"How is the shoulder," Clair asked, phone balanced in the crook of her neck as she shuffled the papers on her desk into a neater pile.
"Back to normal, as far as I'm concerned," Illya replied. "Physical therapy completed. I have to requalify at the gun range next week and, of course, pass the physical examination. I hope at that point to be cleared for the field."
When Illya Kuryakin dislocated his shoulder for the sixth time in two years, the orthopedist had insisted surgery was necessary before the shoulder socket was permanently damaged. No matter how Illya argued, the medical department would not budge on the subject.
Clair couldn't quite figure out how he managed to dislocate it so often.
Six weeks recovery time after surgery left him restless and bored, which made him very cross. To keep busy he'd been happy to review Clair's dissertation in the weeks before returning to desk duty.
"Why don't you come by headquarters tomorrow and we can have lunch," he said. "I'll return the document and my notes."
"So, don't keep me in suspense. Is it as mediocre as Dr. Forsythe seems to think?"
"Not in the least. It's thoroughly researched and the conclusions are well supported. I can only assume Dr. Forsythe is a fool."
She laughed at that. "Thank you-that's reassuring. It's a boys club in our lab. Or more accurately a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant boys club. And Forsythe, is the biggest WASP in the nest."
"We can talk tomorrow. Noon?"
"Noon, it is."
The next day, Clair walked into U.N.C.L.E. headquarters at 11:55 through the visitor entrance. She'd carefully chosen a navy and gold color-blocked dress,navy tights and low heels. She was aiming to dress more professionally now that she was on the final lap with her doctorate and would soon be job seeking.
She was surprised to see Heather McNabb waiting instead of Illya. Heather's worried expression gave Clair pause.
"What happened?" Clair asked, trying to keep the panic down in her voice.
"There's been an emergency. Illya asked me to bring you up to the lab."
They made their way to the elevator, Heather's hand trembled slightly as she hit the "up" button. The women passed through a series of gray-painted halls and arrived at the main laboratory in the research and development area. Heather pressed the button and the door slid open to reveal a large room where a dozen men in lab coats worked with a quiet urgency. Heather gave Clair's arm a pat as she turned and walked away.
Illya spotted her and came over. He was wearing the dark-framed tinted glasses he used for close work and the glare of overhead lights. And occasionally concussion. She hoped it was only the overhead lights in the lab that prompted the glasses.
He spoke softly, "I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to call. We have an emergency with which I hope you can help."
An older man turned his head at the sound and frowned. "What the hell is this, Kuryakin-you have a date in the middle of a catastrophe?"
"Hardly, Dr. Bryson. This is my friend, Clair Donovan. She's a doctoral candidate in biology whose area of research may be useful in solving our problem. Clair, Dr. Bryson is our chief scientist in R and D."
"There are security implications, Kuryakin. She doesn't have clearance."
"That shouldn't be a problem, sir. Mr. Waverly knows Clair very well. Her father was Jack Donovan."
Dr. Bryson looked at her closely, shaking his head in recognition. "My god, that name takes me back. I remember your father very well. To be honest, you hardly look old enough to be a graduate student, but clearly we are desperate enough to recruit children."
"What happened?" Clair asked, ignoring the "too young" inference and slipping off her coat.
"Earlier this morning, Napoleon and a young woman, a Miss Lily Elkin, were exposed to a toxic gas," Illya began. "It caused severe muscular pain and spasming. They are still able to breath on their own, but the doctors are afraid their lungs and heart muscles will soon be affected. If you are up to it, it might help if you see them."
She swallowed and nodded. "Let's go."
Medical was on the same floor as the lab, down several more corridors. "It shouldn't have happened," Illya said, with a trace of bitterness. "It was a routine assignment-one of dozens of boring 'one man' jobs he performed while I was out of commission. There was no reason to assume the job would be dangerous."
They arrived at the doorway to medical and Illya stopped and turned to face her. "There isn't anything I can say that will prepare you. I'm sorry."
"I'm ready." She wasn't ready, but decided that facing it head on was the only option.
Illya pressed the button and the door slid open. He led her through the medical area, which was laid out like a small hospital with a reception area, nurses desk, treatment rooms and deeper within, operating room, XRAY and patient rooms. They stopped outside one of the patient rooms and Illya held the curtain back so she could enter.
In truth, nothing could have prepared her for the sight of Napoleon. Hands fisted tightly, his arms and legs were twisted unnaturally and completely rigid. But as upsetting as that sight was, his face was truly frightening. The normally handsome features were frozen in a terrifying grimace, eyes squeezed shut, teeth bared in a horrible grin.
"Miss Elkin's condition is much like Napoleon's. Poor girl, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a secretary showing him to an office. The man he was supposed to meet with wasn't there, so she asked if he wanted some coffee. Apparently, before she could leave the office, this gas was emitted into the room."
"How long before they were found?" she asked.
"We don't really know. Napoleon was able to call us on his communicator, but by the time help arrived he was no longer able to speak."
Illya leaned forward and gently brushed a lock of dark hair back from Napoleon's forehead. He leaned over and whispered something to his partner-something that sounded like "hold on."
They went back to the lab. Clair was briefed on the evidence they had: a report of the trace elements found in the gas canister, the initial blood and muscle tissue biopsy samples. As time went on, additional samples were brought from medical, taken every six hours from the exposure.
Progress felt heartbreakingly slow as they evaluated the victims' samples against normal blood and tissue. There was much preliminary work to do, all of which felt inconsequential. But if they missed some trivial aspect, they could fail to find the cure. They worked for hours, looking at the changes in the blood and tissue as their conditions worsened, compiling data and researching related medical conditions found in journals.
Clair took on the task of recording their findings on the large pad of paper clipped to an easel. As each page was filled with information, she tore it off and taped it to the wall. Eventually, the sheets of paper circled the room. But still there was no breakthrough.
With each tick of the clock, Clair could feel the minutes beating along with her heart. Reports came in from medical, always a little more dire. Food was brought in at mealtimes, and though none of them had much appetite, they all tried to manage a little Chinese food or a slice of pizza. Urns of coffee were swapped out as soon as they were emptied.
A couple of cots were set up in Dr. Bryson's office so the scientists could take turns getting their heads down for a few hours. It felt frivolous to sleep when lives hung in the balance but eventually the first of them succumbed to exhaustion and retreated to sleep.
Illya insisted on taking the same turn as Clair. She was touched that he was so protective, but it was distracting having him rest a few feet away from her. To sleep in another's presence was a strangely intimate thing and her feelings for Illya were complicated. It might have been less stressful to share the office with one of the other men.
Sometime around dawn, they had news from medical that the blood oxygen levels for both victims showed decline. It was a matter of time before Napoleon and the young woman needed to be put on ventilators as their diaphragms lost the ability to force air in and out of their lungs unaided.
By late afternoon, Lily Elkin was on a ventilator. Napoleon was holding his oxygen levels for the present, but it was a matter of time before he would no longer be breathing on his own. The concern was for the inevitabile time when their hearts would no longer effectively pump blood. There were heart-lung bypass machines, but Napoleon and the girl would need to be transferred to a major hospital which would greatly complicate the search for an antidote.
Exhaustion brought the chilled, vaguely nauseated sensation she remembered from college all nighters, but this was a far longer sleepless period than she'd ever experienced. Around ten that night, almost 36 hours after she'd first arrived at headquarters, she and Illya took their next turn to sleep for a couple of hours.
She didn't remember taking off her shoes or laying down, or falling asleep. Her next awareness was Illya calling her name and gently shaking her shoulder. She sat up, rubbing her eyes and feeling no more rested than she did when she stretched out. Slipping her shoes back on, she went to the ladies room and splashed cold water on her face. She didn't recognize the exhausted woman in the mirror.
But somehow, the brief rest had done her good because within the hour, she spotted something in the data. Maybe the latest blood work made the anomaly more apparent, or maybe it was a figment of her desperate imagination but just maybe the puzzle was starting to come together. Clair stood up abruptly and reached for one of the neuro-muscular textbooks on the table. She rubbed her eyes, hoping to focus them better.
Next to her, Illya looked up from his own research and caught her eye.
"You have something?" he said.
"I don't know. It's probably nothing, but I'm looking at one of the antibodies," she said pointing to it on the data chart taped to the wall. "The levels have been increasing with each set of samples. Of course, we all noticed it early on, but it didn't seem significant, since it's not typically associated with muscle tissue. But now I'm looking at a drop in the last couple of batches of this protein enzyme. And there does seem to be a correlation in this journal. "
That wasn't the breakthrough though, but maybe a tiny step forward.
It opened up a line of research that proved promising and after a few dozen twists and turns that took them miles from Clair's initial discovery, the team had cobbled together a possible treatment protocol. In another few hours, the lab had synthesized a potential antidote. By the time it was ready, Napoleon lost his oxygen saturation level battle and had been put on a ventilator. The team's unspoken wish was that it wasn't too late.
At 9:00 am, almost 48 hours after Napoleon and Lily's exposure, the protocol was started on both patients. Ideally, they would have tested it with Napoleon first and then given it to Miss Elkin, a civilian. But both were in such dire straits that they were getting the treatment simultaneously: the antidote to counteract the nerve gas given in conjunction with steroids to relieve the inflammation that caused the muscle rigidity.
Over the course of the next four hours, both Napoleon and Miss Elkin improved. Their hearts were beating more effectively, and plans were underway to take them off the ventilators. The atmosphere in the lab was changed, the tension and anxiety lifting like morning fog being burned away by the sun. The members of the lab team with families left for home, committed to race back if needed.
The few that were left gathered in medical, keeping an eye on the patients and napping in some of the empty cubicles. Dr. Bryson, Illya and Clair sat with the unconscious Napoleon who was now off the ventilator and breathing on his own. There was something incredibly comforting in watching the unaided rise and fall of his chest. While his face and limbs had not totally relaxed, he no longer looked as if he were wearing a Halloween mask.
"Clair, Kuryakin tells me that you'll receive your doctorate soon," Bryson said.
"I hope to, though I'm not sure it's the given Illya thinks it is."
"Judging from the last few days, I can't imagine he would be wrong. I'd like to offer you a position here. Now. Not contingent on your degree."
She could do little beyond stare open-mouthed at him. Working for U.N.C.L.E. The idea had never crossed her mind; in fact, it unnerved her completely. "It's certainly a flattering offer, sir. I hardly know what to say."
"Well I hope after consideration you will say yes and can continue the family tradition with U.N.C.L.E," he said. If he only knew what a sad and painful tradition that was, he might have tried another argument. "Please think about it."
"I will," she agreed. She would find it hard to think about anything else. Illya glanced at her, his expression oddly hopeful. She didn't know what to make of that.
If this experience had taught her anything, it was that she was ill equipped being a front row seat to the danger her friends lived with. While she had been busy with her education, of course they were in danger, but she wasn't aware in the same way she would be if she worked here.
In the last few years, she'd seen Illya and Napoleon three or four times a year. But almost every time she saw them, one or the other had a bandage, or a limp or bruises. If she took the job, she would know every detail of how they got the injuries. She would know how close they came to death.
The bigger elephant in the room were her feelings for Illya. She'd had a crush on him in her teens, a secret she guarded carefully. When she got to college, she recognized that the best cure for a crush was to get some real dating experience. She'd enjoyed her time at university, and by graduate school had some serious relationships with men, some of them very meaningful. Recently very adult feelings for Illya had been brewing within her. Seeing him at work had the potential to be awkward and painful.
Around 7:00 pm, the nurse came in to check Napoleon's vitals. The flurry of activity as she took his temperature and blood pressure roused him.
"Well, sleepy head," the nurse said, smiling as he opened his eyes. "You decided to join the party."
Napoleon looked around the room. "What did I miss?" He groaned and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Pain?" she asked. At his wince, she continued, "I'll let the doctor know. It's not unexpected. Your muscles were severely contracted and will be quite sore. Miss Elkin is having the same issue."
The doctor deemed both patients stable enough to receive pain medication. Soon both were sleeping fairly comfortably.
"I'm heading out," Dr. Bryson said. "Can I give anyone a ride?"
"I'll see Clair home," Illya replied. "But thank you." Bryson bid them goodnight, shaking Clair's hand and patting Illya's shoulder.
"Don't you want to stay and keep an eye on him?" she asked.
"He'll sleep for hours-I'll come back later. And they'll call me if I'm needed. Come on, I'll drive you. It's the least I can do."
He left her briefly to retrieve her dissertation from his office and then drove her back to her apartment. She thought he'd just drop her off, but he parked the car and walked in with her. Clair looked over at him as they rode up in the elevator. He was clearly exhausted. Once they got to her apartment, she unlocked the door and pushed it open. The air smelled faintly of the toast she'd burnt almost three days ago before she'd gone to headquarters.
"I'm starving," Illya said. "You?"
"Definitely. I don't think there is much in the fridge. The deli on the corner is good. We could order."
"It's probably faster if I pick the food up. What would you like?" he asked.
"I think I'm too tired to make such important decisions. Surprise me. And here," she said, pulling her keys out of her bag and handing them to Illya. "I'm going to wash the last three days off. Let yourself back in."
She was tempted to stay in the shower until the water turned cold but she forced herself out of the warm spray. By the time Illya returned, she was dressed in pajamas and robe with her damp hair spread over a towel on her shoulders.
She assembled plates, glasses and silverware and set the table, then popped the lids off two cold Pepsi bottles.
"We have chicken soup, turkey sandwiches and cheesecake," Illya said as he unpacked the paper bag. "I thought this would be comforting."
They unwrapped the sandwiches, and dug into the soup which was still quite hot and smelled wonderfully of garlic, onions and celery.
"I don't believe Dr. Bryson has ever offered someone a job on the spot. You should be very proud. He's incredibly selective."
"I think he was just caught up in the moment. I've had a few other offers. Not as many as the 'boys in the club' but a few. Ironically, I outrank all but one of the seven men in the lab."
"You know their rankings? That's unusual at the doctoral level isn't it?"
"I think it's just about unheard of, but Doctor Forsythe has dedicated a corner of his chalkboard to our names and grade point averages. Which is decidedly strange, since at this point they're fixed. I think it's meant as a punishment of some sort, but I'm not sure who the victims are meant to be."
"I'm not following," Illya says between spoonfuls of soup.
"First ranked in the group is Sam Lowenstein, followed by me. Then trailing behind are the other six guys-each one convinced that they are being cheated out of their birthright by a Jew and a girl. You see, Sam's family owns Lionstone Pharmaceutical, so even if Sam was last in the class he'll head that company eventually. And they think that as soon as I meet an eligible guy I'll give up my career in favor of marriage and babies and thus waste my placement."
"So is Forsythe humiliating them for failing to be at the top, or punishing you and Sam by making you the targets of their anger?"
"That's what is so brilliant. It works either way," she laughed. "A few months ago Sam and I hung around the lab waiting for an experiment to complete; everyone had left for the day. Sam was in a rebellious mood, I guess, and erased the names and GPAs before we left. When we got to the lab the next morning, Dr. Foreskin...I mean Forsythe had rewritten them all."
"Foreskin-very amusing, but dangerous if you say it to the wrong person."
"You're telling me!" she exclaimed.. It's Sam's joke; I think it's funnier if you're Jewish. You know, the irony of this whole "GPA list" is each of the six men below me have ten times the employment offers I've received. Not that they're unqualified, of course. They are in the doctoral program at a major university."
"That doesn't make it less unfair," Illya suggested. He picked up his rather overstuffed turkey sandwich. "Tell me about the job offers."
"One from a big cosmetics company and another from Johnson and Johnson...in their baby and child formulations department. Essentially, wrinkle cream or baby powder."
"Or you could come work for U.N.C.L.E. Be honest, neither of those positions will be as exciting as what we just accomplished."
"If by exciting, you mean a terrifying race against time on an out of control roller coaster while the life of someone dear to me hangs in the balance, then, yes-exciting."
"You saved lives."
"That's a gross exaggeration. At most, I made a tenuous little connection that the rest of the team ran with. And if I didn't someone else would have."
Illya sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. His expression told her he wasn't going to give up. "Time was running out. If you hadn't made the connection when you did, it might have been too late."
She looked down at the table, tears pricking her eyes as she remembered how terrifying it had been. How could she tell Illya that working for the organization that cost both her parents lives would be painful? And being a witness to losing him or Napoleon was more than she could bear.
"Tell me about Sam," Illya said, picking up on her emotional upheaval.
"What can I say about Sam? He comes from money, a big close family: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all living on the upper West Side. And, of course, he's brilliant. By rights he should be a self-centered jerk. Instead, he's one of the kindest people I know." Clair placed her empty soup carton aside.
"His mother told me a story once," she continued. "When Sam was six or seven, his father took him to the Museum of Natural History. Mr. Lowenstein liked walking in all kinds of weather, so though it was a bitter cold day, they bundled up and walked. They passed this newsboy shivering in a thin coat and sneakers with holes in the toes. Sam was so upset, he begged his father to buy the boy a warm coat and boots, offering his own birthday money savings. They had to find a department store. The boy cried when they gave him the coat. Mr. Lowenstein cried. Apparently a dozen passers-by cried."
"He sounds very important to you," Illya said, taking the last bite of his sandwich.
"Well, we were engaged."
Illya choked on his food. Clair stood up to pound on his back. "And you never told me?" he sputtered finally.
"It lasted 48 hours. There really wasn't time."
"I have to hear the whole story, but I think I need cheesecake."
Clair laughed as she filled the kettle for tea. At the time of the proposal she had thought about calling Illya for his always astute advice, but he and Napoleon had been overseas somewhere. And after a couple of days it hadn't mattered any more.
She set out mugs and poured the boiling water over tea bags. They moved to the sofa with their mugs and Clair handed Illya his cheesecake.
"Ready?" she asked as she pulled her legs up and sat cross legged. At his nod, she began, "It probably started with banding together against the overwhelming bigotry, but in time it grew. Sam and I loved each other. We could talk for hours. Then one Sunday afternoon, he got down on one knee and presented me with this beautiful family ring. I was shocked."
"But you said yes." Illya put down his plate of cheesecake, his gaze focussed on her.
"I did. I think I was caught up in the moment. I didn't realize that he hadn't told his parents and when we told them, it didn't go over well. Now, I want to point out that I had very little experience with Jewish people before Sam. I went to Catholic school. I had Jewish friends in college but I didn't realize that marrying a gentile was a sensitive issue. My first clue that something wasn't right was after his mother told me the story about the newsboy and the coat. She said that I would be the perfect wife for Sam, if only I was Jewish."
She took a sip of coffee, watching Illya over the top of the cup. "Sam didn't see this coming?" he asked.
"He was the golden child. He never asked for anything for himself-only to help other people. So he rarely heard the word 'no.' I think he believed they would support whatever he asked for."
"So what happened?"
"Well, Sam put me in a cab so he could talk to his parents. Late that night, he came here and told me that they would agree to our marriage if I converted to Judaism."
"I'm going to assume you didn't, since you're not wearing the engagement ring."
"I thought about it. But the truth is, I'll always be the vicar's granddaughter," Clair said, ruefully. "My faith is important to me. You know, I still go to Mass when I can."
"Must have been a hard decision, though."
"Actually, it wasn't. I think that was how I knew I wasn't meant to marry Sam. I returned the ring. We wouldn't have been happy in the long run. Sam's parents wasted no time in finding him a lovely Jewish girl to wear the lovely ring. Her name is Rachel and I need a date to their wedding. Will you come with me?"
Illya took her hand in his. "I will if you promise to think seriously about Dr. Bryson's offer. You can do important work and make a real difference in the world."
"I'll think about it." she said, squeezing his hand.
To no one's surprise, before the month was out, Clair walked through the door of the New York headquarters as a full fledged U.N.C.L.E. employee. All the reasons why it was a bad idea could be stacked up to reach the ceiling but sometimes a person just had to take the leap, even if it was into thin air.
Also, to no one's surprise, Clair's doctoral committee accepted her dissertation and a few weeks before the end of the year, Columbia University bestowed a Ph.D in Biology in a ceremony attended by the people that mattered most to her.
And in April of the following year, Illya escorted Dr. Clair Donovan to the wedding of Samuel Lowenstein and Rachel Steiner. Dr. Forsythe and the rest of the lab attended with their respective wives, fiancees and girlfriends. There was much curiosity about the mysterious handsome blond man who danced with Clair all evening.
Notes: The Great Quarantine of 2020 continues as does my desire to write. Go figure. Still, it's so much fun to explore these characters and go back to the 1960s. I only wish things like misogyny and bigotry were things of the past.