Word count: 1684
The sign beckoned to him and he was unable to resist its draw.
“Hey, Illya, check out this sign.” Napoleon plucked the sign off the display case and read it aloud, “If you are reading this, then you are blissfully unaware of what is creeping up behind you.” He flipped it over to see the price. “Sammy would love this as a hostess gift for her Halloween party.”
“Seems a little grim to me.” Illya was in hunt of his own gift for their hostess. “Whatever happened to the lighter, more fun filled aspects of this holiday?”
“You mean when ghosts cross over and haunt the living?” Napoleon caught a shape in his peripheral vision. He looked around, but nothing was there. He grinned. “What do you know? It even works on me. I’ve made my choice. I’m going to check out.”
With a flourish, Napoleon presented the plaque to the salesclerk. She visibly paled at the sight of it and avoided looking directly at it. “Are you certain you want that, sir? It’s actually not for sale.”
“But it has a price tag on it.” He flipped it over to show her and she nervously punched the numbers into the cash register. “Oh, could you wrap it? It’s a gift.”
“Are you absolutely set on this, sir? We have many other items and I’m in a position to offer you a very good price.”
Napoleon smiled genially at her. “No, this is perfect.”
“Guess we know what will happened, then,” she murmured as she carefully wrapped the plaque in tissue without touching it. She dropped it into a box and began to fold bright orange paper.
“Oh, just talking to myself, sir.” She topped the package with a black bow and seemed visible cheered by the act. “Will that be cash or charge, sir?”
“Are you ready?” he called over his shoulder to his partner as he signed the credit card slip.
Illya held a witch crafted from a corn husk. “I suppose so.”
“Look at it this way. If Sammy doesn’t like it, at least you’ll have a date for the Christmas party.” Napoleon laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Very funny, Napoleon.”
It was the last time Napoleon laughed. All that night he had an uneasy sense of being followed, on his date with Evelyn, dancing, even around his own apartment. It got to a point of Napoleon thoroughly searching his apartment.
“Nerves, Napoleon, nerves,” he murmured as he brushed his teeth, his eye fixed on the mirror. He bent to spit and when he stood up, he swore he caught a glimpse of something. Of course, there was nothing there when he turned.
In his dreams, he was running from something or to it, he wasn’t sure. Time was oddly warped as it often is in sleep.
“Help me!” The cry was all around him
He couldn’t tell if it was Illya shouting or something else. Then he was grabbed and pain shot through his limbs. He was being ripped apart by an unseen force.
“NO!” He sat up in bed and winced at the cramp in his leg. He flexed his foot, grimacing as his muscles tightened even more. Groaning, he climbed out of bed and limped to his wet bar. He poured himself a generous tumbler of tonic and drank it, pausing only to burp. He continued to walk around his den and finally the tonic worked its magic and he was able to return to bed.
It wasn’t until he was in the shower the next morning that he noticed the bruising. His calf was a splash of black, blue and purple. And there were others. Hurried he dressed, keeping his back to the wall as much as he could.
He walked into his office and dropped his briefcase onto the desk, resisting the urge to spin. Instead, took off his suit jacket, then sat and reached for his phone. Thankfully, his partner answered on the second ring.
“Illya, could you come to my office, please?”
“I don’t know.” He hung up and placed his hands on the blotter, studying the hastily scrawled words, the various doodles, anything to avoid looking over his shoulder again.
Illya was prompt, his expression curious. “Do we have an assignment?”
Napoleon knew he should make some comment about Illya not getting out of Sammy’s party so easily, but his heart just wasn’t in it. Instead, he ordered, “Lock the door.”
It was clear Illya was puzzled, but he did as he was asked. Napoleon unbuckled his pants and Illya smirked.
“So, should I be worried or is this about my promotion?”
“I need to you look at something.” Illya’s eyebrow shot up and Napoleon made a face. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” He dropped his pants and Illya sucked air in through his teeth.
“What happened? Were you attacked?”
“No. I had a leg cramp last night.”
“I’ve never had a leg cramp leave a bruise like that. Maybe you should be Medical to check it out.”
“There are these, too.” Napoleon rolled up his sleeves and Illya whistled at the bruises there.
“That’s pretty spectacular…” Illya trailed off as he lifted Napoleon’s right arm. “It’s pretty crazy.” He gently placed his fingers over the discolored patches. “It almost looks like it was caused by fingers. What could have gripped you that hard and you not remember it?”
The problem was, Napoleon remembered all too well.
Napoleon anxiously ran a comb through his hair and quickly spun again. For the last two days, he had had this horrible feeling that something was following him. He’d catch a fast glimpse out of the corner of his eye, but when he looked, nothing was there. It was even worse at work. Waverly had even gone so far as to finally send him home this afternoon, no longer able to ignore the dark circles under Napoleon’s eyes. If the days were bad, the nights were worse - a steady stream of horrific nightmares, each one seemingly worse than the one before it.
There was a knock on his door and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He placed a hand over his heart and slowly shook his head. “Get a grip, Solo,” he muttered at the second knock.
He opened the door and caught Illya just turning away. “Oh, I thought you might have left without me.”
“I was in the bathroom and didn’t hear your first knock.”
“I’m not going to ask how you knew that wasn’t my first knock. Are you doing okay, Napoleon? You appear quite flushed.”
“Have you ever thought you were being followed?”
“Frequently. It’s a hazard of the trade.”
Napoleon pulled on his suit jacket. It had been costumes optional and he usually jumped at the chance of dressing up, but he was not in the mood this year. If Illya noticed, he didn’t comment. “The last couple of days, I’ve just had this weird sensation. It’s crazy, but it’s like something is creeping up behind me.”
Illya laughed. ”Just like that plaque you bought.”
Napoleon froze. “Yes, just like that plaque. Illya, there’s something weird about this whole thing.”
“Maybe you should take it back to the store and get something else.”
“Is there time?”
“For you, we’ll make time. I can’t say I understand what you are going through, but I know when something isn’t right. And you, my friend, are not acting normally. If returning the sign is what it takes, I will break into the shop if I have to.”
“You’re a good friend, Illya.”
“I am, aren’t I? You should remember that.” Illya held out Napoleon’s overcoat. “I’m parked right out front. Let’s go.”
They had just taken a few steps away from the building’s front door when someone plowed into Napoleon. Normally, he would have rolled with it, but he was so distracted that it knocked him from his feet.
“Hey!” Illya shouted and took up chase, but the stranger vanished into the shadows.
“Mr. Solo, are you okay?” The doorman rushed to his aid, helping him to his feet.
“I think… no, he took my package!” The sudden rush of anger gave way to a sense of relief. “He took my package.”
Illya came back at a trot. “Sorry, Napoleon, I lost him.”
“It’s okay. He… he, ah, took my package.”
“Oh… I mean, oh! How do you feel?”
“Like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders.” Napoleon smiled for the first time in two days.
“But your package…” the doorman started.
“It’s okay. I’ll come up with something.” Napoleon brushed off his suit pants and gestured to the car. “Shall we?”
It was a few days later when Illya caught up with Napoleon in the Canteen. Napoleon was absently stirring a cup of lukewarm coffee and staring unseen at an assignment folder. Most of his attention was reflecting back onto the night he’d spent with Sammy. The things that woman did to his libido should be against the law.
“Hey!” Illya dropped a copy of the morning paper in front of him and Napoleon nearly jumped out of his skin. When his partner glared, Illya grinned. “Don’t tell me it was that good.”
“You have no idea.” Nor would he. Napoleon Solo was not a man who kissed and told.
“I thought you’d like to see this. I found it buried on the ninth page.” Illya put on his glasses and read, “Local petty thief, Mark Ryans, was found brutally murdered this morning in the back alley off of 117th street. A policeman was quoted as saying it looked as if he’d been ripped apart.”
“You don’t think…”
“Never on the job.” Napoleon shut down the conversation there and then.
In a shop a few miles away, the store’s owner caught sight of something on a display case. Without looking directly at it, she knocked it over with her feather duster. She knew it would be upright the next time a customer looked in its direction.