Moon on the Meadow
Sky Williams pressed back against the knotty pine wall, vainly trying to become one with the wood grain. Outside, he could hear It snuffling and grunting.
Why, oh, why did I listen to Taylor? He thought and then choked. It had taken Taylor. Sky could still hear the screams, the pleading for Sky to help, to make It stop, to do anything except cower in a corner of the cabin.
Yet here he was. Sky had closed all the window shutters, tying them securely with his belts and Taylor's, then tearing his clothes into strips when those weren't enough. He broke up kitchen chairs and jammed pieces into the window frames, effectively jamming them closed against the intruder.
Sky had been able to secure everything except the front door. Its windows were shutter free, so he'd found some nails he'd collected on an earlier walk and blocked it as best he would with the table, pounding the nails in with a pot. He'd used what little furniture remained to barricade the doors
Now, Sky huddled behind the couch, his Walther steadied on the back of it. It had been sheer luck that he'd found his weapon. How it had come to be buried at the base of that tree was a mystery, but he didn't care. With the cold metal in his hands, he felt that at least he could try and defend himself.
His senses were so acute he could hear a spider as it delicately plucked the strings of its web. He could hear it. At times, it sounded like his mother; other times, it was Rachel, the girl he'd taken to the prom, calling to him. Once it was even Taylor... but Taylor was dead. Dear, brave Taylor, whose very soul had been ripped apart while his partner, coward that he was, had escaped to freedom and replaced with the atrocity that now lurked just outside.
He could smell It as it roamed from window to window, scratching softly. It smelled just like Taylor—how frightening was that?
"Sky, let me in, Sky. I won't hurt you. I love you. I just need to do this for both of us." It rumbled, but Sky could tell It was lying. There was no love, not anymore, just hatred and anger and resentment.
Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you? The words burned in Sky's brain and he gripped the pistol's grip even harder. He could hear his father saying, Love your pistol, son, it's the only mistress a man needs. It took a long time, but Sky now knew his dad was right. His pistol had never lied to him, never tricked him into believing something that wasn't. It spoke .38 caliber truth.
Sky could hear everything, except what he longed for the most—the sound of that first waking bird, heralding the arrival of dawn. With the sun came safety and Sky could make a run for it. The horse camp was only a mile up the road. They would have a phone he could use to alert UNCLE. He could send for help and Section Two would come in and blow that monster out of creation.
There was a noise at the door, a rattle of the doorknob and a soft growl. "Don't make me use force, Sky," It threatened. "Death isn't so bad. I won't let it hurt... for long."
"Leave me alone!" Sky shouted and the door blew in, literally exploding from its hinges.
A figure filled the door frame and Sky screamed. He emptied his gun, screaming as the trigger clicked, screaming as It fell, writhing on the floor and he kept screaming even as outside, there was a first early morning chirp.
Sky Williams twisted and struggled within the strait jacket, first screaming, then sobbing and moaning when it became too much for his raw throat.
Napoleon Solo watched the man from behind the one-way glass and shook his head slowly. "What would take a rational sensible UNCLE agent and turn him into this?"
"No idea, Mr. Solo." Waverly glanced up from his job of packing tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. "He and his partner took a leave of absence and Mr. Williams returned as you see him. That was two weeks ago and he's no better than when he was first brought in. Some of the finest minds we have at our call and they have not yet been able to pierce his insanity."
"His partner?" Illya Kuryakin's voice was soft, as if that question alone would bring more pain to the stricken agent.
"Mr. Carter is currently in Medical recuperating from the bullet wounds inflicted by Mr. Williams. They were both lucky that a nearby camper heard the shots and came to investigate."
Napoleon consulted a clipboard. "Says here he took one in the leg, a glancing shot to his head and one in the shoulder. The one to the shoulder destroyed some of the nerves. He may fully recover, but the doctors aren't certain."
"Not the way I'd want to end a Section Three career..." Illya flipped off the speaker, but continued watching as Williams twitched and thrashed.
"He was trying for a promotion to Section Two," Napoleon interrupted. "Again. It seemed like Taylor wasn't going to take no for an answer. I've never seen anyone so desperate to want to die in the line of duty."
"And Mr. Carter wasn't about to leave Mr. Williams behind and insisted he take the test as well, to the inevitable conclusion," Waverly said, returning a spent match to his jacket pocket. "Mr. Williams didn't pass."
"Why didn't he qualify?" Illya asked. It was like a car wreck, he couldn't bear to look, but he couldn't stop from looking.
"Mr. Williams failed his psyche evaluation, as did Mr. Carter, although he is not yet aware of his own disqualification. I haven't quite had the heart to tell him yet."
"Three quarters of the people who apply for Section Two fail their psyche eval," Napoleon murmured. "It would seem that you only have to be a little crazy to want to do what we do. Too much and there's a risk you'll go off the deep edge the first time things get rough."
"Mr. Williams seemed content to stay in Section Three, but his partner had other plans for him. To say Mr. Carter is ambitious is to say the Pope is Catholic." Waverly paused at his little joke, but neither agent registered any amusement. Mildly annoyed, Waverly continued. "He put in for a two-week leave in which to see if he could do what Mr. Williams could not."
"He wanted to prove to Mr. Williams that he had what it took to be Section Two. He had faith that they were both qualified and able to perform the job."
"Good agent. Show dedication to duty." Illya rested his forearm against the glass, his face drawn with concern for a fellow agent.
"He was." Napoleon set the clipboard down.
"He still is," Waverly set the tobacco on fire and puffed. "Mr. Carter can still have a career with UNCLE, if that's what he chooses, but, sadly, Section Two will now be closed to him if there's any permanent nerve damage that might jeopardize his ability to shoot. However, Mr. Williams, his days with us are numbered."
"He will be taken to a facility where he will be allowed to live out his life. Further diagnostic procedures may help bring him a bit of peace." Waverly puffed for a moment in silence. "I want you gentlemen to pick up where these two young men have left off." Waverly handed Napoleon an envelope. "In that envelope, you will find your tickets and driving instructions to the cabin which the two agents inhabited. All the arrangements have been made and provisions have been laid in for you."
"And what do we hope to accomplish there, sir?"
Waverly flicked the switch back on and listened to Williams plead and scream. "Find what did this to him, Mr. Kuryakin. We, at least, owe that to him. And try to discover what would turn partner against partner, especially these two."
Napoleon took the envelope and tucked it into his jacket pocket. "We'll see to it, sir."
"Good man." Waverly watched as the two agents walked quietly from the room before turning back to the one way glass. "What happened out there, Sky? Why can't you help us?"
Napoleon grabbed Illya's elbow as they exited from the room. "I am going to go down and have a chat with Taylor. Maybe he can tell us something about what led up to this." He dug out the envelope and held it out. "Why don't you go down to Research and see if you can find anything that will keep us from going into this blind. I'll meet you back in our office later to compare notes."
Illya nodded, took the envelope, and quickly walked away. Napoleon watched him and a sense of melancholy slipped over him. Where the hell had Taylor been in all of this and why had his partner ended up shooting him? Even Section Three agents have to pass rigorous mental testing. Williams would never have been issued a weapon if he'd been deemed a risk to himself or his partner.
Napoleon found his way down to Medical, pausing at the front desk to flirt with the on-duty nurse and then headed into Room Five. He paused before the door, drawing a deep breath. Even knowing it wasn't Illya, or even another Section Two agent in that bed, it was hard. Face schooled into a pleasant and confident expression, he knocked lightly and pushed open the door.
The figure in the bed was heavily bandaged with medical gizmos and tubes going in and out of the man.
"Taylor, you up for a visitor?"
The head on the pillow turned in Napoleon's direction and the hopeful look in Taylor's eyes evaporated. "Hi, Napoleon, I thought you might be Sky. Have you seen him? Is he okay?"
"No, sadly, he's far from okay, Taylor." Napoleon stood as opposed to sitting. Sitting made it seem harder to leave and he desperately wanted to leave. "What happened up there, Taylor?"
"I honestly don't know. I went fishing and when I came back, the door was locked. That was a little weird, but I figured Sky went for a walk. I unlocked and opened the door. That's when Sky started screaming and shooting. I never saw anything like, Napoleon. He didn't even know who I was."
"Did he say anything before you left?"
"He did tell me to not let the Meadow Monster get me."
"I don't know. Some crap the locals filled his head with. There's a small store down on the main road and we went there for breakfast a couple of times. They were telling about the creature that roams the woods and attacks people. It hunts at night, but stalks its prey during the day, watching from the woods. It was all a bunch of bull shit and I thought Sky knew it, but now I'm not sure. He's a city boy and he was seriously freaked out by all that nature."
"Why did you pick that particular spot if you knew he wasn't fond of the Great Outdoors?"
"My stepdad owned the place. We used to move cattle over the mountain range and it was one of the stops we used to make on the trip home. When we weren't using it for cattle, we used it for sheep. There's a huge field and I just remembered how peaceful and serene it was. We needed that. I had hoped it might give Sky a chance to regroup and decide what he needed to do before trying again for a Section Two assignment."
"Why was it so important for him to make Section Two?"
"Come on, Napoleon. You know the answer to that better than anyone else. What would you do if Illya was promoted out of the field? Would you stay or follow him out?" Napoleon wasn't surprised by the question. It was one he wrestled with daily. He was a year older than Illya. The reality that he might be fingered at any time for a Section One position hung over his head like the Sword of Damocles. He realized that Taylor was still talking. "You'd take yourself out rather than go back out without him at your side. It's the same with us. I'm qualified for Section Two and I don't want to be in the field without Sky at my side."
"I can understand what you mean, but, Taylor, being Section Two isn't all it's cracked up to be. How many times have you been in Medical during the course of your career? "
"This is my first time, why?"
"Get used to it. I'm in here more than my own apartment. It gets old, Taylor. The travel, the injuries, it isn't all fun and games. Mostly, it's a lot of boredom and bleeding."
"Well, I guess I'll find out for myself. When do they announce the new picks?"
"Waverly has the list. You will need to check with him."
"Don't you know?"
"I'm not part of the selection process—you know that. Anyhow, I've already pulled an assignment," Napoleon said with a slight nod. "Waverly is sending us out to your location to see if we can figure out what happened."
"Can't you just leave it alone?" Taylor winced as he tried to move. "Isn't it enough that I'm a mess and apparently so is Sky?"
"Waverly wants answers and so do I."
"Okay, but just be careful, Napoleon. You might get more than you bargain for."
"I was born careful, Taylor, and I always have Illya to watch my back." Napoleon patted Taylor's uninjured shoulder gently. "You feel better."
"Thanks. I'm getting out in a few more days." He touched his bandaged shoulder. "I should be in PT by next week. If all goes well, I'll be ready to start the Section Two training right on schedule."
"You keep that thought in mind, Taylor, and heal."
They rumbled down the pothole-gutted road in silence. Napoleon looked over at his partner as Illya tried to avoid the worst of the holes. The Russian had been strangely quiet since leaving Placerville. At first, Napoleon thought it might be that the man was concentrating upon the winding road up into the Sierras, but now he wasn't sure.
"Tell me about this place where we're headed." It seemed a safe request to start with.
"As Taylor mentioned, his stepfather owned the land and used it as a summer base for sheep. They built a house for the family, a barn for the horses, and a bunkhouse for the ranch hands. In the fall, they would drive cattle over the Sierras to a place called Silver Springs. They would stop here to give the animals and the people a rest." Illya jerked the wheel hard to the left, but that didn't help the resulting crunch of the bumper scraping a tree trunk. "Who put in this road? Roosevelt?"
"Um, probably." Napoleon grabbed the car door to keep from being jerked over onto Illya. "What else?"
"In '62, the stepfather decided to unload it and UNCLE picked it up at Taylor's urging. UNCLE sublets to the Forest Service in the winter, but during the summer months, it's here for the use of any UNCLE employee who wants to get away from it all. And I do mean get away from it all."
"How do you mean?"
"No electricity, no phones, even communicators don't work. You have to travel about a half mile out of the camp and up onto a hillcrest to make a rendezvous with a satellite."
"Doesn't sound like much."
"It isn't. The house burned down in '59. The barn burned down the year after. That was when the stepfather decided it was time to off load it before the last outbuilding went the way of the others. All that remains is the bunkhouse, which UNCLE has turned into a cabin." Illya slowed down as they passed a horse corral. "There is a horse camp -"
"Horses have camps? I'm not even going to try and imagine what singing around the campfire is like."
"Blockhead." It was said with affection. "People bring their horses up here to ride. There are several trails in the area and there's a lake just over the ridge. I'm told the trout fishing is very good."
"Lake... Taylor mentioned that. He said he went fishing and when he came back, Sky was... well, as we saw him."
"Napoleon, what takes a Section Three and destroys him like that in a matter of a few hours?"
"THRUSH. You forget we have barriers in place to protect us, but Section Three agents, they aren't in the field like us. If THRUSH is indeed behind this, it would be child's play. Imagine what they could do if they got their hands on one of the other Section heads or their family?"
Illya slowed at a fork in the road and took the left branch, rolling to a stop in front of a heavy duty gate, chained fast with a large lock. For a moment Napoleon stared at it, confused, and then snapped his fingers. In the papers they were given in Placerville, there had been a lock combination. This was what that was for.
He got out of the car and was immediately besieged by mosquitoes. Swatting and slapping at them, he hurriedly undid the lock and let the gate swing open. Illya drove through and Napoleon secured the gate and false locked the padlock before jumping back into the car. He was thankful that they'd closed up the car due to dust a couple of miles back.
"Well, the mosquitoes are alive and well," he said, still slapping at a couple of persistent insects.
"Swell." Illya put the car back into gear and started down the two narrow trails, obviously what remained of a road. "Just a half mile now. It's just through these woods and then..."
"Are we even still in the US?" Napoleon joked, looking out the window. He whistled softly. "Taylor wasn't joking about the meadow. That was to be at least a hundred acres."
"Big enough to put a landing strip in at the far end, according to what I read. The stepfather liked to fly in and out to check on things."
"Good to know we can bring a plane in if necessary."
"You'd be a better pilot than me if you can make that drop in. I wouldn't risk anything but a helicopter." The path was no better than the road and jerked the car from left to right. "If this car has any suspension by the time we reach our destination, I will be truly surprised."
"Then be surprised. I just caught a glimpse of something around the bend." The car dipped into a small depression and then back up.
There was one more turn and the duo paths opened up to a wide gravel road. To the left was a small cabin built off the ground. A steep set of stairs led to the front door and to a large porch which overlooked the large meadow. It was skirted by distant dark trees, made blue by the setting of the sun.
Illya got the car pulled around and parked it. Napoleon climbed out and Illya followed.
"Do you hear that?" Illya asked, still partially in the car.
Napoleon frowned and concentrated. The air was still calm and hot, so hot that not even birds sang. "I don't hear anything, Illya."
"Exactly. The last time I heard a place naturally this quiet was in the Ural Mountains following a nuclear blast."
"Should I even ask?"
"It would be unwise." Illya climbed out and stretched as Napoleon rounded the car, taking care to stay well away from the dusty fenders. "We still have a bit of daylight left."
"Just enough time to get settled in. Would you open the trunk, please?"
"I don't know why you made me stop at that store in Placerville. Waverly said that everything we need would be laid in and all we needed to pack were clothes and reading material." Illya unlocked the trunk and Napoleon leaned in to retrieve the first of several paper bags.
"Let's just say that UNCLE's idea of provisions and mine are very different." Something in the bag clinked and Illya grinned.
"The fog is lifting now." He took two paper sacks of his own and followed Napoleon up the steep flight of stairs, pausing halfway up. "This is quite a view."
Napoleon set his armful down and retrieved a key from his pocket. A slight rocking pulled his attention downward and he noted there was a trap door cut into the surface of the porch.
He paused and glanced out. Shadows were just beginning to creep into the meadow and all around him he could hear the forest, sounds hidden a few moments earlier. There was a steady tap ,tap, tap as a woodpecker hunted for grubs, two squirrels engaged in a territorial debate and the wind as it skimmed through the tree tops. "This is positively bucolic." He unlocked the door and carried his bags inside, placing them on a wooden table. It seated four from the looks of it.
"And yet we have an agent that this made insane. I don't understand." Illya spread his arms wide. "How could this drive you mad?"
"Maybe his partner refused to help him unpack the car or stole all the covers at night," Napoleon quipped, picking up Illya's sacks to bring them in. Illya turned and grinned.
"Sorry." Illya hastened to go back to the car and grabbed their suitcases. He shut the trunk and hauled the luggage up, grunting. "Good grief, Napoleon, what did you pack? Rocks?"
"Just because we are in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't mean a man cannot be well groomed."
"Well groomed, yes, but an entire closet of clothes? What are you over compensating for, Napoleon?"
Napoleon turned and saw Illya's grin. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
Napoleon woke and stared into the dark, motionless except for the rising and falling of his chest.
At first, he had been surprised at how dark it was out in the middle of nowhere. There were no lights, except for what the moon chose to share with them. The first night, he'd stared out at the meadow, transfixed by the blue wash of the moon across it. That was a week ago and it was no less mesmerizing now.
Illya was a comfortable weight against his back and Napoleon enjoyed the tactile sensations of being this close to his partner while still on assignment. When they'd become a couple, they'd agreed that it was 'hands off' during missions. It could draw focus away from their assignment or make them clumsy or unwary. No, they didn't even do so much as kiss when on a mission.
Being up here, alone, it was almost impossible for Napoleon to keep his hands off Illya. Temptation had led to more than one cold shower or long walk. He was made of stern stuff, but he wasn't sure how much longer he could take it.
The first night they'd looked at the double bed and Illya murmured," One bed, I'm guessing they don't get many Section Twos up here."
"I supposed if it's an issue, there is always the couch or you could move the chairs together." At the far end of the cabin were a well used couch and two equally worn armchairs. There was a large bookcase that held an odd assortment of books and board games.
"I thought you called this the bunkhouse. Where are all the bunks?"
"To the same place as all the cowboys, I'd reckon." Napoleon's voice adopted a Southwestern drawl. "So what do you say, Tex? Left or right?"
"Does it matter? With that dip in the middle, I suspect we will both end up in it."
And that had been the case. At first Napoleon made an effort to stay on his side of the bed, but decided two days later that it didn't matter and he didn't exactly hate waking up with his partner so near at hand.
Now Napoleon listened, trying to determine what had woken him. He could hear Illya's deep breathing, indicating that the Russian was still asleep. Other than that and the sound of the wind in the pines, there was just silence. He'd been sound asleep and he'd been an agent too long to not suspect something.
With a grimace, Napoleon crawled out of the bed and walked from the tiny bedroom to the main room of the cabin.
Off to the right was a small, but surprisingly complete bathroom. True, the shower stall wasn't big enough to change your mind in, but it was clean and the water was hot for about fifteen minutes, thanks to the propane water heater. The toilet and sink both worked adequately. He'd been in hotel bathrooms that weren't as complete or tidy.
Napoleon used the toilet, washed his hands, and walked back out into the main area of the bunkhouse and looked out at the still dark meadow. Then something caught his eye. Something very large was jerking through the tall brush. Every once in a while, it stopped and seemed to look back at the cabin.
"Illya, wake up." A moment later, Napoleon felt a presence by his side. "What do you make of that?"
Yawning, Illya scratched his stomach and glanced out the window and then his body language changed. "What in the name of hell is that?"
"It's too big to be a bear. Are there elk here?"
"Not to my knowledge and elk don't move on two legs. Why does it keep pausing to look toward us?"
"It's almost as if it wants us to see it. Binoculars?" A moment later, a pair was pressed into Napoleon's hands and he tried to focus on whatever it was, but it was still too dark. "What time do you have?"
"Just turned five."
Napoleon made a notation on a piece of paper he was keeping by the door. Then he walked into the bedroom to retrieve his robe. Illya had started coffee and claimed the bathroom. Slipping on the old blue robe, Napoleon unlocked the front door and stepped out onto the porch.
Leaning on the wide rail, he studied the tree line, but the meadow was again empty. He could hear noises in the cabin as Illya moved around, but he kept his focus forward. The moon was just starting to vanish as were the last few stars. Another few seconds and they would be gone from view.
A bird chirped in a tree and a moment later a second bird answered. Then a few more chirps and abruptly the forest woke. Napoleon felt a nudge at his elbow and reached back to take one of the two coffee cups Illya held. It was their early morning ritual.
"Conjecture?" Napoleon sipped the hot beverage as Illya came to stand beside him.
"I have none to offer," Illya said quietly. "I do not know what we saw, but I will make inquires when I next visit the little store." Illya had been slow to integrate himself into the mass of campers who moved through the region. He'd gone from a stranger to being on first-name basis with the store's owner and his wife.
The two agents stood there, side by side, watching as the sun began to make the distant mountain blush with its early morning affection, Illya in his jeans and a tee shirt, Napoleon in his pajama bottoms and his trusty blue robe. "How well do you know Agents Williams and Carter?" Illya asked suddenly.
"Sky, not all that well. Taylor I knew just a bit better, if only because he was always applying for Section Two. Sky signed on as Section Three, but Taylor didn't make the cut and being made a Section Three about did him in. He's been after a Section Two position for as long as I can remember. He was just behind me in Survival School and it made him crazy that he never measured up in Cutter's eyes."
"The elite of the elite, I can understand the attraction."
"But there's much more to the job than the glamour of being a Section Two, as he found out. You also have to be the best at damn much everything to even be considered. For some reason, to be Section Three was second class to him."
"They are our backbone," Illya protested, draining his cup. "We couldn't do our job without them. Besides, they have perks we will never know, such as the ability to marry or stay in the field after forty"
"Taylor never quite saw it that way." Napoleon walked back into the cabin and returned with the coffee pot. "I remember the day he was partnered with Sky. He announced his days at UNCLE were at an end."
"Yet, he stayed." Illya held his cup out. "Thank you."
"Love makes a man do strange things." There was a long pause as Napoleon returned the coffee pot to the stove. He came up behind Illya and rested his chin on Illya's shoulder. "I'm sure you are aware of the rumors that follow those two."
"Intimately." Illya turned his head slightly to the rising sun, a smile on his lips.
"You look like the cat that ate the canary," Napoleon murmured.
"I can't say that I've hated our stay here. Were the circumstances slightly altered, it would be most pleasant indeed. And you need to move, please."
"You know that whole agreement we have about not messing around during a mission, that's more of a suggestion rather than a hard and fast law."
"We both agreed it was for the best." Illya shook free of Napoleon's embrace. "It's the only way we can ensure total concentration."
"Illya, we are the only people within miles of this cabin."
"The horse camp is full..."
"We are the only people within a mile of this cabin and we've been on duty nonstop since we arrived," Napoleon amended. "If we were to go off duty for just a short time, I think the world could get along without us."
There was a pause and then Illya murmured, "Well, it would be a nice change from private time in the shower."
"Nice to have you come around to my way of thinking."
A half hour later, they lay, entwined in each other's embrace, sweaty, sticky, but extremely satisfied for the first time in what seemed a year to Napoleon.
"See? And the world is still here." Napoleon kissed Illya's temple and rubbed his whiskered cheek against the sex-mussed blond hair.
"After that last climax, I'm not as certain."
Napoleon chuckled and kissed his way down his partner face. Both were so busy relishing their post- coital bliss, neither man saw the shape pull away from the window and melt into the shadows.
Illya waved as the truck pulled away. The ride had saved him a long hike into camp and while he appreciated it, he'd planned to use the time to try and get his head around their mission. Three weeks now they had been at the cabin and there was still nothing to report. Aside from that one early morning sighting, there had been no additional odd activity.
Illya paused at the road leading in to the cabin and frowned. No odd activity, except for that feeling of constantly being watched. He hadn't said anything to Napoleon about it, figuring that all this quiet time was leading to boredom and it was just manifesting itself.
However, Illya wasn't bored, not really. Granted, there wasn't much more to do than read, take hikes, eat, and sleep, but he was discovering he didn't really hate this. Especially now that they'd taken the moratorium off of on-duty sex, Illya could quite honestly say boredom was the last problem he suffered from.
Illya reached the gate and spun suddenly. The sensation of having someone right behind him was almost overpowering. He took a deep breath and wondered if this was how it started with Sky, with this paranoid feeling of always being watched.
Instead of the cabin, he headed instead for Communication Point as they'd nicknamed the nearby hilltop. Climbing up the smooth granite stones, the feeling of being watched vanished and Illya paused to look over the deep valleys of trees to the mountains beyond. He used the moment just to catch his breath and calm his inner alarms.
"Open Channel D, please." The phrase sounded almost foreign among the ever-squabbling squirrels and steady tap, tap, tap of a distant woodpecker.
"Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly's voice was both comfortingly familiar and yet harsh sounding. "Do you have something to report?"
"Rather, sir, it's what I don't have to report. I've now paid several visits to Bud's store and spoke with the owner and several of the employees at length. No one remembers seeing Mr. Williams and they could not identify him from a photograph. Mr. Carter, however, they could and said that he came in several times. Further, no one I spoke to had ever heard of any sort of mythical creature bent on attacking people. One man went so far as to say if there was a monster, it would die of boredom first. There are coyotes and the occasional black bear here, but no monsters. This is contrary to what Mr. Carter told Napoleon."
"I am afraid I only have additional bad news to offer."
"We just received word that Mr. Williams is no longer with us. He was transferred to a private sanitarium and while there, even under supervision, he was able to take his own life."
"He worked a strap loose from his straightjacket and hung himself." There was a long pause and Illya shook the communicator, thinking he'd lost the signal. "Sadly, he was only just beginning to come out of it. With the use of hypnosis, he was almost able to reconstruct the last morning. He kept saying that his love was dead. In fact, he insisted that Mr. Carter was killed. According to him, a monster had killed Mr. Carter and taken his place. "
"What did Carter say about this?" Illya asked, waving a fly from his face.
"He is currently on leave. The doctors feel that he might make enough of a recovery to continue with his position in Section Three."
Illya sighed and watched an ant scurry across the rock. "How much longer do you want us to stay here?" There was nothing but silence and Illya groaned. "So much for that pipe dream," he said to a nearby chipmunk. The animal waved its tail at him and hurried away. "Open Channel F. Napoleon, are you there?"
"I am just about to leave the parking lot."
"I just got off with New York. We've lost Sky. Suicide."
"I'm not surprised, but I am confused. Was he being watched?"
"As am I, my friend. Apparently, there must have been a lapse and Sky, ever resourceful, took advantage of it. Waverly said he was starting to come out of it."
"Did you find out anything at the store?"
"Yes, they charge too much for milk, but you still need to stop and pick some up."
"You were just there!"
"And facing a seven mile walk back in. I wasn't about to carry it that far. Did you catch anything?"
"There will be fresh trout for dinner," Napoleon promised. "I will see you in about an hour. Solo out."
Illya headed back to the gate, relieved that the earlier uneasy feeling had vanished. He skirted around the locked gate and started the half mile walk in. He just gotten free of the trees and stepped out into the open when a bit of color caught his eye. Frowning, he bent down and brushed a leaf aside. A tiny bright red strawberry met him. He'd walked past this spot a dozen times, but now he saw it, quite literally, in a different light. There were hundreds of little red berries littering the ground. Illya laughed and picked one. He popped in his mouth and marveled at the intensity of its flavor. He picked another and then a third.
Illya wasn't even aware of the time passing as he bent to his task, but then something ticked his radar and he looked up. He was surprised to see that the sun has started to lengthen the shadows along the road. He glanced at his watch and then looked back at the gate. Napoleon was running late.
Illya tied the ends of his handkerchief, now bulging with collected fruit and stained red with berry juice, and, wincing, straightened up. Walking quickly, he headed down one of the tire tracks only to slam to a stop.
In the distance, he could see someone was on the cabin's porch, peering in the front door. It might be just a casual hiker, interested in what the cabin looked like or it could be someone intent upon thievery. In either case, Illya wasn't about to let to intruder slip away unchallenged.
Illya frowned and doubled his pace. The cabin dipped from view and when it became visible again, just the matter of a few seconds, the porch was empty. There was only one way down from the porch and that was the steep staircase. To jump over the side would be a drop of eight feet to bare rock and slippery gravel. That would be foolhardy, indeed.
There was a rumble behind him and a cloud of dust announced there was a car approaching. Illya stepped off the path, relieved to see it was their rental car.
When Napoleon saw him, Illya waved and the car slowed.
"I don't normally pick up hitchhikers -" Napoleon started to say.
"Shut up," Illya snapped and he climbed in. "And step on it. Someone is trying to break into the cabin."
Napoleon blinked in surprise at Illya's terse command, but he complied by stomping down on the gas. They arrived at the cabin in just a matter of a few seconds and Illya dashed from the car the moment it rolled to a stop, pistol at the ready.
He raced around the cabin, but the backdoor was secure and all their safety precautions were still in place. He headed back to the front of the house and there was a crack. He twisted and fell, hitting the ground hard.
Napoleon's head snapped in the direction of the noise and he went for his weapon. Quickly, he moved from the car to the cement-retaining wall that skirted the cabin, eyes never slowing in their anxious scan of his surroundings.
"Illya?" he shouted and then there was a sudden flash of something shiny. Instincts took over and Napoleon dropped behind the protection of several large boulders even as he was aiming his P.38.
From this position, he could see Illya sprawled out on the ground, his tee shirt splashed with red. As much as he wanted to rush to his wounded partner's side, he stayed put and waited.
A noise, something akin to a roar, broke the silence as a rifle fired. It splintered the wood of a nearby tree. Whoever was shooting was either a really bad shot or had one of his arms tied behind... Napoleon's eyes widened in abrupt realization of who the shooter was.
"It's over, Taylor. Put the rifle down and come out." There wasn't a response, not that Napoleon was expecting one. "You were very clever and I have to admit you almost had us fooled." He eased his way around the boulder. Illya's supine form beckoned, but Napoleon knew he'd draw fire if he went to his partner's aid. "It won't do you any good. You will never make Section Two now. You can't hit the broadside of a barn! Your little game backfired on you."
"Shut up!" It was screamed from behind a clump of trees and Napoleon readjusted his position.
"Why did you do it, Taylor? What had Sky ever done to you?"
"He was weak and he was lazy!" Taylor came out from behind the trees, rifle aimed awkwardly at Napoleon. The shoulder of his shirt was stained red. "It took me a while, longer than it did with Sky, but your partner went the same way, Napoleon. In the end, he was running scared. I watched and watched until the opportunity presented itself. In the end, he was as big a coward as Sky."
"Illya was never scared, Taylor. Not of you and not of anything you could have dreamed up. The man didn't know that kind of fear."
"Can't you see I did you a favor, Napoleon? He's dead and Sky is dead. Now we can be partners, just as it was supposed to be. This is the way it would have been if Waverly hadn't been suckered in by that little commie."
"That's never going to happen, Taylor. First off, you're insane if you think I'd ever trust my back to you and second..."
"Illya's not dead," Illya said as he lifted his weapon and planted a sleeper bullet into Taylor's stomach.
The agent crumbled, but Napoleon's attention wasn't on him, just on Illya, who was struggling into a sitting position.
"Hang on, Illya, don't move. You'll bleed more. I'm going to get help."
"I'm fine, Napoleon. I'm not shot." He looked down. "Despite evidence to the contrary." He smeared his hand across the red wetness on his shirt. "It's strawberry juice."
Napoleon knelt beside him as Illya picked up his crushed bundle. "What?"
"These were supposed to be dessert."
"Lost my footing and when I landed, it knocked the air out of me. By the time I could breathe again, Taylor was raging and I figured the best thing was to wait for an opportunity. How did you know it was him?"
"It took me a while to figure it out. I couldn't understand why THRUSH would bother us out here. Granted we might be a high profile enough pair to make it worth their while, but otherwise, why waste manpower staking out a spot like this?"
"Also, we've been all over these woods and there was no sign of any impromptu campsites. If someone was keeping a long-term eye on the cabin, there would have been signs of a stakeout. Then there was the thing you said this afternoon about Sky never having visited the store, but Taylor did... and just this afternoon."
"You didn't think to share that with me earlier?" Illya got to his feet and twisted his arm around to examine a scrape.
"I was going to, but you were pretty agitated and never gave me a chance."
"Taylor must have been trying to break into the cabin. He should have known we'd changed all the locks out for something a bit more secure."
"I suspect he was going to create some havoc, but your arrival threw him." Napoleon walked to the unconscious agent and flipped him over. "I suspect that when we start pushing a bit, we'll discover that he was behind Sky's death. Waverly said it. Sky was starting to remember and Taylor couldn't have that."
"All of this just for a position in Section Two? But I thought they were lovers."
"The ambitions of a man can blind him to everything else, even love. Maybe in his own twisted way, he felt his relationship with Sky was another strike against him. So he got rid of Sky as he would any excess baggage." Napoleon examined the man. "He's out for a few hours. It'll be long enough to get him down into custody in Placerville."
"Then he was a fool as well as ambitious. Anyone in Section Two knows you're only as good as your partner." Illya glanced up at the sky, then he began to unbuckle his belt. Napoleon watched him and grinned,
"Are you sure that's wise, Illya. Right in front of God and everyone?"
"What are you rambling on about?" Illya slipped the belt free from the loops and bent to wrap the belt around Taylor's wrists and ankles. He then pulled it snug, effectively hogtying the man. "It's just a precaution while you phone home and I get cleaned up. As agitated as he is, I don't want him waking up early."
"It can't be comfortable in light of his recent injuries." A dark stain made on the shirt fabric slick and shiny and a matching stain began to form on Taylor's pants leg.
"I don't much care. It'll give him something to think about when he wakes up."
"Roger that." Napoleon checked his watch. "I'll be back in ten minutes."
"No hurry." Illya let the unconscious agent flop to one side. "He's not going anywhere."
Napoleon parked the car and slid from behind the wheel. He glanced over to the spot where they'd left Taylor, frowning at his absence. They'd left him securely tied.
He half ran up the stairs and walked into the cabin, shouting, "Illya?"
The agent came out of the bathroom, shirtless and with a towel around his neck. "Yes?"
"What do you mean, where's Taylor? We left him out back or have you forgotten?"
"He's gone," Napoleon said.
"That's impossible." Illya hurriedly tugged on a shirt and forced his bare feet into his shoes. He followed Napoleon out to the spot.
The grass was still flattened and splatters of bright red blood decorated the sandy ground. Ants scurried about it and flies buzzed.
"He wasn't bleeding that badly," Illya started and started to scan the nearby vicinity. Then he grabbed Napoleon's arm and Napoleon followed his point. He saw a pair of scuffed boots attached to a pair of akimbo legs, the belt still around one ankle.
Silently, both men drew their weapons and moved cautiously closer to the man. What was left of him wasn't pretty.
"What does that to a man?" Napoleon asked, looking around as he tried to see into the dense underbrush.
"A bear, maybe, but I heard nothing. The shower wasn't that loud. Why would a bear attack an unconscious man? Even one whose bleeding, it was still—"
Then there was a noise, a roar, almost a groan. It was far away; it was right beside them. The forest grew deadly quiet, even the wind hid in fear.
After a long moment, Napoleon cleared his throat. "How long will it take you to pack?"
"Ten minutes, more or less."
"I mean this in the most cavalier and bravado manner available to me, but let's get the hell out of here."
"Right behind you."
Napoleon trotted to the cabin and pulled a tarp off of the back porch. They tossed it over Taylor's body and carried the remains to the car.
Items had been hastily thrown into suitcases or, if deemed unnecessary, were left decorating the surfaces of the cabin.
The UNCLE agents climbed into the car and drove, not exchanging even the briefest of words. There would be time for that later, after they'd checked in with the authorities in Placerville and dealt with the formalities of their dead comrade. Until then, silence suited them.
As they drove away, neither man looked back. If they had, they might have seen something dark and large move from the shadow cast by a tall pine and shuffled back into the woods. But surely, monsters aren't real...