Miss Ealand watched him come into the Main reception area, a hesitant figure, looking incongruous in the ultra-modern surroundings. He stood there, casting around and worried and she went out to greet him.
‘Mr Atwood. Good to see you. You are here for the interview?’
He nodded, grateful to see a familiar face.
‘Excellent. Come with me.’ She led him to a side room, and opened the door. ‘If you would wait in here, please? Someone will come for you in a few minutes.’ She put her hand on his arm. ‘Don’t worry Mr Atwood, I’m sure you will be fine. Mr Straker had a lot of confidence in you.’
Dale pulled out a chair and sat down, twisting his fingers together as he watched the door and waited. It was a long time since he had been in a situation like this. He heard footsteps and tensed as they halted. The door swung open. There was a familiar look to the man now walking in with his hand held out.. ‘Mr Atwood? I’m Dr. Jackson. We’re ready for you now.’
The biker tried again. He would have given up and returned later with the package, but Harlington-Straker was an important client of the courier firm and his instructions had been specific. Delivery this morning. There was a second address, nearby, but he had been told to try this one first.
‘Rebecca Steel? Package for you. Needs a signature.’ He listened to footsteps coming down to the outer door, the heavy lock opening and then she was there with tousled hair and tying her dressing gown belt. He handed her the pad and waited while she scrawled an indecipherable signature on the electronic recorder. Her fingers closed over the small parcel as the courier walked away to sit astride his motorbike and pull his helmet over his head. Puzzled and still half-asleep, Rebecca watched him weave his way through the cars on the street before she shut the door. It needed a hefty push to make sure it closed and she shook her head with annoyance. The agent should have repaired that by now. But, it wasn’t going to be a problem much longer. She had decided to move on, to find somewhere else. Somewhere without the ache of recent memories.
She went into the kitchen where the kettle was just coming to the boil and put the box down on the worktop. A drink first.
She let the tea brew for a minute and picked up the box , giving it a gentle shake. Nothing rattled. No clue as to the contents. No clue as to the sender either. Her name and address had been typed on the label. Intrigued, she unwrapped the parcel.
It was….. beautiful. Silver. Or was it? She held it in her fingers, marvelling at the graceful simplicity. There was a card beneath it and she pulled it out from under the tissue to read. The Shepherd’s Crook bracelet in white gold. Her heart pounded suddenly and she turned the small card over.
Three words. That was all.
Just three words, in neat script. No signature, nothing other than those words.
She felt sick.
A flood of memories.
He was standing in the Reception area surrounded by the police with his head down looking lost and alone; standing in the common room and fastening her bracelet around her wrist; standing on the High Street looking scared; standing in her office. Holding her.
She was watching him. As he worked at the computer in the common room; as he slept beside her in the shelter; as he sat on her sofa; as he shaved.
The feel of stubble under her fingers that morning when she stroked his jaw. The feel of soft skin of his throat under her fingers. The feel of his lips on hers.
She fiddled with the bracelet, its surface smooth and cool under her fingers.
John Shepherd. Ed Straker. Could she really have been so wrong about him? Could there be some other explanation? And Sara?
But then she remembered seeing him there, Sara’s hands touching him and the look of shock and dismay when he saw her, as if he was hiding some secret.
No. He had lied to her.
Tissue paper rustled as she put the bracelet back and replaced the card. It was time to get ready for work, and today she would start looking for something else. Perhaps with Big Issue. Or even something away from this world of drug addicts and hopeless causes.
There was a knock on her door.
Alec was silent on the drive to Rebecca’s apartment. He had tried to see Ed the day before, but Jackson had been adamant that Straker was not to have any visitors until he had been discharged from Mayland. And to be honest, Alec wondered what he could say to Ed, what words might comfort his friend. There was nothing. Perhaps Sara and he might be able to convince Rebecca that she had been wrong. He hoped so.
Sara gave him a worried look as she opened the outer door to the small cluster of apartments. ‘I hope she’s okay. I tried texting again last night, but she still hasn’t replied.’ She led the way up the wide stairs and knocked on the apartment door. A hesitant tap as if she didn’t want Rebecca to hear it, almost as if she was trying to avoid the unpleasantness that she knew was going to come. Rebecca, standing there with a look of accusation on her face, or even worse. Hatred and contempt. Sara knew what Rebecca had thought when she had seen Straker standing there as Sara ran her hand over his ribs. Such an innocent gesture, yet so misunderstood. And the worse thing was that Sara could not tell her the truth.
She glanced up at Alec and squeezed his hand. The door opened. Rebecca, her face etched with fatigue and unshed tears, barred the way.
‘What do you want?’ Her voice was cold and she lowered her eyes, her hand gripping the door as if she was afraid that they might push past her.
‘I have to explain. Please?’ Sara put her hand out but Rebecca shied away from the touch.
‘Go away. There is nothing you can say.’ She started to close the door but Alec stepped forward.
‘No Miss Steel. We need to talk to you.’ He waited, determined and implacable and after one glance at his face she stepped aside to let them in.
She perched on the very edge of the sofa, her tea now tepid and undrinkable. They had betrayed her. Sara and Ed. She would listen to the explanations, the excuses, the pleas for understanding and then she would tell them to go. No offers of coffee, no smiles. No meaningless conversation. She would be firm. But the tears that were tracking down her face betrayed her.
She was aware of Alec going into the kitchen and then the sound of the kettle boiling and the clink of spoons. Then he was back, sitting beside her and holding out a mug for her to take.
‘Drink this.’ There was a note of command in his voice and she found herself obeying him without question, her hands wrapping around the china.
She concentrated on drinking. It didn’t matter what excuses Sara came up with, she had seen them, together. Sara with her ………
There was a hand on her wrist. Sara’s hand and her voice. ‘Look at me Rebecca. You need to listen. What you saw? Ed and me? That was not what you think. Trust me. Please.’
She scrubbed at the tears with the sleeve of her dressing gown. ‘What else could it be? I saw… ’
There was a long exasperated sigh. ‘For heaven’s sake Rebecca. Will you shut up and listen for once? You want to know what I was doing? Okay. I was removing his stitches. That was all.’ Sara removed her hand from Rebecca’s arm. ‘Nothing more. Nothing.’ The last word was fierce with emphasis.
Oh god, she had been a fool. Of course. And yet…
‘But there was more to it. Why didn’t he tell me? Why did he look as if he was hiding something?’ Rebecca stood up and walked away before turning back to face Sara. ‘And why you?’
Another sigh. But not of exasperation this time. And it was Alec who sighed. ‘I think there are some things you need to know.’ He shook his head at Sara, ‘No, not everything, but as much as possible.’ He stood up and stared at her. ‘Miss Steel. What do you know about Ed Straker? Really know I mean?’
‘He runs the film studios.’ Rebecca sounded perplexed and Alec laughed. A gentle laugh with no hint of mockery.
‘Yes, he does indeed, but did you never think to search on the internet? Find out his background? I suggest you do that now.’ He looked around the living area. ‘’Google’ him. See what comes up.’ It was an order, clearly to be obeyed, and he folded his arms, waiting.
It only took a moment to type his name. As expected. Ed Straker: Film Studio Executive. She looked up at Alec who was leaning over her shoulder. He pointed to the screen. ‘No. Not those entries. That one.’ One of those insignificant pages.
Obediently she clicked. And read. She was aware of Alec stepping away from her and talking to Sara, of muttered words, but the screen drew her back. This wasn’t the same Ed Straker was it? It couldn’t be. Master’s Degree in astrophysics, astronaut. Colonel. There had been a mix-up. Someone with the same name. Then she saw the photograph. He looked so much younger, and nervous as he stood in the doorway of the plane. But the same shy look all the same. His uniform suited him. She had no idea what the ribbons signified, but there were several rows.
Alec was there again, close to her, his cologne so different to the one that Ed used, a heavier and muskier scent. His face was almost touching hers as he leaned in again, to point once more at the screen.
‘Colonel Ed Straker. United States Air Force. Military Intelligence. Rebecca….’ He swivelled her chair round so that she was facing him. He perched on the edge of the table. ‘Ed runs the film studio. That is what he wants people to believe, but that’s not all he does. Or myself for that matter. Don’t ask me to tell you more. I can’t and I won’t. It’s safer that way. For everyone.’
She turned back to the screen and scrolled down the pages, engrossed in the words there. Those details about his past, his work. ‘He said he was going to be busy,’ she murmured to herself, ‘a night shoot.’ Rebecca pushed her chair back and stood. ‘So there was nothing in it? Between you and …?’ she stared at Sara.
‘Nothing. Although I think there is something else you should know. Something that affects me.’ Sara cast a glance at Alec and he nodded in assent. Rebecca waited, biting her lips in fear. ‘I’m working for Ed and Alec now. Please don’t ask me about it either. All I can tell you is that it is far more important work than I was doing before.’
There was nothing much to say was there. Sara and Alec and Ed. All working together. She felt even more uncomfortable now. What place did she have in a world of conspiracies and secrets. How could she possibly have any future with a man who had done the things that Ed Straker had done. A man with all those medals.
‘So what now? I mean, if Ed is as important as you say, why are you here? He won’t be interested in me.’ And yet he had written those words. She picked up the jewellery box as if to reassure herself. The card fell onto the floor and Alec bent down to pick it up.
She watched him read the words. Ed’s words.
‘With Love. Yours.’
And then he looked at her, a somewhat sad half-smile on his lips.
‘Ed was married.’ It was a bleak statement and she nodded. He carried on, speaking in a subdued voice. ‘His wife left him after their son was born – accused him of cheating on her, and adultery. They divorced soon after. But Ed was never unfaithful. Ever. He adored Mary.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘He simply wasn’t able to tell her the truth about what he did. She knew he worked for Military Intelligence but she couldn’t..’ and there was bitterness in Alec Freeman’s voice, ‘…or wouldn’t, understand there were things he had to keep a secret. He was working every hour God gave him and she wanted to know where he was and what he was doing.’
His thumb smoothed over the embossed surface of the card before he handed it back with a grimace. ‘It nearly killed him when Mary walked out.’
Rebecca put the card into the box. There was nothing she could say.
‘He needs you. You know that, don’t you? Needs you more than anyone or anything else.’ Alec said.
‘Needs me? Why? Why would he need me? I was so …..’ She took the bracelet out and held it on the palm of her hand. A shepherd’s crook. John. Ed. The silence made her look across at Sara and Alec. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ She tightened her grip on the delicate bangle. ‘Oh God. What’s happened to him?’
‘Sit down and I’ll tell you.’
Dale came out of the room and closed the door before standing there bewildered and still a little dazed after the intense questioning. It had been a long hour and he felt drained. He been expecting the sort of questions that asked about his background, his past history, his poor work record, his previous unreliability. His ‘problems’.
But no. Instead it had been all about his strengths and weaknesses, his ambitions. Jackson wanted to know his abilities, even the salary that he wanted. Serious enquiries about his computer skills, and what he hoped to achieve. But he considered each question and answered although he had a suspicion that there was more to the questions than he anticipated. Miss Ealand and the quiet man who had accompanied him to the hospital were also there but the only question she had asked was how he had got the bruise on his face.
It was the one time that he had hesitated. He blushed a little and told the truth. The quiet man had not spoken. But he had shared a look with Dr. Jackson.
They had asked him to wait outside. So here he was. Waiting.
The door opened and Miss Ealand walked towards him and he felt scared, as if his whole world was balancing on this moment. That pivotal moment. She smiled at him and it was as if he was a child again. A thrill of pleasure. There was no need for her to say the words, but she said them anyway.
‘Mr Atwood? We’d like to offer you the post.’ She held out her hand and he grasped it and shook it, knowing that he was grinning. She held his hand in a firm grip and stared at him. ‘I know you won’t let Mr Straker down, Dale,’ she said.
And he nodded.
Rebecca sat there, her hands clasped together to stop them trembling, but it was impossible. She herself was shaking, not from cold, but from the thoughts of what had happened. And he had drowned, had died in fact, thinking that she hated him.
‘Can I go and see him now? To explain….’ she faltered, but Alec shook his head.
‘He’s going to be discharged today. I’ll let you know when he gets home.’
‘I need to talk to him, Mr Freeman. I have to tell him I was wrong.’ She and stood up and walked across the room to stare out of the window, her arms wrapped around herself as she looked down into the street. ‘I hope he can forgive me.’
Sara put a hand on Rebecca’s shoulder and turned her round. ‘Silly girl. Of course he will. Haven’t you realised yet? He loves you,’ she smiled, hugging her.