Scully stood looking out of the window, into the patch of incongruous woodland coming straight up to the walls of the small building. Earlier in the year, she had seen both hares and deer out there, close enough that she wondered if they were not occasionally looking back at her, with as much interest as she was watching them. Now, the wild vegetation was out of all bounds, and except for an assortment of woodland birds, all the wildlife she could really see were squirrels chasing each other up and down and around the tall pine trunks.
She sighed. The office was just temporary, but at least they were not moving back to their old basement after a simple restauration. Skinner had promised them 'something better' this time. Apparently, that would take some lobbying. Meanwhile, she and Mulder were stuck out here in the suburbs, in a two-storey building appropriated by the FBI to house whatever offices could not be accommodated at HQ at present. On one side was civilisation still, if rather deserted in the daytime. Empty streets between empty villas and bungalows whose occupants had left early for work in the city. On the other side, the wilderness began. Scully had a feeling she would miss this place, if and when they were assigned their 'proper' office.
She turned around at the sound of the door, followed by the slap of a folder landing on a desktop.
"Check it out, Scully", was all Mulder said as he turned around to hang his coat by the door.
Scully looked at the folder he had just turned his back on, then at him. She still had the occasional need to drink in the sight of him, against the - perhaps inevitable - day that he would no longer be around. Now that she knew how fragile life could be for the two of them, she was mildly amazed that she had never given it much thought in the past.
He turned around and met her gaze before she had the time to shield it. In an instant, he read all her feelings as if they had been outlined in neon, but somehow that did not bother her any more, not the way it would have, back in the days Before Antarctica. All the same, she quickly lowered her eyes and picked up the folder to study its contents.
As usual, she hardly had the time to open it before he started briefing her out of his eidetic memory.
"Wildlife researcher Dr Janet Z. Cogan, more widely known as Dr Cougar because of her specialty, the big and ferocious felines, led a famed and photographically well-documented career until 5 May, 1986, when she suddenly emerged from the Guatemalan rainforest and went straight to her home in Irving, Texas, never to set foot outside the United States again. Apparently she just up and left in the middle of an expedition, went home and broke off her career overnight. Her academic sponsors were furious, but a refund was made within the next two months, and she was cleared of all obligations to them. The word then was that she had suffered a nervous breakdown and was now leaving the jungle for a sabbatical of two years' duration."
Scully's fine eyebrows climbed a little. "And what is the word now?"
"Pretty much the same", Mulder said innocently. "Except that she did not return to her old occupation in 1988, nor in any other of the ten years since then. She is still sitting in her old house in Irving, with only a housekeeper and a pet ocelot for company."
"A pet ocelot?"
"Apparently she brought it back with her the day she retired. Maybe it was orphaned or something."
"Mulder, why am I holding this report?"
He grinned. "Beats me. Maybe you're planning to read it?"
Her eyes gradually clouding from turquoise to storm-over-the-Irish-Sea, Scully said steadily, "Don't tell me. This woman had a traumatic experience in the middle of Nowhere, Guatemala, and you think she was abducted. So what is it you're not telling me? Granted that the rainforest could probably hold an entire fleet of alien space vessels and none the wiser, is there any real clue to say there might be an X-file in this?"
Mulder sighed, trying not to look too pleased at his partner's quick estimate. "Well, Dr Cogan was treated for radiation burns immediately on her return to the States. The treatment was paid for by an obscure organization called United Feline Observation A/S - their HQ is in Denmark, apparently. This organization also paid Dr Cogan's refund to her sponsors, interestingly enough."
Scully groaned. "The U.F.O! Mulder, if this is an April Fool's thing, your timing is way off. It's August."
He smiled a little. "It could be someone's idea of a joke", he acknowledged, "but it's not mine. I'd never even heard of this company till I read about it in that report you're holding. What's more, nobody associated with Dr Cogan in those days has heard of it either. Somebody thought to check. It's all in there. There's more though. It would seem that Dr Cogan always went on her expeditions alone, preferring to hire a team of assistant workers locally, rather than bring anyone with her. Except that this once, a Professor Walther K. Baldwin accompanied her. However, he did not return to the United States with her. According to the Immigration Office in Flores, which keeps track of all comings and goings, he had died a week earlier of a little known but locally common disease."
Scully looked up sharply.
"Yes, I thought that might catch your interest", Mulder commented. His eyes were slowly beginning to shine. "The strange thing is that Baldwin was not a wildlife researcher at all, but a biologist, specializing in immunology. It's a mystery what he was doing on this expedition in the first place, but one would have thought he'd know how to protect himself against exotic diseases. And get this, Scully. The folklore version - that the authorities naturally did not pay any attention to - had it that the first symptom of whatever he died of was swimming black eyes."
Scully swallowed. "Oh my God."
Mulder nodded. "My god is right. Get your coat, Scully. I'll explain the rest on our way to Irving."
* * * *
"You're dyeing your hair, Napoleon."
Napoleon Solo flashed a grin at his old friend. "You make it sound like an accusation."
They regarded each other for a while. On the whole, time had been kind to them both. Napoleon's hair might be artificially black and his face more lined, but the delinquent grin was the same, as was the twinkle in his dark eyes. Ilya Kuryakin for his part wore his age with indifference. He had always appeared younger than his years - his short stature adding to the impression - and he still did. Granted, his once straw-blond hair had faded to a somewhat duskier shade with a touch of grey at the temples, and there was some looseness about his once firm, rounded chin - that feature an astrologer would have referred to as a 'Venus chin', though there was no way of knowing if Ilya was even close to being Libra. U.N.C.L.E records had a birthdate on him of course, but there was no telling if the information had ever been accurate.
"So", Napoleon broke the short silence, "how does it feel? Retirement coming up - next month, is it?"
Ilya glared at him. "I wouldn't know. How did you feel about yours last year?"
Napoleon grinned a little. "Touchy, are we? I can't say it's done me any harm. Or any good either", he added honestly.
Ilya shrugged. "I hate ceremonies. I think I'll just dodge the gold watch and slip out the back door."
The 'back door' to U.N.C.L.E's US headquarters in New York would be the little canal debouching into East River, but Ilya had made no mention of waterways. His noncommittal term could almost be construed as a desire to avoid mentioning U.N.C.L.E specifics. Almost as if he knew..
"But you didn't call me here to discuss my retirement", Ilya confirmed his friend's speculations.
"I didn't?" Napoleon feigned surprise - though his amusement was genuine.
"You haven't asked me to sit down, and you never got up to greet me", Ilya explained. "You may be retired, Napoleon, but as far as I know, you're not an invalid. If you feel you are confined to that chair, it's something other than infirmity confining you."
Napoleon cast a glance over his shoulder, towards the doorway to his bedroom. "Told you, didn't I?" he said lightly in that direction.
On his cue, someone emerged from the other room. A young man with dark hair and hard, disillusioned eyes. Materialist eyes. His right hand held a gun pointed at Napoleon; his left was hanging straight down and appeared to be made of wood. "Zdrazdt'e, Gospodin Kuryakin", he said evenly. "Vash oruzhye, pozhal'sto", he added with excessive politeness, nodding towards a small table to his left.
"I'm not armed", Ilya said, refusing to answer in his mother tongue out of courtesy to Napoleon. "I haven't been on active duty for years. If you had bothered to check the U.N.C.L.E records, you would have known that."
The young man sneered. "I think you're underestimating me, Mr Kuryakin. Come on, weapon on the table - I haven't got all day."
Ilya sighed and reached - very slowly - inside his jacket. Withdrawing his U.N.C.L.E Special from its shoulder holster, he walked the few steps over to the table and placed the weapon carefully on the polished surface.
"U.N.C.L.E records are confidential", Napoleon said to nobody in particular. "Or at least they were in my day.."
"Somehow I don't think that would stop our friend here", Ilya said with that dry little quirk of his mouth that Napoleon remembered so well.
"Krycek", the young man said, as if in objection to being called friend. "Aleksandr Krycek."
"What d'you know, the boy's got manners", Napoleon muttered.
Krycek put away his gun, but his cold, green eyes never left Ilya. "I need your help", he said simply. "Whether you believe that or not."
"Well, I don't know.." Napoleon drawled. "What are your credentials?"
The relentless gaze fixed on him. "The fact that you're not already dead", Krycek said.
Ilya nodded. "He's a professional assassin, Napoleon. We haven't got that much on him as yet, but there is the beginning of a file."
Napoleon's eyebrow rose - whether in disbelief or appreciation was hard to tell. "A professional assassin with just one arm?"
"I'm good", Krycek stated matter-of-factly.
"As well as modest", Ilya said drily. "Very well, Gospodin Krycek - what do you want, and perhaps more to the point, why come to us for it? Why not bring your problem directly to HQ?"
"I never deal with organisations when I can get to individuals. I don't want U.N.C.L.E - I want you two."
"Why? As you can see, we're both long in the tooth. Napoleon is fully retired, I am due within a month. Why us?"
"The men I've worked for lately are no younger than you", Krycek said. "And I assure you they're quite deadly. You two are the only ones I could find who have so far managed to stop them - every time."
"Who's them?" Napoleon asked, although he strongly suspected he already knew.
"Drozd", said Krycek curtly.
Even Napoleon understood that particular word. He had heard it often enough.
"Thrush", Ilya translated, unnecessarily. "All right, Sasha. What have you got?"
If Krycek objected to the sudden familiarity, he made no sign. "Remember the Copenhagen affair? Some thirty years ago, I believe. Flying saucers?"
"Thrush prototypes for stratosphere craft", Ilya nodded. "Fighters of course. We put a stop to that operation. Or thought we did."
Krycek actually smiled - a sudden flash like the sun glinting off a well-honed blade. "The saucers have been back and in use for a long time, Mr Kuryakin. Improved models - harder to detect, even for U.N.C.L.E."
"Dismissed as UFO sightings whenever they are spotted", Napoleon muttered. "We haven't been entirely unaware of the possibility. But we didn't really have anything to go on. Surely nothing that pointed to Thrush."
"You may have now", the young man said. "Does the name Baldwin mean anything to you?"
"Ward Baldwin used to be the leader of the San Francisco satrap", Ilya said. "We worked with him once, under some sort of - enforced truce, you might say."
"Highly unusual circumstances", Napoleon offered. "A mutual enemy. Thrush and U.N.C.L.E joining forces temporarily. He can't be still alive, he'd likely be over a hundred by now."
Krycek impatiently dismissed the older man's reminiscence. "I'm talking about his son, Walt Baldwin. Biologist, specialising in immunology research. Also working for Thrush, and unfortunately also dead. In Guatemala, under - as you say - highly unusual circumstances."
Napoleon's eyes sparkled at the whiff of adventure. "What circumstances, exactly?"
Krycek's lips quirked, almost like Ilya's earlier. "Ever come across reports of a strange virus, known as the Black Oil?"