Spooks

Brussels, l986.

She was afraid of him at first, and for a few months after he moved in, Martine Renaud pretended that he wasn't even there. It wasn't difficult. Kuryakin was more like a ghost haunting the upper floors than a flesh and blood tenant. He was never around for more than five consecutive days at a time and when he was, he kept to himself, reading or sleeping or prowling restlessly about the old house.

As he had predicted, there were never any telephone calls for him. No mail was delivered. When Kuryakin did meet clients — as he called them — it was always in a cafe or restaurant, in another part of the city. No one was ever invited back to the house.

Yet, as time wore on, Martine and Illya began to share more than just the facilities. He helped with small repairs and odd jobs and she occasionally cooked for him, washed his clothes and treated his injuries.

Kuryakin never really explained all the minor cuts and sprains and bruises he sustained from time to time. The results of clumsy accidents, he told her, but Martine didn't believe it. She knew he suffered from severe headaches too, but they, like his various injuries, remained as mysterious as his business.

Once in a while, they went out to dinner, and while the conversation was always enjoyable, Martine couldn't help noticing that her companion continually positioned himself with a clear view of the front door, his back usually to a wall. He seemed wary of all but the most public of places. He always politely declined to join her for evening walks and whenever he sat or stood near a window, it was never too close.

If Martine felt vaguely disturbed by Kuryakin's peculiar habits, they ceased to concern her when a prominent art dealer agreed in the spring to sell a few of her pieces. Soon, the customers were back, a gallery was calling, and Martine had more work than she could handle.

No visitors came to the house that summer except a stray tomcat, who showed up one day with a splinter in his paw and nothing in his belly. Illya removed the splinter and Martine filled a saucer with milk and the cat, knowing a good thing when he saw it, stayed on.

The Russian was not particularly fond of dogs but he had a definite affinity for cats, and the tom took to following Illya around whenever they were both at home. Still, the cat remained nameless for weeks until one August evening, when Kuryakin caught him clawing the back door and crying to get out.

"The same routine every night," the Russian said as he pushed open the screen door.

"He's very popular with the lady cats in the neighborhood," Martine observed and Kuryakin laughed ruefully.

"Then we must call him Napoleon."

"Why?"

"In honor of his many conquests."

So the cat became Napoleon and Martine grew accustomed to having them both wander in and out of the house at will. She found it oddly reassuring that her tenants, despite their capricious, independent natures, always seemed to come back home to her.

But then, one morning in September, the cat failed to return from his usual nocturnal jaunt and Martine was deeply upset. "I'm worried about him," she told Kuryakin after calling the cat for hours with no success. Her companion was philosophical: "Perhaps it was simply time for him to move on."

... As it will be for you one day no doubt, Martine thought to herself. But she put the saucer away and said nothing.

Summer faded into fall and as the leaves began to color, Illya and Martine settled into a quiet, peaceful companionship. She learned to anticipate his moods, adjusting to his need for solitude and privacy. He, in turn, proved to be dependable and agreeable company. They became friends and they might have simply stayed that way forever if Kuryakin hadn't staggered home on the eve of All Saints' Day and nearly died.

The evening began routinely enough. The rain had been falling all day: a steady, cold, bone-numbing downpour that darkened the sky and doused the daylight long before the grandfather clock in the upper hallway chimed six.

Martine looked up from her painting and rubbed her tired eyes. The old house was quiet. Illya was out somewhere on an errand. He hadn't told her where he was going, or why, but then, he never did.

As she rinsed out her brushes and packed up her tubes of paint, she decided it was a good night to stay in. She'd been working particularly hard, preparing for an exhibition scheduled to open after the first of the year. So, she ate a light supper and retired early, hoping to catch up on some much needed sleep.

The sound awoke her after midnight, faint but persistent, like the scratching of a cat at the back door. Martine thought of the lost Napoleon, threw on her robe and went downstairs to investigate. She pushed aside the curtain on the back door and peeked outside.

The rain had begun to moderate to a fine, foggy mist and the window was moist with condensation. Martine made a little porthole on the glass with her fist and saw the top of Kuryakin's head. He seemed to be having difficulty with the lock. She turned on the back porch light and opened the door to let him in.

And then she caught her breath. His face sent a chill racing down her spine. The skin was tight and bloodless and as slick as vinyl. She had seen corpses at wakes that looked healthier than this.

"Thank you," the Russian said almost too casually. He tried to tuck away his keys but he missed the pocket and the ring clattered loudly to the floor.

"Illya?"

"It's all right," he calmly reassured her before he took a step and pitched forward into her arms. Startled, Martine lurched under his weight. When she tried to prop him up by the armpits, her right hand felt something wet and sticky.

"You're bleeding!" she cried but Kuryakin shook his head as he leaned against her and hauled himself up.

"It's nothing," he gasped and squeezed his eyes shut. "Just help me get upstairs."

A spasm suddenly seized his body and hammered him once more to the floor. Martine maneuvered herself under him, but as she reached for one of his wrists, Kuryakin abruptly pulled back. "Hands ..." he managed to say between breaths. "Don't touch my hands."

He held his arms away from his body like a surgeon on the way to an operating room. Feeling confused and more than a little bit frightened, Martine obeyed and clamped both of her arms around his waist. Kuryakin crooked an elbow around her neck and they stumbled back through the kitchen and into the parlor.

All the way, Kuryakin's body trembled uncontrollably and when they gained the foot of the stairs, it was suddenly rocked by a violent tremor. The Russian groaned as his knees buckled, and nearly pulled Martine down with him.

But the Frenchwoman persevered. She half-dragged, half-carried her burden up the staircase. They made it as far as Martine's room when she finally gave up and deposited Kuryakin on her own bed. He rolled away, on the very edge of insensibility. Martine sat down beside him and peeled away his jacket.

"You should go to a hospital," she said. The blood spurting from his left bicep bloomed like a black flower on his sweater. It must be an artery, she told herself when she saw the rapidly spreading stain. She bunched the edge of her bedspread against his shoulder to retard the flow.

"No ... not safe," he rasped, heaving great mouthfuls of air. His lungs labored hard as he fought to stay conscious.

"But this wound needs attention."

"Small calibre... unimportant. Candy-coated wineglass worse." He held out his quivering hands. They seemed uninjured but there was an oily sheen on the fingertips and Martine caught a whiff of something that smelled vaguely like garlic.

Neither his actions nor his words made any sense to her, but Martine didn't need to understand Kuryakin's ravings to realize that his condition was critical. He's going to die, she thought, on the verge of panic. He's going to die right here, in my bed. Mon Dieu...

"Please, Illya. I must do something. I can't sit here and watch you die. We need help." Kuryakin's head lolled to one side for a moment as a wave of dizziness washed over him.

"Please Illya —."

"All right," he said finally. "Call ... this phone number." He spat out a halting series of numbers and Martine listened, repeated it twice and committed it to memory.

"Say only that you are reporting a case ... of Russian flu," he added after a pause. "Only that... It will be enough."

"I'll call at once," Martine replied as she started to leave but Kuryakin wasn't finished. He flung out an arm weakly in her direction.

"No. Not from the house... Use... another phone."

"But Illya —."

"Do as I say!"

Another convulsion wracked his body, sending Martine on her way. She grabbed her coat from the hall rack, retrieved the abandoned keys from the back porch, and rushed through the door into the night.

Outside, the rain had ended but a dense fog now shrouded the city. Martine hurried through the deserted streets and fervently wished she would awaken soon from this nightmare.

She found a public booth two blocks away. Fortunately, the telephone was in service and the drone of the dial tone in her ear came as a welcome relief. She punched out the memorized digits and waited. The phone at the other end range five times before it was answered.

"Yes?" a polite, measured voice asked. It sounded American. Martine switched to English.

"Monsieur? Please," she said, remembering Kuryakin's instructions. "I must report a case of flu. Russian flu."

There was silence on the line for a second or two. Then: "And what are the symptoms?"

Martine clutched the receiver nervously to her ear. She didn't know what to say. Kuryakin had told her those few words would be enough. She hesitated, trying to formulate an appropriate response. "Bleeding, Monsieur, from the left arm. And convulsions. His whole body is shaking. He cannot seem to stop it."

"How bad is the wound?"

"He said it was nothing. But he is perspiring too, Monsieur, and he has no color." Another silence followed and Martine added, "He will not allow me to touch his hands."

That did it. There was a satisfied grunt from the party on the other end.

"Listen carefully, Miss, and think before you answer. Are his lips also chapped or burned in any way?"

"No."

"Are his eyes red and watery?"

"I do not think so."

"Is he vomiting? Was there diarrhea?"

"Not so far."

"Do you remember any colored stain on his fingertips? Or smell?" Martine recalled the faint scent of garlic and told him about it.

"Very good. You've done well, Miss. May I ask who you are?"

"I am the woman he lives with," Martine said quietly.

"I see. Well, I will require five hundred dollars. In cash. I prefer American currency but the equivalent in francs or pounds will be acceptable. Do you have that kind of money on hand?"

Martine said "yes" without knowing for sure. "Will you come, Monsieur?"

"Maybe. Don't say the address. I know it. By the way, how is his breathing?"

"Difficult."

"Do you know how to administer CPR by any chance?"

"No, Monsieur."

"Too bad."

Too bad? Martine screamed back at him in her head. What kind of doctor are you anyway? She almost cried out loud, but it wouldn't have mattered, even if she had. The line was already dead.

When she returned to her bedroom on the second floor of the house, Martine found Kuryakin on the floor. He'd fallen off the bed. She tried to lift him, but he moaned and shivered and she thought better of it. Instead, she pulled off the bloody bedspread and covered him with it.

"The doctor is coming," she said, trying to comfort him, but Kuryakin didn't hear her. He was delirious, feverishly mumbling in English and Russian.

Most of it sounded like gibberish, but at one point, Martine did hear him call to Napoleon and warn him to be careful. Why Illya should think of a cat at a time like this made no sense at all. It would be months before she'd would meet Solo and make the connection.

Although it seemed like an eternity, less than an hour actually passed before the doorbell rang. Martine nearly tripped as she scurried down the stairs and ripped open the front door.

The doctor — if indeed, he was one — waited patiently on the stoop. He was a lean, gaunt figure, with sad, half-closed eyes and a head of neat but prematurely white hair. His black doctor's bag was almost a big as a suitcase.

"He's upstairs," Martine said, pointing above her head. "Please, hurry."

She led him up the main staircase and down the hallway, pausing every few feet to turn her head and gesture anxiously. But the tall, thin man no longer hurried for any reason, and despite her urging he followed her at a leisurely trot.

Kuryakin was lying where she had left him, still wrapped in the bedspread. The blood had soaked through, staining it beet red.

"Let's get him on the bed," the doctor said and cradled the Russian by the shoulders. Martine pulled away the bedspread, but as she bent to grasp his legs, she noticed that Illya's pants were drenched.

"They sometimes lose bladder control," the doctor said simply, anticipating the question on her lips. "It's common in cases like this. Don't be concerned. Now lift."

What sort of "case" is this? Martine wanted to ask, but she kept silent and did as she was told.

"Help me take his clothes off. Watch out for his hands," the doctor ordered her again, and they quickly but carefully began to undress the Russian. Kuryakin resisted at first, jerking under their touch, but Martine patted his cheek soothingly to calm him. He muttered something incoherent, rolled his eyes and slipped back into unconsciousness.

The doctor stripped away the shirt, revealing the wounded arm. The bullet hole was centered like a bull's eye in the bloody mess. Martine put a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp.

"It looks worse than it is," the doctor commented casually as he inspected the wound. "Besides, Mr. Kuryakin has been shot before."

He pointed randomly to the few circular shadows scattered among the other marks that stood out against the pale, moist skin in distinct relief. Martine clucked her tongue softly: there were so many scars.

"I would appreciate it if you could clean him up while I work on him," the doctor said and tossed her a pair of surgical gloves. "Here. Put these on when you wash his hands. And make sure you scrub them thoroughly."

Martine went to fetch some wet towels and soap. By the time she returned, the doctor had already injected Illya with something and was busy, dressing the arm. They worked in silence, and for Martine, the scene had an almost surreal quality to it.

It's like one of those gory horror movies, she thought to herself. We have everything: the body, the blood, Dr. Frankenstein and a foggy night outside. What do the Americans say? Happy Halloween...

"If you're finished over there," the doctor said from the other end of the bed, "could I trouble you for some coffee?"

"Of course, Monsieur." Martine bundled the stained towels together in a pile. They looked unsalvageable. Probably, she'd be forced to throw them in the trash. "I will put a pot on the stove downstairs right away."

"Thank you," the doctor murmured. His speech, like his overall manner, was sullen and sluggish, but the weariness seemed to be more than merely physical.

The coffee was just about ready by the time the strange doctor came into to the kitchen. Martine set a place for him at the table and poured a cup for each of them.

Lowering himself heavily into one of the wooden chairs, the doctor sighed. "Well, I've done what I can."

"His arm — it will be all right?" Martine inquired as she set out the creamer and the sugar bowl. The man refused the cream, but ladled three heaping spoonfuls of sugar into his cup.

"Yeah, it'll heal, but the arm isn't the problem."

"Illya said something about a frosted glass..." Martine recalled as she sat down and sipped at her coffee.

"Candy-coated."

"Yes, that was it. What does it mean?"

The doctor leaned back and snorted. "It's a term they use for poison that's absorbed through the skin." He didn't bother to explain who they were.

"Poison? Was that why he was shaking so terribly?"

The white-haired man nodded. "It was an anticholinesterase agent, the kind of stuff they use in nerve gas and insecticides. To put it simply, it interferes with the normal functioning of the neuromuscular system. The effect is the opposite of paralysis: twitching, convulsions, irregular heartbeat, eventually leading to coma or cardiac arrest. In a sense, the victim dies of exhaustion."

The doctor refilled his cup, added another spoonful of sugar and stirred it thoughtfully. "I've been seeing a lot of it around lately. Apparently, someone's been playing with his chemistry set for a little extra cash."

The woman shuddered. "Who would do a thing like that?"

"Ask your boyfriend when he recovers. If he recovers."

"If?" Martine repeated, ignoring the reference to Illya as her boyfriend. The man shrugged.

"The bullet went clean through, but the wound was fairly deep. He lost a lot of blood but he probably lost some of the poison with it. It may have saved his life. He's lucky it wasn't something faster-acting — like curare or pure nicotine."

"But you're not certain that he will recover."

The doctor shrugged again. His listless indifference was beginning to irritate her. "I set up an I-V to replenish the blood. Kuryakin has a strong heart. If he survives the next seventy-two hours, he'll make it. And if not..."

His voice trailed off as he finished his coffee. He stood up, ready to leave. "And now I'll have my money, please."

Martine handed him an envelope stuffed with thousand franc notes and twenty-dollar bills. She'd been saving for a new furnace and it was all the money she had in the house. Bitterness welled up inside her as she watched him count it. She echoed her earlier question: "What sort of doctor are you, anyway?"

The man laughed softly as he folded the envelope into his breast pocket. "I'm don't consider myself a doctor at all. Doctors care for the living. I treat the marginally existing: people who totter on the metaphysical brink, like sleepwalkers on a tightrope.

"It's only a matter of time before they slip and fall. Some of them are dead already. They just haven't realized it yet."

He studied Martine, noting her anger that was barely suppressed. "You think I'm being cruel, don't you? Then why do you think they call them 'spooks'?"

"I don't understand."

"No matter," the doctor said as they walked back to the front door. He stopped near his black bag and pulled on his raincoat. "You seem like a nice girl, so I'm going to give you a piece of advice. Like Alice, you have tumbled through the looking glass, but you're not lost yet. You still have time to find your way back. Do so. When that man upstairs is sufficiently recovered, tell him politely but firmly to go. And then forget about him and all of this."

"Do you have a name, Doctor?" Martine asked as she opened the door for him.

"They call me Caligari, after that character in the silent film. A suggestion from one of my patients. It seemed perversely appropriate, so I kept it."

"Why don't you use your real name?"

The doctor only smiled at her, as indulgent parents do when their child says something foolish. "Take my advice, Miss, while there's still time. Good night."

He hefted the black case and floated away, into the drifting fog. Martine closed the door and locked it deliberately behind her.

She returned to her bedroom and placed a hand on Kuryakin's brow. He was still hot and sweaty, but the twitching had tapered off and he seemed to be resting comfortably.

Martine smiled and gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead. Then she pulled up a chair to the side of the bed and fell asleep in it. She slept that way every night afterward until the third morning when the fever broke, and Kuryakin opened his eyes and asked for breakfast.