The streets were thronged for Córdoba’s May Corrida. The two UNCLE agents blended in with the crowd, dressed as formally as everyone else had to be in Franco’s Spain – including both tie and jacket, neither of which could be removed, no matter how hot it was. Napoleon, being dark, blended a little more successfully than his partner whose lighter tan and fair, sun-streaked hair would have marked him out very obviously had not both worn hats.
The bullring had only been open a year but was already a huge draw, bigger even than Seville and Ronda. Illya wondered how they were going to find their contact among nearly seventeen thousand people – even in the area closest to the bulls’ entrance.
“A las cinco de la tarde,” said Napoleon. Illya looked at him.
“Lorca’s poem, ’La cogida y la muerte’,” said Napoleon.
“I know. That death didn’t happen here, though.”
“No, but it’s all about death, isn’t it, this business? Mankind against Nature. Makes me shiver.” He turned to Illya. “That time you were pushed into the bullring – how did you know what to do?”
“I didn’t. I should have stood still – the bull just goes for anything that moves – but I waved my jacket and then ran when it got too close. The Thrush people had me covered so I couldn’t get out and, in the end, I skimmed my hat as far as I could – the bull went for that and I jumped the barrier. They couldn’t shoot into the crowd.” He smiled reminiscently. “Everyone thought it was my own stunt – they all cheered when I escaped, and booed the bull, which was very unfair. It was only young.”
“I’ve seen the newsreel,” said Napoleon shortly. “You looked as if you were enjoying it.”
“It’s visceral, another way of dicing with death,” said Illya, an unusual brilliance in his blue eyes, “It’s very exciting to be so close to one’s own mortality in such an arena. The cheers of the crowd make you want to perform.”
Napoleon stared at his normally-uptight partner in surprise and then remembered how Illya responded to playing a part. Maybe it was the only way he had of letting go and allowing himself to react to life. Bullfighting didn’t seem ideal, though.
“Well, try to restrain your machismo today, huh?”
Illya laughed. “Spoilsport,” he said. “It’s no different from what we do every day. Except – wouldn’t it be splendid to dress up in the traje de luces – the suit of lights – and do the thing properly.”
“And kill a beautiful animal, too?”
“No, not that. The bull doesn’t have to be killed – they don’t do it everywhere.”
Well, at least he drew the line at that, Napoleon reflected with relief. Thrushes were one thing, but a majestic beast, even one trained for the corrida – no.
Their places were at the front and Napoleon leaned over the side of the ring as the gate opened. He almost gasped as a huge animal, gleaming black in the sun, burst out into the arena and headed straight for the tiny figures in the middle. Men like themselves, in an existential struggle against Death.
Then Illya was nudging him and pointing. “Pay attention. There’s our man,” he said, his mind, as ever, on the job.