THE

STEELE IN THE GAME

AFFAIR

 

By

G M and Maura Kelly

 


 

The soft candle glow spread a warm, sunset light over the room. Violin music wafted from stereo speakers in a quiet, sentimental chorus. The gentle strings sang of the romance of the ages, as well as the promise of the night to come. Seductive blue eyes drank in the vision of loveliness his companion made in the shimmer of the firelight. There was open flirtation, a spark of challenge, in the dark brown eyes that beckoned in obvious response to his overtures. This moment, this enchantment, was to be savored. If ever an evening was made for love and romance, this was the magic night.

A gunshot abruptly cracked through the golden moment like a bullet splintering stained glass. It was an explosion, shattering the silence as loud as a cannon outside the door.

"What was that?" Laura Holt exclaimed as she sat up, instantly on guard, from her reclined position against the couch.

The movement jostled champagne from her glass, and the bubbly liquor spilled onto Remington Steele's sleeve. They sat close together on the floor, a cozy and intimate pose near a blazing fire.

"It sounded like a gunshot," she decided as she placed her glass on the floor and hiked up her evening gown to climb to her feet.

A familiar feeling of dread washed over Steele. He knew a most unwelcome interruption loomed on the horizon, and he made a last attempt to salvage this glorious evening from unmitigated disaster.

"Gunshot?" he countered with a forced nonchalance, his innocent smile faltering. "The neighbors perhaps?"

Another shot resounded, followed by several sputtered pops. There ware muffled shouts, more gun-cracks and muted pops, then a heavy thud against the apartment door.

"I think we'd better call the police," Laura insisted, moving toward the phone in the middle of the living room.

"Blast!" Steele muttered sharply. "Laura!" he called as he leaped to his feet and scrambled in pursuit, stubbing his toe on the leg of the couch. He hopped quickly to close the distance between them.

A bullet ploughed into the door with a loud clap, and wood splintered from the impact. Steele made a grab to get Laura out of the line of fire, but she had already moved to the wall. He joined her, where they waited for several moments, listening to the silence in the corridor. Steele stepped away from his companion and cautiously walked to the entranceway. The battle seemed to be over. He warily turned the doorknob and was astounded as the door burst open and two bodies fell unceremoniously into him, sending all to the floor.

Laura moved out of the way barely avoiding Steele, now buried under two other men. The three struggled to disentangle their respective arms and legs. Someone's stray foot slammed the door shut. The first one on his feet was a slight, wiry man with a haystack of straw colored hair. He moved with a quick nimbleness that left no doubt to agility as he moved with wariness in the unfamiliar surroundings. A firm grip was maintained on the ominous black pistol he seemed ready to use if necessary.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," the dark haired stranger quipped as he and Steele aided each other to their feet. This man was taller and broader than his companion, but nonetheless athletic. His light comment was in counterpoint to the astute scrutiny he cast on his hosts. No move was made to holster the unique pistol he handled with trained efficiency.

"Please don't call the police," the blond man requested urgently as he tucked the automatic pistol under his jacket and stepped toward Laura. "They would just be in the way right now " he offered in a clipped, foreign accent.

Holt, who had backed to the phone, kept her hand on the instrument.

The taller man with compelling, intent brown eyes slipped his pistol into a hidden shoulder holster, automatically straightened his suit jacket and brushed back the dark, tousled hair that fell across his forehead. He was a meticulous opposite to his slightly sinister blond companion who was dressed in a black turtleneck and casual, rumpled jacket.

"Sorry to drop in like this " came the urbane apology as the apparent leader punctiliously tugged his tie into place. He made an instant beeline for Laura, who stood in silence, the phone now clutched in her hands.

He placed his hands over hers, gently, but firmly keeping her from using the instrument. The flash of a bright smile and twinkling brown eyes lessened the impression of aggressiveness. "Allow me to introduce my clumsy companion and myself."

The blond rolled his eyes heavenward in long-suffering exasperation. He noted the scowl on Steele's face and quickly intervened. "The -- 'gentleman' -- advancing on your friend is my partner, Napoleon Solo. I am Illya Kuryakin."

Steele raised a quizzical eyebrow and offered his hand. "Remington Steele. And the lady is my partner, Laura Holt," he explained as he edged his way over to the two companions question.

"Yes, we've heard of you, Mr. Steele." The Russian was intrigued by the comment. "Partner?"

"Private investigators," Steele supplied. "And would you please tell us what this is all about?" he demanded as he stepped near Laura.

"Yes!" Laura agreed heartily. "I'd say you have a lot of explaining to do." She assertively reclaimed possession of her hands as well as the phone. Her defiant glare strayed between the two intruders. "Why shouldn't I call the police?"

Solo cleared his throat and adopted his most business-like demeanor. '"Well, we are -- investigators ourselves. Not exactly PI's."

"More covert," Kuryakin offered helpfully.

"Formerly with the organization called the UNCLE."

"Ah, yes," Steele acknowledged, a trace of admiration in his tone. "United Network command for Law and Enforcement."

"Retired." Illya explained crisply. "We work independently now."

Laura remained defiantly skeptical. "Why should we believe you? And what was all that shooting about?"

Solo scowled. "We don't exactly carry around our retirement papers." The resentment held the obvious note of irritation. "Covert is the byword."

Steele offered a mug nod to Holt. "It's perfectly all right, Laura. They're the good guys," he assured with a smile.

"Wonderful, Mr. Steele " she countered with acerbity. "But it still doesn't explain the gun battle in the hall or why they're here." She clutched the phone in a manner that assured them she had no intention of giving it up until she received a proper explanation.

She had heard of UNCLE. In her wide variety of investigations she'd come across stories of the multi-national spy organization. It was made up of an impressive group of dedicated professionals and was considered the big league of law enforcement. Still, she stubbornly felt these two agents, if they were really former agents, needed to offer a better excuse for bursting into the apartment.

Solo was captivated by the attractive, vibrant Miss Holt and would welcome almost any excuse to extend their chance acquaintance. He glanced at his companion to confirm who would offer the explanation, and was surprised to see Kuryakin's intense scrutiny of Steele. Napoleon recognized that studied gaze in the cool blue eyes and knew the Russian's nimble brain had picked up on something unusual about the debonair Mr. Steele.

He gently nudged an elbow into Kuryakin's side. "Care to take it from here?"

Kuryakin tore his gaze from their host and threw a look at his partner. "Sorry, Napoleon," he said distractedly then returned his concentration to Steele. "Excuse me, Mr. Steele but have we met before?"

The question threw Steele off guard. "Ah ---- no -- I don't think so," he responded hastily in an instinctive denial reflex perfected by years of practiced deceptions based on his mysterious past.

He had to be as quick with his wit and tongue as he was on his feet. He deflected out-of-hand any implications of a connection with his shadowy past. That lifestyle could not intrude to tarnish the impeccable reputation of the fabricated Remington Steele. It took a moment for him to realize these two UNCLE agents would not be interested in his past. However, it already might be too late. They seemed suspicious of his instant denial. Worse, Laura's keen expression indicated that she was intrigued by this unexpected revelation. She was forever rooting around for clues to his pre-Steele existence. He wondered if she would be able to extract any information from Mr. Kuryakin.

"Now why don't you tell us why you're here?" he prompted, smoothly diverting attention from himself

Solo was still watching his companion in a perplexed silence, trying to divine an insight to Kuryakin's suspicions. Thus he was not as quick as usual on the up take, and the sly Russian took full advantage of the distraction.

He placed a hand on Solo's shoulder. "I'm sure Mr. Solo can explain the entire situation to your satisfaction," he assured and deftly made his way to the door. "I'll make a quick check of the battlezone." As usual, he left his glib partner to offer the diplomatic elucidation.

Kuryakin surreptitiously eased the door open. There was no sound, no sign of the opponents who had exchanged heated gunfire with them. Illya theorized the enemy had pulled back to regroup. He and Solo were safe for the moment.

The senior agent weighed his options, wondering how much he should reveal to these people. He and Illya had literally tumbled into their lives; the least he owed them was a reasonable explanation of the situation. Perhaps they could even be of some use in the operation. There was an aura of confidence about Holt and Steele that impressed the intuitive Solo. And if Steele's lifestyle was any indication they were obviously successful in their occupation. It would also give him more time in the delightful presence of Miss Holt.

"Very well," he sighed and established a comfortable perch on t he arm of the nearest chair. "'What do you know about your neighbor, Paul Decker?" he directed to Steele.

The detective was silent for a moment. "Not very much. We exchange brief social amenities when we occasionally pass in the hall. Personally, I find him a rather cold chap."

Kuryakin had returned to stand beside his partner who glanced at him with raised eyebrows. A curt shake of the blond mop indicated the hall was clear. Solo returned his attention to the investigators.

"Decker has been stealing and selling classified information from several international sources, both private and governmental. We have been hired to retrieve the material."

"Which, I take it you didn't," Laura stated wryly.

"No, we were rudely interrupted by Decker's thugs, who were intent on inconveniencing us," Kuryakin confirmed with undisguised indigence.

"That's when we fell into your acquaintance," Solo smiled flirtatiously at Laura.

Despite her better judgment, she grinned in response to the engaging smile. She didn't lose sight of the fact that the mysterious Mr. Solo was high on charm and low on details. 'Professionally evasive' was a term that came quickly to mind. Not unlike the slick Mr. Steele. Luckily, Laura was well practiced in handling dark, handsome con men.

Steele had missed none of the suave charmer's by-play and maneuvered himself to stand between Laura and the amorous agent. "Very interesting," Steele interrupted, hoping to distract Solo's dalliance. "Is there any way we can help?"

The former UNCLE team exchanged another mute communication where their expressions relayed the messages. This time Kuryakin was the one to respond.

"Difficult to say. We had planned to enter Decker's apartment with as little fanfare as possible."

"So much for stealth," Steele commented dryly.

"You two managed enough fanfare to rouse the entire population of Los Angeles," Holt pointed out bluntly.

The reprimand earned an injured scowl from Solo. "It's a bit hard to be circumspect when the bad guys are trying to put bullet holes in our shining armor," he flung back with asperity. He was instantly defensive against slights to his skill, particularly when delivered by outsiders. However he couldn't remain irritated with the charming Miss Holt and favored her with a devastating smile. "Then we ended up in your lap so to speak -- which just goes to show you there's a good side to everything."

Once more, Steele quickly intervened. "What are your plans now, Mr. Solo?" He caught the suggestive glance Solo pinned on Laura. "About Decker," he clarified forcefully.

"Well, I think our opponents are licking their wounds," he speculated, reluctantly tearing his gaze from Miss Holt to seek confirmation from his partner. "With any luck, we could still have a crack at the apartment before reinforcements arrive."

Kuryakin nodded slowly as he considered their alternatives. "It may mean we have uninterrupted access to the door, Napoleon," he qualified, "but it doesn't mean we can get into the apartment."

Solo patted him on the arm. "Don't be so pessimistic. I have implicit faith in you."

The Russian' s expression was dubious as he turned to offer the investigators an explanation. "Earlier we were met in the corridor by Decker's guards. We never came very close to the door, but I saw enough to spot some formidable modifications: an electronic lock and I suspect some sophisticated alarms. While Napoleon may boast of my talents, I am skeptical that they extend to breaking the codes in the few minutes we will have."

"You're afraid more security will come back so soon?"

"That's not the only challenge, Miss Holt," Solo considered as he pinched his lip, his mind working on the problem even as he answered the question. "In order to stop Decker, we can't just steal the documents. We have to discredit him so his reputation will be ruined."

"A scam," Steele exclaimed in delight. "A good, old-fashioned con." He clapped his hands together in relish.

"Exactly," Solo confirmed, puzzled at the exuberant reaction.

"We have to exchange the real classified documents for forgeries, then leave the apartment without any evidence of the switch, " Kuryakin added.

"Since the opposition is already alerted, how do you propose to accomplish that?" Laura wondered.

Kuryakin's tone was deep with thought. "Not easily We won't have acre than a few minutes to complete our task."

Steele had been silent during the conversation as he contemplated the complexities of the mission. His mind had already evaluated the lock and alarms, and he knew it was an extremely advanced system. Though he might be a bit rusty at the old trade, a lock was a lock, and if it could be unlocked, he could do it!

"I agree it's a knotty problem, gentlemen," Steele announced, breaking into the conversation. His tone was scholarly, the skilled craftsman instructing the less talented in the finer point of his specialty. There was a distinct twinkle of excitement, which sparked blue fire in the deep eyes. "Not to diminish your abilities, Mr. Kuryakin, but no lock or alarm is insurmountable you just have to know how to get around it."

Both of the spies stared at Steele with speculation, interests piqued. "Perhaps you have some experience in this field, Mr. Steele?" Kuryakin asked politely.

Laura laughed nervously and moved closer to Steele putting a hand on his arm. She shot him a quick glare before offering an explanation. "Mr. Steele's hobby is locks and alarms. And security systems. He's been challenged by the best. In our line of work, he studies them all the time."

He patted her hand; condescension she obviously disliked which made her pull her hand away. "Don't worry, Laura. I'm sure these gentlemen aren't interested in what the Steele Agency does. They just want to know how our expertise can help them." He raised an eyebrow to invite a rebuttal.

Solo gave a brief nod of confirmation as he studied the Irishman who was something of a mystery. There was more here than the surface sophisticate and the cultured gentleman. Napoleon's instinct for intrigue led him to sense a deeper enigma. Steele possessed a fluid grace of movement, which suggested a deceptively athletic core. An adventurer of some sort; perhaps a world-class jewel thief or involved in the espionage in some corner of the globe. Illya thought he knew Steele from somewhere, and Kuryakin's inherent cunning was incredibly accurate. Perhaps Steele had crossed the agent's path somewhere in the shadowy netherworld of international intrigue, where identities and truths were blurred by deception and obfuscation. Solo coalesced these speculations and tried to form them into a solidified theory. Whatever Mr. Steele was in the past he had the kind of talent they could make use of now.

Solo's shrewd chestnut eyes then strayed to Laura Holt, and the experienced appraisal was anything but professionally detached. He sensed she thrived on the excitement and danger that unexpectedly had been cast her way. Capable and cool was his reading of Miss Holt -- witnessed by the calm way she had handled their singular entrance. Beyond her beauty exuded eagerness, vitality for life, and her eyes flashed with a fire that dared life to throw anything her way.

The American shot his Russian counterpart a wordless inquiry, eyebrows raised. These two companions knew each other so well that verbal messages were frequency superfluous. Their routine had been perfected through years of teamwork, and thoughts and ideas traveled on the common wavelength only best friends could achieve.

Kuryakin acknowledged the mute signal with a nearly imperceptible nod of his thatch-topped head. "Mr. Steele, perhaps you would volunteer your abilities to gain our entrance into Decker's apartment?"

"And hopefully salvage the mission," Solo ventured optimistically.

Steele didn't answer immediately. He looked at Laura with a question in his eyes. He wanted his partner's confirmation before he accepted this little assignment.

"Why not?" she shrugged. "I know you've been intrigued by Decker's door ever since he installed that security system." She nodded toward the espionage team, then smiled mischievously. "I implicitly trust my partner to keep us on the right side of the law." The broad stroke of sarcasm was clearly detected by the three gentlemen.

Laura Holt's affability held an ulterior motive: she intended to turn the tables to enlist the aid of the two agents. In her never-ending quest to discover Steele's true identity and hidden past, she perceived a fresh clue supplied in the form of Mr. Kuryakin. The agent had intimated he knew Steele, and she instinctively felt the cunning operative was rarely mistaken about anything. Also, a light flirtation with the amorous Mr. Solo could prove to be diverting. The rakish older spy looked as if he could play a fun, if fast game. Things could become most amusing if Steele's constant scowls in Solo's direction were any indication of the investigator's burgeoning jealousy. This little excursion looked to be a great lark, and she did not want to be left out of the action.

"Well, then, gentlemen, it's a deal. Hiss Holt and I will be glad to help in any way we can," Steele agreed, looking forward with anticipation for the chance to crack the challenging security traps of Decker's apartment.

There were a few disquieting points about the operation, however, he decided to keep the misgivings to himself for now. For one, the former UNCLE agents concerned him. He never doubted their efficiency knowing only the best made the ranks of the elite enforcement organization. Kuryakin and Solo wore their skilled abilities like visible badges of experience, and were obviously veterans of this deadly game. What worried him was Kuryakin's suggestion that they had met before. It annoyed him, since he also felt the same vague stirrings of recognition shared by the Russian. Their paths had crossed before, but Steele was unable to recall where or when.

What also bothered him were Solo's overt advances toward Laura. Steele didn't trust the older agent, who was clearly a rake, in close proximity to his partner. Even more untenable was that Laura seemed to be enjoying the flirtation. Perhaps it was best to join forces with the spies and get them out of the way quickly.

The negotiations settled, Solo briskly implemented the operation. "The first thing we need to do is check on our opponents."

The pair of agents, moving with a practiced and smooth unity, stepped to the entrance and tensed for action as they leaned against the wall. Not to be left out, Steele and Laura followed behind.

Kuryakin reached inside his black jacket and pulled out his Walther P-38, then slowly and silently eased open the door. He peeked out, then with a nod to his partner, slipped into the corridor. Solo took a stance against the doorframe, pistol ready and held next to his chest. He had an unobstructed view of the hallway as he watched Kuryakin check the elevator and the emergency stairwell.

Illya worked slowly down the corridor with the stealth of a jungle cat, acting as if he were in an enemy infested war zone instead of a posh Lou Angeles apartment building. There was utter silence in the corridor that had been a battlefield only a short time before. The conflict had been as deadly as any skirmish he and Solo might have encountered with terrorists in Casablanca or thugs in Whitechapel.

As standard procedure in a situation where innocent people could be involved, he and Napoleon had loaded their ammo clips with sleep darts instead of 9mm bullets. However, their foes had used the regular, deadly lead variety of bullet, evidenced by the pockmarked walls and the furrows that marred the elegant carpet. An overhead light had been shattered in the conflict, and shards of glass sprinkled the floor. The only things missing were the few bodies of the vanquished enemies now sleeping off the special darts. Presumably the more mobile opponents had removed the thugs to a less conspicuous location. Whatever the reason, the hallway was clear for the moment. Perhaps the rest of the guards were stalking the building in search of Napoleon and himself.

He fastidiously kicked aside a glittering of glass, and quietly rebuked the sloppy opposition, but then, not everyone could be neat in their work. What alternately worried and encouraged Illya was the unobstructed path to Decker's door. No guards, no neighbors -- nothing. This was too easy. So was there a trap waiting just inside the apartment? They would find out soon enough.

As he jogged back to the temporary haven of Steele's apartment, he ruminated on their mysterious host. The former identity eluded him, though he was sure the connection had nothing to do with a detective agency. Illya always prided himself on an excellent memory for faces, which was a necessity in his line of work.

Kuryakin felt ambivalence for the investigators' participation in the mission, though he did not believe they were a danger or a threat. Illya was not altogether comfortable with the involvement of amateurs or innocents in a dangerous mission, though it was a scenario they had practiced frequently in the past. Solo never seemed to mind as much -- not surprising, since most of the time their cases seemed to include beautiful women

In this case both Steele and Holt seemed to be competent professionals in their field. They struck Illya as capable and efficient. Miss Holt had already displayed those qualities when she easily deflected Solo's advances, to Kuryakin's great amusement. She had a strong mind of her own and didn't hesitate to demonstrate that fact to Napoleon or Steele.

Illya stalked back to where his anxious partner was holding the fort.

"Well?" Solo asked quietly as he followed Kuryakin into the apartment and closed the door.

"I may be paranoid, but it seems almost too quiet out there. As silent as a grave."

"Graveyard," the dark agent corrected automatically. "You ARE paranoid. And did you have to use such a depressing analogy?"

"Do you think it's a trap?" Steele asked.

"Or is it just your natural pessimism coming to the surface?" Napoleon suggested to his partner. Illya had a tendency to view life from a sullen perspective, and Napoleon blamed it on the Russian's brooding nature. However, the Slavic blood also seemed responsible for Illya's accurate intuition and Solo always followed the Russian's instincts "We've got to make a move now if we're to have any chance of completing this mission. Are you game?"

Kuryakin nodded, his tone rueful. "That is what we came here for."

"Then let's get on with it," Steele urged and edged to the door.

Solo nodded and turned to the lady at his side. "Now Miss Holt, if you'll stay here, the three of us will dispatch this with all possible speed."

Holt fixed him with a dagger glare. "Excuse me, Mr. Solo, I don't think you understand. Mr. Steele and I are partners, just as you and Mr. Kuryakin are a team."

The blithe agent's mouth twitched with a suggestive grin. "Well, there are a few subtle differences."

The flippancy irritated Holt and earned Solo a fiery glower from her irate eyes. Steele realized his hot-tempered cohort was about to explode and quickly intervened. "Mr. Solo, Laura's right, we're a team. We work together."

"In fact, I think I'll go with you, Mr. Solo," she maintained firmly, the words singed with a temper barely held in restraint.

Napoleon's eyes were now a cold amber, in sharp contrast to his previously warm repartee. It was the mark of the iron-hard professional beneath the genteel veneer of glibness, which the suave agent flaunted at every opportunity. "Oh, really," he retorted acidly. "I don't mind bringing civilians into the dangerous operation -- providing they have a reason to be there."

Laura challenged him face to face, unwilling to concede the smallest point he might make. "If Mr. Steele and Mr. Kuryakin are to break into the apartment, then what is your reason for being there?"

His handsome features worked into a scowl at the impertinence. "I'm the back-up."

"Now there'll be two back-ups," she stated flatly with no room for argument

Kuryakin tugged on his partner's sleeve. "Come on, Napoleon, you can resume your little spat later."

Reluctantly, Solo accepted Laura's addition to the expedition though he would not declare complete surrender. "All right, Miss Holt. I assume you have a weapon?"

Laura shook her head. "No, not with us. We don't have much use for weapons Mr. Solo. In our work, we rely on our wits not on muscle." Though Steele and Holt knew how to handle a pistol, their revolver was kept in a locked drawer at the Agency.

Solo sighed in long suffering and decided that surrender was indicated in this instance. Kuryakin stepped past them and could not resist a final gibe. "I just love the way you handle women, Napoleon," he observed wryly.

Steele opened the door, anxious to get on with the mission before any other difficulties arose. He checked around the door frame and whispered, "All clear." He slipped out and led them into the hall. "After you, Miss Holt," Solo offered with a slight bow as he acted as a rear guard.

Steele glanced back at the single-file line that snaked behind him. What a strange lot they made. Laura and he were dressed in formal wear. Kuryakin and Solo looked a bit scruffy around the edges, yet formidable as they clutched the Walthers and warily followed him. "We look like a bloody chorus line " he whispered to himself.

Even for a man accustomed to stealth and danger, the incongruously quiet corridor put Steele on edge. Strange how a familiar passage now could seem so sinister. Of course, the odd bullet hole in the wall, the crunch of broken glass on the carpet, did denote a certain degree of violence had occurred in the neighborhood.

Their little parade reached the destination without incident. Conspiratorially obvious, this could never be mistakenly labeled as a secret mission. There was no mystery over what they intended as they huddled around the apartment's entrance. The door, too deceptive, the entire frame subtly altered to accommodate electronic panels.

Solo and Kuryakin stood closest to the door and carefully inspected the area. There was a touch plate near the spot where a doorknob should be. The plate displayed sequentially numbered buttons, which were similar to those found on touch-tone telephones.

Steele sidled up to join him. "A sonically coded lock," he offered instructionally. "A beauty, isn't it?"

"Just wonderful," Solo admitted sourly.

"Without the correct sonic sequence, there is no way to gain entrance " Kuryakin muttered as he continued to scrutinize the plate. "Unless we blow it of course."

"You just love to blow things up, Illya," Napoleon chided lightly as he glared at the offensively stubborn lock.

"This calls for the subtle approach," Steele said as he shouldered his way into the space between the door and spoke with barely a trace of modesty. "Fortunately, gentlemen I have an excellent ear." He flashed them a brilliant smile and experimentally punched a series of buttons, as the agents looked on with dubious expressions. Steele tried several combinations of numbers and each time a faint electronic beep emitted in a different tone. After several melodic attempts a deep, penetrating tone emerged from the plate. All the lights glowed green and the door silently swung open.

"Open sesame." Solo commented, sarcastically.

"Well done, Mr. Steele," Laura congratulated proudly with an approving pat on his shoulder.

Weapons drawn, the ex-UNCLE men peered into the front room that was dark and quiet. Kuryakin switched on a light, filling the entrance with a splash of brilliance. Solo scanned the apartment with what looked like an innocuous gold cigarette case, which was really an electronic sensor. He stepped back into the hall and offered a curt nod to his partner.

"All clear," Kuryakin explained to the others and stepped across the threshold. Almost as an afterthought he turned and handed his Walther to Laura. "For back-up," he explained quietly as Laura reluctantly accepted it.

Steele hesitated for a moment. This excursion, although a lark, held an undercurrent of danger. He wasn't altogether comfortable with the notion of leaving Laura out in the hall, especially with the aggressive Solo. Steele's only comfort was his rueful knowledge that Laura knew how to take care of herself. So with a reassuring smile to her, he stepped into the hall and closed the door.

An uncomfortable silence settled in the hall as Solo stood sentry on one side of the door, Holt on the other. The investigator felt acutely conspicuous in her evening gown, a pistol in her hand guarding an apartment which was being burgled. On top of that she was forced to endure the rakish, penetrating glances from her new accomplice. She tried to strike a casual pose against the wall but it wasn't convincing even to herself.

She cleared her throat and strove for a casual tone. "I suppose you have a plan in case someone comes?"

"Well, I'm sure we'll think of something suitably clever and diverting," Solo responded easily and edged a few steps closer to lean on the door. He was relaxed and charming, as if there was only thing on his mind. And it wasn't the mission. Yet Laura knew under the light veneer of carefree banter was a man who lived every day on the lethal edge of intrigue and mystery. Solo's alternating persona confused her; one moment he was a hardened professional spy who was trained and ready to kill, the next he was a blithe Romeo whose charisma was natural and sincere. She wondered which of the divergent images was the real Napoleon Solo. Perhaps the spy was an enigmatic blend of both. The alternating facades were familiar to her; she had first seen the pattern in Remington Steele. At any rate, Solo seemed eager to use this time with her advantageously and Laura figured to play Solo's game to achieve her own ends. She closed the gasp between them.

"I suppose you know all about diversions?"

An engaging smile brightened his face. "I excel at them!"

"The spy game must place you in some interesting situations."

The suave agent stepped 'red closer, confident in his irresistible charm. "Sometimes absolutely perilous."

"And you knew Mr. Steele on some of those dangerous cases?"

"Steele?" he echoed, momentarily jarred by the abrupt change in subject. His expressive face scowled in mute then cleared as realization hit him. He pawkily smiled. "Ah -- Steele."

Moving close, sliding against the wall, he touched shoulders with his companion. The brown eyes twinkled and he responded with a deep, seductively soft voice. "I should warn you about something."

"What's that?" Laura asked evenly, her voice never betraying her unease at Solo's nearness.

"I require intense and prolonged interrogation before I break."

Laura shrugged as casually as she could manage. "I was just curious, Mr. Solo."

"Curiosity can sometimes backfire, Miss Holt," Solo countered wryly. "Shall I call you Laura?"

"I don' t mind," she sighed with resignation. Solo had shrewdly seen right through her ploy.

His smile was reassuring. "Call me Napoleon. We might as well be on a first name basis since we're working so closely together."

Laura's response was firm. "Just not too closely, Mr. Solo. I never mix business with pleasure."

Never too distracted by even the most delectable companion, Solo's trained, wary eye caught a shadow at the far end of the corridor. The amiable lothario vanished, replaced instantly by the taut professional. Before the unknown figure had rounded the corner, Solo acted, seizing Laura in a smothering embrace and passionately kissing her.

The abrupt act took her by complete surprise, and she did her best to pull away, though her strength was no match for Solo's obviously well-practiced clutches. "Let go!" she managed to gasp in outrage as she tried to wriggle free. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Creating a diversion," he whispered from the corner of his mouth, keeping his lips pressed to hers. "Decker is coming. Kiss me!"

Not to be outdone, Laura responded with a zeal that gave Solo no doubt she knew how to play this game, too. The agent pressed his back against the door and deftly holstered his own Walther. Then he took Illya's P-38 gently from Laura' s hand and tapped the barrel against the door as a signal to their companions within. Warning completed, he tucked the pistol into the back of his waistband. Then the dashing international spy focused his compete attention on his pretty accomplice. He returned Laura's kiss with an enthusiasm which left no doubt he selflessly threw his heart into his work.

***

Once inside, the two burglars were quick and efficient. They made their way to a small library just off the main hall. Kuryakin tentatively pushed along the side of a tall bookshelf, and after a moment one of the shelves moved aside to reveal a formidable safe.

"Prior intelligence gathering," Illya explained as he studied the lock

"A Sieffried 7-80," Steele whistled softly with healthy respect .

It earned him a surprised glance from the Russian "You certainly know your safes, Mr. Steele," Kuryakin admitted, impressed by the level of Steele's expertise.

"All part of the job, Mr. Kuryakin. I know this model is going to take a bit of time to crack. It's one of the best on the market."

Kuryakin grinned and removed a button from his jacket. At a touch, it adhered magnetically to the safe. Then pointing his elaborate watch toward the button, Illya turned the face of the timepiece until several beeps emitted. Finally the button glowed green. The agent gently turned the handle, and the safe door opened.

Steele was astonished. "What an amazing gadget Too bad, though, it takes all the artistry out of safe cracking."

Kuryakin shined the flashlight into the interior of the safe and rummaged through the contents. "I don't provide these little wonders for the mass market," he assured.

He pulled a manila envelope out of his pocket and exchanged it for an identical packet from the safe. He had just closed the thick door and replaced the bookshelf when several warning taps sounded from the door.

"Napoleons signal," he defined curtly.

Steele was already on his way to the other side of the room. "We' Ill use the balcony. From there we can climb around the corner to my apartment."

"Sounds perfect," the Russian acknowledged and realized the investigator had already optioned the second escape route. It seemed typical of Steele's professionalism.

The window was eased open, but Steele did not make a move to leave. "What about Laura and Mr. Solo?"

"I'm sure they'll be able to handle things in the hall. My partner is very resourceful. If Napoleon had been recognized we would have heard more than just a tap on the door."

The Russian spoke with such firm conviction that Steele could not help but trust in the agent's assessment. The private investigator noted that the agent hesitated a moment, tensed for any indication that his partner needed help. Illya, though he would not admit it, was just as concerned about his friend as Steele was about Laura. Assured by the silence, Illya nodded to Steele and they scurried through the window.

***

 

"You there!" The strident command echoed loudly in the quiet hallway, but the amorous lovers were completely oblivious to this less-than-subtle intervention. They continued their impassioned embrace. "Did you hear me?" challenged the incisive, brisk voice again.

Solo glanced up and eyed the intruder with indignation. "Do you mind?" he retorted with asperity.

The chunky, balding interloper regarded the dark agent with a generous measure of contempt and a heavy dose of wariness. Paul Decker's hand was concealed under an expensive jacket. "You ill-mannered lout, what do you think you're doing?"

Solo had imperceptibly maneuvered into a position where Laura's back was toward Decker at all times to prevent her from being recognized. Napoleon didn't know if Decker could identified Laura. If so, it might mean their little game would be up. He was annoyed at himself for not asking her before. He also realized his action put Laura directly in the line of fire, but the spy was confident he could take Decker before she was in any real danger. Solo kept his hand on the Walther, just in case of trouble.

"There's no need to be insulting," Solo shot back hotly. "This is a free country. It's none of your affair if I say goodnight to my friend."

Decker stepped perilously close. Laura, still a breathless after the lengthy and passionate embrace, intently studied Solo's impeccable lapel and tensed for immediate action. The entire operation, and possibly their lives, rested on the next precarious moments, yet she instinctively felt that if anyone could handle the situation, it was Napoleon Solo.

"It is my affair when you create a scene in front of MY apartment!"

"In front of her door!" Solo contested loudly.

"My door," Decker seethed in a voice grating with impatience. "Apartment C!"

"Apartment D," the agent insisted and slightly turned his head, gesturing with his thumb to the letter on the door. His face instantly transformed to a picture of chagrined embarrassment, and he gasped dramatically. "C!" he conceded contritely. "You're absolutely right. My apologies."

Decker's anger subsided and he seemed appeased by the profuse apologies, satisfied with his victory. "Accepted," he said curtly. "Just don't let it happen again."

Solo deftly steered Laura away and offered a slight bow to his opponent. "Believe me, it won't," he acknowledged wryly and winked at an amused Laura as they quickly walked away.

***

 

Steele and Kuryakin entered through the French windows into the living room just as Solo ushered Laura through the front door.

Steele rubbed his hands together with satisfaction. "Well, that was certainly a clockwork operation " he announced with delight. "I'm glad to see all went . . . " his voice trailed off as he noticed the slightly askew hair, the neared lipstick, and the oddly bemused expression on Laura's face. "Just what did happen?" he demanded, his tone suddenly harsh. His stern gaze bounced between Laura ad Solo and finally pinned the dark-haired agent with accusation.

"Well, we created a little diversion," the smooth spy responded with infuriating smugness as he brushed his hair into place and straightened his tie.

Steele was suspicious. "That kind of diversion?"

"A -- uh -- diverting -- diversion," Laura supplied evasively with an annoying tone of amusement.

Kuryakin crossed the room and joined his partner while Steele and Holt locked stares.

"Mission successful, I assume," Solo stated confidently as he returned Illya's Walther.

The Russian holstered the automatic and patted his breast pocket where the stolen packet was hidden. "Of course. And I see you didn't come away empty handed." he accused with quiet exasperation. It was an observation he'd made many times in his long partnership with Napoleon.

Solo raised an eyebrow in silent query. Illya pulled a neatly folded, expensive linen handkerchief from Solo's coat pocket and rubbed a smear of lipstick from his comrade's cheek. He proffered the red cloth as evidence. With a scowl Solo seized the handkerchief and removed the rest of the lipstick from his face.

Steele missed none of the byplay between the agents. He stepped over to his own partner. "Laura you have an explanation for this?"

"Standard Solo maneuver number one," Kuryakin offered dryly.

"It was just a kiss!" Laura declared off-handedly and delightedly noted the irritation it produced In her colleague.

However, the suave UNCLE agent was clearly wounded by the demeaning appraisal of his charm. "Just a kiss?"

The scowl on Steele's face was fierce. "A bit brash of you, Mr. Solo," he snapped acidly.

Laura could not resist goading her partner and prolonging the jealousy that had appeared around the cultured edges of Remington Steele. "We had to do something," she offered casually. Steele's scowl deepened and she was glad dueling had gone out of fashion. If this had taken place a few hundred years before, Solo might have been in real danger.

"You'll have to excuse Napoleon. It's purely an instinctive reflex on his part," Illya offered slyly, managing to make it sound like a condemnation. This earned him a glower from his partner.

"Well, it worked," Solo pointed out in his own defense, feeling very much put-upon by his compatriots.

"It worked brilliantly!" Laura confirmed with a bright smile at Solo, squeezing his arm in a friendly embrace. "And I think we all deserve to celebrate."

Laura disappeared into the kitchen, leaving an uncomfortable silence between the men. She returned with four crystal glasses and, to Steele's mixed emotions, a bottle of his finest champagne one which he had held in reserve for a very special evening with Laura. Alone. However, he couldn't deny that the evening had been entertaining -- and he was further consoled by the fact that Mr. Solo was merely a temporary interloper. The two agents would soon be off to the far-flung corners of the earth to ply their trade, while he would still be here with his partner.

Laura handed the bottle to Steele who deftly popped the cork with Inimitable grace and style. He poured the bubbly and handed the glasses around.

"To us," Laura announced brightly and thrust her glass to the center of their little circle.

"And to a job smashingly well done," Steele complimented grudgingly and touched his glass to the others. "And the success of the mission."

Solo completed the toast with wink at Laura. "And a most diverting evening."

"Maybe we can do it again sometime," Laura suggested teasingly.

The three gentlemen nearly choked an their drinks as they exchanged mutually surprised glances above the cut crystal glasses.

 

THE END