It was finished at last. The final detail, the final stitches in place. Now all that was left was to write the card, wrap it up and deliver it. Everything else had been organised weeks ago, but this last touch, this indication of things to come had taken longer to complete than anticipated. But it was done. Finally.
With a sigh of relief tinged with regret, the embroiderer carefully cut off the last thread, put the needle away in the holder, tidied up the scraps of cotton, the pins and the scissors. A tear trickled slowly down one cheek and was wiped away. Now it was a matter of waiting.
For Valentine’s Day
‘When is the Lunar Shuttle due to position for Earth orbit?’ the speaker entered the Control room quietly, but his voice was alert and authoritative.
‘In one hour Commander, and re-entry manoeuvres will commence fifteen minutes after that.’ Keith Ford turned in his seat to pass the information to the man who had asked.
‘Very well. I want full tracking on all sectors for the next ninety minutes, until it’s entered Earth’s atmosphere and is approaching touch-down. We’ve had too many attacks on returning shuttles in the last few weeks to be complacent about any trip.’ He turned on his heel and let the room, heading back to the seclusion and silence of his office. He had plenty to do, everyday mundane paperwork, transcripts to read, plans to approve and training schedules to organise. It had been a long, hard fortnight, and he was ready for a break. He was ready to have her home, if the truth were to be told.
And she would be home shortly. On the Lunar Shuttle. Tonight. Smiling to himself he sat down behind his desk and began on the first of the folders.
‘Control to Commander Straker.’
He sighed and put down his pen. ‘Straker.’
‘Deep Space Probe 34 reports possible UFO on bearing GF36. Not able to give a positive track as yet.’ Keith Ford waited for the reply, anticipating Straker’s answer.
Yes, thought Keith; right again. I should set up business as a fortune teller.
‘I’m on my way.’ Straker stood up, pushing the unfinished paper work aside, and headed out into the busy control room.
‘Okay Keith, let’s see it.’ the voice was not so alert now. Keith could hear the undercurrent of weariness and exasperation in the commander’s tone. And who could blame him? This had been the pattern for the last five Lunar flights from Moonbase. With three attacks on the shuttles, SHADO was taking no chances with any future flights.
Straker examined the data sheet that Ford passed over to him. ‘Yes, it’s too soon to tell if this is another UFO or simply an aberrant asteroid. Better to be safe than sorry though. Alert Moonbase and tell the Commander to get the Interceptors launched so that they can escort the Shuttle into Low Earth Orbit. It will slow the Shuttle down, but it’s the only option until we can confirm exactly what this signal is. It will mean the passengers will be hanging around for a while, but that is preferable to getting hit by a UFO. At least they will be under the protection of the Interceptors for most of the journey. Once they begin re-entry they are sitting ducks, blind and helpless.’ He grimaced as he realised that it also meant that she would not be back as soon as he had hoped.
Still, better late than never. He remained in the Control room, supervising the operation, until the results came through, a long, weary three hours later. Nothing to report. No UFO, no incursion. Another false alarm.
‘Contact the shuttle and give them the all-clear to resume the re-entry, Ford,’ the commander instructed his communications chief. ‘I’m going home now. Call me if you have any problems.’ and he headed out, tired and jaded after yet another false alarm.
He wondered how the aliens deliberately created these bogus alerts; if they were really aware how disconcerting and demanding each incident was. SHADO staff had the training to deal with serious attacks by the enemy, but these will o’ the wisp, ghost traces, were deeply disturbing and left people feeling vulnerable and on edge. There was always the sense that the aliens were playing with them somehow.
Anyway, it was over and he was on his way home. He hoped he would still be awake when she got back, but it was highly unlikely. He was just too bloody tired.
Later that night, in their bed, alone, awake, he tried to focus on the report he was reading, but it dropped from his hands as his eyes closed, and, without realising, he drifted asleep.
Presently the bedroom door opened and she peered in, quietly, knowing what to expect.
He was asleep. Deeply asleep. With tousled hair, eyes dark rimmed with tiredness, his hands relaxed on top of the covers, the report he had been reading on the floor, its papers in disarray. She knew he was exhausted, but it was hard, hard coming back and not having him awake to welcome her. His bare shoulders were cold and she tucked the covers around him relishing the touch of his skin under her hand. He stirred slightly, and she thought for one moment that he might wake but no, he snuggled under the cover, smiling at some unknown dream.
She ached for the caress of his hands, his kiss, his warmth against her body. She had been away too long. The return trip had been difficult, and she was tired and stiff. A bath. That’s what she really needed, to ease her aching muscles and wash away the smell of Moonbase. Not that Moonbase actually smelled of anything other than sterility. That peculiar non-smell of nothingness. Recycled air that had had all the life, all the memories, taken out of it.
Apart from Central Park however. There the air was redolent with the fragrance of damp soil and flowers. But it didn’t last long. Scrubbed and purified by the recycling system, the soft reminder of Earth’s richness was soon just a faint memory.
She had been inordinately relieved to get back onto the Lunar shuttle with the Earthbound pilots who had been on duty for over two months. She didn’t know how they could stand it, being cooped up in the domes for that length of time. The scant fortnight she had spent in there, auditing the security and upgrading the systems, was long enough.
And then the flight had been delayed for three hours, hence her sleeping partner. She knew he would have tried to stay awake to greet her, but he had probably just drifted off without realising it. Good. He didn’t get enough rest as it was.
She headed for the outer bathroom, not the ensuite, unwilling to wake him. Relaxing in the hot, deep bath felt wonderful; no bath foam or bubbles for her, just the prescribed bath oil to relieve the dryness of a body that had been in Moonbase’s arid atmosphere for too long. Smooth and soft, the oil eased and soothed her parched skin.
She closed her eyes, almost drifting to sleep herself in the soothing steam and blissful comfort. No; she had to stay awake. She soaked a flannel in the soft water, laying it, dripping over her face, the heat refreshing her. She leaned back, serene and relaxed.
That was what was missing from Moonbase. Hot baths. Oh yes they had showers, brief, water restricted showers that simply cleaned you up and left you smelling, like the air, of nothing at all, but everyone needed a bath a times. To wallow in, to soak in, to dream in. To share. A memory surfaced; and she smiled to herself, recollecting, remembering. But no, she was alone and the water was gradually cooling.
Enough. Time to get out and go and join him. The bath sheet, warm and thick, encased her in its comfort, but it was not the same. Not the same as strong arms holding her, wrapping around her.
She slipped into bed next to him, her lover, her partner, her commander. She could never think of him as simply her fiancé; he was so much more to her than that. She remembered that night when they had made love for the first time, that night after he had executed the two traitors. His touch, his caress, his gentleness, his passion. His expression afterwards, as if he was afraid that she would despise him for his weakness in breaking down in front of her. His eyes, watching her in wonderment as she lay there, facing him, holding him, and told him that she loved him even more.
She had moved into his apartment, and into his bed, the day afterwards. And now they were engaged. There were times when she almost felt as if it was a dream, to be engaged to this man, to be planning their wedding, but no, the ring on her finger was all the reminder that she needed. A natural blue solitaire diamond. She had chosen it because it matched the colour of his eyes, exactly. Those vivid blue eyes that had stared into hers, so intently, on that day when she had realised that she had fallen in love with him. She remembered that moment so vividly.
And watching him now, she still felt the same way, still had that same heart pounding sensation when she looked at him, sleeping, his eyes closed and still, his lips very slightly parted as if he was about to kiss her, the gentle, even pulse of life beating just below his jawline. It was so tempting to wake him, and she knew that he would not mind if she did, in fact he would be glad. But he was tired, and it would have been selfish of her.
She kissed him; not enough to wake him, just enough to have the touch of his lips on hers. It would have to do, for now. She sighed, snuggled down and fell asleep, her arms reaching out to him even as her eyes closed.
Straker was awake before his alarm call. Lying there, her arm over his chest, her hand warm on his skin, her head on his shoulder, feeling her breath on his skin. Her legs entwined with his. He stroked her hair, gently, smoothing it away from her eyes, but carefully so as not to wake her. He had missed her more than he could ever have thought possible and had spent too many hours over the past couple of weeks at work, unwilling to come back to face the emptiness of the apartment.
There was a tang of regret that he had not been awake when she arrived, but he had been working for over twenty hours on the go and simply had been too tired to stay awake. He would make it up to her tonight. He smiled to himself, kissed her gently on her forehead and then tucked the covers around her to keep her warm, before waking from his half-sleepy desire for her with a brisk shower.
The parcel seemed innocuous; beautifully wrapped, red bow on the top, and a neat white card attached. Miss Ealand looked at it suspiciously. She didn’t like surprises. Especially on days like today. Valentine’s Day.
Ed Straker looked askance at the parcel. ‘Miss Ealand?’ he queried, raising an eyebrow at the atypical object. ‘Yours?’
She glowered at him, a stern look that might have made a lesser mortal flinch, but he just looked at her. ‘Actually, sir, it’s for you,’ she commented.
‘Oh.’ He was silent. ‘I see. Has it been checked by security?’
‘Yes.’ She waited.
‘Oh.’ He seemed to be unable to say anything else today. ‘Well I suppose I had better take it.’ He picked it up gingerly and carried it through to his inner office. She followed him, hoping that she might get to see him even more disconcerted.
It was not to be. He took his briefcase, took the messages that she had for him and then nodded to her in thanks.
Once the door was closed behind her he lifted the parcel up, examining it with care and more than a little trepidation. Who on Earth would have sent him a parcel on today of all days? Rachel? Hardly likely. She knew how he felt about Valentine’s Day. Commercialised and false. An excuse for cynical money-making at the expense of people who should have known better. He refused to have anything to do with it. But this was puzzling. More than a little intriguing. He hoped it was not going to cause any problems.
He carried it, cautiously, almost like one would carry a poisonous snake, practically at arm’s length. Alec Freeman grinned as Straker walked through the control room, ignoring the staff working at their consoles.
‘Morning Ed.’ Freeman followed him into his office and closed the door. ‘Valentine’s Day present? Lucky you. More than I got today.’
Straker stared icily at him, refusing to be drawn into a discussion about such a facile topic.
‘What do you want Alec, or are you just here to annoy me? If so you are doing a very good job so far.’ Straker tossed the small parcel in his hand, wondering whether to pitch it into the waste bin instead.
‘Well, are you going to open it or not?’ Freeman sat down, waiting.
Straker examined the neat writing on the white card. Ed Straker. Black ink, a perfectly formed, flowing script. A writer with confidence. ‘I won’t get any peace here until I do, will I?’ he admitted and reluctantly started to unwrap the small cube, throwing the paper into the bin and then lifting the lid of the little box that was inside.
They stared at it. Then at each other.
‘What will you tell Rachel?’ Freeman asked.
‘Rachel? Nothing. This has nothing to do with her. If someone wants to play silly games then they are wasting their time.’ Irritably he picked up the beautifully embroidered heart shaped pincushion that had been inside the parcel. There was no name, no indication of the sender apart from the intricately sewn message emblazoned across the heart; You will be mine, Ed Straker, and a small, heart-shaped pattern in pins pushed into the rich red fabric with its delicately stitched words.
He tossed the present and its accompanying name tag into the secure disposal chute, and walked out. Freeman watched him go, fully aware that his boss was actually rather troubled by the anonymous gift. Straker had never given the slightest attention to this day, and had never, as far as Alec was aware, received either a card or gift from anyone.
It was pretty obvious that Rachel had not sent it. She knew better than to risk embarrassing her fiancé at work with trivial stuff such as that. Besides, Alec knew that, although Ed was a man capable of intensely deep emotions, he tended to keep those emotions locked away, not to be demonstrated in front of outsiders. Alec hoped that this gift would not be a portent of things to come.
‘I need some air.’ Straker, after several arduous hours spent wasting time searching for yet another non-existent UFO, was looking more stressed than usual. ‘I’ll be out on the sound stages if anyone needs me in the next half-hour, Alec.’
He headed out, still perplexed by the earlier event in the day. His studio office, with cigarette box and sculptures, was an oasis of quiet calm after the frantic activity underground. He sat down in the cream leather chair, flicking through a folder detailing the current list of studio projects, as the room smoothly surfaced into the real world of the studios. A world of fakery and trickery and lies. Sometimes he wondered which world was the most deceitful; SHADO with its secret bases and secret underground world, or the studios with their airbrushed starlets, their special effects, their false camaraderie.
Then he saw it. As the door opened onto his other world, and he put the folder back on his desk, he saw the envelope on the desk, propped against the white sculpture. He had been too preoccupied to notice it when he came into the office.
‘Miss Ealand, who brought this?’ He indicated the card on the desk with its familiar handwriting; black ink, large flowing script. Someone very confident indeed to get past Miss Ealand. Someone who knew where to find him.
‘I’m sorry sir, I don’t know. It can only have been put there earlier when I went to get myself a cup of coffee. Shall I have it checked for you?’ Miss Ealand reached for the envelope, only for Straker to pick it up, unsure that he wanted her to get too involved in what was, after all, a personal matter.
‘No, there’s no need. I’ll use the security scanner here.’ He sighed in annoyance and slid the envelope under the machine. All clear. He picked up his letter opener, unwilling to get any further fingerprints on the envelope. He would get the forensics people onto this if necessary. This was the last thing he needed right now.
The card was, as expected, unsigned. But its message was boldly written. You will be mine. The front of the card itself was a picture of Straker; one of the rare studio shots that he occasionally allowed them to take. This photo had been from last summer, in the studio park. He had reluctantly agreed to pose for it; just the one photo and then he had gone back to the safety of his anonymous underground world.
Angered and irritated he tore it into shreds, heedless of the need to preserve evidence. He threw the scraps away and walked out, into the cool February morning, desperate to feel fresh air on his face, to get away from the anonymous, asinine stalker, whoever she was, with her childish fantasies.
The studio was busy with the latest productions; blockbuster sci-fi’s vying with sedate historical romances for space on the lots. He watched, gently amused, as a pair of astronauts, cumbersome in their space suits, waddled past a group of young women in Georgian dresses. He almost wanted to stop the spacemen and give them instructions in how to walk properly in a space suit.
He imagined their reaction. It was all a question of balance, of posture. He could feel the weight of the suit on his shoulders, the stiff joints, the cumbersome bulk and the tight gloves as if it was yesterday. He sighed. It had been a while since he had had the opportunity to wear a space suit, to actually go into space instead of being confined in a shuttle travelling between Earth and Moonbase.
He would have to have a word with the casting director about the quality of some of the actors they were currently hiring. Even as extras they should have been able to do better. He shook his head in disgust. Today had not started well and it was definitely going downhill rapidly.
He continued his stroll, enjoying the fresh air, the chance to be above ground and see the sunlight, to be able to walk and stretch his legs. He had not been running for several days now, and it was beginning to take its toll. Stupid, really. Just because Rachel was not at home was no reason to stop doing the things that he knew were good for him, and which he enjoyed. He made a mental note to ensure that he got up early tomorrow and managed at least a couple of miles before work, weather permitting.
He looked at his watch, surprised that he had been out here for nearly an hour. Time to head back. He walked towards Main Reception, having seen enough. It was getting cold outside the soundstages, and the low cloud cover threatened snow later. That would cause havoc on the roads he realised and was thankful that he was not driving today.
She had that look on her face. For one moment he thought about turning round and heading out again, unwilling to face her, but he knew that he would have to deal with it sooner rather than later. And Rachel would be coming in shortly. It would be better to get it over with and let Security sort it out before he had to explain it all to an angry fiancée.
Grinning to himself he wondered what Rachel was like when she was angry. He had never seen her in a really bad mood. It could be interesting. A facet of her personality that he had not experienced. But not today. Let’s get today over and done with, he thought to himself.
‘Where is it, Miss Ealand?’ he asked wearily.
She gestured to his office with a nonchalant wave of her hand. ‘I put them in your office Mr Straker.’ Her eyes returned to her work, but he knew that she was watching as he opened the office door.
Gods. What was going on? The room was full of flowers; great bunches of them in cellophane, in bouquets, in arrangements everywhere. He turned back to her, on eyebrow raised questioningly. ‘Miss Ealand?’
‘Who sent these?’
‘I’m afraid I have no idea, Mr Straker. They were delivered by a local firm who cannot tell me who ordered them. The person paid cash and apparently was most insistent that they remain anonymous.’ She smirked at him, enjoying his discomfort.
‘Is there a message with them?’ he tried to remain controlled.
‘Oh yes, here it is.’ And she handed over a small envelope, with the familiar black, self-assured writing on it. Ed Straker, on the envelope and inside, in the same script, Lilies, especially for you, Ed.
He turned to look at the flowers. Lilies, all of them, white lilies. Something in the back of his mind niggled at him. White lilies? Was that significant? ‘Help yourself Miss Ealand, just….’ he paused, thinking, ‘… get rid of them.’ With a sigh of resignation he gestured at the masses of blooms, before heading away from the Reception area to take the cargo lift down to Control. Anything rather than face Alec, knowing that he had undoubtedly been informed by Miss Ealand, knowing that Alec would be waiting to meet him, waiting to see his commanding officer standing there, in the office, surrounded by flowers.
It was good to inspect the cargo hold occasionally, to ensure that all the security procedures were in place. Rachel had recently installed Retinal scanning systems into the cargo section, and he needed to check that they were working well. At least that’s what he told himself. He was reluctant to admit just how much he had been disturbed by the events of the morning. The flowers were the last straw. It was time to get security involved. And that meant telling his Security Chief.
Back in the calm oasis of Control; no surprises, no cards or flowers, he checked his watch; she would have arrived for her shift some ten minutes ago. Excellent.
‘Colonel Philips, Straker here.’ Correct procedure, correct terminology, he spoke calmly and confidently. ‘I need to see you in my office as soon as possible.’
‘Certainly Commander. I’ll be there directly.’ He could hear the smile in her voice, picture her brown eyes crinkling as she answered. He hoped she would still be smiling after he had told her about this morning’s offerings.
Rachel hid her smile as she walked briskly along to his office, wondering what excuse he had managed to invent to have a reason to call her. The door was open, as usual. It was only closed when he was involved in private conversations or in plotting new tactics with Alec. She expected to find him standing waiting for her, and was slightly taken aback to find him at the conference table skimming through a thick document and making copious notes in the margins.
She had a flash of memory; standing in this same room the first time she met him formally here in HQ, when he had offered her the post of Security Chief. He had been writing notes on a blueprint then and he had ignored her presence. She knew now that it had been a charade, a front to see how she would react to his attitude.
He looked up at her, grim-faced and solemn. This was not going to be what she expected; no welcoming hug or kiss, even though they were in the privacy of his own sanctum. ‘Colonel, thank you for coming so quickly. How did things go in Moonbase?’ All stern Commander, his mind clearly fixed on work.
‘The upgrades went well and the new security procedures are in place. It took some time to get everyone used to the system, but they are all confident in it now.’
‘Excellent. I hope it’s going to help solve some of the problems they’ve been having with leaking signals. So far we’ve been successful in stopping rumours on the Internet, but one day someone will get lucky.’ He leaned back, hands clasped behind his head, stretching to ease stiff muscles. ‘Anyway, that’s not the reason I asked you to come here.’ He hesitated. ‘I have a security problem….’ He paused again. ‘It’s a somewhat awkward situation.’ He stopped, unsure of how to go on.
She looked at him quizzically.
There was no point in beating about the bush. ‘I’ve had several Valentine’s Day gifts delivered to the studio today, all from the same person. I have no idea who or why. I am concerned that there may be a Security issue and I need you to do some discreet investigation work if possible. Find out who the woman is and explain the situation to her, as tactfully as possible. I’m afraid there isn’t very much to work on. I threw away the first two gifts along with the cards, but Miss Ealand may be able to help. It’s a distraction that I really don’t need at the moment.’ He laced his fingers together, resting his chin on his hands and looking thoughtful. Then he stood up, pushing away the pile of papers and the folder that he had been working on. He smiled apologetically at her, as if realising that he had been in the role of Commander, instead of fiancé. ‘I’m sorry I was asleep last night when you got back. Was the journey okay? It was a long delay on the flight and I’m sorry about that, but we had a suspicious echo in the radar. It seemed safest to have your landing delayed until we could be sure that it would be a clear re-entry.’
‘It was alright but I was very glad to get home. Look, I’ll go and get some information from Miss Ealand and get back to you. Hopefully it’s just some little up-and-coming starlet who wants to attract your attention. If so I can have a quiet word with her and her agent to explain the situation.’ She glanced down at the ring on her left hand. Then she looked back and grinned. ‘So, Commander, do I get a welcome home kiss?’ she asked cheekily, her eyes sparkling with amusement.
Stepping towards her he pulled her to him and held her tightly, leaning down to kiss her with enthusiasm, his lips as tempting as they had been late last night, asleep in bed. Eventually he released her, reluctantly as always.
‘I have missed you,’ he whispered, ‘I think that next time you go to Moonbase I shall have to find an excuse to join you there.’
‘But Moonbase only has provision for single quarters sir. And to be honest those airbeds are not exactly designed………’ she got no further as he reached for her and pulled her close, kissing her again to forestall any further comment.
Some time afterwards, smiling contentedly, Colonel Philips departed to begin her investigations.
He watched her go, walking confidently across the control room to the executive office. He could not believe how much his life had changed, how much he had changed over the last months, and now they were beginning to think about their wedding. He had never thought he would ever be happy again, ever find a soul mate, someone to share his life, to be a part of his world. He realised just how incredibly lucky he was.
And today was Valentine’s Day. Perhaps he should have done something for her today – something quixotic and romantic. But no; he knew that she felt the same way he did. Romantic gestures were not meant to be kept for Valentine’s Day. Romance should be part of every day, every minute, every second.
He remembered TinTin and her lonely, unloved existence on Tracy Island. She had changed so much in the short time she had been with SHADO. One of SHADO’s engineers now, and heading for the top, she had raced through the training schedule and been allocated to the Research Centre in Barrow where she was now overseeing the modifications to the next generation of Skydivers. He wondered what would have happened if he had not kissed TinTin on that last afternoon on Tracy Island, or if she had preferred to take the amnesia drug and stay with Alan. International Rescue’s loss was SHADO’s gain however.
He sighed and went back to the stack of paperwork. Never ending paperwork. He hated it. He would have to find a way of getting Alec to do more in the way of the mundane tasks. Perhaps Alec could take over the responsibility for the monthly psyche reports that the IAC in all its infinite wisdom demanded.
It would be easily within his ability, even though Straker knew full well that Alec Freeman loathed any kind of reading. Well tough. Alec had been designated Second-in-Command and therefore he had better take a greater role in running SHADO. Colonel Lake was too involved in the scientific research section to make a suitable replacement for Straker should one become necessary, and Foster, well, he was shaping up. They needed to do something about Foster. He still hadn’t been fully verified yet. That was the next thing on Straker’s long list of things to do. Foster.
Straker grinned ruefully to himself, remembering Alec Freeman’s experience and the trouble it had caused afterwards. Enough. The paperwork was still waiting. He poured himself a coffee and began almost wishing for a UFO attack so that he could delay the inevitable drudgery of reading reports and approving schedules.
Colonel Philips decided against involving the other security team members in her search for the elusive Valentine. Ed was obviously very uncomfortable by the unwanted attention and she felt it would be more prudent to make her enquiries by herself. She started with Miss Ealand.
‘I’m sorry Miss Philips, but I can’t give you any other information.’ Ed’s secretary admitted ruefully. ‘The first parcel was on my desk when I arrived for work and the envelope appeared in Mr. Straker’s office while I was having my break. I was only away from a few moments. So the woman must have seen that Mr Straker’s office was open and gone in to put the card on his desk. I do leave the office door unlocked, as a security measure you know.’
Rachel did know. Once the executive office door was closed and secured, and authorisation given by either voice print identification from inside or Miss Ealand’s authorisation from outside, the SHADO procedures were in place. However, with the door unlocked none of the secret systems would operate; no voice print, no hidden videolink, no communications with the underground Headquarters.
There was however an excellent internal security system that operated constantly, recording all activity in the office. She collected the film discs and took them back to her own small office, closing the door so that she would not be disturbed.
Useless; the film showed a slender figure, quite tall, but wearing a long winter coat with hood pulled up, bringing the first gift and leaving it on Miss Ealand’s unattended desk. Typical winter weather clothes, nothing remarkable. And the same person had returned after, when the secretary was away from her desk, but this time going confidently through to the inner office where the card was placed carefully and discreetly against the white sculpture.
Good luck or good planning? Rachel was, by now convinced that the Valentine stalker had been watching Miss Ealand to ensure that she could get the second gift, the photograph, inside Ed’s studio office without being seen. And they knew about the security cameras as well. It was obvious from the way she had kept her face averted from the camera lenses.
‘Drat.’ She was no further along in her investigation. Enquiries at the Florists had been as futile. They were unable to tell her anything – the order had been phoned in and the payment, cash, been received by courier later that same day.
She was getting more and more frustrated. With so little to go on she was still totally in the dark. Well, Ed would simply have to cope with the unwanted attention. The stupid thing was that he really didn’t see why anyone would be interested in him. She shook her head in resignation remembering seeing him in his bed last night. Even asleep he had an indefinable presence. That certain something that was far more than charisma, and certainly nothing to do with sex-appeal, although he certainly had that. No. It was more to do with the fact that he had, undoubtedly, that rare quality, that infinitely desirable ability to command. To lead. And he did so with confidence, with coolness, sure in the knowledge that he was the best person for the job. She knew that if he had ever doubted his ability to run SHADO, then he would have resigned, would have handed the job over to another person, would have walked away without a moment’s hesitation.
There was little else she could do in her investigation, apart from keep a close eye out for any other unwanted surprises and hope that nothing else arrived for him today.
Commander Straker picked up his coffee and sipped it. A frown of annoyance furrowed his brow and he realised that the morning’s disruption had troubled him more than he had imagined. It was ridiculous really, that he should get so distracted by such a trivial matter. He needed to get a grip on himself. He shook his head ruefully; there was a mountain of work still to do here in HQ, and the sooner he started the better.
Hard work; novocaine for the soul. It was a maxim that had got him through some of the most desperate times in his life. The breakup of his marriage, his subsequent divorce and then just over a year ago the death of his son. He had immersed himself in work, hardly surfacing from the subterranean base for days on end.
He remembered the despair he had felt, an agonising, twisting pain that never eased, despite all the hours of work, all his attempts to bury the awful emotions deep within himself. If it had not been for Alec Freeman’s presence after John’s death, he did not think he would have survived. Alec had eventually taken him in hand and had insisted that Ed get help, and then had virtually dragged his boss out of the office and back home to Freeman’s own house.
Straker had been too shattered and emotional to argue. He had submitted, without argument, without question, to Alec’s demands that he go to bed. Once there he had slept for over fourteen hours; the sleep of the utterly exhausted. He had stayed at Alec’s for the next four weeks, slowly recovering his equanimity and self-control. Ed had never spoken to Alec about that time, but the two men now shared a history and closeness that went beyond mere friendship.
The paperwork was still waiting for him on his conference table. Uncomplaining and patient. Damn. At least that was all it was; files and folders with statistics and reports, times and dates, requests and requirements. No cards, no parcels with little red hearts, no arrangements of flowers. He heaved a sigh of relief and settled to work. Folders, files, all were finally signed and finished. He leaned back, yawning as the door opened.
‘Still here? Haven’t you got anything better to do than sit there being idle?’ The familiar voice was welcome to his ears.
‘Alec. What have you been doing for the last couple of hours? I could have used some help here. Why are you always busy when there is an excessive amount of paperwork?’ Straker asked cynically.
Freeman didn’t reply, just put two mugs of coffee on the desk. ‘Here. You look like you need this. Any more tokens from your secret admirer?’
Straker scowled. ‘Look Colonel, it’s really not funny. I could do without the jokes. What concerns me is how easily this woman managed to get past the outside security. I thought that no one could get into Miss Ealand’s office without passing at least two checkpoints. Rachel is looking into the whole thing. Hopefully she will get it sorted out before it gets embarrassing.’
Alec Freeman stared at him for a moment. ‘You really are uncomfortable with this aren’t you?’ he said, surprised. ‘I thought that you would be able to shrug it off, after all it’s the sort of thing that you’ve dealt with before, especially from some of the budding actresses we have around here.’
Straker leaned forward, pensive and obviously disconcerted by the events. ‘I don’t know Alec, there’s just something about the whole situation that worries me. It’s not quite as it seems, at least that’s how I feel about it.’ Picking up his fountain pen he slid it into his breast pocket inside his jacket, touching his Glock in its shoulder holster as it to reassure himself that it was still there. ‘Forget it, I’m overreacting as usual. It’s probably because I haven’t seen much of Rachel these last two weeks and I’m tired.’ He stopped and looked at Freeman wearily. ‘And yes, before you say it, I have been working long shifts, which doesn’t help. Alright? I promise to be a good little boy and have an early night tonight.’
‘Well why don’t you call it a day and go home now? It’s after five and it’s quiet. We can always call you in if we need to. Go home and put your feet up for a while.’ Alec stared at his friend, waiting for the objections, the excuses, the why nots and the what ifs.
‘I might just do that. At least it would get me away from any further valentine surprises. I’ll call Rachel before I go home to let her know you are in charge for the rest of the day. Oh, and next time you want to send me home early, please have the consideration to do it before I finish the paperwork.’
Alec grinned at him as he followed Straker out of the office.
The threatened snow had held off, and the roads were clear, but even so he was glad that he was not driving. He sat in the front seat, chatting about the weather, about holiday plans for the year, about the latest government initiative to improve the economy. A relaxing, comfortable journey. His detail ensured that he was safely outside his apartment, and handed into the safe custody of the guards in the adjoining flat.
He was standing outside his door, key in hand, when he heard the lift arrive. The agent in the guard post moved across to check on the arrival.
The lift doors opened. They waited, anticipating. Nothing. Curious, the agent stepped over to look inside.
‘Sir, Commander?’ he gestured to Straker.
There was a large package on the floor. Carefully positioned in the centre of the lift. Beautifully wrapped, red bow on top, white card next to it with the familiar flowing script in black ink. Ed, For you. Your last Valentine.
‘Evacuate the building.’ Straker calmly turned to the security agent standing there. ‘Go on. Now. Get everyone out. Then contact HQ and get the Bomb Squad out here.’
He stripped off his jacket, not wanting the additional encumbrance, wanting, needing complete freedom of movement. His shoulder holster as well. Placed on the floor next to him. He concentrated entirely on the package, shutting out everything else; the sounds of the fire alarm as the agent followed his orders, the sounds of people shouting, calling, running down the stairs, the coldness and hardness of the lift floor as he knelt beside the parcel, the brightness and gaiety of the wrapping paper. All these were ignored as he focussed his attention on the gaudy package.
The sounds died away, the building became quiet. He knew what was happening outside; the crowds of people gathering to see what was happening, the expectation and thrilled anticipation of smoke, of flames, of the arrival of the emergency services.
He knew also that the SHADO bomb disposal team would be on their way, alerted by the agent. But there might not be enough time to wait for them. The wrapping paper was easy to remove. He tossed it away in a corner. A box; innocent to all intents and purposes. Very, very carefully he slid his fingers around and under the edge of the lid, feeling for wires and boobytraps. Nothing. He eased the lid off, slowly, cautiously. And yes, he had been right. The bomb was simple; simple but nonetheless effective. He calculated that there was enough explosive to cause serious damage to the building.
His hands felt sweaty, clammy and he wiped them on his shirt. There was no timer, no indication of when the device might erupt. It could well be triggered by a phone call, by radio signal. He knelt back, thinking. Looking. Calmly analysing. His training took over and almost automatically he acted. The detonator was hidden, but he managed to ease it away from the explosive and remove it, careful not to touch any other parts as he did so. Once that was out of the way he could proceed to dismantle the contents, his hands moving with greater surety and confidence.
Finally it was done, and he heaved a sigh of relief, realising that he had been holding his breath for the last moments. He sat down in the lift entrance, his back against the open door to prevent it from closing. With an almost detached mind he noticed that his hands had begun to shake slightly. A reaction to the stress, he realised.
A shadow fell across the floor and he turned, looking up to see who had come behind him, but an unexpected blow on the side of his head dazed him and he fell, unable to move.
There was a knife at his throat when he recovered enough to be aware of his surroundings. A sharp knife; he could feel the over-honed, wire-edged blade rasping roughly on his skin. He was in his living room, securely bound and tied to one of the chairs. He couldn’t have been out for more than a few minutes though. He just had to be patient. The bomb disposal team would be here soon enough.
‘Would you mind at least telling me who you are?’ he asked the assailant standing behind him, hand on Straker’s shoulder, knife at Straker’s throat.
The voice was not what he expected. Dark and deep, a young man’s voice replied. ‘Gavin. Gavin Hicks. You weren’t expecting me were you Mr Straker?’
‘No. I assume you sent me the Valentine gifts? I think you must be under a misapprehension about me.’ Straker questioned, a gentle note of perplexity in his voice, trying to placate Gavin. It didn’t work. The knife moved slowly, tracing a fine line of blood on his neck, just piercing the surface layers.
‘So,’ wearily, this time, no hint of perplexity or bewilderment. ‘What do you want with me Gavin? Why are you doing this?’
And Gavin told him. Straker sat as Gavin started to talk. Sat and listened as the young man began to explain everything. The knife moved again, deeper and with more intent to hurt. He was surprised how much it stung. He could feel the blood seeping down, soaking into his collar. It was unpleasant, and he knew that a deeper cut could be dangerous, could open an artery or vein. It might only take a slight increase in the pressure with such a sharp knife.
He waited, listening to the young man talk, and then after what seemed like an eternity heard the team arrive. They would have been expecting him to have been waiting for them out in the hallway. Gavin had, foolishly, left the door to the living area open and he heard the team prepare to move into his apartment.
‘Gavin,’ he said softly. ‘My men are outside They are trained and armed and if you don’t release me they will probably shoot you. I don’t think you want that do you? Let me go and I will make sure that you are safe.’
Gavin moved to kneel in front of Straker. ‘I wanted to kill you but I can’t do it. However, there’s one thing I have to do first.’ His hands held Straker’s head firmly, and he moved closer, the knife forgotten on the floor beside him, his eyes fixed on his prisoner.
The team were ready to storm the apartment when the door opened and Straker appeared, looking pale and ashen, blood on his neck, and pressing a clean handkerchief against it.
‘He’s in the living room.’ he told them and stepped outside ‘He’s not dangerous now.’ He leaned against the wall as the team entered, his eyes closed, as if he did not have the energy or the strength to stand unaided.
They hurried in. Gavin; seated on the sofa, subdued and weeping, all resistance gone, looked up at them and surrendered without the slightest trouble. They dragged him out, secured him in their van and helped their Commander into the front seat. He had objected, as expected, but their leader insisted that he return to HQ to see the doctor, even going so far as to get one of Straker’s thick coats from inside the apartment and making him put it on over his grey jacket which they had handed to him.
Eventually, wearily, he agreed. It was just easier than trying to argue with them, trying to convince them that all he wanted was to be left alone. In the van he was silent, not speaking to anyone, not answering questions, not even caring that they were worried about him.
Rachel had been forewarned and was waiting. She shook her head despairingly, and with some slight amusement, but her concern was obvious. ‘Honestly Ed, can’t you stay out of trouble for longer than five minutes? I’ll come with you to sick bay.’
‘No I’ll be fine. Stay here. I’ll meet you outside in about ten minutes and we can go home. Get a driver will you.’ And he turned away from her abruptly.
She watched him go, puzzled at his curt dismissal then went to oversee the custody arrangements for Gavin. They found his security pass that Packard had obtained for him, enabling him to get access to the second level of security at the studios. At least that was one puzzle solved.
Ten minutes. Ed would be ready, hopefully.
He was silent in the car on the way back. His hands tense, fingers clasped together in his lap. She reached across for his hand but he didn’t seem to notice. She saw that he was pale, with a fine sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead. He was looking out of the window, anxiously, watching the other vehicles, almost unaware of her presence.
They were not much more than a couple of miles from home when it happened. The car was caught in heavy rush hour traffic, all the commuters heading out of the business areas, and for a few moments they were trapped in a slow moving queue before the jam finally cleared itself. He looked out at the other cars, close to his, close to him, trapping him in the vehicle.
‘Stop the car. Now.’ Leaning forward he spoke quickly, urgently, to the driver. Within seconds they had halted at the side of the road. Dave Johnson, in the front passenger seat, turned round perplexed. Straker fumbled with his seat belt, unable to unfasten it, desperate to get out of the confined space in the back. He was beginning to gasp with distress, with panic, his movements jerky and uncoordinated.
Rachel leaned across. ‘What’s the matter? Are you alright?’ But it was obvious that he was not.
He did not answer, instead, his whole concentration was fixed on releasing the stubborn seat belt and escaping. With a snap it came undone and he was free. Free to get away, to escape. Heedless of any traffic on the road he flung open the door and stepped out, breathless and shaking, leaning against the car, his hands on the roof for a moment, before straightening up and walking onto the pavement where he stood, his back to the road and her.
Concerned, she stepped out after him, but he moved away from her, still trembling with anxiety and tension. His hands clenched tightly, his face a frozen mask. ‘Ed.’ She waited for a response. Nothing. ‘Ed. What’s the matter?’
Still he ignored her, his attention fixed on something in the distance, his stance that of someone ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Dave moved quietly, cautiously behind her, not to wanting to cause a distraction, but aware that there was a problem. Good. She might need his help if Ed decided to do something stupid. She had never seen the Commander act in this way before. She was used to him being in complete control of his emotions, of his actions. Panic was not a word one used when talking about Ed Straker. But something had obviously scared him for him to act so irrationally. Something that he had not expected, nor had she.
He stepped further away from her, towards the white frozen spikes of grass that edged the park. The headlight from the car illuminated the darkness, casting shadows across the dark, deserted land. She could see the tautness in his shoulders, his rigidity, his inability to cope with the emotions that were threatening to overwhelm him.
Rachel did not dare approach any closer. He was armed and his reflexes were excellent. In his current state of mind he could react badly, could hurt her or Dave or any innocent passers-by. It was best to let him work it out himself; if that was possible.
There was a wooden bench close by; the sort with a dedication plaque on the backrest. In loving memory of such and such who loved this place. That sort of thing. He moved towards it and almost crumpled onto the seat, head down, arms wrapped around his body as if to hold in what precious little sanity remained, rocking back and forward slowly. He began to shake again, shallow breaths clouding the freezing night air. He would be safer to approach now, she realised, while he could not get to his gun so easily.
Dave nodded to her as she made her intentions clear and he stepped out of the way, out of the dim illumination and into the gloom of the night. But Rachel saw the bodyguard discreetly remove his weapon from his holster and stand, ready to act should it be necessary.
‘Commander…. Ed,’ she warned him that she was moving nearer to where he was sitting, still head bent and shuddering. He looked up at her, eyes glazed with incomprehension and fear. Then he took a deep breath.
‘Sorry. I’m alright. Really.’ But he didn’t sound alright. Far from it.
She sat next to him, reaching out for his hand again, and this time he responded. His fingers closed over hers. She could sense the effort he made to bring himself under control, to bring his mind back to the present from wherever it had been before. His hand was icy cold and she grasped it in hers, trying to bring some warmth back to his fingers. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she spoke quietly, not wanting Dave to hear.
‘No. No I don’t.’ His pale face turned towards her and she could see a thin, tired smile, not of happiness, but anxiety. ‘Not yet at any rate. I’ll be okay, just give me a few minutes.’
It was getting colder, and she moved closer, shivering slightly, wishing she had had the foresight to wear her thick jacket. He looked down at her and smiled again, more confidently.
‘You’re getting cold.’ He unfastened the heavy outer coat that he was wearing over his suit and shrugged out of it, wrapping it around her and pulling it close around her neck, his hands touching her chin, pulling her a little closer to him. His fingers touched her throat, caressing her skin briefly, and she could see that he was about to pull her closer to him, his lips parted ready to kiss her and then; he let go of the coat, and moved back, out of reach.
He leaned back against the bench, his eyes half-closed in the dim illumination from the street lights on the nearby pavement, half-turned away from her; arms folded, hands tucked tightly out of reach. It was as if he denied knowing her, denied everything that she was. The white dressing on his neck gleamed with a fluorescent brightness.
She could see faint dark lines where blood had seeped through. She sat, waiting in the dark, patiently, watching his pale face in the faint illumination. There was no point in trying to force him to talk about whatever it was that had upset him. He was too reserved and withdrawn for that. The only thing she could do was to wait it out, and hope that his fears would subside and he would relax.
Neither was there any way she was going to let him get back in the car in the state he was in. She noticed that his hands were still shaking, even though he had tried to conceal them under his arms, and that his body was rigid with tension. Not good. Something, someone, had alarmed him to a level that she had never seen before.
He stood up, abruptly, startling her with the suddenness of his actions. ‘I’m going to walk back. You go in the car.’ And he set off, long strides eating up the distance, almost invisible in his dark suit, just the whiteness of his face and hair and hands visible. Dave looked at her, puzzled.
‘Follow in the car, not to close. I don’t want him spooked more than he already is.’ Rachel ordered Johnson and she set off in pursuit of her superior, almost running to catch up with him.
He ignored her, walking briskly, hands clenched tightly, eyes fixed firmly on a point in the distance. He was incredibly vulnerable she realised, with virtually no protection. She doubted if he would be able to defend himself in his current state of mind, and she pulled out her phone and called for urgent back-up.
With only one agent in the slowly trailing car, and at a discreet distance as well, she needed serious support. His kidnapping last year had very nearly broken him and Rachel Philips was certain that there was no way she would let anything happen to him again. He meant to much to her, to SHADO, to Earth, even though very few people on this world knew what he had done for them, what he had given up over the years to ensure that the human race would be protected against the alien invasion.
It was only a matter of minutes, although it seemed much longer, before she saw two other cars approach, cautiously and without him noticing them. She dropped back from her position several paces behind him and slowed down to give instructions to the drivers. She was pleased to see three agents in each vehicle, armed and prepared, as well as the drivers. The agents slipped out of their cars, on the move, and followed her, forming a defence block around her.
‘Keep out of sight,’ she ordered them, ‘and two of you get in front of him. I don’t know what’s going on right now, but be vigilant. Above all, don’t let him see you.’
They moved swiftly into position, unseen by their commanding officer. It was an indication of how disturbed he was that he was unaware of their presence. She fastened his coat around her; it was too long and easily too large but it still had the scent of his favourite fragrance clinging to it. She breathed it in, his scent, his presence. Tangible memories of him.
He walked on, unaware of the agents encircling him at a distance, unaware of the traffic passing by, of other pedestrians. It was as if he was in his own bubble of existence, moving with fixed determination towards a predestined rendezvous, and nothing would be allowed to stop him.
They were, by now, well past the small open park with its trees and grass and play area, and into the busier area of the city, only a couple of miles at most to the quayside and home. Brightly lit houses edged the pavements, blocks of light from the windows forming distorted rectangles onto the paved street.
He was more noticeable here, even more vulnerable and she was pleased to note that the agents had reacted by moving closer, although still unseen by him.
She turned to check on the trailing cars. There. Dave and one of the other cars that had arrived later. Where was the third? Then she spotted it, ahead of him, moving slowly, but not overly so. Clever. She knew that one of the best ways to shadow a vehicle or person was from the front. A cautious driver did not generally look ahead to see if he was being followed. Good. That meant that Straker was as well protected as possible. Only a direct overhead attack or a sniper would be able to get to him easily, and she didn’t anticipate either of those eventualities. Her main concern had been that some late night drunken passer-by would stop him for a few moments of mindless conversation and Straker would go react badly. He was still armed. In his current state of distress he would be highly unlikely to tolerate any intrusion, and she did not like to think of the consequences if he was halted in his almost headlong rush to get home.
The agents’ sphere of armour ensured that he was left unmolested, free to walk, and hopefully to gradually relax and compose himself after whatever had troubled him earlier.
Eventually they reached the quayside, passing by the local pub with its groups of drinkers congregating under the ubiquitous parasols outside. He paused, hesitantly, as if wondering whether to join them, then looked up and saw the apartment block a little further on. She saw him turn round, puzzled and slightly bewildered as if he had no idea of where he was or how he had got there.
‘Commander. Are you alright?’ she asked formally. The other agents were slowly approaching, but still keeping a discreet distance.
‘Rachel?’ his tone was confused. ‘How did I get here?’
She took his arm. ‘It’s okay, Ed, you had an panic attack in the car and you decided to walk here. I don’t know what caused it. Can you remember?’
He looked at her in bemusement, rubbing his face with one hand tiredly, as if he was ready to sleep. ‘No, but obviously something did. Are you by yourself?’ his voice was questioning, and she knew that he asked, not as her Commander, checking to see that she was doing her job correctly, but as her lover, out of concern for her safety.
‘No there are others helping me. We were worried about you. You seemed pretty much out of it for a while back there.’
He glanced up, seeing the agents in their formation around him, an encircling protective barrier. Nodding brusquely to them he turned and headed for his apartment along the path that he regularly used for his morning run. Moonlight dappled the still water of the quays and he walked in silence, ignoring her again, his footsteps the only indication of his presence. It was as if the brief interlude had never happened, as if he was once more in his personal hell that had tormented him since getting out of the car.
By the time he reached the entrance to the block he had started to tremble again, his heart pounding in his chest, breathless and terrified of everything around him. He needed to get to safety. To get away from everything here outside. To get into the sanctuary of his own home. He nearly ran up the stairs, fumbling in his pockets for the door key.
It was ridiculous. His hand was shaking so much that he couldn’t get the key into the lock. He could hear the lift arriving with the agents and Colonel Philips. Desperately he held one hand steady with the other and finally managed it. Inside. The door shut, locked, secure behind him. He breathed deep gasping breaths though he was not breathless, not tired.
The curtains were still open and he hurried to close them, dragging them almost violently across the wide expanses of glass, shutting out the view. He checked the patio doors. Locked. There was a sound in the living room. Startled he turned, reaching for his gun, but it was only Colonel Philips, her face pale and worried, Dave Johnson behind her.
‘Ed,’ she began.
‘I’ve got some work to do,’ he curtly informed her. ‘I’ll be in my office. Probably most of the evening.’ Dave looked at him in bewilderment but Straker was adamant. ‘I don’t need anything, apart from some peace and quiet. Please, leave me alone.’ He turned his back on them and went to get drink of water from the fridge. ‘Still here?’ he questioned Dave.
‘Ed,’ she tried again.
‘I told you. I’m alright. I just have a lot to do. It’s been a difficult day. I’ll be through later.’ He went over to the patio doors, looking through the screened glass at the waterfront below, cutting her off from any further attempt at conversation or resolution.
She spent a solitary evening in front of the television, too distracted by his behaviour to attempt to write reports or catch up on her work. Instead she found herself watching inconsequential and trivial programmes that she had never seen before and could not recall afterwards, and went to bed, unaccompanied and cold, hugging his pillow to her in poor consolation.
It was well aftermidnightwhen she awoke to realise that she was still alone in their bed, the sheets on his side cold and undisturbed. Surely he was not still working? Anxiously she got up. No, his small office area was deserted, although he had left the lights on and paperwork strewn untidily across the desk where he had been working. Where the hell was he? She was beginning to panic, to consider getting the agents from the flat next door, then noticed the pale line of light under the door to the second bedroom.
He was in there, asleep, restless, uneasy. His clothes flung haphazardly on the floor as if he had been desperate to get out of them. She saw his gun on the table by the bed. That concerned her more than anything.
He was almost fanatical about his weapon. If he was not wearing it, which was extremely rare, then it was locked in the safe cabinet or at night it was under his pillow, within easy reach should he need it. It was unheard of for him to leave it out on a table. For one moment she didn’t know what to do, then her training, her expertise, took control. Ultra quietly, ultra carefully she crossed the room and picked up his Glock.
She put the gun away in the cabinet. If he needed it he would have to look for it and that would be the first place he would search. She went back to where he was sleeping, not to disturb him, but to turn off the light in the hope that he might settle. She laid her hand on his forehead; a slight temperature, but that was only to be expected after the stress of the day, and she knew that it was nothing to be overly concerned about. Still, she did not like to leave him alone, unguarded.
And yet, he had not wanted to come to her, had in fact deliberately avoided her. It would be best if she left him alone, left him to sleep off whatever was troubling him. He would be feeling better in the morning, she tried to convince herself, but her words were lacking in conviction. There was little she could do now, but wait. And get some sleep.
Thoughtful and concerned she went back to her own bed. She did not sleep well, disturbed by troublesome dreams, and, tired and jaded, was woken by her alarm call from an unpleasant nightmare of guns and aliens and blood and empty beds. Six-thirty. Gods, she felt like she hadn’t slept at all. Coffee, that’s what she needed. And she would make him one as well.
His bed was empty. Clothes still on the floor, but he had clearly gone out. The wardrobe, where he kept his spare clothes, was open, and the bathroom still had traces of condensation blurring the mirror. A damp towel on the floor, his spare razor in the sink, a new toothbrush out of its wrapper and used.
‘Damn.’ she swore to herself, and went to see if the agents next door had any information. It appeared not. He had driven himself in to work about ten minutes previously, without speaking to anyone. The escorting team reported that he had seemed rather anxious, but nothing to be overly concerned about. They had ensured that he was safely underground in HQ and reported to base before ending their shift. She dressed quickly, and followed him, phoning Alec Freeman as she drove. ‘Colonel, we may have a problem with the Commander.’ She came straight to the point.
‘What’s up?’ She could hear the concern in his voice despite the fact that she had woken him from sleep.
‘I don’t want to explain over the phone. Can you meet me at HQ?’
‘Twenty minutes.’ He put the phone down.
Straker’s car was parked in his reserved slot and as she entered Control she could see that they were in the throes of dealing with an alert. He was standing in his usual vantage point, behind the Communications Chief, silently concentrating on the radar images that were being transmitted.
Perhaps that was why he had come in early without notifying her. Perhaps HQ had called him in for an emergency that Colonel Lake was incapable of handling. Unlikely though. Rachel knew how competent Virginia Lake was. It would take something quite exceptional for her to admit she needed help from Straker.
‘Moonbase Control to Commander Straker. Interceptors report all UFOs destroyed. No reports of any casualties. Interceptors returning to base.’
Straker looked around the room to check the status of all systems. Obviously satisfied he turned on his heel and left, without a word, picking up his coffee as he did so. He held it tightly as he entered his office, the door closing behind him, shutting out the noise and distractions.
Rachel watched. It was not like him to leave the control room straight after an incident. He was particular about the need to check the clear-up operations, to check that all interceptors had returned safely to base, that all systems were functioning at full capacity. But he had simply walked away as if he had to get out of the room.
Her office, further down the corridor from his, was small and made even smaller by the presence of Alec Freeman standing looking at the art work on her wall.
‘This is interesting. Is it new?’ he asked.
She explained to Alec how she had acquired the painting from a local artist living in the apartment block. Ed had been impressed by his work and had offered to buy Rachel one of the pieces for her office. ‘An investment, actually,’ Ed had told her, ‘I think he has great potential. In fact I’m going to get one for my study as well.’
Rachel had eventually picked one piece that reminded her of Ed. Almost Mondrian in its simplicity of rectangles of brilliant blue, cream, rose-pink, and silver with wafer-thin lines of darkest cobalt, deep and shadowy. It could have been the painting that symbolised everything about him; calculating, perfect on the exterior, his blue eyes seeing patterns where other people saw nothing, but underneath that rigid, mathematical mind there was a quiet man, loving and passionate with pure, warm, rich emotions that sometimes startled her with their intensity. The softness of the colours reminded her of him, his kindness, his gentleness, the colour of his hair, the cream suit that she particularly liked.
He had picked his blue suit today. Was that deliberate or merely an accident? It was the one he had worn for his last meeting withHenderson. A meeting that had not gone well. Ed had come away infuriated and raging atHenderson’s refusal to increase the SHADO budget, and she recalled that he had changed out of the suit and had put it away in the spare room as if it was associated with unpleasant memories.
And now here he was, wearing it again. The dressing on his wound was creased and stained. He had not been to sick bay to have it redressed. That was so unlike him. He was generally fastidious about his appearance, having to protect his carefully constructed alter-image of wealthy Executive Film Producer. She went over the previous evening’s incident, explaining to Alec what had happened in the car and afterwards.
‘I don’t know,’ he answered, ‘It’s not like Ed to get scared over something and nothing. And he couldn’t give you a reason?’
She shook her head. ‘He just seemed so…I don’t know, such a stranger last night. I’ve never seen him like that before, even when he’s been really tired. It was as if he didn’t want me anywhere near him, didn’t want anything to do with me. Perhaps it’s me.’ She looked up at Alec through eyes beginning to shine with tears.
‘He’s got to deal with Gavin, Packard’s lover yet. That’s not a pleasant thing to have to face.’ Freeman tried to justify Ed’s behaviour.
‘Come on Alec, nothing has been formally decided about Gavin. No, something has frightened Ed, upset him, and seriously enough to make him shut himself off.’
Alec was silent for a while. ‘What do you want me to do, Colonel?’
‘Can you stay here in HQ for a while this morning? You may need to getColonelLakein later. I’m going to try to get Ed out for a while and see if I can’t get to the bottom of this. I’m concerned that he may have a full blown panic attack while he is dealing with an incident and then we would be in serious trouble.’
‘Okay, but be careful. Ed can be very difficult if he thinks you are trying to trick him. Can you think of anything else that might have happened yesterday? Anything at all that may have brought this on?’Alec asked.
She looked at him, amused and cynical. ‘Apart from him being stalked by a mad lover set on revenge, having to defuse a bomb in his own house, and nearly getting his throat cut? No, nothing out of the ordinary.’
Alec considered what she had said. ‘He wouldn’t have been panicked by any of those events Rachel, we both know that. He might have been, if it had involved you or SHADO but he has had far worse to deal with on a personal level and has sailed through. Look, go and drag him out of his office on some pretence or other, then try to get him home. He may open up to you if there is no one else around. I’ll stay here until I hear from you.’
She nodded her thanks and left, walking briskly to Straker’s office. Formally, properly, appropriately, as one would address one’s senior officer, she spoke. ‘Excuse me Commander. I need you to authorise some improvements to the gatehouse security. Would it be possible for you to come now, sir?’
He looked up at her, almost unfamiliar in his blue suit. He looked dreadful, she realised, with dark rings under his eyes, and his face grey with tiredness and stress. There was an air of apprehension about him, as if he feared what she was going to do or say, then he nodded and stood up, leaning on the desk for support.
‘Very well Colonel, I can spare you ten minutes.’ He followed her out, not close to her, not even within touching distance. They could have been total strangers she thought to herself, instead of two people who shared the same flat, the same bed, the same future. Her heart ached with longing, longing to have him reach out for her hand, to fiercely, passionately, pull her close for a long, lingering and intimate kiss, but it was not to be.
She led the way. Out into the sunlight, pale and thin at this time of year. It was cold, sharply cold, but he seemed unaware of it, walking almost in a daze past the reception area out to the car park leading to the entrance.
‘Commander, just stop there for a moment,’ she ordered. He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time and not liking it.
‘Colonel?’ his voice dripped icicles.
‘I’m sorry Commander, but I’m under Colonel Freeman’s explicit instructions.’ Coward, she thought to herself. ‘He insists that you return home as you are obviously unwell. I have been asked to drive you back and make sure that you get some rest.’ She stared at him, daring him to walk away although if he had she would have been powerless to stop him.
He looked grim. ‘Colonel Freeman’s orders? Are you sure? Very well. You may drive me home. But please, do not have the temerity to pretend that you were not complicit in this.’ He refused to speak any further, sitting in the back of the car, ignoring her as she drove.
She walked behind him up the stairs, noting that he was keeping himself under control by a supreme effort of will. He stood back to allow her to open the door, afraid that his trembling hands would betray his emotions. That his weakness would be revealed. That he would have to explain everything to her.
Once inside the apartment she closed the door and turned to face him. ‘Now. You are going to tell me exactly what is going on, Ed. And don’t even think of shutting me out again like you did last night. If you do, I will pack my stuff and go back to my own flat. Then I will request a transfer. Do you really want that?’ Her voice was harsh.
He sat, as if his legs had given way, on one of the sofas, his head in his hands. Motionless, unable to move for fear of the future. Then he raised his head and looked at her as if from a deep dark nightmare abyss. For one terrible moment she thought he was going to tell her to go, tell her to leave, to pack up and abandon him.
She moved to sit next to him but inexplicably he edged away from her, clearly uncomfortable with the closeness of her presence.
‘Ed, what is the matter?’ she was quiet now, quiet and concerned.
‘It’s so stupid, so ridiculous,’ he began and then started to shake uncontrollably.
She reached out to comfort him as she had when he had broken down that night , their first night together, but he stood up, stepped away from her, his back to her, rigid and tense. She simply didn’t know what to do.
‘I’ll go then, shall I?’ she whispered brokenly and stood, heading away from him to their bedroom to begin the painful process of collecting all her things.
‘Rachel…please….’ he was unable to say any more. Standing there, desperately, desperately unhappy. She could see the sheer misery in his face, but if he couldn’t open up to her, what future did they have? Theirs was a relationship based on total and complete trust and once that was no longer there, the relationship was bound to fail. And it appeared that he no longer trusted her enough to talk to her.
She stared into his blue eyes, now glistening with unshed tears. He looked ghastly, exhausted, stressed on the very edge of breaking down. All she wanted to do was to hold him, to soothe away all the fears all the pain and worry. But he would not let her. He had built a barrier around himself and had refused to let her in. She could not help him now. He would have to make the first move.
He watched her as she walked away, unable to force his body to move, unable to tell her what he needed to say. And he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would lose her, would lose his very reason for living if he did not try.
But how could he explain it to her? Was he being foolish? Or over-reacting? It was just that every time he closed his eyes and thought of her he could feel….. No he had to stop. Maybe she would be able to help him. God knows, someone needed to help him. He had gone through hell last year, physical and mental hell and he had no intention of following that path downhill again.
She came back into the room, hesitantly, looking at him, both of them motionless. It was as if time had frozen. They were almost statues, facing each other but unable to face the truth.
‘Please,’ she could hardly hear his plea, his voice a mere murmur. ‘Please helpme.’ and he held his arms out to her. He prayed that she would respond; that she would not ignore him as he had ignored her earlier. She moved into his arms gladly, holding him with an embrace that crushed all his fears about her love for him and left them crumpled, forgotten. She lifted her face to kiss him, but he stopped her, his fingers on her lips.
‘We need to talk… I need to talk, Rachel.’ And he led her to the sofa, sitting next to her, hands clasped to try to prevent them shaking uncontrollably. And then he told her. Told her what had happened. With a hesitant, almost inaudible voice he retold the events of the previous day. Not the parts she knew about, the unwelcome gifts, the bomb, the attack, but the untold account of what had happened while he was being held by Gavin.
The distraught man had talked at length about his love for James Packard and how it had been reciprocated. Gavin blamed Straker for James Packard’s death.
‘He was the only man I ever loved,’ he told Straker, ‘the only man I had ever kissed, had ever slept with and you took him away from me.’
There was nothing Straker could do to deny it. Gavin had been aware of James’s activities as IAC member and knew that Straker was involved with Packard’s disappearance.
Gavin had threatened him with the knife, cutting his throat lightly at first then more deeply as if taking pleasure in the sight of blood.
‘I was tied up, and couldn’t do anything to stop him as he cut me.’ Straker told Rachel, his hands clasped tightly in front of him.
‘Is that what made you panic, Ed?’ she asked. ‘It’s not something I thought would have upset you. Not pleasant, no, but you have the toughness to cope with that. And you must have been aware that help was on the way.’
He looked at her sadly, almost ashamed. ‘No Rachel, it wasn’t that. He didn’t hurt me that much. He told me that Packard wouldn’t have wanted him to kill me. That James was always gentle, was always kind to him. That’s why he let me go so easily. Gavin just placed a memory in my mind that keeps returning, reappearing like a persistent nightmare. Something so simple yet so abhorrent.’
‘Stupid, stupid.’’ he muttered to himself, shaking his head in despair, and she reached across and clasped his hands.
‘Tell me. Tell me what happened.’
‘I don’t even know if you’d understand.’
He put his head down, trying to phrase what it was he needed to say to her. How did you say it? How could he explain? How would she react? His mind twisted in turmoil. Thoughts and feelings mixed up in a maelstrom of fear. There was nothing else to do but tell her, quickly, without emotion, without unnecessary words.
He took a deep breath.
‘Gavin said that James was the only man he had ever loved, had ever really kissed. He wanted to make me realise what that meant. How important James had been to him. He thought I should know what it felt like to be kissed by another man, as he had been kissed by James.’ He paused, his face grim at the memory. ‘I could have dealt with it, could have coped with it, but for the fact that I could feel the blood warm on my neck and could imagine not seeing you ever again and wanting so much to kiss you one last time, to feel your lips on mine. But instead of you I had the taste of sour alcohol, of stale smoke, and lips that hurt. A kiss given with the intention of causing pain.’ He fell silent for a few moments. ‘Do you understand Rachel? Can you possibly understand how I feel?’
‘Oh, Ed.’ She could say nothing. This pain, both mental and physical, was real, was tainting everything he touched.
‘And every time I want to kiss you, or hold your hand, or curl up beside you I can feel his mouth, his tongue, his lips, his hands holding my face, forcing his mouth against mine.’
It all made sense now. The car journey with the seatbelts, restraining him like the restraints Gavin had used. Ed’s refusal to sleep in the same bed to avoid the nightmare visions recurring. The sudden departure in the morning. Avoiding a goodbye kiss. Simple things that encompassed so many feelings. He was desperate to hold her, but feared that the sense of her would reignite all those feelings of revulsion and those hideous memories of taste and smell and touch and sight that he had experienced.
She knew that, had he not been injured, had he not had to cope with the difficult and traumatic events earlier in the day that the simple act of being kissed by another man would have been forgotten very rapidly. But it was not to be. It had brought back the memories of his imprisonment in the cellar, his subsequent breakdown and the memories of Packard and Buckley’s execution. She did not know what to do.
And then in a single moment of sheer clarity and understanding, she did. ‘Ed, do you trust me?’
‘With my life.’ he answered instantly, his eyes fixed on hers, unwavering.
‘Close your eyes then.’
He did so, hands still clasped in hers, still trembling with barely concealed anguish.
Rachel leaned forward. Closer to him and closer. Her lips touched his; a butterfly kiss, light, delicate and fleeting. One fraction of a second and gone, leaving a fleeting, tantalizing, delicious memory.
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
‘Close your eyes, I said.’ she told him firmly and, like an obedient child he did so, his hands beginning to still their trembling.
Her lips met his again, a longer deeper more passionate kiss. She tasted of Rachel. There was no flavour of stale whisky, no aftermath of sickly cannabis, just scented, wonderful woman, tender and soft, caressing and sensuous, loving and trusting. He remembered that first kiss in the hospital, the touch of her lips then, the promise of a future, the thrill of knowing that she wanted to be with him. And he remembered other kisses as well; and other moments and his mind began to relax, to enjoy the firmness of her mouth against his, her hands holding his, her body close to his.
She held the kiss longer, then retreated, unwilling to force him. His eyes remained closed and she bent forward one last time to join her lips with his in a long, intense, satisfying and passionate kiss that wiped away all previous memories.
A kiss that imprinted itself permanently and forever on his mind and erased all thoughts of alcohol and drugs and hurtful mouths forcing themselves on him. He reached for her and held her tightly for a long, long moment and then, smiling, he picked her up and carried her into their bedroom.
Straker walked briskly into the control room.
‘You look a damn sight better than yesterday from all accounts. Did you manage to get a decent night’s sleep at last?’ Freeman quizzed him.
Straker grinned back. ‘Yes, and thank you for holding the fort yesterday Alec. I was more tired than I had realised.’ The neat line of tiny stitches and butterfly closures on his neck were barely noticeable under the high collar of his cream suit. He looked refreshed, rested and immaculate, as always.
‘I’ve had a message from Henderson about Gavin. He would like to start formal proceedings as soon as possible. Can you get in touch with him later?’
‘Ah yes, Gavin. I’ve been thinking about him.’
Alec Freeman waited.
‘I’ll go down to the cells now and deal with him immediately. No need to involve Henderson. Can you ask Colonel Philips to meet me there? Thanks Alec.’ Straker checked the gun in his holster as if to be sure it was still in place.
The detention area was quiet. Only one person being held; Gavin, uncomfortable and apprehensive inside his small featureless cell. Straker opened the door and gestured to the young man. ‘Out. Now. With me.’ His gun ready at his side.
Gavin had no other option. He looked round his small room as if it was the last thing he would ever see, as if to imprint the image on his mind for one last moment. Standing, he followed the older man, head bowed in anguish and remorse.
Straker led him into another small room; table and chairs, an interrogation room. Colonel Philips was already there, sitting, baffled by Straker’s action. There was no need to question Gavin again. They had all the information they needed. It was now just a case of bringing it to a conclusion.
‘Sit down.’ Straker ordered. ‘You tried to kill me yesterday. In this organisation that counts as treason and the penalty for treason is death. Tell me why you did it. Give me one good reason why I should not shoot you now.’
Gavin was silent.
‘I loved him, and you took him away from me,’ he whispered brokenly.
Straker leaned back in his chair. ‘I’ve heard enough.’ He recalled Gavin’s words as he sat on the sofa, having untied Straker. ‘I thought I wanted to kill you, to hurt you as you hurt me when you killed James, but I know that won’t help me. I just miss him so very, very much.’
He turned to Rachel. ’Can you get Gavin a cup of coffee please Colonel?’ He handed her a small vial of clear fluid.
‘Please, Colonel?’ he smiled at her and nodded.
‘May I speak to you outside sir,’ she asked standing up and moving towards the door. He followed her out of the room, closing the door behind him. She tilted her head. ‘Sir?’
‘Look Rachel,’ he spoke to her quietly. ‘I’ve decided to give him the amnesia drug. He’s lost everything that mattered to him, and I feel sorry from him, desperately sorry in fact. I don’t want to eliminate him, I don’t want revenge. I would be quite happy if he simply forgets everything about me, about Packard and SHADO. Let’s give him a chance at some happiness. Let’s give him a chance to find the person of his dreams, as I have.’ He smiled at her with understanding and sympathy.
He kissed her gently before they went back in to Gavin.
Copyright LtCdr February 2010