It was the dawn of the third age of mankind…
Well, maybe not. But it was the dawn of International Rescue. A time when Jeff was selecting the team of agents he would need to ensure his organisation’s safety and security. A time when, just maybe, Scott wasn’t quite as perfect a pilot as he would become later…
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading.
Written for the TIWF Silly Title Challenge 2006.
Thunderbirds doesn’t belong to me.
“Don’t put that there.”
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward paused in her action of pulling the sun-lounger round to her favoured side of the pool. It was difficult to see why they were positioned as they had been, frankly. On the other side, the sun wouldn’t be in one’s eyes during the morning, and the prevailing wind would provide a cooling breeze over the pool. She raised her eyebrows – frowning, it had been drilled into her, was not only unladylike, it made wrinkles – and gazed coolly at her questioner. The only red-head in the family, Gordon. One of the younger brothers, if she remembered rightly.
“Whyever not, dear boy?”
“It’s not as good as this side. Just here.” He gestured expansively at the spot it had come from. “Look – it’s sunny!”
Penny regarded him with what she hoped wasn’t an outwardly visible smirk. It would never do to be rude to the son of one’s host. Really, though – every side of the pool was equally sunny. It had something to do with being in the tropics. To be out of the sun, one had to stand directly beneath one of the island’s relocated palm trees. If they had been intended to look natural, they should have been spaced far less regularly.
“I prefer the sun to my back, not in my eyes.”
“You’re too close to the pool there. You might fall in.”
He was an ex-Olympic swimmer, but even so… “I can swim quite well, thank you.”
“Then why not this end?” He ran the length of the pool, to a point with no view whatsoever. In bare feet he had quite a noticeable limp, she realised. Jeff had commented that an accident had ended his swimming career.
“No, thank you. I have no desire to be splashed every time one of you uses the diving board.” She turned away and finished tugging the lounger into her ideal position. Sun at her back, and close enough to the edge that she could trail her fingers in the water. Being able to reach the water without getting out of one’s chair was the hallmark of an excellent sun-lounger placement, in Penny’s opinion. She pulled it a little closer to the edge. As with every piece of furniture she’d seen since her arrival – every item she’d ever seen Jeff Tracy use, in fact – this exuded quality. Solid, craftsman-built hardwood. There was absolutely no chance it could flex and tip her into the pool.
Gordon made one final attempt. “Everyone else sits this side.”
“And I will be able to look at their faces while conversing. Honestly, dear boy, what do you expect to happen? I will be quite all right.”
Gordon opened his mouth, shut it again. “I guess you will.” He glanced at his watch, almost but not quite casually. “I’m sorry to leave you alone, Penelope, but there’s something I need to do urgently. Tin-Tin will be along any moment. Do you mind?”
“Of course not, dear boy,” she assured him, wondering what he was up to. “You run along, and I’ll see you later.”
Gordon hurried into the house and, as luck would have it, almost ran down Tin-Tin just inside the door. “Hey – stop a minute!”
“I was not the one who needed to stop.” Tin-Tin recovered her towel and sunglasses from where she’d dropped them when Gordon had just barely not skidded into her. “What is the matter, Gordon?”
“I’ve figured out the perfect way to figure Penny out.”
Tin-Tin frowned. “I will need a little more explanation.”
“You know Father plans to tell her about IR? Well, we’d never question him on that. But why is she here? None of the other agents have come to the island. If he wants her to be more than just a colleague, we need to know where we stand. What she’s really like.”
“I see.” The frown deepened. “Gordon – I’m not sure a practical joke is the way to go.”
“Oh, I’m not going to play a joke on her. Father would be mortified, and if she took it wrong it could be difficult. Imagine if he told her about IR, and then she said no! I’ve got more sense than that. I just need you to not do one thing.”
“To not do?” Tin-Tin appeared, if anything, even more confused.
“Don’t comment on where she’s put the sun-lounger. I suggested she put it back, but she’s one determined lady. I can see what Father likes about her.”
“Where is it?”
“Real close to the pool, precisely downwind.”
“Exactly.” Gordon grinned. “It’ll be my fault, and I think her reaction will tell us a great deal about Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward’s sense of humour.”
Penny had just settled herself comfortably on the lounger – drink at hand, novel lying alongside it, towel arranged just so – when Tin-Tin emerged and headed for the other side of the pool.
“Tell me, is there something wrong with me sitting over here?”
Tin-Tin started. “Why do you think that?”
“Oh, nothing.” Penny lay back, her suspicions confirmed. Gordon must, sadly for him, be one of those people who had to have everything just so. An admirable characteristic, but not when taken to excess. Jeff had told her that Gordon was his personal assistant. Such a shame that the poor boy couldn’t stop worrying, even over something so trivial as the arrangement of the sun-loungers. It must make things very difficult for Jeff.
She’d been told by more than one person that she would make an exemplary personal assistant of the very highest calibre. Penny had always smiled politely and ignored them. She doubted very much whether anyone who saw her unedited résumé would suggest it. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d had to gently let down a wealthy businessman who’d wanted her in charge of his diary.
“Penny, can I talk to you a moment?” Jeff’s deep voice came floating down from the balcony.
She sat up, schooling her features into the perfect smile. No wonder Gordon had been acting strangely, if he felt he was about to be replaced. She really should not have come, but so few people ever received an invitation to Tracy Island, she’d been unable to resist it. “Of course, Jeff. I’ll be right up, as you Americans say.”
Jeff Tracy wasn’t a man to beat about the bushes. Almost before she’d sat down across from his desk, he leaned forwards and flashed that famous smile.
“Penny, I have a proposition for you. I’d like you to come work for me.”
She’d been right, then. Such a pity. She’d looked forward to a few days of tropical sunshine, but it was almost certain that she’d not be a welcome houseguest after this interview.
“Jeff, I’m so sorry, but I would make a very poor secretary. I fear I have to decline.”
The last thing she was expecting was for Jeff Tracy, billionaire entrepreneur and a man to whom nobody ever said no, to lean back in his chair and roar with laughter.
“Actually, Penny, that’s not quite the job description I had in mind…”
“I’m still not at all sure about this.” Penny sat back, trying not to let her disbelief show. She’d known the man had a ruthless streak, but she’d always seen him as a bit of a philanthropist. “Really, what you describe is nothing more than industrial espionage, well, counter-espionage, I suppose. Doing these things for one’s country is entirely different to doing them for financial gain.”
“You mean, you need a higher cause?” Jeff queried. She could almost taste the disdain.
“Yes.” She met his eyes defiantly. “I need a higher cause. I don’t need the money. It has to mean something, and I’m afraid a higher profit margin for Tracy Industries doesn’t qualify.”
“I hoped you’d say that.” The disdain was gone, as Jeff pressed a switch on his desk. “Scott, I’ll be needing that demonstration now.”
“FAB, Father,” the voice of Jeff’s oldest son responded from the speaker.
“Penny, if you’d care to step out onto the balcony, I have something to show you. I think you’ll be interested.”
She followed him out, trying to find some sense in all this. Surely she’d made it clear already? She might not be in Jeff Tracy’s class of rich, but saying she didn’t need the money had been no affectation. Penelope Creighton-Ward couldn’t be bought. She’d thought Jeff astute enough to realise that.
Rather to her surprise, the balcony was fully occupied. This demonstration must be something they all wanted to see. Gordon stood at the left-hand end, his back to the rail as he talked to Tin-Tin and her father, whose position in the household she was still unclear on. The blond next to Kyrano was Alan, the youngest. John was also blond, she’d ascertained from the family portraits, and he was the only brother not on the island at the moment. The only one in glasses was Brains, who’d been introduced to her as a scientist working for Tracy Industries. She’d guessed he must also be a personal friend of one of the boys, holidaying here. The dark hair of the man next to him reduced the options to either Virgil or Scott, and the brown eyes made it Virgil. Now was he older or younger than John? She couldn’t remember being told. This family was sufficiently large to be confusing even to her.
Virgil gave her a warm smile as she took a place at the rail next to him. “What am I watching for?”
“Don’t worry, you won’t miss it.” There was amusement in his tone, and anticipation.
Penny looked around, seeing nothing untoward. A flying demonstration, perhaps? Scott had told her he was the lead test pilot for the aerospace division of Tracy Industries, and had spent several years in the Air Force prior to leaving for civilian life. Certainly he’d been more than proficient when he’d flown her here from her Australian ranch yesterday. He’d been good company, too.
The deep rumbling from far beneath caught her sufficiently by surprise that she gasped and grabbed for the rail. Scott had told her that the island was volcanic, long extinct. Surely it couldn’t be active? But since everyone else appeared completely unconcerned, Penny calmly put her other hand on the rail and leaned out to look to the side, as if that was what she had intended all along.
“There,” Virgil said, pointing down onto the terrace.
She followed the line of his finger, and for a moment was sufficiently disoriented to be dizzy. But no, her eyes weren’t deceiving her. The pool really was moving, sliding smoothly under the terrace, revealing a cavernous hole as the source of the noise. Deep inside there was a glimpse of red – and was there movement inside too? The rumbling was louder now, building to a thunderous roar.
The red was definitely moving now, climbing steadily towards the hole where the end of the pool had been. It emerged into the sunlight, and revealed itself to be the nosecone of a shining silver rocket plane, the like of which she’d never seen. Never even heard rumoured. Penny was no aviation expert, but her line of work had often required her to be able to spot the extraordinary. This certainly qualified. And not only was it new, and radical, and exhibiting a degree of controllability she found unbelievable, it was beautiful.
It seemed forever that it hung there, drifting slightly downwind, balanced on a tail of smoke and flame that blew away across the terrace. The hole from which it had emerged was only fractionally larger than its wingspan. Scott was more than just any old test pilot, it seemed. Hovering like that must require unbelievable skill. And the words emblazoned down the fuselage told her that she’d misjudged her host. Where could the financial gain be in a secret organisation that proudly proclaimed itself as International Rescue? No, something like this was just like the Jeff Tracy she’d thought she knew. This was an aim she could identify with. This might be a job she’d take after all.
Then the moment was gone, the jet screaming vertically into the sky. Penny watched it until the tiny speck vanished into the sun and she was forced to turn away, eyes streaming from the brightness.
“Father likes ‘International Rescue’ as a name,” Virgil said conversationally. “It suits the organisation, but I think we need something with a little more style for the vehicles themselves. ‘International Rescue One’ isn’t the greatest callsign, don’t you agree?”
Penny could only gape at him. This was what the reclusive Tracy family had been doing recently? She was astonished. She was amazed. For once in her life, Penelope Creighton-Ward was even, albeit briefly, speechless.
She turned to Jeff, only to find him glaring at the pool. “Gordon! You know we leave the downwind side clear!”
Alan joined in, amusement all over his face. “How many times do I have to tell you, jet exhaust is hot!”
Penny followed the line of Jeff’s glare. To the right of the pool, four sun-loungers stood, well back from the edge, unscathed. On the other side, the remnants of what had once been the fifth blazed merrily in the midday sun, the blackened filigree ruin of a parasol drooping over the flames.
Gordon wilted under his father’s steady regard. “Um…” But there was more in that look than simple embarrassment. Penny knew she’d been had. And that Gordon was more – probably a lot more – than she’d assumed.
She felt the corners of her mouth twitch. “Jeff, I do apologise. That was entirely my fault. Gordon, do feel free to summarise our discussion for your father.”
The redhead’s grin was infectious, and for the first time, unreservedly friendly. “I told you not to put that there.”
She returned the smile. “Next time, I won’t.”
And there would be a next time, after all. Penny felt sure of it.