BY SAGE HARPER
The last thing he ever said to Alison Topping was, ‘I love you’.
It wasn’t much of a comfort; but in light of the chain of events that followed, he took any comforts he could get.
There had been a pause on the end of the line, and for a moment he panicked. Thinking that somehow she knew what he was about to do, and hated him for it.
“I love you too, Rick.”
Of course, she was just a little surprised. Because as a rule he didn’t call her at work, ‘just to say hi’, let alone declare his feelings in such a blatant, public way.
He’d hung up at that point; there were no other words he could have said. ‘See you later’ would have been too cruel and ironic, and a literal ‘good bye’ stuck in his throat.
They were waiting. He couldn’t see them but he could sense their presence looming - this team of agents who were poised for his signal.
So he stood on the steps of the World Government Police headquarters in Chicago, at 18:00 hours precisely, fumbled with his car keys, that was the cue. And as the shot rang out, he had imagined that the pain searing through his skin and muscle was not from the bullet, but his own heart breaking.
When he regained consciousness he had been spirited away to a new life; a new job, new appearance, new name. Richard Fraser didn’t die that day; but perhaps a part of him did. It made him frantic, and claustrophobic, to be in this alternative reality. A part of him wanted it to be a dream.
Then he saw them in the Officers’ lounge, the eclectic band of men who had been chosen to lead the charge of this freshly minted Spectrum organisation; the ones who would become as close as brothers - and the one who would betray them.
They glanced around; surprised, openly curious, fumbling to craft a response.
So he screwed on a smile and decided to seal the deal.
“Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
If they wanted him to have a new life, as Captain Ochre of Spectrum, then he was going to fully embrace it. Take every chance to play the Shakespearian fool. The careful mask of a man so filled with anguished burden he felt sure it would spill out of him like a ripped bag of flour. People only see what they want to see, so he’d let them be fooled.
Perhaps one day it wouldn’t be an act any more.
He didn’t known at that point that Alie was carrying their child, that spark of a whole new life within her. In the years which followed her funeral he wondered what would have happened if he had known. If it would have changed the course of fate.
That six years later he wouldn’t be sitting within arm’s-reach of his son, feeling a chasm far greater than the physical miles which had separated them.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
And he couldn’t see that it would ever be right again.
Westchester, New York
Seamus Donaghue woke to the sound of the doorknocker clattering. Groggily, he rose from the plush comfortable armchair, which he had commandeered on his arrival for the duration of his stay, and ambled out to the front door.
“Patrick,” he exclaimed with delighted surprise.
“We were in the neighbourhood.” Magenta smiled. “So we figured we’d stop by for some of Mam’s cooking.”
Ochre waited for a moment, watching the reunion from inside the saloon, which they had used to drive from the airport. He felt it would be wrong to intrude, and also needed the time to compose himself.
He understood exactly why Magenta had brought him there; to show him he wasn’t alone, that they could make it. That there was a chance that one day he and Ricky could have this bond; a simple honest closeness, which could weather the years of struggles and miles between them. It was a bittersweet moment though. As Magenta embraced his father, their height perfectly matched, Ochre couldn’t help realising that one day Ricky would be a grown man, after decades had passed seemingly in the blink of an eye. All the potential of Ricky’s life, and their life together, wrapped up in those years, hit him. Along with the realisation of how much he had missed already, and of what he would miss if he left now.
He glanced over his shoulder with a smile. Ricky dozed on the backseat, wrapped up in Ochre’s Spectrum-issue winter jacket. His sweet, perfect, little boy.
“Don’t ever grow up,” he thought. “Let’s just stay in this moment, forever.”
For Ochre seeing Seamus Donaghue was uncannily like looking at his friend’s future. From within a web of laughter lines, Seamus’s warm brown eyes sparkled with life, and although his hair, which had once been as black as his son’s, may have faded to grey, yet it retained its sleek thickness. The old man was still supple and trim, although he stooped a little, and had probably been taller than his son when he was in his prime. Still, you might well be looking into a crystal ball at Patrick in thirty years’ time. Ochre had complained at the unfairness of it all once, explaining that his father had ended up with a beer gut and receding hairline at forty.
“Good to see you again, son,” Seamus said, as Ochre stepped from the car. Ochre offered his hand but instead found himself enfolded in a paternal embrace.
Much like his own parents, Seamus and Marie had lacked material wealth as they raised their children. But the family had an open warmth and rapport, which he had never known anywhere else. They had welcomed him without any question or reservation; as if he, like Patrick, was a wayward son returning to the fold of the family.
“We’re just borrowing him for the holidays,” Ochre explained, nodding toward Ricky. He sounded casual, but deep down was terrified that an innocent question would bring their relative calm and acceptance crashing down. “He normally lives with his aunt, in Chicago, but she’s in hospital.”
“Who’s there?” Marie Donaghue called from the doorstep, her face flushed and content. Then she recognised the captains, and had she not been barefoot there was no doubt she would have run over to them. As it was Magenta went to her, holding her tight to his heart and lifting her clean off the ground. The way she had for him as a child.
“You’ll catch your deaths out there.” Marie beckoned them inside. Ochre opened the side door to reach for Ricky, but hesitated. So instead Seamus took him.
The years almost seemed to fall away, and again he was a young father cradling his precious child.
“This is a really nice house,” Ochre said, once they were inside the wide hallway. Not that he had any knowledge or interest in interior design, but the house was light, airy and decorated in a timeless, elegant style. It seemed far too large and impractical for Magenta’s sister as a single woman living alone, but Caitlin had loved the house since the moment she had first viewed it. And the place was frequently filled by visiting friends and family, so it was ultimately quite practical.
“Bit too fancy though, like it’s out of a magazine,” Seamus grumbled gently. “You can’t go living in a magazine.”
Ochre followed him up the oak stairs, managing not to trip over the spoilt tortoiseshell cat lounging on the penultimate step, along the oatmeal-coloured sisal carpet, past identical white painted doors, with handles that looked like antique bronze. The only break in the uniformity was the second door on the right, which had inch-high wooden letters, ‘F A E’, painted three shades of purple and mounted at eye level.
Obviously that was the bedroom of Magenta’s niece when she stayed there; a remainder of her childhood. She was in college now, Ochre couldn’t remember if it was Yale or Harvard.
“Fae’s at her friend’s for lunch,” Seamus noted, with a nod toward the door. “Seems like only last week she was a little girl, getting all hyped up that Santa was coming to town. She’ll be back later tonight, if you’ve got the time to stick around.”
Ochre considered it. How much of their 72 hours of leave was left, the journey between Chicago and New York in the high speed Spectrum Passenger jet.
He nodded. “We do, I know she’ll want to see Pat.”
Ochre opened the door which Seamus had stopped in front of to reveal the smallest of the bedrooms. It contained only a single bed, dresser and chair, with a couple of pine shelves on the wall; there was no space for anything else. The colour scheme was of sunny yellows and gentle blues; nothing matched, but everything fitted together effortlessly. What really made an impression on Ochre was the scent, of fresh linen and a lingering aroma of unidentifiable pot pourri; it felt like coming home.
“He’s your lad, isn’t he?”
Ochre nodded, pulling back the covers; no sense in denying it.
Between them they took off Ricky’s outer clothing, laid him down and tucked him in.
“You’re not going to ask?” Ochre began. “I mean if I was in your position I’d have a whole heap of questions … why I never said anything before, who his mom is, how this happened.”
“I know how it happened.” Seamus raised an eyebrow. “Unless they totally changed the method in the last thirty odd years.”
Ochre didn’t especially want that mental image, so considered it best to derail that train of thought.
“Aren’t you curious about where Ricky’s mom is?”
Seamus pondered that point for a moment, then said simply;
“Well, if you were in my position, then you’d know that I’d tell you everything that needed telling when the time was right. I’m quite happy to wait until whenever you want to talk.”
With that Seamus went back downstairs.
Ochre had always had ambitions which, achieved or otherwise, had given shape to his life. Since joining Spectrum he had been slightly adrift, so caught up in his new career that he hadn’t really thought any further than his next furlough, at best. But here he was with a kid, and he couldn’t think of anything more permanent and long term than that.
After a few moments of contemplation, Ochre knew what he was going to do. Once again he had something to aim for, and an unexpected peace fell over him.
Ricky had the same dream he often did: of seeing his mother again, in a crowd. He would call out to her but she would never hear him, and keep walking away. So he would run to catch up with her, but the gap between them would get even wider, with obstacles in his way.
By the time he woke he was frantic, drenched in sweat, his throat tight from yelling in his sleep.
“It was just a dream,” Ochre said gently. “Your mom would never leave you, not if she had a choice.”
“But you did,” Ricky retorted. “You left me and mommy. So you could have your job.”
Those words cut like a dagger. They both looked at each other, equally unsettled.
“I know, and, if I could go back, I would do things differently,” Ochre said. Then he thought of Pat, his life on Cloudbase, the good that Spectrum had done for the world. Deep down he didn’t regret his choice, just that it had caused so much pain and hardship. He was sure that made him a terribly selfish person. “But we can’t change what happened in the past. We just have to try and make the best of now, and the future.”
“I don’t want you to be my daddy,” Ricky said, ripping Ochre’s heart in two.
“Well, it’s a shame you feel that way,” Ochre replied, attempting to be calm and reasonable, though he had no idea how that was possible. “I hope one day you’ll change your mind.”
“I liked it better before, when you weren’t around, when it was just me and Aunt Ellie, and stuff made sense.”
Ochre had to admit he had a point, a final knife twist to the gut. A nagging inner voice of doubt made him feel he should have stayed away, that it was all a mistake. Until now Ochre had been able to ignore it, but now it came roaring back.
Self-doubt aside, they had a more immediate problem.
“Is Mrs Donaghue going to be mad at me?” Ricky bit his lip against the threat of tears.
“I shouldn’t think so,” Ochre reassured him, because in all the time he had known her, he couldn’t recall Marie losing her temper.
He stripped the bed, bundling up the sodden bed linen in a pile on the floor. He glanced at Ricky; the little boy’s helplessness made his chest ache. “I can’t remember where Pat put the clean clothes we picked up for you, you’ll have to ask him.”
“I don’t want to,” Ricky said firmly. “Then he’ll know what I did … only babies wet the bed.”
“You’re not a baby, it happens to lots of people. Even me, when I was a kid,” Ochre said gently. “It’s just a reaction to stress and stuff. Anyway, don’t worry about Pat, he won’t tell. He’s seen me do way more embarrassing things.”
Ochre smiled, realising most of those stories involved booze or women, or some combination thereof. Really not the best example to be setting.
“I’ll tell you sometime,” he said, hearing Marie come up the stairs.
Marie looked over the room, deduced the situation and picked up the bed linen without a word.
“I’ll go and run you a bath,” she said, with a smile. “Then you’ll be all freshened up before lunch.”
Relieved, Ricky smiled back at her, then followed her to the bathroom on the other side of the hallway.
“It’s fine, I’ll sort out the bath,” Ochre insisted. Feeling he should do something proactive in the situation. After all he was the parent, and supposed to be taking care of his own kid. He could at least get that part of it right.
Marie nodded, then headed on downstairs.
The bath taps were shaped like swans, so it was a bit morbid that you had to wring their necks for the water to come out. Ochre tried not to think about it too much, as he rooted through the cabinet and storage, trying to find a suitable bubble bath. Not an easy task, as Caitlin’s bathroom was chockfull of all manner of ‘girly gunk and junk’. It was a world apart from his own, which housed one of everything from the limited list of toiletries a man would require, and had barely enough storage space in the cramped spartan facilities to store even that. He had no idea how the Angels managed.
Eventually he found a large bottle of ‘cleansing foam’ which claimed to be unscented and designed for sensitive skins. He poured some in and swirled it around. When the bath was ready, Ricky stripped off and clambered into the water without saying a word.
“That not too hot for you?” Ochre asked.
“No, it’s OK.”
With that they lapsed back into silence, Ochre feeling every inch of the chasm between them and wondering how they would ever be able to mend it.
A few minutes later Seamus came in with a bundle of folded clothes, towels and bath toys. He placed those on the floor, handed a rubber duck and small plastic frigate to Ricky, and then gestured for Ochre to step outside with him.
For a moment Rick hesitated; all the potential dangers which could befall small children, even in such an innocuous setting looming large in his mind. But then Seamus must have done that before, and obviously Pat and Cait had survived to adulthood.
“I over-estimated my patience.” Seamus admitted, pulling the door ajar behind him. “So you’ll have to give me a sit-rep now ... that is the right word? That you boys use at work.”
“Yeah.” Rick faltered a little, deliberating whether he wanted to tell. To deal with the fallout of another confession when discussion of his circumstances was the last thing he wanted to do. But then he looked at Seamus - this kindly father who was the image of his best friend - and couldn’t imagine anyone better to talk to.
“Well, OK, where to begin ... For a couple of years before I joined Spectrum I was in a relationship, a proper serious grown up relationship, with this amazing woman. But at the same time I was growing more and more dissatisfied with my job. I didn’t want to be a career cop, getting shunted into some cushy admin job, I wanted something that made me feel like I was making a real difference. So when I got head-hunted by Spectrum, you can guess what happened next ... I had to end it. To sever all ties with my past to avoid reprisals.”
“Bad break up?” Seamus sympathised.
“Doesn’t even begin to cover it … I swear I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time. Not until three years later; she was shot dead, outside the school she worked at. So I went to the funeral, to make my peace, I guess. Then I saw her sister there with this kid, with Ricky. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out.”
“And now here you are.”
“Yeah; that’s your kid’s fault. He watches too many of those sappy ‘Christmas miracle gift’ shows - y’know? - with the family reunions and sick kids going to Lapland and stuff. So, he got it into his head that it would be a good idea to go down to Chicago and met the kid. I was all for keeping the status quo, not messing with the kid’s head until he was old enough to make a choice. But then hearing about him from Pat made it hard to stay that way, and then, when his aunt got injured and he needed someone to care for him. I just couldn’t turn away. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but we’re in this situation now, so we have to see it through.”
“And he knows about you being his father?”
“Yeah, I told him. Just before we got here. He’s not taking it too well.”
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s holding up better than I did when I found out what my son was.”
Ochre frowned; “You’ve always known the kind of man Pat is. We both just lost sight of that for a while.”
“And I’m sure Ricky will understand and come around to accepting you, once he’s got to know you.”
“I keep wanting to talk to my dad,” Rick admitted. “Apologise for all the crap I gave him and mom over the years. Ask him how the hell I do this, and when it stops being so scary.”
“Would it make you feel better if I admitted that even after thirty odd years’ practice, I haven’t a clue what those answers would be?”
“Nah, think I’d rather keep muddling along and deluding myself that it’ll get better.”
“It does … every now and then, in some small way, they do something wonderful. And you know that you wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Seamus pondered that. “I think it’s an evolutionary thing, to put you off eating them or something,” he added, pleased to see the amusement flare up in Ochre’s dark eyes.
Lunch was perfect, the great variety of food prepared to perfection. Initially, Rick had been concerned that having three extra mouths to feed would stretch the portions too thinly, but as Pat had rightly predicted, there were still leftovers. After they had eaten, Caitlin went off to take a call from someone named Riley; the mere mention of the name illuminated her like the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree. Seamus and Marie returned to their respective chairs with the comfortable routine born of a long, happy marriage, and settled down to watch a movie with Ricky. Ochre felt such gratitude that the child, who had lost so much in his short life, was being welcomed so easily into the family.
For his part, Ochre insisted on clearing up after lunch, but by the time he got to the kitchen Caitlin had already set to it. Her cell phone seemingly welded to her ear to transmit her half of a sales pitch.
“Ugh, tell me about it!” She rolled her eyes theatrically. “We both know memoirs are hot, and gangsters are going to be even hotter … yeah, I know, goddamn gold mine! But he won’t bite …”
So Rick used his initiative, found a towel and began to dry up. Then he remembered Caitlin worked in publishing. They do say everyone has a novel in them, and it seemed she was making great efforts to prise that from her brother.
Magenta came to stand in the doorway, clearly intent on saying something. Then he entered the kitchen and took over Caitlin’s task. So she left and went upstairs, still talking away.
“What’s up?” Rick asked, initiating the conversation.
“Grainne’s broken up with me.” Pat continued to wash a serving dish, aware of his friend’s intense stare. “… Why are you looking at me like you’re expecting me to have a nervous breakdown any minute now?”
Rick shook his head gently.
“And you’re OK?” he asked. “Properly OK with that? It being over?”
“Yeah.” Pat shrugged. “It’s kinda disappointing, after all these weeks, but no I’m not heart-broken or anything.”
“Good, I’d hate for you to be sad.”
Pat briefly rested a hand on his shoulder, then returned to washing the dishes.
“I would have given you the satisfaction of figuring it out for yourself,” Pat said, propping up a saucepan on the draining board. “But Green already knows; he overheard her telling Flaxen about it, so, when I called in he gave his commiserations and did the supportive friend thing … all things considered I thought it would be better for you to hear it from me first, rather than him.”
Rick looked away, all the comments and subtle hints of the problems in his best friend’s relationship coming into focus like a slideshow. He should have been there, done something, but he’d been so engrossed in his own crisis.
“I should have seen it coming really,” Pat said. “You meet a nice girl, you like her, she likes you, you get together, things are peachy, then it goes sour, you have some fights and it’s over. That’s the way it always goes.”
“Why did you fight anyway, what was she so mad about?”
“Whole lot of complicated things. Like, apparently, I’m too obsessed with work.”
“But you’ve always been ‘obsessed’ with work.” Rick frowned. “It’s not like she never knew what she was letting herself in for on that score.”
“I know.” Pat shrugged. “But sometimes women don’t love who you really are. They love who they think you could be, if you had the love of a good woman.”
Rick couldn’t help thinking he’d had that once, in Alie. She hadn’t just been wonderful in herself, but that goodness seemed contagious. When they were together he was sure he’d been kinder, happier, more interested and interesting, and he’d felt that he could achieve so much because someone believed in him.
He often wondered what kind of a person he’d have become if he’d stayed.
Pat levelled a familiar look of amusement, mingled with faint curiosity, at his friend.
“Isn’t this the point where you start beating yourself up for not seeing it coming? About how it would never have happened if you’d done X, Y, Z? Because you, Richard Fraser, have to carry the burden of the universe on your shoulders.”
“No I don’t. I wasn’t thinking that,” Rick insisted, although he felt himself colouring under Pat’s knowing gaze.
“Yes, you do, and yes you were,” Pat said with equal conviction. “Anyway, in this case, you’d be partly right. Because instead of getting leave and bringing her to meet my parents, like we’d planned. I ended up here anyway backing up my field partner.” He shrugged. “So, congratulations, you killed my love life.”
“You can’t lay that on me!” Rick retorted. “There was no way I knew how it was going to turn out. It’s not like I made you do all that stuff to help me.”
“I know, but … I wanted to.”
“You said you couldn’t get leave,” Rick began, after a few moments’ silence. “But you did … then cancelled it.”
“It didn’t seem right to go off and play happy families when you were having a crisis with yours.”
“You didn’t need to do that. I can take care of myself.”
“You’re welcome, Rick.” Pat rolled his eyes. “Any time.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t have to carry the burden of the universe on your shoulders either, Patrick Murphy Donaghue.”
It made Rick smile, to let that name trip off the tongue. And, for someone who claimed to loathe his middle name, Pat didn’t seem bothered by it.
“Whatever, it’s done,” Pat stated. “So now we have to just get on with our lives.”
Rick stepped forward, intent on hugging him, then stopped short, embarrassed.
“I don’t deserve a friend like you,” he said.
“Damn right,” Magenta concurred.
“So why’d you do it?”
Pat stepped back, and looked Rick in the eye with an incredulous expression.
“What the hell did you think I was going to do?” he began. “We’re partners, stuck with each other, potentially for the rest of our working lives, unless I get fired, or put out a hit on you or something. But, y’know, spending the rest of my days in De Witts doesn’t exactly sound a thrilling prospect … anyway, that’s not the point. Even considering your ...”
“Tendency to be an asshole?”
“I was going to say ‘foibles’, but, yeah, it’s the same difference. Anyway, you’re a good and loyal friend, and those aren’t exactly a dime-a-dozen. We’ve been through a lot in the last few years. It’d be stupid to throw that away. I mean you’ve never put a woman before me, so why would I do that to you?”
“But you love her, and I’m not going to let you ruin a perfectly good relationship on my account.”
“If it was that great we wouldn’t be in this situation. She’d have understood and let me go.”
“Yeah, but this is just because of what’s going on with Ricky. It’s a temporary thing. It doesn’t change how you feel about her. It’s a different kind of relationship; friends and girlfriends.”
“I know that, it’s just that she can’t get her head around it. To be honest, I think sometimes she’s a bit jealous of you, that we spend so much time together, I mean, and have all these insider jokes and whatever.”
“No girl I’ve dated has complained.”
“You never let them get close enough, always keep it light and casual, then no one gets hurt, right? They know they’ll never be the most important thing in your life, so didn’t expect it, and don’t get so bent out of shape realising you have other priorities.”
“You have to call her.” Rick strode across the kitchen to the phone. “To sort this out.”
“It’s never going to get sorted,” Pat said, almost as if talking to Ricky. “Not unless she totally changes her attitude to my job, or I cut down on that and put her above everything all the time. Neither of which are likely scenarios. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, that I actually have some character flaw and am incapable of relationships.”
“That’s total crap; I can’t believe you’re just giving up.”
“I’m tired of fighting with her, and she deserves someone who can give her everything she needs. If you love someone, let them go.” Pat took the telephone receiver from him, and put it back in the cradle. “Maybe we should just forget about women and hook up with each other?” he suggested, more than a little flippant. “I mean we are practically married anyway.”
Rick’s eyes widened in surprise and a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth as he said, innocently, “I thought that sort of thing was against your religion?”
“So’s stealing.” Pat shrugged.
Rick considered it for a moment.
“You’d make a terrible wife.” He smirked. “What with you being so obsessed with work.”
At that Pat gave a hearty laugh. “Only you would tell such an inappropriate joke, at such an inappropriate time.”
“But that’s why you love me, right?”
never admit it, because that would be insensitive even by his standards, but Ochre
was quite relieved that Magenta had a drama of his own to deflect attention
from him and Ricky.
“We heard about you and Grainne,” Marie said gently, with concern for her son.
“Really? You must have been eavesdropping outside the door then.”
“Don’t talk to your mom like that,” Rick told him firmly, out of new-found parental solidarity. “She’s only trying to be kind.”
“If you must know,” Marie began, unfazed. “I called her. To say ‘Happy Christmas’ and invite her to visit another time. Then she told me what had happened … such a shame.”
“Right.” Pat nodded. “Sorry.”
“I always thought she wasn’t right for you,” Seamus said, from behind the freshly-minted hardback crime novel he was reading, which was, no doubt, a Christmas gift from Caitlin.
“Really?” Pat said. “Well you sure picked your moment to say so. It would have been good to have been told before now.”
“Too high maintenance,” Seamus continued. “Bit clingy too, over-eager to settle down. Honestly, what’s the rush?”
“Interesting,” Pat said. “I got the impression you wanted me to settle down. Seeing as we’re not getting any younger.”
“Maybe so, but you don’t have to settle with the first girl who makes the moves on you. If I’d have done that you wouldn’t even exist; so there.”
Marie seemed to flinch at that reference to his past, but made no comment.
“What’s meant to be will find a way,” she did say, with conviction.
“What if I’m meant to be alone?” Pat said, so quietly that only Rick, who sat beside him on the couch, heard.
“You’ll never be alone,” Rick insisted. “You’ve got your family, friends, and me; and you’re stuck with me.” He smiled. “We can be alone together ... OK, that sounded less weird in my head.” He gave an embarrassed grin at the Donaghues.
“Compared to what else is in there, it probably was.” Pat’s mood lifted.
Thankfully, Ricky seemed to be oblivious to the crisis.
“Rick, look!” He beamed. “There’s this really cool plane on TV.”
It took a moment for Rick to realise he was being addressed; no matter how irrational a reaction he knew it to be, a part of him stung a little that Ricky knew the truth, but wouldn’t acknowledge it by calling him ‘Dad’.
“Yeah, it is,” he agreed. “I’ve got a model of it.”
“I know, I sawed it.”
“I’m going to get a drink. Do you want anything?” Rick asked.
“Can I have some cola, please?”
“Uh, does Aunt Ellie let you have pop?” he said, in response to Ricky’s request.
“That doesn’t matter,” Ricky said earnestly. “She’s not here. You’re looking after me. So you can make up the rules and let me have pop, if you want to.”
Marie shook her head, but Rick had already made up his mind. If this was what it took to make Ricky happy and put him in his son’s good books then so be it.
“Just a bit then,” Rick conceded. “As it’s a special occasion.”
Rick kept glancing over at Pat, a subconscious gesture, to check how his partner was bearing up, but Pat seemed to be in good spirits, involved in a heated debate with his father about some obscure fact in the distant history of Irish sport. So, Rick focused his attention on Ricky, who was never one to pass up having a captive audience.
“Oh, don’t you look sweet together.” Marie smiled, with a hint of wistful nostalgia. “We should have a picture.”
Rick hated getting his photograph taken. Growing up he had had crooked teeth, and his parents had never been able to afford an orthodontist. So, in every pre-Spectrum photo he emanated a sense of being ill at ease, which went beyond his self-conscious half-smile. Then, when he was recruited to Spectrum, there was a whole team who had endeavoured to alter his appearance, and they had given him a smile fit for a movie star, yet the awkwardness remained.
He was about to protest; but by then Marie had found the digital camera, and was fiddling around with it, insisting the fault was with the machine and it had been fine earlier. And Ricky, who it seemed hadn’t inherited any inhibitions, settled himself to sit comfortably on Rick’s lap.
“Yeah, guess that would be good,” Rick said, resigning himself to it. “We haven’t had our picture taken together yet.”
“Did it take?” Marie demanded. “I mean the flash went, but, oh, I don’t know … I thought you said this would be easier to use? I couldn’t see what was wrong the old one myself. It’s like you just get sorted with using one thing, then they bring out one with new doo-dahs to confuse you all over again …”
Well, that explained why Pat had such unwavering patience when it came to teaching to his colleagues how to use new technology.
Rick noticed a photo album lying open at the foot of Marie’s chair. He glanced down at it, and one particular image caught his eye. It was of a man in his late twenties, stood posed in the small front yard of a terrace house, a bedraggled hydrangea at his left knee, and a sash window glinting in the sun to his right. He cradled a bundle of lemon, woollen blanket, as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and seemed in mid-speech, responding with amusement to what someone outside the frame had said.
The caption helpfully said; Welcome Home. With no further hint as to the where or when, or who the man was. At first glance he was sure it was Pat; but more careful study revealed the man’s facial features to be slightly different, and the clothing was of an outdated style.
“Oh, here we go.” Marie handed Rick the camera. “I got the viewer thingy to work.”
He had to admit it was a pretty good picture.
Then he realised the photo in the album was indeed of Pat; though all you could really see of him was a tuft of black hair, poking out of the blanket, and tiny fist gripping the man’s fourth finger.
So the man was Seamus; had to be.
Our first father-son portrait.
Rick looked between the two images, and noticed they had the same expressions.
Something had got into him, a proverbial bee in the bonnet; it didn’t take years of working together to notice the signs. Magenta knew it was best to just let Ochre be, for the whole thing to run its course; but he stuck around, out of morbid curiosity as to what would come of this. Knowing it would take a while, he stretched out on the couch in the den, mindlessly flicking through the TV channels, until he came to a scantily-clad woman karate-kicking at a zombie.
Rick paced the floor, deep in one-sided conversation.
“I have to go back to Chicago,” Rick stated, hanging up his cell phone.
“And what would this epic pilgrimage be in aid of?”
“To prove I’m not dead.” Rick glared at the phone, as if it was at fault for relaying the bad news. “When I moved to Chicago, I took my parents’ stuff, the things I’d inherited, with me.” Rick slumped down on the couch, where Pat had had the foresight to make space for him. “I just put it all in a storage place and pretty much forgot about it. But, of course, now I go to get it I can’t, because the storage company have got on their records that Richard Fraser is deceased. So they won’t give my stuff back to me.”
“You do realise I know people, who know people, who could get in there and retrieve whatever you asked for, without leaving a fingerprint?”
“Just, you know.” Pat shrugged. “Putting that out there.”
“Apparently they have to talk to my next of kin or something. I mean, do you even have a next of kin?”
Pat frowned; “presumably, but I have no idea who that’d be. Considering your parents have died, and nobody’s been insane enough to marry you.”
“People in glass houses, Paddy …” Rick extended his arm to make a grab for the remote; then another woman, wearing an even shorter dress, appeared on TV, so he decided not to bother changing the channel.
“I always just figured Spectrum would take care of that stuff when I finally do snuff it,” Rick added. “I mean I’ll be dead, it’s all the freaking same to me … It won’t be the kid though, right? Even if they did know about him, he’s too little to deal with it all.”
Pat nodded, and gave the ominous signs of having an idea.
He turned off the TV, picked up his own cell phone, tapped a few buttons, then dialled the same number Rick had.
“Good afternoon,” he said with smooth, effortless, self-assurance. “My name is Patrick St.Thomas. I’m calling on behalf of Richard Fraser Junior, in an effort to retrieve his father’s personal effects ...”
“Saint Thomas is the patron of lawyers,” Pat said, by way of explanation, once he had hung up. “Mam was right, all those years of Sunday school have done me the world of good … what?”
“You have no idea how many laws and codes of conduct you’ve just broken,” Rick said.
“Oh, do tell.” Pat grinned. “It’ll make me all warm inside.”
“I’m not gonna give you the satisfaction.”
“See, you know what I love about almost everyone thinking you’re dead?” Pat teased. “At times like this, when you are powerless to stop me from doing things for your own good … You should really quit complaining though, as I’ve got your stuff back.”
“Not quite, I want to see it with my own eyes first.” Rick frowned. “What exactly did you agree to anyway, something about expenses?”
“There’s some back-payments on the storage space. It’s very reasonable; I’m impressed you got such a good deal.”
“It’s the Scottish in me, tight as two coats of paint.”
“Well, anyway, I’ll wire them the money once we’ve got everything out, and then you’ll never have to deal with them again.”
“From your account?”
“Well, it can’t be yours; they don’t think you exist. Way more trouble than it’s worth to explain that one. Anyway I got an account registered as ‘St.Thomas, attorney in law’, or something like that.”
“Leftover from your syndicate days, no doubt. I am not paying my debts with mob money!”
“It’s not mob money, it’d be mine. From the freelance computer stuff I’ve been doing, those government commissions and whatever. It’s all legit; I’m just going to put it through the lawyer account so it’ll tie up with our story and look kosher. We don’t want anyone getting suspicious.”
“Yeah, well if you come unstuck don’t come crying to me.” Rick remained disgruntled. “They had a spate of that kinda thing in New Jersey. Mobs stealing stuff from storage facilities; same method you’re using.” He gave a slight smile. “Without paying for the privilege.”
“Oh, I don’t mind.” And it was true; Pat was euphoric, yet focused, in the way he usually was when embarking on a new project. “Keeps me in the game, in a roundabout way. Have to keep my skills all limbered up, because you just never know what tomorrow will bring.”
“But you wouldn’t go back?” Rick asked. “To the Syndicate stuff, not for real?”
He needed to know. Not for some world security related reason, but his own peace of mind. There had been times when Pat had been suspected of illegal activities, and Rick had instantly defended him. But how could he be so sure? They basically only had a glorified ‘scouts’ honour’ that he wouldn’t revert. The appeal must still be there; the money, the desirable rebelliousness, that it was a freer and more luxurious lifestyle than Spectrum offered.
And what if he did? What would Rick do? Could he really put aside their years of friendship; go back to cop and mobster? Things seemed so much simpler then, no complications and dilemmas of long-standing principles against hard-won partnership.
“No,” Pat said with simple, solid conviction. “I mean, maybe sometimes I do miss the perks of the Syndicate. But that was a lifetime ago. Now I have my family’s respect, can make a positive difference in the world, and just feel settled, I guess.” He looked Rick in the eye, rested a hand on his. “So, no, I’m not going to bail on you.”
“Anyway, it’s funny you should mention New Jersey,” Pat began after a moment, unconsciously slipping into his particular ‘story time with Uncle Pat’ voice, which meant Rick never knew for sure if it was genuine anecdote or just plain blarney. “I knew the guy who kicked off that whole craze. It was about the only good idea he ever had. You wouldn’t believe what people keep in those places, antiques and stuff …”
A part of Rick felt it was so bizarre and unsettling to hear organised crime discussed like it was a bake sale or something. But he couldn’t imagine any better way to phrase it.
“Then what happened?” he prompted, because a story teller is only as good as their audience.
“Anyway, he got too greedy, mistimed the biggest operation, and got two in the back from the cops for his trouble. So there’s your almost instant karma.”
“I don’t remember that being in the news.”
“Well it was a covert operation,” Pat explained. “And the cops never admitted to killing anyone, if they could help it; PR nightmare. As you know all too well.”
“I never killed anyone on the job,” Rick said. “Shot them, but not dead. Not until I joined Spectrum, obviously.”
“Y’know, neither did I. Trade one commandment in for another.” Pat sighed. “I miss being Ricky’s age. When it was so clear who the heroes and villains were, and that the good guys would always win.”
“You’re going already?” Marie watched them pack up their things the next day.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Pat said. “We’ve only got another 48 hours’ leave, and have a lot of stuff we need to do in that time. So it’ll have to be a flying visit; but we’ll be back in the New Year.”
Marie hugged him tight.
“We never see enough of you,” she said. “You hardly ever get time off, and then, when you do it’s only a few days at most. We miss you.”
“I know; I miss you too.”
“You’re just saying that. Once you get back at work you’ll be so stuck into messing about with them computers you’ll not give anything else a second thought. And don’t you go arguing, I’m your mother, I know these things.”
“Yeah.” Pat rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “How about this time I don’t promise to call more often, because I never end up following it through?”
“Good idea, it would be nice if you did though. With everything you get up to and we see on the news, I do worry about you, so it’s good to know you’re all right. Even though I have to keep getting told so by Rick.”
“He gave you his number?”
“Yes, we end up talking sometimes when you’re too busy doing whatever you’re up to,” Marie said, as if this was obvious. “You don’t know what it’s like; sitting watching the news and thinking the worst. I know we have to call Spectrum Dublin for that, but it’s not the same ... but other times it’s nice just to chat; he’s a lovely lad.”
Pat didn’t suppose there were many people in the world who would refer to Ochre in such terms, but then it was understandable that Marie would. Anyone of her son’s generation seemed impossibly young to her.
But seriously, since when had Rick been a beacon of empathy and consideration? It made Pat feel a bit put out, to have all this going on without his knowledge. The implication being that he was insensitive and unaware of his parents’ feelings, they were his parents after all.
That was probably it.
Now, knowing Ochre had a son, they’d probably thought he did have some extra understanding, being in their position, to a certain extent. And that made Pat feel even more out in the cold, to see this alliance form a basis he doubted he’d ever relate to.
“Pat, look at my new shirt.” Ricky stopped in front of him, chest puffed out with pride, ready to be admired.
Last time he had seen it, the t-shirt was plain navy blue; but it now sported a simple motif of an airplane appliquéd to the front, and a R in the bottom right-hand corner, no doubt made from off-cuts of fabric from his mother’s ‘it’ll-come-in-useful-one-day’ box of sewing supplies.
“It looks great.” Pat smiled.
“Fae made it for me,” Ricky added.
From the moment they’d met, Ricky had fallen hard and fast into an infatuation with Fae Donaghue. It was an affection happily reciprocated, because having heard of her uncle’s latest heartbreak, Fae suspected Ricky might be the closest thing she would get to the little cousins she hoped for, so she’d decided not to pass on the chance.
She came down the stairs, humming an old country song Pat vaguely recognised.
“Hey, kid,” she said, making the impersonal term affectionate. “When’s your birthday?”
“February 26th,” Ricky answered. “I was supposed to be born on my daddy’s birthday, but it would be silly us having the same name and birthday too.”
“That makes good sense.” Fae nodded. “Well, I can sure make you another shirt for then, and if any of your friends want one, then holler; it’d be fun to get some more orders.”
“That’s all well and good, but you shouldn’t let it interfere with your schoolwork,” Marie stated.
“It won’t,” Fae said dismissively. “I’m doing website design in college, so I might even end up combining the two, do it as a business.” She grinned at Ricky. “Seriously, we’re going places, me and you, I can tell.”
“I wanna go to New York City,” Ricky said.
“You all set?” Ochre asked, having made his goodbyes.
Ricky nodded, took his hand and trotted out to the car.
“Hey, Ricky,” Fae called after him.
He turned round, curious.
“Meet me under the clock at Grand Central Station, at noon on your birthday. And we’ll go dancing.”
“There, that was painless, wasn’t it?” Magenta asked gleefully, clambering into the passenger side of the van they had rented for the day, once they had loaded the last of Ochre’s possessions from the warehouse into the back. “So, are we all set for our road trip?”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re incorrigible?” Ochre said.
“It’s my middle name.”
“Am I incorrigible?” Ricky, perched between them on the bench seat of the cab, asked.
“You might end up that way, if you stick with us.” Ochre turned the ignition key.
Deciding that was a good thing, Ricky sat back ready to enjoy the ride. Now that he was settled into it he was greatly enjoying his time with the captains. It seemed like every day was a new adventure.
As they drove Ricky fiddled with the radio, eventually found a station playing The Beatles, and Ochre was very proud to note he was singing along word-perfect.
“Aunt Ellie likes the Beatles,” Ricky said. “And they’re from England, like she is. I like them too of course; they’re the best band ever.”
“Good for you.” Ochre knew it was horribly shallow, but he’d have been a bit disappointed to have fathered a kid whose great musical influences were from some kiddie TV show, or manufactured bands who thought strumming the heck out of three chords qualified as ‘playing your own instruments’.
“What about U2?” Magenta felt compelled to champion his homeland. “They were very talented, and influential too for more contemporary bands.”
So they passed a pleasant time discussing the relative merits of various twentieth century bands, including an impromptu duet of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, during which the captains realised they didn’t know many of the words after all.
Until Lieutenant Green called.
Magenta took the call, and Ochre could tell from his expression and responses it wasn’t good news.
“Yeah.” Magenta took the road atlas from the glove compartment. “A high ranking member of the Universal Secret Service. But on the bright side, he’s in Chicago right now. I did say we were in the neighbourhood and would be there ASAP.”
With that Ochre pulled into a side road, and turned the van around in a breathless three point turn.
“Cool! Can you do that again?” Ricky beamed. “And, and drive really fast, like the cops on TV.”
The look of utter innocent trust and adoration Ricky gave his father made a lump rise in Magenta’s throat; but, he realised, that could equally have been his own reflexive reaction to Ochre’s driving.
Ochre had to admit, unprofessional as it was, that one of his favourite things about his job was that it gave a certain license to drive really fast. It fulfilled some innate boyish lust; manifest ever since he and his father had lovingly restored the vintage Harley Davidson, which his mother had insisted would be the death of him. Then in the police corps, he had taken every available training course to learn methods of driving safely at speed (which reminded him, he needed to sort out with Colonel White about organising a refresher course). He really couldn’t understand why his partner would get so melodramatic about it. He’d never crashed a vehicle, Spectrum or otherwise; which was more than could be said for some people, and you never heard a peep from Pat when they were behind the wheel.
Of course, it would be better driving in a saloon, with its greater speed and manoeuvrability, but this would do.
“You need a siren or something,” Ricky decided. Between Ochre’s driving and becoming aware of the threat Magenta had almost forgotten he was there. “So that people will get out of the way ... but then, they don’t have them in ‘Captain Starlight’. Do the regular Spectrum cars have sirens?”
“I don’t think so,” Magenta answered. “I guess people just see us coming and know to keep clear.”
“Especially if they’ve seen Scarlet drive.” Ochre grinned.
‘Oh yeah, you’re really one to talk,’ Magenta thought traitorously, but kept it to himself. Now wasn’t the time; there was no sense upsetting Ricky, and whatever their differences the captains were both capable of putting them aside to work as a team. There would be ample chance later to take any issues up with his partner in private.
“Is Paul going to be there then?” Ricky asked hopefully. During his stay on Cloudbase he had become quite taken with the English captain; and for his part Scarlet had tolerated the boy’s barrage of questions and running commentary.
Magenta nodded; “Cloudbase is pretty much right over the city, and obviously being on base they heard the good news first. So Scarlet is already on the scene, with nothing to report so far.”
“Good,” Ochre replied. “I mean, don’t you just hate it when they get the party started without us?”
“Och, I know this will be a vicious insult to your masculinity,” Magenta began, catching his breath when they stopped at a junction. “But you do know the way, right?”
“Yes, dear,” came Ochre’s unruffled answer, as they turned right. “Though would you like me to stop and ask for directions anyway, to ‘that huge building three blocks away with the massive sign outside’?”
“Uh no, I think you got it … it’s just I recognise this part of town, but I don’t recall seeing a USS building round here.”
“We’re making a slight detour” Ochre pulled into the parking lot of North Western Memorial Hospital. “Somebody’s gotta watch the kid.”
“I don’t want to go,” Ricky stated firmly, his tone and expression, oh, so familiar.
‘Oh, no, you don’t’, Magenta thought. ‘I didn’t give up the running biggest syndicate in New York to end up getting shown up by a little kid throwing a hissy fit.’
He’d sure picked his moment too; right when time was of the essence and they needed to keep it together.
“Is there a problem?” Ochre asked, returning from having retrieved Ricky’s rucksack from the back of the van.
“Pat won’t let me stay here with you.” Ricky made that sound the height of unreasonable. “He says Aunt Ellie has to watch me, but that’s no fun.”
“I know that’s very disappointing ...” Ochre empathised, crouching down to his level.
“But why can’t I stay? I want to help. It’ll be like on ‘Captain Starlight’. I watch that. I know what to do.”
“Yeah, I know, Baby, but thing is …”
“I am not a baby,” Ricky insisted indignantly.
“Of course not.” Ochre smiled. “But you’re my baby. I don’t want you to get hurt, like Ellie did, which is what might happen if you stick around.”
“It might not.”
“True, but that’s not a risk we can take. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I’d be in if I didn’t get you back home safe and sound.”
“I wanna help.”
“Sure you do, and that’s great, and when you’ve got through school and done the training you can be a captain too.”
“But that’s forever away,” Ricky complained. “I don’t get to do anything, it’s not fair.”
“Well, maybe we can find something,” Ochre ad-libbed. “But it’d be a top secret mission, you can’t tell anyone ...”
Intrigued by this, Ricky accepted Ochre’s proffered hand, and they walked together into the building.
“How did you manage that, getting him to come along quietly?” Magenta demanded. Not that ‘quietly’ was a word generally associated with either Ricky or Ochre. “Though I imagine it has something to do with you two operating at about the same level of maturity.”
“If you insist.” Ochre got back into the driving seat. “And now it’s time to what we do every week, Pinkie … try to save the world.”
They pulled up at a road block manned by two men in WGPC uniforms, with expressions which reminded Magenta of Dorothy’s when she touched down in Oz.
“Don’t pick on them,” he said, as the blond one noticed the van and strode over, gesturing for them to wind down the window. “This might be their first big assignment, you’ll probably traumatise them.”
As it was, any insult and patronisation was unlikely to break though the cops’ inflated sense of their own importance.
“No unauthorised vehicles,” the blond cop told them. “You’ll have to follow the diversions. They are very clearly sign-posted.”
Ochre took out his Spectrum ID and showed it to them.
Blondie scrutinised the ID; looking between it, Ochre, and the van. While Magenta offered up his own ID for inspection by the other cop.
“Hmm, looks legit,” was the collective verdict.
“That’s because it is,” Magenta interrupted, managing not to sound as irritable or patronising as he felt like being.
“But you’re not in uniform,” Blondie’s sidekick noted. “Or a Spectrum vehicle.”
“We know,” Ochre put in, cutting off any potential sarcasm from his partner. “We’ve been off duty in the city, but we’re here now, and would very much like to get on and do our jobs.”
“Well, we have to do ours too.” Blondie was starting to get snippy. “And we can’t just let anyone though.”
“But we’re shown our ID and our uniforms are in the back, what the hell more can we do?”
Ochre gave his partner a firm glare, as if to say ‘just let me handle this’.
“Look, Officer,” Ochre began, with a winning smile. “I completely understand what you mean; I used to be in the Corps myself. But the thing is …”
Grateful to see a familiar flash of colour in the distance, Magenta turned away from the window and grinned at the cops.
“See, there’s another Spectrum officer already here, he’ll vouch for us.”
Blondie was about to protest, but by then Magenta had got out of the van and was sprinting toward the barrier.
‘Oh great, it’s so reassuring to know efficiency has greatly improved in my absence,’ Ochre thought with a grin, as neither policeman managed to prevent Magenta from getting past the barrier - not that they even tried much, to be honest.
“I do apologise for my partner,” he said, hoping there was at least an iota of sincerity in his tone. “What can I say; he, uh, has some issues with authority.”
After a few minutes an exuberant Magenta reappeared, with a considerably less than high-spirited Scarlet in tow.
“This had better be important,” Scarlet told Blondie, leading his colleagues to believe this was not their first ‘difference of opinion’.
“We, uh, just wanted to be sure, that they are who they say they are.” Blondie faltered slightly under scrutiny. “After all, they don’t exactly look the part.”
“You’ve never heard of undercover work?” Scarlet raised an eyebrow.
“Obviously … but I mean, this is a restricted area, you can’t be too careful.”
“Indeed, and your superiors will be duly informed of your vigilance,” Scarlet replied pointedly. “Now, if you would be so kind as to let my colleagues past.”
Knowing he was beaten, Blondie promptly raised the barrier.
“Nice wheels,” Scarlet said, watching as Ochre parked the van.
“Shut up,” Magenta hissed. “I’ve just had a fecking near-death experience at the hands of Richard Earnhardt Fraser and been interrogated by Inspector Clueless, not to mention getting stuck playing Mary Poppins all weekend. And I seriously need coffee ... I am so not paid enough for this.”
Scarlet just about managed to keep from laughing.
“You’re got Ricky with you?” he asked, suddenly regaining his composure at the thought.
“Course not … If we’d have known about the threat in advance we’d have left him with my folks; but the Mysterons aren’t exactly considerate like that. So we swung by Western Memorial and dropped Ricky off there; his aunt is out of ICU, so she’ll keep an eye on him, apparently she was quite happy to.”
Scarlet nodded; “that’s good, I suppose. Now about the situation …”
“Yeah, I know I’m not gonna win any parenting awards,” Ochre said defensively, joining them. “But it’s the best that could be done at short notice.”
“Yes, it is much appreciated that you could make suitable childcare arrangements,” Scarlet noted “but that’s really not relevant …”
Scarlet stopped talking, realising he’d overstepped some previously undrawn line.
“You were saying?” Ochre glared at him.
“That we need to focus on the mission”
“You think I’m a bad parent. For being in a job like this, something so ‘high risk’, with a kid in tow. That he might get completely orphaned for real … Or do you just think having a kid will make me soft, that I won’t be dedicated to the job because I’ve got him to consider?”
Before Scarlet could form an answer his epaulettes flashed green.
His anger dissipating, Ochre changed into his uniform, preparing to give this assignment his complete focus.
Ricky had been dozing on the futon set up for him in the hospital room but he snapped awake as the door opened.
“Daddy.” He beamed, running over to hug Ochre.
“I should call you Daddy, shouldn’t I?” Ricky stopped and looked up at Ochre, acknowledging his uncertainty. “As you are my dad. And I’ve been doing some thinking, and I like that … I’d like for you to be my daddy.”
At that moment Ochre knew he would have laid down his life for his child; his heart was thumping fit to burst, and he felt light headed with an overpowering sense of euphoria. He became aware that his eyes were filling and he fought against the urge to cry. He had never known such an unconditional feeling of love - of the urge to protect and cherish – in fact his vocabulary was inadequate to describe that surge of emotion.
“Yeah, that sounds good to me,” he agreed, holding Ricky close. “But you have to keep your voice down, we don’t wanna wake Ellie.”
“It’s OK, with all these meds and being here I’ve not really been sleeping,” Ellie said. Weariness had settled on her face like a blanket. Ochre watched her carefully, but couldn’t divine her thoughts on his conversation with Ricky. “So, I’ve been watching the 24 hour news channel. I saw the report about what you’ve been up to today. It must be a relief, knowing that guy is safe.”
“Yeah, it is.”
Ochre knew Ellie was still a long way from forgiving him, but she seemed to look at him differently, with a glimmer of new-found respect.
“I’m sorry about your colleague,” she added. “The one who was injured.”
“Oh, yeah.” Ochre tried to blot out the memory of Scarlet’s bloodied body at his feet, wondering how Blue always seemed able to keep it together, and at what point you got used to it. “It was only a superficial wound though, really. You know what reporters are like, sensationalising things.”
“Where’s Pat?” Ricky demanded. “Is he OK?”
“Pat’s doing great, Bud. He’s just getting us sorted out for a place to stay tonight.”
“Who got hurt then?”
“Paul … but honestly he’ll be fine before we know it.”
Ricky took something from the bedside cabinet, and handed it to Ochre.
“I made a ‘get well’ card,” he announced. “And now I know who it’s for I can write his name on it.”
“That’s real good of you,” Ochre said.
He knew Scarlet would be in perfect health by the time they saw him next. But, of course, Ricky wasn’t to know that, and it was a sentiment that always applied. Even after his countless deaths they all still desperately hoped and waited for Scarlet to show signs of returning to them, wondering if perhaps this time he had pushed himself too far to come back.
So Ochre took the card and formed the letters with dotted pencil lines for Ricky to trace over, the way he remembered his brother had done for his own step-children. As he did do, an unanticipated pang of loss cut through him like a knife.
“I used to do that, as a kid,” Ochre quietly told Ellie, as they watched Ricky poke his tongue slightly out of the corner of his mouth, in deep concentration, as he scribed the letters.
“He’s probably more like you than you’d think,” Ellie replied. “More than anyone else would know, without having you around to compare.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“It is,” Ellie said. “Alie always thought so; it gave her a lot of comfort.”
Magenta had booked them into a family suite at a mid-price-range chain of hotels. Which was fine by Ochre, he just wanted somewhere comfortable to sleep, though couldn’t help casing the joint and despairing at the lack of security. Then he berated himself for being so overly paranoid. He watched Ricky running down the corridor, his artwork trailing from his hand like a flag, and hoped he would be spared whatever had happened in the last three decades to make Ochre lose that innocent happiness.
Ricky stopped at the door, waiting for him.
“Three, six, two,” he said. “I know my numbers, we learnt them at school, and Aunt Ellie helps me practise at home.”
“They make you do homework in kindergarten?” Ochre was appalled. “That’s crazy; you should be spending your time doing fun stuff.”
“But I like doing my workbooks.” Ricky frowned. “It’s important to learn stuff, Aunt Ellie says, then I can get good grades and go to college. I need to do that, so I can be a cop like you did.”
“Well, that’s good, but actually I never went to college,” Ochre said, feeling he should be honest. And what if Ricky didn’t end up furthering his studies, for whatever reason? He wasn’t going to pass on the disappointment and stigma too. “School is important, but it’s not the only way to learn what you need in life. What matters is you do your best, and that you’re happy.”
“You coming in or what?” Magenta said, coming to stand in the doorway.
“Pat, did you go to college?” Ricky asked, passing him into the room.
“Yes, Yale.” Magenta thrust a thick, messy wad of takeout menus at Ochre. “You choose something. I just picked these up from the foyer rack; but obviously I have no idea which places are any good. And after looking at so many I don’t even know what I want to eat any more.”
“Daddy says I don’t need to go to college,” Ricky added.
“Well, technically he’s right,” Magenta answered. “But really you should work hard at school. It wouldn’t hurt to, and then you’ll have more options for the future.”
He turned back to Ochre; “Brad even gave some unprompted recommendations. I wasn’t going to ask, I mean, he’s up to his butt in the aftermath of the incident, so my dilemma seemed a little trivial.”
“There’s nothing trivial about getting fed,” Ochre insisted, sifting through the pamphlets as he went inside and sat down on the corner of the bed.
“But it was dinnertime ages ago,” Ricky noted. “It’s probably nearly bedtime.”
“We were still working when you had dinner,” Magenta explained. “So we just have food when we can … Is there anything you’d like to eat?”
“We’re getting pizza,” Ochre said firmly. “You can’t be in Chicago and not have authentic Chicago pizza.”
“That’s pretty much what Brad said,” Magenta admitted. “Though he was considerably more impassioned about the subject.”
“But I want spring rolls; can’t I have some instead, please?” Ricky asked.
“Uh, sure.” Ochre frowned, with amusement. “I have a kid who likes vegetables.”
“Genetics is a law unto itself.” Magenta shrugged. “I’m guessing, having witnessed your attempts at cooking, that you know plenty of pizza places and Chinese take-outs.”
“Sure do.” Ochre went to the phone, poised to dial the number from memory. “I had a favourite, when I lived here; they make the best meat feast pizza. So that’s what I’ll have … what do you want?”
“You don’t have a usual ... unless ‘the most expensive thing on the menu’ counts.”
“I like to stay in the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to.” Magenta smiled. “As far as you can on what Spectrum pay us … I’ll get a seafood one; is theirs any good?”
“Got to keep up your good Catholic image,” Ochre teased.
“Actually, I’d totally forgotten it was Friday.”
“Forgetting what day it is, poor you, isn’t that an early sign of dementia?” Ochre commented as he began to dial, and then felt the firm thud of a pillow against the back of his head. “Hey, you have to be nice to me, or I might accidentally on purpose forget the garlic cheese bread.”
After making the calls Ochre took a shower in the poky ensuite bathroom, dried off then redressed in the sweatpants and t-shirt he had packed. It amused him that Magenta had left the clothes out, folded and waiting for him on the chair, like a dutiful wife. He’d never been entirely sure if Pat’s random acts of domestication were a simple expression of friendship, or a passive-aggressive hint that Ochre needed to shape up and become more domesticated himself.
Probably both, he reasoned.
He came out of the bathroom to find Ricky sat on the bed, reading aloud from the book in his lap, with the impassioned certainty of a priest delivering a sermon;
“Too wet to go out, and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.” Ricky turned the page. “So all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit ...”
“And we did not like it. Not one little bit,” Ochre quoted with a smile. “See, it’s all coming back to me, ‘The Cat In The Hat’, and all those other warm fuzzy memories of first grade. Before they set homework and I got all jaded ... I didn’t think you were old enough for first grade though.”
“No, but I can read at a first grade level.” Ricky beamed. “Even though I’m still in kindergarten. So at reading time, me and Ashton get to bring in our own books, because we can read better than the other kids.”
Ochre felt such a rush of pride, even though that academic ability and discipline evidentially didn’t come from him. Alie had been a high school English teacher, and it was inevitable for her to have passed on that love of learning and literature. Even if they had only got as far as Dr. Seuss.
“You’d have never known, would you?” Magenta laughed.
“Well, sorry for not being up to the minute on child development.” Ochre rolled his eyes. “It’s not like either of us has had vast experience of kids to draw on. Anyway, they always say kids develop at their own pace, so what’s the point of all these development charts and stuff anyway?”
Magenta shrugged, and seemed about to give a more eloquent response, but there was a knock on the door.
“Our food, I guess,” he said, going to the door.
From that point they had no further conversation of note, just settling down to eat and savouring a moment of quiet and easy companionship.
Ricky had only managed to eat one spring roll, and half of the other, before weariness had crept up on him. So much that he didn’t make his usual protests or haggle for extra time during his bedtime routine. Ochre didn’t blame him; it’d been a long day. He missed having that ability to just crash out so easily when it all got too much.
Watching him sleep, curled like a cashew in the child-sized bed, so trusting and content, wavy hair endearing tousled, Ochre knew exactly what Ellie had meant; because when he looked at Ricky, he always saw the best of Alie.
So now the captains were stretched out on either side of the queen size bed. The sleeping arrangements were a slight lack of foresight on Magenta’s part, he had to admit, but they’d survived worse things and been in such close quarters before. That was just the nature of the job, and they were close enough to be comfortable with it. Magenta liked to think it would be much the same as having a brother, not that he did, so couldn’t honestly compare. Privately, he had wanted a brother while growing up, sure it would be better than a sister, but he’d come to realise that was more about Caitlin than anything.
He’d expected that Ochre would get all principled and insist he’d sleep on the couch, and been proved right. Which Magenta couldn’t be bothered to argue over any more, if Rick wanted an uncomfortable night sleeping scrunched up, then let him. If you learnt anything from working with Ochre, it was to pick your battles wisely.
“That was probably the best pizza I’ve ever had,” Magenta declared. “Outside of Italy anyway … I should take you there some day, it’s a rich, fascinating culture. It’d be fun.”
“Your definition or mine?” Ochre asked sceptically. He could totally get behind eating good food, but drew a line at modern art museums, hours of excruciatingly detailed tour guides, watching movies with subtitles, or whatever else Pat would inevitably somehow convince him to go along with.
“Both, we can compromise.”
Ochre scoffed at that, and keen for the mood to stay amicable, Magenta changed the subject.
“What does your cookie say?”
Ochre snapped his fortune cookie in half, then extracted the paper strip.
“A gift from your past will bring great joy,” he read.
“Yeah, I think that one might be fitting.” Magenta read his. “Mine says; ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent’ … Also true, though maybe less topical.”
“That’s a stupid saying anyway, it’s not like you really do ask for people to make you feel bad.”
“It’s more that you let it get to you. I mean there will always be people who are wealthier, more attractive, better educated than you, but …”
“This isn’t all about me,” Ochre said firmly.
“Y’know, anyone would think you were making a concerted effort to be obnoxious as hell and systematically drive all your friends away. You’ve already had a fight with Brad and snapped at Adam before we left. Then got pissy with Paul today and now you’re picking a fight with me.”
“I pick fights with you all the time,” Ochre noted. “It’s quite satisfying really, in a weird way, fighting with you. You give as good as you get, but don’t take it personally.”
“I’m not here as your verbal punch bag.”
Ochre shrugged; “anyway I didn’t ‘get pissy’ with Paul.”
“Right, so when we got there and you yelled at him because he said something which you took personally, something about commitment to the job, was that just my imagination?”
“He’s been weird around me too … anyway, it’s all right for him. He can be 120% committed, doing his superman thing, at the end of the day he doesn’t have to think about anyone else. Seeing as he’s not going to die, permanently, or anything.”
“That is so absurd I have no idea where to start.” Magenta blew out a sigh. “You should cut him some slack though ... I can imagine how hard it must be for him to see you with Ricky, when he knows he can’t ever have kids of his own.”
“What, because of his retrometabolism?”
“Probably; he and Di have made random comments, and it doesn’t take a genius to join the dots.”
“I hadn’t realised,” Ochre admitted.
“Course not; I guess you’ve been too preoccupied with your persecution complex ... he’s a good friend and you can use all the ones you’ve got right now.”
“I know; I’ll apologise when he wakes up ... don’t look at me like that, there’s no point doing it until then. He won’t hear me.”
Magenta shook his head in affectionate exasperation.
“Maybe he has got a point,” Ochre continued, after a moment of contemplation. “I mean, when I was on the mission. I did keep thinking about the kid, if he was doing OK. I even ended up asking the USS guy if he has kids. And knowing he did, it played on my mind thinking what if anything happened to their dad. It got personal, I let it get personal, and I shouldn’t have.”
“So, what are you going to do, just switch off your emotions?” Magenta rolled his eyes. “You’re human, it’s inevitable. How it is for any parent in any job where you have to care about people. So, no, you’re not losing your edge. If anything it’s a gain, having that empathy. You want to work harder to make your boy proud and so those kids can still have their father around.”
Ochre looked unconvinced.
“See, this is why you should talk to Paul,” Pat added. “His dad was in the WAAF, still is actually, I think, so, yeah, that’s a high-risk career. He’s been there, in Ricky’s place, and ended up pretty well adjusted.”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“Never mind, that’s why I’m here. To be the brains of this outfit. While you … you’re the eye candy, or something.”
Ochre threw a pillow at his head, prompting a choice insult from Magenta.
“I am far more than a pretty face, y’know,” Ochre insisted. “And no yelling, you’ll wake the kid up. Not to mention that’s a terrible example you’re setting, using such language.”
“You’re not doing too badly at this parenting thing after all.”
Ochre took off his sweatpants, and got into the makeshift bed he had made on the couch.
“You don’t mind an early start tomorrow, do you?” he asked.
Magenta stared at his partner, slightly incredulous.
“Wait, that isn’t a rhetorical question?”
Ochre rolled his eyes, and shook his head.
“Hmm, OK.” Magenta shrugged. “It’s all the same to me; what have you got in mind?”
“There’s something I want to do tomorrow. It’s kinda personal, and, hey, don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
“OK, I’ll look forward to it. I guess.”
Ochre had always been a light sleeper, and he’d hated that, but had to admit in this job it could be an asset.
The sound gnawed at the edge of his consciousness, compelling him into reluctant wakefulness. So, he opened his eyes against the grainy darkness. Instinctively, he searched for Ricky. But the boy was sleeping soundly, the crisp cotton sheet under his blankets rustling as he rolled over. So Ochre made his way to the bathroom.
“Pat,” he said, opening the door, squinting against the light.
Then he stopped short, not knowing what to say. ‘Are you OK?’ … well no, otherwise he wouldn’t be like this; sitting on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, clearly unsettled. Equally ‘it’s OK’ wouldn’t do, for the same reason. So he settled with ‘what’s wrong?’, though he knew the answer to that already. Of course it was too good to be true that Magenta seemed to be taking the break up so well, his usual enthusiasm for getting the job done had been able to keep his mind occupied.
“I couldn’t sleep.” Magenta tossed aside the book he had been unable to concentrate on reading. “But otherwise it’s nothing, I’m fine.”
“Don’t go there,” Ochre scolded gently, crouching down beside him. “You might be able to fool the rest of the world, but I know you too well. It’s something of an occupational hazard ... c’mon, don’t make me start trying to cheer you up by telling really bad Irishman jokes.”
“There’s this is priest,” Ochre began. “And it’s his first day on the job, so he goes into the booth thingy ready to hear confession …”
He delivered the joke and the punch line, and got a faint chuckle in response.
“I actually hadn’t heard that one before,” Magenta admitted. “You should send it to my Pa, he collects them.”
“You miss Grainne?”
“Not really,” Magenta admitted, standing up, and blowing his nose with a handful of toilet paper. “We haven’t really been making each other happy for a long time.”
“Oh, sure.” Ochre smirked. “It totally sounded like it when we had our sleepover on Christmas Eve ... if that’s her idea of being quiet I’m surprised you haven’t gone deaf yet.”
“Yeah, well you won’t have to worry about that any more.” Magenta sat back down on the edge of the bathtub. “Anyway it’s not so much that I really miss her personally, I do, but it’s more than that. I’m just feeling sorry for myself really, over being alone again. That I’m probably set to stay that way, forever.”
“I already told you; for as long as you’ve got family and good friends you aren’t alone. You don’t need a woman to ‘complete you’, or whatever crap they have in movies ... And, hey, if you want someone to wine and dine on your money then I wouldn’t say no to that. I’ll even take etiquette lessons from Ads and Di, so I don’t embarrass you in the fancy restaurants.”
Magenta smiled; “you are so cute sometimes.”
Ochre frowned, establishing whether that was a compliment. He was pretty sure it was.
“I’m too old for this,” Magenta said. “I keep getting emails, calls from my mam, about how some friend from back home is getting married or just had yet another kid. And I know she’d never admit it, but there’s always this undertone of ‘why isn’t it you?’. I’m coming up thirty seven, that’s practically forty, that’s half my life. And for all that the most meaningful relationship I’ve had in the last five years is with some socially inept skirt-chaser, with Stockholm Syndrome. It’s … whatever’s beyond pathetic.”
“Yeah, Pat, that’s a great attitude to take. And you accuse me of alienating people. What am I supposed to say? That, yeah, you are so right; your life is such a hollow waste, just because you’re not living the ‘wife, 2.4 kids, nice house in the suburbs’, American dream crap.”
“Don’t know why you’re getting so het up, it’s my pity party.”
“Maybe ‘cause I’m always VIP at them,” Ochre suggested. “And you’re not that much older than me, so it hits home sometimes.”
“Even though you don’t want to get married.”
“Marriage is overrated,” Ochre stated. “If you love someone, and you’re going to be with them for the long haul, then I don’t see how some bit of paper, or lack thereof, is going to make much difference ... Anyway, you deserve so much better than this. I mean, I’m in my mess through my own stupidity and being a commitment-phobic loser. But you’re a decent guy, looking to settle down and do right by them. Women are supposed to like that. They keep saying they do, then end up with some jerk like me. Seriously, what is up with that?”
“Female logic will always be a mystery to me.” Magenta shrugged. “But I don’t hear you complaining too much.”
“Nah, it’s not a bad lot in life really.”
“See, you’re not the only one with baggage.”
“I know.” Ochre gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You going back to bed?”
“I will too, even though that couch is crap.”
“Figured it might be.”
“Pat,” Ochre rolled over, propping himself up with an elbow.
“I’m not going to patronise you with all the break-up clichés ... but, you know I’ve always got your back.”
“Sure, much appreciated ... now shut up, I’m going to sleep.”
Colonel White finished unpacking, made himself a mug of strong coffee, and then went straight to the control room.
He trusted his team, probably more than they gave him credit for. White had personally cherry-picked them from various government agencies for their unique skills. He demanded the best from them, because they were the best. And ultimately they hadn’t let him down; as he trusted would be the case. But he still felt a certain trepidation about taking leave, and returning afterward to discover how his crew and base had fared in his absence.
He arrived to find Lieutenants Green and Sienna chatting at the comms desk, about a film White had heard of, but had no interest in seeing. It was moments like that which made him feel so out of touch with his staff, and rather old as a result. Not that he would ever admit that.
“At ease, gentlemen,” White said, in response to their salutes.
“I was just leaving. Good night sir, Lieutenant,” Sienna said, giving another salute for good measure.
“Did you have a good vacation, sir?” Green asked.
He was possibly the only one of the lieutenants to ask anything akin to personal questions of the colonel. White often suspected he was seen by his staff as some kind of ogre, which wasn’t entirely accurate, but he could see an advantage to keeping a certain professional distance. Privately though, he appreciated Green’s efforts toward a friendship, such as it was; it made work more pleasant.
“Yes, very relaxing ... I trust things have been in order, during my absence.”
“Well, umm, Captain Ochre had a bit of a family crisis; he’s currently on leave regarding that. Captain Magenta’s with him, but he was due furlough anyway.”
White frowned, as far as he knew Ochre had no family to speak of, but he was sure there would be a valid explanation.
“Otherwise everything has been completely ship-shape,” Green said. “Naturally all the paperwork is up together; as I’m sure you would like to review that.”
“Indeed.” White nodded. “Who is on duty now?”
“Captain Grey, but Captains Blue and Scarlet have also done shifts.”
“No talks on monkeys this time?” White commented mildly, recalling the grumblings of discontent he had returned to after the Mysteron threat against himself, during which Blue had acted as commander and been slightly more autocratic than necessary.
“Thankfully, no, sir.” Green smiled. “He did organise a game of Trivial Pursuit at the Christmas party, which went down rather well. So there may be hope for him yet.”
“We shall have to see, thank you, Green.”
White strode to his desk and cleared his throat loudly. Which prompted Grey to glance up startled, and then quickly pull the headphones from his ears and come to attention. The personal music player still emitting its tinny cadence.
“Sorry, sir. Things have been rather quiet,” he offered by way of explanation, firmly pressing the off button, and then stuffing the player deep into his tunic pocket. It was typical really, the others always played music and never got caught out, but the one time he did ... busted.
“That is no reason to be complacent.”
Grey agreed emphatically.
“I have the reports, from the missions, ready for you here.” He tapped a few buttons on the keyboard, accessing the relevant files. “There are also a few other small matters; such as Lieutenant Beryl’s invoice for the base library stock, and duty rosters. Which have been attended to, but we thought you’d appreciate giving them a check over.”
“Thank you, Captain.” White sat down in his chair.
He knew that Grey would be diligent and do a good job, but he appreciated the show of his opinion being valued. Though White would never say anything at this stage, due to the potential accusations of favouritism, he was giving serious consideration to championing Grey as his successor when he eventually retired.
White began to skim read the reports, and, yes, everything did seem in order.
Every report was obviously signed, as per protocol, but after all this time White could identify each officer by their writing style. Grey’s attention to detail, Magenta’s idiosyncratic phrasing, Scarlet’s ‘distinctive’ grammar, Blue’s lengthy discourses, peppered with words that, White would never admit, often made him reach for a dictionary. Then at the other end of the spectrum - no pun intended - was Ochre: the utter model of plain-speaking conciseness.
Which reminded him …
“I hear Captain Ochre is on compassionate leave?” White said to his subordinate.
“Yes, Captain Blue authorised that,” Grey explained. “It’s in his report. Ochre and Magenta are due back in 48 hours; it would have been tomorrow, but we had that Mysteron threat yesterday, so it seemed unfair to cut their furlough short.”
“Reasonable enough.” White took the pen of his choice from his tunic pocket and began to sign the paper copies of the reports to acknowledge he had read them. “On what grounds?”
“Sir? … Oh, it was a family matter.” Grey took a deep breath; he knew he’d have to elaborate. Colonel White was like Santa, he’d find everything out, especially if you’d been naughty. “Uh, it seems that Captain Ochre has a young son.”
White looked up sharply.
“How in blue blazes did that happen?”
Grey simultaneously looked like a rabbit caught in headlights, and someone really hoping the floor would swallow them whole.
“I, umm, imagine, they, uh, utilised the conventional method. Sir.”
White nodded curtly. “And he’s here; you let this child onto Cloudbase?”
“He was - with Captain Blue’s authorisation - but not any longer. Or at least, not at this moment in time.”
Grey braced himself for it, and sure enough …
“You are aware this is a Spectrum base, not a nursery?”
“You’re right, of course, sir,” Grey conceded. “But his aunt, his legal guardian, is in hospital. We did search, but the boy has no other known relatives, or people who could assume responsibility. And after the earlier mysteron attack in Chicago the child welfare services were swamped. So, with all due respect, sir, what were we supposed to do?”
White gave a discontented sigh; “your duty, Captain, as always.”
“Indeed, sir … and I think, well actually, I know that Captain Ochre felt it was his duty to assume responsibility for the boy’s welfare. And to his credit he’s done a good job. Without it impacting on his duties for Spectrum.”
Grey wondered why he was defending his colleague’s actions; wasn’t he the one who’d argued and been so sure it was a bad idea? But equally he knew that if the situation was reversed, Ochre and the other captains would back him to the hilt.
“Medical report,” White read aloud. “Twenty second of December. Casualties admitted, one. Male, aged five years. Bruising to the head and lacerations to the right ankle. Sustained whilst at the pool.” White’s gaze seemed to bore right through his field agent.
“That … that was my fault,” Grey admitted. “I, Ochre had duty, so I volunteered to watch the kid. It was an accident.”
“I don’t care whose fault it was,” White began, with ominous, icy calm. “The fact remains that an unauthorised civilian, a minor no less, was on my base, roaming around, and managed to sustain an injury in the process. As you can imagine, this incident doesn’t represent this base, or its staff, in a positive or professional light.”
“You are absolutely right, sir,” Grey concurred. “And we are making every effort to ensure such an incident is not repeated, and that the boy is reunited with his aunt at the earliest opportunity.”
“Good, and, naturally, I shall discuss the matter with Captain Ochre when he returns.”
“That will be all, dismissed.”
“I’m gonna kill Ochre,” Grey grumbled, more to his coffee than his co-workers, once he’d reached the Amber Room and told them of the conversation he had just had.
“He told Colonel White about Ricky,” Symphony explained, as Scarlet joined them, “and then the colonel basically asked him where babies came from.”
Naturally, Scarlet sniggered like a schoolboy at this.
“If you weren’t indestructible you’d be next on my list,” Grey warned him. “Seriously; Ochre, sex, and the Old Man. Those are three things that should never, ever be in the same conversation.”
“It was probably better coming from you,” Blue consoled him. “I mean, if it’d been Rick himself, he’d probably have answered it literally.”
“I honestly would pay good money to see the colonel’s face if he did." Rhapsody giggled.
“Maybe he doesn’t know,” Scarlet thought aloud. “I mean, really, who’d want to get cosy with the Old Man? He’s so grumpy all the time.”
“I know there’s one person out there who would.” Symphony wrinkled her nose.
“Colonel White is actually quite a gentleman, once you get to know him,” Rhapsody pointed out. “And he did used to be married, but his wife died. So really I wouldn’t blame him for getting so tetchy sometimes, I can’t imagine how that must be for him, especially seeing us all in our prime and in love. We should be more understanding, don’t you think?”
She deliberately looked to Grey, afraid she had overstepped the mark, but he couldn’t meet her eye.
“Anything I missed?” Melody asked, arriving promptly for her standby shift.
“Yeah, I’ll tell you all about it, in a bit,” Symphony promised. “Once Brad’s gone, so he’s spared reliving the trauma.”
“I can wait.” Melody went and poured herself a mug of coffee.
The doors to the lift between Angel One and the Amber Room opened, and it was impossible not to notice the look of relief and affection which fell across Grey’s face.
“Captain,” Destiny exclaimed, surprised to find herself so eagerly enfolded in his arms, when they had only just left the Amber Room.
“Ah, come on.” He pulled back enough to kiss her again. “What’s the point having really a hot girlfriend if you don’t show some appreciation?”
“There is a time and place,” she insisted. “You were the one who did not want gossip about us.”
“They’re gonna talk anyway,” Grey noted. “It doesn’t take anything much to get the rumours going around here. So what difference does it make?”
She shrugged. “You had a bad day,” she said, a statement not a question.
“Babe, you wouldn’t believe the unmitigated disaster of a day I’ve had.” Grey led her to her quarters. “Which I may tell you about sometime.” He smiled softly. “But you’re far too beautiful right now.”
“I will still look the same later.”
“Well, then I’ll just have to love you all over again.”
Destiny smiled, feeling his gaze warm her like the sun; “that sounds a very good plan.”
With the paperwork finally completed for the day, and Scarlet’s arrival to take over his post, Colonel White returned to his quarters.
He fired up his personal computer and made a few edits to his latest crime novel in progress. He felt rather disappointed to see the word count drop slightly, but reassured himself that it was quality not quantity which counted.
Reflecting on his conversation with Grey, White did suspect he had been overly harsh. After all Grey was merely the messenger; it had been Blue who made the relevant authorisations. He would have to speak to him too, and Ochre, of course.
White didn’t want to think about it, and generally he was able to push the thoughts aside, but this situation was hitting close to home. His own son, Alexander, had he not been lost before he had even fully arrived, soon to be followed by his mother, would have been the same age as some of the newer recruits to Spectrum, and White knew it was wrong to go down that train of thought, but he couldn’t help imagining his son may have followed him into the organisation.
He forcibly shook himself from his reverie. Nothing good came of dwelling on the past; remembering the sacrifices he had made to pursue his career at the expense of close relationships, the possibility of a family. Another family, he’d already had a family, almost.
One had to keep moving forward.
The telephone seemed to ring for an age.
“Hi, Wainwright residence.”
“Evie, hello,” White responded, “it’s Charles.”
The girl, Eve, sixteen and blooming with life, gave a giggle.
“I know,” she said, “it’s a video phone, I can see you. And anyway, you’ve just been here for a week. It’d be worrying if I didn’t recognise you.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Who is it, honey?” A voice in the background, one that made his heart lift.
Eve tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ear, leant away from the phone, and announced him.
Amanda Wainwright came into view of the screen.
“I, umm, just called to say I got back safely,” White explained, “As you asked me to.”
“So I see.” Amanda settled into a chair with feline grace. “It’s good to hear from you, I’m missing you already.”
“I, yes I miss you too,” White said, suddenly embarrassed. But it was true; the sudden lack of her presence seemed to leave an aching void in his heart. He wondered how he would get through each day until his next visit, the hours stretching before him like a vast chasm. He had expected the companionship of love to fulfil him, but sometimes it left him lonelier than he could imagine.
“So, did the base fall out of the sky without you?” Amanda teased.
“Surprisingly, no,” White answered. “Everyone seems to have coped rather well in my absence, perhaps a little too well; maybe they’re trying to tell me something?”
“Yes, that you need to take more vacation time. Seriously, Charles, it’ll do you the world of good, and give the boys good practise for when you retire.”
“I am not that old,” White insisted. “So rest assured retirement is a long way off … anyway, as it is, I should hopefully be able to see you again in the New Year.”
“That would be wonderful.” Amanda smiled. “The paperwork should be through by then, we could have a proper celebration.”
“Ask him to bring some of the guys along,” Eve called to her. “Karen says they are sooo cute.”
“And far too old for you,” Amanda said evenly.
White chuckled, recalling the huge understatement of her warning that Evie was ‘a little boy-crazy’.
“Her parents, one of them anyway, was a cousin of Harry’s,” Amanda had explained, sitting on the back porch, broaching the subject of this whirlwind of a girl who had sprung into her life a few months previous. “They lived up in Boston, but we saw them a fair bit, through the years, made an effort to get along. Even though we didn’t have much in common; they were really religious, nearly fainted on finding out we hadn’t had Karen christened.”
“But they named you as guardians?”
“I guess they wanted Eve to stay with family, and Harry was the only relative they had.” Amanda sighed. White had thought he would be unsettled by the casual reference to Amanda’s late husband, but he was growing more accustomed to it. “You never imagine it’ll happen, this is your baby, and she needs you. But you really never know ... it was a car wreck, I know the junction, used to drive past it taking Karen to high school, always thought it was an accident waiting to happen … just never thought …”
For a moment she fell silent, listening to the bursts of laughter from inside the house. Blue and Symphony had come to visit for the day, and with their names, and easy, almost instant, rapport, Amanda had teasingly suggested Adam was marrying the wrong girl. Karen had been horrified and sulked; Evie however didn’t seem entirely averse to the idea.
“How has it been, the adjustment, for you, both of you?” White prompted.
“We’ve had some bad days. I forgot how much hard work teenage girls can be, especially without someone to back you up, and of course Evie’s still grieving. But really she’s a good girl, and I really like having someone to come home to, to be needed.” She smiled. “Guess I’m not cut out for this independent woman thing”
“We all need someone,” White said.
He kissed her, by way of an answer.
With the phone call concluded White got into bed and turned out the lights, and lay on his back listening to the gentle soothing hum of the base which contained him. He recalled the photograph, taken by Symphony, of Amanda, White, with Evie between them, all with such carefree smiles. At a glance they seemed simply to be a family, established, familiar and content; without the private pain and burdens which had brought them to that point. And the words came to him, vivid as if they had been spoken aloud.
‘Everyone deserves a second chance.’
After instigating their impromptu detour on the first day of their visit Magenta decided it was only fair to allow Ochre to take the helm when they set off the next morning. They managed to avoid the rush hour traffic in Chicago, making it to the Spectrum airfield in good time to fly to Michigan.
Apparently it was going too well though, and their peace began to unravel when they touched down and the rental truck’s navigation system gave out.
“That’s stupid,” Ochre grumbled, giving the navigation device a ‘death stare’. “How come you can’t fix it? I mean that is basically what they pay you to do, last I checked.”
“I’m not that familiar with the software,” Magenta explained with what was left of his patience. “So, much as I’d like to, I can’t just magically fix it with the snap of a finger.”
Wrapped up tightly in a blanket, as he lay across the seat dozing, Ricky looked like a human hotdog.
“What’s Daddy so mad about?” he asked, waking up in time to watch as Ochre stomped into the garage they had stopped at.
“It’s OK, he just gets like that sometimes, when he’s all determined to get things done. The best thing to do is just go back to sleep.”
Ochre returned in a considerably better mood.
“Hey, Munchkin.” He climbed into the driver’s seat, gently set Ricky upright and strapped them both in. “You ready for our road trip?”
“I guess so.” Ricky shrugged, still sleepy.
“Right, and the lack of GPS is now magically not a problem,” Magenta said, as he got into the passenger seat.
“Nah.” Ochre unfurled the pamphlet in his hand. “We’re gonna go old school and use a map. I mean Columbus didn’t have GPS when he found America.”
“He was looking for China,” Magenta pointed out.
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m familiar with this neck of the woods then, isn’t it?” Ochre grinned. “Well, sort of, it seems like every time I come here they block off roads, or build new ones, or whatever else they can to confuse me. So it’s always sensible to have backup.”
‘Since when have you done the sensible thing?’ Magenta thought.
He knew there was no point trying to get any sense out of him. Most of the time he appreciated having a field partner, but sometimes he envied Grey for being able to work and generally do through life without needing to depend and be depended on by someone else. Especially one as stubborn and hard work as Ochre could get on a bad day.
And to think he had been cut up about being single. A partner was bad enough, even without a girlfriend in the mix too, how had he spent months with both of them without going crazy?
“We can’t go yet,” Ricky insisted. “We haven’t had breakfast. It’s the most important thing to eat, Aunt Ellie says so.”
“I’m sure she does, but thing is we really do need to get going,” Ochre answered, a little peeved that at every turn Ellie was held as a fountain of all knowledge and good judgement, but he couldn’t exactly blame her. “So how about we drive for a bit, then we’ll go to a drive-thru or something. How about egg muffins from Sonic, you like Sonic?”
“No, I hate it.” Ricky said, with an expression of disgust and annoyance.
“Really?” Ochre admittedly hadn’t hung out with many little kids, not since he was one, but he’d been fairly sure none would turn down fast food. And in the face of such honest bemusement Magenta couldn’t help but smile.
“I always have cereals for breakfast,” Ricky added, getting more irritable. “So I want cereals. No other food.”
“Fine, you can get a cereal bar,” Ochre compromised. “That’s still cereals, but not all messy with the milk.”
“I want cereals,” Ricky stated slowly and loudly. “Proper ones, in a bowl.”
Magenta knew it was a bad move, and he felt disloyal for it, but he could feel laughter brewing in his chest. The indignation was so familiar he was becoming convinced this outburst served as karmic retribution for all the times Ochre had been such a pain in the butt.
Ricky’s outrage continued to brew. And still tired and hungry himself Ochre was sure that, if he didn’t get away for a minute to compose himself, he was liable to do something he’d regret. Until then things had been great, he could handle it, but how the hell did kids manage to figure out exactly how to push your buttons?
He pulled the keys from the ignition, opened the driver’s door, and stepped from the vehicle.
“I am going to step outside, until you’ve calmed down.” He managed to utter through gritted teeth, then slammed the door behind him.
And Ochre couldn’t deny that it was a relief, to take a step back, but he couldn’t help second-guessing himself. Though frankly he was starting to get used to the doubts.
“You gonna yell at me?” he said, as Magenta approached. “Wouldn’t be surprised. I mean seriously, what kind of parent walks off and leaves their kid in a car?”
“For five minutes and still never takes their eyes off them for a second.” Magenta shrugged. “A human one, who is smart enough to know their limits.”
Ochre nodded; remembering when his own father had got so wound up, yelling at them and lashing out with a swat on the butt. That he had sworn he would never be that kind of person.
“It’s good Brad isn’t here,” Ochre began. “He’d have a field day with it. He’s forever glaring and grumbling about any bad parenting we see on assignments. I mean sometimes he’s got a point, but other times I can’t help thinking maybe he’s just too uptight. Besides, it isn’t always the parents’ fault; sometimes they can do everything possible and the kid still won’t be quiet in a restaurant, knuckle down at school, or turn out right. After all, look at how we ended up ... It’s a good thing he doesn’t want any of his own.”
“He’d probably be soft as anything if he did. You know what he’s like with his nieces and nephews.”
“I know, it’s not doing his image much good ... anyway, I guess we should head back.”
Ricky was waiting for them, his frustration having evolved into apprehension.
“Daddy, I’m sorry.” He sobbed, throwing his arms around Ochre’s neck. “I won’t be bad ever again, I promise.”
“Sure, I accept your apology.” Ochre said, “but it’s normal to get mad about stuff, so you can’t really say it’ll never happen again.”
“I’m gonna be good, I promise I’ll be good. Don’t go away again, Daddy, please.”
For a moment all Ochre could do was hold him tight.
“Do you really think I’d do that?” he said gently, his own emotions threatening to overwhelm him. “Now that I know you, after everything that’s happened? There’s nothing that would ever make me leave you.”
“Yup, totally.” Ochre reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a pack of tissues. He held one out for Ricky to blow his nose.
“I like pancakes.”
“You what, darlin’?” Ochre balled the tissue and stuffed it into his pocket.
“And waffles too.” Ricky gave a watery smile “I forgot we have those sometimes, on special days like birthdays and stuff. So I could have them; that would be good. I don’t really mind not having cereals.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? We’ll go to a diner then.” Ochre smiled. “See, I should apologise to you really. I’m still new to this being a dad thing, having to take care of someone else. I can’t promise I won’t mess it up again, but between us we’ll probably do all right.”
“Yeah.” Magenta rolled his eyes “It’s not like you’ve had any practise by giving a crap about me.”
“You shouldn’t say crap,” Ricky chided him. “It’s a naughty word.”
“Quite right,” Ochre agreed. “But you see that’s the thing about Auntie Pat, you shouldn’t rely on him to set a good example.”
“Auntie?” Magenta raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, did I say that?” Ochre looked embarrassed. “I had an Auntie Pat when I was a kid. Not a real aunt, a friend of the family. So, yeah.” He smirked. “It kinda suits you though.”
Magenta didn’t deign to comment; so, content to have the last word, Ochre set off.
Ochre made a point of stopping at the next diner en route for breakfast, and if the old fashioned décor and homely atmosphere was anything to go by it was a good choice. Having come around to the idea of their change in schedule, Ricky was quite content to go on inside and choose a booth for them by the window.
“He’s just gone to get something from the car,” Magenta said, by way of excusing his partner, ordering two mugs of coffee and a plastic cup of apple juice from the waitress as she stood at the counter. Aside from a family of Italian tourists loudly attempting to comprehend the menu, and a businessman virtually inhaling his fried breakfast, they were the only customers.
During the drive Ricky had seemed his usual self, but Magenta could tell by the way he made every effort to keep Ochre in sight that the earlier incident had rattled him. And really who could blame the kid, he’d been through more loss in a few short years than most people did in an entirely lifetime.
Ochre entered, clocking the waitress’s perky derriere as she gave the businessman a refill of strong black coffee, then slumped down into the booth, dumping the item he’d been carrying onto the table.
“What the hell’s up with them?” He nodded toward the tourists.
“I think their English is about as good as your Italian,” Magenta commented.
“But the menu’s got pictures, can’t they just point and look hopeless. That normally works.”
“Says the man with thirty-odd years’ experience … not that you don’t have enough trouble with English.”
“Did you know that technically the official language of Illinois isn’t English? It’s American.”
“No, Rick, can’t say I did.” Magenta didn’t look up from the menu.
“I know what you mean,” Ricky said. “Because English people do say some different words. Like we say eggplant, but grandma calls it an oversheen.”
“Aubergine,” Magenta gently corrected.
“Yeah.” Ricky nodded. “Different names for lots of things, it gets a bit confusing sometimes. But I try to know them, because I’m half English, so I should do really.”
“Well, good luck with that,” Ochre said genially. “If you figure it all out let me know, then you can translate when Paul goes off on one. Like when he was getting all cranky because he wanted Marmite on toast, whatever that is.”
“Marmite is that black sticky sandwich spread stuff Di let you try,” Magenta explained. “You freaked out and said words to the effect that it was the most disgusting thing you’ve ever had, remember.”
“Yeah, Pat, thanks for bringing up painful memories.”
“Well, you did ask.”
“I like Marmite,” Ricky said. “Aunt Ellie gets it from the special shop that sells food from other countries.”
“And you’re welcome to it.” Ochre took a swig of coffee.
“Are you ready to order?”
“We sure are.” Ochre answered the waitress with a winning smile, and Magenta was sure if Ochre made some comment about whether she was on the menu he’d punch him. He couldn’t really complain about flirting in general, but flirting with almost every pretty girl in sight was getting really old. It didn’t exactly set a good example for Ricky either.
As it was, Ochre managed to restrain himself, and once the waitress had departed with their order, he opened the book he had brought with him.
“The family album, how sweet.” Magenta craned around, hopeful that there may be some embarrassing baby pictures. After all, fair’s fair. He was still smarting that his mother had been so easily talked into revealing the photos from Magenta’s early years. Including the one of him aged four playing dress-up in his mother’s clothes. He didn’t foresee Ochre letting him live that one down any time before the twenty-third century.
“I wanna see.” Ricky shuffled along the booth seat for a better look. “Is that one you, Daddy?”
“Much as it galls me to admit,” Magenta conceded, “you were actually quite a handsome baby.”
“I looked like Winston Churchill with sunburn,” Ochre insisted.
“Maybe a little.” Magenta laughed. “But cute with it.”
Ricky frowned. “Who’s Winston Churchill?”
“He was like the president of England,” Ochre explained, flicking through the album. “About a hundred years ago, when they had World War Two. And England was on the winning side, so I guess he must have been good at his job ... but not really someone you’d want to look like.”
He found the page he was searching for. “Hey, wanna see something scary?”
The photograph was captioned; Billy and Richard, at Lake Superior, July 2040.
Magenta focused on the younger boy, with his goofy grin, wearing rubber slip-on shoes, hand clamped around the pole of a child’s fishing net. Then he looked back at Ricky, the resemblance was truly uncanny.
“Could have been twins,” he said. “You’re right, we’re doomed.”
Then he noticed the photograph of the opposite page.
“So, does that mean you’ll end up looking like your dad?” Magenta asked innocently.
“Better not,” Ochre grumbled. “It’s all right for you. Your dad still looks good for his age. Mine was only about forty in that photo, and you can see what kinda shape he was in. It’s tragic.”
“I imagine it was due to the stress of taking care of two kids, and not having time to go to the gym.” Magenta shrugged. “Neither of which apply to you, so you’ll probably get off lightly.”
“Good.” Ochre smiled. “Otherwise it’d really mess up my midlife crisis plans.”
“People don’t plan a midlife crisis,” Magenta told him. “It just happens.”
But then it probably wasn’t so much a plan, Ochre didn’t really need an incentive to buy a motorbike and date some girl who really was way too young for him. So ultimately it was more a case of waiting for the right moment so he could get away with pulling it off.
“Who’s that?” Ricky pointed to the elder boy in the picture.
“Your Uncle Bill.”
“So I have an uncle?”
“He died before you were born,” Ochre said. “So it’s not quite the same.”
“Have I got any other uncles?”
“No, well, not like related ones, anyway. But Pat can be your uncle, and Adam, Griff, Paul, and, hmm, we might have to negotiate with Brad.”
“What was he like, my uncle?”
So Ochre took a deep breath, and began to describe the person he had always had in his life, known almost as well as himself, who he imagined would always been there. The memories which swirled up were so potent; he’d known that would be the case. Until then it would have been unimaginable for him to revisit them, the loss was too great. But as he talked, between mouthfuls of the food discreetly delivered to the table, he found a weight lifting. To be surrounded once again by his family.
“This is where I meant for us to go yesterday, before our change of itinerary.”
“They keep this place up together really nicely,” Magenta commented, surveying the brilliant white expanse of snow which lay like a blanket over the cemetery, punctuated by a kaleidoscope of neatly positioned marble headstones and gnarled naked trees.
“Damn well should be, you have to pay enough for the privilege.”
Magenta was aware of that issue. If you didn’t live close enough to upkeep the graves of your departed relatives yourself, then you paid a fee to toward employing a groundskeeper who would do it for you. His own parents did so for their late parents, but at least had several siblings between them to spread the cost.
Off in the distance Ricky jogged through the snow, waving a stick almost the length and breadth of his arm, scaring up any birds that dared to settle on the headstones. They flew away in a mess of feathers and screeching. Beyond that, the cemetery was eerily quiet and peaceful, the air so cold it felt almost tangible.
“When was the last time you were here?”
“Too long,” Ochre answered, his voice edged with guilt. “You know how work is.”
“I guess they’d understand.”
“Ricky, quit it,” Ochre called out. Odds were he wasn’t going to see the other people in the cemetery again, but either way he didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who let his kid run wild and ruin a peaceful moment for other people.
At that point Ricky stopped and came back over to them.
“That’s your Grandma,” Ochre explained to him, nodding toward the pink marble stone before him. “And your Grandpa is on the right side, and your uncle in the middle.”
‘Amy, James, Bill … and Rick, of course.’ Magenta thought, imagining the Fraser family’s names as they must have been written on countless greetings cards during their lifetime. They sounded good together, a friendly unpretentious American suburban family.
‘See that’s what really matters,’ Ochre thought, stood before his mother’s grave ‘Not the education or lack thereof, the work you do, where you travel, what you buy … when you’re gone all that counts is who you loved and who loved you.’
“I think I want to be with Mommy,” Ricky said. “When I die.”
“Well, it won’t be any time soon,” Ochre reassured him. “So you’ve got a good while to decide.”
“Are you going to come here when you die?” Ricky asked innocently.
“Y’know, I’ve never really thought about it,” Ochre admitted. “But it doesn’t matter much right now … C’mon, let’s go back to the car. It’s literally freezing.”
“I probably should get some kind of plan together though,” Ochre said, as he walked beside Magenta, while Ricky ran ahead. “Obviously I never got a say in with my fake funeral.”
“It was a nice service,” Magenta commented. “Far as you could tell from watching it on TV.”
“It was a church service,” Ochre exclaimed. “I never set foot in the damn place, or believed in all that stuff while I was living there, so why the hell did they think I’d want to be dragged in when I was dead? … No offence, Pat.”
“None taken,” Magenta said. “I’m not sure any of us have really planned it out. Except Brad, as he made us promise we’d bury him at sea.”
“He would.” Ochre smiled. “The colonel might want to as well, but he’s never said, and we can’t exactly ask. He might get the wrong idea, that perhaps we’d ensure his demise would come sooner than anticipated. … Maybe it will, though not in that sense. It’s a stressful job bossing us around, and he so rarely has furlough or a good night’s sleep. So I guess this time off is doing him the world of good. When’s he back anyway?”
“Uh, Griff said he’s already back,” Magenta answered. “And yes, he knows about our guest.”
“Oh joy,” Ochre sighed. “I guess we better get back then. To face the music.”
Looking slightly relieved, or at least less intimidated, than when had arrived Ochre stepped out in the control room, having concluded his interview with Colonel White.
“So, how’d it go?” Magenta prompted. He been helping Green with some computer upgrades, and had partly wanted to stay for moral support anyway.
“It went … quite well, I guess,” Ochre answered. “Can’t say he’s planning on throwing me a parade, but he didn’t hit the roof the way I kinda thought he might.”
“Maybe the combination of age, true love, and going on vacation is mellowing him,” Magenta suggested. “We should make him go away more often.”
“It’d never happen, he doesn’t trust us,” Ochre said. “And I don’t blame him with our track record of being left unsupervised. Still can’t believe Blue made us all sit through a talk on monkeys! I seriously thought we were going to die of boredom. Or end up with an orgy on our hands, a whole load of the lieutenants started making out with their girlfriends or whatever just for something to do.”
“Y’know, I’m so disappointed to have missed it,” Green smirked. “Not that being on duty here was any more scintillating.”
“Thing I don’t get is why White left Blue in charge again this time,” Ochre grumbled.
“Simple really,” Magenta said. “Scarlet was dead, Grey was off base, and, yeah, like he’d trust us. So, had to be done, I guess.”
“No it doesn’t, it’s not fair. We are totally capable and have proved our leadership skills. OK you didn’t exactly choose the best avenue, but still.”
“Well, go take it up with Colonel White, it’s not like I can do anything about it right now.”
By this point, Ochre had paced the length of the walk-way. He was riled up now, and nothing would deter him from making his point.
“You know the worst thing,” he began. “I heard from Flaxen that Blue ordered for them to go through our files checking up on everyone to make sure there isn’t a chance of us having any more mini-mes lurking around. I mean, can he really do that?”
“I’d like to see him try,” Magenta said. “No one can get through the encryption except me. Just because I’ve got nothing to hide doesn’t mean just anyone can hack into confidential information. He should know better than that.”
“Yeah.” Green nodded. “He’s so obviously going to believe you have nothing to hide.”
“I don’t care; it’s just a point of principle. If he wants in he’s only got to ask.”
“Seems reasonable enough to me.” Ochre shrugged. “If indeed what you’ve told me about your ‘social life’ in the Syndicate’s heyday is even half true.”
“Truth, whole truth, and nothing but.” Magenta put a hand over his heart.
“In that case I’ll have to get you drunk more often.” Ochre laughed.
Green glanced between them. “Uh, do I really want to be in on this conversation?”
“Probably not,” Ochre admitted. “Anyway it’s been fun; but I gotta go rescue Scarlet from my kid, or vice versa. Apparently them hanging out is giving Di chronic baby-fever. I did offer my services there, but apparently she’s not that desperate.”
“Her loss,” Magenta sympathised.
Over their heads the Cloudbase speakers crackled into life, and they flinched, expecting the booming ominous voice of their nemesis. Then relaxed on hearing Scarlet’s voice, with a barely detectable hint of being as joyful as a kid in a sweet shop.
“Could all captains please report to the firing range?”
“Is that a gun?” Magenta winked. “Or are you just pleased to see us?”
Grey gave a sigh of resignation and put down the sub-automatic.
“I really should have seen that one coming,” he grumbled.
Ochre scanned the room, then turned to Scarlet with an expression of concern; “Where’s the kid?”
“You didn’t honestly think I would bring him here,” Scarlet answered. “That would be very unprofessional and dangerous … So the girls are babysitting him, in the amber room.”
“Thanks, Paul. It’s so good of you to volunteer that information. I just knew you’d be so understanding of the fact that I have a vested interest in his well being.”
“Um, yes quite,” Scarlet faltered slightly. He knew that tone; outwardly amiable and understanding, but seething underneath. There was still a way to go to get comfortably back into Ochre’s good books. “Of course he’s in safe hands; you don’t need to worry so much.”
At that Ochre could do nothing more than raise an eyebrow, as if to say ‘are you freaking serious?’.
“I thought you were getting a visit from our dear friend Mr Conners,” Magenta said to defuse the situation. “We were expecting him to be here, tied up, with an apple on his head.”
“I wish, but it can’t be Christmas every day.” Blue took a generous swig of coffee from an oversized paper cup. “He was here this morning to go over the books, but actually he didn’t stop all that long. As everything was up together, and he mentioned something about needing to get back because his wife had a hospital appointment or something.”
“There’s a Mrs Ferret-features?” Ochre was incredulous, not missing a beat. “Poor woman … she must actually like him, but even so can you imagine having to put up with him until death do you part.” He shuddered.
“Well there’s no accounting for taste,” Scarlet muttered, catching Magenta’s eye, then turned to the task at hand.
In addition to their duties in the field, each of the captains was responsible for overseeing a department of Cloudbase. And in light of his military background, Scarlet had naturally been selected, probably volunteered, to be custodian of the armoury. To that end he kept up to date with the innovations of research and development, organised their stock, and imparted such information to his colleagues. Then there was the best part, finally getting the shipments of new weaponry to try out.
By contrast, Magenta, the only true civilian of the senior staff, had never been able to comprehend how anyone could get so enthused about being better able to kill people. In the past he had tried to put voice to his thoughts, but he might as well have been speaking a foreign language. Ochre had listened, but didn’t really get it, and inevitably made efforts to jolly his friend out of it, until Magenta got frustrated and changed the subject. So he kept his thoughts to himself as Scarlet told them about these new sub-automatic rifles and pistols. Something about dramatically reduced recoil. Not that Magenta really understood a word of it, any more than his friends did when he went rambling on about the latest software.
“So, let’s have a try then,” Scarlet concluded, beaming with enthusiasm.
“Have a try? … Paul, this isn’t a wine tasting,” Magenta couldn’t help noting.
He looked to his colleagues, but they seemed too transfixed by their ‘shiny new toys’ to comment.
‘Typical boys’, Magenta thought, with slight amusement.
Then he realised Ochre, in the booth next to him, had gone quiet; and that never boded well.
“You OK?” Magenta asked him, putting a hand on his shoulder to bring him from his reverie.
“I’m fine.” Ochre rewarded his partner with a smile. One that anyone else would accept at face value, but Magenta knew covered a multitude of agitations and awkwardness. He would have pressed the point, had there not been anyone else around, or Scarlet not unwittingly intervened by announcing;
“Gentlemen, take your mark.”
For all his natural discomfort around the issue, Magenta couldn’t deny that in the heat of the moment he enjoyed the feel of the gun in his hand, the power of pulling the trigger, the satisfaction of hitting the target.
He got into position, ear protection headphones on, rolled his shoulders, aimed the gun, safety catch off, waited for the signal.
They fired off every bullet in their barrels, then paused to inspect their fate of their paper targets. After which Scarlet began a demonstration of the reloading process, as apparently that had been altered.
And it was then they noticed Ochre’s sheet. His target had a single hole, dead centre; but the rest had clustered around it. An exceptional effort that made Magenta’s appear amateur by comparison.
“You’re making me look bad. What happened to our old time Celtic alliance?” Magenta grumbled; recalling the solidarity they had fallen into in the face of written assessments. When Magenta was always out of step with protocol and technical detail, and Ochre could never quite translate his knowledge to written words. “Well what do you expect for only ever putting in the minimum hours in on the range?” Ochre set the paper on the ledge and didn’t react as it drifted to the floor. “There’s more important things that our pride to worry about.”
“I know, it was, don’t worry about it.”
Magenta wasn’t one to shrug it off and settle for falling short of the standards he set himself, and this proof of anything less smarted. He also knew it was irrational to try to match up to a partner who had been handling guns his entire career and made a point of practising being able to shoot with either hand; because Ochre wasn’t prepared to let an impediment like his dominant arm being broken get in the way of his ability to do the job.
“Scarlet did say these would be a little different, take some getting used to,” Ochre offered as consolation.
Scarlet ambled over to them, looked over the targets and frowned slightly at Magenta’s. He looked up, as if the paper had offered an explanation for such lack of finesse, and made some suggestions. And by way of demonstrating reached out, to place his hands over his colleague’s, to show what he meant.
“I’m sure he gets it,” Ochre said gruffly. He’d never quite been able to figure out why, but Scarlet’s way of teaching would almost always rub Pat up the wrong way. And as dutiful best friend he was familiar with the ‘condescending British jerk’ monologue which followed each ‘lesson’ once Scarlet or anyone else was well out ear shot.
“Good,” Scarlet replied; put out by his colleagues’ reactions. “Well, obviously R and D are still working on the final design, which must mean there are glitches somewhere, so I wouldn’t worry too much. We only really needed to do an intro session so they can get feedback.”
“Which yes for once I will write up all by myself.” Scarlet added with a smile. As a rule he hated paperwork, so normally Blue ended up doing it because Adam didn’t mind, at least not half as much as the thought that his partner might get court martialed; either for his terrible grammar or not turning in a report on time.
“So, do you need us all to stay?” Ochre asked “Or is it OK if I get going?”
“This isn’t like you.” Grey voiced their collective thought. “You’re normally last off the range.”
“Yeah well that was the old me. The new me has a kid, and y’know I figured it’d help my cause to actually do some parenting while he’s here. Unless you really need me, because I’m not about to get accused of slacking off work either.”
“Uh yes I suppose you’re right,” Scarlet said mildly. “Go on then, we’re done here.”
“Thanks, for getting us away from Scarlet.”
Ochre accepted the can of coke, fresh from the vending machine, by way of thanks; “you can’t possibly have been as grateful as Brad, he practically left dust high tailing out of there.” Ochre shrugged “Good thing I wasn’t too polite to wait for Scarlet, we’d have been there hours. Not that Brad said anything, but it must have been a very pressing engagement ... a date with Destiny, perhaps, if you had a penchant for puns.”
“You know I do ... anyway, having given it some thought, while it’s real good of you sparing me from potentially punching Scarlet in the face, eventually they’ll realise the fault lies with me, not the stupid gun. So it looks like I’m going to have to put in more practise. Even though I hate guns and it’s boring standing there blasting the crap out of bits of paper wondering if now’s a good time to pack a suitcase for Di Witts.”
“You are not going to jail,” Ochre said firmly. “Not if I get any say, and I figure I probably do.”
After a moment of no response Ochre looked around.
“I’m pausing to reflect on the irony,” Magenta said with a smile.
“Yeah, the kid’s making me go soft. How could I ever tell him his most favourite uncle Auntie Pat was in the slammer? It’d break his little heart.”
“This conversation never leaves the corridor.”
“I was thinking about Alie,” Ochre began. “Kinda hard not to, with the kid being around, and knowing that she got shot. So yeah that’s why I was a bit distracted. I didn’t mean to be.”
“You snapped out of it when it mattered.”
“Not really. It was vaguely cathartic though, imagining hunting down and killing whoever did that to her. I should have done, should have stopped it even happening in the first place. Not that I can do anything about it now.”
By that time they had reached the amber room. Which Ochre had headed for deliberately and Magenta hadn’t minded tagging along. As he opened the door any concerns about Ricky’s well being disappeared.
“So that’s what it sounds like when you laugh,” Ochre said, realising the source of the loud girlish giggle.
Harmony blushed, and busied herself to collecting up the paper planes which were scattered across the floor. Slightly hampered in her efforts by Ricky running across the room to give Ochre a bear hug, be picked up, and asked ‘how’s my best guy huh?’.
“We had a contest,” Ricky explained, slightly breathless and nestling against his father. “Karen won.”
“Yes, apparently Adam’s given her lessons in the exact art of making the optimum aerodynamic paper dart,” Rhapsody added.
“That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back,” Symphony grumbled. “Seriously, I love him, but when he gets going on some random topic …but anyway, this afternoon has been so much fun.” Then added with a mischievous smirk. “Ricky brought along his family album of us to see, some real sweet stuff in there.”
“Sweet for blackmailing me with?” Ochre said with mounting trepidation. He sat down with Ricky still in his arms; realising the boy was getting heavy, but unwilling to put him down.
“You just never know … But really how come we never got to see any photos of you before?”
“You haven’t already figured that out?”
“Admittedly your parents must have had an interesting sense of humour to have dressed you up and taking pictures in some of those situations. But still you were such a cute little kid!” Symphony insisted. “Which yeah we kinda knew anyway, because how else could you have such a completely perfect boy yourself.”
“Yeah, he’s not so bad,” Ochre said with a grin that belied any modesty. “Gets it from his mom.”
“Nah, pretty sure that’s you,” Magenta said, setting his can of drink on the table. “I mean look at him, he’s not even six years old and already has a fan club of sappy doting women.”
“Ah yes, it is the Fraser charm offensive,” Harmony agreed.
“Ricky, baby,” Symphony began, smoothing his hair. “Why don’t you go show your daddy what else we made today?”
“Oh yeah.” Ricky beamed, climbing off the couch and dragging Ochre along as he crossed the room to the kitchenette. “We went down to the galley, and made some cookies and stuff. I got to be the official taster, so I tried everything so that Karen won’t get fat. And they were real good cookies too. So I saved you some …”
“You’re doing that gooey look again Kay,” Rhapsody noted. “And that never ends well, at least not for Adam’s bank account.”
“It’s not about his money. I mean just look at them. Isn’t Ricky the cutest little kid you’ve ever seen? And Rick’s so good with him, probably because he has the maturity of a small child but whatever. It’s just, haven’t you ever kinda thought what it’d be like, having a child of your own.”
“Not really,” Rhapsody answered a little too quickly. Her expression brittle and hesitant.
“Yeah, I’m with Di,” Magenta said, with easy quick camaraderie. “It’s far better being an aunt or uncle; all the fun and shopping opportunities, but pretty much none of the responsibility. But you go ahead; you and Adam would make cute babies.”
“I know,” Symphony gave a dreamy smile. And her friends couldn’t tell if that was prompted by her thoughts of practising ‘baby making’, or fitting out a nursery. Magenta felt that maybe he should say something, to steer her from this idealised vision of doting on an angelic miniature of Blue. But there didn’t see much point; Symphony never listened to unsolicited good advice (even solicited was a bit hit and miss); and it was all entirely hypothetical at this point, so there was no harm leaving her to her daydreaming.
“I don’t think she meant to be that blindingly tactless,” Magenta said gently, as Symphony cross the room for yet another sugar cookie.
“No, I know, it’s just … some people don’t think. And to be fair we’re both perfectly healthy, so it’s not that obvious that we would have troubles … But then there’s so much about retrometabolism we don’t know yet, so you never know, there could be chance. I try to be cautiously optimistic. If it’s meant to be it’ll happen, and if not, well then so be it.”
“That’s what I try to tell myself,” Magenta said ruefully. “But it’s not always so consoling when every time I think a relationship might get serious between me and Rick we manage to scare them off. It’s not even so much that I want kids, but y’know it would be nice to spend my retirement having someone to talk to other than my seventeen cats.”
At that Rhapsody couldn’t help laughing; “well that would be rather drastic, as you claim not to be a cat person.”
“I’m honestly not, but desperate times and whatever …”
“I think that’s the most restrained they’ve been since we got here,” Ochre noted, nodding toward the coffee machine which Blue had gone straight to as he arrived and was now being handed a cookie by Symphony. “Guess we’ll all have to think of the children from now on.”
“But I already saw them kissing,” Ricky said, wrinkling his nose. “It was like at the end of a movie, when it gets all mushy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mushy sometimes, even your dad has his moments, but yes you don’t need to have a girlfriend yet.”
“I got a girlfriend,” Ricky told her. “Well she’s my friend that’s a girl, we don’t do kissing stuff. You might get cooties or something.”
Ricky nodded, then turned to Ochre; “Did you see the picture I drawed for you?”
“Nope, can’t say I did.”
Ricky reached over and rifled through the papers on the coffee table, where he had been colouring earlier. Rhapsody had found it so endearing that he lined up all his crayons neatly by colour. Perhaps it hinted of great organisational skills. But then Rick did that with his model paints and he had one of the greatest tendencies to clutter she had ever seen.
“I did this one today,” he explained, holding it up. “I was looking through the photos, and there’s none of you and mommy and me all together. And I thought that was sad so I decided to draw one of us.”
Ochre studied the drawing; it was helpfully captioned in Ricky’s endearingly wobbly penmanship, but he understood the details clearly without it. He had been drawn as he was now, sans beard and in casual clothes, stood beside a slightly lopsided tree. Alie’s image was the other side, next to a house which had been modelled on the one Ricky currently lived in. While Ricky stood between them, both of them holding his hand. And naturally the sun was shining, the sky was cloudless blue with a plane overhead, and they were all smiling.
“Good job,” he said, somehow managing to work the words out from around the lump in his throat.
“You can put it on your wall if you want to,” Ricky added. “I did see you don’t have pictures up, not of people and stuff anyway.”
“Sure I will,” Ochre insisted. “I’ll get pride of place.”
The next day there was a knock on their door, which Ochre casually answered. Between taking care of Ricky and all the work-related activities he’d been up to his butt in, his latest prank, and any possible repercussions, was the last thing on his mind.
“OK, I don’t know what the hell you geniuses have done this time,” Blue began, “but yours and Pat’s uniform shirts just came back from the laundry with itching powder inside; which incidentally contaminated mine.” He scowled at the memory of the unpleasant sensation. “Philly intercepted them, and she’s hand-washing them all for us.”
“Aww, she’s a sweetheart, your steward.”
“She told me scuttlebutt says it was Captain Grey’s steward who did it,” Blue added.
“And he accuses me of not doing my own dirty work,” Ochre scoffed.
Blue raised an eyebrow; “You know, I wouldn’t have expected a former cop to be so forthcoming with an admission of guilt.”
“It wasn’t,” Ochre clarified. “Brad just came breaking down my door yesterday, to read me the riot act over a prank on him, and I’m guessing this is the fallout.”
Seeing them gathered at the door, Scarlet came over, clearly not in the best of moods.
“Retrometabolism doesn’t give you immunity to itching powder, does it?” Magenta asked him sympathetically, as he happened to be passing by.
“Funnily enough no,” Scarlet grumbled.
“Paul, before you get stuck into your bawling out,” Blue mediated. “I think it’s only fair to state Rick didn’t do it, the itching powder that is. It was collateral from a prank against him and Pat.”
“Oh yes, that makes me feel so much better about the whole situation.” Scarlet rolled his eyes. “So go on then, what awe-inspiringly moronic thing have Pinkie and Perky inflicted to prompt this latest joyful event?”
“You want to try that again, Paul?” Magenta said, unruffled. “I think you might have been able to cram a little more sarcasm and contempt in there.”
Scarlet merely scowled in response.
“Brad thinks we made his hair go grey,” Ochre clarified.
“Frankly I think you’ve been doing that to all of us since we signed up for this job,” Scarlet noted.
“No comment,” Ochre said, “but in this case someone doctored his shampoo, and now his hair matches his tunic.”
“I bet he’s thrilled about that.” Blue couldn’t help but smile.
“Daddy … dad!” Ricky tugged at Ochre’s sleeve.
“Not now, bud, we’re having a meeting.”
“But it’s important,” Ricky insisted, all attention turned to him. “I just had an idea what we can do to get Brad back.”
“Damn, why did nobody tell me having a kid was so awesome?” Ochre grinned. “I would have got in on the act sooner.”
Magenta watched father and son in hushed conference.
“And that, mi caras,” he announced, “is how the great clan war between the Holdens and Frasers began.”
They talked most days, Ochre and Ellie, over the phone. In some way, that made it easier to deal with. For there to literally be distance between them, knowing they could end it at any time with the push of a button, walk away any time.
To begin with they made small talk, but couldn’t keep it up; being so cordial when there was so much between them. They needed to talk, to face the crushing weight of history and what lay beyond pleasantries.
Often they spoke of Alie, pooling their memories, keeping her as a touchstone because she was the person who had brought them together, and her legacy remained binding.
The past was comfortable territory, already traversed.
The present seemed irrelevant, as ultimately both their lives were disrupted, suspended between past and future.
The future was a bizarre, intangible thing. They made efforts to plan, but those plans seemed insincere, not really convincing either of them that there would be a ‘tomorrow’ to plan for.
Sometimes they would shout, scream, hurl abuse, allowing the pent-up anger and injustice to fly. On other occasions they would cry, together or alone; the other remaining neutral, allowing dignity. Other conversations would prompt laughter, trading jokes and recollections.
For the most part though, they would just talk.
And each time they hung up, they could feel their wounds were a little closer to healing.
If he listened carefully he could just about hear the New Year’s Eve party in full swing. The music was being piped through the whole base. And occasionally people, heady with lust and whatever else the party spirit encompassed, would walk by. He caught snatches of their conversations, and a part of him wished he was out there with them.
But he had his duty, and it wasn’t so bad really.
With a half-hearted glance toward the radar screen, Ochre turned the page of his model-making magazine and continued reading the article. It was about some guy in Australia who had an even bigger collection than Ochre himself, spent almost every waking moment on it, and could recall every significant detail of every model. So Ochre intended to show it to his colleagues; by way of proving they were exaggerating, that his hobby wasn’t completely obsessive and all-consuming.
Anyway it wasn’t like they didn’t get equally single-minded about their own pursuits, they just kidded themselves it wasn’t the same; because miniaturised aqualungs or advanced software systems were ‘useful’, rather than simply made for the sheer enjoyment of creation.
There was a distinct blipping sound, and an icon in the bottom corner of the screen flashing, to signal that the base-wide internal messenger system was demanding his attention. So Ochre clicked it, vaguely curious as to who would want to talk. He’d expected everyone to be busy working or at the party.
‘Enjoying your last hour of this year?’ came the message, in an obnoxious shade of pink which was the closest thing Magenta could get to his colour code.
Ochre smiled; obviously there truly was nothing which could interfere with the lure technology had on his partner.
‘Haha, at least I’m on duty, what’s your excuse for being a loser?’ he replied.
‘Paul just got disqualified, by Ads, over ‘Gone With The Wind’ … it’s too depressing to watch grown men bicker like toddlers about the rules of charades.’
At that Ochre couldn’t help laughing.
‘What would you rather be doing?’ he asked.
‘Watching the ball drop in Times Square, getting slowly comfortably drunk. You?’
‘I’ll settle for getting wasted. Then it wouldn’t matter where we were.’
‘Genius,’ Magenta stated. ‘I miss you.’
Ochre frowned, he hadn’t really expected that. It wasn’t unlike Magenta to tease and casually say things that anyone else would completely misread; it was just his open happy-go-lucky way of showing friendship. But even after so many months working together, Ochre still couldn’t shake the feeling that actually it was him who was reading Pat all wrong.
‘I miss you too,’ he replied; the simple literal truth. It did suck being stuck on his own while everyone else was partying, or making some other entertainment.
“Umm, Captain Ochre, sir.”
He turned, noticing a lieutenant standing hesitantly in the doorway of the radar room.
“I’m here to cover for you,” the lieutenant elaborated. “Captain Magenta sent me.”
Ochre vaguely recognised the guy - Claret, that was his name - as one who had recently been on the receiving end of Magenta’s temper over not following instructions properly and badly messing up a software program as a result. Magenta had decided to deal with the matter himself, rather than take it to their commanding officer, and this was probably part of the punishment.
“I see.” Ochre signed himself off of the system, gathered his belongings together, then stepped down from his post.
With all the enthusiasm of a condemned man, Claret took up his task.
Ochre returned his salute with a slight smile, feeling very grateful that he wasn’t liable to venture into Magenta’s bad books any time soon. He knew better than most that fundamentally Pat was a decent guy, but what kind of idiot let themselves get totally taken in by that? You didn’t work your way up to running New York’s biggest crime syndicate by being a teddy bear.
Ochre promptly went back to his quarters, realised he didn’t have time to shower, so instead just stripped off ready to change into something suitable for the party. He gave it a little thought and decided not to both wearing anything fancy, there wasn’t going to be anyone he needed to impress.
So he got dressed in his most presentable pair of jeans, and the new t-shirt he had been given as a Christmas gift. It was black, printed with the chemical symbol for irritant; apparently his colleagues had seen that and thought of him. He stuffed his feet into some suitable shoes and rounded it all off with a splash of cologne. Not that he normally bothered with cologne, it was more Pat’s thing; but that was a gift too and he didn’t want to be accused of being an ungrateful slob.
Walking to the Officers’ Lounge he tried not to think how quiet and empty his quarters had felt without Ricky there.
“Hi, Flax, you look great.”
She really did, in a sea-green satin dress. He had a vague suspicious this may have been the first time he had ever seen her showing off even the slightest hint of leg. Or wearing heels; she hadn’t quite mastered that yet.
Audrey Geffen, Lieutenant Flaxen, blushed, mumbled a ‘thank you’, and was really glad those stuck-up cows who served as stewards for the Angels got to hear her being complimented by a colour captain. Not because she fancied him; well obviously he was quite attractive, completely gorgeous even in a certain light, funny, clever in his own way, and a good friend. OK maybe she had a bit of a crush. But that didn’t mean she was going to throw herself at him like the other girls on base would. There wouldn’t be much point anyway, he probably just though they were mates, that she was like a kid sister to him. But seeing as blind, limbless, monkeys could count on one hand how many cute guys had ever complimented her, she wasn’t going to get choosy.
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” she said; then heard someone, who sounded rather like herself, ask him if he wanted a drink.
“Y’know, that’s probably the oldest line in the book, maybe because it works so well.” He grinned, accepting her offer.
So they wove their way across the floor, passing by Captain Blue as he danced with his cabin steward, Philippa Daniel. As Flaxen was her best friend, she knew all about Philly’s crush on Blue, and sure enough, Philly looked about ready to faint with happiness at being in such close proximity to him. There was no obvious sign of Symphony, who, at functions like this, would normally swoop in and see off anyone she saw as making advances toward Blue. Then Flaxen looked again and noticed her in a corner, talking to Melody while she danced a little with Ricky, feigning an air of nonchalance whilst no doubt seething with jealous possessiveness.
When the song finished, Ochre found himself promptly ambushed by Symphony, who handed over Ricky, then stalked off to reclaim her fiancé for the next dance.
Not missing a beat, Ricky immediately turned his attentions to Flaxen. They had met a few days previously; Flaxen had found some simple computer games and downloaded them onto Ochre’s computer for Ricky to play with. She’d never thought of herself as being any good with children, and still felt awkward around him, but he was a sweet kid, so it was fun to spend time with him.
“Aren’t you meant to be in bed?” Ochre asked him.
“I was,” Ricky explained. “but then I woke up, because I needed a drink, but then I couldn’t get back to sleep. So Karen said it was stupid us staying there, so we came here to the party. I think she’s a bit mad with Adam, but I don’t know why.”
“She’s always a bit mad at Adam,” Ochre noted, “and nobody knows why, especially not him, the poor shmuck.”
“Do you want to dance with me, Audrey?” Ricky grinned hopefully.
“Umm, OK.” Flaxen smiled, noticing the height difference and thinking it was quite sweet.
“You go ahead,” Ochre said. “I’m going for a drink.”
“You made it then.” Magenta approached them, holding two glasses of champagne. He was in his element, being sociable and seeing the appreciated end result of his rigging up the sound system.
“I think Claret’s scared of you,” Ochre said, accepting the proffered drink. He decided not to bother wondering if it had originally been intended for someone else, or who that someone might be.
“So he should be.” Magenta grinned. “Then maybe he’ll learn for next time. I’m not really as sweet as I look.”
“Nah, course not ... I know deep down you’re a softie really.”
At that Magenta laughed.
“Just don’t tell Claret,” he insisted, then adopted a curious, amused, expression. “Why are you just standing there?”
It hadn’t really occurred to him until then, but Ochre fully realised how out of place he felt. Sure, he was amongst friends, but they had their own agendas: to be single, carefree and look after number one, or the established couples who happily let themselves become units of two. And he wasn’t really in either camp. He could think of so many places he’d rather be than here, pretending he was still the same old, incorrigible, mischief-maker.
He shrugged, downed the non-alcoholic champagne, set the glass on the empties tray, and felt a little better. Maybe he just wasn’t in the mood, but Magenta wouldn’t let that go as an excuse.
“I’m sensing you’re not your usual cheerful self,” Magenta told him.
“You know I’ve never liked New Year parties much,” Ochre said. “They’re so anticlimactic and overrated. And seriously, we can’t get drunk on base, so what’s the point?”
Magenta rolled his eyes; “just because you’re a dad now, doesn’t mean you have to act like my dad. Next you’ll be telling me to turn that racket down. Then have a whinge about how modern music is total shite, even though this is by Aerosmith and was released in 1977. But there’s no point me arguing. And so on.”
“I take great offence at that.” Ochre made a show of moping; then heard the next song start up. “Pat, you have seriously got to quit sucking up to Karen all the time and putting her stupid redneck country songs on the party playlists. It’s getting embarrassing. I mean, it should be obvious by now that she won’t be getting in your pants out of gratitude.”
“I don’t care, I’m over her.” Magenta shrugged.
‘Is that one of those mantras, that if you say them often enough it’ll become true?’ Ochre couldn’t help thinking.
“Anyway,” Magenta added, “it was this or that really annoying French love song only Mag and Juliette like. Which would you have chosen?”
Ochre nodded; “put like that, you made a good call ... you want some punch?”
“No way.” Magenta peered into the bowl sceptically. “I don’t know how they got it that colour, and probably don’t want to.”
“It’s your colour.” Ochre grinned.
“Then it’s practically cannibalism.”
“Now you mention it, yes, eating does sound a good idea,” Ochre decided, making his way to the buffet.
Flaxen was dancing away quite happily. So what if she wasn’t doing it very well? She hadn’t tripped up, crashed into anyone, or anything humiliating like that. So, overall it was an improvement on her usual performance.
She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around. “Green. Hi,” she smiled.
“My friends call me Griff,” he said casually.
“So I hear. All right then, Griff, what can I do for you?” Flaxen decided she really needed to lay off the champagne. As per Spectrum regulations it was non-alcoholic, but it was clearly having a placebo effect on her. She was never normally this brazen.
“Would you mind if I cut in?”
Flaxen was sure she imaged that Green’s smile had wavered slightly, a hint of nervousness showing through.
“Umm, well, you see,” she began hesitantly, “I’m supposed to look after Ricky. I mean, Captain Ochre didn’t exactly give me an order to, but, uh, I don’t think he’d be very pleased if I suddenly stopped looking after Ricky. Which is not to say that ...” She stopped short, realising she was rambling.
With practised ease Green hoisted Ricky up, and settled him against his hip, so they were both able to put an arm around Flaxen.
“I used to do this all the time when my brothers and sisters were young,” he told her.
And if there had, in Flaxen’s mind and heart, been any doubts about her feelings toward Green, they completely evaporated in that moment.
“Aww, don’t they make such a cute couple?” Melody said, nodding towards Green and Flaxen.
“Yeah, it’s so sweet I can feel my teeth rotting just watching them.”
“Actually that may just be the cake,” she suggested.
Ochre shrugged, licked the last traces of electric-blue icing from his fingers, and then put down his paper plate.
“I didn’t think cute couples were really your scene,” he noted, trying to keep his tone light.
“Well, it’s not really,” she said, “but I dunno, sometimes it’s just nice for people to be happy.”
He’d always thought it seemed really childish to have best friends, considering their ages and careers, but being in such close environment did make for strong friendships with the particular people you got on well with. He’d never said anything to Melody, she’d probably just laugh at how clichéd it was, but that didn’t change the fact he had come to think of her as a best friend. After all there weren’t many people who readily laughed at his jokes, showed interest in his creative projects, or he would call straight away, on the off-chance he did end up murdering Pat and needed someone to help drag the body across the floor.
His feelings may run deep, and hers might too, but their conversation generally didn’t stray into the territory of emotional matters. So he couldn’t really blame her for not saying anything about the shift he had noticed in her; her demeanour had become lighter, she smiled more, appreciated his company but had less time for him, seemed to like things she had previously shunned. It didn’t take being one of the WGPC’s finest to work out what was going on there. And it hurt him a little that she had a side of her life that she didn’t want to share. Maybe it was him, maybe he seemed unapproachable, or maybe he wouldn’t understand.
And of course he wanted to tell her he knew, that he was happy for her. It was just that she hadn’t said anything, and he didn’t know how to broach the subject.
“Yeah, you’re right there,” he replied, then added without thinking, “So go on then, what’s her name?”
Melody looked at him, slightly unnerved, and floundered a little in her response. “Catherine,” she said softly, with hesitation.
“You sure?” he said automatically, because he honestly wasn’t expecting an outright admission. He’d certainly suspected it, but there had always been some doubts, and he never really thought she would say anything either way.
“Of course I am,” she snapped, immediately going on the defensive. “So there, now you know. And at the party too. I’m sure you could have a real field day with that. What are you waiting for? Go announce it over the speaker system.”
“You really think I’d do that?”
“The hell if I’d know. Nobody’s got a clue about half the stuff that goes on in your head.”
Ochre shrugged; she probably did have a point there.
“Well, for the record;” he said, “I wasn’t thinking anything along those lines. In fact I’m happy for you, and totally respect your privacy.”
She looked down at her plate, rearranging the food on it for want of something to do, while he desperately tried to think of a way to change the subject, to end this awkwardness.
“How about we go dancing?”
“I don’t wanna dance with you,” she said, still prickly. But he’d seen the way she had softened as she noticed a petite blonde on the other side of the room. The woman he recognised as her racquet ball partner, though he now wondered how much sport they actually played.
“Who said anything about dancing with me?” He smirked. “Figured you might have a better offer.”
Before she could say another word he took her arm and dragged her across the floor.
By the time they got there, the blonde, Catherine, was deep in conversation with Magenta about some aspect of computers incomprehensible to anyone else.
“Aren’t they adorable when they get all geeky?” Ochre winked at Melody. And for her part she smiled, in acknowledgement of his solidarity and understanding.
“Hi, Catherine.” He greeted her, because he remembered they had met before. She smiled at him in recognition, then Melody interrupted to presumably save her from any teasing or faux pas she supposed Ochre might have been about to make.
So he turned to Magenta. “Y’know what Cloudbase needs,” Ochre began, “a sex scandal, preferably with lesbians or something of that nature.”
“You volunteering yourself?” Magenta raised an eyebrow. “I have to say it’s not every day I get propositioned by a cute guy.”
“No, it’s not your birthday yet.” Ochre said, trying to keep a straight face. “But until then you can make do with a dance. I’ll even let you lead.”
“How very gracious of you.”
Melody smiled, taking the hint, and suggested a dance to Catherine. As a rule Catherine rarely danced, as it made her feel too self conscious, but she too had succumbed to the party spirit and appreciated a chance to let her hair down.
“Have fun, kids,” Ochre called over his shoulder. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
Melody couldn’t help wondering whether that actually left them with anything they should consider prohibited….
As midnight drew closer they found themselves drifting toward each other again.
Melody and Catherine danced together in perfect time, blissfully happy and soon forgetting there was anyone else in the room.
Ochre hadn’t quite kept his word; he’d managed for a while, but soon found himself instinctively dragging Magenta around the floor. It evolved into something of a battle of wills. He felt like he should stop and explain he wasn’t being deliberately obnoxious, but doubted Magenta would believe it.
Ricky broke away and somehow managed to charm one of the Angels’ stewards into dancing with him, getting a big shadenfreude-fuelled laugh when she ended up toppling from her high heels. Rumours soon circulated, by way of explaining her prompt departure, that she had sprained her ankle.
On Flaxen’s part, it was rather good timing, because then she was alone with Green when her favourite slow song came on. They danced close together, and at times Green would gently sing snatches of the lyrics, and then look at her with apologetic embarrassment. But of course she didn’t mind. He had a wonderful voice which made her feel like the Caribbean sun was shining on her alone. Not that she had ever been to the Caribbean, but she’d looked at so many travel brochures she could imagine it perfectly. It would certainly be a world away from her usual holidays, sitting in a caravan in some rainy, wuthering, spot of the British Isles listening to her mum complain about everything.
They always had adverts on telly in January for exotic holidays; maybe for once in her life she’d be impetuous and book one to Trinidad. And to hell with what everyone else thought.
Yes, her New Year’s resolution was to start living her life for her. And if Lieu … Griff, if Griff wanted to be a part of it then she wasn’t going to say no.
She looked up sharply as the music stopped, to be replaced by Rhapsody’s crisp accented voice;
“Ready everyone … Five, four, three, two, one … happy New Year.”
Green had meant to kiss her cheek, but she’d turned her head at that moment, and she’d ended up getting him full on the lips.
After a moment Flaxen broke away, mortified, but heady with it. Feeling like her blood had turned to champagne; then she quickly turned back to the others, hoping they’d seen it, just to prove it wasn’t a very realistic, pleasant daydream.
“Aww, our little girl is all grown up.” Ochre gave a fake sniffle.
Only then did she dare to look back at Green, noticing that he too had that dazed, delighted look in his eye, and knew she was on to a good thing.
Ochre had heard somewhere that what you’re doing as one year turns to the next, is what you’re destined to be doing all that year.
And here he was; happy, healthy, surrounded by friends, with his son at his side giggling.
He really hoped it was true.
It looked like the scene of some major catastrophe: pieces of computer hardware strewn around the room, total silence but for the echoes of noise outside, and the only sign of life being a pair of limbs clad in vibrant-hued boots jutting out from under the largest piece of electronic equipment.
Lieutenant Green, with a sense of trepidation born of previous disturbances of ‘genius at work’, cleared his throat.
“Speak, my loyal minion,” commanded a male voice, from the approximate direction of the limbs.
“How did you know it was one of us?” Green said. “You’d have got in trouble for saying that to the colonel.”
“Anyone else would come right in and start talking,” Magenta reasoned. “With words to the effect of, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ ... apparently rumours that I was going to be spending the whole morning working on my back needed to be seen to be believed.”
“Put like that it did sound an intriguing prospect,” he said. “A little smutty too, perhaps.”
“I can do smutty. You have to really, working with Rick; embrace the innuendo or die striving for gravitas. I mean, we can’t all be as uptight as Blue, it wouldn’t be healthy.”
“True,” Green concurred, “not that he sounded especially inhibited staggering down the corridor singing a drunken rendition of ‘Sexyback’ at three a.m.”
It had become as much of a tradition as the New Year party, between Green and Magenta, that at the earliest opportunity on the first of January they would get together to discuss and dissect the events of the previous night.
“Forgive me for not believing you.”
“Seriously,” Green insisted, “go ask Scarlet, he was there. It was his Scotch Blue had been at.”
“That’s fairly credible,” Magenta declared. “Well, I for one am impressed he knew the words. I had the impression Blue’s musical tastes were more staid. Certainly not encompassing anything with rude words.”
Green shrugged; “apparently Symphony wasn’t very impressed about getting serenaded by it.”
“Yeah, I saw her eating breakfast alone this morning. While Blue was the other side of the canteen looking worse for wear. Figured something was up, but, wow.” He laughed, “That’s a pretty original way to see in the year.”
“You know, I’m not entirely convinced that champagne was non-alcoholic,” Green admitted after a moment. “I mean, of course people do go a bit wild, but it seemed even more crazy this year.”
“It’s been a very stressful time lately,” Magenta noted. “With there finally being a let up in the action, and leave cancelled so they had nowhere else to go, people really wanted to let their hair down ... and I do recall you having a fun time of it, with a certain Ms. Geffen.”
Green blushed slightly, and began to toy with the wrapper of the item he had carried into the room. On hearing the noise Magenta shuffled from his crawlspace.
“You brought food.” He grinned.
“I’m just the delivery boy,” Green explained. “Apparently your ‘husband’ was rather concerned you’d get so engrossed in work that you’d not end up having a healthy lunch.”
“You say that like Ochre would know ‘nutritious’, if it bit him.” Magenta set the napkin and cutlery in place on the tray, and arranged the foods around them by food group. He knew if Ochre was there he’d tease, wondering aloud ‘have you finished OCDing yet, Pat?’.
“So,” Magenta began, carefully opening the plastic pot of couscous salad. “Out with it. I want the full gory Ochre-calibre details.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Bullshit.” Magenta wielded the fork to punctuate his point. “Come on, you know I’m not going to run around blabbing your secrets. But we’re friends; friends share their trials and tribulations, romantic or otherwise.”
Green blew out a long sigh; which prompted Magenta to hand him the triple chocolate muffin, knowing his companion’s need was greater than his own.
“Ah hell, I don’t know,” Green said. “Things were going so well last night.”
“Home run?” Magenta asked. For someone who wasn’t especially interested in the sport, he had a penchant for baseball analogies when discussing sex.
“We didn’t have sex, if that’s what you mean. We both agreed to take it slow, that there was no need to rush into anything. I mean, I don’t think Audrey is all that experienced, and I don’t want to unwittingly pressure her.” Green shrugged “So I didn’t even stay over. And that was fine, like I say, things were great last night.”
“Then what happened?”
“I knew she had duty early this morning, so I took her some breakfast. Kinda expected to pick up where we left off.” Green laughed nervously. “Umm, well not literally, but y’know … and it was like, she had a total personality transplant. She said all the usual, the usual crap, about how it had been fun and everything, but it wasn’t the right time, and she didn’t want to hurt me. And then, get this, that she’s going on vacation next month. To find herself!”
“You really think she’s making it up? That doesn’t sound like her style.”
Green gave a bitter laugh; “Come on, that’s the kind of line Ochre would spin. Hell, he probably put her up to it.”
“So, what the hell am I supposed to do about it?” Magenta said evenly. “I’m not my partner’s keeper.”
“Obviously.” Green threw his hands up. “Oh, I don’t know. Something’s not quite right about the whole thing. Maybe it’s me, maybe she doesn’t like me so much in the cold light of day.”
“I doubt that.”
“Can’t you talk to her, figure out what’s going on?”
“No,” Magenta said simply. “It’s your relationship, you deal.”
“Yeah, I know that.” Green said gently, realising how bad his words had sounded. “It’s just, I wasn’t expecting this. And when you like someone, then you want to be with them, and expect them to want to be with you.”
“I’m sure she does want to be with you; but I guess there’s something she feels that she needs to do before then. I can understand that you’re pissed and confused, but go take it up with her.”
“You’re right; obviously, I mean she did say that she wouldn’t be going tomorrow. It was more advanced warning really. I’m probably overreacting. It’s just, I think I love her.”
“You think?” Magenta laughed. “I always figured love was one of those things you had to get totally behind.”
“It’s early days,” Green countered.
“True, anyway for the purposes of this exercise it doesn’t much matter. For whatever reason she needs this, you have to let her go … then when she comes back, you both will have had time to think and figure out where this is going.”
“That’s very good advice, thanks.”
“I’m good at giving advice, it’s the taking it that doesn’t always work out.”
“That’s probably true for everyone,” Green admitted. “Anyway, I better get back to work.”
“Me too, thanks for the food.”
“I thought you might need extra napkins.” Ochre said, holding out the wad of coloured paper as he arrived.
“Thank you.” Magenta said softly. “For everything.”
“Uh, you’re welcome.” Ochre patted his shoulder, hoping it would be a suitable gesture.
“I know I bitch at you all the time for being a pain in the ass, and so stubborn, and never listening to anyone. But you do know I wouldn’t ever change you?”
“Wait.” Ochre frowned. “I’ve totally missed the context of this, haven’t I?”
So Magenta outlined his conversation with Green.
“Good for her.” Ochre beamed. “Always knew the girl had spunk.”
“I know,” Magenta said. “I nearly freaked out at Griff though. Thinking he’d talk her out of it. I know he’s not going to be an abusive jerk like the ex-boyfriend my sister had, but I couldn’t help thinking of that. Flax needs someone who will help build her confidence, and Griff being gracious about her going is sure to help toward that end.”
“Now it makes more sense.” Ochre nodded. “So yes, I think you made the right call. Even if Griff isn’t an abusive, controlling, asshole he should still be watching his step.”
“If he isn’t?” Magenta laughed. “It’s sweet how you have so much faith in humanity, and always see the best in people.”
“I’m not that bad. I’m just saying: you never know what people are capable of. It doesn’t pay to be blindly trusting.”
“I know that. But they’re capable of good things too, and changing for the better, you should know that.”
Ochre rolled his eyes; “You’re such a bleeding heart, I don’t know why I put up with you.”
“My dashing good looks,” Magenta suggested. “Or perhaps my charming wit.”
“Hmm, that or the fact you owe me money.”
“I’ll get lunch next week, to keep our regular date, then we’ll be quits.”
Ochre gave a slight smile; “I’m gonna have to take a rain check on that. The hospital called, and that’s when Ellie will get discharged. So I’m taking the boy back to their place then, so they’ll have time to get settled before school starts up again the week after.”
“You OK, about that?”
“Do I really have a choice?” Ochre shrugged. “It’s that cliché again; if you love someone let them go.”
He knew the day would come eventually, made efforts to prepare himself for it, but when it did roll around he realised nothing could have fully equipped him for it.
“I know this place,” Ricky said. Watching the landscape; of pastel painted clapboarded bungalows, set back from the road, surrounded by neat yards, as it rolled by outside the car windows.
“Should hope so, it’s your neighbourhood.”
Ochre said nothing as he continued driving, focusing only on what was ahead.
He had privately hoped Magenta would be there, for the moral support, but the work needed on the base computers had run into unexpected problems, which had meant he needed to stay behind. As it was Grey had been granted furlough at short notice at the same time, and was using it for a long overdue visit to his sister, who it transpired lived two blocks from Eleanor Topping’s home. Ochre wasn’t really complaining, Brad was a good friend, but it wasn’t quite the same.
“So, this is your older sister?” he asked Grey, to make conversation and remove the awkward silence which settled around them. “The one with all the kids?”
“Yeah,” Grey answered. “Apparently Jennifer and her husband are trying for a fourth, if you can believe that. And to think she was so sensible until she had her first.”
“Well, I can’t really comment there, Ochre noted, pulling up by the house.
Eleanor Topping stood at the threshold waiting for them, a smile of welcome and relief playing across her face. She still wasn’t in perfect health, but recovering well and getting stronger every day. She crouched slightly to let Ricky hug her, then straightened up as the captains approached.
“This is Brad,” Ricky said, gesturing toward Grey.
Grey and Ellie exchanged pleasantries, then followed him into the house.
“He helped take care of me too,” Ricky added. “For some of the time anyway. One time we went swimming, because I remembered to pick up my swim bag, it was really fun; they have a swimming pool that’s like the biggest in the world.”
“It’s a standard Olympic-sized pool,” Grey clarified. He could understand why it would seem huge to a child, but for someone who had spent so much of his life on, in, and beside the sea, it felt a poor substitute for open water.
“Brad,” Ricky called to him. “You should come see my room.”
“We’ll be there in a minute,” Ellie said with a smile.
In fact, her smile hadn’t let up for a split second since their arrival. It really did feel good to be home, getting back to normal. Having her nephew return, with his cheerful nature and enthusiasm for life, rounded it off perfectly. She had missed him during their separation, the longest time they had been apart since he had been born. She had worried that he wouldn’t be coping well, which seemed absurd now, there probably wasn’t anything that Ricky couldn’t adapt to or which would dampen his spirit for long. If there was going to be a nervous wreck, it would be her.
“Good God,” Grey exclaimed, standing at the threshold of the bedroom and staring around. “He really is a mini-you, Rick. I don’t think the world is ready for this.”
“It’ll cope,” Ochre said mildly, continuing to examine the model plane he was holding.
“Aunt Ellie says that when I’m older I can make models using proper kits and glues and stuff,” Ricky said.
“Kits are for amateurs,” Ochre said dismissively. “I’ll teach you how to make them from scratch.”
“Cool,” Ricky beamed with delighted admiration.
“Ricky’s always been fascinated by planes,” Ellie told Grey. “Then he got into making the models fairly recently. We did encourage him a bit with that. It’s nice, really, for him to have the connection with his father and carrying on the legacy of sorts.”
“Oh sure, it’s cute now.” Grey rolled his eyes. “But in years to come, when he graduates to the noxious glues and paints, then it’ll get old real fast.”
“At least my hobby doesn’t come with a risk of drowning,” Ochre said sweetly. “And y’know, chlorine isn’t exactly my favourite scent either.”
“That’s still a long way off though,” Ellie noted, hoping to avoid an argument. “I’m sure we can psych ourselves up ... anyway, how about lunch?”
“Yes please!” Ricky literally bounced along the length of his bed. “I’d like some tomato soup, and grilled cheese. Daddy can make grilled cheese.”
“Since when?” Ellie laughed, then stopped, embarrassed.
Her memories of Rick Fraser were of a total avoidance of cooking anything at all, punctuated with a few culinary disasters. But then she was aware that the man who sat in front of her was not the man she had known years ago. An indefinable emotion prickled at her when she thought about how he had carved out a life for himself without the Toppings, that changes like that must have been inevitable, in what other ways he was a stranger.
Ochre seemed oblivious to her perceived faux pas.
“Oh yeah, I’m building quite a repertoire,” he said “All kinds of stuff to do with toast, and eggs, though my over easy still isn’t quite to Pat’s liking, and spaghetti pesto.” He shrugged. “So yeah, I’m not exactly a ‘restaurant of the year’ candidate, but it’s progress.”
“Auntie Pat has been teaching him,” Ricky interrupted. “And me and Pat made cookies together; actually we made them two times, so I could bring you some too.”
“That’s very kind. You’ll have to thank her for me.”
At that Ricky giggled, so much that Ellie felt self-conscious and was about to ask him to explain the joke.
“Pat is a boy,” Ricky clarified. “He works with Daddy. You met him before, remember.”
“You’re right, I did.”
That prickly emotion once again flared in Ellie. She could understand Rick having his own life, was able to accept that. But the thought that Ricky, for whom she had been the centre of his world, could so easily have a part of his life to which she would never be entirely privy, set her off kilter. As soon as those feelings came she crushed them down. It was absurd to feel that way; she was going to have to get over herself. What was the alternative, after all that had happened she couldn’t turn around at this stage and keep Rick out of their lives.
“It’s a long story," Ochre began, catching up with her as she went to the kitchen, “about the auntie thing. We’ve been trying to change it, say ‘uncle’ instead if he must. But I guess until now he’s been used to anyone who cares for him being an aunt. So it’s not really sticking.”
Ellie nodded, not really caring.
“You are OK with all this?” he said gently.
“Does it really matter what I think?” Ellie retorted, with more feeling than she had intended; then instantly made efforts to soften her tone. “I mean, the important thing is that Ricky is happy and that we’re doing the best for him.”
“I guess that’s true; but obviously we’re in this together. So ultimately we have to make this work for everyone involved.”
She knew that, obviously she did. It was just difficult sometimes to get her head around it all, having someone else so invested in Ricky’s life. Of course it was hard to raise a child alone, but she had come to appreciate that her word was final and nobody else would contradict her or make her second-guess her decisions.
“And I’ll send money, of course,” Ochre added.
“You don’t need to do that.” Ellie bristled. There was no reason for him to make a charity case of them.
“But I want to. Obviously it wouldn’t make up for what I’ve missed, or me not being around 24/7 now, but … he’s my kid, I should be contributing something.”
“That’s very noble,” Ellie said firmly. “But Ricky doesn’t want for anything.”
“College doesn’t come cheap,” Ochre noted. “Or driving lessons, school supplies, or the clothes he’ll grow out of in the blink of an eye. I know you’ve got your pride, but I’ve got mine too.”
“Fair enough,” Ellie conceded. “I suppose Ricky would appreciate it.”
So as he left the room, Ochre took the wallet from his pocket, as Ellie followed him back to the bedroom.
“Here you go, bud,” he said, handing Ricky a note. “You can put that in your money box and spend it on whatever you want.”
“Fifty dollars,” Ricky read. “That’s lots of money, thank you, Daddy.”
“That’s OK, least I can do really.”
“I’m gonna get you a present,” Ricky stated. “For your birthday. I know when that is. It’s three days before mine. I was supposed to be born then, but nobody told me.”
“That’s all right; you don’t have to get me a gift.”
“But I want to. You got me loads of stuff when I stayed with you.”
“Yes, very generous.” Ellie emptied the holdall onto Ricky’s bed and found several garments she didn’t recognise.
“He ran out of clothes,” Ochre said simply.
“You didn’t think to wash them,” Ellie said, amused by his ‘problem solving’.
“Yeah, but we were in the city,” Ochre explained. “Plenty of shops, not a whole heap of public laundry facilities or time to use them. It made sense at the time.”
“These ones are my favourite.” Ricky said, holding up in turn his appliquéd t-shirt, a sweater with different shades of green in horizontal bands, and a pair of jeans from a store Ellie had heard good things about but always thought too expensive. “I picked them out myself.”
“It’s good to know fashion sense isn’t hereditary,” Ochre added quickly, before anyone else could make a dig. “All the clothes are clean, Ellie, our laundry department saw to that, saves you having to try and get soy sauce out of them.”
“I only got a little bit down my cords,” Ricky retorted, offended.
Ellie found them, impressed that the stain had been completely removed. She took a certain comfort in the repetitive mindless task of folding the clothes and putting them away, while Ricky took the captains on a tour around the rest of the house.
“I guess we better get going,” Ochre said, putting his head round the door of the bedroom. “The Old Man hates it when we stay out past curfew.”
Ricky, who had been standing beside him, looked up in anguish and disappointment.
“I don’t want you to go,” he said. “Aunt Ellie, please don’t make him go away.”
“We don’t get to choose,” Ellie said gently. “Your daddy has his job to do.”
“But I want you to stay here and be my daddy.” Tears welled in Ricky’s eyes. “That’s your job too.”
Ochre crouched beside him; feeling like his heart would shatter.
“I know, kid,” he began, “it’s the best job in the world, being your dad. But I made a promise a long time ago that I would do my other job at Spectrum, to make the world safer for everyone. And it’s not right to go breaking promises … So that’s going to mean I won’t get to see you every day like other people’s dads, but I’ll still care about you and all the stuff parents do. And we can talk every day on the phone, that’s better than nothing.”
“Aunt Ellie says I’m not allowed to use the phone,” Ricky pointed out.
“Well, that’s normally true,” Ellie agreed, “but we can make this an exception.”
So Ochre tore a sheet of paper from the notepad in his pocket, and scrawled a number onto it. “This is my cell phone number, you keep that safe, then whenever you want to talk you can call that and I’ll be there, or call you back soon as I can.”
Ricky nodded, holding the paper reverently.
“I could write you too,” Ricky suggested. “My letters aren’t that good, but that’ll help me practise.”
“That’d be a good idea.” Ochre took back the paper, wrote his post box address on the back. “And of course when I do get vacations we can hang out, wherever you want to go.”
“Fae said we were going to New York, on my birthday.” Ricky said. “Can we still do that?”
“Don’t see why not.”
Not that Ochre was entirely sure he could get leave then, but that seemed a trivial concern. He had weeks before then to work something out, and he was prepared to do almost anything. He figured that was just what you did, to make your kid happy.
“I’ll make all the arrangements,” he added, to Ellie, as an afterthought. “You won’t have to worry about that ... you can come along too, if you like.”
“That might be nice, yes.” Ellie smiled. “A proper family outing, I can’t remember the last time we had one of those.”
“Me neither.” Ochre shrugged. “It’ll be a new adventure for all of us.”
“Touching as this is, we really do need to be going.” Grey interrupted. He had always been in favour of a brief goodbye; it was like ripping off a band-aid, less painful for all concerned to get it over with quickly.
“Yeah, sure, I know,” Ochre said.
A car drew up outside the house. As the engine stopped a chatter of a childlike voice began and drew closer.
As he was closest to the front door Ochre opened it; to reveal a dark haired little girl with an impatience beyond her years.
“Uncle Brad, you left your cell phone at our house,” She announced a young yet authoritive voice, and marched past Ochre holding the offending device. “And it’s been ringing the whole time. I don’t know who this Juliette person is, but she really needs to talk to you.”
“Uh, right, thanks, Abby.” Grey blushed slightly, and excused himself to take the call.
“I am really sorry to disturb you like this …” the woman accompanying the girl began.
At the sound of the long forgotten, yet suddenly familiar voice, Ochre turned sharply.
“Lauren Holden.” He smiled. “I’d know you anywhere. It’s been way too long.”
“Nearly seven years,” she said. “I didn’t make the connection for a while, hearing all about you from Brad, but here you are. And now I know.”
Ochre studied the girl carefully; she was probably about seven years old, and he and Lauren had dated ... A heavy ominous feeling crept over him.
“I’m Abby,” the girl said, walking over to him. “And this is my Aunt Lulu.”
“That’s good to know.” Ochre grinned.
Lauren laughed; “Oh God, you didn’t think I’d gone to the dark side? No way, I just got roped into doing the fairy godmother thing while my sister takes the boys to the dentist ... your face though, priceless. What’s that all about?”
“Long story, which I might tell you sometime. But short version is I did go to the dark side, and mini-me is going to be six next month.”
“It’s a nice age; they’re not fun until you can have a proper conversation.”
“Again I can’t apologise enough for disturbing you,” Lauren said, smiling at Ellie. “But, I guess it must have been a pretty important call.”
“Oh don’t worry about it,” Ellie said. “So, you’re Brad’s sister … it’s good to meet you. It seems quite silly that we have this connection already and live so close by but never met before.”
“Yeah, small world, huh?” Lauren smiled.
“Abby, do you want to come play on my climbing frame?” Ricky asked her. “If it’s OK with Aunt Ellie, and your auntie too.”
“All right,” Ellie agreed. “You might as well stay for lunch then, unless there’s somewhere you need to be.”
“Well, the twins get back from their appointment at three,” Lauren said. “But otherwise we’re totally free of obligations.”
Grey emerged from the living room, punching a number into his cell phone and looking like a man condemned.
“Girl trouble?” Lauren asked mildly. “Don’t worry; you can email me all about it.”
“Ooh, that’s cruel.” Ochre winced, with a grin. “I remembered why I like you ... but it looks like we’re gonna need to make a prompt exit.”
“We’ll see each other again,” Lauren said casually. “So long, bro.”
Grey made his farewells, then went out to the car, making hasty urgent conversation with a florist.
“I still don’t want you to go,” Ricky told Ochre. “But I get it.”
“The time will fly by,” Ochre reassured him. “We’ll be together again before you know.”
Ricky nodded, reaching out to hug him.
Ochre felt like this was one of those defining ‘Hallmark’ moments; that he should say or do something grand and memorable. But life wasn’t a movie; you didn’t get a script, soft lighting, or miraculous make up.
“You be good, OK,” Ochre said, his voice crackling with emotion. “Have fun with your friend, and everything.”
“I will, I’ll try not to miss you too much.”
In Ricky’s room, at the front of the house, was a blanket box with an upholstered seat. And as the captains pulled away from the house they watched as Ricky and Abby, framed by the window, knelt side by side and waved until they were out of sight.
“Rick,” Grey began, as they flew back to base.
“You know, in all the time Ricky has been here I can’t recall you actually calling him by his given name.”
“I might have done.” Ochre tried to remember. “But it’s my name too, pretty much, so it’s weird. Like you’re referring to yourself in the third person or something.”
He wasn’t prepared to admit the other reason. That for him Ricky’s name served as a constant reminder of the vast discrepancy between the official story of Ochre’s departure from his previous life, and what had really occurred. Naturally Alie had, out of love, named her baby in honour of his late father. But of course that had been a lie. For all his rationalisation of his choice to join Spectrum, Ochre knew that a man who could leave his pregnant girlfriend, regardless of the circumstances, didn’t deserve such an honouring.
Not that he had any right to have a say in the matter; Alie had birthed the kid alone so was entitled to make any subsequent decisions alone. It was just that he’d had this half-formed notion of how things should have been, that he’d wanted to name his first son after his brother, and it was disappointing for that not to work out.
But then when he looked at his son, he realised the boy could have been given the worst name in the world (and there had been a time when he’d been sure that was Richard) and it wouldn’t make any difference. All the matter was that now, finally, Ricky could call him Dad.
If this time with Ricky had taught him anything, it was that it wasn’t always a bad thing when your plans got changed.
Lieutenant Green was beginning to regret sticking around for this, but he knew he couldn’t high-tail it now.
With the elegant, probably antique, letter opener he reserved for such occasions; Colonel White carefully slit open the envelope and extracted the item from inside.
‘Congratulations on your new daughter’ the card proclaimed in swirling pink script, surrounded by bows and a pair of baby’s shoes by way of decoration.
“They don’t really make them with older kids in mind,” Green noted apologetically.
“It’s the sentiment that counts, thank you.” White said, in a tone Green couldn’t read. “How did you know?”
“Symphony said, about the adoption being finalised,” Green answered. “Some other things too, and then I put it all together.”
White set the card on his desk. It seemed rather absurd, as he had already had the papers through in the post a few days before, but this gesture really made it all seem official, a true acknowledgement of this massive change in his life.
“How old is she anyway, your daughter?”
White looked up, a little surprised at hearing that term, then smiled slightly.
“Sixteen,” he answered.
Green made sympathetic noises in response.
“My youngest sister, Dolly, turned sixteen last month,” he explained. “It’s a difficult age that. Between the high school dramas, getting crazy over guys, them wanting to be all independent but not having the maturity or know-how to handle it.” He stopped, aware of his audience and began to back-pedal. “But obviously every teenager is an individual, sometimes you expect it to be tough but they end up surprising you.”
“Yes, I was made aware of what I was letting myself in for,” White said gently. “I’m sure between us we’ll be able to manage whatever Evie may throw at us. It is very commendable that you took on the care of your younger siblings by yourself, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be.”
“You do what you have to do, sir,” Green said simply. “I have to admit though; I’m not planning on having my own kids. Not now we’re at the stage where my brothers and sisters can all pretty much take care of themselves and pay their way. I’m getting to enjoy this having my own life thing, and don’t really fancy going back to square one with a baby again. Which isn’t to say I won’t change my mind one day, but I doubt it’ll happen any time soon. Having a family wouldn’t work so well with this job anyway.”
“That sounds really very sensible,” White agreed. “You’ve certainly done enough childrearing to last a lifetime.”
An insistent bleeping from the comms desk interrupted them.
“That’ll probably be Captain Magenta checking in,” Green said, making his way over there.
White nodded, by way of a dismissal.
He returned his attention to the card, tucking it out of the way under the files he was attending to. He tried to pay attention to the reports in front of him; but kept thinking back to the adoption finalisation papers in the safe in his quarters, with his other personal documents. Of Evie’s easy cheerful greeting of ‘hi dad’ when he had called to reassure Amanda the documents had reached him safely. The day when Symphony, despite her earlier reservations, about which she had naturally been rather vocal, had given her blessing.
They were a family now; Amanda, Karen, himself, and Eve Charlotte Wainwright-Gray.
He hadn’t felt this settled, content and hopeful in years.
It was the cool air across his exposed shoulder blades which finally brought Ochre to semi consciousness. Reluctant to fully awaken he reached for the duvet, pulled it up to fully cover himself, ignoring the solitary dull clunk of china onto cork, barely an arms’-length from his head. Then he settled back to sleep, only to be entirely woken by the barrage of garments tossed onto his prone form.
He’d suspected that he would end up regretting humouring Pat when he decided Ochre needed to upgrade his wardrobe, though he hadn’t imagined it playing out like this.
Only then did Ochre grudgingly open his eyes; to find Magenta, selecting clothes from the various carrier bags around the dresser ready for another onslaught.
Ochre grumbled something not especially complimentary, and reburied himself in the duvet.
“And a bon anniversaire to you,” Magenta teased. “Aww, poor baby, did all the excitement wear you out?”
Ochre couldn’t remember the last time he had gone off base for his birthday. Sure he’d booked leave, but it usually got cancelled in light of the latest threat. As if the Mysterons had a vendetta against him personally. So he wasn’t going to bother this year, but he had made the promise to Ricky, so Magenta talked him into a 72 hour pass to New York, and sure enough there they were. Twenty four hours in, having a grand time of it. And as birthday boy Ochre got to call the shots; so he didn’t end up bored witless, getting dragged round some art gallery or museum, which was ordinarily a given when on leave with Pat.
“It’s good to see you’ve got your groove back,” Ochre said, and he did mean it. He hadn’t seen Magenta this motivated and truly happy for a long time.
“Glad you appreciate it,” Magenta said grinning. “Because this is the start of a new and improved me.”
“You can’t technically be new and improved at the same time,” Ochre stated, eyeing his mug of coffee.
“True … go on, drink up. After all the whole concept of coffee is to consume it while it’s hot. Not to mention it’ll help you wake up.”
“I take it you had fun then,” Ochre sat up, reached for his drink. “Mr I-don’t-put-out-on-the-first-date.”
“A gentleman never tells …” Magenta noted, “technically it wasn’t a first date anyway. That implies there are to be further dates, which is very presumptuous of you.”
“You have the effect on me. The good old cop’s gut instinct.”
“There’s nothing old about you,” Magenta insisted. “Relative to the fact I’m a year older than you.”
“Honestly, if you have to ask …” Magenta let it hang, as he strolled leisurely from the room drinking his coffee.
Ochre shoved the clothes aside, the weight and warmth of them starting to irritate him. Through the window to his left he could see the sun was already high in the sky. So with slight trepidation he checked the time on the travel alarm beside his bed.
“Pat,” he hollered, indignant. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Then why didn’t you tell me!” Ochre scrambled out of bed.
“What do you think the coffee, and the other stuff, was in aid of?”
Ochre went to the doorway, glaring as he noticed Magenta nonchalantly reading the newspaper.
“If we’re late, this is all your fault, Ochre stated through gritted teeth. His mood soured all the more in the face of Magenta’s smirk of amusement and appraisal. Then the memory of the previous night, shrugging off every last stitch of clothing before gratefully clambering between the cool bed sheets, flooded back to him.
“You don’t need to be all modest,” Magenta said casually. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“Anyone would think you get a kick of humiliating me,” Ochre muttered bitterly.
“You, embarrassed?” Magenta feigned surprise. “Hmm, I suppose stranger things have happened.”
“Whatever, I’m going to get dressed.”
“Genius idea, wouldn’t want you to catch a chill.”
Magenta couldn’t help laughing as the door slammed, and Ochre stomped off in a huff. Sometimes he really, really, liked his job.
On the Caribbean island of Antigua, a young woman at an exclusive beach bar gazed miserably at her reflection, and with a soft sigh smeared some more after-sun lotion onto her nose. It was typical really, that something like this would happen. She hoped it would clear up before she got back to base, otherwise everyone would probably be humming Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer to her for weeks.
Audrey Geffen thanked the bartender, as he set a glass of Planter’s Punch in front of her. Then she took a long grateful sip through the yellow plastic straw, feeling her spirits lift. You couldn’t be miserable in a place like this; with the warm sunshine, gentle lapping waves of vivid azure ocean, vibrant colours all around, and pale golden sand like caster sugar between your toes. It defined idyllic …
Unless of course there was a hurricane.
She stamped down that thought; it wasn’t going to be hurricane season for months.
“Hi, you want a hat?”
Audrey looked around, noticing the vendor had finally approached her. She had indeed been casually watching him work his way up and down the beach selling his wares of handmade fedora hats woven from palm leaves. So she decided now was a good time to show off her new-found haggling skills.
“Yes, I think my friend might like one,” she said. “I’ll give you ten for it.”
The vendor beamed, held out his wares for her closer inspection. She chose one with a palm hummingbird perched on the end of a leaf strand woven into the side of the hat. Then she decided to try it on. It was comfortable, and gave her face much needed shade. She foraged in her wallet; to find she only had twenty dollar bills.
“Actually, I’ll take two for twenty dollars,” she amended, and content with this deal the vendor placed another hat of the same design beside her on the bar.
Audrey hadn’t meant to buy souvenirs; but on the first excursion she’d been in a shop and there had been a shirt of the truest shade of ochre she’d ever seen, so she’d had to get that for Rick. Then she’d haggled and got a brilliant deal on a set of shell jewellery for Philly. And now the fedora for Pat. She’d set aside enough money to buy Griff some of his favourite cologne in the duty free on the way home. Then that was it for presents. The whole point of this trip was to be selfish and indulgent, and for once she was going to stick to that, sort of.
Audrey rummaged in her beach bag, and pulled out a thin stack of postcards which she set on the bar. The first on the stack was of a hummingbird feeding from a magenta-hued hibiscus. So she clicked the nib of her Spectrum ballpoint pen down, and began to compose her missive.
My favourite captains,
I’m having the most wonderful time on my cruise; the week is flying by like a dream.
I almost don’t want to come home, but then I can see you and tell you all about it, so that won’t be too bad.
Everything is as lovely as you said it would be, Pat; do thank your parents for me for recommending this ship.
Rick; I took you advice to ‘let my hair down’ and woke up with a massive hangover. I recovered fine, but forgive me not listening to your tips any more.
I hope you both aren’t up to too much mischief, compared to usual anyway.
See you soon
With all the cards written Audrey stamped and addressed them, then strolled up the beach to drop them into the post-box. She wasn’t sure the postcards would get to the base before she did, but it was the thought that counted.
With a smile she headed back to the bar, feeling an ice tea was in order.
Grand Central Station always reminded him of the movies. It was one of those places which somehow didn’t feel like it really existed; build up as a legend on the big screen. He half expected to round a corner and walk into a sepia tinted moment, of Humphrey Bogart making a touching hello or goodbye to his leading lady. Not that he had the first idea if there was indeed any touching reunions, meetings or farewells at Grand Central in any of Bogart’s movies. Pat would know, and no doubt discuss it at length with minimal prompting. The way he’d decided having a field partner named Rick was a viable reason to make Casablanca references at every opportunity. Ochre of course was oblivious, and eventually after giving enough blank looks he had been forced to watch the movie; and he admitted it was pretty good, but he wasn’t exactly compelled to pour over Bogart’s entire life works.
Something soft but oddly shaped in his jeans pocket was rubbing against his leg through the lining and irritating him. So with one eye still trained on Pat, as it didn’t seem a good idea to lose him in the crowd, Ochre dug around in his pocket and pulled out the offending item.
It was a paper napkin, from a bar they had visited the previous night, though after the third drink everything blurred into one. He frowned, wondering why he had kept it. It was Pat who did that sort of thing, picking up random things from random places, a tendency born either of sentimentality or as a healthy outlet for his assumed kleptomania. Then Ochre unfolded the napkin, and discovered a number, no doubt a phone number, was scrawled through the middle with eye liner pencil.
He tried to remember her name, this woman who had liked him enough to make such a spontaneous gesture. But his mind went blank. And he realised it was because he hadn’t bothered to commit it to memory in the first place. With some thought, a dream-like image of a brunette with bright red lipstick swam up into his memory but he couldn’t be sure that was the woman who gave out her number.
That was no way to live, to conduct relationships, surely.
As they passed by a trash can he crumpled the napkin and tossed it inside.
“What was that?” Magenta asked, ever curious.
“Nothing.” Ochre shrugged, deciding his partner wasn’t going to claim a monopoly on ‘new and improved’.
“Are we there yet, Aunt Ellie?”
She wasn’t entirely sure. It had been a long time since she had last visited New York, years probably. Seeing all the famous sights with Alie, and getting them hopelessly lost down side streets. She’d hated that, felt panicked in the unfamiliar city with its bad reputation, though with hindsight they probably had an equal chance of getting mugged in Chicago. Alie hadn’t minded, or at least she hadn’t shown it. Eventually after what seemed an age they had found a bar and gratefully sipped lattes while waiting for the cab which had taken them back to the hotel.
Rick had been there, she remembered now. Not literally with them, but dating Alie. That was why they were in New York; he’d had a WGPC conference. When they got back to the hotel he was waiting, clearly concerned about what had kept them. So Alie told him about it, making the whole thing sound like a great fun adventure. And the next day Alie had found a map and city guide of New York on her bedside table; wrapped up in pretty paper with a bow on, as a joke.
“Wouldn’t want to lose you again,” Rick had said; his voice light, but holding her tight.
The memory, the irony of it, brought a lump to her throat.
“I, I think so,” she said. “It shouldn’t be too long now.”
The train came to a stop at the platform. Then suddenly everyone seemed to move as one, surging toward the exits.
“Keep hold of my hand, Ricky,” Ellie told him. She realised after a moment she was gripping him far too tightly; but he didn’t protest as he usually would, equally overwhelmed and in want of the comfortingly familiar.
She collected their luggage together and waited for a gap in the people so that they could get off the train; then soon enough burst into the bright lights and bustle of the station.
Ricky looked around, wide-eyed; and Ellie had to admit she was also in awe of the place, having never been there before. As it seemed the only way to go was toward the end of the platform they allowed themselves to be moved along by the crowd like driftwood on the sea.
Ellie noticed the girl’s coat first; it was hard not to as it was such a bright emerald green. Then she saw them, looked up smiling, and said something to her companion. In that moment Ricky dropped Ellie’s hand and ran over. So she quickly went after him.
“Richard, you should not go running off like that,” she scolded.
“But …” Ricky began to protest then thought better of it. “Sorry.”
“Y’know, my folks said they often regret giving me such a short name,” the girl noted, “then they couldn’t do the full name treatment when I was in really big trouble ... it’s Fae, my name by the way. I’m Pat’s niece. And I guess you’re Ellie.”
“Yes, that’s right; it’s good to meet you.” Ellie proffered her hand, feeling her anger dissipate. “It’s a pretty name either way, not something you hear often.”
“It’s after Faye Wray, or Dunaway, one of the two.” Fae shrugged. “My uncle has a slight lifelong obsession with old movies.”
“Are you Fae’s boyfriend?” Ricky demanded of her companion.
“Uh, I’m a friend of hers, and yes, I am a guy, if that counts?” he said, with a noticeable New England accent.
“You shouldn’t be rude,” Ellie muttered to her nephew. “It’s not any of our business if people are dating or not.”
“He’s a friend, finest kind,” Fae answered casually. “And he answers to Cal.”
“I must say, this place is far bigger than I thought it would be,” Ellie admitted, once their introductions had been made.
“There were a lot of renovations and additions a few years back,” Cal explained. “I wouldn’t ordinarily know, but my father’s company was involved in the funding.”
“Oh yes, I do remember reading about that.” Ellie searched her memory. “Svencorp, wasn’t it, the company? What does your father do there?”
“Uh, my dad pretty much owns the company,” Cal admitted. “So, yeah, if you ever want a sugar daddy I could probably find you someone who still has all their natural hair.”
“It must very difficult,” Ellie said, after laughing at his last comment. “Moving in those circles and having those expectations put on you.”
Cal shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve ever known any different. It’s not so bad really. I’m the grey sheep of the family; finance bores me witless, but I’ve got an older brother in the company, so nobody minds that I won’t be stepping up to the plate.”
They began to walk a little faster, to keep up with Fae and Ricky who were deep in conversation.
“When are we going to dance then?” Ricky asked.
“You did remember.” Fae smiled. “I thought you might. But I have to be honest; I hadn’t really thought that one through. So I don’t quite know yet, but we will, somewhere. I mean, this is New York, if you can’t make it here it won’t happen anywhere.”
“I dance at home,” Ricky said. “In my room, or sometimes we put music on when Aunt Ellie cooks so we dance in the kitchen.”
“Yeah, I dance in my kitchen too. But my house is all the way in Massachusetts, because I go to college there.”
“I wanna see your house.”
“Maybe next trip; but we’ve got an even bigger, better treat for this one.”
“You look nervous,” Magenta noted. “At least, I think you do. Can’t honestly remember the last time you were, but it seems a logical conclusion.”
“They should be here by now.” Ochre checked his watch again.
“If you say so ... Maybe there was a delay, or they got a little lost, or something. Any number of things, perfectly innocent things, could have happened; seriously you have got to stop thinking the worst all the time.”
They weren’t the only ones standing under the clock. This should have been taken as a given; it being such an obvious place to meet, built up through movie legend. So it was quite amusing watching people arrive and look so surprised to find a crowd had formed.
“Do they know they’re supposed to meet us here?”
Ochre didn’t voice his darkest thought, that they wouldn’t be there to meet them at all. That Ellie, who had never been adventurous or much of a traveller, would have chickened out of making the long journey. Or that she was prepared to, just not if he was there. That fundamentally she didn’t trust him, see him as worthy, that they would never be able to work through this.
He felt Magenta rest a comforting hand on his shoulder, and Ochre turned to face him. There was no need for words, Pat’s expression was clear, telling him that everything was going to be all right.
So he gave a half smile; and tried to trust that whatever will be, will be.
It seemed an impossibly agonising wait, as the last of his coffee cooled in the paper cup. But it could only have been another five minutes before the rush died down and the crowds disappeared quickly as they had manifested. Even the other people waiting under the clock had found whoever they were waiting for, or decided it wasn’t worth standing around any longer and gone. Their places soon taken by others.
He wasn’t going to give up. Not now they had come this far.
A clot of Japanese tourists, cameras at the ready and chattering excitably, were shepherded toward a landmark of some sort which was out of his line of view. Then he saw them.
A part of Ricky had almost not believed it would be true. Making the leap from being so sure he had no father at all, to knowing with equal conviction he did, and that his daddy would be waiting for him - it seemed too surreal.
Yet the crowds parted, and there he was. Right where he said he’d be. With a wide smile, crouching and holding his arms out in welcome.
“Daddy.” Ricky beamed, took off towards him; knowing that for once no one would hold him back.
The sudden stop, as Ricky threw his arms around his neck, almost bowled him over; but Ochre managed to stay on his feet.
“It’s good to see you too,” he said, hugging him back.
“I had to go pee,” Ricky said. “That’s why we’re late.”
‘Way to kill the Hallmark moment, kid,’ Ochre thought with a smile.
He stood up, still holding Ricky as neither was prepared to let go.
“Glad you could make it,” he addressed Ellie. “You look well.”
“I feel well.” She smiled. “Properly well, for the first time in a long time. So we wouldn’t have missed this. It was all Ricky wanted for his birthday, to see you.”
“And a new bike,” Ricky added. “I got that too, so this has been my best birthday ever that I can remember.”
Ochre kissed his forehead, feeling so privileged to be a part of this unrivalled happiness. Life should be that simple and joyful.
“Oh, well if all I needed to do was show up then you should have said.” He grinned. “Then we wouldn’t have bothered hunting around finding you presents.”
“I’ll still have those,” Ricky quickly added, “it would be rude to say no. And I do like presents.”
“Yeah, I know. Pat got you a present too, that one you need first.”
Magenta pulled the envelope from his pocket, and handed it to Ricky.
“We’re all going to go up the Statue of Liberty,” he explained, “Right to the very top. How about that?”
“You’ve never taken me,” Fae said, making a show of being indignant. “Seriously, I’ve lived here my whole life and never done the most iconic landmark of the city. It’s embarrassing to admit to having such a deprived childhood.”
“I’m making up for it now,” Magenta said casually, slipping an arm around her.
“Do you remember when we went?” Ellie asked Ochre. “We didn’t realise you had to book so we only got up to the first platform, and it was so foggy anyway there was no point.”
“Yes, I do remember it.” Ochre shrugged. “Good thing we didn’t waste our money then.”
“I don’t remember,” Ricky stated.
“You wouldn’t, it was before you were born,” Ellie explained, then thought it best to change the subject. “So, I wonder what your other present could be.”
“I don’t know either,” Ochre admitted. “It’s so hard to know what would be best. So I figured we’d go along to FAO Schwartz and let Ricky pick something out himself.”
Ricky looked up at him, wide-eyed.
“Seriously,” he clarified. “Anything in the whole store?”
“Within reason anyway. After all, you’ll have to get it home at the end of the day.”
He could live with that; it didn’t really matter much anyway. It was the dream of almost every child in the country to have a chance to visit the toy emporium, let alone free rein to shop there.
“Come on people,” Cal called to them. “Our magical mystery tour awaits.”
So as a procession they left the station and followed him out into the sunshine and unseasonably warm weather for late February; rounding a corner and finding a huge metallic silver SUV in the only occupied executive parking space. Cal took a key fob from his pocket and clicked the button to automatically unlock the doors.
“That’s our ride?” Fae said. “You honestly expect me to be seen dead in that gas-guzzling monstrosity?”
“Sorry to offend your delicate hippy sensibilities.” Cal shrugged. “But it was the only vehicle the company could loan out that had enough seats. You could always walk, all the same to me.”
“I’ll cope for one day,” Fae said grudgingly, climbing into the back of the vehicle then helping Ricky up.
“You’re going to drive that, through the city, by yourself?” Ellie queried gently.
“No,” Cal admitted. “I would in Boston. But I’m not that familiar with the streets. And you need a damn strong constitution to drive in this city even then. So Pat has graciously offered.”
“You’ll be fine,” Magenta reassured her. “The population of the world puts their lives in Spectrum’s hands all the time. So, hey, approximately six billion people can’t be wrong.”
“Much as it galls me to admit, he is actually a good driver,” Ochre concurred, “Possibly even better than me, at times.”
“All right then, I’m prepared to live a little dangerously.” Ellie laughed, leaning in to fasten Ricky into the booster seat.
“Daddy, you sit next to me,” Ricky insisted. “And Fae is going to sit the other side.”
“What can I say, the boy likes older women,” Ochre told Cal. “So it looks like you’ve got some competition.”
Cal just laughed, then climbed into the passenger seat.
“You can open my present now,” Fae said, offering Ricky the squashy wrapped package.
He tore into the paper, to reveal an appliquéd t-shirt.
“It’s a monkey.” Ricky grinned. “I like that. Thank you.”
“It is very nice,” Ellie agreed, “when we get out you can put it on over the shirt you’re wearing.”
“Daddy, what did Fae get you for your birthday?” Ricky asked.
“Magazines,” Ochre answered, “Like I always get.”
His gift from Fae hadn’t been a surprise at all, a renewed subscription to his model-making magazine of choice. And a set of ‘days of the week’ socks. Apparently now he was the wrong side of thirty they would come in handy when the senile memory loss struck. Magenta admitted he’d received a set for his last birthday too, and between them they decided to continue the tradition for Blue and Scarlet.
In previous years it had been Magenta who had purchased the subscription without fail. So Ochre had innocently queried it, then soon realised Pat had something to give he sure hadn’t been expecting, but it had been equally perfect.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” Magenta began, affecting a suitable ‘tour guide’ voice for the occasion. “And we welcome you to our inaugural Spectrum city tour. If you look to your right, as we leave the parking lot, you will see the entrance to Grand Central station …”
With their journey underway, Ochre sat back in his seat, savouring the company and anticipation of their adventure. Attempting to commit every detail to memory; the sights, sounds, and especially the way his son’s hand felt as it slipped inside his. He knew for sure that he would remember this day for the rest of his life.
It wouldn’t be the whole story, because life was never so benevolent, but for the moment, for many moments to come it would be true …
They all lived happily ever after.
Author’s notes, credits, acknowledgements
I never intended to write this story. Its prequel, ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ was supposed to end tidily at some suitable point with a scene along the line of this story’s ending; but several thousand words later it became clear the characters weren’t going to stop talking, and others had decided to join the fun. So, with the Christmas challenge deadline looming, it was necessary to split the story to preserve the sanity of all concerned.
No doubt the characters will have more adventures, but this saga has finally been laid to rest.
Captain Starlight is taken from ‘More Important Than Substance’ – by Marion Woods.
The idea for Ochre’s prank was partly inspired by ‘Eavesdropping’ – by Caroline Smith.
The details of Magenta’s past are from Sue Stanhope’s stories.
Alison ‘Alie’, Eleanor and Ricky Topping first appeared in ‘Tears of a Clown’, all of which are Marion’s creations, as is Lieutenant Flaxen.
Amanda Wainwright is courtesy of Chris Bishop.
Lieutenant Copper (Grainne O’Brien) is from ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Caroline Smith
Magenta’s family are mine, back by popular demand of my muses after their debut in ‘Kith & Kin’.
The other characters are courtesy of the original series.
Thank you to …
My beta readers; Chris, Hazel and Marion; anyone who can suffer through my unbetaed fic deserves great kudos.
Also to Chris for all she does for this website and the fandom itself.
My fellow fans, who have been so encouraging.
This one is for my brother, Richard; for many years he was the only other true Anderson fan I knew, and so was subjected to my very earliest fanfiction and theories. Even now we still watch and love the shows together; and hopefully my fanfiction has improved.
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