The moon will be full soon, and it will be red.
The hunter stood on the high branches of the trees and waited for his prey to appear. He didn’t even activate his cloaking device; the foliage and the night were currently more than enough cover for him. His mind was wandering as he watched the sky above; for a hunter, generally speaking, it wasn’t a very good idea to indulge in dreams, while keeping watch, especially if you didn’t want to become prey yourself. But there was very little in this jungle that might present a real threat – or even a true challenge – so the hunter was confident enough that it was perfectly safe for him to lose himself in contemplation and reverie.
He watched the stars, the light of which was dimmed by the shining moon, and pondered his future. Would he see his own people again, and if so, when would that be? Would he be able to hunt with his kin, like he did in the past? He always was the solitary hunter, preferring to go on his own, instead of joining a group. But since his arrival at this place, he had found that loneliness was weighing heavily on him, and now he would give anything to hunt again with someone else.
When would he be able to brag about his exploits to those who would appreciate them for what they truly were, and show the trophies he had accumulated through his long years of hunt for others to admire and envy?
He missed all of this so very much.
It had been so long now, and he was afraid that despite his best efforts, his calls to be picked up from this godforsaken place, to be found and to return home would remain unanswered and that he would have to stay marooned here a very long time yet.
He knew it was entirely his fault, too. In search of adventure and glory, he had wandered off the usual paths followed by his people’s ships. He was still young and impetuous at the time; too zazin – self-centred – to follow the advice given to him by hunters more experienced and far wiser than he was. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though. He had heard the Elders’ stories – about the prey that could be found here, and the honour one could win from hunting them. But with the stories came the warnings too – that this place was very dangerous, not only because of the prey it contained, but because there were so many other perils even the most experienced hunter had to consider. Many had never come back. This was a place where you didn’t want to be taken alive by the natives, so you had to make sure that they would never find you – and that you would erase whatever traces you might have left of your passage, and get rid of any witness that could have testified to your presence.
He could certainly live with that – it wasn’t such a problem after all. Killing came easy when you were a hunter; everything that wasn’t of your kin was fair game.
He had not counted on his ship experiencing trouble though, and of finding himself shipwrecked, with no way to leave unassisted. It was like, what, many, many years ago…
And now, it seemed like no one might ever find him – because no one would think of coming here. No one might even care enough to check anyway. He was a hunter on his own, and could only count on himself and no one else.
But he wasn’t afraid. No hunter was allowed to show fear, or if he did, his reaction would be viewed as weak and would be frowned upon. If Fate wanted for him to stay in this dreadfully isolated place, so be it. Since Cetanu, the Dark Warrior, the god of Death, did not want him to die all those years ago, he would still live, and make the best of it the only way he knew.
He looked at the moon. He loved that moon: it was his sole companion for the hunt at night. His lady of the night. Luar-ke, the unfathomable, presenting only one of her faces to the surface of Earth. Tonight, it was surrounded by an eerie mist, which made it look even more mysterious than it normally seemed to him. Others could see it as a simple sign of the changing weather, but he knew better. He knew the signs. There was something in the air; he could feel it, and it was making his heart race.
It will be very soon. It was only a matter of days or nights.
It will be L'ulij-bpe’s doing. As always, like those many times before. He had never failed him. As mad as he was, in all the years the hunter had known him, L'ulij-bpe had always been true to himself, and to his dedication to provide the hunter with what he truly needed.
Prey. Worthy prey to stalk at night, to hunt, to slay. Something that will be sport to the hunter, a real challenge – something that will bring true honour – true yin'tekai.
And the hunter was looking forward to it, hoping for the day L'ulij-bpe would join in the hunt, and would stand in front of him, one last time – and only one of them would walk away with the most precious of trophies.
But until then, whatever prey L'ulij-bpe brought to him, the hunter would gladly accept as gifts.
A sound from the ground dozens of feet below attracted the hunter’s attention and he became instantly alert. He growled softly and looked down; he saw a shadow emerge from the bushes beneath his trees and then coming slowly into the clearing.
It was slowly and tentatively approaching the water hole, cautiously looking around to make sure it was safe to show itself. Then, satisfied that it seemed to be the case, it trotted into the open, lowered its head over the water, and quietly started drinking.
The hunter grunted; it was tarei'hasan – unworthy opponent for such as he. But still, it was good meat, and a hunter needed to eat.
He clutched his hand into a fist, and the wrist blades emerged from the bracelet he was wearing, with a soft, clinking sound.
The deer stopped drinking and raised its head, ears at the ready.
With a roar, the hunter leapt from its perch towards his prey. There was a flash as the moonlight glittered onto the blades, a split second before they tore into the flesh of the terrified and whimpering animal.
For the unaccounted time, the hunter knew the thrill of the kill, as the spilled blood of his victim swathed him with its warmth. Any victory, however easy or brief it was, was a victory, and he welcomed it gratefully.
It was only a prelude to what awaited him in a few short days.
The moon will be full soon, and it will be red.
Red with the blood of his kills.
“I am afraid Mr Ryoushi cannot receive you, sir.”
Captain Scarlet looked down at the desk secretary in front of whom he was standing. She was polite and very soft-spoken, using a perfect English as she addressed him. But there was something in her voice that made him believe she would not compromise her employer’s privacy if he persisted in his demands to see him. In the course of his job, he had encountered other people such as this woman, and he was very much aware that she was probably only following the instructions that had been given her. And he knew enough of the Japanese efficiency to be certain that it was more than likely she would not relent.
Which didn’t stop him from insisting again. “Can’t you tell Mr Ryoushi that it is on an important matter?”
“He already knows this, sir,” she replied. Her smile didn’t waver one instant as she looked up at the tall man towering over her. “But you have to understand, Mr Ryoushi is a very important man. He does not receive people without appointments.”
Scarlet clicked his tongue with annoyance. It was true he didn’t have an appointment as such, but he believed that he had something that was at least the equivalent. “I’m sure Mr Ryoushi will make exception for Government officials sent on an important matter,” he remarked.
The young woman smiled lightly. “Ryoushi Hayato is accustomed to Government officials, Scarlet-Taii,” she answered, without losing any of her coolness. “Just last month, he dined with his Excellency, the Director General of the Asian Republic. You might have seen this on the television,” she added pointedly.
“I don’t pay much attention to celebrity gossip,” Scarlet replied, more sharply than he intended to. He had little or no tolerance for such nonsense. Hayato Ryoushi knew of their visit, and was supposed to receive them upon their arrival. This woman was wasting their time and he was about to tell her just that, when he felt a gentle hand coming to rest on his arm; he turned to glance at his companion, standing by his side. Harmony Angel was an almost exact reflection of the same patience displayed by the secretary. She smiled at him lightly and stepped forward; he let her take over, confident that her legendary Japanese tact and serenity would be a better way to deal with the situation than his impatience and harshness.
“I think there is a misunderstanding,” Harmony calmly said, using English as well to address the secretary. “What Captain Scarlet meant to say, is that Ryoushi-san is probably waiting for us. He has been informed that we would come, and that we needed to meet him on a matter of the greatest importance.”
“Mainly, to ensure his protection,” Scarlet added quickly. A doubt suddenly insinuated into his mind, as he remembered that it had been impossible to reach the man directly. “He was informed of our visit, wasn’t he?”
“He was indeed, sir,” the secretary answered, still very quietly. “The minute his personal secretary received the information from your Spectrum Headquarters in Tokyo, he informed Mr Ryoushi.” She then turned to Harmony to address her directly: “And I am afraid there was indeed a misunderstanding. You see, the reason why Mr Ryoushi cannot receive you, is that he is not in the office at the moment.”
Scarlet’s brow rose skyward. “He isn’t?”
She shook her head. “From what I know, he already had an important scheduled meeting to attend to. He left shortly after Mr Seijitsu gave him the message from your Spectrum Tokyo Headquarters.”
“And Mr Seijitsu is…?”
“Mr Ryoushi’s personal secretary, Scarlet Taii.”
“And you mean to tell us that Mr Ryoushi left even though he knew we were coming to ensure his protection?”
Scarlet could not believe it; the man they had been sent to protect was not even there to receive them. Not only was it highly irresponsible for him to dismiss his security like this, but it also seemed so overtly rude. It was so... ‘un-Japanese’, from Scarlet’s point of view.
He grunted, with some annoyance. “I would have believed Mr Ryoushi would understand how important it was for us to meet him,” he said. “It could be a matter of life and death for him.” He didn’t want to sound too melodramatic, but if he needed to do that, to make this woman understand the gravity of the situation, so be it. However, she seemed unruffled by his statement, and continued to address him with the utmost calm.
“I’m sure Mr Ryoushi understands this, sir. Which is why, even though he didn’t intend to receive you personally, he appointed someone to do so in his place.”
Scarlet exchanged confused glances with Harmony, before returning his attention to the other woman. “And who is supposed to meet us, then?”
Scarlet turned on his heels at the sound of this tranquil voice, and Harmony did the same; both came face to face with an older man, who looked like he was in his sixties, dressed as smartly as any businessman. He was short and thin, with a head of short, greyish hair; he was looking at them through thick glasses, with his hands behind his back. His almond-shaped eyes were bright with obvious curiosity and were going from Scarlet to Harmony and then back, seemingly measuring them up and down. He approached, with an assured step, as the desk secretary behind the Spectrum officers spoke again:
“May I present you Mr Seijitsu Yu. He was appointed to meet with the two of you, and I notified him of your presence upon your arrival.”
“I am Ryoushi Hayato’s right-hand man,” the newcomer explained, presenting his hand to first Scarlet and then Harmony. “His personal secretary. I take care of much of his private and professional business. When they do not require his personal involvement, that is.” He smiled brightly. “I am sorry for the misunderstanding and for having made you wait.”
His English was clipped, barely hesitant. Scarlet nodded and gestured towards his colleague: “This is Harmony Angel. I am Captain Scarlet. We are from Spectrum.”
The man chuckled. “Hai, Scarlet Taii. I am very much aware that you are from Spectrum. Even if I had not known you were to come, your uniforms would have betrayed you. As the colour of your uniform, Scarlet Taii, betrays your own identity.”
“You know of me?”
“Of course, I do. Through your efforts to protect our dear departed Director General Xian Yoh, two years ago.”
Scarlet’s brow furrowed. This wasn’t a memory he liked to dwell upon; the death of the previous Director General – the first mission he had undertaken for Spectrum upon his return to active duty after he had escaped from the Mysterons’ control – was a personal failure that still weighed heavily on him.
“I wasn’t aware my identity – or my involvement in that affair – were so commonly known, sir,” Scarlet commented somewhat sullenly.
“It is not. It’s through Ryoushi Shacho that I know of this. As you might know, he has access to information in very high places.” His smile became an almost condescending one. “He requested that I meet with you personally,” he added.
“Considering the circumstances, Mr Seijitsu,” Scarlet replied, “we were under the impression that we were to meet with Mr Ryoushi himself. Or does he think that protection of his life doesn’t require his ‘personal involvement’?”
Faced with this statement, Seijitsu remained silent for a moment, cautiously eyeing the tall man standing in front of him. Then he addressed a nod to the desk secretary behind them. “Thank you, Mariko-san. I’ll take it from here.” He didn’t wait for the young woman’s acknowledgement and gestured to Scarlet and Harmony. “If you would come with me…”
He turned around and started walking across the lobby of the building, and Scarlet and Harmony fell in behind. “As you might have guessed, Scarlet Taii, I know the reason for your presence here,” he said quietly. “Such a dreadful matter, this Mysteron menace… When Ryoushi Shacho was informed, he was deeply concerned.”
“Not concerned enough to wait for our arrival, it would seem to me. The desk secretary informed us that he wasn’t at the office.”
Seijitsu stopped in his track and turned to face Scarlet. “I have to explain to you – Ryoushi Shacho is not currently in Japan.”
Scarlet couldn’t help showing his surprise at this revelation. “According to our latest information regarding his whereabouts, he was,” he replied.
Seijitsu smiled again, very thinly. “I am sure Spectrum has a very reliable information office, but I am not surprised that you would not know. Ryoushi Shacho is very adept at escaping unwanted attention, whenever he feels the need to. This is very useful, to avoid newspaper reporters and paparazzi at times.”
“So he actually left the country after receiving our message?” Scarlet shook his head, slightly in dismay. “I’m afraid I could only describe this as very careless, sir. And I would argue that Spectrum is unwanted attention. We are certainly not paparazzi. We are only trying to make sure that Mr Ryoushi will be safe.”
“And he knows this, Scarlet Taii,” Seijitsu agreed, raising his hand in a peace gesture. “However, I would argue that this is a careless move on Ryoushi’s part. He is, to the contrary, a very prudent man. As you doubtless know, he is the head of Ryoushi Enterprises, an international corporate empire reaching every corner of the world, and involved in a variety of business deals. As such, he is responsible for many people. When he heard that his life could be in jeopardy, he thought it better to move to the safest of his properties – and put as much distance as possible between him and his would-be attackers. He felt there was no sense in putting other lives in danger as well as his own.”
“Very considerate of him,” Scarlet replied coldly.
“His personal security team has been put on alert, and they will watch over him day and night.”
Scarlet raised a brow. “So this business meeting story – it wasn’t true, then?”
“Oh, there was a meeting indeed… As for business involved…” Seijitsu left the comment there, and marked a thoughtful pause, apparently chewing on what he would say next. He seemed to consider that his earlier statement was unimportant and that it wasn’t worth mentioning it. Other considerations were now on his mind when he leaned towards Scarlet. “Tell me, Scarlet Taii… how serious is this Mysteron threat against his life exactly?”
Scarlet hesitated, musing on how to answer to his question. Carefully seemed the best way to do it.
“The threat is serious, sir,” he said. “That is, if it is confirmed that Mr Ryoushi indeed is the intended victim.” Seeing the concern in the older man’s eyes, he quickly added: “the fact is, Seijitsu-san, that we don’t know if Mr Ryoushi is indeed the target. The wording of the Mysteron threat might indicate it, but there are at least two other possibilities. I don’t want to minimize Mr Ryoushi’s importance in this world, but these targets sound more likely to be up the Mysterons’ alley. They never threatened any successful businessman before, and I don’t really see the reason behind such an attack.”
“Ah, but my employer is not any ordinary businessman, Scarlet Taii,” Seijitsu replied. He turned to walk again, towards the line of elevator doors in front of them, still followed by Scarlet and Harmony. “Ryoushi Hayato has influence with the most powerful leaders of this world.”
“We know that, sir,” Scarlet said respectfully, “and that is why we didn’t completely dismiss Mr Ryoushi as a possible target.” He glanced in Harmony’s direction; up until now, the young woman was keeping silent, but obviously wasn’t missing any word spoken in front of her. It didn’t surprise him at all; Harmony had always been the silent type. If she felt that she needed to join in, she would. “This is the reason we are here: we are to evaluate the likelihood that Mr Ryoushi is indeed the intended victim, and consequently, we will take the appropriate steps, should it be the case. We don’t want to take any risk, however unlikely a target Mr Ryoushi appears to be. We will stay in attendance, until we know for sure what the Mysterons’ next move will be.”
“Spectrum’s consideration is well appreciated, Scarlet Taii.”
Scarlet glanced again in Harmony’s direction. “The Spectrum organisation is also very much aware of what it personally owes to Mr Ryoushi’s past influence with the Asian Government.”
He saw the slight confusion in Seijitsu’s features, as the latter turned interrogating eyes to him, and thought it was better to explain: “Rumour has it that a few years ago, Mr Ryoushi was influential in the decision of the Asian Republic Government to permit its citizens to be part of the selection process to become members of Spectrum.”
“Ah, I see.” Seijitsu stopped in front of one of the elevators; he turned again to face the two Spectrum agents, and then smiled, before bowing in front of Harmony. “I believe you must be one of the Spectrum Angel pilots, Haamonii-san?”
She smiled in turn, at the use of this rather free Japanese translation of her name. “I am, Seijitsu-san,” she answered, bowing back.
“One of the best pilots we could ever have,” Scarlet confirmed, and he could see some red appear on Harmony’s cheeks at his words. He smirked. That wasn’t something commonly seen in her.
“I am grateful to Ryoushi-san for his intervention,” she added. “If not for him, I would not have found my true calling.”
“I believe that, at the time, Ryoushi Shacho must have believed that the Asian Republic needed to participate in the world’s security – even if it wasn’t part of the World Government.” Seijitsu pressed the button calling the elevator, and a light appeared on the board beside the door. “But I must be honest with you,” he added, “I cannot say with certitude if the rumours are true or not. Ryoushi didn’t confide this to me. Though knowing him, such a gesture wouldn’t surprise me. He is an ardent defender of freedom and peace, and strongly believes that international security must be upheld to maintain order.” He paused. “I do think, Scarlet Taii, that you will have the opportunity to ask him the question yourself, when you meet him – and to thank him personally, Haamonii Tenshi, if this should reveal to indeed be true.”
Scarlet smiled thinly. “So we get to meet him?”
“Of course. Did you have any doubt? You have come to ensure his safety, have you not? And I must add – Ryoushi is eager to meet with you, Scarlet Taii.”
“Is he, now?” Scarlet said musingly.
Seijitsu gestured towards a door. “Ryoushi instructed me to wait for you and to take you to him as soon as you arrived. The helijet is already waiting for us.”
“Helijet?” Scarlet echoed.
“Ryoushi Shacho has retired to one of his residences, on a private island, in the Pacific.”
“We have a passenger jet,” Scarlet said. “We can –”
“I’m afraid the island doesn’t have a runway to accommodate such a plane,” Seijitsu replied. “The only way to go there is by helijet. And anyway… As I said, the helijet is already waiting for us. Ah, the location of this island, you will understand, has to remain confidential. For privacy – and security – reasons.”
“Spectrum will want to know where we are,” Harmony commented.
“Harmony Angel is right,” Scarlet confirmed with a nod. “We will have to eventually report our location to Central Control, Mr Seijitsu. If we are to protect Mr Ryoushi properly –”
“I can assure you, Taii, that my employer’s protection is well attended for. His security team is composed of the best men you can find in the business.”
And potential Mysteron agents, Scarlet reflected inwardly. He didn’t want to voice this concern to the older man standing in front of him.
“Without meaning any disrespect, Seijitsu-san, I will be the judge of that.” For good measure, Scarlet bowed slightly in front of the Japanese. “And if I feel there’s a need for additional security, I will have to call for reinforcements – so to make very sure that Mr Ryoushi will come to no harm at all. As I said, we don’t want to take any unnecessary risk.”
Seijitsu was looking at him with intense thoughtfulness.
“Of course, Taii,” he said after a brief second or two of reflection. “I wouldn’t want to encroach on Spectrum’s procedures. We will do what is necessary, then.” The elevator chimed at this instant and the door opened. “I will provide you with the correct coordinates once we arrive at our destination. Now if you would accompany me to the roof… I am sure you are dying to meet with Ryoushi Hayato.”
That’s an understatement if ever I heard one, Captain Scarlet told himself as he and Harmony Angel followed the older man inside the elevator.
* * *
In the cabin area of the private passenger helijet, Captain Scarlet stretched out his long legs, which were now almost numb after such a long flight, and looked out through the window near which he was seated. After what seemed like hours of seeing only the vast extent of the Pacific Ocean surface, they were finally approaching their destination.
To tell the truth, he was a little disappointed; he fully expected the private and restricted island of a rich Japanese businessman to be somehow much more impressive. From this point of view, at least, it wasn’t exactly the deal some gossip newspapers made it out to be.
The little archipelago he was seeing was only composed of tiny islands, set in semi circle around a larger one – which wasn’t really big either, about five times the size of the others – and were separated from it by a menacing range of reefs acting like a natural barrier between them. The reefs looked to be an extension of the high, abrupt cliffs of the large island, constantly assaulted by the ocean waves, which seemed intent on bringing it down. At the top of the cliff, Scarlet could see the start of deep vegetation – some kind of jungle, which visibly extended across the entire island, except for a narrow part at the extreme North, close to water level, where a small beach stretched into a strip of white-gold sand, descending gradually into the ocean.
Scarlet naturally assumed that the helijet would head in the direction of that beach, which looked to him like the only hospitable area of that otherwise hostile-looking island; it was logical to imagine that their host had established his residence in the shadows of the trees bordering the beach. He was rather perplexed to see the craft fly over the large island before veering slightly south and heading towards one of the smaller islands. It descended to overfly the range of reefs very closely, as if the pilot was using them as a guiding line for his destination.
“Lady and gentleman,” the accented voice of Yu Seijitsu said, “welcome to Kushima.”
Scarlet shot an inquiring look to Harmony Angel who was seated by his side and who now was leaning forward on her seat to watch the scenery through his window. “The Nine Islands,” she translated obligingly, and he nodded at the information, turning to count the number of islands now displaying underneath them, like pearls disposed on a velvety cerulean surface.
Scarlet sat back, looking thoughtfully at the almost magical view, and reflecting on the reasons that had brought him to this place. To his opinion, it might very well be a waste of time.
Late in the previous day, the Mysterons had issued the latest of their menaces; it was a cryptic threat, so much so that it had taken many hours for Spectrum to actually start to figure out what it could be related to. ‘The injured hunter will face his deadliest challenge and be destroyed by the hand of his fiercest rival.’ After analysing the threat, Spectrum was faced with an added problem: it was pointing at three possible targets, all of them apparently valid – but with only one obviously being the right one.
At Stanton Airbase, just in the outskirts of Futura City, Bermuda, World President Younger was attending the presentation of the latest squadron of highly sophisticated drone fighter jets – fully automated in the sky, they could be ‘piloted’ from the ground should a human decision be required. The ‘Hunters’, as they had been called, had been the debate of much controversy; the first tests made with the prototype had ended up with a spectacular crash which had killed technicians who, according to the subsequent investigation, were far too close to the action for their own safety – an event that could be referred to as the ‘injury’ mentioned in the Mysteron threat. As to who or what could be the ‘rival’… Some important members of the World Government cabinet were already against the project, especially following the accident, and were threatening to cut funding, should the presentation not be a success. It wasn’t a secret that President Younger wouldn’t hesitate to agree to these people’s demands, so very much aware was he of the public judgment – and on the impact this could have on his political future.
In Glenn Field, Arizona, the World Government Police Corps had commissioned the launching and testing of a brand new satellite, which would help in the supervision of released criminals implanted with a surveillance chip that would monitor their comings and goings. Dubbed ‘the Relentless Hunter’ by its detractors, the satellite was viewed as the ultimate in global security against known criminal elements, and was considered a very important project – except by certain extremist social groups, which regarded it as an abomination against international human rights and privacy. They claimed that the powers that be would not content themselves with only using the satellite to supervise paroled criminals and recidivists, but also, to spy on unsuspecting honest citizens who had done nothing wrong. Again, there was much debate on the subject, and the project was under considerable criticism from every corner of the world. There were enough ‘rivals’ to consider that the project could indeed be another possible target of the Mysterons, in regard of their newest threat.
And then, there was Hayato Ryoushi. A Japanese entrepreneur, owner of Ryoushi Enterprises, the family business founded by his grandfather, who was well known for his ruthlessness and success. He had much influence with the Asian Republic Government and the World Government alike, had been a personal friend of first World President Nikita Bandranaik and late Director General Xian Yoh, and was a close acquaintance of actual World President, T. James Younger.
His name, ‘Ryoushi’, meant ‘Hunter’ in Japanese, and ironically enough, he was also a fierce hunter. It was for him a leisure entertainment that had taken him to the wildest corners of the world. He didn’t content himself with simple small game, like hares, waterfowl, or even the occasional deer; he would go after the biggest game that existed. Although hunting in these days and age was frowned upon, and highly criticised by the general population, Hayato Ryoushi usually received the endorsement of the local authorities for every kill he made. More than that, because of his exceptional skills and experience, he was often called upon when there was a need to eliminate a particularly dangerous animal that might eventually present a genuine threat to the resident human population. This unusual activity had caused Ryoushi to suffer various injuries during the years he had dedicated himself to his favoured hobby, but also made him look like some kind of a hero in certain communities.
That made him another possible target for the Mysterons’ latest threat, but quite frankly, Scarlet was doubtful about that possibility.
Yu Seijitsu was seated behind both the Spectrum agents, and up until now, had been working on a computerised tablet set on his lap. He wrote something on a small length of paper and leaned over Scarlet’s shoulder to hand it to him. “Those are the coordinates I promised you, Scarlet Taii,” he explained. “You will be able to inform your Headquarters of your position.”
Scarlet glanced at the line of numbers written on the slip of paper and slipped it into his vest pocket before returning his attention to the window. Their destination had just appeared to their view. It was a white, rounded house, erected on the second largest island of the archipelago, on the very edge of the cliff facing the largest island. Just behind the house, he could see a very Japanese garden, which took up about half of the surface, with poplars, cherry trees and coconut trees bordering a large fence beyond which grew what was left of the wild inland forest. The roof of the house was completely flat, and a large H had been drawn in black paint, right in the middle, indicating where the helijet would land.
Scarlet pointed to the house. “I would have thought that Mr Ryoushi’s residence would have been built on the larger island,” he told Seijitsu. “Seems to me there’s a very nice beach over there.”
Seijitsu shook his head in a negative answer. “The large island is a treacherous place,” he explained. “Its jungle is far too dense, the ground uneven and unsafe, with patches of quicksand where you don’t expect them to be. It is populated by wild predators.” He smiled thinly as Scarlet turned to him with an inquiring look. “It is a game preserve. I know what you are thinking, Scarlet Taii, but as much as Ryoushi is an adept hunter, he also has a respect of life in all its forms, and will protect the jungle and the wild life it contains. As for the beach,” he added with a chuckle, “it would not be practical to set up home there. It would be open to all storms on this side of the Pacific. And going for a swim would certainly not be a good idea either: the surrounded waters are infested with sharks.”
Scarlet grimaced. “Not very practical, I agree.”
A sharp beep attracted Scarlet and Harmony’s attention. They saw a red light, blinking just over the small door leading to the cockpit.
“We are approaching the landing pad,” Seijitsu announced, powering down his tablet and putting it aside, before settling himself comfortably into his seat. “Please, buckle up. We will be on the ground in less than five minutes.”
Scarlet and Harmony swiftly snapped their respective security belt on and prepared for the craft’s final approach.
* * *
The helijet landed softly on the roof of the house; as the rotors slowed down, Scarlet, who was still looking through the window, saw two men emerge from a small cabin at the very end of the roof and come towards the craft at the double. They wore khaki uniforms, quite similar to what forest guides would wear, with short-sleeved shirt, knee-length short trousers, boots and soft cap.
A green light blinked over the cockpit door and Seijitsu announced that they could now leave the helijet. He stood up and went to open the door, preceding his guests outside. With Captain Scarlet close behind her, Harmony followed; as she stepped down the short distance between the last step and the surface of the pad, a helping hand gallantly presented itself to help her down.
“With your permission, miss…” a male voice said. It wasn’t Seijitsu and Harmony looked up to discover it was one of the two men in khaki uniforms. He was a younger Caucasian man, in his thirties, tall, rather good-looking, with auburn hair and brown eyes. She accepted his help, with a polite smile.
Scarlet stepped out in turn and stood next to Harmony; he automatically registered that both uniformed men had a gun hanging from their belt, and trying to look casual, he put his right hand on his own handgun. Just in case something should go wrong, he reassured himself.
Then his eyes met those of the man who had helped Harmony down, and he froze instantly.
He knew that man.
He even knew him very well.
Laws. Lieutenant Nicolas Laws. At least, he had been Lieutenant, at the time Scarlet knew him; that was some ten years ago; they were both at West Point and were in the same classes. He was a stellar student – breathing down Paul Metcalfe’s neck, who was at the head of almost every class.
What the blasted hell is he doing here? Scarlet reflected. The last he had heard of the man, he had signed up with the W.A.A.F. and was heading for an outstanding military career. Now he was here, at the other end of the world from West Point, and it didn’t look like he was military at all.
This could be a problem, Scarlet thought. As with all the senior staff of Spectrum, the secret of his identity had to be maintained, so that none of them would become easy targets to anyone who might want to try to reach him through his family or loved ones. In normal circumstances, a situation like this would not have happened; before an agent was sent to a specific location, Spectrum generally made sure that it had been ‘cleared’, and that there was no risk of the agent being recognised – even accidentally.
Scarlet had not imagined for one single moment that he might meet someone he knew at Hayato Ryoushi’s insular residence. But there he was now, facing someone who could easily name him if he wanted to.
And he could see that Laws had recognised him as well, by the intense way he was looking back at him. It would have surprised Scarlet very much if Laws had not recognised him, as the two had been friendly rivals for the better part of four years.
However, Laws didn’t seem to be willing to say anything; not now, anyway. He didn’t even nod at Scarlet and lowered his eyes, making a show of ignoring him. Scarlet did the same with him, and with Harmony by his side, he followed Seijitsu, who guided them away from the helijet. Laws and his companion didn’t follow and stayed near the craft. As he walked away, Scarlet could almost feel the eyes of his former classmate drilling holes in his back; there was no doubt he was having questions of his own, similar to the English captain, as to why a certain Paul Metcalfe was here today – wearing a Spectrum uniform.
Neither Seijitsu nor Laws’ companion seemed to have noticed the brief awkwardness between the two men, so quickly had they acted to hide it. However, Harmony did, and she was now staring at Scarlet with an interrogating expression upon her beautiful face. She leaned towards him.
“Something is the matter?” she whispered.
Scarlet wasn’t surprised by her question; there wasn’t much anyone could hide from her. He gave a brief nod and answered in the same manner: “I’ll tell you later, in private.”
Seijitsu steered them down a staircase that led them directly into the garden. There, they discovered the house wasn’t round at all, like the roof had led them to believe at first, but built in the form of a crescent; part of the round roof, supported by sturdy and stylish columns, hung over a very large patio, which was an extension of the garden itself, with large potted plants and small trees disposed everywhere, and patches of small gardens set in all corners. The floor was made of large and shiny slabs of marble; a large fountain, surmounted by four stone swans spouting water, was set in the middle of the place.
It looks like the Promenade Deck, on Cloudbase, Scarlet thought. Only much classier. And we could certainly do with a fountain like that.
Seijitsu guided them to the main entrance; the doors were classic, Japanese hikido sliding doors that he opened, before bowing to invite them in.
The hall they walked into was a combination of Japanese and Western styles. The tataki entrance, made of the same marble slabs as the patio, was lower than the rest of the wooden floor, as it would be for many Japanese houses. For a minute, Scarlet wondered if he should remove his boots before climbing the single step leading to the main hall, as it would be required in a traditional Japanese home. But Seijitsu, noticing the Spectrum officer’s eyes lowering to his feet, offered a supportive smile, understanding his dilemma.
“That will not be necessary, Scarlet Taii,” he said, as he climbed the step and walked further into the hall. “There are some ancient traditions that Ryoushi holds on to, but removing shoes indoors is not one of them. Except for the dojo and the washitsu.”
“Washitsu?” Scarlet repeated, unsure.
“A traditional Japanese-style room, Captain Scarlet,” Harmony explained, before Seijitsu could answer. “Many Japanese homes today, even though built in a Western style, retain at least one washitsu room, with traditional tatami flooring, because it is considered a relaxing space.” She smiled up as he turned to her. “We had one such room in my parents’ home, in Tokyo.”
“And a dojo as well, I imagine?” Scarlet asked. He knew full well of his colleague’s expertise in Asian martial arts and that it was a family tradition as well. She answered with a simple, if somewhat coy smile, and he took that as a yes.
“Ryoushi does not believe that asking guests to remove their shoes upon entering his home is a good way to start a relationship,” Seijitsu continued, as he walked towards another door. “Especially if these guests are to eventually become business partners.” He grinned, a little mischievously. “They might think he wants to put them at a disadvantage and he does not want to give them that impression, if he wants to gain their trust.”
“Very clever,” Scarlet commented.
Seijitsu slid the new door open and waved at the opening. “Please, wait in the living room, and make yourself comfortable. There is tea and coffee waiting for you. I will announce to Ryoushi Shacho that you have arrived. He is waiting with impatience to meet you. He should be with you very shortly.” He bowed his goodbyes and leaving the door open, turned around to cross the hall and climb the staircase facing the entrance.
Scarlet stayed where he stood and watched him disappear at the top of the stairs. He then permitted himself a sigh and turned to Harmony.
“How am I doing so far?” he asked.
“You are doing very well,” Harmony replied. “I must admit, Captain Scarlet, that I do not really see why the colonel insisted in my coming with you to meet Ryoushi Hayato-san.”
“That’s because the colonel was a little concerned that my… shall we say usual impetuosity... might lead to some trouble and/or misunderstanding with Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet explained with a grin. “The rumour has it that he’s a very sophisticated man who doesn’t suffer rudeness. And as you well know, I am not the most patient man in the world, and I might even end up offending our host without me even noticing it.”
“I would never believe you could be so clumsy,” Harmony protested.
“Perhaps not. Nevertheless, the colonel thought it was a good idea if you came, so your presence might provide some balance – and,” he added, “this is your own culture, and you know it far better than anyone in the rest of the senior staff.”
“Half of my culture,” she corrected. “It’s only my mother who is Japanese. My father was Chinese – although he had a profound respect for my mother’s culture and insisted that I embraced both.”
“He was a very wise man, your father.”
She nodded, and Scarlet could detect a fondness in her eyes. “If it should reassure you, Captain, you have been very tactful,” she then said, returning to their previous subject. “Which does not surprise me, as you normally are.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Harmony.”
“And none of your actions could have been interpreted as rude.”
“So far. The day is still young,” Scarlet grinned. “I’ll try to continue to behave. Maybe it was your lessons before we landed in Tokyo,” he commented, with a grateful nod. “They proved very helpful.”
“Although, for a moment, when you talked with that secretary, I was a little concerned.”
Scarlet grimaced. “Well, maybe she would have deserved a little roughness. Have you ever seen someone so overtly obsequious in your life?”
“She was just displaying Japanese politeness, Captain.”
“As you always do yourself, Harmony. But I never think of you as ‘overly obsequious’.”
She lowered her eyes coyly. “I shall take this as a compliment, Captain.”
“It is.” Scarlet smiled again and slightly bowed to her, gesturing towards the door Seijitsu had left open for them. “Shall we?”
She nodded and they both walked towards through the door to the living room.
While they waited for their host to join them, Captain Scarlet made contact with Cloudbase to give Colonel White his account of the latest developments, and to provide the coordinates of their current location. The Spectrum commander listened intently to his junior officer’s report, and took notes of the information regarding Nicolas Laws’ presence at Ryoushi’s residence. Then he gave the latest news regarding the Mysterons’ threat. While speaking with White, Scarlet was walking back and fro in the middle of the living room; Harmony was using her personal ear set speaker, setting it to the same channel, so she would be able to follow the conversation; at the same time, she busied herself with preparing what she described as ‘proper tea’, at the small table onto which she found cups, tea pot of boiled water and milk.
“So far, everything is relatively quiet as well, with Captains Blue and Ochre in Futura and with Captain Grey and Magenta in Glenn Field,” the colonel said. “Everyone is keeping vigilant – as we know this might change at any moment.”
“Indeed, sir,” Scarlet agreed. “You said – ‘relatively quiet’?”
“As you know, Captain, both projects are already targets for criticism. There’s a party of senators, led by the French François Moreau, who are decidedly against the Hunter fighters’ financing, while protesters have gathered at the entrance of Glenn Field Space Base, for a demonstration against the surveillance satellite. Spectrum has taken charge of the security teams of both Stanton Base and Glenn Field, to make sure that everything will remain calm and go smoothly.”
“Do you really think the Mysteron threat could come from either of those groups, sir?” Captain Scarlet inquired.
“I don’t think so, but with the Mysterons, who knows? They could take over whoever they want if they judge that this person could carry out their plans.”
Scarlet rolled his eyes. “Don’t I know it, sir.”
“I imagine we might not have to wait too long for the Mysterons to make their first move,” White continued. “The flight test for the Hunters is set for two days from now, and the WGPC satellite should be launched tonight.”
“So, if either the satellite or the fighters is the Mysterons’ target, it’s likely they’ll make their move before or at the moment of the test or launching,” Scarlet reasoned. He stopped pacing, to accept the cup of tea Harmony had made for him and took a sip. He was reflecting that it was probably one of the best teas he had ever drunk, as his commander replied to his comment:
“That would be my suspicion as well, at least in the case of the fighter jets – that is, if the Mysterons want to do maximum damage. And we know they usually do. However, as far as the satellite is concerned, they might also wait until after the launching – after the satellite is in orbit. So if nothing develops before then, Captains Grey and Magenta will have to stay until the final communication tests are done on the satellite, just to make sure everything is functioning as it should be and there is no risk of sabotage at that point.”
Scarlet nodded thoughtfully, musing on the information and resuming his pacing, somewhat slower so not to spill any of the contents of his cup. He glanced at Harmony, who, with her cup in hand, was now walking silently around, examining each framed painting, antique vase and sculpture with interest. The living room was vast, and adorned with expensive taste. If the decoration was decidedly of Japanese tradition, down to the paintings of cherry trees on the cream-coloured walls, the furniture was decidedly of western design. The mix of the two in this one room had something fascinating about it, and Harmony seemed to find it interesting.
Although she wasn’t speaking much, and might have appeared distracted at the moment, Scarlet knew Harmony well enough to be sure she was listening to every word he was exchanging with their commander. She was a woman of few words, and obviously preferred leaving him in charge of the conversation, as she had done at the Ryoushi Enterprises building. If she had something to say, he knew she would join them.
“And we still don’t have any idea where a possible attack on Hayato Ryoushi might come from, sir?” Scarlet asked.
White sighed. “Mr Hayato Ryoushi is a powerful entrepreneur, and a very politically involved person, as you already know. The problem is that, as such, he has enemies in all spheres of society. Professional rivals, politicians who don’t like the influence he exercises… Not to mention that anyone coming near him could be a potential threat – even his closest associates. I don’t think you have found anything suspicious in his entourage thus far?”
“No. We still have to meet the man, sir. And up until now, everything has been boringly normal. Except for this trip to his private island.” Scarlet barely restrained a frustrated sigh. “I still don’t see him as the possible target, Colonel. Granted, the phrasing of the threat might refer to him –”
“We cannot take any chance in thinking, with complete certitude, that Mr Ryoushi might not be the target. He’s too intimate with members of the Asian Republic Government AND the World Government. I agree with you that there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for the Mysterons to attack him – but logic is not always within their mind-frame when it comes to the threats they pose. Or it could be very tortuous. Imagine for one second, Captain, if the Mysterons should succeed in killing Ryoushi, without us providing any protection, simply because we might have dismissed him as a target.”
Scarlet exchanged glances with Harmony, who, at this statement, had stopped her exploration of the room for a brief moment to look in his direction. “That wouldn’t do Spectrum’s image any good, I agree,” he said softly. “Especially with the Asian Republic, considering the fiasco with the previous Director General.”
“Indeed. The World President had specifically demanded that we at least check on the possibility of Mr Ryoushi being the target. And you know, when the World President makes a request like that, Spectrum can’t very well refuse him.” White paused, during which Scarlet could hear an exchange of words in low tones at the other end of the communication line. Then the voice of his commander addressed him anew: “Lieutenant Green informs me that he has information regarding your former colleague, Nicolas Laws.”
“It could be, Captain,” the voice of Lieutenant Green then said through the speakers. “Laws, Nicolas Peter, class of 63 at West Point. Graduated with honours and high grades, with the rank of Second Lieutenant…”
“That’s him all right.”
“He signed with the WAAF upon receiving his diploma, and was assigned a station with Military Intelligence in Puerto Rico, before being transferred, within the year, to the Black Ops division. His record is impressive enough, and he quickly rose to the rank of captain. He was on his way to become a major, when something happened, that caused him to receive a dishonourable discharge from the WAAF.”
Scarlet stopped pacing. “Dishonourable discharge?” he repeated, frowning. “What did he do to get himself kicked out?”
“His record unfortunately doesn’t say exactly, Captain,” Green answered. “It would seem that it’s classified information.”
Scarlet started his pacing anew, chewing on the news. “The only thing I recall of Laws from West Point, which might eventually cause a black spot on his personal record is a propensity to insubordination,” he said musingly.
“So I see in his record,” White then deadpanned. “That’s a little something you might have in common with the man, is it not, Captain?”
Scarlet rolled his eyes to the ceiling; he caught Harmony as she shot him an amused glance, before shrugging dismissively and returning to her exploration of the room. He preferred not to rise to his commander’s bait. “But that would get him a reprimand, or at worst a demotion,” he said instead. “Why a dishonourable discharge? He’s too good a soldier to have been discharged that way. He must have done something very serious.”
“I’ll dig further to see what I can find about it, Captain,” Green said.
“Since he’s been discharged, what has he been up to?”
Scarlet turned to Harmony who had said these words; she had stopped in front of a statue dressed in imposing Samurai armour, which stood on a pedestal beside large, currently closed, Japanese-style sliding doors. “Harmony is right,” he said, with an approving nod. “A man of Laws’ particular talents would not transform into a school teacher or a janitor after being kicked out of the WAAF.”
“Indeed, Captain. It seems that Captain Laws did use his talents to other ends. He became a soldier of fortune in every hot spot you can imagine around the globe. A mercenary who sold his services to the highest bidder – and not always for very commendable causes, it would seem. He also offered his services as a ‘security professional’ and bodyguard.’
“Interesting, Lieutenant,” Scarlet mused. “And he’s on Mr Ryoushi’s payroll as what, exactly?”
“From what we’ve been able to gather, Mr Laws was hired six months ago as part of Mr Ryoushi’s personal security team at one of his residences, outside of Japan. We don’t have further information.”
Scarlet nodded. “Obviously the residence in question is this one. A shame we didn’t know about this before.”
“To be totally frank, Captain, we might never have found that in the first place. Mr Laws seemed to have fallen off the radar, so to speak. If you had not encountered him by chance as you did –”
“By chance, indeed,” Scarlet said musingly.
“Do you think this man’s presence at Ryoushi’s residence might be a threat to you, Captain, in regard of your identity?” Colonel White asked.
Scarlet hesitated for a brief second. “I don’t know, sir,” he admitted. “If he had been the man I knew at West Point, I would be tempted to say that there would be no trouble. But now, with what the lieutenant discovered of his activities since then…”
“Are you sure he recognised you?”
“Positive, sir. But at least he didn’t say anything. So maybe he’ll keep the information to himself.”
“Let’s hope so, Captain. The confidentiality of our agents’ identities is very important to Spectrum’s effectiveness. I really hate it, when this sort of thing happens.”
“We didn’t quite expect to come to this island in the first place, so even if he had been listed as working here…” Scarlet smiled thinly. “Maybe Captain Blue would have been a better choice for this assignment after all, sir.”
“This situation would have certainly been avoided,” White agreed. “And considering his personal background, Captain Blue might indeed have been more appropriate to deal with a businessman. However, as you well know, Captain, the World President personally requested Captain Blue be assigned at his side, at Stanton…”
“– While he would prefer not to have me around,” Scarlet said, rolling his eyes again. President Younger, it seemed to him, would never get over the fact that the English captain had kidnapped him and held him at gunpoint, while under Mysteron control. That he had escaped from that control now didn’t seem to matter that much.
“In any case, Captain, you and Harmony remain on standby,” White said. “If we are right and the Mysterons make their move at either Stanton or Glenn Field, you will be called immediately and will leave your present assignment, to offer assistance. In the meantime – make sure everything is normal at your end, and if you should find enough proof or conclusive evidence that Mr. Ryoushi is the intended target, call immediately for backup.”
“S.I.G., sir. Harmony and I will keep our eyes open.”
“S.I.G., Colonel,” Harmony echoed.
“I’m sure you both will do your job well, as usual. Cloudbase out.”
Colonel White cut the signal, and Scarlet’s microphone returned to its place against the visor of his cap; he walked towards Harmony, who was removing her speaker from her ear to replace it in her pocket.
“Looks like we’re stuck here for a little while, Harmony,” he commented. “Well, that’s not too bad, considering that we are guests of one of the richest men in the world and will probably live in debauched luxury for the next few hours.”
“You do not fool me, Captain Scarlet,” Harmony said with a smile. “You would gladly relinquish all comfort to be exactly where the action is.”
“And I’m pretty sure the same could be said of you,” Scarlet replied. “And what if the action should happen to be here?”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Scarlet shrugged. “With the Mysterons, you never know. So until we do for sure, we’d better follow the colonel’s advice and be alert.”
Scarlet gave a thoughtful look at the statue in Japanese armour in front of which they both were now standing. The red mask, adorned with an enormous nose, was grimacing down at them, with a terrifying expression that would have scared a small child. The long horns of the helmet, on each side of the head, and the disc-like crest in the middle of the brow made it look even taller than it already was. The original owner was probably nearing the height of a giant in his time. “Quite impressive,” the captain commented. “And very beautiful.”
Harmony nodded approvingly. “It’s antique Edo period. Very rare, and very valuable. The kabuto is very elaborate… very beautiful; and the somem obviously represents a demon. It covers the entirety of the face – while Samurai warrior would usually prefer mempo, which –” She stopped herself and reddened slightly, realising that she sounded as she was babbling in front of Scarlet who was looking curiously at her. He nodded approvingly.
“You know your stuff,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Captain. I realise that you might not have any idea of half of what I’m talking about…”
“On the contrary.” He smiled, and started pointing to various parts of the armour: “Kabuto – helmet. Somem – faceplate… and the mempo you referred to is different, because it only protects a samurai’s face from nose to chin. The cuirass is called dō, and the faulds – kasazuri. Here, they are made of plates of heavy leather. Many parts of this armour are obviously lacquered, to reinforce them, and protect them from weather.” He pointed to the two swords hanging from the armour belt. “The longer sword is a katana, while the shorter is a wakizashi… It’s too long to be a tanto, which could also be worn with a katana. The pairing of these two is traditionally called a daishō… and could only be worn by a samurai.” He grinned at her. “Am I doing all right?”
“Actually, you know more than me.” Harmony laughed softly. “I should have realised. I sometimes forget that you are Cloudbase’s resident master-at-arms.”
“…And a historian, specialising in military history,” Scarlet said, bowing to her. “I’m sorry, Harmony – I couldn’t resist showing off a little.” His fingers caressed the bright surface of the cuirass. “It isn’t often that I can indulge in my old love. This is truly a beautiful piece… it looks brand new. And yet, you can see it’s an authentic piece of history. It must have seen many battles.”
“You would almost believe he would come back to life,” Harmony agreed.
Scarlet chuckled. “Oh, I wouldn’t like that… He could do very serious damage with these swords of his…” He examined the doors next to which the armour stood. They were definitely of Japanese style, but instead of the multiple panes of almost translucent rice paper, they were made of two large panes of obviously sturdier paper, onto which a beautiful landscape had been painted in traditional Japanese ink wash.
“What beautiful shoji doors,” Scarlet commented. He turned to Harmony. “Or should I say, hikido doors?”
“Actually, hikido is a generic term that describes doors that slide sideways,” Harmony explained. “So the term is correct. However, these are not shoji doors. They are fusama doors. Shoji doors are the chequered ones, made of lighter rice paper. With fusama doors you only have the main framing, and the paper used is much heavier and almost always decorated such as these. They always come in pairs, or pairs of pairs.”
“Thanks for the information, Harmony,” Scarlet said, smiling. “As you see, I’m only good with weapons.”
“I wouldn’t say that. Many people would not have known what you already knew.”
Scarlet then noticed then that the door next to the armour was slightly ajar and he inserted his fingers through the opening. “I wonder what could be hiding behind…” He slightly pushed the door, about one inch, as if to test how smoothly it was sliding, and meant to close it again when his eyes caught sight of what was on the other side. He frowned. “What the devil…”
He slid the door completely open. Harmony wasn’t that sure it was a good idea to explore a room with a closed door without their host’s permission, judging that it might even be considered impolite, but she knew there was no stopping Scarlet when his curiosity was piqued. So when he stepped into the newly revealed room, she assumed it would be better to stick with him, and she followed him.
Upon stepping into the room, Harmony was so startled that she let out a gasp of surprise and her hand flew to her mouth. She stared around in disbelief, unsure if she wasn’t dreaming.
It was no wonder Harmony had jumped in surprise; the first thing that had welcomed her into the room was the sight of a huge tiger, with its fangs bared, and right paw raised, claws all out, seemingly ready to attack. At first glance, it looked fierce and very much alive, but she quickly realised it was immobile and that its eyes were dead.
It was only a stuffed tiger.
Not that far from Harmony, Scarlet was standing straight in the middle of the room, and was looking around with shocked mystification.
The room was even larger than the one they had just left, with walls and floor similarly designed. It was, however, quite differently decorated; it literally looked like an extension of the natural life museum, with stuffed animals standing here and there – and not just any animal. The tiger wasn’t the only ‘star’ in the room – far from it.
On the other side of the room, there was a group of three leopards – two spotted individuals and a black one – set in a diorama composed of a few bushes and part of a dead tree with a huge branch on which two of them were lying. On a wall, facing the large and only window of the room, hung a wide open shark jaw; it was so large that an entire adult man would have been able to freely pass through the threatening rows of razor-like teeth. That sent a shiver down Harmony’s spine, who could only imagine how enormous the live creature must have been before ending on this wall.
Right next to it, a very tall, odd-looking grizzly bear, with a very pale blond coat and a humped back, stood on its rear legs, its front paws nearly as big as a man’s head, with claws able to rip a melon open with just one strike. Finally, standing in front of the very far side of the room, there was an immense African elephant, its long ivory tusks gleaming in the sun entering through the window.
Harmony quickly strode across the floor to join Scarlet, somehow feeling that she would be safer by his side than on her own, faced with so many dead animals seemingly watching her every move. The two Spectrum agents stood together in the middle of the room, and looked around in awed silence; they were uncertain how to react, or what they could say.
“So,” Scarlet finally said in a low voice, “it seems what they say about Mr Ryoushi is true. He’s not only ‘hunter’ by name, but by deed as well.”
“I see you found my trophy room.”
Both Scarlet and Harmony turned round. In the shadow projected by the doorway was a tall and powerfully built man, standing against the sun entering the large windows from the other room behind him; they couldn’t see his features very well, but they knew he was watching them intensely. He entered the room fully and walked towards them with a casual and measured step. Stopping in front of them, he made a slight bow and then, in a very western manner, presented a well-manicured right hand to Scarlet.
“I am Ryoushi Hayato,” he presented himself in his deep voice.
Scarlet took the hand and found the man had a very firm handshake. He wasn’t exactly what Scarlet expected a very important and influential Japanese businessman to be, although he was dressed for the part, in a suit of the latest design that looked as fashionable as it was probably expensive. About fifty years old, or very close to it, he was tall – nearly as tall as Scarlet himself – but he was heavier in build, with broad and muscular shoulders, and moved with the inner assurance of an athlete. His short hair was very black, and slicked back, offering a large and bare brow. His face was marked with deep, hard lines, and a long, unpleasant, white scar crossed the left side, from the tip of his eyebrow to the corner of his mouth, which gave his features an inscrutable and ruthless expression. His left eye was almost completely white, obviously blind, while his right eye was very black, and bright with an intensity that more than compensated for the absence of light in his other eye.
“This is Harmony Angel,” Scarlet presented, indicating the young woman at his side. “And I am –”
“– Captain Scarlet, I know,” Ryoushi interrupted, in very good English. “Seijitsu Yu already announced you.” He turned to face Harmony. “And I was told that you are one of the Spectrum Angel pilots.”
The young woman bowed politely to him. “It is an honour to meet you, Ryoushi Hayato-san,” she replied in Japanese.
He raised a brow, staring at her. “I hear Japanese words, spoken nearly to perfection,” he said quietly. “But I detect the slightest of Mandarin accents. You are Chinese, are you not?”
“I am, Ryoushi-san, on my father’s side,” Harmony admitted. “But my mother was Japanese. I am surprised that you are actually able to discern whatever accent I might have. Most people are unable to.”
“I have a very well-trained ear,” he replied, rather indifferently. “And will recognise flawed Japanese when I hear it, however good the speaker might think it is.”
Scarlet couldn’t help thinking that it was a rather bad-mannered comment, and he did see that it made Harmony somehow ill-at-ease, as red was now colouring the lobes of her ears. Ryoushi didn’t seem to notice this, or if he did, he simply didn’t care. He himself spoke a near-perfect English, with hardly any of the flat pitch intonation often heard from Japanese speakers, who would intuitively transfer similar features of their own language into the foreign one they were using. This was barely heard in Ryoushi, and that made Scarlet think that the man had been educated in a Western school from a very young age or had benefitted from western private tutors.
He watched as the man, with a casual step, walked a few feet away from them, to come and stand near the stuffed tiger. “This is Mala,” he said, gesturing to it. “She’s a Bengal tigress – a magnificent specimen. She was larger than her kin, nearly as big as a male Siberian tiger. She was the pet of a powerful Indian maharajah who thought it would be for her own good to be returned to the wild, when she reached adulthood. He did try to have her taught how to hunt, like a wild tiger should. Unfortunately, because of her long proximity to humans, Mala wasn’t afraid of them, and found that it was far easier to find her meals within the local villages.” He made a pause, which he obviously wanted dramatic. “She started with children. And throughout the length of nearly two years, killed forty-two villagers, before I was called upon to stop her.” He caressed the animal’s head, in an almost gentle, affectionate manner. “Such a beautiful beast… victim of man’s folly.”
Scarlet tilted his head, observing the man with curiosity. Did he sound genuinely concerned and sad for the animal – or was it all an act?
“This,” Ryoushi continued, turning round to point at the huge elephant and walking towards it, “is a great male African elephant that went on a wild rampage near Kilimanjaro about three years ago. He charged a safari party of tourists – who only came to take pictures of the African wilderness. He killed four people, and disappeared into the wild. He reappeared two days after, and destroyed half of a small village, before vanishing again. The locals called him “the Phantom Elephant”. I heard the stories, and I went to Africa to try and find him amongst the elephant population there. Found him I did, and he charged me. He trampled my guide before I had the time to aim and shoot him.”
“Do we know why he went berserk, all of a sudden?” Scarlet asked.
“No. This does unfortunately happen sometimes with male elephants, especially with African ones. Without any apparent reason, they suddenly seem to lose their head and become violent. And when this does happen, they are very dangerous and can be unstoppable.”
Scarlet nodded at the information, and Ryoushi moved to the next ‘trophy’. “These three,” he said pointing at the three leopards, “are from Malaysia. Two spotted females and one black male. To find such a group in the wild is unusual – leopards are normally solitary animals, so it might be these were siblings of the same litter. The male had a limp, and had difficulty hunting, which might be the reason why they eventually turned to prey on humans. Together, they killed over seventy people in three years. Tracking all of them down took me the better part of a year. I killed the male last.”
He turned to the bear. “And as for this very unusual specimen, he is one of the rare grizzly polar bear hybrids you can find in the wilderness. Natives in Yukon called him ‘Tarak’. Zoologists heard about him, and took a special interest in him. They wanted to track him down, photograph him, and tag him, so they hired me, as a specialised tracker, to find him for them.”
“I see you did find him,” Scarlet commented with some aloofness.
“Yes, but the idea wasn’t to kill him. However, the so-called expert I guided into the wilderness forgot a very important detail when you find yourself on a bear’s territory: if the animal should choose you as its next meal, he won’t stop hunting until it will get you. The bear found us before we found him, and killed my companion. I barely escaped with my life.”
“And it’s you who killed the bear,” Scarlet finished, nodding. He pointed to the shark jaw. “And what about this?”
“This?” Ryoushi chuckled briefly. “I found this in a shop, during a trip to Hawaii. I thought it would look great on the wall of my trophy room.” He grinned. “I’m a hunter, Captain Scarlet. Not a fisherman. I’m not even sure it’s a real one!”
“Still very impressive,” Scarlet noted. “Please, forgive me for asking this, Mr Ryoushi – but why are you telling us these stories exactly? It sounds like you are justifying having hunted and killed these animals.”
“I often feel the need to justify my actions in front of guests, Captain. As you well know, hunting, and especially hunting of big game such as these, is not a very well-regarded activity by people at large – and these animals are protected by international laws, as most of them are on the brink of extinction.” He smiled again. “And you are representatives of the World Government. I wouldn’t want to find myself in trouble with Spectrum.”
“Spectrum members are hardly game-keepers, Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet answered. “We are far too preoccupied with Mysterons… and terrorists. However, if it reassures you – I have no doubt that you are straight with the proper authorities, so no justifications are needed.”
Ryoushi bowed slightly in thanks, and then walked slowly over to him, in a thoughtful way. “I’d like your opinion on something in which you are an expert, Captain. This Mysteron threat… Do you really think it could really be against my life?”
Scarlet tilted his head, catching the full wording of the question. “You mean… do I think you could actually be the target, sir?”
Ryoushi nodded in the affirmative. “I know of the doubts you expressed to my secretary, Mr Seijitsu. And quite frankly, I can understand them perfectly: my life doesn’t seem to weigh all that much against the most sophisticated drone fighters ever to be built, and the WGPC surveillance satellite.”
Scarlet opened his eyes wide. The identification of the three possible targets was classified information. He couldn’t see how Ryoushi could have heard of the other two. “How do you know that –”
“I have my sources, Captain,” Ryoushi interrupted quickly, before Scarlet could voice his complete question. “Very high-placed sources, you can say. So I know perfectly well where I stand in relation to these other... targets.”
Right, Scarlet mused. The World President knows of the targets. So the leak surely might come from him. Or someone else in the World Government cabinet, close to the Word President. Either way, these politicians should learn to keep their mouths shut.
He would have to mention this to Colonel White and see that confidentiality and security be tightened.
“Let me assure you, sir, that Spectrum doesn’t take your security lightly. There is still the likely possibility that the Mysterons have indeed chosen you as their next victim. We do not know exactly what patterns they follow – or what motivates them in the choice of their targets. So we prefer not to take any chances, and a team has been dispatched to each of the three locations, until such moment as we have confirmation of what – or who – exactly the target is. Then all teams will converge on that location to effectively stop the Mysterons’ attempt.”
“Then I must consider myself privileged, Captain, that you should have been assigned to protect my life.”
Scarlet was unsure if the man was sincere, or being sarcastic, seeing that his only mission against the Mysterons in the Asian world had ended with the death of the previous leader of the Asian Republic. He received his answer right away, as Ryoushi continued: “I know that Spectrum was unable to save Director General Xian Yoh, two years ago, despite all of its very commendable efforts – and I know that you were personally involved in trying to avoid that tragedy. His Excellency was one of my very good friends. And so, for your efforts in protecting him, you have my gratitude.”
“I regret that we failed in our mission to protect Director General Xian Yoh, Mr Ryoushi. I know his loss was terribly felt by the people of the Asian Republic.”
“We are all in a war, Captain Scarlet,” Ryoushi replied. “And unfortunately, in all wars, there must be victims. I just hope I won’t be part of their number.”
“We’ll do our very best for that not to happen, sir. Stopping Mysterons is what we do.”
“So I am not only privileged, but also honoured by your presence.” Ryoushi bowed and Scarlet nodded in answer.
“I’m only doing my job, Mr Ryoushi.”
“It must be an exhilarating job, mustn’t it?”
Scarlet raised a brow. “Exhilarating?”
“Fighting Mysterons… stopping them. Surely, you must understand what I mean. It must be a similar sensation to hunting. This surely is an exciting life for you, Captain.”
Scarlet briefly glanced in Harmony’s direction; he couldn’t help reflecting that to Ryoushi, it seemed as if she was invisible; he hadn’t addressed her once, nor even seemed inclined to include her in their conversation. In fact, he didn’t even seem to pay her any attention, with his back halfway turned on her. However, he must have been aware that, as a citizen of the Asian Republic, if she was a member of Spectrum, it could very well be because of his own influence, a few years ago. Surely, learning about her experience would have made him curious. However, it didn’t seem to be the case. All of his attention was currently focused on the English Spectrum officer standing in front of him.
“I am not a hunter, Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet said. “And I don’t consider myself as such, when I fight Mysterons. I’m a Spectrum officer, and as such, it’s my duty to stop them and to protect people from them. I don’t see any similarities between those… activities.”
“My old sensei would disagree with you, Captain,” Ryoushi replied. “Although I do agree there are indeed differences between hunters and warriors, there are also similarities, that even you cannot deny.”
“Your old sensei?” Scarlet asked cautiously.
“… Who taught me the importance – and honour – of hunting, Captain.”
“You say there is honour in hunting?” There was scepticism in Harmony’s voice as she spoke. She wasn’t normally an outspoken person, and for her to have uttered these words, however softly they had been spoken, was enough to make Scarlet think that she was more than perplexed – perhaps even shocked – by Ryoushi’s statement. Harmony Angel was probably one of the fiercest fighter pilots Scarlet had ever known – she had to be, as one of the Spectrum Angels – and in hand-to-hand combat, she could be equally ferocious. She would never back down from an order, even if it meant causing the death of someone in the process – something she always found regrettable even when necessary. But she was also a gentle and caring person, who couldn’t bear the thought of senseless killing – like the hunting of defenceless animals for the mere pleasure of it.
Hayato Ryoushi turned to her, and shot her a look that seemed to mean that he didn’t appreciate her intervention in the least.
“Hunting is part of the way of life, Harmony Angel,” he said, as if explaining that fact to a stubborn child. “Human beings have done it since the dawn of time, if only to feed themselves and get rid of rivals sharing the same hunting territories, and who, given the chance, would choose them as prey as well. It was a question of survival. Surely, you must know that.”
“Ryoushi-san…” Harmony bowed slightly to him. “Yes, I know that there is a need to hunt to feed, and I respect that…”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Ryoushi said, raising a brow.
“I personally cannot see the honour one would see in killing any living being and exhibiting it as a trophy,” Harmony continued, indicating the bear near which they were standing. “I do not mean any disrespect to you, Ryoushi-san, but this seems to me to be a degrading gesture towards the beast in question.”
“Ah. I see.” Ryoushi turned her back on her, to look at the bear. “Your sensibility as a woman demonstrates clearly that you are not a hunter, Harmony Angel,” he declared stoically. With his back turned, he didn’t see the young woman as she took a step forward and opened her mouth to protest, only to be stopped by a gesture and a silent shake of the head by Scarlet. She moved by her colleague’s side and kept her mouth shut, as Ryoushi continued: “You wouldn’t understand this, but trophies are an honour bestowed on your fallen foe, to show the respect it rightfully deserves. Not to take the hide or the head of your foe is to deny this respect, as it would mean it doesn’t deserve it.”
“Your sensei taught you that as well?” Scarlet asked.
Ryoushi turned back to the two Spectrum officers. “He did, indeed. He is Yautja, and the hunt is his way of life,” he said, his voice poised, with only a hint of aloofness to it. “I do respect him for what he is and embraced his ways…” He turned back to face the bear. “… But there isn’t anything or anyone in this world I hate more than him.”
There was obvious loathing in Ryoushi’s voice, and Scarlet wondered what exactly it could hide. He didn’t have time to ask, even if he had been curious enough to do, as his epaulettes flashed white at this moment. It was Cloudbase Control, hailing him.
“If you would excuse me, sir,” he said to his host, “I’m receiving a call.”
“If you wish to make it private, Captain, you can take it in the living room.”
Ryoushi didn’t even turn around to acknowledge Scarlet’s departure; the Spectrum officer walked to the door, which was still open, and as he crossed the threshold, met with Yu Seijitsu, who was about to enter the trophy room at that exact moment. Seijitsu stepped aside to let the Spectrum officer through and Scarlet nodded politely to the man, who entered as soon as he had cleared the way. Seijitsu closed the door behind him, but not completely, leaving it slightly ajar, before walking towards Ryoushi. The latter turned to his secretary, who handed him an electronic pad that he consulted with a single glance before giving it back.
“Very well done, Seijitsu-san,” he said. “We can carry on with the operation.”
“Hai, Ryoushi Shacho.”
Barely acknowledging his secretary’s answer, Ryoushi turned to Harmony and looked intently at her, as if he had suddenly discovered she was still there. “Something I can do for you, Harmony Angel?”
Left with their host, Harmony wasn’t sure if she should follow her colleague right away. She felt like she owed Hayato Ryoushi an apology for having spoken out of line; on the other hand, she also felt like she didn’t need to feel ashamed of her words, and that the man had it coming. Additionally, he had done her a great injustice. At the sound of his voice, she turned to him.
“Ryoushi-san,” she finally said in Japanese, “I wish to tell you again… I did not mean any disrespect earlier, and if it seems to you that I have been disrespectful, I present to you my humblest apologies.”
He shrugged, as if it was of no importance at all, and turned on his heels to continue to admire the great bear in front of which he was still standing. “I understand that hunting is not everyone’s favourite sport, Haamonii Tenshi,” he replied in a quiet voice, “and that even a Spectrum officer will not find it as enjoyable as I do. It is not your fault, and you have nothing to apologise for. But if it makes you feel better, I accept your apologies.”
“I just felt it is unfair,” Harmony continued, looking at the great bear in turn, “that such a noble beast should finish its days stuffed and displayed like this. I know now you have your own way to show it your respect…”
“Tarak was a rare specimen,” Ryoushi replied. “He had the characteristics of his grizzly and polar bear parents, in a blend that made him unique amongst his kin. He was a particularly vicious and bloodthirsty killer, but that was none of his fault. He was born into this world as a hybrid aberration of Nature that should not have existed.” He turned to Harmony who was unsure what she should say. “That is,” he finished in English, “the reason he is in my trophy room today. Because as an aberration, he had an appeal – that even I cannot deny.”
Harmony kept silent, staring at him with mixed feelings; was he deliberately trying to be rude to her, with oblique implications at her own double lineage?
Harmony turned on her heels. Captain Scarlet was standing in the open doorway, and was looking straight at her. She put aside the current questioning she might have about Hayato Ryoushi’s statement, and felt grateful that her English colleague had arrived at such a moment to interrupt her line of thought.
“We have been recalled,” Scarlet explained as Ryoushi quietly turned as well. “It seems the Mysterons had made their first move at Stanton Base.”
“So the Hunter fighters would be their target, then,” Ryoushi commented. “Is Spectrum certain, Captain?”
“It seems to be the case, Mr. Ryoushi,” Scarlet confirmed. “This was my commander just then. Harmony Angel and I are ordered to report to base straight away so we will be in attendance to stop the Mysterons’ next attack.” He paused a brief second. “The first one wasn’t successful.”
“I am delighted they did not succeed, Captain Scarlet,” Ryoushi said. “So it does mean that I won’t benefit from your protection?”
“No, sir. The Mysterons having clearly demonstrated what their target is, it’s obvious you won’t need Spectrum’s presence by your side.”
“I admire such confidence, Captain. I hope you are right.”
Scarlet restrained himself from answering that he was, and instead replied: “You do not have to worry, sir. Now, with your permission, Harmony and I will be leaving right away.”
“Oh, but I’m afraid it is impossible at the moment,” Seijitsu then said.
“Sorry?” With some confusion, Scarlet turned to face the man.
“The helijet is gone, Scarlet Taii,” Seijitsu explained. “It has been sent back to Tokyo, to pick up the guests for tonight’s dinner.”
“Ah, I forgot about that,” Ryoushi commented quietly. “Indeed, the helijet left right after it brought you here and was refuelled. I didn’t think you would need it so soon after your arrival.”
“You carried on with an invitation for dinner, even though you were under probable threat by the Mysterons?” Scarlet asked, frowning in perplexity. “You don’t think that slightly careless, Mr Ryoushi?”
“Well, it is a very important dinner, with very important guests… It’s been in preparation for weeks, isn’t it, Seijitsu-san?”
“More like months, Shacho,” the secretary replied.
“I normally leave this kind of detail to my secretary, Captain, so he must be right. It would have been unthinkable to cancel this meeting at the last possible minute, you must understand that.”
Scarlet was reluctant to agree with this argument. However, he didn’t really wish to clash with their host either. “Well, I suppose that’s a moot point now, considering you’re not the Mysterons’ target after all. But you must understand, sir – that if it had been the case, it could have had serious consequences. The Mysterons could have used the presence of these guests against you, if they had wanted to.”
“Do you suppose that my guests could have attacked me, Captain?” Ryoushi chuckled. “I hardly think that would be in the interest of these people to do so. They’re highly honourable, if I can say so myself.”
“Sir – the Mysterons have ways to make people work for them. Anyone could be an agent of the Mysterons.”
Ryoushi seemed to chew on this. “Anyone? Well, this is a very frightening thought…”
“Indeed. But as I said, you are not the target, so you have nothing to be afraid of. And since we’re needed where the Mysterons will next strike, we’ll take our leave.” Scarlet turned to Seijitsu. “Now, Mr Seijitsu, if you would be so kind – when exactly are you expecting the helijet to return?”
“It should be back soon, Scarlet Taii,” Seijitsu replied. “In about an hour or so? Then it will have to refuel, of course, for the trip back to Tokyo.”
“We should be in the air in about two hours, then,” Harmony commented.
Scarlet nodded. “Then there’s no need to call for a Spectrum helijet to come and pick us up. That’d take almost the same time. I’ll inform the colonel. Is there a place where we can wait in the meantime?”
“My living room is yours,” Ryoushi answered. “You are welcome to tea or coffee.” He presented his hand. “It has been a pleasure to meet you – the both of you,” he added, glancing in Harmony’s direction.
“And an honour for us to meet you, sir,” Scarlet replied. He bowed, in a very polite manner. “Shitsurei-shimasu, Ryoushi-san.”
“Shitsurei-shimasu, Scarlet Taii. Haamonii-san... Have a safe trip and good luck with the Mysterons.”
Harmony bowed in turn and the two Spectrum officers left the trophy room. Hayato Ryoushi watched them leave in silence, and waited until the door was slid closed on the two of them, before turning to his secretary, who stood waiting by his side, and addressing him in Japanese:
“So I take it everything went as planned?”
“Hai, Ryoushi Shacho. I received the news by our contact about five minutes before the captain himself received his call.”
Ryoushi nodded. “That is perfect, then,” he said musingly.
“Laws says that he knows this man,” Seijitsu continued.
“Oh?” Ryoushi raised an interested brow. “And what does Laws say about him?”
“The both of them followed the same military training and studies at West Point. He said Captain Scarlet was the best at everything, and that his subsequent career within the WAAF only served to confirm that. The fact that he is with Spectrum now seemed to hardly be a surprise to Laws.”
“Captain Scarlet is recognised as the best agent Spectrum has,” Ryoushi commented. “He seems to live a charmed life, surviving where others would die. Which makes him a perfect candidate.”
“Better than those you had in mind, Shacho?”
“They will serve their purpose too. As well as Harmony Angel. That is unfortunate – for them.”
Seijitsu nodded. “They are about to leave, however,” he commented. “How could they serve to anything in that case, Shacho?”
“We follow the plan, my old friend, and you will see, they will not leave.” Ryoushi turned to his secretary. “Call the World President for me straight away. And be sure his secretary understands that it’s a very urgent call.”
“A penny for your thoughts?”
Seated on the largest sofa of the living room, sipping a cup of tea that was growing cold, Harmony raised her eyes and looked towards Captain Scarlet, who was standing in front of the large window; he was leaning against it, and looking at her in inquiry. He smiled as she looked back at him. They had been there for nearly an hour, waiting for the helijet to come and pick them up, since their host, after bidding them goodbye one last time, had left the neighbouring trophy room to go about his business with his secretary.
“You seemed miles away,” Scarlet commented. “Lost in your thoughts…”
“I was,” she admitted, straightening up on her seat. “I was thinking of when I was a young girl…with my parents, when we were travelling between our house in Beijing and the one we had in Tokyo.” She waved around, her gesture comprising the entirety of the room in which they currently were waiting. “This place – this very room, with its furniture and decorative items – it looks very much like what we had in Tokyo.”
Scarlet slowly nodded, and thoughtfully looked around. “Yes, well… I guess this would indeed bring back some memories to you…”
She nodded in turn, and answered: “I will be glad when we are back on base,” she said in a low voice.
The sudden change of subject surprised Scarlet. “The helicopter shouldn’t be long now,” he commented. “We should be back in Tokyo shortly. And then, back to Cloudbase, where we’ll be on standby for the current mission.”
“You’ll probably be sent directly to Stanton Base,” Harmony commented. “They will need you there.”
“I wouldn’t want to assume. But yes, that is possible.” Scarlet left his place at the window and came to sit by her side. “I can see you’re not really appreciating your visit here,” he said. “And it’s not because it reminds you of your happy home as a child, I’m pretty sure of that.”
“Is it that obvious?” she asked in surprise.
“No… but I think I know you well enough to be able to read you.”
She looked down; she seemed somewhat embarrassed to learn it had been this easy for Scarlet to realise how she felt about their presence on this island. She prided herself on her coolness and self-control. More to the point, she hoped that their host had not noticed anything as well.
“I don’t like it here,” she admitted freely, looking at Scarlet. “And you are right on another account – it has nothing to do with the happy memories I keep from my childhood.” She looked around. “This place makes me feel very uncomfortable.”
“The place – or Mr Ryoushi himself?” Scarlet asked her. She stared at him inquiringly. He shook his head. “He isn’t a very nice man. I found him to be extremely discourteous… especially for a Japanese.”
She chuckled. “Now you’re displaying the preconceived notion that all Japanese people are well-mannered, Captain. Believe me, it’s not exactly the case. Japanese people can be as ill-mannered as you can imagine any Westerner to be, given the circumstances.”
“Well I would believe that, judging by Mr Ryoushi’s actions. He was rude to you.”
“More than you can imagine, Captain.”
“What do you reckon his problem is? Would it be because you’re a woman? I thought misogyny was a thing of the past.”
Harmony raised a brow. “For you it might be,” she commented. “And for most people on Cloudbase, probably. But you and I would be naïve, Captain, if we thought that there is none of it in the world. That being said,” she added, her expression growing sombre, “I do not think this is Ryoushi Hayato’s problem. Or at least, that it could only be that.”
“What else do you think is eating him, then? Why would he be so ill-mannered towards one of his compatriots?”
She sighed. “I do think it is part of the problem, Captain. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that I’m the daughter of one of his compatriots… and also the daughter of a Chinese man.”
Scarlet wasn’t sure if he had heard well. “Oh come on,” he said. “You’re saying that Ryoushi would be –”
He hesitated to complete the question. Harmony considerately did it for him: “… Racist towards me? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.”
“Harmony, the man was a close friend of Director General Xian Yoh. And if I’m not mistaken, Xian Yoh was Chinese…”
“He was. And that Ryoushi said he considered him as a friend doesn’t mean that he is not racist. He may not have a problem with Chinese people, or with any other people for that matter. And what we know of Ryoushi Hayato also tells us that he’s a rationalist. He might make abstraction of this, if he serves his interests. But maybe he draws the line when it comes to the blood of his people being tainted with the blood of others. Especially if those others are Chinese. And as you probably well know, relationships between both countries have not always been cordial.”
“That could have been said of many other countries,” Scarlet reasoned. “Harmony, I heard what Ryoushi said about your accent, and it sounded very condescending, but –”
“You haven’t heard all he said to me,” Harmony interrupted. “When you were gone to answer that call from Cloudbase?”
Scarlet stared at her, understanding dawning on him. “I knew something had happened in that trophy room,” he said in a low voice. “I could see it from the look in your eyes. That’s what you meant when you said he was ruder to you than I imagined.”
She nodded, and for a moment hesitated. “To be truthful, I wasn’t exactly sure if he was being rude on purpose. It was very subtle. The words he said to me, the tone of his voice, and the expression on his face… At first, I tried to dismiss it, and didn’t want to believe it could be the case, but now, there’s little doubt in my mind.” She sighed. “I have an uncle – my mother’s brother. He did not get along with my mother nor with my father. And he could not tolerate me. He could not forgive his own sister not only for having married a Chinese man, but for having carried his child.”
“And you knew all this?” a perplexed Scarlet said in a low voice.
“I learned the truth at a very young age. Captain, the way my uncle looked at me – it was the same way Ryoushi Hayato looked at me today. ”
“Both your uncle and Ryoushi are ignorant bastards and boorish fools,” Scarlet declared with no reservation, his eyes glaring with anger, and his choice of words made her smile gratefully. “How can they not see you for the wonderful person you are? They do not deserve to breathe the same air you do.”
“Thank you… I guess.” She chuckled softly. “But do not worry about me. I do not let these minor setbacks get to me.”
“I can hardly call these situations ‘minor setbacks’, Harmony.”
“Fortunately, incidents like these do not happen frequently. The majority of people I met did not care about my background, and accepted me for who and what I am.”
“And right they are. I meant what I said, Chan.” Gently cupping her face in his hand, Scarlet leaned to give her a kiss on the forehead. Not accustomed to such familiarity from him, she almost drew back, and then raised her eyes to look at him with perplexity. He smiled at her. “You’re a brilliant young woman. Your friends’ lives are richer just by knowing you.”
She smiled gratefully in answer, hoping that he wouldn’t realise that his comforting words were also making her feel awkward. She wasn’t a demonstrative person; it was part of her culture and as such, instilled in her nature. She knew that Captain Scarlet, as an English military officer, had been brought up in a relatively similar fashion, and that he displayed similar reserve, at least in public; although obviously, opening up in private to his friends and displaying his emotions came easier to him when he felt the need for it. She realised his current gesture was his way to show his support and affection to someone he perceived as a sister.
He let go of her face and lowered his hand onto his lap. “We’ll be gone soon,” he promised her. “And then this whole dreadful meeting with this man will only be a bad memory.”
She nodded. “Of course, Captain. There is no sense in me dwelling on this.”
“Captain Scarlet? Haamonii-san?”
At the sound of this voice, Scarlet and Harmony instinctively drew apart; they looked in the direction of the open door leading into the hall and saw Yu Seijitsu standing there rigidly, as if waiting to be invited in. Scarlet stood up and the man walked into the room to approach them.
“Mr Seijitsu,” Scarlet said with a welcoming smile, “do you have further news on when the helijet will be arriving? I trust this will be very soon now?”
He saw a glitter of perplexity appear in the older man’s eyes. “The helijet will be here in about fifteen to twenty minutes, Scarlet Taii,” he informed.
“Perfect, then,” Scarlet said. He smiled down at Harmony. Soon, they would be leaving this place. However, Seijitsu’s next words poured cold water on his good mood:
“I am here on behalf of Ryoushi Shacho,” the man said, politely bowing in front of Scarlet. “He asked me to make proper accommodation for you both, and hoped you will be able to join him for dinner tonight.”
Scarlet exchanged confused glances with Harmony, before answering the older man: “Mr Seijitsu, I was under the impression that you had just come in to inform us of the helijet’s arrival. Surely, you have not forgotten that we must leave for our base, as soon as it has refuelled?”
Now it was Seijitsu’s turn to look awkward. “Oh, dear me… Have you not received news from your commander yet? There seems to have been a change of plans.”
Scarlet frowned, as Harmony slowly got to her feet and stood by his side. “What do you mean, ‘a change of plans’?” he asked.
“Ryoushi Shacho has got word that the both of you are to stay here,” Seijitsu explained. “That your new orders are to stay in attendance for his security. Of course, Ryoushi will be delighted to give you the hospitality of his home and –”
“Where the devil did Ryoushi hear about this?” Scarlet interrupted sharply, not believing his ears; he could see the look of consternation and surprise on Harmony’s face. Clearly, she didn’t expect this anymore than he did.
“Scarlet Taii, please…” Seijitsu bowed again. “I am only a messenger conveying my employer’s message. Maybe I had been too fast in coming right away and inform you. Do feel free to contact your commander on the subject, and I am sure you will have confirmation of what I am saying.”
“Damn right, I will contact him,” Scarlet said with irritation, glaring angrily at the man. “And I’ll be doing this right away, if you don’t mind… Come with me, Harmony.” And lowering his radiocap mic, he left the living room in long strides to enter the now empty trophy room, Harmony scurrying behind him.
They just missed the glitter in Seijitsu’s eyes, as he watched the door close on them. A thin smile appeared on his lips as he sat down to wait for the two Spectrum officers’ return.
* * *
As she slid the door closed behind them, Harmony was deeply aware that the thin paper wouldn’t muffle much of their words, as Captain Scarlet seemed in the mood to talk loudly when he contacted Cloudbase; but at least it would provide a semblance of privacy. Her colleague already had Colonel White on line, so she hurriedly took her earpiece speaker to follow the conversation.
“Captain Scarlet, I was about to contact you.”
At the sound of their commander’s voice, Scarlet was struck with a sense of impending doom. The next words from White served to confirm this feeling:
“Your orders are changed. You and Harmony Angel are to remain at Hayato Ryoushi’s residence.”
“Sir?” Scarlet exchanged a very brief glance with Harmony, who seemed almost as perplexed as himself, before continuing into his mic: “Is there any new progress in the Mysterons’ threat? Is Mr Ryoushi the intended target, then?”
“No – as far as we can tell, the Hunter fighters at Stanton Base are indeed the intended target.”
“Then… why do we need to stay here?” Scarlet asked with a frown. He failed to see the logic in that decision.
“By request from the World President.” Scarlet could almost hear the disagreement in Colonel White’s voice. Obviously, he wasn’t very happy with this new development. “Mr Ryoushi contacted him, shortly after I gave you your new assignments earlier today. He asked Younger to intervene on his behalf, so that neither of you would leave his house.”
Scarlet’s frown deepened. “Why?” he asked. “Since he’s not the Mysterons’ target, he doesn’t need us.”
“Well, apparently, this whole Mysteron threat has deeply distressed Mr Ryoushi. He’s not totally convinced that he is entirely out of the Mysterons’ line of fire, despite your reassurance that they do not target two objectives at once. He would feel much safer if you would stay with him to ensure his protection.”
“Ryoushi, distressed?” Scarlet repeated, not believing his ears, trying to conjure the unlikely image to his mind. “Sir, this is ludicrous. Nothing can upset that man. He has ice-water instead of blood!”
“Captain…” White sounded genuinely annoyed by his irrepressible officer, who instantly made an attempt at recovery:
“What I mean, Colonel, is that Hayato Ryoushi’s faced wild beasts that would scare the living daylights out of any normal man. He doesn’t strike me as someone who would be easily upset by the fact that he might be considered the target of an assassination attempt. He didn’t even seem to be that bothered when we discussed it. His secretary obviously was more concerned than he was. Now that he knows he’s not the Mysterons’ intended victim –”
“In all likelihood, Captain, he doesn’t appear to be,” White interrupted him before Scarlet could draw breath again to continue. “And that’s what seems to bother Mr Ryoushi: the possibility that the Mysterons might attempt something on him as well, given the chance. Did you tell him anything that would lead him to believe that?”
“Did you, by any chance, mention to Mr Ryoushi that the Mysterons might use any one of his entourage against him?” White insisted.
“I…” Scarlet stopped, as a thought crossed his mind. He realised then that White knew the answer, before he even responded. “Damn,” he muttered. “I did say it was careless of him to have invited guests to his home, while he was a possible Mysteron target – and that any of his guests might indeed have been used by the Mysterons. I never thought that would impress him so much.”
“Well, it seems it did,” Colonel White said. “He did say as much to President Younger. Which is why he requested that, until it’s absolutely sure he’s out of danger, he wants you in attendance. And I must say, we can count our blessings that he didn’t ask for more Spectrum members.”
“Sir…” Scarlet sighed. “I... we can’t be stuck out here playing babysitters. We might be needed in Stanton.”
White sighed. “I did try to explain to the World President that your special abilities might be handy if things got rough in Stanton, Captain. But that didn’t convince him enough to allow me to recall you. Although he admitted that having an indestructible agent is a definite advantage, he also said that Spectrum was quite able to do without one before the Mysterons gave you those gifts of yours.”
“That’s just it, sir,” Scarlet replied. “There were no Mysterons before. Maybe I can’t be replaced, while –”
“Due to your nearly spotless reputation, Captain. Mr Ryoushi specifically requested that YOU remained at his home.”
Scarlet grunted. “Well, I must say, it’s flattering to feel that needed, but I can’t stay here while the others are risking their lives.”
“They’ll manage without you, Captain. I tried that argument as well, and it didn’t sway the World President in his decision.”
“I’m still thinking it’s a pretext so he won’t have me around,” Scarlet seethed between his teeth.
“That’s enough, Captain,” White replied sharply, in a voice that meant he would tolerate no more protests. “You have your orders, and I expect you to follow them. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but I’ll remind you that this is a direct demand from the World President himself. And you know as well as I do that it’s as good as a direct order.”
Scarlet took a slow intake of breath. In the face of such arguments, there was little he could do; he had no choice but to sit this one out. Whether he liked it or not.
And the look he shot Harmony told him she didn’t like it one bit either, but she shook her head in resignation.
“S.I.G., sir,” he finally said into his mic. “If those are our orders, we will follow them.”
“Good.” There was satisfaction now in Colonel White’s voice at his officer’s acknowledgement. “However, I will reassure you, Captain: I’m still keeping you on standby. If we do need your presence in Stanton, I will immediately dispatch a helijet to pick you up at the coordinates you gave us.”
Scarlet gave the dimmest of smiles. “It’s good to see we’re not totally benched out, sir.”
“I will consent to the World President’s demands, Captain,” White replied a little dryly. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll compromise the safety of the people under Spectrum’s protection by dispensing with the services of my best agent.” He paused for a second. “You and Harmony, carry on with your orders. But be ready to be called back at any time.”
“S.I.G.,” both answered in unison.
“Let’s just hope everything will go smoothly. Cloudbase out.” The colonel cut communication.
“Seems we’re stuck here, Harmony,” the disgruntled Scarlet commented, as his mic swung back into position against his visor. “What a waste of time, but – orders are orders.”
Removing her ear piece, the Angel pilot nodded slowly. “As you said earlier today, Captain, all there is left for us to do now, is to live a debauched life for the next few hours…”
“… Or days,” he corrected with a sigh. “And I didn’t quite expect to be that clairvoyant… Because it does seem that we won’t be doing more than hanging around the house, looking after a man who doesn’t really need our protection.” Chewing on his bottom lip, he looked towards the door, behind which he expected Yu Seijitsu to still be waiting for them. “I suppose we should tell our host that we will indeed be staying. Although, he obviously knew that before we did.”
Both went to the door and Scarlet slid it open. Seated on the sofa, checking on his electronic pad, Seijitsu raised his head when he saw them return. He powered down his pad and stood up, smiling, as they approached him.
“So I am guessing all is in order, Scarlet Taii?” he asked, ignoring the look of resignation that was plain to see on Scarlet’s face. “You and Haamonii Tenshi will be staying with us?”
“Yes…” Scarlet answered carefully. “We will be staying…”
“… To make sure of Ryoushi Hayato’s safety,” Harmony added obligingly.
“Although we do not expect anything to happen,” Scarlet continued.
“Splendid,” Seijitsu said with a broadening smile. “Ryoushi Shacho will be relieved to hear this. He counted greatly on your protection.”
You don’t say, Scarlet thought aggressively. “You mentioned providing accommodation for us?”
“I took the liberty of already having rooms prepared for you,” Seijitsu confirmed. “As you can imagine, we have plenty of space. And Ryoushi insisted that you both join him and his guests for dinner tonight.”
“Him… and his guests?” Scarlet repeated.
“As expected, they will arrive in the helijet, in a few minutes.”
“The both of us are invited?” Harmony asked in turn.
“Of course, Haamonii-san,” Seijitsu replied, turning to her. He examined her from head to toes and back and then added, a little hesitantly: “But it is a formal dinner… I’m afraid that this uniform wouldn’t fit very well…”
“I’m sorry, we didn’t bring our formal uniforms,” Scarlet replied sharply.
“Oh, yours will do nicely, Captain,” Seijitsu answered quickly. “It is not every day a colour-coded Spectrum officer shares Ryoushi Hayato’s table. He wouldn’t have you any other way. From what I know, Ryoushi is very impatient to present you to his guests.”
Oh, great, thought Scarlet. Here’s hoping there’s not another surprise like Nicolas Laws amongst these people.
“Thank you.” Scarlet’s voice was as glacial as an iceberg, while his eyes gleamed hotly. “What’s wrong about Harmony’s uniform, then? She’s a Spectrum officer, just like me.”
“But still, she is a woman,” Seijitsu said. “And a very beautiful woman.” He bowed in front of Harmony to show his appreciation. “At a formal meeting, Ryoushi prefers beautiful women to wear something… befitting their feminine condition.”
“You mean ‘wearing a dress’,” Harmony said. She shook her head. “I am sorry, Seijitsu-san. I didn’t pack one.”
“I didn’t expect you would,” Seijitsu said with an apologetic smile. “But if you would permit me… We have an assortment of beautiful dresses you can try on. I am sure you will find amongst them something that will please you.”
Harmony hesitated. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you –”
“This is no trouble at all, Haamonii-san.” Seijitsu inclined his head. “This will be my pleasure. However, I will soon need to go in order to welcome Ryoushi’s guests, who will be arriving soon. So if you would please both follow me now, I will take you to your rooms without any more delay.”
Captain Scarlet came to Harmony’s room and discretely knocked on the frame of her door. While waiting for her to invite him in, he checked his watch; it was just past 18:40. They had been instructed that dinner would be served at seven, in the main dining room; they still had plenty of time in front of them.
“Who is there?” the muffled voice of Harmony then said through the closed door.
“Your escort for tonight,” Captain Scarlet answered back. “Are you ready?”
“Just about. You can enter.”
Scarlet slid the panel open and walked into the room. Aside from various Japanese arts adorning it, it was very western in style; the bed was low from the floor and covered with a pink duvet printed with white cherry tree motifs. At first, he didn’t see Harmony, until he saw her dark head emerging from the top of a screen – again decorated with Japanese painting – on the other side of the room. She had pulled her hair up into a small bun by the right side of her head, just behind and over her ear, which seemed to be held in place by three long sticks. The Spectrum captain grinned.
“Very nice,” he commented with an appreciative nod.
She looked over the screen. “I… can use your help,” she said a little coyly. “If you wouldn’t mind?”
He frowned, curious. “What for?”
Harmony walked from behind the screen. She was wearing a nice, simple dress of a creamy colour, with narrow shoulder straps and sprinkled with discreet sparkles of pale gold sequins that gleamed dimly as she moved. The hem of the dress was at knee-level, revealing slender, tanned legs.
“Very nice,” he repeated with more emphasis, not even realising he was staring at those legs he was discovering for the first time – and found very attractive.
“Captain?” Harmony’s voice drew him out of his reverie and he snapped back to reality. Holding her dress tight at the top, she had turned around to present her bare back to him, open nearly to the loin. She looked over her shoulder. “You don’t mind, do you?”
It took him a second to realise she needed his help to zip her dress up; she made no mention of his staring, but that didn’t stop him from feeling the heat coming to his ears. Rhapsody’d better not find about this one…
“Of course…” He strode to her and swiftly, but carefully, pulled the zip up. She smoothed down the dress, turning to face him and, as a last touch, stuck a tiny silk flower into the bun. She made a show of looking down, as if she wanted to avoid Scarlet’s admiring gaze. She wasn’t accustomed to any of her male colleagues staring at her the way he was presently doing.
“You have shined your boots,” she commented with a slight frown, before raising her head and looking up into his face. “… And your cap.”
“And had my uniform ironed by one of the house maids, and removed any visible lint from my tunic.” He removed his cap and tucked it under his arm. “And I also did some freshening up and combed my hair,” he added, still smiling. “This is a formal dinner, as we’ve been informed, and I wouldn’t want to appear to Mr Ryoushi’s guests looking like a vagrant. We must do honour to Spectrum, after all.” He bowed slightly to her. “It seems I will pale in comparison to you. You look ravishing in that dress.”
“You’re too kind, Captain.”
“Paul,” he corrected. “Please, call me Paul. When not on duty, that is. And when the colonel is not around. And I only speak the truth: this dress suits you.” He chuckled. “I fully expected Ryoushi to have you dressed in traditional geisha gear.”
Harmony chuckled too. “I wouldn’t know, but this might be what geishas wear today.” He looked at her with curiosity and she shrugged, before waving her hand at the door of the room’s wardrobe. “There’s a collection of dresses in there – of many sizes and colours. Obviously, they were not meant to be worn by the same woman.”
Scarlet chewed on this information. “Mmm. So Mr Ryoushi doesn’t content himself with hunting and collecting animals – but women as well, you reckon? A man as powerful as him might have a mistress or two… or three. Or he simply likes to invite pretty girls for a week-end on a tropical island.”
Harmony picked up from the floor the golden court shoes she had chosen earlier and which seemed like a perfect match to the dress. She sat on the edge of the bed to put them on. “Power must attract them indeed,” she commented. “Because personally, I don’t find Ryoushi otherwise appealing.”
“And you’re not talking about his physique. With what you told me about the man…”
Harmony stood up. The heels of the shoes were about two inches high, but they were far from enough to bring her to Scarlet’s height. He still towered a good head over her. “Even without that, I don’t really like men who consider hunting as a noble sport – nor the way he practiced it, and no matter how much justification he gives for his killings.”
“I can’t say I disagree with you, Harmony.” Scarlet’s brow furrowed as a thought crossed his mind. “Harmony… You remember Ryoushi mentioning his sensei?”
“Do you know what a Yautja is?”
“I have no idea,” Harmony answered, remembering the word as well. “So you don’t know what is it either?”
Scarlet shook his head. “It’s not a Japanese word, I take it.”
“If it is, it is not one I know of. So whoever this sensei Ryoushi mentioned, maybe he is not Japanese himself. Maybe ‘Yautja’ is his name?”
“I didn’t get that impression, no.” Scarlet sighed. “Quite frankly, I don’t see what exactly we’re doing here. We’ve been assigned rooms… We don’t hang around Ryoushi… I went down while you were getting ready and I talked to Seijitsu. I mentioned that we really should join his employer, so we can ensure his protection properly. He told me that it wasn’t necessary for now, that his personal security was looking after him. And that we will be called upon if there’s a need for it.”
“That is strange, considering that he insisted for us to stay here,” Harmony noted.
“Indeed. Seijitsu said that the important thing is that we would be there with Mr Ryoushi for dinner.”
“Perhaps he is genuinely afraid of his guests?”
“Because of what I told him earlier? Maybe…” Scarlet grunted and shook his head. “But somehow that would surprise me.”
“Have you seen the guests in question, Captain?”
“Only from afar. A maid was taking them to their rooms, as I talked with Seijitsu. I think they had arrived only a few minutes before.” Scarlet shrugged. “There were three men – and I don’t know any of them. We’ll probably learn their identities tonight at dinner. We might as well run a security check on them after that. That’ll give us something to do.”
“I take it your… sixth sense didn’t react to their presence?” Harmony asked carefully.
“No… But you know it isn’t exactly reliable to begin with. Anyway, I doubt that there would be any Mysteron agents among them. We already know the Mysterons’ target is in Stanton.” Scarlet checked his watch; it was nearing 19:00. “We should be going, if we don’t want to be late.”
“We wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?” she asked, taking the arm Scarlet offered her.
“Perish the thought,” he deadpanned, as they walked out of the room. “Don’t you have the impression that he’s inviting us to dinner to meet his guests, to display us as he displays his stuffed trophies?”
“That did occur to me, yes,” Harmony admitted. “If that is the case, then we did right to dress well. We will make a good impression.”
Scarlet chuckled. “Well, you, at least.”
* * *
Yu Seijitsu, who was waiting for them, welcomed Captain Scarlet and Harmony Angel in the hall. When he saw the Angel pilot in her borrowed dress and her elaborate hairdo, he couldn’t find enough praises to describe how eye-catching he found her. Glancing at her, Scarlet could see she was reddening slightly around the ears. She didn’t have to make any effort, nor needed any artifice of any kind to appear attractive. She was a reserved young woman, and maybe, he imagined, she wasn’t totally aware of her own natural beauty and charm.
Seijitsu guided them to the dining room. It was a huge room, almost as big as the living room, but without any of the Japanese decor; it was strictly western-style, with walls adorned with dark wood panels, a waxed wooden floor, and a long, heavy dining table also made of wood. Hayato Ryoushi and his guests were already seated and chatting between themselves when the two Spectrum officers entered. Upon seeing them, Ryoushi rose to his feet and came to welcome them. There was a broad smile on his lips as he shook Scarlet’s hand.
“Captain Scarlet. Harmony Angel. Welcome,” he said in a cheerful voice that somehow clashed with his stern appearance. “We have been waiting for you.”
“Are we late?” Scarlet inquired, a little puzzled. “We were told the dinner was at seven.”
“You are not late.” Ryoushi turned to Harmony and took her hand with a warmth that surprised the young woman. “And even if you had been, when accompanied by such a vision of beauty, you would be promptly forgiven,” he added with a smirk. “You look wonderful, my dear.”
“T-Thank you, Ryoushi-san.” Harmony didn’t expect this; the man she had categorized as an incomparable boor filled with prejudice was actually complimenting her. She knew she wasn’t wrong in her judgement of the man, so his current behaviour seemed terribly out of character from what she had earlier seen of him.
He must be play-acting for his guests, she decided. There could be no other logical explanation to her. She glanced in direction of the three men seated at the table. They were now looking at her – and Scarlet – in a very intent way, with obvious curiosity and interest.
Scarlet also was perplexed by the very unexpected behaviour displayed by their host; at their first meeting, Hayato Ryoushi appeared to him as a stern and cold man who didn’t seem very inclined either to show his emotions – a very Japanese trait, in Scarlet’s point of view – or to be so forthcoming towards people approaching him. And yet, at this moment, he seemed to want to treat Harmony and himself as if they were the guests of honour at tonight’s dinner. The English captain also caught the way the ‘other guests’ were now staring at them; and quite frankly, he wasn’t sure if he liked it at all.
He was starting to believe he had guessed right earlier, and that Ryoushi indeed was displaying them as trophies to his guests.
The Japanese businessman stepped aside and gestured towards the table. “Now, please, take your seats. We’ll be eating very shortly.”
As he was supposed to act as Ryoushi’s ‘bodyguard’, Scarlet had fully expected to find his place beside Ryoushi, but while their host returned to his place at one end of the table, he saw a young servant pulling out the chair at the other end, and waving at him to take the offered place. He sat down, while Harmony took the chair on his left; one of Ryoushi’s guests – a tall man wearing a black Stetson hat – seated just by her side, rose to his feet and pulled out the chair for her.
“There you go, lil’ lady,” he said. Scarlet noticed the heavy American southern accent of the man; not only did he look like a cowboy, he also sounded like one. “You’ll be nice and comfy now.” He sat down near Harmony, grinning widely at her. Neither Spectrum officer felt very much at ease. Everyone was staring at them.
Scarlet barely noticed as the young man who had pulled his chair stood by his side, bowing to him: “May I take your hat, sir?”
Scarlet just realised he had kept his cap in his hand. For a second or two, he wondered what to do with it, and then decided it was best to keep it. He hung it from the back of his chair. “Thank you,” he said the servant. “I’ll hang on to it, if you don’t mind.”
The man didn’t insist, bowed and was about to leave, when the man with the Stetson waved at him. “Here, you can take mine, boy. My mama always told me it was bad manners for a man to keep his hat on at the table.” He winked at Harmony as the servant took delivery of the hat. “Especially when there’s a good-lookin’ gal seated at the same table, by your side.”
The servant walked quietly out through the door, and Scarlet followed him with his eyes. And the young man left, three other men entered; but they obviously were not servants, as they were wearing the same khaki uniform he had noticed upon their landing on the island – the uniform, he imagined, worn by Hayato Ryoushi’s security team.
Scarlet froze when he saw that one of these men was Nicholas Laws. But the man only gave him the briefest of glances upon entering. While his two companions stayed by each side of the door, he walked towards Ryoushi who was exchanging brief words in a very low voice with Seijitsu seated on his left. Scarlet followed Laws with his eye and tensed slightly when he saw him leaning close to their host, to murmur something into his ear. Scarlet made an effort to catch a word or two, but he was unable to hear anything.
Seemingly unconcerned by whatever Laws was telling him, Ryoushi simply nodded, unfolding his white fabric napkin with a theatrical flapping gesture, and putting it on his lap. “Thank you, Mr Laws,” he said in a quiet voice. “You can resume your duties, now.”
Laws acknowledged the order with a nod; he glanced once more towards Scarlet, even more briefly than he did before, and then stood up and walked the whole length of the table. He went to the other men, and instructed them to leave the room. He closed the door behind them, before turning his back on it and straightening up to stand guard at the place one of the other men previously occupied, not that far behind Scarlet. The latter was calmly unfolding his napkin, making a show not to appear too concerned by the man’s presence so near to him.
“So it is true then?” Scarlet’s attention returned to the guests seated at the table. Every one of them was still staring straight at him, seemingly not missing any gesture he made. It was the big man, seated next to Harmony Angel, who had said those words in his loud voice. “The both of you are really Spectrum officers?”
“We are, sir,” Scarlet confirmed. He couldn’t very well deny it, while wearing his uniform.
“And you too, as well, young lady?” he moved on, looking at Harmony.
She nodded briefly. “I am an Angel pilot, sir.”
“Well, I’ll be damned…” The man laughed. “Ryoushi, you ol’ bastard, I thought you were leadin’ us on! How d’you manage to get a hold of ‘em?”
Scarlet saw the murderous glare in Ryoushi’s sole eye; obviously, he didn’t appreciated in the least the American’s much too overt and impolite familiarity. Taking an intake a breath, the Japanese businessman replied:
“Captain Scarlet and Harmony Angel have been sent here by their organisation to protect me against a possible attack from the Mysterons.”
Scarlet froze; it would not have been his first idea to reveal that information to Ryoushi’s guests. First, he didn’t see any reason to worry them regarding a hypothetical attack that he had every reason to believe would not happen. Secondly… well, if there was indeed something about to happen, any one of them could be implicated and the culprit would be on to them.
Right, Scarlet admonished himself. Like our mere presence in this house isn’t enough of an indication that something is going on, that might involve the Mysterons. These guys would never guess that we might simply be Ryoushi’s guests as well.
He didn’t have time to protest.
“So you both here to protect Ryoushi from those Mysteron fellas?” the man with the Stetson commented. “Or is that a joke?” He chuckled. “I find it hard to believe, Ryoushi, that anyone would be tryin’ to get to you, right in this house. It’s a genuine fortress. Have you seen the amount of armed guys hanging around the place?”
I did, yes, Scarlet thought inwardly. And that’s making me a little nervous….
“Spectrum doesn’t like to take chances, sir,” he answered calmly. “There was a possibility that Mr Ryoushi would be a target of the Mysterons, and that is the reason for our presence here. However, it would seem that Mr Ryoushi is not the intended target. We are staying just… in case. So you don’t have any reason to worry, Mister… Sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Ah, my mistake,” Ryoushi then said. “Forgive me, I forget my manners. I should start with proper presentations…. Captain Scarlet, Harmony Angel, may I present Mr. Dirk Johnston…”
“From Houston, Texas,” Scarlet completed.
“Y’heard of me,” Johnston declared.
“You’ve made the news a few years back, Mr Johnston. You made your fortune building the pan-American pipeline.”
The Texan waved dismissively. “Ah, that’s the company’s doin’,” he replied. “I don’t get involved much with what the board of directors’ decides… I let ‘em do their job, I get the result money. Easier that way.”
“Much easier to be born with the money,” a poised English voice drawled. It was the man seated right next to Seijitsu; he was smoking a cigar that stank out the whole room. He appeared to be in his late fifties, with hair that had probably been brown at some point of his life but was now thin on the top of his head with a strange hue that gave it a corroded appearance; he had a big white moustache, was heavily built, and wore a smart dinner jacket “I’ve noticed your English accent, young man. So you’re the King’s subject as well, are you not?”
There was no sense in denying the fact. Scarlet knew his accent would forever betray him. As the man’s own accent would for himself. “I am, sir,” he said carefully. “And so are you, if I should believe my ears.”
The man smiled, removing the cigar from his lips and blowing smoke, as he stared at the tip of it. “I’m a peer of the Realm,” he answered matter-of-factly. He seemed to give great importance to that statement; quite frankly, Scarlet couldn’t care less if he was a duke, an earl, a baronet, or a beggar on the street. The man struck him as supercilious and unpleasant. The fact that he smoked that dreadful cigar and impolitely blew the smoke nearly directly in Harmony’s face was enough to show he had little or no consideration for anyone else but himself.
Yeah… A true peer of the Realm, Scarlet thought with sarcasm. With blue blood, a title and royally bad manners…
“Lord Anthony Clarington,” Ryoushi presented, gesturing at the man. “As he said himself, a… peer of England.”
“Your Lordship,” Scarlet acknowledged with a short nod.
Ryoushi gestured in the direction of a forty-something, slim, dark-haired man, with olive skin and dark eyes, who sat next to Clarington, and on Scarlet’s right. “This gentleman is Coronel Esteban Manuel Rodriguez,” he announced.
“Retired colonel,” Rodriguez corrected instantly, with a Latino accent. “Formerly of the Panamanian Republic Army. Captain… Señorita…” He bowed to Harmony, who was in front of him, flashing her a broad smile of perfectly white teeth, amongst which a single gold tooth shone brightly.
“You three gentlemen are Mr. Ryoushi’s business partners?” Scarlet asked, more to make conversation than anything else.
“I’m just here for the pleasure of my friend Hayato’s company,” Clarington said.
“Same with me,” Rodriguez said in turn, “I’m not much of a businessman anyway… All I could do with money is spend it.” He grinned. “Like Clarington here, I was born into it.”
As for Johnston, he chuckled loudly. “I told ya I didn’t get involved with my company’s decisions. I won’t change today a system that’s been workin’ for years.”
Strange, Scarlet reflected. If he doesn’t get involved with the company’s decisions, what is he doing here, in a meeting with the brilliant businessman who is Hayato Ryoushi?
In fact, Scarlet was wondering about the reasons why the other two men were also part of this meeting. Of their own admission, they weren’t involved in any way in any entrepreneurial business. He glanced at Rodriguez; the man had the eyes and the look of a human panther. To the knowing eye, it was easy to guess the trained soldier in this man. He could prove dangerous enough to be considered a potential suspect to be taken over by the Mysterons – if ever there was a risk of an attack. Scarlet started considering the possibility. And suddenly, he felt a little bit more on edge than he had been all day.
“These gentlemen,” Ryoushi explained to Scarlet, smiling as he did, “share with me the same passion for the hunt.”
“Oh.” Scarlet turned to Rodriguez. “So you’re a hunter, Señor Rodriguez?”
The latter nodded, smiling thinly. “Yes, I am. I love hunting. It’s been a passion for me since I was a boy. And I’m a pretty good shot, if I say so myself. I can shoot a buck dead at a distance of more than a thousand five hundred yards.”
Scarlet raised a brow. “Really now?” He wasn’t overly impressed by the performance. He had seen better. He was himself a good marksman and with the proper equipment, he had done as well as Rodriguez. And he wasn’t shooting at deer.
We all met on safari in Africa,” Clarington explained. “A very exciting experience it was… That was, what, about a year or so ago?”
“About that, yes,” commented Johnston. “Although I knew Ryoushi for a longer time – his company doing business with mine and all. We discovered common interests at some point… that we loved big game hunting.”
“The best hunter amongst us is certainly Ryoushi-san,” Clarington said.
“Or maybe it’s just that he’s luckier than us, eh, Ryoushi?”
The Japanese raised a brow. “You would like to believe that, wouldn’t you, Mr Johnston?”
“I won’t argue,” Rodriguez said with a chuckle. “But one day I will have a trophy room as impressive as yours, Ryoushi.” He leaned toward Harmony. “Have you seen his trophy room, señorita?”
“I have, yes,” she said, keeping an impassive expression.
“Harmony Angel doesn’t share our love for the sport,” Ryoushi declared quietly.
“Really?” Rodriguez said, staring at Harmony with perplexity. “That’s a shame! Oh, but maybe we will be able to change your mind about it? If you join us on our next hunt –”
“That would surprise me very much, Señor Rodriguez,” Harmony replied in a poised voice. “But… I thank you for your offer anyway.”
He shrugged. “Think nothin’ of it.”
“And you, Captain Scarlet?” Clarington then asked. “Are you a hunter?”
“No, your lordship,” Scarlet answered flatly. “I’m afraid I’ve never developed a taste for it.”
“That means you actually tried it,” Clarington insisted.
Scarlet pondered his answer. “Once, when I was a boy, I went deer hunting with my father. I didn’t care much for it.”
“Didn’t you feel the thrill of the hunt, Captain?” Rodriguez asked in turn. “The blood rushing through your veins at the moment of the kill?”
Scarlet smiled thinly. “I would have been a rather blood-thirsty eleven years old if that had been the case, sir,” he said.
Johnston guffawed loudly. “Most children are blood-thirsty little bastards anyway!” he said without any reservation. The others guests chuckled and laughed at his joke. Neither Scarlet nor Harmony found it particularly funny. Yu Seijitsu’s expression stayed neutral; as for Hayato Ryoushi, he was leaning on the backrest of his chair, with his intertwined fingers resting on his chin; he was gazing directly at Scarlet, with an intense look.
“Come, come now, Captain,” he said pleasantly, “do you mean to tell us that even as a soldier, while battling the enemy behind their own lines, you never felt any of these exhilarating feelings that come with the thrill of the kill?”
Scarlet froze. He exchanged quick glances with Harmony, to realise she was as surprised as he was himself of the Japanese businessman’s unexpected comment. He turned his attention back to Ryoushi, narrowing his eyes with suspicion. “How do you so specifically know I was a soldier, Mr Ryoushi?”
The businessman, for a brief moment, seemed to be taken aback by the question. “It’s only an image, to illustrate your fight against the Mysterons, Captain,” he answered candidly.
For Scarlet, it was too explicit an image and the explanation had something of a phoney ring to it. Scarlet more than suspected that the man knew more about him than he was letting on.
And he just knew where the information could have come from. He was pretty sure the source was standing not that far behind him.
Realising his mistake, and that Scarlet had not been a fool with his answer, Ryoushi then let out a short sigh. He sat back on his chair, his hands with fingers intertwined resting on his chin, and observed Scarlet with attention. After a few seconds, he finally said, very quietly: “Forgive me, Captain, for this careless faux-pas. The indiscretion came from my head of security, Mr. Laws, who told me he knew you and that you followed the same military training together.”
Scarlet looked over his shoulder, in a deliberately slow movement, and glared meaningfully in the direction of Laws, who was still standing rigidly by the door. The man gazed back at him, but no expression was visible on his face.
“He also said you were the best in your field, Captain; a soldier without peer,” Ryoushi continued.
“Your head of security should learn to keep his mouth shut,” Scarlet said, returning his attention to Ryoushi. “And know that it’s not healthy to reveal confidential information.”
“This is entirely my fault, Captain. I wasn’t aware it was confidential information.” Ryoushi bowed his head. “Please, accept my sincerest apologies.”
“Mr Ryoushi, the true identities of Spectrum agents must be kept confidential at all time, and any information that might lead to the discovery of these identities might also lead to grave consequences, for the agents in question as well as for their families. This is a serious breach of security.” Scarlet paused and glanced in Harmony’s direction. “Considering the events and that you might not need our presence in this house after all, we might have to leave to avoid further complications.”
Ryoushi raised a hand, in a gesture that meant to be a calming one. “Please, Captain, there is no need to go to such extremes. I’m sure you can count on the people present to keep your secret… such as it is. There is no real harm done, anyway.”
Johnston gave a loud chuckle. “Yeah, sport. Do relax. It’s not like Ryoushi had actually spelled out your real name…”
Scarlet shivered at the implication, but had no time to reply, as Ryoushi continued: “Really, Captain, you cannot blame me, if I want to know more about you. Knowing of your previous exploits, I already found you a remarkable man. Now I find you even more fascinating.”
“I am not as ‘fascinating’ as you imply, Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet replied carefully. “I am a Spectrum officer doing my job.”
“Mmm. And doing it well, the way I heard of it,” Ryoushi commented with a slow nod. “I gave away your secret, Captain. Although, admittedly, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that you should be a soldier after all. But for this mistake, I’m prepared to make amends. What about if I reveal one of my secrets in exchange? This way, we would be even.”
“Mr Ryoushi, I don’t think –”
“I made my first kill at ten,” Ryoushi said quietly, and Scarlet fell silent, as the man leaned over the table to look directly at him. “And it was an experience that marked my life. Forever. I was at a time when my life needed definition and purpose. I was all alone, with my father just dead, and my mother gone for a long time. I needed to find the strength in me, not only to move on, but to be able to face any threat or danger and rise above it. The hunt gave me that strength and that purpose. The hunt, for me, is a philosophy and a way of life. Without the hunt, without the thrill it brings me, there is no honour. There is no life.”
“So I’m guessing you are grateful to your old sensei to have taught you,” Scarlet said coldly.
“The bastard killed my father.”
Shocked silence followed this revelation. Ryoushi’s dinner guests – who obviously already knew of that detail – didn’t say a word, and either kept their head down or took a drink from their glasses of champagne. Scarlet and Harmony looked at each other, with a fair amount of confusion. From the information they had read on Ryoushi’s background, there was no mention that his father had been murdered.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet said, returning his attention to their host.
The latter scoffed. “Why? It was many years ago, when I was still a child. Beside, my father was a bastard too. He was beating me within an inch of my life when he was killed. His killer took me in and taught me everything he knew. I wasn’t a good pupil at first.” He pointed to his blind eye. “My first lesson was to learn to listen.”
“You sensei did that to you?” Harmony asked with shock.
“After I did the same to him,” he replied stoically.
That had the desired effect on Harmony who stared at him unbelievingly. Scarlet kept a collected expression, although the statement had surprised him as well.
Johnston chortled. “Well, like I said,” he said good-naturedly, “children can be such blood-thirsty bastards…”
Scarlet ignored the few chuckles around the table. He was keeping his attention on Ryoushi. “There is nothing of all this in your record, sir,” he said quietly. “And Spectrum prides itself with being able to find all information there is to know about any individual.”
Ryoushi smiled mysteriously. “So Seijitsu-san reported to me. He explained earlier how surprised you had been to discover that I had left Tokyo, without Spectrum knowing about it.”
“Our friend Hayato certainly can be elusive, when he wants to,” Rodriguez said with a grin. “You have to give him that.”
“Why, Captain, you must admit that I am certainly not just ‘any individual’. My personal history is my own. And I made sure that nobody would go ‘snooping’ around to find information that I would not be willing to divulge. Even to Spectrum.” He raised his glass to Scarlet. “So you see, my secret is well worth yours, Captain. And I’m sure you will admit that, to Spectrum, the fact that I discovered – and revealed to my guests – that you were a trained soldier is of little consequence… compared to some of these other secrets your organisation is keeping from the people of this planet.”
Scarlet raised a brow. To what secret – or secrets – was Ryoushi referring exactly? He couldn’t mean the Mysterons, surely…
To the world at large, the Mysterons were just yet another very earthly terrorist organisation wreaking havoc everywhere on the planet. To avoid a world-wide panic, the World Government had made sure to hide that they came from Mars – as well as the responsibility of Earth’s Zero-X mission had for their acts against the people of Earth. To that effect, the Mysterons’ radio communications were intercepted by special satellites before they reached the planet, and were relayed directly to Spectrum facilities.
When the Mysterons targeted someone, that person was informed and granted Spectrum’s protection, but unless it was absolutely necessary to do so, that person would not be informed of the nature of his would-be aggressors.
To Scarlet’s knowledge, Ryoushi wasn’t in the know concerning the Mysterons, unless he had learned all about them from his contacts in the World Government…
He hoped he was right in that assumption. And Scarlet certainly hoped to God that Ryoushi didn’t know either about the other terrible secret that concerned him directly – but for that one, he had to reason, it would be very difficult for the Japanese businessman to find out.
“Mr Ryoushi, I’m certain I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Scarlet’s voice carried a definite warning. If Ryoushi knew anything at all, he would surely understand that it was in his best interests not to divulge anything.
There was a discreet smile on the businessman’s lips as he spoke next:
“No, of course you don’t, Captain,” he said with no concealed irony. “And so I will not discuss it further with you. Not when there are so many other subjects of discussion offered to us.”
Scarlet drew a deep breath. The more he stayed in the presence of this man, the less at ease he felt. And he could see that Harmony was feeling exactly the same.
“Captain, you remember that conversation we had in the trophy room – when I said there were similarities between hunters and warriors that you could not deny?”
“I recall that, yes,” Scarlet answered.
“Well, Captain, the main common factor, is certainly danger. You have to admit this, don’t you?”
Scarlet shook his head. “I don’t see much danger in shooting a deer with a rifle, at more than a thousand yards distance,” he replied coldly. From the corner of his eye, he could see Rodriguez react to his comment and turning to glare crossly at him. He didn’t care if he had rubbed the retired Panamanian officer the wrong way.
“I agree with you,” Ryoushi replied without any restraint. “And you will also have to agree that the same could be said with a sniper shooting an enemy soldier at an even greater distance. But if you should replace the deer with a lion… and the rifle with a spear – or better yet, with a knife – now you are changing the whole game.”
“You’ve just used the word that does make the difference between hunter and warrior, Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet replied calmly. “Game. While in the past, it would have been a necessity to survive, in this day and age, hunting can only be considered a game – a sport, even. However, war is anything but a game.”
“Some politicians certainly view it that way, my young friend,” Rodriguez commented quietly.
“I am not a politician, sir,” Scarlet retorted sharply. “And never would I see war that way. For me, war is an evil thing to avoid, and although at times it seems like a necessity, I wish it wasn’t. As a soldier, someone who has seen the worst of it, I can bear witness there is no game in war, no sport – no pleasure. And certainly no honour. At least, for me there wasn’t any of all this. I only did what I had to do in order to –”
“– Survive, Captain?” Ryoushi interrupted calmly. “When everything comes down to it, when you take away the technology and the sophisticated tools – isn’t that what it’s is all about? Survival of the fittest – the fight for the right to live? Hunting is exactly the same. And the way I see it, it is much more than a game, or a sport. For me, it’s a way of life.”
“So you said already, Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet replied stoically. “But with all due respect, I believe you live in the wrong century.”
Ryoushi answered with a thin smile that in the middle of his scarred face had a cruel expression to it. “It might be that you are right, Captain Scarlet.” He leaned back against the backrest of his chair. “You were wrong about yourself, however, and I was right: you are a fascinating man, even if you would deny it. A professional soldier who doesn’t believe in the virtue of war… A man who is the best at what he does, and that often means killing other human beings to see his job done and to ensure the safety of his charge… and at the same time, survive against impossible odds…”
Scarlet sighed in exasperation. “Mr Ryoushi –”
“Your reputation precedes you, Captain,” Ryoushi interrupted. “And your incredible luck at cheating death the way you did… and not only once, but many times. It takes a survivor, someone with an incomparable will to live, to do what you do so well.” Ryoushi slowly nodded. “We don’t meet the likes of you every day. And I count myself very fortunate, that Spectrum sent you to my home following this Mysteron threat – that your organisation, obviously, wrongly interpreted as possibly targeting my person.”
Scarlet was bemused by his words. “You never believed that the threat was against you,” he observed with suspicion.
“The doubt did cross my mind,” Ryoushi replied calmly. “But then I asked myself… why would they go after me, a mere businessman from Japan? I really cannot be of interest to them – nor could they consider me a threat.”
Scarlet nodded thoughtfully. “You would be surprised what could interest the Mysterons,” he said in a low voice. “Or what they consider a threat.”
Ryoushi scoffed softly. “I hope you’re not trying to impress me, Captain… or even to scare me.”
Scarlet glanced in Harmony’s direction; he could see by the expression on her face that she was sharing his perplexity. Frowning, he stared at the man seated at the other end of the table. “If you believed you were not the Mysterons’ intended target, sir, then why did you use the influence you have on the World President to keep Harmony and myself here, in this house, while our duties obviously call us elsewhere?” he asked, with barely contained anger.
Ryoushi chuckled. “Convincing the World President wasn’t the most difficult thing I had to do. Believe me, Captain, you don’t know to what lengths I went to have you here.” Scarlet tilted his head in an inquiring way, unsure what he meant. “Come to think of it,” the Japanese man continued, “after all the rest, which was far more complicated, I fully expected to fight the World President more than I actually did. I do believe he must have had a harder time convincing your commander to let you sit that one out.”
“You haven’t answered the question,” Scarlet repeated, this time more sharply. “Why – sir?”
“I told you: because I find you fascinating. And with what Mr Laws told me about you, I just knew I made a good choice. I’ve been looking a long time to find someone like you, Captain Scarlet. You exceed all my expectations.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes at the man; there was something in what he was saying that he didn’t like at all; and the way his guests were now watching him like hawks… it was as if they were staring at a very rare and curious animal. They had stopped participating in the discussion and contented themselves with just watching the exchange between their host and the Spectrum officer. It had become a spoken joust, in which the witnesses seemed to expect there would be only one survivor.
The silence that had fallen on the room was disturbed by the ringing of a phone and Scarlet, who wasn’t taking his eyes off Ryoushi, saw Seijitsu reaching into his vest pocket to produce a small cell that he immediately put to his ear, whispering a word or two in Japanese before listening to what his interlocutor was telling him. Scarlet barely paid attention, and watched as Ryoushi took a quick sip of his glass, before putting it down in an affected gesture.
Scarlet felt even more ill at ease than when he had entered the room earlier. Something felt terribly wrong and he had no intention of playing Ryoushi’s game anymore – whatever it could be.
He removed the napkin from his lap and tossed it onto his empty plate. “Harmony,” he said with a composed voice, his eyes riveted on Ryoushi’s set face, “I believe we have outlived our welcome in this house. It’s time we took our leave from our host.”
She approved with a nod. Ryoushi seemed surprised at the Spectrum captain’s comments.
“What, you want to leave us, Captain?” he asked.
“Sir, I don’t know why you seem to think you might need me,” Scarlet said as politely as he could. “But without meaning you disrespect, I truthfully think that you don’t. And since you’re clearly not afraid for your life because of the Mysterons’ threat, and that it’s unlikely you are their target, I think it’s better that Harmony Angel and I leave and return to our duties. Where I feel we are truly needed.” His face became hard. “So I would be grateful to you if you would arrange for our immediate departure to Tokyo. Or else, I’ll call Spectrum for a pick-up.”
For Scarlet, there would be no argument on the matter; he would leave this place – the sooner the better. He had no business here… and all these people presently staring at him were making him feel really uncomfortable.
Ryoushi seemed to get the message, and raised his hands from the table, seemingly giving up. “If you want it that way, Captain…” He turned to his secretary. “Seijitsu-san, please make arrangements for the good captain and the young woman’s departure as soon as possible.”
Seijitsu put down his cell phone and turned to his employer, shaking his head. “I am afraid this will not be possible, Shacho,” he answered quietly. And as the Spectrum officers’ curiosity and everyone else’s attention turned to him, he showed his phone to Ryoushi. “I just received the call. The helijet, sir. It left shortly after refuelling earlier, to return to Tokyo.”
Scarlet frowned. Ryoushi glanced at him briefly before addressing his secretary again: “Well, call it back then. I’m sure our two Spectrum friends will not tolerate any delay.”
Seijitsu hesitated slightly. “There is more than that, Shacho. There’s been a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Ryoushi frowned. “And what tragedy is this, exactly?”
“I’m afraid the helijet never reached its destination. It might actually have crashed at sea.”
“What?” Scarlet said with a frown.
“That was our radio controller, Scarlet Taii,” Seijitsu explained, showing his phone. “Communication was suddenly cut with the pilot a few minutes ago. It seems he was experiencing… trouble with his craft. Then the radio went dead. The radio controller has tried to contact the helijet, but without success.”
“That’s terrible!” Harmony exclaimed.
“Indeed,” Ryoushi said, raising his glass to look into it. “A terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Neither Scarlet nor Harmony could believe the aloofness in which the businessman was taking the news. More than that, the other people seated around the table with them didn’t seem to react either; someone might as well have simply announced it was raining outside.
“Ryoushi-san,” Harmony insisted, turning to her compatriot, “you have to alert the authorities. Maybe the craft hasn’t crashed yet – maybe it’s in distress? There is a life that might need to be saved. Maybe more than one… Was the pilot alone in that helijet?”
“Was there anyone else, Seijitsu-san?” Ryoushi asked, still very calmly.
“Hai, Ryoushi Shacho,” Seijitsu answered in an apologetic voice. He turned to look at Harmony, and then at Scarlet. “There were two passengers with him.”
“Oh.” Ryoushi leaned back on his chair, looking pensive – but not disturbed at all by the news. “I’m so sorry to hear that, my old friend. And who might be those unfortunate victims?”
“Ryoushi, what kind of game are you playing?” Scarlet suddenly exploded, not understanding any of the man’s reactions, nor why he seemed to be wasting so much time. He made a show of standing up. “People are in danger, and you need to act right now, or it’ll be –”
Before he could leave the chair, Scarlet felt something cold suddenly nudging the back of his neck, and heard the ominous click of the hammer of a gun being cocked back. He froze in place and dared not move. He had not realised someone had approached him so close from behind.
“– too late, Captain?” Ryoushi quietly finished for him. “I’m afraid it is already too late. For you.”
“Don’t make any sudden move, Paul,” Scarlet heard the voice of Nicolas Laws say at his back. “Or I will not hesitate to shoot you.”
Harmony’s eyes opened wide at the gun aimed at her colleague’s head. She attempted to stand up, only to feel the hands of Dirk Johnston falling heavily on her shoulder to force her down back on her seat. She gave the man an alarmed glance and found him smiling evilly at her. He winked at her. “Now, beautiful missy. You just don’t want to get me angry. You’d better stay put, and you’ll be alright.”
With alarm, Harmony looked back at Scarlet, who sat back rigidly on his seat. The gun moved from his neck and, keeping it aimed at the Spectrum captain, Laws came to stand by his side, nearly between himself and Harmony.
“That goes double for you, Paul,” Laws said to Scarlet. “Stay quiet. I know how dangerous a man you can be.” He took the cap from the chair and threw it on the floor behind him. “I don’t think you will need that thing.”
“Laws,” Scarlet growled, glaring at him, “you sneaky son-of-a –”
“I’m only following orders, Paul. Nothing personal about it.”
Scarlet looked in confusion around the table; except for Harmony, who was looking at him with an interrogating expression filled with fear and confusion, none of the people seated there seemed in the least surprised by Laws’ gesture. Ryoushi’s three guests displayed the same smile of satisfaction, as they scrutinised him with attention. Yu Seijitsu wasn’t smiling, and simply looked at him with something of a sad expression; he averted his eyes when he saw Scarlet staring at him.
As for Hayato Ryoushi, he wasn’t smiling either; he was now considering Scarlet with an implacable face, both of his hands resting on his chin, his single black eye bright with intentions that couldn’t be good for the two Spectrum officers.
“Mr Ryoushi,” Scarlet said roughly, glaring at the man. “What is the meaning of this? Would you care to explain what this is all about?”
Ryoushi tutted, and quietly took the phone from his secretary’s hand. “Really, you should not have done that, you know?”
“Done what?” Scarlet asked in total confusion. “What are you on about?”
“Seijitsu-san heard you arguing with your commander earlier. He said you were not very happy to stay at my home, while your colleagues were risking their lives at Stanton Base. So you and Harmony Angel went against your commander’s orders and… requisitioned the helijet to leave.”
“What?!” Scarlet exclaimed, not believing his ears.
“But unfortunately,” Ryoushi continued, “that’s the last we heard of you. So we have to assume your craft crashed in the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, before you reached Tokyo. And you disappeared forever.”
“What the devil is that cockeyed story about?” Scarlet retorted. “Do you really expect Spectrum or anyone else would believe that? I don’t believe it myself!”
“Oh, I think it’s truly believable,” Ryoushi replied. “Mr. Laws confirmed that you have the habit of…” He seemed to be looking for the words.
“… Taking the initiative,” Laws provided quietly.
“Thank you, Mr. Laws.”
“So those two ‘passengers’ you mentioned earlier, you implied that they were us?” Scarlet asked. “You didn’t really send your only means of leaving this island to crash into the ocean, just in order to make believe we stole it and were killed in the crash?”
Ryoushi nodded. “I knew you were an intelligent man, Captain Scarlet. That’s another asset we were hoping for. I have two helijets.” He pointed towards the ceiling. “One of those helijets is still on the landing pad, on the roof. The other has been safely hidden, away from this island, so that the story will check out, if someone should be so curious to search for it. Of course, it’ll be a little business to ‘disguise’ this craft properly, and to change its purpose. I have the means to do it easily enough. No sense in wasting a perfectly good craft if I can avoid it.” He paused a second. “Ah, and for the record, the helijet wasn’t our only way out of this island. Should we need it, I have a small helicopter – and a yacht, moored at a pier, in the lagoon on the other side of the island.”
“Ryoushi, I don’t understand any of this. This is completely insane!” Scarlet snapped angrily. “What is this all about? What do you want of us?”
“Really, Captain, you don’t have an inkling of an idea?” Ryoushi asked him.
“Maybe he’s not as intelligent as you thought, Ryoushi,” Clarington commented, with a scoff. “You can’t expect too much from these commoners.”
Ryoushi shrugged dismissively before sighing with exaggerated disappointment. “What a shame,” he said quietly. “I didn’t imagine that this dinner would turn out so badly so early. We didn’t even have time for the entrées. Please, accept my apologies, Captain – Harmony Angel… I fully intended for you to have a wonderful meal tonight. Because after all, in all probability, it will be your last.”
“There’s a good chance of that,” Johnston said with a chuckle.
“… Unless, Captain, you prove even better than I imagine you could be,” Ryoushi continued, without taking any notice of the American’s intervention.
“Well, we’ll see about that,” Rodriguez added in turn.
“Ryoushi,” Scarlet spat between his teeth, “I don’t know what you are planning –”
“Really, you still haven’t guessed yet, Captain?” Ryoushi said. “And here I thought our intentions couldn’t be clearer… I must say I’m disappointed in you.”
“I spelled it out for him,” Clarington then butted in. He slightly shifted on his chair to address Scarlet with an implacable expression on his face. “Tomorrow, we’ll go to the big island. And you’ll join us in a hunt, my boy. A hunt, in which you will play a very special role.”
Understanding dawned on Scarlet. “You can’t be serious!” he snapped in astonished anger.
“Oh, but we are,” Rodriguez said, with a smirk. “As you say in English: we’re deadly serious, Captain. We’ve just been waiting for the perfect prey – and Ryoushi, as he promised, provided it for us.”
“Ah, but it wasn’t as easy as it would seem, Senor Rodriguez,” Ryoushi retorted. “But with a helping hand from Fate, we have now the prey we had so hoped for. And Fate also provided to us the leverage to ensure that our… ‘special guest’ will play along with us, as we intended him to.” He raised his cup of wine and with it, saluted Harmony Angel who was glaring at him. She averted her eyes, in a movement that showed all the revulsion she felt for him.
Scarlet bristled at Ryoushi’s words. “You crazy son-of-a-bitch…” He made a move to rise from his chair, but Laws quickly stopped him, pushing his gun under the Spectrum captain’s jaw.
“Easy. I thought I told you to stay quiet, mate.”
“Calm, calm, now,” Ryoushi called from the other end of the table. “Mr Laws, please – we do not want the good Captain to die by your hand tonight. You know how precious he is to me.”
“To us,” Clarington added stoically.
“To us,” the Japanese businessman amended, nodding to Clarington. “Yes, you are right, your Lordship. It is not often that we find a man of Captain Scarlet’s calibre.”
“He will be perfect,” Rodriguez commented, smiling in turn, and looking approvingly at Scarlet. “A perfect specimen.”
Scarlet clenched his jaws. “You’re all mad. How do you expect to get away with it? Spectrum knows we’re here… When we fail to report, they’ll come to investigate!”
“Does Spectrum really know exactly where you are, Captain?” Ryoushi interrupted.
“If you mean they will be fooled by your phoney story about us being in a crash, that won’t work, Ryoushi.”
“Ah! You mean, they will use the coordinates that Seijitsu-san gave to you, and will go there?” Ryoushi gave it some thought. “That’s a shame. When they’ll arrive there, they will discover that they received the wrong coordinates.”
“What?” Scarlet stared at him unbelievingly, then he turned his attention to Seijitsu. The later shook his head.
“Sadly, the coordinates I gave you were not right, Scarlet Taii,” the older man said quietly. “A slight mistake, an inversion of numbers… Oh, still pointing to somewhere in the Pacific... relatively close to this point, actually.”
“But not close enough, I’m afraid,” Ryoushi deadpanned. “Spectrum will put it down to an honest, quite simple clerical mistake, when they find nothing at the coordinates – that you yourself gave them. Was it due to you, or my faithful secretary – they wouldn’t know for sure. But what importance does it have?”
“You mean, you’ve been preparing this… since then?” the disbelieving Scarlet asked.
Ryoushi nodded. “For longer than that, actually. When I learned of the Mysterons’ threat, I knew it was my chance to get the man I wanted for so long for this hunt. And I knew exactly who it was I wanted. You, Captain Scarlet. As you already know, from my contacts within the World Government, I heard about you, and of your exploits with Spectrum, while fighting the Mysterons. I know you would be the perfect candidate. So when the chance to get my hands on you presented itself, I grabbed it. I am an expert tactician, Captain, and I have the capacity to think quickly on my feet, and to come up with elaborate plans, down to the last detail, in a very short of time. This particular talent serves me well in business and life… as well as during a hunt. So I made use of my talent in that field, and used all of my influence with the World President so that you would be assigned to my… protection.”
“You must be mad,” Scarlet replied. “You must know that they will find your island, ‘clerical mistake’ or not!”
“I’m sure they will. But they will arrive too late to save you, unfortunately. And they will find nothing of you…” Ryoushi glanced in Harmony’s direction. “Or of the Angel, of course.”
“Leave her out of this!” Scarlet snapped angrily.
“I’m afraid that is impossible, my friend. We need her, as much as we need you.”
Harmony, who was following the conversation with increasing worry, felt Johnston’s fingers tightening like the claws of a preying bird on her slender arm. She glared at him, and he failed to see the warning in her almond eyes, as he leaned closer to her.
“You see, honey,” the Texan whispered softly, “even you will have your role to play. And that’ll be an important role, believe me on that.”
His final mistake was to imagine the young woman was truly as inoffensive as she looked – and to come way to close to her.
Harmony’s free hand, which was laid on the table in front of her, swiftly closed on the handle of her fork; she moved fast as a cobra, and struck the hand holding her arm, driving in the tined end nearly to the neck of the fork. Johnston yelled at the excruciating pain and let go instantly. The suddenness of Harmony’s unexpected gesture made Laws turn his weapon towards her and that was all Scarlet needed to act as well. He pushed the arm holding the gun, diverting the aim away from Harmony, and unbalancing Laws. Then he jumped to his feet, and struck a spectacular punch into the man’s face, sending him to the floor.
For a brief fraction of a second, there was pandemonium, as Harmony punched Johnston’s face, throwing him down from his chair, and Scarlet knocked the table over, surprising the remaining guests, who attempted to spread out in a hurry to avoid it. Rodriguez wasn’t fast enough and found himself trapped under the overturned table, while Clarington only had time to jump out of reach. Only Ryoushi and Seijitsu were able to completely avoid the heavy furniture and backed away from it, as it crashed loudly to the floor.
Scarlet swiftly grabbed for his gun. “Let’s get out of here!” he shouted to Harmony. She couldn’t agree more. They both darted towards the door, before anyone had regained enough of their wits to try to stop them.
Scarlet pushed the door open. He barely took a second to get his bearings; he knew the only way out of the island was to get to the roof, and take control of the helijet Ryoushi had told him was still there, and to requisition it. He didn’t have his cap, but once they were safely in flight, they would make a call to Cloudbase and tell them what had been happening. He didn’t care how much influence Hayato Ryoushi had, or how close he was with the World President. The man was dangerous, possibly crazy, and what he intended to do was revolting. And Scarlet had the feeling, by the off-hand way he was even suggesting it, that it wasn’t the first time he had done it. Which meant that people had already possibly died by his hand or by the hands of his ‘friends’.
They needed to be stopped and punished for their crimes.
“This way!” Scarlet pointed to the door leading outside and into the garden. They needed to move fast before Ryoushi’s security team would react. And if he wasn’t missing his guess, it wouldn’t be long before they would all be coming after them. Ryoushi couldn’t afford to let them go to expose him and his associates.
Closely followed by Harmony, he literally leapt over the tataki lower entrance and broke through the fragile hikido door, punching a hole the same size as himself; he stumbled onto the tiled surface of the patio – and froze to a halt, forcing Harmony to do the same.
A line of no less than eight men was standing in front of the fountain, aiming rifles at them, and holding a pose that uncomfortably reminded Scarlet of a firing squad. None of the men made use of their weapons, and Scarlet and Harmony, not taking their eyes off them, made an attempt to retreat into the house.
From behind, they heard the sound of rushing feet and turned around; four other men, also armed with rifles, were crossing the brightly lit hall and coming in their direction. Laws was coming first in front, his eyes implacable, a bleeding bruise on his left cheek.
They were trapped.
“Damn,” Scarlet muttered under his breath. His finger grazed the trigger of his gun, unsure if he should pull it. He glanced at Harmony; for himself, he didn’t care that much if he was shot – aside from the fact it was an unpleasant experience – but he had to consider her safety as well. He didn’t want for her to get killed.
With dread, he saw Laws and his men stop their advance and raise their weapons. Instinctively, Scarlet pushed Harmony behind him and stepped in front of her. Even if he had wanted to or had the time for it, he knew that using his own gun to fire before these men would was impossible.
He heard a soft bang, as Laws pulled the trigger.
To Scarlet’s surprise, it wasn’t the impact of a bullet he felt in his chest, but the sting of a needle, as the projectile hit him. He stumbled back, and looked down at his chest, to see the feathered end of a hypodermic shot. Whatever was in that needle was already coursing through his veins, and he could feel the numbing effects; however, it didn’t last long, as his retrometabolism kicked in and rapidly started working against the drug.
Of course, Scarlet thought. Ryoushi doesn’t want me dead. He needs me for this ludicrous hunt of his. That gave him and Harmony an advantage; the Spectrum captain didn’t have any scruples whatsoever in shooting them in turn. He wasn’t about to play it fair.
The anger and adrenalin made his retrometabolism work faster than it usually did, and this time he raised his gun, backing away, with Harmony still behind him. It was a desperate move, but there was very little they could do.
Scarlet pulled the trigger once, and saw with satisfaction one of Laws’ men fall on his back. A second hypodermic hit him, then a third; Scarlet’s next shot lost itself in the ceiling, harmlessly. Laws fired again, and finally, Scarlet lost control over his limbs; his legs refused to hold him upright and he fell on his knees, his vision blurring. His fingers couldn’t hold the handle of his gun anymore, and it clattered onto the tiled floor. He felt Harmony’s hands as she tried to support him, but he was too heavy for her; he crashed heavily at her feet.
Hurried footsteps drummed into his ears; through a blur, he saw Harmony make a desperate attempt to retrieve his gun; there was a soft detonation again, which seemed to echo through his mind as loudly as a lethal shot, and he helplessly saw the young woman slump to the floor by his side, after emitting a faint groan.
“No!” he roared with anger.
Scarlet could only see her set face now, and closed eyes, but he couldn’t decide if she was alive or dead. That uncertainty made his heart beat faster, and the blood rushed through his veins, fighting against the effects of the drug. The gun was still within his reach and he frantically tried to catch it. A foot appeared in his line of vision and pushed it aside, out of reach; the same foot kicked him in the side, to turn him on his back. He was unable to resist.
Scarlet lay there, gasping, fighting to keep his mind focussed; through the thickening blur, he could see Laws, standing over him, his rifle aimed straight at him.
“… Can’t believe this guy,” one of the other men said, appearing in Scarlet’s line of vision, a look of surprise apparent on his face. “We shot him with enough anaesthetic to knock out an elephant, and he’s still conscious!”
“Not for long, he isn’t,” Laws replied coldly. He reloaded his gun and looked down into Scarlet’s eyes as he took careful aim. “Sorry, Metcalfe… But I’m quite sure you prefer to be shot with this, rather than the alternative.”
The last thing Scarlet saw was Laws pulling the trigger anew, this last shot finally rendering him unconscious.