The crowds in the streets were not yet as vast as they would be in a few days' time, but they were enough. Napoleon braced himself as yet another Mexican matron buffeted him, her arms full of flowers, papier maché skeletons and sugar skulls.
"Leave it to the Mexicans to have a festival centred on death," Napoleon said to Illya.
"And what is your American Hallowe'en?"
"That's different," Napoleon protested.
"The Mexicans are more honest about it," Illya said. "That's all."
"They're certainly that," Napoleon said, looking across the market place at stall after stall of tin skeletons and chocolate coffins.
"I find it refreshing," Illya said.
"You would, you gloomy Russian."
"This fiesta is anything but gloomy."
And Napoleon had to admit that Illya was right. El Dia de los muertos in Oaxaca was not so much about mourning the dead as about celebrating their lives. Families created altars to the dead in their homes, decorated graves in cemeteries and shared family meals with the spirits of their loved ones. The cemeteries became bright oases of candlelight and singing.
Beside him, Illya opened the brochure he'd picked up at their hotel. "According to this, the dead return to visit their families and friends during the festival, a different group of ghosts each day. Children arrive October 31, adults on November 1."
"How about today?"
"Hmmm," Illya mused, squinting at the brochure. "Today is the day for victims of violent death and los accidentados."
"Who?" Napoleon asked, distracted as a small boy carrying a miniature skeletal mariachi band scooted past him.
"Los accidentados," Illya said, slowly sounding out each syllable for the benefit of his clearly mentally deficient partner.
"I heard you the first time. What's it mean?"
"Those killed in accidents. I thought you studied Spanish, Napoleon."
If Illya said anything else, it was lost to Napoleon as he felt a chill down his neck and a crawling of the flesh down his spine. He stumbled and then stopped completely, struck by the feeling that the world had shuddered around him. He looked behind him, and saw a flash of blonde hair and a flowered dress that teased at the edges of his memory, but the woman vanished into the crowd before he could get a proper look at her.
Illya got a few steps ahead of him before realizing that his partner was no longer beside him. He halted and turned to wait impatiently for Napoleon to catch up.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Thrush?" He looked around as if expecting their enemies to surround them at any moment.
"No," Napoleon said, shrugging. "Someone just walked over my grave."
"Now that is a truly gloomy expression, my friend," Illya said with a laugh.
"It's not gloomy," Napoleon asserted, straightening his cuffs as if he could shake the memory of the sensation that he couldn't explain by confirming he was properly attired. "Merely expressive."
Illya replied with a glare that made it clear that he didn't believe Napoleon for an instant and that he would have the truth from him when they had a moment alone. He replaced the brochure in his breast pocket and took a quick look up and down the street. "Since we have not found our Thrush friend in any of the obvious places, what should our next plan of attack be?"
As fascinating as El Dia de los muertos was, it was not what had brought two U.N.C.L.E. agents to Oaxaca. Their visit was the result of something far more sinister. A Thrush mole had infiltrated U.N.C.L.E.'s Mexico City office. Agustín Serna had worked for U.N.C.L.E. for three years, and the entire time he had been passing sensitive information back to Thrush. Serna had finally gotten too bold and his betrayal had been found out, but before Section Three could take him into custody he had disappeared, taking with him a list of every U.N.C.L.E. agent and contact in Central and South America. Waverly had charged Napoleon and Illya with finding Serna and recovering the list before it was delivered to Thrush Central.
"Split up and double our chances," Napoleon said with a shrug.
"We can't do any worse alone that we have together."
"And you say you're not gloomy."
"I will not deign to answer such a ridiculous claim," Illya said haughtily. "And just for that I will take the north part of the city."
"That's where most of the museums are."
"I take it back. You're not gloomy. You're devious."
"That's why I'm a spy, Napoleon." Illya began to move away up the street, then paused to turn back to Napoleon. "I'll meet you back at the hotel at 6 o'clock."
"Last one back buys dinner tonight."
"Be prepared to pay for a large mountain of tamales," Illya said with a grin, then disappeared into the crowd surging around him.
"Over-confident Russian," Napoleon murmured. Heading for the southern end of the city, he pushed his way through the crowds while mentally making a list of all the places that a fugitive spy might hide in Oaxaca.
With the fading light, Napoleon decided that if he couldn't find Serna, perhaps Serna would come to him. Waiting in one place to see who passed by could have no worse results than the day's fruitless search.
He headed for the zócalo, reasoning that Serna might feel safe enough to visit Oaxaca's main square, crowded as it was with a mixture of locals and tourists, all eagerly anticipating the fiesta.
He found a café that miraculously had a perfectly placed empty table. Sitting with his back to the wall, he could watch both the café's patrons and the street. When a waiter appeared, he ordered sangria on a whim. It wasn't his usual drink, but it somehow suited the location and his mood.
He took a sip of his drink, letting the flavour of wine and fruit fill his senses. As he swallowed, he felt it again: a shuddering in the world around him, as if he had passed through an invisible membrane.
He glanced around, expecting to see others reacting to the strangeness in the air. Instead of perplexed looks, the other patrons were all smiles and laughter.
He looked to the street and saw nothing unusual there either. And then it happened. Between one blink of the eye and the next a woman appeared in the seat beside him, coalescing out of the air as if she were part of a magician's stage trick.
She was petite, with short blonde hair cut in a style more than a few seasons out of fashion, and wearing a flowered print dress that belonged to the previous decade's couture. She smiled at him in a way that he remembered far too well.
"Kathy," he said, breathing her name out like a benediction.
"Napoleon, you look so well." She looked down at the glass in his hand. "And you ordered sangria. My favourite." As she reached down and took hold of the glass, Napoleon felt a chill pass through his hand. She brought her hand back up and it contained not the glass itself but its ghostly twin.
If he'd had any doubt about what she was before, it disappeared at that moment.
"It really is you, isn't it?"
"Of course, silly. I haven't changed that much, have I?"
She hadn't changed at all. She looked exactly the same as the day he'd proposed to her, had the same brilliant smile that she'd worn on their wedding day, had the same sparkle in her eye that she'd had the morning of the accident that took her life and changed his irrevocably.
"I could never forget you, Kathy. I just don't quite understand..." He trailed off, not knowing which of the many questions that flooded his mind to ask first.
"I don't understand it all myself," she said, taking a delicate sip of the sangria. "One minute I was, well, where I was. The next minute the others were telling me that I could visit you. If only for a few minutes."
"Los accidentados," Kathy said, with a Spanish accent that was better than it should have been. "Isn't that what your partner called us?"
"That's a fairy tale."
"It's real, Napoleon. It's all real."
Napoleon opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. The part of his mind that was still functioning reflected that Illya would have loved to see him rendered speechless, for once in his life.
"Poor Napoleon." Kathy reached over to lightly touch his hand. He tried not to recoil as, instead of warm flesh, he felt a cold phantom touch. "I know this must be hard on you."
He straightened his shoulders and willed the horror to fade. "It is always a joy to see you, Kathy."
"Always the gentleman," she said, laughing. "Oh, I did love you."
"And I loved you," Napoleon said, somehow not surprised that they were both using the past tense.
"We were good together, weren't we?" She looked into his eyes with the calm gentleness that she'd always possessed in life and that hadn't faded in death. "I wonder how long we would have lasted if that man hadn't lost control of his car."
"Don't worry, Napoleon. I'm not judging you. That's an indulgence we leave for the living. Although..." She leaned closer to him and gave him a conspiratorial wink. "If I were to do any judging, I'd have to say I approve of you and Illya."
"Kathy!" Napoleon had to struggle to keep his voice down.
"Oh, don't act so shocked. I was never as innocent as you thought."
"I never thought you were innocent," Napoleon lied.
"Yes, you did. You still do. But I'm not. And I'm very glad you've found someone as good for you as Illya. I like him."
"I'll let him know," Napoleon said, even as he was wondering how he was going to tell his practical Russian partner that his dead wife approved of him.
"You do that. And I need to deliver another message. To both of you." Her face had suddenly gone absolutely serious, and Napoleon again found the cold fingers playing down his spine.
"You must be careful. There is more than Thrush working against you."
"Who? Who is working against us?"
"I'm not exactly sure." She frowned and put down the ghostly glass in her hand. "I'm not sure whose message it is either. But you must believe it. There are forces at work in this place that you cannot understand."
And when such advice came from a ghost, how could you argue with it? "We'll be careful. Both of us."
"Good." She cocked her head as if listening to voices he couldn't hear. "I have to go," she said, standing.
"Will I see you again?" Napoleon asked.
Kathy shook her head sadly. "No. The Powers have broken too many rules as it is." She bent forward and kissed his forehead. This time the chill of the sensation felt as much of freedom as of the grave. "Take care, Napoleon. Live long."
Then she was gone as she'd arrived, melting into nothingness in one blink of an eye.
Napoleon looked around him, hoping for some hint of her presence, but she was truly gone. Around him, people talked and laughed and drank as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. And for them, perhaps nothing had.
He was struck by an overwhelming need to see his partner. He had to assure himself that Illya was safe, that he hadn't been struck down by the Powers Kathy had mentioned. Leaving enough money for his drink and a generous tip, he headed back to the hotel.
Illya Kuryakin sighed, sank back in the armchair and put his feet on the ottoman in front of him. The hotel room might be small, but he was currently grateful that it contained at least one comfortable chair, along with a small desk and the two twin beds.
But small as it was, the room was bigger than his student apartment in Moscow had been. And that apartment had not had room service. He smiled as he took a sip of the tea he had so indulgently ordered. He normally frowned upon Napoleon making loose with their U.N.C.L.E. expense account, but after the day he'd had, he deserved this minor luxury.
After parting from Napoleon, Illya had spent the afternoon trudging through what seemed like every street and back alley in the northern part of Oaxaca. His teasing to Napoleon aside, he'd hadn't visited any of the city's museums, though he had poked his head briefly into the Santo Domingo church, on the off chance that Serna had decided to confess his considerable sins. He hadn't found Serna, but he did hope that they might have half a day free in Oaxaca after their assignment was complete to explore the city's cultural offerings.
He most definitely did not think about the possibility that they would not find Serna. The stakes were too high; there were too many people who would pay with their lives if they could not stop Serna from revealing their identities to Thrush.
Balancing the teacup and saucer in one hand, he leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, willing the tense muscles in his neck to relax. Letting one hand toy with the handle of the teacup, he hoped that Napoleon returned from his own search soon and with better news. If nothing else, Illya had schemes that included a massage from his partner. Even if they allowed themselves no other indulgences while on assignment, Napoleon's back rubs were a sensual pleasure to be savoured.
Illya sat up to take a sip of the tea, wishing as he did that it was just the slightest bit sweeter, when he felt every hair on the back of his neck stand up. In an instant, he'd set his tea cup down and drawn his gun. He took off the safety and thumbed back the hammer and tried to determine the cause of his alarm.
There was nothing: no footsteps outside the door, no suspicious types on the street outside the window. Nothing, except the increasing sense of dread building within him.
Then he felt a jolt across his entire body, and the very air seemed to vibrate around him. He briefly thought that it might be a bomb, but there was no sound, none at all. He glanced around the room and that was when he saw her. She stood across the room from him, looking at him as if he were an unpleasant new species of bacteria she'd discovered under a microscope.
Dr. Madelyn Egret was one of the worst opponents Thrush had offered Illya. She had killed countless people, had used Illya himself in a vile experiment with biological weapons. She was also extremely dead, and by Illya's own hand.
Egret bent down and grasped the teacup on the table beside her. Illya was not at all surprised when the cup remained on the table while its ghostly doppelganger was raised to the woman's bloodless lips. She took a delicate sip of the cup's contents and gave a moue of distaste.
"Tea. I was hoping for vodka, Mr. Kuryakin."
"For you, I wish I had poison."
"There's no need for poison. You made sure of that." Egret waved her hand and the tea cup vanished. Another wave and three stains of red spread across her chest. Illya willed himself to show no reaction to the visible sign of the bullets he had put into this woman's once-living body.
"My one regret is that I could kill you only once." He tried to keep his voice impassive but couldn't help a hint of hostility creeping into it. Illya kept his gun trained firmly on her. He might not be able to kill her again, but he wanted a clear reminder of the enmity between them.
"One of my many regrets is that I will not be the one who ends your life." She smiled, an expression entirely lacking in humour. "But I will be there to watch." She snapped her fingers and the blooms of blood on her blouse disappeared.
"You'll be waiting a long time. I have no intention of dying any time soon."
"But there are more than enough people who intend you harm, Mr. Kuryakin. Both among the living and the dead."
"I have been looking after myself for many years."
"We shall see." Egret looked at him with an appraising eye. "I was hoping you'd be more shocked by my appearance."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, but Russians are raised on tales of the supernatural. The Firebird, Baba Yaga, talking wolves. Nothing surprises us."
"Perhaps I should have appeared to your partner."
"Napoleon is even less susceptible to shock than I am."
"You have a point."
"Why are you here?" Illya was suddenly tired of exchanging barbs with a ghost.
"No real reason," Egret said as she languidly drew a finger across the back of the armchair she stood beside. "Except perhaps to gloat." She looked directly at Illya, cold green eyes boring directly into icy blue ones. Then, before Illya could think of a suitable riposte, she vanished, an unnatural chill making him shudder at her disappearance.
"Gloat about what?" Illya murmured under his breath. Abandoning his tea, now stone cold, he settled at the room's desk to await his partner.
Napoleon's trip back through the streets of Oaxaca was a surreal experience. The light of day had faded completely, and the pockets of candles flickering outside each house gave the streets an otherworldly look. The crowds jostled him at every corner; with his already hyper alert senses switched to overdrive by Kathy's visit, he looked at every person as a potential enemy. Or a potential ghost.
Taking the elevator up to the room he shared with Illya, Napoleon was suddenly struck by something that should have occurred to him before: how was he going to convince his rational, sceptical partner that he'd seen his wife's ghost? It didn't cross his mind not to reveal this extraordinary fact to Illya. Kathy's warning had resonated with something very primal inside him. If there were forces allying against them, whether supernatural or perfectly human, he wanted them both to know about it.
He took a breath as he put his key into the lock. There was no way to do this other than to come out and say it, and accept the inevitable teasing.
Illya was sitting at the small desk when he opened the door, reading what looked like the tourist brochure he'd consulted before.
"You'll never guess what just happened to me," Napoleon said, knowing he wouldn't have the nerve to tell Illya his news if he delayed at all.
"You saw a ghost," Illya replied. Napoleon assumed that this was merely phase one of Illya's teasing when he noticed two things: Illya's voice was completely flat and his face was completely serious.
"How did you know?" Napoleon asked, his voice a harsh whisper.
"Because I've seen one myself."
"Our late friend, Dr. Egret."
"Ah," Napoleon said, unable to think of a more articulate comeback.
"Indeed," Illya said, as if Egret's appearance needed no more explanation. "Who did you see?"
"Yes. Apparently being killed by a hit and run driver qualifies you as one of los accidentados." Napoleon frowned. "But Egret's death was hardly accidental."
"But it was violent," Illya replied. "Which, according to the brochure, lets her return today."
"Great." Napoleon grimaced. "So what did the doctor want?"
"To gloat, apparently. Or at least that's all she would admit to. What did Kathy want?"
"To warn me."
"To warn you about what?" asked Illya.
"Nothing specific. But she did say that there is more than Thrush working against us."
"Well, I'm sure that Dr. Egret isn't on our side," Illya said, dryly.
Napoleon closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, willing away the ache that was beginning to form in the back of his head. "Why is this happening?"
"El Dia de los muertos, Napoleon." Illya's strong hands began kneading out the knots in his shoulders.
"You can't tell me that every gringo tourist, or even every Mexican, goes around seeing ghosts at this time of year."
"Perhaps we just have more ghosts than most people," Illya said as he dug his fingers into an especially tight area in Napoleon's neck.
"Well, you're not wrong there. But there must be something else. What's bringing them to us?"
Illya pointed to the tourist brochure on the table. "According to that, the altars people build for their dead relatives include the deceased's favourite food and drink. The dead return to enjoy the pleasures of life."
"I ordered sangria at the café. It was Kathy's favourite drink."
"And Egret tried my tea. Though she complained it wasn't vodka."
"Well, that's it. Our ghosts are seeking out earthly pleasures."
"Not that knowing that does us any good, Napoleon. We can't stop eating and drinking until we find Serna."
"Why not?" Napoleon said, only half jokingly.
"You can be the one to explain to Mr. Waverly that we found Serna, but we let him escape due to our weakened condition."
"I suppose you're right." Napoleon folded his arms across his chest. "So, what do we do if another ghost appears?"
"Listen to what it says. And then take it all with an enormous grain of salt, as you Americans would say."
"You are too blasé about this whole thing, you crazy Russian."
"As I told Dr. Egret, when your bedtime stories revolve around a witch living in a house on chicken legs, you're predisposed to believe in the bizarre." Illya let an evil grin form on his face. "Speaking of bedtime..." He took hold of Napoleon in a giant bear hug.
"We're on assignment," Napoleon said, regretfully.
"What if I told you that I didn't care?"
"I would ask you how long you wanted to work for U.N.C.L.E."
"Spoilsport," Illya said, releasing him, though only after bestowing a brief kiss on Napoleon's mouth.
"It is perfectly acceptable for Russians to kiss their male friends on the mouth," Illya said, his eyes twinkling. "And if you will not allow us to satisfy our baser instincts, would you at least be willing to give me a back massage after dinner?"
"Only if you reciprocate."
"Just try to stop me, Napoleon." Illya's smile was nearly as predatory as his own. Napoleon spared a moment for brief regret that they had decided not to indulge in the physical side of their relationship during assignments. Then again, it made the end of assignments all the sweeter.
As they left the room to seek out food, Napoleon hoped that the end of this assignment came swiftly and successfully.
And preferably with no more ghosts.
The room was in the worst part of Oaxaca, in a building infested equally with rats and cockroaches. The room itself was tiny, barely big enough for the single bed and night table it held. There was one tiny closet, empty save for a snarl of bent hangers, and a bathroom down the hall shared with the ten other inhabitants of the floor.
It was a long way from a luxury apartment in Mexico City. Not that the man in the room was in any shape to notice his surroundings.
Agustín Serna was running, and running scared. And, as always, his reaction to fear was to drink. He had already finished one bottle of tequila today, and now, just after sunset, he was about to open his second. A third bottle was waiting in a paper sack on the floor, just in case.
He took a swig from the bottle; he had long since given up on the niceties of using a glass, and wondered for the hundredth time that day where everything had gone wrong. A week ago, he had been on top of the world. He'd had the respect of his U.N.C.L.E. colleagues, even as he was selling their secrets to his Thrush masters. He'd had a fabulous apartment in the very best part of Mexico City. And he was going places, both in U.N.C.L.E. and in Thrush.
Now, he was stuck in a dingy room in the armpit of Mexico with nothing but the clothes he wore and the final secret he'd managed to steal from his erstwhile employers. That secret, a list of U.N.C.L.E.'s agents in South America, was his one bargaining chip, the one thing he had that might save him, but he wasn't even sure how to play it. Bring it to Thrush and ask forgiveness? Or make a deal with U.N.C.L.E.? Neither option seemed particularly feasible. U.N.C.L.E. would no doubt have Enforcement Agents after him by now, and Thrush, annoyed at his failure, would have an assassin assigned to his case. There was nothing left to him now but alcohol and oblivion.
He looked at the nearly full bottle clenched in his fist and wondered if he should try to ration it out tonight, or drink it as fast as possible.
The bottle was raised to his lips and he was preparing to discover if it was possible to drain a bottle of tequila in one shot, when something in the room changed. The air seemed to solidify around him and then to shudder, while the hair on his arms and neck stood up. He closed his eyes tightly and shook his head, wondering if he'd finally consumed too much cheap liquor.
"Now, you are a man after my own heart." Serna started violently and opened his eyes. Standing at the foot of the bed, where seconds ago there had been no one, stood a woman. And worse, a gringa.
"How did you get in here, chingada?"
"I let myself in." She moved closer to him. "Tequila. So much more fun than tea."
"Well, let yourself out again." He waved his bottle in her direction in what he hoped was a menacing manner.
"I have a proposition for you."
"What can a gringa possibly have to offer me?"
The woman didn't say anything; she merely closed the distance between them and took hold of his bottle. A wave of cold passed through him at her touch. Then the cold was gone, and she was taking a long drink of tequila from the bottle. Which was absurd, because he still had the bottle clutched firmly in his own hand.
"What are you?" he asked. He could hear the hammering of his heart and the blood rushing in his ears.
"I'm one of los muertos, Senõr Serna."
"Impossible," he spat out.
"And yet here I am." The woman smiled, the expression of a predator on the hunt. "Would you like to hear my proposition?"
"Does it involve selling my soul?"
"As near as I can tell, Senõr Serna, you have no soul left to sell. No, this is a different kind of proposition. I am going to help you defeat the U.N.C.L.E. agents that have been sent to capture you."
"Interesting." Serna fought the alcoholic haze that surrounded him and started to take this odd visitation seriously. "And what do you get in return?"
The woman smiled wider, an expression that was pure malice. "Revenge Senõr Serna. I get revenge."
Three days Illya and Napoleon had searched the streets of Oaxaca for signs of Agustín Serna. Three days spent in every back alley and disreputable cantina; three days spent using every source U.N.C.L.E. had, and cultivating more; three days spent half-expecting another ghost to turn up. And at the end of those three days, they had precisely nothing; nada, in the local lingo. No Serna, no leads and, thanks for small mercies, no ghosts.
Illya headed back toward the zócalo. He had arranged to meet Napoleon there at four to share any new information he had found, not that he had any, and to share a very late lunch or a very early dinner. At least he could look forward to the food. He was starving after all his wasted effort.
As he neared the zócalo, the number of street merchants increased and Illya found himself increasingly surrounded by tin skeletons, chocolate skulls and death toys of every sort. He stopped at one stall that offered tiny skeletons performing every sort of job and recreation. There were skeleton musicians and dancers, skeleton carpenters and politicians. There was one that caught his eye in particular: a skeleton bicyclist. He thought it would be perfect for April's nephew, just turned six and obsessed with his very first bike. He bargained with the merchant, arrived at a price that satisfied them both, and left the stall with his purchase wrapped in brightly coloured tissue paper.
In the zócalo, he made sure that Napoleon had not arrived already, then found a bench on which to await his partner. He watched the people, keeping an eye out for Serna more out of habit than an expectation of finding him in such a public place. His eye was caught by a group of young boys, playing soccer amongst the crowds with a ragged, threadbare ball. The boys whooped and yelled, a mass of dark hair and white smiles churning through the crowd. Illya watched them with interest, appreciating their energy, and amazed that several of the boys were playing barefoot. One of the boys had just made an impressive pass and was being cheered by his team mates, when it happened again.
An electric jolt ran through his body and the very air seemed to solidify and shudder. As unusual as the sensation still was, he did not allow himself to freeze, but immediately started searching the crowd around him, looking for Egret. The good Thrush doctor was nowhere to be found, however hard he looked. Then he turned to where the boys were still playing soccer, and saw a small, blond head bobbing amongst the dark.
He stood, a cold spike burying itself in his spine. "Anton," he said, quietly. Then, louder, "Tosha!"
The blond head stopped moving, and a young face turned toward Illya, a face Illya hadn't seen for more than twenty years and had never thought to see again.
"Illyusha!" the boy yelled, and then ran towards him, hugging his legs in a cold, otherworldly grip. Letting go, he ran toward a quieter side street, yelling "follow me" as he ran. And what could Illya do but follow? "She told me you would be here, Illyusha, but I didn't believe her." The boy spoke quickly and in Russian, the words flowing in an excited rush. "And I was so excited when I saw those boys playing that I had to join in."
"Tosha," Illya said, kneeling down so he was at the boy's height. "I can't believe you're here."
"But I am here." The boy gave Illya another hug. "And it's so good to see you, even if you are grown up." He turned a more serious look towards Illya. "How is my mama?"
"She survived the war, Tosha. And she was well the last time I saw her, though I haven't been back to Kiev in years."
"Good," Tosha said, seeming satisfied. "It's hard to keep track of people where I am." Tosha looked down and his eyes lit up. "You brought me a present!" He reached for the package Illya still clutched in his hand. Illya felt the by now expected chill as Tosha took hold of a ghostly copy of the package, and tore open its tissue paper wrapping. He ran the skeletal cyclist in a circle on the street, laughing as its bony feet clung to the madly whirling pedals.
Illya let the boy play with his new toy for a minute before he asked the obvious question. "Why are you here, Tosha? Why now?"
"The people here call me an angelito." The Spanish word sounded odd mixed with the Russian. 'The angelitos can appear now. Until tomorrow afternoon, anyway." Tosha was completely absorbed with his toy, not even looking up.
"Tosha, look at me." Reluctantly, the boy stopped his playing and looked up at Illya with the large green eyes Illya remembered, the green eyes that had looked at him with such amazement when Tosha had been shot down by a German soldier barely older than either of them. Illya shook off that memory and concentrated on the present. "Why are you here?"
The boy held his gaze for a moment longer, then sighed. "I'm to deliver a message. From the lady."
"What lady, Tosha? Did she have a name?"
The boy shook his head. "Names are different there. They don't mean as much. You are who you are. It doesn't matter what you're called."
"What was she like? Was she nice?"
Tosha thought about that question for a minute. "She was okay. Pretty. And a bit bossy."
"What was her message?"
A frown of concentration creased Tosha's brow. "She said that Serna will be at the Observatorio tomorrow night, after sunset." He stumbled slightly over the unfamiliar Spanish word.
"Did she say anything else?"
"No. Nothing else." The boy got a far away look in his eyes and cocked his head. He faded almost entirely out of existence for a moment, then come back, looking nervous and excited. "I have to go now." He looked at the skeleton held in his hand. "Can I keep this?"
"Of course, Tosha."
"Thank you, Illya." He turned and began to run away, into the main street and the crowds. "I missed you," he yelled back, right before he faded away completely.
"I missed you, too, Tosha," Illya said, remembering that first lesson on life's fragility.
He stirred himself from such unproductive reverie and forced himself to return to the zócalo. It was important that he find Napoleon, and find him soon. Now they had a lead, even if that lead had been delivered by a child who'd been dead over twenty years and came from a source that was possibly as untrustworthy as it was mysterious. But it was something.
Napoleon found Illya waiting for him on a bench in the zócalo. The crowds thronged the square, dignified matrons side by side with excitable kids, but Illya was a still centre within the chaos. Too still, Napoleon noted as he drew closer to his partner. Illya only looked that quiet when he was mulling something over, and not in good way.
He approached the bench and dropped down beside Illya, who gave him a nod of acknowledgement before he resumed staring into space.
"Any sign of Serna?" Napoleon asked, breaking the silence between them.
"Not exactly," Illya said, hedging his answer. But Napoleon had been Illya's partner too long to let him get away with such obfuscation.
"What's the matter? Don't tell me you've seen another ghost."
"All right, then. I won't tell you."
"Ah." Napoleon closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I really wish someone else had drawn this assignment. It's giving me a headache."
"You were the one who suggested we take it, Napoleon, so stop complaining."
"I suppose you're right." Napoleon opened his eyes and focussed on his partner. "So who was this ghost?"
"His name is, or was, Anton Andreiovitch Borodin. We called him Tosha. He was a schoolmate of mine in Kiev."
"I hate to ask, but how did he die?"
"It was 1943. We were playing in the rubble of the city and stumbled into a firefight between the Russian army and the Germans. Tosha was shot in the back. I managed to escape."
"I'm, ah, sorry Illya." Napoleon knew that parts of Illya's past were minefields to be navigated with care, but sometimes there was no easy way through them.
"No need, Napoleon. It was a long time ago, and we really should have known better. We knew it wasn't safe, but we'd been cooped up for so long and there was a lull in the fighting..." Illya trailed off and Napoleon could see the memories unspooling behind his eyes. He needed to distract him before Illya became too immersed in the past. And there was no better distraction for either of them than work. "What was Tosha's message?" Napoleon asked.
"The message was not Tosha's. He said it came from 'the lady.' And her message was that Serna would be at the Observatorio after sunset."
"I didn't know there was an observatory in Oaxaca."
"There isn't. Not like you're thinking. The Observatorio is part of the Monte Alban ruins outside the city.
"Zapoteca, actually," Illya replied, looking a trifle smug for a moment before the too-serious expression returned to his face.
"No, merely smart," Illya said, smiling briefly. "But what are we to make of this message, Napoleon? Should we take it at face value?"
"You have no idea who Tosha's 'lady' is?"
"He didn't know her name. He only said she was pretty and bossy."
"Well, that could fit Egret. Or Kathy." He smiled. "She could be pretty bossy when she wanted her own way."
"So, we have a message that is either from your wife, or from one of our worst enemies, both of whom happen to be dead."
"Or it could be from neither of them. It could be from a ghost to be named later."
"You're not helping, Napoleon."
"I don't believe you are. Sorry, that is." And Illya was right. He wasn't sorry, because his weak jest had managed to coax a brief smile from Illya and that was all that mattered. Illya sighed. "So what do we do now?"
"We go looking for Serna at the Monte Alban ruins tomorrow night. And we assume that our ghostly informant may not have our best interests at heart."
"Nothing like playing with fire, is there?" Illya asked.
"I think it's in the job description."
"And I thought I was the cynic."
"You are. I'm the realist." Napoleon gave Illya a playful punch on the shoulder. "Come on. We need to eat and make plans, in roughly that order." He led the way out of the zócalo toward their hotel, weaving his way through the crowds.
The walls of the already tiny room seemed to close in further on Agustín Serna as the late afternoon light diminished and dusk faded into evening. He sat on the bed, back against the headboard, knees pulled up to his chest. His eyes were firmly fixed on the battered briefcase that sat on the night table beside him.
The briefcase was his one hope for salvation, his means of throwing U.N.C.L.E. off his trail and getting back in the good graces of his Thrush masters. At least it was, if the gringa Egret's plan worked. If she could be trusted.
Serna wasn't sure how far one could trust a ghost.
Still, there was one thing in which he could trust: Madelyn Egret's hatred of Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo. Serna had paled when Egret had informed him just who it was that U.N.C.L.E. had sent after him. Solo and Kuryakin were the best, the team that everyone knew, the team that always seemed to succeed, no matter what the odds. Alone, he knew there was no way he could escape them.
But now he wasn't entirely alone, and Egret had given him the means to escape: the knowledge of where to find and how to assemble the briefcase's contents and an assurance that Solo and Kuryakin would be at Monte Alban tomorrow night. The shabby piece of luggage held five sticks of dynamite and two detonation devices. One detonator would work if the case was opened; the other was a radio control device that Serna could set off when he liked. Neither detonator had been activated yet, and Serna wasn't entirely sure he was up to the job. Explosives had never been his forté. He could handle a gun, could manage a rifle, but had never been called upon to handle even the most basic bomb.
He hugged his knees closer to his chest, feeling the sweat run down his palms as he did so. His first time making a bomb and his tutor was a dead woman; it didn't inspire much confidence, even if said dead woman was a legend in Thrush circles.
But it wasn't as if he had any alternative.
Serna licked his lips, wishing that he could take solace in a bottle of tequila, but that had been one of the gringa's demands: no alcohol, at least not until the operation was over. Once it was done, once Solo and Kuryakin were dead and he had been taken back into the Thrush fold, then he could do anything he wanted, consume as much alcohol as he craved. He thoroughly intended to have a bottle of tequila open before the echo from the explosion had faded from the city streets.
But it was going to be a full day before Egret's plan played out to its end, a full day until he was safe and Egret had her revenge.
It was going to be a long twenty-four hours.
The seats of the café were nearly all deserted, but the street itself was beginning to see a trickle of families heading towards the city's cemeteries. All carried food for a picnic and decorations for their family tombs. By tonight the trickle would become a flood as the whole city emptied to pay its respects to dead family and friends. Napoleon watched as yet another family filed past, its youngest members skipping ahead with flowers and candles as if on their way to a fancy party.
"...and I think we should swing around and approach the Observatorio from the west side. Serna might be expecting it, but he can't cover all sides. Not by himself." Illya paused for a moment and gave Napoleon a sceptical look. "Are you listening to me at all?"
"Of course I am." Napoleon turned his attention to his partner, sitting across the table, a map of the ruins spread between them.
"Then what did I just say?"
"That we should leave the car just below the ruins, walk in, and approach from the west to get the jump on Serna." Napoleon gave Illya a smug smile. "All those monthly departmental meetings taught me how to concentrate on something else and still hear what was going on."
"I don't know if Waverly will like hearing that you've learned how little attention you need to pay in meetings."
"Tell you what." Napoleon stopped and took a slow, suggestive sip of his coffee. "I'll bribe you to keep it our little secret."
"Bribe me with what, Napoleon? I cannot be bought with money."
"I'll think of something," Napoleon said, licking his lips.
"Promises, promises." Illya folded up the map and took a sip of his own coffee. "Ah, this is better than in New York."
"We're closer to the source here." Napoleon noticed Illya looking at his watch. "How long till sunset?"
"Three hours, approximately," Illya said. "It's 3:30 now. We should leave by 5:00. Make sure we're in the ruins before the sun goes down completely."
"Still leaves us plenty of time to finish our coffee." Napoleon was relaxing by force of will, though he knew how Illya felt. Before an operation he always felt keyed up, adrenaline beginning to pump into his system.
"You've confirmed that the U.N.C.L.E. team will be at the airport to take Serna into custody if we catch him?"
"When we catch him, you Cossack pessimist, and yes I have. Everything has been taken care of."
"I hope so," Illya said with a frown.
"Trust me." Napoleon twirled the coffee cup on the table, enjoying the warmth of the sun and feeling like things were finally looking up.
Then everything changed.
The warmth turned to an inexplicable chill and he felt the hair on his arms stand on end. He raised his eyes, hoping that it was just a cloud passing across the sun, but the sky was as clear as it had been minutes before.
He glanced at Illya, who returned his gaze with a look of surprise and a hint of alarm.
"Not again," Napoleon whispered as the air shuddered around them.
Their visitor appeared in the time it took a heart to beat once, a young man sitting at their table, clothed in a shabby U.S. army uniform, his face too thin, stubble on his chin.
"Joe," Napoleon said, surprised that of all the dead he knew, this was the ghost that was visiting him now. He looked to Illya. "Can you see him?"
"Of course he can see me, Nap. I was sent to see you both. And besides, you both have coffee." He reached forward and took hold of a ghostly version of Napoleon's cup, taking a very long, satisfied drink. "Ah, did I miss that." He turned to Illya. "No coffee where I am."
"Illya Kuryakin. Joe Gillen. Joe was the sergeant in my company in Korea. Illya is my..."
"Partner. I know, Napoleon." Joe looked at Illya. "Hope you're looking after this galoot. He can't always look after himself."
"Hey, I'm sitting right here," Napoleon said.
"He was always a complainer."
"And I'm still sitting here, Gillen."
"He still complains," Illya affirmed.
"That's it. I'm not introducing you to any more of my friends, Kuryakin."
"Cranky, too," Gillen said.
"Ah, I hate to interrupt this mutual kvetching society, but don't you have a message to deliver, Joe?"
"Hey, how'd you know?"
"That seems to be the common pattern. Ghosts appear and deliver mysterious messages."
"Yeah, the Powers sent me down here to tell you that it's a trap."
"What's a trap?" Illya asked, once again the consummate spy, all joking abandoned.
"Joe, you've got to give us more than that."
"That's all they gave me, Napoleon. It. They said you'd know what 'it' meant."
Illya nodded, and Napoleon returned the gesture. "Yeah, we do. Or we think we do."
"Good. I'd hate to think that you ended up where I am too soon because of something I said. Being on the other side is boring enough without you joining us," Gillen said, winking as he spoke.
"You always were a flatterer."
"Can I ask you something?" Illya aimed his question at Gillen.
"Fire away, my Russian friend."
"Since I assume you were killed in Korea, why didn't you appear earlier? With los accidentados?"
"I died in Korea, but it wasn't a bullet that did me in. It was pneumonia." Gillen shook his head, ruefully. "Can you believe it? All that lead flying around and a cold killed me."
"I am sorry." Illya looked almost embarrassed.
"Don't be. I was well out of it. It was Napoleon who had to do a full duty." Joe stopped and took another long drink of the coffee in his ghostly mug. "Well, I'd love to stay and talk about the bad old days, but they're calling me back." He looked at Napoleon. "Keep your head down, kiddo." And just like that, he faded into nothingness.
Realizing he was holding his own mug of coffee in a death grip, Napoleon slowly unclenched his fingers. Illya looked across the table with an expression of apprehension
"Well, it looks like Tosha's lady was Egret," Napoleon said.
"Yes, but does that mean that Serna isn't going to be at Monte Alban?"
"Good point." Napoleon bit his lip while he thought. "My bet is that Serna will be there. It would be just like Egret to use him as a cat's paw. Draw us out and then squash us."
"That sounds like a course of action the not-so-good doctor would take. But where does that leave us?"
"Capturing Serna and recovering the list of agents is our primary concern. I think we should still go to Monte Alban, but we need to keep our eyes open. And we have to be prepared for Serna to double-cross us."
"I suppose that's the best we can do. But I still don't like it."
"Of course you don't. It's your job to poke holes in my plans." Napoleon stood. "And part of my new plan is that we leave for Monte Alban right now."
"On that I agree. I'd rather that we have the advantage in the ruins."
"Come on, then. I'll let you drive."
"I always drive."
"Because I always let you."
"I let you think that," Illya said, a mischievous gleam in his eye.
"Just like you let me think I'm the CEA?"
"Okay, you smug Russian. Let's go get a traitor."
Illya crouched at the foot of an ancient pyramid and watched as the last light of the sunset began to fade, turning the ruins that surrounded him from a brilliant, liquid gold to a muted silver. Beside him, Napoleon kept a restless eye on their surroundings, making sure that no one caught them unawares.
The Monte Alban ruins might have been a fascinating piece of Mexico's history, but the location made Illya nervous. As a spy, he'd spent his career keeping to the shadows, avoiding detection. The ruins provided far too much open area and far too little cover for his taste. Then again, Serna would have no more cover than they would.
They had arrived here in the late afternoon, parking the car as best they could on the road up to the ruins and walking the final mile. The last tourist bus of the day had arrived at the ruins with them, and they'd used the groups of sightseers as cover as they walked the grounds and familiarized themselves with the lay of the land, all the while keeping a wary eye out for Serna.
The sun began to set as the last of the tourists left, no doubt on their way to take in the final evening of El Dia de los muertos. Napoleon and Illya had come in for some unwanted attention from the site's caretakers, eager to see the backs of their last visitors so they could return to their families and their own celebrations, but a story about wanting to observe the night sky from the Observatorio, as well as the gift of a few pesos from Napoleon, had convinced them to leave the U.N.C.L.E. agents alone in the ancient city.
Now they sat on the side of the pyramid, as hidden as was possible, watching the expanse of open courtyard in front of them for signs of Serna's arrival.
They heard him before they saw him.
The sound of a car's engine and the crunch of its tires on the gravel road broke the silence around them. At the slamming of a car door, Illya stood and drew his gun from his holster. Napoleon echoed his movements.
They could hear Serna's footsteps as he made the long trek from the north end of the ruins to the Observatorio, though he was hidden by that building's bulk for all but the last twenty yards of his walk.
Illya and Napoleon kept to their meagre cover as Serna came to a stop at the south end of the Observatorio and awkwardly turned on his heel, obviously searching for their position. In the dim light of early evening, Serna was a ragged figure, wearing a wrinkled suit that looked like it had been slept in for several days, his chin covered in stubble. In his hand he held a battered briefcase. Illya shared a look with Napoleon that wordlessly laid out their strategy, then Napoleon stood and moved several feet towards their quarry.
"Serna," Napoleon said, as Illya watched the scene from his position at the pyramid's foot.
Serna jumped slightly, then turned to face Napoleon. Illya thumbed the safety off the Special that he already had in his hand. Serna was clearly not experienced at field work, but Illya wasn't about to make the mistake of assuming he wasn't dangerous. Not when Napoleon's life, and the lives of so many U.N.C.L.E. agents, hung in the balance.
"Napoleon Solo, I presume," Serna said, his English lightly accented, the voice of an educated man. "I'd heard they sent you after me."
"Let's just say you, ah, got our attention."
"I assume Mr. Kuryakin is with you?"
"He's around," Napoleon said.
"I would feel more comfortable if he were to join you." Serna drew a gun from his pocket. It was a small-calibre pistol, and even from his position Illya could see his hand shake, but Illya wasn't willing to take the chance that Serna wouldn't pull the trigger. He stood and moved to stand beside Napoleon, keeping his gun clearly visible in front of him.
"Mr. Kuryakin, I don't suppose I could convince you to put away your weapon."
"I don't suppose I could convince you to do the same," Illya responded.
"I see your point."
"What do you want, Serna?" Napoleon asked.
"What every man wants: health, happiness, security. Failing that, I want to disappear completely. I want U.N.C.L.E. to stop chasing me and I want to find a hiding place where Thrush will never find me."
"Why would we let you go, now that we have you?"
"I will return the list of U.N.C.L.E. agents, plus the other papers I borrowed."
"You mean stole," Illya said.
"I had heard you were blunt."
"You heard correctly."
"Gentlemen, this is getting us nowhere." As ever, Napoleon was the diplomat of the two of them. "Your offer is interesting, Serna. But not quite interesting enough. How do we know you haven't given Thrush copies of the papers?"
"I will give you my word."
Illya gave a harsh laugh. Napoleon studiously ignored Illya's outburst and said, "You'll forgive us if we don't quite trust you."
"I would expect nothing else. And I'm prepared to offer more."
"What else could you possibly offer us?" Illya asked, letting the scepticism sound clearly in his voice.
"I can give you information on Thrush's operations in Mexico. And Central and South America." Serna held his briefcase up and tapped its side. "This contains the U.N.C.L.E. papers I mentioned, plus briefs on all Thrush personnel and operations south of the Rio Grande."
"Now that is interesting," Napoleon said. "If it's true."
"I will give you time to confirm the authenticity of the papers. And then you will let me disappear, never to trouble U.N.C.L.E. again."
"We'll have to have the Mexico City office confirm the papers. And Waverly will have to authorize the deal."
"As I expected," Serna said, nodding. "In the meantime, you should take possession of the briefcase." He moved forward several feet and laid the case on the ground, then backed up to his original position. He kept his gun aimed unsteadily at Napoleon the entire time, just as Illya kept his gun unwaveringly aimed at Serna's heart.
Napoleon took the few steps needed to reach the case, picked it up and then moved back to his original position. He frowned as he hefted the case in his hand in a way that told Illya that the balance and weight of it was wrong if all it contained was papers. Illya turned his attention back to Serna. The traitor had taken a few more hesitant steps backwards and was watching Napoleon intently. As Illya observed him, Serna's one free hand went to his pocket and his eyes flicked quickly to the left. Illya looked in the same direction and saw nothing at first except the empty expanse of the ruins stretching out before them in the dimness of the starlight. Then, just as he was about to turn his attention back to Serna, he caught a glimpse of something. Something tenuous and shimmering, coalescing in the night. As he watched, that something formed itself into the barest outline of a woman's shape.
Illya didn't even wait to see the figure's identity. He knew in his gut who it was, just as he knew what terrible danger they were in. He quickly closed the distance between himself and Napoleon, grabbed the case and pushed his partner away from him. Swinging the case, he flung it as far as he could, aiming it between Serna and the ghost of Madelyn Egret that he knew was watching for their deaths, hoping as he did so that he could act before Serna hit the detonator button in his pocket.
Even before the case landed with a dull thud, Illya was running in the opposite direction, pulling Napoleon with him. They had run less than ten steps when the explosives blew, a wave of sound and wind and light at their backs that knocked them both to the ground.
The sound of the blast still echoed around them when Illya forced himself to his feet, shaking his head in an attempt to restore at least some of his muffled hearing. He did a quick check to make sure that neither he nor Napoleon had been injured and then turned to their enemies.
Serna had been knocked down by the explosion as well, but he was a bit slower to stand. He was straightening up as Illya watched, weaving unsteadily on his feet, a trickle of blood flowing down from his temple. Serna looked up in shock as his eyes met Illya's. Illya let the cold anger he felt at the attempt on his life and worse, on Napoleon's life, show in his face, and was satisfied when Serna paled and dropped to his knees.
Then Illya turned to his real enemy. Egret had fully formed, though even as Illya watched she began to flicker. She stared at him with a palpable hatred, her lips pulled back to expose her teeth in a feral snarl.
"You'll never defeat us," Illya growled at Egret as Napoleon came over to stand beside him. Illya drew his strength from the supporting hand Napoleon placed on his shoulder. "We've already won."
Egret opened her mouth in what must have been a howl, but there was no sound. Even as Illya watched, she became more tenuous, more insubstantial, until she blew away like the last shreds of a morning mist.
With Egret gone, Illya turned back to Serna. The man cowered on his knees, no sound issuing from his mouth but a plaintive whimper.
"Now, what are we going to do with you?"
The sun had long since risen, the late autumn rays of its light streaming through the gap in the not-quite-closed curtains, when Napoleon awoke the next morning. His chest was enfolded in the arm of a soundly sleeping Russian spy; the breath of said Russian blew softly against the back of his neck.
The mission was over in all but name. After Egret's disappearance, they had manhandled Serna down to their car and driven him to Oaxaca's airport, where U.N.C.L.E.'s retrieval team waited. On the drive, Napoleon could have sworn that he saw both Kathy and Joe at the side of the road, but when he turned his head for a closer look they had vanished. He didn't mention this last ghostly sighting to Illya, just as he didn't ask if Illya had seen Tosha. There had been too many ghosts for them both.
After delivering Serna, they recovered the list of U.N.C.L.E. agents from its hiding place in Serna's squalid bolthole. Shaken at his failed assassination attempt, Serna had revealed everything he knew, everything he'd done. They had burned the list then and there; it had already caused too much trouble, and a copy of it was safely locked up in U.N.C.L.E.'s New York vault.
Napoleon and Illya had been ordered by Waverly to remain in Oaxaca to mop up any loose ends, though neither of them believed that any existed. Serna had admitted that his only ally had been Egret, and they believed him. Not that they would be including the fact that Serna had been assisted by a dead woman in their official report. Some things Alexander Waverly would never believe, even from his best Enforcement team.
They'd returned to the hotel as false dawn was beginning to show on the horizon. Needing the physical closeness of skin against skin after yet another brush with death, they had tumbled into bed together, and quickly fallen asleep wrapped around each other. Napoleon hadn't reminded Illya that they were on duty, and Illya had wisely remained silent on the issue. This job had rubbed them both raw, had made them both confront their pasts in a way that made mere memories seem poor, fragile things.
Still asleep, Illya tightened his grip and rested his chin on Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon relaxed into the embrace, happy to enjoy the simple pleasure of Illya's touch. Soon enough, though, nature's call forced him to leave the comfort of the bed. He eased Illya's arm away from him without disturbing his partner and rose from the bed. On his way back from the bathroom, he could see that one of Illya's eyes was open, if only slightly.
"Come back to bed, Napoleon," Illya said, his voice hoarse with sleep.
"Shouldn't we..." Napoleon began.
"No we shouldn't. Bed. Now." Faced with an imperious Russian, Napoleon could only obey. He eased into the bed and was quickly surrounded by his sleepy partner. They both dozed for perhaps another half an hour, catching up on sleep lost in the search for Serna as the light of the sun crept across the room.
Finally, though, even Napoleon could sleep no more. He began to shift restlessly in Illya's arms, his sense of duty stirring him to make at least a token effort to find non-supernatural associates of Serna.
He tried to sit up, but Illya pulled back down to the bed.
"Where do you think you're going, Napoleon?"
"I thought that perhaps we should at least try to do our job."
Illya held him tightly, preventing him from moving further. "You are going precisely nowhere, Napoleon. We're not leaving this hotel room. At least not until after two o'clock."
"What happens at two?"
"The end of El Dia de los muertos. The dead return to where they came from. The living go on with their lives." Illya fixed him with a steely glare. "You don't want to see any more ghosts, do you, Napoleon?"
Napoleon shook his head. Vigorously. "Absolutely not. I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another ghost."
"Then we stay put for the rest of the day."
"What about room service?" Napoleon asked, feeling his stomach rumble slightly.
"Do you want to risk a ghost showing up to share your steak and eggs?"
"I see your point." Napoleon looked at Illya steadily. "So we can't go out?"
"We can't order room service?"
"We're stuck in this room for hours and hours?"
"And just what do you expect us to do for all that time?"
"I don't know, Napoleon." Illya tightened his arms around him. "I thought you could use your imagination."
Napoleon smiled. "I do have quite the imagination." He let one hand drift down Illya's side, revelling in the feeling of bare skin.
"That's what I'm counting on," Illya said before silencing them both with a kiss.
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