© Ltcdr. 21.09.2019
The events in this story occur shortly after the episode ‘Mindbender’.
Straker dropped his suitcase in the boot, lamenting the mechanics that denied him the satisfaction of slamming the lid down again. A minimum of ten days enforced medical leave ahead of him because his psyche report was five points down. If Jackson had delayed the tests for just a couple of days or so, he would have been fine; back to normal, the nightmares and sleepwalking a mere inconvenience that would disappear. Eventually.
But no. Five points. He scowled and opened the car door, slipping behind the wheel and starting the engine before he noticed his briefcase lying half-hidden on the floor beneath the passenger seat where he had thrown it earlier in a rare fit of pique. A quick grin. They’d forgotten about that: laptop, files, phone. All he needed to keep up with work. He still had the incident report to finish, though Henderson wasn’t pushing, at least not this time, and they were both a little more tolerant now.
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel as he recalled the fear on his superior’s face, his own confusion and sheer exhaustion when it was all over and the memories of a different world, a different existence. For the last few days he had half-expected the far wall of his office to slide away, revealing a group of cameramen all waiting for the call to start filming.
Five points. He shook his head in quiet anger at Jackson’s refusal to compromise and Alec’s tacit concern. In the end it was easier to co-operate than argue. He punched in the postcode for the hotel Jackson had suggested, not that he had been there before. A small country house within a few miles of a secluded beach. He would follow Jackson’s inflexible orders: walk, relax, catch up on sleep, watch the tides and the birds. A few days in the fresh air to give the nightmares a chance to fade. Then he would be back in work, regardless of the medical officer’s orders.
The drive was pleasant once he was off the M25 and out of the heavier traffic, the weather unseasonably hot for mid-September, the tarmac shimmering in the distance and the air-con set to ‘high’. The guidance system ordered him to turn right and he frowned, leaning forward to switch it off. No need to rush, he was not expected until late evening so he would take his time, enjoy the drive for once. Maybe see some of the countryside. As long as he headed northeast he would be fine.
He made a quick stop at a roadside café for a mug of coffee and a chance to stretch his legs, the coffee hot and strong and sweet, the walk less satisfying as if he needed more than a quick stroll along a layby, and with a start he realised just how tired he was, how bone-weary and drained after too many nights disturbed by dreams of Beaver James and stage sets and the utter terror of being lost and unable to find the way back to reality. Waking to find himself in the kitchen or hall with no idea of how long he had been standing there.
The heat was more oppressive than he expected, the air heavy with the threat of thunder and he finished the coffee in silence and got back in the car wondering where to go next. The hotel, some thirty miles from Boston, was less than an hour away if he took the main roads, but he put the thought aside, not wanting to admit his tiredness.
In the end he drove on, taking quieter lanes through small villages and the odd hamlets with church spires and hump-backed bridges, small copses, tall hedges. Fields of golden wheat and bright yellow rapeseed, grass turning brown in the dry air, tractors busy with hay-making. The quintessential English countryside, a little parched at the edges and beginning to curl up in the heat.
On the other side of a tiny village he came across a farm shop and, more from a sense of obligation than any real desire to eat, bought a home made sausage roll and a small bilberry and apple pie then parked up a couple of miles further on in the entrance to a field. He leaned against the car while he ate, the pastry crumbling and rich and surprisingly tempting and for the first time in days he was hungry, eating every last scrap of the pie, and wishing he had bought another. Perhaps in the next village. He needed fuel anyway and there was sure to be a village pub where he could get something more substantial to eat.
The ground was dry, the wheat field nothing but short stubble now, a few twisted and scrubby trees on the far side. The air was still and hot and smelled of dry earth and sunshine. He could hear the car engine ticking as it cooled. The gate was old, its timbers weathered to a silvery grey and splitting apart. Heat haze made the distant hills blurry and despite the threat of thunder the sky was cloudless. A sparrow dropped from the safety of the hawthorn hedge and began pecking the crumbs round his feet.
A perfect day. The heat on his shoulders was bliss, soothing away the aches and tension. He watched the horizon for a while, wondering what was on the other side of the low rise of hills but his route lay in a different direction. It was a relief to sit back in the shade of the car and he glanced over at the briefcase. Tempting. Jackson wouldn’t know if he made one quick phone call. Just to check.
He swore to himself. No secure phone, only his personal one, no laptop, nothing connected with work apart from one folder and he lifted it out and opened it, reading the familiar handwriting of the attached note with a growing sense of betrayal.
‘Commander, I insist you refrain from attempting to contact headquarters while on medical leave. I have taken the liberty of providing you with some appropriate reading material – a script set in the autumn of 1919 – at the suggestion of Colonel Freeman. It might be a suitable addition to the Studio’s portfolio and form the basis for a profitable series.
I look forward to seeing you no sooner than ten days from now, when I anticipate your score will be at a level commensurate to allow a return to duty.
D. Jackson. Chief Medical Officer.’
And to add injury to insult, there was even a copy of his test results attached, with ‘five points below acceptable level’ underlined.
He flung the file down on the seat, pages slithering out and spilling across the leather. The untidiness irritated him and he gathered the papers up and started putting them in order. It was quite some minutes later when he realised he was reading through, visualising the scenes and hearing the voices in his mind. A murder mystery in the gothic tradition and a potential money-maker as well. A long time since he’d read something so promising, so atmospheric. He put the papers away with more respect and fastened his seat belt. Time to move on.
Fresh-baked ham sandwiches and a glass of ginger beer in a pub an hour later, a conversation with the barman about farming and the local economy and he was on his way again. Driving. Leaving the nightmare behind and heading for a week of nothing to do but idle his time away in rest and recuperation with no one monitoring his stress levels or watching his every move. But until then he was his own man, free to do as he wished. And if that meant taking the long road, so be it. There was no one here in the car to stop him.
The Audi purred on, navigating the bends with ease, cocooning him in soft leather and cool air and tranquillity. No music, no bland female voice urging him to take the second turning on the right or warning him of the need to turn round. He needed quietness, the hiss of tyres and the tap of his own fingers on the steering wheel, the satisfying click of the gear-shift, the surety of being in control, of being himself.
He was following a single-track road alongside one of the many deep culverts that drained the fenlands when the first clouds appeared, dark and ominous and growing heavier with each passing minute. Then the rain started. A few warning splots before descending in earnest; a torrential outburst and the wipers struggling to keep the screen clear until in the end he decided to pull into a passing space and wait it out as rain flooded the road. The first crack of lightning was enough to warn him of the storm’s severity. It was safer to stay here, off the road and out of the way until the deluge stopped. He turned off the engine and waited, counting the seconds between flashes and the following cracks like he used to do when he was a child.
The rain eased enough for him to see water pour down the embankment on his left and flood across the road, carrying a mass of mud and stones and then the car, despite its weight, lost contact with the ground and was swept sideways across the tarmac on a rush of water and soil and god-only-knew what else. There was no time to open the car door and make a run for it, and even if he had there was nowhere safe, not with over two tons of reinforced metal and bullet-proof glass sliding out of control. He closed his eyes, not wanting to watch the ensuing landslide engulf the car. Maybe even pushing it into the fast-flowing culvert. All he could do was trust in the strength of the vehicle to keep him safe.
Stones rattled against the underside, bounced off the doors, clattered against toughened glass and still the car slithered. It seemed an age and yet it could only have been a few seconds before the torrent subsided and the wheels touched down again, a jolting bounce for a moment before taking purchase once more on solid earth. He dared a single, half-terrified look and breathed a shudder of relief at the realisation that the driver’s door was not trapped in the landslide of mud and stones now blocking the road. He unfastened his seat belt and scrambled free, despite the rain that soaked him within seconds.
Then the storm ceased as abruptly as it had begun: a final vicious spatter against the windscreen, a fading grumble of thunder, the last few stones rolling down the slope to add their weight to the thick layer of mud burying the tarmac. He stood there, taking slow deep breaths and calming himself and watching the water rise in the sluice until it was close to overflowing. The thinning clouds revealed a pattern of contrails in the sky. Businessmen on work trips, couples going on holiday now that children were back at school, maybe even the SHADO transport on its run to Oslo. A final gust of wind sprinkled his face with a last flurry of raindrops from the trees and he fumbled in the pocket of his jacket for a handkerchief to wipe them away.
A sparkle of light caught his eye as something tumbled into his palm and he froze, staring down at the small crystal lying there, his heart pounding with terror. A remnant from the alien rock, caught in the material when the device shattered, flinging tiny crystals across his desk and the floor of his office. Horror filled him. ‘Twists the mind…’ his own words echoed in his head. He was alone out here and utterly vulnerable to whatever demons the crystal might visit on him here, miles from anywhere. There would be no movie studio, no auditorium with the day’s rushes on the screen, no Paul Foster to hold back the armed guards as the world righted itself. No coming back into the safety of the control room shaken and confused and utterly exhausted. He was lost.
And then his world lurched, the hedges rippling and the wet grasses of the bank spattering their burden of raindrops as if disturbed by some unseen hand. He was flung against the car and the dark line of hills in the distance disappeared, the worn tarmac transformed into a rough gravelled track and he had no time to react before…
Colonel Edward Straker, until last November Captain in the 94th Aero SquadronUS Air Service and now employed on more secretive missions, knew the symptoms well enough, knew that sick feeling and the accompanying dread. His tiredness and lack of concentration, the headaches and dizziness plaguing his waking moments since that last dreadful sortie near St Maire. Thick plumes of smoke from dying aircraft as his own Spad withered under a hail of bullets, the engine shuddering and breaking part as he fought to bring her down in one piece. The crash landing, well behind enemy lines, had been a miracle of sorts and he had dragged himself from the burning wreckage, mouth full of blood, pain in his ribs, but alive and still free. He could not forget the cloying weight of mud, dragging him down as he crawled through abandoned trenches, the bones and corpses and shattered remains of men who had once been his enemy.
And the things he had witnessed, horrors more terrible than even the war itself. The unstoppable shaking and exhaustion afterwards when the fighting was over and he stood there, numb, barely able to remember his name at first, let alone his rank.
The doctors called it shell shock: the numbness and irrational fear of being enclosed, the inability to sleep, the terror that flooded his mind at times, but they were wrong. He’d seen men reduced to hollow shells, mindless and screaming and oblivious to the fact that the war had ended. His was nothing more than the reaction of a man faced with the things he had seen in his capacity as intelligence officer and the often inexplicable events that shadowed his last few months in the trenches. And even when the war ended he was not done with fighting. Those long hours spent in debriefing, the visits from General Henderson, his permanent posting here in England together with the rapid and unexpected promotion to full Colonel.
But even now, nearly a year after the armistice, certain things still had the ability to disrupt his composure and bring those horrors back into focus: the smell of blood or burning flesh, mud pulling at his feet, the sound of screaming. Gunshots. Strange sounds in the sky.
He swallowed down the sick feeling, clenched his fists and breathed, taking long slow inhalations as advised by a sympathetic doctor, rolling his neck to relieve the tension, forcing himself not to run. The fear subsided, crept back to its hiding place, lying in wait for the next time.
A plane flew overhead, a de Havilland 16 heading for Paris no doubt and low enough for him to see the four passengers, its engine intrusive in the calm after the storm. He shook his head, cursing the disturbance, then turned to the car again. The remains of the landslide blocked the road in both directions, trapping the car as effectively as any trench barricade.
He pulled out his cigarette case, tapping a Camel into his palm and lighting it with a deep drag, the smoke hot and fragrant and reassuring, a reminder of long days and nights in France, the filth and the heat and the cold. The stench of latrines and unwashed bodies. His uniform crawling with lice, his feet sodden and numb in the thick mire of mud. The inadequate tents, the enemy planes strafing the airfields. Gas drifting across the ground, the rush to don masks, the tentative first breath of acrid tasting air, the silent prayer that he had been quick enough.
He smoked the cigarette to the end, crushing the butt beneath the heel of his shoe before lighting another. A chance to compose himself. It was no hardship standing in warm rain. Better that than being trapped in the automobile. The culvert was close to overflowing, the water filthy and thick with disturbed sediment and debris from further up the wash: small branches, a twisted tangle of fence posts and wire, two drowned sheep bobbing under the churning surface.
It took him a while to make his way to the car, all the while aware of the danger of a further mudslide or the car itself shifting again, but he steeled himself to open the driver’s door and reached across to grab his hat and, as an afterthought, the road map he had picked up in London before setting off. His valise was in the boot and he lifted it out, wondering whether to take the Enfield as well before dismissing the idea as impractical. It would be safe enough where it was until he could find someone to tow the car over the landslide and onto the clear track ahead. His service revolver was tucked deep in the pocket of his coat should he need it and, loaded down as he was, he would be hard pressed to get to any sort of shelter before darkness fell.
He had not seen a road or dwelling of any kind since turning off the main carriageway some miles back and his best hope was to carry on. He unfolded the road map and spread it across the bonnet tracing the route with one finger: the railway line, the dike, the road little more than a faint broken line compared to the main routes marked in colour, then he folded the sheet of paper, tossed it on the back seat and brushed the last of the rain from his coat. Hat settled in place, he hefted the valise in one gloved hand and set off, a brisk enough pace that might see him reach the Hall before the rain returned with a vengeance.
The thought of sleeping out was not pleasant, though he would if necessary. He’d done enough in the last couple of years: sleeping beside his Spad before a sortie, and after as well, rough lodgings in French farmhouses, huddling among the foot soldiers in trenches or ditches during raids, anywhere he could find shelter. It was even harder later on, when he was sent out on yet another intelligence mission behind enemy lines. Months of shadowy work, sometimes in the trenches or in the field hospitals, asking questions and going into dark places abandoned by more sensible men. Taking cover from bombs and gas and explosions. The terror of being trapped and unable to free himself. Shooting at the enemy and seeing them fall.
But he had survived, unlike many of his fellow airmen. So many young lives cut short.
The rain started again, a fine drizzle that added to his discomfort and the sun was close to setting when he heard a clatter behind and he stepped to one side of the track as a dog cart – pulled by an elderly and somewhat shaggy horse – came alongside and halted.
The dog-cart driver regarded him with a look of misgiving; a stranger, muddied and dirty and on a road that, if his recall of the map was accurate, led nowhere except the estate. ‘I think perhaps you require some assistance?’
The accent was foreign, east European if his guess was correct. Not German, but something akin. The last few years would not have been easy then. He put down the valise for a moment and held his empty hands out. ‘I wonder if I might ask for a lift. My motor car was caught in the storm a while back and I had to leave it there.’ He waited.
‘The Sunbeam Tourer is yours? I saw it. You were fortunate. You’ve come some way then.’
The same accent recognisable now, similar to that of the few Polish soldiers he’d worked with, though somewhat tempered. ‘A distance. I was heading for Eshley Hall, but it’s further than I anticipated.’
‘In that case I regret you have made a wasted journey. The Hall was taken over during the war and although the building was returned to its rightful owners several months ago, the building is in poor condition. Dry rot amongst other more serious problems. The family took the decision to leave a few weeks ago and sailed to Canada, leaving a few members of staff in charge until the sale of the estate is completed.’ He stared into the distance for a moment, then shook his head as if waking from a dream. ‘The Dower House is still in use however, although I regret that there is a shooting party in residence at the moment.’
Straker tugged of his hat and swept his hands though his hair to neaten his quiff. ‘I was misinformed then. I was given to understand that the house was occupied. I need to make a phone call.’ The rumours had reached Henderson a couple of days ago and the General’s brief telegram to Straker had – of necessity – been devoid of anything other than the barest of details. It was going to make his task even more difficult. He grimaced, turning up the collar of his coat in a futile attempt to stop the worst of the rain from trickling down his neck and pushed his right hand deep into his pocket within touch of the revolver.
‘Am I correct in my understanding that you are not from this area?’ A questioning note to the voice, the man unsure as any sensible person would be.
‘I’m from Boston.’ And he shook his head in wry amusement at the mistake. ‘Sorry. Not this Boston. The one in America.’
‘A long way from home then, Mr…?’
He paused for a moment. There was no need to use his formal title, not yet, not unless the situation changed. ‘Straker. Edward Straker.’ He wondered whether he should have hidden in the trees after all, and let his only chance of a lift pass by, but it was too late now. He could see the other man thinking, fingers stroking his chin, the dark eyes watching him.
‘I will give you a lift to the Dower House, Mr Straker. There is a phone there and the staff should be able to give you further assistance. However, I am sure the current residents would not turn anyone in need of shelter for the night.’ The driver shifted across, making space on the small bench seat. ‘It was fortunate I came along otherwise you would have been faced with a long walk.’
He put his valise in the space behind the seat, climbed up and settled himself next to the driver. It was a relief to sit down and ease his aching and damp feet. ‘I appreciate your help…?’
The driver leaned forward, taking the reins in hand. ‘Jackson. I was Lord Eshley’s former valet. I chose not to join the family when they emigrated and so I am reduced to acting as head groom or coachman or even a footman when necessary. Not that there are many horses left in the stables. Just this one, and two others who are too old for heavy work. You didn’t bring a man with you?’ A relaxed conversation for all the man’s clipped and precise way of speaking. There was none of the deference expected from a servant, but that was no surprise; Straker was an unknown quantity, and an American to boot.
‘No. I came on short notice I’m afraid. But I’m used to looking after myself. My aide despaired of me much of the time. Said I was a hopeless cause.’ He folded his arms, avoiding Jackson’s sideways glance of understanding.
‘France? I thought so. There is a rare and definite quality to men who fought there, something in their stance or the look in their eyes. I would have enlisted but they refused to accept me for medical reasons.’ He turned away for a moment, hiding the look in his eyes. ‘I have asthma you see. And so I remained here, watching the children go to fight. Too many of them didn’t return. Our way of life came to an end, the loss of a whole generation too much for the estate to bear. Perhaps it is for the best that the estate is for sale. A chance to start again, to create something better. To learn from our mistakes.’
There was no answer to that. Straker pulled his coat closer, waiting.
Jackson flicked the reins to set the pony trotting, a brisk pace even in the deepening gloom as if the animal was eager to get back to the warmth of its stable. He shook his head, then turned to Straker, a wry twist to his lips. ‘My apologies. I have a tendency to talk too much as Cooper will no doubt take pleasure in informing you.’
‘The House Steward as he calls himself now. Or should I say former butler? Promotion has swollen both his head as well as his pockets.’ Another wry grin, a shrug of the narrow shoulders. ‘Forgive me. That was both rude and untrue. He does the best he can under what have been very difficult circumstances. But he is a cautious man and will be concerned over your appearance at such a late hour. There have been too many disturbances recently for anyone to feel comfortable on the grounds of estate, particularly with strangers. You would do well to prepare yourself for a chilly welcome at best.’
The journey passed in companionable silence until the track merged with a long drive and they drove through a wide gateway with a large country house in the distance. Jackson pulled the trap to a halt outside a large residence. ‘Here you are, Mr Straker. The Dower House. I trust you will find a welcome, however curt, and I will take it upon myself to have your car returned to you in the morning, all being well.’ He waited for Straker to climb down then flicked the whip, leaving him standing alone on the wide gravelled drive, shivering in the cool night air and acutely aware of his dishevelled appearance.
The Dower House, set back from the drive, was not what Straker had expected. A commanding building, three stories high, its windows bright with lights. But he could see the early signs of disrepair: shards of broken stonework, weeds taking a foothold between the paving slabs, a cracked drainpipe leaking water. He wondered what sort of reception he would get here, a stranger and an American at that, not to mention arriving after dark. He climbed the steps, paused, his hand reaching for the bell, then the door opened, just a few inches.
Someone peered at him. ‘Yes?’ The defensive stance of an English butler faced with a complete stranger on the doorstep late at night. And yet something more: the man’s rigid stance and curtness, the door still chained, as if he had prepared himself to meet something far more dangerous than a solitary traveller seeking help.
‘My apologies for disturbing the house at this late an hour, but I had an accident on the road several miles back and your…’ He paused, unsure of the proper status of his rescuer: ex-valet, coachman? He made a guess. ‘Your head groom met me on the road and gave me a lift here, told me someone might be able to help? I need to make a telephone call, if possible. My name is Straker. Edward Straker.’ He didn’t like to think about Henderson’s reaction, nor what he would do if the butler turned him away. He could, at a pinch go to the Hall and break in, find somewhere there for the night, better than sleeping rough in the woods but it would be a last resort.
The butler tilted his head, a quick yet competent examination of the late night visitor. ‘One moment.’ The door closed, a scrape of the chain being removed and then it opened wide, revealing a wide hallway, brightly lit and warm. ‘If you would leave your bag here sir? And come this way?’
He followed, hat in one hand and his wet shoes squeaking on the marble floor, trousers clinging to his calves to leave a trail of droplets in his wake. The log fire at the far end was dying down, the wood little more than glowing embers, but even that was enough to tempt him to stop and stretch out his hands, relishing the heat.
The butler gave a discreet cough and he left the warmth and hurried on, the sounds of masculine laughter from behind a closed door making him aware that he was intruding in a private house.
The telephone was dead and he stepped back with a sense of dismay. ‘Is there anywhere nearby I can stay for the night? A hotel perhaps?’
‘This is the only house in the immediate area. The village is some miles further on. However, if you will excuse me for a minute I will speak with the gentleman in charge. I am sure he will be able happy to oblige.’ Cooper walked out into the hallway, leaving the door open.
Straker unfastened his coat, listening to the sounds around him: the tap of footsteps retreating again, loud voices from somewhere nearby, the creak of a door opening and Cooper’s voice murmuring. Another burst of laughter and then the footsteps coming back. He prepared himself for dismissal.
But it was not Cooper this time. A middle aged man in lounge suit and carrying a glass of brandy. ‘Straker? Thomas Halliwell. Major. 11th Hussars. Taken over the House for the month.’ He drained his glass and put it down on one of the small tables without making any attempt to shake hands. ‘Cooper tells me you had an accident on the east road. I’m surprised no one else has come to grief there, the whole estate’s falling apart from what I can see. Disaster waiting to happen. Look. Why don’t you stay for the night? Cooper tells me there’s a spare room you can have for the night. Get yourself some rest and I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow. You can tell me what you’re doing out here and then you can join us for the day. You do know how to shoot, don’t you?’
‘I can use a rifle.’ And a service revolver and a flamethrower and a knife when needed. He stared at the Major, wondering if the soldier had ever fought in a battle or in single combat. Had ever drawn blood, let alone killed a man.
‘Good lord. You’re American. That will be fun. Tomorrow you can show us if you’re any good with a shotgun. Breakfast is at eight.’
A brusque dismissal, an order rather than invitation and he walked out, leaving Straker standing there and wondering what he had let himself in for. He had given enough orders in the past to know the difference between a polite request and a directive, but it was a small price to pay for a night’s accommodation, especially if it furthered his mission. He turned to the butler. ‘Please thank the major for his generosity and inform him that I look forward to joining him in the morning.’ There. The proprieties fulfilled. He would go along with this Major Halliwell, at least until he had gained his bearings and could set about a proper search of the area.
His valise was waiting for him outside the parlour and he picked it up, aware that he was an unwanted intruder in a private house and as welcome as a plague of mice. He flicked raindrops from the collar of his topcoat then followed the butler in silence, up the wide marble stairs and along a secondary corridor with dark oak doors and creaking floorboards, niches filled with pale busts of long forgotten men and women, the shadows harsh and unforgiving under the modern electric lighting. Not an attractive part of the building. He wondered if the other guests were accommodated in this part of the house or, as he suspected, they were in a more favourable part of the building, closer to the warmth and brightness of the main rooms.
By the time the man stopped and opened yet another anonymous door, Straker was aching with the deep chill of tiredness and wanted nothing more than to sit down and get warm.
‘I trust this will be suitable, Mr Straker? I will send one of the maids along shortly to light the fire.’ A frown. A pause. ‘Do you require anything else? A manservant perhaps?’
‘No need. I’ll be fine. Thank you.’ He closed the door and turned round to inspect the room aware of his growing hunger and cold feet. He should have asked for something to eat, or even a brandy to warm him up, but it was too late now. Hunger was not an unknown sensation and at least he was out of the rain.
The room had an air of disuse, the heavy curtains closed to stop sunlight fading the wallpaper and a veneer of dust dulled the furniture. He pulled back the covers on the wide bed and felt the sheets. Chilled and damp enough to be uncomfortable, but the eiderdown was thick and warm to the touch. He would make do.
He hid the service revolver down the side of the armchair, hung up his rain-sodden coat in an optimistic hope it would dry and then explored the rest of the room. The drapes were dusty and he pulled them back, peering out of the window at the dark shape of Eshley Hall in the distance. Emptied and abandoned and from the sounds of it, falling to ruin. He’d seen it before: crippling death duties, failing estates, the lack of young men to work the land. Houses gutted and left to ruin while the farms and land were sold off piecemeal. He would have to find some way to look round the grounds tomorrow. And then he remembered his promise to Halliwell and he shivered. He let the curtain fall back into place and sat on the edge of the bed to pull off sodden footwear and put his shoes outside the door for the bootboy, if there was one.
By the time one of the servants arrived, bringing a couple of towels and then lighting the fire, he was too tired to contemplate having a bath. He pulled the armchair nearer the fire and huddled there until the worst of the cold dissipated and his trousers were beginning to steam. Then he forced himself to his feet and undressed, shivering in the chill air that the fire had not reached. In any other situation he would have slept in his clothes but he might need the suit tomorrow and he had no desire to stand out any more than he had already done with his late arrival. He pulled on his pyjamas, draped his socks over the fender with the thought that they at least would be dry in the morning, then dragged the eiderdown from the bed and wrapped it round himself. The overstuffed armchair was comfortable enough and he sat there, watching the flames and thinking about his reason for being here. The cold metal of his revolver, within reach of his fingers, troubled him, but this was a strange house and there was something unsettling about the place, a sense of quiet unease more chilling than any unaired bed or unwelcoming and nervous butler.
In the end it was sheer exhaustion that made him close his eyes despite all his efforts to stay awake, and it was after midnight when the door opened and someone slipped inside, to stand there watching for a moment before moving in total silence across the room.
Sunlight woke him, a thin beam forcing its way into the room to bring him out of restless dreams of blue-painted tanks moving through woodland in search of the enemy and an overwhelming sense of being adrift in a strange world. He had slept in the chair, the fire nothing more than white ash now, his back aching and his feet cold. He forced himself out of the quilt’s cocoon, stretching to ease the stiffness in his shoulders, then halted.
Someone had come in his room while he was asleep, had taken his clothes and returned them later. Someone moving quietly enough not to wake him. A neat array of clothes lay on the end of the bed: his suit brushed and pressed, shirt pristine, socks dry and his shoes buffed to a military shine. His shaving kit waited on the washstand, his valise open and emptied. He checked the armoire and found the rest of his belongings put away in precise order, apart from his coat.
An impossible thing, and yet the evidence was clear. An unforgivable error on his part not to have locked the door, even after the rigours of the previous day. But exhaustion could make even the most highly trained soldiers careless. He rectified the omission with a swift turn of the key and a twist of the handle to ensure the door was secure then went into the bathroom, eager to loosen the stiffness in his neck and spine and more than a little concerned about his late night visitor.
He hadn’t used a canopy bath before; his billet in London was sparse and there was little enough money for unnecessary luxuries – not that he was there that often – and he spent a while working out the intricacies of the system but eventually he was satisfied and lost no time in stripping off and stepping under the hot sprays. He was rubbing himself down in the steamy warmth of the bathroom when he heard a light tap on the outer door and he wrapped the towel round his waist and, with more than a little apprehension, unlocked the door and opened it.
It was the driver from last night, Jackson, the same wry expression, head tilted in amusement. ‘Good morning, Colonel Straker. Did you sleep well? May I extend my apologies for any discomfort you may have experienced? I have found that Major Halliwell has a somewhat uncomfortable sense of humour and little respect for other people. It makes for an unhappy household and a poor welcome for strangers such as yourself.’
‘It was you. Last night. How did you – ’ He wrapped the thin towel tighter round his waist, tucking one end in to hold it securely.
‘Know? I make it part of my job to know who people are, Colonel, and I do read the papers. I apologise for the intrusion last night but when I returned from the stables it was made apparent to me that you had not been treated with the respect that should be accorded a visitor. Especially one with such an honourable war record as yourself. I informed Cooper that, as was my right, I was appointing myself as your valet for the duration of your visit here. The man knows better than to argue with me. And so-.’ He waved a slender hand at the clean clothes on the bed. ‘I did what any properly trained valet would do. I also removed your topcoat to the drying room. It is still somewhat damp even now. I trust I did not disturb your rest, though I have to admit that sleeping in a chair is not recommended. I believe it can have a deleterious effect on the vertebra. However, I will ensure the bedlinen is changed and the room aired this morning.’ He gave a half-bow and another quick smile.
‘No. I mean…’
‘Now. If you would go through to the bathroom and be seated, I will indulge myself with your razor.’
Jackson examined the blade with care, testing the edge against the pad of his thumb. ‘A Thiers Issard. A fine piece if I may say so. I have not had the opportunity to use one of these before. Beautiful balance, ivory handle and tortoise shell inlay, the blade unmarked and yet I think it has seen service with you? I notice a slight chip on the edge of the handle. Unfortunate.’ He put the blade down and busied himself lathering soap in the small bowl. ‘Come along, Colonel. No time to wait. Breakfast will be served shortly and your presence is required.’
Halliwell. He’d forgotten. ‘Major Halliwell? What can you tell me about him? Or would that be a breach of the rules?’ The bathroom was still warm and damp and he sat down, half-wondering whether it was wise to trust himself to this man.
‘As your valet it is my duty to keep you informed of anything that might be pertinent.’ Jackson held out the brush. ‘Now, please remain still and I will tell you as much as I know.’
Jackson’s eyes focussed on the task although his voice was quiet with disapproval as he relayed his concerns about Halliwell. There was little opportunity to ask questions, but Straker listened in silence to the litany, the suspicion that the man was little more than a war-profiteer who had remained behind in England to oversee production. An unpleasant man. The sort he had met far too often in France, bullying the weak and treading on those perceived as lesser men.
The touch of a hot towel on his face brought him back to the present. He had forgotten the pleasure of being shaved by a skilled barber, the touch of deft fingers on his throat, the quiet concentration, clean skin with not a nick or scratch, a splash of something soothing and fragrant on his cheeks before Jackson stepped away. ‘A smooth finish, if I may say so myself. Now. May I enquire if you intend joining the shoot this morning, sir? If so, your dark suit will do admirably and I will procure suitable footwear and a coat for after breakfast.’
The dining room was busy, a cluster of men helping themselves to bacon and sausages, kedgeree and devilled kidneys under the poker-faced gaze of two footmen and he stood in the doorway for a moment, an intruder and wary. The others were dressed impeccably, plus twos and polished boots, the outfits indicative of new money. He took a plate, added sausages and scrambled eggs and toast, turned round to find a seat.
‘There you are, Straker. Sleep well?’ Halliwell was at the head of the table, working his way through bacon and eggs, black pudding and kidneys. ‘Come. Sit. I want to know what you’re doing out here.’
‘Sightseeing. I hoped to look round the Hall, but they tell me it’s closed down.’ He picked up a piece of toast, smeared a thin layer of butter over the precise golden-brown triangle. The scrambled eggs were soft and redolent with fresh herbs and pepper and he scooped up a forkful while the other four went to sit at the far end of the table, out of conversational reach.
‘Nothing to see there now. The whole place is falling apart. Should have been demolished years ago from the looks of it. Waste of good land as far as I can see.’ Halliwell ate messily, talking with his mouth full and waving his fork at Straker to emphasise the point he was making. ‘Anyway, we’re trying along the east woods today, so you might as well join us. Show us what you’re made of and all that. I intend getting a dozen brace or more as long as things go better.’
‘Bad weather?’ The sausage was not as good as the eggs and he put his plate aside and sat back as one of the footmen poured him a coffee. A bone china cup, hand painted. A far cry from the chipped mug he had used in the war. The coffee was hot and fragrant and strong and he would have asked for a refill but Halliwell was talking again.
‘Far from it. Perfect shooting conditions, but the damned woods were practically empty the last few days. Never known birds to be so scarce. Bloody annoying considering the price I paid for this month. We were promised some fine shooting and so far it’s been a disaster. Never seen such a poor drive. It had better improve today or I’ll be wanting an explanation. I came here on the understanding the shooting was some of the best in the area. Rubbish.’ The speaker tore a piece of toast in two, cramming half into his mouth’ He held out a hand. ‘Didn’t introduce myself properly last night. Major Thomas Halliwell. Army Supply Corps. Based in Oldbury. So where are you from? Thought all the Americans had gone back last November.’
Oldbury. Jackson was correct then. One of the munitions profiteers. It was tempting to refuse the handshake but that would have been one more black mark and he needed to be accepted in the group, even if it was only for a couple of days. ‘Edward Straker. From Boston. I’m …’ What was he? A loyal soldier or secret agent, a callous murderer or timely saviour? ‘I’m working with Customs and Excise, helping with immigration.’ He buttered another slice of toast, adding a generous layer of thick-cut marmalade. A distinctly British taste and one he had grown to appreciate.
Jackson appeared in the doorway, a slender figure, his dark hair swept back and his eyes darting across the room as if taking in everything in one swift glance. A slow inclination of his head to Straker before he went out again, moving in that peculiar silence that all servants seemed to acquire. Halliwell grunted. ‘Jackson. Odious fellow. Thinks he knows it all. Tried to tell me we shouldn’t go near the east woods. Says it’s dangerous. What would he know? Bloody foreigner.’ He pushed his plate aside and stood, tossing his napkin on the table. ‘I’ll see you in half an hour. Sloe gin and all that fuss on the drive before we set off.’
A quiet calm settled over the room once Halliwell closed the door behind himself and Straker nodded a greeting to the other four, wondering if they had served with Halliwell or were just unlucky to be here at the same time as the munitions man. It was of no concern to him though. He would see the day out and then do his own more serious hunting when the sun had set and everyone was asleep. He followed Jackson, up the long stairway and back to his own room, now a hive of activity with housemaids changing the linen and setting the room to rights.
A change of footwear – the boots fitting perfectly as he suspected they might do – Jackson’s deft fingers making a tiny adjustment to his tie, the jacket and borrowed coat tweaked into place and a last sweep of the clothes brush over his shoulders before the valet pronounced himself satisfied. ‘I have taken the liberty of appointing myself as your loader for the day, Colonel. I hope you have no objections. I also acquired a pair of 12 bore shotguns that you should find more than adequate, however I suspect that the Major will be hoping that you fail to make much of an impact. He seems rather… ’ Jackson gave a discreet cough. ‘… competitive.’
‘I suspected as much.’ Straker turned to face the smaller man. ‘Is he likely to be a problem?’
Jackson tapped a finger against his thin lips. ‘It depends. He resents anyone who is a better shot than himself, finds fault with everything from the pegs to the beaters to the behaviour of the dogs. I believe he is attempting to find an excuse not to pay his dues, but I have no firm evidence. Having said that, the birds have been unusually scarce this season. The Glorious Twelfth was far from outstanding and matters have not improved since then.’ He held the door open. ‘I will be on hand should you require my assistance. For any reason.’
The traditional glass of sloe gin was stronger than expected, and alcoholic enough that he refused a second although the other men were not as circumspect. Then he took his seat for the journey to the first drive: a couple of cars for the paying visitors, the loaders in a wagon, beater and dogs in another and a horse drawn cart following behind to transport the day’s trophies afterwards. A rough and jolting journey, his back still sore from sleeping in the chair and his whole attention fixed on his environs and fixing the details in his mind: the wide sluices and narrow bridges, the sweep of water in the distance and the dark woodlands, the sky heavy with the promise of more rain. He hoped Jackson had managed to get the car up to the House. He did not relish the thought of coming out here again at night without his Enfield. A shotgun, however accurate, didn’t have the range or accuracy required for his purposes.
They pulled to a halt close to a wooden lodge, tables set out ready for the midday meal. The major took charge, busying himself with the task of assigning pegs and handing a paper over to Straker with a hint of a malicious grin. ‘I look forward to seeing if a damned Yankee can shoot as well as an Englishman Get me a couple of brace and we’ll call it payment for last night’s accommodation. Get more and you can stay another night. Otherwise…’
The smirk was enough warning. There would be no easy way out of this, no excuses accepted, no gentleman’s agreement. Halliwell had the look of a man who could cause trouble and make things difficult, even to the extent of abandoning Straker out here when the day was over. He nodded. ‘Fair enough.’
They set off, surrounded by boisterous gundogs and cautious loaders. The ground, soft and damp after the rain the previous day, was easy underfoot and on any other occasion he would have enjoyed the walk. But not today. He was acutely aware of Halliwell watching him, of the man’s glare of disapproval when Jackson led him to his appointed peg without offering to assist anyone else.
Not a favourable spot. He was at the far end of the drive, and lower down than the others. A deliberate move on the part of the Major? The chance of him getting any good sightings was poor, but he prepared himself for the cries of the beaters moving closer through the woods opposite and took one of the unloaded guns from Jackson, breaking it to check the barrel before closing it and swinging it up to his shoulder to get a feel for the weapon.
A solid piece, well-balanced and spotlessly clean, the sights in line, and he handed it back for loading. A quick glance at Jackson at his side, the first shotgun prepared and held in the approved manner, although he felt sick. He crushed the reaction down, counted the slow numbers. He could do this. All he had to do was shoot the birds. Birds. Not men. And although he hated killing, hated the noise of guns and the scream of the dying, this had to be done if he was to remain here for more than a day. And he needed that time to discover if there was any truth to the rumours, though he already knew what he was going to find. He could hear Halliwell arguing somewhere nearby but he closed his mind to the intrusion and waited, the gun heavy in his hands, his heart pounding.
A squeak of wings, a clattering of birds from the woods and he swung the gun round ahead of the flight, aware of the sounds of guns to his left. A double shot, the stock recoiling against his shoulder and a mixture of shame and pride as his prey gave the briefest of flutterings before dropping motionless to the ground. He opened the gun, passing it stock first into Jackson’s waiting hands and took the next. A second volley, his aim as true as it had been in France. And yet these were innocent creatures, with no intention of harming him. Had it not been for Halliwell’s unspoken threats he would have walked away, but as it was the only thing he could do was bring death with as much swiftness as possible.
They fell into an easy rhythm, the two of them. The gun broken, cartridges ejected, handed over to Jackson. Swinging the reloaded second gun up to his shoulder, the muzzle moving ahead of the birds and then the pull on the trigger. Dogs bounding to fetch the fallen, the shouts of the beaters, the smell of gunpowder, the cries of dying birds from further up the line. And then it was over, the last few birds gone, and he breathed a sigh of relief, stepping aside and handing the gun back to Jackson. He could hear the beaters approaching through the thick undergrowth of the wood. One of the dogs dropped a bird at his feet before running off to retrieve another victim. He bent down, picking up the pheasant to carry it back. A warm and heavy weight, head hanging limp, the glossy feathers stained with blood. One eye stared at him in accusation. In silence he handed it over to be hung with the others.
Lunch was as excruciating as breakfast, Halliwell complaining about the beaters and his peg and the condition of the dogs until Straker pleaded a headache and went to sit in the shelter of one of the trees, away from the profiteer and his grievances.
‘The birds do not have a quick death at his hands. He is a poor shot and the other men know it.’ Jackson leaned against a nearby tree, arms folded. ‘He fires at birds that are too high or out of range because he cannot bear to be seen as a lesser man, or bested be someone like yourself – a newcomer and a foreigner at that – and it is all too easy to for men like these to forget your efforts for our country in the last years. To people like Major Thomas Halliwell, success is only to be measured by how much you acquire. He has few true friends here.’
‘You have a way of looking at people and understanding them I think? Seeing to the heart of a man, past all the pretence and hard exterior. A rare talent.’ Straker took a cigarette out of his case and lit it, then, safe in the knowledge that they were out of sight, handed the case to his valet. ‘Please. Take one.’
Jackson tipped one of the cigarettes out, catching one-handed the lighter tossed to him. ‘In my former homeland I was a psychologist as well as a medical doctor. In 1910 I came over to England in an effort to escape the poverty in my country but I was not permitted to practise here. And so I ended up here, a servant, utilising my skills in order to get whatever work I could. It has not been a hard life, though I regret the loss of my vocation.’
‘A waste of your experience. We have few enough doctors as it is.’ Straker tossed his cigarette into the damp grass. ‘Time to go. The major will be getting impatient.’
The transport was waiting for them, Halliwell grumbling and morose as they walked to the new line further on and closer to the Hall. He could see the rooftop in the distance, a symbol of the Eshley heritage and its associated power and wealth, and now abandoned. He was glad of Jackson’s presence. A different thin mist was creeping up the inlets, shimmering through the trees to cover his coat in silver, the thin fog muting the calls of the beaters as they worked their way through the wood. Jackson was ready with the second gun but there was no need. Nothing moved out of the trees, no cries of panicking birds or clatter of wings. The shouts of the beaters faded into silence. The dogs whined, slinking away from the tree line to cower close to their handlers. He shivered, broke the gun and ejected the cartridges, handing them back to his loader before he put the empty gun down on the wet grass. ‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s the mist. Something in the mist scares the birds more than the beaters and the guns. This has happened before and people report figures in the distance. Green-faced men in red garments, who are nowhere to be seen when the mists fade.’ Jackson’s murmur was for his ears only. ‘This is a place of death and horror and nightmares. You should have stayed well away from here, Colonel.’
Halliwell could be heard cursing the incompetence of the beaters, then his voice grew louder and for a moment he came into sight, marching across the open ride towards the line of undergrowth and trees on the other side. A brisk march that took him to the edge of the wood and then he disappeared into the shadows under the trees, still carrying his shotgun.
‘Halliwell, you fool. Come back!’ Straker’s voice was muffled by the fog, and he started running in a desperate attempt to reach the man before… then a gun fired. A single blast followed by a hideous scream. Then silence. He stopped running for just long enough to shout a brisk order to the other men to put their guns down and stay back out of danger, then he ran on, heedless of the rough ground threatening to twist his ankle or worse. The beaters on the other side of the trees had fallen silent and he could hear Jackson close on his heels as he raced through the mist to the dark shadows of the now silent woods. ‘Stay behind me.’ A gasped order. He hoped the man had the sense to obey.
He could only guess at where the Major was, all he had to go on was that last scream and his own heightened senses: the smell of blood, the rustle of ferns, twigs cracking in the distance, a flash of silver disappearing into the mist. Too late, and anyway, he could do nothing with bystanders in the vicinity. He had no hope that Halliwell would be alive. Jackson was still close behind him, not from fear, but following his orders to the letter. A good man, his skills wasted. The smell of blood, and worse, grew stronger.
And there. A spread-eagled shape, a swathe of scarlet blood staining the sparse undergrowth and pale yellow leaves. He heard Jackson mutter something in a foreign language; a prayer maybe or perhaps an imprecation. He held up his hand to warn the man against any further sound or movement then crept forward, boots silent on the damp ground, holding his breath until he was kneeling beside the ruined body. The gaping wound was all he needed to see, the shotgun on the ground close by, the face contorted in agony. And he had left his own gun behind. Too late now to think about the danger. He could only hope that the killers had left.
He pushed himself to his feet, aware of the silence and Jackson moving forward to examine the body.
‘But this is not a gunshot wound. He has been -.’
‘Not another word.’ A harsh response, yet it was vital no one else saw this. There would be questions asked, search parties organised, bringing everyone’s attention to the area and that was the last thing Straker wanted right now. He picked up Halliwell’s shotgun. There was little time left before the rest of the party decided to disobey him and come to see what had happened. ‘Move away. Now.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘What must be done. Now get out of my way.’
He thought Jackson was about to object, but the man did as ordered, walking past to stand well behind and wait.
It was a vile thing to do, even to a dead man, but there was no help for it, not now. He aimed the gun at Halliwell’s already ruined torso, fired, broke the gun and placed it on the ground with shaking hands. Only then did he turn to face Jackson. Despite his claims to be a doctor, Jackson was ashen. Disgust in his expression as well as shock at the callous brutality.
‘What purpose did that serve? The desecration of a body? Please tell me Colonel.’
‘There’s no time to explain; I can hear the others coming.’ Straker pulled off his borrowed coat, draping it over Halliwell’s upper body. Not long enough to hide all the damage but enough to conceal the look of horror in those dead eyes. Crimson seeped into the dark grey wool. ‘You let me do the talking, understand? Otherwise this is going to get worse.’
The rest of the party, drawn by the second shot, barged through the undergrowth towards them and then stopped at the edge of the small clearing, indistinct figures shrouded in the dappled fog.
Straker shook his head. ‘An accident. It would have been instantaneous from the look of it. He must have stumbled, snagged the trigger somehow and caught the blast full on. Not difficult to do in conditions like this.’ He waved a hand at the rough undergrowth. The mist was lifting now, the dark trunks glistening with fine droplets. Somewhere close by he heard a bird call a warning, then a clatter of wings as a bouquet of pheasants took flight. ‘You all heard his gun go off and by the time we got here there was nothing anyone could have done.’
‘There was a second shot.’ An accusation from one of the men. Simpson, if his memory was correct.
‘That was my fault entirely. Jackson can verify to that. I picked up the Major’s gun and it went off.’ He turned to the other man. ‘You were here, you saw what happened.’
A long pause. He clenched his fist, wondering if he had been right to trust this man.
‘Yesss.’ A drawn-out hiss, as if the word caused pain. ‘Mr Straker lifted the shotgun to move it to a place of safety and it fired without warning. I suspect it may have been damaged when the Major fell. A fortunate thing that Mr Straker was pointing it away from myself, otherwise I too might be lying there.’
Simpson bent down and drew back the sodden coat before anyone could stop him. ‘Dear God. The whole of his…’ He turned round, one hand over his mouth and hurried into the undergrowth. No one spoke. The sounds of muted birdsong, branches rustling in a gentle breeze, restless feet shuffling, someone retching. Straker stood there in silence unable to think of anything to say to these men, these strangers. He wanted a cigarette but it would be seen as disrespectful, though he had done it enough times in the camps after an enemy strafing– lighting up a smoke while all around him bodies lay half-submerged in the foul water and mud. The act nothing more than an attempt to ignore the death and destruction and the horror around him for a while. Simpson returned, wiping his mouth, his face ashen. And still no one moved.
He stepped forward. ‘We need a litter. Something to carry the body.’ No one spoke, and he turned round, taking their silence as tacit approval of his authority. ‘Jackson? Fetch a couple of blankets from the cars and then bring the horse and cart down the ride and get as close as you can. The rest of you?’ He pointed to the edge of the wood where sunlight brightened the grass. ‘Find the Head Beater and him to call everyone together. They’re finished for the day. Then go back to the house but don’t speak to anyone other than Cooper about this. Anyone. Understand? Not until Jackson and I return.’
He stood there, coatless and shivering slightly in the cool air, hands thrust deep in his trouser pockets as he watched them go, murmuring to each other in quiet, concerned voices.
The woods were quiet now, the autumn chill making its presence felt as he waited for Jackson to complete his task. He could smell Halliwell’s blood, a sickening stench that took him back to those days and nights in France. The smell of death, of rot and decay, of burnt flesh. Petrol and the faintest lingering smell of cordite, sharp and sweet against the fouler odours still hanging in the air. He would have moved away from the body, made his way to the open space of the ride where he might be safer, but at the same time it was vital to get as much information as possible from the scene before his self-appointed valet returned.
He had done this too many times before: a meticulous examination of the corpse even with its devastating gunshot wound, a further search of the surrounding area for any traces, any clues, but as usual there was nothing to be found other than a faint trail of footprints leading deeper into the woods. He would not follow the tracks without his own familiar weapons for protection. There was nothing for it but to return to the body and wait for Jackson.
It was over thirty minutes before the doctor returned, laden with tartan rugs and a spare, ill-fitting coat for Straker. They set about making a simple travois to haul the body to the waiting cart. No one else around, just the two of them and the horse. It might have been pleasant under different circumstances: the sun shining down, the creak of cart wheels, Jackson silent and efficient, a slow walk back to the house, the others long since gone in the cars.
In the end it was Jackson who broke the silence. ‘You know what happened don’t you?’ One hand rested on the broad withers of the mare as she ambled along the wide track. ‘You’ve witnessed other men killed the same way.’
‘Yes.’ The blanket covering Halliwell had slipped, revealing a greying face still twisted in horror. He stopped the horse, tugged the shroud straight again.
‘Is that why you are here Colonel? I wondered what such a high-ranking officer such as yourself was doing out here. Shooting parties and old houses? There are far more interesting places in the world than this quiet corner of England.’
‘I heard the rumours. And you said it yourself. A place of death and horror and nightmares. Unexplained deaths during the war, people disappearing, strange sightings in the woods, noises at night. The sluices are the only places I can think of.’ He wiped his hand over his brow. ‘That’s where they’ll be hiding. At least I think so.’
‘In the water?’
‘They hide underwater. In small U-boats.’
‘A U-boat, however small, could not pass through the sluice gates. And there is no way one could travel up the culverts from the coast, even at high tide.’ Jackson stopped walking, turned to face Straker. The mare huffed in annoyance at the delay and stood there, tail flicking. ‘Just what is it you are hiding from me Colonel?’
Straker slapped the horse on her rump and she shook her head and plodded on, hooves throwing up thick clods of muck. ‘Later. I’ll tell you everything when we’re done with the major.’ He moved forward to take hold of the mare’s bridle and lead her on. An unnecessary act – the horse was more than capable of making her own way back to the stables but it gave him something to do, something to occupy his mind. A menial task but comforting in its monotony. Jackson reverted to his former silence and they walked on in a slow march beside the placid mare.
It was late afternoon by the time the Dower House came into view. Straker led the horse round under the portico and halted her as the front door opened to reveal Cooper.
‘Use the servants’ entrance round the back and put him in one of the empty storerooms. Cool enough down there and they’re well out of the way.’ He stepped back, making it clear that he was not prepared to assist in any way.
Another trail round the house, gravel crunching underfoot, and the sky darkening around them. No one spoke as they unloaded the cart, the body already beginning to cool, the blood tacky and staining the rough boards of the cart, the face ashen, the two of them gasping under the deadweight as they carried Halliwell down the back stairs to the dark cellar and laid him on the stone flags. No one spoke. Straker knelt down and began unbuttoning the sodden shirt, only to be pulled back by the butler.
‘What do you think you’re doing? Leave the man alone. Bad enough that he’s dead, but this is beyond the pale.’
Straker shook off the hand on his shoulder and stood. ‘Very well. It can wait until tomorrow. Is the telephone working yet? I need to contact someone urgently.’
‘No. The line is still down.’ Cooper gestured for them to leave. ‘I’ll lock the door for tonight and keep the key. Not that anyone is likely to come down here. Meanwhile – ,’ he waved a hand at Straker. ‘Jackson had your car brought here earlier. You can be on your way.’
‘No.’ Straker tilted his head. ‘I have to stay until the police arrive. Someone needs to tell them exactly what happened. And I was the first on the scene.’
‘Now listen –.’
‘No. You listen to me Cooper. Just for once forget you’re a butler, forget the rules and the protocols. There’s a man lying there, dead, and someone has to take charge. I’m going to go upstairs to have something to eat and then I’m going to get some rest. Don’t even try to make me leave.’ He walked out, Jackson close behind him as the butler locked the door.
The servants’ corridor was bleak and cramped, the stairs uncarpeted and uneven. No worse than most backstairs, but a grim place in which to live, unconsidered by employers. They made their way back to the upper part of the House, emerging into the welcome warmth and brightness of the main hall. The dining room door was ajar and Straker could see the other men from the party sitting round the mahogany table, eating in silence. He pulled out a chair at the far end and sat, numb with cold and the horror of what he had done. And was going to have to do, later.
One of the footmen draped a thick linen napkin over his knee and set a plate in front of him. The food was warm at best, but he ate with a mechanical need for sustenance. He might as well have been eating field rations out of a mess tin; bully beef or chunks of tough meat in grey liquid. He ate, that was all, tasting nothing, his mind filled with the memories of birds falling and guns firing and Halliwell’s terrified scream.
A clink of glass as drinks were refilled and he picked up his wineglass desperate for something to refresh his mouth. The wine was Merlot, rich and dark, and he put it aside untasted.
‘Straker? You seem to have taken charge for some ungodly reason. Care to tell us what happens now?’ Someone spoke from the far end of the table, a slight slurring to the voice.
He looked up. They were all watching him. Waiting. ‘It’s a matter for the police now.’ He shrugged and put his fork down. ‘They’ll confirm it was accidental death, but it’s the end of shooting on the estate. I suggest you get some sleep and in the morning you should make arrangements to leave as soon as possible. There’s no point staying on any longer.’ And it would get them off the estate and out of immediate danger.
There was no outburst of denial, not even one word of objection. He pushed his plate aside, tossed the napkin on the table and walked out.
Jackson was waiting outside, head tilted to one side as if he had been listening for Straker’s footsteps. ‘This way, if you please, Colonel.’ He led the way to a room set off the main hall. The library: walls lined with dark oak bookshelves, a log fire, deep-buttoned leather chairs grouped around small tables, a couple of over-sized sofas facing each other, heavy velvet curtains at tall windows. A bowl of dark golden chrysanthemums stood on a desk next to a locked Tantalus with a single decanter. Someone had placed a tray on one of the tables near the fire: cups and saucers, teapot and milk jug, a small bowl of rough sugar lumps together with a set of silver tongs.
Jackson beckoned him to sit down, picked up the teapot and began pouring, adding a splash of milk to both cups and then, at Straker’s assent, two pieces of sugar to one of the cups before handing it across. ‘I thought you would appreciate some refreshment. I would have provided this earlier, but there was no opportunity. However, this offers us the chance to talk.’
The delicate china cup was hot in his fingers, the tea fresh and strong with the bite of tannin and the sweetness of sugar. He drained the cup, leaned forward to pour another and waved a hand at the chair on the other side of the table. ‘Sit down. Please. But first, I need to make sure we’re not going to be disturbed.’ It was an effort to push himself out of the chair and walk over to the door. The key turned quietly, and he went back to where Jackson was now sitting in the chair opposite his own. ‘I was hoping you might forget, actually.’
‘Never underestimate the memory of a psychologist.’ Jackson gave a wry grin, transforming his features so that he looked as he might have done years ago. ‘The U-Boats. The enemy. You were not talking about the Germans were you.’ It was not a question.
‘I wish it were that simple. I was sent here by my superior to investigate the rumours. Men going missing from the Hall, unexplained deaths, a sense of evil in the woods, in the mist. It’s not the first time I’ve seen victims like Halliwell. It won’t be the last either.’ Straker stirred his tea, the silver spoon catching on the remains of the sugar lump, crushing it out of existence. He put the spoon down on the saucer. One of the logs in the fireplace cracked open and he flinched, just a slight jerk but enough to set the bone china rattling in his hand for a moment.
‘Something stronger perhaps, Colonel? One moment.’ Jackson stood up, his footsteps silent on the thick rugs. Straker put the empty cup down on the tray and leaned back in the depths of the armchair. It would be easy to stay here, to fall asleep in the warmth and quiet of the room. He heard a muttered curse in a foreign language then the rattle of the Tantalus being opened and that peculiar and quite distinctive squeak of a glass stopper as it was extracted. He let his elbows rest on the low arms of the chesterfield and laced his fingers together, wondering how much he should tell this stranger.
‘The enemy. Not Germans, not Russians. Not even any nationality you might know. We call them aliens.’ He spoke into the dark. ‘They don’t use U-Boats, or any sort of craft you might have seen. They …’ He paused. But he had started so it was pointless to stop now, even if his companion laughed at him. Enough people had done that already, one more would make little difference. ‘They don’t come from Earth. They’re from another planet. Mars maybe, perhaps Venus. We’re still working on that.’
Jackson handed over a drink – a more than generous measure of dark amber whisky – and took his seat again. ‘Lord Eshley’s favourite brand. I am the only one with access to it, although one of the footmen has tried yet again to pick the lock. Without success I am pleased to note. As I have the only key I am sure his lordship won’t mind if we help ourselves.’ He took a sip and leaned back, slender fingers wrapped round the fine crystal. ‘So these aliens you are talking about travel in spacecraft. That does not explain why they feel the need to submerge themselves in the culverts, even the larger ones.’
‘I believe there’s something in our air that damages their ships, something that makes them hide underwater. And larger drains like the Hundred Foot are deep enough to accommodate one. Even the shallower cuts, the ones round here for example, might be capable of hiding one of their smaller craft.’ The whisky was stronger than he expected, oily and peaty with more than a hint of smoke. A far cry from the sweet bourbon he had drunk at home, or the thin red wine in France that had done little to ease the cold nights and the constant hunger.
‘What do they look like? Their ships?’
Straker picked up his empty teacup, turned it upside down. ‘Something like this. Silver, spinning like a top, with discs round the rim. That’s all we know. And once they’re out of water for any length of time they self-destruct. I’ve never found a single piece larger than this.’ He splayed out his fingers.
‘So. Major Halliwell? Why did they…?’ Jackson took a deep breath.
‘Slice him open? They do that to most of the people they kill, at least to the ones whose bodies we find. As for why? I have no idea. Maybe they need something from us, something they don’t have on their planet. Halliwell wasn’t the first to be killed like that and he won’t be the last.’ He took a sip of the whisky, wanting a larger mouthful but he could already feel the effect of even that small mouthful on tired and aching limbs. And he still had hours of work ahead of him. ‘They come out of their ships and hide somewhere until they’ve found another victim, I know that much. They must have been hoping someone from the party might go into the woods, or else perhaps they were waiting to get one of the beaters. The problem now is to find where their ship is hiding.’
‘And then what do you propose to do? Destroy it?’
‘One man against a spaceship? There’s not much chance of me doing that, although I intend trying if I get the chance. All I really need to do is stop the aliens themselves. Once I manage to kill them then the ship destroys itself.’ He rubbed his face with one hand, as if to wipe away the tiredness, the memories. ‘I need to take a look around, find somewhere I can survey the area and keep watch for a couple of days. They’re somewhere nearby. I know it.’ He clenched his fist. ‘I just don’t know where to look.’
‘You said they hide underwater. Have you thought about the lake? That would be the obvious place –close enough to the woods for them to get there without being seen and deep enough to hide any large vessel.’
‘It’s on the other side of the Hall. You can’t see it from here. Wait a minute.’ Jackson went over to the desk and rummaged through one of the drawers, pulling out a sheet of paper. ‘Yes. I thought so.’ He handed it across. ‘The plan of the whole estate. You can see the lake here, and there…’ one finger pointed to a rectangular building on a small hill overlooking the lake. ‘The folly. A ruined castle – fake of course – complete with dungeons and secret passages. Having a folly such as this one was considered de-rigueur when the Hall was being designed, but, like most of the estate, it has fallen into disrepair and I can no longer vouch for its condition. It is, however, a perfect place from which to observe the lake and the surrounding woods without being exposed.’
‘I’ll take a look first thing in the morning. Is there a way I can get inside without anyone seeing?’
Jackson tapped his lips with a finger. ‘There’s a tunnel from the gardens at the rear of the Hall that leads right into the dungeons. The family had it built so that servants bringing supplies would not be seen from inside the folly. That would be the best way. The entrance is here.’ He indicated a point on the map. ‘Concealed behind a trellis of climbing roses. It leads directly to the dungeons.’
A tunnel. He recoiled from the idea, taking a breath as he tried to calm his irrational reaction. A tunnel. It would be safe enough. It had to have been once. But it was imperative that he wasn’t seen by any alien, otherwise he would be the next victim. If that meant going through a tunnel he would do it. He clenched his fingers to stop them shaking. ‘That’s all I need. I’ll take a look tomorrow, once the police have been.’ The fire was dying down now, the logs little more than glowing ash and he took a last mouthful of the whisky and put the glass down with a sense of regret. ‘I don’t need to tell you to keep this between us, do I? If people found out that aliens were here on Earth and killing without reason, there’d be widespread panic.’
‘You have my word. As it is, I am grateful that you saw fit to take me into your confidence. Tell me, Colonel. How many of these aliens have you killed so far?’
Not enough. But he would not tell anyone that. ‘Hundreds maybe? I really don’t know. But if what I do deters them, makes it unfeasible to come here, then I’ll be more than content.’ He yawned. ‘Time I was in bed. Goodnight Jackson. And thank you.’
There was no one around when he made his way to his room, but he could hear people talking in the billiard room. The fire had not been lit and he lay on the bed in the dark, hands behind his head, planning what he was going to do. If he waited until dawn then it might be too late. He needed to be in place well before the sun rose if he was to have any chance of seeing where the alien craft emerged from wherever it was hiding. Jackson would be annoyed, but he was used to working on his own.
The house grew quiet, doors closing and the outside lights turned off. The downstairs grandfather clock chimed midnight, one o’clock, two then three; the chimes each quarter-hour enough to wake him from his light doze.
Time. He sat up, rubbing his face and yawning before padding over to the window. Eshley Hall was visible in the distance, its unlit windows dark rectangles in the pale grey stone. There was no sign of anything moving, no sounds either, dog foxes barking or owls screeching. He needed to retrieve the Enfield and then find the entrance to the tunnel. After that? He would see what the dawn brought. He went through to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face to bring him wide awake then pulled on his dark jumper and coat and made his way down the wide staircase carrying his boots. His stockinged feet made no sound as he crossed the endless space of the hallway to the main door. It opened in silence and he pulled it shut behind himself, hoping that the soft click of the lock would not waken any light sleeper.
A clear night, the moon close to full and the path to easy to follow. He sat on the steps to pull on his boots and then set off to where his Tourer was parked. The car was spotless, all evidence of the mudslide washed away and he opened the luggage compartment with a sense of unease, hoping that whoever had cleaned the vehicle had not found the rifle and other equipment hidden beneath the floor of the boot.
The Enfield was safe in its oiled case and he slung it over his shoulder, the weight familiar and comforting, the binoculars over his other shoulder and his torch tucked into one pocket well away from the revolver. A last look around to make sure no one was watching and then he set off along the grass verge, grateful for the bright moonlight that made his late night trek possible.
The entrance to the tunnel was half-blocked by the overgrown rose bush and he spent several frustrating minutes pulling the thorny branches away, thankful for his leather gloves that were all too soon in shreds. He pulled them off and flung them aside. Then he was inside and switching on the torch – a thin beam but better than nothing. The tunnel was brick-lined and damp underfoot, the ceiling arching just over his head, close enough to make him hunch over as he made his way forward. The floor sloped downward and he could hear unpleasant noises in the darkness: eerie creaks and rustles, the squeal of rats, water dripping from above.
The roof seemed to press in on him, the rough walls edging closer and closer with each step but he forced himself onwards, fighting a desperate urge to turn and run. The collapsed dugout. The mud and broken planks, the screams of those men trapped around him. The struggle to breathe, to free himself. The darkness. Water rising beneath him. They had dug him out, caked in slime and filth. He had washed off the mud and changed into a spare uniform and drunk a mug of cocoa and sat there, shaking. And then the shouts came and he forced himself to his feet and went out to his Spad. Even now he hated enclosed spaces, the inability to get outside a building.
He’d looked it up once. Claustrophobia. A morbid dread of enclosed spaces. The words seemed inadequate to express the sheer terror he experienced, but even worse was the fear of failing, of allowing his own foolish dread to govern his work. He swallowed. And took another step forwards and then another.
Step after step, splashing into puddles, feet slithering on patches of slime, one bare hand outstretched against the side in an attempt to stay in the centre of the tunnel and avoid banging his head. Shale from the crumbling bricks scraped his fingertips raw. A tangle of cobwebs stuck to his face and he stopped to scrub them clear with a shaking hand then paused.
A sound behind him, not the scurry of rats or mice, but the muted drone of an engine. And he pressed himself against the wall, listening as the sound increased and there was a glimmer of light far in the distance. Something was outside the tunnel. A soft tread of feet moving along the passageway. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to take cover. He tucked the torch in his pocket to hide its beam and reached for the rifle, slipping it from its sheath and kneeling to face whoever – whatever – was coming towards him. He could not see with any clarity, just a distant glimmer of light flickering against the ceiling and walls and catching for one brief second his fingers stained with muck and blood on the stock of the rifle.
If he failed he would be sliced from breastbone to groin and left to die here, alone. He held his breath, tightened his finger on the trigger, counting off the seconds until his target was within easy range. The light played on his face bright enough to make him blink, and then the sound of that familiar voice made him jerk the muzzle of the rifle upwards, to safety.
‘Colonel? You were not in your bed when I checked on you. It took me some considerable time to discover that you had left the House.’
Jackson. He lowered the rifle, put it back in its sheath, pulled out the torch. ‘You shouldn’t have come.’ But even so he could not help the surge of relief that he was no longer alone in the darkness.
‘And why is that?’ Jackson was close enough to see now, and moving even closer.
‘This has nothing to do with you. It’s my responsibility, my job.’ And he had seen enough innocent men die in the past. There was no need to have even more blood on his conscience. ‘Go back to the House. Please.’
‘And if I don’t?’
Dammit, the man was more stubborn than expected. ‘Then you should stay here in the tunnel where it’s safe, and wait for me. I won’t have you getting involved, not in this.’
Jackson’s hand touched his shoulder. ‘It’s too late for that Colonel. I am already involved. I purloined your car and drove here from the House though I left it on the far side of the orangery where it will not be seen by anyone. It was the only way I could catch up to you. And,’ he pursed his lips, ‘I think that perhaps you may be glad of my assistance when we reach the Folly, if not before. Now, shall we go?
There was nothing for it but to continue and he walked on in silence, Jackson’s presence right behind him insufficient to stop his growing sense of discomfort despite his attempts to crush down his absurd phobia. Then the sloping floor ended. A steep flight of steps leading upwards, no handrail and the sandstone treads worn down by countless feet. A careful climb, both men cautious of wet walls and slime underfoot, and treading in silence. The thought of servants making this journey laden with baskets of food and other such comforts for visitors with no consideration for their own safety, repelled him.
The steps ended in yet another long narrow passage and his foot slipped and he staggered, dropping his torch with a clatter. It rolled against the wall and went out. He cursed, hands scrabbling in the dark, his fingers meeting those of Jackson for a moment.
‘No, don’t move, Colonel. I’ve got it here.’ Surprisingly strong fingers grasped his wrist and held tight and he felt the familiar shape of the torch as Jackson pressed it into his palm. He gave it a gentle shake and the light flickered, went out for a heart-stopping moment and then returned and he was about to start walking again, when the Jackson took hold of his wrist.
‘A moment if you don’t mind. You are shaking. Is something the matter?’
The concern in Jackson’s voice pushed him closer to the edge and he could do nothing but shake his head, too afraid of to risk speaking aloud in case his voice betrayed him.
‘No. Take a breath please. And another. You fear the darkness?’
He shook his head again.
‘Ah. I understand I think. It is the tunnel itself? The sensation of being imprisoned, entombed with no escape? I am right am I not? No. Don’t answer me Edward. Just listen to me. Breathe, and listen.’ The hand tightened. A comforting grip, surprising strength and compassion combined. ‘You are not trapped, not in the slightest. The passage is open behind you, and in front. You can walk out right now. Another two hundred paces perhaps, maybe even less, will bring us to a flight of steps and at the top of those we will find ourselves in the Folly. Open space. All you have to do is to keep walking, just those few yards. Two hundred paces if that. Count each step aloud if you must, but keep walking.’
So he did, counting off the paces and all the time aware of Jackson’s quiet reassurance from behind. Fifty-three and he was trembling, sixty-eight and he paused, unable to move only for a hand to rest on his shoulder for a moment. A light touch but enough to calm him and make him take yet another step forward. Seventy-one, a hundred and three, a hundred and eighty-eight and he was sweating and sick and then his foot caught the edge of the first step and he paused, gasping for breath, his heart pounding.
It was easier then, climbing to freedom and knowing he was close to a way out. The steps were dryer, the air less damp and musty now and then he was at the top and on a level floor, the torch lights revealing a high vaulted ceiling and wide walls. An unbelievable surge of relief and it was easy enough from that point to make their way through the passages and up to the turret overlooking the lake. He stood there, composing himself and taking deep breaths. It was still dark, though he was surprised to see that it was just over an hour to dawn. Enough time to get himself accustomed to the area.
Jackson perched on the corner of one of the stone benches that ran around the edge of the roof, watching him.
‘What happens now?’
Straker leaned out between two of the merlons, peering into the darkness, not that there was much to see other than the surface of the lake shimmering in in the moonlight and the darker swathes of woodland on the far side. ‘We were shooting over there? When Halliwell was killed?’ He pointed.
Jackson came up to join him. ‘Yes. The beaters work their way from that direction to fly the birds away from the lake. It’s too far from the Dower House to be practical for a shooting party to walk there. So what are you going to do now?’
The air was sharp and still and no untoward sounds disturbed the sounds. He knelt down, rueing the hard stone beneath his knees, then put the thought aside as irrelevant and positioned himself behind the crenellation, binoculars focused on the serene water of the lake. ‘Now we wait.’ He heard the other man settle down on the floor, wrapping his coat around him in an effort to keep out the early chill.
His fingers grew stiff and cold, but he did not dare put the binoculars down to rub his hands together. His knees ached and then turned numb and still he knelt there as the stars faded into the soft greyness of pre-dawn.
It would be now if they were going to make a move. He could hear Jackson behind him, a soft shuffle as the man changed position.
And then the surface of the lake shimmered, wavered, and there was no time to do anything other than hiss a warning at Jackson to get back.
He trained his binoculars on the two figures as they emerged from beneath the surface, water streaming from their spacesuits. A difficult shot. He should have been closer, but that would have been foolish. These were not ordinary soldiers emerging from their dugouts at the start of the day, these were creatures with abilities far beyond human understanding.
A whispered expletive from behind him but he ignored it. He had heard worse in the trenches, had even resorted to swearing himself on occasions. He grabbed the rifle and stood, stifling the groan as his knees creaked in protest and then he was leaning on the rampart, the Enfield steady in his hands and everything – sore knees, the persistent headache from not nearly enough sleep, his gnawing hunger and thirst, the stiffness in his fingers – all faded away as he focused on the first shape, aiming for the centre of the faceplate. A squeeze of the trigger, the recoil a welcome thump against his shoulder and he saw his target jerk backwards, arms outstretched and a great splash of water as it fell back into the lake.
No time to waste. He slid the bolt forward, sighted on the second one a few steps ahead, held his breath.
This time it took two attempts before the alien collapsed and even then he was not sure if the second had been a killing shot. The first man was a dark shape floating on the water but the other had managed to reach the reedbeds before falling and was lying half-submerged among the rushes.
There was no sign of anyone else, the surface of the lake once more placid and undisturbed apart from a dark shape bobbing in the deeper water. He turned from the rampart, sheathing the rifle in one smooth act before he saw Jackson standing at one corner of the roof terrace staring down at the lake. ‘Stay here.’ Another brusque order, but the man was unarmed and could be in danger. Or was it that he had no wish to let anyone witness what he might be forced to do next; to kill, without any thought of mercy or compassion.
He ran down the steps, the thin light of dawn that filtered through the arrow slits the only aid as he made his way down to the ground floor. The oversized oak door leading outside was barred and he dragged the bolts back, wincing at the screech of rusty iron. Then he was outside and heading for the lakeside several hundred yards away, the rifle thumping against his back as he ran across the rough grass towards the reed bed.
His target was face down, arms and legs tangled in the tall rushes, helmeted head dipping up and down in the slight swell and he splashed his way across, thigh deep in cold water, thick mud underfoot. The man was dead, his helmet smashed either from one of the bullets or on one of the rocks in the lake when he fell. It made no difference.
Straker began dragging the corpse away from the reeds to clear water, a difficult task but one that needed to be done. He had no spade with which to dig graves, and not the energy to do so anyway. The water would do the job for him. Without its crew the craft would blow up within the next few hours and the resulting explosion would destroy the bodies.
He was wading back through the reeds when he heard the splash of small waves and he turned round in horror as the water behind him began roiling and bubbling. The ship. It was still active, still operating. There was nothing he could do but run, reeds slowing him down, thick mud clinging to his feet in an effort to hold him back. Five yards, four, his feet slipping, the rifle sliding from his shoulder to hamper him even more, his hands grabbing hold of the tall rushes in a futile attempt to drag his way to safety. But nowhere was safe now.
He reached the bank and started scrambling up, waterlogged boots threatening to drag him back down, the ship rising behind him huge and threatening. A high pitched whine deafened him, a gust of foul smelling air blew past, a vivid yellow light illuminated the ground ahead and the woods beyond and then he flung himself forward, still entangled in the reeds, his face pressing into the soil at the very edge, his bare hands scant protection around his head. He waited for the explosion behind him and the shock of shrapnel slicing through cloth and flesh and bone. One last breath, his body rigid with fear. The rich smell of damp earth and fresh grass.
And then there was nothing but deafening noise and scorching heat and brilliant light and the smell of burning wool and singed hair and the skin on the back of his hands tingling and the hiss of white-hot metal crashing into cold water and the thud of shrapnel impacting with soft earth. Then sharp pain, a blinding explosion in his head and just long enough to be grateful that it was going to be quick.
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.