A Captain Scarlet story for Halloween
By Marion Woods.
Halloween had always been the worst time of year for Paul Metcalfe – at least, it had ever since that fateful day in 2068, when the Mysterons had murdered him and retrometabolised him as their slave.
Through a combination of events and – he had concluded over the years – sheer good fortune, he had broken free of their control and had subsequently devoted his new life to defeating them. Fighting side-by-side with his fellow Spectrum officers, he had used the Mysterons’ cursed gift of retrometabolism to risk his life time and again, as much in an effort to shield his companions as to defend his world from the aliens’ malevolence. He had not always been able to save them – many brave men and women had been lost – and the passing years found him feeling more and more isolated from his colleagues in Spectrum.
In addition to this, it seemed he had become a magnet for whatever supernatural forces did exist, and on Halloween they seemed to target him. The last couple of years had been fairly quiet; nothing too outrageous had happened, but some sixth sense was warning him that this year he might be in for a blinder, so he put in his usual request for leave over Halloween, determined that whatever the supernatural had to throw at him, he’d tackle it beyond the confines of Cloudbase, and attempt to ensure no one but himself was put in any danger.
General Smalt granted his request with a sympathetic smile. She’d been in Spectrum long enough to have absorbed the ‘mythology’ that had grown up around the Indestructible Captain Scarlet, and she respected his infrequent demands for leave. Scarlet had been a little disconcerted when a woman had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of Spectrum, but he had to admit she was making a good job of it, and things had been less ‘uncertain’ around the place for some time now. Of course, after the cataclysmic events that had resulted in the death of World President Boukari, ten years ago, the political pendulum had swung back in their favour again, and no–one was threatening to cut Spectrum down to size… which helped.
So, on the morning of October 31st, Colonel Scarlet threw a few things into his battered holdall and glanced around his quarters. On one wall there was a veritable gallery of photographs going back over the seventy-odd years of his life. Photographs of the people he loved: his wife, his parents, his kids, his best friend, and the Spectrum officers who had played such a significant part in his life: his first commander, the formidable Colonel White, the long-dead Captain Magenta, the irrepressibly roguish Captain Ochre, and his good friend Seymour Griffiths, the previous Commander-in-Chief, who was now retired and living in the Caribbean with his second wife, the genial Audrey Geffen – formerly Captain Flaxen.
Scarlet smiled ruefully. He’d probably been the last to know that Captain Flaxen and General Green had been having ‘a thing’ for years, and it had come as a shock when Seymour had asked him to be the best man at their wedding. It had been a great day – joyous and happy – although it had turned out to be the last outing for his venerable tuxedo as well; there had just been no way to get that barbecue sauce stain out of the jacket . He’d turned down the Griffiths’s offer to pay for a new one; you could hardly ask the bride to pay for damages caused by you tripping over the oversized train of her wedding dress onto a table of food, after all.
He smiled ‘farewell’ to the familiar faces, and wandered down to the hangar deck, where the daily shuttles were getting ready to leave.
The second embodiment of the codename ‘Captain Magenta’ waved a salute as he saw Colonel Scarlet approaching and loped over to meet him, with a broad smile on his face. Richard Fraser Topping was the image of his father, even to the extent of carrying his advancing years with the same ease. He had the same chestnut-coloured hair and bright brown eyes as the former Captain Ochre - hair that was generally down to his collar and which flopped roguishly across his brow. General Smalt wasn’t as insistent on regulation haircuts as previous commanders had been, and besides, Scarlet knew she had a soft spot for this engaging American, whom she’d first met as a teenager, when he’d accidentally become involved in a Spectrum mission in his home town of Chicago. But she wasn’t the only one who’d watched his progress through Spectrum’s recruitment and training programme with interest; Scarlet smiled reflectively as he watched Magenta approach: there was definitely something about these Fraser men that elicited affectionate tolerance from the women they encountered, and invariably charmed.
Still, on the whole, Scarlet was glad they’d assigned Ricky Topping the codename ‘Magenta’ when he’d been promoted from the terrestrial base of Spectrum: Toronto, rather than his father’s old codename of Ochre – that would have been far too close to déjà vu for comfort.
“Let me take that for you, Colonel,” Magenta said, reaching for the holdall.
“I’m perfectly capable of carrying it myself, Ricky,” Scarlet replied, but he relinquished the bag anyway. As time went on the youngsters, as he thought of them, tended to accept him for the age he appeared to be – and he was, physically, a younger man than his companion – yet it was an almost instinctive reaction on his part, to reject what appeared to be reverence for his actual age. So much so, that he sometimes had to remind himself much of their deference was due to his rank, and nothing more.
“How’s the family?” he asked. Magenta had just returned from a week’s leave, taking his wife and kids to Disneyland.
“Fine, thanks. My Dad sends his… well, he would have sent his love, but that’s not quite his style, I guess.” He grinned. “So, he sent his ‘hello’ instead.”
Scarlet gave a chuckle. “How is the old reprobate?”
“Still going strong. Mind you, Mary-Sue keeps him under control now.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Rick will do himself a mischief one of these days, if he doesn’t slow down. Are those two ever going to get married, do you think?”
Magenta shook his head. “Dad says he never wanted to get married, so he’s not going to do it now, when he’s in his dotage. He says, this way Mary-Sue can leave whenever she wants to, and it won’t cost him a dime. He claims to have a theory that she’s waiting for him to marry her, just so she can leave and take half his money….”
Scarlet laughed and shook his head. “Your father always was incorrigible. Why she puts up with him, I can’t imagine – she always struck me as such a sensible woman.”
Magenta laughed. “I’m just glad she does. It was getting embarrassing when my father was dating women younger than me.”
Scarlet glanced at Ricky Topping, and saw the tell-tale gleam of amusement in his eyes.
Just like his father, he thought again, and aloud he retorted, “I’d say that was pure jealousy on your part, Ricky, nothing more.”
Magenta laughed. “You are so right, Colonel.”
“Splendid, thanks. I suppose you know she’s been offered a terrestrial post in Ottawa, so we might be moving.”
Alicia Lyle had spent a few years on Cloudbase as an Angel pilot, before she’d been sent on a mission to Toronto and met the Captain in charge of the base. Captain Topping’s promotion to Colour Captain had led to some clandestine romancing aboard Cloudbase, and then the couple had married, Alicia only resigning her Cloudbase posting when she became pregnant with their first child.
Scarlet couldn’t remember how many kids they had now… he tried not to dwell on the passing generations too much.
The shuttle landed at London on time, for once, and he collected his luggage, before hiring himself a car from an airport desk.
Scarlet reckoned that the traffic had got better over the years, some roads now seemed empty most of the time. He picked up the M4 and headed for the M3. He’d done the drive to his Winchester home innumerable times, and even though after his wife died, he’d gifted the property to his son, he loved the place and every mile that drew him back to it. When he finally turned into the drive and saw the ancient house, with its familiar outline and warm-coloured stones, he felt his spirits lift.
If I have any home at all in this world, it is here, he thought with a rush of affection for what he’d always called ‘the old heap of stones’.
Dianne had loved the place too, preferring it to either of the houses her family owned, and their children had grown up with Longwood Abbey as their home. Now Susannah was living in the Simms’s London house with her financier husband, Alistair, and baby daughter, Scarlett, whilst Adam and Freya were in Boston, with their children.
He smiled at the thought of his ‘American’ grandchildren. Once Freya Saville Svenson had agreed to marry Adam Metcalfe, they’d decided to set up home in Boston, where Adam was happily, and very successfully, working in the SvenCorp finance company, which belonged to Freya’s father’s family – and, indeed, it had been Adam Svenson who’d got his British godson a job there in the first place.
Just before the wedding, Freya had resigned her commission in Spectrum and, with her usual determination, set about becoming a ‘wife and mother’. Two sets of twins later, Scarlet rather hoped she’d give it a rest, although Adam was forever teasing her about breeding their own football team.
Adam junior and Paul, the seven-year-old identical twins, had recently started at the boarding school their Svenson grandfather had attended, and were, apparently, showing great promise, while Robert and Dianne were four-year-old tearaways, destined, if their affectionate father was to be believed, to end up in gaol.
Scarlet adored all of his grandchildren and they adored him. Both of his children were adamant that they wanted him to be as much a part of their children’s lives as he chose to be, but they all knew that the on-going problem of accounting for Paul Metcalfe’s perennial youthfulness remained a stumbling block to a normal family life. Over the past twelve months or so, Scarlet had increasingly sensed that the time was fast approaching when he would either have to explain to the children what had happened to him - his perceptive and inquisitive grandsons were already beginning to question why he was not like other grandfathers - or cut himself out of their lives completely.
Susannah had always treated the problem as she did everything she didn’t like – by refusing to accept that it existed. The trauma of losing her mother and, at the same time, being confronted with the reality of her father’s retrometabolism, had caused her considerable psychological anguish. It had been several years before she’d felt comfortable in his presence again, and she’d only managed that by suppressing the truth from herself. Consequently, Scarlet saw far less of his daughter than he’d have liked and when he did, he made a conscious effort to age his appearance and play down his vigour. Her husband was unaware of the ‘Metcalfe Secret’ and although breaking contact with Susannah would be hard, in a way he’d already started distancing himself from her family. He knew in his heart of hearts that his dearly beloved daughter would probably register his departure with unalloyed relief.
It was different with his son’s family.
Adam Simms Metcalfe was now thirty-four, older than his father had been at the time of his Mysteronisation. Even-tempered and pragmatic, he had long since come to terms with the fact that his father would out-live him; far more successfully than his father had come to terms with the prospect of outliving his children, in fact. In this he was helped by the fact that his wife knew all there was to know about what had happened to Paul Metcalfe, almost a decade before either of them were born, because Freya Saville Svenson was the daughter of Scarlet’s closest friend and Spectrum Field Partner – the late Adam Svenson, codenamed Captain Blue – and had herself served on Cloudbase for several years, as Lieutenant Teal.
Father and son had always had a good relationship, even if Scarlet occasionally wondered just how he – the scion of a long-established, successful military family - had managed to father an accountant; but Ace, as he was known by the family, had never wavered in his determination not to be in the Forces, and his father had respected that decision, however much it had disappointed him.
On the other hand, Freya had demonstrated herself to be her father’s daughter in a variety of ways: her experiences as a Spectrum Agent had left her resilient and strong, she was intelligent and perceptive and, above all, she provided an endless supply of emotional stability and support for her extended family.
Right now, Scarlet thought, I could do with some of that.
As he garaged the car and walked towards the dark house, he wished fervently that the kids were at home.
The house was cold, but that didn’t bother Scarlet, he was, by and large, impervious to ambient temperatures. He unpacked the groceries he’d bought at the out-of-town supermarket, and wandered through the great hall, from the kitchen to the living room. While the family was abroad the place was looked after by a small, dedicated staff from the village, who came in once or twice a month to ensure everything was okay.
In the living room there were dust sheets over the furniture and the coal bucket by the fireplace was empty. He threw a couple of sheets off and rolled them up into a heap. Then he set about fetching firewood and coal from the well-stocked outhouses by the garages, and set a fire in the large, open grate.
The years rolled back in his memory as he encouraged the feeble, blue flame to catch on the kindling, and fed it with twigs and branches, until it flared orange and red and hungrily caught at the sturdier branches and coal nuggets he placed with exaggerated care on the hearth. He remembered his father teaching him how to lay a fire, and winter evenings when his mother relented enough to let them toast bread, or crumpets, at the grate, on the long, twisted-brass toasting forks she kept in the kitchen pantry.
There’s nothing to beat the taste of hot toast, or crumpets, dripping with butter and eaten beside a roaring fire. Maybe I’ll get some tomorrow as a treat… this could well be the last chance I have to indulge myself.
Satisfied that he’d got the fire going, he ambled back to the kitchen to shove a couple of pork chops into the oven, and got the microwave ready for the cook-chill rice he selected from the supermarket. Over the years he had become adept at providing himself with edible, hot food when he felt he needed it, but he would never be ‘a cook’ – so it was just as well he didn’t need to eat that often. The only time he was ravenous was immediately after his retrometabolism had kicked in to cure any injuries, or bring him back from the dead. Then he’d eat anything he could get his hands on – even Cloudbase canteen food, which had definitely got worse over the decades.
Then, unable to settle to anything, he roamed through the house, revisiting familiar rooms and the memories they held; of his caring, supportive parents, his happy, conventional childhood, and largely untroubled adolescence. There were long-forgotten nooks and crannies where he’d curled up with a favourite book on stormy winter days. He studied the well-remembered views from the upper windows, out over the old stable-block and outhouses and over the somnolent rose garden, where only one rose tree still bloomed in defiance of the approaching winter.
That triggered poignant memories of last summer, when Freya had brought the kids over for a few weeks and he’d spent time with the boys, proudly showing them his home – their home now– and getting to know and love the precocious pair, with their boyish enthusiasms, boundless energy and vivid imaginations. There had been bitter-sweet shock when the sudden turn of their heads brought to mind their Svenson ancestry, or their impish smiles resurrected fleeting visions of their late grandmother. For two glorious weeks he had thrown aside the burden of being Colonel Scarlet, and indulged his inner child with adventures around the house and gardens, picnics by the old mill race and long walks across the valley, while his grandsons hung on to every word of his tales of their Metcalfe forebears.
By the end of the holiday, Freya was accusing him of being as much a ringleader in the mischief, as the boys themselves. He cherished their rapport all the more because when his own children had been growing up, he’d been a rare visitor to the family home, worried that his presence might put the family at risk, and in so doing he’d missed out on a great deal of their formative years.
Beyond the garden, he could see towards the small village that nestled in the bowl of the gently-sloped valley: it was there that he’d played village cricket on balmy summer days, or run his heart out in local football derbies against the neighbouring villages.
Then there were the ill-lit, dusty attics, with their narrow windows affording views across Longwood’s sweeping roofscape and elaborate chimneys. There was the attic room where the extensive model railway was laid out, and where generations of young Metcalfes had played; he with his father and then with his son, and, most recently, with his son’s sons.
He walked through each room, touching the walls, breathing in the familiar smells of polish and faint camphor, before leaving each one with a quiet ‘farewell’.
He’d automatically taken his meagre luggage to the single bedroom he’d used as a child, rather than the master bedroom he’d shared with Dianne, but now he went in there and sat for some time, recalling the nights of passion they’d shared, the tender nights of companionship, the nights of sadness and the terrible nights of loneliness after she’d gone. Even though the room had been used by generations of his family, and was now the preserve of his son and daughter-in-law, for Scarlet the overpowering personality in the room remained Dianne Simms – his beloved Rhapsody Angel, his lover, his wife - his soul’s mate.
With a deepening sense of sadness he touched the solid oak posters that supported the canopy over the bed, and swallowed the misery that welled up into his throat, even as he blinked away the tears and turned from that room too, with a mental valediction.
Back in his childhood room, he removed some of the twins’ forgotten teddy bears from the bed, made it up with clean sheets from the cupboard and unpacked his personal belongings. He was used to travelling light and living simply, so there wasn’t much he needed.
From the distance he heard the beeping of the kitchen timer and wandered back to shove the rice in the microwave and rescue his pork chops from the oven. The meal was basic, but warm and filling, especially after he’d chosen a decent bottle from the ill-lit and dusty family wine cellar and consumed most of it.
Once he’d eaten, he went back to sit by the fire and called Susannah on the video-phone. She was happy to speak to him, although their long chat consisted largely of him listening to her excited stories of just what baby Scarlett had been up to lately.
Then, as the hours stole past, he called Boston.
“Hello?” Freya’s beautiful face filled the video screen. “Oh, Paul! How nice to hear from you!” she exclaimed before he could speak.
“Hello, Flicka.” Without thinking, he used the old nickname her father had given her. “How’s everyone?”
“We’re all fine. Ace is due back from the office at any minute – he got delayed by some meeting or other.” She gave a poignant smile and lowered her voice slightly, “I was thinking about you, Paul; are you okay? I know how you hate Halloween. I was going to call Cloudbase once I’d packed the demon twins off to bed.”
“That’s nice of you, Flicka, but I’m not there; I came to Winchester. I didn’t think you’d mind me using the house.”
“Of course we don’t! It’s as much your home as ours – you know that, Paul. Actually, I said to Ace yesterday, we ought to spend Christmas there this year – before the boys forget they are Englishmen… well, three-quarters Englishmen.” She laughed.
“How’re they liking their new school?”
“They hate it. Little Paul says they’re making him do ‘boring stuff’ he’s done at home ‘years’ ago – and my, how that boy does exaggerate! - oh, and of course, nobody spells anything properly either.” She chuckled. “He’s so like my father sometimes, it’s uncanny. AJ, on the other hand, complains that no one plays proper football, much less cricket; and he’s in trouble for saying that American Football is for ‘nancy-boys’, because the players are all kitted out like samurai before they even touch a ball.” She looked at her father-in-law with a suspicious raised eye-brow. “I can’t imagine who he got those particular phrases and opinions from, can you?”
Scarlet laughed. “I should remember pitchers have ears, and mind what I say when the boys are about, but all I can do now is offer my apologies, Freya!”
She smiled, and her resemblance to her late father caught at Scarlet’s heart.
“Hmm. Anyway, they’re plotting to abscond before the next summer term begins, and hope to be accepted as political refugees by Linbury Court. You’ve told them so much about your old Prep School, they’ve decided they want to go there and nowhere else.”
Scarlet chuckled. “Well, they’re nothing if not ambitious. I don’t think I’d got as far as planning to run away across the Atlantic by the time I was seven; although I do remember declaring U.D.I. for the stable-block, one summer when I was supposed to be going to stay with my maiden aunts for a week. I think I held out for several hours before hunger drove me in for tea.”
Freya was laughing and shaking her fair head at him. He smiled, pleased to see her so happy.
When she stopped he asked her, “Have you seriously considered letting them be educated over here?”
She nodded, a little warily. “I’d like it. To be honest, Paul, now they’re that much older, I have a hankering to come home. Oh, Boston is a fine place to live, and I can understand why my father loved it so, but… well, I’m more than a little homesick. Still, it’ll depend on whether Ace can get transferred to the London office, but I don’t suppose Uncle David will stand in his way. However, it might put Alistair’s nose out of joint – or if not his, then Susannah’s. I wouldn’t want Ace and his sister to be at daggers drawn over the fact that he outranks her husband in the company.”
“Don’t let that worry you, Flicka. Suzie’ll complain whatever you do.”
There was a piercing yowl of anger and a despairing sob. Freya darted away and returned to the screen with her daughter in her arms. Dianne was sporting a witch’s hat and green face paint. She grinned cheerfully at the screen and blew ‘Gran’pa’ a kiss.
Scarlet returned the salute with a smile.
“They went ‘trick or treating’ with the local playgroup earlier; I’m expecting a night of tummy aches and over-tiredness,” his daughter-in-law explained, as she put the squirming child down and then quickly disappeared again, this time to stop a fight between the toddlers.
She had barely returned to the screen when she heard a noise and announced joyfully: “Ace is home!”
After some minutes’ delay, during which time young Robert clambered onto a stool and greeted his grandfather with a shy, mischievous smile, Scarlet saw his son approaching. He swept the youngster away and sat down at the screen, a beaming smile on his face.
“Hi, Dad! I’m sure glad I caught you!”
As usual Scarlet was amused by the amalgam of aristocratic English and Boston Brahmin-speak that coloured his son’s accent.
“Hello, son; I’m glad to see you too. Flicka told me you were working late, so I thought I’d miss you.” He lowered his voice and said conspiratorially, “I hope you’re not letting the Svensons work you too hard? The whole family are natural-born slave-drivers, you know.”
He smiled at Ace’s burst of laughter.
However tenuous his son’s relationship by marriage to the Svenson family was, they’d been good to him over the years, and he genuinely liked them – even the grumpy Peter Svenson, who, until he had handed over to his younger brother, had been the Chairman of the company.
Scarlet was sure the fact that Ace had inherited an aristocratic title from his maternal grandfather, impressed his employers much more than it would have done even in an English-run company, but if he hadn’t been up the job, he didn’t doubt the hard-headed Svensons would have eased him out of the firm.
The last time he’d had his annual interview with David Svenson to review the deployment of his personal funds - with the hope of keeping himself financially independent over what might be a long lifetime, whilst doing what he could to provide a secure financial base for his family - he’d asked him about his son.
The American had said that he felt Ace could very well end up as Chief Executive of SvenCorp, if he wanted the job. None of Peter’s four daughters showed any aptitude for the work, and Katherine Svenson’s son – Marcus Griffiths - was currently pursuing a fairly successful career as a musician; Scarlet had heard his latest world-wide hit on the radio, several times, on the drive down to Winchester. David Svenson had no children, and although he was certainly not totally averse to women, he had chosen to live his life with his boyfriend, entering into a civil partnership with him after his parents died. So, there was no one in the next generation of the immediate Svenson family – except for the husband of the eldest brother’s illegitimate daughter – to take up the reins.
Scarlet had been pleased at the prospect, which would certainly guarantee his son and his grandchildren a financially secure future. At one point the Svensons had been rather less than welcoming towards Freya, but he felt sure her late father would have welcomed this turn of events.
Now he quizzed his son, “Freya tells me you’re thinking of coming back here for Christmas? Would you have room for one old man at your dinner table?” He had decided to allow himself one last Christmas with the people he loved – surely there couldn’t be any harm in doing that? - just a few more days with the youngsters, and one last chance to recharge his batteries basking in the affection of Adam and Freya.
“If you’re planning to spend Christmas in Winchester, Dad – we’ll definitely be there!” Ace vowed. “I’m thinking of bringing the family back home anyway, and the boys want to change schools-”
“So I understand. I never thought you’d get AJ to forgo his football and cricket, you know. I can still remember when we took him to the baseball game at Fenway Park, and he announced that it was silly watching grown-ups playing rounders. I thought we were going to get lynched.”
“Yeah, he has all of your tact and diplomacy skills, Dad. Luckily, he also has his mother’s charm…”
Scarlet grinned. “So, will you try to get them into Linbury? You never liked it much there, did you?”
“It wasn’t so bad… I just had a lot to live up to. Every speech day it was pointed out to me that ‘Metcalfe, Paul Charles’, was on every sporting roll of honour board, and all I ever won was the Mathematics Award.”
“You were born an accountant,” his father teased.
“I’m a financier, Dad! It says so on my passport.”
Scarlet chuckled. “Sure it does – and you’re a damn good one too.” He paused and added, “You know I never interfere, Adam-”
“Uh-huh,” his son responded in a way that quite manifestly meant he doubted that statement profoundly.
Scarlet ignored him. “I just want to say that you need to give moving back here serious thought. You don’t want to blight your chances in SvenCorp by leaving the centre of operations.”
To his father’s surprise, Adam Metcalfe showed no surprise – or perplexity – at the underlying hint in this piece of advice. “Dad, David Svenson wants me to take over after him; he’s told me so himself. If we want SvenCorp to continue to expand –and the family are united in that, whatever else they choose to bicker about - it needs to conquer new overseas markets, and the London office is the ideal launch pad for that… besides, I need more international experience before I take over...”
“Ah, now I see what you’re doing. You’re getting devious, Ace. Good for you, it’s been a long time coming!”
The young man laughed. “Hey – I’m Paul Metcalfe’s son – there ain’t nothing I can’t do - just like my old dad!”
“Flatterer. But, I’m pleased to see that you’ve carved yourself a good career in SvenCorp – and by your own hard work too.”
“Well, being Adam Svenson’s godson did me no harm, but I know they value me for what I can do and who I am, and not just because nepotism says they should promote me.”
Scarlet bridled at the suggestion his son’s achievements were anything less than well-deserved. “Listen: don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re not the best at what you do. SvenCorp’s no charity and the Svensons are not philanthropists – well, not in that way. You’re a damned good man, Ace, and what you’ve got, you’ve earned.”
“Sure, Dad.” Adam gave him a concerned glance. “Is there something wrong? Something you’re not telling me?”
“Don’t be silly, Adam. What could possibly be wrong?” Scarlet cursed his son’s insight; he’d inherited his mother’s perspicacity along with her even temper. “Listen, I can hear Freya setting the table. I’ll let you go and get something to eat. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, if you’re going to be around?”
“Please do – but, if not tomorrow, make it soon, Dad – and … well, I wish we were there right now. Be careful tonight, won’t you?”
Scarlet had intended to be in bed well before midnight, but after his telephone conversations he finished his tour of the house, under the guise of checking everything was battened down for the night. Outside he could hear gusting wind and driving rain. When he finally banked up the fire for the night and went upstairs, it was later than he’d wanted.
He used the bathroom, brushed his teeth and changed into his pyjamas, snuggling into the familiar bed with a sigh. He’d chosen a book at random from the library, but on discovering he’d picked up a history of steam trains in Hampshire, he wasn’t inclined to read it; instead he stared up at the ceiling and drank in the comforting ambience of his old home.
Whatever ghosts lurked in the confines of Longwood, they were Metcalfe ghosts – and somehow that made them less un-nerving.
The bedroom was chilly - he’d not bothered to turn on the central heating - and outside the wind was now blowing a gale, rain splattering fitfully against the window.
Fast asleep in bed is the very best place to be tonight, he thought.
With Doctor Fawn’s help, he’d taught himself how to fall asleep at will over the decades since his retrometabolism had robbed him of the need to sleep, and now he closed his eyes and regulated his breathing, feeling his mind slipping into the blissful release of slumber.
Scarlet sprang up in bed, wide-awake.
Slightly disorientated, he glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It was midnight. Hardly any time since he’d dozed off, although he felt as if he’d slept for hours.
He got out of bed and drew the curtain back to peer outside. There were no street lights in this part of the valley, and the ambient glow of distant Winchester was missing from the horizon – so he guessed there was a power cut.
Maybe the storm has brought the lines down?
He couldn’t see anything wrong, so he threw open the window and perilously leaned out into the rain. Then, as a vivid flash of lightning scarred the night sky, he saw, at the far end of the garden, that an old apple tree had been split in two. Across the valley, lightning jagged across the sky and the low rumble of thunder grew to a deafening crescendo.
He sighed. Wonderful. It’ll take me ages to get back to sleep now.
He tried to turn on the bedside light, but there was no response.
He fished an emergency torch out of the top drawer of the dresser – where one had been kept since time immemorial – and got back into bed. Picking up the book, he slithered down the bed again, and balanced the torch on his chest to try to read.
“Boy, can I pick ‘em,” he complained to himself, as he made slow progress through the pages of black and white pictures of train engines from the heyday of steam travel. “This should be guaranteed to cure insomnia…I hope.”
As the torch rolled from his chest again and he made a grab for it, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced across the room to the armchair by the window. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could just make out the outline of a figure.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked the apparition sitting watching him.
“I have been sent to make you a once in a lifetime offer, Paul Metcalfe.”
Scarlet sighed. Is nowhere sacred from being pestered by spooks on Halloween? “How did you get in here?”
“You let me in.”
“And did you split the tree too, just so I’d open the window?”
“No; that was merely fortuitous. If you had not opened the window, I would not have been able to speak to you. The time was when we could move anywhere we wished, now we may only go where Humans are open to our presence. There are so many closed hearts and minds amongst your kind these days, Paul Metcalfe; it is a pleasure to meet a receptive individual, like you.”
Scarlet gave a resigned sigh. “Yeah, I’m so broad-minded I can’t get my head through doorways any more.”
The apparition gave no reaction.
He’d experienced so many paranormal events that this one was not unduly alarming – yet. He sat upright and said, “Okay, I’ll play along. What ‘offer of a lifetime’ are you here to offer?”
“We have watched you for decades, seen your struggle with your immortality. The time was when immortality was seen as the gift of the Gods, not the curse, but times change – as we, of all kinds, know only too well. In your terms, it is many years since you lost both your wife and your closest friend, and, we believe that your heart has not really been in continuing living since then, has it?”
“If you’ve watched me, you’ve seen that I’ve done my duty and I will continue to do so.”
The apparition didn’t seem impressed by this response. “We see the shadow that lies across your heart, Paul Metcalfe; we know how much you fear what you must do: leave your children and their children, before they become enmeshed in your predicament. We have great pity for you; for you alone of the men alive today, carry the burden of longevity.”
“Thanks very much. I’m sure I appreciate your concern.”
The apparition ignored his facetious response. “We have a mission for you. If you are brave enough to undertake it, your reward will last your life long.”
“I don’t understand.”
The figure rose, and Scarlet could tell by his graceful carriage that it was a young man. He was wrapped in an ankle-length dark robe and a helmet of some kind, over long, wavy hair.
“Come with me.”
He didn’t know why he obeyed, except that there was an unmistakable tone of command in the apparition’s voice, so he climbed from the bed and took the outstretched hand.
For one agonising heart’s beat Scarlet struggled for breath, his chest felt as if it were being crushed by an enormous weight. Sweat broke out on his brow and he felt himself start to black-out. Then as he finally managed to draw in a lungful of air, there was a sudden swirl of wind, warm and sweet-smelling. It swirled around his legs, and spiralled up his body, like a small tornado. Scarlet glanced at the window and realised it was fastened shut, and as he did so, the wind increased in strength, until it was an over-powering gust. It lifted him from the floor, spinning both of them round towards the ceiling. He raised a hand to protect his head, but felt himself glide through the solid structures with as little resistance as if they were mirages.
He looked down and saw that his body had fallen back across the bed, his lips parted and his blue eyes staring in wide-eyed astonishment. The room was untouched by the force of the gale.
“Am I dead?” he asked his companion.
“No more than usual; I have merely stopped your heart. But you have made this journey many times since the Mysterons recreated you; it is simply that this time you are aware of what’s happening.”
They rose through the attics and roof of the house, high, high into the dark storm-tossed clouds and, with a speed that compared with the fastest plane he’d ever flown, they moved out across the dark landscape, borne along on the maelstrom that surrounded them. Fields, towns, cliffs and ocean sped past in an ever-increasing whirl. Scarlet knew they were moving south, but he couldn’t be more precise than that. He concentrated on keeping hold of the apparition’s hand as they started to descend.
Breathless and bewildered, Scarlet found himself standing at the mouth of a huge, dark cavern. The sky above him was still dark with clouds, their outlines faintly defined by the meagre glimmer of moonlight shining above them. The wind had dropped.
He surveyed his surroundings, which resembled nowhere on earth he had ever been. The few trees that dotted the strange wilderness appeared to be dead, their gnarled and distorted branches covered in dry scabs of sulphurous-yellow lichen. Heavy carpets of dark mosses covered the sparse topsoil between the scattered boulders and muddy pools.
Away in the distance he saw the pale moonlight dancing on the rills of a trickling stream, from which rose a curtain of steam. He became aware that the ground beneath his feet was hot and one sniff confirmed the faintly malodorous stench of sulphur in the air.
He looked at his guide. “Where is this place?”
Scarlet frowned in concentration as the germ of a memory stirred. He remembered a lazy summer day at Linbury Court with the Classics Master trying to drum information into unwilling pre-pubescent minds. He’d have been pleased to know that some of it had stuck.
Scarlet looked with horror at the apparition, unwilling to accept what he’d heard. “The entrance to Hades.”
His guide nodded. “I cannot go with you beyond here, Paul Metcalfe, you must make this journey alone, but if you chose to go forward, you will journey many miles until you eventually reach the Fields of Asphodel. It is there that all souls await the judgement that will free them to journey to the Elysian Fields – or condemn them to Tartarus, if their souls are judged unworthy.”
“You haven’t told me why I’m here,” Scarlet complained. “And I certainly don’t fancy going in there without a good reason. I’m indestructible, not insane.”
This time there was a hint of a smile on the apparition’s strong-featured face, which Scarlet could see far more clearly in this ethereal twilight than he had back in Winchester.
“Over the millennia, humans have come to this place when their allotted span is completed. They have given it many names; but I chose to call it by these.”
Scarlet nodded. “Very well, you can call it what you like; but I still don’t see why I should go in there.”
“Many of your friends have gone within, and in the fullness of time, all of them will. Every one of them spends the time of mourning in the Fields of Asphodel, and then moves on to their rewards or punishments. This has happened for all time and will happen for all time. The length of that mourning will vary – the more greatly loved the individual, the longer they are mourned and their shade must wait until released to find their eternal rest.”
“Sounds a bit harsh, but I guess it’s been tried and tested for long enough, so it must work.”
The apparition inclined his head and continued, “Two are fated to remain in Asphodel – perhaps for all eternity – unless you help them.”
“Me? How can I help anyone, in there?” Scarlet gestured towards the yawning mouth of the cave.
“Their loved one will not let them find rest. They are held back by prolonged mourning, their memories kept alive and their spirits washed with continual outpourings of grief and regret. The dead cannot move on until the mourning ceases, for they are tied to the living by their tears.”
“What’s it to do with me?” Scarlet asked. Despair flickered in his heart as he recalled the numerous friends he had lost to the Mysterons, or merely to the advancing years. He shivered, despite the clammy heat of Avernos, at the thought of a journey amongst the dead, anguish and pity equally mixed in his mind.
“If you travel to them, and willingly make a libation of your own blood, they will be freed from an eternity of endless nothingness, to move to their rewards in the Elysian Fields.”
“Who are these friends?”
“You need to ask me that?” the apparition replied, shaking his head.
“Okay – you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to; but tell me this - as much as I hate to appear mercenary – what’s in it for me? You said my reward would last my life long.”
“Indeed, I did, and I did not lie, Paul Metcalfe. If you choose it to be so, we offer you this reward, in mitigation of your sorrow: on this one night, one of them can come back with you – to spend your lifetime as your companion. They will not age; they will not die, until you do.”
“What? You mean another Mysteronised person?”
“No; we cannot recreate what used to exist. The chosen one would be an extension of yourself, existing on the abundant life-force that flows from you. As real as yourself – save only unknown by any except yourself.”
“Some kind of – ghost?” Scarlet hazarded.
The apparition shook his head. “As real as any human, save that they will have no identity beyond that you endow them with. No one shall know them as their former self, save you. We cannot recreate that which was, merely extend that which is.”
Scarlet frowned. Years ago, when Captain Blue had been cloned, there had been some sort of symbiotic relationship between the clones. That, he believed, had been due to the power of the Mysterons. He looked directly at his guide and asked:
“Who are the ‘we’ you keep talking about? I don’t know you – or what you represent.”
“For aeons we have watched this planet, and for many millennia mankind worshipped us. They grew away from us, but the belief they had sustains us still, although we are less powerful than we used to be. If it helps, Paul Metcalfe, you may call me by one of the names they gave me: Hermes.”
With a dramatic flourish, he threw off the dark robe and revealed himself as a beautiful young man, dressed in a tunic and winged sandals. A brilliant white light radiated from his body.
Hermes gestured with his hand and the radiance faded, although there remained a shimmering light around him. “You are a brave man, Paul Metcalfe. I believe you will make the journey and free the spirits of your friends.”
Scarlet sighed; his innate sense of duty and service was making it hard for him to continue with his decision to refuse. “How do I get home when this is finished?” he asked in resignation.
“Return here to Avernos, and I will come for you – and your chosen companion. But remember the fate of Orpheus, Paul Metcalfe; do not look back once you have taken the first step towards the light.” Hermes held out his hand and dropped something into Paul’s outstretched palm. “You will need these for the journey.”
Scarlet glanced down at his hand, and saw three small coins lying there. When he looked up, Hermes was gone.
He dropped the coins into his pyjama jacket pocket and sighed.
“Why does this sort of thing always happen to me on Halloween?” he asked rhetorically. The idea of himself as some sort of hero, venturing into an underworld in his Marks and Spencer’s pyjamas, was enough to make a cat laugh.
However, Hermes had vanished, and he had no way of getting home. He could sit here until dawn, and just go home, assuming Hermes returned for him, of course; or he could go into the cavern and see what was in there. He was sceptical that it really was the gate to Hades, but his innate curiosity wouldn’t let him pass up the opportunity to investigate.
“I shall probably just get covered in bat shit,” he remarked to the empty silence.
Sighing, he scouted around and finally found himself a hefty branch, which was sound enough to make a decent club and bracing himself, he stepped into the cave mouth.
An intense shock jolted him and the muscles in his hand went into spasm, causing him to drop the branch. He bent to pick it up but his hand wouldn’t close on the wood. Finally, he stood up and remarked into the darkness: “’You can’t take nothing with you but your soul’, as the song says, right? And the pennies for the ferryman, of course,” he added, patting the pocket where the three coins lay.
He stepped forwards gingerly and encountered no further resistance.
The cave went straight on for some way and only then began to slope downwards. Scarlet walked on until the entrance was a mere pinprick of light in the distance and the air had grown as cold as the grave.
Despite the darkness, he found that he could still see well enough to follow the well-trodden path. Occasionally he shivered, as an icy-cold draught passed him, and on the edge of his hearing he caught the despairing sighs of many voices. He refused to give in to the imaginative speculations as to just what these were, yet the idea that they were ‘souls’ took hold of his mind, and before long he had convinced himself that it was so.
“If I do this every time I die, it’s no wonder I come back feeling cold and hungry,” he reflected aloud, hearing his voice echoing around him:
Suddenly the slope increased until it was almost a vertical incline and away in the impenetrable darkness Scarlet could see a dull glimmer, meandering across the distant floor of the cave. As he slithered downwards, he could see it was a slow-moving river; it looked immeasurably wide and fathomlessly deep. On this side of the bank, a metal gong hung from the thick branch of a dead tree. He rapped it with his knuckles, rather than touch the desiccated bone that hung from the gong by what looked like sinew, to act as a hammer.
He felt the vibrations rather than heard the ultra-low note that sounded. He waited for what seemed an eternity, and then saw a shallow-drafted boat being punted across the river by a tall, spare man, in a shapeless, black cape that covered him from head to toe.
As the boat reached his shore, Scarlet stepped forward and the man extended a near-skeletal hand. Scarlet was ready to drop a coin into it. The hand beckoned him aboard and without a word, Chiron, the ferryman of the dead, poled his way back across the lethargically flowing water.
“Thank you very much,” Scarlet said, as he disembarked. “I don’t suppose it is worth asking you the way?”
Chiron pointed a long, bony finger westwards.
“Might have guessed really,” Scarlet responded, and strode along the cinder path that led in that direction.
The place was lit by a fiery glow from what appeared to be a distant volcano, that gave rise to a smoky sort of twilight, yet he found he could see well enough to avoid the various indistinct shapes of boulders and shingle banks that loomed out of the gloom as he walked along the winding path.
The air seemed to grow denser as he walked, and a strange mist blanketed the ground, like the fog that lay in the hollows around his home on autumn mornings. He found he was having to exert himself to move through the grey mist, which curled around him, making him cough and clear his throat.
He grew tired, and had to stop periodically to rest and brush the small chips of cinder from between his toes. It was on one of these pauses that his acutely sensitive hearing caught a low growl, and he sniffed, recognising a decidedly doggy odour.
“Oh, please - you have to be joking,” he muttered, pushing through the heavy air that now formed an invisible barrier, rather as he would have walked against a stiff wind.
Miraculously, as he began to climb a gentle incline, the resistant mist parted, as if it was deliberately moving out of his way.
Spooky… he thought, trying to lift his spirits.
He stopped again and took what bearings he could in the largely featureless landscape. He rather wished the barrier would prove insurmountable, for in the distance, at the top of the slope, he could now see the unmistakable shape of the giant three-headed guard dog of the underworld: Cerberus. The dog was as big as any mastiff Scarlet had ever seen, and its fearsomeness was compounded by the fact that the three heads were all snarling and slavering at the hovering mist, which seemed to advance, only to retreat as Cerberus snarled at it, rather like waves on a beach. Sometimes a fortunate eddy of the mist swirled past and over the ridge – although it was hard to say if the dog allowed it past, or was merely wrong-footed.
“I should have brought a dog biscuit,” Scarlet muttered, and then added, “Well, three dog biscuits, to be fair.”
He advanced and looked at the animal, which had focused all six beady eyes on him and was sniffing, its slavering chops curling in a menacing threat. He remembered what Hermes had said: You have done this many times since the Mysterons recreated you – if that was true, then somehow he’d got past Cerberus before. He edged forwards.
“Hello, you mangy mutt,” he said as if he’d been talking to the family pets back in his youth in Winchester. “It’s only me – you might say I’m a season ticket holder. You’re not going to create a fuss now, are you? You know I’m forever popping in and out of here… I hope.”
One head snarled.
Scarlet remembered his father’s instructions about training dogs, and said authoritatively, “Bad dog! Naughty dog! Sit!”
Rather to his surprise, Cerberus did sit, and his enormous tail beat a thumping welcome on the cinder path. Scarlet advanced and patted the closest head as he walked past.
“Good dog! Good boy!” he said, and walked on with as much speed as he could without losing his nonchalance.
Safe beyond Cerberus’s reach, he exhaled a huge breath and wiped his sweating brow. I’m glad I don’t usually remember any of this, he thought.
The path wound on across a landscape which had changed to vast pits of molten lava, pumice stones and cinders and, as he walked along, the soles of his bare feet blistered from the scorching heat. I generally die with my boots on, he thought, wistfully recalling the insulated soles of his uniform boots. He crossed two more rivers, no less formidable than the one Chiron had ferried him over. One raced down the side of a dark mountain, steam and spray crashing from it as it tumbled into the plain; it barely had time to lose any momentum before it roared into a dark and immeasurable chasm. It was crossed by a series of ancient and worn boulders, pitted with erosion and the passage of time, and it took courage and strength to negotiate their slippery surfaces. The second river was sluggish in comparison, and spanned by a wooden bridge, constructed from enormous, decaying tree trunks. Despite the pain in his bleeding, scorched and aching feet, Scarlet was not tempted to stop by either bank, in fact, the second river had sulphurous steam rising from it, as it slithered over the barren landscape.
From the centre of the wooden bridge, where he stopped to take his bearings once more, Scarlet saw a distant patch of light, or what passed for light in this world of unending gloom and darkness. He hastened on towards it, anxious to do what he needed to and get out again into the fresh air of the clear night skies.
He’d been giving some thought to the possible identity of the spirits Hermes wanted him to help. He had partly convinced himself that one would be Conrad Turner - the former Spectrum Agent, Captain Black – and if that was the case he was in two minds whether to help or not. Spectrum had never discovered if their former agent had died on Mars and been retrometabolised, as he himself had been, or whether the Mysterons simply controlled the living man. Whatever the truth of the case, Scarlet couldn’t ascribe his reluctance to any logical cause; if Black was sent for judgement, he would surely end up in Tartarus, facing a well-deserved eternity of torture for the evil he had done as a Mysteron agent. But, some small voice of pity reminded Paul that Turner was in the thrall of the Mysterons and, perhaps, if he freed the spirit of his arch-enemy from limbo, the Mysterons would lose their control over the man who still walked the Earth, causing such misery and terror amongst the poor unfortunates he encountered.
What he did not doubt was that, but for fate and Captain Blue’s strong sense of duty, he could have ended up like Black.
Eventually the conundrum irritated him so much he refused to think about it any more and marched stoically on, trying to ignore his painful feet and the growing sense of unease he was developing as he neared his destination. He became aware that the mist had grown thick and heavy again, until he could see no further than the length of his arm as he pushed through the murk. Once more, it parted as he moved through it, closing up behind him to form an opaque barrier to his escape route.
Suddenly the mist evaporated away and he emerged into the patch of glimmering twilight he had seen from the tree bridge. Nervous and alert for any sign of danger, he looked around for anything recognisably human, and gasped in astonishment as he saw two well-remembered and much-loved figures approaching from the darkness of the other side. They were as young and healthy as the first day he’d met them, and dressed in their Spectrum uniforms.
“Paul!” they both called.
He hastened towards them, sweeping Rhapsody Angel into his arms and laughing up into Captain Blue’s face.
He brushed Dianne’s long, red hair back from her beautiful face and pressed his lips to hers. His excitement ebbed slightly as he felt her cold flesh against his, but he could feel her arms around him, and even as she breathed in his breath, he felt warmth flow into her.
As they parted, he grasped Adam’s outstretched hand and shook it, punching his dearest friend’s arm playfully.
“I can’t believe it – why you two are here? Hermes told me two friends were condemned to remain here – but surely, if I remember right, the virtuous and the brave move on to the Elysian Fields – the Isles of the Blessed. So? What are you doing here?”
He looked to Adam for an answer, as Dianne nestled against his broad chest.
Even if the American’s voice lacked the vibrancy that had characterised it in life and seemed to come from a distance, it was undoubtedly Adam’s voice that replied, “Dianne and I have not been called for judgment, and until then we cannot leave here.”
His wife answered from the comfort of his arms. “It seems Adam and I are something of an anomaly, Paul. Didn’t Hermes explain it to you?”
“Not exactly. Like every other spook it’s been my misfortune to meet, he wrapped everything up in mysterious ramblings and obscure warnings. Is there anyone else around here? It’d be nice to see some of the old gang again…”
“Magenta has moved on,” Blue reported. “And Colonel White…”
“Your parents have passed through,” Rhapsody informed him. “So have mine and Adam’s.”
“You drop by, every so often,” Blue added, with a wry smile at his friend. His pale-blue eyes grew sad as he added, “But you don’t often remember us.”
Rhapsody hugged him tighter. “You are so eager to get back to Cloudbase,” she told him.
“I don’t remember anything about all of this – and I don’t understand why this time is different.”
Rhapsody explained, “It is All Souls Night. It’s the one time we have a chance to affect events, in the hours from midnight to dawn. We called you here, Paul.” She turned to look at Blue, who nodded encouragingly. “We need your help.”
Scarlet ran his fingers through his dark hair – a habit he had copied from his best friend and partner, Captain Blue. “You know I would do anything – for either of you - but I don’t know what I can do…”
“What did Hermes say to you?” Blue prompted him. “Concentrate, Paul, it is so easy to forget here.”
Scarlet frowned; it was true his memory wasn’t as clear as it had been and his sense of mission was fading. “He said, I had to make a libation to free some spirits from limbo.” He glanced at them, a darkening suspicion forming in his mind. “He said these spirits were condemned to wait here for eternity, because the mourning for them was continuously preventing their rest.”
Blue was smiling and nodding encouragingly.
“Adam, do you mean one of the spirits is you? That Karen is preventing you from moving on?”
“Not Karen, Paul, you.”
“Me?” Scarlet felt a wave of anguish sweep through him. He looked down into Dianne’s face and shook his head. “I came to terms with it – I mean, it wasn’t easy… but I got on with my life… didn’t I?”
She shook her head compassionately. “We are held here by your grief, Paul. Barely a day goes by when you do not think of us and regret the manner of our passing. My darling, we love you for it – but it is time we were free to move from here. The shadows we live with are numberless, the hours interminable and empty of meaning. You must not mourn any longer, for we are glad to go.”
Scarlet shook his dark head. “I do regret it – I do miss you both,” he admitted. “But I never thought… I wouldn’t – I mean…”
Dianne pressed her chill fingers to his lips. “We know, we understand. There are occasions when you are here for a while and you do remember us, and promise you will make the break, you will let us go. But, just as you remember none of these visits, you forget the promise. This time, Hermes has promised us, you will remember.”
“I’m sorry – I’m so sorry.” He looked in confusion from one to the other, sweeping Blue into a bear hug and then embracing Dianne again. “It’s just that, well – there’s never been anyone to take the place of you two in my life. The kids do their best, and the guys in Spectrum, but they don’t really understand what it’s like! Not the way you two did.”
“Hermes understood that, which is why he offered you something else – something that might help fill the gap,” Dianne reminded him.
With some effort, Scarlet concentrated and finally recalled the rest of the instructions. “He said one of you could come back with me – sharing my life force until I die.”
The two most important people in his adult life shared a glance, and Rhapsody moved away from his embrace.
“Then now you must decide if you want one of us to go with you,” she said gently, adding with a sympathetic shake of her head, “and which one of us it will be.”
Scarlet glanced at her and then at Blue standing beside her. “I can’t do that. I can’t decide between you two.”
“We can’t help you with this decision, Paul,” Blue said. “We can only accept whatever you decide to do.”
Scarlet looked in anguish from one to the other.
The beautiful woman who had given him such happiness, proving to him that he was, in some part, still human. Their lives together had not been without problems, but their love had never faltered, even when she had begun to doubt his ability to continue to love her, as she aged and he did not. He still dreamt of her almost every night, and frequently woke to find his cheeks wet with tears, as his hands reached for her in the emptiness of his bed.
He had slept with other women even before her death, and she’d known it and forgiven him, because she understood his need for her was greater than any sexual attraction he might feel for any other woman, and that he would always came back to her.
Beside her was the man who had been his staunchest friend and ally, the one person who had never doubted his humanity, and who had willingly risked his own life innumerable times as they had fought side-by-side against the Mysterons. Scarlet missed that sense of camaraderie, missed the security of knowing someone was watching his back for him. He’d worked with other partners – of both sexes – but they all fell short of the exacting standard set by Captain Blue.
Moreover, Adam Svenson probably understood him better than any other human being, even, quite possibly, Dianne.
It was an impossible choice, and one he did not want to make. If he chose either, the other would fade into the vastness of eternity and he feared the dimming of the memories that sustained him through the long, empty days and nights. The one he did choose would be with him, but in the guise of some other entity – unable to interact with the other people they loved and had lost – displaced and dependent on him alone. Could he ask anyone to face that?
As the silence dragged on, a flush seeped into Rhapsody’s pale cheeks. “Paul, make your decision on what you need to be happy. Never fear that I – or Adam – will think the less of you for choosing the other,” she murmured, a sad smile forming on her lips.
“Don’t come with that!” Scarlet cried, raising his hands to his head. “I love you like I have never loved another woman – and never will, if I survive until the sun burns itself out! But,” he looked at Blue, “there is so much I owe Adam… he was the brother I always wanted, the friend I never thought I deserved… I miss that. Since I lost you both, my life revolves around nothing so much as my duty to Spectrum. So much has changed, so much remains the same – I mean, the Mysterons don’t change, their malevolence and their determination to wipe us all out hasn’t faltered. And, as the fight drags on, it is so hard standing alone.”
He studied their faces as he stopped speaking, searching for some indication, some advice, as to what the right decision should be. But, since Dianne had spoken, they had both remained silent and gave no sign of their wishes in the matter. He reached out his hands towards them, but neither moved or made any attempt to sway his decision.
Finally, he turned to his friend. The pale-blue eyes that met his were filled with compassion and sympathy, so that his heart ached as he reached to take Dianne’s hand and lifted his pain-filled, shame-filled, eyes to the older man’s again, whispering, “You understand, don’t you?”
Blue laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Don’t concern yourself, Paul. There will be other friends in your long life; other men – and women – who will mean as much to you as ever I did. Besides, I don’t want to go back with you. I would rather stay here, than walk the Earth for an eternity that did not include Karen.”
Overcome with emotion, Scarlet dropped his wife’s hand and enfolded the taller man in his embrace once more. He should have known that however much Adam cared for him, his greatest love had always been reserved for the wilful, temperamental Angel Pilot from Iowa. He hoped that one day Karen Wainwright Svenson would know and appreciate that fact.
She was still living in the house Blue had bought for them in England, but her health, physical and mental, had deteriorated to such an extent that she rarely left the grounds now, and hardly ever accepted visitors, except Paul Metcalfe. Once, he’d taken his grandsons to see her – Paul and Adam junior, the blond, blue-eyed, long-limbed children of Blue’s illegitimate daughter – but he’d seen easily enough how much that pained her, and he’d not repeated the experiment.
He wondered if Adam knew.
Convention took hold soon enough and Scarlet cleared his throat and shuffled away, embarrassed by his own outburst.
Blue took Rhapsody’s hand and smiled down at her. “I wish you a return of all the happiness you knew, Dianne.”
She reached up to touch his cheek. “One day, Adam, your happiness will match mine, here and now, as I stand with my beloved husband and my dearest friend. I’m sure that when Karen comes to join you, everything will be perfect for you both.”
Blue smiled, his eyes bright with a yearning hope. “Perhaps, one day we’ll all meet again – when Paul and you make your way to the Elysian Fields. Then everything will be perfect.”
Scarlet tapped Blue on the shoulder, and asked, business-like once more, “How do I make this libation thing?”
“You must spill your blood onto the ground,” Blue told him.
Scarlet looked at the soles of his feet, still suppurating from their scorching. “I don’t suppose all those bloody footprints would count?” he asked.
Blue shook his head. “It must be intentionally shed, as an offering, and declared as such.”
“Right… I thought it might be something like that. I’ve got nothing to cut myself with…I wasn’t allowed to bring anything with me.”
He looked around and then reached across to snap one electronic epaulette off Rhapsody’s uniform. He used the jagged metal to slice into his left hand, grimacing with pain. The cut was long and deep, and Scarlet clenched his fist as the blood flowed freely, dripping onto the rocky ground.
“For Adam Svenson,” he intoned, not knowing if there was any other ritual involved. He shook his hand, and flexed his fingers, waiting for the onset of the pins and needles that told him his retrometabolism was working to repair the damage. When he felt nothing, he shrugged and used the metal to score the other way across his palm.
“For Dianne Simms Metcalfe.”
He had half-expected a roll of thunder or a bolt of lightning to accompany the act, but there was nothing but a silence, and the soft murmuring of misty voices, floating in from beyond their circle of light.
Nothing seemed any different.
He gave Blue a concerned glance, shook his painful hand, and asked, “Did it work?”
“Oh yes, it worked,” Blue replied.
Relieved, Scarlet tore a strip off his pyjama jacket and bound it around his hand to absorb the blood until it healed. The fact that his retrometabolism hadn’t repaired the cuts yet didn’t concern him – the time taken for injuries to heal varied depending on the circumstances, and over the decades he’d become used to the odd situation where it took longer than expected. When he looked towards Blue, he saw that his friend already looked less solid than he had, and, when he reached out his healthy hand towards him, it passed through Adam’s arm, with only a sensation of icy chill.
Having made his farewells, Captain Blue walked slowly towards the far side of the circle of light. Scarlet imagined he saw some reluctance on his friend’s face, as if he was unsure what would happen to him now. But when he paused, and turned back to where his friends stood hand-in-hand, there was nothing but serene acceptance on his face.
Blue’s voice barely carried across the distance, as he said, “Thank you, Paul, I owe you more than I can adequately repay. I wish you, both, every happiness.” He stepped forward into the twilight dark and Scarlet saw him stoop, cupping his hands to fill them with the water from a small fountain that bubbled out of a nearby rock. He stood erect and drank the liquid, allowing the final drops to drip from his fingers. Then he looked into the bleak darkness beyond the circle and straightened up.
“I am ready,” he said, to unseen forces and, as Scarlet watched, Blue vanished from his sight, melting away into the ether.
“Goodbye, Adam,” Scarlet murmured. “Rest in peace, my friend.” He turned to Dianne, who was clinging to his arm. Her face showed sadness as she stared after the departed spirit.
“Will he be all right?” he asked her.
She nodded. “Adam will reach the Elysian Fields; I have never doubted that.” She gave an affectionate smile, adding, “Although he did, at times. He was always his own harshest critic.”
Scarlet nodded in agreement. “That he was.” He drew a deep breath and moved on to happier topics. “We can go now? We can go together?”
She nodded, returning his excited smile with one of her own. “You’ve reclaimed me, and as long as you live, so shall I.”
“As you are now?”
“Yes, although…” She frowned slightly. “You must understand that although other people will see me, they will not know me for who I am. They will see an individual; perhaps even see me as I am, but they will not recognise me. And, Paul, it would not be wise for the children to be told who I am. You must be prepared to accept that they may resent me, they may not accept me, or your attachment to me – for in their eyes I will have replaced their mother - but you cannot explain it to them.”
“It would be difficult explaining this to them, although, mind you, they’ve accepted my situation happily enough, and that’s not exactly normal, is it?”
“They‘ve grown up knowing about you, Paul. They might not be so sanguine about the sudden resurrection of their long-dead mother.” She hugged his arm. “I think I would be happier if they did not know about me.”
“Whatever you want, my love, is fine with me. I’ll pay any price to have you with me through all the long days and nights of my life.”
“Even estrangement from your children?”
He sighed and gave a rueful shrug. “That was going to have to come anyway, Di.”
“Then lead me back into your life, Paul. Lead me home.”
He took her hand and started across the circle, pushing through into the misty darkness, where the souls of the departed crowded around the light. The press seemed thicker as they passed by another spring, and remembering Blue’s departure, he asked her,
“What was that water Adam drank? He seemed to consider it important. Was it something to do with the ritual?”
“It is the water of Mnemosyne,” she replied. “Anyone who drinks from that fountain will understand the mysteries of all this.” Her hand moved across the landscape. “They will also retain their memories of their past life. Adam long ago decided to drink from there, rather than from Lethe – the other fountain.” She pointed across the circle, “which eradicates all memory and all knowledge of self. This way, he will know Karen when she arrives…”
“Which would you have drunk, Dianne?”
She shook her head. “I could never decide. To wait an eternity, knowing you might never come to me, would be hard.”
He smiled. “Now we shall spend that eternity together.”
They walked slowly back along the cinder path, Scarlet leading the way, Rhapsody followed closely in his footsteps, as if she was afraid of losing her way otherwise. Scarlet strode on, his mind preoccupied with the challenges of how they were going to negotiate the difficult terrain and the unknown reaction of Cerberus to two people trying to leave, where only one had entered.
As if she could read his thoughts, Rhapsody reassured him, “I can tread anywhere you tread, Paul. Don’t worry about me. Concentrate on the way forward, on finding the best path. I am here.”
They crossed the boiling river of steam on the rickety tree bridge, and although it was hard, he walked on, trusting with all his heart that she could indeed follow his footsteps in safety. The stone bridge was another hazard that brought Scarlet’s heart into his mouth, but Rhapsody kept up a soft, reassuring conversation as they negotiated the slippery boulders. Once beyond the rivers, they walked along the cinder pathway, the mist thinning as they passed and closing behind them. Every step was closer to safety, closer to the open air of Avernos, closer to a return to Winchester and a life blessed with the companionship he had missed, and his mood lightened as they overcame each barrier.
In the distance Scarlet could see the incline that led to Cerberus’s vantage point. He approached it cautiously, although the dog remained facing the other way, guarding against unauthorised access.
When they arrived, the watchdog hardly seemed surprised to see Scarlet again. His tail wagged and one head sniffed at Rhapsody, but Cerberus let them both pass, before he resumed his snarling defence of the path to Asphodel.
Scarlet quickened his pace now, in response to Rhapsody’s urging. They were making good time, and he could now hear her footsteps crunching along the cinder-path behind him, as if with every step she grew more alive, and more real.
To entertain her on the walk, he described how things were; who was who in Spectrum, what had happened to the friends they’d known. Rhapsody responded with interest, her delight in the prospect of returning to the world she had known obvious.
They approached the river and could see the Ferryman waiting on this side of the bank. Scarlet felt a twinge of concern, for Chiron seemed more substantial than before, but maybe that was just a trick of the gloom and the fact that he’d been here for several hours already. He was aware that his perceptions had changed even in that short time.
Chiron stretched out his palm, and Scarlet dropped the two remaining coins into it.
He clambered into the punt, moving to the front, and felt the boat wobble as Rhapsody climbed in to sit behind him. She placed her hand reassuringly on his shoulder.
“Nearly there, Paul.”
The boat, probably more heavily laden than was usual, was low in the water, and wavelets of the dark river splashed over the sides, soaking into Scarlet’s pyjamas, it was freezing cold, and he could feel his feet going numb, but there was no way to hurry the ferryman, and he was only too glad that both Cerberus and Chiron had made no quibble about them leaving.
Scarlet leaned forwards, resting his elbows on the boat, watching the prow slide through the water. In the smooth blackness, he could make out his distorted reflection; his naturally pale complexion shimmered and broke apart as the boat progressed.
His spirits lifted, and he started to anticipate the happiness to come. Soon; we’ll be out of here soon. Hermes will take us home and I’ll take Dianne to bed. I have a decade of longing to satisfy. Next time I reach out for her, she will be there…. And every time afterwards, for all time!
The punt lunged forwards suddenly, scraped the riverbed and ran aground with a jolt that tipped him forwards, head first onto the bank. He struggled to his feet, slipping on the clammy mud.
Laughing, he turned to Dianne -
She screamed, a sound of incomparable sadness and fear, and fell back in the punt, shielding her eyes.
Confused and alarmed, Scarlet cried, “Dianne!” and lurched towards her.
As he reached for her hand, he was struck in the chest by the ferryman’s staff. He felt his breast-bone break under the impact and fell back, gasping with the shock and agony. Moments later, driven on by a desperate anguish, he scrambled to his feet realising the boat was already starting to move back out into the dark water.
Calling his wife’s name, he started to wade out into the icy-cold flow.
Dianne was now crouched in the prow of the skiff, tears streaming down her cheeks, her red hair was tangled and knotted as her hands twisted the shining locks.
“Paul!” she cried, “Oh, Paul! You turned back! Why? Why did you turn back?”
Scarlet felt the undertow of a current that was as strong as it was unexpected trying to suck him down into the treacherous depths. He struck out for the boat and, despite the agony of his chest, swam as hard as he’d ever had to swim against the surprisingly powerful swirl of the water as it sought to sweep him downstream.
He came alongside as they reached the middle of the river and reached to grab the side, struggling to haul himself aboard. Dianne was cowering in the prow, afraid to approach the menacing figure of the ferryman, even though she was calling out to her husband.
Unable to drag himself from the water, Paul tried to wrestle the staff from Chiron’s grasp and stop the boat’s momentum that way, but the ferryman had a strong grip on the staff and it was a hopeless task. He glanced up, looking for some new way to attack and as he did so he saw, beneath the cowl of the black robe, the unmistakable, pallid features of Conrad Turner.
Becoming aware of the scrutiny, Captain Black turned his dark eyes onto his mortal enemy and stamped his foot down on Scarlet’s hand, splitting the barely healed cuts across his palm.
The pain was agonising and instinctively Scarlet let go and sank into the icy blackness. Fighting his way back to the surface he saw the boat had moved on, and he struck after it once more and had to expend precious energy to recover his handhold on the prow. This time, Dianne grabbed his hand, but her fingers slipped through his, as he sank below the water once more.
Surfacing again, he saw Black threaten Dianne with the staff, so that she cowered away from him once more. For a third time Scarlet gained a hand-hold on the boat, and struggled against the agony in his chest to draw in breath and recover the strength to fight for his wife again.
“YOU HAVE LOST, SCARLET,” Captain Black said, sounding the death knell of all Scarlet’s hopes.
His hand was slippery with his own blood and he was losing his grip again. When Black drove the staff into the water and the boat sped forward once more, Scarlet’s hand slipped off the side and he hadn’t the strength left to chase them.
His last sight was of Dianne, weeping and stretching her hands towards him, as the boat carried her back to Asphodel.
Desolation washed over him as the water chilled his blood and hyperthermia began to take hold. He floated downstream for some distance, uncaring and unaware of anything except the dead weight of his loss, and then he began to sink, as a whirlpool spun him around in ever faster circles over what appeared to be a chasm similar to the one he’d seen the other river disappear into. It wasn’t until his feet slammed against the slimy edge of the riverbed that the shock brought him back to his senses.
He thrust with his legs and struck out for the surface. It took almost all the strength his alien body was capable of to break free of the whirlpool, and even then he swam for hours against the almost conscious malevolence of the river, desperate to cross and return to the Fields of Asphodel, but finally, he had to admit defeat and heave himself out onto the barren cinders of the path on the wrong side of the river, gasping for breath and sobbing out his misery.
He rolled over onto his back, and lifting his face to the darkness, he howled out his curses, against Conrad Turner, the Mysterons, Fate and the injustice of the universe.
Then weariness took him and he knew no more.
When he finally regained consciousness, he managed to get to his feet and stumbled and crawled back towards the morning light.
As he staggered from the cavern’s mouth into the dawn at Avernos, he felt a hand support his arm as he slipped to his knees.
“They took her,” he sobbed. “The Mysterons took her from me!”
Hermes laid a compassionate hand on Scarlet’s filthy hair and a renewed strength flowed into the Englishman’s exhausted body.
He spoke in a voice that was kind, yet resigned, “I warned you, Paul Metcalfe. I warned you to remember Orpheus. He too lost his lover because he looked back at her as she followed him from Hades. The Mysterons could not have stopped you, if you had walked straight from the boat, and Dianne Metcalfe would have followed you – but once you transgressed, they took the opportunity to make your punishment part of their persecution.”
“What will happen to Dianne now?” he asked.
“She is free from Asphodel; she may go to judgment and on to the Elysian Fields, if she wishes.”
“She must drink one of the waters? Memory or forgetfulness?”
Hermes nodded. “Everyone must make that choice.”
“And do you know what she will choose?”
Hermes inclined his head. “We can see everything, Paul Metcalfe.”
“And which does she choose?”
Hermes shook his head. “I cannot tell you that.”
“You’d leave me to fret for eternity over her?”
“Ask yourself what she would do. You loved her enough to attempt her rescue.”
“I just hope Adam will able to help her… he chose to remember.”
“So he did. And so he will.”
Scarlet wiped a filthy hand across his face, smearing the tears across the grime that covered his skin.
“What happens now?”
“I take you home, Paul Metcalfe.”
“That’s it? I can’t go back?”
“No. Never again can you reclaim her.”
There was a gust of wind, and Scarlet felt himself lifted upwards, but he took no interest in his journey back to Winchester.
The morning sun was shining through the iron-grey clouds, edging them with a pale gold.
Paul Metcalfe opened his eyes and frowned.
His bed was a mess, the sheets tangled around his legs, his pillows on the floor. His mouth felt like the bottom of a bird’s cage…
He grimaced. That sodding wine must’ve been off…
He coughed and sat up in the bed, knocking the book he’d been reading last night onto the floor. He winced at the sudden throbbing ache when his feet hit the floor and his back twinged as he bent to retrieve the book. But that was nothing to the sharp pain that made him gasp in shocked surprise as his left hand closed around the spine.
He threw the book onto the bed and examined his palm. Two jagged and puffy scars ran diagonally across his hand, right across from his fingers to the base of his palm.
“How the hell….” he began, and then the memories flooded back.
Vicious, brutal, tormenting memories. Images of Dianne, reaching out to him, begging him to save her… and the doom-laden words of his guide ‘never again can you reclaim her’.
He made a fist of his scarred hand and bit into it, as the memory grew unbearable.
Oh Adam, how could you choose to spend eternity remembering all the evil the Mysterons are capable of? What wouldn’t I give for a mouthful of that Lethe water, right now? For as long as I live I’ll remember that lost look in her eyes…
Fighting against the urge to collapse into madness, he looked again at his left hand; slowly the wounds were healing, the puffiness had subsided, yet the pale-hued, smooth skin of the scars did not disappear. Scarlet frowned, he had no scars – anywhere - retrometabolism removed every sign of injury. But, he felt instinctively that it wasn’t going to remove this one. There was no sign that the hand would ever be free of these scars.
He spent most of the day staring out of the window and across the garden to where the old apple tree lay in ruins, while he relived and evaluated the events of Halloween. It was with a strange mixture of elation and fear that he came to the conclusion that while he was in Asphodel he was vulnerable and that, should this interminable existence ever grow too much to bear, he might have a way of ensuring he did not have to return to a world grown wearisome and cold.
But for the moment, he consoled himself with the thought that every time he died he would see Dianne, and - from now on - he would remember. He didn’t doubt that she would wait for him in Asphodel, and that eventually they would both choose to drink from Mnemosyne. He understood, now, why Adam had chosen to remember for all eternity the good friends who’d made his tragic life bearable, and his love for Karen, which mirrored the undying love he and Dianne shared.
One day they would all be reunited in the Elysian Fields.
The anticipation that beyond death lay the companionship and love he craved was enough for now – because he had a job to do and a debt to collect.
As the sun set over the valley, and in the distance he heard the persistent ringing of the video-phone, he turned from the window and the contemplation of his own mortality, with a simple vow:
“I swear, Conrad Turner, one day you will pay for this.”
Yes, I know Orpheus did it first…
Linbury Court Preparatory school is the invention of Anthony Buckeridge, the author of the ‘Jennings and Darbishire’ stories. I enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed watching Captain Scarlet – and there really is no other school I can imagine the young Paul Metcalfe attending.
Many thanks to Hazel Köhler for her expert beta-reading; she’s an absolute glutton for punishment.
Any mistakes in the story are mine, and there is the usual caveat that Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons™ belongs to Carlton International, although they were originally created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who inspired a generation of children with their wonderful shows back in the 1960s.
Thanks to Chris Bishop for the website, and too many other things to mention!
Let’s hope Captain Scarlet and the website dedicated to him continue to go from strength to strength.
Any comments? Send an to the site