Completing each difficult assignment successfully and getting away cleanly was every U.N.C.L.E. agent’s brass ring, lofty as it might be. Unfortunately for the organization’s top two agents, their current operation to destroy a THRUSH satrapy in Michigan's upper peninsula was about to end badly.
The late October air was crisp and the skies grey this morning when Napoleon Solo along with his partner, Illya Kuryakin, were traveling down a narrow, one-lane road. Abruptly, an explosion rocked their Jeep Cherokee. No one was in pursuit as Kuryakin, at the wheel, slowed so both could turn and catch a glimpse of the spectacle of what they had done. The satrapy was on fire with dark, billowing smoke rising skyward.
“Another assignment completed without so much as a splinter,” Napoleon practically crooned.
“Let’s not count our chickens before they are cooked.” his partner replied. “We still need to get out of these woods and back to New York.”
“Huh?” Illya asked as he once again sped down the dirt road.
“Count your chickens before they’re hatched, not cooked.”
“Uh oh,” Illya moaned as he rounded a curve. “I was right, only it’s not chickens, it’s our goose which is cooked!”
Both agents drew their weapons as three vehicles blocked the road before an old wooden trestle bridge directly in their path. The forest pressed in on two sides, making any escape impossible that way. Brakes screaming, Illya did a one-eighty, stirring up a cloud of dust as he sped back the way they came. Two more cars approached rapidly from that direction laying down machine-gun fire on the road in front of them, effectively boxing them in with no place to go. Illya brought the Jeep to a halt.
Six uniformed men approached on foot with THRUSH rifles pointed in their direction.
Slowly exiting the vehicle, the UNCLE agents merely raised their hands and relinquished their weapons.
A greying little mouse of a man in his fifties, presumably the leader of the group, approached and stopped a safe distance from Napoleon, eyeing him.
“Well, well. The man from U.N.C.L.E., alive and in person. How did you ever find your way to my little corner of the world?”
“Lucky, I guess, Napoleon answered, not feeling lucky at all. He glanced at Illya, hoping for a sign of how they could get out of this. Illya merely shrugged. They’d been captured numerous times before. They would escape, as usual, Solo had no doubts.
Handcuffs secured their wrists behind them. Both men were frisked and assorted gadgets and weapons were confiscated.
“You are mine, Solo. I’ve looked forward to your capture for some time and now, here you are. Central will be most pleased.” The leader sized up his enemy for a moment before turning to the blond. “And your trusty little Ruskie sidekick, always following you around like a lost puppy.”
Illya glared back with disdain. “Who might you be?”
The Thrush in charge glared back. “You mean you’ve never heard of James Allister, head
of the Great Lakes Region for THRUSH?”
“Another THRUSH Central Wannabe,” Illya sneered, shaking his head in disdain.
“Sliman,” Allister barked and gestured towards Kuryakin, “Kill him!”
“No, wait!” Napoleon balked and rushed the man who was raising a handgun towards his friend.
He was too late.
Napoleon watched in horror as Illya grunted, stumbled backward at the force of the blast, and fell to the ground.
“You bastard! You didn’t have to shoot him!” Napoleon started towards his partner and never saw the roundhouse punch coming. Two men carried his unconscious frame and loaded him into the trunk of their leader’s black sedan while another pair dragged the dazed Kuyakin onto the bridge and tossed him over the railing into the river.
Billy peered out the window, enjoying the brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange autumn leaves. He paid careful attention to the highway mile markers until the school bus pulled up to the last stop on its route. Grabbing his book bag, he headed towards the front.
This was Shelly Hardwick’s stop, as well. She stepped into the aisle right in front of him, causing him to drop his bag. He never liked her. She was so stuck-up and mean, never speaking to him.
“See you on Monday,” the driver called as the 10-year-old freckled-faced boy exited and turned to wave back.
Shelly, nose up in the air, ignored him and sat down on the bench inside the bus shelter. Her mother would be by to pick her up in a few minutes and they’d continue further down the highway to their home.
Billy stood at the side of the road and watched the bus do a U-turn and travel back the way it came. As it disappeared in the distance, he turned and ran down Dean Road. It was a half-mile from the main road to the river and Billy ran all the way. He was anxious to share his big news with his Gran about winning the foot race at recess. He slowed as he crossed over the old Dean Road Bridge and then turned left down the path beside the river that led to his home.
When he first saw the black figure lying half in and half out of the water along the riverbank, he assumed it was an animal. He was always bringing home some unfortunate, injured critter and nursing it back to health or having it for dinner if it was beyond saving.
As he drew near, the figure coughed. Billy saw it was not an animal but a man wearing black clothing. Billy hesitated, not knowing what he should do. The man turned his head to the side and coughed up several mouthfuls of water.
The boy stood frozen.
“Mister? Hey, mister? You hurt?”
Billy knelt and touched Illya’s shoulder. “You’re bleeding.”
“Uh,” Illya moaned, “Yes, I seem to be, just a little. I’m c… cold.”
The Russian’s whole body shook with chills. He was soaked from head to toe. There was a pink trail in the water as it flowed away. He squinted up at the boy. “Who might you be?”
The boy introduced himself and rushed to help Illya as he tried to sit up. The child’s eyes widened as he took several steps back.
“Whoa… why are you wearing handcuffs? Are you a criminal?”
Suddenly, the world tilted and Illya swayed, struggling to not fall back onto the wet ground. His belly was screaming with pain and his head was throbbing.
“I’m Illya, one of the good guys,” he explained when he was able. “I’ve been shot and left here for… ” He was going to say “dead” but thought better of it. He looked around and spotted the bridge. “They must have thrown me over. I think I may need your help. Do you live around here?”
Illya learned that the boy and his grandmother lived back up in the woods. They had no car or telephone, and the closest neighbors with a phone were over twenty miles away.
Illya eyed the thickly wooded area close by and considered the situation. He was fairly certain he wasn’t going to be able to walk very far. If THRUSH returned to collect his body and found him alive, they’d put him out of his misery. He had to get out of the freezing water and hide until help could be summoned. Involving innocents did not appeal to him, but it seemed his only choice at the moment.
“Billy, do you suppose you could help me hide in those trees? The men who did this to me may come back and try to harm me further...”
A coughing fit overtook him, exacerbating the bullet wound pain, causing a grimace.
Luckily, the boy knew of a perfect hiding place.
It wasn’t an easy task. Illya was off-balanced with his hands cuffed behind him, shaking with chills and pain, and dizzy from blood loss. Billy steadied him and kept him from keeling over more than once. When he was sitting at last in a well-hidden maple tree hollow, he passed out. Billy removed his own jacket and placed it around Illya’s shoulders.
Then the boy ran down the path towards home.
Solo groaned as he worked his sore jaw. He was still in the trunk of Allister’s car when he came around. He cursed himself for falling so easily into THRUSH’s hands. It had to have been a trap.
The location of the satrap was too remote to be an efficient roost. There was hardly much of a satrap to destroy. It had been too easy, but kicking himself now served no useful purpose.
What about Illya? He remembered the gunshot that took down his friend. Was he dead? Possibly, but he refused to believe that for now. He was determined to have a serious conversation with him at some point. Deliberately irritating their captor was never a wise idea.
He focused his attention on the handcuffs as he retrieved a lockpick from his shirtsleeve. THRUSH wasn’t as thorough as usual today. He easily removed them, placing them in his pocket.
Napoleon had no idea how long he'd been in the trunk, but since he was awake, an hour had passed. The car was on a highway with a lot of other traffic. Most likely it was six lanes. That meant I-75, traveling south towards the Mackinac bridge, perhaps? Anyway, he’d know soon enough as the vehicle was now making stops and turns.
He stretched, loosening cramped muscles. Wherever they were now, there was no other traffic. When the engine noise ceased and the trunk opened at last he jumped out with fists swinging. The two closest THRUSH men fell to his blows and well-placed karate chops. He managed to sweep the feet out from under the third and grab Allister from behind in a chokehold.
“Throw me your rifle,” he ordered the last goon. “Do it now or I’ll kill him!”
It would have been oh-so-satisfying to snap this sorry little man’s neck after he had ordered Illya’s death. The urge was almost overwhelming.
“Do as he says,” Allister squeaked and was promptly obeyed.
“What have you done with my partner?” Napoleon shook the man for good measure.
“You mean your dead partner?”
Solo squeezed tighter.
“His body is in the river. If he didn’t die from the bullet, he’s probably drowned.”
Almost regretfully, Napoleon shoved the THRUSH leader away and scooped up a rifle. He trussed up all four men together using their own handcuffs. Illya’s and his weapons plus their equipment was found in the car. He notified headquarters of the situation. U.N.C.L.E.'s local team would be here as soon as possible to take custody of the prisoners. The county sheriff and his men would assist Napoleon back at the bridge since they were closer and better equipped to mount a search and rescue in a rural area.
“Tell me again why you two didn’t stay and take care of this earlier.”
“You wanted us to go back and pick up the radio, remember? Before the fire destroyed everything?”
“Yeah, well fine then. Where the hell did he go?”
“But he landed right there!”
“Well, the current would have carried him further downstream, idiot!”
“I told you not to call me that, you moron!”
“Knock it off you two. We just have to make sure nobody finds the body right away. That’s all. If we don’t find him soon, we can go.”
Illya was startled awake at the sounds of the THRUSH agents. He knew they were looking for him and hoped Billy was safe. Illya was tucked away in the tree hollow, but couldn’t see what was happening behind him.
“What if we find him? Then what?”
“Then we hide his body in the woods, idiot!”
“I told you not to call me… What the hell?”
“Hey, look out!”
Illya heard the “caw, caw, caw” of what he believed to be a crow. The crow “cawed” again, more insistent this time with another crow chiming in. He could distinctly hear wings flapping and the sound of pounding footsteps, no; running footsteps. Soon, it seemed, the sky was full of crows making a great, terrible noise. The THRUSH men were yelling and screaming. Illya imagined the crows swooping in and attacking those men and he smiled. The sounds got farther and farther away until at last, they were gone.
This scene reminded him of the Hitchcock film, “The Birds.” Napoleon had insisted they spend some downtime together by seeing a movie. It was a stretch to believe birds would attack en force as he had just heard. Now as he thought about it, he wondered if he had heard any bird attack at all. He didn’t remember anything after being shot and even now he was feeling rather woozy. He wondered where Napoleon was. If he was ever in need of a timely rescue, it was now.
Illya took stock of his injury. The bullet had struck his abdomen on the left side, in the lower ribs. From what he knew about anatomy, the spleen, pancreas, and intestines were located there. His spleen had been removed due to a past injury, so that was a plus. The pancreas regulates blood sugar and he wasn’t certain if he could live without it. But if the bullet had damaged his bowels, that would mean a long stint in medical and other ramifications he didn’t want to think about. As far as he could tell, the bullet was still lodged inside him and he was still bleeding.
His lockpick was lost to the river. Under normal circumstances, he could have manipulated his arms around in front of him, but at the moment, that wasn't an option. Sitting here wasn’t going to do him any good. It was best to survey the area and find the path to Billy’s house. He shivered as he tried to stand, pushing himself up against the dead tree, but the edges of his vision darkened until all he saw was a narrowing tunnel. His ears roared and then there was nothing but blackness.
Illya dreamt he was sinking, the water an icy dark abyss. No matter what he did his arms were useless and he was exhausted. It would be so easy to just let it all go, to let the blackness take him from this evil world where it seemed everyone tried to kill him. A few lungfuls of water and he would be at peace.
Inexplicably, he began to rise towards the surface as if being pulled by some unseen force. He could see light above him as he came closer to much-needed air. And then, he was out of the water, lying on the shoreline.
He lifted one eyelid. Two figures wavered before him. He opened the other eye and they came into focus.
“Illya, this is my Granny.”
It was Billy.
Granny was old and thin to the extreme, almost cadaverous, with waist-length white hair. She wore a yellowing, threadbare dress with a red sash around her waist. It reminded him curiously of a rope.
“Hello, madam,” Illya began, “I sincerely hope this isn’t too much of an inconvenience.” He raised his head and promptly passed out again.
It was after 6 PM by the time Napoleon neared the site of the shooting. Darkness was already creeping in. The wind had picked up and it started to drizzle. He noted several county vehicles lining the roadway along with an ambulance. He parked his “borrowed” THRUSH car and approached a rather large, uniformed officer. He introduced himself to Sheriff Al Jacoby who had been sipping on a cup of coffee. They shook hands.
“Mr. Solo, my deputies haven’t found anyone, but we did find a lot of footprints, all downstream on both sides of the riverbank. We’ve searched a quarter-mile perimeter and are now expanding to a half-mile. Is it possible that your partner’s been taken?”
Someone helped him into a hooded raincoat and another pressed a paper coffee cup into his hands. He took a grateful sip.
“Let’s assume he’s alive and here somewhere. I know my partner. He would blend in if he thought he was in danger. Plus, he’s so strong-willed he’d walk fifty miles with a bullet in him if he had to.”
As if on cue, the skies lit up with a thunderbolt of lightning. The rain was falling harder.
The sheriff reached out to place a comforting hand on Napoleon’s shoulder. “If he’s here, we’ll find him. C’mon, let me show you those footprints before they disappear.”
Flashlights in hand, they walked a short stretch of the river. More lightning fully lit their path. Napoleon noticed there were a lot of brightly colored leaves on the ground, but there seemed to be many red ones at the water’s edge. Squatting to get a better look, he saw blood, quite a bit of it. It wasn’t an easy task, but he managed to trace a trail of drops up into the trees and found the hollowed-out maple. He inspected the small jacket he found there. It had blood on it as well.
“He was here! I know it. Call your men back and let’s scour this area again.”
Another lightning flash and Sheriff Jacoby noticed a rising column of smoke several hundred yards away.
“That’s odd! Nobody’s lived out here in a coon’s age. A campfire maybe? Do you think it could be him?”
“I’m certain of it!” They broke into a run.
The low rumble of a thunderstorm and pattering of raindrops on the tin roof woke Illya.
He was lying on a soft surface. Handcuffs and soaked clothing were gone and he was warm under some sort of covers. No chills, and hardly any pain to speak of. Gingerly he felt the wound and found a bandage. He was also acutely aware that he was buck-naked under the covers.
Illya cautiously scanned the room with slitted eyelids. A fire in the hearth barely lit the corners of the cabin. The creaking of a rocking chair drew his attention. There, near the fire, sat the grandmother with her grandson in her arms. She was slowly turning the pages of a thick book. She turned and looked at the injured man.
The child jumped off her lap and ran over to the bed.
“Billy, I want to thank you and your grandmother for all of this. I thought for a while I wasn’t going to make it.”
The grandmother walked over to his bedside and smiled down at him.
“Gran has a way with herbs and such. She’s a healer. Folks used to… I mean folks come from miles around to buy her elixirs.”
“I’m eternally grateful, Mrs. ? I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Mrs. Emily Dean,” Billy spoke up. “She can’t talk, she’s um, she’s. ..”
“Mute?” Illya smiled up at the old woman. “I think you may have saved my life. However, can I repay you?”
He tried to sit up but a sharp pain and the woman’s hands firmly planted on his shoulders forced him to sink back down. She shook her head and he understood. He wasn’t likely to try that again soon. She pulled the quilt up, tucking it snugly around his neck and shoulders.
The boy turned towards his gran, something unspoken passing between them.
“If you come back here when you are well, that would be enough,” the child told him.
“I can do that and Billy? You told me you don’t have a phone, but I need to let my friend know where I am so he can come and collect me. Do you think you could contact him for me?”
Again the boy and the old woman shared a glance.
“I’ll go tomorrow morning at first light if that’s OK?”
“That sounds fine.” He relaxed and closed his eyes, once again dead to the world.
Sheriff Jacoby grabbed Solo’s arm as they neared the source of the dwindling smoke. His flashlight beam had caught a blonde mop of hair on the forest floor next to a mounded pile of fallen leaves.
“Dear God,” Solo muttered as he ran towards Illya’s body.
He held his breath and quickly pushed the leaves aside and felt for a pulse.
“Contact the ambulance crew to bring a stretcher!”
He opened Illya’s suit jacket, pulled up the turtleneck, and found packed fern leaves covering the bullet wound. His friend was curiously dry for a man who’d been thrown into the river as Alister said. And it was raining!
Blue eyes regarded him, drowsily.
Jacoby called on his walkie-talkie while Napoleon covered his friend with a space blanket he’d found in one of his raincoat pockets.
Once the rescuers had secured their patient in the ambulance and were on their way to the county hospital, Napoleon breathed a sigh of relief.
IV fluids flowed into Illya’s arm and cardiac monitor wires were pasted to his chest.
“But I don’t understand, Napoleon,” Kuryakin said, pushing the oxygen mask off his face. “They were as real as you or me, so was the cabin. They had a fire going and I was in a nice, warm bed!” He was adamant. “Under a quilt!”
Solo took the mask and laid it on the pillow next to his mouth. He smiled patiently and said, “We found you alone, on the bare ground.” He admitted, “there were remains of an old, charred dwelling nearby.”
“Well then, explain to me how I swam out of the river wearing handcuffs behind my back,” Illya insisted.
“Yes, um… I can’t. All I know is what the sheriff told me. Two people once lived close to the spot where you were found, but that was a long time ago. A young boy, William, drowned one day and his grandmother held herself responsible. She torched the cabin and hung herself from the Dean Road bridge, the same bridge you were thrown off of.”
“Emily,” Illya said. “She used a red sash to hang herself,” he added softly. No wonder she could not speak. Her neck was broken.
“Illya!” Napoleon said, astonished. “How could you know that?”
“She was wearing it.” Illya sighed. “I guess a pair of ghosts saved my life. How do we write this one up, Napoleon?”
“We?” Solo raised his eyebrows. “If you put any of this into your report Waverly will think you’ve lost all your marbles.”
“Marbles? I never had any marbles to lose,” Illya said, perplexed.
The ambulance hit a patch of rough road and Illya winced, squeezing his eyes shut.
Napoleon gently patted his thigh through the blanket.
“It’s an idiom, IK. Why don’t you close your eyes and rest?”
He carefully replaced the oxygen mask over his partner’s nose and mouth.
“I feel a stint in the Psych ward coming on,” Illya mumbled as he surrendered to exhaustion.
A pleasantly warm day in May of the following year found Illya Kuryakin standing on the site where the Dean cabin once stood. Sunbeams filtered down through the trees shining on Jack-in-the-Pulpit blossoms which seemed to have popped up everywhere.
He considered why he was here.
On one hand, he had formulated a tidy conclusion in his own pragmatic way, that his injury with the resulting blood loss and fever caused him to hallucinate. On the other hand, there were too many coincidences along with unexplained events that muddled up that theory, and his boss, Alexander Waverly, was always saying there were no such things as coincidences. It was all so confusing.
Recuperating in the hospital, he had lots of time to consider why the boy had asked him to come back. Why would a spirit ask such a thing of the living? Illya decided that Billy needed something, a release perhaps, from this place so that he and his grandmother could find peace at last.
If there were a thin veil between this world and the next, one who was very close to death as he had been could see through it, could touch and be touched by those on the other side.
So here he stood, fulfilling his promise to the spirits that once roamed here, the ones who had saved his life.
Kuryakin found the grave marker near the cabin remains. This was not their final resting place. He had learned through his research that the locals had them interred in a common grave in potters field. He'd found a local marble works shop and made the proper arrangements. Although he didn’t believe in such things as consecration and blessings, he had learned that the family who once lived here were Methodists and they believed in such things and that was all that mattered.
The marker was simple and Illya felt he had done the right thing as he looked down and read the inscription.
William and Emily Dean
Together in Peace
“You finished, Tovarish?” Napoleon stood, waiting.
“Yes, I believe I am,” Illya answered.