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Saving UNCLE

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Approaching the summit of his ambition to take over UNCLE headquarters in New York, Brutus Huber, Acting-Head of Section One, stood facing a half-empty room. A lot of agents were out on missions, so this wasn’t a surprise; but he’d heard that there had been rumblings of discontent over the way he had been elected and that some agents had ignored the call. But his appointment was above board and the vote had been, almost, unanimous by the Section Heads. As one to whom humility was a dirty word, his arrogant pose was intended to demonstrate confidence and commitment.

“It’s a pity about what’s happened, but unless Alexander Waverly recovers sufficiently to resume his post, I am here to stay – by unanimous vote of my peers,” he said a little too aggressively.

A whisper of dissent passed round the room. They were spies; they knew who had – and who had not – voted for him. They also knew that Waverly had intended that someone else should take over when the time came – as agreed with other Section One heads. How had this happened?

Huber continued to speak, apparently ignoring the whispers but memorising the faces of those who started them. “There are going to be some changes, of course. I’m going to make UNCLE stand for something again. Things have been left to slide; things have been permitted that should not have been…”

One brave soul spoke, “Excuse me, sir, can I ask… what kind of changes?”

“I’m coming to that,” Huber growled. “That’s one of them – you listen first, ask questions afterwards.”

“Depends who you’re listening to,” whispered another agent to his colleague as the new chief took up where he had left off.

“I’ve been looking at the stats of mission outcomes – the expenditure on these joyrides is outrageous, and I’m not impressed,” he said. “Some of you guys have been less than effective. Survival School doesn’t seem to be turning out quality agents – the results speak for themselves.”

The agents in the room contemptuously refused to respond to this insupportable insult to their years of service and its unfair reflection on some exceedingly difficult missions. The slur on Survival School was something they had all expressed at times – newly graduated agents always seemed wet behind the ears, but nevertheless generally went on to prove themselves, so it was uncalled for.

“We will also cut down on the multinational component,” Huber was now saying. “I’m concerned about infiltration by enemy agents.”

There was an intake of breath as the implications of this sank in. It was obvious who he was referring to: the Russian agent and his partner had been abroad for some weeks on a dangerous mission. George Dennell, he of the guileless face and innocent manner, raised a question, “Does that mean some agents are to be detrained and dismissed, sir?”

Huber smirked. “Sure does. We have to protect our interests.”

“What about their record, sir? Won’t that count in their favour?”

Huber looked irritated. “I am best placed to decide about someone’s record. I’m the chosen one, so I’m going to clean up this outfit whatever some pipsqueak foreigner claims to have done. What we need here is input from business – people who know how to cut a deal with our adversaries, not waste dollars on armoury and agents’ expense accounts; people who know what the bottom-line means.”

This was met with a stunned silence.

<><><> 

After a month, Huber was already making his mark merely by being absent. He had left the office on his regular weekend jaunt to his private estate and Lisa Rogers was fielding incoming calls. She had also been ordered to make one. She summoned the courage to do so and was relieved when a familiar voice answered, “Solo.”

“Napoleon, is everything OK? We were getting anxious.”

“Lisa? Is that you? Where’s Mr Waverly?”

“He’s on medical leave, Napoleon, and ...”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“It was some sort of collapse – he’s been put into a drug-induced coma. It was very sudden…” Lisa swallowed. “In the meantime … Napoleon, there’s a new Acting Head… and you’re being recalled.”

Napoleon, unsurprised, had always understood that he would take over if anything happened to Waverly, but said, “As a matter of interest, who is it?”

“Brutus Huber, you know him?”

“Heard of him. Why isn’t he making this call?”

“He’s out of the office at the moment. It’s the weekend…”

“I see. Lisa, listen. About the recall – we should be back tomorrow anyway. I can take over then.”

“Napoleon, Mr Huber has been voted in as Mr Waverly’s replacement – by the other Section Heads. It’s … it’s permanent.”

There was silence. “Napoleon? There’s something else you need to know. It’s about Illya.”

“What about Illya?”

“Mr Huber is planning to get rid of what he calls undesirable foreign agents…”

Napoleon interrupted. “Illya, an undesirable foreign agent? With his record?”

“Huber has ordered his arrest on arrival, Napoleon.”

“We’ll see about that! Expect me when you see me, Lisa,” he snapped and closed the communicator.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I wasn’t an undesirable,” Illya remarked, having overheard most of this. “What’s new?”

“Waverly’s in hospital. He’s been replaced by Brutus Huber.”

“I see. Mr Waverly isn’t dying, is he?”

“I hope not. But there’s going to be trouble. Huber has a reputation as anti-red and wants to get rid of potential enemy aliens… Illya, did you bring any false passports with you?”

“Of course.”

“Okay. Now, you’ll just have to get a disguise. We’ll travel separately on different flights and make contact when we get back. This needs a plan and somewhere to meet. Get thinking.”

<><> 

Napoleon swept into headquarters two days later, took his badge from a surprised Wanda who was expecting to pin it to his breast pocket as usual, and marched through the corridors to his office where he pulled out paper and pen to write up the mission.

The call from above came ten minutes later and a few minutes after that, he walked into the chief’s office and found Huber waiting for him.

“Sit down, Solo.”

Napoleon kept his expression neutral but his body language betrayed him. He sat stiffly against the seat back. Huber eyed him a little warily. “You don’t seem surprised to see me in this office,” he remarked semi-casually.

“No,” Napoleon shrugged and looked at his nails.

“Where is the red? He should be here – I refer to your so-called partner. Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know where your partner is? I thought you two were joined at the hip, and prided yourselves on being your brother’s keeper.”

“I am very much my brother’s keeper,” said Napoleon. “But as of this moment, I don’t know where he is.”

“I think you do. I repeat, where is Kuryakin?”

“Given your hostility towards him, and as my brother’s keeper, I would decline to say, even if I knew. Which I don’t.”

“Both your apartments are being searched, of course.”

“What makes you think he’s even in the country?”

Huber stood up abruptly. “He returned with you. He was seen.”

“Was he?” said Napoleon smiling a little. He had taken care to walk through the arrivals hall behind a young man with fair hair.

“Your attitude smacks of insubordination, which I find intolerable, Solo. When a leader loses trust in one of his men, that man has to leave. You have a choice. You can be loyal to your new chief, or you can hand in your badge and go.”

“There is a proper procedure for agent dismissal, as I’m sure you are aware,” said Napoleon calmly. “Summary dismissal for no good reason, is not UNCLE’s style – though, as I expect you know, it’s how THRUSH agents are treated.”

“Insubordination in the face of a direct order is good enough reason. I order you to tell me where Kuryakin is.”

“And I am unable to tell you because I don’t know.”

“You are demoted. Get out of here.”

Napoleon strolled out and once the doors swished closed, winked conspiratorially at Lisa, said, “Demoted,” and tapped his nose. She smiled dutifully, but was far from reassured.

<><> 

Huber sat down. He’d have to pre-empt the grapevine or a distorted story would get out. He picked up the telephone. “Miss Rogers, call a meeting of all agents, immediately.”

“Sir.” Lisa stared at the telephone and wondered if the job she loved was turning into a nightmare. Several agents had fallen under Huber’s displeasure and were under threat of detraining already. And now – Napoleon had been demoted for what she assumed from his demeanour, and Huber’s rage, was defiance; and Illya was nowhere to be found. The two best agents to all intents and purposes out of action for no reason. When the news got out it would surely damage UNCLE’s reputation for fairness and impartiality.

<><><> 

More agents were in the room this time, some now very concerned for their careers and exhibiting a fawning attitude towards the current leader of the pack. Others were merely concerned and carefully hiding any expression at all.

“No-one is above the discipline required in an organisation like this,” Huber said, his face set in what he imagined was a masterful grimness but looked more like a sulk. He swaggered up and down before them, alpha-male style, unaware that agents had begun to forensically analyse his weak spots for possible attack. He continued, “The CEA of Section Two will be replaced when I have looked at the records of suitable individuals. In the meantime, his place is vacant.” Now he looked around at faces. “If you know where Napoleon Solo’s Russian partner is at this moment, speak now. If you know and do not speak, and I find out, you will be dismissed.”

Blank looks met this demand. No-one did know, even – perhaps especially – those fawning at the front. No-one else would have considered offering a suggestion.

“Someone must know.” Huber jutted a jaw menacingly and strutted out.

Napoleon had been sitting alone at the back of the room but now released from observation, his colleagues crowded round asking what was going on.

“Where is he, Napoleon?” was one question, which as he had told Huber, he was unable to answer.

“Is he running scared?” was a more scoffing question, to which Napoleon’s response was a curt “Illya scared? No.”

<><><> 

UNCLE headquarters now began to see an influx of men of somewhat dubious business reputation, summoned by Huber to offer advice and to be offered management roles. They were eyed askance by agents. These businessmen seemed to have not the slightest idea of what UNCLE stood for, or how to protect its international reputation. They were often superficially charming, but also loud, brash, and overconfident of their abilities – in short, a serious security risk. One, they were sure, was a mafioso.

Salvatore Zione’s name alone suggested the connection. The agents were convinced that he came from that class of businessman who live on the borders of legality, if not mostly across it. Short, fat, with oily black hair, a crooked nose, dark eyes and a thick black moustache, he made no attempt to charm. His body odour and dirty finger nails ensured that he was avoided wherever possible. He also walked with a decided limp and he acquired the nickname Quasimodo among agents in private. The UNCLE women regarded him with revulsion particularly when he hung over them leeringly to see where they might be going wrong. Huber, who had no sense of smell, was delighted with the effect he had on his staff and appointed him his second in command.

Zione virtually never left the building; he lived in one of the guest apartments, and spent a lot of time in the commissary – which explained his figure, because he ate a lot. People began to notice his curious behaviour around Napoleon, whom he frequently followed and often sat next to at meals despite Napoleon’s obvious antipathy. While he always called him Mr Solo, Solo invariably called him either Salvatore, or just Salvo, and otherwise ignored him almost totally. “I can’t do anything about it,” he said, when asked how he could stand it. “He doesn’t take subtle hints and there’s no point being actively rude to the guy.”

“Any news of Illya?” they would then whisper, and Napoleon would shrug. He wasn’t going to tell them, even if there had been.

<><> 

No replacement had been found for Napoleon as CEA. Either Huber had forgotten about it, or he couldn’t be bothered to look for one. No one was being sent on missions much, anyway so that role was redundant. He ensured that Napoleon was given relatively menial tasks – nothing that would take him away from headquarters for long, and certainly not abroad. All his communications were monitored in case he made contact with Kuryakin, but he never did – which was suspicious in itself as far as Huber was concerned. Where was the little Russian? Where could they be meeting? Kuryakin’s apartment had been taken apart, but nothing had been found – just books and some jazz records. He appeared to have lived like a monk.

<><> 

This unsatisfactory state of affairs continued and Huber began to act like a thwarted toddler, lashing out at any perceived denial of his wishes or his authority. He began to fire even his business acquaintances for daring to disagree with anything he said. Their fall from grace was greeted with relief. Serious questions had been raised when some of the businessmen Huber called his friends were found to have documents in their possession which they were apparently trying to smuggle out. Huber tried to protect them by claiming executive privilege, but when Security took matters under their control, he was powerless. He couldn’t fire a Head of Security without due process.

Lisa Rogers was on sick leave so he relied even more on Zione, which had the additional merit of getting him physically off everyone else’s back, though it made other demands on their tolerance. He had, annoyingly, survived all these scandals. Frustrated UNCLE agents made attempts to catch him in flagrant acts of theft but, unlike his person, he was clean in that respect. If he ever left the building, he never took anything with him and was unfazed by regular security measures. No-one, of course, attempted anything in the way of a body search. He hung around Huber – even closer than he stuck to Napoleon – and greeted everything he said with winks and nudges of agreement. It was nauseating.

Napoleon received a call to the chief’s office, one morning. Hearing the high-pitched tones of the Quasimodo of Little Italy, he cast up his eyes and grinned to himself. When he entered Huber’s domain, there was Zione, sitting at Lisa’s desk waiting for him.

“Ah, Solo,” he said.

“Salve Salvo,” said Napoleon frivolously, as though unaware not only of the camera but also of newly-installed microphones, “and how are you this bright and beautiful morning? Working hard to save UNCLE for the world?”

Zione rolled his eyes, then blinked and uttered a muffled curse. He put a hand to one of his eyes.

“Something in your eye?”

“Yes. Excuse me,” Zione said gruffly and moving away from the desk, turned his back and bent over to deal with the offending cause. When he turned back, he was mopping his streaming eye with a less than pristine handkerchief.

“To business,” he said, his voice back to its higher pitch. “Mr Huber is away. Here – your new mission and some documentation. Now go away.”

“Don’t overdo it, Salvo.”

The reply was inaudible as Zione continued to mop his eye.

<><> 

Napoleon sat at his desk having read the documentation contained in the file and considered how to smuggle it out of the building past the security guards who now searched everyone. He closed the file and, carrying it under his coat, walked along the corridor to the elevator.

When the doors of the elevator opened, there was Zione. There were also a camera and microphone, so Napoleon merely said, “Charmed to see you again, Salvo. Going my way?”

“I’m going out,” said Zione.

“You’re going out?”

“I have to visit my oculist,” Zione muttered.

“About time, Salvo. When did you last see daylight?”

Zione ignored that and stood in stony silence until the doors opened again. “After you,” said Napoleon, and followed him out to reception where he bumped into his back when the man stopped suddenly. Napoleon wrinkled his nose, not prepared for such close proximity.

“I have to go out,” Zione said tossing his badge to an astonished receptionist (Wanda, too, was on sick leave), and when the security guards came forward to search him, he merely opened his arms – and therefore his coat with its attendant atmospherics – and they backed away. He then stalked out.

Napoleon followed after being searched – the more rigorously for the previous dereliction of their duty around Zione. By the time he arrived in the street, the latter had disappeared, so Napoleon went on his way, whistling.

<><><> 

No-one was following him, he was sure of that, so he quickly made his way to the rendezvous in Greenwich Village and descended the steps to the little deli where he slipped behind the counter into a back room and sat down to wait.

Before long, four other men joined him. “This is the file, gentlemen,” he said. “Please read it carefully before our colleague arrives.”

Standing at a newspaper stall opposite, his face buried in a lurid story of marital breakdown, Napoleon waited and watched. When he was certain that there were neither THRUSH nor other UNCLE agents in sight, he crossed the road, ran down the steps and entered the shop.

In the back room, Zione looked up as he came in and smiled. Napoleon seeing blue eyes, free of the offending contact lenses at last, laughed. “Hey, partner. Good work hiding the file – you really do smell.”

“There is a saying in the north of England, ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’,” he replied. “In my case, it’s being filthy that gets results – like being able to bring the file. These gentlemen now agree to act. We are just waiting for one more guest.”

Napoleon shook hands with the others present, all Section One heads who had flown in under aliases, though not without their normal protection. These were dispersed around the neighbourhood. Even Napoleon had failed to spot them.

The senior men, initially shocked and disbelieving about what they had been told about UNCLE New York, had now seen the evidence for themselves and were incensed.

How had they been so misled? Had they been manipulated in some way and if so, by whom? The least angered was the one who hadn’t voted for Huber, who was unsurprised by the evidence – and who had been Illya’s chief contact, apart from the awaited colleague.

“Who are we waiting for?” said Napoleon when these men had talked themselves out.

“He should be here any time,” said Illya, and with that they heard the little bell that indicated a customer in the deli. “This might be him, now,” and he stood up to greet the newcomer.

Napoleon turned and, seeing, leapt to his feet smiling.

<><> 

Napoleon returned to headquarters accompanied by the ci-devant Zione. In their absence, Huber had also returned. His lieutenants (carefully-selected for their uncritical support and loyalty) had alerted him to the possibility of a security leak. The receptionist gave the two men their badges and told them that the chief wanted to see them.

“Time for a showdown, I think,” said Napoleon. “Ready?” and led the way, walking ahead of Zione, and leaving raised eyebrows behind them.

In the elevator, though obliged for decency’s sake to retain the fat-suit, Illya began to strip away the Zione persona: first the wig, then the eyebrows and the moustache, and finally the crooked nose, leaving just the remnants of gum sticking to his cheek and upper lip. He ruffled his hair into a tidier appearance and looked up when Napoleon snorted.

“I suppose you couldn’t do something about the aroma?” he said, fascinated by the transformation.

“It’s a special formula of my own,” said Illya modestly.

“I know.”

“I mean it’s applied – it will wear off - I think.”

“Good God. What’s it made of? Essence of sock?”

“It’s secret. I shall patent it,” Illya said with dignity, “but I can say that it involves ingredients that have oxidised.”

Rotted socks, I assume.”

Luckily the doors opened at this point preventing more provocative discussion. Together they walked into the chief’s outer office and found him there with some of his henchmen.

For a moment they stood dumbstruck, looking at Solo and his companion. Then Huber, adopting an arch expression – as one who had expected this – addressed Napoleon. “Well done, Solo. So you spotted him. Come into my office. You guards, take this one away and lock him up. I’ll come and interrogate him in half an hour.”

They marched out with the unresisting Russian walking calmly between them. Even without the repulsive smell, they were reluctant to lay a hand on him. His reputation alone made that problematic, but despite their avowed loyalty to Huber they were also daunted by the thought of their former chief’s championship of this man, as well as by his exemplary record. One of them whispered, “Do you want to take a shower, Mr K?”

“Do you find me so objectionable?” said Illya.

“You stink, sir,” said the other guard, uncompromisingly.

“I do. It takes a lot of application. But if you think a shower would be in order, I’m happy to pander to your sensitivities. Perhaps you can bring me a spare set of clothes, while I do so. I’m sure you know the combination of my locker.”

This was, of course, true. The locker had been searched and contained nothing but spare clothes, as they also knew.

<><> 

His hair restored to its normal shiny blond, the layer of apparent fat and the stains on his skin and under his nails removed, Illya was his spruce, slender self again. But clean as he and his clothes were, it seemed that his formula had special properties that made it resistant to soap and water: the unforgettable aura that surrounded Zione, though more muted now, continued to cling to his person. He could only hope it would wear off before Napoleon was driven to ask for a new partner.

He was in handcuffs contemplating his now clean nails, his guards watching him and wondering when he would attack, when Huber arrived.

“Has he tried anything?” he snapped at them.

“No sir.”

Huber glared at his prisoner. “Okay, Kuryakin, tell us who you’ve been in contact with while you’ve been spying on us.”

“You will probably meet them quite soon,” said Illya. “They are on their way.”

“Is that supposed to be a threat?”

“Oh no. Just a fact – after all, if you have nothing to hide, there can be no threat.”

“Who have you been spying for?”

“UNCLE.”

“Spelt KGB, I suppose.”

“No, U.N.C.L.E., the organisation that has my total loyalty as ever.”

“You’re nothing but a commie. A serious security risk. You infiltrated my staff to betray me.”

“Like those so-called business associates you had to sack? I don’t think so.”

“You call him sir when you speak to him,” said one of the guards sharply.

“No, I don’t.”

Huber barely noticed this exchange. “How did you get past the vetting?”

“Through your own gullibility – you are very easy to dupe with false praise and admiration. It’s an unfortunate trait in someone who wants to be a chief. Take my advice and look at how great leaders of men behave.”

Huber exploded with impotent rage and backhanded him, shouting at the guards, “Flog him! Tie him up and flog him! That’s what we do to traitors!”

The guards unaccountably hung back. Kuryakin, bleeding from a cut lip, smiled provocatively up at him, which enraged him further. He was about to wreak further vengeance, when the door of the interrogation room opened. The guards looked startled then stood to attention. Standing in the doorway was a short, dignified figure in tweeds.

There is someone you might emulate,” said Kuryakin.

“That will do, Mr Kuryakin. I will take over now… Guards, take Mr Huber to my office to collect his belongings, then take him to a cell.”

Huber was still gagging at the sight of the man he believed to be on his deathbed. “Waverly! Am I glad to see you well,” he stammered. “But you can’t lock me up!”

“I think you will find that I can,” said Waverly. “You are, of course, entitled to legal representation when we try you. If found guilty of misconduct in a public office, you will be detrained.”

“The other Section One heads will prevent it!”

Waverly turned and spoke to unseen people in the corridor, “Come in, gentlemen.” And into the room came the four other Section One chiefs, followed by Napoleon, who took the opportunity to retrieve the guard’s key and unlock Illya’s handcuffs.

<><> 

Restored to his domain, Waverly sat alone in his office – now cleansed of the contaminating presence of its former occupant – and sighed.

Much damage had been done and UNCLE was diminished. The high ideals that informed the organisation had suffered from exposure to a cynical ideology. There was a worm of corruption eating at its core, rotting it from within, which must be excised if UNCLE were to survive. They would have to rebuild its reputation and standing, so shamefully lost in the past months, not just here but internationally.

Various restorations of normality that were in his power had been enacted. Agents who had followed Huber’s more unworthy instructions had been offered a humiliating choice and several had left; others had submitted to a debriefing followed by retraining.  

It was some solace to reflect that some of his people had retained youthfully high ideals.

One of them was once again CEA of Section Two. His partner, so often regarded as the enemy within, had proved himself yet again to be incorruptible. They would continue to be held up as the standard by which others would measure and judge themselves. Waverly’s gloom lifted a little at the thought, but he was still drooping when door opened. Lisa Rogers, now returned from sick leave, carried a tray – and on it was not only a cup of tea but a humidor.

Waverly stood up and beamed suddenly.

“I had it refilled this morning, sir. Illya – Mr Kuryakin – took it to the tobacconist for me while you and I were clearing up in here.”

Waverly clasped the humidor in one hand and took the cup in the other. “Lapsang, too? Miss Rogers you are … you are…”

“Proud to be your secretary, sir…” she said, “a role I have long been honoured to hold and cherish,” and blushed for displaying sentimentality in front of a man known for his abhorrence of such outbursts. To cover it, she hurriedly added, “That man’s rudeness, petulance, the … the sheer corruption, was too much,” and in disgusted tones, said, “But I couldn’t bear the instant coffee and teabags, sir, I really couldn’t.”

Waverly kept a straight face and commented, “Your opinions do you credit, Miss Rogers, but what I was going to say was… er…” he stopped and then said quickly, “that as my secretary, your price is more than rubies.” He turned away and coughed defensively at his own sentimentality.

Their mutual embarrassment was interrupted by the entrance of Solo, followed at a distance by Kuryakin. They both sat down. Waverly sniffed as they took their seats. “Miss Rogers, there’s that smell again. I thought we’d got rid of it.”

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s me. I thought it would have worn off by now,” said Illya. “I started developing it in the Lab some time ago – it’s the special perfume I used in my disguise – I didn’t realise how strongly it would cling.”

“Perfume? Hmm. As Mr Zione, you must have made quite an impression. I suppose it will be a useful weapon to keep the enemy at bay,” said Waverly, and added humorously, “Has it a name you might market it with?”

“I call it ‘The wages of sin’,” said Napoleon.

<><><><>