Teleportation was a stressful experience. At least, it always was the case when his body had been injured and he was in pain, and his mind was that of his human self; in those much too rare times, he would know panic, something ‘the other’ could never feel.
It was as if he had been falling from a great height when he roughly landed on his back onto the hard wooden floor. The shock drove the air out of his lungs and a sharp pain to his side made him gasp out loudly. The sensation of suffocation he always felt during the brief seconds he was ‘nowhere’ – transported between two points in space – left him, and he lay there, panting, trying to regain his breath and his senses, and to overcome the pain. He opened his eyes and stared up at the not-so-white ceiling, covered with cracks and spider webs, and at the lone, feeble light bulb flickering out of reach, just over his head.
This, he remembered, was the room he had rented the day before, when he had come into this lonely inn.
No, not him.
I’m here, he told himself with a sense of wonder. I’m back. And I’m me, again.
But for how long?
He attempted to straighten up, but the pain to his side became excruciating and pulled him back. He let out a low, grunting gasp and leaning against his right arm, he curled up against the pain; his free hand reached for the painful spot. He looked down and saw dark blood oozing from between his fingers.
Sudden knocks at the door startled him, and he turned his head towards it, like a trapped animal.
“Señor? Señor, are you all right? I heard a loud crash and a cry…”
His misty mind registered the voice coming from behind the thick wooden door – a gentle, female voice, speaking English with a Spanish accent… Mexico, he recalled then. I’m in Mexico. But where exactly in Mexico, he couldn’t remember. His memory was still too hazy.
He made an effort to recall the woman’s name, and then it popped into his mind: Angela. His landlord’s daughter. A very young woman, maybe eighteen to twenty years old, with black, wavy hair and big brown eyes… A pretty, quiet girl, who was standing in the background when he had rented this room from her obviously inebriated father, who had not asked any questions when he had paid three times the fees requested to stay at the inn. It was a perfect place for him to stay for a few days, while performing the assignment the Mysterons expected of him. Situated at the edge of the jungle, it probably didn’t have many clients, and the owner was more than likely just too happy to receive that much money to begin with.
The only other detail he remembered about Angela was that she was pregnant, and she’d had trouble climbing the stairs to the second storey, while leading him to his room, however, that was the extent of his interest in her. Indeed, a Mysteron agent didn’t bother much about the details of anything or anyone that wasn’t strictly related to his mission.
Keeping his left arm pressed against his wounded side, he pushed himself onto his knees, biting his lower lip so as not to cry in pain; perspiration covered his brow and was running down into his eyes. With an annoyed gesture, he wiped himself, and then turned towards the door.
“That’s all right, Angela… I just… fell off my bed.”
He almost did a double-take at the sound of his own voice. Although strained with pain, it was his voice he was hearing. Not that other voice. Not their voice.
“Did you hurt yourself?” came the voice of Angela again. “Do you need any help, señor?”
He shook his head, as if she could actually see him; it was a weary, helpless shake. He didn’t need her help; didn’t want any of it, even if she could have helped him. He didn’t know just how long he had, now that he was free, because he knew that it wouldn’t last, that it was but a momentary reprieve. Seconds, minutes, hours… He could be back under the Mysterons’ spell at any moment. The last thing he wanted was to put anybody at risk, should they come too near to him when he once again lost control over his own body.
He reached for the nearby table, and used it to help himself to his feet. He was shaking, and had trouble keeping upright.
“No thank you, Angela. I’m all right. It was just… a nightmare.”
Yes, that was a good way of describing it.
“You must have fallen asleep in front of the TV when they announced that terrible news,” Angela continued. “Such a terrible, terrible tragedy… I hope you’re all right, señor, but if you should need any help –”
“I’ll call you,” he interrupted quickly. “I thank you… Angela.”
“Good night, Señor Turner.”
Turner. The Mysterons certainly had a twisted sense of humour to make him use that name during assignments. Of course, it was yet another way for them to punish him. They aimed to humiliate him as much as they could, by soiling his real name, as well as the Spectrum name he had come to loathe so much.
He listened as Angela’s steps decreased in the distance, before she started climbing down the creaking stairway leading to the first floor. When he was sure she would not return back, he allowed himself a deep sigh – which brought about further pain from his injured side. He lowered himself carefully and sat down on the side of the bed, grunting and grimacing against the pain. Then, he slowly pulled his black shirt up, to examine the wound.
At the sight of it, he scowled. He would recognise that kind of wound anywhere.
So someone finally managed to injure him, then.
That’s why he was himself.
Over the too many months he had been the slave of the Mysterons, he had learned that it was when his body was at its weakest that his mind was strongest. To tell the truth, he didn’t know if it was a flaw with the control the Mysterons had over him, or if, by any chance, they did it on purpose, as an additional way for them to torture him even further. On occasions, when he was injured, his mind would reassert itself and he would return to his normal self, but only for a time. At those times, he would feel the pain of any injury his body suffered but, far more importantly, he would feel the grief of his tormented mind for all the suffering the Mysterons had forced him to inflict to others and for the destruction he had unwillingly caused.
“Damn you, Mysterons,” he hissed between his teeth. “What have you had me do this time?”
When the Mysterons kept him under their leash, using his body, his voice and even his mind to do unspeakable things, they made sure he was kept aware of all he did and all he said. It was the most horrible of sensations, as if he was in the backseat of his own mind, living his life through a nightmarish haze, his conscience dissociated from all the rest, paralysed, witnessing everything, and powerless to do anything to stop them – to stop even himself. Although he had come to regard this person he had become as another entity altogether, he was acutely aware that it was still him. Whatever he would do, he felt it all, lived it all: the pain inflicted to others, to himself, physical as well as emotional.
And he felt thoroughly responsible for it all.
However, during those too rare moments when he would be relieved of the Mysterons’ hold, he couldn’t remember most of it. He could only recall fragments of what he had done and experienced under Mysteron control, quick and unclear flashbacks, each as horrifying as the next one. He could have regarded this as a blessing, but to the contrary, it only added to his pain and concern, as he knew he had done something horrible, but could recall little of the detail.
That part was the worst torture of all.
If he had been hurt, that meant that he had hurt someone; of that he was sure. He remembered hurting someone. He still could feel the gun in his hand, his finger on the trigger; he could hear detonation as he pulled that trigger, and a cry of pain echoing in his head.
God, I killed someone. Again. An innocent died because of me.
Who? Who was it?
He looked around in desperation; opposite the bed, stood a television. He recalled Angela’s words. A ‘horrible tragedy’, she had said, that had been shown on television. There was no doubt in his mind that it was related to the Mysterons, and to the mission that had brought him in Mexico.
He picked up the remote control, which lay beside him on the bed, and fumbled with the buttons, barely able to focus his eyes. When the TV screen became alive with images, he flicked anxiously through the channels; he quickly found the English WBC News Channel. It was showing footage of a reporter standing in front of a deep inhabited valley, the upper head of which was dominated by a huge dam. At the bottom of the screen, a scrolling band displayed the words ‘Breaking news: terrorist attack on Alamilla Dam’.
His hands shaking on the remote, Black turned the sound on and watched apprehensively.
“… Stopped by the successful operation led by Spectrum operatives, aided by the Mexican armed forces,” the reporter’s voice said. “Latest reports from the World Government confirm that the mysterious terrorist group, known only as ‘the Mysterons’, had planned to assassinate former Mexican president Francisco Alamilla by blowing up Alamilla Dam. Mr Alamilla, this year’s Nobel laureate for Peace, and eventual future candidate for Word Presidency, was the honoured guest for the inauguration of the dam, which started construction during his first run as president of Mexico, and which now carries his name…”
Feeling a headache coming at the news, Black flopped against his pillows, keeping his eyes riveted on the screen, as images flicked through various press footages of the former president, showing him at different stages of his life, including one scene as he accepted the Nobel prize, which had been awarded a few weeks earlier. Black swallowed hard, as the reporter continued with his news, making it very clear that the incident would have had serious consequences if it hadn’t been averted:
“According to our contacts, the Mexican government didn’t expect the Mysterons to destroy the dam in order to murder their former president, which is the reason why, despite Spectrum’s warnings, the numerous settlements in the valley below the dam were not evacuated. If the dam had been destroyed, like the Mysterons intended, millions of gallons of water would have flooded the valley. The town of Nostra Señora de la Misericordia, the natal city of Presidente Alamilla, which lies at the very bottom of the dam, would have been the first of many other villages and towns to be swept away from the furious waters. The victims, should that plan have succeeded, would have been counted in the tens of thousands.”
Black blanched, his headache increasing, as the horror of the situation sank deep within his soul. He felt sick to his stomach, but couldn’t detach his eyes from the screen:
“Like many citizens of Mexico,” the reporter continued with a more upbeat tone, “the inhabitants of the town of Nostra Señora de la Misericordia, carried out their celebration of the Day of the Dead, ‘La Día de Muertos’, an important Mexican holiday, where families gather to honour and pray for their departed loved ones. Until just a few moments ago, they remained blissfully unaware of the tragedy looming over their heads. Now after being informed by the authorities, they give thanks to the heavens above for the courageous intervention of Spectrum, and of the Mexican army, which spared so many lives, including that of their beloved former presidente.
“As further information is flooding in, we learn that at least one Spectrum officer was wounded during the operation, although reportedly, his life isn’t in danger. Two terrorists were killed. They were known Mexican criminals Eduardo Lopez, and Ramon Baretto, both from the area, who had been arrested in the past for smuggling and drug related charges. A third terrorist, who reportedly isn’t from the area, managed to escape capture and remains at large. The authorities expect to soon be able to get their hands on the fugitive…”
Black turned off the television.
The fugitive the authorities were looking for – he knew it was him.
At the same time he felt both relieved and horrified by the news he had just learned. Once again, Spectrum had been able to intervene and stop the Mysterons, averting a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude.
The only known victims, as far as he was able to learn, were already criminal elements, obviously taken by the Mysterons in an attempt to achieve their aim. For them, he felt no remorse.
One Spectrum officer wounded, the reporter had said, and his life wasn’t in danger. Black somehow knew it wasn’t absolutely true. His memory may be flawed but he felt for certain that this injured officer was Captain Scarlet – and he knew he had been the one who had injured him, shooting him down to secure his escape. He just knew he had fired to kill and that the injury was a serious one. That was how he himself had been shot, although the exact circumstances of how this actually happened remained vague in his mind. Maybe Scarlet had returned fire, maybe someone else, even another Spectrum officer, had shot him. That he didn’t know at all.
What he knew was that Scarlet would survive, as always. His retrometabolism would make sure of that. And Black was grateful for that. However, knowing that he was the one who had caused his former colleague pain – once again – did nothing to comfort him. Worse still, there was this awful culpability he felt for all those potential deaths. He was almost responsible for the loss of these innocent lives. He was thankful to Spectrum for having succeeded; his conscience would be less heavy.
As for himself… well, his own injury didn’t appear too severe. He felt for sure the Mysterons would be quite able to heal him, but for some obscure reason, he imagined they might decide to let him endure the injury and the pain, as they often did. At least for a little while. Maybe it was their way of punishing him for having failed them, but he didn’t care. What was important right now was that he was free. But as he knew, the length of his freedom often depended on the gravity of his wounds and of the intensity of the pain he felt. When that had passed, he would be back under their control.
And the nightmare would continue for him.
He passed both hands through his damp hair and noticed they were shaking even more than before, almost uncontrollably. He was feverish and had trouble focussing. The wound needed to be tended to, but this was his last consideration. He had little time to do what he really wanted to do: put an end to it all.
He looked around anew and eyed the telephone on the table next to his bed. He thought of calling Spectrum, of telling them where to find him… But he had chosen his hiding place well, when he had rented this room the day before. Situated not that far from the huge lake formed at the top of the dam, it was remote, just at the confines of the Mexican jungle, in a small village that could barely be considered civilised. He knew that even if his masters allowed him the time to make the call, Spectrum would never be there in time to apprehend him. He would be long gone before they’d arrive, either by his own means or teleported away by the powers of the Mysterons. He would be their prisoner again, their slave, unable to stop himself to do their bidding.
All those lives saved tonight… All those innocents spared… But there were others before who didn’t get that chance, and others that will suffer again in the future. All because of me… Many killed by my own hand…
His eyes fell on the pistol lying on the floor, where it had fallen; the gun he’d had in his hand when he had been teleported away from danger after being wounded. The gun he had used to shoot Scarlet.
No. There will be only one more death by my hand. This ends tonight.
He slithered down the bed and knelt on the floor, holding his side. His heart was pounding so hard it was hurting. His hand reached for the gun; his fingers closed on the handle. Shakily, he brought the cannon to his temple, and almost despite himself, gasped at the contact of the metal on his skin. It was still hot from its recent use, and yet had cooled enough so not to burn him.
His throat felt so tight that he had trouble swallowing.
Tonight I’ll be free. Tonight, this ends…
He pulled the hammer with his thumb, closing his eyes shut at the same time. A faint sob escaped him.
He couldn’t stop himself from shivering at the sound of the disembodied voice that resonated into his mind; it was a miracle that he didn’t flinch upon hearing it and pull the trigger accidentally.
He cursed their presence.
“Leave me alone, damn you,” he said in a low voice. “I’ve had enough of this.”
“You cannot kill yourself.”
Black swiftly opened his eyes and looked towards the ceiling; a single tear swelled up in his eye. “Can’t I?” he said roughly. “Didn’t you make me suffer enough? Haven’t I killed enough people for you, and caused enough suffering? Let me die already!”
“We are the Mysterons. We can do whatever we want. We can stop you from killing yourself, if we wish it.”
“You tell me you don’t wish to?” Black scoffed. “You finally want to see me dead and free of you?”
“What makes you believe that death would free you? You know we can retrometabolise you, and continue to use you as we see fit.”
Black lowered his gun. “Then why don’t you do it?” he challenged, his eyes flashing with anger. “Why haven’t you done it already?”
“Maybe we already did. Maybe we can simply revive this body then, once you have killed yourself.”
Black shivered and hesitated. He didn’t know what the Mysterons had done to him on Mars; he didn’t know if he was still his human self – and yet, he felt like himself – or if they had indeed killed him to use him – and yet, he felt sufficiently inhuman when he was under their control to think it a possibility. But he didn’t remember having been killed; all he could recall was their Voice that first time when they had announced their first act of retaliation. And then, it was as if he lost control of his conscience and the nightmare began.
“This body isn’t retrometabolic,” he retorted. “It doesn’t heal itself like those of some other agents. Or like Scarlet’s.”
The Voice remained silent. Black grunted, and put the gun to his head again.
“You’re lying to me. And even if you’re not, I don’t care. You can’t stop me.”
“We can replace you.”
That made Black hesitate again. He frowned. “Replace me?”
“If we can’t use you, another can be our agent of destruction on Earth.”
“You would take an innocent man to replace me? You would make him suffer like you made me suffer?”
“We can use HIM.”
Black’s brow burrowed deeper. Him?
“Do you mean Scarlet? You’d try to get him back?”
“He would be the ideal substitute. He would be as ruthless as you; as efficient in carrying out his orders. And he would be indestructible. Unstoppable.”
Black scoffed again, but this time, it was uncomfortably. “You’re bluffing. You tried to get him back, through me at least once. But you failed. He’s free from your influence.”
“Have you considered he might be enjoying his relative freedom only by the will of the Mysterons?”
Slowly, Black lowered his pistol again, shaking his head. Scarlet was Spectrum’s ultimate asset, and perhaps, Earth’s one true hope in stopping the Mysterons. He didn’t think they could really bring him back under their control; Black himself had been able to weigh Scarlet’s strong resolve. He believed that Scarlet’s invulnerability had made that will unbending.
But if what they were saying was the truth, then what hope could there be for Earth?
“You’re bluffing and lying,” he repeated into the empty space.
“Do you want to take the risk? The Mysterons do not make idle threats. You know that better than anyone else. But even you cannot know the extent of the powers of the Mysterons.”
“You won’t take him back. He’s too strong for you, and he will resist you.”
“In that case, you know that one day, we will have to destroy him. What the Mysterons create, they can destroy.”
“It is he who will destroy you, monsters,” Black retorted. “He will see your end, and the end of your reign of terror on our people.”
“He can try, only to fail.”
“So far, with the help of Spectrum, he’s made a very good job in stopping you. Or don’t you remember that?”
“We are all-powerful. No matter how many times the Earthmen think they can win, in the end, the Mysterons will prevail. Earth is doomed. Captain Scarlet cannot hope to win. Spectrum cannot hope to win. And YOU, Captain Black, cannot hope to resist us.”
For the third time, Black raised his gun to his temple, defiantly. “I am resisting you now, monsters!” he lashed out angrily.
His finger caressed the trigger, and for a fraction of a second, he thought he would pull it. But he hesitated yet again, and this time, he felt an unknown, invisible force holding his hand and forcing his arm down; he tried to resist it, to put the gun back to his head, but despite his best efforts, he found himself unable to.
He looked down at the gun still within his clutch, with eyes filled with frustration. He couldn’t control his whole arm at all; the Mysterons were making sure of that.
“We own your body and control it,” the Voice of the Mysterons continued. “We can stop you from pulling that trigger, or we can force you to kill yourself, if we want to. We can use you any way we want, and you cannot stop us. Do not doubt we can kill any of your friends, if we grow tired of them, or anyone on Earth, if it is our wish. No-one can escape the Mysterons.”
“Damn you,” Black whispered, lowering his head, and looking desperately at his arm, now resting across his lap.
“You now know that whatever your acts against our will, this will bring consequences,” the Voice of the Mysterons continued. “And these consequences, whatever they could be, will not be pleasant.”
“I already know that,” Black said, his voice low and angry. “I’ve been living with the consequences of my acts ever since that day I discovered that blasted complex of yours on Mars.”
“Know that it can be even worse. You cannot hope to escape us. You will not kill yourself. You will not call Spectrum, or anyone else to your rescue. We will not allow any of this to happen. Your fate is ours, and until we decide otherwise, you will continue to carry out the Mysterons’ orders, Captain Black, and do what you must do. What you are meant to do. And you will do so when we decide.”
Closing his eyes, Black lowered his head even further, and blew out a deep sigh, conceding defeat.
“Rest now and heal,” the Mysterons’ Voice continued, almost softly. “Enjoy your short moment of freedom. We will make use of your services shortly…”
The Voice trailed off and Black found himself alone. He could now only hear the thumping of his heart and his own heavy breathing. He didn’t rise from where he knelt, and forced his mind and heart to calmness.
He had control of his arm again, but he didn’t raise the gun to his head once more; he didn’t dare to. His own thoughts were filled with guilt and anger. He was angry not only with the Mysterons, but with himself, for not having had the courage to pull that trigger and put an end to his torture. He didn’t dare think the Mysterons were bluffing, that they would indeed revive him and continue to use him as they wanted to do all those unspeakable things. Or that, after his death, they could indeed try to get Scarlet – or anyone else – to become their main agent on Earth. He didn’t want anyone else to suffer his fate, and pay for his own faults, which had brought the wrath of the Mysterons to Earth.
He looked down at the gun and with a trembling hand, put it down on the floor.
Who am I kidding? Taking my own life would have been the coward’s way out. But now, I don’t dare call the Mysterons’ bluff because I’m so afraid they will do worse to me than what they’re doing right now.
Although he had difficulty thinking what could be worse than what he was living through right now, he could easily imagine that the Mysterons, with their vast powers, could indeed find something that would make his life even more of a hell than it already was.
He suddenly heard soft knocking coming from the door, and that made him raise his head.
“Señor Turner? Are you all right?”
It was Angela again. He wondered what could have brought her back to his room; had she heard the Mysterons talk to him? He shook his head. No it wasn’t possible. They had contacted him telepathically, and she couldn’t hear them. However, she could have heard him reply to them… The fact that she might think him crazy was the least of his worries. He simply hoped for Angela’s sake that she hadn’t heard anything, because the Mysterons might consider her a dangerous witness. They could easily force him to kill her… and he wouldn’t be able to stop them.
However, their presence didn’t manifest itself, and he was still free of his thoughts and movements.
“Señor Turner, please open the door.”
Black pushed the gun away, and it slid under the bed, out of view. Then he forced himself to his feet, and walked the short distance to open the door; when he opened it – just a crack – he purposely kept his wounded side out of view and covered it with his jacket.
He saw the girl standing there, her dark hair framing her almost juvenile features, looking up at him with concern in her big brown eyes. When she saw him, she tilted her head to one side and frowned.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “I heard noises from downstairs…”
Black nodded, if a little hesitantly, realising that the floor, ceiling and walls must be very thin, and that everyone within this house could hear everything that was going on inside. He didn’t exactly choose this place; the Mysterons did for him, guiding his steps as they often did – although he suspected they might have dug into his tactical mind to evaluate the strategic importance of this choice.
Trying to conceal his concern that she might have heard something incriminating from him, Black glanced in direction of the television. “I was watching the TV,” he said in a non-committed tone.
“Ah, I see.” Angela offered a gentle smile. “It’s just that… you have been very quiet since your arrival… And I didn’t see anyone come up, but I had the impression you were talking to someone.” She reddened slightly and looked down. “Forgive my impertinence, señor… This isn’t any of my business…”
“It’s all right. I’m all alone.” Black hesitated again, searching for an explanation. “I saw the news about the dam. It was… disturbing, as you said earlier,” he finally said. “I’m afraid you might have heard me screaming in anger at the screen.”
She nodded her understanding, if somewhat mechanically. Her expression became grave. “Fortunately, nothing happened, praise the Lord. Spectrum was able to stop the terrorists.”
“Yes, they were,” Black answered with a thin smile.
She answered to his smile with one of her own, which was somehow shy. “Forgive me, señor… But I was thinking… since your arrival yesterday, you have not eaten, nor left this room…”
No, that’s not exactly true, Black told himself. But he couldn’t very well tell her that, from what he recalled of his mission, the Mysterons had more than likely teleported him away from this room directly to the dam where he had met with his Mysteronised accomplices.
He wondered what Angela was driving at just now.
“I have made some soup,” the young woman explained, a little hesitantly. “And I’m all alone for dinner. I thought that maybe… you would join me?” She looked up and her eyes met his. “I’ve got plenty of soup, and I wouldn’t want to waste any of it. Eating it in someone else’s company will be better than eating it all alone. Don’t you agree?”
Black wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. “I am not very good company, I’m afraid,” he said. He saw a shadow of sadness pass in her eyes, then she lowered her head quickly. “Maybe you should ask another tenant,” he proposed.
She shook her head. “We have no other clients than you, señor.”
That was true. Black remembered that the inn – for lack of a better word to describe this place – was empty when he had arrived the previous day. By the look of the place, and considering how remote it was from civilisation, he doubted the girl and her father received many clients to begin with. This probably was one of the reasons the Mysterons had chosen it, as well as being close to the dam.
He frowned, looking at the young woman closely. “Your father isn’t home?”
She hesitated again. “My father is fast asleep, señor, and probably won’t eat with me tonight. To use your own words, he… isn’t good company right now.”
Which was, Black reflected, another way of saying her father was probably sprawled somewhere, completely drunk. He had seen him the day before. It was only morning, and the man could barely stand on his feet.
He imagined that Angela actually felt very lonely and wanted someone to be with; the way she was looking at him, she was almost pleading him to accept.
He pondered about her invitation. It had been such a long time since he had eaten with another human being, or even been with one for company, just for the pleasure of it. It wasn’t as if he felt himself attracted to the girl; she was too young to begin with, and the fact that she was pregnant meant she probably was with someone anyway. But she was kind, and compassionate, and looked so desperate right now… He felt a wave of sympathy for her. He didn’t see any harm in accepting her request.
It was against his better judgement when he finally answered. “All right,” he said with a nod. “Just give me time to… freshen up a bit.”
Her smile was almost radiant, and he heard the relief in her voice when she spoke next: “Gracias, señor. Dinner will be in an hour, then. I’ll keep the soup warm, and will get some bread out at well. Come join me in the kitchen when you’re ready. You will see: this will be the best soup you have ever eaten.”
He smiled his thanks, almost despite himself, and watched as she turned around to walk towards the staircase at the other end of the short corridor. She was holding her back as she started to climb down the steps; she wasn’t only pregnant, she was very pregnant, and Black evaluated that she had probably only a couple of weeks, or even days, before she would give birth.
He closed his door pensively; his side was throbbing, and the injury, he imagined, left him enough time before the Mysterons would take control of him. They would want to wait for him to have fully healed before sending him on another mission. For whatever reason, they took much care not to see him hurt, making sure to take him to safety whenever the situation would turn sour and he would find himself endangered. Sometimes, like this last mission, they cut it just a little too close.
He looked down at his wound. He needed to clean it, close it and bandage it; then he would freshen up and go to the kitchen, to eat Angela’s soup. Already, he was looking forward to it.
He couldn’t imagine something bad could come out of it.
Less than an hour later, Captain Black left his roof-top room, freshened up, wearing clean clothes, and having tended to his injury. Fortunately, the bullet that had struck him had gone right through without hitting any vital organs, but he still had to cleanse and close the wound. Since he was now a fugitive on the run following his encounter with the Mysterons, there was no way for him to go to a hospital or a doctor to receive treatment. It wasn’t so much the concern of getting caught that stopped him, but rather the fear of the Mysterons themselves – and the fact that his other self might actually kill whoever treated him as soon as he was well again, so to leave no witness to report his whereabouts. So he had to make do with his own first aid kit, which consisted of numerous items he used to patch himself up.
As he stepped down the flight of stairs leading to the first floor, he could still feel the stiffness from his injured side. Although it wasn’t very pleasant, he took it as a good omen, thinking that while he was still wounded and the pain remained, then the Mysterons would leave him alone for a while longer. He was certain, however, that if he should attempt to escape them in any way, they would instantly manifest themselves; so he had resolved not to do anything that would force them out. He didn’t want to endanger anyone, especially not someone as innocent as Angela.
In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have accepted her invitation; but, like the young woman, he was so desperate for some real human company that he had managed to convince himself that everything would be fine. Now he was starting to have second thoughts. There was still time for him to turn around, get his stuff and get away from this place, as far away as possible. But with his wound, he feared he wouldn’t get far before being intercepted by the authorities. Then the Mysterons would risk interfering to stop him from being apprehended. There might be bloodshed – something he definitely didn’t want to happen.
Whatever way he was looking at it, he was trapped. So, he imagined, he might try to enjoy his freedom for now – however short it might be.
He had reached the first floor and walked in front of the old counter he remembered registering at the day before when he had taken a room. The surface, which he remembered had been dirty and covered with various objects, was now spotless, and the small service bell gleamed under the single light bulb suspended above. The guest book was closed, and there was no-one behind the counter.
Someone had obviously cleaned the place up very recently.
Not that far from the counter, just at the entrance of the lobby, Black noticed a small and narrow table set against the wall, facing the main doors. It was covered with a rich black tablecloth that went all the way to the floor, and on it lay an assortment of odd objects. He vaguely remembered having seen it upon his arrival the previous day, but as his thoughts were all taken by his assignment, he had paid very little attention to it at the time. Now free of his preoccupation of serving the Mysterons, he stood in front of the table and examined it at his own leisure, with deep interest and curiosity.
It was an altar, or a shrine of some sort, decorated with long garlands of real flowers and covered with many lit candles. There was a beautiful wooden cross standing in the middle; on one side of the cross, stood an engraved image of the Virgin Mary, and on the other, the framed picture of a woman. Next to this picture was an object that looked like a human skull, and on closer examination, Black discovered that it was made of white sugar, and decorated with pastry and candies. At the foot of the altar, a number of pumpkins, filled with candies and surrounded by flowers, were placed around it in a very decorative and artful way.
Black took a closer look of the framed picture. The smiling young woman on it was very beautiful and looked a lot like Angela, but older by about ten years. He realised it must be a relative of hers.
Of course, he told himself, remembering the words of the reporter he had seen on television earlier. The Day of the Dead celebrations… Mexican people honour their departed loved ones during that period. This woman must have been someone very dear to Angela and her father…
Most probably, she was Angela’s mother.
Black heard sounds coming from behind him and turned around. At this late hour of the evening, the lobby was dark, illuminated only by the light of a television screen, which currently displayed a football match; the sound was turned down, but faint cheers were still coming from the speakers. In front of the screen, a man was sprawled in a large seat, his legs stretched out and his heels resting on the low table in front of the chair. His head was bowed onto his chest, and he was snoring loudly, seemingly deep in sleep. In his right hand, which hung limply over the side of the seat, he held a bottle of tequila, which Black could see looked nearly empty.
Black easily recognised Angela’s father, the owner of the inn; finding him like this wasn’t that much of a surprise. The part of his memory that he shared with his other self might not always be reliable, but the man had made enough of an impression when he had met him, early the previous morning. He could still recall the smell of alcohol pervading his breath, the neglected way he was dressed, and the almost haggard expression in his eyes. He also remembered the yell, when he had called Angela to ‘come and take the gentleman upstairs’. He obviously couldn’t care about potential clients seeing him in that state; but the Mysteron slave that was Captain Black, obviously, cared even less. The only thing that was important for him at the time was his mission, and the drunken owner of this place, along with his young pregnant daughter, would certainly not pose any threat to him.
Black snorted; so that was what Angela meant when she told him earlier that her father was asleep and would not be joining them for dinner. He had guessed right, then. All the same, even under the control of the Mysterons, it was obvious that the man was a useless bum, and Black had no desire to make further acquaintance with him. He found it a shame that a nice girl like Angela had a father like that, and felt comforted that maybe he had made the right decision; the girl definitely needed some good company for a little while and in view of what he was seeing now, he was more than willing to give it to her.
Perhaps this will serve to atone for some of my sins, he reflected. Although he imagined that it would take a lot more than a handful of small good deeds to redeem himself for all the horrors he had been forced to do on the Mysterons’ behalf.
He couldn’t see Angela anywhere about, and he was beginning to wonder if he should call to her – and ponder if it would be good manners to do so –when he noticed a light coming from a half-opened door behind the counter. He softly approached it and stretched his neck to look beyond the opening.
He saw a tiny kitchen, with a small square wooden table in the middle of the floor, set for the meal. A large covered tureen sat in the centre of the table, with two bowls on either side. The two chairs facing one another were empty. Angela appeared in his line of view, carrying a tray covered with two lengths of bread, butter, salt and pepper. Black could hear her humming softly to herself but he didn’t recognise the song – probably, he reflected, it was a Mexican tune he didn’t know about.
Angela put the tray down next to the tureen, and then raised her head; she had noticed him, standing uneasily beyond the counter, and her eyes lit up. She gave him a vibrant smile and gestured invitingly to him with one hand, and lifting the lid of the tureen with the other. “Come in, Señor Turner, don’t be shy. I’ve been waiting for you.”
He didn’t need more incentive. Rounding the counter, he crossed the opening and stepped into the room. He barely heard the low murmuring from the small television set on the counter next to the table; he was too intent on breathing in the delicious smell coming from the large tureen that Angela was now stirring with a ladle. It was absolutely heavenly and made his stomach growl. It seemed as if he hadn’t had a decent meal in months, let alone a home-made one.
He cleared his throat. “It smells wonderful.”
“It’s only chicken soup, as we make it here in Mexico,” Angela explained. She poured the contents of her ladle into one of the bowls, and gestured gracefully to her guest to sit down. She looked up to him and smiled. “You already look better.”
He tilted his head to one side, surprised by her statement. “Excuse me?”
“Your face. It has better colours now,” Angela explained. “Yesterday, you looked very pale, like you were ill. I thought, maybe, you had caught something from the heat of the jungle… And your voice was different.”
He shook his head. “I had a common cold,” he lied. “It was probably due to that. I’m all right now. And don’t worry: you won’t catch it.”
“It didn’t look like such a common cold to me,” Angela retorted. “Please, take a seat. A little soup will make you feel much better.”
While Angela filled her own bowl, Black sat down on the chair she had pointed to and politely waited as she replaced the lid on the tureen. He looked with interest at the glass set next to his bowl, which was filled with some dark orange beverage. The young woman noticed his look and reached for a bottle of beer that stood next to the TV on the counter.
“That’s tepache,” she explained, unscrewing the bottle and pointing it at the glass. “It doesn’t have much alcohol in it, so you need to put just a little bit of beer in it. Still,” she added with a smile, “I cannot drink it even without beer.” She gestured to herself and chuckled. “It is not really recommended… in my condition. So I’ll content myself with plain water.” She pointed to her own glass, which stood in front of her.
Black nodded his understanding. “When is the little guy due?” he asked, as she poured a very small quantity of beer into his glass.
“Any day now.” Angela put the bottle onto the table and lowered herself down carefully onto her chair. “But it is a little girl, not a ‘little guy’.”
“The doctor told you so?”
“La comadrona.” As he was looking at her with uncertainty, she added, translating: “The village midwife.” She gestured to his glass. “Please, taste.”
He took a sip. He could detect the taste of pineapple and cinnamon in the drink. Angela was watching him.
“Good?” she inquired.
Black nodded, putting the glass down. “Interesting. Not very strong but enjoyable nonetheless. I never had… er…”
“I never had tepache, before. Thank you.”
“You are welcome.”
The wonderful smell coming from the bowl set in front of him made him look down; the soup was filled with shredded chicken, hefty bits of vegetables and pieces of tortilla, floating on the surface. He took his spoon and tasted it; he could detect a variety of spices and seasonings on his taste buds. He nodded approvingly.
“This is delicious,” he said, pointing with his spoon to the bowl and raising his head to address Angela. He was about to add something else, but he stopped himself. The young woman had her head bowed, with her eyes closed; he could only guess her hands were joined on her lap, as she was obviously silently saying grace. He didn’t dare dig once more into his soup, and waited in respectful silence until she’d finished. It took about five seconds before she opened her eyes, and reached for her own spoon, giving him a smile.
“Please, you should not have waited on my account,” she said as she delicately took a spoonful of her soup.
“It didn’t feel right to start before you,” Black replied. “I forgot that Mexican people are mostly practicing Catholics.”
She chuckled. “That is a stereotype, señor,” she gently admonished him. “Believe me, we are not all believers – or practicing.” She gestured dismissively. “My mother taught me I should always say grace before meals, and I went to school at the convent. So now I do it more out of habit more than anything else. I’m afraid I am not that good a Catholic… but I find that saying grace and praying brings me closer to my mother... She died a few years ago.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Black now had confirmation that the picture of the young woman he had seen in the other room was that of Angela’s mother. He didn’t press on the subject. “You went to school with nuns?”
She tasted her soup and nodded. “Mmm-mmm. The convent school in La Misericordia. I used to take the bus to go there. That is, when there was a bus passing by this village.”
“La Nostra Señora de la Misericordia, the village just below the dam?”
Angela chuckled again. “Nobody calls it that in the area, señor. Except the journalists on television. And maybe the sisters who teach there.”
“I had a friend that was taught by nuns,” Black said thoughtfully. “In a convent, in France.”
“Is your friend a good Catholic?” There was amusement in Angela’s words as she asked her question.
Black gave it some thought. “Actually… I don’t think she’s that religious to begin with,” he said. “But she is a good person.” He smiled kindly. “Just like you seem to be.”
She laughed. “A true believer does not always make a good Christian, señor. Nor does an unbeliever make a bad person.”
“You are preaching to the choir, Angela.”
“Do I take it you do not approve of Christian religions?”
“I don’t approve nor disapprove of any religion, Christian or otherwise. I don’t think it’s my business to do so. I respect anyone’s choice to believe in whatever they want, or not to believe in anything.”
“So you do not believe in the existence of any superior being.”
Black weighed that very carefully. “Oh, I believe there are superior beings,” he answered. “But I do not believe all of them are… benevolent. In fact, some of them could also be very mean to us, simple mortals.”
Angela nodded quietly. “You believe there are evil spirits.”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Then this is one thing we agree on, señor. Like evil men, there are evil spirits in this world, and we have to guard ourselves from them. Our ancestors, they knew better than us. And they had good reasons to fear these evil spirits.”
If only they knew the whole truth, Black told himself. But then again, perhaps, they did know.
He took another spoonful of his soup, not desiring to go further into the subject.
“This is truly a wondrous meal,” he told the young woman, by way of changing the conversation.
“Oh, this is nothing,” Angela retorted. “I should have served it with slices of avocado and grated cheese, but I didn’t have any left. The bolilo is fresh, though,” she added, pointing to the bread between the two of them.
Black thanked her and helped himself to a piece of bread, then generously spread butter over it.
For a while, they ate in silence, Black fully appreciating this comforting moment of peace and freedom, which he had not enjoyed for such a long time. A hot home-made meal, the warmth of a kitchen, the friendly company of another human being, even one as young as Angela, but with such a friendly demeanour… He had missed that, and much more in the last months, and so was grateful for whatever he was able to steal away from the Mysterons.
He had just drained the last of his soup when he noticed that Angela had stopped eating and was engrossed by the news on the television. Similar scenes were on view to those he’d watched in his own room earlier, but this time the headlines in Spanish scrolled along the bottom of the screen and there was a Spanish-speaking reporter relaying the news to the camera.
Black put his spoon down next to his bowl. Feeling that she was being watched, Angela seemed to emerge from her fugue; she reddened to the roots of her hair when she turned back to her guest.
“I am sorry, I am a terrible host.”
Black shook his head. “Not at all. You are disturbed by the news, that’s normal.” He pointed to the television. “The danger is passed, Angela, there’s nothing to fear anymore.”
He couldn’t tell her that the Mysterons, after being foiled, had abandoned their target. He knew they wouldn’t plan another attack here. The agents they had created for the mission had all been killed, and only he remained. But he was all alone and injured and temporarily out of their control, and in those circumstances, after a failed attempt, they wouldn’t use him again.
“How could anyone be so cruel as to put so many people at risk, just to get at one single man?” Angela said in a murmur, and her words sank deep into Black’s heart. “Innocent men, women… children… and all of them unaware of the danger.” She turned to Black. “How could anyone be that evil? How can they live with themselves?”
He shrugged. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe they don’t have a conscience to torment them?”
“Everyone has a conscience, señor,” she replied. “They just need to listen to it.”
This was a very naïve point of view. Black lowered his eyes. “To listen to one’s conscience, one must have a soul,” he said in a low voice. “Maybe they don’t have a soul. Not anymore, that is.” He raised his eyes again to look into Angela’s grave face. “Do you have family in the valley?” he asked softly. “Friends, who escaped the disaster?”
Although the inn was situated up river from the dam, and as such, had not been under any threat of being flooded, its relative proximity made it likely that Angela might know someone who had been in the danger zone. However, she shook her head in answer to his question.
“I have no family except for my father, señor,” she replied with sadness in her voice and her eyes. “And no real friends that I would worry about. But that doesn’t mean I cannot feel concerned for all those innocent lives that were in danger because of this attempt on Presidente Alamilla’s life. And I feel concern for him too.” She sighed. “He’s a good man, he’s done so much for my country…”
“Has he?” Black asked with a scowl. “Wasn’t he behind the dam project to begin with? The way I understand it, many people lost their homes, their way of life, their heritage even, when that dam was built, and the area was flooded. This village, for instance, looks very poor to me, and it’s my understanding that the whole area is mostly like this.”
“You have to be indulgent, Señor Turner… It is true this village is poor, but it has always been that way. And yes, so is the rest of the area. It had hoped that the construction of the dam would improve our conditions of life, but it had not happened yet.” She gave him another smile and a nod. “Give it time, it will happen. Presidente Alamilla had a plan. And I trust this plan will come into fruition in a short future.”
“Depending if his successor will carry on with your former president’s plan…”
Angela chuckled. “You are a pessimist, señor.”
“Maybe I’m a realist,” Black retorted, toning down the harshness of his words with a soft voice. “I’ve known too many politicians not to feel disillusioned by whatever promises they make.”
“You know politicians that closely in the United States?” Angela asked with curiosity.
“I’m English, Angela – but was raised and spent most of my youth in the States, which explains my accent. But you might not have noticed that. I was speaking in general terms… And either in the States, or Britain, or anywhere else in the planet, I think politicians are all the same.” He couldn’t tell her, but he indeed had met many politicians in the course of his life. And he was convinced every one of them, even when filled with the best of intentions, often had their own agendas as well as supposedly looking after the interests of the people who had elected them into power. That even included World President Bandranaik, who was the force behind Spectrum’s formation and whom Black knew personally.
“So neither religion nor politics find acceptance in your eyes,” the young woman mused.
Black shrugged. “That’s my own opinion on the question, my dear young lady. And maybe you’re right, after all… Maybe Señor Alamilla is the one politician who doesn’t fit in that mould.” He took a gulp of his glass of tepache. “Maybe it’s better if we change the subject… Politics tends to bore me.”
“As it does me.”
“Earlier, you said you had no friends?” Black asked with a slight frown. “How likely is that? A nice young woman like you…”
“Sometimes, things are like that,” she said quickly, and Black noticed the way her left hand came to rest on her enlarged belly. “My father... isn’t a very agreeable person to begin with.”
So I noticed, thought Black. “So nobody ever comes here?”
“My father has… friends.” Black definitively detected a tone of loathing in Angela’s voice as well as a flash of resentment in her eyes. “But they are not my friends,” she added, lifting her chin. “I would prefer not to see them around. They have… how to do you say it… a bad influence on my father?”
Black nodded slowly. He pointed to her enlarged belly. “How about the father?” he asked carefully.
She lowered her eyes. “This is one of the reasons why I do not have any friends,” she said in a low voice. “No-one in the area likes an unmarried mother-to-be… who doesn’t even seem to have any match.”
Black scowled at her words. “Surely, not everyone is that cruel, Angela.”
“I know they’re not. They just pass judgment on things they don’t know.”
“But the father –”
“Señor Turner,” she replied quietly but firmly, “I prefer not to talk about him, if you please.”
It was a request he couldn’t deny her; obviously, it was a difficult subject to talk about. Probably, Black imagined, her boyfriend had left her recently enough, and she still hurt inside. Being so young, soon to give birth to a baby, and faced with the prospect of raising it on her own, that wasn’t something easy to live with, especially when the young woman in question had obviously been raised as a practising Catholic.
“I’m sorry,” Black said apologetically. “I didn’t want to cause you embarrassment.”
“You don’t have to apologise, señor,” Angela answered sadly. “This is not your fault.”
Black shrugged. “I’m not really what they call a ‘people person’. I’ve… been living on my own for quite some time now, going from place to place, not getting attached… I find it difficult to socialise. So forgive me if you find me a little blunt.”
“You are forgiven.” Angela smiled kindly. “I already figured you were a lonely man. They say I’m a good judge of character.”
“I am also a curious man,” Black continued. “Tell me… This village… This inn… It’s fairly remote from civilisation. How could your father and yourself possibly manage? I seem to be your only client at the moment. I am, in fact. You told me as much.”
“We do have clients, once in a while,” she objected. “You might not believe so, but many tourists come over here to see the dam – they came to see it while it was being built, and then they will continue to come, now that it’s completed.”
“It is a beautiful piece of engineering, yes.”
“And there are some who like to visit the jungle too,” Angela continued. “And as you know, our inn is placed in very nice location for that.” She frowned. “Didn’t you come to visit the dam yourself, señor?”
He looked at her inquisitively, stopping in mid-movement as he was about to take another sip of tepache. “What makes you say that?”
“You asked questions about the dam, yesterday,” she reminded him. “How far it was, and how to get there quickly… Surely, you remember? My father even suggested someone he knew to take you there. Obviously you didn’t go, as you didn’t leave your room.”
Black felt ill-at-ease. No, he didn’t remember that part. That was something his ‘other self’ obviously did. Of course. He was taking information about the dam for his upcoming mission.
He put the glass down onto the table, without taking his sip. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to go at the moment,” he commented, going around the question. “The dam must be under considerable surveillance, after what happened tonight. It wouldn’t do any good to upset the authorities by playing tourist around that area. They might not really appreciate it.”
“I don’t think Spectrum would like it either,” Angela approved. “If they are still there.”
“I’m pretty sure they still are,” Black commented thoughtfully, raising a brow. “And no, they certainly wouldn’t like it.” He picked up the glass again, and drank the rest of the tepache.
“Would you like more, señor?” Angela inquired, reaching for the bottle.
“I might grow to like it too much,” Black replied gracefully. “Even if there isn’t much alcohol in it, I think I’ll pass. Thank you.”
“You are a reasonable man.”
“At times I am. Not always, I’m afraid.”
A faint smile tugged at Angela’s lips, as she looked straight at her guest. She noticed the enquiring way he kept staring at her and sighed.
“I will make you a confidence, señor. This… inn…” she waved around, her gesture taking in all of the building surrounding her. “It is true it isn’t nearly enough to make a proper living. But it wasn’t always the case. It has been prosperous, a few years ago. Not very, but enough to live well. I told you the village has always been poor. That is true, but its people could manage, and were happy to live with what little they had. You see, there was another, bigger town nearby, and the road was much more important in those days. That was before the inhabitants were relocated to another place.”
“In order for the dam to be built,” Black realised. “You didn’t move along?”
“My father didn’t want to go. My mother is buried in the village’s cemetery, and he didn’t want to leave her. He loved her so much... Beside, he had… his business with his friends over here. Going away would have meant ending that business. And he needs it in order to make a living – and to put food on our table.”
“Wouldn’t that have been better to leave? For you, anyway. This is no way to raise a daughter, in the middle of nowhere. I mean… I’m sure the government had a plan to compensate for the relocation. Your father would have been able to start anew, with a new inn, in a place better suited for business… and for you as well.”
She looked at him desperately. “I had no say in the matter, Señor Turner. I was too young when my father made the decision, and my mother was gone at the time – or she would probably have decided to move on with most of the people. She was the strong one in the family. As for my father… well, he is… weak.”
“Too weak to refuse his friends. He was afraid of the consequences should he stop… doing business with them.” Angela shook her head. “I shouldn’t say more on the subject. It might not be safe. Not for me and neither for you. I certainly wouldn’t want for anything bad to happen to you.”
“Nothing bad will happen to me. But if you don’t want to talk, I won’t ask any questions.” She didn’t need to say more anyway. Black had perfectly understood that her father was implicated in some shady business with his ‘friends’.
That explained why she didn’t like them coming around the place.
“And what about you?” he said softly. “You can’t live the remainder of your days lost in this place… Why not go away on your own?”
She scoffed. “Going away on my own?” she repeated. She gestured to her belly. “While being… like this?”
“All the more reason,” Black replied. “You should think of your child. Doesn’t she deserve a better life?”
“Señor… how can I possibly give her a better life? Where would I go? I have nothing, have no education. I’m only eighteen years old… and my child doesn’t have a father.” She shook her head dismissively. “And I can’t leave my father, señor. He needs me. He wouldn’t be able to live on his own.”
Black slowly nodded. “No, I believe he wouldn’t. He’s very lucky to have you. Seems to me you inherited your mother’s strength.” He sighed. “And I’d argue the point about you having no education. You seem like an educated young woman to me. You speak English very well –”
“That is nothing,” Angela interrupted before he would go further. “I learned from my mother, who spoke English fluently. And at school, the sisters taught me more of it.” Her expression became a dreamy one. “I loved going to school there... The sisters had an orphanage, right next door, and taught the children there too. I used to imagine myself, after I had finished my schooling, joining them and helping and teaching the children… Not as a nun, I don’t think so… but there are laypeople working there as well and I could see myself as one of them. Children, particularly orphans… they need to be loved and to be taken care of.”
“I’m an orphan,” Black said with a soft voice. “My parents died when I was very young and I never knew them. I can appreciate that there are people like you who would want to take care of orphans. You’re a good soul, Angela. I take it you were not able to follow your dream.”
Her eyes filled with sadness again. “No. My mother died, and then I stopped going to school. I stayed here, to help my father. My mother, she was a wonderful woman. Very kind and sweet… She would always encourage me to follow my dreams. But now I cannot do so...”
“I saw the altar in the lobby. And the picture on it… That’s your mother?”
She nodded. “Yes, it is. That’s the last picture ever taken of her. I carry the same close to my heart.” She tapped on the small locket that hung from a chain around her neck. “She was pretty, yes?”
“She was very beautiful, indeed. You look a lot like her.”
A smile reappeared on Angela’s face, if only faintly. “You are being kind. I am ugly in comparison to her.”
“Again, you are doing yourself an injustice,” Black insisted.
Her smile became brighter, while her ears grew red. Instead of arguing, she uncovered the tureen, and stirred the soup with the ladle. “You should eat more, señor. There is still a lot of soup left.” She didn’t wait for his approval, and poured the contents of her ladle into his empty bowl.
He watched her, and waited until she helped herself with some more soup from the tureen before speaking anew:
“This altar in the lobby… It’s in honour of your mother, for the Day of the Dead, isn’t it?”
Angela nodded at his question. “Each year, I prepare it for her,” she explained. “Do you know of our traditions for the Day of the Dead, señor?”
“Not that much,” Black admitted with a shrug of his shoulders. “I know it’s celebrated in the States by communities of Mexican origins, but that’s about all. It’s a Christian tradition, obviously?”
“Not exactly. Its origins are much older than the Christian religion itself,” Angela explained. “I heard it say that Día de Los Muertos is a very ancient Aztec custom dedicated to some old goddess, more than three thousand years ago…”
“I can believe that. Christianity often incorporated customs from other religions to become its own. As an Englishman raised as an American, I know about Halloween – which, is actually an old pagan festival of Celtic origins which seems closely related to your Day of the Dead as it also celebrates the dead.” As Angela nodded at his comment, he offered a bashful, apologetic smile. “The most I learned about the Day of the Dead was on the TV news earlier, when the reporter mentioned that the attempted terrorist attack had been carried out today, November 1st, the Day of the Dead. He said that in Mexico, it’s a day to honour the deaths of loved ones.”
“Actually, the Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration,” Angela replied. “November 1st is to honour the departed children and infants, and is also called Día de los Inocentes.”
“Day of the Innocents,” Black translated.
“And also Día de los Angelitos,” Angela continued, “Day of the Little Angels.”
Black raised a brow. “Indeed?”
“November 2nd is dedicated for the adults. It is called Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos. The Day of the Dead. The altar should be brightly lit, so to guide the soul from the otherworld and make sure it will not get lost. It is covered with ofrendas: Mexican marigolds, sugar skulls, favourite objects, foods and drinks of the departed.”
“And the meaning of these ofrendas is…?”
“To encourage the soul of our loved ones to come visit,” Angela explained. “The food and drinks are for them, after their long, tiring journey from the underworld. And then they will be able to hear prayers, and songs, and those memories we will often exchange about them. And so, they will be pleased, and will know that we remember them, and still love them. They will feel welcomed, and will not want to leave us and go back.”
Black gave her a strange look. “You’ll excuse me, Angela,” he said with a good-natured tone, “but personally, I would feel a little ill-at-ease knowing that a ghost I might have invited in would not want to go.”
She laughed. “Dead people are not to be feared, Señor Turner.”
“Maybe sometimes they are?” Black suggested quietly.
“You think that because you believe in evil spirits, señor. So you naturally fear that a ‘ghost’ is wicked and might want to frighten you, or even do you harm. But the soul of a departed loved one isn’t wicked. It still cares for you, and you should do your best to show you care as well.” Angela looked intently at Black; she could see that he seemed doubtful of her story and that made her smile again. “You are thinking this is a stupid custom, is it not, señor? You do not believe any of this.”
Black shrugged. “I think this is a beautiful custom,” he replied. “I might not be a believer of most of these spiritual or religious things…”
“And yet, you fear evil spirits.”
“I have my own reasons for that. And I don’t know if you can truly call them ‘evil spirits’.” He sighed. “What I’m trying to say is… I don’t need to be a believer to realise that there’s definitely something out there. I’ve witnessed too many strange, wondrous and even terrifying phenomena to deny that. There are things that we cannot hope to understand or to explain…” His voice trailed off as he realised that he sounded exactly like the Mysterons, and he hesitated; this evening was going too well for him to even give one single thought to his dreadful alien masters.
He shook his head dismissively. “Forget it. I’m sure I’m not making any sense to you.”
Angela didn’t seem to notice his uneasiness; at least, if she did, she didn’t mention it. Still smiling, she replied: “To the contrary, you do. You are a wise man to respect what you cannot understand or explain, Señor Turner.”
“Most of the time, I don’t feel so wise,” Black said in a morose voice.
“But you are,” the young woman insisted. “You respect the unknown. This is more than can be said of many men on this planet. Whatever the things they might believe in. Or not believe in,” she amended graciously.
Black answered with a brief smile and was about to reply when suddenly, coming from the lobby, they heard a door being roughly pushed and then banging against a wall. Both of them were startled, and they turned their attention towards the half-open door leading out of the kitchen.
A light was turned on in the lobby, and a multitude of footsteps made themselves heard, accompanied by the sound of rough male voices speaking in Spanish. Black instantly became edgy and stiffed on his seat, fully expecting to see Mexican policemen, or even Spectrum Mexican agents, emerge into the kitchen to apprehend him on the spot. As far as he knew, it was impossible for them to know his whereabouts, the Mysterons’ teleportation not leaving any trace of its destination. However, his face was on many “Most wanted” lists around the world, and anyone with any interest in that sort of things might recognise him. Someone could have spotted him in the area when he had arrived the previous day, and could have alerted the authorities on his presence.
He would almost have welcomed any police intervention to arrest him, if not for the presence of Angela near him; should they come in with gun blazing, she could accidentally be caught in the crossfire. And the last thing he wanted was to see her hurt – or even involved in any of this.
Furthermore, if the Mysterons should decide to intervene, there was no telling what next could happen.
“Lorenzo! ¿Dónde estás?”
Hearing that angry voice ringing loudly over all the noises, made Black realise he had no reason to concern himself about the police. But maybe it heralded something much worse. With a frown, he turned to Angela, intended on asking her who that could be, who would arrive at this late hour. He saw the young woman had visibly paled, and seemed at the same time annoyed – and even apprehensive to some extend.
“Angela, who –?”
“Manuel and his friends,” she lowly said between her teeth.
“Lorenzo!” the same voice called again. “Vamos, ¡sal de ahí! Tenemos que hablar!”
“Your father’s friends?” Black inquired.
Angela nodded briefly. “They seem to be looking for him.” She rose from her chair. “Stay here, señor.”
“Wait, Angela,” Black insisted, making a move to rise as well. “Do you –”
“Stay here.” She repeated those words with such insistence that it stopped Black right in his track. He stayed on his chair, and she looked down at him, her features hard. “And don’t make yourself heard.”
Before Black could say whether he agreed or not with her request, she left the kitchen, with a speed that was surprising for a woman in her state of advanced pregnancy, and went into the lobby. He followed her with concerned eyes and pricked his ears at the sounds of the raised voice in the lobby; the flow of the conversation was rapid and loud, but he knew Spanish well enough to understand that there was trouble in the other room… trouble Angela seemed determined to keep him away from.
“Ah, there you are, you lousy bum,” said the angry voice of Manuel. “You are drunk again, are you?”
“Eh, Manuel,” Lorenzo replied with a slurred voice as he obviously came out of his slumber. “What’s up? What are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you…”
“Oh, really? You didn’t expect me?” Manuel replied, his anger rising. “After what happened, you say that you didn’t expect me?” There was some ruckus, in the other room and Black tensed at that sound.
“Wh-what’s the matter?” the voice of Lorenzo asked, now seemingly fully awake, but with a definite tinge of fear into it.
“You’ll tell me you don’t know what happened? Where were you tonight, Lorenzo?”
“H-here, Manuel… Why? Did you have a job for me tonight? Was I supposed to bring the boat by the river and wait for Ramon and –”
“No, you pendejo!” Manuel replied with annoyance. “There was nothing planned, tonight. Nothing that would have required your involvement, anyway… you worthless piece of shit!”
At this moment, the voice of Angela made itself heard, addressing Manuel softly but firmly: “Please, Manuel… Whatever you reproach my father for, I can assure you, he did nothing to cause you harm. He stayed here all day, helping me with the altar, and –”
“… And he got drunk the rest of the evening, thinking of his dear, departed wife, isn’t that true?” Manuel spat with disgust. Silence followed, and then Manuel scoffed derisively. “Dear, sweet Angela… You keep defending this worthless piece of scum, like your mother used to! Same old Lorenzo, always hiding in the skirts of his women! You should keep to your kitchen, girl! This is man’s talk!”
Black heard laughing coming from many male voices. Slowly, he rose to his feet and in silence, went to the door. Staying in hiding, he took a peak into the other room. There were four men there; three were young, barely in their twenties, while the fourth, tall and well-built, and visibly in his late thirties, was holding Lorenzo by his shirt. The others stood around, looking at the frightened Lorenzo like wolves watching a sheep. Angela was keeping in the background, glaring at the man threatening her father.
“Manuel… What did I do that displeased you so much?” Lorenzo pleaded. “What is it you are angry about?”
“I will tell you what it is I’m angry about,” Manuel spat. “The police came to me tonight.”
Lorenzo paled. “The police?” he echoed. “They… came to you? I swear, Manuel… I didn’t send them to you. A policeman came visit the inn the other day… What, about a week ago? I swear to you… I told him nothing about you… And Angela didn’t either, I made sure of that.”
Manuel let go of him, as if he felt disgusted by him. “I’m sure you didn’t… Because if you had talked to anyone about the goods we get into the county through the river, you and your sweet daughter would already be dead. You can be sure of that, Lorenzo.”
Black didn’t like what he was hearing at all. From what Angela had told him recently of her ‘father’s friends’, he had every reason to imagine that these men she was talking about were less than reputable. In fact, he was growing more and more convinced they were trading in some kind of dishonest and criminal matter, in which Lorenzo also found himself mixed up. Drugs dealings, smuggling of some sort… he didn’t know exactly what it could be. But by the sound of it, this Manuel sounded like a man it would be unsafe to be near; and as he sounded very angry right now, he could potentially be very dangerous.
At this point, he considered if he shouldn’t interfere; everything in him was telling him not to get involved, and Angela had told him to stay in the kitchen. He thought it was a wise advice and that it would be better if he was to keep out of it.
I shouldn’t get involved. I shouldn’t go over there. If things go bad, I’ll make them even worse…
But the next words he heard made him reconsider his resolution:
“The police came,” Manuel continued with a voice filled with antagonism. “With Spectrum.”
That word alone was enough to attract Black’s attention.
“Spectrum?” Lorenzo repeated with obvious perplexity. “What did Spectrum want from you?”
“They wanted to ask me questions about Ramon and Eduardo. They somehow knew that me and them, we were doing business together.”
“Wha-what about Ramon and Eduardo?” Lorenzo asked in an even more confused voice.
Black pricked his ears. Ramon… Eduardo… Where had he heard those names before? It was fairly recently, he was sure of that. But somehow, he couldn’t recall from where…
“Do you mean you don’t know? Didn’t you watch the news on television?”
“He didn’t,” Angela then answered to Manuel’s question. “I did. Ramon and Eduardo were killed at the dam tonight, Papà. They were trying to blow it up and the police and Spectrum stopped them.”
Black closed his eyes and refrained from sighing deeply. Oh no. No, no, no… That was where he had heard the names too. In that reportage, on television… Eduardo Lopez, and Ramon Baretto… killed while attempting to blow up the dam… They were his accomplices in this assignment. Probably Mysteronised beforehand so they would carry out their task.
And obviously, they also were part of Manuel’s gang.
And just because of that, Angela and her father were now caught up into business that might very well cost their lives.
And it might be all my fault, Black reflected.
“So what is it now, Manuel?” he heard the voice of Angela ask, dripping with loathing. “You and your little gang are dabbling in terrorist acts?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” he snarled. “Blowing the dam wouldn’t serve me any! Since they started building it, it’s been very profitable for my business. My merchandise can avoid the police easily, by crossing the lake by boats. With the dam gone, I would have no business. Not that I have much now, anyway! With these two idiots trying to blow up the dam, and the police AND Spectrum, breathing down my neck, asking me questions, searching all around for that other terrorist guy who escaped them, all of my business is down the drain! And I want to get my hands on the one responsible for it!”
Black tensed. He had a good idea who it was that Manuel was looking for. He watched as the man turned towards Lorenzo again.
“WHERE is he?” he asked with deep antagonism. “Where is that son of a bitch?”
“W-who?” Lorenzo asked in a stutter. “Who are you talking about?”
“That gringo who took a room in this dump you call an inn.”
“You mean Señor Turner?” Angela asked with perplexity. She scoffed. “Surely, you don’t think…”
“Spectrum showed me a picture of the man who escaped them,” Manuel interrupted with impatience. “A gringo, who isn’t from these parts. Raoul told me you introduced a gringo to Ramon yesterday, Lorenzo. A gringo who needed a guide to visit the dam?”
“That’s the man,” Lorenzo confirmed. “Conrad Turner… he’s our only client at the moment... But I don’t think Ramon took him to the dam, no… The gringo stayed in his room since yesterday.”
“Surely, the terrorist Spectrum is looking for must be someone else,” Angela added.
“He stayed in his room – are you sure of that?” Manuel insisted.
“He looked… very sick,” Angela said, causing Manuel to turn to her. “I don’t think he was in any state to take a stroll into the jungle in order to go blow up the dam!”
“Pedro, go upstairs.” From his viewpoint, Black saw the alarm pass in Angela’s eyes as Manuel turned again to Lorenzo. “What room is he in?”
“Check it out, Pedro,” Manuel ordered as one of his men started towards the staircase. “And check every other room as well.”
“You won’t find him,” Angela then said.
That declaration caused Black’s heart to beat suddenly faster, as he grew concerned for the girl’s safety. Manuel turned once more to her.
“And why is that?” he asked cantankerously.
“He checked out earlier,” she replied, withstanding the furious way he was glaring at her with an icy look of her own. “You wouldn’t know it, Papà, you were sleeping when he left.”
“Go check anyway,” Manuel instructed, waving at his man.
Pedro didn’t need to be told again, and rushed up the stair. He disappeared from Black’s vision, and the latter wondered how long it would take the young man to search every room and return to inform his leader that there was absolutely no-one upstairs.
For himself, Black didn’t fear anything; but he was growing more and more concerned for Angela, who seemed to have taken on herself to protect him. He had no idea why she would do that, and risk herself that way. He was nothing to her – a stranger who just happened to take a room in her father’s inn, a gringo she knew nothing about and with whom she only shared a meal and a conversation.
The only reason he could think of was that she was doing it out the goodness of her heart.
But I don’t deserve any of it, he reflected inwardly. I don’t deserve her kindness. I don’t deserve the risk she’s taking for me.
If she knew who he was, all the things he had done, he was pretty sure she wouldn’t try that much to protect him. She would look upon him in the same way she was looking at Manuel now, with eyes full of hatred and revulsion.
And she would have every right to abhor him.
Black watched with a certain amount of dread as Manuel, turning his back to Lorenzo, directed all of his attention to Angela and came to stand in front of her, very closely.
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Angela?” he asked in an ominous voice.
“Why would I lie to you, Manuel?” she replied stoically. “You’ll see, Pedro will return and confirm that Señor Turner is gone.” She lowered her eyes, in a way to avoid his probing gaze.
Manuel gave a sigh, showing his displeasure, and then lifted her chin with his right hand, in an almost gentle gesture, forcing her to look back at her.
“If you are trying to protect him, querida, I will be very angry with you,” he said in a soft voice.
He got even closer to her, as if he was trying to steal her a kiss, but she stepped back, avoiding him, and she pushed his hand away, glaring at him with irritation. “Do not touch me,” she demanded. “And I forbid you to call me ‘querida’.”
He back away too, his hand falling by his side, and he laughed. “You’re still as feisty as ever, Angela. You always were, since you were a little girl… That used to annoy me, you know, because feisty little girls are pests. However, when they become women, that makes them very appealing.” He approached her again. “Remember what happened when I discovered you were all grown up, Angela?”
Angela blanched. She stole a glance in her father’s direction. “I forbid you to mention any of this,” she said with a harsh tone.
Manuel chuckled. “Why, because you think your father doesn’t know?” he turned to Lorenzo. The latter bowed his head, as if he wasn’t willing to look the younger man in the eyes.
Or perhaps, it was his daughter’s he sought to escape to.
“But you know he’s perfectly aware of the situation,” Manuel continued, turning back to Angela, who lowered her eyes under the intensity of his stare. “He knows about us… About how this baby is mine, as well as yours…”
His hand reached for the young woman’s belly, intend to stroke it possessively, but she pushed it away again and took another step back. Her head snapped back to glare at him.
“Get your hands off me!” she fumed. “I did not give consent for you to touch me… not this time, and nor that other time! You were drunk then, when you had your way with me – as you are drunk now!”
Manuel scoffed and took a few steps away from her. “Don’t be ridiculous. You wanted it as much as I did. Your father knows that.”
She gasped in outrage. “You are lying! And my father knows you’re lying! When I told him what you did to me, he was angry with you and went to speak to you…”
“Well, he isn’t saying anything now,” Manuel commented, glancing in Lorenzo’s direction. The latter raised his head at these words, but didn’t say anything, when his daughter looked his way. Ashamed, he looked away, and Angela turned to Manuel, still standing so close to him.
“You had him beaten up by your men when he came to you the first time,” she accused. “And you threatened to kill him! That’s why he’s so afraid of you. But I am not. I will not let you get anywhere this baby. It will never be yours. It is mine alone!”
Manuel shrugged indifferently. “If you want to keep the baby all to yourself, go ahead, dear Angela. I don’t care for the little bastard. But don’t ever come to me for help.”
“Don’t worry, that won’t happen,” Angela challenged.
“And for your information, I’m not drunk,” he continued nonchalantly. “However, getting something to drink would be a nice idea. You and your father are not good hosts, querida. Me and mi amigos have been here ten minutes already, and you offered us nothing to drink yet.”
One of the two men who had stayed with Manuel snatched from Lorenzo’s hands the bottle of tequila he had been nursing since their arrival. He grunted with irritation.
“That drunkard dried this bottle, Manuel,” he announced.
“There must be some more somewhere, Armando,” Manuel declared quietly. “In the kitchen, perhaps.”
Black saw the look on Angela’s face change as all the colour left it.
“Go and get whatever you’ll find,” Manuel continued. “Don’t bother with any glasses.”
When he saw Armando nod to acknowledge the order, Black grew rigid; the minute the young man entered the kitchen, he would see him, and sound the alert. Now he was trapped and would not escape them. These men were obviously criminals, and whatever they wanted of him, it certainly wasn’t anything good. And when they found him, there was no telling what they might do to Angela, who had lied to hide his presence.
He had no choice now.
He looked around, and his hand reached for a butcher knife set in a wooden block on the small counter by the fridge. He heard the footsteps of Armando approach his position, and then saw the door being pushed towards him; swiftly and silently, he pressed himself against the wall, behind the door, so that he would be hidden when it would open.
Armando fully entered into the room, his back turned on Black, not seeing him. The former Spectrum officer carefully pushed the door and stepped out from behind it, to silently creep behind the unsuspecting young man. Black could hear the discussion continue in the lobby, but with all of his attention set on Armando, the words became undistinguishable to him. His mind was now ‘in the zone’, all prepared to operate as the trained soldier he had been most of his life.
The bottle of tepache on the table attracted Armando’s attention and he went directly to take it. He stood there, looking down at the bottle, as Black closed in on him, as quiet as a ghost, his mind resolute to what he needed to do now.
He knew it was the moment to strike when he saw Armando noticing the two half-filled bowls and the two glasses set on the table. The young man suddenly realised that someone had been in the kitchen with Angela when they had arrived earlier.
But it was too late for him now to call the others.
Black caught him from behind, putting his left hand on his mouth to smother his cry. Too surprised by the attack, Armando didn’t even have time to react, and in the fraction of the second that followed, Black plunged his knife into his exposed side, deep between the fifth and sixth ribs, straight into his heart. There was but a faint muffled cry escaping Armando’s lips as he went suddenly rigid – and he died almost instantly. His body went limp and slopped between the arms of his attacker.
Black held on to the body, making sure he wouldn’t fall to the floor and make any noise that would attract unwanted attention from the other room. He lowered it down without a sound; in all, the manoeuvre had taken barely two minutes, and nobody had realised anything.
He swiftly searched his victim and found a gun tucked into his belt. Having left his own in his room – he hadn’t felt the need to bring it along to dine with Angela – he thought this one would be useful to him and took it, checking the ammunition in it. The conversation in the other room made his way back to his mind, and the words became clear again. Footsteps, obviously coming from the staircase, made themselves heard, as Pedro returned from his search of the second floor.
Not a second too soon, thought Black.
He approached the door carefully and took a peek though the opening.
“Well?” asked Manuel, with a certain amount of impatience. “You didn’t find anything?”
“He isn’t there, Manuel. I searched everywhere.”
Manuel shook his head. “So the girl said the truth, then. The gringo is gone.”
“He might be gone, but I think he will be back,” Pedro retorted. “He left all his things behind. Including a gun that I found in one of the drawers of his bed table.”
Manuel glared evilly in Angela’s direction. “So he has not checked out then? You lied to me, Angela.”
The young woman frowned. “I told you he checked out, Manuel,” she replied with a firm voice. “I don’t know why he could have left his things behind.”
“Did he sign the register, before leaving?” Manuel asked, pointing to the counter. “At what time did he leave, Angela?”
The young woman hesitated; she had not planned her lie so carefully. Sighing, Manuel came closer to her again, much like he had done before. She stepped back at his approach, and soon found herself with her back against the wall.
“Oh, Angela…” He tutted at her as she looked at him with frightened eyes. “You’re more courageous than your coward of a father, I’ll give you that… Probably something you got from your mamà.” His left hand leaned against the wall, by the young woman’s side, cutting her way out in that direction, while he came closer still, and his right fingers started caressing her jawline. “If you knew who this man is, what he has done, you wouldn’t be protecting him the way you do,” he said softly. “You think me evil, dear Angela… But this gringo – he’s far worst than I am, even at my worst. And if you don’t want to see my worst, you will stop playing games with me.”
Lorenzo, then seemingly finding some courage and righteous indignation at last over the way his daughter was being treated, took a step forward. “Leave her alone, Manuel,” he requested with a shaky voice.
“Keep out of this, Lorenzo!”
Lorenzo swallowed hard. “No, you will leave her,” he insisted, trying to render his voice as firm as he could. “You’ve done her enough harm, and I won’t let you do anymore to her. Let her go, Manuel, I’m warning you…”
Manuel cackled and turned a cold look at him. “You’re warning me?” he said with derision. “You, Lorenzo? So you finally discovered you’re a man after all?” With contempt, he watched the older man, standing there, immobile, in an attempt to face him with as much audacity as he could muster. It was obvious that Lorenzo was scared out of his wits, but obviously, he wasn’t about to back down. “What will you do then, if I don’t do what you’re asking me?”
“I won’t be helping you anymore,” Lorenzo replied with a quieter voice. “You’ll do without my boat to get your goods through the river. I’m not kidding, Manuel. You might not think much of me, but I love my daughter and it’s time I act like a father to her. Enough is enough.”
Manuel gave a deep, almost regretful sigh. “Well, it’s a little late for you to find yourself some backbone,” he said quietly. “As for your boat – well, I really don’t think I need you to use it, do I? Raoul. Do it now.”
Lorenzo did not understand what was going on; neither did Black, before it was too late. The young man standing by Lorenzo’s side got a gun out from under his jacket and aimed it the inn’s owner at point blank range. A detonation resounded before anyone could act, which was echoed by Angela’s cry of utmost horror. Hit in the chest, her father fell backwards and crashed onto the low table set in front of the television.
Stunned and horrified, Black had not been able to make a single move; the scene had something surreal to it, and he certainly didn’t expect things to degenerate that way, and especially not as quickly. He saw Angela, her face a mask of pain, pushing herself from the wall and trying to pass by Manuel to run to her father. But swift as a cobra, Manuel seized her by the throat and shoved her back against the wall, banging her head against it; she gasped as he squeezed viciously and held her there.
“I’ve been too indulgent with your useless father for too long a time,” he seethed between his teeth. “Beside, I’ve never liked him. And I’ve never liked you either,” he added ominously.
With his free hand, he took a jackknife from his pocket and the blade flicked out; Angela’s eye grew wide.
Black didn’t wait a second longer to step in; if he wanted to save Angela, he needed to act now. Injured or not, he just had to intervene. Swiftly, he stepped out of the kitchen, and stood by the counter, just beyond the opening, his gun first aimed at Raoul, who, with his gun, was his most immediate concern. Before the young man could even realise his presence, Black pulled the trigger once. Shot through the head, Raoul fell to the floor.
Black did not wait for the result of his first shot as, from the corner of his eye, he had seen Pedro, standing in the middle of the staircase, reaching for his own gun as soon as he had seen the former Spectrum officer appear. Despite his desire to free Angela from her precarious situation, Black was deeply aware that if Pedro was able to aim his gun at him, all might be lost; so in a fraction of a second, he had made a strategic decision and turned swiftly on his heels; his gun spat twice.
Hit in the chest, Pedro let go of his gun, and his disarticulated body tumbled down the steps in a loud crashing sound. Barely a few seconds had gone by since he had appeared from the kitchen, and Black swiftly returned his attention to Manuel. The man had frozen into place, unable to do anything but watch as Black swiftly dispatched his men.
Now the former Spectrum officer stood rigidly, his face grim and his gun aimed at his opponent, who still had one of his hands around Angela’s throat, and his knife into the other. Sobbing, the young woman was looking at Black with eyes widening with fear and horror, visibly in shock of having seen him appear so suddenly and kill Manuel’s men with such ease and without any visible remorse.
Not leaving Manuel out of his sight, Black approached slowly. Seeing that, the other man pressed the point of the knife against Angela’s breast. “If I were you, I wouldn’t come any closer, señor,” he said in perfect English. “Not if you don’t want to see me kill the girl.”
Black stopped in his tracks; he didn’t lower his gun and kept it trailed on Manuel. He caught side of Angela’s tear-drenched face, as she was now looking in the direction of her fallen father. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Angela,” he said softly. “I wasn’t fast enough to save your father.”
Despite Manuel’s hand on her throat, she managed to nod her understanding, closing her eyes as she did so.
Manuel looked Black in the face. “You’re the man from the picture they showed me,” he said matter-of-factly. “You are Captain Black.”
“Drop the knife and let the girl go,” Black replied stoically.
“So you could kill me? Not a chance.” Manuel looked around, staring at the bodies surrounding him. “What a mess,” he murmured, without the single hint of sorrow in his voice. “You’re really as good as they say you are. And every bit just as dangerous.” He nodded towards the door leading into the kitchen. “What did you do with Armando? You killed him too?”
“Just like I’ll kill you,” Black said implacably. “If they told you about me, then you know I would do it, without any hesitation, and without giving it a single thought afterwards.”
“Then why are you not doing it?” Manuel challenged him arrogantly. He raised his knife, to approach it to Angela’s throat and the young woman sobbed noisily. “Is it because you’re afraid my hand might slip and that I will hurt her? That is surprising coming from you, Captain. Spectrum told me you care for no-one and nothing… except for your mission.”
Black tilted his head to one side, eyeing this despicable man with an icy stare; he felt a coldness insinuated itself into his heart, as his mind began to grow numb with indifference. He knew the signs, knew exactly what they meant, and what would happen very soon. He started to see the man standing there as a threat to his freedom, an obstacle in his way, that he needed to get rid of.
He tried to fight it off, to hang on to his humanity; because if he should lose hold of it, then he might not have the time to save Angela. Worse still, he might end up killing her himself.
“Listen to me,” he hissed through his teeth, “and if you are wise, you will follow my advice. I just want you to let the girl go, and we’ll be on our way. I cannot care less about your business, whatever it is. It is not a habit of mine to get my nose into things that doesn’t concern me...”
“But you did just that,” Manuel interrupted. “Because of you, I have no business left and the police will soon be after me. What is it you promised those two imbeciles so they would help you in your mission, uh? Must be something very big, if that convinced them to leave me and follow you. If it’s money, I want it. That’ll compensate for my loss.” He smiled wickedly. “Think of me as Ramon and Eduardo’s next-of-kin.”
“I don’t have any money,” Black replied. “The only thing I’m ready to give you is a volley of lead, right into your belly, if you don’t do as I say right now!”
“Are you threatening me?” Manuel scoffed. A smile spread on his lips and he asked casually: “Are you sure you want to go into this, señor? I killed men for far less than this.”
“And I killed men for no reason at all,” Black replied in his iciest tone, the influence of the Mysteron taking further hold of him. He pulled the hammer of his gun.
Manuel froze and for a moment, he hesitated to use the blade he held so close to Angela’s throat.
The latter suddenly let out a long distressed scream that sounded like a cry of despair. Shocked, Manuel stepped back from her, almost without even thinking about it; the knife had not touched her, and he couldn’t see any reason why she would react that way. Black stood still, distracted by the scene, seemingly unsure of what was going on. The hold of the Mysterons was wavering; he could still feel the anguish of Angela’s cry and recognised the pain on her face.
He saw a gun appear in Manuel’s hand, as the man took it from his belt and desperately attempted to aim it at his opponent. He saw the finger squeezing the trigger, but the detonation seemed drown into Angela’s continuous scream. He felt the bullet grazing his side – the same side that had been injured earlier. The renewed pain, combined with Angela’s distress gave Black enough of an impetus to break the still relatively fragile hold the Mysterons had on him. He fired back at Manuel, three times, without blinking; the man stumbled back, his finger still squeezing the trigger of his gun. Black barely took any notice of the detonations of the other weapon, and watched as Manuel, his chest riddled with bullets, fell on his back, right next to the body of Lorenzo.
Black felt his knees buckle underneath him; he leaned against the counter, in an attempt to keep himself up right, and reached his injured side with his other hand. It wasn’t a bad wound, this time, but it hurt nonetheless.
Good. The pain will keep the Mysterons at bay. That might give me some time to finish things up.
The gasping he heard from Angela brought his mind back to her and forgetful of his own pain, he rushed to her. She was still standing rigidly against the wall, where Manuel had slammed her earlier. She was barely moving, except for the rapid rise and fall of her breast as she was breathing hard, and her face was pale and covered with sweat.
“Angela!” Black called to her. “Are you all right?” He then noticed how she stood, with her legs apart, and that she was looking down to the floor. He lowered his eyes, and saw the large puddle enlarging between her feet. He blanched. “Your waters have broken…” he began.
“That’s not… my only problem…” Angela said between two gasps.
Her right hand was clutching her side, and Black could see a large amount of blood seeping from between her fingers, which was starting to stain her dress. He opened eyes wide with horror but had no time to say anything, as Angela suddenly started to slide along the wall. He caught her before she reached the floor and picked her up into his arms. He gritted his teeth against his own pain as he carried her to the nearby sofa, where he gently laid her.
He put a cushion behind her head, and made sure she was comfortable. Then, he kneeled by her side, and moved to check her wound, but before he was even able to touch her again, Angela’s hand caught his wrist and held it tight. He turned to look upon her pale face. She was still gasping, as if out of breath.
“Was it true…” she said in a low voice. “Was it true what Manuel said? Are you the man Spectrum is looking for? Are you a terrorist?” She gasped, biting her bottom lip.
He could hear accusation in her voice, as well as resentment. He hesitated for one moment, unable to say anything – unwilling to say the truth. He sighed and lowered his head in shame.
He didn’t need to tell her anything; by his reaction, she had perfectly understood. Her face became a mask of deep disappointment. She released his hand, pushing it away from her, in an obvious gesture of revulsion. Black felt his heart breaking, with the pain of this rejection.
“And I thought I was a good judge of character…” she murmured. “I thought… you were a good man…”
Black looked at her with sad eyes. “I was a good man, Angela,” he said softly. “At least, I tried to do good for most of my life.” He shook his head with dejection. “But one foul act, one mistake, made me the puppet of Fate.”
“You would… blame Fate?” Angela whispered, closing her eyes. “That’s the excuse of all bad men… Manuel used to blame Fate often too… You’re not that different from him…” Her voice broke into a cry that she did her best to still. Her face contorted with pain and her body became rigid.
Black leaned to her, concerned. “Angela… You’re having contractions. The baby is coming. Whatever you think of me now, I do not want to harm you in any way. Let me check this wound… see how bad it is…”
She opened her eyes; now they reflected genuine fear as she turned to look directly at him. It wasn’t fear for herself, though.
“My baby… Will she die? Was she… hurt?”
He swallowed hard. “Let me see your wound,” he repeated.
She nodded her assent. Black turned up the nearby lamp to be able to see something, and then gently removed her hand clutched to her side. Her dress was sticking to her skin, so soaked with blood that he couldn’t see clearly. He quickly picked up Manuel’s knife, which was lying close by and cut through the dress a tear long enough for him to see the wound.
It was a gunshot wound, not dissimilar from his own, but much more serious. He realised she must have been hit by a stray bullet, when he and Manuel had fired at each other. Already, he felt guilty enough for her predicament; he hoped to God that, at least, it wasn’t his bullet that had injured her.
He looked up to the young woman’s face, in time to see it twist under the pain of a new contraction. Each one of them was making her blood spurt from the wound. At this rate, she would bleed to death in a very short time.
He took her hand, and gently put it against the wound, pressing it down, so to reduce the flow. “The baby was not hit, Angela,” he reassured her. “But this is a serious injury. You may die if you don’t see a doctor… and fast.”
The phone was on the same table as the lamp and Black reached for it. “I will call an ambulance… What is the emergency number in Mexico?”
“0-6-5… For medical…” Angela answered. As Black started keying the number, she reached to softly touch his hand, making him stop. “Señor Turner… If you make that call… you will be caught.”
It wasn’t even a consideration for Black; he had no concern for himself, except, maybe, the prospect that the Mysterons would regain control of him eventually. But he hoped to stay free for a little time longer, and to slip away at the minute help would arrive for Angela. He didn’t wish to hurt whoever would come, no longer than he wanted to hurt the young woman.
She had another contraction. They’re getting closer, he realised. He had no time to waste.
He finished keying the emergency number. A female voice answered him in Spanish. Fortunately, he knew how to speak the language as much as he understood it. “This is an emergency,” he started. “There was a shoot-out… A young woman was injured by a bullet… She’s pregnant... She needs help quickly.”
“What is the address, señor?” the woman asked with an impersonal tone.
“I… ” Black didn’t know the address. The Mysterons had guided his steps to this place, and he had no idea of its exact location. He pressed the speaker key. “They need the address, Angela…”
She nodded, her jaw clenching under the pain of another contraction. “Hola…” she said in as strong a voice as she can muster, “mi dirección es –”
She was suddenly interrupted when a deep, ominous voice emerged from the speaker: “Captain Black...”
Black’s heart froze and his face became livid. “No…” he whispered.
The Mysterons were using the phone to contact him… and in doing so, they were blocking the call for help he was attempting to make. He didn’t doubt they were doing it on purpose as they probably were monitoring his every action. They did say they would not permit him to contact anyone… and maybe, they didn’t want him to save Angela’s life.
He swiftly disabled the speaker and put the phone back to his ear. “Please, let me call the hospital. The girl will die if she doesn’t –”
“We told you… you cannot escape the Mysterons…” the voice continued, seemingly not hearing him out.
“I am not planning to escape you,” Black replied desperately. “Please… She’s innocent. Let me –”
“There are no innocents amongst the Earthmen… You will all pay…”
“I beg you,” Black insisted. “Let me call for help… It’s her only hope…”
He received no answer to his pleading. All he could hear now was the dead tone in the phone. The Mysterons had disabled the line. He helplessly looked at the receiver, shaking his head in despair.
“No,” he murmured with a shaky voice. “Please, no…”
“Don’t you get the Mysterons’ message, Earthman?”
That voice coming from behind made Black shivered. Slowly, he turned his head to look over his shoulder. He knew already what he would see; not because he had recognised the lilting, accented voice, but because he knew too well of the way of the Mysterons. And yet, when he saw him standing there, by the television, three large spots of blood staining his shirt, looking at him with an expression of conceit on his face, he couldn’t help himself looking at him in complete shock.
He should have realised it sooner. He should have recognised the coldness he displayed over the death of his companions as the indubitable sign it was. And yet, he had not been able to see what was staring him in the face.
“There is no hope possible, Captain Black,” the voice of Manuel said, with even more aloofness than the man had displayed before. “Not for her, not for you… not for anyone else on this planet.” He smiled evilly, and added with deep conviction: “The Mysterons wanted to teach you a lesson, Black. And if the girl should die for you to learn it, so be it. No-one escapes them. And most especially not you.”
Those last words enraged Captain Black to such a degree that he totally lost it; he had reached the end of his rope and couldn’t take it anymore. He felt the knife in his hand, as his fingers curled around the handle.
With a roar of complete fury, he rose to his feet and charged at Manuel. The latter didn’t even make a single move to avoid him, when the former Spectrum officer tackled him violently and roughly brought him to the floor, crashing into the television at the same occasion. Flashes came from the screen as it broke under the impact, and Black, straddling on his opponent, used the blade, blind with fury, refusing to think anymore, but to only feel, and stabbed him in the chest again, and again, and again. Either Manuel didn’t have time to defend himself, or didn’t even try to do so, he didn’t know, and couldn’t care less. This man, who had been a replicate all along, an agent of the Mysterons, had come to taunt him out of his relative peace and had caused death and pain to innocent people, only to get at him – to teach him a lesson.
All of his fury, all of his pain and frustration, culminated in those violent blows; he couldn’t stop himself. If he couldn’t destroy the Mysterons, at least, he would their creation… That might serve for little, but at least some justice would be served.
The voice of Angela insinuated itself through the fog and reached Black’s mind. He stopped the rain of blows and breathing hard, looked down at his dead opponent beneath him. He had made a mess of him, and blood was covering the floor, spilling from the many stab wounds. Black’s right hand, which was still holding the knife, was red with blood up to his wrist. He slowly turned his head toward Angela and saw she was looking at him. Her face was even paler than before.
He rose to his feet, and came to her; tiredly, he fell on his knees by her side and watched her up and down. She had lost more blood, judging by the state of her dress and the floor beneath her. She looked exhausted and was shivering. He stroked her damp hair.
“I’ll get your father’s truck and will take you to the hospital myself,” he promised in a broken voice. “There is still time…”
But she shook her head weakly. “No, there isn’t… I can feel it…” Angela’s voice broke, as she was interrupted by a contraction. She closed her eyes, and breathed deeply, her face contorting with pain. Black could see she was weakening by the second.
“You must not lose hope, Angela,” he told her desperately. “I won’t let you die.”
“I don’t think… there’s anything you can do to avoid it right now.” Angela opened her eyes again and looked at him. “That was them, wasn’t it? The evil spirits you fear so much? It was them who spoke on the phone and that Manuel talked of?”
Swallowing hard, Black nodded.
“I had read rumours… on Worldnet… about those Mysterons. So they really… can wake up the dead and use them?” She looked into Black’s eyes. “Are you… a dead man, searching for a place where you would be welcomed, on this Day of the Dead?”
Black shook his head this time. “I am but a man, Angela,” he answered, speaking quickly. “A soulless man that the Mysterons use to their own nefarious end, and who can do nothing to stop them – only feel appalled for the many horrifying things they force him to do. Tonight, I am only temporarily free of them, and they sought to punish me, because I defied them, in thinking I could put a definite end to their control. My freedom won’t last much longer. And that is for that reason as well that we must move on. We are wasting time, and if I am to save you –”
She put her hand on his cheek, gently, interrupting him. He looked into her eyes. “You won’t save me… but you still can save my child.”
As Black looked down at her in confusion, she used both her hands to try to remove a delicate chain from her neck. Seeing she was attempting to rise from her cushion to pass it over her head, Black gently helped her. She left the chain in the palm of his hand, and her head fell back onto the cushion, tiredly.
Black looked at the object. The chain was silver, as far as he was able to tell, and there was a small locket attached to it. It had opened during the manoeuvre, and Black could now see two tiny, but very clear pictures imbedded into each of the sides. On one side, there was the picture of Angela, and on the other, that of her mother – a reduced version of the one standing on the altar, set in front of the main doors.
“This is my gift to my daughter.” Black looked down at Angela. Her face very white and filled with pain, she was breathing with difficulty now. She feebly raised her hand and took Black’s, which was holding the locket. “Give it to her. With that, she will know of her mother…”
“Angela…” Black frowned in confusion. “I… I’m not sure I understand. What do you want me to do exactly? How can I save your baby… if I can’t save you?”
She smiled lightly and her hand lowered. He still kept the knife into his other, blood-stained hand. She reached for it and clutched it.
Black paled horribly; he was afraid to now understand what she meant. His mind revolted over the idea and he instinctively let go of the knife, as if it was a smouldering firebrand. “You can’t possibly ask me to –”
“When I’m dead, get my baby out,” she said in a whispered. “Bring her into the world.”
“I can’t!” Black protested. “I can’t open you up like –”
“Yes, you can… I’ll be dead, señor… So if you’re afraid you’ll be doing me any harm, you can put your mind to rest…” She smiled weakly and her hand reached for his cheek again. She was trembling as she stroked it. “It is necessary…” she whispered. “There is no other choice, señor… You will deliver my baby to this word… And then, take her to the orphanage… in La Misericordia… She’ll be fine, there. She’ll be safe…”
A ball formed into Black’s throat and he swallowed hard; a single tear escaped his eye and ran down his cheek, reaching Angela’s hand. She tried to smile a little wider, but it wasn’t much of a success. She gasped as a new pain shot through her. Black took her hand and held it tight, comfortingly.
“Angela…” he called to her. “I’ll do what you ask me... I promise.”
“She’ll be well taken care of…” Angela said, her voice weaker and her breathing erratic. “And a good family might adopt her… If not, the sisters will raise her properly. You know… he was raised there?”
“Who?” Black asked with a frown.
“Presidente Alamilla… He grew up at the orphanage. He was an orphan too… Like my daughter will be… Like you are… So you see, even orphans can make good people…”
Angela groaned and closed her eyes, her body suddenly becoming rigid under a sudden twinge of pain. Black quickly brought her hand to his lips, kissed it tenderly and stroked it against his cheek. He closed his eyes shut, to stop the coming of new tears. All of his being was in revolt over the impending passing of the young woman.
“Oh, Angela…” he whispered. “It’s so unfair… So unfair that you should be in such pain… That you should die so young…” He opened his eyes again, and they were flashing with anger. “I should be the one dying,” he said in a low voice. “The Mysterons should not claim your life instead of mine. You’re a good soul… you deserve so much to live. While I… I did such horrible things…” He looked to the sky, desperately, tears welling at the corner of his eyes. “Take me in her stead!” he called with a shaky voice. “Please, take my life, and let her live! You can save her, I know you can! You have vast powers, you can heal her! Please save her and… and I’ll be yours forever!”
“No…” Angela opened her eyes and he turned to look at her anew. “Do not give in to the evil spirits,” she pleaded. “My life wouldn’t be worth living, if I knew I was the cause of your fall, Señor Turner. Do not make any deal with them."
“I’ve already fallen, Angela,” Black said in a morose voice. “My crime against the Mysterons came from my arrogance. The respect you say I have for the unknown…” He grunted. “… I fear it as well, and because I didn’t respect it as much as I fear it, it led to my fall. I’m a damned, and a condamned man for that.” He sighed deeply. “They should have let me put an end to my life, like I intended to. None of this would have happened.”
“It’s all the same,” Angela reasoned, her voice growing weaker still. “If you had died… the evil spirits would have won over you. They might control you, but you still live… And as long as you live… there is hope…” A frown creased her brow and she tried to take a deep breath. She seemed to be unable to and coughed briefly, almost strangling herself. She gasped and her eyes closed, despite her efforts to keep them open. “You are not a soulless man, Conrad Turner,” she said in a voice so low that Black had trouble hearing her words. “You still have a soul, and that soul is good… I know it is…”
“And you know that why… because you’re a good judge of character?” Black said, smiling sadly, using the line he had heard from her lips twice already.
She didn’t answer, and her head bowed on her chest, and fell to the side.
Black scowled. “Angela?” he called in a soft voice.
As she didn’t move, and didn’t open her eyes at the sound of her name. Black put his trembling fingers onto her neck and checked for a pulse. He could feel nothing.
A deep sorrow invaded his heart and he felt like it was breaking in his chest. He held the young woman’s limp hand between his and brought it to his trembling lips to kiss it again. He rested his brow against it, and then let the tears he had been trying to hold for so long freely flow from his eyes, sobbing like a man who had forever lost what he held most dear in the world.
Black stayed that way as long as he thought he could afford it; and then, he leaned down on her and kissed her brow, before squaring his shoulders and looking down one last time at Angela’s now serene features; she looked exactly like a sleeping child, so at peace with the world around her. With one hand, he stroked her cheek, which was starting to grow cold.
“Now you’re with the angels in heaven, Angela,” he said softly. “With your mum, where you both belong.”
His other hand seized the handle of the knife, which lay next to the young woman’s body. His heart was pounding, as he considered now what needed to be done, in order to respect Angela’s last wishes.
He wasn’t a doctor, by any stretch of the imagination. It would not be an easy task.
“I’ll do it,” he said in a whisper, taking a shaky intake of air, and addressing the young woman again. “No matter how much it’ll cost me… I’ll hold on to my promise and will see your daughter live, Angela. That, I swear to you…”
“There you have it all, señor. This is all I know about it.”
Captain Scarlet looked pensively at the young woman seated in the precinct of the convent in Nostra Señora de la Misericordia, chewing on the information she had given him. The young nun wore the traditional white habit and black veil of the Dominican order – something relatively rare in these days of age, where nuns usually wore civilian clothes. It was probably more common when they lived in a convent in such a remote area as this little village, near the Mexican jungle.
“Thank you, sister,” Scarlet said, raising to his feet, and preparing to take his leave. “I won’t bother you any longer. You must have duties to attend to.”
The young woman smiled up to him. In her arms, she kept a small baby, a newborn, wrapped in a white blanket, who had been very quiet, during the whole time of the interview.
“You have not bothered me, Capitan,” she said kindly enough. “And my duties are now dedicated to this infant child, who’s all alone in the word and who will need much love and guidance in the years to come. After all, it was to me that she had been entrusted to, two nights ago.”
Scarlet nodded quietly, unsure how he should answer this comment. He bowed to the young woman. “I think she will be well taken care of, then. I thank you again, Sister Magdalena.”
He put his cap onto his head and left the young woman, striding towards the open door leading out of the garden, where another nun was waiting for him, her hands passed into the large sleeves of her habits. She was much older than the one whom he had just left, and had a definite aura of authority on her that reminded him very much of Colonel White.
“So, Captain Scarlet,” she asked as he approached her, “have you found all the answers you were looking for?”
Scarlet removed his cap again, as he stopped in front of her. “I… erm… I’m not quite sure, Reverend Mother.” He looked over his shoulders, and glanced once more in the direction of Sister Magdalena, who had rose from her bench and was slowly making her way towards another door, through which she could leave the garden. He turned back to the Mother Superior, waiting silently in front of him that he would address him. “I felt for sure that the discovery of this child would give us a clue to the whereabouts of Captain Black,” he said. “But now, after speaking to your sister…”
The Mother Superior nodded her head and, inviting him to come with her, turned around and crossed the doorway to leave the precinct and return indoor; Scarlet followed her in, and together, they slowly walked their way towards the exit.
“Did you find discrepancies in Sister Magdalena’s accounts?” she inquired.
“None at all. It matches your own, Mother. Sister Magdalena was praying in the North’s end chapel two nights ago, to thank God for sparing the village and the whole valley, as well as Presidente Alamilla’s life. She was on her way back to the dormitory afterwards, passing through the precinct, when that man appeared in front of her…”
“Obviously having jumped the precinct wall,” the Reverend Mother added.
“Obviously. It was too dark, and she didn’t get a good look of him, except to see he was all dressed in dark clothing. At first, she thought he was a prowler, or a thief. She then noticed he was holding a small child...”
“A newborn,” the Mother Superior specified.
“Right. And he handed the newborn to Sister Magdalena, asking her to take good care of her… as she was all alone in the world.”
“So she gave you no clue of the identity of this man?”
Scarlet’s brow creased. Sister Magdalena had made no report the intruder having an odd voice. He was obviously an English-speaker, who addressed her in Spanish. That was all she had been able to tell. If it had been Captain Black, Scarlet felt for sure she would have noticed how his voice sounded.
“No,” he answered the Mother Superior’s question. “It seems unlikely that this man would be the one I seek… Can I see the locket again, please?”
Both he and the Mother Superior turned to each other. She extracted from her large pocket a delicate silver chain, to which was attached a small locket and gave it to Scarlet. He opened the locket and looked at the pictures inside.
Yes, one of the pictures was indeed that of one of the victims found by the police in that inn by the jungle, not far from the lake at the top of the dam. Accounts from eyewitnesses had reported that the gang to which Eduardo Lopez and Ramon Baretto had been a part of had been seen going to that inn, the night where the attack on the dam had been averted. In the meantime, the leader of the gang, Manuel Ortega, was found dead, his body floating on the river leading to lake. As Ortega had been seen with his gang, Spectrum suspected that there still were Mysteron activities in the area, and had dispatched a team to go to the inn and investigate. Perhaps, maybe, they would be able to get their hands on Captain Black, who had escaped them so narrowly the night before.
Having recovered from his wound sustained while trying to capture Black, Captain Scarlet had volunteered to lead the investigation team with Captain Blue. But all they found inside the inn were six dead bodies: Manuel Ortega – who had been shot and stabbed viciously, and the three remaining members of his gang, all shot, as well as Lorenzo Hernandez, the owner of the inn, who seemed to have fallen victim to the gang, and his young daughter, Angela Hernandez. The young woman had been shot, like her father, but there was an odd thing about her: she had been pregnant at the time of her death, and somebody had performed a rather crude caesarean operation on her to remove the baby.
When he had found the gruesome sight, Scarlet had hoped that the girl had been dead when she was operated on. But quite frankly, he wasn’t really counting on it, knowing how cruel and brutal some Mexican criminals could prove themselves to be. Of the baby’s body, there was no trace at all. At the time, there wasn’t any indication that Captain Black had been there. If not for the fact that Spectrum knew for certain that this Manuel Ortega was a replicate, the scene of the crime would have had all the look of a gangland killing.
Scarlet had ordered every inch of the place to be searched and for possible clues to be tagged and bagged. Prints were to be taken and the bodies should be examined. He wasn’t leaving anything to chance; he wanted to know what had been going on in this place, and where the Mysterons fitted in.
It was when Spectrum’s investigators discovered the name of ‘Conrad Turner’ in the inn’s registry that came the news of a mysterious newborn baby who had been handed to a sister of the convent of Nostra Señora de la Misericordia, by an equally mysterious intruder. The man had left the premises in a hurry, as soon as he had given the baby up, and had disappeared without leaving a trace.
That was two nights before, just before dawn. The night of the killings.
Scarlet grew suspicious that this baby and the events at the inn were somehow related. He didn’t truly believe that the man who had left the baby to the sister’s care could be Captain Black – but he was at the inn, maybe at the moment of the killings. And if that child was Angela’s baby, then this man might be the only survivor, and the only witness of what had happened. And if it was Captain Black, then maybe Spectrum would be able to pick up his trail and continue the chase to capture him.
So Scarlet went to the convent to request an appointment first with the Mother Superior, who told him the story, then with the nun involved, Sister Magdalena.
Although the connection had been established between the baby and the killings, Scarlet wasn’t closer to discover who it was that left the baby to the convent.
Scarlet closed the locket and gave it back to the Mother Superior. “The baby had that around her neck?”
The woman nodded, as the two of them resumed their walk. “I knew Angela Hernandez,” she said softly. “She came to school here, and I was one of her teachers back then. Such a lovely child, if a lonely one. She was so brilliant, enough to have made an impact on many of us, including Mother Maria, our Mother Superior of the time. When Angela’s mother died, she stopped coming to school…” Her voice became hard. “Her father… He alleged that he needed his daughter to help him at the inn, now that his wife was dead. Mother Maria tried to make him see reason, and even to convince Angela to come back to school. But neither of them would hear of it. Angela… she was such an obedient child. She wouldn’t do anything against her father’s will.” She looked down at the locket, a sad expression on her face. “Such a tragedy…”
“You still don’t have any idea who that man who left this baby to your sister’s care could be?” Scarlet insisted. “Not even a small suspicion?”
She shook her head, frowning. “The father of the child, maybe?” she suggested. “I know that Sister Magdalena said the man was an English-speaker talking to her in relatively good Spanish, but that could be possible, no?”
“I suppose it could,” Scarlet approved with a nod.
“Nobody knew who the father’s of Angela’s baby could be. She never told a soul. And sadly, many people turned their back on her, when she would have needed help the most. An unwedded mother, in this area… And surely, she wasn’t happy at the inn. Her father was a drunkard and a yob, and the company he was keeping…”
“The police told me that he was doing business with Manuel Ortega,” Scarlet said with a nod.
“They were the worst kind of trouble around. Frankly, I am not surprised to learn that they died the way they did. May God have mercy on their souls. But poor, poor, Angela…” The Mother Superior sighed deeply, almost out of frustration. “Why didn’t she come to us? We loved her so much, when she was here, we would have helped her. Maybe I have some fault too. Maybe I should have taken the time to go visit her, especially when I learned about the baby.”
“You’ll be able to help her daughter, now,” Scarlet suggested charitably.
“Yes. God has seen to it that she will not be left on her own. He must have guided this man’s steps for bringing her here. We will take very good care of her. We’ll put her in the orphanage, with the others children, and she will never feel alone, like her mother did. Sister Magdalena had taken a liking to her. She’ll see that she will never miss anything… until good parents adopt her.” The Mother Superior showed him the locket. “I’ll keep this safe. When she’s old enough, I’ll give it to the child, so she’ll know who her mother was.”
“You will need to give her a name,” Scarlet commented.
The Mother Superior smiled; they had reached the door leading out of the convent, and she opened it wide for him. “We will give her her mother’s name,” she told him. “For what could be more fitting for an angel, than to carry a name such as Angela?”
“Very fitting indeed,” Scarlet approved with a grin. “Goodbye, Reverend Mother… and thank you for your time.”
“Hasta luego, Captain Scarlet.”
Scarlet put his cap on, and walked down the alley, while the doors of the convent closed behind him. He spotted the red SSC waiting there, parked on the side of the narrow street, and noticed that Captain Blue was at the wheel, waiting for him. Obviously, his colleague was done with his assignment with the local police, and had come to pick him up.
He went around the car and took his place on the passenger’s seat.
“Found anything?” Blue asked him.
“Nope,” Scarlet said, blowing a deep sigh. “Except to confirm that the baby is indeed Angela Hernandez’s. However, who could have left her here, that’s a total mystery.”
“I’ve received the report of the autopsy of Angela’s body,” Blue reported. “You’ll be relieved to know that the girl was indeed dead when the baby was removed from her womb.”
Scarlet nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “So it is possible that whoever did that wanted to save the baby from her dead mother’s womb. Maybe that someone cared for the mother and her child? Maybe the Reverend Mother is right – it could be the father. Why he wouldn’t take care of the baby, however…”
“There’s something else too,” Blue said gravely.
Scarlet looked straight at his colleague, waiting for him to continue. “Well?” he asked impatiently as Blue seemed to take his time.
Blue hesitated another brief second before finally giving his report: “As the signature in the register indicates, Captain Black indeed stayed at the inn for a little while. We checked the room that was supposed to be his, and we found his prints in there. Along with blood stains that matched his blood type.”
“I told you I had wounded him,” Scarlet commented.
“Not nearly enough. There wasn’t that much blood around, except on a towel that he probably used to clean himself up with.” Blue sighed. “That’s not all. We also found his prints elsewhere: in the kitchen, where he obviously had a meal… on a butcher knife that was used to kill one of Ortega’s men… On a half-empty gun, and we’re still waiting for the ballistics to know exactly if the bullets that killed the other people in that inn came from that gun… And on the jackknife that was used to kill Manuel Ortega himself.”
Scarlet frowned in puzzlement. “Black killed another Mysteron agent? Why?”
Blue shrugged. “Beats me. All I can recall is the way the Ortega replicate looked when we found him.”
Scarlet nodded. “It was bad,” he said, remembering the scene as well. “He must have been stabbed a dozen times. Was there other prints on the knife?”
Scarlet nodded, still trying to figure out the answer to that mystery. Blue looked at him, still hesitant to reveal the last piece of information he had learned.
“There is one last thing,” he finally said.
“The jackknife?” Blue looked Scarlet straight in the eyes. “That’s what was used to cut Angela Hernandez open… in order to remove the baby from her womb.”
Scarlet’s frown deepened. “Black?” he murmured with just the hint of a doubt in his voice.
“Or maybe Ortega,” Blue suggested. “Either way, it makes no sense, Paul.”
Scarlet shook his head in perplexity. He gave a deep sigh. “I think our job here is finished. The Mysterons won’t make another attempt on either the dam or President Alamilla. We might as well leave.”
“I couldn’t agree more to that,” Blue groused.
“We’ll have the investigators continue their work about what happened at the inn,” Scarlet added. “But you know what, Adam? I have the feeling that however deep we’ll dig into this mystery, we might never know the truth about it.”
“One person might know,” Blue commented, turning on the ignition.
“Who?” Scarlet asked.
“Captain Black himself.”
Captain Blue engaged the clutch and pressed the accelerator; the SSC left the front of the convent and headed out of the town of Nostra Señora de la Misericordia.
This story has been a long time going in my head – years, in fact. Although the title was attached to another story, which was supposed to be written in collaboration with another author some years ago, and using some elements found in this story (including the fact that Black is temporarily free of the Mysterons’ influence, and the birth of a baby), what you have just read is the exact treatment I originally had in mind at the time.
I have played a long time with the idea that Black might at times be released from the influence of the Mysterons, when he suffers an injury. In those times, he would be very much human, feeling much guilt for the things he had been forced to do under the Mysterons’ control. Either this is further torture from the Mysterons or a flaw in their control, I kept it a mystery. Just like I didn’t go into telling of Black was still human – or if the body he now resides in is a replicate. Personally, I think it is his own body… and that he definitely is not retrometabolic. But that’s my own interpretation.
Thanks for all who have encouraged me throughout the whole writing process of this story. A major thanks and a big high five to my beta-readers, Caroline Smith and Lezli Farrington, who did a wonderful job of helping me meet the deadline, this time around. Any mistakes you might find in this story are my own, and my own alone.
The characters of Captain Black, Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue are all part of the ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons universe’ and I owe no right to them. I only borrowed them to play with. So I thank their creators, the late Gerry Anderson, and Sylvia Anderson, and all those who had been involved in the TV series.