A Captain Scarlet Story for Halloween
By Caroline Smith
How the fog rose up so quickly was beyond Scarlet’s meagre understanding of physical weather phenomena, and despite the navigation system in the car, he took a wrong turn off the minor B road he was travelling on, and somehow ended up on a country lane that was clearly ‘off the map’ as far as the talking box in his car was concerned.
Please make a u-turn.
The annoying female voice kept insisting. Scarlet tried to do as she asked and for his trouble ended up wedged between the impenetrable tangles of undergrowth that flanked either side of the lane. He muttered a few colourful Anglo-Saxon epithets and switched off the GPS, unable to listen to one more please make a u-turn. God knows how many scratches now decorated the shiny new paintwork of the hire car. He’d have to explain when he returned it to London Airport after his furlough was over.
Some furlough, he thought dismally. I hate funerals.
He continued down the lane, hoping that he would soon arrive at a crossroad so he could retrace his steps. He was practically blind in the fog, with only the indistinct outline of the tops of the hedges looming either side of the car – like monstrous thorn walls. It was like driving down a long tunnel with no end.
Scarlet hated driving in fog at the best of times – and he involuntarily clenched his fingers around the cold polymer of the steering wheel.
What if I meet another car - or worse – a tractor – coming in the other direction?
As if anything that large could possibly fit within the confines of this insanely narrow lane anyway. Oh come on – get a grip, he admonished himself. What’s the worst that can happen? I get a dent in the car – or I have to reverse a mile back up the lane.
The track seemed to go on forever and, just as his frustration was nearing boiling-point, the fog started to clear almost as swiftly as it fell.
As the insipid late October sun filtered through the departing mist, Scarlet saw that the road was widening considerably. It began to split either side of a small triangular grass section decorated with a huge, chipped, black milk churn, and he slowed for an instant, at the last minute choosing the left hand fork of the road – and nearly collided with a tractor coming out of a farm entrance that he hadn’t noticed. Its forks waved high in the air, like the pincers of a giant insect.
Scarlet automatically swung the wheel of the car sharp right, heard the tyres squealing in protest as it lurched away from the hulk of the farm vehicle. The car almost bounced as the front right wheel hit a large pothole at speed, and Scarlet swore, heart pounding, glancing at the rear mirror to see the tractor trundle away.
He halted the car a few yards further on beside a large expanse of grass that in these parts could only signify the village green – hub of country life, even in the 21st century. Taking a deep breath, he decided to stop for a few moments.
He got out of the car and stretched cramped muscles, looking around. The mist had all but vanished and now the sun shone brightly down from a crisp azure sky making him blink at the sudden dazzling brightness of it all.
A large pond was a still mirror on an expanse of emerald grass, and a gigantic weeping willow, bare of leaves, dipped slender branches into its waters. A tall wooden maypole stood dead centre of the green, and beyond, the solid square tower of the Norman church stood head and shoulders above the cluster of mellow stone cottages that jostled around it like sheep to a shepherd. More, equally ancient, cottages surrounded the green, forming a loop all the way back around to the road where he had nearly collided with the tractor.
He smiled wryly. Blue would love this.
Scarlet never failed to be amused by any assignments or trips to Britain with his American partner in tow. Despite Boston being one of the oldest cities in the United States that city’s buildings were mere infants compared to the ancient patriarchs of the Mother Country, and Blue would wax lyrical. Scarlet would usually smile gamely, and let him wax on, astounded by a knowledge of his country’s history that rivalled his own.
He walked around the green and up into the main part of the village, not seeing any further signs of life, not even a dog. Perhaps everyone was inside those pretty houses with a roaring log-fire going in the grate and their eyes fixed to some daytime rubbish on the tele-viewer, keeping out of the considerable damp chill. Or maybe this was just another dormitory village, with its inhabitants at work thirty or forty miles away, leaving the village at daytime to the birds and to the farmers who still worked the miracle that was the British countryside, with its patchwork fields and hedgerows twittering with life.
An odd noise made him stop for a second. It was low pitched, a droning sound, and he had difficulty in making out which direction it came from. He strolled on, figuring it was probably someone working a chain-saw or hedge-cutter. Hope they’re chopping down some of those ruddy hedges on that lane.
After walking down a narrow street lined with further improbably twee cottages, an old wooden sign for the Blacksmith’s Arms cheered Scarlet enormously, and he ran a dry tongue around his lips.
Maybe just a small beer.
It wouldn’t take long for the effects to wear off, after all, that was one of the few benefits of retrometabolism, apart from springing back to life after innumerable deaths, of course. But that was just plain morbid - much more heartening to lose yourself in a nice pint of bitter with no painful side effects, apart from the odd headache.
And, I deserve it, after the week I’ve had.
He walked past a huge black anvil sat atop a painted white block of rectangular stone, like a mediaeval work of art, and then noticed the big dirty, blue tractor parked next to it. The one he’d nearly collided with.
As he entered the pub all conversation stopped, and several pairs of eyes swivelled around to greet the newcomer in the manner of rural places like these. He muttered an oath as he bumped his head on the low door lintel.
The barmaid stopped pulling mid-pint and laughed. It was a cheery welcoming tone that dispelled the gloom automatically.
“Never fails, that door, gets them every time.”
Scarlet smiled wryly and stepped up to the bar. There were two men perched on stools, and both had the weather-beaten faces and unkempt look of folks who’d spent their lives outdoors – in mud. Both moved unconsciously to let Scarlet sidle up to the bar, and the older-looking one of the two, gave him what looked suspiciously like a crooked smile.
“Sorry I nearly banged up your car,” he said to Scarlet.
“No, it’s fine, no harm done.”
The man nodded, and turned back to his foamy pint, which the barmaid had put down in front of him.
“What’ll it be?” she asked Scarlet.
“Do you have a half pint of bitter?”
“Of course,” she hauled the big brass tap back, and shoved a glass underneath to catch the amber liquid. “It’s our own brew, make it right here on the premises. It’s lovely.”
“You can say that again,” the younger of the two men replied.
Scarlet waited, his burgeoning thirst turning into a burning craving. He’d eschewed any alcohol at the reception, but the funeral, and then this drive, the near-miss, had all conspired to make him desire the beer that was being poured like the Holy Grail.
He took the proffered glass, put the rim to his lips, sipped, let it hover on his tongue, and swallowed.
“Oh, that is good,” he declared.
Beaming smiles all round signified approval of his appreciation of the local beverage and Scarlet let out the imaginary breath he’d been holding and took his half-pint to a seat by the enormous inglenook fireplace to catch the warmth from the obligatory log-fire.
Now that he had a proper look at the place he could see that the pub, like all watering holes of its period, had barely any windows, hence the gloom, and was like a warren, with corridors leading off in every direction, including a set of rickety stairs to his right leading to a second floor in the building. The bar was a great slab of ebony wood; half a tree must have once died to make it, its rich patina a testament to age and nicotine.
He grinned, if Blue was sitting next to him right now, he’d probably be having an orgasm.
Scarlet’s second sip followed on quickly from the first and before he knew it, he’d polished the beer off. His gaze drifted around the room. Apart from the two old guys sitting at the bar, there was another couple in the far corner, her knitting, him reading.
She doesn’t miss a trick,” Scarlet thought. The barmaid gave a merry smile in his direction as he automatically looked up. Probably keeps the place going single handed – a bit of glamour for the old geezers and the younger farm-hands who patronised the place.
He judged she was probably in her mid-thirties, and wore it well. If she ditched the parody earrings and showed a little less bosom she could give Destiny a run for her money. He smirked to himself, imagining the Angel’s look of derision at the comparison, while letting fly with one of her delightful, if inexplicable, French oaths.
Just thinking about it made him feel a little more light-hearted than he’d felt in the last week. It wasn’t bad enough that he’d had to come down for the funeral, but he’d also quarrelled with his girl-friend before he’d departed, over something which, on the face of it, was trivial but drove home the notion that she expected him to toe the line, like he was some dog that she could command to heel whenever she snapped her fingers. He knew he was in still in a sulk, and that it was pathetic, but he flatly refused to let her know she’d got the better of him – at least until he’d sorted out his feelings about their relationship.
The barmaid was still giving him a quizzical look, and he toyed with his answer, knowing full well that he really ought to leave, wander around the village to walk off the alcohol, then find his way back onto the main road and the trunk road to the motorway,. However, the honey-tinged taste of the beer still lingered at the back of his throat along with the delicious beginning of numbness in his face that produced the sense of not caring about past, present or future. Unfortunately, for him, the feeling wouldn’t last much beyond a few minutes.
“Yes, go on then,” he heard himself saying. “Make it a pint this time.”
“It’s nice to see a face that isn’t local,” she said to him, as she handed over the drink.
One of the old geezers snorted loudly, and she gave Scarlet a wink.
“Well, to be honest,” he said, “I got lost – this fog came down out of nowhere and my damn sat-nav had a wobbly. Before I knew it I ended up in your village.”
“It does that round these parts, you’ve got to be careful,” the second old geezer said.
“So, where were you headed then?” she asked.
“The big city. I went there once, didn’t like it at all.”
“Have you lived in the country all your life, then?”
“Born and bred, as they say. I’m Mel, by the way.”
“My mother liked it.”
“Hey, Mel, love, stop making eyes at the young fella and give me another beer.”
“I think you’ve had enough, Sam, and we’ve still the evening to get through tonight.”
“Oh, what’s happening?” Scarlet couldn’t help asking, midway into another long draught, the golden beer was slipping down nicely – too nicely in fact.
“Oh, nothing glamorous – just our late harvest celebration,” the barmaid replied. “Daft I’m sure for you city folks, but out here, we still feel close to the earth, to the seasons, you know?”
“Of course, I think that’s really nice. But I didn’t see any signs, banners or anything as I drove in.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t have. It isn’t for the general public, I know some villages like to advertise theirs and drag locals and outsiders in for miles around, but that’s not what we’re about. You won’t see any tombola stalls or welly-boot throwing here; we’re not doing it to make any money. We just dance on the green and eat and drink beer, sing songs and then go to bed. Boring really.”
“I’m sure it isn’t.”
Mel grinned. “You’re just being polite.”
The door to the pub opened for the first time since Scarlet had come in, and once again, like clockwork everyone turned their heads to see the new arrival. The man wasn’t as tall as Scarlet but he had the build of a boxer under the white shirt. Short, sandy hair covered his head when he took his regulation cap off to greet the small assembly in the pub.
“Evening all,” he said, nodding in a general direction of everyone.
Scarlet kept his surprise in check. A village bobby – surely they were an extinct species?
“So you think the weather will hold, Rob?” Mel asked.
“Just checked the forecast, clear skies, no moon, it’ll be cold out though,”
“Well, we’ll just have to wrap up warm, won’t we?” she said, with a grin.
Rob nodded in reply without a returning smile, then regarded Scarlet for the first time.
“Afternoon, sir,” the policeman said. “I see you’re enjoying the hospitality of the Blacksmith’s.”
“The gentleman got lost in the fog,” Mel said.
Rob looked at Scarlet’s glass, then back to his face, it was obvious what he was thinking and the same thing was only just occurring to Scarlet. He was probably well over the limit right now, and if he was a normal person it would take him at least a couple of hours for it to metabolise. If he went on his way now and got into the car he’d probably have Rob the village Plod after him on his bike and sticking a breathalyser in his face.
Of course, Scarlet wasn’t a normal person, hadn’t been one for some time, and if Plod was to see the results of Scarlet’s inhumanly rapid metabolism, there would certainly be some questions asked - questions that Scarlet had no intention of answering….
The policeman made a wandering circuit around the pub, shaking hands and having a few words with the locals before finally heading out through an archway into another part of the pub.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Mel leant her silvery-blonde head closer to Scarlet’s. “And I probably shouldn’t have convinced you to have another beer.”
“I could have refused, but it was slipping down too well.”
“I told you we brewed good stuff. Bad day, was it?”
“Family funeral, for my great aunt. She was ninety-seven; I guess she had a good innings.”
She nodded solemnly. “That’s a good age right enough.”
Scarlet left it at that. There was no need to divulge any family secrets. No need to tell a complete stranger how the War of Nerves had claimed yet another innocent victim.
Mel attended to another order and Scarlet glanced at his watch for the first time since he’d come into the pub, and then frowned deeply – where on earth had the time gone? It was just as well he wasn’t due to rendezvous with the SPJ shuttle from London Airport until 11.00 am tomorrow.
“How do I get back on the main road?” he asked Mel, when she’d finished and returned to his end of the bar, intent on polishing a row of beer tumblers.
“Duty calls, I’m afraid…”
“Do you have to be somewhere tonight? We have rooms upstairs; it’s slow season.”
Scarlet checked his watch again. “No, I’m sorted, thanks.”
“It’ll be dark soon.’”
“Oh, that’s the least of my problems. Will it take me long to get back on the road?”
“Depends on how fast you drive,” the tractor driver said in his gravel voice. “Just watch out for pheasants.”
Scarlet nodded. “I will thanks.”
The sun had dipped behind a row of trees and the sky was a rose and violet wash as Scarlet exited the Blacksmith’s Arms. He saw people on the village green now, moving about in the waning light. One by one, flickering torches were lit, and set around the grass in wooden holders. Scarlet quickened his pace, hoping his car wasn’t in the way, parked as it was at the side of the green. He felt a momentary pang of regret that he didn’t have the time to stay; he was sure the pub would have served good food to match that delicious beer.
The car started first time and he crept away from the verge, slowly gaining speed. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard, and pushed his foot down a little harder on the pedal. It was almost dark now; amazing how quickly it happened at the end of October. Trees sprang up from every side and the lane narrowed again, just as it had done on the way in.
He switched on the beams…and his heart thumped in his ribcage.
A dark cloud of something was swirling and moving in the air – right in the middle of the road.
In unfathomable panic, Scarlet slammed his foot on the brake and wrenched the wheel around, all the while thinking: not again. The tyres squealed in protest as the vehicle slammed into one of the trees lining the lane.
Dazed, he wondered what the sound was – until he realised he was leaning heavily on the horn. He must have passed out for a few seconds with the impact. Gathering his wits, he peered through the windshield, but he could see nothing in the lane.
A rapping sound on the passenger window made him start, and he turned to see a couple in their late sixties peering into the car.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked, her voice muffled by the glass.
He engaged the passenger side window, it was still working. “Yes, I’m fine, did you see it – ?” he replied in agitation.
Scarlet hesitated. He wasn’t even sure how to describe what had appeared in his headlights. Now, trying to describe it, he felt foolish. “I thought I saw something out there…” He trailed off and gestured helplessly towards the road.
“Did you see anything, Peter?”
“Can’t say that I did, Irene.”
Scarlet pushed open the door to get out of the mangled car, and felt a ripple of burning pain across his chest. He swore under his breath, and automatically scanned for external injuries, noting for the first time the wet trickle of blood on his forehead. He swiftly smeared it away, grateful for the gloom. He didn’t want these people to see how fast surface cuts healed.
“What’s going on here?”
The sound of that voice made Scarlet freeze. It was Rob the Plod. Peter and Irene moved silently back to let him in. Scarlet swallowed and tasted more blood from a cut somewhere in his mouth.
“The gentleman says he saw something in the road,” Irene said. “I suppose that’s how he ended up in the tree.”
Plod looked sceptical.
“It was dark,” Scarlet replied, trying to keep the irritation from his voice, “I swerved to avoid hitting it.”
“It doesn’t appear to be your day, sir.”
Scarlet kept his mouth shut, his face impassive.
“Your car’s in a bit of a mess,” the policeman continued, “I’ll get one of the Bartlett boys to move it with their tractor, I’m afraid I’m going to ask you to come down to the office.”
Scarlet’s heart sank. “I really need to get to London, it’s vitally important.”
“Of course sir; it’s always important.”
“This is.” Scarlet allowed a hint of steel to enter his voice. He pulled out his mobile, intent on calling London, and stared at the screen. Emergency calls only.
He showed it to the policeman who shrugged. “We don’t have a mast close enough; everyone in the village has a problem.”
“Well, I need to use a land-line, if you’ve got it. There’s someone I need to call.”
At that moment, Mel appeared.
“I heard all the commotion, are you all right?” She fussed over Scarlet.
“I’m fine.” He refrained from pushing her hand away; she was only trying to be nice, and he didn’t want Plod getting more annoyed with him.
“You’re bleeding at bit,” she said, squinting at his temple. “Come back to the pub and I’ll sort it out.”
“I’m afraid he’s going to have to take a breathalyser test.”
“Oh for goodness sake, Rob, don’t be a brute. Can’t you see he’s hurt?”
“He was driving without due care and attention…”
“There was something in the road.” Scarlet finally lost his temper. “I tried to avoid it and ended up in the hedge for my pains. I am not imagining things.”
Mel took Scarlet’s arm, manoeuvring him away from the others. “Let’s go back to the pub and get you sorted. Whatever it was that you saw, or imagined you saw, doesn’t matter right now. What you need is to be patched up with some plasters, not a plastic bag shoved in your face.”
“Leave it, Rob…”
He left it.
Scarlet gratefully allowed the barmaid to escort him back to the Blacksmith’s.
He decided against calling London. He really didn’t want anyone from Spectrum to find out he’d crashed a hire car; despite his penchant for doing it on a regular basis in his day job. It was more the nature of the accident that he was intent on keeping quiet. If Ochre got wind of his wild imaginings about strange sightings in the middle of the road, there would be no stopping him, especially this close to Halloween. No, the booking had been on his own personal card, so he’d quietly sort the whole thing out with the agency tomorrow. He’d blame the whole thing on low flying pheasants or something.
Back at the Blacksmith’s, in a room behind the bar, Mel peered at his forehead. “That’s strange, the gash, it’s practically healing up.”
“Uh, my blood clots really fast; it’s been doing it since I was a kid.”
“Look,” he said swiftly, trying to change the subject. “I’m fine, and you must have more things to do than worry about me. You’ve got a fete to oversee, after all.”
“Of course I have, and you must join us, be our guest of honour.”
“Oh, I don’t think so…”
“It’s the least we can do to feed you, after what happened to you out there.”
“It was my own fault, and I’d feel a little….”
“I’m not great company just now.”
“Of course, I understand, but maybe a bit of singing and dancing will take your mind off things…”
He gave her a dubious look, and she returned it with a steadfast one of her own. Scarlet knew enough about women to give up arguing right there and then. In any case, he admitted to himself, he would be famished once the retro-metabolic process healed his fractured rib, so a free dinner probably wasn’t a bad idea.
Scarlet stood on the green amongst the assembled villagers, all of them dressed like extras from the Lord of the Rings. He felt ridiculous in his own garb, a pale blue robe, with a wreath of dried ash and myrtle on his head – feeling singled out - and he was grateful that no one seemed to be in possession of a camera.
He attempted nonchalance, difficult when he could feel every prying eye on him. Scarlet tended to be a private person at the best of times, and his ‘accident’ had made him even more so, despite the best efforts of his closest friends. He felt acutely uncomfortable at these people’s barely hidden interest, as if he was some exhibit in a zoo. He hoped no one recognised him as the infamous Captain Scarlet, and wondered if Mel had been gossiping, telling them about his remarkable recovery from injury. He caught the unblinking stare and then a gap- toothed grin from one of the Bartlett boys - the one who’d almost ran him over this morning with his tractor. He was attired in a long brown robe; his unkempt straw hair sticking out at odd angles.
Was it really only just a few hours ago he had arrived in the village?
Scarlet scratched his neck, where the robe irritated it, and all at once had a burning desire to throw off the ridiculous costume and run as far from this place as he could, but his feet seemed rooted to the damp grass beneath his boots.
The sky was ink-black, shot with stars, and everyone’s breath condensed in the sharp air. The cottages that lined the lanes and the green glowed pale, like bone, their unlit windows like dark eye sockets in a skull.
There was a hush in the assemblage, and their gaze thankfully dragged away from him to the newcomer who almost glided across the grass to join them. Scarlet found his own eyes transfixed by the approaching figure in white.
Her ankle length robe was tied at the waist with a gold cord; her hair was unbound, lay in long, almost silver, tresses, glowing in the firelight. A wreath, similar to Scarlet’s, wound around her head. The bosomy barmaid seemed to have vanished and been replaced by a courtly maiden – she might have been Guinevere, or Galadriel.
Mel stopped in front of him and unselfconsciously curtsied, like a courtier to a king. Scarlet glanced involuntarily around; feeling foolish, but the expressions on their faces told him that the villagers were taking all this seriously. So he bowed back, giving the pantomime the gravitas it required. She then took his arm, to lead him towards the row of benches and tables set up on the green, and the villagers followed suit.
Scarlet let out the painfully long breath he had been holding.
The repast was delicious; he’d not eaten since breakfast, and he tucked in with gusto to the feast fit for carnivores: great platters of roasted beef and lamb were handed round for people to grab and gnaw, served with pitchers of that heavenly, honeyed brew from the Blacksmith’s. He was drinking far more than he knew he should, but it was as if he had a raging thirst that couldn’t be slaked, and one glass followed another. After all, what good was retrometabolism at staving off the chill under his backside?
“Ye enjoying the festival?”
The big, bearded man called Peter sat down beside him with an enormous chicken leg in one hand and a beer in the other.
“I am, but I’m surprised this place isn’t constantly besieged by tourists. I know you’re a bit off the map, but even so….”
Peter grunted. “Tourists have a habit of taking over. Before you know it people flood in to buy up the land and build monstrosities and we become just a dormitory of the next town. We pride ourselves on our independence and we like it that way.”
“Of course, that’s understandable; although in today’s world I’m amazed you can still keep that independence.”
“Oh we have our ways.”
Something about the way he said it made the hairs prickle on the back of Scarlet’s neck. “What do you mean?”
“Farming, livestock, agriculture; all those things that have sustained us for centuries, and will continue to do so if we keep the faith.”
“Faith – in God, you mean?”
The older man’s eyes turned to flint. “We have no need of that claptrap here–“
“Now, now Peter, I hope you’re not scaring Paul off.”
Scarlet was grateful for the interruption, having no desire to get into an argument about religion. The older man muttered something inaudible under his breath and turned away to chat to another villager on the next table.
“Don’t worry about Peter,” she whispered, over the animated chatter of the villagers enjoying their food. “He’s the village curmudgeon; every one should have one.”
Scarlet suppressed a smile.
“But I overheard your conversation,” she continued, “and it’s true what he said about us being self-sufficient. We produce most of our own food, and we have invested heavily in geothermal energy, we have heat pumps all over the village, and solar panels for electricity. We don’t need the outside world.”
“Perhaps that’s just as well,” Scarlet replied. Although power was freely available on Earth from atomics and cold fusion. He idly wondered if these villages were aware of the unseen battle going on around them, the war with the Mysterons, and hoped that they weren’t. Idyllic innocence was hard to come by these days. Maybe these rural folk had the right idea.
“I’ve noticed that you’ve been drinking our beer all night, and you don’t seem as tipsy as you should be.”
Mel’s words broke Scarlet’s reverie; this wasn’t a subject he felt like discussing. He shrugged. “I’ve always been able to hold my drink, but I don’t think there’s anything special in that.”
“Oh, I’m not at all sure that’s true. I think you’re very special indeed, Paul.”
Their eyes met, and in the flickering light of the torches he thought he saw something change in her eyes – the irises dilating – shimmering with rainbow colour, multifaceted.
As if conscious of his sudden scrutiny, Mel rose swiftly, clapping her hands three times, and several villagers followed suit, coming to join in a half circle between two of the large torches, facing them.
It was some strange effect of the torchlight, that’s all, he thought. I’m imagining things.
The group of villagers began to sing incomprehensible words, perhaps some forgotten dialect of old Celtic, he thought, trying to make himself smile with the notion that this was exactly the type of music Blue would most likely think the druids would have listened to. It made the hairs on his neck stand on end again – a haunting, elemental thing – the frequencies hitting the nerves in his body – setting them jangling. Contrary to Mel’s observation, he felt uncommonly lightheaded, as if this potent beer was finally winning the battle. A bout of tiredness commonly followed the completion of retro-metabolic processes, so it wasn’t overly surprising, this somnolence settling over him.
He felt Mel’s fingers clasping his own, and she half-pulled him to his feet, amidst his protestations to remain seated.
“I’m the queen; you have to dance with me, it’s tradition,” she insisted.
Going with the flow was the easiest option, Scarlet decided; he was on their turf, best to be sociable.
“You feel so strong, Paul,” Mel whispered in his ear as she clung to him. She smelt of honey and some spice he didn’t recognise, and he unconsciously inhaled that sweet perfume as they sashayed around the green, surrounded by the chanting villagers. Unusually for him, he stumbled during one twirl, and they almost ended up in a heap on the grass.
“Sorry, Mel, I really need to get some sleep.”
She gripped him tightly. “It’s early yet.”
“I have a car to sort out and a flight to catch. Thanks for everything, you’ve been very kind.”
She smiled. “I would do the same for any stranger who wandered into our village – lost.”
Scarlet trudged back across the damp grass towards the pub, and the singing and chatter faded. He climbed the narrow crooked stairs and found the room in the eaves that Mel had prepared for him. A small window looked out over the back of the pub, away from the green towards a field. He could just make out the pale outlines of a fence in the distance. Scarlet opened the window and leant on the sill, taking deep breaths of the cold, clear air. His breath caught for a second, as he became conscious of a sound in the otherwise complete silence of the night.
It was faint, but steady, like someone was trimming a hedge.
Can’t be, it’s gone midnight.
After a few minutes, the sound ceased, and Scarlet stifled a yawn.
“Time for bed, Metcalfe,” he announced quietly to the empty room. He closed the window and began to undress, leaving his shorts on for modesty. As he crawled under the coverlets, he mused on how he might smuggle some of the Blacksmith’s potent beer onto Cloudbase. A glass or several would work wonders for his insomnia, and be a darn sight more enjoyable than spending a half hour in the Room of Sleep.
The bed was hard, but he’d slept on worse. Within seconds he was snoring softly.
Something woke him in the small hours of darkness, and he saw a vague shape loom over him. His heart thumped in slow-time but he was rapidly alert, fighting-awareness kicking in.
“Hush, Paul, it’s only me.”
He was pretty sure she was naked, confirmed when she slowly pulled the bedspread over so she could slip in beside him,
“Well, this is unexpected,” he said quietly.
She giggled, girlishly.
Scarlet felt warm, yielding skin against his, which had the unforeseen effect of sending his body heat up several notches. He remained still, wondering how he could gallantly refuse her without hurting her feelings. She was a very attractive woman, but he was spoken for.
Maybe she’s just cold.
Long expressive fingers trailed gently along his thigh, leaving a trail of goose-pimples in their wake.
Well so much for that idea.
“Isn’t there a Mr Mel somewhere in the village, who might get cross if he finds you in my bed?”
“You’re so funny, Paul, but no, you are the only person I’m interested in tonight.”
She shifted, and he felt adipose tissue mash into his right arm. He swallowed. Things weren’t going to stay resting for very long if she kept this up, for her hands had started to roam now, quite freely, and they were sending signals to the limbic part of his brain which he would have preferred stayed out of things, because that had an annoying male habit of sending signals to bits of his body that…
“Mel, I don’t think this is –“
“Oh, for goodness sake, Paul…”
She was on top of him now, and her mouth had joined the fray, working swiftly and thoroughly, taking total advantage of his indecision, and that was costly, because those parts of his anatomy were definitely awake now and ignoring his pre-frontal cortex’s demands that they stay out of the conversation.
He was aware only of her touch, brushing him, leaving trails like fire, her scent sweet and cloying in his nostrils. There was a pheromone rush, pressure building to unbearable – until all that remained was the crazy notion that he needed to impale something before he lost his sanity.
Come on Metcalfe, you shouldn’t be doing this.
I can stop this right now.
He saw her in his mind’s eye – silken hair – blue eyes. Beautiful, especially when roused. There had been recriminations and lots of shouting.
And he was still annoyed as hell about it.
Who’s to know?
His thoughts wandered as erratic as his heartbeat; Mel was playing him like a violin, and every second he was losing control. She was awfully good at this; it made him wonder how many other guys she’d lured back into her pub, and the distasteful thought that he was probably just one in a long line of notches on the bedpost. And it occurred to him that he wasn’t making much of an attempt to fight her off.
Just because he was pissed off with Di didn’t mean he had to succumb to the first pretty face that offered him her bed.
He groaned, fought the endorphin rush with effort. “Mel, I’m sorry, you’re a lovely woman, but this really isn’t a good idea, you need to stop this right now – please.”
His pleading tone made her hesitate – finally – and she raised herself and stared at him with eyes that suddenly seemed cold and unfeeling.
“Oh, Paul, why did you have to spoil it all? All I wanted was to make you feel good tonight.”
“Well, I can’t; I – have someone – in my life – this would be wrong.”
“Who’s to know?”
“Paul, dear, Paul, you just don’t understand. I can’t leave you, not yet.”
He let a sympathetic look cross his face. “You have to.”
The fizz in his head was clearing at last, and he found he had enough strength to push her away from him, extricating himself from her long limbs and the coverlet. He hunted for his trousers and shirt, the jacket of his funeral suit, thinking how ridiculous this all felt, perhaps the events of the past week had had more of an effect on him that he’d imagined. He threw some money on the table to pay for the room, and took the stairs in twos as he pulled on his jacket, leaving Mel alone in the bedroom.
He had no intention of telling the policeman about her; she was just a stupid girl who had drunk too much of her own home-brew. But this village was beginning to oppress him, in more ways than one. Never mind that it was the middle of the night, he intended to wake the policeman and demand to use the phone. He’d call Spectrum London and get them to send a car round right away. He’d stay in the policeman’s office for safety if need be.
He shook his head and smiled ruefully. He’d had less trouble fighting off Mysterons…
Scarlet quietly opened the front door of the Blacksmith’s and stepped out into the bracing chill of the night. He closed the door and turned, and as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he felt a deep chill run through him, his mouth falling open in surprise…
The villagers stood outside the pub, still as statues.
They stared at him with steadfast, baleful eyes.
He moved forward, and they did too – in unison – circling him, barring his way. His hand flew to his hip, searching for a weapon that wasn’t there. It was tucked up in a locker at Spectrum’s London Airport facility.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on here,” he said in a quiet, level voice, “but you had better move away and let me through, or I can assure you there will be consequences.”
Peter was at the centre of the circle, and he stared at Scarlet with bleak eyes. “You dared refuse the Queen?”
“What on earth are you on about?”
The door opened behind him and Scarlet turned his head to see Mel standing there, naked as Venus, seemingly oblivious of the audience. He shook his head in disbelief as they bowed in unison to her.
The fete’s over, what is this nonsense?
The crowd parted as someone pushed through…
“Rob!” He felt a huge wave of relief wash over him when he saw the policeman. Now he might get some sense about all this. “Thank goodness, I was going to come over and see you – I need to make a call.”
The sandy-haired man gave Scarlet a long look of reproach. “It really isn’t your day, is it, sir?”
Reprieve turned to disbelief. “Don’t tell me you are part of this – charade?”
Rob didn’t answer, instead, he swiftly yanked Scarlet’s arm behind him in a prefect judo hold behind his back, and before the agent could respond several of the villagers had swarmed in to assist, pinning Scarlet’s arms helplessly behind him.
He struggled, to no avail.
Mel stepped forward and grasped his jaw in strong fingers. Her face, so pretty, so completely normal –
Except for her eyes, those eyes had bothered him for a while, only he hadn’t been able to put his finger as to why. But now, with her face only inches from his, he realised what those multifaceted irises reminded him of.
Then, he heard it again: that sound –
It changed tone, as if approaching, the droning became louder, filling the sky with noise.
Scarlet turned his head this way and that, inhibited by her grasp, trying to see where that damned sound was emanating from, what was causing it. It seemed to resonate in the air, and he clenched his teeth, feeling sweat break out on his forehead.
He saw it then, a dark formless cloud that obscured the starlit sky with its movements. He knew what it was now – the thing that he’d seen in the lane, that had made him crash the car into the trees.
The swarm of – whatever they were – settled in a dense humming mass above the semi-circle of villagers, as if waiting for something. Scarlet tried to remain calm, to combat the terrifying atavistic fear that filled him.
What happened next took him by surprise, and he was unable to do anything about it.
The villagers held him firmly as Mel pulled his jacket aside and ripped open his shirt to bare his torso to the chill of the night. She pressed her naked abdomen hard against him. There was no lust in her gesture, and he felt none either, only a sick apprehension.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered against his jaw.
Scarlet felt a sharp sting in his upper abdomen, like a needle, followed by a chemical wave so strong he nearly passed out. Mixing pain and pleasure, his brain crackled and fizzed and he sagged in the villagers’ arms.
Through hazy eyes he thought he saw – no – surely he had to be imagining it…
“They’re like your bee species,” he heard Mel’s voice over the droning of the insects above their heads, “but not quite the same. Their nectar is potent, geriatric; it keeps time at bay for the chosen ones, this village. But they’re dying, and the hive needs to be replenished.”
“You don’t have to, Paul; all you need to know is that your death will bring more life. This fete honours you, the chosen one.”
“We honour the sacrifice,” the villagers intoned in unison.
“Are you all crazy?” Scarlet cried hoarsely, “You can’t go around sacrificing people. This is the 21st century!” He put as much disgust as he could into the stare he levelled at the policeman. “You don’t deserve to wear that uniform. This is a travesty, and when my friends come looking for me you’ll be walking the beat in a prison cell.”
It seemed there was a look of disquiet in the policeman’s eyes, but it vanished almost immediately.
“I’m sorry for what’s about to happen to you,” Mel said, “but there’s no other way.”
“You will be the host for the Goddess.” Peter informed him flatly.
Mel raised her arms and Scarlet gaped as gossamer filaments blossomed between her fingers, swiftly billowing to fill the space between her arms and waist, like moth wings. Two spider-black antennae worked their way from her forehead to undulate in some unseen breeze. Her face elongated, the multifaceted eyes becoming larger, more bulbous.
Scarlet felt himself close to retching, just thinking of this – thing’s - hands on him, and the horror of what he’d seen –that obscene snakelike whipcord, tipped with a bloodied tip. It had undulated in front of his eyes for a few seconds, before retracting into the stomach of the so-called barmaid – where her navel should have been.
He squeezed his eyes shut, maybe this was all a bad dream, and he’d wake up in the comfy bed in the Blacksmith’s. But the sudden flicker of movement inside his body told him that this was no dream. The reality hit him like an SPV.
“You’re alien, Mel, aren’t you?” He had to know what he was dealing with, perhaps find a way to stop this, for it occurred to him now that he was probably not the first to be subjected to this ordeal.
What a bloody sham.
“You need to tell me…”
Peter raised his hand, about to strike him, “Don’t you dare speak to the Goddess in that way!”
“Leave him, Peter,” Mel ordered, “he’s done enough.”
The grizzled man grunted sourly, but let his hand fall to his side.
“You’ll have to forgive Peter; the old curmudgeon is very protective of me.”
“I have colleagues; they’ll find you and put a stop to this…” Scarlet was cut short as his gut began to churn.
“It’s started, Paul,” Mel said, “It’ll be very painful, but it won’t last long, and I am grateful to you for helping an ancient race to survive.”
“You haven’t exactly given me a bloody choice, have you?”
“Would you have agreed willingly?”
He shook his dark head. The flickers in his stomach were no longer subtle, now it was like a series of nipping, fluttering waves that heralded something worse to come.
“Let him go,” Mel said gently, as if she knew he would have no choice, that running or escape was impossible. So they lowered him to the damp grass and he rolled over, pulling his knees up to his chest, as if to stop as the grinding and sharpening pains in his body.
This can’t be happening to me.
He’d heard stories of the animal kingdom about insects that laid their eggs in other creatures…
Tears leaked from his squeezed lids, his body making small, jerking motions as the host of tiny larvae inside him gorged on his flesh. The embedded parasites grew faster with each passing minute, ravenous, mutating swiftly.
The villagers chanted
Scarlet finally gave in to a long thin scream that rent the air like a knife.
It was just as well that shock had stilled his heart, for he would surely have choked to death as the swarm of alien bees swirled en masse into his oesophagus. His slack lips were forced open, and they poured out through his cracked, lifeless mouth, in a buzzing droning cacophony that split the air.
The chanting stopped.
The Bartlett boys buried Scarlet’s desiccated body in an unmarked grave in the grounds of the church some hours after the new hive had been settled. Their breath billowed in clouds in the chilled air as they worked, but they did so without complaint. It had been a grand fete, once again, and Mel was happy. Life in the village would carry on, as before, protected by the fog and the bees.
They shovelled the last spade full of dirt onto the burial mound and rubbed their soiled hands together. They put arms over one another’s shoulders and trudged off towards the Blacksmith’s, as the first rays of light stole across the sky.
There was no one in the quiet graveyard to see the soil moving on the surface of the mound. Anyone who happened to be looking would think it was the work of a mole or some other creature of the night. Five minutes later something broke through the soil.
There was no one to see the arm thrusting upwards from the earth, its clawed fingers tearing at the cold air.
This story has missed two previous Halloween challenges, as I had complete writer’s block for the last few scenes, and real life just kept getting in the way. (Well that’s a convenient excuse!) This year I was determined it was going to be finished, but I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of Marion Woods, who helped me wade through my confusion as to which storyline I should run with. She also reviewed the finished article, correcting all my really awful punctuation, and offering some very useful comments to hone and polish. Any errors and omissions are my own.
And of course, my deep thanks to Chris Bishop, for continuing to allow me to post my stories (however few and far-between they are these days!) on her amazing website.
The character of Captain Scarlet of course belongs to the TV series “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” ©, which is the creation of Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. The rights of the series belong to Carlton International. No money whatsoever was made from this story.
Happy Halloween to all.