“I’m ruined,” said the artistic director of the Bern Ballet Company. “This is how my career ignobly dies.” He gestured to the bartender, who quickly slid another vodka gimlet across the wood of the bar. The artist director took a healthy swallow.
“I’m sure it’s not quite that dire,” said the artistic director’s drinking companion, a lovely man with salt-and-pepper hair and a deliciously crisp English accent. He was drinking tonic water, no gin, but nonetheless seemed to have an endlessly patient ear for the artistic director’s troubles.
“No, no, it is,” said the artistic director. “This production has been cursed from the beginning and now – the final blow – I’ve lost a ballerina.”
“You’ve lost a ballerina? How does that happen?”
The artistic director knocked took two large swallows of his drink. “She received an acting opportunity. In New York. Faithless trollop. What am I to do now?”
His drinking companion frowned thoughtfully. “How odd. Or serendipitous. You see, my niece Gabriella - she’s a soloist.”
Napoleon was flirting with the coat-check girl when the Bern Ballet Company’s choreographer raced down the grand staircase, running for the doors.
On the mezzanine above him, Gaby appeared, looking positively ethereal in her pale stage make up and white costume.
“Solo, stop him,” she shouted, voice ringing off the marble of the entrance hall.
Opening Night at any theater was always so dramatic.
The choreographer turned, skidding a bit on the marble floor of the lobby, and drew a pistol. He fired up at Gaby, who ducked behind a marble pillar in a graceful swirl of tulle. The bullets caused a spray of marble to spit from the pillar.
The coat-check girl screamed and the choreographer jerked his head towards her and Napoleon. Napoleon vaulted the desk, pulling the coat check girl down just as the choreographer decided to shoot at them, for good measure. The bullets cracked through the coat check desk, ending up somewhere in the wall behind Napoleon and the girl.
"Not to worry, süsse," he said, "I'll be handling him shortly."
The coak check girl did not look reassured. She pressed herself harder against the floor.
He heard the choreographer race past, shoving his way through the theater’s front doors. Napoleon leapt back over the desk, pulling his gun. Through the etched glass of the theater’s doors, he saw the choreographer, poised to make good his escape. All he had to do was go down the stone stairs to the Saab idling in the circular drive in front of the theater.
Then Gaby leapt from a second story window and directly onto his head. An avenging angel, descending directly from the heavens, would have envied Gabriella Teller’s grace and poise in that moment. The rustle of the air against her tutu sounded like wings.
She knocked the choreographer off his feet and they tumbled down the entrance’s stone steps, Gaby’s tulle skirt frothing about her waist, the choreographer’s pistol clattering out of his fingers.
Napoleon raced forward. When he reached them, Gaby’s hands were tight in the choreographer’s collar. She banged his head repeatedly against the stone steps.
Napoleon ran past them both, down to the idling Saab, where he got the first glimpse – U.N.C.L.E.’s official first glimpse – of Alinda Voigt.
Finally, a face to put to the name they’d chased from Argentina to Bern. A pretty one, too. He saw delicately arched brows and a cupid’s bow mouth painted a bold red, curls of a deep gold, and then Voigt cranked the wheel away and hit the accelerator, swerving into the traffic before Napoleon could stop her.
A black van shrieked to a halt in the spot the Saab had just vacated. Illya boiled out of the driver’s seat and to Gaby.
As Napoleon briskly strolled to the passenger side, he glanced over his shoulder. Illya picked the choreographer’s limp body off the stone steps and hauled him to the van. Illya threw him into the back hard enough to rock the entire vehicle and then climbed in after, quickly and efficiently trussing the man up with cable ties and duct-tape.
Gaby hurtled herself behind the wheel, slammed the door shut on her skirt, opened the door, ripped her skirt free with an ugly sound of fabric tearing, and jammed the van into gear.
“She was headed West on Postgasshalde street,” Napoleon offered and the game was afoot.
Gaby's pointe-shoe-clad foot slammed the accelerator all the way down and didn't give an inch.
Gaby drove with gloriously controlled recklessness. The van rocketed down the streets, tilting alarmingly as it rounded corners. She muscled the van past slower-moving traffic, wove around careless pedestrians. The engine whined plaintively as Gaby pushed it to speeds Napoleon would have doubted the van could reach before witnessing it personally.
"There she is," he said, spotting a green Saab ahead of them.
Gaby's fingers tightened on the wheel and she managed (possibly by sheer force of will) to increase the van's velocity.
Voigt must have seen them in her rearview mirror, because she made a sharp turn, bolting down a side street.
Gaby followed her, the wheels shrieking, and then they had Voigt on a rather isolated lane with no other vehicles behind her.
Napoleon shot out both of her rear tires. The Saab swerved wildly and then slammed into a lamp-post, the hood crumpling like tissue. Gaby braked hard, skidding to a stop. Illya leapt out of the back of the van. Gaby wrenched the parking brake up, and she and Napoleon followed.
Illya ripped off the Saab's driver's side door but was surprisingly gentle when he pulled Voigt out and bound her wrists together. Napoleon took it upon himself to search Voigt and the handbag she had in the car.
"You have excellent taste in side arms, Fräulein," he comments as he unloaded a Walther PP. "But regrettable taste in business associates."
She spat out a slew of German. Napoleon recognized most of it from his days on the front lines and listening to Gaby swearing at recalcitrant mechanical objects.
Still, Voigt's vitriol aside, she was easy enough to load in the back of the cargo van next to the choreographer.
Illya, Napoleon, and Gaby stood in front of the open cargo van door, looking down at the two prisoners. Nothing left to do but deliver them to Waverly and the Swiss authorities. And yet... It was a familiar sensation; when a mission was a success but adrenaline still sang in the blood like fine wine.
And, of course, this particular mission had one more loose end.
"I suppose... we're finished here," Gaby said in a low voice. Her face was expressionless. She'd worn that same expression when an Argentinean thug had held a knife to her face and when Waverly invited her to join him in watching a cricket match.
Illya checked his watch.
"You're four minutes late for curtain," he informed Gaby.
"I know!" Gaby snapped. She looked back at the two prisoners.
"I think what Peril is trying to say," Napoleon said, clapping Illya's shoulder, "is that we are quite capable of handling two Nazi sympathizers on our own."
Napoleon was intimately aware of the way a woman looked when she wanted to succumb to temptation. She looked like Gaby biting her lip and sliding her eyes over to the Renault parked halfway down the street.
Illya made a shooing gesture at her.
Gaby pivoted and dashed up the street, her slightly-disarrayed finery swirling as she moved. She pried a loose paving stone up from the street and broke the window of the Renault. Half a breath, the engine fired, and she was caroming away, back to the theater.
Napoleon and Illya looked back down at the two prisoners. The choreographer and Voigt looked at each other and then back up at the two agents. They started talking at once. The choreographer attempted to bargain for his freedom, Voigt was promising bloody retribution if they didn't let her go.
Illya checked his watch again. Napoleon heard his teeth grinding together.
Napoleon gave a long, put-upon sigh.
"I," he said magnanimously, "am quite capable of handling two Nazi sympathizers on my own."
Illya frowned down at Voigt and choreographer. Then he started rummaging around in his satchel. He extracted a bottle of chloroform and a clean handkerchief.
Voigt's eyes widened and she spat out a rather vulgar threat against their lives while the choreographer tried to scooch away.
Possibly Napoleon should object, but he really had no interest in anything either of them had to say.
Illya efficiently rendered them both unconscious, gave Napoleon a number of insulting instructions on keeping them in custody and the importance of delivering them to Waverly, checked his watch, and then, finally, left Napoleon to return to the theater. Illya left Napoleon that chloroform, settled his satchel over his shoulders, and took off running.
Napoleon’s evening had begun with a high speed pursuit. It rapidly devolved into an interminable period of inactivity while he waited for Waverly to finish winding his way through red tape with the Swiss authorities, followed by a very tense conversation with Waverly himself before Napoleon was finally able to wash his hands of Voigt and the choreographer of the Bern Ballet Company.
There followed one or two brief stops and then, a significant time after the ballet's end, Napoleon strolled into the alley that held the theater’s backstage exit, a bouquet of pink roses deftly tucked in the crook of his arm.
Illya was leaning against the alley wall, his arms crossed, fingers tapping ominously.
“Peril,” Napoleon said politely.
“Cowboy,” Illya growled back.
After a moment, Napoleon identified the reason for Illya’s irritation. Through the open stage door, he could hear a man shouting in indistinct German.
Napoleon frowned. Before he or Illya could intervene, Gaby exited the theater. Her hair was in loose curls about her shoulders, her pale stage make-up scrubbed away to reveal pink cheeks. She headed straight for them.
She was holding her shoes in one hand and as she approached, Napoleon saw that her toes were wrapped in gauze and tape, blood already spotting the white bandages.
"For the woman of the hour," Napoleon said, holding out the flowers.
Gaby handed her shoes to Illya, took the bouquet. She sank into a graceful bow, sinuous as a silk dress falling to the floor. If Napoleon hadn't witnessed it, he would have never believed that the Bern Ballet Company’s choreographer had yelled at her every. single. rehearsal. that she was "So stiff! So mechanical! You are not an automation, Fräulein! You are dancing ballet, not packing fish!"
In retrospect, it was no surprise he was a fascist.
"Thank you," she said. A stranger might say she sounded demure; Napoleon caught that thread of satisfaction, the knowing that roses were exactly what she deserved. It was moments like this that Napoleon knew that if everything else had been different, Gaby would still have made it over the Berlin Wall.
She tossed a glance over her shoulder (the yelling in German hadn't stopped, despite her absence) and then walked into the streets, Napoleon and Illya falling into step on either side.
Illya carefully placed Gaby's shoes in his satchel and then frowned down at her feet.
“Do your feet hurt?” Illya asked.
“Like murder,” Gaby said, executed a perfect fouetté, crisp enough that several petals detached from her flowers, swirling down to land on the sidewalk.
Illya reached for her, like he wanted to pick her up, and then he forced his hands back to his sides.
Gaby was clearly giddy from the evening's performance. It barely showed on her face, but she was walking fast enough that she remained a step or two in front of Illya and Napoleon.
She tipped her head down, nuzzled the roses.
“I danced Paquita in Switzerland,” she whispered into the petals, like she couldn't quite stop herself from saying the words, and oh, Napoleon knew exactly what she was feeling. Like she'd just played a hand against steep odds and won. He'd felt the same the first time he'd stepped out of a Savile Row tailor's shop in a new bespoke suit, knowing everything he'd ever wanted was within his grasp.
Gaby plucked a rose from her bouquet, spun it around a finger and then tucked it behind her ear.
"There were two standing ovations," Gaby continued, speaking to them both. Her cool voice was a credit to her acting ability.
Napoleon couldn't help but grin. It was rare to see Gaby happy - he hadn't realized how infectious her good mood was.
"I know," Illya said, a beat before Napoleon went, "That's marvelous."
Gaby stopped, turned to look at them both.
"You know?" she queried.
"He didn't tell you?" Napoleon asked, knowing damn well Illya hadn't, and did not intend to. He ignored Illya's little headshake in his peripheral vision.
"Peril couldn't miss your Bern debut," Napoleon said. "I took care of handing our nazis off to Waverly and the Swiss authorities. "
Gaby glanced between them both, looking incredulous.
"They were unconscious," Illya justified, shoulders bunching up. "Even Cowboy is able to handle two people who are unconscious."
Gaby raised her eyebrows. "And Waverly?"
"Was delighted," Napoleon lied shamelessly.
Gaby looked as disapproving as a woman having a truly superlative evening could look, and started walking again. Slightly more slowly, which was excellent timing. Clearly, champagne and dessert (possibly something with strawberries?) was next on the evening's program.
"So you saw my performance," she said leadingly to Illya.
"Yes," Illya said and did not immediately elaborate.
They continued on, past neat grey streets, brightly lit storefronts. Napoleon looked up, beyond the streetlights, to the dark sky. The wind against his face was damp, but they would be at a cozy restaurant before it started raining.
"You danced well," Illya said stiffly.
Napoleon rolled his eyes. High praise. But judging by the way Gaby's generous lips curved in a pleased smile, she took Illya's words as such.
"Yes, I did," she said simply. Gaby pivoted on her toe, took two steps - light as a stone skipping across water- and leapt into Illya's arms.
Illya shoved his satchel out of the way with his elbow and smoothly picked her up, holding her over his head in a textbook-perfect lift. The motion looked effortless. Knowing that Gaby had spent six months in dance studios and hotel rooms practicing, that she'd demanded Illya's help one night and he'd wordlessly volunteered every evening after, only enhanced the beauty of the motion.
Illya stared up at her. Napoleon knew that during a pas de deux, the male dancer was supposed to gaze at his partner with adoration but he doubted the expression on Illya's face owed anything to artifice.
Gaby was still holding her bouquet in one hand. With the other, she reached down and cupped Illya's cheek.
"Ah!" Napoleon said cheerfully. He pointed across the street to a brightly like restaurant. "We're just in time to make our reservation."
Illya and Gaby both jerked their heads to look at him, Gaby still held over Illya's head.
Then their gazes found the restaurant across the street. The hostess spotted them and pulled the door open.
"Solo, you made dinner reservations?" she asked. "Illya, put me down."
Illya carried her across the street first, and then set her carefully on the doorstep.
"So after your smashing success in Bern," Napoleon asked over champagne and an airy lemon and strawberry dacquoise, "have we lost you to the lure of the stage?"
Illya, who had been in the process of bringing a cup of coffee to his mouth, froze. Clearly, the thought that Gaby might enjoy dancing enough to consider a career change had not occurred to him. For one instant he looked frightened and then he shot Napoleon an extremely grumpy look.
Gaby snorted and speared a half of a strawberry from the top of her cake. "Not after the artistic director sacked me."
"What?" Illya looked affronted. As if he didn't find the prospect of Gaby's continued ballet career personally unpleasant.
"I was late and I ripped my costume," Gaby said, like she was explaining that the sky was blue. "I was lucky he just fired me. Any of my old instructors in Berlin would have shot me for that." She popped the strawberry into her mouth. "And I can't leave you two to stumble along without me, can I?"
Illya stared down at his coffee, pretending he wasn't relieved. Napoleon ignored Gaby hooking her ankle around Illya's - or would, at least, until Gaby had drunk another glass of champagne.
"Besides," she continued, going for another forkful of cake. "If I stayed with the ballet, how often would I get to chase a Nazi through the city?"