CHAPTER ONE: CHICKS IN ARMOUR
APRIL DANCER surveyed the London scene with a benign gaze—if the word benign can be applied to a lissome lovely in a Paris dress. But benign she felt. London did that to her. She loved New York; Paris had its strident claims; Berlin its efficient bustle hiding the deep scars of a quartered city. All great cities had their special effect on her. There were few she didn't know, or whose language she couldn't speak. But London made her feel benign. Especially after a grueling session in the mountains of Tibet and the hectic round up of her former enemies—THRUSH agents—in the steamy clamor of Bombay.
Now, that session was over—mission accomplished—the last loose ends tied and severed, here in London itself. "Ah yes, of course, my dear Miss Dancer," Mr. Waverly had said. "You do indeed deserve a holiday. Mr. Slate also. By all means—stay for two days in London."
"Two days!" Mark Slate had yelped. "I can't even choose the right hat in two days, let alone a whole new outfit of the right gear."
April Dancer frowned at the memory. She felt less benign, became more aware of the crowds of mods and chicks pattering past her or blocking the sidewalk as they stroked the Carnaby Street shop windows.
Mark Slate was in one of these shops, but she was damned if she'd go bolting in and out of any to find him. He should be here. Right now he should be here.
If Mark Slate said: "I'll see you seven minutes past three on top that mountain, old girl," he'd always be there. But now in his home town, London—oh no! he couldn't—least of all in his precious Carnaby Street. On the job itself—yes. But not now. Not when he was off the hook and roaming free among the latest mannie fashions.
No—her benign feeling was rapidly disappearing. She could forgive his eccentricities of dress. The impossible cut of his clothes, his passion for fancy weskits, his curly-brim hats, his "old girl", and "I say—bang on, old boy!" Because other more reliable and dependable attributes were his also. Admirable attributes. Mark Slate could kill without a qualm. Even be polite about it.... Yes, a strong ally in a weak situation.
April Dancer shut her mind to these good points in her friend Mark Slate, U.N.C.L.E. agent, and quietly cussed him in four of the most flowery languages she knew. She glanced above the rooftops at the shimmering, revolving cone of the great Post Office Tower. In three minutes they were due to be lunching in that restaurant.
The fact that Mark Slate might not be there to pick up the tab held her for a while longer. April Dancer's meals always were made more appetizing if someone else took care of the check. Well—why not? A girl has a right to be careful in such matters.
As her gaze lowered she saw two red and white barbers' poles revolving at some speed, one on each side of the street. Strange, she thought, I'll swear they weren't moving just now! A metallic glinting movement also caught her eye as a number of girls came on to the street.
It was the land of the model chicks and the mod-gear cowboys, so there wasn't really anything strange about seeing a number of young chicks dressed in sheen-glinting "armor" dresses. And armor was the word... petals of metal with a sort of chain-mail linking around shoulders and arms. No one took much notice of them. In this swingingest part of London you had to appear way, way out for anyone ever to do this.
The man himself wasn't way, way out; yet he didn't belong. Not in Carnaby Street. He wore impeccably cut traditional clothes, white linen, dark tie, highly polished shoes, carried a hat and umbrella. An aesthetic face, high brow, a small beard. He moved quickly and smoothly along the crowded sidewalk.
April Dancer watched him pass as she stepped to a window, seeing his reflection until it passed the window level, then turned in time to see him entering the doorway from which the chicks had appeared.
Someone had said to her: "Stand in Carnaby Street for ten minutes and you'll see anyone who is anyone come by. It's that sort of place." Oh yes? Well, the only such person she had recognized was Dr. Carl Karadin, and he was neither a swinging London chick nor a way-out cowboy.
Link the improbable with the possible. Use each second of every unforgiving minute constructively and objectively. Around you, always, is the pattern. It's up to you to follow each line. The outside "you" is lovely, lissome, alluring. The inside "you" is chrome-steel, coldly glittering, probing, resilient and deadly. The mind of this girl is that of a trained computer, its reflexes honed to searing sharpness.
April Dancer had never stood around waiting for a man. Never until now. Only that slop Slate would have the nerve to think she would. An improbable thought, as many a man had observed. Yet had she not stood here amid the Carnaby Street throngs, would she have seen Carl Karadin? She doubted if his mission was to purchase way-out weskits and other sartorial splendors. So the computer mind went whizz-click-whizz—and the first link was made.
She didn't even cuss the rain which now swept in a sudden pattering rush over the street, nor hurry to escape its dampness, so she was late in reaching shelter. Only the chicks in armor seemed unaffected by it. They continued their model-mincing perambulations through the length of the street. Little catty eyes mewed at them from doorway shelters, assessing this latest dress gimmick. One came close to April Dancer.
"So where's the sale, honey?" said April.
"Pardon me," said the chick. "There is no sale. D'you mind?" She pushed past. April knotted her knuckles and tapped lightly.
"Ouch!" the chick yelped.
April brushed rain drops from her purse.
"Real metal," she said thoughtfully. "Watch you don't turn rusty."
"Get lost!" said the chick, and teetered onwards.
At this moment Mark Slate slid around a bunched crowd.
"Frightfully sorry, old girl!" he said casually. "Desperate situation—they had to send to the warehouse for my size."
"Coffin, I hope," said April smoothly. "Or is that too much to expect?"
He laughed. "Aha! We are peeved. How dare we be kept waiting!" He swept off his feather-stacked, curly-brimmed hat. "A thousand apologies, your Royal Highness. For that I will buy you a fabulous lunch in a famous place." He waved his hat towards the gleaming Post Office Tower. "Table's booked—all is arranged."
"That hat," said April. "What is it—a bird scarer?" She didn't wait for an answer. Something else was on her mind. "Why the chicks in armor? Publicity?"
Mark Slate shrugged powerful shoulders.
"Could be. Anything goes around here. You like?"
April Dancer surveyed her knuckles. "Real metal. But what metal?"
A metal-dressed model came close. She smiled at Mark.
"I say! I say!" White teeth flashed, charm oozed. "But what a shame to encase such loveliness in armor... Or is it?"
The girl giggled.
"For thine own safety, I expect," said Mark. "Snazzy. Real snazzy!" His hands flicked expertly. "Who makes?"
"I wouldn't know. I just wear it."
She giggled again. "Five o'clock." She jerked a hand. "Down there. If you're around."
He gripped her shoulder caressingly. "Five o'clock," he said softly. She moved on.
April Dancer said: "You overdressed rat!"
Mark smiled. "A Highness's wish is a command. Metal—yes. Titanium? That's silly. But not an alloy. Not aluminum. Very light. Who'd dress a chick in titanium?" He shrugged again. "Does it matter?"