Crisp. It can describe so many things. An apple is crisp, if it's any good, that is. A suit can have a crisp crease in the trousers, and you can utter a crisp reply at a remark that it less than pleasing.
A piece of bacon can be burned to a crisp. So can a human being.
It was the stench of that now making Napoleon Solo sick to his stomach. The smell of burning flesh is unlike anything else in the world; that and the knowledge that beyond the horrific odor lay the remains of what was once a person.
Right now, Napoleon was trying hard to believe that the person was not his partner.
Illya had last contacted him while in pursuit of the man they had been tracking for the past two weeks. Finally, after a chase that had taken them across the borders of five countries, they had gotten a break.
The Thrush scientist they sought was a wild card, neither fully committed to the Hierarchy nor opposed to its purposes. He had a formula for disaster that he carried in a small vial on his person, and the game he played with UNCLE now was the folly of a madman.
Illya had assumed a disguise that appeared to have been successful for a few days, allowing him to accompany the man and gain some access to him as a wilderness guide. The two men had embarked on a backpacking journey that required Illya's knowledge of the mountainous area. The purpose had remained unknown, and looking at the campsite in its present state, Napoleon lamented to himself that it might remain so.
"Hey, Chuck, any idea yet what caused the fire? I mean, besides… you know, a fire…"
Napoleon was tired, and he was not communicating well. Illya had been here, but whether or not it was his remains in this ashen nightmare was still an unanswered question.
"Napoleon, you look like hell.'
Chuck Mangum was in charge of investigating the scene, and knew the probability of Napoleon Solo's partner being one of the victims was running very high. It wasn't often that UNCLE had to send in a crew under these circumstances; explosions and fires were usually in old buildings or new Thrush satrapies. Forest fires were something else again, and this … it was a mystery. He felt sorry for Solo, recognized the man's fatigue and … sadness.
"Why don't you go back down. One of the Section III guys can drive you down in one of the jeeps. You look pretty ragged, man."
Napoleon wiped his forehead, pushing back a lock of hair that was refusing to mould to his head properly. It made him think of Illya, of that mane of blond hair that had no restraints or rules to …
O my God. Illya, is this you?
The forest was not as dense through here. The higher elevation resulted in a thinning of the vegetation, and the scorched remains of the campsite stood out against the surrounding green like an ill placed paint splat on an otherwise pristine canvas. It was ugly, and the reality of what it represented even more so.
"Yeah, Chuck, you're probably right. I just… if Illya is here somewhere I don't want to miss finding him. You know…?"
The look on Napoleon's face melted Chuck's heart. This was agony, watching UNCLE's top man grieving over his partner, not yet sure if he was dead or missing, but facing horrible evidence to the former.
If there were just some story to accompany the scene, then it might be easier. Napoleon couldn't understand what had transpired here, and that was making him crazy. It was just a hot spot, one blackened piece of earth and the evidence of what had been a small tent, a circle of stones that must have been the fire pit, and some other metal bits that hadn't melted completely. The most damning of all was the Walther. It was Illya's, the initial K clearly visible still on the handle.
Someone was yelling, out beyond the first circle of investigators. The men had spread out in a cylindrical formation, attempting to look at every inch of the space for as far out as seemed necessary. The shouting was coming from well beyond the first two lines of investigators, and seemed a little frantic.
"Napoleon, they want you."
Napoleon's heart skipped a beat, accompanied by a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as it roiled beneath the grim surroundings and a near certainty that bad news could only get worse.
Nonetheless, he set off at a run, knowing full well that it might not be what he feared. If Illya had gotten far enough away, then whatever had caused this incendiary flash might have missed the Russian. Napoleon caught himself speaking aloud.
"Let it be Illya… alive."
He came to the spot and stood next to the agent who had called out. The man put out an arm, holding his hand against Napoleon's chest, stopping him.
"What? Is it my partner?"
The man lowered his arm…
"We don't want to disturb the area, Napoleon, we're still investigating, remember. Just walk in slowly, I've already called for medical assistance."
He said that last with a hint of a smile. It wasn't all good, but it wasn't all bad, either.
Napoleon gripped the man's arms.
A statement, not a question.
Napoleon didn't wait for the answer, he was moving past and into the patch of scrubby grass and slightly singed bushes. Two men were crouched by a body, pulling at something … bloody cloth. The shirt was bloody…
Napoleon knelt down next to Illya, taking in the inert body and the blood that had soaked his shirt. Cleve, one of the agents, had pulled the shirt back away from the wound. It was a bullet hole, and Illya had been bleeding for… How long?
"He has a pulse, Napoleon. It's weak, but it's there."
Cleve spoke softly, as though he might wake up the wounded agent.
"Thanks, Cleve… I … wow, I was afraid…"
The other man nodded, each of them understanding the chasm of dread that lay between life and ultimate sacrifice.
"What happened here? Do we have any clues as to why Illya is out here with a bullet in him, and the camp was torched? Anything at all?"
Bakari, the other agent, spoke up. He was Nigerian, if Napoleon remembered correctly.
"This is a most fortunate situation for your partner, Mr. Solo. Had Mr. Kuryakin been closer to the campsite, he would surely have perished, sir. As it is, he seems to have been dragged out here after being shot."
Napoleon frowned at that. It didn't make any sense, because there was evidence of at least one body at the campsite. If Illya was shot first, then why wasn't he left there to die with Dr. Droste?
"And just who would rescue Illya from the fire?"
Napoleon was feeling for that pulse he had been promised. There it was, unrelenting, just like his friend.
The sound of helicopter blades whooshing through the air alerted the team to the arrival of the medical-rescue squad. UNCLE had resources in more places than Napoleon could fathom sometimes. This one had appeared, seemingly, out of nowhere. They were from a Swiss partner agency, he knew that, but the speed at which they had arrived was mind boggling. Good thing, too. Illya didn't look as though he would last much longer without attention from a doctor.
Without much conversation the wounded man was loaded into a basket apparatus and raised up into the helicopter. It was an operation that required some dexterity among the ground crew, and a fair amount of skill from the pilot and his men. Less than twenty minutes later and the Russian was aboard the aircraft, while Napoleon sped down the mountain road towards the facility that housed UNCLE Medical in this region.
Time crawled along the corridors of the hospital, through the surgical suite and back to a room shrouded in whispers and low lights. Illya Kuryakin would live. It hadn't been easy, and more blood than anyone wanted to believe had been transfused into the nearly dead agent. The bullet had missed his heart. That was the good and welcome news that greeted Napoleon when he finally arrived at the hospital reserved for UNCLE and other 'sensitive' medical emergencies. It otherwise served as a clinic for political and otherwise important international figures.
Napoleon sat in the semi-darkness and waited. He had filed a verbal report to Mr. Waverly. The body in the burned out camp was indeed Dr. Wilhelm Droste, the man whom Illya and Napoleon had chased over much of Western Europe. How Illya had escaped the fire was still a mystery, and not likely to be solved until the Russian awoke and told his story.
The investigative team had sent soil samples to the UNCLE lab in Geneva, along with some fragments of glass and metal found at the site. Illya's Special had also been sent to the lab in an effort to gain, if possible, fingerprints.
It now seemed likely that Illya Kuryakin had been shot with his own gun, a most unsavory aspect to this increasingly mysterious affair.