"Tell me again why we are here?" Illya Kuryakin sipped his cup of hot cider carefully. Around him couples swirled and swayed in time to the music. The music was lively enough, but agents were taught to never let their guard down for an instant. This was doubly true at a party.
"THRUSH, diabolical plot, and this might be our only chance to grab it." Napoleon Solo smiled as a lovely red-haired Katrina Van Slater danced within reach and then out again. She'd been monopolized all night by anxious suitors and while she'd sent many a hopeful look in Napoleon's direction, he'd done nothing more than nod politely. He'd just had far too close a call with a young Italian miss and he wasn't in a hurry to repeat the process.
There was also the very large man, Vaughn, who seemed to watch her every move with a jealous eye. He let Napoleon know his interest was not welcomed. Too bad no one mentioned it to the girl. She'd been flirting with him ever since they first met. Not that Napoleon was interested. He had more pressing matters that required his attention, like his job and his partner.
Illya shifted uncomfortably and Napoleon glanced over at him, worry filtering into his brown eyed gaze. He knew Illya was putting on a brave front, but the man had been dragged through the muck during their last affair and was still recovering from it. Napoleon sipped his mulled wine and thought back.
They were on the weapons range. Agents had to qualify before getting back on the active list. While Illya hadn't injured his hands, there had been enough otherwise inflicted damage that the guys in charge thought it best he re-qualify.
Illya slapped a clip into his weapon, aimed, and began pulling the trigger, not pausing until the clip was spent. He hit the retrieval button and the target sped back to him. There was a neat placement of bullet holes in the center of the target's head and another over the heart area. None of the bullets had gone astray. Still, Napoleon had noticed how Illya flinched at each shot fired. He was still far from well, but determined to not let anyone know, not even his partner.
Illya turned and arched an eyebrow at him. Just try and do better was the unspoken challenge and Napoleon grinned. There was nothing he loved more than the acrid smell of gunpowder, a nice tight grouping of shots, and knocking his partner from his ranking... well, at least nothing he liked better while fully clothed.
Napoleon aimed, pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. He lowered the weapon, brought it back up, and tried again. He stepped away from the firing line and raised a hand. Immediately a voice rang out.
"Make the line safe!"
Illya pulled his ear protectors off. "Napoleon, what's wrong?"
"There's something wrong with my Walther." Napoleon removed the clip and pulled back the slide to check. The bullet fell free and he pointed the pistol down at the floor and pulled the trigger. Thus assured it was clear, he offered it to Illya, who repeated the same process before examining the weapon more closely.
"This is a cheesy way of conceding to me," Illya muttered as he checked the weapon's firing mechanism.
"Hey, what's happening with the guns?" This was from a Section Three to Napoleon's left. "Mine won't fire."
"Yeah, mine neither and it was fine a second ago." This was a visiting agent from France.
The range instructor came up to them, a frown creasing an already scarred and wrinkled face.
"What's happening here, Napoleon?"
"Here, Simon, I can't get it to fire and yet I can't find anything wrong." Napoleon watched Illya hand the weapon, butt first, to the man. Simon repeated the same steps, obviously aware of the grumbling crowd growing around them.
He loaded a clip, put on his ear and eye protection and walked up to the line. "Fire in the hole," he shouted and fired. Or tried to. The weapon merely clicked. When he tipped it forward, the bullet fell out of the muzzle of the Walther. "What the hell?"
"You've all now experienced a firsthand demonstration of THRUSH's newest weapon against us." All the agents looked back to the glass-enclosed observation booth and at the head of Section One, Number One—North America. "Mr. Rogers, if you will send Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin to me, I will release your range back to you."
Simon 'Buck' Rogers lifted a hand to Waverly and glanced over at the two Section Two agents. "You heard him, gentlemen. Get out of here so we can get back to work."
"Mr. Rogers—" Illya started, but Rogers held up a hand.
"You're qualified. Get the hell out of here."
Illya was mesmerized by the device the moment they sat down at the table. It was small, about the size of a basketball and a bit squat.
"Hey, paint it orange and you can hide it in the pumpkin patch," Napoleon said as he gave the device a passing glance.
"Show it a little respect, Napoleon." Illya lifted and turned it in his hands. "This might be able to do what the UN hasn't been able to accomplish."
"A world cessation of firepower."
"Only partially correct, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Please don't tell me THRUSH has modified their rifles..." Napoleon broke off and sighed. "They have, haven't they?"
"And with the only weapons that function, they can walk into any situation and come out victorious."
"What will you have us do, sir?" Illya set down the device, his eyes serious behind the tinted glasses.
The room darkened as Waverly adjusted a knob and a screen at the far end brightened. The shot was not very becoming. The man in the grainy black and white film looked tired and old beyond his years.
"This is Huston Van Slater. He is the man who invented the tamper-proof gunpowder, if you will. He lives in a small town called East Topsham."
"Where's that?" Napoleon wondered out loud, picking up a pen to doodle on the front page of the report. He did his best thinking with something in his hand.
"Just east of Topsham, I would imagine," Illya murmured, letting his gaze go from the photo to the file folder before him. He propped up his chin with his hand and started to read. "Oh, it's Vermont. Fancy you not knowing that, Napoleon."
"If you two can settle down long enough to pay attention." Waverly tapped his pipe on the corner of the table to knock the ashes from it.
"Sorry, sir." Napoleon smiled contritely. Illya remained silent, seemingly engrossed in the documents he read.
"It isn't certain that Dr. Van Slater even knows what he's invented. He was striving for a gun powder that would work when wet. His son is interested in fireworks and they wouldn't work if the powder grew damp. This was his attempt to rectify the situation."
"Makes sense, but why THRUSH?"
Waverly answered drily. "They had just perfected the weapon neutralizer and were testing it. Some of the rifles had bullets containing the new gunpowder."
"And their guns went bang when they weren't supposed to." Napoleon closed his own folder. "THRUSH's twisted sense of accomplishment never ceases to amaze me."
"I imagine it was quite an embarrassment until THRUSH realized the potential of the new gunpowder." Waverly found his pouch and began refilling his pipe. "We are still unsure of how the altered gunpowder came into their possession... and apparently so are they."
"You feel this doctor could be in league with THRUSH?"
"We aren't sure, Mr. Kuryakin, but we do know that we must find a way to keep THRUSH from getting his formula and manufacturing more. From what we have ascertained from intercepted messages, they have not yet made the connection between Van Slater and the gunpowder. That is the task facing you two. Find Dr. Van Slater and either confirm or negate his involvement with THRUSH."
"If he is in league with them?" Illya looked back up at the photo and then at Waverly.
"Then I will leave it to your very adequate judgment as to the path you take."
Napoleon pulled into the parking spot and turned off the car engine. "Miller's General Store, that sounds promising. According to Travel, we can get directions to the motel here."
"The Merry Wink, I shudder from anticipation."Illya slowly climbed from the car, making a face as he moved.
Napoleon sighed and followed a moment later. He'd done everything except stand on his head to get Illya to talk to him, but for naught. Whatever was bothering the Russian, it was still hands off for everyone.
"Tell you what, why don't I go in and get the directions and you can scope out the town, such as it is? Give you a chance to stretch your legs." The autumn sun was warm on his face, tender like a lover's first kiss. If Illya was going to stay close lipped, at least Napoleon could ease his way slightly by giving him a little space.
Illya nodded and cautiously picked his way along the side of the road, keeping his attention on the rough footing where the asphalt crumbled into the gravel. Clumps of tall sun-dried milkweeds sent clouds of fluffy white seeds into the air as he brushed past them, but Illya didn't even seem to notice. He simply moved, slowly and mechanically.
Napoleon stepped sideways at the last minute to avoid a gang of young men, who came galloping down the stairs as if a lion was after them. Teens, he guessed from the lanky arms and legs. God, had he ever been that young and loose limbed?
Just as he got up on the porch, a lovely young girl stepped out of the store, tying a brilliantly colored kerchief over her blazing red hair. She paused and looked with dismay at the numerous unattended packages scattered about.
"Oh, no, those worms!" She looked around helplessly and, mentally kicking himself, Napoleon stopped.
"Something wrong, Miss?"
"Ah... well, some guys were gonna carry my packages, but they... left, I guess." She seemed to be looking at something in the distance. Napoleon looked and saw not a something, but a someone instead. A tall muscular boy with thick dark hair and a letter jacket was leaning against a split rail fence staring daggers at Napoleon. Napoleon had had more than his share of daggers, real or otherwise, tossed in his direction and pointedly ignored the boy. It seemed all too familiar these days that he was caught between a girl and her intended.
"Guess I'll have to call Pop for a ride." She bounced back into the store, smiling as Napoleon held the door for her.
He chatted with the store keeper for a few minutes, then took his time wandering the crowded aisles. As with any true country store, you could find just about anything here. Napoleon ended up with some aspirin, a road map, and a package of cookies that he knew were Illya's favorites. Perhaps since being the trusting partner wasn't working, he'd ply Illya with something else.
The girl was sitting on the steps, staring off into the distance and sighing every few moments.
"Still here, Miss?"
"Yeah, Pop wasn't home, so I gotta try again in a bit." She was studiously ignoring the boy across from the store. With a shrug of his shoulders, he stalked away. She almost seemed relieved. "I'm Katrina. You aren't from around here, are you?"
"How do you know that?"
"You have a funny accent."
"Well, Katrina, I'm Napoleon and you are correct. My friend and I are visiting your small hamlet. Now my car is just around the corner, we would be more than honored to give you a ride back to your place."
"Well, I dunno..." She traced a circle in the dust on the stairs and looked coy. Napoleon recognized the ploy and offered his elbow. "You being strangers and all."
"You know my name and I can promise you that we don't bite."
She laughed and too his arm. "Okay then. So, who's your friend? Your best girl?" she asked as he gathered up her packages.
"My business associate."
As they approached the car, Napoleon was startled to see the hood open. A moment later from the opposite direction, Illya appeared, walking as if he was battling a major case of either jock itch or a rock in his shoe. He took one look at the car, then at his partner.
"Is there a problem, Napoleon? Please tell me you didn't touch anything." Napoleon was not known for his mechanical abilities. He set Katrina's packages down on the trunk and spread his hands open to demonstrate there was no grease on them.
"No idea, I just came from the store to find this."
Illya shook his head and leaned over the fender to study the engine. After a moment he sighed. "It looks like the carburetor."
"How do you know?"
"It's gone, so I'm guessing that's the problem."
"How am I supposed to get home now?" the girl wailed and Illya looked over at her with an expression of annoyance and exasperation. Then he looked back to his partner, slowly shaking his head.
"Not another one." Illya's voice was soft, but the sarcasm in it spoke volumes.
"It's not my fault."
"Every assignment, Napoleon, it's the same thing." Illya shot a look at the girl, who didn't appear to be listening. "You go running off and I'm stuck cleaning up the mess." He began to walk off.
"Where are you going?'
"Back to the damn garage we passed coming in. With any luck I can get a carburetor shipped in for the car before THRUSH conquers all of Europe."
"Listen, why don't I go instead?"
"First, because you wouldn't know a carburetor if it bit you, Napoleon, and, secondly, I think it's the safest bet to get me out of the picture for the moment. If I were you, I'd try to detach yourself from your little ball of fluff before you get marched down the aisle... again."
Napoleon watched Illya storm off and lifted a hand to stop him, but then thought better of it. Perhaps this was the best recourse.
"I'm sorry I made your friend so angry, Napoleon." Katrina's voice was contrite.
"Illya's a misogynist, don't pay him any mind. He..." He was drowned out by a motorcycle. The same young man who had been watching them now roared up in front of them riding a very new and very expensive motorcycle. Its chrome shone like mirrors and Napoleon could see his face in the candy apple red teardrop gas tank.
"Wow, Vaughn, when did you get that?"
"Yesterday. Isn't she sweet? You want to be my first passenger?"
"Well..." She looked over at the stack of packages piled on the car's trunk. "I don't think everything will fit in your saddle bags, Vaughn."
"Tell you what. Why don't you come with me and he can follow later with your stuff?" Vaughn smirked in the superior way that only the very young can.
Katrina looked at the bike, then back to Napoleon and sighed. "Would you mind, Napoleon? I've always wanted to ride a motorcycle." She took a step closer and fiddled with his tie. "I'd be ever so grateful."
"Well, I... ah... suppose that we... I could."
"Great! That would be so cool of you!" She flung her arms around him and hugged him, nearly knocking him from his feet. Vaughn's eyes narrowed and Napoleon hunched his shoulders. Katrina dug into her pocketbook and pulled out a pencil and a slip of paper. "This is where I live. Thank you."
She scribbled something down on the paper and shoved it into his hand. Then, impulsively, she kissed Napoleon's cheek and jumped on the back of the bike.
He shook his head slowly as the bike spit gravel at him, and watched the pair ride away. Napoleon opened the back seat and began to load the packages into it.
"Would you like the rest?" The voice was vaguely familiar and Napoleon glanced over his shoulder to see the store owner standing there, holding an armload of packages. "When Miss Van Slater shops, she shops..."
"Yup, the darling of Old Man Slater's eye and sole heir to his fortune now that the boy got himself blown to bits."
"How's that?" Napoleon lifted the topmost package down off the trunk and set it inside the car.
"Don't know, really. Just what we read in the paper. The young fool loved to play with fireworks and one day boom! He goes up like a rocket. The old man was devastated and gave all the kid's stuff away to some auction house downstate."
"Poor guy, to lose a kid like that."
Napoleon slammed the car door shut just in time to see Illya walking towards him, something dark and greasy looking in his hand. As he drew closer, Napoleon could see a smear on Illya's shirt as well.
"Ah... a carburetor?"
"Ours. Someone on a motorcycle chucked it at me while I was walking to the station."
"Big guy on a candy apple red bike?"
"How did you know?"
Napoleon tapped his forehead. "The Shadow always knows."
It had taken Illya all of thirty minutes to replace the carburetor and get the car going.
"Sounds better than it did coming up," Napoleon admitted, holding out a cloth and a cold soda to him.
"Just did some tinkering while I was under there. The guys in the Motor Pool don't always take as much time as they should with these fleet vehicles." Illya took the cloth first and wiped the grease from his hands, then accepted the soda. He tipped his head back and drank until the bottle was empty. "Thanks." He repressed a belch and glanced in to the back of the car. "And we are a delivery service now as well."
"Even better, when we are providing a service for Dr. Van Slater's only child."
"The girl? I thought Mr. Waverly said Van Slater had a son." Illya climbed into the driver's side of the car and adjusted the seat for his legs.
"Had a son." Napoleon joined him and pulled out the sheet of paper.
"Convenient for THRUSH."
"And for us as well. The store keeper said that all the son's belongings were sent to an auction house to be sold off. That could be why THRUSH hasn't found this connection yet." He held up the note. "This is our foot in the door."
"Napoleon, you are without a doubt, the luckiest man I know."
"True and you as well, if merely by association."
They followed the main road along for about fifteen minutes and then Napoleon pointed to a dirt road. In the distance there was a covered bridge and beyond it thick woods that were a splash of orange, reds and yellow, with the occasional green of a pine tree. The wind rippled through the long dried grasses, making it appear as if waves moved and lapped along an ocean of yellow.
"I believe that's our road." Napoleon reoriented the map and pointed.
"How picturesque. Very Norman Rockwell."
"I think the word you are struggling for is sequestered. This is Vermont, my boy. Just be happy they are having an Indian summer right now. I've seen it when there have been snow drifts for Halloween."
"That's three days away. There's still time." Illya slowed the vehicle and grunted as the car left the asphalt for the rutted dirt tracks that made up the road. "Someone actually lives out here?"
"According to this map, the wealthiest person in this end of the state does and it makes sense. Would you go looking for him if you encountered this road?"
"That is a trick question as I'm driving down said road." The car jerked left and right as it dipped in and out of potholes. Through the open window, Napoleon could smell the grass and see birds that had yet to fly south. For just a moment, he was back on the farm, lazing on the front porch and playing cards with his sister, listening to 'The Evening Report' on the radio while his mom knitted and his dad dozed on the porch swing. For just an instant, he smelled something that said 'home' to him and made a mental note to try and squeeze in a short visit to Chelsea while they were here.
"Are you even listening to me?" Illya's voice startled him and Napoleon shook his head.
"Sorry, just daydreaming. What were you saying?"
"I was curious how we are to approach him. As agents, as interested parties, as—"
"Helpful strangers bringing his daughter's packages to her?" Napoleon smiled at his partner, then grunted as he hit the passenger door. "Sometimes the safest route is the truest one."
They rattled across the bridge and Illya winced. "They are going to have to entirely redo the alignment once we get back home."
"This is what we fondly used to refer to as washboard..." Napoleon looked out the window at the rapidly encroaching forest. It always surprised him how dense the forests were up here. They could swallow objects up whole in a matter of seconds. It got so dark that Illya flipped on the headlights.
Then as abruptly as the forest began, they were out of it and into a large open meadow. At the far end through a sea of rolling hills and dales stood a large three-story house, a barn and several small out buildings.
"I believe we have found our doctor." Napoleon held a hand over his eyes to shade them, but the farm was still too far away. "I only hope after all this way that someone is home."
"If not, then we leave the stuff on the door step and wander about. I have a feeling that this is our lucky day."
Napoleon stepped out of the bathroom, a towel about his waist, drying his hair with a second one. The small motel they were staying at was not the newest or the fanciest, but it was clean, there was hot water and the bed was comfortable. That was all he asked for in a room these days.
"Feeling better?" Illya was lounging on one of the twin beds, a book propped up on his stomach. He flipped his glasses up onto his head and studied his partner. He was still partially dressed; his shoes and socks were off, as was his jacket, holster and tie. He'd unbuttoned his shirt down about halfway and Napoleon was surprised to see Illya was wearing a tee shirt. That was... not usual.
"You are lucky he only threw that pail of..." Illya's eyebrows and forehead worked as he obviously tried to think of the right word.
"Silage." Napoleon grimaced while providing the word Illya was struggling to find. His suit was now relegated to a plastic bag and in the car trunk.
"On you. I thought he was going to take a swing and that would have ended badly." Illya closed the book and sat up. "You know how Waverly feels about us getting into fisticuffs with the natives."
"I know how I feel about it." Napoleon dropped the towel onto his bed and reached for his robe. At that moment there was a knock on the door. He snatched up the robe and his gun, while shooting a look at Illya.
Illya nodded and reached for his Walther. Carefully he walked to the room's door as Napoleon was disappearing into the bathroom.
Napoleon closed the door and held his gun in readiness. The conversation was too low to be understood, but a minute later, there was a tap. "All clear." He heard Illya say and he came out, his weapon still at the ready, but the room was empty except for his partner.
"That was the desk clerk. Apparently, Miss Van Slater felt so bad about this afternoon's incident that you have been invited to a luncheon tomorrow." Illya held out the note. "She is anxiously awaiting your call."
"Couldn't you...?" Napoleon really did not want to redress.
"The invitation was for you, not me. Pity there's not a phone in the room."
"An oversight, I'm sure."
Illya made a face and returned to his bed, tucking his weapon under his pillow. "Don't wake me up when you come in." He sat down and started to unbutton his shirt the rest of the way.
Napoleon shook his head slowly and walked over to the twin bed. "What's going on, Illya?"
"Nothing is going on." Illya tossed his shirt towards his open suitcase, but made no attempt to remove the tee shirt. He put his glasses back on and Napoleon was getting the message—Leave me alone -loud and clear.
After a moment, Napoleon went back into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. It wasn't unlike Illya to be in a snit, but usually it didn't interfere with their assignment. He reached for his shaving kit and in doing so, pushed Illya's aside. On top of the open case was a familiar brown bottle. The prescription read: Curt Atkin, two before bed as needed M.Feinstein. Napoleon shook his head sadly. Not even UNCLE Medical could get Illya's name right. He also recognized the drug as a strong sleeping pill. That was very much not like Illya. The man never seemed to have problems falling asleep. Looking at the closed door, Napoleon shook the contents out in his hand and counted the pills. All of them were still there. That was odder still—why have sleeping pills prescribed to you and not use them?
Napoleon made up his mind to ask Illya about it, but by the time he exited the bathroom, Illya was in bed with the sheet pulled practically over his head. Leave me alone.
Napoleon went to place his call.
As he was walking back through the gravel parking lot, he paused and looked up at the stars. There were so many of them. Seldom did he have time to star gaze. In the city, the sky was never dark enough to see them. Out here, he felt like he could reach up and touch them.
Instead of returning to the stuffy and not very welcoming room, Napoleon walked over to a small bench set under a maple tree. Out in the open, its leaves had long since been blown away and the skeletal braches seemed to be reaching to the sky, prepared to snatch up an unwary trick-or-treater.
Napoleon reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his communicator. Looking around to make sure he was unobserved, he opened it and spoke softly into it. "Open Channel D, please. Solo here."
"Napoleon, how are you?"
The purr was familiar, but Napoleon couldn't instantly recall the name. "Well, I am just fine, how are you?"
"Counting the days until you get back to New York... or have you forgotten?"
"Why, Joni, you cut me to the quick. Just as soon as I hit the city limits, I will be at your side." He paused and took a relieved breath. He honestly didn't remember setting anything up with this woman. He was even hard pressed to remember what she looked like. Maybe Illya was right; perhaps his plate was getting a bit full. "Sweetheart, could you put me through to Maury Feinstein in Medical, please."
"Of course, stand by."
A moment passed and a different voice answered. "Medical, Feinstein."
"Maury, hi, it's me, Napoleon."
"You're calling me, that's a change. Usually, I'm the one hounding you."
"Well, what goes around and all that. Listen, Maury, you prescribed Illya sleeping pills, I was wondering why."
"He asked me for them. When he explained why, I didn't see any reason to refuse. Is he having problems with them? I told him to break one in half the first night. "
"He hasn't taken any yet. Why did he want them?"
There was a pause. "Napoleon, do you know how hard I work to make you guys open up to me? When, for the first time, your partner actually seeks me out and asks for help, why would I betray that trust?"
"Because I'm asking you to."
"No, I'm sorry, but I can't. What Illya said to me was in confidence. The fact that he hasn't opened up with you means he's not ready to. It is nothing that will compromise his ability to do his job and that's all I will say. I'm sorry, Napoleon."
"Me, too, but I respect your position. Thanks. Solo out."
He walked back to their room, listening to the gravel crunch beneath his shoes. It reminded him of walking through the parking lot of the grange hall to their annual Harvest Ball, the cheesy haunted house and even cheesier Halloween costumes. Yet there had been homemade goodies and candy and the night had been magical. And it seemed like a million years ago.
He walked past their car and his nose wrinkled at the stink in the trunk. He was going to have to bite the bullet and rinse the suit out or they'd never make it back to New York.
He opened the door to the room and noted that Illya had not even shifted. Apparently, he'd been in earnest when he'd told Napoleon not to wake him.
"What is going on in that mind of yours, my friend?" Napoleon whispered staring at his partner's back. There was no response, not that he expected one.
He wasn't sure what initially woke him, but Napoleon came awake with the instant awareness that something was wrong. He didn't move, save to slide his hand a bit closer to his weapon in case there was someone in the room. He remained still and listened.
Then he heard the low moan and he rolled over to click on his beside lamp. Illya was thrashing about under his covers, his face glistening with sweat and grey with pain. The yellow of the light made it look even worse and Napoleon was out of his bed.
"Illya?" Normally, Napoleon would have reached out and shaken the man awake, but it was dicey to wake an agent at the best of times; during a nightmare was the worst of times. Instead, he stood quietly and merely repeated Illya's name.
Abruptly, Illya sat bolt upright, chest heaving, his fingers knotting the bedclothes. Napoleon froze. Even though Illya was sitting up, he still wasn't awake. Any move on Napoleon's part could be misconstrued as a threat.
"Illya... wake up, Illya." He repeated it as if it was a mantra and finally, the blue eyes blinked and then slowly focused upon Napoleon. He let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Are you okay?" A brief nod. "Do you want to talk about it?" A faster head shake.
Napoleon walked to the bathroom and flicked on the light. Running the water in the sink, he found the prescription bottle and again tipped out the bottle's content. All twenty four of the capsules were still there and he returned all but one. Taking it and a glass of water, he returned to Illya's bed.
The Russian was still sitting up, but looking and breathing more normally.
"Take this." Napoleon held out the pill.
"No." Illya wouldn't meet his eyes. Instead, he stared at a spot on the far wall.
"There's nothing wrong with needing a little help now and again. You had a bad time with THRUSH. This will help."
"If I take it now, I won't be able to function in the morning."
"Then it's good we have nowhere to be until one in the afternoon. Take the pill." Napoleon used his best Section Two voice. After a minute, Illya popped it into his mouth and emptied the glass. Napoleon refilled the glass and set it on Illya's nightstand. Then he returned to his bed and climbed back in. "If you want to talk and when you are ready, you know where I am."
"It's what I'm here for." He waited for a reply, but there was none. Illya was lying down and staring at the ceiling. After a moment, Napoleon shut off his light and plumped up his pillows. They were flat and no amount of pounding could help them. It wouldn't have mattered though, the best pillows in the world would have felt like rocks right now. He listened to Illya's breath grow regular. "Why won't you talk to me?' he whispered. "What did they do to you that has you so scared, my friend?"
Not surprisingly, there was no response.
Napoleon held gamely on to his armrest as they bumped and banged their way back from the Van Slater farm. The luncheon had been an unqualified success. Once Van Slater learned that Illya possessed a PhD, he started showing the Russian around, culminating in a trip to his lab. Napoleon had been left with the ample charms of Katrina, but found himself having a hard time focusing upon her. Illya was quiet with him today, but with his hosts, he'd been animated and interested in seemingly everything Van Slater said. Napoleon couldn't help but feel a little envious and even a bit jealous. It had been weeks since Illya had been that comfortable with him.
Rather it had been the ride out and now the ride back when the silence descended. Napoleon wondered if their partnership was going to survive this.
Illya clamped on the brake and Napoleon barely managed to catch himself in time to keep from flying into the dashboard. In front of the bridge was a line of young men, all looking very stern. In the center was Vaughn and his motorcycle, blocking the road.
Napoleon waited for Illya to put the car in park and then he opened the car door, stepping out as did Illya. "Can I do something for you, gentlemen?"
Vaughn detached himself from the ranks and marched up to Napoleon. "Leave Katrina alone. She doesn't need you sniffing around her, like she's some bitch in heat."
"We were here at her invitation." Illya's voice was quiet, too quiet, and Napoleon glanced over at him.
Vaughn suddenly pushed the car door backwards, knocking it into Napoleon. "My hand slipped, I swear. Sorry."
Napoleon caught himself and adjusted his jacket. He knew he shouldn't take these young men on. Both his and Illya's hands were registered as weapons. For him to strike Vaughn would amount to assault with a deadly weapon and had spent more than adequate time in rural prisons to make him consider other options.
"We don't have time to play games with boys. Our business is with adults. Now unless you want to find yourselves in an extremely awkward situation with the local police, I suggest you step aside." Napoleon used a casual tone, but his eyes promised swift delivery of his threat and he let his jacket fall open to display his weapon.
A fistfight was one thing, but the boy didn't look stupid enough to argue with an armed man. It had the desired effect and Vaughn stumbled back a step, his face paling as Illya pulled off his jacket and tossed it into the car.
Still Vaughn didn't move the motorcycle.
"You're blocking the road."
"You don't own it." Vaughn had gotten back some of his bravado, now back with his friends.
Without blinking, Illya pulled his Walther, aimed, and shot the bike's front tire. "My hand slipped, I swear. Move it—now."
He climbed back into the car and revved the engine as Vaughn wrestled the bike off the road. They rumbled through and out of the covered bridge and up the short sprint to the main highway before pausing.
"You shot his bike." Napoleon turned in his seat to see the reaction, but none of the group made any attempt to follow them.
"Nothing gets past you, does it, Napoleon?"
"He is going to get even with you."
"Perhaps, but he was behaving atrociously. One hopes this will make him consider his options in the future. He's a young man with his eye on the prize. Marry the girl and he has it made for the rest of his life, but that sort of behavior is not likely to win him Katrina's hand. Dr. Van Slater doesn't trust him and thinks he's more interested in bank accounts than true love." Illya flicked a look up in the rear view and then back to the road. "You are sophisticated, educated, and confident. How could you be anything more than a threat to all he holds dear and I don't mean Miss Van Slater."
"I'm old enough to be her... older brother."
"The young man doesn't see that." Illya slowed for a turn. "And I have a feeling we have not seen the last of him."
"Well, no... you shot his bike."
And so here they were—at Van Slater's annual Halloween fete. Darkness had fallen and with it a sense of foreboding had overtaken Napoleon. It wasn't from the glare Vaughn fixed on him at every opportunity. It wasn't a gnawing sense in his stomach that the enemy might be close at hand. Rather, it stemmed from Illya pulling farther and farther away from him.
They had been sitting on a bench in front of their room that evening. Dinner had been simple, but satisfying, the beer flavorful and, while Illya wasn't saying much, he also wasn't keeping his distance. He seemed to be just on the brink of telling Napoleon something when a car pulled up.
Katrina climbed out, her hair piled high on her head in some attempt at sophistication. Her simple shirt and blouse had been replaced by a more adult dress that emphasized her ample cleavage and slender waist. And Napoleon watched Illya's face grow cold.
Katrina announced she was delivering their invitations to their Halloween party the very next evening personally. Her hand lingered just a moment longer than necessary as she passed it to him. A sloe-eyed look and she was off back to her father's car to deliver the rest of the invitations.
Illya had merely gotten up, went back into their room and shut himself in the bathroom. Napoleon had taken a walk, purportedly to enjoy the beautiful fall evening, but in reality to try and clear his head. When he returned to the room, Illya was in bed and one more sleeping pill had vanished.
That morning he'd watched Illya drag himself out of the bed, looking more tired than when he'd gone to bed. Illya's tee shirt was around his neck and it was then that Napoleon saw some of Miss Diketon's handiwork. Napoleon winced when he realized the burns and cuts, now nearly healed, extended beneath the waistband of Illya's pajama bottoms. She had played a number on the Russian and Napoleon suddenly understood Illya's hostility towards women, but not towards him.
Then they had walked out of the motel room and found their car had been towed away. It was found an hour later, abandoned in a turnout All four tires were flat, the windshield was broken as were all the windows, the hood was up and the engine had been ripped apart.
"He's very consistent, if nothing else," Illya muttered, reaching for his communicator.
Within a couple of hours, the car had been towed away and they had managed to secure a motorcycle from the local garage. It was old and well past its prime, but it ran and, more importantly, it was all that was available.
Illya sat quietly by the fire, sipping hot cider. He'd disappeared a time or two, but always seemed to reappear after a brief absence.
The music ended and Napoleon wandered across the floor to take a seat by Illya. "Trouble?"
"Just securing UNCLE's future against THRUSH."
"Dr. Van Slater showed me his lab yesterday. I have taken the liberty of borrowing a page from his lab book. It is the only copy of the gunpowder formula, according to him. We might not be able to stop THRUSH's new weapon, but we can flood the market with the modified gunpowder and it will be just as useless."
"That's my sneaky Russian," Napoleon murmured. "Now this is our chance to slip away."
"Not yet it isn't." Van Slater came up to the pair, slapping his hands together. "Illya, you must give us a tale of Baba Yaga. It's the price of admission after all."
"Right now?" Illya glanced towards the front door, so close and yet so far away.
"At the stroke of midnight, what could be better?"
"It looks likes someone has already taken the floor," Napoleon interrupted.
Vaughn stood before the fireplace, motioning people to join him. "Let me tell about what's waiting for all of you out there. There are monsters and goblins and the worse one of them all, The Headless Horseman."
Illya rolled his eyes and Napoleon chuckled. "Sorry, partner, looks like you'll have to wait a bit. Have some pie."
Napoleon had to hand it to Vaughn. The boy did have a gift for storytelling. He was animated and knew how to play to his audience. If only it had been a story that Napoleon himself couldn't have recited in his sleep, it would have been good.
That's when Napoleon noticed Illya. The Russian was not only paying attention, he was actually engaged by the story. Napoleon waited for Vaughn to finish to polite applause before catching his partner's elbow. "Whacha think?"
"His storytelling technique was very good."
"So I noticed. I've heard the story off and on for thirty years now and that's one of the better renditions of it. I like how he localized it. Often it's in some vaporous place, usually in New Hampshire or Connecticut, but not usually here. I tell you, you go through some of the hollows at night and it can be pretty creepy." Van Slater was gesturing with his hand and Napoleon gave Illya a bump with his shoulder. "It looks like it's show time, partner."
Napoleon kept part of his attention on Illya, but most of it was focused on Vaughn, who seemed embroiled in some sort of discussion with a pair of older men. Vaughn flashed him one last look and walked over to Katrina.
He grabbed her and gave her a kiss, then turned to a startled Dr. Van Slater. "I must take my leave of you now, Doctor. Thank you for a wonderful evening.. I will see myself out."
Napoleon frowned, that seemed an odd thing for a young man to say. It sounded so old fashioned.
Illya was also watching Vaughn as he left and then he returned to his tale.
Whether through accident or design, they ended up being some of the last to leave. Both men thanked their hosts and reluctantly pushed their way from the warmth of the barn and the gaiety of its decorations out into the cold Vermont night. The weather had grown cold and Napoleon shivered, although it wasn't exactly from the cold. That sense of dread was back.
"Illya, I think we have company." He climbed onto the back of the motorcycle and pulled on a helmet.
"Agreed, I've been feeling it since we got here." Likewise he mounted the bike and started it.
"To the farm?"
"No, to this town. There is something a little off here." He revved the engine and did a lazy circle around the yard, eyes studying each shadow hidden among the buildings.
"And all the wee beasties that go bump in the night," Napoleon murmured to himself. If the car was bad, the motorcycle was teeth loosening. They had just entered the forest when a blur of motion caught his eye and he turned as Illya slowed the motorcycle. "Mother piss bucket," he swore. There in the clearing was a big man, astride a horse and holding what looked to be a pumpkin in one hand.
"Napoleon..." Illya muttered. "Tell me that's not what it looks like."
"He's not holding a pumpkin, Illya. It's that THRUSH weapon jamming device."
"That's what I was afraid of." A pause. "Napoleon, where's his head?"
"He's got one, you just can't see it. We're not afraid of you. Why don't we talk this out?"
"What are you doing?" Illya demanded.
"Trying to reason with him."
"He has no head, Napoleon. How do you reason with someone like that?" The moon came out from behind a cloud just then and glinted off the saber the rider held in his other hand.
"Illya, I think it's time for us to utilize that most ancient of weapons that the modern spy has available to him—run!"
Illya gunned the engine and took off, the horse hot on their heels. The bike just wasn't as well equipped to handle the rough ground as a horse. The bike jumped and shook as it if were alive. Napoleon leaned forward, slipped his arms around Illya's waist and made himself as small a target as possible. At these speeds and with the motorcycle jerking back and forth, for them to actually get hit would be one shot in a hundred, but Napoleon wasn't taking chances.
Branches whipped past them and Napoleon wondered how they were even managing to stay upright. A time or two, the bike started to skid, but they were both old hands at riding and easily moved with the vehicle. They got through the woods and Illya opened the bike up, racing for the highway.
The covered bridge loomed ahead of them and Napoleon half expected to see a string of cars blocking their egress from it, but they sped through the bridge without a problem. Something whizzed past Napoleon's peripheral vision, but he only crouched lower.
It was only when they hit the highway that Illya throttled back the bike and took a look back at the meadow. There was a small fire burning at the base of the bridge, but there was no sign of the horseman.
"Left we head back to the motel." Illya glanced both left and right down the deserted highway.
"If that little display was THRUSH, that's where they are expecting us to go. They will be waiting for us with something a bit more than a scary story and a headless horseman."
"Then right it is."
"Tell me when we hit the New York border."
Illya looked up at him as Napoleon carried two suitcases into their office. "Our Vermont cousins were nice enough to return our belongings to us." He dumped one on Illya's desk and the other on his.
Illya stuck a finger into a hole. "They shot my suitcase? What did they think it was going to do, leap up and attack them?"
"Knowing you, probably." Napoleon wrestled his open and sighed. Everything inside was torn, dirty or both. "I love how THRUSH always uses that special touch."
"I don't think it was THRUSH, Napoleon."
"What makes you say that?"
"When have you ever known a THRUSH to give up that easily? We literally rode away with the goods and they never tried to stop us. Just tried to scare us."
"If you'd lost control of that bike, we could have both been killed."
"Too improbable for THRUSH. They would want the odds in their favor."
"Depends upon whose luck you are referring to." Napoleon continued to pick through his suitcase and then picked up a paper. It was dated Nov. 2 and Napoleon began to scan the front page.
"Illya, you may be right. Listen to this. 'The search was called off for two missing New York tourists. They had been recent guests of Dr. Van Slater and were last seen leaving Dr. Van Slater's Halloween extravaganza about midnight Oct. 31. They were reported missing the next day when it became apparent that they never returned to their motel room. Their car and room had been ransacked, but it is unknown if that was connected with their disappearance or just coincidence. Their names are being withheld pending notification of their next of kin.'"
"Good luck with that," Illya said with a snort. "My mother speaks very little English."
"And get this, right below it. 'Dr. Van Slater is proud to announce the engagement of his daughter, Katrina, to local boy, Vaughn Duggan. The wedding is planned for early spring.'"
"Wonder if we'll get an invitation."
"How can we be invited when we've been victims of the Headless Horseman?" Napoleon chuckled and turned to leave the office.
"Yes?" He paused in his tracks.
"I know I haven't been very loquacious as of late, but I was wondering...Are you... I mean, I know how busy you are, but..."
"I know just the place?." Napoleon smiled and nodded.
"Yup, the vodka is always cold, the music's hot, the food is always made to order, and my door is always open. I'll see you at seven." He winked at the blond and walked away. "And if you're good, there will be pumpkin pie for dessert."