The mid-morning sun sparkled on the deep, clean snow on either side of the dark, wet freeway, as the cab drove at an almost reckless speed through the countryside. The passengers sitting in the back were both well-wrapped against the pervasive cold and were only now starting to remove their hats, scarves and gloves.
The driver glanced at them in his mirror. He’d picked them up at the airport on a flight from Boston Atlantic Airport: a young couple, a tall, well-built man and a shorter, slimmer woman. Her accent was local, but as far as he could tell, the man’s had an east coast twang. As the man removed his hat, he noticed that, like the woman, he was fair-haired.
“You here for the holidays?” he asked in a friendly, conversational tone.
“Sure,” the man replied, “at least for the next day or so.”
“They don’t get many visitors at the Dude Ranch over the winter,” the driver volunteered, “although I get plenty of fares out there in the summer.”
“We’re not visitors,” the young woman explained. “My mom owns it. We’re visiting family.”
“Ah, I thought you sounded local, ma’am.”
This seemed to bring the conversation to a natural close and the young woman clutched at the man’s arm, pointing out what could be seen of the landmarks along the way.
The driver turned into the wooden gate that bore the legend ‘Hoffman Ranch’ and they bumped their way along the rough single track road to where a group of buildings clustered around a large house.
“Sound the horn, please?” the woman asked, and the driver obliged.
The door to the house opened and a well-dressed, fair-haired woman waved excitedly from the porch.
“Mom!” the young woman exclaimed and rushed up to the older woman, leading her inside and leaving her partner to pay the bill and move the luggage from the cab to the house.
Amanda Wainwright greeted them both with excited cries of welcome; eager to hug her daughter, she didn’t wait for Karen to remove her coat.
“So glad you’re here, darling,” she exclaimed, then turned to the quiet man who had now finished carrying in the luggage inside and stood watching the women with great affection in his expression.
“Adam, come here,” she ordered, reaching out towards him.
She found herself enveloped in his strong arms and hugged until she was breathless.
“Thanks for inviting me over,” he said. “it’s always good to be here, Amanda.”
Karen had removed her coat and stood smiling at the two most important people in her life. She was delighted they got on so well – her mother had not always approved of the men in her life – but then she found it impossible to imagine what either would find to dislike in the other.
Amanda disengaged herself and reached for her daughter’s hand as Adam divested himself of his coat.
“I have been preparing for this for weeks,” she confessed, “so much so, that I was starting to imagine the day would never get here or that the weather would delay you. I have missed you – both.”
To her surprise she felt Adam’s arm go round her and gather her and her daughter towards him.
“Group hug!” Karen cried cheerfully, and the three of them hugged each other for a precious moment, then broke away, laughing. “So good to be home, Mom.”
“I’ll take the cases up,” Adam said, and picked up the three suitcases.
“Mind how you go,” Amanda called after him, as she followed her daughter through to the kitchen, where Karen was poking in the fridge. “You hungry? I have a casserole in the oven, it won’t be too long.”
“I know, I can smell it. It’s making my mouth water.”
“You’ve lost weight,” her mother said critically.
Karen laughed. “Not much and it’s not from want of eating, believe me. We’ve been busy.”
“I know; I see the newscasts.”
Hearing the anxiety in her mother’s voice, Karen turned and reached a hand towards her. “Don’t worry, Mom. Spectrum isn’t in the business of losing its officers. We get every gadget there is to keep us safe.”
“And if one of those ‘gadgets’ fails?”
“Ain’t gonna happen,” Karen said and smiled. “Now, how about some coffee and a slice of the homecoming cake?”
“What homecoming cake?” Amanda asked archly.
Karen laughed. “Oh Mom… you always have a homecoming cake – it’s why I come home…”
With a smile at her grinning daughter, Amanda fetched a carefully crafted cake from the larder, pleased with the delighted whoop the sight of it elicited.
“Pour some coffee, Sunny,” she said. “Will Adam want some?”
“Coffee? He’s always up for a cup of coffee; he runs on it,” Karen replied, taking three mugs from the cupboard. “He’s taking a while… I hope he hasn’t decided to unpack straight away. It’ll take him hours to line his socks up in the right order.”
Amanda laughed. “How do you two manage to get along? You’re the untidiest woman I’ve ever met.”
“And he’s the most tolerant man I’ve ever met,” Karen replied, blushing slightly. “But neat socks isn’t normal – whatever he says. I’ll go fetch him.”
She sprinted up the wooden stairs to her bedroom under the eaves of the house.
Adam was sitting on the edge of the double bed, the suitcases unopened on the floor.
She glanced at him quizzically. “You okay? Mom’s got coffee and homecoming cake for us…”
He turned his blue eyes on her and she caught her breath at the passion she saw in their translucent depths. In a moment he was at her side, his arms around her and his lips pressing against hers. She yielded to their pressure and raised her arms to link them around his neck.
The embrace was passionate and it was only the need to breathe that unlocked their lips.
“What was that for?” she whispered happily, as she nestled in his arms.
“I love you,” he murmured. “I love you, I love this place – I even love your mom…”
“Now that’s just kinky,” she said, with a chuckle.
His fingers raised her chin so that he could look into her beautiful mossy-green eyes and once more she was surprised at the ardour in his gaze.
He drew her to the bed and sat down on it, so that she stood beside him and he could rest his head on her breast. His hand began unbuttoning the casual shirt she wore over her T-shirt and she felt her body stir in response to his obvious desire, although she protested weakly:
“Mom’s waiting… downstairs…”
The sentence faded as he kissed her lips and then left a trail of kisses down her chin and neck.
“Adam, we don’t have time..” she gasped, even as she helped him remove her shirt and T-Shirt and started to undo his shirt buttons.
“You know me,” he replied seductively, “I like to make the most of every moment we have…”
Karen gave a throaty chuckle and stopped protesting.
Amanda was sitting at the kitchen table reading a magazine and she looked up as her guests, looking slightly sheepish, came downstairs.
She smiled. “Socks all tidy now?” she asked innocently.
Adam gave her and then Karen a bemused glance, but her daughter rallied magnificently.
“All ship-shape,” Karen said, avoiding her mother’s knowing glance.
“I made fresh coffee; it’s still warm,” Amanda said lightly. “ You can bring the cake to the table, if you like, Karen. I think we probably all need a slice.”
Adam pulled out a seat and sat down at one end of the table.
She turned to him. “Your mother asked me to get you to ring her when you arrived,” she said. “She just wants to know that you’re okay.”
“Sure; I’ll call her right now,” he said quickly, reaching into a pocket for a cell phone.
Amanda could have found it in herself to pity his all too obvious embarrassment, if she hadn’t found it amusing. “I think she means on the video-phone. She wants to see for herself that you’re okay.”
“Oh.” He put the phone away, but still couldn’t meet her gaze.
“Have your coffee and cake and then you can use the phone in the study, if you like. We won’t eavesdrop on her maternal concerns…”
He gave a snort of laughter and looked up smiling.
Amanda was not immune to the powerfully disarming Svenson smile and she patted his hand. “We mothers like to keep an eye on our kids even when they’re all grown up; but the wisest of us know not to interfere unless we’re invited to.”
He grasped her fingers and gave them a grateful squeeze.
As the young couple sat and drank the coffee and – Amanda was amused to see – devoured large slices of the walnut gateau, she told her daughter the local news.
“You’ll never guess who I saw yesterday at the store,” she concluded, before answering her own assertion, “Becky Becker.”
“Oh! How is she?” Karen asked, swallowing her mouthful. “Last I heard she was about to drop number three. Was it all okay?”
“Yeah; a little girl, called Kimberley.”
“Kimberley? I guess she likes to be consistent: Kevin, Kirk and Kimberley. I don’t supposed it would have anything to do with Kenny, would it?”
“I have no idea. I imagine any woman called Becky who marries into a family called Becker has to learn to be fairly thick-skinned about names pretty quickly.”
Karen laughed. “I should give her a call,” she said, turning to explain to Adam. “Becky Schmidt was my best friend in High School, before I went to Boston to prepare for the college exams. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. I must admit, that did something to lessen the bonds of friendship – she chose bridesmaid dresses that had so many frills they looked like an explosion in a cotton candy factory and, what was worse, they were in shiny, sickly-pink satin. I looked like a human blancmange.”
“You looked very nice,” Amanda asserted, rolling her eyes. “I’m sure I have a photo somewhere…”
Karen gave Adam a grimace and shook her head.
“I guess no bride wants to be upstaged by her bridesmaids,” he responded. “I remember when my cousin got married the bridesmaids wore identical patterned chequered dresses in a sort of brown, mustard yellow and cream, and all my mom could find to say about them was that they’d make nice picnic-table cloths.”
Karen laughed, shaking her head at the fact that he could remember even something so inconsequential as the design of bridesmaid dresses he’d have only seen once. She replied, “Your mom has an acid tongue when she puts her mind to it.”
He nodded and added, “But you’d look fantastic in anything at all, Älskling.”
“Not this; believe me.” She shuddered. “But - I should still give Becks a call.”
“She’d love to hear from you and I told her you were coming home to visit… with a friend,” Amanda said.
“Mom! What did you go and do that for?” Karen protested. “I’ll have to answer a thousand questions now.”
“It slipped out,” Amanda said, with a shrug. “Her mom was with her and asked after you with that ‘isn’t-she-married-yet’ expression on her face. What was I supposed to do in the face of such provocation?” she appealed to Adam, who shook his head, smirking, but refused to answer.
Karen sighed and got to her feet. “You might have to shed your anonymity for the sake of my mother’s standing in the community, Harvard; how’d’you feel about that?”
“Hey, as long as it’s only Adam Svenson who gets exposed and not Captain Blue of Spectrum, I can live with it – to save the credibility of the two most wonderful women in Iowa.”
“He is definitely too good to be true,” Amanda remarked cheerfully.
But Karen pursed her lips. “Only Iowa?” she demanded playfully.
“Sure,” he replied. “My mom and sister have Massachusetts sewn up and I refuse to make any national comparisons on the grounds that it would certainly get me into hot water with the residents of one or the other State...”
“Too tricksy by half,” Karen muttered, ruffling his hair as she walked past him towards the phone.
When Karen came back, Amanda and Adam were looking at a photo album. He looked up and grinned at her.
“You were sure a cute kid,” he said.
“Mom!” she protested.
“Hey, I know my mom’s shown you pictures of me, so it’s only fair,” Adam reasoned. “No secrets, right?”
“I guess so.”
Adam sensed that something was coming; it wasn’t like Karen to give in so readily.
“You wanna go out tonight?” she asked suddenly.
“Not really. Are you saying I will be going out tonight?”
Karen flopped into a chair, sighing heavily. “Yeah. Becky’s having a New Year’s Eve gathering – just for a few hours. She wants us to go – she wants to meet you.”
“And you were so overcome with friendship you couldn’t refuse,” Adam said, his eyebrows rising in disbelief.
“You said you didn’t mind exposure. I took you at your word. And it’ll only be for an hour or two – I told Becky we were here to see Mom, after all.”
Amanda closed the album with a chuckle. “You realise you’re a trophy boyfriend?” she remarked to Adam.
“I’m afraid I’ll be a big disappointment to them.”
“You will not,” Karen said confidently. “You will charm the socks off them, Harvard. Just like you always do.”
“Shall we eat now, before you go?” Amanda asked, “Or shall I save the casserole for another day?”
“Well, I’m famished,” Adam confessed.
“We’ll eat. Karen, get the table ready, please.”
Amanda handed Karen the keys to the sturdy yellow 4x4 that Adam had bought them a few years ago.
“Drive carefully; remember the roads will be treacherous.”
“I do know what it’s like here, Mom,” her daughter protested.
“I know; but you’ve been on Cloudbase so much and been who knows where across the globe, so a gentle reminder does no harm.” She handed Adam a bag. “I put some gifts in there for Becky and her family. Mostly baking and a bottle of wine. She can’t expect you to come armed with shop-bought presents when you were only invited at the last minute, but I expect it’ll be welcome enough.”
“If I tell her you cooked it, it certainly will be,” Karen agreed, pulling on her gloves. “If she thinks I had anything to do with it, it’ll get consigned to the trash at the first opportunity.”
Karen tuned the car radio into the local music station and sang along with the popular songs as she drove. The houses grew more frequent as they reached the suburbs and soon the wide, straight streets were lined with modest clapboard-style houses, all of them decorated with bright, multi-coloured lights and seasonal garden decorations. Karen turned off onto a side road and through the estate to a small house at the end of a short road.
She stopped the car and turned off the radio. “Here we are,” she said. “Ready for the fray?” He didn’t answer and she looked quizzically at him. “Something up?”
Adam tilted his head quizzically and asked, “Why are there three pink plastic flamingos on that lawn?”
Karen tutted in dismay. “Call yourself an educated man? What colour should a flamingo be? I dare say you’ve heard of the Lesser-spotted Idiosyncratic Flamingo?”
“Nope, can’t say I have,” he replied, glancing towards her.
She snorted with laughter. “It’s so-called because it likes to avoid doing the obvious: it flies north from Florida just to winter on Iowan lawns. I understand it’s an endangered species now.”
He grinned at her. “Damn, I should’ve realised that, shouldn’t I?”
“Uh-huh. Oh, and by-the-way, feel free to ask your hostess why there are flamingos on her lawn, ‘cause I sure as hell don’t know.”
Chuckling, they got out of the car and walked up the path, past the lawn with its ‘idiosyncratic’ decorations, and Karen rang the doorbell.
The door was opened by a plump, dark-haired woman with round glasses on a cheerful, if somewhat red, face.
“Kay!” she squealed and threw her arms around the taller woman. “Great to see you, honey – come in, come in!”
Karen stepped inside to be greeted by a crowd of eager well-wishers all speaking at once:
“Good to see you again!”
“Love the hair – it suits you!”
Adam stepped inside and closed the door behind himself, he stood holding Amanda’s bag of goodies and affectionately watched Karen work the crowd as only she knew how, until he was accosted by his hostess and turned his attention to her.
Karen was in full flow. “Hi, how are you? Good to see you too! Thanks, it was a big decision to cut it, but I don’t have any regrets…”
“You always had such wonderful hair, Kay; I always envied you for it…”
“Thanks,” Karen said. “But you wouldn’t have been so envious if you’d known the time it took to wash and dry..”
“I always said your hair was what made you the prettiest girl in the school. I think it’s a shame you’ve hacked it off.”
Karen froze at the sound of that voice and then turned slowly to stare at the dark-haired man who had spoken. A faint blush seeped into her cheeks and she drew a deep breath to steady herself.
“Wyatt Jackson. Why, I haven’t seen you in years…” she said with a composure she did not feel. “Last I heard you were working in California at a computer firm.” A satisfyingly safe number of miles away from here… she added to herself.
“And the last I heard, you were working for some taxi service. Isn’t that a bit of a comedown for Cedar Rapids’ own female Einstein? Your folks were always saying you were doing so well in that government job you landed – and then, you were reduced to working on air-taxis? What went wrong, Kay?”
“Nothing went wrong, as you put it; I learned to fly and decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I became a pilot for an executive jet company,” Karen retorted. She felt angry with herself for reacting so defensively to his jibe even as she replied, but Wyatt had always had the knack of making her feel worthless. It seemed that he still did.
“Still don’t seem right,” he said casually, coming towards her as he spoke. “I always figured you were too feisty to take orders from anyone, Kay. It’s a kinda disappointment to hear you were willing to take orders from fat and lazy old businessmen. ”
“Not all of them were fat, very few of them were lazy and many of them were our age, Wyatt. Besides, time was when you expected me to take orders – or at least, your orders, as I recall.”
“Ah, but I was young and hadn’t learned to appreciate an independent mind and spirit in a woman. Now, I am older and wiser…”
“Wiser? Says who?” Karen challenged sharply.
By now Wyatt Jackson was at her side. He was a tall man, thin and wiry, with attractive features. He was dressed in the height of fashionable chic and his black hair was carefully styled in a loose and tousled wave. His wide-set eyes were a remarkably clear blue, but they held little warmth as he looked at her. In her youth, Karen, along with most of the other girls at the school, had failed to see beyond the superficial charm of the handsome youth; Wyatt Jackson had been extremely popular and she had been the envy of most of the girls she knew with Wyatt at her side.
Karen looked up at him and the years fell away; she remembered how excited she’d been when he’d started asking her out, because Wyatt was the coolest boy in town and the darling of the popular set. His father owned a car dealership and the family were well-known and liked in the community – they still were, even though their son had failed to fulfil the great future that had been predicted for him by his doting parents.
Suddenly he dipped his head to kiss her and it was only at the last moment that she realised he intended to kiss her lips, so she quickly turned her head slightly and his lips brushed her cheek.
She laughed gaily and continued to turn, looking over her shoulder to where Adam was standing with Becky. He had delivered the gifts and was chatting politely with his hostess, although Karen caught a swift, appraising glance that darted her way and knew he was watching her. She found the reassurance more comforting than she’d expected.
Becky noticed the slight frown that had appeared between Adam’s fair brows and followed the direction of his gaze. Seeing who Karen was with, she hastened to explain:
“Oh, Wyatt Jackson; I should have warned her he was here. He and Kay were a couple for a while at school, before she went to Boston to prepare for college exams. Mind you, everyone fancied Wyatt back then.”
“Adam, come and meet an old friend of mine, from way back,” Karen called, stretching out her hand towards him in what Adam recognised was a plea for his supporting presence.
Becky led the way over to where Wyatt stood, openly assessing this unexpected and unknown rival as the man approached.
Karen grabbed Adam’s hand and squeezed it before she turned back to Wyatt and said, “Wyatt, I’d like you to meet my fiancé, Adam.”
“Fiancé?” Becky exclaimed. “Your mom never mentioned that! Listen up, folks, Kay and Adam are engaged!”
There was a chorus of congratulations and a smattering of applause from the assembly. Adam put his arm around Karen’s shoulder and smiled a polite acknowledgement of the acclaim, although his attention was fixed on Wyatt.
“Engaged? You didn’t tell me that, Kay,” Wyatt said coolly.
“I’ve hardly had chance since I arrived,” she responded.
Adam extended a hand and said, with devastating politeness and a far more pronounced Bostonian accent than he was wont to employ:
“Pleased to meet you, Mr Jackson.”
Wyatt looked at the extended hand and casually accepted it. He was slightly disconcerted by the firmness of Adam’s grasp and the indication of the considerable strength that lay behind it.
“So when’s the wedding?” Becky interjected. “You gonna have it here?”
“We haven’t even set a date yet,” Karen said, with an apologetic smile. “So there are no plans about the venue, Becky.”
“Does that even count as a formal engagement then?” Wyatt remarked. “In my book, you get engaged and next day you start planning the wedding.”
“Oh, of course it counts, Wyatt!” Becky chided. “It’s a declaration of intent, not part of a project management schedule.” She rolled her eyes at Karen, laughing.
“Where’re you from, Adam?” Wyatt asked, ignoring Becky.
“Kay’s pa came from there,” Becky reminded him. “Did you ever meet him, Adam?”
“Not in Boston, but, yes, I did meet him a couple of times. I never knew him as well as I would have liked. He seemed a fine man.”
Karen squeezed his hand in gratitude and he squeezed back. Unsure of why she was so uncertain in the presence of this man, he was in no doubt that her confidence had taken a battering and he was not prepared to let her down.
“He was such a nice man,” Becky confirmed, “and Mrs Wainwright is a nice, kind woman – and a brilliant cook. You must thank her for the baking, Kay. I’m gonna save the cookies for the kids.”
“I will,” Karen assured her.
“Did you meet Kay there?” Wyatt acted as if no one had spoken since Adam had answered his question.
“No,” Karen said quickly. “We met in Australia.” She glanced up into Adam’s face and smiled at the memory, then went on to explain to Becky: “He took me out into what they call ‘the outback’ one evening, to go stargazing, and I knew then that ‘this was the one’.” She laughed and hugged Adam’s arm. “I barely noticed the stars, so I guess you could say it was love at first sight, really.”
“Aww, how romantic!” Becky enthused.
Wyatt continued his interrogation. “You a pilot too, Adam?”
“I was a test pilot and now I work for the World Government, just as Karen does.”
“They must pay well,” Wyatt remarked, assessing Adam’s designer casuals with a knowledgeable eye.
“They pay a fair wage for the job.”
“It seems that public service pays too well if every two-bit jet-taxi driver can afford clothes by Andre Verdain.”
“I have a Verdain dress,” Karen interjected, sensing the growing antagonism between the men. “They don’t cost so much in Europe, and being in the World Government means you get to travel a lot. I have some real nice things that cost far less than you’d imagine…”
“I’m not talking about scavengings from last season’s reduced rail, Kay. You might be happy enough to buy whatever’s left when they clear out the cupboards, but I recognise that jacket from this year’s collection,” Wyatt said, without glancing at her. “And I know how much they cost, wherever you buy them from.” This time he did glance at her. “They’re well out of your league; even with your mom’s Dude Ranch doing some business now, you haven’t got the disposable income.” Karen gasped angrily, but Wyatt’s gaze had already returned to Adam. “You see, the Jacksons are important people in this town - my family own the biggest car dealership in Cedar Rapids and one of the biggest in Iowa –”
Goaded, Adam interrupted, “Really? I guess that makes you a classic example of a big fish in a small pool.”
“Who’re you to be saying that?” Wyatt challenged arrogantly.
“If it wasn’t mentioned, my name is Svenson and my family owns a finance house – one of the biggest in the world. I may only be small-fry, but I’m from a much bigger pond, Mr Jackson, which means I can afford to dress as I wish, however much I’m earning.”
Wyatt was momentarily speechless and he flushed angrily. “You don’t say?” he retorted. “Well, that’s something.” He took a step back and glanced maliciously at Karen. “Looks like you finally found your sugar-daddy, Kay.”
He didn’t see the punch that connected with his chin and lifted him off his feet, sending him tumbling to the floor amongst a group of other party-goers. Several men, including Kenny Becker, hurried over.
“Adam!” Karen exclaimed, pushing him away from the stunned Wyatt.
Becky knelt beside the sprawling Wyatt, checking he was okay. Then she glanced up at Karen and Adam: she was horrified and obviously upset, while he met her gaze with unabashed self-assurance.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Becker; but no man is going to speak to Karen like that in my hearing with impunity,” he said icily.
“Hush-” Karen urged.
Kenny Becker came between his wife and Adam and said fiercely, “I don’t know you, mister; but you can’t come here and behave like that. I think you’d better leave - right now.”
Becky stood up and interrupted. “That won’t be necessary, Kenny. Wyatt’s just leaving. Aren’t you, Wyatt?” She looked down at Jackson, who was wiping bloody spittle from his chin. “Right after you apologise to Karen, of course.”
“Please, no,” Karen said, blushing deeply. “We’ll go… come on, Adam.”
Adam’s estimation of Becky Becker had already risen significantly and it did so again when his hostess said, “You’re my guests and even if you weren’t my friend, Karen, I’d agree with Adam. He’s quite right: no man should speak about any lady like Wyatt did, with… impunity. Unless and until he apologises to you for his remark, he’s not welcome in my house.”
“Becky?” her husband said, confused by what was going on.
“Not now, Kenny. You’d better help Wyatt to his feet and unless he has something to say, fetch his coat. He’s leaving.”
Karen turned and buried her face against Adam’s broad chest. His arm encircled her and held her close, feeling her tremble as she fought her tears. He continued to face the crowd of curious partygoers calmly, with no signs of embarrassment.
Contrary to appearances, however, he was angry, almost as much with himself as he was with Wyatt Jackson. He had long ago grown used to snide remarks and jealousy about his family’s wealth and rarely chose to publicise his family’s circumstances for that reason, but Wyatt’s needling had angered him, especially when he’d suggested money was a factor in his relationship with Karen - that was the one thing guaranteed to rouse his formidable Svenson temper.
Kenny Becker helped his stricken guest to his feet. Wyatt pushed him away and faced Adam.
“You caught me off-guard this time, jerk, but next time, I’ll be ready for you.”
“I won’t be losing any sleep over that, Mr Jackson.”
“Come on, Wyatt,” Becker said. “You want something for that bruise before you go?”
“I want nothing from you – any of you – you will regret this, Kenny, you and your bitch of a wife.”
“Shut your dirty mouth, Wyatt! Becky was right – you’re leaving.”
Wyatt snarled defiance, snatched his jacket from Becker’s hand and stumbled out of the main door into the snow.
There was a collective sigh as everyone let out the pent-up breath they’d been unconsciously holding. People looked away and conversations started up, whispered and furtive as they discussed the incident.
Adam relaxed slightly, sighing out the tension that had kept him standing ramrod stiff in the face of so many startled gazes. He hugged Karen and stroked her hair softly.
“She okay?” Becky asked.
“I think so,” he replied.
Karen pulled herself together, pausing to wipe the moisture from her eyes before she turned to her friend and began to apologise.
“Hey – you got nothing to apologise for, Kay. Wyatt’s a jerk – always has been, I guess, if we’d but known it. I’m sorry you had to meet him here like this.”
“What happened, Becky?” her husband asked. He nodded a welcome at Karen and glanced warily at Adam, who introduced himself and extended his hand to his host. “Pleased to meet you,” Kenny Becker said doubtfully.
Becky glanced around the room, where things were starting to pick up again and suggested they go into the playroom to talk. She sent Kenny for drinks and led the way towards the basement of the house. The playroom was stacked with toys and the walls were covered with childish artwork. Becky swept toys off one of the chairs and indicated that Karen should sit. Adam stood beside her, his hand resting on the back of the chair.
As they settled down, Adam said,” Supposing someone tells me what all that was about?”
Becky saw reluctance in her friend’s face and began to explain to save her the task. “Wyatt was telling the truth: his family are important around here, but he’s a disappointment to them. He’s their only son – they have three daughters who are all nice girls – and he was the apple of his parents’ eyes. Nothing was too good for Wyatt. He was always good-looking and he can charm birds from trees if he’s a mind. But… well, I guess you know how it can be? When you can have all you want, you want everything?”
Adam nodded; he’d seen enough of that in his time.
Becky continued, “We were all in the same year at school. Kay was definitely the brainiest amongst us, but she was also the prettiest-”
“Bullshit,” Karen retorted under her breath. Adam smiled and gently laid his hand on her shoulder.
Becky smiled. “She was, Adam.” He nodded. “We were a pretty tight-knit group and Wyatt preferred to lord it over the well-to-do kids, rather than hang around with the likes of us. But when Kay won the prize for student of the year he decided that she would look good on his arm.”
Kenny Becker had come back with beers which he had handed round. He looked up from his drink and chipped in, “Karen looked good on any man’s arm.”
“She still does,” Adam remarked.
Kenny laughed. “I’ll drink to that.” He toasted Karen with his beer glass, as she blushed most becomingly.
“Can it, you guys…”
They chuckled and Karen, mollified and reassured, started to relax again.
“I was kinda flattered when Wyatt asked me out,” she admitted. “He was a looker and youth is more influenced by the obvious, I guess. I hope I’m not as superficial now.”
“Meaning I’m ugly?” Adam teased. Karen shook her head, laughing up at him.
Becky gave a snort of laughter. “Yeah, right. You carry right on believing that if it makes you feel better, Adam.” She smiled at him.
“So, there you were on the arm of Wyatt Jackson and all was right with your world,” he said. “But I’m guessing it didn’t last for long, right?”
Karen shook her head. “Wyatt was used to having it all his own way; compromise was a word he’d never heard.”
“I’ve heard that some people can be like that,” Adam said evenly, noticing the faint blush that coloured his fiancée’s cheek.
“He started to try and rule our lives,” Becky continued. “We had to go where he wanted and when. If we didn’t he took his anger out on Kay.”
Adam’s brows descended into a frown. “You mean he hit her?”
“Nothing so crude,” Karen assured him hastily. “Oh, he’d give me a snakebite on the arm, or pinch and punch me – nowhere that showed – but he used plenty of subtle ways to get at me… saying nasty things… rubbishing things I’d done better than him or … the way I dressed. Anything that made me feel bad.”
“There’s a streak of cruelness in him that’s always made him unpredictable,” Becky said, with a rueful nod. “When Karen went to Boston, he was real mad at her. A whispering campaign started up against her – we knew it was him that started it, but we had no proof. And it was all untrue, but some people who didn’t know her didn’t know that. It was contemptible and cruel.”
“What a charming guy; I wish I’d hit him harder,” Adam remarked coldly, placing a sympathetic hand on Karen’s shoulder.
“When I got into Yale, it was a relief to get away from him,” Karen said quietly. “He sent me a really horrible letter… I shouldn’t have read it once I saw what it was going to be like, but… well, I guess he still had something of a hold over me.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Jeez, I should be old enough and wise enough not to let him do this to me any more…”
Becky slipped to her knees beside her friend and hugged Karen as she strove to stem the tears.
Adam was so angry he had to walk about to calm his emotions. He turned to Kenny and demanded, “Why was such a slime ball here to start with?”
“He wasn’t invited, he just came along – as always,” Kenny said. “He’s not the kind of guy you can keep away from events if he chooses to come.”
“His folks can’t be so all-fire damned important that you have to let him into your home, knowing what a creep he is!”
“Wyatt can make things difficult and unpleasant in a hundred small ways. Most folk just try to ignore him – it makes for an easier life,” Kenny admitted. “Most of the time he doesn’t cause trouble anyway.”
Still comforting her friend, Becky explained: “He went and got a job with a computer company in California – he was gonna be a big shot, or so he told us all. He was away a couple or three years – we heard he’d got married and then… last fall he came back to Cedar Rapids. No wife, no job… Seems like he hadn’t changed much and she finally kicked him out. His dad gave him a job, of course, but I don’t think he does much to earn his money. His mom’s still convinced he’s a winner, and she bails him out when he gets in debt or someone has to be placated.”
“What about the law?” Adam demanded.
“Oh, he never goes so far for it to be illegal,” Kenny said. “Wyatt’s not stupid.” He gave Adam an acknowledging nod. “You gave him the beating we shoulda delivered years ago.”
“He’s damn lucky I didn’t know all this before I hit him.”
“My hero,” Karen said shakily from her chair.
Adam went to her, crouching in front of the chair, so that Becky had to move to one side.
“Älskling, I’d do anything for you… you want that guy skinned alive, I’m your man.”
She smiled at him, reaching out to brush the long fringe out of his eye. “No; he’s not worth you bruising your knuckles on, Sky.”
“Then he’s not worth you getting upset about,” he said, gently. “The guy’s a first class jerk – you heard your old friends – they know. I hate to see you upset, Karen; please tell me you’re okay?”
“Sure I am; I have you – what could be wrong?”
Becky patted her arm. “You hang on to him, Kay; he’s a good’un.”
“We’d better get back to the party,” Kenny said.
“Sure,” Becky said. “Come on up when you’re ready…”
They left the two lovers together.
Karen raised her hand and started to tidy her hair. “I must look a sight,” she complained looking about for a mirror.
“You look beautiful.” He helped her to her feet and folded in her in his arms. “I love you,” he whispered. “I love your strength and your beauty; I love your spirit and your courage. I especially love the cute way your nose wrinkles up when you laugh.. just like that,” he added, as she chuckled at him.
He kissed her and she responded with a passionate kiss in return.
“Let’s go and party, sweetheart…” she whispered.
It was just after midnight when the party started to break up. People collected their coats, wished each other ‘Happy New Year’ and walked out into the crisp night air. Most were local, so there were not many cars outside and the Wainwrights’ yellow off-roader stood out clearly.
Karen insisted on driving and believing that it was part of her effort to regain her self-confidence, Adam agreed. Neither of them had drunk any more alcohol after the beers Kenny Becker had given them, which was lucky as there had been more snow and the road was shiny with ice.
“Take care!” Becky called, as she waved them goodbye before darting back inside.
Karen started the engine and set the heater to full. “Brr… sooner we get home the better.”
“Watch it, the roads are going to be treacherous.”
“You sound like my mom, Harvard…” she protested, as she turned the car and drove slowly down the road to the intersection. “Let’s have some music, shall we?”
Adam shrugged and settled back to watch the scenery glide past as she drove and hummed along… his eyes started to feel heavy, so he closed them for a moment and he felt himself dozing off as the car warmed up.
He had no idea how long he slept, but Karen’s urgent appeals for him to wake up finally took effect.
“What’s up?” he asked drowsily.
“I think we’re being followed,” she replied, glancing into the rear-view mirror.
Adam sat up and turned to look between the headrests out of the back window. It was snowing again, but he could see headlights in the distance. Considering the road was straight with few turn offs, it wasn’t necessarily someone trailing them.
“Maybe they’re just going our way?” he suggested.
“They fell in behind us as I turned at the first intersection. Okay, people have a right to go where they like, but I drove a non-direct route and they followed.”
“You suspected them that soon?”
She shook her head. “I wanted to see round the places I used to know – and you were already falling asleep.”
“Midnight is a great time for sight-seeing…” he muttered.
“I knew where to get onto the highway; it just gave me the chance to look round.”
“How far are we now from the ranch?”
“About half way.”
“Maybe they’re going to the airport?”
“Then they’ve missed the turn-off.”
“Can you double-back and get to the airport?”
“Then we’ll know for certain they’re following us.”
“We could just speed up and lose them.”
“Too dangerous, given the conditions and anyway, if they are following us, I don’t want to lead them to the Ranch and your mother. At the airport there will be other people, more cars and security staff. We stand a chance of losing them there.”
Karen nodded. “Good point. Okay; there’s a stretch up here where I can make a U-turn. Have you got your gun?”
“I was going to a suburban Christmas party…why would I take my gun?” he protested.
Karen gave him an exasperated glance. He smiled and drew his blue-coded Spectrum-issue pistol from his jacket pocket.
“Just in case they open fire as we drive past them…” she explained.
“Sure,” he agreed
“Here goes; hold tight,” she said and speeded up slightly to swing the car into a 180 degree turn across the central reserve. As she turned the wheel and the car started to turn, she hit the brakes, but the car didn’t slow. She took her foot off the accelerator as the car slid in a spin and Adam grabbed the wheel, pulling it round into the skid.
“Accelerate!” he ordered, sharply.
Flustered, Karen pressed her foot on the accelerator, but as the car jinked over the uneven ground her foot slipped and the car spun round out of control.
“Adam!” she screamed, as the car left the road and careered down the embankment. They were thrown forward as the car hit a snowdrift and stopped.
Adam came to slowly; his head was aching and he realised there was a taste of blood in his mouth. He struggled to focus and remembering what had happened, immediately looked for Karen. The driver seat was empty and the door open, but there was no sign of her. He fumbled with the seat belt, blinking the sting of sweat and blood from his eyes, and forced the car door open.
His legs gave way as he tried to stand and he slipped into the muddy snow. Panting heavily, he tried to focus and then vomited - spitting out saliva and blood. After resting a moment he got to his feet and as he did so there was a blinding flash of light from other headlights. He raised his hand to shield his eyes and tried to see who or what was there.
A figure approached through the light and he finally recognised it as Wyatt Jackson.
So Karen was right and we were being followed…
“Where’s Karen?” he demanded aloud. “Is she all right?”
“She’s in my car… she’s shook up, but she’s conscious – which is more than you’re gonna be, Svenson.”
Jackson moved swiftly and brought something hard down on Adam’s head before he had time to defend himself. He fell to the ground again and Jackson gave several vicious kicks around his head and torso. Adam strove to defend himself, but his mind was clouding over and even the distant sound of Karen’s voice screaming his name wasn’t enough to keep him alert. As a final kick drove the remaining breath from his body, he lost consciousness and lay still in the snow.
Amanda Wainwright woke at her usual hour on New Year’s Day and pulled the counterpane closer around her. The room was warm, so the heating had already come on and there was a sliver of bright white light coming from under the blind. She decided that she ought to get up and make fresh coffee and some breakfast, as well as start the oven for the celebration dinner. She hadn’t heard Karen and Adam come in last night, and assumed they had been extra-considerate and quiet and that they deserved a lie in after their late night.
She showered and dressed before going down to start the coffee machine and prepare the turkey for lunch. It was clear that there had been a heavy fall of snow overnight and the tyre marks from the returning car had been obliterated. She poured herself a coffee and sat with a piece of toast to read her latest book.
By 10:30 she was thinking it was time the pair got up – whatever they were doing… and so she put two coffees and some cookies on a tray and took it up to Karen’s room. There was no sound from within and she knocked tentatively on the door.
“Happy New Year, sleepyheads! I have coffee and cookies…”
She opened the door. The bed had not been slept in.
Damn… I guess the snow meant they stayed over with Becky or her folks. They might’ve phoned… that’s just thoughtlessness. I’d better check if they are coming back today.
She let the door swing shut and took the tray back downstairs. She rang Karen’s cell phone, but got her voicemail. “Karen, it’s Mom. Where are you? Do you plan to come back home today? I only ask because I was going to cook dinner and there’s no point if you’ve decided to stay at Becky’s. Call me.”
After 30 minutes without a reply, Amanda called Adam’s number. The message she left on his voicemail was brief and to the point: “Call me, please. I need to know what your plans for today are.”
After another half an hour, she searched out Becky’s number and called direct.
“Oh hi, Mrs Wainwright – Happy New Year. Thanks so much for the cookies. The kids adore them.”
“Thanks, Becky. Could I speak to Karen, please?”
“Karen? She’s not here, Mrs Wainwright. She and Adam left around midnight to drive home.”
“Yes… they were fine. Haven’t they come home? Oh my - you don’t think there could have been an accident, do you?”
“I don’t know. I’ll check up. Have you seen if there were any accidents on the roads last night? I haven’t checked the news…”
“No, they didn’t mention any. What will you do?”
“I’ll call the traffic police and the hospital.”
“Let me know, Mrs Wainwright…”
“Sure will, Hon. Bye for now, Becky.”
Amanda’s blood ran cold as she imagined all sorts of terrible reasons why her daughter and her boyfriend had not come home. Memories of the dreadful time when Sam had been killed in a pile-up and the nightmare hours waiting to know if he was amongst the several casualties filled her mind and she found she was crying before she had even had a chance to find the phone number she needed.
“There’s a call come through on the Personnel Emergency Line, Colonel,” Lieutenant Green informed his commanding officer dispassionately.
“Can’t you contact the duty officer, Lieutenant?” White replied, barely looking up from his case file.
“I could, sir; but it is from Cedar Rapids, USA – a Mrs Wainwright, sir. Given that Symphony Angel and Captain Blue are there, I wondered…”
To his credit, White’s expression barely changed. “Put her through, Lieutenant.”
There was a muted click and the call was transferred.
“Charles! I wasn’t expecting you, but I’m glad it is you. Charles, Karen and Adam have vanished.”
“Yes; they went to a party last night – they left around midnight and they haven’t come home! I’ve checked the hospitals and they’ve no record of admissions for a man or woman answering their descriptions, nothing for a Wainwright or a Svenson and no record of a car crash involving a yellow off-roader. They’ve vanished!”
“Have you checked with the police?”
“Not yet. I didn’t know if I should. Spectrum officers and their security… I’m confused.” She sounded close to tears.
“All right, Amanda. Wait a moment.” White turned to Lieutenant Green. “Lieutenant, please check the state police databases for Iowa in respect of a road accident for a yellow off-roader, any arrests of a woman named Wainwright or a man named Svenson, last night.”
“Yes, sir,” Green said, concealing his surprise with considerable dexterity. He pushed a few buttons and consulted the resulting response from the Generation 7 computers. “Negative, sir; there’s nothing recorded.”
“S.I.G., Lieutenant. Get Captain Scarlet up here, at once.” As his executive officer acknowledged the order and began to implement it, White returned to his off-base caller. “There’s nothing recorded, Amanda. I will start an immediate search. Captain Scarlet will be with you as soon as possible.”
“Oh, Charles; thank you!”
“Don’t worry, my dear. We’ll find them.”
Captain Scarlet’s jet touched down at East Iowa Airport a few hours later. The daylight was starting to fade and the airport was quiet with very few people moving around the departure and arrivals halls. He already knew that Blue and Symphony hadn’t caught a plane out of the place and Green had checked the flight manifest of every plane that had left the airport over the relevant time and none of them gave any suggestion that they might be involved in nefarious activities.
He accepted the SSC from one of the Des Moines base ground-staff and set out for the Hoffman Ranch. Along the way he kept his eyes peeled for any sign of the yellow 4x4, or even tracks leading off road, but without much success – there was nothing to suggest anything had happened on this part of the route.
Mrs Wainwright was waiting for him: her eyes were red and she was looking pale.
Scarlet advanced towards her and found himself enveloped in a hug.
“Paul, I am so glad to see you,” Amanda exclaimed. “Is there any news?”
He disengaged himself gently and shook his head. “Not yet; but the colonel has instructed our base in Des Moines to monitor police activity and the hospitals, in case anything comes up that might give us a clue. And please remember: wherever they are, they’re together. You must be reassured by that.”
“Oh, I am, I suppose. But where are they? I can’t believe Karen wouldn’t call me – on New Year’s Day – if something hadn’t happened. If nothing else, Adam would make her… if he could.”
“There are numerous reasons why they might not be able to call,” Scarlet assured her, although he hoped he wouldn’t be called on to list them. “Look, Amanda, I need you to tell me where they went – this party they went to – where was it and what route would they have taken to get there and back?”
“You’re going to drive the route?”
He nodded. “To start with. I shall have to question the people at the party – well, some of them, anyway. You say they were said to have left the party around midnight?”
She nodded and made a visible effort to tell him what she knew clearly. “I spoke to Becky Becker – Karen’s old school-friend. She saw them go; she said they were fine. It was about midnight. At their very slowest they should’ve been here well before daybreak. It has snowed overnight – quite heavily – so they might’ve been driving slowly.”
“I’ll get Cloudbase to check the weather reports – find out when it snowed. It might play a part in what’s happened. Now, if you can give me the address?”
Amanda scribbled it down on a piece of paper.
“Great. I’ll be in touch.” Scarlet put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “Chin up, Mrs Dubya. I’ll find them… and you’ll have the chance to tell them both off for scaring us so.”
She smiled and went to wave him off as he turned the SSC and drove slowly back towards the road.
Scarlet programmed the address into the satnav and turned towards Cedar Rapids. He wished he could feel as confident as he’d tried to sound. Even if Karen might’ve forgotten to notify her mother where she was and what she was doing, he found it impossible to believe that Adam would’ve been the same. Along with the weather reports, he asked Green to check incoming calls to the Svenson household and their personal phones and see if any calls had been made to them by Captain Blue. Wishing his family ‘happy New Year’ was a ritual Blue never missed.
Scarlet was concentrating on his driving, barely checking the surroundings, when he noticed, exaggerated by the sweep of the SSC headlights, what looked like a wheel rut running across the central reservation and swerving onto his side of the carriageway. Although the snow was deep on the sides of the road, on the reservation was just a muddy slush where the passing cars had thrown up muck and the ruts would not be noticeable from the other side of the carriageway – although he must’ve passed them on his way to the ranch. The marks were unusual and given that anything unusual was a possible clue, Scarlet had a hunch that it might merit further investigation. Never one to ignore his hunches, he slowed and pulled over to the side of the road.
He examined the ruts by torchlight and with a clear mind, anxious not to jump to conclusions. The wheels were large and the tyres new, from the impression they’d left. The vehicle had swerved onto the reservation and then, skidded – or so it seemed. Picking up traction, it had crossed the carriageway and…
Scarlet crossed over and began a detailed investigation of the verge. There was a depression in the snow and he cleared it with his boot – revealing, to his satisfaction, further tyre marks.
“So, you came over here and… went… down the bank…” He slid down the embankment to the low, flat land beyond . The wind had whipped a snow bank against the lee of the embankment, and he went to investigate. He put his hand on to the snow and felt something hard. He brushed the snow away and saw a glint of buttercup yellow.
Frantic with worry, he began sweeping the snow away to slowly reveal the Wainwrights’ yellow car. Looking back towards the road he could not see his own car and realised that unless someone had been looking carefully they wouldn’t have noticed the off-roader as they’d driven past – especially not with the added poor visibility created by the snow storm. He continued digging the car out of the snow until he could grasp the driver side handle and force it open. The seal had frozen shut in the cold and it took all of his strength to yank it open.
The driver and front passenger seat was empty, and Scarlet leant inside looking for clues to the whereabouts of the occupants. As he glanced into the back of the car he saw a shape huddled on the rear seat.
He backed out and wrenched the rear passenger door open. It was a man, a tall man, curled into a foetal position, his coat pulled over his head.
Scarlet leant in and gently lifted the corner of the coat.
“Adam – oh no…” He placed a finger tip against the cold skin and felt the slight flutter of a sluggish pulse. “How the hell did you get into this mess?” he asked his unconscious field partner, as he started to draw the inert body towards the door. He managed to manoeuvre Adam into a position where he could hoist him over his shoulders in a fireman’s lift. Leaving the car, he staggered and slithered up the embankment towards the road and the waiting SSC.
It was a nightmare journey; Adam was a dead weight and the slope was slippery, so that more than once the few precious feet he’d managed to ascend was lost as he slithered back. As he reached the last few metres, Scarlet was virtually slithering up the bank on his hands and knees, with his friend across his back and shoulders. Reaching the road, he collapsed for a moment to regain his breath and then staggered to his feet. He lifted Adam and hurried to the SSC.
In the car boot there was a basic emergency kit, which included a thermal blanket, so he wrapped that around his partner as he strapped him onto the passenger seat. He realised he had lost his radio cap in his ascent of the embankment and ran back to find it, leaving Adam in the car with the heater switched on.
Back at the car, he contacted Cloudbase and explained the situation to Colonel White.
“He’s alive? You’re sure?”
“Yes, sir. I definitely felt a pulse.”
“Good, then take him back to the Hoffman Ranch. I will get Doctor Fawn to contact you and we’ll send a medijet for Captain Blue.”
“S.I.G.,” Scarlet replied, as he gunned the engine and started to gather speed. He swung the car round across the central reservation and floored the accelerator in a race to reach the ranch.
“You’re sure there was no sign of Symphony Angel?” Colonel White asked, his concern clearly apparent in his voice.
“She wasn’t in the car; I’m sure of that. Until Ad…Blue comes to we won’t know what’s happened to her. I can’t imagine where she might be. Nevertheless, I suggest we get the crew from Des Moines to come and scour the area, Colonel – the drift was quite long – although I can’t imagine why she’d have left the car if Adam was in it.”
“Perhaps he was injured and she went to fetch help?” Lieutenant Green’s voice interjected. “She wandered off when her jet crashed in the desert once… remember?”
“Only too well,” Scarlet replied gruffly. He had been trying not to think of that incident. “If she started walking, I don’t know which way she’d have gone – I saw no sign of her and she can’t have been picked up or there’d be a record of it in the local hospitals.”
“Check again, Lieutenant,” the colonel ordered. “In the meantime I will brief Fawn and you must contact him the moment you get back to the ranch, Scarlet.”
“S.I.G.,” Scarlet said, and closed the link to concentrate on getting every atom of speed out of his vehicle.
Amanda Wainwright was expecting him and she opened the door as the SSC drove up to the front porch. Scarlet carried Blue inside and was shown into a small sitting room, where the fire was banked up and there were blankets ready on the couch.
“Doctor Fawn said to try and get some warm water inside him,” she explained, pointing to a gently steaming thermos jug. “And to get his wet clothes off him.” She gave a gentle smile. “I thought he’d prefer it if you did that. I brought his pyjamas down… and some shorts, socks and T-shirts.”
Scarlet nodded and watched her leave the room before he turned his attention to his companion. There was slightly more colour in Blue’s face now, although that seemed to be bringing out some spectacular bruising. Scarlet removed his shoes and socks and rubbed the icy feet between his hands before putting on a warm pair of socks.
“Don’t think I’m rubbing anything else, Blue-boy,” he remarked, as he stripped the jeans, jacket, shirt and shorts off. Dressing Blue was more difficult that he’d expected, given that his friend remained unconscious, but he managed it and wrapped the warm blankets around him.
Mrs Wainwright knocked on the door. “Is he decent?” she called.
Scarlet grinned. “Come in, Mrs Dubya… he’s as snug as a bug in a rug.”
She came in with some hot soup steaming in a bowl.
“I haven’t managed to give him the water yet,” Scarlet admitted. “It’s not easy dressing a dead weight… and what a weight. You need to go on a diet, Svenson…”
She laughed sharply. “Last time I saw him ploughing lengths in the pool there wasn’t an inch to spare on him…”
Scarlet grinned again. “Too true; it’s annoying.”
She laid the bowl carefully on the small table and glanced at him. “There’s enough for you as well,” she offered. “I guess you got pretty cold and damp too.”
Ruefully, he looked at his filthy tunic, dark with mud. “Yeah…”
“Here, you eat this and I’ll give Adam some of the water and he can have soup later.”
Gratefully, he sat to eat the soup, while Amanda perched beside Adam and carefully dribbled water between his lips from a teaspoon.
She waited some time before she explained, with devastating calmness, “Charles has told me that you couldn’t see any sign of Karen when you found the car. I can’t imagine anything that would make her leave Adam, especially when he’s hurt.” She turned to look at Scarlet. “He is hurt, isn’t he? Just look at these bruises. This isn’t just hypothermia; he'd’ve walked away if he wasn’t hurt.”
“Doctor Fawn will check him over as soon as he gets here.”
She nodded and glanced away. “Where is she, Paul?”
He sighed. “I don’t know, Mrs Dubya; honestly, I don’t. The colonel has the troops from Des Moines combing the area… but I’ve heard nothing yet.”
“You will tell me, won’t you? You won’t try to ‘protect me’ from the truth? I need to know, Paul!”
“And you will. I promise.” He gave a gentle smile to reassure her. “As soon as I know Adam’s okay, I’m going to visit the Beckers and see if they can shed any light on where they might’ve gone, who was at the party and what – if anything – happened at the party itself.”
“I could call Becky,” Amanda volunteered.
Scarlet hesitated; he was more concerned to check that the Beckers were not Mysteron agents and that was something that couldn’t be done over the phone. “No,” he said carefully. “I think I might be better placed to discover anything that might give us a clue from a face to face interview. Besides, I need you here with Adam and then, in case Karen makes her way home.”
Amanda Wainwright raised one of her elegantly-shaped eyebrows, completely unconvinced by his explanation. “That’s what you Spectrum agents always say: ‘stay out of it, Amanda’.”
“This Spectrum agent hasn’t said it before, I’m sure. I can’t speak for any other Spectrum agents,” Paul said, with a somewhat embarrassed smile. The fact that she had called the colonel by his Christian name had not escaped him; she was probably familiar with more of Spectrum’s elite squadron of agents than any civilian on the planet.
“I’m sorry, Paul. I shouldn’t take it out on you; you’re only doing your job, after all.”
“Slightly more than that, Amanda: I’m looking out for my friends and trying to discover who – or what – did this to one of them.”
She nodded and stood from her seat beside Adam. “I’ll take that bowl and make us some coffee, shall I? How long until Doctor Fawn gets here?”
Scarlet glanced at his watch. “Another hour or so. Coffee would be nice – thanks.”
She left the room and he wandered over to look at Captain Blue. The American’s face was a far more healthy colour, if you discounted the bruises. He could see a bump on Adam’s forehead where the skin had broken and deduced that someone had hit him pretty hard with something – possibly a pistol butt.
He reached down and laid the back of his hand against the skin. It was room temperature, which was comforting. He bit his lip and asked aloud, “What the hell happened to you, Blue-boy, and where the bugger is Karen?”
Blue gave no reply, but Scarlet thought he saw a flicker of the eyes beneath the closed lids. He knew Blue spent many of the hours while he was recovering from his injuries sitting beside his bed, chatting to him, and sometimes – when he woke up – he thought he could remember the subjects of the one-sided conversation, although like a dream the memory soon faded. He knew there was a school of thought that believed conversation was a help to regaining consciousness, but he felt a little self-conscious trying to chat to a comatose Captain Blue.
“Fawn’s on his way, then you’ll be shipped back to Cloudbase for some of his unique TLC. Lucky you, eh?”
Amanda Wainwright came back in carrying a small tray with mugs of steaming coffee on it. The aroma permeated the room.
“Thanks, Mrs Dubya,” Scarlet said, as she brought the tray over to where he stood beside Blue.
She placed the tray beside the couch and offered to pour cream into the mug; Scarlet was about to decline when he was distracted by a noise from the couch, somewhere between a choke and a moan.
Blue opened his eyes for a second and closed them again. He groaned.
Scarlet glanced at Amanda and smiled to see the delighted relief on her face: she was very fond of her daughter’s fiancé and had become close friends with Adam’s mother. Now, she abandoned the coffee and knelt beside the couch.
“Adam,” she said gently. “It’s Amanda… you’re at the ranch, dear. Can you hear me?” He turned his head towards her voice, frowning as he opened his eyes a little. He couldn’t suppress a groan of pain. “Careful, dear; where does it hurt?”
Scarlet leant over with the warm water. “I have no doubt you came back to the land of the living for the coffee, but Doc Fawn said you can only have water for now. Gently,” he warned, as Blue gulped eagerly at the liquid and spluttered as it went down the wrong way.
“How are you, dear?” Amanda asked.
He looked blearily at her and obviously still slightly bewildered, grasped her hand, croaking, ‘Karen, Älskling!”
“No, dear,” Amanda whispered, clutching at his hand, “it’s Amanda. Karen’s not here.”
He became agitated. “Where? Where’s she?”
“That’s what I was hoping you’d tell us, Blue-boy,” Scarlet said calmly so as not to agitate him further. “I found you earlier in the car, buried in a snow-drift. There was no sign of Karen.”
Blue’s expression was one of profound misery as his memory started to come back to him.
“He took her,” he gasped eventually. “In his car. He hit me…” He raised a hand towards his head and moaned at the unexpected pain the movement caused.
“Yes, I can see that,” Scarlet remarked.
“Who did, darling? Who took Karen?” Amanda almost begged him for the information.
Blue frowned in an effort to remember. “Wyatt,” he said, after some thought.
“Wyatt?” Scarlet repeated quizzically.
“Not Wyatt Jackson?” Amanda gasped, but Blue had closed his eyes again and drifted into a deep sleep that verged on unconsciousness.
“Who is he?”
Amanda got to her feet and looked with some concern at Scarlet. “Someone Karen ought never to have got involved with…”
Scarlet’s coffee grew cold as he listened with growing concern while Amanda explained what she knew about her daughter’s relationship with Wyatt Jackson.
“And you think he might have taken her?”
“That’s what Adam said,” Amanda reminded him. “And I don’t know of any other Wyatts.”
“Would he have been at this party then?”
“From what I know of him he goes where he likes, but he’s rarely invited anywhere these days. Certainly, the kids he grew up with all know him too well to trust him much.”
“We need to know what happened there more than ever. Adam said this ‘Wyatt’ hit him, so maybe there was a fight at the party? Or an argument? Although how he came to be buried in a snowdrift in the middle of nowhere is still a mystery.”
“I’ll call Becky,” Amanda said decisively. “I said I’d let her know when I had news and I didn’t call when you came back with Adam.”
“Don’t say too much, Amanda… on second thoughts, don’t say anything. I think it best I go and see them, like I intended to. I can get this guy’s address and go and interview him – if nothing else.”
“You think he’s going to be sitting there quietly waiting to be exposed if he’s got Karen?” she asked caustically. “We should tell the police.”
Scarlet shook his head. “Right now we only have the word of a man who’s not exactly firing on all cylinders. They’d probably not believe us.”
“But you’re Spectrum! Of course they’d believe you.”
“And I’d have to explain what my interest is in it all. No, it’s best to leave it to me for now.”
“She’s my daughter – I want her found as soon as possible – I don’t care about your secrets!”
Amanda stormed from the room, with Scarlet hurrying after her desperate to prevent her giving any kind of warning – however unintentionally – to his suspects, but she was not prepared to compromise.
“I want Karen home – now! If that means the police, so be it,” she snapped.
Scarlet struggled to keep his temper, thinking, as he strove to calm her down, that it was all too obvious where Karen got her volatility from. “Listen, please, Amanda. Why not check with the colonel? He might assign other Spectrum personnel to finding her. Hmm? Worth a try, eh?”
“Charles is only going to say that I should do what you tell me,” she argued, although he could tell that the idea of speaking to her lover had some appeal.
“He’s not always of the same mind as me,” Scarlet admitted. “He says I’m pig-headed and I play my hunches too often.”
To his surprise, she nodded. “I know.” Then, seeing the astonishment on his face she smiled and relented slightly, placing her hand on his arm. “He also says you’re the very best there is, mind you.”
She lifted the phone and punched in the number.
“Don’t say too much,” Scarlet pleaded.
Amanda nodded and listened to the purr of the call-tone. It rang and rang. Finally a voicemail message cut in.
“Hi; this is Kenny and Becky’s phone. We can’t answer right now. Say your piece and we’ll get back to you. Thanks.”
Scarlet gave a discreet sigh of relief.
Annoyed, Amanda muttered, “It’s late; I wonder where they’ve gone?”
Paul shrugged and suggested. “If I go over I can wait till they come back, or maybe ask the neighbours if they saw anything last night.”
“I suppose so; but I still think you need to tell the police.”
“Let’s see if the colonel will give me additional men from Des Moines first?”
Amanda was about to reply when their discussion was interrupted by a crash from the study. They raced back to discover Adam sprawled on the floor by the couch.
“What the hell are you doing?” Scarlet demanded, helping his friend get up and sit on the couch.
“I’m gon’a find her,” Adam mumbled.
“You’re going nowhere,” Scarlet retorted. “You can barely stand, fercrissake!”
“Paul’s right, you need to rest,” Amanda said, coming across to the couch and tilting Adam’s face to the light, noticing with growing concern the darkening bruises and the way he screwed his eyes against the brightness. “You also need something to eat, if I’m any judge. I’ll get you some soup – nice and warming and gentle on the digestion.”
Although Adam shook his head at this suggestion, she left the room, determined to cosset him as best she could until the doctor arrived. Adam looked up at Scarlet and said, slowly, “That guy’s a psycho. I must find Karen.”
“So I’ve been told, but don’t fret, I’ll find him. You stay here. Fawn’s on his way; he says you could have broken ribs and who knows what internal injuries. He wouldn’t care if I went in your condition, of course, but he’s not letting you go.”
Adam’s uncharacteristically crude response to this reasoning made Scarlet grin. “He makes me feel like that sometimes, but he’s right this time. You’re not fit to go chasing about.”
“And that’d stop you?” Adam snapped, and sighed wearily. “You do what you like, Paul. You take the SSC and play the bold rescuer. I’m not going to waste what strength I have arguing.”
Scarlet gave him an appraising stare. “This is too easy… there’s a but coming, isn’t there?”
“No, no ‘but’; just the simple statement of fact: if I have to crawl out of here, I am going to try and find her.”
“You ruddy idiot - you’ll kill yourself!”
“I don’t care! I’m not staying here.”
Scarlet gave an exasperated shrug of his hands. He knew Blue’s stubborn streak too well to imagine he had any chance of talking him out of his decision. He watched his friend marshalling his strength for another attempt to stand and prepare to leave. He knew Amanda wouldn’t be able to prevent Blue from leaving, or more likely, in doing so they would both get hurt – physically and emotionally.
Maybe, he thought, the best way I can keep him out of trouble is to take him with me? Fawn’ll go postal, but that’s nothing new and it doesn’t last long. Adam, on the other hand, is genetically predisposed to hold grudges for decades… do I want to work with a field partner in a permanent sulk?
He came to a decision and said, “Okay, if you want to play the martyr, I can’t stop you. But if I let you come with me – if, mind you – you have to promise to do exactly what I say and, if that is ‘sit and wait in the car’ – you sit and you wait. Okay?”
“You can’t really mean to take Adam with you?” Amanda gasped from the doorway. “He’s injured.”
“He’s certainly mental - and as stubborn as a mule, but that’s nothing unusual,” Scarlet grumbled.
Shaking her head, she put down the bowl of soup. “Eat,” she ordered. Reluctantly, Blue spooned some of the soup into his mouth and discovering it was tasty and warming, realised he was hungry and had some more.
Satisfied, Amanda turned to Scarlet. “Why don’t you wait until Doctor Fawn gets here,” she suggested. “He can examine Adam and see if he’s fit to go with you.” The glance she gave the invalid made it clear she didn’t expect that to happen.
“I don’t want him to go with me,” Scarlet explained. “It’s him you need to convince, Mrs Dubya.”
Under the censorious, yet affectionate, gaze of Amanda Wainwright, Blue finished his soup. “See, I’m fine,” he asserted, placing the bowl back on the table. “Let’s go.”
“If you can stand up, get dressed and walk out of here, you can come,” Scarlet said. “But we’ll have to leave in about five minutes – or Fawn will get here and sedate you.” He left the room.
Amanda stood staring at Adam as he looked around for his clothes. Sighing, she stooped to kiss his forehead before bringing him clean, dry and warm clothes. He gave her a look of profound gratitude.
“Put them on over your pyjamas,” she suggested. “Layers are the key to keeping warm.” She watched him struggle for a few moments and then helped him dress, fastening zips and buttons for him.
“Thank you,” he said, as she settled his heavy winter coat over his shoulder and pulled it closed over the bulk of his clothes.
“Do as Paul says,” she urged. “I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to either of you, and Karen would never forgive me if I’d let you walk out of here to catch your death of cold.”
He gave a snort of laughter that quickly turned to a grimace of pain. “I’m stronger than I look and Paul needs someone to watch his back – whatever he thinks.”
“You’re certainly dumber than you look,” she said affectionately. “But I don’t suppose that bothers you much when you’re getting your own way, does it?”
The SSC sped along the highway in the direction of Cedar Rapids, headlights blazing. Inside, Scarlet gripped the wheel tightly and stared ahead. Beside him, Captain Blue sat unnaturally upright and tense. Occasionally he would give an involuntary gasp as the car juddered over a bump in the road.
“Next left,” Blue muttered, moments before the onboard computer advised the same route.
As he swung the car across the road and onto a side street, Scarlet realised that Blue’s memory was clearing as they approached the venue for the party, which could prove useful if they needed to retrace the steps the couple had made last night.
“We’re looking for the house with idiosyncratic flamingos outside,” Blue said, making Scarlet wonder if he was delirious after all.
Then he saw it: a snow-covered lawn with the plastic flamingos. He sniggered. “Right, I see what you mean now.” He drove straight past and further along the road before doubling back and going round a corner to park the SSC in the side road that ran at right angles to the frontage of the house.
“You ought to stay in the car,” he said to Blue, as his partner unclipped the seatbelt.
Blue nodded once and continued to prepare to leave the vehicle.
“Sit and wait in the car,” Scarlet said pointedly. Blue ignored him. “You promised,” Scarlet reminded him.
“I never said anything,” Blue replied. “I can’t help it if you thought I’d agreed with you. You lead, I’ll back up.”
Shaking his head, Scarlet strode across the road and round to the front of the Becker house. He felt uneasy as he approached; the neighbouring properties were all showing signs of life, with curtains or blinds drawn at the windows and the muted babble of TV sets, but the Becker house was dark and silent. He glanced back at Blue, who was still by the car, staring fixedly at the house.
Suddenly, Blue looked up and, seeing Scarlet watching him, pointed to the ground at the back of the house. Scarlet sprinted round the side of the house to investigate what Blue had seen. At ground level there was a narrow window to the basement and, although it was covered by a blind, there was a narrow chink of light just visible, more from its reflection on the snow than at the window.
“Someone’s home,” Blue whispered. He had joined his partner on the pavement by the open garden.
“What’s down there, do you know?”
“A kids’ play room and the laundry, I think. We went there to talk… after…”
“After… I’d hit Wyatt… for… for being rude to Karen and Kenny Becker had thrown him out.”
“So now you remember… seems like you probably did rile this psycho enough for him to attack you.”
“Seems likely,” Blue agreed. “But that’s nothing to what I will do to him if he has harmed one hair of Karen’s head.”
“You and me both, brother.”
Blue smiled and followed Scarlet round to the front of the house. “Shall we ring the bell?” Scarlet asked flippantly, drawing out his pistol.
Blue shook his head and stepped up to the lock. Moments later the door opened.
“It is a good job you’re an honest man,” Scarlet remarked, as Blue pushed the door wide and stood back for him to enter. The American grinned.
Scarlet led the way, his excellent eyesight adjusting to the darkness without any problem. Since his Mysteronisation his senses had become even more acute; his hearing was preternaturally sharp and he was straining to hear anything that indicated who was in the basement.
He could hear Blue close behind him, his breathing shallow and rapid. For his size, Blue could move very quietly and Scarlet had no concerns that they’d be heard by anyone below them as they moved towards the back of the house where Blue had indicated the stairs were.
At the end of the short hallway, they stopped and Blue rested against the wall, his eyes closed while his partner concentrated on what he could hear below. He opened his eyes with a start when Scarlet nudged him awake. The Englishman held up two fingers and then made a hand gesture that resembled jaws moving: two voices, Blue translated to himself; he couldn’t distinguish anything beyond a low rumble, yet he was disappointed when Scarlet spread his hands in indication that he had no idea who the voices belonged to.
Then Scarlet’s finger jabbed into his chest before pointing to the floor. Stay here, Blue translated and nodded. He was far more tired than he had expected or would admit.
Scarlet pointed at himself and ‘walked’ his fingers away towards the stairs. Blue nodded. He placed an index finger along the side of his nose – their accepted gesture for ‘be careful’. Scarlet grinned.
The stairs were wooden and narrow, but they had a turn in them and when Scarlet stopped about half-way down to listen to the desultory conversation it was clear that his presence was still unsuspected.
He edged forward, peering down into the basement room where he expected to see who was in the house. He saw three young children huddled around the figure of a woman crouched on the floor. She was dark-haired, bespectacled and plump, matching the description he’d been given of Becky Becker. One of the children was little more than a baby and was asleep, her head on her mother’s thigh. The older two, still under 10, were boys and were standing at her shoulders, sleepy, yet too wide-eyed with fear to relax.
Scarlet peered a little further round and saw the body of a man stretched out on the floor. He’d been beaten up and was either asleep or unconscious. Beside him crouched Symphony Angel, dressed in a provocatively low-cut, halter-necked mini-dress and impractically high stiletto-heeled boots. Her hair was piled on her head and intertwined with black ribbon and she was wearing bright red lipstick and heavy eye-makeup.
She glanced occasionally at someone else in the room, who was presumably walking about.
“You have to understand,” a man’s voice said suddenly, “I have a reputation to maintain; the people I deal with don’t make allowances for weakness and if they heard about what you did to me, and that I hadn’t punished you for it, they would consider me weak. That ain’t gonna happen. You will all be made to regret acting as you did and everyone will get to hear what happened to you because you tried to go against me!”
“Oh, stop it, Wyatt,” Symphony snapped. “We’re not interested in your ego-trip. How long do you think you can hold us here? There are people out there who will want to know where we are.”
“Don’t bank on your dandified sugar-daddy riding to your rescue, Kay. My guess is that the snow and the cold will have done for him, long since.”
Symphony looked away, biting her lip. “If anything happens to Adam I will make it my goal in life to see you rot in hell!”
Wyatt laughed. “When will you realise that I hold all the cards, Kay? You are what you always were, an uncouth, cheap tramp. You walked away from your only chance at a decent life when you went off to the East Coast to sleep your way into a respectable college. Boy, they must’ve regretted accepting you when they realised what trash you are! I bet you were relieved when you cornered that rich fool – you must’ve thought you were on a gravy train for life and all you had to do was open your legs…”
“Shut up!” Symphony snapped.
“No – you shut up! Even your dupe had more sense than to marry you, I’ll give him that much.”
“Leave her alone!” Becky Becker shouted. “She was always too good for you, Wyatt, and she still is.”
“Shut up, you slut! Unless you want your no-good husband to get another beating?”
The little boys began to whimper with fear and Scarlet saw Wyatt Jackson for the first time as he strode over to Becky. She wrapped her arms protectively around her two boys and stared him down.
“Shut those little bastards up before I do it myself!”
Becky tried to calm her sons and reassure them that there was nothing to fear. From his vantage point on the staircase, even Scarlet wasn’t convinced she was right.
Jackson was in full flood now, his voice rose as he proclaimed: “No lousy woman’s gonna walk out on me – d’you hear? They can go when I’ve finished with them – and not before.”
“What about your wife, Wyatt? Didn’t she leave you?” Symphony asked, seeking to draw his attention from her friend and the children.
“Oh sure, she tried; but there’s no decent man gonna look at her again after what I had done to her face,” he gloated. “It made California a little too hot for me, so I came back here – to the loving bosom of my family and my so-called friends – and what do I hear? Snide comments and put downs… well, no one’s gonna say that sort of thing about me after this.”
“God help us,” Becky moaned, “he’s crazy.”
“Can’t you see he’s deranged?” Symphony said to a so far unsuspected third party in the room. “Help us, let us go, before you get into deeper trouble.”
It was Wyatt who responded, “Now that’s what I meant when I always said you were unlucky, Kay. Casca loves his work and he’d as soon split you from ear to ear as walk away from these situations. But, it just might be that your luck’s about to change, Kay, ‘cause I’m gonna give you a second chance.”
“To do what?” Symphony asked.
“To make good. We’ll give Cedar Rapids the wedding it deserves. We’ll have the biggest event in the town’s history! You shall have everything money can buy and I’ll keep you by me, so you won’t want to stray again.”
“Wedding? You must be mad, Wyatt. If the earth was devoid of every living thing but you and me, I’d still put a continent between us. Besides, if I’m such a tramp, why would you want to marry me, huh?”
“We belong together, you and me,” Wyatt stated, walking over and grabbing Karen by the chin to tilt her face towards his. “I understand you, Kay, I know what makes you tick and I can satisfy you more than that dandified rich boy ever could.”
“You’re not fit to wipe his boots!” she spat at him, and he raised his hand to slap her face. The force of the blow sent her sprawling onto the floor.
“Filthy bastard!” Becky shrieked. “Filthy, cowardly bastard – beating up on a woman!”
“Shut your mouth, you harpy!” Wyatt must’ve gestured to the unseen Casca as Scarlet saw a large, much-tattooed man lumber into view. He approached Becky and her boys, who started crying and clinging to her in fear.
Scarlet had seen more then enough. He moved from his hiding place and shouted:
Casca lunged for Becky, who screamed in anger and with a strength born of fear, punched his face with both hands. Snarling, he grabbed her and held her before him as a shield against Scarlet’s gun. On the other side of the room, Wyatt had grabbed Symphony, who was putting up a much better fight than Becky. She moved to grab him and threw him to the ground, holding onto his hand and twisting his arm as she placed one stiletto-heeled foot on his rib cage. Wyatt had the sense to lie still.
She glanced up at Scarlet and gave a wry smile. “Good to see you,” she said. “Where’s Adam?”
She heaved a deep sigh. “Thank God.”
Scarlet’s stare had not left Casca while this took place. Becky’s daughter, woken by the noise and her mother’s movement was crying on the floor and the two boys stood beside their sister, holding hands; the youngest was also crying now and the elder looked close to tears.
“Come on, kids,” Scarlet called. “Come back upstairs…”
The oldest looked towards his mother for instructions and Becky gave an encouraging nod, that earned her a slap from her captor.
“Dem kids ain’t goin’ nowhere,” the big man rumbled. “Me and Wyatt’s getting outa here an’ you ain’t gonna stop us, mister.”
“Wyatt’s going nowhere,” Symphony interjected. “He’s got an appointment with the local cops and probably with a jail cell.”
Casca considered this for a moment and then said, “Okay, but I am getting outa here. Dis woman’s comin wi’ me.”
The children set up a nerve-grating wail at this news.
“No,” Symphony said, “let her go.”
“You got a hankering to take her place, lady?”
She didn’t hesitate, but replied, “Sure, I’ll go with you, if you let her and the kids go. And I give you my word that this officer won’t make an attempt to stop us or follow us for…” she paused, “thirty minutes.”
Casca gave it some thought. Then he chuckled. “You’se certainly sexier than dis woman.”
“Did Wyatt tell you what a rich man my fiancé is?” she asked Casca. “He’ll pay good money to get me back.”
“Mebbe you won’t wanna go back, eh?” Casca laughed. “Mebbe Wyatt was right about you likin’ it rough?”
“I like a man who knows how to handle me, that’s for sure,” she said, with a suggestive smile. “Now, let Becky go to her kids and I’ll take her place.”
“Come here first,” Casca said, after a moment’s reflection.
“Keep this slimeball covered, Captain,” Symphony said, referring to Wyatt who was still sprawled on the floor.
“You sure you want to do this?” Scarlet asked.
Symphony nodded. “It’s my fault the Beckers got involved in all this, I don’t want anyone to suffer for my sake.”
“Kay, don’t be so silly!” Becky cried.
Symphony dropped Wyatt’s arm and walked across the basement. For a moment she hugged her friend. “Look after Kenny and the kids,” she said, adding quietly, “Keep them down here out of the way and don’t come up until it is safe.”
Becky nodded and hugged her.
“Come on,” Casca said, grabbing Symphony’s arm and twisting it behind her back. “An’ no tricks.” He glanced at Scarlet. “Make one move and I’ll break her pretty neck.”
Scarlet came down the stairs and walked to where Wyatt was starting to move. He pointed the gun down at him, and glanced at Casca. “No tricks,” he agreed. “You have thirty minutes before I call the police, the state guard and the World Army Airforce.”
“Funny guy,” Casca rumbled, pushing Symphony towards the stairs.
As she started to climb and disappeared around the corner, Becky called out to Scarlet, “Are you going to let him get away? You have to save her!”
Scarlet raised his head from scrutinising the man at his feet, to glance at her in an effort to reassure her that there was no need for her to be concerned, and in the split second that he looked away, Wyatt produced a small pistol from his jacket pocket and shot upwards. The bullet entered beneath Scarlet’s chin with such force that it jerked his head backwards and went on upwards, shattering his palate before lodging in his brain; but Scarlet was dead before it stopped moving. Becky’s yell of warning was still ringing out as his body fell like a toppled tree to lie across Wyatt, blood gushing from the terrible wound.
Yelling with disgust and shock, Wyatt struggled to push the body off him and roll clear.
Sobbing with shock and fear, Becky gathered her terrified children to her as Wyatt, splattered with Scarlet’s blood, got to his feet. The noise – especially the gunshot - had been enough to make Casca turn back to see what was happening.
“Hey, Wyatt, c’m on, man, let’s get out of here,” he called, beckoning with his free hand.
“I’ll get you,” Wyatt threatened Becky, as he slithered on the blood-wet floor and started for the staircase. “You ain’t seen the last of me.”
When Doctor Fawn arrived at the Hoffman Ranch he was furious to discover that Captain Scarlet had allowed Captain Blue to go with him to Cedar Rapids. He called Cloudbase and vented his anger to the colonel.
“I agree, Doctor, it is a most reprehensible decision, however, I don’t see what you expect me to do about it?” White said, as soon as he could get a word in edgeways.
“Scarlet apparently assumes everyone has the same degree of immunity as he does these days,” Fawn fulminated, “and one of these days someone is going to get killed because of it.”
“Let us hope today isn’t that day,” White replied sharply. “What will you do now?”
“Mrs Wainwright has provided me with the address where she thinks they’ve gone in the search for Symphony, so I shall go there and if any of them are there, I shall ship them back to Cloudbase.”
“Good idea,” White agreed. “Except that it might be an idea to find all of them before you send them back – unless there is a medical emergency which dictates otherwise, of course.”
“S.I.G., Colonel,” Fawn replied and concluded, “and then you can read them the riot act.”
“I’m looking forward to it already,” the colonel remarked dryly.
Symphony heard the shot in the basement and felt Casca turn back to investigate; despite her curiosity she kept on walking up the stairs, hoping to find something to give her an edge over her captor. As she came into the living room, she considered making a dash for the door, but her footwear meant that was impractical. From the corner of her eye she saw a slight movement in a dark corner and turned.
A figure moved just far enough for the light from the window to illuminate him.
“Adam-” she breathed, and was about to run to him when he held up a hand and stopped her, pointing towards the staircase where she could hear Becky screaming. He put a long finger to his lips and faded back into the darkness.
Composing her face into an expression of resignation, Symphony stood and waited for the two men to catch her up.
“Wyatt? You managed to get away from the Captain? What’s happened to Becky?” she asked, alarmed at seeing him covered in blood.
Wyatt grabbed her arm and shook her. “She’s lucky to be alive, but your little policeman friend is history, Kay. That should teach you not to mess with me.”
“Hey, I kept to my bargain, didn’t I, Casca? I’m still here.”
“Yeh, she din’t do nuthin’. C’m on Wyatt, we have ta get outa here. The shot’s gonna bring the cops.”
“Yeah, you go and get the car. We’ll head for Chicago – nobody knows us there.”
“They’ll find you, wherever you go,” Symphony warned him. “That man wasn’t the police – although they’ll be after you like hounds on a scent – he was a Spectrum officer. I told you I’ve been working for the World Government and it is Spectrum that provides our security. Crossing the state line won’t save you, Wyatt, they’ll hunt you down; you might as well give in now and face the consequences.”
“Give in? Give in?” he yelled at her. “I don’t ‘give in’ to anybody. Apart from that bitch and her brats, there’re no witnesses… if I shoot them, there will be no witnesses at all!”
“You can’t do that!” Symphony yelled, yanking on his arm as he turned back to the basement stairs.
“Try and stop me.” Wyatt shoved her so hard that she fell back over the arm of a chair and he broke away. “No one can stop me,” he snarled.
“I can.” Blue stepped from the shadow, his Spectrum gun trained on Wyatt. “Stand still, or I will fire.”
“You? So, you didn’t die back in that snowdrift? I knew I should’ve shot you then.”
Wyatt went to raise the gun he was holding and Blue, without a moment’s hesitation, fired. The bullet went dead centre of his forehead and Wyatt fell to the ground.
Casca came back in, saw his partner and the man who had shot him, and dived for Symphony. He dragged her to her feet, using her as a shield.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “An’ she’s comin’ with me.”
“No, she isn’t,” Blue said with conviction, and before Casca could react he fired another bullet: another deadly accurate shot to the big man’s forehead.
Symphony let out the breath she’d been holding and opened her eyes. Reaching out for her fiancé, she stepped over Casca’s body and stumbled. Adam hurried to catch her in his outstretched arms. She started to sob in relief and shock as he held her tight. Wishing he could do the same, Adam took a moment to gather his strength, but there was no time for self-indulgence, the police would be on their way.
“Scarlet?” he asked Symphony, too tired to be any less cryptic.
She sniffed and pulled herself together. “He must be down there with Becky. Oh, my God, Adam – Becky and the kids!”
She broke away and ran as fast as her footwear would allow back towards the stairs. Although he was verging on collapse, he followed her.
Together with the near-hysterical Becky, they managed to get the children out of that reeking basement and up into the kitchen-dining area – avoiding the corpses in the lounge - and Karen started to make them all hot drinks.
Blue went back to the basement alone. He was too weak to lift Kenny Becker from the floor, but he ascertained that the civilian was still alive, although unconscious after a severe beating. He knelt beside Scarlet’s corpse and felt an overwhelming sorrow.
“Hang in there, Paul,” he muttered, as he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’ll get help, buddy.”
He dragged himself back upstairs. “I’ll go to the SSC and call for medical backup. Fawn was coming,” he told Symphony. “He’s probably at the ranch by now.”
“Good. We’ll still need a civilian ambulance for Kenny.”
Adam nodded and turned to address Becky, “He’s okay, Mrs Becker; he’ll need some hospitalisation, but he’ll pull through.”
Mute with shock, all Becky could do was nod and stare at him with terrified eyes. Impulsively, Blue knelt before her and said reassuringly, “You did everything right, you protected your children. Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.”
In the distance there was a wail of approaching sirens and overhead a helijet appeared, rotor blades whipping up the show and causing the idiosyncratic flamingos to fall over in the downdraft.
Doctor Fawn ran into the house with his emergency bag in his hand, to be met by Captain Blue who was holding onto the back of an armchair. He looked around at the bodies on the floor and then at Blue.
“Scarlet’s in the basement,” Blue said his voice heavy with exhaustion. “There’s civilians too – some kids…” He tried to point to towards the kitchen and swayed. Fawn stepped forward and helped him to sit down.
“Reprehensible,” the doctor muttered. “You never said a truer word, Colonel…” and instructing the paramedics to deal with the people upstairs, he hurried down to the basement to see what needed doing and what he could do.
On reaching Cloudbase, Captain Blue was found to have two cracked ribs and was given a stern lecture by Doctor Fawn about the foolishness of rushing off at the risk of making his condition worse. Colonel White added his disapproval of the irresponsible way his officer had behaved and concluded his address by ordering Blue to spend two weeks with his family in Boston to recover, while Symphony was despatched back to Cedar Rapids to spend the rest of her booked leave with her mother, returning to Cloudbase a few days after her birthday.
Captain Scarlet spent a couple of weeks in Sick Bay and during that time Doctor Fawn refused to allow even the usual visitors. The bullet had caused terrible injuries to Scarlet’s face and – to Fawn’s concern – it was still lodged in his patient’s brain.
Although Scarlet’s Mysteron-endowed retrometabolic ability would restore him, even from these terrible wounds, it would not remove the bullet that had caused it. Fawn had no way of knowing if leaving the bullet in situ would cause problems in the future, or whether Scarlet’s Mysteronised body would simply ignore it. For his own peace of mind he had, in the past, always removed bullets from his patient’s body, but he was not so confident about doing that with this one, given where it was. He was also more worried than he admitted about the pace of Scarlet’s recovery, which was somewhat slower than usual.
Consequently, Fawn watched and waited until Scarlet regained consciousness and then ran numerous tests on his sensory systems and cognitive functions. He consulted medical databases, spoke to neurological consultants across the globe and finally held a long, private meeting with Colonel White, before he discussed his conclusions with Captain Scarlet.
Scarlet heard the doctor out in silence, a frown between his dark eyebrows. He was propped up in bed with a bandage around his head and wired up to several robotic nurses and monitoring equipment.
“My decision?” he asked, as Fawn came to a close.
“Your decision,” Fawn confirmed. “I have given you all of the evidence I’ve gathered, and my professional knowledge is at your disposal. We’ve always removed bullets and… err… sharp, pointy things from your body before, but we still don’t know if it was necessary. You’ve always recovered, and you have now, just as we hoped, but I note with some concern that yesterday you told Nurse Ingram you had ‘a headache’.”
“I’d been watching daytime TV,” Scarlet muttered somewhat flippantly. “It’s enough to give anyone a headache.”
“True, but you didn’t just turn the TV off, you asked for medication,” Fawn reminded him. “Did it help?”
“I went to sleep,” Scarlet told him. “I felt better afterwards.”
“A retrometabolic sleep?”
Scarlet shrugged. “I don’t know; it doesn’t seem any different to me: I’m just asleep. You think the bullet will affect me, if it stays there, don’t you, Doc?”
“I don’t know what the consequences might be in the long term. Your case is unique, Paul; that’s why, ultimately, you have to decide what action we take – if any.”
“Will it hurt if we do nothing?”
Fawn shrugged. “Does it hurt now?”
Scarlet sniffed and pursed his lips. “Not so that I notice. Will an operation hurt?”
Fawn shifted slightly. “Anaesthetics don’t affect you the same as they do everyone else. They don’t last as long, for a start. I can’t promise anything, except that I will do my utmost to make sure any discomfort is kept to a minimum.”
“Fair enough…” Scarlet murmured and stared thoughtfully into the distance.
Fawn waited patiently, ready and willing to give any information or advice that his patient – and friend – might require. He had made his own decision on what would be for the best, but he had taken care not to load his arguments. It felt harsh to make Scarlet take the final decision, but, as he was the one who would have to live with it – possibly for many lifetimes – Fawn was sure it was the right thing to do. He was about to say ‘you don’t have to make your mind up immediately, take time to sleep on it, if you want’, when Scarlet stirred from his reverie and pulled himself together.
He gave Fawn a wry smile. “Let’s do it and get it over with…”
Neither Fawn or Scarlet ever went into details about how his full recovery was accomplished, or what was done to ensure that the bullet would be of no further danger to the invalid. It remained a closed subject, even between Scarlet and Blue.
The day Blue got back from Boston, Scarlet emerged from Sick Bay, looking as he always did and seemingly none the worse for his recent experience. The colonel called the three officers to the Conference Room, for a final debriefing.
Colonel White explained that the police had been served with a security notice by Spectrum and that, therefore, there would be no formal inquest or investigation of the incidents in Cedar Rapids.
“Of course, the Becker family have been re-homed at Spectrum’s expense. They could not be expected to live in the same house that they’d witnessed such appalling incidents in. That building will be demolished. Mr Becker, as I am sure Symphony can confirm, is recovering from his injuries and will be back at his job in the next few weeks. Mrs Becker and the children have been given counselling and I am told they are coping well.”
Symphony nodded. “I went to see them before I came back on duty. They’re doing fine. Of course, I had to tell them that you were dead, Captain Scarlet; they’d never believe anyone could’ve survived that injury.”
“I feel as if I very nearly didn’t,” Scarlet muttered. “Although part of that might simply be due to extreme embarrassment. I made an error a rookie would be ashamed of – I looked away from a prisoner when I didn’t know he was safely unarmed and restrained. I guess I deserved it.”
“Hey, even the best of us slip up sometimes,” Blue said, with a reassuringly friendly smile.
“It’s kind of comforting for us mere mortals to know that even you are only human, Scarlet,” Symphony said. Realising what she’d said, and well aware of her friend’s sensitivity to his alien-given special attributes, she gasped and looked apologetically at the Englishman. But, perversely enough, Scarlet looked rather pleased at her words.
“I am sure I speak for us all when I say that we’re glad the error was not a ‘fatal’ one, Captain,” the colonel added.
“Although it was a close run thing,” Fawn muttered. “I do not want to have to go through that again, Captain.”
“Neither do I,” Scarlet said quietly, and bit his bottom lip.
There was an uncomfortable silence until Scarlet asked, “Was there any sign of Mysteron involvement, Colonel?”
White shook his head. “As far as we know, neither Wyatt Jackson nor the man known as ‘Casca’ were Mysteron reconstructs. They were just… evil human beings.”
Symphony sighed and sat back in her chair, running her hand through her hair in unconscious imitation of Blue’s nervous habit. “They were surely that, Colonel. Wyatt would have killed Becky and her children if Blue hadn’t stopped them. He might’ve killed Kenny Becker and me too because he didn’t want any witnesses to what he did to Captain Scarlet. Blue only did what was necessary to remove the threat.”
“I am glad to hear it,” the colonel said. “The Beckers have explained that there was a brawl between Captain Blue and Mr Jackson earlier in the evening; something the Cedar Rapids police force were interested to hear, especially as Mr and Mrs Jackson were pressing for a full investigation into the ‘murder’ of their son.”
“Surely Becky told them Wyatt and Casca were threatening everyone? Before Scarlet arrived they had already beaten Kenny up because he tried to defend his wife and kids,” she explained.
“What I want to know is what happened after you crashed on the way to the ranch?” Scarlet asked.
“We were being followed when we left the Beckers’ house,” she explained. “Adam – Captain Blue – had dozed off, but I could see the same car was behind us and it was suspicious. I woke him up and we decided to make sure they were tailing us by doing a U-turn and heading back to the airport, where we stood a better chance of losing them. The weather was deteriorating and I lost control of the vehicle.”
“The road was covered in black ice, sir,” Blue confirmed. “The car went down the embankment on the other side of the road. I think I passed out for a while.”
“Is that where you sustained the cracked ribs?” Fawn asked.
Blue looked at Symphony. “Not exactly; that is, I can’t be sure.”
“Wyatt was following us,” she explained. “He came down the bank after us in his car and dragged me out of the off-roader. Blue was unconscious, and I was stunned, a little. He dragged me back to his car where he left me with Casca to make sure I stayed there. He went back to the car just as Adam was coming to and getting out. He attacked him, sir, knocked him to the ground and started kicking him.” She looked apologetically at her fiancé. “I couldn’t stop him…”
“Hmm,” White said. “Then what happened?”
“Wyatt said he decided not to shoot Adam because it would make it too suspicious, so they – Casca and Wyatt – rolled the car into a snow bank and threw Adam by the side of it. He said he wanted it to look like the car had crashed and Blue had been injured and got out but been unable to save himself. He intended him to die of exposure – a perfect execution, he called it. I guess you must’ve come to long enough to get back in the car?” she asked Blue, who shrugged.
“I don’t remember if I did or not, but it seems the most plausible explanation,” he agreed.
“And what did they want with you, Symphony?” White asked gently.
“Wyatt was an old boyfriend of mine – one my mom had told me to avoid like the plague, only I didn’t listen. He was mad at me when I went east to study and he said he was going to give me a chance to make it up to him.” She rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t take a genius to work out exactly how I was supposed to do that, sir. He drove back to his place and there was a room all kitted out with… well… kinky stuff and he made me change into that stupid outfit. I was trying to play along and make an opportunity to get help for Adam.”
“Of course you were,” Scarlet said, with a reassuring smile and then added mischievously, “And I didn’t see anything wrong with the outfit, I assumed you’d worn it to the party…”
She gave him an exasperated glance. “That was the least kinky thing I could find, but you don’t imagine I’d have something like that in my wardrobe from choice, do you?”
“More’s the pity,” Blue muttered under his breath. Scarlet sniggered as Symphony glared at him.
“Quite – let’s concentrate on what happened at the Becker house, shall we?” the colonel said stiffly. “Why did you go back there?”
“Wyatt wanted revenge on Kenny for throwing him out of the party. With Casca beside him, and now the Beckers would be alone at the house, he knew he was strong enough to get it. I was taken along to prove to Becky that I’d seen the ‘error of my ways’ and show that Wyatt was in charge. She didn’t believe it, of course. She knows me better than that.”
“Were you assaulted by either man, Symphony?” White asked carefully.
Symphony blushed. “No, sir, although it was only a matter of time. Wyatt made that perfectly clear.”
“Well, that is something to be thankful for,” the colonel said. Amanda Wainwright had told him that she wasn’t sure what had happened while her daughter had been held captive, but he felt confident that under the circumstances, and given her wish to prove that Wyatt Jackson had no redeeming features and Blue had been doing mankind a favour by removing him from the population, Symphony would have told the truth. He would reassure her mother later.
“When Scarlet arrived, I felt sure he wouldn’t have come alone,” she continued, eager to change the subject, “although, I didn’t guess it would be Captain Blue who was with him.”
“It shouldn’t have been,” Fawn retorted. “Next time I will make it a medical order for you to stay put,” he warned Blue with a wry smile.
“But it was a good thing Blue was there,” Scarlet reasoned. “They didn’t expect him and he was able to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion. And you’ve got to consider that if I had been accompanied by a terrestrial agent, they might have found out about my retrometabolism.”
The colonel nodded and drew his papers together. “Well, I think we can draw this to a conclusion. There was no Mysteron activity and no breach of security. The Beckers are unharmed – physically – and with careful help they’ll deal with the psychological scars. However, we’ve been lucky this time and next time we may not. I shall review the regulations regarding home visits and contact with previously known associates.”
“With respect, sir, I don’t think Wyatt can be classed as the usual ‘previously known associate’,” Symphony said. “He was a psycho; sooner or later he’d have come to a sticky end.”
White agreed. “The police are finding that Mr Jackson had his fingers in some very mucky pies. His associate likewise. However, Spectrum must preserve its security, whatever the cost. It behoves us all to bear that in mind at all times.”
“Yes, sir,” three voices chorused.
“And to remember that obedience to a given order is not an optional extra,” the colonel concluded, glancing at Blue and Scarlet.
“Yes sir,” the three voices chorused again.
“Hmmph,” White said dryly, as he studied the three faces all radiating innocence and good intentions. “Well, just see to it that you do.”
In an exclusive private cemetery in Cedar Rapids, Mrs June Jackson laid a fresh wreath of flowers on her son’s elaborate grave, and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. She steadfastly refused to believe the scurrilous stories that were emerging about her beloved Wyatt and mourned him with a sincere and profound grief. She missed him so much that she even prayed for his spirit to come back from the Heaven it was most certainly occupying, to haunt her.
As she was adjusting the heavy black veil she wore on every visit to his graveside, she noticed a tall, dark-haired man watching her intently from a few rows away among the graves. She immediately classed him as one of those annoying reporters who had been dogging her footsteps since Wyatt had been murdered by those despicable thugs from out of town, and sniffed with annoyance.
She marched out of the cemetery with her head held high, ignoring everyone else she passed by.
Which was a shame.
Captain Black turned to the latest Mysteron recruit who had appeared at his side and gave a bleak nod of his head. “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU MUST DO.”
The replica of Wyatt Jackson nodded in return. “The Mysterons’ order will be carried out,” he said with unmistakable enthusiasm in his voice.
I’d thought about how and when Symphony would introduce her fiancé to her hometown friends for some time, so I don’t really know what triggered this story off. Perhaps it was the Internet website of Christmas decorations that showed a picture of 3 pink, plastic flamingos on a snow-covered lawn in Iowa that started the ball rolling… it certainly made an impression on my imagination.
Wyatt Jackson may well resurface in a later story, although that was not my original intention when I started writing this.
My thanks go to Chris Bishop, who created the character of Amanda Wainwright and laid the foundations for her relationship with Colonel White. I like Amanda and I like the dynamics the relationships between the commanding officer, one of his senior field officers, his fiancée and her mother, present. Thanks also to Chris for the web presentation – she never fails to astound me with her skill and artistry.
Thanks also to my Beta Reader: Hazel Köhler, who devoted her spare time (of which there isn’t much) to checking this over, helping me to focus the story on what passes for the plot line and putting commas where commas ought to be. She is a Star!
Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons™, belongs to Carlton Media, I think; the concept was another brilliant one from the team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and the main thanks goes to them and their production team.
I hope you enjoyed reading it.
21 January 2012.