Read The Watercress File: Being the Further Adventures of That Man from C. A. M. P. Online

Authors: V. J. Banis

Tags: #gay, #camp, #parody, #man from U.N.C.L.E., #humor

The Watercress File: Being the Further Adventures of That Man from C. A. M. P. (6 page)

Just how he should go about turning this case over to the C.I.A. remained something of a puzzle to Jackie. He could hardly go to the chief, since that would mean going through Miss Temple, and perhaps tipping her off to the details. Craig was decidedly the best bet, but he would have to see Craig privately. With that in mind, he telephoned and left a message for Craig to contact him, adding that it was urgent.

That brought a suggestion that someone else handle the matter, which Jackie declined, and a request for information regarding the problem, which Jackie again declined. The young man on the other end of the line sounded both disappointed and annoyed by the time the conversation was ended.

Nevertheless, Craig did call, in the middle of the afternoon. Jackie explained that he could not go into details over the phone and, although Craig sounded dubious, he finally agreed to meet Jackie for a drink later in the afternoon.

* * * *

At first, Craig was cold and distant, as he had been at their first meeting. As Jackie explained, quickly and efficiently, the situation that had developed, Craig lost his aloofness and became all attention.

“Miss Temple?” he said finally, aghast. “But that's not possible...or is it...?”

Jackie allowed him to contemplate the matter for a moment or two before going on. “As you can see for yourself, it's a touchy situation. One could hardly make a charge without being absolutely certain of being able to prove it. Personally, I think it would be well worth your while to investigate it, strictly on the Q.T. That way, if nothing comes of it, you haven't caused any embarrassment for yourself, or for anybody else. And if it all checks out, then it will be a fine feather in your cap.”

“You're right, of course.” Craig was frowning thoughtfully as he swirled his drink about in his glass.
“But I'll need some help.”

Jackie said nothing, waiting for the handsome agent to continue.

“I'm not too keen on your outfit, or on your kind. I guess you know that.” Craig softened the remark with an apologetic, heart-melting grin. His Irish eyes were smiling, and just like the song they were stealing Jackie's heart away.

“Still, I have to admit you're a sharp operator,” Craig continued. “What do you say, how about giving me a hand with this one, at least until I've something definite to go on?”

Jackie remembered his promise to Aunt Lily. He hated to involve his zany relatives in the case at all, but he couldn't go back on his word—and anyway, it was entirely possible they might be useful. After all, until they had a definite case, he and Craig would be working on their own.

“It's a deal,” he said finally. “But on one condition.”

“What's that?”

“You have to let my aunts and cousins help too.” Ignoring Craig's dismayed expression, Jackie explained quickly about WATERCRESS and its intended functions, and about his promise to Aunt Lily.

“They can't hurt anything,” he finished. “And I've a feeling we might need their help.”

“All right,” Craig gave in finally. “But I have a feeling myself. I have a feeling we'll both regret this before it's all over.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

As
it developed, the two agents were to need the help of WATERCRESS sooner than expected. In discussing their plans, it soon became evident to Jackie and Craig that the first step would be to check out Miss Temple. If there was an assassination plot underway, and the message had been intended for her, then that was the logical way to begin foiling the plot.

It was obvious, however, that neither Jackie nor Craig, both of whom were known
to her, could attempt to do any snooping. That meant calling in someone else to help.

“I still don't like it,” Craig objected as they discussed the plan that Jackie had come up with. “Your aunts are both charming ladies, I'm sure, but I don't think either one of them has the brains to accomplish anything for us. Even if they did, it's just too dangerous a job to send them out on.”

“We don't have much choice,” Jackie pointed out to him. “Someone has got to get inside Miss Temple's apartment and see what can be found there. Neither one of us could get away with it; and besides, as long as Aunt Lily and Aunt Nasturtia are posing as cosmetic salesladies, I don't see that there'll be too much danger for them. Just to be on the safe side, I'll equip them with warning signals, and hang around outside. If anything goes wrong, they can always let me know and I can be there in time to prevent anything from happening.”

“I guess you're right,” Craig admitted begrudgingly. “But I still don't have much faith in them.”

Although he would not admit to them before Craig, Jackie too had his doubts. Fond as he was of his aunts, he knew them to be scatterbrained and silly, dangerous traits in the spying profession. Still, as he had argued, they were the most likely prospects for getting inside Miss Temple's apartment and “casing” the place.

Aunt Lily and Aunt Nasturtia, however, were quite confident, and excited beyond compare. The plan was a simple one. They were to appear at Miss Temple's door as saleswomen, and talk their way inside. Once there, Aunt Nasturtia would create a diversion by fainting. While Miss Temple was helping with Nasturtia, Lily would have her opportunity to look around for anything of particular interest.

“But what exactly will I be looking for?” Aunt Lily asked when the plan had been discussed.

“That's the difficult part,” Jackie answered. “I don't know myself. You'll have to use your own judgment, and just look for anything that looks really out of the ordinary.”

He gave her a large corsage to be pinned to the bodice of her dress. “It's a camera,” he explained, showing her the mechanism concealed in the artificial blossoms. “When you get inside the door, just touch this switch, and it will start filming. It will continue automatically for an hour.”

“Oh, how exciting.”

“Just remember to start it when you get inside,” he reminded her. He also gave each of them small, trivial-looking lockets to be worn about their necks on small gold chains. “These are alarms. If anything goes wrong, break the chain with a quick yank. That'll bring me running from outside.”

* * * *

A short time later, Jackie was seated in a car outside the apartment building in which Miss Temple lived. He had dropped Aunt Lily and Aunt Nasturtia two blocks away, so that they would not be seen with him. That effort was wasted, however, for as they approached on the sidewalk, Aunt Nasturtia saw him and waved cheerfully. Jackie groaned inwardly and looked away, hoping Miss Temple had not been at her window to see the action.

Nasturtia was fairly bubbling over with excitement as they went up in the elevator. Aunt Lily, however, had grown nervous now that the moment was at hand. She actually jumped when the door opened in response to her knock, and Miss Temple herself stood before them.

“Savon calling,” Lily managed to chirp, swallowing weakly.

“We've come to show you how you too can be beautiful,” Nasturtia added with a toothy smile.

Miss Temple surveyed the two of them. “You should practice what you preach,” she said coldly, starting to close the door.

Aunt Lily recovered her senses in time to block the closing of the door with one foot. “Oh, we won't take but a minute of your time, and we do have some wonderful things to show you.”

“Would it matter in the least if I promised to believe it?” Miss Temple asked sarcastically. She was trying to force the door closed, but Aunt Lily had taken advantage of an opportunity to squeeze halfway inside. Now she was stubbornly holding her ground.

“Oh, all right,” Miss Temple surrendered finally, opening the door so quickly that Aunt Lily all but fell into the room. “But make it quick, will you?”

The two swept triumphantly into the room. Aunt Lily's eyes were everywhere, darting about in search of any clue she might find. Miss Temple had crossed the room to pour herself a drink from a crystal decanter.

“Psst,” Aunt Nasturtia asked in a loud stage whisper that would easily have carried for blocks, “did you remember the camera?”

Miss Temple looked up with her eyes wide. “What was that?” she demanded sharply.

Aunt Lily shot a ferocious glance at Nasturtia, and sought desperately for an explanation. “Oh, I'm afraid my
assistant
is a bit presumptuous. You see, we sometimes carry a camera with us when we're demonstrating Savon cosmetics, so that we can take before-and-after pictures. But I'm sure that's hardly the sort of thing you'd want to participate in.”

“Hardly,” Miss Temple agreed. Although her tone was dry, she at least seemed to accept the explanation, to Aunt Lily's relief. With Miss Temple watching her so closely, however, Aunt Lily had not yet had an opportunity to start the camera. Heaven only knew what important clues she was passing by.

According to the plan, it should have been time for Nasturtia to faint. There was scarcely time for this to be attempted, however, before the doorbell rang again. Miss Temple glowered at it and at her two unwelcome guests before she went to answer it.

Aunt Lily could not see who was at the door, but the voices carried clearly.

“Important message,” a male voice explained. “It's from Bigelow himself.”

Aunt Lily's pulse quickened as she realized they might have arrived at a highly crucial moment. She strained her ears to hear more, but the conversation was rudely interrupted by the fact that Aunt Nasturtia did pick that precise moment, after all, to faint.

“Oh, Nasturtia,” Aunt Lily wailed, fighting down an urge to kick her sister bodily. “Get off that floor.”

Miss Temple had returned from the door, and the messenger was gone—and as if things weren't bad enough, Lily discovered that Nasturtia was not acting. She had really and truly fainted!

“Oh,” she wailed loudly, “she really has fainted”

“Well you surely didn't think she was just taking a nap, did you?” Miss Temple asked with sarcasm. “Maybe I should get her some water.”

It would have been an ideal time to look about the room, except that, in her concern for her sister, Aunt Lily tried to loosen Nasturtia's blouse, and managed instead to break the slender chain that held the little
locket.

“Oh, dear,” she gasped as she realized the alarm would be sounding downstairs, summoning Jackie to the rescue.

Miss Temple had returned with a glass of water. Abandoning decorum, Aunt Lily tossed it into Nasturtia's face. Nasturtia revived quickly, sputtering and gasping like a fish out of water.

“Come on,” Lily ordered, virtually dragging the other woman to her feet. “We're finished here.”

With Miss Temple staring after them in bewilderment, they fled from the apartment, down the hall and into the arms of Jackie, who was indeed on his way to rescue them.

All in all, Jackie concluded as he heard Aunt Lily's sobbing explanation, it had not been a very successful attempt at espionage.

* * * *

“Well, it wasn't a total loss,” Craig sympathized when the group had returned to the house. “We at least learned that someone higher up than Miss Temple is called Bigelow.”

“But there must be hundreds of Bigelows in the city,” Jackie pointed out. “How do we find out which one it is that we want?”

“There's only eleven,” Craig said with a grin. “And we find out the hard way—by checking out each one of them.”

“Oh, then we'll still be needed,” Lily said with obvious relief.

Jackie frowned in Craig's direction. He was genuinely sorry he had allowed the others to become involved at all; but Aunt Lily was correct—it would save a lot of time if they all checked out the Bigelows in the city.

* * * *

Honey and Gladiola went together. Honey did not feel quite safe by himself, and it was the consensus of opinion that Gladiola was not bright enough to attempt anything by herself.

The rotting old boarding house before which they found themselves certainly lent itself to an undercover operation. Somewhat isolated from the other houses in the none-too-respectable neighborhood, and exuding an aura of disrepute, it looked the sort of place that would spawn evil of any sort.

“How do you suppose we should go about this?” Honey asked as they lingered outside. Their instructions had been merely to meet the Bigelow at this address, if possible, and size him up as a possible agent.

Gladiola screwed up her face thoughtfully; it was evident that mental concentration was no small effort for her. “I don't see why we couldn't just explain to them who we are, and ask them open-like if they are the ones we are looking for.”

Honey sighed and rolled his eyes. “Oh, no, that would never do, even I know that. I suppose we'll just have to play it by ear, so to speak.”

The house itself offered them one possibility; it bore a sign advertising rooms for rent. If all else failed, Honey decided they could use that as an excuse to get inside.

The ringing of the antiquated doorbell was answered after a long pause by a rather sleazy and plump blonde in a red kimono that was only slightly more faded than she was. A cigarette dangled from her smeared mouth, and she squinted through the smoke to study them suspiciously.

“Yeah?” she asked finally in a nasal voice.

“Mr. Bigelow?” Honey asked timidly. He had little experience in such matters, but this looked to him like what Aunt Lily described as a “painted woman.”

“Whatdoyawant?” the blonde growled in one breath, the cigarette bobbing as her lips moved.

Honey hesitated. Surely this wasn't Mr. Bigelow? But then, no one had really said that it had to be a mister. And if this was Miss Bigelow, then this was the person he wanted to talk to.

“I'm here to talk business,” he said in a lower voice that he hoped was appropriately conspiratorial. “I think you know what I mean.”

The blonde eyed him slowly, looking him up and down, and then took a minute longer to study Gladiola, who bristled slightly in indignation.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” she admitted finally. “But we better not talk out here.”

Honey gave Gladiola a triumphant wink. That remark certainly suggested underground activities, clandestine doings. Happily, he followed the blonde inside, Gladiola tagging along behind.

“Who'd you say sent you?” the blonde asked when they were in the dim, musty hallway.

Honey moved still closer to her and whispered “Butterfly.”

“Ah, go on.” The blonde did not appear at all certain whether or not she should take him seriously. “Don't kid an old bag.”

“I wouldn't kid you—any more than Miss Temple
would.”

“Shirley Temple?” His hostess was aghast. “Look, we specialize in variety here, but I ain't got nobody of that type. Give me another try, okay? What would you like?”

The conversation seemed, to Honey, to be growing rapidly more confusing. “Butterfly,” he repeated in a more emphatic tone.

The blonde shook her head and gave him a disappointed look. “Boy, I've had ‘em in here, they wanted a cow, or a sheep—once even a boa constrictor. But you're the first one ever went the butterfly route. Come on now, you're puttin' me on, nobody's that small. You're teasing me.”

Honey stubbornly shook his head no. He was convinced he was on the track now, and he would not be dissuaded.

The blonde shrugged. “Okay, Charlie. Male or female butterfly?”

Honey was unprepared for that question. His instinct was to answer the former, but this was not a matter of personal pleasure, this was business. “Whoever knows the most,” he answered.

“Hell, how should I know how smart it is. Look, have you ever tried ‘around the world?' It's pretty great if you never tried it.”

Honey had to admit that he had not, but his instinct told him that this was a clue of some sort, perhaps a password. “I'm game for anything,” he said with a wicked leer.

“Well, that's better. Why don't I show your Mammy here into the parlor, and you can go up to see Marie. She's our best girl.”

“Where he goes, I go,” Gladiola declared emphatically, with a tone and an expression that brooked no argument.

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