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.
One Week Later
Illya looked up at the sky before deciding whether to walk to work or take a cab. It wasn’t too cold for mid February, but it did look like rain. Dark clouds hung heavy in the sky. Pulling his raincoat a little tighter around him, Illya set off on foot.
Dark clouds had hovered over the Russian agent for the past week. He had no luck at all finding clues leading to the whereabouts of Napoleon Solo. Information concerning Thrush activity with a hundred mile radius of Mount Fresca came up empty. He expanded the search, only to realize that he was searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Solo could be anywhere on the globe - if he was alive at all.
About three blocks from Del Floria’s entrance on that cloudy morning, the wind kicked up and it started to drizzle. Then pour. Kuryakin quickened his pace to avoid getting drenched.
Half a block later, a homeless man rattling change in an old coffee cup caught Illya’s attention. The middle-aged man with a thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair sat hunched with his knees close to his chest for warmth.
The agent stopped in his tracks. The man was sitting in the doorway of a defunct menswear store, somewhat recessed for protection from the rain.
A bright blue scarf hung around his neck. A bright blue scarf with a fuzzy snowman.
Illya reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change, dropping the coins slowly into the man’s cup.
“Nice scarf,” Illya commented, squatting next to him. “Where did you get it?”
The homeless man smiled a toothless smile and shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t remember.”
The agent reached into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet, pulling out a $20.00 bill. He waved it in front of the toothless man’s face. “Would Andrew Jackson help jog your memory?”
“Tremendously,” he replied, standing up and motioning for Illya to follow him.
Kuryakin looked around for anyone suspicious, knowing very well that this could be a trap. Everyone on the street looked absorbed in hustling to work or wherever they were off to. But then again, who could tell? He fought the urge to call headquarters for back up and followed the derelict into an alley behind the building.
The alley was lined with trash cans awaiting pickup, along with the debris which never made it into the trash cans. Crates and cardboard boxes were piled near the walls, ready for collection. A few cars were parked near the rear entrances to the buildings.
At several intervals, small groups of homeless men huddled, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap booze out of paper-bag-clad bottles. Their voices rose above the street noises.
The toothless man in the blue scarf led Illya a little further. A short distance ahead, perhaps 50 feet, a leg poked out from behind a row of crates. A rather expensive shoe shod the foot.
“There he is,” the homeless man said, motioning to the spot by the crates. “He didn’t seem to need the scarf anymore.” He paused and looked skyward. “Damned rain!”
Rain continued falling steadily. The toothless man held up his collar against the cold, wet air, shivering and stamping his feet to keep warm.
Illya ran over to the crates, pushing them aside to gain full view of whoever sat beside them. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Napoleon Solo. Immediately, the Russian knelt down and placed a hand on his shoulder, quietly calling his name.
Solo was unresponsive. His head hung forward, chin resting on his chest. Kuryakin shook him, only to see the brown eyes open slightly, then close again, his head never raising.
“Looks like he had too much weekend,” the homeless man commented. “You know him?”
Illya silently nodded while trying to rouse his partner. The brown eyes opened for a few more seconds. Then shut.
The usually dapper agent was filthy, unkempt, unshaven. Smelly. It became difficult to discern whether the stench was from Napoleon or the surrounding garbage. He wore the same clothing he left in, only now they were rumpled and torn. His camel hair coat was stained with mud and dirt from the gutter. Now Solo was getting soaked in the falling rain, oblivious to the saturation.
A flurry of blue scarf landed on Napoleon’s lap.
“Maybe he will need this after all,” the man with the toothless grin said as he turned to leave.
Illya merely nodded in response as he withdrew the silver communicator pen from his pocket to contact headquarters. After contacting Alexander Waverly, he removed his coat and wrapped it around Solo, hoping to keep him as warm as possible. The brown eyes remained shut.
* * * * *
Napoleon Solo felt the hands which poked at him. And he wanted no part of it. All he wanted was to be left alone, to fall back into the comfortable fog which had surrounded him for God knows how long. There seemed to be nothing else, no history, no cognizance before the haziness.
Someone was calling a name. Or at least he thought it was a name. Napoleon? And the hands were shaking him slightly.
His eyes opened to more grayness, and then the blurry outline of someone nearby. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head, or even look up. All he wanted was to be left alone in his stupor.
Soon more voices began calling a name. Napoleon? Mr. Solo? More hands touched him, demanding he opened his eyes.
He barely felt the hands bodily move him, lift him, cover him, before he sank back into the comfort of his haze.
* * * * *
“Be careful with him!” Illya barked as the UNCLE medical team lifted his partner off the gurney.
One of the physicians attending merely shot him a glance, as if to ask: What the hell do you think I’m doing?
UNCLE’s medical team did their best to shoo Kuryakin away, but the blond agent refused to leave. It took a personal visit from Waverly to remove him from unit.
“He’s been gone more than a week. I need to know what happened to him!” Illya protested as his boss escorted him from Medical. Rain had soaked through everything Kuryakin wore. His shoes squished as they walked down the hall, an outward indication of how wet he really was. He was too irate to feel the chill of his own saturated clothes clinging to his skin.
“So do I, but apparently Mr. Solo is not quite ready to divulge that yet,” Alexander Waverly said, understanding Kuryakin’s intentions. “In due time we’ll know.”
Kuryakin still fumed.
Waverly was not too successful masking his annoyance at being called away from his desk for less-than-earthshattering matters. “Let the doctors do their work... consider that a directive from me.” He turned to go back to his office, then paused before proceeding. Waverly faced his Russian agent once more. “And get into dry clothing immediately. I can’t risk having another agent indisposed. I’m going to need you to investigate this matter.”
Illya stood in the hallway, bordering on anger and frustration and helplessness. His usual impassive resolve slipped momentarily and a look of concern shrouded his face, evident in the expressions of the UNCLE employees passing him by. The agent collected himself, squared his shoulders and headed to the locker room for a hot shower and a change of clothes before defying Alexander Waverly’s directive.
* * * * *
A bright light pierced Solo’s inky darkness as fingers opened one pair of eyelids, then the other. The beam alternated from one side of his brain to the other as a doctor tested his pupils’ reaction to light.
Ngmff. Napoleon tried closing his eyes and turning his head away from the annoying light, but he was too weak to escape the hands subjecting him to the unwanted brightness.
More voices called the names he had heard before. Mr. Solo... Napoleon...
The sound resonated in his ears, and like the obtrusive light, he wanted the noise to go away.
More hands touched him, undressed him, turned him, poked at him. Something pricked the bottom of his foot, under his big toe. His leg jerked slightly in response and soon the jabs ceased.
After what felt like an eternity, the intrusions on his body finally stopped. The voices and all their annoyances dwindled one by one and Napoleon Solo was once again surrounded in darkness, warm and quiet.
* * * * *
Dr. Emerson literally bumped into Illya Kuryakin as he was leaving the Medical Section’s treatment area, almost dislodging the manilla folder he was carrying to Alexander Waverly’s office.
“How is Napoleon? What happened to him?” Illya asked before the doctor had a chance to collect himself. “Is he awake?”
The physician took a deep breath. “He’s stable, I don’t know what happened to him yet, and no, he’s not awake. He’s sleeping very soundly at the moment.” Dr. Emerson excused himself and headed towards the door.
Kuryakin practically blocked his path.
“Could you please be more precise? What do you mean ‘you don’t know what happened to him’?” The agent was tense, his jaw clenched. He had been pacing the waiting area over an hour without a single update on his partner, practically jumping out of his skin. Sensing that he was only alienating the doctor, Illya forced himself to soften his tone. “Please, Charles...I’ve spent the past week searching for him relentlessly. What have you found out?”
Charles Emerson patted the folder under his arm. “I’m headed upstairs to brief Mr. Waverly. I’m sure he won’t mind if you sit in on my evaluation.”
“I’d like to see Napoleon first.”
The doctor nodded and escorted Illya into Solo’s room. From past experiences he knew it would be easier to let the stubborn Russian have his way.
The senior agent was asleep, peaceful and looking relaxed. The odor reeking from the senior agent was gone, as well as the week’s growth of beard.
An intravenous line ran from bottles of liquid into Napoleon's arm. Wires ran from a heart monitor through leads attached to his chest. The soft blips indicated that the agent’s heart was at rest, beating normally.
Illya walked over to Napoleon and touched his partner’s arm, squeezing gently, trying to quietly reassure him that he was going to be fine.
* * * * *
Both Kuryakin and Dr. Emerson entered Alexander Waverly’s office moments later. The usual stoic expression on the agent’s face was replaced with one of concern. Kuryakin’s expression rarely telegraphed his feelings; Waverly assumed it was fatigue... or perhaps relief.
“To answer both your questions,” Dr. Emerson began as he sat, “we haven’t the foggiest idea what happened to Mr. Solo. Other than several minor bruises and a few needle marks, there are no other outward signs of physical abuse.” Dr. Emerson paused a moment to look through his notes. “His body was covered with some sort of a soapy substance. Almost like they bathed him and neglected to wash off the soap. Quite unusual. Also, Napoleon had sores inside his mouth, indicating that he repeatedly bit his tongue and the inside of his cheeks. To top it off, there were marks on his chest and scalp where electrodes were adhered. The redness will remain for a while.”
“So whatever they did to him, they monitored his vital signs. How thoughtful,” Kuryakin mumbled.
“And brain waves,” Emerson continued. “He was obviously drugged, and his current stupor, we feel, is the residual effect of whatever they pumped into him.”
“Can you tell how long ago he was drugged, and what they used?” Waverly asked, tapping the bowl of his pipe into an ashtray.
“The needle marks indicate the latest one was approximately 24 hours ago,” Dr. Emerson replied. “And we’re still waiting for the results of what substance they used.”
“24 hours?” Illya’s eyebrows raised. “Shouldn’t it be out of his system by now?”
Charles Emerson turned towards the Russian. “He had more than one dose introduced into his system. He appears to be highly sedated. I assume that was the only way they could transport him securely. Exactly how many doses they administered we don’t know.”
“How many needle marks did he have?” the blond agent asked, still irate. “Wouldn’t that give an indication?”
The doctor was beginning to losing his patience. “Of course it would. But he also had an ulcer on the back of his throat which appears to have started from his left nostril and goes well into the esophagus and stomach.”
“A naso-gastric tube? For forced feeding?” This time, it was Waverly’s eyebrows which raised.
“Feeding, obviously... drugging probably. He has been in this state of limbo for quite some time. Perhaps several days. We’re still waiting for the results of the blood tests. Hopefully Thrush used one of their tried-and-true drugs so we can figure out how to counteract the effects more expeditiously.”
Illya looked away, his jaw clenching again. “There has to be more to this. Why the hell would Thrush keep him for what we assume is over a week, drug him into stupor and then drop him in our laps?”
Alexander Waverly shook his head. “Mr. Kuryakin, if I could figure out the rationale behind Thrush’s thinking we could put them out of business permanently.”
“Are we to assume Napoleon gave them what they wanted?” Kuryakin seethed, his usual resolve gone. “He has information which could cripple UNCLE’s security and undermine many of our operations if...”
“Or, knowing Mr. Solo, he gave them nothing at all. Perhaps they realized their methods were useless on him and decided to send him back to us as their way of gloating,” Waverly said, trying to sound reassuring. “The preventative drug therapies we administer should have shielded him against the majority of their serums. But we won’t know for sure until he awakens, am I correct, Dr. Emerson?”
The doctor sat quietly.
“He will come out of this at some point, Charles...” the old man continued, “won’t he?”
Charles Emerson looked Waverly straight in the eye. “I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty that when he comes around... IF he comes around... that he will be the same man who left this building ten days ago. From our preliminary tests he responds to external stimuli - light, sound, touch, pain, smell - but minimally. He doesn’t respond to his name and as yet, has been unable to speak. His movements are limited and he’s extremely lethargic.”
“It sounds like a stroke,” Kuryakin said quietly.
“Yes it does, but we doubt he had one. He’s young and in top shape. Strokes don’t usually happen to people in his physical condition.”
“Unless induced,” the blond agent muttered.
“We’re checking out that possibility regardless. We’ll know more as the test results come back. For now, we plan to keep him as comfortable as possible and let him sleep.”
“That’s it?” Kuryakin asked, his eyes riveting on Dr. Emerson.
Charles Emerson was noticeably irritated with Kuryakin by now. He directed his next comments to the Russian. “Let me repeat myself. ‘For now’ means just that. We have no intentions of letting him fall by the wayside, Mr. Kuryakin. We will do everything in our power to restore him to health.” Dr. Emerson paused before turning his attention once again to Mr. Waverly. “Do you have any other questions?”
* * * * *
The Russian spent the better part of the day by Napoleon’s bedside, quietly keeping vigil, waiting for him to wake. The day evolved into night and still, Napoleon slept sound, solid sleep, barely moving. He never even noticed the arrangements of flowers which began arriving once news of his arrival spread throughout headquarters.
Out of boredom, Kuryakin began reading the cards accompanying the flowers. April and Mark had wired flowers from Hong Kong. Several of the secretaries who had had the pleasure of Napoleon pooled their resources for a large bouquet. The receptionist who greeted him as he entered from Del Florio’s entrance sent him a spider plant in a Mexican pot. Lisa Rodgers was always partial to black-eyed-susans.
Illya settled into a chair and wrapped a blanket around himself as the night turned into the early hours of the morning, deciding he needed rest as well. The rhythmic sounds of the monitor lulled Kuryakin to sleep.
The blond agent awoke each time someone entered the room. The first few times he jumped up to make sure Napoleon was safe and doing well, then later on he merely would open his eyes to survey the situation before quickly falling back to sleep.
In the morning Kuryakin was jarred awake by the sound of a tray rattling in the room. His eyes bolted open and he immediately jumped up to see Kendra, UNCLE’s dietitian, bringing in two trays of food - one for her patient and the other for his guest. A copy of the day’s New York Times was tucked under his plate. Slightly embarrassed by his overreaction, Illya simple nodded in thanks and accepted her offering.
He went over to Napoleon’s bedside and shook his partner slightly. After a muffled grunt of complaint, Napoleon’s brown eyes opened a little. They were slightly dilated and focused on nowhere in particular.
“Napoleon,” Illya said softly, nudging his partner again.
The senior agent lowered his gaze, making no eye contact at all.
Kuryakin sat down on the side of the bed, bringing his face closer to Napoleon’s. “Can you look at me? I know you’re in there.”
Solo only raised his eyes to greet Illya’s for less than a second before lowering them again. A very short while later he closed them to resume sleeping.
“You’ve had adequate sleep, my friend,” Illya said as he stood up to raise the head of the bed. “Let’s see if we can get you to eat a little something. You don’t want one of those nasty tubes down your throat again, do you?”
Napoleon opened his eyes a bit once more, and turned his head away slightly.
Illya brought the tray closer and opened the lid. Liquids. Soup, juice, ices, green Jello, tea. The blond Russian curled up his nose a little at the fare, hoping his tray contained something a little more substantial.
“Fit for a king, Napoleon,” Illya mused with affected cheerfulness. He sat next to his partner once more with the bowl of brown soup in his hands. He put a small amount on a spoon and brought it to Solo’s mouth.
The senior agent again turned his head away slightly.
Illya coaxed his mouth open with a little pressure to the cheeks and spooned the soup into his friend’s mouth. Napoleon swallowed it, wincing slightly at what Kuryakin assumed was the soreness in the back of his throat.
“Napoleon, I heard a rumor that salt is good for healing mouth and throat sores, so this soup should be just what the doctor ordered. Eat up!”
It didn’t take too much coercion for Napoleon to finish more than half the soup. Illya considered that an accomplishment. The senior agent wanted no part of the juice or tea, but accepted the ices.
“Surely you’ll appreciate the healing qualities of green Jello,” Illya joked as he offered his partner the wiggly, quintessential hospital dessert. Lacking any affectation, Napoleon ate a little of it.
Moments after finishing the meal, Napoleon lapsed back to sleep. Remembering the doctor’s prescription for rest, Illya let him nap.
The Russian’s stomach growled slightly, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten in a while. He raised the lid to his own tray and smiled a little. Real food. After eating, he propped his feet up on Napoleon’s bed and settled back into his chair to read the newspaper while his partner slept.
Dr. Emerson entered a short while later, pleased to hear that his patient had been able to eat a little.
“You’re letting him sleep, I assume,” the doctor said.
Kuryakin nodded, although he did not completely agree with the doctor’s orders.
Emerson smiled slightly. At least Illya was not confrontational at the moment. “I’ve arranged to have a physical therapist work with him shortly. I’d like to keep him limber and flexible. For now, let him rest. We’re still in the dark about what happened to him during the past week. Hopefully, we can solve this puzzle and get him back on track.”
Dr. Emerson left, and shortly after, one of his nurses entered to check Solo’s vital signs and replace an empty bag of IV fluid.
After an hour, Illya grew restless. He nudged Solo with his foot and woke him again.
“You’ve been out of commission for too long,” Illya started, moving his chair closer to the bed, within an arm’s reach of his partner should he fall back to sleep. “Dr. Emerson says you need sleep, but let’s face it, Napoleon, you’ve had plenty of that. In my professional opinion, you need a little mental stimulation.” Illya chuckled. “I assume you’d rather have the other kind, but I am not the gender you prefer. So... let’s keep you up to date with what’s happening in the world.”
Napoleon maintained his lackluster expression, looking ahead as if Illya wasn’t there.
“Hmmm, let’s see...” the Russian opened the paper to page four and began reading. “The war in Vietnam has escalated slightly. Lyndon Johnson is sending in more troops ...damn!”
Illya continued reading the article to Solo. The blips on the heart monitor increased slightly while he read. Kuryakin wasn’t sure if that indicated a reaction to the article or merely being annoyed that his sleep was disturbed. It didn’t matter - at lease he got a rise out of his partner.
The weather page was next, followed by the entertainment section. A little light reading, Illya thought.
Each time Napoleon began dozing off, Illya woke him and continued his reading. And each time, the monitor indicated a reaction.
* * * * *
The information gained in Mr. Waverly’s office answered only a few questions for Illya Kuryakin but didn’t appease him. By 10 pm, he realized he could be of better use trying to solve the mystery of what exactly happened to his partner.
UNCLE’s security team still had custody of the captured Thrush agents. Illya visited them one by one, spending several hours apiece with each in an interrogation room.
“We went over this before, Kuryakin,” Trevor Ransone, the last prisoner, lamented. “I have absolutely nothing to tell you.”
The blond agent’s cold blue eyes could have pierced steel. Without saying a word, Kuryakin grabbed him by the collar and threw him against the wall. The stunned Thrush agent scrambled to his feet to avert another blow by Illya.
“I thought you had rules about the way you treat your prisoners,” Ransone snarled, brushing off the UNCLE issue clothing he wore.
A slight smirk crossed Illya’s lips. “We do. But I’ve learned alot from Thrush in my many years of dealing with scum like you. It’s late. There’s absolutely no one around to witness what I intend to do with you. I even turned off the surveillance equipment.” Kuryakin cracked his knuckles. Then set his gaze upon the Thrush agent. “So it looks like it’s just me and you.”
In less than two hours, Illya had the names of five more Thrush officials who had been working in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. All were within a one hundred mile radius of the spot where Napoleon’s car was driven off the road in Mount Fresca.
The Russian suspected there might be more names forthcoming, but stopped with these five. Trevor Ransone was fading and at the moment becoming useless. Illya instructed the UNCLE security agents to keep him as “uncomfortable” as possible, and to wake him periodically should he fall asleep.
Illya began researching the named Thrush officials one by one.
Dr. Warren Golden, a high ranking Thrush researcher, had been working in a laboratory facility outside of Rockford, NY. Small, compact land mines were his specialty. Illya delved a little further, and found that the lab had been destroyed after one of Golden’s experiments literally blew up in his face, keeping him off street corners for the past month and a half.
Isabella Redden was next on the Thrush snitch’s list. She kept a kennel near Dumas, NJ, where she bred and raised dogs. Poodles. Miniature poodles, to be exact. Kuryakin was confused at first. Why should Ms. Redden be of concern to UNCLE. Something as innocuous as dog breeding should not send up a red flare. The agent researched Isabella’s activities a little further and found that she was attempting to infect the dogs with a strain of hepatitis and then sell them to an unsuspecting public through reputable dealers. The dogs would eventually become ferocious and bite, spreading the disease. Illya contacted Mr. Waverly immediately, and a team was dispatched to round up Isabella Redden and her dogs.
Ricardo Brasch was third on his list. The only merits to Brasch’s credentials was that he was a brute... a Thrush henchman who took delight in shakedowns, extortion, and coercion. He was last seen in Alma, Pennsylvania, not far from Mt. Fresca. Illya considered this one a possibility. Although he would remain suspect, the MO didn’t fit. Napoleon had barely a blemish on his body, and knowing Ricardo’s history, had Solo been in his presence, he would have ended up like mincemeat.
Fourth on the list was Dr. Starnya Shockley, an aging weapons designer still in Thrush’s employ. UNCLE had defended the world against many of the weapons she helped develop. Other than obtaining information from Solo, or testing one of her inventions on him, she would have had absolutely no use for the agent... unless she planned to maintain her position with Thrush by turning him over to higher officials. Her exact location was a bit obscure. The Thrush snitch was unable to pinpoint where she was presently working, saying it was somewhere in northern New Jersey. Illya doubted that Dr. Shockley was responsible for Napoleon’s abduction, but set forth groundwork for an investigation anyway.
The snitch’s fifth name was Gertrude Pierce, an attractive, wealthy woman in her mid forties, who financed several of Thrush’s projects. Her late husband, the aging Wilson Pierce, ranked highly in Thrush’s upper echelon until one of his underlings, Raphael Varga, wanted the niche and killed Pierce for it. Wilson Pierce, a self-made millionaire, was in his eighties when Varga not only took over his position in Thrush, but his position in the Pierce’s Manhatten bedroom as well. To Illya, this lead seemed useless as well.
The Russian agent sighed and shook his head. He was tired - beyond exhaustion. It was now well past noon, and he had worked straight through the night losing all track of time. And for what? Five useless leads. Most of them would be beneficial to UNCLE in general, but not specifically for finding out what happened to his partner.
He made one final communiqué to Alexander Waverly concerning the results of his findings, then headed back to Napoleon’s hospital room.
* * * * *
Like before, Solo was asleep. Ironically, Kuryakin envied him. Tired, yet so tightly wound, the blond Russian wondered if he could relax sufficiently to catch even a short nap. He dropped in the chair beside Napoleon’s bed and watched his partner sleep, hoping the monotonous sounds from the heart monitor would help him calm down.
Before his eyelids shut, Kendra the dietitian returned with another set of trays and a copy of The New York Times. Illya perked up a bit.
“Is he eating on his own?” Kendra asked.
“Not yet,” Kuryakin replied, lifting the lid to his partner’s tray. “I’ve been helping him, and I assume the nurses do as well when I’m not here.”
Kendra nodded. “Well, let me know if you need someone to assist him.”
“Thank you.” Illya managed a slight smile. “And thanks for my tray.”
“I’ll try to keep it palatable,” she mused as she left the room.
Illya turned his attention to Napoleon, nudging him out of the deep slumber.
“Up ‘n at ‘em, Napoleon!” Illya shook his partner slightly
There was no reaction at first, but after a few more shakes, the blips on the heart monitor hastened, followed by his brown eyes opening. A quiet grunt emphasized his dissatisfaction at being roused.
The Russian raised the head of the bed once more. Napoleon’s body seemed to lifelessly slump into the fold as his eyes slowly closed to return to sleep.
“None of that, my friend,” Kuryakin sighed as he grasped his partner under the armpits to straighten him. The eyes opened again, corresponding to the increased sounds on the monitor.
Solo’s eyes seemed a little less dazed. Illya brought his face closer to his partner’s and stared into the brown eyes. “Am I delusional...” Illya began, brushing several strands of stray hair off the face, “...or are you focusing a little more today?”
Napoleon looked up for barely a second before lowering his gaze again, but Illya also thought he saw the muscles around Solo’s mouth twitching a little.
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Illya asked softly.
“Well, I don’t know if you’re hungry, but your lunch is here and so am I, so why not embark on the gastronomic delight of eating hospital food.”
Illya surveyed the senior agent’s tray. “For a change, you have chicken broth. Aah, variety for the palate. Tea, ices, grape juice, and of course, green Jello.” He tucked a napkin into the neckline of the hospital gown and started with a spoonful of chicken broth.
As he was bringing the broth to Napoleon’s mouth, Illya felt Solo’s hand nudge him ever so slightly.
“Do you want me to go away, or would you like to feed yourself?” Kuryakin asked as he returned the spoon to the bowl. “You want to give it a try?”
Illya picked up Napoleon’s hand and wrapped the fingers around the spoon. Almost lifelessly, the fingers refused to grasp.
“Rest assured I’m not going away,” the blond agent said matter-of-factly. “Fuss all you want, but you’re stuck with me.” He held up The New York Times and smiled. “After lunch, I’ll even fill you in on what’s happening around the globe.”
The only response Napoleon showed was a slight elevation in his heart rate and breathing.
* * * * *
Napoleon Solo began screaming inwardly. The light. The noise. The food. Being awakened. Being kept awake. All intrusions on the peaceful solitude of his slumber.
The forms around him were fuzzy, the voices muffled. Light blared into his eyes and sounds pierced his eardrums, regardless of how muted they were. And the movement. The prodding. Feeding. Nothing was particularly painful, just an annoying invasion on his senses.
But he was helpless to stop them and would have to persevere until the so-called caregivers finished their tasks and left him alone to return sleep’s peaceful evasion.
* * * * *
Another day passed. Napoleon made no real progress, nor did he regress further. The senior agent was virtually in limbo, and no one on UNCLE’s medical staff could understand why. The test results were back, offering no more insight to Solo’s condition. Dr. Emerson and his staff were at an impasse.
During that time, Illya paid repeated visits to Trevor Ransone, always at irregular times, always spending extended periods interrogating him. The Thrush snitch refused to cough up any more names. Again, Kuryakin instructed Security to keep Ransone and uncomfortable as possible, hoping to wear down his resistance without lowering their standards to Thrush’s level.
Alexander Waverly was beginning to lose hope that Solo’s condition was salvageable. He called an impromptu afternoon meeting with Kuryakin.
“If he doesn’t show signs of improvement, we may have to move him to another facility,” the old man lamented. He did his best not to display his emotional involvement over the condition of his senior agent, but Kuryakin saw through the tough veneer. “He’ll be well taken care of, naturally,” Waverly assured Kuryakin. “We simply don’t have the resources to continue long-term care at Headquarters. I assume you understand.”
“Of course, sir,” Illya responded quietly. He understood too well. “I still feel that Trevor Ransone is holding out on us. I’ll continue interrogating him.”
“Mmmm. Now that you bring up the subject of Mr. Ransone, I feel it necessary to pull in the reins a bit. I paid him a visit yesterday, and frankly, Mr. Kuryakin, it almost looks as though Thrush has been interrogating him, not UNCLE.”
Illya’s face remained passive. “Oh?”
“The man hasn’t slept in three days. His food has been withheld on several occasions, and he seems to have difficulty moving with some degree of comfort. Surely you realize this isn’t the way we operate.”
Illya’s ice blue eyes glared into Waverly’s. “It’s been rather effective, though, wouldn’t you agree? He’s been a great deal more cooperative since I’ve begun. Exactly how many Thrush installations and operations have we infiltrated from his leads?”
“That’s not the point. Just remember, Mr. Kuryakin. We’re not, may I repeat, NOT Thrush or the KGB.”
“Am I to assume you’re ordering me to stop?” Illya’s voice raised slightly.
“I’m ordering you to cool your heels, young man!” Waverly’s tone was curt. “You’re overtired and too emotionally involved in this. When’s the last time you gotten a full night’s sleep?... or left this building for that matter?” Waverly could see the anger rising in the Russian’s perennially unemotional face and softened his tone slightly. “I understand the dynamics of your partnership, your friendship with Mr. Solo, but you also need to conduct yourself with a little more restraint. I will tolerate nothing less.” He watched Kuryakin’s expression relax only slightly. “I’m giving you another 24 hours to see if Mr. Ransone has anything else to tell us. But, I’ll assume you’ll carry on with some degree of professionalism and not make me regret my decision. Otherwise, I’ll see to it that you’ll lose clearance privileges on the Security level. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Kuryakin?”
Illya sat stone still. “Completely.”
* * * * *
After leaving Waverly’s office, Illya headed straight for the security level.
Trevor Ransone was laying on his cot, arms behind his head. It wasn’t quite five in the afternoon.
The Thrush snitch stiffened as Kuryakin approached.
“Paying me an early visit today?” Trevor joked, trying to mask his fear.
Kuryakin gained entrance to his cell and quickly moved beside the cot, speaking softly into Ransone’s ear.
“You’re quite lucky Alexander Waverly is a bit more humane than I,” he began, seething between clenched teeth. “But I’ll be back later, when there’s only a skeleton crew who would much rather be home with their feet up in front of the television, and my boss has left for the evening.”
Abruptly, Kuryakin stood up and left.
* * * * *
“Well, my friend, we may both be put out to pasture together,” Illya sighed after waking Napoleon for the umpteenth time.
The blond agent turned Solo on his belly and opened the back of the hospital gown. He rifled through the end table and found a bottle of body lotion. After removing the cap and placing a generous glob of the milky substance in the palm of his hand, Illya began massaging Napoleon’s motionless shoulders.
“Unless you perk up some time soon, the old man may be shipping you off to some rest home for weary UNCLE agents, and I’ve just been reprimanded for interrogating our only Thrush snitch like the KGB.”
The massage continued.
“What a pair we make.”
Napoleon’s eyes closed and his breathing became slow and regular. The blips on the heart monitor increased slightly. Illya thought he almost saw a smile crease the corners of his partner’s lips.
“I assume that means you’re enjoying this,” Kuryakin chuckled. “It sure as hell beats bedsores, eh?”
When he was finished, Kuryakin rolled Napoleon on his side then sat down on the edge of the hospital bed, close to his partner. He squeezed Solo’s arm. The heart monitor’s blips increased again.
After a few minutes, Napoleon’s eyes closed once more. Illya stayed on the bed a short while longer, then decided to relocate on the chair and try to sleep as well. As he stood, he felt a slight resistance tugging the hem of his shirt. Looking down, he saw the fingers of Napoleon’s right hand grasping the fabric.
* * * * *
After midnight and a short nap, the Russian left Solo’s hospital room for another visit to Trevor Ransone. The snitch was dozing when Kuryakin approached his cell, the UNCLE guards obviously under Alexander Waverly’s orders to let him sleep.
Illya brusquely shouldered his way past the guard and into the cell, immediately rousing Ransone. A wad of hastily folded black cloth nestled under Kuryakin’s belt.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your beauty sleep, Trevor. We’re going to be busy for a while,” Kuryakin snarled as he forced the Thrush man’s hands behind his back and cuffed them. Before Ransone could respond, a black cloth sack was placed over his head and secured around the neck before being roughly escorted from the cell.
Although Ransone couldn’t see where he was being taken, he assumed it was the interrogation room. Without a word exchanged between the two men, Illya pushed him through a door and down into a chair. The black hood remained.
One hand, Trevor’s right, was freed from the cuffs and secured to the center of a table with what felt like a leather thong. Illya then secured the Thrush’s left hand to the table leg with the existing handcuffs.
Before either uttered a syllable, Ransone heard the distinctive whine of a power tool being triggered - a drill, to be exact. The sound came from close proximity and amplified as it moved closer to his ear.
“What... what the hell are you doing?” Trevor Ransone yelled, his hands struggling against the restraints.
Illya revved the trigger a few times before releasing it. Ransone’s rapid breathing escalated to gulps of air.
“I’ve told you everything I know!” the Thrush snitch yelled.
“I doubt it,” Kuryakin hissed curtly. “Your information has proven useless, so I plan to try one more time.” He gunned the trigger again.
The fingers of Ransone’s right hand were held flat against the table. Then he felt the cold metal tip of the drill being positioned above his knuckles, between the bones.
“Are you crazy?” Trevor shrieked, pulling at the leather thong.
“Not completely,” Illya coolly replied. “I’m placing the drill bit carefully so I can impale your hand without damaging too many of the surrounding veins and arteries. I’ve had a lot of success with this in the past. I even managed to do it once without breaking a single bone in...”
Ransone railed against the restraints again, this time trying to overturn the table. Unfortunately for the Thrush agent, the table had been conveniently bolted to the floor. “You’re out of your fucking mind! I demand to see Mr. Waverly!”
“Too late, Ransone. He’s probably reading a book by the fireplace now.” Kuryakin raised the drill bit slightly and triggered the power drill, watching Trevor’s body stiffen at the sound.
“But I’ve told you everything...”
Illya cut him off by pressing harder on Ransone’s fingers to flatten them, and then lowering the activated drill just close enough so the Thrush snitch could feel the churning air flow above his right hand.
“Stop! OK... OK! I... I do have one more name!”
The power drill engine whined to a halt.
Kuryakin brought his face close to Ransone’s hood. “This had better be good, Ransone. Otherwise, considered yourself screwed.”
Through the glass of a one-way mirror, Alexander Waverly watched as Illya Kuryakin extracted one more name from Trevor Ransone. Silently, the old man shook his head during the interrogation, refusing to intervene unless absolutely necessary. After watching the Thrush snitch crumble one final time, Kuryakin got the information they so desperately wanted. Waverly made a mental note to reprimand his Russian agent for the way in which he conducted the interrogation - once Kuryakin followed through with the information and investigation.
After returning an unharmed Trevor Ransone to his cell, Illya hurried to Napoleon’s hospital room. Not caring that the clock barely struck two am, he woke his slumbering partner.
Solo’s weight shifted on the mattress, his body lethargic with sleep. A far cry from the senior agent who would normally respond to being roused with involuntary volatile reflexes.
“Napoleon! Wake up!” Kuryakin said softly, shaking Solo again.
The brown eyes opened only slightly, cast downward and unfocused. The only verbal response Illya got was a quiet grunt. Then Napoleon shut his eyes to continue sleeping.
Illya shook his partner once more, this time with a little more force until Solo responded.
“Does the name Thaddeus Mansmann mean anything to you?” Kuryakin asked, moving a little closer to Napoleon’s face.
Solo gasped slightly, holding the breath seconds longer than normal. Illya could hear the response of his heartbeat via the monitor. The beats became rapid, erratic. Then Napoleon looked up at his partner and locked his gaze on the blue eyes for what seemed like an eternity. His chest rose and lowered with more intensity as his rate of breathing increased. He then opened his mouth, as if to speak, but nothing came out.
“I’ll take that as an affirmative, Napoleon,” Illya surmised. “The name ‘Thaddeus Mansmann’ seems to be upsetting you. Were you under his control for the past week?”
The senior agent winced and shuddered slightly, then tried speaking again. He couldn’t formulate the words. After several frustrating attempts, Napoleon finally turned his head away and closed his eyes, still breathing heavily, distressed.
“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” the blond agent promised. He gripped Solo’s arm, quietly assuring his friend that he planned to do everything his power to resolve this.
* * * * *
The Russian rushed to the UNCLE file room to research the snitch’s final name. Dr. Thaddeus Mansmann. Kuryakin only knew marginal details of the Mansmann’s involvement with Thrush. The agent hoped Ransone’s track record of providing wrong leads would be broken.
While researching information on Mansmann, Kuryakin’s adrenaline kicked in as a few pieces of the puzzle began falling together. Dr. Thaddeus Mansmann. A behavioral scientist working at an obscure lab in Valleyview, Pennsylvania. As Illya looked deeper into the files and documents, his heart began to pound and he realized he may have just hit paydirt.
* * * * *
“I believe we have our answer,” Illya Kuryakin announced as he entered Alexander Waverly’s office mid morning, waving a file folder in his right hand.
The old man looked up as Kuryakin entered and sat back in his chair, his head slightly cocked to one side, silent.
Illya stopped mid stride. “Is something wrong, sir?”
The corner of Waverly’s lip curled into an almost undetectable smile. “I assume you have been working through the night,” he finally said.
“Yes, sir. Why do you ask?” Illya was still confused.
“You are in dire need of a shave.” The old man said with a straight face. “A shower as well, young man.”
Kuryakin fingered the days-old stubble on his face and nodded in acknowledgment. He had been too absorbed in researching Ransone’s information to deal with such trivial details.
“Trevor Ransone gave me one final name,” Illya began, not waiting for his usual cue. “Dr. Thaddeus Mansmann.”
“I’ve heard of him. An expert in the field of sensory deprivation, I believe,” Waverly said, stealing a little of Kuryakin’s thunder. “Not one of the McGill University boys.”
Illya sat silently for a moment, thrown off balance by his boss’ immediate recall of Mansmann. “And what else do you know about him?” the blond agent asked dryly. Kuryakin was unaware of Waverly’s presence at last night’s interrogation.
“Probably not as much as you at this moment. Continue, please.”
The Russian cleared his throat. “As you know, sensory deprivation is when the brain is deprived of all external stimuli - sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. The brain receives no sensory input via darkness, silence, and generally a lack of gravity.”
“Go on...” The old man folded his hands and leaned forward.
“One major source was the McGill University study done in the 1950’s,” Illya replied, smiling slightly at his boss’ reference to McGill earlier. “And yes, you are correct. Dr. Thaddeus Mansmann was not one of the McGill researchers. He was a rogue doing his studies without the auspices of an academic backer.”
“Thrush gave him carte blanche to conduct his research. Full lab, staff, anything he wanted,” Waverly added.
“In the McGill research, their subjects were kept in bed for several days at a time, eliminating as much external stimuli as possible with translucent goggles, tubes of cardboard over their hands, and monotonous sounds... I believe they call it ‘white noise’.”
“And the results?”
“Their initial findings indicated that the subjects developed reduced cognitive functions. In addition, they found that the brain has to compensate for the lack of stimuli, and it does so by drawing on the subject’s own internal resources. In extreme cases, these resources manifest themselves as hallucinations... since the brain needs input, it will begin to create its own. They also suggested that the subjects were highly susceptible to brainwashing after prolonged periods of sensory deprivation.”
“Sounds like their methods were somewhat outdated. Surely the McGill study was improved upon.” Alexander Waverly surmised.
“Yes. Other studies have cited the use of water for creating an anti-gravity field for testing.” Kuryakin paused. “Do you want to hear the ironic part?”
“These studies indicate that a modified, very short-term use of this procedure may be used for relaxation in the future. Unfortunately, I doubt Mr. Solo had much relaxation if this was indeed done to him.”
“How long does it take to break someone this way?”
“One study shows that a person could tolerate no more than four days under extreme conditions, the worst case scenario of total sensory deprivation. Thrush had Napoleon for over a week. After four days or less, using sensory deprivation, he would have probably lost his sense of identity, become depressed and apathetic, and unable to meet his simple, basic needs.” Kuryakin paused again, looking his boss in the eye. “Sounds like the way we found Napoleon.”
“Yes, it does. Only more intensified. I assume if this were the case, the effects of the deprivation either short-circuited his internal wiring, or he forced his body to shut down as a safety mechanism.”
Kuryakin nodded. “I agree. If these studies are correct, he would have been ripe for brainwashing. When I mentioned Mansmann’s name to him, he reacted.”
“He became distressed and tried to tell me something. Up until then, he had been virtually non responsive.”
Waverly cleared his throat. “I’m aware of your nocturnal visit, Mr. Kuryakin. Dr. Bowman, the physician on duty at that ungodly hour of the morning, notified me that Mr. Solo’s agitated condition heightened once you left.”
Illya almost smiled. “Really?”
“Yes. Mr. Solo was so disturbed by your discovery he was unable to settle back to sleep.”
The old man’s eyebrows raised at the Russian’s comment. “Good? What on earth do you mean?”
“Napoleon’s been sleeping relatively undisturbed for the past few days, sir...”
“Except when you kept him awake reading selections from The New York Times,” Waverly interrupted.
“...and showing very few signs of responsiveness to any external stimuli,” Illya continued. “The fact that he worked himself into a tizzy seems like he’s beginning to come around.”
Alexander Waverly just sighed. He knew Kuryakin was right. “I will alert Dr. Emerson and his team about your findings. I’m sure he will adjusting Mr. Solo’s treatment accordingly. And we will, of course, begin an active search for Thaddeus Mansmann. Do you have any idea where he may have set up his lab?”
The Russian shook his head. “The only information our files have on Mansmann indicates that he has a lab near an area called Valleyview, Pennsylvania. Somewhere near the Pocono Mountains.”
“Well, since you appear to be the most informed person on this matter, I would like you to take charge of the affair.”
Illya smiled wryly. “I assumed you mean the second-most informed person on this matter.” He was still amazed at his boss’ vast knowledge of Thrush operative.
With the briefing completed, Kuryakin stood to leave.
“Oh - Mr. Kuryakin,” Alexander Waverly said as Illya turned to leave, “... before you proceed, make yourself presentable. And the next time you conduct an interrogation, please leave the power tools in the maintenance department.”
Illya grinned and nodded, then left.
* * * * *
“Well, you look like hell!” Trevor Ransone mused when Illya Kuryakin appeared outside his cell. The Russian agent held a small box, the size of an eyeglass case. Ransone’s bravado quickly dissipated.
Illya glared at him as he ordered the cell door unlocked.
“For chrissake, Kuryakin! I’ve told you everything I can!” Ransone was inching away as Kuryakin stormed into the cell. The small case was placed in Illya’s waistband. He watched wide-eyed as Illya’s left hand pulled a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and advanced closer.
Without saying a word, Illya grabbed the Thrush snitch by the throat and dragged him to the floor. Before Trevor could react, Kuryakin had spun him around and pressed his face against the concrete, with both arms secured from behind.
Ransone tried freeing himself, but Illya knelt down with his knee in the small of his back. The Thrush agent still bucked and twisted. Impatient with Ransone, Kuryakin handcuffed him and brought him to his feet.
“You’re wasting your time, you Commie prick!” Ransone spat. The Russian hurried him through the holding cell door. “You’ve gotten all you’re gonna get from me!”
For twenty minutes Trevor swore he had no idea where Thaddeus Mansmann was located.
“I just heard through the grapevine that he was operating locally!” Ransone insisted. “There’s no way I could know his exact whereabouts.”
Kuryakin was menacing, deadly intent on extracting whatever information he could from Trevor Ransone. The Thrush snitch seemed genuinely intimidated by the slight Russian, knowing from personal experience how effective an interrogator he was.
Sweat poured off Ransone’s forehead. There was no way he could mask his anxiety and fear. And yet, he maintained there was no more he could offer UNCLE.
Another fifteen minutes passed before Illya removed the case from his waistband and opened it. Inside was a medical syringe and a vial of clear fluid.
The contents of the case were removed and Illya filled the syringe with 20 cc of the vial’s contents.
“W...what are you doing?” Trevor asked nervously.
Illya ignored him and moved closer with the syringe.
“Wait ...wait a minute, now.” Ransone began pulling at his restraints. “Hold on there! What’s in that?”
“Just a little something our research department cooked up,” Illya answered cooly as he injected the contents of the syringe into Trevor Ransone’s right biceps. “A concoction of sodium pentathol and a few other goodies.” The agent grinned wickedly. “It should kick in momentarily.”
* * * * *
Illya stood in the doorway of Napoleon’s hospital room and watched as his partner tried maneuvering himself into a sitting position, floundering like a fish out of water. Frustration was apparent on his face.
“Would you like some help?” Illya offered, walking towards his partner.
Napoleon only glared at him and continued struggling to sit up.
“Looks like the extensive physical therapy is beginning to pay off,” Kuryakin mused. The Russian grasped Solo’s upper arms, but the senior agent shrugged him off, determined to do this himself.
Solo finally raised his torso using his elbows as leverage, digging his heels into the mattress. He mustered the strength to push on his arms and feet, finally almost sitting up. In sheer exhaustion, he threw back his head on the pillow and panted, catching his breath.
“You don’t look very comfortable like that, my friend. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a little assistance?”
Napoleon shook his head curtly.
Illya allowed his partner a few moments to collect himself and settle down.
“Just looking at you makes my neck hurt, Napoleon,” Kuryakin said softly as he took hold of Solo’s right arm and gently began lifting him to a more comfortable position. Napoleon offered a little resistance. “You can fuss all you want... or you can make this a little easier by working with me.”
An icy glare cut through the short distance between them, then Solo’s brown eyes closed in resignation and he let Illya help reposition him.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Kuryakin commented, smiling at their achievement. Napoleon looked away, still frustrated, breathing heavily.
Other than the sounds of his rapid breathing, there were no other noises in the room. Illya noticed that the heart monitor’s leads were no longer attached to Solo’s chest. In addition, the IV line had been removed.
“Did you remove these yourself, or did one of the doctors do it for you?” Illya mused, fingering the tubes and wires. “I heard you’ve been in a bit of a snit lately. My bad habits seem to be rubbing off on you.”
Napoleon kept his head turned away, refusing to look at his partner. Illya couldn’t determine whether Napoleon was angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or defeated. Perhaps a little of each.
“Napoleon,” Illya began softly, sensitive to Solo’s feelings. He sat on the edge of the bed, facing his partner. “I apologize if I’m adding to your frustration, but in all honesty, you look a hell of a lot better making a clumsy attempt to sit up than lying still like a beached whale. Shall I deduce that the mention of Thaddeus Mansmann’s name got the juices flowing?”
The senior agent’s head turned to face Illya, finally making eye contact. He nodded slightly, swallowing nervously.
“Good! Good! You’re communicating.” Kuryakin moved a little closer, placing a hand on Solo’s shoulder to calm him.
“Napoleon, I need to ask you a few questions.” Illya’s blue eyes locked on to Solo’s, making sure his partner was listening. “First of all, were you with Mansmann the week you were missing?”
The senior agent inhaled sharply and nodded twice... then abruptly stopped and shook his head ‘no’. Beads of sweat began forming on his brow and his breaths came quicker.
Confused by the response, Kuryakin asked him again; this time, Napoleon did not answer at all.
“What’s the matter?” Illya asked quietly.
Napoleon looked away and shrugged slightly, still visibly upset.
“We have Trevor Ransone in custody...”
Solo turned back towards Illya and glared at him again.
“Aah, so you’re familiar with Ransone. It took some creative interrogation on my part, but he spilled his guts about Thaddeus Mansmann’s activity.”
Napoleon grimaced, trying his damnedest to formulate words. In frustration, he grunted and then grasped Illya’s shirt.
Illya continued. “I researched Mansmann’s activity with Thrush.” The Russian kept his eyes on Solo, watching the reaction as his partner’s anxiety worsened. Gasping, sweating, shaking. “He is doing experiments with sensory deprivation. Were you one his guinea pigs?”
Solo looked away again, wanting to avoid the issue.
Kuryakin turned Solo’s face back towards him. “Stay with me, Napoleon. Ransone finally pinpointed Mansmann’s location to be somewhere in the Pocono Mountains. Is that correct?”
Solo’s response was the same as before. A brief nod, then he responded in the negative with a curt shake of the head.
“Did you ever make it as far as Mount Fresca?”
Napoleon grimaced again, finding it difficult to answer his partner. His eyes shut tightly, blotting out what Illya assumed were unpleasant images. This time, his head shook ‘no’ first, then he nodded. Slight tremors began taking over his body.
“Ransone became quite cooperative after several visits to the interrogation room. He’s given us enough information to find Mansmann. I’ve put together a small team of agents, and we’re heading to northeastern Pennsylvania shortly.”
The senior agent’s head shook ‘no’ several times more.
“We’ll be fine, Napoleon,” Illya assured him. “I promised you I’d get to the bottom of this. We’re very close. Assuming Mansmann hasn’t pulled up roots yet, we have a pretty good idea where he’s operating from.”
The anxiety building up inside Napoleon Solo was coming to a peak. His hands trembled, his body shuddered almost uncontrollably, his teeth were bared in frustration. He was sweating profusely. The inability to coordinate his body or speech undermined any attempt to communicate the emerging thoughts and images rattling around his head.
After fifteen minutes, Illya’s communicator sounded, relaying a message from Alexander Waverly’s personal secretary that the team was ready to leave.
“This shouldn’t take long, Napoleon,” Kuryakin said, standing up. “I should be back by morning, the latest.” He patted Solo’s arm. “I’ll see you later.”
Napoleon Solo shook his head once more, grimacing. He finally drew a deep breath, and as his partner walked away, was finally able to convey the message: “D...d...don’t!”
Kuryakin and his team landed the UNCLE helicopter on the outskirts of Valleyview, Pennsylvania, a few miles from the location given by Trevor Ransone. Sinclair Abrutto and Jim Kingston were available for this assignment, joined by Joshua Phillips as a fourth. Their mission was to infiltrate the Thrush satrap, find Thaddeus Mansmann, procure as many files as possible, and pave the way for UNCLE’s demolition team to destroy the remains.
The clock struck a little after 7pm when the UNCLE team left the helicopter. Illya requested a car at their disposal once they landed, and a black Ford sedan was waiting for them at the prearranged location.
Silently, the four men loaded a virtual arsenal of explosives on themselves, anticipating difficulty gaining entrance to Thaddeus Mansmann’s satrap. Illya checked and double checked their equipment as they loaded it and themselves into the car and drove away.
According to Trevor Ransone, Mansmann’s lab in Valleyview was a well-concealed underground bunker just off Route 191 in the Pocono Mountains. While under the influence of Kuryakin’s truth serum, Ransone confessed a very precise set of directions to the location.
Illya’s communicator sounded, breaking the silence in the car. He fumbled for his silver pen while carefully maneuvering the turns on Route 191.
“Anything to report, Mr. Kuryakin?” Alexander Waverly’s clipped voice asked.
“We’re on route to the lab, right on schedule, sir,” Illya answered. “Our estimated time of arrival should be within the next ten minutes.”
“Very good.” Waverly paused a moment. “How was Mr. Solo when you left his hospital room?”
“Uncomfortable with me going, Mr. Waverly,” Illya said matter-of-factly. “He even spoke the first word I’ve heard from him since his return.”
“What was it?”
“He said: ’Don’t’. I assume he’s just a little uneasy about Mansmann at the moment. I doubt its more than that.”
“All right. Keep me posted.”
Illya was about to break off communications when his boss reminded him that he wanted Mansmann back in New York alive.
* * * * *
By 9 pm, a rather worried-looking Alexander Waverly walked into Napoleon Solo’s hospital room. The bed was empty, the sheets and blanket haphazardly pulled from their tucked positions and half lying on the floor.
The only noise permeating the silence was the sound of running water coming from the bathroom. As Waverly neared the bathroom door, the unmistakable din of water pouring from a showerhead met his ears.
The chief knocked on the door. No response.
“Mr. Solo?” he called through the door, knocking once more. Again, there was no response.
Waverly twisted the unlocked door knob and hurried to the shower stall. He pulled back the curtain only to see Napoleon, still in his hospital gown, seated on a shower bench with streams of icy cold water pouring over his body. He was shivering through the clinging gown. Solo’s eyes opened abruptly when he heard the shower curtain rings scraping across their rod.
“What on earth are you doing?” Waverly asked, regulating the spigots to add hot water. “You must be frozen. Your lips are almost blue.”
Napoleon shook his head to protest the change in temperature, shuddering with the cold. Waverly ignored him and continued warming the water.
“Did you make it into the shower yourself?”
The senior agent nodded, and slowly said “Yes.” He was glad his boss didn’t witness the struggle he had walking to the bathroom on his own volition. What should have taken several seconds had become a ten minute ordeal.
“I take it that this is your way of shocking your system into waking up,” Waverly surmised. He regulated the spigots more, further warming the water.
Solo nodded. Inwardly, Napoleon was glad his boss intervened. He doubted he had the strength to reach the faucets on his own.
After a few more moments, Waverly turned off the spigots altogether and handed his chief enforcement agent a towel. With shaky hands, Napoleon began drying himself.
“We have a problem Mr. Solo. We’ve lost contact with Mr. Kuryakin and his team,” the old man said. “In my last communiqué with him, he stated that you seemed apprehensive about his going after Mansmann. Why?”
Solo buried his face in the towel, shaking his head. He took a deep breath and looked up. “Mans...mann...trap...” he stammered with great difficulty.
“Is this what you'd been trying to tell him before he left?”
“What more can you tell me?”
Napoleon shook his head. “N...not s...sure.”
Waverly looked the still drippy Solo in the eyes. “Do you feel Mansmann brainwashed you?”
Solo struggled to formulate his words, to sound coherent. “D...don’t know.”
The old man’s eyebrows raised. “If you’re cognizant enough to suspect brainwashing, I doubt it had much effect on you.”
“Bit my t...tongue.”
Alexander Waverly nodded, understanding that Napoleon Solo had tried to divert his attention from Mansmann’s brainwashing by creating whatever sensation he could under the circumstances. By biting his tongue, Solo caused enough pain to divert his attention from Mansmann’s indoctrination.
“We didn’t get the information concerning Mansmann’s whereabouts from you, though. Trevor Ransone gave it up.”
Solo shivered as the chill settled through his wet hospital gown. He still struggled with his words. “R...Ran...sone is a p...plant.”
“A plant?” Waverly repeated, making sure he heard correctly.
Napoleon nodded. “Pl...planned c...c...capture.”
“Damn!” Waverly muttered. He now understood Solo’s angst of knowing this information all along and being unable to communicate it. “Has Mansmann been working in Mount Fresca all along?”
Solo shrugged. “N...not s...sure.”
“Your car was found in Mount Fresca. Do you know where you were taken after you were run off the road?”
“Do you remember anything at all?”
Napoleon closed his eyes tightly and thought a moment. He shook his head. “N...no.”
Alexander Waverly nodded curtly and handed his CEA another towel. “Dry yourself off, young man. The last thing you need is hypothermia added to your list of ailments at the moment.” Then he turned on his heels and abruptly left the room.
* * * * *
A strange sensation of nothingness surrounded Illya Kuryakin as the unconsciousness lifted. He felt nothing, as if he were in a floaty dreamlike existence. An eerie silence allowed him to hear his heartbeat pulsing loudly from within his eardrums, accompanied by the rhythm of his own breathing. Still groggy, Kuryakin forced himself to reconstruct his last conscious memory.
He and his team had driven the car up Route 191 and left if concealed about a quarter of a mile from the place Trevor Ransone confessed was Mansmann’s location. They managed to find the field which supposedly contained the entrance to the underground lab, but once the spot was located, their search came up empty.
Movements ever so slight caught Illya’s attention. High up on the telephone poles surrounding the field, silent weapons were honing on the UNCLE agents. The reflection of the moon bounced off one closest to him.
“Get down!” Kuryakin yelled as he fell to the ground and rolled away. Before he barely got the words out of his mouth, projectiles whizzed past him, landing harmlessly in the dirt.
He looked up. The weapon on the pole was repositioning itself and honing in on him again. Illya kept moving, rolling around the field, staying low to the ground.
“Their weapons are on the poles!” Illya shouted. “They’re following our motions. Get back to the car.”
As Kuryakin rolled to a low sprinter’s position to leave the field, one of the projectiles found its mark, leveling him to the ground once more. This time, unconscious.
The silence persisted. The grogginess, also. The usual pounding headache and nausea associated with Thrush’s knock-out drugs were blessedly missing. It was eerily comfortable and Illya had to force himself to open his eyes. The room was muted, semi-dark.
A tight “second skin” outfitted him from head to toe. Illya equated the feeling to that of a wet suit.
He tried moving his limbs and found they were secured, preventing any movement. Not Thrush’s usual brand of shackles; these were not binding him, not pulling at him or blocking off his circulation. Secure but comfortable.
His toes could flex only a little, but not his fingers. Something restrained them as well.
Kuryakin wondered whether the rest of his team was in the same room as he. He tried turning his head, but neck was braced, preventing his head from turning to either side. Using his peripheral vision, he tried scanning the room. Nothing.
Little by little his lethargy lifted, making him more acutely aware of his predicament. The muted darkness, the silence, the inability to move. He felt slight pressure on the back of his throat. A naso-gastric tube.
He pulled at the restraints; they were secure... too secure. Beneath him, he felt the complete support only water could provide, support without pressure points. The temperature was perfect - neither hot nor cold. Comfortable.
In exasperation, Illya closed his eyes and sighed, knowing exactly where he was. From the data uncovered in his research, he knew was being prepped for sensory deprivation.
* * * * *
“Aah, so he finally awakens,” someone remarked. The voice broke the silence of the room, echoing off the walls like a lone person speaking in an enclosed pool area.
Until the speaker moved within Kuryakin’s line of vision, he was unable to see his visitor. A mid-fifties man with a shock of gray salt and pepper hair finally stepped into view. He wore a waterproof rubbery cover-all.
“Thaddeus Mansmann, I presume,” Illya said within the confines of his outfit. His jaw could not move freely, making speaking slightly difficult.
“Very good,” Mansmann exclaimed, smiling broadly. “I see you’ve done your homework.”
Mansmann squatted alongside the pool and lowered himself into the waist-deep water. Ripples disrupted the calm as he neared Kuryakin.
“Hmmm. This is rather nice, you realize,” Kuryakin said softly. “To what do I deserve this treatment?” Thaddeus now loomed over him.
“Just another experiment in the name of science, my friend. You of all people should appreciate the value of my work.”
The Thrush scientist placed his fingers on Illya’s neck, feeling for the carotid artery’s pulse. He checked his watched, then a silent monitor behind the UNCLE agent before smiling and nodding.
“Everything seems to be in working order, Mr. Kuryakin. I assume since you’ve done your homework you’re aware of what I’m about to do to you. Yes?”
“From my ‘homework’, as you put it, I’ve found that no reputable institution would fund your research. Fortunately for you, Thrush was more than willing to bankroll your experiments.”
“You make it sound so sordid, Kuryakin. This is bona fide behavioral science, whether or not you care to admit it.”
“The only bona fide thing about this is your paycheck, Mansmann. You’re a sub-standard scientist who could not even find one university interested in your studies.”
Illya could see the anger flushing Mansmann’s face, and the restraint the Thrush scientist maintained not to physically lash out.
“Sub-standard? Sub-standard?” Thaddeus Mansmann shrieked. The sounds echoed sharply off the water and the walls. “The only sub-standard elements involved with those universities were the little minds of those making the decisions. There was not one visionary among them.”
“Visionary? Using sensory deprivation as a means of coercion is visionary? It’s a bit overdone, wouldn’t you say? Hmmm... perhaps you should have sought out the military to conduct your studies.” Illya dramatically paused a moment and smirked slightly. “Oh, that’s right. You did avail your services to the military, but they, also, felt your methods were a bit extreme and gave you the boot. Couldn’y win, could you, Mansmann?”
Thaddeus Mansmann fumed. His eyes widened, his breaths quickened, his face reddened more.
Kuryakin kept baiting the Thrush scientist. “Pity the Nazis were put out of power. You could have solicited their support for your studies. Although, they would have had to kill you when you finished. They despised loose ends, you realize.” Illya sighed dramatically. “Or you could have tried the KGB. Your work would have been right up their alley. They probably would have paid you handsomely for your efforts. But they, too, hate loose ends and you would have woken up one morning with a knife in your back. ”
Mansmann gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.
“Then, of course, you found Thrush,” Illya continued. “But I must warn you, they have little tolerance for the inept, and they, too, will promptly dispose of you when you no longer serve their purpose.”
The Thrush scientist took a deep breath and held it in, composing himself. Kuryakin knew he was safe from any physical abuse. The last thing Thaddeus Mansmann wanted was for Illya to feel any sensations, and striking him would have been counter-productive.
“Have your fun now, Mr. Kuryakin. I can guarantee that as the hours pass...as the days pass, your sarcasm will provide little amusement for you.”
“You’re assuming I’ll be here for awhile.”
Now it was Mansmann’s turn to smirk. “Oh, I have no doubt you’ll be here for the duration, my friend. We’ve stripped you of all your toys and devices before leaving the Poconos, so UNCLE has no idea where you are. Your little friends? I believe the crows are feasting on their carcasses at the moment. You’re the only one we took alive. So, as you can see, you’re at my complete disposal.”
Kuryakin smirked again. “You give yourself too much credit, Mansmann. The ignorant usually do.”
“We’ll see,” Thaddeus said. “If Thrush’s dossier on you is correct, you’re a thorough individual, and you came into this assignment well informed on me and my studies.”
“Yes, I’ve familiarized myself with you work... and its flaws.”
“Flaws?” Mansmann's eyebrows raised. “Oh... you must be referring to Mr. Solo. Yes, it was rather unfortunate, wasn’t it. A perfectly fine specimen of a man being turned into a drooling idiot, unable to function or communicate. Yes, I believe I did go a little overboard with him, but, of course you realize that part of the scientific process is learning from mistakes and making the appropriate adjustments.”
“So what I’m about to do to you should come as no surprise. I have made a a few minor changes for you, though, so I expect you to break your partner’s record. During your stay, I’ll be monitoring your heartrate, blood pressure, body temperature, and brain function 24 hours a day. We’ll also be feeding and hydrating you. I wouldn’t want any nasty hunger pangs to get in the way of the sensory deprivation. I’d wager that you’re even aware of some of the changes your brain will be going through.”
Mansmann waited a few seconds for Kuryakin to respond.
“Well, in case you merely skimmed over that part, Mr. Kuryakin, you will probably begin to hallucinate after a period of complete darkness, silence, and stillness. The time frame varies from person to person. Your partner lasted four and a half days before they began. Up until then, he managed to hold his own, probably telling himself jokes or conjuring up images of being rescued.” Mansmann chuckled. “But once his brain realized it would be receiving no more external stimuli, it started creating its own.”
Illya maintained a neutral expression.
The Thrush scientist smiled wickedly. “By the fifth day, his hallucinations were so bad he began going into convulsions. We resorted to sedating him through the feeding tube.” In mock sympathy, Thaddeus Mansmann shook his head and sighed. “He remained our guest for another two days, floating around our pool, enjoying the peace and quiet surroundings we so carefully prepared for him. The ingrate never even thanked us for our hospitality before we dropped him off in New York.”
“And all you needed were guinea pigs?” Illya was amazed that Thrush was willing to waste a prize like himself or Solo for a lab experiment.
“Well, no ... there was one detail I omitted. You do have one way out, one means of avoiding all the unpleasantries I planned for you. The mask I put over your face will have a microphone built in, so we can hear whatever it is you’d like to tell us. If, by chance, you’d like to cooperate with us during the procedure, we will immediately retrieve you and let you speak. There will also be an earpiece you so we can speak to you, should the need arise.”
Illya filled in the missing part. Yes - they would retrieve him and let him speak, only to continue the experiment once they had their information.
“Your partner would have made you proud, Mr. Kuryakin. Seven days of complete sensory deprivation and he never cracked. I, personally, am hoping you can hold out a little longer. For the sake of science, of course.”
A wicked grin crossed Mansmann’s lips as he gave one final check over to Kuryakin’s wetsuit. “Before we start, I thought you might enjoy a movie. Not exactly a Cecil B. DeMille production, but I wager you’d find it interesting regardless.”
The Thrush man waded back to the edge of the pool, out of Kuryakin’s line of vision. His mad voice reverberated off the walls and water. “So sit back, my friend... relax and enjoy the show. This may be the last visual stimulation you’ll have for quite a while.”
Mansmann left the room and shut off all the lights, leaving Illya in total darkness. The UNCLE agent tugged at his restraints, hoping one would sag or pull free. His limbs were immobilized, held rigidly taut to avoid any movement at all. He next tried shifting his weight in the water to feel waves beneath him. The sensation was minimal, barely noticeable.
The darkness was interrupted by the flickering frames of a crude homemade movie projected on the ceiling above him. Crackles of sound echoed through the room as a prelude to dialog.
A close-up of a black-clad human form floating with arms and legs akimbo appeared on the ceiling. A male. He lay still in the water making only minute movements which were almost undetectable. Illya noticed them, though. Muscles twitching slightly. Shoulders hunching a little. A very slight loll to the head. Fingers flexing as best they could.
The crackling soundtrack gave way to humming, later followed by a voice carrying on a soliloquy about last night’s dinner. Illya stopped breathing momentarily to focus on the voice. It was definitely Napoleon’s, describing the exquisite Indian cuisine they had shared the night before.
The prattle went on for a short time before Thrush’s film editor decided enough was enough, and spliced the celluloid to a later snippet of film. Several more splices led Kuryakin though Napoleon Solo first day under Mansmann’s control. In the time-lapse format, Illya watched his partner’s attempt to maintain sanity.
The soundtrack also picked up the monitored heartbeats, drumming a steady rhythm.
A short pause. Illya deduced he was now being introduced to Day 2. Small ripples in the water radiated from the prone form as Solo tried moving his limbs. His arms and legs were so well secured that movement was impossible. Napoleon kept talking to simply amuse himself, only the banter began showing the effects of sensory deprivation. Words slurred slightly and became increasingly incoherent as the film progressed. Eventually, his words became disjointed and began making little sense. Napoleon didn’t seem to care; he was attempting to keep his mind alert any way possible.
Another pause in the film brought Illya into Solo’s third day in the still pool of water. Long periods of silence and garbled words replaced Napoleon’s soliloquy. The deterioration was evident, getting progressively worse as the film’s frames ticked on. The dialog was finally reduced to grunts and monosyllabic words. Then more silence. Perhaps sleep.
The silence in the film was broken by stifled screams. They started softly, sounding like a hand was being held over his mouth, but over a period of time intensified in volume. Despite the taut restraints, Illya could see Napoleon’s body beginning to shake and later convulse, creating concentric ripples emanating from its epicenter. The drumming of the heartbeat and breathing increased in relation to Solo’s heightened distress. Kuryakin assumed it was the hallucinations.
After another pause, Illya deduced he was watching day five. Napoleon fluctuated from lapses of silence and stillness to violent screaming and convulsions, worsening with each episode. Then it stopped. The screams, the movement. Napoleon lay still; his heartbeat and breathing slowed dramatically. Illya was not sure whether Solo’s body had truly shut down, or if it was a ploy to entice Mansmann within arm’s reach.
The blond agent’s attention remained riveted to the film. The film editor left several minutes of the motionless Napoleon Solo on the celluloid before splicing it to Thaddeus Mansmann’s entering the water to investigate.
“It appears that Napoleon Solo is approaching the final stages of my experiment,” Mansmann gloated into the camera, smiling broadly. He motioned for the cameraman to zoom in on Solo’s face.
Napoleon’s blackout mask was unfastened from beneath the chin and slowly pulled back, leaving the feeding tube in place. The camera focused on a close-up of Napoleon’s face as Mansmann pulled up an eyelid to see his quarry’s reaction to light.
The reaction was nonexistent. What should have been an instantaneous reflex - a snapping shut of the eyelid to blot out the intrusion of unwanted light - did not occur. Napoleon’s pupil remained enlarged, not registering the bright surroundings at all.
“We sedated him several hours ago to stop the convulsions, but that would have worn off by now,” Mansmann explained to the camera. “His lack of response to visual stimuli is the solely the result of the sensory deprivation.
The heart monitor still indicated a slow, steady heartbeat, and his breathing was very shallow, but also steady.
Illya could feel his own heartbeat increase, supported by the sounds of the equipment monitoring his own heart rate. He had just watched his partner, his friend, deteriorate into a zombie-like state, not too different from the man in the alley he rescued a few blocks from UNCLE.
What Mansmann began to do infuriated him further.
Thaddeus Mansmann re-fastened the blackout mask around Napoleon’s chin and left the pool. From what the Thrush scientist told him, and from what he himself had viewed, this was only day five. Thrush kept him under the restraints of sensory deprivation for two additional days.
The remainder of the film focused on a very still, very inanimate Napoleon Solo. The sounds of his heartbeat and breathing were broken by an occasional soft moan, almost like a whimper. Nothing else. No movements, no other sounds.
Finally the fluttering sound of film being released from its reel and the bright light of the unbroken beam from the projector filled the room.
Mansmann entered the room moments after the film ended, still wearing the waterproof coveralls. He smiled wickedly.
“I hope you enjoyed my little movie,” he gloated. “I thought it would clear up some questions you may have had about your partner’s treatment while he was our guest.” The Thrush scientist smirked. “And your own upcoming treatment, as well.”
Like before, the Thrush scientist lowered himself into the water and waded over to Illya’s side.
“Any questions? This may be your last chance to speak coherently.”
“What was the purpose of keeping him in here after his brain shut down?” Illya asked. “Surely you knew it was the appropriate time to end the experiment.”
“Good question, Mr. Kuryakin. I just wanted to see if any more deterioration would occur if I prolonged the deprivations.”
“What more deterioration did you need? He ceased functioning by the fifth day. Only his involuntary autonomic system was working, nothing else.”
“Just carrying through with the experiment a little further - in the name of science, of course.”
“More like sadism, I would venture to say.”
“Well, I doubt Mr. Solo felt anything at all. The idea of a sadist is to inflict pain. I would wager that your partner’s senses were ‘deader than a doornail’ at that point.” Mansmann paused and smiled. “As yours will soon be.”
The scientist checked the monitors’ connections one last time.
“We even tried brainwashing, you realize, but I assume he was so far gone by the time you found him, our efforts were useless.” Mansmann regulated one knob slightly. then looked Kuryakin in the eye. “He was pretty pitiful in that alley, wasn’t he?”
“Less dapper than usual,” Kuryakin responded.
“I assume UNCLE did their best to restore him once you brought him back to your headquarters. I’m curious. Did they have any luck?”
“If you were so curious, why return him at all?” This point had confused Illya from the beginning.
“He was no longer of any use to us. Of course, we could have kept him here and eventually disposed of the body...” Another wicked smile from Mansmann. “...but I thought you guys would get a charge out of trying to fix what I broke. A little something to keep you busy and off street corners.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Illya said, stalling for time, “how did you find him?”
The Thrush scientist’s eyes lit up and he smiled broadly. “Another good question, my friend! We had gotten wind of his niece’s wedding, and being the good uncle he is... no pun intended... we assumed he would be witnessing the nuptials. Obviously, we were correct. We tried honing in on several tracking systems and ironically found the one which was placed in the in the door jamb if his car. If I am correct to assume, you placed it in there yourself.” He chuckled. “Ironic, isn’t it. You aided us in his capture. I purposely left the tracker in his car so you would find it and hopefully lead you back here to us. Ingenious little plan, eh?”
“Pity you don’t put some of that ingenuity to good use, Mansmann.”
“Oh, but I have. It’s just not the same as what you perceive ‘good use’ to be.”
Thaddeus Mansmann unzipped the top of his cover-all and withdrew a rubbery mask from an inner pocket. Illya watched as the Thrush man threaded the end of his feeding tube through the only opening in the rubber before slipping the top of the mask over the back of his head.
The mask was slowly lowered onto his face.
Mansmann stopped and raised the mask slightly, lowering his head a little to gain eye contact with Illya Kuryakin. “By the way, how is Trevor Ransone fairing these days? Were his directions adequate?”
The scientist raised the mask a slight bit more. “That was a very touching scene in the alley, wasn’t it?”
Illya remained silent.
“You must remember, Mr. Kuryakin... the scene when you finally found your long-lost partner....” Mansmann raised his eyebrows, as if questioning Illya’s recall.
The blond agent refused to respond.
Suddenly, Mansmann broke out in a hearty laugh. He released the mask and cupped his hands over his mouth, removing a partial dental plate. He then mussed up his hair and grinned broadly, displaying a toothless smile.
“Your twenty-dollar donation to a homeless man was rather generous,” Thaddeus Mansmann laughed. “I would have taken you to him for ten!”
The rubber mask was slowly stretched around Kuryakin’s chin, leaving not one inch him uncovered. His heartrate elevated as he realized Thrush had duped him, manipulating him directly to Thaddeus Mansmann’s lab.
* * * * *
The depth of blackness was unnerving. Total. Complete. Claustrophobic. Illya immediately felt smothered within the wetsuit, despite the adequate supply of oxygen pumped through the mask.
He lay in silence, but not the silence of ‘nothingness’. A faint hum, the ‘white noise’ din, was introduced through the earpieces, obliterating any extraneous sounds which might filter through.
Instinctively, Illya tested the restraints again. Not an inch budged.
What Kuryakin could feel was his heart beating inside his chest, racing furiously as he tried figuring a way out of this situation. It took only a short while to realize he was in for the duration.
In a very systematic manner, the agent calmed himself down, lowering his heartbeat and eventually his level of stress. Unlike his partner, Illya remained quiet, choosing to keep his mind active by reviewing several of his more recent projects he had been planning to pursue in UNCLE’s Section 8 lab. After all, he had read that sensory deprivation tanks could be used as a means of relaxation and self-awareness in the coming years. He chuckled to himself. Perhaps he could use this time to solidify his theories.
Time lost all meaning. The agent dozed then woke then slept some more. He was comfortable. Too comfortable. Fed, unharmed, and laying in a pool of water at just the perfect temperature. Deciding not to fight this, knowing there was nothing he could do to free himself, Kuryakin allowed himself the luxury of relaxing.
* * * * *
The sensation of slight waves rippling beneath his body woke him. They stopped, then continued a few minutes later.
Illya’s ears strained to hear something, anything above the din of the ‘white noise’. He thought he heard what sounded like a muffled blast, then that too, ended.
Too early for the hallucinations to begin, he thought. He knew that if he was that aware of hallucinating, they were indeed not delusions.
The sounds stopped, leaving him again in silence.
Then the ripples returned. Only this time, they were a little more pronounced, as if someone had entered the pool. The next sensation Kuryakin felt was a hand under his chin, pulling at the face mask.
“Tsk. Tsk,” a familiar voice mused. Illya squinted in the harsh light as the hood was lifted, his eyes unadjusted to the blaring brightness. “You know how Mr. Waverly frowns upon his agents sleeping on the job!”
Hands began releasing Kuryakin from his restraints.
“Back from Hong Kong already, Mark?” Illya asked, flexing his muscles as each limb was released.
“Yes. Early this morning. We were immediately dispatched here to rescue you and close up Mansmann’s lab.”
Mark Slate helped Kuryakin upright in the water after his arms and legs were freed. The Brit was soaked to his armpits, his clothes clinging to his slim form.
It took only a few seconds for Kuryakin to get his bearings before removing his feeding tube, glad to finally be free of it.
“Let’s get a move on it, gentlemen,” another familiar voice called from the pool’s deck. April Dancer was getting impatient. “Save your chit-chat for tea time! The munitions team set this building to blow in less than 8 minutes.”
Mark shrugged his shoulders and grinned sheepishly as he and Illya quickly waded through the waist-deep water. “Obviously, I lost the coin toss.”
* * * * *
Kuryakin rushed through UNCLE’s steel hallways, oblivious to the queried stares of those he passed. His body seemed unhampered by the tightness of the wetsuit; the soles of his feet squeaked on the floor with each hurried step.
Thaddeus Mansmann was behind him, escorted by several beefy UNCLE security personnel enroute to a holding cell. He and Trevor Ransone could swap war stories while awaiting interrogation.
Mark Slate and April Dancer entered next. Mark, shivering in his wet clothing, swore that the coin toss was fixed.
“I never actually saw the bloody ‘head’!” he muttered to his partner.
April chuckled and complained that she was starving... and that she would treat him to dinner after he changed into something a little more presentable.
Illya gave them both a brief nod of thanks and a wave as they parted company.
The blond agent hurried through the pneumatic sliding door of the medical unit, ignoring Dr. Emerson’s immediate requests to submit to the usual post-mission check-up.
The doctor finally blocked his path.
“I’m quite well, Dr. Emerson,” Illya argued impatiently. “There isn’t a scratch on my body.”
“You know the routine, Mr. Kuryakin....” Emerson returned.
“All too well.”
Illya tried walking towards his partner’s room, but the doctor once again tried to block his path. The agent sighed. “I’ll make a deal with you. Give me a few minutes to see how Napoleon is doing and brief Mr. Waverly on the mission, then I’m all yours. Fair enough?”
Dr. Emerson conceded and nodded, then moved aside to let the Russian pass.
Kuryakin squeaked through the hallway, passing an armed security guard seated by an open door. Curiosity got the better of him and the blond agent stuck his head inside the door.
Trevor Ransone was laying on the bed, sleeping fitfully, with his right hand raised in traction. His face was bruised, his lip split. All four limbs were secured with locked restraints.
Illya quietly backed out of the room.
“That’s not how I left that piece of slime,” Kuryakin quietly told the guard. “What happened?”
Carlos Medina, the guard, chuckled slightly. “I’m not completely sure, but in one of his more lucid moments, he mumbled something about Mr. Waverly and power tools.”
The Russian suppressed a smirk and nodded, understanding his boss’ frustration and anger in this affair’s turn of events.
“Am I to assume that’s how Mansmann’s location was finally ascertained?”
“Seems so.” Medina nodded to the door several feet away across the hall. “Oh, and you might want to check out what’s behind ‘door number two’.”
Kuryakin squeaked across the hall and peered inside the room. Sinclair Abrutto and Jim Kingston were just finishing their evening meal, stopping mid-mouthful at the surprised look on Illya’s face.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” Kingston joked.
“You leave us high and dry in the Poconos, head off for a quick swim somewhere, then seem surprised when we’re still alive?” Abrutto added with a chuckle.
“In all honesty, yes. I believe Mansmann described the three of you as being dinner for a flock of crows,” Kuryakin explained, shaking his head, relieved. “What about Joshua Phillips? Did he make it back safely?”
Sinclair nodded. “Josh? He must have had on his Superman outfit. The lucky stiff walked away with a few scratches. He’s the one who got us out of there intact... well, relatively intact. I took a bullet in the arm and Abrutto, well... let’s just say he’ll have trouble sitting down for a while.”
After a few more minutes with Kingston and Abrutto, Kuryakin plodded through the Medical unit’s hallway to check in on his partner. He was greeted by the sound of feminine giggling as he neared the door.
Silence stilled the chatter as Illya stood in the doorway, then one of the three lovely ladies in the room burst out laughing, covering her mouth with her hand.
The Russian looked down at his current attire, the wetsuit. He failed to see the humor in his appearance.
Napoleon sat in the reclining chair sporting a new pair of navy blue silk pajamas and a brocade robe. Seated on the bed were three members of UNCLE’s secretarial pool. On the tray between the four of them was a large plate of sushi. Lindsay, a rather stunning brunette, had stopped mid-air when Illya entered, chopsticks and sushi in hand.
“Looks like you’re feeling much better,” Illya surmised as he walked in the room. “Holding court, I see.”
Napoleon Solo did look better - much improved since they parted company ...when was it? Yesterday? The day before? The fact that he sought female companionship was an encouraging sign.
The CEA flashed Illya a big smile. “Yup! Best I’ve felt in days!” He motioned towards the three ladies. “Good company, good food... who could ask for anything more?” He speech was far more coherent, practically back to normal.
Cheryl, a tall, lanky redhead, looked at her watch. “We really must be getting back to work, Napoleon. I doubt Mr. Waverly would accept our excuses if we were late.”
“The balance of world security hinges upon your return,” Illya said flatly.
The three ladies stood up, gave Napoleon pecks on the cheek and promised they’d visit again, waved ‘good-bye’ to Illya and left.
“You really need to expand your wardrobe, Illya,” Napoleon chided. “This ‘basic black’ thing is going a bit too far.”
“Hmmm.” Kuryakin half-heard him as he zeroed in on the sushi. He took a pair of chopsticks and picked up one of the tidbits. “The ladies must think very highly of you, springing for Spider Rolls on a secretary’s salary.” He dipped the sushi in the soy sauce and wasabi and popped it in his mouth, closing his eyes to savor the taste of the soft shell crab.
“I’m definitely worth it,” Solo explained.
“I have no doubt.”
Illya picked up another piece and offered it to Napoleon, assuming his partner still had difficulty with his dexterity. The CEA held up his hand and shook his head, then reached for another pair of chopsticks. The usually nimble fingers took a little longer than usaual, but eventually, Napoleon grasped a piece of sushi with the wooden utensils and successfully brought it to his mouth.
“So how was your stay with Mansmann?” Solo asked after swallowing the sushi.
“Not too bad.” The blond agent smiled a little. “Actually, it was rather relaxing. Unlike you, I had the benefit of knowing what was in store for me, so I acted accordingly.”
Now Kuryakin chuckled a little. “I took advantage of the down time and relaxed. I slept a little, solidified several theories which have been rolling around my brain for quite some time,...”
“OK, OK, I get the point,” Napoleon said, waving his hand for Kuryakin to stop. “While I spent an eternity fermenting in that wetsuit...”
“And that’s the difference, Napoleon,” Illya interrupted. “You spent more than a week with him, I was in the pool less than 24 hours. I came out of it unscathed. Well rested, too.”
Solo’s eyebrows raised.
“Was it more?” Kuryakin asked.
“Yup! Almost two days.”
“Hmmm.” Illya looked away, nodding. He didn’t realize he’d been held captive for that length of time. The blue eyes locked in on Napoleon’s again. “Mansmann was kind enough to show me movie highlights of his experiments with you. I assume I would have been just as negatively affected had I remained in the tank as long as you.”
“So what exactly happened to me in Mt. Fresca?” Solo asked, leaning forward in the chair.
Illya sat down on the edge of his partner’s bed, the wetsuit squealing slightly.
“Let me ask you - what exactly do you remember?”
Napoleon paused. “I had no idea where I was. The last thing I remembered was having my car forced off the road some time after 10 pm. I was conscious after going down the embankment, but a little stunned. Before I could get my bearings, someone forced me out of the car and injected me with a knockout drug.”
Illya nodded. “And then...?”
“When I woke up, I was in total darkness. There was no sound, only a quiet din, and I was completely immobilized. The temperature around me was fine, and nothing hurt. I didn’t even have one of those God-awful ‘after the knockout drug’ headaches.”
“What do you remember next?”
Napoleon shook his head slowly. “Boredom. Plain and simple. I had no idea where I was, how long I had been there, or what they planned to do to me. It seemed like this complete solitude was lasting forever.”
“Did Mansmann talk to you at all?” Kuryakin asked.
“Several times, I think...it’s a bit of a blur. He told me that I could ‘redeem’ myself by submitting to a Thrush interrogation.”
“Do you think he tried brainwashing you?”
“I’m not completely sure. Like I said, it’s all a blur. I remember biting my tongue whenever I heard his voice, so at least I would have some sensation filtering through this nothingness, but I don’t know what else he could have done to me. For the past day and a half I’ve been working with the doctors and a psych team here to determine if I was.”
“Good. Mansmann told me he tried brainwashing you, but even he felt it was unsuccessful.” Kuryakin smiled. “You do have a hard head.”
“What else can you tell me about my treatment there?”
“He filmed the experiment. According to the film clips he showed me... and they were edited, I want you to know, so their validity may have been compromised ...” the blond agent began. Almost an hour passed before Illya finished briefing his partner.
Dr. Emerson appeared in the doorway just as Kuryakin completed his account.
“Time’s up, young man,” Emerson said, entering the room. “I’ve been more than patient waiting for you.” The doctor gently took hold of Illya’s left arm and began ushering him to the door. “I assume you haven’t been upstairs to see Mr. Waverly yet.”
Kuryakin smirked a little and shook his blond head. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t. You know how fussy Mr. Waverly gets about the appearance of his agents.” Illya allowed himself to be escorted out. “I doubt he’d be accepting of my present attire.”
“Illya,” Napoleon called from his chair. “Thanks... for everything.”
Illya nodded. “Any time.” Then he turned his attention to Dr. Emerson. “Remember that soapy substance you found on Napoleon’s body?” he asked as they walked out of the door. He unzipped a little of his wetsuit as they headed down the hall and exposed the same substance on his shoulder. “Well, it appears Mansmann used this to help the wetsuit glide over the skin...”
Napoleon heard their voices fade as they walked away. His friend, his partner of many years, came through again. Solid and dependable as always.
The CEA opened the drawer of his night stand and took out Celeste's blue scarf, running his fingers over the wool and angora. Then, he wrapped it around his neck and leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the bed and smiled.
He was feeling normal again.