Tall pines flew by in a silvery green-blue blur as the train slowed for another turn on its way around the mountain. It was still traveling far too fast for what was about to happen.
A lone figure dressed completely in light blue went flying through the air followed quickly by another. Both tried to protect themselves by bringing their chins to their chests with their hands wrapped around their heads and legs bent, the standard ‘tuck and roll’ position they’d been taught. It was an almost graceful fall that culminated in a bone-jarring roll for both of them. Luckily, they had dropped into deep grass and reed-lined ditch alongside the track and there they remained, motionless until the train sped by and was completely out of sight.
“All Hallows’ Eve and we’re socked in with fog as thick as pea soup. Not a bad place to spend Halloween, wouldn’t you say?”
Illya grumbled, “I wouldn’t.”
“Is there any food in the kitchen?” Napoleon asked.
“Let me finish my security sweep, will you?”
“I hardly suppose it’s necessary. THRUSH assumes we’re dead. Certainly, no one was expecting us to come walking in here out of the mist.”
Still, old habits died hard. Illya left Napoleon on the sofa with a pillow under his swollen ankle and, having already inspected the main floor, traipsed up the stairs. His legs felt as if they were made of stone. After carrying his partner several miles over uneven terrain, they barely carried him to the top. The upper floor was a large open loft with a double bed with dressers on either side.
There was also a smaller room off to the back of the loft. This room was a nursery with a child’s bed and a doll tucked in under a pink quilt with only its upper torso sticking out as if it was sleeping. An overflowing box of toys sat in the corner.
When he left that room, shutting the door behind him, he moved over to the dressers. He helped himself to a set of clothes from one of the chests of drawers and changed out his THRUSH uniform. Having it on made his skin crawl. Still, it was better than wearing nothing at all. Their captors had liberated them of every stitch. Seems they found themselves in this situation more and more often these days. It was easier for the guards, he supposed, than having to frisk them for any hidden devices, but it was damn inconvenient when they made their escape. He noticed a pair of better-fitting shoes as well. The ones he’d taken from the unconscious guard were two sizes too large and now his feet were blistered and bloodied. He’d liberated himself of them on the cabin’s porch when they first arrived here. Looking around, he spotted a pair of open-backed slippers. Even better for now. He’d use the shoes tomorrow.
Back downstairs, he tossed a pair of pajamas at Napoleon who deflected them from hitting him in the face.
“Gee, thanks! We’re in a mood, aren’t we?”
“You try carrying 180 pounds of dead weight--”
“175,” Napoleon sternly corrected.
“--for five miles through the forest and see how you feel!”
“It was more like three. Find any bad guys hiding in the closets?” Napoleon asked, smugly.
Illya sighed audibly and reached for the phone. He listened for a dial tone, then handed it to Napoleon.
“You can deal with calling for help. Change and I’ll check for first aid supplies. Then I’ll see to some food.”
“I live to serve,” Napoleon dead-panned and then added, “I could use a little help changing. You may need to cut off this jumpsuit.” Napoleon grinned and waggled his eyebrows.
Illya rolled his eyes while slowly shaking his head, but the upturned corners of his mouth gave away his true feelings. He walked through into the small kitchen and dining area. A full bathroom and a storage room were off to one side. He noted the well-stocked pantry and found what he was looking for.
The two U.N.C.L.E. agents had been “guests” of THRUSH for several days. Their ‘hosts’ had been inhospitable; serving them no food for all of that time. They had cleverly escaped to an Amtrak station. An hour after the train was underway, they found themselves recaptured, then thrown off the speeding train. The THRUSH agents deemed it easier than putting bullets into their brains.
He could be grateful for that, at least! Napoleon had an ankle injury and both of them had sustained multiple scrapes, bumps, cuts, and bruises from their little tumble.
With Solo’s luck, they came across a dirt road that led to this out-of-the-way cabin. It was a cozy haven to rest and recover. Not exactly the Ritz, but it was rustic with a varnished knotty pine interior and comfortable with the creature comforts: heat, electricity, running water, and most importantly, a working phone. Not one living soul was currently at home. The fact that there wasn’t a vehicle was the only downside.
Illya came back into the living room carrying a white case with a red cross on the top.
Napoleon put the receiver back in its cradle. “There’ll be no transportation out of here until the weather clears. Most likely tomorrow morning. We need to settle in and wait. Find any aspirin?”
Illya searched and found a bottle of tablets in the kit and set it on the coffee table. “Let’s take those on full stomachs.”
As it turned out, Napoleon’s uniform did need to be slit up the right leg to be removed. It would have been too painful otherwise. Illya dutifully cleansed and bandaged Napoleon’s cuts and scrapes. The loose PJs went on easily and Illya set about stabilizing Napoleon’s ankle with Ace wraps.
“This needs an ice pack.” Illya shook his head. “I’m worried about this ankle, my friend. It’s doubled in size and the color of your foot is not good. You’ve got a strong pulse, but I’ll need to keep a check on it until medical help arrives.”
“I appreciate that. And for carrying me all that way.” Solo’s brown eyes smiled warmly at his partner.
Illya started to protest. Napoleon held up a hand.
“I know, I know! It goes without saying, but sometimes you need to hear how indispensable you are. And dependable, and strong, and attractive… ”
Illya came around from the end of the sofa and made as if to take a swing at his partner, but instead kept on going back into the kitchen. “I’ll see what I can rustle up. Mostly canned goods, I suppose.”
He was right about the food selection and the fridge was not only empty but unplugged which he quickly remedied. It seemed the owners wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Ice cube trays were still in the freezer. He filled them with water and set them to freeze for later use.
Illya prepared a couple of tins of condensed soup in a pot on the stove. Crackers, bowls, and spoons he placed on a tray. A package labeled ‘Velveeta’ intrigued him and he opened it up to try a slice. It wasn’t aged cheddar but would have to do. Mugs of hot tea with plenty of sugar rounded out the meal. He would open a jar of peaches for dessert if they were still hungry.
He ladled out the soup and carried their meal into the other room. Setting the tray on the coffee table he looked up at his partner. Napoleon was signaling him to be quiet and pointed up toward the loft. “A strange noise,” Napoleon whispered.
He made a move to sit up, but Illya stopped him.
“How much help will you be hopping around on one foot?” he warned in a hushed tone. “Stay put!”
Illya grabbed for his gun that wasn’t there. Grimacing, he removed a sharp knife from the food tray and headed, stealthily, up the stairs.
Checking everywhere except the nursery and finding nothing, he put his hand on the doorknob and turned it slowly, pushing the door open a few inches. Not hearing a sound, he pushed it open all the way and flipped on the light. Nothing seemed out of place, except for the doll. He’d have sworn it was tucked in when he saw it last. Now it was on top of the quilt, but how could that be? He shrugged it off as fatigue. He must be imagining things. A good night’s rest was what he needed, Napoleon, too.
Illya picked up the doll, turning it in his hands: a large, disproportionate plastic head, wearing a green and white striped dress. It was well-worn and well-loved. He fiddled with it, bent the legs into a sitting position, and placed it back on the bed.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, emotions poured through him in waves, one right after the other, stopping him in his tracks. Surprise, fear, remorse, and then regret settled in. The memory of an event involving a beautiful three-year-old child came flooding back as if it had happened a moment ago. In truth, that friendly fire incident had occurred many months ago. How he hated the term ‘friendly fire.’ There was nothing friendly about it.
Her tiny head was split open from a stray bullet and she had died instantly.
Because of him.
“A tragic, one-in-a-million accident,” Alexander Waverly had said. “Not your fault in the slightest.” But Illya knew in his heart that because of his actions on that fateful day, Nadine’s life had been cut short.
His eyes welled up; he hadn’t cried in a long time. Seeing the doll in the little girl’s room must have triggered that memory, he supposed. He felt ridiculous, a trained international enforcement agent for the prestigious U.N.C.L.E. with a license to kill, sobbing like a little girl. The irony of that thought didn’t escape him. He took a moment to breathe and the feeling passed.
Illya wiped away the moisture with the back of his hand, took a deep breath, and returned to the first floor a few moments later.
Illya cleared his throat. “What did you hear, Napoleon? I didn’t see anything out of place. The windows are closed and locked and there’s nothing under the beds. Is your imagination working overtime?”
“I didn’t imagine anything. It sounded like a child crying.”
Illya shrugged. “There are no children here.”
“Well, that’s what I heard. Maybe it was an animal. A raccoon or mouse or something.”
“Crying like a baby? Let’s eat, Napoleon. It was probably your stomach growling. I know mine is,” he lied as he handed his partner a bowl of soup. Being put through an emotional wringer would put a damper on anyone’s appetite.
Illya realized Napoleon had noticed his red-rimmed eyes, damn him! He noticed everything.
”Penny for your thoughts.”
Illya flushed slightly; his gaze shifted away. He shook his head.
Mercifully changing the subject, Napoleon asked, “What kind of soup is this? Pea?”
“You mentioned the fog was as thick as pea soup. Made me hungry for some. It’s got ham in it or so the label says. Eat up. There’s more if you like. Peaches in syrup, too.”
“Mmmm!” Solo exclaimed after a spoonful. “Just like momma used to make.”
“My momma made borscht.”
Illya carefully slid the coffee table closer to Napoleon and pulled up a chair for himself. They ate their meal in companionable silence. Napoleon made a face at the cheese but ate some anyway.
It was turning dark by the time Illya cleaned away their dishes. He switched on a few lamps and ran himself a bath, then set out a bowl of warm water with soap, washcloths, and towels for Napoleon’s ablutions.
Illya handed him an empty milk bottle.
“Thank you, Nurse! What this for… oh! What if I need the little boy’s room?”
“If you need help, I’ll assist you. My bubble bath awaits.”
Illya hissed as he eased his weary body into the hot water. Making certain he cleaned every cut and scrape with soap, he soaked away the rest of his aches and pains of the day, feeling almost human by the time he toweled off. He carefully paid special attention to his feet. The Band-Aids were simply too small to cover the open blisters so he applied some first aid cream and wrapped them carefully in gauze, hoping to ward off infection. He slipped back into his clothes and returned to the living room carrying a plastic bag full of ice cubes, wrapped in a dish towel which he carefully arranged on Napoleon’s swollen ankle, checking to make certain his pulse was as strong as before.
“Feeling better?” Napoleon eyed him.
“Much, thank you.”
“How ‘bout your feet?”
Of course, Napoleon wouldn’t miss a thing.
“They’ll be fine.”
Once Illya picked up the living area, he brought out a couple of quilts and a flashlight.
He dragged a comfortable recliner closer to his partner. He’d spend the night on the main floor, but knew they would have to keep watch through the night in shifts.
“There’s plenty of room right here if you behave yourself.” Napoleon patted the empty spot beside him. More eyebrow waggling ensued.
Illya snorted. “I cannot make that promise, my friend. I’d better take the chair.” And a raincheck, he admitted to himself.
Lights lowered, both agents settled in. Napoleon soon was snoring lightly. Despite his best efforts not to, Illya dozed a bit.
A strange noise brought Illya to full attention.
THUMP… Thump… thumpthumpthumpthump.
Illya looked towards the ceiling and somehow knew that something was bouncing across the floor in the loft. He grabbed the flashlight and was on his feet at the bottom of the stairs in time to see a small, red, rubber ball come bouncing down, hitting each step on its descent. When it reached the bottom, it bounced once more, then rolled past him and came to a halt as it met the front door.
He glanced over at his partner. Napoleon was sound asleep.
Wishing he had his gun, Illya quietly headed up the stairs. As soon as the upper floor came into view he stopped. In the dimness, he could see nothing out of the ordinary. A flick of the flashlight cast a narrow beam around the loft. Climbing the final few steps he paused to scrutinize the scene. Everything was as he remembered it. One detail had changed. The nursery door stood wide open. He was certain he had closed it.
He turned off the flashlight. A sudden chill ran down his spine. An overwhelming sense of dread washed over him as he neared the nursery. He pricked up his ears to listen for any small sound, but he heard none.
With his back against the wall, he slid over to the door. Out of the line of fire, he carefully glanced inside. It was too dark to see anything. He called out with as much bravado as he could muster, “Come out with your hands on top of your head and you will not be harmed.”
He was answered only by the unmistakable tones of a music box playing.
Peter And The Wolf music box-
It was a passage from Sergei Prokofiev ’s ‘Peter and The Wolf, op. 67,’ his favorite when he was a child. He liked to pretend he was Peter while playing in a nearby orchard.
Illya silently set the flashlight on the floor in the doorway. “Alright, I’m coming in,” he warned. He clicked on the flashlight and retreated to the safety of the wall.
Not a thing happened.
He reached around the corner, flipped on the light switch, then peered into the room again. Just like the rest of the loft, there was no one there.
Illya’s gaze immediately went to the bed. The doll was missing. In its place sat a music box, playing on. He reached over and closed the lid. He scanned under the bed and around the room. The doll was definitely gone.
Downstairs, he handed the box to Napoleon who was blinking himself awake.
“I don’t understand this. I went over the entire loft with a fine-toothed comb and… nothing.”
“The music, ‘Peter and The Wolf,’ wasn’t it?” Napoleon turned the finely carved wooden box over in his hands, squinting at the label on the bottom. “Are you certain you didn’t disturb this the last time you were up there?”
“Yes, I’m positive.”
“Perhaps it’s a poltergeist,” Solo yawned. “You know, a playful ghost, like Casper.”
Illya stared at him. “Casper?”
“You know, Saturday morning cartoons? Casper, the friendly ghost? Seeing as it’s ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ and all. What else could it be?”
Illya rolled his eyes. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
They turned to stare at one another. Napoleon chuckled and after a beat, so did Illya. During their tenure together at U.N.C.L.E., they’d observed some strange, unexplainable occurrences. Somehow those anomalies never made it into the official reports; not if they both valued their positions in the Command.
Solo yawned again and pulled his covers up around himself, settling in.
Illya shook his head as he walked to the front door. He picked up the red, rubber ball and squeezed it. He hadn’t imagined it, the ball was solid in his hand, yet none of these occurrences made any sense. Ghosts were fictitious, malevolent characters only in movies, books, or in one’s nightmares.
On the other hand , he mused, if they were real, at least this one was friendly. He shrugged it off.
“Well, there’s nothing either of us can do about any of this tonight. No harm’s been done at least.”
Opening the door, he stepped out onto the porch for a breath of cool, fresh air.
“There’s a full moon.” Illya watched as angry, amorphous clouds rolled by.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a swirl of movement in the mist. A lone figure of a large grey wolf stepped out of the fog. It padded right up to the cabin and stopped, not ten feet from Illya. It stood defiant, growling and snarling as if to convey it was the highest predator in the food chain this night.
As the wolf’s glowing red eyes met his wide blue ones, Illya felt his hackles rise as adrenalin coursed through his body. He knew the creature was quite capable of lunging at him at lightning speed. He eased himself back towards the doorway. Before he reached the safety of the cabin, he felt something brush past his pant leg on its way outside. He dared not take his eyes off the wolf to discover what it was. Once the door was firmly shut, the great wolf turned and disappeared into the enveloping mist.
Illya stared after the wolf for a long moment, almost wishing to catch another glimpse. Blowing out a huge lungful of air, Illya secured the deadbolt and tried to steady himself as he turned to his friend.
“Did you see… “
But Napoleon was sleeping. He had missed Illya’s close encounter entirely.
Feeling drained of energy, Illya settled into the recliner and drew his quilt over himself with trembling hands. The butcher knife he’d scrounged from the kitchen lay in his lap. A shot or two of liquid courage would go down easy right about now but there wasn’t even cooking sherry in the pantry. He had checked.
A wolf so near to their dwelling was unsettling. Under normal circumstances, it was almost unheard of. He shivered, remembering how close he had come to danger. His fear of dogs and wolves was his Achilles’ heel. A secret that was best kept hidden; it would be water-cooler fodder for his fellow agents.
Napoleon knew, but he was different.
Napoleon was much more than a co-worker. Napoleon was someone he could be himself around, often his confessor and confidante, his therapist and closest friend, his soulmate.
Illya gazed fondly at his partner until his eyelids grew heavy. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but before long he nodded off.
His babushka had asked him to bring a basket of apples into the house from the storage shed. She was going to bake a Yabluchnyk, an apple cake for his fifth birthday.
As he returned with the apples, he heard the wolf’s footpads behind him before he saw it and it snarled at him.
It was the largest wolf he had ever seen, and he had seen plenty in his young life living on the edge of the Holosiivsky Forest in Kyiv. He heaved the basket at the wolf and took off running towards the house while it growled and snapped at his heels. Just as he was about to be overtaken, he felt someone scoop him up, away from the razor-sharp teeth; his Papa had saved him! The beast ran away. Shaking, sobbing, he burrowed his face into his Papas’ shoulder, hugging him more tightly than ever.
The sun’s rays were burning off the last of the mist when a station wagon arrived.
Solo watched through a dirty, broken window as two men cautiously exited the vehicle and crouched behind it, weapons raised. He recognized them as enforcement agents from the Northeast office.
“Mr. Solo.” one of the men called out. “It’s Thomas Early and partner, James Merrick from U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Bangor.”
Napoleon yelled through the window, “Code 99.” It was the U.N.C.L.E. code for ‘All Clear.’ “I’m wearing a THRUSH uniform, so don’t be alarmed.”
He moved to the inert figure by the fireplace. The embers were slowly dying. He was grateful that the THRUSH, whose uniform he had taken, was a smoker. The lighter had come in handy.
“Illya, the cavalry has arrived! Time to wake up!” Napoleon lifted one of Illya’s eyelids then gently shook an arm, but lying on the threadbare rug on the dusty floor, his friend didn’t stir. He had mumbled unintelligibly in Russian a few times during the night and once had even shed a few tears, but he’d been quiet ever since. At least he had stopped shaking from the cold. Napoleon had spooned him most of the night, trying to keep hypothermia at bay.
A few moments later, Agents Early and Merrick entered.
“Welcome to our humble abode, such as it is. You had no trouble tracking my homing device, I take it?”
“No trouble, sir. Worked like a charm.” Agent Early handed Napoleon a small duffle bag. “I assumed you’d both be needing sidearms and communicators. Also, there’s a thermos of coffee and a couple of sandwiches. Are you injured?”
“I’m fine, but my partner, Mr. Kuryakin, has been unconscious with a concussion since yesterday afternoon.”
“We have a helicopter from a local hospital on standby just in case. I’d better give them a call right away… ” Agent Early hesitated. “Sir, have you seen what’s outside?”
Napoleon gave the pair a closer look. Agent Merrick was perspiring heavily and his face an odd shade of green.
“No, the fog’s been thick. What is it?”
Agent Merrick dashed out the door. Napoleon heard him retching a moment later.
“You’d better come, sir, and take a look.”
The body of a man in a THRUSH uniform lay fifteen yards off to the right of the porch, a THRUSH standard rifle a few feet away. His throat was a bloody mess. But, if the sight of a dead man with his throat ripped out wasn’t enough, standing a few feet from the dead man was a child’s doll, its mouth covered in blood, the front of its dress splashed with red.
Napoleon shook his head then squatted over the THRUSH’s body. He turned the head left and right, examining the wound. Blood, not completely dried yet, was smeared over the face, hands, and clothes, and pooled on the ground beside the head. No rigor had set in.
“Happened a few hours ago, maybe. I didn’t hear a thing.” He was disturbed about that. A man killed in such a manner would have cried out and struggled and fought back. Yet, Napoleon had heard nothing.
It was then that he noticed tiny bloody footprints that led away from the body, to the doll!
A chill that had nothing to do with the current weather ran through Napoleon.s frame.
“Sir!” Agent Merrick had found his voice. “What on God’s green earth happened here?” he asked, eyes wide as saucers.
Napoleon stood, almost scratched his head, thought better of it, then rubbed his hands on his pants. “I don’t suppose God had anything to do with this.”
It was time to take care of business.
“Where there’s one THRUSH, there’s bound to be more. Agent Merrick, if you’re up for the task, you and Agent Early secure the perimeter. I’ll wait with Illya until the chopper gets here. Let me know if there’s any trouble.” He looked down at the grizzly scene again. “Make that any more trouble, Okay?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll call for the clean-up team as well.”
The chopper soon arrived, setting down in a small, nearby clearing. The medical team came running with the stretcher and after a quick exam, they carefully arranged Illya on it, covered him in a blanket, and strapped him in.
Illya was roused by the movement. “Ow! Wait… what’s happening?” He raised his head and the room swam around him. “Oh! My head!”
“Take it easy, Illya, and keep your head flat.”
“Ugh! That’s a solid gold plan. What… ?”
“Happened? You have a concussion. We won’t know how bad it is until we get you to a hospital. Do you remember the train?”
“Yes. You injured your ankle after they threw us off. I carried you for miles.”
“I think your brains got scrambled a little, Tovarisch. I carried you. Don’t you remember?”
“ My brains? What about your ankle?”
Illya turned his head and looked on in confusion as Napoleon lifted each foot off the ground in turn and made circles with his ankles.
“I don’t understand.” He looked around the room. “The cabin! What’s happened to it?”
Solo answered, bewildered, “Nothing. It’s just as I found it. What else do you remember?”
“I… I remember a warm, comfortable cabin and a doll. There was a wolf outside the door last night!”
Napoleon stared at his partner for a minute. “A doll?”
The medics moved the stretcher out onto the porch. Illya wrestled his arm out to cover his sensitive eyes from the morning sun.
“We should carry him, Mr. Solo. The terrain is too rough for the wheels. It would be too rough a ride and he shouldn’t be jostled.”
“I can walk!”
“You can’t even lift your head!”
The two medics and Napoleon carried Illya a short distance before Napoleon asked them to set him down for a minute. He turned back and looked at the dilapidated, boarded-up house where they had spent a very cold night. He went and gathered up the doll, brought it back, and showed it to his partner.
“Take a look at this.”
Illya’s eyes grew wide. “That’s it! Green and white dress. Why is there blood all over it?”
Napoleon knelt beside him and placed a hand gently on his shoulder. “The question is not about the blood, my friend. The question is how can you recognize this doll?”
Not waiting for an answer, he said, “Okay, team, let’s get him on the chopper.”
Once in the air and the medics were finished fussing over their patient, Napoleon asked for a different channel on their headsets so he could speak privately with Illya. He filled Illya in on what had happened the previous day and about finding the dead man outside their cabin this morning. Illya reluctantly told his side of the story, down to the last detail, even the dream.
“Things that go bump in the night, red, rubber balls, and music boxes. This would make a scary bedtime story, Illya.”
“I plan on forgetting the entire thing.” He wouldn’t, of course, his memory was far too keen. But it was all only an illusion. He had been unconscious, after all. Hadn’t he?
“Do you suppose your poltergeist was trying to warn you of the THRUSH agent outside?” Napoleon asked.
“Poltergeist?” Illya stared at Napoleon for a long moment before closing his eyes.
"What poltergeist?" Illya answered finally. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Honestly, Napoleon, you have quite the active imagination."
Illya would never admit to the existence of ghosts. So-called supernatural phenomenon always had a logical explanation. His scientific background made it near impossible for him to believe otherwise.
But what other explanation was there for a child's doll killing the THRUSH agent?
Perhaps there was a kernel of truth in what Napoleon had said. Illya did have a feeling that some force or "spirit" had tried to warn him.
Could it have been Nadine?
He thought of the doll, the ball, the music box, the wolf, the dead THRUSH.
Was it such a large stretch of his analytic brain to believe that by protecting Napoleon and himself, she was trying to reassure him that he was not to blame for her death?
For the first time in a long time, Illya felt at peace. Finally, he could let go of his guilt. "Thank you, Nadine," he whispered.
"What was that?" Napoleon asked.
Illya looked up at Napoleon once more and smiled. "I said, perhaps you're right."
Napoleon returned the smile as he considered exactly whose imagination was the more active. He patted Illya soothingly on the shoulder before settling back for a well-deserved rest. It was going to be a carefully worded report he’d be writing up for Mr. Waverly, that much was certain.