Karen Wainwright thanked the panel and gave them a tight, thin-lipped smile that utterly failed to conceal her anger. She walked from the room with her head held high, closing the door behind her with a resounding thud that was only just short of a slam. The secretaries in the outer office averted their glances, suddenly fascinated by the documents they were working on, as she swept up the folder she’d left on the edge of a desk when they’d called her in to hear their final decision, and dropped it into the waste paper bin before stalking out into the main corridor.
She walked down to the main entrance without stopping, crossed to the multi-storey car park and clambered into her metallic-blue car, slamming the door violently. Inside, she gave a frustrated scream and thumped her fists against the steering wheel, inadvertently sounding the horn. As the echoes died away, she started the engine and negotiated her way out, heading back to her apartment rather than to the office tucked away on an industrial park across town.
Once home and safely behind the closed door, she kicked off her high-heeled shoes, started the coffee machine and changed from her business suit into casual sweats and a baggy Tee-shirt advertising the delights of Florida as a holiday destination. She poured herself coffee, picked up the cookie jar and reclined on her sofa, her feet curled up beneath her, sipping the warm drink and munching on the double choc-chip chocolate cookies.
After a while she reached for the remote and turned on the TV, mindlessly watching the daytime re-runs of a popular show about an implausibly well-dressed detective and his sassy female sidekick, as they solved far-fetched crimes and convoluted conspiracies in less than an hour, without once breaking into a sweat, or looking less than glamorous.
If only life was really like that, she thought, still aggrieved at what she considered her unfair treatment at the hands of her employers.
She had finished the cookies, watched numerous detectives clean up various parts of the United States, and eaten a variety of her favourite sandwiches before she heard the key turning in the door. She turned the TV off and waited.
Clayton Deakin walked into the living room and smiled at her.
“Hiya, honey,” he said.
“You bastard,” she retorted. “You low, underhand, devious bastard.”
“Now, Carrie; isn’t that being a little unfair?”
“Unfair? I’ll tell you what’s unfair! You let me go into that meeting, knowing full well they were going to turn me down–”
“I knew no such thing–”
“You were chairman of the panel, Clayton! You egged them on!”
“Sweetheart, I couldn’t show any favouritism, could I? If they’d found out about us, you still wouldn’t have got the leadership of the taskforce and I’d have lost my job, more than likely.”
“Then you should have declared an interest and not been involved. They didn’t take me seriously, Clay – and you know, as well as I do, that I could lead that taskforce. No one has done more work on this than me, and no one is as qualified as I am.”
“I’m sure they didn’t mean to make it sound like they weren’t taking you seriously, Karen, because of course they did. Not to have done so would contravene departmental policy, for a start.” He sat opposite her in the armchair. “There was a better candidate on the day, that’s all.”
“Who got the job, Clayton?”
He hesitated, knowing this wasn’t going to help matters. “Michael Graffam.”
“Mike Graffam? Oh, Jeez. That can’t be right? He’s a dork, Clay; he’ll blow the whole mission in double-quick time. I shall end up spending most of my time picking up the pieces after him.”
“Well, no, you won’t have to do that, Karen. The panel agreed with Graffam that it would be … counter-productive to have you working on the project any longer. They’re recommending you be re-assigned. With immediate effect.”
“What?” She was outraged. “I’m the one who started that project; I did all the leg-work and all the research. I brought it to the state where it can be successfully wrapped up in a few months – if they follow my proposals.”
“Oh, they will follow those – Graffam agreed that they had merit-”
“Merit? I bet he frigging well agreed they did. He’s never had an original thought in his life! And you let him and the panel stitch me up? Clayton – you’re an even more complete bastard than I thought!”
“Well, I like that. I knew you’d hate working under Graffam, so I encouraged the idea of reassigning you to a new project; one you can work on without interference and-”
“-And they can take away from me, just as it comes to fruition, like they did this one and all the others?”
“Karen – you have to face it, honey; there are members of the panel who just don’t like the idea of young women risking their necks on the more… dangerous missions.”
“Don’t like the idea that women might do a better job of it, you mean!” She shook her head. “This is the 2060s, for Chrissake – you’d have thought the notion that women were somehow less suited to be agents had long since shrivelled and died!”
Deakin gave her a sharp glance. “Have you forgotten what happened to Gwenda Jones?”
“No, of course I haven’t – but Gwen knew the danger she was facing, and what happened had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman.”
“The panel doesn’t want such a thing happening again.”
“I am not Gwenda Jones. I’m a far better agent than she ever was.”
“You are even younger than she was – they won’t let you risk your neck, Carrie – and I, for one, am grateful for that.”
She grimaced. “You mean I should marry you and settle down to raise babies? We’ve been through this, Clay; I’m not ready to settle down. I’ve barely started living my life.”
“Think of your parents. How would they feel if anything happened to you?”
“How would yours feel? Don’t try to patronise me! I can do as good a job as any man – and a damn sight better one than Mike Graffam – and you know it!”
Deakin sighed. He’d expected to be cold-shouldered when he came round, and – if he was honest – he knew he deserved it even more than Karen suspected. His voice, in her favour, could well have influenced the panel enough to overturn its current reluctance to allow women to lead dangerous missions – the result of a senior female agent dying in action – except that he hadn’t used it for that purpose. He didn’t want to risk losing her and had allowed his feelings to colour his decision to vote against her appointment. If she ever found out that he’d had the deciding vote, he’d never hear the end of it.
They’d been in a relationship for the best part of a year now, and her unexpected application to lead the taskforce had led him to discover just how much he was in love with her; she’d become essential to him, although he doubted she felt quite the same about him.
Karen had been so involved with the assignment, she’d put so much effort in to being elevated to a priority one mission, that he’d let it ride; a happy and contented Karen meant a happy and peaceful life, punctuated with energetic bouts of fantastically satisfying sex. So, he’d decided to play along with her, in the vain hope that she’d go off the idea of leading her first task force, or – if she didn’t give up on the idea – that she’d turn to him for solace when she failed to get it; maybe even agreeing to resign her position and settle down with him. It was all he longed for.
One of the youngest agents in the whole of the Universal Secret Service, and the youngest in this department, Karen had nevertheless proved her ability to carry through a complex and important mission on numerous occasions. She was intelligent, resourceful, ambitious and assertive; and add to that the fact that she was also attractively built, blonde, beautiful and to all intents and purposes surprisingly uninhibited – for someone from the conservative mid-west – and you had a heady combination. He knew that he shouldn’t have allowed himself to get so involved with her; as her line-manager it was a reprehensible thing to do, but he’d found himself smitten in such a way that the choice was no longer his.
It had surprised him a little that she’d responded to his advances; he was almost twenty years her senior, and she could’ve had any man in the department. Yet she’d spurned the ‘action men’ she worked with, declaring they only had one thing on – what passed for – their minds, but she had accepted his invitations to dine, dance and go to the movies with every appearance of pleasure, and their dates had been fun – a welcome respite from the pressure of a job that had almost caused him to forget how to enjoy himself.
It hadn’t all been plain sailing though; their only visit to the ‘legitimate’ theatre had been a disaster – Karen had been bored stiff – so he’d never repeated that experiment. But she liked trying new things and he’d found himself doing things he’d never expected to – in fact, as he told his elderly parents, since he’d been dating Karen he felt twenty years younger – which confession had prompted his acerbic mother to comment that there was truth in the old saying that ‘you’re only as old as the woman you’re feeling’.
Overall, he’d exerted more effort to woo Karen Wainwright than he had over any other woman, and he’d never had cause to regret it – until now.
The uncomfortable silence dragged on, until, desperate to gain favour again, he tried to appease her. “Let’s go out to dinner, eh? We can go to your favourite restaurant, or try somewhere new if you want. What d’you say?”
“I’ve sat here and pigged myself on cookies and sandwiches all afternoon, because you didn’t have the decency to call and tell me what you planned to do. I’m not hungry.”
“Fine, I’ll get something from the fridge and warm it up.”
“Look, Clay, I’m sorry, but I’d rather be on my own tonight. I want to wash my hair. You go have a meal somewhere and give me a call sometime, okay?”
“Karen, you’re not going to bail out on me, are you? There wasn’t anything I could do – believe me; the panel was adamant they wanted a man to do the job. There’ll be other opportunities for you, I’m sure.”
She heard the unease in his voice and turned her brooding gaze on to his face. He was sweating slightly and wouldn’t meet her eyes, from which evidence she drew her own conclusions. Dispassionately, she said, “I’m gonna have to think things through before I make any decision about my future, Clay. Maybe, if this department isn’t prepared to offer me the responsibility I deserve, I should look for a transfer – I just don’t know.”
With fatal misjudgement, he made an effort to coax her to accept the disappointment. “It’s not the end of the world, you know. In fact, I can give you the pick of the new missions – whatever you want, it’s yours! Honey, I’ll make it up to you.”
There was a long pause before she answered. “Sure, Clay; that’s real decent of you. I… well; I’m just too annoyed right now to even think straight. Best you go home.”
Defeated, he nodded and collected his car keys. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he promised.
“I love you, Karen.”
“Yeah – I know.”
Left alone in her apartment, Karen finally allowed herself to cry out the anger and frustration she’d bottled up all evening. She’d pinned so much on the outcome of this panel it had never crossed her mind that she’d be sidelined, and the thought that Clay had done nothing to help her made it even harder to bear. She’d trusted him, and thought he’d shared her ambitions and her hopes: but she’d got that wrong too.
When she’d moved to this department of the USS, it had been with high expectations and an exemplary record, and she had no intention of growing stale in a department that did not appreciate her abilities. She was going to have to discover what her prospects really were, and if doing that involved keeping Clayton Deakin at arm’s length – so be it.
Pulling herself together, she showered and got ready for bed, intent on having an early night. She was blow-drying her hair when her elbow knocked an envelope off the jumble on the dressing table. When she’d finished, she leant down to pick it up and saw the logo in the corner: SkyHigh Flyers. She drew out the contents and smiled as she remembered the brochure that had arrived a few weeks ago.
Part of the standard USS training was how to fly a plane. She’d been taught the rudiments by an experienced pilot who had complimented her on a natural aptitude, and she’d quickly gained her permit. The experience had been enormous fun, but she’d never really had the chance to build on that initial training; however, after she’d piloted a plane out of a hostile situation, thereby saving the lives of herself and her fellow agents, she’d decided to improve her skills and joined a flying club.
It had been some time after she’d transferred here before she’d remembered to request membership information from a local flying club; only then, because she was wrapped up in her work for the taskforce, she’d never done anything about it. Now she looked at the details – and the cost. It was an expensive hobby, but she felt she needed something to take her mind off this last big disappointment. The treacherous thought ‘and get away from Clayton too’ made her blush. That was something else she’d have to give serious thought to in the near future.
She put the circular beside the phone and slipped into bed. Tomorrow she’d call them, and see if she could book a trial flight – after all, it always paid to keep your skills up to scratch.
After she’d turned off the light, she gazed up at the ceiling and tried to analyse her feelings – about work and what she wanted from her life – and about Clay.
He was a decent man, she knew that, but he wasn’t the love of her life – she knew that too. When their relationship had begun he’d been fun to be with; knowledgeable and full of information about things she’d never studied; he’d kept her interested and amused. The physical side of the affair had been great – she wasn’t as experienced as she’d tried to make out, but she’d been more than willing to learn and Clay was a good teacher. But since Gwenda’s death, things had subtly changed; Clay was getting too protective – he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to get married, regularise their relationship, have babies; all the things she didn’t want – at least not yet. Her school friends were all pairing off and some already had a couple of kids, but that wasn’t for her – she’d known that since she was a kid in pigtails.
She wanted to experience all the world had to offer and – she could admit this to herself – she was an adrenalin junkie: nothing made her feel so alive as danger.
She closed her eyes and settled down to sleep. With her mind still on her future prospects, she indulged in her favourite bedtime fantasy – dreaming about ‘The Man’.
Somewhere out there in the big, wide world there was ‘The Man’: the man who’d sweep her off her feet, take her breath away and make her want all the things Clayton wanted: a home, a family, security. He’d have all the good qualities Clay possessed, and more: he’d treat her as an equal, respect her opinions and ambitions, and support her in her aspirations. If there was a God in Heaven, he’d be drop-dead gorgeous too – tall, dark and handsome, no less – but a girl shouldn’t be too greedy; so as long as he loved her as much as she’d love him, it’d be enough.
She’d known that he must exist for as long as she’d known there was more to life than settling down in Cedar Rapids, and she was confident that she’d know him from the moment she saw him. He’d recognise her as well, of course – two strangers falling in love with a glance.
She snuggled down under the covers and conjured him up from her imagination: The Perfect Man. He was a composite of innumerable film stars, tall and muscular, handsome and accomplished, but rugged and with just a hint of something dangerous about him. He’d have his gentle side too – and always understand how she was feeling. He’d enjoy doing all the things she liked to do, going to parties, music and dancing – and shopping – he’d be able to discuss the latest fashions and just what suited her best. They’d make the perfect couple and, in return for his endless love just for her, she’d make him happy and keep him content. They’d be so in tune with each other that they’d never, ever argue – about anything.
She gave a surprisingly girlish chuckle as she hugged her pillow, remembering how, when her mother had called her a ‘hopeless romantic’, she‘d replied: I’m not hopeless – the one thing I do have is hope.
But for now, she’d have to continue waiting and hoping, so she’d splash out on joining the flying club, have a little fun at the same time, and who knows, maybe The Man was a pilot too?
That’d be kinda nice, she thought sleepily, adding one more accomplishment to her wish list.
Clayton let himself into the apartment and was astounded to discover it was empty. Not just ‘not occupied’ but empty of all Karen’s belongings except for one beanbag and Karen’s pride and joy – an ornamental potted plant her grandfather had given her as a child and which was now almost as tall as she.
They were the only indication that she was still around, but he knew she’d never leave the plant behind, so she would be back – eventually.
He went into the kitchen with its built-in appliances and opened the fridge. There were still a few items in it, although the milk was sour. The cupboards were bare, which was not that unusual; Karen mostly ate out, as cooking was not one of her domestic skills. He made black coffee in the only mug he could find, and drank it sitting on the beanbag waiting for her to show up.
Eventually, he heard her car draw up and her key in the lock.
She was singing. She only did that when she was happy.
“Karen,” he called as the door closed, getting to his feet to greet her.
“Oh, hi, Clay. I wasn’t expecting you. I just went to pick up some Chinese food. You want to share?” She went into the kitchen and deposited her parcel on the work surface.
“I was expecting you at ‘Whitaker’s’. I’ve just spent an hour there waiting for you,” he said accusingly.
“Oh? Were you? I’ve kinda lost track of the days this week. Sorry.”
“You, forget it’s your birthday? Not a convincing excuse, Karen. Besides, you were with me when I booked the table for us way before Christmas. You wouldn’t forget that.”
“I didn’t forget, exactly. In fact, I emailed you earlier to say I couldn’t make it. I’m busy.” She turned towards him, serene indifference on her face.
“On your birthday? You’re too busy to have lunch with me on your birthday? And your cell phone’s switched off – why? It’s never switched off.”
“Is it? I didn’t turn it off. I guess I must’ve forgotten to charge the battery. You want some chow mein?”
“No, I do not. I want an explanation as to why you’ve been avoiding me for weeks. You ducked out of spending Christmas with me-”
“I went to see my parents! I’m allowed to go and see my folks at Christmas, aren’t I?” She neglected to mention that she’d driven to the rendezvous with her father – mid-way to Cedar Rapids – in a hire van packed with her belongings, so he could drive it the rest of the way back home for her.
“Sure, but you’ve been back three days and I’ve not heard a word from you! In fact, ever since the panel, you’ve been ‘busy’ whenever I’ve suggested getting together. Now I come here to find that you’re moving out. What the hell is going on?”
“I haven’t been avoiding you.” She walked into the lounge to talk to him, eliminating the need for either of them to shout.
“Well, it sure looks like you have been. You’re never around, you don’t answer my calls – I call that avoiding someone, don’t you?” He asked her the question that had been gnawing at his mind for the past few hours: “Have you found someone else, Karen? Is that what this is about?”
“You saw me when I came into the office yesterday,” she protested, evading his last questions, “and I’ve got quite a bit of leave to use up, so I’ve been taking it, including today… but it’s hardly been a long time since you saw me.”
“That doesn’t count – you know what I mean.”
“Ah, we’re talking about sex… sorry, my mistake.”
“I know you’re still mad at me, Karen, but this is a silly way to go on.”
“No sillier than when you decided to use your casting vote to reject my application to lead the taskforce. You went behind my back and then you thought you could make a fool of me. Well, for your information, Mr Deakin, I’ve spent quite a lot of time this past month investigating what went on around that panel – I even spoke to Mike Graffam. He told me you’d encouraged him to apply and given him ideas about what to say – my ideas, Clay. I know you’re responsible for me not getting the job.”
His heart sank and he knew this was serious; Karen demanded loyalty from her friends and willingly gave as much in return, but fail to live up to her exacting standards and she could be unforgiving. He met her accusing stare and replied, “I didn’t want you to get hurt; is that such a crime?”
“You betrayed me. That is something I can’t find it in myself to forgive easily. So, when you next go into the office you’ll find a letter on your desk – I left it there before I went to get my meal. It contains my resignation from the USS – with immediate effect.”
“You can’t just resign!”
“I can and I have. I‘ve also gone through the exit debriefings this month, that’s why I haven’t been around the office much – that, and because every spare moment I had, I’ve been over at the airfield, flying. I needed to get some practice in because I start my new job in a week. I’m going to work as a pilot for a firm of air taxis – the big, plush, executive types. They were prepared to overlook my comparative inexperience once I’d given their assessor a test flight. He said I was ‘a natural flyer’ – isn’t that good? They were most impressed by my excellent references – the USS does provide first-rate cover for its ex-agents, I’ll say that much for it. It will make a nice change from doing the dirty work for other people, getting no thanks and having to watch someone else take all the credit.”
“You’re leaving completely? You’re leaving me?”
“Got it in one. I’m sorry, Clay. We’ve had some good times, and I will miss you; but if there’s no trust or respect between a couple, then they have nothing and it’s not worth the effort of trying to keep things together. I can’t see a future for us – and I bet that, if you’re honest, neither can you.”
“Karen, sweetheart – don’t do this. Nobody could love you like I do! We can work this out.”
“No, we can’t. Not this time. I’ve made my mind up and I’m going.”
He was speechless, staring at her with despairing eyes. There was no compassion in her expression, and even as he fought to save their relationship he knew he had no chance of making her change her mind. She was implacable when she felt she had cause.
“Fine; throw away everything we’ve meant to each other. Throw away the prospect of our future together – just because you didn’t get what you wanted! You’re not ready for that kind of responsibility, Karen; and acting like a spoilt brat simply proves I’m right.”
“I could wipe the floor with any of the agents in your department and you know it – you’ve always known it, but you chose to hold me back – for your own selfish reasons. You don’t know me at all, Clayton Deakin, if you’ve ever thought I could settle for just being your wife, and mundane domesticity. Accept it – it’s over.”
“And you’d have left without even saying goodbye? I think I’ve deserve more than that from you, Karen.”
She shook her head, dismissing his allegation. “That was never my intention. I thought it best to do this in private... and I knew you’d come here when I didn’t show at Whitaker’s. Perhaps it was a little clumsy of me, but it worked. I’m sorry, Clay. I don’t know what else I can say, except that you’d better leave your key on your way out.”
He stared at her as if he didn’t know who this woman was.
She was wearing one of her favourite outfits, black and white casual trousers, with sandals and an off-the-shoulder top that had slipped over one shoulder. Her blonde hair rippled down her back – she had never looked more lovely or more desirable – but her expression was unforgiving and he knew her well enough to realise he had lost her.
Despite all he had done – or maybe because of it – he had lost her.
He couldn’t see any point in dragging this out with humiliating pleas for forgiveness, or trying to make her reconsider. She was – and always had been – as stubborn as a mule, and once her mind was made up, she carried her decisions through with all the strength of her forceful personality.
Sometimes it meant she made big mistakes, but, if she did, she always accepted the consequences – and the blame.
He laid the door key on the beanbag and turned to leave. “Goodbye, Karen. I hope you know what you’re doing, and I wish you every success and happiness in the future. Oh, and happy birthday.” He drew a small envelope from his jacket pocket and placed that next to the key. “You might as well take these – they’re gift vouchers for that store you like; I hoped you’d buy something special to wear when we went out together… I don’t know anyone else who’d make such good use of them.”
When she replied, her voice was a little husky with emotion – primarily, relief that he wasn’t going to turn this into a major scene. “Goodbye, Clay, and thanks for the vouchers and … and for everything. Good luck to you, too.” After a slight hesitation, she added with a hint of uncertainty, “No hard feelings?”
There was this one last thing he could do for her: bolster the self-confidence that was more fragile than she admitted. However callous she liked to appear at times, she really hated hurting the people she cared about, and blamed herself when she did. He took some comfort from the realisation that she still cared enough to feel that way over him. Despite the anguish he felt, he didn’t want her feeling guilty; he had made the wrong decision and now – as she always did – he had to face the consequences. Besides, whatever she might be thinking of him at this moment, he wanted her to remember that he had loved her – so he shook his head and replied with as upbeat a tone as he could manufacture, “No, there are no hard feelings, Karen. You’re right; it was fun while it lasted, but maybe it has run its course. We sure had some good times though. I just wish it could have lasted far longer.”
He looked back to see her standing by her beloved tree, as if she were somehow drawing emotional support from it while she watched him.
He smiled and gave her a slight wave of farewell. She nodded goodbye, but said nothing.
When the door closed behind him, Karen drew a deep breath to steady her nerves, and walked slowly into the kitchen to collect her Chinese food. She sat on the beanbag and began to eat it, although she discovered after a few mouthfuls that she was no longer very hungry. She glanced up at the tree – the symbol that represented the unconditionally supportive love of her devoted family. It was an awkward thing to move from place to place, but it was her link to home, and she drew comfort from its presence in times of uncertainty.
“I hope you’re going to like your new home, Tree. Maybe I should ask Mom and Dad to look after you, until I get myself properly established? What do you reckon?” She laughed at herself. “I must be going mental, talking to a plant and expecting an answer...”
She put the food down unfinished and sighed.
“I hope I am doing the right thing, Tree, and I hope I’m right that ‘The Man’ is out there – somewhere – waiting for me. Otherwise I am going to feel a right fool for sending away someone who only wanted to love me.”
She threw the food away, cast one last glance around the apartment that had been her home for the past year or so. After emptying the fridge and the rubbish bin and turning everything off, she manhandled the tree into her car, securing it into the front passenger seat, supported by the beanbag. Then she locked the front door and posted the key back through the letter box.
It was already starting to slip into the twilight hours as she set out for the distant city she was planning to start afresh in. She drove all night to put as much distance between herself and Clayton as she could. There could be no going back.
“After all,” she muttered as the sun came up over the unfamiliar horizon, “today is the first day of the rest of my life…”
January 6th 2068
Symphony Angel dressed with elaborate care and styled her hair into a sophisticated arrangement high on her head, with artful curls framing her face. She chose a pale silvery-green dress and was ready in plenty of time, for once. She knew he would be punctual – he always was – even though she knew he expected to be kept waiting. But tonight he’d be pleased and surprised that she was ready and waiting for him. She sat on the edge of the narrow bed and smiled in anticipation of a wonderful evening.
This is the first date we’ve had for some time. Well, really it’s the first date ever. You couldn’t call those star-gazing strolls together around Koala Base ‘dates’… although – she felt herself blushing – there were occasions when stars were the last thing on my mind.
She threw herself back on her bed and hugged herself at the wonderful memories of the carefree days at Koala – and from her memory came the now-discarded image of ‘The Man’ … that miracle of masculine perfection… that far-too-good-to-be-true ideal… She was chuckling when the doorbell rang and she opened the door with a breathless smile to see Captain Blue standing there.
Well, the only important thing I got completely wrong was the colour of his hair… she thought, as, full of hope, she stood aside to let him in.
Once again my grateful thanks go to my beta-reader, Hazel Köhler, and to Chris Bishop, the webmaster of the best Captain Scarlet site to be found anywhere. All mistakes in the text are mine.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons ™ belongs to Carlton International – but I play with them every so often, so I hope no one minds. I always give them back.
The original concept was created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson – and the biggest thanks go to them, for the pleasure their work has given me over the decades.
Happy Birthday, Symphony Angel.
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