Dr Harper and Jackson had finished testing the numerous staff members and had devised an intradermal implant that would register on SHADO’s security systems. Sara had spent the rest of the day making herself unpopular as she injected all the operatives once they had been approved. An uncomfortable procedure but necessary. At least they would not have to re-examine staff every time they arrived for work; the implants would be sufficient evidence.
Lake had arrived and had been scrutinized and injected by Sara with a clinical thoroughness that did not endear her to the SHADO Colonel. The uneasy tension went unnoticed by Straker, his thoughts focussed on organising a search of possible sites for the alien base. It was strange to be back here, even though it had only been ten days or so since he had walked out with Alec to his waiting car. Ten days. And now Alec and Ford were missing, and the aliens were ahead of them again. Straker had no fears that either man would willingly betray SHADO, their training was too good, but he knew what the aliens were capable of doing. And treacherously he hoped his friends were dead.
She stopped in front of the door, turned to look at him.
‘If by any chance he’s still alive, I will find him. I promise you.’
She blinked back the tears, nodded once, too afraid to actually speak, afraid that the tears would fall.
‘Go home Dr. Harper. If there is any news, I’ll call you.’ Straker picked up his phone and turned away from her, to hide his own misery. He heard the door open, her footsteps fading away into the subdued noise from outside.
‘Commander?’ Virginia Lake stood on the threshold. ‘You should go as well. We are doing everything we possibly can. You need to trust us, but more than that, you need to get some sleep.’ She was right and he knew it although it felt utterly traitorous to leave here, to abandon headquarters while the desperate search continued.
But the computers were handling it, and there was a limit to the amount of data that anyone could input. Sleep might help to clarify his mind and allow him to make sense of the whirlpool of ideas that were rioting around his head.
Hiding a yawn, Straker frowned at the elegant woman still standing there, as if to keep the door from closing. ‘Very well. Take over here, Colonel, but,’ and his gaze was no longer stern or forbidding, but earnest, ‘call me if anything happens?’
‘Of course, Commander.’ Lake stepped back as he walked out, past the Delta shift now, their faces staring at him, idle chatter ceasing as they watched him leave. Straker, here. Not a figment of the imagination, not a ghost. Here and alive.
Lake had organised a car for him; the keys left on his studio desk, and he scooped them up and walked out, through Miss Ealand’s dark and empty office to the nearly deserted parking lot.
It was well after rush-hour now and the roads were emptying, with the late-night workers eager to get home. A fifteen minute journey home, and he drove automatically, not really conscious of other vehicles or even his own actions. A familiar route, his mind concentrating more on what might be happening to Alec rather than the humdrum task of steering, changing gears, braking.
The car had pulled to a halt outside the bungalow and he turned the engine off even before he realised where he was. Home. Except…. he shuddered as the memory raced through hi of Keith’s throat crumpling under his knuckles. No. He could not stay here. Not yet. Not until…….and anyway, he rationalised the thought to himself, the aliens knew where he lived now.
The key turned under his fingers, the car grated on the gravel as he reversed out, heading for……. where? Jackson’s rooms? No. Those memories were also too painful. Alec, in his arms. Even though it was not Alec, would never be Alec, the memory served to remind him of what his friend might even now be enduring.
He drove on, tiredness beginning to creep over him, and he knew that his reflexes were too slow to drive for much longer. He would find a hotel, somewhere bland and anonymous. That would suffice.
But something made him slow down, and without conscious thought he pulled into a layby, turned off the engine and sat there, in the darkness, hands on the wheel, as if frozen in time.
Cars passed by, their headlights illuminating the interior while his fingers held the steering wheel as if his existence depended on the contact. Finally he released his grip to reach into his breast pocket. It was a simple matter to speed dial, and he held his breath then spoke.
‘Rebecca, Ed here. I need a favour. I wonder……. ’
A few minutes later, he pulled the car back onto the road, his mind focused and decisive once more. The highways were quieter now as winter mists made visibility hard and he found himself blinking with the effort needed to stay alert and he slid the window open to let in a knife edge of icy air. The unfamiliar roads demanded his concentration but a brightly lit retail park caught his eye and he turned off the main road. The car park was fairly quiet and he pulled up close to the entrance of the superstore.
Bored staff ignored him as he headed for the racks of cheap clothes. Jeans, a t-shirt, dark sweatshirt. He picked up what he needed, looked down at his shoes. Stained as well, and anyway he did not want to keep anything that reminded him of today. Trainers then. Practical and comfortable. He swiped them through the fast check-out, bagged them, headed for the gents.
No one in there either, but he went into a cubicle, striped off his soiled trousers and jumper, and undershirt, dropping them onto the floor. Tags torn off the new clothes before he pulled on the jeans. They fitted as he expected, as cheap jeans do. But they would suffice for now. Trainers next, surprisingly comfortable after his leather ankle boots, and then the t-shirt and sweatshirt. Loose on him. He stuffed his discarded clothes into the thin plastic carrier bags, walked out, dropping the bags in one of the litter bins. He sat in his car for a few minutes, thinking, then he made one phone call and drove off.
Nearly there. Hounslow high street was devoid of traffic and he parked down the familiar side street in one of the vacant bays. No strangers lurked in dark doorways or sheltered in the ginnels as he walked the few steps to the heavy door. His finger pressed the buzzer and he waited.
He leaned closer. ‘It’s Ed.’
A click, the door unlocked and he pushed it open, stepping into the wide entrance and looking up at the hallway with its sweeping stairway. Rebecca was coming onto the landing, watching out for him and he thought he saw a look of surprise in her face for a moment. She called to him. ‘Come up….,’ she paused, and he heard her change what she was about to say. ‘… Ed. I’ve got pizza nearly ready.’
‘I appreciate it. Thank you. I wasn’t sure….’ He halted, facing her, his shoulders hunched with embarrassment.
‘It’s no problem. Honestly. Sara called me earlier today and said there’d been a problem at your house. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you actually until you’d got everything sorted.’
She closed the door behind him, smiled. ‘Go through. You look tired, but no sleeping on the sofa. You can have my spare room tonight.’
It had been a hard week. Well, more than a week really, since Ed Straker’s death and the upheaval that had followed. Warren Thompson had kept out of the way, kept his head down, kept his smile well hidden. A week of day-dreaming and planning, where to go and what to buy first. The money was burning holes in his pocket and he was just waiting for one more payment and then he would disappear with a fat bank balance to keep him happy for a long time. Hot beaches and sunshine instead of concrete corridors and military rules. The morality of what he had done didn’t bother Thompson. He’d given them everything they had asked for; everything. Brain scans, medical records, all the information they needed to create their clones, and they’d paid him very well indeed. It was a pity in a way that Straker had had to be sacrificed, but it was a ‘dog eat dog’ world out there and Straker was just a ticket to a better life. The Caribbean. That would be his first stop.
His phone beeped. Diane. What did she want now? She was always trying to chat him up, trying to get him to invite her on a date, telling him the latest gossip. This would be more boring news about one of her friends, or workmates, or the latest film that she wanted to see, with her thinly veiled suggestion that he take her.
He opened it. Read.
Shit. He deleted the message with fingers that trembled. Shit. How the fuck had that happened. Straker. Alive and in Headquarters.. So what the hell had gone wrong? Dammit.
He would have to phone his contact, Mason. Unless of course Mason was involved in whatever was now going on. He put his head in his hands. They might be checking staff even now. He dialled a number. Waited. A recorded voice answered and he swallowed his nervousness and spoke.
‘Warren Thompson. SHADO operative 362. Medical Section. I won’t be in work tomorrow. Got a touch of flu I think.’ Not a good enough excuse, not really, but it might keep them off his back for long enough to give him time to see what had happened, how Ed Straker had managed to survive; and to get that last big payment. Three days. That was all he needed. And then he would have to run. Bugger the hot beach. Anywhere would do.
Yet another unfamiliar room, another strange bed. Another night of nomadic existence, drifting from place to place, uneasy and restless. Homeless, once again. Even his clothes seemed to taunt him with their reminder of who he had been. John Shepherd.
Straker, reluctant to disturb Rebecca asleep in her own room, undressed with care and pulled back the duvet. Thick pillows, crisp cotton covers, unworn covers as well, as if the bedding was unused and had retained its newness. But it was warm and safe, and a place to sleep without fear. He had slept in this house last night, slept well and without nightmares. He could do the same tonight. But sleep didn’t come. He lay there, listening to the noises from outside. Traffic, the occasional siren of a police car, odd shouts of laughter, peculiar sounds from the attic above. Bats, most likely.
He forced himself to relax, to push thoughts of Alec aside and concentrate on other memories. That flash of red hair under the street lights and sitting on her sofa to watch John Wayne. Touching her hair while she lay asleep. Her hand on his face, stroking the roughness of his unshaven throat. Her quiet, unspoken anger at Alec and Sara for their intrusion in the morning. And then the memory of Sara holding his hand and telling him. His hands clenched even now with the pain of remembering those words.
The unused pillows were too thick and he tossed one onto the floor then lay on his side drifting towards sleep. A floorboard creaked and startled him into alertness. He kept still, hoping that darkness would reclaim his thoughts, but then his door opened and dim light poured in. In silence she stepped into the room, to stand at the end of the bed. He waited, eyes open the merest crack, his even regular breaths not disturbing the fragile quiet, not moving, afraid to speak as if one word might shatter the moment, might scare her into fleeing.
She came closer and he could almost feel her anxiety, before she moved away out of sight. His eyes closed as he heard a rustle of material, the silken slur as she let her robe slide to the floor and lifted the bedcovers. Cool air on his back as she lay down. Not touching, not even close, but there behind him. Her meagre breaths loud in the silence. He could sense her fear, and yet her need but there was nothing he could do apart from let his hands unclench, his shoulders ease and… wait.
Time passed, both of them lying still, breathing now in synchrony, sharing space.