In all the years he’d held command posts – either from the bridge of a naval destroyer, as a director of the U.S.S. or as Colonel White of Spectrum - Charles Gray thought he had seen everything and that nothing would ever surprise him anymore. However, he wasn’t quite prepared for the sight that awaited him, as the door of the Officers Lounge slid open and he entered to find a man, dressed in a large red costume, on his knees with his head stuck under the glass table that adorned the centre of the room.
Startled by the sound of Colonel White’s astonished voice, Captain Scarlet instinctively attempted to rise. White winced upon hearing the loud echoing sound the bottom of the glass table made when it came into rough contact with the back of Scarlet’s head. The English captain had the good sense to stifle the curse that came to his lips, replacing it with a loud yelp as pain reverberated through his skull.
White quickly scaled the few steps leading down to the room’s lower level and came to assist his officer as the latter clambered into a kneeling position, rubbing the back of his head. It was already unexpected for Scarlet to be clumsy to begin with, it was even more of a surprise to see him dressed the way he was – in complete Father Christmas attire, with a fake beard hanging loosely around his neck and his right hand clutching a red hat. In other circumstances, White might have found the spectacle awkwardly funny, but seeing the haggard expression of the younger man and the grimace of pain on his face, he felt genuinely concerned that he might have hurt himself.
“Are you all right?” he asked, as he helped Scarlet sit on the sofa behind them. He noticed the wig of long white hair lying there and carefully pushed it out of the way.
“Yes, I think I am,” Scarlet answered in a slightly slurred voice. “You know how it is for me, sir.” He grimaced and stopped rubbing his head. “The memory of the pain will stay longer than the injury itself, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” White said by way of excuse as he sat down next to Scarlet. “But seeing you there on your knees, dressed like this, well…”
“Yes, well… I can understand it was a surprising sight to begin with.” Scarlet’s eyes fell on the hat in his hand, and he waved it at his commander. “I was putting on the costume when I dropped this accursed hat under the table. I was trying to retrieve it when you came in.”
White raised an enquiring eyebrow. “What on earth are you doing dressed as Father Christmas at this hour?” he asked his officer. “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty in the Control Room?”
“Captain Magenta switched duty with me,” Scarlet answered with a pout. “That was rather last minute, sir, so we didn’t have time to let you know. Err… , it’s the Christmas party tonight, in the Conference Room.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Captain Ochre was supposed to do ‘Santa Claus duty’, as he calls it,” Scarlet said with a roll of his eyes. “But he felt that it really should be my turn this year.”
“Now, that’s odd,” White mused with a slight frown. “Considering Captain Ochre’s propensity for childish games and his fondness for lovely ladies, I would have thought it unlikely that he’d pass up the chance to have them ‘sit on his lap’ in order to receive their Christmas presents.”
That Colonel White himself would put it so bluntly was enough of a surprise for Scarlet to be unable to stop himself from chuckling at the comment. “Actually, sir, I imagine he thought it would be more entertaining to see me in that particular situation.”
“Why?” White asked. “If I were in your shoes, Captain, I would be very suspicious about why Captain Ochre would forfeit his chance of playing Santa Claus in your favour. Knowing him, he must be up to something.”
Scarlet sighed. “I think he’s rather looking forward to seeing me squirm in this bloody silly costume. He knows how much doing things like that embarrasses me. I’m not as demonstrative as he is; Ochre is rather more of an exhibitionist… still in a very proper way, of course.”
“He likes to attract attention to himself, yes,” White said in understanding.
“Exactly. And if we take your suggestion, while I appreciate lovely ladies as much as he does, having them ‘sit on my lap’ in public isn’t exactly my cup of tea.” Scarlet indicated his costume with a wave of his hand. “Unlike Ochre, I don’t like to dress up and make a spectacle of myself. I mean… I was even sceptical and hesitant of the Spectrum uniform the first time I saw it. And even more so when I was finally required to put it on.”
“You don’t like our uniform?” White said with a frown, seemingly bothered by the criticism.
“It wasn’t the uniform itself,” Scarlet wisely corrected, sensing disapproval. “I didn’t like the fact that it attracted so much attention to us, especially with all the different colours we have. But I came to understand the importance of what this uniform represents, its symbolism, and I quickly became proud to wear it. But this thing…” Again, he looked down at himself and in frustration, waved the hat he held in his hand. White heard the faint jingle coming from the tiny silver bells attached to it. “I mean… this is too ridiculous. I’m not Santa Claus material.”
“Mmm… I don’t see anything ridiculous in it,” White replied. “For a start, it’s your usual colour.”
Scarlet couldn’t stop himself from scoffing. “That’s exactly what Ochre said.”
White raised his eyebrows in curiosity. “Surely that wasn’t his only argument for persuading you to wear it? It doesn’t sound dastardly enough to me.”
“No…” Scarlet sighed. “To be honest, I’m not sure how it actually happened, but somehow I was shanghaied into putting the ruddy thing on.
“That’s often the case with Captain Ochre,” White replied with an amused smile. “You’ve got to admire it in the man. He would make a fine politician if he had the right sort of ambition.”
“Anyway, at the end of the story,” Scarlet continued, “he said that since I had provided the costume, and it was so precious to my family, I shouldn’t leave it in the care of anyone but me and therefore, I should be the one to wear it. That way, if I was worried that something might happen to it, this would be the safest way to ensure that it didn’t. Trouble is – I wasn’t actually worried anything would happen to it until Ochre mentioned it himself. I’m annoyed that I let myself be had like that.”
“You provided the costume?” White echoed.
“Yeah… My mother shipped it to me from Winchester,” Scarlet explained. “It’s an heirloom handed down from her side of the family. I think it actually comes from my great-grandfather. The fabric is great quality, and it’s in extraordinary condition, considering its age. Look at all the embroidery on these cuffs.” He raised his right arm and showed the sleeve to his commander. “It’s still intact and has barely tarnished.”
“It’s obvious it has been very well taken care of,” White said. He couldn’t detach his eyes from the cuff, and his brow was furrowed in a thoughtful fashion. He stroked his chin. “Could it be… Captain, can I see this coat more closely, please?”
Somewhat perplexed at this request, Captain Scarlet nevertheless consented, unbuckling the belt and undoing the buttons to remove the coat. In any case, he was starting to melt in this way too heavy, padded and overly warm piece of clothing, so it was a relief to get rid of it, if only for a few minutes. He handed the coat to White who took it and turned it carefully, scrutinizing the velvety surface of the fabric.
Scarlet watched him with curiosity, wondering what it was exactly that his commander was looking for, until White seemed to have found it and stopped his search, his attention focused on a spot somewhere on the side of the coat.
“Good Lord,” he muttered in a low voice. “It is the same coat. After all these years…”
“Sir?” Scarlet asked, perplexed.
White showed him the spot he was examining. There was a visible mend, on the surface of the fabric, sewn in a slightly lighter shade of red thread. It was no more than a centimetre long, and would have been unnoticeable to anyone not specifically looking for it.
Specifically looking for it was exactly what White had been doing for the past few seconds.
Scarlet gazed at the mend, and then raised his eyes to look at his commander; he could see the faint smile on his lips and the visibly amused glitter in his blue eyes.
“I didn’t realise it was the same costume at first,” White said, almost to himself. “But, yes, it makes sense that it would have been handed to you after all.”
“You recognise this coat?” Scarlet exclaimed in disbelief. “You know about the tear?”
“Of course I do. I was there when it was made. It’s a bullet hole.” As Scarlet continued to look at him with incredulity, White sighed. “Come on, Scarlet, are you telling me you don’t remember?”
“Remember… what?” Scarlet asked carefully. A suspicion was growing in his mind, but he didn’t feel quite inclined to accept it yet.
“About twenty years ago… the events at Abbey House, Winchester?” White saw the beginning of understanding in Scarlet’s eyes, but still there was doubt, so he continued, “Of course, there’s no reason you would remember me specifically. You never mentioned anything before, anyway, so I assumed you simply didn’t recognise me. Not that it would have been an easy thing to recognise me…”
“Oh my God,” Scarlet breathed out slowly. He stared at his commander in complete astonishment, as the full realisation of White’s implication dawned on him.
“It was you,” he said finally.
With an uncharacteristically mischievous smile, Colonel White slowly nodded his agreement.
Twenty years before…
The boy who bumped into Charles Gray at the entrance to the director’s office was twelve – thirteen at most. He was a strapping young man, with dark hair and blue eyes, who looked up the second the two of them made contact.
“Be careful where you’re going, son,” rumbled Gray, in the commanding voice that could make much more hardened people back off. He wasn’t in a very good mood; his planned Christmas getaway with a ravishing and very special lady had been blown to smithereens that very morning by the man waiting for him in this office. Yet this boy barely flinched. He simply stepped aside, muttered some vague and barely audible apology and walked into the hallway.
The boy had scarcely cleared the doorway and Gray was about to go in when he saw his path blocked again by another, taller person. It was a woman in her mid-thirties, whom Gray just avoided bumping into. She was fashionably dressed and carried her coat over her arm.
This time, it was Gray’s turn to apologise.
“I’m sorry, madam. I didn’t see you there.”
She smiled up at him. She was strikingly beautiful, with dark hair and eyes as blue as the boy who had preceded her through the door. Gray couldn’t help noticing the resemblance between the two of them. In the few months he had been working at the U.S.S. London office, he had never seen this woman before and he wondered who she was. Like the boy, she had a visitor’s plastic badge pinned on her shirt.
“No harm done, sir,” she replied in a pleasant voice. “I’m afraid I’m as much to blame as you.” Gray smiled in answer and stepped aside to let her pass. He followed her with his eyes, as she marched quickly down the corridor in pursuit of the young man who had already walked a certain distance away and was looking around with curiosity. “Wait for me, Paul. You know you can’t wander around this building on your own without the presence of an adult.”
“Aw, Mum,” the boy moaned. “I’m not a kid anymore…”
“Depends on the definition,” she retorted, with no effort to conceal her amusement. “Besides, I don’t make the rules around here.” Despite his protests, the boy waited for her and Gray saw the two of them turn right at the end of the corridor.
“Losing your touch, sailor? Or isn’t she quite up to your standards?”
Gray had almost forgotten the presence of his partner, who was now casually leaning against the wall opposite the door. Elizabeth Somners was scrutinizing him with a smile on her lips and an amused twinkle in her blue eyes. Ever since they had been assigned to work together as a team, she had been poking fun at him, in part for what she described as ‘the seemingly endless procession of beautiful young women who went through his life, not to mention his bed’.
Gray didn’t consider his love life to be as exciting as she seemed to believe, although it wasn’t a total failure either. Somners simply had a biased opinion of him because of his background as a naval officer; the clichéd crap, ‘a woman in every port’ was still prevalent in some circles. He had stopped trying to convince her that it wasn’t the case, there wasn’t a woman waiting for him in every port.
Well, not quite in every port…
“Woman with child, Rose,” he replied casually, addressing Somners by her U.S.S. codename. “I daresay that comes with trouble I can do without; especially if the child’s a teenager.” He turned to flash her a mischievous grin. “Besides, she’s probably married.”
She raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Since when has that ever stopped you?”
He looked shocked. “There are some institutions that I do respect, you know. Marriage is one of them.”
Somners scoffed. “Oh, right. Like I believe that.”
“Believe it or not, it’s up to you,” Gray replied with a dismissive shrug.
“So you’re not sure she’s married. You mean you didn’t see the ring on her finger?”
“She had a ring?” he asked innocently. “Sorry… I probably was too enthralled by her beauty to notice…”
She narrowed her eyes at him and smiled thinly. “You’re leading me on, Thorn.”
“What makes you believe that, my dear?” he asked noncommittally. “Do you know who this woman is? I’ve never seen her here before.”
“What do you care if you’re not interested and if she’s married?” she replied.
“She is married.”
The gruff voice coming from inside the office made the two of them turn on their heels. An old man with white hair was seated behind a large oak desk, with his chin rested on his intertwined fingers. His blue eyes, behind thick-lensed glasses, were staring straight at Gray with a flash that was anything but benevolent.
“And happily married at that,” he added in a warning fashion, “with a man I’m quite happy to have as a son-in-law.” He waved to them. “Would the two of you mind coming in now?”
Oops, Gray thought groaning inwardly. So the young woman was Paul Blake’s daughter. The last thing Gray certainly wanted – or needed – was to put himself in the old man’s bad books. Paul Blake was one of the most influential and powerful assistant directors of the Universal Secret Service, and he ruled his department here in London with an iron fist. That was one of the reasons Gray had not dared refuse when he had been called back for duty earlier that morning. Blake knew Gray was convalescing from his brush from death a month ago and so he would not have ordered him back if it weren’t vitally important.
And quite frankly, Gray wasn’t really displeased to return to duty; he thought he had more than enough time to recuperate. It was time he saw some action again.
He let his partner enter first and then followed, closing the door behind him. Blake swivelled his chair around, turning his back on them, looking through his large window in a contemplative way. Gray had the impression he was now ignoring them and that it was his fault; glancing in Somners’ direction, he saw by the look on her face that she shared the same thoughts.
He cleared his throat and said carefully: “I can assure you, sir, that I had no ill-intentions towards your daughter.”
Blake huffed and took his time to turn around. His icy glare would have intimidated many a weaker man than Gray.
“Of that I have no doubt at all, Agent Thorn,” he replied with a poised voice. “Or, as old as I am, I would have thrown you out of my office on your rear end before you even had time to say your codename.”
If he hadn’t learned to cope with the old man’s brooding temper in the last few months, Gray might actually have reddened under the remonstrance. As it was, he kept his body rigid and looked back at his superior impassively. He knew it wasn’t that the old man disliked him; Blake just wasn’t sure what to make of him.
Gray didn’t know exactly how old Paul Blake was, but he knew that the man was well beyond retirement age. That said, he was still a solid man, and there wasn’t a single doubt in Gray’s mind that he would have been quite able and quite willing to execute his threat if he felt the need to.
Blake obviously wasn’t in a good mood either this morning, and Gray wondered if it had something to do with his daughter’s visit. The old man wasn’t an easy person at the best of times; Gray had learned that six months ago, soon after his arrival at the U.S.S. London Office. From what he had heard, Blake had not always been that way. He’d been rather easy-going in his younger days, soft-spoken, self-effacing and almost shy in some respects. But he was efficient in his work and his dedication throughout the years had led him to be part of the Winchester's Bishop Department – an office that was the stuff of legend in Britain. Rumour had it that he’d become embittered and much more assertive following the death of his beloved wife, many years ago. From then on, he had devoted himself to his work, which in some ways was responsible for the high office he presently held, although he probably would have given that up without any hesitation in order to have the woman he loved so much by his side once again.
Gray knew Blake had children – his sons had followed in his footsteps and were part of the U.S.S. He knew he also had a daughter, Mary, but until now, he’d never met her; according to what he’d heard, the woman had married a military man and was living in Winchester. Her husband was part of the renowned and respected Metcalfe family, whose members had a rich military history going back generations, from the British Army to more latterly, the World Army. Of the woman herself, however, he knew next to nothing.
As for Blake… the old man didn’t speak much of his family. He considered it a personal matter and Gray respected that.
“I trust he’s behaving himself lately?”
Blake was addressing Elizabeth Somners, giving a sharp nod in the direction of Gray who came out of his fugue. The former naval officer glanced at his partner, unsure what the old man was implying. He saw her poker-faced expression as she shrugged almost dismissively.
“As much as you’d expect, sir,” she replied quietly. “He’s back on light duty following that… incident five weeks ago. He’s been carrying out his duties without any flaws since then.”
The old man huffed. “Yes, so I hoped. I was just checking if there was any change since your last report, Agent Rose.”
Gray had to fight not to roll his eyes. “Sir, don’t you trust me enough at this point to let me work without ordering someone to babysit me?”
Somners snorted disdainfully, but chose not to reply. Blake raised an eyebrow, looking straight at Gray with a dubious expression. “That would be going against this organisation’s policies, Agent Thorn. Or don’t you remember that no agent is allowed to work solo? And especially not a rookie.”
“If you don’t mind me saying so, sir, I’m far from being a rookie,” Gray retorted. “I’ve got experience –”
“You’ve got experience in the Navy,” Blake interrupted him sharply. “As an officer commanding a ship, not as a fully-fledged agent working in the field. This is the Universal Secret Service, Gray, not the Navy. The Universal Secret Service has strict rules and if you really want to make a career in it, you will have to follow these rules. You always need a back up. And Agent Rose has been assigned as your partner, whether you like it or not.” He narrowed his eyes at the grumpy-looking younger man. “Beside, after your last ‘exploit’, I find it very difficult to trust you and your damned impetuosity. Or don’t you remember that it landed you in hospital for the better part of one month? I would have thought that a bullet in the belly would have calmed you down considerably.”
Gray sighed. The ‘exploit’ in question had almost cost him his life. “I had a partner, sir, and he was killed,” he groused.
“And then you went after his killer on your own and almost got killed yourself,” Blake grunted. “If Agent Rose had not found you in time, you wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
“With all due respect, Mr Blake, it was a small price to pay for the discovery that Muller was a mole, and to finally put an end to his activities.”
“And that nearly put an end to your life as well, Mister Gray,” Blake retorted sharply. He hit his desk with his open palm, and the sound almost made Gray jump. “Damn it, man! Do I need to remind you that you’re considered a valuable asset to this organisation? You were specifically recruited because of your potential to one day become an assistant director of U.S.S. Some day this office may be yours, and I’ll be quite happy to leave it in your capable hands and finally retire to enjoy some well-earned rest. I certainly can appreciate your request not to spend your two-year mandatory probation period behind a desk, sending agents on missions, but rather to work as a field agent yourself, and learn what this kind of job entails. This is very commendable of you, but quite frankly, I wish sometimes you’d remember that you’re not any ordinary agent. The U.S.S. has invested too much in you to see you foolishly get yourself killed during an assignment.”
“I would hardly call any agent ordinary, sir,” Gray said in a low voice.
Blake glared at him, but the comment seemed to have served to calm him down considerably, as when next he spoke, his voice was somewhat less belligerent:
“They do a hell of a job, I know. I’ve been there too, try to remember that. And you know perfectly well what I mean: if you are to become these men and women’s commander, Gray, you will have to deal with the fact that you’ll be in my place, having the same kind of conversation with them as I’m having with you right now – while at the same time considering the possibility you may be sending them to their deaths.” He leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the set face of the younger man. “Until you learn to be more careful during a mission, Agent Rose will carry on ‘babysitting’ you. Besides, you two make a good team. It would be a shame to break you up.”
Gray nodded in silence, unwilling to admit that the old man was right. Blake waved to the two chairs in front of his desk. “Now, sit down, both of you. We have business to attend to.”
They did, quietly, as Blake took out a pen and began to scribble something on a thick wad of papers in front of him. “I was informed that you are fit to return to full duty, Agent Thorn,” he said. “I also know that the two of you are supposed to be on leave until January 2nd. However, a new assignment has come up and since both of you are amongst those who are still available…”
Gray avoided rolling his eyes. An hour or two more, and he would have been on a train, with his girl, well on his way to France. He didn’t doubt that Blake would have asked him to turn around…
However, it was a relief to finally be signed back to active duty, so he didn’t dare complain.
“What is our assignment, sir?” he asked, trying to hide his eagerness.
“I take it the two of you know my brother-in-law?” Blake enquired.
That was an easy question. Blake only had one sister, much younger than he, and the man she was married to was very well-known.
“Yes, sir,” Gray answered quickly. “Alistair William Knightley.”
“He’s the mayor of Winchester,” Somners added in turn. “A very influential politician – who, I believe, supported the freedom movement when the Militarist government was overthrown.”
Blake raised an eyebrow and glanced at them, before resuming his writing. “Right on all counts. He’s also a true pain in the arse, if you ask me personally. But then – do you know many brothers-in-law who aren’t?” He obviously didn’t really expect an answer to this rhetorical question and threw his pen down on the desk. “Anyway, his administration has, of late, become the subject of acerbic criticism in letters sent to Winchester newspapers… And even more recently, the city council office started receiving mail that would indicate that someone is very angry – specifically with Knightley.”
“Very angry?” Somners echoed.
“To say the least,” Blake said with a nod.
“What kind of letters?” Gray asked.
“At first, it was the usual drivel… accusations against Knightley, to the effect that he’s a thief, an incompetent mayor, whose administration can’t even hold a budget together… which has eventually led to cuts within the public service. The usual, more or less benign, rubbish, you might say.” Taking a folded paper on his desk, Blake passed it over to Gray. “However, the latest letters received by the city council – and some of them directly by Knightley’s office – are to be taken more seriously. They contain promises of making Knightley pay for his incompetence… as well as threats aimed directly at his person.” He gestured to the piece of paper Gray held. “That’s one of those letters.”
Curious, Gray unfolded it and started reading: “Knightley you thief, people will soon see you for who you truly are: a fraud and a leech… Justice is coming sooner than you realise. Watch your back because I’m behind you, ready to strike…” He stopped and raised his eyes to Blake. “Forgive me, sir. Obviously, this comes from an embittered citizen. But if we’re indeed talking about threats against the mayor of Winchester, perhaps it’s more of a job for the local police. I don’t see why the Secret Service –”
“Read on,” Blake interrupted. “Next paragraph.”
Gray dutifully resumed. He jumped two lines to go to the next paragraph: ‘You and your city council accomplices will pay dearly for all the grief you’ve caused by supporting those –” He paused as his eyes fell on the next few lines. Clearing his throat, he continued out loud: “… by supporting those insurgents and monarchist traitors who have brought chaos and madness to our beautiful country. But order will prevail and will soon return, once honest people like me get rid of your kind and bring the Militarists back…” He stopped there and handed the letter to Somners who read it in turn. “With respect, sir – this guy is obviously a nutcase.”
Blake grunted. “That may well be, and I would tend to agree with you. But it’s not been long enough since the Militarists were overthrown to dismiss such letters as mere trivialities.” He leaned over his desk and pointed to the paper in Somners’ hand. “Words contained in letters like these still make people within the government very edgy. They fear it might only take a spark to give the Militarists and their supporters enough confidence to attempt a coup in order to regain power.”
“I think it would be very unlikely they would succeed, sir,” Gray commented.
Blake grunted. “I’m not worried about their success. I’m more worried about them trying. That in itself would cause trouble.”
“Would they be foolish enough to even try?” Somners asked, with a frown.
“We were foolish enough to do it ourselves,” Blake retorted. “And we did succeed, as you well know.” He nodded in Gray’s direction. “And as our esteemed retired admiral Charles Gray knows even better.”
Gray nodded slowly. Less than a year ago, he was still an officer of the World Navy. The youngest admiral of the fleet, newly transferred from the British Navy, covered in glory and recognised as a hero throughout the country and the rest of the world. As a British Navy captain, he had made a stand against the British Militarist Government and taken the side of the so-called rebels. It was actions from other military people like him, politicians and people of influence alike, who had changed the course of Britain’s recent history and permitted its citizens to throw off the yoke of the Militarists and finally join the World Government as a free people.
“So this is not just the mayor calling in personal favours from his brother-in-law, I take it?” Gray said.
“It is, but it’s not only that, Thorn,” Blake retorted. “The U.S.S. would step forward anyway, as you would imagine. I know Knightley well. He might be paranoid at times, but I think this time he has cause for concern. So his worries were duly noted. These letters went all the way up to the Prime Minister, and as far as he is concerned, they could be considered a threat to our relatively new Government and to peace and order within our borders. Any action against the mayor of Winchester could be construed as an act of terrorism. Quite aside from the threat to his own person, Knightley is also worried that letters announcing a potential threat to either his person or his administration could put a serious dent in his political career.” He grunted. “Personally, I wouldn’t give a fiddle for his career, if it weren’t for the other concerns.”
“The only signature on the letter is ‘An Angry Citizen’,” Somners remarked quietly, turning the letter in her hands to examine it closely. She handed it back to Gray. “Not much to go on.”
Blake nodded. “And it’s the same signature on the newsletters,” he said. “Now I admit, there are a lot of people out there who might identify themselves as ‘An Angry Citizen’. And we’re not sure at this point that these letters are all the work of one person. The style of the last few letters sent to the city council is much more aggressive than the tone of the correspondence sent to the newspapers.”
“So it might be another person altogether, using the same nom de plume,” Gray commented. “Or even a group of people.”
“The newspapers received their letters through emails,” Blake continued. “Our experts are trying to trace them back to the sender. But they were sent through an intricate spider web, going through various servers, which makes it difficult to follow.”
“The work of an expert?” asked Gray.
“Someone who knows his or her way around these things very well, anyway. But fortunately, the Secret Service also employs experts, and it won’t be impossible for them to track the culprit down. However, it might take some time.”
“But that’s one possible lead,” Somners commented.
“We might have another, with the envelopes containing that letter there and the others like it. This is one of the three that went directly to the mayor’s office and ended up on his desk.” Blake marked a short pause. “Our experts are checking stamps, postmarks…”
“Possible fingerprints?” Gray suggested.
“That as well. But so far, they haven’t found anything conclusive, either on this letter or the others. And it’s likely that if there are prints on the envelopes, they might only be partial.”
“Lots of people would have put their hands on these,” Gray said, with a slow nod. “That won’t help much in the investigation. How did the three letters find their way to the mayor’s desk?”
“We think the usual way: through mail service, which, after the usual security check up – to ensure the envelopes didn’t contain some unknown powdery substance, for example – handed them to the mayor’s secretary. She opened the envelope, took a peek at the content… and then gave them straight to her boss.” Blake sighed deeply. “The last one was received this morning,” he said in a low voice, as he opened a folder in front of him. “One which is rather disturbing. Here’s a copy, sent to us by the local police.”
He took the piece of paper and handed it over his desk to Gray. The latter took it and started reading. Some of it sounded like the previous one he had read, but was more assertive:
“The time to strike is near. The people of Winchester and Britain will soon see beyond the false image of generosity and kindness your hypocritical administration hides behind. Your use of innocents is a disgrace, and will ensure the downfall of you and your accomplices. The eyes of the people will be opened and you and your family will surely be exposed as the parasites you truly are. Prepare yourself for Judgement day.” Gray raised his eyes to Blake. “This is aimed at Knightley’s family as well,” he commented. “Your sister, sir.”
Blake nodded. “And Knightley’s son, daughter-in-law and grandson as well,” he said.
“The letter seems to indicate there will be an imminent attack,” Gray added. “Who are the ‘innocents’ this guy’s referring to?”
“It’s not really clear, but this might be a clue to when and where he intends to strike.”
“You’re one step ahead of us, sir,” Somners said.
“The information was provided by the mayor himself,” Blake explained. “And I’d say he may be right in his assumption. Knightley is thinking that whoever is making these threats might make use of an upcoming charity event that’s about to take place in Winchester in two days.”
“On December 20th,” Somners commented.
Blake nodded. “It’s a fund-raising social event for the needy children of Winchester, so they’ll have a nice Christmas meal on the table and toys under the tree. Many well-known and respected members of the Winchester community participate in the event. Whole families have been invited; there will be activities for parents and children alike.”
“That might be it, sir,” Somners said thoughtfully. “The innocents in the letter might refer to kids – or any needy families, for that matter. A coup during such an event would certainly attract lots of attention.”
Gray raised his eyebrows in doubt. “Do you think it likely?” he asked.
It’s a possibility,” the young woman retorted. “Okay, it might be a weak lead… but it’s the only one we have. Do we want to take the risk that children might get hurt?”
“Of course not,” Gray replied. “But we still don’t know what this guy’s intentions are. Does he simply want to give the mayor more bad press, or to instigate a full coup that will not only disgrace Knightley, but also cause damage to the British government?”
“I don’t think his intentions really matter,” Somners replied. “We just need to make sure that whatever he’s planning doesn’t happen.”
“Yes, you’re right. As you say, not much of a lead, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” Gray turned to Blake who was listening intently to their exchange. “I don’t think we can dismiss the possibility of a real threat, but to me, this all smells amateurish and I don’t need to be a detective to figure that out.”
“I tend to agree,” Blake said. “I still think this is blown out of all proportion and that we’re talking about a simple crackpot. However… even an amateur could cause real damage. Maybe the local police, or even a private security agency like F.A.B., would be more than competent enough to do the job… But we can’t afford to take any chances; which is why the U.S.S. will provide security to the charity event.”
“You’re right, of course, sir. And I agree. If there is a real threat, it would be better for us to be in attendance.”
“Even if it’ll end up being more trouble than it’s really worth.” Blake intertwined his fingers and sat back in his comfortable chair. “You know that Knightley actually went over my head to make sure our services would be secured for this? As if I wouldn’t have agreed to help him out in the first place! Confound the man – he should know better. In order to protect my family, I wouldn’t hesitate to make use of U.S.S. resources if I believed there was a need – even if I didn’t have a mandate to do so. I’m not ashamed to admit that.”
“Because he’s your brother-in-law, sir?” Gray inquired.
Blake snorted. “No. It’s not him I’m concerned about. It’s my sister, of course and my nephew. Then there’s also my daughter Mary - who you just met outside - and my oldest son, William... They live in Winchester. And they’ll be at Knightley’s party with their respective spouses and their children – my grand-children. Mary in particular has been very involved with the voluntary help for the charity event. I don’t want to take any risks where they’re concerned.”
“Of course not, sir.” Gray sat back straight in his seat. “So, what’s our mission, then?”
Blake took up a pen and started writing, using the same piece of paper he’d been scribbling on earlier. “The two of you will complete the security detail for the party. Agent Stafford will be field team commander.”
“Stafford?” Gray was disappointed. He hoped to have been given command – even for an assignment that might prove unnecessary. Blake probably heard the dissatisfaction in his voice as he raised his eyes to look straight at him.
“I’m giving you two specific assignments.”
That didn’t bode well. Gray was beginning to have a perfectly good idea what the old man had in store for them and he made no attempt to disguise his feelings about it as he asked, in a casually upbeat voice:
“Will we be assigned to protect the mayor and the dignitaries, sir?”
If it was for this that he’d forfeited his holidays, he was starting to regret ever answering that call on his mobile. However, if it meant giving protection to the Mayor of Winchester – whose importance in the British government was second only to that of the Mayor of London – then he knew he was providing an essential service. He would do his duty without complaint – even if he was fairly sure he wouldn’t like it and he always expected to be bored to death on this type of assignment.
Blake certainly noticed his lack of enthusiasm. A faint smile tugged at his lips as he continued to write. He signed with a flourish, and folded the paper in three before reaching across his desk to hand it to Gray.
“Don’t worry, Agent Thorn,” he said. “It’ll turn out to be a very important and interesting assignment, I’m sure. I daresay you’ll be seated at the place of honour… These are your orders, both of you. Report to Stafford at once, and he’ll brief you on your task. Oh, and I almost forgot…” His smile not wavering, he leaned down behind his desk. Gray and Somners craned their necks as far as they could, but were unable to see what he was up to; all they could hear were some shuffling sounds. They exchanged perplexed glances and Somners shrugged, sitting back in her chair.
Blake reappeared, holding up a big, flat, white cardboard box. He placed it on top of his desk, tapping on its lid with barely concealed satisfaction. Then he pushed it towards Gray.
“This, Agent Thorn, will be your uniform for the duration of the assignment,” he said.
Gray eyed the box with curiosity – and some suspicion. He reached for it. “An uniform, sir?”
“I would advise you to take great care of it,” Blake said in warning, as he sat back in his chair and watched Gray with an intent gaze. “It’s an old family heirloom. I asked my daughter to bring it to me from Winchester, when I learned she was shopping in London this week.”
“You mean it’s yours, sir?” Gray asked with surprise.
“My father’s, actually. God rest his soul.”
Gray nodded his acknowledgement of the news. Then this uniform, whatever it was, must be something very precious. He wondered what kind of mission would require a uniform other than his usual U.S.S. regalia.
“I promise, I will see to it that nothing happens to it, sir,” he said. “But… what is it?”
The smile on Blake’s craggy face had now all the look of a sneering tiger about to attack an antelope. “Why don’t you open the box and see for yourself, Thorn? I’m sure you’ll find it interesting…”
Gray obeyed and eagerly pulled the cover of the box open…
… His face fell when he saw what it contained.
If he hadn’t already been sure that he should have ignored the early phone call that morning, Elizabeth Somners’ loud chortle was enough to convince him that he should indeed have followed his instincts and taken that fast train to Paris instead...
“The old man has a nasty sense of humour.”
Charles Gray wasn’t a very happy man.
It was two days later and he was right in the middle of the assignment in Winchester, seated on a humungous plastic throne which had been covered in fake red leather, sheets of gold tin-foil and equally false rubies and emeralds. There was enough room for two of him on this particularly ugly and over-the-top seat, which was, he had to admit, a blessing in disguise, because he felt double his normal size in the uncomfortable padded red costume he wore. It enveloped him from head to toe and was so hot he felt like he was in a sauna. The shiny black boots were a size too large, and the hat on his be-wigged head jingled at the slightest movement. But the worst of it all was certainly the annoying white beard that covered most of his face and went down to the middle of his chest. It left hair in his mouth and was starting to smell, as it slowly became damp with his sweat and his breath.
By his side, there was a gigantic Christmas tree, under which had been placed a vast quantity of wrapped boxes – which he suspected were empty and only there for decoration. The huge room in which it had been erected was decorated with garlands, fairy lights, mistletoe and multicoloured baubles, and smelled of a mix of pine and cinnamon. There was Christmas music in the air, but Gray barely could hear it through the racket made by the numerous noisy, excited children running all over the place.
It was enough to give anyone a monstrous headache, the beginnings of which he could already feel. He was hot, not very comfortable and itched in places he didn’t know he had. He couldn’t bear the thought of how many wearers this ancient suit had had before him; the fact that Paul Blake himself had probably been one of them wasn’t even a happy thought.
“Well, he did promise you the place of honour,” the voice of his partner said softly into the speaker plugged in his ear. He could plainly hear the amusement in her voice; Elizabeth wasn’t making any effort to hide it. Ever since she had seen the contents of that box in Blake’s office, she had been gently mocking him and that did nothing to dissipate his bad humour. “You certainly can’t accuse him of not being a man of his word. Furthermore, you are considered a star by all these children – who can’t wait to meet you. That makes a nice change for secret agents who normally have to live in the shadows.”
Gray scowled. That certainly was a ‘glory’ he could have done without. In view of the latest events, he now felt certain that Paul Blake held some kind of a grudge against him. He had not been awarded any significant role in this assignment – or even a helpful one, from his point of view. At best, he was only there to provide a distraction.
And he wondered why he was even there in the first place.
“Can it, Rose,” he replied grumpily into the mike hidden within his beard. “I’d like to see you in my place.”
He heard her chuckle. His fiery temper had never impressed her. He didn’t really expect now to be different. “Sorry, Thorn… I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Father Christmas has to be a man… You certainly can’t have all these kids coming to sit on Mother Christmas’ lap…” She sniggered. “That wouldn’t be traditional…”
“My left knee is killing me,” Gray complained. In the last few hours, he had lost count of how many children had been sitting on it, while he listened to an endless litany of how they had been nice and not naughty this year and what they so wished as presents for Christmas.
He wondered how the hell parents could afford to buy all those gifts for their children these days; Christmas certainly was a ruinous business.
Children today were much too spoiled, in his opinion.
“Oh for God’s sake, you’re barely into your thirties and you’re acting like a geriatric already…” Elizabeth’s voice was now one of exasperation. “Just be quiet and stay in character. You don’t want the kids thinking Father Christmas is some kind of a Grinch who talks to himself.”
“I can always say I’m talking to one of the elves from the North Pole,” Gray retorted, a little livelier now. “You’d look cute in green tights, Liz.”
“Very funny. I’ll remind you that it’s against the rules to flirt with your partner. As is using our real names.”
Gray scowled. Who the devil came up with a stupid rules like those? He decided to ignore her last comment and asked instead, “Who can flirt in a ridiculous outfit like this?”
“Oh, do cheer up a bit. You’re supposed to be Santa Claus. You know, all jolly and all?” She paused a second. “But be serious all the same. We’re here to do a job.”
Gray rolled his eyes. Be serious, she says… While wearing this suit? That was even harder than flirting in it. Elizabeth certainly had to be kidding. She never missed an occasion to make fun of him – especially when he displayed a tendency to take himself a little too seriously. She would invariably deal with any grumpiness on his part by poking gentle fun at him. Most of the time, it annoyed him tremendously; other times… well, it was part of her charm, and he wouldn’t have her any other way.
She must be having a ball today, seeing me dressed like this. She’ll never let me forget it.
However, she was right, of course. They had a job to perform and he needed to get his mind back on it. No matter unimportant he thought it could be.
The charity event was held in Abbey House – the official residence for Winchester mayors. Part of the house had been rebuilt in recent years, mostly due to incidents related to the last civil war. Less then ten years before, a bomb set by rebels against the militarist regime had exploded in front of the main door, in an attempt directed at the mayor of the time, who was a strong sympathiser of the Militarist Government. In view of the intense damage inflicted to the front of the house, it had been a miracle that only three people had died in the blast – three unfortunate visitors who apparently had nothing to do with the incident which had been one of the most talked about events of these early demonstrations against the Government. Today, no trace remained of that attack, but the memory was still there, with the changes brought to the house – although the contractors did their best to keep its eighteenth century cachet. A copper plate carrying the names of the three victims was now hanging on the wall by the front door, a constant reminder of the tragedy which had claimed their lives.
It was no wonder, Gray reflected, that Knightley felt concerned that such an attack would be carried out again today. And despite the unlikelihood that an event such as the one of ten years ago should happen again, he certainly could understand that the mayor wanted added protection for himself, his family and his guests, if only just to ensure help was available if needed.
Guests had started to arrive early for the event, which formally began at noon; as Blake had mentioned, they were high-profile families from Winchester and the surrounding areas. There were military officers from the nearby Winchester Base, which had been officially integrated into the W.A.A.F. barely two years ago, not too long after the end of the war. Most of these men and women were known World Government sympathisers and supporters of the current Monarchist regime. They were well above suspicion, so it was unlikely that any coup aimed at the mayor’s administration would come from that direction. Blake’s own son-in-law, Charles Metcalfe, was a major at the base; he was here with his wife and son – the woman and boy Gray had met at the U.S.S. building in London. He knew Metcalfe by reputation and had met him on one or two previous occasions, but that was about it.
Two large rooms of Abbey House had been specifically allocated for the purpose of the event: the adults were all directed to the dining room on one side of the hall, where they were greeted by a hired orchestra, a large buffet and an impressive array of wines and spirits. As for their children, they were taken to the ballroom, on the other side of the hall, which had been transformed and decorated especially for them and where they found gifts, food, games and all kinds of activities – including party clowns, playful elves and, of course, ‘the real’ Santa Claus.
The throne Gray sat on was on a pedestal; the children who wanted to come see Santa Claus needed to climb five large and easy steps before coming to sit on his lap. From this position, Gray had a good view of the whole room, and could even see the hall beyond, which the guests were all passing through before being escorted to their respective rooms. The dining room was just behind a huge door beyond the hall, and every time the door opened, Gray was afforded a glimpse of the activity going on behind it. Most of his colleagues from the U.S.S. were working undercover in that room, mixing with the guests. While he was here, providing entertainment.
At any rate, he wasn’t alone. Elizabeth was there as well, standing at the buffet on the other side of the room, offering food to the children with agent Sam Carmody.
At least, they’re not expected to wear a stupid padded costume, he thought gloomily. On the contrary, the smart uniform of the stewards was actually rather fashionable. It comprised of black trousers and waistcoat, worn over a white shirt and simply adorned with a pin made of two holly leaves and three small red berries. Not that Carmody seemed to appreciate that he had got off lightly in the sartorial elegance stakes; he clearly wasn’t enjoying himself at all. His stern, serious expression was totally at odds with the general atmosphere of Christmas cheer. He looked exactly like what he was: a secret agent who had parachuted right into the middle of a mission he was not at all comfortable with. Gray wondered what cardinal sins he could have committed to be assigned to this job with them.
As for Elizabeth Somners – the Rose… she had a radiant smile, was being friendly and chatting jovially with the children. She was totally relaxed and at ease.
And looked absolutely ravishing…
“Come on, Paul, be a dear… It’s not like I’m asking you to walk barefoot on broken glass.”
The gentle, if clearly exasperated female voice drew Gray out of his fugue. There was a beautiful woman standing at the foot of the steps leading to his throne and whose approach he had not noticed until this moment. Instantly, he recognised her: it was the young woman he had bumped into at the door of Paul Blake’s office in London. She was talking to the same boy he had seen her with on that occasion.
Instinctively, he lowered his head slightly, in an effort to hide his face, but he realised almost immediately that it was probably an unnecessary precaution. He doubted he’d made enough of an impression two days ago that they would even remember it, let alone recognise him. Under his Father Christmas guise he was almost unrecognisable in any case, even to someone who knew him well.
Unless, of course, they recognised the costume he was wearing.
Mary Blake – or more correctly, Mary Metcalfe – was currently admonishing her son who was looking back at her with a sulky and slightly frustrated expression which showed the depth of his displeasure. By their side stood a younger boy of five or six who was clutching the woman’s outstretched hand.
Odd, thought Gray. From what I know, the Metcalfes only have one son. Who could this boy be?
He didn’t bear any resemblance to the mother and son who were currently having some kind of a face-off.
“But, Mum,” the teenager complained, “what if the guys at school see me? I would never hear the end of it!”
“And you’ll never hear the end of it from me, if you don’t do what I tell you, Paul Metcalfe,” she retorted, in a sterner voice.
“You know I never believed in Father Christmas,” he groused.
“Shh… Don’t spoil your cousin’s fun, young man.” She turned to give an apologetic smile to the younger boy. “Don’t listen to him, Tom. He doesn’t mean any of it.”
“That’s all right, Aunt Mary,” the boy said, flashing a big smile. “I know better.” He pointed to Gray who was following the conversation without really taking any great interest in it. He was simply too close to completely ignore it. “See, Paul? He’s there, waiting for me. And Granddad said it is the real Santa Claus.”
“Yeah, right.” Paul angrily pushed his fists into the pockets of his trousers. “Whatever you say, Tommy.”
His mother tutted. “Really, it’s not like you’re going to see Father Christmas yourself, Paul,” she told him. “I know you’re too old for it. I’m just asking you to take Tom to see him. And then you’ll have to keep an eye on him, while his parents and your father and I are in the other room with the grown ups.”
“I’m too young to play babysitter,” he protested again. “And too old to stick with little kids. Why can’t I go with you and Dad?”
“Because it’s only for adults, Paul. You wouldn’t be allowed in. Beside, you would find it very boring. You’re better off here, staying with the other children…”
“… Who are all younger than me,” Paul retorted, rolling his eyes.
“That’s not true,” his mother said, trying not to sound impatient. “Your cousin Jessica and your cousins Ben and Willy… They must be around here somewhere. Or if not, they’ll arrive soon. And how about these ‘guys’ from school you mentioned earlier?”
“Oh, I hope none of them are here, really…” the boy muttered, looking up to the ceiling and obviously making a deep wish of it.
Mary Metcalfe sighed in exasperation. “Now that’s enough, Paul Metcalfe. You’re old enough to know better and to act accordingly. You know I’m right when I tell you to stay here. Be a dear, and take care of Tom, while I go join your father in the other room.” She pointed towards ‘Santa Claus’ seated on his red throne. “Take Tom to see Father Christmas, and make sure he behaves himself and eats properly rather than stuffing himself full of sugar.”
The teenage boy finally gave up, sighing deeply. “Yeah, sure, Mum… I’ll keep an eye on him. I promise.”
“That’s talking like a good and responsible young man. I knew I could count on you.” And with that, Mary Metcalfe quickly left both boys and walked out of the room towards the door on the other side of the hall, where all the adults had gathered for their own party.
She disappeared, blowing a kiss in her son’s direction. He made a face, as if the gesture embarrassed him no end.
Young Tom raised interrogative eyes towards his cousin, who looked like a defeated soldier. “Why did Auntie Mary ask you to keep your eye on me?”
“‘Cause you’re a right pain in the neck, squirt,” Paul grumbled. He took the boy by the hand and tried to drag him towards the buffet. “Come on, you want to eat something?”
Tom resisted the tug, and instead pulled on the hand and moved towards the seated Father Christmas at the top of the stair. “No! I wanna see Santa!”
Paul grunted with annoyance. “It’s Father Christmas,” he retorted, trying to talk like a grown-up. “‘Santa’ is what the Americans call him. Don’t you know any better?”
“We call him Santa at home,” the boy protested. “All my friends do. Isn’t it the same guy?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know…” Paul sighed, rolling his eyes at a question he obviously found supremely ludicrous. “You don’t really want to see him, do you?”
“Yes, I do!” Tom challenged him. “Auntie Mary told you to take me to him! If you don’t, I’m gonna tell!”
“You wouldn’t rat on me, would you?” Paul asked, with a frown of disbelief.
“Oh yes I would!” Tom threatened. “If I don’t see Santa!”
“Oh, all right,” Paul grumbled. “I’ll take you then, you little snitch.”
The little boy beamed and turned towards the steps leading to the throne. He was about to start climbing them, when a man, dressed in the same steward’s uniform worn by Somners and Carmody, approached and offered him a large silver plate covered with candies and cookies of all sizes and colours.
“Help yourself to sweeties, young man,” he said with a bright smile.
It was obvious that Tom was making a commendable effort to resist temptation, as he looked at the contents of the plate, biting down on his lower lip.
“Nah, not right away,” he finally said. “I want to see Santa first!”
And with that, he began climbing the stairs, excitedly pulling on the hand of his sulky-looking cousin who followed with a lot less enthusiasm. The steward gave them the briefest of glances before going on his way with his plate.
As the two boys approached, Gray rolled his eyes. Here we go again…
“Hey, slow down,” Paul said. “He won’t go away. He’s paid to stay there and wait for you.”
“What d’you mean?” Tom asked with a frown.
“Don’t you know? That isn’t the real Father Christmas.”
“Sure it is! Granddad said he was the real thing!”
“No, he’s not! If you want to make sure, just pull on his beard and you’ll see it comes off.”
Gray, who had heard him, scowled. “That boy’s definitely on my naughty list,” he said under his breath.
“Be jolly, Thorn,” he heard Somners’ voice in his ear. “Remember… you’re Santa.”
Gray glanced in direction of the buffet and saw that the young woman had moved away from it to stand against the wall, in order to discreetly raise the lapel of her waistcoat and talk into the pin, where her communication device was concealed.
“Father Christmas,” he replied, echoing the words he had heard coming out of the mouth of young Paul Metcalfe.
He distinctly heard his partner snigger.
The two boys reached him and Tom climbed onto Gray’s lap. The latter restrained a grunt as the little boy’s knee landed on a particularly delicate part of his anatomy and he was grateful that the huge beard stuck to his face served to hide his momentary grimace. He helped the boy settle himself comfortably. Tom looked up at him with a blissful smile. His cousin, staying carefully clear of Santa Claus, had a scowl on his face and his fists pushed deep into his pockets.
Gray cleared his voice and asked, in the deepest voice he could muster: “So, what is your name, little boy?”
“After a couple of dozen kids since this morning, you can’t do better than that, Thorn?” he heard Somners say in his ear.
“If you’re Father Christmas, you should know his name, shouldn’t you?” Paul challenged from where he was standing.
Gray glared at him. Between this cheeky teenager and Elizabeth Somners, he didn’t know exactly which one he would prefer to strangle first.
“I left my glasses at the North Pole,” Gray replied in his normal voice which carried a warning in it. “I can’t see faces very well today.”
“My name is Thomas Alistair Knightley,” the little boy said, sitting still on Father Christmas’s lap.
Knightley? Gray mused.
“You’re the mayor’s grandson,” he declared.
“How do you know that?” the child asked, in impressed awe.
Really elementary deduction, my boy, Gray told himself with some satisfaction.
“I’m Father Christmas, so I should know,” he replied, rather facetiously. He distinctly heard a derisive snort from Paul Metcalfe.
Tom was looking straight at Gray’s bearded face, with a thoughtful frown. “Are you the real Santa?”
“Of course I am.”
“Can I pull on your beard to make sure?”
“No. I have very sensitive skin. The slightest pull will hurt me. You wouldn’t want to hurt me, would you? I’m very old, you know.”
“Yeah, like zillions of years!” The explanation seemed to satisfy Tom who turned a victorious expression towards a still scowling Paul. “Told you he was the real Santa!”
“Yes, sure,” the older boy said with an unconvinced roll of his eyes. “Whatever.”
“So I guess I can tell you everything I want for Christmas this year?” Tom asked excitedly.
“Of course you can… and if you’re really nice, I’ll make sure you’ll get all the presents you wish for.”
“Oh come on,” Paul mumbled. “You ought to know better than to tell him stuff like that.”
“… And if you continue that way, young man,” Gray warned, glaring at the teenager, “I’ll make personally sure you’ll have nothing but coal in your stocking come Christmas morning.”
“That’ll teach you to be nice!” Tom added, waving a finger at Paul. The latter failed to be suitably impressed and dismissed the threat with a shrug.
“Go ahead, son,” Gray told Tom. “Tell me what you want for Christmas.”
So the little boy began enumerating in great detail to this attentive Santa Claus just what it was he wanted most. He had barely started when Gray caught sight of newcomers approaching the steps to his throne – three boys of about the same age as Paul, who had not yet seen them.
At the sound of his name, shouted by a tall, smirking blond lad with a mocking voice, Paul visibly froze. He looked as if his worst nightmare had actually happened and glanced heavenward, as if to call witness to his misfortune. “Please, shoot me,” he muttered.
All the while listening to Tom’s endless list of Christmas wishes, Gray took a more or less feeble interest in the scene happening just a few feet from him as Paul turned on his heel to face the three other boys who were climbing up the steps.
“What’re you doing here?” the blond boy asked with a sneer. “Don’t tell me you believe in Santa Claus and are waiting here to tell him what you want for Christmas, like all the kiddies?”
Paul frowned, as the three boys laughed heartily at the not-so-funny joke. “I actually could ask you the same thing, Peterson,” he answered with aplomb. “Seeing as you’re here as well…”
“Actually, I’m just passing through,” the other boy retorted. “You see that door over there?”
Peterson pointed to a closed door just on the other side of the room. Paul followed the direction of his finger; out of curiosity, Gray gave a quick glance as well.
“Yeah, I see it,” Paul retorted with a shrug. “So?”
“There’s a storage room behind – which leads to another room upstairs, where we can have our own private little party.” Peterson pointed to himself and his two companions. “Me, Bailey and McBride, we’re going there. Meyers organised it all. You know his dad works for the city council.”
“What kind of party?” Paul enquired with curiosity.
“The kind where’s there’s only guys and girls our age,” Peterson said with a larger grin. “You know, with no adults, and certainly no kids.”
“McBride brought booze,” one of the other boys said suddenly, much to the alarm of his companions. “And we’ll have cigarettes and – Yeow!” His yell of pain was the direct result of the punch McBride landed on his shoulder to stop him from blabbering.
“Shut it, you jerk!” McBride warned in a low voice. “You want to tell everyone?” He turned a suspicious gaze in the direction of Gray who feigned ignorance and made a show of listening to Tom’s endless list, nodding each time the child stopped long enough to draw breath.
Peterson turned to glare at Bailey, who had turned red around the ears, while he rubbed his sore shoulder. He then returned his attention to Paul: “Are you in, Metcalfe?” he asked meaningfully.
“You mean you’re inviting me?” Paul asked, with a suspicious frown.
“Sure… you may be the son of a stuck-up military man…but you’re cool. You’re one of us, anyway. So that means you’re welcome to come.”
Paul hesitated. “I don’t know, Peterson… I promised my mum I’d keep an eye on my cousin.” He waved in the direction of Tom, who didn’t seem to have any inkling of what was going on. He was still too busy talking to Santa to really care. Gray, on the other hand, didn’t miss one syllable of this conversation.
“So you’re doing everything Mum tells you?” Peterson asked mockingly.
“Just drop the kid at the buffet with the other kids his age,” McBride suggested in an offhand voice. “He’ll eat to his heart’s content and play with them. He won’t even notice you’re not there.”
“Come on, Metcalfe,” Peterson urged, asking challengingly, “Are you still a kid? Or are you a man? Come along! I can guarantee – you won’t regret it.”
That last argument seemed to win Paul over, although he didn’t sound quite that sure when he answered:
“Okay…” He glanced in Tom’s direction. “Just go ahead. I’ll take care of Tommy then I’ll join you.”
Peterson grinned. “We’ll be expecting you, Metcalfe. Don’t be too late. Or we’ll know you chickened out on us!” And with that, he made his way down the steps, followed by his retinue. Gray’s eyes watched as they made their way through a roomful of children towards the door Peterson had indicated.
“Young morons,” he muttered under his breath.
“What’s that, Thorn?” he heard the voice of Elizabeth in his ear.
“You said something, Santa?” Tommy asked curiously.
“Father Christmas,” Gray obligingly corrected the young boy. “I asked if you wanted some crayons.” Fishing into the basket next to his throne, he presented the boy with a small package containing an assortment of colour crayons. Tom eagerly took the small gift.
“Nice save, sailor,” Elizabeth told him.
“Will you remember everything I told you?” the boy asked Gray, with a frown. “You looked like you weren’t listening to me.”
“Of course I was listening to you. And I will remember everything, don’t worry.”
Seeing the doubtful expression on Tom’s face, Gray, who was blessed with an almost perfect photographic and auditory memory, repeated in the right order, all of the young boy’s extended list of presents. He actually made only one mistake when mentioning the last item on the list, a white model Ferrari car. Tom shook his head.
“No, I asked for a red Ferrari toy,” he said.
Gray raised an eyebrow. “Red? You’re sure? Red is so common. The last Cheetah model is prettier in white. You sure you don’t want white?”
“Nah… Red’s my favourite colour.” The boy smiled. “But if you find me a white one as well, that’ll be nice.”
Gray hesitated. On second thoughts, he didn’t even know if they made white Ferrari Cheetah toys or models. He had probably put his foot in it, he realised. And it was his own fault; he didn’t have to argue with the child.
That’s what happens when you get too much in character…
“I’ll try to see what I can do,” he told Tom. “Now, you be a good lad, and you might have lots of surprises on Christmas Day.”
The boy smiled, pleased by that promise. “Thank you, Santa… I mean, Father Christmas.” He frowned and looked at him with curiosity. “Does it annoy you that American kids call you Santa, then?”
“Yes, tremendously. That’s why they have so much coal in their stockings on Christmas Day. Now, I think it’s time you went to play with your little friends.”
“Yes, sir!” Tom jumped down from Gray’s lap and ran towards Paul who was waiting for him, still with a discontented expression upon his face. “Goodbye, and don’t forget me on Christmas Eve!”
Paul rolled his eyes at this departing call and was about to take the young boy by the hand to guide him down the steps, when Gray suddenly called to him, with a very authoritative tone to his voice: “Mr Metcalfe, if you would care to give me a moment of your precious time, please?”
That stopped Paul in his tracks, and he looked over his shoulder with curiosity at ‘Father Christmas’ who was staring intently at him. “This won’t take very long,” the man promised.
“Wait for me down the steps, Tommy,” Paul instructed his young cousin. It was a useless request, for the boy ran past him, without as much as a backward glance. Paul took one step closer to the throne, just so that whatever the man would have to say would not be overheard by others; he still wanted to keep a relatively safe distance between the two of them; he didn’t want any of his ‘friends’ seeing him talk to Santa Claus.
“You made a promise to your mother, a few minutes ago,” Gray reminded him.
Paul frowned. “You overheard,” he said, almost accusingly.
“I’ve got good ears. You need to, when you’re Father Christmas. It’s not the only thing I overheard. Your friends just invited you to a party.”
“Yeah, so? Without meaning to sound rude, that’s not really your business, ‘Father Christmas’. Beside, you already promised to put coal in my stocking.”
“No, you’re right, it’s not my business. However…” Gray leaned forward on his throne and addressed the young man in a lower voice: “Breaking a promise, especially to your mother, is not a sign of maturity, far from it. Neither is shrugging your responsibility off to go and have ‘fun’ and drink alcohol with so-called friends. You’ll have plenty of time later for that, believe me. It’s not worth losing the trust and confidence that people put in you. Your mother trusts you, so she must think you’re a worthy and honourable young man. Am I right?”
“Well…” Paul hesitated, unsure exactly how to answer.
Gray nodded slowly. “There’s a time for fun and there's a time for responsibility,” he continued. “You must know about responsibility and honour, your father being a military officer. That’s a long tradition within your family, so you should respect it.”
“How do you know about that?” The boy asked with a frown.
“I’m Father Christmas. I know everything.” Gray sat back on his throne. “You’re at an age when the choices you make will define what kind of man you will become, and how people will come to view you. When a person begins to go down the slippery slope of lies and dishonesty, it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to climb back… especially as time goes on. I don’t think you are a dishonest lad, Mr Metcalfe. I think you want to do well and that you deserve to be trusted. Don’t throw that away out of impulse and just for a short moment of fun.” He paused, adding good-naturedly: “Besides, in my experience, when someone promises you something that goes against your integrity and then tells you that you won’t regret it… you will most certainly end up having regrets.”
Paul simply looked back at him in silence, chewing pensively on his words; Gray had no idea if what he told the teenager had reached him at all.
Then Paul started climbing down the steps slowly. “Good luck finding that white Ferrari, Father Christmas,” he said in an even voice.
He reached Tom just as the steward who had approached the younger boy earlier was coming back to offer his plate again.
“So, little one, you met Santa, would you like some sweets now?”
By the delighted look on his face, Tom obviously was very tempted, but Paul didn’t give him the chance to reach for the wonderful confectionary on offer. He snatched the boy’s eager hand and gently steered him towards the buffet.
“Come on, Tommy. You’ll waste your appetite with all this stuff. Let’s get some really good things to eat at the buffet.”
It was obvious that Tom felt a bit disappointed, by the way he looked back at the sweet-covered plate, but he let his older cousin guide him away without protesting much. The steward watched him go for a moment, seemingly rooted to the spot; then, he walked amongst the guests, towards the other end of the table. Curiously enough, Gray noticed, he wasn’t offering any sweets to the other children who pressed around him. He even ignored the request of an older girl who seemed keen to help herself to some Christmas candy canes.
“Good show, sailor.”
At the sound of Elizabeth’s voice, Gray instinctively reached for his earpiece. That’s when he realised she was there, right by his side. He had not seen her approach.
“Quite impressive,” she continued. “You’re starting to settle nicely into your role.” She was holding a big mug decorated with a Christmas scene.
“I don’t know if it’ll make a difference,” Gray muttered, watching the two boys as they reached the buffet table and started checking the various foods on offer. “The rest is up to the boy, now.” He saw the way Paul glanced in the direction of the door behind which his ‘friends’ would be waiting and noted with satisfaction that the teenager didn’t seem inclined to go that way.
Elizabeth crouched by Gray’s side, and handed him the mug. “I thought you’d like something to drink.”
“Great. My throat is as dry as sandpaper. Coffee?” he asked. At the same time, he glanced at the content of the mug and saw that the beverage was much too white to be any kind of coffee.
“Milk,” she said. “You still have to keep in character, Thorn.”
“Ho-bloody-ho-ho,” he muttered. He took a sip of the milk. If it had at least been cold, perhaps it would have tasted better.
“We’ve had some developments while you were playing Santa,” Elizabeth continued.
“Debrief me, Rose.”
“The U.S.S. was successful in identifying many of the fingerprints found on the latest envelope AND the letter sent to the mayor’s office,” she explained. “As expected, they came from various people, but only one set was common to both.”
“Which might make the owner the culprit we are looking for,” Gray commented. “You have a name?”
“Alan Fitzroy. He’s a former employee of Winchester City Council, during the previous administration and was a firm supporter of the Militarist Government.”
“Fitzroy…” Gray turned the name over in his head for a moment. “Why is that so familiar to me?”
“It’s one of the three names appearing on the copper plate next to the door of Abbey House,” Somners reminded him. “One of the victims of the bomb attack that nearly destroyed the edifice a few years back?”
“Which was apparently planted by a faction of the rebels fighting the Militarists,” Gray realised.
“Alicia Fitzroy was Alan’s sister. She was killed while visiting her brother at work. Apparently, Alan never got over it. Even after the Militarists were overthrown and it was proven that the attack had been conducted by an independent group that had nothing to do with the freedom fighters’ movement, he continued to blame the new regime and everyone associated with it for his sister’s death. He was sacked a few months back, because of some careless declarations he made in city hall that were considered unacceptable.”
“So he has good reason to hate Knightley’s administration,” Gray reflected.
“Yes. As Americans say in criminal law, he has motive and means. As a former employee, even if he’d lost all of his proper authorisations to enter city hall, he could probably get past security without too much of an effort.”
“Old friends, unaware that he might pose some kind of a threat, might let him in,” Gray mused.
His eyes were following the steward who had approached Tom Knightley and his cousin earlier. He couldn’t help noticing the man had followed the two boys and was now standing not far from them, seemingly watching them. He was making little effort to offer his sweets to the other children. A suspicion grew in the mind of the U.S.S. agent and he narrowed his eyes.
“Do you have Fitzroy’s description, Rose?” he asked the woman by his side.
“Forty-two years old. Tall, strong-looking…” So far the description fitted the steward, and Gray tensed. “He’s practically bald, with thin grey-brown hair,” Somners continued. “And he has a moustache…”
Gray relaxed slightly; the steward possessed a full head of very dark, curly hair, and his entire face was clean-shaven. Yet there was definitely something suspicious about him and Gray continued to follow him with his eyes as the man casually made his way towards the main open door leading into the hall.
A couple of young girls of about seven were now approaching the steps leading to Santa’s throne; Elizabeth rose to her feet. “I’d better leave you to your adoring fans, Santa,” she said. “And return to my station.”
He nodded, almost distractedly; he didn’t even pay her any attention as she walked down the steps, and passed by the two girls.
Gray didn’t take his eyes off the steward, who was now standing by the open door. He chewed on the still growing suspicion in his mind.
“What if he has an accomplice?” he mused out loud.
“What’s that, Thorn?” said the voice of his partner in his ear. He glanced in the direction of the buffet and could see she was almost back at her original post.
“Is Fitzroy likely to have an accomplice?” he asked.
“That’s possible,” Somners answered. “There are a lot of citizens dissatisfied with Knightley’s administration. Even more so with the new democratic government.”
“Indeed there are,” Gray said, almost under his breath. The two young girls were now climbing the steps towards him, so he realised he had to be careful not to alarm them. After all, as Rose had said, he didn’t want to give the impression that Father Christmas was in the habit of talking to someone who wasn’t there.
His eyes were still following the steward. Then he noticed that the man’s black waistcoat was decorated with the same holly leaves and berries pin worn by Somners and Carmody. Gray frowned; to his knowledge, this particular ornament was only worn by undercover U.S.S. agents in order to conceal their personal communication devices.
If this man was an agent, Gray didn’t know him.
“Rose,” he said louder than he really intended to, as the two little girls approached him, “is there any agent other than Carmody, you and myself in this room?”
Gray didn’t have time to repeat the question. Suddenly, the man he was watching with eagle eyes broke the glass-covered manual fire alarm set on the wall next to the door and pressed the red button. Loud alarm bells rang instantly and throbbing red lights were switched on all over the house.
There was a fraction of a second before anyone actually reacted; then a male voice – Gray wasn’t sure if it was the steward or someone else – shouted “FIRE!” at the top of his lungs.
And then total pandemonium ensued. There were screams and children running everywhere in complete confusion; the two young girls who had finally reached Father Christmas’ throne abruptly turned on their heels and with a combined high shriek, ran down the steps at breakneck speed, disappearing into the crowd of screaming children. The adults in the room – clowns, elves, stewards – were doing their best to contain the panic and regain control, as everyone finally converged towards the open doors that led into the main hall. From his vantage point, Gray could see that the doors of the room on the other side of the hall, assigned to the adults’ party, were now wide open and that a similar – if somewhat more restrained – panic had taken hold of the parents who were now calling for their children.
Gray jumped to his feet, his eyes scanning the room, in search of the man who was the cause of all this commotion; he easily found him through the crowd and his heart missed a beat.
The steward was standing over Tom Knightley and had roughly seized him by the arm. The child’s wild struggle to escape went unnoticed and his scream of protest was drowned by the surrounding noise. No one was paying any attention – no one that is, except for Tom’s older cousin who was still holding the younger boy by the hand. Paul Metcalfe reacted like lightning and kicked the steward in the tibia with such force that the man automatically let go of Tom. Then, still clutching his hand, Paul prompted the boy to run. They dashed through a group of children rushing towards the door, and momentarily disappeared from Gray’s view.
“Rose!” Gray roared into his mike. “The steward! He’s after the mayor’s grandson!”
“I see him! We can’t…” Somners’ voice was suddenly cut short and Gray glanced in the direction of the buffet table, where he last saw his partner. He found her, not at her previous station, but moving in the direction of the suspect, Carmody bringing up the rear. Unfortunately, the crowd trying to get out of the room was in-between; it was too dense and effectively blocked their way. Both Somners and Carmody were struggling to get through, but it seemed an impossible task.
Gray shifted his attention back to the other side of the crowd, where he could see the steward running in the opposite direction to everyone else. He was heading for the door through which Paul Metcalfe’s friends had disappeared earlier. Gray just had time to catch sight of Paul pass through that door and slam it quickly shut behind him. He had no doubt that Tom Knightley was with him.
Gray made his move just as the steward reached the door and flung it wide open in pursuit. Neither Somners nor Carmody could reach the suspect or the boys, but he certainly could.
“I’m going after him!” he said into his mike, and rushed down the steps in the same move.
“Wait, Thorn!” Elizabeth protested. “Don’t go without backup!”
“There’s no time!”
Ignoring Elizabeth’s further protests, Gray dashed through the few people rushing towards the crowd already jamming the exit; he would have been more concerned for the safety of everyone if he hadn’t known that the fire alarm was a false one, but he at least hoped that no-one, especially a small child, would get trampled in the confusion. He figured he would need to have a word with the person in charge of security and emergency evacuation around here. He noted that, at least, people were now finally able to get through – albeit at a slower rate than ought to be possible.
By the time he finally reached the door behind which the steward had followed Paul and his cousin, precious seconds had ticked by and he was afraid that this delay, however short, might be fatal for the two boys. One last glance towards his two colleagues informed him they were still struggling to get through the packed crowd. He couldn’t wait for them.
The door led into an area containing many large boxes. A storage room, he remembered hearing the young Peterson say. Some of the boxes carried food trademarks and from others emerged what remained of the multicoloured garlands and fairy lights used to decorate the house. At first glance, it seemed like a dead end, but then, Gray remembered that Peterson had mentioned stairs and he looked around for them. They were almost hidden behind a high pile of cardboard boxes.
As he went towards the staircase, Gray heard a commotion above him; quickly, he rummaged in the large pocket of his Santa Claus coat, in search of his weapon. The thick mitten he was wearing didn’t permit him to get a good hold of it and with a muffled curse, he took his hand out of the pocket, tore the mitten off with his teeth and hurriedly reached again for his pistol. He had barely got it out when he heard hurried footsteps coming from the top of the stairs. He raised his gun quickly… and ended up aiming it straight between the eyes of Peterson who gave a fearful yell and stopped in his tracks, forcing the three other teenagers following behind to bump into him. None of them was Paul Metcalfe.
Gray quickly lowered his gun and climbed one step. “Where are they?” he asked roughly. “Young Metcalfe… and the little boy with him?”
The white-faced Peterson stared at him as if he had no idea what he was on about. “We haven’t seen ‘em,” he finally managed to say.
Gray frowned. “Have you seen a steward coming up these stairs? In his forties, tall, curly hair...”
“Yeah, I saw him,” said one of the other boys – McBride? “He was upstairs, and he was going for the stairway leading to the roof.”
Gray frowned. The roof? Surely he wasn’t following the two boys that way?
“Can we go now, sir?” the boy Gray remembered as Bailey asked. “There’s a fire and we ought to get out.”
“There’s no fire, it’s a false alarm,” Gray retorted. “But you should be going all the same. Go on, out of my way. I’ve got to go upstairs.” He started making his way up, jostling the boys with his padded costume as he went. Peterson, who seemed to have regained his composure, gave a suspicious look at the gun in his hand.
“Since when does Santa carry a gun, man?” he asked as Gray passed through their small group.
“It’s for really naughty boys,” Gray declared, almost without thinking. “Don’t worry, you’re not that bad. You’ll just get coal this year. Now get the hell out of here, and let me do my job!”
“Geez, what kind of job is he talking about?” McBride said in a low voice.
It was loud enough for Gray to hear it, but he ignored it and climbed what remained of the stairs at full speed, activating his earpiece. “Rose, can you hear me?”
“Where are you, Thorn?” the familiar voice answered. “I saw you going through that door…”
“On my way to the roof. I don’t know what happened to the boys, but I think our suspect is following them closely.”
“Be careful, Thorn. Remember what happened last time you went out on your own.”
Gray grunted with annoyance. That was something he was unlikely to forget, even if she let him try. Falling into a trap wasn’t his intention this time around.
He ended up in a large corridor, with many doors on each side. The majority of them were closed and as he tried the handles on two of them; Gray discovered they were locked. The only open door he found led into a small room and Gray glanced inside, to discover, lying on the floor, cushions and blankets, obviously put there to sit on, amongst cans of beer, bags of crisps, playing cards and a couple of ashtrays. It was easy to guess that it was the room in which the boys had taken refuge for their private ‘party’.
At the end of the corridor, Gray spotted a final door, surmounted by an illuminated red sign with the word ‘Roof’ written on it, and an arrow pointing up.
Could Paul Metcalfe have taken his young cousin there, thinking they would be safe from their pursuer? That was poor strategy… But then, he was only a teenage boy; Gray didn’t really expect him to react and think as a soldier would.
Gray moved quickly to the door and pushed it; in doing so, his feet kicked something lying on the floor. He lowered his eyes; resting on one of the steps was a wig of black curly hair.
Great. The steward had been wearing a disguise. It could actually be Fitzroy, with his moustache shaven… or anyone else for that matter.
He heard commotion coming from upstairs. Running feet, and loud shouts...
“Rose!” he yelled into his mike as he dashed up the staircase. “The steward was wearing a wig. I think it could be Fitzroy… And I believe he caught up with the boys. Get your butt over here pronto! I might need help!”
“Don’t rush in, Thorn. Wait for us before –”
“We can’t afford to wait!”
Gray reached the top of the stairs to find the door leading to the roof ajar; the voices were now stronger. There was that of an angry male adult, shouting invectives and threats; and then, suddenly, a younger voice, yelping in pain.
Gray kicked open the door and it slammed loudly against the outside wall. He was on the roof; and in front of him was the man dressed in a steward’s uniform. Without his wig, Gray could see he was almost bald, with just a greyish-brown fringe of hair.
It was indeed Alan Fitzroy.
And he was holding Paul Metcalfe by the neck, close to the edge of the roof; the boy was standing unsteadily on tip-toes on the ledge of the roof, with his heels over the empty space, desperately clutching his assailant’s arm with both hands.
If either of them let go, Paul would plunge to the ground, many feet below...
Gray’s arrival seemed to startle them both and put a stop to their struggle; they were now both staring at him. The expression on young Metcalfe’s face was a mix of total astonishment to see him there and of absolute fear of falling to his death from the top of this roof.
As for Fitzroy, he wasn’t any less surprised at the presence of a Santa Claus-dressed man who was aiming a pistol at him. However, the anger Gray saw in the man’s distorted face was enough to convince him that hatred and determination were stronger in him than any other emotion, and that he would not hesitate to kill the boy in his clutches if he needed to.
“Fitzroy!” Gray roared. “Don’t you dare hurt that boy!”
“Who the hell are you?” the other man responded, his teeth clenched.
“Never mind who I am!” Gray snapped back. He pointed to the young man still holding on to Fitzroy’s arm. “Pull the boy safely back onto the roof, or…”
A crooked smile appeared on Fitzroy’s face. “Or you’ll shoot? You wouldn’t dare or I might drop him.”
“Please. You don’t want to hurt him.”
“Oh, I don’t?” Fitzroy did pull Paul back as ordered, but not exactly in the way Gray had hoped. As the boy stumbled forward, Fitzroy drew him close, his arm swiftly snaking around his neck; he held him tight, facing Gray, and using the boy as an effective shield against the gun aimed at him. He had been so fast that Gray didn’t have the time to react accordingly.
“As I said,” Fitzroy said challengingly, “you wouldn’t dare to shoot me.”
Gray swallowed hard. He saw Paul’s frightened face now turned to him, slowly going puce and heard the sound of him choking as he struggled against the arm pressed against his throat. Over the boy’s head, Alan Fitzroy’s face held a hard expression. Gray took a step forward.
“Stay where you are!” Fitzroy warned angrily. “Take another step, and I’ll strangle the kid!” Gray immediately did as he was told, sensing that Paul really was in danger.
Fitzroy narrowed his eyes suspiciously, and then gave a curt nod in direction of the gun Gray was holding in his hand.
“Let go of your weapon. Throw it away from you. Carefully.”
Slowly, Gray lowered the gun; he pulled the safety lock and then, obediently, threw the weapon a good five or six feet away. Hearing it clattering on the surface of the roof, Fitzroy grunted with satisfaction.
“Now whoever you are, keep your distance,” he said in a low voice. “Or I’ll strangle this boy on the spot. You know I’m strong enough to do it.”
“But you don’t want to do that,” Gray replied, in what he hoped was a soothing tone of voice. His only hope was to try to calm the man down. “Come on, Fitzroy – killing an innocent child? You’re not a criminal. You’re just a guy who’s angry with the mayor’s administration. This boy never did anything to you. He’s not your enemy.”
“He’s holding out on me!” Fitzroy spat. “He helped the mayor’s grandson escape. He’s hidden him somewhere, and won’t tell me where!”
“Not on your life, bad breath,” Paul moaned. “You can look, you’ll never find him.”
Fitzroy pressed harder on Paul’s throat, stifling his defiant bravado. “Quiet, you little bastard! You don’t want to make me angrier than I already am. I told you that if you didn’t tell me where the kid is, I would throw you off this roof! By God, you will tell me now, or –”
“Or what, Mr Fitzroy?” Gray suddenly interrupted him. “Killing him will not help you in any way. Beside, even if he tells you, the mayor’s grandson probably isn’t there anymore. Someone will have found him by now, and will be taking care of him. Keeping him safe from you.”
For the moment, Gray thought, the important thing was to gain as much time as possible, until his colleagues arrived to help stop this madman and save his teenage hostage. He didn’t really expect to convince Fitzroy to let go of the boy without doing him any harm; seeing the anger in the man’s face, he very much doubted that he would easily let himself be swayed by reason.
“Even if you get the Knightley child, what will you do with him?” Gray continued quietly. “You’re not planning to hurt him as well, are you?”
“That depends entirely on the mayor,” Fitzroy retorted. “The kid… he could give me some leverage against him.”
“What kind of leverage? Fitzroy, do you expect Knightley to give up his position to save the boy? Even if he did, do you think using a small child to get what you want will help your cause? I know you’re hoping for the Militarists to come back into power, but many Militarists would frown on what you’re planning to do.” Gray shook his head. “Beside, Fitzroy, it’s an impossible dream. The Militarist regime will not come back; its time is done. You’re a reasonable man. You should know that.”
“You don’t know that,” Fitzroy said, shaking his head. “Anything is possible, when people put their mind to it. The regime might come back eventually, and all the usurpers… those false ‘saviours’, as they think of themselves… all of them will be punished.” He took the time to draw breath, his eyes still riveted on Gray, before continuing, “Obviously, you know about those letters I sent to the newspapers and the Council. But you’ve got it wrong about me. I’ve only been using those threats to strike fear in the heart of the enemy and to denounce them to the people. Perhaps my words will inspire others. At the moment, I know I’m only one man, and that my actions might not help to get the Militarists back in power, but for the moment, I don’t care much about that. It’s not really what I want.”
“What do you want then?” Gray asked with a frown.
“I want someone to pay for my sister’s death! Those freedom fighters… they’re responsible for what happened to her. Those rebels who took over the country… They were part of it!”
“Is that what’s eating you, then?” Gray sighed. “We all lost someone to the war, Fitzroy, whichever side we were fighting on. Your sister… the group who was responsible for her death was not attached to those who took power. They were part of an independent, more violent faction.”
“That’s a lie! A cover up!” Fitzroy insisted.
“I know you don’t believe me. But that’s the hard truth. Beside, let’s suppose it wasn’t: taking your anger out on children won’t bring your sister back, and certainly won’t honour her memory. I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to do that in her name.”
“Alicia,” Fitzroy murmured. “She was… such a sweet young woman. Nearly still a child herself… Always laughing, always happy… She loved kids. She wanted to marry, and have a large family. She… she didn’t have any political views…” He shook himself. “That bomb tore her body apart. There was barely anything left of her after the blast. She didn’t deserve to die that way.”
“Nobody does, Mr Fitzroy,” Gray declared in a compassionate voice. He took one careful step forward. “Now, let go of the boy,” he said slowly. “Please. You don’t have to mistreat him the way you’re doing. He’s as innocent as your sister.”
“Is he?” Fitzroy asked with a glare in his eyes. “Do you think I don’t know who this boy is? He’s the son of a turncoat, who sold out his country and caused the fall of the British Government!”
Oh boy… Gray thought. This was becoming more complicated…
“You can’t hold him responsible for that,” he said with a renewed frown.
“Can’t I?” Fitzroy said abruptly. “I know the Militarists won’t come back to power soon, and there’s little I can do about that. But I’m prepared to do whatever I can to take revenge on those who were at least partly responsible for my sister’s death.”
“And that includes a young boy, Fitzroy?” Gray asked harshly.
“Perhaps. If there’s no other option.” Fitzroy narrowed his eyes at Gray, gauging him carefully. “Who exactly are you?” he asked slowly.
“I’m wearing the most recognisable costume in the world and you ask me that?” Gray said in a deadpan voice.
Fitzroy scoffed. “You’re military, that’s obvious. I can recognise one of those in a crowd. But you’re more than that. Not a policeman, no. An agent of the Government, more than probably. The Secret Service, perhaps.” His eyes were set on Gray’s face, studying his every expression. He saw no reaction to his comments. Then he asked, accusingly: “You were one of those rebels, weren’t you?”
“I’m Father Christmas,” Gray retorted in an offhand voice. He shrugged, trying to sound calm and dismissive. “I don’t concern myself with politics. I only care about children. And not seeing them come to any harm.”
Fitzroy’s eyes glowed even hotter. Not good, thought Gray. I made him angrier.
Liz, where the hell are you? I need your backup right now!
“You care only about children, you say,” Fitzroy seethed between his teeth. “And you would lay down your life to see them safe?”
Uh-oh… Gray didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking. He tensed, getting ready for anything and to move quickly when necessary. Realising that Fitzroy would see through him if he happened to be lying, he said, very truthfully:
“Yes I would. Without any hesitation whatsoever.”
“Well, then, Father Christmas… You can die for this kid, right now!”
Suddenly, a small pistol that Gray had not seen before appeared in Fitzroy’s hand and he aimed it straight at the U.S.S. agent. The latter, who expected exactly something like that, ducked instinctively, as soon as he saw the man’s finger twitch on the trigger. He heard the soft detonation, but fortunately, Fitzroy wasn’t in any way a good shot and even at this short distance he nearly missed his target. Nearly, as Gray felt the bullet slightly graze his side; the gun, by the look of it, wasn’t very powerful, and the padding of his costume served him well by protecting him from the small-calibre bullet it projected.
Knowing he wouldn’t have a second chance, Gray made his move and dashed towards Fitzroy; the latter was taking aim again; only two shots, Gray realised as he was now closer to his adversary and was able to get a good look at his small weapon. But at this range, even with his faulty aim, Fitzroy might not miss him this time around.
It was Paul Metcalfe who, at this point, took the initiative. Fitzroy had obviously relaxed his hold on him, and so, regaining more freedom, the teenager stamped his heel on his assailant’s toes. Hard. Fitzroy cried out in pain and instinctively pushed his hostage away from him. With horror, Gray saw the young man stumble towards the edge of the roof.
Gray tackled Fitzroy like a rugby player, and shoved him out of his way with such force that the man lost his footing and slipped, the canon of his gun rising towards the sky; his second shot discharged aimlessly. From the corner of his eye, Gray saw the man drop to the ground awkwardly, but he had no time to concern himself with that. His only focus was on Paul, whose body was swaying dangerously close to disaster. Gray made a spectacular dive forwards, landing roughly on his belly, his arms outstretched in an attempt to catch the teenager – and reached him just as he went over the edge.
Gray’s left fingers closed on Paul’s left upper arm and he felt the boy’s hands snatching his arm to desperately hold on to it. The young man’s fall was abruptly cut short, and his body swung in mid-air, slamming roughly against the hard brick wall. Under the shock of the added weight, Gray heard a very audible snap, and an excruciating pain shot through his shoulder. He groaned out loud, but clenched his jaw and held on with brute strength, keeping Paul suspended with his feet dangling several metres above the ground.
“Hang on, lad!” he managed to say through gritted teeth.
It was an unnecessary recommendation. Paul was holding on for dear life with both his arms wrapped around Gray’s left one. The additional pain caused by the boy’s weight on his arm and shoulder was almost too much for the U.S.S. agent to bear and he closed his eyes against it. He feared he would lose consciousness soon.
“Over here! They’re over here!”
The very recognisable female voice coming not that far from behind him acted as a balm on Gray’s pain, as it announced that help had finally arrived. He heard rushing footsteps as a number of people came towards him. He didn’t dare look up for fear that any shift in his position might send him and the boy he was holding plunging to their deaths.
He felt a presence crouch beside him and smelled a familiar perfume. “What took you so long, Rose?” he said, through clenched teeth.
“Hang on, sailor,” Elizabeth’s soft voice retorted. “We’ll relieve you of your charge.”
Someone else bent down by his other side and he saw two pairs of helping hands reaching for Paul. Once the boy felt they were holding him tight, he let go of Gray’s arm and scrambled up the wall. Pulled and supported by the help provided by these new hands, he regained the roof. With the weight on his arm gone, Gray heaved a deep sigh of relief, but the pain, if lessening slightly, remained. Assisted by his partner, he slowly turned around, using his good right arm as leverage.
By the time Gray was able to get himself into a sitting position, the two U.S.S. agents who had helped Paul Metcalfe out of his precarious position were guiding the boy towards the stairs, in a protective way. Within seconds he had disappeared from Gray’s view.
Not that far from where he sat, Gray could see that two other agents were taking charge of Fitzroy, who lay on the floor, moaning piteously, and bleeding from a wound to his forehead. Looking at the culprit, Gray believed he might have hit his head in his fall, and probably was too concussed to offer any further resistance.
Elizabeth Somners now crouched in front of him, was giving a cursory glance at his useless left arm which was dangling loosely by his side.
“Broken?” she asked.
Her voice might have sounded matter-of-fact to anyone who didn’t know her, but Gray definitely could hear a tinge of concern in it. He shook his head and grimaced.
“Dislocated shoulder,” he explained. “Happens sometimes.”
She looked at him closely; he was pale with shock and pain, but she was relieved to see that he didn’t seem to have suffered injuries other than the aforementioned shoulder. She drew a deep breath and glanced in the direction of Fitzroy who was being slowly taken in the direction of the stairs. “We’ll have a doctor take a look at this,” she said quietly. “And then you’ll have to make your report to the big boss himself.”
“Blake is here?” Gray asked, with a raised eyebrow.
“He’s on his way. Actually, he wasn’t very far away, I hear. You can imagine the state he’s in since he heard his grandson was somehow involved in the operation. And then it was worse when he heard you’d gone after him on your own, with no back up – again.” She paused for effect: “I think he was very concerned you would botch the job.”
“Oh great,” muttered Gray.
“But you saved the boy.” Elizabeth smiled widely. “That was a very good job, Charles. A very good job indeed.”
“It’s not the first time this shoulder has been dislocated.”
Paul Blake was standing just in front of the open door of the ambulance, where Charles Gray had received first aid for his injury. With his shoulder and arm heavily bandaged and in a sling, he allowed the doctor to give him a shot of analgesics to help with the pain, while nodding slowly in response to his superior’s question.
“I dislocated it the first time about fifteen years ago,” he explained. “While playing rugby at King’s College. It was a game that would get us to the championship final, so we needed the win. Since then, this shoulder has become prone to dislocate itself.” He made a mental count. “I believe it’s the third time, not counting the game itself.”
“Which you won, I presume,” Blake commented dryly.
“Naturally.” Gray grinned. “I was off the team because of my injury, but King’s won the championship after that. All in all, it was worth it.”
Blake offered a thin smile and nodded slowly. His eyes then shifted in the direction of another ambulance, parked a short distance away. Gray followed his gaze with curiosity to see, standing in front of the open door, young Paul Metcalfe, his shoulders covered with a blanket and his parents surrounding him. His mother was hugging him so tightly that she threatened to smother him, while a man, clearly his father, dressed in the smart uniform of a WAAF major, ruffled his hair playfully, a large, proud smile splattered on his face. This treatment didn’t seem to meet with Paul’s approval as he began to protest, his ears turning a dark shade of red.
Not far from his older cousin was Tommy Knightley, visibly in good health, and smiling broadly, in the arms of a tall man that Gray recognised as James, Mayor Alistair Knightley’s son. The boy seemed blissfully unaware that he had escaped an attempted kidnapping, and was pointing excitedly towards the fire engine parked only a few feet away, apparently wanting to see it up close. A woman Gray presumed to be his mother was covering the little boy with kisses, obviously relieved to see he had come to no harm at all. In the same circle, there was the Mayor of Winchester, his hands on the shoulders of a concerned-looking woman who bore a definite resemblance to Paul Blake.
Scattered around the grounds of Abbey House were the many guests of the party that had been so unexpectedly interrupted, all discussing loudly, or protesting, or seeking care from the medics who arrived in the ambulances called when the fire alarm had been raised. There was, of course, no fire at all, but in the panic to get out of the house, people had been knocked over, bumped into and more than a few toes had been trodden on. Fortunately, all things considered, there turned out to be only a few bumps and bruises. Other than some cases of anxiety, there had been no major injuries to account for.
Except of course, for Gray’s dislocated shoulder and for Fitzroy’s cracked skull – for which the man had been promptly taken to the hospital under close guard by local police.
Gray could see many of his colleagues scattered amongst the crowd; there were policemen as well, taking statements from various people who’d witnessed the day’s events. Gray imagined that the authorities were also checking out people out, as well as the property itself, just to make sure that there wasn’t any other impending danger, and that Fitzroy didn’t have any accomplices lurking, waiting to strike in turn.
Quite frankly, Gray didn’t think it was the case. From what he had been able to gather, Fitzroy was more or less a nutcase – he was more than likely working alone on this crazy attempt to get to the mayor through his grandson. And what Fitzroy had said himself, about being only one man, tended to convince Gray that he wasn’t wrong in his assumption.
“It was worth it today as well, Thorn,” Blake declared in a low voice, turning back to Gray and answering his last comments. “You did very well to follow your instinct and take that risk. You demonstrated quick-thinking.”
“You might change your mind, sir, when you discover I didn’t hold on to my promise entirely.” Under Blake’s curious gaze, Gray used his good hand to reach for the Santa red coat that lay neatly folded beside him in the ambulance. He took it and handed it to the older man who gave it a cursory glance. “I believe there’s a hole in it now,” Gray continued. “A bullet grazed me, and if it hadn’t been for the padding…”
“I see.” Blake unfolded the bright red coat and one of his fingers quickly found the hole. “Well, at least, you didn’t get any blood on it,” the older man declared, matter-of-factly. “No matter. That can be repaired easily. And the mend will be a reminder that you risked your life to save my grandson.” He nodded slowly. “For that, I thank you with all my heart.”
Gray looked again in the direction of young Paul Metcalfe and his parents. A cordon of policemen and U.S.S. agents surrounded them, preventing reporters and photographers from approaching. The young man was considered to be the hero of the day, while nobody seemed to care much about the man in the Santa Claus suit who had very nearly had his arm torn from his shoulder in his efforts to save the boy. Nobody knew that part of the story, obviously, and nobody really needed to know. As Elizabeth said, U.S.S. agents worked in the shadows and certainly didn’t need the press to publicise their deeds and display their faces in all the newspapers. Quite frankly, that suited Charles Gray just fine. As far as he was concerned, he had dealt with more than enough publicity in the past, and that fact had nearly prevented him from joining the U.S.S. in the first place. He was grateful that someone had revised their opinion on the subject, though.
“I was only doing my job, sir,” he answered, looking back at Blake. “And I certainly didn’t do it all alone.”
“Oh, tish-tosh, Thorn. You’re too modest for your own good,” a female voice interrupted him.
Gray turned to his right to see Elizabeth Somners approach, holding in her hands the same decorated mug she’d given him earlier. But this time, curls of steams escaped from it – along with a delicious smell of coffee that titillated his nostrils. She handed him the cup with a wide smile.
“Take the compliment and shut up, for once. You did a great job all on your lonesome. Carmody and I were too busy trying to get through the crowd to be of any help to you.”
“Actually, I was referring to young Mr Metcalfe,” Gray explained with a shy smile, before taking a sip of coffee. It was delicious. Certainly much better than that lukewarm milk she had handed him earlier. “He also demonstrated quick thinking, when he stamped on Fitzroy’s toes, just as I was rushing him. Without him, Fitzroy’s second short might have killed me. And there’s more…” He took a larger gulp of coffee. “Hiding his cousin so that Fitzroy couldn’t find him – by the way, where was the boy actually hiding? I missed that part.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “You won’t believe that one. After escaping Fitzroy’s first attempt to take Tom, Paul took advantage of the general confusion and panic, and unseen to Fitzroy – and to all of us, for that matter – he told the boy to crawl under the Christmas tree.”
Gray raised a surprised eyebrow, looking at her with some disbelief. “Under the tree?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Tom was hiding amongst the many boxes of Christmas presents. He was in plain sight, but virtually invisible to all eyes.”
“You mean, he never was with his cousin, then, when young Metcalfe left the room through that door? The lad set off and led Fitzroy on a wild goose chase?” Gray smiled approvingly. “That was very clever of the lad,” he said. Turning to Blake, he could see that the older man displayed a smile full of pride that threatened to break his craggy face in two.
“Well, I’m not sure Paul initially intended to attract attention to himself so that Tommy would be safe,” Blake admitted. “But it’s probable that when he realised what was happening, he did his utmost to protect his cousin.”
“He most certainly did,” Gray said, musingly. “But why the roof? That wasn’t a good idea. He had no way of escaping from there.”
“On the contrary,” Blake retorted. “I asked the same question of Paul, and what he said was that, considering the fire alarm had been raised, it was to be expected that the Fire Brigade would come over. He was thinking that if he could hide long enough on the roof to escape Fitzroy, then he would have been able to signal his presence and be rescued.”
“I haven’t even considered that possibility,” Gray admitted. “That was a clever thought.”
“My grandson is a very brilliant boy, Agent Thorn,” Blake commented.
Gray nodded slowly. “But not very cautious. I heard him challenge Fitzroy. He had no intention of telling him where Tom was hiding. Even when that madman threatened to throw him off the roof.” He took another sip of his coffee. “It was very courageous, but in my opinion, a dangerously silly thing to do,” he added, without raising his eyes. “He could easily have been killed.”
He felt Elizabeth’s warning thump on his arm – fortunately, his uninjured one– and realised his mistake. The old man might not take too kindly to criticism aimed at his grandson. Gray offered a quick smile. “But it paid off,” he added quickly.
“The boy will go far,” Elizabeth approved.
“If he doesn’t get himself killed first,” Gray continued.
“And you’ll go far as well, Mr Gray.” It was Blake’s turn to thump his shoulder; but he wasn’t as considerate as Elizabeth Somners, and did, purposely, hit Gray’s injured shoulder – albeit not too hard. But it was enough to hurt and Gray’s stifled a cry that turned into a grunt.
Blake grinned naughtily. “If you don’t get yourself killed either, that is,” he added in a softer voice. “Or get sacked trying. Quite frankly, I can’t wait for you to take my place, so that I can put all this nonsense behind me and finally enjoy some peace and quiet with my family.”
“Any chance of that really happening, then?” Gray asked, forcing the words through his teeth as he massaged his sore shoulder.
“Not tomorrow, that’s for sure. But in a few months…” Blake considered this for a moment, before adding, with a smile: “Ask me again in the summer. I might have an answer for you then.”
Gray nodded, unsure of the answer he should hope for. Would it be positive or not?
I guess I will have to wait to find that out.
“Now, the two of you have reports to write,” Blake concluded, pointing to both Gray and Somners. “I expect them on my desk tonight. Along with the Santa Claus suit, clean and in its original box.” He put the red coat he had been holding onto the floor of the ambulance, next to the beard and hat.
“Yes, sir,” both Gray and Somners answered in unison.
“And then, you may return to your holidays… I think you were both off to Paris, when you were called back, weren’t you?” Blake smiled smugly, seeing the surprised, almost horrific expression on his two agents’ faces at the sudden realisation that he had found them out. “Can’t have the Eiffel Tower waiting too long for you lovebirds, can we?”
And with that, he turned on his heels and left them, strolling away without a last look over his shoulder as he went to join his daughter, son-in-law and grandson.
“How the devil did he know?” Gray said under his breath. He turned to face his partner, who didn’t seem nearly as surprised as he was himself. “I don’t think we did anything to give our secret away, did we?”
“Maybe I wasn’t teasing you enough about your love life,” Elizabeth replied, pondering.
“Or maybe it was too much and it seemed forced,” Gray commented with a half-accusing, half-teasing raise of his eyebrow.
She scoffed. “Right. Like the old man doesn’t already know about your disreputable reputation, Charlie-boy.”
“Which of course, comes from a misconception. A misconception that you’ve been feeding remorselessly.”
Elizabeth smiled knowingly. “A misconception, huh? That’s not what your friend says,” she retorted. “You know that young man who hangs around with you…. Conrad? He complains that when the both of you hit the pubs together, the ladies only have eyes for you and that he can’t seem to attract the attention of even a single one of them.”
That’s his problem, Gray thought. “I must remember to have a word with young Mr Turner,” he said. “But I suppose he must be happy now that I’ve found you.”
“He did express some relief, yes,” Elizabeth confirmed with a chuckle.
Gray smirked in turn, promising himself that he would do his best later on to show her how much he also was relieved that she didn’t care about his past reputation, and that she’d chosen to begin a relationship that they both hoped would be a good and fruitful one. Paris, he told himself, might mark the beginning of something more exciting for them; and he knew that she was sharing the same hope.
Near the other ambulance, Blake was inviting his daughter and her family to follow him to his car, which was parked nearby. They started to follow him, and over the heads of the people coming and going, Gray caught sight of young Paul Metcalfe, as the latter turned his gaze to him. They were a good distance away from one another, and so couldn’t exchange words, but their eyes met for that brief moment.
Paul gave him a wave of the hand, a gesture of his respect and gratitude for the man who had saved his life.
Gray gestured back, in much the same fashion, saluting the courageous young man who had met his expectations and trust, and watched as Paul jogged away to join his parents.
He did not expect that, many years later, both of them would meet again.
“I always suspected the man who saved me that day was an U.S.S. agent working for my grandfather,” Captain Scarlet declared. “Though Granddad never confirmed that for me. But I never imagined for one instant it was you.”
Colonel White, who was coming back with two fresh cups of coffee obtained from the nearby dispenser, sat down next to his officer, who scrutinised him curiously. White gave one cup to Scarlet, and then sipped his own.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Scarlet asked.
White shrugged. “I never thought it was that important. You’ve never mentioned it before, either.”
“Because I didn’t know it was you. Why would you think it wasn’t important? ”
“Captain, how would it have sounded if I had come to you and said, ‘Oh, by the way, remember me? I am the U.S.S. agent who saved your hide when you were a child’? That would have been like boasting. And I’m not one to boast, you know that.”
“That wouldn’t have been boasting, sir,” Scarlet responded. “You saved my life, twenty years ago.”
“And you saved mine as well, that day and many other times after that. Not to mention the countless other lives you saved, including those of your colleagues since then.” White smiled and sipped his coffee. “All in all, I made a good investment, don’t you think?”
Scarlet shook his head slowly. “I’m only doing my duty, sir.”
“And at the time, I was doing mine.”
Scarlet sighed. “You went beyond doing your duty,” he retorted. “That advice you gave me… about responsibility and trust… you know, it never left me? It stuck with me all my life and it indeed helped define the man I am today.”
“I’m not surprised,” White declared. “Even then, I could see you would take the right path. Actually, I don’t think I’m mistaken if I say you already had a good set of values to begin with. Knowing your upbringing and the family you come from…”
“No, you’re absolutely right. I probably just need to be reminded of those values occasionally.”
White smirked. “I imagine that when it comes from Father Christmas, some advice can make quite an impact.”
“It makes an even bigger impact when it comes from the man who risked his life to save yours.” Scarlet nodded slowly. “I don’t think I ever got the chance to thank you properly.”
White lowered his eyes and gave a faint smile. “As my dear wife used to say: secret agents live in shadows. They don’t hang around long enough for people to thank them. They do what they’re assigned to do, and then they disappear from view.” He looked back at Scarlet. “But you have thanked me, Paul. Numerous times, by your actions over the years.”
He took the Santa coat that lay on the sofa between them and handed it to the younger man. “But if you insist on thanking me further, you can do it by wearing this suit without feeling in the least embarrassed by it. To the contrary, wear it as proudly as you can. And treat it with the respect it is due.”
Scarlet laughed. Putting the cup on the table in front of him, he took the coat, and started to put it on. “Oh, I will! That’ll certainly surprise Ochre. I understand now that, just like the Spectrum uniform, it’s not a simple costume. It’s a symbol as well. Of hope and dedication… and of a certain innocence of days gone by.”
“You’re reading too much into it,” White said with a raised eyebrow. “It’s only a Father Christmas suit, after all.”
“Is it, really?” Scarlet winked, as he stood up, the white wig and hat in his hand. “Father Christmas also has his uniform, sir. I should really feel honoured it’s the same colour as mine.” He put the wig on his head, and then placed the hat over it, at a jaunty angle. “How do I look?”
White shook his head despondently. “Probably as dreadful as I did, twenty years ago,” he said with a sigh. “Don’t forget to put the beard back on, or you’ll kill the effect.”
“Sound advice, as always, sir.” Scarlet looked at his watch. “I’d better be on my way to the Conference Room, then. People will be waiting for me. Will you be joining us?”
“Later on, probably; if only to witness Captain Ochre’s perplexity at not seeing you as mortified as he expects you to be.” White offered a last encouraging smile. “You do very well, Captain. Don’t worry.”
“I don’t, sir. Not anymore. Thank you.” Scarlet was about to leave when he seemed to suddenly change his mind and a thought came to him. He turned one last time to his commander, looking at him with a questioning glance. “Ah, sir, one last thing…”
White raised his eyes to look at him with curiosity. He saw the glitter of amusement in Scarlet’s eyes.
“Did you actually manage to find that white Ferrari for Tommy?”
White looked back at him intently; that specific question obviously had quite an impact on him, if he should still remember it after all these years.
The Spectrum commander sat back comfortably on the sofa. He turned his coffee cup slowly in his hands before saying mischievously, “Why, Captain Scarlet… you should know better than to ask a question like that! Father Christmas never fails to deliver all of his presents. Now that you're wearing the suit, you would do well to remember that!”
Colonel White is just one of my favourite characters to write about, and there’s nothing I like better than to put these characters into unlikely situations. For Colonel White and Captain Scarlet… what could be a more unlikely than to play Santa Claus? Considering each of these characters’ background, and if we accept the fact that Paul Blake from ‘The Secret Service’ series was Captain Scarlet’s grandfather, could it be possible that these two characters crossed paths at some point in the past, when Charles Gray was a young U.S.S. agent and Paul Metcalfe a teenager?
The character of Elizabeth Somners was for the first time mentioned in “Spectrum is White” and is my own creation. Mary and Charles Metcalfe are the creations of Mary J. Rudy, and the idea that Paul Blake is Mary Metcalfe’s father is mine. All other original characters are also mine.
My thanks to Skybase Girl for beta-reading, and for the help from Hazel Köhler and Marion Woods.
‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ are the creation of the recently departed Gerry Anderson, and Sylvia Anderson, and all the team who at the time worked with them. The rights of the series are those of their rightful owners.
A story just for the fun of it and offered to you for the Christmas Challenge 2012/2013. Hoping you have enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
Any comments? Send an to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site