Genre: Man From UNCLE
Word Count: 3491
Written for the 2019 Spook Me Challenge. My thanks to Sparky who rode me hard on this story. I hope you like the results.
Illya made a face as he tried to slowly pull off his jacket. They had made it back from their mission to the safety of their hotel room, but the blood had dried from a bullet graze and made the process that much more unpleasant. “Napoleon, I’m just going to let the shower loosen this.”
“Got it. I’m going downstairs to check for a first aid kit. Unless you want a doctor instead.”
“No doctor.” Illya let his trousers fall to the floor and stepped out of them.
The shower was warm and comforting. The water ran a soft red, then pink and finally clear. Illya eased the fabric away from his chest and breathed a sigh of relief as he got free of the jacket and shirt and dropped them into the bathtub. The graze wasn’t deep, so Illya cleaned it with soap and water, then stepped out of the tub and wrapped himself in towels, taking care to not bleed on more than one.
He was cleaning up the mess when something white caught his eye. An envelope was sticking out from an interior pocket of his suit jacket. He usually left it home, but for some reason felt the need to bring it along this time.
The envelope fell apart in his hand as he removed it, revealing a playing card… no, a tarot card. In fact, the card that Vadoma had given him years earlier.
Strange, he’d carried the card for all this time and yet the night he received it seemed as if it was only yesterday.
Illya closed his book and looked over at his younger brother and sister. Life as he knew it was coming to an end. Mama and Papa had called him in this morning and asked him to sit. They only did that when there was trouble. It must be that another war was coming. War was always coming. It kept them in a constant state of uneasiness and expectant preparedness.
“Illyusha,” his mother started as she attempted to smooth his hair. He’d taken to wearing it long and when he was with the gypsies, he’d tie it back with a bit of ribbon. He was careful never to let Papa see him like that, though. He might be only twelve, but he wasn’t born yesterday. “Do you remember when those men came to your school and asked everyone in your class to take tests?”
“Yes, Mama.” Illya had found them disturbingly easy, but between his parents, who encouraged his learning, and his summers with the gypsies, he’d been exposed to much more than his sheltered classmates.
“You did very, very well, Illyusha. Everyone was impressed by your knowledge and that made us proud.”
Illya found himself smiling. Papa rarely praised him like that. He taught Illya that a man who lived for the praise of others was a weakling.
“You did so well that you have an incredible opportunity. These men, they would like to take you to a special school.”
Illya’s eyes lit up. He’s always wanted to see Moscow with its wide boulevards and tall buildings. “I think we will be happy there.”
“You don’t understand, Illya Nickovetch, they only want you, child.”
That wiped the smile from Illya’s face and he pulled free from his mother’s grasp. “What? Not you and Papa? Not everyone?”
“No, just our clever son.” Mama’s eyes were bright with tears. “They will put you with the best teachers and what you will learn, Illyusha, will be more than anything we can teach you here.”
“Can they teach me about family and loyalty?”
“It’s those damned gypsies,” Papa muttered. “They have filled his head with nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense!” Illya had never spoken up against his father like that and for a moment, he wondered if this meant a trip to the woodshed. Illya’s father stood and faced him, his face dark. Then he took a deep breath.
“Why isn’t it?
“Because unless you have that, what difference does all the knowledge in the world make? If you have no one to love or to love you, why bother?”
“I’ve been trying to raise a soldier and you turn out a philosopher.”
“Do I have any say in this?”
“Of course you do.” Of course he did not. That’s not how the government worked. Even at ten, he knew that.
“Illya, this is a tremendous burden to place upon you, but the government will give you the best education you could want, much more than you can get here. And I will not lie to you, it will make things easier for the family, too.”
“Because of one less mouth to feed?” Even now, at the height of summer, food was scarce.
Mama dropped her hands to her stomach and he knew, soon there would be another. “It’s never that, Illyusha. This would bring the family prestige.” He didn’t know that word and would have to look it up. “It is your choice, Illya Nickovetch, and only yours, but do not throw away something that could be the best thing that could ever happened. We all must leave home at some point.”
He’d gone to bed with a book and his siblings. They laughed and giggled under the covers until sleep took them. Illya stroked the spine of the book. He’d read it many time and its tales of monsters and boogeymen was as familiar as the back of his hands. He did not fear the creatures of the night, although he had a healthy respect for them. Whenever he ventured into the forest, he studied his surroundings as the gypsies taught him, partially to take advantage of what Nature could provide, but also to make sure Baba Yaga wasn’t hiding behind a tree. He was brave, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew there was a lot he didn’t know yet.
Perhaps it would be good to go somewhere with new books, and new challenges. Perhaps it was time to see Vadoma.
Illya’s memories drift from the past to earlier in the week. They were on a stake out, one that was laced with too much boredom and not enough coffee.
“Napoleon, do you believe in the boogeyman?”
“The who? You mean the proverbial hiding-under-your-bed boogeyman?”
“They hide under beds?” That was a new one on Illya.
“Well, not at your place. They’d choke to death on the dust, but, yeah...”
The way Napoleon trailed off pulled Illya’s focus from their target, a dilapidated building. “What’s wrong?”
“If I tell you something, will you swear it never leaves this car?”
“You have to do better than that. You and I both know we have no honor.”
“Then my word as your partner.”
“That’ll have to do. I think… I think the Boogeyman took my cousin.”
Illya sat up, face concerned. “Why would you say that?”
“I saw it happen.” Napoleon shuddered. “I was five and in total awe of my cousin, Larry. He was so smooth and put together.”
“What was he, twelve?”
“Fifteen, but with the bearing of a 24 year old. We, my other cousins and I, all followed him around as if he was a god. He loved it, except when a certain girl came around. Then he would get rid of us.”
“How? I would have stuck to him like glue?”
“He would scare us off.”
“And that worked?”
Napoleon shrugged and hunched back in his seat. “One night, Margaret, that was the girl he liked, was having to spend the night. The girls were in one room and the boys in the other.”
“I’m guessing that Larry had other plans.”
“That night he told us about the boogeyman that hid under the bed. By the time he finished, we were terrified. He laughed and jumped out of bed, proclaiming that he wasn’t scared, then something grabbed him and dragged him, kicking and screaming, under the bed. We raised such a commotion that our parents came in, but there was no sign of Larry. Ever again.”
“What? You’re pulling my leg.”
“I wish I was. Everyone searched high and low. Strangely enough, later we found out that Margaret had been telling the same story in her room and had also disappeared.”
Illya smiled at that. “They ran off together, then.”
“That’s what our parents wanted us to believe.”
“But you didn’t?”
Napoleon looked around, as if worried someone might hear. “I’ve never told another soul this, Illya, but that night, I saw the floor just before our folks came in. It was wet and smeared with blood. I know they saw it and they whisked us away to the living room. A camp out, they called it. The next day, they swapped around all the bedrooms and put all our beds on the floor.”
“You’re joking.” Illya started to smile, then it faded. “You’re not joking.”
“I wish I was. About three years later, a deer hunter found two skeletons out in the middle of a field.”
“Your cousin and the girl?
Napoleon shrugged and studied the car’s console. “We never knew. It was less than 500 yards from the house and been ploughed up twice. No one could say how they got there.”
“This is where you laugh and say, got you,” Illya murmured.
“I wish I could.” Napoleon took a deep breath. “So, yes, I do believe in the boogeyman, with every fiber of my being. You should, too.”
Illya stood behind a tree watching her wagon for a long time. Even though he was not large for his age, Illya or, Golden, at the tribe called him, he was strong. He knew he had nothing to fear from Vadoma, nothing except her words. He’d seem men crumble beneath them and women weep from happiness.
She lived on the outskirts of the group, part of them, still apart. She was Vadoma, the seer, the witch, the bride of Buka. In her cards was the truth. He squeezed the ruble in his hand, the hard metal comforting. He peered around the tree as the door opened and Vadoma stood there.
“Come and speak to me, Golden.” For a moment, Illya was frozen in place, terrified. “Come, child, you do not need to be afraid of me.”
“Just from your words,” he murmured coming out from his hiding place.
“Words are merely words. It is the interpretation of them where the harm lies.”
She disappeared back into the wagon like a puff of smoke and Illya swallowed and gathered his strength. He’d walked by her wagon many times. It was brightly colored, like the other wagons, but there was something different about it. While the others were merely a conveyance, it was as if this one was alive.
He climbed the two steps up and went into the wagon. Ona would be green with envy. He often spoke about wanting to see the inside of Vadoma’s wagon. Illya studied all the details so he could share them when he met up with his friend later.
“You are leaving us.”
“That is to be decided.”
“The cards tell me differently.” She had turned over a card. “This is the Knight of Pentacles. He is single minded and responsible, but he takes no chances. You will be set upon a task that you have no chance of winning, yet you will never falter from its path. It tells me that you have endurance and patience, even when you want to give up, you will not.”
Illya grunted at that. “That sounds tedious.” He was proud that he knew that word in Romani.
“Perhaps.” Another card turned. “Strength. That is self-explanatory. And Temperance, again, no explanation. You will find the strength to overcome great obstacles and the common sense to know when a rock is merely a rock and not a boulder.”
“Will my family be all right without me?”
Vadoma smiled. “Finally a question.” She spread out the cards. “Pick one.” Illya did and handed it to her. “Another pentacle card. The suit favors you. They are of the Earth and of success. Yes, your family will be fine and they will know wealth, wealth started by your decision now.”
“Will I be all right?” Illya hoped his voice didn’t sound as small as it did to him.
She gestured and he picked. “The world. You have nothing to fear, Illya Nichovetch. The world is on your side and will watch and protect you.”
He placed his ruble upon a small red cloth and turned to go, but Vadoma’s voice stopped him.
“Take this card with you.” It was in a thick envelope. “Take it, but do not look at it until it tells you to. And never forget what you have learned here with us, Golden.”
And he never did. Not when he went to Moscow, to Paris, London or even America. Her words and the ways of the gypsies stayed in his heart, even when he wished they wouldn’t.
Illya shivered and zipped up his insulated camouflage jacket a bit more. It wasn’t usual that the cold bothered him, but tonight it did. It crawled in, finding every little nook and cranny.
He pulled his thick wool cap lower on his head. It wasn’t usual that a forest made him worried and cautious, but this one did. The trees wailed from the violence and horror they’d witnessed. He was in the forest of his childhood. He was in the realm of Baba Yaga and Buka. In the light of day, it was easy to make light of them, but now, with the trees were ominous specters against the cloudy flecked sky.
“Anything?” Napoleon’s voice was tinny but comforting. It helped knowing that he was safe and well away from these woods. Illya brought a hand to his chest and felt a familiar shape. The card, still in its envelope was tucked away. So far, though, he’d never felt the need to open it. Just having it with him made him feel more connected, more a part of the people who used to roam these woods.
“Not yet, but from all the reports, we have to be close. I’ll check back in…” Illya glanced at his wristwatch, a gift from his parents. “Fifteen minutes. Out.”
He tucked the communicator away and crept forward a few feet, listening to the forest, testing the scents, his eyes closed. There was something on the wind, faint but fetid. Sadly, they were on the right path.
This THRUSH was called The Vicar. He masqueraded as one, systematically luring people into a false sense of comfort and then plundering them. He stole money, property, and lives. Then he kicked it up a notch, going too far for even THRUSH. He’d escaped to Russia and headed into the vast wilderness. For a while UNCLE and THRUSH both thought they’d seen the last of him, then the reports started coming in.
He was going through and destroying entire villages. He lured the populace into a town hall with a promise of a great feast, then he sealed them in and set a fire. Men, women, and children were burned to death in the resulting blaze. The few who managed to stagger from the flames, he shot in cold blood. The loss of life made Illya’s stomach roil with anger and despair.
Now they were working with THRUSH, reluctantly but cautiously, to track down The Vicar. THRUSH was working one angle, UNCLE, the other. And Illya, he was chasing the monster through the woods of his past. He remembered some of the paths and where they led. Granted the gypsy wagons were long gone, but their memories were alive.
Illya crawled through the underbrush, staying as low as he could. There was a clearing ahead. It had once been a meeting place, where women danced and men exchanged tales. As a child, he sat and listened to the stories of Baba Yaga and Buka, spying a chicken-footed hut behind every brush. With each story, there was a moral: be true to yourself, be brave, be compassionate, but always respect the danger. Only by thinking you were better or somehow immune, that’s when the trouble started.
Illya touched the card and remembered Vadoma and his gypsy friends. “I believe,” he murmured in Romany. “I believe and I respect the beings of the night.” He repeated it in Russian.
He came to the clearing; it was much smaller than he remembered it. For a moment, so many images hurtled back upon him that he was nearly carried away on a crest of nostalgia. Then he saw a pile burlap sacks on the ground. There was movement within the bags. All of his instincts told him to rush out and rip the thick bags open, but something held him back. Something he knew lived in these woods, watching and waiting.
“Napoleon, I’ve found something,” he murmured into the communicator. “Triangulate on this signal.” He set it down and skirted the clearing, pausing now and again to study the shadows for any sense of movement. It was nearly impossible for the wind had come up and was tossing branches back and forth. He checked his watch and crept slowly into the clearing.
Holding his gun at the ready, he yanked open the cord holding a bag closed. With a yowl, a cat leapt out, followed by three more and they vanished into the woods. The other bags revealed cats, dogs, even some birds, all still alive.
“How like an UNCLE agent.” The voice stopped Illya as he emptied the last bag. “Do you know how long it took me it catch them?”
Illya turned and straightened facing The Vicar, holding a gun aimed at Illya’s midsection. “It wasn’t enough to destroy the people. You needed to kill all the animals as well?”
“That was the agreement. Oh well, no matter. I will present you instead.”
“Agreement? This is low even for THRUSH.”
“THRUSH?” The Vicar laughed until he clutched a side. “I gave up on THRUSH a long time ago. True, they were a nice stepping stone, but even their vision was short sighted. I serve a much more powerful master now.”
“The world isn’t enough?” Illya saw movement from the brush and kept a smile from his face. Reinforcements had arrived.
“Nothing is ever enough. Not this world, not this existence, not anything.”
A single form exited the trees, but Illya could tell it wasn’t Napoleon or anyone else he knew. “You desecrate and defile these woods.”
The Vicar laughed. “From who? You? The Gypsies.”
“Baba Yaga and Buka,” Illya voice lowered in reverence.
This garnered him another laugh. “How old are you? A big brave UNCLE agent scared of boogey men.”
“Yes.” Illya could see what stood behind The Vicar now. “Everything begins with a truth and what we do with it defines us as a person.” Illya’s breath caught and his eyes widened. “I believe in you.”
“Believe in me? Do you think that’s going to save you, UNCLE? I believe in nothing.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.” Illya knew why he’d been so uncomfortable. He’d remembered the stories, the old stories from the gypsies of a creature, a boogie man that roamed these woods, searching for non-believers – the Buka.
The Vicar gasped as his shoulder was clamped and he looked back to stare into the space that was once a man’s face. Now worms wiggled and struggled to escape the black maw even as The Vicar started screaming and shooting.
Illya felt a all-too familiar burn and dropped to the ground, stunned. For a moment, the world swam and then he felt himself being lifted. “I believe,” he murmured. “Please.”
“So do I, partner, if only because we were able to find you.” Napoleon’s voice brought Illya back from the brink of darkness. “What the hell did you do?” Napoleon uncapped his canteen and offered it to Illya.
Illya sipped it and waited to see what his stomach would do. When it didn’t rebel, he took a gulp. “Not me. Buka.”
“It’s a creature that roams the woods looking for non-believers.”
“I guess he found what he was looking for in the pseudo vicar?” Napoleon Helped Illya to his feet. “Are you hurt?”
“I think so.” Illya looked down at the tear in his jacket. “But it’s minor.”
“Well, let’s get you somewhere warm.” Napoleon toed the vicar’s body. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Safe and sound now, spared by something Illya would never speak of again. Napoleon knew and that was enough – a second secret shared between them.
He turned the tarot card over. It was the Ten of Pentacles. Illya remembered that Vadoma told him that suit favored him. Completion and satisfaction, love and reward was written in faded pencil on the bottom of the card.
“Illya, you decent?”
And Napoleon’s voice was reward enough.