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The Easter Hat Affair

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It had been a muttered, but obviously frustrated comment from Mark after he found her perusing that new catalogue, a comment he hadn't intended for her to hear, that had started her thinking. That low under his breath "as stubborn as Illya, she is. No, think maybe she's got him beat by a good mile or more!"

While at first she was a little put out, even hurt, later, dallying over a drink, she started feeling a little sheepish about it. After all, Mark did so much for her, went along with so much. Surely she could at least give this idea a TRY! One holiday other than Halloween or Christmas. One sincere attempt at finding another time to focus her celebratory tendencies on. Not that she was going to give up on Halloween, not yet, although even she had to admit the last couple had been a strain on even HER nerves. After all, last CHRISTMAS has been rather nerve-racking as well, but Mark wasn't suggesting bypassing THAT, now was he?

But perhaps branching out, adding something new, might be a suitable olive branch to her partner. She wasn't sure Easter was the right time, but St. Patrick's Day was out, obviously, as was the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, so there wasn't a lot left that she was really familiar with, so Easter it would be since that was what Mark had suggested on more than one occasion.

She was willing to give it a chance, anyway. She did relish wearing pretty clothes, and the idea of an elegant Easter hat WAS appealing. But so help her, if she found out he was doing this because of that Theodora person, her with all her blasted hats!, she'd snatch him baldheaded! Then he'd be GLAD of that frightful hat he wore so much on assignment but swore he hated even the sight of!

Well, that had been the plan, anyway, and Mark saw signs that she was TRYING. She had three separate buffet menus made out, laying on the side of her desk.

(He liked the Eggs Benedict, Maudie's Bread Pudding (rich with raisins, nuts, spices and bourbon!), and Drunken Fruit Salad (more bourbon???) option best, though the one with all those special dishes they'd had on their trip to Mexico was a winner as well. He let his mind taste those spicy concoctions again, the fantastic sweet breads, deep, rich coffee with heavy cream, and decided that, yes, THAT one was what he was hoping for. The last, the Eggs in a Nest with Bacon Crumbles, fresh blueberries in yogurt, and Carrot Fritters didn't really do it for him, and he firmly decided to nudge her away from that menu if it looked like she was leaning heavily in that direction!)

He knew she had already asked Napoleon and Illya to join them for Easter brunch. So he had high hopes that she would get involved enough, enjoy this enough that she'd be willing to bypass the danger-laden Halloween party.

Now, if she would only get her outfit solidified, purchased, he'd start to really relax. But that hadn't happened, not yet. Partly that was because they kept being sent out on assignments, but partly it was because his partner, who usually knew her own mind quite well, couldn't make up her mind this time.

He knew that because she was still doodling hats on her report draft - cloches, cartwheels, turbans, fedoras, deerstalkers, berets, boaters, panamas, pillboxes, little fascinators, just about any kind of hat you could imagine. There was even one of a sort he'd only seen on the front jacket of historical novels, a hat that was fitted close and long like a sunbonnet in the back but where the horseshoe-shaped brim extended straight out a full length in front of the heroine's face. Now that was one he just could NOT picture his partner wearing!! {"No peripheral vision at all; just asking for Thrush baddies to siddle up alongside!"}

The only suit she'd drawn was very much her usual dress attire, little jacket, short and snug skirt, tie blouse underneath. 'Mint green' was in the side notation, unfortunately, hardly his favorite, and not a color he thought really brought out her best features, even with those little tufts of white she'd made little arrows pointing to.

She wore that style a lot, those mod versions that held just a tiny trace of Chanel in the background, though he fancied her in something a little different, something a little more dramatic. Oh, not as dramatic as what Theodora O'Hare tended toward, but then they were two very different women. Both lovely, of course, just very different in style as well as in age and type, as well as their self-viewed place in the scheme of things. Still, he thought April underplayed her beauty a little more than necessary; sometimes he wondered if she truly SAW her beauty the same way he did. Yes, she'd do well in something at least a few steps closer to what Theodora flaunted, though he knew he needed to be very, VERY careful never to voice that, at least not with that reference! April would NOT take that well!

Still, he knew what he'd like to see April wear, at least the general style. In fact, he'd seen just the outfit in one of the high-end shops, had even gone in to take a closer look. Of course, that closer look at the Persian blue suit had included a look at the price tag, and he'd felt himself turning a green remarkably similar in hue to a nearby outfit labeled 'Persian green'. {"Seems 'Persian' is all the crack this season!"}.

He tried to hide his first (second, AND third thought!) - {"Who could ever afford something like that?"} Not him, not on HIS salary!

{"Never mind what April is likely to say if I go buying clothes for her! Probably hand me my head before I finish explaining!"} he admitted ruefully.

The sales lady had been quite helpful, though, clearly seeing the temptation in his eyes, even showing him the matching silky underwear intended to go with the suit. {"Alright, that added ANOTHER month's salary onto the six that suit would cost!"}. And the shoes? Lord, they cost as much as the suit!

Still, he'd managed a charming smile, and a "we'll see. There are others I'm considering," so she wouldn't be too disappointed when he didn't return to make the purchase.

"Well, remember, we have the handbag to match. Quite a bargain, you know," she'd offered with an eager smile.

Mark forced a smile of his own as she told him that bargain price. {"Well, what's another month's salary when you're spending fantasy coins?"}.

Still, he would have dearly loved to have seen her in that outfit, to have known she'd been wearing that set of silk and satin confectionery underneath.

{"Ah, well, that's what dreams are made for,"} he mused, right before he mentally slapped himself upside the head. {"No, Mark, you idiot!That's the last place you need April and all that silk and satin showing up! Partners, remember, partners!!!"}

Now, watching her doodle yet another hat, he had to admit, when April threw herself into an idea, she really did put forth an effort. Of course, she'd made no promises about cancelling her plans for Halloween, but it was early days yet.

Still, having herself throw herself into the idea of hostessing an intimate Easter Brunch followed by the Easter Parade, her in a cunning outfit, complete with hat, did show some promise. And while he had a feeling that outfit would probably make his teeth ache, as her choices of spring colors seemed to sway in the direction of a set of after dinner mints, if it let them avoid another Halloween like the last time, he'd pay for the extra dentist's visits! Of course, as he reminded himself for what had to be the hundredth time, she hadn't agreed to call off Halloween, but surely this hinted she might be willing to consider the idea if Easter went well.

"If you've not found the perfect hat yet, I heard Lucille Brogan talking about a Madame Isabell who's supposedly all the rage," Mark announced out of nowhere. He'd thought about the right way to bring up the subject, something casual, but they were headed to Waverly's office in a few minutes, so he decided to just take his chances.

"Ummm," April Dancer replied absently, using her pencil to tuck her hair back behind her ear. "I haven't tried there; I might, if I don't find just what I'm looking for at Celestine's. Of course, I have several leads. Claudette from Translations suggested Marie LeClaire's; it's rather out of the way, but she swears by the woman's talent. If I'm even to CONSIDER substituting this for my usual Halloween Party, I really DO want to start out with something utterly smashing, Mark."

Well, that was promising, anyway. Mark was starting to get through to her, he could tell. There was just that little flicker of interest when he would once again bring up Easter, the New York Easter Parade, the cunning hats worn at said parade, his wondering out loud what Theodora O'Hare would have thought was a hat befitting that parade.

Actually, that wasn't a flicker of interest from his partner; it was a well-disguised flicker of the annoyance that was starting to ignite every time Mark did one of his ever-so-discreet (NOT!) expeditions into what was becoming his mantra - 'Let's forget the Halloween Party this year, shall we??' Well, it was only added to by his mentioning Theodora O'Hare, the Lady With the Hats. No matter she was now Theodora O'Hare Porter, a contented married pregnant lady, April was NOT inclined to be generous toward her partner's former sometimes bed partner.

Only the fact that she truly liked her partner so well, was trying NOT to lose patience with him, let her disguise that annoyance as something more benign. Of course, she hadn't intended to be so successful as to make him think she was actually CONSIDERING it, abandoning her annual party; just successful enough to make him stop nagging her about it.

Besides, she had a line on the most amusing decorations and games for her next Halloween party, a selection of books as to possible themes, as well as a selection of costumes to absolutely DIE for! The catalogue Mark had spotted her with was so totally drool-worthy, and she'd spent several enjoyable hours browsing to see what took her fancy. It was all from a new company out of Transylvania that was capitalizing on the country's history and reputation, and the Halloween aficionados of the world (admittedly a rather small if dedicated group of individuals) were eager to sample their wares and be the first to totally wow their friends next October 31st. While she had no illusions that her party would be the 'wow-iest', not on her limited budget, still, with the help of those two books she'd ordered and enough time to prepare, she intended to have one of the better entries. No, she had no real intention of bypassing her party!

Still, she'd found amusement in teasing Mark that she had ALMOST, but never QUITE found the PERFECT hat, one that would outdo any other hat out there, including "any hat your precious, MARRIED, Theodora might wear. By the way, have you heard from the newlyweds? Or should I say 'the mother-to-be'," delighting in the sheepish blushes she could bring to Mark's face with just the right degree of arch teasing. Well, maybe she was teasing; she still had a few twinges of resentment about Theodora and her activities. And there was that faint, quickly-subdued snarl that accompanied that even-fainter, quickly-suppressed thought {"and that child had better not be blond with blue eyes, either! Not with Theodora and her husband both being dark!"}

But suddenly it was mid-March, with Easter approaching far too quickly, and when Mark kept pestering her about her new Easter outfit, particularly her new Easter hat, suddenly she realized she'd crossed one of her own personal lines.

By waiting, by teasing him along this far, she'd actually been, in a way, lying to him, making him think she WAS abandoning her annual Halloween Party in favor of participating in the Easter Parade, even hosting a Pre-Parade Breakfast beforehand. Well, realistically, a brunch was just too late, with the parade beginning at 10:00, and lunch quite out of the question, since it wouldn't be over til 4:00 or later. But a light breakfast, she'd assured him, pastries and miniature quiches and lightly-enhanced beverages would be ideal for getting the day off to a good start. She noticed he looked disappointed, having been lured by those menus she'd left laying on the side of his desk to tease him.

By waiting, she had now, at least to her own mind, boxed herself into a corner. While she did not feel obliged to abandon her Halloween Party, she DID now feel obliged to proceed with the Easter Parade idea. Blast it!!!

Now, looking at the calendar, she groaned. Less than three weeks! She'd not even remembered, not really, til a number of people hinted at the event, obviously wondering why they'd not been invited. Obviously Mark had mentioned it, perhaps had been overheard, and now EVERYONE knew!

She'd pasted a sincere smile on her face and assured them, "well, this year I didn't have time to put dibs on Rovington House, so it's only a tiny affair - really, just Mark and perhaps, if I can see my way clear, a couple more. It's at my flat, and while I know you've never seen it, my dear, I swear it's so tiny, if I turn around too fast, I'd end up running into myself. Perhaps next year I will expand it to something where I can actually be hospitable. This is really just an experiment, you know, since Mark's been encouraging me to try something other than Halloween."

The responses she got were quite mixed.

Some were almost distraught - "why, you're not thinking of NOT having your Halloween Party, are you???! It's the hallmark of the year, you MUST know that, April! Last year was truly unforgettable!!!"

For others, there was a note of relief in their voices, their faces - "well, that's probably for the best. Halloween - well, things do tend to get a little out of control then for some reason. An Easter Breakfast, then attending the Parade seems like it would be pleasant, but much more, um, dignified."

Well, April had to admit, that last Halloween Party could have been called a lot of things, but 'dignified' was nowhere on the list. She'd seen the list being circulated in November last year, and even SHE was confused, appalled and frankly shocked at some of the words included.

Of course, she had arrived late, due to a last minute request from Mr Waverly, and obviously she hadn't seen EVERYTHING that was going on that night. Still, surely that entry from Amelia Brewster, the head of the Wardrobe department, was highly-exaggerated. Well, perhaps the overwrought woman had just come back from her mandated medical leave a little early, but really! 'Unholy Rampant Bestiality' was hardly a nice term to use to describe even a party that DID rather exceed the boundaries of what April had intended.

Now, here she was, three weeks away from the Easter Parade, with guests invited for that fictitious breakfast but no Easter outfit, and most important, no EASTER HAT!

Yes, the hat was the most important part - any pretty pastel suit would work in a pinch, and the breakfast she could handle without any strain.

After all, she knew Mark was intending to come to that 'breakfast' - he'd told her only this morning of his fondness for coddled eggs on a muffin, if she had TRULY decided to abandon the two enticing menus he'd so casually marked with 5 stars. She'd sniffed, told him she had something rather more elegant in mind, and not nearly so heavy, hoping he didn't see her confusion and sudden panic at the whole idea. She decided she would drop in and remind Napoleon and Illya of the 'plan', provided they were in town at that time. She might even invite Mandy Stevenson, though since her friend was now an agent for CONTROL, she wasn't sure what the polite convention was for interaction between agents of the two different organizations.

But all that could wait. But the hat???? Probably every fashionable milliner in New York was up to their earlobes in net and feathers and lace and stuffed doves and ribbons and far more unexpected materials trying frantically to fulfill the demand and outdo each other. For now, she was on a mission - somewhere out there there was a hat. No, not just a hat - a HAT, one that would rival anything Mark's old 'whatever-she-was' might wear! It was out there, and she intended to find it!

It was to that end that she had put the word out among the fashionable people she knew, although those were more from her late father's world than her own anymore. One hint came, she went running, but Madame Isabell's offerings were bland - expensive, well-constructed, but certainly not what she was looking for. After all, she was not a Bostonian matron who would be intending to wear the thing for the next forty years and then hand it down to her eldest daughter! This needed to be a once-in-a-life-time hat!

One dead end after the other, and finally she decided to call Marie LeClaire who had been so highly recommended by Claudette in Translations. It was a lead, anyway, and Celestine's had been just flat dull, no matter the shop's reputation, and she threw her purse over her shoulder, bade Mark a quick farewell by phone, reassuring him of her prompt appearance at Waverly's meeting, and dashed over on this increasingly frustrating scavenger hunt. She had privately named the whole thing 'The Easter Hat Affair', remarking to herself in some disgust that she'd gone through entire assignments for Mr. Waverly that hadn't been this frustrating!

The look in that small shop window hadn't given her a great deal of hope, though that small, discreet sign in gilt 'Marie LeClaire - Special Hats for Special Occasions - One of a Kind Creations for the One of a Kind Lady' did make her overcome her hesitation and walk in. After all, the proprietor insisting she wear the suit she would be wearing with the proposed hat DID indicate a certain level of professionalism.

"Hello?" she called politely, there seeming to be no one in the shop.

"Hello??" she called again, then turned with an exasperated sigh to leave. Obviously no one was there, and she was unaccountably uneasy in the quiet shop. Well, yes, the sign said they wouldn't be open for another three hours, but the woman who'd made the appointment assured her 7:00 am would be quite acceptable, and the door HAD been unlocked.

But no, she wasn't alone, for a very elegant woman was coming through the lush purple velvet curtains.

"May I help you?" the attractive blonde with the intricately swirled updo asked with a polite smile. April spared a thought for the oddity of someone selling hats while wearing a hairstyle that would have made WEARING a hat unlikely if not impossible.

"I'm looking for a hat. I called ahead. I have a consultation?" She offered that in a questioning voice, since there had been no recognition in the blonde's eyes, any hint she'd been expecting a client this early. {"Oh, well, perhaps it was someone else who took the reservation, or perhaps she just wants confirmation I'm the right one before becoming too welcoming."}

She tried again.

"My name is April Dancer; I was told to come at this hour. I've been told you may have what I'm looking for in the way of a hat to go with this suit. Something special, for the Easter Parade, you see. And I'm afraid, as I told the woman I spoke with, it is rather a rush job; I really need to take it with me when I leave this morning."

Well, she had a hint that Waverly would be sending her and Mark out on assignment later that day, and she really wanted this done and over with. The timeline on any of their jobs was quite fluid and she might end up back in town the day before Easter Sunday with absolutely no time to get things organized for the brunch, much less deal with a hat. Of course, she admitted to herself, they might not get back til Easter Sunday was but a faint memory in the participants of the parade, but that wasn't something under her control.

April had felt a little silly wearing the suit at such an early hour, since it was clearly meant for a different venue, but it was either that or carry it in a garment bag, which would have been awkward. At least she'd carried the shoes, stripey little iced mint delights meant more to be viewed than to carry one a long distance, in a small case, not wanting to risk an ankle if she were to be bumped by a passerby hurrying to work. She certainly had no intention of wearing them to walk in the parade, but she wasn't all that keen on joining the parade in any event - would be well satisfied to find a small table somewhere and watch it go by.

The smile turned kind, more encouraging, clearly the professional coming to the forefront despite the early hour.

"I'm sure we can manage that, Miss Dancer. That IS an adorable suit. I must compliment you on your taste. Come, sit, let us tallk about this hat. Each is created for the individual, you see, and there are many things to discover before we can begin."

{"Obviously a professional to the very core!"} April mused as she looked into the gilt edged mirror. First there had been the selection of a base, the shape of the crown, the brim gauged to the very millimeter as to what would best suit April's face. Then a discussion of materials, satin versus silk versus gauze - flowers versus feathers - netting, if, and if so, what texture - far more things than April had ever consciously considered.

Slowly a hat came into being, silk quickly molded around the base and crown, then tacked into place with invisible clips. The selected ornaments were quick to follow, occasionally dismissed with a rapid "tsk tsk, no, not quite there" by Marie, followed by a thoughtful readjustment. And when it was completed, no one could have doubted the genius behind its creation.

In fact, she felt rather naive and inexperienced, even unworldly, which was hardly her usual view of herself. Still, she'd expected to be shown a selection of premade hats, be given a choice, but not to have something constructed from the bare bones to the finished product. She thought briefly of Theodoro O'Hare's magnificant constructions and could only wonder at the time and effort that must have gone into each of them, if this is what it took for just one Easter hat for someone not nearly so particular.

April glanced at her watch, seeing the disapproving look in Marie's face. Obviously the creative artiste thought time should not be a consideration in the making of a masterpiece. Still, work, her partner, and most importantly (at least this morning), Mr. Alexander Waverly, was expecting her at 9:00 sharp to go over the details of the 'Crowing Rooster Affair', as her partner had so irreverently named it. The file showed something much more innocuous, of course, the 'Topeka Consortium Affair'. Though she'd scolded Mark, frankly she considered his name for the whole thing much more apt.

She smiled a polite smile, one aiming to express disappointment at having to cut this interlude brief, well mixed with a 'must get on with the more mundane business of life' regret, and started to stand. "You have a box for the hat? I have a meeting shortly, and while the suit might pass, that lovely creation would be most out of place," she offered with a charming laugh.

"Ah, my dear Miss Dancer. Please, don't rush off. I'm so sorry I was delayed. We've been anticipating your arrival most eagerly," came a rich, melodious voice, and April tensed and slowly turned around. Victor Gervais, that elegant French epitome of the sophisticated Thrush operative, was standing there smiling a smug, though somehow seductive smile.

April shifted her eyes to see Gervais had a companion, a short, round woman with a disturbing glitter in dark slitted eyes, and she groaned inside. Madame Alicia Duval was NOT a nice person, something April knew first-hand.

 

Marie had discreetly abandoned the shop as soon as the others arrived, counting the money in that envelope with every degree of satisfaction.

{"A most profitable morning of business,"} she gloated. Making quality hats was lucrative, yes, during certain times of the year, but demand was spotty. Part of her crafty mind was already thinking about how she might expand her services into something that might even out the cash flow. This little space of time and effort had garnered enough to smooth out her budget for the next several months!

 

"There now, a most pleasing picture," Gervaise commented, looking her up and down, the UNCLE agent blinking and coughing to try and rid herself of the effects of that small bottle so quickly thrust under her nose. "I must admit ladies' millinery is not my speciality, but I do think that hat is most attractive, especially with that suit. What do you think, Madame?" he asked the gloating Duval.

From the disapproving downturn on Madame Duvals' face, the older woman wasn't all that impressed. Or maybe it was just the knowledge that the hat, much less that trim mod little suit, would have looked ludicrous on her.

{"Pity, I would have liked to have her strip out of it, wear it myself, leaving her in her underwear for the next part of her short life. Wouldn't that be delightful, having her shivering in just whatever silly undergarments she is wearing, knowing her partner, her business associates will find her 'dead' body clad in such an unprofessional manner!"}

Of course, there was no way the heavily-built Duval could have fit in that tidy suit, so she contented herself with a regal sniff as she answered Gervaise.

"I wouldn't know, Gervaise. I prefer a more professional, more dignified manner of attire," glancing down at her own shapeless grey tweed suit. "But then, I'm not some silly little girl pretending to be a secret agent. Look, even her jewelry is . . ." and Madame reached out to snatch at the bronze and gold charm bracelet April wore. The clasp broke as the woman janked even harder in reaction to the sharp bite as her hand made contact, and the bracelet fell to the floor. Both women started to bend, to reach for the ornament, but a sharp shove, along with the aimed pistols from the stone-faced men now surrounding them, ensured April came away empty-handed. Well, except for one small charm, which one she didn't know, but which she automatically dropped into the small decorative pocket on her jacket.

Madame studied the remainder with a frown, shaking her hand to ease the ache. "I must study this. There seems to be some power source, but what that could be in an object so small, I cannot imagine. Oh, well, I'll have plenty of time for that later," she said with a malicious, superior smile.

Gervaise had nodded in an understanding manner as if he totally agreed with that sentiment.

"As you say. Quite immature in design, but perhaps you will discover something useful. I am sure if anyone can, it would be you, Madame," he said with an absolute purr in his rich voice.

"And I agree, completely, in all regards. I could hardly imagine a knowledgeable competent woman of the world such as yourself stooping to such juvenile adornments. I, myself, much prefer the more elegant offerings of the sophisticate," fingering the lapels of his very well-cut suit, the gold watch chain showing discreetly at his vest pocket, "to those affected by her young partner as well. And, of course, my physique is more mature than his, more developed. The last time I saw Mr. Slate, he was wearing a jacket that appeared to have a waist no broader than my sleeve - I should think it must have been quite uncomfortable."

He kindly didn't mention that much was the same for April's suit, that the waist would have been equally disapportioned for Madame Duval. Well, no, he didn't mean it all THAT kindly, in fact, took some sly satisfaction at the disgruntled look in those dark eyes as the Madame made the comparison.

"We'll see how elegant SHE looks by the time this is over. I think what we have planned will see just how well constructed that suit is! Though, perhaps the hat will survive intact. Yes, I would like to remember her that way, poised and dainty from the neck up when they find her. Luckily that upper portion is large enough and the hat not too over-sized! Imagine seeing her like that, then opening the lower portion of her coffin to find . . . " and the dazed April took note of the sadistic gleam in Duval's eyes, and firmed her lips, resolving to watch for the first opportunity for escape.

{"Obviously mercy isn't on the menu for today,"} though she had had some faint hope of such, at least from Gervaise. He WAS known for such, on the rare occasion, along with having a weakness for a pretty woman. Oh, well.

{"So much for not keeping Mr. Waverly waiting."}. She started to remove the confection gracing her auburn hair, thinking to stall for time, wishing for once that her headpiece WAS more like one of Theodora O'Hare's hats - complete with sleeping gas and other concealed weapons, other than just that single hat pin. But alas, it wasn't, and she soon had her wrists bound behind her. Of course, she had made a good attempt, and being a highly trained UNCLE agent, a good attempt that left her opponents bloodied and at least two of them unconscious. But unfortunately, THRUSH had come to know her talents quite well, and there had been a full six armed men, in addition to Gervaise and Madame Duval. While the hat survived, her suit sadly was in no shape to be participating in the Easter Parade. Of course, that really wasn't an issue anymore, since she herself was not likely to be in a shape to be participating either.

 

Waverly was in a royal snit, and was not in the mood to try and hide it.

"When I call a meeting for 9:00 o'clock, I expect the participants to be here at 9:00!" he fumed. The two agents seated at the round table looked uneasily at the door, as if their wishing could make the two junior agents appear as if by magic.

Just then the doors slid open and a frazzled looking Mark Slate hurried in.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Waverly, but . . ."

"Yes, indeed you are, Mr. Slate, as I have frequently remarked, but that is not the topic of discussion this morning!" Yes, the Old Man was in a pucker!

Mark flushed, but urgently continued. "Miss Dancer is nowhere to be found, sir. I spoke to her quite early this morning, and she said she had an appointment but would certainly be here well before the meeting was to start. I've called her flat, but there's no answer. She hasn't called in, either; I've checked. I was just going to dash over to the shop where she had the appointment, to see if she made it there."

Waverly glowered, "do so, Mr. Slate, and report back here immediately with what you have found. While this sort of slack behavior might be expected from SOME," that glare not giving anyone any doubts about WHO he was speaking of, though this time he DID increase the range to include both Solo and Kuryakin, "Miss Dancer is not usually so careless of the obligations associated with her position."

 

"I really am sorry, my dear Miss Dancer," the debonnaire Thrush agent murmured after Madame and her henchmen made their triumphant exit. Listening carefully, he could hear the two cars roar away; his own car and driver were waiting, but he felt it ungentlemanly to just rush away without an explanation. Still, never quite trusting his fellow operatives, he kept his voice low enough to avoid being overheard, SHOULD anyone be close at hand. He continued.

"But I really felt I had little choice. You see, she bears a deep resentment, probably because she will never be, has never been as lovely as you, as lovely as . . . You see, she was determined to prove to Thrush Central that this 'zombie gas', as she calls it, is effective, and in choosing the target for her demonstration, she settled on my dear Mandy Stevenson, no matter Mandy is no longer associated with the U.N.C.L.E."

April looked at him, her eyes widening. "And you couldn't let that happen? My goodness, Mr. Gervais, you ARE a romantic."

He smiled apologetically, with a tinge of sadness in his aristocratic face.

"Unfortunately, yes, and there is nothing like a romantic inflicted with an unrequited love, a hopeless yearning for the pure and unattainable, to bring out the chevalier in a man of my breeding. An inner tenderness, you might say; almost embarrassing to admit in one of my standing in the professional arena, but there you are. And yes, I know my beloved Mandy would be aghast at my sacrificing you in her stead; she is, after all, the consummate professional. However, I could not stand by and let her be harmed in such a way, and it seems Madame would only be satisfied with a worthy substitution. Yourself, Miss Dancer, unfortunately."

April gave him a long considering look. "You could have stopped Madame and her mad scheme, destroyed the prototype of her zombie gas. That would have resolved things even better."

Gervais looked appalled. "My DEAR Miss Dancer. I may be a romantic, but I am also a professional. Undermining the organization to which I have given my loyalty for so long? Quite unacceptable. Hardly 'cricket', as I believe your partner might term it."

"Ummm, yes, I do see your point," April admitted, thinking this was one of the odder conversations she'd ever had while ensconced in a coffin. Not that she'd had all that many, of course, but still . . .

{"Of course, that might be the onset of the final dose of that gas; I DO feel quite whoozy all of a sudden."}

Perhaps it was that odd dizziness that let her do the unthinkable, ask a favor of the one who was, at least in part, responsible for her being in this very odd coffin, one section containing her head, the other - separated by the cut-out partition at the base of her neck - holding her body. It was formed quite deliberately - when any attempt was made to open the coffin, only the top would swing up - revealing what would appear to be her decapitated head, adorned in her lovely new hat. She winced at the thought of Mark ever seeing her that way. Of course, he probably never would, would most likely never find her. That made it all the worse, knowing how he would feel in either case. Well, she knew how SHE would feel, if the situation were reversed. {"Knowing, versus not knowing. Yes, that would be worse, never knowing, not really."}

"Speaking of my partner . . . " she started, but then her mind drifted off, only to be drawn back by the questioning voice of Victor Gervais.

"Yes, Miss Dancer? Your partner - what?"

"Mark also has that 'inner tenderness' you spoke of, the instincts of a chevalier, quite like you in many ways. Oh, never so elegant as you; how could he be? Still, it will distress him enough to know he was unable to save me. But at least, some closure would help. Knowing - well, knowing for sure that I will NOT be coming back. Not to keep looking in the shadows, glancing over his shoulder at a figure, a voice that seemed familiar, wondering. Perhaps . . ."

Her voice faded into nothingness, though her eyes remained open. Soon they would gather a film, as if in death, but he knew she was very much alive. Would remain immovable, but alive - feeling, hearing, knowing, though unable to communicate, to call for help, to respond if any should miraculously arrive. Only the antidote would reverse any of that.

Oh, it was timed that she would truly BE dead long before any rescue might reach her. But since the zombie gas was created as a punishment for the recalcitrant, as well as a goad for training newly-acquired Thrush operatives, (at least at first, before other uses might be concocted for such a potent weapon), that long 'in-between' period would serve its purpose quite well.

Victor Gervais stood there for a long time, gazing down at her, that lovely young woman. Not his Mandy, no, but still . . . His mind returned, reluctantly, to what she had asked of him. No, not quite ASKED, she hadn't had the time, or perhaps the audacity, to actually ask.

{"Though I believe I am mistaken there. She is much like my Mandy, quite bold, quite courageous. Yes, she would have had the audacity,"} he acknowledged with a tiny huff of amusement.

Of course, he would do, COULD do no such thing. Why, what on earth would Thrush Central say if they ever knew he'd even considered doing what she had wanted to ask??! He gently lowered the lids of the coffin, the division now appearing no more than an ornamental carving across.

He turned to leave the dark cave, then turned back. The coffin lay on the rocky floor, stark, cold. "Cold, it looks so cold," he murmured to himself, thinking with regret of the warm, vivid young woman who rested inside. He turned back, reluctantly opened both sections once again, leaned down to look once more at that lovely face.

{"If my Mandy were to disappear, if the tiny threads I have attached that let me know where, how she is faring, if those suddenly fell loose, telling me nothing, leading me nowhere . . ."}

That thought was suddenly more than he could bear, and he heard himself whispering to her, "yes, perhaps, Miss Dancer. Perhaps," and he then tucked that precious vial of the antidote, the one he'd stolen from Madame's supply, between her cold hands. For some reason unknown even to himself, he found his fingers removing that bronze charm from her pocket and tucking it along side the vial, and closing the lids, hastened to the waiting car. {"Thrush Central does not need to know EVERYTHING, after all."}

She knew when that lid was gently closed again - lay there, shivering inside (if not apparent from the outside), from anxiety if not from cold, for Egypt wasn't known for being overly chilly and her mint green suit was of a material suitable for New York in the early spring.

Her mind was still sharp and clear, even if her body was unresponsive. That was not necessarily a good thing, since reliving her life, her actions and interactions, all in the knowing that sooner rather than later she would run out of air - it was a most unpleasant thing. {"And I can't even shed a last tear or two,"} she thought absently, feeling the dryness of her staring eyes. That DID seem a shame, that she couldn't even shed one last tear.

Somehow, that faint tingling from her fingers, where that single charm from her stolen charm bracelet lay, seemed to echo the faint ringing in her ears, together forming a sad requiem for her life. Or was it a faint chime of encouragement, of hope? Deep inside she decided to cling to the latter thought. {"Either way, it's not like I have a say, not unless this gas wears off. I might as WELL try and be positive."}

 

"April!" Mark's voice was ragged with strain, relief mixed with worry, the relief rapidly fading as he and the others took in the open staring eyes, the total lack of movement.

"She's not dead!" he protested, though to whom it was debatable. "She can't be dead!"

He'd had such hopes when that veiled message had come in, purporting to know the whereabouts of the missing UNCLE agent. Though there had been an urgency about the recording, certainly, still to find April like this, he hadn't been able to bring his mind to think in those terms, that they might not make it in time.

Mark had been the first one to reach the coffin, reaching out to pull open the lid. His was not the only breath that faltered when only the apparently-severed head of his missing partner appeared. Bile surged into his throat, swallowed down with a great deal of effort, as his fingers, guided by sparks, flashes of heat, a chiming in his ears that got louder the closer he got to the goal, found the latch that allowed the other compartment to swing up and away.

 

"Madame has met with an accident?" Victor Gervais inquired with seemingly sincere concern. Well, yes, he WAS sincerely concerned, though far more about the possibility of anyone discovering his part in that 'accident' than with the outcome. Pity the annoying woman had been so suspicious of his dedication, had thought to spy upon him. Still, he had found the notion of that 'zombie gas' rather distasteful, and could really find no regret within himself at the loss of it or of its creator.

Carefully he polished his well-manicured fingernails against his lapel, listening to the details as laid out by the operative representing Thrush Central - Personnel Division. His thoughts were elsewhere, on that pretty little charm bracelet Madame had taken from the U.N.C.L.E. agent.

He wondered if it had been a mistake, having that sent back via a - well, certainly not a friend, but a congenial business contact. He wouldn't dream of calling Theodora O'Hare a friend; he rather thought her new husband would think poorly of such a claim, and he had a feeling that worthy would probably react in a way to leave his OWN tailored suit in worse condition than that little mod creation of Miss Dancer's. His suit, and the body that lay within, more than likely, with 'body' being the relevant word there.

Still, that bracelet had worried him, had seemed to whisper to him in the night, had even seemed to scold him, until he'd sighed, wrapped it securely, and sent it off to a safe intermediary. Only then did he sleep soundly.

And he DID sleep soundly. He had always found it a welcome denial of the claims of the self-righteous, that he found peaceful and calm slumber no challenge whatsoever. Well, except for the achingly-needful dreams of his lady-love, his unattainable Mandy. But even in his slumber, even in his dreams, he held her far above his unworthy touch, except for a chaste kiss to her fingertips.

For Victor Gervaise, the undignified English term 'wet dream' now applied only to the tears he would find on his cheeks when he awoke - tears not of regret or disappointment, but tears of rapture, that he had been allowed to worship her once again, if only in his dreams - worship her as she deserved to be worshipped.

 

Ending:
"And what do you want me to do with this, luv? See what the shop can do with it? Fraid the suit's a loss, but the hat's not damaged, that I can see, just dusty. Should be easy enough for Del Florio to get it back in fine shape. There's another three days before the Parade."

Asking what to do about the hat had been his way of avoiding the subject of duplicitious little Claudette from the Translations department, the one who had knowingly set April up for that ambush at the hat shop. He really didn't want to discuss Claudette, was still more than a little angry at Waverly's decision to settle for re-programming and dismissal rather than something more final. Well, he knew Waverly had a weakness for the pretty young ones, but in HIS mind, the betrayal had warranted far more than a stern "we are most disappointed in you, Miss Duval, most disappointed. Perhaps you will have more loyalty to your NEXT employer."

She shuddered, "no, Mark. Put it in the charity box, please. I could never wear it again, not without remembering that hole in the ground, that coffin, the sensation of not being able to move, barely to breathe - conscious of everything, including you and the others thinking I was dead!"

He just nodded, turned and left the room with the hat that she'd thought was oh-so-charming, so-just-right. He returned without it and she didn't ask him where he'd put it; she knew he'd not put it somewhere she'd stumble over it, probably not even in the charity box. {"Dear Mark. I can always count on him!"}

So they spent the evening watching musicals on her television, him crooning some of the more absurd lyrics in her ear to her giggles, sometimes delivering a wickedly sly and blunt counterpoint to the fluffy dialogue, the two of them drinking the spiked hot cocoa he made, eating the triple-chocolate-walnut brownies he'd pulled out of her freezer. And when she finally slept, it was curled between her own sheets, under her own covers, with her partner holding her warm and safe. And when the bad dreams came, they were his, and it was she who comforted him, assured him that she really was there, hadn't died.

{"Having him beside me, knowing we can count on each other no matter what - more and more I think it's a fair exchange. More and more I think if I DID meet someone, in a romantic sense, I'd not be willing to give this up in order to have that elusive something. Oh, but what will I do if he is the one who meets someone, who decides to . . ."} and the tinge of melancholy made her stir in her sleep, until Mark reached to hold her tighter, whispered "rest, April-luv. I'm not going anywhere." And if he meant that in ways she didn't comprehend, well, no harm done, he told himself ruefully.

 

It was Easter morning, and she found herself turning off the alarm, drifting back to sleep, uninterested in even getting out of bed. The thought of joining the others to watch the parade made her shiver with apprehension, then with a swift rejection of the entire idea.

Still, it seemed she wasn't being given a choice, as she heard the front door snick open, the alarm being skillfully bypassed, and Mark's cheery, but soft voice call out to her from the living room

"Good morning, ducks. Hope you're decent because I'm headed in. Napoleon and Illya are about five minutes out, depending on traffic."

Her gummy eyes sprung open in dismay as she looked at the crumpled covers, remembered the dishes she'd left in the sink from her failed attempt at a meal of crackers and cheese and olives from the night before.

"Mark! You didn't!!!" she shrieked at her partner, thinking she just might have to kill him, no matter how supportive he'd been through the whole ordeal. How COULD he have invited company, even such good friends as Illya and Napoleon!

His cocky smile, along with the rest of him, appeared at the bedroom door, his quick blue eyes taking in her less-than-company-ready appearance.

"No, luv. YOU did, don't you remember? Right before they left for Albany. Then, when - well, when you saw them again, when we were getting you safe and sound and dusted off, Napoleon said something about you being fine just in time for that Easter Breakfast you'd invited us to, before we all watched the parade. You just nodded, and gave an odd little smile and told him "coddled eggs and toast, right." Of course, that was right before you passed out, but I heard you, we all did."

Of course, it had been no such thing; no one, certainly none of her closest friends, would have THOUGHT to mention her being expected to hostess anything, not in her state. But Mark figured she'd brooded on things long enough, and perhaps a bit of company other than himself just might be the ticket. Therefore, that quick call to his two fellow agents, and a slightly more lengthy call to a friend of a friend who ran a small catering business.

"But there's nothing in the fridge," she wailed, knowing that while there WAS, it certainly wasn't anything she was about to be serving the three men she counted as friends. Three eggs from a dozen bought sometime earlier in the month, perhaps some celery, the hard heel of that cheese she'd sliced off the good from in a failed attempt at dinner the prior evening. She knew for sure there was no bread, which was why she'd ventured that box of off-brand crackers the night before, only to find them musty and stale.

Mark nodded agreeably, "figured as much when you didn't mention anything last night. Went ahead and called Marjean; owes me a favor or two, he does. Well, he has three or four spreads being laid on today; a bit from this, a bit from that, a quick go at the omelette pan and muffin tins, next thing you know - voila, a tidy Easter Brunch for the four of us. Food should be arriving any minute. Best be up and into the shower. I'll hang your clothes on the door and go tidy around, alright? Parade starts at 10:00, though we can just find a good spot and watch if you're not in the mood to join in."

And April found herself on her feet, being chivied into a hot shower. She moaned in embarrassment, leaning her head on the wall, thinking frantically about what she had in her closet that would do to attend the parade. Her lovely new suit was a total ruin, discarded after being cut off her at the medical unit; her hat, now in the charity bin if Mark had obeyed his instructions.

{"Oh, well, at least we're just watching the parade; if I don't like what Mark selected in clothes, I suppose my pastel checked suit will work for that, the one he says is so sweet it makes his teeth ache. In fact, it would be good payback for him springing this on me!"}

She was out of the shower, towel wrapped around her, brushing out her auburn hair, acknowledging that at least there she had no worries; well, she always considered it her best feature. Cautiously cracking open the door, she retrieved the garment bags from the hook on the outside of the bathroom door, raising her brow in surprise at the very upscale name discreetly embroidered at the shoulder, and hurried to get dressed.

She could hear Mark chatting with someone, so either Marjean or Illya and Napoleon had arrived. {"Probably the former, at least with any luck,"} she told herself as she pulled items out of the smaller bag. At least THAT was something to look forward to. She WAS hungry, and she'd sampled Marjean's delights before.

Opening the smaller bag marked 'Intimates', revealing the sheer stockings that matched her skin tone perfectly, and the new underthings - medium Persian blue silk trimmed with slightly-darker satin ribbon - her hands slowed to caress the fine material, trying to keep from snagging it. She'd trimmed and rounded her broken nails, used endless doses of cream on her roughened skin, but still the damage was evident, and she really didn't want to ruin the exquisite set. She had to admit, Mark did have good taste in such things.

Quickly donning the confections, she unzipped the larger garment bag and inhaled sharply. Made from an even darker shade of the Persian blue, long hobble skirt with a low covered-buttoned rear closure from hem to mid-calf that would open to allow greater mobility if need be, low scooping top, partnered with a wasp-waisted jacket that buttoned with two lapiz lazuli buttons and then flared out to the tops of her hips, the lapels cupped wide to accent her shoulders. The narrow three-quarter sleeves had deep flaring cuffs, just made to be accentuated by the dark Persian blue kid gloves that would lay just at her wrist-bones.

The shoe bag did not disappoint, the color and quality matching quite well and even looking moderately-comfortable, and there was a small matching leather handbag complete with long bronze chain tucked over the hanger, clearly not empty, as proven by the open clasp and the tempting ribbon dangling down with a folded note that instructed "pull me", and she eagerly dove inside. The silky bundle at the other end contained a slender gold and swirling lapiz lazuli necklace, matching earrings, a slender wrist watch in the same fashion but of a newer date, of course, met her wondering eyes.

"My mother's favorite set," she whispered in awe, recognizing all but the wristwatch, knowing her father had disposed of all that remained of her mother's jewelry, causing it all to be left to charity rather than let her have it.

The note explained, "Dear Cousin. We heard about your ordeal, and thought this might brighten your day. It was going up for auction. No, don't scold for our spending the money. We didn't, actually. Goniff and Peter rather enjoyed the challenge. It's been awhile since they've had a nice outing. I didn't ask if Goniff did any other shopping; Meghada assures me it's just better that way. Well, never mind the details. And who else would your mother have wanted to have these pieces? After all, they belonged to her own grandmother. The watch was a lucky find in a friend's shop; its provenance is uncertain, true, as are most things there, but it just seemed to beg to join the other pieces." It was signed "Cousin Caeide and Family".

She had just clasped the necklace around her neck when there came a crisp tap at the door.

"You almost ready, luv? Food's laid out nicely, Illya and Napoleon just pulled up. Oh, and there's one other thing. A friendship token, you might say - maybe a peace offering?"

She threw the door open, not seeing how he blinked at the sight of her in her finery, or how his breath faltered just a bit before he regained control.

"Mark! You've already GIVEN me gifts, so many! What could possibly be left???" she squealed as she eagerly hugged him.

He cleared his throat, though grinning in appreciation of her enthusiasm. {"Well worth draining the bank account!"}

"Oh, this isn't from me, this last. Best go take a look," he said, motioning to a large deep box sitting on the bed and left as quickly as he could. He really didn't want to be there when she opened the box. After all, it could go a variety of ways, since the sender had told him she'd enclosed a note, but that he wasn't to peek. Well, he hadn't, but that didn't stop him from being apprehensive.

He waited for a squeal of rage, which was his number one bet with himself. When that didn't come, he uncrossed at least enough of his fingers to open the door to his two fellow agents.

"April's just putting on the final touches. Come along in," he said, keeping one ear alert for the sound of anything crashing into the wall or her dressing table mirror.

Meanwhile, in the bedroom, April opened first the tiny box attached to the ribbon, a box that had sung to her in such familiar tones, looking with bewilderment at her missing bracelet. She hurried to attach the detached charm she had been wearing on a chain at her throat, latched the bracelet eagerly around her wrist, and then went back to the larger box, opening it carefully.

She read the note tucked at the very top of the massed tissue paper in utter silence, incredulous at the utter gall, the impertinence, the audacity - - - !!!

"That WOMAN!!!"

Then, she looked at the sheer, utter perfection of a hat that she had drawn out of the tissue-lined hat box. An exaggerated Persian blue cloche, trimmed in wide pleated ribbon in a shade that matched without flaw, outscaled peony of the same color to one side, the center accentuated by one magnificent pearl about which were clustered an array of others. Somehow she knew the pearls were quite real, and that center one probably worth a small fortune.

The note? Written in a bold yet feminine hand, gold ink on creamy gold-flecked hand-pressed paper, it read:

"My dear Miss Dancer. I heard about your most uncomfortable experience, and I was simply appalled!

A woman's relationship with her milliner should be one of utter trust and reliability, might I even presume to say one of the holiest of relationships!

For you have been betrayed by someone purporting to be of that noble calling is utterly unthinkable! Needless to say, I have sent stern warnings to all of my acquaintances that that particular milliner is to be cast far beyond our touch. Rest assured she has created her last hat of distinction!

Our dear Mark has, as I understand it, undertaken to provide you with a worthy substitute for the suit you had intended to wear this Easter. It sounds delightful. He DOES have quite reliable taste in such things, does he not?

In any case, I prevailed on my own Meribelle to create something I thought might be appropriate. While it is not particularly to my taste, my years and more Rubenesque lines requiring a more mature, more flamboyant style of attire, I think you might find it appealing. Please accept it as a good-will gesture.

If I might be so bold as to offer another good-will gesture, it might be in the form of a little advice.

Even as young as you are, my dear Miss Dancer, you, like the rest of us, are not getting any younger. You might give a thought to the future and take a good look around at the treasures available to you. One treasure in particular. How sad it would be, in the coming years, to sit lonely and pining, thinking of - oh, how do they put it? Ah, yes - thinking of the 'one that got away'. I doubt he would try so very hard to 'get away', not if you play your cards right.

Oh, well, it is your life, of course. Perhaps it is that I am so content with my delicious Mitch, so looking forward to the first of our progeny, that I wish you might find the same contentment. Well, I'll admit, I am thinking more along the lines of seeing the same deep-down contentment in our dear Mark's eyes that I see in my beloved husband's every morning and every night. I think you might be the only one who might be able to make that happen, you see.

Toodles, have to go look at collars and leashes, and check the grills on the nursery windows and the metal bars on the cribs. You and Mark simply MUST come after our blessed event and meet the cubs. Mitch insists on calling them that, saying I'm such a tigress, what else WOULD the expected twins be called? And I am quite certain he is right, my ferocious, purring leopard. Yes, twins. While I had not quite expected to leap into domestic life with such an energetic bound, still, I have no regrets.

Best wishes and fond regards,

Theodora O'Hare Porter"

 

April sat at the dressing table, smoldering yet wanting to laugh. She wanted to smack Mark a good one for being so pushy, she wanted to hug him tight for any number of reasons. She wanted to call and thank Caeide and ask how on earth she'd managed to get her hands on the Fergus set, and how Goniff (whom she remembered as being the Bondmate of Caeide's sister Meghada - well, one of two) had gotten involved, though she wondered if she really wanted to know, considering Caeide and the family. She wanted to know why Theodora O'Hare Porter was looking at collars and leashes and installing grills on the nursery windows, though, she, again, wondered if she really wanted to know. That terming of the future offspring as 'cubs' was just a tad unnerving, never mind all that 'tigress' and 'leopard' business.

She wanted, she wanted, she wanted. And it was with a great deal of surprise that she realized that, even more than all of that, she wanted to try on that hat!