MY PARTNER THE GHOST
Dried, dead winter grass crunched under his steady footfalls; a different crunch than the hard packed snow patches that covered most of the hillside. With slow, methodical steps he navigated through the old grey monuments weathered by time and sea winds. Bitter conditions had crumbled the somber tombstones over the centuries.
'Some view,' was his abstract, caustic observation as he paused near the edge of the cemetery. A grey sea rolled and dipped in the short distance the limited visibility afforded. 'Why did UNCLE ever pick this godforsaken edge of desolation? These must be the economy plots.'
The freezing, stiff wind rushed off the drab North Atlantic and numbed his face. He resisted the impulse to put up his collar and turn away from the gale. To turn his back would be a useless gesture -- the cold would assault him with unmerciful persistence, just as tumultuous emotions battered relentlessly at his consciousness. The hands in the coat pockets were clenched into tight fists. He did not want to expose them to the raw weather, nor did he want to watch them tremble.
With a discontented sigh, he stepped back to the unkempt path in search of his grim target. The new gravemarker would not be hard to find. Two days old, it was the only addition to the cemetery in almost a century. He swallowed the lump constricting his throat. Two days ago he had been just across the channel on assignment, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding in Britain. Only this morning had he heard the devastating news. His numbed mind still could not digest and comprehend the reality he faced.
They had come so close to death so many times, but always there was a rescue -- a last minute escape. What had gone wrong this time? Though he logically knew their glorious partnership was merely mortal, he was not prepared for it to end. Not yet.
The graveyard was the grim and depressing journey's end. Colorless, lifeless -- some alternate dimension for the physically dead and emotionally dying. What a terrible place to say goodbye to a friend. Purposeful footsteps reflected the anger that still lingered. Why hadn't he been called in to assist? Why had they waited two days to tell him! The anger was magnified because he already knew the answers to the rhetorical questions. Death was sudden in this merciless occupation. And his responsibilities to a job could not be supplanted by sentimentality.
None of the first ragged emotions had faded. Thoughts were still so confused he could not yet sort through them. The anger and disbelief would fade soon. The grief and the guilt would linger for a lifetime. Nothing could ever erase the pain. He wished the cold, impersonal wash of anguish would numb the lacerating stilettos of hurt just as the cold wind numbed his face. Reason denied self-condemnation, but his conscience insisted his friend's death was his fault. If he had been there . . . that regret was the deepest cut of all. The emotion that would never diminish. 'Might-have-beens' were the hardest spectres to live with.
He stopped abruptly. There it was. A small square slab of insignificant stone placed during the burial, as was the custom in this area. Snow blanketed the mound of earth and the ledge of tombstone. The new grave was heartbreakingly forlorn in this forgotten corner of winter. For a long time he stared at the simple words that said nothing. Names and dates -- a pitifully inadequate and meager message for a man who meant everything to him.
Fat flakes of snow leisurely drifted to earth. He knelt and rubbed unsteady fingers across the etched names. He brushed away the fine powder imbedded in the letters that spelled Illya Kuryakin. Irrelevantly, he was angered that there was no clever epitaph or droll message in keeping with the personality of the deceased. But then, no verse could appropriately do justice to the eclectic Russian.
With an intensity of emotion he had never before experienced, Napoleon Solo was overwhelmed by a crushing loneliness. Never had he known such despair and desolation. Together, Illya and he had been indomitable. Now . . . it was as if the world had suddenly emptied of color, depth, and pulse. Solo pressed his palm against the cold slab in a gesture of final farewell. This was the end of the world -- his world. No miracles or brilliant escapes from this prison. He had harbored the fantasy that the report was a mistake; not much of a body had been recovered, no absolute positive proof . . .
Reality could no longer be stayed. Feeling the cold slab, Napoleon could not ignore the truth. Time to accept -- really, emotionally accept -- the death. Suffer the agony now and let time heal, as much as this desolation could ever be mended.
Leaning his face against the cold, rough stone he trembled. "Accept this, Napoleon," he whispered in a dry, shaking voice. "Admit you've failed to save your best friend. Try living with that reality," he finished bitterly and punctuated the sorrowful condemnation by pounding the stone with his clenched fist.
One day professional insensitivity would bind this deep tear of guilt he felt. Eventually time and logic would blunt the killing-edge of regret. Duty would impel him through the motions of a life filled with echoed memories. At this abysmal moment, nothing could ease the anguish.
"On your feet! Both hands in sight!"
There was such a gulf of separation from reality, several seconds passed before the order registered on Solo. Instinct for survival snapped instantly into place. He remained perfectly still as he evaluated the situation. He sensed -- felt -- the presence of three men almost directly behind him.
"Hands in bloody sight, mate! And come slowly to your feet."
The crisp, British accent was undertoned with danger. If Napoleon wasn't very careful, he would end up with a bullet in the back. However unpleasant that prospect was, Solo wasn't about to give in. He had no tolerance for being a prisoner just now.
"Whatever you say," was the cool response that veiled his true intent.
As Solo turned, his body momentarily shielded his right hand. By the time he completed the full turn the Walther was in his hand. He leaped to the side and rolled behind a tombstone. His shots were blind and Solo automatically noted all three intruders returned fire. Napoleon pressed his back against a large, gaudy monument and considered his options. Bullets ripped into the stone and Solo could feel the vibration when they hit.
With practiced efficiency the recent mourning was pushed aside in favor of survival. As he calculated defensive and offensive ploys, he tried to reason out this surprise visit. These men were not part of the drug smuggling ring he busted in France. Were they part of Illya's case? Solo didn't even know what Illya's mission had been. Intuition speculated these thugs were not only part of Kuryakin's assignment -- but Illya's murderers!
Reason was suddenly washed away by a red haze of vengeance. The men were summarily tried, convicted and sentenced to execution. Though revenge would not change the past, it would salve Solo's conscience and make the future somehow more bearable. Solo sensed more than heard someone approach from his right. On his knees, he leaned around the tombstone and fired. Before the dead assailant hit the ground, Solo spun and shot a man just a few feet to his left. Too late, he saw the third source of danger from the peripheral edge of his vision.
The quietly familiar cough of a Walther from behind made him jump in surprise. The third assailant fell dead. Still on his knees, Napoleon turned to his rescuer. A backdrop of swirling mist ringed a figure clad in a black trenchcoat. The pale, almost transparent face belonged to Illya Kuryakin.
A lifetime seemed to pass as Solo stared at the indistinct apparition. Napoleon knew this was a delusion -- from knocking his head against the gravemarker? No, this was a hallucination, not double vision. The lines around the figure were indistinct and blurry. Vapor from the netherworld of wraiths? Solo wondered if ghosts shimmered. He abstractly recognized that shock supplied the remote calm which insulated him from panic. As these absurdities swirled through his thoughts, he sat immobile and stared transfixed at the man he knew so well; the expressionless face that belonged to a dead man.
With surreal detachment he watched a dark circle of mist enclose the figure. Napoleon realized it was his own vision closing in. Refusing to succumb to the ignominy of fainting -- from natural or supernatural causes -- Solo rallied his diminishing courage and forced himself to stare directly into the pale eyes of the -- illusion? He had heard somewhere that extreme stress caused hallucinations; visions of the person the stress victim most wanted to see. True, he was rather anxious. A natural reaction when people tried to kill him. And Illya WAS the person he would most like to see. Did illusions shoot Walthers?
Solo scraped his palms against the serrated surfaced of the gravestone. The cold, hard tangibility of the stone became a reference to reality. IF this was Illya's spirit (Solo wasn't even sure he believed in ghosts), there was nothing to fear from his friend. After all, Illya had saved his life -- an apparent constant in this world as well as the next! Aided by the solid support of the gravemarker, Solo came slowly to his feet. Kuryakin's neutral features contained neither denial nor recognition. Solo decided bluntness was the best approach. What did he have to lose?
"I didn't know ghosts used Walther's," he gestured at the pistol in Kuryakin's hand. The inanity of the statement was laughable. The moment was robbed of humor by the tremble in his voice.
"I don't think they do," the accented voice responded with a well-practiced dryness. Then the passive features transformed into an engaging smile.
Napoleon's wonderfully stricken expression, so atypical of the cool, composed American, was a priceless amusement to the taciturn Russian. The dramatic entrance had been too rich to bypass. But, now, Illya felt his first pangs of regret at the wicked trick. Napoleon's face was ashen and the agent seemed to stay on his feet only with the aid of the grave marker.
"Are you all right?" Kuryakin asked solicitously and took a step forward. "I heard your head hit the tombstone."
Solo stumbled back into the barrier of the headstone.
"Napoleon, you don't really think I'm a . . . ."
Kuryakin abruptly ceased the light teasing. For several days, he had played dead to turn the tables on his persistent pursuers. There had been no time to go through channels on the faked death. He had hoped to finish the case before Napoleon learned of the apparent fatality. Now, Kuryakin realized he had sadly miscalculated several details. One, the pursuers, and two, his partner. He had never seen Solo so off-balance, but then he supposed, Napoleon had never experienced a grim day quite like this.
"I'm not a ghost," Illya assured in a quiet, but firm tone.
"Of course not," Solo responded after several seconds of scrutiny of his partner. His voice still echoed uncertainty.
With visible courage, the senior agent straightened and stepped toward Kuryakin. Solo's right hand still clutched the Walther as his left hand touched Kuryakin's shoulder. Once connected to a solidly mortal body, Solo dropped the pistol and squeezed Illya's shoulders with both hands.
"One hundred percent real," Kuryakin reaffirmed.
Solo gripped the nape of the Russian's neck in a hold somewhere between a neck pinch and strangulation. "One of these days I'm going to kill you," he whispered threateningly, though his voice trembled as much as his hands. Then he wrapped his partner in an impulsive embrace.
Illya could feel his friend shiver. Until that moment, he had not realized how deeply Solo had been affected by the charade. There had been so many incidents when they had feared the worst about the other partner. Obviously, this time, Solo had been convinced the death was real. Unreasonably, Illya felt slightly betrayed that Napoleon would accept his demise so easily. The irritation quickly dissolved in the face of logic. The ruse had been all too convincing a trick and had backfired into a cruel ploy. Illya would have to find a way to make this up to his partner.
"If you kill me, I shall surely return to haunt you," Kuryakin threatened in a light tone that was somewhat forced. He pulled away to study the sober American.
"My partner the ghost?" was Solo's almost flippant response that held a dangerous edge. He recovered his Walther and studiously brushed snow from the black metal. "You're all right?"
"Perfectly," Kuryakin admitted warily.
He had no trouble recognizing the sudden mood change. Solo was shielding vulnerability with the smoldering anger evident in the sharp tone. When the dark haired agent glanced up, Kuryakin noted the concerned eyes had changed to brown force fields of unforgiving ire.
"Well, then, you better have a damn good explanation, or you may yet become a ghost," he warned as he snapped the Walther back into the holster.
In a rare display of magnanimity, and to assuage his own guilt, Illya offered to explain the convoluted story over supper - his treat.
Solo grudgingly agreed as he followed Kuryakin to the car.
"I'll have the local office take care of the mess," Napoleon said as he nodded toward the bodies and pulled out his communicator. "You could have warned me, you know."
"My communicator was burned with the body in the car. The unfortunate victim was a THRUSH agent," he offered as an aside.
"You could have phoned," Solo persisted.
Kuryakin sighed, realizing the senior agent was not going to wait for an explanation. "There wasn't time, Napoleon. The decision was spontaneous." He stopped and leaned against the side of the car. "I thought I could finish the operation before you found out."
"And I suppose this Dickensian setting was your twisted idea of dramatics?"
Kuryakin shrugged uneasily. "It seemed the right setting for a resurrection."
Solo stared at the grey headstones on the hillside. He analyzed his anger as a backlash of traumatized nerves, a reaction to his own anxieties. There were many types of fear, and today, at this graveyard, Solo had been terrified to the depths of his soul. Scared of not his own death, but the death -- the loss -- of his friend. Afraid of the utter loneliness of being a solo agent again.
The anger had a myriad of sources: knowledge that he had no right to be this dependent on his partner, the sense of betrayal at not being included in the ruse. It was irrational to let this ploy disturb him. Their entire careers were based on deceits, fakes and lies. Why should it upset him that Illya was so adept at the game? Kuryakin's cunning saved their skins constantly. These operations were often necessary and missions could not be altered because of feelings or loyalties. They had a job to do, and unfortunately, the job often became quite nasty. That was why emotions and close attachments had no place in the espionage business.
Sometimes Napoleon hated what UNCLE agents were forced to do to get a job done. Those regretful moments were coming to him more frequently these days. Solo took that as a positive sign that he was not a robot, but an agent with a bit too much humanity. The feelings made him far more vulnerable than agents with more 'professional' attitudes. But without the doubts, the sense of loyalty, the compassion, caring, and sometimes the hurt, he would be no better than an assassin would. Commitment to a cause or a person meant nothing without the emotions that went with the duty. Those were the elements that gave his life meaning. Certainly, his partner had come to be a large part of his life. Though the relationship was not always a smooth one, there was never a question of loyalty or commitment. This last escapade had probably given Solo a few more grey hairs, but it had not altered the partnership. No force on earth -- and perhaps beyond -- could break their bond.
Solo turned away from the graveyard and favored Kuryakin with a speculative expression. "I hope your recent demise did not affect your credit rating. You are really going to PAY for this, Mr. K!"
The tone this time was casual, familiarly light. Illya knew from the voice as much as from the mellowed expression that all was forgiven; though not forgotten. The memory of this painful day would take a long time to fade. A good place to start the healing was in the comfortable banter that was a hallmark of their partnership.
Illya eyed his partner with a feigned wariness. "Napoleon, remember I AM on an expense account."
Solo's broad smile was filled with the delight of vengeance about to be achieved. "I know."