“Thank you for taking me to the ball game, Mr Grover.”
Adam was in the passenger seat of the speeding van. Behind the wheel, the big, bulky gardener gave him a quick glance and a rueful smile. “Ah, don’t mention it, kid! I had to go into town, anyway, to get those new plants for your mom.”
Adam nodded sombrely. His feelings were in turmoil at the moment. He was on his way to his big game, and he should have been happy about that. But it wasn’t the case at all. He was feeling guilty, for having disobeyed his father and sneaked out of the house to go, when he had been forbidden to do so. He was sad, and certainly still angry with his dad for having acted the way he did. Disobedience was a way for the boy to get back at his father, and he knew it perfectly well. It didn’t matter that he would have to take the bus, walk, or hitchhike his way to town. He just had to go.
That Wilson Grover was to pass in his van about a mile away from the Svenson mansion could have been viewed as a kind of a blessing. So determined was Adam to go to his game that he didn’t hesitate one second to put his suspicion and aversion for the man aside and gladly accepted his offer to take him to his destination.
“Aren’t you afraid my Dad’s gonna be sore at you for giving me a ride there?” Adam asked the gardener.
Grover shrugged negligently. The boy’s father had shouted loud enough for him to hear all about the conflict that had arisen between the two. He was outside the open window tending to some bushes. He would have had to be deaf not to hear anything.
“He doesn’t know about it,” Grover replied. “Anyway, if I had been afraid of that, do you think I would have suggested it?”
“Well, I sure appreciate it, Mr Grover.”
“Your team’s counting on you, right? I can relate to that. You don’t want to disappoint them.”
“Yeah, you can say it’s that…” Adam lowered his gaze, looking down at his ball and glove he had put on his lap. He really just wanted to stand up to his father. That his friends were relying on him for the match was second on his mind.
“Aren’t YOU afraid your father will be angry at you?” Grover asked in turn.
“I don’t care,” the boy murmured. “He’s already angry enough as it is. It can’t be any worse.”
“If you want my opinion, he shouldn’t have grounded you. It was bad enough he was unable to live up to his promise, he didn’t need to stoop so low as to forbid you to go to the game.”
Adam didn’t reply. He was just thinking that none of this was Grover’s business. He didn’t voice that.
“A man’s gotta keep his promise,” Grover continued. ”No matter what. You’re keeping yours, to your teammates. Too bad your father doesn’t know how to do the same to you.”
Adam looked up at the big man. “Did you ever have problems with your dad when you were a kid, Mr Grover?”
The gardener gave him another quick glance. He pointed a finger to his face, drawing the contour of a scar.
“See that? It’s a gift from him.”
Adam stared at him quizzically. “Your father did that to you?” he murmured.
Grover nodded. “He was a tough man. Drank a lot… Beat the hell out of me whenever he got the chance.”
Grover shrugged. “Didn’t matter. No matter what I did, it was a good enough reason to hit me.”
Adam stayed quiet. He couldn’t conceive that any man would ever beat up on his kid. Even at his angriest, his father never raised his hand to him or Peter. He did yell a lot on some occasions – like he just did during that dispute about an hour ago – but it never lasted long. And in this particular case, Adam was aware that he had provoked his father.
“Does that shock you?” Grover asked the boy.
“No… Well, yeah, a little.” Adam looked down again. “I guess my situation with my dad isn’t that bad, after all.”
“Your dad is a rich, lucky sucker. You live in a house I could never even dream of having, and you get every toy a kid your age could desire. NO, I would say your situation is not bad at all.”
Adam could have sworn he had heard an edge of contempt in Grover’s voice. He stared at the man, but didn’t see anything wrong in his face, as he watched the road ahead. The boy thought it was probably only his imagination.
“Did you ever get to settle things with your dad?” Adam asked, clearing his throat.
“Oh, yeah… I settled things with him all right.”
“Well, I’m glad for you.”
“You really mean that, kid?”
“Sure. Why do you ask?”
“Because I know for a fact that you don’t like me much.”
Adam blushed violently. Seeing him so uncomfortable, Grover laughed loudly. That made the boy even more unsettled.
“Don’t feel bad about it, kid. I suppose that if I were your age, I wouldn’t like a guy like me either!”
“I… I suppose I judged you too quickly,” Adam said with a shamed tone. “I’m sorry, Mr Grover.”
“S’all right, kid.”
The boy cleared his throat. He wanted nothing more than to change the subject. “You talked to your dad, lately?”
“My, aren’t you a curious little boy!”
“Just trying to make conversation…”
Grover shook his head. “My father’s been dead for a long time.”
“Don’t be. I’m not,” Grover replied very quietly. “He’s better off where he is.”
The bitterness in the gardener’s tone didn’t escape Adam.
“At least you made up with him before he passed away.”
“I didn’t make up with him.”
“But you said…”
“I said I settled things with him. That’s not the same,” Grover almost snapped. “That old bastard, always on my case… Said I would make nothing of my life. Said I never would make it big. I wonder what he’d say right now.”
Adam was feeling more and more uncomfortable. He tried to shrug it off. “Wasn’t he proud of you when you played with the Minor Leagues?” he asked tentatively.
“You actually remember me saying that to you?”
“Well… Yeah, I do.”
“Funny. I didn’t think you were listening.” Grover shook his head. “My old man died before that, kid. He never saw me in the Minors. Never saw me throw one single ball either, when I was a boy. Didn’t care enough about me, ’cept to beat the living daylights out of me.” He stared at the boy who was watching him intensely. “One day, he tried once too often. I was fifteen. He thought he could still handle me. Too drunk to notice I had grown big and strong. When he tried to hit me, I hit him first. Never laid a hand on me ever since.”
“You… hit your father?” a disbelieving Adam asked the gardener.
“Yep. Didn’t hesitate at that,” Grover answered coldly. “HE never did when he beat me up. Why should I?”
“I… could never do a thing like that,” Adam said, shaking his head.
Grover chuckled mockingly. “Too much of a good kid for that, eh? Maybe you think that makes you better than me. Along with all that money your family has. Am I right?”
Adam thought he heard it again: the contempt, the resentment. And this time, it was so vivid, he could almost smell it. The boy felt even more uneasy, to the point that he wished the van would arrive at its destination. The more he listened to the man, the more he had that creepy feeling about him.
He shouldn’t have accepted his offer to take him to the game.
Adam looked ahead through the window, to see how far away they still were from the playing field. He frowned, noticing the van was not following a route he was familiar with.
“That’s not the way to the field,” he noted.
“I told you your mom asked me to pick up some new plants,” Grover answered.
“But the playground is on the other side of the city,” Adam insisted. “We’re going in the exact opposite direction.”
“You think so, kid?” Grover asked innocently.
Adam glanced suspiciously at him; why did he have the feeling that the guy was up to something? He wasn’t feeling safe, but he couldn’t say why.
He dismissed the thought and unbuckled his safety belt.
“Please pull over, Mr Grover,” he asked politely. “I’ll just take a bus to the field.”
“I can’t let you do that,” Grover replied, shaking his head.
“Look, I’ll be all right,” Adam retorted. “It’s not like I never took a bus before…”
Grover scoffed mockingly. “You surprise me. I would have thought you had your own personal chauffeur to drive you whenever you wish!”
The insolent tone surprised the boy. Seeing that Grover didn’t seem about to obey his request, he turned toward the door and put his hand on the handle. Maybe if he showed the gardener he meant business when he asked him to pull over, the man would stop the vehicle. He felt a strong hand grabbing him by his T-shirt, pulling him away from the door he was trying to open and back to his seat. Adam turned around to stare at Grover’s angry face.
“Stay quiet, you little brat!” the gardener growled at him. “What do you think you’re doing? Get yourself killed? You’re much too precious to me to allow that!”
Adam was stunned by the way the man spoke to him. It made him worried, and at the same time angered him. He wasn’t used to people addressing him that way.
“Let me out of this van!” he demanded, in an annoyed voice.
“You’re used to seeing everybody obey your every whim,” Grover replied between his teeth, with a mean enough grin. “How’s it feel to face someone who ain’t at your command, kid?”
Adam turned pale; that heinous, contemptuous glance Grover was casting on him, the way he was hanging on so tightly to him, the boy was suddenly very afraid for his own safety. The mistrust he had entertained toward the gardener came back to him with a vengeance. Could it be he was right to doubt this man like he did?
He grabbed Grover’s hand, which was holding his T-shirt, and made a commendable effort to break loose.
“Let go of me!” he ordered furiously.
“If that’s what you want…”
Before young Adam could understand what was happening, Grover violently pressed down the brake. The van stopped suddenly; Adam was thrown forward, and hit his head very hard on the dashboard; Grover had made no attempt to stop him. The boy slumped on the seat, almost completely stunned. Through a haze, he heard a cackling sound coming from the driver.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you to keep your seat belt fastened?”
Stunned as he was, Adam was nevertheless astounded to hear the mocking tone in the gardener’s voice. Grover’s hand brutally took the boy by the arm, and without any apparent effort, lifted him up, and tossed him behind, from between the two seats. Adam fell on the van’s floor with a loud thud. He felt something warm and damp running down his forehead, as pain reverberated throughout his skull. Grunting, he tried to raise his aching head. He saw a dark red substance staining the floor, where his head had been. He was horrified when he realised it was his own blood.
Adam heard creaking coming from the front of the van and looked in that direction; he saw that Grover had left the driver’s seat to come in the back. He slowly moved toward the boy who, his eyes wide-open with terror, started to back away from him. Adam didn’t get very far, as he quickly reached the side of the van. His head was spinning, and he had trouble keeping his eyes in focus. He looked with dread and disbelief as Grover crouched in front of him; the man quietly lit a cigar, before looking down at the terrified boy, and smiling coldly at him.
“I sure hope your Dad ain’t as angry at you as you think, kid,” Adam heard Grover tell him, through a deepening haze. “Because I intend to cost him plenty, before I consider returning his precious little brat to him…”
The gardener blew some smoke directly in the weakening boy’s face. Adam didn’t even cough, his strength drained from him by the pain and the sheer horror of what was happening to him.
“My old man would be so surprised,” Grover added, staring icily at the boy. “I’m about to hit it pretty big, thanks to you.”
Those were the last words young Adam heard before consciousness left him, and fell mercifully into a pool of blackness.
* * *
Captain Blue’s head was spinning. He had an awful taste in his mouth and every nerve and muscle of his body ached.
Slowly awakening, he found himself lying on his back, on a thin, uncomfortable mattress, still fully dressed. He tried to lift his head, but let it fall back heavily, unable to even do that. That move only sent a wave of nausea through his stomach. He frowned, puzzled. What is wrong with me? he asked himself, trying to recall how he could have ended up in such a state. It felt like a bad hangover, but he didn’t remember drinking anything the day before. That bad taste in his mouth didn’t remind him of any alcohol he had ever drunk. It had a strange taste; like a mixture of blood and something medicinal. Like ether…
It suddenly came back to him. The jail. The ambush. The beating he took. And that piece of chloroformed rag somebody put over his nose.
The face of Grover.
That memory triggered a reaction within Blue and he tried to sit up straight; he could barely lift up an inch, and fell back on the mattress, grunting. He couldn’t move his arms. His hands were tied up over his head, to one of the metal bars of a headboard he could feel under his fingers. He couldn’t open his eyes either. Something was covering them, like an adhesive tape or something similar, completely blinding him.
“Wonderful,” Blue muttered, sighing heavily. He moved his hands, pulling on the ropes binding him. He succeeded only in hurting himself, and making the headboard rattle loudly. Which immediately brought another sound to his ears.
A key had been turned in a lock, and then a door creaked, as it was opened. Blue stopped his efforts and pricked up his ears. He heard somebody cackling. “Don’t try so hard, kid. You’ll break your hands.”
Blue felt his heart miss a beat, and shuddered. He heard steps approaching, limping steps… Then another creaking, like somebody sitting on a rickety wooden chair. He could feel the man next to the bed, looking at him. He could almost SEE him.
“Still up to your old tricks, eh, Grover?” Blue asked, trying to sound casual. “Why the blindfold? It’s perfectly useless. I know it’s you… And I know what you look like...”
“Don’t you find me changed, after all those years?” Grover asked mockingly.
“Yes. You’re older. Greyer. But I still recognized you…”
“Well, YOU’ve changed too, kid. You’re a lot tougher that you used to be.”
“I was a kid back then, Grover.”
The man chuckled. “I thought the blindfold would be a nice touch. A reminder of the good old days…”
“Yes,” Blue mumbled bitterly, almost to himself. “Still the same scum you were twenty-five years ago.” He paused a second, trying to get himself a little more comfortable, without much success. “So, when did you get out? I thought you were sent up for life.”
“I got paroled about five years ago.”
“So you did twenty years, huh? And you’ve been hiding in the Nevada desert since you got out? I suppose that’s the perfect place for you. You can make yourself forgotten. Plus there’s plenty of snakes like you.”
“Cute, Svenson, really cute! Don’t push your luck. I’m being real patient with you as it is.” Blue could feel Grover looking over him, with that very cold look he knew far too well. He waited for him to speak. “I’ve been around here for a couple of years. Doing odd jobs, making some friends… Not really a very exciting life. But it’s still a living.”
“Strange… I have a hard time picturing you spending a quiet life.” Blue moved his hands a little. He felt the bonds biting deeper into his wrists and grunted, gritting his teeth. “Of course, I kinda lost touch with you, didn’t I?”
“I searched for you when I got out of jail, kid.”
Blue sighed upon hearing those words. “I wonder why, really…”
“You shouldn’t wonder. You know we’ve got scores to settle between us.” Grover paused a moment. “You’re a hard man to find, you know?” he added. “I began by looking you up at your father’s numerous companies. Well, surprise, surprise! You didn’t join him on the finance market. Despite the fact that you studied economics. Hey, I learned you were a real whiz kid? Finished Harvard at sixteen? I’m really impressed.”
“I see you studied my life.”
“Just tried to keep myself informed.” There was another pause. Blue couldn’t see Grover taking a cigarette from his pack and lighting it, but the Spectrum officer distinctly smelt the scent of the tobacco smoke.
“Some bad habits are hard to break, I see,” he muttered. “But I guess smoking isn’t the only one in your case.”
Blowing out some smoke, Grover looked thoughtfully at the burning red end of his cigarette. “You know these things are like money in the joint?” he said quietly to Blue. “I learned to live on it and by it for twenty years, kid… Because of you and your dad.”
“That’s right. Make us responsible for what happened to you, Grover.”
Blue had hardly spoken those last sarcastic words when he felt a sudden burning sensation in the lower part of his neck, just above his collarbone. He let out a yelp of both surprise and pain. He could smell the distasteful odour of his own flesh sizzling under the burning cigarette.
“Will you cut that out, you maniac?” he shouted through clenched teeth.
“I told you not to push your luck!” Grover answered coldly. He pressed the cigarette down and crushed it against Blue’s bare skin, watching with satisfaction as his captive tried hard not to grunt in pain.
“I’m going to get you for this, Grover!” Blue lashed out in anger.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, kid,” Grover replied, tossing the crushed cigarette to the floor.
“Stop calling me that! I’m not a kid and you don’t frighten me anymore!”
“Oh, you think you’re so tough, now? You didn’t seem that tough last night!”
“YOU weren’t either when I knocked you down in that cantina!”
That seemed to do the trick. Growling with anger, Grover got to his feet, and reached for Blue’s restrained hands. He proceeded to untie them from the headboard. “We’ll see about that now, mister!” he grumbled all the while. “You should know that nobody can defy me like that and think he can get away with it!”
Blue’s hands were now free from the headboard, but still securely bound together. Grover took him by his collar and forced him to his feet. “Get up now! Up, smart guy! I’m gonna give you a lesson you won’t forget soon!”
No sooner was he on his feet than Blue brutally hit Grover under the chin with his bound hands. The older man stumbled backwards, and Blue pushed him over. Grover fell on his back, and Blue had to struggle not to follow him. He staggered, his footing precarious, since he couldn’t see where he stood, with his eyes still covered as they were. He heard too late the rapid footsteps behind him and was unable to evade the brutal blow on the back of his neck. He fell on his hands and knees; a kick in the stomach sent him sprawling on the floor with a loud moan. Before he could make a move, somebody put his foot on his throat, pinning him down, almost choking him.
“What were you thinking of, Will?” the newcomer called out angrily at Grover, who was struggling to get to his feet. “Why did you free him?”
Grover was up, breathing hard, looking down with fury and contempt at Blue. He threw him a vicious kick in the side, that made the younger man groan in pain.
“He needed a lesson!” Grover said to his companion. “Hasn’t changed much… Still the same pig-headed kid he was twenty-five years ago. Will you ever learn, Adam, my boy? You can’t defy me without paying the price for it!”
“I’m not your boy, you dirty…” Blue’s voice trailed off in a strangled grunt, when the foot that was keeping him down pressed a little more on his throat. Grover looked at him intensely, before nodding to his accomplice.
“Help me get him up. I’ll show that bastard who’s boss here.”
A dazed Blue was picked up from the floor by two strong pairs of arms. He was literally dragged away from the bed where he had awakened, still not able to see anything around him. The two men didn’t take him far and didn’t leave the room. While his accomplice held the half-stunned Spectrum officer, Grover picked up a long rope from the floor and tied one end of it to Blue’s hands. He threw the other end over a steel beam that was about ten feet above their heads and caught hold of the rope when it came dangling down in front of him. He went to a supporting stud not far from there, and pulled with all his strength on the line, hoisting his prisoner up. He didn’t stop until Blue was only able to touch the ground with the tips of his shoes; then he tightly secured his end of the rope to the stud.
“That should keep him quiet,” Grover said with a satisfied grin, addressing his accomplice. “Now you can go. I’m sure I can take care of the rest.”
The ominous edge in his voice didn’t presage anything good in Blue’s ears. Even the other man seemed a bit worried.
“Now be careful, Will. We don’t want him dead. He’s much more valuable to us alive.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Grover grumbled dryly. “It’s me who’s the brain, here!”
“But you’re not alone in this. I don’t know if the others would agree with…”
“I won’t kill him, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing. Now leave us. Me and Mr Svenson have a lot to talk about.”
The other man sighed, giving up; he left the dark room in which they had locked up their captive, and closed the door as he went out. Grover turned an evil eye at the young man in front of him, hanging by his hands. Blue was trying to get his footing. Only his toes were supporting him; his weight pulled painfully on his arms and wrists. Before long, he realised, he wouldn’t even be able to feel them.
“Not comfortable, is it?” Grover remarked quietly. “Don’t worry. I’ll lower you down later on. But right now, I’ve got a lesson to give you.”
Blue stopped struggling; it was useless. He wished he could see to know exactly what Grover had in mind. At least, he had heard some interesting bits of information from the other man.
“What did your friend mean, ‘I’m much more valuable to you alive’?” he asked, overcoming the growing pain in his wrists.
“What do you think he meant, kid?” Grover answered back. “You MUST have a good idea…”
Blue nodded; yes, indeed, he had an idea…
“I don’t have any money, Grover.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’d already imagined a former test pilot and security agent wouldn’t have much to spare.”
“You know about that too?”
“Told you I kept myself informed about your whereabouts. Though I lost track of what you’ve been doing for the past three years or so. You seem to have completely disappeared from the face of the Earth. What are you up to these days, anyway?”
Blue did not respond. He had no intention of telling Grover about Spectrum. The other man pondered his captive’s silence and thought he was concentrating on keeping his mind clear. He sighed.
“No matter. That’s not really important. I’m not after your money, kid. I realised that any you could have would come from your father. So I’ll go right to the source.”
Blue laughed softly, notwithstanding the pain he was feeling from his numbing arms. “I should have known… So we’re right back to that, are we?”
“Your dad owes me, kid. And with interest.”
“He won’t pay you, Grover. Remember? He didn’t pay last time. What makes you think he will this time?”
“Me, I’m pretty sure he will. Last time, he didn’t pay because he chose not to play fair. Now, we just have to show him how serious we really are. I’ll need your… cooperation for this.”
“Don’t hold your breath! You don’t really expect I’d help you out? I will do nothing!”
“But you DON’T have to do anything.”
Grover unbuckled his belt and dragged it out of his belt-loops. He folded it in two in his hands and made it snap loudly. Blue pricked up his ears at the sound. Grover smiled evilly.
“You just have to hang there, looking absolutely miserable,” he explained, walking slowly around his intended victim to get behind him. “That should convince your old man we mean business. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll make sure you really look the part. I’ll provide the necessary… inspiration.”
Blue heard the whistling sound of the belt as it was suddenly released. He braced himself just in time before the heavy buckle hit him brutally in the lower back. He clenched his teeth against the violent pain, and muffled a cry. The second blow caught him squarely between the shoulder-blades; he stiffened, letting out a grunt.
“I swear, Grover,” he hissed between his teeth, “I’ll make you pay for this.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, kid,” Grover cackled wickedly. “You’re the one who’s going to pay… You and your dad, that is.”
The belt struck Blue’s back again, even more violently than before, sending a wave of pain throughout the young man’s body. He had now the distinct feeling that Grover had every intention of beating him up to his heart’s content. And he had plenty of grudge and hate in him to go on endlessly.
The Spectrum officer steeled himself. The punishment, he knew it, would be a long and very painful one. He was praying fervently that he would be able to find a way to get himself out of this mess before long.
He was also very grateful that his beloved Symphony Angel had not fallen into Grover’s evil clutches… and that she was now safely away, under the watchful care of Captain Scarlet.