It dragged itself slowly along the ground, creeping, creeping, creeping silently towards its chosen victim. Close now. So close it could almost touch her . . . But then the dark-haired, blue-eyed hero, rifle in his arms, turned and saw it.
“Look out!” he shouted, pulling the beautiful, scantily clad young redhead toward him, away from the tattered and bleeding thing that had once been the villain’s arm.
The hero trained his rifle on it and fired. When the electron stream hit it, the gory lump of flesh tried to rear up, then quivered and lay still.
“Ugh!” cried Grinham loudly as he covered his face with his hands and cringed in his seat. “I hate when they do that.”
“Easy, mate, it’s just a film,” his companion growled. People in the surrounding seats turned and glared at them, angered by the disruption. Embarrassed, Towler could only glare back, grateful that the flickering, reflected light from the screen didn’t show how red his face was.
After leaving the cinema, the two men stopped in a pub. Grinham’s hand was still shaking as he raised his third pint of beer. From behind the bar, the publican was giving him wary looks, obviously calculating whether he could safely manage a fourth, should he ask for one.
Towler set down his own pint and leaned across the table. “What is wrong with you?” he snapped. “We’ seen lots of ’ orror films and I’ never seen you get so rattled.”
Grinham swallowed his rising gorge before speaking. “Didn’t it bother ye none?” he asked, striving to control the tremor in his voice and hands. “I mean, that one we jus’ saw, it was too much like what we do.”
Towler calmly took a long pull of his pint before answering. “Nah, it’s nothing like. What we clean up ain’t alive. It’s jus’ meat. Dead meat.” He took another drink. “You can’t think on it any other way, Smiley, or you won’t be able to do your job.”
His friend leaned his head on one fist as he nodded vigorously. “Yeah, yeah. I know yer right, Jim.”
Towler looked at his friend’s still shaking hand and the beer he had slopped on the table. “Mebbe you should think about gettin’ outta the crime-scene cleanup business, mate.”
Grinham shrugged. “Mebbe. I could do with another pint while I think.”
The publican raised an eyebrow when Towler stepped up to buy the round. “I think your friend might be over his limit.”
“Nah, ’e’s just spooked by the movie we seen. He’ll be awright soon.”
Towler watched as Grinham spilled his beer again. You’d better be ’right soon, mate, or I’m gonna have to look fer another partner.
For once, Colonel White thought, the Mysterons’ threat had been fairly straightforward. WE WILL DESTROY THE HEART OF A SCANDALOUS QUEEN’S LONDON NAMESAKE. England had had several notorious queens, but few had public memorials apart from their tombs. Even fewer of those memorials or tombs were in London. Captain Scarlet had quickly identified the queen as George IV’s, Caroline of Brunswick, whose name had been memorialised in her lifetime by Queen Caroline’s College in south London. The college’s heart was easily identified as well: a 19th-century alumnus had acquired what was reputed to be the mummified heart of an early Crusader and donated it to the college for its antiquities collection. The collection was housed in the same building as the porter’s lodge. There could be no doubt that this was the Mysterons’ target.
Spectrum London agents, dressed in plain clothes, quickly began carrying out Colonel White’s orders in the predawn hours. While some searched for signs that a bomb had already been planted, other agents oversaw a quiet, orderly closure of the college before the day’s classes began, ostensibly because of a power failure. But to anyone watching, the college would appear to be open as usual. Plain-clothes Spectrum personnel posing as students and teachers began arriving as if to attend classes. Unless a Mysteron agent had already been in the college and remained hidden there despite the search, the odds were good that the switchover had not been noticed. Armed, uniformed agents from Cloudbase had already concealed themselves in carefully chosen hiding places around the entrances to the college, and settled in to wait, listening to the reports of the plain-clothes agents from their mobile posts.
A few students and dons turned up, protesting legitimate reasons to be on campus despite the closing; they left after being cleared by the Mysteron detectors. The daily delivery wagons also began arriving early, bringing various supplies to the college. The drivers were met by “student photographers” using “experimental cameras.” Shortly after 8 a.m., a delivery wagon marked with the logo of a popular overnight-delivery company turned off the street, drove under the college’s northern archway, and parked near the porter’s lodge. “Students” reported the truck’s arrival, speaking quietly into concealed mics as they casually strode through the quad past the truck. One with a “camera” under his arm slowly made his way toward the lodge. A workman got out of the truck and opened the rear doors. He paid no attention to the denim-clad young woman who stood nearby, searching for something in her rucksack.
“Never mind using the Mysteron detector. It’s Captain Black,” she said softly into her radio. “No doubt at all. I’m getting clear.” Staying in character, she looked at her watch, exclaimed softly at the time, and trotted away as if late for a class. The quad was clear of people in less than a minute.
Captain Blue and his team were closest to Black’s position. He flipped down his radio cap mic. “Stand by,” he ordered.
If Captain Black had noticed the disappearance of the students, it had not alarmed him. After retrieving a package, he shut the doors and began walking toward the porter’s lodge.
“Go! Go! Go!” snapped Captain Blue over his radio. The uniformed and armed Spectrum agents leapt from their hiding places.
Captain Black was obviously surprised to find Spectrum waiting for him, but his hesitation didn’t last long. He threw the package into the path of the agents nearest to him and ran through the archway, past the porter’s lodge, and into the quad beyond.
Captain Blue activated his radio cap again. “He’s making for the western gate! Captain Scarlet, stand ready!”
“S.I.G.” replied Scarlet. He could see Black approaching. He was fast; he’d managed to outstrip his pursuers, even those not burdened with the bulky Mysteron guns. Black must have visited the college in preparation for this mission, Scarlet thought, and chosen his escape route through this quad. For two and a half centuries, the Great Quad of Queen Caroline’s had been the repository of monuments to its namesake and to distinguished alumni, patrons, dons, and other of the college’s luminaries. Such honours had traditionally been liberally bestowed, making the quad very crowded indeed. The forest of monuments also made it impossible to get a clear shot, making the quad an ideal choice for an escape route. Or maybe, mused Scarlet, Captain Black had not chosen or planned at all, but just had the good luck to run into this quad. Scarlet’s grip on his pistol tightened. Well, Black’s luck had just run out.
Captain Scarlet and his backup agents broke cover as their quarry neared the gate where they were hidden. Scarlet was close enough to see the look of shock that flashed across Black’s face for only a moment before he changed direction as quickly and easily as a hare, and pelted away towards the far side of the Great Quad, deeper into the college’s grounds.
Stronger and faster than humans, Captain Black darted around the various monuments, never allowing himself to be clearly visible for more than a few moments, pulling away from all the Spectrum agents except Captain Scarlet. Black raced into the Great Quad’s southern passageway, cleared it and made an abrupt turn. He wasn’t far ahead of Scarlet now. Beyond the passage, Scarlet saw his quarry running across another, smaller quad, one apparently devoid of cover. As Scarlet emerged from the passageway to the quad, he halted and took careful aim at the other man’s back. Even if a bullet won’t stop Black, it will at least slow him down, he thought. He was near enough not to miss.
But just as Captain Scarlet fired, Captain Black made a ninety-degree turn into a narrow passageway. The bullet ricocheted off the stone wall, inches to one side. Scarlet could hear Black’s boots thundering on the cobbles within the passage, then nothing.
Scarlet cautiously approached the passageway; a sign for tourists informed him that it lead to one of Queen Caroline College’s smallest and oldest quadrangles. He entered the narrow tunnel slowly and cautiously, his pistol ready. At the end, Scarlet peered around the corner into the quad. There were a couple of small plane trees, which would provide Black with very little cover. Scarlet noted with satisfaction that there was no other way in or out of the quad besides the one he was standing in.
Long ago, when this part of London had been subject to intermittent flooding, the ground-floor windows and doors had been blocked up. Captain Black was in the middle of the quad, looking up at the windows many feet above his head. There was no chance that he could jump high enough to catch a window sill, let alone pull himself up. As Scarlet watched, Black turned around, studying every wall of the quad for an escape route and seeing none. He even looked skywards, but nothing happened.
Scarlet felt a glow of triumph. Before, when he had managed to corner his nemesis, the Mysterons had teleported him beyond reach. But not this time. Later, after Black had been safely captured, he could speculate why. Now he radioed for agents to take up positions in the windows of the upper floors around the quad while he kept Black at bay. “Your masters seem to have abandoned you, Captain Black. You’re trapped. Give yourself up!”
Black looked towards his foe and sneered. “There are other ways to escape than walking or climbing out, Captain Scarlet. As you should know!” Black went rigid and smoke began rising from his collar.
Captain Scarlet knew the signs. He turned and ran back up the passageway just before the Mysterons’ premier agent exploded.
“Have a look at this, Smiley. Nice of Inspector Sutherland.”
Grinham took the offered piece of paper, but he didn’t miss seeing Towler pocket the cheque it had contained. He shrugged inwardly. Someone had to get it to the bank, and if Towler didn’t do the job, Grinham would have to. The paper was a note on Scotland Yard stationery, praising the crime-scene-cleaning job they’d done last week. It wasn’t the first time Towler and Grinham had been praised for their meticulous work. In a nationwide poll, they’d been recognised as the best in providing crime-scene cleanups. They didn’t just clean up, as other services did, they carefully collected and preserved everything they recovered at the crime scene, and turned it over for analysis and investigation. They were discreet and reliable. Most importantly, they did not appear to be skilled technicians involved in such important work. Outwardly, they appeared to be and behaved as what they advertised themselves as being, an ordinary house-and-garden cleaning service. No one outside of the agencies that employed them, not even their closest kin, knew that Towler and Grinham had gained the trust of organizations as important and diverse as Scotland Yard, MI5, and even Spectrum, to perform sensitive forensic work.
Reading between the lines of the Inspector’s letter, Grinham understood that Scotland Yard had recovered some kind of valuable evidence from the materials he and Towler had retrieved. It was a right nasty mess, Grinham recalled. A double murder with an axe. “Doesn’t say anythin’ ’bout them bein’ closer ter arresting a suspect yet.”
“They wouldn’ be tellin’ us. Not our job to know.”
Grinham’s head snapped up as the phone rang. Towler got to it before Grinham could rise from his chair. “Towler’s and Grinham’s Cleanin’ Services.” He jotted down an address as he listened. “Right. We’ll be there in a hour.” He rang off.
“So what’s the job?”
“One you’ll love, mate,” grinned Towler.” It’s fer Spectrum again. Out at Queen Caroline’s College this time. Fella went and blew hisself up.”
“Oh fer the love o’ Gawd,” groaned his partner, swallowing hard. “You mean like bits and pieces all over?”
“Yeah. Spectrum always pays extra fer that kinda job!” Towler’s grin collapsed into a frown. “Smiley, yer not still thinkin’ ’bout that stupid movie, are you? Afraid a piece of summan’s arse is gonna come after yer?” He sneered, not sure whether his partner had really turned slightly green.
Grinham shook his head. “ ’Course not, Jim. It’s been weeks now.” He hadn’t mentioned the nightmares he’d been having, terrifying dreams of being pursued by broken bodies. He’d been afraid Jim would laugh at him; now he was sure of it. “We’re gonna need the hoser, I s’pose, ter wash down the blood and stuff we can’t pick up or sweep.”
“You can call ’em. We’re gonna be workin’ on grass, make sure they know that.”
The van was unremarkable, a nondescript beige emblazoned with “Towler’s and Grinham’s Cleaning Services: Homes, Offices, Gardens.” When they pulled up to the college gates, Spectrum Security inspected the van, examined Towler and Grinham’s passes and authorizations, and took their photographs with a strange, bulky camera before waving them through the cordon.
Other guards directed them into the quad, but refused the invitation to go in with the cleaners. Towler grinned. It was standard operating procedure for crime-scene cleaners to work without untrained supervisors to impede the work, but he never could pass up the opportunity to see someone flinch when asked to spend hours looking at blood and gore.
Towler stood beneath the archway, fists on hips, as he surveyed the quad. “Ya know, mate, callin’ this scene a bloody mess would be a understatement.”
Grinham had heard the joke many times before, but still chuckled dutifully. Besides, it was apt. Even from here he could see that no wall was untouched and the ground was covered with gore. But, he shrugged inwardly, at least the space was confined. With the whole cleaning team at work, it would take only a matter of hours to finish the job. Good thing, that, he thought to himself, suppressing a shiver up his spine. He’d had the nightmare about the horror movie again last night and didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary. Technically, the crew who brought the truck filled with the special liquid gelatine was only supposed to hose down the crime scene and its vicinity, then gather up the mess, but as a rule they helped with the entire cleaning process, making the job go faster for everyone. Grinham walked back to the end of the passageway and looked to see if the little tanker and its crew was approaching yet. He’d expected them to be there already.
He heard Towler’s mobile phone ring in the quad. Towler answered it, then swore crudely. “Just get here as soon as you can, okay?” He snapped the phone shut and shoved it angrily in his pocket.
“’s matter, Jim?” Grinham called.
“We’re on our own for a while, Smiley. The hosers are going to be late. The berks at the tanker depot tried to fill the tanker with the wrong fluid. If we used that stuff to spray things down, we’d miss findin’ some of the bits and all this nice green grass and those plane trees would be browner than a turd by the end o’ the week. The hosers stopped ’em ’fore the tanker was full, but they’re waitin’ for the robots to finishing scrubbin’ it clean so they c’n fill it with the right stuff. They won’t be here for several hours at least.”
The other man groaned. Finding all the bits and pieces of a blown-up body was a long, involved process requiring a careful and methodical search of the area in a grid pattern. With the tanker crew’s help, he and Towler had estimated that they’d be finished by mid-afternoon. Grinham felt cold and hoped Towler wouldn’t notice if he’d turned pale. “It will take all day fer the two o’ us ter clear this up!”
“Yeah, but we got ter get every bit, big and small. Can’t leave any bit behind. Spectrum’s special orders. They’re fussier than Scotland Yard, y’know.”
“Reckon we’ll have ter skip dinner and tea if we want ter get away from here while it’s still light.” Grinham shook his head and resigned himself to the task. If he tried to think of the body parts as just meat of no particular origin, like Towler said to, he could cope until help arrived. “Let’s get ter work, then. Me Mum use’ ter say, ‘Sooner started, sooner done’.” An’ I wanna get done here and get out faster than that.
Together, the two men unloaded the plastic storage barrel from the lorry, set it on the wheeled pallet, and pushed it against the quad’s back wall. They started work at opposite corners. They would first sweep for the larger, easier to handle pieces that could be shovelled up or lifted with tongs and drop them into the barrel. Then they would sweep the grid again with increasingly more precision tools, for bits that were smaller or more delicate, place the bits in smaller containers, and add them to the barrel.
“It’d be a lot easier if this had happened indoors,” sighed Grinham. “We could just hose down the walls with whatever the depot gave us and scrape everythin’ off the floor.”
Towler stood beneath a plane tree and reached up with his long tongs. From the fork of a tree branch, he plucked an intact hand. He grinned wickedly, seeing a priceless opportunity to needle his partner about his idiotic fears. “Oi, mate!” he shouted. “Need a hand?” When Grinham turned, Towler waved the disembodied hand at him.
Grinham replied with a crude gesture that made his partner laugh. In a display of machismo, Towler casually flung the hand in the direction of the open barrel; it landed on the rim, teetered, then dropped to the ground beside the pallet. He ignored it; he’d get it later, or else Grinham would. Despite his faults, Grinham was keen on tidiness and never left a job unfinished, even if someone else started it.
Grinham suppressed an exclamation of disgust and turned it into a snort as he gathered up some nondescript pieces of shattered bone and ragged flesh. In spite of his efforts not to, he couldn’t help thinking about their source. “How d’ these people manage to blow themselves up, anyway?”
“Dunno, mate. Not our business to know.”
The two men did most of their work in silence. Grinham, who normally chattered and joked heartily during a job, kept his mouth shut, his lips tightly pursed. He was afraid that if he spoke too much, or even breathed too much, his roiling stomach would betray his state of mind. He wanted to finish this job and get away.
From time to time, Towler paused and watched his partner work. It was a cool day, but Grinham had broken a heavy sweat and his complexion was a shade whiter than usual. He wasn’t working with his usual precision or care, either. He was raking and shovelling quickly, and instead of depositing his recoveries carefully, he was tossing them into the barrel from a distance. His aim was accurate, which was fortunate, as he obviously didn’t want to get near the barrel. Towler guessed that his partner was thinking of that stupid horror film. He debated calling the tanker crew and telling them the joke was over and to come around right away. Nah, better let Smiley work all the fear crap outta ’hisself, thought Towler. The more he does, the better for ’im.
“Smiley, I’m off to find the loo. Move that barrel up the quad while I’m gone, awright?”
Grinham looked aghast. It was bad enough he had to spend his day picking up body parts, with only his partner to help. And one bit at a time was all he’d been able to manage so far, staying as far from the barrel as he could. The nightmare images kept crowding into his mind and he didn’t want to go right up to the thing, filled with pieces of a broken body, if he didn’t have to. “Can’t you do it before you leave?”
“Nah, if I move somethin’ heavy like that, I won’t need to find the loo anymore. I’ll be lookin’ for dry trousers!” Towler laughed at Grinham’s expression and left.
Colonel White looked thoughtful as Captain Scarlet finished his report. “So Captain Black is dead. But why would the Mysterons abandon their own best agent?”
Captain Blue commented, “Black is — was — the most easily recognised agent they had. Even less-experienced Spectrum personnel know what he looks like. That’s why we were able to act so quickly this morning when that field agent saw him. His distinctive looks probably became more of a liability as time passed.”
“It would explain why the Mysterons didn’t teleport him out when I had him trapped. They abandoned him,” said Captain Scarlet. “But they didn’t destroy him,” Scarlet added, thinking over Black’s last words to him. “He could have surrendered. He chose to escape the way he did.”
“Yes.” The Colonel knit his brow. “But I can’t help wondering if we’ve really seen the last of Captain Black.”
When Towler got back, the pallet with the barrel on it had been moved. He remembered the hand and noticed it wasn’t lying on the ground where the pallet had been before. His partner must have found it and tossed it into the barrel where it belonged. Good ol’ Grinham: even when his imagination was running wild, he never left a job unfinished.
Long hours later, the quad was done. The tanker had finally arrived and the crew sprayed the liquid gelatine over everything. As they watched, the gel began to shrink and peel away, lifting every minute scrap of flesh, every bone splinter, and every trace of blood and trapping it within a solid cake of gelatine. After a half hour’s wait, the gelatine cakes had dried, leaving every stone, every leaf, every blade of grass clean. Not a trace of the morning’s carnage would remain after the cakes were cleaned up. Towler and Grinham helped the tanker crew rake and shovel them up and dump them into the barrel with the rest of the body. Grinham worked with a will, even insisting on another sweep of the quad to make sure they’d gotten every bit. He knew Spectrum was very particular about recovering as much evidence as humanly possible. Anyway, he hated leaving a job unfinished, even one that spooked him so badly.
It was late in the day by the time every bit of what had once been Captain Black had been recovered and tossed into the collection barrel. The sun would set soon and Spectrum Medical had already called several times demanding to know when the products of Grinham’s and Towler’s labours would be delivered. Both men were tired and hungry, anxious to make their delivery, and be off to the pub for some food and comfort. Still, Grinham insisted on hammering down the barrel’s lid after Towler fitted it on snugly. He went all the way around the rim twice and had started a third circuit with the hammer when Towler grabbed his wrist before the next blow fell.
“Leave off, Smiley. Spectrum Medical’s gonna have the devil’s own time gettin’ it open now,” Towler grunted.
Grinham looked sheepish as he set the hammer down. “Sorry, Jim. ’s been a long day.”
“Forget it. Let’s get goin’.”
Together, the men loaded the barrel and the dolly into the back of their van, shut the doors behind them, and secured the cargo before walking forward to their seats. With a “cheerio” to the tanker crew, who were still packing away their tools, and a parting wave to the Spectrum security guards, they were headed for the motorway. In a few more hours, they’d be free for the night.
Towler snarled when he heard the metallic click. “Smiley, what the hell d’ you think you’re doin’?”
Grinham didn’t answer until he had drained his can of beer. Even warm from standing in the van all day, it tasted good. “Just relaxin’, Jim.”
Towler swore. “So that’s why the fridge never has any beer in it. You been hidin’ it all here in the van!”
Grinham shrugged, then realised Towler, who was watching for traffic, wouldn’t notice. “Ah, c’mon, Jim. ’s been a long day. Here, I’ll open one for you.”
“You know I can’t. Not while I’m drivin’.” He heard his partner snap the tab and snorted. “Oh, g’wan then and drink it yerself. But you owe me, mate!”
“Been a hard day,” mumbled Grinham. “No dinner, no tea. Gonna be a late supper t’night.” He sighed, feeling the alcohol take effect already. “’m tired.”
They drove awhile in silence. Grinham was on his sixth beer when Towler spoke again. “Mebbe I shouldn’t ’ave stalled the hosers so long. We probably coulda finished the job and eaten our tea before goin’ ter Spectrum Medical.”
“After you called the hosers, I called ’em back, told ’em not ter show till late.” He ignored Grinham’s stammering. “That was just playacting, when the phone rang. I ’ad to ’ave a reason fer them not to show. It was for yer own good, mate. I thought you needed to get tired enough so you won’t dream ’bout nothin’ tonight.”
An angry Grinham unhooked his seat belt and leaned over to punch Towler on the shoulder. The blow caused Towler to momentarily lose his grip on the steering wheel. The van swerved before he regained control. “Ow! Watch it, Smiley!”
“You shouldna done it!” shouted Grinham, his voice beginning to slur. “You stupid git!”
“You’re the stupid git!” Towler roared back at him. “Thinkin’ that shite horror movie were real!”
Captain Black’s hand had been clinging tight to the underside of the wheeled pallet for a long time. As the men argued, it released its grip and dropped to the floorboards; the soft thud was covered by the men’s raised voices. The hand turned itself over and lay still for a moment, as if getting oriented. Then it slowly began to drag itself forward with its fingers. Separated from the rest of the body for most of a day, it wouldn’t live much longer. But it had enough strength to carry out one last mission and try to deliver two more servants to the Mysterons.
“In local news, there was a fiery crash on the M25 this evening. According to witnesses, a van suddenly swerved wildly out of control, back and forth across the lanes of the motorway, before careering down an embankment, rolling over once, then slamming backwards into a tree. The passenger, Eric Grinham, was thrown clear of the wreck. Passing motorists stopped to help and managed to pull James Towler, the driver, out of the wrecked van. One witness reported seeing what he described as some sort of eerie green spotlights pass over the scene before the van burst into flames. Police speculate that the green light, whose source has not been determined, might have been some sort of laser pointer and could have startled the driver and caused him to lose control. Both of the men were taken to St Jude’s Hospital. There has been no report on their conditions.”
“It was the hand!” screamed Grinham as he struggled to escape from the men holding him down on the trolley. “The hand did it! It just crep’ up over his shoulder and started chokin’ ’im! He lost control o’ th’ van and the hand let go of ’im. It woulda got me, but I flew out the window before it could!” He giggled hysterically and sagged. “It got Jim. Jus’ like in the movie.” He turned to look into the face of one of captors. “Jus’ li’ the movie,” he slurred, and sagged even more, all the fight gone out of him.
One of the men holding Grinham waved a hand in front of his face, lips pursed, nose wrinkled, and eyes rolling. The others, who could also smell the alcohol on Grinham’s breath, laughed.
Doctor Farnsworth, the psychiatrist on call, had noticed, too. It was obvious that the man was intoxicated and hallucinating about a currently popular science-fiction-horror movie. At least it was a change from the usual pink-elephant or crawling-roaches type of delirium. Physically, Grinham was in pretty good shape, which was surprising considering how far he’d been thrown from the van. Pity, Dr Farnsworth thought, that he couldn’t say as much for Towler, who was still being worked on by casualty doctors. He noted that despite Grinham’s slight build, he was much stronger than he looked; it had taken four men to carry him in and hold him until a sedative could be administered. His hands were strong and sinewy, developed over long years of manual labour. That explained how he’d managed to do so much damage to the other, heavier man’s larynx. It was a wonder Towler had managed to keep breathing until he was brought into the casualty ward at St Jude’s. He’d be in hospital for a long time.
The doctor considered. Without knowing his patient’s background, he couldn’t say whether Grinham was a violent drunk who would be fine — or not — once he sobered up. He might have experienced a first-time psychotic episode. He might have a history of mental illness. There was no way of knowing just now. So for his own safety and that of other patients, Dr Farnsworth ordered Grinham taken to the low-security psychiatric ward. He would check on the little man in the morning.
Doctor Thistle was exasperated. “Can’t anyone here deal effectively with the police?” She knew she was being unfair to her staff. After all, it was the first time Spectrum Medical had been faced with such a situation. They had to recover Captain Black’s remains. But how to do it without creating an incident? There was a serious clash of jurisdictions at issue. How could Spectrum convince the police that the body parts they’d found were destined for Spectrum because they were the remains of a Mysteron and not a human being?
Should we even try to convince them? Thistle wondered. If the remains are really in bad condition, we won’t be able to learn much from them anyway. Explanations could require exposing Towler and Grinham’s true profession, and that would upset a lot of people who use their special services. It would certainly make Towler and Grinham useless to us in the future. Not that they’re going to be available for a long time.
The doctor sighed and looked at the clock. The police would keep Black’s remains securely locked up, so that wasn’t a concern. And after talking to the doctors at St Jude’s, Thistle knew Towler wouldn’t be going anywhere soon, and couldn’t say anything he shouldn’t, either. Grinham might be a problem, though. How long could they trust him to remain true to his oath of secrecy? The doctor mulled over the problems for a long time before she finally decided to let the question wait until morning. She would contact Spectrum’s London Headquarters for assistance. The situation was going to require legal minds, as well as medical, before it could be sorted out. In the meantime, nothing was going to happen.
All the patients had been seen to bed before Hayes, the night attendant on St Jude’s low-security psychiatric ward, came on duty. He was looking forward to a quiet evening looking at magazines, and was engrossed in fantasies of rock stardom when he heard a soft noise of distress. He glanced up and listened. More noises.
He put his magazine down with a crack. “Always happens, one of them loonies has a bad dream or messes all over the bed or floor or summat,” he grumbled. “And I gets to clean up after them.” He deliberately took his time checking out the noise. It hadn’t been very loud and it hadn’t been repeated in at least ten minutes, so he wasn’t sure now where it had come from. He walked slowly down the hall as he methodically opened each door to glance inside.
Eventually, to his disgust, Hayes discovered that one of the long-term patients had managed to hang himself in the wardrobe with a bedsheet. A trauma team responded to his call for help, and worked on the patient, who didn’t respond to any of the efforts to revive him. Hayes stood by, repeating that he’d just found him while making his routine rounds and wondering if he’d kept the details straight or would he be caught in his lie. His luck was in. After declaring the patient dead, the doctor just instructed Hayes to call the morgue and have the body removed.
But first, Hayes had to deal with the rest of the patients. Because of the emergency, the trauma team had made no effort to be quiet and many of the ward’s patients had been awakened. Most had gone back to bed when Hayes told them the excitement was over, but one slightly built man remained in his doorway, pale with terror and breathing heavily.
“Did it get him, too? Is it here?” he wailed. At everyone’s blank expression, he wailed even louder. “The hand! Did you see it?”
Cursing under his breath, Hayes rushed to soothe him. “No, Mr, uh,” he glanced at the handwritten label tacked to the patient’s door,” Mr Grinham. Mr Smith is fine, he was a bit sick, that’s all.”
The physician came to the attendant’s aid. “That’s right, sir, sorry to make such a fuss, but that’s a doctor’s job, you know. Here, let me give you something to help you relax. It will keep you safe through the night,” the doctor added, seeing the terror rising in Grinham’s eyes.
Hayes fetched a sedative from the ward’s pharamaceutical closet and helped steady Grinham’s arm so the doctor could give him the injection. Almost immediately, Grinham’s eyes closed and his breathing became regular as he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Hayes easily caught him as he slumped, and lifted the little man onto his bed. The doctor nodded. “Nothing will disturb him now.”
It was several hours before a dark-haired, sallow-skinned man wearing a white coat over his black shirt and trousers came to the psychiatric ward, pushing a trolley. To Hayes’s eyes, he looked exactly like a morgue ghoul ought to. “I’ve come to collect the body of Mr Smith.” Even his deep, resonant voice was sepulchral. Hayes shuddered.
“He’s in E14, to your left and down the corridor. We only keep the door to the ward locked. All the patients’ doors are open. Just help yourself.”
The man nodded and disappeared with his trolley around the corner. When he returned some time later, Hayes looked up from his magazine and then looked again. Now that it was under a sheet, Mr Smith’s body seemed larger than it had been before. Hayes commented on it.
The man nodded, then spoke in that sepulchral voice that made Hayes’s skin crawl. “It’s very warm in his room. The body has begun to bloat.” He started to lift the edge of the sheet.
“NO! I was just making talk. I don’t want to see!” He waved the morgue attendant to follow him to the door and unlocked it so the man could leave with his gruesome burden.
Next day, when Dr Farnsworth came to the psychiatric ward of St Jude’s, he was pleased to find the curtains opened wide to allow the morning light in and his patient waiting for him quietly in the common room.
“Good morning, Mr Grinham!”
The little man looked chagrined. “G’ Mornin’, doctor,” he mumbled, lowering his eyes.
The psychiatrist asked a few routine questions, eliciting the expected answers about a raging headache, general soreness, and the like.
“I’ll have the orderly bring you some paracetemol directly. Do you remember anything about last night?” When Grinham indicated he did not, the doctor explained that he and Towler had been brought to the hospital after a road accident. Grinham’s injuries were minor, but his blood-alcohol level had been very high.
“When I saw you last night, you were raving about a creeping hand attacking your partner,” the doctor said matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” Grinham flushed. “We saw a movie a coupla weeks ago. I been having nightmares ever since.”
The doctor made a note. “Do you ever drink too much and have the nightmares while you’re awake?”
Grinham flushed even darker. “Uh, yeah. And, uh, I had a tough day at work yesterday, an’ I was drinkin’ some beer in the van. I don’ remember how much. A lot, I guess.”
“Do you remember anything before the accident? Did you have an argument with your partner?” asked Dr Farnsworth. He smirked when Grinham hung his head and nodded slightly. He’d guessed as much. The rest of the story unfolded as he’d expected. When he suggested that Grinham, having drunk too much beer, had lost his temper and tried to knock some sense into his friend, Grinham meekly acknowledged remembering that.
“Am I in trouble?” he asked.
The psychiatrist did not answer immediately. He debated whether to tell Grinham that the police had asked to speak with him. While investigating the accident, they had found charred but recognizably human body parts scattered inside the van, and a partially open barrel that contained some kind of flesh. There wasn’t likely to be any reasonable explanation, Farnsworth thought. And it wasn’t unusual for a murderer to drown his guilt and revulsion in drink, as Grinham had apparently done. This could be an ideal chance for him to study a criminal mind firsthand. If the case proved to be sensational enough, perhaps he could even make his name as an author. That decided him. He would tell the police that a full psychiatric evaluation had to be completed before they tried to question Grinham. Or, for that matter, Towler. The police would have to rely on him and keep him informed. Doctor Farnsworth smiled.
“In trouble for assaulting your friend? Well, it’s up to him whether he wants to press charges against you. But if it helps, the police haven’t been round to see you about that.” That much was true, Farnsworth soothed his conscience.
“Could I see him?”
“He won’t be able to speak to you,” Dr Farnsworth warned. “You managed to crush his larynx.”
“I just need ter talk to ’im. I’ve gotta tell ’im I’m sorry. He’s me best mate.” Grinham looked so sad and forlorn that he made the doctor think of a kicked dog.
“Since you’re genuinely remorseful, I think that can probably be arranged,” Farnsworth replied with a small, conspiratorial smile. “It might take a day or so, but you’ll need to stay in hospital yourself for a while, just for tests and observation, to make sure we haven’t overlooked any serious injuries and you’re completely recovered.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
After the psychiatrist left, Grinham smiled to himself. He would be seeing Towler very soon. The Mysterons’ first attempt had failed and the hand had died, but the Mysterons’ orders would be carried out.
Grinham never let a job go unfinished.
Deranged Author’s Credits:
Many thanks are owed to Chris Bishop and Marion Woods for their edits, insights, and suggestions offered during beta reading. They’re always willing to lend a hand to a writer in distress. If the story gave you a chill, Chris and Marion get part of the credit: they deserve a round of applause (or, I could say, ‘a big hand’). If it didn’t, the fault is mine alone, as are any lingering mistakes and flaws I just couldn’t get a grip on.
The characters from the TV series “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, are the intellectual property of various rightholders, myself regrettably excluded.
Queen Caroline’s College is entirely fictional, although some elements of it were inspired by real places. The non-series characters, particularly Grinham (Smiley), Towler, Hayes, and Farnsworth, are also fictional. None of them are drawn from any real people in whole or in part; any resemblances are purely coincidental.
That’s odd. An overnight-delivery company’s van has just pulled up in front of my house. But I’m not expecting a package. And what company’s driver dresses all in black? ‘Scuse me, I have to get the door...
Happy Halloween 2004