A “Captain Scarlet” story for Christmas
By Chris Bishop
PART 2 – Colonel for a day
As soon as Captain Scarlet had given his agreement, Rhapsody Angel wasted no time in calling Lorraine Hanley, using the phone number Lady Penelope had given her and keeping her fingers crossed, in the hope that her friends would be at home. She was in luck, however, and it didn’t take her very long, or much incentive, to convince Lorraine to drop whatever she was doing and come to the Crowned Victory Palace and help them in their little plan. From what Scarlet could gather, when Rhapsody explained more about Lorraine after she hung up, the woman had a passion for her work, and she was quite willing to perform it whenever the occasion presented itself. Since her retirement years ago, after FAB had closed down, those occasions had been few and far between. So it was with great enthusiasm that Lorraine arrived at the hotel, late that evening, answering the call of her former colleague and boss.
She was a petite woman, of about sixty years of age, with agile hands and lively eyes, which seemed slightly bigger than they really were behind the thick spectacles she was wearing. Rhapsody welcomed her with open arms, and the two women rejoiced in the happiness of finding each other after such a long time. Rhapsody then introduced the people with her, explaining to Lorraine, without too many details, what their plan was and what was needed of her, and presented to her ‘the subject’ – the still rather reluctant, and slightly sulking, Captain Scarlet.
She looked at Scarlet with a curious expression.
“This is the face you want me to make older?” she asked dubiously.
“Yes. This is Paul.” Rhapsody seemed concerned by the doubt she could hear in her friend’s voice and by the curious way she seemed to be staring into Scarlet’s face. “Do you think it’s impossible to do?”
Lorraine waved her concern aside. “Nothing is impossible, darling… I just thought it was such a shame to hide this handsome face behind make-up and make it look so much older than he is…” Scarlet smirked at her in thanks for her appreciation, as she tilted her head to the side, pensively. She stepped forward, more closely to him. “Perhaps… it will not be so bad after all…”
With a keen and trained eye, Lorraine started first by studying the face on which she would be working, expertly feeling it with her fingers and turning it to all sides, examining it, scrutinising it, obviously imagining how she would proceed. Scarlet stooped a little, to make it easier for her, and docilely let her touch him all she liked, although he was feeling a little awkward with the present situation, especially with all the eyes turned to him with curiosity. He had the impression he was being handled like some kind of prized and very rare specimen, that the woman had suddenly found in a store window.
After a good five minutes of intense analysis, during which everyone else watched with anxious expectation, she clasped both her hands on Scarlet’s cheeks and looked him intently in the eyes, smiling widely.
“Yes,” she finally declared. “He’ll make a handsome fifty-something. It will be a work of art!”
“A work of art, really?” Scarlet asked with a frown.
“Absolutely! I can’t wait to get started!” She pinched Scarlet’s cheek, in a way that painfully reminded him of how an old aunt used to do just that when he was a kid. Consequently, he found it rather vexing. He stepped back, straightening to his full height, looking offended. “It’ll be a hard and long job, for sure…” Lorraine continued. “but I can assure you, the results will be well worth it!”
Suddenly, Scarlet wasn’t so sure anymore that he wanted to continue with the charade. One look around, to those surrounding him, convinced him that it might just be a little too late to back away now. Not without looking like a complete coward, anyway.
Besides, Dianne had said that she herself had been ‘transformed’ by Lorraine’s expert hands during her work at FAB. If Dianne could do it, exactly how hard could it be?
“Let’s get on with it, then,” he said, trying to show as much self-confidence as he was able to muster.
“Of course, my eager young friend,” Lorraine said, her smile barely wavering. She put the large bag she had brought – which looked far too heavy for her – on the table in the middle of the sitting room and opened it. Swiftly, she took bottles, instruments and brushes from it and aligned them on the table, side by side, very carefully. Then, she turned on her heels, holding in her right hand a regular razor, and in her left hand an electric one; she showed both items to Scarlet, who was now standing in front of her. “Here,” she said with a thin smile on her lips. “Choose your weapon and go to the bathroom right away. Then we’ll start.”
Scarlet suspiciously eyed both razors. “And what should I do with this?” he asked, taking the electric one in his hand. He was worried; what if she was asking him to shave himself a bald spot or a receding hairline…?
She sighed and rolled her eyes with exasperation, as if he had asked the most stupid question in the world. “Why, shave your face, of course!” she answered. “As close a shave as you can get, my dear boy. Oh, and if you have hair removal cream in your luggage, it might be a good idea to use it as well. We wouldn’t want the glue to stick too painfully to that facial hair of yours, now, do we?”
“Glue?” Scarlet repeated, the uncertainly hitting him anew.
“Yes, of course. To hold the false latex skin in place,” Lorraine explained, as she would have done to a child who didn’t understand what she was saying. “Don’t worry – I’ll make the disguise as thin and comfortable as possible. You won’t even know you are wearing a mask…”
“A mask,” Scarlet echoed again, in a mutter.
“Why yes… you wouldn’t want me to carve lines into that pretty face of yours, would you?” She came close to Scarlet, and he imperceptibly drew back, as if expecting her to pinch his cheeks again. She stood on tiptoe to reach up, pointing with her index finger to different parts of his now frowning face. “You’ll need slight prosthetic make-up here, at the corner of your eyes and underneath them… Something here, near your mouth… That’s the most difficult part, because the lines need to be deeper; we’ll have to think of something. Oh, and your forehead, of course… Oh, tsk, tsk, tsk…” She gave him a disapproving look. “Don’t scowl like that, my dear… You’ll give that nice brow of yours wrinkles before your time! I’ll put false ones there, we don’t need real lines, believe me.”
A particularly annoyed Scarlet glanced around; he could see that Riordan, Ox, Elaine, Magenta – and even Dianne – were having tremendous trouble not to openly laugh at his predicament. Magenta was actually quite unable to remove from his face a grin of very obvious amusement, and Dianne… well, Dianne was trying to look the other way, but Scarlet could still perceive, quite clearly, the smile she was trying to hide with such great difficulty.
Bunch of turncoats…
He stopped himself from scowling even deeper. He snorted, and looked with irritation at the razor in his hand, before turning around, and directing his steps towards the bathroom. “I’ll be back shortly,” he announced sourly.
“Perfect, dear,” Lorraine called after him. “We’ll start with putting some grey into that luxuriant black hair… That shouldn’t take very long.”
Scarlet stopped in his tracks, as if shocked at the sound of these words. He didn’t turn around; he didn’t need to, as he could distinctively hear the many chuckles from behind him. Fuming, he squared his shoulders and hurried towards the bathroom.
He slammed the door shut behind him, in an infuriated gesture.
“Oh my, he doesn’t seem very happy about all this,” Lorraine noted, addressing Rhapsody.
“Don’t worry,” the English Angel replied with a smile, reassuringly patting the older woman’s shoulder. “Paul does have a temper… But he’s a professional. He just needs some time to cool off.”
At least, I hope so, she added inwardly to herself.
Lorraine shrugged, rather dismissively. “Well then, I’d better start preparing the latex solution, so I’ll be ready to work on him when he comes back. Is there a small sink that I can use, dear?”
“There’s a small kitchenette over here,” Matt Riordan announced at the other side of the suite. “Will that do, Mrs…?”
“Oh, do call me Lorraine,” the little woman said, gathering her big bag into her arms. “And yes, that will do perfectly, my dear…” She scurried through the room to where Riordan stood and he invited her through the door leading into the kitchenette, and entered after her, asking if she would need any help.
“You’re sure your friend knows what she’s getting herself into?” That was Captain Magenta, who had approached to stand beside Rhapsody and mutter those words close to her ear. Of course, she knew exactly what his real question was.
“She’ll do a fine job, Pat,” she assured him with conviction. “Lorraine never failed FAB in the past. There is no reason for her to fail today.”
Magenta sighed. “Well she probably never had a… subject as difficult and reluctant as Paul before.”
“That won’t matter,” Rhapsody replied, smiling thinly, as she recalled various disguises Lorraine had dreamed up for her before. She remembered how stunning some of them were – and how she barely recognised herself in a mirror, as an overblown hooker revealing all her… assets – or even a horrible old hag. She stifled a chuckle, before turning to Magenta. “Well, it seems you will have your Colonel White – how about your Captain Ochre, then? You have someone in mind?”
“I do,” Magenta confirmed with a smirk. “A friend of Matt’s is a professional actor. He will fit the role perfectly. Grandma Annie doesn’t know him, and he’s totally trustworthy.”
“Well, I hope he’s not like your ‘Shakespearian actor’,” Rhapsody replied, “and that he prefers to stay away from pubs… It wouldn’t do you any good if he were to get arrested in turn, now, would it?”
“Ah, I still say it’s a waste of time!” Ox suddenly declared in a gruff voice. He was standing next to the bag which still contained the two uniforms Riordan had taken from London HQ. Swiftly, he plunged his hand into it and removed the ochre vest from it. “I tell you, boss, I can make as good a Spectrum officer as anyone, and it won’t cost you a dime!”
“Thanks again, Ox,” Magenta answered, keeping himself from rolling his eyes, “but I’m afraid that you wouldn’t be that convincing…”
“Oh, come on,” Ox insisted. “If that Brit guy is able to pass as a colonel, I sure can pass as a captain… Here, let me put this on, and I’ll show you how good I could look…”
Swiftly, Ox started putting the vest on, and then squared his shoulders, in an attempt to pull the two front ends close together. An alarmed Magenta reacted just a second too late: “Ox, wait!”
Just as Riordan was stepping out of the kitchenette, a loud ripping sound suddenly made itself heard from behind Ox, who froze in place.
Uh-oh… thought Rhapsody. She could see the sheepish expression now plastered on Ox’s face. She then turned in Magenta’s direction; the latter was glaring at his former henchman. As for Riordan, he was rooted in place, apparently in shock, his eyes also set in Ox’s direction in an expression of disbelief.
“Oh no,” Riordan muttered, “don’t tell me…”
Magenta swallowed hard. “Ox,” he said, forcing himself to sound gentle, “would you please…” he gestured with his finger, “… turn around? Slowly?”
“Just turn around. Please.” Despite the smile on his face and his syrupy tone, there was an undertone of apprehension in Magenta’s voice. Ox docilely obeyed the order and turned his back on all of them.
There was a long rip in the back of the ochre uniform, starting between Ox’s shoulders and descending nearly down to the belt line. There were moans of dismay from everyone presently standing in the room.
“Oh, this is a disaster…” Riordan lamented.
“We really didn’t need this,” Magenta sighed. “Of all the problems that could happen to us… Ox, look what you did!”
Ox was turning back to face them; he offered an apology. “I’m sorry, boss… Really I…”
“No, that’s enough, Ox,” Magenta cut him off suddenly. “I know you didn’t mean it, so there’s no need for you to apologise.” He breathed out loudly. “Just… hand me the uniform, will you?”
Visibly embarrassed, Ox removed the vest and handed it over to Magenta, who looked at the rip with desolation. “Rick’s gonna kill me…” he groused under his breath. “Now there’s no way he won’t discover that his uniform was borrowed…”
Elaine approached Magenta, and with curiosity looked at the tear, through which her cousin was able to put his whole hand. “Is it that much of a problem?” she asked. “Surely it can be repaired…”
“It’s a seamless piece,” Magenta remarked, rather harshly. “The whole vest would have to be replaced.”
“Yes, but Grandma Annie probably won’t notice,” Elaine remarked.
“Ochre will notice,” Magenta replied.
“Well, our immediate concern is Grandma Annie,” retorted Elaine. “And I believe she won’t see any difference. So let’s tackle one problem at a time, shall we? You deal with your friend later.”
Very slowly, Magenta nodded his agreement. He could already imagine Ochre’s anger, but at the moment, his cousin was absolutely right – their first concern was with Riordan’s grandmother – and with finding someone who could repair the tear at such short notice; they needed the vest for tomorrow, and it was already late. He gave a deep sigh, steadying himself in the process, and then checked his watch, as he turned to Riordan who was standing behind him.
“Right, it is kind of late, but I think I know a place nearby, where they can do this kind of repair job for a price,” he said, in the usual ‘taking charge’ voice that his oldest friend knew so very well. “Matt and I will go there right away and get this taken care of. Dianne, how long for Ms. Lorraine to do her stuff on Paul?”
“Knowing how professional she is, it might take a good part of the night,” Rhapsody answered. “She needs to mould the required prosthetics, then prepare them…” She shrugged. “But tomorrow morning, she should be done with it.”
“Right. Think she would need you or Elaine to give her a hand?”
“She might need some assistance, yes. We’ll stay with her, if that’s what you’re asking us.”
“Good then,” Magenta pursued, turning around. “Matt, let’s find a bag to put that vest in, and be on our way.”
“What about me, boss?” Ox asked as he noticed that he was left out of the present operations.
“You’re in charge of dinner, Ox,” Magenta said, turning to him. “Everyone must be famished, so take dinner orders and call room service for everyone. We might have a long night ahead of us, and still lots to do and prepare. I just need you to… keep out of trouble, okay? For now, you have done quite enough, I assure you… And please, will you stop calling me ‘boss’?”
* * *
Colonel White arrived in London a day before he was officially expected.
He had actually planned it this way all along, long before the Mysteron threats that had kept the members of his organisation on their toes for days. At one point, he had even thought that he would have to cancel everything – much to his dismay, although, as always, he had made a point not to make it apparent that it would disappoint him that much – and postpone his arrangements to a later date. Thankfully, the situation had resolved itself in these last few days and it was with some satisfaction that Colonel White proceeded with his long-prepared plans.
Officially, he was on holiday for a full week, with a projected one-day visit to London HQ, just before returning to Cloudbase – the situation permitting, of course, and if no other threat, Mysteron or otherwise, presented itself. If he had decided to arrive a day earlier than expected, it was because he knew that, as always happened, he would more than likely be hassled with administrative questions – most of them of a petty nature – upon his arrival at London HQ. That was something he didn’t want to happen at all, especially since this time around he was planning a real vacation, for once.
And he wasn’t planning on spending that time alone, as he often did in the past. He was expecting to be in very good company.
Upon the SPJ’s arrival at the airport, on Spectrum’s special restricted airstrip, and with the craft hauled inside its designated hangar, Colonel White, who had changed into civvies in the plane, stepped out with bags in hands, checking his watch as he did so. He wasn’t late; in fact, the SPJ had made good time and he was early, according to his plans. In flight, he had made sure to check the scheduled time for his guest’s arrival at the airport. The passenger flight from Des Moines was due to arrive on time, a good two hours after the landing of the SPJ; that left him plenty of time to grab a bite before he went to the arrivals hall to welcome her.
He was about to step onto the moving walkway leading from the Spectrum hangar to the civilian area of the airport, where he would find a restaurant, when he stopped in his tracks. A tall man was standing just at the entrance of the corridor, grinning from ear to ear. He acknowledged his presence with a nod.
“And good morning to you too, Colonel White,” Thomas Wade, senior agent of Spectrum Intelligence said in a welcoming tone. “Did you have a good flight?”
“Very good, thank you.” White shook the hand Wade presented him before the two of them stepped onto the moving walkway. “Thank you for coming over, and saving me the trip to report to London HQ. I trust no-one else learned about my early arrival?”
Wade chucked. “Dear me, Colonel,” he said with amusement, “I wouldn’t have revealed that information under torture, believe me! You know your secret is safe with me. Only Captain Ochre knows about it. I had to take him into my confidence, as I needed him to make that security check on the hotel, and he seemed like the best choice in the circumstances. I had to tell him why I had to postpone his departure for Cloudbase for an additional day. We both know he will keep the secret.”
“Good,” groused White. “Because I wouldn’t like to find someone else waiting here at the airport for me. Officially, I’m still on Cloudbase, and shouldn’t arrive in London before tomorrow.”
“Of course, Colonel.” Wade raised a brow. “Are you performing this little charade to avoid a specific someone?”
“You’d be giving that ‘specific someone’ much more importance than he really deserves,” White replied, frowning. “No, I’ve been planning this for a long time. You know how disastrously my holidays often turn out. It’s just a happy combination of circumstances that also lets me evade a most unwelcome meeting.” They stepped off the walkway and for a time, White stood there in front of the closed door leading to the civilian area, musing. “You know, your Mr. Conners was calling me all day yesterday, leaving me messages, saying that he wanted to see me about matters… how did he put it… ‘of the utmost urgency’?”
Wade rolled his eyes upwards. “I know. I’ve been informed of that. In fact, he came straight to me to make sure I knew that he had to meet you, and requesting that I told you as soon as you’ll arrive at London HQ.”
“Do you think it’s really that important?”
“With Conners?” Wade shrugged. “You know him. An insignificant detail in a case could be the most important evidence imaginable. He has the tendency to blow everything out of proportion.”
“To put it mildly.”
“Mind you, it has happened sometimes that he was actually right. He is good at his job. But if you ask me, if it was really that important – he would have insisted on seeing you right away, and would not have waited until your arrival – tomorrow – to tell you about it.”
“That was my impression too,” White noted. “Any idea what it could be, though?”
“No. Don’t tell me you’re that eager to know, Charles?”
“Actually, no.” White chuckled, almost despite himself. “I’m just curious, I suppose. Mr. Conners can certainly wait. After all, I’m on holiday, and I don’t really want to have it spoiled by that despicable man. I still wonder why he’s with Spectrum at times,” he said pensively, as he pressed the button to open the door. It slid open in front of them, and both entered a new corridor, at the other end of which they could clearly see the large civilian terminal, crowded with people going about businesses usual to airports. No-one had noticed them, as they stood there, the door closing behind them.
“You know he came highly recommended from your old office…” Wade said, as they pursued their conversation.
“The Universal Secret Service, yes,” White mused. “What a fine gift my dear old friend Shane Weston gave us when Mr. Conners was transferred to our service, almost at the beginning of Spectrum. I swear, he probably ordered Conners’s files to be falsified, to make sure they would get rid of him.”
Wade laughed openly. “Surely, the U.S.S. wouldn’t go that far?”
“You obviously don’t really know Shane Weston. I do.”
“All the same,” Wade said with an amused smile. “As I said, Conners is still good at his job… So whether we both like it or not, he still has his place within Spectrum.” His right hand went into the inside pocket of his vest and withdrew a small piece of paper that he handed to White. “Here. As per your instructions, we found you a very fine hotel for your stay in London. Believe it or not, it was Conners himself who highly recommended this one.”
“He recommends it? Should I be worried, then?” White checked the address on the paper and nodded thoughtfully. “The Crowned Victory Palace… Mmm… Yes indeed, a very fine hotel. Why, Mr. Conners surprises me… It’s rather unexpected.”
“Indeed, especially considering that Conners came up with that suggestion only yesterday,” Wade explained, causing White to stare thoughtfully at him. “Of course, Spectrum has special deals with the management. After Captain Ochre did the primary security check, and made sure everything was safe, I made all the arrangements myself for your stay. They will be expecting you today. There’s a room in your name – your real name, that is.”
“So you assumed that I would take a room at this hotel, then,” White mused.
“It’s nearly Christmas, Charles. During the Holidays, the hotels are nearly all booked up. We were rather lucky there were still some vacant rooms in this one. I thought you would appreciate it.”
“I don’t know. Should I consider it safe to take a room in a hotel recommended by Conners?”
“You shouldn’t worry,” Wade said, with a barely-concealed, amused smile. “I made sure to withhold the number of your room so that you will be sure not to see Mr. Conners arriving at your door first thing tomorrow morning.”
“He had better not,” White said, a dangerous edge to his tone. “Or he’ll be back at the U.S.S. faster than he can spell it.”
Wade sniggered. “He won’t be there. I gave specific orders that you are not to disturbed at your hotel. By anyone.”
“Good. I do not want to be disturbed.” White finally nodded. “All right. I’ll take the room. Seems like a very good idea, after all.”
“Of course.” Wade’s smile broadened. “All things considered, this very luxurious hotel would be the perfect place for you to take your… ‘guest’, don’t you think? You wouldn’t want to make a bad impression on her, now would you?”
White glared at him. “Ochre doesn’t know?” he asked meaningfully.
“Nope. That information I kept to myself alone.”
“Then just be sure to keep that information only to yourself, Thomas.”
Wade laughed again. “As I said, Charles: I wouldn’t speak even under torture! And that includes that little secret of yours.”
“Stay away from truth serum, then,” White deadpanned. “As I recall, Mr. Conners is very fond of using it during interrogations…”
* * *
If Captain Scarlet was the very image of professionalism as a military man and a Spectrum officer, he wasn’t a very patient man, as every one of his colleagues knew all too well. So it rather came as a surprise to see him agree – quite willingly and gracefully – to submit himself to the expert hands of Lorraine, in order to transform his appearance. Explaining that she didn’t have quite the time to actually make a mould of his features to create the needed prosthetics – a fact that Scarlet was quite grateful for! – she set herself the long task of sculpting the pieces directly onto his face – using, she proudly announced, the latest techniques developed by New Hollywood make-up artists.
The only problem with this, she warned, would be that it would take a good part of the night, for it to be ready the next day. The latex applied on Scarlet’s face would need the time to ‘dry’ properly, in order to stick in place and not give him the impression of wearing a ‘wax mask’.
The preparation of the needed various chemical elements took some time, before Lorraine would even be ready to start work. The process that then followed took long hours during which stuff was applied to Scarlet’s face – tiny, thin layers of pink, gooey paste of latex, that felt cold to the touch. Lorraine first put it around the contours of his eyes, and then moulded it by hand, using delicate sculpting tools, and smoothing the edges so thinly that once literally glued into place and covered with another chemical component, mixed with ordinary make-up cream, it would blend perfectly with the skin.
After the eyes, Lorraine busied herself with the other parts of Scarlet’s face, still applying the same stuff and working with the same clockwork patience and minute attention to detail on each of the prosthetic pieces until she had a result that satisfied her fully. There weren’t that many pieces glued to his face, actually, and Scarlet had to admit that, apart from the waiting time, he didn’t feel much discomfort from having all that stuff on his face. But he couldn’t totally relax, despite Lorraine’s appeals to him to do so. What surprised him the most during the long hours of the night she was working on him, was that Lorraine seemed to need as little sleep as himself – and that, obviously, without the help of retrometabolism. He figured that she was so passionate with her work, and became so absorbed in it, that she didn’t feel any fatigue.
Neither Captain Magenta nor Matt Riordan had returned the previous evening. They had called, a couple of hours after their departure, to announce that they wouldn’t be back before early the next morning. They needed to wait for the repair job on the vest to be done, and to polish some last details regarding the operation for the next day – provided nothing else went wrong.
With Lorraine frantically pursuing her work, neither she nor Scarlet had any sleep, but Rhapsody and Elaine did take a little nap, and Ox stated his intention of keeping watch for the entire night. Quite frankly, no-one thought it was really that necessary, but there was nothing they could say to make the giant change his mind. In the morning, however, Rhapsody, who was the first to wake up after barely three hours of sleep, found him fast asleep and snoring noisily in the sitting room rocking chair. She didn’t bother to wake him up, and when he did, all by himself, a few hours after that, it was to start pacing around the suite like a bear in a cage. When he started to complain that he was hungry, Rhapsody indulgently dismissed him, and suggested that he should go eat something in the hotel’s downstairs restaurant – an offer he promptly accepted from the young woman whom, the Angel suspected, he had grown to respect quite a lot, since she had faced him so bravely the previous day. He promised to come back in an hour or two, with some food for everyone.
As he left, only Rhapsody and Elaine remained in the room, watching and admiring – and sometimes assisting Lorraine by handing her her tools – as the face that would become ‘the new Colonel White’ slowly took form. Having an audience – even a limited one – was making Scarlet rather nervous, but it didn’t seem to bother Lorraine at all. As it was, she seemed to greatly appreciate the Oh’s and Ah’s of admiration from her two spectators as her work progressed in front of their eyes.
Finally – at last! – the job seemed to be done, and with a last sweep of her brush around Scarlet’s eyes, Lorraine stepped back – and marvelled at her own work.
“Oh, I knew it would be a work of art!” she said gleefully, slapping her hands together. “You look fabulous, my dear Paul!”
“Do I?” Scarlet couldn’t see himself, but he could see the astounded expressions displayed on both Rhapsody’s and Elaine’s faces. They were staring at him, jaws almost hanging in disbelief. “Do I look like Colonel White?” he asked Rhapsody.
“Hardly,” she answered, shaking her head. “But Lorraine is right – you do look fabulous – for an older guy.”
Scarlet had been sitting in that chair for so long – only permitting himself a few minutes of walking around the room at regular intervals so he would not, as he put it, ‘grow roots’ – and had not dared look into a mirror to see Lorraine’s work in progress. Now it was finished, and he couldn’t wait any longer. He jumped to his feet, removing the towel that Lorraine had put around his shoulders to avoid dirtying his shirt, and walked briskly towards the bathroom, closely followed by the three women. He flicked the light on and stood in front of the large mirror – and froze when he saw his own reflection.
Incredulous, he leaned closer to the mirror and stared more intently. His fingers rose to stroke his face, around his eyes and mouth, where thin wrinkles had appeared, and his forehead, cut with deeper, horizontal lines. Just over his upper lip, Lorraine had glued a very realistic grey moustache – declaring when she had done so, that his mouth looked ‘too young’ and that the moustache would actually conceal the absence of deeper lines around his mouth. His hair had mostly stayed black, except for greyish patches in some places, and large white streaks at his temples.
Rhapsody appeared in the mirror by his side; she looked at his reflection thoughtfully, and, smiling, put her hand on his shoulder, leaning towards him. “You don’t exactly look like your father,” she remarked pensively.
“More like my maternal grandfather, around the age of fifty,” he reflected. He touched the false moustache. “This won’t come off, will it?”
“Don’t worry,” the voice of Lorraine said from behind. “None of this will come off, until you clean it off with the special solvent I will leave with you. Unless someone forcibly scrapes off the prosthetics or pulls on the moustache. Which isn’t likely to happen in this case, is it?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Rhapsody said, chuckling, as Scarlet and she walked out of the bathroom. “I don’t know how to thank you, Lorraine, you have performed a real miracle.”
“Indeed,” Elaine said, staring straight at Scarlet’s face. “I can hardly believe all this stuff is not real!”
“Why, thank you!” Lorraine said with a short laugh. “Well, it has to be convincing, mind you. When I used to do that for FAB, it was a matter of life and death, really, and we certainly didn’t want our agents to be found out and possibly hurt – or killed.”
“I do believe your expertise saved lives more than once, Lorraine,” Rhapsody said musingly. “Including mine, I must say.”
“Well, the make-up is just one part of the disguise, as you know so very well, my dear Dianne,” Lorraine replied. “The rest resides in the preparation of the character you wish to play… and of the quality of your interpretation, of course.”
“And another thing…” Rhapsody walked to the bed, and took the white and dark grey uniform she had carefully spread on it, after brushing lint off it, pressing it carefully and putting it on a hanger. She handed it to Scarlet – uniform in one hand and boots in the other, and smiled mischievously. “This is also part of your disguise,” she reminded him. “Put it on, and let’s see how good you look in it.”
He smiled in answer, took boots and uniform and disappeared behind the closed door of the bathroom.
Minutes later, the door opened, and the waiting women looked up expectantly. Scarlet crossed the doorway, adjusting his cuffs and brushing himself off; he raised his eyes and noticed the dumbfounded way they were all staring at him. “So?” he asked, raising a brow. “How do I look?”
Rhapsody took a deep in-breath of air. “Positively handsome,” she answered, unable to detach her eyes from him.
He waved dismissively, smirking. “Never mind that! Just tell me if I make a credible Colonel White – enough to convince a little old Irish lady, that is.”
“Enough to convince anyone!” Lorraine answered quickly. “My God… when you appeared, I fought the urge to stand to attention!”
“What about you, Elaine?” Scarlet asked, turning to Magenta’s cousin. “You haven’t said anything.”
She shook her head and smiled. “I’m lost for words, literally,” she replied. “You look very… authoritative, Captain.”
“Ah, it’s Colonel White, now,” he corrected her with a new smile, the false moustache now tickling his nostrils. “Yes, I do believe it is rather good. Even if I say so myself, I do think I’ll be able to make a pretty convincing Colonel White.”
“Oh, see how relaxed you are, now that you know this disguise will work!” Lorraine said with enthusiasm. “You are absolutely charming, my dear Paul… I tell you, now that you look about my age… I might be tempted to ask you out!” Scarlet’s smile broadened and Lorraine chuckled loudly, before waving in Rhapsody’s direction. “But I’m quite sure it wouldn’t please Dianne at all!”
“Now what makes you say a thing like that, Lorraine?” Rhapsody protested.
“Oh, you don’t fool an old girl like me, love,” she replied, laughing. “I have eyes, and I can see what’s obvious – even if others can’t.”
“I can see it,” Elaine noted, not wanting to be left behind in the conversation.
“Well then, keep it to yourselves, the two of you,” Scarlet said, as Rhapsody lowered her eyes coyly. “We don’t exactly want this to be known to half the world right now…”
“And that includes Penny, Lorraine,” Rhapsody added quickly. “We want to announce the news to her ourselves.”
“Mum’s the word, my dearest,” Lorraine answered, miming closing her lips with a key, and then throwing it away. “She won’t hear a thing from me, I promise.”
“Thank you, Lorraine,” Rhapsody said with a fond smile.
“Now, if you will excuse me, this old lady is quite tired, after this long night – and famished as well. So seeing that you will be busy for the rest of the day, I will be leaving you and getting something to eat, and some rest as well.”
“We don’t know how to thank you, Lorraine,” Rhapsody smiled.
“It was my pleasure, Dianne… I haven’t had so much fun in years, believe me! Now, if you need any help at all during this ‘operation’ of yours, do call me. My mobile is always on. I’ll be back here in a flash.”
“Thank you, Lorraine. We appreciate that,” Scarlet said in turn.
“Good luck with it all! Oh, but what am I saying? You won’t need luck – it’ll be a stunning success!” With that, Lorraine waved them goodbye, and gracefully turned on her heels to walk towards the door. She exited the room under the salutations and thanks of everyone inside, and closed it behind her. Scarlet, who had watched her go thoughtfully, then lowered his eyes to Rhapsody, to notice she was still staring at him, almost dreamily.
“What is it?” he asked, frowning.
She shrugged. “Nothing much… Except that you look devilishly handsome, for a fifty year old, military type.”
“Oh, that’s naughty, your ladyship.” Smirking, Scarlet suddenly took her into his arms, and bent her backwards, before planting a kiss on her lips. She giggled, but didn’t object.
“Watch out,” she said, pushing him away after a few seconds, “or you’ll damage the disguise.”
“Well, Lorraine did say nothing could make it come off easily,” he remarked.
“I’m not sure I want to take the risk of seeing all that glue melt if the temperature rises too quickly,” Rhapsody replied with amusement.
He pulled her up to her feet, and muttered, “Spoilsport.”
Rhapsody hit him in the chest with the back of her hand; he barely felt it. Both exchanged a playful smile.
Just at that same moment, the door opened and Captain Magenta and Matt Riordan entered, closely followed by Ox, whom they had picked up at the hotel restaurant. There seemed to be a continuing argument between Riordan and Ox, that wasn’t quite finished as they all entered the room. Upon their arrival, Scarlet and Rhapsody drew away from each other, almost instinctively.
“I didn’t tell you not to eat anything, Ox, just to be more discreet! You were attracting too much attention! That buffet was not set up for your exclusive use, for goodness sake! It’s for the whole damned clientele of this hotel!”
“Is it my fault if I was so hungry?”
“And on top of that, you had to bring back that huge doggie bag!”
Ox gasped in outrage, clutching against his massive chest the large brown bag he was carrying. “It’s not a doggie bag! I brought something to eat for everyone in the room! Miss Dianne asked me to! Ask her, if you don’t believe me!”
“Quiet, you two,” growled Magenta. He probably would have said more if he had not caught sight of Scarlet who was standing in the middle of the room, with Rhapsody just by his side. The three men stopped as soon as they cleared the door and stared at Scarlet with obvious amazement.
“Oh my, Paul… That’s fantastic!” Magenta crossed the room in long strides and came to stand in front of his colleague to stare directly into his face; after a few seconds, Scarlet started to feel himself reddening. “You could pass for your own father!” Magenta continued, obviously impressed.
“Except I don’t look much like my father, except for the hair,” Scarlet replied with a renewed smile. “And the moustache,” he added, touching the false moustache under his nose.
“You know what I mean,” Magenta chuckled, thumping Scarlet’s shoulder. “And that uniform… It fits you as well as Colonel White himself!”
“Just never tell him that, please!” Scarlet begged.
“Not on your life, buddy, don’t worry. You’re quite a sight… I will admit I had some doubts, but now…”
Scarlet rolled his eyes. “You and me both, pal. But your plan doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it? Rhapsody told me about the problem with Ochre’s uniform. How do you propose to get out of that one?”
“We had the uniform repaired,” Riordan answered from behind Magenta. From the bag he was carrying, he took the ochre vest and stepped forward to hand it to Scarlet. The latter took the piece of suede clothing and turned it around in his hands; he easily found the seam between the two shoulders, where there was supposed to be none. Admittedly, at some distance, it was barely visible. He shook his head.
“Ochre will be sure to notice,” he remarked.
Magenta waved the opposition aside. “We’ll take care of that in due time. Maybe he won’t notice straight away, which might give us some time to find a solution.”
“That would surprise me,” Rhapsody said, taking the vest and examining it. “It won’t fit him, for starters.”
“What?” Magenta said with a frown.
“It’s obvious, Pat. See?” She showed him the interior of the vest, where the tear had been repaired. “The seam is nearly invisible, yes, and it’s a good job, but in order to sew the two pieces together so neatly, the person who did the job took in about an inch on each side of that tear.”
“Which means, there’s two inches missing from it,” Scarlet commented.
“Holy crap,” Magenta muttered, taking the vest back and checking the seam. “You’re right, I didn’t think of that!”
“You should have asked me, I would have told you so,” Ox piped from behind. That won him an incensed glare from Captain Magenta, and a perplexed look from everyone else. He didn’t seem to notice; he was making his way quietly to the living room table, where he put down his brown bag, and started unpacking its contents.
“Anyway, how big is this actor who was supposed to play Ochre?” Rhapsody asked, dismissing Ox’s intervention. “I hope he’s not a big man…”
“He’s about Captain Ochre’s size,” Riordan said gloomily.
Rhapsody shook her head. “The uniform won’t fit him either, then. I’m afraid you would need a rather slim man to fit it now.”
“Awww, no…” Riordan said. “Why can’t it be easy, for a change?”
Magenta shut him up with a gesture. “We can’t let ourselves be stopped by a little thing like that. Not now that we have our Colonel White! We’ll have to do without a Captain Ochre, then.”
“Do we really have to do without?” Elaine asked suddenly.
“Well, you heard Dianne – no man could fit into this uniform now. So what can we do?”
“You’re really thick, Patrick,” Elaine replied. “She said a thin man would be able to wear it. What about a woman?”
“A woman to play the part of Captain Ochre?” Magenta chuckled at the suggestion. At first; then he started thinking, and frowned pensively at the idea. “Say, that could actually work…”
“Ochre would have a heart attack,” Scarlet commented, trying hard to conceal a mischievous smile. “The trousers and shirt might look a little big, though…”
“Nothing a few well-placed pins wouldn’t be able to correct, temporarily,” Rhapsody declared, stepping in. “Well, as long as whoever wears it doesn’t make any sudden movements, that is…”
“Are you volunteering, Dianne?” Magenta asked her.
She opened her eyes wide. “Me?” She eyed the uniform, pensively. She was sorely tempted, she had to confess. But she could also see the cautionary stare that Scarlet was giving her. He wasn’t too fond of the idea. He probably thinks it’s bad enough HE’S wearing the colonel’s uniform, without ME taking similar risks with Ochre’s…
“I’m afraid my hair would clash with the colour,” she said hesitantly. “But if it would help…”
“Oh, come on!” Swiftly, Elaine took the vest from her cousin’s hand, and started putting it on. “I had the idea in the first place. I would be delighted to play the role!”
“You?” a sceptical Magenta replied.
“Why not? You are a Spectrum officer, so why not me? I lived an honest life…”
“Now don’t start with that,” Magenta warned her.
“All right, all right. I won’t. But just think about it. That would solve all your problems.” Elaine straightened the vest and pulled the zip up. Then, grinning, she paraded and turned around in front of everyone’s eyes. “See? Fits me like a glove! And I’m taller than Dianne, so there will be no problem about the uniform fitting me! Oh, please, cousin… Let me do this!” she pleaded, walking towards a still hesitant Magenta. “I promise I’ll make you proud. I’ll make a good Spectrum officer, you’ll see…”
“That depends,” Magenta said, grousing.
“On what?” she asked expectantly.
“Can you keep your mouth shut for more than one second?” Elaine was about to protest with outrage, when he raised his index finger to her. “A Spectrum officer follows orders without disputing them,” he added quickly. Fortunately, he thought, Elaine had her back turned to Scarlet and Rhapsody, so she was unable to see the sceptical way in which the Angel pilot was rolling her eyes. “You will have to keep very quiet and act professionally,” he continued, addressing his cousin.
She nodded vigorously. “I will, I promise you that. And I’ll follow every order you give me.” She turned to nod to Scarlet. “And your friend’s too.”
“Well, in that case…” Magenta smiled widely and extended his hand to her. “Okay then… you can play ‘Captain Ochre’, Elaine.”
Instead of shaking the proffered hand, his cousin literally jumped at his neck, and, much to the amusement of all those watching, embraced him energetically. He gasped, more surprised than anyone at her excessive display of joy. “Oh, thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I tell you, Pat, you won’t regret it!”
“All right, knock it off!” he said, laughing. He detached her arms from around his neck and gently pushed her away from him, before smiling. “I’m sure you’ll do a good job of it, but right now, I believe we should be trying out that uniform of yours. All of it, that is.”
“Right,” Rhapsody agreed. “And I’ll help with the fitting.”
“You will?” Scarlet said with a raised brow.
“You didn’t think that you would be doing that, would you?” Rhapsody replied. “Elaine needs a woman’s touch… not the ogling eyes of a male… Colonel.”
“What about the boots?” Scarlet continued. “Ochre has rather large feet. I’m not sure his boots will fit Elaine.”
“Mere details,” Rhapsody said, waving the concern aside. “That can easily be corrected. Stuff the toes of the boots with handkerchiefs… and they’ll fit comfortably. Piece of cake, really.”
“I bow to the professional,” Scarlet said with a smirk.
“Okay, then,” Magenta then interrupted, checking his watch. “We have very little time left before Grandma Annie’s plane lands. I checked with the Airport: she should be arriving on time… In about four hours. We will be there in time to welcome her, as scheduled, and then we’ll bring her back here. Think you’ll have Elaine ready in time, Dianne?”
“Sure,” the Angel confirmed. “It shouldn’t take that long.”
“I’ll be held together by pins and needles, but I’ll be ready,” Elaine added.
“Come on, ‘Lady Ochre’,” Rhapsody said, taking her by the arm and pulling her towards the door leading into the bedroom. “We must get on with it.”
“Right… That is… S.I.G.!” Elaine grabbed the bag containing the rest of the uniform. “Be right back with you, boys!”
With that, both women disappeared behind the door, which closed after them. Magenta turned to Scarlet. “Right – while they’re doing that, I’ll brief you on the last details of our plans, Paul. Since you’ll play a vital part in it, you ought to know how we will proceed.”
“Can’t wait to hear exactly what you have in mind,” Scarlet said.
“You’re all right with this now?” Magenta asked meaningfully. “I mean… you’re comfortable playing Colonel White?”
Scarlet sighed and rolled his eyes. “I’ll never be totally comfortable with that, Pat,” he replied. He looked at Riordan and smiled anyway. “But to give a nice Christmas to your grandmother, Matt, I’m ready to take the risk.”
“Awesome,” Riordan answered with a large beam that threatened to break his face in two. “I don’t know how to thank you, Captain!”
“Wait for it, Matt,” Scarlet sighed again. “Wait until all this is finished… and we are sure we have pulled it off without any more problems than we already have had!”
* * *
“Trapper Two to Trapper One…”
“I read you, Two… What’s the news, Williams?”
The dark-haired man sitting in the chair closest to the entrance of the hotel lounge, glanced over the book he was seemingly reading to look in the direction of the lobby, of which he had a clear view from his position. He touched the earjack inserted in his ear to adjust it, as he wasn’t getting very good reception from his interlocutor.
“Ford and I have three of the suspects in view,” he muttered under his breath.
He nodded to his companion, who was standing against one of the columns supporting the archway at the entrance, seemingly waiting with an open newspaper in his hands. Both men were surreptitiously following with their eyes the small group of three people who were about to leave the hotel. There were two men and one woman, who fitted the description given to them: the woman and one man had red hair, while the second man was big as a giant.
Williams reported the information to his leader. “There is no Spectrum uniform in view,” he added.
“Where could the others be?” the leader’s voice answered. There was an obvious note of impatience in it. “They could not have gone far.”
“Two possibilities, sir,” Williams noted. “Either they’re waiting inside the hotel or they exited through another door.” He paused. “We don’t have enough operatives to watch over all the exits. We would need back up.”
“Negative, Trapper Two. You will have to make do with the manpower you have right now. I can’t give you any more.”
“Very good, sir. If we actually had more details of what they might be doing…”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have access to more information, Two. Not anymore. So we’ll have to do with what we already have.”
“What are the three suspects doing now?”
“They’re presently leaving the hotel.”
“Good. Trapper Three will follow them, to make sure of their whereabouts. You stay put, Two. If the others have not left, I want you to keep an eye out for them. In any case, you have to remember this: you are only to act upon their return from the airport. Not before. Is that clear, Williams?”
“Understood, Trapper One,” the man answered. He then made an almost imperceptible gesture to his companion, who nodded his acknowledgement, before leaving his surveillance post and walking towards the door to follow the group who had just left.
“Trapper Three is on the move,” Williams reported. “The operation is proceeding as instructed…”
* * *
Colonel White was standing in the arrivals hall, with dozens of people surrounding him, waiting for the first batch of passengers from various newly arrived international flights to appear through the gates. Outwardly, he was making a very good job of not appearing to be nervous, but it was very different on the inside. It had been months since he had seen his guest, so he couldn’t help wondering how this reunion would go. Would she run to him, would she act calmly, how would she look, what hairstyle did she have now… All trivial questions, he knew, that seemed of so little importance right now, in comparison to his inner feelings of nervousness.
More people were coming through the doors now, apparently the passengers of the many planes which had touched down in the last hours, and running to families and friends who were waiting for them. And amongst them, right in the middle of the second wave of newcomers, he could spot her, pulling a huge bag of a very strange pinkish colour behind her, dressed in a simple but still fashionable style. She saw him and she waved at him vigorously, smiling widely. He returned the smile and waved back, if a little more discreetly.
He wasn’t a very demonstrative man, she knew, so she didn’t actually jump at his neck when she finally reached him, for which he was very grateful. In response, he didn’t hesitate to gently take her in his arms and hug her in his reserved, but still very affectionate way, kissing her lightly as he did so. By the way she smiled up at him, he understood that she had appreciated the gesture.
“I thought that plane would never land,” she said with a sigh, as they started to draw apart from one another. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Not long,” he lied in response. He had arrived at the airport a little more than two hours before her. “Welcome to London, Amanda.”
“It feels good to have my feet back on the ground,” said Amanda Wainwright, looking around. “I’m afraid I don’t have a good head for heights, let alone flying!”
“Good thing your daughter’s not like that, or we’d be minus a formidable fighter pilot,” White replied. He leaned to take the handle of her bag and gazed at it with some interest – and curiosity; the colour was just too odd and original for him to dismiss. Amanda chuckled with amusement.
“That’s a gift from Karen,” she explained a little sheepishly. “She gave it to me years ago. She said that with a colour like that, I would easily find it on the baggage carousel, amongst the other luggage. Guess she was right at that. It is quite easy to spot.”
“Have you had many occasions to use it?”
Amanda shrugged. “Not very many, no. I don’t travel that much, and as I said, I’m not very comfortable with planes… But this was an enjoyable flight anyway.” She smiled. “I guess the thought of seeing you again after all these months was comforting me.”
He thanked her with a slight bow, and guided her towards the exit, pulling her luggage behind him, with his own carry-on bag on his shoulder. “So I take it this is your first visit to London, then?”
“Of course. I couldn’t wait to see it, since the moment you invited me to come!”
He smiled. “Ah then… I will have to give you the tour of the city. I was born here, I know all the good places to see.”
“You don’t say…” Amanda said, grinning mischievously. “Oh, Charles, I know you were born here. You told me that already.”
She nodded. “On our first date. Although, I’m still wondering if we should call Las Vegas our first date, actually,” she added with a coy smile.
He smiled in turn. “I think that qualifies perfectly. Well, anyway, bear with me, Amanda. I’m liable to repeat myself often, during the next few days. My life isn’t that exciting, you know…”
She rolled her eyes. “Riiiight. And I’m supposed to believe you.”
He kept himself from chuckling. “Come on. First stop will be the hotel.”
“Oh, thank you! That’ll give me some time to freshen up!”
“You certainly don’t look as if you need to…” White complimented her. Her coy giggle was his reward as they passed through the door to leave the airport arrivals hall.
* * *
“What are you so nervous about, Paul?”
Obviously ill-at-ease, Scarlet was looking anxiously around. They stood in the London International Airport First Class waiting area, amongst civilians waiting at the gates for friends, parents and loved ones to clear customs and finally be reunited with them. Matt Riordan, with Ox and Rhapsody Angel, were standing in the first line, just behind the gates, while Scarlet, Magenta and Elaine, in Spectrum uniforms hidden under large overcoats, were waiting in the background, a little behind everyone, which permitted them to talk more freely.
“At least one of us ought to be concerned,” Scarlet replied, a little more acerbically than he intended. He couldn’t shake that feeling that something might go wrong. Magenta appeared much more relaxed than himself – which, Scarlet considered, was rather strange considering the situation, and that was making him a little irritable. “Your plan is highly risky. Whose brilliant idea was this to welcome that woman in a civilian airport – in uniform, as if it was an official happening?”
“Matt had told his grandmother that Colonel White would be delighted to welcome her himself, upon her arrival at London,” Magenta explained. “How would you think she would ‘recognise’ you, if you don’t put the uniform on?”
“In public, in the middle of a civilian crowd?”
“I told you the plan. You knew we were coming here in the first place, so what’s your trouble now?”
“This is highly irregular. Colonel White would never meet someone in a public airport in uniform.”
“Cheer up, Paul,” Magenta said with a faint smile. “Grandma Annie will never be able to tell what’s military protocol or not. So I doubt there will be any trouble at all.”
“What’s the use of transforming me into Colonel White if we don’t do it right?” Scarlet grumbled.
“What’s the use of transforming you into Colonel White if you don’t wear the uniform?” Magenta retorted in turn.
“We’re attracting attention. What if there’s reporters around, who might recognise the uniform and take a picture of us?” Scarlet insisted.
Magenta rolled his eyes. “We’re not attracting attention. We’re wearing these large coats which hide most of our uniforms.”
“Except for the caps and the boots,” Elaine piped up from behind. She was obviously having trouble adjusting the cap on her head; it was just a little too large for her. Her first comment upon putting it on a few hours earlier was that it was ‘messing her hair’. Apparently, she had not come to terms yet with that fact.
“Anyway,” Magenta pursued, “that’s why I thought it was preferable to welcome Grandma Annie in the First Class waiting area. There’s less people here. And as far as having our pictures taken is concerned, we don’t need to worry about that. I’ve fitted each of our coats with a camera jamming device.”
Scarlet rolled his eyes. Only the Spectrum organisation possessed the said device – which, when worn by a field officer on a mission, blocked the camera in such a way that that person would appear as a silhouette on any pictures taken of him. He should have realised that Magenta would also have ‘borrowed’ a few of those from London HQ.
“You think of everything, don’t you?” the English officer told his colleague.
“Of course I do. I even thought of momentarily deactivating the communication device in our caps and epaulettes – so to avoid unintended calls from Spectrum.”
Distractedly, Scarlet played with the mic resting against the visor of his cap. Of all the people he knew who would be able to do that, Magenta was probably the only one who would actually do it. Lieutenant Green would never dare. “Pat, that’s strictly forbidden by regulations.”
“Nobody will know. And I’ll put it back in working order afterwards.”
“I should hope so.”
“Don’t worry, Paul. We’re not supposed to be wearing these uniforms, anyway – and they’re not even supposed to be in circulation, to begin with – even mine – so I thought it was safer to put the radios out of commission for a while. In any case, if something should happen, and Spectrum requires our presence, each of us – that is Dianne, you and me – we’re still carrying our personal communicators.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Quite frankly, I would prefer nothing to happen. It would put a damper on this little get-together with Grandma Annie. For the rest… I don’t see any reason for us to be concerned.”
“Let’s hope you’re right, Pat,” Scarlet muttered.
Magenta had barely heard his comment, as he had suddenly frozen.Since the beginning of their conversation, he had been looking straight ahead of them, towards where Riordan, Rhapsody and Ox were waiting, almost immediately in front of the doors which were now slowly sliding open. “Now loosen up, buddy,” he told Scarlet. “Grandma Annie is about to arrive.”
Instead of loosening up, however, Scarlet straightened himself to his full height, making Magenta smile in amusement despite himself. The opening doors were now disgorging the earliest arrivals into the First Class waiting area. There were movements amongst the large group in front as people recognised their loved ones and rushed to meet them and embrace them. Before long, the first class waiting area was filled with exclamations and laughter, and quickly became crowded as more people passed through the doors, hauling their luggage with them. It was becoming more difficult to see through the growing human wall in front of them, and Scarlet nearly had to stand on tiptoe to look over the many heads to get a clear view of the still open doors. Fewer people were coming in, but still, Riordan had not moved from his spot and was still waiting, expectantly.
Then she arrived; the old lady from the picture Riordan had showed Scarlet. She was dressed very smartly, holding her handbag with both hands against her breast, and appeared so very small, much more frail than she appeared on the picture, while walking between that couple who had appeared with her. Scarlet imagined that they could only be Riordan’s cousin Brendan and his wife, whom he was told were coming along with Grandma Annie, all the way from her native Ireland. They would never have let her take the plane and leave the country all by herself.
The English captain watched as Riordan suddenly left both Rhapsody and Ox to run to his grandmother. A second later, he was holding on to her, and squeezing her against his heart. She was obviously speaking – her lips were moving – but with all the brouhaha around, Scarlet couldn’t make out what she was saying, but he could see she seemed overjoyed to see her grandson; she was laughing.
Breaking away from his grandmother, Riordan shook hands with his cousin, and then embraced the woman with him, before turning to quickly present Rhapsody and Ox; then, he took charge of the old lady’s luggage, and the small group cut through the crowd, towards their three companions who were watching and waiting.
“Here we go now,” Magenta whispered next to Scarlet. “The moment of truth…”
Scarlet nodded almost imperceptibly. He stood immobile, his eyes set on the small group of people who were coming their way, until they finally reached them and Riordan stopped in front of him. There was a bright smile on the American’s features as he faced him.
“Colonel.” He nodded a semblance of salute with his head to Scarlet and then, coyly, turned towards the petite old woman who was standing by his side. “Colonel, may I present my grandmother, Annie Riordan. Nana… this is Colonel White, commander-in-chief of Spectrum.”
Feeling even more ill-at-ease now that he had been officially presented as ‘Colonel White’, Scarlet made a supreme effort not to show it and stood even straighter than before – if that was possible. He was aware of his companions looking at him expectantly, wondering how he would fare. For a split second, he even entertained the thought of confessing everything, or turning on his heels, and walking suddenly away, so not to continue this ridiculous – and dangerous – charade. His eyes slid down to the lined face of the little woman now standing in front of him. She was looking up at him, with such a bright expression, so much obvious respect and admiration – and pride in her grandson, who was holding her arm with great affection. She raised her hand and touched his arm; she was trembling with obvious excitement.
“This is such an honour, sir, to meet you at last,” she said in a quavering voice. “Matthew has told me so much about you…”
And unexpectedly, at the sound of her words, all of Scarlet’s doubts fled, along with the butterflies in his stomach.
He offered his most gracious smile and bowed perfectly to Grandma Annie, removing his cap as he did so, and took her hand in his. “I assure you, my dear lady,” he said in the most distinguished voice he could muster, “that the honour is all mine.”
* * *
After tailing his quarry from the airport, and witnessing them entering the Crowned Victory Palace by a side door, Warren Ford had rounded the hotel to get in by the main entrance, all the while contacting his colleague, Glenn Williams, whom he knew was still checking the lobby from inside. He found him, at the lounge entrance, in the exact same seat as two hours before.
“They just entered by the side door to the V.I.P. Lounge,” he said. “Did you spot them?”
Williams shook his head. “Just a few of them. The red-haired girl, Riordan and that large brute went to the counter to get their keys. They’re still there.”
Ford looked in the direction his colleague was indicating, and saw the three of them, Riordan and Rhapsody lining up at the counter, and talking to the receptionist, with Ox standing behind them.
“Where’re the others?” he asked thoughtfully.
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that with certainty,” Williams replied. “My guess is they’ve stayed in the V.I.P. Lounge. And unfortunately, we can’t go in there, because we don’t have the required hotel’s V.I.P. pass.”
“No trace of the colonel, then?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“He must be with the others, then,” Ford said with frustration. “He was there at the airport, I saw him… not clearly though, all the others were surrounding him, and were hiding him from my view. We need to act now. Or we won’t be able to do anything at all, once they go upstairs to their suite.”
“We need to get him away from the others. But how can we do this?”
Ford kept thoughtful for a moment, pondering about that; then, a large smile started to spread on his lips and he turned to face his companion. “Sometimes, the oldest tricks in the book are still the most efficient.”
“You have something in mind?” Williams asked.
“Yeah. If these guys don’t suspect anything, we should be able to pull it off. Come with me.”
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” Williams sighed as he followed Ford into the public lounge.
* * *
“So I take it you enjoy being here?”
In the Crowned Victory Palace restaurant, which was filled with people, Amanda Wainwright looked up from her plate to the distinguished gentleman seated just across her at their small table; he was staring at her thoughtfully, his chin in his hand, and resting his elbow on the table. Her fork froze halfway to her lips, and she felt her cheeks flush.
“That is so obvious, isn’t it?” she said, putting the fork down into her plate, and staring back at him. “Oh yes, it must be… I haven’t stopped talking all the way from the airport to here, and then looking around in such awe – like a child who never saw anything. You must think I’m foolish.”
He shook his head, smiling magnanimously. “Actually, I found it charming. You did tell me that you haven’t travelled much.”
“Well I did, a little – in the States. I never left the country much, mind you. Except for our honeymoon: Harry took us to Niagara Falls – on the Canadian side. A very common destination for a honeymoon. Harry was a nice guy… but he didn’t have much imagination!”
“Oh, I don’t know… Niagara can be quite charming. You liked the trip, didn’t you?”
“Oh yes… very much so, actually. Even if we didn’t leave the continent!” Amanda laughed. “I would have loved to travel much more, but well… you now know how I feel about flying, and Harry didn’t much like leaving the country anyway. And after he died I… didn’t find the time to travel, I guess. That trip to Las Vegas I made last year, to meet with the kids – that was a welcome change.”
“A good omen, if I can say so.” White’s smile broadened. “We were able to meet again.”
“Yes, we did at that…” Amanda’s cheeks flushed even more. “Oh, I’m sorry… here I am, in this marvellous setting with you, and I’m telling you about my husband… and about our honeymoon! You must think terribly of me!”
“Not at all,” White reassured her. “I will never think badly of you, Amanda.”
“You are being the gentleman, Charles.” Amanda sighed and looked around, dreamily. “I think I will love these few days here.”
“You’ve never been to London before. I’m sure you will love it. It’s a lovely city, even if I say so myself. But then, living away from it, I suppose it makes me appreciate it even more.” White took the bottle of champagne the waiter had left in the ice bucket near him, a few minutes ago.
“It’s not just London. It’s being here with you. I still can’t believe you have invited me here.”
“I still can’t believe I worked up the courage to invite you,” he chuckled.
“Oh, if there’s anything you lack, it’s certainly not courage, I’m sure of that.” Amanda leaned towards him, over the table. “This hotel is something else!” she said in a whisper. “The Saint-Maurice in Las Vegas was something but this… it’s in a class by itself!”
“You like it?” White started to fill his guest’s glass.
“I can scarcely believe you’ve brought me to such a place!”
“Well, I can’t take the credit, I’m afraid,” White admitted. “Or the idea. It was suggested to me by Spectrum London. I’m on furlough, and I certainly didn’t plan to stay at Headquarters – especially considering that I had a guest with me. So they looked around for a suitable hotel for me to stay in.”
“You don’t mean Spectrum is paying for our stay here?” Amanda sounded surprised.
White finished pouring the champagne into his glass and looked up at her. “Of course not!” he protested, in an amused tone. “I can pay for my own holiday accommodation!” He put the bottle back into the ice bucket, smiling. “Granted, Spectrum has negotiated special deals with such places, but still…”
“The price must still be staggering,” Amanda mused. “Maybe I should…”
He waved the consideration aside. It was obvious she was about to offer to share the charges, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “Please. Do not concern yourself with that. I can certainly afford it. It’ll be my pleasure.”
She raised a brow. “Are you that rich?” she asked, feigning interest.
White grinned. “Are you in the market for an old, rich, widower, Mrs. Wainwright?”
“You’re not old,” Amanda chided him. “Not by a long shot.”
“Thank you for those kind words.” He raised his glass. “As for the money… let’s say I have a considerable sum at my disposal. As I don’t often make much use of it, it can permit me to… indulge myself in the company of a charming lady.” He thought it wise not to mention that he mainly owed the ‘considerable sum’ in question to his late wife’s passing. Already, she had felt terrible mentioning her deceased husband – he preferred not to add to her malaise with talk of his Elizabeth.
She lifted her glass in turn. “I heard what you said when you presented yourself at the Reception desk, when we checked in. Sir Charles Gray? I didn’t know I was dating English nobility.”
White tasted his glass, before answering, very quietly: “I wasn’t born with that title, Amanda. I earned it for services to my country throughout my military career.”
“That shouldn’t surprise me. And here I was hoping I was going out with an earl, or something similar,” Amanda replied with amusement, taking in turn a taste of her champagne. She sighed, making it sound regretful. “Oh well… I think you’ll do anyway.”
“Why, thank you,” White answered, chuckling. He raised his glass again. “A toast then: to us?”
“And to the wonderful time we’ll pass in this enchanting city,” Amanda answered, presenting her glass as well.
White nodded his thanks, and they chinked their glasses, before sipping their champagne.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a call for Colonel White: Colonel White is requested in the lobby for an urgent call. Please present yourself at the Information Desk.”
White had barely taken his first sip when he heard this announcement, from the restaurant’s public address loudspeakers – one of which was close to their table. He put his glass down on the table, and turned slightly to look at the speaker with curiosity – and some annoyance. Amanda followed the direction of his eyes.
“Were you expecting a call?” she asked.
He turned back to face her and shook his head, picking up his glass again. “No,” he said simply, before sipping at his champagne, as if he had not heard the announcement, which was repeated, almost as he answered.
Amanda looked at the speaker, and then at him, thoughtfully. “Now, who knows you are here?”
“Spectrum of course. At least, two people at London HQ know I have taken a room here.”
“And you’re not going to answer that call?” Amanda was surprised.
“It might not be for me.” White smiled. “It might be a colonel really named White, presently staying in this hotel as well. It is not an uncommon name, after all.”
“But that would be a strange coincidence, don’t you think?”
“Things like that are known to happen.”
“But what if it was for you?”
The message was being repeated again. White sighed. “Amanda, Spectrum normally doesn't call by phone... If there was an emergency, they would use the personal communicator. They know I always have it on me.”
“Well, maybe it’s not an emergency, then.”
“I requested not to be disturbed during my stay in London – except for an emergency. They wouldn’t call me here. Not if they know what’s good for them,” White added in an undertone.
She stared doubtfully at him. “Are you sure?” Amanda reached for White’s hand across the table. He was frowning thoughtfully. “Charles, if you are not responding on account of me…”
“No,” he interrupted her suddenly. “Well, yes… there’s a little of that, but…” The call was heard again, seemingly more insistent. His frown deepened. “Nobody seems to be answering, do they?”
Amanda smiled. “Now come on, Charles. Don’t stay here a minute longer. Go see if it’s not for you. Just in case?”
“Just in case, maybe,” White said reluctantly.
“I’ll wait for you here.”
“Right.” Sighing with bad humour, White pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “I shan’t be long, Amanda. And if by any chance it is someone disrupting our dinner for anything other than an emergency…”
“God help them,” Amanda said with a knowing smile. White stood over her for a split second, still hesitating, before finally leaning to kiss her brow; he then left her, and crossed the whole length of the restaurant in long strides, leaving it to enter the lounge, that he would have to cross too to access the lobby. Amanda could still see him from her place; she watched as he stopped in front of a pageboy with whom he exchanged a few words. Then, both of them left. She followed him a few seconds with her eyes, until he disappeared from view, and then she took a sip from her glass again.
She barely took notice of the two men, who had been seated not far from the pageboy White had talked to a second earlier, and who, at the moment, were getting to their feet at White’s departure to follow him.
* * *
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a call for Colonel White: Colonel White is requested in the lobby for an urgent call. Please present yourself at the Information Desk.”
Captain Magenta was in the V.I.P. Lounge with his cousin Elaine, Captain Scarlet, Grandma Annie and Matt Riordan’s cousin Brendan, and his wife Stella, when he heard the message through the speakers. That made him freeze instantly, and he looked at his companions; at first he thought he was the only one to have picked it up, but then he noticed the concerned look Elaine exchanged with him. As for the others, they didn’t seem to have heard. A great chatter, Scarlet was graciously entertaining Grandma Annie, by answering the many questions she, and Brendan and his wife, were asking him.
“You heard that too?” Magenta whispered, addressing his cousin. She nodded in answer. The announcement was repeated, and this time, Magenta listened attentively. There was no mistake about it.
“I think that’s the fourth time they made that call,” Elaine murmured. “What should we do?”
Magenta shook his head. There wasn’t much they actually could do about it. He stepped forward and put his hand on Scarlet’s shoulder, interrupting him in his conversation with Grandma Annie.
“Excuse me, sir…” Scarlet turned to him, just as the message issued from the speakers again. This time, the English officer heard it, and he tensed, his face taking on a gloomy and thoughtful expression.
“Now what is that?” he asked, addressing Magenta.
“I have no idea,” his colleague answered.
“It isn’t your doing?” Scarlet murmured.
Magenta shook his head. Scarlet’s expression grew somber. Now it might simply be that there was someone by the name of ‘Colonel White’ presently residing in the hotel, but somehow he doubted it. He never truly believed in such coincidences.
The message was heard again.
“Oh dear me, Colonel,” Grandma Annie suddenly said, attracting their attention. “It would seem someone is calling for you.”
“I’m not expecting any call,” Scarlet replied.
“Maybe it’s Matt, calling you from the Reception desk,” Brendan proposed. “Could be he ran into some kind of trouble.” He chuckled. “That could be quite like him.”
Scarlet exchanged glances with both Elaine and Magenta; now why didn’t they think about that first, instead of imagining that something was wrong? He could see Elaine relax a bit.
“Dear old Matt,” Brendan continued, sniggering again. “He would so often get himself into trouble… and then he would need the help of someone else to pull him out of it.”
“He’s not so bad,” Magenta replied, glaring in Brendan’s direction. He found it to be in very bad taste that Brendan belittled his cousin this way – especially in front of his ‘boss’. “Matt is usually a very capable person. If not, he wouldn’t be in Spectrum.”
“Quite so,” Scarlet agreed, backing his colleague in the defense of Riordan. He, too, didn’t find Brendan’s attitude very charitable – or even likeable.
“But…” Magenta turned back to Scarlet, “it could be that he needs the colonel’s presence.”
If he really needs help, then why didn’t he call his friend Patrick instead? Scarlet wondered. After all, Magenta was the brains behind the operation. If there was some kind of trouble, Magenta would be the most likely person Riordan would call for assistance.
Well, whatever, there was only one way to find out exactly what it was, and Scarlet made his decision just as the announcement was heard anew. He turned to Grandma Annie. “If you would excuse me, madam,” he said, gallantly, “I must go and see what currently requires my attention.”
Magenta had to fight himself not to roll his eyes; he could have sworn, Scarlet had taken the colonel’s vernacular!
“Of course, Colonel,” the elderly woman answered with a gracious smile. “I wouldn’t dream of keeping you away from your duty. You will come back to me as soon as you can?”
“Yes… as soon as I can,” Scarlet promised.
“Do you need one of us to go with you… sir?” Magenta asked meaningfully.
Scarlet looked him squarely in the eyes. “No thank you, Captain, I think I can manage… whatever it could be. Do keep our guests company, please. I shall be back right away.”
By the tone of his voice, it was obvious that Scarlet would not accept any argument, and Magenta realised it, so he didn’t insist. He simply nodded his head, slowly, in recognition of the order. “Do contact us if you need help, please,” he said, almost pleadingly.
Scarlet answer’s was another intense look at Magenta; if indeed there was to be any trouble, then the Irish captain would be the first to know.
Then Scarlet turned on his heels and left the V.I.P. Lounge.
* * *
The pageboy took Colonel White to the Information desk – which was in fact situated just in front the Reception desk, on the other side of the lobby, where a young lady welcomed him with a large smile. “Was your call to Colonel White answered?” he asked, not wanting to beat around the bushes. He wasn’t in the best of moods right now, to have been forced to leave his guest and come to investigate this rather odd occurrence. The young woman gave him a strange look, as if wondering what kind of question that was.
“No, it has not… Are you Colonel White?” she asked with an apparently suspicious frown.
White sighed; he took a thin card holder from his vest pocket, stamped with the Spectrum emblem on top, and opened it to show the woman. “I might be… if there isn’t any other Colonel White currently residing in your hotel.”
With obvious surprise, the young woman stared intently at the Spectrum identification he was presenting her; she seemed to hesitate for a split second, before nodding at his question. “Yes, of course, sir… we’ve been informed that you would be staying at our hotel for a few days. I’m sorry if we made any mistake with this message…”
“So this call is indeed for me, then?” White asked, pocketing the cardholder.
“Yes, sir. You are the only Colonel White in the hotel right now.” She pointed towards a series of phone booths, on the other side of the lobby. “It’s a phone call, sir. Take booth number three, and simply dial one, one, one, zero. You will access your call.”
White thanked her and turned around, directing his steps towards the booths. To say he wasn’t very happy was an understatement; whoever that was who had called him had better had an excellent reason to have done so, or he would find himself filling in paperwork from now until next July.
He reached the booth and took the phone off its hook and was about to dial the number the desk girl had given him, when he felt a presence behind him – and an insistent nudge against his ribs. He froze in place and looked behind. Two men were standing on each side of him, cutting off his way out; one of them, White discovered as he looked down, was prodding a gun against his side.
“What the hell…”
“Be quiet, Colonel,” the man with the gun advised. “We wouldn’t want for an accident to happen.”
“Of course not.” White quietly put the phone back onto its hook. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” the same man replied sternly. “Now come with us. Without any resistance or asking any questions, if you know what’s good for you.”
For now, White agreed inwardly, as he studied the faces of the two men. He didn’t know them; they looked like professionals, by the way they were handling him. Quietly, they motioned for him to walk up front, and he still could feel the gun pressed against his back as he did so and followed the indicated direction. Could they be Mysterons? he wondered. That could be possible, but he wasn’t aware of any Mysteron threat having been issued recently. Unless it had happened after his departure from Cloudbase, and his subsequent meeting with Thomas Wade at the airport; but in that case, he would have been informed immediately and in all probability, recalled to duty – especially if an attempt against him was suspected.
However, by all appearances, these two men didn’t seem to know about Amanda; that was a relief, and White would certainly not be the one to mention her to them. He would never forgive himself if something should happen to her. He had already lost one woman in his life because of his work, and he would not like at all for this to happen again. So he chose to quietly follow his captors, without resisting, as they required.
Curiously enough, although he expected them to guide him out of the hotel, they did nothing of the kind; they walked down a long corridor running alongside the public lounge, passing in front of the restrooms’ and various other doors. They stopped in front of the last door, at the very end of the corridor. With perplexity, White watched as one of the two men opened that door, while his companion was making sure no-one was about. They then entered, and descended a staircase, obviously leading to the hotel basement.
Now what the hell did I get myself into this time? White wondered grimly.
He swore, every time he took a holiday, it ended in disaster!
* * *
Captain Scarlet met with Rhapsody Angel, Matt Riordan and Robert Oxbury just as he was crossing the public lounge towards the lobby. His fiancée was the first to speak to him: “You heard that odd message on the speakers?”
Scarlet nodded and took them away from prying ears. “So it wasn’t you who called for me?”
“Hardly,” Riordan replied. “We were just leaving the Reception desk when we heard the message. We thought it best not to return to see what it was all about. We wondered if you had anything to do with it.”
Scarlet shook his head. “Not at all. We were also wondering what it was all about.”
“If you didn’t ask for that message to be broadcast,” Rhapsody said, “and we didn’t… Then who did?”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes. “Someone knowing about our little party, perhaps?”
“It can’t be!” Riordan protested. “We were very careful!”
“Right! Like you were careful when Dianne and I started following you around, Matt?” Scarlet replied.
“He followed you,” Rhapsody corrected. “I was just there for the ride.”
“Anyway, this is all very odd,” Scarlet mused.
Ox’s eyes were glowering dangerously. “If someone is trying to play smart with us…” He smacked his right fist into his left hand. “I’ll teach him…”
“Down, boy,” Scarlet advised. “We don’t want any more trouble than absolutely necessary.”
“So what do we do?” Rhapsody asked.
“I’ll go check what it’s all about,” Scarlet declared. “After all, the call was for ‘Colonel White’ – and that’s me.”
“No, it’s not,” Rhapsody replied sharply.
“Well, today I am.”
“And what should we do while you’re over there, risking we-don’t-know-what exactly… again?” Rhapsody asked with a frown. “You’re too reckless for your own good, Paul Metcalfe. That’s why someone should go with you.”
“I’ll go with him,” Ox offered. Scarlet wondered if he was genuinely trying to help – or rather if he was itching for some action. He imagined it was more likely the second option.
“No, I should go myself, and alone,” Riordan suddenly interrupted, before Scarlet could answer to Ox’s proposal. “If there is trouble, I should be the one taking the risk. After all, I am the one who has the least to lose.”
“You’re on probation, Matt,” Scarlet remarked. “You could lose that.”
“How about your career, Captain? You didn’t even want to be a part of this, to begin with.”
“But I am part of it now, and there is no discussing this,” Scarlet replied. “I am going out there to see what it’s all about, and you, Matt, will go join your grandmother, who is waiting for you in the V.I.P. Lounge. I suggest you take her upstairs to the suite. Dianne and Ox will go with you.”
“But…” Rhapsody tried again.
“No ‘buts’, Dianne. There’s no point in risking anyone else. It’s Colonel White they’re asking for, so, it’s Colonel White they should get.” Scarlet smiled, almost wickedly, as he looked down at his fiancée’s pouting face. “You know I’m right.”
“I hate it when you say that,” she muttered. She sighed. “All right then. Do it your way. Just be very careful.”
“I will be, don’t worry. Matt is right, I have my career, and I don’t want to run the risk of seeing it go down the drain. Now, go and join the others, all of you.”
With that, Scarlet left them where they stood, and crossed the rest of the lounge to reach the lobby, without even looking behind him, confident that his companions would follow his instructions – even if they would do so reluctantly.
He walked directly to the Information Desk; at that moment, the young woman who was manning it had her back turned, obviously busy with answering the phone and checking information on the electronic board on the wall. Scarlet leaned against the desk and waited; as she hung up, she realised there was a presence behind her and she turned around. He noticed her deep frown of puzzlement as she was looking up at him, scrutinising him from the head down. She seemed somehow fascinated with his black and white cap, sporting the Spectrum emblem. Through his open coat, the white suede of his vest was visible.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” she asked.
“You had a call for me earlier?” he asked in turn. “I heard it through the speaker…” As she was still looking at him with that same, seemingly clueless expression on her face, he moved on, specifying: “I’m Colonel White.”
She raised a brow. “You’re Colonel White?” she asked, as if she didn’t believe him. “Of Spectrum?”
“Is there a problem, miss?” he asked, using his most uncompromising tone. “This call earlier was for me, was it not?”
That seemed to wake her up. She didn’t even think of questioning him further; apparently, his seemingly upright poise, and his authoritarian voice were more than enough to convince her that he was telling her the truth and was exactly who he pretended he was. “I’m sorry, Colonel… yes, that was a call for you, but… someone else came earlier and took it.”
“Someone else took the call?” A perplexed Scarlet repeated.
“Yes… Another man stating he was Colonel White.”
Scarlet’s brow furrowed. “Another Colonel White, you say? Where’s that man?”
“I don’t know… He took the call at one of the booths and left.”
“He took the call?”
“Well, I imagine he did – I didn’t watch him that closely. But I did see him leave… with two other gentlemen, I think. The went towards the public lounge.”
“And that man presented himself as Colonel White? Are you sure?”
“Yes… just about five minutes ago. He wasn’t in uniform, though.” The young woman frowned. “But he showed me his identification…”
Realising that she might be about to ask the same of him, Scarlet decided it was a far better idea to leave the conversation where it was and to get on his way, without any more delay. “Thank you,” he said briskly, in the practised manner of a career military officer addressing a subordinate. “That needs investigating. You’ve been most helpful.”
Before she could even think of stopping him, he left her there, turning his back squarely on her, and swiftly crossed the lobby.
He stopped at the entrance of the public lounge and stood there, pondering – his eyes searching the room for whoever could have presented himself at the Information Desk just before him.
Another Colonel White… Now that was very odd. And rather disconcerting. Who could that be exactly? Certainly not the real one, of course… He was on Cloudbase at the moment, Scarlet was almost certain of it. So exactly what could that mean?
There was, of course, a possible explanation…
Unable to spot the impostor, a rather gloomy and perplexed Scarlet decided that the best course of action right now was to rejoin the others to discuss the matter with them. He turned on his heel, with the intention of going to the lifts; he nearly bumped into the person who was right behind him, whom he had not seen, and stopped himself just in time.
“Dianne…” He sighed with exasperation, rolling his eyes to the sky. She was standing there, just in front of him, presenting her most set expression. And just behind her was Magenta’s cousin, Elaine – still wearing the ochre uniform of course, under that oversized coat in which she was draped. “What are you two doing here? I thought I specifically told you I would come alone.”
“And you came alone,” Rhapsody replied. “Just like the hero you are. You never said anything about not following you.” She smiled. “I found Elaine as she was leaving the V.I.P. lounge. She wanted to see if she could give you a hand. I thought it was a good idea to join her.”
“For goodness sake… and where are the others?”
“In the room, of course,” Elaine answered. “We wouldn’t want Grandma Annie to get suspicious that something is going on, would we?”
“Well, something is going on,” Scarlet replied roughly, almost glaring at her. “Elaine… that Judge Blake that your cousin hired to take on the role of Colonel White… you’re sure he’s in prison?”
She frowned. “Well, he should be. Why do you ask?”
“Apparently, there’s someone who took that call earlier, who presented himself at the Information Desk as Colonel White.”
Elaine gasped. “It can’t be!”
“Well, do you have a better explanation?!” an irate Scarlet replied. “How much of your plan does he know? I suppose he knew about this hotel?”
“Well, yes but… I doubt he would take upon himself to come here and play Colonel White’s role, even if he was out of prison. He would wait for instructions.”
“Paul… another Colonel White?” Rhapsody asked as if she couldn’t grasp the concept.
He nodded. “Apparently, if I am to believe the lady at the Information Desk, that one even showed her papers identifying him as Colonel White.” He turned to Elaine, and glared at her almost accusingly. “Now, did your cousin provide your Judge Blake with ID, Elaine?”
“Not to my knowledge,” she answered, shaking her head.
“Well, if he had, he should have given me some too. I could have hit trouble with that woman over there. If she had asked for my identification…”
“We should ask Pat,” Rhapsody cut in suddenly.
“We certainly should,” Scarlet agreed. “And right away. And search for whoever is running around, using Colonel White’s name. Be it ‘Judge’ Henry Blake or not.”
“Where is he now?” Rhapsody asked.
Scarlet shrugged. “Last time the receptionist saw him, he was going to the public lounge. Apparently with two other guys. I don’t know what he looks like, so I couldn’t spot him.”
“Well, I know what Henry looks like,” Elaine said. “So I’d better go see for myself. If it is him, I will recognise him straight away.”
“I’ll contact Pat,” Rhapsody advised.
“And I’ll join Elaine in her search,” Scarlet concluded. “Maybe we’ll be able to see clearly what the hell is going on around here. Another Colonel White… There’s already one too many as it is,” he added with dry humour.
* * *
Upon reaching the third and lowest level of the hotel basement, the real Colonel White was taken down a corridor, poorly lit by neon lights set high on the concrete walls. They passed a number of closed doors, some of which were placarded with signs sporting words like ‘Lift Machinery’, ‘Generator’, ‘Tool Storage’ and ‘Maintenance’. His captors made White stop in front of that last door.
The man not carrying the gun knocked three times on the door and it slowly opened, and the head of a third man appeared in the opening. He was older than the other two, with grey hair and a face covered with deep lines.
“You’ve got him?” he asked.
Ford smiled wickedly. “Look for yourself,” he said, stepping back to show White.
The third man gazed at White with attention, narrowing his eyes as he did so. He said nothing, but opened the door wide after a brief instant. White was pushed inside, none too gently, and they all entered the small room. Like the corridor they had followed, it was made of concrete walls – not surprisingly with no windows, a single bulb hanging from the ceiling and a bunk set against the far wall, next to a small table, covered with various tools.
“Face the wall, and keep your arms up,” Williams ordered sternly, as the door was closed behind them. “Search him, Ford, make sure he’s not armed. I’ve got him covered.”
White did as he was told, and let the man frisk him thoroughly. He rolled his eyes upward; no, he wasn’t carrying any weapon, as he didn’t think he would need one during this small dinner date with Amanda. He had left his Spectrum-issue handgun in their room, when they had checked in earlier. Now he was starting to sincerely regret it.
The man named Ford found his wallet, along with his Spectrum cardholder. He pushed White further against the wall and, searching in his own pocket, took a pair of handcuffs, one end of which he clicked closed around White’s right wrist. He attached the other end to a pipe running along the wall at about four feet from the floor. Then, he came back to his two companions and opened the cardholder, as White slowly turned around, to watch the three men as they were examining his Spectrum identification.
Williams scoffed. “Neat job,” he said looking at White. “You obviously have access to an expert counterfeiter to make you one of those. I swear, it’s almost real.”
White frowned, puzzled by the comment. “Who are you?” he asked.
“The question would be ‘who are you’, Mister,” Williams replied. “We know you’re not who you pretend to be.”
More and more confusing…
“And who do you think I am?” White asked, eyeing the three men as if they were crazy.
“Is your name really Sir Charles Gray?” Ford asked, as he was looking at the content of White’s wallet.
“That’s what it says on my driving licence,” White answered, nodding.
“Which expired three months ago,” Ford said after checking the card in question, and glaring almost accusingly at White.
The latter nodded. “That must be my old one. I must have left the new one with my luggage, in my room.” Living in Cloudbase, he almost forgot those small details of ‘real life’. He remembered having received the new licence, but probably simply forgot to put it in his wallet.
“Nice try.” Ford threw the Spectrum cardholder at White, who caught it on the fly with his free hand. “We know you are not Colonel White.”
The Spectrum commander raised a curious brow. “I am not?” He made a supreme effort not to show his surprise.
“No. We got you covered, you and your chums,” Williams continued. “You’ve been found out. We’ve been on to you since the start.”
“Really now?” White mused. The start of what? He had no idea what these men were on about, and was more and more convinced that they truly were out of their minds. At least, two of them were not making any sense; the third, curiously, was keeping silent, contenting himself with staring intensely at him, so White couldn’t exactly pass any judgment on him.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said with a deep frown.
“Oh come on, don’t pretend with us,” Williams chuckled.
“What do you want with me?”
“Our orders were to grab you, specifically, ‘Colonel White’,” Williams continued. “We had a little trouble finding you, mind – we thought you would be wearing your Spectrum uniform, so we were looking for it. Ford had that nice idea of paging you for a phone call to find you out.”
“Nice idea indeed. But why would I have put on a Spectrum uniform if I am not Colonel White… according to you?”
“Now, don’t get smart with us!” Williams warned irritably. “It’s no use, you know!”
“I can see that, yes,” White pursued. “Now that you have me, what are you going to do with me?”
“We’re keeping you here,” Williams answered. “Until the boss comes.”
“The boss?” White asked with growing perplexity. “And who is the boss?”
Ford smirked. “As we understand it, an old friend of yours. Who’ll be glad to see you.”
“I’m sure that won’t be mutual,” White groused.
“Relax. Your life is not in danger. I think you realise that now.” Williams pocketed his gun. “Darcy will be keeping you company,” he continued, nodding in direction of their silent companion. “We’ll be coming back later. We’ll bring you some food.”
“I was having a rather nice dinner at the restaurant,” White replied. “But you gentlemen managed to spoil my appetite.”
Williams chuckled. “You play your role well, ‘Colonel’,” he said mockingly. “Looking that dignified sure fits you well.”
“Why thank you. I take that as a compliment.”
“Get comfortable,” Ford said with a wicked smile of his own. “You’re in for a long night…”
Both of them sniggered and they opened the door to walk out, under the glaring look of Colonel White. As the door closed noisily, he turned to glance at the silent man who was standing on the other side of the room, leaning against the wall – staring at him with the same intensity as before. White sighed, and chose not to address him, before turning his attention to the handcuffs holding him. He raised his hand as high as he could and checked whatever kind of restraints these men had put on him.
The puzzlement in him grew even deeper when he realised that they hadn’t used any ordinary handcuffs.
“Do you think you can get out of those?”
The deep voice of the man made White turn in his direction; he looked at him intently. “These are magnetic handcuffs,” he said. “Impossible to pick with any tool but a magnetic one.”
The man nodded. “That’s correct.”
“This kind of handcuffs are not available just anywhere,” White continued. “Only a few specialised security stores, under contract to World security organisations, like Spectrum, stock them.”
“Again, that is correct.”
“So you are not any ordinary type of thug who has kidnapped me just for the thrill of it.”
The man chucked. “You really are a good detective, Colonel White.”
White frowned. “I can see that, unlike your accomplices, you do believe I am really Colonel White.”
The man scoffed. “These two imbeciles? They wouldn’t recognise the truth if it was staring them in the face.”
“But you obviously can.”
“Oh, I believe you are Colonel White. Just as I know you also are Charles Gray.”
“Then why not tell them so?”
“Because it suits my purpose that they do not know.” Darcy produced a gun from his pocket and pointed it at White. “We will wait for them to get a little further away,” he said gravely. “And then, I’ll free you from that pipe, with the key they left me. By the time they will be back, we will be gone.”
“But I will still be your prisoner,” White reflected. He pointed to the gun. “If you were a friend, you wouldn’t have any need to threaten me with this.”
“Very perceptive, Colonel. We’re just changing location. I just want for us to be quiet – when we’ll have our little chat together.”
“I take it you have your own plans for me, then,” White mused.
“Oh yes.” Darcy smiled a wicked smile. “I have my own plans indeed… But unlike those two idiots… with me, your life is definitely in danger, Colonel White.”
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