In the early light of dawn, Illya Kuryakin guided his rigid framed dinghy into the shelter of one of the many inlets along the irregular coastline of the small island. The large whitecaps that buffeted his small craft while he was in open water had diminished to wind driven chop that pushed him closer to the rocky shore.
The agent’s wet hair plastered against his head as the horizontal slant of the rain lashed his face making it nearly impossible to see more than 25 feet ahead through squinted eyelids. The foul weather gear he wore did little to keep the water from running down his neck. He pulled at the cold sodden collar of his wool turtleneck which scratched miserably against his neck. He had been traveling between the small islands in the bay looking for evidence of THRUSH activity. The New York headquarters had received intel from a dubious source claiming that the organization had set up shop in the area. Illya’s assignment was to land at each of the islands and to observe any activity that might substantiate the intel source’s claim.
Kuryakin spent an average of twenty-four hours of observation on each island. Ten islands and ten days later he had nothing to report to headquarters. Two islands remained after this one and he rejoiced in knowing that he would soon be able to return to civilization, a hot shower, and a bed that didn’t have lumps of rocks under the mattress.
He pulled out the waterproof chart and his notes regarding this particular island. The research department at the UNCLE noted that this was Ostrov bez vozvrashcheniya or the Island of No Return located about 100 miles off the eastern coast of Russia. There had once been a notorious penal colony established on the island where only the most hardened international criminals were incarcerated to live out the rest of their natural lives. Records indicated there had never been a successful escape and those who didn’t die trying to do so were severely punished. There had been rumors of torture. The prison was shut down in 1962 when the last of the prisoners had died.
The one mile by one-half mile island presented numerous opportunities for concealment thanks to the thick stands of dark spruce trees and the huge boulders and rocky ridges. According to the map, the old buildings left from the penal colony were located in a clearing at the northern end of the island. If our feathered friends are on this island it’s a bet they’ll be using the ruins.
Illya hefted his rucksack and began the steep 200 foot climb up the nearest ridge. When he reached a copse of trees just below the summit he set up his observation post. He was fully ensconced in his location before the sun rose above the sea’s horizon. There he would watch for any movement and report any findings directly to Mr. Waverly via his communicator.
Over the next twelve hours, he glassed the compound below. A graveyard, located on the south end of the compound, looked to have seen better days. Most of the grave stones were either standing at odd angles due to frost heaves or were broken, lying forgotten on the ground. The buildings were in a sad state of decay. According to the research department they were well over 100 years old. The rate of decay and reports of horrible torture were some of the reasons the penal colony had been shut down. Apparently, once abandoned, the rate of deterioration increased. Fallen plaster lay at the base of cracked and crumbling perimeter walls. Vegetation grew up some of the walls and onto the roofs. There was one building, however, that seemed to have weathered the decay better than the others. And it was from that building, Illya thought he saw a flicker of movement in one of the windows. He would wait for dusk to fall before he moved closer to get a better look.
“Open Channel D, Overseas Relay, Kuryakin here.”
“Channel ...static...open. Hello wayward ...static...anger, h...static...goes it?”
Illya grimaced. “Hello, Napoleon. I can ...static...ly hear you.I am wet, cold, and hun...static... if you mu...static kn...and gru... y.”
“S... it ... unds like situa.... norm...... partner. But I ca......barely.......he....you. Have you had an..... uck?”
Illya looked at his communicator in frustration and gave it a shake before answering. “I think so. I am on ............... There seems....... be......... activity in one of the main....ings. .... will take a clo....look ...... gets dark.
“B....car...., IK. Mr. Waverly .......orders ........ not to engage ..... enemy. Get closer, if you must, ......then............hell out of there. Check in when you are clear and back on the water.”
“I’ll ...........amp ......on.... shore ....weather ..... rough to cross ......the dinghy.....will report at 2200 hours local time. Kury.... out.”
Napoleon Solo turned to the communications expert on duty. “I couldn’t hear which island he was on. Could you?” The agent shook her head.
“No, Mr. Solo. There was too much static probably caused by atmospheric conditions of the storm.”
“Did you get enough of the signal to be able to triangulate his position?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Damn! Keep trying to find him.” Solo left the communications room. He needed to fill the Old Man in.
As he signed off, Kuryakin heard the whisper of a foot step on the moss laden rocks behind him. Grabbing his Walther, he spun to face the noise only to see a carbine pointed at the middle of his forehead.
“I’ll take that, if you don’t mind.” A uniformed guard grabbed the communicator, dropped it on one of the rocks before smashing it and grinding it into shards with his foot. Turning back to the UNCLE agent he said, “Now say ‘goodnight’ Gracie” and swung his rifle butt against Kuryakin’s head.
Kuryakin’s head hurt like hell when he finally regained consciousness. The harsh light of an old fluorescent bulb in a rusted light fixture worked its way past the agent’s eyes causing the pulsing behind his eyes to beat harder. To make it worse his head was bound tightly to a headrest. He groaned.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.” A feminine voice behind him whispered. “And welcome to my fun house.” A long blood red fingernail traced the planes on his face leaving a scratch deep enough for blood to well up. “It was so kind of you to drop by.” The last words punctuated with high cackling squeal.
The Russian tried to shift into a more comfortable position in the chair but discovered that he was bound so tightly he was unable to move any of his limbs.
“Trying to move is quite useless. You are sitting in what’s called the mad chair. It is designed to give one a chance to reflect on the error of his or her ways and realize that conforming to my rules is far less painful. Those who resist and remain unrepentant have been known to lose limbs from lack of circulation or go quite mad.”
“Why not come in front where I can see my hostess?”
“In due time, my dear, in due time. Meanwhile I’ll let you get a good night’s sleep so you’ll be well rested for the party and all the lovely activities I’ve planned.” She nodded to one of the men standing in the room who stepped forward and pulled a tight black hood over the agent’s head.
“I can hardly wait,” Kuryakin muttered.
Another guard immediately hit him in his abdomen knocking the wind out of him.
“Sarcasm, is hardly the way to show good manners,” the soft voice scolded. “Boys, I believe our guest would like to clean up and rest for the evening. Please show him where to go.” Again the hysterical cackle resounded off the walls as she left the room.
Straps holding him to the chair were loosened. Then with his arms pinioned behind him he was dragged away. Although the hood kept Kuryakin from seeing where he was, he could tell from the freezing temperature that he had been taken outdoors. He came to a stop and was roughly pushed against a wall.
“I thought you were taking me to a shower.” It was hard to speak with the hood drawn tightly against his face. He was answered with another blow to the stomach which took him down to his knees hard against loose rock and rubble.
“Oh we are!”
Before he had time to react Kuryakin was stripped and both arms were grabbed and pulled high above his head where they were placed in manacles and attached to a post. Ropes were drawn around his chest, hips, thighs and ankles binding him tightly against the pole.
“Hell of a way to treat a gu....”
Buckets of ice cold water doused him so unexpectedly it took his breath away and it continuously gushed over him for at least ten minutes. The cloth over his head became so waterlogged that he couldn’t breathe through his nose and water poured into his mouth. He couldn’t catch his breath. Just as he was about to pass out the water stopped.
“That ought hold him for awhile. He’s definitely a lot cleaner!” The guard chuckled.
“Yep, and we’ll let him stay tied here so he can get his beauty rest. As cold as it is, he may just rest in peace.” The other guard chimed in laughing at his own joke.
In the silence that followed, Illya hung between consciousness and unconsciousness. It was still hard to breathe past the icy sodden cloth of the mask. In his more wakeful moments he was aware of the staccato sound his chattering teeth made. To his horror he realized that ice had formed on his skin and because of the way he was bound he was unable move or break the ice. At some point in the night his teeth stopped chattering, a sure sign of hypothermia, and Illya wondered if he would live to see the morning. As he drifted into a dazed state he thought he heard the voice of a man. “Come on Lad, don’t give up on yourself. You’re a tough one I can tell. Here, this will warm you up, son.” And an incredible blanket of warmth and comfort enveloped the agent as sleep claimed him.
“Laddie!” Illya’s jerked open. He remembered the life robbing chill and wondered how it was that he was still alive. His eyes strained to see through the hood, but could see nothing. “Lad, I have to go now. The day is soon upon us and we must go.”
“Who are you? Where are you?” His questions remained unanswered. A fleeting memory of supporting warmth lingered in the back of his mind.
“Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch. The bugger is still alive! Cut him down, Roger.”
Illya felt the ropes fall away from his body and his hands released. No longer supported by his bonds he fell to the ground.
“Come on, stand up.” A foot prodded his covered head. Another kicked him hard across the back. “Get up. You’ll get all dirty again. Do you want another shower? We’ll be happy to oblige.” The voice contained a note of hope.
“No, I will get up, just give me a minute.” He received another blow to his back and he cried out in pain.
Once again he was dragged indoors. His bare feet scraped along rubble that had fallen from the walls and ceiling. He cursed as he felt the flesh on his soles rip.
The guards jerked him to a stop and pulled the hood off. The Russian blinked back tears caused by the sudden light flooding past his lids. “Here put these on.” Filthy, striped trousers and shirt were thrown at him. Trembling from the abuse he had experienced he slowly pulled on the uniform.
“Okay, now listen up. In a little while you’re going to see Lady. If you value your eyes don’t look at her, and if you want to keep your tongue don’t speak. Understand?”
He nodded his head and said, “Yes.”
Immediately, he was struck across the face. “No talking!”
The hood was forced over his head again and he was led down a hallway of the cell block. As he passed by the different cells he could hear groans and cries of pain and fear. The guards stopped him in front of one cell and pushed him inside. He heard the iron door clang shut and the key turn in the lock.
“Back up to the door so I can remove your cuffs. Then you can remove the hood. Whenever, someone comes into the cell you must wear the hood. Whenever you leave the cell you will wear the hood. Understand?”
Kuryakin nodded. The guards left and he was alone. He pulled the hood off and took in his surroundings.
The windowless cell once had white washed plaster walls. The arched ceiling and walls had deteriorated over the years and where the plaster had crumbled and fallen to the floor, squares of quarried stone lay behind. In the center of the room was an old barber’s chair, which was in remarkably good condition compared to its surroundings. The cast iron base sported some rust, as did the metal trim on the chair. The red leather seat was in pretty good shape with few cracks. The headrest was worn through and darkened with age. Illya knew it had to be the mad chair.
As time passed, Illya began to feel as if he wasn’t truly alone. He felt as if the air around him was heavy, vibrating. Occasionally, he thought he saw a shimmer in the cell. An atmospheric anomaly I would guess. But as he looked more carefully he saw the shimmer settle in the chair and coalesce into a man, a man who was bound cruelly by his arms and legs to the chair. His head was forced back against the headrest and restrained. His limbs were blue from lack of circulation. The stench of urine and feces surrounded him as though he had been bound to the chair for days.
Illya rubbed his eyes. He knew the man hadn’t been there a moment ago, or had he? The agent rushed over to the chair to release the man’s bonds. As he reached for the prisoner’s arms his hands passed right through them. He scrambled back. How could this be? He looked further around the cell and saw apparitions with missing limbs. Some seemed to suffer from insanity. As he continued to look more souls filled the cell many screaming, others crying, “Help us.” Just as he thought he, too, was going insane the key turned in the lock.
“Put your hood on and back up to the door.”
It almost was with relief that Illya complied. Anything to get away from the tortured souls.
Illya was taken through several corridors before coming to a halt. He heard the guard knock on a wooden door. A voice rang out giving permission to enter.
The guard snarled in his ear. “Remember, no looking. No talking. Personally, I hope you forget. It will be fun teaching you a lesson.” He ripped the hood off and pushed the still cuffed agent into the room.
Illya stumbled as he was pushed forward, nearly falling into “Lady”.
“Oh you poor thing! Here let me help you up.” Lady grabbed him by his hair and jerked him to his feet. “Are you hurt, m’dear?”
Out of habit, he answered, “No.”
Lady looked at Illya disapprovingly. “Tell me, dear man, what brought you to my island? How did you know I had run out of guests to play with? Hmmm?” She tipped Illya’s chin up trying to force him to look at her. He kept his eyes lowered.
“My men found your equipment on the ridge and your boat on the far shore. What were you looking for?” He didn’t answer.
“Well, I think you came to take my precious island from me and you want to keep me from my games. Look at me, my pet.”
Illya refused sending the woman into a rage. Angrily, she lifted her spiked heel and rammed it into the instep of his left foot.
He howled in pain, “Ouch! You are crazy.”
She turned away from him to address the guard. “You did inform him not to talk, did you not?”
Then take him outside this evening and put him in the iron gag...for four hours. That should encourage him to follow the rules. Oh and he’s all dirty again. Be sure to have him shower this evening.
The guard nodded again, put the hood over Kuryakin’s head, and cuffed him before dragging him out of the room.
The iron gag, also called an iron bit was a hideous device. The prison had used it to reform prisoners who insisted on communicating with each other. Kuryakin had been taken outside and forced to kneel down by the same pole that held him the previous night. The guard pulled the hood off of his head and made a big show of bringing out the iron gag with the chain and leather straps attached to it. Illya eyed it warily. The gag was a heavy iron bar with pieces of metal attached to it, designed to tear the tongue if the prisoner moved.
The bar was forced into his mouth and chained tightly behind his neck. Next his head was forced back while his arms were tied behind him with straps leading from the chain to his wrists. If he were to try and lower his arms or move his head forward the gag would pull on his tongue causing it to rip. Next the guard chained Illya’s feet to the pole so he couldn’t get away.
“Good luck with that one, bub! Most people die of suffocation from choking on their own blood. Maybe next time you’ll remember to keep your mouth shut.”
As the sun set, Illya tried hard to ignore the stretch in his arms and neck. He could feel the gag pulling against the corners of his mouth. Never had he realized how hard it was to keep his tongue from moving.
“Oh, Laddie, look what they’ve done to you.” This time Illya could see the owner of the voice and it worried him. A semi-transparent figure of a man knelt before him. Unlike the ghosts that were inside, this one wore civilian clothes. The Russian’s eyes pleaded for help. “I’m sorry lad. I am not able to release you. My hands pass right through inanimate objects. But I can offer you some physical comfort.” He sat down next to him, if one can call hovering above the floor “sitting”. Quietly, carefully he wrapped himself around the suffering mortal supporting both his arms and neck. “Rest, Laddie, I’ve got you.”
Over the next few hours, the ghost quietly spoke to his charge. “It’s gonna be alright, Lad. Help is coming. You just have to hang in there. Just a little more time. The most important thing is to keep you out of the mad chair, son. If you are subjected to that there is nothing I can do. So whatever happens in the next few minutes stay calm. Don’t fight back. I can tell it will be hard for you but you must submit, be meek. Do you understand me, Lad?”
The only way Kuryakin could respond was to blink his eyes.
“I will stay with you as long as I can, Laddie. As long as it is dark out, I can stay with you, but once they move you inside you are on your own. No one else can see me or hear me. Only those of good heart and soul can see and hear me.”
Again Illya blinked his eyes.
“Hey, bub, it’s time for your shower!” The guard kicked Kuryakin’s legs jarring him awake. He unchained his legs from the pole. The lashes were unfastened from the gag’s chain and he was allowed to lower his arms, only they were so cramped, he couldn’t. The gag was removed and before he could spit blood and saliva out of his mouth the hood once again was shoved over his head.
The guard, seeing the weakened state his prisoner was in, didn’t even bother to restrain him. He just dragged him into a sitting position against the pole. He leaned over and spoke into Kuryakin’s ear. “Now, I’m going to give you your shower and you’re not going to make a sound or I’ll put you back in the iron gag. Understand?” The prisoner nodded slightly. “And if you’re really good I won’t even tie you up, but you have to promise that you will stay in this position all night. If you even think of twitching I’ll put you in the mad chair for a week. This time the prisoner held completely still. The only sign of movement was the puckering of cloth over the man’s mouth as he breathed.
“Remember, Laddie, help is on the way. You must hold on. Just promise me that you’ll destroy this island and the evil that lingers here,” the voice whispered into Illya’s ear. “Destroy the island.”
The lever to the tank holding over 100 gallons of iced water was pulled and for the next twenty minutes water poured over the unconscious man.
Napoleon Solo frantically checked his watch, 0330. He and his team had to find Illya and get off the island by 0445 because at 0500 an air attack would be launched with orders to blast it out of existence. No prisoners would be taken and, if the team was behind schedule then they, too, would be caught in the attack.
Through the process of elimination, Napoleon knew which island his partner was on. He was overjoyed when Illya called in on his communicator confirming that he was indeed there. The Russian indicated that his boat had been sabotaged and needed transportation and explained the importance of destroying the island. He then set the homing signal for Napoleon to follow. Napoleon had tried to reach his partner again but there was only static although the homing signal stayed strong calling him to his friend. He hoped he would reach Illya in time.
In the light of a full moon, two of the five man team stayed with the Zodiac. “If we’re not back by 0445 get out of here, do not...I repeat...do not wait for us.” Napoleon and two others climbed up the steep trail to Illya’s stealth camp. There lying amongst the clump grass was one very still, very wet UNCLE agent.
Napoleon ran over to the still form and checked for a pulse. It was there, but thready. Illya’s skin was cold and the wet clothes were leeching whatever warmth that remained away from the body.
The three agents moved rapidly. An IV drip of warm saline solution was started and then they bundled him into a down sleeping bag before lashing him to a stretcher. Napoleon checked the time...0417. They had 28 minutes to make it back to the Zodiac and get as far away from the island as possible. Napoleon radioed down to the waiting agents. “Found him, we’re on our way. We should be there by 0440.”
“Roger. You’re cutting it pretty close. Do your orders still stand?”
“Affirmative.” The radio went dead.
As they were leaving, Napoleon turned back to take one last look at the campsite and swore he saw a shimmering by the destroyed tent.
A voice on the wind was heard to say, “Take care of the Laddie. He’s a good man.”
At 0443, the rescue team returned to the Zodiac. They practically tossed the laden stretcher into the boat before pushing off, the engine at full throttle. At 0500, the men could hear the scream of low approaching jets and watched as missile after missile slammed into the island leaving a fire ball that rose hundreds of feet into the air. They sat transfixed by the level of destruction before Napoleon clapped the helmsman on the shoulder. “Let’s go home, Al!” As Al pushed the throttle forward, Napoleon moved over to the stretcher to sit with his partner.
Two days later, Napoleon walked into medical to check on his partner’s progress and smiled at the familiar raised voices of both Illya and the nurse. The nurse bumped into him at the threshold of Illya’s room. “Please, tell me, Mr. Solo that you are here to rid me of that...that...that ungrateful aggravating menace!” She pointed back at Illya whose glare was at full strength.
“But, of course, m’dear. We’ll be out of here in five minutes. I promise.”
That evening the two agents sat in reflective silence as they sipped their wine and watched the flames licking at the logs in Napoleon’s fireplace. Neither had said much since their return to headquarters.
“Did I mention to you we found the THRUSH satrapy on one of the other islands? They’ve all been arrested and await hearings and probable sentencing.”
Illya shuddered. “As much as I want to see THRUSH agents get their due, I hope they never end up in a penal colony like the one on the Island of No Return!”
“You know, Illya, it’s a damned good thing that you were able to get back up to the ridge and contact us when you did. I think I, uh....we would have lost you otherwise.”
A questioning eyebrow rose. “Contact you? Napoleon, I had no way of contacting you. That nut job’s guards smashed my communicator against a rock. It was beyond repair! The homing beacon was destroyed. And I do not remember escaping and climbing the ridge. My last memory before waking up on the ship was of water being poured over me. I could not breathe and lost consciousness. I would have died if it weren’t for...” he let his voice drop off, then murmured, “I wonder if he was the one who got me up to the ridge and contacted you.”
He shook his head, “No, it is simply not possible.”
“Again, I ask. Who, Illya?”
The blond looked up and studied his friend’s face. “Napoleon, do you believe in ghosts?”
“Ah...I’m not sure. What are you saying?”
For the next hour, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin told his only trusted friend about his time on the island, and of the apparition that saved him.
After he finished, the two sat quietly for a few minutes. Napoleon cleared his throat.
“Illya, I think you’re wrong. That wasn’t a ghost...it was your guardian angel.”
In the corner, by the fireplace, a shimmer softened the lighting and Napoleon heard a lilting voice say, “Take care of the Laddie until I am needed. He’s a good man.”