Virgil Tracy looked up from his canvas to the horizon and frowned. As he had been painting, the color of the sky had changed. When he had started, the sky had been a consistent deep blue, reflected in the waters of the Pacific at his left. Now, in the distance, he saw a streak of white, as if from a jet contrail, along with white flashes. A meteor breaking up? His younger brother, John, up on the space satellite Thunderbird 5, would know. He constantly monitored the entire planet for International Rescue, and he was an astronomer.
Before Virgil could lift his wrist to talk to his telecom to ask John about this, it beeped. “Virgil,” said his father’s voice. The watch face disappeared and Virgil saw Jeff’s familiar craggy features and gray hair, receding at the temples. “Get to the Thunderbird 2 hangar, now. Use pod 2, and take off immediately. I’ll give further instructions when you’re in the air.”
“Right away, Father!” Quickly, Virgil flipped the cover over the canvas to keep the oils moist, dropped the brush and palette on a nearby table, and ran for the hangar. He had set up on the southern beach of Tracy Island, and sprinted along the sand in his beach sandals, until he reached the runway. Pulling off his stained artist’s smock as he ran, he soon reached the security door, set into the rock face of the cliff the hangar had been built inside. Seconds after he placed his hand on the security pad, his fingerprints had been identified and the door opened. When the electronic eye determined he had stepped inside, the door closed.
The frame of the Thunderbird 2 aircraft stood in the middle of the hangar, raised on its stilts. Virgil leaned over to the hangar controls on the wall and touched a button on the panel. A conveyor belt moved a series of pods, in the shape of a half cylinder, under the frame. Virgil stopped the conveyor belt when pod 2 lined up under the frame. Touching another button caused the stilts to retract, and the frame to settle onto the pod. He heard the clicks as the pod locked onto the frame. Virgil tossed his artist’s smock on the desk at the control panel and hurried to Thunderbird 2.
Once inside the cockpit, he turned on the lights and flipped the switch to open the hangar door, which was a slab of rock. As the gears ground, he changed into his International Rescue uniform: a blue jumpsuit with a yellow sash and matching boots. A garrison cap with yellow trim completed the outfit. When he sat in the pilot’s chair, the seat automatically latched on to his sash belt, securing him in place. Virgil started the engines, and Thunderbird 2 slowly taxied out of the hangar. Once the GPS showed that the aircraft was over the correct section of the runway, he cut the power. A rectangular section lifted Thunderbird 2 up to a 45 degree angle. Virgil engaged the rocket engines, and Thunderbird 2 took off.
The video screen on the control console in front of Virgil lit up: Jeff appeared. “Virgil, a large piece of space junk fell out of the sky and hit an airplane on the way to Manila Airport. John picked up the mayday from the pilots. Brains has plotted a course to intercept the airliner and put it into the navigation computer.”
Virgil consulted the navigation readouts. “I see it, Father.”
“Get there as fast as you can, Virgil. The pilots are struggling to maintain control.”
“F.A.B.” Virgil hit the accelerator. Thunderbird 2 passed the sound barrier on its way to its maximum speed of 12,000 miles per hour.
“Thunderbird 5 calling.” John’s face appeared on the monitor screen. His thin younger brother had ash blond hair with a prominent curl at the forehead.
“Go ahead, John,” Virgil said.
“You’re coming up on them fast, Virgil,” John said. “It’s an AC class Superjet, so you shouldn’t have any problems with the grabs.”
“Thank goodness!” Virgil said. The sleek Superjets were no wider than the car of a commuter train; if it had been the size of a Fireflash, which was significantly larger than Thunderbird 2, a rescue would have been far more difficult.
“I’ll put the pilots through to you,” John said.
“F.A.B.” Virgil said, using the International Rescue acknowledgement code. The communications part of the console showed that he was receiving audio only. “This is International Rescue. Go ahead.”
“International Rescue, this is Captain Frank Thomas, Flight 204 from San Francisco to Manila. Something hit the plane and our monitors show that it put a hole in the fuselage near the cargo door.” He sounded stressed but in control of himself.
“Anyone injured?” Virgil asked.
“The flight attendants say no. They and the passengers are strapped in. But we can’t set down in the ocean. Even if the plane didn’t tumble, we’d sink in seconds when water rushed into the hole.”
“Can you maintain altitude?”
“Negative, the power lines to the engines were severed, too. We’re pretty much gliding right now, losing altitude at about 500 feet per minute. Since we’re less than 1500 feet above the ocean, we’ll hit the water before we hit the airport.”
Virgil checked the navigation readouts. “I should be there in another two minutes. Hang on!”
Before the two minutes were up, the long-range viewscreen on Virgil’s control console showed him the airplane. It was descending fast. As he drew closer, he could see the hole near the cargo area of the plane. Strands of tubing and insulation hung from the holes.
“Flight 204, I see you!” Virgil called.
“Whatever you can do, International Rescue, do it fast!”
“Approaching now…matching course and speed…right above you, Flight 204.”
“We see you…and we can hear your jets!”
“Hold it steady. I’m going to drop a wrap on the plane.”
“Yes. It’ll cover the fuselage behind the wings. Inform the passengers that they won’t be able to see out their windows so that there isn’t a panic.” Virgil opened the bottom of the pod and dropped the wrap over the plane. Immediately, the high-tech material enveloped and adhered to the fuselage, reinforcing it and covering the hole. When Virgil lowered the grabs, the clamps closed in, trapping the plane between them. Virgil adjusted the surfaces of the clamps so that they extended down, touched, and locked underneath the fuselage. He felt a slight jolt as the entire weight of the plane settled on the clamps.
“Whew, that was close!” Thomas said. “We were nearly at the ocean’s surface.”
“Only 103 feet to spare!” Virgil agreed triumphantly. Slowly, he increased height. At the same time, he heard a loud noise coming through on the channel to the airline pilots.
“Can you hear that?” Thomas said. “The passengers are cheering!”
Virgil smiled. “I hear it.” He called Manila air traffic control to get clearance for an emergency landing. By the time Thunderbird 2 arrived, the runways were clear.
“Can you lower your landing gear?” Virgil asked.
“Yes, the wing and nose gears are operating.”
“Do that, then. When I release you, you’ll touch down, and then roll to a stop.”
Virgil descended almost to the tarmac, and retracted the clamps. The plane’s tires hit the runway; the plane bounced slightly before slowing to a halt. Emergency vehicles converged on the plane.
“Passengers should be able to get out through the forward exits,” Virgil said. “If you need to get through the wrap, just use a standard acetylene torch. With sufficient heat, you should be able to peel it off, if need be.”
“Thanks, International Rescue!”
“You’re welcome!” Virgil said. He set course for Tracy Island and called on their private channel. “Thunderbird 2, plotting course for home.”
“Good work, Virgil!” Jeff said. “Airport security kept the news media away, but Brains picked up running commentary on social networking sites from passengers waiting for other flights watching your landing.”
“I guess we couldn’t prevent that,” Virgil said. International Rescue avoided cameras whenever possible, and often used their technology to magnetically wipe any photo or video record of their activities.
“Brains says that when you leave, get to your cruising altitude and speed as quickly as you can. That should prevent any further scrutiny.”
“F.A.B.” As soon as he received clearance from air traffic control, he climbed to 100,000 feet and increased speed to 12,000 mph. Not long after, however, he started his descent to Tracy Island.
“Thunderbird 2 to base. Requesting permission to land.”
“Permission granted, Virgil. You’re clear to land.”
That meant that Jeff had checked the monitors and found no air or sea traffic from Tracy Island to the horizon in every direction. Virgil slowed Thunderbird 2, hovered over the runway, and turned the aircraft around so that the jets faced the hangar. Once the hangar door opened, he backed the aircraft into the bay. As the door closed, he parked Thunderbird 2 and raised the stilts on the frame, releasing the pod, and changed back into his civilian clothes. He briefly thought of going back to his painting, but he realized that his father would expect him in his office, first. Taking the elevator, he arrived at the house, Tracy Villa, and walked into the lounge.
His elder brother, Scott, walked toward him, wiping his hands on a rag. Scott, at 6 foot 2 inches, stood 2 inches taller than Virgil. His square jaw had an indentation in the middle, and his dark brown hair was cut short. Today he wore a red jumpsuit, which showed old and new grease stains. “Great work, Virgil,” he said, clasping Virgil’s shoulder. “Brains and I were still working on replacing Thunderbird 1’s fuel injector when the call came in, otherwise I would have joined you.”
Virgil smiled. “I know.” When Scott put his hand down, Virgil turned to Jeff, who sat at his desk.
“Yes, great work, son,” Jeff said to Virgil. “I’m proud of you.”
“I guess Scott doesn’t have to go on all the missions,” Alan teased. The youngest of the five Tracy brothers, Alan was an inch taller than Virgil in height, though slighter in build and with blond hair. He sat on the couch, playing a hand held video game.
“We have to be flexible,” Jeff said. “Most of the time, we still want Scott to arrive first in Thunderbird 1 and evaluate the situation, but there will inevitably be cases when that’s not the best plan.”
“As when we rescued Lady Penelope on the Anderbad Express,” Gordon said. Just a couple of years older than Alan, Gordon stood an inch shorter than Virgil; his hair was reddish-blond. He reclined in a chair, a book in his hand.
Scott turned to the others. “I agree. We have to do whatever gets the job done best.”
Virgil jerked a thumb toward the window. “I was painting when we got the call, Father. Can I go back there or did you need a report?”
Jeff smiled. “Go ahead, Virgil. I’ll have Brains do the post-flight checks on Thunderbird 2.”
“What are you painting?” Alan asked.
Virgil smiled. “You’ll see it when it’s finished.”
“Another Salvador Dali style abstract?” Alan said slyly. Virgil had once painted a portrait of Alan in that style.
Virgil chuckled. “You’ll see,” he repeated.
Virgil took the elevator back to the Thunderbird 2 hangar. Brains, the engineer who designed the machines and worked with the Tracys, already stood near the aircraft supports, taking readings with his hand held computer. His short black hair, high forehead, and thick-rimmed glasses seemed to accentuate his thoughtful expression. Virgil exchanged a brief nod at him as he retrieved his smock from the control panel and went outside.
He put the smock back on as he walked over to his easel. Taking up the paint palette again, he resumed creating the sky background.
Virgil had been painting as long as he could remember. He found it relaxing. His mother told him that when he was two years old, he would sit next to her as she painted, and insisted that he wanted to make a picture, too. She gave him watercolors, and then tempera paints, and eventually he graduated to oils. When he was eight, his mother took him to the gallery where her paintings were hung and sold, and convinced the owner to enter his artwork in the youth contest. He won second prize. After his mother died, when he was 11 years old, Virgil continued his artwork. He felt close to his mother’s spirit whenever he picked up a brush.
Art was not Virgil’s only passion, however. His mother had taught all her sons how to play piano, which they all did with various degrees of success, but Virgil was the one who gathered the prizes at music festivals. The baby grand sitting in the lounge got a daily workout from Virgil.
In high school and college, Virgil was the star running back. He had briefly considered a football career, but his practical younger brother John had pointed out that most football players had a career-ending injury within the first few years of professional play. Not wanting to spend the bulk of his life with a physical limitation, Virgil concentrated on his engineering studies instead, graduating with honors. He nonetheless kept up his weight training and body building exercises, and remained the most muscular of all his brothers.
After graduation from the Denver Institute of Advanced Technology, Virgil joined his father’s business, Tracy Technologies, which provided construction materials for the moonbase. In earning his eventual status as chief engineer, Virgil had gone through astronaut training. This allowed him to pilot spaceships taking the materials to the moon and to supervise construction on site.
When his father, Jeff, retired from Tracy Technologies, he invited Virgil and his brothers to join him in building a secret organization to save people who would otherwise be beyond all hope of rescue. Eager for a new challenge, Virgil readily pitched in to help, as did his brothers (and though Alan had been slow to warm up to the idea, his youngest brother currently worked as hard as any of them).
Now that International Rescue had been in operation for two years, Virgil found that he had tackled the job with as much sincerity as he had with his job as chief engineer for Tracy Technologies. Not that the job had been always easy. Once, the U.S. Navy had mistaken Thunderbird 2 for an enemy aircraft and fired on it. Virgil, injured, barely managed to get the craft back to Tracy Island, and had spent some weeks recovering. The worst of it had been watching his brothers go on rescues and being unable to help. His father would not even allow him to join in repairing Thunderbird 2 while he was recovering – by the time he had regained his strength, Thunderbird 2 was airworthy once more. Virgil remembered the excitement he felt as he slid into the pilot’s seat again: the same thrill he felt every time he took the controls.
“Looks good, Virgil,” Scott said behind him.
Virgil turned. “Thanks, Scott.”
“Mostly.” Virgil gestured at the canvas. “I just have to add a few more details.”
“Going to take that to the gallery?”
“No, I’m going to give it to Dad. I realized he doesn’t have a painting of Tracy Island and Tracy Villa yet.”
“Yeah, on second thought, Dad wouldn’t want anything that identifies us at a public showing.”
Virgil turned back to the canvas and began applying paint again. “Besides, paintings of homes generally don’t bring large prices at charity auctions, or win art contests.”
Scott lay down on the sand, within sight of Virgil, arms behind his head. “Which one are you going to take?”
“You’ve been poking around in the Round House,” Virgil said amiably.
“Sure! You didn’t say not to, and I wanted to see what you’ve been working on lately.”
“Those were mostly studies. Just dabbling. I wasn’t planning to take any of them.”
Scott sat. “You’re kidding! Those are fantastic! The painting of the Fireflash alone would win first place anywhere!”
“Aviation artwork does have a following,” Virgil conceded. “But art judges generally look for something more expressive.”
Scott shook his head. “I guess I’ll never be an art judge.”
“You don’t have to be. You do just fine as the pilot of Thunderbird 1. That’s what you’re expert at.”
Scott stood and dusted off his pants. “Couldn’t do it without you, Virge. You’re the steady, solid rock of International Rescue.”
“We’re a good team,” Virgil agreed, “and not just you and me.”
“Yeah, we have a talented family,” Scott said with a smile. “Us and the Kyranos, we’re unbeatable.”
By dinnertime, Virgil had finished. Although Scott had felt the picture had been complete shortly after he arrived, Virgil kept standing back and adding a touch here, a fine detail there. Another hour or two had passed until he was satisfied. Scott helped him pack up the materials, and they took them to the Round House, a donut-shaped structure. The Tracys used the rooms in the building for storage, and Virgil had claimed three of them to store his paintings and supplies. Visitors to the island never guessed that the house had been placed above the space rocket Thunderbird 3’s hangar, and during the launch sequence, the flagstone-paved circle on the ground opened to let the rocket through.
Once Virgil and Scott had stowed the supplies, Virgil covered the canvas and took it back to Tracy Villa.
“Well,” Jeff said admiringly after Virgil had set it up in the lounge. “Well, that’s just outstanding, Virgil.” He reached over and patted his second son’s arm.
“At least it looks like Tracy Villa,” Alan teased.
“Could use a little more ocean,” Gordon said wryly.
“Why does that not surprise me?” Scott said to him, smiling.
Jeff put a hand on Virgil’s shoulder. “All kidding aside, it looks great.”
“Yeah, but where to put it?” Gordon said, looking around. Portraits of each of the Tracy brothers in their International Rescue uniforms hung on one wall, their mother’s painting of the rocket that had carried their astronaut father on his first moon mission hung on another, and Lady Penelope’s portrait hung on another. Between those and the library shelves and the electronics, there was little room to spare.
“How about the billiard room?” Scott suggested.
“Sure,” Alan said. “We spend enough time there.”
“How about it, Virgil?” Jeff asked.
“Works for me,” Virgil said.
The dinner table at Tracy Villa stood in a corner of the modern kitchen, with the latest in high-tech appliances. Virgil, along with the rest of the Tracys, believed that they had the best personal chef on the planet: Kyrano, who had recently won the World Chef Competition. He and his daughter Tin-Tin, an engineering graduate who was Alan’s age, lived with the Tracys in the villa. Tonight, he served a dinner of roast beef, roasted potatoes with chives, and steamed mixed vegetables. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee mingled with that of the food. Once dinner was on the table, Kyrano sat next to his daughter to eat. Grandma Tracy and Brains arrived late, apologizing for the delay, but both happy that her bedroom television had been successfully repaired.
“Yes,” Grandma said as she accepted the plate of potatoes Scott passed to her. “I was in the middle of watching the news. There’s been another theft: in Prague, this time.”
“What was stolen?” Virgil asked. “Jewelry, art?”
“A golden cup dating from the time of King Wenceslas,” Grandma said. “Right from a museum.”
“That would bring a lot on the black market,” Tin-Tin observed.
“Is it the same guys who stole the paintings from St. Petersburg and the diamonds from Vienna?” Scott asked.
“Interpol s-s-seems to think so,” Brains said.
“Do they have any idea who they are?” Alan asked.
Brains shook his head. “Interpol can’t t-t-trace them to any known criminals. Apparently i-i-t’s a new gang of thieves. But they have the same m-m-modus operandi: using high tech equipment to get past security.”
“Don’t forget that they leave a plastic card at each site with an ‘R’ embossed on it,” Grandma said.
“Their idea of a joke, no doubt,” Gordon observed.
“Still no fingerprints, no DNA left behind, I presume,” Scott said.
“No,” Brains said. “They appear to be quite s-s-sophisticated.”
“I wonder who would buy the stolen goods,” Tin-Tin said. “After all, the buyer couldn’t display it openly without getting arrested.”
“It’s the possessing of it that the buyer wants,” Jeff said. “If someone stole the Mona Lisa, for instance, the buyer would probably put it in an underground vault and take pride in the fact that he or she has something no one else has.”
Scott dug his fork into the steamed vegetables on his plate, searching especially for the tasty broccoli spears. “Pretty pathetic, if you ask me.”
Jeff nodded. “That’s what happens when people don’t keep busy making a positive contribution to society. They fill in the void in their personality with things.”
“I wonder if they’ll ever be caught,” Alan mused.
“You can be sure that Interpol and the various national law enforcement authorities are after them,” Jeff said, “not to mention the insurance investigators. The more people they have in their ring, and the longer they continue, the greater chance they have of making a slip that will get them arrested sooner or later.”
“I suppose that there isn’t anything we can do to help,” Tin-Tin said.
“No,” Jeff said gently, “catching crooks isn’t what our operation was designed for. Law enforcement tends to be resentful of well-intentioned but interfering amateur sleuths.”
“Besides,” Brains said. “It w-w-would take time and resources away from any rescues that may come up.”
“That’s right, Brains,” Jeff said. “Better leave it up to the experts. If they need help from the public, they’ll ask for it.”
“I wonder if Lady Penelope is following the story,” Virgil said.
“With her connections in the intelligence community, she probably knows more than the news reporters do,” Jeff said.
“She probably is stepping up security at Creighton Manor,” Gordon said. “After all, she has an extensive jewelry and art collection, and thieves have tried to get them before.”
Jeff chuckled. “Yes, and judging how fast she caught those thieves, if the current ring tried to get at her collection, it would be the last mistake they’d ever make!”
Having served breakfast to Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, Aloysius “Nosey” Parker sat in the kitchen, feet up on the table, with a newspaper open in front of him. A fresh cup of tea rested on a nearby serving stand; Parker reached over without looking away from the paper, took a sip, and set it back on its saucer. He had been following the news of the thefts, too. Once a professional safecracker, Parker had served his time and had lived crime-free for several years now, as Lady Penelope’s estate manager and chauffeur. His expertise had been called upon several times since his release from prison, most notably to test the vaults at the Bank of England. Under the watchful eye of bank management, he had broken into two different models before they installed their current model, which had defeated all his attempts to open…at least, in front of an audience. Parker harbored the thought that given enough time and solitude and the right tools, he might be able to defeat that system, as well, but since he had no intention of stealing again, the point was moot. What mattered was that if he could not defeat the locks, the bank remained secure…for Parker could not think of anyone who exceeded his skills.
“G’wan, Nosey, get yer feet off the table! I just washed it!”
He felt a beefy hand sweep his legs to one side. Putting down the paper, he saw Cook standing over him. “Sorry, Annie,” he said with a smile. “I woulda wiped it off meself when I was done.”
Cook threw him a skeptical but not unfriendly glance as she soaped a dishrag and applied it to the table. Annie had been with them only a few months, replacing the previous Cook, Lil, who had gone to Wales to take care of her elderly mother. Lady Penelope had provided her a generous pension when she left and hired Annie, who had come highly recommended by a chef’s school in London, and, in fact, proved to be a better cook than Cook had ever been.
At that moment, a bell rang. Looking up at the row of bells, and the security closed-circuit screen below it, Parker saw a car come through the gate. He proceeded to the front door and opened it just as Lord Chilton put a hand to the doorbell.
“Won’t you come in, Milord?” Parker said. “I’ll tell Lady Penelope that you’re ‘ere.”
“Please do, Parker,” Chilton said, handing Parker his hat and cane. “My errand is most urgent.”
Parker put Chilton’s hat and cane on the rack and showed him to the sitting room. He hurried to Penelope’s room and knocked. When she answered, he ducked inside. “Lord Chilton, Milady. ‘E says it’s urgent.”
Penelope sat at her dressing table. The slim but sturdy blonde had already put on a two-piece designer outfit, and was reaching for her matching designer shoes. “I’ll be right there, Parker.”
Chilton stood when Penelope entered the sitting room. After they had exchanged pleasantries, and taken chairs, Parker moved to leave and close the doors behind him. Before he could do so, Chilton said, “I need Parker to hear this, too.”
“Of course,” Penelope said, gesturing to Parker, who closed the doors and stood in front of them.
Chilton looked around. “I presume this room is secure?”
“Quite,” Penelope said, puzzled. “What’s going on?”
“I was sent directly from Their Majesties,” Chilton said. “They remember your service in the intelligence bureau with exceeding gratitude.”
“I am more than pleased that Their Majesties hold me in high esteem, but as you – and they – know, I am retired, at the government’s request,” Penelope pointed out.
Chilton waved a hand. “Yes, yes, but as we all know, that was through no fault of yours. On the contrary: you came so close to the Other Side that when the press almost got wind of it, the Prime Minister had no choice but to release you, or you would have been exposed, and your efforts would have been for nothing.”
“Well, well, that’s all behind us now,” Penelope said.
“To the point: Their Majesties have asked me to ask you,” he nodded to Parker, “and Parker, for your help.”
“What sort of help can we offer Their Majesties?” Penelope asked curiously.
“The Crown Jewels have been stolen.”