Authors: V. J. Banis
Tags: #gay, #camp, #parody, #man from U.N.C.L.E., #humor
hat's happening?” The voice, Jackie guessed in the darkness, belonged to one of the acrobats.
“To put it very simply, we're being kidnapped.” Jackie slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand as the truck star
ted up, moving slowly at first as they went down the alley, and then gathering speed as they apparently reached the street.
“But why?” This was a feminine voice, belonging to one of the singing group.
“It's a little hard to explain,” Jackie answered. He was thinking frantically. It had been his assumption that they would only be held, or even driven around, until the assassination had been completed at the theater. The fact that more elaborate plans had been made must mean that they weren't any of them intended to live to tell what had happened. Some accident would happen, something that would effectively destroy this truck, and them with it. And for the moment, he was at a loss how he could prevent it.
He thought of Aunt Nasturtia, who even now would be driving off with her carful of bogus entertainers. She was only expecting to delay them brieflyâbut unless he could escape from the interior of this fast moving truck, there would be no performers to start the show.
Moving carefully in the dark, he reached inside his mouth with one hand. At the back of his mouth, one wisdom tooth came loose in answer to his tugging. It was a fake, a clever counterfeit of a tooth that was in actuality a miniature bomb, a capsule of high-powered explosives that escaped detection in the event of a search, and gave him an ace in the hole.
The explosive would be sufficient to blow open the door of the van, of that he was certain. But the fallacy in that plan was apparent. The explosion would be certain to harm the people inside the van as well.
“What's going to happen to us?” Someone asked in the darkness.
“Nothing, if I can help it,” Jackie assured him. “But to do that, I've got to get out of here somehow. Does anyone have a match?”
“I've got a lighter,” the pianist suggested. “But where in blazes are you?”
“Follow my voice,” Jackie instructed, “and keep talking. I'll try to find you too.”
He moved slowly, balancing himself to the sway of the truck, following the sound of the pianist's voice. He reached out, and found himself with a handful of something that, despite the fabric covering it, was obviously masculine.
“I think you found me,” the pianist said with a chuckle. He did not, Jackie noticed, move away from
the hand that was still holding him gently.
“Nice to meet you,” Jackie said into the darkness. He gave the tensing flesh a gentle squeeze. It would be pleasant...but there was work to be done, he reminded himself with a sigh, and took his hand away, feeling for the lighter instead.
He answered the pianist's smile in the flickering light from the lighter before he devoted his attention to the interior of the van.
“Just as I thought,” he said aloud. “A hatch in the top.”
The others looked up too, and saw the square opening in the roof of the van, covered with a trapdoor type covering.
“Someone will have to boost me up there,” Jackie said, flicking out the lighter as it began to grow too warm to hold.
“That's right down our alley,” one of the acrobats said. He moved toward where Jackie was standing. “Give me your hand.”
Jackie reached for and found the hand of the acrobat. The other tumbler joined them, and the two of them managed easily to lift the agent upward.
It was no easy task. The truck was moving rapidly now, and turning frequently, following some rambling route. It took precision balance on the part of the two men to hold him up. Jackie reached the door above and pushed. It refused to budge.
“Maybe if one of us tried,” the one fellow below suggested.
“No, help me get my shoe off,” Jackie said instead. They managed to remove his shoe and hand it up to him. Jackie twisted the heel and it gave to reveal a concealed compartment. Inside was a small metal bar, designed to be used as a lever. Handing his shoe back down, he fitted the bar into the hatch and pried. It yielded, very slowly at first and then, with a groan of rusty hinges, it swung upward. The wind caught it and helped to fling it all the way back.
“That's it. Hang on to me until I get a good grip up here.” With the two men below supporting him, Jackie managed to lift himself half out of the opening. He signaled to them to let go.
“I don't know what will happen,” he warned them as he hung suspended. “Get down on the floor and cover your heads with your arms, just in case there's a crash. I'll do what I can to prevent it.”
With his miniature bomb in his hand, he pulled himself up and onto the top of the truck. They were moving out of the city now, on some back street that he didn't recognize. As he crouched on the domed top of the truck, a shot rang out, and a bullet ricocheted off the metal near him.
He looked behind. The Cadillac limousine was following them, and one of the men in the car had spotted him. Keeping as low as possible, Jackie inched toward the front of the truck. He had to get inside the cab, and somehow gain control of the truck.
Behind him, the Cadillac was pulling closer, the gunman trying to get a better aim at him. And they were succeeding. The bullets were whizzing ever closer. Jackie held the explosive capsule in his hand. He could fling it now, and put the Cadillac out of commissionâbut that would leave him virtually weaponless. He might need the fake tooth when he got inside the cab of the truck.
He decided to bide his time. Keeping as low as he possibly could, he crept forward. The truck was moving fast, too fast for his comfort. One false move and he would be thrown free.
He neared the cab of the truckâthe going was getting trickier. Now he would have to go over the side and reach the door. Even then, he would have to prevent himself from being knocked off the running board by the driver.
He took a firm hold on a piece of molding and began to lower himself over the side. Behind them, the men in the Cadillac had spotted him again and guessed his maneuver. They were pulling out to come alongside the truck. He would be a sitting duck for them.
He watched as the big car nosed into the left lane and shot forward, racing toward him. With one hand, Jackie twisted the capsule, setting the detonator, and hurled it at the windshield of the car.
It went off with a powerful noise and a cloud of smoke. The windshield went, and took with it, from what he could see, a good portion of the driver's face. The Cadillac careened crazily across the road and then back. Jackie thought for a moment that it would run right into him, but it didn't. Instead, it sideswiped the cab of the truck and then bounced across the ditch where it came to a stop at last.
The collision had been too slight to do much damage to the truck, but it was enough to cause the driver to come to a sudden stop. Jackie dropped lightly to the ground as the door opened and the driver of the truck leaped out. He had only half turned before Jackie hit him, shooting forward like a rocket. They went down together, hitting the concrete
with a thud.
Jackie had rolled with the man as they fell, and the driver landed beneath him. The landing was enough to stun him, and Jackie put him soundly to sleep with a fist in the jaw.
There was a shot behind him, and sparks flew up from the spot where the bullet struck the roadway. Jackie fell flat, turning as he dropped. The other man from the truck was firing from inside.
The driver's gun lay inches away. Jackie stretched, reaching it at last with his fingers. He crawled behind the scant bulk of the driver's body, using the man for a shield.
He couldn't afford to waste bullets on bad shots. He waited, watching intently for that vital second when the man in the truck raised his head to aim again. Jackie fired once, and the man fell against the window sill.
Jackie took only a second to stick his head inside the truck and tell the others that everything was all right now, and that they were on their way back to town. Then, dragging the two men from the truck to the side of the road, he climbed behind the wheel of the truck and turned it carefully around, heading at top speed back into the city.
* * * *
Nasturtia drove away from the theater with a triumphant grin on her face. Everything was going exactly as planned. Now she had only to stall until the coast was clear. She flicked on the radio and tuned it to the station that would be carrying the program.
It was now about eight-fifteen. The program was scheduled to begin at eight-thirty. Jackie had assured her that by eight-forty-five he would be there, and the real performers would be beginning the program. With Ravel's “Bolero,” he had said.
She headed west, making her way surely but subtly away from the theater where they were to do the show. If only her passengers did not suspect anything, or notice the route they were taking.
By eight thirty, she had managed to circle about the city and put them some considerable distance from the theater. But her passengers suddenly noticed the time. One of them tapped angrily on the glass separating the two compartments and pointed to his watch.
Nasturtia, her gray hair concealed by the chauffeur's cap, nodded her head, and proceeded to take yet another wrong turn. This one, however, was recognized for what it was. The man in the back seat drew a gun and waved it at her.
Aunt Nasturtia decided to use the emergency equipment, but which of those switches did what? Jackie had explained it all to her so patiently, and now it had all fled from her memory. With a silent prayer, she flipped one of the switches. There was a click as the rear doors were unlocked. Without thinking to turn the switch back, she tried another. This time the bulletproof glass that protected her from her passengers began to glide downward. In dismay, she tried the last. The gas began pouring into the car with a loud hiss. Regrettably, it did not confine itself to the back seat, but billowed into the front through the opened glass.
Nasturtia rolled her eyes, trying to get a window open. In the back, the passengers had already managed to open windows and were hanging outside,
gulping in fresh air.
She found the buttons that raised and lowered the windows. With the first one, she managed to choke one of the passengers in the rear who had been hanging his head outside the car. He was too slow to escape the ascent of the window, and was pinned by the neck.
Nasturtia made a groggy attempt at another button, but she was too sleepy to make it. The car reeled crazily and veered across the street, coming finally to a violent stop against a utility pole.
Of all the people in the car, only Nasturtia and the man whose head was caught in the window were unconscious. The others were quite conscious enough to start back for the theater.
“ANYTHING YET?” HONEY came back to where Gladiola was standing backstage at the theater. Craig had managed to get the three of them inside as theater personnel. Gladiola, as agreed, was watching as lookout man.
“Not a thing,” she declared wea
ng her eyes. It was already well after eight-thirty. Outside the audience was growing restless and impatient. People were milling about backstage, watching anxiously for some sign of the performers. Mr. Bigelow, whom Honey recognized from the pictures Jackie had shown him, was there, with a handsome young Greek man. The handsome Greek seemed especially nervous over the delay. But then, Honey reflected, he had every reason to be.
“I think you'd better prepare to put the emergency plan into operation,” Aunt Lily suggested. “According to schedule, Jackie should have been here by now. We can't delay much longer.”
The emergency plan called for Honey to begin the show. It was a bold moveâhe would have to walk on stage right past the managers and other personnel, take his seat at the piano, and start as though he belonged there. They were gambling on the probability that no one would dare run on stage and drag him away in front of the entire audience.
They had already managed discreetly to pick out a dressing room that was empty, and there they had hidden clothing for the emergency plan. Honey disappeared inside and emerged a few minutes later in tails.
His heart was pounding loudly as he shouldered his way through the crowd backstage. No one paid him any attentionâthey were all too preoccupied with the delay to notice him until he had pushed past the stage manager. Then, with heads turning sharply in his direction, he straightened his jacket and marched brazenly onstage.
The audience, scarcely likely to know that he was not the intended performer, greeted him with applause, although his tardiness dampened their enthusiasm somewhat.
Honey accepted the applause with a curt little bow and then seated himself at the piano. The program called for the “Bolero”âwhich he did not know. In fact, he still knew nothing but the first movement from the “Moonlight Sonata.” And with that he began the show.
He played with a lack of ability and talent unique in the annals of music, unique even in his own experience. Only by accident did he manage to play any correct notes.
The audience sat as though stunned, as indeed they might well have been. There was no applause when he finished the first movement. He knew only that movement, and so had no choice but to begin again, the number of mistakes increasing the second time through.
With one eye he watched the offstage area. People were glowering and motioning, even shaking their fists at him. So far, however, no one had come after himânor was there any signal from Aunt Lily or Gladiola that Jackie had arrived. Determined to stay where he was until Jackie came to take over, Honey played valiantly on.
Backstage, pandemonium reigned. Everyone was cursing everyone else in barely suppressed voices. Aunt Lily went to stand near Gladiola, so that both would be close to the exit. As luck would have it, however, a curtain concealed them from Mr. Bigelow when they heard him discussing them with a stagehand.
“We'll get him off that stage if we have to shoot him first. And find those two women he was talking to. Lock them up in the basement till this is all over.”
The two women exchanged frightened glances. Things were getting rapidly out of hand, and they could no longer afford to wait here for Jackie. It was time to take cover.
“Come on,” Lily said, dragging Gladiola with her. They reached the dressing room Honey had used and darted inside, leaning anxiously against the door.
“It'll be a matter of minutes before they look for us here,” Lily said, looking about the small room. “The best thing for us to do is find disguises of some sort. There must be costumes here.”
Gladiola checked the closet, which was virtually
bare. She spotted a large trunk and lifted the lid.
“Hot dog,” she exclaimed, holding up a garment. “A whole trunk of costumes.”
“We're in luck.” Aunt Lily left the door and came to the trunk, rummaging through the clothes. “Find something, anything, and get it on fast. We've got to get out of here and disappear into the crowd outside.”
Regrettably, the costumes in the trunk were not the disappearing type. Aunt Lily was finally able to find a costume from “Carmen” that fit her. With the addition of a lace shawl over her gray hair, she looked not unlike one of those notorious cigarette ladies.
“It's hardly inconspicuous, but it will have to do,” she said, smoothing out a paper rose at her waist. “But what about you?”
“They ain't none of this going to fit my fat body,” Gladiola said morosely.
“They must have something here,” Lily insisted. She dug through the outfits again, and came up finally with a full length leotard, bright red. “Here, this stretches,” she said, shoving the fabric into Gladiola's hands.
The material did indeed stretch. The result, however, was like nothing ever seen before. Gladiola's huge figure bulged in the most improbable places beneath the fiery red cloth.
Lily found a tutu, a pink, fluffy affair. The result was even worse, nor did the addition of ballet slippers and a blonde headpiece help.
“Lord, they'll shoot me and ask questions later,” Gladiola said, examining her reflection in the mirror.
“It's the best we can do,” Lily said philosophically. “Besides, they know that there are dancers in the show, but not what kind. With luck, they'll just think you're a ballerina.”
Gladiola snorted her disbelief, but she followed close behind Aunt Lily as she opened the door and slipped out of the room.
“Best split up,” Lily said in a whisper. “I'll circle around to the other side of the stage, you stay over this way. Keep your eyes peeled for Jackie. It's up to him now.”
Gladiola positioned herself in the protective safety of a curtain. With an indolent sway of her hips, Lily made her way slowly through the crowds, acting for all the world as though she were in her realm.
She reached the opposite side of the backstage area without incident. On the stage, Honey had just begun the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” for the third time, to the growing annoyance of the audience, who were talking loudly now, voicing their protests.
Aunt Lily looked back over her shoulder, at precisely the wrong moment. Bigelow emerged from behind a flat and saw her. His eyes narrowed as he recognized her despite the disguise. She saw his hand move toward his jacket; she didn't have to be told that he had a gun there.
The stage hands were all busy watching Honey, trying frantically to get his attention. It was her only route of escape. Swallowing mightily, she stepped past them, and on to the stage.
Even Honey was startled by her unexpected appearance, enough so that he stopped playing. Lily flashed him a smile and hurried across the stage. She was about to exit from the opposite side, when she saw the stagehand to whom Bigelow had spoken waiting for her.
There was nothing to do but remain where she was. She turned and curtsied in the direction of the audience. Then, stepping closer to the footlights, she cleared her throat and began to sing the only song she could remember in its entiretyâ“The Last Rose of Summer”âin a cracked, off-pitch voice.
At the piano, a bewildered Honey was trying desperately to offer her assistance by striking keys that resembled slightly the notes she was singing. By the time she had managed the first verse, they were very nearly together.
Gladiola, however, chose to join them for the second verse. The choice was not so much hers as dictated by necessity, for she had been spotted by Bigelow's friend. She had seen the others safe on the stage, and it seemed only right that she should join them. With a loud whoop that was intended for a high C, she bounded onto the stage, arms flailing, toes pointed. Her impersonation of a ballerina was somewhat marred by her lack of grace, and her ludicrous appearance. All in all, the effect was rather that of a mad water buffalo, in tutu and tights, charging across the stage.
The spectacle was one the likes of which no one in the audience had seen before. Mercifully, from their standpoint, it was brief. Bigelow gave the order to drop the curtain. It came down swiftly, trapping Honey and Gladiola behind it, and leaving Lily in front. Lily looked behind her, assessed the situation promptly, and scrambled down over the footlights to the aisle. It was time to make an escape.
A stage hand appeared from the wings and bounded after her, in hot pursuit up the aisle, while the members of the audience watched in astonishment.
The man had almost caught up with her when Lily heard Craig Mathews' welcome voice. “Oh, no you don't,” he said loudly.
Lily stopped and looked back in time to see Craig fell the man with one solid blow to the jaw. “You all right?” he asked, looking up at her.
“I think so,” she panted, giving him a wan smile. She opened her mouth to explain to him that something had gone wrong, but the words froze in her throat. From backstage, they heard the sound of gunshots, loud and ominous.
Lily and Craig exchanged frightened glances. “Come on,” he said, breaking the spell. He ran back down the aisle toward the stage, with Lily close behind him.
* * * *
Gladiola was scarcely aware of the descending curtain; she was, in fact, rather enjoying her dance debut. She made one final leap, right into the arms of Bigelow himself. Amid squeals and yelps, the two of them fell to the floor together.
Honey made a dash for the wings. Nick had appeared on the scene as well, and he stepped in front of the piano virtuoso, gun drawn.
It was at that moment that Jackie appeared, gun in hand. He fired once, shooting the gun from Nick's hand. Nick turned and would have bolted, but another bullet lodged in his ankle, and he fell to the floor.
Bigelow was still on the floor, helpless beneath
Gladiola's considerable weight. Bigelow's other henchman, the stage hand, hesitated only briefly before raising his hand.
Craig arrived seconds later, with Lily close at his heels. It took only minutes to clear everything up. Duval, the C.I.A. chief, was summoned from the audience, along with Miss Temple who, under the guise of going to powder her nose, was trying to escape. Duval was quickly apprised of the situation and, by the time the carload of bogus performers arrived, with Nasturtia as their prisoner, there were plenty of reinforcements on hand to help corral them.
It proved to be a highly successful venture. Nick, as it turned out, was the chief of operations for the entire American branch of Butterfly, and Bigelow was his right hand man. Never before had arrests been made of two individuals so high in the ranks of that organization, and Craig was promised a just reward for his efforts.
The show, finally, was able to go on, with the real performers making appearances. Apologies were made to the audience, and brief explanations, and Honey, Gladiola and Lily were all called to the stage to take bows. After the initial shock, the audience had found their show quite amusing after all.
“Well, we gambled, but it looks like we won,” Jackie said to Craig as they watched the last of the show from the wings.
Craig, however, seemed to be a thousand miles away. After a silence, he finally said, “You know, that conversation we had before, about my being attracted to another male?”
“Do I?” Jackie asked with a grin. “Have you made
up your mind yet?”
Craig nodded his head solemnly. “Yes, I know now that I'll never be happy until I try it, and I've decided to try it right away, tonight, before I chicken out.”
Jackie's heart caught in his throat. There was no more delightful climax to a case than a bedroom tumble with a new playmate, particularly someone as handsome andâwell, virginal as Craig.
“I think that's the nicest thing I've heard in months,” he said, with tears of happiness in his eyes. Already he could envision Craig, in naked glory, in his arms. They wouldn't either of them get any sleep tonight.
Craig smiled faintly. He was too occupied with his thoughts to be even aware of what was going on around him.
“Hey, I'll need the address of your apartment,” Jackie reminded him. He couldn't very well take Craig to Aunt Lily's, where he shared a room with Honey.
“What?” Craig asked dimly. “Oh, my apartment. Sure, I'll write it down.” He wrote the address on a scrap of paper and handed it to Jackie. “There's always a key in the mailbox.”
* * * *
Jackie could hardly wait for the evening to pass. The thought of his night with Craig had him in a virtual state of hysteria by the time he finally dropped Aunt Lily and the other women off at the house. Honey had gone separately, explaining that he had plans for the evening. Not, Jackie had thought with pride, as nice as mineâbut he hadn't said it aloud. He never liked to gloat over his triumphs.
He found Craig's apartment building without difficulty. He was even later than he had anticipated, but the delay had been justified. He had stopped on the way for cold champagne, and glasses.