Friday Afternoon, 4:45 pm
“Well don’t you look dapper,” mused Illya Kuryakin. He caught up with his partner as the two UNCLE agents were about to leave headquarters for the weekend.
Napoleon Solo looked down at his attire and shrugged his shoulders innocently. “I don’t understand what you’re referring to.”
The blond Russian tugged at Solo’s bright blue scarf. Although it had been adeptly hidden within the senior agent’s camel hair coat, part of what appeared to be a snowman’s top hat peeked above the upper button. Fitting attire for early February.
“Your sense of fashion is slipping, my friend,” Kuryakin said wryly as he pulled the remainder of the scarf from Napoleon’s coat. He handled the hand knitted garment carefully, running his fingers over the fuzzy angora snowman. He looked at his partner and smiled. “Please refresh my memory... is this Gucci or Versace?”
“Actually,” Solo began, pulling the scarf from Illya’s grasp and tucking it back into his coat. “...it’s an originally ‘Celeste’.”
“Celeste?... as in your niece ‘Celeste’?”
“One and the same,” Solo answered like a proud papa. “She made this for her favorite uncle when she was only 12. I save it for special occasions.”
Illya eyed him suspiciously. “And the special occasion being...?”
“Celeste is getting married on Sunday, and since I have the weekend off, I’m heading out to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, to watch her walk down the aisle.”
“And won’t the young bride be surprised to see her favorite uncle sporting her snowman scarf.”
They began walking towards the garage.
“Hey... this beauty must have taken her weeks to knit,” Solo said, smiling. He freed the scarf again so Illya could see it a second time. “Just look at the workmanship in this. The wiggly eyes. The embroidered carrot nose. The little pom poms for its buttons. You’re just jealous, aren’t you.”
“Yup. You got me.”
Solo tucked the scarf back inside his coat.
“So how far is it to ...uh... Coyote Falls, Napoleon?”
“It’s Cuyahoga Falls, and it’s a little over 450 miles from here. I’ll just pick up ‘287 in New Jersey until I hit Interstate 80. That will take me through Pennsylvania, all the way to Ohio. I can pick up ‘76 about 10 miles from the Pennsy border and that will take me directly to Cuyahoga Falls.”
Illya nodded, mentally going over the geography.
“So with traffic and a few pit stops you should arrive around midnight. Where will you be staying?”
The senior agent smiled inwardly. His partner was just being his annoying, protective self. “I booked a room in the Holiday Inn in Akron. It’s just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from ‘Coyote’ Falls.”
“As the robin flies?” The Russian smiled wryly.
“’Crow’, Illya. ‘As the crow flies’.”
They stopped at Solo’s black car.
“Did you pack your communicator?” Illya asked.
Napoleon patted the breast pocket of coat, nodding. “And clean underwear as well, ‘Mom’.” He opened the car door.
Illya smiled. “Have a good trip. See you Monday.” He closed Solo’s car door and watched his partner drive away.
Monday Morning, 10 am
Illya paced the office impatiently. His partner’s unwritten “grace period” had elapsed an hour ago and the blond Russian was becoming genuinely concerned over Solo’s absence. His intercom buzzed.
“Has Mr. Solo graced us with his presence yet, Mr. Kuryakin?” Mr. Waverly’s familiar, dour voice asked, impatiently awaiting the morning briefing with his two agents. “I’ve tried contacting him several times this morning. He doesn’t answer his communicator or his telephone.”
“No, sir,” Illya responded, trying not to let the concern in his voice become evident. “I’ve tried contacting him as well. This isn’t like him.”
“Well, he appears to be missing.”
“I believe you’re right. I just called the hotel he planned to stay in. He never showed up on Friday night.”
“I doubt then he ever made it to his niece's wedding.”
“I do have one more trick up my sleeve. Mr. Waverly.”
“Before he left I planted a small magnetic tracer inside his door panel.”
A short silence followed Kuryakin’s comment.
“Why on earth haven’t you activated it yet?” Waverly’s question was abrupt.
Illya chuckled slightly. “I was just about to. But I wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to be found at the moment. I’ve embarrassed myself on more than one occasion barging in for a heroic rescue only to find him NOT in need of my assistance.”
Another short silence. Then a ‘harrumph’. “Just find him. If you happen upon him in another compromised position, blame this one on me.”
Illya headed to the communications room and activated the tracking system himself. Napoleon’s car was not in New York, but rather about 100 miles east of the Ohio border on Route 80. The car was stationery. Kuryakin zeroed in a little closer. Mount Fresca, Pennsylvania.
Illya informed Mr. Waverly and then made arrangements for an UNCLE helicopter to transport him and two other agents, Sinclair Abrutto and Jim Kingston, to Mount Fresca.
* * * * *
“Nope,” Lester Wellover replied, shaking his head. “I never saw the owner of the car.”
Kuryakin and Wellover stood face to face amidst the wrecked autos strewn throughout his junkyard. Kingston and Abrutto milled around the yard while they spoke.
A neon sign at the chain-link gate christened the property “Wellover’s Used Auto Parts, Inc. 1955. Mt. Fresca, PA.” Illya had spotted Napoleon’s car immediately after entering. Not waiting for the owner’s permission, the agent had headed towards his partner’s car and was sitting in the front seat when Wellover approached him.
“Didn’t you check the VIN number and notify the authorities?” Illya asked, trying to remain calm. “Doesn’t this look a little suspicious to you?”
“Of what?” Wellover shrugged his shoulders. “It was a vehicular accident.”
“How exactly did it end up here?”
“It was towed in early Saturday morning. Found at the site of the accident off Route 80 during the night.”
“Some maverick wrecker owner named Jesse.”
“And how would I find this ‘Jesse’?”
Lester Wellover smiled and held up his hand, asking Illya to wait a moment. He trotted into his small office and returned with a receipt in his hand.
“Here. This is my copy of the paperwork I gave Jesse. His address and phone number are on it.”
Illya took the receipt. “And you have no idea about the owner of the car?”
“Haven’t a clue, my friend. As you can see, the left side of the car is pretty well smashed. Looks like it was forced off the road. The inside of the car was pretty clean - no blood, so maybe the driver was lucky enough to walk away unharmed.”
Illya walked around the car again. The passenger side was crushed, tires folded under like sorely broken legs. The driver’s side was damaged less, with traces of silver paint embedded into Solo’s black finish. Wellover was right - it did look as though the car had been forced off the road, possible down an embankment.
The agent thanked Lester Wellover and turned to walk away.
“Oh, you might want to know...” Wellover added, gaining Illya’s attention again. “This Jesse fellow requested I crush the vehicle and sell it for scrap immediately.”
“But you haven’t.”
Wellover smiled, patting the hood of Napoleon’s car. “Not yet. This baby still has a few usable parts on her yet.”
* * * * *
Illya and his team hovered over Route 80 in the helicopter, examining the site of the accident from the air. Fortunately, Jesse’s location of the accident site was correct.
Two sets of skid marks were evident, one set, in the middle lane, edging closer to the second. The second set, nearer to the shoulder, showed intermittent braking and accelerating, with black treads unwillingly moving closer the edge. Finally, the second set of tire marks bit into the grassy area just off the shoulder, bringing up dirt in its wake. After what appeared to be an unsuccessful struggle to maintain control of the car, the treads veered into an embankment about ten feet off the road.
The UNCLE team saw the marks where the car was winched out of the embankment, obviously by Jesse and his tow truck.
The helicopter pilot turned towards Illya. “Just got word from Mr. Waverly. This Jesse person doesn’t exist, and there are no tow trucks registered to anyone by that name.”
“Sounds like Thrush’s MO. Can we put this bird down somewhere to have a look around?”
The pilot found a small flat grassy area about a quarter mile away from the accident site. Illya, Abrutto, and Kingston left the helicopter and ran to the embankment off Route 80, checking the brush around it for any signs of Napoleon - dead or alive.
After an hour of searching fruitlessly, the trio returned to the helicopter and flew back to New York.
* * * * *
“He could be anywhere, Mr. Kuryakin,” Alexander Waverly sighed, seated across the desk from his Russian agent. Illya nodded silently. The UNCLE chief summoned him the moment the helicopter landed. “His car was found late Friday night, which means that Thrush had well over forty eight hours to take him wherever they damned well pleased before we realized he was missing.”
“I’ll check every Thrush agent, satrap, and affiliate within fifty miles of the accident site. If that brings up nothing, I’ll broaden my search. They must have him tucked somewhere.”
“You’re assuming he’s still alive, Mr. Kuryakin.”
“He’s too valuable for them to kill indiscriminately. Why would they run him off the road to simply kill him later? They could have done that very effectively on Route 80.”
“Well, see what you can find out about Thrush activity near Central Pennsylvania,” Mr. Waverly said, picking up his unlit pipe. “Keep me informed.”
Illya nodded and left Alexander Waverly’s office.