Thanks, Chris, for thinking up the idea of Halloween challenge for Captain Scarlet's universe. As a professional storyteller, it gave me a chance to expound on my love of folklore and the unique history of my home state. Historical data is accredited both to the well-known New Jerseyan John McPhee who wrote The Pine Barrens, and to James F. McCloy and Ray Miller, Jr. for authoring The Jersey Devil. Without these authors and their research, I would be stumbling in the dark woods of New Jersey, unaware of the special literary opportunities given by the Barrens' famous demon! Enjoy! Lady Hawke
Captains Turquoise and Scarlet glanced over the mission report Lieutenant Green handed each of them. Scarlet scowled. "This can't be right," he grumbled, reading the first few lines as he retreated to sit upon a raised stool in Cloudbase's Control Center. "Captain Ivory's disappeared into her own backyard? Maybe she just had to get away from her family for a while. Have a go at the local pub."
Green shook his head in all seriousness. "She hasn't checked in for eight hours. Her furlough to the States ended five hours ago. She may be in trouble."
"But lost somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey?" the British officer countered quoting from the report. "What wilds are there? A city park?"
"No, Captain," Turquoise spoke up for the first time, his deep southwestern accent adamant in his refusal of frivolity. "The State of New Jersey has over a million acres of open wild lands. It's called the Pine Barrens. Back in the 1770s, the colonial Hessian soldiers were purported to have lost themselves quite effectively there when they defected from the British war against the states."
"Careful, Red Hawk," Scarlet avowed. "I warned you against hashing up that colonial baggage with me. My family was loyal to the crown, but we served on British soil during that revolutionary skirmish. The Metcalfes had no hand in displacing your people to Oklahoma or leaving behind those Yankee Doodles to steal your land."
John Red Hawk Watie smiled broadly, his rounded cheeks and dark brown eyes displaying the sinister humor of his Cherokee ancestors. It seemed the younger man's mission in life was to belabor Scarlet regarding Britain's former conquering ways. The United States had been Turtle Island to the Cherokee people long before the British settlers arrived and began spreading their colonial creed. The British Empire along with the colonizing French, Swedes, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch had decimated native tribes with diseases and strange new concepts about land use and sovereignty. Now the darker-skinned Spectrum captain found great pleasure in making his British colleague defensive about his country's past misdeeds.
Watie was always vigilant in bringing up the subject outside the critical ears of his commanding officer, however. Colonel White, a full-fledged and honored citizen of the British Crown, had little patience and humor when it came to Turquoise's tongue-in-cheek chiding. Luckily for him, the colonel was enjoying time at an undisclosed location, on shore leave himself. "I was just sharing a bit of American history and folklore," Turquoise informed. "It is my specialty, you know, as yours is military history. I'm surprised you haven't heard of the German army Great Britain hired to help in their efforts to defeat the colonial militia. Legends say they took their pay and found a better life in the sugar-sand swamps of what was to become America's third state."
"Can we forego the fairy tales, Red Hawk, and return to the mission brief, please?" Scarlet advised in his own defense.
With a devilish grin Captain Turquoise nodded. "For now," he agreed. "So, what're our orders?"
In response Lieutenant Green cleared his throat. "You two are to acquire wilderness survival kits from the stores' lockers and leave in a Spectrum jet for North America's eastern seaboard. Arrangements will be made for you to land at the Pinelands International Airport outside Atlantic City. There you will requisition two Spectrum ATVs for searching the immediate area around where Captain Ivory was last sighted."
Scarlet still seemed skeptical, the scowl above his creased blue eyes giving his sentiments away. "This sounds like a job for the Spectrum Police or the local authorities. Why send us?"
Now Green showed his knack for semantic diplomacy. "According to our commanding officer, a field assignment together would be an ideal way for you two to get to know each other better. All Spectrum personnel are encouraged to coordinate assignments with various staff members, and your regular partner, being unavailable, agrees with this credo."
Now Scarlet jumped to his feet. "Are you saying Captain Blue gave us this assignment?"
"No, Sir. Captain Blue was left in charge only until the colonel returns from his furlough. Spectrum policies were originally designed to make this organization operate smoothly and effectively in light of the Mysteron threat. It is these policies to which our present commander concedes."
"Sounds just a bit too convenient," Scarlet continued with a wave of the mission papers. "Where is our illustrious leader, anyway?"
Green quickly hid his smile and answered with the utmost professionalism. "He's taken a few moments private leave, Sir. I'm sure he'll be back in time to see you off to the States."
Now Watie spoke up again. "Captain Scarlet. Do you have reservations about my field capabilities?"
That seemed to distract the British officer away from the papers creasing within his hesitant fist. "I'm sorry, Captain Turquoise. I didn't mean to imply I was against being assigned you on a mission. Though you're new to Spectrum, your background and experience in the United States National Guard certainly upholds your capabilities. Your survival training, too, will come in handy where we're going."
Again that wide grin and eye twinkle. "Then what's the problem? One of our own is in trouble. Don't you think we should look into it? You wouldn't want us to abandon you, would you?"
"No. And no one ever has, Captain," Scarlet confirmed with a steadfast chin. "I'm just unclear as to the authenticity of these orders."
"Now I feel insulted," Lieutenant Green sighed with a pout of his lower lip. "If you'll recheck the briefs, Captain, you'll see they were signed by the colonel himself."
Scarlet did, and they were. "I see," he murmured. "Very well, Lieutenant. Have an SPJ prepped and waiting for us. The captain and I are off to the supply stores for our gear. We'll be ready in fifteen minutes."
"Very good, Sir," Green answered and swiveled his chair around to comply with the orders.
"Come on, Captain Turquoise. We have a mission to attend to." With that Scarlet crisply spun on his heels and strode from the Command Center followed by his new partner.
When the door had hummed shut behind them Lieutenant Green spun toward the observation tube closest to Colonel White's command dais. "They're gone, Sir," he chimed with a smirk. Captain Blue slid away from the wall opposite the pressurized glass portals and poked his head into the room.
"Pheew, that was close. He almost didn't take the bait. I guess my forgery was good enough."
Green nodded but counseled, "Just don't let the colonel know you copied his signature. That'd be grounds for a court-martial for sure."
Blue shrugged and stepped fully into the room, his light blue cap tucked under his arm. "It's a risk I'm willing to take if this works. Angela was supposed to check in over six hours ago; I am worried about her. She's usually so dedicated to her duties. There could be trouble."
"I have a feeling, Sir, that the trouble is just beginning," was Green's prophetic reply.
"Oh, but he deserves it, Lieutenant. Every minute of it," Blue assured striding to the command dais and settling into the colonel's chair. "John'll give Paul a real earful, I'm certain." Blue seemed to drift into some private reverie for the next few moments. Finally, he continued. "Remind me to relate the whole story of the good captain's last trip to Winchester, England. I've been waiting four months to repay that debt. I'm not about to let this opportunity slip through my fingers."
Green smiled. He had already heard rumors of the event. "His Cousin Derek's wedding, Sir?"
"Right!" Blue chimed in. "Only there wasn't a wedding. Well, not exactly ... I'll wait until our trusted comrades are off the base before I'll say more. They should be about done gathering their gear by now. Get me Captain Scarlet on the horn, Lieutenant."
In a moment Blue's partner's familiar voice answered the call. "Yes, Captain?"
"I want you two to be especially careful on this mission," Blue advised. "There haven't been any Mysteron sightings, but there have been some strange happenings in the local news reports around Camden, Atlantic and Burlington counties there. Something about animal maulings. Could be connected to Captain Ivory's disappearance."
"We'll be careful," Scarlet concurred. "Any last orders, Commander?" That last was issued with just a tinge of challenge.
"Uh," Blue hesitated. As temporary commander of Cloudbase he needed to sound convincing. "Just be sure to bring Captain Ivory back without a scratch. The Angel pilots are especially worried, now that they've found out about her lateness. You know how punctual Angela is. It's not like her. We're all concerned."
With a nod the British captain concurred, "Right. We'll bring her back, Adam. I promise." As Scarlet's microphone flipped back up to his cap's visor, he added beneath his breath, "And put an end to this charade." The man's scowl was not lost on his new partner as they exited the supplies storage lockers and headed for the hangar deck.
"Charade?" Turquoise asked from beside him, his duffle swaying from a mahogany-complexioned fist. "You still believe the colonel's sent us on a fool's errand?"
"No. Not Colonel White," Scarlet negated striding out into the below-deck's hangar bay and their waiting Spectrum jet. "Our current commander-in-chief."
Captain Turquoise hoisted his backpack of survival gear onto his left shoulder. "But you saw the signature. It was the colonel's. Wasn't it?"
Scarlet stopped just outside the cockpit hatch to answer. "Yes. It was. And yet ..."
"Oh. You have a funny feeling," Turquoise finished for him. "Now I'm getting nervous. Every time you have that funny feeling, something goes wrong."
"How would you know, Red Hawk? This is our first mission together."
"And I hope to live to see many more, thank you."
"Well, then," Scarlet retorted with a sour lip, "I promise to bring you back without a scratch too. Is that acceptable?"
With a wide smirk of agreement Turquoise nodded once and answered, "After you, partner." They climbed aboard their transport. Swiftly stowing his pack, Scarlet then slid into the pilot's seat. Together they snapped into their safety harnesses and the British captain requested their launch clearance.
"Spectrum is Green," was Lieutenant Green's reply through the captain's headset.
Turquoise, as navigator, checked the jet's prearranged flight path and announced, "ETA at Pinelands International: two hours, fourteen minutes. Local time: sixteen-thirty hours." Looking up from his data readout the big-boned Cherokee smiled at his companion. "Just in time for your afternoon tea."
"I told you to chuck it, Red Hawk. I'm not in the mood."
Turquoise wasn't deterred from his playful banter, even when his British partner shot him a warning glare. "Let me know when you are, then," he said.
Captain Blue had resettled into the command chair behind the colonel's desk with a hot cup of coffee when he noticed his communication's officer staring at him with a curious eye. "What is it, Griff?" he asked raising one boot to rest it atop the circular desk and its colorful display. "Danger in our midst already? Why I was just thinking of having you put on some cheery music for us."
"Well, Sir," Green announced. "They're away. Their SPJ took off three minutes ago."
"And now you want the story? Why it's not even your bedtime, young man."
"Come on, Captain," Green pleaded. "You said you'd fill me in on the details."
Swinging his boot back to the deck, Blue set his coffee mug down and leaned toward his friend. "All right, Griff. But this doesn't leave this room. Understood?"
"Why certainly, Sir. The colonel many times confides in me during a mission. I'm his executive confidante. Now I'm yours." Green's hazel eyes twinkled with sheer joy at the prospect of the telling of Scarlet's last shore leave. Rumors were enticing, but the truth would no doubt be far more fulfilling. And he had the only Spectrum eyewitness to the deeds. "I'll not whisper a word of this beyond these doors."
"Good. If word got back to Paul that I'd said anything, I'll be in the market for a new partner. Probably a new job. ... If I live that long."
"Why, Sir! Did he threaten your life?" Green admonished.
Blue fizzed his lips. "Of course not. But he'd disown me for sure. I would have lost his trust. Something I cherish in these days of Mysterons and their quest for world domination." Captain Blue paused for a moment, took a swig of his java, and began weaving his recollection of Derek Evans' wedding four months earlier ...
"It all started when we landed at the London airport. Paul's parents had arranged to have us picked up and driven to the Metcalfe estate for the fitting of his new tuxedo. You see, he had grudgingly agreed to attend his cousin's wedding. Now he finds out he's to be Derek's emergency best man! The groom's brother had fallen suddenly ill." With a deep breath, Blue continued.
"Paul and Derek aren't exactly fast friends. Our dear captain's cousin is a bit of a trickster, it turns out. But Derek's mother and Paul's are sisters. Paul's Aunt Marjorie wanted her son's wedding to be beautiful and romantic. And the Metcalfe estate is lined with gorgeous rose bushes and sprawling oaks and hemlock trees, some four hundred years-old. Now, Captain Scarlet was supposed to help his mother get the grounds ready for this outdoor June wedding, but the colonel had sent him on the mission to Mount Rainier instead. As you no doubt remember, that's where I had strained and fractured my ankle.
"Anyway, here we are about to settle in to this sleek rented limousine, with me hobbling about on a crutch, dressed in my most fashionable threads. The driver opens the door for Paul and waves him in. But Paul, being a gentleman, lets me go first. I hand him my crutch and hop on in. Well, my buttocks hits this luxurious leather cushion, and I hear the loudest, most embarrassing THZZZzzzztt noise! I thought I had busted the limo seat."
Green smiled broadly. "Let me guess-"
With an accompanying nod Blue admonished, "It seems Derek had paid off the driver to insert a Woopie cushion into the limo's passenger side seat. Had Paul gotten in, it would have been his embarrassment. Instead the lovely ladies standing nearby waiting for a cab to take them from the airport got to see the knavish American turn two shades darker."
With a chuckle the lieutenant asked, "And what did Captain Scarlet do?"
With a deadpan frown Blue grumbled, "He excused his friend for having eaten too large a salad for lunch!"
"No wonder you said he owes you one."
"Oh. That's only the beginning, Griff. Once we had gotten to the Metcalfe home, a whole host of coincidences were to happen. They were all intended for Captain Scarlet, I'm sure. Derek's favorite fall guy, Paul'd once said."
"But you bore the brunt of them instead, Adam?" Green inquired with a pained expression.
"Not quite," Blue admitted with a twinkling gleam of triumph. "I will have the last laugh, but I'll get to that one later. Now, as I was saying. We arrive at the estate, and Mrs. Metcalfe rushes out to greet us, already dressed in this stunning rose-colored gown, when ..."
Captains Scarlet and Turquoise sat silently together in the SPJ's cockpit. Their flight had been uneventful so far, save for a few pockets of unstable air which had sent the plane vibrating like a cheap Las Vegas bed. As they descended toward the North American coastline, Turquoise considered his stoic partner and said, "I guess you've never been to New Jersey before, Captain Scarlet? Small state, big population. State bird, the goldfinch; state flower, the violet?"
With a slow glance his way, Scarlet asked, "Is this more of your useless trivia, Red Hawk? Is there anywhere in the United States you haven't been?"
With a challenging smirk, Turquoise acknowledged, "Well, there is this little town in North Dakota I've never seen. Supposed to have the world's largest water tower."
With a huff, the British captain accused, "Oh, get off it, John Watie. Your eyes are browner than my hair!"
"That's just it, Captain. My eyes are brown. All the better to disguise the truth. You never can tell when I'm telling it and when I'm stretching it. And that's what gets to you so much. That's why the colonel wanted us to go on a mission together. Don't you see? I'm here to help you see the other side."
Now Scarlet's blue eyes creased to slits. "See the other side? Of what, Red Hawk?"
"Of reality. You're the military specialist. You see strategy. I'm the folklorist. I see possibilities, conjecture, the tiny truth tucked safely inside the legend. I'm here to stretch your imagination. To help you strategize past the obvious."
"Poppycock. The colonel has always trusted my skills and my judgment. I can see the other side of a problem without having to hang out on some flimsy limb of conjecture. If the facts are there, the problem can be resolved, the mystery unraveled. Clues decoded. Questions answered. Mission accomplished. Done."
"Ah," Turquoise challenged. "But what of the unsolved mysteries? What of the missing facts and misplaced clues? What about the untied ends?"
Now Scarlet was scowling even as he barked his request for landing with the air traffic controller stationed at the Pinelands International Airport. "What about them?" he grumbled toward his copilot.
"Those are the problems really worth solving. When the facts are hidden, twisted and reinvented, that's when legends come to life."
"You're talking in fairy tales again, Watie," Scarlet accused. "I deal in facts. Any good strategist does. You'll not change me into some wide-eyed dreamer who thinks rumors and myths really do subsist within some altered field of existence."
Turquoise unhindered by his partner's criticism chuckled. "I suppose your mother never told you about the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. Did she?"
"No. And I didn't wait up nights in April waiting for the Easter Bunny to bring me chocolates either, Captain." Scarlet brought the SPJ round for its final approach to the airport. "This conversation is trivial and unrelated to our mission, Captain Turquoise," he submitted grimly. "I don't expect us to continue it further."
"No," Turquoise agreed. "Of course not." Silence fell upon them like a heavy blanket putting the stories to sleep. At least, Watie contended, until the next story hour arrived.
Lieutenant Green had to hold his mouth for fear of bellowing. The events of Derek's wedding were playing out to be more entertaining than the communications specialist had ever dreamed. "Pink? Really?"
Captain Blue sucked the dregs of his coffee dry and set down his mug for the last time. "Pink boxers and socks. No lying, Griff. Mrs. Metcalfe was absolutely serious. This was what all the wedding party was wearing. Even the bridesmaids, though they had on pink nylons. It was to coordinate with the flowers and bridesmaids gowns. That's what she said."
"But how would anybody ever know that? And he wore them," Green confirmed.d.
Blue nodded. "He shoved me out of the bedroom first. The black tuxedo was nice, though."
"And this was another Derek Evans specialty?"
A broad grin gave the truth away. "Oh, he had everything planned. Right down to the underwear. Our dear captain was on edge the whole time. He insisted I'd best walk through every doorway first, check around corners. He even suggested that I taste his champagne to make sure Derek hadn't slipped him some vinegar instead. Seems his cousin had done similar things to him as a child. You know- flies in his soup, dirty forks, sour milk. If I hadn't been the accidental brunt of some of those gags, I might have really enjoyed myself that day. Paul was right when he said Rick could take lessons from this young Mr. Evans. The man is a true master!"
"Then what happened?" Green prompted.
"Well, everything seemed normal for the next hour or so. We were introduced to the groomsmen. I met Derek finally. He bore a striking resemblance to pictures I've seen of Paul as a very young man, say at about seventeen. Except that Derek has much lighter hair, and greenish, hazel eyes. When he reached out to shake my hand in greeting, I almost expected one of those buzzer devices, but no. Evans, being a master, goes for the more subtle, the least expected of surprises."
In answer, Blue held up a warning finger. "So help me, Griff. If you ever say anything about this to anyone, it'll be your turn in a gigantic way."
Green popped up an open palm in reply. "Promise! Now tell me."
Blue sat back in the command chair and sighed in resignation. "Ever see those signs jokers slap on your back saying, 'kick me'?"
"Sure," Green acknowledged from his station. "Is that what he did to you?"
"No. Of course not. That'd be too obvious! No. Somehow ... I don't know how he did it, but I was unknowingly dragging a length of toilet paper from my belt loop for several minutes until Paul discovered it and snatched it away. He only told me about it later, along with the funny white marks I kept leaving on the lawn."
"White marks? From what?"
"Derek must have studied under a professional pickpocket. Somehow he had slipped a capsule of baby powder down my trousers. It must have burst when I sat down for a moment to chat with his Great Aunt Ruth. I guess it started sprinkling down the inside of my pant leg. Whenever I took another hobbled step into the crowd, a puff of powder dusted the grass at my feet. Paul even started calling me 'Lightfoot', despite the crutch. It wasn't until later that I found out why."
"You never realized it yourself?" Green gasped with skepticism.
"Well, no," Blue reluctantly conceded. "I was too busy keeping an eye out for Derek's little gags at Captain Scarlet's expense. Almost missed a doozie too, chatting with General Metcalfe and Paul's mom."
Now Lieutenant Green scooted forward in his seat and leaned out beyond his control panel so as not to miss a single syllable. "What?" he asked.
"Well, Derek and the groomsmen had assembled at the altar to await Bridget's arrival. She's the bride. A cathedral arbor had been set up between two massive oak trees. It was beautiful, all intertwined with vines and white roses. Well, Derek's mother, Aunt Marjorie, had arranged for doves to be released at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, you know, just as the pair was to kiss."
"Yes?" Green urged, still somehow able to keep his station during the building suspense.
"Well, Derek was showing Paul the release rope. He wanted his best man to be the one to pull the string to release the doves which were hidden in two boxes just over their heads."
"Oh, no," Green groaned in anticipation.
"No, no. You've got it all wrong. Paul refused the duty. He asked that one of the ushers do the honors."
"And did one of them?"
Blue was smiling again, his blue eyes glistening with joy at the punch line. "Absolutely. Right in front of everyone, Derek's friend Tobias agreed, took the rope in one hand." Blue gripped the imaginary cord and demonstrated as he continued. "Then he said, 'Like this?' and tugged."
Green flinched and held his breath, but Blue had fallen silent again. After a breathless moment, he demanded, "Well? What happened?"
"I'm parched, Lieutenant. Would you mind going and getting me another cup of coffee? One cream, no sugar. Please?"
"Please?" Blue reiterated.
"SIG," the lieutenant groaned and got up from his seat to the watchful delight of his commanding officer.
Upon arrival at the southern New Jersey airport, the two Spectrum officers showed their badges to the supply officer at the Spectrum terminal who briskly escorted them to an outdoor storage hangar. "Here you are, Captains," he said swiping his own ID card through the security slot. "All filled up with gas and ready to go." As the huge doors rose upward Turquoise glanced inside the airline-sized hangar to scan its contents. An SPV dominated the view. Alongside it sat a Spectrum saloon and a petite Spectrum reconnaissance flyer. Its wings folded skyward, the flyer was more an ultralight than a true aircraft. Nestled behind these three transports were Scarlet's and Turquoise's acquisitions: Spectrum All Terrain Vehicles. The dual, split-wheeled cycles were designed for both speedy road transport like a classic motorcycle and maneuverability and stability through dense and narrow cover much like a standard ATV. The two red and blue striped quad-runners sported ultra-tensile suspensions which could be shifted from two-wheeled to four-wheeled motion using the split-tire design. They had narrow, heavy-nubbed tires beneath, and a global-positioning dashboard with built-in altimeter and engine monitoring gauges. On their hindquarters sprouted storage racks and onto these, Scarlet and Turquoise strapped their survival packs and Spectrum caps. "This'll do nicely," Captain Turquoise said admiring the V-Twin, four-cylinder, 900 CC motor of his bike. He lovingly stroked the Spectrum logo painted upon the vehicle's bulging gas tank.
"Get ya out and about the Pinelands, for sure," agreed the supply officer. "Just watch out for the regular drivers. The local road hogs frown upon street access for ATVs, even though these fit to regs and specs. Sorta like lavish motorcycles, you might say. Safer too."
"We'll keep that in mind," Scarlet said.
"Thanks!" Turquoise quipped as he straddled his STV and slipped on his turquoise colored-helmet. Jabbing the ignition button and twisting the throttle he revved the engine to life. It puttered like an overgrown kitten. But as Turquoise gunned it away from the hangar, he shifted the drive-train to two-wheeled mode, and the STV rose, sounding more like a hungry tiger.
"Youth," the supply officer huffed at the remaining Spectrum captain.
"Right," Scarlet murmured tugging his own helmet onto his dark head. Starting his STV's engine he rumbled off to catch up with his new partner.
The two were soon coursing down the back roads of rural New Jersey, amongst the cedar and pitch pine lined byways of the south eastern part of the nation's third state. Heading north by northwest along County Road 563, the pair kept pace with the local traffic. Many times they were passed by impatient drivers who thought the smaller vehicles more obstructions than fellow motorists. "Let's gun it, Captain," urged Turquoise over his shoulder as yet another passenger van roared by crossing the yellow divider between opposing lanes of traffic.
"I'd advise against it, Captain," Scarlet hollered up to him. "We're already maintaining the speed limit."
"But the day's running late. It'll be dark in another two hours, and Wharton State Forest is still fifteen miles away as the crow flies. It's another five to Jenkins Neck where Angela's parents live."
Scarlet dwelled on the possibilities. The little hamlet of Egg Harbor was passing swiftly by, its most distinguishing feature, the famed Renault Winery. Watchful of the route signs, he followed his partner into a right turn. There County Road 563 split from Route 30 and headed north by northeast for the next several miles. The byway wound through the marshy lowlands of the Mullica River basin as the watercourse flowed eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean. "All right," Scarlet finally agreed pulling up beside Turquoise. "But no daredevil maneuvers."
"You got it, Partner," the Cherokee captain conceded with a grin then gunned the STV's engine to full throttle. It roared like a Harley Davidson through a dancing cascade of autumn colors. Captain Scarlet sped up to parallel him as they crossed Indian Cabin Creek heading for New Jersey's largest tract of open wilderness. Once they were within the state protected land, their mission would begin: to find their missing comrade.
Lieutenant Green had nearly rolled out of his chair with laughter. Swiftly he grabbed for his console to rescue his balance, accidentally switching open the base-wide comm. channel as he did so. "No!" he giggled hauling himself back upright.
"Yes," Blue assured from his seat in Cloubase's Command Center. He slapped both hands flat against the colonel's dais and repeated his prior statement. "It was a flock of rubber chickens. They came crashing down on Paul's head with a sound like wet noodles hitting a linoleum floor. Derek must have rigged them up inside the tree. Just above where he figured his best man would be standing. Mrs. Metcalfe was beside herself. General Metcalfe glared like a GTA missile looking for its target. I could feel the tension ready to pop the whole event. I held my breath, as I'm sure a lot of people did. We waited for the announcement. I was sure the wedding was off, right then and there. We'd all be promptly dismissed. The guests escorted from the grounds, the wedding perhaps postponed until another location could be arranged."
"What happened, then, Captain? Did General Metcalfe blow his top?"
Blue blinked calmly and shook his head with a sigh. "No, Lieutenant. He didn't. Without a peep, he rose from his chair in the front row and stomped to the pile of dead gags at Paul's feet. He snatched them all up into his arms with a single swipe."
"He didn't make a sound?"
"Not a growl. In deference to his wife and her family, no doubt. He didn't want to embarrass himself or his son. The general marched off toward the house and returned within five minutes. Fowl free."
"Where did he put them all? Into the litter bin?"
In response Blue only shrugged. "That, Lieutenant Green, is one of life's great mysteries. I have my suspicions, but I can't prove them. Captain Scarlet's not talking about it, though I'm pretty sure he knows where they ended up."
"But the wedding continued," prompted the younger officer. Green wasn't giving up, now that so many interesting truths were being revealed. What a pity Captain Ochre, off duty and in the lounge no doubt, couldn't hear of these escapades. They would prove terrific fuel for the man's own creative cons.
"Yes, the wedding continued. It wasn't a half hour later that all the guests had arrived and the ushers had returned to the altar. Music was drifting about by then. Aunt Marjorie had hired a string quartet to play the wedding march and a soprano soloist to sing. Derek, I was amazed to see, for once seemed totally serious. I could tell Paul was still uncomfortable, but he didn't seem to be expecting any further surprises. At least for a little while. The reverend was an extremely serious fellow.
"You know how wedding ceremonies go, Lieutenant. The giving away of the bride. The seriousness of the commitment. Vows exchanged. All that stuff."
"Was it a pleasant experience?"
"Well, yes, Griff. It was. I'd hope to be in that very situation soon enough myself. It's just that I was holding my breath the whole time. Waiting for the next shoe to drop."
"Oh, yes. But this time it backfired on Bridget by mistake."
Green's eyes swelled to incredulity. "No! Not the bride."
"I told you there almost wasn't a wedding. But I need a break. Let's go get ourselves some dinner. What do you say?"
"I'm not hungry. My stomach's too sore from laughing to eat."
"Ah, you want to hear the rest, do you?" In answer Green nodded vigorously. "After dinner, then. All this rehashing of traumatic events has left me famished." Captain Blue rose from his chair and strolled to the exit door. The lieutenant would have to await the end of intermission for more of the tale.
The two Spectrum officers had entered the confining shadows of the Wharton State Forest. Massive autumn-painted oaks and swamp maples hung out over the roadway blocking out the brilliant sunset and sprinkling them with leaf confetti. As Captain Scarlet fell back to safely allow Turquoise the lead, his eyes drifted to the grassy verge. There, a set of tire scuffs had dug up the turf in a dramatic curve leading back to the roadway. "Captain!" he yelled up to his gung-ho partner even as he, himself, stomped down on the cycle's right foot-pedal brake and skidded to a stop. Leaf litter whooshed up at his passage. His twin, split tires squealed and bucked against the shifting debris. Scarlet nearly toppled over in his haste. Turquoise seemed to have not heard his call. The other STV roared away on the aged blacktop. But as Scarlet kicked out the side stand and swung off his bike, a growing rumble announced his partner's return.
By the time the British captain had knelt to investigate his discovery, Turquoise pulled up beside him and asked, "What'd you find, Captain?"
"Fresh tire skids. A vehicle recently made a sudden stop here," he explained sweeping his arm across the dug up earth. "See how the falling leaves have yet to cover the marks?" He rose from his kneel and considered the road up ahead. A dark brown mass lay half-obscured amongst the bracken. "Look there," he said with a pointed finger. Scarlet strode forward. As he approached, he could see it was a deer lying on its side. Its oddly twisted neck announced the cause of its death.
"Road kill. So what?" challenged Turquoise as he too climbed from his STV. "Happens here all the time. Woods are crawling with deer."
Scarlet wasn't so hasty in his assessment. He knelt again to take a closer look at the fallen animal. "Have a shufti at this."
When his Cherokee partner stepped down into the grassy incline to also inspect the kill his eyes grew wide. "Something's been feeding off it. That's fresh blood."
"Yes," Scarlet agreed considering the disemboweled carcass. "Are these tear and claw marks familiar to you?"
Turquoise, having been raised in his native Oklahoma, was familiar with wildlife and its tell-tale signs. "Could be a bear. Or maybe a cougar," he suggested. "The Barrens are legend to have a rogue panther or two. The claw marks are way too wide for a coyote or bobcat. And there aren't supposed to be any wolf packs this far east."
"The saloon driver obviously saw something and tried stopping to avoid hitting it." The British captain stood and pondered the visible clues. "The tire skids stop back there, so it doesn't seem to have been the cause of the deer's death. Did the driver try to stop because it saw what was feeding off the carrion?"
Turquoise shrugged. "Possible," he offered. "Are there any tracks or prints?" Stepping back to allow the younger man access Scarlet waved his partner forward to examine the clues himself. He watched as Turquoise glared at the shadowy remnants of the event. Twisting and folding his body around and down, Turquoise considered the blood trail, the marked up grass and the fresh-killed deer. "Nope," he concluded. "It wasn't a cougar. Here's a print in the mud. It's ... it looks like a cloven hoof-print."
"Hoof-print?" Scarlet repeated. "Like a goat's? Come now, Captain. Goats don't eat carrion."
"No, and they don't hunt meat either," Turquoise agreed kneeling to poke a finger at the animal's contorted neck. "Whatever killed this deer must have chased it out of the woods and lanced it right here. There's a deep puncture wound to the jugular, as if a spear tip made it."
"A man hunting game with a spear?" Scarlet's voice sounded clearly skeptical even to his own ears. "Wouldn't it be easier to use a rifle or shotgun?"
Turquoise was shaking his head. "No human killed this creature, Captain Scarlet. Look at the spread and depth of these claw marks." In illustration, Turquoise splayed his own hand over the five gouges along the carcass' flank. They matched. "The only predator I know of around here with claws like this, cloven-hoofed feet and a taste for blood is the Devil."
Scarlet scoffed at the reference. "Like Lucifer from the Bible? Chuck it all, man. You're trying to take my mickey. The Devil doesn't physically exist, least of all here in New Jersey!"
"Captain Blue mentioned local news reports, remember? Strange animal maulings, he said. Well, this is a mauling."
Now Scarlet's head jerked back in clear suspicion. "You take me for a berk, Watie? We're here to find Captain Ivory." He thrust his arm down at the carcass. "This is obviously not related. We should move on. Jenkins Neck is just up the road. We'll find more answers and less jiggery-pokery there, I'm certain."
Turquoise was once again on his feet. "All right. You're the senior officer. But there's something suspicious here, and it just might be related to Angela's disappearance. I wouldn't dismiss this puzzle piece, if I were you."
"I have a pound more experience as a field officer than you, Captain. For now we'll go on my instincts. Let's move." Together they remounted their STVs and rumbled down the road, leaving the mystery of the slaughtered deer at the side of the way and in the back of their minds.
Captain Blue finished chewing his last slice of roast beef, swallowed and wiped his lips with a napkin. "I certainly can appreciate a good piece of meat," he said with a satisfied smile. Reaching forward he picked up his glass of iced tea and took another sip. Then he considered the curious stare of his communication's officer seated across the table from him. "So, Griff. Have you had enough?"
With a half smile of sarcasm Lieutenant Green answered back from where his chin sat atop his fist, "Of dinner or of the story? Yes and no, to be exact."
Sitting back and releasing a contented sigh, Blue placed his napkin upon the galley's table and leaned back in his chair. "Well, then I guess we better get back to our stations. There could be an emergency at any moment. Wouldn't want to leave our posts vacant for too long."
"Exactly," Green agreed rising from his seat. His dinner had disappeared some minutes before, and the younger man was just waiting for the American Captain to finish. "I'll meet you up there, Sir. I need to stop off at my quarters for something."
With a nod and a curt wave Blue dismissed him and climbed to his own feet to stretch away his weariness. He was glad of the company and the chance to relate the humorous and entertaining incidents of his last jaunt ashore. But the obvious responsibility of being in charge of Cloudbase wasn't anything Blue would have wished on another. It was very possible the Mysterons could pose another threat at any time. He, alone, would then need to make the crucial decisions of what steps to take and what staff to send into the firepot to rescue the innocents of the world. As he headed back to the command deck, Captain Blue neglected to notice the dual set of eyes watching him with both sympathy and anticipation from the far side of the cafeteria. Captains Ochre and Magenta exchanged knowing glances then hastily returned to their own meals. Having so far enjoyed the appetizer, they didn't want to miss one juicy detail of dessert.
As Blue strode onto the command deck the captain's attention was drawn to the cylindrical walkway which extended out from either side of the uppermost level of Cloudbase. For the first time he understood why Colonel White often stood within its invisible enclosure, seemingly staring out at the great expanse of stratosphere. By opening himself to the nothingness beyond, the commander-in-chief was able to place perspective on his role within that world. A single human was capable of such greatness as to design this monstrosity of an airbase; and yet humans were frail enough to make mistakes. The colonel could place himself within both spheres of thought while standing within that singular pocket of peace.
Command was a lonely chair. Yet ultimately the decisions made from within it were vital in the course of human history and their future. Before the drifting high altitude clouds and thin atmosphere, Blue felt small. He was but one man. He had limitations, but he also had colleagues which would support and assist him in this vital task. The Mysterons could never truly win their battle against the Earth as long as the solidarity of the human race existed. Blue smiled and took his seat.
Green strolled in minutes later with a noticeable bulge in his jacket pocket. As the man took his station Blue eyed the rectangular lump and scowled. "That wouldn't be a recording device you have hidden in your vest, Lieutenant?"
The younger man flinched and hastily cleared his throat. "Why, no, Sir. I thought you might enjoy some mood music. I brought along a small sample of my collection. Sort of a background soundtrack to help make the hours fly by faster."
"Don't tell me. Caribbean soul music. Are you going to serenade me with song too?"
Green seemed wounded. "Why Captain, the colonel appreciates good music. In the dead hours he's allowed such indulgences."
"For him or for you? Personally, I can't see the colonel appreciating the spirited tunes of Trinidad."
"I didn't say that's what I brought. Do you like Vivaldi, Wagner, or Mendelssohn? I have some new wave pieces too, if you'd rather go modern," he offered in earnest tugging out the petite case of music cards. Green opened the container and slipped out a slim, color-coded choice, then slid the card into a slot upon his console. Shortly thereafter, a string quartet began lilting out a recognizable tune from a recent centennial celebration. Green smiled. "The Festival of Freedom, by composer Eric Totoro," he announced. "Quite inspiring. It's one of the colonel's favorites."
Blue listened for a moment. The flowing symphony of strings and accompanying female voice were both soothing and yet refreshing. Blue approved with a nod. "Very well, Lieutenant. In deference to the colonel, then."
With a shared nod Green let the music play and turned to his console to check for Spectrum's latest updates. That's when he noticed the Cloudbase comm. toggle pointing toward the 'on' position. How long had they been broadcasting their colorful conversation throughout the base? Green swallowed his panic. He had promised Blue none of what was disclosed would leave the Command Center. Now, the lieutenant needed to make a decision. Should he pretend as if he were adjusting the settings on his panel and flick the switch to 'off '? Should he say something to his present commander? Should he shrug off the responsibility to fate and leave the channel open? "In for a penny, in for a pound," Green mumbled to himself. He flicked the switch off. Below, in the officers' lounge, the Cloudbase staff was no doubt wondering what had happened to their entertainment boon. Before the truth or the tale could be continued, however, a call came in from the field. "It's Captain Scarlet, Sir," Green announced, grateful of the distraction.
With a nod, Blue straightened in his seat. "Put him through, Lieutenant."
A moment later, Scarlet's voice announced, "Captain Blue. We've reached Captain Ivory's home town and are proceeding to the local ranger station for a copy of the family's missing person's report. We'll next head to the family home for interviews of Ivory's parents. Any further news on your end?"
"No. Nothing Captain. The police have already been advised to contact us if any new evidence presents itself. You're to take charge of the investigation once you reach the ranger station. I've asked the local authorities to provide you with all the assistance you need. The local police officers and park rangers know that territory far better than we do. I'll expect another report in four hours, unless you have anything new. Good luck, Captain."
"SIG," Scarlet answered before the transmission cut out.
"So," Green sighed into the silence. "Nothing new."
"No," Blue agreed with a pouted lip. "And no trace for over nine hours now. I just hope she's all right."
Green had to concede to the mystery of it all. Silence floated between them for the next hour, with only the sweeping symphony of the lieutenant's music to soothe their uncertain hearts.
Scarlet and Turquoise lowered their STVs into the more stable quad-runner mode, then parked them outside the Jenkins Neck Ranger Station. The pair strode in through the open door where they were met by Officer Daniel Boyd. With a hearty handshake, Boyd announced, "We're here to help anyway we can. But I warn you, only a few of the local residents have agreed to accompany us into the park for a search and rescue effort."
"Why is that, Officer Boyd?" Scarlet inquired as the younger man offered them a seat and handed him Angela's missing person's report.
After a moment's hesitation, Boyd sank behind his desk and admitted, "Well, Sir. To be frank, they're scared. There've been some animal maulings around these parts, and the local residents are keeping indoors, especially at night. If you'll wait 'til morning, I might be able to scrounge up a few hunters and their hound dogs. Jeff Oglesby's a local hunter who also happens to be a part-time ranger for us. Knows these woods like the back of his old coon dog's ear."
"Can we count on this Mr. Oglesby to help us tonight, Officer Boyd?" Scarlet implored glancing with dismay at the nearly unintelligible report. "Waiting until dawn could waste precious hours." He folded the missing person's report and slid it into his jacket pocket.
Boyd was shaking his blonde head. "Sorry, no. He's a Piney, seventh generation. They're a kind folk, but superstitious. When these maulings start happening, he keeps to himself, and his dogs closer."
Now Scarlet's eyes narrowed. "Why?" he asked.
"Why the Devil, of course. He's out and about terrorizing the Pinelands. This happens about once every seven years or such, and this seems to be the year."
Scarlet was nonplussed. "Do you mean to tell me this thing really exists?"
Boyd was smiling in accepting irony. "You don't live in the Pine Barrens and not believe in the Jersey Devil, Captain Scarlet. The problem is: anyone who knows these woods well enough to help find your lost officer will know and believe in the legends and sightings. We've got people here, reliable people, who've seen it. There's no denying that it’s a formidable presence."
"I don't believe in phantoms, Officer Boyd. What proof is there that the Devil exists?"
Captain Turquoise leaned forward in his chair and cleared his throat. "Sir," he interrupted. "Remember the deer carcass we found? The hoof-prints, the claw marks? That's evidence right there."
"You found another carcass?" Boyd uttered plopping elbows atop his desk and tilting toward the tall, darker skinned captain. "Where?"
"Out on 563, about five miles south of town on the northbound side of the road. It'd been freshly killed and partially eaten."
"Oh, no," Boyd groaned. "A deer. He's going for larger prey, then."
"Wait," Scarlet interjected with a raised hand. "What proof that this Devil exists beyond bloody claw marks? Has anyone ever taken a photograph of it?"
Again hesitation on the part of the Wharton park ranger. "Uh, no. No proof beyond sightings, claw marks, tracks and dead animals. Sometimes we never even find the animals, just a bloody patch in the sand or a pile of chicken feathers."
"Then this thing, this creature is only dangerous to animals," Captain Scarlet clarified. "Why then such caution?"
Officer Boyd waved the British captain's ignorance away. "You'd have to live here to understand, Captain. The Devil's a bad omen. Anyone who sees it either suffers some malady or dies within a few years. No one wants to tempt fate. The Devil's already outlived us all. He's like some twisted, God-forsaken curse. Evil and indestructible."
Scarlet blinked at that last term, but continued his argument. "What you're saying, Boyd, is that my partner and I are on our own. We'll get no help from the local residents or from your park rangers." When Boyd declined to disagree, the captain added, "Could we at least have a detailed map of the area? We'll need to know the geography and topographical features of the park."
Now Boyd leaped to his youthful feet. "Of course, Captain," he quipped. "There I can help." He strode to a tall file cabinet along the far wall of his office. Opening a drawer there he explained, "The park is filled with cedar swamps, marshy areas, sand trails, streams, even dwarf forests. This time of the year, it can get down into the 30s, so I suggest you bundle up and take a good set of lanterns with you." Retrieving a map from the drawer Boyd handed it to Scarlet. "If you'll agree to let me check your supplies, I'll supplement them from our stores, whatever you don't have. Did you bring any firearms with you?"
"We've got our regulation pistols," Turquoise offered, drawing his gun from its hip holster. Twisting the weapon in his hand Turquoise offered it to the ranger.
Boyd accepted the gun and swallowed before announcing, "I'm afraid I'll need to confiscate these. They're illegal in the park. No hunting or firearms allowed in Wharton State Forest until the season opens."
"Season?" Scarlet demanded his right hand settling upon his own pistol, though he covered it protectively rather than offer it to the ranger.
"Hunting season, of course, Captain," Boyd clarified outstretching his free hand to take Scarlet's pistol. "We allow a small number of hunters in to cull the deer population. But the season doesn't start until the first of next month, and then only after approval for a permit. The filing deadline's already past due. I'm sorry."
"Excuse me, Officer," Scarlet rumbled rising to his feet and taking a half-step back. "You are a member of law enforcement, are you not?"
"Why, yes, in a way. Technically, I'm a forest ranger. But I have jurisdiction within the state forest to expel lawbreakers."
"Right," the Spectrum captain agreed. "Do you, then, not carry a firearm yourself?"
Now Boyd's brows scrunched into crags. "Technically? No. I'm not allowed either. Under State jurisdiction, only township police and the New Jersey State Troopers carry firearms within the park. Again, I'm sorry. My hands are tied. This is for your protection as well as the local populous. We can't have visitors wandering the woods, firing upon strange noises or shadows in the dark."
"What about come morning?" Scarlet cut in hastily before the officer could continue.
"As I said before, Captain. It's illegal to carry a firearm within the park." Again the man's hand opened to take Scarlet's pistol.
"Unless you're a police officer or State Trooper," Scarlet reminded. "Captain Turquoise and I are officers of Spectrum. These firearms are not only licensed to us for our protection, they're color-coded for our exclusive use. Like your troopers, we've been trained in the use of such weaponry. We would no more shoot at shadows than you would fire upon Bambi."
"Sirs, please," Turquoise interrupted, standing beside his Spectrum partner. "Can't we come to some ... diplomatic compromise?" He directed his next plea to the ranger. "Officer Boyd, isn't there some defense we can take with us ... legally? I mean, what if we encounter a rogue black bear or cougar? We'd be unprotected, and Spectrum frowns on the loss of one of their officers. A lot of money has been invested in each of us. Why, the State of New Jersey could see a very expensive lawsuit for our injury or death."
That seemed to strike a chord in the park ranger's psyche. With a slight slump in his defiance, Boyd conceded with a sigh, "I see your point, Captain." He swallowed his reservations and announced, "I can issue you each a TASER pistol. It's effective at deterring both raccoon and bear attacks. It'll also subdue a hostile human."
John Watie nodded his consent. "That's acceptable." As Boyd turned to retrieve a key for his personal storage cabinet, Turquoise raised a pacifying hand to his undeterred partner. "Wait, Captain," he counseled quietly. "I'll explain."
"You better," Scarlet warned lowering his hand from his holster. He was still reluctant to relinquish his sidearm.
Boyd returned with a pair of petite pistols sprouting pronged electrodes from their barrels. "These carry a battery reserve for approximately five discharges. One should be all you'll need if you run across a rabid raccoon or a curious bear, though I'd caution against using the TASERs unless absolutely necessary. There's nothing in the woods to harm you unless it's been provoked. It's not like you're wandering the open savannas of Africa. Our wildlife is pretty tame." He handed the guns to each of the Spectrum officers.
"Unless, of course, this Devil you spoke of really exists," Scarlet grumbled in challenge. He hesitantly removed his own weapon and allowed Boyd to take it from his hand. Then the British captain slid the chunkier TASER into the now empty holster. "We may need a few supplies from you," he continued with a frown. "We should get moving as soon as possible." When Boyd agreed, Scarlet let the younger man lead the way to their STVs parked in the gravel lot beside the station. Light was quickly fading, and the first few stars were winking awake.
Nonetheless, Boyd whistled at the vehicles sparkling in the wispy-clouded moonlight. "Well, I'll be," he chimed. "Looks like you fellas won't need much from me. Your equipment's far superior to our rundown ATVs. I'll have a look in your bags." Turquoise offered to unzip his backpack to display their collection of emergency supplies. After a rifling look see, Boyd nodded his head. "I see a few things missing that you could use. I'll go get them for you. Be right back." With that, the forest ranger disappeared into the bowels of his station.
"Well?" Scarlet challenged once the New Jersey officer had gone.
"Well, what?" Turquoise answered reshuffling some of his displaced supplies. Then he must have remembered. "Oh, you mean me explaining why we have TASER electrodes instead of our Spectrum pistols." Scarlet only nodded though his eyes were piercingly dark in the twilight. "Oh, well, I knew we couldn't get around the regulations, not unless Colonel White had had a chance to contact the State authorities. With bureaucratic fanfare, that could take months to clear, and we don't have that much time." Turquoise shrugged. "I noticed the TASER gun and holster hanging from the coat rack by the door. It also held Boyd's hat and ranger jacket. I figured we'd at least be allowed to have equal protection, so ..."
"So, you used logic and deduction to solve our problem." Scarlet breathed deeply before admitting, "Good work, Captain." Turquoise seemed poised to lower himself into a bow for the compliment, but only responded with a smirk. "You've proven what I've been saying all along," Scarlet continued. "Facts and evidence are what solve mysteries, John. Not folklore and the shreds of truth within a legend." For some unknown reason, John Watie's mood did not seem to darken with the criticism. Scarlet could only sigh and accept the bundle of supplies the returning Officer Boyd handed him with a nod. Time was of the essence. Captain Ivory could be in grave danger.
Captain Blue was smiling from the command console as he prepared to deliver yet another punch line to his singular audience. "The reverend said the magic words: 'You may kiss the bride'. Then all hell broke loose."
Lieutenant Green swallowed then blurted, "The doves. Right?"
"Tobias tugged the cord, just as Derek had arranged, but the doves were totally incensed." The captain shrugged. "Maybe because of Derek's previous prank, the boxes had been jostled or tilted. In any case, those birds came fluttering out of there like hornets from a battered nest. In a flurry they were all over the closest wedding attendants, including me! I covered my head as best I could, but then I heard Bridget scream. I looked between my fingers to see her swatting away at several doves caught in her veil. They beat their wings but couldn't fly. I guess they'd gotten their feet trapped in the tulle. It took quick action from Captain Scarlet to free her."
"He was able to get the doves loose?" Green inquired, no doubt trying to picture the event in his head.
With a twisted grin Blue acknowledged, "In a way. He plucked the veil right off Bridget's head. Fudged up her hairdo in the blink of an eye. The photographer was dumbfounded. The bridesmaids had to scurry Bridget off to the house. Took her nearly an hour to fix her hair and clean up her running mascara from the tears." With a satisfied blink, Blue announced, "Only then did the reverend get to finish the vows. He still hadn't announced them as Mr. and Mrs. Derek Evans yet!"
"That's not funny," Green countered.
"But it was worth it to see Paul's discomfort. His back was as stiff as an erupting volcano. He knew all eyes were on him, like he'd been the one to cause the havoc." Blue conceded, "Sure I felt sorry for him at the time, but now I can appreciate the twist of irony. You see, Griff; Derek ended up sabotaging his own wedding just to belittle his cousin, which he did anyway. Just not in the way he'd expected. But then, the story's not finished, Lieutenant. That was only the wedding. There was still the reception and more devilry to be done."
"No!" Green blurted in disbelief. "More?"
Blue nodded. "More." Then with a resigned sigh he added, "But first to some of these mission reports, shall we? Before the colonel thinks we played hooky the entire time he was gone."
Scarlet maneuvered the STV through the shifting sugar-colored sand of the New Jersey Pinelands until the vertical lines of a man-made dwelling came into view through the trees. The porch lights were inviting in the complete blackness of the forest, as was the small crowd of family members who met them at the door. "Ah, Captains. We're glad to have ya," Mr. Harvard Mason announced holding out his soil-worn hand to take Scarlet's. The Spectrum officer swung off the four-wheeled vehicle and extended his own in greeting.
"I'm sorry we took so long, Mr. Mason. We were delayed at the ranger station. A ... uh, difference of opinion."
"Well, you're here now, and I've two of Angela's brothers more than willing to help you find her. This is Barry and Gregory." The two younger men, neither older than twenty, leaned out from behind their father to shake hands with the new arrivals. Even in the hollow porch light Scarlet could tell the boys were worried, yet still wide-eyed at the sight of the uniformed Spectrum officers.
Shaking their slender hands in turn, he introduced himself. "I'm Captain Scarlet. This is Captain Turquoise. You'll forgive our haste, Mr. Mason, but before we leave to search the woods, we'll need all the information you can give us about Angela's disappearance."
"Of course, Captain. Please. Come inside. Ya must be hungry. Jenn's made a power of stew and you're welcome to it."
"That's very kind of you, Sir," Turquoise answered with an eager grin. "I'm sure it's delicious." They followed the patriarch into the humble bungalow and were escorted to the cozy dining area with its rectangular table, six wooden chairs and linen tablecloth. Two heaping bowls of a hearty beef stew were soon before their places. Turquoise thanked the silver-streak haired woman profusely and dug right in.
"Angela's always been the tomboy type," Mason explained of his daughter as Scarlet took up a spoon and daintily stirred the steaming contents of the bowl in front of him. "She grew up in these woods. Knows every hollow, every rotted log, every flooded swamp from here to Quaker Bridge. But she's always come back when she said she would, not wanting to worry Jenn, her mother beyond reason. That's why we grew concerned when she didn't return this morning." With a father's scowl of worry Mason continued, "Angela went out camping by herself two days ago. Took all the supplies she usually does: tent, water container, hiking stick, backpack. You know. She even took bug repellent this time. Said she'd been away long enough, the skeeters might not remember her and try to bite." Mason chuckled at this bit of humor, but grew serious once more. "I wouldn't have let her go, had I known. Now these animal maulings ... Ach. There's a terrible pooka for ya. It's dangerous out in those woods right now, and we're all worried something bad's happened."
"We're just as concerned, Sir," Scarlet agreed between mouthfuls. "Do you know where she'd planned to set up her camp?"
"Aye," the Irishman answered giving away his original homeland's accent, so hard to hide even after decades of living within the woods of New Jersey. "There's a little hollow down by the Oswego River, about a mile east of the house. She always liked it there. Isolated. Deer'd come to her salt lick. There's an eagle's aerie just upstream. My boys have already been there looking for her."
Now Scarlet set down his spoon and leaned toward the older man. "What did they find?"
In response, the patriarch sighed and lowered his weary head. Finally Mason mumbled his reply, his voice thick, as if through heavy wool. "The tent, abandoned. Torn to shreds. Her supplies scattered about, as if rummaged through by a thief. They brought back what they could."
"Was there any blood, Mr. Mason?" Turquoise inquired from the seat beside his British partner. Mrs. Mason, standing within the doorway to the kitchen, clutched her tea-towel and gasped at the question. She swiftly crossed her chest.
"Red Hawk," Scarlet warned with a searing glare.
"It's a valid question, Captain," Mason interjected. The man's sleep-deprived eyes rose to meet Turquoise's. "No, there wasn't. Angel simply disappeared."
"Then she could still be alive," Turquoise contended. "She's a Spectrum officer, Mr. Mason. Tough. Trained in combat and self-defense. A ... an Indiana Jane of sorts. If she's out there, we'll find her. We'll start right away."
For the first time the two Spectrum officers watched Harvard Johnston Mason smile past his lips. The man's dark eyes sparkled. "I truly hope ya can, lads. She's my oldest, and she's my Precious. I've many times worried for her, this line of work she chose. Heaven knows I never expected to lose her in me own backyard." He rose from his seat at the table and nodded to his wife. "Jenn'll have a basket of goods for your trake. You'll not go hungry for your troubles. And Barry's a broth of a boy, a real strong back. You can rely on him to carry your skree."
"Uhm," Scarlet mumbled standing also and wiping his mouth clean of hesitation. "Mr. Mason. About your sons." With a deep breath he barreled on. "I think it best Captain Turquoise and I go alone. With our STVs, we can move much faster along the trails and through the brush. We appreciate their willingness to help. But with the reluctance of the ranger and other locals to compromise their safety, I feel it unnecessary to also risk theirs. We don't wish to be responsible for the loss of your entire family, Sir."
Harvard Mason's jaw quivered but he nodded his agreement. "What do you suggest they do, then?"
"Come morning, I'd feel it safe enough for them to join us. We'll check out the campsite first, then work our way upstream to the aerie you spoke of. Captain Turquoise is a well-trained tracker. If there are any clues at the site, he'll find them. We'll leave a trail for Barry and Gregory to find, so that they might catch up to us."
Mason seemed pacified. "Good enough, then. I can see you Spectrum people really do care for your own. I'm indebted to you already, Captains." Mason led them back to their STVs where Jennifer Mason handed them each a bandana-wrapped parcel of travel foods. To Turquoise she also passed a thermos of strong coffee and a grateful kiss to his dark cheek. Even in the depths of true night, Scarlet could see his younger partner was embarrassed by the attention. The pair had a reputation to uphold now. If they didn't find Angela Carrie Mason, Spectrum would have lost a family of faithful and kind supporters.
"We'll keep in touch," the British captain promised and poked his engine to life. The two roared off into the darkness of the Pine Barrens woods.
"So, Sir," Lieutenant Green inquired from where he lounged at his station, boots crossed atop the communications console. "The newlyweds arrived at the reception hall a whole two hours later? What had they been up to, meanwhile?"
Captain Blue strode across the command deck and considered the international maps spread across one wall. With a wave at one of them he answered, "Oh, wandering the countryside, looking for beautiful places to take photos, I suppose. I went with General and Mrs. Metcalfe to the reception hall and waited for Paul, Derek, and the others to show up." He glanced toward the younger Trinidadian and smirked. "I was really starting to miss the entertainment." With a sigh, Blue returned to his own station for the remainder of this portion of the story. When he had settled himself, he continued. "It was worth the wait. I must say, Griff. I've never encountered such an unusual and surprising wedding in my life. Apart from the collapse of the cake, everything that happened that day was totally original and unexpected."
"The wedding cake collapsed, Sir?" Green asked with a curious brow hop.
Blue waved the incident away. "Well, more like 'crushed'. But I get ahead of myself." He gathered a breath and explained. "The hall was a very expensive restaurant on the far side of town. Its doors were taller than this ceiling. Solid oak with huge gold door handles. Inside, everything was gilded and ornately carved. It reminded me of some fairy tale castle, and Bridget was the princess. Once her hair had been fixed, that is." Green smiled at the memory of Blue's last account. "We milled around, waiting. Mrs. Metcalfe was kind enough to keep me company for part of the time. Because of my crutch I wasn't exactly the most mobile of guests.
"Well, we sipped our ice water, trying to ignore our growling stomachs. By then it was around five o'clock in the afternoon. By Cloudbase time, it was more like twenty-one hundred. The guests dribbled about the fortunate weather, how good Great Aunt Ruth looked at her advanced age. I even eavesdropped on family members who couldn't control their urges for a good conspiracy. Do you know some of Paul's relatives honestly believed the blunders during the ceremony had been his fault?"
"They blamed Captain Scarlet for the rubber chickens and the demented doves?" Green spat in disbelief.
"Yep. Just like old times, I guess. It's a good thing Paul was out getting pictures done with the bride and groom. I haven't had the heart to tell him what I overheard, either. Mrs. Metcalfe said she'd speak to Paul about it instead. Anyway, someone came running in to announce that the wedding limo had finally pulled up. I held my breath, figuring our good captain would stroll in with some new evidence of tampering. He did, though at first it wasn't apparent. He made the mistake of telling me about it later. So now I can tickle you with the details."
"Oh, I bet it was another good one," Green blathered straightening in his chair, his boots smacking the treadmills beneath it.
"A Derek Evans' gem," Blue assured and went on. "Derek had hired a photographer sure to take them through their paces with poses and backgrounds. Winchester is very beautiful in late spring, Lieutenant. There are gardens and bridges, and gorgeous old trees. Paul told me the limo had stopped at a botanical garden where the photographer had had them all pile out and tromp to the edge of an ornate fish pond. Over it was an arched Japanese-styled teak bridge. The object was to have the groomsmen hold Bridget in their arms along the bridge's railing. The photographer would get them all, the bridge, and the colorful koi in the water below, all in one shot. It'd be gorgeous."
"Have you seen the wedding album yet, Sir?" Green inquired.
Blue shook his head. "Haven't been invited, but you distract me from the story, Lieutenant. As I was saying; Paul, Tobias, and Kerwin, the other usher, stood together at the arch of this bridge. They gathered Bridget in their arms and hoisted her up lengthwise onto the railing," Blue explained using his weaving hands in illustration. "According to our mutual friend and fall guy, her bridal train nearly dragged down into the pond. Well, the photographer had set up his tripod and was focusing on the shot when out of nowhere, Derek comes running onto the bridge and gives the men a shove toward the water!"
"Oh, no!" blurted Green. "You didn't say that Captain Scarlet was drenching wet when he got to the reception."
"Because he wasn't," Blue countered. "Luckily, the bridge's railing held against the jolt. But while Tobias and Kerwin let go of their load, Captain Scarlet clutched at Bridget to keep her from falling into the pond."
Blue shrugged. "I guess his tux just couldn't take the strain. He split his trousers. Right up to the cummerbund!"
Seymour Griffiths let out a hearty guffaw. He couldn't stop his ejaculatory shakes until a sudden thought brought him up in mid-gasp. "Oh, no! The pink undies!" That sent him off chortling again.
Blue had to pat the air and check the room for eavesdroppers before cautioning, "Take it easy, Lieutenant. Remember, I wasn't there to see this. But I can guarantee you; Captain Scarlet wouldn't want that bit repeated. Not in your lifetime or mine!"
That seemed to quell the younger man's joviality. "Oh, right, Sir. I'm sorry." Green cleared his throat and held his aching abdomen. After a moment of forced calm, the lieutenant asked, "So, did Captain Scarlet spend the remainder of the evening with his back against a corner?" Finding the query amusing, the man started chuckling again, caramel hand before his upswept mouth. With a gasp Green apologized once more. He held up his hand in earnest and promised, "I won't tell. Believe me, I won't. I value my life and reputation far more than the chance to spread a little Scarlet humility."
"Good, Lieutenant," Blue rumbled with an Arctic glare. Then his blue eyes softened. "That wasn't all, though." When Green risked an interested brow rise, the captain continued. "The DJ, of course, introduced the couple as they entered. Paul strode in first, with Darlene, Bridget's sister on his arm. At the time, he seemed a bit stiff-legged. Now, of course, we both know why. Anyway, the wedding party proceeded to the head table, sat down, and were offered their meal. There was a toast to be made, though. It's traditionally done by the best man."
With a knowing smirk, Green acknowledged, "Captain Scarlet."
"Right oh. Well, with a prod from a giggling Bridget, who I guess had forgiven him the dove incident because he had been her hero at the bridge, our good captain stood up in front of 250 people with his glass held high … and lied through his perfect teeth!"
"Why? What did he say?" Green challenged.
"Oh, just that he had known Derek since childhood, and was proud to see how he had grown into such a responsible, clear-headed sort. Ever the speech-maker, Paul said and I quote, 'I'm happy to be part of this very special occasion, and I wish both Bridget and Derek the best of good fortunes in their long future together.' Now, if that wasn't sugar-coated hog manure, I'll never know what is!" assured Blue with a strident nod.
Blue waved the incident off. "After that, they ate their dinner."
"But that's not all, you said," Green nearly whined from his place.
"No, but that's all you're getting for now, young man. It's past your bedtime, and mine. Look." The captain pointed to the wall clock. In moments, Captains Magenta and Grey would be striding in to relieve them. "I plan to get a good four hours in the Room of Sleep before having to return to this oversized cage of a desk."
"I heard that," quipped Grey. The Command Center door had opened and the older captain stepped in. "I happen to enjoy the opportunity to be in charge of you youngsters. It lends a bit of respected discipline to the place. Now, Captain, if you don't mind, I believe you're sitting in my chair."
Blue rose from the command desk and bowed, waving Grey on in. "Excuse me, 'Colonel Thor'. I didn't mean to steal your thunder. And you're only my senior by about two and a half years, Bradley, so don't sound so high and mighty."
With a knowing smirk Grey countered, "On the contrary, I respect your stamina. Sitting up here, filing reports, making critical decisions for the entire human populous, must be exhausting work. I'm sure you're in due need of a rest, Captain. Please don't let me stop you."
"Thanks," Blue blurted with a suspicious glance back at his vacated seat before striding to the exit. "Come on, Griff. It's time to let the experts mind the store."
"Somebody mention my name?" Captain Magenta chimed in from the occupied lift as the doors opened. He stepped past his tired friends and smiled. "Having fun up here without me?" the Irishman inquired cheerfully. "Any interesting stories we should know about?"
"Magenta," Grey growled from his seat at command. "Leave them alone. If you want an update, check the comm. station. That's your first order of business, I believe. Better get to it, before I charge you with delinquency."
"Yes, Sir, Colonel, Sir," Blue heard Magenta answer as the elevator door slid shut sealing him and Green inside.
"What was that all about?" the American captain inquired stifling a yawn.
"Just a little play on words, I'm sure, Sir," the lieutenant replied, swallowing his true reservations.
Using the STVs' headlamps to maneuver in the darkness, Captains Scarlet and Turquoise soon came to the hollowed out depression of cleared shrubs by the Oswego River, one and a half miles east of the Mason homestead. There, the two Spectrum officers dismounted their vehicles. After removing their confiningly warm helmets, they replaced their regulation caps atop their heads. The pair then began investigating the site for clues. Turquoise, many times crawling about on his hands and knees, was soon to come to an awkward conclusion. "No bear or cougar sign," he advised. "The leaf litter's pretty thick through here. Makes it difficult to find good tracks." Finally with a sigh Turquoise regained his feet and brushed off his soiled knees. "I'm sorry, Captain," he called over to the wandering Scarlet. "The Mason boys must have been all over this campsite. I can't find Angela's tracks leading anywhere. Just around this spot where she'd set up her tent, and here, where she'd wandered down to the river a few times. I'm afraid the evidence has been destroyed. Trampled really."
Scarlet, who had let his partner conduct the search, had circumvented the perimeter of the hollow meticulously scanning the brush with his high-powered Spectrum issue lantern. "What about this, then, Captain?" he inquired pointing the light beam down at something colorful in amongst the bracken. Turquoise jaunted over to meet him. He too considered the blue and green striped scrap of flannel. "Aren't those Angela's favorite colors?"
"Yes," Turquoise agreed kneeling down to pluck the rag from the thorny catbrier. "Indiana Jane has been here, all right. I wonder if she left this on purpose."
"How so?" Scarlet inquired, taking the sample from his partner and examining it closely.
"It's an even slice of fabric, not a rough tear. Almost like she ripped it from her shirt to alert us of her direction."
"We can test that hypothesis right now, then," Scarlet offered, dropping the scrap again into the thicket. With his narrow-beamed and piercing lantern, the British Captain scanned the brush upslope from the clue. After a moment he announced, "There's another one," and headed off through the woods to a spot not twenty yards upstream.
Turquoise, tossing his supply-laden backpack onto one shoulder trotted off after him. "We'd best keep track of how far we get from this campsite, Captain Scarlet. We might need the other equipment from the STVs."
"Right. You stay with the vehicles. I'll go a little further into the woods. If I find anything, I'll holler. My lantern will keep you abreast of my position. If I come across another access trail, we can follow using the STVs."
Turquoise grimaced in uncertainty. "I don't think we should separate. The woods all look the same in the dark. Getting lost isn't a possibility. It's a guarantee. Besides, it's safer if we stay together. We can trace the scrap fabric back to the STVs if we need to."
"Not that Devil bugaboo again," Scarlet harangued. "Remember, we're armed and trained Spectrum officers. Phantoms and scary stories can't hurt us."
"But the Jersey Devil can," Turquoise defended. "Look, Captain. You may not believe in Santa Claus, but he had a factual beginning. So did the Devil. He exists to the people here, so wouldn't caution be the wisest course of action?"
In answer, Captain Scarlet scowled in the eerie light of the lantern and huffed, "I'll see you later. Stay with the STVs." Promptly he spun in the patch of bracken fern and marched off to find another flannel crumb.
Turquoise could only frown at the order. With a pout at the cloud-obscured moonlight he backtracked to the parked Spectrum All Terrain Vehicles. There the Native American captain set up his own lantern and began reorganizing their equipment to consolidate his pack. As the cooling breeze picked up, announcing a coming storm, Captain Turquoise vowed to himself, "Staying put isn't what a real partner does."
Scarlet scoured the surrounding undergrowth with his lantern for the next scrap of evidence. He found it further north along the river, caught in another patch of catbrier. This slice of flannel revealed more than Scarlet had anticipated, however. Tugging it loose from its spiny perch the captain examined the tiny brown spots splayed across the fabric. "Dried blood," he rumbled. He set it back into the bramble. With a glance backward toward the campsite, Scarlet was disappointed to see no trace of his passage. The woods had seemingly swallowed his trail within its tangling grasp. He was still near the river, and so it would be simple enough to backtrack along its course. The next bit of evidence led him away from that landmark, however. Within a half-hour, more flannel swatches guided him to a sandy access trail which cut across his path. "Now where?" he murmured to himself. Scarlet swung the lantern beam in a wide, slow arch. The woods bordering the trail revealed no further flannel crumbs. "Blasted." After repeatedly scanning the path, the captain sighed at the futility and spun back to the woods from where he'd come. "Captain Turquoise!" he called into the darkness. No answering holler echoed from the trees. He swung his cap mike down to his lips. "Captain Turquoise. I found an access trail. I'm about a quarter mile north of your location. Check the trail maps for this crossroad and we'll reconnoiter. I'm coming back." With that Scarlet stepped again into the confining clutches of the Barrens. Swiftly he found his clues of flannel, and tracked them back to the hollow where the British captain discovered only one STV. "Ruddy, arrogant berk," he cursed at the obvious set of tire marks which curved around and headed back up the trail, toward Jenkins Neck. "I ordered him to stay here."
Releasing a frustrated huff, Scarlet traded in his kepi for the cycle's more protective helmet. He gave no regard for the sagging pack atop his rear rack, and instead poked his STV's starter over. The vehicle roared into the dampening night. The breeze he created with his passage was ripe with the smells of vegetation and approaching rain. The local weather forecasts had said nothing of the imminent precipitation. Soon he and Turquoise would not only be chilled, they would be wet.
By sheer dead reckoning, the British captain was able to rediscover the sand trail where the flannel scrap parade had ended. There were no other tire tracks, but he found his previous boot prints. "Blast it, Turquoise. Where are you?" Scarlet asked the trees. Cautiously he continued forward along the path, toward the river. As his rumbling quad-runner slogged through the shifting sugar-sand, the vehicle's single eye shone onto the path ahead. That's when Captain Scarlet spotted the tracks. He stopped, leaving the motor idling, and swung his leg off the STV for a closer inspection. The woods on either side of the trail were quiet except for the increasingly moist breeze tickling autumn leaves loose from their perches. Dried underbrush rustled softly. Any night creatures seemed to have taken to silent shelter.
Bending over the markings in the sand, careful not to block the headlight's view, Scarlet considered the tracks. Were they deer prints? They seemed twin crescents of a sort, but larger than the remembered feet of the earlier killed doe. No. These prints looked more like Red Hawk's goat tracks. Scarlet wasn't a professional tracker, but he quickly recognized the tell-tale signs were bipedal in nature, about a foot apart, and a foot in distance. "More nonsense," he rumbled to himself as he placed his own booted feet beside the prints to measure the stride. Then he straightened and called into the woods. "All right, Watie. I've had enough of the subterfuge. Come out, and be carrying those fake stompers you've been using."
Only the faintest of misty drizzle was his answer. With an brow raising sigh Scarlet returned to his STV to retrieve his lantern and rain jacket, stowed within the backpack. In the glistening light of the forward shining headlamp, Scarlet could see, however, that the rear rack on the vehicle was barren. "My pack," he ventured, mentally reclaiming his last memory of it. "Watie," he grumbled. Scarlet had allowed his haste and frustration to lead to carelessness. Now he was without the critical contents of his pack, which included ... "My cap." He refused the urge to curse yet again. He still had a functioning vehicle with its handy GPS, his wits, and the access trail to follow back to the Mason homestead. Question was: where was his partner? "Captain Turquoise!" he called into the frigid mist descending upon him. His epaulette-clad shoulders were already beginning to soak through. Was John Watie in trouble? Had he gotten lost himself, perhaps by way of the same conundrum which had caused Captain Ivory's disappearance? Too coincidental, Scarlet admitted. "To devil with this mystery, Captain." He climbed back aboard his vehicle intending to retrace his steps to find the place where his and Turquoise's tire tracks had diverged. Just as he poked the STV's transmission into reverse, however, a strident whistling cry split the night. Scarlet paused. The sound had come from ahead, toward the river; a harsh, piercing wail, seemingly full of pain or anguish. But it wasn't a human utterance, Scarlet was sure. A man had not called out in terror and made that noise. No, it was more reminiscent of a metal blade or tool scraping against high-tension steel wire. "John?" he yelled out in caution. "Captain Turquoise. Are you there?"
In the drizzly headlight beam of the cycle Scarlet caught sight of a tall, slender form moving between the trees along the trail. That shrill exclamation disturbed the rain again, but the shadow of a thing was gone. "John Watie," Scarlet fumed. "This has gone far enough. You and Adam have had your fun." The Spectrum captain leaned on the accelerator and backed into the scrub along the trail's edge to turn his vehicle around. Something snapped a twig behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, expecting Watie to jump out of the trees with a grimacing face and clawed hands of mockery. Instead, his eyes met the rounded and shadowed face of what at first seemed a horse. In the dim glow of the light reflecting rain, ember eyes glowered at him. A hiss issued from the fanged, curled lips. As Scarlet jabbed the STV into forward, a whipping spear pierced his back. Its burning intrusion was felt through his tunic and into his flesh. With a gasping flinch, the captain twisted the accelerator and spun away, kicking up sand in his defense.
Ahead the crusted, rain-coated path gave way to his spitting tires. The headlight jerked and bounced over the uneven trail. A coolness now trickled down Scarlet's back as he rode the bucking STV. What had he seen? What had perforated the space between his shoulder blades so swiftly? Turquoise's spear hunting hermit? Just as he neared an intersection in the access trails, another headlamp came roaring around the corner at him. Instinct made him pivot left to avoid collision. Scarlet stomped the brake and ditched his cycle into the shrubbery beside the path. The crunch of metal and the sudden silence of the engine announced the severity of the crash. A thick scrub oak became the STV's parking spot.
"Captain Scarlet!" he heard Turquoise exclaim. "Are you all right?" The younger man was bent over him, silhouetted against the headlight of his vehicle, his head half-obscured by his rain jacket's hood. When Scarlet nodded his assent from the soaked and prickly ground, Turquoise blurted, "Did you hear it? That was the Devil's cry. I'm sure of it. Nothing else sounds like it."
With a groan Scarlet allowed his partner to haul him back upright. Right away, a painful twinge in his side told him his right ribs had taken a beating, probably from collision with the one handlebar. Had he not twisted away and over the vehicle, Scarlet might have joined his STV against the tree. "That ..." he panted with a grimace. "That wasn't you?"
"What do you mean me?" Turquoise asked steadying him as Scarlet straightened with another groan and stumbled up onto the more forgiving trail.
"The sound. The costume."
"Costume? Are you saying you saw the Jersey Devil?" The man's dark eyes expanded in hopeful anticipation.
With a huff of regained composure Scarlet braced his aching back and admitted, "What I saw, Captain, was someone in a cheap Hallow's Eve suit and mask."
Now Turquoise's shadowed face creased in skepticism. "Mask? Are you sure?"
"Get off it, Watie. Admit that this has all been a colorful plot, hosted by our dear Captain Blue to pay back a four month old debt."
Turquoise blinked in ignorant earnest. "What debt?"
"Oh, give this man an Asgard."
"That's Oscar. You know, for acting. But I'm not, Captain. Honest. I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Right," Scarlet grumbled reaching back to feel the sore spot between his shoulders. His palm came away bloodied. "Bloomin' dangerous cantrip, if you ask me. A good bit painful, too. What did she use? A gaffing staff?"
Turquoise continued to appear innocent. "She? You mean Angela? You think Angela and Captain Blue are playing a prank on you?"
"And you," Scarlet accused even as the engulfing mist thickened to a soaking rain. In response, he shivered. "You were sent along to play the coy. Well, I'm not amused." With a shoulder jerk against the burning in his back Scarlet considered his crunched STV. "Let's go get Captain Ivory. Looks like you're driving."
With a sigh, Turquoise resigned from further argument. Instead he asked, "Which way?"
Scarlet swung an arm back toward the river. "I believe I left her back there, wearing an ugly horse disguise. Must be getting uncomfortably soaked about now."
"All right. We'll go look. Are you sure you're OK?" That last was voiced with genuine concern. "You know, I was checking the trail map. There's a lean-to down this way," Turquoise offered poking a thumb back over his shoulder to the intersection from where he had come. "We can start a fire and get out of the rain."
Scarlet scowled at him. "Yes. And if we heat up some coffee and pastries, we can invite Captain Ivory in for tuck." Then with a sigh, Scarlet consented. "All right, Captain. Let's say I believe you, and we're really here to find Angela. What, then, was that thing I just saw?"
With a wide smile Turquoise just shrugged. "Let's go get you dry, and I'll tell you the whole story. Deal?"
Uncertainty tickled his brain, but the aches in his body and the chilling rain challenged Scarlet's urge to continue the investigation. "Deal," he grumbled.
Together, they straddled the remaining STV, and Turquoise drove them to a cedar-shingled lean-to nestled amongst a circle of tall pines just off the trail. "Now go have a seat. Take off your vest jacket and shirt," the Cherokee captain suggested as he unstrapped his pack from the vehicle's rear rack. "I want a look at that wound." Scarlet ducked into the three-sided shelter, yanked off his helmet and sank onto the bench built in to the back wall. There was just enough dry dirt space for five sleeping bags to lay side-by-side under the slanted roof and log formed walls. As Turquoise leaned in and set his pack down beside Scarlet he slipped the dripping rain jacket from his body. The British captain gingerly slid the Spectrum vest from his own shoulders.
"You don't have to be my nursemaid," Scarlet advised tugging his turtleneck over his head. "The mark will be gone by morning."
"I know, but I want to determine the weapon before the mark disappears on me. Remember the dead deer's neck puncture?"
"You think it might be the same?"
"Dunno. Might be." Without another word, Turquoise made use of his lantern to illuminate the deep gouge to his partner's back. His only outward signs of its severity were a sympathetic grimace and a hissing between his wide lips. He wiped away the blood and pasted a bandage over the wound. Finally he put his first aid kit away and sat down beside Scarlet to explain, "Well, the puncture looks like it's the same diameter. If it had gone any deeper, you might have ended up paralyzed. I think he was aiming for your spine."
"He?" The earlier skepticism had crept back into Scarlet's voice. In the dark and cold dampness, he couldn't think any sunnier.
It seemed his partner had optimism enough for them both. "Let me get a fire going first. In the least, a spooky story must have a campfire. It'll set the mood." Again that boyish grin. "Plus, it'll help you dry off and warm up. I'm near stiff with chill, myself," he admitted. Minutes later, a petite blaze was crackling at their feet. Luckily, the forest rangers seemed to have kept the temporary shelter stocked with dry tinder. "Now," Watie sighed, backing down onto the bench and holding his hands out over the flames. "Before we begin, I do have something to confess."
"It's about time," Scarlet grumbled, his own arms outstretched over the heat.
Captain Blue rolled out of the sleep platform and yawned. As a last minute precaution, he had set the alarm to awaken him in a mere two hours, the time he had expected another update from his partner. Captain Scarlet was diligent in his efforts, but a strange feeling kept digging at the American's scalp. Why hadn't Ivory been found yet? What if the young woman captain was dead? What if the Mysterons were planning some convoluted attempt to trap Scarlet using Ivory as bait? What if Captain Turquoise had distracted his British partner from their true mission? Dreams were an annoying distraction in themselves when they offered more questions and problems than answers. Drawing on his vest jacket, Blue grabbed up his boots and cap and headed for the shower room. If he was to be wide awake, he needed a splash of cool water in his face. By morning Ivory would have been missing nearly twenty hours. Blue didn't like the prospects.
He strode onto the command deck just as the call was coming in. "Looks like I'm just in time," he announced to a surprised Grey.
"Why? Don't think we can handle it?" Magenta inquired from the comm. station.
"Of course I do, but it was my assignment. I feel responsible for knowing what's going on down there."
Grey was smirking at him from beside the comm. station where he settled a hand atop Magenta's shoulder. "Spoken like a true commander." He turned his brown eyes down to his comm. officer. "Open the channel, Captain."
The blue indicator blinked and Scarlet's weary voice fizzled across the distance. "Cloudbase. Do you read?"
With a tilt of his dark-haired head Grey indicated Blue's seniority. "Uh, Captain?" the younger American started. "How come you're using Turquoise's frequency? Is John all right?" It was very unusual for one Spectrum officer to make use of another's equipment unless ...
"We're both fine, Captain," Turquoise was heard saying.
Scarlet explained, "I ... I misplaced my cap for the moment. Haven't had a chance to recover it. Just checking in as ordered. Local time, 23:05 hours. The weather's turned a bit nasty here, and we've taken refuge in a park shelter. We found fabric scraps of what could be Captain Ivory's flannel shirt leading to an access trail near the Oswego River, but there the clues went cold. We'll wait for the rain to let up before venturing out again."
"Won't your evidence be obscured from the rain, Captain?" Magenta inquired with a doubtful frown.
The trio heard Scarlet's sigh of resignation. "Probably, but I'm not giving up until we find her. Her family seems to think she knows these woods well enough that she couldn't have stumbled into a bog or patch of swamp unawares. There is a slim possibility local wildlife may have been involved with her disappearance, but it wouldn't be a pretty find."
Suddenly Turquoise cut in with his hypothesis. "Another possibility is that the Devil got her, Captain Blue. We've found tracks, heard his cry, and I found-"
"Bugger it," Scarlet grumbled across the open channel. "Not that nonsense again, Captain. This is supposed to be a factual report in to Cloudbase."
"But I'm reporting the facts," Turquoise was heard defending himself.
Scarlet spoke to the three in Cloudbase's Command Center once more. "I'll contact you again if we find anything pertinent. The sun won't be up for another eight hours, so we're stumbling about here in the dark for the moment. It's slow going at best."
"Keep us posted, Captain," Blue acknowledged. The transmission went abruptly dead.
"Now, what was that all about?" Grey queried with a furrowed brow. "Who's this 'Devil' Turquoise spoke of?"
With a pouting lip Blue stared at the now unblinking transmitter light and admitted, "I think our eager young captain is taking his role a bit too seriously." Then his blue eyes rose to acknowledge his comrades. "Consider it a debt repaid," he offered their perplexed expressions.
"And this Devil?" Grey pursued.
With a shrug Captain Blue explained, "It's something Angela once told me about. A local legend. I thought Watie'd be the perfect person to tease Paul with it. But he sounded serious a moment ago."
"Could this legend really exist?" Magenta asked spinning his seat around to consider both his comrades.
"I doubt it," Blue argued with a deep frown. "Legends and conjecture rarely jump out at you with real claws. What Scarlet said concerns me, though. A wild animal may be our best lead, and that could mean Angela was caught off guard. With the rain, we may never find out what happened." Blue grew suddenly sullen, his blue eyes unfocused on the floor before his boots.
After a long moment Grey reminded, "It's not your fault she's missing, Adam. I'm sure Scarlet and Turquoise are doing all they can to piece this puzzle together."
With a sigh originating somewhere from his toes, Blue replied, "I just hope she's all right. I wouldn't want to think that I lost someone on my watch." With a shuffle of his blue boots, the American captain spun away and strode from the Command Center. A return to sleep was the last thing on his mind.
Within the glow of their little campfire Turquoise defended his perspective. "I think I saw it, Captain. I followed it. I found tracks and bloody claw marks," he told Scarlet. "I know Blue assigned me to this mission for more than my tracker's skills. I admit it. I was to tease you a little, just a little. Enough to annoy you is all. But I'm sure this thing's real now."
"Explain yourself, Captain," Scarlet challenged bent over the fire between them, his damp uniform steaming slightly in the frigid air. His shirt and jacket again clung to his chilled frame.
"When I left that hollow to intercept you on the other trailhead, I saw something that wasn't a deer. It had a long pointed tail and what looked like a hump on its back. I followed it at a distance along this trail here. Where it disappeared into the woods I came upon its tracks in the sand. Those same cloven hooves we saw earlier. Then, there on the trees were bloody claw marks. I thought of a bear marking its territory, but the thing hadn't walked like one. It was far too fast and tall, and the claw marks were just like those we found on the dead deer." He spread his hand out to demonstrate. "They were the same spacing as my fingers. Definitely not a bear's. That's when I heard the cry. I jumped back onto my STV and headed back to find you. Man, that thing must be swift! It got to you before I did with the STV! I can't deny it anymore. We've both seen it now. I can't argue the facts, no matter how old the legend."
"Legend," Scarlet echoed sullenly eyes focused on the flickering fire. "What legend?" From his mouth a wisp of warmed air streamed over the flames.
"It's about the demon born long ago to a woman near here," Turquoise began.
"Pardon?" Scarlet puffed from his seat upon the hard bench.
"The Jersey Devil. It's the state's demon. Angela told me: New Jersey's the only state in the union that has one."
"Demon? You mean some homicidal maniac has been loose, living in these woods? Why would anyone take their leave here? Didn't Angela know the dangers?"
"No, Captain. This isn't a man. No human could have made those tracks, could have clawed those marks in the tree. I can bet you; the blood I found wasn't human either."
"Good. Then that means Captain Ivory may still be alive and well." Scarlet stood suddenly and rubbed at his nearly dry sleeves. "I'm through with mysteries, Captain. Let's get back to the first campsite and pick up my dropped pack and cap. We'll return to Ivory's family home and question them again. Someone may have remembered something else that might help. We'll return here at first light." Stepping past the still seated Turquoise Scarlet stopped at the edge of the lean-to. Outside the shelter the rain was pelting down, hitting the sandy soil with tiny pops.
"You wanted me to tell you the legend. We have to sit out this storm anyway. Why don't you indulge me my specialty, then you can make your own decision."
Scarlet glowered at him from across their little campfire. "Are there any facts to this legend?" he challenged.
With an assured smile Turquoise answered, "Always." Scarlet sat back down. Once his partner had settled again into silent contemplation Watie dug into his pack and withdrew the thermos of still hot coffee for them to share. Then, with a monstrous, homemade oatmeal-raisin cookie in his hand, Turquoise began to weave his tale. "The story dates back to the colonial period. Around 1735, or there abouts," Red Hawk recounted. "Out on a marshy promontory of Atlantic County, not far from the now famous Noyes Museum of Art, a woman by the name of Mother Leeds was giving birth to her thirteenth child."
"Great Space, Man. Didn't she ever say no?" Scarlet attacked from the opposite side of the bench.
"Back then, large families were needed as a guaranteed workforce on the farm." Turquoise paused for emphasis before getting back to his story. "Anyway, that place is known today as Leed's Point. Only the skeleton of the home's foundation is left, buried under a mat of re-growth. But then, at that time," he continued his voice lowering to convey suspense, "a raging storm shook the night about the little shack, inside which Mother Leeds was giving birth. She lay upon a simple straw bed piled with warm, hand-sewn quilts. The flickering firelight danced upon the shack's wood slatted walls. Outside, in the storm, the wind moaned and whistled through the swaying pitch pines of the Barrens and through the chinks in the cabin's boards. Thunder rumbled all around as rain hammered the tin roof above her head like driving nails. An owl hooted mournfully nearby, portending doom. The sky flashed bright in the night, illuminating the twisted, agonized face of the matron in labor.
"As she groaned and pushed in her birthing, Mother Leeds gathered a strengthening breath and cried out, 'I need no more children. Let this one be the Devil!' The two midwives attending to her swiftly crossed their hearts," Turquoise said drawing his own forefinger across his heart in imitation. "They had suspected her of dealings with the underworld. Mother Leeds, a Quaker woman, had been accused of being a witch before. Her abilities to draw sustenance from the salty marshlands were uncanny."
"This is all very interesting history, Red Hawk," Scarlet interrupted. "But what does it have to do with some sort of a creature?"
"Ah," Turquoise extolled with a lifted finger in the glow of the dancing flames. "You stop me too soon. My story's only begun." With a serious glare into their little fire pit, he continued, "The midwives knew it was unwise to speak of such things, for one might just get what one wished for." He paused again, watching Scarlet lean forward, elbows on knees. The man's blue eyes settled upon the quavering of the campfire between them. Watie's deep voice was starting to weave its magic. His partner was becoming lost in the story. "With one final shove, the baby was born. In relief the midwives wrapped the baby in a worn, but clean blanket. It was a boy. A beautiful boy. He was healthy. He was normal. He was human ... at first."
Scarlet's eyes broke free from their hypnotic grasp of the flames. "At first?" he blurted. "What are you going on about?"
"I'm explaining the cause for the marks we saw on the deer this afternoon, Captain. The local residents here are familiar with the creature. I'm educating you."
"Education?" the British captain repeated with scorn. "Sounds more like another one of your fairy tales."
"Legend, Captain Scarlet. All legends have their basis in fact. Remember? Now, do you want an explanation or not?"
"Fine, Captain," Scarlet grumbled straightening upon the bench and crossing his arms before their heat and light source. "Go on."
"Fine," Watie echoed and continued weaving his literary tapestry. "The midwives laid the baby on the bed beside his mother. To soothe their anxieties they then moved to the tiny kitchen to make some hot tea. But as the pair brought the pot and cups from the fireplace to the table, Mother Leeds suddenly screamed and dropped the baby onto the cold dirt floor. Alarmed the midwives rushed to her side, to see what the matter was. They watched in horror as the blanket twisted and heaved upon the floor."
Suddenly Scarlet bolted to his feet. "Did you hear that, Captain?" he demanded. "Something's out there. Behind us. Beyond the lean-to's walls."
"It's probably nothing, Captain Scarlet. Just a deer wandering about nibbling on late autumn berries." As he said this Turquoise shivered. The evening was quickly cooling. Scarlet, too, returned to his seat and the warmth of the fire, holding out his hands again toward the flames. When there was silence for a few moments, Turquoise continued his tale. "From under the baby's blanket a pudgy little hand popped out. Before the women's eyes that hand curled into claws." This Turquoise illustrated by balling a fist before the flames. "The blanket lurched and began to grow. A tiny foot slid out, grew in size, and split into a cloven hoof.
"Frozen in their terror, the women could only grab their throats and cover their mouths as the blanket rose and stretched. The child stood up, now three feet tall, and shook off its covering. From its pale back stretched wide leathery wings. Black fur sprouted from its spindly legs and a long arrow-tipped tail snaked from behind. As the midwives watched, the baby's round face elongated into a horse's muzzle. Teeth suddenly emerged, sharp and fang-like from reddened gums. The thing, for it was no longer a baby, stood as tall as a man and let out an unearthly shriek. The women screamed as the Devil himself stood before them.
"The creature's round eyes grew slanted, glowing red with some inhuman intelligence. It hissed in anger at the witnesses to his transformation," Turquoise rumbled his own eyes glowing embers in the dancing firelight. "It shrieked again, reached forward, and slashed at its mother's face, leaving long bloody gashes." He imitated the actions with his own curled fingers against his cheek. "Then, as the horrified women looked on, the creature took to the air. Flapping its wings it darted up over the fire, up the chimney and out into the stormy night sky. Its whistling cries could be heard for long minutes as it disappeared into the pines. The Jersey Devil was born that night.
"Some say his first meal were twelve children asleep in a nearby shack. Perhaps the Devil's own brothers and sisters. And in the morning, local farmers awoke to find their farmyards painted in blood. Chickens, sheep, pigs, even horses had been mauled by some unearthly creature. It had left behind bloody hoof prints in the mud, across the roofs of the houses, even clawed into tree trunks. A hunting posse was sent to track the thing down, but the hound dogs shied away from the scent trail whimpering in fear. The Devil had disappeared without another trace. But no one could forget what they had seen that morning, nor could any who saw it later.
“There are continued documented cases of missing livestock, pets and even small children. There are eyewitness accounts of his sightings along the dark, lonely roadways of several surrounding counties. Wherever civilization meets the Pinelands. Even to this day, as we saw tonight, the Jersey Devil still haunts these woods. Perhaps we saw the living legend, Captain." Turquoise grew silent, his tale completed.
For a long moment there was an uneasy silence between them. Then Scarlet raised a brow and smiled crookedly from across the campfire. "Do you want me to clap now?" he asked dryly. Scarlet straightened in his seat. "I never knew you were such a storyteller, John Red Hawk. It was the perfect choice for such a gloomy, rainy night. Look." Pointing up through the trees beyond the lean-to Scarlet indicated the sky. Where once the heavy clouds had expelled their fluid weight, now a shadowy full moon peeked unannounced. "I believe the storm's about over."
Turquoise understood the signal and lurched to his feet, stretching his wide shoulders and yawning. "Then, I guess we better get on with our search. I'll get to work trying to find that flannel trace again. Maybe it crosses the access trail, back into the woods."
With a disagreeable shake of his dark head Scarlet stood and booted dirt over their campfire. "We'll return to the hollow where Angela last camped. From there, we'll ask to bed in for the night with the Mason family."
"You're giving up?" Turquoise accused straightening from where he was gathering his pack.
"Not on your Cherokee heritage, Watie. I've simply decided to wait until there's enough light for us to see our clues. What's left of them after the rain, that is."
"No. You're quitting. You've given up on finding Angela alive. You're waiting 'til morning to find her body. You said as much yourself to Captain Blue."
"Belt up, Watie," Scarlet growled. "I'm not afraid of the dark, or of your fanciful demon. Someone's mucking about with our evidence, and I want the daylight to speak the truth. I've had enough of your mysticism and devilry for one night, thank you!"
"But you saw it, Captain. You saw the Devil yourself. We have proof. We found evidence that he's near here. We can't sleep cozy in a stranger's bed while Angela's out here with that thing."
Now Scarlet's eyes narrowed in the fizzling firelight. "You care for her. Don't you?" He expected a denial. It was unprofessional, even against regulations, for Spectrum personnel to become romantically involved with each other. It's why Captain Blue and Symphony Angel had kept their feelings hidden for so long. Besides, Watie had only been assigned to Cloudbase three weeks ago.
Captain Turquoise's shoulders slumped a bit. The backpack slid from his compliant hand to the lean-to's bench. "Is it that obvious?" For once his youthful vigor seemed dour. "I'm sorry, Captain. I didn't mean to care. Angela was my orientation officer. We were assigned duties together. She has an interest in folklore, as I do. She's the one who told me about the Jersey Devil in the first place. She used to love her grandfather's retelling of the account." Turquoise shrugged. "When Captain Blue found out Angie and I were more than just colleagues, he promised me-"
"He blackmailed you, you mean," Scarlet interrupted. "He said he'd keep a gab off it if you'd do him one little favor. Get me buggered. Am I right?"
"No. He told me you'd understand. I agreed to keep you on your toes as a favor to him. Captain Blue said we can never choose the one we fall in love with."
Scarlet chuckled. "Just like Adam. Such a romantic." Then his eyes creased serious again. "All right. We'll spend the night tracking this thing. It seems to leave plenty of spoor." With a nod toward the lean-to's exit the British Captain added, "Your lead, Captain."
With his pack on his shoulder Turquoise stomped out onto the now solidly packed sandy trail to survey the Barrens once more. With a thought to strategy he glanced down the path toward where Scarlet had ditched his STV and last seen their nemesis. "This way."
Captain Blue stifled a yawn as he settled back into the command chair with a mug of aromatic coffee. He was once again on duty. "Sorry, Lieutenant," he apologized as Green covered his own mouth to disguise his response. "Couldn't sleep very well, I guess."
Green, sipping his choice of beverage, a spicy mocha chai, set his mug down to stretch. "It's all right, Sir. You're worried about the captains down on assignment."
"And whether Captain Ivory is OK."
The lieutenant straightened in his chair and smirked. "What you need, Sir, is a distraction."
"You mean a Mysteron threat? That I can live without, at the moment. I've already gleaned a new appreciation for the colonel's patience and repose."
"No, Captain," Green negated with a twinkling eye. "What you really need is a story."
Blue glared at his communications officer over his coffee rim. Once he'd swallowed the captain challenged, "You have a humorous tale to tell?"
"Sir, please. Could you finish your story? You've taken me to the reception, but I haven't had a chance to dance."
Blue couldn't help himself. He had to smile at his younger companion's guile. "Nor has our dear Captain Scarlet yet faced the music," he quipped. "OK." In response, Green nearly wiggled with joy adjusting himself comfortably at his duty station. Blue began where he'd left off several hours before. "Let's see. I told you about the photography nightmare and the wedding toast. Then there was the first dance. That's right. Right after dinner."
"You didn't tell me about that, Sir. The bride danced with her father?"
Nodding Blue continued. "And the groom dances with his mom. Well, that part went well, except Mr. Nichols, Bridget's dad, lost his breath about halfway through Daddy's Little Girl. Seems he has a heart condition, and Mrs. Nichols didn't want him to dance at all."
"Did they stop the music, then, so he could return to his wife?" Green asked.
"They tried, but Derek stepped in and volunteered Captain Scarlet to finish the dance, so poor Bridget wouldn't be standing alone on the floor."
"Captain Scarlet? But what about-"
"Exactly," Blue agreed. "Our good captain didn't want to dance. He had developed quite a southern chill, as you recall. But, you see, Derek announced to everyone what a great stomper his cousin was. And as he was the best man, it was his duty to assist."
"Did Captain Scarlet refuse?" Green asked his eyebrows nearly flush with his hairline.
"Of course he did. His pale eyes were scrambling for a way out. Then Aunt Marjorie came to the rescue."
"That's Derek's mum, right?"
"Right. She stood up and announced to all that her nephew, Paul Metcalfe, was a man of honor and would be happy to dance with the bride."
Green closed his eyes and cringed. "Oh, no. Poor Captain Scarlet."
"Understandably, under that kind of family pressure, Paul rescinded. He stood up from the table, walked stiffly to the bride at the center of the dance floor, and bowed ever so slightly. He took her left hand in his and led her about 'til the completion of the song. By then a mere two minutes later."
"He survived, then."
Blue scoffed. "Of course he survived, Griff. He's indestructible. But he did blush the same shade as his skivvies! It seems with one's pants split to the world, spinning about in public with pink boxers provides quite a display!"
Green groaned. "I don't believe this all happened in one day."
"I still can't believe I'm telling you all of this. It was a nightmare of sheer delight. But I haven't told you the piece de resistance, yet. The day wasn't over." Blue sipped at his coffee for a long moment, eyeing his increasingly impatient audience. Finally he ventured, "Do you want the simple truth or the sugar-coated version?"
"Oh," Green crooned with rapture. "I want to be embalmed in honey!"
"All right. Listen at your own risk, but you may never consider marriage after this. Hell is colder than this ending. I assure you." With a final suck of his coffee dregs, Captain Blue set the mug down and climbed to his feet. He sauntered around to the front of the circular desk and plopped his buttocks onto its multi-lighted surface. "During a wedding reception, there are other fun activities besides dancing," he explained leaning forward. "There's the bride's bouquet toss, then the groom's garter fling. Well, Darlene, of all the women, caught the bouquet. She's Bridget's little sister, you might remember. Nice girl. About sixteen, I think. Too young to be the next one married off, as the tradition goes.
"Then came Derek's turn. First he had to remove the garter from around Bridget's thigh. He was very gentle with this, and Paul commented to me that Bridget didn't seem to realize she had just married a seething tiger. Honestly, I don't think she knew how things had gone wrong at the photo bridge, but she was about to discover Derek's true stripes." Blue took a breath and blinked at the ceiling, recollecting his memories of the event. "Now Derek had to stand with his back to all us eligible bachelors, much like all the young women who'd scrambled for the bouquet had to be single as well. Paul and I stood side-by-side, me leaning on my crutch and worried that in the rush I'd end up on my backside with another fractured ankle." Blue grimaced at the anxiety of the moment, then pouted. "Derek cheated, of course. He looked over his shoulder as he flung the garter. He was aiming for our posterior-challenged coworker." Green chuckled. Blue remained deadpan. "Paul saw it coming his way and ducked aside, shoving me right into the damned thing. It was unavoidable, I suppose," Blue admitted with a shrug.
"Why? What happened?"
"A herd of bachelors bowled me down, that's what! I was swallowed by hungry young sharks wanting dibs on Darlene!" When Green mirrored his cringe of agony the American continued, "I hit the floor and stayed there. Curled into a ball for my own safety. There was a mad scramble, then a slow sense of confusion. It seems the garter had vanished. People started accusing Derek of not having even thrown it. But good old Paul came to my rescue! He assured everyone Derek had indeed pitched it right at me." Blue sighed in his awkwardness before admitting, "All those young bachelors, staring down in disgust at me curled on the floor, my crutch painfully beneath my fourth rib."
"What did you do?" Green asked.
"I opened my eyes ... then my hands." Blue smirked. "I couldn't believe it. Why, there it was, nestled safely in my clutches. I'd caught the garter, after all."
"Paul and Derek helped me up, and I got to place the garter on Darlene's leg."
Green slid the captain a sly eye. "Wait. Aren't you supposed to put it up high? You know, for good luck?"
A devilish grin snaked across Captain Blue's lips before he assured with a noble nod, "I was a pure gentleman, Griff. I only slid it as high as her pretty little knee."
"But Captain," Green argued. "Those two needed all the luck they could get."
In response Blue chuckled slightly then grew sullen. "That's where Paul's debt comes in, Griff. You see, dear Aunt Marjorie blames me for the annulment."
"Annulment? You never said they weren't married anymore," Green uttered. "What caused that to change?"
"Oh, just two things. The truth of Derek's character and the wedding cake."
"Ah, yes. I remember you said it collapsed."
"Oh it collapsed, all right. Everything collapsed, including my respect for my partner. He'd put me in harm’s way enough already. Now this."
"Why? Did you get hurt again?"
"Let's just say I left that wedding with more bumps, bruises, and embarrassments than my failed vacation. And it was all Captain Scarlet's fault."
Captain Turquoise bent over the STV seat to scrutinize more of the washed out tire treads of his and Scarlet's passage along the sandy trail leading to the Oswego River. "Not much left," he admitted to his partner. His warm breath created a tiny cloud in the chilled air. "We'll go on ahead and see about those prints you saw."
"Yes," Scarlet agreed from behind him. He pointed past the man's shoulder. "They're up by the last scrap of flannel I found. They weren't there at first, but when I'd returned with my STV, I discovered them in the headlights." Together they sped up their pace in the stiffened sugar-sand to pause at the place where Scarlet's STV had backed up to reverse direction. The tire tracks were now more like deep depressions in the trail. "This is where I was attacked by ..."
"The Jersey Devil?" Turquoise challenged over his shoulder with a raised brow.
"By the prankster wearing the horse's ass," Scarlet finished with a mirrored glower of defiance. With a swing of his leg he dismounted the STV.
"Well, whomever it was, it wasn't Angie," Turquoise asserted climbing off the vehicle as well. "She wouldn't play such a trick. Especially not on you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Turquoise hesitated before admitting, "She's, uh ... Angela's a bit intimidated by you, Captain. Says you have no imagination or sense of humor." In his own defense Turquoise shrugged. "I told her I'm sure you did. You were just a very dedicated officer. Knew when to goof around and when to stick to business."
"And now?" Scarlet inquired with an earnest eye. He adjusted their shared backpack higher onto his shoulders.
Turquoise sputtered at the irony. "Oh, you're all business." They continued forward on foot. Along the trees they discovered the flannel trail's end.
"Can you see any more of these?" Scarlet ventured fingering the last piece he had replaced in the bushes. Turquoise wandered about in an ever expanding circle, scanning the underbrush on both sides of the access trail with his lantern. A thought came to Scarlet's mind as he watched his partner work. "So, Captain. Who's this Indiana Jane, anyway? A famous folklore heroine?"
Turquoise, squatting before a tangle of catbrier, harrumphed. "No. It's a reference to a series of popular old movies toward the end of the Twentieth century. The character's name was Indiana Jones. He was an archeologist who wasn't beyond utilizing unethical means of procuring historical artifacts for his museum. An adventurous type. Swashbuckling hero, daredevil, even. I've called Angela 'Indiana Jane' on occasion when I saw her trying to emulate your daring heroics." Turquoise glanced up from his inspection to remind Scarlet, "I believe it got her shot by a Mysteron weapon once."
Scarlet swallowed. "Yes," he admitted darkly. "It was I who shot her."
Turquoise stood to his full height of 6'3". "You could have killed her, you know."
Scarlet cleared his throat. "I, uh ... I was acting out a deception at the time, against the Mysterons. The ploy worked, and I was able to blow up their underground complex. Captain Ivory was beyond the lethal range. I only stunned her. She recovered without permanent damage."
Captain Turquoise's dark eyes narrowed as he approached the waiting Scarlet. "I didn't know her then, so I wasn't around to knock your head in. But, as I recall, you recovered within a few hours, while Angela limped about for a couple of weeks. Nerve damage, she said."
"Yes," Scarlet agreed, matter-of-factly. "The damage wasn't permanent, as I said. I did apologize for having shot her. It was all-"
"A ploy. Yes, you said that already." Turquoise twisted his head to a quizzical angle. "Captain, do you enjoy taking risks with your life?"
"Spit it out, Watie," Scarlet answered quickly growing impatient with the younger man's advances.
"Well," Turquoise began, "I'm afraid Captain Ivory looks up to you. She wants to be like you, a respected and honored field agent. I'm just afraid she's going to kill herself in the meantime. You, on the other hand, are indestructible. You don't have to worry about being killed."
"And your point is, Captain?"
"I think she was trying to outdo herself here. I think Angela purposely put herself in danger. All because she wanted to be as good as you."
"You mean Captain Ivory got herself lost on purpose? That's a bloody crock, Captain. She's more intelligent than that."
"No, Sir," Watie argued. "Look at this." The Cherokee officer opened his clutched hand and shined his lantern upon its contents. There nestled a bloody wad of flannel shirt, not three inches long. The rain had re-soaked the stain and it bled like watercolor paint into Watie's palm. "If she's hurt because she was testing her limits out here in this wilderness, I plan on logging a protest with Colonel White."
"And what if Captain Ivory's dead, John?" Scarlet asked simply, his voice non-threatening, but serious. The fist that smashed against his chin was swift and granite solid. Scarlet spun against its force and found himself on his hands and knees panting in little cumulus puffs.
"Then I resign from Spectrum," the Cherokee answered. The stained flannel scrap landed silently beside Scarlet's sand-encrusted pant leg. Then the emergency supply pack was forcefully hauled from Scarlet's unsteady shoulders. "Stay here. I'll find her myself." As Captain Scarlet regained his wits he could hear Watie's scrunching footfalls diminish in the soft sand.
"Captain," he groaned after the Cherokee, but when he turned his throbbing head around to look his new partner was gone.
"But an annulment, Sir?" Green inquired with skepticism. "Just because of a ruined cake?"
"Oh, not just any cake, Lieutenant," Blue contended. "This thing rivaled the extravagant embellishments of the restaurant." Crossing his arms and leaning back against the command desk the American captain explained, "It was four tiers high, each one separated by intricately gilded columns. Real flowers and an expensive gold-flecked butter-cream icing were sculpted into ever expanding garden scenes. On the top tier, the bride and groom sat upon this fancy little park bench, a replica of an 18th century courting chair, Mrs. Metcalfe called it."
"Wow," was Green's only reply.
Blue nodded and continued his tale. "When it came time for the cake cutting, I watched Paul's eyes suddenly light up. I think he saw an opportunity to get his cousin back for all the sly butt jokes and bird-catcher lines that had been shuffled about the wedding party's table during dinner."
"The cake is supposed to be cut by the bride and groom," Green recalled. "They each take a piece to feed each other. Isn't that right?"
"Exactly. But the wedding party and all the other guests are encouraged to stand around and cheer the happy couple on."
"What? To eat the cake?"
"Of course not, Lieutenant. To smash it into each other's faces!"
"It's another good luck tradition, just like rain on your wedding day, and pushing the garter the highest you can up the girl's leg. It's supposed to symbolize their first marital spat."
"How's that supposed to be good luck?" Blue didn't answer him. Green frowned at the silence for a moment then asked, "So, did they?"
"Smash the cake?" Blue further teased his friend with a devilish pause.
"Come on, Sir. You can't leave-" Suddenly Cloudbase's incoming transmitter beeped and the turquoise indicator blinked, announcing a field update. "It's Captain Turquoise, Sir," Green declared, forgetting the suspenseful humor of a moment ago. The younger officer was all business once more.
"Open the channel, Lieutenant," Blue acknowledged.
"Cloudbase. Captain Turquoise here. I've continued tracking Captain Ivory through the Wharton State Forest. I found a second campsite where she seems to have rested for some time in a bed of autumn leaves. I'm not sure, but I think she's injured. The rain seems to have washed any blood away from the site, but the flannel scraps trail Captain Scarlet and I were following have had blood splatter on them."
"Good work, Turquoise. Let me talk to Captain Scarlet," Blue commanded.
"Uh, Sir," the man began. "We split up some time ago. I ... I don't know where he is."
"Well, where did you leave him, Captain?" Blue demanded with a scowl.
"Along the access trail, near his wrecked STV. He's following the Devil's spoor, Sir."
"You know this? And is he armed, Captain?"
"We both have TASER pistols. They're the only weapons allowed in the park."
"So, he believes this thing exists, now? How will you two stay in touch?"
"Uh, Captain," came Turquoise's hesitant reply. "We've had a bit of a falling out. I ... I don't want to stay in touch. He's indestructible. He can take care of himself. My concern is for Angela."
Now Blue's scowl deepened into a tense grimace. "You left him stranded? What supplies did he have with him?"
"Sir. I may need to issue my resignation for this, but Captain Scarlet has only the TASER. His pack's about a 40 minute walk away from where I left him, Sir."
"Your resignation?" Blue gathered a deep, emotion-controlling breath. "Turquoise, I'll be expecting your arrest if anything else goes wrong. How did Scarlet lose his emergency supply pack, and his cap, in the first place?"
Again a hiss of empty air before Turquoise's response. "I'm afraid that might be my fault as well, Sir. He had told me to stay at the first campsite with the STVs and packs. I ... I didn't want to stay put, so I packed everything essential into my backpack and left his unstrapped to the STV's rear storage rack. When he came after me, I can only guess the pack slid off and landed on the ground. Captain Scarlet only noticed it missing later. I ... I haven't told him what I did."
"You haven't- Captain Turquoise! I'll have you brought up on charges if you don't 'fess up to everything right now. Use your extraordinary tracking skills to relocate your partner before we have two Spectrum officers lost in those woods. Is that clear?"
"But, Captain Blue. What about Ange- Captain Ivory?"
"First things first, Turquoise. I sent you down as partners, and I expect at least those same two officers returned to Cloudbase. Get it in gear, Captain. Immediately."
"SIG." The transmission ended though Blue's frustration took longer to die.
"Of all the incompetent gestures ..." he seethed. "I'm up here reminiscing about an eventful wedding, and Turquoise is down there screwing up an entire rescue mission."
"Sir," Lieutenant Green interrupted. "Do you think this Jersey Devil thing has gone too far? Wasn't it just supposed to be a joke?"
"Yeah, and I'm the one who started it all." Blue sighed and stepped back to fall into the colonel's chair. Silence hung between them. "How does he do it?" Blue wondered finally.
"You mean, how does the colonel keep his sanity in the midst of chaos?" Green offered in clarification.
Blue's eyes suddenly focusing on his friend, the captain sighed and permitted a slight grin. "No," he admitted after a moment. "How is it that Captain Scarlet finds trouble wherever he goes, whether Mysterons are involved or not?"
Green shared his grin and shrugged. "I guess he's one devil of a chaos magnet."
That broke the spell. Leaning back in his chair Blue chuckled and swung an arm at the lieutenant. "The Devil take Jersey, for all I care. Fairy tales and nonsense. If Paul believes in it, then Watie gets an A+ for his efforts. Besides, he's right. Scarlet can take care of himself. It's Angela I'm worried about. The weather isn't so forgiving down there when you're tired, cold and hurt. She could be suffering from hypothermia."
"Then should I contact Captain Turquoise again and tell him to keep up his search for her?"
Conceding his previous haste Blue nodded. "Go ahead, Lieutenant. Tell Turquoise to continue with the original mission. Oh, and tell him that I want him to forget all about this Devil business. Make it clear: not one more word about legends and tomfoolery."
"SIG, Commander," Green chimed in then turned to comply. Once done with the relaying of Blue's orders, silence occupied the Command Center again. The tactful lieutenant allowed his commanding officer his private thoughts for a few minutes more before venturing, "Sir? What did happen with that cake?"
A slow smile spread across the American captain's lips and he lifted his chin from his sulking palm. "Ah, the ending of a most unusual day, Griff."
When the captain refrained from continuing, Green felt obligated to prompt him once again. "You said it collapsed."
Mischief was again in the captain's eyes. Seriousness was in his voice however when he commanded, "First things first, Lieutenant. I want a Spectrum helicopter prepped and on its way to pick up our three camping comrades. Have a medical team accompany Melody Angel to the scene. I believe the STVs send out a tracking blip by their onboard GPS units. Hopefully Melody can get there in time to save Turquoise's hide from our dear friend, Captain Scarlet."
"Yes, Sir." Again Green complied with the orders and soon the helicopter was airborne.
"Now, Lieutenant. To the climatic ending of a most outstanding occasion." Getting comfortable in his seat before White's command dais, Blue began his storytelling yet again. "Everyone was, of course, goading the happy couple on to smother the sticky icing all over each other. Darlene stood just behind Bridget. Paul was by the groom's side, though I could see he was leaning back as far as he could. Being behind the groom was probably the safest spot."
Green laughed. "That's what he thought. Right?"
Blue cleared his throat and closed his eyes to the memory. "No. That's what I thought." Glaring at his companion he announced, "I was wrong.
"I got into the spirit of the moment; I'll admit it, though I was aching from my ankle up to my pride. I was certain Paul had something in mind. As I said, he'd seen his chance to get Derek back for all the heckling.
“The cake was sliced using General Metcalfe's own ceremonial sword. Don't ask me how that was arranged! I guess good old Aunt Marjorie has quite a bit of influence, since Derek couldn't pass the military's entrance exam if he was given a millennia to grow up.
"Once a small slice was on two plates the DJ began his count down from five. That's when Paul initiated what I've come to call the Metcalfe Maneuver. He was after revenge, but I didn't count on being in the middle of it."
"What happened, Adam?"
"Well, Paul struck like a cobra. As Derek raised the cake from his plate, our favorite captain ducked his arm and swatted it right into the groom's puss! I'd consider it self-defense. I was sure I saw Derek gauge his distance to Paul, just like he had done with the garter." Blue smacked the desk. "What a sight. Amidst a smear of gold-flecked icing, these two red eyes pop out. Wouldn't you know it? Derek's a sore loser!" Blue grinned. "The man actually dove for Bridget's piece of cake. I suppose he meant to toss it Paul's way. Instead the cake, plate and all, was in Bridget's face, her eyes, her hair, her veil... Shall I go on?" Lieutenant Green covered his mouth and giggled as Blue barreled on. "That's when mayhem broke loose. Bridget shrieked to shatter glass, sputtered and began to bawl a string of epithets that would make a colonel blush. She called Derek every little discrepancy she could think up on such short notice. Boy, does that girl have an imagination!
"In his defense, Derek accused her of having made all the decisions about their life: their honeymoon, you name it. I guess having Aunt Marjorie for a mom's bad enough. But then Derek reached for the cake and scooped out a huge chunk. No one wanted a food fight. We all began backing away, but Paul was the number one target." Blue swallowed and waved the memory on. "I was trapped. Captain Scarlet ducked behind me, and I was hit by the first volley. He dodged again, and suddenly I couldn't breathe. I'd been hit full in the face with the second missile." In sheer amazement Green could only shake and clutch his vibrating abdomen. Sore muscles would no doubt be the aftermath. "Then Bridget stepped in and screamed in Derek's face for being such a ... Well, I can't repeat it. He spun on her and gave her a shove out of the way. Kerwin and Tobias were nowhere to be seen, so I ducked forward and helped the poor lady up. By now, there was a huge empty circle around us. Wise people. They'd retreated to their tables. Some had even grabbed their belongings and were heading for the exit!
"Even with cake and a crutch, I was able to offer Bridget my hand. She smiled at me for a moment, but a scornful woman is a terrible sight. She wanted to claw her new hubby to death, I'm sure. But silly me, I stopped her. I reached my free arm around her waist and held her back from the feuding McCoys! Man, they were brutal! Derek tossed a punch. Paul dodged it. They both made a few scores, then our good Captain yanked his kin up by the waistband. With a shove he hauled Derek back toward the cake. I, of course, tried to step aside, but Bridget had other plans. She actually, in some heroic change of heart, thought she could catch the groom!
"Next thing I know, I'm falling backward. Bridget's on top of me. Derek's on top of her. And on the bottom tier, a demolished wedding cake. When everything had settled, and I could see again, I found out the truth. Seems our dear Aunt Marjorie had taken refuge on the far side of the cake table."
Lieutenant Green's eyes grew to plates. "Oh, no!" he gasped.
"Oh, yes," Blue groaned in remembrance. "At least half the cake now decorated her elegant mother-of-pearl inlayed mother-of-the-groom dress. She was coated in the most expensive icing and fuming like a screaming banshee." The captain breathed a free lungful before finishing, "I decided to stay where I was, cake-coated and all. But you see, in my fall, I guess I'd dropped my crutch and grabbed for Bridget to support her. When Derek climbed back to his feet, the first words out of his mouth were- 'You can have her, then!' -and he stormed off to the men's room." Even now, four months later, Captain Blue couldn't help blushing. "I apologized profusely to Aunt Marjorie." Then his face darkened to exasperation. "Paul, meanwhile, decided to catch a near fatal case of the giggles. You see, it seems my helping hands had protected more than Bridget's fall." Now Green sat open-mouthed, his imagination no doubt racing to picture the outcome. As the slow shock molded into his face, Blue had to say it. There was no other way to end this utterly absurd day than with the embarrassing truth. Clearing his throat for the punch line he said, "She wore two clean outlines of my hands across her bosom!"
Finally Green found his voice. It was higher pitched and strained as if it had been dried in the desert. It exploded in short bursts. "You ... were protecting her ... from the cake, but only ... the ... best parts."
Blue smirked and felt his face start to cool. He informed his jocular companion, "Mrs. Marjorie Evans has sworn an ancient Welsh curse on me. If I go within fifty leagues of her son, she told everyone, my manhood would fall to the ground and rot!"
"Holy coconuts!" Green gulped. Nearly at the point of hyperventilating, the lieutenant seemed unaware of his peril. The man's chair was tilted dangerously off balance. Green leaned further back and cackled openly. There was a creaking steel whine. Then suddenly the attachment joints severed from the floor and he hit the treadmill rolling.
"You know," Blue admitted dryly pointing in accusation at his still gyrating companion. "That's just what Scarlet did when he heard Aunt Marjorie say that. Meanwhile, our dear Bridget promptly stomped off yelping, 'I want an annulment!' And that, as they say, was the end of that marriage."
Captain Scarlet had followed Watie's footprints to the edge of the woods. There, among the fallen leaves and rain-softened soil he tracked his partner to a place where a shallow stream flowed toward the river. That's where the Cherokee's trail vanished. With a glum frown Scarlet huffed. "Bother. Now what?" There was a crackling of dead branches off to his left. Another feeding deer? Scarlet squinted in the meager glow of the peeking full moon to see a tall figure step toward him within the tangle of trees. "Watie," he accused. "That was uncalled for. Even so, I'll overlook it." The shadowy figure froze and did not answer. "Listen. We're here to find Captain Ivory, and that's what we're going to do."
That's when the silhouetted figure hissed loudly and spread its wings for an airborne charge. The collision sent Scarlet plunging backward into the stream. His head suddenly shoved below the cold cedar water, the captain held his breath and struggled against the weight upon him. Instinct told Scarlet to go for his Spectrum pistol, but both hands were too busy defending him from the creature's clawed fingers. His face broke the surface. He gasped a breath of cold air. A short whistling cry issued from the animal and Scarlet was again pressed into the chilling stream. He kicked upward managing to unsteady the thing so that its one cloak-like wing collapsed beside it. The creature rolled aside. Bursting from the water Scarlet, too, whirled away into a crouch. He was ready for another attack. In one smooth swipe his gun was in his hand. It felt small and chunky, but the captain raised it to the hunch-backed creature now standing over him.
Having regained its spindly legs, the beast hissed in irritation and flew into the trees like a gigantic bat. Aiming Scarlet squeezed the slippery trigger. Instead of the curt concussion of a bullet, the surprised captain felt the gun sizzle in his wet hand. The electric current back-lashed up his soaking arm and he flinched from its bite with a violent jerk. The TASER pistol disappeared into the darkness of the Pine Barrens. When he could shake his tingling body free of the shock, the dripping captain rose to watch the thing clamber about the lower branches of a swamp maple. It glowered at him with ember eyes. The moonlight reflected off its glistening fangs, and Scarlet could see its claws gripped the bark with needle sharpness. "Great Space! Turquoise was right," he muttered. With another steely shriek the demon pounced from its perch and landed on its two dark, furred legs to hiss at its prey. Scarlet raised lacerated hands in his defense. "Now, queue up there," he warned. "You're not the first one to want me dead-" Scarlet didn't have a chance to say more. The demon was airborne again with a single flap and lunged forward. Scarlet ducked away, but the thing's whip-like tail darted for his neck. In its haste the Devil's aim went astray. The arrow-sharp tip dug into the cedar sapling beside the British officer. With a grunt and a tug the tail was free for another assault. Scarlet gauged the distance, amazed at the thing's speed. It lashed out again, and the Spectrum captain leaped aside to be gouged in the thigh by the wayward sword. Growling against the pain, Scarlet collided with the ground and rolled away. He regained his unsteady feet as the creature came at him for another stab. This time, Scarlet grabbed for the whipping appendage just as it whistled past his dodging ear. The demon squealed at the abduction and yanked its long leathery tail back bringing the human with it. Holding fast, Scarlet braced his boots in the shifting underbrush. The creature swung its wide pinions and was airborne overhead. One cloven hoof kicked forward. Scarlet's head jolted at the concussion. His hands released their prize. Taking a steadying step back the captain remained upright even as the demon leaped onto his shoulders. Leathery wings beat at his skull. Claws dug into Scarlet's arms. The creature's soft black fur was suffocating against his face. His ears were assaulted yet again by the triumphant scream of the Jersey Devil.
For a moment Scarlet felt his feet leave the ground. This slender being was strong enough to take him aloft? He was kicked in the calves, pierced by the needle grip of its fingers. But then his boots were again earthbound. In frustration the Devil hissed in Scarlet's ear. The tail rose for a death blow. Seeing it poised beside him, helplessly clutched within the thing's steely claws, Captain Scarlet could only try to shake himself loose.
A powerful report broke the still air. The Devil screamed and arched away, its fluttering wings taking it upward. Scarlet shuffled a few steps, but collapsed to his knees, his injured thigh giving way beneath him. Sucking in fresh air he focused his eyes on a slender figure in denim and flannel. Her long fingers were wrapped around a huge pistol, now aimed toward the treetops. "Captain Ivory," he breathed. "Where did you come from?"
A crooked smile was visible on her lips even in the shadowy moonlight from above. "Been tracking this thing for the better part of two days," she admitted lowering her gun. "Found its tracks and wanted proof it existed." She slipped her pack from her shoulders and quickly stowed the weapon. "Now I got it." Then, striding to his side she considered his haggard and muddied appearance. "Are you all right?" she asked offering her hand for him to stand.
Scarlet grunted with the effort, but regained his feet. Straightening his shoulders he answered, "I'll be fine. We were sent here to find you. I never expected to meet your neighbor there."
Again that knowing grin. "Well, I never expected to actually meet it either, least of all with a Spectrum captain in its arms." Her amber-green eyes blinked in hesitation before venturing, "I don't think it was hugging you in affection."
"Indeed not," Scarlet assured. "Did you see that tail? It's a lethal spear. We found a deer along the road, dead from that thing."
"I don't doubt it."
"Are you all right?" Scarlet asked. The question seemed to take her by surprise.
"Of course," she reasoned. "I know these woods like-"
"The back of your hand," Scarlet cut in. "Yes, your father told us as much." His eyes narrowed at her torn flannel jacket and soiled jeans. "Are you aware that you're nearly eighteen hours late in reporting to Cloudbase?"
"I, uh ..." Suddenly the tall, slender Spectrum woman seemed humble and small. "I guess I got caught up in the challenge of the hunt. Lost track of time. I certainly didn't mean to worry anyone. I lost my communicator unit when that damned thing ransacked my camp while I was out to the aerie. Did you see it?"
"The camp? Yes. What was left of it after your two brothers cleaned it out. Captain Turquoise and I had a devil of a time retracing your steps."
"John's here too?" Even in the moonlight, Scarlet could see her jade eyes dilate with interest. "Where is he?"
"Here," came the man's deeper voice from behind. The two turned to see Turquoise approach from beyond the stream with something dark draped over one arm. "I heard the gunshot," he explained of his sudden appearance. "And, I found this. Followed your trail to your second camp, Anj. Did you have fun with us?"
Scarlet watched Ivory blink. "Fun? What second camp? I've been staying with Darwin Bartle, upriver. He's a hermit friend of mine. An original Piney."
"You didn't busy yourself with putting on a show for us?" In explanation Turquoise gripped the garment in his hands and held it up to show. The drooping costume had a horse's head attached to a black furred body. Sewn onto its back and hindquarters were handmade leather and wire wings and a corded forked tail. "Very impressive, I must say."
Mouth dropping open, Ivory swung her short coppery bob to the officer beside her then back to Turquoise. "John. I know what you're implying, but I wasn't playing any joke on you. We saw it. First hand. It attacked Captain Scarlet. Didn't you hear its scream?"
"Of course we did, but that could have been some noisemaker you blew on or a tape recorded sound effect. Captain Scarlet was right. You attacked him. You knew he'd recover, so you thought you could skewer him with some poker. Look at this." From his belted jacket loop Turquoise withdrew a sharpened steel rod with an attached handle. In the darkness its identity wasn't immediately recognizable. Turquoise elaborated. "It's a fireplace poker, ground sharp on the end. Just like you said, Captain, a kind of gaffing staff."
"She's telling the truth, Captain," Scarlet defended. "I was attacked by a .... a flying dragon. A ... jabberwock of a sort. I've got the scrapes and gouges to prove it."
"But, what about this?" Turquoise argued. He held up the costume again flumped in one fist. "Someone's been playing a trick on us, or on somebody else. Maybe for a long time."t;
Scarlet sucked in a deep decisive breath. "It's illegal to kill the wildlife in a state park. Right?" he queried.
Ivory answered him. "Right. Unless it's deer, and it’s in season, and you have a special permit."
"Then who slaughtered the deer along the roadside?” Scarlet challenged his partner. “Season doesn't open for another two weeks, Boyd said."
"And I found an eviscerated bear carcass," Angela offered. "From what I could tell, it could've been done by a cougar, but there were no cougar tracks, only the cloven hooves of the Devil."
Turquoise huffed and dropped the costume and poker onto the ground. "I know who's been mauling the wildlife. Whoever has no conscience for terrorizing people, that's who." In his continued defense Watie asked, "What about the blood on the flannel scraps we found? Angela, were you attacked?"
The woman blinked at the question and chuckled. "You mean my pricked fingers from setting my back-tracking clues into the catbrier? I didn't want to lose my campsite. It was too dark to see my scratch marks, so I tore slices from an old shirt I had. Those brambles hurt, you know. Sometimes, being out here, I feel like a wandering Rose Red. You know, Sleeping Beauty?"
Turquoise sighed at her intentioned misdirection. He chuckled dryly, correcting, "Rose Red was sister to Snow White. No relation to Sleeping Beauty, I'm afraid."
"Well, you've certainly been a missing sleeping beauty," Scarlet asserted even as the flumping beat of an approaching helicopter announced their taxi's arrival. "We better get you back to Cloudbase. I'm afraid you may have to deal with a reprimand, Captain. It's fortunate we haven't been put on alert with a new Mysteron threat." Scarlet could see the apologetic gleam to the young Ivory's eyes. She was near tears. "You did save my life, however," he added with a sympathetic smirk. That seemed to soften the blow. Ivory smiled shyly and nodded her thanks for his graciousness. Scarlet wasn't finished, however. "But first we have some loose ends to tie up here." He swung a hand at Watie's pile of curious clues. "We'll take these with us; leave them with Ranger Boyd. I'm sure the local police will have a field day with that suit."
"One problem," Ivory ventured. "The cover here's too thick for the helicopter to land. We'll have to ride back. I saw your tire tracks. You have STV's?"
"Only one's functioning," Watie reminded gathering up his finds.
"No big deal, John," Angela assured with a shrug. "You and I can walk. Captain Scarlet. Your leg's bleeding pretty badly. You take the STV back to my Dad's house. John can load that stuff and your supplies onto the rear rack. Then, my Dad'll drive us to the airport. The Angel pilot can rendezvous with us there."
"What about the Devil?" Scarlet inquired. "You shot it. Will it become even more dangerous now?"
"More dangerous?" Ivory seemed confused. "Captain, I only wounded it so it would let you go. It lives here. It's part of our heritage here. It's not dangerous. Just hungry, trying to survive."
"Survive? Then how do you explain its attack on me? Twice if I'm not mistaken, and the first wasn't our badly dressed doppelganger here."
"You mean John didn't tell you about that?"
"What?" Turquoise blurted still standing to one side with his bundle of evidence and waiting for his commanding officer's order to vacate the woods.
"About the color red. The Devil hates red. It's like a banner before a raging bull." Ivory smiled. "It was just your dumb luck you became a target, Captain. Anyone living around here would have known better."
"Thanks for the posthumous warning, Captain," Scarlet rumbled. "Let's go." As the small assemblage marched through the trees back to the access trail, they were unaware of the shadowed ember eyes that followed them. Nearby, in the moon-dappled crook of an ancient sycamore the Jersey Devil whined and licked at its still bleeding tail.
By the time they reached Angela's family homestead, the first glow of daybreak was filtering through the autumn trees. Harvard Mason hugged his daughter profusely then hounded her for the unnecessary worry. After congratulatory handshakes were passed around, the haggard trio of Spectrum officers squeezed into the cab of Mason's pickup truck for the drive to the ranger station. There Turquoise surrendered the creative, handmade Devil disguise. Officer Boyd was grateful, though skeptical. He also didn't appreciate the loss of one of his TASER weapons. "You're welcome to go search for it yourself," Captain Turquoise offered. Boyd declined the invitation, but returned their Spectrum pistols.
Of their supplies, all but the wrecked STV was recovered. They were stowed, along with the still functioning Spectrum all-terrain vehicle, in Mason’s truck bed. Ivory's comm. unit, however, was to become a part of the centuries old Pine Barrens lost artifact collection. "Probably hoarded away for the Devil's pleasure," she pondered aloud.
Once Scarlet was able to resume contact with Cloudbase, the trio arranged for their Spectrum helicopter rendezvous. Unable to land anywhere close because of the dense forest growth, but finding the ground team unharmed, Melody was happy to wait for them at the Pinelands International Airport. Together the three officers again piled into Mason's truck. They sat silently as Angela's father drove them to the airport. With another hug to his daughter, now redressed in her Spectrum uniform, and another round of handshakes, Harvard Mason said his goodbyes and returned to his pickup. All the Spectrum equipment was then returned to the hangar duty officer.
"Here are the GPS coordinates for the wrecked STV," Scarlet said, handing the Spectrum staff member a piece of scrawled paper. The vehicle would be recovered by local personnel that afternoon. The captain then contacted Cloudbase again to update his commander. "We're returning to Cloudbase, Captain Blue," Scarlet informed eyeing the waiting Spectrum helicopter idling in the brightness of a clear morning. "We'll file a full report once we're onboard."
"Anything interesting to tell?" Blue inquired, once again breathing a sigh of relief that his friends were all unharmed.
Captain Scarlet shared the man's exhale, though for another reason. "It's a very long story, Adam. Maybe after I've had some sleep, I'll share it with you."
"Long story, huh?" came the reply. "I know the feeling."
"Right. Melody's waiting to take us back to base. We'll see you in a couple of hours. Scarlet out." The Spectrum team then climbed aboard the helicopter and was soon heading to Cloudbase's new location, hovering over Greenland's main island. The trip took only a little over an hour.
As the tired trio marched into Command to deliver their reports, Blue rose from his desk to give Ivory a welcoming hug. As predicted, the American captain recommended a formal reprimand be attached to Ivory's Spectrum file. But with Scarlet's insistence, the reprimand was lightened to a warning. Both Turquoise and Ivory exchanged relieved glances from their stools and continued with their reports.
Once all had been summarized, Captain Blue nodded. "Well, sounds like you three have had quite an eventful outing. Remind me never to go camping with any of you." In the resultant silence, only Blue smiled. "At ease, officers," he said unclasping his folded hands. "You're back safe, no imminent emergencies. Consider it a learning experience. Full written reports are due to the colonel in 12 hours. You're dismissed."
Relaxing his stiff shoulders, Captain Scarlet found his voice first. "Right. Well that's the end of that, then." He leaned forward to regain his feet.
"Not quite, Captain," Turquoise interjected. "You haven't told Captain Blue about your encounter with the Devil."
Blue's eyes widened. "What's this? You leave out a vital piece of your report, Captain Scarlet? Why, that's not like you at all."
Scarlet's feet shuffled upon the deck plating. He resettled himself upon his stool. "Captain Turquoise wishes me to volunteer information I'm still trying to process. We had gathered clues that a creature was living within New Jersey's Pine Barrens."
"Creature?" The American captain's lips twitched upward but only for a second. Scarlet's eyes were too busy trying to avoid his friend's to have seen the amusement. "What evidence do you have of such a creature?"
"A handmade suit someone had been using to taunt the locals with, Sir," Turquoise offered from his stool.
"Well, then, Captains. We're talking about a hoax, based on what? A legend?"
"Sir," Ivory interjected. "It's the Devil, Sir. The one I told you about. It really does exist."
"What?" Scarlet blurted raising fiery eyes to his commanding officer. "You knew about this thing?" he accused. "You did set me up."
Blue was smiling innocently. "I sent you to find a missing officer, Captain. You found her. If Turquoise had a little fun at your expense along the way, then that's a bonus. You did, after all, have a debt to repay. Now we're even." It looked as though Scarlet would fume silently for an eternity, but finally he released his held breath.
"Fine," he grumbled. "Even, then."
"But, Sirs," Ivory interrupted again. "You're forgetting the thing does exist. We saw it. It slashed Captain Scarlet. It was trying to kill him until I shot it."
"Shot it? With an illegal firearm in a state park? Isn't that what you said earlier, Turquoise? You weren't allowed your own weapons?"
Turquoise, finding himself suddenly the center of attention, cleared his throat. "Yes, Sir. Angela, I mean Captain Ivory had her own family's pistol. She takes it for protection." Barreling on he continued, "Ranger Boyd doesn't have to know about that. It would get her entire family in trouble, Sir."
"Very well, Captain. No official mention of this alleged weapon will appear in any of my reports." Then Blue looked at the three seated before him. "But there must be some evidence if this thing really exists."
"The tears in Captain Scarlet's uniform," Ivory offered. "His injuries."
"Are completely healed," Scarlet informed almost regretfully.
Ivory gasped. Then she re-ignited her argument. "Footprints. I was tracking it for two days, following its cloven hoof prints and its claw marks in the trees."
"Did you get a picture of these prints, Captain?" Blue inquired with a tilted head.
"Why, no," she admitted. "The rain washed away the prints, but the marks are still there."
"Did you bring back anything to prove the Jersey Devil exists? Any hard evidence? Fur, a plaster cast of the prints? Blood sample? A claw for DNA testing?"
Ivory sputtered in her answer. "No, Sir. I didn't, but Captain Scarlet saw it, too. Tell him, Sir. Please."
Shaking his head, Scarlet only said, "I'm not sure what I saw. Like Captain Blue is implying, what we have here are just two more eyewitness accounts of a legendary creature which purportedly lives in the wilds of New Jersey."
"The Pine Barrens," Turquoise quickly corrected.
"Legend says this thing portends war," Ivory informed. "That anyone who sees it firsthand will fall to despair or die shortly thereafter."
Blue was smiling again, this time at the younger woman's frustration. "Now I know Captain Scarlet is immune to that last threat. Are you worried for your safety, Captain?" he asked her. "I'd like to think this war against the Mysterons is partial evidence of the myth at least. But our enemy isn't the Devil, there."
"Depends on the interpretation," Turquoise testified. "Ever hear of Freddie Krueger? Our psyche is filled with the creative manifestations of the Devil."
"But the Jersey Devil isn't evil," Ivory defended. "It needs our protection. Dare I even say it, our respect? It's like a lost soul, an immortal soul with no family."
Now Scarlet found his voice again. Eyes narrowing he asked, "You have pity for it? Even as you fear it."
In her own defense Captain Ivory squared her shoulders. "I'm afraid of the unknown, whatever that may be. But a living, breathing animal isn't to be feared."
"Animal?" Blue asked. "As tall as a man, with wings, fangs, a horse's head and cloven feet? Sounds more like a menagerie. A puzzle-animal. A chimera." He smiled in a fatherly fashion. "My dear, I think it is you who are wearing the cloven hooves. Someone's been playing your goat!"
"Somebody mention a joke?" a sarcastic voice announced from the lift doors. The officers at the command console turned eyes toward the intruder. Captain Ochre smiled at them and stepped into the room. Behind him, hands behind their backs, followed Captains Grey, Magenta and Ebony. "We came to welcome Angela back onboard." With them also came the Angel pilots not on duty or standby. Symphony and Melody smiled.
"We were so worried about you," Symphony said of her compatriot. "Mel and I are glad to see you didn't even get a scratch from that Devil character."
"Well," Ivory admitted to them all, "I didn't exactly get away scratch free." She showed them her bandaged palm and fingers. "Catbriers," she elaborated.
"You were attacked by wild cats?" asked Ochre, his hands behind his back as well. The welcoming committee gathered about the three returned adventurers. It seemed the team was engulfed in a rainbow. "I didn't realize you'd gone to the jungle alone. Maybe you all could use something a little more domestic."
Blue, having witnessed Captain Ochre's twisted sense of humor before, knew an imminent pratfall when he saw one. He leaned back in the command chair. "What, exactly, do you mean, Rick?" he asked cautiously.
"Well," Ochre began rolling up onto his toes. "This is more for Captain Scarlet's benefit. In honor of his duty as best man."
"Best-?" Scarlet stammered.
"Oh, no," Blue groaned. Then the American captain's eyes bore a hole in Lieutenant Green's skull. "Griff," he warned.
"Not me, Sir," the younger man sputtered raising innocent hands from his chair, only recently reinstalled upon the treadmill. "I didn't say a word."
Ochre was smiling. "Maybe it was by accident, but we overheard part of your wonderful story, Captain Blue."
Scarlet's cheeks were darkening to complement his dirtied and torn uniform. "Adam," he growled. "What story?"
Blue shrugged his epauletted shoulders. "I ... might have related some interesting parts of Derek's wedding to Lieutenant Green as we were at our posts."
"Interesting parts?" Scarlet echoed with a challenging brow.
"Yeah," chimed in Magenta. "Wish we could have heard more, but Green discovered he'd accidentally hit the base-wide comm. link and shut it off."
"What part?" Scarlet demanded, glowering at Magenta then Ochre, then Blue in turn.
Ochre offered the answer. "Like your bout with a wayward flock of fake fowl. Well, we found out where they got to. Here!" With that the collection of captains dropped a covey of rubber chickens onto Scarlet's capped head. With a sound like wet noodles, the spineless fabrications flopped onto his lap and draped there like swooned admirers. "Welcome back, Sir Scarlet Drake!"
The assemblage chuckled quietly, but seemed refrained, as if awaiting the recipient's reaction. Scarlet considered the fainted fowl in his lap, raised a single eyebrow of challenge and glared at Ochre. "That's King Rooster, to you, Rick," he corrected with just a hint of a smirk.
There was a stillness to the re-circulated air in the Command Center. Then suddenly Captain Ivory sputtered and issued a high-pitched, uncontrollable giggle. The rest of the staff joined Angela in her jocular display, exchanging glances her way. Perhaps they were wondering why she had burst like an overblown balloon at the British captain's comment. Finally, gasping for air, Ivory chittered, "He does have a sense of humor. He's just like us, after all."
Scarlet scowled. "You didn't think-" He couldn't finish.
"I told you, you were a scary fellow, Scarlet," Turquoise cut in as the others continued to chuckle quietly.
From his data station, Lieutenant Green called over the ruckus, "What did you call it, Sir?" He snapped his fingers at the memory "A nightmare of sheer delight?"
"That he is, Lieutenant," Blue quipped with a blonde-headed nod. "That he is."
"And now for my next performance," Rick announced drawing out a white plastic container.
Scarlet stood suddenly and spun. Like a cobra he snatched the bottle from Ochre's hand. In the same movement the British captain turned back on his two partners. Squeezing the container Scarlet squirted a fine jet of white powder first onto Turquoise's then Blue's capped heads. "That's for telling stories," he reprimanded. Both Watie and Svenson held their breaths amidst the cascade of talc. "And as King, I dub thee Squires Red Hawk Twoface and Adam Bigmouth."
In the stunned silence of the next few moments, the assemblage stood waiting for the next shoe to drop. Finally, Blue spit out a clouded breath of powder and sputtered, "Captain Grey. I believe this is your duty shift. I'm going below for a shower and some rest. I've had quite enough of command for a while. As my last order, though, Captains Scarlet and Turquoise. You're relieved of the remainder of your duty shift. You both need a bath and a change of clothes. A sprinkling of humility might do you both some good as well. Dismissed.
"SIG," the two named officers chimed in, stiff backed. Turquoise snowed upon the deck plating as he left.
"By the way," Scarlet added to his commander as he too marched off to his quarters. "We're even. Again."
"Right," Blue sighed and gingerly rose from his seat so as to avoid contaminating the colonel's desk controls with the invasive powder. "Somebody get the custodian up here," he suggested to the room. "Just wait until I'm gone before you call down. No need to spread this story beyond these walls."
"Don't worry, Sir," Ochre assured tipping onto his booted toes once more. "We won't whisper a word of this beyond these doors."
"Hey! That's what I said," Green blurted from behind them. "How-"
Ochre's brows danced above his brown eyes. "Wouldn't you like to know," he challenged. "Next time, Griff, just remember. Always check to see if your control panel's blinking." In answer to the puzzle Ochre caused his cap mike to slip down before his grinning lips. "You see, if you're too busy laughing, you might just miss an important incoming call."
Afterward, in the privacy of his own cabin aboard Cloudbase, Captain Scarlet sat at his slim desk, showered and dressed for sleep. Before he allowed his weariness to overtake him, however, the Briton made use of his meager artistic talents to attempt a visual recording of the night's encounter. In his personal journal, Scarlet signed his sketch: My rendition of the Jersey Devil, P.C. Metcalfe. With that done, the Spectrum captain stowed his diary away in its secret compartment and flopped onto his bed. Though sleep was not long in coming, the man's dreams were tainted by a strange and shadowy beast. A creature with ember eyes and clashing claws ...
Copyright September 16, 2002, Revised 1/17/12
**This story is dedicated to my late paternal grandmother, Marjorie (Meddings) Evans, whose late cousin Derek had such a huge hand in the fine craftsmanship of the Captain Scarlet series.
She reached just short of her goal of one hundred years, but gave us many memories and stories to share along the way! Big English kisses and hugs! "Tootles!"**
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