This story takes place approximately a year after the War of Nerves started, and shortly before Captain Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel became a couple.
A “Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons” story
By Chris Bishop
Rhapsody Angel stood on the bank of the river, staring dejectedly at the wild current relentlessly flowing, which was effectively cutting off her way to Les Abrisseaux. This was a drawback she didn’t expect or need – certainly not when time was such a matter of life and death. Every precious minute lost might mean losing the race – and the fight.
The river was too wide to cross, the flow too fast and wild. And even if she dared to swim across, she suspected that underneath that dark, frothing surface, there could be even more danger, that she would be unable to see before it was too late. She felt quite unable to take that risk , anyway. Even if it was not hurting, her injured arm would be a hindrance, and she felt too tired after the long race through this way-too-humid swamp.
She desperately needed a rest; but she knew she couldn’t allow herself the luxury.
Annoyed, she wiped the perspiration from her brow with her forearm. In Les Abrisseaux, she would be able to rest, and to receive proper care for her injuries. Provided she could reach the town, of course. But to do so, she needed to cross the river; obviously, she would never be able to do it at this spot.
She was so very close to her objective now, she could feel it; it was just too frustrating that she might be forced to make a large detour in order to reach it.
She closed her eyes and thought, trying to recall in her mind the map she had memorised earlier. This wasn’t the same river that the enemy commandos were presently following; rather, this was some kind of backwater, a tributary of the main river. She recalled having seen it on the map, but it didn’t seem that big; it should be more like a small stream than anything else. Obviously, it had enlarged considerably, probably following a recent flood, and had become wild and impossible to get across easily. She thought she remembered a bridge, down-river… and what looked like a road past that bridge, which seemed to lead straight into town, a few miles further.
She wondered if she was actually right – or if she was just hoping for all this. Somehow, it seemed all too good to be true.
She shook her head. I don’t have a choice, she told herself. I have to get across, and if there is a bridge – or any other means to cross – I have to find it.
She jogged down the river. If she was to believe her calculations, she had outstripped Montgomery’s commandos. But she imagined they couldn’t be that far behind her. An hour, at best; ten, fifteen minutes, at worst. In any case, she couldn’t afford to lose time at all; she had to take advantage of any lead she might have.
It took her about fifteen minutes before she finally saw the outlines of the bridge through the trees; she stopped in her tracks and, breathing hard, stared at it, as if she couldn’t believe she actually had been right. A smile spread across her face.
“I knew it!” she whispered to herself. She started running again, straight towards the bridge.
As she reached it, she also discovered the narrow beaten trail leading to it; but it was nearly completely destroyed by bad weather and multiple floods and certainly not usable anymore.
As for the bridge… there was barely anything holding it up. It was made of wood, all broken and distorted; most of the planks that made the path were gone, and whatever was left of the supports didn’t seem solid enough to support any weight. The other end of the bridge wasn’t even linked to the trail anymore. Rather, it had fallen about ten feet below, to the foot of the gully forming the bank of the river, and was leaning against rocks protruding from the raging surface of the water, the supports from that side having been taken away by the current. It was a miracle it was still in place.
Yet, Rhapsody imagined, it was a way to get across, no matter how dangerous it might look.
She only hesitated a second or two, before starting to walk carefully onto the rotten and deformed planks. They creaked underneath her steps, but they held, and holding her breath, she continued her advance, trying not to hurry in fear the bridge would crumble under her feet.
But it didn’t even tremble; it was obviously sturdier than she imagined.
Encouraged, she reached the section of the bridge where there was no path at all, and peered through the hole, staring at the raging current so close beneath her. Then, she climbed the twisted wooden fence, which was now the only way to get across. It held her weight and she carefully made her way through, biting her lower lip against the physical exertion on her wounded arm as she held herself over the dirty waters flowing below her feet. She thought she saw something moving as she glanced down, but as she momentarily stopped to take a better look, she only saw ripples on the surface. She shook her head dismissively and continued to cross.
She jumped the last meter to reach the bank of the river, and her left foot slipped into the water as she landed. She scrambled up the ditch in a hurry, and finally reached the top; then, breathing hard, her brow covered with sweat, she turned around, rubbing her sore arm, and looked victoriously at the bridge she had just crossed.
As she was telling herself that nothing else would be able to get in her way now, she heard a sound from her right, and froze. Then she turned swiftly on her heel to check, listening carefully. It was the sound of twigs breaking, as if they had been crushed by the weight of something – or someone.
There was a short moment of silence, during which there was only the sound of the raging river and birds singing; then she heard it again, coming from the opposite direction, and she whirled round – to see two men emerging from behind the trees, aiming weapons at her. Her heart started pounding when she recognized them as two of Montgomery’s commandos.
Williams and Baxter…
But how could they have beaten her to this spot? That was impossible if they were following the bank of the other river…
She received her answer the next second, as Baxter, sneering, took a step in her direction. “Surprised, aren’t you?” he said, as he read the perplexity on the young woman’s face. “I heard you coming through the bushes, earlier… a few minutes after we separated from the rest of the group. Of course, we didn’t know at the time who it was and so we started following to check it out.”
“We thought it might be Captain Scarlet, Williams added in turn. Imagine our surprise when we realised it was you. Never imagined you would have survived that fall in the lake, to begin with.” He chuckled. “You’re really one tough girlie, that’s for sure.”
“We thought it a good idea to keep track of you,” Baxter continued. “Just to know what you were up to, and where you were going. When we figured that out, it was easy get past you and reach the bridge before you would. You slowed down considerably in the last few miles… Maybe you’re getting tired?” He showed her a little plastic box he was holding in his hand. She recognised it as a digital electronic map, with its small screen still powered up. “You were going to Les Arbrisseaux , right? Hoping to get some help there, were you?”
Rhapsody exhaled loudly, and looked around her. There was no possible retreat; behind, there was the gully ending in the raging river; both Baxter and Williams were now closing in on her, their weapons at the ready. She was utterly trapped.
“No place to run, eh, Earthwoman?” Williams asked mockingly. “Don’t worry, we don’t plan to hurt you… Not yet.”
“We figure you would make an excellent bargaining chip,” Baxter said in turn. He was the closest to Rhapsody, and stopped as he reached her, to look directly in her face with an evil grin. “I’m sure Scarlet will be quite willing to exchange the microchip for you anytime. That of course… if he doesn’t want for you to be killed.”
Rhapsody felt her heartbeat increase, just as Baxter reached to seize her by the shoulder. She figured she had nothing left to lose and had to act now. She swiftly took a step back, avoiding his hand, and caught his wrist, pulling as she did, and tripped him, slipping under his arm. Baxter lost his footing, and slipped forwards. Williams, who was but two feet away behind him, grabbed his companion in an attempt to stop him from falling, but his own feet were on muddy ground and he was unable to keep upright; seeing them unbalanced, and with their weapons aiming away from her, Rhapsody seized the opportunity, and rammed Baxter in the shoulder with all her body weight, aiming towards the gully. He tripped, and she fell on her knees and watched while the two Mysteronised men rolled down the steep slope, straight towards the river below.
They landed roughly on the bridge, destroying what was left of it under their combined weight, and completely cutting the precarious link between the two banks. They fell through the rotten wood, and splashed into the water, getting entangled between the broken wood struts. Rhapsody had hoped that the raging current would take then away; she was disappointed when it didn’t happen. Kneeling at the top of the ravine, she watched as the two commandos, cursing loudly, struggled to get back onto their feet and free themselves. She stood up, nearly slipping in the process, and just had time to catch hold of a tree to stop herself from joining her enemies at the bottom of the gully.
With Baxter still trying to free himself, Williams succeeded in getting to his feet, water up to his chest, leaning against the struts to keep his precarious footing; he looked up in anger towards the young woman, as she was straightening herself up.
“You had your chance, Earthwoman!” he snarled, raising his gun. “No more Mister Nice Guy! Now you die!”
Rhapsody stepped back, but didn’t expect to be fast enough to avoid receiving a hail of bullets; but right at that moment, Fate stepped in to save her. Before Williams had time to pull the trigger, she heard his angry yell suddenly transforming into a painful shriek. She saw him lose his footing to fall deeper into the water, his gun flying out of his hand. There was a lot of splashing around as Williams desperately tried to fight against an invisible underwater foe which was attempting to drag him under. Red started to tint the dark water, mixing with the froth.
Baxter was right next to him, and his eyes suddenly grew wide with horror; he was witnessing, up close and personal, what Rhapsody herself was seeing from her vantage point. An enormous, scaly tail emerged from under the troubled and raging water, before disappearing underneath it, as quickly as it had appeared. Rhapsody gasped in shock: Williams had been caught by an alligator – maybe even more than one – and it didn’t seem like he would be able to get free.
The terrified Baxter hurriedly scaled the unsteady uprights supporting the destroyed bridge, in an attempt to get safely out of the water as quickly as possible. Mesmerised, Rhapsody watched as the muddy water stained a darker red around the screaming Williams, who was trying to hold on to the remainder of the bridge fence. His fingers slipped and he went completely under, the water stifling his cries of pain and terror. The fighting visibly carried on underwater, as the splashing continued on the surface.
Precariously hanging on to the broken bridge, Baxter yelled in anger, and started shooting blindly into the water, obviously hoping to kill whatever had taken his companion.
Rhapsody didn’t wait to see more. Scrambling away from her position, she started running onto the ruined beaten path. She still could hear the furious shouting of Baxter, and the sounds of multiple gunshots. He was now shouting after her in fury, but she couldn’t hear his invectives very well, as she was too busy concentrating on running away. She didn’t know how long a Mysteron could panic before recovering his wits, but she sure wasn’t staying around to find that out.
The gunshots died away in the distance, but Rhapsody didn’t slow down. She didn’t really count on alligators to get Baxter, the way they did with Williams; that would be too much luck in one day. No, it was more than probable that the man had simply stopped riddling the river with bullets, after seeing the futility of his gesture. She wondered if he would dare leave the bridge to get across the raging current in order to chase her, now knowing what waited for him underneath.
Rhapsody imagined he would probably get up the courage to do so eventually; so it was up to her to take the opportunity to put as much distance as possible between them. She knew for sure Baxter would contact his accomplices, and that the rest of the commandos would learn soon that she was alive and well, and on her way to town.
No matter, she had no choice now.
She desperately needed to find help as soon as possible, and Les Arbrisseaux was the closest place where she could hope to get some.
Sheriff Masters wasn’t happy with how things were going in this town.
There were angry people outside, in the streets, watching the door of the station with expressions that reminded him a little too much of vultures waiting to fall on a wounded prey. Somehow, he had the distinct impression that, despite his warning, the Holland boy and his gang had told anyone in town willing to listen about Old Joe’s ruthless murder – and that the old man’s alleged killer was held in one of the police station’s cells.
Most of the time, Les Arbrisseaux was a quiet little town; almost too quiet, actually, where nothing very exciting would happen for months, if not years – except, of course, for the bad weather regularly hitting the area, with thunderstorms, tornadoes and floods. When those disasters were too numerous, it could easily destroy a season of harvest, or a lifetime’s work, and push anyone to the edge of bankruptcy. The inhabitants had somehow learned to cope with these disasters, but Masters knew all too well that dissatisfaction and anger could ignite into violence with very little warning. And with no way to defend themselves efficiently against Nature’s unexpected moods, he also knew that at times, human beings would not hesitate to seize any given excuse, whatever it could be, to vent their mounting frustration.
And unfortunately for Masters’ prisoner, it would seem that Joe’s murder was such an occasion.
That reminded the sheriff of the Riley affair, many years ago, which had ended up in a horrible tragedy. He was very young back then, but it had made quite an impact on him at the time, and on all the inhabitants of the area.
He would be damned if he would let the same thing that happened to Riley happen to his prisoner as well.
As Masters stood by the front window, pondering on these thoughts, the door leading to the cells opened, and Doctor Evers appeared, followed by the sheriff’s deputy, Alan MacGibbons, armed with a rifle. Masters turned to face them.
“So, Doc – how’s your patient?”
Evers came to the sheriff, while MacGibbons sat at his desk, and put his feet up.
“Resigned,” the doctor answered. “He barely said a word to me, when I examined him. Only to tell me about those headaches of his.”
“Is that what caused him to lose consciousness earlier?” Masters asked with a frown. “We were unable to wake him up, Mac and I. That’s why we called you.”
“Well, he’s fully awake now,” Evers said. “And he doesn’t seem to be suffering from any headaches. For now, anyway.”
“Any idea why he’s having these headaches? If he’s really having them, that is.”
“I don’t think he’s lying about them.” Evers reached for the big envelope he had left on the sheriff’s desk earlier. “And I don’t think he’s faking any dizzy spells either.” He opened the envelope and took a big picture out of it, that he handed to the sheriff. “Here. I finally figured out how to make that scanning machine work. That’s the latest pic I took of the man’s skull before you brought him here.”
“Yes, much clearer,” Masters approved. “We can see that small white spot better now.” He checked the scan with attention, his eyes narrowing. “That looks odd… What is it?”
“Like I suspected, a foreign body of some sort. Maybe a slug, or something similar.”
“A slug?” The sheriff looked inquisitively at Evers. “He has a bullet inside his skull?”
“It does look like it, but I can’t be absolutely sure of it.”
“And he’s still alive?”
“Don’t be so surprised. It is possible. If the bullet has not touched any vital area of the brain, that is… Although, considering where this thing is right now, that seems rather extraordinary.” Evers made a short pause, as Masters continued to examine the picture. “What is even more extraordinary,” the doctor continued, “is the fact that I couldn’t find any sign of an entry wound for this thing.”
Masters raised a brow. “Say that again?”
“No scar tissue anywhere. Nothing on the surface, nor inside. It’s like this thing grew in there. Out of nothing.”
“Another surprise from our mysterious prisoner, then,” Masters grumbled, putting the picture back into the envelope. “And you think this object is what’s causing him these headaches and spells?”
“More than probably, yes,” Evers answered.
“He says he doesn’t remember anything about himself,” Masters said thoughtfully. “Assuming he’s telling the truth – could this thing cause amnesia?”
“That also is a possibility,” Evers admitted. “But I thought he told you himself his name was O’Hara?”
MacGibbons chuckled from his seat, causing Evers to turn to him. The tall, slim man was cleaning his gun. “Yeah. Scarlet O’Hara,” he said. “How d’you find that?”
Evers raised a doubtful brow and looked at the sheriff who shrugged.
“I don’t know if he thinks he’s serious or what, but when I talked to him and he gave me that name, I had the impression he didn’t have a clue of where it was coming from,” Masters explained.
“Residual memories, perhaps?” Evers mused. “So it might be possible he’s truly amnesiac.”
“I still say he’s fakin’ it, and that he’s leadin’ us on,” MacGibbons replied. “Anythin’ to make us believe he’s not entirely responsible for Old Joe’s death.”
Evers shrugged, before turning to face Masters again. “I would suggest you give this envelope to Spectrum when you deliver your prisoner. It could be useful to them.”
“Is our prisoner able to travel?”
Evers hesitated for a fraction of a second. “I would say yes. If you really must.”
“I think it became necessary, yes.” The sheriff turned back towards the window in front of which he was standing. “Look outside. The word about Joe’s death got out. It would not be a good idea to keep this guy here.” He muttered under his breath. “It feels like it did back then in ’55.”
“You mean after that bank robbery in New Orleans?” MacGibbons said. He had been Masters’ deputy for a good four years, and he knew that sometimes, his colleague and friend could be quite the pessimist. “Nah… It’s not the same. If I remember correctly, back then, there was quite a hefty amount of money involved. And that’s really what people were after at the time, wasn’t it?” He lowered his gun to the floor, like some kind of cane, and leaned on it, his brow furrowing. “Did that Riley guy actually tell anyone where his loot was hidden, anyway?”
“I doubt it very much,” Masters replied dryly, leaving his position at the window. “Or maybe he wouldn’t have ended up hanging from that oak tree in the bayou, where my predecessor found him.”
“What a horrible story that was,” Doctor Evers muttered under his breath, shaking his head in dismay. “We never found out who killed that guy.”
“As you can see, not everyone was after the money back then,” Masters continued, addressing his deputy. “There were those who were after blood.” He thumbed towards the window. “I can read the signs. There might be people out there after O’Hara’s blood right now. Maybe the same people who killed Riley all those years ago. Just for the heck of it. Or maybe someone else… seeking to hide the truth.”
“You still think he might be innocent?” Evers asked.
MacGibbons raised his brow with scepticism. He shook his head dismissively. “That would mean that Jasper’s gang is behind it, though. None of them ever did anything that bad before.”
“There’s always a first time, ain’t there? Anyhow, I don’t know… Feels like something is not quite right with all this. And I hate that. And you know what I have even more than that? The fact that when O’Hara’s gone, I won’t be able to continue my investigation – not as efficiently as I would like to.”
“It’s out of our jurisdiction, Sheriff,” MacGibbons replied. “When Spectrum is concerned…”
“That’s another thing,” Masters mumbled with a renewed frown. “Why should we be taking our prisoner to Spectrum, instead of them coming over here to collect him?”
“Isn’t that highly irregular?” Evers asked.
“Is there anything regular, with Spectrum?” MacGibbons asked with a sly smile.
“I wouldn’t know. It’s the first time I’ve dealt with them.”
MacGibbons looked in the direction of the door leading to the cells. “Well, for one, I’ll be glad when he’s gone. That guy… he gives me the creeps. First he’s dead, then he ain’t dead… And then that thing he has in his head…”
“I understand, Mac. I’m just frustrated that I might never be sure if he’s really responsible for Joe’s death or not.”
“I’m sure you’ll learn the truth soon, Leonard,” Evers said. “When will you be leaving, then?”
MacGibbons rose to his feet. “I think we should prepare him to go now.”
“We?” Masters frowned at his deputy’s words. “Weren’t you supposed to leave for Baton Rouge today? Your aunt needs you to help her with the arrangements for your uncle’s funeral.”
“Well, I have my work to consider, Leonard, and you know I’m not one to shy away from my duty.” MacGibbons smiled. “Besides, I’m curious to see these Spectrum guys. I don’t expect I’ll be lucky enough to meet those famous colour-coded officers, mind you. And I can always leave after we are done with the transfer. That won’t take long, and then I’ll be on my way to Baton Rouge.” He pointed towards the window with his index finger. “And you know, if your feelin’ is right, you might need me to help you get him out of town.”
“He’s right about that, Leonard,” Evers approved.
Masters smiled, and nodded his gratitude. “That ain’t an offer I will say no to, Mac. I really appreciate your help.”
“Don’t mention it. Just doin’ my job, really. So, how are we doin’ this, Sheriff?”
“How long before the prisoner’s ready?”
“I handcuffed him when the doc performed his examination just now. I didn’t free him as yet. So he’s ready to go, whenever you give the word.”
Masters nodded quietly. “Then go get him. I’ll go out through the back door, go fetch the car and bring it to the back, and we’ll give the slip to those people waiting up front.”
“Won’t you be leaving early?” Evers asked.
“We will be, and so nobody will know we’re gone,” Masters said with a shrug. “By the time they realise we’re not even here anymore, we’ll be far away – and maybe O’Hara will already be in Spectrum’s custody.”
“Sounds like a plan, Leonard,” MacGibbons commented. “I’m all for it.”
The sheriff reached for his hat. “You’ll ride in the back with the prisoner, Mac. Bill, I think you’d better leave in about five minutes, using the front door. That’ll distract that band of vultures outside, while Mac and I will slip out by the back door.
“I’ll be happy to help you however I can, Leonard,” the doctor answered. “And the two of you will be careful, won’t you?”
“Of course we will,” Masters answered with a sly smile, as he walked towards the door leading to the cells, followed by his deputy. “After all, it’s just a prisoner transfer. What could go wrong?”
* * *
Johnny Monroe was hiding in a narrow alley between two old houses, checking the back door of the sheriff’s office, when he saw Leonard Masters stepping out to go to his car, which was parked only a few meters down the dead-end street. He watched in silence as the sheriff brought the car in front of the door and, keeping the motor running, got out of the vehicle and went to open the door, looking around to make sure nobody was watching. He missed Johnny’s presence, as the young man was crouching behind a garbage dumpster that smelled so bad that Johnny suspected there might be a dead dog inside.
Johnny then saw the sheriff’s prisoner walking quietly out of the station, his hands handcuffed in front of him, the cuffs attached in turn to a chain belt. Behind him walked Alan MacGibbons, looking very serious, one hand resting heavily on the prisoner’s shoulder, while he held a huge gun in the other. He directed the captive towards the back door of the car that Masters opened, and helped him climb in, before taking his seat by his side. Masters closed the door, and then walked around the car to get behind the wheel. The whole operation took barely two minutes, before the car finally left the narrow street, passing in front of Johnny’s hiding place.
Johnny stepped out from behind the dumpster, and watched the car turn the corner and disappear into the larger street. He doubted that anyone other than himself had seen it, as no-one probably expected the sheriff to leave with his prisoner that furtively. No-one, that was, except Jasper, who apparently had anticipated this.
In fact, Jasper had gone further than that.
Earlier in the day, Dallas had reported to Jasper that he had learned from that blabbermouth Billy Ray MacGibbons, the deputy’s nephew, that Spectrum wouldn’t actually come to Les Arbrisseaux to pick up the prisoner, as was previously thought, but that it was up to the sheriff and his deputy to take him to an already appointed rendezvous, out of town. At this point, Jasper already had his crazy idea to go against the sheriff’s earlier warning and, with the rest of the gang, had started telling everyone in town their version of the shocking murder of Joe Benson – and the rumours had started spreading widely around. Somehow, Jasper suspected that if the sheriff thought that the safety of his prisoner might be put in jeopardy by angry townsfolk who would like to avenge Old Joe’s death, then he would do everything in his power to ensure that the man would remain alive, to be taken safely into Spectrum’s custody. It didn’t take very long for people to start voicing their concern and anger, and to glare meaningfully in the direction of the sheriff’s office, giving the impression that they would like nothing better than to get their hands on the killer kept inside, and to dispense justice their own way. As it had happened before, so many years ago.
Marvelling at how well Jasper had been able to predict what would happen, Johnny took his cellphone and quickly dialled a number. It barely had time to ring before he heard Jasper’s voice swiftly answering the call.
“They’re on their way. As you said they would,” Johnny announced.
“Perfect. Take your bike, then. And come join us. We have work to do.”
Jasper hung up quickly. Johnny shoved his phone into his pocket and ran out of the alley and into the main street of Les Arbrisseaux.
* * *
Sheriff Masters left town using a secondary road that took him to a beaten path – which he often used as a short-cut through the bayou to access the main road – a couple of miles north from town. Once they had passed the last inhabited house that was officially part of town, and joined the road to the bayou, Masters rolled down his window and stuck his rotating light on top of the car. Seated in the back with the prisoner who was looking out the window with an adrift expression, MacGibbons noticed the sheriff’s gesture.
“Is it really necessary to put that on?” he asked. “I thought you didn’t want to attract attention to us.” The sheriff always used his personal car in the course of his work – the county didn’t have sufficient money to pay for an official police vehicle. When he was off-duty, he simply didn’t use the light, and kept it in the glove compartment. At his deputy’s question, Masters shrugged in a dismissive way.
“I just put it there, I’m not planning on turning it on,” he said. “Besides, we still have to meet these Spectrum guys on official business, don’t we?”
“Yeah, well,” mumbled MacGibbons, “I still find it pretty strange that we have to meet them in the Bayou, of all places.”
“That guy from New Orleans that I talked on the phone with said they were already in the vicinity on business,” Masters answered. “For some kind of investigation. I don’t know what exactly.”
“I’m guessin’ it’s probably related to our guest, here,” MacGibbon ventured.
“That’s quite possible.” Masters looked through the rear-view mirror in the direction of their very quiet captive. “What can you tell us about all this, O’Hara?” he asked.
Scarlet barely reacted, seemingly too absorbed in his contemplation of the verdant landscape which speedily passed by through the window to actually notice Masters had addressed him. MacGibbons nudged him in the side with the muzzle of his gun, drawing him out of his reverie.
“The sheriff asked you a question, punk,” the deputy said between his teeth.
The prisoner didn’t seem half as intimidated by the threatening weapon as MacGibbons had hoped he would be, and simply glared at him in silence for a few short seconds, before lowering his gaze.
“Ah, forget it, Mac,” Masters said with a dismissive shrug. “If it’s true he doesn’t remember a thing, then he would unlikely be able to answer. Isn’t that so, O’Hara?”
Scarlet looked down at the weapon. “I’ve already told you, I don’t remember,” he said in a low voice.
“Right, because of that slug you have in the head, isn’t it?” MacGibbons asked.
Scarlet looked straight at him, frowning at his words, not sure if he had heard well. “What slug?” he asked in confusion. “What is this about?”
“You’re tellin’ us you don’t even know you have a bullet in your thick head?” MacGibbons asked. “Seems it’s been there for a while, ‘cause there’s no trace of recent entry visible.”
“Mac, drop it,” Masters repeated from up front. In the mirror, he could see the sceptical expression on Scarlet’s face. “The doctor isn’t even sure it’s a bullet anyway… although it sure looks like one. Nor how it got there in the first place.”
“Well, I don’t see many ways for a slug to get there,” MacGibbons retorted.
“I have a bullet in the head?” Scarlet repeated. He seemed horrified at the thought. “How is it possible?”
“If you don’t know that, O’Hara, how can you expect us to tell you?” Masters said.
“I have no idea…”
“That figures.” MacGibbons sat back comfortably into his seat, sighing. “Well, one thing seems certain anyway. I don’t know that many innocent men walking around with a bullet in the skull. To catch a thing like that, I’m pretty sure you did somethin’ to deserve it. If you catch my drift.”
“That’s enough, Mac,” Masters warned again. “Leave him alone. It’s obvious we’re going nowhere with this. We’d better leave it to Spectrum to find out the truth about this guy.”
“My bet is, they already know the truth about him, Leonard.” MacGibbons was glaring in the prisoner’s direction, with a look of aversion that clearly meant that he didn’t trust him in the least, and would keep his guard up with him.
However, Scarlet didn’t seem to care about the policeman’s obvious antipathy towards him. He was trying to make sense of what he had just learned, without really succeeding. The more he was learning about himself, the more confused and lost he felt.
His brow furrowed in concentration, he suddenly felt a twinge hitting him between the eyes, and he gave a low grunt; for a second, he thought it was yet another of those aggravating headaches that had been assaulting him since he had woken up in Joe’s cabin. But he soon realised that this was different.
It was a strange sensation, an uncomfortable feeling that seemed to originate from an outside source.
A thought imposed itself to his mind.
“Something is wrong,” he murmured under his breath.
“What do you mean, ‘something is wrong’?” Masters asked, glaring once again at his prisoner in the rear-view mirror.
“I don’t know, I –” Scarlet shook his head. The faint, prickly feeling was still there, and now he could feel nausea mounting in him. “It’s a feeling I have. I can’t explain what… It’s like –” He stopped suddenly, as the vague thought became a certitude. He swallowed hard. “We’re in danger,” he said finally.
“Ha!” MacGibbons loudly scoffed. “That’s no danger you’re feelin’, friend! That’s fear. You’re about to be handed over to people who will know what to make of you. And you don’t like it one bit. Isn’t that so?”
Scarlet glanced in the direction of the deputy, then at the gun constantly aimed at him. No, it wasn’t that, he reflected inwardly. He didn’t know, nor did he care, what Spectrum was, or what it might mean to him. Still, he was feeling very uneasy. There was definitely that sensation of impending danger approaching, but he was unable to say where it would come from and what it could actually be. Nor why he could sense it so palpably and be so certain of it.
They drove for a good fifteen minutes without seeing anything but the surrounding woods and green landscape. The path was becoming narrower and bumpier as they advanced into the bayou. Then at the next turn of the road, an unknown and uncontrollable urge forced Scarlet to look up front. He froze, and he felt as if his heart missed a beat, as he saw, straight ahead, standing in the middle of the road, three men dressed in camouflage clothing and armed with sophisticated weapons, seemingly waiting patiently for their arrival.
Masters hit the brake, as he didn’t expect such a sudden apparition in the middle of the road. The car skidded to a halt, only a few meters away from the three men. They didn’t even flinch from their spot. He glared at them through the windshield, chewing his bottom lip, wondering.
“Now, who the devil are they?” he muttered.
“Spectrum, you reckon?” MacGibbons suggested from the back. “We’re at the appointed rendezvous point, after all.”
“Nearly there, anyway.” Masters slowly nodded at the remark. “But they don’t exactly look like official representatives from any security setup I know of.”
“What is exactly official about Spectrum?” MacGibbons asked with a shrug. “What they do is supposed to be secret. You know, like fightin’ these Mysteron fellas who appeared a few months back… You know what Worldnet says about these guys?”
“Not you too! You’re not gonna tell me that you believe they’re aliens from another planet?” scoffed Masters. “You’ve been checking the same crazy website as the Holland boy.”
“I don’t know about aliens, but these guys here look like professionals,” MacGibbons said. “Frankly, I’m disappointed. I really had hoped for a colour-coded agent.”
“Well, that ain’t colour-coded uniform they’re wearing,” Masters muttered. “They look more like the army, or something like that.”
“Spectrum is a military-type set-up, Sheriff. So they must be it.”
“Danger…” Scarlet’s whisper was nearly inaudible, but Masters heard it from the front of the car and turned around to look at his prisoner. The latter’s face was filmed with sweat, and very pale; he was looking haggardly at the three camo-dressed men, who were still standing like statues in the middle of the road. MacGibbons was glaring sceptically at him, his finger caressing the trigger of his gun, which was still trained on the prisoner, as if he was expecting him to make a false move at any moment.
But clearly, Scarlet didn’t pose any threat. He didn’t look in any condition to put up any kind of fight.
“What’s the matter, O’Hara? You don’t feel right?” Masters asked. “You look like you’re about to throw up. Your headaches bothering you again?”
Scarlet shook his head, as much as to answer in the negative as in an attempt to clear his mind. Nervously, he nodded in the direction of the three commandos. “These men… I feel…danger coming from them.” He blinked and detached his eyes from the men, to fix them on the sheriff. He swallowed hard. “We have to leave,” he finally said. “Now.”
“Bullshit!” MacGibbons said, with a louder scoff than before. “You’re scared stiff, O’Hara, that’s what you are!” He opened his door and got out. “I’m gonna go talk to them.”
“Mac, wait,” the sheriff started.
“Don’t go near them,” Scarlet advised with urgency. “I tell you, we have to leave this place.”
“You're not goin’ anywhere, scum, if you know what's good for you.” MacGibbons brusquely slammed the door, before leaning to Masters’ window. “Keep a close eye on him, Leonard. He ain’t goin’ nowhere, restrained as he is, but who knows… With all the strange things we know already about this freak…”
“I don’t know, Mac,” Masters said hesitantly. “These guys… They don’t look right.”
“Hey, we were supposed to meet Spectrum exactly here. And they certainly fit the bill of a paramilitary security organisation.”
“You think so?”
“Who else could they be?” MacGibbons straightened up and looked directly at the three men still standing at the same place, a few meters in front of the car. They had not made a single move; they simply seemed to be waiting. The deputy raised his gun and rested the barrel on his shoulder, keeping ready to use it, should there would be a need.
“Hey there!” he called out loud. “You’re the Spectrum unit we’re supposed to meet?”
The man standing in the middle took a casual step forward, while the two others stayed where they were. “We’ve been waiting for you,” he answered calmly in a clipped voice.
MacGibbons narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re here for the prisoner?”
The man, who seemed to be the leader, nodded. “You’re to hand him over to us,” he said. “Get him out of the car.”
“Uh-uh. Before we do that, soldier, you’ll have to show us the warrant, properly signed, stating that you take full responsibility for him.”
The man tilted his head to one side. “We have your papers here,” he answered quietly.
MacGibbons nodded with satisfaction. “I’ll get them.” He offered Masters a confident grin. “I won’t be a minute. Then we’ll give this freak to them and that’ll be good riddance.”
Masters nodded his assent almost mechanically. His deputy left the side of the car and started walking, quietly, in the direction of the three men.
Scarlet, in the back of the car, let out a low moan. “No, don’t approach them…”
Masters was about to turn around and order him to shut up when at that moment, he saw one of the two men who had stayed behind, advance two steps in front of his leader, raise his automatic weapon and aim it at MacGibbons. What followed was so very fast that the sheriff didn’t have time to react – and neither did his deputy.
There was a loud crackling sound, and Masters saw fire and smoke emerge from the soldier’s weapon. MacGibbons was mowed down by a series of projectiles, the force of which threw him backwards, straight onto the front of the car. Droplets of blood spattered onto the hood and windshield, making a startled Masters blink for the space of a second. Then he saw the limp body of his deputy slowly slide off the hood to drop onto the ground, out of his view, while his gun escaped his lifeless hand and clattered off to the side.
Frozen in shock, Masters kept staring at the blood-smeared spot on the hood from where MacGibbons had slid, almost unable to detach his eyes from it. The three men were still standing in the middle of the road, without any expression apparent on their faces.
“Oh my God…” the sheriff murmured.
The shout from his prisoner drew Masters out of his shock, in time for him to spot the same man who had shot MacGibbons down raising his weapon again and aiming it in his direction, through the windshield. With a curse, the sheriff threw himself onto the passenger seat, a fraction of a second before the weapon fired again.
There was one single shot this time, almost deafening, and a large star appeared on the windshield where the bullet hit. From his lying position, Masters put the car into reverse and pressed the accelerator down hard. The car started backing at full speed; but Masters couldn’t see where it was going, and it quickly collided with trees by the side of the road, stopping it on the spot.
Masters pushed himself up behind the wheel; the first thing he saw in front of him, was the blood-covered body of his colleague and friend lying in the dust on the road; beyond it, he could see the three camo-dressed men coming in his direction, weapons at the ready. A cold anger gripped Masters’ heart, and his mind filled with a grim determination that these men, whoever they might be, Spectrum or not, would pay for the death of his friend.
He changed gear again, and pressed down the accelerator. The car jumped forwards, in a cloud of dust. Clearing MacGibbons’ body, Masters directed the vehicle towards the right, straight at one of the men coming at him. He recognised him as the one who had killed MacGibbons. Masters didn’t slow down; the soldier didn’t have time to get away, and the car hit him violently and threw his limp body to the side of the road. Masters barely blinked to register the loud thump; he didn’t stop, looking ahead as his vehicle raced down the road, glancing only once at the two remaining soldiers who were now shooting at his fleeing car, in the hope to stop it.
The car disappeared round the next turn of the road, leaving its pursuers to vainly race after it on foot.
* * *
“Damn!” Major Philip Montgomery stopped running, and watched helplessly as the vehicle disappeared from view, carrying his much-wanted prey with it. “Damn it all to hell!” he roared again in deep frustration. He turned around and aimed a furious kick at the dead body of Palmer who lay broken and bloody in the middle of the road. “We nearly had him! If only this imbecile hadn’t shot at that policeman when he did! Why didn’t he wait for Scarlet to be safely delivered into our hands?! It was only a matter of five minutes!”
“What do we do, now?” asked Petroski, standing by his side.
“What can we do?” Montgomery replied crisply, turning to him. “We have to get our hands on Scarlet! He has the microchip that we want. And we need that microchip!”
Petroski nodded his assent, and was about to add something, when rustling sounds made both of them turn around in alarm, their guns raised; they saw Baxter emerging from the bushes, running to join them.
Gasping for breath after a long race, he came to stand in front of Montgomery. “Sorry I’m late, Major.”
The latter narrowed his eyes and glared murderously at him. At the moment, Montgomery was less than happy about the way the mission was going; and for more than one reason.
“Not only did you deliberately disobey my earlier orders,” he growled icily, “but you also missed the rendezvous. Why didn’t you come straight here after our last radio contact? We could have used you here.”
“I had trouble finding my way,” Baxter explained. “You can easily lose your way in these woods.”
“Don’t you think we know that?” snapped Montgomery.
“Scarlet escaped,” Petroski informed. “And Palmer is dead.”
Baxter looked down at the dead body at their feet. “And so is Williams,” he said, returning his gaze to Montgomery. “These bayous are even more treacherous than we first imagined.”
Montgomery exhaled slowly. “From what you told me earlier by radio, the bayou is not the only reason why Williams is dead.” He poked Baxter in the chest with his index finger, angrily. “Next time, you make sure you follow your instructions, or I’ll kill you myself.”
“If we had followed your orders to the letter, we would not have discovered that the Angel pilot was still alive,” Baxter commented boldly.
“The Angel’s survival is of no consequence,” Montgomery answered frostily, trying his best not to lose his temper. “What exactly can she do against us, tell me? She’s a woman alone, lost in the woods. Only Scarlet is of importance to us.”
“She’s obviously trying to reach Les Arbrisseaux. If she tells the authorities what’s going on –”
“Don’t argue with me!” Montgomery roared suddenly, unable to contain his anger much longer. “That was your human counterpart’s flaw, Baxter. I should have expected it to stay with you after being revived into the Mysterons’ service. The sheriff of Les Arbrisseaux is on the run, we killed his deputy – and the man in charge of the Spectrum office in New Orleans is ours. Williams is dead because you both thought better than to follow your orders, and now we’ve only got three men left to complete the mission, not counting Whitaker waiting for us at the helicopter. Do I have to remind you that time is running out?”
“Sir.” At the call behind him, Montgomery turned around. Petroski had walked a few meters away from them, and was now crouched on the ground, checking something he had found in the middle of the road. Both Montgomery and Baxter came to him and he stood up, to show his hand, covered with fluid.
“Gas,” he announced quietly. “We must have hit the tank.” He pointed at a large smear right at his feet, and followed a trail with his finger, that seemed to run the length of the road in the direction the sheriff’s car had taken. “The car is losing a lot. They won’t get very far.”
“…and there’s nothing in that direction, but wilderness,” Montgomery commented. “Les Arbrisseaux is the other way. They can’t go back without running through us.” He raised his gun. “All right, we might still be able to see this mission through, then. Let’s move, men. We’ve got to catch them.”
“What about Palmer?” Petroski asked. “His tracker’s skills might still prove useful if Scarlet and that policeman leave the car and go into the woods to try and reach civilisation.”
“For all I care, Palmer can rot where he is,” Montgomery replied crisply. “It’s his fault we lost Scarlet this time.” He turned around to face the road in the direction the car had disappeared. “We’re not totally inept. We certainly can follow tracks without his help.”
He was about to take a step to start the chase when he heard sounds of engines coming from nearby. Not from a car by the sound of it, and not from anywhere on the road. His eyes scanned the woods, searching, but it was Petroski who first saw the three ORVs racing wildly between the trees, a few meters from them, following the approximate direction the car had previously taken. There were whooping sounds and laughing coming from the riders who didn’t even seem to notice the three commandos standing in the middle of the road.
Montgomery grunted and shook his head. “Kids having fun at whatever game they’re playing, that’s all,” he commented. “They’re unimportant, and no danger to us at all. It’s a shame, though… those vehicles they’re riding might have been very useful to us.”
Shrugging it off, he gestured forward and broke into a run in pursuit of the sheriff’s car.
Petroski and Baxter followed suit.