‘Colonel? A word please.’ Ford beckoned to Alec Freeman.
‘Not sure. It’s Commander Straker’s car – ’
‘Let me see.’ Freeman pulled the monitor around and stared at the screen, frowning. ‘Call it.’
‘You heard me. Call security. Get them out there. Fast.’ Freeman waited, arms folded, eyes intent on the screen. The flat line from the vehicle’s tracker was enough to set his pulse racing. Flat lines were a rare occurrence, happening mostly when the car’s systems failed, or when …
He had seen this once before when Paul had somehow managed to total a SHADO jeep, causing considerable embarrassment to the young Colonel as well as raised eyebrows and a rare sigh of disapproval from Straker. ‘Any contact?’
Ford was flicking switches, listening to frequencies and ignoring, for the moment, the man standing behind him. He pulled off his headphones and shook his head. ‘Nothing. Security are on their way. Be about 5 minutes. It’s probably…’ His voice trailed off into an uncomfortable silence.
‘Let’s hope so. Call me the minute they arrive.’ Freeman moved away, glancing back every few seconds as he patrolled the control room, checking other consoles. No sign of the enemy. No recent incursions either, which was the worrying thing; no aliens in sight and now something wrong with Straker’s car. Add those together and you ended up with one answer. Trouble.
There was nothing he could do now, apart from wait. He counted off the minutes, convinced the team should have arrived at the site, and all the time hoping that right now Ed was cursing his vehicle. Simple breakdowns happened didn’t they? Even to SHADO Commander’s cars? But in that case, why hadn’t Straker phoned?
He turned. Ford had that look on his face, the one saved for serious stuff. Really serious stuff. He held Alec’s gaze with his own. ‘You might want to take this in the office sir. Line 3.’
A few quick paces, the door sliding shut behind him. He leaned over the intercom. ‘Freeman.’
Lockhart answered. ‘Nothing Colonel. No sign of the Commander’s car but the tracker has been removed. It’s still here. We’re widening the search.’
‘Where exactly are you?’
‘Slip road. Junction 1 on the M40. Hang on- ’ Alec heard muffled voices in the distance and shouting. He leaned harder on the desk as if by doing that he would hear better. ‘Sorry sir. Looks like the Commander’s car might have been involved in an accident. There’s fresh damage to the barrier at the crest of the sliproad. Dark grey paint and some broken glass. but no sign of the car. Or ….’
‘I’ll check the police radio. Any witnesses?’
‘No one. It’s quiet here. Too early even for rush hour traffic. Only one or two drivers and we’re stopping and asking, but its a bit late now . If he’s been taken by – .’
‘I don’t think so. It’s been quiet here, too quiet.’ Freeman straightened up. ‘See what you can find out. Someone might have noticed something. Get the tracker back here. Forensics will need it. Freeman out.’
He turned away, staring at the walls, his voice a mere whisper. ‘Ed. Where are you?’
There was no answer. Freeman unfastened his jacket and took a breath; time to get organised. He sat down, fingers interlaced and elbows on the desk, thinking.
The intercom buzzed. The internal one, not Lockhart. Too soon anyway and his hand jerked forward to the switch. ‘Freeman.’
‘Colonel. Patching you through.’ There was no need to explain.
He listened to the unfamiliar voice filtering into the room, hearing a distinct a note of triumph in the words, and reacting only as the line went dead. Eight words. That was all. He paused, fingers trembling as he opened the internal line. ‘Ford. In here now.’ He was staring at the mural when the door opened. ‘Did you hear?’
‘Did you get anything?’
Ford shook his head, an infinitesimal movement of apology. ‘No. The call was too short. I need longer.’ He looked at Freeman. ‘I’ll set up a line. Maybe next time. Sorry.’ He shrugged.
Freeman nodded. ‘I don’t need to tell you to keep this quiet. I don’t want any panic. We have no idea what they’re after, and he could be released soon enough.’
‘You think it might be for money?’
’The woman said they had Ed Straker. Not Commander Straker. It could be an everyday kidnapping, studio executive and so on. It’s always been a possibility but there are plans for practically every contingency.’ Freeman stood up, his hands flat on the desk. ‘We pay the ransom. No questions asked. That’s the standing order. Always has been, since we started.’
’What if… ‘
‘If they know who or what, he is? Then it’s a different matter. God knows who they might be or what they might want.’ Alec Freeman straightened up, tightening his lips. ‘I’ll let you get started. We have to find him.’
Keith Ford nodded and walked out in silence, leaving Alec Freeman alone with his dark thoughts, hearing that soft voice once more. ‘We have Ed Straker. We’ll be in touch.’
The light was blinding, or perhaps it was just that his head ached abominably. It would be sensible to keep his eyes closed until the pain subsided and the dizziness eased. No point in trying to move and ending up vomiting everywhere. Past experience had taught him how unpleasant, and messy, that could be. Now it was just a case of working out what happened. An alien attack? An accident in the studios? He couldn’t remember much; everything was disordered and blurred, a nauseating confusion of flashing sounds and images.
He grabbed hold of one fleeting point of reference, clung to the image until it stabilized then let the memories open one by one.
It all settled into place.
The black Range Rover had been ahead of him at the lights again. The third time in a fortnight. Nothing too unusual about that; he changed his route and timing as much as possible, but there were only so many roads between his house and the motorway access. There were bound to be occasions like this.
Straker turned on the radio and adjusted the volume, letting his fingers tap along to the music. For one moment the thought flitted through his mind that perhaps he should take note of the license plate, but the lights changed and he slipped the powerful limousine into first and pulled away, following the other car, its driver invisible behind the dark windows. The slip road was still quiet at this hour of the morning and he accelerated in second gear pushing the car forward and starting to overtake the slower Rover. He noticed the same breakdown truck as on previous occasions, parked yet again on the hard shoulder.
That was the last thing he remembered. An accident. Nothing too serious. Nowhere else hurting apart from his head. Just concussion then. Best to lie there and let things sort themselves out. Sleep.
He heard a door open and footsteps. A voice. ‘Hello Mr. Strachan. How are you feeling?’ There was a pause, a hand on his wrist. ‘Edgar?’ and he opened his eyes in a sudden jolt of fear.
Lockhart handed over the component. ‘No prints, nothing of any use.’
‘Have you checked it?’ Freeman held the small flash drive up to the light, staring at it as if hoping to find something the security team had missed. It was a cheap brand, freely available in supermarkets and online, the blue plastic wiped clean, no fingerprints at all, not that they expected any. There was no point in wasting energy trying to track its source, far better to spend the time trying to analyse the contents.
‘Tech department say it’s clean. No viruses. Just a file. They didn’t open it.’ Lockhart put an envelope on the desk. ‘Nothing on this either. They would have worn gloves of course. Address printed on a cheap printer, envelope bog-standard from any big supermarket. Sorry Colonel.’ He looked shamefaced as if he was to blame for the lack of forensics.
‘Thanks Jack. I’ll let you see this, once…’
‘Sure.’ The security leader gave a brief nod of understanding. ‘Let me know if you need me for anything.’
Alone in the office, Alec tossed the small object in his hand for a moment, and then locked the door and inserted the drive into his laptop, watching the screen without a flicker of emotion.
The video stopped. He stretched one hand to the intercom. ‘Virginia. Jackson. In here. Now.’
They were waiting. He swivelled the screen so that they could all see it then ran the film again. No one spoke.
A bleak room. One window, one bed. They listened to the persuasive voices and the hesitant answers, hearing confusion and doubt in that familiar Boston accent. The screen blanked and Alec swore under his breath. ‘Bastards.’ The word choked him. He spun the laptop back, pulled the stick out and placed it on the desk.
Jackson sat motionless, his fingers interlaced and his eyes far away. ’Clever. Very clever.’ There was a note of appreciation in the psychologist’s voice.
Freeman’s snort of disgust broke the stillness. ‘Clever? Is that all you have to say? Did you see what they’re doing?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Christ, Jackson, I feel sick and all you can say is ‘clever’?’
‘Alec.’ Virginia put a hand on his arm.
He glowered, tensing as if to reject her touch, but then relaxed just a fraction, the merest loosening of shoulders. ‘Doug.’ The closest to an apology that he might utter. He handed the stick across. ‘Will you… ?’
‘As soon as I learn anything. Alec.’ Jackson wrapped his fingers around the bright blue plastic as if to hide it. ‘Colonel.’ He gave a brief nod to Lake before hurrying out.
Alec bit his lip. Day Five. How many more?
No alarm now to wake him for work. No mobile on the bedside table. He lay there, staring at the ceiling his listless eyes watching dust motes tumble in the subdued light. Opaque blinds masked the small window, softening the sunshine from outside. Not that he was bothered about the weather. He wouldn’t be going out today. Hadn’t gone out yesterday, or the day before. Couldn’t remember the last time he left this room, whether he ever left it in fact. Didn’t even know where he was, or what lay beyond the door. Not even sure what day it was.
How long had he been here? Days? Weeks? Or perhaps longer; the past blurring into a fog of confusion. He used to remember things, important things, didn’t he? Or was it all a dream, a nightmare?
She would be coming in soon, with her sympathetic words and her soft voice. He hated all of them, hated their lies. They were so credible and so sure that he was mistaken that by now he was close to accepting what they said, doubting even his own veracity. Lies or the truth. He was no longer certain.
He heard voices outside the door, footsteps halting and the click of a key turning. They locked him in at night for his own protection; at least that was what they told him, but he didn’t believe them. He lay there and waited. He could do little else.
The door opened. ‘Morning Edgar. How did you sleep?’ Claire Bowman came into the room and stood, looking down at him. He flinched, expecting her to pull the covers back, to probe his body with her hands but she took his wrist as usual, holding it in her cold fingers and looking at her watch before dropping his arm down onto the crumpled sheet. ‘That’s fine. It’s lovely and sunny outside today. If you co-operate perhaps you’ll be allowed to leave your room later.’
Co-operate. He knew what she meant and he remained silent. It was pointless arguing. She just told him that he was being foolish. She was so convincing, so positive that she was right and every time he retorted that his name was Edward, Edward Straker, she gave a sigh of displeasure before informing him that SHADO didn’t exist and he was imagining it, was living a fantasy world full of make-believe people. It was nothing more than his mind attempting to escape the reality of his life. And with every day that passed it became harder to separate the hazy memories of his past reality from what she said. There was a time when he would have insisted that she was wrong, but now he was no longer sure.
Dr Claire Bowman. That was her name. A junior doctor, working for the rehabilitation clinic. Dr Cooper was the man in charge. Cooper and Bowman. He tried to sit up, but she put one hand on his shoulder and he lay back.
‘Stay there Edgar. The orderly will be along in a while and Dr Cooper will come to see you afterwards. And this time…’ She frowned as she looked down at him. ‘Try not to argue. He is only trying to help you. We all are. Trust us.
‘Not Edgar. Edward.’ How many times did he have to tell them? Yet they still maintained that he was Edgar. They had brought his passport and driving licence. Edgar Strachan. His photograph. His scars. But that was not him. Not Ed.
She sighed again and put her hand on his forehead, her touch cold and uncaring, holding him fast when he tried to pull away. ‘Edgar. Please stop this pretence. It’s pointless. We both know you are lying, to us and to yourself and your family and friends are worried about you. Now. You seem to have a slight temperature. Perhaps that’s why you are a little confused this morning.’ She frowned, looking at him with concern. ‘Does your head hurt? Are you beginning to remember?’
He turned his face away, hopeless. ‘No.’ He had no intention of telling her that his head ached. She would blame it on his continuing resistance.
Her fingers trailed over his cheek and he kept still, enduring the touch though his mind wanted to scream. ‘I’ll give you something to lower your temperature. It should make you more comfortable.’ She raised him up, tucking more pillows behind.
The tablets looked the same as the ones she had given him yesterday, and the day before that and … He took them in his hand, his lips and mouth dry, fingers fumbling for the glass and swallowing them down with the merest sip of tepid water.
‘Edgar, everyone is trying to help you. Really. You have to stop this pretence. You’ve been here three weeks, and it’s about time you got a grip on reality.’ There was sharpness in her voice as if she was losing patience, then she smiled in an effort to lessen her words. ‘Lawson will be along in a while.’
The door closed behind her; he waited for the click of the lock before pulling himself upright and spitting the tablets out into his hand. He crushed them before wiping his palm on the sheet under the pillows. No one would notice the crumbs, certainly not Lawson, the sullen nursing assistant.
He sat there, head aching, remembering this happening before, convinced that every morning Dr Bowman gave him the same medication under pretence of a temperature or pain relief or even antibiotics. Every morning, after he had obeyed her and swallowed the tablets, he fell asleep, waking much later, his mind once more confused.
Lawson would bring breakfast and leave him drowsing in the thick, oppressive murmuring of the air-conditioning unit, the hours passing unnoticed until Cooper bustled into the room to sit and talk, his quiet words filling Edgar’s mind and crushing any remaining scraps of resistance. The hateful and persuasive voice, telling him to let it all go, to erase the fantasies from his mind, to talk to Cooper, tell the doctor everything about the fairy-tale world of SHADO. The people, the places, even the trivial things like the passwords and codes. Expunge them from his mind, admit that they were false, that it was all false. Only then would Edgar’s subconscious accept that SHADO did not exist and that he was imagining it all. Only then would his mind accept the truth and start the slow process of recovery and Edgar would be able to return to his family.
Cooper would start with the gentle, easy questions. Who designed the uniforms? Which of his friends worked with him? Then the trick questions started. Are the ‘aliens’ are from this solar system? Why keep their existence a secret? Do your friends at work know about this imaginary organisation? What would your head teacher and the parents say if they knew you were living such a fantasy? Stop it now Edgar. Tell us all about SHADO and we can help you overcome this daydream, this fallacy.
Once or twice he, Ed – or was he Edgar – came close to slipping up, starting to answer back with a sharp retort, a response to clarify the truth before checking himself.
And each time it took him longer to regain his identity, to recall that he was not Edgar but Ed, and that all this was a lie, an attempt to bewilder him.
But not today. Today was different. Today he was awake and alert, at least more alert than for a long time. Last night he was handed the usual tablets and out of sheer bloody-mindedness pretended to take them, sleeping free of drug–induced nightmares to wake with his mind clear and the truth returning.
Ed. Not Edgar Strachan. Ed Straker. It was coming back to him, the memories, the reality. He had to get out of here.
Wherever ‘here’ was.
His watch lay on the cabinet. No, not his, although they assured him it was. His watch was not like this, its cheap plastic strap worn and cracking, the dial flashy and oversized. He wrapped it around his wrist anyway aware that his hand looked unfamiliar and thinner than he recalled, the knuckles white and skin loose. The hands of an invalid. How had he ended up like this, worn and feeble as though he had done nothing other than lie here out of sight in this bland room, not even able to see outside? They never opened the blinds that covered the small window and he could not recall ever leaving this place. Bowman said three weeks. Was it that long? Where had the days gone?
And he knew.
In sleeping, drowsing, slumbering; unnumbered hours spent in nightmares, dead to the real world, his body deteriorating and his mind weakening under the onslaught of words that sought to turn him from the truth.
The strap fitted as though he had worn it for months, the prong of the buckle slipping straight into the hole in the thin plastic. His watch? Doubt overwhelmed him once more. It would be so easy to do as they asked; admit that he was Edgar Strachan, inoffensive physics teacher, science fiction fanatic. A modern Walter Mitty. And with a cold wrench of horror that twisted his gut, he remembered wearing this very watch in school during interminable hours teaching the laws of physics to unwilling adolescents.
Perhaps he should give in. Admit that he was Edgar. Tell them what they wanted to know. Get the memories out of his mind. The passwords and details that he had guarded for so long, or invented, as Bowman kept insisting. Dr Cooper would take him outside into fresh air and sunshine, let him listen to the radio, bring him a newspaper. He could find out what was happening in that world outside this bleak room.
No. It was not his watch, however snugly it wrapped around his wrist as though it belonged there. He was Ed Straker. His world was real.
His fingers shook despite his determination. A few minutes after seven. On other mornings he would have fallen asleep again, waking only when Lawson arrived to help him into the bathroom and afterwards bring him a tasteless and unsatisfying breakfast. He would eat a few spoonfuls before falling asleep.
But today was different. Today he was awake and they would not disturb him for perhaps another couple of hours. Was that enough time? The wheelchair was in the corner of the room. He had to find something to wear, get the door open, and then, somehow, impossible though it might seem, find a way out of this place.
He flung back the sheets, looking down at his legs as if seeing them for the first time. Pale and wasted. How long had he been lying here in this room, immobile, not even walking to the bathroom and back? No wonder he was so feeble. Even that small act of sitting and pushing the covers away had wearied unused muscles. It was pointless. He would never break free. They would be waiting for him outside, their soft voices and the whispers in his mind blotting out his previous life. Trying to put something else in its place. Someone else.
Edgar Strachan. Science teacher at Harlington-Straker Comprehensive. He looked around the room. The small array of cards on the cabinet the only splashes of colour, the only indications of a world outside this room. He didn’t remember opening them, in fact couldn’t even remember seeing them before. How long had they been there? He reached out and shuffled through the small collection.
One from his head teacher, James Henderson. Doubt filled him again. Was that the truth? Was it all in his imagination – SHADO, aliens, Moonbase?
More cards, more familiar names. Keith Ford, his drinking partner and football rival, promising to take Edgar to the next derby and buy him a pint. Keith supported Chelsea. Rubbish team. Tottenham were going to thrash them this year. Alec, Paul from the I.T. department, Miss Ealand in the Bursar’s office. All names he knew, names from the staffroom but the faces were indistinct and he could not picture them in his mind. He read the platitudes, those trite messages people write when at a loss for words.
And then, the final two cards. A hand-made one; his own hand shaking as he read the words on the front. ‘Get Well Daddy’. He opened it, his heart pounding fit to burst.
A ticket to the next match at White Hart Lane covered the handwritten message inside the card. He lifted the strip of card and read the words underneath.
‘To Daddy Get well soon. Lots of love from John.’
John. Oh god. John. Lying on the verge, in the hospital, in the white coffin. And yet he remembered John visiting him the other day. Yesterday? The day before? John had tried not to cry. And Mary, she had been there, smiling even though she was upset. They hadn’t stayed long; Cooper only allowed them a brief visit but Mary kept telling him that she loved him and she wanted him to get better and all he had to do was accept what had happened and Henderson was already working out a reduced timetable so that Edgar could be back teaching.
How could he have forgotten Mary and John? Her words floated in his mind. ‘We want you home Edgar. Both of us.’ He remembered her kiss, her scent, her hand stroking his face. She had given him the cards and left and John had given him a shy, half-scared, wave. Why had he forgotten them?
‘Mary.’ His voice was a whisper. The cards fell from his hands, slithering onto the bedcover, and he sat there, eyes stinging, wondering how he could have been so stupid. John. Mary. His family. What was he doing here, pretending that John was dead, that Mary, the wife he adored never wanted to see him again? What had he said when she came to visit? Had he upset her? Or John?
What an utter fool he was, risking everything of value, everything he held dear, not only family and friends, but all those little things that made life meaningful: Saturday afternoons on the terraces shouting on his team with John beside him, once a week having a couple of pints at the Golden Lion with Keith and arguing about football, eating curry and complaining about the state of education. John was doing well and had a place at a first-rate secondary school next year.
Confusion burned in his mind. Which of his lives was the real one? Ed Straker and SHADO, or Edgar Strachan and Harlington-Straker Comprehensive? And more to the point, which life did he want? Did he even have a choice?
He looked at the cards again, concentrating on those familiar names. Nina. He knew that name, knew that face. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was not the stale air of Skydiver, stinking of burned electronics and carbon dioxide, but even so he was back there in the control room with Nina beside him. How could he forget? It was not possible to invent something so harrowing even in his wildest imagination. He flung the cards across the floor.
‘You need to stop this ridiculous charade and accept reality.’ Bowman’s venomous words burned in his thoughts and resolve filled him. He was not Edgar. He was Ed. Ed Straker. He was. He knew he was. He held onto the thought. Ed Straker. And SHADO. SHADO was real, Alec was real. Paul and Virginia. Nina. And the same doggedness that kept those names alive in his mind forced him to move stiff limbs, dragging them off the bed until he was sitting there, feet on the floor for the first time in …he had no idea.
No idea how long he had been here, or whom these people were, no idea who they worked for, or what they wanted, although he had his suspicions. He knew what they wanted. Those details. And more besides. They could have torn those from him by other means: drugs, torture, coercion, but this was….. clever. Very clever. They wanted more than just SHADO’s secrets. They wanted to destroy him. Payback. A neat revenge.
He wondered how long they had taken to set it all up: the Range Rover, the breakdown truck to get his own car off the slip road and out of sight and, more frightening than anything else, those all-important background details. Ford and Mary and John. He shivered with the thought that aliens were behind this. No-one else could have devised such a plot.
But that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered right now apart from getting to the wheelchair and once there he could plan his next move.
It was hard keeping upright as he shuffled down to the end of the bed. The metal frame rattled, and the constant dread that they would hear him moving made him flinch at every noise, but he made it, sat there resting his hand on the bars at the end, feet on the floor, legs aching with weariness.
This was bloody stupid. What did he hope to achieve? He may be able to walk to the door but that was all. He should give up now. He put his head in his hands. The sound of footsteps startled him and he froze, waiting for them to come in and find him. It would be the end. They would drug him again but this time they would not be gentle, they would break him. They would take away everything that he was and put Edgar in its place. They would rip SHADO’s secrets from him, every last one.
He clung to the bars, wondering whether he had the strength to stand up when they entered, to have the satisfaction of being Ed Straker, for perhaps the last time.
The footsteps paused. He held his breath, heard them fading into the distance, the sound of a heavy door closing and then… nothing. He looked at the cheap watch on his wrist. Five minutes. It had taken him that long to get to the end of the bed and recover his strength. It was hopeless. And then, above his breathless gasps, he heard a familiar voice telling him he was wrong, he was not even an American, was living a pathetic fantasy; the words whispering and murmuring deep in his mind, telling him to forget SHADO, to forget about aliens, to accept his real name and go home to Mary and John where he belonged.
He leaned forward, hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to stop the treacherous thoughts. The silence startled him and he looked up. Those voices were not in his head, he was not going crazy. He could hear, with absolute clarity, Bowman and Cooper talking to him. But not in his mind. Their voices filled the room, and he knew. At last, he knew for certain.
Alec Freeman locked the door and sat, arms folded and grimacing. ‘This is taking too long. What the hell is going wrong?’
‘You knew it was going to be hard. We both did. Look. He’s tough. It might take longer, but we’ll find him. We have to.’ Virginia poured a whisky and handed it over. ‘We have to hang on. There’s no other option.’
‘Failure? It could come down to that, you know. We should think about what we might have to do if we don’t…’ Alec gulped his drink and put the empty glass down on the table. He leaned back, stretching with weariness.
‘What? If we don’t succeed? You’ve put everything in place in case he tells them anything vital. Or are you afraid of what we might end up having to do?’
‘As you said, he’s tough. He’s proved that over the last ten days. Tougher than even I’d thought.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Are you? Can we ever be ready for this? And shouldn’t Jackson be here?’
‘He’s helping Ford. You know that. He’ll be with us as soon as he can.’ Freeman tilted his head. ’Would you rather leave?’
There was no answer. Alec checked the door once more then nodded at the woman. ‘Eighteen hundred. Time.’ He flicked a switch, there was clicking in the background and a female voice began speaking. They listened. ………
The voice paused.
‘And?’ Alec asked, his hand on the intercom switch. He glanced up at Virginia across from him and shook his head in frustration.
The voice started again. Louder this time. ‘Your failure to comply with our demands was only to be expected. That is of no real importance. We anticipate that shortly,’ and there was satisfaction in the bland voice, ‘your commanding officer will give us the information we require; details of all SHADO’s installations and weapons. We will have your organisation at our mercy and in return we will give you back … Edgar Strachan.’ The connection went dead.
Freeman shuddered once then leaned forward to press another switch. ‘Jackson. Any luck?’
‘We are working. It’s taking longer than anticipated.’ Jackson paused, and Freeman could see, even over the video-link, the hesitation and disquiet. ‘I am concerned about the techniques used in the clips we received earlier. They have increased in intensity as well as in the use of persuasive language, and the Commander’s responses do not augur well for his mental condition. He appears strangely disorientated.’
‘Do you expect me to give in to them? Shut down all operations? You know I won’t do that. We have to find him. Before it’s too late. How’s the search coming?’
‘Colonel. Be patient. We had very little time to trace the call and this was, after all, only the second verbal communication. They are using a system similar to our own. Multiple routes and random switching. A practical and most effective method to avoid detection, as I am sure you are well aware.’ There was a pause. Jackson turned away and Freeman heard the rustle of paper, Ford’s voice then a sigh from Jackson. ‘Ah, yes. Interesting.’
‘Well? Jackson?’ Freeman’s anxious voice broke the silence.
The psychologist nodded in affirmation. ‘I am on my way Colonel.’ The screen went blank.
Alec put his head in his hands for a long moment, then looked up, rubbing tiredness from his eyes. ‘Thank god. I thought we’d never find him. Ten bloody days and only two phone calls. I wonder who they are, the bastards who organised this.’ He stood up as Jackson entered the room. ‘Well? Where?’
Jackson passed a slip of paper. ‘A run-down business park outside Gravesend. Old warehouses and storage units waiting redevelopment. Ford is getting precise details.’
Alec scanned the paper and glanced up. ‘Virginia, you’ll run things from this end.’
She frowned. ‘I’d rather come along. You may need me.’
‘I advise against it.’ Jackson held out a hand as she started to protest. ‘Colonel Lake, I understand your desire to be of assistance, but line of command is the priority. It will be dangerous enough for Colonel Freeman. However, it is imperative that Alec is part of the search team. We do not know the Commander’s present status and I think he would benefit from seeing his closest friend.’ Another pause. ‘However, for the same reason it might be beneficial for Lt. Ford to accompany us.’
Freeman took a deep breath. ‘Very well. I’ll add his name to the team. I just hope Ed is …………’ his voice trailed off.
‘Colonel, we have seen the videos. These are experienced people. They have planned this with great care, down to the smallest detail. They do not want Straker dead. They have a darker agenda. They want SHADO destroyed and Straker broken. SHADO will survive, whatever happens but can you imagine if they succeed in altering his mind? Commander Straker, unable to remember us or any of this?’ Doug Jackson waved a hand around the room. ‘We would get over his death, eventually, but knowing that he was alive and that he was no longer Ed Straker would cripple us for a long time.’
Lake stared at the psychologist. ‘Did we do the right thing, keeping this from the staff? Not letting anyone else know. Perhaps we might have done it quicker if – ‘
Alec shook his head. ‘Stop that. We agreed to keep this between ourselves, although I suspect many of the staff have already guessed. They aren’t fools. It’s what happens next that we have to consider. What if he is no longer Ed? You need to face that fact. Yes, he’s my friend, one of my closest friends, as well as my commander but SHADO is more important than friendship. I’ll tell you one thing though,’ and there was a ferocious look in Freeman’s eyes now as he continued, his voice filled with cold rage. ‘If we don’t get him back, I’ll make sure someone pays.’ He stood up. ‘Send Keith through. The sooner we get started, the happier I’ll be. I want him back here.’
The whispers were in the room, not in his mind, talking to him, calling him Edgar, telling him about his life at Harlington-Straker Comprehensive. The voice was unrecognisable, the words persuasive. He looked around the room for the source.
There. A tiny speaker concealed in the cracks between ceiling tiles. Now he knew for certain. Voices, brainwashing him as he slept away the hours, reinforcing the indoctrination. He looked at the cards scattered across the floor. They were as forged as his memories of teaching 10 Red, the worst class in the school.
He had never taught 10 Red nor spent evenings drinking pints of bitter and chatting to Keith. No Saturday afternoons on the terraces watching Spurs. He didn’t even like football. And no John. That was the hardest part. John was dead. Ed Straker knew that. Had known it all along, but it was hard to discard those dreams in which Mary loved him and John was alive. Such beguiling dreams.
He closed his eyes but Mary’s face was burned on his retina, a look of utter horror as his hand slapped her, of contempt as she said the words. You always had to go. Such hatred as she screamed she never wanted to see him again. ‘Mary.’ He whispered her name again in remorse, but he knew the truth.
Too late for lost desires now, he knew where his future lay: SHADO and aliens and Moonbase, not the false world of science classes and lesson plans.
Nevertheless the words persisted. He was still aware of them in his mind, their tantalising promise twisting his thoughts, Mary and John beside him, sharing his life. Panic filled him. If he could not stop those words then he would be lost. Soporific and mesmerising, they strove to pull him back from the harshness of a dead son and his solitary life, wrapping him in the comfort of friends and a life away from the unforgiving life of SHADO Commander. And if he submitted he would hand SHADO’s secrets to Cooper and Bowman and whoever else betrayed him with names of his friends and colleagues and details of his life.
He was close to the wheelchair now, an arm’s length away, a light-year away, his arm reaching across the chasm, stretching until one fingertip caught the edge. He pushed himself further, leaning over the bars at the end until fingers crooked over the armrest and he started to pull.
A careful shuffle, pausing as he summoned up the courage to swing himself over the gap, a creak of his weight settling into the seat. He leaned over to release the brakes, nearly toppling and swearing under his breath. Stupid. He needed to take his time, not rush into action. Deep breaths calmed him and he looked around, seeing the sparse room for the first time from this different aspect: crumpled sheets on the bed, jug of water on the cabinet, cards strewn across the floor and, at the end of the bed, a locker.
His hands turned the wheels, moving him closer and he opened the drawer, pulling out pyjamas and allowing himself a tight grin of triumph. He tossed the garments onto the bed and began massaging his limbs as far down as he could reach, fingers digging in, squeezing and rubbing, ignoring the sharp stabs of discomfort as unused muscles cramped.
He lifted one knee -a cautious movement – then put his foot on the floor and pressed down. The other foot, before shuffling to the edge of the seat and holding the armrests in a steel grip. No time to practise or build up his strength, no time to do anything other than risk it all on one single action.
Edgar Strachan might sit here in this wheelchair and submit to their demands, but Ed Straker would not. He stood, balancing himself with exquisite care, holding the armrests and leaning forward until he dared straighten.
He let go.
He did not stand there for long. A couple of seconds was enough to restore the strength of mind that had eluded him in recent days. It was enough to drive him onwards. He tumbled onto the bed, gasping with the effort and the elation of success.
The pyjamas were loose on him and his feet bare, but that did not matter. Nothing else mattered now that he could sense his strength returning. He may be able to walk out of here, unaided, but for now, he used the wheelchair as support, pushing it ahead and shuffling across to the bathroom.
As the door closed behind him he realised something was wrong. He twisted around, concerned that perhaps Lawson had crept into the room, but he was alone and then he knew. An absence of voices. In his fierce concentration to get mobile once more he had forgotten the whispers permeating the other room.
The emptiness was almost physical and he stood for a moment, grasping the chair, his mind buzzing in the silence. Enough. He locked the door, aware that even that small action would be useless should Lawson or the others enter the room, but it would give him some warning. He leaned against the sink, splashing water on his face, the taste on his lips awakening him to his own desperate thirst. They always gave him water from the jug, refilling it while he was sleeping. It tasted … strange, but he had not commented on it. Now he drank deeply, cold clean water. No taint of additives here, and, his thirst quashed, stood straight, strength flowing through him as if his body had craved that one pure drink. He looked around. Tissue paper. He pulled a couple of sheets, tore them into shreds, stuffing them into his ears. It deadened the words enough to let him focus on his next task.
He stumbled back to the room, still reliant on the chair for support, but each step bringing new strength, his muscles rejoicing after such long neglect and those voices nothing to him now. No distraction.
The door was locked. He tried the handle, more out of habit than from any hope that they would have forgotten, but it resisted his attempts to force it open. A simple internal lock, but even that was sufficient to trap him. He looked at it, running fingertips over the keyhole, remembering. A piece of metal. Strand of wire, hairclip, anything. He looked around, no desk, no equipment; nothing to help him. The buzz of voices distracted him again. He could hear muffled words, and despite his reluctance, he found himself craning to listen. Keith. Harlington. Mary. John.
John. Please, not John, who had sent him a home-made card. White card. Spurs colours and with a match ticket inside – 17th July against Stevenage – and even now Edgar betrayed him with a rush of conceit. Spurs would thrash Stevenage.
He shook his head to dispel the intruder and then recalled the ticket, fastened to the card by a paper-clip. A strong paperclip. He might still win.
He would have to get down to the floor to reach the precious card; there was no way he would be able to bend and pick it up but his victory over Edgar had given him courage and, first balancing himself on the edge of the bed, he slid to the floor.
There was dust under the bed, thick dust, together with discarded syringes and plastic wrappers. He sat for a moment before reaching for one of the wrappers, his fingers smoothing it so that he could read the label. Phentothiazide. A familiar name and he wondered why. He tucked the wrapper into the pocket of the thin cotton jacket and then remembered; Jackson. One of the doctor’s reports a couple of months ago was about a new anti-psychotic drug. Jackson was hopeful that it would make aliens more susceptible to interrogation. Phentothiazide. That was the name. He pushed his sleeve up, staring at mottled bruises in the crook of his elbow.
They had drugged him, and more than once, and with a flash of horror he realised that there might be no escape, not from here. They could dispose of him once they had what they wanted. SHADO’s secrets. The means to destroy the organisation. He would not tell them. He straightened up, dropping one hand to let it trawl across the floor as he thought about his future, then looked at the marks left in the dust by his doodling. Ed Straker. His fingers knew his name, even if he was uncertain at times.
The card was within reach. It took him a second to pull the paper clip away before shredding the card into tiny pieces and brushing the scraps onto the floor where they belonged.
The metal frame of the bed provided handholds but it was his anger that helped him most as, shaking with rage, he pulled himself upright, standing defiant and resolute.
No need for the chair this time. He took the steps to the door and leaned against it, fingers bending the paperclip out of shape before inserting it into the narrow keyhole. A straightforward lock, nothing fancy or strong, but sufficient to keep him contained here. He could do this. He had to do it.
He closed his eyes to concentrate on the sensations: the wire sliding inside the lock and rasping on the metal, his fingers pushing it harder, his other hand twisting the handle. The click, when it came, was hardly noticeable but the handle turned and the door opened a crack. He secured the lock and closed the door again. Now it was time to prepare for whatever was out there.
He pulled the tissue from his ears, flinching as voices penetrated his mind once more. They seemed to be louder, more insistent if anything, and he knew that Edgar was lurking in the recess of his mind, but he needed all his senses if he was to get out. Time to open the door and face them. He had no weapon, nothing to defend himself but, for the first time in days, he was not afraid.
He held onto the door and peered outside, expecting wide corridors and doors leading to other rooms. Nothing. Literally nothing, apart from a vast open space so large and dimly lit that he was unable to see walls at the far end.
Darkness? But it was daylight outside his room, and he turned round to look behind him at that small window with its bright light. Not sunshine. Where the hell was this place?
He took a cautious step outside, clinging to the frame of the door and shaking with the realisation that all this was false, and his room, which had imprisoned him for so long, and which he thought was one small part of a large medical complex, was in fact a fake. Stud partition walls, and an exposed wooden framework. He stumbled away from the door into the warehouse, or whatever it was. He would not have been surprised to find a film crew in the corner; it was so reminiscent of one of the sound stages, but whatever this place was, it was cavernous. And deserted.
He could see light behind him, casting shadows across the dusty floor.
Light. And then he saw the spotlight shining against the small window with its opaque blind. It was not daytime. Or was it? There was no light from outside the warehouse or soundstage or whatever it was. Did that mean it was night outside, in the real world? Just how many days had he been here? Was this just to confuse him further? To warp his mind so much that, if he came face to face with the reality, he would crumble. He could believe nothing not even his own sanity. He stepped out and closed the door behind him, cutting off the compelling voice in mid-sentence.
There were no other sounds in the still air, just his own gasping breaths. He took a tentative step, another. And again, until he was walking around the outside of the room, one hand reaching out to the wooden structure of the outer walls, ready to grab should his strength give way, stepping over pipes and electrical cables running into one side of the building. They had considered every aspect, making this place as real as possible. Perfect deception. All this to make him believe that SHADO was nothing more than a figment of his imagination, to get him to talk, tell them the details they needed. But he hadn’t given them what they wanted. Had he?
Fear struck him and he stood there, wondering what else they might have done, if he was even on Earth. Could it be that Cooper and Bowman and Lawson were aliens? The thought was ridiculous, but they had fooled him so far and he could trust no one.
He turned the far corner. In the dim light he caught sight of the Range Rover and halted, struck by sudden panic. It was as he remembered, an anonymous vehicle, no identifying marks, its tinted windows hiding any passengers. Perhaps they were inside the vehicle even now, laughing at his attempt to escape. He clung to the frame of his prison, waiting.
Seconds passed. No car doors opening, no angry voice shouting. He was alone here but they would be back some time, might even be on their way right now. He went over to the Range Rover only to see on the other side of it, hidden by the bulk of the larger vehicle, his own car with shattered windscreen and crumpled passenger side where the Range Rover had slammed into it. There were deep gouges on the driver’s side from scraping the crash barrier. He remembered the impact, the air-bags exploding, the sound of voices, and being hauled out of the vehicle too dazed to resist.
His car was useless, but he kept a spare mobile in the glove box, just for emergencies. It might still be there. He peered inside the Rover, seeing his briefcase still on the passenger seat. The window was gone, broken glass strewn everywhere and it was a simple matter to reach in and pull out the briefcase before scrabbling through the papers in the glove box. As he expected, the phone was not there.
He leaned against the car, trying to calm himself even while he was listening for any indication that Cooper and Co, as he was beginning to call them, were returning. It was foolish staying here but he needed to rest and he turned back to the Range Rover, trying the passenger door. It opened and he tossed the briefcase in, hauling himself up onto the seat with a sigh. The car’s internal light illuminated the interior as he closed the door. It was a relief to be behind the dark glass and out of that open space with its threatening emptiness.
The Rover’s glove box was unlocked and, desperate to get any information about his captors, he opened it, stretching fingers out to explore the depths. There was a familiar shape in the corner. A phone. The last thing he had expected.
Fingers fumbling with impatience he switched it on and peered at the screen, hoping. Enough battery power, enough credits. He could not risk contacting SHADO directly, not without a secure line, but he might get through to Miss Ealand, unless it was night outside.
He pressed the digits with care, aware that he might have this one chance. If his guards realised that he escaped they would be on their way to take him back to that small room. The phone connected. He held it to his ear, desperate to hear a familiar voice.
The automated reply was the last thing he expected to hear.
‘Welcome to Harlington-Straker Comprehensive School. To report a pupil absence, press 1. To speak to the Finance department, press 2. To speak to a head of year, press 3. For all other enquiries please hold.’
He spun the briefcase around, looked at the small metal plate that was engraved with his name. Edgar Strachan.
Oh god… The phone slipped from his fingers.
Edgar Strachan. Harlington-Straker Comprehensive.
His strength gave way, and he slumped onto the seat as the interior light went out.
They had won. They had crushed him. Completely. Unseen in the darkness he closed his eyes. They would find him soon enough.
Perhaps they were right after all. Perhaps he was Edgar.
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.
He had no idea how much time had passed while he lay in the tranquil dimness. No words confusing his mind, no voices filtering into his thoughts, to twist and warp his perception. He let his body relax, let his limbs, still quivering with exhaustion, recover. Tiredness crept over him but he was cold now, too cold to sleep and his bed was waiting. He sat up and looked around. What was he doing here, in the dark? This place, this car was unfamiliar and he shivered.
Dr Cooper would be coming and he needed to get out of here and back to the safety of his room and John and Mary might visit later today and take him outside into the sunshine. He climbed out, shivering even more in the chill dampness. It was an effort to get back but eventually he was there, clinging to the doorframe, the safety of his room comforting.
Edgar heard a sound behind, and turned. ‘Lawson? Are you .. ?’
Lawson grabbed Straker’s arm. One chance. The prisoner might be his only means of getting out of here alive. ‘Shut up.’ He dragged Straker away from the door, pulling him back to the vehicle and focusing on getting out of here. The Range Rover was strong enough to break through the outer doors and with Straker as hostage he might stand a chance. There was no hope of saving the others, but that was not his concern now. Escape. Survival. That was his sole priority.
He pushed Straker against the car, leaving him there for a moment while he opened the tailgate. He dragged the holdall out, tugging at the zip and cursing as it jammed. One last jerk and it gave way. Lawson pawed through the emergency supplies: passports, cash, fake documents, spare magazines. The guns were at the bottom and he pulled one out, lifted the holdall, and went forward to open the driver’s door, tossing the bag over onto the rear seat. He took hold of Straker’s arm again. ‘Get in and move over.’ He raised the gun. ‘Do it.’
A distant beam brighten a small area of the huge space, not sufficient to dispel the murky shadows encroaching from the farthest corners, but enough for Keith to see the isolated structure at the other end, pale in the gloom, and in front of it, a car, dark paintwork and chrome gleaming in the soft light. He had no idea how, but he recognized it. Straker’s Audi, and behind it, half-unseen, appearing sinister and forbidding, another, darker, vehicle.
In the distance he could see a man standing in the rectangle of light that spilled out of the bizarre construction, one hand holding the frame of the open door. An unmistakeable figure, tall and blonde. And then Keith saw the other man moving in silence, unheard and unseen, towards the light. Towards Straker.
Ford was moving now, rapid footsteps crossing the wide space, still unheard and unseen in the darker shadows at the edge. He could see Straker and the other man, could see Straker about to get into the car, was close enough by now to be aware of the look of uncertainty on his commander’s face.
He stood still, holding the cobblestone in his right hand, fingers grasping it in the way that he had practised countless times before. It was a rock, not a leather covered baseball, but that didn’t matter. He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining that he was there, on the mound at Wrigley Field surrounded by thousands of fans, not in a dark echoing warehouse. One chance.
‘Commander!’ His shout reverberated through the silence and the blond head spun around; a look of recognition and comprehension flashing across the face and then Straker tore himself free, dropping to the floor as the man who had called to him swung one arm back, raised his knee and poised himself for a split second.
Keith’s left hand was bare but that did not matter; there was no-one else watching. He was not holding a leather-covered ball, just a wave-washed and rounded rock, but that did not matter. All those hours of practice came together in one fluid action as if it had all been for this moment. In his mind he was there, on the mound, throwing the opening ball of the game in front of his home crowd. He could sense the hush, the expectation. A fast pitch, with all his vigour and his skill sending the ball straight and hard, aiming for that one sweet spot. It flew through the air, and hit, not with the crack of leather on ash, but a softer sound as the rock pulverized flesh and bone and brain. And the thousands of invisible spectators, watching Keith Ford, roared their approval in a deafening cheer and a crescendo of noise unheard in the dark warehouse.
There was no other sound. Lawson toppled.
‘Commander!’ The familiar voice all that was necessary to restore normality, to reinstate his self-image for the one split second that saved him. Edgar faded into the background, even as Ed Straker spun around to see the figure standing there, arms raised.…… And he knew exactly what was going to happen.
He tugged away from those fingers gripping his arm, and dropped to the floor. There was a soft and unpleasant thud, and he was aware of his captor falling beside him, then running footsteps.
‘Sir. It’s Ford here. Keith….. Sir?’
‘Sir, we need to get out, back to the team. Do you know who ….?’ Ford halted, unsure, embarrassed. ‘Can you walk?’
‘Keith? What are you doing here?’ Straker pushed himself upright to sit, leaning against the car. He looked around. ‘Are you alone? What about ….’ He stopped himself before the words betrayed him. Dr Cooper. Football. Mary…John. Edgar was there, lurking in the dark places of his mind, waiting to take over.
‘Everyone’s been looking for you. Please, let me get you out of here.’ Ford’s voice held a note of pleading and Straker looked at the body nearby on the floor. Blood on the concrete, not pouring out, just seeping.
He shuffled away, shaking his head, too exhausted to move far. ‘You go. I’ll wait here.’ Wait here. In the dark, next to one of his tormentors, and the room. That room. He shivered, hearing footsteps as Ford left him and walked away. He wrapped his arms around his chest, closing his eyes. The hand on his shoulder startled him and he looked up to see Keith standing there.
‘Lean forward, sir.’
There was a welcome warmth of a blanket draping around his shoulders, and he allowed himself a sigh of relief as Keith, his drinking partner, no – his chief communications officer – slid down beside him.
‘No way, sir. We’ll wait here, together.’
‘Three. Repeat three. Clustered together. Two hundred yards from your position. Searchlight on now.’
Freeman winced as the pilot’s report crackled in his ear. Three? Who was the third? He blinked as the searchlight dispersed the gloom and raindrops, illuminating men running towards that single building outlined by the helicopter’s searching eye. The small entrance door was still open and they assembled there, waiting.
‘Yes. You know, sir. Childhood dreams.’
‘Somehow I had the impression you followed Chelsea, or was that….’ Straker put a hand up to his head as if to rub away the painful memory of Edgar.
‘No. Never got into it. A disappointment to my dad. I had my own dreams and they weren’t scoring winning goals in the FA Cup.’ Ford sighed and leaned back against the door. ‘Wrigley Field.’
‘Standing on the mound? I know that feeling.’
‘You, Commander? I didn’t take you for a baseball fan. Ice hockey maybe.’
‘Fenway was my dream. I was sixteen when I finally gave it up. I could never pitch a curve ball.’ There was a pause. ‘You could have been a pro with an arm like that.’ Was there a touch of envy in the voice?
‘Too late now. But I’m glad I kept it up. Never thought I’d use it – not like that.’
‘Glad you did.’ Straker shivered. ‘Wonder how long they’ll be?’
‘Not much longer. I can go and look if you want?’ Ford started to push himself up.
‘No. Let them find us.’
The answer was abrupt, almost rushed, and Ford leaned back, an imperceptible contact of his shoulder against the other man.
Despite the risks, he had no other option but to order the team to advance. One by one they slipped inside, unseen and unheard, keeping to the shadows, advancing in silence. Alec was in their midst this time. Slow and steady, with infinite patience, alert for the slightest sign of danger and expecting at any moment to hear gunshots as the men attempted to escape, no doubt taking Straker as hostage.
The soft voices were coming from the direction of the vehicles. Lockhart waved his men into position and began creeping nearer, Alec close behind him. They paused.
Alec breathed out and held up one hand. ‘Wait,’ he whispered.
‘You always wanted to play professionally?’
‘As long as I can remember. That or be an astronaut. Daydreams, that was all. I did computers studies and journalism in uni, headed for a job as a teacher, but then I ended up with the BBC. You know what happened after that. What about you, sir?’
‘Cut the ‘sir’ Keith.’ Straker thought for a moment. ‘Teaching? I never considered teaching. But if I had, it would be Astronomy or maybe Physics…’ He closed his eyes, hands clenched, before continuing. ‘I don’t know whether I’d make a good teacher though.’
‘Really sir?’ There was amusement in the voice of the man sitting next to him. ‘I could see you standing at the front of a class, explaining the quark structure of neutrons and protons.’
‘Ten Red, that’s why.’
‘You know. The one group in each year no one could teach? The ones who made life hell for teachers? You must have had a Ten R class in your year at school?’
Ford was silent for a moment. ‘Yes. Upper Fifth G in my year. The dropouts that no one could handle. Made my life hell at times. You’d have made a good teacher. Kids like discipline.’
Straker sighed. ‘I wouldn’t have the patience. Simple as that.’ He sat upright at the sound of footsteps nearby and Keith pushed himself up to stand and lean over Straker.
Alec stepped into view, glancing at the corpse lying a few feet away before shaking his head in exasperation.
‘I wondered where you got to Ford. And, simple as what, Ed?’ The throw away remark, offhand and casual, might have fooled a casual bystander, but Ford nodded once and moved away, leaving the two men alone.
Freeman waited until the other man was a few paces away and talking to the team leader, before bending down, close to Straker. ‘You okay?’
Eyes met. ‘Yes.’ Straker gave a sigh, shoulders sagging with relief. ‘Give me a hand up.’
‘No. Stay there until we’ve finished securing the area.’ Freeman looked at the body nearby. ‘What happened? Did you do this?’ He bent, grimacing as he checked the pulse then straightened up, beckoning to Lockhart. There was a muted discussion, Lockhart casting a quizzical glance at the man propped against the vehicle. Straker kept his eyes lowered. He would let Alec deal with everything for now. He was too tired, too cold. He was aware of Lockhart moving away again, out of sight and Alec coming back to stand beside him.
‘Lawson? No. I didn’t. It was Keith.’ Straker tugged the blanket around his shoulders, shivering. ‘It’s cold here. When can we leave?’ He didn’t look up, didn’t want to see the doubt in Alec’s eyes. How could he prove to them that he was still Straker? That, although he was still confused and bewildered, he knew who he was, what he was. And, more to the point, he had not betrayed them.
‘Jackson’s coming. I want him to have a look at you first. Just to …. ‘
‘We were worried.’
‘Just a few more minutes. Jackson’s dealing with the woman. Shouldn’t take too long.’
‘Bowman. Claire Bowman. Said she’s a doctor. The other man calls himself Cooper. I don’t know his first name.’
‘Get anything out of me? I don’t think so. But I can’t be certain.’ Straker turned his head away, staring at the walls illuminated by the helicopter’s search light. ‘I don’t remember everything.’
‘It’s okay. It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.’
The silence was uncomfortable. Straker tugged the blanket tighter around his shoulders; his blanket, the one from Edgar Strachan’s room, listening for the quick tapping footsteps of Jackson, for the start of the interrogation, for the doubts and concerns. The quiet discussions. They would probably have him locked away in the secure unit while they worked out whether he was Edgar or not.
He could hear Jackson talking to Ford. Such different voices. He never imagined Ford as a teacher. Or as a baseball player. There was a lot he didn’t know about people. Perhaps he might have time in the future. He twisted his head to look at Alec.
‘Won’t be long now.’ Alec put one hand on the roof of the car. ‘You know they sent us videos…’
‘Ford told me. So you saw what they were doing.’ Straker shuffled uncomfortably, tucking his bare feet under the warmth of the woollen cloth. ‘That’s why Jackson’s here. You need to know who I am. Who I think I am.’
‘Oh God, Ed. That’s not what this is about.’ Alec hunkered down next to Straker. ‘I’m a bloody idiot. I wanted to make sure you’re okay that’s all. You’ve been through hell. And….’ He reached out a hand. ‘Jackson can check you over later. Let’s get you out of here.’ There was a pause. ‘Just one thing though.’
Straker flinched. ‘Yes?’ He lowered his head again, staring at Lawson’s outstretched arm, the fingers clawing at the dusty concrete.
‘Ford got it all wrong you know. You’d make a crap teacher. You’re too much of a perfectionist. Stick with SHADO. The holidays aren’t much but the pay’s better.’
Laughter brightened the gloom and, with Freeman’s strong hands helping him, Ed Straker hauled himself to his feet as Lockhart and the others approached to take him home.
This story has a rather sombre history. I started it while sitting in the dark in a silent room and thinking about how our minds can deceive and betray us. The story was intended to be finished within a couple of weeks, but with one thing and another that did not happen. As for teaching, I actually think Straker would have been a good secondary school teacher., Intelligent, strict and with high expectations, but above all, caring. He would not have suffered fools gladly, but would, at the same time, been infinitely compassionate and patient towards those who strove to learn. I would have loved to see him deal with a class of five year olds though! (Oh my. Plot bunnies abounding now!)
Anyway. Here it is. Driving Force. Special thanks go to dragon who helped with the baseball scene. ( I prefer football – English football- the only sort!)