A Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons story
by Lady Hawke
Copyrights March 31, 2003, Revised 2/8/12
As part of my Captain Scarlet Spectrum Challenge, I felt it only fair to contribute a story of my own, using one of Ron Embleton's beautiful and daring paintings. Watch out, Captain! You just might die from avarice! Enjoy! I would love to hear from my readers! Please contact me at email@example.com
From the Depths of Despair
Scarlet had dreamed of conflict and chaos before. Many times his midnight wanderings were twisted recreations of his daily hazards. None had ever foretold the future, however. And yet when the captain awoke from this night's discord, he bolted upright within his confining sheets. His feet were bound in the contorted bedding, much like he'd been confined in his nightmare. Despite a vigorous head shake, the captain still held the distinct uneasiness that the watery darkness which had surrounded him would soon come to pass. Even now, in his panting state between the dream and the realization that it'd only been a wild bout of his unconscious mind, Captain Scarlet saw the black shapes coursing about him. He hadn't been able to breathe. He'd been cold, drifting into blackness amid a crushing pressure against his ears and heart. Death.
"Damn," he gasped. Why couldn't he have had a pleasant dream? Why not a secret rendezvous with an angel or even a playful puppy? Why chaos? "Maybe I need a vacation," he groaned into his hands. Wiping the drowning images from his eyes, Captain Scarlet rose from his bunk and dressed for duty. Though he wasn't due for another two hours, perhaps he could get an early start with some research. Then he might forget the chilling sense of his impending death, the prickling feeling of being enveloped in a flooded coffin, surrounded by demons.
"Pancakes," he vowed. "I need some pancakes with maple syrup." Captain Scarlet strode from his cabin to Cloudbase's mess hall. That'd fix it. Sweetness to sour the dread. Drown out the despair.
A Call to Duty
The emergency request for assistance came through to Cloudbase, some hours later, directly from Spectrum's West African satellite office in Bouake', Cote d'Ivoire. It seemed rebel forces were again raising their ugly heads in that nation's volatile de facto capital of Abidjan. French diplomats there had been forced to evacuate their embassy after rebel soldiers bombed the car park with threats to demolish the building next. Ongoing peace in the former French run colony was tentative, at best, and World President Younger wanted to avoid military action out of deference to France's sovereignty and allegiance to its once prosperous colony.
With a scowl, Colonel White listened to the report and nodded his commitment. "I understand, Ambassador Souvaignon. The world president has already recommended that a small contingency of Spectrum officers would indeed be preferable to a mass military presence. How can we help?"
Through the view screen against Command's back wall, Cote d'Ivoire's main diplomatic liaison continued his plea. "We need to buy my negotiators more time, Colonel. Spectrum can create a smoke screen, a ... a distraction while we maneuver our security forces into key positions. We must protect our nationals, our French citizens abroad and of course the government's loyalist factions. The rebels would rule with impunity if we allowed their coup to come to power."
White's scowl hardened into determination. "A distraction, Ambassador? While the world president advised not to interfere with internal politics, Ivory Coast's president certainly doesn't deserve such economic and civil unrest. Peace talks and compromise seem the best course of action. Spectrum would only need to act as a stabilizing force, as peacekeepers. We would not get involved if fighting were to suddenly break out."
This seemed to fall heavily upon Souvaignon's ears. "You would not act to protect President Velegill? Your troops would not support the sovereign government of Cote d'Ivoire?"
White smiled slightly. "Of course we would, Ambassador. I'm simply saying; Spectrum personnel would not actively join your military forces against the rebels. We would, however, be willing to supplement your security detail around the president and his staff until they could be moved out of harm's way. Where is President Velegill stationed at this moment?"
Souvaignon seemed to be searching his surroundings for attentive ears before admitting, "He's safely occupying his palace in a southern department of Cote d'Ivoire. He's in no immediate danger. But we have not been able to infiltrate the rebels' ranks, and so are unsure of their knowledge on this matter."
"Ambassador. I assure you; this channel is secure. So, if you could forward, in data stream, all pertinent records of this conflict, we will detail a plan to remove your president to a Spectrum safe house if need be. All relevant information will remain confidential, but we do need it in order to strategically gauge our involvement."
"I understand, Colonel. Thank you for your assistance. I await your reply and your officers' arrival." The transmission cut off and Colonel White stared a moment at the blank screen.
"Lieutenant, notify the senior staff, we will convene an exploratory meeting in fifteen minutes. I want Captain Ochre to head up this mission. He's our authority on world security."
"Yes, Sir," the Trinidadian chimed, spinning in his seat to follow his superior's orders. Behind him Spectrum's Commander-in-Chief scowled deeper. This was going to be a complicated matter. When tottering governments were at stake, diplomacy was a very delicate craft. The colonel thought it best to also postpone Captain Blue's upcoming vacation a few days. Ochre would need his compatriot's security experience with the WAS and the man's steadfast temperament.
Captain Scarlet tried to console his partner as they headed for the conference room. "Calm down," he said to Blue. "I'm sure your furlough to Hawaii with Symphony is safe. The colonel just wants us to make a presence in Cote d'Ivoire. I can do that without your imposing bulk."
"You?" The American captain balked. "Your gift for diplomacy's no better than a white shark's at feeding time."
Though Scarlet tried to make light of his friend's sarcasm, the British officer had to admit: his own skills with peace talks were usually at one end of a pistol. He was, from head to toe, a military man, schooled in strategy and combat, not in ass-kissing and compromise. It was, instead, his taller partner who had the even temperament for negotiations and level-headed theatrics. "Come on," Scarlet urged with a pat to his partner's shoulder. "We'll be late to the meeting."
Arriving to the conference room just ahead of Ochre, the two friends nonetheless waved their companion in ahead. "Into the dragon's den," Blue offered with a knowing brow.
Captain Ochre only nodded and walked in first, choosing a seat closest to Green's auxiliary comm. station. As the rest of the attending senior staff members settled into their chairs, Colonel White cleared his throat and began his summary. "It would seem, Gentlemen and Angels," he finished some minutes later, "that a security force of Spectrum staff and officers would be a prudent move, to protect the sovereignty of Ivory Coast's electoral government."
Captain Ochre half-raised his hand with a question. "Sir, do you believe the rebels will try to take power? Are their forces influential enough to succeed in a coup?"
Instead of answering the inquiry directly, the colonel deferred to his computer specialist with a raised brow. Lieutenant Green swallowed and spoke up. "The data show the rebel leader, a man named Reginold Harconis, has gathered a guerilla team of some three thousand militia fighters and mercenaries. Sources say he has a substantial funding base and access to advanced weaponry including anti-aircraft missiles, several armored tanks, and even a strategic rocket launch site. More of his people are believed scattered and underground throughout Ivory Coast. Some may be specialists in their field of warfare. It's hard to tell who's involved. Suicide bombing is not out of Harconis' league or reputation."
"Well," Ochre breathed, deflated. "I guess that answers that."
Now Scarlet spoke up. "Will the Angels be flying backup, Colonel? Surface to air missiles would be a dangerous threat."
"Agreed," White answered. "However, Spectrum must make a show of global solidarity, even as we avoid active involvement with any potential aggressions. Our job is to be a visual deterrent only. And for that we must flaunt our assets, as they say. Angel flight will commence periodic flyovers of all the major cities threatened by this Harconis and his forces. The flight patterns will be varied and irregular, so as not to tip off any trigger-happy commando who might want to use the interceptors for target practice." The colonel's rugged face grew dour. "This is an extremely volatile situation, people. I'll not allow my officers to traipse in on a fool's errand. You are all too precious to me. To Spectrum. I expect you all to be exceptionally cautious. No daring heroics." Briefly, the colonel let that warning sink in before he continued. "Now, if you'll look over your information packets, you'll see where I have decided to station each of you in this crisis." The captains and attendant Angels flipped open their mission briefs and studied the data within.
After another silent moment, Captain Ochre inquired, "Will Captain Magenta be reporting to me directly, Colonel, or to you?"
"Magenta will be your go between in Bouake', Captain. The negotiations have been moved there for obvious reasons. He will regularly update you on the progress with the assembly's peace talks. Representatives from France have jurisdiction over these proceedings, and I don't want their toes trampled. You and Captain Blue will work to reinforce the president's security. You are to look into all avenues of defense and infiltration threats from that position."
"Sir," Captain Blue stammered, frowning at his own briefs. "I did have a vacation planned for this week, beginning tomorrow afternoon."
The colonel's address was sympathetic but firm. "I realize that. Your shore leave will be postponed at least three days until we can stabilize this situation. You'll lose none of your furlough, I assure you, Captain Blue."
Scarlet watched his partner swallow and consider his next words carefully. "Will any of the other scheduled furloughs be postponed, Sir?" Blue asked.
After a pause the colonel addressed the entire team, thus indirectly answering his officer's inquiry. "This is a delicate affair. Spectrum has agreed to assist, but we will not force our policies upon the citizens of any one country. I require your level-headedness on this, and your loyalty to Spectrum's ideals. We are a peacekeeping force only. The Angels have their orders, and you all have yours, Captain," White finished considering the blond American before him. Blue had lost all momentum in his protest. There were no further contentions. Symphony, outside in Angel One, would no doubt get the bad news shortly, Scarlet knew. "Any other questions, Gentlemen? Ladies?"
The British captain raised his hand slightly this time. "Colonel, I realize Captain Grey is on another assignment with the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, but I was wondering why I've not been given a posting in this crisis."
The C-in-C's twisted smirk revealed White's anticipation of the question. "I'm holding you in reserve, Captain Scarlet. If this situation escalates, or if there's a Mysteron threat, in the interim, I'll need part of my senior staff here, on Cloudbase."
"Yes, Sir. Understood," Scarlet said, holding any thought of protest in reservation as well. This was not the time to debate his superior's motives or judgment.
Again the colonel addressed his assembled staff. "We will be updating all of you on any change in the negotiation talks through Captain Magenta. Your various assignments begin immediately. Captain Ochre, you're mission leader. You and Captains Blue and Magenta will be leaving for Ivory Coast in thirty minutes. I suggest you all get packed. Take all precautions, and keep President Velegill safe. Dismissed."
Though Scarlet nodded his assent at their dismissal, he still turned to flash his friend an apologetic glance as a down-trodden but determined Blue tucked the mission briefs beneath his arm and rose from his chair. Scarlet's fellow officers were gone within minutes, off to their respective cabins to prepare, leaving Spectrum's number one field agent stranded within the confines of the organization's main headquarters in the clouds.
A Special Assignment
All was quiet from Ivory Coast for much of the next two days. To Captain Scarlet, it was beginning to look as though three of Spectrum's top agents had indeed been sent on a fool's errand. The British officer had been waiting for another shoe to hit the floor and all hell to break loose. It hadn't. Even so, the suspended truce caused his hackles to rise in anticipation of a violent blowout between Ivory Coast's loyalist troops and the country's rebel faction. So far, however, the combination of Angel interceptor flyovers and Spectrum's security monitoring the local government agencies seemed to have quelled the rebellious static. All remained civil. That was, until Lieutenant Green had finished his thorough background search of Reginold Harconis.
"He's not an Ivory Coast national, Sir," Green informed his superior. Colonel White and Scarlet studied the perplexed Trinidadian from the commander's circular desk.
"Then where was he born, Lieutenant?" White inquired. In his own hands were the various reports submitted by his ground crew. He and Scarlet had been perusing the data, trying to make sense of it all. According to Captain Magenta, he had been allowed to sit in on several negotiating forums, but had notified Cloudbase of the rigid nature of the proceedings. France's Ambassador Souvaignon and his team were unwilling to let any compromise which involved allowing a terrorist group to hold any strategic advantage or political office, to win votes in the National Assembly. It seemed President Velegill's own minister of defense was suggesting appointing Reginold Harconis to a seat in Ivory Coast's democratic assembly. This would permit the military leader a chance to influence policy and compose laws which would favor his political viewpoints. Souvaignon, admittedly, was against this preposterous suggestion. In result, they were back to square one.
In answer to the colonel's query, however, Lieutenant Green shed some light onto the conflict's scope and complexity. "Harconis was born in Kimberley, South Africa. He's a member of a very wealthy and influential family there." The younger man continued reading his findings. "The Harconisaree family owns properties in Egypt, South Africa and Morocco, Colonel. Their business ventures include holdings in several world-renowned natural resource companies, including the Aswan Dam Power Company, the Casablanca Salt Mining Company, and major shares in Consolidated Diamond Mine Enterprise on the Orange River in South Africa."
White's brows furrowed. "No wonder the name seemed somewhat familiar to me," he said. "I've heard of the Harconisaree. Their head patron is a Theodoro Harconisaree, a rather ruthless business man. His stocks have, over the years, tripled in value. His family is one of the wealthiest in the world, let alone the African continent."
Now Scarlet spoke up. "But, Sir. If this Reginold Harconis is family, then what are his motivations in attempting a coup against Ivory Coast? Does the Harconisaree family own any enterprises there?" The two senior officers turned their attentions again to their junior answer man. Green nodded his assignment and addressed his computer readout. Swiftly the communications specialist punched in the query.
Within minutes they had reached another dead end. "I'm sorry, Captain Scarlet," Green apologized. "But I can't find any correlation between Ivory Coast and the Harconisaree family or its projects."
"Maybe this is a new expansion project," the British captain pondered aloud.
"First energy and mining companies, then the world?" White responded with a sarcastic brow. With a sigh and a seat adjustment, the colonel suggested, "Let's pull back on this, shall we? We know Harconis' family, but we don't know the man. Why, for instance, did he shorten his surname and emigrate to Ivory Coast in the first place? What is his present standing in the Harconisaree empire?"
"Yes, Sir!" Green chimed in, eager to continue his digging. "I'll see what I can find." Spinning away to his computer console the lieutenant dove in to the challenge with enthusiasm to rival Magenta's normal zest.
With a decisive nod to his aide the colonel next considered the captain seated before his desk. "And I think it's time we meet this Reginold Harconis, ourselves." White swallowed his reservations and offered, "Captain Scarlet, I'm assigning you to find this rebel leader and initiate a formal inquiry into his activities. As such, you'll be acting as a world security official. He'll be under your protection. You are to ask questions, get answers, but not interfere in the man's movements. Is that clear? I want inside data, not a spark for war."
"Sir," Scarlet stammered. "Do you think I'm the right person for the job? My background in peace negotiations and security inquiries is not as extensive as Captain Ochre's. That's why I agreed to his assignment on this."
"Why, thank you for your vote of confidence, Scarlet," White replied dryly. "But this is a vital and dangerous mission to which I'm sending you. If nothing else, I know your determination will get me those answers, and your survival instincts will guarantee your return to Cloudbase with that information." Colonel White paused. Then he cleared his throat as if expelling any remaining hesitancy before continuing. "I don't look lightly upon your assignment, Captain. I'm in fact deviating from the World President's orders by sending you in alone. He requested that we act as show horses, only."
"Beefeaters, Sir?" Scarlet added with a crooked smile. Then more seriously he added, "President Younger really doesn't want Spectrum involved at all, does he?"
"Between us? No," White confided. "France is a proud and independent nation. It has always done what is best for the world and for France. By overstepping President Younger's recommendations, I'm putting Spectrum and myself in an awkward position. But Younger has great faith in this security organization, and in your abilities to ferret out the truth, Captain Scarlet. I make this decision with the utmost concern," White admitted quietly. "I believe there is great potential for loss of life here. With Harconis' power, he may come to rival the Mysterons in what tragedy he can bring to Ivory Coast."
"Yes, Sir," Scarlet answered rising from his stool. "I'll leave right away."
"Scarlet," the colonel said, stalling the officer's retreat. "I'm sending you in because I believe a man like Harconis, with such lofty ambitions as to control a nation, will have respect for a fellow military mind. Therefore he may allow you close contact not only with his people, but perhaps even with his plans. If you can gain his trust, we may be able to dethrone his intended coup. Are you up to such a responsibility?"
Scarlet felt it safe to hesitate before nodding. It gave the colonel a sense that his fellow Briton was indeed considering all avenues. In fact, Captain Scarlet was eager to infiltrate the ranks of a potential human despot. The Mysterons had for too long led Spectrum on a merry and non-corporeal chase. To confront a human foe was not only refreshing, it promised real progress in Spectrum's goal to make the world a better and safer place to live. "I'll do my best, Sir. As always."
"Be careful, son. And good luck." With that Colonel White rose from his chair and saluted his junior officer. It was a noble gesture, one which Scarlet had seldom witnessed. Suddenly the image of a basket full of eggs tripped across the Brit's consciousness. The colonel was indeed taking a risk, not only for Spectrum, but for his own career. The future of Spectrum, along with the outcome of this mission, could very well rest upon Captain Scarlet's shoulders.
He crisply returned the salute. "Thank you, Colonel." With a stiff spin of his red boots, Scarlet marched from the command center. He needed a few supplies and a duffle of personal items before he would be ready to depart for Africa's west coast. His waiting passenger jet was already prepped for take-off when Captain Scarlet slid into the pilot's seat and strapped in. Minutes later he was airborne.
Chaos at the Gates
Captain Blue stood beside his field partner and frowned at the sight before them. President Velegill's southern palace was both expansive and difficult to defend. The low walls and lush gardens left an army of security forever stomping the perimeter in search of intruders. From the third story suite they shared, Blue scanned the courtyard below from the balcony and scowled. "We can't stay here, you know," he said to Ochre. "This place is a security force's nightmare to patrol. The president is vulnerable on all four sides."
With a sigh Ochre had to agree. "Unfortunately, Velegill isn't ready to abandon his prized winter home." Overlooking the courtyard from their balcony the dark-haired captain swung an arm out at the not so distant shoreline of Grand Bassam and the gleaming Gulf of Guinea. "I really don't blame him. This place has everything you'd want for an exotic sanctuary."
Blue harrumphed in disgust. "Everything but a decent fortification wall." He pointed past his binoculars to the elaborate gate at the main entrance. "A single bullet to the electronic lock, and an army of tanks could roll in here. The place could be overrun in an hour." He raised the binoculars again to his eyes and scanned the gardens below. He could see three Spectrum security sentries marching about the six foot adobe-styled perimeter wall. "If it weren't for the silent alarm system, anyone off the street could vault over and do his wishes. Steal a rose, moon the palace, shoot a guard. Anything."
"Ah," Ochre reminded, "but what a silent alarm. That thing's so sensitive; it'd know the difference between a dung beetle and a honey bee."
With a dour frown, Blue countered, "It's not the bugs I'm worried about, Rick. By the time the alarm was heeded, a battalion of rebels could be over the enclosure and through the trees." Blue lowered his scope again and shook his head. "We've got to decide on a course of action. Our MSV is waiting on the far side of the palace's carriage house. We can get him inside and off to the races in twenty minutes. Maybe we need to scare him a bit more."
Ochre smiled. "Velegill doesn't scare easily. He's spent the better part of his life in conflict. This civic unrest dates back over a hundred years when the French pulled out of Ivory Coast. There was quite a bloody insurgence just at the turn of the century too, remember?"
Blue negated. "I'm not up on every little historical infraction, I'm afraid. Have enough of that with the family."
His partner didn't laugh at his sarcasm. Instead, Ochre continued with his history lesson. "In 2003, President Laurent Gbagbo was desperate to have peace after several months of unrest, and even offered arrangements for rebels to take up influential positions in the government. Everything backfired, and loyalists overthrew his post, appointing a staunch military leader to overcome the rebel insurgence. The war lasted over a year and strife between the factions still flairs up now and again. The legacy of colonialism, I suppose. Too long under another's wing; and Ivorians still can't come to a consensus on ruling themselves."
"So, remind me again why we're sticking our noses into this civil uprising?"
Ochre laid a hand atop his taller friend's shoulder. "Because it's our job. That's why. Neither of us has to like what's happened to a country to protect the one stable government this place has known in over 60 years."
"Funny how things really never change," Blue observed. "It's just the methods of war and the number of casualties which improve."
"Sad but true, brother. Sad but true." The two Spectrum officers grew silent for a few moments, then Ochre's epaulettes blinked white. "Yes, Colonel?" he inquired as his cap microphone swung down to his lips. He listened for a few moments then answered, "SIG. We'll get President Velegill to the safe house immediately."
"What's up?" Blue asked.
"Just got an update from the peace talks. The loyalists are staging an uprising in Bouake'. They'll soon be gathering in Abidjan too. The president isn't safe from his own people now."
"Why? What's happened?"
Ochre shrugged. "Not completely sure. Magenta didn't get to sit in on the last few negotiation sessions, but it seems Harconis has been appointed as head of Homeland Security. Minister Faye'laront's given the man an office."
"In Ivorian government?" Blue sputtered. "Power corrupts. What's next, the presidency?"
"You said it yourself. Nothing ever changes. It's 2003 all over again. The citizens are storming the palaces all over the country, burning flags and shouting oppression. The tensions just stepped up a couple levels, and Velegill's to be evacuated, pronto."
With his binoculars dropping to his chest, Captain Blue nodded. "Let's get to it, then." The pair marched from their suite to the president's lounge, on the second floor. It was there the Spectrum sentries had been posted to keep an eye on the dogged leader. But as the two captains swung open the doors to the spacious abode, they quickly saw that Velegill and his spouse were absent. Blue spun on his team. "Where did they go?" he demanded of the pair attending to the door.
One shrugged. The other offered a perplexed, "Sorry, Sir. They were here. They couldn't have left without us seeing them."
"Unless they had another way out, Ensign," Blue stammered.
Ochre placed a calming hand upon his partner's arm. He forwarded another query. "Did the president voice any desires to leave the palace? Walk the gardens, shop in the village. Anything?"
The younger of the two guards smiled nervously. "Madam Velegill mentioned that it was a beautiful day for a ride along the beach."
"Ride?" Ochre spat. Then he realized what mode of transport. Blue must have thought it, too, for they both shouted, "Horses," together.
In a concerted pivot, both captains were out the door and vaulting for their saloon, Ochre barking new orders to his security chief as he went. Blue slid behind the steering column and turned over the car's engine in one swift movement. "Ready," he quipped and shoved the transmission into drive. Ochre, sitting beside him, was still directing his troops through his cap mike. They were to surround the palace in a lockdown, and inquire of every staff member, the known whereabouts of President Velegill and his wife. Meanwhile, the pair of officers was to scour the local beach for any sign of mounted riders. From there, the Ivory Coast leader would be taken directly to Spectrum's nearest safe house, amid the coastal paradise of Liberia's capital city of Monrovia. The president would have to leave his country behind, but he would also avoid the gangs of malcontents and rebels, both wanting to interfere in his health and well-being.
Grand Bassam's beaches were wide and populated by sun-worshipers of all faiths and skin tones. Despite the internal friction, there were many who still openly enjoyed the country's offerings. It made finding their targets more complex. Captain Blue burst through the boardwalk railings and rammed the Spectrum saloon into a sand dune. With a spin of the wheel, he circumvented the obstacle and roared along the beach, swerving to avoid the litter of human sunbathers and their festive umbrellas. "See anything yet?" Blue asked as he dove the vehicle around an open cabana selling tropical drinks.
"Are you kidding?" Ochre gasped. "I'm helping you avoid the people. Look! There! Three horses. Lower on the beach. Close to the water."
Swerving around a family of vacationers sitting down to sandy sandwiches and juice, Captain Blue apologized for the swirling sand blasting from beneath his spinning tires. "I see them," he stammered and drove the saloon toward the equine trio. "It's them. Thank the stars." He slowed the vehicle to avoid spooking the beasts and considered the riders with a critical glare. Captain Ochre rolled down his window to speak.
"President Velegill. Would you mind slowing your mount for a moment? I'd like to have a word with you."
Velegill eyed the intrusive vehicle, and for a moment looked as though he might kick his horse into an escaping gallop. But, considering the multi-horse-powered car beside him, gave up the notion almost instantly. "We were just out here for a bit of sun, Captain," Velegill admonished reining in his horse and dismounting beside the saloon. The older man was tall and slender, with tight dark curls brushed with the silver of authority. Ebony eyes bent to glare at the two Spectrum occupants. "It is not against the law to have horses on the beach. It is, however, a crime to bring a vehicle here." The dark-skinned politician smiled with a twinge of hierarchical mischief. "I could have you arrested by the CIDP."
"Not funny, Mr. President," Ochre countered. "You may not know this yet, but your people are uprising. You're in grave danger."
Now the leader's dark eyes narrowed in all seriousness. He dropped his mount's reins and gripped the saloon window rim. "What has happened, Captain Ochre? Something has gone wrong with the peace talks?"
"Get in, Sir," Ochre offered in answer. "We'll fill you in en route to your palace."
With a stoic nod, President Velegill stood and spoke instructions, in French, to the accompanying saddle hand. Mrs. Velegill was safely dismounted, and the two VIPs slipped quietly into the saloon's back seats. Once safely inside, Ochre again slid into the forward passenger seat and turned to confront their guests. "We've been ordered to take you to one of Spectrum's safe houses, Mr. President. Your minister of defense, Faye'laront, has appointed Harconis to the Home Security Office. Your people are in a bit of a tiff over it, and your Bouake' palace is already a pile of rubble."
Mrs. Velegill gasped at that. "Oh, no," she groaned. "The ranch, Bernardo. The animals. The family china."
"Yes," Ochre agreed dryly. "And possibly you, had you been there." Ochre's hazel eyes swung again to the Ivory Coast's leader. "It's not safe at Grand Bassam either. We're taking you to Liberia. We'll stop at your palace only for a few things, then we'll switch vehicles. From now on, you must stay in the company of a Spectrum officer. Is that clear? It's our job and duty to protect you."
"I accept and am grateful for any help Spectrum can offer, Captain," Velegill responded, his earlier independence soured by the tragic news. He slumped back into his seat and lowered his dark eyes to digest the information. "My country," he mumbled. "It is falling apart around me, and you want me to run like a cowardly jackal? I do not like to be seen as a coward." Velegill raised his eyes to the Spectrum captains in front of him. "I was a soldier once. I fought in the rebellion of 2034. I stood for the free republic, back then. A government for the people of Ivory Coast. We were against military rule and fear. We wanted only peace with our Ivorian brothers, no matter what the color of their skin or heritage."
Ochre nodded his head from the front seat. "And you can still represent the people. But only if you're alive. You must trust your assembly to smooth out the edges of this conflict. Then you can return and rule again as a president for peace."
"How long?" Velegill asked.
Ochre didn't immediately answer. They were nearing the western palace. As Blue steered the saloon through the front gate and into the lush courtyard a small troop of palace guards surrounded them with rifles at the ready. Ochre again lowered the window to address the assemblage. "We have President Velegill in our custody. He'll be evacuating the palace. His safety is now under the protection of Spectrum." The leader of the troop nodded and waved his men off so that the saloon could be emptied. In moments the foursome was striding through the building's corridors toward the master suite. "Take only clothes and essentials, Mr. President," Ochre suggested. "Spectrum will take care of the rest."
The Ivory Coast leader and his wife tossed their needed belongings into two bags, draped coats for the desert cool evenings over their arms and rejoined the Spectrum pair in the corridor. "We are ready, Captains," Velegill said with a dour frown.
Nodding his consent, Ochre drew his sidearm to cover their exit. Blue offered, "I'll bring the MSV around." He trotted off to retrieve the maximum security vehicle, parked by the carriage house where the president stored his collection of vintage cars. With a Spectrum driver in tow, Captain Blue had the MSV brought around to the home's side door. There they stood waiting for Ochre and his charges to meet them. They didn't. "Something's wrong. I can feel it." Blue turned to his driver. "Stay here, Tomlinson. Keep the engine warm. I'm going back inside." He didn't wait for the younger man's warnings before leaping from the open hatch and vaulting back inside the white-washed residence. Gun at the ready, the American captain retraced his steps to the president's suite. There, he found only signs of a struggle and two bloody spots on the mauve rug. "Damn it. I knew it." Blue rushed off to cover the other exits. He drew his cap mike before his lips as he pedaled down the main staircase to the mansion's entry hall. "Captain Ochre? Do you read?" He wasn't even greeted with a static reply. His partner simply wasn't there. Then he heard his first gun volley from beyond the garden wall. Blue called Cloudbase. "Colonel," he blurted. "We have a foothold situation at Velegill's Grand Bassam palace. Shots fired. Ochre isn't answering his comm."
Colonel White's response was grave and immediate. "I have the Angel flight just ten minutes away. They'll fly over and ascertain the situation from the air."
"SIG. Gunfire from beyond the wall fortifications. But they may already be inside the palace gate."
"Any sign of the president?"
"There seems to have been a struggle in the suite, Sir. Chair upturned, wrinkled bedspread, and two small blood spots on the floor. Someone's injured, though not critically."
"I've sent Captain Scarlet to detain Harconis. His last reported location was somewhere outside Abidjan," White informed. "No further news yet. How many officers do you have there?"
By now Blue was already trotting through the trees of the garden and heading for the front gate. He saw the ironwork had been bent asunder. Scorch marks told the tale. There were also four Spectrum security officers lying upon the pavement, unmoving. "Uncertain, Sir. Looks like everyone's been drawn out into the open. Including me."
"Then get to cover, man," White warned. "It's an old guerilla tactic to gain access."
"SIG," Blue acknowledged as he dove behind the cover of a thick palm. "No sign of Captain Ochre or the president." Now he could see the roof turret of a silver armored tank as its barrel swiveled toward him through the far side of the trees. "They're inside the palace gates for sure, Colonel. Tank and about twenty men sighted."
"Get out of there, Captain. Gather what security you can and fall back."
"But, Sir. What about the president? Captain Ochre?"
"I'll arrange for reinforcements as soon as you're clear, Blue. Meanwhile, move out. Abandon your post. Lieutenant Green just informed me that loyalist militias are forming in all major cities to protest the assembly's ruling. The situation there is swiftly deteriorating to civil war. Pull back. That's an order."
"SIG, Colonel," Blue sighed and zigzagged his way around the far side of the palace, dodging ammunitions fire and one tank missile which obliterated the palace's front portico. Breathless, Blue made it back to the MSV and Tomlinson with nothing more than frayed nerves and concrete dust marks on his uniform. "We're getting out of here," he told his driver as he rejoined him in the cabin. "Fallback plan Omega3. This is now a search and rescue mission, Tomlinson."
In moments, the Spectrum vehicle was safely away from the Ivory Coast mansion. Through his binoculars Captain Blue watched Velegill's treasured retreat crumble under repeated assaults from the tank's weaponry. "That was close. I hope Ochre's all right, and that he found a safe haven for the president."
Just then a static-laden hiss spat from the MSV's comm. unit. "Blue? Are you there?" someone seemed to whisper through the interference.
Blinking at the strange voice Captain Blue considered his perplexed driver before leaning toward the speaker. He called back, "Who's this?"
"Can't keep this channel open long. Malfunction. Have president safe in secret vault. Will need rescue."
"Ochre? Is that you?" Another burst of static and the transmission died. "Captain Ochre?"
"Secret vault, Sir?" Tomlinson ventured. "Like in an underground bunker?"
"I hope so," Blue wished. "It might be a while before we can get to them, though." Blue contacted Cloudbase again with an update. "Sir," he told the colonel. "I'm reluctant to leave. I'd like to head up the rescue mission if I may. If they're trapped beneath the superstructure, that may be why his cap mike isn't working right. I only received the short message."
"We'll try from this end, Captain," Colonel White advised. "Once the loyalist militia has retreated from Grand Bassam, I'll allow you to take the team in. Be careful, and direct the president directly to the safe house. It's an unstable situation in Ivory Coast now. We're pulling back until France can suggest a feasible course of action."
"SIG." Blue pushed the issue further. He wanted a clear sense of Spectrum's involvement. "What about Captain Scarlet, Colonel? Is he also to withdraw?"
In answer, White cleared his throat as if hesitant to respond. "I have sent him on a special assignment, Captain. Scarlet can take care of himself." That was it. Captain Blue was getting no more inside information on the whereabouts of his usual partner.
Within minutes, Melody, Rhapsody, and Harmony Angels had over-flown the area, reporting to Blue the damage done by the tank missiles. "We can see the palace wreckage," Melody said. "The tank has withdrawn. No sign of soldiers on the premises, but there are people moving around."
"They seem to be searching through the rumble," Harmony cut in, taking up the rear of the flyover.
"Looters?" Blue inquired.
"Possibly," Melody ventured. "Or they're loyalist rioters, come to finish the job."
"We need them out of there, Melody. Send down some distracting fire. Let them know who's in charge."
"SIG, Captain Blue." The Angel interceptors swiftly banked and came in low and roaring. The spreading cover fire took out a few of the surviving trees in Velegill's once splendid palace garden.
"C'est la vie," Blue murmured, watching through his binoculars as the looters scattered amidst the distracting explosives. "Time to high-tail it ourselves," he agreed to himself and his driver. "Tomlinson. Head back to the palace. We're commencing rescue operations as of now." Into his cap mike he ordered, "Angel leader. Thanks for the cover fire. Stick around for a while to make sure that tank doesn't return. We have to find Captain Ochre and the president, and we don't need dissidents breathing down out necks with canon fire."
"SIG, Captain," was Melody's prompt reply. "We have your twenty."
A Clandestine Meeting of Warriors
Captain Scarlet stood with his hands behind his back, awaiting entry into Reginold Harconis' inner circle. So far he had only been introduced to the rebel leader's liaison and public relations advisor, Jeremiah Smythe. Smythe had graciously accepted the Spectrum captain's presence, seeing the world security officer as a means of improved negotiation, perhaps. Scarlet, on the other hand, kept his wits about to the possibility that he could also become the Ivory Coast rebels' pawn in a ransom game to gain power. And so he stood by the heavy wooden door with no cap and minus his sidearm. They had both been confiscated to protect the rebel leader from any chance assassination. From what Scarlet could infer from Smythe, at the moment of the loyalist uprising, Harconis had gone underground. Captain Scarlet, it seemed, had been drawn into hiding along with him. This homestead was far out in the countryside of Abidjan, near a little farming village amid the arid lands of inner Ivory Coast. No doubt it had been formerly inhabited by a French landowner, but had since fallen into disrepair. By the look of the outer walls and corridor where he now stood, no one had dwelled in the plantation house in nearly a decade. Even during his journey there, Smythe had declined his questions about the place. The reticence was no doubt due to a lack of earned trust and the possibility that the Spectrum captain had other duties beside the one he had openly voiced. In reality, the truth was, indeed, far more classified. Captain Scarlet's orders, having come directly from Colonel White, were aside from the World President's intentions. The danger and the responsibility were his alone.
Just then, the heavy door latch clanged loose from within. Jolted from his inner thoughts, Scarlet sucked an expectant breath. Finally, he was to meet Reginold Harconis, himself. His main mission: to determine the motivations of the man. To discover the reasons behind Harconis' threatening actions. What the British officer didn't anticipate was an armful of ideals and a new assignment.
"Captain Scarlet. Please come in," a deep, accented voice welcomed as the wooden door swung open. "So happy to finally meet you, my boy."
As Scarlet strode forward with the silent Smythe as escort, he surveyed the cabinet of rebel leadership before him. Harconis himself, seated at the table's head, was pale beside the darker skins of his associates. The table was long but only a third full of representatives for Ivory Coast's uncertain future. Behind the Spectrum officer, his two shadowy guards closed the door on his last chance to turn back. "As I am you, Mr. Harconis. Would you do me the favor of introducing me to your staff?"
"All in good time, Spectrum. Meanwhile, you and I are going on a bit of an adventure together. I'll need your security clearance and your skills for a little ride to one of my financial juicers. A particularly lucrative cash cow, to be exact. I'd like you to see it. Get a better sense of why I do what I do for a living."
Scarlet watched the towering man rise from his chair and nod to his associates. Inwardly, the captain contended that this was just what the colonel had sent him to do: stay with Harconis and find out all he could. With a slight pop of his boot tips the Britain jerked a twisted smirk. "I love a good adventure."
"Grand," Harconis acknowledged with a welcoming arm sweep back toward the door. "Then if you'll follow me, we may both find some answers to our dilemma." Scarlet let the man pass him with two great strides to the door, then spun and flanked his exit. At once they were together in the corridor.
Surrounded still by Harconis' twin goons and the ever floating Smythe with his piercing eyes above bifocals, Captain Scarlet ventured his first hesitant question. "Sir, I've been assigned to your safety, but I admit I'm also here to keep my superiors updated. Might I at least have back my communicator?"
Harconis' blond head snapped to glare at the slightly shorter man beside him. "By all means you may have your cap back. As soon as I know you're on our side."
"Sir," Scarlet corrected. "I'm not on anyone's side. I'm here by Spectrum's orders. As your security liaison. I can't do that job if I'm isolated from the rest of my team. There are officers protecting President Velegill as well."
To this, Harconis only grimaced as though he had tasted spoiled meat. "That aristocratic dung beetle," he grumbled beneath his breath. The sentiment was loud and clear to Scarlet, however. "Keeps all the wealth to himself. Living in palaces of gold while the majority of Ivorians eke out a living in mud huts."
"Mr. Harconis, I really must insist that I be allowed to contact my superiors. You, as a fellow military man, must understand the necessity for chain of command decisions." They had stridden to an outer door. Beyond it, sand blew past a blacktopped tarmac where squatted a paint-chipped and weathered civilian helicopter. The thing barely seemed able to become airborne, much less travel any distance. Was this the true wealth of a man whose family owned a quarter of South Africa and who personally had acquired a missile silo and anti-aircraft weaponry? "I'm also rather handicapped to protect you without my sidearm."
Harconis' pale eyes swung from their intended destination on the tarmac to the slighter Spectrum captain. There was ironic humor there when he chuckled softly and offered, "I thought that's what Sam and Jamar are for."
"It is one of my prescribed duties as well."
With a harrumph Harconis grunted, "Then keep your eyes peeled for assassins, Spectrum. I've got a long list of enemies. Come on." As a herd, they jogged forward amid the waning daylight to the waiting chopper. Its rotors were just beginning to sway, the pilot prepping the aircraft for takeoff. The two security brutes- Sam, a dark-haired, fair-skinned linebacker type, and Jamar, whose only appropriate synonym was 'mammoth' for the man's dark skin and wide shoulders- shoved Scarlet into an auxiliary back seat, as far from his target as possible. He was offered a bungee cord for a makeshift safety harness. The captain declined the precaution. If the raggedy helicopter were to fall from the sky, the bungee would more likely strangle him before saving the Spectrum captain from any violent concussion. This was going to be a long ride.
"I'll take care of things here," Jeremiah Smythe hollered over the accelerating engine. From his rear seat Scarlet just caught sight of the weasel of a man. He was waving his goodbyes from beside the aircraft before trotting back toward the homestead, a dark portfolio tucked beneath an arm. Then the passenger hatch was slid shut, trapping Scarlet inside the questionable vehicle with his charges.
With a pat to the pilot's smudged helmet, Harconis nodded his readiness. The helicopter roared under full power and shook into the late afternoon sky. As the chopper pivoted to tilt southward, it was obvious no one was going to enlighten the Spectrum officer about their intended destination. Scarlet swallowed his reservations regarding the rebel leader's and his own safety. They could all be in grave danger. This could prove to be a very long ride.
Gathering Puzzle Pieces
In Cloudbase control, Lieutenant Green had just finished his research of all of Reginold Harconis' available biographical data. "What did you find?" Colonel White inquired.
"Well, Sir," the younger man attested as he rose and carried his data disk over to his commander. "He seems a very complicated man. Never stays in one place very long." Green handed the disk to his superior. "I hope I found everything. And there are some inconsistencies with what information Ambassador Souvaignon gave us."
Placing the disk within his digital readout screen, White raised a suspicious brow to the comment. "Oh? Like what?" The compilation of facts scrolled across the rectangular screen and automatically reshuffled into chronological files.
"Well, Sir. It seems he's been faking his birthright for many years. He's not the son of Theodoro Harconisaree, after all. Only an adopted heir."
"Heir? You mean he was meant to inherit the Harconisaree wealth once his adoptive father, Theodoro, died? But another heir came in line."
Green nodded. "A third marriage, a new son, and a falling out of values, Sir. It's all here. I'll let you read it at your leisure."
"Oh, I will, Lieutenant. Thank you." Then the colonel poked his pensive lip with a forefinger. "Do you believe Captain Scarlet is in grave danger because of this? You still haven't been able to contact him?"
To both questions, Green frowned. "I'm sorry, Colonel. I haven't been able to raise Captain Scarlet for several hours. We have no way of knowing whether he's still in Abidjan somewhere, or even within the country. The loyalist uprising has thrown a huge monkey wrench into it, Sir."
"And confirmed our fool's errand three times over." White raised his steely eyes from the readout before him. "Has Captain Blue re-established contact with Ochre yet?"
"No, Sir," Green confirmed. "The palace walls have completely collapsed. If President Velegill and Captain Ochre are somewhere below in a safe room, it may be some time before the rescue team can get to them."
"Blasted," White cursed under his breath. "We should never have gotten our noses soiled with this civil strife. Now I've lost two of our best officers to someone else's dissonance. Younger be damned."
Lieutenant Green refrained from comment. It wasn't often that the colonel regretted following President Younger's orders in risking his men. Perhaps all would work out in the end. As Green settled again into his chair to contact Captain Blue for an update, he pouted at the uncertainty. If Captain Scarlet was somehow in danger or under attack, he'd eventually find his way back to a Spectrum facility, even if it meant walking across the Sahara or swimming the crocodile-infested Congo River. The Spectrum agent was, after all, nearly indestructible.
Descent into Chaos
In the twilight of growing evening, Captain Scarlet could just tell that their helicopter was flying above a dense cover of jungle growth and woodland. Must be the Congo, he thought with a frown. His only view of the ground was between the broad shoulder of Jamar and a slice of window. In the shuddering vehicle they had traveled for over an hour southwesterly, across the ocean before swinging to port, in toward land. Yet still the aircraft hummed along at its slow but steady pace. Just where were they headed? Ivory Coast had been left far behind them. Was their ultimate destination Harconis' homeland, South Africa? Scarlet sighed at the prospect. The battered helicopter would never survive the long journey.
Talking was futile. Without a headset, Captain Scarlet couldn't raise his voice enough to be heard over the roaring of the laboring aircraft's motor. From his squashed corner behind the security guards there was no use trying to speak to Harconis. Every few seconds either Sam or Jamar checked on him with a suspicious glower over a bulky shoulder. No doubt their hands rested securely on their lethal firearms. Besides, the rebel leader, seated up front in the copilot's seat, seemed intent on a file of papers the pilot had handed him just after takeoff. It was as if Harconis had totally forgotten his special passenger.
Nothing bothered the British officer more than to be left in the dark about something. He had to query the rebel leader, continue with his mission. He needed firstly, however, to gain the man's trust. Within minutes, Scarlet was to be given that chance.
Harconis, a navigational map in hand, mouthed something to the man beside him. The pilot nodded and adjusted the aircraft to a higher altitude. Rotors whined in protest. The helicopter bucked and swayed. "What's going on?" Scarlet demanded over the din. No one acknowledged him, of course. But moments later, a flashing missile whistled past his slice of window. "We're under attack!" The chopper pivoted once more to a new, southerly course. Jamar and Sam straightened into tense readiness before him. Their hands came to rest upon their guns. Safety harnesses were unlatched. The helicopter strained to gain more altitude.
Then another heat-seeker rocket screamed their way. Scarlet caught sight of its violent beacon even as it reeled toward the evasive craft. On the flight deck, the pilot was desperately shoving the reluctant control stick away from the homing projectile. "Look out!" Scarlet hollered. Too late. The missile slammed into the side of the helicopter, just forward of his cramped position. Harconis' bodyguards flared into human torches and were swept free of the craft along with the explosive ejaculate of the deadly warhead. The cabin had been blasted open like a tuna can. All was flames around him. Where was the pilot? Was Harconis dead too? With a gulp of fiery air, Scarlet shoved himself from his cubbyhole, forward through the pyre toward the cockpit's pilot seat. The chopper lurched violently, nose skewing earthward. They were severely handicapped and descending. The Spectrum captain had little time to implement his rescue. The wind from the helicopter's fall fanned the flames. His uniform smoldered and grew hot against his tortured skin. He would burn alive unless he evacuated this inferno. But his mission was to investigate Harconis. He couldn't yet abandon the man or his assignment until he knew for sure Harconis' condition. Within the bubble of the pilot's flight deck, Scarlet saw two people struggling to free themselves from their harnesses. "Get clear!" Scarlet warned them even as he yanked an emergency parachute loose from its overhead berth. He shoved it forward into the hands of the pilot, then reached up into the dancing flames for a second chute. That's when he noticed that there was only one other of the devices cradled amongst the burning wreckage. This one was smoldering, perhaps on the point of igniting into a tattered waste. Swiftly Scarlet snatched it free and patted the parachute's pouch of its fiery fingers. When he looked forward again, the pilot was already gone. "Harconis! Take this!" Scarlet bellowed and punched the still smoking parachute into the man's shoulder. "Get free, or you're dead," he warned.
The rebel leader's response was surprising. "What about you, Spectrum?" Harconis yelled back, the chute poised in his indecisive grasp. "I won't be responsible for losing another life."
Scarlet almost smiled. He was beginning to like this rabble-rouser. "I'll be all right. You just get clear," the captain insisted even as he shouldered his way into the pilot's seat. "Go. Now!" Harconis nodded once, slid his arms in through the parachute's emergency straps and rolled out of the already unbolted door to disappear in a flicker of firelight from the roaring helicopter.
Captain Scarlet clutched the chopper's control stick and hauled it back. His feet jimmied at the pedals beneath the craft's nose. The crippled vehicle reluctantly responded to his straining muscles. Its nose inched upward toward level flight. But still the aircraft was losing altitude. No matter what he did, Captain Scarlet was crashing this mechanical beast in the middle of the Congolese jungle. "Hope I stay in one piece," he growled over clenched teeth. Then the trees below seized his fiery coffin and enveloped him in evening silence.
"Captain Scarlet! Can you hear me?" someone bellowed. The voice was timid and uncertain. It also echoed about him as if from within a tunnel. "Are you up there? Are you all right?"
Scarlet sucked in a ragged breath and coughed. His surroundings were hard and sharp. There was a heaviness to his skull. His body seemed on fire. Fire! The helicopter. Crashing into the trees. He opened his eyes. The first glow of daylight filtered in through the wreckage and foliage around him. Captain Scarlet lay on his back, wrapped in a blanket of twisted metal and glass. The remains of the rebel helicopter. He had stayed in one piece and survived yet again, another fiery disaster. Scarlet smiled through the stiffness of his healing injuries and tentatively tried to move his legs. They were slightly above him, tangled amongst the metal of the pilot's seat. The flight deck's shattered windshield stared emptily up into the shading sway of tree branches and a colorful sunrise sky. Scarlet was nearly hanging upside down from the remains of his seat. Had the chopper come to rest on its tail?
"Captain Scarlet!" that voice called again. Conscious enough now to remember the previous night's events, the Spectrum captain recognized the owner of the concerned plea. Reginold Harconis. "I'm coming up to get you. Don't move. I'm not sure the chopper's totally stable."
"No!" the captain hollered down through the many gaps in the vehicle's fuselage. It seemed only the skeleton of the aircraft had survived. "I don't want you to risk it. I'll come down on my own."
"You're OK?" that query came with a ton of skeptical baggage. "But the helo's a shredded mess."
Trying again to free himself from the craft Scarlet assured, "It cradled my fall. I have only scrapes and bruises. I'm fine. How did you and the pilot fare?"
"Corman's got a broken leg, but we landed close together. I've left him at a spot by the river to find you. We watched the chopper go down. Hard to miss. Like a shooting star." There was a short pause then Scarlet heard the man chuckle. "Even made a wish. For your safety, that is. Looks like it came true."
Grunting as he swung his aching legs free of the mangled pilot seat Scarlet answered, "Glad I could accommodate you." Then the helicopter shifted amidst its berth in the crown of the tree. Scarlet grabbed onto an overhead support bar until the sliding had stopped. "Still here," he informed tentatively adjusting his weight toward the nearest opening. No doubt Harconis had held his breath. By grabbing hand over hand at the helicopter's contorted superstructure, Captain Scarlet slowly exited the craft and swung out onto a thick limb. Glancing down to the understory he could see Harconis standing, his head tilted skyward, fists on hips. The chopper had come to rest near the top of a sprawling, two hundred foot banyan tree. Captain Scarlet was nearly two thirds the distance to the ground. With a sigh at his predicament he smiled down at his charge. "And you were going to come up here after me?"
Harconis shared the ironic levity. "You saved my life last night, Spectrum," he informed from the safety of the shrub-entangled jungle floor. "Least I could do was return the favor." Then the man laughed. "Problem is: I'm afraid of heights. Damned if my mind wasn't screaming protests the whole way down by parachute. Still, I'm grateful. And alive."
Scarlet surveyed his options. The spreading limbs of the banyan were draped in clinging epiphytes and moss. There were also hanging liana vines. "Well," he told Harconis. "Not to worry. I think I have a plan. Stay there. I'll be right down." Carefully he braced his boots and reached out to grasp at one of the lianas. Feeling like one of the native primates, Captain Scarlet first tested the tensile strength of the vine before dangling his weight upon it. Slowly he lowered himself to another limb. Once there, he searched for his next step down. The corresponding branch was off-center. To reach it, Scarlet would have to swing over and down. Just for a second, the wild call of Tarzan the Ape Man echoed in his brain like a siren's song. His battered muscles gave him only token protest as he continued his descent. By repeating his gymnastic maneuvers, Captain Scarlet was soon lowering himself onto the first of the Banyan's reachable pillar roots. Their buttresses spread away from the trunk, supporting the tree where nutrient poor soils and the battles for sunlight required such strength for the banyan's survival.
As Captain Scarlet slid along the sloping roots to the ground Harconis watched like a diehard football fan and inquired, "You do these sorts of acrobatics on a daily basis?"
Scarlet landed beside the taller man and straightened to brush the moss and damp debris from his slightly scorched uniform. With a crooked smirk he attested, "Spectrum training drills are far more demanding, Mr. Harconis. What I was wondering, was whether you have a clue as to who was shooting at us last night?"
To this Harconis swallowed his pride and acknowledged, "An enemy of freedom, most likely. I ... uh ... have a reputation 'round these parts as a zealot."
"The Pigmies of the Congo know you as well, Mr. Harconis? You're quite a popular figure, Sir."
Harconis snickered good-humoredly and nodded. "I've acquired some notoriety in Kisangani," he agreed. "Glad we're down wind of them. But we have a long way to go to get to safety. And please. Call me Reg. You've earned that right." He placed a pale hand atop Scarlet's epauletted shoulder. "I admit; we weren't exactly following a pre-approved flight path. But I had hoped the Congolese army had left the river basin before the onset of the rainy season. I guess I was wrong."
"You're saying we're not out of danger here."
Again that ironic smile. "I'm as safe as can be with a man of your caliber protecting me. No worries, Spectrum. Let's not stay here too long, though."
That made Scarlet pause. "My sidearm. Where is it?"
Harconis nodded his understanding. "I have it. When I bailed, I grabbed my duffle. We can even contact your Cloudbase."
The Spectrum captain perked at that. He smiled, genuinely pleased at the man he might someday consider a friend. "I can deliver us back to civilization in no time, then. Reg." Together they strode away from the site of the helicopter crash. Scarlet allowed Harconis the lead as they zigzagged between heavy jungle growths, backtracking down slope to the river. But as the underbrush opened to a wide expanse of greenish roiling water, the two military men heard a great splash followed by a thick scream.
"Corman!" Harconis hollered and took off toward the river.
"No. Wait," Scarlet cautioned. The Spectrum captain launched himself in swift pursuit.
The Congo River was a raging tumult of flowing water and debris. Heavy rains and raging cataracts brought flooding and death to unwary lifeforms upstream. The mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were the river's source. Unlike most watercourses, however, the Congo was a curving U shaped deluge of rain and tributaries, all joining along the way to contribute to the Congo's might. In water released, the Congo was second only to the Amazon, half a world away. East of them, cataracts and waterfalls churned the headwaters so rich with minerals and silt, the flow was milky opaque. Here, below Stanley Falls and the city of Kisangani, the water was more navigable. But still, raw nature was alive with perils. It was one of these perils which had endangered their fellow crash survivor.
"Corman!" Harconis called out again. "Where are you?" The man came to a skidding halt at the edge of the muddy riverbank. Clues of a struggle told the tale. The curving, muddy gouge of a crocodile's tail was clear at the river's edge. "Damn!" Harconis cursed and stepped to the brink to gaze downriver into the rising glare of the sun. "He's gone."
"No. Look!" Scarlet offered skidding to his side and pointing past Harconis' shoulder. There a log seemed set up on the bank further downstream among the trees. "It's a dugout canoe. Someone else is here."
"Poachers, possibly," Harconis sighed. The defeat in his voice was clear. Had poacher's killed Corman to protect their stash of illegal animal parts?
Scarlet surveyed the scene before him. The mud was riddled with footprints and slashes. "You left him upslope. Away from the water?"
An angry glare answered the challenge. "Of course I did. I know the dangers around here. Spent three years in the Congo, trying to liberate the Pigmy people and protect them from loggers. It was a crocodile, I tell you. Corman didn't heed my caution."
After considering the marks in the mud again Captain Scarlet had to shake his head. "I don't believe it was a crocodile. Corman wants you to think so."
"He abandoned me? No. He's a loyal associate," Harconis assured. "He'd never take our gear and leave me ..." His voice caught in his throat. "That's impossible."
"Well, whatever the circumstances, you were right about one thing; we are in danger here. Come on," Scarlet suggested with a hand about the taller man's sleeve. "We'll take the canoe. It's the best taxi around." The man required a solid tug to comply, but Harconis followed the captain along the slippery bank to the berthed craft. "We can skim along the shoreline in this," Scarlet suggested. "See if we can't find Corman."
"And your gun?" Harconis grumbled in challenge as the Spectrum captain bent to overturn the narrow dugout. Beneath was revealed a pair of hand-carved paddles. Though the canoe was over three meters long, it was a mere fifty centimeters wide and crafted from a single tropical trunk.
Scarlet swiped the abandoned skiff of leaf cover and mud before answering the accusation. "I'm concerned for our lives and safety right now, Mr. Harconis." He stood and handed the man one of the paddles. "I would like to get us to a place where we might stand a better chance of rescue. Here, amid the wilds, is not the place. Agreed?"
Harconis blinked. He clutched the proffered paddle then slowly nodded once. "You're right. Of course. Let's look for my pilot." Together they slid the narrow canoe into the swift waters of the Congo River. As they settled into its shallow bowl Harconis said from the stern, "It's a pirogue. A native craft. Locals all up and down this river use them to navigate and transport goods. Someone must have left it there. They'll come back for it eventually." After a contemplative moment, as they steered the canoe along the shoreline, he added, "We're thieves, you know."
Scarlet wasn't amused nor concerned for the loss of a single pirogue. "We'll worry about that later." Even now his eyes were far busier than his paddling arms, surveying the riverbank for any sign of Harconis' pilot or the duffle bag. The sooner he contacted Cloudbase, the better Ivory Coast's relations would be. For all he knew, Harconis had arranged for this little distracting side trip. As the river took them further west, a quarter mile downstream provided no more clues. Not even a floating sock. "Tell me, Harconis," Scarlet ventured as he maneuvered the pirogue from the prow. "Was this an unexpected disaster? Or did you originally intend to dump me into a crocodile-infested river?"
The sudden intake of air behind the Spectrum officer almost made Scarlet pivot in the unsteady craft to gape at his companion. "You think I brought you here on purpose?" Harconis accused. "For your information, we were headed for Boma, on the Angolan border. I have friends there. We were going to transfer to a better chopper. To take us out to my rig in the Atlantic. I never had intentions of killing anyone, much less my crew." The sentiment was either heartfelt or well-practiced. With his back to the man, Scarlet could not tell for sure. There was, however, a slight quaver to the rebel leader's throat. He seemed genuinely upset.
"Then tell me, Reg. Why gather all the firepower, if not to take over the government of a sovereign nation?" Scarlet shrugged between his poised paddle. "Sounds rather militant to me."
A dry chuckle was the resigned answer from the rebel leader. "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?"
The Spectrum captain continued to scan the riverbank ahead as the Congo propelled them along in its flow. Over his shoulder he said to his companion, "You could be lying to me. Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Harconis. You have a mercenary army at your command. Kamikaze squads ready to kill innocents. Reports say you even have a rocket launching site at your disposal. Surely you don't intend to use that to send up a protest banner."
Now the voice of Harconis was as hard as granite. "I never intended to use any of it. It's all a ruse. A show of power to make my game board marker equal to the militant governments I'm up against."
Scarlet paused in his paddling. "Governments?" He let the paddle coast atop the roiling river beside him. "Just how many thrones do you wish to overthrow? You certainly can't occupy them all yourself."
"I don't plan to occupy anything. I'm a humanitarian. I want to see a just government in power. One which represents the welfare of the people."
"Sounds utopian," Scarlet chided. Then his eyes caught sight of an object among the drift-fall close to shore. "Harconis. What color shirt was Corman wearing?"
There was a moment's pause from the stern, as if the rebel leader was craning for his own look forward beneath the overhanging trees. "Maroon. I think," he finally offered. "He had on a white jacket. Why? I don't see anything."
"And your duffle?"
"That was green. Wrong color for this environment, I know. Next time, I'll choose neon pink." Even as Harconis said this Scarlet was stroking toward the river bank. "What is it?" the man asked.
"Something that doesn't belong here," Scarlet answered him. The British captain shoved the paddle into the muck of the shoreline and jerked the pirogue's prow up onto land. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
"What did you see, Spectrum?" Harconis demanded. Scarlet was already out of the dugout and slogging through the mud. A moment later he was into the trees. "Hey! How do you know I won't abandon you?"
Though he had heard the challenge, Scarlet did not answer. He was too busy playing a hunch. "Two can play at this game," he murmured. It was only minutes later that the Spectrum captain saw the shadowy figure climbing the bank toward him. Scarlet was ready, crouched among the tangle of undergrowth beside another buttressed tree. Harconis didn't even see his attacker. Scarlet launched himself onto the rebel leader and the two tumbled among the damp bracken, their limbs twisted like coiled snakes. When they came to a flumping heap, the Spectrum officer was on top. "Now, Harconisaree. You'll tell me the truth," Scarlet demanded. He had the bigger man's arms pinned upon the leaf litter with his muddy knees. "Why are you stirring up dissonance in an alien country far from the luxury of your diamond mines in South Africa?"
Harconis' answer was broiled in objection. "I don't have to answer to you. You're not my conscience. You're not my arresting officer, Spectrum. You don't even have a gun."
"Thanks to you," Scarlet reminded. Then he relaxed his grip. "All right. I just want the truth, Harconisaree. I can't protect a man I don't trust."
The rebel leader sighed and closed his eyes to the glaring sunlight peeking through the dense canopy. "I guess I do owe you that," he admitted. "The name's not Harconisaree. I'm not even Harconis. Sir Theodoro and his almighty wealth abandoned me some years ago, when I asked him why he hadn't provided adequate compensation for the families of a work disaster at his Kimberley mine. I've been disinherited." Scarlet rolled off of him. The man sat up and considered his soiled shirt. Harconis then squinted into the officer's face and laughed without humor. "I never was a Harconisaree. I'm adopted. My mother was a poor Afrikaner who gave me up to pay the bills. She worked for Harconisaree Industries. Lived long enough to see me graduate high school, I hear, before dying in a tenement fire. Theodoro owns most of the properties around his diamond mines. He owned the tenement. Neglected to have it upgraded to fire codes. He owned my birth mother." Scarlet watched him wipe mud from his chin and rise to his feet. "You know, Spectrum. Sir Theodoro. My 'father'. He didn't even pay for her funeral. A faithful employee for 25 years, and what little savings she had went to line his pockets. He took it all back."
Scarlet rose to his boots as well. "When were you enlightened to all of this?"
An ironic chuckle abbreviated the man’s answer. "When he found a new wife. She promptly gave him a true heir. Jonas is twelve now. Harconisaree's teaching him to be the entrepreneur divine."
"So, Theodoro Harconisaree kicked you out of your own home for asking too many questions. You left without a protest?"
Again that ironic laugh. "Of course not. He paid me off to keep my mouth shut. Blood money, I called it. Though none of his blood was ever in jeopardy." The man shrugged. "I figured I'd put it to good use. If not in South Africa, then somewhere else. Anywhere where there were oppressed peoples. Like my mother."
"So you bought guns and hired hands to play war," Scarlet surmised. "Might doesn't make right, Harconis. Militaristic states have failed before. You'd be replacing some, yourself. Apples with oranges."
"I couldn't buy a fancy estate in Senegal with that blood money," Harconis argued. "But I could purchase a defunct diamond mine with it. That's what I've been using to finance my little insurgence into feudalism. And might is right if it allows a little fish to play with the sharks on an even keel. I'm not just a little squeak in a big room anymore. I've-"
"Got quite a reputation around here. Yes, you said that," Scarlet reminded. "And there are no doubt people looking to stuff your big mouth with sawdust. Six feet under."
"Exactly," Harconis agreed. "That's why I need your trust, and your protection, Spectrum. I'm fresh out of bodyguards at the moment. I just wish Corman were here." He sighed and considered the damp soil at his feet. "He wasn't just an associate. He's also the best Jujitsu instructor I ever met."
"He taught you?" Scarlet inquired, his skepticism as obvious as the growing humidity around them.
"Everything he knew."
Harconis was smiling. The mischief was a sparkle in his eyes. "I let you tackle me. Didn't you notice; I didn't even fight back? I knew what you were planning. And I approve. We're even now. Truce?" He held out his open palm.
The Spectrum captain wasn't so obliged. "We're not quite even," Scarlet assured not accepting the peaceful gesture. "You haven't yet saved my life."
Harconis shrugged. "Well, I'm sure within the next few days and hundreds of river kilomteres to Boma, I'll get at least half a dozen chances. I wasn't lying about my three years here. The Congo's a great place to remain anonymous. If you know who not to bugger off, that is."
"If you're so well-versed in the culture and the dangers, why do you need me?"
Harconis' fair cheeks actually blushed. "Now you found me out," he admitted. "I already said; I need your security clearance to check out my cash cow. My rig's been a no-man zone since I started filtering money into Ivory Coast three months ago. I think my head foreman's found a new occupation. Laundering. The flow's slowed to a trickle, and I need your help in infiltrating my diamond operations. They'll take one look at your uniform and crumble."
"You want me to act as-"
"Just what you were sent to do, Spectrum. A security liaison."
"Please stop calling me that," Scarlet rumbled. "You make me sound like the entire organization. I'm just one man."
"True," Harconis contended. "But one with a very special gift."
Scarlet stopped himself from blinking in surprise. There was no way this dealer in broken causes could know his worth to Spectrum. "And what's that?" he asked without so much as a swallow.
Harconis grinned widely. "You have a good heart. And I'm betting your uniform alone will force Dawson and Kruegar to back down and let me on my rig."
Scarlet squinted at the man. "Rig? You said that before. This is a diamond mine? Sounds more like black gold."
Harconis was grinning again. "Oh, it's a diamond mine all right. You'll see. But we won't get there by wishin'."
Scarlet sighed. "Right. Let's get back to the canoe."
"First things first," the rebel leader interrupted. His big hand was extended again. "From now on. Only the truth. The name's Kaiser. Reginold Lazar Kaiser."
Considering the open palm for another moment Scarlet finally nodded and raised his own hand to grip Kaiser's. "Captain Scarlet, Spectrum. Call me Captain. Please."
A nod then, "Agreed."
"Right. Let's get moving."
As they strode together back through the trees, Kaiser paused to offer, "I just remembered something. A favor someone owes me. We might not have to paddle all the way to Boma after all." At the river's edge Scarlet paused to consider the man's thoughtful expression. "Darma. Joe Darma. He lives along the river here. Somewhere south. I just have to recall exactly where. He's on the eastern shore, though. In the Democratic Republic. What was once known as Zaire. In fact Joe likes to be called that, if I recall right."
"Then we paddle across, to the far shore," Scarlet agreed. They climbed back into the stranded pirogue and shoved it back into the current. Islands dotted their way, providing them with cover as the pair navigated around the crest of the wide Congo from one country to its neighbor. They were now headed due south. Like a modern-day traveling Sir Stanley and Dr. Livingstone, the pair saw few people along their journey. There were more crocodiles lurking about the shores of the islands, sunning themselves in the warming afternoon. By supper, they had safely reached the opposite bank.
As they clambered ashore, arms tired but spirits high, Kaiser noticed his companion's demeanor. "Why, Captain. You hardly look spent. Do you Spectrum types take a ton of vitamins before you start your duty shifts?"
Scarlet couldn't help but admire the man's cheerfulness. From what he was beginning to comprehend, Reginold Kaiser had been dealt some hard blows regarding his very identity. But the man had taken those knocks and found a way to make others benefit. With a slight smile of contention, the British officer only admitted, "We're trained for endurance. But I must admit I could eat three meals in one sitting and go to bed happily satiated."
"Food!" Kaiser gasped. "How could I forget? We haven't eaten in ... oh, over twenty-four hours." Kaiser looked about him as if he were studying the trees and vegetation. "Here. This'll do for now," he said shoving himself uphill and disappearing among the verdant jungle growth. His voice filtered back from the denseness. "We can travel on for another few hours before it's too dark to see. Maybe by morning we'll come by Darma's place. He'll get us some faster transportation." Kaiser's voice loudened as he returned from his jaunt with an armful of green bananas. He held them p for inspection. "Not exactly ripe for the picking yet, but they'll fill our bellies. Natives plant them to supplement their regular food. I saw some imported breadfruit trees up there, too. But a climber I'm not."
Taking the fare from Kaiser's arms Scarlet only nodded. "These'll do." They ate quietly, listening to the sounds of the jungle and the rippling of Congo's ever present current. Finally, hunger abated for the time being, Captain Scarlet rose and considered the beached dugout. "Have you recalled where along the river this Darma person lives?"
Kaiser rose as well and stretched his aching arms and back. "Joe moves his camp often. Like me, he's not a fan of the government police either. Migrates with the seasons, he does. But he often camps along the riverside. I'll know his place when I see it. He'll be north of Mbandaka. Joe never travels that far south. Too many police."
"Your friend sounds like a smuggler," Scarlet contended as he again took up the paddle. "Or a poacher."
"He's an independent businessman. Deals in imported goods," Kaiser clarified scooping up his own paddle. "Some not as legal as others. I'll say no more."
Scarlet only smiled knowingly and helped Kaiser to get the long canoe back into the current. They traveled another hundred kilometers with the help of the Congo's flow, before the sun had completely abandoned them. In the twilight, the pair stroked up to shore at a tiny cove of river grass. Here they could conceal their boat and get a decent few hours’ sleep in marginal comfort. "Be careful of snakes," Kaiser cautioned as he stooped to clear away a place to rest. "There are a couple poisonous varieties here, like the Gaboon and the mamba." Scarlet watched him smash the reeds down to create a dry platform on which to sleep without sinking into the silted riverbank beneath. "Here," Kaiser announced, when he'd finished. "This is your bedroom. I'll move over a bit for mine. The grass along the bank will conceal us nicely from any river patrols."
"You want to stay anonymous, I gather," Scarlet surmised as he stepped through the surrounding reeds to his makeshift bed. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. Zaire, I mean Darma, showed me how to do this. Taught me what fruits and berries were good to eat. Showed me how to navigate the strong currents in the rainy season too."
Settling onto his bunk of bent reeds Scarlet unzipped his soiled vest and tugged it off. Rolling the garment up, he created a pillow to cradle his head from the ants he could feel scurrying about beside him. "Then how is it this Darma owes you a favor?" he ventured.
"I thought you'd never ask. You're usually so full of questions, Captain. You seem to have an unnerving need." Kaiser finished stamping down his sleeping spot then rolled onto his buttocks and released a weary sigh. "As it turned out," he began, "Zaire was captured by the Congolese police the very day I was arrested for concealing a weapon without a permit." To Scarlet's challenging glare through the grass he added, "It was an auto. Police don't like civilians having bigger guns than they have. I'd just arrived in Mbandaka." Kaiser shrugged. "Cocky, I guess. Anyway. We both would have been left to rot in that cell if I hadn't busted the wall down with a strategically placed kick."
"You kicked down a cinderblock prison wall?" Scarlet scowled in cynicism.
Kaiser was chuckling from his place in the reeds. "The prison was flimsily constructed of mud and reed grass. The bricks hadn't even been allowed to cure right. Probably made in the rainy season. Wrong time of year for construction projects. The wall crumbled in my hands. Didn't take much to bring the entire thing down."
Scarlet found his lips curling upward. "So Darma thinks you saved his life." He released a good-humored sigh. "I suppose you never told him he could have bailed without you, had he taken a good look at the wall himself."
"Some secrets are best-kept unspoken," Kaiser retorted dryly. "Besides, I won't be asking for him to save my life. Only provide us with a taxi to Boma."
"You're full of interesting stories, Mr. Kaiser," Scarlet acknowledged as he leaned back against his makeshift pillow. The captain closed his eyes and expelled the tensions of the day. "Good night, Reg."
"Sweet dreams, Captain."
Onboard the flying Spectrum carrier that was Cloudbase, Lieutenant Green answered the incoming call from the field. "Yes, Captain Blue."
"Updating you as ordered, Lieutenant," The blond American's voice informed through the comm. unit. "We've now cleared the debris from the south end of Velegill's palace. Still no sign of any underground bunker. I'm losing patience and hope here. It's been over twenty-four hours with no word from Captain Ochre. I've tried repeatedly to hail him, but he still doesn't respond. Are you getting anything from your end?"
"No, Captain," Green answered with reluctance. "I can only guess that there must be some interfering material between us and Captain Ochre."
"I wouldn't worry so much," Blue assured, "if I knew they were sitting down to a fine meal of emergency rations and bottled water."
Suddenly another voice cut in to their conversation. "Sir! We've found an intake vent beyond the property. At first we thought it was a storm drain."
"Hold on Lieutenant," Blue told Green. "I think we've finally got a lead." The captain was clearly addressing the panting third voice when he asked, "Is this vent big enough to fit a man into? Can we get down to them?"
"No, Captain," came the distant reply. Green frowned at the disappointing news. "But it's wide enough to get a remote camera into. We can create a subterranean map of the air duct structure and use it to-
"Pinpoint Captain Ochre's location. Good work, Harvey. Get to it, then."
"That's good news," Green acknowledged on his end.
"Sure is," Blue breathed into his cap mike. "And not a moment too soon. The sun went down almost an hour ago here. Makes digging through the rubble difficult. We're re-setting our high-powered lanterns now to continue the excavation. But we don't need daylight to search this vent with cameras. And if it does lead into an underground bunker, then Ochre and the president are just sitting around waiting for us to dig them out. They've got an air supply. They'll be bored, but unharmed."
"SIG," Cloudbase's computer expert agreed.
"What about Captain Scarlet? Has he checked in with you yet?"
Green's elation fell to dourness again. "I'm afraid not, Captain. We don't know his current location either. The colonel's gone to catch some sleep, but I know he's worried."
"He's sure Scarlet made it as far as Abidjan's rebel outpost. Right?"
"We're almost certain. He was picked up at the airport by an associate of Harconis. A man by the name of Jeremiah Smythe. After that, we don't have any further eyewitnesses. Smythe seems to have gone underground. We can't locate him either."
"What about this Harconis fellow?" Blue insisted. "There must be records of his addresses, his trade dealings, purchases. Something. How is he earning funds to pay off the smugglers for the firepower he has stashed away?"
Lieutenant Green could only shrug. For Blue's benefit he answered, "I'm sorry, Captain. I'm worried too."
Blue sighed tiredly into his suspended microphone. "Well, I'll keep going here. If you find out anything-"
"We'll contact you," Green assured. "Have there been any more riots?"
"Are you kidding?" Blue stammered. "It's like Mardi Gras down here. Except the revelers are all carrying picks and rifles. They're definitely dancing in the streets, but drunken smiles are in mighty short supply. This whole compound's been surrounded by a Spectrum security fence just to be on the safe side. SPVs and a bevy of Ivorian tanks have arrived to throw out beads to the crowd."
"Sounds like a rightly festive party to me." Green grinned. "Wish I were down there. It's too quiet up here, and I'm getting bored."
"Oh, no you're not, Griff," Blue accused. "I know the colonel has you sifting through fine sand in your data stores. I'll be expecting updates myself. Let me know when Magenta's next report comes in. The negotiations in Bouake' must be riotous as well."
"SIG. Cloudbase out." Green spun his chair back to his computer bank and continued digging for more clues into the secret life of Reginold Harconis. "I know I'm missing something here," he mumbled to himself. "I just know it."
The Fruits of Jungle Labors
It had only been minutes before his companion had settled into sleep. A meter from where Scarlet lounged, Reginold Kaiser was snoring his fatigue away. The Spectrum captain listened to the noise and wondered whether concealing the canoe and their resting places had been a wasted effort. Any patrol with a quiet-motored boat would have no trouble pinpointing their location. They simply needed to triangulate the din. Reginold Kaiser. Reginold Harconis. The man was a mystery, Scarlet contended. And yet the man seemed to freely share his life experiences with the Spectrum officer. Was it all well-rehearsed theatrics? Was Harconis making use of a gift for story to draw Scarlet into a trap?
No. If this was all some subversive plan to rid himself of a meddling world security officer, then a bullet would have been far quicker. Ineffective, of course, in Scarlet's case. Yet there were many more questions whirling around in Captain Scarlet's brain. Sleep was somewhere waiting in a far corner. For now, the Spectrum officer resigned to prioritizing their needs. In the morning he would insist they find the nearest settlement with a communications device. If need be, Scarlet would formally arrest Kaiser on charges of kidnapping him. As it was, Scarlet was over a day late in updating the colonel. White would be pacing the deck plates shiny by now. He'd be denying Green even a catnap, ordering the lieutenant to pick apart the puzzle which was Reginold Harconis' life.
A diamond mine on a rig in the Atlantic? Was that their final destination? Should Scarlet go along with the rebel leader's plans or stop the nonsense right here and now?
As the captain pondered his next move, eyes unfocused to the brilliant stars above him, a rustling through the reeds caught his full attentions. Something alive. Moving about their little enclave in the shifting grass. A rat? A jungle predator? The darkness was too complete. Captain Scarlet's gift was retrometabolism, not superhero night vision. Then he saw it. Slithering dark against the creamy reed stalks, a snake. It was only about a meter long, he estimated. It didn't seem dangerous. But its jerky movements showed its intent. The reptile was hunting for warm-blooded prey. Mice and rats, probably. The snake paused often to test the air with its flickering tongue. It swayed its head trying to catch the body heat of its food using sensorial pits along its skull. The serpent was a heat-seeking missile in miniature. Once realizing the two men's warmth signatures were too big to tackle, the snake would soon slither away. Scarlet eyed the creature, nonetheless. Its coiled body was stocky for its length. In the dim light of the stars, color was absent, but Scarlet took note of the varied pattern to the reptile's scales. Rectangular checkered diamonds was the most appropriate description.
Then, as the snake swirled for another approach to its hunt, Scarlet could make out the heart shape of its head. A viper. Deadly poisonous. The checkerboard-emblazoned Gaboon viper twisted away from the Spectrum officer, turning its probing tongue up at the unobtainable feast. Then it tested the reeds further along the bank. It was heading straight for the sleeping Kaiser. Scarlet glowered at the prospect. As long as the man slept on, he would be left unawares to their midnight visitor. If, instead, Kaiser chose this opportunity to roll over or otherwise shift his slumbering body toward the slinking snake, the outcome would be far more significant. Indifferent to the fate of men, the viper zigzagged along its path to the next warmth signature it detected.
Waking the still snoring man with a warning, Scarlet realized, would be just as dangerous a proposal as allowing the snake to continue its advance. Kaiser could startle right on top of the cold-blooded predator. A single bite from the venomous fangs, longest in this snake than any other, would prove fatal. And antivenin was not nearly as widely available here as were wild-growing bananas or breadfruit. Scarlet watched the creature test the air once more with its sprouting tongue. It then slid closer to Kaiser's nearest appendage, a bent leg. The Spectrum captain cautiously rolled onto his side and braced his boots into the reeds for action if need be. Then he heard a deep inhale from the man followed by a rapid series of shallow breaths. Kaiser was dreaming. One involuntary muscle contraction could mean death. Scarlet had to distract the predator. Swiftly he glanced about him in the dark. The paddles had been left in the dugout, a meter behind him. He'd have to stand in the shifting reeds to procure one as a deterrent. He didn't want to risk startling the predator. There was only one thing to do.
Gathering his feet and tensing his legs for a strike, Scarlet shoved himself toward the viper. Instantly he snatched at its closest appendage, the tail, with an outstretched arm. In the next movement, the captain rolled into a sit, away from Kaiser, bringing the startled viper closer in for a violent swing toward the river. But the instincts of the Gaboon were swifter than Scarlet's whirl in the slippery reeds. It twisted agilely in a vicious strike of its own. The weapon of its hunting became the daggers of its defense. The viper thrust its five centimeter long fangs into Scarlet's side and adroitly pumped its venom glands dry into the man's flesh.
Cringing at the sensation of burning needles in his lower abdomen, Scarlet was stalled in his release of the creature. He could only wait for the snake to finish its deadly task. Only then would it detach itself from his side and allow Scarlet to finish his rescue. A spastic flinch of his already aching arm soon sent the viper twisting through the air. It landed with a wet plop in the coursing Congo beyond the reeds. The reptile would safely swim to shore and begin again its search for a midnight meal. Conversely, Scarlet curled against the attack. The pain of the hot poison sent fiery signals to every nerve in his right side. He grunted against the discomfort, but didn't cry out. Kaiser mustn't know what had just happened. No ordinary man would survive a Gaboon viper's bite without specific antivenin and long term neurological damage. By morning, however, Captain Scarlet would again be in perfect health. Until then, he gasped through the agony of his impending death, muscles contracting like steel bands under tons of pressure. System after system shut down, until even his lungs would no longer obey his half-crazed command. Finally, with one last heart flutter, the Spectrum officer relented to the venom's lethal effects and was still.
Morning came with a cold mist. Captain Scarlet awoke to Kaiser's urgent shakings. "Hey! What happened to you? Captain?" In response Scarlet opened his eyes and rasped a deep gulp of humid air. "You're curled up tighter than a boxer's fist. Are you OK?" Their eyes met. Scarlet couldn't cover up the memory of his violent death before his companion drew a worried grimace.
"I'm fine," the Spectrum captain recovered releasing his knotted body with a hearty stretch of his spine. "I guess my stomach didn't like all those green bananas."
"I'll say," Kaiser agreed. "You looked like death for a moment there. You sure you're all right?" The man waited for his reply as Scarlet rolled onto his knees. Cradling his abdomen with a free hand he breathed in another whiff of jungle humus. No. There was no more pain. No razor claws seemingly slicing through every muscle and organ. He was fully recovered. Scarlet stumbled to his feet and swayed before regaining his balance. He was still weak, however. His retrometabolism had churned his energy reserves to full bore in order to regenerate the ravages done by the poison. Now it had left him in desperate need of refueling.
As he steadied himself upon the soggy reeds Captain Scarlet forced a smile for his companion's benefit and asked, "What's for breakfast? I'm starving."
Kaiser's reply was far less jovial. There was still suspicion in his eyes. But with no venomous culprit to tell the true story, the rebel leader was forced to accept his companion's demeanor. "Well, I suppose bananas are off the menu. I'll see if I can find a date palm. There should be a few fruits left after the birds have gotten to them." While Kaiser marched inland for his fruit gathering, Scarlet prepared the pirogue. Morning dew had left everything coated in moisture. But a glance skyward told an even damper tale. The early mist was flanked by a thickening haze of clouds. The sun was but a yellow splotch of brightness beyond the tree line. It seemed the two travelers would soon be dealing with a cleansing rainfall in a dugout with no canopy. Resigning to the inconvenience, the captain shoved their boat toward the river and readied the paddles for more exercise. If they were lucky, they'd find this Joe Darma fellow before the first shower commenced. Captain Scarlet still needed to get to a radio. If Darma had transportation, he no doubt had a communication device as well.
Within a quarter hour Reginold Kaiser had returned with a handful of stocky reeds gripped in one hand. "Ever eaten candy in its purest, most natural form?" he asked handing the captain three short stalks.
Scarlet examined the fare. "Sugar cane."
Kaiser nodded. "Harvested by yours truly with my own handy-dandy pocket knife." The Spectrum captain mumbled his thanks and nipped at the stiff outer casing of one stalk with his teeth. "Did find some dates, by the way. But they weren't in the best condition."
Scarlet raised a brow at the man's reluctant grin. "Tree too high?" he challenged.
"By about fifteen meters. Yeah." Then Kaiser changed the subject with a glance to the sky. "Looks like we're going to be bailing before we get to Zaire's camp." Scarlet hadn't considered that aspect of the approaching deluge. Rainforests were notorious for sudden downpours, sometimes as heavy as hurricane rains. How were the two of them to steer their course and bail out the canoe at the same time? They didn't even have a cup. Kaiser wasn't fazed by the challenge, however. "We have a greater problem, though," he informed through chomping jaws. "Your uniform."
"What about it?"
"For reasons you might be able to sympathize with, Zaire doesn't care for uniforms. He's liable to shoot your head off as soon as he sees you."
"I'll state my intentions as peaceful," Scarlet defended. "I'm a Spectrum officer. It’s not my job to arrest petty smugglers."
Kaiser was shaking his head. "He won't wait for an explanation. And he'll shoot me next for bringing you, so you'll have to get rid of the uniform."
"I thought you needed me and my uniform to get you onto your rig. Subterfuge, you said."
Kaiser was nodding over his breakfast. "That's why we're going to stash the uniform in the dugout. Your boots too. They're a dead giveaway."
"Do you propose that I walk naked into a smuggler's camp?"
Now the rebel's grin reached to his ears. "Though I'd love to see a Spectrum officer so demoralized, no, Captain. Just your scarlet flags need to be concealed. And your rainbow badges there,” Kaiser stated with a pointed digit. “Best to roll up your sleeves. I'll slice a few reeds, and we'll stow the rest beneath them. Agreed?"
Captain Scarlet couldn't argue. In fact to a smuggler, a man dressed all in black might seem right at home with surly characters of ill-repute. "Agreed." With that, the Brit promptly retrieved his rolled tunic vest from his undisturbed bed and laid it in the center of the canoe. Next he stooped to unzip his twin scarlet boots. They too ended up at the bottom of the boat. Then Kaiser shuffled a handful of chopped reed grass over the evidence. After rolling up his Spectrum-blazed sleeves and stepping barefooted into the pirogue's prow, Scarlet and Kaiser were soon off again with the flow of the mighty Congo.
The Fall into Chaos
Captain Blue, exhausted from no sleep, found pacing kept his cranial synapses sparking. He was also fuming at the latest news in from Captain Magenta. "How can they suspend all negotiations?" he stammered into his cap microphone. He listened to his colleague's explanation with dread.
"There isn't anyone to negotiate with, Captain Blue," the Irish-American replied. "Harconis was supposed to meet with the Ivorian National Assembly three hours ago, at daybreak. He never showed. The uprisings in the streets are of greater concern. The fighting's gotten serious here in Bouake' now. Late last night five people, accused of leaguing with the rebel faction, were beaten to death. The assembly wants immediate containment. They've issued a declaration of martial law. The military has been given orders to arrest and detain anyone seen wandering the streets."
"Does Colonel White want you to stay there with Souvaignon or return to Cloudbase?"
There was a deep sigh from Magenta's end. It seemed the dark-haired captain hadn't gotten much sleep either. "I'm staying. I have to. The colonel's about ready to yank us all back, like puppets on strings, but I just have a feeling we'd serve better here."
"Intuition, Pat?" Blue asked slipping into the familiar in his weariness. "You sound like Scarlet."
"No, but I'm betting on Captain Scarlet to fix this. If he and Harconis are together, then they might just come charging in at the eleventh hour."
Blue had to chuckle at that analogy. His British partner had once compared Spectrum to King Arthur's knightly court. "It'd be just like Scarlet to do that, too. But we can't sit around waiting for him to show. I have to get Captain Ochre and President Velegill out of their private tomb and away from Abidjan before more loyalists come barging down here to take their piece of their leader. The situation's growing too volatile."
"Agreed," was Magenta's reply. "I'll do what I can from here. When it's time to pull out, I'll be escorting the ambassador and his staff to safe house Charlie Delta. I may not get a chance to contact you, then. You'll hear it from Green."
"SIG. Be careful Captain," Blue warned. "Don't let them force you into a corner. We're not here to be shields."
"That's what you say. But I'll be careful anyway. Thanks. Out." There was silence after that.
Captain Blue frowned as his cap mike slipped back to its berth. The country of Ivory Coast was about to burst into all-out civil war. His long-time partner had seemingly fallen off the face of the continent. A rebel rogue by the name of Harconis was the big missing puzzle piece to solve it all, and he too was nowhere to be found. "Catch-22." Just then Blue's epaulettes flashed. "Yes, Lieutenant. You're just who I wanted to speak to next."
Green cleared his throat before informing, "I'm just updating you on my search, Captain. I found a couple of leads for Captain Scarlet."
To this Captain Blue blinked alert and smiled. "That's better than an hour ago. What have you discovered?"
"Well, Sir. Harconis has several outlets for his money. I've been able to do an electronic funds check of his last two purchases. Some high-powered guns, and a rocket launcher. They were smuggled into Ivory Coast by way of a boat owned by a dealer named Willy Casper."
"That's it? One contact?"
Green was ready to defend himself. "I'm sorry, Sir. It seems Harconis is very good at covering his tracks. According to his many registered abodes, he could be anywhere in four African countries. I still can't figure out where he's getting his money from, although industrial diamonds are my strongest lead so far."
"Diamonds, huh? There must be hundreds of diamond mines on the African continent," Blue pondered aloud. "They may or may not be owned by the Harconisaree franchise." Then his sluggish synapses flared with a coherent thought. "Wait a minute. If Harconis has been disinherited by his adopted father, the financial flow of funds to his account would have ceased. Have you backtracked any substantial weapons transactions which might be from a Harconis-named holding that's also linked to diamond mines somewhere in Ivory Coast, or even anywhere in Africa? Diamonds just can't be sold without certificates of authenticity. Their mine must be listed on the manifest. Harconis could be acting with a false name, but the diamonds can't. They're regulated by the Euro Trade Agreement."
Blue could almost imagine the Trinidadian nodding when he answered, "Already looking into it, Captain. I should have a list of mines and their most recent shipments within the hour. I just hope my intuition's right. The Harconisaree family invests in other resources besides diamonds, but they're from South Africa. A substantial percentage of their wealth is in diamond sales."
Blue hadn't lost faith in the uncanny skills of his junior officer. "I'd trust that intuition with my life, Lieutenant. Keep up the good work."
"Thank you, Sir. The colonel should be coming off his sleep cycle soon. He'll be in touch with your new orders. Magenta just hailed."
"SIG," Blue acknowledged. He considered the warming sun and fair skies above. It was too nice a day for war. Perhaps everyone would come to their senses and allow the higher-ups to conclude their business to the shared benefit of the masses. "Maybe not," he murmured to himself the next moment. Blue returned to his post by the excavation site. Through the night more of the palace debris had been cleared. The foundation of an expansive basement was coming into view now. They'd soon have a way down to the hidden bunker installed beneath the palace walls. With a weary sigh, Blue settled atop a rubble pile to observe the rescue efforts. Time was running out for a peaceful resolution in Ivory Coast. The country needed the strength and vision of its elected president. The sooner Velegill was out of his hiding place and back in front of his people, the better.
Within Mercenary Hands
From the prow of their rain drenched pirogue Captain Scarlet set his paddle upon the gunwale and scanned the dampened riverside ahead of them. "We're coming up to a small bend in the river, Reg. Does anything yet look familiar?”
Reginold Kaiser sculled his own paddle to turn away from a half submerged rock. "I think we're getting close," he announced into the clouded drizzle. "I hear an old generator. Sounds like Zaire's fossil. Uses it to purify water and run electricity to his camp."
“When will you know for sure it's Zaire's camp?" As the Spectrum officer spoke, he steered the canoe around some more rocks and the wide wing of a plane came into sight. The aircraft was as beat as Kaiser's helicopter had been, Scarlet realized. Moored to a makeshift dock, its pontoon landing gear bobbed and jostled in the current. Its straight wings dripped rainwater.
"When I see that sad frog of a plane," Kaiser answered with open sarcasm. "That's our ride. I just hope Zaire's willing to take us. He may already have it slated for a run."
"Smuggling, you mean," Scarlet reminded him.
"He's not a drug dealer, Captain. I can tell you that much. But he's not above helping the destitute obtain the resources to make their voices heard."
“Then he'll have guns," the Spectrum captain surmised. "And he'll have the means for me to contact Spectrum headquarters."
"Be careful there," Kaiser warned from the stern as they paddled the pirogue in toward shore. With a rolling bob, the canoe side-slipped against the rushing current. "He won't trust you to use his latrine, much less his radio. Let me handle this. I'm his associate."
"Not a friend? Sounds like a professional relationship."
"Well, I did say he helps the destitute. My pride didn't want to admit membership in that society." Together they maneuvered the pirogue alongside the weathered amphibious aircraft. It came to rest against the heavy bamboo poles of the improvised boat landing. Already a stationed guard was calling for assistance, his semi-automatic weapon trained on the two intruders. "Keep your cool, Captain," Kaiser leaned forward to whisper. "And don't mention who you really are. Your name is George. Got it?" Captain Scarlet nodded and secretly reminded himself that George was the patron saint of England and slayer of dragons. So, he was in good company. With a glance up at the moisture filled clouds, he had to agree, the weather was right for the namesake as well.
They waited for several more of Zaire's brigands to rush forward brandishing their firepower. The pair in the dugout cooperatively raised their hands in supplication. Scarlet shifted in his seat to watch Kaiser scan the assemblage for familiar faces. The rebel leader found none to address. It seemed that in the smuggling business, profits weren't the only things that quickly changed hands. "I'm Lazarus," Kaiser entreated to the armed men. "I'm looking for Joe Zaire. This is his plane. Is he here?"
From behind the thick trees beyond the riverbank came a deep, scratchy voice. "I'd remember that name, even if it wasn't a fake one." A slim finely muscled figure stepped out from the shadows. Scarlet saw that he was as dark as an unbrewed coffee bean and sported the stubby thumb of a well-chewed cigar poking from his pouting lips. "Reg. You're still alive? I thought you'd gone to play Moses with the Ivorians. What's it been now? Two years?"
Reginold Kaiser lowered his arms and smiled. Scarlet took careful note of the man's body language. Reg was far from reposed by the gathering as he rose carefully from the swaying pirogue to step up onto the rain-spattered quay. "Two years, eight months, three weeks, since I last shared a stiff drink with you, Joe. How you been?"
"I'm alive too. And much wiser, I might add. Vargus. Take these two to the hut." Scarlet could only watch as Kaiser was led away under rifle barrel. The Spectrum captain, too, was ordered from the canoe and up the muddy bank into the trees.
"I'm George," he said to the little man with the wizened face that was Zaire.
"You're nobody, if you're with this traitor," was the scruffy reply.
So. Either Kaiser was lying again, or something had happened to the dark-skinned smuggler since Kaiser's departure from his company. Once they were tied up, back to back, and sitting upon the dirt floor of a grass hut together, Captain Scarlet was given the chance to inquire. "I thought you said he owed you one. Looks like it's the reverse." When Kaiser only sighed in frustration, the captain added, "He called you a traitor."
"It must be because of Kruegar."
Scarlet remembered that name. Kaiser had mentioned it once before. "He works on your rig?"
The Spectrum captain of course could not see his companion nod, but the rebel leader answered with additional information which illuminated their peril. "He's my foreman. He's the traitor. When I left for Ivory Coast, Kruegar must have disenfranchised me. He must have dealt Zaire a bad card. Bad deal on the diamonds from my mine. Said it was my orders." Scarlet felt the man's shoulders shrug against his back. "It's all I can figure. Makes it all the more imperative that we get to my rig as soon as possible, correct the damage. I need that diamond mine. In my absence Kruegar and Dawson must have caught the bug."
"Bug?" Scarlet inquired over the hissing of the rain now seeping through the palmed roof.
"Avarice bug. Thought they could cheat me. Hell, they might even have a contract out on me by now, with them established in running the mine without me."
"I can help," Scarlet offered. "Let me talk to Zaire. If he'd allow me to contact-"
"George!" Kaiser growled emphasizing the false name. "This may be a thin grass hut, but it's still a prison. Can't kick our way out this time."
Scarlet understood. The man was telling him that Zaire was probably right now outside their enclosure eavesdropping on all they said. The captain's response had almost been the habitual SIG. It might have meant death for them both. "I see," he acknowledged. "Why don't you remind Zaire of that time you saved his life, then? All the good times you had together. He teaching you to live in the jungle. I'm sure broken fences can be mended with the right tool."
"Fences, huh?" Kaiser rumbled back. "There aren't many here in the Congo. Just trees, wildlife, and dangerous men with guns. Some even work for the government." He wriggled his wrists against the ropes which bound them tightly together. Then he whispered, "You have a plan?"
Scarlet bent his head low and whispered back. "A distraction. Are you any good at those? We really do need to get out of here." There was little time to sit about and reason with a vengeful man, Scarlet knew. If Zaire felt he could gain from their capture, then their next prison might be more permanent.
The distraction Kaiser next executed would have brought the resident mountain gorillas to shame. The man literally began to howl and holler to the ringing ears of his captive companion. Scarlet cringed against the din, nonetheless preparing for the two men who came to their startled rescue.
"What's going on in here!" one demanded even as his rifle lowered to bear on the captives.
"It was a snake," Scarlet hollered over Kaiser's ranting. "A black mamba. He's deathly afraid of them. It slithered over there, to those boxes. Shoot it!" Both hooligans exchanged uncertain glances then split to scan the rest of the storage space. The crates were most probably filled with the assorted contraband Zaire was smuggling across the river. If any contained gun powder or explosives, they were all doomed if a shot went astray. Behind the captain, Reginold Kaiser kept up his explosive display as the two guards circumvented the hut. The noise was deafening. The man wouldn't be able to talk again for a week if he kept it up much longer.
The two armed thugs had finished their search of the entire structure. "We don't see any snake," one guard reproved.
"Shut up!" the other yelled down at Kaiser. That's when both of the roped captives kicked high, right into the most sensitive juncture on a human male's anatomy. Both guards gulped air and curled forward against their rifles, to fall to their knees. The bound pair had but seconds to get free before Zaire came to see what had just happened.
In the ensuing silence, Scarlet instructed, "Mine has a knife. Follow me." Both rolled onto their sides and kicked forward against their bonds to Scarlet's fallen guard. The man was glaring, grimacing against the blow. But he was in too much pain to react as the Spectrum officer reached forward with his teeth and extracted the hunting knife from the groaning guard's belt sheath. Mumbling around the weapon, Scarlet instructed. "Sit up. On three. One, two-" With a concerted shove of back muscle and thrust of fist into the dirt floor, both men were seated again. The British officer turned his head to the side and dropped the knife within reach of his bound hands. He fumbled for the blade's handle, brushing his palm painfully against its razor edge before gripping the shaft. Twisting the tool around to their ropes he swiftly sliced through one cord. They were free.
"Here," Kaiser instructed as they regained their feet and shrugged off the last of their bonds. "I'll take the knife. You take a rifle. We'll fight our way out."
"I'm Spectrum, Mr. Kaiser. Not a mercenary," Scarlet reminded handing the now bloody blade over to his companion. "Get behind me. I have another idea." Even as he cautioned, Scarlet took up the one guard's fallen rifle. The two smugglers were quickly regaining their senses. They shared the same glowering fury in their eyes. "Time to leave." Aiming the gun at one of the crates Captain Scarlet shot through the padlock. In the same smooth movement, the gun barrel lowered, and Scarlet stepped forward to scoop out three grenades from the now opened box. "These'll do nicely," he said snapping them onto his waistband. "Stay behind me, Reg. And make a run for the plane."
With a smirk Scarlet answered over his shoulder. "I fly you to Boma." The look on the rebel leader's face was worth the wait. Kaiser had never considered that his semi-uniformed companion was as worldly and multi-talented as he.
"I just might consider a career in Spectrum, myself, once my tour of duty here is finished," Kaiser blurted as he followed the barefooted and rifle toting captain from the shelter of the hut. Together they stepped out into the full rainforest deluge of Zaire's smuggling camp.
Even as the captain covered their retreat with a shower of high-flying bullets he called back, "We can always use a good man." Now gunfire was being exchanged. Kaiser sprinted toward the cover of the trees and the river beyond. Plucking a pin free from one grenade with his teeth Scarlet tossed the bomb far to the left, into the underbrush. The Spectrum captain didn't want to maim. Just startle. The boom sent foliage flying. Birds squawked into the inundated sky. After spitting another round of rifle fire harmlessly into the air, Captain Scarlet spun and splashed toward the waiting escape vehicle. Bullets followed him.
"They're heading for the plane!" one of Zaire's men yelled.
In answer Scarlet let loose another grenade. It shattered a slender tree trunk, and the palm collapsed across the muddy path leading to the river. More bullets slapped against tropical vegetation as he fled. Sliding to a halt at the dock, the captain saw the efficient work of his travel mate. A guard was swiftly floating downstream, face in the water, trailing a curling streamer of blood. "Kaiser!" he growled. "You killed him."
Reginold Kaiser was already perched atop the amphibian's landing pontoon, opening the hatch. "It was him or me," he defended, a red bundle beneath one arm. "Come on. That tree won't stop them long."
It was true. Even now voices were growing louder, and gunfire was spitting through the dripping foliage. "Right." Scarlet sprinted after Kaiser, shoving himself inside the cockpit even as more bullets riddled the fuselage. "Zaire's about to lose his plane either way," he mumbled. He flumped into the seat with a grunt and poked the starter button. The plane's engine sputtered to life, the propeller twisting into action. Outside, the gunfire had quieted. There was just the rattle of rain atop the aluminum wings.
"Zaire loves this hunk of metal. He's ordered them to stop firing," Kaiser explained from the copilot's seat. "But we're not out of the jungle yet." The man had already strapped in, but he paused to check the progress of the pilot. "Captain?"
"Reg," Scarlet murmured. "I ... I can get the plane airborne. Can you fly it?" Despite wiping away his soaked bangs, he couldn't seem to focus on the instrument panel. He fumbled with the control stick, shifting the plane into reverse so that it backed away from the now deserted dock.
"What do you mean? Didn't you imply that you were a pilot?" Scarlet didn't answer him. All his concentration was on maneuvering the aircraft into the river's current. "I can taxi," Kaiser admitted. "I guess I can hold a course. Why? What's wrong?"
Scarlet blinked and finally conceded his quandary. "I've been shot, Reg."
The rebel leader's eyes grew to plates. He scrutinized his companion's slumping frame with disbelief. Scarlet's side was darker than the rest of his rain-drenched shirt. "My God. You're bleeding. We should abort. Zaire won't kill us. He wants me alive. Bargaining chip. I'll get him to send for a Congolese medic. Or his pilot can run you to the nearest hospital." Kaiser was reaching over to the throttle lever.
Scarlet swiped the hand away. "I'm getting us to safety," he assured. "You just have to fly the plane for a little while, Reg. I'll be fine. Trust me."
Kaiser was nonplussed. "Trust you? I'd serve with you anytime, friend. But right now you need a doctor." The man was eyeing Scarlet's side again. A warm liquid was trickling down Scarlet's back where the stray bullet had lodged against a rib.
"Trust me," was all the Spectrum captain could repeat as he shoved the throttle forward and sent the roaring plane down river with the current. Their takeoff wasn't graceful, but the aircraft dutifully performed. As beat as the fuselage was, Scarlet had to agree: the engine was well-maintained. He gained enough altitude to see nearly fifty kilometers through the pelted windshield to the hazy horizon. Scarlet then set a course due south, for Angola. "I'll need to adjust the course heading if we're going to land in Boma," he told his navigator. "I'm putting it on autopilot now. Wake me in an hour or so." Leaning back in his seat, Captain Scarlet laid his head back and closed his eyes.
"Wake you?" Again that doubtful panic. "Captain. You're in bad shape. You could die. I need you to stay awake and land this plane." Scarlet was being shaken by the shoulders. "Land it immediately or we're both dead." No response. "Captain Scarlet?" But the Spectrum officer was already drifting into a deep healing sleep.
Opening the Vault
Someone shook him awake. "What? Rick?" Captain Blue jolted from his slumber to squint into the late afternoon sun. He was slumped into a lawn chair somebody had salvaged for him. The person who now wanted his attention cleared his throat and straightened to block out the sun. "Oh, Private Corbin. Did you break through yet?"
"Just about to, Sir," the young man announced. "You said you wanted to be there."
Already Blue was shoving himself to his feet. He couldn't repress a huge yawn and a bone-creaking stretch. "Damn. Must be getting old," he murmured to the junior officer's hesitant smile. "Well, man. Lead the way," Blue ordered with a swipe of his arm. "I owe Captain Ochre a scolding for abandoning me to his little luxury hideaway." Following the younger man toward the excavated palace, Blue continued, "He's no doubt had a good night's sleep and a hot meal, which is more than what I can speak for."
As Blue and Corbin stepped down into the fortified basement, the rescue team was just finishing plasma torching a support beam. The obstructing girder fell away in two pieces, and the bunker's door became accessible. "We're ready to open it, Captain," Corporal Harvey proclaimed. The blond man's smile was triumphant, even as his green eyes were shadowed in sleep deprivation. "Would you like the honors, Sir?"
"Exactly so, Corporal," Captain Blue agreed stepping up to the door. He raised a fist and knocked against the steel structure. "Hello in there," he called to the barrier. "Can little Johnny Ochre come out and play?" From within there was a metallic clang as if a heavy latch were being released. The assembled crew of Spectrum personnel backed away as the bunker door shifted in its frame and swung open with a creak. "Sounds just like my bad shoulder," Blue murmured to himself. "Maybe we both need a good oiling."
"Captain Blue?" a familiar voice inquired. The man who stepped out into the afternoon brightness squinted at the faces gathered to liberate him.
"Good to see you, Captain. How's life in a tin can?" Blue extended his hand for a hearty shake. Ochre reciprocated without hesitation.
"Like a sardine wearing pearls," Ochre informed with a broad smile. "I was getting worried. We only had another two month's supply of food in there. Getting real tired of candied yams and lamb chops. The lemon meringue pie wasn't bad, though."
"Remind me later," Blue droned. "You owe me a dinner out."
"Out anywhere. Away from civil wars and rebel disputes. Speaking of: Where's the president?"
"I am here, Captain Blue," Velegill announced striding from the bunker with a hand embracing his wife's. "We stayed back to be sure there were no dissidents about. We are prepared to accept Spectrum's protection. You spoke of a safe house?"
Blue forced his tired eyes not to roll. "Glad you've finally come to your senses, Mr. President. Come right this way. A Maximum Security Vehicle's waiting for us." He led the procession up the makeshift ramp to ground level. There an MSV was already idling, ready to evacuate the leader to the nearest Spectrum security building. Blue turned to Ochre. "Climb in. There's a lot to update you about. The loyalists have staged an uprising just short of civil war. Harconis is missing. So's Scarlet. Green's trying to back-track their possible whereabouts, but Harconis has more twisted trails than an entire legion of garden slugs. Meanwhile, Magenta's being pulled out of Bouake'. He's in charge of the negotiators' safety. We'll be meeting with him soon."
Ochre scowled at this information, but said nothing until Blue was finished. "Charlie Delta?"
Blue nodded. "Then Cloudbase, if I read our colonel right. He'll want us out of the rat's nest once the cats are free to gather. It's now a World Security project. We can go back to taking care of the real bad guys."
"Any threats since I was entombed?" Ochre inquired as they sat together inside the MSV. Beyond hearing range, to the rear of the security vehicle, President Velegill and his wife were being attended to by a Spectrum medic.
Blue grimaced. "No. Fortunately. And don't use that term with me, partner. You were far from trapped. I presume Velegill anticipated the attack, and that's why he got you down to the bunker?"
"His alarm system was tracking a large metallic object coming toward the palace gates," Ochre informed with a nod. "He hadn't authorized any Ivorian tanks, and no SPV was scheduled to rendezvous. So he ran." Ochre shrugged with a challenging smile. "I just followed the man down the stairs. Who knew he had a nice little hidey-hole staked out for just such an occasion?"
"Well, I'm glad it saved both your skins. I came looking for you two, though," Blue countered. "Found some blood and almost got caught in the building collapse."
Now Ochre's eyes narrowed at the close call. "Sorry," he said sincerely. "First Lady Velegill received a paper cut from some last minute documents. I tried to contact you. Tell you where we were going. But that president can fly when his ass is in peril. Once the bunker door was sealed, all I got was static. By some miracle I got through with that one transmission."
"It was enough to tell me you were all right, Captain," Blue assured. "Glad you're OK."
"Glad to be back on duty." Then Ochre must have realized the truth. "Hey. I'm the field commander, here, Captain. I order you to lay back and get some sleep. Once we get to the safe house, I'll have a kingly meal ready for you. Complete with lemon meringue pie. Promise."
Leaning back in his seat Blue agreed to the offer, but contended, "Make it Boston crème, and it's a deal."
Ochre only smiled and nodded once. "Deal."
River Dreams and Confidences
Captain Scarlet roused to the nervous urgings of a frustrated Reginold Kaiser. "Damn it, Captain. We're almost out of fuel. If you're going to save my ass again, I suggest you wake up now!"
Scarlet shook the drowsiness from his head and straightened in the pilot's seat. "How long was I out?" he asked his companion. The captain's hands swiftly reached for the flight controls of the amphibious plane. Disengaging the autopilot he checked the aircraft's gauges.
"Almost two hours," Kaiser answered. "I was tempted to ditch you and climb into the pilot's seat myself, but you were still breathing. Sort of. Your injury stopped bleeding shortly after you were out. I ... I don't understand it. You were shot. The bullet wound was deep. Not just a graze."
"I've practiced ancient meditative healing, Mr. Kaiser," Scarlet distracted. "About the plane. We're almost out of fuel. What's our position?"
Kaiser shrugged. "Not sure. There's no GPS on this frog, and I lost sight of the Congo a while back."
Scarlet was reviewing what little data the antiquated instrumentation gave him. "Looks like we're off course for Boma by some five hundred forty kilometers. Gauging airspeed and time. I'm setting us a new course due west."
"But what about our fuel?"
Scarlet smiled at the no doubt exhausted rebel leader. "This is an amphibious aircraft, Mr. Kaiser. Would you have me land it somewhere other than water?"
"You're trying to get us back to the Congo River," Kaiser ascertained. The man's eyes repeatedly sank to the now dried but blood-stained shirt his pilot wore.
"I assure you, Reg. I'm fine, and in my right mind."
Though his countenance still sneered skeptical, Kaiser suggested, "Well then, Captain. Next time I'm shot, maybe you can teach me that meditation technique. Meanwhile, I suppose you'll want these back." From behind his seat, Kaiser withdrew the Spectrum officer's boots and tunic vest. "Wish I had us some drinking water and rations as well," he admitted. "But then again, we'll be grounded shortly anyway."
Scarlet nodded out the forward cockpit windshield. The rain had stopped and the view was now clear. "There's a river below. It doesn't look wide enough to be the Congo. How well do you know your local geography, Mr. Kaiser?"
The man was considering the watercourse toward which they would be descending. He shrugged. "Probably the Kasai. It's a tributary of the Congo. In the Bandundu Region. It'll take us north, then west to Boma if we follow it."
"Are there settlements along its banks where we might find a refueling station?" The captain had set the autopilot again, so that he might slip his boots again over bare feet and replace his scarlet tunic. Now he felt a bit more whole, though Scarlet desperately wanted a hot shower and fresh clothes.
"Probably," Kaiser answered to his previous question. "It'll be sheer luck we land near anything beyond a fishing village, though. And the plane's probably not stable enough to float down river once we've landed."
"Then there's only one other alternative," Scarlet acknowledged with a curt smile.
The mischievous glitter returned to Reginold Kaiser's eyes for a shared moment of fantasy. "We'll have to filch ourselves another vehicle," he chimed in. "I vote for a cigarette boat this time."
"Yes. Haste would be the prudent course, Lazarus."
"Nicknames," Kaiser harrumphed. "I'm still upset that Zaire could have even considered me a traitor to our long time friendship." He shook his head. "Kruegar must have fed him some great line about my abandoning my roots for another, bigger cause. Though, in truth, I am spreading my finances a bit thin."
"Kruegar won't be expecting your visit. Will he?" Scarlet surmised.
"Of course not," Kaiser answered curtly not making eye contact with his pilot. "And he won't be expecting a Spectrum escort, either."
"You're using my professional position to your advantage, Mr. Kaiser," Scarlet warned even as he took up the controls and began their descent to the river. "Did you ever consider my willing cooperation?"
Kaiser's ashen face screwed up into discomfort. "You were never my prisoner, Captain," he defended. "I've come to think of you as a traveling companion. Ever since I lost Sam and Jamar, then Corman, you've been my protector. My friend."
"Then I'm ready for more of your promised honesty," Scarlet informed. "Once we've landed, been refreshed, and I've gotten in touch with my superiors, you're going to blow the gaff on your little humanitarian operation, Mr. Kaiser. I want every sorted detail before I walk onto your rig as your shield. Understood?"
Again that mischievous grin. "There's so much to tell, my boy. Where do I begin? My escapades in the Congo? My first arms deal? My food-for-the-poor campaign in Namibia?"
Scarlet glanced the man's way, even as he throttled down and banked the plane for a river approach. "It's a start. I gather you had a different identity on each account."
"Of course. 'Harconis' is just my most recent incarnation. Keeps the government police off my ass."
"Fair enough for now. Brace yourself for a rough landing," Scarlet said. "This type of aircraft isn't exactly my most familiar." The engine was powered down. Scarlet brought the sputtering plane's nose up, and the landing pontoons patted water in a series of jolting hops. Then they were floating. "Right. I'll taxi down river until we come to that dock I saw from the air. It looked promisingly sophisticated. Made of authentic wood."
"You mean as compared to stopgap bamboo?" Kaiser challenged with a tilted brow.
"Right." They floated the plane under minimal power north to a wharf where was docked several well-kept boats. "Looks like a private marina," Scarlet observed as he taxied the now stuttering amphibian up to the longest jetty. "You secure the plane. I'll go see about some water and another transport."
"You're not going to refuel this one?"
The Spectrum captain paused upon the planks. Smiling he admitted, "Not unless you'd care to fly it. Besides, I doubt they'll have aviation petrol."
"No. No. The cigarette boat'd be peachy."
They were able to acquire a speed boat of sorts. It was in good shape, fully fueled, and even sported an operational radio transmitter, but not much else. "Excellent," Scarlet agreed despite the vessel's age of thirty-five years. With a handshake to the owner, the Spectrum captain considered his traveling companion. "Pay the man, Lazarus."
"Me?" Kaiser spat. "I thought I was just the driver."
"Come, now," Scarlet harangued. "You're a business man. You never travel without a few of your precious baubles as bargaining chips. Am I right?"
Kaiser grinned at the expectant boat owner. "My friend, George, here is joking. We do need your boat, however. We're on an important errand. Here. This should more than do." He withdrew from his deep jacket pocket a marble-sized crystalline stone. "One of my better specimens. I usually trade in industrial quality gems." The owner's dark eyes widened to gems of their own. He nodded profusely and accepted the diamond. "The, uh ... The plane belongs to another friend of mine. Joe Zaire. If he comes looking for it, have it refueled with my compliments." Hands shook again, then the two military men were climbing into their water-jet driven, Donzi Z-350. "Nice job, Scarlet," Kaiser commented as he started up the engine. "This'll make good time."
"I'm more concerned with the radio," the Spectrum captain countered. "That 'frog' of Zaire's was lucky its wings held, though I'd have liked to continue flying. It's faster, with fewer obstructions."
"And we're both late as it is," Kaiser agreed. "Because of our little Congolese mishap, I was delinquent on a very important meeting."
Pausing at the radio controls Scarlet raised an ironic brow to the craft's pilot. "I assume you're not talking about Kruegar."
As Kaiser gunned the power skiff forward into the Kasai's current he shook his head and yelled over the roar, "I was supposed to meet with our good, hypocritical President Velegill."
Scarlet scowled at the information. "When?" he demanded, communiqué forgotten for the moment.
There was a stubborn embarrassment in Kaiser's eyes as he scanned the river ahead, navigating around islands and the occasional crocodile. "First thing this morning. But we would have been back before then, if the chopper hadn't been shot down."
With a grip of the passenger seat Scarlet leaned forward beside his companion and asked, "And why was that, again? You never did specify who had shot us down. They obviously wanted you dead."
Kaiser shook his head and steered a wide berth around an overloaded sloop coursing the Kasai's southern shore. "I told you. I have enemies here. Couldn't possibly know for sure. Then again, the Congolese government likes me even less."
Scarlet chose his next words carefully. "But who would have recognized your helicopter from the ground, at that altitude, and at twilight? Surely someone must have been told specifically to target you. Someone who knew your flight plan. Some traffic controller thousands of kilometers away?"
For the first time since he'd known him, Captain Scarlet saw Reginold Kaiser swallow in reservation. He was afraid. "My men. Dawson and Kruegar. They might have guessed I was coming."
A pointed finger poked at the rebel leader's chest. "You said only truths, Kaiser," Scarlet accused. "A while ago you assured me your diamond rig was unaware of your impromptu visit. You intended to surprise them."
"Yeah, well, a man who gives money to the poor can gain enemies even within his own circle of friends."
"So, Robin Hood. Who do you think tipped off Kruegar?"
Kaiser was hesitant. He made a show of steering well-clear of a tiny isle necklaced in sunbathing crocs. "Jeremiah might have tipped them off. I was about ready to fire him anyway."
"Smythe? That weasely man who was my first contact? Why were you going to fire him?"
"Personal reasons, Spectrum. I don't have to answer that one."
"You will if your life depends on it," Scarlet reminded. "You want me to stick my neck out for you and your little diamond operation. I think I deserve the answers to any questions I ask."
"All right." Though Kaiser cringed at his confession, he admitted, "Smythe was going to blab to the Ivorian authorities. He was blackmailing me. Wanted a greater percentage of the profits. But I held my ground. I threatened him with arrest, too. He'd been doing my books for years. He knew I wasn't pocketing profits. He knew just where the money was going. To Congolese freedom forces. To food banks in Namibia. To rebel factions in Ivory Coast. Hell, to half a score of my own charities within the West African influence. But my methods are against the laws. Smythe was using that fact to pressure me."
"So. Smythe contacted Kruegar once we were airborne. He really did take care of business. Didn't he?"
With a nervous chuckle Kaiser countered. "Yeah, but he failed. I'm still alive."
"Three of your friends aren't. Kruegar's heat-seeker missiles were 60 percent effective." The rebel leader didn't answer the challenge. He didn't even take his squinting eyes off the glittering green of the Kasai River. He simply steered the boat and eased the throttle forward. Captain Scarlet sank into the chair beside the pilot's and allowed the man to ruminate for a moment on his actions. Revenge was a most powerful motivator. But the Spectrum captain would soon find out the true scruples of the man he knew as both Harconis and Kaiser.
After a minute of silent fuming Scarlet finally shook his dark-haired head and rose again to confront his companion. "Your delay has changed the whole dynamics of the Ivorian conflict," Scarlet grumbled over the roar of the boat. "I need to call Cloudbase for an update immediately." But as he reached past Kaiser's hand upon the steering wheel, something hard smashed against the captain's skull. Darkness fell midday. Scarlet didn't see the steel wrench drop beside his prone form. Didn't hear the apology from his recent ally.
"Sorry, Spectrum. But one of your kind's enough to handle. This is bigger than the both of us." With one hand upon the wheel, Reginold Kaiser shoved the throttle to full speed, and the Donzi Z-350 surged forward thrusting river water aside in its wake. E.T.A. to Kinshasa: two hours.
Piecing Together the Puzzle
It wasn't for several hours since its departure in Grand Bassam that the MSV stopped for fuel. By then they were out of the country and cruising toward Spectrum's West African security building in Monrovia, Liberia. President Velegill was looking forward to meeting with his assembly and the French negotiation council.
Blue awoke from his extended nap to fresh coffee and pastries, compliments of Spectrum. "I guess this'll hold me over until we get to the security building," he contended with a yawn, pouring creamer into his coffee mug. "Did I miss anything?" Blue next settled into a seat toward the front of the armored vehicle to attend to his hunger at the inset table.
"Actually a lot," Ochre informed from an adjoining chair. "I've been in contact with Cloudbase. The Angel fighters were forced to take out three Ivorian missile silos which took an interest in their flyovers. The government's fallen to anarchy. Doesn't look good. Internal security's falling apart."
"So where's this rebel leader?" Blue demanded sipping at his mug. "He sets the country up for conflict, then evacuates at the first sign of civilian protest? What kind of coward is he?"
"He's a trained killer, that's what," Ochre answered with a confident hand atop the table. "Green's dug up more dirt on our Mr. Harconis. Seems he's a military man, all right. Trained in the Congo for guerilla warfare with some guy named Darma. The colonel's sent Captains Turquoise and Ivory to track this Darma down. He's our best lead so far. His track record's longer than Green's computer readout. Smuggler, now. Runs guns and supplies to rebel contingencies along the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo." Ochre shook his head. "You were right about the twisted trails. It's more like Daedalus' labyrinth, though. Captain Scarlet could be anywhere in western Africa. Looks like Harconis has current dealings in at least three countries and contacts in five more."
"Well, then. We're finally getting somewhere," Blue contended biting down on a donut. "It's about time. I'm tired of cat and mouse politics."
Captain Ochre considered the other passengers within the MSV before leaning forward and whispering, "It looks like we might have to stick around for a little more of it, though." He explained conspiratorially, "The colonel seems to think this Harconis fellow might just be on the up and up. A real humanitarian type. Not the villain at all."
"What?" Blue sputtered donut dust over his coffee mug. Ochre shushed him with a fanning hand. This time Blue lowered his voice. "He's dealing guns with a Congolese guerilla, for crying out loud. The weasel ships them in to Ivory Coast, then skips town. And he took my partner with him."
"They might not have had a choice. Spectrum security found Jeremiah Smythe, Harconis' second in command, at a Harconis country house outside Abidjan."
"Smythe?" Blue recalled. "He's the one Green said picked Captain Scarlet up at the airport. Did he talk?"
Now Ochre's hazel-brown eyes darkened to shadows. "He'd been murdered. Dead at least a day. Single gunshot to the head."
"Executioner style," Blue agreed. "Very mercenary. Did the security team find any files? Business transactions? Any information to help us track Harconis?"
Ochre was shaking his head. "No. The place had been gutted of every leaflet and note scrap. Dead end." The unintentional pun caused the American captain an eye twitch. "But a neighbor reported seeing the estate's helicopter leave a day earlier. Said it looked filled with at least four people. And," Ochre paused for emphasis, "Lieutenant Green's made some headway with the diamond trail you suggested."
Now Blue straightened in his seat. "Oh?"
"Darma's been known to act as a go-between with diamonds mined from South Africa-controlled Namibia. He accepts the diamonds; trades them in for armaments; then ships the guns for cash into the Congo."
Blue nodded slowly. "I knew diamonds were a part of this puzzle. But why the Congo? What about Ivory Coast? Are you sure Harconis is involved?"
Now Ochre squared his shoulders and beamed. "Loyalty, my friend. It all has to do with loyalty. Joseph Darma's dossier says he also goes by the name 'Zaire'. Patriotism goes a long way in the Congo. Harconis spent time training with Darma, and learning about the plight of the Congolese natives. Logging, polluting, loss of habitat. It's all there. The two were like father and son. But get this. Seems Harconis has a nickname, too. Lazarus."
Blue blinked over his stalled mug. "You're kidding. Like from the New Testament? Wasn't that the name Christ gave to a leper he healed?"
Ochre shrugged. "Take it as you like. Lazarus was actually two different people. He was also one of Christ's intimate friends. A fellow patriot of sorts, whom Jesus raised from the dead. That Lazarus later became bishop of Cyprus." Ochre took another sip of his coffee before submitting, "Names can be very symbolic of one's character."
Blue wasn't so easily swayed. "Hogwash.” He set down his sloshing coffee with a ceramic clank. “Harconis has Scarlet somewhere. Held captive. Harconis's just waiting it out to use him as a bargaining chip to re-enter the country."
"But why, Blue?" Ochre argued. "Ivory Coast isn't his home. Harconis' only connection is the smuggling operation which brings arms into impoverished countries in order to bolster minority strength. In his mind, Harconis is a humanitarian on the run. Bets are: Scarlet's protecting him."
"Then why hasn't he contacted Cloudbase?" Blue demanded his breakfast now neglected. "The puzzle pieces aren't fitting right. You're forcing them to, Rick." Blue was out of his seat and pacing the narrow isle between chairs. In the rear of the MSV President Velegill roused from his slumber to eye the American with suspicious concern.
Ochre must have seen the leader's anxiety. "Calm down, Captain. You know whatever happens; Captain Scarlet will come through unscathed. He always does."
Blue had enough sense to know there were other ears present, including young Tomlinson's behind the vehicle's steering controls. "Scarlet isn't totally protected," he reminded his field partner. "If he's lost his cap communicator, then he may be without his weapon as well. We don't know for sure if either he or Harconis are still alive.” Blue waved a wrist toward the rear of the MSV. “Meanwhile, we have to continue to play nursemaid to an African country with growing pains?"
Now Velegill was on his feet. He stepped forward despite his wife's cautionary hand. "Captain Blue," the dignitary reminded. "I love my country. I would see it healthy and prosperous. This Harconis. He would force us with threats and firepower, to concede to the masses."
Blue glowered at the slender, older man. "What's wrong with that, Sir?” He picked up his coffee again to consider its steaming richness. “Isn't that what a democracy is? Government representing the people?"
"If we were to allow the people to rule," Velegill explained, "then we would be torn in two. Divided. Muslims fighting Christians. We would then lose the support of the French. France is our advisory nation."
"Crutch, you mean," Blue accused gripping his mug so that his knuckles whitened. "When is it time to stand alone in the world economy, Mr. President? I'm sure there are other nations which would trade with you, import goods which would be mutually beneficial to all Ivorians. There are peaceful nations worldwide which share a mixed heritage. Let them be your examples." Now Blue was gaining momentum in his argument. He set his coffee down onto the table between them and leaned his fists against the smooth surface. "According to recent statistics, you still have an 18 percent illiteracy rate. Your economy is now reliant on industrial goods, bolstering big business deals abroad while endangering your people with starvation. No one can afford to survive on a farm if your government won't supplement the farm wages." The captain straightened to face the dignitary and shrugged to the obvious. "We all have to eat, Mr. President. We all can't afford to import our grains and meats and lemon meringue pies from Europe. Can we?"
There was a tensile silence within the cabin of the MSV. Ochre rose from his seat to stand beside his American colleague. "A true democracy takes care of all of its people, Mr. President," he said soberly. "Come on, Blue. Let's check our destination E.T.A. with Tomlinson." With a heavy sigh, Blue conceded his defeat and turned his colorful shoulder to the Ivorian leader, instead following his friend to the driver's deck.
Scarlet shrugged the grogginess from his head to open eyes to a blinding sunset. He shook the brightness away then squinted at the skiff's driver. "What the Hell do you think you're doing, Kaiser?" he demanded. He watched his companion jump.
"God!" the man gasped glancing over his shoulder. "I hit you hard enough to leave you out until I got to the city."
Scarlet tested the ropes which bound his hands behind his aching back. His boots, too, were bound. He'd been left slumped in a corner of the boat's bulwark, beside the casing which concealed the jet motors. With an awkward shimmy, Captain Scarlet sat up. "You didn't answer my question."
From his stance at the pilot station Kaiser nodded in irony. "Yeah. Well, maybe I'm tired of being interrogated."
"Then I'll add kidnapping to your long list of questionable talents." With a hearty tug of his wrists, the Spectrum captain was assured of the rope's sturdiness. "And wicked knot tying." Then he glanced overboard at the rushing water. "What city? Surely we're nowhere near Boma yet, even at this suicidal speed."
Kaiser was shaking his head from the wheel. "No, but we need to get airborne. Time's running out."
"You have another hot date?" Scarlet challenged, this time testing the strength of his ankle bindings.
"Well, I'm sure your pals are frantically searching for you by now. I still need you, Captain. I just don't want Spectrum breathing down my spine. They'd stop me for sure from doing what must be done."
"And that'd be?" Kaiser didn't immediately answer. Instead the man swerved around some object in the river Scarlet couldn't see from his vantage point. The captain's shoulder banged against the boat's gunwale. "Haste makes for a dangerous ride, Harconis. What are you running from? Really?"
That created the desired effect. Harconis/Kaiser spun his head about, taking his eyes from the river long enough to assure, "I'm no coward, Captain. I'm racing toward something, and I'm putting both our lives at risk to do it." He shrugged. "Since you're Spectrum, I figured you'd be used to the danger. Putting your own life aside for what's right, I mean."
Now Scarlet was losing patience. "Damn it, Harconis. Or Kaiser. Or whatever your name really is. When are you going to trust me and let me in on your little game? You want my help. Of that I'm sure. But you are afraid of something. Aren't you?"
A negation of Kaiser's fluttering hair extolled little. "I ... I can't tell you."
"Reginold Harconis. International man of mystery. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were a Mysteron agent out to bring down half of Africa's governments. Throw the globe into economic chaos. Upsetting the balance of power."
Over the roaring of the straining jet motor Reginold Kaiser admitted. "If I fail, then that's the most likely scenario. I won't let it happen."
"I can help, but only if I know the entire truth," Scarlet countered. "You've got to trust that I'll do what's right, too." It was the Spectrum agent's last attempt. Either Kaiser would accept the captain's honesty, or he'd keep silent.
"Do I have your word that you won't try to contact your Cloudbase and bring in the troops? If Kruegar were to suspect that I'd gained that kind of support, he'd set it off for sure."
Even in the velocity-generated wind, Scarlet hadn't misheard the man's words. His brows creased in suspicion. "Set what off?" he demanded lowly.
"A ... a bomb," was the reserved answer from the skiff pilot. "Kruegar knows about the hydrogen bomb. It was the ace up my sleeve," he explained, his hasty confession gaining momentum as he continued. It seemed he wouldn't allow time for a reprimand. "I purchased the bomb from some Russian historian two years ago. I kept it safe on the rig. Hidden from everyone. I never intended to use it. But I thought it'd be a bargaining tool. Something to hand over in good faith. Now everything's gotten way out of hand. I have to get to my rig."
"Then let me call Spectrum headquarters," Scarlet reasoned, his lips drawn tight against his teeth and his still struggling wrists. "Damn it, Harconis. How could you be so grand in your scheme that you'd flirt with such power? Weren't the anti-aircraft missiles good enough?"
The boat's pilot spun the wheel hard to port and roared past yet another obstruction. The waves were beginning to douse the captive Spectrum captain wedged in the stern. "I had a chance to buy it. I bought it. I didn't want to use it. Was never going to," Kaiser insisted. The Donzi jostled against something hard in its path. "I have to get to Kinshasa. They'll have a copter. I'll steal it; then you can fly it. We have to get out to the rig before anyone else does."
"Slow down, Reg," Scarlet tried to reason, even as a wake curled over the gunwale to drown him. He sputtered against the chilly onslaught. "How did Kruegar find out about this hydrogen bomb? Why do you think he'd be crazy enough to use it? Surely he knows better, as you do."
"I'm not sure, but greed has a funny way of making you oblivious to reason. Do you really want to risk it?"
"Then untie me, Reg. I promise not to report to Spectrum. And I'll fly the helicopter out to your rig. I want Kruegar stopped too."
Kaiser shook his head, though. "Not now," he said as his hands turned the wheel again. "No time. Once we reach Kinshasa." The Donzi Z-350 jolted against another hardness. Kaiser spun the wheel. Scarlet was battered against the dripping gunwale once more.
"Slow down!" the Spectrum captain ordered. "Or we'll both be floating down river to the delight of the crocs."
Kaiser didn't listen. "There!" he said, raising a finger to the darkening horizon. "I see the lights. Kinshasa. We'll dock by the airport. I know where to go." Obviously, the rebel leader, in his many travels, had been to the capital city of DRC before. Scarlet could do nothing but settle in to his corner and await his companion's next move.
Within minutes Kaiser had slowed the flailing boat to a more reasonable speed. He thriftily navigated the inner channels of the Congo River's estuary to stall the engine and coast in to shore. As he did so, Kaiser released the wheel to tug out his knife. "You've got to realize, Captain. I'm doing this to prevent a war, not start one. I made a big mistake in trusting others to the same ideals as myself." Leaning down Kaiser cut through the ropes which bound the officer's boots. "I have your word; you'll help me get that bomb away from Kruegar."
Scarlet leaned forward and let the man snip the bonds which held his wrists. "My word," he agreed. Then Scarlet rose to his feet. "Let's find ourselves a chopper, shall we?" Rubbing at his wrists the captain stepped forward to dock the battered boat. Acquiring their next mode of transportation took a little more maneuvering, however. Luckily, Kaiser seemed to know the gaps in airport security. When they needed to improvise, Scarlet's soggy uniform and security pass did the rest to persuade the airport staff to let the pair through to Kinshasa’s heliport tarmac. As Captain Scarlet slid behind the traffic chopper's control stick he slipped on the comm. headset and nodded to his partner. "What's our heading, Mr. Kaiser?"
With their good fortune at obtaining a helicopter, came the return of Kaiser's cheerful grin. "Due west to the ocean, my boy. Then south to the coast of Angola."
"That's it? No GPS coordinates?"
"You'll see, Captain. Once we get close, I'll guide you in. Even in the dark you can't miss my rig."
Skeptical though he was, Captain Scarlet started the helicopter's rotors and nodded. "SIG." With a tug to the control stick, the pair was soon airborne and heading into the last vibrant shades of twilight on their second full day together.
"I think I've finally completed the puzzle, Sir," Lieutenant Green announced from his post on Cloudbase.
Colonel White rose from his chair and strode to the younger man's workstation. "Let's see it, then."
"SIG." Green poked a finger at the digital data compiler. "I've pieced together five of Harconis' aliases, and a rough timeline of his movements for the past twelve years."
"Excellent, Lieutenant. I'm impressed."
Green wasn't comfortable yet with the compliment, however. "There are still huge gaps in it, Sir. The man has an uncanny ability to drop off the map for years at a time." He pointed a chocolate finger at the readout. "Here. I have no record of his whereabouts for three years, running. He had been last seen in the Bandundu Region of the Congo River basin. Then he just vanished."
"Cut to the chafe, Lieutenant," White warned. "I need to know where Harconis is now. And Captain Scarlet."
With a weighted sigh, the younger man began his reasoning. "Based on the latest shipments of diamonds to the smuggler, Joseph Darma, I believe Mr. Harconis is somewhere in the Angolan region of the Congo River. He may have a private helipad in Boma."
"Well done, Lieutenant." The colonel laid a hand atop the man's shoulder and afforded a congratulatory squeeze. Straightening over his junior officer he instructed, "Get me Captain Turquoise on the horn. He's the closest agent. Maybe he can intercept them."
Within moments the haggard voice of the Cherokee officer answered the hail. "Here, Cloudbase. Busy," was all that came through. In the background gunfire popped.
"Turquoise," White demanded. "What's going on down there? Do you require backup?"
"Situation SIR, Sir," came the terse reply. "Under fire from smuggler forces."
"Is Captain Ivory still with you?"
More stray blasts could be heard over the microphone. "Sorry, Colonel. Did not receive that last."
"Get to safety, Captain and report back," White ordered. "I'm sending in a squad to rendezvous. E.T.A. thirty-" The transmission suddenly went dead. "Bloody Hell,” the colonel growled. “Dispatch those troops, Lieutenant Green. I'm not about to lose any more officers. And get me Captain Magenta. I'm sending him to Angola immediately."
"He's to track Scarlet's movements from this alleged helipad. Perhaps we're not too late to affect a peaceful meeting between the factions of Ivorian government."
Fellows in Arms
Captain Scarlet overlooked the blackness below that was the eastern Atlantic Ocean. He deftly piloted their helicopter south along the coastline of the African nation of Angola. "What am I looking for?" he asked his navigator.
In the dim illumination of the aircraft's instrument panel, Reginold Kaiser pointed out through the cockpit canopy. "We're looking for the Namibian border, Captain. Once we've reached the twenty-third parallel, turn west, by south west for thirty-two minutes at present speed."
"Further out to sea?" Scarlet inquired. "Your diamond mine is in the ocean?"
Scarlet felt his skeptical nape hairs tickle again. "I assumed you were alluvial mining along the coastline, at the mouth of a river."
Kaiser's smile was self-satisfied. "Now, any land-based mine would be easy to track. My diamond mine is mobile, my boy. You'll see."
Captain Scarlet followed Kaiser's directions and headings. Within two hours, the distant spark of a torch in the night announced the mid-ocean location of Reginold Kaiser's diamond mine. Nimbly, the Spectrum field agent maneuvered the chopper toward that brightness amidst the waves. As they drew nearer he marveled at the structure. Its massive pylons sunk into the ocean, and no doubt anchored to the seafloor with weighted feet, the converted oil rig seemed a mini city floating upon the sea. "Impressive," Scarlet breathed as he started his descent to the platform's bull's-eye marked helipad. "They probably already know we're here," he reminded.
Kaiser nodded and slipped the headset more securely over his ears. Leaning forward he pressed a few buttons and twisted the frequency knob. "Lazarus to Capricorn. Come in Capricorn. Kruegar, are you there? I have a guest with me."
There was only static for an answer at first. Then the chopper's radio fizzled into a deep voice. "Here, Boss. I've been expecting your visit. I have updated reports you need to sign, Sir. Have you had dinner yet? I'll get Cookie to heat you up some corned beef and cabbage. And for your guest, of course."
"Sounds good, Kruegar. Have Templeton and Cooper ready the tie downs for the chopper. We're coming in." As Kaiser switched off the comm., below them beacons blinked on to illuminate their landing pad. To his pilot Kaiser pointed. "There's your mark, Captain. Once we're onboard, I'll arrange for Kruegar to show you around. It'll give me time to visit the armory and get us some reinforcements."
"Reinforcements?" Scarlet inquired. "How will you know who to trust? This could be a trap."
"For sure it is, my dear Captain. But we aren't going to act as if we know that. You're my security liaison, remember? You're here to inspect my rig for trade violations. After all, we're technically operating within the sovereign waters of a South African controlled territory. Their needs and regulations must be met. I've passed such inspections before. Don't worry. My men are used to having an inspections officer poking around."
"What do we do if one of us is detained?" Scarlet lowered the helicopter smoothly onto the slightly swaying pad. Unlike a massive ocean liner the renovated oil rig fought against the Atlantic's hypnotic dance. "If we're separated, I want a contingency plan. They won't out-right introduce me to the hydrogen bomb," he warned.
"I know, friend. I'll take care of Kruegar and the bomb. Dawson's the man you have to worry about. Highly suspicious fellow. He's my onboard security. You'll be another dog pissing on his fence, so don't alarm him." The man poked his harness latch free and slid the headset from his ears. "Come. I'm starving." Kaiser vaulted from the borrowed helicopter and waved to the two crewmembers that ran out to secure their only transportation home. Scarlet followed his companion across the helipad to the steel stairs which led down into the main structure. Here would be the crew's quarters, the mess, recreation facilities, and of course the working parts of an off-shore diamond mine. Curious as to the rig's intricacies, Captain Scarlet took note to ask Kruegar for a tour of the massive facility by the morning's light.
As they galloped down the four flights to the lower landing the massive Vacuveyer sat staring like a colossal, hunched beast. It silently awaited its task of sucking boulders and diamond-studded debris from the continental shelf. Scarlet estimated they were nearly two hundred kilometers out from shore and the alluvial out-spilling of the Orange River. Just then five dark-skinned men stepped out from the shadows of the stairwell with guns drawn. "You were saying?" Scarlet challenged.
"Gentlemen!" Kaiser announced with open arms. "I trust you've kept things running smoothly in my absence?"
The tallest of the group smiled broadly. Holstering his weapon he shook hands with his boss. "This guest of yours is Spectrum, Lazarus," he said.
"Of course, he's Spectrum, Randy. This is Captain Scarlet. He's here to look over things. Make sure you've all been good little boys while I've been gone." Lazarus/Kaiser turned to his companion. "Captain. This is Randy Juster, my first assistant, and his loyal brethren: Thomas, Noon, Farengo, and Scooter. They're my contacts. They'll watch your back."
"Fellow humanitarians?" Scarlet asked leaning out to shake each of their darker hands in turn. All had re-holstered their weapons and seemed utterly relaxed beside their paler boss. "Do they know everything?" He shot Kaiser a knowing brow.
"They know enough to get them killed, if things go wrong," was the rebel leader's serious reply.
"Then we need to talk in private."
Juster spoke up in his team's defense. "No, Captain Scarlet. Kruegar's waiting for you below. If we delay, he'll grow suspicious." With a wave of his hand Juster allowed Kaiser and Scarlet to pass. "This way, Sir. Captain." Kaiser led the way across the platform to another shorter flight of stairs and an open hatch which could be closed to hold off the weather. "Kruegar's been anticipating your arrival since yesterday, Boss."
"I've been detained, Randy," Kaiser answered. "It's a long story. Needless to say, I'm supposed to be dead."
Scarlet watched Juster's ebony face grimace in discomfort. The man genuinely seemed on their side. Yet, the captain wasn't prepared to let his guard down. Not even for Kaiser. The rebel leader had, after all, knocked Scarlet cold and bound him to prevent him from contacting his superior. They entered a corridor which led them to the rig's galley. As Juster stepped forward to enter first, he raised a cautionary hand to his boss. So. This, too, might be an ambush. Kaiser nodded and silently relayed the prudence to his Spectrum companion. The rest of Juster's men rested hands atop their sidearms, just in case. Randy Juster opened the galley door and stepped in.
"And this, Captain Scarlet,” Juster announced into the air, “is our humble dining hall. I'm sure you're used to grander fare, but the cook's really great. He'll fill you up."
With a slight nod of gratitude to the brave man, Scarlet followed him in, with Kaiser after. He noticed that the remaining entourage hadn't entered, but must have left for other duties. The three strode to the table nearest the kitchen and sat down. Soon they were presented with steaming plates of potatoes, cabbage, and thick slices of tender salted beef. Their hunger was great after the trials of the jungle. With a nod to Kaiser, Juster asserted the food's safety. They ate in peace. Though reheated, the meal was far more tasty and satisfying than either green bananas or sugar cane.
As they were nearly finished, the galley door snapped open. A dark-eyed man in a scruffy beard and thick turtle-neck sweater strode in, a scowl weighing his lips like an anchor. Kruegar. Scarlet was sure of it. The man cleared his throat and approached their table with heavy steps of his thigh boots. "Mr. Lazarus," the man rumbled.
Lazarus/Kaiser turned to his dinner mate and flipped a palm the big man's way. "Captain Scarlet. This is my foreman and site boss, Mr. Elias Kruegar. Kruegar, our guest. Captain Scarlet of-"
"Spectrum," the dour man droned. "I should have known you'd bring them in on this."
"In on what, Kruegar?" Lazarus/Kaiser inquired with an innocently raised brow. "He's a world security officer. Diamonds are a rare commodity these days. Even industrial ones. It was just a matter of time before we attracted the big fish out this far at sea."
Scarlet nodded and played his part. "Yes, Mr. Kruegar. I've already inspected the alluvial mines onshore, and the most recent endeavors of two South African firms. Notably the Kimberley and Jordana mines." He shook his head once in certainty. "Your Capricorn rig was simply next on my list."
"It's the timing that worries me," Kruegar grumbled. Scarlet wondered if the foreman ever lifted his jowls into a grin. The man scowled down at his boss. "I thought you were far too busy saving the Ivorians to check in on us for at least another month."
Lazarus/Kaiser sighed and leaned away from his cooling meal. Hands atop the table in plain sight Kaiser smiled. "I needed a break from my superhero persona, Elias. I'm sure you can understand that. That, and the fact that the books need updated signatures for us to keep running. Mr. Scarlet here has assured me, we'll pass his inspection as long as the paperwork is legal." Kaiser paused and raised a single brow at his foreman. "It is all legal. Isn't it?"
Kruegar didn't even hesitate. "As legal as can be with our customer base, Boss." There was no attempted humor in the tone, or in the man's coal eyes.
To Scarlet, those orbs and the man's pallor reminded him of another dangerous man. The name of Conrad tripped across the Spectrum agent's consciousness. It was time for the captain to make his move as Kaiser's security liaison. "If you don't mind, Mr. Kruegar, I'd like for you to give me a thorough tour of the rig in the morning. I would very much like to learn the differences in your methods."
With a diaphragm jerk the foreman droned, "Sure, Captain. And I'll see you first thing in the morning, Boss. Those papers I spoke of."
With a pleasant smirk Kaiser nodded once. "Of course, Elias. Good night, then." The big man grunted his reply and spun to leave. Silence was their company as the three seated men finished their meals.
Finally Juster abandoned his fork and acknowledged, "You're both probably tired from your journey. Captain Scarlet, there's a small stateroom just down from Lazarus' room. I'm sure you'll find it comfortable."
Scarlet nodded and set his napkin down. "Thank you, Mr. Juster. I am rather spent." The look in the man's stunning golden-hazel eyes told the Spectrum officer otherwise. They were going to meet secretly somewhere. He was sure of it. Kaiser, himself, would probably arrange for the rendezvous soon after retiring for the night. In truth, Scarlet got a knock from his closet door soon after he had sat down to consider his options. The Spectrum captain needed to contact Cloudbase, no matter what Kaiser urged. If the rebel leader's life and those of his men were in danger, it compared little to the destructive potential of a hijacked hydrogen bomb. Scarlet had to meet with this Kruegar fellow again, to determine whether the dour foreman was also the suicidal type. "Kaiser?" he answered the knock. The wall slid aside to reveal the man. He'd come through an adjoining panel. "You are full of surprises, Mr. Kaiser." Scarlet rose and joined him. "Are we ready?"
"We have to delay. I'm waiting for Juster to return with a few more men and weapons. I feel a little outnumbered."
"Just how outnumbered?" Scarlet probed.
"Oh, according to Scooter, only about ten to fifty. Against. The rest of the rig crew’s in the dark. Neutral. Though I'm sure Kruegar won't win any bonus points for his cheery personality if the situation were to get tight."
The Spectrum captain had to grin. Kaiser was seeing the lighter side of reality again, even in the midst of potential defeat. Then his lips fell serious again. "Reg. I need to contact Cloudbase. They need to know about the bomb. If it's here, it's imperative that I get it off this potential missile silo and dismantled. Millions of lives are at stake."
"I agree," Kaiser countered with a calming hand. "But we have to confirm its location first. Noon says my vault's been broken into only recently. Probably by Dawson. He's a safe-cracker. Noon's not sure if the device is even still on the rig. But I'm almost convinced that it is. Kruegar'd want to keep it close for security's sake."
Scarlet gripped his cohort's arms in steel determination. "Then all the more reason we hail Cloudbase. With a Spectrum team here, we can disassemble this monstrosity of a diamond mine tonight. Find that device and dispose of it properly."
"No. Captain," the rebel leader insisted shrugging himself free. "I won't risk my rig crew. Kruegar's got two weaknesses. He's a bad aim with a gun. And his followers aren't his friends. Look. We can get around him and his men if we just keep our cool and wait it out until morning. Go on that tour with Kruegar. It'll give me time to look. I know this rig like my own shoe size. I'll find it. It's my responsibility."
"And you're mine, Mr. Kaiser. I promised you'd be under my protection."
"Just do what you do best, Spectrum," Kaiser assured with a pat to the man's black sleeve. "Ask a lot of time-consuming questions. That'll give me and my team time to do a little inspecting of our own. I already have a few places in mind. Stop worrying."
"And the update to Spectrum?" Scarlet challenged, still not comfortable being the second in command of an as yet unauthorized and alarming aspect of his mission.
In answer to the agent's query, that mischievous smile again tickled the corners of Kaiser's mouth. "As soon as we have the bomb located and secured, you can call in your Crayola cavalry. Agreed?"
Captain Scarlet sulked for a long second then lowered his eyes in defeat. "It's against my better judgment and military training, Reg. But I must admit; this is your rig and your men. I'll not risk their lives unduly. I agree."
"Good. Now let's get some sleep. I've had enough excitement for a few days." Kaiser waved his well-wishes and turned back to his secret passage through the closet. He paused before disappearing again to caution, "Lock the door, Spectrum. Dawson may decide to make a midnight inspection of his own."
"SIG." Scarlet waited for his friend to leave before he stepped to his own door and twisted the latch. Kaiser had said nothing about not roaming the diamond mine unsupervised. As a Spectrum agent who required little sleep, Scarlet had the authority to inspect on his own time. He proceeded into the damp corridors, conscious that he still had no sidearm, and no way to hail his fellow agents in light of some unforeseen emergency. Yet Scarlet was well aware of his promise not to compromise Kaiser's position. The rebel leader had made it clear. He was here to preserve his altruistic legacy, his company and its employees. The nobility of it was not lost on the Spectrum officer.
And so, with a glance into the darkened corridors, Scarlet was cautious on his hunt for a hydrogen bomb. Deactivating its trigger mechanism was his second order of business. He was not to be given that chance, however. Though he had evaded several of the late night crew wandering the halls, the captain hadn't gotten more than three hundred meters into the bowels of the converted diamond mine before a pair of waiting security cornered him. Guns raised, they both barked, "Halt there!"
Scarlet couldn't take the chance that they were Kaiser's murderous compatriots. Spinning in mid-step, the captain bolted for the nearest hatch. Its stairwell led him upward to the open deck of the mine's operations. There he scrutinized the flood-lit space for another way inside. Over thirty five meters below him the Atlantic hissed its taunting song. He could hear the steely boot falls of the pursuing guards. Launching into a run, the captain yanked open another hatch, then instead pivoted to leap for the outboard balustrade. Scarlet grabbed the steel handrail as his legs vaulted over the top. He stopped his fall with a jolt of straining muscle and gripping fists. Grunting, he next slid to the deck plate, clutching a support baluster to hang suspended out over the waves.
The two guards burst from the stairwell in time to see the second hatch swing shut and latch. "This way," one instructed. They rushed back inside, leaving Scarlet alone with the cold steel and the unforgiving sea licking up the rig's pylons beneath his dangling boots. He waited a moment before hauling himself back up onto the deserted deck. Then the captain was trotting back to the stairwell and rooms below. But as Scarlet opened the hatch, movement caught his eyes. Even in the dimness he ducked the first punch of the big man that burst from the well. Then he sent his own fist flying.
"You must be Dawson," the captain surmised, evading another swing of the man's jackhammer fist. Dawson contacted steel bulkhead and gasped, but wasn't thwarted. Glancing aside Captain Scarlet bolted for a more maneuverable spot further along the deck. The security chief seemed quite a capable combatant. Dawson launched himself into another attack, and the two fell in a heap against the outer railing.
"Tell me why you're really here, Spectrum," the big man growled into his opponent's face.
Dawson's massive hands were around Scarlet's throat. "Same as you," the captain grunted. "Security."
With a heaving jerk, Capricorn's security chief hauled the slighter Scarlet into a sit against the balustrade. "You're here to arrest us all. Your people got to Lazarus. Didn't they? He's helping you turn us all in for gun running."
Innocently Scarlet raised a brow. "But this is a diamond operation," he countered. Then, with a sudden burst of muscle, he twisted from Dawson's iron grasp and leaped to his feet. "Why would I be looking for guns? Do you have something to hide?"
A new voice joined the argument. From behind him Scarlet heard the sepulchral drone of Kruegar. "You idiot, Dawson. I told you to ask questions, not give him answers. Now, he knows more than when he got here."
Arms ready to defend himself from another advance of the kneeling security brute, Scarlet sidestepped and stole a glance back at Kruegar. The foreman was not alone. Three other men flanked him. The captain was sorely outnumbered. He decided to play on his confidence. "What if I know even more than that?" Scarlet challenged with a smirk. "Your boss, Lazarus, has quite a few colorful stories. And identities. But he's also a good man, Kruegar. Worthy of your respect. And I've a vested interest in his safety."
"Well, I have a vested interest in mine." Prepared more for a charge from the growling Dawson, Scarlet wasn't swift enough to thwart the attack from Kruegar. "Stun him." A TASER gun suddenly zapped its pronged charge into Scarlet's side. Lurching against the shock, the Spectrum captain struggled to retain his consciousness and detach the stinging spines. He lost both battles.
Though he awoke soon afterward, it was already too late to prevent his capture. Captain Scarlet sat up against the coldness of a steel bulkhead. There were no windows or lights in his chilly cell. He couldn't tell for sure its dimensions or location. What he did know was that, for the third time in the short span of sixteen hours, his wrists and ankles were again securely bound. "Bloody Hell," he groaned. "Little good I'm doing in here." Then Scarlet raised his voice to call, "Hey! Dawson? Care to take it, two for two?" Scarlet's own tinny echo was his only reply. Now what was he going to do? He couldn't very well kick his way out of this one. The steel walls were far sturdier than jungle thatch.
Meanwhile, there was a hydrogen bomb at Kruegar's disposal. Reginold Kaiser was probably already dead. And the captain was in total limbo, as far as Spectrum was concerned. With a grimace at his impetuosity Scarlet slammed his boot heels into the deck plate. The impact reverberated about him like a temple gong. Scarlet paused to listen as the note spiraled below him for several seconds to end in a water drum-like 'thawnk'. "Where am I?" he asked himself. Then he surmised his position. The converted oil rig stood upon four massive pylons. These jack-up legs extended some forty-five meters to the sea floor. Though herculean in their strength, these supports were for the most part also hollow. Was this where the Spectrum captain had been stowed away? Perhaps Kruegar was now aware of his disunion from Cloudbase. Capricorn's foreman might have forced Kaiser to talk. If so, this darkness was to be no prison, but instead Scarlet's tomb.
With that possibility in mind, there was only one thing to do. Bracing his back against his steel coffin, Captain Scarlet lifted his knees and kicked the deck plate again. The sound coursed along the rig's support like a tuning fork into the depths below. If Scarlet was lucky, there was one person who would hear and understand his cryptic message. Methodically he tapped out the Morse code letters: S I R C S.
Partners in Pursuit
Captains Magenta and Turquoise watched together as the Spectrum helicopter rose from beside the Congolese smuggler's dock into the dreary night sky. Inside, it was carrying one of their own to the medical facilities on Cloudbase. "That was a nasty firefight you two got caught in," Magenta acknowledged. "You sure that wound isn't too bad?"
Dark eyes still on the retreating aircraft Captain Turquoise only shook his damp head and rubbed at the bloody graze to his thigh. "I've had worse scrapes with a black bear down home," he admitted. "I just want this nonsense to be over with. Angela was in the lead when the gunfire started. She didn't have a chance."
Magenta placed a comforting hand atop his comrade's epaulette. "She'll be all right. Her wounds aren't immediately life-threatening. Fawn's a good man. She'll be up and waiting for us when this is all over. Don't worry, Red Hawk."
But the Cherokee's anger wasn't yet quelled. He turned coal eyes to his fellow officer. "Just tell me who this Harconis is. Some madman who wreaks destruction wherever he goes? That Darma and his troops were waiting for us up in the trees." Turquoise rubbed at his sore shoulder. "I wasn't able to get more than five words from the man. Something about Spectrum stealing his frog. Then he just started shooting."
In reply Magenta chuckled. "That English devil," he said with an amiable slap to Turquoise's other shoulder. "Scarlet was here, then. He got away in Darma's amphibious plane. Good for him."
Turquoise wasn't so cheered. "Plane? How are we going to track a civilian plane?"
"We don't. I have orders to check out Harconis' private helipad down in Boma. Since I was detoured to airlift Ivory out, you might as well come with me, Hawk. I could use your determination and that sleek new skiff of yours."
"Sure, Magenta. Whatever you say. I have to meet this wayward arms dealer myself, now. If just to knock his lights out for sending all of us on this-"
"Fool's errand?" the Irish-American challenged with a crooked smile. "Save the energy, Turquoise. This is Spectrum business. You want to brawl with something; you can have a poke at a seat cushion. I'm driving." The two turned and gingerly stepped across the slickened dock. Lowering themselves into the bullet-riddled jetskimmer, Spectrum's newest vehicle for swift water travel, Magenta ventured, "I hope the canopy still works. Don't think the rain's done spitting on us yet."
Turquoise considered the pattern of holes in the skiff's titanium hull. "I hope the engine works. Those smugglers were using some major firepower. Glad the chopper scattered them, or Ivory and I'd both be riddled too by now. Permanently."
With a shift of the throttle, Magenta smiled and swung the jetskimmer around in a tight turn. "You're welcome. Let's go get the bad guys." With conjoined nods, the two Spectrum captains rode the revving jetskimmer down river. In the pattering rain Magenta activated the boat's transparent canopy. Then, once the skiff was at full speed, he extended its stiltlike foils to skim the Congo at incredible speed.
Later, in Boma, they were able to coax information from the heliport groundskeeper who told them, "Harconis? Nope. Don't know that name. This here pad's registered to a fella named Lazar. Landis Lazar. Uses it to commute out to his ship. Uh ... The Capricorn, I heard him call it."
"Capricorn?" Turquoise echoed eying the empty helipad. "Like the zodiac symbol?"
"Lazar, huh?" Magenta commented, his cap mike already in place to update Cloudbase. "Lieutenant Green. I want a cross reference on a Landis Lazar and a vessel named Capricorn. We think Scarlet may be there. Do you copy?" In another moment the Irish American captain had his answer. "Right. SIG, Colonel." As his microphone flipped home Magenta turned to his partner and waved him back toward the river. "Come on," he said. "Capricorn's not a boat. It's Harconis' diamond mine."
They raced together to the jetskimmer. "A diamond mine in the water?" Turquoise panted. "I hate being left out of the loop. Don't you?"
"Colonel White told me something Souvaignon conveniently left out of his data reports. The Capricorn Marine Diamond Corporation. It's a converted oil rig registered to a Reginold, not Landis, Lazar. Location: somewhere off the coast of Namibia. White's called out the Angels to intercept. If we hurry, we can be there by breakfast." With a leap Magenta landed in the hull of their floating cheetah. "You drive this time. The lower Congo's tricky with sandbars and rapids."
"Thanks a lot," Turquoise droned. "I suppose I'll be leaving the Indianapolis 500 stuff for you and the open Atlantic?"
Magenta was smiling. "You know me. New toys and the need for speed. Besides. For once, I have seniority. Let's go." The jetskimmer was soon coursing west for the Congo delta. They hadn't gotten far out to sea before Cloudbase was calling them back. "Magenta here."
"Colonel White has issued an emergency fallback order. You are to steer clear of the Capricorn Mine, Captain. I just found another connection to Lazarus, A.K.A. Harconis."
"It seems a Theodoro Lazar may be in illegal possession of a hydrogen bomb. Russian criminal records show the purchase was made over two years ago. The Russian government hasn't been able to track it down. This Lazar disappeared off the face of the earth. They've even scoured the Lunarville complex for him. No luck."
Magenta nodded. "Sounds like our man. So, Harconis isn't such a humanitarian after all."
"The world president has issued a warrant for his immediate arrest. He's been upgraded to world criminal."
"Then why call off our rendezvous?" Magenta argued. "We can apprehend him."
Green's answer was dour. "The Angels were due to flyover the rig in half an hour, but Colonel White has called them off too. Says it's too dangerous. If the bomb is being housed on the platform, it could endanger the entire western seaboard of Africa if it were detonated above sea level. The colonel's looking into sending in local authorities, instead. They'll cause less anxiety. He's betting Captain Scarlet will know what to do after that."
"Scarlet?" Magenta exclaimed. "We don't even know where he is. We haven't heard from him in two days."
Though the Spectrum captain couldn't see his junior officer so many kilometers away, Magenta knew the younger man was smiling when he said, "Oh, yes we have."
Captain Grey stood at the helm of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol's newest Stingray submarine. Beside him was its skipper, Captain Hubank. "Come to heading Two-Four-Seven-Three Magnetic, Officer Jeffries," the commander instructed. Grey nodded in confirmation of the coordinates, for clutched in his hand was the unusual communiqué the Vostok's own radio officer had brought to him just ten-minutes before. "You are sure this is significant?" Hubank inquired.
With a stalwart chin, Grey agreed. "The signal was definitely from one of our agents, Skipper. He's been unaccounted for, for two days. It's Captain Scarlet all right. The message was transmitted in Morse. He knew I was out here in the Atlantic assisting you with your new enhanced sonar scanners. He also knew the Vostok's potential. Even as distant as we are from Namibia, this submarine's speed will get us to that rig in just under an hour." Grey couldn't help but smile at the WASP's commander. "He's a clever one, that Scarlet. And he's most likely in great danger."
"What about this hydrogen bomb reported to be aboard the Capricorn oil platform?" Hubank asked with a suspicious eye. "Is Spectrum willing to risk all this prototype equipment, not to mention my crew, for the rescue of one man?"
Grey shook his head in his conviction. "Captain Scarlet isn't any ordinary man, Commander. And he wouldn't issue an SOS unless he truly needed assistance. Be assured. We're the only ones who can help." With that said, Captain Grey settled into a seat for the hour-long cruise beneath the waves. As he did so, he pondered the last quarter hour:
Biggs, the ship's radio operator, had come jostling into Grey's stateroom with the paper he now held in his hand. Grey considered the scrawled ink markings and recalled the scene. Biggs have huffed out his story: Faint concussion sounds, over three hundred fifty kilometers away, yet traceable with the Vostok's new sonar equipment. 'Here's the Morse message, Captain,' Biggs had said shoving the page into Grey's hand. 'I noticed the first three were a Spectrum code. Thought it might be meant for you.' The Spectrum captain needed only to glance at the initials to recognize the caller. "Spectrum is Red. C.S. Captain Scarlet's initials." Rising from his bunk, Grey had immediately contacted Cloudbase for an update of his British colleague's whereabouts. He hadn't liked Lieutenant Green's answer, but had a possible solution. "I think I found him," Grey had told Cloudbase, and swiftly had Biggs and his sonar officers triangulate the coordinates of the sound emissions. Just in time, too, for the message had stopped abruptly shortly thereafter. "I think he's been found out," Grey had surmised.
Now the American captain sat staring at the coordinates scrawled beside the original message. "I just hope we're in time," he wished aloud.
In his darkness, Scarlet could hear the heavy boot-falls of someone coming down a ladder. Soon, above him, a hatch creaked open and a blinding lantern shone down upon the trapped man's face. "This isn't going to do, Captain." Scarlet looked up at the man climbing down to get him. He was soon followed by two more of the Capricorn rig's security. With a muscled jerk, they forced Scarlet to stand. Only then did the captain get a good look at the man who had spoken to him. In the swinging lantern light, Scarlet recognized the face of Corman, Harconis' chopper pilot.
"I thought you were dead," the captain challenged. "Your leg has healed well, too, I see. So you're the inside man Harconis was concerned about."
Corman was smiling, even as a makeshift harness was strapped snugly about the Spectrum agent's chest. It seemed they planned to hoist him up the pylon shaft like a hooked marlin. "Your fate's a surer guarantee, Captain Scarlet."
Scarlet ignored the threat. "Where's my sidearm and cap, Corman? I need to make a phone call."
To this Corman and his two goons chuckled. "Oh, you'll be communicating soon enough," Corman assured. "But not by knocking out some coded letters on the rig's steel leg. You'll be joining Lazarus in a few moments."
Dead? Had they killed Reginold Kaiser? For what gains, the captain wondered? The possibility angered the Spectrum officer. "If you've hurt that man, I'll personally make you pay for it," Scarlet warned.
That resulted in a heartier chuckle from the trio. "Save your threats for the fishes, Spectrum," Corman charged. With a wave of his arm, the chopper pilot had his companions ascend the ladder rungs then heave their scarlet bait up the shaft. Unceremoniously, Captain Scarlet was next dumped onto the deck amidst the meager glow of first daylight. There he wasn't surprised to see a glowering Kruegar waiting for him. Beside the foreman stood a most unhappy Reginold Kaiser. He was handcuffed but alive.
"Good to see you're still breathing, Captain," Kaiser ventured. "By later this afternoon, you would have been well-baked."
"Enough," Kruegar growled. “Haul him to his knees.” The foreman's coal eyes were simmering upon the landed Spectrum officer as he was forcefully kowtowed by Corman’s men. "We heard your racket down there, Spectrum. Little good it'll do you. But just in case, we're moving this rig." Kruegar tilted his head and pursed a smile brimming with irony. "You, on the other hand, are staying right here."
"What about Lazarus?" Scarlet asked considering the subdued rebel leader. He was surrounded by Kruegar's armed men; though the Spectrum captain noticed their number was considerably fewer than Kaiser's own earlier estimates. Were the foreman's forces less than twenty?
"He's got a little while longer to live. I still need him."
"Bargaining chip," Kaiser agreed with a rocking of his toes.
"Now, Captain Scarlet. I recall you wanted to know more about our little mining operation." Kruegar waved a hand at his men. "I'll give you a quick demonstration." As three of the foreman's crew scattered to collect their props, Kruegar continued. "You see. Mining for diamonds on the seabed is a whole new game of rugby. We're sucking up the leftovers, you might say."
"Alluvial runoff," Scarlet surmised before the man could continue.
That venomous smile twitched across Kruegar's anchored lips again. "Exactly. The continental shelf, here, is littered with sediments and deposits. Many contain diamonds. Small, to be sure. The majority are for industrial use. We even gather diamond dust in the various grade collectors onboard. Fascinating process, really. But like any mining operation, you throw out most of the rock for a few good carats of treasure." Kruegar shrugged his wide shoulders. "The refuse we simply toss over the side."
Scarlet eyed the two river-rounded boulders Kruegar's men rolled up to his knees. "I take it I'm also to be included in that category." When Capricorn's foreman laughed, like a roaring thundercloud, the captain's hackles rose. Scarlet was helpless to resist as he was roped to the stone anchors by Kruegar's merry elves.
From between his guards, Reginold Kaiser paled to despondency. "I'm sorry I brought you into this, Captain," he murmured, not quite meeting Scarlet's compassionate gaze. "And I regret forcing you to make that promise. I'm sure your colorful cavalry would have been a glorious sight."
Scarlet only smiled slightly and assured his friend. "The cavalry can't come rushing over the hill, Reg, unless it knows where the battle lay." Then the captain's gaze ascended to the dour man who was about to murder him. "Kruegar. I have two questions before you dump me overboard with the rest of the rubbish. Just where did you put that hydrogen bomb? And do your men know whether you were ever planning on using it?" Scarlet watched in silent hope as a few of the foreman's men shot startled glances their leader's way. Satisfied that he had at least set some doubt, the captain continued from his obeisance upon the deck. "Please. Don't worry about me blowing the gaff. I'm about to drown in the Atlantic. Just fulfill my curiosity, what Reg calls my 'unnerving need' to ask questions."
In response, Kruegar stepped up to the tethered captain and chuckled. "I see you couldn't resist revealing my trump card." Though the man's laugh seemed amused, Kruegar's eyes burned with vengeance. Bending down, into Scarlet's ear he whispered, "You were close enough to hear it ticking. You tell me."
Even as the leering foreman jerked his head toward the ocean, and Kruegar's men shouldered the Spectrum agent toward the yawning balustrade gate, Captain Scarlet fought to control his shock. "It's been activated?" he gasped. His hogtied boots scraped in hesitation against the deck plating. "You intend to detonate it? The casualties will be in the millions."
A dark twinkle glistened in Kruegar's shadowed eyes. "My final gift to you, Captain. Consider it ... the ultimate question." To his men he ordered, "Dump him." But as Scarlet stoically allowed his captors to perch him at the edge of the rail, Kruegar had one more comment to share. "Remember, Captain Scarlet. Diamonds are forever. I'm sure you won't last nearly as long." A final shove and the rushing approach of waves soon drowned out the man's thunderous laughter. With a whistle of chilling air Captain Scarlet plunged feet first to his death.
Into the Depths of Despair
As Scarlet crashed into the Atlantic her gluttonous lips engulfed him. The violent concussion nearly knocked the Briton unconscious. He forced his hasty breath deeper into his lungs, even as the stones which dangled by his waist bore him further into the depths. Arching against the tongues of liquid which licked at his flailing hair and obstinate mouth, Scarlet would not grant his last gulp of air to the covetous sea. He clutched his very lifeblood within his thundering ears. His burning eyes scanned the rushing water for any chance of escape. No diver paddled to cut his bonds. No submersible tracked his descent. Instead Scarlet witnessed something more alarming. Circling his sinking body, two porbeagle sharks examined him with cold, doll-like eyes. Were they drawn to the uprising bubbles? The waggling boulders? Or perhaps his blood-soaked shirt beneath the vest? In any case, the pair of three meter monsters waltzed about him, accompanying his plunge into the Atlantic's watery mausoleum.
With ear-crushing certainty, Captain Scarlet sank to the bottom. His landing was cushioned only by the undulating sea grasses which sprouted beneath him in these tropical latitudes. The swiftness of his fall and the pressure against his lungs nearly caused him to faint in the dimness. He collapsed to his knees. The boulders came to rest upon the seabed beside him. But despite Scarlet's thrashing attempts to free himself from the ropes which tethered him to those stony anchors, the sharks coursed about him, indifferent to his plight. He was going to drown. His searing lungs begged. His hammering skull blared for release. The porbeagles nudged him on. Scarlet twisted against the soaking ropes. The salt water held the swelling knots tight. There was no release, save death. Yet the man refused such a cowardly escape. His finned companions experienced no grief or remorse for his impending demise. They simply sensed a potential meal. Though Scarlet did not want to die alone, there was little comfort in the emotionless presence of his gray pallbearers.
He stopped struggling. Conserved his air. Fought instead to divine an escape. The rocks. Could he use their grit to slice through his bindings? With determination, Captain Scarlet swung his shoulder around to press his one wrist upon one rounded anvil. Swift strokes against the hardness only forced precious bubbles of oxygen from his pursed lips. The depths were closing about him like a silent crypt, and still the porbeagles waited.
One of them nudged against his forehead with its sandpapered snout. Scarlet glimpsed within the creature's tooth-lined pit. If he could just get one of the sharks to bite through his ropes. But Scarlet's arms were bound behind him. With the boulders anchoring him to the bottom, he was sorely immobile. Perhaps the rope which dug into his chest. Its separation would free him at least from the stones. He needed only the strength then to free his feet and kick to the surface. But was there enough time?
More air escaped his compressing lungs. Scarlet shook his head to entice his diners in. He thrust out his chest as best he could as a shark pivoted for another pass. The fish brushed against him, nearly knocking him over, then whipped about for a tentative strike. All it bit was hair, its pectoral fin grazing Scarlet's cheek as it coursed away in defeat. But the second shark had now maneuvered in for its attack. From behind Scarlet, the porbeagle pumped its dual-lobed tail for a tackle at the helpless man. The concussion pounded Scarlet's spine. Like a door on a hinge he slammed against the seafloor. Scarlet felt the tenacity of the shark as it shoved to get a grasp of his flesh beneath the vest. It found the softness of his left arm instead. Scarlet couldn't even scream. Bubbles burst over his twisted lips. They tickled his cheeks in their freedom. The last of his air had been bulldozed from his lungs by the impact. There was nothing left to bargain with. Against his conscious will, instincts commanded him to breathe. Salted water rushed into Scarlet's lungs. He choked on the burning brew, but could not escape from its cold grip. The sea grew even darker. The thumping of his blood was an Earth drum in his skull. The sharks would have their meal. It was Scarlet's last conscious thought.
Rescue at Sea
"Target ahead, thirty four meters and closing," the Vostok's navigator called.
Captain Hubank nodded at his officer and double-checked the submarine's sonar readings. "Looks like the Capricorn rig's underway. Being towed to a new position," he announced. "We'll need to surface and have her heave to."
"No!" Captain Grey cautioned rising from his seat beside the commander. "If we appear as a threat, we're all dead. That bomb could be used as a missile from that height. We have to keep our distance."
With a grave frown the Vostok's commander considered the Spectrum officer's warning. "Then what do you propose, Captain?"
Grey was serious when he suggested, "Stay submerged and send out a torpedo."
"Blow up the rig?" Hubank growled. "I thought you wanted to save your associate."
"I do, Skipper. Fire a dummy torpedo. That structure's rated to withstand hurricane swells. The impact at most would cripple a few support beams. Maybe a leg. But I guarantee you, that rig’s crew'll stop to find out what just happened."
Hubank's eyes brightened. "A diversion," he chimed. "Quick thinking, Captain Grey." The commander turned to his first officer. "Make it so, Rider. Prepare torpedo. Do not. Repeat, do arm its defenses. I want a thud, not a boom."
Rider nodded. "Understood, Skipper." The man spoke into his comm. link and soon the all-clear was given.
"Launch torpedo," Hubank ordered. The next moment there was a vibrating whoosh through the Vostok's deck plating. Outboard cameras monitored the finned missile as it roared from its ejection tube toward the swaying Capricorn rig. The shock of its successful collision soon rippled through the submarine. "Rider. Get the pod crew out there. Have them assess the damage. Then we're boarding that floating skyscraper from the opposite side of the damage. Is that clear?"
"I'm going too, Captain," Grey announced. "I'll take charge of the team. Stealth is recommended. The bomb surely isn't their only line of defense."
Hubank nodded once. "Agreed. Take command of the mini-pod, Captain Grey. I'll have eight good men go with you. They'll be armed and under your orders to arrest Reginold Harconis and his rig crew."
"Thank you, Sir." Captain Grey marched from the Vostok's bridge and down the narrow corridor into the bowels of the Stingray to her lower external hatch. In four minutes time, he was loaded onboard the vessel's mini-sub with eight other submariners, each sporting wetsuits and waterproof weaponry. "There'll be maintenance ladders from the water line up to the main structure," Grey told them. "The rig's not anchored, so hold tight against the ocean swells. Keep your sidearms holstered until we're topside. If need be, shoot only to injure, and only in self-defense. Is that clear?" There were agreements all around.
As Captain Grey finished his mission instructions, the mini-sub was launched from the Vostok's nose, its pilot driving the smaller vessel ever closer to the suspended cylinders which were Capricorn's retracted legs. Grey watched through the forward portal as the Capricorn mining rig materialized out of the ocean haze. Then his shoulder epaulettes flashed. "Scarlet?" The captain considered the intermittent pattern of the colored blinks. "Something's set off the emergency signal." Grey stood in the cramped space of the mini-sub. "Harper," he commanded. "I want a fix on this transmission. Pronto." The onboard comm. officer nodded and accepted the blinking capsule the Spectrum captain tugged from his own uniform vest. "Plug it into the pod's navigational slot. It's a universal jack. It should work." Harper did so, and Grey scrutinized the directional bleeps the console issued. "Behind us?" Grey grunted. "Lieutenant Zeke," he said to the pilot. "Turn this pup around. Before we surface, I want this anomaly investigated."
"What about the Vostok, Sir?" Zeke objected. "She could send out a diver herself."
With a conviction born of experience, Captain Grey shook his head. "Not good enough. This is my call, Lieutenant. My command. Something tells me a puzzle piece was left behind when Capricorn decided to pull up stakes and migrate to cleaner waters."
The pilot seemed to understand the Spectrum captain's unspoken meaning. "Yes, Sir. Coming about, mark 160 degrees." Like a child's top the mini-sub slowed to a halt, then ruddered itself into a stationary turn. With a surge of churned sea it powered forward again for the detour.
Harper guided the pilot. "Z minus forty degrees," he said. "To depth forty-four point five meters." The man checked his sonar readings. "There's movement down there, Captain," he informed his commanding officer. "Could be a school of fish on the seafloor."
With a grim scowl Grey digested this information and said aloud, "Let's hope whatever they are, they're not feeding." His guts constricted to steel bands. Imagination was sometimes a horrible thing.
The pod descended toward the continental shelf. Its forward lanterns flickered against the snow of rising plankton. Through this haze the swaying seabed soon materialized. There, sea grass and resident fish danced an ancient reel with the Atlantic current, their true colors obscured by the depths. Then the lantern illuminated something not in fluid motion, save the darkness which was Captain Scarlet's undulating hair.
"Great Neptune," Zeke groaned when he saw the water-logged body anchored to the seafloor with binding ropes. "They murdered your officer, Captain."
Grey swallowed his concern at the shocking sight and ordered, "Open the stern air lock. I'm going out there to retrieve him." He was shedding his Spectrum vest even as he spoke.
"Do we have time for this?" Harper offered. A scowl from his commanding officer silenced the younger man. Then a large gray form slipped by the forward portal. A porbeagle shark had returned to its meal despite being distracted by the approaching hum of the pod's propellers. Time was no longer an issue. No navy man would knowingly allow a fellow sailor such a gruesome death. Captain Grey shouldered his way to the rear of the mini-sub. After tossing his Spectrum boots and cap in trade for a set of flippers and dive belt Grey hastily strapped on a scuba tank as another of the Vostok crew unscrewed the pod's belly hatch.
"Give me a knife," Grey instructed before placing the regulator into his mouth. "I'll be back in a few." His companion nodded. Slipping the blade into his belt scabbard, Grey returned the good-to-go signal and jumped feet first into the sloshing hole which was his exit.
Weighted by his dive belt, Grey sank to the bottom and pumped his legs to Scarlet's side. The American captain had to bubble a relieved breath. It seemed the sharks had found his British colleague too bony a prey. Only a slice in the dead man's sleeve indicated any missing flesh. Scarlet would recover quickly once he was returned to the surface. In the meantime, Grey had to make a show, for the benefit of his fellow submariners, of sharing the scuba regulator with his suspended friend. With a twist of metal against sea-soaked rope, Captain Scarlet was soon free of his stone anchors. Grey next need only tow his fellow agent back to the mini-sub. Inside the crew helped to heave the drenched body onboard.
"He's as pale as the Dover cliffs," one of the Vostok crewmembers lamented. The team somberly laid the still yoked victim out on the decking.
Grey was next onboard, yanking the scuba gear off and shuffling the gaping men aside with his feet. "Give him some breathing space," he ordered. "Leave him to me, and get us back to the Capricorn rig. Now."
"But, Sir," one urged. "He's been under too long. He's gone."
"Keep your opinions to yourself, Ensign," Grey growled even as he bent to slice the ropes which still bound the drowning victim's wrists and ankles. That did the trick. The pod crew retreated from the Spectrum captain and his limp charge. Just as Grey had hoped, the submariners were too respectful of the dead to gawk as he knelt beside his colleague and pumped the saltwater from the man's flooded lungs. But once the others' attentions were forward on the still retreating Capricorn rig, Grey quietly urged with a shake. "Captain. Come on. Tell me where that bomb is." Nothing. Grey shook the dead man again, harder this time, until Scarlet's soaking head banged metallically against the deck plate. "Paul Christopher Metcalfe. Spectrum needs you to save the day again. Come on. Come ‘round. Breathe, for peace sake."
Suddenly Captain Scarlet flinched, then choked. Sputtering sea water, he gasped a hasty breath and flung open his eyes. "Grey," he coughed.
"Thatta boy." The American released his friend allowing Scarlet to roll onto his side and cough loose the remaining water he had inhaled. "Do you know where the bomb is? We have to get to it before Harconis does."
"Not Harconis. Kruegar," Scarlet croaked.
"Yet another alias," Grey dismissed, leaning back to allow his companion room to sit up awkwardly in the cramped space of the stern air lock. Grey saw that Scarlet was swiftly regaining his composure and his strength.
"Kruegar has the bomb," he insisted between gasps. "He's Harconis' rig foreman. I've got to get back there. Save Reg."
"Reg? First name basis, huh?"
"Reginold Kaiser. Harconis. He's not our terrorist. Kruegar and Corman are."
"If you say so, partner. I've got a team ready. We're headed there now." Grey stepped to his feet and smiled. "You can tag along if you think you're able."
Scarlet coughed the last of the burning sea water from his throat and regained his dampened boots with the help of a bracing friend. "Thank you, Captain."
Grey's dark eyes were still grinning when he squeezed the man's shoulder. "You're lucky I wasn't too busy to come save your British butt."
"I'm lucky you were even listening."
"The Vostok's got a good crew," Grey contended. "Come on. I'll introduce you to some of them. Just don't be surprised if they react like they've seen a ghost." In explanation Captain Grey waved Scarlet forward through the air lock into the main sub compartment. "They too had a hand in your rebirth."
Cryptic excuses were made about the true length of time a person can hold his breath and slow his own heart. Mention was made of the chilly water temperature and the swift action of the mini sub's crew in Scarlet's miraculous revival. The rest was left a mystery to be swiftly replaced by a more pressing reality. "The hydrogen bomb is contained within the starboard rear leg of the rig, most probably above the waterline," Scarlet informed the team. "It's most assuredly well-secured to prevent an accidental detonation, but," he countered with a serious glance to his Spectrum colleague, "we've got another problem. It may already be activated. A trigger device could set it off, or it may have been set on a timer."
"You don't know for sure?" Grey asked once again sporting his Spectrum regs.
Scarlet's eyes didn't flicker confidence. "I never saw the device. I'm not sure. Just what I inferred from Kruegar." There was a general groan of skepticism about the cabin. The British captain squared his shoulders and assured. "I don't think Kruegar's the type to commit suicide. Not even once he's cornered. He's planned his moves and made his fortune. I'm wagering he'll bluff his way to an escape."
"Do we really want to bet our lives on a bluff?" the comm. officer, Harper, countered with a suspicious scowl. "Captain Grey. What are your orders?"
Grey stalled in his answer to scrutinize his partner's steady glare. Scarlet was willing to risk his life for Reginold Harconis and the rest of the Capricorn crew. But, then, he was indestructible. Grey's decision had to be based on facts, not feelings. "We're going in. It's our duty to try to defuse that bomb before a disaster takes out more than just us and that rig. Agreed?" There really wasn't a consensus. Grey had been put in charge. "Zeke. Get us abreast of that support leg. We're going to board the Capricorn."
"Jordanson. Prepare the docking harness. This is going to be a tricky transfer in the open ocean."
It was determined that the Capricorn was as yet not back up to power. The towing engines were humming on standby, probably awaiting the go ahead from the inspection crew sent to investigate the sudden concussion upon the steel structure. Grey explained what the Vostok had done to delay the rig. "Clever," Scarlet agreed. "And your idea, no doubt." In stealth, the pair of Spectrum captains and their team were soon boarding the Capricorn rig. They clambered up the outboard utility ladders and spread out upon the platform's main deck to take shelter. Under Scarlet's guidance two men were escorted down into the towering support leg while Grey and the remainder took Scarlet's instructions on where they might find Kruegar. "Take them alive," the British agent urged. "If indeed the bomb is active, we may need Kruegar to cancel the trigger signal." With a nod and a wish of luck Grey and his three Vostok crew left to gather their prisoners.
Captain Scarlet then bent to unlatch the steel cover which led into the oil rig’s hollow pylon. "This way,” he told his demolition team. “Have those lanterns ready." Now was the time to see whether Kruegar had been truthful or only baiting the Spectrum captain. The answer to Kruegar's 'ultimate question' was waiting in the darkness below.
Meanwhile, rushing to Kruegar's private enclave topside, it took Grey and his efficient team little difficulty in overcoming the foreman's meager forces. In fact, considering the threat of a Stingray submarine off the platform's portside, on top of the now revealed hydrogen bomb, there was hardly a protest. Most of Kruegar's men simply dropped their guns and raised their hands. The big man and his remaining followers gave in to the greater firepower of the WASP team with nary a threat.
Now, with the bomb safely found, Scarlet climbed back into the light of the open deck in time to see the remnants of the mutiny marched into the sunlight. But as Grey and his team escorted Kruegar's men from the bowels of the Capricorn platform, a single figure bolted forward from the captives. "Why, Spectrum!" Reginold Kaiser hollered grabbing Scarlet's tattered sleeve and spinning him about. "You have more lives than a cat." He patted the captain affectionately on the shoulder with his other hand.
Kaiser had been roughly handled in his brief captivity, Captain Scarlet noted. There were dark bruises upon the man's cheeks and swollen lip. Yet the Briton was just as happy to see his companion alive. "And you have the luck of an Irishman, Mr. Kaiser," he assured sharing the embrace. "I suppose you now have yet another yarn to extol. How you thwarted a hydrogen bomb scare with the help of a soggy Spectrum officer and a Stingray submarine." The two shared a chuckle. "Your men. Juster, Noon and the others. They're all right?"
Kaiser nodded. "They were locked in their quarters for a while. But my other rig crew let them out." Kaiser shrugged. "Can't run a business with my workers sitting on their asses."
Scarlet grinned again and watched as Kruegar and his remaining cohorts were safely shackled for the climb down to the waiting Vostok. Below, the vessel had surfaced to make temporary dock against the rig's side. A munitions expert was even now descending into the pylon to permanently defuse the inactive bomb. It was then to be taken onboard the sub for proper disposal in a deep sea trench. "Can I offer you a ride, Mr. Kaiser?" Scarlet offered. "I believe you're overdue to a meeting with Ivory Coast's president."
Kaiser groaned. "I really should stay here. Help clean up my rig. Kruegar's a bloody slob with the paperwork. Looks like I'm up to my ankles in permit violations." The twinkle in the man's eyes dulled to weary reality. "But I suppose obligations are stretched a bit thin. My own fault. I started this grand scheme."
"And I'm sure your crew can get this monstrosity of a grand scheme settled in for another diamond run without you," Scarlet assured. "I'll call the cab myself."
"What? Without your cap?" Kaiser challenged. Around them Vostok crewmembers were now coursing upon the deck, scrambling to account for every unauthorized weapon and illegal operator. Someone trotted by but stopped at Scarlet's side. He handed over one of the confiscated sidearms and a scarlet kepi. Kaiser watched with a touch of awe. "I really must join your team, Captain. Miracles are a daily occurrence in your presence. I suppose you even have some magic pixie dust left in your pocket to manifest us a chopper."
Captain Scarlet thanked the yeoman. Then with a sarcastic smirk, the agent ran a hand through his disheveled hair and placed the cap atop his head. Immediately the tiny microphone swung down to his lips. "Captain Scarlet to Cloudbase. I need a transport to Ivory Coast. Is Melody Angel standing by?"
"Yes, Captain," came Green's prompt reply. "Good to finally hear your voice."
"As it is yours, Lieutenant. When can we expect her?" Even now the captain was searching the sky for the expanding dot which was an approaching Spectrum helicopter. A distant, high-altitude glint caught his attention and Scarlet pointed into the blue. "Take a look, Reg," he said. "There's my rig." The tiny platform high in the troposphere moved ever perceptively into its new stationary orbit over the African continent. "We don't mine diamonds there, but we do make a few miracles. On occasion."
"Cloudbase?" Kaiser asked, shading his eyes from the glint of sun and reflected sea. "Never-Never-Land, my boy."
"Not quite," Scarlet countered, deadpan. "Boys are never allowed." A thrumming of air deepened, and a blue and silver chopper parachuted from the sky. "Come on. The meter's running." Together the two men scrambled up the steel stairs to the helipad where Melody came to rest. Something familiar tugged at Scarlet's memory. But the bright morning glared off the ocean, nearly blinding him of the thought as he slid into the chopper for their flight to Ivory Coast.
High above the crescent of Africa, Cloudbase floated amidst the wisps of tropospheric ice crystals. Onboard a sudden blast of static cut through the communications channels. A Mysteron threat was arriving loud and clear. As Lieutenant Green braced for the booming voice, Colonel White stiffened at his post.
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOUR ATTACK ON OUR MARTIAN BASE. BEWARE, SPECTRUM. DESPITE YOUR ATTEMPT TO PROTECT THEM, THREE KINGS WILL FALL AMIDST THE CHAOS. WE WILL BE AVENGED.
"Three kings, Sir?" Green asked from his station once the transmission had silenced. "Could they mean three government leaders?"
"Velegill being one of them? Perhaps, Lieutenant. We're definitely experiencing chaos at the moment. Far be it from the Mysterons to avoid the fray for long, I suppose. It was only a matter of time." White frowned then made some internal decision. "Put me in communications with Captain Ochre."
"I want an update on the progress of President Velegill and his prime minister's work with the French ambassador."
Within moments Ochre forwarded his concern at hearing the threat. "Not surprising that they'd step in to spoil things when we're almost done," he contended through the comm. link.
"Are you implying that the negotiations are making progress, Captain?"
"Well, let's just say President Velegill has had his eyes forced wider, Sir. The dossier packet Lieutenant Green sent down on Harconis has expanded our understanding of third world dynamics. It's Nobel Peace Prize winning stuff, despite the gun running charges. Meanwhile, Ambassador Souvaignon and Prime Minister Dela'Croix are right now sharing a lunch, discussing agricultural alternatives to chemical fertilizers and even the possibility of offshore farming. Oh, and Captain Magenta just returned by skimmer with Captain Turquoise, Sir. They brought a bit more news. It seems an unidentified helicopter shadowed their movements north across the western coastline. Flew off shortly before their landing. Could it have relevance to the Mysteron threat, Colonel?"
"It's quite possible," White acknowledged. "Double the security patrols, Captain Ochre. And keep me apprised of the peace sessions. I'm glad to hear of the progress. Meanwhile, Captain Scarlet and Reginold Harconis are due there in three quarters of an hour. Offer them coffee, will you? It'll no doubt be a long, eventful afternoon upon their arrival."
Outside the port city walls of Monrovia two seated figures waited for the traffic to settle in for afternoon tea before driving their rental car through the streets to the outskirts of Spectrum's security complex. Stationed near the southern edge of the coastal metropolis stood the rather unobtrusive ranch house of a Donovan Webster, self-made billionaire. What the residents of Liberia's capital city didn't know was that beneath the billionaire's humble yet expansive home, was the underground bunker of a secure Spectrum safe house. Here, the Ivorian officials and French diplomatic team were even now weaving a document for peace in the interests of its citizens and allies. Civil unrest was a wearisome and expensive endeavor, Velegill had come to realize. Compromise seemed all the more reasonable after so many years of strife.
Just within the estate walls, strict security checks had allowed only those public representatives of the rebel faction entrance. Together, they were to meet with Ivory Coast's president and prime minister, with arbitration to be fulfilled by the French delegation. All of this was to be overseen by French Ambassador Souvaignon himself.
The unmarked saloon pulled up to the estate's entrance and the two occupants flashed their passes for inspection. A Spectrum security guard read the names, then checked them with a list of known Harconis associates. The names checked out, and the pair was allowed to park along the southern perimeter. More security would from there escort them through two more checkpoints to the inner sanctuary.
In the lower chambers, so far, the talking had only escalated to argument on four occasions, followed by brief recesses lasting no longer than half an hour. This had gone on for the better part of a day, and already Captain Blue was tiring of the wait. "Are you sure this babysitting is worth it?"
Captain Ochre leaned back in his lounge chair and tossed a booted foot atop an ottoman. "Relax, Blue. If we were back on Cloudbase, we'd be hanging out in our lounge doing the same thing. Pass me another tech mag, will ya?"
"If we were back on Cloudbase, I wouldn't be on Cloudbase," Blue argued grabbing a magazine from the side table and pitching it across the seating arrangement to his partner. Ochre ducked the throw and rolled halfway out of his seat to retrieve the fallen periodical. Blue wasn't finished his dispute, however. "I'd be sunning myself on a tropical beach in Maui right now. With Symphony."
"Ah, romance." Ochre glanced about his closest pile of publications and plucked a travelogue for his friend. "Here. Daydream while you're waiting. Remember. Symphony's on hold, too. By now she's onboard Angel One again, for the fourth flight shift over the sunny skies of Africa."
Blue considered the cover of the magazine Ochre had flipped onto his lap. It showed a thatched hut with two bikinied women sunbathing beneath the azure atmosphere of Cozumel. "I can't daydream with this. Wrong locale. And neither of these girls is as beautiful as Karen."
"Then think of the humanitarian service you and Symphony are performing. You're helping to promote world peace and better lives for the multitudes."
Blue slouched further into his seat. "I don't know. Multitudes seem so impersonal. What about individuals? Don't we count anymore?"
Just then Captain Magenta and Turquoise returned from their perimeter patrol. As they entered Captain Magenta was smiling. "The weather's beautiful out there. Makes me want to take vacation here. You know, the beach, surf, sky, a beautiful girl."
Blue groaned. "Don't remind me." Then he launched himself from his seat. "Come on, Ochre. It's our turn to take a walk." Ochre followed dutifully with just a hint of a knowing grin. Outside the concealed elevator which brought them up from the subterranean stronghold, they found no sign of the unusual. With a glance around the landscaped estate Blue sighed and said, "You know, Green's been working overtime on this mission, doing his research. And he's not even left his chair. I guess I have nothing to complain about. I just hope all this misunderstanding and tension is worth it. I could do for a day at the beach with no worries."
Ochre laid a palm atop his partner's shoulder. "You'll get it, my friend. Just don't fall asleep reading a book. The tan lines will spark innumerable jokes at the pool later."
That finally broke the ice. Blue's tense shoulders slumped. He chuckled and said. "Come on, Boss. We have work to do." They patrolled the estate, reporting back nothing out of the ordinary. But as they re-entered the elevator, the pair missed the two strangers peeking from the rubbish retaining wall. Amidst the wealthy owner's garbage cans, two precision rifles sat propped with silencers and gun sights attached.
Something had been tickling Captain Scarlet's hackles for almost the entire flight from the Capricorn rig to Liberia. Something missing in this continental-sized puzzle of Harconis' involvement with humanitarian rights. It didn't seem a big or vital piece he was deleting. However, its absence caused an unrest not unlike the feeling he got when a Mysteron was near. The officer rubbed at his troubled head and leaned back in his seat with eyes momentarily closed.
"What is it, Spectrum?" Reginold Kaiser asked from beside him. "Getting tired of all this adventure?"
"Hhmm?" The captain considered the crooked smile of his companion, but noticed also the man's worried eyes. "I'm fine, Reg. I just seem to be forgetting something. I can't put it together."
"Well, I have led you on a merry chase, after all. We were a regular pair of Boy Scouts down there. You being the more reasonable one, I might add." Kaiser paused to turn slightly in his seat. "How did you avoid being drowned, anyway?" he demanded. "The concussion of hitting the ocean alone would have knocked any normal man silly. Forced the air right from your lungs. The water's cold too and nearly seventy meters deep."
Scarlet only smirked and blinked the gun runner a side glance before eyeing the passing ocean beneath them. Melody was even now preparing for their landing in Monrovia. "Remember I said I'd studied ancient healing meditations?"
Kaiser gasped. "Are you saying you placed yourself in a trance? Slowed your heart and held your breath for almost an hour?"
In response to the accusation Captain Scarlet confessed, "Not for an entire hour. No. The Stingray mini-sub rescued me from the bottom." Inwardly the Brit was glad he hadn't had to lie to his friend. "I'm glad they came in time."
"So am I," Kaiser assured. "Kruegar was absolutely jubilant when you shot like a stone from the rig. He and Corman shared bets on whether anything of your body'd be left to be dug up by some other mining rig someday, after being eaten by the sharks, of course."
Scarlet bolted upright in his chair. "Corman!" His icy glare traced the memory of the captured mutineers and their shackled trek to the platform landing. Kruegar had been there. His security forces. But two men were strangely absent from the scene. "Where were Corman and that brute Dawson? Captain Grey never brought them out from the rig. They were never arrested." With a scowl Scarlet demanded, "What happened to Corman?"
"I thought you knew. Your Captain Grey alerted local police forces to his disappearance. I'm sure the arriving Namibian Coast Guard found him. They were beginning to swarm the rig when we left.” Kaiser’s voice dipped to melancholy next. “I'll probably have to buy back my own platform at a Namibian sheriff's sale when this is all through."
Scarlet wasn't so sentimental. "No, Kaiser. The chopper. The one we arrived in last night. The one you appropriated from the TV station at Kinshasa. When Melody landed to pick us up, it wasn't on the helipad. That's what I'd forgotten. Someone must have taken it."
"Corman's my pilot. And Dawson's a trained assassin," Kaiser reminded. "That Mysteron threat you talked about. The one Cloudbase updated you on a little while ago. Do you think the French summit with President Velegill is the target?"
"There are too many puzzle pieces to this whole affair still free and walking, Reg. I'm not a betting man, myself, but-"
Kaiser nodded. "Right. Give me a gun. I'll be your backup."
Though Scarlet swung a suspicious eye his way, the Spectrum captain finally agreed and rose to procure an additional sidearm for his companion. As he closed the storage compartment and handed the pistol over, butt end first, he insisted, "I have your word this will be used with the utmost caution. We're after Corman and Dawson. That's all. There'll be Spectrum officers guarding the president and his delegates. But Corman may still have been allowed access because of his connection with you."
"Call ahead," Kaiser suggested. "Alert them; Corman may already be there. He had a head start." Scarlet did just that, and the Monrovia bunker was to be cordoned off.
As Melody Angel settled the Spectrum helicopter upon the pad beside the ranch house, some minutes later, Captain Scarlet slid open the hatch. He was on the ground running before the chopper had powered down. Not two footfalls behind was Reginold Kaiser. His taller, blond stature was not unlike the captain's regular partner. Together they bolted for the nearest security entrance. Right away, Scarlet knew something was wrong. Communication lines had been cut. Bullet holes had chipped the concrete wall. Two guards were just now recovering from their bout with attackers. Neither was seriously wounded. With a flinch of muscle, Scarlet brought the cap mike to bear. "Captain Ochre. Captain Blue. Come in. Corman's on his way down. Lock down the bunker. Repeat. Full lockdown mode."
"No good, Captain," Kaiser admonished with his hand upon another security panel door. With a flick of a finger he swung the charred hatch open. The emergency electronics inside had been burned to frazzled wire. "The security systems aren't even armed. Did I tell you, Corman’s also my munitions and security specialist?"
"Damn." Scarlet glowered at the fizzling mass of ruined electronics. "It's a bet they're in the dark down there, too. Reg. Go to the chopper. Get a pair of night vision goggles from Melody. Have her alert Cloudbase and prepare a medical chopper. She can run cover for us up here. No one's to leave. Clear?"
"Clear," Kaiser quipped. "I'll be right back."
As his temporary partner sprinted off, Captain Scarlet jammed his pistol into the camouflaged elevator door and fired once along the seam. The concussion jarred both his hand and the entrance failsafe mechanism. Even minus electricity, there was still enough reserved charge to startle the door a crack. Shoving his fingers into that divide Scarlet then pried the separation wider until he could shoulder himself into the empty shaft. Corman had covered his trail, all right. The elevator car had gone down and not returned. Re-holstering his sidearm, Captain Scarlet reached out for an elevator cable and swung out into the chasm. Below, in the darkness of the subterranean safe house, the Ivorian and French delegates were in grave peril, as were their protective Spectrum officers. Conscious of the tensile steel of the cable biting into his palms, Captain Scarlet slid into the depths to assist in any way he could.
The bunker was situated nearly fifteen meters underground, surrounded by bedrock and titanium reinforced concrete. The place was impervious to outside forces. It was, however, vulnerable to a well-orchestrated internal threat. Somehow, Corman had gotten far enough inside the compound to take out the security systems and the hidden elevator shaft. Now, he and Dawson were somewhere below, searching the labyrinth of corridors for the assemblage of diplomats and their Ivorian leader.
With a grab for the center cable Scarlet stopped his fall enough to prevent his boot heels from smashing the roof of the elevator car. It had stopped on the first of the two underground floors. He'd have to climb inside the space to gain access to the bunker. There was an emergency hatch on the carriage's roof. Scarlet punched the release with a bloodied hand then flopped his legs inside. As he was about to jump he heard Reginold Kaiser holler down the echoing shaft. "Captain!" he instructed. "Catch." A pair of night goggles clunked atop the car beside him. Scarlet snatched up the eyewear then slid into the car. Standing, he strapped the goggles over his cap then positioned the night-display screen across his eyes. He next levered open the door and stepped out into the silence of an abandoned hallway.
"Now. Which way?" He tried his cap mike. Quietly, he entreated, "Captain Ochre. Do you hear me?" There was no answer. "Odd." Scarlet tried again sliding the tiny volume control to maximum along the cap's rim. "Blue. Ochre. Come in. Magenta?" Still nothing. Then high pitched feedback whined from the speaker, explaining it all. Flinching at the auditory assault Scarlet tugged the cap from his head and growled. "It's being jammed." Carefully he slid the volume control again to normal, then replaced his kepi. Re-adjusting the cock-eyed goggles, Scarlet voted for the more old-fashioned approach. He'd have to search the complex for his friends. Wherever Blue and Ochre were, that's where he'd find both the delegates and the two men who were attempting to kill them. Time, however, was the one variable Scarlet could not control.
Just then something banged upon the now abandoned elevator car. Scarlet spun back, pistol drawn. "How come you didn't wait for me?" Reginold Kaiser accused as the Spectrum captain sighed and lowered his weapon. Kaiser was also wearing a pair of the night vision goggles and sported a heavy set of thermal resistant gloves. "I'm your partner. Remember?"
"You're also a civilian. You were to stay topside."
"I was? Sorry. You said a pair of goggles. I got one for each of us." Tugging off the gloves Kaiser stepped forward to join the officer. "Not very fashionable. But very cool."
Scarlet hushed the man with a swinging palm. "I hope you can use that equipment as well as you do your mouth, Reg. Stay behind me and keep quiet."
"SIG," was the man's whispered reply. In another situation the scene might have been comical. In this case, the possible outcome was deadly serious. Captain Scarlet and his new partner crept along the corridors listening for sounds of shuffling feet and searching for the shadowy outlines of moving targets. Able to avoid furniture and security stations with their goggles, they were nonetheless disappointed to find nothing more out of the ordinary than the power outage. Even the feeble glow of the emergency lanterns was absent. It seemed Corman had been very thorough in crippling the Spectrum team.
Captains Ochre and Blue had tried several times to contact the surface from the bunker's lounge. Security had mentioned something about a message from Captain Scarlet. Standing by the wall Ochre tabbed the intercom again. Silence. "It's no use," he said. "The power's completely out, on all accounts."
"Then it must have been a warning Scarlet was sending us," Blue surmised.
"Little good it'll do us now. Come on. We have to find Velegill and the others. We'll secure them all in the conference room. Lunch is over."
"Cancel the dessert tray," Blue murmured as with one hand upon his partner's sleeve he followed Ochre from the lounge. They mentally retraced their steps to the underground facility's grand conference hall. There Magenta and Turquoise joined them.
"Stay here with President Velegill and the assembly," Ochre ordered. "We'll go to the canteen and get Souvaignon and Dela'Croix. With the power out, you'll have to secure the doors as best you can. Don't let anyone in here. The code is Silver Bullet. Got it?"
"SIG," the two officers chimed.
"Come on, Blue. Maybe we can grab a sandwich."
"Not funny." The two were away to complete their chess set of diplomats. But as they entered the bunker's cafeteria facilities shots rang out in the hollow confinement of the steel galley. "Get down!" Blue cautioned skidding beneath a dining table and drawing his pistol.
"Captain Ochre. Spectrum," his partner called out. "We have superior forces. Surrender your weapons. Give up all hostilities and you will not be harmed."
"Nonsense, Captain," was the stilted reply. "We're here for just three men. Our own safety doesn't matter."
Ochre glanced aside to the dim blob which was his partner. "Doesn't matter?"
"But how'd they get past our detectors? Security topside screened all the representatives before they were allowed inside."
"Maybe they were made Mysterons once they were inside," Blue argued. "It's been done before."
Ochre raised his voice to the hostile entities within the galley. "Who are your targets, Mysterons? President Velegill, and who else?"
"Our business is our own. Put down your weapons. We can see where you're hiding." In confirmation three more shots pinged against the tile floor beside them. Blue flinched as shrapnel stung his exposed hand.
"Damn. They have night-vision gear," Ochre surmised with a frown in the darkness. "We're handicapped."
"And we don't know where Ambassador Souvaignon is." Blue raised his voice to the terrorists. "What are your plans once you've killed your three men?"
The answer was a hearty laugh. "We celebrate the independence of Ivorians everywhere. Anarchy will rule. As their suppliers, we'll flourish."
"Yeah!" cheered a second voice.
Blue considered the men's words carefully. "They don't sound like Mysterons, Captain. They sound more like-"
"Mercenaries," Ochre finished. "These are Harconis' men. They're here to sabotage the peace talks." It was again Ochre's turn to interrogate the armed rebels. "We know who you are. Harconis won't allow you to overstep his authority. He's a military man. There's a chain of command."
"Chains break, Spectrum. You just have to twist them enough." More gunfire pinned the two captains down beneath their tables.
Blue knelt and gave his an angled shove. The furniture toppled onto its side creating a wide shield. "I'm going in. Cover me," he whispered to his partner.
"No. It's too dangerous," Ochre warned even as he jumped from his shelter to squeeze off two rounds in Blue's defense. "Souvaignon. Dela'Croix. Stay down!" he warned. Whether the French ambassador and prime minister were still alive to answer him or not, Ochre wasn't to know. A bullet slammed into his cap and downed the field commander in a heap.
"Captain!" Blue called back even as he dove beneath another table closer to the galley's half wall. "Captain Ochre."
"It was a clean shot, Spectrum. Put down your weapon," the second terrorist ordered. "We only want the three kings."
In his quandary one thought was crystal clear. "If you're not Mysterons, then how do you know about the Mysterons' threat?"
"What threat, Spectrum? We only know our threat to you now. Lay down your weapon, and you and your partner get to live."
Blue contemplated his situation. He had no back up. In the blackness he had little ability to target his foes. They could right now have him in their own gun sights. Blue heard a shuffling of footfalls. The terrorists were on the move, perhaps coming around for a clear shot. If he gave up now, there were two possible outcomes. Captain Blue had never been a gambling man. He lowered his pistol and laid it on the floor beside him. "All right. I'm unarmed." The stamping of retreating boots was the only reply. They were gone. Heading for the conference room, no doubt. Scrambling to his feet to find his downed partner, Blue scooped up his gun and called his comrades. "Captain Magenta. SIR. Armed gunmen on their way to you. Magenta. SIR. Do you copy?" Probing fingers found Ochre's pulse. He was alive. The man's cap was beside him. Warm liquid smattered the unconscious captain's scalp. In the darkness Blue couldn't tell whether or not his compatriot was critically wounded. What he did know was that neither Captain Magenta nor Turquoise had answered his hail. Blue's own shoulder epaulettes remained dim. He tried once more to use his cap mike, but the answer was only an eerie silence.
Did he leave his companion and fumble his way back to the conference room, or did Blue stay with Ochre, just in case ...? There was, perhaps, another alternative. Climbing to his feet, Blue holstered his pistol and gathered his partner in his arms. "Come on, pal. Looks like we're the only cavalry."
Magenta and Turquoise had positioned the French delegation, President Velegill and his attending ministers to the far side of the expansive conference room. By maneuvering desks and tables, the Spectrum pair had created a stockade they hoped would shield the assembly from any conventional assault against them. "Let's just hope no one thinks to gas us or set fire to the bunker," Magenta ventured.
"Remind me not to be partnered with you again, Captain. You're too realistic for my taste," Turquoise responded with a dour sigh. Both had their guns pointed toward the darkness which was the braced double-doored entrance. There was nothing more, perhaps, to do than wait for a possible attack. In the ensuing silence Turquoise ventured, "I just had a thought. We can't see. What if our intruders can?"
In the darkness Magenta was nodding. "You mean night-vision capability. Sorry. Last time I looked, I didn't have any goggles in my back pocket."
"So," Turquoise countered from beside him. "We need to level the playing field a bit. Remember your fire idea?"
"No," Magenta warned. "That'd be suicide down here."
"Not fire. Just a smoke screen." Turquoise turned his plea to the back of the room. "Any of you folks have a lighter?" Within moments, the Cherokee captain was standing atop a conference chair, waving his tiny beacon under the ceiling's sprinkler sensor. With a click, the unit identified the danger, and issued a base wide deluge to stamp out the inferno. Their little lantern was instantly extinguished, plunging the assembly again into darkness.
As Turquoise hopped down from his perch to rejoin him, Magenta asked, "Now what? We sing?" He remembered the colonel's original mission brief. Spectrum personnel were to act as deterrents only. A distraction, Ambassador Souvaignon had suggested. Magenta believed being used as a human shield was a bit above the term. Yet, assisting in the protection of sovereign nations was part of Spectrum's job description. And with the recent Mysteron threat, he and Turquoise were the only ones to stand against their alien enemy. The pair stood fast beneath the downpour. Then the doors rattled against the makeshift barrier they had braced against the wood. "Be ready, Captain," Magenta warned turning again to face their unspoken foe amid their indoor shower.
"SIG." The letters were spoken in a succinct, tight-lipped manner. Turquoise was just as resolute as he.
The barricade rumbled against the intruders once more. Shots, muffled by the obstruction, boomed into the corridor beyond the conference room. At least the racket would give the pair a target to aim for in the blackness. "Stay down, people," Magenta reminded over his shoulder. "This could get bloody."
"Just as long as it's not ours," Turquoise murmured. A crash and thud and the doors fell silent. "Now that didn't sound good. Maybe they slipped in a puddle."
"Come on," Magenta groaned. "Stay serious. I'm going to risk a peek."
Turquoise grabbed his arm. Magenta almost expelled bullets at the gesture. "You heard Ochre. We can't jeopardize the delegates. We wait for the signal."
"What if Blue and Ochre didn't make it?"
"Then Spectrum security will storm the place and rescue us. Eventually. Until then, we hold tight."
Before them, the double-doors quaked, then bammed. Someone was definitely trying to get in. "Captain Ochre!" a voice called through the barricade. "Open the doors. It's over."
"Ochre?" Magenta hollered back, "Who's there? What's the security code?"
"I didn't get that memo, Magenta. Open the bloody doors and let us in."
"Sounds like Scarlet," Turquoise offered stepping closer to the door. "I've got an idea." Addressing the dripping barrier the Cherokee captain inquired, "What did we meet in the Jersey woods which doesn't exist?"
"The devil, Red Hawk. It's me. Scarlet. Move the barricade. We need to shut off the sprinklers and evacuate the building. A Magnacopter's on its way."
"Sounds legit to me," the lighter uniformed officer accepted.
Now it was Magenta's turn to lay out a halting hand. To the door he called, "Where're Captains Blue and Ochre? They're out there somewhere."
The muffled reply was disheartening. "We didn't see them. I hope they're all right."
"Who's with you, Captain? Melody Angel?"
The response was momentary. "I left her topside to guard the perimeter. I have Mr. Kaiser with me."
"Kaiser? Who's that?"
"Sorry. Harconis. Reginold Harconis."
Magenta paused against the barricade. "I don't like this," he murmured to his Cherokee partner. To the doors he said, "We can't allow you entrance, Captain Scarlet. Not until you've guaranteed Harconis is safe. For all we know, he's part of the Mysteron plot against Velegill."
Again there was a moment of silence from the far side of the door. "I ... I can't completely guarantee his loyalty, Captain. I'm sorry. But I will confiscate his weapon."
"That'll do, I suppose. He's your charge. Stand back." Together Turquoise and Magenta slid the furniture aside and freed the doors. With a grunt, Magenta unlatched the security bolt and swung the one door open. "You OK?" he asked the dark shape which was the uniformed Scarlet.
"Soaked again, but unharmed," Captain Scarlet informed stepping in. "You two look a bit haggard, though."
In answer Scarlet tapped his forehead. "Night vision goggles."
"They came in handy tackling the two assassins at your door," a new voice assured. Harconis.
"Is the exit secure, Captain?" Magenta asked. "If we're going to evacuate, shouldn't we wait for some help with the lighting?"
"And who's jamming our comms?" Turquoise demanded.
"My man Corman was an electronics specialist," Harconis stated into the drenching darkness.
"Your man?" Magenta's sidearm rose toward the disembodied voice.
"Stand down, Captain," Scarlet cautioned. "Mr. Harconis has a long and detailed story to tell. Suffice it to say, he's been betrayed along the way, too." A sudden sloshing of heavy feet announced approaching visitors. In the darkness, Magenta and Turquoise readied their guns. Scarlet turned his goggles toward the sound. "Hold it, Captains. It's Blue with Ochre." Scarlet's next words were addressed to the limping officer and his hefty load. "What happened?"
"We were ambushed by Harconis' snipers. Sent to murder Souvaignon and Velegill. I don't know their status."
"The assassins have been neutralized," Scarlet informed.
"Looks like the Mysterons have been watching our little adventure," Blue contended. "Thought they'd distract us with a bit of subterfuge."
"No Mysterons?" Magenta asked sounding deflated. "But the Mysteron threat."
"A ruse to heighten our nerves, perhaps," Scarlet suggested.
"Not exactly, Earthman," a deep voice rumbled from the back of the room. “One king dies now.”
With his night-vision goggles the British officer spun on that voice and drew his pistol. From behind the delegate's barricade two figures rose, wrapped together in a tense embrace. In the enshrouding curtain of falling water, Scarlet couldn't be certain, but one of the men resembled the descriptions of-
"Mr. President!" Someone snatched back Scarlet's second weapon. There was a blast of gunfire, a yelp, followed by the collapse of one of the two figures in the darkness. By some divine intervention, then, lights flickered amidst the chaos. Spectrum security on ground level must have found the generator override and patched the power breach.
As Scarlet and Harconis/Kaiser snatched the blinding scopes from their eyes, Magenta and Turquoise blinked into focus the aftermath of what had just occurred. "Are you all right, President Velegill?" A clambering of diplomats scrambled up and away from the dead body sprawled atop the stockade. Magenta rushed to Velegill's side. "Who was that?"
Finding his voice, President Velegill considered the soaked and bloody face of the Mysteron agent. "It looks like Minister Jaharda, from Daloa Department. But he was a trusted friend."
"He'd been turned into a Mysteron, Mr. President,” Magenta explained gently. “Your friend has been dead for some time now, I'm afraid."
"And who am I to thank for my life, Captain Magenta? In the darkness, I could not see."
In the full light of their close call, Magenta turned to his fellow officer. Scarlet was shaking his head. "I didn't react in time. Couldn't recognize the hostage."
"I guess I did it, Sir." Smoking pistol still in hand, Reginold Kaiser raised the weapon to admit his deed. To save the man further danger, Scarlet hastily wrapped his hand about the gun and pried it loose from the rebel leader's grip.
"Nice shot, Reg," Captain Scarlet acknowledged even as someone topside shut down the sprinklers. "Boy Scout indeed."
"Joe Zaire trained me well," Kaiser said with a shrug. "I guess we're done here. We go back to Ivory Coast and make nice now?"
"You're to be arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the sovereign government of Ivory Coast, Mr. Harconis," Captain Blue informed from the hall. He was still slumping beneath the half-conscious burden of Captain Ochre. Both looked like soggy lost puppies. "And you'll be under the jurisdiction of World Security forces for your terrorist stunt with the hydrogen bomb."
"Captain Blue," Scarlet interrupted. "Mr. Kaiser is an altruistic soul, bringing the plight of human and ecological rights to public attention. Albeit by unconventional means, but he's not a terrorist."
Blue blinked in the corridor lights outside the conference hall. "From you, Scarlet? I'm surprised. You'd condone gun running, threats and violence against peaceful negotiations?"
"Kaiser, huh?" Magenta interrupted. "Is that your real name, Mr. Harconis? Or just another one of your many aliases?" The captain's gun was still drawn and at the ready.
Glancing from one colorful uniform to the next, Reginold Kaiser's eyes rested upon his closest associate. "I guess I have quite a bit of explaining to do, Spectrum."
Scarlet smiled at his friend. "Time to come clean, Reg. Just remember. Actions speak louder than words, and you've done just as much good as questionable here."
"Thanks, Scarlet." Kaiser sighed. He raised his hands, wrists touching. "I guess I'm ready to be led off in chains."
"Not quite chains, Kaiser," a scrappy voice groaned from the corridor floor.
"Look out!" Blue shouted. A gun barked and the rebel leader flinched against the assault. Dawson's trembling hand went limp from the effort, but the shootist's final aim had been good enough. Kaiser collapsed to the floor.
"Reg!" Captain Scarlet sank beside his friend. Swiftly he gauged the depth and location of the wound darkening the rebel leader's chest and urged, "Hold on, Reg."
"I'll get a medic," Turquoise promised and rushed off toward the elevator.
Kaiser/Harconis/Lazarus smiled up at his friend from the floor. "Looks like you can win your friends, but you can't buy your enemies," he groaned.
"You’ve earned a friend today, Reginold Kaiser," Scarlet assured, even as Velegill came to stand beside them. "Maybe two."
Kaiser laughed at the irony, then grimaced against his hemorrhaging heart. "I guess it's too late to teach me that healing technique." As he coughed against the pain, his rolling eyes tried to focus on the circle of concerned Spectrum agents. "The Crayola cavalry. Finally assembled." Then, as the man's sight began to dull and Kaiser lost against his wound he murmured to Scarlet, "We would have made a good team. I wonder ... What crayon would I have been?"
In response, Scarlet smiled. "With your talents, Reg," he mumbled against the ache, "you would have been the rainbow one." Then, as he palmed the rebel leader's lids closed for the last time, the British captain was oblivious to Turquoise's return. He had brought stretchers for Ochre and Kaiser. Two of Cloudbase's own nurses accompanied him. It was time to leave.
The Magnacopter was soon loaded with still unnerved delegates for the flight back to a country waiting in turmoil. The Ivorians needed their newly enlightened president. Meanwhile Ochre was gingerly settled into Melody's smaller craft, the graze wound to his head already dressed for transport. Blue stood beside his associates. "Magenta and I are going with Symphony in the Magnacopter," he informed. "We'll meet you back on Cloudbase once we've gotten President Velegill settled in for the re-stabilization of his government. Souvaignon said he'd stay to assist as soon as he's feeling a bit warmer. The man knew what to do, mind you. I would have never thought to look in the galley freezer."
"Good," Scarlet answered simply.
Blue considered his stoic friend. "You all right? I hear you had quite an adventure in the jungle. Were the crocodiles a menace?"
Smiling slightly and glancing toward his long-time partner, Scarlet answered, "No. Only the two-legged ones."
Magenta leaned out of the waiting Spectrum Magnacopter and waved at Blue. "Ready," he called.
Blue nodded to the officer then laid a hand atop Scarlet's shoulder. "You know, buddy. You're welcome to join us. Symphony and me. To Hawaii. Spend a few days in paradise."
Melody had also revved up her helicopter's engines, preparing to taxi Scarlet, Ochre, and Turquoise back to Cloudbase. "I wouldn't want to intrude," the Briton told his companion. "You two deserve some time alone."
But as Blue headed off to his rendezvous with Ivory Coast he nodded and waved farewell. "Well, if you change your mind ..." he said. Then Blue stepped up into the Magnacopter, letting the invitation drift with the kilometers.
Scarlet climbed in beside Turquoise and considered their dour companion. "How are you holding up, Captain?"
Ochre tenderly pressed a finger against his bandaged wound and flinched. "I was almost somebody's pincushion. Other than that, I've got a wicked headache. That's all."
Scarlet knew all too well what other discomfort the American captain would have to endure once they were back on Cloudbase. "Dr. Fawn will be waiting to take a look over, you know."
Rolling his eyes at the prospect, Ochre leaned back against his seat and groaned. "Oh, joy."
Turquoise only smiled from his seat. "Well, Rick. It could be worse. With you out of commission, Magenta's now got a fifty page diplomatic dossier to compile and update within the next twelve hours. And the colonel'll probably have him stay the interim, until things settle down in Ivory Coast. So, I'm sure Magenta'd gladly switch with you. I hear Dr. Fawn can brew up one mean cappuccino. And I guarantee Pat wouldn't object to the mindless R and R. At least in the short-run."
"Right," Scarlet cut in with a slanted grin. "I'm sure Dr. Fawn will wait at least an hour before he has you going walk-about. He'll call it physical therapy, though, to keep you from getting stiff." Then, his smile failing, Scarlet pondered what Blue had mentioned earlier. "Something's still bothering me," he admitted to his companions. "The Mysterons. They must have known about Corman's plot to assassinate the Ivorian delegates. And so put in their own two pence with Jaharda. Just to throw us a curve ball."
Turquoise studied the British officer before offering, "I'm sorry about Harconis, Scarlet. His real name was Kaiser?"
The British captain nodded. "It was his birth mother's maiden name."
"It's the German name for emperor, you know. He was one of Corman's three targets all along."
"Yes," Scarlet agreed quietly. "He was a leader. A diamond of a man, in his own right. He would have made a good and fair king." A silent memorial was allowed between the men as Melody rode the wind into the clouds.
Once the team had reassembled on Cloudbase, Scarlet singularly confronted a flustered Colonel White in the command center. "Captain Scarlet?" White growled from behind his circular command dais. "Just what were you thinking? I sent you to obtain field data. Not to cause worldwide havoc with three governments."
The British captain settled onto a rising stool and set his cap calmly atop his lap. He had already prepared his defense against his commander's criticism. "Technically, Sir," he argued. "When you cautioned against daring heroics, you weren't speaking to me. I wasn't yet assigned to the mission, if you remember."
"True," White agreed grudgingly, nodding his silver head. "But then again, I didn't think I'd have to remind you for the thousandth and first time, Captain." That last was delivered with just a hint of a challenging and annoyed brow.
Scarlet took the colonel's meaning and only nodded slightly. "Well," he admitted. "At least we all made it through the crisis in one piece. Peace looks like the outcome."
As Captain Blue entered the command center to join them he smirked at the last comment. Outwardly, though, he glared at his partner with shared annoyance. "I beg to differ there, Scarlet," he said as he settled on a stool beside him. "My patience was left behind. Somewhere in the Abidjan countryside, I think. I doubt I'll ever find it again."
That elicited the appropriate response from the tense pair of Spectrum officers. White chuckled deeply and leaned back in his command chair with a relaxing sigh. "Very well, Gentlemen. You're dismissed to finish your reports." Then, perhaps as an afterthought, Cloudbase's C-in-C added, "Captain Blue. I believe you and Symphony Angel have a shore leave due you. In Hawaii, if I'm not mistaken. Very romantic." To this Blue froze upon his stool, breath suspended against the outcome of his commander's sidebar. The colonel just smirked and continued, "Whatever you two plan, don't get eaten by any sharks. Understood?"
Blue crept from his stool, perhaps unsure of his expected response. He gave the only reply he could think of. "SIG, Colonel." Captain Scarlet only shook his head and followed the American out of the command center. Fool's errand, indeed.
Later, as Blue and Symphony prepared to leave for their shared furlough, Blue thanked Scarlet for helping with the baggage. The American captain paused at the edge of the flight deck and offered, "You know, Paul. You're still welcome to join us, if you can squeeze a couple days free out of the colonel." The taller man reached down to haul Symphony's hefty duffle onto his wide shoulder. "We could do a little surfing or maybe some deep sea fishing off the coast of Molokai. What do you say?"
Scarlet smiled, but waved his hand to the negative, back pedaling slightly from his friends and their waiting jet. "No thanks, partner. Remember the last time we shared a furlough? I'll always think of it as the 'Mt. Rainier Disaster'." Blue and Symphony exchanged knowing smiles, though Scarlet could see Blue's eyes yearned to include his best friend in their merry making, if just for a day or two. He reiterated his offer, still hopeful Scarlet would meet them there. But the Briton was not at all interested in a tropical getaway. "Have a wonderful time, you two," he wished with a wave over his retreating shoulder. "I've had quite enough water sports for five furloughs." Inwardly, Captain Scarlet vowed to avoid the base's pool for at least a month. Sometimes, it seemed, nightmares did indeed come true. For now, the captain needed a cleansing, hot shower. The threat of lurking crocodiles and man-eating sharks was negligible enough there; he felt he could risk it. Ah, such sweetness to sour the dread of a friend lost in action ...
Copyrights March 31, 2003, February 8, 2012
Thanks for reading! Please let me know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, I appreciate the feedback.
For those of you interested in the sometimes mysterious process of writing creative fiction, my impetus for this particular story was two-fold. Firstly, I had seen a documentary on alluvial diamond mining on The History Channel which sparked my idea for what was to originally be the final dramatic scene: that of Scarlet being plunged into the Atlantic from the offshore diamond rig. Unfortunately, as the story progressed, the character of Reginold Harconis/Kaiser came alive with a voice (and personality) of his own. And so Diamonds soon became not just a vignette around the captain's shark-infested dousing, but a political statement about the roles and responsibilities of developing nations and their allies. Industrial and technological progress at the detriment of a nation's people and her unique ecosystems is a touchy and debatable subject. The future, in this story, is just as questionable as any current conflict, due to the nature of man and his greed.
Secondly, the recent events (2003) in Ivory Coast had been described in short articles in my local newspaper. In them was illustrated a typical conflict within an independent nation which had once been a colony. I had no idea France would soon become such a hot plate of controversy here in the United States when I started writing Diamonds. Needless to say, I soon chose to temper France's role in the Ivorian conflict, to soften the blow for those sensitive to the current political issues abroad.
As always, my intention here is simply to entertain. If, additionally, I help the reader explore beyond the adventure into the human psyche, then all the better. Please do not infer that I am exerting any political opinion which has any bearing beyond this piece of fiction. Peace and balance in the world is my ultimate wish. To this end, I live my life, as we all must do, to the best of my abilities. Thank you.
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