Original series Suitable for all readersAction-oriented/low level of violence

 

Little Shop of Santa

 

A Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons short story for Christmas

 

By Chris Bishop

 

 

Captain Scarlet grimly looked down at the dead man at his feet.  Lieutenant Bistre was but a young man, twenty-five years at the most, an officer freshly graduated from the last training course at Koala Base. He now lay on the floor of this small toy store, at an odd angle, his body broken, as if someone had tried to bend him backwards; his face was distorted in agony, and his eyes, as dark as his uniform, stared blankly into emptiness.  Bistre’s death had obviously been a very painful and difficult one.

A wave of disgust filled Scarlet’s heart, as he crouched down and closed his fallen comrade’s eyelids, in a gesture of respect.

 “Spinal column broken,” he said to his partner, who was standing over him.  “The poor kid’s body has somehow been crushed with tremendous force.  He didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s a damned shame,” Blue said in an undertone. 

Scarlet nodded slowly, as he examined the broken body.  It was cool to his touch, but the skin was still supple enough, and when he bent it, the right arm responded easily.  The death was fairly recent; four, or even five hours at the very most. Somewhere around midnight, he evaluated.

Scarlet stood up and looked around.  

The room, the front room of a small London shop, was literally packed with toys. Big and small, of all shapes and sizes, colours and materials, and certainly for all tastes, desires and pockets.  The most traditional and simple, like dolls, teddy bears, and action figures,  stood on packed shelves next to the more sophisticated: race car circuits, train sets,  remote-controlled super-fast cars and flying miniaturised aircraft.  There were board games of all kinds,  for all ages, some of them fairly recent, but most of them classic, such as ‘Monopoly’ and ‘Cluedo’.  Scarlet spotted a number of stringed puppets, hanging in a corner, which looked pretty old – and probably expensive.

Close to the ceiling, running around the walls of the shop, was the suspended track of an electric train set, with a Christmas train endlessly rolling around it, the locomotive pulling its endless line of gift-packed wagons behind it, puffing and tooting, almost in harmony with the low Christmas music that could be heard in the background. He only had been in the store for a few minutes, but this music, this most too joyous atmosphere, was really starting to get on Scarlet’s nerves.  At this very moment, he didn’t feel at all filled with any Christmas spirit; not with the dead body of a colleague at his feet. Not during an assignment to stop a Mysteron threat.

Amongst this huge assortment of toys crowding the place, the most noticeable was the amount of plush animals. There were dozens of them – no, hundreds it would seem! in every corner, on every shelf; they were of all kinds: zebras, lions, giraffes, dogs, and yes, the mandatory teddy bears, which came in different colours and sizes. A very impressive giant plush grizzly – probably even larger than the original animal – was standing not that far from where Scarlet stood,  in front of the main entrance, with a large red bow tied around its furry neck, and its front paws open to welcome any visitor who walked into the store; a sign stood next to the bear, saying ‘Give Kodiak a hug!’. Scarlet couldn’t imagine that anyone, however eccentric that person might be,  would actually want to buy such a gigantic toy; it looked like it would be far too big for a child’s bedroom.

“That’s the shop’s mascot.”  The gruff voice coming from behind him made Scarlet detach his eyes from the giant bear, and he turned around.  The owner of the store, an elderly man of about eighty years old,  of frail appearance, with sparse white hair on his head, was leaning heavily on his cane, his pale blue eyes looking intently at him through small but thick glasses, that seemed to barely balance on the tip of his nose.  He gave a curt nod in the direction of the bear. 

“Kodiak’s been with us since day one.  It was animatronic, you know – kids used to stand between its paws while we took a picture.  ‘Give Kodiak a hug!’, that bear used to say, in a deep, loud voice.  And we charged two pounds a picture, in those days. It was rather a lucrative little business.  There wasn’t another bear similar to him anywhere in the country.  Then it broke.  And it’s stayed broken since then.” 

The old man turned slightly, and with slow, dragging feet, walked towards the two Spectrum officers.  He stopped in front of the body, and looked down at it in silence, before pointing to it with his cane.

“Any idea what killed him?”

The cold, assertive question surprised Scarlet and Blue and they exchanged quick glances before Blue answered:  “We were hoping you would be able to give us a clue to what might have happened.”

The old man shrugged dismissively.  He raised his head, seemingly not deigning to look directly at the two officers, and looked around, with annoyance obvious in his eyes; a team of Spectrum ground agents was presently busy taking pictures, and searching the place for whatever evidence might have been left behind by the murderer – that would give them an trail to follow.  The only thing they had been able to ascertain so far was that there had been a tussle between Bistre and whoever had attacked him, which had disturbed a small section of the shop, sending two full shelves of toys to the floor and breaking some of them, close to where the Spectrum officer had finally fallen.

 The old man gave a discontented huff.

“I hope your men won’t make too much of a mess of things in here,” he muttered under his breath. “There’s enough of that as it is right now…”

Scarlet’s reaction was an exasperated sigh.  The old man had not exactly been cooperative, up until now.  The previous day, when Bistre had come to him and informed him that he might very well be a target of the Mysterons and that he needed protection, he had accepted Spectrum’s help only reluctantly.  However, he obstinately refused to leave his shop, claiming  that he still had a very important job to do and that, since it was so very close to Christmas, he couldn’t allow himself to lose any time. Since the Mysterons’ threat had been so vague – as often it was – and as  there wasn’t any certitude that the old man was indeed the target, Colonel White had agreed that he could stay in his store, assigning Bistre and a team of security guards to his protection. The security guards were stationed outside, all around the building, to make sure nobody could get in, while Bistre would stay inside, close to their charge.

Scarlet had not been in total agreement with his commanding officer’s decision on the matter, but as he was busy himself with the protection of the person who seemed the most likely candidate for the Mysterons’ threat, there was little he could do.  However, he had this feeling – as he occasionally did  – that something would happen, in this little London toyshop. Something that he couldn’t really explain.  He hoped his instincts were wrong.

It was maddening to realise that events had proved him right.

“Now, Mr Cleever…”  he started impatiently.

“I already told you everything I know,” the old man interrupted sharply.  “I was working in my workshop, all alone, and your lieutenant was here, in the shop.  I suppose he was standing guard in front of my door…”  He used his cane to point to a door, presently closed, a few metres away.  “…But of course, I can’t be really sure of that, can I? Especially considering he was found dead at this spot here.

“Why wasn’t he in your workshop with you?” Scarlet asked, a little impatiently.

“Because I didn’t want him to be.  I need peace and quiet when I’m working, and more than anything, I dislike it profoundly when someone observes me when I’m busy. Makes it hard to concentrate.  So after your officer checked out the workshop and found it was safe – although I already had told him that – I told him to leave me alone.  He was quite reluctant to go.”

“That’s the last time you saw him alive?” Blue asked. 

The old man nodded curtly.

“What time was that?” Scarlet asked in turn.

The old man rolled his eyes upwards and sighed.  “Around nine last night.  I locked the door behind him.  His recommendation, by the way – not my idea.  But I wasn’t unhappy he asked.”

“I’m sure,” Scarlet groused.  “So you were all alone in your workshop, behind a closed and locked door, and Bistre was all alone in the shop.”

“I told you that already, yes.”

“And there were Spectrum men all around the place, checking every exit,” Scarlet continued, thoughtfully.  “So there was no apparent way for a killer to get inside, kill Bistre and get out without being noticed.”

 “As far as I know.  Unless your killer waited patiently and took the opportunity to enter when one of your men left his station and went to pee behind a lamp post…”

Scarlet frowned with irritation at the suggestion.  “None of our men would leave his post when on duty, sir.”

“Are you sure of that?” the old man asked insistently.

“Mr Cleever,” Blue moved on, interrupting the incensed Scarlet before the latter said something he might regret.  “Before we arrived, you told the investigating team that you didn’t hear anything last night?”

“No,” the grumpy old man answered.  “Not a sound.  I guess I was too absorbed in my work.”  He tapped on the small device, plugged into his left ear.  “Besides, I  had disconnected my hearing aid.”

“Why?”  Scarlet asked with a raised brow.

“Because I couldn’t afford to let myself be distracted,” Cleever answered.  “I had…”

“… A very important job to do, we know.”  Scarlet looked down at the old man.  “So you came out and found Bistre dead.”

“I was hungry, so I thought I’d go and make myself a sandwich in the kitchen.”

“What time was that?” Blue asked again.

“Around three in the morning.  Just a couple of hours ago.”

“Three in the morning,” murmured Scarlet pensively.  “We think that Bistre was killed around midnight…  I wonder why his killer didn’t come after you after that?”

Cleever raised a brow.  “He couldn’t be bothered to force the door to my workshop open?” he suggested.

“That might have brought the guards in, yes,” Scarlet commented reasonably.  “You are lucky the killer wasn’t there anymore when you opened that door yourself, Mr Cleever.”

The old man shrugged.  “Well, there was no-one around, except your man on the floor.  When I saw he was dead, I called immediately for your guys outside. And then, I contacted your colonel.”

“You have a direct contact with our commander?”  a perplexed Blue asked.

There was the ghost of a smile on Cleever’s face. “Sure.  He and I have mutual acquaintances.”

Blue and Scarlet exchanged glances again. The colonel had indeed told them not to let themselves be deceived by the old man’s appearance, that there was ‘far more than met the eye’ when it came to him. They couldn’t yet imagine what importance an old toyshop owner – a toy maker – could have exactly, for the Mysterons to decide to kill him.  According to the colonel, it was a question of world security; exactly what that meant, neither Scarlet nor Blue had a clue.  The old man they had discovered in the person of Brent Cleever seemed inoffensive enough – even if he was definitely infuriating.

And now, it seemed evident that the old man knew Colonel White very well – perhaps even personally.  The Spectrum commander, for his part, had certainly never given any indication that he knew Cleever – for whatever reason.  That was rather puzzling. 

“So,” Cleever asked, pointing his cane anew in the direction of Bistre, “I take it you haven’t found out who killed him – or how he was killed?”

Scarlet frowned; he was starting to dislike this old geezer, who demonstrated so little regard for the dead. 

“Bistre was crushed to death,” he answered crisply enough.  “How, we don’t know yet, but whatever it was that was used to kill him, it was strong enough to bend him backwards, to the point of breaking his spine.”

“I wondered how he could end up that way,” Cleever muttered. He whistled.  “That must have taken considerable effort from his killer.”

“Bistre gave his life to protect yours, Mr Cleever,” Scarlet reiterated coldly.  “You were very lucky his killer didn’t get to you.  Bistre probably bought you some time.”

“He did his job,” the old man replied, turning to calmly face Scarlet, who was glaring angrily at him.  “The way any man in his position would have done.  I’m grateful to him for that. Don’t you think I don’t know what it means, son, because I have very deep knowledge of what it means to do your duty, at the risk of your own life.”

“Do you?” Scarlet spat.  “Mr Cleever, it now seems obvious that you are indeed the target of the Mysterons…  For what reason exactly, I don’t know…”

“And it is not for you to know,” Cleever answered quietly.

Scarlet agreed with a nod. “You’re right.  And I suspect my commander knows more on that matter that we ever will.  It is not our place to ask questions – but it is our duty to protect you against the Mysterons now.  And to do everything in our power to keep you safe, so they won’t be able to get to you.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Cleever asked with a raised brow.

“We’ll get you to our London Security Building,” Blue said.  “Until after the deadline of the Mysterons’ threat.”

“That means midnight, tonight,” Scarlet confirmed.  “After that, we’ll release you.  You’ll have nothing more to fear from the Mysterons.”

The old man scoffed loudly.  “Your Security Building? And I should find that reassuring?” he said with a thin, mocking smile. “Don’t be ridiculous, Captains.  The Mysterons care very little for your so-called ‘security buildings’.  I heard what they did to the one in New York, a couple of years ago.”

“Oh, you heard about that?”  Scarlet repeated. Cleever obviously had very reliable contacts; he made no secret of knowing about the Mysterons either, when he had been approached by Spectrum the previous day.  For the nth time, Scarlet wondered who exactly this old man could be.

Obviously, he was important enough for the Mysterons to threaten him – and for the World Government to consider he had to be protected.

“If you don’t want to be taken to our Security Building,” Scarlet continued, “where do you propose we take you?”

“Nowhere.  I’ll be staying here.”

Scarlet bristled.  “After one of our men was assassinated here, last night?  You still think that it’s safe enough?”

“Do you expect this prospect to scare me?” Cleever asked.  “Believe me, I’ve been threatened with murder before, son.  I wasn’t much impressed when I was your age.  I am even less impressed today.”  He gave a thoughtful nod, as he clutched his cane with both hands.  “You know, I’m not a totally defenceless old man…”

Scarlet scowled, and then narrowed his eyes at him.  “And what do you propose to do exactly, if the killer reaches you?  Beat him to death with your walking stick?”

Cleever glared at him, before shrugging dismissively.  “Besides, the killer didn’t reach me last night.”

“Maybe it was simply because he didn’t have time, Mr Cleever,” Blue intervened.  “It’s not safe for you here anymore.”

“It doesn’t matter, really.  I have to stay. I still have work to finish.”

“Mr Cleever…”  Scarlet sighed deeply, and  found himself counting to ten to regain his calm and his patience, before addressing the old man anew: “Mr Cleever, it’s Christmas Eve.  Tell me what job could be so damned important that you have to risk your life by staying here to finish it? Couldn’t it wait after midnight tonight?”

Cleever chuckled. “You’d better believe it’s important, young man,” he said, his blue eyes bright behind his thick glasses. “It’s probably the single most important project I’ve worked on lately.  And no, it can’t wait after the end of those Mysterons’ threat!  The deadline is rapidly approaching, and I’m already late as it is – what with these Mysterons going after me and your presence in here…  I barely have time to continue.  I’m running dreadfully behind.”

“Well, maybe you can finish this job somewhere safer?” Blue suggested again, hopefully.

“No.  I told you, I don’t trust your Security Building, or whatever other security places you might have. I’ll be as safe here. Beside, all the tools I need are in my workshop.”  Cleever gestured again towards the closed door behind him.  “It would take too much time to move all that to wherever you want to take me, and to install everything properly.  I would run the risk of missing my deadline.”

“Your deadline is of less importance to us than your life,” Scarlet remarked, glaring down straight into the old man’s deeply lined face.  “We can force you to come with us, you know?”

A heavy silence followed, during which Cleever stared back into Scarlet’s angry look; then, a smile started to spread on the old man’s lips, thin, mocking.  He sniggered quietly.

“Oh, you think so, do you?” he said ever so quietly.  He obviously gave very little credence to Scarlet’s threat, which he probably found very pathetic. He patted the younger man’s chest, in an almost friendly gesture. “I suggest you contact your commander on that subject,” he continued, still very quietly.  “You might be surprised at what he’ll think of that.” 

Scarlet found his attitude exasperating – not to mention perplexing.  “Mr Cleever…”

“I’ve wasted enough time.” Cleever brusquely turned on his heels and started to walk away. “Whether you like it or not, I’m returning to my workshop to continue my work.  If it makes you feel better, I’ll close the door and lock it like last night. It seems to have worked well then, so maybe it’ll work again today?”

“Don’t expect us to man your shop, while you’re away, working in there,” Scarlet called after him, angrily.  That was a weak comeback, but quite frankly, he couldn’t think of anything else at the moment.

Cleever shrugged and gave a dismissive wave over his shoulder.  “We’re closed, anyway.”

“On Christmas Eve?” Scarlet mocked him.  “Shouldn’t that be the busiest day for your shop?”

“My project takes precedence over shop business, I’m afraid…  Even on Christmas Eve.” Cleever stopped to open his door, looked back and flashed a ironic smile in Scarlet’s direction.  “I expect to be busy all day and a good part of the night.  I won’t be in the way of you doing your… job, Captain.  I’ll only ask that you bring me my meals for lunch and dinner. I’ve already had my breakfast.”  He turned his back on them again.  “I bid you a good day, gentlemen.”  With that, he entered his workshop and closed the door.

Scarlet and Blue heard the lock being engaged.

“Now what?” Blue asked his colleague.

“Call the colonel,” Scarlet replied rather crisply, still incensed at Cleever’s behaviour. “Tell him the situation.  If this old… man thinks he can tell us how to do our job, he’s sadly mistaken!”

Blue answered with a nod of approval, and then lowered his cap microphone to call  Cloudbase’s Control Room. Scarlet, pensively, looked down towards the dead body of the unfortunate Lieutenant Bistre.

Scarlet remembered having met the young man when he had received his commission, only a few weeks ago. He was quite the promising young officer: graduated first of his class, very popular amongst his fellow classmates, captain of various sporting teams, and always assigned as commander during ground exercises.  Very few cadets undergoing training at Koala Base would receive a colour-code designation upon graduation, and Bistre had actually performed that remarkable feat. Very eager to serve, he had even been considered by his instructors as a possible addition to Cloudbase staff, given a year or two as a ground officer.  Scarlet didn’t quite remember his name. ‘Gary’, he thought he’d heard one of the other graduates call him.  He had no idea of his last name.

This mission was his first of importance, although Bistre imagined it would be a fairly easy one, as his assignment was simply to stand guard over the elderly owner of this toyshop, making sure that he was safe from the threat that the Mysterons had announced. It was probably the prospect of participating in a ‘Mysteron mission’ that got Bistre so excited, however dull his assignment might prove to be. As far as he knew, his charge was unlikely to be the Mysterons’ target. Quite frankly, why would the Mysterons want to kill a toy maker?  Surely, their target was someone else…

Unfortunately for Bistre, he was dead wrong in his assumption.  Now, in view of the latest events, Cleever indeed seemed to be the Mysterons’ target – although the reason why he was still evaded Scarlet. 

While he was lost in his thoughts, Scarlet was gazing distractedly at Bistre’s dead body; something suddenly caught his attention, which made him narrow his eyes.

“We seem to have a problem, Scarlet.” The voice of Captain Blue drew Scarlet out of his fugue and he turned his attention back to his colleague, interrogating him with his eyes.  Blue shook his head, pointing to his mic, lowered in front of his mouth.  “It’s no go.”

Puzzled, Scarlet stood up and lowered his cap mic in turn.  “Colonel White?  I do think it’s imperative that we take Mr Cleever out of this toyshop and into a safer place, sir.”

“Captain Blue already explained the problem to me, Captain Scarlet,” the voice of Colonel White said through the cap speakers, near his ears. “If Mr Cleever doesn’t want to go, I’m afraid you will have no other choice but to accept his decision.”

“But, sir…”

“Mr Cleever did say he was currently working on an important project, did he not?”

“Yes, sir.  And we offered to bring his equipment with him, so he would be able to continue his work, wherever we take him.  But he claims it would make him lose time, and he’s already lost too much.”

“If Mr Cleever said that this project is important, and that it cannot suffer more delay, whatever it might be, you’d better be certain it is important, Captain.” 

“Sir, we already have one man dead,” Scarlet replied, more curtly than he intended. “We still don’t know how the killer got inside, without being seen – there is no trace of forced entry at all.  And we don’t know how Bistre was killed either. That the killer didn’t get to Mr Cleever is still a mystery.”

“Captain Blue told me Lieutenant Bistre’s spine was severed, and that was the cause of his death.”

“Yes, sir. But we don’t know how it happened. It takes considerable force to snap a spine the way it was done to Bistre. It looked like the killer tried to bend him backwards.”

“Have his body sent to Spectrum Headquarters London, Captain.  The pathologist will make a full autopsy and give us his report, as soon as possible.”

“S.I.G., Colonel.  About Mr Cleever – isn’t there any way for you to pull some strings and make him change his mind?”

“Captain, I, too, would have preferred if Mr Cleever had followed your advice, and agreed to be taken into protective custody to a much safer place… but I’m afraid I can’t help.  I’m not in any position to force Mr Cleever in any way.”

Scarlet scowled in perplexity.  Colonel White was one of the most powerful people on Earth.  If he couldn’t do anything to force Cleever to co-operate fully with Spectrum, then there was very little hope that Scarlet or Blue could go against the old man’s wishes. Once again, he wondered exactly who Brent Cleever might be – and what kind of influence and power he possessed that he was able to impose his will even on Spectrum’s commander-in-chief.

 “He doesn’t make our job any easier, sir,” Scarlet grumbled darkly into his microphone.

“I’m fully aware of that, Captain.  But unfortunately, we’ll have to make do. I trust you will do your best, as usual.”

Scarlet restrained himself from sighing with exasperation.  “S.I.G., Colonel,” he answered quietly.  “We’ll be extremely vigilant.”  The communication was cut with Cloudbase’s Control Room and  his mic returned to his cap visor, as he muttered a curse under his breath.  He raised his eyes to meet those of Blue.

“So the old man’s hands are tied, then?” his colleague commented.

“Apparently so,” Scarlet groused. “I really would like to know exactly what kind of hold this Cleever has on him. It must be a strong one.”

“It might not be the colonel he has a hold on,” Blue replied, shaking his head. “Remember the Mysterons’ threat?  According to the wording they used, this target they chose holds some significant World Government secrets…”

Scarlet scoffed.  “Well, if that’s the case, it seems very odd that a common toy maker would hold such top secret information in the first place.”

“But is he really a toy maker?” Blue commented.  “Or rather, maybe he wasn’t always one.  This guy and Colonel White seem to know one another. Maybe they met in the course of their respective work – I don’t know, when the colonel was with the Universal Secret Service? The U.S.S. is certainly the kind of  organisation which deals with very significant information, so that might be possible.”  Blue looked straight at his colleague, who was stroking his chin thoughtfully.  “You know, considering this, maybe the Mysterons might not exactly be trying to kill Cleever…  but to capture him, to get a hold of those secrets themselves.”

Scarlet considered this. “That’s a thought. Could it be that’s  why they didn’t come after him last night? Maybe it was too risky to put his life in danger at that point?”

Blue shrugged.  “Hey, your guess is as good as mine.  I didn’t say it explained everything.”

“No, it doesn’t explain everything.  Quite the contrary.  But then again – everything about this affair is highly bizarre. Like Bistre’s death.”  Scarlet looked down at the body again, and his gaze returned to what had attracted his attention earlier, before Blue had interrupted him: Bistre’s tightly clenched right fist.  The English captain crouched down anew, and looked at it closely; there was something protruding through the cracks between the fingers.

“What is it?” Blue asked, watching him with curiosity.

“I might have found something.”  Scarlet reached for the closed fingers, and started struggling to get them open; they wouldn’t move.  Blue crouched by his side.

“Scarlet, maybe we should call the guys outside so they can take Bistre to London HQ, as the colonel ordered.  They would be better equipped  at the mortuary to open his hand…”

“Let me try for a couple of minutes first,” Scarlet replied.  “If there’s a clue in there, we might lose precious time before the guys at the mortuary tells us what it is.”

Blue shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  But you’ll have trouble opening these fingers yourself, if they’re already rigid from rigor mortis…”

“Not quite that,” Scarlet responded between his teeth, as he pursued his efforts.  “The rest of his body is still soft enough – rigor mortis has not settled in completely yet.  No, I think this is more like cadaveric spasm.  It’s rare, but it can affect only a group of muscles – like those of a leg, a arm, or in this case, a hand.  It occurs when a victim suffers an intensely emotional and violent death.”

Blue slowly nodded. “Which would certainly be the case for Bistre. How do you know about all this?”

“Well, I do hang around sickbay more than I would really care…  And Fawn is a mine of information about these… ‘little things’.”

Blue nodded again at his answer and didn’t ask more on the subject.  Scarlet could feel his colleague’s eyes on him as he was attempting to force Bistre’s hand open. He wondered what Blue’s thoughts were right at this moment. He reflected on his own, multiple experiences with death, how he had been told by Doctor Fawn, after he had asked him out of rather morbid curiosity,  if rigor mortis had ever taken hold of his body, in any circumstances where he had been declared ‘dead’.  Apparently, his imbued retrometabolism somehow counteracted the chemical change that caused the muscles to become increasingly rigid after death.  To Scarlet’s knowledge, his own… ‘deaths’ never lasted much more than six hours, at the most, and in that relatively ‘short’ time, his body remained supple, whatever the cause of death might have been. Blue certainly had been the main witness of several of these incidents, and Scarlet often wondered if such gruesome thoughts ever came to him. Scarlet wouldn’t certainly blame him if he did, but he could also certainly understand that his friend might prefer not to talk about it.

He nearly cursed out loud when he finally succeeded in opening Bistre’s clenched fist;  he thought he had heard a crack when he had made his final effort, and imagined that he probably had broken one or two of the young man’s fingers. He felt as if he had shown appalling disrespect to his fallen colleague, but he didn’t really think he had had any choice. 

At this moment, he vowed to find who was responsible for the young officer’s death. 

In Bistre’s now open palm, he could see a handful of short brown hair.  He carefully took it between his fingers and slowly stood up, imitated by Blue; both of them stared at it with curiosity.

By the touch, Scarlet wasn’t sure if the hair was organic or synthetic.  He raised it to eye level, scrutinising it more closely.

“What do you make of it?” Blue asked him.  He was obviously as puzzled as his colleague about the discovery.

“The only thing I’m able to say is that it’s not human hair,” Scarlet declared.  “Perhaps animal… or even synthetic stuff. They do surprisingly realistic false hair these days.  It could come from a wig, a piece of clothing…”  He shook his head, and  gave a deep, aggravated sigh.  “I think you were right in the first place,” he finally admitted.  “We’ll send this to London HQ and the lab can analyse it and tell us exactly where it comes from.”

“Right.  The boys are waiting outside.  I’ll tell them to come and take poor Bistre and this… clue.”  Blue glanced in the direction of the closed door of the toy store’s workshop.  “And what do we do with our friend, exactly?”

“The only thing we can do,” Scarlet answered, as he was carefully inserting the hair he had found into a little plastic bag he took from his tunic pocket. “Exactly what Bistre did yesterday, that is:  we’ll keep agents all around the place, to keep an eye on all openings, at all times – after we’ve made sure they’re all locked securely, of course.  Except this time around, we’ll double the number of guards – just to be on the safe side.”

“Seems sensible enough.  And we’ll have someone here inside as well?”

Scarlet slowly nodded. “Yes…  We’ll call Grey – he’s at London HQ today – and the three of us will take watches in turn in here – with the other two waiting in the Yellow Fox outside.”  He paused a second.  “Bistre was killed around midnight.  I’ll take the night watch. You and Grey can share the morning and afternoon watches.”

“You’ll be staying here tonight all alone?” Blue raised a brow.  “Wouldn’t it be safer for two to stand watch?”

“I don’t think it would be advisable. The Mysterons might not make another attempt in the same manner.  Then we won’t know where their next attack will come from, and they’ll take us totally by surprise.  It would be far better to provoke an attack similar to the first one.”

“They did take us by surprise the first time, Scarlet,” Blue commented dryly.

“Yes, but I’m sure we’ll have a better chance of stopping them, than if they chose to completely change their plan of attack.”

“What makes you think the Mysterons will make a similar attack, in the first place?  They don’t often do that, I’ll remind you.”

Scarlet shook his head.  “No, they will change strategy, if the first one wasn’t effective.  But as you know, their first attack in this case was effective.” He lowered his eyes to Bistre’s body.  “They just didn’t reach the right target.”

“So you really think they’ll try the same thing again?”

“Since we don’t know how they did it… it’s quite possible. They’ll expect to catch us unawares again.”

How can you be sure of that?” Blue asked with insistence.

“Call it… a hunch?”  Scarlet offered a faint smile to his friend.  “Or maybe my sixth sense is telling me I might be right?”

Blue scowled.  “If they do proceed the same way – you imagine they might make their move sooner than they did last night.  Bistre was killed around midnight.”

“And the Mysterons’ deadline is midnight tonight.”  Scarlet nodded.  “They’re likely to make their attack before that deadline.  You can always count on them to keep their word about it.”

“You’ll be putting yourself in the line of danger.  Think of how Bistre was killed.”

“Yes, well…  It’s true I am not really looking forward to that possibility, but better me than you, isn’t it? You know I can survive anything that the Mysterons will throw at me.  And, this will be different than with Bistre, as I know for certain that something will happen, and I’ll be waiting for it, so that gives me an advantage. I’ll keep contact with you, and as I am more resilient than the next guy, I’ll be able to raise the alarm, and you’ll make sure to come right away with all available hands, guns blazing.”

“And our charge?”  Blue asked.

Scarlet turned to the closed door.  “Well, let’s just hope, for Mr Cleever’s sake,  that the Mysterons will indeed act as we expect them to,” he murmured, “and that we’ll be able to stop them this time. Because if they choose to surprise us with a different attack – it will be very difficult to keep him out of harm’s way.”

 

* * *

 

Nothing unexpected happened all morning or afternoon.  In turn, Blue and Grey took watch inside the store, waiting vigilantly, and keeping contact with the VIPC Yellow Fox Tanker, which had been parked only a block down the street, and inside which the base of operations had been established.

Cleever didn’t leave his workshop – he only opened the door to accept meals that the Spectrum officers brought to him twice in the day. When Blue knocked on his door to give him his dinner,  the old man barely spoke to him, not even a muttered thank you, and closed the door behind him right after accepting the tray.  Blue simply shrugged at the old man’s ill-mannered attitude, not really caring that much; he returned to his post, smiling knowingly.  Unbeknown to Cleever, he had slipped a tiny, but very powerful, bug under the tray he had passed to him; this way, Spectrum would be able to hear whatever was going on in the workshop, and should any problem arise, they would immediately be in attendance – even if they had to break down the door to enter.

However, things remained very quiet, and the technician assigned to the surveillance of the concealed mic, from inside the VIPC tanker, was only able to hear from the workshop Cleever’s soft humming, and the whirring sound of some unidentified electric equipment.  In any case, that was comforting enough for the Spectrum agents:  it meant that all was still normal, and that nothing was threatening their charge.

For now.

When nightfall came, a new contingency of fresh Spectrum security guards – some in uniforms, and others dressed in civvies – were dispatched to the scene for surveillance from various points:  inside civilian cars, a café facing the store, standing in a nearby back alley, or from a couple of apartment windows, across the street.  That was more than enough manpower to intercept a small army of would-be assassins if they ever showed their face.  For this last shift during which the Mysterons were expected to make their move, Scarlet had requested from London HQ the best trained and equipped agents they could offer; and he had received them.

When Scarlet went to take his post, he glanced towards the door of the workshop, which stayed obstinately closed. Cleever, acting like the recluse he had been all day, was still working on whatever his project might be about – and he was working hard, if Spectrum was to believe the sounds of constant humming and equipment whirring relayed by the concealed mic.  The English officer shrugged dismissively.  At this point, it was far better for the grumpy old man to stay safely behind his door.

The surrounding shops were now closing down for the day, and most of their lights extinguished from their front windows, still brightly decorated with festive Christmas ornaments. Scarlet, now standing alone in the toyshop, looked through the blinds and watched in silence, as people passed by on the sidewalk, their arms full with bags of last minute shopping: gifts to be given in the evening, or in the morning, to loved ones, or simply the last needed item to make tonight’s Christmas party the successful celebration that everyone was hoping for.

If not for the Mysterons, Scarlet vaguely pondered, he would presently be preparing to go to such a party.  In Winchester, his parents had been organising theirs for weeks, and he had hoped to be able to join them for the occasion. Dianne would have come with him, and they would have had fun, eating, chatting, dancing, singing perhaps… and exchanging gifts, of course.  Unable to get inebriated since his Mysteronisation, he would have sat back and watched with barely-concealed amusement as many around him got themselves drunk.  At last year’s Christmas party, he didn’t have to play designated driver; his mother, unaware of his relatively new condition, had seen him ingesting so much alcohol that she wouldn’t believe for one minute he wasn’t intoxicated, and had ordered everyone not in any state to drive to stay there for the night.  No-one argued with Mary Metcalfe: when she took command, everybody listened; even her husband, and especially her son.

A man standing at a bus stop with a coffee saw Scarlet’s eyes through the blind and gave him a brief nod; Scarlet recognised him as one of the guards London HQ had dispatched for the night.  He waved back through the crack between the blind and then his eyes lit on the yellow tanker that he could see very well, parked along the sidewalk down the street. All its lights were out, and there was no-one at the wheel; to all appearances, the vehicle had been totally deserted all day. No pedestrian passing by would suspect that this tanker was in reality a well-disguised and very secure VIP transport – that under the circumstances, had been transformed into a mission command centre.

Scarlet lowered his cap mic.  It was time for his scheduled report.

“Scarlet to Blue Fox,” he murmured. 

The answer didn’t take much time to come. “Blue Fox here… Everything all right in there?”

“Everything’s quiet,” Scarlet answered in an even voice.  “I’m just waiting for Santa to show his face…  Everybody’s in place?”

“Yes.  We’re checking the store and the surrounding area with infra-red cameras.  We’ll keep this radio channel free.  If anything odd happens inside, give us a call immediately.  We’ll be there so fast, you won’t have the time to say ‘Mysterons’.”

“It’s not a question of ‘if’, Captain Blue, but of ‘when’,” Scarlet replied quietly.  “Stay vigilant, please. I’m counting on you.”

“S.I.G.”

“I’ll call you again in an hour.  Scarlet out.”

Scarlet killed the communication and let go of the blind to turn on his heels.  If the Mysterons wanted to make their move, it would be from this moment on to midnight. After that, their deadline would have passed, and so would have the danger.  But the English captain knew far too well that the Mysterons would act.  They always held to their vows of destruction, when they were issuing a threat.  They would not change now.

Scarlet gave a deep sigh and prepared himself for a long wait – knowing full well that the worst was probably yet to come.

 

* * *

 

Time passed slowly, and minutes eventually became hours; Scarlet made regular reports of his situation to the team stationed in the Yellow Fox Tanker, however uneventful the evening was. The deadline was slowly approaching, and there was no visible sign of a possible attack in view. The wait was becoming nerve-racking for everyone, while the Mysterons seemed to patiently bide their time.  Brent Cleever appeared as if he was the only one not bothered at all by the situation:  still inside his workshop, he was still seemingly very busy working on his mysterious project.

Captain Scarlet had cautiously dimmed the light inside the store, so that it would appear deserted and closed down for the night.  In the semi-darkness that remained, there was barely enough to see. The shop was exactly the way it had been the night before, when Lieutenant Bistre had been killed; Scarlet thought it important to keep similar settings, so that the bait would be properly set for the Mysterons.  He didn’t want to give them any reason to change their modus operandi.  He was counting on their arrogant assumption of their superiority being more than enough to lure them into making the same attempt that had worked so very well for them the previous evening. 

All was quiet, with barely a sound except for Scarlet’s footsteps as he strolled through the aisles inside the store, and the ticking sound of the old Felix the Cat clock on the wall. The Spectrum officer had turned down the Christmas music earlier in the evening, and eventually found the switch to stop the train rolling;  it was now silent, sitting on its rails, the light and chimney of its locomotive dead, waiting patiently for the next journey around the store.  It had stopped in front of a rack, set against one of the walls,  where stood an impressive assortment of plastic model kits.  The latest collection of very modern cars, ships and especially planes were lined up right next to the unavoidable classics.  Something that might have interested Captain Ochre, if he had been assigned to this mission, Scarlet imagined with a faint smile. 

Right next to the plastic kits hung the old string puppets that Scarlet had seen the same morning;  he saw that they were indeed old, as he had suspected, when he came to examine them more closely.  One of them was at least two feet high, and Scarlet instantly recognised ‘Tex Tucker’, the sheriff of ‘Four Feather Falls’, the character from that kiddies show he used to watch when he was a very young child.  It was strange to see his old hero Tex in the form of a string puppet – if he remembered correctly, the computer-generated cartoon he’d loved so much was sophisticated enough.  But then again, the show had been inspired by a very old series from the last century – a series, he had heard, where the entire cast were puppets.

There were no price tags on the puppets, but Scarlet imagined them to be quite expensive.  He turned away from them, and his curiosity was then attracted by a series of ‘Spectrum toys’, set on a round table in a corner of the store; ‘special discount’ he read on the poster hanging above the table.  He took in his hands one of the large plastic ‘Spectrum saloon car’ models and found himself amused, almost despite himself;  he had seen these toys around a few times already.  More often than not, there were many differences from the real vehicle  that civilians could sometimes see on the streets.  This SSC, for example, looked more like the new model of  Ferrari, the ‘Cheetah’, that had been released earlier in the year, and that had put Captain Magenta – and Melody Angel – in complete awe…   Very little to do with a real Spectrum patrol car.  For one thing, as far as Scarlet knew, the real SSC’s engine was much more powerful than the Cheetah’s…

As Scarlet understood it, the Spectrum marketing division approved the sales of these products, as a way of keeping a close eye on exactly what would be released – no-one wanted any toy to be too exact – and also as a kind of public relations move.  Not to mention, Scarlet pondered, that the license fees were probably very interesting for Spectrum’s finance department.

Scarlet grinned and put the plastic toy back onto the table, in the middle of a series of ‘colour-coded Spectrum captains’ action figures of about three inches high, each of them looking like the twin of the one right next to it, except for the colour of their hair, uniform and the weapons they were carrying. He knocked a few of the figures down, and before he could catch them, they fell from the table, straight onto the cymbals of a drum-kit, sending it down in turn. The crashing sound resonated loudly through the store.

Muttering under his breath, Scarlet crouched down to pick up the toys and clear up the mess; all the while, he looked around. The noise he had caused had found echoes in the store, and it took a few seconds for it to die down.  Scarlet had the impression that all the toys equipped with eyes had turned their undivided attention to him and were glaring in his direction, in an accusing way, with that dead expression that was unique to them. 

It was kind of unnerving.

Scarlet shook himself, and turned his eyes in the direction of the closed door of the workshop, as if he expected it to open, for Cleever to finally come out and find out what could possibly have caused that ruckus in his shop.  But it did not open; the old man had not heard anything, or if he had, he didn’t care enough to come and see what was going on. He was probably far too busy. 

What the Hell could he be doing behind that door?

Scarlet lowered his cap microphone. It was close to eleven: just over an hour until the deadline.  It was time for another report to the Yellow Fox Tanker.

“Scarlet to Blue Fox…”

“Captain Blue here,” the voice of his colleague answered. 

“All is still quiet, Captain Blue,” Scarlet told him.  “If the Mysterons want to make their move – it will be very soon now.  Nothing new from the workshop?”

“Cleever is still working.  He’s still humming – this time a nice, happy Christmas tune.”

Scarlet scowled.  “I can’t imagine that grumpy old geezer humming anything happy,” he muttered.

Blue chuckled.  “He seems to have finished with whatever machine he was using earlier,” he reported.  “Maybe he’ll be done with his ‘very important work’?”

“Well, whatever, even if it is the case, I would prefer him to stay put in there, considering how close we are to our deadline,” Scarlet reflected.  “It will only be safe for him after midnight has passed.  Until then, we’d better keep ourselves ready.”

“S.I.G., Captain.  The next hour will be critical.  Be very careful.”

Scarlet smiled lightly.  “Aren’t I always?” he answered quietly.  “Scarlet out.”

The mic returned to his visor; just at the same moment the Felix the Cat clock started to chime; it nearly made him jump out of his skin and he turned on his heel, his hand on the handle of his gun, ready to draw it.  He looked around nervously, his eyes narrowed, his ears pricked for any irregular movement or sound they could catch.  But the ringing of the bells was the only thing he was able to hear.

Once the Felix clock counted eleven, and its ticking sound could be heard again, Scarlet listened even more carefully.  He couldn’t detect anything remotely suspicious, but he was on edge.  From experience, he knew that someone might have used that unexpected loud sound as cover to surreptitiously creep on him.  But obviously, there was no-one else in the shop, apart from Scarlet himself, and he was starting to feel like a fool for having reacted so nervously.

Again, he had that very uncomfortable impression that the eyes of all the inanimate objects surrounding him were riveted on him. This was very unsettling, especially with the more life-like animals…  Especially the huge brown grizzly, Kodiak, forever standing in its place, in front of the door, which seemed to have fixed its cold, disapproving glare on him.

Scarlet’s eyes narrowed, as he fixedly stared in the giant bear’s direction; the words ‘Give Kodiak a hug!’, on the poster next to it, seemed to hypnotise him. A sudden, absurd suspicion came to his mind.

He made his way towards the grizzly bear, slowly, carefully, until he reached it; he stood in front of it, between its extended, welcoming arms, and looked up into the set, smiling face of the plush giant.  The plastic eyes were looking down fixedly, as if they were supporting the Spectrum officer’s own gaze.

Scarlet’s left hand reached for the extended arm to his right and slowly stroked the synthetic brown fur, thoughtfully, feeling the hard plastic close beneath.  This fur… It had the same colour, the same length, the same feel as the handful of hair he had taken from Bistre’s clenched fist.

Why would Bistre have taken a handful of this toy’s fur at the moment of his death?

Scarlet was pretty sure he wasn’t mistaken, but he still needed confirmation that he was right; that it was, indeed, Kodiak’s fur that Bistre was clutching. Although the sample had been sent to the lab in London HQ many hours ago, he had not received the result from its analysis.  But maybe Blue had received it, and, for whatever reason, simply had not found it essential enough to pass the information along to his English colleague?

Scarlet started lowering his cap microphone; if Blue had learned anything he would be able to tell him all about it.

At that very moment, Scarlet heard an odd droning sound that seemed to come from the toy; he froze, and became alert, as he abruptly realised that something abnormal was happening.  Under the fingers of his left hand, he felt the furry arm start to vibrate…

No… It was moving.

Instinctively, Scarlet took a step back; he wasn’t fast enough. With lightning speed, the giant arms outstretched on each side of him brutally closed on him, cutting off his retreat; the bear – the giant plush bear – took a startling step forwards, and he found himself imprisoned against the massive furry chest, the mechanical arms crushing his body.

The suddenness of the attack knocked Scarlet’s cap off his head, and the bear, holding him in a vice-like grip,  literally swept him off his feet.  Scarlet yelped in pain as he felt his ribs compressed brutally against his lungs. He raised his head to look straight into the furry face of the giant toy; its mouth still had that same, silly, kind smile on it, but the eyes, those plastic eyes, previously dark and dead, were now alight with a red glow that he had not seen before -  a glow that seemed to give the face of the huge grizzly a cruel, eerie expression as it was slowly crushing the life out of the man it held in its strong arms.

“Give Kodiak a hug!”  The grave, growling voice, coming from a speaker located in the toy’s throat,  had something of a jovial intonation to it,  which, under the circumstances, sent a shiver down Scarlet’s back.  He had no doubt in his mind that the animatronic giant bear, inanimate since it broke down years ago, had somehow been… ‘repaired’ by the Mysterons – who had clearly made some personal improvements to it, so it would be able to kill in their name, silently, efficiently, and totally ruthlessly – like only a machine could do.  The fact that it didn’t have a brain didn’t matter; in fact, it made it even less troublesome to control.  After all, the Mysterons could recreate either life or any object as they saw it fit – and submit it to their will.

God, how could we have been so blind? Scarlet reflected, his mind blurry with pain.  How could I have not seen it coming?

Scarlet had his left arm free of the grizzly’s deadly embrace, and he was using it to push himself from the massive chest, in an attempt to gain some room to breathe, while frantically trying to reach for his gun with his right arm, pinned close against his body.  His fingers were grazing the handle, but he still couldn’t close them on it. 

As if it had become aware of its victim’s efforts to free himself and escape his fate, ‘Kodiak’ shifted its heavy weight, leaning against Scarlet, its arms tightening closer around him.  His feet now dragging on the floor, Scarlet gave a low painful grunt, and wheezed; he was already getting breathless, and the pressure against his back was intolerable. The mechanical bear was trying to bend him backwards – the way it had done with Bistre; and it was doing it slowly and effortlessly. 

Scarlet heard an ominous crack and then felt one of his ribs pierce his right lung like a blade.  Clenching his teeth against the excruciating pain that was threatening to overcome him, he made a desperate effort to regain his footing, so he would be able to gain some leverage.  He was successful in putting his right foot flat onto the floor and pushed up with all of his remaining strength, in an attempt to straighten himself up and redress his dangerously arched body.  His efforts did little to improve his posture, but somehow, he discovered that his right hand was now closer to the handle of his handgun. He grasped his weapon, pulled it out of its holster, and pushed the barrel against the belly of the mechanical beast holding him in this deadly hug.

He pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three times…  He stopped counting, as the arms continued to squeeze him tight, and the plush bear barely shivered under each shot. Out of breath, on the verge of losing consciousness, he didn’t realise he had emptied his gun, when unexpectedly, the grizzly released his hold, and he dropped heavily to the floor. Groggy with pain, he didn’t have time to steady himself properly, and made a bad landing on his aching right side. Stars danced in front of his eyes, as he lay there, gasping for air, and trying to regain his senses.

He had little time to think; as he raised his eyes again, he saw the gigantic mechanical grizzly taking a single step back and straightening up higher on its short back legs.  Its face remained jovial and smiling, with its eyes still lit with that red glow, but there was smoke and fizzling sparks coming from its chest and belly, where the bullets from Scarlet’s gun had struck it.  However, it was still standing, and Scarlet realised that the Mysteronised machine had probably not yet finished with him.  He raised his gun in a last attempt to shoot it, but  he was filled with dread when the hammer clicked on an empty chamber.

As if it had actually heard the clicking sound, ‘Kodiak’ lowered its head and looked down at Scarlet with its red, lifeless eyes.  “Give Kodiak a hug!”  As these words emerged once again from the speakers in its throat, the mechanical bear took a threatening step towards Scarlet, and the latter started crawling on his back in an attempt to escape, looking around in desperation for his cap.

Suddenly, there was a flash of blue light, coming from behind the animatronic bear; it was as if lightning suddenly illuminated the room, and struck ‘Kodiak’ directly between the ears.  A surprised Scarlet blinked, as he saw the small but bright explosion behind the grizzly’s head.  The whirring sound came to a sudden halt, and the robotic animal shivered and swayed on its feet.  Scarlet watched with worry, as it started to tilt dangerously forwards.  Realising that it was about to fall, he reacted quickly, despite the pain he was in, and rolled to the side, just in time to avoid the huge bear as it brutally and loudly crashed down onto the floor.

Wheezing, his brow covered with sweat, Scarlet watched as the giant mechanical bear gave the last shivers of its artificial life; it was smoking from everywhere, and fizzled with electrical sparks; the red light in its eyes flickered and finally died.  Only then did the Spectrum officer permit himself a deep, shaky sigh of relief.

The lights were switched on and Scarlet blinked, temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness; his vision quickly returned, and with unconcealed surprise he saw Brent Cleever, standing tall in front of the open door of his workshop, his cane raised as a rifle, with the end emitting a thin white smoke which was just starting to dissipate. He looked down at Scarlet, his eyes narrowing in a thoughtful – and perhaps concerned? – way.

“You all right, son?” he asked in a calm voice.

Scarlet simply nodded, frowning with incredulity; he wasn’t sure if his eyes were deceiving him. Cleever nodded in turn, briefly, and lowered his cane –then to lean against it and quietly approach the Spectrum officer; he held out his hand. A still disbelieving Scarlet looked him in the eyes, and saw all the self-confidence of this elderly gentleman who, just a few seconds ago, had saved him from the crushing arms of the mechanical grizzly.  With all that just happened, Cleever didn’t appear troubled in any way – as if the unusual events of this night had been totally normal for him.

Scarlet took the proffered hand and pulled himself to his feet, grunting as he did, and holding his aching side. As he staggered in front of the old man, he heard footsteps coming from behind the main door, and painfully turned around, to see torch lights visible through the blinds.  Cleever reached for the counter next to which he was standing and pressed a concealed button.  There was a buzzing sound.

Pushed by Captain Blue and Captain Grey, the now unlocked door opened and the two officers entered, with at least five Spectrum security guards following behind, all of them with their guns raised. They stopped short in surprise at the sight of the still smoking and sizzling giant mechanical bear lying on the floor.

“We heard gunshots and we came as fast as we could,” Blue explained as he turned a frowning expression on Scarlet. “What happened here?”

Wearily, his breath slowly returning to him, Scarlet pointed at ‘Kodiak’ with his finger.  “That’s Bistre’s killer,” he announced, gasping. 

“That bear?” Blue was astounded.  “A toy? You’re sure? I thought it was broken!”

Scarlet grimaced.  “Sure it was broken.  But the Mysterons fixed it… in their own perverse way.”  He took a deep breath.  “It tried to kill me the same way it killed Bistre.  If not for Mr Cleever…”  He turned to face the old man standing quietly by his side.  “I didn’t know this bear could walk, Mr Cleever.”

“Oh, it did walk,” the old man replied, still very calmly, much to the Spectrum officers’ growing perplexity. “A very long time ago, when it had quite a different task, and was used as a security feature.”

“No kidding,” Scarlet commented, with a raised brow.  “What was its function, exactly, to crush to death any unfortunate thief trying to rob the shop?”

“Well… not quite,” Cleever answered.  He gestured around.  “The shop Kodiak was the ‘guardian’ of was similar to this one, and yet, it was larger – and actually, provided a very efficient cover for more… shall we say underground activities?”

 “That’s certainly an elegant way to put it,” Grey darkly remarked. “What kind of activities, exactly?”

“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” Cleever answered.  “But I can assure you, those activities were entirely dedicated to the service of the greater good.”

 “Perhaps so,” Blue retorted, “but don’t you think that keeping such a dangerous weapon in a toy store was like… overdoing it a bit?”

Cleever sighed.  “In those times, no… But Kodiak’s security features had been deactivated well before it found a new home in my shop.  From that moment on, it was totally inoffensive, and  could only give hugs… And I have to add, not the kind of hugs he was trying to give you, Captain Scarlet.”

“Did you suspect it had killed Lieutenant Bistre?” Scarlet asked.

“No.  The thought  never actually crossed my mind.  It never was in the bear’s functions to crush someone to death; it was only designed to trap its prey, not to kill.”

“Well, obviously the Mysterons did something to it,” Grey declared, as he looked down warily in the direction of the fallen grizzly. “They modified it for their own purposes. I say we’d better be careful with it.  We might need the Mysteron gun…”

“No need.”  Holding himself against his counter, Cleever raised his cane.  “This… ‘weapon’ discharged enough electricity into the robot’s body to insure that this time, it will stay broken.  Whatever… ‘modifications’ the Mysterons might have made to it.”

Scarlet looked intently into Cleever’s lined face.  He narrowed his eyes at him, but there was no antagonism in them this time; they clearly showed his curiosity about the situation – and the new respect he now had for the old man.  “So you know about electricity being the Mysterons’ Achilles’ heel, Mr Cleever?”

“Of course I do,” Cleever answered very quietly.

“That is highly classified information within Spectrum,” Scarlet continued. “Exactly how did you come across such information?”

 “I know a lot of things about Spectrum, Captain.  More than you probably know yourself.  And that is no lie.”

“Somehow, I’m sure,” Scarlet replied.  Who are you, Mr Cleever?”

The ghost of a smile appeared on the old man’s thin lips.  “Let’s just say that, in my time, I had some influence with the World President.  I… helped, and gave my opinion on some subjects, like World Security.” He watched, with unconcealed amusement, as both Grey and Blue exchanged puzzled glances, as if they doubted his words, or thought he was just plain crazy.  Scarlet’s expression, however, remained neutral, showing no surprise at all.  Obviously, he believed him.  Cleever addressed him directly, his smile becoming somewhat larger.  “Further than that, Captain Scarlet, I really can’t say.  Otherwise, I would be forced to kill you too…”

Scarlet answered with a smile of his own.  “You could try…” he replied.  He nodded knowingly. “I was right about you, Mr Cleever. There definitely is more to you than meets the eye. Clearly, much more than I first thought.”

“And I do know there is more to you than meets the eye, Captain.”  Cleever sniggered.  “But I also know that this is also classified information.”

He shot an amused look towards Blue and Grey, who were now looking at him in silence,  with the same expression of doubt as earlier.  They also appeared suspicious,  wondering how the old man seemed to know so much top secret information regarding both the Mysterons and their colleague. Obviously, they were giving this question more importance than Scarlet, who didn’t look bothered at all with it. Cleever didn’t deign to give the two Americans further enlightenment.  The subject now closed for him, he nodded in the direction of the destroyed bear.

 “So, do you believe I’m safe now, from these Mysterons of yours?”

Scarlet looked down at the robot;  the Spectrum guards were now surrounding it, guns trained on it, as if they were unsure that it wouldn’t rise again to carry on with its threat. The English captain slowly nodded, and smiled at Cleever.  “Yes, I think you are perfectly safe now.  This is the second Mysteron attempt on your life.  They won’t try again.”

“But the deadline is not quite finished,” Blue added swiftly, checking on his watch.  “You still have a good thirty minutes to go.  So I suggest you pass the remainder of that time inside the VIPC tanker with us.  And this time, Mr Cleever, we won’t take no for an answer.”

Cleever grunted, clearly bothered by the blond officer’s statement.  He glanced in the direction of Scarlet, as if hoping that his compatriot would side with him.  But Scarlet shook his head very slowly, and the old man knew he had no choice but to surrender.  He gave a deep sigh.

“All right, then. If I am to suffer your company for a few more minutes…  I guess I don’t have any other choice.”

“I don’t think there is anything we can force you to do, Mr Cleever,” Scarlet graciously told him.  “Have you finished your important project then?”

“Eh? Oh yes…”  Cleever glanced in the direction of the open door to his workshop, before returning his attention to Scarlet.  “I had nearly finished when I heard those gunshots that brought me in here, to check what was happening.”  He gently tapped the device in his ear.  “This time, I had my hearing aid on…”

“Coming here could have been dangerous for you. You should not have opened that door, Mr Cleever,” Scarlet kindly chided him.  He smiled, to smooth down the severity of his words.  “But I am glad you did, anyway.”

Cleever huffed.  “As well you should…”

Scarlet didn’t let himself deceived by the gruffness he could hear in the old man’s voice.  “I owe you, Mr Cleever.  Is there anything I can do for you – as a way of thanking you?”

“Well, considering you risked your life for mine…” Cleever let the rest hang, as if something suddenly came to him, and made him change his mind. He snapped his fingers. “No, wait… there is something you can do.  All of you.  And that would pay me back, for having endure Spectrum’s presence in my shop for these last two days.”

Blue fought not to roll his eyes.

“That project I was working on,” Cleever continued, “I need to deliver it – tonight, after that obnoxious deadline of yours.  So you can be my escort.”

Scarlet exchanged curious glances with both Grey and Blue; the latter shrugged indifferently.

“Tonight?” Scarlet asked Cleever.

The old man nodded.  “Yes, tonight.  It’s very important, and it can’t wait until tomorrow.”

Slowly, Scarlet nodded his agreement.  “All right, we’ll escort you wherever you need to go, Mr Cleever.”

A smile appeared on the elderly man’s face.  “Splendid! Then I’d better go fetch them, before I follow you to your… tanker.”

He walked slowly towards his workshop and the three officers followed him with their eyes, still curious – and hesitating, until he disappeared inside the semi-dark room. Then the ever-impatient Scarlet, forgetting about his still aching back, left his place and strode after Cleever, giving himself the excuse that it would be safer to stick with him until the very end of the deadline, but in reality giving in to his intense curiosity  as to what it could be that the old man was working on.

He had barely reached the door when Cleever reappeared in the doorway, holding a cardboard box that he pushed straight into Scarlet’s arms.  The Spectrum officer grimaced as he was forced to shift his weight to accommodate the charge, and he felt his ribs complaining painfully. It would  still take him some time, before he was fully healed…

Obviously Cleever didn’t notice the pained expression on the younger man’s face – or he cared very little about it. He was already turning off the remaining light in his workshop and Scarlet barely had time to steal a glance at the mysterious place.  Disappointed, he looked at the contents of the box – and frowned in perplexity.

It was filled with teddy bears; they were relatively small, and their fur was of various hues, but each of them, down to the red bow around the neck, was an exact replica of  the giant mechanical bear that lay slain at Grey and Blue’s feet.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Cleever said excitedly.

“What are they?”  Scarlet asked, as he looked back into the face of the old man – now lit with a genuinely happy – or mischievous? – smile. “The latest line of very hi-tech weapons?”

Cleever huffed.  “Weapons?  Don’t be ridiculous! You would have me handing weapons to kids, Captain?  I made those for my grandchildren.”

Scarlet couldn’t believe his ears. “Grandchildren? You’ve been working in there all this time to make toys for your grandchildren?  That was your very important job?”

Behind him, Grey and Blue exchanged new, doubtful glances.  “The old coot has grandchildren?” Scarlet heard Grey mutter.

Fortunately, Cleever didn’t seem to have heard that comment.

“Can you imagine anything more important than making a child happy, Captain?  I’m giving one of these little guys to each one of my grandchildren.   These bears are animatronic, like Kodiak was… Well, not exactly like it, but you understand what I mean. Of course, there’s no risk of them ever squeezing the life out of a young child, don’t you think?  They’re perfectly harmless.”  The old man noticed the fixed, dubious expression on Scarlet’s face. “Don’t look surprised, Captain: you know that this bear – Kodiak –  was the shop’s mascot.  The kids loved it, so I decided to make replicas of it for my grandchildren, this Christmas. 

“That is a odd coincidence,” Scarlet muttered.

“Yes, it is at that, isn’t it?  But also… it seems like it’ll be a fine way to pay tribute to the old boy, now that he’s dead.”

“You wouldn’t mind me not paying him any tribute, sir?” Scarlet replied bleakly.

Cleever chuckled.  “Considering what happened tonight, I really can’t blame you.”  Out of the box, he took one reddish-brown bear and presented it to Scarlet, smirking up at him.  “This one goes to my eldest grandson, William.  I think I’ll name it after you:  ‘Scarlet’.  Don’t you find it fitting?”

Scarlet raised a brow.  “Well… maybe I might consider it an honour, Mr Cleever,” he said hesitantly.  “His fur is kind of red, after all…”

“The only thing left to do to complete the work is to record their voices,” Cleever continued.  “It’ll only take a moment, but since I’ll be stuck with you for the next half hour or so…” He pushed the bear against Scarlet’s chest.  “… You might as well make yourself useful and help me with that last chore.”

Scarlet shook his head, a little despondently, and looked down at the small bear, which was presently staring up at him with its tiny plastic eyes. 

He sighed deeply, and gave a compliant nod.  “All right, then,” he finally conceded. He glared down at the old man. “As long as you don’t make me say ‘Give Kodiak a hug’,” he said warningly.

“Of course not,” huffed Cleever.  He cleared the doorway to his workshop, and closed the door behind him, before walking past Scarlet and directing his steps towards the exit.  “It will be ‘Give Scarlet a hug’, of course,”  he added in a detached voice.

And Scarlet, following close behind, with the box in his arms, contented himself with rolling his eyes upwards in defeat.

 

 

THE END

 

 

Author’s footnotes:

 

I had much fun writing this story as my second submission for this year’s Christmas.  Written from Scarlet’s point of view – with a few delving into the facial expressions and reactions of the characters surrounding him – ‘Little Shop of Santa’ was for me an experiment of style – and it is also, yet again, a short story for this Christmas (about 20 pages, after tweaking).  For those of you who know me, I’m more comfortable with long stories, so it is very satisfying to have been able to finish this story in about the same amount of pages a TV episode of the series would take…

 

Those  who know him might have recognised the character of ‘Brent Cleever’, with whom I fear I took enormous liberty.  Brent Cleever was the real name (or was it his real name?) of Agent 21, from the eponymous strips that could be read in the TV/Century 21 magazines, in the 60s and 70s.  I aged him considerable for the need of my story, but still made some subtle and not-so-subtle references to his background as U.S.S. agent.  This story is meant as a respectful tribute to a character that I admit I don’t know much about – but which I thought deserved to make a ‘guest star’ appearance in the world of Captain Scarlet – even if this version of the character would prove somehow different from the one that appeared in the comic strips stories.

 

I thank Mary J. Rudy for the use of her character of ‘Mary Metcalfe’, that she created for her stories. The title ‘Little Shop of Santa’ is something of a  nod to the movie and play title ‘Little Shop of Horrors’.

 

My thanks to Keryn, who had provided the background information that helped in inspiring the little details behind ‘Mr Cleever’, and my thanks to my beta-reader for her wonderful work that helped me not to make a fool of myself! Any mistakes you may find in this story are my own, and I would be the only one to blame.

Thanks to all those artists – writers, plotters, drawing artists – all these wonderful creators of the many TV/Century 21 strips that are still so much sought after today, and that still very much entertain those of us who have been and are still able today to read them.

And my thanks, as ever, to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and all those responsible for the TV series ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’, which keeps marvelling and inspiring us for years – and will continue to do so in the future, well past the year 2068.

Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2009 to all.

 

 

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