He woke sweating and uncomfortable and his head sore and aching for some unknown reason. Perhaps it was the heat; summer in the trenches was worse in some ways than the freezing cold of winter. The heat and stench. The lice and drying mud that caked everything. The lack of water for washing or shaving. The insects. Biting and tormenting. Nothing stopped the insects. He could feel a cluster of them right now, on the side of his head, buzzing round his ear, crawling and stinging.
He reached up to swat them away but strong hands gripped both of his wrists and pushed his hands down back down onto the blanket. Something bit into his scalp. A sharp sting, a tug of his skin followed by a cool wetness that reminded him of his thirst. Another bite, another tug, his body twisting in an effort to free himself before a warm cloth brushed down the side of his face. Gentle fingers on his forehead, tracing a path his jaw, his neck. He forced his eyes open, blinking away tears.
‘Jackson?’ It hurt to speak, his tongue swollen where he had bitten it, his face aching. Blood in his mouth and he tried to push himself up, but those hands were on his shoulders again, pressing him down.
‘Good.’ The voice came from miles away. ‘You are conscious again. Now. Remain still a while longer, if you please, Colonel.’ The hands moved down his neck, surprisingly gentle considering their former grip on his wrists. He was in the library, lying under a woollen blanket on one of the long chesterfield sofas and stripped to trousers and undershirt.
‘How long?’ He coughed. It hurt; a good hurt, the sort that came from bruised ribs rather than a punctured lung or a bullet in the back.
‘Long enough for me to fetch Cooper from the house to assist me in bringing you back here. I was beginning to worry. You sustained quite a blow to your head. Fortunately there seem to be now other injuries other than bruises, though I expect those will curtail your movements for a few days.’
‘Yes. He has been most helpful though I found it necessary to inform him of the truth about Major Halliwell’s death and your reason for being here. He was shocked, to say the least.’
The hands kept moving: down his spine, pressing on his hips, fingers digging into his thighs. He gritted his teeth against the discomfort and the necessity of remaining still.
‘As I thought. Just the head wound. Your hair will require trimming once the stitches have been removed.’ Jackson stood up, stretching his arms wide and yawning. ‘I suspect it will be somewhat tender for a few days. Very well, you may sit up now.’
‘Destroyed, as you said it would be. Very little remains of it, or the bodies. I have let it be known that the explosion was the result of an unexploded Zeppelin bomb that you were attempting to disarm. Cooper agrees.’
A clever ruse. He sat up, dizzy and nauseous, then explored his scalp with a tentative hand. His hair was a mess, sticky with blood and rough-hewn where Jackson had seen fit to cut it away, but hair would re-grow. ‘Where’s Cooper? I need to talk to him.’
‘There will time to talk, later. He is overseeing the guests’ departure right now and he is going to be busy for the next few days I think, sorting out the future of this house, and indeed the staff.’ Jackson rubbed his hands together. ‘Now. I will go and see if the kitchen have done as I requested and made some breakfast.’
Straker pulled the blanket round his shoulders and leaned back. Henderson would have something to say about the debacle no doubt – the death of Halliwell, the destruction of yet another UFO and the lack of an alien corpse for examination. His own report would have to be written in the next few days, and with even more people learning about the aliens, his superior officer would be asking questions. Uncomfortable questions no doubt. He was too tired to worry though; the warmth of the room making it difficult to stay awake even when Jackson returned with breakfast and cups of tea.
He ate in silence, wanting nothing more now than to lie down and sleep, regardless of whether the police were on their way to deal with Halliwell’s death, or whether Cooper was telling all and sundry about aliens from another planet. In the end it was Jackson who got him up and out of the sofa, who got him upstairs and along the dark corridor to his room, who got him undressed and into bed and closed the curtains. Blissful darkness, a soft pillow under his head, his mission completed. He heard the door shut, closed his eyes, and slept.
Jackson put the scissors down. ‘Done. A shorter style is quite fashionable and now the stitches have been removed the scar will be unnoticeable.’ He put the scissors down and brushed a few last strands of blond hair from Straker’s shoulders. ‘Will there be anything else?’
‘I still need to talk to you. And Cooper. He’s avoided me for the past few days.’ Five days in fact. Five days of enforced rest, of doing little other than sit in the library and read, or walk the grounds with Jackson in attendance. He’d spent a day fly-fishing on one of the local rivers, enjoying the quiet and the simple monotony of the action, but insisting on releasing his catch once the day ended. Another day going round the estate in the pony trap, taking the reins when Jackson finally persuaded him, and stopping to eat sandwiches at mid-day close to the marshes. The tang of the sea and salt, learning to identify wildfowl, watching a marsh harrier swoop for prey. New experiences, a chance to regain his strength and put some of the horrors behind him. At least for a while. And now the stitches were out it was time he got back to work.
‘Talk?’ Jackson took Straker’s jacket out of the armoire and held it out.
‘What are you doing here? I mean, really? What are you hoping to achieve, or are you happy working as a jack-of-all trades; grooming horses or acting as a valet? You’re better than that.’ He eased his arms into the jacket, slipping it over his shoulders and tugging it down into place. ‘I need people like you. Doctors and psychologists, people who aren’t afraid of hard work and danger. The aliens will continue to come, killing and stealing and destroying lives.’ He tucked a handkerchief in the top pocket, glanced up at the other man. ‘I have a place for you in our organisation, if you want it.’
‘You would let me practise medicine?’
‘Of course. Why not? It’s the 20th century. Aliens are arriving on Earth from other planets. Ten years ago no one would have believed such a thing could happen outside science fiction novels, but it’s real and we need to be one step ahead instead of sitting back and waiting for them to arrive. You can help us do just that.’
‘Taking the fight out to the stars?’ Jackson’s thin face was alight with joy, with anticipation.
‘If that’s what it takes. Yes.’ Straker looked out of the window. ‘The estate won’t survive as it is now. You know that. It’s the end of an era. All these estates will be gone in a decade or so, the houses pulled down or burned, the land sold off. Eshley Hall is one of the first, that’s all. In forty years or so all this will be nothing but a memory.’
Jackson put the hairbrush and comb back on the dressing table. ‘I know. So does Cooper, believe it or not. He had plans for the Dower House when Lord Eshley left. I believe that is where he is right now, trying to find sufficient funds to purchase it.’
‘Plans?’ Straker adjusted his tie, ran one hand over his head, frowning as the close cropped hair refused to go back into its old style. He would get used to it, eventually. There was still the problem of Cooper though. He had not had the chance to talk to the man in private and ensure his compliance. The thought of what he might have to do, should Cooper refuse to stay silent, was unpleasant to say the least, but he would do what had to be done to keep the world safe.
Jackson continued, unaware of Straker’s quiet distress. ‘There is a need for good accommodation in the area. For travellers and sightseers, for those people who want to walk and relax. Wounded soldiers, men and women who need peace and quiet and a chance to recover. Cooper wanted to purchase the house and turn it into a hotel but his offer was turned down. He has been trying to raise more funds, but without success.’
It might work. Henderson would object to the expense, vociferously no doubt, but the General wasn’t the man on the ground, the one having to make the final decision and anything was better than the alternative. ‘Get hold of him will you? Tell him I need to see him as a matter of urgency. I think I can help him out.’
Cooper put Straker’s valise in the car and turned back. ‘Safe journey Colonel. And, once again, I’d like to apologise for –‘
‘Forget it. I’d have done the same in your situation.’ Straker waved a hand at the Dower House. ‘Not easy having such a responsibility with so many unexplained deaths in the area. I’m surprised you actually allowed me to stay that first night.’
Cooper blushed. ‘It did cross my mind to refuse you. But to be honest, Major Halliwell was getting on my nerves and I thought your presence might give him someone else to annoy.’
‘Well, good luck with the hotel. I’ll try to come back when you’ve got it up and running, spend a few nights here if you’ll have me.’ Though it was unlikely he would ever be back. His work kept him busy enough as it was, though Jackson, who was making preparations to join him in London next week, might well visit in the future to ensure Cooper’s continued co-operation.
Cooper’s handshake was that of a friend. ‘You’ll be welcome any time, you know that. We both know I’ll never be able to repay you properly. Maybe the money, but that’s not the important thing is it? You gave me the chance to start again, to make something of myself, as well as giving jobs to the staff who stayed behind. I don’t know where the money came from and perhaps I don’t want to, but there’ll always be a room here for you. Both of you. Whatever time of night you arrive.’
Straker cranked the car and got behind the wheel, leaning out to say his goodbyes to the ex-butler. ‘Don’t worry about the money. If I need it I’ll let you know. You’ve a lot of work ahead of you. I hope you’re ready for that.’
‘We’ll make a go of it, trust me. And…’ Cooper took a deep breath. ‘You asked me for my silence. I give you my word, on my honour. Only…’
‘I decided on a traditional name for the hotel.’ A long pause. ‘How does ‘The Green Man’ sound?’
Jackson was still laughing as Straker drove away.
The track had been cleared several days earlier, the culvert little more than a wide sluggish stream now and no threat. He drove on, enjoying the scenery, slowing down as a pheasant walked across the road and taking his time. There was no need to hurry; he was not expected until evening.
It began to turn chilly, the first droplets of rain falling from a darkening sky and he pulled into a passing place and got out to retrieve his topcoat from the back seat and put it on before the storm hit properly. A spatter of rain made him shiver and he turned up the collar before dipping one hand into the pocket in search of a handkerchief to wipe his face dry. There was something small caught in one corner of the fine cotton and he pinched it between finger and thumb and pulled it out, lifting it up for inspection.
A small piece of glass, or crystal. Whatever it was, it had a menacing aspect and he shuddered, dark memories of inexplicable dreams making his heart pound. And then the car engine stuttered forward, just an inch or so, and the crystal fell from his hand to be crushed under one wheel with an accompanying flash of light that blinded him for a moment.
The bolt of lightning was unexpected, no sign of rain on the windscreen to start the wipers automatically, although Straker knew it might only be moments before the first drops fell. It had been foolish to stop for a while and close his eyes, even though he seemed to have slept deeply, waking only at the first flash to find himself standing outside, leaning against the car as if he had been caught sleepwalking again.
The delusions had been vivid enough to make him half-expect to be driving a classic 1918 Tourer instead of his own bomb-proof Audi. A dream. That was all. He stepped away from the car, shoulders hunched in bewilderment and confusion. The rain started, spattering the car with fat drops but he stood there, remembering his dream, as water soaked his hair and trickled down his face.
It was easy to understand why he had hallucinated about Jackson; the doctor had been a thorn in his side for the last few days, but he understood him better now. Understood his own responsibility as well, the need to take care of his own well-being so that he could do his work to the best of his ability. It all came down to that.
It was after six when he reached the private lane that led to his destination. A quiet road, single track with passing places but there were no other vehicles and he carried on, only pulling to a stop when the hotel came into view:
a commanding building and larger than expected, three stories high, windows ablaze with light, the stonework well-maintained and cared for and the flagged paths weed-free. In the distance he could see the ruined shell of an old country house. He knew there would be a stone folly on the other side, overlooking a lake. He turned off the engine and stepped out of the car, walked up the steps.
And there, above the open door, where a man waited to take his bags, he saw a carved wooded face.
The Green Man.
This may well be my final UFO story for some time. I have loved this fandom since I started writing UFO some ten years ago, but life has other challenges for me right now and although I still consider UFO to be my favourite tv series, I have less and less time for writing ‘fan-fic’ now. I still have several unfinished stories and I would like to complete them in due course, but that will have to wait for next year – or maybe the year after. 😉
Thank you for reading. I hope you have enjoyed my small forays into the world of Ed Straker and his colleagues and I hope I have done justice to the character as portrayed by Ed Bishop. Comments, as always, welcome.