A ‘NEW CAPTAIN SCARLET’ CHRISTMAS STORY
By Skybase Girl
‘The dead demand a double vision. A furthered zone,
Ghostly decision of apportionment. For the dead can claim
The lover’s senses, the mortgaged heart.’
Excerpt from “The Mortgaged Heart” by Carson McCullers.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Carolyn Metcalfe Webster, deep blue eyes blazing, glared at her brother with self-righteous indignation. “ It’s bad enough that I have to practically beg you to come home for Christmas, now you tell me you want to bring the Daughter of Darkness with you!”
“Carrie, that’s not what I said.” Captain Scarlet surveyed his sister’s computerised image with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. “And I know that Simone is not your favourite person, but don’t you think calling her the Daughter of Darkness is a little extreme?”
“No, I don’t,” was the blunt retort. “Anyway, doesn’t she have a home of her own to go to?”
“She does,” Scarlet said calmly. “And if we manage to avoid having to work over Christmas, maybe she’ll want to go visit her folks. I was just kind of hoping that she’d want to spend some time with me. I’d like us all to spend Christmas Day together.”
“I see.” Carrie seemed unimpressed. “Sounds as if you two are more than just good friends. She hasn’t wasted much time in getting over the demise of her last boyfriend, if she’s now got you in her sights. Honestly Paul, it never ceases to amaze me how naïve you can be when it comes to feminine wiles.”
Scarlet sighed heavily. He adored his older sister, but her acerbic intolerance occasionally irritated him. Carrie’s life had been blighted by more than one tragedy, lending a slightly bitter twist to her nature. Now in her mid-thirties, she could display a shrewishness that was not becoming.
“People change, Carrie, Simone included. So have I, come to that. We are good friends, whatever slant you want to put on it. I’m not reluctant to come to you for Christmas; I know it’s been ages since I’ve seen either you or Mikey. It’s just that if something big happens on the world stage, any plans I have will be totally scuppered and so will hers. If we get a peaceful Christmas at all, it will be a bonus.”
“Okay.” Carrie was resigned, if unrepentant. “Do bring the ‘Dark One’ along, if you must. She isn’t my cup of tea, but she’s obviously yours, so I will welcome her with open arms – or half-open, at least. Just make sure she doesn’t brainwash my son into deciding he wants to follow in the Metcalfe military tradition. The first time she met Mikey, she was practically filling in his application for the ISA pre-teens school.”
Scarlet chuckled. “There’s no such thing, and you know it. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she’s on her best behaviour.” This was not a promise he could guarantee to keep, he knew. “Thanks, Carrie, I really appreciate this. I’ll call you as soon as I know for sure that we can make it.” The computer screen clicked off and he tried to stop himself from doing a jig of triumph. Maybe, just maybe, things would go his way for once.
It had been three months since he had returned alone from Mars, buoyed up by the belief that he had vanquished the Mysteron threat once and for all. His euphoria had been tempered only by the fear of how Destiny Angel would react, not only to the loss of her former lover for a second time, but also to the knowledge that his fate had been sealed by the man with whom she had tentatively begun a new romance.
Surprisingly, she had accepted the news with quiet sorrow and an unusual amount of pragmatism. It was if they had been immersed in a thick cloud, which hampered their ability to see the way ahead. The cloud had now dissipated, offering up the possibility of a brighter future, one filled with promise. They had talked for hours, exploring topics not previously touched upon, exposing carefully concealed vulnerabilities. Declarations had been made, romantic escapes planned. In the end, it had all blown away like fairy dust.
Two weeks after their apparent annihilation, the Mysterons blew up an annexe of the United Nations in New York. It happened on the day a Chinese trade delegation was about to conclude pivotal negotiations with their U.S. counterparts. No one in the building survived the explosion. There had been no prior warning, no impending threat made. The perpetrators had calmly accepted responsibility after the deed was done. Spectrum, completely shell-shocked, had not immediately grasped the significance of this tactical change. Chinese – American relations had been severely damaged by what the Chinese government saw as a major lapse in security on the part of the world’s premier peace-keeping force.
Scarlet had only one thought – We’re back to square one. In the weeks that followed, the earth had been subjected to a barrage of recharged Mysteron malevolence. There had been no time for the ramifications of this resurgence to sink in. Skybase’s senior personnel could only go about their business in silent, exhausted desperation. Scarlet and Destiny had drifted past each other on a daily basis, locked in silent misery. Of Captain Black, there was no sign at all.
Scarlet found himself veering between the hope that the Mysterons might not bother to resurrect their earth-based agent, and the near certainty that this wouldn’t be the case. Black was still out there, even if he was choosing to lie low. Destiny knew this too, he was sure, but she was so withdrawn and remote that discussion seemed out of the question. Others had tried talking to her, including her Angel colleagues, to whom she was particularly close. Every tentative expression of sympathy had been met with a brisk, “I’m perfectly fine, thanks. Let’s just get on with the job.”
And this, of course, was what she did, what they all did. In times of crisis, they simply got on with the job. Fearless, determined, courageous, apprehensive and sometimes just plain terrified, they did their job of defending mankind as best they could. Friends and lovers understood that private passions had no place in this war.
But now, for Scarlet, this was no longer enough. Family and friends, love and compassion – we can’t let these things go. It’s what sets us apart, makes us different from the Mysterons. These were the uniquely human qualities that might just turn out to be their ace weapon in this war of nerves. So, when his sister, with Christmas just two weeks away, had suggested he spend the holiday with her family, his initial reluctance had been quickly overturned by a childish yearning for the type of festive celebrations he had long forgotten.
His parents, sadly, would not be part of it. Nor, tragically, would Carrie’s husband Mark, a U.S. Air Force pilot who had lost his life in an air crash five years ago. But there would be nine-year old Michael, who regarded his uncle as a surrogate father – A pretty poor one of late, Scarlet thought ruefully. Carrie had also invited Mark’s parents, as she did every year, even though it was difficult for them all. He liked the Websters. They were generous, kind people, still greatly missing their only son, but who adored Michael and showered their embittered, brittle daughter-in-law with affection and gentle consideration.
Scarlet found himself warming to the whole scenario, the more he thought of it. He could hear the crackle of the log-fire in Carrie’s home, a necessity in the freezing Canadian winter. The taste of turkey and cranberry sauce, chocolates and mulled wine swam into his mouth.
When she had been widowed at the age of thirty-one, barely two years after losing her parents, Carrie had turned her back on everything that was familiar. She had re-located to Canada, buying a neat, comfortable house in a small village on the outskirts of Lake Louise. She ran a winter sports shop not far from the famous ski resort and seemed relatively content to bring up her small son far away from the military and scientific world in which she had grown up. She hated her brother’s occupation and lost no opportunity to let him know this. Scarlet, who was aware that as his most loyal fan, she was also fiercely proud of his achievements, took absolutely no notice.
The chance of a Winter Wonderland Christmas spent not only with his family, but also in the company of the woman he loved, was irresistible. It was also an opportunity to discover just where his relationship with Destiny might be headed. He didn’t allow himself to dwell on the possibility that it could turn out to be a disaster. One step at a time, Metcalfe. Just get her there, then we’ll see.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Destiny’s response to the invitation to spend Christmas with Carrie reminded Scarlet of his sister, although he was aware that the Angel would be mortified at the comparison. “Paul, your sister would only invite me along for Christmas if she thought she could carve me up as the turkey!”
“Nonsense, she’s looking forward to it.” Scarlet tried to sound placating, although he doubted Destiny would be fooled. She wasn’t.
“No, she’s not. She doesn’t like me. She thinks I’m a hard-bitten workaholic whose only hobby is toying with men’s emotions for the sheer hell of it – my speciality being those of her over-protected little brother. Don’t tell me this was her idea, because I know it wasn’t.”
“She just doesn’t really know you, that’s all,” Scarlet wheedled, ignoring her last sentence. “You’ll be doing her a favour, Simone. Having Mark’s parents there can be a little awkward. They mean well, but everything reminds her of what life used to be like when Mark was alive. You know, sometimes the more people you have around, well, it sort of lightens the atmosphere.”
“Lightens the atmosphere?” she repeated, as if he could have been speaking in tongues.
“And,” he continued, warming to his theme, “what else would you be doing? Eating Christmas dinner in the Skybase canteen? Working off the calories by thrashing Colonel White in a heart-stopping fencing duel? Watching re-runs of “White Christmas”?” He saw her eyes glaze over, and pressed his advantage. “Singing back-up for Serena when Adam insists on her rendition of a hundred and one Trinidadian folk-songs?”
“Stop, stop.” She waved a despairing hand at him. “Look, if you must know, I was thinking of going home for Christmas. My parents have gone back to France to live. The shopping in Paris is fabulous. What could be better than that?”
“Skiing in the Rockies,” Scarlet said promptly. “Log fires, mulled wine, mince pies, the lot.”
“I haven’t skied in years. I’d probably break my neck.”
He shook his head. “I’ll hold you up, I promise. Come on, Sim, think about it. It’ll be great. Carrie owns a sports shop, she can kit you out if need be. And if you’re not keen on staying at the house, we can always book into the village hotel. It’s only a short walk away and I suppose it would be a bolt-hole if the whole family thing gets too much. Just to get away for a while – you have to admit it sounds good.”
“Yes, it does,” she agreed, lowering her head so that she did not expose the sudden gleam of excitement in her eyes. “All right, Paul, tell Carrie that I’d love to come, if she’s sure it will be okay. Let me know what kind of presents to buy.”
“Presents? Oh, hell, I hadn’t thought of that.” Scarlet sounded stricken. “There’s not much time. What can we do?”
“Leave it to me. Just give me a few lines of enquiry and see how ruthlessly efficient I can be.” She laughed out loud at the sudden relief in his face. She hadn’t seen him look so relaxed in weeks. Come to think of it, when was the last time she had laughed?
He’s right, she thought. We need this, need to see if we can find each other again. Decide if it’s what we want. Is it what we want? Is it what I want? God, I don’t know. Don’t know how to think anymore, let alone feel. She gave herself a mental shake. Stop it, Simone. It may not even happen.
When it did actually happen, they couldn’t believe their luck. Christmas Eve dawned without the addition of a Mysteron threat, or indeed, terrorist threats of any kind. Scarlet was buoyant, fuelled with an inner conviction that for once, luck was on his side. We can be like normal people, he thought happily, loading luggage into a Hummingbird. After all, in Redwood, Alberta, no one had heard of the Mysterons.
“Hey, pal, have a good one.” His partner, Captain Blue strolled up behind him to clap a friendly hand on his shoulder. “If you get a minute, you might remember the poor beggars like me, stuck here holding the fort, while you two luxuriate in the bosom of your family.”
“Not bloody likely!” Scarlet grinned. “If we do manage to make it to Boxing Day without being called back, believe me, Skybase will be the last thing on my mind!”
Blue laughed, displaying an enviable set of even, white teeth. “Well, I can’t blame you, I guess. Seriously, Paul, if anyone deserves a break, you do. Hope it all works out exactly as you want it to.”
Scarlet paused in surprise. The image Adam Svenson presented to the world was an artful concoction of devil-may-care soldier and easy-going, somewhat shallow party animal. Yet in the relatively short time they had been partners, Scarlet had discovered there was a great deal this man did not generally choose to reveal to his friends and colleagues. Even so, he could still be taken aback by the depths of Blue’s perception. He had a feeling that, without ever having discussed it, Adam Svenson knew, to an exact degree, the amount of turmoil bubbling under the surface of his relationship with Destiny.
“Thanks, Adam. Let’s hope it stays nice and quiet, for everyone’s sake.” He turned his head to the door just in time to see it fly open, and several large carrier bags shoot through, apparently of their own volition. A taller, slimmer column of parcels followed, also moving unaided.
“Don’t all help me at once,” complained a voice behind the head of the column, as the top two containers dropped to the floor with a clatter.
“Um, sorry.” Scarlet sprang forward in an attempt to avert disaster as Destiny collapsed under the weight of her shopping. “Crikey, Sim, what on earth is all this?”
“Presents. I said I’d sort it and I have. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve forgotten.”
“No kidding.” He scratched his head ruefully. “Maybe I should have had a word with the bank manager before letting you loose with this.”
Blue looked round the hangar deck. Something was missing. “Simone, if these are the presents, where’s your luggage?” he enquired politely.
“Back there, of course.” She waved an arm in the direction from whence she had come. “What am I, Godzilla? I can’t carry everything!”
He grinned and dived towards the door, reappearing seconds later lugging two large cases. “Boy, for a woman who prides herself on her “less is more” philosophy, you sure don’t travel light,” he muttered, staggering in mock fashion under the apparent strain. Surprisingly, he did not get the expected pithy retort.
“I just wasn’t sure what I’d need, that’s all.” She cast an uncertain look at Scarlet. “I know you said no-one dresses up in Redwood, but what does that mean, exactly? After all it’s Christmas, and we’re staying in a hotel as well as doing the winter sports stuff. I just thought I should pack for every eventuality.” Her uncertain expression was now beseeching.
“Every eventuality. Right.” Scarlet swallowed hard and wondered how he was going to rearrange the entire interior of the Hummingbird.
Blue had beaten him to it, turning away to avoid bursting into gales of laughter at the expression on his partner’s face. “You missed out a vital piece of information, pal. You should have told her that clothes were an optional extra for what you have in mind this trip.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about” Scarlet muttered. “This is a family Christmas, nothing more.” He sighed. “I should have ordered a Swift, instead of this thing. I mean, what happened to ‘Wash and Go Girl’? I don’t get it.”
Blue slapped him on the shoulder. “Oh, you will, my friend. Trust me, you will.”
He grabbed Destiny and gave her a playful, if somewhat prolonged kiss. “Have a wonderful Christmas, Gorgeous. Try not to stab Carrie with her own carving knife.”
Destiny made a face at him, which did not go unnoticed by his partner. Scarlet knew that the two were close, a friendship that had deepened in the eighteen months since the Mysterons had arrived to dominate their lives. He was, however, slightly disconcerted to realise the degree in which she apparently confided in his partner.
The journey over the Rockies was uneventful. Scarlet had decided to leave the Hummingbird at Calgary airport and hire a car to take them to their destination. He wanted anonymity on this trip. His sister’s friends and neighbours knew of his military career, but he had no wish to parade Spectrum’s high-tech armoured vehicles through a quiet Canadian village.
Mason’s Lodge was not, in fact, owned by anyone called Mason, but by Manny and Isabel, a warm, friendly Irish couple. They knew Carrie well and expressed delight at meeting her brother.
“Make yourselves completely at home,” Isabel said, bustling up the stairs with ease, despite having her arms full of the parcels she had insisted on carrying for them. “You’re our only guests at the moment. Most people stay with their families for the holidays.” She paused outside a solid oak door, decorated with a holly wreath. “I’ve put you in the front bedroom, dear. It has a lovely view over the mountains and a real fire, if you need it.” She smiled at Destiny in motherly fashion. “I know it can seem pretty cold in these parts at this time of year, if you’re not used to it.”
“Oh. Yes, of course. Thank you.” Destiny smiled in return, although Isabel had already moved on to unlock a similar door further down the corridor. That, no doubt, would be for Scarlet.
Destiny stepped into the room, key in hand, and looked around. It was indeed charming, in an old-fashioned, traditional way - warm and colourful, with heavy drapes and crisp white bed linen. Enormous throws and comforters adorned the large wide bed and an ornate oak fireplace framed a blazing log fire. Apart from the spacious wardrobe and chests, there were two deep armchairs and, best of all, a velvet covered window seat. She perched on it, rubbing her fingers over the smooth crimson fabric, and gazed out of the mullioned windows at the distant mountains.
So, she thought, he had booked two rooms, which meant he had not expected that they would sleep together. Her stomach contracted with a mixture of disappointment and relief. This was the hurdle they seemed unable to overcome and she had no idea why. What’s the matter with me? Why can’t we just get past this? Why is it so difficult? All questions she didn’t have an answer to. He’s made the decision because he knows I can’t, she thought despondently.
“Well, what do you think?” She looked round with a start, to see him leaning against the doorframe, grinning broadly. He had already changed into jeans and a pale- blue denim shirt, which succeeded in deepening the colour of his eyes to azure. Her heart jumped, in that now familiar way it did whenever he made a sudden appearance.
What do I think? I think I want you to just grab me and fling me on that bed. I want you to rip my clothes off and get this over with. That’s what I think.
Instead, she said, “It’s lovely, Paul. I like traditional rooms.”
“Have you looked in the bathroom? Not much traditional in there!”
Curious, she followed into the small en-suite. It was beautifully appointed with both a step-in shower and an enormous whirlpool bath and Jacuzzi. “Who needs a shower when you’ve got one of these?” He moved to turn on the taps and watched in child-like delight as the water began to bubble.
Destiny giggled. “Don’t you think it’s a bit, well, decadent for a place like this?”
“It’s not decadent. It’s perfect.” Scarlet slid an arm around her shoulders drawing her into a swift embrace. “It’s going to be a great Christmas, honey. I have a really good feeling about this.”
“Yes, well, I hope so too.” She hadn’t seen him as enthusiastic, or as desperately hopeful in a very long time. He’s been through so much, she thought. He deserves to be happy sometimes. We all do. Please, please don’t let anything happen to spoil this.
She didn’t know where, or to whom her prayer was directed.
“It’s getting late.” Scarlet glanced at his watch. “Carrie will probably have gone to bed by now, so there’s little point in calling her. How about we grab a bite to eat and then call it a night? Isabel said she could fix us something light.” His eyes sparkled. “Manny has some very impressive malt whiskies I can’t wait to try.”
“Sounds fine. I’ll just unpack and change.” She moved away from him, feeling the subtle shift in mood. They could move from near intimacy to awkwardness, like night followed day, she thought. Would it always be like that?
“I’ll meet you in the bar in an hour.” He touched her arm lightly, then he was gone, leaving the super-charged air around her to calm and settle.
When she arrived in the bar slightly later than arranged, Scarlet was already opening a chilled bottle of champagne. “Sorry I’m a bit late,” she murmured, her fingertips freezing around the icy glass he handed her. She didn’t want to make excuses, didn’t want to admit that she had emptied the entire contents of her luggage on the bedroom floor and spread everything out in a desperate bid to decide what would be most suitable to wear.
I need my head examined, she thought wildly, gulping the champagne far more quickly than was sensible. They were the only two people in the hotel, apart from the owners. Who cared what she wore, or whether her hair was a mess? Only the man she worked with on a daily basis and who had, on occasion seen her looking a million times worse than she did right now.
“It’s okay.” Scarlet was in a buoyant mood. “You look lovely, by the way. It was worth the wait.” He raised his glass in a silent toast as their eyes met. She felt as if her bones would melt under his intensely blue gaze.
“More, please.” She thrust the glass at him.
He raised an eyebrow. “Wow, Miss Sobriety. Feeling reckless tonight?”
“It’s Christmas Eve, it’s not Skybase, and I’m not in charge of a Falcon Interceptor. So, yes, I do feel like being reckless.” Out of control, even. I’d quite like to be out of control for once.
“You won’t get an argument from me.” He settled back in the opposite chair, munching an olive. “Isabel is making us something to eat. I said it would be nicer to have a meal in here, rather than an empty dining room. That okay with you?”
“That’s great. I’m starving.” She wasn’t in fact, hungry in the slightest. At least, not for food. She gulped more champagne and hoped her cheeks did not look as flushed as they felt.
They ate a pleasant dinner, washed down with more champagne, so that by the time they had settled back in front of the fire with brandy balloons, both were slightly inebriated. “Tomorrow may be hectic,” Scarlet said. “How about we exchange gifts now?” The offer was casually made, but he looked unsettled. He’s nervous, she thought. About what?
“I did think you might suggest that.” She picked up the carefully wrapped parcel she had concealed under the carved wooden coffee table and handed it to him. “You go first.”
It was a rare book of guitar music, incorporating the history of twentieth century folk traditions. She had hoped he would love it and, seemingly, he did.
“This is incredible! I don’t know how you found it, but…..” He broke off to lean across and plant a swift kiss on her lips. “Thank you. Now, it’s your turn.”
The box he pressed into her hand was small and square, covered in dark blue velvet. It looked like a ring box. Suddenly, her heart was hammering so hard she thought the thuds must surely be audible. “What is it?”
“Open it, and you’ll find out.”
She gingerly prised open the lid of the box, exposing a pair of delicate diamond earrings sparkling in their bed of satin. She was completely without words.
“I remembered you’d lost the ones Conrad gave you. I thought these would be a replacement. They’re not exactly the same, obviously, but still….” His voice trailed off. The tension was still there. “I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing,” he said softly. “I mean, I didn’t want you to think…..”
“They’re perfect. Thank you, Paul. I shall wear them tomorrow.” She returned the kiss, unsure of what it was he did not want her to think.
“Speaking of tomorrow, perhaps we should turn in now.” He got to his feet, picking up the empty brandy glasses to set them gently down on the bar. “It will be an early start. Carrie wants us there for breakfast, so we can witness Mikey’s Grand Present Opening.” He grinned. “That should take all of twenty seconds. The Material Child holds the world record for the fastest disposal of wrapping paper.”
“Yes.” She couldn’t say another word. Her mouth was so dry she thought her lips and tongue would crack. She followed him up the stairs, trying to marshal her thoughts. What now? My door is nearest. Do I make a move? Will he? If he does, what should I do?
Then she wasn’t thinking at all. With one fluid movement, Scarlet had opened the door and simultaneously pulled her up against him. His arms wrapped around her and his mouth laid siege to her own. Her eyes closed and her body dissolved as she allowed herself to be held up by him. Then, he let her go, so abruptly she blinked in astonishment, as she felt the air rush between them like a draught. His eyes held an unfathomable expression, but his body was rigid, fists clenched.
“Good night, honey. Merry Christmas.” The words were ground out, even as his finger traced a gentle path down her cheek. Then he was gone, heading down the corridor towards his own room.
Destiny leaned against the door jamb, fighting back the stinging rush of tears. She felt sick with disappointment and abandonment.
This is ridiculous. We’re not children. Why can’t we face this, deal with the fear? For that was what it was, she knew. Fear. He’s scared and so am I. And it’s stupid, I’ve never been scared before. Not like this.
She climbed wearily into bed, wrapping the soft cotton sheets around her like a shroud. The fire had died and the room felt chilled. It might snow overnight. If it did, she would simply lie awake and watch the snowflakes through the mullioned glass. Sleep, she knew, was unlikely to claim her for hours, if at all.
The next morning dawned bright, sunny and very, very cold. There had been only a light covering of snow during the night, enough to give the village a Christmas- card look, but not sufficient to cause problems underfoot.
“We’ll have more by the time the day is out,” Manny prophesied, as he and his wife plied their guests with coffee and homemade muffins, ignoring their protestations that they would be eating another breakfast shortly.
“Will it be okay for skiing tomorrow?” Destiny sipped her coffee, warming her hands around the mug. The champagne effect had worn off overnight, leaving her tired and dehydrated.
“Maybe, we’ll see.” Scarlet was buttering a piece of toast. He glanced across at her. “How did you sleep?”
“Great,” she lied. “What about you?”
“Out like a light.” He seemed to be paying the toast more attention than it warranted, she thought. He gave her an appraising look. “You should wrap up. It’s not far to Carrie’s, but it will be cold. Put your Spectrum snow suit on.”
Over my dead body, she muttered under her breath. I may risk life and limb, but I am not going out looking like Michelin Man. Not today. The sleepless night had made her cranky and resentful. In the cold light of a December morning, last night’s awkward moments now looked like outright rejection.
She had risen early – well, that had been easy, since she hadn’t slept, and spent a long time going through the pile of clothes still lying in a heap beside her cases. Destiny, whose interest in clothes was mainly confined to whatever was practical and appropriate, was now a woman possessed. She didn’t care about sense and propriety. She wanted a reaction and she didn’t care what it took to get it.
She had eventually selected a soft pink lacy cashmere sweater, which she thought clung in all the right places, and teamed it with her tightest pair of jeans. They were likely not only to limit her movement, but also place severe restrictions on her food intake. She didn’t care.
Let’s see what you make of this, Commander Metcalfe.
Her eyes skimmed over her lingerie, lying like pastel petals on the floor. The sweater was so tight, options were limited. Sod it, she thought, with a brazen defiance. A bra was too obvious and frankly, unnecessary. She slid on a camisole of ivory silk edged with hand-made lace, and eased the jumper over the top. Perfect. The effect was sensual, rather than overtly sexy.
She had covered her pale face and tired eyes with more make-up than she usually wore and teased her blonde hair into soft tendrils around her face. She sprayed on a liberal application of perfume and last, but not least, put on the earrings. The effect was pleasing, if not as frankly alluring as she had hoped.
Jezebel, she giggled at her reflection, pirouetting around the bathroom mirror. She would not wear the Spectrum snow suit, whether or not he approved. She had brought a white fur-lined parka and sensible flat boots and pulled them on defiantly. Scarlet was busy packing presents into carriers and appeared not to notice.
Men, she thought sourly. The cold air lacerated her lungs as they set off in the direction of Carrie’s home. It sharpened her senses, quickened her pulse and blew away the last remnants of her champagne hangover. I’m alive, it’s Christmas and it’s wonderful! She looked at Scarlet and caught his happy smile. He held out his gloved hand and she took it, entwining their padded fingers with difficulty. Despite the desolation of last night, the intimacy was back.
I love you. She wasn’t sure if she had spoken aloud, but he was looking straight ahead, so she couldn’t have. I do love him, she thought in surprise. I always will. And even if it will never be more than this, maybe that will be enough.
She darted ahead and picked up a small mound of snow lying by the roadside. Fashioning it into a ball, she flung it at him and watched, laughing, as he dodged it with consummate ease. He caught up with her, grabbing her round the waist before she could pelt him with more snow.
“Yes. Yes, Paul, I am.” She leaned against him briefly before they walked on. I wish we could do this more often. Be like everyone else. Have weekends, holidays without responsibilities. No Mysterons. No Conrad.
She had done her best to shut him out, not let him intrude on her thoughts. He wasn’t really there. It was only her memory playing tricks on her, she realised. The frequent dreams, the nightmares which seemed so real, were not. They were just dreams, after all, because Conrad was dead. Say it, Simone. Say it again. Conrad is dead. That thing out there, it’s not him. It can’t be, because Con would not, could not, ever do the things that creature is capable of.
Scarlet had not wanted to tell her exactly what had taken place between himself and Black when they returned to Mars. She had insisted on knowing, preferring the horrific reality to whatever her imagination could conjure up. And she had tried, yet again, with every fibre of her being, to believe that this time, he really was dead.
Please, please, let him have peace at last, she had prayed, to no one in particular. But her prayers had gone unanswered. The Mysterons had returned, with every possibility that Captain Black had once more been reincarnated with the rest of the species. She was aware of Scarlet’s intent gaze as they trudged on.
“Where did you just go, Snowflake Girl?” he asked softly, as they rounded the corner to Carrie’s warmly lit home. She wasn’t sure that she could articulate it, and in any case, there wasn’t time. The front door opened and they were overtaken by sound, light and festive cheer.
“Uncle Paul!” Mikey, still in his pyjamas, launched himself at Scarlet. “Mom wouldn’t let me open anything till you got here. You have to help me.” His small earnest face beamed with excitement. “You won’t believe how many presents I have!”
“Bet I will, though.” Scarlet allowed himself to be dragged into the living room, smiling apologetically at Destiny as he went.
“Simone, it’s lovely to see you.” Carrie was gracious, embracing Destiny with what appeared, at least, to be genuine goodwill. “I’m glad you could join us.” Her broad, attractive face, so like that of her brother, dissolved into a grin. “You’ll probably find it a bit chaotic after the quiet of Skybase, but believe me, when you have kids, it’s always hectic!”
God, she thinks she’s the only one with a busy life. How little she knows.
Destiny fixed her face into a sanguine expression and followed Carrie into the living room. Scarlet and his nephew were sitting cross-legged on the floor, the latter excitedly tearing open the mountain of parcels piled under a huge, somewhat over-decorated Christmas tree.
“The tree is a bit over the top, I know,” Carrie explained with a smile that suggested she did not, in fact, think this at all. “It’s kind of a family tradition for us. Paul and I used to do this when we were kids. Opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning is one of my happiest memories. I wanted Mikey to have that. I think it’s so important to pass on traditions, don’t you?”
Supercilious bitch, Destiny thought sourly. Aloud she said, “Thank you for inviting me, Carrie. You have a lovely home.”
“Thanks. Actually, I think this is the best tree we’ve ever had. Mark would have been thrilled.”
She looked suddenly so wistful, that Destiny, ashamed of her previous thoughts, simply said gently, “Where would you like me to put our gifts?”
“Right here,” boomed a gruff, male voice, as a bear of a man descended on them with outstretched arms. “Just give them here, little lady, and I’ll put them under the tree.” The grey-haired bear effortlessly picked up the bags of parcels and whisked them away, while a slightly younger, pretty woman with a neat blonde bob and calm grey eyes followed him into the hall. She wore a Santa Claus apron sprinkled with batter and her handshake was floury.
“Sorry, my dear, I’ve been making pancakes.” She gave Destiny a broad, not even slightly apologetic smile. “I’m Collette Webster and the gentle giant you just met is my husband, Jim. We’re Michael’s grandparents.”
Destiny thought with some amusement, that never in her life could she recall being addressed as “little lady.” In another place and time, she might have been irritated. Yet Jim Webster seemed a genuinely pleasant man with no intention to offend. She smiled back. “I’m Simone Giraudoux. Paul and I work together.”
“Yes, Carrie told me.” The older woman was heading back to the kitchen, talking over her shoulder. She seemed to assume Destiny would follow her. “I can’t tell you how delighted I am to meet you. You see, I’ve been a fan of yours for quite some time.”
“You have?” Destiny stood at the door of the kitchen, feeling somewhat at a loss as Carrie’s mother-in-law moved with dexterity from cooker to larder to refrigerator.
“Absolutely!” She turned, again with that sparkling smile. “You see, I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration. I remember reading about you several years ago. The youngest ever captain of a space shuttle. Well, I really thought that was an achievement! I decided you must be a very determined young woman.” She was effortlessly flipping pancakes onto a plate and ladling maple syrup into a bowl as she spoke. “Then, of course, there was the piece in Time magazine when Spectrum was formed. I remember thinking - the Angels- what a glamorous, wonderful title!” She put down the oven gloves. “It seemed to me such an exciting life!”
“Yes, well, it has its moments, I suppose.” Destiny felt awkward, aware that Carrie was standing rigidly in the doorway, her face set in a mask of disapproval. “You’re very kind, Collette. I don’t think Spectrum really wanted as much publicity for us, though.”
“Oh, well, they should have known better, shouldn’t they?” Collette was completely unabashed. “The most high-profile security organisation in the world recruits a squad of all female fighter pilots and, more importantly for the media, all young and attractive. Just what else did they expect?”
Destiny cast what she hoped was a winsome look in Carrie’s direction, but Scarlet’s sister was stony-faced and dismissive. “Pancakes are ready,” she snapped. “OJ is on the table. All we need now is champagne for Buck’s Fizz. Think you can open a bottle or two?”
Destiny knew the glare was a challenge. More champagne. Oh, well. “Of course,” she said brightly. “Just lead me to the bottle opener.”
Breakfast, or brunch, as it rapidly became, was initially awkward and eventually uproarious. Mikey was too over-excited to eat much and so, Destiny thought wryly, was his uncle. I’ve never seen him like this, she thought, watching in amazement as the pair of them dissolved into maniacal laughter at things not even remotely funny.
Carrie caught her bemused expression. “It is sometimes quite hard to know which one of them is the child, isn’t it?” she said dryly. “The Metcalfe men never grow up, you know. My dad was still a big kid to the day he died and Paul is just like him.” She was smiling fondly at her brother, but the eyes she turned towards Destiny held an odd expression. “He’s been so good with Mikey. I don’t know what I would have done without him. He should have kids of his own, he’d be a wonderful father.” Her voice hardened. “Of course, that’s not likely to happen while he insists on charging round the world like a trigger-happy lunatic. One day he’ll realise he’s left it too late to find the right woman.”
Destiny stared down at her plate. She was struggling not to scream. You have no idea, she thought desperately. No idea at all of what he deals with on a daily basis. No conception of what may happen to the world if he doesn’t carry on doing what he does best.
“Well, it seems to me that he’s already found the right woman,” Collette Webster interjected mildly. She smiled at Destiny. “Maybe someday you might take some time out from flying those jets to produce the next generation of Metcalfe pilots.”
“Oh, Collette, Paul and I are not - I mean, we don’t….”Destiny felt her cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. “We’re not exactly a couple, not in that way.”
“Simone, I am so sorry!” The older woman gazed at her in distress. “That was so presumptuous of me! It’s just you seem very close and frankly, it’s a long time since I’ve seen him look so happy. I just assumed…..” her voice trailed off.
“It’s okay.” Destiny struggled to regain her composure and flashed what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “To be honest, I think Paul and I are still trying to work out what kind of a relationship we have. I just know that whatever it is, it’s good and I’m very happy too.”
Carrie was looking at her in surprise. “Paul was right,” she said abruptly. “You have changed.”
“Thanks – I think.”
They exchanged wry smiles that held a tacit acknowledgement of something that almost, but not quite, bordered on approval.
Carrie turned her attention to her son, whose excitement was reaching hysterical levels. “Mikey, please go and get dressed. You can’t spend all day in your pyjamas.”
The little boy looked up with a pained expression. “Oh, Mom! Uncle Paul and I want to play with my racing car game.”
Scarlet gave him a playful nudge. “Your mom’s right, Mike, the game can wait a few minutes. And remember that getting ready includes the addition of soap, water and toothpaste as well as clothes.”
“Yes, Captain!” his nephew retorted cheekily, nevertheless heading towards the stairs.
Carrie looked rueful. “How come I have to threaten him to get him to do as he’s told, yet one word from you seems to work miracles?”
“Just my natural talent, I guess.” Scarlet gave her shoulder a good-natured squeeze. “What’s on the agenda for this afternoon? I assume it’s going to be a few hours before we tuck into turkey – at least, I hope so. I couldn’t eat another thing right now.”
“Well,” Carrie gave them all a doubtful look. “If you’d like some exercise, we could walk down the road to church.”
“Church!” Scarlet looked stunned. “On Christmas Day? I’ve heard of midnight mass, but….”
“Our new vicar has some radical ideas. He thought it might be nice to have a short Christmas afternoon service for the children in the village – you know, remind them that Christmas is about more than just toys and presents. He’s really nice and so enthusiastic about involving the whole community.” Her voice sounded at least an octave higher and bright spots of colour stained her cheeks.
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “Obviously doesn’t have a family of his own,” he murmured.
“No, well, no, he doesn’t.” Carrie sounded unusually evasive. “Of course, if you don’t want to go…..”
He shook his head. “No, it’s fine. I was just kind of surprised, that’s all.” He looked around. “Everyone else okay with this?”
“It sounds lovely. I like seeing churches decorated for Christmas.” Destiny sounded pleased.
“Mmmm, it’ll remind you of Skybase. All those candles you have in your quarters,” he said teasingly.
“What’s wrong with liking candles?” she retorted defensively.
“Absolutely nothing, dear,” Collette said firmly. “I love candlelight, too. We’ll all go and the turkey can wait till we get back. I’ll go and chivvy Michael along.” She bustled away as Carrie and Jim started clearing away the remnants of brunch.
“I don’t believe this,” Scarlet muttered in Destiny’s ear. “My sister has a crush on the local vicar.”
She giggled. “I think it’s sweet. Makes her seem almost human.”
He gave her a playful nudge. “Behave yourself, or I’ll tell her what you said about carving the turkey.”
The small village church was warm and beautifully decorated with Christmas flowers and candles. The Nativity scene had been delightfully re-created in the form of an elaborate tableau at the foot of the altar. Scarlet thought it looked vaguely familiar, but wasn’t sure why.
“Did you have a hand in this?” he whispered to Carrie, as an elderly parishioner handed out carol sheets. She grinned at him.
“Sure. Don’t you remember the ones Mom used to make for Sunday school when we were kids? I wasn’t sure if I would be able to remember how she did it, but I gave it a go, and hey, presto! One Nativity tableau! Kind of neat, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “Very impressive.”
“Carrie’s worked very hard. I’m extremely grateful to her.” A tall, broad-shouldered man with wire-rimmed spectacles and a shock of unruly red hair materialised in front of them to plant a kiss on Carrie’s cheek. He was dressed in faded denims, a thick Arran wool sweater and a dog collar. The end of a pencil poked out curiously from behind one ear, giving him a somewhat absent-minded look. He beamed myopically at them and offered Scarlet a strong, warm handshake.
“Hi, I’m Patrick Hamilton and you, I guess, must be Carrie’s brother. Delighted you could make it today. I know how much she’s been looking forward to a proper family Christmas.” He gave Carrie a look of such affection that Scarlet was left in no doubt that torches had indeed been lit and were being carried by both parties.
“Please,” he said, waving an arm towards the rapidly filling pews, “find yourselves seats, all of you, and then we can get started. Don’t want to keep the kids away from their presents for too long.”
“I approve, Sis,” Scarlet muttered into Carrie’s ear as he moved to sit between her and Destiny. “Never imagined you’d fall for a man of the cloth, but at least you’ll always know where he is on Sundays.”
Carrie gave his ankle such a sharp kick that he yelped, causing Destiny to shoot him a puzzled frown. “I have not fallen for anyone,” she hissed back. “He’s a friend, that’s all. Besides, he’s younger than me.”
“Ah, cradle-snatching! Don’t worry, he doesn’t look younger than you, so no-one will accuse you of having a toy-boy.”
Carrie looked agonized. “Will you please stop this? We’re in church, for God’s sake!”
“It is, isn’t? For God’s sake, I mean.” Scarlet’s face was a picture of innocence. “Calm down, Carrie, I was only teasing.” He squeezed her forearm and was rewarded with the slight relaxation of her cheek muscles. “No-one is judging, honey. If you have friends, that’s great. If it’s romance, even better. I have news for you. You’re even,” his voice dropped to a stage whisper, “allowed to have sex with anyone you like. It’s the second half of the twenty-first century and no-one minds.”
“I mind,” Destiny muttered, glowering down at her hymn sheet. “For heavens sake, elevate your thoughts. Baby Jesus is watching you.” She inclined her head towards the tableau at the altar. Carrie flashed her an unexpectedly conspiratorial smile as the organist and choir struck up a chorus of ‘Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem’.
It was, as Patrick Hamilton had promised, a fairly short service, but one which left it’s participants quietly uplifted. Scarlet and Destiny sat enthralled, their hands clasped, a gesture that did not escape Carrie or her parents-in-law.
“They seem so happy, don’t they?” Collette whispered in Carrie’s left ear, while trying to prevent her grandson from grabbing a third mince pie from the tray being passed around. “It must be so difficult for them to lead a normal life. All that dashing around the world – well, I know I wouldn’t like that. Maybe it is exciting, but there must be times when the glamour begins to pall.” She glanced perceptively at Carrie’s pensive face. “The world keeps turning, dear. Everyone finds their place in it, eventually. Even you.”
“Mom….” Carrie turned awkwardly towards her mother-in-law, to be surprised by the touch of the older woman’s fingers on her lips.
“No need, honey. You’re a beautiful young woman with a life to lead. Mark would never have expected you to waste it mourning him and neither do Jim or I. Michael needs a full-time father and you need to move on. You’ll always be our daughter-in-law, no matter what, and we love you very much.” She grinned wickedly. “Your reverend seems very nice. I bet you could have fun with that dog collar.”
“Mom!” Carrie’s shocked voice exploded in the echo of the church, causing heads to turn. Then, seeing the cause of the eruption, they simply chuckled and turned amused heads back to their songbooks.
They left the church as light snowflakes began to fall. Carrie and Patrick Hamilton were deep in conversation, laughing together as the families gathered outside in a rapidly chilling wind.
“Mom,” Mikey was pulling the sleeve of his mother’s coat in excitement. “Mom, guess what? Lewis’s dog had her puppies last night! Five of them!”
“Goodness! Well, that’s great!” Carrie turned loving eyes towards her son. “What will they do with them all?”
“We have no idea,” Lewis’s mother admitted, rather gloomily. Kathryn Donaldson was a large, pleasant-faced woman with an engaging smile. “Any takers?”
“Not me,” Carrie said firmly. “I have a business to run and Mikey has to go to school. We couldn’t possibly leave a puppy alone in the house all day. It would run amok.” She resolutely ignored her son’s look of disappointment.
“Well, perhaps I could help out,” Patrick Hamilton said. “I could have the puppy during the day. Mikey could drop him off and collect him after school. You know, just until the dog is old enough to be left alone.”
“That sounds ideal!” Kathryn was enthusiastic.
She would be, Carrie thought, with several puppies to find homes for. Still, Mikey seemed keen and perhaps he was old enough to learn to take responsibility for a pet.
“Okay,” she said reluctantly. “Maybe we could take a puppy, if Mike is prepared to help look after it.”
“Oh, yeah, Mom, I will, I promise!” Mikey’s excitement in his Christmas presents was completely eclipsed by the prospect of having a pet. “Can I go look at them now? Choose which one I want? I promise I won’t be long!”
“Oh, Mike, I don’t think now is a good time. The weather isn’t looking good.”
“Don’t worry, Carrie.” Kathryn Donaldson was at her elbow. “It’s not far and if the snow gets heavier, Peter will drive Mikey home.”
“All right, then. Just an hour.” Carrie, weakened by champagne and the flattering attentions of the vicar, could only smile with relief as her son was borne off by his friend’s family.
Scarlet and Destiny were already trudging ahead, arm in arm, back to Carrie’s house.
“That was so great,” she murmured. “I must admit Patrick seems a bit unorthodox, but the service was magical.” She turned a beaming face towards him. “And we have snow! A proper Hallmark Christmas!”
Scarlet laughed out loud. “Yes, you wouldn’t have got this in Paris, or California, for that matter!” He eyed her speculatively. “You and Carrie seem to be getting on better. Think it’s working out?”
“She’s not so bad, and I have to say she’s made me very welcome.” She smiled at him. “Jim and Collette are lovely. I’m glad you persuaded me to spend Christmas here, it’s wonderful.”
He stopped and gazed at her with mock severity. “What I thought I was doing was persuading you to spend Christmas with me. So where do I rank on the scale of your happiness quotient? Or is the jury still out on that one?”
She was silent, lost for words. He had clearly sensed her disappointment at last night’s anti-climax. Does he think I blame him, that it changes the way I feel?
“Paul….” She began and then the words were whipped away as a flushed and excited Carrie caught up with them.
“I’ve asked Pat to come round later and have dinner with us. Is that a problem for anyone?” She glanced anxiously at her parents-in-law. Jim Webster looked slightly uncomfortable and opened his mouth to say something. He was silenced by a forbidding look from his wife.
“No problem at all, Carrie,” Collette said firmly, opening the front door and guiding her husband in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll just prepare more vegetables while Jim sees to drinks for everyone. I expect we could all do with something to warm us up. Jim is a dab hand at making mulled wine, aren’t you dear?”
Her husband looked at Scarlet. “Don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a double whisky. Still, better do as I’m told, I suppose.”
Destiny followed Carrie and Collette into the kitchen. “I’m not very domesticated, but I can take orders,” she said. “Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll give it a go.” She flashed Scarlet a smile that said clearly, I can do this. Just watch me.
He moved between her and his sister and flung an arm round each of their shoulders. “What she’s not saying, is that she might be good at taking orders, but obeying them can sometimes be a different matter.”
“Take care, soldier. You’re talking about a woman who is about to pick up a sharp knife.” Destiny was rinsing vegetables under the tap and she turned to flick water at him before grabbing the knife offered by Carrie. The three women moved around the kitchen, effortlessly team-working in preparation of the dinner to come.
Scarlet and Jim Webster retreated to the living room, glasses of wine in hand. “I know my place, and it’s definitely out of the way,” the older man rumbled, settling into an easy chair by the fire. He spoke little, but it didn’t seem to matter. Carrie’s father-in-law was comfortable with silence, in a way that most people were not. Merely to be in his presence conveyed a quiet, benign reassurance. Scarlet liked him a great deal and was reminded of how alike father and son were. Mark Webster had been his sister’s rock and her mainstay. Five years after his death, she could still resemble a rudderless ship in a storm. He hoped that maybe, now, the storm was passing and that her friendship with Pat Hamilton might be the gateway to a happier future.
Both men sat in silent reverie, staring at the glowing embers of fire, and were somewhat startled when their womenfolk descended on them in a flurry of laughter and loud chatter.
“You’re supposed to sleep after dinner, Dad, not before!” Carrie joked, throwing a stray cushion at Jim. Collette was gazing out of the window, her face registering sudden alarm. “Goodness, I had no idea the weather had got so bad! Just look at all that snow. It’s a complete blizzard!”
Carrie frowned, looking over her mother-in-law’s shoulder. It was indeed a complete white-out. Even the street lights were dimmed by a thick covering of snow and darkness was descending rapidly. “Damn that child. He should have been home by now. Dinner is nearly ready.”
“You know what kids are like,” Scarlet said easily. “He’s probably totally forgotten the time. Want me to go and get him?”
She shook her head. “Peter Donaldson said he’d bring Mikey home if the weather got worse. I’ll just give them a call to make sure they’re on their way.”
She slipped away to punch numbers into the tele-console at the far end of the room. Kathryn Donaldson answered immediately, her open, friendly face registering sudden dismay at Carrie’s question. “Michael left ages ago, Carrie, just as soon as the snow began to get a little heavier. We did offer to drive him, but he said he wanted to walk. I thought, well, it’s not far. It was still daylight and didn’t seem too bad underfoot…..” Her voice trailed off in distress. “Oh, Carrie, I’m so sorry! We should have insisted. Where can he have got to?”
Carrie was suddenly white-faced. “When, Kath? Exactly when did he leave?”
“Well….I’m not sure. It must be a couple of hours ago, maybe longer. He left right after he’d chosen the puppy he wanted.”
Scarlet crossed to where his sister was staring at the screen, silently beginning to shake. “How long should it have taken him to get home?” he said quietly.
“About twenty minutes or so, at the most. It depends which route he took, but he should have been home by now.” Carrie turned panic-filled eyes to him. “Oh, God! Something must have happened. How could I have been so stupid as to let him go – I knew the weather was getting worse.” She was shaking now, her breath coming in short gasps. Scarlet gripped her forcefully by the shoulders. He knew the onset of panic when he saw it.
“Carrie, it’s okay. Nothing has happened to him. Let’s think about this logically. The snow is deeper than he thought it would be. He’s got snow boots on, but even so, the conditions would slow him up. I take it he knows his way?”
“Of course he does, like the back of his hand. It’s the way he goes to school.” Carrie was fighting to speak normally, to regain her self-control. “Everyone walks around here. It’s perfectly safe. There’s almost no crime and I doubt if there’s anyone in the village he wouldn’t know.” She looked around wildly. “Could he have had an accident? Maybe someone has done something….Oh, God!” She buried her head in her hands, tears wrenching out of her in great, racking sobs.
Destiny stepped between them. “Stop it!” she said firmly. “Over-reacting like this isn’t going to help anyone. Mikey is a little late getting home, that’s all. We just need to go look for him. We also need you to pull yourself together and show us a map of the village, tell us which way he would most likely have gone.”
“Sim’s right, Carrie.” Scarlet caressed his sister’s shoulder gently. “He’s only been missing a short while. He probably just met a friend on the way and they got sidetracked with a snowball fight, or something.”
He kept his voice light and reassuring, but Carrie did not seem to notice. She was focused on Destiny.
“Just what the hell do you know about it?” she spat. “Don’t you dare tell me I’m over-reacting! The day you have children of your own is the day you get the right to tell me how to react!”
Destiny bit her lip and turned to an anxiously hovering Collette. “I’m going to need snow gear,” she said quietly. “I can’t go searching without waterproof protection.”
“Of course. I’ll find you some things you can borrow.” The other woman darted away upstairs.
Scarlet and Jim were poring over a map spread out on the coffee table. “Carrie, show us where the Donaldsons’ house is.”
“On the other side of the village.” Carrie was making an attempt to focus on practicalities. “The route by road is circular most of the way. It’s quicker to go over Redwood Hill. Mikey would usually do that, but not today. Not in conditions like this without skis, or proper snow clothes.”
“Redwood Hill? That’s out back of here, right? The hill they use as a nursery ski slope in winter?”
She nodded. “The kids often go that way to and from school, because it takes ten minutes off the journey. They all know they’re not allowed to go over the hill in winter, though, if they’re on their own. It can be dangerous when it gets dark, it’s easy to lose your bearings.”
Scarlet was thoughtful. “Maybe Mikey spent more time looking at the pups than Kath realised. He was running late and he knew you’d be mad. He may have noticed how dark it was getting and thought he’d save some time by cutting across the hill.” He straightened up decisively. “Okay, here’s what we do. Jim, you and Carrie trace the route through the village, see if you meet up with him on the way. Simone and I will take the hill. We don’t know the area well, but we have a Spectro-tech.”
“What’s a Spectro-tech?” Carrie stared at him.
“It’s a multi-purpose communicator. It acts as a compass and a heat-seeking detector, among other things.” Destiny said shortly.
“Heat-seeking? Oh, God.” Carrie’s lips were completely bloodless.
“It has lots of functions that we are not going to need today,” Scarlet interjected swiftly. “Now let’s gear up and get moving.”
“What about me?” Collette Webster was back with snow clothes for Destiny.
“We need someone to stay here, in case he arrives of his own accord while we’re out looking. Stay close to the phone, so that we can all keep in touch.”
“Think we should contact the police, or the sheriff’s office?” Jim asked.
Scarlet shook his head. “It’s Christmas Day. No point in dragging people out of their homes unless we have to. I’m sure we’ll find him in no time.”
He headed for the kitchen, where Destiny was struggling into salopettes that were clearly too short for her long legs. He glanced at her set face.
“Take no notice of Carrie. She didn’t mean what she said. She’s just worried.”
“Of course she is. She’s a mother whose child is missing.” Destiny fixed him with her clear blue gaze. “And she’s right. What would I know about that?” She pulled on the borrowed snow boots with more savagery than they required.
“Don’t suppose you brought a gun?” The question was casual, but his eyes were worried.
“No.” She looked up sharply. “What about you?”
“Left it back at the hotel.”
“Not sure.” He seemed distracted. “I know this sounds dumb, but I just got a feeling that there’s something out there. Something bad.”
She frowned. “Mysterons? Here in Redwood, on Christmas Day? Surely not. There’s been no threat, no hint of anything.”
“No, I know. Forget it, I think I’m just worried about Mike.” He smiled at her. “Don’t say anything to Carrie.”
“Not a chance,” she muttered, heading out of the kitchen to the front door, where Jim and Carrie were pulling on hats and gloves.
The snow was swirling in thick flakes, making halos round the street lights. The air was still, and exceedingly cold. Everywhere seemed silent and dark, although many of the neighbouring homes were brilliantly lit with fairy lights. To Scarlet, the atmosphere seemed heavy with foreboding. Get a grip, for heaven’s sake, he thought, irritated with himself. You’re as bad as Carrie. He’s just lost and there’s nothing out there.
The four of them separated at the end of the row of houses. Carrie and her father-in-law headed towards the centre of the village by way of the road, leaving Scarlet and Destiny to make their way up the tree-lined lane towards Redwood Hill.
“Stay close. We’ve only got one Spectro-tech.”
“You won’t get an argument there.” Destiny was stumbling along awkwardly. Collette’s boots were too small for her, although she had to acknowledge that they were fit for purpose in ways her own were not. Packing for every eventuality, she thought grimly. Well, I obviously didn’t, did I?
The gate, at the end of the lane opening out onto the snow-covered hill, was stiff and awkward to open with gloved fingers. It was a relatively gentle slope, benign in daylight, which now had an imposing hostility in darkness. Destiny shivered. She didn’t have any goggles, no protective eyewear at all, in fact, and the wind was icy, hurling needles of snow into her face and stinging her eyes, so that just keeping them open was an effort. Conditions seemed to be worsening with every step they took.
This can’t be right, she thought. Surely it shouldn’t be so extreme? The darkness was thick and enveloping and the snow storm was making her disoriented. What time is it? It shouldn’t be as bad as this at, what, four o’ clock? Despite the gloves, her fingers were already so numb that it was an effort to push the cuff of the snowsuit aside to check her watch. Scarlet was moving ahead with stronger strides and she realised she was struggling to keep up. With every step he seemed to vanish for a few seconds, only to re-appear each time the swirl of snow ebbed and died.
“Wait for me!” she yelled, realising he probably wouldn’t hear her. Apparently, however, he did, because he paused to allow her to catch up.
“There’s a copse of trees over there. I’m going to check it out. You keep going straight ahead. I’ll catch you up, don’t worry.”
Before she had a chance to say, “No, don’t leave me,” he had gone, vanishing into the snow once more. Oh, well. She straightened up resolutely and pulled her hood further over her head in an attempt to shield her eyes. It was a major effort just to keep her feet in the deepening snow and bruising wind. God help Mikey if he was out in this. A stab of unaccustomed fear hit her like an arrow from a bow. She didn’t know who she was more frightened for, herself or Carrie’s child.
She thought she was walking in a straight line, as Scarlet had instructed, but it was hard to tell. The top of the hill, previously clearly visible, had all but disappeared. Visibility was down to just a few feet in front of her, and she had already stumbled over several logs and branches hidden beneath the snow. She needed to pay close attention to every step in order to stay upright. She had the strangest feeling that she was not, in fact, moving in a straight line at all. Something seemed to be pulling her to the left of the track, something so magnetic that she was powerless to do anything about it.
This is nuts. What am I, a fridge magnet? She tried, with difficulty, to dig a hand into the pocket of the snowsuit to find….nothing. Paul’s got the Spectro-tech. Realisation dawned that she didn’t have a clue in which direction she was headed. She might as well have been in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Keep going and hope he finds me, she thought grimly. He can’t be far away.
“Paul!” she shrieked at the top of her voice, praying that even if the wind whipped away her words, it would carry them to within hearing distance of their recipient. “Paul, where are you? I can’t even see you!”
There was no response, nothing in fact, but the howling wind and freezing, snow-filled darkness. I’m lost. I don’t know where I am. Realisation hit like a hammer, battening down a vice around her heart. Fear clawed at every vital organ. Clutching onto to a rapidly disappearing logic, she knew it was ridiculous. Scarlet was probably only a few yards away from her.
It could have been a million miles, because logic soon disappeared completely, to be replaced by a totally irrational terror at being abandoned.
What’s happening to me? I’m frightened. I’m so scared I can’t breathe. The snow and the blackness seemed to be contracting, squeezing her in, so that she truly believed that if Scarlet didn’t find her soon, she would suffocate. In the midst of the terror, a light began to shine: a dim, flickering, light, which grew brighter as she stumbled on.
Something resembling a small building began to emerge through the veil of snow. Shelter. Thank God. She trudged on, anxious to reach the source of the light, as a shape, large, dark and unmistakably male, materialised in front of her. Relief made her knees weak.
“Paul! Thank God!” She lurched forwards, pitching herself into his arms, not caring about anything, other than that he had found her and she was safe at last.
“Well, hello, sweetheart.” The familiar sardonic voice echoed in her head at exactly the moment she realised into whose arms she had flung herself. “I must say that although I engineered this, I really didn’t imagine you’d be so pleased to see me.”
Conrad. She raised her head from his chest with horror-filled eyes. I should have known. Should have guessed. She took a step back. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Oh, you know,” he waved an arm to casually draw in his surroundings. “Hanging around, as always. It’s good to see you, sweetie. You look wonderful, although I have to say this cold weather doesn’t suit you. That red nose is not your best look.”
“What do you mean, you engineered this?” Normality was returning rapidly, crushing her senses. “How could you do that? What for?”
“I can do anything I want to; you should know that by now. As for why – I brought you here because it’s time.”
“Time? Time for what?” She looked around wildly. Where’s Paul?
Black caught her expression and took a step forward to grip her arms tightly. “Thinking of running, darling? Don’t bother. You won’t get far. Besides, I have what you’re looking for.”
“Mikey? You kidnapped Paul’s nephew?”
His lip curled. “Actually, no. I simply found him, that’s all. I must say that it was a happy accident. Your search for him has saved me the bother of coming to get you.”
He’s talking in riddles, she thought, but she couldn’t quite fathom it out right now. Her brain and senses were still struggling to return from the wilderness into which he had cast them.
“Is he all right? Where is he?”
“He’s in there.” Black inclined his head in the direction of the light. Destiny raised her forearms to break his grip and surprisingly, he did not resist. She stalked towards the entrance of what she could now see was a very un-threatening wooden hut and pushed open the door. It was a building clearly used to store winter sports equipment. The timber-framed walls were lined with skis and ancillary equipment. Coils of rope and ski poles lay around the floor, and in one corner stood an ancient, motorised sledge and a partially dismantled snow mobile. The whole place stank of neglect and damp wood.
In a corner, which did not seem to contain equipment of any kind, was a battered old storage heater, beneath which lay a small fair-haired figure, wrapped in a blanket.
“Mikey!” Destiny sprang forward to bend over him, not heeding Captain Black. The little boy was unmoving, but his colour was good and there was no sign of blood. His breathing seemed normal. He was alive, with no obvious signs of injury. She straightened up and glared at Black. “What have you done to him?”
“Nothing,” he said calmly. “I haven’t done anything to him, apart from maybe saving his life. Surprising as it may seem, I’m not in the business of killing kids on Christmas Day, no matter who they happen to be.” He paused. “He’s asleep, that’s all.”
“What happened to him? Where did you find him?”
“On the hill, just a few yards from here. He’d tripped in the snow, hurt his ankle. I don’t think it’s broken, just badly sprained, but he was finding it virtually impossible to walk. Conditions were getting worse. When I came across him, he was beginning to develop the first stages of hypothermia. I carried him here and warmed him up. As you see, there’s an old heater that’s still working.”
She stared at him. It was so bizarre that she was struggling to comprehend the significance of it all. And where was Scarlet? She tried to concentrate. “Mikey had a phone with him. Why didn’t he call for help?”
Black shrugged. “He said he’d dropped it when he fell. It smashed against a tree stump and he couldn’t get it to work. I tell you, he was one frightened little kid by the time I got to him. He didn’t know how he was going to get home.” He smiled at her, a genuine, friendly smile, the type of smile he might have given her before….
She jettisoned the thought before it could take hold. “I see. And I suppose you were going to play the Good Samaritan and bring him home. Instead, you dumped him here.”
He looked injured. “This was just temporary. He needed to be warmed up and I knew you’d be looking for him. It suited my purpose to wait a while before taking him home. He wouldn’t have come to any harm.”
Destiny was confused. She couldn’t make sense of any of this. Black was casually dressed in jeans and a thick parka. He had no gloves or hat, yet did not appear to feel the biting cold at all. His voice was mild and his presence benign- almost like the Conrad of old. She could see no evidence of a gun, although she had no doubt that he did have a weapon concealed. Still, he didn’t appear to be making any serious attempt to hold her prisoner.
Well, he’s right, I suppose. Running for it wouldn’t get me very far. “What’s this all about, Conrad? You’re obviously here for a reason and it’s not to play Santa Claus.”
His smile was lascivious. “Do I need a reason to see you again, sweetheart? Maybe I just wanted to wish you the compliments of the season.”
“Cut the crap,” she snapped back. “You never do anything without a reason. Tell me what the Mysterons are up to. What’s the threat this time?”
He sighed, as if trying to impart knowledge to a recalcitrant child. “There isn’t a threat. This has nothing to do with the Mysterons. Well, not directly, anyway. This is just for me.” He stepped forward and touched her cheek, ignoring her involuntary shudder of revulsion. “You see, I thought I deserved a Christmas present, too. I realise that I’ve cut you loose for far too long, my dear. Your relationship with my foolish former partner is becoming, frankly, embarrassing. It’s time I reined you in.”
Icy tentacles of alarm were beginning to prick around her scalp. “Rein me in? What are you talking about?”
He sighed. “Scarlet must be turning your brains to mush. You never used to be so obtuse. It’s very simple, darling. I want you back. You understand, of course, that you don’t have a choice in the matter, but your co-operation would make things a lot easier.”
She glared at him. “You’re delusional. There is no way on earth I would ever consider that prospect.”
“No way on earth, maybe. But then, it doesn’t have to be, does it?” His eyes glittered. “We can do it the Martian way, if you like.”
She faced him squarely, determined not to let him see how terrified she was. A fate worse than death. Whoever had coined that old cliché had never dealt with the Mysterons, but they’d hit the nail on the head. There was a fate worse than death and it looked as if she was going to find out what it felt like.
“I see. Well, if you’re going to kill me, perhaps you’d better get on with it. I would also prefer to be outside. I wouldn’t like Mikey to see this.”
“Certainly, if that’s what you want. But I wasn’t actually going to kill you, my love. I can make you completely and utterly mine without harming a hair on your head.”
She didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not. He didn’t appear to be bluffing.
“I’ll never be yours, no matter what.” She was contemptuous. “No doubt you can make me do anything you like, but I promise you, it will never, ever be because I want to.”
He laughed suddenly, as if he found her attempt at defiance vastly amusing. “You will want to, sweetheart. I’ll make very sure of that.” He turned towards the door with a smirk. “Something tells me that the star guest is about to arrive. Now we can begin!”
The door flew open, making her jump. A slightly out of breath Scarlet appeared out of the darkness. “Simone, where on earth did you…..” his voice trailed off as he took in the scene before him. Destiny saw his hand automatically reach for the weapon that was not there, and felt his horror as he realised he was defenceless.
“Scarlet.” Black’s voice was silkily smooth. “I was wondering how long it would take you to show up. You see, the party can’t start without you. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this!”
Scarlet’s eyes had rapidly taken in Destiny’s white face and the unmoving shape of his sleeping nephew. “If you’ve touched either of them, I’ll tear you limb from limb!” he growled, his fists clenched and rigid.
“You could try. It wouldn’t do you much good,” Black sneered. “You know what’s funny, Paul? You and I talked about irony once, and whether or not the Mysterons understood it. Well, I can assure you that we do, my friend. The greatest irony of all is that you thought you’d destroyed us and in fact, all you did was ensure that we are more powerful than ever before. I can do things now that you can’t even imagine.”
Scarlet didn’t contradict him. He was thinking rapidly, trying to work out the purpose of this bizarre set-up and the odds of getting Destiny and Mikey out of it unharmed. The only person in the room with a gun in his hand was Black. He decided playing for time was the only sane option.
“Tell me what you’re doing here. Surely the Mysteron Sat Nav didn’t blow you so far off course that you ended up here by accident?”
“Of course not.” Black was dismissive. “Even you know better than that. It’s quite sweet, really. One of us has been playing Santa Claus without knowing it. That’s you, Paul. You and your hapless nephew have just helped deliver the Christmas present I’ve been waiting for.” He moved to fasten his hand round Destiny’s wrist. “I’m reclaiming my faithless lover. I plan to remind her of just where her loyalties should lie.”
Scarlet saw the pieces of the jigsaw drop into place and turned horror-filled eyes to Destiny. She shook her head imperceptibly.
“I’m all right, Paul. He hasn’t touched me. And he isn’t going to, either.” She shook off Black’s grasp on her forearm and stood directly in front of him. “Want to know why, Con? Well, I’ll tell you. You’re not going to touch me because you can’t. There is nothing you can do to me that will bring me back to you. You can’t reclaim what you never had in the first place. I’m not yours to take, I never was.”
He stared at her and she realised that on some level, she had wrong-footed him. Perhaps he had not expected this response, she wasn’t sure. For a second, she saw uncertainty in his face. Then, she knew. He doesn’t know what to do.
“Yes, you were. We belonged to each other. You loved me, you still do.” He looked suddenly shrunken, and his voice contained a note of desperation.
She didn’t miss that note. “No, Con. I don’t love you. I did, but not anymore.” She kept her voice calm and deliberate, and her eyes locked on his. She was fighting for her life and she had never taken a bigger gamble.
“But you could.” He was pacing backwards and forwards now, restlessly crossing room, while Scarlet stood to one side, silent and watchful. “We could get it back. Things could be the way they used to be.”
“I’ve learned some things since you died,” Destiny said softly. “One of those things is that you can never go back. You can’t recreate the past. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You knew that better than I did. Remember, Con, those things you said to me on Skybase, before you and Paul went back to Mars? You knew then, that whichever way it went, it was over for us.”
“No, no.” Black shook his head like a dog shaking off a persistent flea. “I was wrong. I made a mistake. I didn’t realise…..” The sudden abject misery in his face startled her. “Sometimes, you see, I get lonely.” He was still pacing, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Scarlet was clearly weighing up opportunities to overpower him. “There are plenty of women out there. I can take who ever I want, when I want. It’s just the times I remember – when I force myself to remember - well, then, I miss you. I need you. The Mysterons can’t do anything about that, you see.”
“I don’t suppose they can. They don’t understand love the way we do. She moved forward to put her hand on his arm, trying to still his agitation. “The importance of time and place, they don’t understand that either. I grew up, Con, that’s all. I’m not that heedless young woman any more. None of us are the same people, Mysteronised or not.” She gently traced a finger over his mouth, the mocking, slightly cruel mouth that once also been capable of great tenderness. “It’s over, darling. If you remember loving me, if you know what that felt like, then for the sake of that love- let me go.”
“Why? Why should I?”
“Because the Mysterons haven’t extinguished every decent instinct you’ve got. If they had, you wouldn’t have helped Mikey. We wouldn’t even be talking like this now, because I would already be dead.” Her hand tightened on his arm. “It’s Christmas, Con. It’s a time when even the deadliest of enemies call a truce. Let us take Mikey home to his family. Let’s all live to fight another day.”
She took a deep breath and stepped back. She had given it everything she had and now all she could do was wait.
There was a long silence. As Black looked from her to Scarlet and back again, she could sense the internal struggle of the forces within him. His head remained bowed for some time and she held her breath. Eventually, he looked up and with horror, she saw the tell-tale flash of green in his eyes. She had gambled and lost.
The dam of despair broke and flooded through her, as he moved to draw her close. Please let it be quick. She felt his warm breath and the touch of his lips on the rapid pulse in her neck. He had not forgotten how to touch her.
He released her so abruptly she almost stumbled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Scarlet move forward, fists clenched, ready to take a swing at his enemy. Black sidestepped and moved towards the door.
“Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “looks like I’m the Santa Claus after all, and she turns out to be my gift to you. Take care of her. Don’t give me another reason to beat you to a pulp.” Scarlet nodded curtly, as Black looked back at Destiny. “You watch your step, my darling. I might not always feel so magnanimous.”
He lifted the latch and slipped out through the door into the snow, as the wind slammed the door shut. There was silence in the hut.
Destiny stood frozen, hot tears pouring unchecked down her cheeks. She was so weak with relief she thought her legs would buckle under her.
Scarlet was bending over his nephew, and his face was grim. “Give me a hand. We need to get Mikey out of here before Black changes his mind, before whatever it is they have planned for us.”
“There’s nothing planned. He’s gone. It’s all over.” Her eyes and nose were streaming and she wiped them both on the sleeve of her jacket, leaving streaks of mascara on both face and fabric. She didn’t care.
As Scarlet ran his hands expertly over his nephew’s body, checking for broken bones, the little boy’s eyes opened, blinking sleepily in the dim light.
“Uncle Paul! You found me! I fell over and broke my phone. I tried to walk, but my leg hurt and I was getting so cold and then….”
“Okay, Mike, it’s okay.” Scarlet lifted both blanket and child off the floor. “Time to go home now. You can tell us all about it later.” He reached into his pocket and tossed his phone to Destiny. “Call Carrie. Tell her that we’ve got him and he’s safe.”
She had managed to move her hands sufficiently to catch the communicator, but her body was so racked with tremors, she couldn’t get her fingers to punch the numbers.
“Now, Sim!” Scarlet’s voice was sharp, cutting through the shock like a knife.
“Yes.” She managed to control her trembling fingers long enough to do as he asked.
Carrie’s relief was overwhelming. “Are you sure he’s okay? He’s not hurt?”
“He’s got a badly sprained ankle and a mild case of hypothermia, but he’s all right.” Destiny forced the words out through chattering teeth. “Meet us at the end of the lane with the Jeep. Bring blankets and a hot drink for him.”
“I have special heat blankets. I’ll find them.” Carrie, knowing her child was safe, was now totally focused on practicalities.
“Good. That’s good. It shouldn’t take us more than fifteen minutes or so to reach you.” Destiny clicked the phone off, trying to slow down her rasping gasps of air.
Scarlet was already out the door of the hut, Mikey cradled in his arms. Miraculously, the gale force winds appeared to have dropped and the snow had stopped falling. It was as if the world had tilted and then righted itself. There was no sign of Black, no indication he had ever been there. He had, quite literally, vanished into thin air. In the stillness, crystals of snow shimmered in bright moonlight as they trudged steadily down the hill. A hill, Destiny realised, that was no longer as steep or snow-covered as she had imagined. She could even see the reassuring glow of street lights ahead. The sensation of being lost in an alien wilderness had gone. It was like waking up from a very bad dream.
Carrie was waiting with the four by four as they reached the stile, her face and eyes swollen by crying “Don’t you ever, ever, do this again!” she scolded her son, even as tears of relief still dripped down her cheeks onto his cold face. “Have you any idea how worried we’ve been?”
“Sorry, Mommy.” Michael was crying too, exhaustion and fear now taking their toll. “I couldn’t walk. My leg hurts. I kept shouting but I thought nobody could hear. I was cold, and I think I must have fallen asleep for a while. Then Uncle Paul’s friend found me. He carried me to the hut and gave me the blanket. He tried to put the heater on, so I could get warm. He said after I warmed up, he’d bring me home. He was really nice to me. I think I must have gone to sleep again, because then Uncle Paul and Simone were there. Mr Lefkon had gone.” He sounded puzzled. “Guess he must have gone home too.” He looked up at Scarlet. “Will you say thanks for me, Uncle Paul? When you see him again?”
Carrie ruffled her son’s hair affectionately. “Did you get a bump on the head, too, Mikey? There wasn’t anyone else there. Mr Lefkon was Uncle Paul’s friend a long time ago. You won’t see him again. You must have been dreaming.”
“No, Mom. It was him. He told me his name. I mean, I wasn’t sure I remembered him till he told me. He was the man who came with Uncle Paul when Daddy died. I remember not being able to go to sleep that night. You were so sad and I didn’t know what to do. He sat on my bed and told me loads of things about Daddy and Grandpa and all the medals they had, stuff like that. He said my dad was a hero and that I should never forget it. I didn’t know what a hero was then, but I didn’t forget what he told me. He remembered it too, that’s how I knew it was him.”
Carrie caught the looks of alarm flying between Scarlet and Destiny. “Do you two know what he’s talking about?” she demanded. “How could Conrad be here? He was killed. Wasn’t he? Are you saying he’s not dead?” She looked from one to the other in disbelief as her brother and Destiny stood silently, on the brink of an abyss. “But you had a funeral, for God’s sake! No-one could fake that, surely!” She gave Destiny a withering glance “Not even you!”
Destiny ignored this blatant jibe. She held out her hands for the car keys. “Tell her,” she said quietly to Scarlet. “Tell her the truth. We can’t keep this to ourselves any longer. I’ll drive Mikey home.”
“Tell me what?” Carrie was alarmed. “What the hell is going on, here?”
Scarlet sighed. “Carrie, let’s you and me take the long way home. It’s stopped snowing and I fancy a walk.” He helped Destiny settle his nephew into the passenger seat and stepped back to link arms with his sister. “This could turn out to be an interesting evening.”
An hour later, Destiny collapsed, exhausted, onto Carrie’s sofa, a very large gin and tonic in hand. She and Collette had bandaged Michael’s injured ankle to his considerable satisfaction, and had settled him into bed with promises of turkey and ice-cream later, if he got some rest. The little boy had already found the remote control for his computer games console and appeared to be recovering rapidly.
More than I’m doing, Destiny thought, downing the drink in two hefty gulps.
Collette was in the kitchen, trying skilfully to rescue the turkey from culinary disaster, helped by her bemused husband. He had the air of a man with a lot of questions to ask, but who did not dare give voice to them.
Destiny heard the front door open and stood up. Scarlet walked in first, gave her a wry smile and planted a soft kiss on her lips before settling down on the sofa beside her. Carrie was behind him. She was white as a sheet and her hands were unsteady, but she walked resolutely across the room and wrapped Destiny in her arms.
“I am so sorry,” she whispered. “I had no idea. God, what you must have been through, what you’ve both been through. It’s dreadful.”
Destiny was awkward and embarrassed. “ We cope, I guess. Well, it’s our job, but I can imagine what a shock this has been for you.” Over Carrie’s shoulder, her eyes held the unspoken question, did you tell her about you?
Scarlet shook his head, imperceptibly. She nodded. There had been enough shocks for one day.
“Carrie, you do understand you can’t tell anyone about this?” her voice was urgent. “Very few people know about the Mysterons – we can’t have world-wide panic. We’re trusting you with this, but no-one, and that includes Jim, Collette and Mikey, must know the truth. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Carrie was clear-eyed. “Don’t worry, I’m not stupid and Paul has explained how dangerous this is. I won’t pretend I understand it all and I think there’s still a lot you’re not telling me.” She gave her brother a frankly appraising look. “But I won’t ask any more questions. Not today, at any rate. I appreciate you’re trusting me with some of Spectrum’s secrets and I’m trusting you to keep us all safe. Right?”
“Right.” Destiny smiled back. “Don’t worry, Carrie. It’s all going to be fine. Now,” she smiled, as a harassed Collette appeared from the kitchen. “I think we need to eat dinner and put this afternoon behind us.”
“I second that,” rumbled Jim Webster. He was followed into the room by a worried-looking Patrick Hamilton. “Found this young man on the doorstep, he looks like he could use a drink.” He grinned at the vicar. “Unless, of course, you took an oath of abstinence when you found your vocation.”
“No, I didn’t,” Hamilton said, smiling back. “I’d love a drink, whatever is going. Carrie, Jim tells me Mikey has been in trouble. Is he okay?”
“He will be. We’ve just been a little worried, Pat, but everything’s all right now.” Carrie linked her arm through his and drew him into the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind her.
Jim winked at Scarlet and Destiny, settling himself back in front of the fire. “Ah well,” he murmured to no-one in particular, “Trouble seems to follow this family around. He grinned at them. “Good job we have you two to keep us out of mischief, eh?”
Several hours later, two rather inebriated Spectrum officers lurched back to Mason’s Lodge. The snow was fairly deep, although no more had fallen since late afternoon. It was, however, beginning to ice over, making walking rather treacherous. Destiny was clutching Scarlet’s sleeve in such a way that she was in danger of pulling him over.
“You’re staggering,” he complained. “What the hell was in that cocktail Jim gave you? You know, the one that glowed?”
“I have no idea.” She was giggling. “I was just relieved it glowed blue, not green. Tasted wonderful, though.”
“So good you had several.”
“You have no room to talk, Captain. You and Carrie demolished two bottles of wine between you and that was before you got to the brandies.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s been a hell of a day. Guess we’re entitled to get a little silly every now and then.”
“Will Carrie be okay with this, Paul? We’ve given her rather a burden of responsibility. It’s asking a lot to keep a secret like the Mysterons.”
Scarlet was pensive. “Carrie is a lot stronger than most people think,” he said slowly. “That includes her, too, sometimes. She’ll deal with it. I didn’t tell her about my retrometabolism, because there was no need. She worries about me enough, as it is. As for the rest of it, she’ll cope. Like we all do.”
They were at the entrance to the hotel by now, glad to get out of the sub-zero temperatures and into the warm glow of the lounge. Manny was making his rounds, locking up, as they arrived. “Happy to stay up and play, if you want company, guys. Otherwise, I’m off to bed,” he said. “Help yourself to whatever you fancy from the bar. Be glad if you would switch off the lights when you’re ready to turn in.”
“Thanks, we will.” Scarlet turned to Destiny. “I could use a night cap. What about you?”
After the alcohol they had already consumed, this was patently ridiculous. Still, she wasn’t ready to go to bed, either. “Great. Pour me anything.”
They slumped together on the sofa in front of the fire, reflecting on the day. Dinner had been uproarious, even if the turkey was overcooked and the vegetables somewhat soggy. No one cared. Carrie, despite the day’s shocking events and revelations, basked in the glow of Patrick Hamilton’s attention. Her son was alive and safe, and she wanted nothing more.
The Websters had serenely served food and drink. All the while knowing that there was a lot they were not going to be told about this disquieting Christmas. They would not ask questions. Mikey had woken briefly, to eat some ice cream and had then been carried back to bed without protest. Destiny had recovered her equilibrium under the influence of Jim Webster’s potent cocktails. Only Scarlet had been quieter than usual, despite the riotous merriment.
Just like now, she thought. His face was an expressionless mask in the firelight. She didn’t have a clue what he was thinking. “Do you suppose we’ll ever have a Christmas without the Mysterons?” she ventured at last.
“Doubt it.” He sounded tired and dispirited. “And it just goes to show we can never let our guard down. Today, I think I made one of the dumbest mistakes of my entire career.”
She was startled. “What? What do you mean?”
“Not carrying a weapon. Just because we’re off duty doesn’t mean….” His mouth twisted. “Well, I was careless and sloppy, and that could have cost you and Mikey your lives.”
“But it didn’t,” she said gently. “No-one expected anything like this on Christmas Day. There’s no point in dwelling on how it could have turned out. That’s what you’re always telling me, isn’t it?” She turned her head to smile at him.
“I suppose so. Are you okay? It’s been a rough ride today.”
“I’m fine. Paul, do you think Con was telling the truth when he said we’d made the Mysterons more powerful? Out on that hill, I’d swear something took me over, controlled me. At the time, I was more frightened than I’ve ever been in my life. Now, it just seems ludicrous.”
Scarlet shook his head.” It’s not stupid. They excel at mind games. It’s hard to know whether Black crowing over his new, improved “powers” is all part of that, or if he’s telling the truth.” His face was set. “Guess we’ll find out sooner or later. The Mysterons are not going away.”
He was staring morosely at the amber liquid swirling round the glass.
“Can I ask something?” he seemed hesitant. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me, but I’d like to know. Did you mean what you said to Conrad?”
Destiny stared at him. “Which bit?”
“The bit about it being over.” He sipped his whisky and watched her face carefully. “Is it, Sim? Will it ever really be over?”
She sat, struggling to work out what it was she felt and how she could make him understand. “Paul, when Con died, so did I, in a way. I’m not the girl I used to be and I don’t make the same choices I did back then. The world is a very different place, and we’re all different people.” She gazed steadily at him over the rim of her glass. “It was over the day Con died. Maybe it’s just taken me a long time to realise that.”
Scarlet nodded. “Okay, thanks for telling me.”
She hoped her response had reassured him, but his subdued reaction gave her no clues.
The fire was almost out and the candles were burning low. He rose to snuff them out. “I think Manny and Isabelle are waiting for us to finish our drinks so they can shut up shop for the night,” he said, leaning over her to switch off the nearest table lamp. As he did so, she could feel the sexual current running between them, without words or touch. His desire once again ignited hers, and with it came a sense of absolute fatality. She had made up her mind. She put down the glass carefully and held out her hand to him.
“Well, then, perhaps you’d better take me to bed,” she said calmly.
Scarlet said nothing, simply took her outstretched hand to pull her up and lead her to the door. He paused there, his eyes searching hers for confirmation. “Are you sure this is what you want, Sim? I’m not putting you under pressure here.”
“I think we’ve both wasted more than enough time,” she replied, reaching up to gently brush back a lock of black hair from his forehead. “And I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
For a second she thought she saw fear in his eyes, but if so, it was quickly extinguished and then she couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
She handed him the key to her bedroom door and he unlocked it quickly, stepping aside to allow her to enter first. She moved swiftly, switching on lamps, putting another log on the fire, trying to keep her hands busy, trying to still the heart hammering in her chest. When she finally turned to face him, he was still standing motionless at the door.
“Guess this is Awkward Moment Number 302,” she smiled brightly, in an attempt to diffuse the tension. He didn’t smile back. Looks like the first move will have to be mine, she thought.
With resolute precision, she crossed the room to wrap her arms round his neck and pull him down into a long, deep kiss. It lasted a long time, and gradually, slowly, the tension left his body and she felt him respond to her properly. Now we’re getting somewhere.
She stepped backwards, edging them both towards the bed, but as she felt the quilt against the back of her legs, he pulled away from her.
“No. No, please, Simone. Please.” He seemed to be struggling to breathe. “We need to talk.” He patted the edge of the bedcover. “Please just sit down and listen.”
“All right.” She was confused, but he was holding her hand. She supposed that was a good sign.
“I haven’t done this for a long time,” he was hesitant, embarrassed. “Not since being Mysteronised in fact.”
She felt a mixture of relief and incredulity flood through her. Is that all he’s been worrying about?
“That’s okay. Neither have I.” She smiled at him. “But I’m led to believe it’s one of those things you never forget.” She gave him a mischievous smile. “A bit like riding a bike.”
He ignored her attempt at levity. “I wish we didn’t have to have this conversation, but we do. Simone, maybe sex – I mean, you know, the whole nine yards – is not such a great idea for us.”
“Why not? What’s not great about it? I thought you wanted me.”
“Oh, Christ.” He rubbed his eyes in what seemed like an attempt to clear them. “Sim, there are times when I can’t think straight for wanting you. But there are problems we can’t ignore here. I’m not the person I used to be.”
“I don’t understand. Are you saying that it’s different, now, with retrometabolism?” She was puzzled, trying to figure out the source of his fear and worry.
“No, not necessarily. As far as I know, everything works exactly as it always did.” He flashed her a smile that didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. “It’s just that I haven’t exactly been road-tested.”
“High time you were, I’d say.” She leaned across and kissed him as seductively as she knew how, in an attempt to overcome his doubts. It didn’t work. He placed his hands gently on her shoulders and set her apart from him once more.
“You’re human, Simone. I’m not. That’s the crux of this. I’m a Mysteron, physically, if not mentally. My DNA has been altered, mutated. I have no idea what could happen if we make love. I could hurt you, possibly even worse than that. I don’t know.”
“Paul, we’ve had this conversation. You’re not a Mysteron. You’re a recreation of a human being. You’re exactly as you were. How could that be a problem?”
“Well, there’s the small matter of retrometabolism, for one thing.” He was coldly sarcastic. “That does kind of make me different, doesn’t it? I’m not one species or another. I’m a hybrid.” He looked agonized. “Making love is the most intimate thing we do as human beings. I can’t risk that when I have no idea of the consequences.”
This is crazy. He’s completely paranoid. She struggled to get her thoughts in order.
“Paul, someone must have an answer. What about the scientists? What does Doctor Gold say? There must be tests…..”
“Yes.” His face was set. “I’ve had most of them. Nothing was conclusive, and there were some I wasn’t prepared to take.”
“I see. So what happens now?” She shivered, despite the heat from the crackling log fire. “Is there a way round this? Or are you just consigning us to the dustbin of failed relationships?” Her throat closed with the effort of holding back bitter tears.
“Well….” He was hesitant again, dragging the words out. “I’ve been thinking about it. I decided if we had a barrier….” He reached into the pocket of his jeans and brought out a packet of condoms. “These things could be an answer. We’d have to be really careful, of course, but it might work.”
She stared at him, veering between the desire to laugh and scream. “Paul, nobody uses these things anymore. They went out with the ark. There are far better methods of contraception. Which, by the way, I already have, so that isn’t a problem.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” His gaze was intent. “This isn’t about contraception, well, only partly. People do use condoms, Sim. All sorts of people, for reasons they can’t avoid. People who are ill, or who have genetic disorders. People with HIV or Aids.” He looked angry. “People who shouldn’t exchange bodily fluids. In other words, people like us.”
Destiny sat on the bed and stared at the floor. Desire had died completely, and lay like a cold, heavy stone in the pit of her stomach. He was right beside her, yet he could have been a million miles away.
“This is awful,” she whispered. “You’re talking about it like it’s some kind of bizarre biological experiment.”
“Because that’s what it is!” He jumped up now, his eyes blazing. “Finally, maybe I’m getting through to you! My whole life is a biological experiment! One long, never-ending freak show! Every time I get hurt, and I have to retrometabolise, I get picked over by the science vultures until sometimes I don’t know if there’s anything left of me!”
“You’re not a freak.” It was all she could say, Although she knew that it would not nearly be enough. Everything was falling apart and she didn’t know what to do. The pain and desolation in his eyes was unbearable. She felt her heart break under the weight of his loneliness and misery.
“Sometimes it feels like it. It’s kind of weird knowing that you’re one of a kind. There’s nobody in the world exactly like me.” He bent and smoothed her hair back. “You’re right, honey, this is awful. I would give anything for things to be different. I would love to sweep you off your feet, be romantic and spontaneous. You deserve that. But it isn’t like that and it can’t ever be.”
His face was a bleak mask of despair. “I don’t think either of us wants to do this, now, do you? I certainly don’t.” With that, he moved towards the door. “I think we should call it a night.”
Destiny stared at his retreating back. Suddenly, with complete clarity, she knew that this was probably the most pivotal moment of her life.
If he leaves now, it’s the end for us.
Desperation lent her wings. In a flash, she got between him and the door handle, blocking his exit. “No.” She palmed her hands on his chest and pushed him back. “No, you’re wrong, Paul. You’re so wrong. I need to know something. Do you love me?”
“You know I do.” He would not meet her eyes.
“Good. Well, I love you too, far too damn much to let you exile yourself to some self-imposed, emotional wilderness! Nothing that you’ve said so far makes much sense. You’ve let this build up in your mind to such a point that you can’t see the wood for the trees. It’s ridiculous. We’re just two people who love each other and who want to be together. I’m not frightened, because I know you won’t hurt me. This is meant to be.”
“How can you possibly know that?” He sounded unconvinced, but at least he had not made a move to open the door.
“Think of everything we’ve been through, Paul. Think of what led us to this point. Everyone in the world is one of a kind. I didn’t fall in love with the person you used to be, I fell in love with the person you are now. Man, Mysteron, something in between, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I love you, and I want you exactly as you are. Nothing between us. No barriers.”
His eyes hadn’t left hers.
Maybe I’m getting through to him. “It’s Christmas, darling. It’s a time of miracles and faith. Maybe we saw a little of that this afternoon. I have faith, enough for both of us. You said you’d give anything for it not to be like this. Well, it doesn’t have to be. All you have to give me is your trust. You already have mine.”
“Christ.” He reached out to stroke her cheek with bemused wonder. “When you decide to fight back, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons has nothing on you!”
She smiled with relief, knowing she had won. “Well, just look at how much I have to fight for.”
He would not go now, and her torn heart repaired and expanded with happiness. She felt not only confident and invincible, but positively brazen in her desire. She peeled off the jumper and jeans and flung them across the room in casual abandonment.
Scarlet’s deep blue eyes darkened almost to black as they alighted on her breasts under the lace-framed silk, and she noted his sharp intake of breath with delighted satisfaction.
“Get your kit off, soldier, you’re about to get laid.”
He was looking at her so intensely she thought she might just pass out. It was the most powerful pre-sexual experience of her life. Then, without a word, he stripped off his own clothes, carefully eased off her underwear and carried her over to the warm, wide bed. She could feel his body shaking as he wrapped her in his arms and bent his head to kiss her.
“You’re so damn beautiful,” he murmured into her neck.
“So are you,” she whispered back, delighting in the feel of his skin under her fingertips and the ripple of muscle in his back as he moved against her. Taste, touch, sensation, all blurred into one, so that she couldn’t separate thought and feeling.
He misunderstood her sudden gasp of pleasure, as he entered her. “God, I’m sorry.” He stopped immediately, his hands holding her hips still. “Did I hurt you?”
She shook her head, blindly pulling him back down. “It’s wonderful. Don’t stop.”
He didn’t. Couldn’t in fact, so overwhelmed by desire, that in an instant she saw him grimace and moan softly, turning his face into her neck.
“Sorry. Too quick,” he muttered.
She simply kissed him and held on to his body tightly, possessed by such fierce love that she thought her heart might literally melt. In no time at all, it seemed, the cycle began again, and this time, she came to him, letting him hold her as they both surged through fear, revelation and rapture, before landing safely in a deep, sated peace.
Passion. Exploration. Self-loss. They met and matched each other many times throughout the long night, eventually falling into exhausted sleep sometime before dawn.
Scarlet woke first, as he knew he would. He had discovered that his need for sleep was less than that of an average person, unless his body was healing after injury. Destiny was curled up in his arms, one arm flung across his chest, a gesture of possession that might have irritated him, in another time and place. Before he had been turned into something else, a different person. Like many men, he had sometimes felt impatient at women who felt the need to cling after sex. Now, he loved it. He tightened his hold on her and lay back, reflecting on how his world had, once more, irrevocably changed.
He had been in love more than once, had slept with many women for whom he had felt great affection. And, if he was brutally honest, had had sex with a few he had not cared for at all. Nothing, however, in his not inconsiderable experience, had prepared him for what he felt for the woman lying in his arms. Sex and emotion had never before mixed to the point of this complete fusion with another person. There had been times during their love-making, when he was unsure where he ended and she began.
She’s mine. We belong to each other.
As if she had heard his thoughts, Destiny opened her eyes, yawned and smiled up at him. “Hello. Have you been awake long?”
“A while.” He kissed the top of her head. “I love you. Did I tell you that enough last night?”
“You might have mentioned it once or twice,” she replied gravely. “Personally, I think I preferred the physical demonstration to the verbal.”
“Ah, yes, that.” He moved his hand to brush his fingers lightly across her breast, gratified to feel the immediate response. “You’re an amazing woman. You were right about us, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that you didn’t give up on me.”
“Ditto.” She kissed him back. “I think you were getting things a little out of proportion for a while.”
He grimaced. “That’s an understatement. Totally screwed up would be more accurate. Thank you for straightening me out.”
“You’re welcome.” She smiled. “And as you see, I haven’t turned into some weird Martian abomination. In fact, I feel wonderful, like I could take on the world.”
“Careful, Hippolyta, one step at a time.” He brushed the hair back from her face. He couldn’t stop looking at her, couldn’t keep his hands from touching her. Heaven help me when we get back to Skybase, when we have to go to work, he thought with wry amusement. There would certainly be some adjustments to be made.
“Don’t start something you won’t have time to finish,” she warned as his intentions became obvious. “Manny and Isabel are probably wondering why we haven’t shown up for breakfast yet.”
“It’s not that late. We have time.” He was kissing her eyes, her mouth, running his hands over her, in the way that she had rapidly learned could turn her body frenzied in seconds.
“Stop. Stop it.” She managed to bat his hands away with difficulty. “We should talk. I mean, about what happens now.”
“When we get back, you get yourself checked over. Take a pregnancy test. I know I’m paranoid, but let’s just be sure, okay?”
She sighed. “Okay, if it makes you happy. But I was talking about us. I mean, I take it we get to do this again?
To her surprise, he burst out laughing. “Christ, I hope so! Last night ranks as one of the greatest of my entire life. I’d be devastated if I thought it wouldn’t be repeated.”
She smiled. “So would I. But you have to admit it changes everything. I suppose we knew it would.”
Scarlet fixed his eyes on a spider, making its painstaking way across the ceiling.
“Simone, you know how women are supposed to need reassurance and men are no good at giving it?”
“I’m familiar with the concept, yes.”
“Okay, here goes.” He propped himself up on one elbow. “A long time ago, I made you a promise. You didn’t know, you couldn’t hear me.” He caught her puzzled look and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter when, and maybe I’ll tell you how it happened, someday. The important bit is what I promised you. That no matter what happened, I’d never leave you. I’d always try to be there for you.” His eyes were deadly serious as he gazed down at her. “That’s a promise I intend to keep, if you’ll let me.”
“After last night, I don’t think I have a choice,” she said softly. “We belong to each other. Nothing can change that. The Mysterons may destroy the world; we might not be able to protect everyone for ever. I might die, so might you.” She gave him a wry smile. “But what we have can’t be destroyed. Whatever we do, we do it together, because that’s what makes us stronger. Agreed?”
He nodded, happily. “Agreed. However, you do have a choice right this minute, and that is whether to spend the day in bed, or in the hot tub. The only specified requirement is that you have to be in it with me. We’ll tell Carrie that we can’t ski today because, well, because you’ve come down with a virus, or something.”
“I think she might see through that excuse,” Destiny said with a laugh. “But, you know, I don’t care!”
Ten kilometres away, daylight was dawning on the shores of Lake Louise. In the Lazy L Diner, Shannon Carson gazed at the clock in exhausted relief. Almost eight. Her replacement would be due in soon, and she could finally go home, put her feet up, and try to conjure up some festive spirit. The bar’s owner, Andy Parker, prided himself on his “open all hours” reputation, and closing on Christmas Day had not been an option. He knew that there would be long-distance truckers on the road, even on 25th December. They would welcome a cup of coffee, a midnight snack, or a hearty breakfast at their favourite watering hole.
Shannon hadn’t minded working through Christmas night. She had been glad in some ways, to escape the endless bickering of her parents and younger siblings. The diner would be quiet, she knew, in spite of Andy’s expectations, and she could use the time between serving customers to do some college work, or even dip into a new novel.
Customers had been singular, not plural. Just one, throughout the night. A casually dressed, dark-haired man with a brooding face and hooded eyes. She supposed he was a truck-driver, although she hadn’t noticed his vehicle pulling up outside.
Must be out back, she thought. No one would be out walking in the middle of the night, in these conditions.
He had ordered nothing more than coffee, and sat at the table furthest away from the counter. He didn’t seem interested in conversation. Just as well, she thought, he didn’t look the talkative type, and she was anxious to get back to her book. However, one hour had stretched into two, and then more. She had refilled his coffee cup several times. He nodded his thanks, but didn’t smile back at her.
She wished he would leave. There was something creepy about him, a malevolence that worried her, although he had not shown any interest in her. She felt suddenly ashamed of such thoughts, on this day, especially. He was alone at Christmas, and it seemed churlish not to offer him friendship.
“Are you sure I can’t get you something to eat?” she ventured, replenishing his coffee once more. “You’ve been here awhile and you must be starving. I could do you breakfast, something to set you up before you hit the road again.”
“No, thank you. The coffee is fine.” He raised his head to look at her properly, and their eyes met. She had never seen such emptiness and desolation in a human face. He looked unearthly, and the feeling of discomfort flooded over her again.
“Fine. Okay, well, I’ll leave you alone, then,” she stammered, suddenly desperate to move as far away from him as possible. She slid behind the counter, casting him surreptitious glances. He was slumped forward in his seat, his head in his hands. She felt a little sorry for him, despite her unease. Was he crying? She wondered if he had been the victim of some tragedy this Christmas. She fiddled awkwardly with her apron and wondered if she should offer him the number of the Samaritans She giggled nervously at the absurdity of this thought.
Then, without warning, he was right in front of her.
“I need to pay my bill.” His voice was as expressionless as his face. She juggled figures and he pressed several notes into her hand. Then he turned and headed for the door.
“Sir!” She called out to him. “You’ve given me far too much. You need change!”
“Keep it.” He didn’t turn around.
“Well, thanks. That’s very kind of you.” She was embarrassed. “You take care, now. Have a good Christmas.”
This time he turned and looked at her, nodding curtly. She was shocked to see what she thought were tears, trickling down his face. Then, he was gone, heading out into the snow, before she could open her mouth to say, can I help you?
Ah, well, she thought, untying her apron in preparation for ending her shift. Takes all sorts, I suppose. Nothing I could do for him, obviously. Poor man, just another of life’s lost and lonely souls.” She looked up as her replacement arrived.
“Hi, Jen! Am I glad to see you! It’s been quiet, just one guy all night. You probably passed him as you came in.”
The other waitress shook her head. “Didn’t see anyone, Shan. Nothing’s moving out there. You sure you didn’t imagine him?”
“He was a little strange, I must admit, but he was definitely here, though. I wonder where he went? Oh, well, home to his family, I expect. See you tomorrow!” And with that, she disappeared out of the door, looking forward to the comfort of her own home and a large glass of mulled wine.
This was not a story I particularly wanted to write at this point in time, simply because I felt there were lots of other stories of New Captain Scarlet that I wanted to tell first! However, this was the only idea which had a Christmas theme, so I decided to go with it anyway.
My thanks to Caroline Smith and Marion Woods, for rising so gracefully to the Last-Minute Beta Reading Challenge! Their suggestions for improving the narrative have been invaluable. Caroline also provided the background artwork, for which I am extremely grateful.
Thanks as always, to Chris Bishop, for allowing me the opportunity to post my work on her website. I have had such fun in Captain Scarlet World during the last twelve months and have made some wonderful new friends.
My best wishes are extended to you all for a fabulous 2008 !