For Eilidhsd, because I promised you a story.
“Number 8,” the elderly desk clerk wheezed, handing Napoleon the key. “Last cabin on the left. That'll be $6.49.”
Napoleon handed over the cash and waited patiently while the man, hands gnarled with age, counted out the change.
Behind him, Illya paced restlessly, fingering the brochures on the “Things To Do in Central Maine” rack with disinterest, and watching the snow fall outside the lobby's bay window. “Is there anyplace to eat around here?” he asked.
He waited, but it appeared no further information was forthcoming. “Where?”
“Well now –” The old man scratched his head. “– there's Connie's Diner. It's down the road a piece, next to the Bait and Tackle. Ay-yuh. Connie makes a nice fish chowdah on Tuesdays.”
“That sounds perfect. Could you please give us directions?”
“I could,” the man replied, “but 'twon't do ya no good.”
“Diner's closed foah the wintah. Ay-yuh.”
“What about a grocery store?” Napoleon asked, trying to stave off his partner's imminent meltdown.
“Nearest one's in East Millnocket. Doubt it'll be open tonight though. It's wicked cold out.”
“Isn't anything open? A bar? Or a gas station?”
“Everything shuts down foah the wintah 'round heah,” the old man shrugged. He peered at the two strangers over his spectacles. “I suppose the wife could make you a bit of suppah – if yoah interested.”
Illya brightened. “That would be very kind.”
“If it isn't too much trouble.” Napoleon added, relieved that the crisis had been averted, at least for one meal. “We'll be glad to pay you, of course.”
But the old man waved him away.“On the house. Night like this, you need sump'n' that'll stick to yoah ribs. Bowl o' beef stew awright with you?”
Napoleon was warmed by the unexpected kindness. “It sounds wonderful, thank you.” He opened the lobby door, admitting a sharp blast of frigid air. “Come on, Illya. It's been a long day. We might as well get settled in.”
“I'll bring yoah suppah up in a bit,” the clerk promised.
They trudged through the snow to their rented Jeep, appalled at the amount of snow that had piled up in the short time they had been inside the lobby. “They don't call them Nor'easters for nothing,” Napoleon remarked as they collected their luggage.
The old man watched them struggle up the steep driveway to the cabin, wondering what sort of name Na-po-lee-on Solo was. Prob'ly one-a them Swedes, he decided, and reached for the phone to call his wife.
The cabin was small and basic, but it was blissfully warm and clean. Twin beds occupied one pine-paneled wall, separated by a battered nightstand containing a reading lamp, a rotary telephone and a Gideon Bible. A small black and white television sat atop the dresser on the opposite side of the room, gathering dust beside the curtained window. A tiny bathroom and an even tinier kitchenette completed the cabin's meager square footage.
Napoleon shrugged out of his wet mackinaw. “Do you think we lost them?”
“Yes, we should be safe for the moment,” Illya replied as he performed the requisite security check. “Our pursuers went the wrong way at the crossroads, thanks to our little misdirection with the street signs. Fortunately for us, your captors were not remarkable for their intelligence.”
“They weren't terribly bright, were they?”
“All brawn and no brains. They are probably halfway to Quebec by now.”
“Good riddance.” The senior agent rolled his shoulders, wincing as his muscles protested their recent abuse.
His discomfort did not go unnoticed. “Does it hurt much?” Illya asked, his eyes narrowed in concern.
“Not much,” he lied.
“I would have been there sooner, but I had a little problem with some unfriendly birds.”
“They do tend to flock together, don't they?”
Illya's smile was cold. “Not anymore.”
Napoleon unlaced his boots. “Once the snow stops, we can make our way to the airport at Presque Isle. Our contact should be waiting for us there.”
"Let us hope there are no more unpleasant surprises along the way." Illya gestured toward the bathroom door. "Do you want to shower first?"
“No, you go ahead. Frankly, you smell worse than a barrel of week-old fish."
"I still don't understand why you told that THRUSH lobsterman you had experience working on a trawler.”
"I had to tell him something, didn't I?" Illya shrugged. "It was the best I could come up with.”
“And here I thought you were creative.” Napoleon stretched out on one of the beds and closed his eyes. “Don't use up all the hot water,” he mumbled, already half-asleep.
“I would not dream of it.”
By the time Illya was done showering, the desk clerk's wife – whose name turned out to be Minnie Tuppworthy – had arrived with steaming plates of beef stew, bottles of Coca Cola, two slices of blueberry pie and a pot of rich, hot coffee.
“Now I want you boys to eat every bite,” she scolded. “Put some meat on yoah bones. Yoah lookin' a mite peaky, if you ask me.”
“We'll do that, ma'am. Thank you.”
“Call the front office if you need anything else, ay-yuh?”
They polished off their supper in short order. Hunger satisfied, they crawled into bed, thankful for the soft, clean sheets and thick, warm blankets.
“I could sleep for a week,” Napoleon sighed drowsily. He reached for the light.
Abruptly, Illya bolted upright. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“Outside the window. Didn't you hear it?”
Napoleon eased himself to a sitting position and listened. “I don't hear anything,” he replied after several moments. “Probably just the wind. Go to sleep.”
Illya's jaw set. “It was not the wind.”
“Well, whatever you heard, it's gone now. For God's sake, turn out the light and let's get some – ”
Napoleon slid his firearm out from under the pillow. Illya crept to the window, and drew aside a corner of the curtain.
“Oy, vy bednyazhka!”
“Damn. Don't tell me those THRUSH apes have found us again?”
“Not THRUSH. Shhh.” Illya seized his parka and boots. “Wait here,” he said, and dashed out into the night.
Napoleon waited with growing impatience, listening for sounds of battle, but all he heard was the wind howling in the trees. Several minutes passed, and he began to grow worried. The possibility that his partner had been ambushed, was lying out there in the dark, bleeding, crossed his mind a dozen times. Finally, he could stand it no longer. He reached for the door knob --
The door opened, and Illya slipped back into the room, shivering, lips blue with cold, his flannel pajamas covered in snow. He carried his parka in his arms. “Turn out the light,” he whispered.
Napoleon obediently switched it off. “Are you going to tell me what's going on?”
“Shhh.” Illya laid the parka upon the bed, and gestured for Napoleon to approach. He teased aside a corner of the fabric.
“What the –?”
A tiny owl peered up at them, its golden eyes wide with fear, its dark brown plumage streaked with blood. “Schweee-eee!” it cried.
“Aw, it's hurt.”
“It was sitting out there on the window ledge, shivering.”
Napoleon moved closer, pitching his voice low and soft. “I've seen this species before,” he said, “on my grandparents' farm. I think it's a saw-whet – a miniature owl. They migrate down from Canada in the wintertime – apparently they like the balmy Maine weather.” He leaned in for a closer look. “This one's got a broken wing. Bite marks on its breast, too. Looks like an animal almost got it. Maybe a fox or a marten.”
“Whatever it was, he was lucky to get away.”
Napoleon nodded. “Ideally we'd bring it to a vet, but that's not an option under the circumstances.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “First things first. We need to keep him warm and dark, and get some glucose into his system. That'll give him a fighting chance.”
He retrieved a glass from the bathroom sink and filled it with warm water. Then he tore open all the sugar packets from the coffee service, and stirred them in until they dissolved. Finally, he took one of the straws Mrs. Tuppworthy had left for their soda pop, and suctioned up a minute amount of the liquid. He placed his finger over the top end of the straw, and carefully dripped sugar water into the owl's open mouth. To his vast relief, the tiny bird accepted the offering, and opened its beak for more.
Satisfied that the bird would accept nourishment, he handed the glass and straw to Illya. “Keep feeding him while I rig up a splint for that wing.”
He dug through his overnight bag for scissors and a roll of electrical tape, and snipped off several pieces, attaching them to the bedpost. He took the cardboard off a wire coathanger, and cut it into strips. With a sigh, he sacrificed one of his cashmere socks to the cause, wincing as he sliced off a portion of its toe. He moistened a washcoloth with soap and warm water, and turned back toward the bed.
Illya was cooing softly to the little owl in Russian. Every few seconds, he dripped a bit of sugar water into its perfect little mouth. “Toit, toit toi,” the saw-whet chirruped.
The tenderness in Illya's eyes took his breath away. Napoleon cleared his throat. “How's our little friend is doing?"
"Better, I think.”
“He'll do even better if we can fix that wing. Hold him steady now.”
Illya grasped the owl firmly in his large hands, immobilizing him. Napoleon cleaned the blood from its feathers, and crumbled some of the antibiotic powder they always carried into the wound. He lifted the injured wing.
“Schweee-eee!” the owl cried. Its eyes grew wide as saucers.
“Shh, little fellow, I'll try not to hurt you.” Gentle hands traced the shape of the wing bones, the way he'd seen his grandfather do so many years ago. “Ah, there it is! A single break, midshaft, just under the primaries – the best possible place, from a healing standpoint. The splint I've made won't restrict any of the joints, so he'll be able to fly and hunt. If we can just get him stabilized, the little guy should do okay.”
He exhaled, preparing himself. “Okay, tovarisch. Now comes the hard part. I have to set the bone. Keep his talons wrapped up in the parka – they're incredibly sharp, and I'd hate to lose an eye while performing this little errand of mercy.”
“Less talk, and more action. Our little friend is getting restless.”
The senior agent's nimble hands moved quickly, finding the misaligned ends and sliding the bone back into position. He taped the makeshift splint to the wing, and slipped his cashmere sock over the owl's torso, where it acted like a straightjacket, securing the appendage against its body.
He stepped back with a sigh. “That's the best we can do for now. Tomorrow morning we'll take him to a veterinarian – the Tuppworthys will know a good one.” He sat down on the bed, yawning. “I suppose one of us should stay awake to make sure our little guest is comfortable.”
Illya nodded. “I will take first watch.”
“Are you sure? You drove most of the afternoon –”
“– and you spent the last forty-eight hours in a THRUSH holding cell. You need to sleep.”
“Well – since you put it that way. Wake me in two hours.” Napoleon crawled back into bed and pulled the covers around him. He was asleep in seconds.
Illya propped himself against the headboard of the bed, cradling the little saw-whet in his arms. He sang softly to it in Russian.
“Sleep, my boy, my lovely boy,
Overhead the moon shines bright,
Looking down on you.
I will tell you fairy tales, and sing sweet songs to you,
Close your eyes and go to sleep,
Illya's eyes shone in the darkness. “You are safe now, my friend,” he whispered. “Sleep.”