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Free of body, Free of soul Part Seven

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PART SEVEN

 

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

Illya consulted his watch and then pinned himself to the side of the window. He had showered and returned to his locker where the ghastly suit awaited him, but after a few seconds contemplation of it, chose to yank out a clean t-shirt from the locker and retain his usual farm overalls. From his vantage point he could see his fellow workers clearly coming out of Hut D, the evidence of the barber’s work making him glower unconsciously. Fortunately, no-one had returned to their sleeping quarters.   He could see that they were being closely guarded by a number of Houghton’s men, not that they needed to be very vigilant with these particular captives. They all marched off in the direction of the house, Illya noticing Sly turning round a couple of times as they went. He hoped that the excitement of the event would deter his friend from mentioning what was on his mind to the guards.

He sat on the bed and drew out his gun, then stashed it in a conveniently deep pocket. He had transferred all the other weapons and tools to other parts of his body, and now, despite feeling a little worried about being seen, he felt more at ease and ready to deal with the ensuing melée up at the house, when it came. The hut, the surrounding buildings, in fact the whole farm took on an aura of stillness, as if it knew what was to come and was preparing itself for imminent destruction. Illya looked around slowly, the silence of the place affecting him. After a few long moments of utter quiet, he stood up and walked to the door.

The pathways between the buildings were completely empty, even the sounds from the house and the more distant bayou seemed phenomenally remote. Illya left the door open and walked between the huts, pressing himself into the shadow of the buildings on one side from sheer force of habit. He reached a crossroads between the two rows and glanced up and down, making himself take the precautions he always took and taking nothing for granted, but the atmosphere of desertion was strong, and, after another crossroads had been reached and traversed he relaxed, stopping for a moment at the edge of the last building to re-tie the rather uncomfortable sneakers he was wearing.

He felt the presence of someone seconds before an iron hand grasped his shoulder. Louis Morant’s leathery features instantly came into his view as he was spun round and hoisted to face the taller man.

‘What the heck do you think you are doin’, Mikey?’

Illya’s habitual ‘frightened rabbit’ expression immediately reasserted itself as Morant’s eyebrows drew together in disapproval. Behind the overseer he could see Evangeline approaching, sauntering along the path with one of her step-father’s men walking in close proximity. Morant’s critical stare was temporarily shifted towards them as they drew up beside the pair.

‘Oh hi, Mr Morant and hi … Mikey.’ Evangeline’s tone reminded Illya of a teenager having her first crush, but it was enough to draw Morant’s attention towards her and avert whatever heat was heading in Illya’s direction . The guard, a stocky blond with too many muscles for his shirt, jerked his head towards the hut they had come from and gave Morant a knowing look.

‘Just collecting Miss Vangie here after her ‘treatment’, Sir,’ he said, in a manner that suggested he was quite comfortable with whatever went on down there. Morant opened his mouth to speak but was temporarily silenced by the sound of a door banging open and a woman’s voice screaming, the sort of scream one might hear in a cheap horror film made for teenagers.

Morant swung round in the direction of the sound before signalling to the less bulging of the two blonds.

‘Start walking her back to the house. We’ll catch you up when we’ve found out what the hell is going on in there’ he said, his head jerking towards the hut where Illya guessed Vivienne Cant’s scream had come from, and where he had concealed her after the fight. Eyes wide, Illya nodded vigorously and then taking Evangeline’s hand began walking slowly away, dragging her along beside him.

‘Keep walking in that aimless way you were doing before’ he muttered, looking straight ahead, ‘and then glance round and tell me when they’ve disappeared.’ She smiled rather airily and then, after a few steps looked back, turning her head beguilingly towards the other men.

‘They’re just entering the end of those cabins’ she hissed, maintaining her expression as she turned back to him.

‘Right.’ He set off running, turning right up the side of the more distant huts and then heading for the more densely wooded area of the estate surrounding the house, Evangeline breathing heavily as she laboured to keep up with him. When they were sufficiently far from the farm yet still protected from view by the trees, he stopped, Evangeline flopping down under a large cedar and fanning herself with her hand.

‘Alright?’ he said, looking down a little anxiously before returning his gaze towards the house, where he could see that preparations for the marriage were in an advanced stage. Evangeline stood up, brushing the residue of grass and leaves from her dress.

‘Alright. So what now?’ Illya frowned and then redirected his attention towards the distant buildings.

‘No doubt Morant and his friend will have found Miss Cant and the technicians by now so I need to make myself scarce. With any luck, Napoleon’s disguise will hold for at least the next hour or so, but they’ll know who I am and will be out searching for me. If you wouldn’t mind getting back to the house as quickly as possible’ he added, smiling a little, ‘and if you could make up a little story putting me in an entirely different place than I am now, then I’d be very grateful.’ Evangeline wished at that moment that he wasn’t half as attractive as he looked now, but pushing these thoughts to the back of her mind, she nodded, leaned forward and kissed him, and then ran off rapidly towards the house.

***********

Napoleon let the binoculars swing loosely round his neck and gripped the rail of the balcony tightly with one hand while he flipped open the communicator to silence its penetrating ring.

‘I presume you getting in touch means that you’re still free’ he began a little tersely, wondering why he was allowing his own worries to seep out so easily.  There was a slight pause before Illya spoke, only a slightly acerbic quality to his voice betraying the fact that he had noticed his partner’s anxiety.

‘Naturally. However, there may be a little trouble heading your way very soon. Unfortunately for us, the new format of Miss Cant’s mind-changing drug has a much quicker recovery rate than Mark One. The darts I used on the two technicians and the THRUSH official should keep them sedated for some time, but from what I heard I think Miss Vivienne has come round and is on her way to the house with Morant.’

With the aid of the binoculars, it was easy to confirm Illya’s apprehensions. He could see the spare figure of Morant moving along the path from the farm to the main house, somewhat impeded by his female companion, who seemed to be gabbling incessantly as she walked, the blond guard completing the unlikely trio. There was no sign of the others, much to Napoleon’s relief.

‘I can see them now. So where are you?’

‘In the wooded area to your west’ Illya replied somewhat cartographically. ‘Where do you want me?’ Solo scanned the area from his viewpoint. He estimated that in a very short time indeed there could be a potentially lethal cocktail forming, thwarted ambition and ruined hopes combining to wreak havoc without regard to the comparative innocence or guilt of those sucked into its deadly mix.

‘Get up into Evangeline’s place if you can. If all else fails I want you to make sure Emil gets the girls to safety; then focus on trying to mop up some of the less attractive members of the wedding party.   I’ll coordinate with Emmanuel’s men and try to keep a lid on what could turn out to be quite an explosive afternoon.’

Illya closed his communicator and moved silently into the trees, mentally calculating a list of possible targets. Getting the girls to safety seemed comparatively straightforward, bearing in mind that he had disabled the majority of the guests’ cars, with the exception of Miss Kitty of course. He tried to order his list objectively, placing those with a direct link to THRUSH as primary targets, right down to those he considered foolish innocents like the Governor and his wife or culpable idiots like Houghton, whose own distorted view of history and evident cruelty probably moved him into the prime targets category on reflection. There remained one person outside all the lists he had made with their neat, objective criteria. One person solely motivated by his own violent desires, both sexual and physical. One person who potentially, could be far more dangerous than all the others combined.

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

A distant door slammed loudly, bringing Napoleon’s scan of the area to a halt. He moved back inside the house, through the bedroom he had been using as a so-called study and down the stairs to the kitchen. Evangeline, a wild-eyed look splashed across her features like paint, stood in the centre of the room, her step-father facing her, with Kane Pierce hovering with intent immediately behind.

‘He just ran off, that’s all, daddy, down there’ she said determinedly, stabbing her finger in the opposite direction to the trees which Solo knew hid his partner for now. Evangeline turned round as he entered, her expression not altering. ‘Oh Reverend’ she almost shouted, ‘that Mikey, he ran away!’ Houghton ignored him apart from a passing look of contempt, instead turning to Pierce.

‘Git down to the landing and check he’s not tried to get away through the bayou’ he spat out, an unhealthy flush spreading across his face as he added, almost under his breath, ‘finish the job this time.’ Pierce’s face slid into a barely concealed feral grin as he loped out of the room; passing close by Napoleon, close enough for Solo to take in his rank odour and the far more disturbing air of malevolence emanating, like an aura, around him. He paused, uttering the one word ‘Reverend’ before disappearing from view.

Pierce had only been gone for moments before Emil’s more comforting presence filled the room.

‘Scuse me sir, but you’re needed in the house. Seems there’s some kinds of trouble concerning Miss Vivienne.’ Houghton nodded condescendingly in his direction and left immediately, its occupants frozen for a few moments until Emil’s re-entry caused them to relax a little. Evangeline let her head fall backwards momentarily before sitting down and rubbing her face with her hands. Emil put down the suitcase he was carrying and walked over to the other side of the kitchen, dragging the coffee percolator towards him and switching it on.

‘Brought over your partner’s clothes; guess he might want them’ he said without further comment. Napoleon smiled.

‘How very perceptive of you. He should be arriving just about …’ There was an imperceptible click of the door to the sitting room Solo surmised, before Kuryakin appeared silently in front of them.

‘You should lock your windows. It’s very easy for the passing burglar to find his way in’ he said, accepting a cup of coffee with a characteristically superior nod at his partner.

‘Glad you could join us, Mikey, Napoleon replied, gesturing to the Russian to sit down. ‘You’ll be glad to know that Emil here has catered for your every need apart from one …..’ Illya glowered slightly, automatically fingering his hair into an approximate level of tidiness as Emil smiled in understanding and fetched the suitcase.

‘Surprised you didn’t get the same treatment those farm boys did down there’ he growled. ‘They look like a set of Marine Corps boys out on the town’. Napoleon pursed his lips. So that was why he didn’t come back with the others. Illya jumped up rather quickly and moved towards the door, suitcase in hand.

‘Um, I’ll see you later then’ he said, rapidly disappearing through the door.

‘You’re cruel, both of you and wrong too’ Evangeline started, standing up. ‘I think his hair is just .. beautiful an all, whatever you two boys think.’

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

Looking back, the episode drinking coffee in the kitchen had been a sweet interlude before what turned out to be a deadly storm. Kuryakin managed to leave the house without further difficulty, wearing the black suit which now to Napoleon’s eye, marked him as spy rather than farm hand. Almost instantly the house had been filled with those engaged to prepare Evangeline for the wedding, a fact that Illya had somehow managed to overlook in his plans for her escape. Emil seemed less fazed by it though.

‘I’ll bring the ladies out once your firework display starts down on the farm’ he suggested, pointing a spot on the road where they would wait for Kuryakin. Illya stared at the map, connecting the pull in at the side of the highway with the proximity of the shack where he had shared the picnic with Evangeline what felt like a hundred years ago.

I will need to deal with those targets we’ve identified first’ he said without looking up, ‘so if I do not reach you by fifteen hundred, leave me behind and take them directly to New Orleans. Do you understand?’

‘Ok.’

‘Napoleon is going to come back with Emmanuel, so if all goes to plan, we should rendezvous at UNCLE by nineteen hundred hours.’

‘Fine.’ Emil hesitated, an unusual trait for him, Illya thought afterwards, before adding in a quieter tone, ‘it’s been an honour working with you, Mr Kuryakin.’ Illya nodded, momentarily confused by Emil’s uncharacteristic show of feelings and his formality. After folding the map Terrebonne walked over to the door, his shadow causing Illya to look up momentarily from checking his gun. Sliding the weapon into his holster, he stood up.

‘Um, I … I’ll see you later’. The inadequacy of the words would return later to haunt him, but then, other things, more apparently important at that time, eclipsed them in his mind.

‘Yeah. Later’ Emil replied.

*********

Napoleon’s communicator springing to life did not need, for once, to alert him to the likelihood of incipient chaos. News of a probable major and possibly violent interruption to the wedding ceremony had obviously filtered through to the Houghton Estate, though he was reliably informed by one of Laurence’s Section Three men that all telephone lines connecting the plantation house and its surrounding estate had now been cut.

‘Looks like somebody opened a whole big can of whoopass round here, and they ain’t gonna be stopped till they git some answers’ he had bawled down the communicator, the malevolent sound of angry voices providing the backdrop to his warning.

The atmosphere at the front of the plantation house was in startling and direct contrast to what was going on behind. From the balcony at Evangeline’s house Napoleon noted the closed and bolted gates leading to the main highway, a sizeable number of extremely burly and no doubt heavily armed guards providing a clear warning to those who were most definitely not welcome at the wedding party. At the back of the house however, a different scene was unfolding. An elaborate and highly decorated outdoor wedding canopy had been erected over a platform raised up in front of several rows of similarly decorated chairs. Nearer the house a longer, more enclosed marquee stood ready for the post nuptial celebrations. A small army of men and women led by Dorcelia bustled in and out, laden with all that was necessary for entertainment of such notable wedding guests. Napoleon noticed that even the ‘farm boys’ seemed to have become involved in these preparations, recognising Sly as one of a dozen polyester suited men with severe haircuts carrying tables and chairs into the tent.

Walking towards the wedding canopy, he consulted his watch. Most of the guests, warned to arrive early even before any sign of trouble had been detected, and in any case driven by the chance to see the estate first hand, were now seated. It was immediately clear that there was some kind of hierarchy of seating position established, the Governor and his entourage at the front, and then a gradual diminution of power and prestige until, he was certain, the farm boys would eventually make up the final few rows. There was no sign of either Chauvin or Arceneaux at the front, and Napoleon could guess why.

Using the ordered chaos of the wedding breakfast preparations to slip into the house relatively unnoticed, Napoleon headed upstairs rapidly towards his room. If Lucie-Mae were somehow to attract somebody’s attention it might prove inconvenient if not fatal. He met Elizabeth Logue on the landing, her expression reassuring him that to date the whereabouts of her daughter had not been ascertained.

‘Oh Mr S…I mean Reverend’ she gasped, reddening slightly, ‘perhaps you have some idea where my daughter is. The men are downstairs with that Miss Cant. Appears that something unexpected happened down the farm with that French boy.’ She gazed at him for a moment, picking up something in his expression that hinted at an answer.

‘Don’t worry, nothing permanent has happened to Miss Lucie-Mae’ he said rather elliptically. ‘You need to trust me here, Mrs Logue. Go downstairs and tell them that Lucie-Mae is feeling indisposed in your room and will be joining the wedding party later. Try to give me a few minutes to arrange things, so walk down slowly if you don’t mind and try to prevent anyone from dashing upstairs if you can.’ He smiled, squeezing her hand. Despite the expertly applied make-up she appeared drained, and Solo wondered if asking her to help him once again was asking too much. After a brief look downwards, she nodded and walked away slowly towards the staircase, glancing over her shoulder rather apprehensively one last time as she disappeared downwards.

He had the door to his room open within seconds of her departure. Lucie-Mae remained on the bed where he had left her, obviously not as skilled as his partner in escaping her bonds. He removed his gun and darted her, her body flopping back as the drug became effective. Removing the dart, he hoisted her over his shoulder and with some difficulty transferred her from his bedroom to that of her parents. All that remained was to position the bottle of bourbon, a glass and some tablets in places which would invite a natural explanation to her unconscious state if anyone decided to go see. Shaking his shoulders slightly, he adjusted his jacket before returning to his room and locking the door.

He met Arceneaux on the stairs. The man’s demeanour expressed contempt but not knowledge he decided. With a hastily uttered ‘Reverend’, Arceneaux passed by him without further comment. Napoleon plastered on the smooth religious expression he had perfected over the last few days here and moved on, down the stairs and out of the building towards the murmuring crowd in front of the dais.

**********

The view from the live oak tree conveniently situated on land slightly rising between the two houses proved to be almost panoramic. It was a tree begging to be climbed, a child’s dream, Illya thought. He had spent what felt like a considerable amount of time in his childhood climbing trees similar to this one, for enjoyment or the sheer challenge of going up higher or faster than others had done before him. However, on occasion, it had been as it was now, to escape notice, to hide, to watch and observe.

It was from this tree that he now observed the beginnings of a sizeable mob heading along the road from the town of Napoleonville. His powerful binoculars gave him a clear picture of the crowd; a mixture of pickups, cars and trucks, slowed to almost standstill by a very large walking contingent interspersed with the vehicles. The same men he had sat beside in the church listening to Napoleon’s sermon were now marching determinedly towards the gates of the Houghton Estate, a different kind of fervour emanating from their angry, set faces and inexorable pace.

Moving the binoculars towards the plantation house he surveyed an entirely different scene, mentally ticking off the main players in this particular travesty of holy matrimony. In the garden of her house Evangeline waited, fear radiating through the filmy white veil of her headdress as her stepfather spoke to her, Rosa standing at her side in support. Illya noticed Rosa’s hand imperceptibly move to grip the shaking one of her friend as Houghton continued talking.

By the wedding canopy he spotted Edward Chauvin, resplendent in an immaculate dark blue tuxedo, sharing some observation with Andrew Arceneaux, who appeared preoccupied with glancing round, looking for someone it seemed, or just bored with whatever observation the bridegroom was making. Illya swung his binoculars carefully through the guests, until the last seats were reached, their occupants all too familiar to the Russian. Sly was seated next to his fiancée, whom Illya knew without being able to hear, was regaling him with her opinions on bridal fashion and accessories. He saw his own putative fiancée Eugenie Morant looking across the row and then speaking to Sly. Obviously news of his disappearance hadn’t reached them yet, or so he hoped. Only one person was absent, and, with a slightly sinking feeling, Illya could imagine why.

He glanced downwards. Only someone standing directly beneath him would be able to see him. The black suit and his choice of dark grey polo shirt, despite not being ideal climbing wear, went some way towards camouflaging his presence, at least to those looking across from either the road or the house.

He looked back at the wedding party. Napoleon had already assumed his position on the wedding dais, a small pedestal now provided for what Illya imagined were his copy of the wedding service and the inevitable sermon. It seemed ironic to say the least that the man who made an art out of avoiding going down the aisle himself was now intimately involved in a wedding ceremony, albeit on the other side of the altar as it were. Illya shrugged and heaved a deep sigh. Probably this was the nearest that either of them would ever get to marriage he thought, surprised a little by a sense of regret forming within himself as he gazed on the scene below.

A small band striking up at the side of the dais jerked him from his contemplation. It was comforting to know that the marriage would be a total sham with Napoleon in charge of the ceremony, but Illya still wondered whether that had been any comfort to the girl now slowly leaving her beloved garden and heading for the end of the aisle which had been created between the seats. Despite the music, there was now no disguising a growing sound of something more discordant approaching. Illya looked at his watch. He prided himself on perfect timing and today shouldn’t turn out to be the exception. As if in some perfectly orchestrated spectacle, as Evangeline approached the back row of seats, the crowd finally reached the gates and, as if to round off the event, from the direction of the farm there was a thunderous boom.

As Illya had intended, the explosions were not incendiary. The energy of the blast drew in the buildings rather than blew them out, but the effect was startling none the less. For a few moments, all those at the gates and at the wedding party were frozen in shock. For a reason Illya was never sure of, the crowd at the gate recovered first and this fact enabled them to seize the advantage over their adversaries. With strong lenses, it was easy to see that the Section Three men were armed and had weapons drawn, but had been ordered not to inflame but only contain the situation. As with all crowds of an ugly disposition, this was proving to be a difficult task.

As if pre-ordained, the walking protesters drew back, allowing two bulbous pick-up trucks to surge forward. Illya could almost taste the panic among the guards on the other side, and as the gates began to bulge, a sense of self-preservation overcame loyalty.   With very few exceptions, they ran for the comparative safety of the house.

With a loud crack the gates gave way and were left flattened by the onrush of vehicles and people. A great cacophony of sounds, human and machine temporarily froze the wedding party into a petrified silence, until Houghton tore himself away roughly from the side of his daughter and, shouting orders to his men, ran towards his home. Illya could see Emil moving swiftly out of the shadows towards Evangeline, calmly conducting the two women towards the side of her house where he knew Miss Kitty waited. He watched Arceneaux almost simultaneously separate himself from the side of Chauvin and move rapidly in the same direction. It was now clear to anybody with a good sense of self-preservation that attempting to drive out of the gates through the crowd bordered on suicidal, even if they had been able to start their car. There remained only one exit to take in a vehicle, and Illya was determined that Arceneaux would not be taking it. Sliding his binoculars back into his pocket, he slipped easily down the tree and landed softly on the ground.

*********

Napoleon’s attention was diverted to the Governor’s party immediately in front of him. Governor Logue, whose pallor always suggested the word ‘unhealthy’ to Napoleon at the best of times, now seemed to have taken on an altogether more grave appearance. The tone of his face suggested he might burst into flames at any minute, his appearance made worse by the torrents of sweat which now poured from his body. He stood up suddenly, as a number of people from the crowd finally burst into the wedding party, Logue stumbling up the stairs of the dais until he stood by Napoleon, his breath coming in huge, desperate gasps as he fought for enough air to speak.

But when it came, it was not enough. The pleas to stop, to listen, fell on ears that hardly bothered to turn or notice his presence among them. As the wedding party inexorably became sucked into the vortex of the crowd, the Governor made one last, final effort. He grabbed the microphone and sucking in a great, noisy lungful of air, he opened his mouth to speak. Napoleon was near enough to at least slow down his crashing descent as he clutched his chest, his rolling eyes and a horrible gurgling sound within his mouth announcing that this would be his final public appearance.

It was doubtful whether Governor Logue was still able to hear his wife in those final seconds, but Napoleon didn’t bother to disabuse Elizabeth Logue of her beliefs. The sound of gunfire broke his attention on the couple, forcing him up and through the crowd towards its origin. He was confident that Illya, wherever he was, was carrying out his orders and that Andrew Arceneaux in particular would not escape the scene. Laurence’s men were conducting an efficient sweeping up job from what he could see, which included the detention, by a rather half-hearted group of police officers of a number of selected minor targets. He managed to position himself near the front of a group of men, some of whom had rucksacks with something inside, something which could inflict potential harm, Solo thought from experience.

The gunfire, a single shot, had come from the balcony of the house. William Houghton stood centrally, a large rifle resting on the parapet by his side, a few of his men standing similarly armed within the shadow made by the roof. For a brief moment the crowd responded, dropping into a semi-respectful silence. Napoleon’s attention was drawn to Houghton’s face, a cruel sneer easy to detect settling itself onto his features. They listened to a few sentences, their tone guaranteeing not to calm down or provide reassurance to those looking for a peaceful solution to the turmoil below. The response when it came was brutal, a violent riposte to the harsh orders emanating from the balcony.

From near him there was an uneasy muttering in the crowd and then, almost instantly, something large and flaming flew through the heavy air and crashed into a window immediately to the side of Houghton and his men. Napoleon, knowing from experience how crowds worked and what might happen, dived to the side as a series of bullets randomly fired were followed by a hailstorm of cruder but effective weapons unleashing themselves on the house. It was only as an ominous cracking sound signalled the house bursting into flames that he thought of the inevitable consequences of his own actions earlier in the day.

Running back round the side of the house, he entered through the open kitchen passage door and headed towards the back staircase. For once, the house was comparatively empty, but not entirely. Going past the breakfast room he saw one of Houghton’s men trying to persuade Vivienne Cant to leave. She was hardly recognisable from the woman who had, without any qualms or conscience, destroyed so many lives. For a moment he found himself feeling some pity for the woman now reduced to a scared and vulnerable little girl. Other thoughts reasserted themselves and he left them to risk his own life on a scarcely more deserving woman upstairs.

As he dropped to his knees in the gathering gloom of the smoke filled corridor, he remembered Elizabeth Logue’s bravery and her agony as she leant over her husband. Whether Lucie-Mae deserved to be saved was another matter, but her mother didn’t deserve to lose both husband and daughter on the same day if he could help it.

He found her as he had left her, the effects of the dart being replaced rapidly by a more deadly substance billowing under the door. Filling the bowl in the adjoining bathroom, he soaked two small towels in the water. Lucie-Mae, until that point still recumbent on the bed, stirred a little as he tied the towel round her mouth, unflattering mumbled words beginning to issue forth freely as Solo heaved her unceremoniously from the bed.

After half-dragging her along the corridor for a few yards, he decided he had had enough. The fire was taking hold now, flames licking their way into a roar up the back staircase. He dragged her to her feet and somehow swinging her over his shoulder, made his way gingerly down the staircase. He could feel her feet kicking his back, the heat of the smoke and fire eating up the air as they descended into the chaos that had been the kitchen. The sound of timbers creaking and glass exploding was everywhere. Napoleon took one last gulp of filthy hot airless smoke and threw himself forward through the room and out of the black hole that had once been a door.

He remembered afterwards that there had been a crowd round them, but now the strangers were kind. The damage of the fire and smoke to his throat and lungs was bad but not fatal, rendering him gasping for air to begin with, then just speechless. Someone put some oxygen into his lungs a safe distance to the house, now just a roaring inferno behind him. Then Laurence’s face was above him, the lazy smile he normally wore in place despite the chaos.

‘Always the hero, eh Solo?’ he murmured somewhat sardonically. ‘Guess Miss Lucie-Mae’s going to be indebted to you for saving her, right?’ The tone of his voice made Napoleon smile, despite the horrible feeling of being semi barbequed in the house remaining. He looked round. He had obviously been out for a little while, judging from the level of activity of various state agencies that now seemed to be in at least partial control of the situation. With difficulty he sat up, taking short painful breaths to begin with.

‘Spose you want to know what’s going on?’ Laurence replied to the question Napoleon was unable to ask. After a few minutes, he put up his hand to indicate a further one word question. Laurence stared at him, nodding his head.

‘Illya?’ he said, his expression becoming instantly grave.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

With some satisfaction, Illya watched Miss Kitty glide along the back path towards the road, the two women in the back of the car and Emil in charge. Arceneaux arrived very soon afterwards, but not alone. Chauvin, like his best man, had obviously decided to put saving his own skin before the needs of family, friends or colleagues. He caught up with Arceneaux in front of the cars left parked at the side of Evangeline’s house, waving a set of keys in front of the other man, a silly, superior smile on his face. Illya frowned. Chauvin was vapid and idle, and would eventually be picked up, but Arceneaux was of much greater interest to UNCLE and he needed to be captured, preferably alive. However, it was unlikely they would be going anywhere by car in the near future. The Ford whose bunch of keys Chauvin was waving was one of those whom Illya had so recently ‘worked’ on.

Illya waited. The two men got into the car, Arceneaux in the driving seat. After a few attempts at starting the engine he stopped, neither men making any attempt to look under the hood, Illya observed somewhat wearily. Chauvin seemed to be doing all the talking, waving his arms around and then twisting in his seat towards Arceneaux, who remained almost motionless beside him. Then without warning, Arceneaux drew a gun out of his jacket, and, raising it slightly, shot Chauvin expertly in the head, the pop of the silencer drowned by the much greater noise in the vicinity of the house.

For a few moments he remained in the car, enough time for Illya to get behind it and crouch down, his weapon drawn. The execution of Chauvin, though not by any means the first Illya had witnessed, seemed particularly brutal; clear evidence of Arceneaux’s character and his desperation. He leaned against the back of the car slightly, hearing the door close and Arceneaux’s step on the gravel of the path. If he chose to walk away then Illya would be forced to come after him, with potentially more dangerous consequences. However, some of Napoleon’s luck seemed to have headed in his direction, along with his target. As Arceneaux reached the end of the car Illya sprang, knocking him flat. Darting him proved simple, and comparatively merciful in comparison to Chauvin’s fate. Illya rummaged in his jacket for his communicator and with Arceneaux’s location logged, set off for the comparative safety of the cedar trees.

He witnessed the fire from his vantage point amongst the cedars, some very bad memories of large mobs and guns used senselessly flooding back to unsettle him for a few moments. He paused, thinking of Napoleon. His partner had immense skills of strategy and calm decision making, skills which Illya had derived strength from in the time that they had worked together. Illya’s logical thought processes and his ability to execute orders without question were appreciated by his partner, but in these situations, where actions were unpredictable and often illogical, he needed his partner beside him. Gradually, through the chaos, he began to hear Napoleon’s voice within him, reminding him of what his task was. He had secured his main target; another, by no means innocent man, had been lost.   Now all that remained was to ensure that those, most innocent of victims were saved.

Glancing at his watch, he calculated that he should be in plenty of time to hitch a well- earned and comfortable ride to New Orleans in Miss Kitty. Suddenly, he began to long for that moment; to sink back into the soft leather seats, to expunge from his mind the pitiful destruction of soul and body he had witnessed in this place. However beautiful its outward appearance, with its murmuring bayou and soft Spanish moss, there was an atmosphere of suffering here; something which extended back into history and which Illya felt physically soaking into his body as he stared into the lush interior of the wood at his side.

In the distance he could see both the bulging form of Miss Kitty by the side of the road, and, on his side, the tumbledown features of the shack where he had shared a long ago lunch with Evangeline. He noted that the door of the car was swinging open, something about it disturbing him. The shadows of evil intentions made him consider the scene and then hesitate fleetingly before, with heavy foreboding, he crossed the road.

Keeping where the cover of trees was greater he walked slowly along, aware in the distance of plaintive sirens rushing towards the continuous roar of an immense, powerful fire. A contrasting silence surrounding the car seemed significant. Illya stopped and listened, trying to cut out any noise coming from the direction of the fire. What remained was only natural; the rhythmic calling of bullfrogs, a bird hooting somewhere and then a great flap of wings in the distance. He increased his pace, and then began to run.

In a deep ditch at the side of the road Emil Terrebonne lay, his body combining with the undergrowth to partially hide what must have been a massive shotgun wound delivered at close quarters. Illya forced down a tide of emotion surging up within him and turned towards the car. Inside Rosa lay on the back seat. Her hands had been tied with some white ribbon. He wrenched open the door, a cold dark hand clamping his heart and then squeezing it, squeezing it hard.

Another kind of weapon had been used here; an intent to silence every bit as savage as the other attack, but, as he prayed, not as fatal. Her head had borne the brunt of a man’s blow, the delicate bridesmaid’s headdress mangled into a vile mix of flowers and blood soaked hair. Illya shut his eyes for the time it took him to regain composure and control. He pressed two fingers into the soft flesh of her neck, the fast, but comforting beat giving him a little hope that she still clung onto life.   Emil’s loss had felt like something had been ripped out from deep inside him. Now he had to think, to act, to save what was left and to stop this man, permanently.

He shut the door and leaned on the car for a moment, fumbling in his jacket and then finding and opening his communicator. Laurence listened in silence to his message. After drinking in a huge gulp of the warm air that now felt putrid in his throat, he crossed the road swiftly and headed for the shack with the open door.

*********

Solo’s face remained unchanged as Laurence related Kuryakin’s message, the now familiar features, besmirched with the soot and filth of the burning house reflecting the pain that Laurence himself was feeling at the loss of his colleague and dearest friend.

‘We’re sending backup now; be there as soon as we can’ he added unnecessarily. Solo knew as well as he did that the chaos at the plantation house was stretching the UNCLE men to the full. If he had been able to speak, Laurence doubted Solo would be able to add anything to the report he had given Waverly and the reply that he had received. The prime THRUSH targets had been apprehended or were dead. The political and social fall-out was just beginning and had to be at least partially controlled until more long-term, considered decisions had been made. Laurence shut his communicator and then stared across the scene of chaos, checking the state of play before deciding on who could be spared to assist Kuryakin and bring the women back. He turned back to Solo, meaning to give him as much reassurance as he could that the Russian would prevail. The little oxygen tank with its cannula lay abandoned on the grass where Solo had been resting, a handkerchief soiled by blood and dust screwed up beside it. Laurence swore softly in French and drew out his communicator once more.

***********

She was splayed out face down on the lower bunk, her dress partially ripped from her, the remaining layers pushed up and her underwear yanked away to reveal naked flesh beneath. Pierce’s unmistakeable odour pervaded the room, an intense, malignant sweat which assaulted Illya’s senses as he moved silently into the doorway. The shotgun Pierce had been carrying had been cast aside unbroken whilst its owner prepared himself for another, different assault on his latest victim. Evangeline remained rigid, her distress instantly communicating itself to the Russian. Pierce’s proximity to the girl on the bed and his movement made shooting him from the door difficult without endangering her life, and Illya now regretted favouring bullets over darts. Now other choices had to be made and he needed to act immediately. As Pierce crouched slightly he flung himself forward, unbalancing the taller man and bringing him crashing to the floor by the side of Evangeline.

Although momentarily winded by the fall, Pierce recovered alarmingly fast, forcing Illya back against the bedpost with one hand while the other drove brutally into the Russian’s midriff. Illya was conscious of Evangeline’s presence by his side as Pierce’s body pressed him into the floor before, with a tremendous shove, Illya forced him to the side and rolled up onto his feet. His weight and size made him quicker but Pierce’s strength and height in a confined area were telling. A punch in the head left him momentarily dazed, the blood pouring into his eye from the wound enough for Pierce to force him down onto his face and let unconsciousness overtake him.

Pierce stood up, wiping the blood from his face. The fight, however horrific, had driven Evangeline to sit up and pull back on what remained of her clothing. She dropped to the floor beside the still form of the Russian, the now gaping wound in his head leaking onto what remained of her dress. Summoning whatever strength remained to her, she forced herself to look at Pierce.

Kneeling down the other side of Kuryakin, he pulled out a length of rope and began to tie his hands behind his back.

‘He’s not dead if that’s what you’re concerning yourself about’ he began, not looking up. He finished his task and then sat back on his heels, a satisfied expression on his face, as if he’d just finished preparing some joint of meat for the table. Sniffing, he ran the back of his hand across his nose, before adding, ‘now git dressed, ‘cause we’re heading off real soon, after I give the critters in the bayou a nice foreign dish for their dinner.’ He gave Evangeline a fetid grin before undoing his belt and nodding in the direction of some clothes she realised he had taken from her house. The real meaning of his last sentence began to seep slowly into her mind as he hooked the belt round Illya’s neck and hoisted him over his shoulder, not bothering to turn round as he left the room.

The trauma of the last hour had rendered her unable to speak. Even moving a little seemed hard, something Pierce evidently realised. As the door slammed, Evangeline sunk down beside the bed again, a feeling of helplessness sweeping through her, persuading her to just give in to the horror and to let Pierce destroy her in the same way he had destroyed Emil, Rosa and now Illya. She put her hand down on the floor to counteract the overwhelming feeling of black despair crushing her. Under her hand something hard and cold pressed itself into her flesh. She looked down. It was a gun, the initials ‘IK’ etched into the butt. The feeling of the gun and the sight of the initials caused a kind of reaction within her. Summoning strength from a place she hadn’t known existed before this moment, she stood up and, grasping the gun firmly, walked steadily forward.

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

They were on the little jetty, the boat in which only a short time before she and Illya had spent an afternoon on the bayou now bobbing anxiously in its mooring just below them. Pierce had unceremoniously dumped Illya’s motionless form on the wooden boards, his face and exposed parts of his body now a mass of darkening bruises and grazed skin, his hair matted with glutinous crusts of reddish brown blood. Undoing the belt, Pierce ran it through his hands before giving Kuryakin’s back several harsh thwacks, just the sound of them hardening Evangeline’s resolve as she approached.

She had already released the safety catch, the gun feeling huge and heavy as she grasped it with both hands to steady the tremors she felt surging through her body as she staggered forward.   Pierce, intent on his work, seemed unaware of her presence but as she neared the jetty he stopped, leaving Kuryakin’s upper body dangling over the boards, the unmatted hair at the front of his head touching the green water below.

Evangeline stopped and raised the gun as he turned. He seemed unperturbed. Raising his leg, he put his foot between Kuryakin’s legs, and started to push.

‘Stop . . . or I’ll . . shoot.’ The words came out in a harsh grating whisper, just a fraction louder than the background music of croaking bullfrogs and the swish of the water below them. Pierce gave a kind of derisory snort and stopped pushing.

‘You know your trouble, Miss Vangie’ he began laconically, glancing sideways as a significant eddying of the water downstream announced an interest in a possible meal, ‘you don’t have very good taste in menfolk. Take that Buford for one, he wasn’t the right man for you, and now, once he’s taken care of, you latch yourself onto this fine specimen of manhood here.’ As if to underline his point he kicked Illya’s body forward slightly. Evangeline could see that the Russian’s head was now semi submerged, his hair floating in the water like a strange blond sea anemone.

Evangeline swallowed hard, her grasp of the gun tightening in concert with her heart as Pierce raised his leg again. Trying to level it in his direction she squeezed the trigger and fired. Pierce let out a horrible noise, something between a screech and a laugh and thumped his hand down on the balustrade of the jetty as the bullet thudded into a tree some distance away.

‘Goddam it, Miss Vangie, you ain’t what I call a good shot.’ He looked down. Evangeline could see, as he had, that Kuryakin was regaining consciousness, his body twitching slightly as Pierce slid his foot under his back. He grinned back at Evangeline, a savage, uncontrolled expression contorting his features into a look reminding her of what was now patrolling the bayou beneath them.   ‘Well ain’t that nice’ he continued, ‘looks like your new boyfriend is going to know what ate him.’ He turned away, his foot beginning to lift Illya’s body as Evangeline narrowed her eyes and raised the gun again. She knew from the feeling of the weapon in her hand that she hadn’t fired, but yet a bullet had come from somewhere close, its discharge causing a huge flock of birds to rise upstream as Evangeline stood immobile in the long sighing grass of the meadow.

Pierce spun backwards, his body catapulted by the shotgun fire over the balustrade and into the water, at the same time as another man stumbled forward and threw himself towards the figure on the jetty, somehow dragging him back before collapsing beside him. A great churning in the water punctuated the sound of wings flapping and other, hidden sounds of the forest, before the bayou effortlessly righted itself again and the usual heavy stillness returned.

Evangeline stumbled forwards, the gun dropping from her grasp with a dull thud on the jetty as she reached the two men. The Russian now lay on his side, his chest heaving as he laboured to breathe, his plastered hair now contributing to the disaster area that was now Illya Kuryakin. Beside him, a hardly recognisable Napoleon Solo lay panting for breath, his filthy appearance in vivid contrast to the person who had stood looking down the aisle at her only hours before. She stood up, and listened as someone began to howl. It was only later that she realised who it was.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

Illya stood at the bottom of the stairs and grasped the rail firmly. Bearing in mind the fact that injuries seemed to be a regular part of his life, it seemed somewhat foolish that he had been strong armed into buying an apartment on the first floor of an old house with no lifts. He glanced behind him. Napoleon, wearing what he only guessed was an extremely expensive suit beckoned him forward, an encouraging smile playing across his face making Illya wonder what other surprises awaited him above.

‘Go on, or the ladies in the apartment below you will wonder what is going on.’ Napoleon had referred to ‘the ladies’ on numerous occasions during the days Illya had spent in Medical, giving him the impression of two very sedate, elderly sisters who would be ideally suited to live below the reclusive introvert who scowled at his partner from his hospital bed. As yet, Illya had only Napoleon’s word on the subject, and Napoleon’s word on the subject of ladies of any age was not always to be relied on.

Not for the first time Illya wondered how he had let his partner persuade him into buying somewhere he had only seen in photographs, but Sabi had said it was right for him, and, unlike his partner’s, Illya trusted her taste implicitly. He staggered a little but with Napoleon behind him, the door to his new apartment finally appeared before him and he entered.

Someone had been busy, and he had a good idea who. His stay in Medical had been longer than Napoleon’s, but considering what was left of him after his beating by Pierce and his nearly being an alligator’s lunch, he considered himself lucky. The memory of those who had not been as lucky clutched at his heart as he opened the door to the living room and walked in.

He recognised Marion’s furniture immediately including the few photographs he had chosen from her collection, the green sofa looking particularly good in the room with its high ceiling and parquet flooring; a sudden, not altogether unpleasant reminder, of the apartment he had lived in as a child in Kiev. But these were expected, not surprising.  

The shelves neatly fixed to the walls of the room were instantaneously recognisable as were their contents. He was immediately taken back to New Orleans, and touching the first one he pulled out, of the previous owner of this remarkable record collection. He thought of himself as someone with an iron control over his emotions but this had been wholly unexpected and he found it difficult to suppress what was welling up inside him. He felt his partner’s hand on his shoulder as he sank down on the sofa, still clutching the disk.

‘Here’ Napoleon said gently, handing him an envelope. ‘By way of explanation.’

Inside were a couple of pages of Emanuel Lawrence’s curving handwriting, together with a winsome photograph of the three girls ‘for your pleasure’ as their father had written. They had visited him in hospital before he was taken back to New York, the sensation of hands touching his hair still a pleasant memory.

‘My friend, Emil Terrebonne, wanted you to have his collection in the event of his being taken from us’ Lawrence had continued without preamble. ‘He told me that you were one of the few people who would love them as he had. I wish you pleasure in them.’

Napoleon had disappeared into the kitchen he presumed, judging by the noise. When he thought he was in control of his feelings he got to his feet slowly and followed his nose.

‘Okay?’

He nodded, appreciating his partner’s culinary skill almost as much as his tact. On the counter, next to what looked like a particularly fine steak and trimmings, was a newspaper and what looked like one of those magazines which concentrated exclusively on what people in Hollywood were getting up to. Napoleon moved the food onto the kitchen table and edged the papers towards Illya.

‘And what might I find of interest in these’ he said, as he lowered himself gingerly onto his chair and took a sip of red wine, his eyes widening a little at the vintage.

‘Read and learn’ Napoleon replied, smiling and turning back to some concoction of salad he was producing to accompany the meat.

The newspaper was immediately indicative of its subject, being based in New Orleans, and probably originating from Emanuel Lawrence. Under a banner headline ‘Forward together in Napoleonville’ a large article followed, including photographs of several people Illya recognised. He glanced at the familiar features of the religious leaders in that town, now seemingly working together, before moving on to several images of farm buildings under construction, Sly’s face beaming at him from one evoking more painful memories in Illya’s head. He frowned before Napoleon added, ‘turn over.’

Evangeline Houghton was at the centre of a large photograph, the caption detailing her work of rebuilding the community after the devastating fire which had robbed her of her step-father and her fiancé as well as signalling the sudden and very sad death of the Governor of Louisiana himself. She had visited him in hospital in the days before he returned to New York, Illya unable to do anything except listen while she worked out her pain and grief, and her faith too. Rosa had survived; according to the woman who held his hand so tenderly, so would she. He laid the paper down and stretched his fingers out over her image. Pain and grief had given way to hope and a sense of purpose it seemed.

He lay the other magazine aside until the meal was ended and he was unwillingly escorted to the living room by his partner. It was a publication he felt underlined everything that was wrong with western society and brought out the worst in him, or so Napoleon said. After thumbing through innumerable pages of so-called society gossip, he reached a part of the magazine entitled ‘beautiful people’ a title which made him cringe inwardly but which Napoleon seemed to want him to read, judging by the folded over edge and the red star drawn on the top corner.

He frowned as Napoleon sank down on the chair opposite and handed him his coffee, a kind of amused expectation on his face that stoked Illya’s tendency to bad temper. Sighing, he retrieved his glasses from the coffee table and started to read.

It was in complete contrast to the previous article. Under the headline – ‘Famous and beautiful come together’ was a photograph of Marion and Fred Zillenburger . Their wedding seemed to be taking place outdoors, and reading the article, Illya discovered that the lavish setting was in fact their new home.

‘Just think, that could have been you’ Napoleon interposed, evoking a flat stare back. Marion couldn’t have been more different to Evangeline, and yet both women were important to him. They seemed to sum up his life as far as women were concerned, the last two in a succession of relationships that either ended with marriage to another man or just commitment to other things, his and hers. He sighed and put the magazine down.

‘Well, since I am neither famous nor beautiful, then I think not’ Illya replied laconically, sipping his coffee. ‘I’m pleased for Marion, she made the right choice; marriage, well it’s hardly an option for me is it?’

*********

The room was stuffy, Napoleon thought. Opening the window would let in the usual city noise, but was preferable to the airless heat inside. He dragged a rather delicate wooden chair to the window and sat down, taking a few deep breaths of air and leaning his head for a few moments on the window frame as he surveyed the garden below, now semi-illuminated by the light coming from the downstairs apartment, which he judged must have some kind of French windows onto the outside.

Illya was taking his time in the bathroom, probably slowed down by the level of annoyance he had shown after Napoleon had insisted he take an early night and at least some of his medication. Finally he emerged, the fading bruises and the healing head wound combining to contrive a less than beautiful Russian, Napoleon thought with amusement.

‘Get in bed and take these’ he said, shaking the antibiotics bottle authoritatively.

‘Yes, okay.’ Something about his tone surprised Napoleon, catching him unaware. It was difficult to tell with his partner, but he guessed Kuryakin had probably reached sensory overload and needed to recover, preferably alone. However, the price for leaving Medical early had been Solo’s presence in the apartment at least for a few days.

‘Listen, I’ll just help you settle and then let you get some sleep’ he began again, this time a little more gently. Marion’s sofa had turned out to be the sofa bed variety, of a high standard of double bed comfort too, he thought gratefully, passing the pills and a glass of water to Kuryakin and watching him swallow them carefully whilst he sat down on the chair again. Illya put the glass down on the nightstand and lay down. Solo watched, as sleep came, how his partner’s arm curled round his head, a child’s habit perhaps, now returning as the man drifted into peace. Napoleon smiled, remaining sitting in the shadows of the room, until other sounds diverted his attention from the sleeping Russian.

He didn’t know how long she’d been there, but it seemed to Napoleon from the way she looked up that she knew that someone other than he lay beyond the open window. For the rest of his life when he thought of her, in the back of his mind lay the memory of that evening, of a girl with long wavy brown hair playing a classical guitar. The music and the girl spoke of warm nights, of ancient places he had seen and had yet to see. After a while she looked away but he knew that somehow she was aware of someone else, someone she played for that evening.

He glanced back at Illya, still thinking of the woman below. Chicken soup, he thought, beginning to smile. Chicken soup for a Russian’s thirsty soul. And she had a sister too. Shutting the door quietly, he went out.