a CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS short story
by Mary J. Rudy
Captain Scarlet sighed and frowned at his reflection in the mirror.
"I hate ceremonies," he grumbled.
Scarlet was usually able to get out of appearing at medal presentations, citing Spectrum duties as his excuse and receiving the honors through the Cloudbase courier service, but this was one time he couldn't avoid it. The notification had come straight from Buckingham Palace, requesting his presence before King George VII himself, and there was simply no way to refuse the King.
So here he was at the palace, fidgeting in front of one of the hall mirrors, twisting a finger inside the high collar of his dress uniform. A long row of medals shone on his chest, their multicolored ribbons bright against the charcoal-gray cloth. The decorations represented the achievements of a fabled military career--six distinguished years with the World Army Air Force, and two more with his current employer. Over that period of time, Scarlet had been awarded some of the World Government's highest military honors.
Around his neck hung the Spectrum Cross, his organization's award for valor, from a rainbow band of silk. Scarlet's cross was gold, rather than the usual silver, for he had been awarded the decoration numerous times. Spectrum had authorized a higher class of the medal so that Scarlet's neck ribbon wouldn't tear from all the clusters denoting repeat awards. Scarlet had approved the authorization of the gold medal on the condition that it would be the final Spectrum Cross issued to him.
Captain Scarlet didn't feel as though he deserved half of the medals and various awards he'd received since this fight with the Mysterons started. After all, he was different from most men, enabling him to take risks no one else could take. But for the past year and a half, Scarlet had proved his loyalty--and his amazing powers of recovery--again and again. The first time, before he was even returned to duty following the Car-Vu incident, was in fact one reason he was here at Buckingham Palace this December afternoon.
In the summer of 2068, he'd stopped the Alliance for World Justice from setting off a bomb in a museum where King George was about to dedicate a new wing. The terrorist responsible for the bombing was Major Anthony Canuso, commander of Spectrum Headquarters London, who had badly wounded Scarlet after the latter had uncovered the plot. Still restricted to nonessential ground work at the time, Scarlet escaped from his guard, raced to the museum and revealed Canuso as the detonator-wielding terrorist. In doing so he saved the life of the king and took a bullet meant for Captain Blue.
That act of intrepidity, combined with Scarlet's other accomplishments, prompted the World President and the commander-in-chief of Spectrum to recommend him for royal honors, for which he was instantly accepted. No one else knew about the investiture, especially when Scarlet found out just what kind of honors he was to receive.
Satisfied with his appearance in the mirror, but not necessarily with the thought of what lay before him, Captain Scarlet donned his gray-and-white dress uniform cap. Like the rest of the uniform, it was discreetly trimmed with piping in the same color as his code name. He checked that the cap was on straight and not at a "jaunty angle" as Colonel White detested, then started down the hallway toward the presentation room. Turning a corner at the end of the hall, he nearly collided head-on with a distinguished-looking older man.
His mumbled apology stopped abruptly. The gentleman he had almost bowled over was someone he knew, a former WAAF European Commander. Scarlet started to say something on reflex but saw that the man was not alone. He instead swept a white-gloved hand to his brow in salute.
"Good afternoon, Generals," he said, somewhat nervously. Then, to himself, What's he doing here? No one else is supposed to know about this.
The man, similarly startled, held out his hand. "And good afternoon to you as well, Captain Scarlet. I wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Nor I you, sir." Scarlet returned the handshake and nodded to the other man. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
"Angus MacIntyre," he responded in a thick brogue befitting his name. "Commander, WAAF Scotland." MacIntyre shook hands, then turned his attention back to the other man. "If you'll excuse me, Charles, I'm going to go have a word with Admiral Andrews."
"Of course, Mac. We'll catch up to you."
Once MacIntyre was out of earshot, Scarlet grinned broadly, showing a side of himself not readily seen in public.
"Dad, what are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same thing. I thought your leave didn't begin until tomorrow."
"I told you that because I wanted to surprise you. Now, why didn't you tell me you would be here?"
"I thought it could wait until you got home for Christmas. Knight Commander is something generals my age receive for long and meritorious service, not for doing anything spectacular."
"Knight Commander?" The grin broadened even more. "Of the Order of the Bath?"
"No, the Order of the British Empire, which is almost as good. The Bath is usually bestowed upon an officer for gallantry in battle--"
Metcalfe stopped suddenly. He'd figured it out.
"You're here for the Order of the Bath, aren't you?" he postulated, a smile beginning to form on his face. "What class?"
His son reddened and looked at the floor. "Knight Commander. Same class as you, but in a higher order."
"You're joking!" At first taken aback, the general nodded knowingly. "Now I understand why you didn't want to tell me at first. You'll outrank me, won't you?"
"Yes, sorry about that--"
"Sorry?" Metcalfe seemed ready to burst with pride. "Paul, surely you did something to deserve such an honor! What was it?"
"Among other things, saved his majesty from being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb."
"Well done, son." General Metcalfe fought off the urge to embrace Scarlet but instead pumped his hand vigorously, gripping the young man's shoulder tightly with his other hand. "I say, well done!"
"Thanks." Scarlet, still clearly embarrassed, changed the subject. "Well, this at least makes one thing easier. Once this rubbish is finished I can just go home with you. I'll have my car collected here."
"It won't be that easy, I'm afraid. Your mother has prepared a reception for this evening back at the house." He smiled again, this time boyishly. "I'm not supposed to know about it."
Scarlet groaned. "Not for the family, I hope."
"No, just some of the friends I've made during the course of my career--" Metcalfe spotted MacIntyre returning and went back into "general" mode. "--You are invited, Captain, of course."
"Well, I appreciate that, sir, but I can't possibly--"
"Captain Scarlet, it's the least I can do, considering what you've done for me in the past. Please come to the party."
"With all due respect, General, thank you for the invitation but I'm afraid I don't have enough time to attend. You see, I'm due back at Cloudbase first thing tomorrow morning, and if the party goes on too late as they so often do--"
"Then you'd just have to stay the night, wouldn't you? My son is away, so you could have his room." The general smiled and added, "That is, of course, if you don't mind a Labrador sleeping on the foot of your bed. Neither Mary nor I can break him of that habit."
The younger man grinned and held open the door of the presentation room for the senior officers. "Sounds just like home, sir. I'll see you there."
Adam Svenson pulled up the collar of his leather jacket and hunched his shoulders against the wind. It was one of those typical mid-December days on the coast, one where the sea spray and gusting winds chilled a man right to the bone. Just like Massachusetts, he thought. If he closed his eyes he'd swear he was back home at the family's beach house on Nantucket instead of his distant cousins' home in Plymouth…
The American had wanted to visit this part of the British Isles for some time. He had more than a passing interest in the town; his mother's ancestors had sailed from Plymouth with the Mayflower pilgrims. This trip had been a kind of pilgrimage for him as well. Some months ago, he decided he'd become bored with going to London every time he was given leave in England. Why not take a side trip? Researching his family tree with the help of public and church records in the States, and enlisting the help of one of Paul's friends in Exeter, he was able to contact a distant cousin and arrange a visit.
The two days had been wonderful. Christopher Taylor was about the same age as his American cousin, but unlike Adam he had a wife and three children. Aside from that, however, they discovered they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other's company. Adam liked the tour of Plymouth Chris and Susan gave him, but he got along even better with their son and two daughters. The children couldn't get enough of him, in fact. He discovered over the course of his 48-hour pass that he liked the sound of "Uncle Adam."
Picking up the younger daughter, he took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "There now, Pamela, don't cry," he soothed. "I'll come back again." He gave her a kiss on the cheek and hugged her before handing her to her mother.
"Please do come back another time, Adam," Chris said, holding out his hand. "We enjoyed your visit ever so much, even though it was too short."
"Yes," agreed Susan, shifting Pamela to her other hip so she could shake hands as well. "And be sure to bring that girlfriend of yours next time."
"I sure will." Adam got into the car and started the engine, then blew a kiss to the little girl as he pulled away. When he was about ten miles from Plymouth he pulled a small two-way radio from the pocket of his jeans and activated it.
"Captain Blue to Cloudbase."
"Good evening, Captain," a cheerful Caribbean voice answered. "Did you enjoy your leave?"
"Very much so, Lieutenant Green, thanks. I've just left Plymouth, and I should be back on Cloudbase ahead of schedule--"
"Just as well," the young black man interrupted. "I was about to recall you and Captain Scarlet when you reported."
"What's going on? The Mysterons up to something?"
"No, sir. Colonel's calling a senior staff conference."
Blue glanced at his watch. "Well, it must be important if he wants Scarlet back. He probably just arrived in Winchester."
"Didn't he leave for his furlough this morning?"
"Yes, but he said he needed to sort out some Spectrum business in London before he could go home."
"Spectrum business?" The lieutenant sounded doubtful. "Not that I'm aware of. Nothing's come across my desk for London since this morning's courier traffic."
"Maybe it doesn't involve Cloudbase. He did say something about that major we arrested for terrorist activity last year."
There was a muffled snicker from the other end of the transmission. "From what Lieutenant Stephens was telling me about him, sir, it's likely he's been called down to sort out some of the paperwork he did. He's no bureaucrat, that's for sure."
Blue smiled, reflecting on his partner's frustration while on his probationary period at London HQ. "You're right there, Lieutenant. He's certainly not cut out for a desk job." He paused. "What are my orders?"
"Requisition Helicopter A22 at a farm five miles east of your present position. Collect Captain Scarlet from Winchester and report directly to Cloudbase. The conference will begin as soon as you arrive, so make sure you're already in uniform when you get here."
"S.I.G., Lieutenant Green. Do you want to break the news to him yourself, or can it wait until I get there?"
The response came from the distinguished British voice of Colonel White, the men's superior. "He hasn't been home for a very long time, Captain. Let him enjoy a little time with his family, but report back as soon as you can."
"Yes, sir." Blue thought that strange; the colonel usually wasn't that flexible. Either he's in the Christmas spirit, or he knows something about Scarlet's plans that I don't, he said to himself.
A short time later, a silver-and-blue Spectrum helijet swooped down over the ancient Winchester Cathedral, toward the Metcalfe family home outside of the city. Blue noted with surprise the number of vehicles parked around the rustic Tudor house. The Bostonian smiled to himself. No wonder Paul was in no hurry to get home; they're probably throwing him a birthday party and he doesn't want to be anywhere near it.
Blue nudged the controls and the helicopter obediently descended. He guided it toward a clearing a good distance from the house -- and more importantly, far away from the garden. He'd made that mistake earlier in the year, his rotor wash destroying the prize rose bushes the general had planted only the day before. Although Spectrum would gladly have compensated General Metcalfe for the damage, Captain Blue paid for new shrubs out of his own pocket. He didn't want Scarlet to find out, otherwise he'd never live it down. Thank goodness his partner had not been with him at the time of the incident.
The blond American officer expertly landed the helijet and shut down its engines. Before he headed for the house, he checked his reflection in the cockpit canopy, as he always did when he was about to see the general. "Can't risk having one hair out of place," he muttered. He grabbed a suede brush from his travel kit and freshened up his azure uniform vest, then started across the lawn.
A middle-aged woman with a simple beauty about her answered the knock on the door, smiling as soon as she recognized him. Blue never ceased to marvel at the fact that although Scarlet acted so much like his father, he got all of his good looks from his mother.
He grinned at the woman in return and took off his uniform cap, relieved that she had come to the door rather than her husband. "Hi, Mrs. Metcalfe!" he said cheerily. "Can Paul come out and play?"
She laughed softly, her blue eyes twinkling. "It's good to see you again, Adam. I was wondering when you'd join the party."
"Yeah, I saw all the cars when I came in. How's the birthday boy holding up?"
"Actually, Charles is the guest of honor. He was knighted today."
"Oh! I didn't know anything about it. I'll have to be sure to offer my congratulations to him."
"So, Paul didn't tell you, either," remarked Mrs. Metcalfe. "He really kept this a secret, didn't he?"
"Oh, I don't know if he intentionally kept it from me. He always speaks so highly of his father."
"That's not the secret I meant. Paul was knighted today as well."
Blue's jaw dropped. "What?!"
Mrs. Metcalfe smiled blissfully. "They met each other there, neither one having told the other."
Blue returned the smile with a broader one of his own. "You must be very proud of them both, ma'am."
"Indeed. We're especially proud of Paul, of course. To have received his honors at such a young age, not to mention receiving a higher honor than his father, is quite rare."
"Higher honors?" Blue looked puzzled. "I thought knights were knights."
Mrs. Metcalfe gestured toward the hall as she explained. "There are several different orders, and different classes in each order. Paul was invested in the highest of the military orders, and Charles in a lesser, but still very respectable one."
"Thanks for the explanation. You have to remember I'm an American and not up on these things." As they approached the library, Blue caught a glimpse of his partner for a moment as one of the French doors opened. The fair-haired officer began to chuckle.
"What is it, Adam?" Mrs. Metcalfe asked.
"He looks like he needs rescuing. He'll probably be glad I'm here to recall him to duty."
The look Scarlet's mother gave him was one of disappointment yet understanding. This had happened too many times before. "Do you have to leave straight away, or can we cut the cake first?" She motioned toward a sheet cake with "Congratulations Sir Charles" inscribed on the top in blue icing.
"Oh, we certainly have time for that." Blue opened the doors and gestured for her to precede him into the library.
Captain Scarlet, General Metcalfe and another World Army Air Force officer were engaged in conversation, or more accurately, monologue. The general was evidently in full "windbag" mode, regaling the other two officers with one of his many stories collected during the course of his long and illustrious military career.
A waiter, holding a tray of champagne glasses, approached the trio just before Blue did. Each officer took a glass, but Scarlet's never reached his lips. A dark-sleeved hand snatched it out of his grasp and placed it back on the tray.
"Sorry, Captain Scarlet, but you are now officially on duty," a stern American voice said. "No alcohol allowed."
Scarlet, recognizing Captain Blue's New England accent right away, whirled around and stared at his partner. The look he gave Blue indicated that Scarlet would prefer a confrontation with Captain Black himself over being the center of attention at the general's reception.
"Captain Blue, what on earth are you doing?" thundered General Metcalfe before Scarlet had a chance to speak.
Blue snapped to attention. "My apologies, General -- and my congratulations." He nodded toward Scarlet. "To both of you."
"Thank you, Captain," Metcalfe replied.
Scarlet nodded warily, still wondering why his American counterpart was here when he should have been returning to Cloudbase from his own leave -- and why he was congratulating him for something no one besides Colonel White was supposed to know about.
"Unfortunately, sir," Blue continued, "I have to take Captain Scarlet back to Cloudbase with me. He's been recalled for a meeting."
"Oh." Scarlet sounded both disappointed and relieved. "I'll get my kit."
"Not so fast. Your hostess wants to cut the cake before we go."
The waiter, as if he'd been cued, wheeled out a serving trolley containing the cake, a knife, and dessert plates with silverware wrapped in napkins. Mrs. Metcalfe ushered her husband to the center of the room. "Care to say a few words, Charles?" she asked.
"A few?" whispered Blue. "That'll be the day." His partner glared at him, hoping the comment went unheard.
Metcalfe put down his empty champagne glass and launched into a protracted speech, thanking his wife for the "surprise" party and congratulating the other officers present who had also received royal honors. He smiled warmly when he came to Captain Scarlet, whom he had saved for last.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen," he began, placing a hand on his son's shoulder, "here is a true hero. This young man deserves his knighthood more than any of us here today do. I know this for a fact because Captain Scarlet has saved my own life on two separate occasions. Take a look at the medals he's collected over the years as I speak. Note particularly the Victoria Cross on his breast, the highest decoration our sceptered isle can award. And that gold Spectrum Cross round his neck, his own organization's highest honor. These alone, ladies and gentlemen, should prove my point. I am proud to know him, and I consider him as close to me as my own son."
"And how is your boy doing these days, Charles?" MacIntyre interrupted. "I haven't seen him since he was a young laddie."
"Fine, Mac, just fine. He's so busy in his work that I don't get to see him too often or for too long. He might not even make it home for Christmas this year." He imperceptibly squeezed Scarlet's shoulder.
"Aren't they all that way," sighed MacIntyre. The Scot turned his attention to Scarlet. "If you don't mind my saying so, Captain, you could pass for Charles' son any day. There is a similarity."
"Sorry, General, I can't say I see any resemblance."
"I'm not referring to physical appearances. Your actions are similar--"
Mrs. Metcalfe, sensing that her son needed help, cleared her throat loudly. "Charles, these young men have to leave."
"And so they shall, darling, but I haven't finished my speech yet--"
"Oh yes, you have," was her abrupt reply. "They have to return to their duties. Cut the cake, dear."
Several of the other generals laughed at Mary's comment. Captain Scarlet shot an eternally grateful look at his mother, the blush from his youthful cheeks approaching the same shade as his uniform piping.
An equally red-faced Metcalfe accepted the cake knife from his wife and approached the serving trolley. He was about to make the first cut when Scarlet shook his head, clucking his tongue.
Metcalfe scowled, still recovering from his wife's admonishment. "Now what's wrong, Captain?"
"General, this is a military celebration. Allow me." Removing an antique officer's sword from the scabbard at his waist, he held it out in both hands, bowing as the general accepted it. Metcalfe sliced through the entire width of the cake with the sword, wiped it on a napkin and, bowing in return, gave it back to the Spectrum officer. As Scarlet rejoined Captain Blue in a corner of the library, the assembled guests applauded him. He gave a casual wave in acknowledgment.
"Well, I see you finally put Granddad's sword to use," Blue quipped.
Scarlet busied himself cleaning the sword with his handkerchief. "Feels good just to wear it," he noted, shoving it authoritatively back into the scabbard. "I always feel naked without some sort of weapon whilst in uniform."
Blue nodded. He was well aware of Scarlet's excellent swordsmanship and knew that even a ceremonial antique sword in his partner's hands would be a very effective weapon should trouble arise.
Presently General Metcalfe returned with two small bundles. "She's still ordering me about," he muttered. "I'm to deliver your cake and see you off while she tends to the other guests. She said to say goodbye for her." He gestured toward the hall.
As they left the library behind and had the rest of the house to themselves, the general began, "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you, Paul--"
"It's all right, Dad, but you really should remember what that champagne does to you. You never could hold it, you know."
"Indeed, give me a large whisky any time. But I'm just so proud of you. I often wish we didn't have to keep so many things secret."
So do I, Dad, thought Scarlet.
After retrieving Scarlet's gear from his car, the threesome eventually reached the Spectrum helijet. Making sure the helicopter stood between them and the house, Metcalfe said his goodbyes.
"When do you think you'll get home again, son? We hoped to have you home for your birthday and Christmas for a change."
"We're only going up there for a meeting, sir," Blue reassured him. "With any luck, he'll be back tomorrow."
"I was in the service too long to believe that, Captain. When one has to cancel his leave for 'just a meeting,' you can be sure there's more to it."
"Of course, sir." He extended his hand. "It was good to see you, General. And congratulations again."
Metcalfe returned Blue's handshake, then embraced Scarlet warmly. "Take care of yourself, Paul. Your mother and I often worry about you."
Scarlet patted him on the back, then broke the embrace and climbed into the helijet's right-hand seat. He gave his father a thumbs-up as the craft ascended.
Once underway, Captain Blue sat back in his seat and looked thoughtfully at his copilot. "So, do I have to call you Sir Paul now?"
"If you breathe one word of this to anyone, I'll have your guts for garters."
Blue winked devilishly. "Not even the daughter of a certain English lord?"
"Especially not Rhapsody. Her father already considers me a prize catch based on my family's background alone. He reckons I'm a dead cert for a peerage, let alone a knighthood, and he keeps dropping hints about us every time she goes home on leave." Scarlet smiled warmly at the thought of the Spectrum Angel pilot, the copper-haired English beauty whose heart he had claimed for his own.
"Imagine what he'd do if he found out you two are seeing each other."
"That's what I'm afraid of. He'll probably go to the church straight away to book a wedding date for us. I'll let on in due time, thank you very much."
"Don't worry, my lips are sealed. Well, anyway, congratulations." Blue reached his hand across the controls. "You deserve it, and don't you start telling me that you don't because of your special circumstances. You'd still take the exact same chances even if you weren't indestructible."
"Virtually indestructible," Scarlet reminded him as he shook his partner's hand.
Blue nodded in reply, then smiled, shaking his head.
His British counterpart scowled, the reaction markedly similar to his father's at the cake-cutting. "Now what are you on about?"
"You, during your dad's speech. I haven't seen you that embarrassed since our Spectrum training. You remember, when Harmony flipped you in our first martial arts class."
"And if you remember," Scarlet countered, "I held back a bit. After all, I'm twice the size she is."
"Since when do you compromise your position?"
"But I didn't want to hurt her."
"Yeah, that's what you said then too. But she said she was a judo black belt, for crying out loud. Didn't you think she could take care of herself?"
"I think you were too stubborn to admit she caught you off guard. Threw your back out too, if I recall."
"Maybe, but at least she apologized by way of massaging it back into place. Another of her hidden Oriental talents." He unbuckled his safety harness and moved to the back of the craft as a way of changing the subject.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Blue scrambled to adjust the helicopter's controls as the weight shifted.
"Changing out of this dress uniform before we get to Cloudbase. I'm not turning up for that conference in this-- what does Ochre call it, a 'monkey suit'?"
Blue laughed, imagining what smart-aleck remark Captain Ochre would have about Scarlet's knighthood, when the helijet's radio crackled to life. He quickly regained his composure in anticipation of a message from Cloudbase. Instead the radio intoned:
"This is the voice of the Mysterons…"
"And a merry Christmas to you, too," Blue grumbled.
The jingling of medals stopped as Scarlet poked his head into the cockpit. Both men listened intently:
"…We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. Together with one of mankind's enemies, we shall destroy that which has troubled us for far too long. We have not forgotten!"
"Now what's that supposed to mean?" Blue said aloud.
His companion returned to putting away his dress grays, zipping the garment bag closed. "Well, I know one thing it definitely means. Your volunteering to take my Christmas duty just might have been in vain."
At first glance, Nick and Marco Francesco epitomized the concept of identical twins. They were certainly physically identical, as was to be expected. Their physical mannerisms were identical, and even their manner of dress was similar. Both were married, and while the brothers did not marry twins there was a resemblance between their wives. They even had the same number and gender of children.
But there the similarity ended. Their personalities were vastly different. Were it not for the fact that the Francesco brothers were physically identical, no one would have expected them to be related at all.
Nick and Marco were born and raised in South Philadelphia, a neighborhood in that Pennsylvania city long known for strong ties to family, friends and the ways of the Old World. Life in the working-class neighborhood was difficult at times but never impossible. Some families, including the Francescos, actually seemed to thrive on adversity rather than merely survive it.
Nick Francesco was the success story of the family. Never one to join in with the bad crowd, Nick kept to himself and his schoolbooks. His hard work and strong belief in God kept him out of the trouble that usually befell his younger brother. Eventually his introverted lifestyle paid off; he was awarded a full scholarship to Drexel University's School of Engineering and graduated near the top of his class.
Several years and two boring technical jobs later, Nick finally found his calling. While working for the WAAF Aviation Supply Office, he saw an announcement on the lunchroom bulletin board. A new organization called Spectrum needed volunteers from all branches of the World Government. He sought out the group's representative and joined its fledgling Research Division. There he astounded his superiors with his innovations in the development of anti-Mysteron devices.
It was the first job he actually enjoyed. While his previous occupations had kept him and his family in comfortable middle-class suburban life, the work was dull. This may have been all right for Nick's fellow engineers, but Nick Francesco was not like his colleagues. He had a life beyond formulae and calculations.
After his wife Maryanne and the kids, Nick's love of sports came a close second. He'd always been interested in outdoor activities of all kinds. His family and co-workers joked that they could tell the time of year without checking the calendar or even looking out the window. All they had to do was see which equipment Nick was loading into his car--or which sports pool he was running. This was the only place in Nick's life where he imitated his brother.
Marco Francesco could have had the same breaks as his brother Nick, but he did not have the ambition to attain them. He was a little on the lazy side, to put it mildly. Marco would rather talk his way out of doing the work, talk Nick or someone else into doing it for him. If there was an easier way to do something, Marco Francesco usually found it. Most of his life had been managed in this fashion.
While Nick breezed through school, Marco unsuccessfully struggled to graduate but eventually attained his high school equivalency through a stint in the World Navy. He spent three years in its famous "Seabees" construction battalion, which taught him basic building trade skills but not the usual discipline and responsibility most veterans acquired. Even after his discharge, he could usually be found "hanging out" with the guys on the street corner until the wee hours.
Marco placed a higher priority on his social life than his brother, but he was still better behaved than his friends. He got a job with a building demolition company while most of them remained idle. But Marco had a taste for the finer things in life and as a result was always short of money. While he didn't resort to theft, he found another not-so-legal way of making ends meet--he fell in with the local organized crime family.
The Mafia was still around in the late 2060's, though a mere shadow of itself compared to its heyday in the previous century. Marco started out collecting weekly loan shark payments and shaking down businessmen for the DiSalvo "family." When threats and broken bones didn't work, he resorted to that which later made him Don DiSalvo's number-one choice for getting rid of mob informants--he sent the "client" high explosives in flower arrangements, earning him the street name of "The Florist."
Later on Marco was called upon to head up the bookmaking operation, which was the reason he'd met his brother today for lunch at a popular bar near the Spectrum facility. Illegal gambling was still going strong in the Philadelphia area; one could place a bet on just about any major sports event with ease. The chief attraction was that the Philadelphia mob offered much better odds than its legal counterparts in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Marco made a name for himself by expanding the operation to include several of the area's major corporations. He had connections in many places: in the local government offices, in the public utilities, even in some of the military installations.
About the only large organization heretofore untapped was Spectrum, mainly because it was so new. That was where Marco's brother Nick came in. Nick had run pools ever since college, informal bets on sporting events and the occasional new baby. The pool at Spectrum was especially popular; due to its numerous worldwide offices, all international sporting events were represented as well. Marco wanted a piece of this one so bad he could taste it.
But as usual, Nick was giving him a rough time. His older brother felt it his duty to act as his conscience, more so when the underworld was concerned, and he was not giving up easily. Marco was satisfied at present that Nick was even listening to him. He'd ended their lunchtime conversation by agreeing to go skiing with Nick this weekend, and they would continue the discussion when they got back to the metropolitan area on Monday.
Before Marco could head for the Pocono Mountains, however, he had to report to his boss. He eased his car to a halt in front of an unimposing building near his home. A small brass plaque beside the door identified the structure as the "Palermo Social Club."
An ornate Victorian bar and oak-paneled lounge were housed inside. Several of the bar patrons greeted him as though they hadn't seen him in years, when in fact they only spoke to him earlier in the day. Hoping Marco had brought back good news, they gathered around him and started to ask questions.
"Yo, Marco, we got Spectrum yet?"
"What kind of a cut did their guy want?"
"When can I get in on the South American soccer action?"
Marco threw up his hands in frustration. "Guys, come on! I ain't got that far yet!"
"What's the big deal? Ain't the guy who runs it your brother?"
"Later," Marco insisted. He jerked his thumb toward a closed door at the other end of the room. "Don DiSalvo don't like to be kept waitin'."
At the mention of the don's name, the room fell silent. Marco crossed the floor of the club, straightened his necktie and knocked on the door.
A barely audible grunt acknowledged him, the don's usual greeting. Marco cautiously entered the small room. He knew the don was in his office although he couldn't see him. All the signs were there--the opera playing in the background, the smoke from an expensive cigar curling lazily upward from the ashtray, and the slow rocking of the high-backed swivel chair facing the window. It was the usual picture he saw when he reported to his superior.
Marco cleared his throat. "Don DiSalvo," he began, his voice slightly shaky, "I got good news about Spectrum--"
The swivel chair spun around to reveal a gaunt man clad all in black. "Not as good as mine, Earthman," he said in a dolorous voice.
"You're not Don DiSalvo--"
Marco Francesco never finished his sentence as a bullet entered his skull between his eyes. The handsome Italian-American crumpled to the floor, dead before he hit the imported marble tile. As he lay there, two green circles of light passed over him.
Just as quickly, another Marco Francesco stood over the body.
Mysteron agent Captain Black unscrewed the silencer from the barrel of the gun and looked up at his minion. "You know what you must do," he continued without emotion.
The new Marco nodded. Black then vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.
Marco stuffed the body into the closet, wiped up the blood from the tile floor and left the office. As soon as he closed the door behind him, the questions began again.
"Well, Marco? What did he say?"
"Yeah, does Don DiSalvo approve?"
"He'll give us an answer next week. Right now, he don't want to be disturbed." The Mysteronized gangster smiled and exited the club.
Colonel White, commander-in-chief of Spectrum and former World Navy admiral, was already in his seat in Cloudbase's Conference Room. Instead of sitting at the head of a long wooden table one would usually find in such a place, he sat at the center of a round, glass-topped affair. It was perfect for the room, with its contemporary architecture and decor, and also for the unique aircraft carrier that was his command.
Cloudbase was unlike any other vessel on earth, namely because it did not even physically touch the planet's surface or her seas. Rather, the headquarters of Spectrum hovered in the atmosphere, 40,000 feet up and in locations always kept secret. It was, literally, a base in the clouds, a platform from which the security of the world could be maintained. A variety of aircraft were housed in the massive base and could deliver agents to anywhere they were needed in a matter of hours.
The colonel looked up as the door to the Conference Room opened. His two best field agents had arrived. "Welcome back, gentlemen," he greeted. "Please have a seat. The others will be in shortly."
Captains Scarlet and Blue doffed their uniform caps and sat down at the table. The colonel couldn't help but notice that Scarlet's cap went down on the glass tabletop a little more loudly than normal.
"I would have apologized for recalling you to duty, Captain, but I thought it a moot point considering the current emergency."
Scarlet shrugged. "I wasn't expecting an apology, sir. I'm aware of the situation."
The senior officer nodded. "How is your father?"
"Proud as a peacock, sir, now that we've gained two Knights Commanders in the family in one day. I found him at the palace, awaiting his own investiture."
The colonel smiled slightly. "It appears that keeping secrets runs in your family, doesn't it?"
Scarlet returned an icy blue-eyed stare. "Yes, Colonel, it does, but in my case it isn't exactly by choice."
White was taken aback by his junior officer's response. "Yes, quite," he replied apologetically. "Please relay my congratulations to him the next time you see him."
"I certainly will, sir. As soon as the all-clear is given, I'd like to return home for my leave. With any luck, I'll be back the day after Boxing Day."
"I'll do my best to ensure you an uninterrupted Christmas, Captain, but as always there are no guarantees."
"Thank you, sir. At least this will get me out of that birthday party my parents have planned."
Just then the other members of the senior staff filed into the Conference Room. Captain Ochre, discovering an opportunity for a wisecrack, grinned as he heard Scarlet's last words. "Oh, I don't know, Scarlet. We could always throw you a party here."
"If you do, Captain Ochre," snapped White, "I shall insist that someone else make the punch. At the last party, I couldn't understand why everyone kept going back for refills -- that is, until I tasted it."
"I didn't spike it, sir, I swear!"
"Wouldn't do any good anyway," Captain Magenta pointed out. "We can't even get Scarlet drunk."
"Who said the punch was for Scarlet?" retorted Ochre.
"Gentlemen!" White cut them off. "Let's begin the meeting. Captain Scarlet feels badly enough as it is, being recalled to duty in the midst of his furlough."
Ochre winced. "Sorry, buddy. I forgot how long it's been since you went on leave."
Captain Grey added, "Yeah, God knows you need a vacation as much as the rest of us."
"I'd say more than the rest of us," noted Blue. The others nodded in silent agreement as they took their seats around their commanding officer.
Colonel White gathered up his notes and tapped them into a neat pile. "Members of Spectrum, you've all heard the latest Mysteron threat--" He stopped suddenly, his gaze turning to Scarlet and Blue. "You did hear it, didn't you? You weren't on base at the time."
Captain Blue nodded, sighing. "Yes, sir, we heard it, but neither of us has any idea what it means."
"We don't either, Colonel," said Grey on behalf of the others.
"I was afraid of that." The Spectrum chief frowned as he studied his notes. "Well, there's only one thing for it. We'll have to break the message down into its component parts and tackle them separately."
There was a collective groan from White's senior staff. They knew what that meant.
"This is going to be a long night," Captain Magenta grumbled.
White acknowledged Magenta's complaint. "I'm afraid it looks that way, Captain. The threat is in two parts, neither of them obvious. Captain Ochre, Captain Magenta, you are in charge of the first part. I want you to concentrate on compiling a list of all the known terrorist groups currently active. I realize the Mysterons may not be referring to terrorism specifically, but that will be a start."
"Spectrum Is Green," replied Ochre for the pair.
The colonel swiveled his chair to the opposite side of the table. "Captain Blue, Captain Grey, I'm giving you what appears to be the more difficult assignment. I want you to start thinking of what has caused the Mysterons the most trouble since this war of nerves started."
"I can venture a guess, Colonel," replied Grey, looking directly at Captain Scarlet.
The younger man stared back at the Chicagoan with a look of amusement. "You can't be serious."
Blue smiled. "He's got a point, you know. You're the biggest thorn in their side by a long shot."
"And it's not like they haven't tried this kind of thing before," Magenta added. "One time it was Destiny Angel, another time the colonel. Surely you're a possibility as well."
"Perhaps," Scarlet quickly pointed out, "but let me remind all of you that Mysteron threats are always correct grammatically. They specified something, not someone."
"Excellent observation," Ochre, the former World Police Commander, complimented. "You'd make a good detective."
Scarlet grinned at the Detroit-born Spectrum officer. "Or the youngest colonel in World Army Air Force history."
"Touché," Ochre sighed. Everyone on Cloudbase knew of Scarlet's past skills in observing enemy trends; working for Spectrum had only honed them.
His riposte successfully uttered, Captain Scarlet's facial expression suddenly changed. He looked quizzically at his commanding officer. "You don't think they're after me, do you, Colonel? I noticed that you haven't assigned me to research."
"No, Captain, I think you're right. And I had something different in mind for you. It's the reason I recalled you in the first place." White flipped a page of his notes. "As our weapons expert, I thought you'd like to know that the prototype anti-Mysteron pistol is ready for final testing."
"Oh, brilliant! I was wondering when we'd see the last of that cumbersome rifle."
"You're not the only one," Magenta chimed in. "It may have given us a second chance against the Mysterons, but it always gave me a backache."
"There's no cause for celebration just yet, gentlemen," White cautioned. "As I said, this weapon is still in the testing stage. It will be some time before full-scale production will start."
"But you have to admit it's good news, sir," Captain Blue observed.
"It's great news," corrected Ochre. "I'll take that over a Christmas bonus any time."
"Indeed. It's the best news we've had in a long time." The colonel turned his attention back to Scarlet. "I thought you might like the honor of performing the test, Captain."
"I'd like that very much, Colonel, but the Mysteron threat--"
"The test should only take a few hours. I think we can spare you from the tedium of research for that long."
"Thank you, sir."
"Lucky dog," muttered Magenta.
White pretended not to hear. "I do have to warn you, Captain Scarlet, that Spectrum Research have had some problems calibrating the electron beam. Taking into account your special considerations, if you don't wish to accept this assignment I won't hold it against you."
"Have you ever known me to refuse an order, Colonel?"
Five pairs of eyes focused on Scarlet, whose impetuous nature was as well known as his observation skills.
Colonel White asked sarcastically, "Do you really want me to answer that, Captain?"
Snickers from Scarlet's fellow officers were the only sounds during the pregnant pause that followed.
Scarlet's cheeks flushed. "No, sir. When do I leave?"
Nick Francesco eased his skis to a stop at the bottom of the slope and jabbed his poles into the snow. He squinted upward, searching for his less-experienced brother who hadn't yet completed his run. The sun was in the clouds, but the glare from the snow made it difficult to see too far up the hill even through his polarized sunglasses.
The first weekend of the Pocono Mountains ski season had been a mixed bag. Friday evening and Saturday had seen perfect skiing weather, nice crisp typical fall days, but not so today. It was simply too warm. Although only ten a.m., the man-made snow was already melting and visibility was deteriorating fast. Another hour, he figured, and the fog would be too thick to ski without the risk of collision.
Finally Nick spotted Marco, weaving his way down the hill past the beginners, and waved his arms. Marco changed course and coasted to a stop in front of his twin brother.
"Yo, 'Little Nicky'!" Marco Francesco, or rather his Mysteron clone, called out in greeting.
Nick sighed. He thought he'd talked his brother out of using the street name of a famous 20th century mob kingpin when addressing him. But this time, he said nothing about it, instead cocking his head in the direction of the hill. "Well, what do you think?"
Marco shook his head. "No more for me, Nick. It's gettin' too foggy up there."
"Aw, come on. That's when it gets more interesting."
"You sure you ain't landed on your head too many times? I'd call zero visibility dangerous, not interesting."
"Visibility isn't zero yet. Stop exaggerating."
"No, but it will be by the time we get back up there. Didn't you see the line for the lift?" Marco removed his gloves, then his sunglasses. "No, thanks. You go ahead if you want, but I'm stayin' down here."
Nick shrugged. "Suit yourself." He reached for his poles, then stopped suddenly, as if he'd noticed something unusual.
The Mysteron's mind raced. Did I say something wrong? he wondered.
Nick unzipped his coveralls and reached into the pocket of the shorts he had on underneath the warm garment. "Here, take my wallet and car keys. You might as well pack the car and check out of the hotel for us while the crowd's still up there."
Marco sighed inwardly and took the aforementioned items. "You just watch yourself up there. It's gettin' real bad near the cliff."
"Don't worry about me. If I lose control, I'll just go into the snow fence like I always do." Nick started off for the chair lift.
You do just that, Earthman, thought Marco to himself.
A half hour later, Nick Francesco sat and relaxed as the ski lift ground slowly heavenward. The fog was considerably denser than on his last run, he noticed as he gazed at the mountainside inching by. Maybe Marco was right for once. It's just that he never wants to do anything requiring the least bit of effort.
Nick's chair eventually reached the top of the slope and released him. OK, last trip, he said to himself, still deep in thought. Let's make the most of it. He headed immediately for the trails and chose the one marked with two black diamonds--the expert trail.
This trail was one of the toughest ski runs in the Poconos, full of trees and sharp turns. One particular curve about halfway down the mountain worried Nick. It bordered on a cliff face, in good weather one of the most spectacular views in upstate Pennsylvania. But today there was nothing to see. The trail was completely fog-shrouded; he couldn't see ten feet in front of him, let alone do any sightseeing.
But that didn't slow Nick Francesco down. He had been on this run enough times, in all kinds of weather. Admittedly, he'd never experienced fog conditions this severe, but he felt as if he was experienced enough to handle anything. He raced full-bore into the curve, knowing that if he skidded on the slush he'd simply bounce off the resilient fence put up for just such a reason. Nick began his turn, found he was going too fast and braced for impact…
…and realized too late that there was neither snow fence nor hay bales to stop him.
Then Nick Francesco, father of two and Spectrum engineer, sailed off the cliff and disappeared into the fog.
"Happy landings, Earthman," snarled the Mysteronized Marco Francesco from his hiding place in the pine trees.
The late-autumn sun had not yet risen when a dark blue sedan stopped at the vehicle entrance of the Spectrum Research Center in Valley Forge. The security guard, a tall but well-proportioned black man in his late twenties, leaned out of his elevated booth to scrutinize the driver's identification.
"'Morning, Mr. Francesco," he hailed. "You're here early, aren't you?"
The occupant of the sedan seemed to hesitate for a moment, averting his soft brown eyes from the guard's face down to his chest, where a name tag reading "D. Mills" was neatly pinned.
"You mean Dan," the guard interrupted, frowning. "Why are you acting like you don't know me?"
"I don't know what you're talking about--"
"Stop playing games, Nick," Mills pressed. "The Redskins beat the point spread in yesterday's game. You owe me two hundred."
The other man smiled and opened the wallet in his right hand. He removed two one-hundred-dollar bills and handed them up to the guard.
"Thanks." Mills grinned toothily as he snatched the money and tucked it into his left breast pocket, then noticed a slip of paper he'd put in the pocket earlier in his shift. "Oh, I almost forgot. Cloudbase sent a message reminding you of your 0900 meeting with Captain Scarlet."
Francesco nodded. "That's why I'm here now. I have some extra work to do before he gets here." He looked at his watch. "Are you going to let me pass, or are you going to gloat about your bet all day?"
The security guard smiled again. "Sure, as soon as you give me your thumbprint." He held out a small electronic pad.
"Yeah, yeah, OK." Francesco rolled his eyes and pressed his left thumb to the pad's glass top. A red light flashed as the unit buzzed derisively.
"It's not accepting you. Try again."
The scan was rejected once more.
"Let me see it," Mills ordered, retrieving the pad. He entered a security code. "I should have known--"
"Well?" was the impatient reply from the car below.
"It registers a ninety-five percent match. The afternoon shift never cleans this stuff well enough." Mills took out his handkerchief, breathed on the scanning surface and rubbed. "But it's good enough for me. Have a good one, Nick." He retreated into his booth and pressed the "gate release" button. "Just don't let that officer see your betting slips."
Francesco grinned. "And don't let him catch you with your top pocket undone."
The guard scrambled to fasten his jacket as the car pulled away, sending a spatter of gravel against the lower wall of the booth.
Two more identification checks, one required to enter the nondescript brick building where the weapons testing division was located, another to enter the maximum-security compartment which held the ordnance lockers, yielded similar results. In neither instance was Francesco's identity called into question. Although the scan again did not accept his thumbprint, the security guards were satisfied with the almost-perfect reading, especially after receiving their winnings. Both of the guards had won handsomely, the first in the football pool, the second in ice hockey.
The final obstacle, the door to the locker containing the Spectrum complex's store of high explosives, had no guard, only a card reader and keypad. A quick pass with the ID card and entry of a personal identification number carelessly written on the back of the card opened the door.
Not even then did Francesco relax, as the Mysterons' work had just begun. He immediately set about gathering enough explosives, fuse cord and detonators to blow the entire Spectrum Research Center to Kingdom come. All those security checks had delayed him; he had to work fast if he was to get the job done by the time the rest of the employees arrived.
Captain Scarlet kicked absentmindedly at the maple and oak leaves under his freshly-polished boots, the crunch of the dead foliage the only sound in the early-morning stillness. Valley Forge National Park in off-season was normally devoid of campers and tourists; except for an occasional group of military enthusiasts reenacting the famous encampment, at this time of year the park was eerily quiet. Perhaps the ideal place for an historian to pause in silent reflection, he mused.
Scarlet knew the national park well. He often stopped here while en route to the Spectrum Research Center a short distance away. Strolling the park grounds and exploring the nooks and crannies of the restored buildings were two things he truly enjoyed. From the impressive memorial arch on the park's main road to the Spartan winter quarters of Washington's army, the brief respite from the stresses of the modern world was a welcome change.
He cast his gaze slowly upward, trying to decide if he should go into the chapel before him. It was the only building open at this early hour, and surely it was warmer than trudging about the park paths until his appointment with Mr. Francesco later in the morning. But the problem was that Captain Scarlet didn't especially like chapels.
Scarlet wasn't very religious to start with. As a youth he'd received all the proper education and sacraments of the Church of England, and he definitely believed that there was a God, but that was as far as Scarlet's religious convictions went. Like his father, he attributed his personal successes to determination and inner strengths rather than divine intervention. And now, thanks to this nonsense with the Mysterons, Captain Scarlet was even more uncomfortable with the idea of a higher power governing his destiny.
The similarities could neither be denied nor ignored. He had, after all, literally risen from the dead. His chosen career had suddenly evolved into saving mankind from unseen forces of evil. His chief foe, Captain Black, was one of his own kind who had fallen from grace and now personified that evil to its fullest degree. And he lived in the clouds with "Angels" for company, for pity's sake.
No one took any of this seriously, of course. Not the Cloudbase chaplain, a personable Italian codenamed Father Ivory, who had pointed out most of these facts during one of Scarlet's rare visits. Not Captain Blue, his partner and best friend, who took his own Lutheran faith very seriously but still jokingly reminded Scarlet that his mother's first name was Mary. Scarlet himself laughed off the similarities as coincidence, but deep down they only served to remind him that he would never be his old self again.
"If only Blue could see me now," Scarlet muttered as he reached for the door handle and hesitantly entered the chapel. Removing his uniform cap, he twirled it uneasily in his hands as he sat and stared at the patchwork of sunlight on the chapel floor coming from the stained-glass windows.
After a few minutes of unexpected meditation, Scarlet heard the creaking of a door. He looked up and saw an elderly priest enter the chapel. He seemed pleased that he had a visitor this early, smiling as he approached the pew where Scarlet sat.
"Good morning, my son," he whispered, then nodded at the color-coded uniform. "You must be on your way to the Spectrum offices."
Scarlet nodded back. "Yes, Father. And a splendid morning it is, too."
The older man cocked his head at the sound of Scarlet's clipped British accent, his smile a little wider and a look of recognition in his eyes. "Pardon me for asking, sir," he began, "but didn't you go to West Point?"
"Sorry, Father," replied Scarlet apologetically, "but Spectrum officers aren't permitted to reveal any personal details."
"Your secret's safe with me." The priest looked up at the ceiling as he continued. "And it's safe with Him, of course."
"Of course," Scarlet repeated, then visibly relaxed. "Class of '60, to be precise. I was First Captain--"
"Oh, I remember you, Paul Metcalfe, but not just as the top-ranking cadet. Who could forget that upstart Englishman who singlehandedly stole the Navy goat?"
Scarlet shook his head and laughed softly. "Now, now, Father, that was never proven. I merely did my duty as head of my class and returned 'Billy' to the midshipmen at the Army-Navy Game--"
"Yes, with 'A' for Army shaved into each side of his coat." The priest grinned, nodding as he remembered the event more clearly. "I seem to recall the First Captain pleading with a supply officer for a new razor around the same time."
Now Scarlet was at a loss. "How do you know all this, Father? Surely the news didn't travel all the way to Valley Forge."
"I was an assistant cadet chaplain then, my last assignment before coming here. Besides, remembering faces comes with the job." He added, this time with a hint of sarcasm, "Even those faces I didn't see too often."
"Chapel attendance wasn't mandatory, Father."
"No, that's true, which makes me wonder all the more why you're here."
"Actually, I just came in to warm up a bit."
"That's what they all say, Paul. My guess is that you had some kind of spiritual revelation that made you stop and think."
Scarlet stared at him.
The priest nodded slowly. "I thought so. What was it, a near-death experience? Did you come back to life after being seriously injured?"
Scarlet bowed his head and scrutinized the cap in his hand. "You could say that, Father," he murmured.
"And now you feel as though you've been given a second chance at life, and you're trying to figure out why you were so lucky." He put a reassuring hand on Scarlet's shoulder, his gnarled fingers curling around the epaulet on his uniform vest. "I've seen it all before. It's a very common reaction of combat veterans, and you people certainly qualify for that, the way you fight those Martians. I give you lots of credit."
"We're very carefully screened--"
"That's not what I meant. I don't mean holding up under pressure, I mean the way you don't know if the person sitting next to you is going to jump up and kill you before you take your next breath." He gave Scarlet's shoulder a pat. "Confusion is a terrible thing, my son. It's killed more people over the years than bullets, artillery shells or even atomic bombs have. You learned that at West Point."
Scarlet picked up his head. "Yes, but we were taught how to give orders clearly and avoid that confusion. How does one triumph over one's personal confusion?"
"Simply by following one's instincts and conscience. You're old enough now to have a definite set of morals and values formed. If you follow your heart, with the knowledge in your head and the guidance of your soul, you will make that 'second chance' pay off with a minimum of confusion."
"But I often wonder if I'm fulfilling the purpose for which I was left on this earth."
"That I can't answer, my son. But I'd say that if this is the reason the Lord decided not to take you home, you're making Him very proud."
Captain Scarlet nodded, then looked at his watch and abruptly rose from his seat. "I'm sorry, Father, but they're expecting me at the Research Center. I'd best get going."
The priest raised his right hand to stop him, then began to pray over Scarlet's bared head. "May the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit--" he made the sign of the Cross "--come upon you, Paul Metcalfe, and remain with you forever."
"Amen," the young man whispered. "And thank you for listening, Father." He strode lightheartedly out the door and toward his car. Perhaps chapels aren't so bad after all.
Deep inside the Spectrum Research Center, Francesco's Mysteron clone shoved a potted Christmas tree across the floor of a small office and repositioned it in the same spot from where he had removed it. His deadly work almost finished, he opened the top button of his shirt and loosened his necktie. Even Mysterons got tired, but that was to be expected after working much longer and much harder than any human ever could. He wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and rolled up his shirt sleeves, noticing the custom-tailored shirt seemed a little tight under the arms. These twins need to lose a few pounds, he said to himself. For people into sports, they're out of shape.
Francesco picked up a coffee mug and filled it at a nearby water cooler, downing the icy liquid in several gulps. He repeated the process two more times, then placed the mug on top of the water bottle and inspected his handiwork.
The live evergreen in front of him was a carefully-disguised bomb. Thirty similar Christmas trees, each containing a large amount of high explosive in its ten-gallon container, were placed in strategic locations throughout the Spectrum complex. The charges were to detonate in sequence, the pattern designed to implode the complex's four buildings and turn them into four large piles of rubble within seconds. The detonator, a small radio receiver, was cleverly hidden inside the tree star, connected to the explosives below by a fuse cord camouflaged as a string of lights.
The Mysteron had thought of everything. This close to Christmas, some of the offices were completely empty due to the employees' having to use up their vacation time by the end of the year. Waiting for the complex to open on Monday morning, when the remaining workers usually straggled in toward the later part of their flex-time window, was a stroke of genius. There was no one to ask questions; even the security guards with their bomb-sniffing dogs were out by the time the doors were unlocked.
All that remained was to connect the star and set up the transmitter. Francesco climbed on a chair and removed the star, then twisted a few wires together and reached up to put the star back. He was so intent on finishing the job that he didn't hear the footsteps behind him.
"Mr. Francesco?" a precise British voice called out.
The Mysteron whirled around in surprise, nearly losing his balance, to find Captain Scarlet standing in the doorway.
"You're early, Captain," he acknowledged curtly as he stepped down from the chair. He cursed himself for forgetting about the Spectrum officer's appointment.
"The tree looks marvelous." Scarlet nodded his approval, then shook Francesco's hand. "Sorry if I'm a bit too early; your traffic isn't as bad as the British motorways I'm used to."
"Yeah, I've heard they're awful during the morning rush." Francesco plucked the mug off the top of the water cooler. "Buy you a cup of coffee? I was just about to brew some."
"Yes, cheers." Scarlet closed his eyes tightly and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Might be just the thing for this headache. Sun's rather bright today." He took the mug from Francesco. "Why don't I make the coffee whilst you sort out the electrode ray pistol?"
The Mysteron paused for a moment as his mind tried to calculate a new plan. Scarlet, however, picked up the hesitation as reluctance. "It's all right, Nick," he continued. "I may be British, but I do know how to make coffee."
"OK, Captain, but remember I like mine strong."
"You've obviously never had my coffee. The last time I let a mug sit on my desk, I had to requisition a new one."
"A new mug?"
"A new desk." Both men laughed, then Scarlet left the office for the coffee lounge.
Francesco retrieved a strongbox from the office's card-activated safe and pulled out a foam tray containing the pistol Captain Scarlet apparently wanted. It was about the same size and shape as the gun he'd seen in the captain's holster, but its metal casing was painted bright orange to identify it as a test piece. He left the gun on a desk and reached for the transmitter in his shirt pocket--
"There he is!"
Francesco groaned inwardly. Not again. Expecting to find another employee over to collect his winnings, the Mysteron instead recognized the two large men in maintenance coveralls when he turned around.
"Vinnie? Bruno? I didn't know you guys worked for Spectrum--"
"Shut up!" barked Vinnie Cerullo, the larger of the pair, backhanding Francesco across the face. The blow sent him into the wall with a thud.
Next, Bruno LaCorte hauled Francesco to his feet and pinned him to the wall, then pinched Francesco's other cheek and gave it a playful slap. "I'll say this for you, Nick, for somebody spoiled by livin' in the suburbs you got guts."
"What are you talking about, Bruno?"
"Showin' your face around here after what you did."
"Why, what did I do?"
"For God's sake, Nick, if Marco wanted too big a cut you should'a made a deal with him, not killed him!"
Francesco's eyes widened. "W-wait a minute," he stammered. "You got the wrong guy."
"No, we don't," retorted Cerullo, shaking his head. "Don DiSalvo was in New York on Friday afternoon, but four people seen you go in his office like you had an appointment, and then they seen you leave fifteen minutes later. When the don came back that night he found your brother's body in the closet."
"Yeah, Don DiSalvo ain't too happy with you, Nick," added LaCorte.
"But I'm not Nick! I'm Marco!" exclaimed Francesco, gesturing wildly with his hands.
"Sure you are," Cerullo sneered. "And I'm Al Capone." The Mafioso gestured to his partner, who grabbed Francesco's arms from behind his back.
The Mysteron frantically wrestled himself away from Bruno's grip. "Vinnie, please!" he cried, his voice desperate. "I swear to God I ain't been in the club since Friday morning! Maybe Nick went to the club on his own to haggle with Don DiSalvo himself!"
"Dressed in Marco's clothes?" Cerullo shot back.
"Vinnie, we're identical twins. We buy the same clothes without knowing it. You even bought us identical ties one Christmas as a joke!"
The enforcer sighed, getting more confused by the minute. "OK, I'll bite. If you are Marco, what are you doin' here?"
"Nick and me agreed to trade places today so I could learn how the pools are run." He glared at Cerullo. "That's why I'm here instead of Nick. It also explains how I know your names."
"That don't prove nothin'. Everybody knows everybody in South Philly. You probably remember us from the old neighborhood."
"Well, if you remember us from the old neighborhood, you'll remember how Nick and me used to trade places all the time when we were kids. It was the only way I could pass algebra in tenth grade."
Cerullo and LaCorte looked at each other. The two enforcers knew all about the adventures of the Francesco brothers, for they were among the many victims of their childish pranks.
"Yo, Vinnie, he could be tellin' the truth," LaCorte admitted.
"That ain't good enough. I want proof."
Francesco, trying to stall until he could figure out a way to get rid of the two goons, gazed rapidly around the office. His eyes lit up as he spotted the electrode pistol still on the desk.
"You want proof, Vinnie?" Francesco asked, picking up the orange weapon as he spoke.
Cerullo reached automatically for his own gun.
"No, wait a minute! Listen to what I have to say!" Francesco continued, holding the gun in a non-threatening manner. "Remember last week, when we lost some business when we couldn't supply the Spina family with a safecracker?" He patted the gun. "This is some kind of ray gun Spectrum developed. It'll cut through a safe door like a knife through butter. I was gonna show it to the don tonight at the club, but if you need proof to take back with you, then you can give it to him." He held it out to Cerullo.
Cerullo snatched the gun from the Mysteron and shoved it into his coveralls. "I'll take it, but I'm takin' you too. If your story don't wash I'm sure Don DiSalvo will want to have a little talk with you." Cerullo looked toward LaCorte and jerked his head in Francesco's direction. The other goon grabbed Francesco and tossed him into a maintenance bin.
Just then Captain Scarlet appeared in the doorway, a cup of coffee in each hand. "What the devil?" he gasped, then dropped the cups and reached for his pistol.
But Cerullo was too fast for him. He grabbed a canvas drop cloth draped over the side of the bin and hurled it at Scarlet. The Spectrum officer tried to duck out of the way but the heavy material blinded him. As Scarlet struggled to free himself from the canvas, he backed into the Christmas tree which fell on top of him, further entangling him in a jumble of tree lights and garland.
"Come on, Bruno, let's get outta here!" shouted Cerullo, shoving LaCorte and the maintenance bin out of the office and into the hall.
"But Vinnie, we ain't supposed to leave no witnesses--"
"I'll take care of that. Move!"
Cerullo pulled out a nickel-plated pistol and fired a single shot into the heap of canvas. The trapped Scarlet fell back, hit the rim of the ten-gallon container, and lay still. As a dark stain spread from the bullet hole, Cerullo nodded his satisfaction and sprinted down the hall after his partner.
A few minutes later, the blade of a pocketknife punctured the drop cloth and cut a swath through the length of the canvas. Captain Scarlet wriggled out of his shroud and searched through the mess for his cap radio. Blood seeped from a healing facial wound; he had been lucky, only grazed and then knocked unconscious from hitting his head on the container. While a more serious wound still would not have killed him, it would have delayed his pursuit of Nick Francesco's abductors.
Scarlet flung the drop cloth away and picked up his cap, then kicked the potting container angrily. He jammed the cap on his head and was about to report the kidnapping when a bundle of gray claylike material fell out of the bottom of the pot. When he saw the wires protruding from the bundle, he realized that Mr. Francesco had something other than Christmas decorations on his mind when he'd been interrupted.
"This is Captain Scarlet," he shouted into his transmitter as he raced out of the building toward his car. "Priority one transmission. Codeword turnpike."
Captain Ochre, in the Control Room to relieve Lieutenant Green, responded immediately. "Go ahead, Captain."
"I have an emergency at the Spectrum Research Center in Valley Forge. Am in pursuit of three Mysteron suspects. Evacuate the complex and send in a bomb disposal team--and for pity's sake, don't let anyone down here plug in the Christmas trees!"
"I found a bomb in one of them!" Scarlet snapped. "Now let's get that disposal team in here!"
"They're on their way, Scarlet. And Captains Blue and Magenta are already en route to Spectrum New York as well. I'll have them divert to Philadelphia and rendezvous with you after they pick up the SPV from the downtown area."
Scarlet started the ignition and headed for the gate. "No, I'll lose them if I rendezvous with the SPV. Have Blue and Magenta go direct to Valley Forge and relay everything they can find out about civilian employee Nicholas Francesco."
Ochre paused. The name sounded familiar, but after staying up all night checking terrorists and organizations every name had a familiar ring to it. He shook his head and acknowledged Captain Scarlet, then contacted the other two officers with Scarlet's message.
"Are you sure that's all you can remember?" Captain Blue asked one final time, his voice showing signs of fatigue.
Security sergeant Daniel Mills nodded from the elevated booth. "Yes, sir. Nick came in early today and went straight through to his office. I didn't see him after that."
"Was anyone else with him?"
"No, sir. He drove in alone."
"Did he say anything to you?"
"Yeah, he gave me--" Mills started to respond, then caught himself. "Uh, we always discuss the football games on Monday mornings."
"Don't go anywhere." Blue activated his radio. "What have you come up with, Captain Magenta?"
"Not much, Blue. Both inner guards say Francesco came in, joked around with them about the ball scores, then was let in. The only difference between the two stories was the sport discussed: Morrison likes football, but Blackwell is into hockey."
"So our Mysteron is an all-American sports-loving guy. Did you find out anything unusual?"
"The only thing out of the ordinary was that the thumbprint scans didn't take either time--"
"Hey, mine didn't either!" blurted Mills.
Blue looked up at the guard. "What did you say, Sergeant?"
"The scanner wouldn't accept Nick's thumbprint, sir." Mills quickly added, "It's not unusual, it happens all the time."
"This happens on a regular basis?" Blue cut him off.
"Fairly regular, Captain. Most of the time the glass is dirty, sometimes the weather affects the equipment."
"If the scan doesn't match, why in God's name do you let them in?"
"Because, Captain, we accept any scan over ninety percent, and Nick's scan registered a ninety-five percent match. We would be short-staffed if we insisted on hundred-percent scans."
"Why didn't you tell me this before, Mills?"
"I thought you guys already knew about it. It happens so often that I didn't consider it important--"
"When the Mysterons are involved, everything is important to us," Blue interrupted sharply, then turned his attention back to his radio. "What do you think, Magenta?"
Magenta sighed. "Can't see where it makes a difference. A Mysteron is an exact copy; he'd get through without any problem." He paused. "Are you sure this is the work of the Mysterons?"
"Who else would have reason to booby-trap our Research Center?"
"Well, Ochre said Scarlet mentioned three suspects. Maybe Nick was trying to stop the other two?"
"It's a possibility, I guess. Francesco was the only employee not accounted for in the evacuation. Those other two don't work in the maintenance department."
Magenta sighed. "This is getting worse every minute."
Blue was about to reply when Mills knocked on the booth's glass wall to get his attention. "Captain, you're not going to believe this."
"Nick Francesco just showed up."
Mills pointed to a man in the distance, limping across the main road toward the gate where they were standing. The man was dressed not like a normal office worker, but in a set of brightly-colored coveralls and heavy boots.
Blue radioed, "Magenta, get out here as soon as you can. I don't know what's going on, but whatever it is I want backup."
"S.I.G. On my way."
The blond Spectrum officer then turned back to the security sergeant. "Get down here, Mills, but hold your fire. I want to hear what our friend has to say before we do anything. And if he does turn out to be our Mysteron, I want to wait for Magenta and the electrode rifle."
"OK, Captain. But for someone who's done what he did, he's sure not acting suspiciously."
"That's why I want you to hold your fire. We had the Mysteron 'victim' turn up alive once before, about a year ago. A couple of doctors found someone who had drowned and were able to resuscitate him. I admit it's not likely, but something similar may have happened here."
"Well, we'll soon find out," noted Mills as the man approached the security gate.
It was Francesco, all right, judging from his I.D. photo, but much the worse for wear. He looked exhausted and rumpled, as if he had been awake all night. His coveralls were torn and his face was scratched.
"Dan, you wouldn't believe what happened to me this weekend," he began.
"So I see," replied Mills, leaning on the barrier as he spoke. "Too many hot toddies at the ski lodge?"
"I wish it was that. Someone removed a section of snow fence, and I would have fallen down the mountainside if my suit hadn't snagged on a tree. And I'm only here now because a good Samaritan stopped on the road and gave me a lift home." He sighed and shifted weight to his other foot, wincing in pain. "I thought I could trust my own brother not to steal my wallet and car."
"Nice family," came a New England-accented voice from the other side of the security booth.
Francesco looked up and smiled in greeting. "Good morning, Captain Blue. I thought Captain Scarlet was coming today for the test."
"He--uh--had to leave. Something came up."
"It's too bad I missed him. I know how he was looking forward to this breakthrough." Francesco nodded toward the empty parking lot. "Guess he figured I took a vacation day like everyone else--"
"That's not why there's no one here," Blue interrupted. "The complex has been evacuated."
"What's going on?"
"Captain Scarlet found a bomb inside--"
"--in your office."
"My office? Well, I sure didn't put it there," Francesco replied sharply. "I've been upstate since Friday."
"Is that a fact?" countered Blue with equal intensity. "Then how do you explain Sergeant Mills logging you in this morning?"
"You logged me in, Dan?"
"Yeah, I even have my pool winnings to prove it," added Mills before he realized what he'd said.
Blue cocked his head. "Pools? Is there something else you haven't told me, Sergeant?"
Mills said nothing.
"So that's what you started to tell me about football games. Are Morrison and Blackwell in on it too?"
"You're better off asking who isn't in on it, Captain. Just about everybody in Spectrum participates in my pools, even on Cloudbase." Francesco smiled wryly and continued, "You think you're the only one who lost money on the World Series?"
Captain Magenta arrived at the security gate just as Francesco completed his statement. "You bet on the Red Sox?" he asked his colleague, grinning as he did.
"Well, they were playing the Phillies," Blue retorted. He then quickly added, "But never mind that for now. We're here to catch Mysterons, not to investigate illegal gambling activity--"
"Oh, my God," Francesco whispered, the last phrase of Blue's sentence setting off a mental alarm. "Marco."
Mills started. "Your brother? The one you had the lunch date with?"
Francesco nodded. "He met me Friday because he wanted to get in on the pools. So that's why he took off with my car and I.D."
"And why he paid the pool winners today, instead of waiting for the outcome of tonight's game like you always do," Sergeant Mills realized. "And why the I.D. scan didn't match--"
"Hold it, hold it!" An exasperated Blue threw up his hands. "Will one of you please tell me what's going on?"
Francesco looked at Captain Blue nervously. "My brother Marco runs the gambling operation for the local Mafia."
Magenta blanched. "Marco the Florist is your brother?"
"My twin brother."
Blue rolled his eyes. "Twins. Now I've heard everything."
Mills shook his head. "Captain, I've met his brother. They're identical twins."
"Are you sure, Sergeant?"
Mills grinned. "I'm sure, Captain Blue. They got me good last April Fools' Day."
"Are you saying that this brother of yours may have put the bombs in the Christmas trees?" Magenta continued.
Francesco nodded. "That's his style, all right. Now you know why they call him 'The Florist.'"
"And Scarlet said he walked in on Francesco arming the last bomb."
"But Scarlet also said those two maintenance men grabbed Francesco," interrupted Blue. "How do we know that wasn't all part of the act? Maybe this guy is Marco, trying to confuse us while he destroys the complex some other way."
"I know I'm confused," Magenta deadpanned.
"Look, why don't we settle this once and for all?" snapped Francesco, holding out his left hand. "Scan my thumbprint, Dan. If I'm who I say I am, the scan will come up perfectly."
Mills took the scan, then turned the pad toward the officers as a green light glowed. "He's right. A hundred percent."
Blue sighed. "Well, that proves he's not the guy who came through the gate this morning. That scan was only ninety-five percent."
Francesco nodded. "Identical twins aren't completely identical."
A still skeptical Captain Blue raised the Mysteron detector. "But this will prove you really are who you say you are." He aimed the device at Francesco's head, then pulled out the print that emerged from its cover.
The image was an X-ray picture of Francesco's skull, proof that the Spectrum employee was not Mysteronized. A clone would have produced an image similar to an ordinary photograph.
"Negative," Blue reported, handing the print to Magenta. "Glad you're one of us, Nick."
"You're glad?" Francesco repeated sarcastically.
"That just leaves Marco," said Magenta. He handed the print to Nick and activated his radio. "Magenta to Cloudbase."
"Ochre here. What do you have, Magenta?"
"We've ruled out Nicholas Francesco. I need you to run a check on his brother Marco, an employee of Lovello Demolition who is affiliated with the DiSalvo crime family in Philadelphia."
Ochre gasped. "I thought I recognized that name!"
Nick stared at Blue. "How does Captain Magenta know all that?" he whispered.
"Long story," Blue quietly replied. The truth was that Captain Magenta was a former member of the criminal fraternity, an intelligent man who was given the choice of a career in Spectrum or a lifetime in prison. The decision to recruit him was a gamble that had paid off for the elite organization several crucial times since.
There was a pause in the transmission, then Ochre's excited voice. "Jackpot, Magenta! Marco 'The Florist' Francesco was the victim of an alleged mob hit last Friday."
The cold fact hit Nick like a freight train. "My brother's dead?" he said, his voice breaking.
Blue replied softly, "I'm sorry, but it's true."
"But Dan let him in this morning--"
"He's a Mysteron now, Nick. He came to the Research Center today to destroy it."
"Madonna mia," Francesco murmured in Italian, crossing himself.
Blue patted him on the shoulder, not knowing what more he could say.
Magenta gave Francesco a sympathetic glance as he acknowledged Captain Ochre. "Understood. Radio Captain Scarlet that Marco Francesco is the Mysteron. Have you had any update from him on the pursuit?"
"Yes, but bad news. He lost the trail once he got into the city."
Blue sighed. "Now what?"
But Captain Magenta wasn't giving up easily. "Did Scarlet give you any more information about the other two men?"
"One was named Vinnie, the other Bruno. No last names. One mentioned something about not wanting any witnesses."
Magenta nodded. "Sounds like the don sent out a couple of his goons. But why would they come here?"
Blue pointed to Nick. "Wait a minute. Didn't you say Marco wanted in on the pools?"
"Yes. He offered me better odds in return for a piece of the pie--"
Blue snapped his fingers. "I've got it! They think you murdered your brother, and they came after you here at your job. I'll bet they took Marco back to their boss."
Magenta shook his head. "That's not how DiSalvo operates. They would have just killed him."
"Look, if we couldn't tell them apart, could two lower life forms like those goons do any better?"
"Especially when Marco is an expert at talking his way out of trouble!" Nick reminded the two officers.
"Where is the family's headquarters nowadays?" demanded Magenta.
Nick thought for a moment. "The Palermo Social Club, 773 South 14th Street."
"Got that, Ochre?" said Magenta into the microphone.
"S.I.G., Captain Magenta. Will pass on the information to Captain Scarlet and tell him you're on your way."
Blue quickly added, "And tell Scarlet to wait outside for us. They may still have that new Mysteron gun."
Ochre didn't miss the concern in Blue's voice. "I'll tell him, but don't be surprised if he doesn't listen."
The last remark gave Blue reason to smile. "Hasn't surprised me yet. Out."
Nick stared in horror at Captain Blue. "How did they get hold of the electrode pistol?"
"Apparently your brother took it. We found the safe open."
"Then Captain Scarlet is in danger! What are we going to do?"
"Captain Magenta and I are headed for the club. You are staying here where it's safe."
"Captain, let me go with you. I know how my brother thinks. I might be able to help."
"No. Absolutely not."
Nick started to argue, leaning back onto his injured leg, then lost his balance, his face contorting in pain. Mills lunged forward to grab him before he hit the concrete.
"I must have hit that tree harder than I thought," Nick gasped in answer to Mills' concerned look.
"Do you want me to take you home, Nick?--"
"Don't leave your post, Sergeant,"Blue interrupted, shaking his head. "We need the complex guarded in case Marco comes back."
"S.I.G., Captain Blue," Mills replied, then nodded toward the parking lot. "Think you can drive yourself home? Your car is out there, with the keys still in the ignition."
Nick gave him a painful grin. "I've driven home in much worse shape than this many times." He shook hands with the two senior officers. "Good luck."
"Thanks," said Captain Blue as his seat retracted into the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle.
Before his own hydraulic door shut, Captain Magenta added, "I think we're going to need it."
Captain Scarlet was getting angrier at himself by the minute. First he hadn't recognized his "headache" as his usual warning that Marco was a Mysteron, then he hadn't reacted quickly enough and let the two men get away with Marco and the Mysteron pistol, then he'd lost them altogether as soon as he left the interstate. He was beginning to wonder if he'd find the vehicle or its occupants by Christmas, let alone return home in time for the holidays.
Amazing that a luxury car could disappear so quickly in such a congested area, he mentally grumbled as the red Spectrum saloon wound its way through the city's southern half. He stopped the car on a "street" narrower than some of the alleys in his hometown, pulling his vehicle up on the sidewalk because there was neither room to park nor to let the traffic pass. He looked again at the notepad in his left hand and swore under his breath.
Scarlet drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in disgust, then activated his radio. "Captain Ochre, are you sure you've given me the correct address?" he barked into the microphone.
"Address S.I.G., Captain Scarlet. It was confirmed by the Special Crimes Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department."
"Well, it certainly doesn't look like any 'social club' I've ever seen. It's a private home, the same as every other house in this street."
Ochre smiled to himself. He was tempted to remind Scarlet that in America the houses are on the streets, but he knew better than to point out the differences in American and British English when Scarlet was in a bad mood. He instead reassured him, "Look, I've raided any number of these places. They're supposed to look inconspicuous."
"Well, since you're an expert in these matters then you can tell me how to go about getting inside."
"I hope you're not thinking of walking through the front door."
"I'm indestructible, Captain, not suicidal. I assume they'll be waiting for us with weapons drawn."
"You can count on it. Try the alley in the back; there should be either a back door or a garage."
"S.I.G." Scarlet drove around the corner to the rear of the block, finding an alley too narrow for his car. The houses were identical from the back. There were no garages, so the kidnappers' car was parked in the middle of the alley outside of the club--up against the back door. The windows of the club were festooned with iron bars.
There must be another way in, thought Scarlet, his mind racing. Then he spotted a roofer's ladder propped against a wall at the end of the row of houses. He followed the ladder with his eyes and saw a worker replacing a skylight on the roof. He could not see the roof of the club from this angle, but most of the other houses he saw had similar fixtures.
Scarlet climbed the ladder and raced across the adjoining roofs, hurdling the fire walls between the houses as if he were still on the West Point track team. When he got to the roof of the social club, he stopped and cursed to himself.
There was no skylight. A patch of tarpaper was all that remained at his anticipated point of insertion. Scarlet muttered another oath, then stormed across the roof to see if he could swing into one of the front windows--
Captain Scarlet never got to the edge of the roof as he crashed through a second repair patch, realizing with surprise that there was nothing under the tarpaper to support his weight.
He landed in a second-floor bedroom where a card game was in progress. Playing cards, poker chips, beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays flew in all directions as he bounced off the felt-topped table and hit the floor. He instinctively reached for his gun but stopped as he found three larger-caliber ones already aimed at his nose.
"Well, what you got to say for yourself?" one of the card players sneered.
Scarlet smiled in defeat and quipped, "You'd better engage that roofer down the street. You've got a leak."
"Oh, a wise guy?" snapped one of the others, nodding toward the muscular hulk of a man who had spoken first. "Take him outside, Pro--"
The gangster's words stopped with a gasp as Captain Scarlet kicked the poker table into the three men and bolted from the room. Scarlet vaulted over the hall railing and landed halfway down the stairs, then raced down the steps with the three men hot on his heels.
He found the bar and lounge that made up most of the ground floor empty. There were only two other exits from this room, the front door of the building and a richly-paneled interior door off to the side of the bar. It was the only other place the Mysteron could be in the club. As the footsteps coming downstairs became louder, Scarlet drew his gun and kicked open the door of the side room.
Sure enough, Marco was in there, flanked by his two abductors. The threesome stood before an elderly man who could only be Don DiSalvo. The two goons stared at Scarlet as if they'd seen a ghost, then came to their senses and jumped him.
Cerullo slammed a rock-hard fist into Scarlet's abdomen, then LaCorte kicked Scarlet in the side as the captain hit the floor. The larger man picked up Scarlet's gun and raised it over his head like a club.
"Basta!" shouted DiSalvo in Italian, slamming his fist on his walnut desk. "That's enough, Vincenzo," he quickly translated. "Pick him up."
The two goons pulled Scarlet to his feet.
"Give him back his gun, Vincenzo."
"Andiamo!" DiSalvo bellowed. Cerullo returned Scarlet's pistol reluctantly, jerking it back at the officer with obvious contempt.
"Thank you, Vincenzo," Scarlet wheezed, snatching his weapon in the same manner it was offered and holstering it.
"Forgive them, signore," DiSalvo apologized, his voice amazingly smooth and soft-spoken. "They don't realize you are my guest." He gestured to LaCorte to shut the door just as the card players reached the office.
Scarlet's voice was still weak, but unmistakably doubtful. "Your guest?"
"We have no quarrel with Spectrum. This is a personal matter."
Scarlet smiled as he realized what "personal matter" Don DiSalvo meant. They think he killed Marco! If I can't get to him, let the Mafia have him. A pair of cement shoes will be just as effective at stopping him.
Don DiSalvo continued, "Now I will ask you to leave so that we can take care of unfinished business."
But Scarlet wasn't leaving empty-handed. "It's not quite that easy, sir. I have to return something to the Research Center that these men took--"
"Yo, Bruno and me didn't steal nothin'!" cried Cerullo in protest.
"Yeah!" chimed in LaCorte. "It was all Marco's idea!"
"Shut up, Bruno," Cerullo hissed.
"Yeah, but youse took it off me," retorted Marco. "Now Vinnie's got it."
"Vincenzo," Don DiSalvo said in an annoyed tone, much as if he were scolding a child, "did Marco take something that belongs to this gentleman?"
Cerullo nodded sheepishly and unzipped his coveralls. "Yeah, he said it was for you--"
DiSalvo waved him off. "Well, whatever it is I don't want it. Give it to him and see him to the door."
Scarlet held out his hand as Cerullo reached for the test piece. "Yes, just give it to me and I'll leave you to it--"
Marco lunged forward just as the electrode gun changed hands. He grabbed it and waved it at the four men. "That's what you think!" Marco yelled.
Captain Scarlet said nothing but quickly raised his hands, fully aware that if he tried anything foolish, this time he'd really be a dead man. His worst fear had come true; the only weapon that could kill him was trained on him, and there was no means of escape--
At that moment, the office's closet door flew open and a man emerged. He was identical to Marco in appearance except that he wore a topcoat. He seemed to come up from a lower step, as if he had navigated some secret passageway to get into the club.
Now it was Don DiSalvo's turn to stare in disbelief. "Marco?" he gasped.
"Marco?!" the two goons shouted in unison.
The man grinned and unbuttoned his topcoat. "You was expectin' maybe Eliot Ness?"
"Wait a minute," Cerullo snapped, eyeing the newcomer suspiciously. "This can't be Marco. Bruno and me took his body out of the closet."
"Yeah," LaCorte chimed in. "We definitely pulled out a stiff. He'd been in there a couple of hours."
"Nevertheless, Marco and his brother are very much alive and standing in front of us as we speak." Don DiSalvo leaned back in his swivel chair and locked his fingers, his elbows resting on the arms of the chair as he rocked slowly. "Now we have to figure out which one of these men is our friend Marco, and which one is the stronzo who tried to kill him."
"I'm Marco," the man with the electrode gun shrugged, cocking his head in the direction of the man in the overcoat. "That's Nick."
"Yeah, sure," retorted the other man. "If I was Nick, do youse think I'd be stupid enough to come back here if I done that?"
"But I can prove I'm Marco. Don DiSalvo, remember that safe job last week--"
"You mean the one we lost to the Trenton mob because Casella is still in prison?" the newcomer cut him off. "We both knew about that one, Nick. Joe Pro called your house lookin' for me. I still remember you tryin' to explain to Maryanne why 'Mr. Procopio from the office' called."
DiSalvo sighed heavily. "This is getting us nowhere. I don't need to be reminded of last week's failures. All I want to know is who's Nick and who's Marco--"
"Or an impostor," interrupted Captain Scarlet.
Don DiSalvo's swivel chair came to a sudden stop. "What are you saying, young man?" he demanded.
"You've heard of the Mysterons, haven't you?"
"The men from Mars? Sure, on Friday I saw what they did to that bank up in New York. But what do they have to do with us?"
Scarlet's gaze never wavered from the electrode pistol in the first Marco's hand as he continued. "Without going into too much detail, Don DiSalvo, the Mysterons perform acts of terrorism by putting a double in someone's place to do their bidding."
"And you think one of these men is your Mysteron."
"Marco 'The Florist' Francesco left his trademark all over our Research Center. The whole complex was wired with explosives hidden in live Christmas trees."
Cerullo gave the British Spectrum officer a skeptical look. "How can you be sure that was Marco? Maybe somebody up there ain't happy with their job."
Scarlet smiled wryly and continued, "Don't worry, Vincenzo. We positively identified Marco Francesco as the suspect. Then the Philadelphia Police Department confirmed that Marco was indeed dead."
Don DiSalvo was following him now. "But now two men claim to be Marco. How can we tell which one killed him?"
"The man who killed Marco would have been identical to him in every way, except one. He would have known how to set demolition charges, but he wouldn't know anything about Nick's research work."
Captain Scarlet whirled around, startling the two men. "What is the range of the new pistol?" he barked.
"53.9 yards," the man in the overcoat replied without hesitation.
"Good answer." Scarlet whipped out his own sidearm and dropped the other twin before he could bring the electrode gun to bear.
Don DiSalvo nodded admiringly at Scarlet's catlike reflexes. "Grazie, signore. If you will leave us now, we will finish this matter--"
Scarlet turned back toward the Mafia boss. "Leave us, Don DiSalvo, and wait outside. This is now a Spectrum matter."
Don DiSalvo nodded again and snapped his fingers. His two enforcers followed him out of the office and into the lounge.
Scarlet next leveled his pistol at the remaining twin. "Nick, you've got exactly three seconds to prove to me you're not a Mysteron."
Nick Francesco felt a moment of panic before he remembered the photo in his pocket. "Captain Blue used the detector on me at Valley Forge this morning," he explained as he handed Scarlet the X-ray picture. Nick then grinned and pointed up toward his face. "Besides, how many Mysterons have you seen with minor bruises and scratches that are obviously a couple of days old?"
Scarlet relaxed and lowered his sidearm, then reached for the electrode ray pistol which lay next to Marco's body. "Well, looks like I'll get to test this today after all--"
Nick grabbed Scarlet's arm. "Let me do it, Captain. The Mysterons killed my brother, and then they tried to kill me too. I owe Marco that much, at least."
Scarlet nodded in understanding and gestured for Nick to proceed.
Suddenly Marco sat up and snatched the electrode gun from the floor, then leveled it at Captain Scarlet and pulled the trigger. Scarlet instinctively hit the deck, though he realized at that range it would probably do no good anyway.
The gun began to emit a high-pitched sound like its bigger cousin, but then Marco Francesco shook uncontrollably as the gun short-circuited and sent its deadly electrical charge through his own body rather than his target's. The Mysteron writhed in mortal agony until the gun's working parts seized from the heat of the reaction and its generator gave out.
When the body went limp and Marco was clearly dead, Nick swallowed hard and stared at Captain Scarlet. "That's what that gun does to Mysterons?" he finally said aloud.
"It's not usually quite that dramatic," Scarlet admitted.
"But still, reading your reports just isn't the same as seeing it in person."
"Quite." Scarlet bent down and examined the gun which was now fused to Marco's hand. "Well, at least it didn't happen while one of us was holding it."
"Yeah, I know. Not even you would have survived that." Nick, still visibly shaken, looked up at Scarlet sheepishly. "Guess I called you down here too soon, Captain. If those tests had gone on as planned--"
"Forget it," he reassured, putting a hand on Nick's shoulder and nudging him toward the door. "Let's wait for Captain Blue out at the bar. I'm sure Blue will be relieved that he has only one body to collect this time. And after what you did for me today, I'd like to buy you a drink." Scarlet smiled and added, "You look as if you could do with one."
Nick sighed heavily and glanced back at the body of his twin brother. "You read my mind, Captain."
The Christmas season had finally arrived at Cloudbase, literally. Earlier that morning, a special courier aircraft took off from Spectrum Headquarters London, filled with decorations, gift parcels and traditional foodstuffs for the officers and enlisted personnel who would remain on base for the holidays. The incoming packages received a quick yet thorough security check, especially after the incident at Valley Forge the day before. But within an hour of its arrival, the plane was on its way back to the surface jammed with gifts for the Cloudbase residents' loved ones.
Christmas trees, wreaths and other decorations could be found in all the hovering base's common areas, and the unmistakable aroma of freshly-cut evergreen boughs was everywhere. Even the Control Room with its utilitarian furnishings was showing signs of the festive season, thanks to the handmade ornaments Lieutenant Green received from his brothers and sisters in Trinidad. The lieutenant now busied himself cutting snowflakes from folded scrap computer paper, being careful not to let the cuttings fall into the recesses of his keyboard. As he finished them, Captain Ochre taped the snowflakes to the glass wall that divided the base's main computers from Colonel White's briefing area. The usually boisterous pair were silent due to the meeting in progress.
Colonel White could sense that the four men standing at ease before him were anxious to tend to their own holiday preparations, so he tried to make his debriefing as quick as possible. He scanned the contents of the report folder on his desk and directed his attention to the young officer who was fidgeting the most.
"Captain Scarlet, I see from your report that you don't think the Mysterons were referring to the Mafia as mankind's enemy."
"No, sir. I'd say this time they combined forces with perhaps mankind's greatest enemy, confusion."
The silver-haired commander-in-chief nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, of course. The Mysterons apparently had no intention of killing Nick Francesco. They were counting on him to throw the proverbial spanner in the works when he returned to the Research Center--"
"--'what has troubled them for far too long,'" Scarlet observed.
"But the Research Center is safe, Captain Scarlet, thanks to you. It was only by a stroke of fate that you were there for the weapons test yesterday." White sighed and tapped the report with his pen. "Pity that the electrode ray pistol was a complete loss. I suppose we're back to square one on that."
"Not necessarily, Colonel," piped up Nick Francesco. "It did prove that the downsized circuitry can generate enough voltage to kill a Mysteron. Now we just have to find a way to harness that voltage for the next prototype."
"Yeah," commented Captain Magenta, looking at Scarlet with a devilish grin. "We want the target to be killed, not the operator."
Scarlet smiled first at Magenta, then at the Spectrum engineer. "Just make certain, Nick, that the voltage is completely harnessed before you call me down to the surface again." He paused and looked expectantly at his commanding officer. "Talking of going down to the surface, Colonel, if there's nothing else you need from me--"
"By all means, off you go." White came out from behind the desk and shook hands with his number-one agent. "Happy Christmas, Captain Scarlet, to you and your family."
"And a happy Christmas to you as well, Colonel," the dark-haired officer replied. He exchanged handshakes with the others and turned to leave.
"Permission to get Captain Scarlet's Christmas present, Colonel," Captain Blue called out.
White turned businesslike again as he sat back down. "No, I'm not through with the debriefing just yet." He nodded toward Magenta. "Since you were outside providing cover, I assume you don't have anything to add to the report, Captain."
"That's right, sir. Blue didn't want to take the chance of my being recognized."
"Very well, you're dismissed. I want to have a word with Captain Blue and Mr. Francesco before they leave for Philadelphia."
Blue tossed Magenta his I.D. card, which also served as his room key. "It's on my desk. And give him some of the popping corn and cranberries Mom sent to decorate the trees."
"S.I.G., Captain Blue." Magenta grinned, thankful he was finished with the Spectrum chief. He didn't want to be around for what was going to happen next, for he recognized the look in the colonel's eyes.
Colonel White cleared his throat and folded his hands on top of the report. "First of all, Mr. Francesco, I want to thank you for disregarding your personal safety and going to the social club. Your action may have saved Captain Scarlet's life."
Nick grinned from ear to ear. "Thanks, Colonel. I felt like I had to do something for Marco."
"Since you're a civilian employee, I can't authorize a medal, but I do know of something else I can do." White reached into a drawer in the circular desk and retrieved another folder. "I have here a report from Spectrum Intelligence that I think you'll find rather interesting."
Nick looked at the report cover and then back at White. "Colonel, that's a highly-classified investigative report. Why are you showing it to me?"
White handed the folder to Francesco and gestured for him to open it. "I've been hearing about a sport wagering operation in Spectrum for some time now. I'm happy to say that Intelligence have finally pinpointed its source."
The Spectrum engineer blanched, mentally preparing himself for the worst.
"Gambling on duty itself merits severe disciplinary action, Mr. Francesco," White continued. "Running an operation of this scope is at least grounds for dismissal, if not legal action."
"Y-you'll have my resignation on your desk tomorrow morning, Colonel--"
"That won't be necessary." Colonel White took the report from him and tore it in half. "Happy Christmas, Nick."
Captain Blue pulled Francesco onto the moving walkway which led to the door. "Consider it a gift from Santa Claus, Nick. Let's go before he changes his mind."
But Colonel White pressed a button on his console, stopping the conveyor. "Captain Blue, I do believe you're trying to avoid me," he mocked.
Blue sighed and rolled his eyes, then turned around to face his superior. "I don't know what you're talking about, Colonel," he began, not convincingly.
"Oh, but I think you do. You see, your name appears in the section of the report pertaining to the World Series in October."
Blue frowned and shook his head. "I lose the one bet I ever made in my life, and now this--"
Captain Ochre burst into laughter from the other side of the glass wall. "Just because you're from Boston didn't mean you had to bet on the Red Sox! My God, Blue, the Phils were favored not only to sweep, but to blow them away!"
"I wouldn't be so quick to laugh, Captain Ochre," White snapped. "Intelligence have a whole chapter about you."
Ochre cringed, his face glowing beet-red as it was Blue's turn to laugh.
Colonel White, however, found no humor in the situation. "Captains, this is hardly a laughing matter. As I said previously, gambling on duty is a most serious offense. The only reason I'm not asking for your commissions is that this epidemic is so widespread I'd have to sack half of Spectrum."
The two American officers traded looks of relief.
The colonel smiled sardonically as he picked up his silver pen and began to write a memorandum. "I do, however, have a punishment that will benefit as well as discipline. Whatever Intelligence discovered you to have wagered, you shall make an equivalent donation to the charity of your choice." White scrawled his signature and tucked the pen into his vest pocket. "It seems you are going to make some organization very happy, Captain Ochre."
The Midwesterner shifted uneasily. "Colonel, I don't have that kind of money in a lump sum."
"Then we'll have the Accounting Center arrange a payroll deduction. I'll send a copy of this message to them." White reached for the pen in his pocket to amend the memo. "Oh, yes, and whilst on the subject of accounts, Mr. Francesco, don't forget to return all outstanding monies before you purge the records from our systems."
"I'll get to work on it right away, Colonel. You have my word."
White shook his head. "I'm afraid your word isn't good enough this time, Mr. Francesco. Lieutenant Green is leaving for Trinidad at the end of the week. I'm sure he won't mind a short diversion to your office to verify the information is erased."
The young black man grinned. "Don't worry, Colonel. I'm sure Nick and I will find some way to sort out the wagering programs and the money."
Nick Francesco didn't miss the sly wink the lieutenant gave him as he and Captain Blue exited the Control Room.
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