A Mysterious Customer
Being the Fourth and final episode of the 'Custom Vehicle' series
A/N: While this 'UNIT family' era tale can essentially stand on its own, I would recommend the gentle reader give consideration to the preceding three 'episodes' of the series featuring the Three and Bessie, whose events are occasionally referenced:
#1: A Custom Vehicle, #2: A Custom Order, #3: A Custom Design
The numbering of the chapters proceeds, as with a season, throughout the story arc hence the high starting number on this one. I hope you enjoy the ride.
The countryside was reasonably quiet, still muted in the light fog that lay over the dips and depressions of the early autumn orchards. Along the roadside of one small town, a shining sedan sat among the older working vehicles as its owner wrapped up some early morning business.
"Well, Tom," a generously thewed man was saying as he watched his companion work. He frowned up at an apple tree as it spattered him with fat rain-drops. "I'll consider renewing that lease, then. Of course I understand how hard back-taxes can be on good honest tillers of the soil like yourself, but you know how it is."
"Thank-ee, sir," replied the expressionless farmer, pausing to mop his brow after raking together the last pile of windfalls. The landlord was an important man, only rarely seen and it was best to keep on his good side. There would be more than enough time to share his irritations with his fellow 'tillers' over an ale when he was gone. "That'll do it. The lads'll sort out any worth pressing, this rain keeps runnin' down into my collar. How about we go in and I'll sign that…"
They stopped, dumbfounded as a large beast stepped out of the wet mist around them. Huge, terrifying - a creature only known from legends but instinctively recognized.
Strangely silent, the lizard-like creature paced silently towards them. The larger of the two men blanched and dropped to his knees, dignity abandoned as he screamed like a child. Spitting a thin tongue of flame, the beast abruptly turned and vanished back into the trees. The screaming continued; his companion was more badly shaken by the big man's reaction than the unexpected creature itself; after all, what could reduce such a man in unadulterated fear? Heart pounding, he tried to calm the sobbing landlord while frantically dragging him towards the nearest building at the same time, just in case the thing should return.
Inside, his hands shook as he frantically dialed the phone. "Hello, hello, Police? I want to report, a…a… I want to report a dragon!"
Sergeant John Benton slid along the side of an old-fashioned yellow roadster where it sat in its now habitual place in one of UNIT's mechanic's sheds, searching for her owner. In his mild opinion the little car was the recipient of more doting attention and care than many pets or children would've been pleased to have, but he wasn't one to complain. After all, she generally brought good humour to their mercurial scientific advisor.
With the Doctor's assistant sent off on a 'medical leave' holiday after their somewhat harrowing hostage situation - something she'd protested wasn't necessary, but the offer of paid leave was too tempting to pass up - he'd been left to himself in the quiet of the lab. The results were predictable to any who knew him: he'd fiddled with his blue box a couple of days but unable to make progress had left off to go work on his battered car instead. Indeed, ever since that rogue group of political radicals had taken it apart nearly a month past the Doctor had been doing little but put his 'Bessie' back together with what he called 'some small improvements.' The result was UNIT's back lot had become accustomed to his near-constant presence in the garages and today was no exception.
"Don't know why you keep that chap employed," one of their governmental visitors had groused that very morning. "He's not doing anything, is he? Getting his dole for working on some blamed automobile."
"Oh, he's still useful enough in his own way," the Brigadier had responded blandly, turning the man to other matters. "A bit eccentric, but worth every pound. Coffee?"
The Sergeant patiently circled the car, following the sound of muted singing until he located the Doctor's legs sticking out from beneath the carriage.
"Doctor?" Benton asked.
The singing stopped. After a moment the Doctor's voice came up to him through the open bonnet. "Sergeant! Fine timing, do you see a small brass plug on the bench there?"
Benton looked through the almost indescribable array of parts until he found what appeared to be the plug in question. "Here it is, I think."
"Good man. Hand it down here, will you?" A hand stuck out from under the carriage and he obediently placed the plug in it. "Many thanks."
Benton leaned back against the bench and waited while the plug was apparently tapped into place. The Doctor tended to focus on whatever task was at hand with a single-mindedness that made him irascible when interrupted; the lanky Sergeant didn't mind skipping that part presuming the Doctor would eventually remember that he was still waiting.
This time he was in luck. After only a few moments the Doctor scooted back out on the dolly and climbed to his feet.
"So, what brings you out here? More errands from our friend the Brigadier?" he asked, carefully wiping the grease from his hands.
Benton handed him the paper he'd brought. "You might say so, but not anything dealing with the ministry this time."
"Just as well. I've no more use for those pompous, ignorant…" he said, as he began looking over the report.
"The Brigadier wanted you to see it. Just came over the wire," he added as the Doctor scanned it. "Seems there's been some…"
"Dragons?" the Doctor put in. He handed the paper back. "Nonsense. Have there been any deliveries this morning? I'm expecting a box, a part for Bessie."
"I'll inquire," Benton said patiently, holding up the paper again. "What shall I tell the Brigadier?"
The Doctor was fishing around in the workbench drawer, finally pulling up a pair of battered wire-strippers. "There hasn't been anything that could be construed as a real dragon here for centuries. Probably some schoolboy's prank on his local friends," he said absently. "Or someone spending too much time at the pub."
"Shouldn't we pursue it a bit, just to be certain?" Benton asked hesitantly.
The Doctor smiled at him. "Ah. You'd like a bit of dragon-hunting? Must have a bit of St. George in your lineage somewhere. All right, tell him it's worth a brief investigation then, questioning the locals and all that. Look for dragon tracks if you think your men might fancy an autumn picnic in the woods while they're at it."
"Thank you, sir." The tall Sergeant went off with good humour.
"Worth looking into, then? But not going himself, I presume." The Brigadier shoved aside a small stack of papers and tried to drink from his empty coffee cup then frowned. "No. It's his job to investigate, not yours. We put enough money into that lab he needs to do his part. Besides, I need you here and if there is anything to it he'd be the one who could tell us. He's been out there in that shed for nearly a month now. Isn't he done with that thing yet?"
"It does keep him occupied," Benton noted.
"True." He leaned back in his chair with a creak. "Well, Miss Grant is expected back later this morning. Maybe she can get him to deal with some of this backlog," he grumbled, twitching the stack of paper. "Not that I can't blame him. Metal analysis, weather analysis, fuel analysis…"
"He's been putting them off again? Shouldn't really surprise anyone," the Sergeant agreed, taking the empty cup for refilling. "Last time I took one of those requests to him…"
"I expect he about bit your head off," the Brigadier said. "Yes. Devilish stubborn man sometimes. We're a military establishment, he can hardly expect his work will all be used for growing daisies." He tapped a thumb on his chin thoughtfully. "Is that vehicle of his drivable?"
"Oh yes! He had it out until he heard about those ministry aides arriving, then he popped back under it neat as you please."
The Brigadier snorted. "Sounds like it's definitely time to put him back to work. When Miss Grant arrives, send her to me first. Maybe she can get him out of that mechanic's coat and back to being useful."
"Yessir. More coffee?" Benton asked as he turned to the door.
The Brigadier tapped his fingers on his desk thoughtfully. "No, thank you Sergeant. But if any more boxes arrive for the Doctor have them brought to me. He can pick them up here - because I'll be blowed if I'm going to have to go chasing after him under that yellow contraption of his."
Lethbridge-Stewart glanced up blandly when his advisor finally came in through the door. He immediately dismissed the secretary who had been taking dictation for him. "Ah, Doctor. Yes. Here's another box that's come in for you."
"So I see. If you wanted my company you could've just asked."
"Unlike some who spend their days tinkering on pet projects, I'm a busy man. I see you're still making use of the account with the Custom Supply?"
The Doctor ignored the jibe and took the box, neatly popping it open. "I suppose I could build some of this myself but there was quite a lot of damage, as you well remember… Besides, there, you see?" He pulled something chunky out of its paper wrapping.
"Is that a speedometer?" The Brigadier was frankly surprised that he could recognize the part, the functions of most of what went by in the Doctor's hands were mysteries to him.
"Yes. See the brass tooling here? It's suited to her styling, don't you think? But this," he said, turning it over and loosening the back, "allows for the rapid acceleration so the readings will be more closely accurate in the upper ranges."
Lethbridge-Stewart rolled his eyes ever so slightly, refraining from asking what those upper ranges were. Lately if the man got started on that car it was difficult to turn him to anything else.
Slightly disappointed at the Brigadier's aloofness the Doctor nonetheless pocketed the part, dropping the box into the wastebasket beside the desk as he took possession of one of the better chairs.
A tap at the door admitted Jo Grant carrying a roll of paper. "Hello," she said cheerfully. "Here's the map."
"Thank you my dear," the Doctor said, gesturing at the desk. "Jo, I've gotten the new speedometer," he added, still looking for someone to appreciate it.
"Oh, that reminds me!" she said, slipping her purse from her shoulder and digging into it. She pulled out a small padded envelope. "I passed Captain Yates in the hall. He asked me to bring this along, something that just came in for you, in case it was important." She handed it to the Brigadier.
"It's good to have you back, Miss Grant," he nodded, glancing at the envelope. "You probably already know our friend here has been working on that car of his nearly the entire time… hm. Is that Whitehall's mark? Hard to tell. I can't imagine what they would…" he muttered a little as he opened it, shaking something small and dark out of the envelope into his hand.
"What is it?" Jo asked curiously as she anchored the edge of a map with a memo pad.
"I wasn't working on it the entire time," the Doctor grumbled. "And that looks like a plastic wristwatch."
The Brigadier briefly considered it, then handed it over to him to look at while he glanced over the small paper that came with it. "It is. Apparently 'The Neutron Watch uses new space age digital technology'. Lights up if you press the button. Promotional gift, I expect."
The Doctor was not impressed. "Space age? You don't really want to wear this, do you?"
"Come to think of it, no."
The Doctor dropped it into the wastebasket and got up to unroll the other map. "Now, about these so-called dragons…"
"Eh? Oh yes." The Brigadier was frankly surprised to find he had been doing something other than working on his car.
"As you can see, these are where the reports place the appearance of this dragon, or dragons, or whatever they may be. And here," he tapped some small bits of coloured tape with numbers scattered about, "Are the approximate times of the sightings. This…" he pulled out another paper from his pocket and unfolded it, "Is the correlation between them. There is a distinct pattern. I would like to meet this creature the next time it appears, assuming it holds to its behaviour so far."
"Whatever this monster or dragon may be, it's highly likely it's going to make an appearance just about…here. At half-past three this afternoon."
"This afternoon? Are they going to become a daily occurrence then?"
The Doctor raised a brow at him. "Well, that would be the point of all these calculations wouldn't it? I need to know more about them to find out."
The phone rang. "Lethbridge-Stewart. Ah yes. Send him in." He set it down and raised his own brows at their curiosity. "I've put out an invitation to that auditor chap, the one at the Custom Supply," the Brigadier said. "He's been sending in regular reports of any aberrant or unusual orders ever since that nonsense over in Chippenham. Unimaginative, but steady."
"I think I know who you mean," Jo said uncertainly. "The government man. I thought he said he didn't believe in anything alien."
"He's changed his mind on that matter," the Brigadier said. "At least enough to be of use to us. Do you remember what he looks like?"
The Doctor looked at Jo who shrugged. "Not particularly," she said.
"Exactly why I've called him in. He's unobtrusive. Sometimes a little less flamboyance is called for." There was a polite tap at the door. "Come."
An average-looking man with mousey brown hair and a very average face entered the room, pausing uncertainly when he saw the Doctor and Jo there.
"Come in, Mr. Babcock. Have a seat. This is our Scientific Advisor…"
"Doctor Smith," the man finished for him, extending a hand. "Very good to see you again, sir. And you also, Miss…Grant, wasn't it? I hope you've both enjoyed the restoration on that rather unique vehicle?"
The Doctor looked sharply at the Brigadier who waved the man to the other chair. "Mr. Babcock is the liaison for most of UNIT's customized orders. Lately the majority of those have been for a certain car," he offered blandly by way of explanation.
The Doctor stood with a nod. "Well, it's appreciated then. While I'm pleased to meet you again sir, we must beg off to do a bit of dragon-hunting it seems. Good day, Brigadier."
"Good-bye," Jo added allowing herself to be drawn out of the room.
The Brigadier frowned. "Wait a moment. Are you leaving right away? Don't you need the map?"
"Yes, shortly anyway. And no, but do keep an eye on it for me will you? There's a good chap," the Doctor dismissed as he closed the door after them.
John Babcock watched them go, watching as the Brigadier began half-rolling the intriguing map out of the way. Not wanting it to look like he was being too inquisitive about it he then looked down at his shoes. This made something else catch his eye. Leaning over from his chair, he fished in the wastebasket by the desk. "A Neutron watch? I've seen a few of these. Is it broken?" he asked curiously.
The Brigadier shook his head, coming back around his desk to seat himself. "No, just no use for the blamed thing. You can have it if you like."
"Do you mean that?" Babcock was surprised. "Very kind, thank you." He slipped the digital watch on and adjusted the strap, tapping the button to admire its bright red display. To his imagination it seemed like something James Bond would wear and made him feel just a little daring. "Now, how can I help you?"