A Night in Brussels
"Repeat that." A short, tight pause. "I see. Over and out."
Illya looked up from his final check of the remote-access surveillance equipment. "What is it?" he demanded.
April tore off her blonde wig, now useless, and tossed it on the desk. "That was Mark reporting in," she said. Her voice burned with helpless anger. "Apparently, our blondie is a man. Somehow, the Langley team mistranslated during the handoff."
Illya swore quietly in Russian. He didn't say what they both knew, that the mission would fail and the agent already in place would be left exposed if Golden Jackie didn't appear on schedule.
Illya finished the equipment check on autopilot as his mind worked furiously. He came to a few quick decisions.
April took a deep breath, picked her headset back up. "We'll call Brussels HQ," she said, "get a professional in —"
Illya shook his head sharply, wiped his hands on a rag. "There's no time. Give me your jacket," he told her.
She looked askance at him but obeyed, quickly shrugging out of her jacket. She watched as he took off his shoulder holster and pulled the jacket on: he was small enough that the garment pulled only slightly across his shoulders. He made a few quick adjustments to the cuffs and lapel, and suddenly instead of seeming too tight and feminine, the jacket fitted his torso as if it had meant to all along. With his black cat burglar turtleneck and pants underneath, he somehow made the ensemble seem just to the right of the cutting edge of fashion — like the clothes of a man half a step out with the rest of society, and didn't care who knew it.
"Illya," she said quietly, "what are you doing?"
"You know where the exchange site is," he said, taking off his headset and quickly running his fingers through his hair. "Napoleon will be there between 21:50 and 22:20, following Surrey Rules. Remember to let him make first contact —"
"Damn it, Illya," April interrupted, slamming her own headset down on the table. She looked visibly distressed. "I'm not a trainee just out of Survival School. I know all that. But you — you haven't been prepared —"
Illya raised an eyebrow. "Last time I checked, Dancer," he said, "you were distinctly female, which is somewhat disadvantageous in this case. Besides," he added absently, checking his pen communicator and sliding it into the inner coat pocket, "I may not be the expert at honey traps that you and Napoleon are, but I'll manage." He patted the Special he'd left on the table with the radio equipment: the guards might body search any guest that approached the target; he'll have to go in unarmed just as April had been prepared to. "I'm entrusting my gun to you, Dancer," he told her and slipped out of the door of the safe house before she could stop him.
The lobby of the Hotel Metropole in Brussels was magnificent. Illya pushed past the revolving doors and into a surrounding of marble-paneled walls, gold-and-sage decorated ceilings, and glittering crystal chandeliers. An enormous arrangement of hot-house roses sat in the center of the lobby with a placard directing guests to the hotel dining hall.
"Jackie D'Or, party of two," Illya told the maitre d'hotel at the hall entrance.
Two impeccably suited, dark-haired men were already seated at the table when Illya arrived. The smaller of the two stood up upon seeing Illya. The tilt to his hip, the languid way the man lifted one smooth, manicured hand, suggested a certain femininity, either unconscious or intentional. "Mr. D'Or, I presume?" the impeccably-groomed Italian smiled, his English very correct and British-sounding. "So very glad to meet you."
Illya shook the offered hand and glanced at the other man only now getting to his feet. "Your friend...?"
"Ah yes, this is Thomas Chancery of New York. My solicitor."
If Napoleon was surprised to see him, he managed not to show it except in his delayed rise from his seat.
"Mr. D'Or?" Napoleon smiled politely, shaking Illya's hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance." Napoleon had acquired an impeccable private-schooled, East Coast accent — his actual speaking voice exaggerated almost to caricature.
"Thomas is exceptionally discreet," the Italian assured Illya.
"Are you?" Illya smiled. He held onto Napoleon's — Thomas's — hand a beat longer than polite. "Perhaps one day I'll ask for your services."
Napoleon played it straight. Not a hint of a smile. He palmed the tiny pin-hole camera Illya had passed to him through the handshake. "It would be my pleasure."
"Now I believe you have something for me?" the Italian said once they were all seated again.
Illya reached inside his jacket — two men at a nearby table stiffened, hands going to their sides — and placed one half of a torn postcard on the table.
The Italian took out his half of the postcard and laid it next to Illya's. The jagged tears interlocked perfectly to unite the benign picture of some artist's idealistic rendering of the Rhine.
"Are you a Wagner man, Mr. D'Or?"
"I prefer Beethoven."
The Italian smiled. "Quite." With forefinger and thumb, he picked up the two halves of the postcard and held them over the open flame of the tea light at the center of the table. The edges curled and blackened, burning almost to the tips of his manicured fingers before he dropped them in the ashtray before him. "I do admit however, Mr. D'Or, that you come as a bit of surprise to me — I expected a Frenchman, but you are so clearly English."
Illya felt, more than saw, his partner's gun hand twitch. 'Don't break cover, Napoleon,' he thought warningly. Langley had sworn to UNCLE that the Italian knew next to nothing about one Jackie D'Or, except his gender, hair color and sexual preference.
"After the war, I spent a bit of time across the Channel," Illya answered noncommittally.
"Hmm," the Italian offered Illya a cigarette from his gold case. "Oxford?"
Illya politely turned it down. "Cambridge." He was applying the old adage that the best lies were those that were true. Neither Langley nor UNCLE had expected Bendetti to be so suspicious — they had assumed the man would be satisfied with the postcard and the catch-phrase their source had provided them. Napoleon's cover was the one they'd sweated over; April Dancer was simply supposed to make contact and buy the wares, bonus if she could actually convince Alessandro Bendetti to be indiscreet for one night. All of which meant, right now, that Illya didn't have any cover besides what his wits could provide on the spot.
Bendetti lit his cigarette and took a deep drag of it as he studied Illya. "You sound like an intelligent, trust-worthy man. Of course, you must be if our mutual friend referred you." Illya deftly answered the unspoken question on whether he was working alone. "I do not believe in letting others do what I can accomplish better."
But the Italian was still not satisfied. "My work is not for those with a...shall we say, easily swayed conscience." Bendetti raised an eyebrow. "In other words, Mr. D'Or, the misfortune that the American military calls 'collateral damage.'"
Illya smiled coolly. "I have never believed that innocence is a bullet-proof commodity." He felt Napoleon's eyes on him, wondering perhaps how much of the truth he was telling.
Bendetti smiled. "'A bullet-proof commodity,'" he repeated approvingly. "You have an appealing turn of words. Now," he continued briskly, "I believe you were interested in a few cases of Rhine wine?"
Silently, Illya reflected that he had never tasted a bottle of German wine that didn't remind him of sweetened vinegar. But then again, it wasn't exactly wine he was buying.
"Three cases, precisely. I'd like the delivery to be made as soon as possible. Preferably before Christmas."
"It'll be a little hurried, but it could be arranged." As Bendetti spoke, Napoleon laid his briefcase on the table. "Are you hoping, perhaps, to make a Yuletide gift of it to our Oriental friends?"
"I don't believe our Oriental friends celebrate the holiday, Signor Bendetti," Illya replied evenly.
"Yes, quite. Atheists, aren't they? Thank you, Thomas," he said to Napoleon as Napoleon handed him a gold pen and a sheaf of papers. Bendetti slid them across the table to Illya.
Illya signed the contract without looking, his 'Jacques Christian D'Or' sure and fluid on the paper. Absently, he noted how the meticulousness of Bendetti's paperwork betrayed the man's German upbringing.
He handed the contract directly back to Napoleon without looking at him, exactly as one would treat an underling. From his front coat pocket, he took out a nondescript key and laid it on the table before Bendetti. "To the deposit box in the bank in Geneva," Illya informed him.
Bendetti pocketed the key. "One must be careful in these dangerous times," he commented. "Now," he smiled, "join me for dinner, Mr. D'Or? The chef here makes a spectacular canard l'orange. My treat, of course."
Illya smiled his agreement, and gave the most perfunctory of nods when Napoleon excused himself from the table with an excuse about being jet-lagged. The jet-lag excuse was for the benefit of the man Illya was pretending to be; Bendetti believed 'Thomas' was taking the train back to the office in Bonn in order to finalize the contract; Illya knew it was actually to photograph Bendetti's meticulous paper trail on his arms dealing, using the newest D'Or contract as a permit into the sanctum of the well-guarded inner office in Bonn.
As soon as Napoleon left, a waiter drifted to their table with a bottle of Ch'teau Ptrus. Napoleon, who loved the finer things in life, had schooled Illya enough during their time together that Illya recognized the four-and-a-half-thousand-a-bottle vintage.
Bendetti toasted Illya with his glass and delicately sipped his expensive wine. Illya copied him with a smile he didn't feel.
"We have much in common, Mr. D'Or," Bendetti commented during dessert, after two long hours of food that Illya, for once, had not wanted.
"Good man, Thomas," the Italian said abruptly, glancing at the door through which Napoleon had left. "But terribly conventional I'm afraid." His ankle brushed against Illya's beneath the table.
Illya carefully kept his body relaxed and set down his dessert spoon. The moment had arrived sooner than he expected. "Is he? Pity."
"Myself, I've always been partial to...unconventionality, so to speak."
"Mixing pleasure with business, Signor Bendetti?" Illya murmured.
"I'm sure we can conduct our business with pleasure," Bendetti replied with innuendo.
Illya couldn't actually sleep with the man, of course. It would be too difficult to explain his scars — from bullets, knives and the occasional shrapnel — on the body of a civilian. He could elaborate on his cover, of course, or else go through everything without taking off any of his clothes — both doable but not optimal. Neither Langley nor UNCLE had counted on Bendetti being as wary as Illya judged him to be. The slightest whiff of strangeness would be all that Bendetti needed.
Of course, if Illya could somehow slip into Bendetti's home office in Brussels and obtain a copy of a certain file there, it would speed up the mission. It would also make Napoleon's work easier.
He'll have to play it by ear, Illya decided, get out before his scars mattered to anyone.
He smiled at Bendetti with half-closed eyes. "I'm sure that can be arranged," he agreed.
Bendetti's chauffeur didn't say a word as he drove Illya and his boss through the streets of Brussels, even though Illya knew with a spy's sense of perspective that the rear-view mirror clearly showed everything occurring in the back. Even if Bendetti's labored breathing hadn't given it away. As he straddled Bendetti's hips and, with one hand, pushed the man back against the seat, Illya continued to keep careful note of the passing landmarks through the car window.
It didn't take too long before Bendetti suddenly stiffened beneath him, then slumped bonelessly against the seat. Illya delicately extracted his hand and fastidiously wiped his hand on the silk handkerchief he took from Bendetti's front pocket. Hopefully, this would take the edge off and give Illya some time before the other man suggested anything more strenuous.
"Apparently it's true."
Illya forced himself to smile and ran his hand down Bendetti's arm. "What is?"
"What they say about the French," Bendetti replied, catching Illya's hand and kissing it.
Illya flinched, barely managed to convert the reaction into a flirtatious, full-body caress. "I'm flattered you think so," he smiled at Bendetti.
The chauffeur eventually opened the Benz door without commenting on the two men's state of undress. It must not be an uncommon event, Illya thought distantly. He stepped onto the driveway. The mansion was enormous and lit like the most ostentatious of Hollywood's depictions of living spaces for the wealthy and depraved. Illya kept track of the numerous guards walking the perimeter — five separate shifts, he assessed professionally, with rotation two past the hour — and followed his host past the double doors, through the foyer, up the mahogany staircase and into the bedroom.
Illya took the lead, not letting the other man focus long enough to divest Illya of anything beyond April's jacket.
A knock on the door interrupted them. With a scowl, Bendetti got up from the divan and re-buttoned his pants. "Excuse me," he said to Illya, and exited the room, closing the door behind him. Illya could hear him irately berate a servant behind it, and the servant's defensive reply. Then two pairs of footsteps swiftly receding down the hall.
It was the perfect opportunity.
Possibly too perfect, but an instinct born of experience told Illya that it was now or never. Either he went ahead now, or abort the mission and leave Napoleon on his own.
Wiping his mouth, he straightened from before the divan and slipped the lock picks from his belt. The office was connected to the master bedroom by a side-door, Illya recalled from the blueprints April had studied. It was the work of seconds to pick the lock. Just like a good German, Bendetti had filed everything incriminating in carefully organized cabinets. Finding what he was looking for took less time than picking the lock. Illya spread the papers of one particular file on the desk in preparation for photographing them.
The cock of the pistol.
He turned to see Bendetti pointing a gun at him. "Now, 'Mr. D'Or,'" the Italian-German smiled thinly, "We may finally get to know each other."
The guards were not gentle.
Illya fell on his knees, retching. Another blow, this time in the kidneys. The pain momentarily whited out his vision. As he fell sideways, he maintained enough sense to curl up and try to protect his head. Someone's foot landed on his right hand, heel coming down hard on his fingers.
Who are you? Who sent you?
Again and again Bendetti had interrogated him.
I am Jackie D'Or, Illya had panted through the pain. Jacques Christian D'Or, friend of Z in Marseilles. Friend of a man who will not be pleased when he hears how I am treated.
So Illya had persisted in maintaining his cover, shredded as it was. But even as duty and discipline pressed him on, a voice in the back of his head whispered that the luck Napoleon had always shared with him might just have run out.
Eventually even Bendetti tired of hearing the same answers over and over again. He left.
And that was when the guards really went to work.
The sound of gunfire roused Illya to consciousness.
A hand on his face.
"Come on, tovarishch, time to go."
He groggily blinked the blood from his eyes. "Napoleon?" The name slipped out unintentionally, pain in the face of hope weakening his professional discretion.
Napoleon correctly interpreted his sudden, recriminatory silence. "It's alright, Illya," his partner assured him with a grim smile, "mission covers are already broken."
Illya felt a sudden surge of nausea, but not from the pain; he thought of all he'd done. He exhaled slowly, controlling the reaction. "Aborted—?" he asked.
"Completed," Napoleon corrected. Illya felt his stomach unclench slightly.
Then through the open door of his prison, Illya saw his guards.
"Waverly isn't going to like the body count," he commented faintly.
Napoleon loaded another clip into his gun without looking at him. "Like you've always said: innocence isn't a bullet-proof commodity." A small, grim smile. "And these men were hardly innocent."
Those words, that smile — Illya knew at that moment that Alessandro Bendetti was already dead.
But then again, neither he nor Napoleon showed they cared in normal ways.