Keith fastened his seat belt. Lockhart and the rest of the team were still talking, voices muted as they completed final checks before boarding. After ten days the search was close to ending.
No one in Headquarters had questioned the recent activities, despite Colonel Freeman’s preoccupied demeanour and Foster’s reposting to the safety of Moonbase They must have known something was amiss, but they accepted the curt explanation that Straker had been involved in a car crash and was recuperating.
Ford kept his thoughts to himself and did the one thing he could; he came into work early and left late, ensuring his section was ready at all times. He kept an eye on Alec Freeman and, in his own quiet way, worried.
Now he was part of the elite retrieval team, armed and ready for action. He swallowed, unsettled by the suddenness of events. He was a communications officer, a good one, experienced at interviewing people, capable of running every level of SHADO’s extensive communications networks, and like every operative, trained in the use of firearms, though the idea of firing a pistol in anger filled him with unease. Combat was not his profession, but Alec Freeman needed him. That was enough justification for Keith. He just hoped he would not get in the way.
He tugged the seatbelt tighter, hunching down, eager to get moving. The camouflage paint felt strange, the band of black across his nose an annoying distraction. His balaclava was hot and the heavy combat outfit did not fit. Ill at ease and uncomfortable, he kept his head down as the others boarded, reluctant to see, once again, that look of unease in Freeman’s eyes. Alec looked like hell, brittle and close to breaking point. It had taken the best part of two hours to set this operation up and they still had to get to the site. Another thirty minutes even at top speed.
Ford pushed himself further into his seat as the others settled in place, Alec dropping in the seat beside him and giving one quick glance and a nod. Approval? Acceptance? Ford was not sure, but he took a breath, forced his fingers straight, and made himself relax. He could do this.
The helicopter rose into the night sky and he closed his eyes and ran through the precise orders that Alec had given him, away from the other members. He hoped he would not have to follow them. He hoped Straker was …. Straker.
Heavy rain drummed on the roof, threatening yet another disagreeable night in the neglected and leaky building. The woman yawned. ‘Time’s up. He should be waking now.’ She leaned forward, tossing a bunch of keys them over to one of the men sitting at the table. ‘Your turn.’
The thin man scooped up the keys. ‘Never thought I’d end up playing nursemaid.’
‘You play the part so well though.’ The woman laughed. ‘Nursing assistant Lawson. Suits you.’
Lawson scowled. ‘He’s hard work. I didn’t expect this when we accepted the job. Have you spoken to… ?’
‘Them? No. And I don’t want to either. They’ll get what they want, and we get paid. That’s all that matters.’ The woman shrugged. ‘It’ll be worth it though, once he gives us the answers. He’s close to breaking. It won’t be long. And then we can forget all about aliens. We’ll have done what they asked.’
Cooper leaned forward, elbows on the table and hands clasped together. ‘Lawson, go wake our guest. The recordings need changing as well. I’ll be along later.’
Lawson pulled on a waterproof and opened the door of their headquarters. The portacabin was just another forgotten building among many abandoned here in the compound. Head down, he made his way through narrow aisles between the close-packed units and containers, a familiar route even in the darkness, heading for the steel fence that surrounded one of the warehouses on the complex. The padlock on the gate was new; he undid it, the key slipping in his wet fingers, and pushed the gate open. It squeaked, the sound harsh in the pattering rainfall. A quick dash across the tarmac to a small sheltered porch and he was out of the deluge, shaking the water from his coat, taking a few minutes to catch his breath and mentally put on his persona of the caring medical assistant.
Dusk muted the colours of the landscape as the helicopter touched down within a hundred metres of the designated area. Stealth mode together with the torrential rain ensured the minimum of noise, but even so, Alec knew that their arrival might have been heard. The entire area appeared deserted, scrubby plants forcing their way through cracking and uneven pavements, the compact brick-built factories and pre-fab work units crumbling with neglect, their windows smashed or boarded up, but appearances could be deceptive. Lockhart’s team approached with caution.
The rusting fence surrounding the storage area was little deterrent to wire cutters and it was only a couple of minutes before the team were through and working their way between the maze of dark containers, heading in silence for their target. The portacabin was tucked away in one corner of the complex, mildew and slime streaking the walls, weeds growing around the perimeter, but there were lights within and the silhouette of a figure moving. The single door was closed.
The team were invisible in the growing darkness. Even Alec, watching each man move to crouch beneath the windows or behind the door, could no longer distinguish their outlines. He looked back at Ford, checking to make sure that the least experienced member of the team was out of the danger zone.
Ready at last, although Alec’s real fear was that someone inside SHADO was helping, had to be helping, from the kidnappers’ knowledge of SHADO and Straker’s background. Perhaps that person was here with them, in the team. There was nothing he could do but hope.
He held his breath, waiting for Lockhart’s command.
An eruption of sound and sights: the battering ram crashing against the door, explosives splintering the windows, stun grenades erupting, blinding light and a thunderous detonation spilling into the darkness of the compound. The team pushed through the narrow doorway, hurrying to force their way inside before the effects subsided and their targets had chance to retaliate.
Freeman stood apart, although he wanted to be in the vanguard, to be the first to find him, and make sure…. but he followed the rules, hanging back out of danger and out of sight, listening to the sounds. Loud shouts of the SHADO team, the high-pitched scream of a woman, a man’s hoarse cry, cut short. Thuds and crashes and then silence. He nodded to Jackson. ‘Let’s go.’
Lawson looked up. Something was wrong. The interior of the factory should be darker than this, unlit, its windows covered by steel window screens in an attempt to prevent vandalism. Cooper insisted that they keep the lighting switched off to avoid any outside interest in what was supposed to be an abandoned warehouse, and yet Lawson could see the isolated room illuminated behind the rectangle of light splaying across the rough concrete surface underfoot.
The door to the room was open. Shit. And then he heard the explosion outside. He spun around, wondering what the hell to do next. Too late to run. Too late to warn the others. One chance only. He headed for the car, trusting that the keys were inside, as usual.
Then he saw……..
Keith Ford liked to be useful, to be doing something, whether monitoring communications or tracking a lunar module. But right now he felt worthless. The cabin was out of sight from where he was standing, and he could do nothing other than wait and worry. At least the team’s arrival had gone unnoticed. He watched them steal across the tarmac and fade into the darkness, getting into position. With any luck, they would find Straker and be back here in a couple of minutes and then…
He heard the squeak of metal, harsh in the darkness. No-one else nearby, Colonel Freeman and the team were in position and anyway, they would never be so sloppy as to make any noise. Keith stood there, uncertain. This was not his purview; he was a communications officer, not a fully trained SWAT member. He took one step. No. He was not brave enough. He was only here to help afterwards, if necessary, that was all. But despite his fear and indecision, he found himself hurrying on silent feet, away from the team to where the noise had originated.
A gate in the fence. Keith gave it a tentative shove. A heavy gate, too weighty to move by itself. And it squeaked. Someone had opened it a minute ago and gone through, not into the compound where Alec was waiting or the team would have spotted them, but instead into this fenced-off part of the complex. He brushed rainwater from his face and loosened his jacket, one hand reaching inside to check the pistol there. No possibility of calling for help, the others would be preparing for the assault, and, even as the thought flashed through his mind, the stun grenades exploded, blasting light and noise into the darkness and in that flare of illumination Keith saw the warehouse a hundred yards ahead. No one in view.
The aftermath of the grenades, even at this distance, destroyed his night vision. He rubbed his eyes, blinking, waiting until he could distinguish the shape once more before heading across the open space, hunched over in his attempt to keep out of sight.
He reached the wall and pressed himself against it, wiping his face again and smearing the camouflage paint, before pulling off his balaclava. It deadened the sounds, made him feel claustrophobic. And it itched. He let it fall to the ground before continuing his exploration of the building; a typical warehouse, high windows covered with steel sheets, weeds growing up the walls. A padlock secured the wide access doors, but tyre tracks had crushed the scrub grass and mares tail in front of the doors. Vehicles still used this entrance.
Keith bent down to check the tracks. They looked recent, although he was no expert and he twisted the padlock in frustration, scanning the ground, searching for anything that might prove useful. A few ornamental cobblestones littered the edge of a planted area, the flowers and bushes long since withered and he hefted one of the rocks, before realising that it was not large enough to smash through the padlock, but it fitted his hand, the weight and shape familiar. He held onto it while he continued his exploration. There had to be another entrance somewhere.
He carried on, aware of the screams and shouts from the compound behind him and half-expecting at any moment to hear Freeman’s voice in his earphone, ordering him to return at once. But there was nothing. He could see the door now, sheltered from the rain by a porch. It was ajar and he moved closer, grasping the handle to stop the door creaking open before peering inside.
‘Where is Straker?’ Freeman slapped the woman across her face. No time for niceties now. The man was dead, his neck broken when he lunged at the intruders only to be struck down. A regretful accident, leaving just one to interrogate.
She spat at him, blood and saliva mixing together to stain his jacket. ‘Not here.’
He didn’t bother wiping it, just back-handed her once more. ‘Last time. Where is he?’
She stared at him, expressionless and he turned away to face the group. ‘Start searching. Containers, cabins. Everywhere. He has to be somewhere close by. Jackson, you stay here with…’ He gave a contemptuous wave of his hand at the woman. ‘See if you can get anything else out of her. Use whatever’s necessary.’
They hustled out of the cabin, ignoring the woman. An efficient team, well-trained and skilled. Alec followed them into the rain, his thoughts dark and full of foreboding. This part of the site was a warren of double stacked containers, old portacabins and sheds, work units and lock-ups. They would all need searching. He called up the helicopter and requested thermal imaging.
He heard Jackson call from inside the cabin and hurried back, out of the rain. The psychologist was leaning over the woman, her eyes wide with fear. He looked up. ‘Colonel, there’s a third one. A man. He must be outside. Maybe with….’
‘Shit.’ Alec ran. ‘Anything?’ he called, over the screech of containers opening and wooden doors splintering under the weight of rams.
Lockhart’s voice was muffled by the rain. ‘Nothing as yet. These are too small. He must be somewhere else. Somewhere larger. I’ve given the order to spread out.’
A third one.
Out there somewhere, with Straker.