“Excuse me, miss – would you pass me that salt cellar of yours for a few seconds? The Chinese guy who served me just now seems to have difficulty understanding that the one on this table’s kinda congealed.”
The lightly-built girl with the short mousy hair at the next table looked up from the wrapper of her meal, took in his expensive-looking motorcycle leathers at a glance and handed over the dispenser with a grin.
“American, is it now? So why would you not be queuin’ somewhere for a hamburger, Mr Biker? I’ve observed that what passes for civilization in England here has now advanced to the point where the sight of a McDonalds doesn’t give them nervous breakdowns any more… at least, not because they don’t know what it is,” she added by way of an afterthought.
Instinctively the lightly-bearded American grinned back; her soft Irish brogue instantly took him back to his schooldays in Detroit, where his very first girlfriend only had to bid him a top of the morning to turn his knees to jelly.
“Well, as I saw it, with several overstretched credit cards plus nine euros and forty-five cents in my pocket, I had a choice. Treat myself to a traditional English meal or starve. McDonalds didn’t make the final runoff: I decided I’d rather starve.”
He looked down at his chips dolefully, to which a thick coating of salt was now tenaciously adhering, courtesy of an even thicker coating of grease. “Though perhaps a very small McMuffin wouldn’t have come amiss. Are these things really the Brits’ favourite snack?”
“They are not, Mr Biker,” she replied with just a hint of condescension. “It’s my understandin’ that a traditional evening snack in England these days consists of Peking duck tikka masala pizza washed down with a vodka and Coke. They only feed this stuff to the tourists. Do you not like it, then?”
The American grimaced. “I’ve had better. Mind you, this apology for a wrapper to keep the heat in doesn’t exactly get the gastric juices flowing. If I’d wanted to ogle topless women I’d have gone to a strip joint; there seem to be enough of them around here.”
“Ah, well, that’s Soho for you, Mr Biker. This whole area used to be the centre of London’s sex trade once upon a time. Still is, if you know where to look for it.”
He gave her a look. “I don’t pay for sex.”
“That’s nothing to me,” she shrugged. “I’m not sellin’ it – which answers the other question that doubtless was beginnin’ to surface at the back of your mind. If you’d prefer to exchange that greasy parcel of yours for mine, I’ll not take offence.”
“I take it you’re not bothered by the sight of your food being wrapped up in pictures of naked women, then?”
“I’ll grant you that I prefer not to be confronted by photos of scantily-clad young ladies with better lookin’ bodies than mine just before I’m about to tuck in to anything fattening,” she conceded after a second’s thought. “Speakin’ personally, I always preferred chips wrapped up in either the Dublin Financial Gazette or the Greyhound Racers Weekly. Better quality of journalism all round, don’t you know – especially the latter. No split infinitives to seriously aggravate the grammatically perceptive reader – and the ink doesn’t come off on your fingers when you wipe up the grease. What did you say your name was, Mr Biker?”
“Rick. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss… er…”
“Now why would you be thinkin’ I’m unattached, Mr Biker? I never met a man who knew which finger to find a weddin’ ring, let alone one who bothered to look for one before chattin’ up a demure young colleen such as myself.”
“It’d be a damned insensitive partner to send you out for a takeaway on a night like this,” he observed dryly, “and somehow I don’t think you’d put up with a man like that for more than a one-night stand. You come over as a rather discerning lady.”
The self-proclaimed demure young colleen pulled a face. “Nobody sends me out for takeaways, Mr Biker.”
Rick grinned. “That’s kinda what I thought.” He glanced around the squalid little café. “Er… you’ll forgive the cliché, I’m sure, but just what is a girl like you doing in a place like this? Good food’s not hard to find if you try – there are any number of up-market restaurants less than a stone’s throw away from here, and credit cards can always be stretched a little bit further before they snap.”
“You know London a little, then? I’m hungry – and before you ask me out for a meal, I’m short of time. Also, believe it or not, I do actually like chips… well, most chips anyway. You were going to ask me out for a meal, I take it?”
“The thought had crossed my mind – after all, we’re not actually eating these things, are we? So why are you so short of time? There’s a whole city to explore out there, and the night is young…”
“I fly out at midnight, Mr Biker – and they won’t be waitin’ around for me if I’m late.”
His eyebrows rose. “Air stewardess? You staying in one of the hotels around Heathrow? You’ll need a big strong guy to carry your luggage then…”
“It’s a private jet from City Airport we’re talking’ about, Mr Biker, if you please. You see a little waif like me pushing a dirty great drinks trolley up and down the aisles of a Fireflash, do you now?”
“The Fireflash - now there’s an aircraft I’d like to cross the Atlantic in,” he mused. “The only thing is that for that sort of fare I’d expect the trip to take a bit longer, you know what I mean? At Mach six you’ve hardly got your seatbelt fastened before you’re down on the ground again. Shame about all those teething troubles just after it went into service; it’s a beautiful plane. Now if I’d been in charge of the investigation into that sabotage attempt on the maiden flight…”
“Ah! You’re a cop. I knew you were a cop. The minute you walked in, I said to myself ‘Now that man is a cop’, I did. So would that be a civilian cop or military cop?”
He held up his hands in mock protest. “Okay, okay – I used to be a cop. Chicago police force, a few years back. Then… other work for a while.”
She arched an inquisitive eyebrow. “What kind of ‘other’ work would that be then, Mr Biker?”
“The kind of other work you don’t talk about,” he replied dismissively. “I missed the detective stuff though, so when my commission came up for renewal I decided to move on. These days I specialize in private investigations. What do you do for a living, Miss… er…”
“It’s Elaine – and I never talk about what I do to earn my bread and cheese, Mr Biker,” she retorted easily. “Indeed, I’m surprised you mentioned it yourself – where I come from they get most upset if you allude to it in civilian company. And anyway, why bother? It only takes a black leather jacket like that one you’re wearin’ and talk of private detectives to impress most attractive young women.”
His eyes twinkled at her offhand exposure of his motivation for accidentally dropping it into the conversation. “Ah, but then you’re not just any attractive young woman, are you?”
“You’re good with the blarney, Mr Biker – I’ll give you that,” she observed dryly. “Would there be any Irish blood in your family, then?”
“Not that I know, but I guess it wouldn’t surprise me if I went back far enough. We get all nationalities in Detroit where I grew up, and my family lived there at least four generations before I moved one state west. Must be half a dozen of my ancestors were cops, and it seems like your fellow countrymen make up half the police force in those parts, so maybe….”
He glanced up as the door opened and three young men, one wiry oriental and two heavily-built whites, entered the establishment and walked directly to the counter, where the oriental started talking to the owner in quiet, rapid Chinese. One of his comrades glanced around the room, noted the two customers sitting in the corner and then turned to join his friends at the counter.
“So what does the cop in you say about those three young gentlemen behind my back, Rick?”
He spared them a passing glance before turning his attention back to the chips. “Punks. Maybe they’re up to no good, maybe they just wanted to get out of the rain, but they’re punks either way. Recognise ‘em a mile off – they’re the same all over. Not that it’s any of my business any more, but they’d need to be pretty dumb to start making a nuisance of themselves while there are still customers in here.”
“Ah well, that would be you and me, wouldn’t it now. Does that fill you with a sense of responsibility to sit here until they leave, Mr Biker? I would myself, but I’m mindful of the time.”
“In that case, Miss Elaine, the only advice I’d offer you is to walk quickly away from here and find a taxi for yourself as soon as you can. I wouldn’t claim to be fluent in Cantonese, but I picked up enough of it on the streets of Chicago’s Chinatown to be able to complain when the hoi sin’s has been watered down. The oriental one there just told the owner to pay him the balance he’s owed right now or see both of his daughter’s arms being broken. Looks like they’re even dumber than I thought – but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. I think you’d better call the police: make your exit look as casual as you can, but get on your cell phone as soon as you’re out of sight of the door…”
She glanced up at the increasingly animated discussion going on at the bar, then shook her head decisively. “The hell with that. All three of them are carrying knives, and the Caucasian on the left’s got a gun in his inside pocket. By the time anybody got here they’d need an ambulance and maybe a hearse – you make the call; I’ll go and see if we can’t persuade them to clear off before anybody gets hurt.”
“What? But you can’t…”
She frowned at him with mild irritation. “Not so loud if you please, Mr Biker – now you just get on that phone like I told you, yes?” Sliding herself out of her chair, she marched purposefully over to the bar and tapped the young Chinese man on the shoulder.
“Excuse me now, sir… we were wonderin’ if you’d maybe consider keeping the noise down just a tad - there’s people trying to enjoy this eating establishment’s excellent fare in peace and quiet over there, don’t you know?”
Halfway through reiterating his catalogue of threats to the clearly terrified owner of the chippie, the young man turned and blinked at the little girl in astonishment, while the sharper-witted of his two bodyguards took in the position of her still-seated male companion at a glance, concluded that the girl had simply wandered into the fray by accident and tried to push her away from the bar. She scowled back at him in mock outrage, instantly attracting the attention of all three thugs while her companion quietly rose out his chair and began to advance on the group from the other side.
“I’ll have you know that’s not the way to treat a lady, now! But if you’d like to buy me a nice hot portion of chips from the owner of this restaurant to replace the one that’s going cold on my table back there I’ll consider forgettin’ the insult…”
The reference to the table proved to be a mistake: both bodyguards instinctively looked across the room, realised that the biker who had been sitting there a moment previously had disappeared, belatedly realised they’d been duped and swung round again… to find themselves staring into the face an exceptionally fierce-looking bearded man clad in black leathers, almost as heavily-built as themselves.
One of them was down almost before he knew what had hit him; the biker’s fist slammed into his jaw, propelling him backwards across the room in an uncoordinated tumble that ended with his collapsing in a heap over one of the empty tables, which instantly disintegrated under the weight. The other one instantly reached into his inside pocket and extracted a long metallic sheathed knife. Half a second later, a wicked-looking six-inch blade sprang out of the end of it, and was raised high into the air on the first stage of its path downwards towards his assailant’s unprotected throat.
Catching the descending clenched fist in mid-air and slamming it down onto the bar with an ear-jarring crunch, Rick winced at the subsequent scream of agony as his diminutive female companion abruptly terminated the altercation by delivering a devastating kick into the thug’s upper arm, breaking it with an audible crack just below the shoulder.
“’Armless, are you now? So you won’t be needin’ this then – right?” She prised the knife out of his numbed fingers and hurled it across the room, where it thudded into the woodwork dado, point first.
“Oh – and I almost forgot to mention…”
She wrenched open his jacket and completely disregarding the howls of pain as the thug’s broken arm twisted in its sleeve, extracted the gun from his inside pocket and tossed it across the room.
“…these things are illegal, don’t you know. You really ought to be more careful what you carry around with you – somebody might just get hurt…”
“Elaine - look out!”
Almost before the warning had escaped his lips, she leapt skywards to avoid the furious sweep of the Oriental’s leg as he tried to kick her feet from underneath her. Whilst still in mid-air her own leg lashed out in a precisely-executed flying drop-kick, the blade of her foot catching him squarely in the throat, and the force of the delivery sending him staggering backwards into the counter. Converting her landing into a roll with all the grace of a professional athlete, she stayed down just long enough to see her bearded companion flying over the top of her to bring him finally to the ground with a classic front rugby tackle. Pinned under the weight of his assailant, the fight was abruptly concluded with a perfectly-timed punch to his jaw, which left the Chinaman lying unconscious on the floor.
The faint click of a trigger was the only warning Rick got that the fight wasn’t over; hurling himself to one side, he rolled over and over as a bullet thudded into the floor inches from his head. Seizing the nearest chair by the leg, he hurled it with unerring accuracy at the second bodyguard’s gun, which clattered away across the floor. Nursing his fingers, the furious thug went for his knife instead – only to have it kicked neatly out of his hand by the little Irish girl, who, after winding him with a hard follow-up kick in his stomach, seized him by the throat and remorselessly choked him into unconsciousness.
After a few moments, she straightened up and brushed down her jacket, frowning with disdain at the amount of grime off the floor that had adhered itself to the fabric during the fight. “Oh well, I never liked this one anyway – the cost of dry-cleaning it’ll be more than it’s worth.” She peeled it off, picked up one of the knives and began cutting it into strips. At her partner’s raised eyebrow, she shrugged.
“I suppose we ought to see if we can make that unpleasant young gentleman over there with the broken arm comfortable until the police arrive. Did you get around to making that call then, Mr Biker?”
He frowned, running his fingers through his hair. “Now when the hell do you suppose I’ll have had time to do that? But I guess it won’t be necessary now – have you seen the owner of this place since the start of our little brawl? No, neither have I: if he’s got any sense at all he’ll have gone for them himself – in which case we won’t have long to wait. Not too good at counting the guns, were you?”
She tossed her hair defiantly. “I counted one more than you did, Mr Biker, that’s for sure! Here, pass me those strips of cloth, will you? I should be able to create a sling for him without too much difficulty, provided he doesn’t try to attack me again…”
She knelt down beside the patient, who was moaning quietly to himself in the corner, looking directly into his eyes with an expression of tender concern. “… because if he does, I’ll kill him.”
He began handing her strips of the shredded garment, which she rapidly and expertly concatenated into a makeshift sling. “So where did you learn to kick like that, Miss Bruce McLee?”
She glanced up from the broken arm she’d started to dress. “If I told you I was a chorus girl in the Folies Bergère’s interpretation of the Riverdance revival, would you believe me?”
“Not a chance!”
“There’s hope for you yet then,” she retorted. “Oh – and while I’m thinkin’ about it, watch out for the other one over there: he’s not quite as unconscious as he looks.”
“No?” Stooping down, he seized the second young tough by the collar, dragged him to his feet and landed a precisely-aimed hooked punch squarely on his jaw. The thug’s body was thrown backwards off its feet by the force of the blow, collapsing once more into an unconscious pile on the floor, and reducing another table to matchwood in the process. Rick surveyed the wreckage for a couple more seconds, then strode back to his companion, who was still administering first-aid to the injured tough propped up against the counter.
“So how are things coming along in Mercy Hospital? Will the patient survive, or are the law-abiding citizens of London gonna get lucky?”
She stood up, glancing over her handiwork with an expression of satisfaction. “That’s done – and not before time too. It looks like you were right about the owner having gone for the police: I think I can hear the sirens. Shit – it’s almost a quarter to midnight! I’m going to miss that plane… is there any chance you could give me a lift to the airport on that bike of yours, Rick?”
He grinned. “Sure – no problem, as long as you don’t mind riding pillion. I don’t exactly wanna spend half the night making statements to the cops myself. Let’s get out of here, shall we?” He glanced around the room, frowning. “Damn – my crash-helmet’s disappeared. Must be under one of those broken tables over there. Oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter – I wasn’t thinking of having a fatal accident tonight anyway…”
He strode over to the door and stepped out into the darkness, his Irish companion close behind. “Bike’s over there in that alleyway. Give me a second…”
He reached into his pocket, extracted a remote from one of the inside pockets and pointed it at the machine. Several lights on the bike’s exterior blinked in response, and a dark metallic shield between the handlebars slid aside to reveal a dazzling array of controls underneath. He noted the unadulterated fascination that was apparent in her eyes, and grinned.
“Not a good idea to leave one of these babies unsecured in the street. There’s always some techno-freak around who thinks Christmas has arrived early.”
“Tell me about it,” she muttered under her breath, her expression clouding for a fraction of a second. The look gave way to one of discomfort as the pall of drizzle began to turn into heavier spots of rain, and she shivered. “It’s cold out here – and wet. I’m going to arrive looking like a frozen drenched water-rat...”
He reached into one of the motorbike’s panniers and extracted its contents with a flourish. “No problem, miss – I got just the thing. I guess it might be a bit large, but it’ll keep you from freezing. Here, put it on – quick – and then let’s go!” He tossed the jacket over to her, and she caught it with a grin, running forward to jump onto the back of the bike as he started it up. The machine roared into life, and they shot into the street with a screech of tyres, swerving violently to miss the first police car to arrive by less than half a metre as it turned into the alleyway.
“Don’t you be forgettin’ that they drive on the left here, Mr Biker!” she shouted over his shoulder as they began to weave in and out of the midnight traffic, first overtaking buses, then taxis and cars, then everything else on the road as the velocity display climbed steadily towards, and then past, 150 kph. “No chance of that!” he yelled back, “Why do you think we’re on the right most of the time? Hey – watch out for the guy with the bow and arrow!”
She lurched violently to the right as the bike skidded around Piccadilly Circus and shot off down Shaftesbury Avenue, then gritted her teeth and held on grimly as the tourist hotspots of the West End began to give way to the more anonymous skyscrapers of Docklands’ financial quarter. Upon spotting the flash of yet another automatic road safety enforcing unit out of her peripheral vision, she leaned forward and started yelling in his ear.
“Hey! About all these speeding tickets that’ll be comin’ your way, Rick! The folks I work for have a little pull in such matters – maybe I can get ‘em cancelled…” He shook his head violently, gesturing down at the control panel in front of him. “No problem, right! Just don’t you worry about it, okay?”
She peered down at the little device screwed to the dashboard at which he was pointing, and blinked with indignant astonishment. “Where the hell did you get that from, Mr Biker? Those things are USS triple-A classified! You’ve got no right…”
Even above the roaring of the motorbike’s engine she could hear his throaty chuckle. “Gee – I guess I must have forgotten to hand it back! According to this we’ve been photographed forty-three times so far, and every one of them showing a black silhouette of the bike… how ‘bout that, eh? Now then, this private jet of yours… would it be stationed in the executive compound?”
“You got it, Mr Biker!” She shook her head and grinned to herself as the motorbike shot through the entrance to the airport, its owner swerving sharply to avoid the security barrier as they passed, setting off immediately down a maze of anonymous alleyways that were obviously not intended to be used by members of the public. He’s been here before, she realised.
Screeching around a sharp corner, they found themselves in the middle of a ring of small aircraft, one of which was moving forward slowly to take its place at the end of a taxiway that stretched off into darkness. Even as the bike skidded to a halt, an array of landing lights lit up in front of the plane, indicating its route out of the compound to the main runway. She took a deep breath, and then scrambled off the back of the bike with an apologetic look on her face.
“Sorry, Rick – I’m gonna have to go. I’ve got just seconds – otherwise I’m going to have a lot of explainin’ to do…”
She gave him a quick hug, then set off at a half-run towards a small jet. Halfway across the tarmac she turned. “Hey, Mr Biker! I forgot – this is your jacket…”
He shrugged, laughing. “Keep it – it suits you! You can always give it me back the next time we…. hey, wait a minute! I don’t even know where you live… Elaine!”
Too late: she was already running towards the boarding steps of the jet, the whine of the engines of which was already beginning to build up. He watched from the shadows as she reached the top of the steps, to be greeted by a smart salute from a uniformed member of the cabin crew, who had appeared at the doorway in acknowledgement of her arrival. Turning briefly, she blew her companion a quick kiss before disappearing inside. Instantly the attendant followed; the door was slammed shut and the steps wheeled away, and the little jet began to turn in readiness for its short taxi onto the runway, the whine of the engines already building up to a crescendo.
Frowning as if at a half-forgotten memory, it took Rick a couple of seconds to realise what it was about the scene he was still replaying in his mind that had set his skin tingling: not the blown kiss from the girl herself, but the uniform of the crewmember who had saluted her at the top of the steps … the uniform of a Spectrum lieutenant…
Switching his attention to the recently restyled but still instantly recognisable emblem adorning the tailfin of the jet, he blinked in astonishment as it moved away from the terminal into the darkness, gathering speed as it went.
“Jeez – that’s a Spectrum jet! And that lieutenant saluted her… she must be a captain, for Chrissakes! How about that!”
Elaine flopped down into her seat, took a deep breath, reached forward and activated the videophone. The screen flashed into life, showing a familiar face regarding her with a quizzical expression tinged with just a hint of relief.
“I gather you only just made it, Captain Ochre?”
She gave him a look of reproof. “My timing’s impeccable, Captain Scarlet – as always. I just got a tad delayed when I was grabbing a snack downtown earlier, so I got a friend of mine to give me a ride to the airport on his motorbike – hence the leather jacket, which I forgot to give him back. D’you like it? It’s extremely comfortable, don’t you know… I think I’ll keep it.”
Scarlet nodded appreciatively. “It suits you.”
“That’s what he said. Quite a guy – knows how to handle himself in a tight spot too. I really should have asked him his name: Spectrum can use people like that.”
“He’s a friend of yours, and you don’t even know his name?”
She shrugged. “Rick. He said his name was Rick. He’s American – Chicago, I think he said it was – a private investigator, and he likes motorbikes… now why would you be lookin’ at me like that, Captain Scarlet?”
Scarlet blinked, shaking his head. “Sorry? Oh – it’s nothing… just a coincidence, that’s all.” He glanced at his chronometer and nodded to himself thoughtfully. “Your flight’s scheduled to be landing on Cloudb… sorry, Skybase – in less than twenty minutes, Captain. You’d better get into uniform; the colonel’s called a briefing for ten minutes after touchdown.”
“S.I.G. Captain Scarlet.”
She deactivated the videophone, rose from her seat and headed for the little bathroom at the back of the jet, where she ran a large basin of water with which to give herself a much-needed wash, then peeled off the jacket. Pausing in front of the mirror, she felt the collar for a few seconds, remembering. Yes, he WAS quite a guy, wasn’t he? I wonder who he was…
Thanks as ever to go Hazel for doing the beta work on the above; also to Brindlewhite for the two excellent screen-shots of Elaine which I downloaded from the site library, and to Caroline for the superb close-ups of the bearded Rick which appear in the montages. Many thanks, my friends - and I hope you enjoyed the story.
Any comments? Send an E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site