A “Captain Scarlet” story for Christmas
By Chris Bishop
PART 3 – Miracles
Warren Ford and Glenn Williams were celebrating the success of their mission by eating a substantial dinner in the privacy of their room when they heard knocking at their door. They exchanged glances; that could only be ‘Trapper One’ whom, following their instructions, they had contacted with the news that their task had been accomplished. A smile spread across Ford’s face, which Williams answered with a victorious smirk of his own, before pushing his chair back and standing up to go to the door. He opened it just a crack and then, satisfied that it was the man they were waiting for, he pulled it open completely.
Spectrum Intelligence Agent Martin Conners strode purposefully into the room, and was already standing in the middle of the floor while Williams was still closing the door.
“You’ve got him?” Conners asked, addressing Ford who was still seated at the small table, chewing.
The man nodded, and swallowed his bite, the smile not leaving his face. “Of course, we have him. We would not have called you if that wasn’t the case. We wouldn’t make that kind of call as a joke.”
“It wasn’t easy, though,” Williams said, coming back to his place, after locking the door. “Contrary to your information, he wasn’t in uniform when we grabbed him. So that made it quite difficult to spot him.”
“Not in uniform?” Conners repeated with a frown.
“Nope,” Ford concurred. “From what we know, he was quietly eating in the hotel restaurant when we made that call for him at the Information Desk. We saw him coming out. He walked right into our trap, without suspecting a thing.”
Williams chuckled, and started to eat again. “I tell you, this guy is good. He played his part to perfection. Made me wonder if he wasn’t the real thing.”
“Quite right,” Ford said in turn, while Conners was frowning deeply. “He even had false ID, can you believe that?”
“Of course this guy is good,” Conners replied dryly, with a deep frown. “He’s a professional… and he knows the real Colonel White so well, he would know exactly how to act like him. Where is he?”
“With Darcy. We left them in a safe place,” Ford answered, taking another bite.
“What kind of ‘safe place’, can you be more specific?”
“One of the Maintenance rooms,” Ford explained. “It’s not in use, and Darcy arranged things so that no-one will go there anyway. We thought it would be a good place to put him. It’s on the sub-basement level of the hotel, the walls are concrete, so he won’t be able to escape from there, or call for help. And his friends certainly wouldn’t find him there.”
“You have him restrained?”
“With the magnetic cuffs that you provided us.”
“And the key? Where is it?”
“We left it with Darcy,” Williams answered. “We had to,” he added, seeing the dubious expression on Conners’ face. “What if there was an emergency, like a fire, and we didn’t have time to go down there to free him? He would burn alive.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about him,” Conners groused.
Williams and Ford exchanged glances.
“Now that is a thoughtless thing to say,” Ford replied, turning to Conners who was standing by the table with the same scowling expression on his face. “From what you told us, we’re not really talking about a criminal here.”
“And we certainly are not criminals,” Williams added, glowering up at Conners. He noticed the lack of reaction from the Spectrum Intelligence man and sighed in frustration. “You haven’t changed that much, Conners, you’re still the same, dirty son-of-a-bitch we used to know at the U.S.S. We heard rumours that you’re not popular in Spectrum; well, no wonder! That’s the same attitude that made you unpopular in the U.S.S. to begin with!”
“Popularity contests never won any battles, Williams,” Conners replied dryly. “You know that as well as I do.”
“Don’t bother,” Ford said to his companion. “You’re wasting your breath. It’s not worth it.”
Conners’ frown deepened. “Leaving Darcy alone with our prisoner might not be the best of ideas,” he commented, his voice still sharp.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Williams protested. “Are you saying that we’re…”
“I know that man,” Conners interrupted. “He’s way too shrewd to miss any chance of escape.”
“Darcy won’t let himself be surprised,” Ford scoffed dismissively. “He’s a professional.”
“So’s that man. Besides, Darcy hasn’t been on the circuit for a long time, since he left the U.S.S. Unlike the two of you, who kept yourselves busy with your own little… investigation business.”
“It pays the bills,” Ford said sharply, noticing the condescending tone in Conners’ voice.
“How about our man’s accomplices?” Conners continued. “Aren’t you keeping them under surveillance?”
“You’re not serious, are you?” Williams replied, raising a doubtful brow. “Since their friend’s disappearance, you can be sure as Hell that they’re probably looking all around the place for him. They would be bound to notice that a couple of suspicious-looking blokes are keeping watch on them. That is – if they’re as professional as you claim their friend is. So we decided the best thing to do was to keep out of their way, and stay quiet.”
“There’s no risk of them escaping,” Ford moved on. “After all, they would be loyal to their buddy, wouldn’t they? They’re not like any ordinary pond life who would clear out at the first sign of trouble.”
Conners pondered this a moment. “I guess you’re right,” he finally conceded. “Still, I would feel much better if we knew exactly what they’re up to at the moment. We would know, if that bug I planted on Riordan yesterday was still transmitting. I guess he changed clothes in the meantime.”
“You want to see the prisoner now?” Williams enquired. He gestured towards a small, cardboard box, with the name and logo of the hotel on it, set at one corner of the table. “We’re finishing our meal, then we’ll take him something to eat.”
“That’s his? Conners asked, eyeing the box.
“Yeah. Sandwiches, cold chicken and salad,” Williams answered. “The same as ours.”
Quietly, Conners pulled up a chair and sat down in front of the box, which he opened for himself.
“He can eat later,” he said, taking one of the sandwiches. “I am famished, and there’s no sense in letting this go to waste.”
Again, Williams and Ford exchanged glances; truly, Martin Conners had not changed at all, from the era they had known him, in the U.S.S. However, they didn’t say anything and simply watched, as Conners started biting into the dinner intended for their captive.
* * *
“Ah, Captain Ochre… Thank you for coming over so quickly.”
Captain Ochre was in his quarters, making ready for his departure to Cloudbase, when he had received the call from Agent Wade, of Spectrum Intelligence, that he was needed right away. He was still a little frustrated, his missing uniform not having been found yet, and was contemplating making an official complaint to the laundry department upon his arrival on Cloudbase. He couldn’t honestly believe that a whole uniform would disappear like this, boots and cap with it, without anyone knowing exactly where it could be.
He found Wade in his office, looking with some concern at a file which lay open on his desk; Ochre knocked discreetly on the door to announce his presence. Wade invited him in.
“You needed me, sir?” Unlike Martin Conners, Thomas Wade, Spectrum Intelligence’s most senior agent, and a friend of Colonel White, had the respect of the operational branch of the organisation – because Wade himself had always treated them with respect to begin with. Wade knew perfectly well that their work was far too important for them to be concerned with trivial details, such details as Conners often seemed to take pleasure in digging up, with the only apparent purpose being to throw a wrench in their efforts and watch them squirm. If Wade needed to talk to one of the Spectrum colour officers, it was usually for a good reason.
“Yes, Captain,” Wade said, waving Ochre to a chair. “I know the shuttle for Cloudbase is to leave soon and that you are scheduled to take it, and, I know I already detained you a full day, as you were supposed to leave yesterday, but I would like to ask a last service of you, before you go. It might not be anything important but… I would just like to make sure.”
“Anything you want, Mr. Wade,” Ochre answered, taking his seat.
“As you know – and you and I are the only ones who do know – Colonel White is staying at the Crowned Victory Palace over the next few days…”
“Yes, sir,” Ochre confirmed. Lucky stiff, the old man, he added to himself. The Crowned Victory was one of the most prestigious hotels he knew of. “I made the security check of the hotel myself, and everything seemed in order.” He frowned. “Is there something wrong?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Wade admitted. “You know that my esteemed colleague, Martin Conners, was the one to suggest that Colonel White stayed at the hotel while in London for his furlough?”
“Did he? I wasn’t aware that Mr. Conners had such refined taste, sir.”
Wade couldn’t help but smile – if thinly – at the deadpan aplomb displayed by Ochre. “His taste is not really what concerns me,” he admitted. “It was brought to my attention that Mr. Conners is presently supervising an operation at the Crowned Victory Palace.”
“What kind of operation?” Ochre asked.
“Surveillance, I was told. Of what nature, I can’t tell for now… That information I received is not official, you see… According to what I know, Mr. Conners is not involved directly with the operation, but has sent someone else to do the job on his behalf.”
“Who did he send, sir?”
Wade leaned back on his seat, looking intently at Ochre, and nodded. “This is the odd thing: Mr. Conners isn’t using Spectrum agents – either from Intelligence or requesting help from another part of the service – for this task. He asked for outside help.”
“That’s not standard procedure,” Ochre asked with a frown.
“Maybe not standard, but it’s not unheard of. We have arrangements with other security organisations, to ‘borrow’ some of their members as needed. It will happen on some occasions when the job requires investigation of a member of our organisation, for example… so that the said member will not run the risk of recognising the person who is investigating him.”
“I do hope it’s not Colonel White Mr. Conners has put under surveillance.”
“For Conners’ sake, I hope not,” Wade agreed. “I gave him strict orders, and he shouldn’t be disturbing the colonel. But with him, we can never tell. He might consider that bothering him by using someone else isn’t equal to bothering him himself.”
“Where do these agents Mr. Conners requested come from, sir?”
“That’s the oddity, Captain: to do this job, Mr. Conners recruited retired members from his old office – the Universal Secret Service.”
“Apparently, they opened their own private security business when they retired,” Wade explained. “Well, two of them did. The third man just happened to be working at the hotel security service. Mr. Conners contacted him too.”
“James Darcy,” Ochre said pensively. “Yes, when I made my security check of the hotel, I saw from his files that he had worked for the U.S.S. and that he resigned, some years ago. I checked the copy of his records we have here at Spectrum, and I actually met with him – he was replacing his chief of security for the Holiday Season. . He seemed on the level.” He frowned. “Except he didn’t tell me Conners had contacted him.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know that Conners is with Spectrum now?” Wade suggested. “Well, in any case, just to be on the safe side, I asked the U.S.S. to provide me with their records on these three men. Unfortunately, with the Christmas season, their administrative office is working a bit slow, but I should receive the information very soon. What I would like for you to do in the meantime, Captain… Can you go over to the hotel, and check this Mr. Darcy again, and those two other guys, and see what exactly it is they are up to?”
“Of course, sir,” Ochre said with a nod. “But why not ask Mr. Conners as well? I don’t suppose he would keep it a secret from you – not if you ask him directly.”
Wade smiled thinly. “I would, if Mr. Conners was on hand,” he answered. “Officially, our friend is on leave. Which makes me wondering what he could be up to.” He handed Ochre an electronic pad from his desk. “As soon as the information on all of these men is available, I’ll have it uploaded into this. You have the pictures, though, and a summary of their records. You should be able to spot them easily. Try to find out if their presence at the hotel has anything to do with Colonel White, and if it is the case… well, we’ll see what needs to be done in that case.”
Ochre nodded thoughtfully, eyeing the pad, before slowly standing up. “Of course, sir. I am as curious as you to know if Mr. Conners suggested that hotel for the Colonel’s stay, with an ulterior motive in mind.”
“Am I that obvious, Captain?” Wade asked with a raised brow.
“No.” Ochre grinned. “But I know Mr. Conners’ shrewdness as well as you do, Mr. Wade.”
“Of course,” Wade answered with a knowing smile of his own. “I will ask the shuttle to delay its departure for the time being. With a little luck, there will be nothing to find, and you’ll be back on Cloudbase before the end of the day.”
“S.I.G., sir. I’ll give you my report as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, Captain Ochre.”
But I have a feeling I won’t be back on Cloudbase tonight, the Spectrum officer told himself as he walked through the door and left the office.
* * *
“I can’t reach Darcy on his mobile,” Ford announced as he, Williams and Conners left the staircase and stepped onto the landing of the sub-basement level. He closed his phone, and shrugged dismissively. “He probably shut it down. I only get his voice message box.”
“I don’t like it,” Conners muttered for the nth time since the three men had left the room – which made Williams, walking behind him, roll his eyes and exchange an annoyed look with his partner. “I told you that man is sneaky. Something is wrong, I can feel it… We should have come earlier.”
“Chill out, boss man, ” Williams grunted. “You’ll have time enough to gloat when you finally see him face to face. There’s really nothing to worry about…”
Conners looked over his shoulder to shoot him a murderous look, which shut Williams up instantly. He quickened his pace; he could see, up ahead, the Maintenance door, the last on the corridor, where he knew Scarlet had been taken an hour or so ago. He made an abrupt stop in front of it and knocked with impatience; no-one responded. He frowned and tried the handle. It didn’t turn.
“Nothing to worry about, eh?” he snapped sharply, turning to Williams. “Open that damned door!”
He stepped out of the way and Williams walked forward to unlock the door with his key. As soon as he heard the lock clicking, Conners brushed Williams out of the way, took the handle in his hand and pushed the door open.
The room into which he stepped was completely empty and silent, with no indication that anyone had even been there recently.
Conners flipped. “I knew it, I knew it! I told you that bastard was sneaky!” he shouted, turning to both Williams and Ford who were looking around in puzzlement. “He made good his escape!”
“I don’t understand,” started Ford. “It doesn’t look like there is any sign of struggle… Where’s Darcy?”
“The Hell with Darcy!” Conners raged. “I don’t care about that incompetent fool! I want Scarlet! And I want him right now!”
“All right, all right!” Ford muttered darkly. “Keep your shirt on…” He briskly turned around. “He might not be very far.”
He broke into a jog towards the stairs, quickly followed by both Williams and Conners, right behind.
* * *
“I’m sorry, Captain Ochre, but it would appear that Mr. Darcy is unavailable. He’s not in his office.”
Captain Ochre was leaning against the Reception Desk, where he had presented himself a few minutes ago, Spectrum I.D. card in hand, to the receptionist. She had recognised him; the day before, she had been the one introducing him into Darcy’s office where Ochre had requested the man’s assistance for his security check of the hotel.
“Do you expect him back soon, er…?” Ochre read the girl’s name on her badge. “Tracy…?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,” she answered, while checking her computer. “It doesn’t look like he left the hotel. His car is still in the car park.” She raised her eyes from her screen. “He’s probably around and will return to his office sometime soon.”
Ochre nodded his acknowledgement. He took his electronic pad and typed a command; the pictures of the two men who had been hired by Conners appeared on the small screen; a second thought coming to his mind, Ochre typed a new command, and added Conners’ picture to the others. He showed them to the girl. “Have you seen these men around?”
She frowned, and shook her head, hesitantly. “I’m not quite sure, sir. I only started my shift two hours ago.”
“Okay.” Ochre pocketed the pad. “I’ll stay in the hotel for a while. If Mr. Darcy should return to his office, please page me.”
“Very well, sir. Should we expect any trouble?”
Ochre smiled reassuringly. He could understand her concern; it wasn’t often a Spectrum officer would visit such an upmarket hotel, and to see one twice in as many days, Tracy was entitled to wonder if there wasn’t danger ahead. Hotels were sometimes the targets of terrorist organisations. “I don’t think so, no. This is just a routine investigation; there’s really nothing to be worried about, I can assure you.”
She offered a relieved smile in turn and Ochre left the desk. He gave a deep sigh. If he couldn’t find Darcy or those other two men, he thought, he was running the risk of not returning to Cloudbase today – as he had suspected all along.
Come on, Fraser, you only just arrived, he chided himself. These guys are probably hanging around the place. You just have to look for them more thoroughly, and you’ll find them.
He was now standing in the lobby, and looked at his surroundings. These men he was looking for were hired to do a surveillance job; although he didn’t know what or who they were supposed to watch, he imagined their observation post couldn’t be very far from the lobby. If that was the case, at the moment they couldn’t miss him; he was rather noticeable, in his Spectrum uniform, and many people were currently looking at him with curiosity. He didn’t mind being stared at – it rather came with the territory – but he wondered, in retrospect, if he should not have changed into civvies before coming over.
As he was looking in the direction of the public lounge, in search of his quarry, Captain Ochre nearly did a double take. He hadn’t exactly found them… No, instead there was something there, at the other end of the room… He thought he had seen someone wearing a very distinctive Spectrum cap.
More specifically, that Spectrum cap looked oddly the same colour as his own.
The cap had disappeared from view, and the person wearing it as well, and Ochre felt for sure he had dreamed it. Really, he couldn’t have seen…
There. Again, his eyes caught sight of it, beyond the crowd walking around in the lounge. It disappeared as quickly, but that was enough to make Ochre wonder. If it wasn’t a Spectrum cap, then it looked strangely like one!
A child’s toy, perhaps? he pondered. As far as he knew, there might be such a thing on the market, although he never heard of it.
No. The person wearing that cap was definitely too tall to be a child.
Ochre decided to investigate. Purposefully, he entered the lounge and walked in the general direction he had seen the cap.
* * *
Captain Scarlet was growing frustrated. It has been nearly an hour since he had started to stroll the public areas of the Crowned Victory Palace. He couldn’t really find anyone around fitting the description of a Colonel White – in his humble opinion, that was.
A few times, as he noticed people staring intently at him, he thought he might be on a trail; only just to realise that it was only curiosity causing them to ogle him so intently. He even caught a few exchanged murmurs; people were obviously wondering if there wasn’t a Spectrum operation in the hotel. He rolled his eyes inwardly; just what I need – attracting unwanted attention to myself.
When he had briefly met with him earlier, Magenta had showed himself rather surprised at the mention of a fake I.D. that Scarlet suspected the false Colonel White to have presented at the Information desk. Furthermore, a call to the London police did confirm that ‘Judge’ Blake was still in custody; the policemen who had made his initial arrest, while checking his history, ironically had discovered a complaint of fraud against him. As he had the well-deserved reputation of being as slippery as an eel, the authorities had taken no chances and were keeping him locked up.
So, with Magenta swearing not to have provided Blake with such a document – and Scarlet believed him implicitly – and the fact that ‘Judge’ Blake was still behind bars, everyone was deeply confused by the whole situation. So far, there wasn’t really a logical explanation for any of it.
It was really a miracle that Grandma Annie had not noticed anything odd going on; her grandson was worrying enough for two, anyway, when Magenta took him apart from the others and explained to him, briefly, what was going on. Immediately, a sense of impending doom fell on Matt Riordan. He felt sure now that this scheme devised by his friend would turn very sour. Strictly speaking, nothing seemed to have worked properly since the very beginning – and Scarlet couldn’t help but agree with him.
However, when Riordan spoke of revealing the whole truth – and nothing but the truth – to his grandmother, it took nearly everyone’s persuasion to stop him from doing so. There was still time for them to save the situation. Granted, they still didn’t know what all this could mean exactly, but they fully intended to find that out. For Grandma Annie’s and Matt’s sake.
And if they ran out of options… well, then, they’d concede defeat and confess everything. And would try to do it as gently as possible, so that the shock wouldn’t be too great for Grandma Annie.
At the moment, Matt was keeping his grandmother company – with Magenta and Rhapsody to help him keep up the charade… and to ensure he wouldn’t spill the beans before it was absolutely necessary. They would not leave Riordan alone to face not only the deception of his grandmother – but also what they suspected would be the harsh judgment of Brendan and Stella.
But with this continuously unsuccessful search, Scarlet was growing increasingly uncomfortable. Something was definitely wrong, and somehow, he had a feeling that it was even worse than they had first imagined. And he certainly didn’t like it.
His mobile phone rang and he took it from his pants pocket, flicking it open as he brought it to his ear. “Yes?” he said, carefully.
“Elaine just called,” the voice of Rhapsody Angel told him. “She has found no trace of anything so far.”
Scarlet sighed. “With Blake in prison, I didn’t think she would,” he answered. “I didn’t find anything either. How’s it going up there?”
“Pretty well, considering. Matt is nervous, but he manages to keep himself together. Cousin Brendan keeps asking when ‘the colonel’ will be back.”
“And you answered…?”
“The colonel is detained at the moment with world security matters, and will return as soon as he is able. I used my most formal tone. I know he wanted to ask more, or to comment on the subject, but he kept quiet when he noticed the way Pat was glaring at him. I think we all intimidate him.”
“Good thing,” Scarlet smirked. “I find the guy unpleasant. His wife too.”
“That’s the feeling we all have,” Rhapsody confirmed. “Nothing is good enough for them. They even complained about the buffet Pat had asked the hotel to prepare for the meeting. Grandma Annie is a sweetheart, though. She’s literally in awe of Matt.”
“She’s a wonderful lady,” Scarlet admitted with a fond smile. “I like her. I can understand why Matt would do anything for her.”
“Paul… You sound concerned. Is there something going on?”
“The situation is worrying enough as it is, love. But…” Scarlet grunted. “I have a hunch.”
“Not another one of those…”
“Seriously,” he continued. “I really don’t like any of this. If you want my gut feeling… all this has the feel of a trap.”
“Yes. It’s way too strange. It’s like someone knew about our presence here and is now playing hide and seek, after broadcasting that announcement earlier.”
“And the Colonel White who seemingly took the call?” the dubious Rhapsody asked. “What about him? Who could he be?”
“A decoy?” Scarlet suggested. “A stand-in to attract our attention and send us after a red herring?”
“But who would do that, and to what purpose?”
“I’m still thinking about all that,” Scarlet answered. “And so far, I don’t have all the answers to our questions, Angel. You know, it’s either that, or…”
“Or…?” Rhapsody asked as Scarlet hesitated.
The English captain shivered, as he quickly dismissed the thought that had suddenly crossed his mind. No. The colonel couldn’t be here… “No, forget about that, Dianne. I’m quite sure it’s not possible.” He paused a second. “I’ll continue searching, and I’ll call you again in a few minutes, whether I find anything or not.”
Scarlet closed the mobile and was putting it in his pocket when he felt a presence behind him; someone was tapping on his shoulder, insistently; a female voice suddenly addressed him:
“Pardon me, Colonel, but I believe I’ve been looking all over for you.”
For a fraction of a second, Scarlet froze in place. That voice… It was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. He turned on his heel – to find himself face to face with a woman he absolutely didn’t expect to encounter in this place… and who was staring back at him with the same expression of amazement he knew was plainly displayed on his face.
“Mrs. Wainwright?” he said disbelievingly.
“Captain Scarlet?” She frowned, unsure. “Paul… Is that really you?”
“Mrs. Wainwright… Amanda… What are you doing here?”
If his face, artificially aged, had thrown her back a second or two and might have made her think she was facing another, older man, his voice definitely gave him away. She didn’t seem to understand very well what could have happened to make him look that much older, only a few months after having seen him last. Once she was sure that it was really him, she examined him from head to toes before looking at him straight in the face again, with a totally severe expression:
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. “In that uniform? And what happened to your face?!”
Scarlet hesitated. “It’s rather a long story,” he began, feeling himself reddening under all the prosthetics and make-up.
“I imagine so!” Amanda said. “I swear, dressed like that, I thought you were…” She stopped herself. But she had just said enough for Scarlet to suddenly understand that his previous feeling about things being much worse than he imagined was right on the money. If Amanda Wainwright was here, then maybe it meant…
He took her by the shoulders and looked at her intently. “You thought what, Amanda?” he asked with urgency.
“Well, that you were Colonel White, of course,” she answered truthfully. She barely noticed how he tensed at her words. “We were dining together, in the hotel’s restaurant, when we heard a call from and Reception and…”
“Colonel White is here?” Scarlet murmured. He had barely heard the last line of her explanation.
He looked around, and noticed that there might be too many witnesses watching their every move and hearing their every word. He took Amanda some distance from everyone, to the entrance of the corridor leading to the restrooms. He looked at her squarely. “Are you here with Colonel White?” he asked again.
Amanda stared back at him in confusion. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t seem able to quite grasp the concept. “Why yes… He invited me for a few days’ stay in London. I don’t know where he could be at the moment, though… He went to take that call and never returned, as he was supposed to. It was more than an hour ago. I was beginning to worry, so I went to look for him.” Amanda frowned. “That’s when I saw you. From the distance, and with your back turned to me, I thought I had found him. I couldn’t understand why he would be in uniform, though, as he’s supposed to be on vacation…”
“Oh Lord,” Scarlet muttered. “It can’t be… Well, that explains everything…”
“Will you tell me what’s going on?” Amanda demanded insistently. “And where the heck your commander is and why you’re dressed like that and looking like that?”
“Well, as to where he is, I can’t tell you,” Scarlet said, still hesitant. “For the rest… as I said, it’s rather a long story.”
She glared at him, in an almost accusing way, and crossed her arms on her breasts. “I expect this to be good!” she said.
And by her tone, whatever he was to tell her, Scarlet just knew that she would be quite difficult to convince.
* * *
Neither Ford, nor Williams, were able to figure out how exactly Martin Conners was able to pass them by, as the three of them rushed up the staircase. When they reached the door leading to the ground floor, Conners brutally pushed it open, and they all stepped into the long corridor, welcomed by the sound of soft Christmassy music coming from the speakers, and by the constant humming of people from the public areas.
Williams and Ford took a few seconds to catch their breath, just as Conners was looking all around, edgily. It didn’t take him very long to see the tall figure standing at the other end of the corridor, just at the entrance of the lounge, draped in a large overcoat, and wearing white boots and black and white cap. He had his back turned to them and was seemingly discussing with a woman who was listening to him with attention.
Conners tensed and grabbed Williams by the front of his vest. “There!” he proclaimed, pointing victoriously at the man. “He’s still there!”
Williams looked in the direction of his finger and frowned. “He took the time to put on his uniform?” he muttered incredulously. “Talk about nerve… I expected him to be long gone now…”
“Not me,” Ford remarked. “I was pretty sure he would still be around.”
“What are you waiting for?” Conners demanded with growing insistence. “Don’t wait for him to escape us! Seize him!”
“In front of civilians?” Ford replied with surprise.
“I don’t care! GO GET HIM!”
Ford and Williams shrugged and purposefully walked with long strides in the direction of their target.
* * *
Elaine was starting to regret having insisted on supporting Captain Scarlet in his investigation. She felt pretty hot, walking around the hotel’s public areas, and still wearing that oversized coat which hid most of the Spectrum uniform beneath. Of course, Scarlet had told her not to remove it, so as to keep the lowest profile possible, but she simply couldn’t take it anymore. As much out of frustration that her search had proved in vain until now, as because she was feeling so damp, she stopped in a corner of the public lounge, and irritably removed her coat, to throw it down onto an empty chair beside her. She was sighing with relief, passing her finger between her neck and the collar of the uniform, when she noticed Ox, walking her way. As she had herself, the giant had offered his help, but obviously, had been as unsuccessful as she was. She watched him approach, and waited for him.
Suddenly, she felt a hand grab her arm and, startled, she turned around, ready to snap at whoever it was who was manhandling her. She stopped dead, with her jaw hanging, when she discovered a man, with the exact replica of the uniform she was herself wearing, looking at her with a very harsh expression on his face.
“That’s my uniform you are wearing, young lady,” he told her with a disapproving – and irate – voice. “Would you care to tell me where you got it?”
Elaine blanched, suddenly realising who this man was; of all the things that could have happened, this was the one she had expected the least.
“You’ll be Captain Ochre, I’m thinking?” She offered her most bashful and charming smile to him, but it didn’t seem to dampen any of his anger, as his grip tightened on her arm. “Really, I have a very good explanation for this…”
“Do you?” he replied icily.
“You know, my cousin Patrick says you’re really a cool guy…”
“Your cousin, Patrick?” Ochre repeated, not believing his ears. “You mean, Patrick Donaghue? He’s your cousin?”
He would probably have said more, but his eye suddenly caught sight of a mountain of a man coming right in his direction, with hasty footsteps. He instantly recognised the giant’s face, currently distorted with anger, and froze on the spot just as the man stopped in front of him. “Oh Lord… you’re still alive?”
“Let go of my friend,” Ox demanded in a growling and menacing voice.
“Your friend?” Almost instinctively, Ochre’s hand came to rest on the handle of his gun, but he didn’t draw it from its holster. Ox took another, very fast, step forward, and his huge fingers closed on Ochre’s forearm, forcefully holding it down.
“Don’t play smart, Spectrum,” the giant hissed between clenched teeth, looking Ochre right in the eyes.
By the strength he could feel applied to his arm, Ochre had no doubt that Ox could break the bone, as easily as breaking a twig. He hesitated; so far, the big man was simply restraining him, rather similar to the way Ochre himself was holding the young woman. In any case, he wasn’t even that sure he really wanted to get his gun out. Looking around, he could see there were far too many civilians close by, and he would not want for any of them to get hurt if the situation became more explosive.
Furthermore, a few of these civilians were starting to notice that something was presently happening, right in their midst. And that was something he really didn’t need.
Now how will I get out of this without creating too much of a ruckus?
Before Ochre could take a decision, there was the sound of a big commotion, coming from behind, which attracted people’s attention. He turned around to see what it was all about.
Ox muttered a low curse and suddenly forgetting about Ochre, he let go of him to rush towards the tumult.
As for the young woman, she took advantage of Ochre’s momentary confusion to shrug her arm free, and she dashed in the same direction as Ox. The Spectrum captain finally got a glimpse of two men seizing another one, dressed in a long overcoat, just at the entrance of the corridor which ran alongside the lounge. He thought he saw a pair of white boots.
He didn’t waste any time, and hurried after Ox and the young woman wearing his uniform.
* * *
Scarlet actually heard the hurried footsteps behind barely a second before the two men were on him. A second was enough for him to push Amanda aside, to keep her out of harm’s way, and to brace himself for the impact he expected. Consequently, when the hands of the first man seized him and tried to pull him down, he was firmly set on his feet, and absorbed the impact, bending his body forward so he would not lose his footing. He felt the second man trying to grab him as well, but he was faster and threw his elbow back, right into the man’s face, and sent him down on his rear. Then he twisted his body and, unbalancing the first man who was still hanging to him, he flung him over his hip and brutally threw him onto the floor, freeing himself in the process.
A third man was coming and Scarlet turned around to face him, his fists clenched. He stopped in his movement, upon seeing the man standing there, at a safe distance from him, and glaring angrily at him.
It can’t be… Conners!?
I knew it, it was a trap!
“Touch me and they’ll throw away the key.” There was such arrogance in Conners’ voice that it froze Scarlet in place for a moment. It was the gasp from Amanda that woke him and made him look behind. One of the men he had felled was nearly back on his feet and had drawn a gun on him. Scarlet never knew if he had any intention of shooting; he did, however, notice the expression of both surprise and interrogation in the man as the latter looked him straight in the face for the first time. That was a second or two before Ox suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and tackled the man with the force of a bull, violently sending him against the wall of the corridor, and making him lose his gun in the process. Half knocked out, the man flopped to the floor next to his accomplice.
Scarlet grinned, turning to Ox. “Good work, Mr. Oxbury,” he said, genuinely pleased.
“Ah, that was nothing,” Ox replied gruffly; he glanced down in contempt at the two men on the floor, and then glared dangerously in Conners’ direction. “What about that one?”
For a brief moment, Scarlet was highly tempted to let the giant deal with the man in his own fashion.
The thought didn’t last for long, as suddenly, one of the most unusual couples Scarlet had ever seen in his life appeared in the entrance of the corridor: both Captain Ochre and ‘Lady Ochre’, as Rhapsody had dubbed her, stared down at the two men slumped at the foot of the wall, before Ochre raised his eyes to Scarlet – and opened them wide with astonishment upon recognising him.
“Scarlet! What happened to you? And what are you doing in that uniform!?”
Scarlet opened his mouth to give the same answer he had to Amanda, that it was a long story, when he was suddenly interrupted by Conners, who shoved him aside to stand in front of Ochre. “Captain Ochre, I should have known you would be mixed up in this scheme!”
“What?” Ochre murmured, frowning.
“You can stop playing the innocent!” Conners moved on aggressively. “I know all about it! I’ll have all of you sacked from Spectrum!”
Ochre addressed Scarlet with a clueless expression. “What is he on about?”
Scarlet shrugged and again couldn’t answer, as Conners continued with his invective, this time turning to him. “That’s quite an impressive disguise… Quite impressive indeed! But unfortunately, it will be your undoing, Captain! When Colonel White sees you like this and in his uniform…”
“Who are you?” Amanda suddenly interrupted, stepping forward. “And what do you know of Colonel White?”
“And who are you?” Conners replied, facing her and narrowing his eyes. “Wait, I know… you’re Symphony Angel in disguise too, that’s obvious. They aged you as well to play what role exactly? The wife of Colonel White?”
“Don’t be rude, Conners!” Scarlet warned. “That’s no way to speak to a lady!”
“A lady? Don’t make me laugh!”
Eyes blazing, Scarlet walked to him, threateningly, but Amanda put a hand on his chest, stopping him. “Is that young man crazy?”
Scarlet grunted. “No... just an annoyance. Unfortunately. If he was crazy, that would excuse his behaviour.”
Conners bristled. “I suggest you be very careful with what you say!” he hissed between his teeth.
“I suggest you be careful what you say,” Ochre suddenly said. He looked behind him, and noticed that people from the lounge were approaching, curious to know what was happening. “We are making a scene, and there’s too many witnesses around.”
Conners muttered something and walked briskly to the doorway, pulling the double sliding doors from the lounge close together, before turning once again to face Ochre.
“That will be nothing to the scene Colonel White will make,” he said, lowering his voice, but keeping it menacing. “You’re in deep more than you think!”
“You are the one in deep trouble, Conners,” Ochre shot back, not in the least impressed by the shorter man’s righteous display.
“Captain Ochre, you and your friends’ scheme…”
“I don’t know what they’re doing here exactly, but I am here on request by your superior, because we heard that you had brought in outside help to pursue an operation in this very hotel, where Colonel White is presently residing. Need I remind you that you were strictly ordered not to disturb Colonel White during his holiday? Well, here I find you doing exactly what you were forbidden to do!”
But Conners had barely heard most of Ochre’s diatribe. One single sentence had caught his attention, making him tense instantly. “Colonel White is here?”
“He is?” Elaine asked, frowning. “You mean, the real one?”
“Of course he is,” Scarlet said. He noticed the interrogative way Elaine and Ox were looking at him and he shook his head. “And yes, the real one. Amanda gave me that information just before these two goons jumped me, a few minutes ago.”
“I am Amanda, Mr. Conners,” Amanda Wainwright presented herself, her voice sharp as she addressed the man – whom she already had categorised as a loathsome character, just by the way he had treated her and everybody else. “I am here as Colonel White’s guest and I don’t have the slightest idea what is going on around here.”
Ochre’s epaulettes flashed at this moment, and he muttered an apology before turning slightly away to answer the call privately. Scarlet noticed that a young woman wearing the distinctive golden uniform of the hotel staff, was now coming from the lobby and was walking towards them. He sighed.
“That figures,” he muttered. “We’ve attracted way too much attention.”
“What’s the matter, Scarlet?” Conners mocked him. “You can’t take the heat?”
“Do you care nothing for Spectrum’s reputation, Conners?”
“Gentlemen… ladies…” The young woman came to stand in front of Scarlet – who, to all appearances, was the person with the most authority in the little group. She frowned as she looked down at the two men sprawled at his feet. “Is there a problem here, sir? Do you need assistance?” she asked.
“Perhaps if you could provide us with a private room where we would be able to… discuss matters between us,” Scarlet requested.
She hesitated; but he had addressed her with so much assurance and authority that she was finding it very hard to refuse him. She addressed an interrogating and obviously concerned look in the direction of Captain Ochre, who was still conversing with his interlocutor, and he waved distractedly at her. “It’s all right, Tracy,” he said, with a faint smile, covering his cap mic with his hand. “We’ll be able to manage…” And he returned to his conversation, without adding any more. Scarlet took notice as his colleague fished a computerised pad from his pocket and pushed a numeric code, obviously following his interlocutor’s instructions.
“Wait,” Elaine said suddenly, attracting back Scarlet’s attention, as Ochre continued with his radio contact and Tracy stood there, unsure of what to do exactly. “You said that the real Colonel White is here… Then it must be him who answered that call earlier, instead of you, Captain!”
“You mean… the real Colonel White answered that call?” Conners suddenly joined in. He had visibly paled; Scarlet noticed it instantly.
“Will you be needing that private room?” Tracy asked.
Scarlet waved at her to wait. He kept his eyes fixed on Conners. “Amanda also confirmed that earlier,” he said in answer to the man’s question.
“And I was also telling Captain Scarlet that Colonel White didn’t come back after leaving to answer that call,” Amanda continued, growing impatient. “Now I don’t know who most of you are, but if you have any ideas where he could have disappeared to…”
“Disappeared?” Ochre repeated, raising his eyes from his pad.
“I feel you might prefer if I leave,” Tracy then put in.
“Please, stay, Tracy,” Scarlet said, without looking at her. “We might soon be in need of a reliable… witness.” He crossed his arms against his chest, as he still stared at Conners, who was now keeping deadly silent and pensive. “You wouldn’t have any idea where Colonel White could have gone to, Mr. Conners?”
“What makes you think I know anything?” Conners replied.
“I don’t know… the way you’re reacting right now, maybe?” Scarlet answered.
All eyes turned to him, and an obviously reluctant Conners didn’t have time to answer, as, just at this moment, a loud moan was heard from one of the men still lying at the foot of the wall. Ford was regaining his senses, after Ox’s brutal tackle, and was holding his aching head. He sat up, propping himself against the wall and looked up at where the group was all reunited. He seemed to have some trouble focussing, but after a brief instant, his eyes fell on Scarlet. He frowned, in deep confusion, and pointed to him.
“Hey, Conners… that’s not the same man we captured earlier,” he slurred.
Elaine frowned. “Wait a second – what does he mean, ‘captured’?”
“Exactly what kind of operation were your…’associates’… pursuing in this hotel?” Scarlet quietly asked Conners.
“I’ve done nothing to reproach myself for!” Conners protested.
“Really now?” That was Ochre, who seemed to have finished his call in the meantime. His mic returning to his cap, he looked squarely at Conners. “That was Spectrum Intelligence.” He showed them his pad. “They just uploaded the new information they were able to dig up at the U.S.S. concerning James Darcy.” He looked in Tracy’s direction. “We might need that private room very soon, Tracy. Can you arrange that for us, please?”
The young woman nodded and didn’t waste any time in turning on her heels to leave in order make all the necessary arrangements. She didn’t seem that unhappy to leave them all to their seemingly very complicated arguments.
“Who’s James Darcy?” Scarlet asked Ochre with a frown
“I believe Mr. Conners knows who he is,” Ochre answered. “I don’t know what exactly you were planning, Conners, but I think you will have a lot of explaining to do.”
“How about them?” Conners answered back, snapping his head in the direction of Scarlet, Elaine and Ox.
Ochre sucked on his lower lip. “Oh, they will explain themselves, I’m sure,” he said. “In time. But for the moment, considering the situation, which might very well be more serious than you seem to think, I’m more interested in your explanation.”
All eyes turned to Conners again, probing, curious – and obviously accusing.
Maybe for the first time in his life, Martin Conners felt a violent flush of embarrassment, upon understanding that his obsession with truth and righteousness might have caused him to make a mistake that would cost him more than he was willing to pay.
* * *
Half-propped up on the bed, because his right hand was handcuffed to the metal headboard, Colonel White looked around his new accommodation. Certainly, it was a considerable improvement over the darkened maintenance room to which Ford and Williams had taken him, but he couldn’t really say that was much of a consolation. A prison was still a prison, no matter how good it looked, and there was no doubt in his mind that his captor had for him the worst of intentions.
Keeping him at gunpoint, Darcy had taken him up the stairs to the seventh floor, where, after checking the corridors to make sure they wouldn’t be seen, they had walked to an empty suite to which Darcy had a key. Obviously, he had made thorough preparations for his plan of double-crossing his accomplices. There was no chance for White to even think of trying to escape; Darcy was keeping so close an eye on him that it would have been suicide. He had been forced to enter and then had been pushed through to the bedroom, where his captor had proceeded to handcuff him to the bed – while always making sure he kept his gun on him.
He was certainly acting like a professional, Colonel White considered, for he didn’t make a single mistake during the whole operation that the Spectrum commander could have taken advantage of. As a consequence, White didn’t attempt anything foolish; so far, the man remained calm, and White preferred for him to stay that way. Darcy seemed quite willing to make use of his gun if there was any need for it, so White didn’t want to give him that occasion.
For now, Colonel White imagined that he could afford the luxury of waiting; if Darcy had wanted him dead right away, he would have killed him in the basement, instead of bringing him here.
After Darcy had finished restraining him, he had pulled up a chair from the sitting room to put it at a safe distance from his prisoner. Then he settled himself down, and put his gun on the low table beside him.
“Comfortable?” he asked White matter-of-factly.
“My arm and shoulder will be numb in a little while, but otherwise…” White nodded in mock appreciation. “The bed is fine.”
Darcy smiled derisively. “It should be, considering the price people pay to sleep on it just for one night.”
“You seem to know this hotel very well,” White commented.
“I should. I’ve been working here for the past five years, as part of the security team.”
“Really?” White raised a brow. “You’re part of the hotel security, and yet you’re helping those two goons kidnap me. How strange... Obviously, you have your own agenda.”
“I do. But I also want to talk with you a while – before… completing my task.”
“And you made it very clear exactly what your task was,” White said coldly, with a frown. “Exactly who are you?”
“You know my name.”
“Those men called you Darcy. Is that your real name?”
Darcy kept silent a moment, looking intently at White – glaring at him, rather. The Spectrum commander had the distinct feeling he didn’t like him, despite his still-courteous tone. He leaned forward, narrowing his eyes. “What do you think?”
White shrugged. “How can you expect me to tell?”
“You really don’t know who I am, do you?” Darcy said, slowly nodding his head. “Well, that would add to your culpability, then.”
“Should I know you?” White asked. At this point, he was curious to know who his captor could be. “And why should I feel guilty?”
“Because of you, I lost my job, years ago,” Darcy answered in a low tone.
“Really? I’m sorry to hear that. I can sympathise.”
Darcy scoffed. “Right, you’re sorry, and don’t tell me you sympathise with me. I bet you never really lost a job that you didn’t leave yourself. You always were so proficient in everything you did, such a highly-thought-of military man, and such a celebrated hero – I’m quite sure that put you out of harm’s way from ever losing anything.”
White narrowed his eyes in turn. “You’re quite wrong if you think I never lost anything,” he replied coldly.
“Your wife.” There was a pause, during which White simply looked fiercely at Darcy. “Because of your job, I know.”
“The fact that you actually know that tells me that you know even more,” White said icily. “That is not common knowledge.”
“I’m not just anyone, Gray.” Darcy made another, dramatic pause. “I know you well – but we never actually met. We were both in the Universal Secret Service, W.I.N. section, at the same time, though I’d been working there for years before you were even recruited.”
“The Universal Secret Service?” White repeated. “That makes sense. It’s the only place you could have known about my wife.”
“She was an agent there too,” Darcy said, nodding.
“What’s your grievance with me, then?”
“You surely remember: when you became head of the W.I.N. and conducted that investigation – that task to cleanse the London office of double agents and corruption. That’s when I lost my job, Gray. Everyone was suspected, everyone had to be investigated… Every member of the U.S.S. linked to the W.I.N., from the most junior employees to the highest-ranked agents. We all became subject to that ruthless investigation of yours. Most of us were honest people, you know? But you didn’t care.”
“I was appointed to the London office with exactly that assignment,” White replied. “It had become a disgrace to the whole of the U.S.S. It couldn’t continue that way. And it was potentially dangerous for our agents. You might ignore this, but many were killed, assassinated in the line of duty, because the London office wasn’t secure, and had been infiltrated by enemy agents.”
“Like your wife, you mean?” Darcy moved on. “I know that she was killed, because someone was trying to stop you doing what you considered was your job.”
“She was killed before I even agreed to be head of the W.I.N.”
“Yes, but that was all linked, wasn’t it? You already were part of that investigation when it happened. Everyone in the London offices knew. As we also knew that after you got over your wife’s death, it was the incentive that pushed you forward to continue the task you had set yourself at the time. The very task that caused her to be killed.”
“You said you wanted to talk,” White said sharply. “But if you continue to mention my wife’s death again…”
“That’s still a sore spot after all these years,” Darcy realised. “My apologies for that. It wasn’t my intention to open up old wounds.”
“Yet you’re keeping me captive in this room,” White replied. He moved his restrained right hand. “And in handcuffs.”
“A necessary measure, I can assure you. I know how dangerous you can be.”
“And you threatened me with death.”
“I admit that, yes,” Darcy said bleakly.
“Simply because, according to you, I caused you to lose your job?” White asked with perplexity.
“You destroyed my career,” Darcy specified.
White nodded. “You said: ‘Most of us were honest people.’ Were you?”
He stared Darcy right in the eyes, until the latter lowered his.
“My file wasn’t exactly spotless,” Darcy finally admitted. “The investigators found something suspicious in my life. Not that bad a thing, but it was considered that this something could leave me vulnerable to being approached by enemies and blackmailed into betraying the Service. I was… ‘advised’ to resign honourably.”
White nodded. “I personally recommended to the agents working with me to make that offer to some categories of people they investigated,” he remembered. “It was left to their best judgement to decide if those people were to be simply discharged, because they presented a certain risk to the organisation, or if charges should be pressed against them. You obviously came into the first category.”
“Did you know that I was threatened to make that choice?” Darcy asked with a cold edge to his voice. “If I decided to continue my career within the U.S.S., I should expect the investigators to dig even further in my life and publicly expose everything they might find. I think it is not difficult to imagine what was the best choice for me.”
“Considering the options, an honourable discharge was far better, yes,” White admitted.
“That’s all you have to say about this? I was blackmailed into resigning, Gray.”
“I am not saying I agree with the methods the investigators chose.”
“You signed my discharge,” Darcy accused with a frown.
“I signed a dozen discharges at the time, Mr. Darcy,” White answered. “A good number of people did like you, and chose to decently resign. If they did, the U.S.S. agreed to keep whatever had been found on them concealed in their personal records, never revealing the information publicly – depending on the gravity of the information, that is. I have no doubt that such information would have put a damper on you finding a new job at all.”
“I never found a job like I had at the U.S.S.!” Darcy shouted. “I was happy there!”
“If so, then why didn’t you stay clean?” White replied coldly. “You would still have a career today.”
Darcy jumped to his feet in fury, and glared dangerously at White, who kept his eyes fixed on his; maybe it was a mistake to provoke him, but quite frankly, it wasn’t quite the colonel’s style to accept the man’s abuse without answering back. The way he saw it, Darcy was the very instrument of his own downfall, and was just looking for reasons to put the blame on his chosen scapegoat.
Maybe he was trying to convince himself that he had to punish the man he considered responsible of what had happened to him all those years ago.
White didn’t lower his eyes, and watched, as Darcy struggled to regain his composure; it took him a few minutes, after which, breaking eye contact, he turned, taking his gun from the table. “I’ll order us something to eat.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I am not hungry,” White replied quietly.
“Well, I am,” Darcy snapped. “I will call room service, and you will keep your mouth shut! Don’t try to call out, or…” He left the threat in suspension and simply raised his gun, showing it to White. Then, with a last angry look at White, he turned and walked to the sitting area to make his call. From where he was standing, he could still see his prisoner, who, as best as he could, was trying to get into a more comfortable sitting position, and prepare himself for a long wait.
* * *
“So, according to the information transmitted by Intelligence,” Scarlet said pensively, “we are presently faced with some serious trouble because of this Darcy.”
Tracy had provided them with a small private lounge, where they were reunited at the moment: Conners and his two goons – who were now perfectly awake, although still nursing their wounds – Scarlet, Magenta and Ochre. Despite her desire to, Rhapsody was the only Spectrum member not to participate in the briefing, as she had been assigned to keep company with a worried sick Amanda, and to take her to the suite occupied by Matt Riordan’s family. Scarlet and Magenta, rather briefly and without too many details, had explained to Amanda – as well as to Ochre – what exactly the deal was with Grandma Annie and what they were trying to do for her. If Amanda had showed some reservations about their methods, she couldn’t help but commend their good intentions, and so she agreed to ‘play the game’ for now, so not to worry Matt’s grandmother needlessly. As a matter of fact, she reflected, it would help her cope with the situation until Colonel White was found.
Up until now, Scarlet had managed to keep Amanda’s last name under wraps – not revealing it to anyone but Rhapsody – who had been very surprised to discover that Amanda had been meeting with Colonel White in London. He realised, however, that it would only be a matter of time before both Magenta and Ochre asked more questions about her; surely, he thought, they would eventually notice the resemblance to Symphony…
If Amanda’s reaction to Grandma Annie had been one of cool acceptance, Captain Ochre’s reaction, on the other hand, was quite different. He bemoaned the fact that Magenta had not considered fit to involve him in the affair; he probably would have moped openly if not for the serious situation they had now to face.
Neither Elaine nor Ox were to participate in the briefing either; despite the fact that they were quite willing to help, they were both civilians – and it was even more difficult with Ox and his pending trial – and it was, after all, a matter of Spectrum security. Consequently, both had been asked to keep company with the others and assist Rhapsody and Riordan, while the charade with Grandma Annie continued – that was, until further notice, because it was becoming more and more obvious that the pretence would be difficult to carry on.
Ford and Williams were only staying because Conners had insisted, and after Ochre had checked their records to make sure they were entirely trustworthy. Considering what they had learned of James Darcy, no-one wanted to take any chances with them either.
Scarlet was pacing around in the middle of the room, recapitulating the recent events, with all the others seated or standing around him. Williams was sitting on one of the sofas, pressing a cold compress against the black eye he was sporting since he had been hit by Scarlet’s elbow. It had not taken much prodding for him and his colleague Ford to describe what had happened earlier, when they had captured the man they thought Conners wanted them to grab.
“So, according to Mr. Conners’ plan, Ford and Williams were to take me and hold me captive, until Colonel White’s arrival, which was supposed to be tomorrow,” Scarlet said.
“Except Colonel White arrived today,” Ochre, seated in one of the chairs, said in turn. “Without Conners knowing about it, and took a room here at the hotel… the hotel that you suggested he stay in,” he continued, addressing Conners.
The latter, who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed on his chest, shrugged, and didn’t answer.
“Clever,” Magenta said, rather dryly. “That way, Colonel White would be available for you to ‘display’ Scarlet and expose us… I didn’t think you had it in you to plot such a machiavellian scheme, Mr. Conners.”
“Can we forget about it for the moment?” Conners said, frowning. “May I remind you that Colonel White is still missing as we speak?”
“And we all know whose fault that is, don’t we, Mr. Conners?” Magenta shot back.
“It’s typical of you to try to pin this on me, Captain Magenta,” Conners replied angrily. “You’re not exactly blameless, you know!”
“Now is not the time to make accusations about who is responsible or not,” Scarlet interrupted before Magenta could answer. “As much as it galls me, I have to admit that Conners is right: now’s not the time to argue amongst ourselves.” He paused a moment, then continued: “When Ford and Williams took Colonel White into the basement, thinking he was me, Darcy must have recognised him.”
“Yes, as the man in charge of the investigation which cost him his job at the U.S.S., many years ago,” Ochre agreed. “According to the records Wade received from the U.S.S., and that he transmitted to me, Darcy held a grudge against Charles Gray, whom he considered responsible for his losing his job. When he was forced to resign from the U.S.S., he became unstable, and made some serious threats.”
“So today, he was suddenly provided with the possibility of avenging himself,” Magenta remarked.
“He might still be dangerous, yes,” Ochre said.
“Darcy is a member of the hotel security team,” Conners remarked in turn. “At the moment, he’s acting as replacement for his chief, who’s on holiday. It could be possible that he might have recognised Colonel White when he signed the register. According to you, Captain Ochre, he was booked under his real name.”
Ochre nodded pensively. “We had to inform security of his presence at the hotel,” he said. “I met with Darcy yesterday and told him the name under which Colonel White would register. Without actually telling him it was his real name, but obviously, he figured that out himself.”
“If that is the case, he must have been in seventh heaven when he realised that Conners’ plan might provide with the perfect opportunity to get at Charles Gray,” Scarlet replied.
“He did look at him in a strange way when he saw him,” Ford agreed with a nod. “The bastard already knew we didn’t get the right guy.”
“So,” Magenta said thoughtfully, “Darcy probably waited to be left alone with the colonel to abduct him in turn. And take him somewhere else.”
“What makes you think he hasn’t already killed your commander?” Williams inquired.
“The absence of struggle, when you returned to that room where you held Colonel White,” Scarlet explained. “And the absence of a body or of traces of blood,” he added carefully, glancing in Conners’ direction. “If Darcy had wanted to kill the colonel right away, he would have done so there. Besides, we don’t know exactly what he wants to do with him.”
“Darcy could have taken him elsewhere to kill him,” Conners remarked with a deep frown.
“Where can you dispose of a dead body in a luxury hotel?” Ochre commented.
“What makes you think they’re still in the hotel, to begin with?” Conners replied.
“Tracy, the girl at the Reception desk who provided us with this room? She told me earlier when I tried to reach him that Darcy’s car was still in the parking garage. So Darcy must still be somewhere in the hotel.”
“He could have left his car behind and taken a cab outside to go wherever he wants.”
“With a captive Colonel White in tow?” Scarlet shook his head in negation. “Knowing the old man, he would not have followed easily. He would have made enough of a noise to attract people’s attention.”
“Rather like our scrap downstairs attracted hotel security,” Ochre added. “We were fortunate I was able to explain ourselves to them, when they came over with Tracy. The management doesn’t seem to appreciate that kind of scene.”
“That’s right… when the guards came, they tried to call their security chief,” Conners mused. “He didn’t answer their calls. And you still think Darcy is in the hotel?”
“He’s obviously hiding somewhere – and in this case, he would be keeping a low profile. Especially if he’s holding Colonel White,” Magenta remarked.
Conners shook his head. “Well, whatever, we have to alert Headquarters to Colonel White’s disappearance and ask for back-up. We’ll then be able to search the whole hotel, and if Darcy is still here and is holding the colonel, we’ll find them.”
“No,” Scarlet said categorically.
“No?” Conners repeated, with a renewed frown. “What’s the matter with you, Captain? You would prefer to leave the colonel in the hands of this madman to prevent him discovering your little game in this hotel?”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Scarlet replied, irritated by Conners’ presumption. “Think a moment, Conners: you call for back-up, and the hotel will soon be swarming with Spectrum agents, searching every corner – and Darcy will soon realise he won’t be able to escape. We still don’t know if he wants to kill his prisoner, but you can be certain that if he’s left with no alternative, or if he feels trapped, he’ll kill him right away.”
“Scarlet is right,” Ochre said in support. “We have to inform Spectrum, of course, but we should search the hotel on our own.”
“The six of us?” Conners was dubious. “That’ll take forever. We’ll never find them in time to save Colonel White. If he’s not already dead, that is.”
“We just have to proceed by elimination,” Magenta proposed. “We deduce where Darcy might keep a prisoner and then we search there. I’m sure there can’t be that many potential places.”
“We can ask the management to help us narrow down our search,” Ochre advised. “Tracy, for example, has been very helpful up until now.”
“And we can also ask the hotel security staff to search with us,” Ford proposed.
“Darcy is one of their own,” Magenta remarked. “What if he has an accomplice amongst them? He would warn Darcy the minute we approach his location.”
“We’ll follow Ochre’s suggestion,” Scarlet said, nodding. “We’ll ask Tracy to help us establish a list of possible hiding places where someone could be held captive.”
“Like empty rooms, or unused working areas, due to the Holiday Season,” Magenta suggested.
“I’ll give you twenty-four hours,” Conners said at this moment. “Past that deadline, I’ll recommend that back-up be sent over, and that the hotel be searched from top to bottom.”
“I doubt that’ll do us any good,” Magenta remarked with a frown.
“Take it or leave it,” Conners answered sharply. “Count yourself lucky that I’m giving you those twenty-four hours.”
Magenta took a step forward in Conners’ direction, with the obvious intention of replying in his own fashion, but Scarlet seized his arm and stopped him in his tracks. “We’d better start work instead of arguing amongst ourselves.” He turned to Conners. “If we don’t find Colonel White in the next twenty-four hours, I doubt it’ll make any difference by then.”
Conners gave a brief nod of understanding. “Let’s call the hotel management, then.”
* * *
Just outside, in the corridor, Elaine swiftly removed the glass she had put against the door to listen to the conversation on the other side. She had caught most of it and now knew what the Spectrum officers’ plan of action was. She quickly turned towards her tall companion who was standing right behind her, waiting expectantly.
“So?” Ox asked with curiosity. “What did they say?”
She motioned to him to keep his voice low, and then hurriedly took him away from the closed door and into an adjacent corridor, as she was expecting the others to come out any moment now.
“They’ll ask for the hotel’s help,” she answered, looking over her shoulder to make sure that the door would not open too quickly and that they would not be seen. “They’ll search places where their colonel might be kept a prisoner. Like empty rooms and such…”
“Well, there might not be many of those,” Ox grunted. “I remember when I came with the boss the first day to find a nice room, there were about only four of five rooms left because of Christmas.”
“Apparently, Mr. Conners and his goons must have taken one of those,” Elaine mused. She heard a click coming from the door, and she and Ox went further into the corridor. Hiding, they watched as all the men inside the lounge left and went to the nearby elevator.
“Did you visit some of those rooms you were telling me about?” Elaine asked in a whisper to the man towering over her.
“Three,” Ox answered in the same tone. “The one we took and two others, on the seventh floor.” He shrugged. “The other two wouldn’t do, the boss didn’t think they were fine enough.”
“Maybe they’re still empty?” suggested Elaine, looking up at him.
“You want to go check them yourself?” he asked.
“Why not? I want to help. Even if they don’t want me to.”
“And I want to help too,” Ox answered with a nod. “So yeah, why not go check those two rooms and see if there isn’t anything to be found there?” He grinned. “We might get lucky.”
Elaine answered with a smile of her own and they both turned around and walked towards the door hiding the service staircase.
* * *
“So, that’s what you became, then? Colonel White, commander-in-chief of Spectrum.”
After a long, brooding silence that had fallen in the room, Darcy seemed to have decided that it was time to address his captive again. Room service had not delivered his meal yet, and most probably, he was starting to grow bored with waiting in complete silence, with nothing to say and nothing to do. White simply looked up at him over the short distance that separated them, and didn’t reply. Darcy shrugged indifferently.
“Must be a hell of a job,” he noted. “Especially with this terrorist group that appeared a little while back… the Mysterons, isn’t it? Spectrum’s got a formidable reputation for efficiency. Now I know why, if you are their commander. It was rather a surprise, when I found that out.”
“And when did you discover that?” White asked with curiosity. “Have you been preparing this… abduction for long?”
Darcy sniggered. “You want the truth? It’s all a coincidence, really. A combination of circumstances that permitted me to find you out and to finally get my hands on you.”
“I don’t understand,” White admitted.
“You were not the one we – Ford, Williams and I – were hired to capture.”
“That much I realised. But I still don’t understand. Why did they think I wasn’t the real Colonel White, to begin with? Who were you supposed to capture and who hired you for that job?”
“Well, that is of little importance, right now,” Darcy said with a shake of his head. “It was someone from Spectrum, who used his contacts with the U.S.S. to hire three ex-agents for a special operation.”
“A Spectrum operation?” White asked with curiosity.
“Nothing official, as I understand it, or it would have been Spectrum agents who would have conducted this operation. No, what was needed for this operation were…” Darcy seemed to search for the right term.
“Mercenaries?” Colonel White suggested.
“I suppose you could say that. Mercenaries. I was contacted due to my position as a member of the security staff in this hotel. As I’m replacing the head of security at the moment, it was easy for me to arrange things so that there was a secure place where we could temporarily hold someone captive. According to the specifications of our… employer.”
White frowned, still wondering exactly who that employer could be and what he was up to. As Darcy obviously wasn’t going to give him that information right now, he listened intently to the rest of his explanation:
“Then it all happened very fast. A Spectrum officer came to me yesterday to book a room for his commander – Colonel White, who would be staying incognito at the hotel with a guest. At first, I wonder if that reservation had anything to do with the operation I was hired for, but I said nothing, as per my earlier instructions. The officer reserved the room under the name ‘Sir Charles Gray’. Now, that got very interesting…”
“I suppose you might have found it so,” White remarked with a frown.
“After all these years, I was finally offered a possibility to get my well-deserved revenge. I imagined your presence at the hotel and the operation I was hired for at the same time were somehow related. So I waited to see what it was all about, and see if I couldn’t turn it to my advantage.” Darcy chuckled again. “But then, a happy surprise happened: those two imbeciles, Ford and Wallace, captured you instead of their intended target. And it was them who brought you to me. That saved me the trouble of going after you myself.”
“Oh yes, very useful for you,” White mused again. “Then, you double-crossed your accomplices. And took me for yourself.”
“In a nutshell, yes.”
A buzz at the door attracted their attention and Darcy glanced in that direction. “That must be our meal,” he said to White, standing on his feet. “I’ll tell them to leave it by the door.” He took his gun from the table and looked meaningfully at White. “Not a sound out of you, Gray, if you know what’s good for you.”
White didn’t answer, and simply followed Darcy’s progression to the door with his eyes. He wouldn’t call, for fear of causing the person outside the door to get hurt, but he imagined that he would have to do something very quickly, before it was too late.
Because he had the very unpleasant impression that this dinner Darcy was about to take delivery of would be his last meal.
* * *
“Why would anyone ask room service to leave their meal at the door?” Elaine asked, as she and Ox, from the half-open door to the staircase, watched the young man in a golden uniform, who, after knocking on the door of room 712, was now putting the tray down on the floor, obviously following the instructions given to him from the other side.
“Maybe they didn’t want to give a tip?” Ox suggested.
Elaine rolled her eyes. “That would surprise me.” They both waited, as the room service boy went towards the elevator, and then returned their attention to the closed door of room 712. Seconds passed, and then they heard the click as the lock was released and the door opened slightly. A man with grey hair appeared and cautiously checked up and down the corridor, as if making sure no-one was around. Carefully, both Ox and Elaine closed their door a little more and kept watching the man through a mere crack. Elaine’s eyes grew wide when the man stepped out of the room, and she saw the gun he was holding in his hand. He put the weapon into the holster under his left arm, before he crouched down to pick up the tray from the floor.
He disappeared inside his room, and locked the door behind him.
Elaine pushed the staircase door open and turned to Ox. “It’s him!” she said, barely able to contain her excitement. “I’m sure it’s him! We found him!”
“Are you really sure?” Ox asked doubtfully.
“Oh, Ox, how many people do you know legally carry a handgun in this country? This is England, not New York! It can only be that Darcy guy Spectrum is looking for! We have to warn them we found him!”
* * *
“Mr. Darcy has not returned to his office, Captain Ochre.” Tracy, behind her desk, answered the last question that had been asked of her, after consulting her screen. She looked up at the assembly of Spectrum officers now standing in front of the desk. She was obviously rather impressed, but was professional enough not to let that get in the way of her work. “And he has not answered any call to his mobile all day.”
“I am not surprised,” Ochre said, nodding. “His car is still in the car park?”
“Yes, sir. Which should mean he’s still in the hotel.”
“Should, but might not?”
Tracy looked directly at the only man dressed in civvies within the group. “That’s correct, sir,” she answered. “I can only guess. We have no way of really knowing if he has left the premises or not.”
“As I suspected,” Conners said morosely. “We might need to call for back-up sooner than we expected.”
Scarlet waved his hand dismissively at the Intelligence agent’s comments. “We explained the situation to you, Tracy. Do you have any idea where Mr. Darcy could be hiding within this hotel, where he would not be found easily?”
She was typing on her computer, her brow creased, as she made an obvious effort to think of something. “This hotel is big,” she answered. “There’s a number of places where he could be hiding…”
“… Keeping a captive with him?” Scarlet insisted.
“Do you have any empty rooms? Magenta asked in turn.
“About three of them, yes…”
“It might be no good,” Conners interrupted. “Darcy could have booked it under an assumed name.”
“Then he would have done it recently,” Ochre said. “I booked Colonel White’s room only yesterday.”
“And I hired him yesterday for the operation,” Conners said pensively. He addressed Tracy: “We’ll need a list of the rooms booked since yesterday, plus the free rooms, and all possible other places that can be used as hiding places within this hotel.”
She shook her head, still working on her machine. “That’s a tall order, sir…”
“Well, come up with something fast, or I’ll have this hotel swarming with Spectrum agents within the hour,” snapped Conners. “I’m sure your boss won’t like that, especially as this is the Christmas season.”
“You’ve got a way of talking to people, Conners,” Ochre said with irritation. “Have you ever heard of diplomacy? No, I guess you haven’t. Don’t listen to what he’s saying, Tracy. Just concentrate on your work and do your best.”
She thanked him with a faint smile and at just that moment, her screen beeped. She frowned in perplexity. “Now, this is odd…” she murmured.
“What is?” Scarlet asked. He leaned over the counter and Tracy slightly turned the screen in his direction so he would be able to see what it contained.
“I was questioning the system for room availability, when this came up.” She pointed to a line in the middle of the huge list of numbers appearing on the screen. “This one – it’s says it’s empty, and yet, someone called room service from there a few minutes ago for delivery of a meal for two.”
“Meal for two?” Scarlet repeated. “That might be it, then. What room?”
“Room 712. The client didn’t leave a name.”
“Seventh floor. Let’s go and check,” Scarlet said, turning to leave. “Captain Magenta, you come with me.”
“We all go,” Conners interjected.
“And what if it’s not the right room?” Scarlet objected. “You stay here with Captain Ochre, Conners, and Tracy will continue to interrogate her system, in case there’s other possibilities that you two might have to investigate. Let’s not take any chances.”
“You are in no position to give me orders,” Conners protested.
“Today, yes, I am,” Scarlet replied as he started walking towards the lifts, followed by both Magenta and Conners. “You stay here, Conners. And your two goons as well,” he added as he passed by Ford and Williams who had kept some distance from the desk. “We’ll contact you with any results.” With that, without waiting for any more objections, he broke into a run, Magenta following close behind. An obviously frustrated Conners turned around and, fuming, walked back to the desk where Ochre was still standing. The latter had acknowledged Scarlet’s instructions, calmly and professionally, and had turned again to address Tracy.
“Now, then, Tracy… Find us that list we were asking you about – as quickly as possible, please.”
“I’ll do my best,” she said with another sad smile.
He answered with a wink and a grin of his own. “I know you will,” he said, just as Conners arrived next to him.
Tracy’s smile widened, and then she glared in annoyance at Conners’s scowling face and returned her attention to her screen.
* * *
Scarlet and Magenta had just entered the lift and it was starting to move up, when Magenta’s mobile phone started buzzing in his pocket. The Irish officer hurriedly took it out, wondering exactly who it could be; he recognised Elaine’s number before answering. He sighed in exasperation as he flicked the phone open. “Elaine, we are rather busy right now,” he began.
“We found him!” was the quick reply from his cousin, interrupting him before he could continue chiding her.
Magenta frowned. “You found who?”
“Darcy, the guy you are looking for,” she answered victoriously. “At least, we think it’s him… Ox and I found him!”
“How did you know…?”
“Never mind how I know about it! That guy has a gun… You gotta come up here quickly!”
“Where are you?” Magenta asked.
“Seventh floor – room 712.”
“Room 712?” Magenta exchanged looks with Scarlet who seemed as puzzled as he was himself. He nodded briefly. “We’re already on our way there. Keep out of danger and wait for us!”
Magenta closed his phone, slightly amused by her cousin’s use of the Spectrum acknowledgement call. Scarlet was still looking curiously at him. “How did your cousin…”
“I don’t know how she did it,” he replied, interrupting him. “She’s forever surprising me.”
“I’ll say – she’s a surprising girl,” Scarlet admitted. “How do we contact Ochre?” he asked as a sudden thought came to his mind. “I just remembered that you deactivated the radiocaps.”
Magenta scowled; he also had forgotten momentarily about this little detail; sighing, he flipped his mobile open again. “I’ll call Tracy at the desk,” he said, rolling his eyes.
* * *
“They will find me, you know.”
Darcy had just put his tray on the table and raised his eyes to White, who was glaring at him from the bed.
“Spectrum?” he said mockingly, raising a doubtful brow. “Perhaps they will, but too late for you, I’m afraid.”
White shook his head. “You can’t go on continuing to blame anyone but yourself for all that happened in your life,” he said. “You don’t seem to have done too badly for yourself…”
“Yes, as part of the security staff for this hotel – not too bad, considering that my life was miserable for quite a few years, before I found in myself the strength to move on.”
“And yet, you want to avenge yourself on me?”
“Why yes… I know of a few people who actually would like to put a bullet in your head, Gray – or Colonel White, whatever you prefer to be called. I’m sure I might be able to claim a hefty fee once it becomes known that I was the one who pulled the trigger.”
“You would do this for money then?”
“No. I would do it for personal satisfaction. The money would be an added bonus.”
“Don’t be a fool, Darcy,” White snapped. “If you kill me, there will be no place on Earth you’ll be able to hide. Spectrum will hound you until the end of your days.”
Darcy sniggered. “This might surprise you, but I don’t care, Gray. Once you’re dead… they can do whatever they want with me. I don’t have anything to lose anymore.”
“You have rebuilt your life. Would you throw that away?”
“Without a second thought.”
“Don’t you have a family, a wife, children…”
“I don’t have anyone left, Gray!” Darcy suddenly shouted, interrupting White in the middle of his argument. “My wife left me years ago when I lost my job at the U.S.S. She took my beautiful little girl with her. They went to Canada, and never came back.” His voice suddenly broke and his eyes filled with sadness, and unshed tears. He swallowed hard. “Five years after they left, they were involved in a massive train wreck… They died… and I never, ever got to see my little girl again.”
White fell silent, now understanding the real reason behind Darcy’s hatred for him. “Darcy, I’m really sorry,” he said in as soothing a tone as he could muster. “Truly, I understand how you must have felt.”
“Do you?” Darcy said aggressively between his teeth. “Somehow, I doubt it very much. Now you see,” he added bitterly, wiping his eyes now glaring with barely contained anger, “I have more than one thing to blame you for. And all the more reason to kill you!”
“You will regret it if you do it, Darcy,” White finally said, in a low tone.
“You know what?” Darcy snapped at him, leaving the tray alone and walking back from the table, as he took the gun from its holster. “I was going to take my sweet time, before killing you, giving you a last meal, torturing you by making you believe you had a chance to convince me not to kill you; and then I would have pulled the trigger and put an end to the charade. But I think I can’t wait. I can’t listen to you anymore.” He pulled back the hammer of his gun as he raised it, pointing it at White. “I think I’m going to kill you right away and be done with it!”
* * *
“He’s going to kill him!” An alarmed Elaine pushed herself from the door, through which she was listening, using the glass she was now holding in her trembling hand. She looked up with distress at the tall man standing grimly beside her. “They’ll never arrive in time. We’ve gotta do something before it’s too late!”
There was barely a second’s hesitation from Ox as he gently, but firmly, pushed the young woman away from the door.
“Stand aside!” he grunted. “Leave it to me!”
* * *
As soon as he saw the barrel of the gun aimed at him, Colonel White braced himself, fully expecting to see death emerge from it in the next second. That was when, unexpectedly, and quite literally, the door that Darcy had locked only minutes ago, exploded into many pieces. In a rain of splintered wood, a huge mountain of a man stumbled into the opening, and, the momentum carrying him forward, came crashing down against the sofa set across the room, falling over it and bringing it down noisily in the process, under the astounded eyes of both White and Darcy. The face of a young woman – wearing an ochre Spectrum uniform – appeared through the opening left by the destroyed door, looking at the scene with some consternation.
Now lying on the floor, Ox, cursing loudly, was trying to free himself from the sofa lying across his body, and stopped his efforts suddenly when he saw the barrel of a gun appear right in front of his nose. Beyond the gun, he could see the implacable face of James Darcy.
“You!” Darcy roared, pointing a finger in Elaine’s direction, barely detaching his eyes from Ox. She timidly stepped out of hiding. “Come over here!” he shouted. “Or your friend here is dead!”
Trying not to shake, Elaine entered the room, and slowly walked through the wooden debris lying on the floor; as she approached in silence, her eyes set on Darcy and his gun. Darcy backed away, and gestured to her to join Ox who, still stuck under his sofa, didn’t dare move anymore.
“Stay there,” Darcy ordered.
Elaine stopped where she was and looked nervously at him. Truth to tell, she was terrified out of her wits; unlike her cousin Pat, she never had to face a gun in her life, and she had to admit she didn’t care much for this unexpected experience. On her left, Ox was glaring daggers at Darcy, while to her right, half-propped on the bed, the man she imagined could only be Colonel White was looking at her with curiosity and obvious perplexity. Probably, he was wondering who that female Spectrum officer was, whom he had never met before – and who was currently wearing the uniform of one of his senior staff captains.
“Spectrum officers, aren’t you?” Darcy pointed to Elaine. “You, at least. Can’t tell for your big friend, though…” He nodded in the direction of White. “You came to find your commander? Well, here he is… and you’re just in time to see him die. And to join him, if you’re so eager to do so.”
“Leave them alone, Darcy,” White warned from his position. “They have nothing to do with you or me!”
“Oh, you think so, do you?” Darcy replied, eyes flashing, holding his gun with both hands. “Well, they interrupted us as our conversation was getting interesting. I’d say that’s a good enough reason for me to get them out of the way.”
A newcomer had just appeared in the doorway and his call attracted the attention of everyone in the room. Colonel White opened his eyes wide with astonishment; the man standing there, looking directly at Darcy, who had now turned his gun to him, was wearing a white Spectrum uniform – just like his own. And the man looked suspiciously like an older Captain Scarlet, with grey hair, moustache and lines on his face. For White, still confused by the appearance of the young woman wearing a – what was it, ochre? – uniform, it was an even more amazing, impossible sight. But somehow he managed to keep both his composure and a straight face… and the man wearing his uniform did exactly the same, as he took a step forward into the room.
“Don’t move!” Warned by Darcy’s shout, the newcomer stopped in his tracks and stood still. “Who are you?” Darcy demanded, his brow creased.
“Can’t you tell? I am Colonel White.” There was no doubt in the real Colonel White’s mind now. The voice he was hearing was definitely Scarlet’s. Exactly, what was he up to, wearing that uniform?
He had a strong suspicion that it had something to do with the ‘mistaken identity’ error of which he had himself been the victim today.
“You’re lying! You can’t be Colonel White,” Darcy replied. He energetically pointed to his prisoner. “He is Colonel White. He told me as much.”
“Then he lied,” Scarlet replied imperturbably. “Because I am Colonel White. You see the uniform I’m wearing? I am the commander of Spectrum.”
“No, you’re that impostor Conners wanted to capture,” Darcy replied. He was keeping his gun aimed at Scarlet, who took another step in his direction – before stopping again when he saw the man nervously cocking the hammer.
“No, he is the impostor,” he said, referring to White. “Ford and Williams didn’t make a mistake when they captured him. You did, however. You were about to kill an innocent man. It’s against me you have a grudge – the real Colonel White.”
“I have a grudge against Charles Gray.”
“Charles Gray is Colonel White, you know that, don’t you? That is my name. I am the man you seek.”
“Then… why did he say he was?”
Darcy’s confidence was wavering; Scarlet could see that. He slowly nodded to Darcy’s question, and attempted a new step. “Because it was his job to do so. He’s a decoy, Darcy. Don’t you see it now? He’s been sent ahead to make sure the hotel was secure. He just continued to play my role to protect me.”
“You don’t look anything alike,” Darcy grunted.
“No… but nobody knows what Colonel White looks like, do they?”
“No,” Darcy admitted, seemingly pensive. “And… I don’t know what Charles Gray looks like either. I never met the man.”
“So you see I’m telling the truth,” Scarlet moved on. He took another step, as Darcy, confused, didn’t seem to pay as much attention to him as he should. “Let all these people go. It’s me you want, not them.”
“I…” Darcy looked thoughtfully into Scarlet’s face. “Why did you come here?” he asked in a low voice. ”If what you say is true – why risk your life to save them all?” He frowned deeply. “No,” he said with sudden conviction, and those words made Scarlet realise that he had failed to convince him. “No, you came to save him. Because he’s the real Colonel White. You are not. You are the decoy!”
At this precise moment, as if on cue, with a furious roar, Ox pushed the sofa off him and it crashed noisily onto the floor by his side. The loud sound made Darcy jump in surprise and turn in Ox’s direction, ready to fire. From the doorway, suddenly, Captain Magenta appeared, holding his gun with two hands and aiming it at Darcy.
“Freeze!” he bellowed.
In confusion, Darcy turned, and seemingly recognising Magenta as his most immediate threat, he shot immediately in his direction, but the Irish captain had returned into hiding quickly and the bullet simply hit the frame. Elaine took the opportunity to duck into safety, behind the bed, on top of which Colonel White, as well as he could, was trying to lie flat to avoid becoming a possible target.
Scarlet, however, was already on the move. Taking advantage of both Ox and Magenta’s interventions, he rushed to Darcy. Before the man could turn to him and fire a second time, he was on him and had seized the hand holding his gun, pushing it down and stopping him from pulling the trigger. Then, he sent a violent punch into Darcy’s face. There was a loud crack and the older man moaned in pain, before falling to his knees, at Scarlet’s feet; his gun stayed in the Spectrum officer’s hand.
“Magenta!” Exhaling noisily, Scarlet gently pushed the hammer of the gun down, as Magenta entered the room, and hurried to the half-conscious Darcy’s side. Ox was slowly getting back to his feet, carefully looking in the fallen man’s direction, as if he was fully expecting him to rise again with a new weapon.
“Good show, Ox,” Scarlet told the giant with an appreciative nod. “You did a fine job.”
“It’s nothing, Captain,” Ox beamed. “Anything for Mr. Donaghue’s friends, really.”
Scarlet looked in White’s direction, to make sure he was all right; the Spectrum commander was presently trying to rise into a sitting position on the bed, despite the handcuffs that were keeping him down. Elaine was raising her head over the side of the bed, checking expectantly in Darcy’s direction.
“It’s all right, young lady.” Elaine looked up as the deep voice addressed her, and she realised it was Colonel White. “He’s perfectly harmless now.”
She looked into his face; it was at the same time severe and authoritarian, but also profoundly reassuring. She felt an immediate deference for this man she was meeting for the first time – and also felt somewhat overawed in his presence. Fighting the urge to flush, she accepted his free hand that he presented to her and got to her feet.
Magenta finished handcuffing Darcy and was pulling him up. At the same moment, Captain Ochre appeared at the door, and upon Magenta’s motioning the all-clear, he entered.
“You came alone?” Magenta asked him with a raised brow. “Didn’t our ‘friend’ come with you?”
“He’s following right behind, with his goons,” Ochre said quietly as he took charge of the still stunned Darcy, who now, defeated, seemed to have accepted his arrest without any resistance. “It seems that violence is something our Mr. Conners is allergic to.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Magenta said, rolling his eyes.
“Come on, let’s get this creep out,” Ochre said with a grin.
“Here, Scarlet.” Magenta threw a key to his colleague who caught it on the fly; then he followed Ochre to the door, helping him to drag Darcy along. As they were about to leave, Colonel White suddenly called out: “Mr. Darcy.”
Still held by Ochre and Magenta, Darcy stopped and turned to face White. The latter looked him in the eyes. “I am sorry about your wife and child. Believe me, I truly am. But I am not to blame for what happened to them.”
Darcy nodded slowly, lowering his eyes as he did so. “I am sorry too, Gray.” He looked up at White again, his eyes cold with hatred. “I’m sorry I missed my chance to kill you.”
White shook his head desolately, realising the man would never listen to reason.
Ochre took a now silent Darcy out of the room, in order to hand him over to the security men waiting in the corridor to take him away. Magenta, standing in the doorway, watched them go.
Realising that he had been given the key to the handcuffs that were restraining Colonel White to the bed, Scarlet purposefully walked to his commander. As he was freeing his hand, the English captain didn’t look the colonel directly in the face, but was deeply aware that the latter now was staring at him very intently. He continued with his task silently.
“You’ve got a bit older since last I saw you, Captain,” Colonel White commented, as his hand finally became free and he started rubbing his sore wrist.
At that moment, Scarlet dared look up and meet his eyes. “Sir. It’s only prosthetics and make up, Colonel.”
“Prosthetics and make up,” White mused. “And if I’m not mistaken… that uniform you’re wearing looks very much like mine.”
“Yes, sir… That is… it is your uniform, Colonel.”
“Ah, well…” White nodded very slowly. “Thank you for not getting any blood on it then, Captain.” He stood up, and Scarlet did the same, still looking levelly at him. “I don’t suppose you went to all this trouble just to save me from Mr. Darcy, did you?”
Scarlet hesitated and then shook his head. “No, sir,” he confessed. He flushed slightly. “I just thought that, considering I was already dressed for the part, I might as well put it to good use and help you out.” He smiled coyly. “I thought it would confuse Darcy enough for him to lower his guard. Remember how well it worked with the Francesco brothers? Seems it worked here too… sir.”
“‘Since you were already dressed for the part’,” White repeated musingly. “Now, why on Earth would you be posing as me?”
“He’s not responsible, sir.” Captain Magenta left his position at the door and came to stand in front of Colonel White. The latter, crossing his arms on his chest, waited for his explanation, addressing him with a stern, interrogative stare, that intimidated the Irish officer, who lowered his eyes, almost despite himself.
“You see, sir, it’s all my fault,” he admitted.
“Really now?” White said, raising a brow. He didn’t seem surprised, by the sound of his voice.
“I volunteered,” Scarlet interrupted. “So I’m as guilty as he is.”
“Somehow, I don’t have any doubt of that,” White replied coldly.
“Colonel White, sir, it was all to help a friend,” Elaine said in turn, putting a hand on the Spectrum commander’s arm. He glared at her and she felt compelled to remove her hand, in a rather submissive way. “We didn’t mean any harm,” she continued timidly.
“That’s true, sir, Mr. Colonel,” Ox said in turn, approaching the small group. “We did it all for Mr. Riordan and Grandma Annie.”
“Riordan?” White repeated, scowling. “Matt Riordan?”
“Ox,” Magenta warned, glowering at his friend. Ox realised he had made a mistake, by mentioning Riordan.
“Sorry, boss,” he muttered, lowering his eyes.
“I know you,” White mused, staring intently at Ox, as Magenta was about to chide the giant for again calling him ‘boss’. He lowered his gaze to Elaine, and narrowed his eyes at her. “But you, I don’t know. I don’t suppose you’ve received your commission as Spectrum officer very recently, am I right?”
She reddened anew under his intense gaze. “No, sir. This uniform isn’t mine.”
White raised a brow. “Captain Ochre’s, right?”
“She’s my cousin, sir,” Magenta said. “She just agreed to help us with Grandma Annie. She can’t be held responsible for anything.”
“Help you to do what?” White asked, frowning. “I still need to work that out, before deciding who should be held responsible for what. I heard you mentioning Mr. Conners’ name earlier; what does he have to do with all this? And who the devil is this Grandma Annie?”
Magenta’s shoulders sagged. “It’s a long story, Colonel,” he said with a sigh.
“Oh, I had the definite impression it was one of those, Captain Magenta.” White sat down quietly, still staring at the two discomfited-looking officers standing in front of him, and crossed his legs, waiting. “So start explaining now,” he ordered, his voice still carrying a cold edge. “Because I don’t plan to leave this room until everything is made clear to me.”
* * *
“Another cup of tea, Mrs. Riordan?”
With a delicate gesture, and the nicest of smiles, Grandma Annie declined Rhapsody Angel’s offer, putting her now empty cup onto the table as she did so. “No, thank you, my dear,” she answered. “I have had enough, I have to say. Maybe later, if you will. We must save some for when your colonel comes back and we’ll be able to discuss interesting stuff… Not that what we’re discussing now is not interesting, mind you. It would just be… different.”
Trying to look inconspicuous, Rhapsody exchanged worried glances with Matt Riordan; he was seated next to his grandmother, and was doing his best not to appear nervous – but unfortunately, he was doing an increasingly bad job of it. As time went by, it seemed more and more likely that their carefully crafted plan, the meeting they had arranged between Grandma Annie and ‘Colonel White’, would not take place. Not with the real colonel missing, and with Scarlet and the others gone to find him. No-one had touched the buffet Magenta had asked the hotel to prepare for them; none of them seemed hungry – for various reasons.
Amanda Wainwright, who was distractedly sipping from her cup, realised suddenly that it was now empty, so she asked for a refill, to which Rhapsody obliged. Rhapsody could see that the older woman was worried too – even more worried than she was herself about the colonel’s disappearance. Exactly what was going on between the two of them, she could only guess. She had met Symphony’s mother a couple of years back, during the Spectrum commissioning ceremony when all the family and friends of the then new Spectrum officers had been invited to attend. At the time, Symphony’s father was still alive – he was a giant of man, a cowboy type who had made quite an impression on Rhapsody – and Amanda Wainwright didn’t look more than ten years older than her own daughter – which was still true today. Now, to meet her again in London – where she had been invited by none other than Colonel White, for Heaven’s sakes – was an unexpected surprise.
Quite frankly, Rhapsody had never imagined, for one second, that her commander would ever entertain the notion of dating the widowed mother of one of his staff officers. The full realisation of it was mind-boggling; as was the sudden notion that it could have been equally possible that, given the chance, Rhapsody’s own divorced and very attractive mother could have ensnared the colonel’s attention. She shivered imperceptibly at the thought and dismissed it right away. As far as she could tell, her mother wasn’t anything like Amanda Wainwright – at least, she imagined. So Colonel White was probably not really attracted to that type of woman.
Curiously enough, she reflected, stealing a glance in Amanda’s direction as she poured her tea, Paul didn’t seem as surprised as he should be to discover the woman’s presence with their commander. There was obviously something he knew that he didn’t care to tell her.
You’ll have a lot of explaining to do when this is over, Paul Metcalfe, Rhapsody reflected. And you’d better believe I won’t hesitate to grill you to get the truth out of you.
Well, provided they all survived the day.
“Excuse me, dear…” Rhapsody came out of her fugue to realise that Grandma Annie was addressing her. “When exactly do you expect the others to be back?” the old woman asked expectantly. “I know I asked already, but…”
Rhapsody put the teapot down, very slowly, trying to gain herself some time. “I wish I could tell you with certainty, Mrs. Riordan,” she answered with an apologetic smile. “But it’s difficult to say, really. It shouldn’t be too long now,” she said hopefully, almost to herself.
“It is kind of long,” Brendan remarked, looking for the nth time at his watch. “Had we known that your commander would make us wait this long, we might not have taken the trouble to make the trip at all.”
“Hush, Brendan,” Grandma Annie chided him with a frown.
Amanda put her cup back onto her saucer and glared up at the young man, who was standing behind his grandmother. “Colonel White is a very busy man,” she said, her voice colder than she really intended it to be. “He deals with world security, and so do his agents. Surely, Mr. Riordan, you must realise that his time is not always his own, and that anything might happen to get in the way of a social event. It is his duty, after all, to make the world a safer place for all of us.”
Oh, good show, Mrs. Wainwright. Rhapsody smiled inwardly at the remonstrance. Now she knew where Symphony got her fire from!
Brendan frowned. “I still don’t know who you are exactly, Mrs…. er.…”
“I’m Colonel White’s public liaison,” the older woman answered with so much aplomb that Rhapsody nearly choked on her tea.
“I’m sorry, Mrs….” Brendan seemed to struggle to recall her name. Amanda had to fight not to roll her eyes.
“Smith,” she provided. How he could forget such a simple name was beyond her. Why she had to use an assumed name was too, but Scarlet had strongly recommended it, arguing that the colonel would be grateful for it. So she had complied without much of a protest.
“Smith,” Brendan continued, obviously doubtful and with an arrogance that suggested that he was anything but sorry, “but I’m starting to believe that all this is not really serious.” He looked in the direction of his silent cousin, seated next to their grandmother and narrowed his eyes at him. “We met the colonel for barely anytime at all, from our arrival at the airport to our entering this hotel. Then he disappeared with his officers, to attend to… Spectrum business. Then you emerge out of nowhere, unannounced. Frankly that makes me wonder.”
“Wonder about what?” Rhapsody asked coldly. “You heard the call through the hotel speakers like we did.”
“Yes, we did,” Stella said in turn. “And we understand that Mr. White is a very busy person, but still, isn’t it a little rude to abandon his guests and run away like he did? Maybe he’s not coming back because he feels a little… embarrassed by the whole situation. I know I would be, if I was in his place.”
Rhapsody couldn’t believe her ears – and obviously, neither could Amanda, who seemed to be fighting very hard with herself not to throw the remainder of her tea into that idiot Stella’s face. Exactly who did she think she was? Didn’t she know or understand anything at all? If anyone truly felt embarrassed at the moment, it was certainly poor Matt Riordan, who was flushing violently. All evening long, Rhapsody knew, he had been so very tempted to tell the whole truth to his family, and it had taken all of the Angel’s persuasive power to convince him not to do anything too rash. Right now, she was wondering what was the most tempting for the American: spilling the beans, or strangling his cousin and his stupid wife.
Worriedly, Rhapsody saw Matt opening his mouth to say something, and she prepared to interrupt him, as she had a number of times already during this evening; however, she didn’t need to, as her personal phone started buzzing at that moment, interrupting Matt and attracting everyone’s attention. She put her cup down on the table and excused herself, as she stood up; she thought it would be better to take the call in the kitchenette, away from prying ears.
Matt Riordan followed her with his eyes, his face wearing the expression of a truly desperate man; suddenly, he put his own cup down too and jumped to his feet. “Please, excuse me,” he said, and leaned down to plant a kiss on his grandmother’s cheek before following Rhapsody.
Amanda Wainwright watched with puzzlement as they disappeared from view; she was sorely tempted to follow.
“Well, talk about being rude too,” Stella then said in a barely hushed tone. “They probably took the same good manners course as their commander.”
A chuckling sound escaped Brendan’s lips, and Grandma Annie shot both of them a warning and annoyed look. Amanda counted to ten, breathed deeply, and then decided she would be better off staying put.
After all, she was ‘Colonel White’s public liaison’ – it wouldn’t look very good if she ended up throttling Stella Riordan.
Even if that idiot deserved it.
* * *
When Matt arrived in the kitchenette, Rhapsody was finishing her conversation over the phone; he stood behind her until she flipped it closed and silently turned to him. Her expression was one of deep sorrow and concern.
“What?” he asked, frowning in apprehension. “What is it? Did they find Colonel White? Is he…”
“Colonel White was found safe and sound about an hour ago,” she answered. She was actually pleased to see him blow a deep sigh of relief. At least, she reflected, he wasn’t only worried about his plan going wrong; he also shared their concern for Colonel White.
“That’s good, then,” he said with a thin smile. She was smiling too, but it was a rather sad smile. It wasn’t difficult for him to imagine what was going on in her mind. He shook his head understandingly. “It’s finished then, isn’t it?”
She hesitated, and then nodded. “I’m so sorry, Matt,” she said with genuine gentleness, reaching to stroke his arm. “Really I am.” She sighed and lowered her head. “They had to tell Colonel White. He knows everything and… he’s coming down.”
“Yes. That was Paul calling. He told me. They’re all coming here.”
At first, Matt felt distressed – but it was very brief. For the last few hours, he had been expecting that moment, when the whole scheme would be revealed to his grandmother, and to Brendan and Stella. He could easily imagine their reactions. To Brendan and Stella, it would confirm that Matt was exactly as they always thought him to be: a good for nothing bum who found trouble wherever he went, who would never reform. He didn’t care what they thought; he was more concerned with the effect this would have on his grandmother: it would break her heart.
And now… it would be even worse than he had imagined it. Colonel White himself was coming over; he really hadn’t expected that at all. Probably, the Spectrum commander wanted to reprimand him as he saw it fit, and that would be before he ordered his arrest. Matt imagined he would lose his probation; they’d put him in prison for life and they’d throw away the key. And that was nothing to what would happen to those who had helped him mount this plan.
“It’s me who’s sorry, Dianne,” he said morosely. “All of this has been a mess from beginning to end. I should have realised it would never work. It’s all my fault. And now… everyone will pay for it.”
“We wanted to help you, Matt,” Rhapsody retorted.
“Well, I’m still responsible, anyway.” Riordan turned towards the doorway leading back into the sitting room, and he stood there, not really wanting to cross it, but knowing he would have no choice. “I’ll have to tell her,” he said in a low, very sad voice. “I’ll have to tell her myself. If someone else tells her instead of me, it’ll be far worse for her.”
“Matt…” Again, Rhapsody put her hand on his arm. “I’ll go with you,” she offered.
He nodded his thanks. “You can come if you want,” he said. “Your support is much appreciated. But please, let me do the talking.”
“Of course,” she murmured.
His shoulders sagging, Matt Riordan returned to the sitting room, followed by the English pilot who felt so sorry for him, considering the task that awaited him.
When Matt Riordan approached his family, looking at the same time grim, and also resolved in what he now needed to do, Grandma Annie sensed that something was wrong. She instantly rose to her frail feet and looked at him as he walked to her.
“My boy, what is wrong?” she asked in a breath.
Amanda Wainwright watched Riordan’s bleak expression and then turned an interrogating look to Rhapsody, wondering what exactly could be happening.
“Dianne, is anything…”
“Everything is all right,” the Angel pilot said, shaking her head with a faint smile. She looked in the direction of Matt and his grandmother, and Amanda understood that if anything was indeed wrong, it was with those two. She felt sorry for them; she thought it was a real shame.
“Nana,” Matt murmured. He squeezed his grandmother tightly against his chest. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, my boy,” she said, smiling. She took his face between her hands. “Now, what is wrong? You know you can tell me.”
He lowered his eyes, still hesitating. He swallowed hard. “I have something I have to tell you,” he finally said. He looked over his grandmother’s head towards Brendan and Stella, who were watching him expectantly, with severe expressions. Those vultures probably had understood that he had got himself into trouble – again. “I have something to tell to all three of you. You see, I…”
There was a buzzing at the door which interrupted him. He blanched. Oh no! They’re not here already?! He was distraught. All he needed was a few minutes, just a few minutes more to confess everything to his grandmother and now… Fate would deny him even that.
He watched bleakly as Rhapsody slowly walked towards the door, and then turned to his grandmother again. “Nana,” he told her softly, “whatever you learn about me in the next minutes, be sure of one thing: I did it all for you.”
She frowned, obviously not understanding what he meant.
The door behind Matt clicked open, before Rhapsody had even reached it, and he turned around, almost despite himself. Colonel White himself – the real Colonel White, in full uniform – entered with long strides, causing Amanda to jump to her feet, a smile of relief on her face. By reflex, as he saw the Spectrum commander walking straight to them, Matt enfolded his right arm around his grandmother’s delicate shoulders, in an almost protective way.
Strangely enough, there was the ghost of a smile on Colonel White’s face; surely, Matt imagined, the man wasn’t cruel to the point of taking any pleasure in torturing him in front of his family?
White first stopped briefly in front of Amanda Wainwright, under the worried gaze of Matt, and the intense and curious stares of his family – who were obviously wondering who he could be. “Amanda,” he said with a smile, “Please, forgive me for having made you wait so long. Had I known what I would find when I left you in the restaurant, I would have stayed with you. I hope you didn’t worry too much?”
“That’s all right, Colonel,” she answered with a smile of her own. As long as you are safe and sound, she added inwardly.
“Ah, Mr. Riordan.” Colonel White stood in front of Matt, and took his hand – and, still smiling, started pumping it vigorously, much to the American’s confusion. “Please, excuse me for being so late. I was… detained, as you know very well.”
“Colonel White,” Matt stuttered, not understanding what the Spectrum commander was going on about. “What…?”
“And I believe this is your charming grandmother?” White turned to Grandma Annie, and bowed perfectly in front of her, taking her hand, and raising it to his lips in a very composed and gallant gesture. “My dear lady, it’s an honour to meet you.”
She frowned, unsure. It was Brendan who asked the question that was burning both their lips: “Who are you?”
“Why, Colonel White, of course. Commander of Spectrum.” White rose to his full height to face Brendan. “And you must be our friend Matt’s cousin – Brendan, isn’t it? And this must be your wife – the charming Stella.”
“But… but… but…” Brendan was so confused that he didn’t even realise that Matt was at least as surprised as himself. “You can’t be Colonel White… You…” He looked over White’s shoulder just as Captain Scarlet, still disguised and dressed in the white uniform of his commander, was entering, followed by Captain Magenta – and ‘both’ Captain Ochres.
“If you are Colonel White, who is this guy?” Brendan finished, gesturing in Scarlet’s direction. “That’s the Colonel White who met us at the airport.”
White dismissed the argument with a gesture. “I am truly sorry for the deception. This man was merely a decoy.”
“A decoy?” Grandma Annie repeated with a frown.
“A normal procedure, madam,” White explained. “All part of our security protocols. I have a double of myself sent ahead to make sure everything is safe before I come myself.”
“Really?” Stella said, opening her eyes wide.
“Of course. You see, it’s quite the same way a celebrity, wanting to avoid being mobbed by fans, would go to the back of a theatre, while a double goes through the front door.” White’s smile widened as he looked over at Stella. “Of course, you must realise that I hold a very important position. I can’t afford the risk of becoming a moving target… So that kind of operation becomes a daily necessity.” He nodded, a serious expression on his face. “I’m sure you understand.”
“O- of course,” Brendan said, with Stella agreeing with a vigorous nod, although it was obvious that neither of them understood fully. “It’s… quite normal, really, Nana.”
“You are even more charming that that other Colonel White… Colonel,” Grandma Annie said, chuckling. “And just as handsome. Matt, I’m so glad to meet your employer at last. With all he told us about you, Colonel, I was starting to believe he had made you up!”
White kept himself from sniggering. “Well, I’m sure Matt has been overly flattering,” he said, and as he did, he turned to a obviously still flabbergasted Matt Riordan, who wasn’t quite sure of what was happening.
Rhapsody, for her part, had understood; she turned around to glance incredulously in the direction of Scarlet who was standing just inside the doorway, in the company of Magenta, Ochre and Elaine. They were each grinning widely, from ear to ear, as they watched Colonel White sweet-talking Grandma Annie and sweeping her off her feet with ineffable charm.
I can’t believe it… Those bandits managed to talk the colonel into this whole ploy! Amanda had obviously understood this very early on, and was smiling too – a smile that was saying that she never doubted for a moment that ‘her’ colonel would eventually do the right thing.
The English pilot nearly gasped, as coming from behind the Spectrum officers lined up by the door, she saw someone else enter, with an imperturbable expression on his face; Martin Conners stood there, seemingly hesitating, looking around bleakly, while adjusting his tie. It was Robert Oxbury, appearing in the doorway behind him, who drove him to enter fully; Conners had to make way to permit to the massive man to enter.
“Look who I found trying to sneak away, boss,” Ox said to Magenta.
The latter rolled his eyes. “Ox, I thought I told you…” he sighed. “Never mind…”
“I was not trying to sneak away,” Conners defended himself, glaring murderously at Ox.
“Ready to make your big speech, Conners?” Ochre asked matter-of-factly. “Like the colonel asked you to?”
“There’s got to be something in regulations against this,” Conners muttered darkly. “Forcing me to participate in this… this charade.”
“Play fair, Conners. That certainly must beat being convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap,” Scarlet remarked.
“Or losing your commission for impersonating a superior officer,” Conners came back angrily. “I can’t understand why I’m being punished for doing my duty and the lot of you barely get a reprimand for acting in complete disregard of Spectrum regulations.”
“We were not the ones who held the colonel at gunpoint and abducted him while he was on holiday.” Scarlet shrugged. “Besides, this is Christmas. The colonel must have the festive spirit.”
“Come on, Conners,” the voice of Ford said, as he and Williams struggled to get past the immobile Ox to enter the room. “We actually got off pretty lightly. Besides, it’s your fault we’re in this mess, so be a good sport about it and do what you’ve been told to.”
“My fault?” Conners bristled. He was about to protest loudly, but stopped suddenly, as he realised the very dangerous way Ox was looking down at him; he could understand a warning and quite frankly, he didn’t know if Magenta had enough control over his former henchman to actually be able to stop him strangling the shorter man. In any case, maybe Magenta wouldn’t bother to try that hard.
“All right, I’ll do it,” Conners finally conceded, sighing. “I don’t have to like it, but I’ll say it.”
“The exact words the colonel told you?” Magenta asked with a raised brow.
Conners rolled his eyes and started declaiming, in a rather neutral tone: “ ‘Matt Riordan is one of our best recruits over the last year, and we’re very proud to have him with us.’ ”
“Not bad,” Scarlet said with an appreciative nod. “But put a little more heart to it. And say it with a smile.” Grinning, he thumped Conners’ shoulder – so forcefully that he nearly sent the man stumbling forward. “Think of the joy you’ll give that little old lady… You’ll go to Heaven for this good deed.”
“I’m already in Hell, anything will be Heaven after this,” Conners muttered under his breath. He squared his shoulders and, with long strides, walked towards the small group in the middle of the room, with Ford and Williams in tow, both of them finally happy they would be allowed to enter and taste the buffet. They were followed by the amused eyes of the Spectrum officers, as Rhapsody Angel was coming their way, a huge smile on her face. She stopped in front of Scarlet.
“Good work, boys,” she said looking into each of their beaming and victorious faces. “… And Elaine, of course,” she added, winking at the young woman standing next to Ochre. “How did you do it?”
Magenta shook his head. “Wasn’t that difficult, actually.”
“I don’t believe you,” Rhapsody replied, narrowing her eyes.
“Well… we simply told him the truth,” Elaine said, before anyone else could speak again. “I swear, I never was able to tell what kind of emotions was going through his mind. He was obviously angry… It was so plain to see. Those eyes, I swear, they could freeze a volcano when he looks at you that way. And at the same time… they can make you shrivel up. And his voice…”
“When are you going to stop and draw some breath?” Ochre interrupted suddenly, frowning with perplexity as she turned to him, with a clearly annoyed expression at his remark. “That’s amazing! You must be a diving champ!”
“Well, of all the insolence…”
“You told me you’re Pat’s cousin,” Ochre continued, stopping her before she could start again. He smiled at her. “I don’t believe I caught your name.”
She flushed, under the intensity of his gaze. “Elaine,” she answered simply. And that was the only word she was able to utter at this point.
“Well, Elaine, walk with me,” Ochre said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “I will teach you all you need to know to make a believable Captain Ochre… First of all, and most importantly, never listen to any of your cousin’s schemes…”
He continued with his advice, as he took her further into the room, and his colleagues, standing at the door, watched them, pensive and amused.
“Well, what do you know,” Magenta mused, “Elaine found a guy able to make her shut her mouth.”
Scarlet shook his head. “The problem now would be: will Rick be able to shut up?”
“They look nice together,” Rhapsody said fondly.
“Of course,” Scarlet said. “They’re wearing the same uniform.”
“Let’s just hope Rick won’t discover the tear at the back before I can come up with a proper explanation,” Magenta sighed. He took very good care not to say it too loud, fearing that Ochre would hear him. His eyes fell on Amanda, who was standing close to Colonel White. “Mmm… Scarlet?”
“What can you tell us about this woman… Amanda?” Magenta asked with curiosity.
“Nothing of interest to you, I can assure you.”
“But you seem to know her. And I have to admit… she does look familiar. Rick and I, we think…”
“Pat, I would suggest you forget about her,” Scarlet suddenly interrupted his colleague. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t mention her… ever again, to anyone. And especially not on Cloudbase… where there’s a risk the colonel might hear you. Believe me, it would be safer if you forgot all about this. And you should advise Rick to do exactly the same.”
“Er…” Magenta hesitated; he looked once again in Amanda’s direction; the closeness between the colonel and the woman was so obvious, he now could plainly see why Scarlet’s advice would probably be the best course of action to take indeed.
“She sure looks familiar, though,” he muttered for himself, frowning as if he was trying to remember where he could have had seen her before.
“Boss?” Ox said behind him.
Magenta rolled his eyes, but this time, didn’t correct his old friend. “Yes, Ox?”
“D’you think my helping to find your boss will look good for my trial?”
Magenta hesitated. “Maybe… I think,” he said, although a little unsure. “Well, it might be that Colonel White will be inclined to… put in a good word, on your behalf.”
“You think so?”
“I just say it’s possible. He might not forget that you helped save his life. You did very good today, Ox,” Magenta said, thumping the tall man’s shoulder.
“Thank you, boss,” the giant beamed. “Can I go to the buffet now?”
“Of course you can,” Magenta laughed. “And I’ll go with you.” They left Scarlet and Rhapsody. “And stop calling me boss,” his two colleagues heard him say.
Rhapsody giggled. “What a pair they make,” she said, watching as they walked away.
Scarlet nodded. “I might even forgive Ox for knocking me out more than once in the past,” he mused.
“So,” Rhapsody commented, turning to him. “You certainly took your time to call me, and inform me that Colonel White had been found and that he was fine. What kept you?”
He shrugged. “The old man himself, of course. We had to tell him everything; we pleaded with him, told him we didn’t mean any harm, that it was all for a charming old lady, and not destroying the illusions she might have about her grandson. We told him it was Christmas and that… well, maybe we got a little carried away. But he listened in silence, to all we had to say.” Scarlet frowned. “Then, we don’t know exactly how it happened, he demanded to go to his room… and he changed into his uniform. We were rather taken aback when he said that he would meet Grandma Annie himself. He said that she ‘deserved to meet the real Colonel White, and not a pale and dishonourable imitation.”
Rhapsody smiled. “I recognise him there. How much this is going to cost us?”
“Oh…” Scarlet blew a deep breath. “I don’t know exactly what you can expect. Magenta and I have a full month of radar duty and paperwork – what’s your equivalent of that?”
She grimaced. “I get the picture. What about Matt?”
“I’m pretty sure that the old man will definitely find some way to discipline him in a manner he would consider suitable,” Scarlet said. He smiled. “But I’m also certain that it won’t involve him ending up in prison or losing his probation.”
“Good. Matt wouldn’t deserve that.”
“Our friend Conners, however, deserves everything he’s getting,” Scarlet said with an evil grin as he watched Conners feigning to be friendly with Matt and talking amiably with his family.
“That’s not much of a punishment,” Rhapsody commented.
Scarlet laughed. “That’s good enough for me, you can believe that! You should have seen him when the colonel finally confronted him face to face. I swear, he was so red, I thought he would explode. Especially when the old man told him he would be part of the scheme too. Watching him squirm then, and seeing him struggle right now almost makes radar duty worth it!”
“Okay, I’ll give you that.” Rhapsody turned towards her fiancé. “Now, I have one last question for you: why are you still dressed like that and why did you keep all that make-up on? I don’t think you need it anymore, do you?”
Scarlet scowled at her question. “It won’t come off,” he said under his breath.
“What?” Rhapsody rolled amazed eyes.
“It won’t come off,” he repeated, more insistently. “Even the solvent that Lorraine gave me won’t remove it. I think she might have handed me the wrong bottle.”
“Are you sure?”
“Quite sure. I tried it again and again, while the colonel was changing into his uniform. It didn’t work. Even the moustache seems to be glued permanently. Strangely enough, the colonel seemed rather pleased… He said it served me right.”
“Oh no… we’ll have to call Lorraine, tell her about this… Ask her to come over and remove it all.”
“I already called Lorraine.” Scarlet rolled his eyes, chewing on his bottom lip. “I ended up with her voice mail. I’m desperately waiting for her to call back.”
“Oh,” Rhapsody moaned. “That might be disastrous if she doesn’t call back soon! I can’t take you to Penny looking like this! And what will your parents think?!”
“They’ll say that my work is much too hard for me,” Scarlet suggested with a grin.
“Oh well…” Rhapsody sighed deeply, looking as she was about to pout. Then a smile started to spread on her face and she looked up at him, her eyes brightening with mischief. “Anyway,” she said, “I’ve always had a soft spot for older men…”
Scarlet’s smile broadened even more and he took her in his arms, to plant a kiss on her lips. She giggled and drew her head back a few millimetres. “That tickles,” she said.
But she didn’t push him off when he leaned back to her and she complied with his kiss without any more protest.
This story – like so many others before – has been a couple of years in planning. Loosely inspired by ‘A Pocketful of Miracles’ – one of my all-times favourite ‘fell-good’ movies (and categorised as a ‘Christmas tale’ because of the very start of the movie), the story actually doesn’t that much related to the plot of the film*.
The story became considerably longer than it was originally planned: from an originally thought of short story of about 40 pages, it grew into the three parts that you have now read – about a hundred printed pages in all. As often it is the case, the characters took total control of the story, although they did take it into the direction I intended all along.
I want to Hazel Kölher and Mary J. Rudy for beta-reading this story and for making such a good job of it, while the deadline was approaching so dangerously. They also provided with support and encouragement, along with Luvmylops, Marion Woods, and Caroline Smith… and however was there during the chat sessions and had to endure the plotting of this story as it was taking form.
This story is not directly set after, but is intended as a kind of follow-up to the events ‘Dead Ringer’, a story I wrote in collaboration with Sue Stanhope a couple of years back, and where the characters of Matt Riordan and Robert ‘Ox’ Oxbury appeared for the last time. I want to thank Sue for lending me in turn her character of Matt Riordan was created by Sue for her ‘Gangsters Trilogy’ (‘Past Imperfect’, ‘Present Tense’, and ‘Future Conditional’), and I created Ox, that I gladly lent to Sue for her stories. Sue, this story is also meant as a gift to you, and I do hope you’re happy with the way I portrayed your character.
The character of Spectrum Intelligence agent Thomas Wade is Mary J. Rudy’s creation for the story ‘Chance for a lifetime’. The Francesco twins, to whom this story refers at some point are also Mary’s creations, as they were created for her story ‘Mixed Doubles’.
The despicable Spectrum Intelligence agent Martin Conners is my own creation, and he’s making here a long awaited return, after appearing a number of time since his first apparition in ‘The Secret’. Mr. Conners, people love to hate you, so you’ll probably be back again…
Amanda Wainwright, mother of Symphony, first appeared in my story ‘A Symphony in Blue’, in which I created her specifically as a romantic interest for Colonel White. This story is not her first return – nor should it be her last.
The characters of Grandma Annie, James Darcy, Judge Henry Blake, Glenn Williams and Warren Ford are my own, but have been inspired by both the movies ‘Lady for a Day’ and its remake, ‘A Pocketful of Miracles’. ‘Apple Annie’ was the main character of both movies, and respective leading male actor for each movie was Warren William and Glenn Ford. Incidentally, the title of each three parts were obviously inspired by the titles of the two movies mentioned above – as well as by the Chinese version Jackie Chan produced and starred in, ‘Miracles’.
Don’t look for the ‘Crowned Victory Palace’ – it is yet to be built!
As for Captain Magenta’s Irish cousin, Elaine… who might be back eventually, and whose last name I intentionally and carefully avoided… only time will tell if that last name is indeed the same as that other Captain Ochre, so familiar to fans of ‘New Captain Scarlet’. But admittedly, she is a tribute that the wonderful character who is the ‘real Lady Ochre’.
And of course, my last thanks would go to the Andersons, and whoever presently owns the rights to the ‘Captain Scarlet’ series (both of them) and to all those who also contribute, near and far, to the success which still last up to this day, more than forty years later.
Cheers, everybody. And belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Chris Bishop, January 2008.
(*The movie plot revolved around an old New York bag lady, who, during the Prohibition, sells apples on the street to make a living. She has a daughter pursuing her studies in Europe who doesn’t know about her mother’s real lifestyle and believes her to be a ‘high society’ lady, as her mom writes her letters on paper provided by a friend working in a grand hotel. Things go wrong, when the daughter decides to come visiting her mother, with her fiancé, and his father, a Spanish count, and it’s up to one of ‘Apple Annie’s client, a notorious gangster who thinks her apples bring him luck, to save the day by transforming the old beggar into a high society lady.)
Any comments? Send an E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site