Word Count: 2464
“Oh, it’s just a retrieval. In and out. It will be easy.” Illya swung the machete and hacked away another vine. “Remind me that whenever you say that, it’s a warning sign.”
Napoleon made a face and worked with his own machete to clear a path. “Look, all I know is what Mr. Waverly told me. Weird stuff has been happening, we sent in an agent and lost contact with him. It could be THRUSH, it could be a host of things.”
“But a retrieval? In the jungle?” Illya wiped his brow on the sleeve of his loose fitting shirt.
“Think of it as a refresher course with Cutter.”
“Like that’s an improvement.” One last whack and Illya paused. They had suddenly come to a clearing. He instantly looked up to study the sky. “It looks like we’ve got about a few more hours of daylight.”
Napoleon slapped his neck and then froze. “What on earth?”
There was something in his tone that pulled Illya’s focus. It wasn’t so much the yellowed grass as much as the dozens of rusted cars half hidden by it. In the center was a slightly raised dais. “I do believe we have found the elephant’s graveyard for cars. So much for that being a myth.”
Napoleon whistled. “The last time I saw this many, I was waking up in a junk yard.”
“And about to be permanently used as scrap metal. Where did they come from? We are miles from any town big enough for a street, much less a car.” Illya took a step and winced at the crunch. He knelt and pushed the grass aside. A bone gleamed white in the sun. “A parking lot for the dead?”
Napoleon moved further along the grass line. “There are more bones over here, too. What the hell is going on?”
“Want to add a bit more mystery?” Illya plucked something gingerly from the tangle of bone and weeds. It was a small black wallet. He flipped it open. “What was the name of our lost agent?”
“Edgar Betos.” Napoleon returned to Illya’s side and looked at the card the wallet revealed. “Edgar Betos,” he read out loud. “But that’s not possible. These bones are ancient, brittle with age. He’s only been missing for a couple of weeks.” Napoleon pursed his lips in thought, then pulled out his communicator. It took a few moments for it to sync up with the necessary satellite. “Open Channel D, please. Solo here.”
“Yes, Napoleon. Your signal is very weak. Can you boost your gain?”
“No, I’m pushing it now. Can you triangulate on my signal?”
“I can and have.”
“We need a retrieval unit at that location. Tell Mr. Waverly that we have apparently found Agent Betos. He is no longer with us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good agent --”
Illya watched as Napoleon shook the instrument. “Satellite probably moved out of range.”
“Is there any sort of village near here? Maybe they know what is going on.”
“If there is, I am going to urge upmost caution at approaching it.”
“These bones have been gnawed on.”
“The worst kind. They looked human.”
“Cannibals? How can you be certain?”
“I can’t but I’d rather not find out.”
They quietly and quickly skirted the clearing. Sweat trickled down their faces and insects swirled around their heads like buzzing halos. A well-worn path led away from the grassy area and back into the thick jungle. Either side of it was decorated with a bit of twisted metal, a fender here, a bumper there. Illya stopped and looked back at Napoleon.
“What do you make of this?” he asked.
“It’s like this is the chancel. Back there was the altar and this is the aisle leading to and from it.”
“Do we follow it or make our way back through the jungle?”
“Why re-invent the wheel?” He jerk his chin onward. They were fine for about a hundred yards, then Illya paused again. “Problems?”
“I estimate about a dozen warriors headed in our direction. Run?”
“We’ll send our regrets.” Napoleon turned to retreat, only to stop at the spear aimed at his midsection. There was easily another dozen natives behind them. “Or we could stay for a few minutes.”
They were escorted, amid angry shouts and threatened skewering, into a village which more resembled a junkyard parking lot. However, parked to one side of it was a late model sedan with its doors open to the elements. Baskets of fruit surrounded it along with a brace of half decayed heads.
“Check out the transportation. We might be able to use that to escape.” Illya took a step in its direction and caught the shaft of spear across his stomach. He doubled over and gasped. Napoleon started to move, then thought better of it as the same action threatened him.
“I guess they don’t want us getting close to the goods.” He helped Illya straighten and they were roughly shoved into a hut and left.
“Okay, so this is new – an unguarded cell.” Illya headed for the entrance only to have two crossed spears block his exit. “Or not.”
Napoleon pulled out his communicator, but only blasts of static answered him. “This isn’t fair. What’s the use in getting captured and allowed to keep our equipment if it doesn’t work?”
“I love it when you answer your own questions.” Illya collapsed onto the thick woven mat floor. “I’m beginning to think that this must be a variation of a cargo cult.”
“Those groups that sprang up worshipping airplanes in hopes of it bringing prosperity?” Napoleon sat down beside him. He examined his fingernails, resisting the urge to bite one.
“Except they worship cars. I suppose the leap isn’t that great.”
“And you would suppose correctly, Mr. Kuryakin.”
Illya propped himself up on his elbows and stared in the direction of the voice. The speaker was Caucasian, but dressed in native garb. He wore several necklaces composed of small gears and pieces of upholstery.
“Who are you?”
“Edgar Betos.” He entered fully and looked around. “Not bad. I think I’ll let this stay. It’s only right not to change everything.”
“Our missing agent?” Napoleon got to his feet. “We thought you were dead.”
“To UNCLE, I am.” He gestured expansively. “Why be an agent when you can be a god?”
“The god of a cargo cult?” Napoleon looked over as Illya rose to join him. “It would look good on your resume, I assume. What happened?”
“Waverly sent me here, thinking there was THRUSH activity. There wasn’t… well, there had been, but these folks have developed a taste for their fellow man.”
“And what spared you?” Illya eye the man critically. He was of average build and didn’t seem to possess any outwardly God like characteristics.
“Funny story that. You might as well sit back down. None of us are going anywhere.” He walked to the mat and sat, his necklaces jangling in response. “THRUSH came to the village in the car you were admiring a few years ago. You can imagine the reaction from the locals. When THRUSH protested their attempts for a closer look and shot a few of them, the villagers reacted as one might guess.”
“They fought back?” Illya remained standing.
“There was panic and a swift retaliation. Or at least that’s what I’m guessing. Communication here has been a struggle”
“And where do you fit in to all of this?” Napoleon joined the man, searching his face for any weakness he might play on.
“Well, like you I stumbled onto this little slice of Paradise a few days later and realized I could make my escape in there. I waited until nightfall, dug my way out of the back of the hut and headed towards the car. The keys were still in the ignition. They worship the cars, but have no idea what to do with them. I got it started and was ready to leave when I realized all the villagers were on the ground around me, worshipping me.”
“Why serve in Heaven when you can rule in Hell?” Napoleon wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Lucifer said that to God when he was being cast out. The temperature is certainly right.”
“I’m not exactly Lucifer, but, yes, Mr. Solo, you are right.” Betos gestured expansively. “I get the best food, my choice of women, anything I want is mine for the asking. Why leave?”
“Your subjects eat their victims,” Illya said as he finally reseated himself.
Betos laughed. “All religions have their quirks. I’m sure we will be able to iron everything out eventually.”
“Betos, let us go,” Napoleon ordered. “We’ve reported you dead. You’ve no reason to hold us. We’ll go back to New York and you can stay here in Automotive Paradise. No one will be the wiser.”
“Oh, sorry, Mr. Solo. You’re not in charge here. I am. There’s a religious ceremony coming up and you two are the guests of honor as it were. Don’t worry. Your deaths will be fast and painless, not like what they did to the THRUSH agents. It was… rather gruesome from all that I gathered.” Betos shuddered. “Enough to give a civilized man nightmares and there are… advantages. So, I go out, start the car and eternal glory is mine.” Betos stood and headed from the entrance. “You don’t get that in New York.”
After he left, Illya stretched out on his stomach. “Something bothers me.”
“Something? I’ve got a least a million questions. First, how the hell the THRUSH get a car in here to begin with? I didn’t see any roads except that path we came down after being captured.”
“I don’t know, but some of these cars we saw back in that field have been here for years. This isn’t a recent change of focus for these people. What I want to know is how they get them to begin with.”
“Betos said that he tunneled out the back of the hut. What do you think our chances are?”
“I suspect he has people positioned. Seems we’re the main course tonight.”
“I’m feeling more like Chinese myself.”
They were led, tethered to each other, back to the field, the car pushed along the path by a dozen villagers and they were followed by several dozen more. Touches lit their path, turning night into day. Betos walked proudly at the front of the procession, his automotive jewelry jangling in the hot breeze.
He smiled at them benevolently as they were led to a post and tied there.
Dusk was approaching as the car was carefully maneuvered up and onto the dais. Six men, wearing dark hooded robes solemnly approached and surround the car. The crowd grew silent as they began to chant.
“Any chance you know what they are talking about?” Napoleon murmured.
“Not one of my languages, sorry.” Illya worked on his bindings. “They don’t seem to know a great deal about ropes, Napoleon. I’m almost free.”
“Geemsy!” shouted the priests.
“Geemsy, meesha!” the crowd answered
“Meesha!” the priests responded. “Meesha, meesha!”
The chant continued growing in fervor and volume.
“Why do I have a feeling a giant ape is about to appear,” Napoleon asked as he got his hands free.
“Are you ready?” Illya worked his way clear of the last of his own bonds.
“Let’s see how this plays out. I suspect it’s just about show time for good old Edgar and all eyes will be on him and not us.”
Solemnly Edgar approached the car and climbed inside. There was a cheer and, if anything, the chanting grew louder.
“Meesha, meesha!” The jungle fairly pulsated with their chant.
Betos waved out the window and there was a sudden silence that nearly knocked Napoleon to his knees. He looked at his partner and could tell by Illya’s expression that he felt the same.
“Get ready,” Napoleon said as Betos reached for the key. But nothing happened. He saw a look of panic from Betos as he worked the key.
“Meesha, meesha!” one of the priest ordered.
“I’m trying,” Betos shouted. “You fools! What did you do to it? Napoleon! Illya, help me!” he screamed.
“Is he talking to us?” Illya asked as a wave of angry protest rumbled through the crowd. They surged forward, angrily shouting, “Meesha, meesha!”
“Who cares? Let’s go.” Napoleon gave him an encouraging push. Betos’s screams grew as he was pulled from the car by the crowd and dealt with.
They’d managed to get a few feet from the posts before the crowd noticed them. They turned to the UNCLE agents, faces coated with fresh blood, Betos’s blood, and rushed forward.
“Run!” Napoleon ordered, but it was already too late. They didn’t know the area like the natives did.
“Any last words?” Illya backed up until he was smack against Napoleon.
“We who are about to die salute you.”
Thowp, thowp thowp.
The air was cut by the sound of an approaching helicopter. Illya felt rather than heard Napoleon’s sigh of relief.
“The cavalry has arrived,” Napoleon shouted over the noise. The villagers scattered as the copter angled for a landing. “C’mon!” He ran back to the dais and with Illya’s help, pushed it off. He did his best to ignore the bloodstains and bits of shredded flesh that remained of Betos. “Live by the car, die by the car.”
“I can’t believe you said that.” Illya watched the copter land and ducked low to approach it. “You have great timing.”
“So I gathered,” shouted back the pilot. “I thought this was retrieval, not rescue.”
“One and the same, my friend.”
Illya glanced up from his report as Napoleon entered his office. “From your expression, I’m guessing you finished with your debriefing.”
“Mr. Waverly was less-than-thrilled. He thought we should have rescued Edgar from his angry followers.”
“Like there was anything left of him to rescue. Those villagers need to work more vegetables into their diet. I was doing a little digging. Apparently, a nearby city had been using that area has a dump site for years before it was relocated. The tribe apparently stumbled upon it and decided it was a sign.”
“Let me guess, Used Cars for Less.”
“Funny. I was curious about what the tribe was shouting at Betos, so I asked a local source. Apparently, meesha is a command of meesan. It means make it go.”
“So why didn’t he? He’d started it before.”
“Gas tank was empty. Remember all those torches? Villagers didn’t know how to start the car, but they knew how to syphon gas well enough. Betos didn’t stand a chance.”
“What about the other thing they were shouting, geemsy?”
“GMC. Guess they weren’t Ford fans, after all.”