A Captain Scarlet/X-Men Multiverse Story by Caroline Smith
Adam Svenson III threw his gold pen down on the burl-wood coffee table and flopped against the comforting contours of the leather sofa in the living-room of his Manhattan penthouse. He squeezed and rubbed his eyes as if to remove invisible grains of sand behind them; it was hard enough trying to decipher his chief financial officer’s brick of a monthly report without being distracted by Senator John Roberts’ latest ravings on the televiewer:
“In the last year, we’ve seen a geometric increase in the numbers of mutant children born, most of them to what seem like ‘normal’ parents. But soon this will change, these mutants will eventually produce more children, and goodness knows what that genetic mix will give rise to. Ordinary people have the right to know who is in their midst, whether their children are in school with mutants, whether those same children are taught by mutants, whether our doctors or nurses are mutants. That’s what this registration is designed to achieve. I don’t believe that is an unreasonable aim. I’m happy to believe that the majority of mutants are, at the moment, law-abiding citizens, but who’s to say that won’t change over time? What concessions will they start to demand, and if we are not prepared to give them, who’s to say they won’t try to take them by force? No, I believe the time has come to address this issue, before things get out of hand.”
“Some people might say that you have a personal revenge motive at work here, Senator; it’s common knowledge that your daughter suffered and died at the hands of a suspected mutant.”
“People can say what they want. We need registration and if the World Government is not prepared to deal with the issues then quite frankly –”
Adam didn’t wait to find out what doom Roberts was about to pronounce. He killed the transmission with mounting frustration, then stood up, stretched to his full six feet three inches and barked a voice command to open the huge sliding glass windows at the far end the living room. What he needed was some fresh air to clear his mind. He stepped out onto the paved terrace, savouring the sharp bite of the night air. He owned the entire top floor of the forty-three storey building; it cost plenty, but then he could afford it, after all, he was the sole inheritor of the multi-billion dollar Svenson Corporation and its Chief Executive Officer.
But he was also undoubtedly the only CEO who sprouted a pair of white feathered wings between their shoulder blades.
He leant his tall frame against the balustrade of the terrace and looked out over the city spread out around and below him, glorying in the view atop his own private aerie, hearing the concerto of the city all around him: the wail of police sirens, the honking of the taxis and cars. He breathed in deeply, and stepped up onto the stone edge, his wings flaring outwards, his arms joining them in a salute to the world below. Then he tipped over, into the abyss, his wings fast-slapping the air currents, swooping downwards into the glass and concrete canyons in a long lazy u-curve-of-a-dive, skimmed sharply upwards at the bottom of the curve into a fast climb, soaring past a floating neon sign towards freedom.
Up and up he rose, his wings beating hard and strong, until the haze of a million street lights faded and the clear black night greeted him. He dipped and dived, arms wide, savouring the invigorating rush of cold air against his body, rippling through his hair, his wings, enjoying the glorious sensation of flight, the enthralling, euphoric drug of his choice. Lazily, he rolled, turning on his back, as if resting on a feather bed, to stare at the constellations, his mind unravelling as if by enchantment from the cares and woes of his earthbound self.
He had no idea how long he spent aloft, but slowly, reality took hold of him, and the thought that the longer he spent up here, the higher the chance of being seen by some low flying aircraft. He scanned the skyline for the familiar landmarks of his neighbourhood; saw the silvery flash of the East River, and with regret he began the long swoop earthwards. As he dropped gracefully onto his terrace, his newly-calm frame of mind was rudely shattered by the shrill tone of the telephone inside the apartment. He hoped it wasn’t Bob Riley with more of his blasted figures; although the flight had cleared his head, he had had about enough for tonight.
“Adam, is that you? It’s Charles.”
He immediately brightened on hearing the voice of his former mentor.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you at this late hour,” Gray continued.
“No problem, I was just taking a breather from some tedious paperwork, consider it a rescue. What’s up?”
“Have you heard of a place called the Spectrum Society?”
“Sure, I happen to be a member.”
“Yes, I inherited the membership along with Svenson Corporation, after my father retired. It’s an old, ostentatious and risqué establishment club. I never really had the inclination to go there.”
“Do you think you might allow yourself the inclination, as a favour to me?”
“Well, call this complete coincidence, but I have an invitation to a charity ball that’s being held there on Friday evening. I hadn’t planned to go. What on earth is your interest in the place?”
Gray recounted their run-in with the mystery soldiers during Paul’s rescue.
“It seems unlikely that there’s any connection at all,” Adam said.
“Well, the link is extremely tenuous; perhaps this is just another coincidence.”
“Look, I have the invitation,” Adam said, making a decision. “Why don’t I go along anyway? I can have a snoop around and see if I find anything suspicious.”
“Well, nothing so drastic, I wouldn’t want you to get into any trouble.”
Adam glanced at the pile of waiting reports on the table.
“Oh heck, the corporate life was beginning to pall anyway. And speaking to you makes me realise how much I miss my old life. I’m afraid running a Fortune-100 company is taking its toll, at least until I get this year’s budgets under control.”
Gray gave what sounded to Adam like a smothered chuckle. “You’ve come a long way from the young man I first met at Harvard. But then, I always knew there was steel and determination beneath that devil-may-care exterior of yours.”
It was Adam’s turn to chuckle. “Yeah, duty gets us all in the end.”
As he replaced the hand-link he figured he had better decide which of his ten dinner suits would be suitable for the occasion; after, he thought in answer to the loud rumble in his guts, he raided his fridge.
The magnified image on the wall-screen cast an eerie blue glow around the room and on the faces of the X-Men sitting around the conference table in the basement. Edward focused his light-pen on the image.
“Well,” he said, “we didn’t find any transmitters on him, but we did find something else. This man’s entire skeleton has been fused with an extremely rare alloy called tritonium. I could hardly believe the analysis when it was completed, so we ran the checks twice. There’s no mistake.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Gray said, “but have never encountered it until now.”
“Fused?” Patrick interrupted. “You mean someone did this to him? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that would take some doing.”
“How could someone survive a procedure like that? It is barbaric!” Juliette added, her eyes riveted on the image.
“In this case,” Edward said, “I can only suspect that he survived because of this mutant healing ability of his. But I can’t imagine how the procedure was carried out, and it wasn’t something I wanted to ask him at the time.”
“I fear that Mr. Metcalfe suffers those nightmares as a result of this,” Gray said. “I presume his claws are made of tritonium as well?
“They are. It’s an incredibly durable metal, resistant to heat and cold. His bones would be rendered practically unbreakable as a result of being combined with it. And coupled with his healing ability
“Makes the guy virtually indestructible,” Rick completed Edward’s thought. “Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble over him. I can’t imagine a procedure like this being cheap.”
Dianne glanced at her fiancé with a flicker of surprise; there was a callous note in his voice she hadn’t heard for a long time.
“Who would do something like this?” Patrick said. “Doesn’t he have any idea?”
“No, not at the moment,” Gray replied. “His nightmares may be the only clue.”
Rick sat back in his chair with a frown. “What happens when they come looking for him again? There are obviously a lot of people real interested in him and his metal spikes. Hell, with all that metal inside him, Magneto could control him with a flick of his little finger. I think it’s crazy bringing him back here and suicidal for even thinking he can stay. It’s bad enough that he has no control over –”
“We can’t just turn him away!” Dianne interrupted him.
“And exactly what do we owe him?” he flashed back at her.
“We owe it to every mutant to be a place of sanctuary,” Gray cut in, and his tone was unusually sharp. “Otherwise we’re no better than those who oppose us.”
Rick’s face darkened. “I know that. But I still don’t like it, there’s too many unknowns.”
“I agree it’s risky,” Gray replied. “But he also took a risk in trusting us. I’m not going to break a promise.”
Rick remained in his chair as the others got up to leave. He stared broodingly at the image on the wall, twiddling a pen in his fingers. Patrick noticed and turned back towards him.
“What’s up?” he asked quietly.
The American shook his head. “Am I the only one who has a bad feeling about this? Okay, Metcalfe’s had a rough deal, but he’s got half the universe chasing him. And they’re going to come knocking on our door. I’m wondering if the old man’s starting to lose it.”
Patrick raised an eyebrow. “That’s a bit harsh. He’s always worked this way. You and I wouldn’t be where we are if he didn’t take in people like ourselves, on trust; or have you forgotten that?”
Rick scowled. “Of course I haven’t forgotten. But times have changed.”
“Suspicion of mutants never has. Charles wants us to occupy the moral high ground, otherwise where the hell are we?”
Rick remained silent, staring at the desk.
“You know,” Patrick said, “Paul’s all right. I’d stake my life on it. You should have seen him fight off those goons in the snow. I think he’ll make a good asset to the team.”
“Is there something else bothering you, boss-man?”
Rick jerked his head up. “No – there’s nothing else.” He stood up, running a hand through his hair. “Maybe you’re right. I should give him a chance. It’s just that there’s so much stuff going on, and there’s Dianne and her nightmares.”
Patrick nodded, as if comprehension dawned. “No improvement then?”
Rick shook his head. “Even though she’s found Metcalfe, it hasn’t stopped them.”
“Well, I’m sure Charles is working on a way to resolve it.”
“I’m just worried the cure might be worse than the disease,” Rick answered.
As the X-Men discussed their new arrival, he was searching for Magnolia Jones. He finally found her in the gym locker room. When she saw him approach, he noticed her eyes dart about, as if to find a way to avoid him. Like a skittish colt, he thought. I must have scared \her half to death.
“Look,” Paul said, “I wanted to apologise for last night, for hurting you. They told me you were fine but I wanted to make sure of it for myself.”
“Yeah, I’m great,” she replied with a small shrug.
“That’s a relief. I’ve been worrying about you since I woke.”
“There’s nothin’ to apologise for. I guess I shouldn’t have been in your room anyway, and I stole your power and all, and nearly killed you so I could save myself, so I guess that makes us quits.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s one way of putting it.” He paused for a moment, regarding her soberly. “Look, I think I might be staying here for a few days, and I didn’t want to have any bad feeling between us.”
She gave him a stiff little nod. “That’s okay, there’s none on my part.”
“There’s just one other thing,” he added, as she sidled along the wall away from him. She stopped, eyeing him warily. “Gray said your mutant power might also absorb people’s memories –” he purposely avoided mentioning the obvious deadly side effect; there was little point in dredging it up again. “So, I just wanted to know, that when you touched me, if you absorbed any of mine.”
Her white-tipped hair swung in the negative. “I – uh – don’t remember.”
“You didn’t experience any images at all?”
“Well, I got flashes, kind of like a movie shutter firing, they were horrible. I thought I was imagining things ‘cos I was dying, you know how they say, your life flies in front of your eyes?”
“And?” he asked hopefully.
She shook her head again. “Like a dream. You can’t remember any of it after you’re awake for a few hours.”
“That’s why I’m here, in case anyone didn’t tell you,” Paul said. “I don’t remember any of my past, and there’s a whole bunch of people following me trying to hunt me down like an animal.”
He saw something flicker in her brown eyes; it could have been pity or empathy, he couldn’t tell, and then her mouth tightened in a line.
“I’m sorry,” she said, almost inaudibly and this time, she fled before he could ask her any more questions.
Brad felt the lactic acid burn in his legs as he came to the end of his run. He stopped and bent over supporting himself with hands on knees, breathing heavily. Mutant powers or not, there was nothing like plain good-old fashioned exercise for making a body feel good. He licked salt off dry lips. Maybe he should have a swim just to round things off. That would definitely work up a thirst before dinner, and then he could really enjoy all that food. As he approached the locker room, he found Magnolia outside in the corridor. She looked upset.
“Hey, what’s up? You okay?” he asked her.
She jumped like a scared rabbit. “Sure, why wouldn’t I be?”
“How about a swim? I was just on my way to the pool.”
“I think I’ll skip it.”
She looked tight as a coiled spring, so he kept pushing. “Look, you know a few laps up and down the pool makes a body feel better. C’mon, I wont take no for an answer.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Okay, you win, lead on.”
The pool was situated at the rear of the mansion in the state of the art leisure complex. After changing into his trunks, Brad hit the water in a long flat dive, leaving barely a ripple in the water at his entrance. He flipped his feet together, one, two, like a sleek dolphin, and then broke the surface to turn around and look back at Magnolia. She followed him with an equally elegant and frictionless dive and bobbed up in a stream of bubbles next to him. He found himself admiring her lithe, muscular body, with the waist and hips of an athlete.
She flicked her hair back, her eyes narrowing as she saw him scrutinizing her. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing – just thinking you look good in a swimsuit.”
She blushed. “Sure you just ain’t making fun of me?”
“I’d never do that Magnolia. C’mon, race you, twenty laps, last one out of the water’s a sissy!”
He flipped over and disappeared into the water, surfacing several feet away. The girl shook her head and followed him. They swam their twenty laps, using one another as a spur to finishing the exercise. Finally Brad hauled himself out of the pool, water streaming off him, and sat at the edge, contemplating the girl, who remained there, treading water. She looked at him with her mysterious dark eyes.
“You weren’t tryin’, you just let me win,” she said in a peeved tone. For a brief second his mind shut down and he reached for her to pull her out of the water. Her eyes flashed fear and she shrank back from him, so his fingers missed contact with her skin by nanometers.
“What are you doing’,” she gasped. “Tryin’ to kill yourself?”
“Sorry, I know, stupid mistake.” He tried to look contrite, and he found himself wishing again that he could make her smile as she pulled herself out of the water to sit beside him. He threw her a towel and she rubbed herself dry.
“You know,” he said, “I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk again.”
The towel stopped mid-wipe. “I told you all before, I only came here if no one would ask questions. And no one else does, except you.”
“Yeah, well sometimes, talking about it helps. You’re a lovely girl, Magnolia, what could be so bad in your life that you can’t open up to people?”
She bowed her head away from him, covering her face with her hands, and Brad swallowed hard, realising at last he had hit a nerve, but having started down this road of discovery, he knew there was no going back.
Finally she turned back to look at him, and her eyes were clouded with dark pain. “He was called Cody. We went to school together. He didn’t care what the others thought about me. We used to sneak off to the park together after school. Sit and talk on a bench, hidden in the trees, overlooking the lake.”
“What happened to him?”
Her voice was barely audible, “I did.”
“I don’t understand. But this is making you feel bad, honey, you don’t have to go on. I’m sorry I pushed, I shouldn’t have, it was wrong of me –”
“No,” she interrupted him. “It’s okay. I want to tell someone. I need to tell someone, finally.”
She took a deep breath. “One afternoon, we were out there, just talking, as usual, and I made a joke, I can never remember what it was. But Cody laughed and then he looked at me funny, in a way that nobody ever had before, and especially not a boy. It made me shiver inside, and he suddenly grabbed my shoulders and kissed me. It was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. I felt like the sun was warming me all over and the light was in my head, all bright and yellow and – I couldn’t let him go –”
A tear formed, rolled and broke from one eye; leaving a ragged streak down her dark cheek. Her breathing came out ragged and harsh, as the memory took its toll on her.
“I didn’t realize he was trying to struggle, to get away from me. When I let him go, he fell over. He’d gone grey, and his skin had pale blue lines all over it, like spiders webs, on his face, his hands, his neck, even in his eyes. I’ll never forget his eyes –”
Brad felt his skin crawl.
“And then, I could see everything he had, all his memories. It was like I was Cody, but he was lyin’ on the ground. I’d never seen a dead person before, but I knew as sure as anything that he was dead.”
“What – did you do?”
“I ran away, what could I do? I was so scared, I just left him there, and I kept runnin’. I’ve hated myself ever since. I felt like I really was a cursed witch that day.”
“You were a kid, it wasn’t your fault. You have to believe that.”
“Tell that to Cody, and his parents, who never saw him grow up.”
Brad wanted to reach out and take her in his arms hug her tight, and make it all better for her. She was too young to have been subjected to something so horrifying, and there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t sound pathetic. Instead, he held out his hand, palm upwards, and concentrated his mind. Moisture began to coalesce out of the air forming swirling tendrils above his outstretched hand. Magnolia’s eyes widened as she witnessed this manifestation of his mutant power. Brad formed and shaped the vapour and it began to crystallize. In a few short minutes a tiny ice dragon appeared in his palm, with outstretched wings and curling tail, even the little eyes and teeth had been formed in his long snout.
“Here, take it,” he said, holding his hand out to her.
She stared at it, with an almost childlike wonder through her drying tears. “It’s so beautiful, I’ve never seen anything like it; I’ve never been given anything like it.”
“Hey, I made it so I could see you smile, not burst into tears.”
“I – don’t deserve it.”
“Sure you do. You’ve been through hell, Magnolia, and you’re still living it. I can’t imagine what it’s like not to be able to touch a living soul. But here, you’re with friends, we’ll help you to control your power, and take control of your life.”
Her eyes widened and another dark shadow crossed her face. She looked away for a moment, and when her face turned to him again her jaw had become hard-edged.
“I appreciate the gesture and all, but I don’t deserve it; thanks anyway.”
“Magnolia, you just can’t keep pushing people away all your life. Just because you can’t touch them physically doesn’t mean you have to exist without affection.”
She flashed her eyes at him. “If you had three lifetimes you couldn’t imagine what it’s like for me.”
“Don’t you think that’s an excuse? Other people have disabilities: paraplegics, the blind, and the deaf. They manage to live and love, get jobs, have children.”
The hard expression faltered for a moment, and the sorrow returned to her eyes. “I didn’t mean to be ungrateful, it’s just that –” She turned away from him. “I can’t explain, there’s no point,”
“I don’t believe that, and I don’t think you do either, not deep down.”
She shook her head, and stumbled to her feet. And without another word she fled the pool-room. Brad sat at the edge of the pool, watching his little creation melt into a forlorn puddle on the tiles.
Adam arrived at the exclusive Spectrum Society, spectacularly situated on New York’s Fifth Avenue. He sat in the rear of his limousine for a few moments, and studied at what passed for some sort of coat of arms above the massive stone doorway; the circular rainbow image with the stylised S in the centre. He sensed pretentiousness about the place, which was subconsciously why he hadn’t really wanted to visit it before now.
“What time shall I collect you, sir?” his chauffeur enquired from the front seat.
Adam pursed his lips. “I’m not sure when I’ll be returning exactly.”
“That’s not a problem, sir, I can wait for you.”
“I’ll be fine, I can fly, remember, if I really have to. Anyway, why don’t you just enjoy the ball-game?”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, I think I will. It’s about time the Mets got a break; I’d like to see them win tonight. Have a good evening, sir.”
Adam got out and watched the black car disappear down the street.
He strolled up the steps, into the splendid foyer. Several couples dressed in eveningwear handed their coats to the cloakroom staff.
“May I see your invitation please, sir?” enquired the doorman. He was dressed in bright cyan; one of the colours of the spectrum that characterised the club. Adam thought it was slightly ridiculous, even bordering on the pantomime.
As he handed it over for the man to scrutinize, he saw one of the guests, a bejewelled matron, bestow a smile upon him. He returned it, yet wondered how she would have reacted if he had arrived with his wings in full spread. When he was younger, and more foolish, he hadn’t cared who knew about his ‘uniqueness’, either at Harvard, or at the crazy parties he had at his home when his parents were away. There were fewer mutants about then, and his particular manifestation of the X-factor gene was somehow perceived as unthreatening, even rather ‘cool’. But times had changed, and so had he. There was the company to think of – responsibilities beyond his own desires, and in this current climate, ‘outing’ himself to the general public was not on the top of his ‘to-do’ list. Even the mega-rich had their limitations as to what polite society deemed ‘acceptable’. So tonight, his wings were strapped up and folded beneath his clothes in a specially designed harness.
The doorman returned his card and another usher politely directed him into the splendid ballroom. This one was garbed in violent green, making him look like an 21st Century version of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Tonight Henderson was taking from the rich to give to the poor, but Adam wondered how altruistic he really was. For a moment he stood on the threshold, taking in the scene. The polished Italian marble floor was thronged with guests, all dressed in sartorial elegance, and the glittering crystal chandeliers had tough competition from the rocks adorning the necks and arms of the women present. Champagne flowed and there was a heady buzz of conversation. A small section of the floor was reserved for dancing, and there were several couples already gliding around to the soft strains of Manhattan’s finest jazz quintet. The event had attracted the rich, powerful and famous from all echelons of the corporate, political and celebrity world.
Adam spotted Henderson holding court in a corner of the room, the small group of people hanging onto his every word. A waiter, dressed in indigo this time, stopped to offer him a glass of champagne. As Adam lifted the glass from the salver, Henderson caught sight of him for the first time.
“Svenson!” he called out in a booming voice, waving Adam over. “I thought you were never going to darken our door.”
“Sorry, I had no intention of being rude; I just never seemed to find the time.”
“Well, glad you could make tonight’s little shindig. Make room everyone, and I’ll introduce you.”
Adam’s heart missed a beat as he saw, too late, the tall figure of Senator John Roberts within the group. A wave of loathing rolled over him, so intense that he thought he might throw up. He swallowed down and returned the Senator’s nod of greeting with a controlled face.
“Congratulations on getting your company into the Fortune 100, Mr Svenson,” Roberts said, with a plastic smile only politicians were able to cultivate to a fine art.
“Yeah, thanks,” Adam replied absently. “I didn’t know you were a member of this club, Senator,” he added.
“I’m not, I’m here as a guest of Mr Henderson.”
And that got Adam wondering what Henderson and Roberts had in common. Money most likely, he thought acidly. Henderson who had it, Roberts who wanted it. The man’s political ambitions were no secret. And running for the presidency of the United States still required a whole lot of money.
Taking a break from mutant-baiting then? were the words Adam wanted to say, but instead he said: “So, how is the committee’s decision coming along on the vote?”
“Very well, thank you.” Roberts replied.
“And you really think that it’s going to help matters?” Adam asked, unable to stop himself.
“It’s a dangerous world out there; the people expect us politicians to do something about it.”
“That’s only your opinion, Senator. I don’t see mutants running amok and killing people. It happened once. And now you’re placing the blame on the entire community, and asking them to pay for one man’s sins. And the fact he just happened to be a mutant gave you the excuse you needed to start this crusade. I’d say you should take a good look at your own motives, Senator. They seem a bit suspect to me.”
Roberts’ phlegm evaporated and his face went white. “My daughter’s death has nothing to do with this, Mr. Svenson.” His eyes narrowed. “What are you anyway, some kind of mutant lover?”
“Will that be a crime next? Maybe we should all be worried about our human rights the way things are going,” Adam said.
Henderson intervened with a calm voice. “Gentlemen, please, tonight is for pleasure not politics; let’s not get our feathers ruffled over this contentious issue tonight.”
Adam blinked at the analogy, knocking the anger out of him, and he cursed himself for losing his self-control and letting his mouth speak before his brain was engaged. But he couldn’t just stand here and smile and pretend that he agreed with the idiot. That would make him just as bad as all the other fence-sitters.
And aren’t you just as bad as them anyway, so scared of being who you really are? I don’t see you here displaying your mutant wings to all and sundry, a little voice chirped in the back of his head.
“I’m sorry, Senator,” Adam said. “That remark was uncalled for. Perhaps we can just agree to disagree?”
Roberts nodded, but didn’t look as if he was remotely mollified by the apology.
Henderson hastily initiated another topic of conversation and there were looks of relief all round. Adam listened with barely any interest and realising that Henderson was going to be occupied for the foreseeable future, decided that perhaps now was a good time to take a poke around the inner sanctums of the Spectrum Society.
He excused the group on the pretence of needing the rest-room. The doorman pointed him on the way on the second floor, and after he had completed his ablutions, he exited the room and went the opposite way down the corridor. He hoped that most of the staff and guests would be restricted to the ballroom but, if he bumped into any of the staff he had his membership card handy.
He wandered along the corridor until he came to a narrow circular stairway, barred by an ineffectual golden rope, like something seen in an old museum. He couldn’t see any cameras in the vicinity so he quickly slipped the thick rope off its mooring and made his way to the top in the gloom. One of three doors in the corridor sported a digital lock – and that was the one he went for. He removed one of Patrick’s lock-scramblers from his dinner-jacket and placed it onto the door. Lights flashed in sequence and a low-toned beep sounded. He cautiously pushed open the unlocked door and stepped into the room beyond.
His eyes became adjusted to the gloom and he blew out a breath of suppressed astonishment. The large room was unexpectedly decorated like some tableau from a medieval banquet. The dim light came from several flickering wall scones within depressed niches in the exposed stonework. Perhaps it was the massive table and ornately carved chairs, on a raised dais, or the opulent furnishings in silks and velvets, or the frayed tapestries with erotic scenes that left little to the imagination, but the room gave him an impression of old and arcane rituals taking place here. Maybe, he thought, feeling the heat on his cheeks, they still did take place.
From the limited business deals he had had with Henderson, it was obvious the man was something of a money-grabbing megalomaniac, but he hadn’t figured in him having a taste for the bizarre as well. Still the club’s risqué reputation had been around for a lot longer than Henderson, and it obviously had gotten it from somewhere.
Adam re-locked the door and retraced his steps to the second floor where he checked out the other public rooms. The members lounge was empty, apart from the barman polishing glasses behind the well-stocked bar. Massive double-panelled oak doors opened up into the magnificent library, stocked with an impressive collection of books. The décor took baronial to the limit with the collection of weaponry and painting on the walls above the bookcases; swords, muskets, and double-headed axes, as well as several paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. He wandered around the room, pushing idly at the bookcases, peering behind the first editions and pressing against the wood panelling on the walls.
He sighed, feeling just a touch foolish, and realised that this place was just what it seemed, a pompous excuse for rich guys wanting to play-act. Like these people who dressed up as Yankees and Confederates and beat the crap out of one another on some muddy field at weekends, in a re-enactment of the glories of the Civil War. And then again, who was he to talk? Memories of times spent fighting in the basement of the Gray mansion in leather outfits might be construed as equally bizarre to some people’s way of thinking. He glanced at his chronometer. It was still early, but he really couldn’t suffer bumping into Roberts once again. He would make his excuses to Henderson, who was the host for the charity, make an extra-large donation to salve the man’s ego, and leave.
As he sauntered discreetly back into the ballroom he scanned the floor looking for the businessman. Instead, his eyes alighted on a young woman leaning against the wall next to one of the large French-windows, looking a trifle bored as she watched the couples on the dance-floor. She was tall for a woman, with hair the colour of honey, and elegantly dressed in an ankle-length white dress that moulded to her generous curves. He thought for one minute that he recognised her, and intrigued, wandered over to introduce himself. She turned at his approach and returned his appraising look with one of her own. His pulse quickened sharply and his intention to leave dissolved in a flutter of endorphins.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked her, turning on his most dazzling smile.
A loud voice from his right shattered the moment. “Ah there you are, Svenson, I was just saying to Roberts here that you really ought to spend more time at the Society.” He looked at the blonde. “I’m sure we could persuade you, couldn’t we, Karen?”
Adam mentally slapped himself. Karen Wainwright, CEO of Wainwright International. He had heard the name, knew of her company in the business circles he moved in, but he had never actually had the opportunity to meet her in person. She looked much younger than the printed pictures would suggest, and infinitely more attractive.
He held out his hand in greeting. “I barely recognized you from your photographs.”
Her hand was cool to the touch, and her voice was husky. “I should sue the magazines,” she said, regarding him intently.
Adam was caught in the depths of her hazel eyes. “I was on my way out, but I feel the evening might just have taken a turn for the better.”
“Do you dance Mr Svenson?” she said.
“Well, not really, if I can help it.”
He would actually have loved to, and he was able to dance just fine, but the music required that they would have to dance very close – and there was every possibility she might feel the bulkiness beneath his jacket. That might take some explaining. He wasn’t ready for that.
“Oh good, neither do I,” she replied with a smile.
He relaxed, grateful and said, “Instead, why don’t you let me buy you a drink?”
She glanced at Henderson for a brief second, and he could have sworn something unspoken passed between them. Then she nodded and accompanied him across the room outside to the small bar. Adam wanted to get as far away from Roberts as possible. After they were seated on tall stools, he asked the barman for champagne for two.
She took a long sip from her crystal flute and fixed him with her gaze.
“So – Adam Svenson III,” and the way she said his name sent a pleasant tingling sensation all the way down his spine. “I can’t imagine how we’ve never met before. Two brilliant, intelligent young people like ourselves. Tell me why I’ve never seen you at the Spectrum Society before?”
“I always imagined that it would be entirely too stuffy for my taste. I was obviously wrong.”
She gave a little laugh and as their eyes met, Adam felt his stomach do the tango.
“So, how long have you known Henderson?” he said in as neutral a tone as he could muster.
“Oh, for years. We decided to merge two of our subsidiary companies and float them on the stock market. The world’s still full of male chauvinists, they think that all a woman’s good for is the kitchen, the bedroom or the kindergarten. Henderson isn’t like that, he appreciates brains, and he doesn’t care whether the package comes with a skirt attached or not.”
“Yes, I remember that deal; must have made you a lot of money.”
She ran a finger around the rim of her glass. “Yes, it did. But you must know that isn’t the real name of the game, is it? The money is incidental. The real thrill is in the deal.”
“That gives you the excitement in your life?”
“Amongst other things –” she replied, glancing up at him with a veiled look in her eyes.
For one moment, Adam’s mind flitted to that strange room at the top of the building. Thoughts of mysterious and sensual rituals danced around his brain again and Karen Wainwright appeared in them. The idea slid queasily along his stomach, and he tried to dismiss thoughts that were at once disturbing and erotic. He realised then that he had missed part of her conversation and he refocused, to see her staring at him.
“Sorry, I was miles away, what were you saying?” he replied, feeling a little foolish.
“I was saying that –.” Her voice trailed as she looked straight past him. She slipped off the stool. “Wait a minute,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”
He turned around to see her wander off in Henderson’s direction and felt a tiny flash of jealousy. And then he wondered just what the hell he was doing chatting her up. He thought he had given up lust-at-first-sight a long time ago. He was distracted by another business associate, who engaged him in idle chat for a while, but he couldn’t stop himself from scanning the room, looking for the delectable Ms Wainwright. When she returned she seemed to light up the very space around him again.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go now I’m afraid,” she said.
“I’m sorry too. I was enjoying your company. It saved the night from being a total drag.”
She flashed him a smile. “My thoughts exactly, but if you’d like to continue our conversation, perhaps you should ask me to dinner?”
His pulse danced faster and he tried to figure out why he was getting a sudden panic attack about this woman? It wasn’t like he had been completely celibate in the last few years, but he felt less inclined to indulge himself in surface encounters. With all the distrust and prejudice around these days, he felt there was too much at stake to risk surrendering his anonymity to some gold-digging floozy, who’d sell her story to the tabloid with the deepest pockets. He had no wish to wake one morning to headlines like ‘How a high society angel made me fly to seventh heaven’.
“Maybe. What’s the food like here?”
“Unbelievable, the crab legs are to die for, not too mention the wine list.”
He smiled. “Well, I’ve always been partial to seafood. Do you really want me to invite you to dinner?”
“I don’t make offers twice,” she said.
“Would you care to join me for dinner, Ms Wainwright?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“No, Dianne, forget it! It’s too dangerous!”
She flinched as Rick slammed his hand on the bathroom door. They had just returned to their room after eating supper with the others, when she told him that Gray wanted her to mind-link with Paul Metcalfe to access his hidden memories.
“If I don’t help him, Charles says he might eventually go mad.”
His brows knitted darker above his glasses, the line of his mouth tightened, and a muscle ticked along his jaw-line. She knew the signs; he was desperately trying to block his emotions from her, and not succeeding terribly well. She was caught in the empathic wave of his thoughts cascading over her like molten gold, making her flinch and bite her lip. As if he realised his outburst’s effect on her, he passed his hand to his forehead, getting himself under control.
“Why can’t the professor mind-link with him, why has it got to be you?” he asked in a calmer voice. But she continued to sense his still-simmering emotions; there was fear for her, certainly, but there were hints of jealous green amongst the yellow-gold of his aura.
“I – we don’t know. He just can’t seem to penetrate his mind. Look, don’t you think if there was any other way I’d be taking it?” She took a deep breath to calm herself and crossed the room to where he stood, his shoulders stiff. She took his hand gently in hers. “Look,” she said softly, “Imagine if that was you, not knowing who you are, where you came from, who your parents were? With nothing but terrifying images waking you night after night, how would you feel if you knew someone could help you but someone else wouldn’t let them?”
“You saw what happened to Magnolia Jones.”
She squeezed his hand tighter. “You don’t seriously think we won’t take precautions? Charles won’t allow any harm to come to me. Paul needs me to help him and I can’t believe you won’t let me. I really didn’t think you were that callous.”
“I’m not! I’m just concerned about you, is that a crime these days?”
Out of nowhere, her feelings flipped. For so long she had needed and wanted this man, her pillar of strength; so why was all of a sudden did the protectiveness she once cherished feel more like a suffocating blanket?
“I wish you wouldn’t keep treating me like I’m made of glass,” she said, hating the snap in her voice. “I’m a grown woman, so why can’t you trust me to know what needs to be done? Since I melded with Cerebro, I’ve felt stronger, my telepathic powers have increased. Charles told me so.”
“He did? When was that?”
“Do I have to account for every minute of the day?”
He looked at her, slack-jawed with astonishment, and she instantly regretted her outburst. For a few seconds they stood regarding one another like strangers.
Then Rick reached out and pulled her gently to him. “Hey, I’m sorry,” he said, and she felt his lips brush her cheek. She leant back, so she could study his face, unable to resist pushing back a lock of unruly hair that had slipped across his forehead. He gave a short sigh, and she felt his aura change again.
“If it means so much to you and Charles to do this, then go ahead. Just promise me you’ll be careful,” he said.
“Cross my heart.”
He didn’t make the obvious response.
The following day, Paul met Gray for breakfast and he agreed to the mind-probe. After they had eaten, they descended to the basement laboratory where they found Dianne waiting for them. She gave him a quick, self-conscious smile, but her eyes heralded the seriousness of their impending discussion.
Gray said: “Dianne is going to attempt to establish a deep psychic link within your mind, to see if it’s possible to find a way past the tampering.”
Paul frowned. “I’m still not sure this is a smart idea. What about these?” He raised his hands. “You know what I did the night I arrived.”
“With your permission, we’re going to restrain you - just in case,” Gray said
The word made his heart-rate rocket. “No problem,” he said flatly, but he saw Dianne’s face go pale almost as if she could feel the fear washing over and out from him.
“You know we won’t hurt you in any way,” she said.
“I know that,” Paul replied, “I just don’t want to hurt you –”
“I won’t let that happen,” Gray said.
Paul blew out a breath.
“Then you’re in agreement, we can proceed?” Gray said.
“Very well,” Gray said, and motioned Paul to a padded gurney, which was fitted with ankle and wrist restraints. Both telepaths felt the waves of fear emanating from him as he approached it.
“Are you sure about this?” Gray asked him.
Paul took a deep breath, trying desperately to calm himself. “I’ve got to – I need to get my mind back.” He climbed onto the gurney, settling himself down.
Dianne fastened the metal straps, securing them tightly. He looked at her, saw the lines of tension on her face, mirrored in his own. His heart stopped for a moment, suddenly unsure of whether to proceed, whether this would all end in disaster.
She smiled at him and, in trying to resolve his frustrations and his anxieties, she let her own emotions flow towards him, catching his own, the two melding in a swirling astral dance – she felt his scarlet-warm aura mingle with hers – felt his heart beat slower in tune with hers – heard his thoughts tumble one over the other:
These people are smart and they know what they’re doing - my one and only chance - don’t want to be an animal - I’d be totally crazy to pass this up - I’ve risked things all my life this is just one more thing…
He gave her a tight smile. “Do it,” he whispered.
She acknowledged his command with a sharp nod and her copper-red hair shimmered with the movement. He focused on the colour, watching it even as she stood behind him to place her cool fingers at his temples. He shivered as their eyes locked, blue on blue, and her touch evoked such treacherous thoughts in him. He heard her breathing quicken, felt her fingers tighten on his skin – and then Gray broke the spell.
“Now, I want you to close your eyes and relax. Dianne is going to attempt a connection to the subconscious part of your brain. Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” he said grimly, and closed his eyes to the darkness. He opened his mind to her and their merged minds saw and felt, the red glow of his aura, within it the accompanying wave of emotions; overlaid with tension, scoured dry and hot, like a desert wind. He had been through a lot in his life; Dianne sensed that much, even though she couldn’t see into that shrouded past.
She closed her eyes and sent a tendril of thought to the back of his mind, where the deep primal memories lay. She probed gently, with her psionic touch, sifting softly through the topography of his mind. She felt for that crucial point, found it – pushed ever so gently –
He is in a corridor. It has neither a beginning nor an end. The edges are hazy, indistinct. There is no sound.
A door appears on one side of the corridor.
Dark green – it feels – malevolent.
The door is the key. He knows it. His heart pounds - his pulse races.
He moves closer. He knows he has to push it open. His fear rises.
<do it, do it> he hears the whisper all around him, echoing off the non-existent walls.
He moves closer to the door – his hand shakes.
<you can do it>
The door dissolves – melts – and his shaking he feels the terror.
Rick stood behind a reinforced transparent screen and looked down into the cavernous super-stressed training room in the basement complex, watching two of the elder students, Alan Tracy and Tin-Tin Kyrano, work their way through a series of exercises that he and Juliette had devised to help them develop and control their powers. Rick had asked Juliette if she wouldn’t mind swapping supervision of this particular session, for he needed something to take his mind off what was going on in Doc’s laboratory.
Well, that had been the idea – but as he stared broodingly at a point on the floor in the room below, he found he couldn’t help his thoughts snagging on images of his fiancée trying to figure out what was hidden in the recesses of Paul Metcalfe’s mind. Gray had assured him it was perfectly safe, but he wasn’t buying it, not until he saw her come out of the room unscathed. Face it, Fraser, he thought, that’s not the only thing bugging you.
He hated to admit it, but he didn’t trust Metcalfe’s motives around Dianne. He’d seen the look in the Englishman’s eyes that first night he met her and ever since, and he detested the feelings of jealousy that they provoked. It didn’t help matters that recently Dianne seemed to need him less with every passing moment, and those feelings had been confirmed with her comment about treating her like a child. But I’m going to stop acting like some possessive jerk and give her some space and start to trust her. He was smart enough to figure out that trying to hang onto someone with your fingernails was just as likely to provoke the opposite reaction.
Alan unleashed a plasma bolt which misfired and flashed into the wall, practically frying a control panel, and jolting Rick out of his reverie. He immediately cursed his inattention.
“Thunderbird!” he bellowed into the microphone, which echoed out into the hall via an embedded speaker system. “Didn’t you learn anything from your session with Storm last week?”
Alan threw another plasma bolt into the rubber flooring in disgust, and sat down heavily beside the scorch mark. “I can’t do this!” he shouted, screwing his face up. Tin-Tin padded elegantly across the floor and placed a dainty manicured hand on his shoulder, which he shrugged off. She pouted and looked up at Rick, as if to say: what are we to do with him?
Rick sighed and ran a hand through his hair. In Alan’s case, perfecting control of his powers was a slow process. The young man had the capability of converting molecules of his body into plasma energy, a thoroughly dangerous ability if handled incorrectly. It didn’t help that he suffered from bouts of over-confidence spliced with even more bouts of angst that he might inadvertently kill someone with it. It also didn’t help that he had four elder brothers, all successful astronauts, fighter pilots and submariners, and not a mutant gene amongst them.
“You can do it,” Rick said, harsher than he intended. “I don’t have the luxury of being able to turn my power on and off like you, but I managed to avoid reducing a city block to rubble every time I felt the world owed me a living. You can’t act first, and think later; your thoughts need to be in exact tune with your physical motions. It’s got to be an instinctive melding of the two. Anything else, you’ll end up deep frying something, like the wall here. It just takes a lot of time, practice and discipline.”
“Shit, who cares?”
“Your father, for one, or he wouldn’t be paying through the nose to keep you here.”
“He can afford it,” Alan said with more feeling behind that phrase than the words suggested.
“Okay, if that’s the way you feel about it, forget it. Haul your ass up here and let Tin-Tin show you how it’s done.”
Paul broke out of the mind-meld, his muscles jerking against the restraints. After forcing himself to take several deep breaths, he opened his eyes and saw Dianne looking at him, trembling, face pale. Evidently the empathic rapport had physical repercussions beyond sharing simple thoughts. He ground his teeth in frustration at his failure, and felt the perspiration cooling against his skin, making his shirt feel unpleasantly damp.
“Sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t do it; go beyond the door in my mind.”
Dianne shook her head. “It’s not your fault; I know exactly how you felt.” She looked at Gray. “There’s a door, it’s terrifying to him – to us; I’m not sure how to explain.”
Gray rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “No, I understand perfectly. I would hazard a guess that this ‘door’ is the key to Paul’s repressed memories. It represents a psychic manifestation of the physical tampering that has most likely taken place. It’s my belief that if somehow you can ‘enter’ this door in your subconscious state – but bear in mind, that might be difficult – it may open up those memories to you.”
Paul didn’t like the feelings of terror and helplessness the mind meld had prompted. “What if I can’t handle what I see?” he said.
“Then, we will cross that particular bridge when we arrive,” Gray replied calmly.
Paul turned to Dianne. “You’re sure this won’t mess up your mind? I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
She shook her head. “We promised that we would help you get your memories back, didn’t we?” Both men saw the tilt of her chin, defying them to stop her.
Gray nodded. “Let’s try once more. And, Dianne, you must tell me if it becomes too much for you – promise me, young lady?”
“You are as bad as Rick,” she replied. “Let’s try again, shall we, Paul?”
He let out a sigh. “Go ahead.”
She once again placed her fingers on his temples. “Close your eyes,” she said
Once more he walks along the corridor; sees the door appear; it’s hanging, waiting, just as before, he again moves towards it. Feels his fear rising, but as it does so, her touch envelopes him, wrapped in cool, soothing silk and she leads him up to the door and despite the fear, he holds out a hand to push it. The door dissolves and he is…
… Running in sun-ripened wheat with the red poppies and blue cloudless sky with his dog running and barking and then he’s tripping on the old rake and the savage pain and both knees punctured with blood everywhere and he’s crying tears and then the blood stops and the holes close…
… And his father is shouting and his mother is crying and he’s standing in the drawing room with the ugly white bone things sticking out of his knuckles…
… And he’s within the sand and sirocco wind amid the shouting and explosions and the sound of rattling gunfire and he’s low on snake-belly, nerves at screaming point and then the ground is erupting, spewing sand and brick and the screams and blood sicken him as he drags the legless torso away, one amongst the many.
… And he’s in the middle of the war torn cities – the grey blast zones where atomic missiles have visited their destruction - rubble and dust and sterility – the desperate cries of radiation-burned children – his Britain - free no longer –
… Bereznik – Iceland – Panama - and so it goes on and on until he knows nothing else but war and fighting and the screams of others dying…
…Until her – beautiful and unafraid – sharing the excitement of danger – and of love – all those nights - their bodies fused together in slick breathlessness…
…And he’s standing in the shade of the old oak – out of sight of the funeral party - watching her being buried in the ground - lost to him forever –
Paul felt a surge, as if being pulled out of a dream. He felt himself shaking violently against the restraints, his pulse rate soaring at the onslaught of his memories bursting through the floodgates.
He heard Gray’s voice, sharp with concern. “Dianne, are you all right?”
His eyes still welded shut, he didn’t trust himself to speak or move until his heart rate had dropped. The haunting memory of the beast unleashed scared him and he was terrified to open his eyes in case –
“Paul, Paul,” her voice called to him. He tentatively opened his eyes to see her bending over him, her face paler than death, except two pin-points of red on each cheek. She looked as if she might be about to faint but she activated the lock and his restraints snapped open. He rubbed his wrist and stared at her and time slewed into frozen stasis as their eyes locked. On some mad, primal impulse he gripped her nearest hand and dragged it to his lips. Her eyes widened, and he saw panic there.
“Please don’t,” she whispered in a small voice. He let her hand go with a muttered apology as Gray’s wheelchair rolled across to rest beside the gurney.
“There’s enough emotion venting into this room to make even me feel light-headed,” Gray said, deliberately playing down the situation and giving Dianne’s arm a gentle squeeze. “How are you feeling, Paul? That last probe finally triggered some memories, didn’t it?”
Paul nodded, and then lifted his arms, palms inward, his claws emerging from the knuckles. “But I still don’t know how I got turned into a semi-cyborg.”
“Patience, we can’t expect miracles in one day. I believe we have achieved much, thanks to Dianne.” Paul saw Gray smile benevolently at the young woman and she gave him a half-smile. “And we do not want to send you into the madness we’re trying to avoid, so, I think we’ll call a halt for now. There will probably be other locks in your mind, perhaps even more difficult to penetrate, forbidding you from accessing your most recent memories. Besides, the two of you look exhausted; this has taken a lot out of you. Dianne, why don’t let Rick know you’re all right and then get some rest?”
She nodded gratefully, and Paul sat there on the gurney, feeling more lost and alone than ever as she left the room.
Paul sat on a stone bench on the terrace that surrounded the rear of the mansion. It was several hours into darkness and a full moon was climbing into the sky. He ignored the bite of cold evening air as he looked out onto the mansion’s cultivated garden. A little bit of Englishness in America, was his first thought with wry amusement when he first set eyes on it. He let his eyes wander around the lawns, noting the clipped hedges and topiary bushes and the marble arch at the bottom of the garden painted a ghostly white by the moonlight. As if by simply sitting here cataloguing irrelevant things would put off the pressing need to come to terms with everything that was happening to him.
Gray had been right to stop the mind-meld when he did. The gushing flood of memories that were opened up by Dianne’s telepathic probe might well have tipped him over the edge. They would try again tomorrow to force open the most recent locks within his subconscious mind, to reach those most harrowing memories.
The ones that terrified him.
But for now, he sat here and replayed the images in his mind like some out of control holo-vid. Each and every one came to him vivid and jagged with pain as if it had been only yesterday: the memory of his stern forbidding father, determined to have his son follow in the military Metcalfe tradition; the first time he discovered he could heal from injury within minutes, and then the horror of the bones breaking out from his skin; the loss of his innocence in the deserts of Iraq; and the many more losses that followed during the long, lonely years as a soldier. So many wars, so many friends lost, and he, aging slowly, immutable, never staying in the same place for too long in case they suspected that he was a freak. And yet that very same curse made him the super-soldier that he was; forever risking his life for the mission and his men. He pulled out his dog-tag once again. Wolverine. So-called because of his total lack of fear in battle.
He leant his head back, against the cold wall, smiling grimly to himself. And here I am – scared witless to look in my own mind.
And then again, he thought, on the matter of Dianne Simms, he seemed to be reacting blindly like his cornered namesake. And he regretted the thought, because just thinking about her made his emotions slither, snake-like, inside him. He didn’t know what possessed him to grab her hand back at the laboratory. Of course, he could excuse himself with the fact that his mind was messed up at the time, and he had just begun to discover who he was once again.
No. If he was brutally honest with himself, that wasn’t going to wash. He was attracted to her, damn it all – and the hard immutable fact was – she belonged to somebody else.
A few moments later he became aware of her presence; even as she entered the room and crossed it, her scent was unmistakable. She was evidently trying hard to be silent, but to his heightened senses, she might have been a herd of bison charging across the wooden floor.
She stopped on the threshold of the terrace, hovering there. He clamped down on his thoughts; it seemed far too easy for her to pick up on them, and that wasn’t fair on either of them. After what happened between them back in the basement, she was the last person he expected to see out here with him – alone.
“Oh, I didn’t see you there,” she said in a low voice, but the way she said it, she knew fine he was out here. He could sense it. A pulse started in his temple and he felt a rush of blood to his head.
“Hello there, what you doing here?”
“Rick’s gone into town, with one of the students, and I don’t think I’m ready to go to bed – I don’t think I can right now, with all that’s happened –” She let the sentence drift, then shivered, even though she wore a long wrap-around cardigan. “Aren’t you cold sitting out here?”
He shook his head. “Don’t feel it. Never did.” Then he recalled his flight in the ice-storm. “Well, maybe once or twice.”
“I don’t understand, Paul. Some of these images I saw in your mind – I recognised them from old vid-films –”
“They’re real memories.”
“But, that would mean –” A hand flew to her cheek with dawning realisation. “My God, Doc said your healing factor might slow your ageing, but I never really imagined –”
“I’d be that old?” he interrupted, and felt his mouth curve into a twisted smile at the unmistakable look of pity in her eyes. He didn’t want her pity, he knew what he wanted from her and it wasn’t that.
“But you only look – I mean you look younger than – ”
“Your fiancé? I’m probably old enough to be his great-grandfather – or yours.”
Her hand had moved from her face and was now twisting the ring on her left finger.
“I saw so much hurt and death and despair in those images inside your head. So many years – no one should have to endure that –”
“It wasn’t all bad,” he said with another awkward smile. She was beginning to make him feel maudlin.
“That woman, in your memories, I thought I recognised her, but I don’t understand how that could be –”
The change of subject caught him off guard. “Her name was Penny – Creighton-Ward,” and he heard her little gasp. “Did you know her too?” he said, amazed at the coincidence.
“Not very well. I remember my father taking me to one of her charity balls.” She stared at him with a look of astonishment. “That memory of her funeral –”
“Yes, it was real. I was there; I just had to see her, just that last time. No one else at that gathering around the grave would ever know the real truth about her.”
“You’re confusing me.”
“I don’t suppose it matters now, but she was a spy.”
She gave another gasp, her obvious illusions about the aristocratic Englishwoman shattering into pieces with that knowledge.
“That’s how I met her. We worked in Bereznik together, when I was in special ops in the WAAF.” He tapped his head. “It’s all coming back to me. She was good, the best. But one day her luck ran out.”
“Then it wasn’t a speeding fatality, as the papers reported it?
He shook his head.
“Assassin’s bullet,” he looked at his hands. “And I couldn’t save her.”
“You loved her a lot, didn’t you?” she blurted out, and then he felt, rather than saw her blush, as if she instantly regretted the personal question.
“Yes, I did, I’ve never known anyone so alive – so full of –” He paused then, feeling the awkwardness hang like a curtain between them. “I’m sorry, Dianne, I wish I didn’t have to put you through all of this. Rooting around in someone’s mind, like old laundry, can’t be pleasant.”
“No, it’s me who should apologise,” she countered. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
He gave her a wry smile. “That’s okay, you know all my little secrets, but I know hardly anything about you. I feel at a distinct disadvantage, and I hate that.”
She said nothing for a moment, as if weighing up her options.
“What age were you when your telepathy kicked in?” he asked, not wanting to let it slide.
“But not so sweet I’m guessing,” he said, as he saw the memory of it imprint on her face.
“It happened after – my friend was hit by a car and I saw her – I felt her die.”
“Dear God,” he heard himself say.
“I thought I was going mad. All these voices in my head, I couldn’t turn them off. I was terrified, and my parents didn’t understand what was going on. Things would move around the house, doors opening, vases smashing. They didn’t know whether to call the hospital or the priest. Then Charles came to the house. He explained everything, and he said he could help me stay free of people’s thoughts and emotions until I could get them under control. So here I came.”
“It must have been hard on your parents, losing you, I mean.”
“My mother couldn’t face telling anyone; better that I was out of the way of her society friends so they wouldn’t know she had a freak for a daughter. But Charles has a habit of getting people to agree with his point if view without recourse to his metal powers. And she took one look at the house and the antiques and paintings and well, she acquiesced. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me. Charles and the others were good for me.”
Paul didn’t need to ask who one of the ‘others’ were. Instead he said: “This house seems to have that effect on people.”
“You’ve never stayed in one place for long, have you?” she asked, and the faint pain in her eyes had shifted into compassion.
“If you move on, you can forget.”
At those words, she turned away from him to look out over the garden, folding her arms tightly around herself. The moonlight caressed the long sweep of her hair with silver highlights and he felt a lump in his throat as he studied her profile.
“And will you move on again from here, once you find all of your memories?” she said, in a whisper-quiet voice.
“Do you want me to?” The words slipped out before he could stop them.
He heard her breath stop, and her heart thump, even from this distance. She hugged herself tighter, as if in self-defence. In the silence that followed, he felt that gossamer emanation swirl from her, and then pull back, as if it touched flame and felt the pain.
“I’m not used to staying in a place like this,” he said, and the memories assaulted his mind once again. Cold, hard ground – the bed of a soldier, and the knowledge that tomorrow that one of his men – or women – might die in the dirty little skirmish that would follow their broken sleep in yet one more broken country. “I might get soft.”
Finally she turned around to face him. “I’m not sure I understand, I can’t imagine living my life as you do.”
“You get used to it after several decades,” he said in a neutral voice, then he blew out a breath, conscious that if he stayed here any longer, he might lose what little self-control he had. “Shouldn’t you be getting back inside? It’s getting cold out here and you might catch a chill.”
“Yes, I think I will,” she said. “I hope you have sweeter dreams tonight, now that you know something about who you are.”
He nodded, and turned away so he didn’t see her disappear back into the room, although he heard her tapping footsteps for a long way before the sound disappeared. He continued to sit in the cold, staring out at the garden.
Dianne wandered back along the hallways, her thoughts jagged and confused. She seemed to be moving out of time, the mind-meld with Paul Metcalfe was unsettling her in more ways than one. She hadn’t meant to talk about herself in such detail, it seemed trivial in comparison with his past – and the fact he knew – and had been in love with someone from her own past, triggered a strange echo of empathy and loss. She arrived at her bedroom door and realised she couldn’t even remember coming up the stairs. She entered the comforting confines and threw her wrap onto the wing-chair before flopping onto the bed. Absently she stared at the framed photograph on the side-dresser; Rick with his parents, taken on a fishing trip to Lake Michigan when he was seventeen. His brown eyes shone out at her, a grin plastered on his face as he stood next to his father, holding the big lake trout aloft. Her gaze shifted to her own hand, and she felt the memory-imprint of Paul Metcalfe’s lips against her skin.
She clenched her eyes shut.
Stop this, she said to herself. She needed to occupy her mind, give it something else to do or think about until Rick returned to the mansion. She unglued her eyes and found herself staring at the tallboy opposite the bed. Slowly, she made it rise several inches into the air, held it for a few seconds, and then allowed it to rest back on the carpet. She repeated these mental press-ups several times, and found each one easier to do than the last. She felt a moment’s guilt for breaking the house-rule of not practising with one’s powers anywhere but the basement, but she was too caught up with it now to care.
She turned her attention to the dresser. Her mother-of-pearl hair-brush rose up into the air, followed in quick succession by several jars of make-up and her favourite bottle of Verdain No 5 that Rick gave her for her last birthday. Yet more objects rose to her command, joining the silent choreography in the middle of the room. Her brows knit, as she controlled the dancing and whirling above her head, a feeling of exultation at her enhanced telekinetic abilities.
The door suddenly opened, and Rick walked in, only to stop in surprise as the hairbrush sailed past his nose. “What the –”
Dianne sat bolt upright and everything hit the carpet, except the perfume which smashed onto the dresser.
Rick scratched his temple as she flew past him to grab a stray towel on the end of the bed. “Uh – Dianne, you know you’re not –“
“I know, I know,” she said, dabbing the flood of perfume. “Did you and Alan have a good male-bonding session?”
He bent down to pick up the jars and lotions from the floor and she could feel his quizzical gaze on her, sense the drifting confusion of his thoughts as to why she would suddenly decide to juggle with the contents of their room for the first time in her life.
“It was fine until he started to pick a fight with one of the locals,” he said. “Dammit, I wasn’t watching how many bottles he was knocking back while we were shooting pool. I had to act quickly so he wouldn’t blow the schools cover by showing off with his powers, and I threatened to ground him for two months if he pulled that stunt again.”
When they had made the floor presentable he turned to her with a raised eyebrow above his glasses. “What’s this all about, Dianne?”
She sighed. “I woke up and I missed you. I’m just a little hyped up after today, I needed to let off some steam, I suppose.”
“Charles told me you’d succeeded getting his memories back, without being sliced to ribbons. I thought you might appreciate a little space to recover.”
“Weren’t you worried about me?” she said, the words coming out before she could stop them. He gave her another look, and she sensed his confusion at her mercurial moods.
“Of course I was, but you’ve made it clear you want me to stop treating you like a kid. So after I knew you were still in one piece and I saw you up here sleeping, I was comfortable about leaving with Alan.” His head cocked slightly. “I figured you would be happy about it,” he said, and then fell silent, as if he was unsure of what to say next. She crossed the short space between them and slipped her arms around his waist.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and in that instant of time, everything that had happened up to this point hit her. She felt her eyes mist over and an ache begin in her chest, rising up to harden in her throat, threatening to stop her breathing altogether. She saw the line of his jaw soften with tenderness and he brushed the moisture away with his thumb.
“Shame about your perfume,” he said. “I’ll get you some more.”
“I don’t deserve it.”
He kissed her lips gently. “I may not be a telepath, but to my mind, you deserve everything I can give you – and far more…”
She surrendered to the familiar comfort of his embrace, closing her exhausted mind to everything except the reality of his physical presence, his hands, his lips, his body against hers. Here was safety and security personified; here was happiness and friendship, devotion and acceptance. Here was healing…and joy.
But afterwards, as they lay only inches apart, Dianne listened to his steady breathing in the hushed darkness of their room, and felt sick with guilt. She turned over and stifled the impending sobs with the end of the sheet in her mouth as hot tears prickled through her lashes. Thoughts were dangerous, insidious. They poked and crept around your brain and wouldn’t leave you alone. Do thoughts have to turn into reality, or can we stop them in their tracks before it’s too late? All this psionic power, she thought, and I can’t even control my own emotions. How’s that for irony?
Adam sat at a corner table in the Amber Room restaurant. The place was full, buzzing with talk of deals to be made, business to be transacted, or simply attempts to impress a date. He glanced at his watch, and then again to the restaurant’s entrance and found himself fretting.
She was late.
Maybe she wouldn’t turn up? And maybe that was a good thing. She did things to his self-control that he wasn’t sure he could handle. Then he saw her appear in the entranceway, stopping to exchange a few words with the Maitre D’ who pointed in Adam’s direction. As she sashayed up to the table, he saw every male in the room unconsciously drawn to her movement, much to the annoyance of any distaff partners. The knee-length white dress, held up by tiny crystal straps, emphasised every glorious curve of her body and her golden hair seemed to have a life all of its own, as it caught every sliver of light bouncing off the chandeliers on the ceiling. He rose to pull out the chair opposite him for her, and when she sat down and gave him a dazzling smile, he felt like he was king of the hill.
“I’m sorry I’m late, some last minute problems at one of my production plants.”
“All sorted now, I hope.”
“Yes, I’ve got good people working for me.”
A waiter appeared, hovering at their table. “What will you have to drink, Ma’am?”
She asked for the house cocktail and Adam chose the same, and there was an appropriate silence as they studied the menu.
As Karen always made her mind up within one minute precisely what she would have, she took advantage of the remaining time to study her date. She noted the way the fringe of his thick blonde hair resisted being pushed back from his tanned forehead; the solid lines of his face with only a hint of crows’ feet at the corners of his intelligent, blue eyes. She sipped her drink, regarding him carefully. He gave the impression of being laid back, but there was a hint of something hidden within that tall, muscular frame. She saw something odd about the line of his jacket, a heavy bulk in the back and shoulders, as if he suffered from some sort of deformity. She shivered involuntarily. Or maybe he works out a lot.
He looked up from his menu, aware of her scrutiny, the way she ran her eyes over his physique. The bulge was noticeable, no matter how well his tailors hid it, and he wondered what thoughts were travelling through her mind. And what about you? he asked himself. At what point am I going to decide to reveal who I really am? He put the menu down. Stop pushing; maybe nothing will come of tonight anyway.
“So were you?” she asked him.
“Was I what?”
“Quarterback for the high school football team, the guy most likely to succeed–”
He grimaced at her perception. “What made you say that?”
“You have the alpha blue-blood look about you.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult.”
“I’ll let you decide,” she replied with a throaty laugh that thrilled him.
The waiter took their orders and she parried his question about her own high school years, telling him instead she had studied at Yale. He replied that he had graduated from Harvard and there was a discussion about the relative merits of the two venerable institutions.
The waiter returned once more with their first course of exquisitely perfumed Alaskan crab legs and they abandoned talking to concentrate on the food. Adam watched with fascination as she ate. Her long glossy fingernails raked off the outer husks of the crab and tore into the delicate juicy flesh within, popping each morsel in her mouth. Then she sucked the juices off each slender finger in turn. She glanced up at him and he found himself flushing at the fact she caught him watching her. Her eyes narrowed slightly, and the look she gave him made his stomach flip over.
“You know, we’re the same, you and I.”
“The same?” He felt stupid echoing her phrase.
“Young, rich, powerful, the fate of many held in our hands –”
“That’s an odd way of thinking.”
“I know the Spectrum Society club gives the impression of being rather frivolous, but there’s a lot more going on than people think,” she said.
Adam raised an eyebrow. The conversation was taking an interesting turn all of a sudden. “For instance?”
“There’s always been – an Inner Circle, within the Society, a select group of individuals with an interest in politics and wealth generation.”
“Never liked politics much, but do go on.”
“Henderson, Matt Kruger, and I are the current members of the Circle, but we are always on the lookout for new blood.”
“And you think that I fit the bill?”
“You sound sceptical; why not?”
“If you mean, actively consorting with idiots like Roberts, I’m not sure I agree. Prejudice of any form bothers me.”
She shrugged. “Surely you realise being involved is all the better to influence matters?”
“It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?” he replied sourly.
“I’m disappointed,” she said at last. “We thought you might have been the one we were looking for.”
“Life’s not all about profit and loss statements and how big a cheque you can give to the latest aspiring hopeful to the Senate,” he said, with a trace of bitterness in his tone. He felt disappointed in her, and annoyed at the deflation to his ego. It wasn’t nice to imagine that she had only agreed to dinner with him in order to be a go-between for Henderson. As if she read the thoughts in his head, she placed a manicured hand over his. The cool touch of her fingers made his senses flutter.
“I’m sorry, I take that back. Of course I realise that Roberts’ stance is offensive to you, but that’s still no reason to dismiss what we offer out of hand?” She gave him a coquettish look. “Anyway, Henderson might be disappointed at your lack of interest.” She paused, long enough for him to see the sudden desire flash in her hazel eyes. “I, however, find you fascinating.”
His stomach did an impression of an elevator in free-fall and he gripped her hand tighter. “The feeling’s entirely mutual.”
Their eyes locked; the noise in the restaurant shrinking to a muffle as if they had become the only two people who existed in the room. There was that unspoken understanding of two people who knew they had crossed that mysterious boundary that separated acquaintances from would-be lovers. He found his voice at last. “Tell you what, let’s pay the check and I’ll walk you home.”
They left the restaurant, and Adam’s thoughts churned as he tried to come to a decision. Nothing had been said, as yet; he could take her as far as her apartment, and then leave. No one needed to lose face.
Suddenly, without warning, Karen stopped in the middle of the avenue and grabbed the collar of his coat, pulling his face towards her own. Before he could react, her lips were upon his, and his mouth opened with the shock. At the feel of her tongue and teeth against his, an incredibly powerful erotic charge surged through him, blowing away any embarrassment of being caught in a clinch in such a public place.
“Sorry,” she said, breathlessly, when they parted for air. “I couldn’t wait, and I could sense you struggling with yourself, and I just knew you wanted to kiss me.”
In the streetlight, he saw her pupils dilate as she gazed at him, and he felt himself hurtling treacherously fast towards something which in his right mind, he knew he wouldn’t even be starting, and all he could think of was how good it would feel to make love to her.
“Ms. Wainwright, we hardly know one another,” he said, stalling for time.
“Don’t be coy; you know we’ve wanted each other from the moment we laid eyes on one another.”
“You’re a very forward young woman.”
She gently raked one long, pearly fingernail across his lower lip causing another shiver to join the first. “That’s how I got where I am today. I see what I want – and I take it.”
She pulled his tie, moving his head forward, and he felt her warm breath against his mouth and his senses reeled.
“And I want you,” she whispered against his cheek.
“I – I can’t,” he said, pulling back, and he saw the flash within her eyes; it caused a spark of excitement within him. He sensed something dangerous, perhaps even destructive in this young woman, and yet, rather than repelling him, it only served to draw him irresistibly closer to her.
“You’re not scared of me, surely?” she said, almost with a purr, as she stroked his coat-lapel.
“It’s not that, it’s just – complicated.”
“Two people who desire one another, how difficult, can that be?” Her hand stroked higher, up to his neck and then confidently along one shoulder. He caught her hand, but he saw the questioning look in her eyes.
“Karen, I do so want to tell you –”
She stopped him with her kiss, her lips giving him the answers he sought.
When they came up for air, he made his decision with a deep breath. “I’m a mutant, I have wings. I keep them strapped down in public – for obvious reasons.” He waited for the look of disgust to appear in her eyes.
“Oh, but that’s so wonderful, why didn’t you tell me before?”
“As I said, these days that’s likely to provoke a horrified reaction. I didn’t want you to be revolted, not until you’d got to know me better.”
She moved against him again, her fingers now under his jacket, caressing his back, feeling the tell-tale ridges of the hidden wings there, through the fabric fabric.
“I knew you were special, from the moment I met you,” she whispered against his lips. “Don’t be afraid, darling, this is meant to be between us.”
He was lost now, and found little point in arguing the inevitable. They hailed a cab and sat closely together in the rear, hands entwined, the short journey an eternity of agonizing anticipation. At the door to her suite, she turned to him after tapping the security code, her eyes glowing. No way back now, he thought, as she pulled him gently into her sanctum. He stood in the lobby for a moment, feeling awkward, but she gently pulled off his jacket, to reveal his folded wings. He pulled at the catch that released the harness.
“Here, let me help you,” she said quietly, and in a few minutes they were free and he allowed them to unfurl fully, raising and lowering his shoulders to flex the stiffened joints. She moved slowly towards him in the dim light, and with a look akin to wonder, stroked the delicate feathers, the flexible bony ridges. Adam shivered and closed his eyes at her touch.
“Ah,” she said huskily, “they’re so much a part of you –”
She twined her lithe body around his, her hands snaking inside his shirt, and he shivered at silky-cool fingers against the heat of his skin.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to make love with an angel,” she said.
“Any more of that,” he whispered, “you’re going to find out quicker than you think.”
She replied with a low, husky laugh that quickened his senses. What’s happening to me? he wondered with a sense of awe as they undressed one another. He was spellbound in her arms, the rational part of his mind totally subservient to his body, as her hands and mouth set fire to every nerve he possessed. And as he so willingly succumbed to her seduction, all he wanted to do was possess her.
“I need you – now, we’ve waited too long,” she whispered, as if she read his thoughts.
He lifted her like a feather from his wings, holding her close as she pointed to the directions of her bedroom – a haven, or heaven, he thought in jest, in white and cream and gold. She liked the colours, obviously. As he placed her gently onto the massive bed the sensible little voice in his head persisted. This is going too fast. Somehow, an inferno of desire had erupted between them and Adam seemed powerless to halt it. His blood was ablaze, and after all, he was only a man.
He cupped her chin in one hand, searching her eyes for the truth. “You’re sure about this?”
“Oh yes, I’m very sure,” she said, refusing his get-out clause, and she pulled him firmly to her, removing any further doubts. “I know this will be so good –”
So he buried his face in her hair, and filled his nostrils with her scent, and for a while there were no more words, only the sound of their ragged breathing, punctuated by sharp cries and soft moans. And when he finally wrapped his body around hers, he saw her eyes open wide in astonished pleasure. He was dimly aware, amidst the waves of ecstasy that pounded over and through him like violent surf, that it felt like she was in his mind – and he in hers – and at that moment he felt his universe tip and lights imploded in his skull.
Adam drifted in a delightful state of somnolence and let his mind wallow though all the intoxicating pleasures of the past unbelievable twelve or so hours with Karen Wainwright. The events of the evening, sliding deliciously into the events of the night – that headlong rush into a physical union so shockingly powerful – as if their bodies and minds had fused beyond separate flesh into some mystical symbiote. His body still tingled with the aftershocks and he felt awed by it all. He stretched languorously and found the strength to raise himself on one elbow so he could look at the lovely creature still wrapped in the swathe of Egyptian cotton beside him.
Her hair was in disarray across the pillow – her lips slightly parted – and he could barely hear her breathe. He leant closer, the index finger of his left hand drawing an outline of her tapered nose and angled cheeks in the air – that haughty-awake-look now softened in repose. She shifted, turning towards him with a snuffle, as if disturbed by his air-brushing. His arm fell back, but he continued his contemplation of her face, and he knew, deep down, that meeting this woman was irrevocable and life-changing. Finally Karen seemed to drift out of sleep, as if by virtue of his intent gaze. She opened her eyes and they widened with confusion – shock even. And then the mask of control slipped over her face. But Adam wasn’t fooled, his presence in her bed was unexpected, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He changed his mind about the kiss he had been planning and gave her a bright smile instead.
“Good morning. I hope I didn’t startle you.”
“No,” she answered quickly, and turned briefly to the window, all at once aware that the sun was much higher in the sky than she had obviously expected.
“I’m afraid we’ve probably overslept,” he said. “I hope I haven’t caused you to miss any important meetings.”
She squinted at him for a moment, and then pulled herself up to a sitting position against the cream-leather headboard with the sheets still wrapped around her. “They’ll keep,” she said and leaned her face towards him. This time he read her correctly and kissed her lips gently. She drew in breath as they parted, her eyes shut.
“Karen,” he ventured, knowing it was sink or swim time, “I don’t want to leave just yet, not after last night. What do you say we play hooky and have lunch together?”
She looked strangely vulnerable for a moment, some emotion swirling in her eyes. “I’m not sure. I have several meetings with my people this afternoon.”
“Hey, we’re the head-honchos; so why don’t we take advantage of that and grant ourselves a little break from the grind?”
Her lips curved in a sudden girlish smile. “I’ve never played hooky before.”
“Well, it’s about time you started, young lady. Let’s do something totally mundane, like take a walk in Central Park and feed the ducks.”
Her face tightened, some indefinable emotion whirling in those eyes as she fell back against the headboard.
“Karen, what’s the point of having all that money if you can’t indulge yourself a little?”
She arched a blonde brow. “And I’m supposed to indulge myself with you?”
He gave her what Rick used to call his ‘melt-titanium’ smile. “We seem to have something interesting going on between us,” he said.
“Interesting,” she echoed and there was an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds between them, and Adam believed he’d actually blown it. And then her eyes narrowed and a hint of a devilish smile flitted at the corners of her mouth. She leaned across to him again and stroked his cheek, her nail scratching over the beginnings of golden stubble.
“I’d say that’s an understatement,” she said quietly, and the siren-look in her eyes began to draw him ever closer. Her moods were capricious and he found himself wondering if he was on a slippery slope, unable to stop losing part of himself to this young woman. He bent to kiss her, feeling her lips open under his with hunger and need, her hands searching his naked body with such fierce enthusiasm it started the fire burning within him anew. After several more minutes he knew with certainty that breakfast and Central Park would have to wait a little while longer.
Adam Svenson and Karen Wainwright strolled quietly along one of the winding paths in Central Park; as always, in the lifetime of this crowded metropolis, a bulwark of nature against technology. The monstrous metal and glass structures looming over the trees and the lakes and the joggers and lovers and families were still held at bay by this long precious sliver of green lung.
They were dressed for the cold, the faux-fur collar of her white coat pulled up high around her chin. She had one arm tucked into his, a gesture that was strangely more intimate than sex, he thought. Or maybe he was just trying to convince himself that it was.
They ate lunch at his favourite diner in Tribeca; and afterwards, by mutual consent, they skated to the evergreen sounds of Sinatra and Satchmo at the Rockefeller Centre underneath the brooding golden gaze of Prometheus and the sparkling lights of the massive fir tree. He wasn’t surprised that she could skate well; she had the natural grace and ability to do most things he thought.
They had supper in a small restaurant close to his apartment. He was secretly relieved she didn’t suggest the Amber Room again; although he couldn’t put his finger on quite why he felt uncomfortable there, but he wanted to distance their growing relationship from the Spectrum Society. She hadn’t broached the subject of his potential initiation into their Inner Circle up to now, and he wanted to put that subject off for as long as possible. He wanted to know more about her, but they had somehow avoided personal discussion around the intimate details of their lives, as if such things would crack the delicate cocoon of enchantment that surrounded them. But Adam felt a dawning need to know more about her than the scraps he’d gotten from business magazines.
Oddly, it was her who initiated it. “I’ve wanted to ask,” and she paused for a theatrical moment, and there was a glint in her eyes as she raked one long fingernail along the front of his shirt, “How someone as tall and muscular as you are can possibly fly?”
He was glad there was space between them and the other diners. He didn’t exactly want the rest of the restaurant to know there was a mutant in their midst. He leaned closer to her, breathing in the faint scent of her hair. “My bone structure is actually hollow, just like that of a bird’s, my body has negligible fat content and I have proportionately greater muscle strength to mass than the average person. Does that answer your question?”
“Why do you hide it?”
“Wouldn’t you, these days?” he said, a little harder than he’d intended.
She toyed with her champagne glass. “I guess so.”
“I didn’t always, hide my wings, I mean, although that was as much to annoy my folks more than anything I think.”
She looked up sharply, and he wondered what he had said to cause the flash of pain in her eyes. She immediately cast her eyes to the table and there followed an uncomfortable silence, in which Adam had the distinct impression that Karen had moved into a world of her own.
He tried to concentrate on his food, waiting it out. Finally she broke it again.
“Did your parents love you, Adam?” He was jolted by the question; it threw his mind back to memories from his youth.
When he confronted his parents with the secret on his back that became too difficult to hide – he didn’t have a harness back then – Adam Jon Svenson II’s reaction was Boston-Brahmin predictable. So with the typical bloody-mindedness inherited from his father, Adam Svenson III decided he wasn’t going to hide like a social pariah, and launched into the playboy lifestyle at Harvard – fast flashy cars and ever flashier women – hell-bent on reducing the family fortunes single-handed, as if that would somehow kick into touch the pain of his father’s rejection. Still, despite his best efforts he still managed to graduate magna cum laude with a first class degree in engineering, a choice that further alienated him from his father, not to mention his second decision to teach at Gray’s school. And yet, those few years with Gray gave him the stability and self-control he so badly needed.
And when his father suffered the heart attack he’d been hurtling towards for years, in his aim to create the largest private company in the twenty-first century, it strangely changed their relationship for the better. One quadruple bypass and tearful reunion with his estranged son finally convinced Svenson Sr. he couldn’t stay at the helm like the old Viking he was. Adam remembered how his father put it: ‘No precious creation of my forebears is ever going to be managed by anyone other than a Svenson.”
“Sure – they did,” he replied at last.
“Then you’ve been lucky.” She said the words without intonation, but again he saw the pain flicker in her eyes – and for a moment, it was if a mask dropped to reveal a haunted young girl behind the coolly poised businesswoman.
“Do you want – to talk about it?” he asked reaching across for her hand.
“I prefer actions, not words,” she said, and he was astonished by the chameleon change within her; back to the siren that held him in thrall from the moment he had laid eyes on her. He felt her other hand on his knee, circling it, insistent. “Love is a fool’s game, Adam,” she said. “Believe me, stick with lust and you won’t get burned.”
Adam stirred, his wings shifting around him, as he rolled over; he felt the still-warm depression on the bed where she should have been. A moment later, she emerged from the bathroom; the flimsy robe she wore only served to heighten her allure. He watched with half-lidded eyes, as she stepped across the room to gaze out of the window at the panorama of the cityscape below. He knew he was beyond besotted, and he was past caring about it.
For long moments she stood there, staring at something unseen, and finally, he slipped out of bed and padded across to join her, sliding his arms inside the silk robe, across her stomach, and pulling her against him. He rested his chin on her shoulder, his wings flaring out gently in counterbalance.
“The bed’s lonely without you,” he whispered, dropping a gentle kiss on her shoulder, still warm and soft from their lovemaking.
She turned to him, and his breath caught, as if he looked upon some ethereal angel; and in that breathless heart-stopping instant of time, Adam knew he wanted this woman more than he had wanted anything in his whole life.
“Karen, I know this is crazy, we’ve only just met one another–”
“Don’t. Don’t say it,” she said fiercely, placing two fingers upon his lips to silence him, and the look on her face shocked him, because it was so unexpected; caught somewhere between fright and despair. Then she wrenched herself out of his arms, and he watched, bewildered, as she darted about the room, grabbing the clothes that had been so hastily discarded in their rush to consummate their latest bout of desire.
Finally he lost patience as she wriggled into her skirt.
“This is crazy, what’s gotten into you, why the hell are you leaving?”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said in a flat voice.
“You’re kidding me, right? You can’t just walk out like this.”
She whirled on him, the coolness gone again; the motes in her eyes swirling with suppressed emotion. “I don’t owe you any explanations. We had a great weekend, but I don’t think we should see one another again.”
He grabbed her arms; the fear of losing her making him act, he knew, irrationally.
“Don’t you feel anything for me? Am I just a quick lay for you?”
“Let me go, Adam, or I’ll consider this an assault, and I have very good lawyers.”
His arms fell limp to his sides, and he was stunned by yet another aspect of Karen Wainwright; one with the power to stick a knife into his heart.
He watched her leave the room in a daze, unable to say or do anything. And when he heard the front door slam shut, he flopped, punch-drunk onto the edge of his bed. As quickly as she had entered his life – she had left it – perhaps for good.
“All right Paul, this is going to be a difficult session,” Gray said, as he watched Edward clamp the restraints on Paul’s body. “We have undoubtedly arrived at the point of your most recent memories, the ones causing your nightmares. If we can unblock them, it should, hopefully, release both you and Dianne from those nightly traumas. There is an element of risk that the overload on your psyche will cause you to go out of control, so I’m going to telepathically link with Dianne for this particular mind-probe session.”
Paul’s face darkened. “If I lose all self-control, I’m not sure these restraints are going to hold me. You said yourself this tritonium metal can cut through just about anything.”
“We can’t sedate you; it may interfere with the probe, so we’ll take it slowly,” Gray said. He looked at Dianne, standing close to Paul. “Are you ready, my dear?”
She nodded, and closed her eyes. She felt Gray’s mental touch, strong and sure. And keeping that within her, she focused on Paul, placing her fingertips on his skin, at the pulse of his temples. He was rigid with apprehension, and she sent a wave of reassurance. When she was happy his breathing had settled, and his thoughts had stilled, she took a long deep breath, moving her own awareness deeper, past the conscious into the realm of his sub-conscious. Her tendril of thought probed and pushed through those red mists – searching for the key to unlock his mind.
Once more he walks in a dark corridor. Another door appears - potent with menace. He walks towards it - feels his fear rising out of control but as it does so her mental touch is all around him like a cocoon. Wrapped in her strength he continues to the black rectangle he holds out a hand to touch and push, and it dissolves…
Darkness - impenetrable darkness – arms - legs – can’t move – I’m restrained – keep calm I must keep calm. Green lights – men in white coats – they look at me like some animal – trapped like an animal – must fight them – so tired, so weak all around me instruments, flashing lights, control panels – they want to change me – I don’t want to change. I know you - in your white coat and mask, you’re a doctor, .but you don’t want to cure me. I don’t want you to stick that needle in me - I don’t want to go to sleep again. Must – fight it. I’m shouting at you but you can’t hear me. I can’t hear me – I’m going mad – oh God I can feel that needle –
…I’m awake again - they can’t keep pumping this into me – my healing factor – keeps me awake feel the pain. God what are they doing –why are these black lines all along my body – my skin – like a map – what are you doing to me - I’m not some animal to be experimented on they don’t listen – no one to help me – God help me – doctor’s coming again – he’s got something in his hand – it’s a scalpel – so shiny – so bright –
I’m awake again but I wish I wasn’t – I can see my body ripped open from head to foot like a gutted seal – the skin dragged apart with clamps so I can’t heal – so much pain – you bastards…
I’m being lowered into a tank – it’s filled with fluid – slimy – dear God – I’m going to drown - sinking into it – sinking – in my face - filling my nostrils – got to keep my mouth shut – they’re trying to drown me – I don’t want to die – must fight them but can’t breathe -
I hear the hiss of molten metal hitting the fluid and then the pain of my cuts is nothing to what’s happening now - my body’s on fire – rivers of silver running into my veins - the stench of burning – even with my nose full of fluid - it’s me - I’m burning – from the inside out – and so much pain – soul-shattering pain...
The terror and anguish from Paul’s mind drove into Dianne’s in an explosion of red heat – every one of her nerve ends tingled with fire and she tottered on the edge of reason – struggling to hold her sanity – Paul’s sanity – in the wake of their symbiotic unleashing of the source of his nightmares.
In her mind’s eye she heard Paul’s screams - his restraints snapping like dry twigs – his talons unsheathing – she was losing control –
And then – she fell into a cool white world of light – enfolded and wrapped and cradled…
Gray’s mind with hers – stronger –
She drew on inner energy – saw Paul’s outline in the bright white – felt him – wrapped him in her telekinetic forces – there was another explosion of white light – and then – nothing.
Paul awoke in the infirmary. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He felt an immense lassitude, as if he floated gently on a sea of cotton-wool.
Then suddenly – it all came tumbling back.
He jerked up quickly, his eyes flying open, to see Edward Wilkie staring back at him with concern. The Australian laid a hand gently on his shoulder, and pushed him back onto the cot.
“Take it easy, mate, you’ve been through hell and back it seems.”
“Dianne,” Paul said, his voice raising an octave. “She was with me – when I lost control – is she –?”
Paul blinked, blew out a heartfelt sigh and relaxed back onto the pillow. “Where’s she gone? I need to see her.”
“I’m here, Paul,” she said, as she came into the small infirmary. He saw her wide-set eyes clouded with empathy and exhaustion. Breaking down the locked doors within his mind had done nothing for her and he felt a spasm of guilt arc through him.
“What happened?” he said. “One minute I felt I was going crazy. I couldn’t control myself – the next – I’m – how can I explain it? It was like everything went white – and I was floating –”
“I know. It was the professor’s doing. Thank heaven for the mind-link. He was able to reach out to both of us, and he enabled me to keep enough control over my telekinetic power so I could stop you hurting us – or yourself.”
“You stopped me? Well, I’m damned glad about it too.” He drew in a deep breath and looked at his hands. “You saw everything?” he said, almost too low for her to hear, as he traced his fingers over the back of his other hand. “God in heaven – what am I?”
“I don’t know, Paul. I’m so sorry,” Dianne said, as she sat on the chair next to his cot.
“I have to finish some experiments I was running,” Wilkie interrupted. “So, I’ll leave you two to talk. Don’t overtire yourselves.”
Paul nodded his thanks and the Australian left the room.
“Well,” Paul said, filling the sudden silence, “so, I now know what happened to create these metal claws. My nightmares were actually fragments of reality.”
“You’re very brave,” Dianne said, lowering her eyes, as if she was afraid to look directly at him. “I don’t know how anyone could go through what you did and not go mad. No wonder you were terrified.”
“I almost did go mad, remember? And if it wasn’t for you, and Professor Gray, I might have. But you saved me. You found me and helped me at a potential cost to your own sanity. If that isn’t brave I don’t know what is, and I don’t know what I can do to ever repay you for it.”
She shook her head. “It’s what we do here, helping mutants, there isn’t anything to thank me for. We would have done the same for anyone.”
She was still avoiding his eyes, and he thought of sending her a message via his mind, except he suspected she wouldn’t appreciate it.
“Charles says you shouldn’t leave for a while, to allow yourself some time to come to terms with your new-found memories,” she said, as if she could read his intentions.
“Maybe, but I’ll have to make a decision about leaving sometime, I suppose.”
“Why? What is there out there for you? To be captured again by the people who tortured you like this?”
He cut her short, grabbing for her hand, and this time, miraculously, she didn’t pull away when his fingers closed around hers. “You don’t understand – I know what was done to me, but not why – it could be dangerous for me to stay here. Anyway I can’t stay cooped up in this mansion all my life, I’m already feeling claustrophobia set in.”
“And you think that by leaving you’ll find the answer? Maybe all you’ll do is just get yourself killed!”
He gripped her hand tighter, and God help him, with a volition of its own, his other hand rose to touch her cheek, and he felt the fluttering in her heart, her eyes growing wider and her fingers gripping his, as if unable to let go.
“Do you care that much?” he asked in a thick voice.
“I – I, Paul – this isn’t –” she broke off as he continued to stare at her, and somehow the distance between them was closing, as if they were drawn together by an invisible force.
Juliette’s voice fractured the moment. Dianne whirled and her face turned to flame. Paul let go of her hand and she stood up to greet the Frenchwoman as she walked with cat-like elegance towards his cot, although her eyes were screwed up as if she was in considerable pain. He nodded at her and she didn’t return the greeting, although he didn’t know whether that was because it would have caused her more pain, or that she didn’t approve of what she might have seen or heard. He didn’t fancy being on the receiving end of one of Mademoiselle Storm’s lightning strikes.
“I am glad to see you are looking very well, Monsieur Metcalfe,” she said dryly, before turning her attention to Dianne. “I was looking for Edward.”
“You have a migraine coming on?” Dianne asked her.
“Yes, and it will be bad – I feel it. I need his cure-all – and quickly.”
“He said he’d gone to run some experiments in the lab, but that was only a few minutes ago.”
“Merde, he was not there. I looked, just now.”
“Maybe you’d better lie down and I’ll see if I can find him.”
Juliette winced, putting a hand to her temple. “Yes, I would appreciate that.”
“Paul, will you be all right for now?” Dianne said turning back to him.
He watched as Dianne put an arm around the other young woman and helped her out of the infirmary. He gave them enough time to avoid bumping into Dianne again, before he stole upstairs to his own room and crashed out on the bed.
And for the first time in weeks, Paul Metcalfe slept like a dead-man, with no nightmares to curse his dreams. Only this time, those that transplanted the terrors were every bit as disturbing in their own bitter-sweet way: a waterfall of red hair; dark-blue eyes that he drowned in, those lips that he yearned to kiss, becoming too real under his searching mouth…
He woke around seven with the dubious pleasure of a rock-hard ache in his groin. He rolled over on his stomach and banged the sheet several times in frustration before getting up to throw himself under a very cold shower.
“… So I want sections three to five completed for next time,” Dianne said, as her students closed their data-pads at the end of her class. She listened for the last of the footsteps scuffling out of the door and sat down heavily on the chair with her head clasped in her hands. She knew she hadn’t given her best to the class today and in her mind that was unforgivable – they deserved better. The trouble was she felt trapped by her conflicting feelings, caught between love and desire for two men. She was supposed to be a well-brought up young lady, she could just imagine the look on her mother’s face if she could have seen her daughter now. For some inexplicable reason, that thought triggered a memory from her past –
Her mother made a surprise visit to the mansion three months after Dianne’s graduation, following a separate visit by Dianne’s father en-route to New York for a diplomatic mission. Dianne had succeeded in avoiding being alone with her for most of the afternoon, as Charles, bless him, had sensed her need and duly answered it by giving Lady Charlotte the grand tour. However, despite his best efforts, she finally managed to corner her daughter alone in the library after supper.
“You know,” Lady Charlotte said, “I was never happy about this school, despite all your father’s assurances. As if anyone considered my wishes. We might have found something suitable for your – situation – in England.”
“You still can’t actually bring yourself to say it, can you? I’m a mutant, mother, I’ll always be one. And I’m here because Professor Gray is the best person to deal with it. ”
“But you’re all right now, surely you can return to England?”
Dianne shook her head. “There’s nothing for me there. Here, I feel I can make a difference.”
Lady Charlotte gave a slight sniff, and her perfectly groomed eyebrows narrowed. “I can see what’s happening here, Dianne.”
“And what’s that, mother?”
“He’s blind for goodness sake, and a teacher.”
The way she said it, as if he had the plague.
“I’m a teacher, mother, in case you hadn’t noticed; it’s actually quite an honourable profession.”
“And his father, I understand, he was a policeman? How common,” she continued, ignoring her daughter’s reply. “I understand you might feel the need to explore one’s basic tendencies but –”
A chair wobbled on the polished floor as Dianne felt the heat on her face. If her mother noticed, she chose to ignore it, and she continued in full flow as if nothing had happened.
“ - I don’t understand why you didn’t choose that perfectly nice Mr Svenson. Apart from being quite dashing to look at, his family are old Bostonians I hear. Of course, American pedigree is not quite the same as ours of course, but, well, I understand he will be the heir to rather a considerable fortune –”
The chair upended onto the floor with a crash.
“Good grief, mother, this isn’t the 19th century! Is that all you can think about? Money – one’s place in society? I don’t want to marry some cloth-eared ninny and have the heir and spare – I happen to be in love with Rick, and if that isn’t good enough for you, then I don’t see that we have anything further to talk about.”
“I see,” Lady Charlotte said, and there was a tight line to her mouth as she threw her cashmere stole over her shoulder. “If that’s your decision, then you can live with it, young lady, but don’t expect any help from me when it all goes wrong, which it will, mark my words.”
Dianne turned to look at her departing back, and froze with dismay as she saw Rick standing in the doorway, his jaw taut.
“Mr Fraser,” Lady Charlotte acknowledged him frostily, as she swept out past him into the corridor.
Rick wandered into the room, his hands deep in the pockets of his oil-splattered jeans. He’d fled to the garages after the somewhat strained luncheon, staying well out of the way.
“How long were you standing there?” Dianne asked him.
Damn her mother.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” she said in a small voice.
He shrugged and she felt his aura, ragged at the edges, torn with indecision. She crushed herself against him, inhaling his deep masculine smell, of motor-oil and fresh sweat. He brushed a strand of hair from her face. “Dianne, I don’t want to cause bad feeling between you and your mom. And she’s right, I’m not much of a prospect, maybe you would have been better off with someone like Adam.”
“Don’t you ever say that!” she said with vehemence. “She’s wrong, and you’re wrong for even thinking about agreeing with her. You’re a decent, wonderful man and I don’t know what I would do without you. You’re the one I want, the only man I’ve ever wanted.”
His answering kiss swept away every fear she harboured that he’d been hurt enough to hate her for her mother’s rejection of him; and afterwards, alone together, there had followed a night of such intense physical passion that she felt herself transported, euphoric, to another level of spiritual union with him.
She remembered now, how convinced she had been of her love for Rick on that day; a love that she had thought unassailable. So why, she thought with a stab of anguish, does my stomach turn to water when Paul Metcalfe looks at me?
She shut down the terminal with a sigh. The temperature had notched up a few degrees, and the sky was spring-blue. She didn’t have any further classes today, so perhaps she and Rick could go out for supper, or catch a movie. I seemed ages since they had done some ‘normal things’. She realised she had been involved too much with Paul Metcalfe and his memories; it was toxic to her relationship with her fiancé.
She wandered along to the kitchen to get something to drink and found Juliette there, poking around in the fridge. Dianne hated the sudden spasm of guilt that the sight of her friend provoked. Juliette had been in no state last night to mention finding Paul and her in what might have looked like a ‘compromising’ situation, but today, the Frenchwoman looked fighting fit. Dianne almost turned on a heel and left, but Juliette gave a little noise of satisfaction, and closed the door with one hand, a one-gallon tub of double-chocolate fudge ice-cream in the crook of her other arm. She saw Dianne and shrugged as if she was a thief being caught in the act.
“Pouf, you know a migraine attack leaves me feeling hungry.”
Dianne returned the shrug. “Who am I to talk? I go weak at the knees at the sight of banoffe pie.”
Juliette sat down at the peninsula and dug her spoon into the tub as Dianne filled a glass from the water-cooler. For a few moments, the two women sipped and ate in silence. This in itself wasn’t at all unusual; Juliette was her best friend; they didn’t always need words, but this silence was a grey well that she didn’t know how to fill with anything other than the trite or mundane.
Juliette put the spoon on the counter and looked directly at her with those appraising eyes of hers. Dianne’s heart skipped; she sensed trouble coming, but she found her feet frozen to the spot.
Juliette snapped the lid on the ice-cream, dug in again and licked the spoon clean. After putting the tub away and the spoon in the dish-washer she said nonchalantly, “He is a good looking man, like a jungle cat, full of the unknown, dangerous. I can understand why you might be attracted to him.”
“Juliette, I can explain –”
She crossed the tiles to where Dianne stood, and took both of her hands in her own. Her gaze was unwavering. “It is not my place to tell you what to do, but I care for you like a sister, and I want you to be happy. Don’t destroy everything you have for a fantasy.”
“Paul is a friend, there’s nothing else, no matter what it might have looked at the time; he was scared. I held his hand, that’s all.”
Juliette smiled. “I cannot believe he is afraid of anything.”
“You didn’t see into his mind!”
“Ah, yes, these mind-melds, they are seductive, non? I understand the two of you can communicate without speech.”
Dianne felt her face flame and wondered why, for a telepath, she had zero ability for deception. “Who told you, Rick?”
“He mentioned it in passing, a couple of days ago, when we were discussing some new fighting techniques for the students.”
Dianne snatched her hands away from Juliette’s grasp. “Nice to know I’m under discussion. Anything else about me that the two of you have been talking about?”
Juliette gave a Gallic shrug. “Being defensive will not change a thing, Dianne. Rick loves you; I have never seen a man with such devotion. Have you considered his feelings? What if he had been the one to catch you about to kiss Paul, instead of me?”
Dianne felt an unfamiliar anger with her friend. “I told you, there was nothing to ‘catch’, and it’s none of your business what goes I neeon in our private life. Just because we all live under one roof doesn’t mean we have to be spying on one another.”
“That is the point, we are all here together, and we are parents to these children. We are supposed to set them an example, just remember you have a duty to them as well. Imagine the chaos that would –”
“Duty,” Dianne snapped, “For Heaven’s sake, Juliette, you sound like my mother.”
The Frenchwoman crossed her arms and a look of defeat passed over her face. “I’m sorry, I did not intend for this to become an argument between us.”
The door to the kitchen opened wide at that moment, and both women turned at once.
“Adam?” Juliette exclaimed, as she saw the tall figure enter.
“Well, if it isn’t two of my favourite women.”
“What a wonderful surprise!” Dianne said, relief washing all over her at his timely interruption. He came in, wearing a dark-blue cashmere over-coat, and was still in his harness. He crossed the floor so he could grab her in a bear-hug, making her squeal.
“So what do owe the honour of your presence, Mr Svenson?” she said, noticing at once the new lines that bracketed his sea-blue eyes and the sense of his aura – tinged with sadness and fatigue.
He put gently back onto the floor and leant an arm fondly around her shoulder. “I missed your lovely smiles.”
“Why, chéri,” Juliette teased, giving her cheek for him to kiss, “you haven’t changed a bit. But if I know you, I’m sure you have left some poor besotted creature behind in the city who will now pine until you return!”
Adam looked flustered at the remark and both women noticed it. Dianne saw Juliette’s eyes take on her ‘hunt-for-a-secret’ look and with a moment of guilty elation, suspected that she would be dropped while Juliette pursued an avenue perhaps more interesting than her love life.
“When did you arrive, mon ami? Did you fly over here?”
“Yes, but not under my own steam, I don’t want to start up tales of mysterious aerial sightings in Winchester again. I took the jet to the municipal airport, then a taxi to get out here. I’ve literally just dumped my luggage and asked Charles for a bed for the night.”
“It’s been so long,” Juliette was saying. “We have missed you here while you have been playing Mr Big-shot Tycoon.”
“Yeah, likewise. My CFO was none too pleased at my departure.” He stopped to take the cup of coffee that Dianne offered him with a grateful smile. “I’ve been going flat out the last year with the company and maybe that’s finally taken its toll. I decided I owed myself some time, and there’s nothing quite like seeing old friends to put things in perspective.”
Juliette linked one slender arm through Adam’s and regarded him shrewdly. “You look as if you need fattening up. I think that living all alone in that big apartment of yours is not good for you.”
He gave her a look of mock horror. “Then how am I supposed to fly? You wouldn’t wish that fate on me, surely?”
“Silly boy,” she said, punching him playfully on his forearm.
“How’s Rick, Dianne?” Adam said, turning his attention upon her. “I haven’t seen him around since I arrived, or any of the others for that matter.”
“He’s fine. I think he and Brad took some of the younger kids into town for lunch,” she replied, her heart skipping a beat.
“No Mrs Harris, either?”
“It’s her Friday afternoon off, you probably don’t remember, she goes to see her sister.”
“Darn, I was looking forward to some of her beer-basted beef roast and sour cream cheesecake.”
“If you’re very good, I’ll do supper,” Juliette said.
“You’re on,” he replied with one of his mega-watt grins. “But first, I’d like to get out of this harness, if you don’t mind.”
Both women helped him and he unruffled his wings to their full glory with a sigh of relief. “This doesn’t get any easier. I’m scared that one of these days they’ll be bent out of shape permanently.”
Dianne patted his hand sympathetically, just as Paul walked into the kitchen. He was dressed in vest and jog-pants, and was sweating profusely. He stopped dead at the amazing sight of a six-foot-three, blond man with snow-white wings.
“Sorry,” he said with a quick flick of a glance in Dianne’s direction. “I just came in for a bottle of water.”
“No problem,” Adam said quickly, and offered his hand for Paul to shake. “I’m Adam Svenson. I used to live and work here once upon a time.”
“Nice to meet you. Sorry about the state I’m in, I just went for a run outside. I needed some fresh air.” He grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and excused himself from the little group with a pressing need for a shower.
“So that’s him, your new boy,” Adam said. “From what I gather from Charles he’s made quite a stir since his arrival.”
Dianne caught Juliette’s eye and she willed herself not to blush like the schoolgirl idiot she was. But thankfully the Frenchwoman didn’t say anything further on the subject.
Adam submitted his eyeball to the scanner beside the elevator to the basement and was absurdly pleased that it still recognised his retinal signature. The doors opened with a swish and he stepped in. Seconds later he was back and it was almost as he remembered it, give or take a few new instruments of Doc’s that he didn’t recognise.
He’d enjoyed the remainder of the afternoon and evening since he arrived back at the mansion. Rick and Brad returned not long after his chat with the girls, and there was back-slapping and punches of delight when they found him back at the old stomping grounds. Patrick and Edward joined them later with the Southern girl, Magnolia, a pretty little thing who answered his questions in a ‘thank-you-sir’ kind of tone.
Juliette had been true to her word and prepared a stomach-busting supper. Paul Metcalfe didn’t show up, however, and when Adam mentioned it, Patrick said that Paul had made his excuses to him, saying he didn’t feel right intruding on a reunion between old friends. Adam wouldn’t have minded; he thought Metcalfe sounded an interesting sort of guy, but in any case he forgot about it at the table with the easy conversation and the bad jokes and the little anecdotes of life since he’d left. It was balm to his wounded heart.
But too many beers later his intention not to think about Karen Wainwright faltered. And so here he was, sitting at the X-Men’s mainframe computer. Short of breaking into the USS headquarters, this was the one place he was hoping he could find the information he wanted. Over the years, Patrick and Gray had assembled a searchable database second to none, a system with links to many worldwide organisations. If he couldn’t find what he wanted here – he never would.
He sat, fingers poised at the console, asking himself why he had been hit so hard by this. But the more he thought about it, the more he believed that her knee-jerk reaction to his almost-admittance of love had triggered some sort of shut-down within her; as if the very thought of someone loving her terrified her. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d tried to call her; but at every attempt he’d got the answering machine. He tried her at work, but her secretary coolly informed him that Ms. Wainwright had left town for a business meeting, and no, she didn’t know when she would be returning.
Miserable, and hating it, he decided to seek out the company of his old friends, in the hope that he could forget her. But that was a forlorn hope. She had gotten to him somehow, and he was determined to solve the mystery that was Karen Wainwright. He could almost smell that the façade of calculated coolness she presented the world with was a sham. She was hiding something, and he was determined to find out what it was.
He tapped away, finding some articles on her company, a few brief interviews, nothing of any note that would suggest any sort of troubled past. After sifting through what seemed like an interminable number of screens, he finally found something of interest. A tabloid newspaper, not noted for its veracity, contained a picture of someone called Karen Wainwright. The picture was fuzzy, having been taken from some considerable distance, and could have been of any blonde teenager, he thought. The lurid headline announced, ‘Boston heiress hears voices!’ and the article described how the fifteen-year-old girl had been submitted to an unknown mental institution following a nervous breakdown. There were third-hand quotes suggesting that the family had disowned her, and the rag alleged the information came from a close family friend.
However, he found a well-hidden and brief entry in the archives of one of the more regarded Boston newspapers. A mention that one Karen Wainwright, heiress to the wealthy Wainwright Industries fortune had been admitted to hospital on the exact same date as the tabloid article. So at least they got that right. He then focused his attention on hospitals in the state of Massachusetts and found a registration in a list for the Mercy Hospital, just outside Boston.
It was a psychiatric hospital.
For obvious reasons there was no detailed information about the nature of her admittance as all information held in the hospital databases was encrypted. He had no doubt that Patrick could bust their systems and get him what he wanted, but he didn’t really think that the professor would be amenable to that, even if Patrick would be, for the challenge if nothing else. But it looked like the tabloid article had a shred of truth. Somewhere in her past, Karen had suffered some sort of mental breakdown.
His musings were cut short with the sound of high-heels on the hard flooring. He glanced up sharply to see Juliette looking quizzically at him. He quickly closed down the files on the terminal before she got any closer.
“Hi there, sorry to be so anti-social,” he said.
“Chéri, you have been cooped up here for ages,” she admonished him. “What are you doing that is so involving?”
“Oh, I just needed to look something up,” he said airily.
She perched on the edge of the desk and regarded him intently. “I’ve been studying you, Adam. Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to confide in me?”
Her smile grew more mischievous. “I am no telepath but I can read emotions on a dear friend’s face.”
“I’m that transparent, huh?”
“Mmm. I am afraid so. I think you are in love, chéri.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Only to someone who knows you well,” she tapped her nose and her eyes twinkled with amusement. “And of course, who happens to be French. We are expert on these matters.”
He shook his head, laughing in spite of himself. “You are something, Juliette, you know that?”
“Well, am I correct or not?”
“I’m thinking I’m losing my head. I did meet someone, but things didn’t exactly go the way I planned. Do you think I’m crazy? Is it possible to feel so much for someone after only a few days?”
“That would very much depend on what happened on these days,” she said, with a knowing look in her eyes. Adam remained silent, but he was unable to stop the image of Karen writhing beneath him – the whole sweaty goddam bliss of it all. He felt the heat colour his face.
“I’m sorry; I did not mean to embarrass you, or make light of your relationship.”
“It’s okay, we don’t have one,” he said, his eyes turning bleak.
“I seem to be making my feet jump where my mouth is, Adam, please forgive me.”
“It’s okay. I guess it’s a relief to be able to talk about it. It’s been driving me nuts for the past couple of days; my head’s spinning, wondering if I could have done things differently. I thought things were going well - you know - and then, when I got too close, she ran off like I’d just asked her to marry me.”
“Tiens, you told her you were in love with her?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t get the chance. She puts up a pretty good front of being tough on the surface but I sense deep down she’s hiding something from me.”
Juliette sighed. “And usually it is the male of the human species who plays hard to get. Perhaps you both just need a little space to recover – after all – if your encounter was as emotionally charged as I sense it was –”
Adam shrugged. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Well, I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing before I interrupted you.” She rose and touched his arm. “Don’t worry, my friend, I’m sure she will change her mind again. I cannot imagine any woman staying away from your charms for too long.”
He gave her a wry smile. “Flatterer.”
She kissed his cheek. “You will see, chéri. She will realise her mistake, and in no time at all she will return to fall at your feet and beg you to take her back.”
Paul shuffled along the corridor with a yawn. He was getting out of shape living the life of comfort here at the mansion. He thought getting more sleep should result in him being less tired, not more. Another door in the corridor unlocked and he flicked his head around to see Adam Svenson exit the room. The American gave him a smile and he returned it.
“Sorry I didn’t see you last night at supper,” he said. “Maybe you can join us for breakfast. Not content with trying to stuff me full last night, Juliette insists I do it all again this morning. The poor misguided girl is convinced I’m wasting away.”
Paul chuckled, grateful for his inconsequential banter, convinced it was to put him at ease. “Not really for me anyway, these elegant soirees,” he answered. “I’m more your ‘skin-a-rabbit-and-eat-it-outdoors sort of chap.”
“It was hardly elegant, especially not Patrick and Juliette’s jokes. They would have done justice to an adult review.”
The two men wandered down the central staircase to the ground floor. “So, are you sticking around here for good?” Adam asked.
“Everyone keeps asking me that. I still haven’t decided.”
“It’s not to everyone’s taste, but it’s still the only place I really call home.”
“Don’t you get on with your parents?”
“Does anyone?” Adam replied with a rueful laugh.
Paul shrugged. No point in telling him his parents were buried in the ground when Ronald Reagan was running his country.
They found everyone but Fraser and Dianne sitting around the refectory table in the room off the kitchen. Some of the younger kids were just finishing and they shouted goodbyes at the adults as they pelted out of the room, heading for whatever mischief they were about to get up to that morning. The other X-Men were glued to the tele-viewer on the wall, their faces grim. Paul took a chair and listened with them.
“This is a World Network News breaking newsflash. The committee chaired by Senator John Roberts has approved the controversial Mutant Registration bill and it has been forwarded to the next stage for World Senate approval. Senator Roberts was quoted as saying he was delighted by the result and said it was a great step forward for both mutants and non-mutants alike.”
“And in several capitals around the world this news was met with angry protests and violent clashes between anti and pro-mutant groups. We join our reporters in London and Washington DC for the latest on these -”
They listened for a few more minutes, and Paul could feel the cloud of gloom settling over the little group. Patrick finally shut the screen off. “I don’t think we need to hear any more, we know the worst.”
Juliette set down a stack of pancakes onto the table. “Thank goodness for the blindness of youth,” she said. “Most of the children seem oblivious to all of this.”
“Thank the Lord,” Patrick agreed with her.
Juliette produced yet more plates piled high with wobbly scrambled eggs, succulent Canadian ham dripping with maple syrup, and fresh bread. Paul’s stomach gurgled in response to the smells across the table. Food wasn’t at the base of his needs pyramid for nothing. He waited politely for Juliette to utter bon-appetit, and he attacked with enthusiasm. The others followed his cue, happy for the distraction following the unsettling news report.
“Has anyone heard from Chan?” Adam piped up from a mouthful of bacon.
“What made you think of her all of a sudden?” Brad said.
“Just wondering what she’s making of all of this.”
“Ignoring it, I should imagine,” Patrick said. “Happy flying her daddy’s little taxi service and pretending she can’t walk through walls.”
Paul was intrigued. “Who’s Chan?” he whispered to Adam.
“She was in the first student intake at the school, along with Dianne and Juliette,” Patrick cut in, hearing his question. “But unlike them, she didn’t want to stay here after graduating, she missed home, Japan that is, too much. She was one tough cookie though, ninja stock through and through. You’d have liked her, Paul.”
There was a short lull in the conversation for eating until Juliette broke the silence again.
“I think we should all do something mindless and fun.”
“What have you got on your mind, Stormy?” Patrick answered.
“It is the start of the weekend, dear Adam is with us again, and I have heard, Monsieur Metcalfe, that you are feeling claustrophobic in our vast mansion.”
Paul jerked his head from his coffee at the mention of his name. “Well, yes, I suppose so, but what about –”
“We could go sailing,” Adam suggested, and was rewarded by a look of horror from Paul.
“I get seasick,” he said.
“I’d never have imagined that,” Patrick said with a wide grin.
“Remember I’m still a wanted man,” Paul said, ignoring their evident delight in his phobia. Juliette was right about one thing, though. He did feel cooped up, like a prisoner in this school. But he, thought, he wasn’t about to do anything rash that would risk involving them in another fight for their lives.
Patrick chuckled. “Personally, I quite enjoyed that little roll about in the snow, up in Minnesota. Best bit of exercise I’ve had in years, don’t you agree, darlin’?” He winked at Juliette for effect.
“I’d say you are incorrigible, Patrick,” she replied with an arching of her brows.
“You could go to the mall,” Magnolia piped up, and shrank back in her chair as several pairs of eyes focused on her. “What I mean is – there’s lots of people -” She fell silent, flustered.
“Yeah, it’s hardly likely that a bunch of storm-troopers are going to start charging in there,” Brad said, as if following the girl’s thought pattern.
“It’s hardly my idea of the great outdoors,” Paul said.
“Nonsense,” Juliette said. “That is a perfect idea, Magnolia. I cannot see how we can be in danger there. And Paul needs some new clothes, he said so himself.” She fixed her eyes on him and he had the distinct impression that she was enjoying herself at his expense. “I shall be happy to help you select the right things to make you look formidable.”
Patrick hooted with laughter. “I think he’s already pretty formidable.”
“I was kidding, I’m fine with what I have,” Paul protested, the idea of tramping around some fancy boutique made his eyes glaze over. “Someone help me out here – Patrick?” He glanced at the Irishman with a pleading look.
Patrick raised his hands with a piratical grin. “Don’t look at me. I can’t go; too many things to catch up on today.”
“Some help you are.”
“Sorry, boyo, there’s only one thing that Stormy likes better than dressing herself, and that’s dressing other people. And if she’s made her mind up about it – well, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Well, count me in. I’m more than happy to do something mindless today,” Adam said.
“And me,” Brad added. He turned to Magnolia. “What about you, honey, you want to come too? It was your idea after all.”
“I don’t really like shopping,” she said. “I never had any money, so what was the point?”
“Well, you do now. After all, you can’t keep the entire monthly advance Charles paid you under your mattress. You need to live a little, girl.”
“Yes, come with us,” Juliette said. “I need another woman to keep these men in line.”
For a moment the dusky-skinned girl squirmed under the gaze of the others, and then finally gave in to the pressure. “Okay,” she said.
“Magnifique, it is settled,” Juliette said, looking pleased with herself.
Paul just felt doomed.
Rick slammed the door on his way out and strode down the corridor, hands thrust in his pockets. The evening in Adam’s company had made everything seem like old times again, and he’d retired for the night expecting Dianne to feel the same. At first he couldn’t understand why she had seemed reluctant to respond to his loving embrace, why she’d been almost shy about making love – and then he’d realised – her mind was still centred on Metcalfe. She might be lying in his arms, but in her mind, was it he who held her – or the Englishman? He’d turned from her in jealous anger; shrugged off her pleading for him not to be so hyper-sensitive, feeling that he was the one betrayed. He couldn’t understand her anymore: she demanded that he stop being possessive, then, when he tried to do as she asked, she demanded to know if he no longer cared. He knew that her mental link with Metcalfe had been traumatic, but he feared that it had also destroyed the unity between them.
He hadn’t felt like eating breakfast and Dianne had lain silent beside him, until his frustration had driven him from their bed and he’d dressed, without speaking to her, and left the room.
His exasperation was starting to cool a little as he headed for the basement. Maybe he would let off some steam in the training room, get his visor and combat suit on and punch a few holes in something inanimate. He squinted at the slight hammering in his temple. If he didn’t drain off some of the excess energy from his optic nerves on a regular basis he got headaches, and last night’s drinking hadn’t helped at all. On his way down the corridor towards the elevator he walked past the library and thought he heard a woman’s voice in hushed conversation. Intrigued, he gently opened the door to see Magnolia standing over by the French windows, her back to him. Quiet though he was, she seemed to sense his presence and whirled around. Seeing him, she swept her hand hastily across her cheek, brushing her exotic hair away at the same time.
“You scared me, creepin’ round the door like that,” she said.
“Sorry, I thought I heard conversation.” He frowned as he looked around the huge room, but there was no one else present. “Were you talking to yourself?”
She flushed. “Is that a felony?”
“No, just a little – “
“Weird? Go on say it; I’m weird, it’s what everyone thinks.”
His hands climbed; palms up. “Whoa, wait a minute honey! I just asked a civil question. What is it with you, always on the defensive?”
Her shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, please don’t get mad at me – I was just reading out loud.” She held out a book and he squinted at the title.
He found himself chuckling despite himself. “Never would have figured you for a Shakespeare fan. He gave me mental constipation, but Dianne always saw something in him, guess it’s an English thing.”
He handed her the book back and cocked his head at her. “You know, you don’t always have to bite someone’s head off when they’re only being polite.”
She hugged the book to her chest. “I know, I’m sorry, I’m just not very good with people, with everything and all – ”
Rick touched his glasses. “Well, that’s okay. I think I forgot what a miserable sonofabitch I was after my mutant powers surfaced. I became so convinced I hated the world and everyone in it because they were normal and I wasn’t.” And that made him think of Dianne, and how she had brought light and colour to his life. They were going through a bad patch, it happened to couples, all the time. They just needed to keep talking, like they always had before.
“Are you okay?” Magnolia’s voice reminded him she was still there.
“Jeez, I’m sorry, I went miles away there.”
“I’ll leave you in peace with old Will,” he said, as he closed the library door behind him.
Winchester Mall was an up-market shopping complex, to the northwest of the county. It was constructed on a Y-shape, anchored by two fine department stores. Its interior featured the usual collection of shops together with a luxurious spa-centre for those inclined to such pampering. The floors were marble, fountains played in the centre of the walkways and the entire roof was constructed from glass and titanium that allowed the maximum amount of light to flood in. Shrubs and flowers spilled from tubs and bowers, giving the impression of being in an airy indoor botanical garden.
“This is nice,” Paul said in a ‘trying-not-to-be-bored’ voice as they passed yet another family with bickering kids, one eight-year old trying to grab the popcorn packet from her pig-tailed sister and succeeding in spraying the contents over his shoe.
Adam caught his eye and gave him a wide grin. His wings were strapped down and hidden within the confines of his overcoat. When Paul had seen him waiting for the others he had commented upon it. Adam had shrugged, saying that he preferred not to draw attention to the school in a public place. There were already rumours in the area; however, none of them had been provable, thanks to Gray’s rigid rules to the students about showing off with their ‘talents’ to the locals; and by his judicious contribution to the local county coffers as an upright citizen and the memory of his wife’s family’s good name. But still, despite the rules, it was hard to keep the younger students discreet when they were allowed their monthly visits to the nearest town to see a movie and mix with ‘the no-powers’.
“I told you so,” Juliette said, with a smile in his direction, and then her eyes lit up as she spied a men’s boutique. She grabbed hold of Paul’s hand before he could protest. “Parfait. This way!” she said, dragging him off towards it
“Hey, wait!” he turned to the others, a look of helplessness on his face, and caught Adam trying his best not to smirk.
“We’re right behind you.” the winged mutant called after Paul’s rapidly departing back.
Karen Wainwright left the co-pilot’s seat of the Spectrum Society’s helicopter and walked towards the cargo space at the back, carefully watched by the men sitting on benches alongside. She looked as svelte as a catwalk model dressed in her white suit, but they were smart enough to keep thoughts like that to themselves. As befitted her status as White Queen of the Spectrum Society, Henderson had put her in charge of the men assigned to capture Paul Metcalfe and right now, her whole mind was focused on that mission.
Her troops wore police SWAT gear over their insulated charcoal grey uniforms, for their intention was to capture Metcalfe’s under the guise of a mutant terrorist apprehension. Henderson had been sceptical at first, but Kruger, the other member of the Inner Circle had argued that the wide open spaces of Minnesota hadn’t proved to be lucrative in apprehending the mutant. There was no way of knowing when another chance might present itself – and sometimes the least obvious attack was the most appropriate.
She gave them all a hard stare before her speech. “All right, this operation has got to work. It was botched at the last attempt and I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes if you screw it up this time. The Spectrum Society pays you a great deal of money to do this job; I intend to make sure that it’s money well spent.” She paused and allowed her words to sink in while she cast her chill gaze around the group.
“You don’t have to worry, Ma’am,” said Doig, their nominated leader. “We understand the priority of this mission.”
She could see the respect – a respect that bordered on fear – in each one of their faces. She smiled inwardly, savouring that feeling of power over them – over these tough hard-bitten men. The knowledge that they knew what she could do with her mind was gratifying. They rightly feared her ability to inflict any amount of pain – perhaps turn an individual into a gibbering idiot - with one simple thought.
She’d have been less happy to know that privately these same men figured she was completely crazy. They made damn sure they only expressed that opinion well out of her earshot, or – more importantly - out of her mindshot. There were rumours of her vindictive nature and the draconian revenge she extracted for the merest slight, although no one could substantiate them; at least no one that was still able to talk. Only a few of the men had ever seen the rough-end of her temper, but what they could tell of it made sure even fewer wanted to trigger it off.
She continued, “We have insider knowledge that Metcalfe will be at the Winchester mall, however he will probably not be alone. You already know how dangerous his companions are.”
They nodded briskly; each one of them determined that this time, they wouldn’t be thwarted in their aim.
“We need Metcalfe alive... Is that clear? And remember, if anyone gets separated or injured, they make it back on their own steam. We don’t wait. Is that understood?”
There were nods of assent from the members of the team.
Brad complained that his stomach was in need of sustenance before he expired on the spot, and Paul thanked the man for his foresight as Juliette eyed up a two-piece outfit in pale blue watered-silk for her own wardrobe.
“Very well,” she said reluctantly, and allowed Brad to lead her to the Atrium food court located dead centre of the mall. Paul felt better in the light that flooded from the glass-domed two story ceiling, but cringed at the typical classical muzak which piped too loud for his liking. Still, the stylish furniture gave the impression of an outdoor piazza, probably the closest he’d get to fresh air if Juliette had her way, he thought. The tables were full of people enjoying the food from the impressive array of outlets that lined the walls of the court.
“So much choice, so little time,” Brad said with a mock groan.
“You wouldn’t think making ice would need so many calories,” Adam said quietly to Paul with a smile.
Paul returned it. “I can’t say I blame him – it seems shopping has the same effect on me,” he said, motioning to the two bags he held containing the new clothes that Juliette had insisted he bought.
Paul fancied the Cajun stall and stood in queue at the franchise with Magnolia. She glanced at him uncomfortably for a second but the small boy standing with his parents in front of them diverted her attention, his dimpled face splitting open in a wide grin. Magnolia responded by making a silly-face of her own to the boy, an interchange that made Paul see the girl in a different light. Astonishing how her face was transformed by that simple gesture, he thought. Paul glanced around to see the others still waiting, so he took the first table. Magnolia looked reluctant to sit with him, but did anyway. Her dark head bobbed as she darted glances around the piazza.
“The others will be here in a minute,” Paul said. She dragged her eyes back to the table and stabbed a knife in her catfish poorboy with a gloved hand. Paul didn’t ask her, but he guessed that she wore them to ensure she didn’t touch someone inadvertently in such a crowded public place.
He said in a soft voice, “You don’t look comfortable here, Magnolia. Is it because you don’t like me?”
She looked up with deer-eyes, caught by surprise. “Uh – I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’ve made pretty involved attempts to avoid me since well – you know.”
“I told you before; there’s no hard feelings. As I said to Mr Fraser this morning, it’s hard for me to make conversation. It’s nothin’ personal.”
“You seem to get on well with Brad.”
“He’s been good to me, same with the Professor.”
“Well, we have something in common there, the Professor being good to us, I mean.”
He swore a dark shadow passed over her face at the mention of his name. “Yeah, he’s a real nice guy,” she said.
“So, I think we can find something else if we try hard enough.”
She tried to smile, but he thought that it was a pretty pathetic attempt. Still, got to give her marks for trying, he thought. At that point the others returned with their food and he swore her saw relief in her eyes. God, does she dislike me that much? he mused. Maybe I should go back to charm school, or get some tips from Adam. He looks like he’s totally at home with the female members of Gray’s little community.
They were halfway through their meal when Paul thought he saw shadows flicker across the table. He squinted upwards against the glare of the bright sunlight coming through the glass atrium to see several dark bulky figures dance across the surface and all at once his senses screamed – danger.
He began to rise from his seat when the roof of the atrium shattered with an almighty crash, scattering splintered glass onto the marbled floors. Six men abseiled from the roof struts at tremendous speed and landed on the floor in a tight circle, mere feet away from the tables where the X-Men sat.
Doig shouted: “Stay out of the way, folks, this is a police mission, we’re just after a dangerous mutant terrorist.”
The screaming started almost immediately, followed by a contagious wave of terror. Tables and chairs were scraped back and knocked over, as adults grabbed screaming children and began to panic – they raced haphazardly around the piazza, searching for a safe route out of the danger zone.
Faced with the threat to his friends, Adam didn’t think twice about his anonymity. He threw off his overcoat and yelled to Brad, “Help me get out of this!” as he pulled frantically at his harness. Brad nodded, helping to yank it away and Adam’s wings unfurled to their full glory at being released from their prison.
A woman beside him emitted a shrill scream: “Oh my God, it’s an angel!” but her husband shouted: “Mutant!” as if it was a curse.
Doig shouted, “Get Metcalfe, he’s our primary target.”
Hearing that, Paul didn’t hesitate; if they’re after me I can draw their fire. He glanced at Brad. “Split them up!” he ordered authoritatively.
People were being knocked over in the rush to evacuate the food court and cries of pain added to the confusion. Paul was caught in a stampede of terrified people and hustled away from the others. He could see the furious look on Doig’s face and the soldier pulled his gun out and started firing. Several people were caught by tranquilliser darts in the crossfire.
Paul’s survival instincts took over and he moved without thinking. His claws unsheathed themselves with a rasping noise as he vaulted over a table and launched himself at the two nearest assailants. He mowed them down, somersaulting through the move and springing to his feet. Two young children screamed as he nearly ploughed into them. He grabbed one under each arm. “Let’s get out of here, shall we?” he said with a lop-sided grin – unaware of how lupine that made him look. The children gurgled into terrified silence as he began running with them, sure-footed, for one of the exits.
“After him!” Doig yelled in fury as he was knocked to the floor. Once again he was seeing his prey elude him.
“Get behind me, Magnolia!” Brad yelled, and he stretched out one hand. The air turned into to a beam of solid ice directed at Taylor who was aiming at him. The man gasped as the gun and his forearm were sheathed in solid ice, followed by several rock-hard chunks of ice, which expertly smacked into his forehead, stunning him, so that he fell to the ground.
Two of the other ‘policemen’ fired several more tranquilliser darts at Magnolia and Juliette. The women succeeded in avoiding them, but heard a cry behind them as someone was hit in the crossfire. Magnolia turned, her heart in her mouth, to see the little boy who had smiled at her in the meal queue. His mother was frantic with terror, holding onto him as he fell unconscious.
“No!” Magnolia screamed, as she saw the child fall limply to the ground.
Brad turned. “Magnolia, get out of here, take that kid with you!”
“I won’t leave you!”
“Do it! Your powers aren’t any use here!”
“Come on, follow me!” Adam urged her. He swiftly picked up the injured child and, flying low, swooped down the corridor towards the customer service booth. In his wake, the screaming mother struggled to keep up. Magnolia ran with them, caught up in the relentless tide of panicking shoppers.
Paul had cleared the atrium and was dodging along towards an exit. To his right he saw an entrance to one of the anchor department stores. He slowed, stood the children on the floor and abstractedly told them to scram – pushing them towards the open exit. The youngsters bolted, hardly pausing to glance back at their deliverer. The noise of the melee in the atrium echoed down the walls and Paul knew he had to double back – he had to help these people to whom he owed so much.
He dashed through the entrance to the store: It’ll be easier to hide in amongst the merchandise and throw any pursuers off the trail, than attempt to force my way back along the corridor.
At the foot of the escalator he paused. People in the store were milling about, not wanting to venture into the dangerous corridors. Suddenly one woman screamed and ran away from him. “The mutants – they’ve come in the store!” she yelled. He glanced down at the long, curving claws that protruded from his knuckles. Great going, Metcalfe… just how inconspicuous were you hoping to be? he thought as he retracted the sabres with the usual grimace at the pain.
But it was too late – people were hastening putting distance between him and them and the Spectrum soldiers entering the building saw him clearly, standing isolated by the ebbing tide of shoppers.
Paul’s lip curled in a snarl. “Come and get me then – if you can.” He turned and ran up the escalator, only realising as he reached the top that it was the descending one. Even in this desperate situation he spared the time for a wry smirk.
The soldiers were closing on him using the up escalator; they raced after their quarry with single-minded intent.
Paul looked for a place to hide; he was in the ladies wear department – not the best place to hide amongst the skimpy lingerie and the delicate displays. Snarling, he grabbed a rack of lacy underwear and hurled it at the closest pursuer. As the man struggled to free himself, Paul hit him, his tritonium knuckles cracking the cheekbone. The second man was trying to get a decent shot in, and Paul skipped away dodging though the racks of scanties and diving through a curtain into a –
He felt himself blushing at the alarmed faces of women peering from the individual cubicles and seeing one empty he dived inside and slammed the door closed.
He took a deep breath, recouping his strength; he had to somehow warn Gray and the others of this ambush. Could he send a thought to Dianne with such a physical distance separating them? He took a breath, closed his eyes and summoned an image of her face in his mind, and concentrated – hard, projecting her name, over and over – like a silent mantra.
The mall manager stood at the customer service desk, white-faced and clearly shaken, obviously trying to give answers to his customers where he had none. He had been in the office when he heard the screaming and frantic stampeding of people outside and he had dashed to the desk to find out what was going on. He was bombarded with comments from scared people screaming about police and mutant terrorists in the food court. His eyes grew wider as he looked at the flying figure alighting in front of him holding the unconscious child.
Adam said briskly, “Call 911, if you haven’t already. We need paramedics, this child’s been injured.”
“I did call them already, what in God’s name in going on? Who are you? Are you one of these mutants?”
Adam glared at him, but knew that he a little time to argue – the others needed his help. He thrust the child into Magnolia’s arms as she came running up to him. “Look after him till his mother gets here,” he muttered quietly to her. “And you get outside and call Gray and the others.”
“But, what about you?” she gasped.
But she received no reply. Instead, Adam launched himself into the air once again and flew back along the corridor towards the atrium. The mother came running up, tears streaking her face and grabbed her son gratefully from Magnolia.
“It’s okay, there’s an ambulance coming,” she said, shaken by the distraught look on the mother’s face. The woman didn’t reply, only started sobbing and rocking her child back and forth. The enormity of what was happening hit Magnolia with sudden force, and scared out of her wits, she put a hand to her face as the tears sprang to her eyes.
Adam soared low into the atrium. It was a mess. Brad’s ice-works were fast turning it into a mini-Siberia. Ice had piled up on tables and chairs, icicles hung off the plants and palm trees and behind the counters of the food outlets, some of the occupants were still cowering, praying that the nightmare would stop soon. Brad had thrown up a protective shield of ice around the people who hadn’t managed to escape. Those of Doig’s men who hadn’t followed Paul were pinned down against Brad’s defences.
Adam’s swift aerial gymnastics allowed him to dodge several rounds of tranquilliser darts fired his way; unfortunately on his last manoeuvre he got caught in the crossfire of Brad’s ice beam, slashing across the piazza at one Spectrum soldier who tried to cut across to get behind their defences.
It slammed straight between his eyes, and he instantly lost consciousness, his wings becoming a dead weight. Brad could only stare open-mouthed in shock as he saw his friend crash to the marble floor, rolling to a motionless sprawl several meters away from him.
“Oh jeez no,” Brad muttered, but he had no time to think further upon his disastrous act, or how badly he had hurt Adam as the Spectrum soldiers continued to press their attack.
Doig scowled as he fired another shot at Brad and Juliette. The fight was a stand-off with neither side gaining any ground. This icicle guy was holding them at an impasse and he needed to be dealt with quickly, because Metcalfe was still running loose somewhere in the mall and he had to be found before the real police came on the scene, which they surely would in the not too distant future. He muttered orders into his helmet-mike to three of his troops who had been dropped on the rooftop after him. They were positioned at the store exits in the possible likelihood that Metcalfe made a break for it and tried to flee the mall. One of them acknowledged his leader’s commands and made his way back towards the atrium.
Rick was tinkering with one of his old motorcycles in the garage when Dianne burst into it. Her face was pale and her eyes unfocused with shock. He dropped the tool and scrambled to his feet.
“Dianne, what the hell –”
“Paul, he’s trying to call to me. Oh dear God, they’re being attacked –.”
He felt the blood run cold in his veins. “Jesus, attacked? What do you mean?”
“In the mall – men dressed like police – he said they smell wrong – trying to capture them –“
“So it’s happened, they caught up with him,” he said, and his mind tried to race ahead, even as the shock of her words froze his feet to the floor. “We have to get out there as fast as possible – can’t use the X-Zero in broad daylight – have to be the Cougar.”
He snapped his head up to see Dianne with her face in her hands and he crossed the floor in several strides to grip her shoulders. Her eyes flew open, distraught.
“Patrick and I will go to the mall,” he said. “You tell Charles what’s happening,”
“I just did, and I’m going with you.”
“It could be dangerous.”
The sudden look of fierce determination on her face surprised him. “I didn’t spend hours and hours doing mental gymnastics while other girls my age went shopping and nightclubbing, so I could fret like some schoolgirl while the boys go save my friends.”
He hesitated only for a second, and then he nodded, knowing she was right, and deep down he felt an odd sense of pride at her determination. “Go get Patrick and I’ll get the car. Both of you meet me round the front of the house.”
With Adam out of action and the two remaining X-Men concentrating on the defence of the innocent bystanders, there was no-one watching the corridors that led off the atrium. The Spectrum soldier, recalled by Doig, approached the atrium from their rear. As Doig upped the attack, concentrating their firepower to keep Brad and Juliette distracted, he stealthily moved between the franchise stalls, to outflank Brad.
Close enough to get a shot in, he slowly and carefully took aim. With a triumphant smile, he fired a tranquilliser dart into Brad’s broad back. The X-Man stiffened, yelling out his defiance as he turned to attack his assailants. But the White Queen had not lied – the darts were powerful and quick-acting. Brad staggered even as he turned. His outstretched hand trembled and his eyes began to glaze. He slumped down into a mass of crushed ice and around the atrium a small series of avalanches announced the melting of the ice defences….
Paul rested the back of his head against the wall of the cubicle after sending his plea for help to Dianne. He had been dimly aware, during his attempt at thought transfer, that the high-pitched shrieks of the women were fading and his commonsense told him that the gunman had in all likelihood followed him into the changing rooms and emptied them. The next second the sound of a baritone voice told him he was right.
“I know you’re in there, Metcalfe – you’ve got nowhere to go, so why don’t you just come out nice and easy.”
Yeah, right, Paul thought.
He heard the man’s heavy breathing, and it was obvious to him that his tone belied his confident words. He could smell the man’s fear, knowing he was facing one-on-one a mutant with nine inch talons that could slice through metal and bone like a knife through peanut butter.
He grimaced, and knew he couldn’t stay inside this cubicle forever; his pride wouldn’t let him for a start – even if Juliette could probably knock him dead with her incredible power – there was still no way he was going to continue to leave a lady to fight his battles.
As silently as he could, he tapped the magnetic catch. With a snick, the door unlocked, and he could hear the gunman’s weapon bolt into position, almost feel him swallowing in trepidation…
Sheriff Harry Webster had been woken from a pleasant after-lunch doze in his office by the desk sergeant. The latter had taken a call from a frightened manager who was blabbering on about armed police and mutants shooting up the Winchester Mall. He scrambled to his feet in a daze. Aside from a spate of burglaries several months ago, things never got really exciting in Winchester; the community was fairly law-abiding and the most excitement in the last month had been a bunch of kids stealing the big sign from Manzolis’ Pizza and Grinders’ diner in downtown and dumping it in the lake. He tried to make sense of his sergeant’s message. SWAT Police? He’d heard nothing about any sort of operation in his backyard, and he bristled with annoyance. He gave sharp orders for his men to assemble pronto; he wasn’t going to let that lot run riot over his patch.
He arrived at the mall with several blue-and-whites in tow, to see the scared and confused faces of the shoppers milling around outside in the pale sunshine. As he got out of the car, he was suddenly surrounded by people, their frightened voices a babble in his ears.
“ – bunch of mutants are having World War Three in there,” shouted one man, gesticulating wildly at the mall.
“There’s a guy in there shootin’ ice from his fingers,” shouted another.
“Decent people can’t even shop in peace now, what’s the flaming world coming to?”
“A little boy got hurt, one of them tried to save him, just like an angel he was,” said one woman, hugging her own two little boys, who looked longingly back at the mall entrance as if they wanted to go back and join in the action.
Webster waved his hands. “Okay, okay, just calm down everyone, get away from the entrances and clear the area. Is anyone hurt here?”
Just then someone turned and screamed. “Oh my God, look up there, at the sky!”
Huge dark clouds had swirled out from nowhere, blotting out the sun and funnelling around like some malevolent whirlpool, directly above the atrium dome. The onlookers stared, awestruck. Lightening flared, crackling and shockingly loud. A baby started to cry, wailing in fear.
“That ain’t natural, what’s going on?” a man said.
“Aren’t you going in there?” someone ventured to Webster.
Webster swallowed. Where did that storm come from? The hairs on his neck prickled, and he suddenly felt something akin to a superstitious fear. There was nothing in the police handbook about dealing with a situation like this.
Paul slammed the cubicle wide open and dived sideways out of it, somersaulting onto the floor to the right of the gunman, his eyes darting around. There – a fire escape, to his right, at the end of the room.
The gunman involuntarily jumped back when Paul sprang out of the cubicle, but he took only a second to recover and aim his weapon at Paul’s rapidly disappearing back.
Paul felt the double sting as two of the darts punctured his clothing centimetres from his spine; just as he hauled open the door to the stairwell. He felt an overwhelming dizziness flood his body – but fought it; staggering around, he saw the gunman running up to him, his weapon firing again. Two more darts thudded into his leg, and even as he fell, he grabbed the man, holding onto him as if his life depended upon it. They both lurched backwards, and Paul felt his eyes closing with the drug, his desire to pass out almost hypnotic and yet, he retained enough strength to push the gunman over the railing of the stairwell. In panic, the man fired his last two shots from the gun. At such close range the detonation caused burn marks as they impaled Paul’s thigh. With horror, the gunman realised that Paul had tipped their bodies across the metal bar and his arms flailed into empty space.
They toppled over the railing.
Inside, below the shattered dome, anger seethed through Juliette’s slight frame as she saw Brad cut down beside her. She stood alone – but not defenceless. She had not dared use her powers in this confined space, lest she hit the innocent bystanders around her, but she could no longer control the rage building in her.
Gasps uttered from around the piazza as Juliette transformed; her hair crackled, drifting around her as if with a life of its own, an unearthly glow played around her body and her almond eyes flared with a white light, as she summoned the awesome elemental forces of nature for her command.
“Now you shall face the fury of Storm!” she cried, throwing her arms high into the air, her face searching the heavens as if in supplication. Several bolts of lightning arced downwards from the dark sky and struck her – she embraced them – gathering the energy within her body – and flung out her hands in front of her. The bolts flew from her splayed fingers – whipping across the piazza to wreath her attackers in a coruscating light.
Again she struck, furious that they would not fall. The transferred kinetic energy threw them off their feet but their insulated suits stopped short the bolts from electrocuting them. They staggered to their feet, shaking their heads.
Juliette’s eyes narrowed. Her hands made intricate movements. A breeze picked up – becoming a swirling wind – increasing in intensity – roaring within the piazza. The terrified onlookers screamed and held onto anything to keep them from being blown around the room. In an almost theatrical gesture, Juliette flung out one arm; it was as if the wind took on the semblance of a giant invisible hand, the gust catching one of the Spectrum men and violently scooping him up off his feet and hurtling him up through the shattered roof.
From her vantage point in the helicopter a short distance from the mall, Karen Wainwright listened to Doig’s terse report on the two-way radio. Below her, she could see the police cars arriving, and she was sure that a helicopter would be following close behind.
“What’s happening down there? Why are you taking so long?” she barked into her ear-com.
“They’re putting up a good fight; we’re having problems getting to them. Shit –!” Doig’s voice broke off.
“What is going on?” she shouted into the radio.
The pilot shouted, “Look, over there!”
She looked towards his pointing finger. The dark clouds roiled, in the sky above the mall, unnatural, ominous…
Karen swore. “That can’t be a natural effect; my bet’s on one of Gray’s mutants being behind it.”
Just then the helicopter rocked in a violent gust of wind. Lightning cracked from the clouds, spiking down into the hole and they could see its flare inside the building. Seconds later they saw something hurtled from the hole in the roof. It was a figure, clad in charcoal grey. It bounced, once, twice, and tumbled down onto the tarmac below.
She thumped her fist on the glass window in disgust. “Those fools! They’re every bit as useless as the first lot. These X-Men are too powerful for them; I knew we shouldn’t have sent men to do a mutant’s job.”
The helicopter rocked again, and Karen swore under her breath once more. It just wouldn’t do to fail a second time. Her reputation was at stake, and Henderson would not be pleased. Storm or no storm, she had to get the Wolverine.
The pilot fought with the controls, at the same time trying to control the panic he felt. Karen Wainwright’s next words chilled him.
“Position us above the dome.”
“Ma’am, it’s too dangerous with this wind around us. And that lightning, we’ll be right underneath whatever that thing is. It could send us crashing into the mall. ”
She glared at him and her voice was icy calm. “Then control it – that’s what you get paid for. And if you don’t, I’ll make sure you never work again, ever.”
He dropped his gaze. “Yes, ma’am.” And he moved the stick forward.
And then the storm stopped almost as rapidly as it had been created.
“That’s close enough!” she barked.
Below, almost directly beneath her, she saw the blonde woman, the one who created the weather effects, standing over another leather-clad figure. She didn’t waste any more time – she extended her will and unleashed it, sending waves of pure psi-energy to her targets on the floor of the mall. Screams of pain echoed around the atrium as men and women writhed in agony, their minds assaulted by the powerful strikes of mental energy. With a grim smile she saw the blonde woman fall to the ground beside her male companion, and almost immediately, the winds stopped buffeting the chopper, the skies around them clearing. Karen commanded the pilot to lower the ladder to the mall, and she climbed down, stepped delicately off at the bottom to study the scene of destruction, glowering at her men who stood around her like useless oafs.
Her eyes narrowed. “Where is the Wolverine - Metcalfe?”
Doig’s face was impassive, but she could feel his psyche tremble. “We lost him. He got two of the guys and escaped.”
“I don’t believe your stupidity,” she said in an icy voice. “He’s the one we came for! Get your men out into the mall and search for him, now!”
“We can’t ma’am,” another trooper replied. “The county cops are everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before they come inside and find out what’s going on. I say we get out now.”
The retort on her lips died away when she espied a body face down on the floor some distance away from the other X-Men. She saw the blond hair, the graceful white wings spread out across his back. Her mouth fell open with shock. She stepped quickly across, and lifted his head so she could see his face.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” Doig asked, seeing her face turn as white as her clothing.
Her mouth snapped shut in a compressed line and she dropped Adam’s head back to the floor. “I’m fine, let’s get moving.” Her mind whirled. Why was he here? Coincidence, or was he here with Metcalfe and the others? She shut her thoughts down and mentally refused to acknowledge his presence for now; to do so would crack her control wide open.
Just then several of the other Spectrum troops came running into the piazza. Karen and Doig both noted the fact that Paul Metcalfe was not with them and neither were two of their team members.
“Where’s McWhirter?” Doig asked them.
The man who had suffered the cracked cheekbone shook his head, wincing at the pain. “Don’t know. He went after Metcalfe and we got separated. I couldn’t find him or – else he’s –.” He broke off when hew saw Karen’s icy stare. “I’m sorry ma’am.”
“Then the fool will have to take his own chances,” Karen said, with a bleak look in her eyes. That man, like all the team, had been shielded by one of her telepathic commands. The police could try to interrogate him, but it wouldn’t do any good. And if he tried to tell the truth – Henderson would find him. She hoped that he would be smart enough to get out without drawing attention to himself.
“We also lost the girl; she scooted off along the corridor with the other civilians.”
“Idiots, we wanted her back.”
Doig pointed at the three prone X-Men. “What do you want us to do with these friends of his?”
For a second Karen hesitated. Seeing Adam here had shaken her resolve, but then an image of Henderson’s face if she went back with nothing brought her rudely back to cold reality. “Bring them; perhaps they might be useful.”
Doig nodded and his men threw an X-Man over one shoulder, clambered onto the ladders and signalled for the pilot to winch them upwards. Karen had placed one booted foot onto a rung of the last ladder when several policemen stormed into the atrium. They took up position, guns raised ready to fire.
“Stop right there or we’ll shoot!”
She closed her eyes, summoning a psi-blast, but made the mistake of raising her arm.
A shot rang out.
She cried out in pain as the bullet scythed through the white leather, and blood sprayed from the flesh wound. Her telepathy had deflected his aim – just not enough.
She sagged against the ladder, but had the presence of mind to hang on with her good arm. Her troops had seen what happened and they winched her swiftly up through the shattered roof into the chopper.
Harry Webster watched from the ground with mounting frustration. The mini cyclone had stopped without warning, and he had ordered several of his men into the mall when he saw another chopper with no markings, move into position above the atrium. He watched in consternation as he saw silver ladders thrown from the craft towards the roof. Minutes later, he saw several men dressed in police SWAT gear shimmying back up, each of them carrying what looked like an unconscious hostage on their back, and one of those hostages, God help him, looked like an angel.
What in the Name of God was going on? he thought with a confused groan, feeling suddenly ill-equipped to deal with this crisis. Then one of his men stuck his head out of the car. “Sir, just contacted the World Police HQ, like you asked. They don’t know anything about a mutant terrorist operation.”
Webster grabbed a loudhailer from the back seat and yelled into the sky. “This is the county police. Identify yourselves. I say again – we will open fire if you do not surrender your hostages.”
The ‘SWAT-police’ ignored him and continued to disappear into the bowels of the aircraft, the ladders slithering up behind them. His men raised their guns and he stayed their hands with a frustrated wave. “We can’t risk bringing that chopper down and killing anyone on the ground.” He barked orders into his radio. “Chopper Seven-niner, Where are you, we need you to overfly Winchester Mall area.”
Doig settled Karen against one of the benches alongside the unconscious and bound prisoners, and removed her coat as gently as he could. She winced and glared at him but was distracted by the pilot calling from up front.
“There’s a police chopper on its way, coming up fast!” he shouted
She grimaced, against the stinging pain of her wound, and the unmitigated disaster this mission had turned out to be. But she had to buy them time to escape. She yelled back hoarsely, “Get us out of here, and I’ll take care of them!”
The pilot nodded vigorously and veered the chopper sharply away from the mall, gaining height with every second.
From the ground Webster could see his chopper coming around fast, and heading out for the direction of the fleeing pseudo-police. He followed it with his keen vision.
Karen kept one part of her mind focused on the three prisoners, to ensure they didn’t recover consciousness, and with another part she directed a spear of psi energy at the mind of the police pilot. Despite the strain, it was simple enough to break through his pathetic mental defence and send him off on a fool’s errand. Then she slumped back against the wall and allowed her men to make repairs to her arm as the chopper headed back to upstate New York.
Webster suddenly saw Seven-niner veer off and return the way it came. He stared as if he couldn’t believe his eyes and shouted into the radio, “What the hell’s going on? Why aren’t you following that other chopper?” But his only reply was a flurry of static, and Seven-niner continued serenely on, its occupants totally ignoring his angry shouts.
Paul swam out of the cloying fog and tried to focus on something that wasn’t moving. He blinked – his world steadying at last – and realised he was lying at the bottom of the stairwell. He raised himself up to a sitting position and felt the last vestiges of the toxin fade from his bloodstream. Whatever these darts had in them, they packed some punch all right, and he had no idea how long he had been unconscious – it could have been only minutes or several hours. He moved and encountered an object. Turning his head he saw the huddled body of his assailant. The man’s head was at an awkward angle. Paul leaned over and felt for a pulse in the neck. Nothing.
He pulled open the outer clothing to reveal the familiar padded charcoal grey suit, and knew his hunch had been right at that moment when the men had crashed through the atrium roof. They obviously wanted him really bad to risk an operation in broad daylight and in such a public place. His ears pricked up as he realised he had heard outside the faint sounds of sirens wailing and that unmistakable thrum of a helicopters rotor blades.
Is that the real police out there?
He got to his feet, feeling the strength return to his muscles by the second. He didn’t really feel like explaining to the authorities why he was beside a dead man wearing police SWAT gear; it was time for him to leave. The fire exit was alarmed, but he figured that there were enough distractions in the mall for anyone to care about one more.
He cautiously pushed the bar and the door opened. He closed it quickly behind him and emerged into the bright sunlight. Crowds of the shoppers who had evacuated the store were milling about on the grassy verges, looking utterly confused. A couple of them glanced in his direction as he made his way towards them, but mostly they were looking up at the sky at the large helicopter arcing away from the mall.
Paul picked his way through the crowd, his eyes desperately searching for signs of the others; Adam’s unmistakable wings, Magnolia’s hair. As he approached the road entrance, he saw the police squad cars and saw a World Network News van slide up to join them and the reporter and cameramen jumping out from the back, their faces flushed and eager. There were so many people here, and all the while, his stomach sank like lead into oil – he had the awful feeling that none of the X-Men were here. Then he caught a flash of white hair and coffee skin, and with a sense of relief, he jostled his way through the bodies to get to her.
She whirled at the sound of his voice, her eyes widening in shock as she saw him, coming towards her in his disheveled state.
“'You managed to get away from them,” she said, as he pulled her away from the crowds, trying to get some breathing space to talk.
“It takes a lot to kill me,” he replied grimly. “Have you seen any of the others?”
Her body heaved with the start of a heavy sob. “No, they made me leave. I – think they might have been captured.”
“In that chopper I saw up there?”
She swallowed, and bobbed her head, obviously trying to keep her feelings under control.
Paul’s face darkened and he squinted up into the bright sky. “They were after me – why on earth did they take the others?” he said, almost to himself.
Rick floored the souped-up Cougar all the way to the mall like a madman. It was capable of two-hundred and fifty miles an hour and he pushed every cubic-centimeter of its mighty engine, probably racking up three-licenses-worth of offences on the way. He silently thanked whatever deity was up there that he hadn’t met any cops. The car screeched to a standstill at the parking lot and he placed his hands on the wheel, stunned for a minute at the scenes of confusion that met his eyes.
“Dianne, are you getting anything?” He turned to see her closed eyes, a frown of concentration on her face; she was ahead of him and scanning already.
“Yes, I can sense Paul!” she said with hope in her voice, and then her face paled. “I can’t get any signs from the others at all. I’m almost certain they’re not in the vicinity.”
Rick thumped the palms of both hands on the steering. “Damn, we’re too late. Why the hell didn’t Metcalfe send a message earlier?”
“Hey, anything could have been going on in there,” said Patrick absently, his eyes raking the crowd in search of their lost friends. He grabbed Dianne’s arm in excitement. “I can see Paul, and he’s with Magnolia!”
Rick followed his pointing finger, and saw the pair of them wandering across from one of the store entrances. They all clambered out of the car and started waving.
“What in God’s name happened?” Rick demanded, as the two of them approached. Metcalfe looked a mess, his short hair sticking up all over the place, the growth of stubble making his face seem even darker.
“I’m not sure,” the Englishman replied. “I guessed they were coming for me; so I tried to split them up, get them away from the others. Juliette and Brad stayed to protect the people in the piazza who didn’t make it out, but I don’t know what happened to them after that. I finally got hit with some blasted darts. Powerful little buggers – they put me to sleep, and when I woke up – all these people were outside, and I saw this chopper flying off.” Metcalfe stopped, took a deep breath. Then, “I’m sorry, I should have –.”
“Yeah, you should have stayed in Minnesota and none of this would have happened!” Rick heard himself shout. Metcalfe’s eyes flashed and he stepped towards him threateningly.
Dianne thrust herself between them. “Stop it, the pair of you. None of this is anyone’s fault; least of all Paul’s. Surely we should be saving our energy for thinking what to do next?”
Rick blew out a frustrated breath and ran a hand through his hair. He felt stung at Dianne automatically taking Metcalfe’s side, but he knew she was right, he had to figure out what do. He grunted, not willing to give an outright apology.
“Believe me, I’m as upset as you are,” Metcalfe said. “And I’m not going anywhere until we find where they are, and free them. I swear to you all.”
Oh great, Rick thought to himself, as he saw Dianne give the guy a smile of thanks.
“Who would ever have thought a simple trip to the mall could have caused so much trouble?” Patrick said. “It’s almost as if those guys knew you’d be there.”
Rick frowned. In the confusion, he hadn’t given it a thought, but he realised Patrick was right. He glanced unconsciously at Magnolia, who was standing some distance apart from them, looking distraught. From what he gathered, it was she who had made the initial suggestion they all go shopping. Suddenly his thoughts jumped around, making disturbing connections – the rescue mission for Metcalfe in Minnesota, and now this. His mind flicked back to when he found Magnolia in the library, her furtive reactions taking on a new and sinister aspect. He sidled closer to Dianne and whispered in her ear, “Can you read Magnolia’s mind? What’s she thinking?”
Dianne blinked, but the bleak look on his face made her comply almost immediately. This time, she made a stronger effort to penetrate the odd fog she had encountered the first time she met the young woman. But her tendril of thought just brushed off an invisible wall.
“I can’t read her – she’s blocking me somehow!” she whispered back to him, and the confusion on her face mirrored the sinking feeling in his guts.
“We need to return to the mansion, we can’t do any more here,” he said in a deadly calm voice. He didn’t want to Magnolia to panic and run off, and he certainly couldn’t afford to let her use her deadly power on any one of them. He automatically stepped between the girl and Dianne. “Patrick, Paul, you take the other cars back. Magnolia, you come back with us.”
Magnolia bit her bottom lip and her shoulders sagged. But thankfully, she made no attempt at escape and got into the rear of the Cougar. Rick’s thoughts were murderous as he burned rubber for a second time back to the mansion, the others following. Once or twice he felt Dianne’s hand on his knee, and gave her a tight smile to reassure her he wasn’t going to kill them all there and then. Several times he glanced in the mirror at the girl; she sat trembling in the seat as if she wished to disappear into it.
The shaken little group, on their return to the mansion, assembled directly in Gray’s study. He was waiting for them, the terminal on his polished rosewood desk already playing video-footage from the mall. They saw a scene of the helicopter veering off into the sky above the mall, then cutting to an interview with the distraught woman whose little boy had been hurt.
“ – and so, there is still much confusion surrounding the shocking events that took place at Winchester Mall today. But we will keep you up to date with information as it unfolds. This is World Network News with –”
Gray cut the transmission as they took seats in a semi-circle around his desk. He calmly poured tea, and Rick, despite his concern for the situation, couldn’t help a wry shake of his head at the typical English reaction that a cup of the damn stuff solved everything. He passed it by, as usual, as did Magnolia with a rapid shake of her dark head.
Let her stew for a few seconds more, he thought harshly. And yet, he had not a shred of proof, just a bunch of assumptions. Where would it get him if she denied any involvement? He was also mad at himself; for being so distracted by other things, and not doing his job properly. His peripheral vision was lousy, so he felt rather than saw Dianne’s gaze. He glanced at her, she looked both solemn and quizzical. He swallowed and hoped he wasn’t just about to make a huge mistake.
“Okay,” he said, “we obviously need to figure out what we’re going to do about getting the others back. And we can start by finding out just who the hell kidnapped them.” He swivelled his head, so he looked directly at Magnolia. “Well, who sent you here to spy on Metcalfe and the rest of us?”
She jumped in her seat.
“Are you going to deny it?” he demanded in a louder voice.
“On what grounds do you base this accusation, Rick?” Gray said.
“It’s obvious once you think about it. She conveniently turns up at the mansion while we’re searching for Paul - and then when we do find him - you get ambushed up north. And today – she’s the one who suggested the mall – coincidence? This morning I found her talking to herself in the library – or so she said, and I believed her story – like a fool. I think she was talking to whoever planned Metcalfe’s kidnap. She was telling them where to find him – again.”
Magnolia didn’t move; she seemed frozen to the chair.
“I asked Dianne to scan her outside the mall after we arrived too damn late, and guess what – she got nothing from her mind, and I remembered you said you had difficulty scanning the mind of one of those guys who attacked you – like he had been blocked by a telepath. Coincidence again? They’re stacking up, I’d say. The only thing I can’t figure out just yet is why she’s still here – why they didn’t take her with them.”
“Is what he says true?” Gray said quietly, holding Magnolia’s gaze.
She still didn’t answer, and Gray, with regret, sent a probing tendril to Magnolia’s mind; indeed, he encountered that identical wall that barred him from reading the secrets locked within. And the harder he tried the more her face paled with pain. He stopped and she let out a frightened sob.
“I didn’t have a choice!” she blurted out at last.
“So she is a damn spy,” Patrick muttered, his genial face twisting with anger.
“Who are you spying for, the Spectrum Society?” Gray demanded; his voice chilly.
“Yes,” she said, almost in a glad whisper, and slumped back in her chair.
Rick heard Paul’s gasp. “Why do they want me?” he asked her.
“I don’t know,” Magnolia replied, not daring to look at Paul’s face. “I was given your name, and I had to report back when I got any information on you. I’m truly sorry; you have no idea how bad I felt having to lie to everyone.”
“Yeah, bet it was tough pretending to be nice to someone you’re about to betray,” Patrick said.
“How did your people know we had Metcalfe here in the first place?” Rick directed the question at Magnolia.
She swallowed and shrugged. “I don’t know. I told you they didn’t let me have a whole lot of information about it. Heck, I didn’t even know where I was goin’ till you turned up at the hostel and brought me here.”
“What else have you told them?” Rick demanded, and caught Gray’s gaze, and they both knew what he was thinking – that their security and secrets were now, perhaps, disastrously compromised.
She shook her head earnestly. “Honest, not a thing, I said it was enough I was spyin’ on you all, I was damned if I was gonna give them anything else, and that’s the truth.”
“Why should we believe a word you say?” Patrick glared at her. “Bitseach! We trusted you – Brad trusted you – and now he could be dead.”
She winced at the mention of his name, and her lips pinched together. “Please, I never wanted Brad, or anyone to get hurt, they promised me –”
“Recriminations won’t get us anywhere,” Gray said sharply.
“Makes me feel better though,” Patrick muttered in reply.
“So that business of her being in trouble in Brooklyn, that was just a load of bullshit, to lure us to her and take her in,” Rick said sourly.
“Well, her distress was real enough,” Gray reminded him. “What did these people do to you?”
Magnolia’s voice lowered to a ragged whisper. “A woman, they called her the White Queen – she put a hand on my head – told me to concentrate on your name – then the pain – it hurt so bad.”
“A psychic mind blast.” Gray’s lips pursed in distaste and looked at Dianne. They both recoiled at the thought of a fellow telepath using their ability to hurt.
“Why did you leave the mall?” Rick asked her.
“There was this little boy; he took one of their darts.” Her face grew pinched at the memory. “Brad shouted at me to get out – I was afraid, I wasn’t thinking - I followed Adam, and then the cops came in, shouting at everyone to leave.”
“Yeah, real convenient, I guess you were meant to be picked up with Paul? I don’t like the smell of any of this,” Rick said with a deep frown. “Maybe you should just bust through this shielding in her head, because we need to know what’s going on.”
“I agree, we don’t owe her anything,” Patrick added.
“They said it would kill me if you did that!” She turned scared and pleading eyes towards Gray, as if she somehow knew that he wouldn’t allow this to happen to her. “What are you going to do to me?” she said in a quiet voice.
“We are not in the business of hurting people; I thought you might have learned that by living with us for a while,” Gray answered.
“I know, I know, I’m so sorry,” she said, a tear escaping to trickle down her face. “You have to understand, I didn’t want to do any of this.”
Dianne spoke for the first time, her voice surprisingly calm and soothing after the trauma of the past hours. “We do need to get our friends back, and we will need your help, Magnolia. Can we trust you to do that?”
Magnolia’s tears tipped from her dark eyes. She found it hard to believe anyone would give her a second chance after her treachery, but she could feel the reassurance emanating from Dianne and glancing at Gray she saw him give a slight nod of his head.
“Sure,” she said, a flicker of hope in her voice. “I’ll do whatever I can… I swear it.”
Adam became aware of the harsh light before he saw it. His whole body felt like lead, and someone was driving a pick-axe into his skull. He willed his eyelids to open. When he finally managed it, he blinked with surprise. He was lying immobile, and restrained, on a white padded gurney in a large room. His first impressions were that it was some sort of laboratory, all clinical white and gleaming tiles. There were no windows in the room that he could see; however, there were numerous pieces of equipment on the worktops and on the floor-space, some of which he did recognise as similar to those in the X-Men’s basement.
He flexed his head sharply to look around and was rewarded by another sharp spike stabbing into his temple. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and when the pain receded, he tried again, this time a bit slower. He saw that Juliette and Brad were across the room from him, also bound on the same type of gurney; however, unlike him, they were unconscious, and – he noted with dismay – had intravenous drips attached to their arms
He licked dry lips. The way they were all bound made him think that what was about to happen to them may not be at all pleasant.
He lay there in silence, and heard steps coming down a hallway and the door opening, and he gasped in horror when his eyes alighted on the woman dressed in white who entered the room.
“God in Heaven –”
She walked up to him with an unreadable expression on her face and pressed a button on the controller beside the gurney. It tilted to a thirty-degree angle so that they were staring into one another’s eyes. He was still reeling from the shock of recognition when she answered him in a voice that shook at the edges.
“I’m sorry, Adam; truly I am,” Karen Wainwright said. “You weren’t meant to be here with them. You just got in the way, that’s all.”
He stared at her, willing himself to wake up out of this nightmare. The woman he fell in love with – was – he didn’t know what she was. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to know.
“What have you done with my friends?” was all he could say.
“They’re fine, they’re under sedation. We can’t have them running around the place creating havoc.”
“So why aren’t I sedated too?”
“You’re not a threat, as long as you are restrained. I just wanted to make sure you were all right; and to speak to you alone.”
He shook his head, and instantly regretted it as the pain lanced through his skull. She said it as if they were sitting in a nice cosy café and she was about to tell him some intimate secret. He couldn’t help a similar image burning into his brain; the two of them drinking steaming plastic cups of coffee to keep them warm at the Rockefeller Center; she snuggling into him, her eyes bright with what he thought had been affection.
“So, speak to me, tell me something that doesn’t want to make me get my hands around your neck and squeeze the goddam life out of you.”
He saw her face pale, and her eyes turn into agates.
“I’ve changed my mind. I can see you’re in no mood for a civilised conversation,” she said frostily, and she spun on one heel to leave the room.
He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. What are you doing? he admonished himself. You’re the only one who’s awake out of the three of us, and we need to find out what’s going on.
“All right, I’ll be a nice quiet little boy. Don’t go.”
She turned around, and he saw that her face had resumed its normal colour but her eyes remained hard.
“What is the head of a Fortune 100 company doing getting involved in kidnapping and extortion?” he asked, unable to keep a trace of sarcasm from his voice.
“As I said, it wasn’t you we were after.”
Her words made him think of Paul Metcalfe, and the reason Gray had asked him to check out the Spectrum Society. Realisation bore down on him like an out-of-control train.
“You’re the telepath,” he said, and the knowledge that she was his enemy burned like the slow drip of acid into his heart.
She didn’t reply.
“And that’s why I could feel you in my head, that first night, when we made love, wasn’t it?” She didn’t have to answer, for the look on her face was enough to know he was right. “Are you in this with Henderson – is this the way the Inner Circle gets what it wants? I knew the man was bent on power, but I didn’t figure he would resort to crazy schemes like this to obtain it.”
“Why does Henderson want Metcalfe?”
“That’s none of your business. If he’s given over to us, then you’ll all be released.”
“So we are hostages, then.”
At least he’d found out something, whether it was any good remained to be seen. He returned his gaze to his former lover, desperate to find a shred of the woman he thought he knew.
“I can’t believe all we shared that weekend meant nothing to you.”
There was a flicker of torment in those tawny-flecked eyes, just enough for him to suspect that she wasn’t as sure of her animosity towards him as she was attempting to portray.
“It was sex, Adam, pure and simple. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking it was anything more than that.”
He felt himself smile thinly. “No, I do believe it was more than that, Karen, and I think you ran away from me because we were getting too close. I’m right, aren’t I? Why are you so afraid of love, Karen?”
The flicker danced wildly now in her eyes, and her lips compressed together, but she recovered her composure before him.
“You know nothing about it, and I don’t feel love for you. I don’t feel anything.”
“I dare you to kiss me; then I’ll know you mean it, or not.”
He saw the startled expression on her face, damped down instantly.
Oh, she is good. “What have you got to lose Karen? After all, I don’t mean anything to you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped finally. She spun on her heel and he swore that she practically fled from the room.
Outside the laboratory, Karen Wainwright leaned against the wall, using its coolness to douse the flush in her cheeks. She automatically put a hand to her still-throbbing arm, the flesh-wound now bound in gel-plaster. She despised herself for turning tail, but she’d had no choice. Seeing him lying there, helpless, shook her more than she cared to admit. She knew and - damn him to hell, so did he – that if she’d kissed him, the feelings she had tried so hard to drive deep underground would have rushed to the surface again.
Damn you twice, Adam Svenson.
Why on earth did he turn out to be one of Gray’s mutants? She squeezed her eyes shut but she couldn’t help stop the images of their passionate union stealing their insidious way into her mind. What an ironic state of affairs it was. She had started out trying to seduce him and now she was, somehow, tangled up in a web of her own making. For beyond their physical passion, she really had created a mental bond that muddied her force of will. What on earth did she bring him back here for, thinking she could handle it?
She leaned away from the wall, and smoothed down her dress. She was due to meet with Henderson in a few minutes. The thought of how he might react if she knew her seduction had been turned on its head might make him reconsider her fitness for the job.
The X-Men sat in a huddle on the silk and damask chairs in the library. Magnolia in one, small and forlorn, Rick and Dianne together, one of his arms around her shoulders, Patrick and Paul sitting opposite them. Gray sat in his wheelchair, next to the Biedermier desk where the phone sat silent, his hands a steeple to his chin and the worry-lines cutting deep into his face. Two eternal hours had passed and they had heard nothing from the kidnappers. Mrs Harris pattered in and collected the barely touched tea cups and plates with a grave look on her motherly face. She had returned that afternoon and was stunned to find out some of her dear ‘children’ had been kidnapped; however, her instincts kicked in and she made them all retire to the library while she busied herself with keeping them fed and watered. But it seemed shock killed even the toughest appetites.
“Still not a word?” she asked Gray.
He shook his head as she stacked the dishes onto the tray. She stood up and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “Always keep up hope,” she said. “And you dears, should keep your strength up. Wasting away isn’t going to help the others, you know.”
They gave her wan smiles as she bustled out of the room, then Rick blew out another sigh of frustration. “Maybe we should go to the police.”
Gray shook his head. “We can’t take the risk, for all sorts of reasons, primarily that we may further endanger their lives.”
The shrill beep of the phone made them all jump.
Gray nodded to Rick and took the call, putting it on the intercom for all to hear.
“Yes?” he said.
“Professor Charles Gray, I presume. We haven’t met, but I understand we have something in common.”
Anxious glances were traded.
Gray kept his voice neutral. “And that is?”
“Our mutant friend with the fascinating healing factor.”
“I’d like to know to whom I’m speaking before I talk any further.”
“Who I am is not important, and if you have any ideas of tracing this call, or saving it for the police to track, don’t bother. I have technology to ensure that can’t happen.”
“I have some idea who you are anyway. Magnolia Jones has admitted she is working for the Spectrum Society, and we found one of the club’s matchbooks when my people were assaulted in Minnesota. So I have to assume you are behind this atrocious attack on the mall which saw innocents harmed and some of my teaching staff captured.”
The speaker’s derisive snort echoed through the room. “Teachers, I did smile when I discovered that - truly inspired, Professor Gray. Very well, I suppose admitting who I am is not going to change matters much. I’m John Henderson, and I do indeed have your mutant “teachers”. The question is, what’s more important to you? Keeping Metcalfe, or getting your people back alive?”
“I do not take kindly to threats. Perhaps if the police were to know that a so-called respected industrialist is a kidnapper on the side ”
“Perhaps you’ll listen if I make good on that threat.”
The link muffled, and they could hear faint conversation, unfortunately too faint to make out. For a few seconds there was a silence – then it was shattered by a scream – a thin high piercing wail of agony that echoed around the walls of the library and chilled the blood in the veins of the listeners.
It was Juliette’s scream.
“Do you want to hear more, Professor?”
Juliette gave another high-pitched shriek, fading into incoherence.
Gray barked at the phone, his temper getting the better of him. “What the hell is going on? Are you torturing my people? Answer me!”
Then Brad’s voice, a shout in the background. “Don’t listen to them we’ll find a way –”
His words cut off in a long gasping cry that made Magnolia’s face turn ashen.
Suddenly the large library became a small and oppressive place
“My White Queen’s psychic probes can be very persuasive. Being a telepath yourself, I’m sure you understand exactly why. Only problem is, sometimes she enjoys her work just a little too much. Your teachers may not survive with any sort of mind left to instruct.”
“This is blackmail.”
“Call it what you like. I want Metcalfe and the girl at my biotechnology facility, Henderson Technologies, in upstate New-York in twelve hours. Alone, and I am being more than generous in giving you that time. Once they are in my keeping, I will release your people unharmed. But I warn you, don’t involve the authorities. If you do, then I’m afraid, you may not see any of them alive again. I have wasted too much time trying to get what I want, Professor. My time is running out, and I am prepared to resort to any means to obtain it.”
Gray fought to keep his anger under control. For the moment, there was nothing to do but to agree, to ensure that his people did not suffer any further anguish at the hands of this man.
“You leave me little choice, it appears.”
“Splendid. I knew you would be a reasonable man.”
And all at once the line disconnected.
Some detail for those readers not familiar with the X-Men and Captain Scarlet/Gerry Anderson canon:
The Spectrum Society is modelled on the Hellfire Club of the X-Men comics, a respectable upper-class social organization whose secret Inner Circle are engaged in a conspiracy to dominate the world through the accumulation of economic power and political influence, and who hold positions named after chess pieces. There have been many clashes and bitter enmity between the members of the Inner Circle and the X-Men over the years. The Bostonian-born Emma Frost (the Karen Wainwright character) was once the White Queen of the Hellfire Club. She was pivotal in the Inner Circle’s inadvertent unleashing of the Dark Phoenix (Jean Gray). Emma’s original look was uncannily like Symphony Angel with short hair. There was no relationship between Emma Frost and Angel in either the comic or movie-verse – so far anyway…
There have been three mutants code-named Thunderbird. I found it irresistibly delightful to use the mutant with plasma powers, known as Thunderbird III - Neil Sharra, as Alan Tracy’s code-name in this story.
Once again I give grateful thanks to my beta-readers Chris Bishop and Marion Woods for their valuable suggestions and insights and for the usual grammar and punctuation corrections. Any mistakes are entirely my own.
I do not own either the characters, or their names, from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or the X-MEN.
All use of the X-MEN names and characters are © Marvel Comics and © 20th Century Fox.
All use of names and characters in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.
The manipulated images in this story were done by myself, unless otherwise specified. All use of original X-MEN film character images are © 20th Century Fox. All use of original Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons images are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.