You've got to start somewhere - I know, I know, just call me Cliché Connolly - but I have to admit it came as something of a surprise when my very first job, on my very first day as a newly-fledged UNCLE agent, involved playing Bad Cop at a Thrush interrogation. They certainly believe in thrusting you in at the deep end in this place. Not that Bad Cop is a particularly difficult role. You just have to look as if ten minutes alone with the suspect and a length of rubber hose is your idea of a wet dream, and frankly, with this particular suspect, it wasn't all that hard. No, the tricky part falls to Good Cop. He may look to outsiders as if he's just the fellow who offers cigarettes from time to time, and occasionally tells Bad Cop to lay off, but he's got to have a real nose for psychological fault lines, and know exactly when to be sympathetic and when to turn the screw. Carson was one of the best, so I was chuffed as hell when I got the assignment, and looked forward to an incomparable on-the-job learning experience.
I got it, and a whole lot more besides. I learned, for instance, that the most important quality in an interrogator is stamina. You can't let up, even for a second, because the moment you take the pressure off, it's like a holiday for the chap you're leaning on. Carson and I took it in turns to go off for a coffee break or a snack every once in a while, and Carson did a star turn of eating his sandwiches very slowly and with evident enjoyment in front of our starving Thrushie, but basically after twenty four hours I was feeling like there was nothing on earth I wanted more than to go to sleep. That's the point, of course. The interrogators may feel like death warmed up, but the interrogatee feels like death would
be an improvement - to die, to sleep, and all that. Carson let me off to get four hours' kip at 2am, and when I came back, my suit once again sharp and my shirt freshly pressed, it was to find our man a shadow of his former self and apparently on the verge of spilling the beans.
Even ground down to his essence, he was a nasty piece of work. Raphael Jarry, 42 years old, and Victor Marton's right hand man. He had that well-groomed air that a lot of these continental fellows cultivate, the kind of toothbrush moustache that seems to be standard European issue, and a vaguely French accent, although there was a certain lack of clarity about his actual country of origin. He'd started off oozing self-confidence from every pore, in the happy certainty that UNCLE wouldn't be allowed to use the kind of techniques he'd doubtless applied himself as a serving member of Thrush, but a couple of hours in Carson's capable hands - aided, I like to think, by my own impression of a rabid Doberman - soon reduced that confidence to rubble. After that it was a matter of chipping away at him, levering open his defences, and catching him out in contradictions, until he'd given away so much that his fear of Thrush started working in our favour. And shortly after I got back from my snooze, he cracked.
It didn't happen the way I'd imagined it, though. He didn't break down and sob out the information we needed, or put his head in his hands and whisper secrets between his fingers. Instead, he suddenly sat up straight, squared his shoulders and said haughtily "Give me a cigarette, Monsieur Carson, and perhaps I will make you a deal."
Personally, I would have refused him the cigarettes, and let Bad Cop loose on him to push him over the edge, but this was where Carson's years of experience came into play. He pushed the packet silently across the table, never taking his eyes off Jarry as the fellow pulled out a cigarette and stuffed it into his mouth. In spite of the mask of arrogance, his hands were shaking so badly that he fumbled the transfer the first time and the cigarette fell on the floor, but Carson didn't make him pick it up. He let him take another one and then leant across the table and lit it for him. "Let's hear the offer," he said quietly.
Jarry looked at him with hooded eyes and took two quick drags on the cigarette, then exhaled so much smoke that most of his face was wreathed in it. From behind the safety of this temporary shield, he said something so unexpected that it took me a moment to parse it.
"Let me go and I'll give you an UNCLE agent."
Beside me, Carson went very still. Whatever he'd been expecting Jarry to say, it wasn't this. But his voice, when he spoke, was as flat as a pond's surface on a windless day. "Let a big man like you go, Jarry? That's asking a lot. I'm not sure it's worth it. Who exactly are we talking about?"
Jarry shrugged gallically. For all Carson's cool reaction, I think Jarry knew he'd hooked his fish, because all the little Frenchy mannerisms were returning, a sure indication that he'd regained some of his confidence.
"I can tell you that he disappeared in Rome three months ago. Work it out for yourself."
Carson blinked, shaken out of even his icy self-control. "Jesus," he said, and looked over at me. "Kuryakin!"
Jarry took another drag on his cigarette. "Valuable enough for you, yes? And I can assure you that he would be very grateful if you were to exchange my wretched carcase for his."
Carson got to his feet. "Don't let him out of your sight, Zack," he said, limping towards the door - you only notice his leg when he's trying to move fast - "I'm getting Mr Waverly down here."
I knew who Kuryakin was, of course. The whole of UNCLE had talked of nothing else for months. News of his disappearance had even made it as far as that remote and inhospitable island known as Survival School, and the entire organisation was still being rocked by the political afterquakes. Kuryakin, you see, wasn't just an agent - though by all accounts he'd been a damned good one - he was a symbol of the future of UNCLE, of a world order that could transcend NATO and the Warsaw Pact, of democracy and communism coming together in the service of humanity. When he vanished, that fragile cooperation was shaken to its roots. The CIA accused him in camera of having been a serving KGB officer, now recalled to the Motherland; and in return the Soviets openly accused the Americans of a politically-motivated assassination. It all got very nasty, and our boss, Mr Waverly, had to cope with the public humiliation of watching his dream crumble around his ears, in addition to the personal distress of having lost one of his best agents. Given the extreme sensitivity of the situation, the Old Man had had to declare Kuryakin missing in action, pending investigation, but we all knew what he privately believed, and the fact that every trail he attempted to follow up ended in sand did little to dispel that belief.
So you see, if Jarry was telling the truth - and I was reserving judgment on that - then I had been privileged to experience, on my very first day on the job, how Carson had extracted the information that could salvage UNCLE's reputation, and with it, its future. Talk about a learning experience.
The Old Man arrived so fast I was tempted to believe he had run all the way, except that he wasn't out of breath. He had someone with him, a dark-haired man with looks striking enough for a movie star, and a fastidious air that was so out of place in an interrogation cell that for a moment I thought he was an actor come to do research for a role. Then I realised who this must be - Napoleon Solo, head of Section Two. I'd been at New York HQ for two months learning the ropes before I graduated, but in all that time I'd never seen him, because he'd been constantly on the move trying to sort out the Kuryakin mess. He blew in from time to time, to confer with Waverly and McCone and the White House and all the other major players, but mostly he was out chasing leads. It was a freak of chance that he should happen to be in-house when the big break finally came, but as I was to learn, Lady Luck looked on Solo with as much favour as did every other female he ever came across.
After so many hours of interrogation, Jarry looked more like a corpse than a living human being. His eyes were dull, and his cheeks had sunken back into the hollows above his jaw, so that his nose, as Shakespeare so accurately observes, stood out "as sharp as a pen." But he must have had reserves of energy somewhere, for as soon as he saw his illustrious audience he perked up and developed a verbose theatricality. I'm amazed he managed to keep mum for so long under interrogation, because he turned out to be the kind of fellow who can talk the hind leg off a donkey.
"Mr Waverly. And Mr Solo! What a delightful surprise! To think that my humble self is worthy of a visit from the very flower of UNCLE! But of course, it is not on my account that you are here. It is your natural and proper concern for the fate of your colleague, n'est ce pas? And maybe also for your organisation. But whatever your notives, I am honoured by your visit, and since you have come all this way from the upper floor to see me, I will not waste your time with pleasantries. I will be candid with you, Mr Waverly. As soon as Marton learns I have sold out to UNCLE, I am a dead man. So my price for the information you seek is not only my freedom, but a new identity and lifelong protection from Thrush. Otherwise I have purchased only the freedom to die, which would be a bad bargain indeed. But I think it is worth the price, eh? Victor did not know what an impact it would have when he snatched your Mr Kuryakin. Killed in the line of duty is one thing, but defection, or assassination by your friends, that is something else. That leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the world. Preserving my miserable existence will cost you very little compared to that."
If I really had been a Doberman, I'd have been curled up on the floor fast asleep by that point, salivating gently as I dreamt of cracking the Frenchman's neck in my jaws. Waverly, by contrast, could not have been more brief and to the point.
"Very well, Mr Jarry, you shall have your new life, just as soon as we have Mr Kuryakin back. Where can we find him?"
"Romania. There is a - how do you call it? - a bedlam. Where they lock up the lunatics. Romania has many lunatics - too many isolated villages, too much in-breeding, it makes for bad blood. The government does not like to see these people on the streets, so they provide for them. To each according to his need, eh? This particular bedlam is in a castle. Many years ago it belonged to a noble family, very aristocratic, very wealthy, but bad blood ran in their veins too. The family dwindled away to nothing and the last Countess went crazy. Before she died she cursed the castle, and said that as long as it stood, only crazy people would live in it. And so now it is a lunatic house, because anyone who lives there who is not a lunatic soon goes mad."
"And Illya is in this lunatic asylum?"
"Yes, Mr Solo. You see, Victor has a poetic soul. It is not enough for him that the ends justify the means; the means themselves must have some artistic value. And he had taken an insuperable dislike to your Mr Kuryakin, over some doubtless trifling incident, that perhaps would not have bruised a less sensitive nature. So when he fell into his hands in Rome - quite by accident; we were not expecting that particular courier at all - he chose not to have him killed but to give him over instead to a living death."
"You seem to have quite a poetic turn of phrase yourself."
"Me? Oh no, I am a pragmatic man. You see, if Victor had opted for efficiency over revenge, I would not now be able to betray him. Of course, he did not tell anyone of his plans, but I have some clout with the Romanian authorities, thanks to certain small services I was able to render in the aftermath of the war, and it is always wise to keep an ear to the floor where Marton is concerned, so..." Here he shrugged again.
"Well, you had better get on the next flight to Romania, Mr Solo," said Waverly, clearly as fed up with this case of logorrhoea as I was. "And, gentlemen, this affair is to be treated in strictest confidence until we know the outcome - which means, Mr Connolly, that you'd better be the one to accompany Mr Solo. Mr Carson, be so kind as to get Mr Jarry a map of the region, so he can pinpoint the exact location for us."
And thus I found myself, on my third day of full employment at UNCLE, and after four hours of sleep, on a night flight to Romania as partner to the CEA of North America. They certainly believe in thrusting you in at the deep end in this place.
B1 was scrambling as fast as he could through the forest in a downwards direction. He had no idea who he was or where he was going, but he knew vaguely what he was running from – metal restraints and needles and nightmares - and that was enough. The moon was fat and cold and so bright that he could just make out the path ahead of him, in spite of the shadows cast by the trees, but the terrain was rough and he was out of condition. His progress seemed painfully slow. From somewhere above him and to the left an animal howled. He shivered at the faint silvery sound, then reminded himself firmly that wolves wouldn't attack a human unless they were starving. Another howl, slightly louder than the first, mingled with the moonlight, and it struck him that these might not, in fact, be wolves, but tracker dogs. A stab of panic sent him running off down and to the west, where the trees were thicker, the shadows deeper, and the cliff edge invisible, until he found himself too close to thin air to stop his forward momentum.
I had no illusions about my chosen line of work sometimes being the the stuff of nightmares - Survival School alone introduces everyone at some point to the compelling power of bad dreams - but I never expected them to take a form so determinedly grotesque. But then, I'd never been in a Romanian mental asylum before, let alone one in such a bizarre setting. It was as if some demented filmmaker, raised on a diet of Dracula, had brought the full armory of Todd AO, Dolby Surround and Smell-O-Vision to bear on the task of bringing the old Countess's visions to life. And he had good material to work with. Vlad the Impaler would have felt right at home in the building, although the gothic thrill took on a very different quality once you met the people who actually had to live within its stone walls. Even now, at the height of summer, the interior was chilly, and depressingly dark, thanks to the thick walls and heavy iron bars that obscured even the smallest windows. The general effect was less of a noble castle than a dungeon, an association furthered by the doors, which were of solid wood, several inches thick, their bolts the size of a man's wrist.
The director informed us that there had been a number of inmates admitted in April. Turnover in the asylum was high. He did not say where the departing inmates moved on to, and Solo didn't ask; the large graveyard visible from the director's office was answer enough. Of those admitted at the relevant time, four were male, but none of them, the director assured us, could be the man we were looking for. All four were hopeless cases and one, Vasile Kazaku, had had to be placed in solitary confinement for persistently violent behaviour. That set alarm bells ringing, of course, and I glanced over at Solo, but failed to catch his eye. I continued to fail to catch his eye as we set off into the bowels of the building, accompanied by a burly male nurse as a guide and, as the director anxiously explained, protector.
The smell was the worst thing. I associate hospitals with the omnipresent tang of disinfectant, but when the hospital is a damp building with no running water, occupied by people whose idea of personal hygiene is to wipe excrement from their hands onto the walls, who sleep two or three to a mattress, and wear the same filthy tunic day in, day out, then you get a different kind of pervasive smell. I suppose if you work there, your nose eventually shuts down. The unfortunate visitor, however, unaccustomed to being assaulted by a stench so vile, may find himself retching, as discreetly as possible, into his handkerchief.
Then there were the noises. Howls and sobbing echoed down the corridors, like a soundtrack composed by someone who had spent his early life locked in a cellar watching an endless loop of cheap horror movies. Close up, the inmates muttered and shuffled, or whimpered between their fingers at our approach. And they looked like ghosts, their heads universally shaven, their once white tunics - and what clown of a bureaucrat had chosen to order a consignment of white material? - hanging off their skinny bodies. I hid behind my handkerchief, feeling as if I were being given a guided tour around Belsen, ashamed of my own reluctance to look these people in the eyes, and hating myself for my impotence in the face of their suffering. Solo, for his part, looked as if it were sheer strength of will that was preventing him from being sick. To be honest, I found it almost impossible to tell the faces apart. They were all thin and drawn, their eyes sunken, and the shaven heads gave them a look of kinship, a ghastly family resemblance. But Solo studied them all, even those who shrank away, peeling their hands back from their faces and tipping their chins up to look them in the eye. And none of them, he declared, was Kuryakin, not even Kazaku, who I had been certain would turn out to be our man.
It should have been sickeningly disappointing, after all my visions of returning in triumph as the Man Who Saved UNCLE On His Fourth Day On The Job, but in truth it was a relief. The longer the search lasted, the more afraid I became of what we would find. Because, to be perfectly blunt, I didn't think I could survive two weeks in that place without losing my mind, let alone three months. And, to continue this rare moment of perfect honesty, I was frightened of looking into one of those faces and seeing someone who had once been an UNCLE agent. Someone who had once been like me. I don't think Solo felt the same, because the longer the search lasted, the more carefully he scrutinised each face, but it made no difference. Kuryakin was nowhere to be found.
By the time he had dismissed the very last inmate, I was willing to sell my soul for a fag. I don't usually smoke - shortness of breath isn't a survival characteristic in my profession - but cigarettes are useful for oiling the wheels of human interaction, so most agents carry them. Solo saw me patting my pockets and said "You go wait in the car. I want to have another word with the director."
There was something in his eyes that hadn't been there before - or maybe it was that something that had previously been there had gone. There's a line in Nietzsche, "When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you." Solo came out of that place with a touch of the abyss about him, though at the time I put it down to him having had his new-born hopes knocked brutally on the head. It's not so far-fetched a metaphor as it sounds, because he rang with a kind of steely grief, like the father of a murdered child.
"Right-ho!" I said, too grateful at the prospect of getting out into the fresh air to feel humiliated that he didn't want me with him. I trotted off to the car, and he trotted off towards the office, and I was just lighting up, when our guide came out of a side door, peering around him in the manner of a man who doesn't want to be seen. He sidled up to me, and the wave of asylum smell he brought with him made me want to heave, but I was careful not to let it show.
"Cigarette?" I offered, holding out the packet. He took it greedily and for a while we puffed side by side in amicable silence, until I lost patience and said "Any particular reason for seeking me out, or do you just like my face?"
The nurse looked at his feet, and mumbled something.
"Sorry, didn't catch that. Speak up and I'll let you have another ciggie."
The next utterance was somewhat clearer, but not much.
"What about him?"
"He is not the first Kazaku."
Damn Romanians and their cryptic utterances. It sounded important, but I had no idea what he meant.
"Could you try and sound a little less oracular? I mean, what do you mean?"
"When I went off duty he was another man. When I came back, he was this one."
Only by the grace of God did I avoid choking on my own cigarette smoke. Wait till Solo heard this!
"When did this happen?"
"Six days ago."
"What happened to the other man?"
"It was none of my business."
"Did you tell the director about it?"
"It was none of my business."
"Then why are you telling me?"
"I think maybe this is your business. This other man, when he first arrived, he thought he was a spy. Once he tried to kill a guard, that is why they put him in solitary. He was mad, of course. He talked of Napoleon and Alexander. But now you have come, I think maybe it was a different kind of madness from the rest. And then one day he was gone, and there was a new Kazaku."
He glanced around sharply, as if he had heard something, and then added hastily, "I think, if you find him, you will not forget that I told you this? Ingratitude is sharper than a serpent's tooth, and I am a poor man." And with that he slunk off back to the castle, while I fidgeted and paced, and ended up smoking two more cigarettes waiting for Solo to turn up so I could tell him my news.
On my fifth day in Section Two, after my second night flight in 48 hours, I found myself sitting in on a discussion between the the Number Ones of Sections One and Two, North America. Unfortunately, I was still too dizzy with the speed of events, not to mention lack of sleep, to feel properly cocky about this glorious development in my career. In fact, if I'm honest, I had my work cut out just staying on the ball.
"My guess is Jarry was telling the truth as far as he knew," reported Solo, who looked fresh as a daisy, thanks to doing a much better job than me of sleeping on the plane. "It looks as if Illya was there for a couple of months. And then someone sprang him six days ago. I'd guess it was Marton, but it's possible that it was an unknown third party."
"Maybe he managed to get a message out?" I volunteered.
Waverly frowned. "But why not to us?" he said. "No, let's avoid multiplying the entities, Mr Connolly. The only people who knew his whereabouts were Jarry and Marton, and Jarry was unaware of his "escape". Which leaves Marton, and he wouldn't have ended the incarceration without very good reason, not when he could enjoy laughing up his sleeve at the trouble he had inadvertently caused us."
"You mean he wanted Mr Kuryakin for something, sir?" I was full of good ideas today.
"Some kind of experiment," suggested Solo. "It wouldn't be the first time Thrush has tried to use UNCLE agents as guinea pigs."
"It's possible. But Victor isn't much of a team player. For him to give up his charming little revenge like that, it would have to be something very special."
"Something very special?" I echoed, rather foolishly. "That sounds ominous."
"It does indeed. But bear with me. Perhaps we can draw some conclusions from this. It seems unlikely, does it not, that they would use someone like Mr Kuryakin for the the early stages of their experiments? For the stages when things might easily go wrong? In which case they must have done the initial testing on less remarkable subjects. People whose disappearance would attract no great attention. I wonder..." - into the microphone on his desk -" Miss Johnson, please get me the data on all unexplained human disappearances in, oh, the last two years."
"Yes, sir. Which region?"
"Might as well start with Europe,"- and to us - "By the way, Victor Marton has done a bunk. He cleared out of Paris as soon as they realised Jarry was missing. I have a team going through what we can salvage of his papers, but I doubt they'll find anything."
It took Sarah less than an hour to come up with the goods. There had been occasional vanishing acts all over Europe, of course, but the distribution was entirely random. In Austria, however, there had been a cluster of cases, increasing in frequency over the last six months, and centering on the Zillertal region in the Tyrol. It seemed to me the slimmest of leads, but five hours later we were on the plane to Innsbruck.
"Oh, you're awake after all," said a woman's voice, "and here was me thinking I'd have to leave the cows to themselves and go for a doctor. Thank goodness you've come round, it's a day's walk down to the village."
Blink. And again blink. The blurred shapes resolving themselves into clarity. Cloudy blue eyes. Female. Face looming up close. Breath.
"Where am I?"
"In the Steinalm hut. You fell off the cliff. What were you doing crawling around there in the dark anyway?"
Good question. Falling? No memory. Not even of -
"Who am I?"
An astonished stare, then a look of cunning fluttering briefly across the looming face.
"You mean you don't remember who you are? You don't even know that you're my -" a faint blush - "my husband? My Hansi? And I'm your wife, Helga."
He didn't remember. Neither her face, nor her name, nor his name – Hansi? – aroused any emotional response in him whatsoever. For all the connection he felt to them, they could have been characters off the dust jacket of a book he'd never found time to read. And as she bent over him, with a curiously possessive gleam in her eyes, he felt a sudden scrape of fear along his spine. How was it possible for a man to lose his entire life?
On board the plane, Solo handed me an envelope. "Read this," he said. "It came in last night. Found among Marton's papers. And Section 4 intercepted this" - he handed me another envelope - "en route to Thrush Central a couple of weeks ago, but didn't know what to make of it then."
Envelope One contained a single sheet of paper, apparently part of a longer document:
... debated whether nature or nurture are responsible for shaping who we are. Is a child born as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, on which experience inscribes his personality? Or is the personality already present at birth, and the child processes experience in accordance with that pre-existing self?
In recent years, Thrush has funded a great deal of research into the roots of identity, uncovering the mechanisms by which the brain determines who we are.
Most of this work has concentrated on mental conditioning and has ignored the role that memory plays in shaping identity. It has proven possible to induce conditioned responses that directly contradict subjects' normal behavior in the short term without tampering with the memory mechanisms, and yet, pace Locke, we are what we remember. How much more efficient and long-lasting to change a subject's reponses by manipulating his memory! The bravest man can be rendered fearful by memories of catastrophe. Similarly, the coward can learn courage if he experiences (or remembers experiencing) situations in which courage saved his neck.
Thrush technology is now sufficiently advanced to allow us to obliterate a man's memories entirely, and to rebuild him as a different person, by inducing a new set of artificial memories. This is a very impressive scientific achievement, but it has as yet no practical application, since it is cheaper and easier to find workers who already possess the qualities we desire than it is to build such people from scratch.
However, thanks to Thrush's generosity, I have been able to develop and refine an innovative technique which will be of immense practical value. My new methods allow me to remove only conscious and affective memories, leaving automatisms and kinaesthetic memories intact. In practical terms, this means that we can leave untouched all that makes a man valuable to us - his acquired skills, his professional knowledge, his natural abilities - and yet instil in him memories of years of devoted service to Thrush. Imagine the potential! Satesmen who currently oppose us would turn their political talents to our cause; scientists and engineers would deliver to us their most cutting-edge research; generals would put their military expertise at our disposal.
Regrettably, the process is, at present, cumbersome and rather slow. It would hardly be feasible to disappear, say, a NATO general, and then have him resume his post three months later. I am therefore asking Thrush Central for an increase in funding levels, in order to undertake a pilot project. The aim of this is to refine the process to the point where it is speedy enough - a matter of a week or so - to be feasibly applied to top-level figures of international importance. In order to achieve a short-term as well as a long-term gain on the investment, we need a subject who possesses a broad range of skills and knowledge that would be valuable to Thrush, and who can be disappeared without causing an outcry. Computer projections suggest an UNCLE agent would be ideal material, if one can be acquired without attracting undue...
It took me a while to make sense of all that, not least because there appeared to be several pages missing, but the next envelope contained something much shorter:
WILL DELIVER ITEM REQUESTED BY RETURN POST DELIVERY WHERE AND WHEN QUERY INSIST ON CHAIRMANSHIP OF STEERING COMMITTEE VM
I'm often accused of putting two and two together to make five, but this time I was certain there was a big fat FOUR staring me in the face. "Crikey, guv," I said, in my best Dick van Dyke accent, "You reckon that's what they wanted Kuryakin for?"
"Maybe. It's undated, so it's hard to tell." Solo didn't really sound as if he was paying much attention to the conversation. He was staring at the back of the seat in front of him as if he could see right through it, and the shadows of the abyss had crept back into his eyes.
"Tell me, Zack," he said suddenly, "What makes you think you know who you are?"
"Huh?" I said. It wasn't up to my usual standards of repartee, but I was a bit thrown by the sudden tangent.
Solo's eyes flickered briefly away from the seat back, like a man pursuing an elusive thought. "Those people in Romania," he said after a while, " Their minds were so broken... The kindest thing you could have done for them was to shoot them all."
I saw well enough what he was getting at there. "'No Tyrant could invent a Death into which I would not run with Pleasure from such a Life," I offered.
"Exactly. But what if you weren't broken, what if you were remade? Into someone else. Would that still hold true?"
"You mean would I rather die than be different from who I am now? No, no way. I mean, I'd still feel as if I was me, wouldn't I?"
"Yes, I imagine so. But suppose the person you were turned into was the very opposite of you. Let's say, for the sake of argument, you were turned into Hitler. Is that a fate worse than death? Would you blow your own brains out to avoid it?"
Normally I like a good philosophical puzzle to chew over, but not at three in the morning, and not with someone who looks at you as if how you answer is a matter of life and death. I mean, suppose the answer you give is wrong? So I shrugged it off.
"To think own self be true," I said, hoping it didn't sound facetious. "But how you do that when you don't know who you are is beyond me."
"Me too," said Solo, turning off the reading light and rolling over with his back to me as if he wanted to go to sleep. He didn't, though, because his body stayed perfectly still, without any of that twitching people do when they're dropping off. I know, because I was awake for ages myself, struggling with the question he'd raised. Losing your identity. Isn't that what the myth of the werewolf is about, when it comes down to it? By day you're an honest citizen and a loving family man, and then the moon rises, and suddenly you're prowling the forests and tearing out the throats of your own children. And, according to legend, the only cure is a silver bullet.
I really hoped it wouldn't come to that.
In spite of the knock on the head he had sustained by cleverly falling over the edge of a cliff, Hans Neumann was up and about within two days. Helga - his wife – my wife, Helga - had cleaned the wound and wrapped a reasonably clean bandage around it, and though the rest of him ached almost as much as his head did, he was desperate to be up and about. When your mind is a blank, the need to inscribe it with experience is overwhelming.
He lived, he found, in a tiny wooden hut on an alpine meadow at the foot of a small cliff, the self-same cliff he had managed to fall over while taking a nocturnal ramble for purposes that remained as inscrutable to him as his own life. He and his wife spent the summers up there, tending their small herd of cattle and making cheese. Hans found milking the cows soothing. As he sat with his head resting against their flanks, his hands squeezing rhythmically, he was certain that he had done this before. But other aspects of his life puzzled him. He didn't understand why, after only two days in bed, his hands were so soft that they blistered after a day's work. He didn't understand why he remembered how to milk a cow, but not how to make cheese. Above all, he didn't understand why he had ever married Helga. The woman bored him nearly to tears. She would not stop talking even for a moment, and although what she was telling him should have been of absorbing interest, for it was filling in the blanks in his own life, he nonetheless found his attention drifting, as he pondered such impenetrable mysteries as why he understood so little of her vocabulary – he'd forgotten all the words relating to cheese-making, for a start – and why his own accent sounded so different. If he had questioned her, she would doubtless have provided an explanation, but Hans had retreated behind a wall of silence where his wife was concerned. The hope that she might imitate him had proven vain so far, but he could think of no other strategy.
The Steinalm was very high up, not far from the tree line, where the forest gave way to increasingly scraggy bushes and bare rock. The view was breath-taking, offering as it did peaks on three sides, one of which, even in the heat of summer, was permanently adorned with a cap of snow. Other than the air and the view, however, there was little that was pleasant about the Neumanns' existence. The work was hard, for the cows were constantly wandering off and getting stuck on the rocky slopes, from which they could only be rescued by much pulling and shoving, and when Hans wasn't trying to track down yet another over-adventurous bovine mountaineer, he was milking them, or carrying the pails of milk into the cheese hut, or churning it, or rotating the huge, heavy cheeses, or dragging logs back from the forest, or chopping them up for the stove, or fetching water from the stream. It was back-breaking work and gave him an appetite for the unvarying meal of black bread and dried sausages and, of course, cheese, that Helga supplied at regular intervals. His body found it satisfying and he tumbled into bed each night deeply exhausted - far too exhausted, thankfully, to contemplate his conjugal duties – but his mind was unnerved by by the novelty of it all. In comparison with Helga, he felt as ignorant as a newborn baby. The mountain, which she knew like the back of her hand, was utterly strange to him. Even the Steinalm itself seemed like unexplored territory, and he had no idea how to get from its slopes down into the valley where the village lay. Everything around him was strange and new, and the strangest thing of all was himself.
Five days after the fall that had knocked everything he'd ever known out of his head, Hans Neumann was down by the stream rinsing the freshly ripened cheeses. The sound of a stone bouncing on the hillside below him made him lift his head, and to his astonishment he saw a man dressed all in black, like a crow, making his laborious way up the steep path towards the meadow. Every so often he paused to raise something to his eyes, and rotated himself as if scanning the landscape around him. He was still tiny in the distance, little more than a blob, but something inside Hans – the part of him that knew how to milk a cow – twisted in his gut and flung him flat on the ground behind the nearest boulder. At that moment Helga came flying down from the hut, her skirts up above her knees in the urgency of her haste.
"Hansi! Hans! Oh, thank God, they haven't seen you! You must go! Quick! Run! Run down the mountain! But don't let them see you! Run!"
"I will, as soon as you stop nagging me. Who is that man?"
"I don't know! They came looking for you when you were unconscious. One of them had a gun – he thought I didn't see it, but I did. I told them I hadn't seen anyone. I thought they were gone for good, but now they've come back. Oh please, run!"
And run he did, but not until he had wriggled carefully through the long meadow grass to the dubious cover offered by the boulders and scrubby bushes strewn over that part of the mountain. From there, a quick sprint brought him to the safety of the forest, where he doubled back, heading up the mountain and emerging cautiously above the hut. From his vantage point he could see Helga coming out to greet the stranger and engage him in what seemed to be an animated discussion. With great care, Hans crept closer, keeping the hut between him and the visitor. He could hear voices, then shouts, and he peered round the edge of the building just in time to see the man seize Helga's arm and twist it, so that she cried out in pain.
Hans didn't need to think of a solution; he scrabbled on impulse for a smallish rock, scooped it up and threw it, with a snap of the wrist, as hard as he could in the man's direction. The figure looked tiny at this distance, his head an impossibly small target, but the rock flashed through the air and struck him above the ear, knocking him to the ground and probably straight on to eternity. It had definitely not been cricket, more of an ambush, but it had worked and Hans postponed worrying about sportsmanship until after the immediate crisis was resolved.
Helga, who had screamed when the crow man crumpled at her feet, was staring around her wild-eyed, and seemed only marginally reassured when Hans came running down from his hiding place.
"What did you do?" she asked, as he bent over the body and then, as Hans gave no sign of abandoning his usual reticence, "Is he dead?"
"Probably," said Hans shortly. Now that he knew she was safe, he had no attention to spare for Helga. He felt quickly for a pulse at the side of the man's neck and then, having established that he was beyond medical help, began a quick search of his pockets. He wasn't particularly surprised to find a gun in a holster underneath his black uniform – Helga had mentioned that the men looking for him were armed – but he was a little taken aback to discover a two-way radio and a photograph.
The picture was a close-up of a fair-haired man with a high forehead and rather thin nose, who was looking awkwardly at the camera. There was no mirror in the hut, and the stream flowed too roughly for him to have seen his reflection in it, but it was only logical that the crow man would carry a picture of whoever he was searching for. Hans stared intently at the photograph, but the man who stared back remained a stranger. How could he be looking at his own face if he didn't feel any recognition? Discomfited, he turned the picture over. On the back was printed "B1 (IVAN KUZNETSOV)." IvanKuznetsov? Wasn't that a Russian name? Menya zavut Ivan Kuznetsov. These two parts of the puzzle, at least seemed to fit together. His name was Russian and he spoke Russian. Assuming, of course, that this man really was him. He turned to Helga.
"Is this me?"
"Well, of course it is," snapped Helga, who had seen him read the name on the back of the photo and now opted for attack as the best means of defense. "Don't you even know what you look like?"
"Why did you tell me I was Hans Neumann?"
Helga's shoulders drooped. "It just came to me," she confessed, "when you didn't know who you were. I was so desperate for someone to help me with the work and… and I was sort of … lonely."
Hans thought of the endless labor on the Steinalm. How on earth had Helga managed before he fortuitously fell from the sky and landed at her feet?
"Who usually helps you?"
"My brother" – well, that explained why his clothes didn't quite fit – "but he disappeared last year. I didn't do anything wrong. I'd have told you after we'd driven the cows down in autumn, I swear it, and anyway, I don't see why you shouldn't help me, I helped you, and it's not as if you've got anywhere else to go."
Hans – but he wasn't Hans – picked out the most important information and let the rest of her prattle wash over him. "When did your brother disappear?"
"Last year. It was just after we'd come down. He went out hunting and never came back. They never found his body or anything."
"So your brother disappeared like magic and then hey presto! I appear like magic?"
"Well," said Helga, clearly uncertain what he was driving at, "It's a funny old world, isn't it?"
Hans – Ivan - felt a sudden rush of pity for her. She might be talkative and annoying and very, very stupid, but now that he knew she wasn't his wife, he could afford to be tolerant. And she had managed the cows alone for all these weeks. She deserved some respect just for that.
"I don't believe in coincidences," he said, and picked up the walkie-talkie, then wrapped the bottom of his shirt around it and held it a little way from his mouth. He hadn't known how to make cheese, but he knew how a transmitter worked. When he pressed the button, a rather muffled voice said "Come in, Dielefeld." It spoke in English. American English. Apparently this was another language IvanKuznetsov spoke. He glanced at Dielefeld's fleshy face and decided he'd been a loud man. "Dielefeld here," he shouted, hoping that the shirt would sufficiently obscure his voice for his accent to pass muster, "I've found him. Got him pinned down in that hut on the Steinalm, but he's got a gun from somewhere. I need reinforcements."
"Okay," said the voice at the other end, "I'll send some of the boys over. Good thing you found him – we've just had news that Solo's in Innsbruck, so things could turn nasty if you don't get our little runaway back to base as soon as possible. Over and out."
Helga, he realized, was staring at him as if he'd just grown a second head. "What did you say?" she demanded.
"I put in a request for reinforcements."
"I asked them to send more men."
"You what? What did you do that for?"
"Because, my dear little intellectual wife, after they come over here and don't find us, they will have to go back to wherever they came from. And then I can follow them."
"Follow them? Why?"
He hesitated. It was a good question, and now that he came to consider it, he wasn't entirely sure of the answer. All he knew was that his instinct was not to run away but to carry the battle into his enemies' territory.
"Because," he said slowly, "I may not know who I am, but apparently they do."
He turned his attention back to the body. It was crucial that the reinforcements not realize it had been their quarry who had called in, rather than the now defunct Dielefeld, which in turn meant the corpse must raise the minimum of suspicion. Ivan-as-Dielefeld had mentioned that the fleeing Kuznetsov had a gun, so it would raise fewer questions if the head wound appeared to have come from a bullet rather than a rock. Accordingly, he picked up the man's pistol and fired from fairly close range into the skull, calculating the angle so that the exit point would coincide with the mark from the rock. It made a bit of a mess but it obliterated the wound entirely. However, when he looked up from inspecting his handiwork, it was to find Helga staring at him with a look of unconcealed horror.
"He was dead anyway," he said, trying to calm her down, but Helga put her hands to her mouth and turned away, retching. It made him wish he could remain Hans, who was a good man, kind to his cows and his wife. He wasn't sure that he wanted to be this Ivan Kuznetsov, this man who could perform, without thinking twice, actions that normal human beings found intolerable.
I was looking forward to our meeting with the Chief Inspector of the Zillertal. Solo had gone over the particulars of the disappearances on the flight and I had marveled that so many people could vanish from such a small, sparsely populated area without anyone thinking to look for an underlying pattern. Clearly the Chief Inspector was guilty of either corruption or gross incompetence, and either way it would be a pleasure to unleash Bad Cop on him. As it turned out, though, I didn't get the chance, because Solo took one look at Kommissar Schmidt - a jowly man of unprepossessing appearance, who was already perspiring at the prospect of meeting an UNCLE big shot before Solo had even announced his business - and decided there was no need to waste time playing Good Cop.
"We're onto you, Schmidt," he snarled, leaning over the man's desk, his teeth inches from Schmidt's nose.
The sheen of moisture on the Kommissar's forehead swelled into little beads.
"I do not know what you are talking about," he blustered, "You have no right to barge into my office making –"
"Oh, you don't know about that little Thrush retirement fund with your name on it?" interrupted Solo. "Funny, because we do."
Schmidt went pale. A drop of sweat detached itself from his forehead and slid slowly down towards his nose.
"We know about the experiments," Solo went on implacably. "You're in a nasty situation, Schmidt, very nasty. And you know what?"
Schmidt shook his head, and sweat spattered the paperwork in front of him.
"One of our men is being held there," said Solo. "Not some nameless little Tyrolean peasant – UNCLE doesn't care about them – but one of our own. And if we don't get him back alive, you're the one whose ass is on the line."
"I didn't know," whispered Schmidt, his voice shaking as much as his hands, "They never told me about any UNCLE agent."
Solo smiled, showing a lot of teeth. "But you know now," he said, "So here's the deal. You get me into the base, and if I get our man out alive, UNCLE will overlook your involvement in this affair. Try to double cross me and we'll have you out to Berlin HQ so fast you won't see the ground move. You've heard of Strothers, I take it?"
Schmidt nodded, his eyes darting hither and thither, like whitebait that can see the deep fryer approaching.
Solo tossed me a glance which said, clear as daylight, "I trust him about as far as I can throw him," - which at Schmidt's weight must have been about five inches - "But he's the only lead we've got." Out loud, he said "Then let's go. And don't try anything funny. Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?"
Where we were going turned out to be on top of an alp. I will draw a veil over how we got there. Suffice it to say that it involved three sturdy little mountain ponies, and that by the time we dismounted I felt as if my backside had been kicked every step of the way. We stopped at a kind of plateau, a broad meadow nestling between the forest and a steep wall of bare rock. In the distance, cows wandered over the flower-strewn grass, their bells tinkling faintly through the heat haze. I don't know when I've seen anything more idyllic, although the idyllic qualities stemmed largely from the fact that there was a wooden hut over at the edge of the meadow, where Schmidt was clearly planning to take a break. Right then, if my fairy godmother had popped up to offer me three wishes, getting off that damned pony would have been top of my list.
Next on my list would have been something to eat, but I changed my mind when a girl came out of the hut. She was a remarkably pretty girl, with hair the color of buttercups and an old-fashioned, hourglass figure. "The cowherd," said Schmidt, sliding out of his saddle, "Grüass di, Helga. Hoscht a Müch für uns drei?"
The girl nodded and, to my disappointment, disappeared into the hut, only to re-emerge a minute or so later carrying a tray with three huge tankards of milk, and a plate of bread and cheese. Having heard about Solo's reputation where women were concerned, it came as rather a surprise to me that he barely seemed to notice her. I suppose he had other things on his mind. We were getting awfully close to the peak now, and he must be wondering what he would find there. Remembering that Thrush reasearch proposal, I couldn't help wondering that myself. If it had been Solo's fairy godmother who showed up right then, I'd lay odds his first wish would have been to have picked up Jarry one week earlier.
He was itching to leave the moment we'd finished eating, but Schmidt and Helga were deep in conversation. I understood almost nothing of the dialect they were using - languages aren't my strong suit - but I caught the words "my brother" and "Franz" several times, and it was evident that Schmidt was bringing her bad news, for he patted her shoulder repeatedly and shook his head, and presently Helga pulled her apron up to hide her face and scurried back into the hut. Schmidt looked over at us with an expression so shifty it was almost comical.
"Her brother disappeared, did he?" said Solo, putting two and two together. "How nice that you were able to reassure her that you're on the case."
Schmidt glared at him as if he had murder on his mind, but merely said "Here we must leave the horses. Afterwards it will be too steep."
"A stroll up the mountain will make a nice change," I said, trying not to look too relieved. "Lay on, Macduff!"
Just goes to show what I know. In less than an hour I was wishing I had that bloody pony under me again - that, or a pair of decent boots. Solo, who was wearing expensive leather shoes with slippery soles, clearly felt the same.
"Time for a break," he said, flopping down on a patch of wiry grass to examine his blisters.
"It is not much further now," said Schmidt, staring up towards the peak. I got the uneasy feeling he might be looking for signs of activity – guards or security cameras – and noticed Solo sliding his hand unobtrusively towards his holster.
"I go to piss," announced Schmidt, and looked around coyly for a boulder behind which he could conceal his modesty. Solo nodded, like a man too exhausted to speak or move much, and lay back on the ground.
The moment Schmidt was safely out of sight, he slipped after him. I knew the man had had no opportunity to contact Thrush since we had waltzed into his office, and figured he was probably getting desperate enough to do something stupid. Sure enough, when I inclined my head cautiously around the boulder, it was to see Schmidt pulling something from his pocket. Whether it was a gun, or a communicator of some kind, Solo didn't wait to find out, but fired three sleep darts in rapid succession into the man's ample rear end, doubtless indulging in a glow of satisfaction as he toppled over. Two darts would probably have sufficed, but given the man's bulk I guess he didn't want to take any chances, and if Schmidt woke up with a whopper of a headache, well, that was an additional bonus. Since we looked to be close enough to the peak to find the rest of the way by ourselves, the fellow was no loss. I was only sorry there was no justification for using real bullets.
The trail the reinforcements took back to wherever they had come from was steep and difficult, and once they were past the turn-off that led to the Steinalm, it deteriorated to little more than a goat's path. Above the tree line, the cover was reduced to the occasional convenient boulder, and as there was no way of knowing where the path would zig-zag, or loop back, there was a constant risk of being discovered. On the other hand, the men Ivan was tracking weren't exactly hard to follow. They sweated their way up the rough path, stumbling and cursing and triggering small rock falls, and, as the path got steeper, began to straggle. One of them in particular - a man called Bernie, judging by the frequency with which annoyed cries of "Get a move on, Bernie!" came floating back from the leaders - was not cut out for moutaineering. He fell further and further behind the others, and for all that Ivan was finding the ascent tough going himself, it was the work of a moment to pick him off when he fell far enough back to be out of sight. A blow to the head from the gun butt, delivered here, with this much force, would leave him unconscious for at least four hours. Ivan didn't stop to wonder how he knew this, but struck out with careful precision, and then pulled Bernie's black uniform on over his own clothes. He was shaking with the effort now, but nonethless took a deep breath and scrambled up the path as fast as he could, until he came in sight of the rest of the team.
After that, it was easy. The others, evidently used to Bernie's dilatory habits, showed no suspicion when he lagged behind just on the edge of their range of vision. Indeed their lack of caution was such that Ivan almost missed the entrance to their destination, because all but one of the team had already ducked inside it when he rounded the corner. Hurrying after his retreating colleague, he found himself stooping through the entrance of a tunnel, apparently a natural passage into the mountain. A few steps inside, the corridor began to widen, and he jumped, startled, when a metal door slid shut behind him. With the closing of the door, dim lights began to glow in the corridor, and he pulled his beret as far down as he dared across his face, in case there were security cameras. A thick rope of wires and cables running along the edge of the passage seemed likely to lead to some kind of power centre, so he followed it. He had no idea what else to do, for he had no idea what he expected to find up here. Himself, he supposed.
The entrance passage opened out into something of a maze. Ivan, following the cables wherever they ran thickest, as if they were Ariadne's ball of thread, soon found that most of his mental energy had to be devoted to remembering the route he had taken. Security seemed to be very lax, but he was nonetheless driven by a sense of urgency, for it could only be a matter of time before someone noticed that Bernie had failed to report in.
He assumed he must be getting close to the heart of the place when he started to run across people. Some wore blue overalls and carried tools, but others were dressed like him in black uniforms, and walked with the purposeful tread of security personnel, their conversation apparently revolving around himself.
"..searched the whole goddam mountain..."
"... so certain he's still in the area..."
"... gone to earth somewhere, but how would he know..."
Once a man in white lab coat hurried past him, a guard at his heels, deep in conversation with a woman in a nurse's uniform -"...unfortunate that it should have taken place so early in stage 2, but stage 1 was entirely complete, there is no risk of recovery, whatever Marton..." - and on a moment of impulse he turned and followed him. A scientist, surely, would be intimately involved in the function of this operation, whatever it was? But as he rounded a corner in pursuit of his quarry, a door flew open and he ran straight into the man who emerged through it. He was impeccably dressed in a grey suit, that could not have looked more out of place in this robustly functional environment than if he had been wearing a ballgown and tiara, and he was clearly not used to having people bump into him.
"Watch where you are going, you ignorant fool!" he hissed, with a pronounced French accent, "Or are you eager to spend three weeks scrubbing the toilets?"
"I'm sorry," muttered Ivan reflexively, and made to move past him, but the man grabbed his shoulder.
"Wait a minute," he breathed, an expression of astonishment passing over his face.
Uncertain of what would happen next, Ivan jammed Dielefeld's pistol into the man's ribs. Thanks to their collision, they were standing close enough that it wouldn't be visible to any passer-by, and his prisoner seemed to share his appreciation of the advantages of not causing a fuss. Instead of raising his hands above his head, he folded them discreetly behind his back, and said "Ivan, my dear boy! Where have you been? We have been worried to death about you."
It stopped Ivan in his tracks. He had thought he didn't know what to expect; now he knew that he had been expecting danger, perhaps a shoot-out, certainly an attempt at capture. A hearty welcome was the last thing he'd been prepared for. But his experience with Helga had made him wary. Ignorant as he was of his own identity, he knew he was easy prey for anyone with a manipulative agenda and a facility with lies. This time, he wasn't going to let anyone impose on him their own version of who he was supposed to be.
Meanwhile the man was peering closely at his face, as if, by deciphering the arrangement of his features, he could read his mind.
"My dear Ivan," he said, "What on earth is the matter? I am your friend, remember?"
Ivan kept his expression carefully blank. "Let's say I don't," he said. "Why don't you try to convince me?"
For a fraction of a second, something like terror registered on the man's face, then it gave way to avuncular concern.
"I am Victor Marton," he said. "If you do not remember me, what do you remember?"
Ivan had no answer to that. But as he tried to decide what to tell this self-proclaimed friend, Marton took the initiative.
"Ivan," he said gently. "I do not want to hurt you, but I cannot let you wander around waving guns at people. Why not put it down and let me help you? Or, if you will not surrender your gun - and perhaps you are wise not to do so - then let us at least go into my office where we can discuss this unfortunate situation in greater privacy. Come," - as Ivan hesitated - "You do not need to be afraid. After all, you are the one with the weapon."
There was an undeniable logic to this argument, especially since the door Marton had indicated was only a few steps away.
"Shut the door behind you, dear boy. Do you mind if I take a seat at my desk? Standing too long is bad for my back. And don't mind this fellow by the door - as you can see, he means you no harm. He won't even move unless I tell him to. We can say what we like in front of Trent, he will not utter a word."
Ivan eyed the man by the door warily, but it was difficult to disagree with Marton's assessment of his harmlessness. The man had a slack-jawed, vacant look to him, like a house that had been standing empty for years. Ivan couldn't recall any specific examples, but he was fairly sure he had seen jellyfish that looked more intelligent.
"What happened to him?" he asked, with a prickle of distaste.
Marton sighed regretfully. "Alas, he is one of UNCLE's less successful experiments. Once he was a top Thrush agent, like yourself, " - here he glanced sharply at Ivan - "but UNCLE destroyed his mind. Now he does nothing unless specifically told to. We were able to rescue him, but the damage ran too deep for us restore him to what he was. But do not worry, he does not carry a gun, only a truncheon. Firing a weapon would be beyond his cognitive powers."
"Thrush?" said Ivan, trying to make sense of the words. "Uncle? Uncle who?"
A curious, calculating look crossed Marton's face. An almost possessive look. It reminded Ivan of Helga, when he had first seen her. Why did everyone he met want to own him?
"You really do not remember?" he said. "UNCLE isn't a person, it is an organisation, dedicated to our destruction, and with us, humanity's only hope for the future."
"We are Thrush. Our goal is to further all that is brightest and best in human potential - intelligence, initiative, leadership. And you, Ivan, are one of our best agents. Or were, until UNCLE got their hands on you and nearly destroyed you, as they seek to destroy all of us. UNCLE dismantled your mind, and took away your identity. We were making good progress at putting the pieces back together, but when you had a relapse and ran off, we were afraid you would disintegrate for good. Thankfully, your instincts have led you back to us, and we can complete the task of returning your memories. No more not knowing who you are, Ivan. We can restore you to yourself."
Ivan felt a tremor within him, as if he was cracking apart. Try as he might, he could remember nothing about Thrush or Uncle. That this Uncle should have deliberately wiped his mind seemed plausible enough; if his amnesia had been inflicted deliberately, it would explain why it was so curiously selective. But beyond that he lacked any basis for judging the truth of Marton's claims. He was being offered answers, certainly, but was he dealing with an honest man? There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face, whispered something within him. Ivan shook his head furiously. Of all the lost memories locked up in his brain, a fragment of poetry had to be the least helpful.
I had plenty of time during that exhausting upwards slog to start wondering myself what we would find when we got to the top. I don't mean the secret agent stuff, though I was fairly nervous about that, too, what with this being my first real mission and what have you. No, what was occupying my mind, to the exclusion of pretty much all else, was Kuryakin. Having seen in Romania just how far from a human being you could get, and still be walking upright, I wasn't looking forward to making his acquaintance. My imagination didn't make things any easier. It was positively eager to suggest that what we would find waiting for us was a cold-eyed killer, driven by a fanatical devotion to Thrush and a murderous contempt for the rest of humanity. Or maybe, if the experiment had gone wrong, a mindless, drooling zombie. Or a clever, charming psychopath, with exceptional abilities and no social conscience. I remembered Solo asking me on the plane if I would rather shoot myself than be turned into someone who stood for everything I despised. At the time, the question had seemed abstract, almost philosophical, but now I grasped it in all its burning urgency. Would I put a bullet through my brain? More to the point, would I want someone else to do it for me, since in my new guise I'd hardly be likely to do it myself? On balance, I thought probably not - after all, where there's life there's hope - but glancing at Solo I wasn't sure he'd agree with me. His face was shuttered and grim, like a man determined not to flinch from the worst. It reminded me chillingly of Macbeth, up to his knees in blood and resolved to wade still further, an impression that was reinforced when he removed the clip of sleep darts from his Special and substituted bullets. After a moment's hesitation, I copied him.
It took us bloody ages to find the Thrush installation without Schmidt. The path took us all the way up to the summit of the moutain, where we scouted around for hours without finding anything, and we'd probably still be there if Solo hadn't spotted a couple of black-clad men disappearing into a particular spot on the hillside. It turned out to be the entrance to a low tunnel, blocked after a few feet by a sliding metal door. The fact that it was so well-hidden probably accounts for the shocking lack of security inside the installation itself - if ever I get funding from Thrush to run a big laboratory, I shall make proper surveillance equipment my top priority. The door was held in place electromagnetically, so I broke the circuit with one of my exploding cufflinks - I'm slightly embarrassed to admit how big a thrill that gave me - and then we levered it open.
Inside was a veritable labyrinth of dimly lit passages. Once again, we wandered around for ages - I'm sorry if this is starting to get repetitive, but it was a salutary reminder that the life of an UNCLE agent is not all jet-setting glamour, in spite of the exploding cufflinks. It was also rather a nerve-racking experience, given how little there was in the way of places to hide. And by "little" I mean "none at all". We heard a guard coming just as we had turned into a side passage, and I shrank against the wall in the hope of avoiding notice, but to my astonishment Solo hopped right out and collared the man.
"Hey, you," he said in authoritative tones, "Where's Mr Marton's office? We're here to conduct an audit and we've got lost."
"I don't know nothing about no audit," said the guard suspiciously.
"Of course you don't," sneered Solo, "Fine auditors we'd, be if we let everyone know we were coming. Give you time to cover up your mistakes? I think not. Now, take us to Marton."
I suppose if you're a guard it's a kind of Pavlovian response to obey any order given in a sufficiently bossy tone of voice. At any rate, this fellow didn't think twice about it, but took us off, Solo jabbering away at his elbow, asking questions about his overtime and how often he'd been on vacation and whether he'd filled in a QS27 the last time he returned from sick leave. It certainly took the guard's mind off asking us for ID, and by the time he parked us outside Marton's office, he was so anxious to get away that he didn't even wait to hear us knock. Which was just as well, because we didn't. And since the only guard in the vicinity was beetling off down the corridor, doubtless to check the accuracy of his most recent expenses claims, I had no compunction about drawing my gun. Solo did the same, then looked at me, mouthed "One-two-three," and kicked in the door.
We found ourselves face to face with a man in a grey suit, who was sitting behind a desk, looking as surprised as a kid caught with his hand in the sweetie jar; and a Thrush guard, who had clearly been caught less by surprise, given that he had his gun levelled directly at us. Fortunately, we had two weapons to his one, thus creating something of a Mexican standoff, with neither side entirely happy about shooting first. Solo had his gun trained firmly on the guard, so I quickly suppressed my first instinct and aimed at Marton instead.
I knew it had to be Marton. For one thing, he looked like disconcertingly like Jarry, except more so, if you see what I mean. It wasn't just that his suit was better-fitting, and the flower in his buttonhole fresher, but he seemed more at home in his own skin. What struck me most, though, as the surprise faded from his face, was the look of petulant self-pity, as if life was a perennial disappointment to him, and he knew he had no chance of a refund. In spite of this, I have to concede that he cut rather an imposing figure. The guard, by contrast, was a scrawny little fellow with a sunken, pasty look, overlaid with red, that made a generally unhealthy impression. If he hadn't had that damned gun, he'd have been a pushover. I couldn't spare him more than a glance, though, because Marton started speaking, apparently addressing the guard rather than us.
"Ivan, this is Mr Napoleon Solo, one of UNCLE's top agents. I'm afraid I haven't had the pleasure of making the other gentleman's acquaintance."
"That's rather unfortunate," said Solo, in a tone that was clearly supposed to be genial, but sounded more like he wanted to push his hands down Marton's throat and pull out his guts out with his fist. I was casting him a surprised look - I'd never seen Solo so noticeably lose his cool before - when he added "Seeing as Zack here is the only one present who Illya's never actually met before."
That was when the penny dropped. I don't know why it took me so long to recognise Kuryakin. Maybe it was because he didn't look anything like his photos, or maybe it was because, in some very real sense, this wasn't Kuryakin. Not if the memory-tampering procedure had worked. I renewed my observations with a more urgent interest, and viewed through this new lense of knowledge the details sprang sharply into focus. The severe crew-cut, for instance, no longer spoke of bone-headed Aryan stock, but a recent encounter with Romanian barbers' shears; the reddened skin was the natural consequence of exposure to alpine sun after a prolonged incarceration; and the scrawniness indicated under-nourishment, rather than an unhealthy lack of appetite. Of course, it was much harder to interpret what was going on inside his head.
For one thing, he didn't react negatively to Solo calling him Illya. Actually, he didn't react at all, which from what I'd heard around HQ was typical of the Kuryakin they knew. "Unemotional" was the adjective I'd probably heard most freqently applied to him - well, that and "grumpy". The man facing us looked as if he fell more into the former category. He was watching us carefully, with the same kind of stillness I had seen in Carson, and could now sense in Solo, the coiled-spring stillness of a predator observing its prey. If he'd had a tail, the tip would have been twitching. There was no sign of recognition in his eyes, though it was clear from the way he rationed his stares that he regarded Solo as the more dangerous opponent. To say there was an atmosphere between them would be an understatement; if you'd struck a match, the whole room would have gone up in flames.
I was so caught up in the tension of the moment that it came as a shock when Solo spoke.
"So who are you? Ivan or Illya?"
Kuryakin didn't answer, but his stare intensified, something I wouldn't have thought humanly possible. He didn't shift his eyes from Solo's face, but they moved very slightly, up and down, as if he was searching for something - something he apparently didn't find, because he didn't suddenly lower his gun, or shout "Napoleon, my friend!" or anything.
It was Marton who answered. Or at least interrupted.
"Trent, kill them!" he barked.
I felt rather than saw a movement behind me, and half sprang, half skittered towards Marton to avoid it, turning my body to the new threat without shifting my gun from his direction. There had been another guard standing just inside the door, but he had been so still that I had completely failed to notice him. Now that I did, it came as a shock. His face had exactly the vacant, inhuman expression I'd imagined on Kuryakin in his Frankenstein's-Monster-Gone-Wrong incarnation. There was even drool running down the side of his chin, as if he lacked the intelligence to swallow his own spittle. For all that, he moved as fast as a whippet when given the order, and I came within a whisker of having the whole of UNCLE gathered about my graveside murmuring "Zack, we hardly knew you." The only thing that saved me was that Marton hadn't told him which of us to attack, and after the first vicious blow he hesitated, torn between me and Solo as the object of his attentions.
"Him, you fool!" screamed Marton, pointing at Solo.
Frankenstein instantly hefted his cosh and slammed it into Solo's face - at least that was his intention, but some sixth sense seemed to tell Solo the blow was coming, for he ducked sideways just in time, and grabbed the cosh as it came down. Frankenstein, taken completely by surprise, could not prevent the weapon being wrested from his grip, and tumbled to the floor, a victim of the very same manoeuvre he had intended to inflict himself. Solo could have shot him easily, but instead he backed away, as if from a growling dog. "Easy, fellow," he said, "I don't want to hurt you." Frankie gave no sign that he had heard him, but surged to his feet and struck out with a killing blow that Solo only just managed to avoid. Even backed into a corner, he seemed strangely reluctant to shoot. Given his expressed belief that the inmates of the lunatic asylum would have been better off dead, I was surprised at his squeamishness, but I guess you can never know how you'll really react in a situation until it actually happens.
I have to admit, I was distracted by the fight, and the musings on human psychology it provoked in me, which is why I didn't realise I'd taken my eyes off Marton until I heard him say "Hands up, Mr, er, Zack." And then, even as I was turning to look at him, there was a shot, and a cry, and Marton was crumpling back in his chair, blood spreading out in a scarlet stain across his white shirt. Kuryakin had finally joined the fight.
Since even Frankenstein's single-minded monster had been distracted by the shot, Solo was able to get in a quick neck chop, and then the three of us legged it out of the office.
"Which way is the lab?" demanded Solo, as we came into the corridor.
"Don't ask me," said Kuryakin, "I'm a stranger here myself." I thought this was a distinctly odd remark under the circumstances, but had no time to think about it, because at that moment two guards came round the corner. Kuryakin took them out with three quick, precise shots and then prevailed on one of them, who wasn't quite dead, to direct us to the lab.
"What are you going to do?" he asked, as we took off down the passage.
"What the hell do you think?" snapped Solo.
Kuryakin muttered something that sounded like "In for a penny, in a for a pound," and then we reached the lab and burst through the door. What followed was utterly confusing. I know there was a lot of shooting - I did a fair amount of it myself - and bodies falling all over the place, some of them in the black uniforms of guards, others in the white coats of lab technicians. I know I aimed mostly at the black figures myself - some part of me still thinks of boffins as civilians - but the white coats fell over at the same rate as the others, so my colleagues were presumably less namby pamby about it, though what with the chaos and the shouting and the explosion of fireworks every time the machinery was struck, it was impossible to say who shot whom.
In no time at all, the room was silent again. Solo pulled a handful of explosives out of his pocket and tossed them into strategic points around the equipment, then he yelled "Get out!" and we started to run in earnest. For my part, I was heading blindly down the first corridor I could find, when Kuryakin shouted "This way!" and ducked round a corner. For someone who called himself a stranger, he certainly had an amazing understanding of the way those passages were laid out, because he led us unerringly through the labyrinth.
Halfway to the exit, I heard a sort of dull thud, and then the lights flickered out and the whole tunnel began to shake. I clung to the walls, trying to avoid falling over, until the tremor had passed, and all was still again. Then I got out my torch and swung the light around to find the others, Kuryakin with his hands on his knees, drawing great gasping breaths, and Solo very pale and grim.
"You sure you didn't go overboard on the explosives?" I said.
I admit it wasn't the world's greatest joke, but it went down like a lead balloon. Solo's entirely humourless response was "I'm only sorry I couldn't bring the whole mountain down on them," and Kuryakin's, equally unsmiling, "I am not sure you haven't. I think we should keep running."
I could tell by his breathing that he was in worse shape than the rest of us, but he nonetheless set off down the corridor at a pace even I found hard to match, and not a moment too soon, for behind us came the horrible grinding of rock moving against rock, and then there was a sudden roar as part of the ceiling collapsed. I had thought I was running to the limit of my abilities before, but now I discovered what it means when they say fear adds wings to your heels. I went down that tunnel like a bullet out of a gun, aiming for the light at the end that must surely be around this next corner, or the next. I didn't realise night had fallen while we were still inside, and I was out of the entrance and breathing in the mountain air before I grasped that I had better stop running or I'd find myself tumbling down the slope.
We flung ourselves down on the ground, panting with exhaustion.
"I don't often say this," gasped Solo, "but that was a little too close for comfort! Nice work back there, partner." For a moment I thought he meant me, and glanced over at him with a grin, but then he added "Good to see you haven't lost it."
Kuryakin, waxy with strain, took a while to catch his breath, but eventually he managed to speak. And what he said was "I'm sorry to spoil this touching reunion, but I haven't the faintest idea who you are."
"What?" I rolled onto my knees. "But you took our side back there!"
Kuryakin shrugged. "I had to make a choice," he said. "It was you or Marton. Please don't take it personally."
"And we were prettier, or what?" I demanded, thrown completely off balance by this revelation. If the conditioning had worked after all...
That drew a wry smile from him, but all he said was "Marton didn't seem very trustworthy."
This didn't go down well with Solo. It must have come as a real shock to him, thinking he'd got his friend back, only to find we'd absconded with a renegade Thrushie. In fact, it went down so badly the only response he could come up with was blanket denial. "You're Illya Kuryakin," he said, grabbing Kuryakin's shoulder. "You work for UNCLE. You're Number Two of Section Two, North America, you -"
Kuryakin interrupted him with an impatient gesture. "You are the third person to have told me who I am in as many days," he said. "And I'm fairly certain the other two were lying."
"Wait a minute," I said, "If you don't remember that you're Illya Kuryakin, who do you think you are?"
That brought the two of them up short. Solo let go of Kuryakin and looked at him the way I imagine the shepherds must have looked at the angels in the Christmas story, when "mighty dread had seized their troubled minds." Kuryakin, for his part, looked oddly embarrassed and rather cross. "I don't know," he said, after a pause.
"Then the conditioning didn't work!" I said to Solo.
"Marton," said Solo. "He had a method of wiping your memory and then installing you with new ones, so you'd believe you were a completely different person. It looks as if only the wipe worked, but don't worry, UNCLE has done plenty of research into conditioning. We can help you remember who you are."
"That," said Kuryakin tonelessly, "is exactly what Marton offered."
"Yes, but he was lying," snapped Solo.
"And how will I know the memories you give me are real?" said Kuryakin, "Thank you, but I must regretfully decline your offer."
I think Solo must have been starting to panic, because this provoked him into a major tactical error. I mean, he'd known Kuryakin for years; I'd only met the man half an hour ago, and yet even I had a feeling it was a bad move to say "Don't be ridiculous, you're coming back to UNCLE with us, and we're going to sort out this amnesia business once and for all."
My feeling turned out to be entirely correct. Kuryakin responded with a sort of neutron glare, the kind that leaves buildings standing but wipes out all human life within a ten mile radius. "You do what you like," he said. "But you will have to do it without me. I'm going my own way."
Solo got a grip on himself. "I won't let you," he said quietly, as if what he was saying was so self-evident that there was no need for volume or emphasis to back it up. It was the same tone I'd heard Carson use with Jarry when he asked him what his offer was, a "thus far and no further" sort of voice. Kuryakin must have been made of sterner stuff than Jarry, though, because he all he said was "Just watch me," and got to his feet.
Solo shot him in the chest.
He had reloaded his gun with sleep darts at some point, of course, but in the first moment of shock I didn't realise that. Kuryakin pitched forward onto his head, rolled at an angle a couple of feet downhill, and came to rest all in heap against a tussock of wiry grass.
I jumped to my feet and was in mid-sentence before I realised exactly who I was yelling at. "Are you out of your tiny - um, I mean, I don't think you should have done that..."
Solo was good enough to ignore me until I'd regained some self-control. He went over and checked on Kuryakin, presumably to make sure the fall hadn't done him any serious damage, and then said, without looking at me, "It was for his own good."
"Sir," - the honorific helped swallow down the urge to scream Are you off your rocker? - "You can't be serious! You're not going to drag him back to UNCLE and have his memories restored by force?"
"He's not in his right mind, Zack. He can't make that kind of decision."
"He looks like he's in his right mind to me. We'd never have got out of those tunnels otherwise."
Solo looked at me then, with an expression that said this was a tiresome argument. "I'm not saying he can't think straight, but he doesn't know who he is. And I do."
"I think he knows perfectly well who he is," I said bitterly. "He just doesn't remember being who you think he ought to be."
"I know him, Connolly. Once he gets his memories back, he'll agree that I did the right thing."
"Oh, so you're going to make the decision for him, are you? And do you also get to decide which memories he gets back?"
That threw him for a moment. "How do you mean?"
"Well, that asylum for a start. Thrush wiped out three months spent in that stinking hellhole. Are you going to put those memories back? Even if he goes mad from it?"
Solo hesitated. "Well, maybe not those memories, no."
"So you're going to play God?" I had no idea if UNCLE was actually capable of choosing which memories to restore, or if it was a kind of package deal, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered. "You asked me once if I'd want to carry on living if I was turned into someone else. You gave me a choice. But if you take that choice away, what's anyone got left? We'd all just be puppets. "
"That's nonsense," said Solo roughly. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, and I suppose you do?" At the sight of his expression, something clicked inside me; you could practically see the light bulb going on over my head. "Oh my God, you do! You've done this before! You've fucked someone's mind over!"
"It wasn't like that, you arrogant sonofabitch," said Solo, really angry now. "It was the only way to save her life. And she agreed to it, she wanted it."
"And if she hadn't given her consent, you'd have gone ahead and done it anyway."
"Of course I wouldn't!"
"Of course you would - it's what you're doing to Kuryakin!"
"This is different!" thundered Solo, "I'm giving him his memories back! I'm undoing the damage!"
"Against his will! And it's like he said, this way he's never going to know if the memories are real, or if they're fake. He's always going to wonder if he's living in a created world, living a life dreamed up for him by team of psychologists. He'll never know if he's a puppet or a human! Unless - oh, yes, of course, it's simple, take away his memories of how he told you he didn't want that, take away the memory of how you shot him! Put him back in UNCLE like a good little agent, with no doubts and no worries, team him up with his good buddy Napoleon, who's always got his back, who's never let him down. It's perfect!"
Solo was staring at me, his face rigid, and for a moment, just a moment, I thought I'd got through to him. Then his eyes flickered away. "Sometimes," he said slowly, "there is no easy answer. Sometimes, in this job, you have to make tough decisions. And I'm willing to take on that responsibility."
"Well, I'm not!" I said. If I'd been a policeman, I could have ripped off my badge and thrown it onto the ground at his feet. But I was an UNCLE agent. Opening my wallet and pulling out that stupid yellow card wouldn't have had half the effect. Instead, I took a deep breath, got my voice halfway under control, and said in that same quiet tone I'd learned from him and Carson, "I hereby tender my resignation, sir." Then I rather ruined the effect by adding hysterically "If I wanted to work for an organisation that treats people as puppets, I'd have joined Thrush."
"Fine," said Solo, "Tell Mr Waverly when we get back to New York. But there's no point trying to wander off in the dark, you'll only break your neck. So lie down and go to sleep like a good boy."
The writer in me says it should have ended there, with me stalking off the next morning. By implication, Solo would have taken Kuryakin back to New York; UNCLE would have restored his memories - but not the undesirable ones, naturally - and the Soviets would have come out of their strop. UNCLE would have been saved, though the reader would have been encouraged to ask if the price was worth it. And Zack Connolly, brilliant but embittered, would have quit enforcement and gone to work for an organisation where his idealism would be better served - the Peace Corps, say, or the Red Cross - where I like to think that one day he would have written the Great American Novel about his experiences. But life is much less salutary than fiction, and sooner or later every agent learns not to discount the influence of Solo's luck. So what actually happened was this:
Kuryakin woke up some time around dawn with a monster headache, and as soon as his eyes were open he snarled at Solo "You shot me, you bastard."
"Sorry," said Solo, sounding genuinely apologetic, "Would you be willing to chalk it up to temporary insanity? I simply couldn't think what else to do."
"So now what?" said Kuryakin. "Do you drag me back to America in handcuffs, or what?"
"I'm rather hoping it doesn't come to that," said Solo. He must have been turning things over in his mind all night, because to my surprise he added "Look, Illya, I accept that it's up to you to decide whether you want UNCLE to try to restore your memory, but I really don't think you can make that decision without at least seeing what we stand for. And Waverly will kill me if I don't bring you back long enough to convince the Soviets that you're alive. I realise you don't know me from Adam, but you've saved my life once already since you met me, and it would be a terrible waste if I ended up hanged, drawn and quartered by my own boss."
"Has anyone ever told you you have an enormous ego?" said Kuryakin grumpily.
"You may have mentioned it once or twice."
Kuryakin glanced at him sharply, and then said "At least the me you know seems to be a good judge of character. And if I don't agree to come, I suppose you will shoot me again? I don't see why you need my consent at all."
"You're heavier than you look, you know," said Solo. "It would be much easier if you walked down the mountain under your own steam."
"There are two of you," said Kuryakin, with an expression that suggested he was unimpressed by such wimpishness.
"Leave me out of this," I said.
Solo shot me a bitter look and growled "I don't see why I'm being cast as the bad guy here. I've said we won't restore Illya's memories if he doesn't want us to, even though I think that's frankly an insane decision. All I want is for him to come back long enough to sort out the mess he's created. Is that so much to ask?"
"That," said Kuryakin, visibly ignoring the jibe about the mess, "entirely depends on whether you are offering me a free choice or merely the the illusion of choice."
There was a long silence. I could tell from Solo's face that he was busy spinning options in that fertile brain of his, including what Waverly's reaction was likely to be if he returned home Kuryakinless. But at last his shoulders slumped. Drawing his gun, he took it by the muzzle and held it out to Kuryakin. "It's your choice," he said deflated tones. "Don't come if you don't want to."
"Then I will come," announced Kuryakin perversely, handing the gun back. I looked over at Solo in astonishment, and to my even greater astonishment he winked at me.
"Plus ça change," he said. "How's your head, Illya?"
"Terrible," said Kuryakin gloomily. "If you ever shoot me again, you had better use bullets, because otherwise when I come round I will rip your head off."
"You'll feel better with some food inside you, it takes the edge off," said Solo, who had cheered up enormously now that he'd made his point. "There's a cabin somewhere around here where they have the most amazing cheese."
Kuryakin winced at that, but said nothing, so we took it as assent and set off down the mountain. I think the wince must have been his conscience pricking him, because after a while he told us how he had fallen over the cliff, and how the girl from the hut had taken care of him. Solo seemed to find the story hilarious, especially the part about how Helga had told him he was her husband, and I must admit, Kuryakin's face when he 'fessed up to this was a picture. The awkward reunion between the happy couple when we got to the hut was even more entertaining, but what Solo evidently enjoyed most was making the girl's acquaintance himself.
That was when I was finally privileged to see the legendary Solo charm in action, and observe its impact on the female of the species, and I have to say, it was most impressive. I don't look like the back end of a bus myself, and Kuryakin had been designated husband material only a few days previously, but within seconds of meeting Solo, Helga had eyes only for him. And he exploited it shamelessly, twining his arms around her waist, and stroking her hair, all the while paying her compliments in execrable German. Before too long he was promising to take her to New York and introduce her to all the delights of the big city. At which point Kuryakin put his head in his hands and groaned.
"Go on, Napoleon," he said, "Tell her about how a night out with you rivals Mount Olympus. 'The wine, the warmth -'." And then he broke off, because Solo was staring at him like a man whose doctor has just told him his wife is expecting triplets.
"Go on, Illya," he said, and then, when Kuryakin didn't react, "What comes next?"
Kuryakin swallowed, apparently in the grip of a crippling panic, and then rolled his eyes. "'The wine, the warmth and us,' of course," he said. "And then I believe there's a digression on the subject of the night sky, a few trite comparisons between heavenly and earthly bodies, and an unlikely extended metaphor about meteorites and love at first sight." He caught Solo's eye, and his lips began to twitch, though with an effort of will he managed to suppress the grin. "Plus ça change, indeed."
And so, you see, there was a happy ending after all. It took a while, but eventually pretty much all the memories came back, as far as anyone could tell. Whether they included the stay in the lunatic asylum is a matter between Mr Kuryakin and his consultant psychiatrist - I certainly wasn't going to ask him about it. And speaking of the psychiatrist, his theory about Kuryakin's remarkable recovery was that the Thrush procedure was vulnerable to "neurological jactation" - or a blow to the head, to you and me. Apparently falling off the cliff had weakened the blocking mechanism, as well as inducing temporary amnesia about his time in the lab, and falling on his head when Solo shot him had finished the job. Did I mention Solo's special relationship with Lady Luck?
I don't know what happened to Helga, or her brother. The last I heard, Section 4 were still trying to trace the various guinea pigs who had been successfully conditioned and pressed into Thrush service. But that's UNCLE agents for you. They impact on people's lives, but they don't enter them.
Oh, and me?
Well, Zack Connolly still quit, in spite of the happy ending. He was reconsidering his resignation in the light of the successful outcome to the affair, but then he sat in on an interrogation - conducted by someone less skilful than Carson - that made heavy use of truth drugs. After that, he couldn't shake the dust from his heels fast enough.
He could tell you what he's up to now, but then he'd have to kill you...