Genre: Man from UNCLE
Word count: 1552
I was talking with a_boleyn the other day and bunnied myself. My thanks to her for the inspiration and to sparky955 for her beta help.
Napoleon not only treated him amiably but behaved as if he were one of his own courtiers, one of those who sympathized with his plans and ought to rejoice at his success. In the course of conversation he mentioned Moscow and questioned him about the Russian capital, not merely as an interested traveler asks about a new city he intends to visit, but as if convinced that he as a Russian, must be flattered by his curiosity.
"How many inhabitants are there in Moscow? How many houses? Is it true that Moscow is called 'Holy Moscow'? How many churches are there in Moscow?" he asked
And receiving the reply that there were more than two hundred churches, he remarked:
"Why such a quantity of churches?"
"The Russians are very devout," he replied.*
“Look at him. Alone again.”
Without doing so much more than lifting his eyes from the page he was reading, Illya glanced over to the counter. Two waitresses were standing there, arms folded, heads so close they were nearly touching.
“I know what you mean. When that other fellow isn’t around, he’s always by himself. No one wants to eat with him.”
“Well, why would they? After all, he’s a godless communist.”
“But he seems so nice.”
“So does an alligator right before he bites you.”
That made Illya both smile and inwardly sigh. He wished he could make people see past his nationality to see him. Then and again, he preferred the quiet and the privacy. It was something that always seemed to be in short supply back home, whether it was on an overly crowded Soviet submarine or in his bed, packed in along with his brothers and sisters.
That thought made him tip his head back and he reached for his half-forgotten soup spoon. He wondered what Svitlana was doing right now, or Vyetka, or even his annoying little brother, Mykyta. He wondered how Poppa was doing with the harsh Moscow winter and if he was even venturing away from the fireplace these days.
Illya made a note to call his mother and ask after his father’s health. The last time he visited, he seemed so frail and forgetful. He kept calling Illya, Larysa. It was true that the two of them looked more like twins that mere siblings, but Larysa was nearly eight inches taller and also a woman. He smiled even more. When did his baby sister become a woman? Time had a funny way of marching on.
Illya took a mouthful of soup and closed his eyes. It was almost as good as Mamma’s. Almost… but it was enough to keep him coming back to this small diner.
“He just sits there reading or staring off into space.”
“Well, that’s them, isn’t it? They want it for their own.”
“The moon. I hear they are going to build secret bases there.”
“Gertie, you are a card. They aren’t going to do anything like that. They are people, just like us.”
Gertie snorted. “I doubt that.”
Maggie made a face and grabbed a pot of coffee. Carrying it over to him, she poured more coffee into Illya’s cup.
“I just thought you might need a refill and a bit of company.”
“You just seem all alone and lonely.”
“Alone, perhaps, but never lonely. Today I am dining with the Bolkonsky Family and Count Ilya Rostov.”
Illya mentally marked his place in the book and set it aside, giving the waitress his full attention. He could tell that he made her nervous, so he worked at appearing as harmless as a man in his line of work could.
“What are you reading?” He turned the cover towards her so she could see it. “War and Peace. That’s Russian literature, isn’t it? You haven’t read it before?”
“Yes, I thought I’d see if the English version was any different than the Russian.”
“And is it?”
“Not as much as you’d think.”
“That I can read English as well as Russian?”
“That you read. I wish I had time, but then there’s never any money. It seems like all I do is work and go home to sleep and come back to work.”
“It sounds lonely.”
She nodded a little. “I guess.
“Library cards are free.”
“Library?” She started to dry wash her hands.
“Yes, New York City has several.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“It’s easy. Illya pulled a card out of his pocket. “My friend works here. He can help get you started. Be the master of your destiny. Read.”
“Okay, thanks.” She looked over at the counter where Gertie was sending her evil looks. “Gertie’s mad now. I have to go.” She held up the card and read it. “Thank you.”
Illya nodded. “Thank you for your service.” And he made sure he left her a nice tip.
He always meant to check back on her, but the life of an enforcement agent was seldom his own. Days raced into months which morphed into years.
Illya stepped over the threshold of the diner’s door, amazed at how little had changed. It could have been yesterday that he’d been here.
He sat down at his usual table and reached for a menu. Even those had changed very little except for the prices.
“What can I get you, sugar?”
He looked up and smiled at the waitress. It was the other one. It took him a moment, then he remember. “Yes, Gertie, I will have the hot turkey and gravy sandwich, with a side of mashed potatoes and coffee.”
She studied him closely. “Do I know you?”
Illya smiled slightly. “I’m the godless communist.”
It took her a minute, then she snapped her fingers. “I remember you. You were always reading.”
Illya pulled a small paperback from his pocket. “I still am.”
“It’s your fault!”
“Lizzie! Before she met you, she was always here, available and on time. Then she started reading and suddenly, she was late and needed to have this or that day off. Then she up and quit. All because of that reading crap.” Gertie walked away and handed his tag to another waitress. “Here, Maggie. He’s all yours.”
Maggie brought him a cup of coffee. “Wow, what did you say to get Gertie’s knickers in a bunch?”
“Nothing. I am merely a customer who likes to read.”
“Oh, like Lizzie. I never saw her when she didn’t have her nose in a book.”
“Would you happen to have her number? I’m the one who got her started reading.”
“Sure, but don’t let Gertie know I gave it to you.”
“It will be our secret.”
Illya turned the card over in his hand, feeling a bit apprehensive. Then, shaking his head, he dialed the number and waited.
A man answered. “Hello?”
“Yes, I was trying to reach Lizzie.”
“Oh, she’s in class now. Your voice is familiar. Who is this?”
“My name is Illya.”
“Kuryakin! It’s me, Paul, from the library.”
“Paul? How are you! But I thought… Lizzie…”
“Long story, but the Reader’s Digest condensed version is, she’s my wife. I married her, although I think she just said yes so she’d have access to my books.”
“I’m glad. I’m the one who gave her your name.”
“I know and if I’d had a way to contact you, I’d have invited you to the wedding.”
“So what class is she taking?”
“Not taking, teaching. And English literature, if you can believe that! She’s a demon about Austin.”
Illya laughed at that. “Not my favorite, but that’s wonderful news. Please, give her my best.”
“Come to dinner? I’m a fabulous cook. My wife always says so.”
They talked for a bit longer and Illya hung up, feeling a warm glow engulfing him.
“You look like the cat that ate the canary. What’s up?” Napoleon sat across from him at the Canteen table.
“Nothing, just remembering the power of a good book.”
Napoleon took his out of his pocket and made a face at the cover. “I don’t know. I think Melville is going to kill me.”
Illya grinned. “What is Queequeg up to now?”
“Not so much Queequeg. The Captain is doing battle with Moby Dick. Listen to this,”
Now, by reason of this timely spinning round the boat upon its axis, its bow, by anticipation, was made to face the whale’s head while yet under water. But as if perceiving this stratagem, Moby Dick, with that malicious intelligence ascribed to him, sidelingly transplanted himself, as it were, in an instant, shooting his pleated head lengthwise beneath the boat. Through and through; through every plank and each rib, it thrilled for an instant, the whale obliquely lying on his back, in the manner of a biting shark, slowly and feelingly taking its bows full within his mouth, so that the long, narrow, scrolled lower jaw curled high up into the open air, and one of the teeth caught in a row-lock. The bluish pearl-white of the inside of the jaw was within six inches of Ahab’s head, and reached higher than that. In this attitude the White Whale now shook the slight cedar as a mildly cruel cat her mouse.**
*Excerpt from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
**Excerpt from Moby Dick by Herman Melville