What are you two doing with poor Mr Kuryakin?’ The two girls clung on to Illya, the smallest sister continuing her stroking as Illya lay relaxed on the pillows. ‘And Benedicte Laurence, stop messin’ with Mr Kuryakin’s hair like that!’ Murielle said rather firmly, glaring at the two girls in a way that combined shock and amusement in one expression.
‘It’s fine, I needed to get up anyway’ Illya replied, shutting the book and smiling bemusedly at the two girls either side of him. His two companions reluctantly slid off the bed and went to their mother before Illya pushed the sheet back and swung his feet onto the floor. He had told Emmanuel that he planned to take an early morning run as he always did in New York, the other man raising his eyebrows a little before making a unintelligible, negative sounding grunt. As Illya swung the gate open and ran out into the street he now knew why.
It was only just past half-past six but already the heat seemed to be rising from the ground and hitting anyone who happened to be out on the street like a warm, engulfing wave. He guessed that the humidity was higher even than New York at its worst, which he had always considered to be nearly unbearable. Even after a few hundred metres, he was dripping with sweat, his t-shirt clinging to his body uncomfortably and his hair stuck like wet glue to his head. He gathered pace as he thudded along the pathway, giant myrtles and oaks overhanging the road as similarly attractive homes with tall hedges and sparkling white walls flashed by.
Within a few minutes he had reached the main road. St Charles Avenue lay before him, the traffic already picking up and the distant clang of a streetcar alerting him to watch out as he crossed onto the central reservation, a wide grassy area, and then ran across the second stretch of road towards the houses on the far side.
Illya could see even at a glance that these residences were larger and of a more elegant design than those he had left behind on Washington. They were set back quite a distance from the road, their boundaries delineated by attractive looking wrought iron railings and high walls between them. Many were of a considerable size, with both floors boasting sets of pillars and the now ubiquitous delicate railings running along first floor balconies. In his mind though, there was but one house, and as he ran, it repeated in his memory like an endless loop of a film. He slowed down a little as he crossed a number of smaller streets, glancing at the names and counting them off as the map he had memorised came to life in front of him. Eventually, after a sustained period of steady running he could see it in the distance.
In reality, the house was even more astonishing than it had been in the photograph. Just looking at it conjured up images of men in uniform and women in ballooning dresses with parasols from some bygone age perfectly preserved by the building. He could see the main door in the side street, partially hidden by immense magnolia trees, and then the cool, delicate façade of the house, the pillars interspersed perfectly by three sash windows on each floor. He hesitated fractionally, bending down to check his laces whilst glancing up at the opaque windows in the upper storey.
There was a sudden movement in the window nearest to him before the blind was pulled up and a woman appeared behind. Illya’s gaze was frozen in her direction as she stared down, her hand resting on the window as she pressed her face nearer towards it. She was instantly recognisable, although her hair seemed longer and looser than he remembered from the photograph, her expression quizzical as she maintained her position in front of him. Then suddenly someone else was there and she turned, the blind being drawn down again and instantly blanking her out as Illya stood up.
Without waiting, he began to run again, jogging across the busy intersection and then picking up speed down the road opposite, hurtling past the same kind of trees and walls and hedges until he spotted the road he was looking for and then skidding round and running back in a parallel route until at last he heaved himself to a juddering halt outside the Laurence house. Holding onto the gate he took a few huge gulps of air as he heard the door open and someone walking down the steps towards him.
‘Satisfied now?’ Laurence said slowly, before returning up the steps, Illya following slowly behind.
He could tell immediately that the family was preparing for breakfast from the inviting smells wafting in from the back room and the high-pitched sounds issuing forth from the same place. Hurriedly, he clambered up the stairs towards his room, finding his dirty clothes had been removed and the clean ones waiting for him, immaculately pressed and on hangers. Sighing, he backed out of the room and headed for the bathroom and cleanliness.
They were sitting round the table when he entered the room, his two early morning companions having left him a space between them where his coffee had already been placed. He could hear them talking as he drew near, the middle girl Dominique in some kind of argument with her elder sister.
‘And he has huge hands, papa, even bigger than Mr Terrebonne’s!’
‘He does not’
‘He does too!’
The girls looked up and stopped talking suddenly, only Benedicte signalling to him with her hands and then patting the chair as he approached. Murielle choose that moment to come in, placing a plate in front of him.
‘Omelette with red beans and grits’ she said helpfully, Françoise offering him bread at the same time. ‘Should fill the gap all that runnin’ made.’ Illya smiled and began to eat, the others after a few moments’ pause, continuing their breakfast too in a slightly less noisy way than before.
The meal over and it being the weekend, the girls peeled away, clearing the plates off the table and then joining their mother in the kitchen.
‘Now, when you’re ready we’ll head up into town’ Emmanuel said between sips of coffee. ‘We can ride the streetcar to Canal Street and then it’s just a little walk if those legs will stand it. Emile’ll join us later for a little conversation, you get my drift, and then you can take in some food before heading back to Emile’s for a little shuteye before the evening’s entertainment. Emile will show you where, seein’ that he is a single man like yourself.’
‘You’re not joining us?’ Illya asked, following him out of the room and into his study.
‘No I am not’ Laurence replied with a tinge of regret in his voice. ‘We do go down there from time to time, but nowadays, seein’ that I’m a family man and with a religious family at that, Sunday mornings I need to be fresh and ready to go, if you understand me. You just come back when you’re good and ready, and then we’ll take Miss Kitty on up to the airport and bring back your partner, OK?
‘Of course.’ Laurence was waiting outside the house by the time Illya had collected what he needed for the day and evening. They walked slowly up the road, retracing Illya’s steps towards St Charles Avenue.
‘I saw someone at the Arachne house’ Illya said suddenly, after they had walked in silence for a while.
‘Uh-huh’ Laurence replied, swishing a few flies away with his hat and then replacing it with the same slow, easy actions that typified him so well. ‘Someone familiar?’ Illya began to feel that this man knew more about him, understood him more than he had thought possible from their brief relationship. Emmanuel glanced at him and then returned to his former, slow and steady gait.
‘It was Miss Houghton. She was at one of the windows on the first floor. I got the impression that someone else was there too.’
‘More than likely the Senator then, which is interesting in itself’ Laurence said almost to himself. ‘They are due to be married, don’t forget’ he added, giving Illya a rather deeper glance than before.
‘I hadn’t.’ They walked on, the sun beating on Illya’s head making him wish he had something to match Laurence’s soft straw fedora.
‘The Avenue, as we call it, is where those who are something in this town live’ Laurence continued. ‘The streetcars run down the neutral ground here, but you’ll hear them coming before you see them.’ They crossed into the central reservation, passing a few grand mansions on the main street until they reached the streetcar stop, a tremendous clang and a shudder of the wires above them announcing the imminent arrival of the car. Illya smiled as it approached, its delightfully old-fashioned appearance perfectly in accord with its surroundings as it shuddered to a halt beside them, the doors clanging open to reveal its immaculate wood and brass interior as they climbed up and sat down on the side which would be facing the Arachne building.
‘It’s lovely’ Illya murmured as Laurence sat down beside him, beginning to point out some of the finer houses along the route.
‘Yep, they’re lovely things and quite efficient too in their own way’ he said, grinning. The streetcar rumbled on down the centre of the street, the two agents glancing at the Arachne house as it passed. Laurence continued to give Illya a kind of guided tour of the district as they gradually drew nearer to the city centre, Illya warming to the effortlessly beautiful houses and the grander public buildings he glimpsed from the streetcar’s window. After several more miles the car shuddered to a final halt and they began their walk through the considerably narrower and more congested streets of the French quarter.
‘When you come down here tonight it’ll seem different again’ Laurence said. ‘This place takes on a whole new feeling when the sun goes down.’ They had passed along several streets while Laurence talked, Illya noticing the height of the buildings with iron balustrades running along the length of buildings on the first and second floors above, the ground floor taken up with an assortment of shops, restaurants and, for the moment, boarded up clubs. They eventually reached their destination, a rather dingy looking Antique shop, an air-conditioning unit sticking out above the shop door, above which creaked an equally ancient looking hanging sign announcing that they were outside ‘Le Songe Antiques and Antiquities.’ Illya raised his eyebrows and glanced round, noticing the more inviting looking restaurant opposite.
‘That’s Antoine’s’ Emmanuel said helpfully, ‘an excellent menu of which I have partaken on many occasions.’ Illya sighed and followed him through the shop door, a rather shrill bell announcing their arrival. The shop proved to be larger than he thought, but for the moment, they seemed to be the only customers. A curious selection of rather heavy looking furniture in dark woods were arranged in a not particularly effective way, the larger pieces covered with other smaller items looking as if they had just been removed from some film set in Dickensian London. Illya peered inside a great glass dome covering a ferocious looking owl who glared back at him with a expression reminding him of Mr Waverly on days when either his work or his appearance hadn’t come up to his superior’s expectations.
Laurence signalled to him and he followed him past a rather cheerful looking man standing behind an antique desk of French design, towards a green baize door marked ‘restrooms’. Laurence pushed open the door and they found themselves in a very narrow corridor, a large black arrow pointing right above another door marked ‘staff only’. Laurence pushed the door, it swinging away from them to reveal an attractive and very familiar looking desk of the usual UNCLE design.
The girl behind the desk stood up, two badges already laid out for their use.
‘Marie, this is Mr Kuryakin from New York, remember I told you ‘bout him?’ Marie nodded, looking Illya up and down as if to confirm whatever Emmanuel had said about him. ‘His partner will be coming over tomorrow, you remember?’ He turned towards Illya while Marie handed out the badges, a slight frown now creasing her features. ‘Marie and Napoleon have met before’ he said somewhat wryly.
‘And he can keep his smooth-talking routine for some other stooge’ she murmured rather fiercely, before giving Illya a rather more friendly smile. Illya groaned slightly before following Laurence through a series of corridors and staircases to a large room at the back of the building. Unlike many more modern UNCLE offices the New Orleans branch seemed to have preserved its original features, including in this room a series of windows, all screened by blinds at this time of the day.
‘We like it old fashioned here’ Laurence said as Illya looked round. It looks more natural like in its surroundings’ he added, as if the UNCLE office were a kind of rare animal. Illya nodded, secretly rather preferring the old world style of the New Orleans office to his more familiar metal box of an office in New York.
There was a knock at the door, but before either man could answer it, it swung open to reveal a man of immense proportions. Illya gaped at him, noticing how he filled the entire doorway, his head in fact ducked slightly to enable him to enter. Despite his size he seemed to move with speed; within seconds he was in the room, shaking hands with Emmanuel and then grasping Illya’s hand with what he could only describe as a gigantic paw.
‘Emil, Illya’ Laurence said simply, a look of benign amusement spilling across his face at the two men stood in front of him. Kuryakin seemed about half the size and weight of the other man, his golden hair and pale eyes a powerful and astonishing contrast to the deep tones of the big man’s skin and eyes. He motioned them both to sit down, the Russian still staring surreptitiously at the other man as he lowered himself surprisingly easily into the other chair opposite Laurence.
‘Hi’ Emil said in a deep voice which Illya thought sounded like the rumble of coal into a cellar. ‘Emil Terrebonne, at your service, Mr Kuryakin.’ There was something both decent and endearing about the man Illya decided, something that made him feel more confident about both his upcoming evening out and also the more serious undertaking of the evening following.
Emmanuel dragged out some files from a locked drawer in his desk which Illya guessed related to the latter evening. There were plans of the Arachne Foundation building together with a series of images of its interior rooms.
‘Emil has made a photographic record of every room in the house as well as the land outside’ Emmanuel said. ‘As you can see, it’s as elegant and graceful inside as outside. Laurence had explained Emil Terrebonne’s role in the organisation to Illya earlier. It must have been comparatively easy, Illya reflected, for Terrebonne to have taken the pictures whilst engaged in his handyman activities, as some of the rooms showed evidence that re-decoration had been taking place.
‘As you can see’ Emil began, flicking through the pictures with surprising dexterity, the downstairs rooms are all offices, with the exception of this room here which they use as a kind of small kitchen and coffee lounge. Upstairs however, is kept solely for guests of the Foundation.’ Illya could see immediately that the room Evangeline Houghton had been standing in was a sitting room, part of a suite of rooms comprising a bedroom and a bathroom as well.
‘I will be on duty Sunday night’ Emil continued, glancing at Emmanuel, ‘seeing that their regular night man took ill yesterday with some mysterious ailment.’ He smiled a long, slow smile of infectious proportions. ‘So, there won’t be a problem getting y’all in or out, but you need to be mighty quiet with whatever you’re doin.’
‘Because there will be guests above?’ Illya said seriously.
‘Exactly so’ Terrebonne replied. It seems Mr Arceneaux and Senator Chauvin have business to discuss this weekend and Miss Evangeline came along for the ride.’ Illya sighed a little and then traced his finger from the front door to the office marked ‘Director’.
‘We’ll be quiet’ he said.
‘Well, it’ll be interesting if you find anything, because from what I’ve seen and heard they are playing this one very close to their proverbial little chests’ Emmanuel said. We need to find a link with THRUSH Central that we can demonstrate before anyone starts believing that the Arachne Foundation ain’t the best thing round here since sliced bread’ he added.
Illya pulled over one of the photographs towards him. It was of the man he now recognised as Senator Chauvin making a speech outside what looked like a college or university building.
‘See, there’s Arceneaux standing just behind him’ Terrebonne pointed with a large finger. ‘He’s usually somewhere in the vicinity when he’s doing those things. Either him or Miss Lucie-Mae writes the damn speeches so I understand.’
‘Arceneaux is a lawyer by profession, like his wife, but you probably know that already’ Emmanuel said, sitting back in his chair. He is an expert in Trusts, which makes him the perfect choice for Director of Arachne.’
‘So he’s not your average THRUSH executive then?’ Illya said, laying the photograph down again. Terrebonne snorted, a wide smile lighting up his face again.
‘He sure is not’ he replied. ‘I’d say that he is one of the cleverest men you might have come across in your career so far. But don’t underestimate Chauvin either’ he said suddenly, a serious expression wiping away the smile. ‘He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he has a mean streak as wide as the Mississippi river. So, together, they add up to nothin’ but . . .’
‘Trouble?’ Illya replied, frowning.
‘With a capital T’ Laurence said.
Emile Terrebonne’s apartment was only a few blocks away, on the corner of the street named after the great city of Chartres, Illya noted, as he stood gazing across the park diagonally opposite them towards a rather palatial building immediately across the road, its splendour slightly eclipsed by the soaring towers beyond.
‘That’s the Cabildo’ Emil muttered, as the door swung open. ‘Used to be the seat of the Colonial government way back, but now, it’s a museum. Beyond it, that’s St Louis Cathedral.’ Illya shrugged and followed him up a staircase towards what turned out to be a very pleasant, spacious apartment. His mind was immediately thrown back to the on-going saga of his own living space, and of another, spacious first floor apartment he needed to make a decision about.
He glanced round as Emil threw down his jacket and disappeared over into the corner, returning with the ubiquitous iced tea, this time in two giant looking glasses filled with ice and mint leaves. There were obviously other rooms, but this one was by far the largest, made more attractive by the two very large French windows on each wall of the corner. The back of the room was taken up by an open plan kitchen area, but the rest was set out as a comfortable sitting room, the sun seeping into the room through the blinds, illuminating the desk on one wall, and an impressive record player on another, set in front of some shelves groaning with long-playing records which made Illya’s collection seem amateur by comparison.
On closer inspection Terrebonne’s collection was even more impressive. Not only was there a huge collection of jazz but also an extensive classical catalogue of mainly twentieth century composers from America and Europe, as well as a significant number of recordings of other world music, mostly from Africa but some from more esoteric regions.
‘I can hardly begin to express my admiration of your collection’ Illya said, shaking his head at it all. ‘I can’t even imagine owning something as good as this.’ Terrebonne laughed, a massively deep, resonant laugh that made Illya feel glad just to be in the man’s company.
‘They are my life’s work’ he said, running his huge hand gently across the records. ‘I guess we all have our obsessions; this is mine. That’s why I live down here, I like to feel close to the soul of the place, you understand?’
‘I’m beginning to’ Illya murmured, withdrawing a Bix Beiderbecke album and turning it over carefully in his hands. Terrebonne took the record from him and slid it onto the turntable, adjusting the volume to perfection as Illya threw himself onto the sofa and closed his eyes.
‘Don’t go off yet a whiles’ Terrebonne said from the kitchen as the music began to take hold of Kuryakin’s soul once again. ‘I have a mind to wander on down to Napoleon’s for lunch.’ Illya’s eyes blinked open.
‘Shame he’s not here to enjoy it all’ he said quietly, another, deep rumbling laugh coming from behind him.
‘Now the owner of this house, one Nicolas Girod, who was Mayor of this fine town, offered this very place to your partner’s namesake in 1821’ Emile said between mouthfuls of jambalaya.
‘Did he take up his kind offer?’ Illya replied, staring at the sandwich in front of him and wondering how he could eat it without embarrassing himself. He had been persuaded to try the restaurant’s lunchtime speciality, innocently called a ‘Muffuletta’, lulled into a false sense of security by the word ‘sandwich’. The enormous concoction of Italian meats, cheeses, olives and salad covering, some way below them, some kind of bread, made him frown at its sheer super-abundance on the plate.
‘No sir, he never made it here’ Emil said, jerking Illya out of his horrified contemplation of the sandwich. After a waitress had thoughtfully provided a container to take away the remains of the Muffuletta, they sat for a while over coffee, the constant references to his partner’s name invoking a feeling of anticipation in Illya’s heart. The long, slow build-up to this assignment, strangely reflecting the city he now inhabited was coming to an end; very soon both he and Napoleon would shed their own identities in favour of two fictitious ones and enter into a mission which was shrouded with grey areas where good and evil seemed ill-defined and overlapping.
He had read a briefing paper on the flight down which outlined the character he was about to assume. The UNCLE contact at Loyola University in New Orleans, a Professor in the Department of History by the name of Henri Martin, had provided both the link with Arachne and the back-story for the man known as Gabriel Guerin. The name of the Professor, an incredibly common one in France, still awoke a long-distant memory, which after a while he put to the back of his mind until the opportunity to find out more about this man was available.
He recognised immediately the kind of man Gabriel Guerin was; he had met such students at the Sorbonne. One of a large family from a military background; a conservative both in appearance and political opinions, academic, traditional; the very essence of provincial French society. The kind of man who might be attracted to what was being offered by the Arachne Foundation and who might be attractive to them. He looked down at the clothes he was wearing and pushed back his hair, causing Emil to apparently read his mind.
‘Mr Laurence has taken care of your wardrobe for this assignment’ he said, drawing out a small cigar from inside his jacket and lighting it. ‘The Professor had some sent over from France, your size. You just need to put the finishing touches to it, if you get my meaning’ he said laconically, as Illya’s shoulders dropped a little at the thought. ‘I recommend Pierre’s just down there, past the Cathedral, near the French Market.’
Illya put down his coffee cup as the waitress returned with the bill.
‘OK, I’ll go and put the ‘finishing touches’ on my new persona as you so subtly put it, Emil, and I’ll see you back at the apartment later’ he said, getting up and walking out into the now eye-piercing sunshine of the afternoon.
The barber shop turned out to be every bit as traditional as the haircut he received, but the barber himself, a man of Cajun heritage with a good grasp of French managed to make the experience a little less painful by chatting cheerfully mainly about food and French influences in the region. Illya had used the opportunity to start easing himself into his new role, deciding at the end that he was not sure he and Gabriel Guerin would get on.
He shoved his sunglasses on as he hit the blare of the street again, trying not to believe that the whole of New Orleans was staring at his now very exposed ears and neck, and headed towards the river, stopping only when he had reached the levée with its view of the river in front and the astonishing buildings of the vieux carré behind.
Despite his background and childhood experiences in Europe, it was difficult not to be impressed by the huge area of water, sweeping round to his left in a vast crescent shape, a bewildering variety of boats plying their trade across its immense, sparkling expanse. He sighed and turned back, now staring at the Cathedral in front of him. Even with sunglasses the light reflected brutally from the immaculate white of the church’s façade, with its delicate, fairy tale spires and tapering slate covered roofs. A holiday he had taken in the south west of France one Easter with Marie-Laure came to his mind, visiting other, similar looking turrets and spires. He stood for a few moments longer, before starting to walk back slowly across the square.
The doors of the Cathedral were shut, but it was obvious from the steady procession of people coming in and out that the church was open to visitors and faithful alike. Illya pushed open one of the side doors, finding himself in a rather alarmingly dark vestibule at the back of the church. He removed his glasses, allowing his eyes to recover as he waited patiently behind a small group of jostling women to enter the church.
He could see immediately what was going on and remembered that it was Saturday. A reasonably large number of people sat in close proximity to a series of confessionals on one side of the Cathedral, some obviously waiting, others murmuring penances before getting up to join a small knot of others lighting candles by a large and rather voluptuous looking statue of the Virgin Mary.
Voluptuous seemed a good word to describe the rococo splendour of this church, with its elegant Corinthian columns holding up an immense baldacchino over the high altar, the ornate decorations continuing onto the ceiling, where the story of St Louis, told in stained glass round the walls was shown to be approved by God in an equally flamboyant painting. Illya ignored the flags hanging from the gallery, something he could never get used to in a church, and walked slowly away from the penitent group, down one side aisle, finally sitting down at the edge to drink in the tranquillity of the place.
He noticed the woman as he looked over towards the chapel on the left, which was just possible from his position in the body of the church. She was sitting at first, her head covered in a black lace mantilla bent forward in a similar posture to those on the other side of the high altar. A priest, a man in his early forties Illya guessed with curly red hair of a powerful shade came out of a door at the far end and walked up to her, Illya getting the distinct impression that the meeting had been arranged beforehand between them. She stood up, her face still hidden by the lace, the priest’s expression now urgent and serious as he lent over her, their heads almost touching.
After a short while, she reached down, lifting up her handbag and from its interior drawing out a largish envelope which she thrust into the priest’s hand. Instantly he turned and left, but not before Illya had noticed a warm squeeze of her hand taking place. As she sat there alone again, her hand now draped on the top of the chair Illya realised.
Even though he was some distance away Illya could see a ring on her hand, the blueness of the large sapphire stone faintly glowing in the light cast down by the window above her. The same ring, which even in black and white was instantly memorable, he had seen adorning the hand of Miss Evangeline Houghton in the photograph he had looked at what felt like a lifetime ago in New York. He got up immediately and turned away, not stopping until he had reached the comparative safety of Emil Terrebonne’s apartment.