“So I thought if we could increase the calibration by just a fraction, it might make all the difference, performance-wise. What do you think? Will it work?”
“Pardon?” Captain Grey was aware that he hadn’t heard much of what she’d said because his mind had been elsewhere for at least ten minutes.
“My modification to the Falcons,” Rhapsody Angel said impatiently. “I just wanted your opinion, that’s all. I can’t get any of the guys in Engineering to take me seriously. They hear me out, then pat me on the head and tell me my job is just to fly the ruddy things and leave the specs to them.” She sighed. “One of these days maybe someone in that department will realise I’m old enough to play with the big boys and girls.”
Grey was irritated. He liked her well enough, usually enjoyed her company, but right now, he wanted her to go away.
“Do you always talk about work?” He said it abruptly, knowing it was rude, but hoping nevertheless that it would have the desired result. It did. She got to her feet, two bright spots of colour staining her cheeks, radiating offence.
Sorry,” she said stiffly. “Maybe I should go and look for someone else to bore.”
As she started to move away, his conscience stabbed him. After all, the way he felt was not her fault.
“Caroline.” He stretched out his hand to grab her arm before she was out of reach. “Come on, Cal, I’m sorry. You weren’t boring me; I’m just not in the mood for company tonight.”
That was not completely true, but there was no polite way of saying that it was not her company he wanted. “I guess I’m a bit ‘Bah Humbug’ as far as the festive season is concerned. Never seem able to summon up enough cheeriness and goodwill to all men.”
“Well, I don’t know why you bothered coming to a Christmas party, then,” she snapped back with what he had to acknowledge was faultless logic.
“Me neither,” he replied, smiling at her in a feeble attempt to supplement his apology. “But it’s Spectrum’s first Christmas, so I thought I should make an effort to enter into the spirit of things. I’m not making a very good job of it, but that’s nothing to do with you.”
“Honestly?” She gazed at him, her expression a clear indication of her doubt in the veracity of his words.
“Honestly.” He gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll try to be in a more receptive mood tomorrow. If you want me to go over those modifications with you then, I’ll make some time, I promise.”
“Thanks, Iain. Look, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll get myself a drink and a bite to eat. Want me to bring something back for you?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Go and find some handsome chap to drag round the dance floor and let me wear my Scrooge hat in peace.”
“All right.” On an impulse, she bent and kissed his cheek. “I’ll leave you alone. Just don’t wallow too much, okay?”
He nodded, smiled at her again and sat back to reflect on why, exactly, he had decided to join in with the celebrations on the Observation Deck. He hadn’t lied to Rhapsody about his feelings towards Christmas. It had been different when he was a child, of course. Then he’d looked forward with the usual enthusiasm to whatever delights awaited him. As a teenager, his expectations shifted to focus on the social promise of the season, attendant on lots of parties and too much alcohol. It was not until he became a father himself that he reclaimed the innocent pleasures offered. Jenny’s excitement at the prospect of Santa Claus was infectious, rekindling his belief in the magical properties of Christmastide. Her death had shattered everything; hopes, dreams, beliefs and expectations all wiped out in one devastating moment. Life, or something approximating it, went on of course, but the last six Christmases had brought with them an ever more savage reminder of what was lost. He hadn’t been to a party in years and the realisation of why he was at this one disturbed him more than he wanted to admit.
He glanced round the room. Whoever had been responsible for the decor had done a good job. He suspected it was probably the Angels, although goodness only knew how they’d found the time. Colonel White, in the interests of professionalism, would have preferred to play down Christmas celebrations on base, but the United Nations’ gift of an elaborately decorated tree had rather put paid to that idea. As Captain Blue reasonably pointed out, such magnificence could not be allowed to languish in mediocre surroundings. Thus, with the Colonel’s somewhat grudging agreement, the Observation Deck had been transformed into a veritable wonderland of twinkling lights, tinsel and berry-laden garlands, inbuilt it seemed, with artificial smells of wood and spice. Grey was amused to discover that even the high-tech drinks machines had been rigged to dispense mulled wine in addition to the usual tea and coffee. He had a feeling that was something Colonel White didn’t and shouldn’t know about.
Rhapsody, drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other, was now deep in conversation with Captain Indigo. The subject would probably still be her endless experiments at improving the performance of the Angel aircraft, but Indigo at least had the grace to look politely interested, whatever he privately thought. Grey was relieved to see she was back to her usual animated self and didn’t seem to be dwelling on his boorishness.
His eyes wandered round the room until they rested once more on his reason for being here. Melody Angel was twirling round the makeshift dance area, trying to avoid being tripped up by a rather lumbering Lieutenant Cream. Grey knew Cream well; he was a large, fair-haired Norwegian with an overly earnest manner and an innate tendency to clumsiness. To his credit, he was aware of these limitations and under normal circumstances, wild horses would not have persuaded him to dance. Melody, however, was a force greater than any number of wild horses. In the three months she had been on Skybase, Grey had lost count of the men whose wits seemed to desert them after five minutes in her company, whose brains turned to putty at the first flash of that coquettish smile and fluttering eyelashes. He realised he had to count himself among that number and it annoyed him. She was extraordinarily attractive. He’d known many women who were undoubtedly more beautiful and more obviously sexy, but none had the profound effect on him that Melody Angel did: the fact that she was completely unaware of it and did nothing to contribute to it, disturbed him even further.
He’d been as good as his words to her the day she arrived; took her under his wing, made himself primarily responsible for her training in the finer points of field work, ignoring not only her own mild protestations, but also the teasing innuendos of his colleagues. The furtherance of her career became his pet project and until now, he’d refused to acknowledge the underlying reason for his interest in her. His outrageous behaviour in the swimming pool on her first day was not something he wished to dwell on. The fact that he had allowed his temper to get the better of him to such an extent that he’d only just stopped short of raping her was a memory so horrifying his mind sheered away in disgust. The emotions aroused by what followed had also been deliberately thrust on the back-burner; it was enough surely, just to forge some kind of friendship out of the collision of separate tragedies.
Except it didn’t seem to be enough and that was the problem. There was no other explanation for the fact that he was somewhere he didn’t want to be: eating unappetising sausages on sticks and drinking flat lemonade, racked with jealousy as his protégée whirled round the room in the arms of others.
For God’s sake, get a grip, he told himself irritably and not for the first time. This is complete madness. For starters, you’re more than a decade older than she is. It’s only right she should be more interested in men her own age.
Then there was the problem of mixing personal and professional interests. He didn’t approve; in his experience, good rarely came of it and romantic liaisons on board Skybase carried their own particular difficulties. There were no regulations that forbade relationships, of course; enforcing them would have been virtually impossible, anyway. But it was not especially encouraged and he was in agreement with that. As the eldest and longest serving of the senior colour-coded personnel, he felt a responsibility to set some kind of example, although he was aware that in some circumstances, it was unlikely to be followed.
Since his divorce, he’d dated sporadically and with no particular enthusiasm. He was not looking for a relationship, so dinner, drinks, or the theatre in the presence of pleasant female company was enough for him. If sex was thrown in as well, that was simply an added bonus. It was unusual for such occasions to be more than one-night stands, and that suited him. There had been enough complications in his life, he thought and the fact was that he functioned better when he was not in the grip of extreme emotion.
He’d reckoned without the profound and disturbing effect that Esther Jackson had on him, though. Never before in his life had he felt such an utterly Neanderthal-like need to possess a woman, in spite of the knowledge that such a need was unlikely ever to be met and certainly not by her. Apart from the fact that any desire to dominate would hardly flourish in an atmosphere of power-sharing and equality and dialogue – all of which she quite rightly took for granted- he was ashamed to acknowledge an impulse he would have despised in other men. It seemed that over two thousand years of what passed for civilisation had not been totally successful in eradicating some of life’s baser instincts, he thought ruefully.
She liked him, he knew that; knew also that she was aware of the underlying physical attraction between them. However, since the ‘confessional’ in his quarters on her first day, their relationship had been professional, light- hearted and unequivocally superficial. The connection between them, which seemed almost preordained at the time, had disappeared. He had thought it for the best, but now he was unsure. Although she hadn’t said anything, he fancied that there were times when she was disappointed in him, as if he hadn’t done something she expected; although that was hardly likely to be a caveman-like towing off by the hair, he decided.
He dragged his gaze away and tried to distract himself with a plate of cheese straws, unwillingly relinquished by Captain Scarlet as he was borne away, guitar in hand, by a determined-looking Lieutenant Green. Green had volunteered to provide the cabaret for the party, an offer accepted with alacrity by the ad-hoc social committee. Scarlet’s part in this was to provide an accompaniment to her lovely contralto voice, although he’d expressed reservations about the adequacy of a single guitar for some of her more complex musical arrangements. Grey, who knew how much rehearsal had taken place, suspected that such misgivings would be unfounded.
He shifted back in the chair to ruminate on the months leading up to their first Christmas on this gigantic aircraft hangar in the sky. Everything had gone better than expected; as an organisation, they had proved themselves equal to the tasks that beset them and the world was a safer place because of it. Not everyone was here tonight, of course. Several senior personnel, including Captains Blue, Magenta, Brown and Orange, were deployed on various missions around the world. The vast majority of the people at the party were on stand-by duty, ready to be called upon if an emergency situation should present itself. A lucky few were on leave, spending Christmas with families and friends. Captain Black and Destiny Angel were en route to Paris, for what Destiny gleefully described as a ‘romantic’ break. From the smirk on her boyfriend’s face, Grey doubted she’d be leaving their hotel room, despite any plans she might have made for candlelit suppers and moonlight strolls along the Seine.
He was on leave himself, although he hadn’t wanted to escape the confines of Skybase. His parents were disappointed that he’d declined the offer of Christmas in Dunfermline, but they would get over it, he thought. It was certainly not the first year he hadn’t made it home and they had his siblings and various grandchildren to entertain them. He doubted he’d be missed.
His gaze was pulled unwillingly to the other end of the room. Melody had taken a break from dancing and was now at the bar, laughing and chatting with Captain Ochre. With their dark heads bent towards each other, they looked more like sisters than colleagues. He stared at them, wondering what they were talking about.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Melody asked, flashing Ochre a grin as she reached inside her bag for her ID card, against which all purchases were made.
Ochre smiled back. “Lemonade, please. Although on second thoughts, let’s live dangerously. Make it orange and lemon.”
Melody raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were off duty,” she said, glancing at Ochre’s non-uniform black trousers and dark blue satin t-shirt.
The Irishwoman shook her head. “Stand-by only, I’m afraid,” she said apologetically. “I promised I’d relieve Lieutenant Silver later on, give her an hour or so here.”
“That’s nice of you.” Melody sipped her cocktail, looking at Ochre appraisingly over the rim of the glass.
The other woman shrugged. “Like I say, I’m on stand-by. If I can’t be in full-on party mode, it doesn’t really matter where I am.”
“But you’re dressed for a party.” Melody pointed out the obvious with her usual directness as Ochre’s eyes gleamed in amusement.
“Only for a while,” she responded with a grin. “And there is a reason.”
“Which is what?”
“This.” Ochre fingered the delicate diamond pendant at the base of her throat. “It arrived this morning. Christmas present from my fella.”
“Wow. It’s fabulous.” Melody gazed in admiration at what was clearly not costume jewellery. She knew little of Ochre’s private life and wondered what sort of relationship would engender such a beautiful and obviously very expensive gift.
“He, er, couldn’t deliver it in person?” she asked tentatively.
“Not when he’s a couple of thousand miles away, no. But it’s okay. It’s what you expect when you’re in the military.”
“He’s in Spectrum, too?” Melody felt, not for the first time, that she was treading on eggshells. This life on Skybase was nerve- wracking. Never knowing how much to disclose, the right questions to ask – what might be one question too many – could be exhausting. She wasn’t sure she was getting it right.
“Oh, good heavens, no!” Ochre laughed out loud, although her fingers rested lightly on Melody’s arm, as if to reassure her that she hadn’t overstepped the bounds of propriety. “He’s an admiral in the US Navy. He’s a bit older than me, he’ll be retiring soon. We see each other when we can. We knew we couldn’t be together this Christmas, but I promised him I’d wear the necklace and call him so that he could see it on. I didn’t think my Spectrum uniform would do it justice, hence the finery.” She gave Melody a wink. “I’ll get him on a webcam link before I go change to relieve Bethany. Just hope I get the time difference right. That’s the problem with Skybase – it does move, so it’s sometimes difficult to remember where we are in relation to everyone else.”
“I know what you mean,” Melody confessed. “Last time I spoke to my mom, I thought it was eight pm in Washington – turned out to be four in the morning. She wasn’t amused.”
Ochre laughed. “That sounds familiar! I keep thinking I should be better at it by now, but you wouldn’t believe how many conversations Colin and I have at the most ludicrous hours. He never knows where I am either, so he often gets it wrong. Once, he called me on my private frequency when I was right in the middle of defusing an incendiary – I don’t know who was more scared, me or him.”
Melody stared at her in horror. “Your phone went when you were defusing a bomb?”
“Yeah, but it was okay.” Ochre gave a nonchalant toss of her head. “I just got the boys to keep him talking while I finished the job.”
Ochre smiled and said gently, “No, not really. I was just kidding you. I didn’t answer the call.”
“Oh, right.” Melody smiled back, trying not to look awkward. She liked Elaine McGee, but the Irish woman could be intimidating. ‘Hard boiled’ was the expression Melody’s mother would have used, although her daughter decided that was unfair. Ochre’s manner was brisk and business - like, her personality rarely displaying any soft edges, but Melody suspected that was what came of being the only female senior colour-coded captain. Keeping your end up while partnering almost exclusively male colleagues could be tricky. She didn’t think feminine wiles would’ve been an advantage in the life or death situation Ochre had just described and for an instant, Melody felt sorry for her.
“It’s a shame you and your boyfriend can’t be together over Christmas,” she ventured cautiously, hoping to project the right amount of friendly interest without appearing to pry.
Ochre was amused at what she knew to be an uncharacteristic and rather clumsy attempt at tact. It was unnecessary, she thought. Part of Melody’s charm was her complete lack of guile.
“I think the word ‘boyfriend’ is rather a misnomer,” she said solemnly. “He’s clocking fifty-three. In no way could he be described as a boy, which is precisely why I like him. And yes, it’s a pity about Christmas, but there are compensations. With a bit of luck, we’ll manage a week in the Bahamas in the New Year. There are worse places to spend January.” She bit delicately into the orange segment garnishing her glass. “Besides, he’ll have a house full on Christmas Day, so I’m probably best out of it. His daughter’s just had another baby. One grandchild I can just about cope with, but two? I know when I’m out of my league.”
Melody stared at her. “Isn’t it weird? Dating someone old enough to be your father?” The words were out before she could stop them and she clapped her hand over her mouth in sudden horror. “Oh, God, I don’t know what made me say that. I’m so sorry.”
“No worries.” Ochre sounded genuinely unperturbed. “I know what you meant and yes, sometimes, it does feel a little weird. All I can say is that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and the age thing doesn’t really matter. If it works, it works, don’t question it. I like the fact that he’s an adult, not a testosterone- fuelled adolescent in a grown-up body. He’s at the end of his career, not the beginning. He doesn’t feel the need to prove anything. You have no idea how restful that is.” She sipped her drink, eyeing the dancing couples somewhat balefully.
Restful; that’s an odd word, Melody thought. She hadn’t realised Ochre felt under such pressure. “These are busy times,” she said brightly. “It’s difficult to fit in any kind of relationship, really.”
“Uh-huh.” Ochre nodded absently. “And it’s always best to keep things off base, in my opinion. Put some distance between your work and your private life. This place is claustrophobic enough without the fall- out from some pot-boiler of an affair.”
Melody wondered if she was referring to Black and Destiny. Most of the time the two were consummate professionals, but there was no denying that the relationship was volatile. The Angel squad were well used to the signs of trouble. Harmony, whose quarters adjoined those of the Angel leader, would dole out helmets and equipment with a muttered “On guard, ladies. We’re dealing with another domestic,” as Destiny, white-faced and tight of lip, stalked across the hangar deck towards her Falcon. The atmosphere would be tense and they might initially feel the rough edge of her tongue, but it rarely lasted; once adrenalin caught and pinioned them in its web, mundane matters were set aside and they functioned as one perfect, seamless unit. And in that lay the irony; Destiny, the ultimate alchemist, had picked her team with a precise intuition that she had not applied to her choice of lovers.
I guess there are no training courses for real-life, Melody thought bleakly. Her unwilling eyes were drawn yet again to where Captain Grey was leaning back in his chair, one leg crossed other the other in casual indifference. His hair was on end, where he’d brushed his hand over it; it was a habit of his she’d noticed and found rather endearing. She studied him dispassionately for a moment. He was not handsome – his features were too craggy for that, although she acknowledged that he was attractive in a rough-hewn sort of way. He had a face that was wary in constant expectation of trouble and the kind of body that resented all but the most casual of clothes. There was nothing in the world that would make him suave. Still, he had nice manners and a sense of humour; after past misunderstandings had been resolved, he’d treated her with nothing other than gentle courtesy. And that was just the trouble.
For the last three months, he’d coached her in the finer points of field work, insisting that she familiarise herself with procedures that, as a pilot, she didn’t strictly need to know. He invaded her waking hours; his would be the first message on the computer when she awoke, setting out his latest homework for her in impersonal terms. He made lists and plans; he would loiter in Engineering, annoying the technicians, while he waited for her to return from patrol. Sometimes, he would appear at her door before she’d even had time to shower or brush her teeth. The sheer intensity of it was overwhelming.
“Why? Why are you doing this?” she had asked once, perilously close to tears of despair and exhaustion, on a day when her energy and enthusiasm couldn’t match his. “Why me?”
He’d looked her straight in the eye. “Because I want you to be the best you can be,” he said simply. He didn’t answer her second question and she understood why. He wanted to make up for his treatment of her on that first day and this was his way of doing it, but they both knew there was more to it than that. The emotion unleashed during those explosive moments by the swimming pool had been quickly damped down, so much so that at times she thought she’d imagined it. Then, she would catch him in an unguarded moment when he didn’t realise she was watching him and she knew she hadn’t. She didn’t know what, if anything, she should do about it.
Melody had never been short of boyfriends; gregarious and effervescent, she attracted men easily. For the most part, they’d been light-hearted, uncomplicated relationships requiring little commitment. Whatever formed the basis of her relationship with Ian Taggart was entirely different. He wasn’t a man who fitted female fantasy; he was totally unlike any of the callow youths of her student days, or the glamorous young men who’d peopled her days and nights since she’d happily blossomed into an object of male desire. Yet the attraction was there, and would not be denied. It wasn’t just sexual. If it was all just about lust, she thought, it would be easy. But it wasn’t. An instinct told her that this man had the capacity to break her heart and her mind sheered away from this unwelcome truth.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of training her treacherous body to ignore the powerful stimulus of his presence; try to keep a distance between them, not allow him the opportunity to touch her, or handle her in any way, even if it was only to demonstrate the correct way to fire an unfamiliar weapon. Yet, perversely, the thought of doing so depressed her. Melody had felt alone for most of her adult life. The bomb which killed her younger brother had also, as far as she was concerned, had the same devastating effect on her family life, to the point where nowhere felt like home. America seemed alien. She’d cut herself off from her school friends when she left for college in Israel and the years spent there served only to heighten the gulf between them. She had nothing in common with the heedless young women who were, by now, settling down to glittering careers and affluent domesticity.
Her time in Israel held little but disillusionment and broken promises, lightened only by the sheer amazement of discovering that she was that rare being - a born flyer. Not just a pilot: something more, someone who could meld plane and sky to her absolute will, control the uncontrollable and emerge triumphant, having beaten the elements. But it wasn’t enough. She’d crash-landed on Skybase, with no country to call her own and no affiliations, other than to Spectrum; but, impossible as it seemed, a lifeline had been thrown to her. A man from the darkest period in her past had emerged and offered her a hand to grip while she was still swimming in that limitless sea. Letting go of the lifeline would take every resource she had.
She stared dismally down at her drink. A plastic cocktail goldfish was floating in the bottom of the glass. Guess you’re a bit like me, she told it silently. Maybe we’re all prisoners in disguise, one way or another. The goldfish floated upwards and fixed her with its dead eyes.
Ochre caught her expression. “So, what are you doing tonight?” she asked casually, her eyes seemingly on the dance floor. “Off duty, beautifully dressed, cavaliers waiting in the wings, but somehow, I’m not convinced.”
“Sorry?” Melody started, in confusion. “Not convinced of what?”
“That you’re the party animal you would have us believe you are.” Ochre‘s gaze was shrewd. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I get the feeling that you’re waiting for something. Or someone.”
“Waiting? Who on earth would I be waiting for?” Melody thought her voice sounded squeaky, even to herself.
“Well, I’m not sure. Him, perhaps?” Ochre inclined her head towards the morose figure of Captain Grey, sitting in the far corner of the Observation Lounge. She saw Melody’s eyes flick towards him and observed the sudden heightened flush in her cheeks. Bulls-eye, she thought, with amused gratification.
“Iain?” Melody tried to modulate her vocal chords into something approaching casual surprise, as if the question was just too ridiculous to even be considered. “Oh, Elaine, no! Please don’t take notice of all the gossip that goes on around here. There’s absolutely nothing in it. He just offered to help train me in stuff I hadn’t done before and I’m so grateful. He’s really sweet, made my first weeks here much easier.”
“Yes, well, it’s always good to have a mentor and you won’t find a better one than Iain,” Ochre agreed, thinking that of all the words that could be used to adequately describe Captain Grey, ‘sweet’ was not among them. “He’s one of the most generous, unselfish people I’ve ever worked with and those are qualities you don’t always find in this business. There are very few people in whom I would place unconditional trust, but he’s definitely one of them. If he’s taken you under his wing, then count yourself fortunate. He won’t let you down. But actually, I think it’s a two way thing.” She smiled at Melody. “You’ve been good for him, too. We all know how dour he can be at times, but you’ve lightened him somehow, made him more easy-going. He seems happier and that benefits us all.”
“There’s nothing going on between us.” Melody’s voice was low, urgent. “He’s a nice guy and I’m grateful for his help. That’s all it is. Please don’t misunderstand.” She suddenly looked close to tears.
Ochre sighed and cast a brief, exasperated glance at the ceiling. “Melody, may I give you some advice?” she asked, carefully setting down her glass on the bar. “Carpe Diem. Seize the Day. It’s an expression I think Spectrum should adopt as its motto. This is a dangerous job and life may be shorter than we expect. Don’t waste opportunities, because tomorrow may never come. I don’t want to sound like a harbinger of doom, but it’s my philosophy.” She gave a sudden, unexpected laugh. “Bejasus, why am I standing here talking in clichés? Sorry, muirnín. But seriously - if you want him, go get him. I don’t think you’ll regret it.”
Melody managed a tremulous smile. “What was all that about relationships among colleagues?”
The other woman winked mischievously. “That wasn’t advice, that was just my opinion. And, as I’m sure some folks around here will attest to, there have been occasions when I’ve broken my own rules. What was it Edith Piaf said? “Je ne regrette rien.” Regret nothing, or something like that. Sounds sensible to me.”
“Who’s Edith Piaf?” Melody asked inconsequentially, wondering how she’d ended up like this, a rabbit caught in the dazzling beam of Ochre’s headlights.
“French singer, circa nineteen forties and fifties. She was a bit of a diva, had quite a tragic life. A lot of that was her own fault, I believe.” Ochre shrugged. “Maybe the song wasn’t true. In the end, she probably regretted everything.”
She placed a gentle hand on Melody’s shoulder. “Now I really must go and make that call to Colin, before Beth starts to wonder where I’ve got to. Thanks for the drink, Mel. Enjoy your evening, however it turns out.” She moved swiftly toward the door, throwing a conspiratorial grin over her shoulder as she went.
Melody sighed and turned her attention to her cocktail. It was a fruity, rum-based atrocity with an overpowering smell of coconut. It was far too sweet with an unpleasant aftertaste. No wonder the plastic fish looks miserable, she thought. She toyed with the idea of disposing of it in the base of the Christmas tree.
On the edge of the makeshift dance floor, Lieutenant Green and Captain Scarlet were busily preparing their cabaret. Scarlet was tuning his guitar while Green fought with a collapsible microphone stand which was intently collapsing with enthusiastic non-cooperation. Lights were gradually dimmed and the party-goers settled back in their seats in anticipation of a musical treat.
Green’s mother, Charmaine Lewis, was an accomplished night-club singer and her daughter had inherited her talent. Serena’s vocal range and musical preferences were more extensive, however. She could do justice to jazz and blues, but her voice lacked the smoky, sultry timbre so quintessential to that genre. Instead, she possessed a sweetness and clarity which perfectly suited a broad range of musical styles, from folk, rock and country to ballads and hymns. No-one was sure what they were going to get tonight, but whatever it was, they didn’t expect to be disappointed.
Melody glanced round the room. People were pairing up, or settling into small groups in an atmosphere of intimacy that she felt unable to share. She’d prepared carefully for tonight, wanting to make a statement without a proper acknowledgement as to whom the statement was directed or what it was intended to convey. All she knew was that she’d donned her most elegant and provocative dress and spent more time and money than she could reasonably afford on hair and makeup. Yet here she was, alone at the bar, isolated and irritated.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Lieutenant Cream making his way toward her, an over-eager smile on his face. He was clearly anxious to improve on his performance on the dance floor. She wasn’t sure whether it was the dismal prospect of fending off his unwanted attentions or sheer panic that propelled her across the room to where Captain Grey still sat alone.
He was picking morosely at the remnants of the cheese straws. “Can’t even offer you a whole one, I’m afraid,” he said by way of greeting, as she collapsed on an adjacent seat.
“You have made a bit of a mess of them,” she agreed, peering at the unappetising plate of crumbs in his hand. “It’s a good thing I’m not relying on them for sustenance tonight.”
“As opposed to coconuts?” he replied, glancing down at the glass in her hand.
She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I never want to taste these things again. They’re an abomination to the palate.”
“So are most things with floating fruit and unnecessary plastic objects.” He got to his feet, saying decisively, “If you’re going to drink, lassie, do it properly. None of this sissy cocktail rubbish. I’ll get you something else.”
“No, I don’t want...” Melody began, to no avail. He was already out of earshot. She leaned back in the chair with a sigh. He hadn’t even asked her what she might like. In any other man, she would have considered that rude, or at the very least, presumptuous. In Iain Taggart, it was simply a sign of his need to control things in the here and now.
He was back in minutes, bearing two glasses of red wine.
“I thought you didn’t drink”, she said, sniffing the ruby liquid appreciatively.
He chuckled. “To the Scots, this doesn’t count as liquor. I’ve given up the hard stuff, but I do enjoy the occasional glass of good merlot.” He saw the look of faint surprise cross her face and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What? You think I’m such a philistine that I wouldn’t understand the finer points of wine?”
“Of course not,” she replied, feeling the heat of embarrassment spread across her cheeks. “It’s just that... well; you’re full of surprises, that’s all. Despite all this time we seem to be spending together, there’s still lots I don’t know about you.”
He nodded his head in agreement. “I think that could probably be said for most people. You can know someone for a lifetime and they’ll still come up with things that surprise you.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“People reveal only what they want to, most of the time. I’m not sure we ever get to the core of another person. Maybe it’s too much of a risk to open up to that extent.”
“God, Iain. That’s a bit deep, isn’t it? Especially at this time of night.”
He smiled. “You’re right. I’m sorry; parties aren’t really my forte. I don’t think I’ve ever got to grips with the rules of small talk. But I can observe the social niceties enough to tell you how smashing you look, hen. I like the way you’ve done your hair, it suits you.”
She grimaced at him. “I didn’t actually do anything, the hairdresser did. It took three hours and tomorrow morning it will probably look as if she hadn’t bothered.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, the effect is magnificent, way too good for this place.”
“Thank you.” She grabbed his hand impulsively and gave it a brief squeeze. “It’s worth a lot, actually.”
He met her eyes and gazed into their hazy chocolate depths. He saw nothing that resembled anything more than an innocent reaction to a friendly compliment. So how do we do this? he wondered. How do we learn to open up, to trust, to make the heart ready for another trip on the merry-go-round? He’d had months to figure it out and still he didn’t have a clue.
He wasn’t going to get the opportunity to ruminate further. The cabaret was well underway and conversation died down as attention was given to Green and Scarlet’s performance. It was mesmerising. Scarlet’s guitar playing was a perfect counterpoint to Green’s vocal lyricism; he allowed her to dominate and she repaid him by holding back at moments where his music could shine. The result was a gorgeous, emotionally charged experience that enraptured their audience.
“They’re so good together, aren’t they?” Melody breathed into her companion’s ear. “They should do this professionally.”
His mouth twisted in a crooked grin. “What, give up their day jobs? Well, they’d make a hell of a lot more money, that’s for sure. Who knows, maybe we’ve got our funding all wrong. What those two could earn in royalties might keep Spectrum in Falcon Interceptors for a long time to come. We must secure them a recording contract immediately. We’ll have to come up with a decent name for them, though: Tortured Guitar Strings wouldn’t really work and The Spectrum Singers is definitely a bit lame.”
She kicked his ankle. “Don’t make fun of me,” she hissed. “You are a philistine.”
He squeezed her arm. “No, I’m not. I’ll prove it to you.” He stood up, glancing round. Lieutenant Green was crooning a sultry version of Van Morrison’s classic ‘Have I told you lately that I love you’ and a few couples had taken advantage of the change in tempo to move onto the dance floor. He held out his hand.
“Something else you don’t know about me. I’m a pretty good dancer. Surprising perhaps, but true. My ex-wife thought it would be socially advantageous to learn to do it properly, so she dragged me off to lessons. I don’t think it enhanced my career, but I did enjoy it. Want to give it a whirl?”
Melody stared up at him in confusion. This was the last thing she had expected and not necessarily what she wanted. But refusal would indicate what, exactly? That she was nervous about being in such close proximity to him? That to be in his arms in even this most publicly acceptable of situations might display a vulnerability she had no wish to expose? She gazed at his outstretched hand and knew instinctively that it meant more than the offer of a dance. An abyss opened up before her and she felt herself automatically shrink back from its edge. Then suddenly, Ochre’s words rang in her head; Carpe Diem. Seize the Day. Whatever will be, will be. She realised she’d added the last sentence herself and despite the corniness of the cliché, it was as true as anything in her life had ever been. She took a deep breath, placed her palm in his and stood up. “I’d love to dance with you,” she said.
The rhythm of the music was still slow and seductive. Grey took her into his arms and began moving them both around the room. She realised it hadn’t been an idle boast; he could certainly dance. Despite the difference in their heights, he effortlessly moulded her body to his own and waltzed her expertly across the floor, carrying her along with barely an inch of separate movement between them. The proprietary manner in which he held her sent out a subtle warning to any would-be competitors, as she suspected it was meant to. She decided she quite liked that, for reasons she didn’t wish to consider.
Over on the makeshift stage, Scarlet leaned over and spoke softly to Green, who was sorting through her running order of songs. The suggestion seemed to be that she should take a break, for she nodded in apparent gratitude and put down the microphone. She picked up a glass of water and settled back in her seat, throwing him an anticipatory glance. He moved both himself and his guitar closer to the mike and began a gentle strumming. There was enough rhythm in the notes to keep dancers still on the floor wondering what was coming next. They couldn’t have second-guessed it, however. Whilst acknowledging that the music was not particularly Christmassy, Scarlet announced his intention to give them a rendition of Brahms’ famous lullaby, ‘Cradle Song’, for the simple reason that he loved it and had finally learned how to play it.
In subtle alignment with the change in atmosphere, the notes were picked out with a delicate and fragile beauty that confirmed he had indeed made the piece his own. It was impossible to dance to, unless the word ‘dance’ meant merely swaying on the spot in closer proximity than inhibitions allowed, considering that midnight was several hours away. Most couples fell away to their allotted positions and simply listened. Melody, eyes closed and arms extended around Grey’s neck, wasn’t paying attention to the change in tempo. No longer speaking, or indeed, dancing, they were just moving together in dreamlike fashion. In a crowded room, she was in the arms of a man who was making love to her to music and she didn’t want it to end.
But then she felt his body stiffen and his arms drop away from her. He took a step backwards, severing their connection so abruptly that she almost stumbled in an effort to regain her balance.
“Iain?” she said, uncertainly. “Is something wrong?”
He was staring past her with eyes that had gone glassy. He passed a hand over his face as if attempting to clear his vision and rid himself of unwelcome images. Then he said, simply, “I can’t do this. Sorry, hen.” He turned and walked away from her towards the area where they had been sitting. She watched as he sat down, picked up his wine glass and downed the drink in one long swallow. He didn’t even look back at her.
Alone in the centre of the room, all eyes on her, she was afforded little choice, she realised. She could head for the bar and make light of her abandonment to whomever might be interested, or she could follow him and try to figure out what had just happened between them. She chose the latter. Sliding quietly into the seat next to him, she watched in silence as he resumed his remorseless decimation of the cheese straws. There was something wilfully childlike about his determination to reduce a plate of attractively edible snacks to nothing more than greasy crumbs.
“My brother used to do that,” she said at last, more to herself than to anyone else within earshot. “He had this thing about breaking biscuits. Nothing was safe. Oh well, maybe fig rolls were because he didn’t like them. But anything else... his coup de grace was a big box of chocolate digestives. You can just imagine the mess. Mom went ballistic. Of course, he was only four at the time, so I suppose...”
He paused in the act of shredding the last straw and looked up at her. He said shortly, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“That,” she replied flatly, with a nod towards the plate. “Wilful destruction of comestibles. It just reminded me.”
“Reminded you of what?”
“How easily we break things.”
He paused and looked bleakly at the pale gold mess he’d created. “Ah,” he said slowly. “As a metaphor for life, you mean. Well, I suppose that’s true isn’t it? Humans are destructive. Everything comes down to crumbs in the end.”
Melody instinctively followed the direction of his mood and she didn’t particularly care for the route. He was making another grim diversion down a path of pain and darkness that always led to the same destination; the city of murdered children. His daughter, mown down by a drunk driver: her brother, blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb. Were their lives to be forever defined by two senseless acts of violence, grief and anger the only emotions binding them together?
“Back there, when we were dancing... something happened, didn’t it?” she said quietly. “You were thinking about Jenny and you just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
He shook his head. “I’m always thinking about Jenny. How could I not? She’s a constant presence. The fact that she’s dead doesn’t change that. She’ll always be with me, one way or another.”
“What, then? What was it?”
“That bloody music. I’d completely forgotten... wasn’t expecting it.”
She gave him a puzzled look, but said nothing, waiting for him to continue. He shifted restlessly in his seat. “We used to have one of those wooden alpine music boxes – you know, where you lift the lid and it plays a tune? When Jenny was about nine months old, I spent a few weeks on a job in Geneva. I brought the box back with me as a gift for her. “Cradle Song” was what it played and she loved it; it did exactly what lullabies are supposed to – sent her straight to sleep. It actually ended up as a present for me and Lou; no more broken nights. Believe me, the benefits of a no longer terminally exhausted wife were a bloody sight more romantic than diamonds and pearls.”
“Anyway, long after she’d grown out of lullabies, Jenny took that box with her everywhere, along with Blanky – her comfort blanket – and her favourite teddy. It was a nightly ritual; bath, bedtime story, music box, lights out, in that order. If we forgot about the box, she’d make us start again from the beginning because we’d spoiled the ritual. Like idiots, we gave in because we knew none of us would get any sleep if we didn’t.” A faint smile played at the corners of his mouth as he continued, “It’s an amazing thing to observe an autocrat practising their chops at the age of two. I’ve not heard that music since Jen died – until tonight, that is. It threw me a bit, that’s all. Not Paul’s fault, of course. There’s no way he could have known. And nothing to do with you, either.” He picked up her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I was enjoying the dance, hen. I’m sorry if I spoilt things.”
Melody was silent. He’d recovered fast: the fact that he’d acknowledged there might have been things to spoil was disturbing in itself. She wanted no attention directed to what those things might be. Eventually, in an attempt to cover her confusion, she said casually, “What happened to the music box, then? Do you still have it?”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure where it went. We gave away most of Jen’s stuff to children’s charities, but I can’t recall it being there. Perhaps Lou kept it, I don’t know. I’ve never asked. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it till now.”
“It’s always the little things, isn’t it?” she replied thoughtfully. “Just when you least expect it, when you think that finally, you know how to deal with it, you discover that you don’t.” She snapped her fingers. “And it’s like, whammo, years of counselling goes down the drain. The healing properties of time obliterated in a split second. Back to square one in less than a heartbeat.”
“Maybe not.” Her hand was still held captive in his own and the tips of his fingers traced patterns on her knuckles as he continued, “The truth is that we’re never really back to square one. We do move on even if it sometimes seems impossible to believe we could; the reality is that we can’t honestly remember how bad it was at the time. Good thing the mind can heal as it does, otherwise we’d have gone mad long ago.”
“So what was tonight, then?”
“Oh... just a little bump in the road, I guess. But then, I don’t really need to explain that, do I?” He smiled down at her, his eyes affectionate. “Thank God for you, hen. You know how it goes.”
“I guess I do. Well, it’s good to know I have my uses,” she countered lightly, unwilling to meet his gaze. She picked up her drink and took a long, healing mouthful, taking refuge in the silence it afforded.
‘Cradle Song’ had ended and Scarlet, perhaps all too aware of the melancholy atmosphere he’d unwittingly engendered, retreated to the back of the room to allow Green to step into the spotlight with an upbeat, accapella version of ‘White Christmas.’ The party-goers, all word-perfect with this one, were singing along in an instant, with one or two couples heading straight back onto the dance floor.
Only Grey and Melody sat silently, lost in the fragility of the moment. Eventually, when she could bear it no longer, she said impulsively, “Maybe we shouldn’t stay here. There must be something else we can do. How about grabbing some dinner in the canteen? Let’s face it, the cheese straws are a non-starter.”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, if you like,” he murmured absently. He was fiddling with his Spectratech, a device she had not expected him to be carrying in the pocket of his jeans.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Just wondering...looking something up, that’s all.” Having apparently found what he wanted, he snapped shut the machine’s cover and gazed out of the window in contemplative thought.
“Looking up what?”
“Just checking how far north we are... seeing if it’s possible. The time difference would give us an extra couple of hours, so maybe we could do it.”
“Do what? What are you talking about?”
He turned towards her. “Let’s go out,” he said. “You’re right, we shouldn’t stay here. Let’s grab a Hummingbird and go some place.”
“Off base? At this time of night? That’s nuts!”
“Not really. I’m on leave; you’re not back on duty for another twenty-four hours. And it’s only six pm in Belgium.”
“Belgium! Why Belgium, for heaven’s sake?”
“It’s one of my favourite places,” he said seriously. “Bruges, to be precise. Ever been there?”
She shook her head. “No, only Brussels. But Iain, where would we put a Hummer? Bruges doesn’t have an airport, does it? We can’t exactly land it in a car park – or a market square for that matter.”
“True,” he replied thoughtfully. “But there might be somewhere... I just need to get permission, that’s all.”
He got to his feet and said decisively, “Meet me at the Hangar Deck in twenty minutes. You’ll have to change, by the way. That frock, lovely though it is, will be no match for hypothermia. You need jeans, boots, hat, parka: oh, and thick gloves. Got all that?”
“Of course,” she replied with some bemusement. “I grew up in Virginia, remember? I know what cold is.”
He nodded. “Fine. Let’s go have ourselves some fun, then. There’s just someone I need to talk to first...”
And with that he strode away from her in the direction of Central Control, with the intent, she assumed, of obtaining whatever licences they would need for an unofficial little jaunt using Spectrum transport. Whether he would be successful at this hour was another matter entirely.
Nevertheless, she donned warm winter clothing as instructed and arrived on Hangar Deck a good five minutes ahead of their arrangement. He was already there, going through pre-flight checks with his usual concentration. She did not, he told her, need to worry about piloting tonight; he intended to do the honours. And, he added, he’d found somewhere to park the Hummingbird.
“An airstrip?” she asked. “Won’t that be too far out of town?”
“Not an airstrip – a rooftop heliport. It’s only ten minutes from the main square.”
“How did you manage that? Spectrum doesn’t have any premises in Bruges, does it?”
He grinned and tapped the side of his nose in a knowing gesture. “Aha! It’s all in who you know, pet. I went to the top for this one.”
“What did you do, bribe the director of some posh clinic into letting us use his private helipad?”
He shook his head. “No bribes necessary. I just asked nicely. Pretty please and all that.”
“Who did you ask? I mean,” she corrected herself, swallowing her mounting irritation, “to whom did you say pretty please?”
“Diana.” He saw her look of incomprehension. “Lady Grey. The Colonel’s wife.”
“Iain – what does the Colonel’s wife have to do with landing a helicopter in Belgium?”
He took pity on her. “Bruges has always been a World Heritage centre,” he explained. “Last year, the Global Heritage Foundation decided to make it their European base, so they built a state of the art conference centre there, complete with rooftop landing facilities. Takes up less room than a car park and after all, you can’t have the bigwigs slumming it all the way from Brussels by train, can you? They’re used to door to door convenience.”
“But what’s Lady Grey’s connection?”
“Oh, sorry – I thought you knew. Diana is the chairman of the GHF. When I remembered about the building, I decided to give her a call and ask if it would be okay to borrow the helipad. I figured no-one would object if we had permission from the boss.”
“You called the Colonel’s wife? Out of the blue, just like that?” Melody was incredulous.
He gave a chuckle. “Well, I did run it by Charles first and he was the one who actually made the call, but... yes, just like that.”
Diana. Charles. Melody was nonplussed. She couldn’t think of anyone on Skybase, with the possible exception of Doctor Gold, who would be familiar enough with Colonel White to pepper their speech with his first name.
“When did you... I mean how do you...” she began, wondering how best to phrase the question of at what point had the Colonel become anything other than Sir to one of his colour-coded captains.
“How do I know Diana?” Grey asked, with a sudden smile of understanding. “That’s easy. Colonel White was my boss in MI6 before the UN poached him for Spectrum. During the time I worked for him, we became good friends. It may seem hard to believe, but he can be very approachable if he’s in the right mood. He and Diana were very kind to me after Louise and I divorced. They used to invite me out to weekend parties at their home and Di usually had some eligible females lined up to encourage me to dip my toes back into the shark-infested waters of romance. It didn’t work as well as she hoped, but I appreciated her efforts. She’s a lovely wee woman. I’m very fond of her.”
“I see,” Melody replied, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it; the wife of a highly-decorated and honoured former military commander with her own immensely successful career, being described as “a lovely wee woman.” Coming from the mouth of anyone other than Captain Grey, it might have even been patronising. The fact that it was clearly a heartfelt compliment spoke volumes about the way he looked at life. While he would be the first to acknowledge his ambition, he was not fooled by the trappings of outward success. He understood that human nature is rarely improved by the addition of money, rank and power. Character was what mattered to him; in his eyes, what you started out with was usually what you ended up with. It was as simple as that.
“How long till we get there?” she asked, leaning back in her seat and briefly closing her eyes. It was nice to be a passenger for once. Not to be responsible for how and when you got to a place was rather relaxing.
“Forty-five minutes, maybe a bit more. The Hummers don’t exactly travel at the speed of light. Still, it’ll get us there quicker than a commercial chopper would.”
“I guess.” Melody was overly warm in her padded jacket and feeling drowsy with the wine she’d drunk. She snuggled down in her seat and said, “Wake me up when we touch down.”
“Believe me, hen, you’ll wake up when that northern wind hits you,” was his laconic response but by then she was already asleep.
He hadn’t been exaggerating, she realised, as she clambered out of the helicopter a little over forty-five minutes later. The wind on the roof of the Global Heritage Building was so cold she felt as if her lungs were being seared with battery-acid. As the rotor blades of the Hummingbird finally came to a standstill, Grey grabbed her hand and they set off at a run towards the Exit sign and the nearest elevator. She was gasping for breath as the lift sped downwards towards the ground floor.
“It won’t be so bad once we get into the town centre,” he said, showing his Spectrum ID to the doorman on reception duty. The man looked suspicious, but the words “not here on official business” and “friends of Lady Diana Grey” seemed to allay any anxieties over their credentials. Once out on the street, the wind had settled to an icy breeze. Melody pulled up the zipper of her fur-lined parka and looked around her. The pavement on which they stood was exceedingly narrow and cars were whizzing past with what seemed like inches to spare. The GHF building looked like it had been built next to a motorway. It was nothing like the tranquil ancient town she had imagined, with its canals, museums and beautiful old buildings. She was beginning to wish they’d never left Skybase.
“Which way from here?” she asked, giving an involuntary shiver. He noticed and slung his arm round her shoulders to hug her closer to him.
“Just round this next corner and about ten minutes walk down the road,” he said reassuringly. “That will get us to the main square where all the Christmas markets are held and we can get something to eat and drink. A good mug of ghlüwein will warm you up.”
Melody said nothing. She was too busy keeping up with his long strides as well as trying to work out the significance of the continued embrace to think about speech. As usual, she found herself carried along by him. An elderly lady gave them a knowing smile as she passed by, a clear indication of her assumption that they were merely young lovers out for an evening stroll. Which was probably how it seemed, Melody realised; a couple who looked as wrapped up in each other as they were against the cold.
She didn’t have time to reflect on the deceptiveness of appearances, however. Rounding the next corner, she was robbed of breath once more, this time not by the biting wind, but by the sheer beauty of the scene before her. They had arrived on the edge of a cobbled square, framed on each side by tall mediaeval buildings, all in possession of elaborate fascias outlined in fairy lights. Below the buildings, at street level, several dozen brightly-lit market stalls were selling everything from hotdogs and candyfloss to wooden toys and Christmas decorations.
The centre of the market square contained an ice rink on which several people were circling round with whoops of excitement. Any falls on the ice were greeted with good-natured laughter and the offer of a helping hand up. Those not shopping or skating were wandering around with food and drink in their hands, simply soaking up the atmosphere. Melody thought that if it wasn’t for the hot dogs and pop music blaring from several cunningly located speakers, it could have been a scene straight out of Charles Dickens.
“This is amazing,” she breathed. “I had no idea it would be so lovely.”
“I reckon this part of the world does Christmas better than any other,” he replied. “It’s beautiful, not brash. I just love the tradition of it all – it’s like going back in time to when life was simpler and people understood the true nature of the season.”
Melody smiled at him. “That’s a bit idealistic, isn’t it? Back in the dark ages, people led bloody awful lives. You wouldn’t really want to live as they did.”
“That’s true, I wouldn’t,” he agreed. “Can you imagine how we’d manage without power showers? The thing is, this whole tableau is idealistic. It’s as we’d like to imagine it was even though we know it never could have been. It’s nothing more than a giant Victorian Christmas card, but I still love it.”
“I’m starving,” she said suddenly. “I can’t even remember when I last ate. Can we grab a hamburger or something?”
“Sure, but wouldn’t you prefer a proper dinner? There are some good restaurants around here.”
She shook her dark head. “A burger will do just fine. Washed down with some of that mulled wine. It smells delicious.”
“It’s the spices,” he said. “Cinnamon, cloves and what have you. You want it with or without amaretto?”
“Which is best?”
“Down to personal choice, I reckon. I prefer without – it’s less sweet.”
“That sounds good to me.”
And it was as good as it sounded: hotter than expected, with a brackish spiciness that caught at the back of her throat. It was an odd, but nonetheless perfect accompaniment to a hamburger laced with fried onions.
“This is great,” she said happily, as they leaned against the barriers of the ice rink, watching skaters in their bright hats and scarves whizz round in a kaleidoscope of colour. “Cordon Bleu cooking wouldn’t have been better than this.”
“Yeah, sometimes fast food is the only thing that really hits the spot,” he agreed, reaching out a casual hand to wipe a spot of mustard off her chin. She felt her cheeks go hot at the gesture, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m having such a good time, Iain,” she said earnestly. “Thank you for bringing me here. I understand why you like it so much. It’s a little piece of heaven, isn’t it?”
He looked surprised. “I’ve never actually thought of it in those terms, but perhaps you’re right,” he replied thoughtfully. “I’m glad you like it, hen. Maybe we can do this again, sometime.”
“Come back to Bruges? That would be nice – there’s obviously a lot more to see.”
“No, I meant...” he coloured slightly and shuffled on his heel. “I meant, just take off, like we did tonight; get a bit of spontaneity back into our lives. Indulge in a little rule-bending occasionally, just for the hell of it.”
“Rule-bending?” She raised an elegantly arched eyebrow. “Spontaneity? Am I really hearing this from the lips of Gruppenführer Taggart?”
“I said rule-bending, not breaking,” he replied in mock reproof. “And I’m not suggesting we throw all caution to the winds; not unless we’re hell-bent on committing career suicide. But the thing is...well, even I recognise that a life spent fulfilling everyone’s expectations other than your own is a betrayal of self. I think that’s what I’ve been doing for far too long now. I don’t know how I got to that point, but I don’t want to be that person anymore.”
“Then be somebody else.”
He laughed. “It’s hardly that simple, is it?”
“It can be. Start with the unexpected, like we did tonight and go from there. Iain, there’s nothing wrong with the way you are. You just need to loosen the tie a little – metaphorically speaking, of course.”
“Of course. Well, for what it’s worth, there’s no one I’d rather have my tie loosened by than you.” Too late, he saw the expression on her face and mentally kicked himself. Idiot. What are you thinking of? “Sorry,” he muttered lamely. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
She gave a self-conscious giggle. “That’s okay. I’m honoured to accompany you on your pivotal journey from dull chrysalis to gadabout butterfly.”
“Pivotal journey? Steady on!” he replied in mock protest. “I’m not sure I’m ready for all this new-age speak. Can we just stick with spontaneity for now and see where that takes us?”
“I daresay we can,” she responded absently. She was, he saw, eyeing up the ice rink with some speculation. “Can you skate? Since we’re here, it might be a fun thing to try. I assume you can hire the equipment.”
He nodded. “Yes, to both. I used to do a bit of speed skating in my teens. I’m reasonably fast with very little technique and no style. What about you?”
“Oh, I’ll probably manage to stay upright as long as you hold onto me,” she said jauntily. “I’ve had wine – I don’t care if I make a fool of myself.”
She was unlikely to be the fool, he thought suddenly. There was a gleam in her eyes that he had come to recognise. It held the suggestion of an underlying joke, one that he might very well be the butt of. However, since he had no clue as to what that joke might be, he had little choice other than to let the situation play out as she intended.
Skating boots were hired quickly and cheaply and within five minutes, they were making their way gingerly onto the ice. She didn’t seem overly confident, he had to acknowledge. She was tottering along with the walking gait of an absolute beginner. “Push off with your right foot and glide,” he instructed her. “You’ll find it a lot easier once you get into a rhythm. Hold my hand, I won’t let you fall.”
She nodded, a grim smile warring with panic on her face. He wondered why she was nervous of something as relatively simple as skating. Compared to an average day in her life, the risk to life and limb here was minimal. However, she seemed to get the hang of it quite quickly and soon he felt able to say, “Go round on your own. Go on, you don’t need me anymore. You’re not going to fall.”
“It’s not falling I’m worried about,” she yelled, as she sped past him in ungainly fashion. “I don’t know how to stop. Iain!” Her voice rose to a screech. “I can’t stop!”
“Hit the barriers like everyone else does,” he shouted back, convulsed with laughter at the expression on her face. He watched her coming towards him, arms and legs flailing, and braced himself to catch her. She cannoned into him with such force that he staggered and almost lost his own footing. He pushed himself back against the barrier for support and flung his arms round her in a desperate bid to keep the pair of them upright. They were both panting, which was odd, he thought, since she was the only one who should have been short of breath.
“S...Sorry!” she gasped with a giggle. “I just couldn’t... I couldn’t stop.”
“Well, you have now. You’re okay, hen. You did great out there.” Unlike his own, her breathing seemed to be rapidly returning to normal. He was acutely aware of her body under the heavy winter coat and knew that this was the moment he needed to relinquish his hold on her. Yet his arms stayed where they were, as if of their own volition.
She made no move to step away, although he dimly recognised that this might have been because she was worried she would end up flat on her face in front of him. He realised she was muttering something into the depths of his cashmere scarf. He put a hand under her chin and tilted her head up. “You were saying?”
“I was saying thank you for catching me.” Her face was flushed and even under the layers of clothes, he could feel her heart thudding. Or was it his own?
“I wasn’t about to let you break your neck,” he murmured, unable to prevent his fingers moving in a reflexive caress of her spine. “I’ve spent far too long on your damn training programme to have you muck it up at this stage.”
She didn’t laugh. Instead, she said gravely, “I wouldn’t have broken my neck for reasons I’ll show you in a minute. But first, you need to know something. I sort of planned this because I needed you to catch me and I want you to know that it had to be you and how it will always have to be you, because I don’t want to be caught by anyone else. Ever. For the rest of my life. Do you understand that?”
He did. Finally, he did. He understood that there was no choice to make and that he’d been a fool ever to think there had been. There was only the inevitable and the time for dancing around that was gone. She was his salvation and, just possibly, he might be hers. He did the only thing he could; he cupped the back of her head and laid siege to her mouth.
It was several minutes before he was able to murmur against her lips, “That was all an act, wasn’t it? You can skate perfectly well. In fact, I’ll wager you’re probably better than me. You’d have to be to be able to fake it like that.”
She broke away from him with a slightly shamefaced grin. “Yes,” she admitted. “My little joke, I’m rather embarrassed to say. I couldn’t resist teasing you; and let’s face it, it worked very well – look where it’s got me.” She stood on tiptoe to nibble his earlobe.
He groaned. “Christ, you’re a minx. I should have known... well, I did know something didn’t really add up, but still...”
“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. Forgive me?”
He smiled. “Well, since it clearly takes this level of deception to show me the error of my ways, I don’t have much choice, do I? Dare I ask how good a skater you really are?”
“Umm... pretty good. At least, I used to be – I’m out of practice these days. Want a demonstration?”
“Go on; amaze me,” he said dryly. “Not that you haven’t already done that tonight.”
She kissed him once, spun away and then came back to kiss him twice more before flying expertly into the centre of the rink. He watched, astounded, at the performance that unfolded before him. The other skaters, realising they were witnessing something very special, stopped what they were doing and watched as Esther Jackson floated round the ice, her limbs at angles most would consider anatomically impossible. Light, delicate and fragile as spun glass, she jumped and twirled with a speed and precision that astonished her spectators. As her body extended into the teardrop shaped tulip of a Biellman Spin, faultlessly executed despite the restrictions imposed by her clothing, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
“Bloody hell,” was all Grey could manage, when after several curtsies and blown kisses, she eventually rejoined him at the barrier.
“You did ask,” she said, picking bits of ice off the blades of her boots.
“Yeah, but... I wasn’t thinking championship standard. And it was, wasn’t it? Even I could see that.”
“Olympic, actually,” she responded airily. “I made the junior team, but I broke my ankle three weeks before the competition. And that, as they say, was that; my dreams of skating glory well and truly down the drain.”
“You looked good enough to me.”
“Ha! Not even remotely. It’s been nine years since I’ve skated properly. I wasn’t good enough then and I certainly wouldn’t be now. My ankle has healed fine, but it’s not strong enough to withstand the pressures of competition.” She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear and gave him an insouciant smile. “But, you know, it’s okay; I’m over it now and life is too short for those kinds of regrets. I would never have won gold, anyway.”
He looked at her. Winning gold, he thought. As if that was what mattered. She was so young, so headstrong and so competitive; and, despite experiencing more tragedy than anyone her age should have ever had to face, still so heedless. She’d made an idiot out of him with the same mindless lack of thought she’d displayed when she’d pumped a bullet into his back nearly six years earlier. And yet, for some crazy reason, she wanted him and he knew he would never stop wanting her. God in heaven, he thought, despairingly. What’s wrong with us?
He said, “It’s not always about coming out on top, hen. I thought you understood that.” He caught the question in her eyes and continued quietly, “That wasn’t funny, Esther. There’s a difference between a prank among friends and making someone look a complete fool. Don’t do it again.”
She was silent for a moment. His use of her hated given name was rebuke enough. She might have put her heart and soul on the line for him, but she had reckoned without his considerable male pride and the effect her actions would have on it. She wondered if she might have ruined everything. Reaching for his hand, she was relieved when he made no attempt to pull away. “You’re right,” she said at last. “I’m sorry, Iain. It was a stupid thing to do and as usual, I just didn’t think it through. I promise you, I will never pull a stunt like that again.”
He exhaled silently and stretched out his hand to straighten her woolly beanie hat. “You’d better not,” he replied. “I don’t think my heart would stand it.” He reached over and pulled her into his arms, saying with a lightness of tone that did not necessarily reflect how he felt, “Anything else you’re keeping quiet about? Because if there is, my darling, you’d better ‘fess up now. If we’re going to ride off into the sunset together as you seem to think we should, I’d like to be very clear about who’s sharing my saddle.”
“I promise you there’s nothing else,” she said solemnly. “Scout’s honour, cross my heart hope to die, all that sort of stuff. I am an open book.”
“Don’t make me laugh. You probably weren’t even a Scout.”
“You can’t make that count against me.”
“Well, since I’m not interested one way or the other, I wouldn’t even presume to try.”
They leaned against the barrier in silence, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder, until eventually she said, “So what happens now?”
“Tonight? Well, I think I’ve had too much wine to risk flying the Hummer. Perhaps we should just check into a hotel and travel back to base tomorrow.”
Melody saw it for the excuse it blatantly was. He’d drunk a small glass of merlot hours ago and since then, a cup of not especially potent herbal wine. At six feet three inches and weighing around seventy-eight kilos, that would have gone nowhere. He was stone cold sober.
She said, “Will we get a reservation at this hour? It’s Christmas, after all.”
He gave her his familiar crooked grin. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have money and credit cards. There will be room at the inn.”
And so there was – although not exactly an inn of biblical standards, but an extremely plush five star Crowne Plaza. The foyer itself was about six times the size of Melody’s quarters on Skybase. She stood aside and left her companion to do the checking-in procedures as she reflected on the depth of the abyss into which she had finally cast them both. Sink or Swim was not just an inappropriate idiom, but also totally inadequate for whatever lay ahead. She glanced round to discover that he had completed the paperwork and was heading towards her with his familiar loping stride. Her heart turned over as, simultaneously, something much lower down turned to molten liquid.
Oh Lord, she thought. Help me.
“Managed to get us a top-floor suite,” he was saying as he directed her towards the elevator. “I assumed it would be booked, but apparently not. So you’ll have plenty of room to spread yourself if you decide you don’t want to risk my snoring. I know you don’t have an overnight bag, but they tell me you can get anything you need from the hotel shop and failing that, there’s room service...”
“Iain.” She placed her hand on his chest and looked him firmly in the eye. “It’s fine.” The elevator doors opened and she stepped in. He said nothing as the lift ascended to the fifth floor and they made their way across plush velvet carpets to a door designated not only with the number on the swipe card, but also in florid gilt letters, the words Honeymoon Suite.
“Oh, Christ,” she muttered. “I didn’t think hotels did that anymore.”
“I expect they just haven’t got round to removing it,” he replied calmly. “It’s only as embarrassing as you allow it to be.”
He swiped the keypad with consummate ease (Just how many times had he done this?) and stood back to allow her to enter first. The room was huge, dominated by a King-size canopied bed on a raised mezzanine. On the wall opposite the bed hung an enormous media screen.
He followed her gaze towards it. “Well, who knows? Maybe some people really can’t find anything better to do,” he said, with a shrug.
“Mmm.” She looked at the level below the mezzanine, where they were standing. Cosy sofas, a marble coffee table adorned with flowers and an ice-bucket filled with champagne. A basket of fruit on a console table. Glossy magazines dotted at random. In the bathroom – only one of two, she discovered- thick white towelling robes hung from gold-plated hooks. Bottles of perfume were lined up in military precision on open shelves. The sheer opulence of the place was overwhelming. She couldn’t suppress a small shiver of discomfort, despite the warmth of the temperature.
He saw her expression as she emerged from an inspection of the equally palatial second bathroom. She looked worried, he thought. Surely she hadn’t really been spooked by the idea of the Honeymoon Suite? “Will it do for one night?” he asked, trying to inject an intonation of joviality into his voice. “If not, I’ll see if there’s somewhere else that might be up to Madam’s standards.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she retorted. “It’s gorgeous; no one could say it isn’t.” She wandered over to the coffee table and picked up a magazine, flicking through it with an idleness that was in direct contrast to the perturbed look on her face. So far, she had made no attempt to even take off her coat and hat. He felt the ground shift beneath his feet and remembered why he had, for so long, avoided the quicksands of love. One wrong step and he’d go under, caught up yet again in trying to understand that which he had no hope of ever understanding; the mirrors and smokescreens that surround the hearts and minds of women. There were times when he felt empathy for those who chose monkhood. It certainly seemed an easier option.
“Why do I get the feeling there’s a problem?” he asked quietly. When she didn’t answer, he came towards her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Mel,” he said softly. “Stop worrying. Everything will happen as it’s meant to. I know it’s taken me a while to acknowledge what’s been going on with us, but now I won’t lie about it – I’m dying to make love to you. And I thought that’s what you wanted, too. But if it’s not, or if this is all happening too fast for you, it’s okay. Well, maybe not that okay; I’m a man, so I shall probably sulk a lot and try to console myself with whatever sports are available on the hurdy-gurdy over there, so you might have to move into another room if you want any sleep. But I’ll get over it and nothing will change. We’ll still be who and what we are; good friends. Nothing needs to be decided right now if you don’t want it to be.”
“Doesn’t it?” She gazed at him, her chocolate-brown eyes sombre. “Let’s not kid ourselves, Iain. Things have already changed. We both know that this wouldn’t be just a pleasurable little roll in the hay, to borrow your cowboy analogy; we crossed that particular line on my first day on Skybase, even if we haven’t wanted to admit to it. We crossed another line back there on the ice and it’s put us on a different track. We can’t go back to being just friends. Whatever happens, we need to decide it now; where we’re going and what we want from each other.”
“Do you know what you want?” To ask the question of her was safer than asking it of himself.
“I think that in my heart, I’ve always known,” she replied seriously. “I want a home and I want that home to mean you.” A self-conscious smile played at the corners of her mouth. “That’s asking a lot, I know. Most men would run a mile from that type of commitment.”
It was not nearly as much as he wanted to ask of her. “I’m not most men,” he said. “But there are never any guarantees, hen: not in this or in anything.”
“So what will we do?”
“I don’t know. Love each other. Take care of each other. Hope for the best, I suppose. Then we’ll see.
“Whatever there is; where we are, who we’ve become, however we’ve ended up. God, Mel, I don’t know any more than that.”
She nodded. Then, slowly and with great care, she began to peel off her clothes. He watched her, unmoving, until she had got down to the unhooking of the flimsy wisps of satin and lace that posed as women’s underwear. He crossed the room, gathered her up in his arms and tenderly placed her on the bed.
“We can’t change who we are, much as we might wish to,” he said, beginning to divest himself of his own clothes. “There’s nothing we can do about the past, either, and if we start to walk a tightrope between what happened then and what might happen in the future, we’ll fall off. It can’t be done. All we can do is deal with now and the next day and the one after that and so on. But however it all turns out, I’ll do my very best to be there at the end, hen. Always.”
She sat up and reached out her arms to him. She said, very softly, “Take me home, Iain.”
This story was first begun in 2009 and was originally going to be an early follow-up to the events described in “Signals Through the Glass”. However, real life intervened in a big way that year and very little writing got done at all. It was always intended to be a Christmas story but I was not particularly inspired to finish it until this year, when I thought, it’s now or never.
I have enjoyed exploring the characters of Captain Grey and Melody Angel. I hope readers will like my take on them and will forgive me for yet another Spectrum story in which not a great deal happens; I doubt I would recognise a proper plot if it hit me between the eyes!
I am indebted to Marion Woods, who went to the wire in order to beta-bash this rubbish into shape before the end of challenge deadline. Any mistakes left in the text will certainly be because I have forgotten to correct them, not because they have been missed by her eagle eye!
Scarlet’s choice of music in the story may seem a little unusual: not Christmassy, as he explains. It was inspired by a guitar version of the Brahms Lullaby which accompanied a promotional video for a hotel on the American island of Nantucket. Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover the identity of the guitarist, but for those who may wish to have a listen, the video is still available on YouTube.
The Biellman Spin referred to in Melody’s skating was named after the Swiss skating champion Denise Biellman, whose name became synonymous with the move in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Bruges is indeed a World Heritage Site governed by the guiding principles of UNESCO. Since the Global Heritage Foundation does not yet exist, neither does their headquarters on the outskirts of the city- but who knows what will happen in the next fifty years or so!
The Christmas markets take place every year in the main market squares and I can confirm that the spicy ghlüwein is every bit as delicious as Grey and Melody found it to be.
As always, I would like to make the usual acknowledgements to the people behind New Captain Scarlet. If I have taken liberties with any ‘canon’ biographical detail mentioned in Anderson books, rest assured that it’s simply because I didn’t know about it before starting to write.
This is my tenth story for Spectrum HQ and so it’s all the more special to have it posted within the tenth anniversary year. Thank you, Chris, for the friendship, the laughter, the fun and all the support you provide. Without your efforts, these stories would be languishing in a cupboard somewhere (or in the bin). Here’s to the next decade!
27th January 2012