New Year’s Eve alone in London. This wasn’t intentional, and in fact, Captain Scarlet really should have been on Cloudbase right now, seeing in the New Year with Rhapsody. But a combination of lousy weather, over-running meetings and a faulty fuel-line on the only SPJ in London had conspired to keep him here. Someone was on their way in a helijet and shortly after midnight, he would go up to the helipad on the roof of Spectrum’s London HQ and get a lift home.
It had stopped raining now, and the prospect of getting some fresh air was attractive. Scarlet walked down the path that led to the back of Spectrum London’s grounds, showed his pass to the sentry, waited while the heavy security gate was opened, then stepped out onto the Victoria Embankment. Big Ben chimed the three-quarter-hour as Scarlet strolled towards the Houses of Parliament. Only fifteen minutes left of 2069. Another year gone.
The night was chilly and damp, but refreshing after the over-heated offices he’d been stuck in for most of the day. Scarlet took a deep, appreciative breath, looking around with some pleasure. It was rare that he had much time to himself while on duty. Brightly-coloured movement on the opposite bank of the river caught his eye, and he crossed the road for a better view.
Scarlet leaned on the low wall of the Embankment, gazing across the Thames to the London Eye. Not bad for twentieth-century engineering, he mused. Designed for twenty-five years, still going strong at seventy. And still a major attraction – he could just make out that every capsule was well-occupied.
11:55. Almost midnight. Time to remember absent friends, present friends, family… He fumbled in his pocket, and brought out the antique silver hip flask that had been a thirtieth birthday present from his father. It was full of his favourite Scotch, a great warmer-upper, and as the damp cold seeped into even Captain Scarlet’s resilient body, he unscrewed the cap and took a swig.
A group of rowdy revellers staggered past, their shrieks of laughter a raucous addition to the never-ending background racket that was Central London even at midnight. Scarlet watched them lurch precariously down the steps towards the river, obviously heading for the floating pub moored a little way downstream. Someone else, spurred on by the sozzled encouragements of a young girl, swung from the scythes on Boadicea’s chariot. The Queen of the Iceni took no notice of such lèse majesté. Scarlet grinned to himself. Once upon a time, that might’ve been him. He glanced at Big Ben again – 11.56. Not long to go now.
There was a sudden sensation of – silence, as if the world had been dropped into a pile of cotton wool. The traffic, the drunken youths, faded into a faint, muffled murmur. The only clear sounds were the soft lapping of the water against the river wall, and the tick of Big Ben.
Not a very nice night, is it?
Scarlet looked at the figure beside him. Nothing unusual, not for London on a party night, anyway. About seven feet tall, dressed in a floor-length hooded robe, and with a physique for which the word ‘bony’ might have been coined, the newcomer leaned against the wall of the Embankment, gazing out over the Thames.
“It’s only just stopped raining.”
So I noticed.
There was a companionable silence. Water dripped from the branches of one of the London Plane trees that lined the pavement, and made ripples in a puddle.
The damp gets right into your bones, doesn’t it?
Scarlet nodded. “That can’t be very pleasant for you,” he remarked.
No, indeed it isn’t.
Scarlet dug the hipflask out of his pocket again, and held it out. “Would you like a drink?” he asked. “Very good for keeping the chill out.”
His companion took the proffered flask in a skeletal hand, and sipped. Scarlet wondered, not for the first time, how what was, let’s face it, an animated skeleton could possibly drink anything without it spilling out all over the place. But as always, the whisky remained safely swallowed.
Death nodded graciously. Thank you, he said, passing the flask back.
Death and the captain watched the little funfair on the other side of the river for a while. The London Eye glittered in a spectacular lightshow, and any minute now, the traditional River of Fire fireworks display would start. Scarlet was rather looking forward to that. He’d only ever seen it on television before. He looked over at Big Ben again: 11:57. Time had a strange tendency to stretch and warp in Death’s company.
“So – are you working this evening?”
I am always working. Busy, busy.
“I suppose so, yes. Have you, er…” Scarlet hardly knew how to phrase the question. “Have you… come for me?”
Death turned to face him. Blue points of light shone in the depths of his cowl. He brought something out of his robe: a large hourglass, in which sand was currently pouring upwards from the bottom bulb into the top one. Scarlet peered at it; he could just make out his name inscribed on the glass. Death examined the lifetimer for a moment, then sighed and put it away again. It’s gone into reverse again, he said. It does that a lot. Even I have no idea how long you’ve got left.
Scarlet nodded, simultaneously relieved and concerned by that glimpse of his apparent immortality. “So, what are you here for? Not that it’s not nice to see you. Always good to run into friends unexpectedly.”
Death picked up his scythe from where he’d leaned it against the wall, and pointed with it. That, he said.
Scarlet looked in the direction indicated by the scythe. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You’ve come for Big Ben?”
Not precisely, no. You’re welcome to watch, if you want to.
It was 11:58. Death strolled, with no apparent urgency, towards the tall Clock Tower beside Westminster Bridge. Scarlet followed. Not many people got the chance to see Death at work – at least, not twice – and he was curious to see exactly what was going to happen. Perhaps buildings did acquire souls after a while, if enough people cared about them. They wove their way through the crowds and the traffic, the tick of the enormous clock now very loud.
From inside the Clock Tower came the sound of the mechanism that operated the famous chimes; the hammers struck the bells in their ages-old sequence…
00:00. Big Ben struck the first chime of midnight, and Death swung his scythe. He put out a bony hand, and plucked the essence of 2069 out of the air, tucking it away in the depths of his robe.
Death snapped his fingers. A moment later, a magnificent white horse trotted up. Scarlet found a stray peppermint in his breast pocket, and patted the horse’s nose affectionately. “Here you go, Binky,” he said, as the horse nuzzled his hand, snuffling warm, horsy breath over him and graciously accepting the mint.
Death mounted. I expect I’ll be seeing you again soon, he said. Thank you for the whisky.
“You’re welcome,” Scarlet replied, waving as the horse trotted over the top of a taxi, and disappeared behind the ornate Clock Tower. “Drop in for a curry next time you’re passing Cloudbase!”
Scarlet turned and started to walk back towards Spectrum London. An enormous detonation of brilliantly coloured light heralded the start of the fireworks; within seconds, gunpowder-scented smoke was drifting across the water from the numerous pyrotechnic stands outside County Hall. Handel’s Fireworks music blared out, and the celebrating crowds cheered in the New Year.
Scarlet’s destination was marked by a different kind of bright flashing light – the blue beacons of emergency vehicles. He smiled as he saw a couple of people from Spectrum London talking urgently to paramedics from the London Ambulance Service; perhaps I should give them a hand? he thought. But that wasn’t going to be possible for a while. He stood to one side for a moment, looking around, but the opportunistic sniper who’d gunned him down a few minutes ago was nowhere to be seen.
Scarlet perched on the side of the stretcher on which his dead body lay. He took another swig from his hipflask, and tilted it in salute towards the lighter patch of cloud that half-hid the moon, against which the silhouette of a cantering horse was clearly visible.
Happy New Year…
Characters and concepts from Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons and Discworld™ are used without permission, and without profit.
Death & Binky: this particularly version of Death is the creation of Terry Pratchett, and is used without permission, as is his Pale Horse, Binky. He talks like this, likes cats, and is partial to the occasional curry.
Spectrum London: a few years ago, while I was showing a visitor around London, we went for a flight on the London Eye. There’s a fantastic view from the top, and one of the buildings in plain view was the Ministry of Defence, which stands on Whitehall, but backs on to the Victoria Embankment almost directly opposite the Eye. It occurred to us that this would be a pretty good location for Spectrum London.
Big Ben: strictly speaking, this is the nickname for the Great Bell which chimes the hours. It hangs at the top of the Clock Tower, along with the quarter-bells that strike the famous Westminster Chime at each quarter-hour. But everyone, including the guides to the Clock Tower, calls the whole thing, bell, clock and tower, Big Ben .
Boadicea: more correctly called Boudica or Boudicca, she was Queen of the Iceni, a British tribe at the time of the Roman Occupation. In legend, she famously drove a chariot with blades sticking out of the wheel hubs, and there is a statue to her on the junction of Westminster Bridge and Victoria Embankment, opposite Big Ben.
Grateful thanks go to Marion Woods for beta-reading services, to Chris Bishop for the Spectrum Headquarters site and fan-fiction library, and last, but never, ever least, to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson for creating the world that has held my devoted interest for 40 years.