THE COMIC BOOK AFFAIR
 
I

"I Wish they all Could be California Girls!"



With a screech of tires the sporty red convertible pulled into the driveway of Westwood Art Rarities. The exclusive gallery was situated on the bottom floor of a modest high rise located in the expensive Westwood area of Los Angeles. Only blocks from the campus of UCLA and the posh neighborhood of Beverly Hills, the gallery did a brisk business (by appointment only) in rare art.

The two passengers exited the red Mustang. The dark-haired driver reluctantly surrendering the keys to the parking valet.

"What a class operation," Napoleon Solo sighed with admiration as they entered the tinted, double glass doors of UNCLE Headquarters Los Angeles. "Why doesn't New York have a front like this?"

Illya Kuryakin fought, and failed, to hide a smirk. His partner never ceased to amaze him. Most of the time the New York and Los Angeles offices maintained a subdued rivalry -- a quasi-reflection of the rivalry that existed between their respective cities. Solo snobbishly supported his side with a show of subtle superiority toward the "unsophisticated" West Coast office. New York seemed to snag the high profile assignments and attract a great deal of notoriety. The Los Angeles office seemed staffed with energetic, ambitious young agents that excelled in every aspect of the spy business. And -- irritatingly -- the LA agents didn't seem to care one bit what the New York office thought or did.

To Kuyrakin's amusement the rivalry on Solo's part was merely a facade and extended only until he arrived in California. Solo's attitude toward "LA-LA" land visibly altered the moment they entered the LA office and were confronted with California's sampling of female operatives. Naturally the thought of competition was replaced by the thought of an immediate transfer.

The two agents wound their way through the quiet, plushly furnished gallery filled with esoteric art and obscure sculptures. Sensors, scanners, and a plethora of inspection devices monitored their every movement. Any convoluted piece of art could hold a camera or detector.

They stopped in a small room that displayed a distorted, art deco version of Rodan's Thinker. Solo paused for a moment, his hand hovering above the statue's head.

"I never have liked this."

Kuryakin appeared to intently study the sculpture he had seen a dozen times. "I find it has true expression," he commented with a completely straight face.

Both agents were in light, playful moods. They had just completed an unusual assignment -- quirky enough to appeal to their wry senses of humor. The warm, perfect weather of Southern California, the casual, laid-back attitudes here helped to snub the edge off any seriousness surrounding the odd mission.

Solo sighed, his disapproval audibly apparent but never reaching his face. He turned the head of the statue and a nearby wall panel slid aside. The agents stepped into the UNCLE HQ reception office.

Napoleon beamed his brightest smile at the receptionist. She was a pure vision of beauty. Blond, blue-eyed, tanned, GORGEOUS . . ..

He couldn't remember her name. Some -- most -- all? -- of the women in the LA office seemed to be named something feminine, erudite, and enticing. Barbie, Tiffany, Daphne, Bambi . . . . If only all women could be California girls.

"Tawny," he finally breathed quietly. "It's good to see you again." He winked.

She smiled, clearly reading and responding to all of his unspoken messages. "It's been two days, Napoleon," the girl replied in a voice that was soft yet cheerful. She looked into his eyes as if he was the only man in the world, as if she was the only woman -- he wondered if the LA office was taking defectors from the East Coast this week.

"My assignment is over, Tawny -- "

"And no doubt you hope Mr. Waverly will allow you to linger," Illya interrupted. He impatiently took a badge that was held forgottenly in Tawny's hand.

"Oh, only until the paperwork is finished," Solo insisted, never taking his eyes from the girl. "Say, three or four, or so days?" If he were assigned permanently here in LA he would probably deteriorate from North America's top agent, to the USA's most overpaid beachbum. He mentally sighed, tempted to yield to the test.

Tawny's pretty, perfectly tanned face wrinkled into a pouting frown. "Oh, you keep promising, Napoleon." An instant later she smiled, indicating all was forgiven. "Don't worry, Napoleon, I still think you're boss." she assured with an expression of rapt ardor.

"Boss?"

Illya shook his head. "Robbing the cradle again, Napoleon."

"There's a party at my beach place tomorrow."

Solo felt (ridiculously) at fault because he had failed to hitherto keep a rendezvous at her beach house. "But Tawny --"

Was it his fault he had to work for a living?

"And now Mr. Waverly wants you to call him right away."

Solo was crushed.

Kuryakin smiled evilly. "Thank you, Tawny." He grabbed his partner's sleeve and dragged the reluctant Solo from the room. "There IS justice in the world after all," he muttered in satisfaction. "Ah, the best laid plans . . . ." Kuryakin continued unsympathetically. He briefly wondered why he got such depraved pleasure when his partner's overly inflated romantic ego was deflated.

After a short walk they entered a comfortably furnished communications room. The computer console was set into the corner of the room and tastefully blended into the architecture. The room was done in tones of mauves and rusts. An impressionistic beach sunrise mural was painted across one entire wall.

Napoleon wondered how Grey Henriks (LA's laid-back head of station) could get away with this decor -- did Waverly know about these pleasant alternatives to gun metal drab corridors and rooms? Solo knew the financing came from the money accrued by the enormously successful gallery. Could he talk Waverly into changing their cover from Del Floria's Tailor Shop, to maybe an antique dealer?

The communications link with New York was quickly established and Waverly's wrinkled visage appeared on the screen.

"Good morning, gentlemen. I see you've completed your last assignment. Finally."

'So much for congratulations,' Napoleon mentally sighed. He felt they deserved a little more respect. That San Fernando Valley circus assignment was tricky. What they went through with the bearded lady . . ..

"Mr. Solo!"

"Ah, yes sir."

"Wool gathering, are we?" the Chief chastised, then continued. "As I was saying, your next assignment is most important -- "

"Aren't they all?" Illya muttered in an aside to his partner.

Solo hid his amusement at the comment. He wondered if California's perpetual spring fever had infected his Russian friend.

" -- the microdot contains the names and addresses of every employee in the Los Angeles office." Waverly paused.

Napoleon caught a sigh of impatience before it escaped his lips. Sometimes it seemed Waverly treated his two top agents like little boys. Because he felt they sometimes acted like young ruffians? Waverly knew, of course, that every agent needed distractions from the stresses of UNCLE assignments. Solo admitted he was very easily distracted and willingly had corrupted Kuryakin into some decadent capitalistic habits.

Waverly sometimes kept Illya and he on a protectively tight rein -- making them think they were constantly under his scrutinizing and critical eye. Irritatingly the ploy usually worked since they were in top form when under the impression their superior watched their every move. But Solo and his partner were professionals first and foremost. They rarely failed to successfully complete an assignment. The occasional, slight deviations from the norm were their mild form of rebellion against the stress of the job. Although sometimes it was difficult to convince their superior there were other things in life aside from their jobs.

"Since the Los Angeles office is currently understaffed, you will have to fill in. THRUSH has opened yet another new satrap in San Diego. I hope you can terminate it more successfully than your previous experience there."

"I hope so too," Solo said sourly. He would not forget their last assignment in San Diego; a mission that had nearly, painfully, cost Solo his life. (Survival of the Fittest Affair)

"You are to confiscate the microdot THRUSH has stolen and collapse the satrap."

A few other details were given to the agents then Waverly signed off. Solo and Kuryakin exchanged glances. The reference to the mission in San Diego had subdued their lighthearted moods.

"We had better be on our way," Kuryakin decided and pushed away from the wonderfully cushiony chair. He pulled his wallet out. "Must we tip the valet?"

"Only if he returns the car unscratched," Solo commented abstractly, still disturbed by unpleasant memories. A moment passed before he looked sharply at his partner -- the Russian's comment finally sinking in. "Are you actually going to pay?"

"Yes. So I can have the keys."

"Wait a minute," Solo cried as he quickly chased his friend into the corridor. "I'd like to drive -- "

"You drove here and we narrowly avoided three accidents on the freeway --"

"But --"

"Because you were flirting," Kuryakin quickly overrode. "And the only reason you like to rent red convertibles when we're here is to flirt. The only way to safely arrive in San Diego is if I drive."

Solo paused, mentally regrouping. The Russian was being most stubborn. Napoleon offered a compromise. "It's a beautiful day. Can we take the coast highway?"

'It works almost every time’; Kuryakin mused in silent smugness. 'Distract Napoleon, and rather predictably he could be coaxed out of a bad mood.' Predictably, Kuryakin would at least try.

Solo continued the hard-sell banter all the way out to the parking lot.

Behind him, Kuryakin grinned.
 
 

II

"What a novel concept!"

The red convertible pulled to a stop along a deserted strip of curb. Just up the block was a small group of shops in an older area of East San Diego. Outdated billboards and faded business signs were an obvious indication that the neighborhood had seen better days.

"I told you we'd find it this time," Solo cheerfully commented as he folded the street map and tucked it in the glove box.

Kuryakin refused to give in to the sarcastic responses hovering on his tongue. Napoleon had proved to be a hopeless navigator. Girl watching constantly distracted the American’s attention. They had missed several off ramps and one freeway interchange and arrived considerably later than anticipated. Solo was normally a top professional, yet, given an uninteresting assignment the senior agent's eyes would easily be caught by female distractions. However, this time Kuryakin did not complain. The drive had been pleasant, warm, enjoyable, even relaxing.

Solo consulted his watch. "If we're lucky we can clean this little nest out before lunch. That should make you happy."

"Yes," Illya agreed heartily. "Especially since you're buying."

The agents exited the car and strolled down the sidewalk.

"Me?"

"Napoleon, you owe me. Lunch is the least you can do."

Solo's eyes scanned the numbers above the shop doors. "The way you eat? What do I owe you for?"

"The dirty trick with the tattooed woman at the circus!"

"Oh yeah." Solo grinned at the memory. "How could I forget?" The American smiled broadly when his partner's fair face blushed red.

Illya turned away and made an intent study of the addresses of the shops across the street.

"That's it," he exclaimed in surprise.

Solo followed his gaze. His tone was incredulous. "I don't believe it. A comic book shop as a front?"

The address they sought belonged to the ENTERPRISE COMIC SHOP. The storefront was elaborately painted with wild, colorful designs of dragons, spaceships, caped animals and barbarian-type women wielding swords. The store window was crammed with plastic models and other memorabilia of popular movies, TV and fantasy hardware.

A bicycle was propped haphazardly against the building, attesting to the typical clientele of the store.

"What a novel concept," Illya said admiringly. "Why doesn't UNCLE have interesting places like this for fronts?"

Solo smiled at the echo of his own comment about fronts. "Because THRUSH still has to try harder," he quoted one of their favorite clichés as he started across the street.

With only a few words of conversation the agents agreed on a course of action. The best method was usually a frontal attack. This satrap was not yet organized enough, or manned well enough to offer much resistance. Solo and Kuryakin would play it low-key and easy; no drawing weapons unless absolutely necessary. Especially if there were customers in the store.

*****

Fred Frieman was only a Grade-Four THRUSH agent. However, he had distinguished himself on several assignments and had earned the task of organizing the reopening of a San Diego satrap. California had been a nearly impossible place to establish a THRUSH base of any size, yet the Golden State offered so many opportunities for evil THRUSH would continue to try.

Fred's single claim to fame at the moment was the microdot he had managed to steal from an UNCLE drop. A courier would be arriving soon to pick it up. A young, sandy-haired neighborhood boy was the only customer in the store. The boy was a regular visitor to the shop since the opening only a week before. The boy was paying for a special order Winged Avenger #101.

While Fred was bagging the purchase he happened to glance up in time to see the two men crossing the street. Even a Grade-Four agent would recognize the famous UNCLE team of Solo and Kuryakin.

There was almost no time to act. Fatalistically, Fred felt he had no chance to escape UNCLE's most illustrious team. His only hope was to save the microdot from falling into their hands. He slipped the tiny piece of film onto the inside cover of the WINGED AVENGER.

Illya reached for the door handle just as the door flew toward him. Quick reflexes saved him from a broken nose. Solo's reflexes were not quick enough to avoid the light-haired, freckle-faced dynamo that swept out of the shop and squarely into him.

Sorry," the boy mumbled, then scooted away to his bike.

"And I thought this wasn't going to be a dangerous assignment," Napoleon dryly quipped. He self-consciously brushed at imaginary wrinkles around his eyes as he watched the boy ride away.

"That was a rare issue of the WINGED AVENGER," Kuryakin commented with appreciation.

The senior agent shook his head in amusement and followed his partner into the shop. He was barely inside the door when he knew they had read the situation incorrectly. The door slammed and locked automatically behind the agents. The man behind the counter ducked and the room filled with gas within a few seconds.

Solo and Illya both dove for the floor, bringing out small, flexible gas masks from their pockets. Although they were quick enough to avoid massive doses of the gas, the agents were temporarily incapacitated from coughing fits induced by the noxious fumes. Tears filled their eyes as they chased the THRUSH agent into a back room concealed by a bookshelf.

They had hardly crossed the threshold when three enemy agents tackled them. A mad melee' of punches, bumps and tackles ensued. There was hardly enough room for anyone to maneuver and Kuryakin found himself colliding with his partner as much as the THRUSH. One karate chop actually connected with Solo's arm and Illya hoped Napoleon was too occupied by the enemy to notice who had delivered the blow.

After several confusing and painful moments Solo finally managed to locate his Special and fire sleep darts into one of the enemy agents. The other two THRUSHES managed to fly the coup. Both UNCLE agents stumbled to the nearest wall and sagged wearily to the floor. Their breathing was labored and short. Between gasps Solo muttered dark invectives against THRUSH's latest unpleasant gas.

Another several minutes passed. Illya finally caught his breath. "Nothing is ever easy, is it?"

Napoleon did not have the energy to respond vocally. He created his most sour expression, then with his foot nudged one of the unconscious THRUSH agents. Finally he sighed, "All in a day's work."
 
 

III

"So now you're throwing shoes?"
 
 

UNCLE HQ in San Diego consisted of a small beach front office in a Spanish-styled professional building. The two UNCLE agents looked a bit odd escorting a handcuffed man into a suite that seemed innocuous enough to house a neighboring stationary store, layer's office and a pre-school.

Since the San Diego staff was strictly clerical Solo and Kuryakin took charge of interrogating the prisoner. Without wasting time Solo injected the THRUSH agent with UNCLE's newest truth serum.

"What if THRUSH has altered their hypnotic blocks?" Illya wondered as they waited for the drug to take effect.

"It never hurts to be optimistic," Solo countered hopefully. He had plans for a big weekend in LA. He did not want this case to drag out any longer. His goal to finish the assignment by lunch sadly had been extended.

Much to Solo's delight the THRUSH agent's hypnotic blocks was ineffectual to the new UNCLE interrogation drug. The man revealed the microdot was on the inside cover of THE WINGED WARRIOR #101 comic sold to Tommy Sullivan, the young man they had seen in the store. Tommy planned to spend the day at a comic convention in Balboa Park.

"I told you so," Napoleon sniped in irritation. "NO ONE else gets these assignments." He would be the laughing stock of HQ if it got back that they had pursued a ten-year-old to a comic convention!

On the other hand, Kuryakin was unquestionably and obviously delighted at their unusual course of pursuit. "I don't believe it either," he agreed with enthusiasm. "We're actually assigned to go to a comic convention!"

Solo was sure the Russian was being obtusely happy just to irritate him. The ploy was working very well. Once inside the large auditorium the assignment evolved into a uniquely difficult task. Hundreds of people of all ages crowded the room lined with row upon row of comic vendors. Long tables were layered with comics. Racks and shelves were covered with the colorful books and magazines of the fantasy, science fiction and adventure worlds appealing to the comic enthusiasts.

Trying to find one specific boy in the crowd proved to be arduous. The task was exacerbated by Solo's continual job of plucking his partner from the diverting displays of comics! Girl watching he could understand but thumbing through comics --? -- hardly a pleasure worth pursuing in his opinion.

Illya knew his way around the dealers. Suspicious, Solo made a mental note to inquire about his partner's intimacy with conventions. He would save that little diversion for some late night stake out. Then there was the problem of exactly WHO they were searching for!

"A boy about this high," Napoleon explained to one dealer -- an overweight man in his 60's with Martian antennae on his head.

Solo gestured, his hand coming about chest high. Kuryakin obligingly moved the hand down a few inches. Solo obstinately moved it back again to its original position.

"He's about ten," Solo quickly continued and rushed through more details so he would not be corrected by Illya's inaccurate descriptions.

"Wearing brightly patterned shorts --"

"Blue Jams with yellow surfboards --"

"A white T-shirt --"

"With blue sharks --"

"His name is Tommy and has sandy --"

"Blond --"

"Hair!" "Hair!"

Napoleon almost gasped for air, having rushed out the explanation in one rapid breath. He shot an exasperated glare at his partner. Sometimes Illya could really drive him crazy with details!

"So?" the dealer said and shrugged his shoulders. "What's the question?"

Solo wanted to strangle the man. He refrained the urge and was saved from embarrassment and/or murder by Kuryakin's timely intervention. Illya patiently rephrased the question, simplifying with descriptions deleted. The dealer was still unable to help. The agents, now older and wiser, left the table. They prowled the length of the entire room. Solo dejectedly assessed they had covered only TWO rows in the building. There had to be eight rows left to search.

"We could split up," he half-heartedly suggested as he strolled past a huge cardboard display of BARBARIAN WARRIORS OF THE DEEP. His expensive jacket was almost snagged on the cardboard hatchet sticking out of the display.

Solo neatly sidestepped the fake blade and commented, "I would probably never see you again if we got separated." He glanced over to see his friend's reaction to the comment. Only partially surprised he spotted his partner was engrossed at a display two tables back.

"Sigh." Napoleon's heartfelt lament as he joined his partner.

"Come on, Mr. K.," he said as he grabbed the Russian by the arm and bodily dragging Illya along.

"Napoleon!"

"Illya!"

"That was an original first issue of THE STAR AVENGER!" he protested.

Napoleon stopped in the middle of the aisle. His tone was calmly, smugly triumphant. "How 'bout an original Tommy Sullivan?"

Kuryakin was suitably impressed. "Very good, Napoleon."

The senior agent nodded in agreement. "Yes, I know." Wryly he added, "There are times I can keep my mind on assignments as simple as this." His next words were smug. "And he's got sandy hair," he emphasized as the agents stepped to either side of the boy.

"Tommy Sullivan?"

The boy with an armful of comics looked up at the men. "Yes?"

"We are interested in buying your copy of WINGED WARRIOR #101," Solo announced, deciding honesty was the best approach.

The young man's sagely green eyes were strangely shrewd for a ten-year-old. He warily studied the men.

"You don't look like collectors," was his blunt impression. Obviously it put them in some kind of sub-human, adult category of species.

"He's not," Illya pointedly admitted. "Nevertheless, we will repay your price of the comic."

Sullivan vacillated in indecision. "I had to special order it, you know."

Napoleon scowled and sourly added, "All right, plus profit," he reluctantly conceded. The child was a born hustler

Tommy shrugged. "Okay. Twenty percent." He rummaged through the massive stack of comics in his arms. "I already read it -- but you don't get a discount,' he added firmly."

As the boy thumbed through the books Napoleon's astonishment grew. "You bought all these today?"

"Sure."

"Wasn't that one of the Super Mongoose TRILOGY?" Illya distractedly wondered.

"Do you play the stocks?" Solo asked, mesmerized by the enormity of Sullivan's cache.

"Ah-ha!" Tommy almost shouted, holding the valued comic in his hand. "Okay, now where's the cash?"

The UNCLE agents exchanged glances, neither one willing to volunteer the money.

"You offered to pay extra," Illya reminded.

Solo relented, quickly trying to add up the sum in his head. Out of nowhere two large moving bodies plowed into the trio. Solo, Kuryakin and Sullivan were thrown to the floor. The two men in grey suits raced for the exit, THE WINGED WARRIOR #101 in their possession.

Tommy was the first on his feet and racing after the criminals. "Hey, you owe me for that!"

"Tommy!" Solo yelled, scrambling to his feet and joining the chase.

Kuryakin was right behind. "I think we should recruit him while his price is reasonable," he suggested.

The chase went through the huge auditorium, the two felons fleeing over and through displays and spectators. The pursuing forces gaining slow but steady ground. The THRUSH men broke through to an open area where chairs were set up around a concession stand. Tommy grabbed the nearest chair and slid it across the floor with all his force. One THRUSH agent tripped and fell instantly covered by Solo. Kuryakin, who found it difficult to restrain the man while fighting off the aggressive Sullivan searching for the comic, tackled the second man. In an unexpected and underhanded maneuver, the THRUSH man slipped free of Illya's grasp and seized Tommy by the neck. A pistol was at the young man's head.

"Drop your weapons," they were ordered.

Illya sighed deeply and dropped his Walther to the ground. Solo also removed his weapon and slid it next to Illya's.

The THRUSH men backed slowly toward the exit, warning the UNCLE agents not to go for their weapons.

"We've got to do something, Napoleon!"

"I'm open to suggestions, Illya. How do you think we'll look after this!"

Kuryakin gave an ever-so-slight nod. "Get ready."

Solo tensed. "Duck!"

Napoleon fell to the floor. Kuryakin did the same, but at the same instant he removed his tie tack and threw it at the retreating THRUSH.

The men fired -- real bullets in return. The UNCLE representatives took refuge behind the chairs.

Illya was incredulous. Suddenly his fair face turned bright red as a blush creeped from his neck to the roots of his blond hair. "Oops. I forgot the knockout gas is in my shoe this week."

"I don't believe it!" Napoleon caustically snarled with clenched teeth. Illya slipped off his right shoe and threw it. The shoe arched in a beautiful outfield fly and landed in just in front of the THRUSH agents.

Nothing happened.

This time the THRUSH agents didn't fire back. They laughed.

Kuryakin's blush darkened to a deeper shade of scarlet.

"How embarrassing. You run out of weapons so you start throwing shoes?" was Napoleon's perplexed, incredulous comment.

"Wrong shoe," Illya explained with chagrin. He slipped off the left shoe. There was a precious moment of hesitation -- checking mental storage banks to make sure this was the right -- correct -- shoe. This time the shoe landed on the concrete floor and thick clouds of smoke streamed out.

"HAH!" Illya shouted and charged the enemy.

Solo sprinted beside him. "I was afraid you would have to toss your entire wardrobe," he quipped as he rushed the THRUSHES.

Unfortunately the colored green smoke was thick and blinding. Illya struggled for possession of Tommy, hoping to get the boy to safety. Then he and napoleon could deal with the thugs. Kuryakin dragged Tommy away, but the boy doggedly retained hold of his comic. A brief tug-of-war ensued until the comic was ripped apart by the opposing forces. The THRUSH agent crumpled his part into his hand and ran to the exit.

Solo had been temporarily knocked to the floor by his opposite number. From the corner of his eye he saw the THRUSHES fleeing. Quick glances told him the story of the ripped comic and that Tommy was safely under Illya's protection. Napoleon leaped up and gave chase. He was already out the door before he realized he did not have a weapon.

'Have to rely on my wits, I guess,' he decided, continuing to chase the men into the parking lot. A steeplechase through and over cars ensued. It was hot, exhausting work, but Solo was determined not to lose out on this case. He had invested too much time. And his reputation was at stake. If he allowed THRUSH to win possession of a comic -- tongues at HQ would certainly wag!

The closest man ducked behind a van and Napoleon flew around to the other side, sure he could cut the man off. He collided with the THRUSH agent as well as a full dose of a very potent and noxious spray. In the second his mind registered it as knockout gas, Solo had blacked out.

 


IV

"If you were a Winged Warrior, where would you hide?"

Tommy Sullivan had been issued a visitor's badge and admitted to UNCLE HQ San Diego. The young man seemed unimpressed until the video link with New York was established. The astute Sullivan added his own insights to the epic 'Comic Book Convention Battle with THRUSH.' Waverly was so impressed with Tommy's perspicacity he didn't lecture Kuryakin on the involvement of civilians and/or minors in operations.

THRUSH had made no move against any West Coast operatives. In fact, THRUSH seemed to have gone to ground. Kuryakin theorized they did not have the microdot. The bad news was neither did UNCLE. They no longer had Mr. Solo either.

"You must recover the microdot, Mr. Kuryakin. Lives depend on the success of this mission."

"Yes, sir. I will recover the microdot and Mr. Solo."

"Mr. Solo is capable of taking care of himself," Waverly corrected.

'I'm not so sure about that,' Illya wanted to mutter, but knew better.

"Concern yourself with the microdot, Mr. Kuryakin."

"Yes, sir."

Kuryakin insisted on driving Tommy home personally. In truth, he didn't trust the boy to stay out of the action. The young Sullivan asked too many questions.

Illya was not in the mood to entertain the Tommy. His thoughts were mired in concern for his missing partner. Napoleon's disappearance probably -- most likely -- meant he was captured. There was a good chance THRUSH would want to trade the microdot for Solo. But no ransom demand had been delivered. Which could mean Napoleon was no longer in tradable condition. Illya's darker doubts snagged too frequently on several unpleasant avenues of fate.

More than likely Illya would have to go rescue his partner -- Napoleon would be well, unrepentant and his normal arrogant self. Illya would wonder why he worried at all and would grouse why he bothered to rescue the selfish and ungrateful American. Kuryakin fervently hoped he would have the opportunity to play out that little scene. There were so many other depressing possibilities he did not want to dwell on the details. The fact that this was San Diego and they had experienced a disastrous mission here before lent a superstitious attitude to his thoughts.

"You're worried, aren't you?" Tommy asked.

Illya narrowly glanced at the young man. "Are you sure you're ten?"

"You think your partner is dead?"

"No," Illya quickly responded. "He always gets into trouble." Illya didn't like being interrogated by a ten-year-old. He found it difficult to prevaricate. "So, where would you hide if you were a Winged Warrior?" he rhetorically asked, not just referring to the comic book.

"At the convention," Sullivan said without hesitation.

Illya was wary. "Why?"

"They didn't get the right copy the first time."

"Why didn't you say so before?"

"I wanted you to take me along."

Logical, Kuryakin admitted to himself, but would not mention it to the already conceited boy. The young man's arrogance was reminding him of someone else's ego.

*****

Napoleon Solo really -- really -- hated THRUSH's new knockout gas. It not only left him with nausea and a headache, but with the irritating aftertaste of garlic in his mouth. What would these creeps think of next to make his life miserable? He hesitated to ponder such horrors. Things were already pretty bleak.

He was tied to a sturdy steel shelf in the back room of the comic store. The store had been sealed closed by the police and UNCLE, but obviously THRUSH did not respect civil laws of trespass. The THRUSHES were in the process of destroying all records and evidence. They planned to do this by using the comic store as an incinerator. Unfortunately, Solo would be barbecued along with all the comics. 'Hardly the end I would have chosen,' he sourly decided.

The cuffs on his hands (behind his back) were snapped tightly to his wrists leaving very little room for maneuvering. The cuff chain was linked through a hole in the metal shelving. This would be no easy escape! His only chance was the acid-collar button on his shirt. But how could he get to the button? Napoleon sighed. 'Somehow I knew this assignment would not be easy'.

He forced optimistic speculation into his mind. It would take some time but he had to escape. His reputation -- his life! -- was at stake. Napoleon was determined to escape, to salvage the mission, to do it himself so Illya would not have more ammunition about rescues to taunt him.

*****

This trip to the convention was not as fun as the first visit. Although Kuryakin had convinced Tommy to stay at home, Illya half suspected to see the small meddler appearing around every corner. It took an inordinate amount of time to trace the comics spilled in the mad dash through the dealer’s room. Several of the merchants had collected the books to hold for Tommy. Illya stopped at the third such dealer and after long explanation convinced the woman he was acting in Tommy's behalf.

"You were with Tommy earlier," she recognized. "And you look more honest than the last guy."

"What guy?"

"A man looking for Tommy's copy of THE WINGED WARRIOR. Tommy bought one from me just before that big fight. He always buys two issues. One to read and collect, the other for a mint copy to resell. The man stole the whole stack I was holding for Tommy -- including THE WINGED WARRIOR. --"

"Where did this other man go?" Kuryakin interrupted as he seized onto the prized comic. "Can you describe him?"

The woman gave a hopelessly inadequate and vague description of a very average man. Only when she mentioned she had seen him at ENTERPRISE COMICS did it all click together. Illya leaned over the table and impulsively hugged the woman before he raced from the convention. She giggled with embarrassed delight.

It was only a hunch, but he believed he would find not only the original WINGED WARRIOR #101, but also the original UNCLE WARRIOR #11 at ENTERPRISE COMICS.

Kuryakin parked the ostentatious convertible around the corner and stealthily walked up to the comic shop. He would take a quick look around, then break in the back door. Before he had reached the windows a THRUSH agent, one of the men they had wrestled with at the convention exited the building. The man was laden with comics. Illya's expert eye noticed fleetingly only a few of the comics were valuable enough to salvage. Ergo, they probably contained useful THRUSH information.

Illya lurked behind and pushed the muzzle of his Walther in the man's back. The man froze. "Where's Solo?"

"About to be barbecued!"

Before Illya could decide on a course of action, the THRUSH man threw the comics on the sidewalk. The wind ruffled some of the pages and a few comics slid down the walk.

"The microdot is in there. You want that or you want to save your friend's life?"

With a disgusted comment and matching expression on his face Kuryakin replied he would rather save Solo. The THRUSH agent instructed him to hurry to the back of the store. As soon as Illya was around the corner he stopped and peered back to watch the agent. The man shuffled through the books and seized a specific issue. Illya shot the man with a sleep dart then smugly seized possession of the much-valued comic.

‘Obviously you never read 'A Scandal In Bohemian,' he chastised as he carried the slumbering man around the corner to the convertible.
 
 

***

 

Through incredible bodily contortions he did not think himself capable of Solo managed to loosen his tie by rubbing it loose. Scraping his neck along the edge of the shelf he finally managed to snap off the collar button. His neck was raw, sore and bleeding from the scrapes, but he had to keep trying. He wouldn't mind a well-timed rescue right now . . . .

A faint, unpleasant odor drifted to his senses. He froze, then sniffed the air. The shop was on fire! He quickly hooked the button onto the edge of the shelf and yanked hard. The button ripped free and fell to the floor before he could catch it in his mouth.

Smoke filtered into the room and caused a grey haze to layer the air. Choking back the coughs while stretched over to grasp the button, he only had another inch -- coughing again -- this time doubling over from the lack of oxygen. He couldn't hold his hands steady enough to reach the button. Flames already were licking at the nearby door to the storage room. Solo fell to the floor, gasping for the precious air that rapidly was consumed by the hungry fire.
 
 

***

 

The THRUSH agent had made a mistake gloating about Solo being burned alive inside the store. Illya had recovered the microdot then rushed to the back to accomplish both missions. The windows had blown out from the heat and the interior was collapsing under the devastation. Kuryakin froze, distraught to see fire had already consumed most of the back wall. Then he ran around to the front and kicked in the door. Hot tongues of fire slashed out at him. Despite his fervent desire to storm into the shop, his survival instinct against suicide prevented him from rushing inside.

Illya had to leap back to avoid the falling debris. Dishearteningly, devastated, he watched as flames consumed the shop. Too late. He had won the prize, saved the mission, and lost his closest friend. Aching inside he tried to put it all into perspective but the pieces refused to fit into comprehension.

He sighed deeply. "So much for The WINGED WARRIOR." There was so much more to say but he couldn't voice his heartache, his true sense of loss.

"I never liked the guy anyway," came a coughed remark from behind.

Illya spun around too surprised, amazed and delighted that his friend was alive, to wipe the comical grin from his face.

A bedraggled, singed, a bit worse-for-wear Solo ambled toward his friend. "And thanks, I'm all right, anyway," he gently teased. With a deep groan he collapsed to the curb and stretched his fatigued form across the sidewalk.

Illya slumped down beside him. He would not ask the obvious. Napoleon was already far too arrogant about his miraculous escapes and incredible luck. They watched in oblivious disinterest as firefighters rushed around them. It was already too late to save anything -- the shop gutted and destroyed.

"Too bad we couldn't save THE WINGED AVENGER."

Kuryakin smiled. "We did," he smiled and pulled the issue from his pocket.

"Clever Russian," Napoleon complimented generously. "But you just said --"

"I was referring to someone else," he cryptically brushed aside the comment Solo had overheard.

Solo let the mysterious comment go unexplained. "So how did you get it?"

"Outwitted a THRUSH."

Napoleon grinned, not taking the bait to hear further exploits of his partner. "Doubly clever Russian." He was in a good mood -- he was alive, Illya was alive. He could be generous with his praise now that they had triumphed over evil once again.

Illya shrugged and confessed with modesty. "Not really. Sherlock Holmes had the original idea. The Star Avenger used it in issue 22."

"You're really into that comic stuff," Solo commented in surprise. The nasty burn that ran the full length of his jacket sleeve distracted his attention. He sighed heavily. "Another suit ruined."

"All those comics destroyed," Illya sighed deeply.

"I hope," Solo emphatically stated, "I never see another comic in my life!"

"Napoleon how can you say that? Comics can be very entertaining. And valuable. That ought to appeal to your capitalistic nature."

Napoleon sat up and studiously gazed at his partner. "I know." He drew a rolled comic from his jacket. "This helped save my life. I used it to retrieve my button --"

Illya gasped with surprise. "A Super Mongoose #1 -- Napoleon do you know how valuable this is?"

"No," the senior agent said around a stifled yawn. Impressed by his partner’s extreme interest, he took a second glance at the comic. "Valuable? Enough to cover the price of a suit?" he wondered as he adjusted the lapels of his tattered jacket.

Kuryakin protectively shielded the book from his mercenary friend. "Oh, no." He took THE WINGED WARRIOR from his pocket. "Here. You can have this. And Napoleon, no comic is worth enough to cover your wardrobe costs."

Solo made a sour face at the pithy remark. While Illya eagerly scanned the treasured comic, Solo examined the tiny microdot that had caused so much trouble. At least the employees and dependents of West Coast UNCLE operatives were safe.

Operatives. Solo suddenly realized that included the delectable Tawny -- the addresses and phone numbers of every lovely in the LA office.

"You're right, Illya," he smugly commented. "Comics can be very valuable," he agreed, visions of wonderful, endless weekends dancing in his head.

Kuryakin made no retort. He was too engrossed with the adventures of Super Mongoose to listen to his partner.
 
 

THE END