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Noche De Los Muertos

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“Are you certain there are no after-effects from the concussion, Mr. Solo?”

“The doctor here has assured me that all Illya needs is rest. Oh, and he’s to avoid plane travel for a few days. He said it would exacerbate the headache. We could rent a car-”

“That won’t be necessary. I think I can do without my top agents for now. You may as well stay for the Dia de Metros festivities. You’ve earned a few days off after your last affair. I‘ll expect both of you back at headquarters on Monday.”

Napoleon closed his communicator and slipped it back into his breast pocket.

“You heard?”

“Yes, stop shouting,” Illya said softly, turning over the cool, dampened cloth that covered his eyes. He was stretched out on one of the two single beds in their darkened bungalow, clad only in boxer shorts. An angry reddish-purple bruise extended from his right temple to his jawline, giving him one hell of a shiner. He’d abandoned the piece of red meat, goat from the smell of it, that Napoleon insisted he use to reduce the swelling. The day was warm already and it was only eleven am. The ceiling fan seemed to be turning too slowly to do any good and there was nary a breeze flowing through the open but blinded windows.

“Sorry,” Napoleon all but whispered. “ How about something to eat? I know I’m starved. You haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.”

“Ugh! Don’t even talk about food. You go ahead and enjoy your meal.” Illya raised an arm dramatically and covered his eyes. “I’ll be content to curl up and die here in solitude,” he added.

Napoleon smiled and patted his friend on the shoulder. It had been a long night, keeping Illya awake when he had pleaded for Napoleon to leave him be. Finally, the deadline the doctor had given them was past and Illya could get the sleep he desperately needed. Napoleon was exhausted as well, but hunger was foremost on his mind. He would rest later, during the heat of the day.

“Be back before you know it, my prickly cactus,” he said as he reset the door alarm. “I’ll pick up a change of clothes and something for you to eat later. Rest in peace.”

Solo ducked as a pillow flew past his head. He chuckled and locked the door behind him. Their bungalow was located behind a private residence on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was more primitive than the agents were used to, but it was also peaceful. No nosy or noisy neighbors. No hot shower, only a lukewarm one and a minimum of creature comforts. It was Illya’s idea of heaven, except for the heat, of course.


A middle-aged Mexican woman walked towards Napoleon on the path. She wore a ruffled,  off-the- shoulders white blouse, and a Tabasco traditional skirt of dark blue with beautiful stripes of embroidered flowers in bright colors near the bottom. The deep red sash wrapped around her waist matched the flower in her dark brown, flowing hair.

"Buenos día s, señor Solo ."


"Buenos Dias, Bonita ," Napoleon replied to Señora Maria Sandoval, the proprietress of their rented bungalow. He bowed gallantly and flashed his winning smile.


“I was wondering if you’d like some breakfast. I haven’t seen you or your friend this morning. How is he feeling?”


“He’s better, thanks for asking. I wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble at all.  I’m actually on my way for some food and supplies. Would you care to join me? My treat.”


Maria blushed, in spite of herself. This man from U.N.C.L.E. cut such a dashing figure. Maria sighed to herself, if she were only a few years younger…


“No, señor I have many things to do before our celebration this evening. I will be spending most of the day and night with mi familia . You will be leaving tomorrow, si?


“As a matter of fact, no. We will be with you for a few more days. Is that a problem?”


“No,” she answered. Maria was elated to have paying guests in her rental. The extra income would make her life easier for many months in these meager times. It had not been easy for her, especially since her husband passed away recently.


“I am delighted to have both of you gentlemen stay as long as you like. You will be needing fresh linens, but… shall I wait until later?  I do not wish to bother señor Kuryakin.”


“Yes, later.” Solo paused, knowing Illya would likely be grouchy if disturbed. “Perhaps you should leave them on your back porch and I’ll pick them up on my way back.”


“Si, señor Solo. I will leave the kitchen open for you. Por favor, you are welcome to any food or drink you find there. I have also prepared an evening meal for you, you only need to heat it through when you are ready. Make yourselves at home.”


“Mi casa es su casa ,” Solo quipped.


¿qué?, ” Maria asked, bewildered.


“Ah, never mind. Thanks again. You’ve made us feel very welcomed here.”


They parted ways along the path and Napoleon strolled into the bustling nerve center of this somewhat remote area in Mexico.


The U.N.C.L.E. mission had been a search and destroy type. Another THRUSH scientist was bent on world domination from a third world country as its base. They had cheap materials and even cheaper labor which meant central Mexico was an ideal location. If only they had spent some money on better security...


Agents Solo and Kuryakin got in, set charges in the lab and got out, almost unscathed. The lab was left in smoldering ruins, but a mishap with their Jeep deep in the jungle had left Illya with a concussion and totaled their only means of transportation. After a three-hour hike, they found themselves here.


A call to U.N.C.L.E. directed them to Senora Sandoval’s, a safe place away from the heart of the city where they could stay and recuperate; a place where any lingering ‘birds’ would never find them. Sra . Sandoval’s youngest brother was a Section III agent for the Command and he had placed her rental on the ‘safe house’ list for Mexico in case it was ever needed. He’d even installed a security system for the bungalow. Maria had called for a local doctor to see to Illya and supplied them with a few amenities such as soap, toothbrushes and the like. An expense account was set up for them to use as needed while they remained at her residence. Most local businesses would bill purchases to Maria and U.N.C.L.E. would settle the tab.


It happened to be October 31st and as Maria had explained to the agents last night, it was Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English though it’s referred to simply as Día de Metros in Mexico. She had told them it was a Mexican custom, in the mornings and evenings of this week, for spirits to walk the streets and visit the places they frequented when they were alive. Preparations for this celebration begin at the graveyard where people bring candles as tribute to the dead. On October 31st and November 1st bells would ring and masses are held for the dead.


Even in this outskirt of the city, colorful stalls were set up in the streets where locals and visitors can buy everything they need to decorate altars, such as pumpkins, sugar skulls, flowers, incense, and candles.


But the first item on Napoleon’s agenda was lunch. The aromas of succulent meats cooking on charcoal grills hung so thick in the air he could almost taste them. At an open-air cafe, he ordered Tortas de Chilaquiles with juicy steak and eggs, and for dessert, he tried the Camotes made with plantains, sweet potatoes, and strawberry jam. It was a bit too early for spirits, even beer, so he stuck with drinking purified water from his own canteen.  Uncertain of the meal Maria had prepared, he asked the cook to pack up an order of Camotes along with a mild chicken and rice dish from the menu to bring back for Illya. He made a mental note to pick up a few bottles of ginger beer for him, knowing that it settled Illya’s sea-sickness in the past when they went out on Napoleon’s sailboat.


Solo was also pleased to find a booth selling shirts and slacks as well as socks and undergarments. He had scrubbed their own well-worn jungle clothes last night and hung them outside to dry but they were scruffy-looking from their mission, and having new ones would be best to blend in with the locals. He had Illya’s sizes memorized, and in no time this task was completed.


Solo’s next to last stop was to pick up some bottled water and the ginger beer before he returned to the bungalow. One extra purchase was carefully placed in a box and tied with string for him to carry.


Upon his return, he found Illya asleep in the same position as when he’d left. Solo quietly set his packages on a chair, slipped off his shoes and turned in for an afternoon siesta. He watched his partner's breathing for a few minutes and when he was satisfied that Illya was fine, he joined him in rest.




Illya woke first, feeling much better. A headache was lingering, but it was not as intense. Napoleon had kept him awake all night, checking his pupils with a flashlight hourly, and questioning him to be certain he was alert and oriented. This meant that neither of them had slept for almost forty hours. Illya needed to be up for some time today so he’d sleep tonight. He grabbed a fresh towel, and headed out back where the shower was ready to wash away any lingering malaise and cobwebs. On his way back, feeling refreshed, he noticed a ring of trees with a fire pit in the center, set further back on the property. It might be nice to have a private bonfire tonight, he mused.


Entering the room with his towel wrapped around his waist, he found Napoleon awake.


“You look well-rested, my friend. Ready for a bite to eat?” Solo asked.


“Something light, perhaps. I don’t want to spend the evening in the bathroom again.”


“You’re in luck. Your very astute and clever partner purchased a fine post-concussion meal at the market earlier today.  Come on, we’ll heat it up and eat in Maria’s kitchen. There are the clothes I bought for you, by the way. I picked up a couple of ponchos for us, handmade by one of the villagers. I thought you might like the blue striped one. If not, you can exchange it for a different one tomorrow, if you’re up to it, that is.”


Illya ran his fingertips over the finely woven dyed wool, then held it up to his chest. It had dark to light blue alternating with off-white stripes.


“Very nice, Napoleon, thank you. It does get chilly here at night. Mr. Waverly’s not going to be happy with our expense report this trip.”


“He can’t grouse about our clothes. I couldn’t very well carry our suitcases AND you through the jungle now could I?’


“You did not carry me, I walked!”


“Well, I had to pull you along, anyway.” Solo grinned. “Besides, you’ll get some more use out of your new poncho in New York when you wear it to that beatnik bar you frequent.” Napoleon slipped out the door before Illya could toss another pillow his way.


The blond agent dressed into his new clothes and joined Napoleon in the kitchen.


There was a note from Maria. She’d left fresh tortillas and taco fixings in the icebox and told them to help themselves. Napoleon heated the chicken and rice for Illya, and a few tacos for himself. There was Escabeche , a pickled vegetable dish with carrot slices, cauliflower, onions, and chilis as well.


Illya was grateful for the cold ginger beer, and ate most of the food Napoleon had purchased for him. He eyed the tacos, but knew he’d better not chance it. Napoleon sang Maria’s praises for her excellent cooking. When both of them were sated, they washed and replaced the dishes. Napoleon then searched and found a half-full bottle of Tequila from the back of one cupboard. Along with a lime wedge and a shaker of salt, he tried a shot and then wrote a note promising Maria he’d replace it with a full one the next day. Afterwards, they headed back to their rental to grab a few things, and then headed out back to the fire pit to relax and have a quiet drink.


It was after dusk by the time the larger logs caught and resembled a decent fire. The agents had settled into comfortable, padded wicker chairs and watched as the orange and yellow flames grew higher and higher. It felt good to kick back, and not worry about having to save the world for a change. Security was always a concern; they were trained to be on the alert at all times, but in this place and time, they were ‘off the grid’ so to speak, and relaxing in front of a warm fire was pure joy.


“I could get used to this, Illya. Ever think about where you want to live after you retire?”


“You mean if I live long enough to retire?”


“Of course.”


“Haven’t really put much thought into it. In an ideal world, Kyiv would be my place of choice.“ He paused rubbing his sore temple. “On second thought, perhaps not. Everyone I knew there is gone now. My family, friends, neighbors. Why do you ask? You’re not thinking of retiring here, are you?”


“Mmm, maybe. Wonderful culture, lovely scenery, tasty cuisine- ”


“Beautiful women,” Illya interjected.


“I see you’ve noticed them as well. Yes, this might be the place I end up when I’m old and grey.”


Napoleon offered the bottle to Illya. “Care for a swig of this?”


“I’d better stick to ginger beer tonight, thanks. Maybe tomorrow.”


Napoleon took another drink and felt the liquid burn all the way to his core. It felt good.


He grinned ear-to-ear and handed Illya the box tied with string.


“I picked up a souvenir for you this afternoon.”


Illya frowned. Napoleon was fond of giving him little-unexpected gifts. It disarmed Illya at times as he felt the need to reciprocate and could never quite catch up. He held the box to his ear as if listening for something. Then he tried lifting it as if guessing the weight.


“Don’t shake it,” Napoleon warned, as though he knew what Illya was going to do next.


“Alright, I give up. What is it?”


“Open it and see,” Napoleon told him, smiling. He seemed overly cheerful this evening.


“Don’t you look like the cat that swallowed the canary. What’s in here, a bomb?” He broke the string, lifted the lid and peered inside.


“A skull,” he asked, then added flatly, “you bought me a skull.”


“A sugar skull; for the Day of the Dead.”


“Ah yes. ‘ La calavera es un símbolo de la muerte, lo único seguro en la vida,’ ” Illya said with a perfect accent and then translated; "The skull is a symbol of death, the only sure thing in life.”


He lifted the skull from the box and examined it. It was decorated with fake jewels and trimmed with several brightly colored frostings and shiny foil. “I love it!” Illya exclaimed. “But how does it taste?”


After a cursory lick of the bottom, he proclaimed it the best skull he’d ever tasted. Of course, it was also the only skull he’d ever tasted.

Napoleon sat forward suddenly and said, “Let me have a look at that.” After careful scrutinization he said. “Look at those colors! How did they ever get them so vivid and bright?”


“I’ll admit it’s colorful, but-”


“Oh my god, Illya, where did the second one come from? I only bought you one!”


“There is only one, my friend,” Illya said with concern showing on his face. Perhaps Napoleon was playing some sort of game though it seemed unlikely.


“What in the… Now there are four! What kind of trick are you playing, Illya?” He jumped up suddenly and threw the skull into the flames.


“I’m not playing any tricks. How much tequila have you had, Napoleon?”


“A few shots… and why does it matter?” His eyes grew big. “Illya, why are there two of you?”


Napoleon turned towards the fire. “Look at that,” he said as he watched as the flames caught the sugar skull on fire. “Fire is Satan's only friend, you know,” he said with a devilish grin.


Solo took a few uncoordinated steps towards the fire.  Illya leapt up and grabbed his arm to stop him.


“No closer! What is wrong with you, my friend? Let’s sit back down in our nice, comfortable chairs, shall we?”


Napoleon offered no resistance as he was pulled to safety but he didn’t take his eyes off the fire.


“Gold and brilliant orange! Look at that, IK. Blue. Isn’t it the bluest azure blue you’ve ever seen?”


“Sit,” Illya demanded and Napoleon flopped into the chair as if his body was boneless. His eyes were as round as saucers; his face flushed with delight.


Illya reached down and picked up the tequila bottle and held it closer to the fire as he studied the label. He could make out the word ‘Hongos,’ handwritten in ink along the bottom. Oh, no, he thought. Magic Mushrooms! Napoleon is taking a psychedelic journey courtesy of Sra. Sandoval.


He tried to remember what he could from the seminar on illegal drugs all Section II’s had to attend last year: highs lasting between 3-8 hours, hallucinations, euphoria, and the user sees kaleidoscopic, geometric patterns, fractals, rainbows. In general, though, it is harmless unless the user takes too high of a dose and experiences a ‘bad trip.’  In that case, he can be ‘talked down’ from the ‘trip’ by another person who remains calm and speaks reasonably.


“How much of this did you drink, Napoleon?”


“Tequila! Nectar of the gods! Gimme the bottle, mi amigo! ” Napoleon grabbed for and missed the bottle by a mile.


“How much did you have to drink,” Illya’s voice a little slower and louder, as if asking it of a young child.


Solo grinned back at the blond. “About this much.” He held his hands far apart.


Illya seemed to remember the bottle was half full when they were in the kitchen. Now, half of that was gone. He supposed it was a moot point anyway, there was no way to tell how much of the drug was in the tequila to begin with until Maria returned. He looked back towards the house; the only light was coming from the kitchen.


“I am afraid there were magic mushrooms in the liquor, my friend.”


“Oh,” Napoleon said, his voice much subdued. “That’s why the colors are so vivid. And why I hear voices in my head. What should we do?”


“Wait it out and let the drug run its course.”


“How long will it last? All night?”


“I’m afraid so. Tell me what you are seeing, hearing.”


The glowing embers had a mesmerizing effect on Napoleon. They seemed to pulsate as if they were alive. The fire was a virtual kaleidoscope of colors: red and orange, yellow and white. In the very center sat the burning sugar skull, gazing back at him. He watched as the light from the flames moved across the trunks of the trees surrounding them.


“The trees! Look at the trees!  They… they are breathing! ” Napoleon’s face glowed in the firelight with awe and amazement. “And moving... dancing… with faces on them.” He had seen trees like this before when he watched ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on television once at Illya’s apartment. Now he watched the faces in the bark: jagged red mouths, teeth, and eyes.


“They’re whispering, Illya, the trees, the skull, to each other and to us.”


Illya snorted. “What are they whispering about?”


“Tonight is the night when the dead walk among us. They call to the fire skull to rise up and join them. The dead watch us, you know,” he said solemnly.


“Oh, IK, every living thing on this planet is connected. The fire needs the trees to live. People need fire for warmth and for cooking. Trees depend on the fire to clear the forests so they can be reborn and grow stronger than before.”


Illya doubted the wisdom of fire being a living thing, but let it go. Napoleon kept swiveling his head, trying to look at everything at once.


”Crackle, crackle, crackle!”




“The fire. Sounds like popcorn.”




Napoleon stood up, searching around him for something.


“What do you need?”


“Popcorn. I’m all twisted around, IK. Which way is the kitchen?” He stumbled over and found himself leaning against one of the trees. “Who put that rock there?”

“There’s no rock, my friend, only grass. You’ve managed to trip over your own feet once again.” Illya was by his side, steadying him.  “Do you really want to make popcorn after all you had to eat for supper?”


Suddenly, Solo’s stomach did a flip-flop.


“Oh Illya, I don’t feel well.” He lurched suddenly to the side and lost his supper. Illya kept his hand on Solo’s shoulder. Human contact was all he could offer at this point. It was for the best that not all the mushrooms were digested and absorbed, otherwise Napoleon’s ‘trip’ might become even more unpleasant. After several long minutes, the vomiting stopped. Illya found himself smiling. Usually, it was him being sick from whatever drugs THRUSH saw fit to inject into him, and it was Napoleon holding him steady.


“Here, my friend. Take a sip of this and rinse your mouth.” He held up the ginger beer.  “Don’t swallow, just spit it out. That’s it. Now, once again but you can swallow this time.” He waited for Solo to do as he was urged. “Come on now, back to your chair.”


Napoleon sat, but the fire was now conjuring up demons in his head.


“Illya! We’d better go. Skeletons and the trees are coming after us!”


“Shhhh! Trees can’t walk and the skeletons are only in your head. You know that, Napoleon. It’s the mushrooms. We are both quite safe.” Illya’s words were calm and soothing.


Napoleon remained silent and pondered what Illya had said. He was right, of course, damn Russian. He leaned too far forward and tumbled out the chair.  


“Oh boy, here we go,” Illya murmured as he settled on the ground next to his friend and did a cursory exam for any physical damage and found none. He pulled Napoleon close to him. Illya easily slipped the gun from his partner’s holster, checked the safety. He leaned back against a chair before placing the weapon on it. Napoleon didn’t seem to notice.


“Let’s stay down here where it’s nice and safe.”


Most of the tension seemed to leave his body. Napoleon knew he had to rely on Illya’s sanity to get him through the hallucinations.




“Boy, am I.”


“Now lean back against me. That’s it, relax.”


“Yes, but the trees are still coming after us.”


“You know they are only trees, right? What happened to the skeletons?”


“Gone. Back to the cemetery, I imagine.”


“Close your eyes for a while.” Illya wiped the sweat from Napoleon’s brow with his shirtsleeve. His friend was shivering despite the fact that he was sweating. Illya covered him with his poncho. It was going to be a long night.


Napoleon began to feel safe as strong arms wrapped around him. He failed to notice fingers checking his pulse.


One eye popped open and he stared up at Illya. “That blond mop of yours is glowing.”


“Mop? You should see what your own mop looks like.”


Illya had noticed how fly-away Napoleon’s hair looked, silhouetted by the fire as it was.


“When we get to the airport, you need to pick up some Brylcreem. Your hair is not neat and tidy as usual.”




“No,” Illya repeated, then instantly regretted telling him as Solo began to sing, with gusto.


“Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya!

Brylcreem, you’ll look so debonair.

Brylcreem, the girls will pursue ya.

They love to get their fingers in your hair.”


It started as a giggle and then a chuckle and before Kuryakin knew it, Napoleon was laughing so long and hard that he was doubled over with tears rolling down his cheeks.


At first, Illya was concerned, then he started chuckling along with his partner; laughter truly is infectious, he thought. He planned to use this as blackmail. His partner will be writing up their reports for the rest of the year.


“A rain bow!”


“Where do you see a rainbow?”


“In the stars! Orion is hunting with his rain bow. Look, he shot one of the twins in the um… derriere!”


It was Illya’s turn to chuckle.


“Close your eyes.”


“I still see the trees are gesturing for us to come over.”


“Try not to think about them.”


Illya tightened his grip and smiled into the darkness as Napoleon quieted and moved to rest his head against his shoulder.


After a while, the hallucinations had all but stopped and they dragged themselves back to the bungalow to sleep what little there was of the night away.


Monday morning found them seated behind their desks writing up their report on the Mexico mission. Nothing about the ‘magic mushroom’ incident was mentioned. Waverly didn’t always have to know everything.

“Are you going to tell me about the package you slipped into your luggage before we left for the airport?” Napoleon asked his partner.

“Huh? I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about,” Illya answered without looking up from his typewriter.

“No? Well, let me put it another way, what would you have done if they strip searched us upon arrival at JFK?”

“Whatever for?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Something illegal perhaps?”

“It was only a sugar skull, Napoleon.”

Solo gave him a scrutinizing glare.

“With a little something in the center,” Illya continued. “For purely scientific purposes, you understand.”

“Uh huh. Well, partner, if you’re planning an unscheduled trip , it’s best to have a guide around to show you the ropes.”

“Are you volunteering?”

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Good friends looking out for one another. Napoleon keeping watch over Illya one night and Illya sitting up with him the next. Such is true friendship between U.N.C.L.E.’s top spies.