A “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” short story
World Army Air Force captain Jay Ferguson scrawled his signature on the last page of a report and tossed it on top of the growing pile on his desk. "Finished at last," he grumbled, shaking his wrist and flexing his fingers. "I thought this was supposed to be the 'paperless society.'" He rose from his swivel chair slowly, massaging the small of his back, then grabbed a mug from the desktop and left his tiny workstation.
Several other officers and enlisted personnel were huddled around the coffee machine as usual. Ferguson muttered a greeting as he filled his cup for the fourth time that morning and added a spoonful of dry creamer.
Captain Alvin Beck reached across Ferguson for the sugar dispenser. "So, Fergie, you going to be there tonight?"
"At the farewell party for Dave Fry in the O-Club. Don't you read the bulletin boards?"
Ferguson stared at him in surprise. "When did Fry decide to retire? That lifer's been around since the Atomic Wars."
"About a month after that new Special Forces colonel came on board." Beck paused and sipped his coffee. "From what I hear, Colonel Metcalfe expected a lot more out of his liaison than he got."
Ferguson grinned. "You mean he expected Fry to do a real job?"
"Something like that. I've never met the guy, but from what I've heard, Metcalfe is a hard worker, not at all like Colonel Antonucci."
"Yeah, I remember when Dave heard his buddy Antonucci made battalion commander. He put in for a transfer so fast they didn't even get the announcement up on the list."
Beck nodded. "What I don't understand, Fergie, is why you didn't notice the opening for the position yourself. I know you're always looking for a way to get out of Finance."
"Remember what time of year it is, Al. We're coming up on the end of the fiscal and I'm so swamped I barely have time to read the reports I'm signing." Ferguson tasted his coffee and realized he hadn't added his own sugar. "Have they filled the liaison position yet?"
"No one's gone for it yet. I think everybody's afraid of 'The Little Colonel.'"
"That's the nickname Fry gave Colonel Metcalfe. He's supposed to be young, highly decorated, shot through the ranks like a rocket, that sort of thing."
"No wonder Dave didn't like him! The old codger hated to take orders from anybody younger than him." Ferguson poured a generous amount of sugar into his cup and stirred thoughtfully. "You know, maybe I should try for the job. You can get pretty far riding these young go-getters' coattails."
"You'd better not be afraid of hard work."
"Not at all. And besides, I have a Special Forces background--"
Beck rolled his eyes. "Now I've heard everything. Fergie, you do not have SF experience. You washed out in the first week of the course!"
"But I'm not trying to become a Red Beret now, only the liaison officer to them. Just trying out for them has to get me a few points."
"I know what'll get you more than that. You know how Fry likes to talk after he's had a few. Pump him tonight at the party and find out what this Colonel Metcalfe is really like. If you can find something you and Metcalfe have in common--no, not your 'Special Forces background,' he'll see right through that--you might stand a better chance of impressing him."
Ferguson shook his head. "Major Desjardins ordered some last-minute changes to the annual report, so I'll be working late tonight. I'll just have to take my chances with the colonel himself."
"Well, when you go for the interview, get there ahead of time. Maybe somebody on the colonel's staff can give you a few pointers. The young clerks are usually the best choice."
"I'll do that." Ferguson looked at his watch. "I'd better get back to crunching numbers."
Beck held out his hand. "Good luck, Fergie. I hope you're shifting WAAF Canada's troops instead of its dollars the next time I see you."
Ferguson returned the handshake and walked back to his cubicle. Instead of returning to the balance sheet on his computer, he stopped at the base personnel office and picked up a transfer application. Major Desjardins could wait a little longer.
In the intervening time between his transfer request and his interview, Captain Ferguson learned virtually nothing about his prospective superior officer. Ferguson knew that in order for him to have any chance at becoming the base's WAAF/Special Forces liaison, he'd have to do a little homework. But the trouble was that Colonel Paul Metcalfe was involved in so many Special Forces field exercises that hardly anyone at WAAF Canada had even heard of him, let alone knew what he looked like. The base photographer hadn't even been able to get him in for his official portrait.
Ferguson paced nervously as the elevator rose to the command floor of the WAAF base's main office building. The elevator ride seemed to take an eternity, especially considering that the battalion commander's office was only on the third floor. Not only was he nervous about the interview itself, the captain hoped he wouldn't run into anyone he knew. It would be a little difficult to explain why the perpetually late Jay Ferguson had arrived for an appointment an hour early.
The elevator doors opened and Ferguson stepped out, looking immediately for the office directory as he had never previously been on the command floor. To blunder into the wrong office, on this of all days, would surely ruin any chance he had of boosting his sagging career. From the directory he determined that the Special Forces command office was around the corner from his present position.
As he proceeded down the corridor, Ferguson detected a muffled tapping sound, as if someone were running down the hallway after him. He spun around but saw no one; at this early hour the building was nearly deserted. Laughing to himself at his frayed nerves, he rounded the corner and came face to face with a very sweaty young man in front of Colonel Metcalfe's office.
"Good morning, Captain," he called out in a cheerful if winded voice.
"Where the hell did you come from?" gasped the startled Ferguson.
"The fire tower," he replied, nodding in the direction of the exit sign. "You really should have a go sometime. Twenty laps or so is smashing exercise."
Ferguson regained his composure as he scrutinized the young Englishman, clad in sweat-soaked tank top and camouflage trousers, opening the door to the office suite. No rank insignia, he thought to himself, but obviously not the colonel. Much too young--
He smiled slightly as he remembered his conversation with Al Beck. The young clerks are usually the best choice.... "Hey, you, wait a minute!" he called into the doorway.
The young man poked his head back into the corridor, frowning. "Can I help you, Captain?" he asked tersely.
"Yeah, I--uh--I was hoping you could tell me something about him," Ferguson began, cocking his head toward the nameplate on the door. "You know, your boss."
"Do you mean Colonel Metcalfe?"
"Yes, you see, I'm interviewing this morning for the liaison job."
He raised an eyebrow as he gestured Ferguson into the outer office. "You're here early, aren't you? I don't remember any appointments on the schedule until 0800."
Ferguson shifted nervously. "Well, yeah, but I thought I'd get a little dope on 'The Little Colonel' first. You know how it is."
"I can't say that I do, Captain--"
With that, a young officer entered.
"'Morning, Lieutenant," the young man called. "Nice earrings you're wearing today."
She seemed taken aback by his greeting, tugging at her left earlobe as if to figure out which earrings she'd put on. "Thanks," she smiled. "Tea or coffee?"
"Captain?" the youth deferred.
"Coffee, cream and sugar," returned Ferguson, then grumbled under his breath, "About time someone offered."
If he heard him, the younger man chose to ignore the comment. "Coffee for me and all, please. Is that report ready for signature yet?"
"Yes, finished it last night. I'll take it through--"
"No need for that, Lieutenant. I'm going in there myself." He accepted the coffee and a thick blue report folder, then turned back toward Ferguson. "If you'll excuse me, Captain, I have work to do. Lieutenant Carlin will tell you all you need to know for your interview."
Carlin waved the captain to a chair and handed him his coffee, then sat behind her desk and powered up her computer. "Now, then," she began, pressing a few keys as she spoke, "are you here to interview for the liaison position, Captain--"
"Ferguson. Jay Ferguson."
She checked the calendar. "Ah, yes, here you are. A bit early, but I'm sure he'll see you now if you don't want to wait round."
Ferguson nearly choked on his coffee. "You mean he's here already?"
"Oh, yes. When he's not in the field, he's usually here at the crack of dawn, before any of his staff." Carlin looked up from the monitor. "You seem surprised, Captain."
"Not really, it's just--well, I had a lot of trouble scheduling this appointment. He always seemed to be out."
"Well, Colonel Metcalfe is a very busy man, especially now that he's without his liaison."
"That must be why he's kept that clerk on."
"That kid who took the report in to him. If I have anything to do with it, he'll be the next one replaced."
"I don't follow you, Captain."
"Well, for starters he needs a few lessons in military etiquette. Superior officers should be treated with a lot more respect than I got this morning."
"If I may be so bold, sir, what makes you think you deserved that respect?"
"My rank, of course."
"From what I saw, you did receive the proper respect for your rank. The question is, did you return it?"
"Now I don't follow you, Lieutenant."
"The man you met outside this morning wasn't wearing any rank insignia. Special Forces personnel often don't wear any in the field--that way the enemy can't estimate a team's strength or a mission's importance."
"So when you are dealing with the Red Berets, you often don't know if you are speaking to the lowest-ranking foot soldier or the battalion commander. And age isn't always a factor, what with all the opportunities for promotion based on merit."
"Are you saying that that kid might outrank me?"
"Absolutely. He could be the colonel himself for all you know."
"Yeah, right." Ferguson forced out a laugh. "I'll take your words to heart, Lieutenant. Thanks."
Carlin was about to continue when the intercom buzzed. She picked up the handset. "Yes, Colonel? Of course, sir. I'll send him right in." She hung up the phone and nodded to Ferguson. "He's ready for you, Captain. Good luck."
Ferguson gulped down the rest of his coffee and rose from the chair, adjusting his uniform tunic as he walked to the door. He strode into the inner office and stopped dead in his tracks. The "kid" he had met outside of the suite that morning was now seated at the desk before him, wearing an everyday uniform with senior officer's insignia and so many medal ribbons hardly any of his left breast pocket was showing.
"Good morning again, Captain," Colonel Paul A. Metcalfe, V.C. and Bar, said icily.
Ferguson snapped to attention as the color drained from his face. He thought he could feel the colonel's steel-blue eyes boring through him. He opened his mouth to speak but Metcalfe cut him off with a wave of the hand.
"First things first," Metcalfe said, picking up the telephone receiver. "Lieutenant, I believe that report I ordered yesterday should be ready. Will you pop round to the print room? Thank you." The colonel turned his attention back to Ferguson, speaking with a clipped British accent that did not conceal his displeasure. "You see, Captain, unlike you I have respect for my subordinates. If I have to give someone a dressing-down, I always do it in private."
Ferguson nodded uneasily. He was intelligent enough to realize that he wasn't getting the job, but as usual he didn't know when to keep his mouth shut.
"I didn't know who you were, sir--"
"That much, Captain, is obvious. Tell me, do you treat your fellow officers with the same disrespect or only the other ranks?"
"Sir, if I had known it was you--"
--But that's just the point!" Metcalfe replied sharply. He took a deep breath to regain his self-control. "Captain, the principal duty of a liaison officer is to coordinate activities between the Special Forces and the WAAF regulars. Respect and tact are imperative for the job. In order to get troops and materiel where you want them, when you want them, you will often have to treat logistics personnel better than your commanding officer." He sat back in the swivel chair, stroking his chin but never relaxing his gaze on the hapless junior officer. "I certainly hope you would treat a logistics clerk with more respect than you showed me this morning."
"I meant no disrespect, sir."
"Oh, but you showed it, Captain. In fact, I realized your disrespect from the moment I laid eyes on you."
"For pity's sake, man, look at yourself. Your brass is tarnished, your uniform needs pressing, and your boots look as if you polish them with a chocolate bar. Your lack of self-respect is evident before you even display your lack of respect for your fellow man!" Metcalfe paused and smiled sardonically. "I'm surprised Captain Fry didn't emphasize your presenting a neater personal appearance."
"I never got a chance to talk to Captain Fry."
"Perhaps you should have done. Then you could have spent the extra hour sorting out your uniform instead of coming here and trying to find out from my staff what football team I support or how I take my coffee."
"I was trying to be on time today."
"An hour early? I knew you were here for other reasons as soon as I read your name badge. According to Major Desjardins you wouldn't be on time for your own funeral. And Colonel Gordon said your lateness was one of the reasons you didn't complete the Special Forces course at Fort Bragg." Metcalfe paused as he noticed Ferguson glance wistfully at the trademark red beret on the colonel's coat tree. "No wonder you didn't try to impress me with that little detail from your career."
"You checked up on me?"
"I should think you would expect me to, Captain. And I must admit I was impressed by your credentials, particularly your methods of appropriating funds for WAAF special projects. You seemed perfect for this job, someone who isn't above a little insubordination to get the proper results. I even wondered why you were still a captain after all these years."
Ferguson began to smile until he met the colonel's glance again.
"Then I talked to Major Desjardins and a few of your former commanders. I learned about your treatment of your unit's clerical staff, your chronic lateness, your slovenly appearance and so on. Your attitude towards me this morning has only served to put the nails in your coffin." Metcalfe sat forward in the chair and glared at Ferguson to emphasize his final point. "Captain Ferguson, until you learn the meaning of the word 'respect,' and I refer not only to respect for your subordinates but also respect for your service and yourself, I have no place for you on my staff. Have I made myself clear?"
Ferguson licked his lips nervously and took a step backward. "I--I won't take up any more of your time today, Colonel--"
"You've taken up too much of it already, Captain. Dismissed."
Ferguson jerked to an even stiffer attention, then exited the room and narrowly missed bowling over the returning Lieutenant Carlin in the doorway. The look on his face told the young lieutenant all she needed to know about the outcome of the interview.
"So I take it the position is still open, sir?" she quipped.
"In Captain Ferguson's case, Lieutenant, it was never even a possibility. I only scheduled the interview at Major Desjardins' request."
Metcalfe nodded as he signed the report she had previously given him. "Ferguson's a productive worker, but he seems to have forgotten how to act like an officer. The major and I thought this the perfect opportunity to teach him a lesson."
"Pity. If you don't mind my saying so, Colonel, I think he may have been a good choice to be your liaison."
"Nonsense. He'd be a terrible choice!"
"I'm surprised you'd say that, sir. I saw a bit of you in him."
"That's the problem, he's too much like me. Even if he did improve his personal habits, I need a liaison officer who gets the job done respectfully and tactfully. Below the surface, Ferguson is just as impetuous as I am!" Metcalfe laughed. "The last thing you need, Lieutenant, is two of me about."
Carlin smiled and nodded knowingly as she left her superior's office.
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