A “Captain Scarlet” story for Christmas
By Chris Bishop
PART 1 – A Pocketful of Rainbows
“Oh, yeah?! And a merry Christmas to you, too!” In frustration, Captain Ochre slammed down the handset; with such force that the phone underneath gave an alarming noise that might have suggested it was about to fall apart. Captain Scarlet, who was entering the Officers’ Lounge at that moment, winced at the sound and looked with puzzlement at his American colleague’s scowling expression.
“Something wrong?” he asked, putting his travelling bag down on the sofa.
Like a man overly tired, Ochre rubbed his face and then pinched the bridge of his nose. “Na… nothing serious. It’s just that some indescribable idiot from Laundry misplaced my spare uniform!” He gestured towards the phone. “That was the person in charge, a certain Mr. Lumley. He swears that, according to their records, my uniform was left on my bed in my quarters, yesterday, after it had been cleaned.”
“Wasn’t it there?”
“No, of course, it wasn’t there. I wouldn’t be looking for it otherwise!” Ochre sighed. “I’ve looked everywhere, and so I called Laundry. They say that, at this moment, there are no officer’s uniforms in their inventory – ochre or any other colour. I insisted they should be looking more thoroughly for it, in case it might be, I don’t know, lying somewhere they don’t suspect, or maybe they could have put it in someone else’s quarters...”
“And what did Lumley say?”
“That he’ll look around, just in case… but that he fully expected me to call him back from Cloudbase to tell him that I found my uniform there, as I might not have brought it with me in the first place.” Ochre scoffed. “Jerk. That uniform never leaves London HQ. All of us in the senior staff keep a spare here, he should know that. I certainly won’t find it in my quarters on Cloudbase.” He pointed accusingly towards the phone, as if he was addressing his enemy directly. “It never came back from Laundry, and never reached my quarters here. So I’m sure it’s either still there or got lost in-between. There is no other possible explanation.”
“Are you sure it isn’t still in the storeroom, where all our spare uniforms are kept?” Scarlet suggested.
“No. I had it brought from there to my quarters here, as soon as I arrived from Cloudbase three weeks ago, following that Mysteron threat to destroy the Parliament. I distinctly remembered signing the form. I can even show you the receipt if you doubt that.”
“No need.” Scarlet shook his head. “I was just a little concerned that with all that’s been going on lately, you might have forgotten some small details like that.”
For the past two weeks, Spectrum had been kept on its toes by the Mysterons, with two consecutive threats against London – threats that had been successfully prevented by the combined forces of Cloudbase’s senior staff and members of Spectrum London HQ anti-terrorist group. Then, the information that another, more down to Earth, but nearly as deadly, criminal organisation was preparing a new terrorist attack in the city had reached the ears of Spectrum Intelligence, and the investigation that followed had kept Captain Ochre in London. The alert had been lifted a few days earlier, and Ochre was preparing to return to Cloudbase on the same day Scarlet left it for his Holiday furlough.
Scarlet smiled thinly. “I’m sure they’ll find your uniform eventually,” he said reassuringly, somewhat amused by his friend’s display of righteous anger.
“I expect they will.” Ochre eyed his colleague. The latter was out of uniform, and dressed in simple, but stylish, civilian clothing. He was holding under his arm a winter coat that, to Ochre’s eyes, seemed brand new. Ochre whistled and gave an appreciative nod. “Well, you certainly look elegant today! Going somewhere special?”
“Home to Winchester,” Scarlet answered cautiously. He was checking the contents of his bag. All this talk about Ochre having lost his uniform made him wonder if he had everything to hand… Apparently, all was accounted for. Ochre raised a brow at his answer.
“Nowhere else?” he asked casually, but insistently.
“What makes you think I’m going elsewhere beside Winchester?” Scarlet replied. “You know that’s where I always go to celebrate Christmas – given the chance, that is.”
“Yeah, I know that. But I was wondering…” Ochre shrugged. “I just happen to know that there’s a car waiting outside the building with a charming red-haired lady at the wheel. So I thought…”
“Dianne is already downstairs?”
“That’s what I said. She’s been waiting there for the past ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes already? And how did you happen to know that?”
“She came in before, to get some stuff from her quarters, and I met her when she signed the register on her way out. She was inquiring if the shuttle from Cloudbase had arrived in time at the airport – with you onboard, of course – and if you had successfully made your way to report to HQ already, before you leave. When I said you were here, she asked me to tell you that she’ll be waiting at the door.”
“And you’ve only just told me?” Scarlet said with a scowl.
“Hey, I was looking for you in here, when I was informed I had received a call from Laundry. I took a couple of minutes to answer that call. Anyway, I found you, and here you have the message…”
“Well, I’d better get down there right away, then. You know she doesn’t like to be kept waiting. And if I don’t want to walk all the way to…”
“…Foxleyheath, Kent?” Ochre smirked, as Scarlet glared at him. “Isn’t that a little out of your way to Winchester?”
“Dianne told you,” Scarlet pointed out.
“Well, she told me about going to see her old mentor, Lady Penelope, at her home. And since you told me about that little secret between the two of you…”
“We didn’t tell you anything, you sneak, you discovered it all by yourself! And then you wormed the confirmation out of us!”
Ochre shrugged. “Yeah, well… what can I say? I’m that good a detective…”
“… A detective who can’t even find his own missing uniform.” Ochre grimaced and Scarlet zipped his bag. “Maybe you should ask Magenta about that,” he suggested. “Who knows, maybe your uniform ended up on his bunk. You two buddies are together so often that people are liable to mistake you for one another.”
“Very funny. Magenta has been away from HQ since the start of his furlough,” Ochre responded with a shrug. “He hasn’t contacted me since he left, three days ago, although we were supposed to do the town on the only evening I was to be off-duty. Guess he forgot… Some buddy.”
“Hasn’t he called HQ at all?”
“Oh, he did call HQ – for his daily report. He just didn’t call me.” Ochre smiled. “You are trying to divert the conversation, Paul…”
Scarlet sighed with exasperation. “Right, if you want to know everything, Dianne and I are indeed going to Foxleyheath because she wants to officially introduce me to Lady Penelope, who’s been like a mother to her for years. But we also have to go to Winchester as well, just before that, so as you see, we have a long day ahead of us.”
“So I see, yes,” Ochre mused.
“And now, if you will excuse me, I do have to go – before I catch hell with Dianne.”
“Please do, Captain,” Ochre said with a smirk. “I have a plane to catch anyway, to go back to Cloudbase. Just wish I knew what happened to that uniform before I leave though…” He smiled. “Have a good Christmas, the both of you. And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“Fat chance of that,” Scarlet answered with a smile of his own. “Happy Christmas, Rick!”
His bag in hand, he left the officers’ lounge and went to take the nearby lift, which brought him down to the lobby. On the way down, he checked his watch. She’s been waiting ten minutes already, he told himself with annoyance. Notwithstanding the fact that a vehicle wasn’t allowed to stay parked in front of the London Spectrum HQ Building more than five minutes, without the driver being asked by the traffic warden to move it, he felt for certain she would be sore at him. And here he was, chatting with Ochre, who didn’t deem it necessary to tell him about her waiting, right from the start! Well, he was preoccupied with his missing uniform, so he might not have thought about it right away.
As the doors slid open in front of him, Scarlet swiftly stepped out, his mind absorbed with whatever excuse he would have to present to Rhapsody when he finally meet with her. His eyes were set on the reception desk, just in front of him, beside the security gate. He didn’t see the man coming from his right, walking along the wall even faster than he himself, and promptly collided with him. Scarlet nearly lost his coat from under his arm. The large bag the man was carrying nearly escaped him also, as he managed to catch it at the last possible second, squeezing it tight against his chest.
Stopped in his tracks, an annoyed Scarlet turned to the man with the intention of apologising – and frowned upon recognising him.
“Matt Riordan?” he muttered.
“Oh, hello, Captain Scarlet…” The man pushed his bundle under his left arm and presented his hand to Scarlet, smiling almost nervously. “It’s been a while since we saw each other.”
Indeed, Scarlet reflected with a nod, as he shook hands with Riordan. The last time he had actually met the man, the latter was lying in a hospital bed, having barely escaped an assassination attempt by the Mysterons. That was months ago, in the spring, in New York. Matt had discovered that the man who he thought was his friend, Pat Donaghue, also known as Captain Magenta, was in fact a Mysteron double, who had been created after the real Magenta had nearly died by drowning in Vermont. In order to pursue his mission, the newly created Mysteron agent had then taken over Pat Donaghue’s old gang. Scarlet had been captured while investigating Riordan, whom Spectrum suspected of having accessed old financial accounts owned by Donaghue. It was Riordan himself who had tipped off Spectrum as to their missing agent’s whereabouts – but not before the Mysteron agent had executed Scarlet and thrown his body into the Hudson. Of course, because of Riordan’s information, Scarlet had been found – and he eventually recovered – but, of course, Riordan didn’t know all the details of his ‘miraculous rescue’.
And somehow, the English captain could sense that the man felt a little awkward as he exchanged this handshake with him. He was obviously nervous.
“It certainly has been a while, Mr. Riordan,” Scarlet said. “Sorry if I seem surprised. I almost forgot that Spectrum hired you and that you were working in our London office now.”
“Hired me?” Riordan grimaced at the choice of the word. “Rather say that I was offered a choice between serving in prison… and serving here.”
“You don’t like working for Spectrum?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow. “It’s an honest job…”
“Oh yeah… Can’t argue with that, that’s for sure.” Riordan’s entire disposition at the moment seemed to indicate that he wanted nothing more than to leave. And Scarlet noticed that instantly. “If you will excuse me, Captain… I’m … in rather a hurry?”
“Of course. I have to leave, anyway. Someone is waiting for me, too.”
“We’ll have to meet again,” Riordan added in a hurry. “I’ll buy you a beer sometime… Maybe with Pat?”
Now that was odd, Scarlet reflected. He couldn’t imagine why Riordan would like to be that chummy with him. Of course, he realised almost immediately, he simply could be making polite conversation. He had no intention of ever meeting him for a drink, with or without Captain Magenta.
Riordan was already walking away, towards the civilian exit, and Scarlet headed for the military personnel counter; he had just stopped to stand in front of the receptionist – who flashed him her brightest smile – and had taken the pen to sign himself off, when he heard a personal phone ringing. He gave a sideways look towards Riordan who had stopped in his tracks, muttering something under his breath. He saw Riordan digging into his trouser pocket, before producing a small personal phone.
“Yeah?” Riordan said in an undertone, putting the phone to his ear and trying to appear as discreet as possible. “Are you crazy, calling me on this phone?! Are you trying to get me into trouble? Yeah, don’t worry, everything went very well. I’m on my way.”
In normal times, Scarlet would not have taken any notice of what he imagined was a simple private conversation; but something in Riordan’s tone – and especially in the words he had said – raised an alarm within him.
Come on, you fool, you’re imagining things… That man is Pat’s friend, isn’t he? Why would you be suspicious of him?
Scarlet shrugged it off and signed the register with a flourish before turning on his heels. Just as he did, he saw Riordan, nervously putting his phone back into his pocket and getting ready to leave.
At that exact moment, a man suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere and came to stand in front of Riordan, barely an inch away from him; Riordan didn’t have time to avoid him. He collided with the newcomer and was forced to stop. The man took a step back, brushing himself off as he did so.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Mr. Riordan…” The smirk on the man’s face was reminiscent of a tiger’s snarl. “Hasn’t Spectrum found a reason to sack you yet?”
The tone was falsely friendly, but there was no mistaking the bad sentiments it was actually hiding. Scarlet, who was about to leave, witnessed the scene. Somehow, that made him stop in his tracks and he stayed where he stood – watching. Riordan actually looked like he nearly had a heart attack at the man’s appearance.
No surprise there, Scarlet told himself. That was the effect that man had on just about anybody he approached.
“Mr. Conners,” Riordan said with a deep sigh. “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“Obviously, Riordan,” replied Spectrum Intelligence agent Martin Conners, probably the most obnoxious and self-important character Scarlet had ever known in all his life. “You seemed quite absorbed just there… talking on your personal phone?”
Scarlet could swear he saw Riordan’s face pale, even at this distance. Conners was pointing to the pocket into which the phone had disappeared, barely seconds ago. “You know you’re not allowed to use a personal phone in this building, Riordan. For security reasons. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Aw, Mr. Conners…” Riordan gave him a pleading look. “I’m about two meters away from the gate. On the other side, I would be allowed to use the phone.”
“You are not on the other side of the gate, Riordan.”
“Seriously, you wouldn’t get me into trouble for that little detail, would you? I can’t be blamed if my grandmother called me!”
“Your grandmother, really?” There was a scoff in Conners’ voice that didn’t escape Scarlet. “What guarantee do I have that you were not talking to an enemy agent and that you were not giving away top secret information?”
“Really, Mr. Conners… I don’t even work in a secure area. We don’t have any confidential information in my office. And who do you want me to sell that kind of information to, would you tell me?”
“I’ve been watching you, Riordan. You know why I’ve been watching you? Because you’re a criminal, and I’m sure we will regret having you amongst us, eventually. I’m keeping my eye on you, and the day you make a mistake, I’ll be on you so fast you won’t even know what’s hit you.” Conners glared up into Riordan’s eyes, accusingly. The latter was keeping deathly silent. “Now maybe today is that day, Riordan. With your disregard of the rules, you’ll be sure to bring about your own downfall. I’ve been against your employment within Spectrum since the beginning. And I’ll be so glad to prove to everyone I was right about you…”
“Mr. Conners.” Up until now, Captain Scarlet had kept quiet, unwilling to interfere. The less contact he had with Martin Conners, the better he personally felt. However, he couldn’t stand idle while the despicable little man was tearing into another human being for no apparent reason other than acting out of spite. He stepped forward, as his call had attracted both the attention of Conners and Riordan, who turned around.
“Good day, Captain Scarlet,” Conners said affably enough, straightening up as the Spectrum officer stopped in front of them. “What can I do for you?”
“For me? Oh, very little, Mr. Conners, thank you anyway.” Scarlet glanced at Riordan, who seemed even more nervous than before. He certainly looked like a man who didn’t have a clear conscience. Scarlet addressed him directly: “I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be some kind of a problem, here. Am I right?”
“Problem?” Riordan blinked. Scarlet thought he saw him squeezing his bag closer under his arm; he didn’t say a word and waited for an answer. “Ah no, it’s nothing… My grandmother, really… she was asking me to bring her something when I go to visit her…”
“Your grandmother?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow. That didn’t sound quite right to him. He had never heard of Riordan having any grandmother. If he had one, she wouldn’t probably live in London, anyway. Nevertheless, Riordan confirmed the information with a nod and Scarlet simply thought about it a short moment. Then he turned towards Conners, waiting in front of them. The Intelligence man had a thin, cruel sneer drawn upon his lips. He was tremendously enjoying seeing Riordan in a tight spot.
Somehow, that decided Scarlet to take sides.
“That’ll be all, Mr. Conners. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Conners bristled. “But, Captain,” he started to protest, “Mr. Riordan’s disregard for security…”
“Is indeed a security matter, and so should concern me and not you,” Scarlet replied sternly. He paused a few seconds, allowing Conners to swallow the remonstrance. Seeing that he was about to object again, Scarlet interrupted him swiftly, before he could even say a single word: “Besides, you wouldn’t want me to report to Colonel White that you publicly criticise his decision to hire Mr. Riordan in the first place, would you? You know the colonel doesn’t like his judgment to be disputed.”
Conners closed his mouth, and his features became hard. He glared at Scarlet for a split second, before turning his eyes to Riordan. “Until next time, Mr. Riordan,” he said dryly.
There was a promise behind those words and the meaning didn’t escape either Riordan, or Scarlet. Both watched as Conners turned on his heels and walked towards the nearest lift, with a swift step.
“You know Mr. Conners is right, Matt,” Scarlet said calmly, addressing Riordan still standing by his side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man stiffen slightly at the sound of his voice. “You cannot use a personal phone here,” Scarlet moved on.
“I know, Captain,” Riordan answered quickly. “But I didn’t call, really… My grandmother did, and I simply received the call.”
“I know. I saw. But you should keep that thing switched off.” Scarlet turned to examine the man attentively, waiting for a reaction; he could see Riordan felt trapped. He was holding his bundle under his arm so hard that it looked like he would have liked it to disappear behind his back. For a second, Scarlet wondered if he should ask Riordan what was inside that bundle. He could see in Riordan’s eyes that the man feared that exact question.
He probably had also feared, a few minutes earlier, that Conners would also ask him what was inside that bag – but strangely enough the little weasel had not done so, and had completely ignored the bag.
Scarlet decided he was better off doing the same.
“That’s all right, Matt,” he said with a smile. “Go on, get out of here. But keep your phone switched off next time – at least until you have left the secure area.”
“Right, Captain. I mean… S.I.G. And thank you!”
“And keep away from Conners!” Scarlet advised as Riordan started to walk away.
“I sure will, Captain!”
With that Riordan went to sign his own registry at the civilian desk and crossed the security gate.
Scarlet followed him with his eyes. Then, he went to collect his coat from the desk where he had left it, picked up his bag from the floor and went through the gate in turn. He was walking across the vast reception lobby of the building, his eyes still set on Riordan who was now pushing one of the glass doors to step outside.
Scarlet walked out of the Spectrum HQ building too. As he stood on the large paved terrace, just atop the few wide steps descending towards the street beyond, Scarlet scanned the area with his eyes. On the left, he could still see Matt Riordan, hurrying down the steps at a rather quickened pace – trying hard to look inconspicuous but failing to do so. He had already raised his free arm and was waving to an approaching cab to stop. But either the driver didn’t see him, or already had a destination in mind, as he didn’t stop and continued on his way. A frustrated Riordan then checked the stream of cars passing through, obviously searching for another cab.
Scarlet watched him for a second, pondering. Then he took his eyes off Riordan, looking instead along the sidewalk. He spotted a single lonely white car, parked to the right, nearly in front of the building doors. He could see a young woman with red hair behind the wheel. Her eyes were closed and she appeared quite relaxed, her head thrown back against her seat – apparently, she was sleeping. She couldn’t then see the man in uniform walking purposefully towards her car.
A traffic warden.
Giving a last glance towards Riordan – who was raising his arm once more to call a cab – Scarlet made a quick decision and rapidly descended the steps towards the white saloon. He reached it just as the traffic warden was leaning against the open window to address Rhapsody.
“Excuse me…” Scarlet wasn’t sure if it was his abrupt call or the man’s presence near her car that caused Rhapsody to wake up with a start. Suddenly, she was wide-awake and was rolling surprised eyes at her fiancé who was already seizing the handle of her door to open it. Her shock was nothing compared to the apparently offended astonishment with which the traffic warden was glaring at Scarlet.
“You can’t leave like that,” the man stated, frowning and trying to sound authoritarian.
“Certainly I can.” Scarlet motioned to Rhapsody to move to the passenger seat, which she did with enough grace if not some puzzlement. He threw coat and bag onto the back seat and sat behind the wheel. “I’m Captain Scarlet, of Spectrum, and this is Rhapsody Angel,” he explained to the traffic warden, all the while flashing his Spectrum I.D. “We’re currently on a special mission for Spectrum.”
“You were parked in a restricted area,” the man continued, shaking his head.
“We’re aware of that. And you are doing a fine job.” Scarlet closed his door. “But we are on the trail of a suspect who has just left the Spectrum building. He’s about to leave, right there…” He pointed to Riordan, next to whom a cab had just stopped. The traffic warden just missed the way Rhapsody opened her eyes wide with incredulity at Scarlet’s explanation.
“What about the car?” the man asked with a renewed frown. “You were parked in a restricted area…”
“Come on, now!” Scarlet replied, cutting him off as he was reiterating the obvious. “You wouldn’t want to give us a ticket while we’re in the line of duty, would you?” He could see, by the man’s expression, that he only half believed him. Meanwhile, Riordan had climbed into his cab, which was pulling out from the sidewalk. “Now, if you don’t let us go, we will lose him,” Scarlet added insistently. “You can always explain yourself to Colonel White, if…”
“That won’t be necessary,” the man cut in suddenly. Mention of the Spectrum commander seemed to have done the trick and helped him make up his mind. He stepped back from the car and folded his notebook. That last gesture was obviously done with some reluctance. “You can go.”
“I knew you were a reasonable man,” Scarlet said with a smirk. He didn’t wait for another suspicious thought to enter the traffic warden’s mind and swiftly drove the car away from the sidewalk and pulled into the traffic. His eyes were fixed on the cab, a few cars ahead, which was taking Matt Riordan to an unknown destination.
Rhapsody Angel, by his side, adjusted herself in her new position as passenger and heaved a deep sigh. “Sorry, I fell asleep while waiting for you,” she apologised sheepishly. “I must have stayed up too late last evening, gossiping with Penny on the phone.”
“You are excused,” Scarlet answered, vaguely. “You girls talked a lot then?”
“Reminiscing about the past,” Rhapsody confessed.
“You didn’t talk about me?” he asked with curiosity.
“No, we didn’t. I thought we agreed to wait until we meet her face to face to tell her the news?” Rhapsody replied with a raised brow. “So, I kept my mouth shut.”
“Oh. Okay.” To Rhapsody’s ear, her fiancé clearly sounded disappointed not to have been the subject of conversation. She couldn’t help but feel amused by that. Perhaps it was better to change the subject…
“Was I waiting long for you?” she asked matter-of-factly.
“No,” Scarlet lied. “Five minutes, at the most…”
Rhapsody nodded. She was watching the traffic ahead. “What if that warden does contact the colonel?” she asked quietly.
“Would you contact the colonel with such a story?” Scarlet replied with a raised brow.
She had to admit he had a point. “You know, I would not have minded that ticket,” she said. “I was in a restricted area…”
“I know you were, and I know you would not have minded,” Scarlet answered. “You would have given it to me to pay, because you would have held me responsible for it.”
“Right you are.” Rhapsody kept silent for a few seconds, her brow furrowed pensively, as she observed the direction the car was now taking. According to their plans, they were to go to Winchester first, and then head to Foxleyheath. Curiously enough, the car wasn’t heading in either of those two directions.
“Can I ask you one last question?” she said finally.
“Where the bloody hell are we going?”
* * *
Captain Scarlet slowly brought the car alongside the sidewalk, watching with some puzzlement the building on the other side of the road. The cab had stopped a few seconds earlier, leaving Matt Riordan in front of the large, elaborately decorated wood and glass doors. Scarlet looked up at the stylish name, written in golden letters atop the doors, as if making sure he wasn’t making a mistake in his assumption.
The ‘Crowned Victory Palace’. One of the most prestigious and luxurious hotels of London – if not the world. Built on the rubble of two or three buildings on the bank of the Thames, which had been demolished at the end of the Atomic Wars, its construction had not been completed until two or three years after the Militarist Regime had ended.
The owner of the time, a Royalist who, according to popular gossip, had fought with the rebels who had overthrown the Regime, had named the hotel in tribute to the return of Democratic Monarchy. It was even said he had been a close friend of King George himself. But the King had not commented on that last rumour – Royalty never talk about such things, as a rule – so it was difficult to actually know if it was true or not. The owner had passed away a few years ago now, and a huge portrait of him was hung in the lobby of the hotel – alongside a portrait of King George himself, which probably contributed to maintain the rumours.
Scarlet had seen both portraits on a Worldnet page, with Rhapsody, when they had searched for possible places for them to stay during shared furlough. They had never set foot in the hotel itself as they had found the price for just one night was quite excessive.
“Any idea why Matt Riordan would come to a place like this?” Scarlet asked musingly.
“Not the slightest,” Rhapsody answered. There was an obvious tone of annoyance in her voice, and Scarlet, even as he took note of it, pretended not to hear it. “Why are we following him?” she asked in turn.
Scarlet shook his head. “He looks suspicious to me.”
“So you told me earlier. But, Paul, he’s reformed. He’s a friend of Pat, who vouched for him, when Colonel White agreed to him working for Spectrum.”
“I don’t know, Dianne… I have that nagging feeling…” His eyes were set on Riordan, who, at the moment, was walking towards the doors of the hotel. The doorman opened them wide for him. “And then there’s Conners’ own suspicions…”
“Don’t tell me you give any credence to Conners’ suspicions!” Rhapsody rolled her eyes.
“Well, not exactly!” Scarlet defended himself. “I know the man is despicable, but he is good at his job… And anyway, I do have that feeling that… maybe there’s something seriously wrong with our Mr. Matt Riordan. He looked nervous when we met in HQ…”
“Well, considering what happened between the two of you the last time you met, I think I can understand he would be nervous around you. I would be nervous if my actions had caused you to end up at the bottom of a river. He probably still feels guilty about it.”
“As well he should,” Scarlet muttered darkly.
“Are you still carrying a grudge, by any chance?” Rhapsody watched as Scarlet turned the key and removed it from the ignition, before he reached over to the back seat to take his coat. She frowned. “What are you doing now?”
“Well, Mr. Riordan is now inside that very expensive hotel,” Scarlet explained, shifting on his seat while putting his coat on, “and I intend to follow him inside to find out what he’s up to.” He opened his door and stepped out.
“And I’m not carrying a grudge.” Scarlet closed his door, rounded the car and went to open her door. She stayed in her seat, glaring up at him. “If I was carrying a grudge, I would have opposed the colonel’s decision to hire him in the first place,” he continued to explain. “Beside, I haven’t forgotten that it was his tip that got me out of the Hudson. Are you coming with me?”
“If only to keep you out of trouble…” Rhapsody extracted herself from her seat, and Scarlet closed the door. Already wearing her coat, she took the time to tidy herself, while Scarlet waited by her side. “And you are bound to get into trouble and make a fool of yourself, if you persist in this idea of finding out what Matt Riordan is doing. Besides,” she added almost dreamily, looking up at the building on the other side of the street. “I would not pass up the opportunity to actually see inside that hotel.” She turned to Scarlet again. “Tell me, why are you suspicious of him?”
“A feeling, as I said…” Scarlet gently took her by the shoulder, looked right and left, then they crossed the street towards the hotel. “Have you noticed that bundle he’s carrying under his arm?”
“A Christmas gift, probably.”
Scarlet shook his head. “I don’t think so. If it were, he would carry it with much more care. As far as I was able to gather, whatever might be in that bag, he doesn’t want anyone to know. He keeps it very close to himself – and holds onto it very tightly. And IF it was a Christmas gift… he wouldn’t quite hold it the same way, for fear of damaging it.”
“Are you playing detective, now?” Rhapsody asked with a perfectly raised brow.
“I’ve learned from experts,” he answered with a smirk.
“This is all very well, Sherlock, but if you plan to leave that car where it is right now, you can be sure it will be gone when we come back for it later.”
“Are you worried it will get stolen?”
“No… I worry that it will be towed away sometime in the next five minutes.”
“You worry too much, Watson.”
Having reached the doorman, they stopped in front of him. He saluted them politely, with a tilt of his cap and a bright smile. “Merry Christmas and welcome to the Crowned Victory Palace. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Actually, there is, if you don’t mind,” Scarlet answered. He handed the doorman his car key, along with two folded banknotes. Rhapsody followed his gesture with curiosity. “Will you have one of your valets take our car down to your carpark inside? We tried to find the entrance without success…”
“Of course, sir,” the doorman answered with a short bow.
“Thank you, that’ll be most helpful. It’s the white saloon up front.” He jerked his thumb towards the car and the doorman acknowledged the information, before opening the door wide for them to enter. “See? All taken care of.”
They both stopped in the lobby as soon as they cleared the door. It was absolutely huge, decorated in various hues of brown and beige, with a vaulted ceiling, supported by pillars of white marble. There was a very lavish lounge on the left, adorned with leather furniture and glass tables, and televisions on all sides of the room. The reception desk – right at the lounge entrance – seemed to have been entirely carved from a single piece of very expensive stone. There were sounds of Christmassy music coming from unseen speakers and a huge Christmas tree – generously decorated – occupied the place of honour in the middle of the lobby, right between the twin, marble and wooden staircases running up to the second floor. A set of six elevators was encased between the staircases, and both Scarlet and Rhapsody could see the little cabins going up and down through the glass shafts.
The two huge portraits of the original owner of the hotel and of King George VII, current monarch of the United Kingdom, were hanging behind the registration desk.
“Do you have any idea how much a parking place in this hotel will cost you?” Rhapsody asked under her breath, looking all around them.
“Maybe it’s included in the price of a room,” Scarlet replied.
She scoffed. “Looking at these surroundings, that would surprise me very much. They must charge for everything. In any case, we are not taking a room, are we? I’ll remind you that people will be waiting for us. Your parents in Winchester and then Penny in Foxleyheath. We have plans, you know.”
“…And we will get to them, don’t worry.”
“Who’s worried? I’m just trying to make you realise that this is all absolutely ridiculous, and that we are wasting our time unnecessarily. We should be on our way to Winchester right now.”
“Not right away.” Scarlet tapped her shoulder to attract her attention and pointed in a specific direction. “There he goes.”
They could see Riordan, standing at the reception desk, a few meters away from them. He had his back turned to them, and couldn’t see them, as he was too busy accepting the keycard the young woman dressed in a golden uniform was handing him from behind the counter. Scarlet pricked up his ears to hear what the two of them could be saying; he distinctly heard the words of the young woman, through the music and all the ruckus surrounding him: “They are waiting for you, Mr. Riordan.”
Riordan nodded his thanks and turned on his heel towards the elevators, still with his bundle under his arm. He hurried inside one of them, and the doors closed on him. The lift started going up.
“I wonder where he’s going exactly?” Scarlet mused, as they followed the lift’s progress with their eyes.
“Why not ask Reception?” Rhapsody said in annoyance. “Really, Paul, I don’t believe you…”
“That’s a good idea, love. Let’s go.”
Before Rhapsody could protest, Scarlet walked briskly towards the reception desk, pulling her along. The receptionist who had previously given Riordan his key, was sporting a badge with the name ‘Angie’ on her golden vest. She received both Spectrum agents with the brightest of smiles. “Good afternoon. Can I be of service to you?”
“Yes,” Scarlet started. “We are here to meet a friend of ours…”
Her smile didn’t waver. “Is your friend staying at the hotel?”
There was a slight hesitation on Scarlet’s part. Truth to tell, he wasn’t sure if Riordan was staying at the hotel. She had welcomed him, referring to him by name and giving him a key, and he had taken the lift up, but whether the room had been booked under his name, he had no idea. He had to play it very carefully.
“His name is Matt Riordan,” he said, smiling, going around the question. “You probably remember him. American, tall, red hair… Unfortunately, I don’t remember the room he’s supposed to meet us…”
Rhapsody, standing by his side, was looking at the lifts behind them, her eyes on the indicator with the floor numbers set above the door of the one Riordan had taken. It had just stopped on number ten, with no stop in between, and stayed there. She turned back to the desk.
“I’ve just remembered that the room is supposed to be ten something…” she said, leaning next to Scarlet, causing him to glance at her. She offered the receptionist a sheepish smile, and used her most upper-class tone of voice, upon continuing: “I was the one to talk to him over the phone, and I’m afraid I didn’t take note of the message properly, you see… Oh, I’m so sure we’ll be late and Matt will be waiting for us…”
“He won’t have been waiting that long, madam,” the young woman offered. “Mr. Riordan just arrived here a few minutes ago.”
“Did he?” Rhapsody asked, sounding excited. “But then he’s as late as we are!” She chuckled. “Dear Matt, he’ll never change!”
“I suppose everyone else is there too,” Scarlet moved on, using the little he had heard earlier to complete the charade. “We’d better go up and meet them, then. Can you direct us, miss?” he asked, turning back to the receptionist.
“Room 1021, sir,” she answered, consulting her digital pad. “Tenth floor.” She produced a new smile. “Do you want a bellboy to guide you?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Scarlet answered. “We’ll manage.”
Both he and Rhapsody turned away from the desk and walked towards the lifts.
“You’re very good at this game, your ladyship,” he told her with an appreciative smile.
She accepted the compliment, with a tilt of her head. “Remember I used to make a living at stuff like that, Mr. Metcalfe,” she replied. “Anyway, we seem to make a good team. You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Thank you very much.”
“But then again, I’m feeling like a complete fool, to be following a man around in an expensive hotel, for no real reason at all.”
“I have my reasons.”
“Yes, yes… ‘you’ve got a hunch’. You find him suspicious and you want to know what’s in this package he’s carrying around. That’s hardly a reason, Paul.”
“Plus, I’m curious to know exactly who it is he’s meeting here,” Scarlet added.
“Paul, this is really getting ridiculous. You’re starting to see conspiracies where there is none! You’re becoming as bad as Conners!”
He dismissed the protest with a wave of his hand. “Matt Riordan has a room in this very expensive hotel… Don’t tell me you don’t find this suspicious!”
“We don’t know if he specifically has a room in his name,” replied Rhapsody. “There’s a difference. And even if he has…”
“… On his salary?”
“These people he’s meeting could be the ones who rented the room! They might be able to afford the price without any problem at all!”
“Then I want to know who they are.”
Rhapsody gave up.
They entered the first empty lift they found and Scarlet punched the number ten on the board. The doors closed on them and the lift started climbing. They were all alone in the lift, but they kept silent. Rhapsody couldn’t find anything to say to try to convince her fiancé he might be overreacting. He looked at her; she seemed to be sulking. He sighed.
“Are you angry with me?” he asked after a while.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s overstating it. No, I’m not angry. Just a little frustrated. I’ll remind you again that we have plans and that we are meeting people. We will be late, if you insist on doing an investigation where there is no case.”
Scarlet didn’t answer; in any case, the lift had reached their destination and the doors opened in front of them.
They were about to step out when Scarlet saw a huge man in the corridor, a few meters away from them, standing guard in front of a door. Recognising him, he momentary froze in place. Then swiftly, he pushed himself to the side of the cabin, pulling Rhapsody along. She gasped in surprise. Holding her close to him, Scarlet just had time to stop the doors from closing by pressing a button on the board against which they were both leaning.
“Now what’s got into you?” Rhapsody’s angry protest was however uttered in a low voice – almost a whisper – as she could see the concern on her fiancé’s face. Something was obviously bothering him. He nodded towards the open door.
“Did you see that man there, outside?” he asked in a whisper.
Rhapsody shook her head; no, she had had no time to see anything; he had grabbed her far too quickly. She took a peek, and saw the man in question. He obviously had not seen them, neither did he seem to have noticed that the doors of the lift were open. He was simply standing guard in front of one of the doors, looking the other way, rocking on his heels and toes, and humming something that she thought she recognized as a Christmas song. He was huge, by any standards; taller and bigger than any man she had ever seen before, with hands large enough to crush a football.
“Who’s that gorilla?” she whispered to Scarlet.
“Robert Oxbury,” he answered in the same tone. “Quite appropriately nicknamed ‘Ox’ – former enforcer of the Donaghue gang, then a member of the Ben Fisher gang. Believe me, that guy can do damage. He beat me to a pulp, trying to extract information from me when I was captured by that Mysteron replicate of Pat last spring.”
“Charming fellow,” Rhapsody muttered. “What’s he doing here?”
Scarlet shook his head. “Last time I heard of him, it was a toss up between whether he was going to die of a gunshot wound or end up in prison. Talk about tough…” He grunted. “I knew it. I just knew it. If Oxbury is here, then Riordan is definitely up to something bad. And I’m going to find out what it is! Wait here!”
Before Rhapsody could stop him, Scarlet stepped out of the lift. She watched in concern as he purposefully walked towards the man called Ox. Suddenly aware that there was someone coming his way, Ox had stopped rocking on his feet to turn towards the newcomer. For a moment, Rhapsody wondered if the man was armed or not. If he was, he didn’t make a move to get his weapon and if the same thought had entered Scarlet’s head, it certainly wasn’t stopping him.
“You…?” Obviously, by the way he was rolling surprised eyes, Ox had recognized Scarlet, and wasn’t at all expecting to see him in this place. “What the Hell are you doing here?”
“That’s exactly the question I was about to ask you, Mr. Oxbury!”
Rhapsody, dismissing Scarlet’s instructions, stepped out of the lift in turn, allowing the doors to finally close behind her. Ox was standing on the defensive, apparently unsure of what to do; years in the mob had taught him to recognize an assailant on sight, though, so when Scarlet reached him, he didn’t hesitate for a second to throw a right punch at him. The blow would have been devastating if it had made contact, but it was far too high, and Scarlet swiftly and quite easily evaded it, passing clear underneath the giant’s arm. He prepared to retaliate.
However, Ox’s first punch was but a well orchestrated ruse that had forced his opponent open for his next blow. Scarlet realised it instantly as he turned and he saw – far too late – the huge left fist coming right at him. It hit him squarely in the stomach, with such force that it lifted him clear off the floor. With the air completely expelled from his lungs and a pain that made him think that some of his belly muscles had been torn from where they were attached, Scarlet fell like a sack of flour onto the floor with a painful grunt. He was lying, half-stunned and coughing, at the feet of the huge man who now towered over him.
“You always show up where we don’t want you, Spectrum!” Ox said between his teeth. “You know, this is an annoying habit!”
“Leave him alone!” When she had seen her fiancé fall under the giant’s destructive punch, Rhapsody Angel had not wasted a second in deciding to intervene, even though she was totally aware that she stood not a snowball’s chance in Hell in front of him. He had his back turned on her now and had obviously not seen her, so she simply jumped onto his massive shoulders before he could land another blow on the defenseless Scarlet over whom he was standing. She tried to hang on for dear life, but he was way too bulky and there wasn’t any hold possible; he swatted her away without any effort and as she fell back on her feet, he turned towards her with an annoyed – and surprised – look on his face. She looked up at him; he was huge – easily three times her size – and was easily a whole foot taller than she was.
Strangely enough, he didn’t make a move, so she started punching him in the chest. She could have been giving him love taps for all the result it had. “I won’t let you hurt him, you big ape!” she shouted angrily. “You will have to go through me, before touching him again!”
“Dianne!” From his position on the floor, a still incapacitated Scarlet could see his fiancée standing up to the bulky mountain of a man that had just floored him. He coughed, his lungs hurting. “Stay away from him!” he wheezed.
With horror, he saw that his warning might just have come a second too late. Still oblivious to Rhapsody’s continuous attacks, Ox took a step forward; his huge hands moved quickly and grabbed the young woman by the shoulders, effectively imprisoning her arms in the process. A second later, he was effortlessly lifting her a good two feet from the floor, making her gasp in surprise. Scarlet’s worry knew no bounds and he made a supreme effort to get onto his feet.
“No! Let her go!”
The strained words coming from his throat seemed to find an echo as, from behind him, two new voices suddenly rang out, louder than his, in a quite similar shout which addressed the giant now standing in the middle of the corridor with his precious load.
“Ox, let her go!”
Scarlet turned around. The door behind him – number 1021 – had flown open. Not only was Matt Riordan standing in the doorway, rolling astounded eyes at the scene, but Pat Donaghue – Captain Magenta – was there too. And if his expression was also one of absolute surprise, it was also reflecting worry and anger at the sight of Ox, holding Rhapsody two feet in the air. He stepped into the corridor, walking in front of Scarlet and came to a halt in front of the giant.
“Ox, put her down right now!” he ordered sternly. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Awww… Mr. Donaghue.” Ox glanced up at Rhapsody – who had stopped struggling the second she had seen Magenta. He then put her down on her feet, letting go of her immediately. “You know I would never hit a woman,” the giant said sheepishly, turning to Magenta.
“You might have hurt her anyway, holding her like that,” Magenta continued firmly.
“I was just trying to restrain her, boss – so she wouldn’t hurt herself.”
“Hurt myself?” a scandalised Rhapsody replied. “Well, I’ve never…” she stopped, realising that Scarlet was still struggling to get up. Forgetting about Ox, Riordan, and even Magenta, she rushed to him and crouched by his side. “Oh, Paul, are you all right? Did that brute hurt you badly?”
“I’ll survive,” he rasped, and then coughed. Magenta had to help him to get on his feet. He swayed; Ox’s punches were exactly as he remembered them: like a sledge hammer able to destroy a mountain. He glared heatedly at the giant who was standing right behind Magenta.
“What were you thinking, Ox?” the latter said, turning to his former enforcer. “You could have hurt him. This man is my friend.”
“Aww, Mr. Donaghue… I know how tough he is,” Ox defended himself. “I knew he could take much more than that.”
Rhapsody opened her eyes wide with astonishment at his rather aloof assertion, but didn’t have time to protest angrily, as Magenta stepped in front of the giant.
“Ox…” Magenta said warningly, “that’s not a good enough reason.”
“Besides, he started it first, boss,” Ox added quickly.
“Don’t call me that,” Magenta replied with a frown.
“That’s not true,” Scarlet wheezed. But he had to admit that, in the heat of the moment, he would have had difficulty telling Magenta who had actually started it. He had had every intention of throwing the first punch, but Ox had beaten him to it.
“In any case, you shouldn’t hit people like that,” Magenta continued. “You could hurt them badly.”
“Yes, boss…” Ox said, lowering his eyes in a contrite way.
“Stop calling me that.” Magenta turned to Scarlet, who was holding his stomach with one hand and gritting his teeth. “Are you all right, Paul? Can you walk?”
“Of course, I can!” Scarlet seethed. “Now, can you tell me what the bloody Hell this is all about, Pat? You’re definitely the last person I expected to find here!”
“And what are you doing here, exactly?” Magenta asked with a frown, looking at Scarlet, and then Rhapsody. “It’s not like I sent out invitations…” He looked around, glancing at the other doors along the corridor, wondering if the ruckus had drawn any of the other guests’ attention to them. Obviously, it wasn’t the case, as all the doors remained closed. “Wait, we’d better go inside for the explanation,” he said.
“I agree,” Scarlet commented, still between clenched teeth. “I would very much like to sit down… until I get better.”
“Right you are. Ox, you’re coming too. I don’t want another incident of this kind to happen again…”
“It won’t happen again, boss…”
“Nevertheless, you’re coming.”
“And do stop calling me that.”
* * *
“I can’t believe it! You thought I was up to no good and you followed me to make sure?! I’m hurt, Captain Scarlet!”
In the very luxurious hotel room in which he and Rhapsody had been introduced, Captain Scarlet, now seated on a very comfortable sofa and drinking a hot cup of tea, explained to Captain Magenta how he had come to be at the Crowned Victory Palace that day with Rhapsody Angel. It had not been easy to admit the doubts he had entertained towards Matt Riordan and now he was receiving the full brunt of the American’s irritation. Standing against a wall, Robert Oxbury was glaring at him with resentment and accusation in his eyes. While Rhapsody, very silent, was giving him an ‘I told you so’ kind of look while sipping her own cup of tea. Only Magenta was keeping himself from making any sort of disobliging remark towards his colleague and friend. As a matter of fact, Scarlet could see that he was hiding a smile of amusement behind his hand that he was holding pensively against his chin. Probably, Scarlet thought, Magenta considered that Scarlet had been suitably punished for his indiscretion when he had had that brutal encounter with Ox’s massive fist. With which Scarlet could only concur.
“How can you believe such a thing?” Riordan pursued. “Didn’t I prove myself enough these past months, while working for Spectrum? Heck, I’m still under probation. If I should do anything wrong, I’m liable to be thrown into jail, with Colonel White throwing the key into deep space! I don’t want to risk that! From Conners, I can believe such suspicions all right – the man wouldn’t even trust his own mother. But from you…”
“All right, Mr. Riordan, if I made a mistake, I apologize!” Scarlet snapped angrily, turning to Riordan, and interrupting him abruptly before he could continue his relentless verbal assault. “But you’ve got to admit, you were acting rather suspiciously. Hiding that package under your arm, looking nervous, coming to this hotel… not to mention breaking Spectrum regulations by using a personal device in a secure area… You were actually lucky it was me who followed you, instead of Conners. If he’d seen your friend Oxbury…”
“What does Conners have to do with any of this?” Magenta suddenly interrupted. There seemed to be some concern in his voice, and Scarlet noticed it right away. Riordan turned to his friend, with a contrite look.
“He accosted me, just as I was leaving Spectrum HQ,” he explained. “I was just lucky he didn’t ask to see what was in that package you asked me to bring along!”
That made Scarlet prick up his ears. So, there is something about that package, he reflected. He said nothing for the moment, and watched as the exchange between the two old friends continued:
“Matt, I told you to be careful,” Magenta said sternly.
“Oh, all right! I was careful,” Riordan protested. “At least, I was until that last call you made to me, and that I received just as I was leaving HQ. That seemed to have attracted Conners’ attention.”
“And mine as well,” Scarlet groused.
“What made you call me like that?” Riordan continued, addressing Magenta. “You could have got me in a lot of trouble!”
“You were late. I was concerned you had encountered some kind of trouble,” Magenta replied. “Obviously, I was right to be worried.”
“Right. Well, all was going well until that call. And then, Conners tried to corner me. I admit it, I was nervous, facing that guy. He’s far too nosey for comfort. And then, I didn’t count on Captain Britannica here to follow whatever kind of crazy hunch he might have imagined he had!”
Rhapsody chuckled into her tea, which caused Scarlet to glare at her with annoyance. He said nothing and returned his attention to both Riordan and Magenta. “There is something going on,” he muttered.
“What makes you say that, Paul?” Magenta asked, lifting a brow.
“Well, your friend just admitted, a few minutes ago, that there is something in that package of his that might cause him trouble,” Scarlet remarked, which caused Magenta to glare meaningfully at Riordan. “And then, there is you, Pat,” Scarlet continued. “Your presence here makes me think you are the one up to something, instead of your friend Matt. I followed him to find out if he was hiding something. And then I had confirmation there was something suspicious going on when I saw Mr. Oxbury here standing guard outside this room… By the way, how the hell can he be here? I thought he was either dead or in prison!”
“That’s not very tactful, Paul.” Rhapsody gave Ox a shy smile. “Actually, we’re delighted you’re not dead, Mr. Oxbury…”
“Speak for yourself,” Scarlet growled fiercely. The one punch he had received earlier was a more than vivid reminder of what kind of damage Ox’s huge hands were capable of inflicting.
Ox snorted derisively. “I got released for the Holidays,” he muttered.
“Released for the Holidays?” Scarlet repeated, opening eyes wide with deep surprise.
“Actually, I asked for his temporary release,” Magenta swiftly explained. “I personally signed bail for him.”
“You – as Pat Donaghue or Captain Magenta?” Scarlet asked suspiciously.
Magenta laughed. “Don’t be dense, Paul! You know that Patrick Donaghue, the mobster, is officially dead. And even if he wasn’t, he couldn’t very well pay bail for one of his men, while he was one of the most wanted men on Earth.”
“You used Spectrum privilege to get him out, then?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow. “How…?”
“Ox’s only been in prison while awaiting trial – which should be happening after the Holidays, is that right, Ox?” The giant confirmed the information with a nod. “Anyway, while awaiting trial, he’s been behaving very well, and so it was rather easy for me to have him released – in exchange for some… service… for Spectrum…”
“Service for Spectr…” Scarlet nearly choked. “So that’s how you did it! Pat, you had him released under false pretences?!”
“Well… kind of, yeah.”
“How were you able to do this? Pat, that kind of order must be countersigned by the commanding officer… I’m pretty sure Colonel White didn’t agree to this.”
“Not exactly, no,” Magenta admitted. “But you know, under some circumstances, we are allowed to… use our initiative. Or so the colonel keeps telling us.”
“You didn’t forge his signature, I hope?” Scarlet said. The mere thought made him shudder.
“No, I can reassure you on that score, I didn’t have to go that far. Just an official temporary release paper from high command, presented to the right, gullible official, was enough to get Ox free. As senior officers, we have access to these papers all the time. It was rather simple, come to think of it!”
“Pat, you’re playing with fire!” Scarlet warned heatedly. “How could you do such a thing?! What if Oxbury jumps bail? What if the old man finds out? He’d throw the book at you!”
“Paul is right, Pat,” Rhapsody added quickly. “Don’t you think it’s a little risky?”
“Ox won’t jump bail,” Magenta replied with a shake of his head. “He gave me his word and I know him well enough to know that he will abide by it.”
“Well, who’s gullible now?” Scarlet snapped, taking no notice of the murderous look Ox was sending in his direction. “Now will you tell us what the bloody Hell is going on around here? Why you had this… this criminal released from prison…”
“Easy, Paul…” Magenta appealed, seeing his colleague and friend on the verge of losing what little was left of his temper.
“…. And why you have taken a room in this very expensive hotel,” Scarlet moved on, without actually listening to him. “I do hope you didn’t use Spectrum’s contacts or money for that, at least?”
“Paul, I’m shocked!” Magenta protested. “Yes, the Crowned Victory is on Spectrum’s list when it comes to special hotel arrangements during very specific missions, but I assure you, that doesn’t mean I used our special contacts or Spectrum money to get the room.”
“It comes from our own pockets,” Riordan added in turn. “We’re not exactly out of monetary resources, Captain!”
“Well, that at least is reassuring!” Scarlet growled. “Now, what kind of scheme are you working on at the moment, Patrick Donaghue?”
Magenta sadly shook his head. If his friend was addressing him using his full name, then he was really angry with him. “No scheme at all, I can assure you,” he tried to reassure him.
“Then explain to me. Rick told me he has barely heard from you for the last three days. You contacted Headquarters only for your daily reports… What are you up to exactly, Pat?”
Magenta hesitated; he glanced down in Rhapsody’s direction, searching for some support. She gave him an encouraging nod. She, too, was curious to know everything. Sighing, Magenta started pacing. Then, making his decision, he stood in front of his colleagues. “All right, if you really want to know… I’m preparing a Christmas gift.”
“You’re… what?” Scarlet asked, dubiously.
“I’m preparing a Christmas gift.” Magenta raised a brow in Riordan’s direction. “For a very special lady.”
“Girlfriend of yours?” Scarlet asked with suspicion.
“Hardly. She’s nearly eighty years old.”
“She’s my nana, Miss,” Matt Riordan interrupted from behind Rhapsody, causing everyone to turn to him.
“Your nana?” Rhapsody repeated with a frown. “Your grandmother?”
“Yeah.” Riordan sighed. He came to sit on the rocking chair, in front of Scarlet and Rhapsody. “She’s lived in Ireland all her life. You know, my parents – they were born in Ireland too, and they did just like Pat’s parents did, many years ago. Only, when they left, I wasn’t born yet. My grandparents stayed behind, preferring to stay in the old country. My grandfather died many years ago, and from then on, my grandmother lived in her little cottage, all alone – my aunt Ciara and uncle Dylan often came for a visit of course, with their children. Just to make sure she was doing okay all by herself and that she wasn’t lonely.” He paused and looked around; everyone was silent and waiting for the rest. He continued: “I only met her a few times – not as much as I would have liked to, I have to admit to my shame. She’s a wonderful lady. So very much alive, and she doesn’t look her years at all. She’s a very proud woman, but not in the least egotistical. She loves her family so very much, and that includes me.” He lowered his eyes. “She… erm… never learned about my criminal life in New York. Which is a blessing.”
“So now what?” Rhapsody asked. “You want to offer her a dream stay in one of London’s most luxurious hotels?” She smiled fondly. “That’s a very nice gesture, Matt…”
“Ah, well… that’s partly true… but it’s not the whole explanation,” Riordan said sheepishly.
“I thought there was more to it,” Scarlet groused.
“I… er… told you she never learned about my criminal life. But then, one of my cousins blabbed recently, and told her about me being a member of a mob in New York. So I had to explain myself… I was so angry at my cousin – and so desperate at the same time, I – well, I told Nana I was working for Spectrum, in front of my cousin and his wife.”
“You told them?” Scarlet said with a raised brow.
“Well, there’s no regulation against me telling my family, is there?”
“No… Not at your level. But there still might be a security risk.”
Matt scoffed. “Believe me, my grandmother and cousin don’t pose any security risk – both are pretty inoffensive. Well, my cousin can be an obnoxious cur, but that’s another story entirely.”
“Please, go on, Mr. Riordan,” Scarlet sighed, getting impatient. “Did your family believe you?”
“My grandmother did – without hesitation. But my cousin Brendan, and his wife, they were rather dubious at first… I finally convinced them, when I showed them my Spectrum security card.”
Scarlet rolled his eyes. “You mean the keycard that permits you to enter London HQ premises,” he précised.
“Yeah, it did the trick perfectly. That shut my cousin up. And my grandmother – I’ve never seen her so proud of anyone right at that moment! It made me feel… I don’t know, I felt so very good inside. She asked me to tell her all about my work for Spectrum.”
“That probably didn’t take you very long.” Scarlet’s comment earned him an annoyed jab from Rhapsody, sitting by his side. She was warning him to be quiet. “Please continue, Mr. Riordan,” he added quickly, trying to hide behind these words the sudden pain his fiancée’s poke had caused to his ribs.
“Well, that’s when it went all wrong…” Riordan offered another awkward smile to his audience. “I… er… I… didn’t tell her exactly what kind of job I was doing for Spectrum… That I was just a simple computer technician… She believes that I have a much more… high-flying job. If you follow me.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes. “You told her you were a ground agent.”
“Uh-oh,” Rhapsody said under her breath.
Riordan confessed with a nod, and hung his head.
“And what colour did you tell her you are?” Scarlet deadpanned.
“I never told her I was a colour-coded officer!” Riordan defended himself, quickly raising his head. “I didn’t go that far!”
“But you went far enough,” Magenta said from behind him. Riordan turned on his heel to stare at him with a pleading look. It didn’t have any effect on Magenta, who gestured encouragingly at his friend to continue on, while both Rhapsody and Scarlet wondered what more there was to the story. “Go on, Matt… tell them what else you told your grandma…”
“Oh, Hell…” griped Riordan. He remembered Rhapsody’s presence and muttered a quick apology before abiding by Magenta’s demand. “I told her I knew Colonel White.”
Scarlet’s frown deepened. “If I’m not mistaken, you never actually met Colonel White, Mr. Riordan.”
“Please, call me Matt. And no, I never met him. Not in person, that is.”
“Then why did you tell your grandmother you knew him?”
“Because she asked me the question, and I couldn’t say ‘no’ to her?”
“So you lied to her?” Rhapsody asked. “You know, that could lead you into a load of trouble, Matt.”
“Tell me about it. As soon as I told her I knew Colonel White, she said she would very much like to meet him.”
“Well, I’m sure you told her it wasn’t possible,” Scarlet said.
“Er… Not exactly. I told her I would try and see if I could arrange a meeting for her.”
Silence fell in the room, and both Rhapsody and Scarlet exchanged glances, before turning to Magenta.
“And how do you fit into this?” Scarlet asked suspiciously.
Magenta shrugged. “Matt told me about his story,” he answered. “I was… well, at the very least, as surprised – and shocked - as you are. And he asked me – no, actually he begged me – to help him out.”
“And you agreed?” Scarlet asked with surprise.
“Yeah – I did. Reluctantly at first, I must admit. You don’t know how it is, when he stares at you with that pleading, puppy-dog look.”
“Reluctantly?” Scarlet repeated. He scoffed. “I should think you were reluctant! But what did change your mind? What kind of hold does he have on you for you to finally agree to help him?!”
“Hey!” Magenta protested, as Riordan bristled at Scarlet’s words. “Matt has no hold on me. I just agreed because he called on my good nature. It would a good deed, you know, to make an old lady happy if only for a few hours! And at the same time she would continue to be proud of her grandson. I figured I owe Matt that much. He’s my friend. And after all, it is Christmas.”
“How would you do it?” Scarlet insisted. “Surely, you’re not planning to have this little lady stow away in a helijet and flown to Cloudbase to meet the old man!”
“Of course not!” Magenta replied.
“Nor do you intend to have the colonel come from Cloudbase for a meeting with her,” Rhapsody continued.
“That would be equally impossible,” Magenta agreed.
“Then…how?” Scarlet asked again. “How could she meet the colonel in those conditions?”
Magenta smiled thinly. “Easy enough. We’ll have to ‘manufacture’ a Colonel White.”
“You’ll have to what?” Scarlet exclaimed, as Rhapsody opened wide eyes.
“Think about it, Paul. It should be easy: next to nobody knows what the real Colonel White looks like. Except some heads of state, prime ministers, generals, high-ranking officers in various governments around the globe and such… And Grandma Annie is far from being one of those people. She’s an ordinary person, who’s never seen his face… All she knows is that Spectrum’s commander is named ‘Colonel White’ – and that he’s more than likely an Englishman, since that bit of information is about the only thing ordinary people like her know about him.”
Scarlet cut him off suddenly. “Wait, wait… just wait a minute.” He paused and looked his colleague right in the eyes. “You are telling us – that you want to produce a false Colonel White that you will present to Matt’s grandmother as the real thing?”
“It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” Magenta confirmed with a smile.
“No, it’s totally crazy,” Scarlet retorted. “You ought to have your head examined, Pat! How can it possibly succeed?”
“It can’t fail, Paul,” Magenta said. “She will never know she’s not facing the real Colonel White.” Swiftly, he walked towards the bag that Riordan had brought with him, and which had looked so suspicious to Scarlet’s eyes. He opened it, and plunged his right hand in, to produce a white-coloured suede vest that he triumphantly presented to Scarlet. “He will be wearing this.”
Scarlet leapt up in indignation. “Pat, you’re out of your mind!” he cried out.
“And,” Magenta continued, fishing again in the bag, “he will be escorted by two of his most loyal senior staff officers. Yours truly, Captain Magenta, of course, and…” he pulled another vest out of the bag, grinning. “… the ever reliable Captain Ochre.”
Scarlet closed his eyes. So THAT’S where Ochre’s spare uniform had disappeared to. Of course, Colonel White not having been to London HQ for ages, he would never notice the disappearance of his uniform.
Rhapsody was, at the very least, as shocked and incensed as he was. “Patrick! You stole those uniforms?!”
“Merely borrowed them,” Magenta answered quietly, putting the vests back into the bag. “They will be returned to where they belong when we’re done.”
“It was rather tricky to get them in the first place,” Riordan said. “If Pat had not given me the access codes…”
“Pat gave you the access codes,” Scarlet said pensively, almost tiredly. He was now beyond any surprise.
“Of course. I couldn’t get into any officers’ quarters without it.”
“Of course,” Scarlet repeated matter-of-factly. “So you’ll also have someone posing as Ochre alongside this Colonel White impostor of yours…” He glared at Magenta. “I’m rather surprised you didn’t get Ochre involved in this, Pat. I would have thought that this is the kind of scheme that he would have loved to be a part of.”
“Yeah, well… maybe you’re right,” Magenta said with a shrug. “But Rick was due back on Cloudbase today. Since he would have become unavailable to participate in this, I preferred not to mention it to him.” He grinned. “Besides, knowing him, Rick would probably have insisted on being the one to impersonate the colonel.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Scarlet muttered. “Impersonating the colonel could be very hazardous business for a Spectrum officer, believe me on that one. Besides, he’s not old enough for the part.”
“You’re quite right. Furthermore, Colonel White is known to be an Englishman and even if his life depended on it, Rick would be quite unable to pose as an Englishman – with the accent and all. That would be beyond him.”
“Don’t underestimate Rick, Pat,” Rhapsody replied. “He can be quite surprising when he wants to.”
Scarlet frowned at her words; it seemed that Dianne was developing some kind of an interest to Magenta’s scheme – something that might be quite unhealthy. He was well placed to know that his fiancée could become quite mischievous at times, and looking at her now, he could see the brightness in her eyes, and the amusement she was trying – not very successfully – to hide behind that thin smile of hers.
“It doesn’t matter anyway. I already found my actor.”
Scarlet raised a curious brow at Magenta’s answer to Rhapsody’s comment. “Really now? And who might that be?”
“Well, as you said yourself, impersonating the colonel could be rather risky for a member of Spectrum. So I chose someone from outside of Spectrum. You don’t know him. He’s an Englishman, and he’s quite distinguished… I believe he was a Shakespearian actor in a previous life. He’ll play the part to perfection.”
“The Judge will do quite nicely, yes,” Riordan approved with a nod.
“He’s not a judge… not really,” Magenta answered. “That’s just a nickname.”
“Yeah,” Riordan added with a mischievous smile. “Dear old Henry does like to quote articles of laws and talk at length about ‘justice’ when he poses as a judge. Makes him sound a little pompous at times.”
“‘Poses as’?” Rhapsody repeated, in an echo of Scarlet’s earlier reaction. “Why would anyone would want to pose as a judge, exactly?”
Riordan shrugged; he failed to notice the warning look that Magenta addressed him, which otherwise would have caused him to keep his mouth shut if he had seen it. “Well, apparently it gives him an air of respectability he wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s very useful in the course of his many swindl… I mean, ventures.”
“You were going to say ‘swindles’,” Scarlet replied. He took note of Magenta’s irritation at his friend. “Lord, Pat, you mean, you hired a conman to impersonate the colonel?”
“One of the best in London, I heard,” Ox continued, much to Magenta’s annoyance.
Rhapsody widened her eyes with something akin to horror; the mischief in her eyes had disappeared nearly as quickly as it had appeared, Scarlet noted with some satisfaction.
“Pat, you’re courting disaster,” he said sternly. “How can you believe a conman would be able to impersonate the colonel?”
“I coached him – and don’t worry, I’ll be standing by his side all the time, to make sure he’ll stay in line.”
“And who, pray tell, will play the role of Captain Ochre?” Scarlet pursued. “Or did you somehow find out the hiding place of Jack the Ripper and offered him the job?”
Magenta was interrupted when the entrance door suddenly flew open, making nearly all of them jump in surprise. A beautiful young woman, in her late twenties, with short brown hair and a frown on her face, entered with a quick pace, loudly slamming the door behind her and walked straight into the middle of the room. Everyone followed her with their eyes – Scarlet and Rhapsody included, those latter wondering who the newcomer could be. Matt Riordan had quickly vacated his seat to stand as she entered.
“Guys, we are in deep trouble,” she said in an urgent, almost breathless voice, in which Scarlet could detect an obvious Irish accent. “You wouldn’t believe what just happened. This is a disaster!”
“See, Pat?” Scarlet said with a knowing expression on his face. “It’s already going wrong.”
The young woman had dropped down into the rocking chair Riordan had just left. With obvious curiosity, she looked at Scarlet and Rhapsody, seated in front of them, and frowned. “Who are they?” she asked, turning to Magenta.
“Two colleagues of mine,” he answered. “Friends as well. Paul Metcalfe, Dianne Simms – meet my cousin from Ireland, Elaine.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the young woman said quickly, and before the two Spectrum officers could answer her, she addressed Magenta anew: “Pat, this is terrible. We’ll have to cancel everything!”
“Easy, cousin,” Magenta replied, trying to calm her down. “I’m sure it’s not as serious as you’re implying.”
“It is serious,” she interrupted suddenly. “Wait until you hear about it, you’ll see how terrible this is!”
“I take it you involved your cousin in this scheme, Pat,” Scarlet said quietly.
“And that she obviously knows about you being in Spectrum,” Rhapsody added in a similar voice.
“She’s known for a very long time,” Magenta answered. “She’s been my sister Sarah’s confidante and, considering that I asked Sarah not to tell our parents at the time, I guess she imagined she had to tell someone trustworthy. Elaine was that person. I learned about all that during a family supper at home when Elaine was invited.”
“And I tell you, I was rather relieved Pat finally told his parents,” Elaine pursued, addressing Scarlet and Rhapsody. “The secret was starting to weigh rather heavily on Sarah – and on myself as well. But of course, I would never tell anyone else, as Pat asked me. I know how to keep secrets…”
“You are helping Pat in this plan of his?” Scarlet asked, realising that his previous question had not been answered. He wondered if Elaine had actually stopped talking long enough to have heard it in the first place.
“About Matt’s grandmother? Yes, of course, I’m helping… It’s such a beautiful gesture to make at Christmas, and Grandma Annie… well, Matt showed me her picture, she seems so charming! Have you showed them the picture, Matt?” Elaine asked, turning to Matt, who was now standing behind her.
“Er… no, I didn’t,” he answered, shaking his head. He started searching his vest pocket. “Wait a sec… I always have it on me…”
“Elaine,” Magenta moved on, as Riordan, still searching for his picture, was rounding the rocking chair to approach on Rhapsody’s side of the sofa, “why do you say we should cancel everything?”
“That would be disastrous,” Riordan said, turning to both cousins. He had finally found his picture and was presently handing it to Rhapsody; she took it, as he moved on. “Come on, you guys can’t do that to me! I’m counting on you to make this Grandma Annie’s best Christmas ever!” He turned to Rhapsody who was currently looking at the picture. “Isn’t she a dear? She deserves that someone gives her some happiness. She’s been so alone in that little cottage of hers, for so long – I cannot disappoint her. She would think my cousin told the truth about me!”
“Well, your cousin did tell the truth, Matt,” Scarlet remarked sternly, causing Riordan to lower his eyes. “It just so happened that you’ve redeemed yourself recently – which is all to your credit, I assure you.” He took the picture Rhapsody was handing him. The old lady who appeared on it was white-haired, with bright blue eyes, and a very charming smile in the middle of a round face. She was standing in front of a little cottage, with white walls, a thatched roof and green shutters on the only window he could see. A box of clearly well-kept flowers, of many colours, was hanging at the same window.
“She does look like a charming lady,” Scarlet conceded with a nod, giving the picture back to Rhapsody.
“That she is,” Riordan agreed. “But she’s about to find out one of her favourite grand-children is nothing but a low-life. If we cancel our plans…”
“Calm down, Matt, I’m sure Elaine was exaggerating,” Magenta replied, turning to his cousin and addressing her a stern look. “Like she often does.”
She scoffed at the accusation. “I assure you, I am not exaggerating,” she retorted.
“What is the matter, will you tell us?”
“Well, remember you asked me to keep my eye on that man you found to play the role of your commander? That judge character… Henry… what’s his name…”
“Blake. Henry Blake,” Magenta said.
“Judge Henry Blake,” Ox précised.
“He’s not really a judge,” an annoyed Scarlet said, “he…” He stopped, suddenly realising what was the full name of the man in question. “Blake?” he repeated, scowling incredulously.
“Your mother’s maiden name?” Rhapsody remarked, turning to Scarlet with a frown of her own. “No relation to…”
“No,” he cut her swiftly. “No relation at all. At least I hope not,” he muttered under his breath.
“Why are you not with the judge, Elaine?” Magenta added, ignoring Scarlet and Rhapsody’s exchange.
And why does he need keeping an eye on? Scarlet added to himself; a glance at Rhapsody told him she was asking herself the same question. He watched as Elaine threw her arms in the air.
“He’s a slippery one, that Henry, Pat – do you know that? He took advantage of one minute of inattention on my part and he gave me the slip. I found him hours later. And do you know where I found him?”
Riordan visibly paled. “Oh no,” he murmured. “Don’t tell me…”
Elaine shook her head with energy. “That’s right, Matt, you got it. I found him at his favourite, quite filthy, pub in the East End. Lying flat on his back, in the dirtiest corner… Pissed as a newt!”
Rhapsody opened horrified eyes. “What?!”
“Dead drunk!” Elaine reiterated.
“A conman and a boozer? And obviously, you knew that?” The look Rhapsody turned to Magenta was one of reproach. He was far too much preoccupied to even notice it. He was looking at his cousin with concern.
“And where’s Henry now?” he asked her.
“What do you think, the landlord of the pub called the Gardai. They took Henry to the cells to sleep it off. And anyway, seeing the state he was in, even if he was out, I’m guessing he wouldn’t be good for anything at all in your little plan.”
“This is a disaster,” Riordan moaned. He flopped down on the settee, which was still empty. “Now, what will we do? If we don’t have Henry, we won’t have a Colonel White!”
Magenta was not as easily deterred. “Calm down, we’ll find a solution,” he muttered, taking a thoughtful pose. “We need a new actor to play Colonel White…”
“Maybe I could do it, boss,” Ox suggested from behind him.
Magenta waved away the suggestion with a annoyed gesture. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ox. You wouldn’t do at all, even if you could fit into the colonel’s uniform!”
Ox seemed offended. “Well, that’s what you said for that Ochre fella,” he muttered under his breath. “I still say I could easily pass as one of those Spectrum guys.”
Scarlet and Rhapsody would have found his sulking expression very funny, if it weren’t for the obviously general concern all around. As for Magenta, he chose to ignore Ox. “We need someone English,” he said thoughtfully. “We’re in London, that should be easy to find… And someone distinguished… and military-looking …”
Elaine was shaking her head, dismissively. “You won’t have enough time to coach that new ‘actor’ sufficiently to pass as your commander, Pat,” she pointed out casually. “I remind you that Grandma Annie arrives tomorrow. Which leaves us very little time. That’s what you get by hiring a guy who can’t stay away from the bottle more than five minutes.”
Magenta stopped his pacing, and turned to her, visibly annoyed. “If you had done your job properly, and kept your eye on Henry, that would not have happened!”
“Hey, what do I look like?” she protested vehemently. “I am not a bloody temperance lady! Why didn’t you ask your mates at Spectrum to do the job, instead?” She pointed to Scarlet, just as Magenta started pacing again. “Seems to me this one would have been much better equipped to do the job!”
Scarlet didn’t appreciate the way she was volunteering him. “I’ll have you know, Miss,” he said to Elaine, “that we…” he pointed to Rhapsody and himself, “… are not part of this loony plan of yours!”
“Then how come you are here?” she asked gravely. “If you are not here to help us?”
Scarlet was about to answer that they were definitely not there to help when he noticed that Magenta had suddenly stopped pacing again – and was now staring in his direction in a thoughtful way. Scarlet didn’t like that look; he could read the start of a crazy idea slowly forming in the head of his friend and colleague.
Suddenly, Scarlet felt concerned in becoming the center of his attention.
“I think I’ve got a solution,” the Irish officer said, a smile starting to form on his lips.
Scarlet narrowed his eyes, suspiciously. “Oh yes? I would be curious to know what this solution of yours might be. It must be a stroke of genius, I’m sure.”
“You bet it is.” Still smiling, Magenta pointed to his friend. “You could be helping us, Paul. You could play the role of Colonel White.”
Dread sank into Scarlet’s heart. Of all the things he was afraid might happen…
Long seconds of silence followed, before he was able to react. Ignoring all the eyes that had turned in his direction, he conspicuously checked the time on his watch, before clearing his throat, very loudly:
“Dianne, love… what time are we expected at Foxleyheath?”
“We’re expected around eight tonight,” she informed him. “But, Paul…”
“That’s right, and we’ll definitely be late if we don’t make a start right away.” Scarlet sprang to his feet, and Rhapsody stood up too, if more graciously. “Sorry, we should really go.”
“Hey!” Magenta protested. “You’re leaving us now?”
“Why not?” Scarlet replied, taking Rhapsody’s coat and helping her put it on.
“Didn’t you hear what I just said? I said…”
“I heard you perfectly the first time around, Pat. And we’re still leaving. We have plans of our own tonight. Haven’t we, darling?” he asked Rhapsody, in a plea for support.
“But… we need help!” Riordan pleaded, jumping to his feet, before Rhapsody even had the chance to utter a word.
“This is your own mess,” Scarlet said sternly. “Find your own way out of this, all of you.”
“You can’t turn your back on us!” Riordan said.
“Can’t I?” Scarlet replied coldly. He addressed Magenta: “Pat, earlier on, I applauded your decision not to get Rick involved in this affair… I thought it was fair and that you were being very thoughtful in keeping him out of it. But now you’re trying to drag me into it?” He gave him a disapproving look. “You might as well put me in front of a firing squad!”
“Well, I know that you would not be afraid to do just that for a friend…” Magenta stopped when he saw Scarlet glare dangerously at him. He cleared his throat. “I’m kidding, Paul. Seriously, you would be perfect for the job.”
“And I think I made it perfectly clear that it’s ‘no’.”
“Oh, come on, Paul…”
“If I were you, Pat, and since everything seemed to have turned out so badly, I would forget the whole deal. Tell the truth to your grandmother, Matt – I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“I can’t do that, Captain!” Riordan protested. “It would break her heart if she finds out I lied to her!” He turned to face Rhapsody and tried to appeal to the young woman. She was still holding the picture of his grandmother in her hand. He took that hand between his. “Come on, Miss Dianne… You would not want to do that to her, would you?”
“Well…” started Rhapsody, hesitantly.
“Oh, please!” Scarlet interrupted swiftly, rolling his eyes. He pulled Rhapsody to him, to break the contact she had with Riordan, took the picture from her hand and gave it back to its owner. “Try to sweet-talk someone else, Riordan. It’s not working.” He turned to Magenta. “Besides, even if I was willing to do this – which I’m not – the same reason why Rick would not have been able to do it in the first place applies to me as well.”
“You can’t do the English accent?” Riordan deadpanned.
“Don’t make yourself appear more stupid than you already are, Matt,” Scarlet replied with annoyance. “I look far too young!”
“Well, I’m sure that could be taken care of,” Magenta said. “With the proper make-up…”
“No amount of make-up will make it look real enough to fool anyone, Pat!” Scarlet replied.
“Actually,” Rhapsody said at this point, “I do believe this is quite possible, Paul…”
“Dianne,” Scarlet sighed, not wanting a technical detail to actually interfere with his argument against Magenta’s crazy idea, “why don’t you call Lady Penelope and tell her we might arrive late? We wouldn’t want her to be worried…”
She looked straight at his face for about one full second. “Calling Penny, yes,” she said, starting to search for her mobile phone in her bag. “That’s an excellent idea, actually…” She found the phone and walked a few paces away from her fiancé who started putting his own coat on.
“I’m pretty sure you would be perfect for the role, Paul,” Magenta was saying. “I wouldn’t need to coach you, and I would not have to keep right next to you to make sure you won’t make a mistake. You know the colonel as well as I do.”
“Better!” Scarlet replied; from the corner of his eye, he could see that Rhapsody was dialling the number she needed. “And I can tell you, he doesn’t take very kindly to someone taking his identity!”
“Coward,” Ox muttered from where he stood.
That comment incensed Scarlet. “I’m no coward, Mr. Oxbury, I’m just seeing things much more clearly than your former boss.” Adjusting the collar of his coat, he heard Rhapsody’s suddenly excited chatter as she made contact with her mentor. Once the two women had talked, he decided, they would go – leaving Magenta and his ‘rat pack’ to deal by their own means with this mess they had got themselves into.
“Hello, Penny? Yes, this is Dianne! I’m afraid we’ll be late arriving tonight… No, we’re fine, we just ran into some kind of trouble…”
Scarlet rolled his eyes. Trouble, all right. He should have listened to Dianne in the first place and not followed Riordan around. He should have completely ignored the whole damned situation.
He could see the way Magenta and the others were looking at him, each in their own way – with looks that showed disappointment, anger, lost hopes, accusation… He would have been lying if he had said that he didn’t feel like some kind of heel to leave them in trouble like this. But, frankly, he knew that the only solution was for them to stop that scheme of theirs and put things right again. There was still time to return the uniforms to headquarters, without anyone noticing that they had gone in the first place. There was still time to tell the truth to Riordan’s grandmother – that charming lady whose picture, at the moment, was haunting him. Yes, maybe she would be saddened to learn that her grandson had lied to her all this time, but what else could be done to prevent this from happening?
Not much, unfortunately…
At the precise moment that Scarlet was making these reflections, he realised exactly what Rhapsody was saying to Lady Penelope on the phone:
“When will we arrive at Foxleyheath? Oh, I don’t think you should expect us before tomorrow – or perhaps the day after.”
Scarlet froze and turned to his fiancée with eyes wide with amazement. She was standing in the center of the room, the phone to her ear and chatting casually into it, a large smile on her face. All the eyes turned to her, as she continued:
“Yes, we’ve been asked to help a friend set up a very special Christmas present for his grandmother. Yes, that’s sweet, isn’t it?”
“Dianne…” In three steps, Scarlet was next to Rhapsody. “Have you lost your marbles too?”
She ignored him. “Yes… I knew you’d understand,” she said into the phone. “This is Christmas, after all, and this is such a wonderful present to give… we couldn’t say no…”
Scarlet’s shoulders sagged. “This is a conspiracy,” he moaned. All around him, there were smiles of victory and excited murmurs.
“Oh yes, I’ll keep you posted on all the details of the ‘operation’,” Rhapsody pursued. “You’ll see how exciting this is. It’s a shame you couldn’t join us…”
“Ha-bloody-ha!” Scarlet muttered.
“There is one thing you could do for me though,” Rhapsody continued. “Do you still have Lorraine’s number, by any chance?” There was a pause, as Rhapsody waited. She then smiled. “Is she still living in London? Yes? Wonderful! Yes, give me the number. I will call her. We’ll need her services… Thank you, Penny, you are such a dear. Yes, I’ll call you back. Bye bye!” And with that, she cut the communication, before turning with a smile towards the assembled people who were watching her expectantly. Only Scarlet seemed not too happy at the moment, but that didn’t cause her expression of contentment to disappear.
“Who is Lorraine?” Scarlet asked in a low and accusatory tone.
“Lorraine worked with me at FAB,” Rhapsody explained eagerly. “She’s a master make-up artist, who successfully transformed me and other agents of the Bureau during the course of our work. She’s very skilful, easily the equal of any New Hollywood artist.”
“A make-up artist,” Scarlet repeated between his teeth.
“She’ll be able to make you appear much older than you really are, Paul. Oh, let’s say… just enough to make Grandma Annie believe you are Colonel White?”
“You’ve definitely lost your mind,” he said. “Along with all these other loonies!”
“Oh come on, Paul,” she answered. “This is Christmas, and this would be a wonderful thing to do to for this charming old lady – and her grandson. Come on, don’t tell me it wouldn’t be an exciting experience.”
Scarlet sighed. “Danger can be exhilarating, I know,” he said. “But frankly, posing as Colonel White, wearing his uniform…”
“That will be perfect, you are about the same size as he is,” Rhapsody replied, her smile not leaving her.
“Come on, Paul,” Magenta pleaded, walking to his gloomy friend and putting his arm around his shoulders. “You can do it. Think about the challenge!”
“It’ll be suicidal.”
“Since when does that ever stop you?”
“And we’ll not really be doing any harm!” Rhapsody continued, seeing her fiancé’s self-confidence waver. “We’re just trying to give an old lady some wonderful memories for what is left of her already long life. Surely, nobody can blame us for that?”
“I can think of someone,” Scarlet grumbled.
“What Colonel White doesn’t know cannot hurt him,” Magenta retorted.
Scarlet sighed. That was true enough… The colonel was on Cloudbase, far away, occupied with Spectrum business. There was very little chance that he would come to London, or even discover accidentally what was happening there, behind his back.
He gave in; albeit still a little reluctantly.
“All right!” he said with a sigh. “You win! I’ll do it…” He saw the victorious smiles surrounding him. “But it will cost you,” he warned them. He looked straight at Rhapsody, with a reserved smile of his own on his lips and raised an inquisitive finger at her. “All of you, you owe me.”
“I’m sure we’ll all be willing to pay that debt,” Rhapsody replied with a wink.
His smile broadened. “Wait until you find out what it’ll be,” he said in a near whisper.
“Thank you, Paul!” Magenta said excitedly, slapping his friend’s shoulder contentedly. “You will see, it’ll be okay! I’m sure of it.”
Scarlet rolled his eyes skywards. “Then why do I have the dreadful feeling that a disaster will fall on us?” he muttered darkly. “This will all end in tears, I’m sure of it!”
* * *
In a dark room in London Spectrum Headquarters – at one of the lowest levels of the building, deep below the surface - Special Agent Martin Conners was listening with growing interest at the conversation conveyed to him through his communication system.
A satisfied grin slowly drew itself on the man’s thin lips and he sat back on his seat, which creaked under his weight. He had hoped, without really thinking it would actually happen, that this bug he had successfully planted on Matt Riordan’s person a couple of hours ago, when he had collided with him in the lobby of the building, would be a profitable move. Riordan looked suspicious enough, especially during the last few days. Conners had to know what it was he was preparing.
And boy, did it pay off. Not only did he have Riordan in his net now, but also much bigger, unexpected fishes, he never thought he would catch. All of them, involved in the same conspiracy.
You thought this little game of yours would be an easy one, didn’t you, you lot? Conners told himself with intense satisfaction. But it won’t be, you’ll see… I know everything about it now. But YOU don’t know what I know…
That Colonel White will indeed be coming to London soon…
You will ALL fall, and I’ll be the one to make you fall.
I’ve got you now. I’ve got you nice and proper…
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