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Free of body, Free of soul Part Five

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PART FIVE

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

‘Folks, the Bible is the word of God, which warns that all unbelievers will be cast into the Lake of Fire to burn for all eternity …’

 

Napoleon sighed and put down his pen as his communicator began to emit a low-pitched and persistent bleep inside his jacket pocket.

 

‘Mr Solo; am I disturbing you, or is this a convenient time to make your report?’ Waverly’s voice, calm and reasonable as it always was, seemed a brutal contrast to the emotional, bordering on irrational ranting Napoleon had just committed to paper.

‘No, I mean yes sir, this is a good time’ he began. ‘I’m just putting together my sermon.’ There was an amused grunt from somewhere the other end of the channel.

‘I hope it’s sufficiently rousing, Mr Solo’ Waverly replied. ‘Perhaps conversion might be a simpler way forward than trying to rid the world of these people by more violent means.’

‘An interesting idea Sir, but somehow I don’t think they’re going to be all that receptive’ Napoleon replied, standing up and staring out of the window across the manicured lawn of the Governor’s garden.

‘Yes, you’re probably right’ Waverly sighed rather deeply. They spent the next few minutes discussing the events of the previous evening, Waverly concurring with Solo’s assessment of the probable backgrounds and motives of those present.

 

‘I’d like to dig a bit into Miss Lucie-Mae’s background, Sir. Mr Kuryakin and I both feel she may be a little bit more involved than she’d have us believe.’

‘I’ll get someone onto it’ Waverly answered immediately. There was a short pause before he added, in a more intimate tone, ‘By the way, you may be interested to know that someone in the Governor’s mansion is doing a little investigative work of their own into you, Mr Solo. Luckily for you, our chaps in Europe have put a spanner in their works at THRUSH Central for the time being; literally.’ He chuckled slightly at his own words, before continuing on. ‘They managed to get someone into the data handling unit, with the result that their computer malfunctioned to spectacular effect, so I understand. It should give you a few days or even weeks at least before they can manage to sort it all out.’

‘I can probably guess it was Arceneaux’s personal assistant, Miss Cant’ Napoleon said. ‘I may be safe until they sort out their cards, but Mr Kuryakin might not be so lucky.’

‘Oh?’

‘It seems she was a contemporary of his at Cambridge.’ There was a momentary pause in the conversation, Napoleon staring at the communicator as if he expected to see smoke wafting through at any second.

‘Well you’d better get down to that place then, Mr Solo, while you’re both free to find out what exactly these people are up to and before that wretched woman remembers where she last met Mr Kuryakin.’

 

A knock at the door exactly coincided with the end of the conversation. Emil’s massive presence filled the space the door had left as Napoleon swung it open. He slipped into the room behind Solo, leaning casually against a set of fitted wardrobes at the side of the room as Napoleon moved back to the desk.

‘Change of plan’ he said, keeping his eyes on the other agent. ‘Appears that we’re heading off to Napoleonville sooner rather than later.’ Napoleon glanced down at his sermon and smiled.

‘Well, it seems that the Lord has moved in mysterious ways to suit our purposes perfectly then’ he replied.

 

************

The boat, though small, turned out to be perfectly adapted for its purpose, its wide, flat base giving it both stability and movement as Illya paddled gently along, the dip of the wood in the water a calm backdrop to the afternoon. Not for the first time did he wish he had had the opportunity to change into more suitable clothes than those he was wearing, but he reasoned, squinting at the unrelenting sun above, that nothing would have made him feel less sweaty and uncomfortable than he felt at this moment, and also protect him from the swarming insects that he could see lurking under the overhanging boughs of the trees bordering the bayou.

Evangeline, her face shadowed by a large brimmed straw hat, appeared less affected. She sat opposite him, her face averted to begin with, her expression more calm and recollected than she had appeared in the library or in the car. He made no attempt to ask her anything beyond directions, and even these eventually petered out as the boat moved steadily along into the centre of the river. Eventually, as he slowed his pace, she turned her face towards him and put her hand on his arm.

‘Pull in over there, but be careful, and don’t step into the water or put your hands in.’ As if to explain, he watched an area of green weed floating between them and the bank begin to shudder, before, with insidious ease, two immensely dark liquid eyes rose out of the water to meet his gaze.

‘They were here before us’ Evangeline said from across the boat as he forced his gaze away from the water; ‘you just need to respect them, is all.’

‘I’ll bear that in mind’ Illya replied, edging the boat very slowly to the bank, a great bird which he thought looked like a giant heron rising in protest as they glided in and squawking away into the trees beyond.

It was a dock, a wooden structure on short stilts coming out from the bank and then a flattened path beyond, leading into a meadow where Illya could just see a wood framed cottage lurking amongst the great boughs of the cedars and oaks above.

‘You can walk here from the house’ Evangeline said, smiling for the first time that day, in fact, as he thought about it, for the first time since he had seen her looking down anxiously from the window of the house in New Orleans.

Illya tied the boat to one of the stilts and swung himself up onto the decking above, helping Evangeline up behind him, until they stood closely together with their backs to the water looking at the meadow beyond. Evangeline slipped her hand into his and stepped forward, the gesture feeling reassuring and natural to Illya as he took the basket from her other hand. They strolled along the path for a short way before plunging into the long grass of the meadow, the oak trees above rustling slightly and breaking the intense rays of the sun which had felt as if they were chiselling into Illya’s skin on the river.

‘You should get a hat’ Evangeline said, looking at him, Illya knowing without having to look that his skin was now tinged rosy red. He nodded, grateful for the coolness of the grass and the trees and tried to look more relaxed than he felt. Evangeline kept walking steadily, making no attempt to talk at all until whatever destination she had planned was reached.

Suddenly the trees gave way to a little clearing, where a wooden shack stood in the shade to their left. There were actually two buildings; the larger one with a closed in area to the left, and then another room open to the elements at the front, the corrugated roof rising either side and reaching a peak in the middle over the two rooms. As they approached, Illya could see that in the open room there was a jumble of ill-assorted furniture, with a small table and some chairs in front. To the side, a much smaller shack stood. He could only imagine what that was for.

Evangeline glanced encouragingly at him and then nodded towards the shack.

‘We used to meet here’ she said quite calmly, loosening her grip and walking forward towards the building. Illya heaved the basket onto the table and looked round. The place had a well-worn look, the wood patched in places with new planks, giving it a patchwork feel. Despite its appearance it felt clean and well maintained. He stared at the door which led to the enclosed room at the side.

‘That’s the bunk room’ she said, swinging the door open. ‘The men use it when they come hunting at night, for bullfrogs an’all.’ Illya moved towards the door and glanced in. As she had said, the room was set up for a hunting party; a couple of bunk beds lined the walls, the only other furniture being a narrow wardrobe with a single door. Not worrying about whether Evangeline might think him overly curious, he walked into the room, and pulled open the door.

The interior was lined with a series of shelves, widely spaced and deep. The top one contained extra linen, and below that some spare garments, what looked like protective clothing against insects, Illya concluded. The last shelf contained something entirely different. Crouching down, Illya leaned into the wardrobe and pulled at the handles of two implements; the first, a light, but extremely sharp axe, and the second a cruder weapon, a long club-like tool made of wood. He heard Evangeline’s breathing alter slightly as the head of the club came into view and she pressed forward at his side. It was covered in something dark and viscous, a few fine strands meshed onto the end by the dried liquid. Illya stared at it momentarily and then shoved it back into the dark void of the wardrobe.

‘Obviously not used to hunt bullfrogs’ he half murmured to himself, almost forgetting that it was not his partner stood by his side as he felt the axe’s blade with his finger.

Evangeline straightened, the shadows of the room giving her face a wasted, bleached look, as if the sight of the club had drained her, making her appear monochrome in the half light of the interior space.

‘The axe is for the ‘gators’ she said, drawing both their minds back to the weapon. ‘That’s the traditional way to kill them round here.’ Illya frowned before replacing the axe on the shelf. He turned rapidly, grabbing her hand and pulling her firmly out of the door and into the open room.

Setting the table somehow broke the tension. Illya leaned against one of the uprights whilst Evangeline mechanically laid out the food from the basket. The heat, together with the unrelenting sounds of nature once again began to exert a soporific effect on him, making him shake his head periodically to prevent himself dropping asleep still standing. At the back of his mind the image of the blood stained club remained a chilling reminder of as yet unexplained events.

‘Here, sit down’ Evangeline said at last, Kuryakin giving himself a final shake before pulling out a chair opposite her. He was glad of the refreshments; the journey down the river had been more tiring than he realised and he was relieved to concentrate on other, happier things than alligators, axes and bloody clubs. As he lifted his fork to begin he saw her hesitate, her plate untouched in front of her.

‘Perhaps you could say grace’ she said quietly, the birds chattering lessening in that moment as if out of respect. Illya forced himself not to appear startled by her request. He replaced his fork and looking downwards, made the sign of the cross and began.

"Bénissez nous, Seigneur,

et bénissez le repas que nous allons prendre.

Au nom du Père, du Fils, et du Saint Esprit. Amen."

They ate in silence for a while, Illya aware that she was reflecting on the events of the day and also on the man opposite. After offering him more water and some fruit, she began to clear the contents of the table into the basket. Illya sat back and chewed ruminatively on his apple, waiting for her to decide when, and if she might speak about what was on both their minds. At last, the table empty, she sat down again, leaning forward over the table slightly, her arms laid on the rough surface, the fingers of her hands stretched towards him.

‘I may regret this, but I have a feeling I can trust you’ she began. He had quite astonishingly intense eyes, she realised, the colour in some way reflecting the hidden thoughts of the mind they were so intimately connected to. Now they had deepened to a rich dark colour she associated with wells; bottomless, glinting slightly in the afternoon sun as he steadily held her gaze.

‘You can’ he said slowly, the deepness of his voice matching his eyes. She took a short breath inwards and looked away, across to the boat dock in the distance.

‘Seeing that club has made me realise, finally, that he is not coming back’ she said, continuing to look out towards the bayou. ‘I never really believed all that about him having a breakdown, it just wasn’t, well, him. I had no evidence to start with, but gradually it began to dawn on me that this,’ she turned slightly, still not looking at him, but waving her arm gracefully towards the meadow, ‘this so-called community my fiancé and his friends are building, is, well it’s based on something terribly crooked.’

Illya leaned forward slightly, his arms now on the table, his hands feeling the roughness of the wood beneath them.

‘So you decided to do something about it’ he said softly. Surprisingly, she remained averted from him.

‘I became the woman that my stepfather desired me to be’ she continued. ‘Playing that part made it easier to continue what Buford was trying to do, to break this whole thing apart before it goes any further. I had already collected a great deal of information which I passed to Father Patrick, but I thought there would be more time until . . . today.’ Her voice trailed off a little but she remained immovable, her body twisted away from him, her hands withdrawn, now gripping the sides of the chair. ‘When I was told you were coming, I presumed you were just another recruit to their game here, but seeing you that morning, and then at the club looking so different, and then finally that night in the garden, well I knew then you were not like them.’

She turned finally, Illya fully aware that she was gambling what amounted to her life on her instincts being correct. He reached out and clutching her hand, squeezed it.

‘Evangeline, I am afraid that in most respects, your conclusions are correct. You are right to think that something very wrong is happening here, and,’ he smiled a little and looked down for a moment, ‘you are right to trust me. As you noticed, I appear to have behaved rather strangely for a young French librarian of very conservative tastes, although I hope no-one else has been as intuitive as you in their judgements.’

Evangeline tilted her head a little and managed a small, sad smile.

‘I suppose it was wishful thinking on my part’ she said. ‘When I saw you running through the garden with that other man I decided that either you were a criminal or an angel of mercy sent to help me in some way.’ Illya smiled ruefully.

‘I don’t think I qualify as either of those’ he replied, ‘but I will help you as much as I can to, er, sort this out’ he added. ‘What concerns me most though is the considerable danger that you have put yourself in by pursuing this course of action.’

Evangeline released his hand and sat back, for the first time looking less tense than before.

‘Gabriel, I …’ She began to smile, more broadly now. ‘But you’re not Gabriel are you?’ She stared at him inquisitively, her head slightly tilted again, talking as if to herself as she kept him in focus. ‘You let that accent drop in the library for a while, but your voice, it wasn’t American was it, and even with your hair like that, you just don’t look American at all.’

Illya hesitated. His training dictated that he reveal as little as possible about himself, but it seemed churlish to be so reticent when she was apparently so forthcoming.

‘My name is Illya Kuryakin and I work for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement. Have you heard of us?’ Evangeline stared at him for a moment and then nodded.

‘UNCLE’ she said slowly. ‘Father Pat said we should contact them, in fact he planned to do just that when we’d figured out what’s going on at the farm . . .’ Her voice petered out a little as she continued to stare in his direction. ‘Illya’ she said in the same slow voice, ‘now where does that name come from?’ Illya smiled a little and sat back in his chair.

‘I was born in Kiev, in Ukraine, but I am more Russian than Ukrainian’ he explained patiently, feeling that she was owed the explanation. ‘UNCLE is composed of people from many nations’ he continued, his voice beginning to take on a guidebook tone until she interrupted him,

‘But not many like you, I imagine.’ He felt himself blush an even rosier shade.

‘No, not many like me’ he murmured, staring back at her. If he had been Napoleon, he reasoned, this might have been the moment to at least have taken her in his arms and kissed her, but something beyond even his normal reserved behaviour told him that whatever was between them was not and would never be of that nature. He bit his lip as he sometimes did in difficult moments, and then looked away from her, towards the oak trees standing quietly together in the meadow. Her voice, cutting through the silence, startled him a little.

‘So what is your plan, Illya Kuryakin of the UNCLE?’ Illya frowned and cupped his hands under his chin, making Evangeline imitate his action.

‘I can see that whatever I say about keeping out of this will not really interest you’ he began slowly, watching her mouth begin to curl in a very charming smile. ‘In that case, I may need your help to discover what is really going on down at the farm. As you saw, my partner and I managed to break into the Arachne foundation building in New Orleans and discovered a lot of information which may be similar to that you’ve passed to Fr Patrick. However, there was something there we couldn’t remove or copy which, knowing the people we think are behind all this, may have some rather sinister links with your farm.’

Evangeline blinked. She had no idea what he meant but somehow seeing the club in the bunkroom, and then talking to this man had redoubled her determination to see this thing through to the end, whatever the cost.

‘So the dark haired man that night, he was your partner?’ she said, interrupting his thoughts. Illya nodded.

‘His name is Napoleon and you should meet him soon, though I would be grateful if you would accept the identity he is using at the moment’. Evangeline sat back on her seat and laughed.

‘Napoleon? Really?’ She leaned forward again, assuming a seriousness Illya immediately mistrusted. ‘Now tell me, Illya Kuryakin of the UNCLE’ she repeated, this time more teasingly, ‘are all UNCLE agents as handsome as you two?’ Illya sat back and sighed. He realised that perhaps Miss Evangeline Houghton wasn’t quite as serious and high-minded as he’d thought.

‘It’s not a requirement when I last looked’ he said. Evangeline pushed her chair back and stood up, glancing at her watch. She took hold of the basket and then squeezed Illya’s hand as he came towards her.

‘Buford would have liked you, liked your single mindedness’ she said softly. ‘If we can stop this then at least his death won’t have been for nothing, Illya, will it?’

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

The interior of the church emitted a kind of soft glow, mainly the effect of a series of windows in powerful shades casting their rainbow colours across the seats below. Behind the altar, an equally powerfully coloured depiction of Christ’s mother being assumed into heaven dominated its surroundings and forced a fascinated scowl from the Russian on the third pew from the back.

Since their boat journey and subsequent conversation, Illya had managed to obtain considerable background information from Evangeline before communicating his progress to Napoleon, including a short list of those who could be trusted and those who could not.

‘Kane Pierce is her step-father’s agent, and I would guess is the prime suspect in Landry’s murder’ Illya reported grimly into the communicator. Napoleon wrote down a few notes before indulging in a short bout of Illya baiting to relieve the feeling of something ominously bad building inside him.

‘It seems you and Miss Vangie are getting along real well’ he began, assuming the Kentucky accent he had adopted whilst in the Governor’s mansion. There was the usual huffy silence the other end of the communicator, before Illya replied,

‘Miss Houghton is being extremely helpful; thank you for asking.’ Napoleon smiled. Illya could be seriously uptight where women were concerned and especially when he thought his professional duty was being criticised in some way. Whatever had gone on between him and Marion had not helped, in fact it seemed to have made the Russian’s attitude worse. At least by the sound of it, this particular relationship wasn’t heading towards something serious and, even worse, something permanent.

‘Now listen Illya’ he said finally, ‘the Mayor’s party is arriving Sunday lunchtime, and after the big family reunion, you’ll be delighted to know that the Reverend Jimmy Palin, preacher and millionaire, will be expounding to the assembly on the evils of immodest dress and behaviour, drink and anything else that comes to mind.’

‘I’ll wear something modest’ came the laconic reply.

Illya glanced round. His usual experience of services such as these was of crowds; families, children, old ladies, but crowds, nonetheless. Here, however, the pews were sparsely populated, and mainly by single men and women. Evangeline sat silently beside him, her head down, and it seemed inappropriate to ask the question which had come into his mind. As he turned back to face forwards he was aware that he had become sandwiched by another, suddenly familiar woman. Rosa Davis, his companion on the bus, smiled at him before reaching across and touching Evangeline’s arm. They both stood and embraced, forcing Illya to lean back into his seat, before they sat down, and with simultaneous squeezing of his arms, explained to each other their mutual acquaintance of the now slightly bemused Russian between them.

After Mass ended, Illya followed the two women through the sacristy and by a back door along a covered passageway towards the presbytery at the rear of the church. The priest, the same red-headed man that had taken the package from Evangeline in the Cathedral, appeared after a few minutes, ushering them into a small back room filled with the usual clutter of a parish priest’s life. Throwing various books and items of clerical clothing off the collection of oddly assorted chairs, he invited them to sit, as if it were no more than an interview before a wedding, or some other similar event. Not that that kind of meeting was ever likely to happen to him, Illya thought with a sad sigh.

‘Father, this is Illya Kuryakin of the UNCLE’ Evangeline began, seemingly enjoying the mantra she now used whenever she mentioned his name. He couldn’t help but smile at Rosa’s face, which had now turned into a perfectly round shape of astonishment.

‘I’m sorry, it was necessary to adopt the other identity for reasons which will no doubt become obvious’ he added, Rosa’s features relaxing into a puzzled frown as the conversation continued.

‘You may have noticed the lack of congregation’ Fr Patrick began, immediately sounding more serious. ‘Forgive me if I begin to sound paranoid, Mr Kuryakin, but people round here have been, let’s say, ‘encouraged’ to head for a church where the right message is being given out.’

‘What he means is the gospel of a nice home, a job for life and a good school for your kids in return for a surrender of your rights’ Evangeline interrupted rather passionately.

‘So you mean,’ Illya said slowly, ‘that they have sold their souls for these things?’ Fr Patrick nodded, a smirking smile illuminating his face.

‘Well put, Mr Kuryakin’ he said. ‘Exactly that. Of course I don’t blame them for wanting these things, any right person would, but I can’t help thinking that this is a kind of test run for something bigger. You know, it hasn’t been that long since the Nazis threatened to take over large parts of our world with their evil plans. Plenty of people in Germany looked the other way then because they thought Mr Hitler was such a good old boy giving them what they wanted.’ He stared at Illya, his face registering something subtle he saw in the other man’s expression. ‘But then you know about that, don’t you, I would imagine.’

Illya nodded almost imperceptibly and then, forcing back any memories which would be unhelpful, he replied, ‘every indication is that whoever is behind this is planning something considerably more substantial. However, stopping what is happening here is a little more complicated than just blowing something up.’ The women looked a little startled at his image and Illya shrugged. Blowing something up always was so much easier he thought wistfully.

‘My partner is working on establishing the financial link between the Arachne Foundation and Mr Chauvin’ he added, but meanwhile I need to understand how they are controlling any opposition to their plans. I can understand how some people could be persuaded quite easily to go along with it, but as we all know, not everybody is that weak-minded’ he said, with a hardness he regretted. He looked down and rubbed his fingers along his forehead. Try as he might, images of his childhood once released, now flooded into his consciousness. It was easy from a distance of miles or time, to condemn those who had been, as he had put it, ‘weak-minded.’ To fight evil wasn’t always such a straightforward decision. An image of his uncle flickered into his mind. Normally a powerful man in his community, he had watched, with the others, as two of his sons were marched away into slavery, never to return. His wife, Illya’s aunt, had remained inside the house, unable to witness the event. After that things had returned to a kind of normalcy for those times, but for a long period something between them was damaged; the horror of their loss and his inability to prevent it making his uncle older, weaker somehow in all their eyes.

Evangeline’s voice broke his thoughts, gratefully. ‘Illya thinks they are experimenting with those poor folks at the farm somehow, stopping them from having their say against all this’ she said. ‘I know for a fact that there are at least five of those people who worked with Buford on the campaign there, as well as Mr Sandford, you remember him?’ She turned to Illya and added, ‘he was one of the teachers at Napoleonville Primary. He had the most amazing hair, so curly, it used to grow upwards we all thought.’ The others smiled, but the picture she had drawn of this man made Illya grimace. The faces in the book at the Arachne Foundation returned to his mind, including that of a man with astonishing, frizzy hair.

‘If as you told me, the farm is off-limits to visitors, then I’ll have to see if I can pay it a private visit’ Illya said thoughtfully. ‘In the meantime, perhaps you two girls could move into that new house of yours so that the bride can be made ready for the big day. It’ll be easier to talk there away from prying eyes’ he added. ‘It’s essential that none of you draw attention to yourselves over the next few days, until Mr Solo and I have established what is going on here and what we need to do to stop it. Fr Patrick, if you make regular visits to the Cathedral, you could act as a conduit of anything we might need to send to UNCLE in New Orleans, if that’s alright with you?’

‘Absolutely, my boy, absolutely’ the priest replied, before getting up and opening the door. ‘It’s best we’re not seen together too much now’ he said as they retraced their steps back into the church. ‘You’ve all been seeking spiritual direction for your future lives, if anyone asks. No doubt your stepfather will put pressure on you now, Vangie, to join that church over yonder, and you must comply if Mr Kuryakin and his partner are not to be put into more danger. Rosa here will act as our liaison, if that’s alright with you Mr Kuryakin.’

‘That’s fine’ Illya replied, impressed somewhat by the calm bravery of the other people in the room. ‘From now on we all have to be very, very careful.’

 

******

Miss Kitty rode the highways with effortless ease, leaving Napoleon in a relaxed state of mind as he contemplated the next, and probably the most dangerous stage of the mission. He had avoided having to take any of the Governor’s party by following his Billy Graham line of not wanting to be alone with a female, which seemed to wash with the Governor if nobody else. He had set off early, Emil a reassuring presence in the front seat as they glided away from the State Capital, the Mississippi undulating in and out of view one side as they headed south.

After speaking to Waverly, he was now absolutely certain that Miss Lucie-Mae was the real mover and shaker in the THRUSH entourage surrounding Eddie Chauvin, whatever her husband thought. The dutiful wife act was little more than a charade, but he considered there to be little chance he could either persuade or threaten her into cooperation. Robert Daigle was a possibility, but from his intelligence sources, Solo was pretty convinced that this man was a long-term THRUSH plant in the bank. There remained only one person he thought could be persuaded to come over to his side, even though it might mean coming to terms with her daughter’s true nature. He leaned forward towards the front seat.

‘How much further?’ Terrebonne remained motionless, the car maintaining its smooth passage along the road.

‘Half an hour, less perhaps. What d’you want me to do, when we get settled there?’

‘I’m not entirely sure yet. Illya may need some help, but I’ll let you know.’ Emil nodded silently before Napoleon continued, ‘Emil, how much do you know about Elizabeth Logue?’ Emil’s eyes registered interest, even though his face remained immobile in the car’s mirror.

‘She was a beauty in her youth, so they say’ he murmured deeply. ‘Then she gets with Senator Logue as he was then. Folks say he lost interest when her money got him where he wanted to go, if you follow my drift. If you is planning to move on her, you might want to git talking about the care of children. That’s a special interest of hers, so they say’ he added quietly.

Napoleon sat back in the seat and closed his eyes. The subject of children was pretty high on the list of things he had no interest in or knowledge about, but, for the sake of the Command he would give it a go. He had managed religion; this couldn’t be any harder, he decided; it couldn’t be.

 

*******

Obvious signs of guests being expected were everywhere to be seen as Illya swung the car round the side of the house and brought it to a halt at the feet of Kane Pierce, standing glowering outside the garages. Evangeline covered his hand with hers before opening the car door and stepping out in front of Pierce.

‘Your daddy’s standing in need of an explanation as to where you’ve been, Miss Vangie’ he began without warning, ignoring Illya completely apart from a vindictive looking sideways glance in his direction.

‘Well that’s strange considering it’s the same place I go to every Sunday morning, but never mind’ she answered, walking off towards the sound of china crashing and a distant scream from the back of the house. Illya shut the door of the car and hesitated, wondering how he could reach his room without having to go through Pierce, who now stood there motionless in the way. He shrugged and moved round the front of the car, aware that Pierce had shifted his position as he came towards him.

‘Hold your potato, fella.’ Illya stopped, fighting back any smart reply that he could think of to Pierce’s last comment. Pierce came closer, pushing Illya a little against the car fender, the metal beginning to cut into his legs as the taller man applied more pressure. Illya was perfectly sure he could overcome Pierce easily within seconds, but to do that would have been to invite questions about who he really was. After another period of pushing, Pierce finally stopped and leaned forward, his face now near enough for Illya to notice his poorly shaved face and brown, crooked teeth.

‘Is there a point to this?’ he finally managed, trying not to sound too sarcastic. Pierce grinned a little, the teeth now fully displayed. It was hard not to react, but Illya resisted. Pierce suddenly grabbed Illya’s tie and flicked it out of his jacket, giving it a sharp tug to bring the Russian’s head nearer.

‘This here’s the point’ Pierce breathed, the reek of tobacco and uncleaned teeth washing over the Russian like a rancid tide. ‘I done told you, keep away from her; she ain’t yours and ah reckon she never will be, unnerstand? It ain’t fitting, see, that a man like you should be near her, OK?’ Illya waited until his patience had entirely evaporated before removing Pierce’s fingers from his tie and suddenly squeezing out from under him, causing the bigger man to lurch forward face down onto the car bonnet. He didn’t wait to see if Pierce had anything else to add.

Fortunately Pierce was nowhere to be seen when the guests eventually began to appear out of the dust of the long drive leading to Cottonwood plantation house. Illya had run upstairs and changed, if only to get the sensation of being close to Kane Pierce out of his system. With a wry grin he saw from an upstairs window Miss Kitty sweep majestically up the drive, Emil bringing the car to a gentle halt before Napoleon leapt out and ran up the stairs. William Houghton stepped forward fractionally and offered a hand, before with a rather dismissive gesture he introduced his stepdaughter to Solo.

Illya had warned Evangeline about Napoleon’s disguise, noticing how the idea that a fake preacher might be marrying her and Chauvin both amused and alarmed her. Now he could see her graciously shaking his hand, not a sign of anything that could give away his partner on her face. As they were standing there, the rest of the party swung into view, the bulbous limousines disgorging the party of people Napoleon had so well described to his partner. Illya frowned as Vivienne Cant emerged from one of the vehicles, her usual upswept glasses catching the sun momentarily and adding to the air of menace Illya felt in her presence. She looked up suddenly, causing Illya to step back from the window just as quickly.

Before he could look again he heard them in the hall. He waited until the greetings between them had subsided and they had been slowly shuffled into a large sitting room on one side of the house. He looked at his watch and counted out another minute, before smoothing down his hair and walking slowly downstairs.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

‘It’s just a little brunch, ya’all understand, nothing fancy’ Houghton declared expansively, the heaving table belying his description. Dorcelia, flanked by another girl finished adding another few dishes to the feast before disappearing rapidly following Edward Houghton’s unpleasant glare reaching them from the other side of the room.

As Illya was rapidly learning, the cuisine of the region almost always included some kind of seafood and this was no exception. A tottering pile of shrimp surrounded by some kind of oatmeal looking substance dominated the table, but there were other dishes, and many of them. He recognised a kind of oyster salad as well, the usual pile of greens which lay next to an equally huge pile of fat pork belly strips and an accompanying platter of fried tomatoes. Crammed next to all this, the usual sweeter dishes; banana muffins, a kind of custard and what looked like shortbread.

            ‘Grits’ Evangeline whispered in his ear, as he stared at the lessening shrimp pile. He shrugged slightly and then dived in. Not being entirely sure of what he was eating had never held him back before and wasn’t going to now either.

Introductions had been made before the meal commenced, followed immediately by a rather drawn out and powerfully delivered grace by the Reverend Palin, the two men at pains not to make eye contact until the Amen had been resoundingly heard. The room containing the food led directly out onto a wide paved area at the back of the house, where tables had been set under a series of awnings. Illya noticed Evangeline being led to the table where Napoleon was sitting; he could imagine the reason. He sat down at a table with the awning frame just behind, a natural habit for someone who preferred to make it impossible for anyone to approach without warning. He had just decided that grits were not his favourite food when he was aware of Vivienne Cant heading in his direction, just behind the figures of Andrew Arceneaux and Miss Lucie-Mae.

Illya rose to his feet immediately, before Arceneaux indicated he should sit and the three sat down round him, all giving him simultaneously critical looks before Lucie-Mae whispered something in her husband’s ear.

‘Mr Guerin, how nice to see you again’ Arceneaux began, before signalling to a waiter lurking by the open French windows. ‘We hope you’ve managed to settle in satisfactorily.’ Illya put his fork down and nodded, trying not to look at either of the two women on the table.

Oui, merci’ he began, ‘everything is, er, very satisfactory.’ Arceneaux smiled without a trace of warmth, his eyes scanning the room for some person Illya wasn’t aware of. Out of the corner of his vision he could almost sense Vivienne Cant’s brain whirring, the memory files which no doubt she kept so tidily in her mind being worked through until, as he was certain would happen, she arrived eventually at the answer she was searching for. Fortunately the arrival of the waiter with coffee broke her train of thought, and after murmuring something to Miss Lucie Mae, she got up and moved away.

‘I understand the wedding is to take place soon’ he said quietly, watching Evangeline’s body language as she strove to play the part of somebody deeply in love. To most of those around her she must have been extremely convincing, he thought, but for a few moments every now and then the façade cracked imperceptibly and something of her true feelings seeped through, at least he prayed that it only did to him. He was suddenly aware of Lucie-Mae, her eyes indicating that she had made the connection between him and the object of his gaze.

‘Ah do hope you’re not becoming sweet on our Miss Vangie’ she simpered, forcing Illya to drop his gaze. He frowned, then stammered,

Non; of course not Madame. That would be quite wrong.’ He looked down, deciding that a naïve young Frenchman smitten with a beautiful southern girl might not be such a bad role to play. ‘I, er, am sure they will be very happy, les deux ensemble’ he added, smiling rather wanly as, with relief, he saw Napoleon heading his way. The Arceneauxs looked at each other with concealed horror as Solo approached, an expression which pleased Illya greatly. After a few minutes of Napoleon’s usual religious clichés, they rose to their feet and backed away towards the house.

‘At last’ Illya said, not changing his shy expression. Napoleon glanced round, maintaining the plastered grin which had been on his face since he’d arrived, then sat down at the table.

‘Let’s make this brief; I’m pretty sure we’re both still OK at the moment, but I don’t want anyone to think we may have known each other in a former life’ Napoleon began, as Illya nodded meekly, for all the world looking as innocent as a lamb, Solo thought. ‘As you suggested, I’ve persuaded the father of the bride to let her stay in the estate house over there until the wedding, together with her college chum Miss Davis and, you’ll be pleased to know, my chauffeur, to keep guard, you understand.’ Illya maintained his expression but Napoleon could read his eyes already, the sparkling blue now denoting approval and even amusement even. ‘Tonight, there’s to be a dinner, before which I will be preaching at the Holy Homestead Church in town. I strongly suggest that my words invoke such a response from you that you absent yourself after said dinner and go for a much needed spiritually reflective walk down towards the farm.’

Illya looked suddenly grumpy, a telltale twist to his mouth telling Napoleon that some part of his plan didn’t meet with the Kuryakin seal of approval.

‘What is it?’ Illya scowled slightly, then stood up.

‘I suppose that means I miss the after dinner drinks then’ he muttered, standing up.

‘I rather think not’ Solo replied. ‘Sadly, the Governor has taken the pledge so it’s iced tea all round, my boy.’

 

*********

From his window on the first floor, Napoleon had a clear view of the estate, right across towards the distant buildings of the cotton production facility and the farm beyond it. He had briefed Emil as to his role after Terrebonne had dumped his suitcase on the bed immediately after ‘brunch’ and now he turned towards it, punching in the codes on the lock and throwing back the lid to reveal what he considered to be a rather dull set of clothing laying neatly beneath.

After removing the clothes he opened the false bottom of the suitcase and removed his gun and holster, checking the magazine before laying them back and removing something which he hoped he might not have need of from the side of the case. In a small box were nestling two phials, identical to those Kuryakin had discovered, and then photographed at the Ariadne offices in New Orleans. They had made the decision not to remove any of the real drugs, or what they presumed were drugs from the hidden store, but something within Napoleon drove him to request a replica to be made and sent to him, the contents of the tiny replica phials something harmless, or so he had been assured in the note accompanying them. As he returned to the window he contemplated his instructions to his partner, and how, by sending him to the farm, he might be responsible for something very unpleasant and potentially fatal happening to the Russian agent. Returning the phials to their box, he laid them out carefully next to his clothes for the evening.

 

*******

The Holy Homestead Church, a building of typical design in the centre of town exuded an altogether different atmosphere to the place of worship Illya had attended only that morning. There was a notable lack of either colour or any kind of image in the church, the only, very prominent religious object being a gigantic bare cross behind the preaching desk on the very large platform at the front. A long, flapping banner was draped across the arch above the platform proclaiming ‘Napoleonville welcomes Pastor Jimmy Palin’ in broad, black lettering, but apart from this, the rest of the building was painted a sober, innocent white.

In contrast to this, colour and noise was supplied in abundance by the congregation, a heaving mass of people crammed into the pews on the ground floor and also into the balcony which ran round three walls of the building. Illya gazed at the assembly from his position towards the back. He had separated himself from the Governor’s party, the others somehow overlooking him in the excitement, he was relieved to discover. By the time he arrived, what he imagined to be the ‘warm up’ was in full swing, a full gospel choir belting out a song which was delivering the necessary response from the congregation, now murmuring and moving like a human wave across the building. The atmosphere, even he acknowledged, was insidiously powerful, pulling the onlooker in, eliciting a response both emotional and uncontrolled. He could see Napoleon waiting at the side with who he guessed was the resident minister, the strong lights above him making the American agent’s hair glisten and his face seem unnaturally bright, almost unrecognisable from the Napoleon Solo he knew so well.

A slight diminution in the singing enabled the minister, who Illya ascertained was called the Reverend Randy Bilbo, to raise his hands and call the congregation to prayer. Illya shifted in his seat slightly, glancing at his immediate neighbours, a very wholesome looking family of five, the three boys sporting exact imitations of their father’s immaculate crew cut, glacially white shirt and pressed trousers. It was of course impossible to be sure, but nowhere around did he get the impression that anyone was there except by their own will.

‘Friends’, Bilbo said after an extremely long and rambling prayer, ‘Ah am convinced that tonight we are going to be blessed, yes mightily blessed by the presence of our guest preacher among us.’ There was an immediate murmur of approval among the congregation, people nodding their heads enthusiastically all around the Russian. The Reverend Bilbo raised his hand again, and turned towards Napoleon, whispering something to him before shaking his hand vigorously. ‘Friends, may I commend to you, from God’s own state of Kentucky, the Reverend Jimmy Palin!’

There was an immediate and sudden continuation of the singing from the choir, accompanied by a synchronised clamour from the congregation until, with a similar outstretched hand, Napoleon brought them to a kind of stillness. Illya could see that his partner, with great skill, had conducted a sweep of the congregation, taking in both the atmosphere, and every person of interest there, including Illya himself. Coming up the podium at the front of the stage, he seemed unfazed by it all, adjusting the microphone before, like his predecessor, he commenced with an equally rambling and somewhat strident prayer.

Illya looked at his watch and made himself comfortable. From his position he had also made sure he could see everyone of interest to him, from the Governor’s party right at the front, to Kane Pierce who sat emotionless at the back on the other side of the room. After the initial diatribe mainly involving fire, brimstone, the lake of hellfire and other similar and unpleasant images, Napoleon appeared to be getting into his stride, the congregation, as Illya looked round, seemingly gripped by his words. Gradually the kernel of his message, in not particularly subtle language, began to unfurl, Illya risking a wry smile at Solo’s ability to manipulate his audience and at the same time to allow Kuryakin to observe the effect of his words on persons of interest within it.

‘The average woman today absolutely refuses to submit to the Biblical command for women to dress modestly (1st Timothy 2:9), obey their husbands (1st Peter 3:1) and not usurp authority over men (1st Timothy 2:12’ Napoleon thundered, directing his gaze towards Lucie-Mae and her mother, whom Illya noticed the Governor looking towards as well with an expression which he thought might occasion an argument later amongst them. He glanced further along the line, noting the self-satisfied sneer on Eddie Chauvin’s face and a kind of fascinated amusement on Evangeline’s as she gazed towards Napoleon.

After finishing with women, Napoleon continued, this time reminding the male members of the congregation of their responsibilities in a patronising manner which made Illya cringe, before finally launching into a critique of the modern man, his gaze directed straight at his partner.

‘I look round this place, and what do I see? I see men, family men who fear the Lord and who are respectful to him and to their wives under his law. Yet, leave this place, go but a short distance, and what does the world show us, in our towns and cities, on the front of magazines and journals on every street corner, on our TVs every night? I’ll tell you friends. It shows you men who look like women, and behave like women, with their long hair and their hippy clothes! St Paul says quite clearly in his letter to the men and women of Corinth, ‘Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?’ Friends, look around and ask yourselves, if what we have here is of God, then why is the rest of our country not like us?’

Illya stopped himself groaning out loud then remembered. With an audible moan he bent his head and clasped it between his hands, muttering inaudibly to himself as he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. His neighbour, with a concerned but slightly excited expression whispered,

‘Don’t worry, you can do something about the way you look if you follow the Lord’s ways – it’s not too late!’ Illya nodded his thanks and smiled uncertainly, before checking that Pierce had seen his outburst. He sat up, trying to adopt the same excited, glazed appearance that his neighbours all seem to have adopted.

He waited outside the church at the end of service, until finally Napoleon came out, flanked by Randy Bilbo and the Governor’s party. Illya noticed Kane Pierce lurking in the background and then whispering to William Houghton before disappearing along the road. After enduring another few minutes of well-meaning advice on appearance from the family he had been sitting next to, he saw Napoleon extract himself from the party and approach him. Immediately he assumed what he decided was his ‘confused’ expression, inviting Napoleon’s handshake and invitation to join him and Emil for the journey home.

When Miss Kitty finally cleared the town’s outskirts, Napoleon sat back and the grin which he had maintained for the last few hours was allowed to disappear. Illya stared at himself in the mirror of the car before turning to his partner.

‘I find it hard to believe they actually thought I looked like a hippy’ he said, sitting back finally. Napoleon closed his eyes and lay back in Miss Kitty’s ample leatherwork.

‘Compared to them you do’ he said, smirking slightly. He sat up then, the opportunity of the ride not forgotten. ‘Illya, listen. I’m sure your performance in there was not lost on Pierce, who will then hopefully back up my story when anyone notices, if they do, that you’re missing tonight. In that case, I will insist that I join the search of course. I don’t want anything untoward happening to you down there.’

Illya twisted round his seat. ‘And what untoward happening are you referring to?’ he said, frowning. ‘If all goes well, I’ll just have a quick inspection of the place and then return home, no problem’ he replied, shrugging his shoulders a little. Napoleon pursed his lips.

‘And when, in recent experience, has anything ever been a quick inspection, no problem?’ he asked. Illya sighed.

‘I suppose you’re referring to the little ampoules?’

‘Exactly. So I’ll possibly be joining you later, my hippy friend, okay?’

 

**********

Although dinner was formal, lounge suits appeared to be the acceptable dress for the evening, for which Illya was grateful. After selecting a suitable suit, shirt and tie, he unzipped the secret compartment of his larger suitcase and removed the clothes he preferred to wear for later in the evening. The long sleeved turtle neck and trousers were black, but made of a thin material to suit the weather, still a stultifying temperature even as the sun was dropping amongst the oaks in the plantation outside his window. There were also black sneakers, guaranteed to aid his silent entry into where he was going, and a belt which contained a number of useful devices hidden within in its narrow leather interior. He gathered the items together and stowed them carefully at the bottom of the closet, before clambering into the suit and heading downstairs.

Napoleon was already in the room adjoining the dining room when he arrived, deep in conversation with Elizabeth Logue, whilst Lucie-Mae, dressed somewhat more demurely in black, stood by her husband, talking to Eddie Chauvin with Evangeline beside him. She was wearing a silky looking dress with long sleeves and a full skirt, reminding Illya of a more fifties style of dressing, but nevertheless, she looked graceful in the flattering lines of the garment, her hair put up simply in contrast to the harder, laquered style of Lucie-Mae. He couldn’t see Vivienne Cant among the guests and presumed she was otherwise occupied, like Kane Pierce who was definitely not one of the party for the evening.

Evangeline broke away without much effort, coming up to him and guiding him towards a large glass bowl of some kind of red liquid, amongst which were floating various pieces of fruit.

‘It’s a punch, but without much of a punch’ she murmured, smiling, and giving him a glass. There was no opportunity to talk before her stepfather appeared between them.

‘Mr Guerin’ he said, examining Illya’s face closely with his own rather piercing, brown eyes. ‘I trust the Reverend’s sermon gave you something to reflect on.’ Unwittingly, or so it appeared, Houghton had bought into Illya’s state of mind, or had perhaps been informed by his agent of it.

‘Ah yes, it was very powerful, very thought-provoking’ Illya replied earnestly, staring back at Houghton. ‘I, er, think that I will need to, um, how do you say, reflect deeply on his words, yes?’ Houghton smiled rather curtly and turned away, Illya feeling the brush of Evangeline’s hand and a faint squeeze of his fingers as she moved back towards her fiancé.

The dinner conversation was predictable and interesting, Napoleon keeping close to Elizabeth Logue throughout and endeavouring to impress her with his knowledge and concern for underprivileged children while Illya was grilled on France and in particular French fashion by Lucie-Mae, who appeared not to have been overly converted by his partner’s sermon. As the meal progressed he began to feel a worry creeping over him as to the whereabouts of Miss Cant. Whilst he found her presence intimidating, the fact of her absence led him to believe that something more important was occupying her time. In the end, he felt he had no choice but to try and find out if his concern was justified.

‘Um, Mademoiselle Cant, is she busy this evening?’ he murmured, after Lucie-Mae had apparently become tired of talking about the relative merits of Dior and Balmain. Andrew Arceneaux leant forward towards him, as if the question had been asked of him, not his wife.

‘Miss Cant is engaged on some business with some colleagues in Europe’ he began, keeping Illya’s gaze. ‘Time difference is an issue, as you know.’ Illya nodded, but the answer had not been reassuring. He fell into silence, surreptitiously catching his partner’s eye before saying in a slightly louder voice,

Excusez-moi, I am sorry, but I need to spend a little time alone now. The day has been, er, disturbing to me, and it is necessary now to think and perhaps pray.’ Dragging his chair back he folded his napkin and laid it down before rather hurriedly leaving the room.

The corridor outside was deserted, and, having left the door fractionally open, Illya was able to hear the others discussing him, his departure and the reasons for it, Napoleon chipping in with a suitably heavy religious interpretation of what could be troubling the young Frenchman. Illya smiled with satisfaction, shrugged his shoulders and ran up the stairs towards his room.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

From the plantation, the house looked suitably magnificent, even from the back. The symmetry of wall and window was impressive to Illya’s mathematical sensibilities, looking back to a different age, one of expansion and creativity but also of cruelty and exploitation. He turned away from the house and let the shadows of the trees swallow him up, trying to orient himself to the map he had memorised and the landmarks he had only seen by the light of day.

Checking his watch, he reasoned that whilst some might still be out of their beds in the big house, the majority would be asleep soon, including, he hoped, the inmates of the plantation farm. He stopped, and withdrew a tiny cylindrical item from his trouser pocket, its appearance identical to any ballpoint pen a student like himself might own. Except that this pen performed other functions. Clicking the top a very narrow, but penetrating beam of light illuminated the path before him without, he hoped, alerting anyone else in the vicinity. He moved away from the direction of the Bayou, following a low fence for some distance past the edge of fields bordering the bulky outlines of the cotton gin. At the back of his mind, despite the somewhat amusing aspects of Napoleon’s performance and his own as well, the potential threat of Vivienne Cant hung over the evening like a dark veil, driving him on to complete his task before what he now considered his inevitable exposure curtailed any contribution he could make to this mission.

Moving on past the cotton production buildings, he began to make out the lower, more military looking buildings getting nearer on his right. To his left, the wooded part of the plantation was coming to an end, ending too his protection from being spotted, although there were few lights from any buildings to illuminate him yet. He had brought the minimum of equipment with him, just a small bag which was clipped to his belt, within which was stowed a tiny camera, as well as the tools in his belt and a couple of additional weapons attached to various parts of his body. He had forsaken his holster in favour of wearing his gun tucked into his trousers, in the hope that if discovered, he would not look too much like an UNCLE agent attempting to break into a probable THRUSH building, but looking down at himself, his normally pessimistic attitude to life told him that he was wasting his time. He looked as much like a foreign student now as Vivienne Cant looked like someone you might fancy going to bed with.

He sighed and turned off his torch. It was just possible to make out the outer gate leading to the first of the farm buildings, worryingly unguarded or protected it seemed. In a few short and dangerous years at the service of UNCLE he had become accustomed to trusting practically nothing or no-one or taking anything at face value. Occasionally someone might prove trustworthy or something which looked safe might turn out to be just that, but generally speaking, bitter and painful experience had taught him to look beyond nice looking people and innocent looking places to something more sinister beyond or within.

He considered contacting Napoleon but thought better of it immediately. He had been aware of his partner’s aims, and for all he knew Solo was in bed with Elizabeth Logue by now, although on second thoughts he discounted the idea. After scouting the area carefully, making a long traverse round the perimeter of the buildings, and checking for anything which might suggest some kind of hidden security devices, he returned to another gate at the far end of the farm, sliding up and over with effortless grace and beginning to move silently between the low outer fence and what he presumed were the huts where workers slept.

At the end of each hut there was a single light by a set of double doors, so Illya remained at the other end in almost total darkness. He had already counted the number of huts from looking at an aerial plan, so there remained nothing for it but to pick a hut and check it out before moving on. He guessed that the end he was walking by contained some kind of bathroom. At the fifth hut, conveniently pushed against the end wall was a disused barrel. It was fast, bordering on stupidly easy to enter the hut. Illya dropped down lightly into what he had guessed rightly was a bathroom, and which in turn led into a tiny lobby, before a wide door with a glass panel in it signalled that the main part of the hut lay ahead. He withdrew his gun and turned the knob of the door.

To anyone from any sort of military background it was instantly familiar, except for the fact that between each bed a curtain was draped, rather like those he had seen in many British hospitals along similarly shaped wards. No guard lurked in the room, in fact the only noise to be heard was the quiet rhythmic snoring of what he guessed were about twenty men.

It seemed pointless to go any further than the first bed. Shoving his gun back in his trousers, he removed the camera from the tiny bag attached to his belt, and stood at the end of the first cubicle. There was little room for privacy or personalisation of the living space afforded to each man. Barrack-like furniture lay near the narrow metal bed; an equally narrow, metal cupboard one side, and a small bedside table the other. The door of this particular cupboard lay open, and Illya pulled the door slowly towards him to reveal its basic contents; some underwear, a couple of pairs of blue denim overalls with the requisite white t-shirts on top and a pair of basic working shoes. And hung on the end of the bed behind the sleeping head of this particular man, lay a broad brimmed straw hat. Without looking, Illya could put money on the fact that behind each curtain lay the exact same garments and the same furniture; nothing more, nothing less. Suddenly it seemed wrong to photograph this scene, to invade what little this man had. He bent slightly and stared at the figure underneath the thin cotton sheet. Even in the semi-darkness it was immediately obvious that he had unmistakeably frizzy hair. Evangeline’s description of her teacher returned to Illya, along with confirmation of who this man was on the pages of the book he had photographed in the Arachne offices. Illya frowned and then quietly backed away. It was impossible to ascertain anything directly without waking one of these men up, and to do that might risk trouble for both them and himself. He took another look down the room, noticing in passing that the bed opposite was empty, the cupboard bare and the sheets turned back ready for their next occupant. Frowning, he turned on his heel and retraced his steps through the door.

Once outside again, pressing himself against the building giving him the most cover, Illya worked his way towards the front end of the hut and risked looking down the central path that ran between the two rows of buildings. After another two sets of identical huts there was a larger gap, with nothing on one side and, on the opposite side of the path, a slightly wider and longer building built of brick.

He imagined what he might say of his night’s activity to Napoleon. Apart from confirmation that at least one of the men on the list was on the farm he had nothing to report. From his observations, there were no signs of these men being kept here against their wishes; it was no worse than any barracks he had lived in, in fact it was marginally more pleasant than the huts he had endured during his initial training with UNCLE. He could almost hear Mr Waverly’s voice asking him about the building he now stared at and why he hadn’t investigated that too. It seemed the logical choice but the now longer hairs on the back of his neck felt as if they were warning him otherwise. Ignoring his instincts he glanced both ways up and down the path, and then with a sigh ran across the path and down the side of the building.

 

********

Elizabeth Logue yawned a little and shut the photo album she had been sharing with the Reverend Palin for the past hour. Not for the first time she wished that Lucie-Mae could have found herself someone as charming and attentive as this man appeared to be, rather than the husband she had, however powerful and successful people told her he was. Power and success had their place, but you couldn’t buy the sort of natural charisma her companion on the sofa seemed to radiate by the bucketful. It seemed that in no time she was telling him the story of her life, her hopes and dreams, and even about the little, and not so little things that worried her. She had promised to meet with him tomorrow, not in private of course, and he had promised to try and help her with some of those problems she had so readily admitted to. Even talking to him a little had made her feel good about herself for the first time in a long time, and as she kissed him chastely on the cheek and wished him goodnight, she already felt a great weight beginning to be lifted from her.

Napoleon sat back on the sofa and closed his eyes momentarily. Softening up Elizabeth Logue seemed to be progressing well; he hoped that Illya was finding his particular task as easy. On the other side of the room, Andrew Arceneaux stood by a large table lamp in conversation with Vivienne Cant, who had appeared in the room sometime after Illya had left them and the party had moved into the large sitting room they now occupied.

Napoleon, who considered himself an expert in body language, watched her with increasing interest. If he hadn’t been told, he would have said from the way they behaved that Cant was in charge and that Arceneaux was the one taking orders. After a short while she left, replaced by Arceneaux’s wife, Lucie-Mae, who in turn appeared to be interrogating her husband. Napoleon caught himself feeling almost sorry for the man.

His thoughts returned to his partner, and he involuntarily patted the ampoules now nestling inside his jacket inside pocket. He presumed that Illya was still down on the farm rooting around somewhere, and overrode the strong temptation to leave the room and contact him. If his partner was discovered, somehow he had to inveigle himself into the reception party, and that was going to be tricky.

 

******

The window of the brick building proved trickier to open, but eventually, with the help of a little light explosive from his belt, Illya achieved it. He waited for the catch to lose heat before grasping it and levering himself inside. Fortunately, the window was lower, obviating the need for any help. Napoleon’s back was perfect on these jobs, but Napoleon wasn’t there tonight, he thought regretfully.

He dropped delicately onto the floor of what looked like a storeroom, a pleasant change from the last building he thought cheerfully. It was the usual type of place, he concluded, the walls lined with steel shelves carrying an assortment of what appeared to be bedding and medical supplies of a basic nature on one side, the other a selection of cleaning materials. Something about the room suggested that whatever medical facility they were for, it wasn’t big.

Unlike the other hut, every door in this one seemed to be locked. Illya looked at his watch. Whatever was in this building, it was going to be the last he looked in. He needed to be back in the house well before anyone wondered how he was and came checking up on him. With a low phut the door swung open after encouraging it with a little more explosive, and he stepped through.

The building was divided into three separate rooms with a set of double doors set in each partition wall. The room he had entered appeared to be a kind of workroom/laboratory. He smiled sardonically at the white lab coats hung on one wall, a part of him wondering why he hadn’t just opted for a life of research rather than doing what he was now, creeping round places in the dead of night. He sighed and moved along the counter at one side, glancing at a couple of microscopes and trying a few cupboards, all firmly locked. He decided to investigate the other two rooms first, before returning here for another spot of explosives work.

The second room, reached directly from the first, to Illya’s surprise resembled a ward, but a very small one indeed. There were only two beds facing each other across the room, the usual array of equipment Illya was now unfortunately very familiar with, stacked neatly behind each one of them. For the first time, he saw evidence of restraints, ankle and leg cuffs neatly hanging underneath each bed. He glanced behind him, feeling suddenly vulnerable in this middle room with no way out if anyone came at him from both sides simultaneously. He stood for a moment and let his breathing return to normal. Something about one of the beds attracted his attention. Like the bed in the other hut, it had been freshly made up, the covers turned back, and a drip-stand placed to the side. Its companion was completely bare. Somebody was expected.

 

*********

‘Mind if I sit with you?’ Napoleon jerked upright as William Houghton levered himself down onto an overstuffed wing chair opposite him. By now all of the women had left the room, Evangeline returning to the other house accompanied by Emil, and the other women out of sight too. On the other side of the room the Governor was now holding forth to Edward Chauvin and Arceneaux, his already flushed face now a kind of unhealthy purplish colour as he talked.

By Houghton’s side, in contrast to the iced tea at the other end of the room, there had been placed on a side table a large bottle of superior scotch, several glasses and a large cigar. Houghton, presuming Napoleon’s refusal, didn’t bother to offer him anything, but after fixing Solo with a disagreeable stare, poured himself a large glass of scotch and proceeded to light his cigar.

‘Ever been to England, Reverend?’ he said after a few moments spent savouring the twin pleasures on the tray.

‘Can’t say I have, Sir’ Napoleon lied, his brain suggesting several options as to where the conversation might be going. Houghton flicked some ash on a silver plate and put the cigar down.

‘Colonel Thomas Houghton, my direct ancestor and the builder of this home, came from that place’ Houghton began, his eyes closing a little in satisfaction at the telling of the tale. ‘His family’d already made money out of cotton production there, so they came out here to make more, seeing that there was more room, and labour was cheap.’ Napoleon forced back a grimace at the word ‘cheap’ which hardly described the slave labour on which this plantation and many like it, he presumed, were built.

‘Course, production was slow to begin with, but now, with the modern gins like we have here, they can turn out fifteen tonnes an hour easy, and no waste.’ He put down his glass and bent forward slightly, staring at Napoleon. ‘We don’t like waste here, Reverend, cotton or human.’

‘That’s quite a set-up you have then, sir’ Napoleon replied slowly. ‘I guess that a lot of folks round here are involved there, and on the farm too.’ Houghton’s eyes narrowed slightly but he seemed unaffected by Solo’s prodding.

‘The plantation employs a lot of men’ he continued, picking up his glass again. ‘In fact, there is no unemployment in this town, no lazy long hairs taking up tax-payers’ dollars’ he added rather harshly, taking a large gulp of the scotch before putting it back on the tray with a definite crash of glass on metal.

‘Rightly so, sir; ‘Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.’ Napoleon quoted earnestly, adding ‘2 Genesis 15’ as the reference, as he had been instructed to do every time he mentioned scripture.

Houghton looked momentarily bemused before replying, ‘yes, thank you Reverend’ and pouring himself more scotch. The scotch appeared to be improving his temper though, for after a few more minutes, Houghton’s face relaxed a little and he sat back more comfortably in his chair.

‘The farm provides for this house and those working on the plantation’ he began, waving his glass around a little. ‘We also repair the machinery there and all, plus there’s a little place for those in our community who are . . .’, he hesitated, before adding, ‘who are having a hard time. We try to help them feel better about themselves, you understand Reverend.’

Trying not to appear too fascinated, Napoleon said, ‘Oh I do, sir, I do. ‘I blame it squarely on the lack of authority, both parental and governmental, don’t you think?’ He dredged up another quote from those he had memorised.

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. Romans 13’ he ended with a flourish. He could see that this particular quotation met with Houghton’s approval.

‘I’ve been reading a book that Miss Vivienne recommended to me’ Houghton said, unaware that a door had opened and a man not known to Napoleon was whispering something rather urgently in Andrew Arceneaux’s ear. Napoleon continued to at least feign interest, but it was impossible to hear anything from the other conversation going on.

‘It’s called ‘Brave New World’ Reverend, by some fella called Huxley.’ Napoleon nodded, something about the title jogging a a recent memory.

‘I haven’t read that one, sir; I usually restrict myself to Christian literature’ Napoleon opined, deciding that after this mission he would give religion a wide berth for some time to come.

‘Yeah, well it’s a bit on the edge for me but it has some interesting ideas about how society should be sorted out, Reverend.’

Napoleon frowned. It appeared that Houghton had in some way missed the central point of Huxley’s dystopian nightmare society; the dangers of an all-powerful state. As Houghton continued to speak, more and more of the book, which Solo had read at college and again in his early days at UNCLE, filtered back to him; the tragic scenario of a society where happiness was purchased at the cost of personal freedom. Suddenly, the secret room at the Arachne Foundation imprinted itself back into his mind. The ampoules with the Greek letters, and the files with the name ‘Miranda Project’ emblazoned on their front. The fake phials in his pocket were suddenly a physical reminder of the separation of society Huxley had described. The ‘deltas’, a group of people programmed from birth to reject learning, desire and the warmth of human relationship in return for an absolute guarantee of stability and prosperity. All of a sudden he wished he could rush from the room and head for the farm.

 

*******

Illya swallowed hard and brought his gun out in front of him. There was absolutely no sound at all in the building, not from in front or behind him. He checked behind him again, waited, and then walked towards the doors.

This room, unlike the others was enveloped in the kind of darkness that made him doubt his own eyes were working any more. The other rooms had emitted considerable moonlight through the windows, but in here, for some reason, the windows didn’t seem to exist. He stayed in the doorway and reached for where he knew the light socket had been in the other rooms, but it wasn’t there, his hand just sliding across the slippery wall until he felt the frame of the door again. Only one of the two doors seemed to be capable of opening, and that seemed wedged as he tried to force it open wider. He felt a great urge to kick it but instead, knelt down to investigate the problem. It was a mistake.

A powerful hand grabbed his sweater by the back of the neck and dragged him head first into the room. Illya sprawled out flat as painfully bright lights came on, instantly blinding him, his gun spinning harmlessly away into the corner of the room. Desperately blinking his eyes he fought to stand, but once again he was forced to the ground, his arms crudely twisted back and pinned behind him, before, without warning he was hoisted to his feet and then forced back onto a hard wooden chair behind him.

‘Please don’t struggle Dr Kuryakin; it just really isn’t worth it now, you’ll see.’

 

********

It was hard not to leave the room instantly and warn Kuryakin, but as he nodded encouragingly at Houghton, he realised that he was being overtaken by events. Arceneaux, with the unknown man waiting behind him at the door, suddenly strode over, invoking an instant reaction from the other two men, who stood up immediately. Arceneaux gave Napoleon a pained expression before turning to Houghton.

‘I think you’re needed down at the farm. There seems to have been a little incident.’ Houghton’s rather amiable expression disappeared rapidly, and slamming down the glass he swivelled towards the door.

Napoleon decided not to risk asking to join them at this point. It was not worth inviting rejection now, not when he might manage to force himself into the proceedings later. He said nothing, just managing to slip out of the room in the wake of the other men. He could hear the others talking loudly in the room after they had gone. No-one seemed to have noticed his disappearance for now. He ran silently down the corridor and out of the French windows at the back of the house, following the powerful lights and the three figures walking purposefully towards the farm.