The fireworks, which heralded the arrival of 1965, were spectacular, but Napoleon had no interest in them. The hope of the new year had been superseded by the hope of survival.
Illya usually ignored Napoleon’s minor ailments but, this time he became concerned about the persistent cough, and insisted he should see a doctor. “You’ve had this cough for weeks, now, Napoleon. It shouldn’t last this long.”
“I’m OK. Just a bit of bronchitis or something – left over from that winter weather, or more likely that fire you set.”
“The effects of smoke inhalation aren’t this long-lasting. And, anyway, I haven’t suffered from it like this.”
“Maybe I should take up menthol cigarettes.”
“Maybe you should give up cigarettes. You’ve seen the reports, haven’t you?”
“Exaggerated – there’s no positive evidence of a cause. How can they possibly know?”
“Statistical evidence, Napoleon. There is a correlation.”
Napoleon coughed, and kept coughing. “Napoleon – my friend – you must see the doctor.”
He developed a temperature, and the cough sometimes woke him up and kept him awake. Observing the exhausted outcome, Illya tried his menacing glare, and eventually Napoleon gave in and went to see his own doctor – rather than the medics in headquarters, who might have taken a strong line about letting him work.
The doctor listened to his chest. “You have quite a wheeze in there, could be just bronchitis, but it could be pneumonia,” he said, folding his stethoscope.
“Could it be anything else?” Napoleon asked, not daring to look at him directly.
The doctor looked at him, however, and asked, “In your work – are you exposed to dangerous fumes, gases – anything like that?”
“Frequently – fumes, gases, poison – you name it. I was in a fire, too, a few weeks ago and had smoke inhalation – as did my partner.”
“Does he have a cough?”
“Is it a smoky atmosphere in your workplace?”
“No, our offices are air-conditioned. And my partner doesn’t smoke.”
“How much do you smoke?” he said.
“Depends. Pack a day.”
“Just one pack?”
“Well, maybe two sometimes. It’s a stressful job.”
“I see. I think it would be wise to send you for blood tests and x-rays, Mr Solo. Just in case.”
“Just in case?”
“Just in case there’s something I can’t tell from listening to your chest. No need to worry just yet.”
They were sent on a mission before the test results came back, and were away for some time. The conditions shouldn’t have been ideal, camping in a tent in arctic temperatures near the Canadian border, but in the dry cold Napoleon’s cough all but disappeared. He felt a new man; he was able to keep up with Illya’s punishing pace; he slept well, and didn’t even snore – which he knew he had been doing from the dry throat he’d had every morning.
He had taken no cigarettes with him on this trip, thinking it might be a good opportunity to try to give them up. Illya was grateful in his own way – the usual gibes were missing and, even amused by Napoleon’s early morning bad temper, he refrained from mocking comment. He also made no comment on the lack of coughing.
They were both itchy – in those conditions, washing was an unpleasantly chilly business, and they let their beards grow rather than shave in ice-cold water. Napoleon naturally felt ill-used and annoyed. Illya appeared to have no problem with his growth of beard, but then he never gave way to minor discomfort; and of course, neither did Napoleon in the ordinary way, but this wasn’t ordinary, dammit. He would kill for a cigarette.
Observation followed by action, a large explosion, a fight or two, and it was all over. They were relatively undamaged, part from Illya’s rather fine black eye and twisted ankle. Napoleon helped him to hop to their transport and eventually they got away, bag and baggage, back to civilisation.
Because of his ankle, Illya accepted the invitation to stay in Napoleon’s apartment. His own was currently something of an obstacle course, and the stairs up to it rather steep. On arrival, he insisted his partner have first use of the bathroom, so Napoleon made coffee and sat him down with a glass of scotch (not having yet replaced the vodka since Illya’s last visit) while he took his first hot shower in days and blissfully removed the growth of beard. He returned glowing and elegant in clean clothes, saying, “Your turn, filthy – need any help?”
“I can manage, thank you.” Illya stood up and, limping past Napoleon, sniffed and said, “Good grief, you’ve slapped enough on, haven’t you? You’re extremely fragrant, suddenly.”
“Unlike you, chum. I’ll get a meal ready for when you’re fit to be seen and smelt.”
Illya took his turn, unhelped and rather slower, but just as blissfully. Newly clean, shaved, and sweet-smelling again, though dressed less elegantly in the pyjamas and bathrobe he kept there for this kind of eventuality, he joined Napoleon for the meal.
Afterwards they relaxed with wine and coffee, talking idly. Napoleon was in the middle of a funny story when he started coughing. Illya sat up in alarm, and waited for the paroxysm to cease. He stood up, intending to get a glass of water from the kitchen. “No, it’s OK,” Napoleon spluttered. “I’ll get it.”
Illya sat down again and noticing the pile of still unopened mail, looked at the envelope on top. He held it out when Napoleon came back.
“How about opening this,” he said.
Napoleon stared at it; he’d almost forgotten about those tests. “Open it,” Illya repeated.
Napoleon read the contents and wordlessly passed the single sheet to his partner, who took it, read it, and looked up. “No sign of anything? So why are you coughing again?”
“Am I being poisoned in my own apartment?” Napoleon wondered.
“If you are, it’s having no effect on me,” Illya replied. “Maybe it’s just New York pollution.”
“Which doesn’t affect you either.”
“Asthma then? – No, the tests would have said, wouldn’t they?”
“Asthma... asthma. I’ve never had it, but that’s given me an idea.” He rose and went into the bathroom and returned with a half-full bottle of cologne. He handed it to Illya. “Have a sniff,” he said.
Illya choked, “Where did you get this?”
“It’s new. I started using it, I don’t know, couple of months ago?”
“Was it a birthday gift?”
“Might have been, I forget. Ah, yes … I can’t remember who… oh.” He looked a little crestfallen.
“Don’t tell me. I am a spy, and with my little eye, I see something beginning …?”
“With ‘A’. I’m afraid so. But the seal was unbroken, straight from the store.”
“Oh, Napoleon,” Illya was exasperated. “Not only do you accept a gift from a witch, you don’t even get it tested – you didn’t, did you?”
“I didn’t, no.”
“Well, more fool you. We’ll get it tested tomorrow.”
Napoleon caught up with Illya who was returning to their office from the lab, and passed the report to his partner.
“I don’t believe it,” said Illya. “Do you mean to say, it wasn’t tampered with? You’re just allergic to cologne?”
“That one, anyway. I’ll have to go back to the old one.”
“Good. That one was a bit much.”
“I’m not that fond of yours, if it comes to that.”
“Why not? It’s quite nice, I think.”
“You would. I bet it’s just cheap.”
The corridor had been deserted, but a couple of young women from the typing pool came out of the elevator and saw the organisation’s two top agents arguing as they walked in front of them. Overhearing some of it as the two men marched furiously into their office, they listened at the door as the bickering continued.
“You wouldn’t think it would be safe to have an argument with someone when you’re both wearing a gun, would you?” said one, and they moved away just in case.