Title: Collected Works
Written for Scrapbook's Halloween Challenge 2013
Illya gazed up at the imposing facade of the manor, its Gothic turrets framed against a storm-drenched sky. Lightning flashed, illuminating the crumbling stones for an instant; the torches flickered in their sconces.
“You would think the owners of this grand mansion could afford proper electric lights,” he observed with some annoyance.
“Offends your sensibility, does it?” Napoleon chuckled. “Personally, I think torchlight gives the place a homey touch. Chez Frankenstein.”
“If you say so.” Illya surveyed the grounds – not a soul in sight, and no other homes for miles in any direction. “It certainly is isolated enough to be a THRUSH lair.”
“We'll know soon enough.” Napoleon stepped around a boxwood bush and peeked into several of the first floor windows, but he could see nothing through the thick, wavy glass. He sighed. “I don't get it, Illya. What would April and Mark have been doing all the way out here? Their assignment was back in Newcastle, and as far as we know, the owner of this place has no connection whatsoever to their mission, or to THRUSH.”
“All Headquarters knows is that a passerby – a birdwatcher – saw them entering the manor gates two nights ago. That was the last time anyone saw them. It's not much, but it is the only lead we have.”
Just then, a jagged bolt of lightning lit the heavens. Thunder rolled across the hills. The skies opened up.
“Well, we won't get any answers standing out here in the rain.” Napoleon tugged on the brass door pull, and a chime rang distantly inside the manor. After nearly a minute, they heard footsteps approaching. The heavy oak door swung open.
“Good evening,” intoned a rather emaciated-looking butler. Illya noted that his upper crust British accent had a distinctly Scottish lilt. “May I help you?”
“Uh, yes, I hope so,” Napoleon ad libbed. “Our car's broken down. May we come in and phone for a tow truck?”
The butler stepped aside, waving them forward. “Walk this way.”
Illya rolled his eyes.
Suppressing the urge to laugh, they preceded him down a long, dimly lit hall to a drawing room filled with overstuffed leather furniture. A fire blazed in the open hearth. A middle-aged gentleman in a quilted smoking jacket sat before the fire, nursing a brandy as he flipped through the pages of a novel. At his feet, a pair of springer spaniels dozed. The dogs raised their heads at the intrusion, and the female emitted a soft growl.
“Now, now, Calpurnia. Mind your manners.” The man rose. “Lord Oliver Belhaven,” he declared in a sonorous baritone. “And you are –?”
“Napoleon Solo, and this is my colleague, Professor Kuryakin. We were looking at property in the area, but our car seems to have broken down.”
“Goodness, and on a night like this! You're both soaked to the skin. Come and sit by the fire while Gladstone fetches some towels. Brandy?”
“Please.” Napoleon scanned the room, which resembled the Great Hall of a medieval castle, complete with coat of arms over the fireplace and a shiny suit of armor at the base of the stairs. “Interesting place. Had it long?”
Lord Belhaven smiled. “It's been in my family since the fourteen hundred's. I've never lived anywhere else.” He reached down to ruffle the fur of his dogs. “You say you were looking at property? Any place in particular?”
“We've just started looking. Getting the lay of the land, so to speak.”
“Yes, of course, early days.” Belhaven peered at the two men over the rim of his glass. “If I might ask, what are you a professor of, Mr. Kuryakin?”
“Art history,” Illya replied, seizing on the first thought that came to mind. “Magdalene College.”
“Ah, a Cambridge man. Then perhaps you'd enjoy a tour of the gallery? My family has acquired a rather extensive collection of paintings and murals over the centuries. I'm certain you'd find it interesting.”
“Yes, thank you, that would be – ”
“Oliver,” a voice warbled from the top of the staircase, “you didn't tell me we had guests.”
The woman was old, incredibly old, a shrunken prune of a woman, with wisps of white hair sticking out at all angles like tufts of cotton candy. She seemed overwhelmed by her purple brocade dressing gown, as though she had accidentally appropriated a garment made for someone else. It took the old woman an interminable length of time to totter down the long staircase. Napoleon and Illya held their breath, willing her not to fall.
“Gentlemen,” Oliver said, “may I present my mother, Lady Clarisse.”
Napoleon smiled charmingly. “A pleasure, milady.” Illya eyed the frail woman with concern. She looked as though she wouldn't last the night.
Clarisse turned rheumy eyes upon the two men. “Show them the gallery, Oliver,” she wheezed.
He turned to his guests. “Mother is understandably proud of our little collection. We don't get many visitors, and she relishes the opportunity to show off her newest acquisitions. As do I, of course.”
Napoleon nodded. “Of course.” He hesitated. “Speaking of visitors, I understand some friends of ours were here to see you recently. April Dancer and Mark Slate?”
Belhaven cocked his head thoughtfully. “Dancer and Slate? Sounds like a law firm – they're not barristers, are they?” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, you must mean those lovely young honeymooners. I remember now – they wanted to know about the rhododendrons in the main garden.”
“They wanted to know about – rhododendrons?”
“Yes, the species is R.praecox, you know. Lovely mauve blossoms in the springtime. My gardener fertilizes them in a mulch of leafmold, composted bark and peat.”
“The gallery!” Clarisse wheezed impatiently. “Show them!”
Belhaven smiled. “Oh, dear. I'm afraid mother won't be satisfied until you see it. Will you gentlemen indulge me?”
Napoleon and Illya exchanged glances. “Why not?”
They followed Oliver and Clarisse down a long hall paneled in dark wood tones, and flanked by a collection of antique broadswords. They reached a set of double doors.
“Open it!” Clarisse snapped. “Open it!”
Belhaven inserted a key into the lock, and the doors swung open. They stepped inside.
The gallery turned out to be a series of rooms, arranged chronologically, each dedicated to a style of painting. The first room, dedicated to Roman art, contained several floor-to-ceiling murals labeled as being “from the villa of Fannius Sinistor, Boscoreale, Italia.” They depicted togaed Romans drinking and fornicating.
For fornicators enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, Illya thought they seemed oddly cheerless. There was an undercurrent of misery to the images that he found deeply unsettling.
The next room contained a stunning array of 14th and 15th century frescoes – a Creation altarpiece, a rather graphic depiction of the Crucifixion, and a massive, masterful panel of a Madonna and Child that Illya swore was by Giotto. And yet –
“This is an unknown work,” he said. “It is similar to his Ognissanti Madonna, but the saints in the background are positioned differently. Also, they do not look happy, as saints should when beholding their god.”
“There are more surprises yet to come,” Lord Belhaven replied cryptically. They moved on.
They passed from room to room, each space filled with enormous and stunning works of art from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic Periods. Each room left Illya more unsettled than the one before.
“Odd,” he remarked. “There are no landscapes, no still lifes. Only portraits.”
For no reason he could fathom, Napoleon felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He surreptitiously flicked the safety off his sidearm.
They came to a room so filled with color that it seemed to bleed from the walls. The Impressionists, read the sign above the entryway. Illya recognized Monets, Renoirs, a Delacroix, a Degas ballerina en pointe, and a Cezanne entitled Man With Coffeepot. Each painting was exquisitely rendered, framed in an ornate gilded frame, and not one of them was authentic.
“I do not understand,” Illya said at last. “Surely you must know these paintings are forgeries. The brush strokes are all wrong. Not only that, many of the canvases are uncharacteristically large. The Gauguin Blue Christ, for example – his Yellow Christ was a mere meter tall, not three.”
“Au contraire, Professor,” Lord Belhaven smiled. “These works are more genuine than you can imagine. I should know. I painted them.”
Illya's eyes widened at the unexpected revelation. “You?”
Clarisse backed away, rubbing her bony hands together in glee.
“You cannot possibly have painted all of these,” Illya protested. “There are too many.”
“True. Some of the earlier works were painted by my ancestors. Artistic talent runs in my family.”
“So it would seem.”
“The Impressionists are all mine, however. Remarkable, aren't they? Not only are the paintings beautiful in their own right, but they serve another purpose as well. Would you care to see?”
Something in the way he said it pinged their internal radar, setting off alarm bells. Napoleon and Illya exchanged uneasy glances. Something was very wrong here.
“I love a good mystery,” Napoleon replied with deceptive ease. “After you, Lord Belhaven.”
On high alert now, they followed him into the final room, which turned out to be an artist's studio. A single, large canvas stood on an easel, covered with a white sheet.
Belhaven gestured toward the easel. “Why don't you do the honors, Professor?”
Illya stepped forward and tore the sheet away. His breath caught in his throat.
The painting was unfinished, but enough had been completed for them to see that the main subject was a titian-haired woman, her bare arms resting on a Parisian zinc bar. Beside her was a bowl of nectarines. She held a glass of milky green absinthe in her hand.
“I call it Woman With Nectarines.”
Napoleon gasped. “Is that –?”
Illya nodded. “– April.” He peered more closely at the painting. “And in the background, the man with the paisley vest – Mark.”
Napoleon turned. “What the hell are you playing at, Belhaven?”
But Oliver and Clarisse were gone. As he watched, the door to the room slammed shut, and the ventilation system in the ceiling began to emit an ominous hissing sound.
“Gas!” Napoleon tore off one of his exploding cufflinks and hurled it at the door, but it had no effect.
“Reinforced,” Illya gasped. He covered his nose and mouth and attempted to pick the lock, but the potent gas quickly filled the room, and he was overcome. Napoleon collapsed at his side, unconscious.
Napoleon opened his eyes. He felt dizzy, and a trifle nauseous. He lifted his head from the table and stared at the glass of bilious green absinthe in his – gloved! – hand. Beside him, Illya lay splayed across the tabletop, arms dangling, unconscious. A black beret covered a portion of his long blond hair.
“Illya! Come on, wake up!”
“G'de –?”Illya raised his head, and felt the room spin. “Oh, Napoleon, I do not feel well.”
“Welcome to the club, tovarisch, and I mean that in the literal sense.”
He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and gasped. The artist's studio had disappeared. In its place was a cafe, turn-of-the-century, crowded, gaslit. Around them, elegantly attired patrons danced, or raised their glasses in a toast, their frozen images half-realized, eerily incomplete. Two glasses of absinthe sat upon the white tablecloth beside a plate of oysters. A cottony haze seemed to surround the strange tableau.“Bozhe moy! Is this – ?”
“– the painting we saw. Yeah, I think so.”
“We are in the painting?”
“Very good, gentlemen,” Lord Belhaven's disembodied voice chuckled from somewhere beyond their vision. “Some of my subjects never figure out what's happened to them.”
They squinted past the swirling haze, and began to make out movement on the other side. It was like looking into a funhouse mirror – the shadowy images wavering and distorting as they shifted about. Gradually their eyes adjusted, and the shapes resolved into Belhaven and Clarisse.
“What have you done to us?” Napoleon rasped as another wave of nausea hit.
“Come, come, Mr. Solo,” Belhaven said. “Surely you can guess.” He gestured toward Clarisse, and they saw that the old woman was not nearly so ancient as she had once appeared. Her body was straighter, her spine less hunched, and her hair – still sparse, but thicker than it had been – displayed flashes of golden blonde. Her once-rheumy eyes were clear and blue.
“She's growing younger,” Napoleon realized with a shock.
“Indeed she is. For the record gentlemen, Clarisse is my wife, not my mother.” He caressed her wrinkled cheek. “It will be good to have you back once more, dearest.”
“Hungry,” Clarisse cackled. “So hungry.”
Napoleon repressed a shudder. “How did you do it?” he asked. “How did you trap us in here?”
“It's a technique handed down in my family for generations uncounted. Very hush-hush, of course. You see, my 14th century progenitor, Baron Polwarth de Belhaven, was an alchemist. In the course of his rather uninspired studies, he stumbled upon a chemical compound that, when infused with blood and flesh from a donor and applied to canvas, would transfer the life force of the donor to the painter, or to a person of his choosing. It's the equivalent of the Philosopher's Stone, guaranteeing virtual immortality to those that make use of the potion on a regular basis.”
“Then all those paintings we saw are –?”
“Generous contributors to my family's longevity.”
Napoleon thought he might be sick. “What about April and Mark? Are they alive?”
“For the moment. As you can see, they have transitioned into a sort of dream state – a painless, floating consciousness. By morning, you will have joined them. Incidentally, once that happens, you'll be unable to change position, so be sure to select a nice pose while you have the opportunity.”
“You mean we can move about in here?”
“Of course, dear chap. Never let it be said that I was inhumane. The establishment you're in is real, down to the smallest detail. I've given you a world of your very own to explore – well, for a few hours, anyway. When the last brushstroke is finished, the process will be complete and irreversible. Your life force will be transferred to my dear Clarisse, and you and your friends will cease to exist, except as images on a canvas.”
“What gives you the right to take our lives?” Illya snapped.
“Right?” Lord Belhaven smiled. “It's not a question of rights, dear boy, but of power.”
Clarisse stepped closer. “Hurry! Paint them!”
He patted her hand. “Patience, my love. You know the process can't be rushed. Paint needs time to dry. Come, we'll rest tonight, and resume our work in the morning.”
“Morning!” she cackled. “Yes, morning! So hungry!”
“Pleasant dreams, gentlemen.” Belhaven pulled the sheet across the canvas, throwing Illya and Napoleon into darkness. The sound of footsteps diminished. A door opened and shut.
“They're gone.” Napoleon blinked several times, trying to force his eyes to see something, anything. It was no use. “Christ, it's dark in here.”
“Wait a minute,” Illya hissed. “I think I saw a candle on one of the tables. If we are real, maybe the candles are, too.”
“There are matches in my pocket.”
Tables were jostled and chairs fell as Illya felt his way forward in the darkness. The flare of a match, and they had light again. Navigating by candlelight, he found the knob for the gas jets lining the walls. He turned the knob, and the cafe blazed with light. “Better.”
Napoleon was already bending over Mark. “He's out cold.”
Illya checked April's pulse. “The same.” He took the glass of absinthe from April, sniffed it. “The liquor is real, in any case.” He lifted it to his lips.
“Don't drink that! We don't know what it does.” He held up Mark's glass. “Empty, and April's is only half full. They each drank some. And look around – we're the only two customers in the place with glasses of absinthe on our table. Everyone else has wine.”
Illya put the glass down. “Perhaps I will save myself for the Stolichnaya. What now?”
“You heard what Lord Belhaven said – we've got until morning to find a way out of here. Any suggestions?”
“Do you have your communicator?”
Napoleon checked his breast pocket. “Gone.”
“Mine as well.”
“I don't suppose you could whip up an antidote from your vast knowledge of chemistry?”
Illya shook his head. “If our host is to be believed, the formula responsible for our predicament is not chemical, but alchemical. The very idea flies in the face of any science I have studied. We might as well try to turn lead into gold.”
Napoleon picked up a steak knife. “It's just canvas. Maybe we can cut our way out.”
“I do not think the answer is that simple. If it were, others would have succeeded in escaping before now.”
“I suppose.” It was hard to think. “We could set the painting on fire –?”
“A dangerous option at best. The painting appears to function as a sort of window between two realities. I suspect we are alchemically bonded to the canvas – to this reality. Any attempt to destroy it might also kill us.”
“I guess that leaves out my exploding tie clip,” Napoleon sighed. “There's a way out of any box. We just have to find it.”
“I suggest we explore the boundaries of the painting,” Illya replied purposefully. “Who knows – perhaps our host has inadvertently left us a back door.”
They walked the perimeter of the dining room, looking for a break in the strange, foggy haze that constituted the borders of their prison. They found none. They peered out the plate glass window of the cafe, and saw nothing but swirling, billowing whiteness. They climbed the stairs to the second floor and found that, where the staircase ended, the fog began. It was the same with the basement stairs.
“No escape that way,” Napoleon said. “We'll have to think of something else.”
Without warning, Illya collapsed, crying out in pain. He drew a hand across his face, looked up at Napoleon with an agonized expression. “Na – ” he whispered, and froze.
Napoleon seized his friend by the shoulders, and shook him. No response. He slapped him across the face. Nothing. He slapped him again. After several long seconds, Illya's eyes refocused. “– poleon!” He blinked uncertainly. “What – just happened?”
“It's starting, tovarisch. The transformation. We don't have much time left.”
Illya forced his mind to function through the creeping paralysis that was overtaking it. “What if –?” he whispered. “What if we –?”
“Come on, Illya! Think!”
If thinking was difficult, speech had become nearly impossible. “Go into – the fog –?”
Napoleon frowned. “The fog? But there's nothing out there. We checked.”
“Please – trust –”
It took less than a second for Napoleon to decide. He commandeered a rolling dessert cart, and draped April and Mark across the top of it. “Can you walk, tovarisch?”
“Think – so –”
“Here, lean on my shoulder.” Supporting Illya, he rolled the cart toward the glass doors at the front of the restaurant.
“Ready?” They stepped through.
The sensation – or lack of it – was immediate and terrifying. Each step they took across the white nothingness was like leaping off the roof of a building and waiting for the imminent, terrible fall. Their shoes made no sound. The cart, which had had a squeak in one of its wheels, was disturbingly silent. The air was ice cold and utterly still. They could see nothing. It was a world without sight or sound, smell or touch.
“How far do you think this fog goes?” Napoleon asked but, although his vocal cords vibrated with the effort to speak and his mouth and teeth formed the words, no sound emerged. His ears felt as though they had been stuffed with cotton.
They wandered through the fog for what seemed like an eternity. The nothingness mocked their senses, fraying their nerves to the point of madness. It was like being consigned to Limbo, Napoleon thought, that terrible region at the edge of Dante's Hell.
We've trained in sensory deprivation tanks before, he reminded himself grimly. This is no worse.
But what if the fog never ends, his fear retorted. What if this is all there is, forever? He thrust the thought away.
After a time, he began to notice that Illya was standing up straighter, and had begun to walk under his own power again. On the cart, he could sense April stirring. Perhaps the effect wears off, the further we get from the painting. The thought was encouraging.
Almost imperceptibly, the fog began to thin. A light beckoned in the distance, and they made for it like starving men. A step; another step, and suddenly there was solid ground beneath their feet again. They could hear sounds – footfalls, water dripping. Another step, and they stood on the cobbled floor of a cellar. Napoleon could have wept.
“Are we out, Illya? Did we make it?” It was a relief just to hear his own voice again.
Illya glanced around, and breathed a sigh of profound gratitude. “I believe so.”
They were in a stone cellar, its walls grown moist and mossy with age. Shelves and cupboards lined the room's perimeter, displaying an impressive array of powders and tinctures. A microscope and a Bunsen burner sat upon a badly stained countertop, along with several jars of formaldehyde in which floated various organs of indeterminate origin. “I believe we may have found Lord Belhaven's laboratory.”
April groaned in her sleep. Her color was improving, Napoleon thought, and her pulse was stronger and more regular. He brushed a lock of hair away from her lovely, pale face. “Come on, Red, time to wake up.”
While Napoleon concentrated on rousing April, Illya searched the drawers and cupboards. He crowed in triumph when he located their communicators. “Open Channel D. This is – ”
“Murderers! What have you done!?”
Oliver Belhaven stood at the base of the stairs, a hunting rifle aimed at Illya's heart. His hair was wild and unkempt, and his bloodshot eyes held murderous intent. “She's dead!” he howled like a madman. “Clarisse is dead!”
Napoleon took two quick steps to the right, placing him nearer the cupboards. He scanned the shelves, looking for something he could use as a weapon. Keep him talking. “Lady Clarisse was looking rather well earlier, your Lordship. What happened?”
Belhaven swung the rifle toward him. “What do you think happened? You left the painting! You took your energy away and it died, taking my dear Clarisse with it.”
I would be careful with that rifle, if I were you,” Illya said, and risked a step to the left. “We are no good to you, dead. You need our energy for your own transformation.”
The rifle swung back. “That's where you're wrong! I have decades left before I must feed, but Clarisse – My dear Clarisse –” The gun wavered in his hand.
Napoleon inched to the right. “She waited too long, didn't she?”
“Stop moving!” Belhaven snapped, swinging the rifle back. His hands shook; spittle dribbled from the corners of his mouth. “I offered you my hospitality, and this – this! – is how you repay me?!” He leveled the gun at Napoleon's chest and took aim.
A gasp. “Bloody hell!” April shrieked. “Who put me in this damned corset?”
Belhaven fired, but the sudden distraction threw his aim off. The bullet went wild, rebounding off the stone wall and striking a canister of pressurized propane. As it burst into flame, Illya launched himself across the room, knocking Belhaven to the ground and wresting the rifle from his hands. It skittered across the stone floor as the laboratory began to fill with smoke.
“Illya, get our host out of here,” Napoleon ordered. “April, I'll explain later. For now, can you help me carry Mark?”
“I can try.” Together they lifted her partner under the armpits, and hauled him unceremoniously up the stairs. “I have to tell you Napoleon, this would be a lot easier without the corset and bustle.”
His eyes dropped briefly to her cleavage. “I have no objection if you want to take them off.”
They sat in the UNCLE staff car, watching as the manor house burned to the ground. A recovery team was on the scene, had been for several hours now, and had declared the building a total loss. Lord Belhaven had been taken into custody, and would most likely spend the remainder of his considerably shortened life in an UNCLE mental institution. Mark was awake and receiving oxygen in the UNCLE medical van. Gladstone the butler was nowhere to be found.
April stroked the springer spaniel perched on her lap. The poor dog trembled with cold and fear. “Shh, Calpurnia,” she soothed. “It will be all right. We'll find you and Caesar a good home, I promise.” Calpurnia whimpered softly and licked April's hand..
Another turret crumbled and fell, the fire roaring as it moved in. Black smoke rose into the night.
“All those innocent people murdered,” Napoleon murmured, “so many lives cut short, just so Belhaven and his family could extend their own pathetic lives.”
“It is often thus,” Illya replied. “The wealthy and powerful invariably take more than their share.”
“Don't let Aunt Amy hear you say that,” Napoleon chided gently. “She might take offense.”
Illya smiled, conceding the point. “There are exceptions, I suppose.”
“Enough exceptions to make the world worth saving,” Napoleon replied, and with that comforting thought, he turned away from the terrible fire, and closed his eyes.