The dim light in the alleyway pooled down onto the huddled figure. Late at night, in this less salubrious area of London, there were few late-night revellers. Not even an insomniac dog-walker. But the man had been spotted nonetheless. It was dealt with in the usual efficient manner. Photographs, forensic evidence, SOCO’s. Processed, collated, labelled. Then the body removed to the central morgue for the next step. Formal identification and cause of death.
Frowns, worried voices, urgent phone calls. And Alec Freeman found himself driving, late in the night, in answer to the command. He did not question the instruction. Freeman was used to obeying awkward orders, but he was troubled. Why him? Why not Ed Straker?
His pass let him through the security barriers, and he followed the silent guard down corridors that were empty at this late hour, to a small room, the colours on the wall soft and muted, and a window in the wall dividing it from an adjoining, larger and very clinical room. Alec felt sweaty, clammy with fear, with apprehension, and with that indefinable certainty that something was most definitely very, very wrong.
There was another man in the room, his back to Freeman, staring through the glass partition. Alec stepped up beside him to see, in the adjacent room, a mortuary table. Green cloth covering an unmistakable shape. Freeman moved closer as the attendant lifted the cloth and folded it back to reveal the face beneath.
Ed Straker. Freeman sagged against the window, one hand reaching out, his voice faint and threadbare. “Ed. What happened to you?’
The man turned to face him. ‘The initial examination of the body did not reveal any obvious cause. So, you have no idea why Straker was in London last night, without his protection detail?’
‘No. none at all. He was going home when I saw him last.’ It was hard to get the words out. Ed. SHADO Commander, Ed Straker. Dead. His friend, dead. ‘Where was he found?’
There was a pause. ‘In an alleyway. No signs of a struggle, not even any bruising on the body. But the autopsy will no doubt reveal the cause of death.’ He held out one hand to Freeman. ‘Let me introduce myself. Mason Rimmer. SIS. Currently in charge of overseeing security and protection with regard to persons who are considered to be politically important. Mr. Straker was one of my responsibilities. His death is a matter of grave concern as well as a severe embarrassment.’ Rimmer gave a brief, cursory glance through the partition at Straker’s body, ‘Straker had two members of his protection detail assigned to him last night. There has been no contact with either of them. I must assume that they are also dead. Now if you will excuse me.’ The SIS officer nodded a curt farewell and left.
The bleak grey corridor stretched in front of Alec Freeman, the glass partition on his left separating him from his friend now lying on a cold hard stretcher behind that barrier.
Dear God. Ed. The finality thumped into him like an unexpected punch to the stomach, with almost the same effect. He struggled for breath, almost vomiting with the sudden realization of what had transpired. His heart pounding with the rush of shock of adrenaline flooding through him, he placed one shaking hand on the glass, as if that simple contact could awaken his friend, could make the man on the table push himself upright, open his eyes, turn to his friend and smile, that slight, quirky, too seldom-seen smile.
But Straker was unmoving. Lifeless, and; Alec could hardly bear to think the word but it filled his mind despite his protestations; dead.
He turned away, sickened and distressed. One shoulder against the bare wall, head leaning against the rough concrete as if it was an effort to even hold that upright, he reached into his breast pocket, pulled out his mobile and dialled, although how he was going to tell her, he had no idea at all.
‘Harlington Straker Studios. Mr. Straker’s office.’ Miss Ealand’s calm voice cut through the racing turmoil of his thoughts.
He tried to speak, tried to remain focused, but his emotions betrayed him as he struggled to force the words out. ‘Miss Ealand, it’s….. ‘ he stopped, his voice stifled in his throat.
‘Mr Freeman? Are you all right?’ the concern in her voice was almost too much to bear, but he took a deep breath, clenched his fist around the phone and enunciated each separate word as a drunken man might speak. It was the only way he would be able to get the words out.
‘Miss Ealand. Ed Straker.’ He paused, took a deep breath, pushed each separate syllable out past lips that seemed frozen, numb, duplicitous. ‘Ed…. he..’’
‘Mr Freeman, are you all right? Do you want to speak to Mr Straker? He hasn’t come….’
‘No.’ He had to stop her, had to tell her…. ‘He’s dead. Miss Ealand, he’s dead.’
‘Who? Who is?’ her voice sharp, shocked, curt with awful premonition.
And finally, Alec Freeman, aware that he was now acting Commander-in-Chief of SHADO, composed himself, straightened his stiff shoulders in a vain attempt to loosen them, one hand tugging at his jacket in an unconscious imitation of the man lying there, cold, still, breathless, in the stark silent room and he answered her.
‘Miss Ealand; I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ed Straker is dead. I don’t know what happened yet; I’m at the medical examiner’s office right now. I need you to notify General Henderson that Commander Straker’s body was discovered yesterday evening in suspicious circumstances. I’ll be returning to Headquarters as soon as I have completed the necessary arrangements and spoken to the authorities. Can you contact Paul Foster and ask him to get back in as soon as possible? But don’t talk to anyone else. I’ll tell the staff myself when I arrive.’ And he closed the connection before unvoiced loss and sadness overwhelmed him utterly.
The pathologist pulled the thin sheet back, revealing Straker’s unmarked body resting on a block. His chest, sparse blonde hair glinting under the lights, was stretched upwards as if still gasping for one last desperate breath. She peered down at his still, slender frame, now exposed to full view. Flicking the microphone on with an automatic gesture, she picked up her scalpel, pausing for a brief second in unspoken respect. The blade touched and caressed the ashen skin before slicing its deep incision across from one shoulder to the sternum.
Alec Freeman, watching the proceedings from behind the glass panel in the observation room wanted to turn away, did not want to watch the final indignity to his friend; that long slice through once soft, pliable, warm flesh. But that would have been cowardly, would have been a denial of their friendship, of the things they had shared in the past. So he watched. It was the only thing he could do now for Ed. His last gift.
There was very little blood. And it was that bleak fact more than anything, that made Alec Freeman accept that Straker was dead. And as the pathologist wiped away the insignificant scarlet trail that followed the knife down that unflinching skin, Alec Freeman wiped away a salty bead of moisture that tracked down his own face.
He looked up at the face of the pathologist, wondering what kind of person it took to do something so disturbing, so intrusive to another human. Even one who was past caring.
Her lips were moving. Freeman watched for a few moments then looked around for the switch that would allow him to listen in to her commentary. But she was not relating a clinical account, instead she was talking to him, talking to Ed, in a gentle and soothing voice.
‘I wonder what happened to you. You look… peaceful, as if you are sleeping. Not many of my patients look so calm, so ..’ she brushed one gloved hand over close-cropped silver hair, ‘so relaxed. As if all your worries are finally over.’ There was a sigh of regret as she reached for another implement, before starting to speak in a normal tone, brisk and efficient.
‘The upper torso and abdomen both appear unmarked and undamaged. I am about to cut through the ribs on the lateral sides. After which I will remove the chest plate. There are no apparent signs of injury or long-standing medical conditions which might have contributed to death.’ She halted for a moment, looking down at the mortuary table, her hand gripping the saw, and Alec Freeman turned away.
He had seen enough, had ensured that his friend was being treated with compassion and respect, and there was nothing else left to do, apart from return to HQ and assume command. And wait for the pathologists report.
The drive back to the studios was longer than he had remembered and he got tangled up in the rush hour traffic. Raging with anger, with helplessness, he sat there, desperate to get moving, to concentrate on driving and push away the image that was burned onto his retina, the image of that knife slicing through flesh. Forcing himself to take calm breaths he gripped the steering wheel with tight fingers and concentrated his thoughts on the events of the previous day, trying to think of anything untoward that might have occurred.
Nothing. It had been another average, run-of-the-mill day. SHADO stuff, studio stuff, Straker stuff. Everything as normal. He had finished on time for a change and for once so had Ed. There had been inconsequential chats as they both headed for their cars, Straker grumbling about the protection detail that had been foisted on him and that he was still trying to dismiss.
‘Look, Ed. It’s no use. Just go along with it. They aren’t that intrusive after all.’
Straker stopped and turned to his friend. ‘You don’t have to put up with it. Alec,’ he said with a bitter tone in his voice, ‘I am ushered everywhere, shepherded from one point to another with no freedom and virtually no privacy. Oh I know,’ he sighed, weariness fading his voice to almost a whisper, ‘it’s necessary, but sometimes I just want to be…anonymous.’ he stopped, grimaced and shook his head, misery evident in his hunched shoulders, his whole despondent stance. Then with a last, almost indefinable look, and a final shrug, headed to the waiting car, with the waiting guards.
The raw resignation in those blue eyes, or perhaps it was his ultimate acceptance of the loss of freedom, was the last painful memory that Colonel Freeman recalled. And now Ed Straker was gone.
The traffic moved, slow and faltering, cars inching forward as if reluctant to reach their destinations. Alec changed gear, eased up on the clutch, braked, changed gear again, all without thinking, his body doing the driving by instinct, leaving his mind free to reflect on how his own life had moved forward in the last couple of hours. It would be necessary to assume command with as little disruption as possible. But first he would have to make the announcement. And Alec Freeman wanted to stop his car, wanted to get out, walk away, run away. Anything rather than face the next few hours.
The traffic moved forward, inch by inch until in that peculiar way that happens without any explanation, it surged forward, free of the constraints and his chance was gone. Colonel Freeman pushed the gear stick into third then fourth, fifth and drove on, his eyes just ever-so-slightly betraying him by blurring in the bright sunshine.
The underground car park was deserted. Only Straker’s car and one other parked in random places between the concrete pillars. Dim lights flickered behind wire brackets, glinting on random puddles of water that had dripped from rainsoaked vehicles. Other liquids also marked the oil-streaked and begrimed surface of the roadway. Darker, more ominous puddles, reflecting the gloomy light in their thickening crimson patterns.
A desolate place, unfrequented and deserted this late at night, but not tonight. Behind the concrete pillars, close to Straker’s car with its still warm engine, the driver still warm where he lay slumped behind the wheel, a small group huddled. Two of the figures hunched at floor level, three others close by. Five of them. Or perhaps more truthfully, five who could be detected in the murky obscurity of the shadows. Who knew how many more were hiding, unseen, unnoticed, behind pillars, or in the dimness that spread between the vacant parking bays?
There was a sudden nightmarish sound of a stifled, smothered scream cut short, but the horror of the noise left a reverberating echo in the air before fading away into the shade and obscurity between the battered columns. Two figures still on the floor, but one of them now lifeless. The other struggling in the grip of arms that were almost inhuman in their strength.
He had been compelled to watch them, had been made to witness that terrible moment when the knife cut through warm, living flesh, arterial bright blood spurting across the gap to spray into his face, his eyes, to spatter on his lips. That unmistakable salt taste, metallic and warm. He spat, not with disgust. Never that. It would have been a rejection of Locke’s worth, as if Straker was spitting away the remnants of a human being’s last agonizing moments. But neither could he simply accept the taste, the feel of those last splashes of life. He struggled again, putting all his strength into his attempt to break free of the sinewy, rope strong arms that wrapped around him. Useless.
The hand holding his head tightened, gripped even harder if that was possible, red gloved fingers digging into his cheek, forcing his mouth open, holding his eyes wide to stare, to look. And so he looked, anguished tears filling his eyes, blurring his vision as the man was butchered with callous ease. As David Locke, the most senior member of his personal protection detail was sacrificed.
The words sounded brave and assured but Straker was appalled by the ease with which Mason Rimmer had fooled everyone, including himself. The phone call to Straker’s house earlier that evening had been so convincing, so urgent. Rimmer even had the correct code-words. And so Straker had agreed to meet the SIS officer in London. It had all been a trap. Patterson, Straker’s driver, had been shot straight away. Too old to be useful to the aliens. Now Locke was dead and it was only a matter of time before Mason Rimmer turned his attention to Straker.
‘Straker. Don’t worry. I have no intention of killing you.’ There was a universe of hate and loathing but also of fear behind the last word. ‘My friends have other plans for you. Unfortunately. I would have enjoyed watching, enjoying listening to your screams. It has taken too long to get you. But now? Well, now all our tactics have succeeded. Freeman will see your body tomorrow.’ Mason looked down at his captive, ‘Oh not your body, that would be too… final, too easy. But he will have a corpse, and he will believe it is you. And after all, it will be you. A complete duplication of you, down to your genome. A perfect replica of Commander Ed Straker.’
‘You can’t fool Alec Freeman that easily, Rimmer. Despite your pathetic attempts to break into SHADO. He has more sense than you give him credit for.’
Mason creased his lips in a victorious smile. ‘Commander, I’d like you to meet….. well, I don’t think there will be any need for me to introduce you. ‘ He clicked his fingers and a figure stepped out of the shadowy darkness of the alleyway. A figure dressed in a dark Nehru suit, pale sweater, pale hair. Straker froze in horror. Of all the things he had predicted, had anticipated, this was just unbelievable.
In that single heart-stopping moment of devastating clarity Ed Straker knew that he was dead.
London, late on a November night, was a multi-faceted city. Seen from above it was a complicated jigsaw of arbitrary blocks of light interspersed with dark patches where pieces had not yet been found and put into place.
A stranger, arriving here suddenly, might have found himself in one of those luminous areas where life continued at full pace, with no regard for the lateness of the hour. Streets filled with lights and noise and movement. A place where traffic and pedestrians weaved along roads and pavements, where nightclubs, restaurants, cafes, remained open, tempting tourists and late night revellers to enter. A place where only the presence of stars, unseen and unnoticed in the light polluted skies, indicated the transition of time.
And yet, not far from those gleaming jewel-like islands, with their sparks of lights and life, the city also had a quieter side. Silent, sleeping offices, with perhaps the odd, accidental and long-forgotten light still casting a signal high up in the darkened block, and a brighter area at street level with jaded security guards, reluctant, weary eyes watching monitors. A few passing taxis, the odd car. Nothing much happening.
London. Asleep. Resting in preparation for another early start.
An unwary stranger who wandered further away from these safe harbours, past the shelter of the watched and safeguarded environs, might find himself caught in the darker, abyssal deeps of deserted alleyways and empty, abandoned properties that spattered the city like decaying sores.
And it was to one of these desolate, deserted quarters that a police van was heading.
Lights flashing in rhythmical regularity, warning the wary traveller of dangers ahead, it pulled to halt by the roadside. There was no discernable reason for the presence of the van, no cars slewed across the road in the aftermath of a collision, no crowd of drunken bystanders, not even any noise. The road was bare of regular traffic at this time of night.
That incautious stranger, had he been there, might have paused to watch the van out of sheer curiosity if nothing else. Would have seen the doors open, the police step out onto the pavement with its broken flagstones and discarded rubbish snagged in the barriers that edged the roadside.
The police moved with the confidence and solidity of men who knew how to command. It was but the matter of a moment’s work to pull a huddled figure from the undergrowth and drag it, despite its rebellious struggles, into the muted dimness of the street.
Once under the glow from the dirt-encrusted lamp, the figure could be seen twisting in the firm grip that prevented it from escaping. A passing taxi, slowing down to rubber-neck the scene, prevented anyone hearing what was said to the figure, now lying restrained and face down on the filth-speckled, uneven slabs of the pavement. The van doors opened, and the figure, only now discernable as a man, was tossed, almost as if he was an unfeeling shop-window dummy, into the murky depths of the caged interior. Any stranger, passing by right then, might have heard one muffled shout of anguish, one frantic thump on the side of the van that made the vehicle rock once, but then the street was empty. The van hastened off, taking its catch away.
The nursing assistant wiped the marker pen off the board and rewrote the sign. Waiting time; Now 3 hours.
There was a mutter of discontent, a sense of disquiet, an unspoken threat that reverberated around the busy waiting room in A and E. Three hours. A long time. A very long time. One man, too drunk, too obese, too unsteady stood with precarious balance before moving towards the desk. ‘Three hours. Bloody hell…….’ but his thick accented voice was cut short by the chill draft as the main doors opened.
You could always tell when the police arrived, Dr Hartley thought to himself. There was a sudden indefinable hush in the waiting room as if all the patients were expecting to be arrested for any minor transgression and were trying to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible. And yet everyone would be looking to see just who they had brought in; maybe some victim of a mugging, or even, hopefully, a knifing. That was always a firm favourite in the waiting room. Someone who was worse off than they themselves. Blood and maybe a few moans, with any luck. The cops tended to bring minor knife injuries in themselves nowadays. Quicker and easier all round, and it didn’t tie up the ambulance service either.
Hartley carried on with his sandwich. The police, and their victim, would have to wait. He had more important things to do right now. He watched, his face impassive, uninterested, as the triage nurse directed the small party to a vacant cubicle.
There were still blood stains on the floor from the last inhabitant, but the new occupant was oblivious to the mess, the indication of just one more person’s suffering. He sat, deferential and submissive, doing as ordered by the tall figure who accompanied him.
The sounds of pain, soft moans, muted whimpers, a child’s shrill cries, all filtered through the thick curtains that separated this tiny oasis from the harsh world outside. Neither man spoke. The policeman, concentrating on listening to his radio, the man sitting sideways on the padded bench, feet on the small step beside it, absorbed in peering at his hands. Turning them over, inspecting them, twisting them to scrutinize every detail as if he had never encountered them before.
They remained like that. The blue-clad policeman, an intimidating presence in stab-vest and equipment, was serene, his feet planted squarely on the floor, waiting. Expecting nothing to happen. The years had taught him patience.
The man with him was also quiet, but not from composure. His silence, his unthinking compliance seemed to be more due to bewilderment than obedience.
The curtain pulled back. Hartley stood there, assessing, judging. Another waste of time, he thought with contempt, yet another drunk, another careless tourist who was unable to look after himself. He stepped forward, not bothering to close the curtain behind him, flicking through the manila folder with the cursory details that the police had provided.
‘Right. If you want us to treat you, we need to know your name and why you are here,’ he started.
Bloody hell. What time was it? She reached out for the phone. Did no one understand the meaning of ‘off duty’? Her mobile buzzed again, insisting on an answer. The project worker would continue to pester her with voicemail messages, texts, and calls until she answered.
‘Yes’ she grunted, surrendering to the demands of the small despot now gripped in her hand. Damn the person who invented mobile phones.
‘Sorry to bother you Becky,’ the voice, with just a hint of regret replied, ‘but the police are here wondering if we can take anyone for the night.’
‘Can’t you deal with it?’ After all you are getting paid time and a half to do this job, Rebecca bit down on the curt, unspoken reply.
Sam hesitated, aware that she was disturbing one of the few precious off duty nights that Rebecca had scheduled. ‘Well….. it’s a bit difficult actually. You see…. the police don’t really know what to do with him. He’s not… he’s not ..’ she stuttered to a confused halt.
Rebecca Steel heaved a sigh. Another early night disturbed by interruptions. ‘Give me ten minutes. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Oh, and you’d better have the kettle on.’ she ordered the discomforted worker.
Clothes, shoes, coat, phone, keys. No need for purse. That was the advantage with living so close to work. And the disadvantage as well. Barely five minutes’ walk away. Yes, she lived in a very comfortable apartment, and the hostel was merely a basement that provided basic accommodation and other facilities for drug addicts and alcoholics and other destitute men. They might have been close together in terms of geography, but in reality they were worlds apart.
The shelter was at the bottom of a nearby street and as she walked, her steps brisk and noisy and designed to proclaim to any troublemakers that she was not a person to be trifled with, she could see the marked police car outside the discreet unmarked entrance.
There was a small group of residents outside the building, smoking, bottles in their hands. ‘Guys,’ she acknowledged them, her voice with just that tiny overtone of authority, wanting them to know that she was still in charge, still ready and willing to lay down the law should it be necessary.
There was a chorus of grunted replies as she opened the security door with her passcard. ‘Doors locked at 2.am guys. And no-one is going to come in if they are drunk, or..’ and she turned to glare at them, her eyes stern, ‘drugged up. You know the rules. Finish your cigarettes, and get inside. It’s going to be a cold night.’
‘What do the pigs want then?’ a lone voice asked. ‘Someone in trouble eh?’
‘It will be you in trouble Mike, if you don’t sober up. I’ll be here until lock-out, so …’ the unspoken threat was enough and the small group hastily stubbed out cigarettes, tipped up the bottles to drain the last dregs before shuffling down the stairs, ahead of her. Rebecca could hear their disgruntled comments but she was too tired to bother reprimanding them.
She followed, more concerned about who the police had brought at this late hour than about the petty grumblings of a group of homeless addicts and alcoholics. Perhaps she had been in this job for too long. Perhaps she had ceased, somewhere along the line, to really give a damn about these misfits that society had rejected. Or perhaps she was just too bloody tired.
The interior, a flight of steep stairs leading down to the converted cellars, was well lit, even at this time of night. She could hear voices talking, confident deep voices. Silhouettes of uniformed police formed dark smudges of black behind the frosted glass of the secure inner door. The presence of the police was sufficient to subdue the small group who preceded her into the Reception area. The men, still reeking of cigarettes and cheap cider, looked around at the police in their stab vests and full street protection and slunk away like hyenas, tails between their legs, all thoughts of defiance banished.
There was immediate sigh from the late-night project worker, a release of tension, of unspoken concerns that hung like a cloud polluting the air in the small reception area.
‘Sorry to have dragged you out, Becky,’ Sam apologized, ‘but I honestly didn’t know what else to do.’
Rebecca bit down on her retort. Becky. Just how many times had she told Samantha that her name was Rebecca. She didn’t allow the guys in the shelter to call her Becky and she was damned if she was going to let Samantha get away with it. But now was neither the time nor place. She looked around the small, enclosed area. Three policemen. One stranger. Quiet, subdued, almost as if he had no idea where he was. Her glance took in his clothes, his appearance, assessing, evaluating. Jeans, dirtied and scuffed at the knees and a sweatshirt, muddied as if he had been in an accident. Hands bloodied and scraped. But not broken from fighting.
A habitual drug user? Unlikely. He was too alert for that, even though he looked ashen and lined and grey with tiredness. She had seen that look too many times before. An intelligent man, recently redundant, unable to pay the mortgage, thrown out of house and home by a demanding and greedy wife. Now reduced to seeking shelter in this place. Another of life’s victims on the scrapheap. It was all too common an occurrence. But there was something else more than tiredness in his hunched stance. There was a look of fear in his eyes, a dread of something more than just the intimidating atmosphere as he stooped, weary and drawn between the police.
But why the police? Why now, this late at night? The Rough Sleeper Squad would have finished their trawl of the local parks and preferred sleeping patches, looking for vulnerable homeless youngsters. The shelter had no spare beds left. Apart from one.
She turned to the Sergeant, a solid old-fashioned policeman who was a very familiar visitor to the shelter, and a man she could rely on.
‘Cup of tea, James?’ Rebecca knew he was always ready for a brew, whatever time of day or night but his response discomfited her.
‘Sorry Miss Steel.’ He had never called her Miss Steel before, she had always been Rebecca. She frowned, puzzled at his unexpected formality, as he continued, ‘I asked Samantha to call you out. This man.’ and he waved his hand at the stranger, without even looking round, ‘he’s been classified as Shepherd .’
‘No. No way.’ Her outrage was evident. ‘Sorry James, but Shepherd is reserved for lads. Not middle aged men. I have one Shepherd bed. And you know the criteria. Homeless and vulnerable and aged between eighteen and twenty-four. That is the stipulation. The council pay for that bed, and I can’t break their conditions.’ Rebecca, her voice cold with anger, turned to the stranger. ‘You certainly don’t look defenceless or vulnerable. Haven’t you got relatives or friends who can take you in. Someone? Anyone?’
He shuffled back one pace under her verbal onslaught. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know much at all in fact.’ He looked down at the blue linoleum tiles on the floor, shy and embarrassed, his face flushing with a brief tinge of colour. His accent was not English. In fact if anything it was an American accent, educated and cultured.
‘Rebecca,’ the police sergeant took her arm and eased her away from the group.’ It’s like this. We found this guy semi-conscious by the roadside. We assumed that he was the usual late-night drunk, until we got him to the station. Then we saw the condition he was in and thought that maybe he’d been in an accident, hit and run, something like that. However, it seems not. No injuries apart from t bruising and abrasions and such, but he can’t remember anything. Has no identification, nothing that tells us who he might be. The hospital checked him over but they can’t keep him, they’re pushed for beds, and he doesn’t need treatment.’
He paused and turned to look at the man waiting there, head lowered as if afraid to see what was going on around him.
The Sergeant shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of resignation before continuing in a low undertone. ‘We can’t keep him either; there is no reason to hold him in a cell but if we let him out on the streets there is no knowing what might happen to him. He is totally vulnerable. The Duty Team at Social Services authorised us to send him to you as Shepherd. They’ll take responsibility for the cost. It should only be for a couple of nights at most. Someone must be looking for him.’
There was no other option. Once a person was formally designated Shepherd by the authorities, she had a duty to provide a bed, if one was available. Damn them. They knew she was holding that spare bed for a really needy case. Not for a middle-aged misfit who could no doubt look after himself and almost certainly had family searching right now for him. But, if it was for one night only, that was different and anyway she would assess him properly in the morning.
‘You owe me James, after this, and don’t think I won’t call in my debts.’ She turned to the tall man who was still standing watching, his eyes dull and listless, his whole demeanour that of someone who is too tired to argue, too worn-down by stress and tiredness and the sheer grinding effort of existing. The exertion needed just to keep breathing throughout each exhausting day.
Sighing, she beckoned him to follow her. ‘Come with me. This way. What’s your name?’
He paused, and his lips curled in a small, lop-sided and sad smile. ‘I don’t know.’ he reiterated again in that soft East coast intonation.
It was Rebecca’s turn to blush this time. ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Perhaps tomorrow you will be able to remember more details, when you have had some sleep.’ She stopped, unlocking a door, the number 20 in cheap plastic stick-on letters decorating the grimy finger-marked surface. The numerals were peeling and uneven at the edges as if prying fingers had tried to remove them without success. Once inside he looked around without enthusiasm, in fact without much reaction at all.
‘Small’ would be too generous a word to describe the room. A single bed. Unmade, but with sheets, blankets, pillows all stacked in a neat pile on the clean mattress. A set of drawers. Cheap, MDF, basic. A radiator. That was all apart from one light in the centre. Bare walls. Magnolia paintwork that needed renewing. Sufficient room to stand between the bed and the adjoining wall. But it was warm, safe. A much needed retreat on such a cold night out on the streets.
‘Well, here you are. Can you start making the bed? I’ll find you some pyjamas and stuff.’ And she was gone.
He stood there. Questioning his own recollections, wondering if he did know how to make a bed. He really wasn’t sure what he knew. But he picked up the neat stack of bedding and suddenly instinct took over. He folded and tucked the threadbare linen into place almost without realizing what he was doing, folding the worn but scrupulously clean blankets over the thin cotton sheets. He was standing beside it when the door opened again.
She was there. Arms holding a bundle of dark fabric on top of a small pile of assorted items. ‘Here. Baths towel, pyjamas, clean underwear and socks.’ She looked him over, and handed him a small carrier bag, ‘Hope I got the right size.. You are pretty slim. Also, soap, razor, toothbrush and so on. You only get one lot so don’t lose them. You have to take care of your own clothes, but we can find you some more things to wear tomorrow so you can get those…..’ she grimaced at his blood-stained and damaged jeans and sweatshirt, ‘cleaned.’
He nodded and took the items she handed over, holding them for a moment before placing them on the bed. Then he stood there, unsure, waiting for instructions.
‘Do you need anything else?’
He shook his head, his expression a combination of mute misery and anxiety .
‘Okay. Bathroom is across the corridor, third door down. Don’t make a noise or you’ll wake the other men and some of them really don’t like being disturbed. Get some sleep. I start work at seven thirty so I will see you in the morning for your induction. Now. Basic rules. Absolutely no smoking in your room or you will be immediately evicted. You shower every day, and if I find you with any drugs on your person you will be out. Immediately. Understood?’ Tiredness made her more abrupt than she had intended and his face tightened as the harshness of her words cut through his fear, his unease at being in this unknown place, alone.
He waited. His silence apparently enough of an assent for her.
‘You are responsible for your own safety here. Lock your door and keep out of trouble. This is the key to your room. Don’t lose it.’ She looked up at his tired face and smiled a little. ‘Go on.. get to bed. Breakfast is at eight. If you aren’t up in time, you don’t get any.’ She closed the door behind her and he stepped forward to lock it securely, before turning back to face his bleak sanctuary.
The room was windowless, and the only noises came from a small air vent in one corner and the quiet ticking of the radiator. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he clasped his hands together until his fingers were white with tension. He had no idea what to do, what the future, or indeed the past, held for him. He was lost. And alone.
He remained there, the shadow from his slender figure spreading like a dark stain across the floor, until sheer exhaustion pushed its way through the turmoil of his thoughts. Sighing with acceptance he bent, stiff and weary, to pull off his trainers and socks. It was an instinctive action to place them together on the floor under the bed, and then, having made that first reluctant move in the process of undressing in such a strange place, he stood up, tugging the sweatshirt over his head, ruffling his short blond hair as the fabric caught at it. The sweat shirt also folded and placed on top of the chest of drawers with as much care as if it were cashmere, instead of a tattered and stained garment.
Twisting and stretching he loosened tired, wrenched muscles and rubbed his hand over several patches of scraped and raw skin. He could not remember getting any of the injuries, the bruises, the numerous small cuts, the abrasions. It didn’t matter though. Nothing mattered right now. He just needed to rest. To lie down. Perhaps when he had had some sleep the memories would return.
Perhaps. But somehow there was the feeling that he didn’t want those memories to return. And a shudder of dread shook him.
He finished undressing, putting the rest of his clothes with the sweatshirt, and with some hesitation picked up the pyjamas, shaking them out to inspect them.
Clean. And they would probably fit him. That was all that could be said about them. He slipped the trousers on, and left the jacket folded on the end of the bed, before pulling back the sheets. Once the light was off the only illumination was a green rectangle of light that filtered through the row of opaque glass blocks above the doorway. It was enough.
Lying down on the firm mattress, with the somewhat thin and inadequate pillow, he tugged sheet and blankets around himself and stared at that rectangle of light, wondering who he was, and what had happened to him, until, eventually, the warmth and monotonous, gentle clicking of the radiator united to calm his thoughts and he slept, knowing one thing. That, whatever had happened to him, he might be, at last, safe.
Alec Freeman had been back in SHADO HQ one long, stressful hour. He had completed the required formalities, he had, in as quiet and composed manner as he could mange, notified the staff that Ed Straker had died. dealt with all the questions as best he could, but he had not entered the office. Had not, until now, considered what Ed Straker’s death would mean for him. Not the loss; he had acknowledged that although he would never be able to accept it, but the fact that he was now in charge until the IAC decided who would replace Ed Straker. And he did not want it. Not like this. Not to have to take over from Ed in these circumstances.
As he stepped towards the door it opened in expectation. And he went inside, half expecting to see that pale blond head bent over a sheaf of papers as usual, hand waving with an impatient gesture to him to take a seat. But the room was bare.
Alec felt as if he had never been in the office before, as if he was a stranger here. And yet the room was so familiar in fact that he could find his way around blindfolded. He closed his eyes. But when he opened them it was the same. Empty. No-one sitting there. He leaned over and with one finger flicked the switch on the desk console. The door slid shut, cutting off even the slightest sounds from the outer control room.
There. Now he might find the courage. He walked round the desk, placing one hand on its unmarked surface, leaning as if to gain some measure of strength or comfort from the contact and then he swung the leather chair around to sit. No. that was …..wrong. He couldn’t sit there, not in that chair, or at Ed’s desk, with all those memories. Not yet, if ever.
He stood, considering, thinking, fingers interlocked and twisted. Then he smiled, although it was not pleasure that caused his face to relax and his tense posture to ease; it was the sudden relief of knowing how he was going to deal with the situation.
When Keith Ford entered the Commander’s office with the daily reports for Freeman to sign, he paused for a split second, taking in the scene. Then as if there was nothing untoward, or out of the ordinary, he walked to to where Colonel Freeman sat, not in Straker’s chair, but in one of the conference seats, behind the Perspex desk that was now devoid of those small personal items that had somehow accumulated over the years. The communications officer cast one brief glance around the office.
There, in the far corner, at the head of the large table was a pale leather seat, and on the shelf behind that chair, a glass sphere, a crystal obelisk and other reminders of a missing presence.
‘Colonel.’ Ford walked round to place the file on the desk in front of his now most senior officer. Two pairs of eyes met in understanding and empathy. There was no need to say anything at all.
Alec worked on, every so often becoming so absorbed in the procedures that his awareness, his acceptance of the recent tragedy was, on occasion obliterated by the mundane task of reading and authorizing the numerous schedules that were necessary. Then it would hit him like a hammer blow, and he would freeze, and shudder and flinch, but, after the cold dread had passed, he would pick up the next file and read on.
Henderson arrived. Alec put down the report that he had been trying, without much success, to focus on; something about Skydiver refuelling times or perhaps it was the Moonbase staffing rota for next month, he wasn’t sure; and went over to the conference table to sit with Henderson.
A relief to move away from that place, Ed’s place. A flash of memory sliced knife-sharp through his mind; the two of them, Ed and Alec, standing here in this office, surrounded by dust and debris, cables hanging from open conduits, the room empty of furniture. Ed’s voice, talking about the thousand details needed to set everything up, the two of them thinking, wondering what the future would hold. But Alec had never envisaged a future such as this.
Freeman shook his head and the image faded.
‘A bad business Colonel. Have we any idea what happened to Straker?’ Henderson, as blunt and concise as ever, came straight to the point.
‘Not yet General. I’m still waiting for the pathologist’s report. In any other circumstances I would have had Ed, sorry, the Commander’s body brought back to Mayland for the autopsy, but SIS are involved and their experts are as good as ours.’
‘I agree, although this puts us in a very difficult position. With Straker’s death under what appear to be suspicious circumstances, I am being pressurized to allow SIS complete access to SHADO.’ Henderson held up one hand as Alec Freeman started to protest. ‘I know, Colonel. So far I have managed to persuade the relevant authorities that SHADO will not allow any outside interference. I will be meeting with other IAC members later this afternoon. I need to be able to assure them that SHADO will continue under your leadership. Can I have your assurance that you are willing to assume command? There will of course be no need to formally ratify your promotion, but I need your verbal acceptance.’
Colonel Freeman paused, swallowed hard and after a long long moment his hushed and forlorn voice broke the silence. ‘Yes General. I am willing to take command. But I wish it had been in different circumstances. Not like this. Never like this.’
The unfamiliar noise outside was enough to waken him, and for one moment, as he crossed the barrier between sleep and wakefulness he had a tantalizing snatch of memory, too vague, too transitory to do more than make him gasp with unrecalled and unremembered fear.
It was hard to breathe with the tightness, the panic that crushed his heart within him. Struggling for air he froze, terrified, unable to move for the utter dread that filled him. That inexplicable noise on the other side of the door paused, as if there was someone, something, standing out there, waiting to come in, waiting to harm him.
The scraping shuffle faded into the distance, and he breathed again, trying to hold onto that transitory memory, but it too, like the sound, faded away before he was able to grasp hold of it, to make it tangible. There was a fleeting impression of blood splashing on his face, on his lips, and a nightmare image of that solitary figure appearing from the surrounding darkness, its face hidden in sinister shadows.
Then it was gone. He could not bring back the memory, even if he had wanted to. Lying there in the warmth as silence spread through the room, he forced his reluctant body to relax again. For some reason the loss of his individuality, his whole past even, did not frighten him, did not worry him. It was as if his subconscious was satisfied, at least for the time being, to close off the past and let him start again. A new life. Anonymity. And with that obscurity there was a sense of peace.
So, content and at ease, he allowed himself to drift back to sleep. A deep, dreamless sleep, nothing to concern him, nothing to trouble him. Sleep such as he had not slept for a long, long time.
The light from the corridor was still filling the room with a soft night-light gleam when he awoke once more. Wide awake this time with no soft blurry half-conscious hinterland between sleeping and waking. Awake and alert. The quietness was not even disturbed by the faint clicking of the heating system. But it was morning. Some internal clock, some instinct told him that it was well after 6 a.m. and therefore time that he got out of bed, got moving, got dressed and then……
Despite his reluctance, the urge to get out of the warm bed was overwhelming, as if it had been ingrained into him over years. Once he had switched on the light, he considered the room, wondering if his impressions from the previous evening had been faulty. No. It was still a tiny box-room. Impersonal and austere but at the same time warm and somehow hospitable, as if it had no expectations of any of its inhabitants. It made no pretence to luxury or finery, and did not expect much in return. He had slept well. And had been warm. That was all that mattered for now.
Once dressed, with a scowl at the now stiffened bloodstains on sweatshirt and jeans, he picked up the plastic carrier bag of basic toiletries, slung the bath towel over his shoulder, and unlocked the door. He slipped the door key into his pocket, aware that it was the only thing that provided him with shelter and protection.
He could not remember much about the building from the previous night. He recalled the policemen, and the woman who had shown him to his room but little else. However, the bathroom was easy enough to find. Small and basic; a sink with unbreakable steel mirror above it, a toilet, a shower. Hanging up the scrubby towel, he undressed again, loathe to remain in the soiled clothes for any longer than necessary. With hesitation he stepped forward to peer into the mirror, unsure of what he was going to face.
An unknown countenance stared back at him. Pale hair, pale skin, He had know that already, but it was quite different to actually see a stranger’s face staring back at him. Someone he had never seen before. Blue eyes, a cleft chin, a slight scar on their lower lip. Reaching up he touched his mouth with one tentative finger, wondering how and when he got that small disfigurement.
Then abruptly, without warning, a flash blazed across his mind and made him gasp with its suddenness, its threat. A silent figure, stepping forward from the dark, menacing, terrifying.
The memory flared like a spark before it vanished, leaving him hunched and clutching the edge of the sink with hands so tight that if it had not been heavy porcelain it might have cracked under his fingers. Head down, hands trembling he remained there for what seemed like an eternity, heaving great breaths into his lungs until he regained enough courage to look up again, to face himself once more.
He avoided looking in the mirror for any longer than necessary after that, and once he had finished at the sink he turned on the shower, grateful to be able to move away from that small reflective surface that held such unknown terror.
It was with relief that he stepped under the spray, wincing as hot water and cheap soap combined to sting on scraped and scuffed skin. By the time he was done and had redressed, grimacing with distaste at the feel of unclean clothing, he could hear other people moving outside. He put the bath towel on the radiator in his; he had already begun to think of it as ‘his’ room, and then with some trepidation opened the door and stepped into the corridor to face the future.
He stood there, uncertain, unsure. Wondering what he was expected to do, where he was to go, if there was some particular order to the day.
‘Hey. You.’ The voice slurred and drugged and thick with sleep startled him out of his confusion. Turning, he faced the speaker, an older man, short and thin to the point of emaciation, aged beyond his years. The speaker shambled towards him, hands trembling, feet unsteady, the shuffling scraping sound of shoes dragging along the floor repeating the sounds that had so perturbed the newcomer during the night. ‘You,’ the old man reiterated, ‘new here eh?
The man designated as Shepherd paused, thought, considered. ‘Yes. I came last night.’
The soft-spoken words were seized upon. ‘Last night. Don’t have any fags on you by any chance?’ There was an unspoken threat, a sense of intimidation behind the innocuous request.
A cool female voice interrupted the conversation, a voice that the newcomer recognized. ‘Eric, you know the rules. Any smoking inside the building and I will evict you. Be sure of that. Now go and get cleaned up. You stink of alcohol. No breakfast unless you are showered.’ Rebecca watched as the discomfited alcoholic shambled across to the vacant bathroom.
‘Good morning.’ She acknowledged the younger man. ‘Sleep alright? Get some breakfast and then I will need to talk to you. This way.’ He followed her along the corridor, past other closed bedroom doors, other small bathrooms, to a spacious open plan area where a large TV was relaying non-stop sports programmes.
Small canteen tables and chairs at one end, large sofas and armchairs clustered nearer the television. There was no one else in the room, no one to stare at him, or to ask questions that he could not answer.
Rebecca indicated a closed hatch at the end of the room, with a chalk board above it. A scrawled message about meal times just legible on the smudged and scuffed black surface.
‘You get your meals from there. The cook will have breakfast ready soon; just help yourself to whatever you want. There’s no rush, so take your time. I’ll come and find you when I am ready.’ And she gave him one quick apologetic smile as if to atone for her initial unwillingness to accommodate him before heading back to her office. Tense and upright, he sat at one of the tables, back against the wall, needing the security of being able to see who was coming into the room, grateful for the chance to remain inconspicuous.
As he listened to the noises from the kitchen; the muted clatter of pans, boiling water bubbling, a muttered angry comment in a foreign language, he felt his tight control relax and he tried to recall what happened last night. Some things were easy, the police, curt and efficient, lifting him despite his frantic protests, into the back of a van; a hateful experience being enclosed like that and unable to get out. Then the brusque examination at the hospital, his inability to recall anything, the doctor’s terse, unsympathetic diagnosis and then the journey in the dark but this time in the back of a police car, the accompanying officers concerned, sympathetic, gentle. Now………………..
The sudden rattle of the hatch startled him from his reverie.
Shortly afterwards, a little bemused but appreciative, he was enjoying crisp bacon, buttery scrambled eggs and thick white toast, a large mug of coffee on the table in front of him. With eyes lowered, but missing nothing, he observed the other men who wandered into the dining area. A rag-tag assortment of misfits, all ages, all sizes, all with one thing in common though. They, like he himself, had nowhere else to go.
He scooped up the last scraps of egg with his fork, sitting back to drink the dregs of the coffee from the chipped mug. A solitary figure, separated from the others by virtue of his recent arrival.
He knew they were assessing him as well. Eyeing him up and down, wondering if he was a drug addict, an alcoholic, a gambler, or simply yet another unlucky sod who had had the misfortune to lose his job and his way of life. If only it was that easy, he thought with a wry and somewhat cynical grin. Coping with losing a job was simple, coping with losing one’s entire life up to the present time was a little more problematic.
‘Ready then?’ Rebecca Steel approached him. ‘We need to get the formalities done as soon as possible. The quicker we get you sorted the better.’ He pushed his chair back, picking up his empty plate, mug, cutlery and taking them over to the hatch that opened onto the large kitchen area. ‘Thank you,’ he murmured to the cook, before following the woman out of the dining area, knowing that he was the focus of attention.
It was a small office, and for some strange reason he felt awkward sitting there in front of the utilitarian desk, as if he was in the wrong place. But he sat waiting, hands clasped like a small schoolboy sitting in front of his head teacher.
‘So, details.’ She was all brisk efficiency now. Complete the formalities and, with any luck he might be off her hands before the end of the day. ‘Name?’
He tilted his head, blue eyes staring into space, not focusing on her, as if he was trying to hold onto a glimmer of memory. ‘No idea. Sorry.’ His mouth tightened in annoyance. ‘I wish I did know.’
‘Right. So what do you know about yourself? What can you tell me?’
For a moment a flash of annoyance crossed his elegant features. ‘Tell you Miss Steel? There is actually very little I can tell you. I am, as you can see, a male, probably aged about 40, at least that is what the doctor at the hospital said. I am in good health, most-likely well-educated and a professional in some field or other, although exactly what career I have no idea.’
He moved forward on the hard plastic seat and held out his hands, turning them over, inspecting them as if he had never seen them before, as if they were the hands of a total stranger, ‘No wedding ring, no signs of manual labour, no…..’ and he pushed the stained sleeves of his sweatshirt back over his elbows on both arms, before holding his arms out, palms up for her close scrutiny. ‘No injection marks. I am not a drug addict, I don’t have a craving for alcohol and I have no interest in gambling. What else do you need to know?’ There was a frisson of anger in his voice, but also a slight tremble that betrayed his quiet distress.
She leaned back, contemplating him. A tall man, slender, mentally and physically bruised and battered by life’s callousness, and now looking back at her for help that she could either offer or deny. The decision was hers.
Shepherd. He was no naïve youth, no vulnerable homeless stray, easy pickings for the predatory drug addicts and troublemakers on the streets. But. If he was being honest about his loss of memory, and she had no reason to suspect otherwise, then he was helpless. He would never be able to look after himself. Not in this city.
He gazed at her, as if he could see right into her soul. ‘Thank you.’ he stood up, holding out one hand.
‘Sorry?’ she questioned him.
‘For giving me somewhere to sleep last night. I appreciate what you did. And now? Well, I’m sure I will be able to manage until my memory returns.’ He turned away, unwilling to show her the depth of his fear. Of having to leave here, having to face an unfamiliar world. Unprotected. Alone.
‘Oh, please, sit down.’ She was at the door, in an attempt to prevent him from leaving before she realized where she was. ‘You can’t leave. You wouldn’t last two hours out there. Tell me what the hospital said.’
He sat down again, and she could see his body shake as unspoken, unwanted tension dissipated then he grimaced as if remembering some unwelcome event. ‘The doctor diagnosed me as suffering from short-term amnesia. Told me it’s most likely a reaction to something I experienced and my mind just shut down. I might not regain my past for days or even months.’ He looked up, grateful for her sympathetic silence. ‘So. What happens now?’
‘Well, first you need a name. Then I can get you onto the system. We’ll take it from there. So, what shall we call you for now? Any preferences?’ she grinned at him, a wide welcoming smile that calmed his fears, and silently assured him of his worth, his significance. The fact that he actually mattered to someone.
His tone was diffident, hesitant. ‘I don’t know. I don’t mind, I mean. Whatever you think.’ He seemed flustered by the need to make the decision, as if he was happy to hand over that choice to someone else.
‘Well a surname is simple. Shepherd. And how about John, as in John Doe. John Shepherd. How does that sound?’
John Shepherd. He rolled the name around his mind, feeling it settle into place, as if it had always been there, comfortable and at ease. It fitted. A wave of contentment rushed through him as he smiled and said his name aloud. ‘John.’
Sara Harper watched as the steel door to the cold body chamber opened and the tray slid in on silent, polished runners. Something about the man’s face, about his demeanour, even when dead, had affected her more deeply than she had thought possible after so many years doing this work. He was an enigma. And not just because of the manner of his death. There had been an indefinable quality to his features, as if….. but she had another body to deal with and there was no time to stand and contemplate just another one of her many clients.
She went to scrub for her next autopsy. Another male. But an old man. And this time her job was simple. Confirmation of a heart attack. She started cutting a neat and precise line across from the shoulder to the sternum. And as she did so with well-trained, well-practised actions, her thoughts strayed yet again to that man who had seemed so calm, so peaceful.
Practical, efficient, methodical. She cut and sawed, opened and examined, weighed and recorded and all the time, throughout the whole faultless and exact process, her mind drifted back time and again to that perfect face in tranquil repose, in such utter, blissful stillness. She knew that it would continue to haunt her and wondered what kind of man he had been, imagined his eyes, flashing with humour, or perhaps anger. Dull eyes, when she had seen them, dulled by death, not by pain or stress. And that was a relief as well, to know that, whoever he was, he had not suffered. His death had been sudden, painless. A quick death, so quick that he had not had time to be aware of it. That must surely be the reason for the composure, the serenity that had suffused him.
She finished her work and prepared the old man. It was a task that she could have left to her assistant, but today she needed to immerse herself in the everyday task of sewing and washing and arranging the body. Just another old person. She would forget him. But the familiar routine did not ease her mind as she had hoped it would do, did not wash away that image of short blond hair framing a tranquil face. And she doubted that it would fade from her thoughts.
Another steel door closed. Another end.
Life went on. Regardless.
Hot water soothed her emotions as she cleaned already spotless hands, pushing the small scrubbing brush along and between her fingers, under her nails and around her wrists, the repetitive action calming her, washing away her surface thoughts, as it washed away any residual taint of the unpleasant tasks she had accomplished that morning. But his face remained there, in her mind’s eye.
With brisk efficiency she dried her hands and arms ready to begin yet another task, when she was interrupted by footsteps that heralded the arrival of her assistant.
‘SIS had been on the phone again Dr. Harper. They are asking for the report on the man you autopsied this morning. And Mr Freeman has also been in touch.’
‘The blond man? Straker? I haven’t written it up yet.’ She looked over at the mortuary table where yet another body lay, waiting for her to begin her examination. ‘You can tell them that there was no obvious cause of death. No injuries, nothing untoward in the toxicology results. Nothing. It was almost as if he just stopped functioning, as if his brain shut down. I’ll go over the results again this afternoon, but I know I didn’t miss anything. Most strange.’ She paused, thinking, then continued, a hint of regret and sadness in her quiet voice, ‘An interesting case. I was intrigued by his expression. There was something unusual about the way he looked, as if he was an innocent, a man with no worries or stresses. As if everything had been wiped away to leave him free of everyday cares.’ She shook her head as if to try dismiss such irrational thoughts, and turned to deal with her next patient.
But she knew that his face would continue to haunt her, however much she tried to forget. Sara Harper had dealt with many difficult cases; innocent victims of assault, young men struck down by seemingly inexplicable causes, the elderly, dying alone and ignored until the stench of decomposition brought them to the notice of uncaring neighbours. This one case, this single man, had made such a profound impact on her that she knew that she would always recall that perfect serenity of acceptance that had smoothed away the stress of past years. And she hoped that one day, when her life was ending, she would have that same calm acceptance, that blissful ignorance of approaching death.
‘Paul. Sit down. Please.’
‘What happened Alec? What the hell happened?’ Paul Foster stopped his angry pacing and turned to face the other man standing there in the office.
‘I don’t know. I wish I did, Paul. Here,’ Alec Freeman handed a glass to the young man who perched himself reluctantly on the corner seat, ‘you need this.’
Foster looked up, eyes drawn and bewildered. ‘Not Ed. It can’t be him Alec. They’ve made a mistake. Surely.’ he gulped down the liquid in the glass heedless of its taste, its strength. ‘Someone else.. someone..’
‘Paul. It was Ed. I saw him. Ed Straker. The DNA test confirmed it. Beyond any doubt. I know,’ Alec Freeman placed a hand on Foster’s shoulder in understanding and sympathy. ‘I know how you feel. He was my friend as well. We’d know each other for a long time.’ he paused, looking up at the changing rainbow of colours that illuminated the wall. ‘Do you know, Ed and I used to talk about what we would do when there was no longer a need for SHADO. I don’t think either of us ever imagined that after this long we would still be fighting aliens. Still battling to protect the world. I always thought he would be here for SHADO, for us, working here at his desk. But he is gone.’
Paul set his empty glass on the desk, and placed one finger on the glass sphere. ‘Alec, I … I..’
‘I know Paul. I know.’ And Alec Freeman looked at his young Colonel with regret, with understanding and sympathy. ‘but SHADO needs your help right now. Don’t let Ed Straker down. Whatever you do, don’t fail him. He deserves better than that.’
Paul Foster stood up, tugged his jacket, straightened his shoulders as he had seen his teacher and commanding officer, and friend, do so many times. A thin, forced smile that was more like a grimace appeared on his lips. Eyes bright with something that was not pride, or excitement, he faced Alec Freeman.
‘Commander Freeman, what are your orders?’
When, a few hours later, the Pathologists report arrived, couriered by special delivery, Paul was engaged in rescheduling the SHADO staff rota. A mind-numbingly and tedious task, but it had to be done as soon as possible now that Alec Freeman would longer be available to supervise the Control Room. Foster knew that Straker would have approved, would have nodded and maybe one of those very rare smiles would have flashed across his face. And Colonel Foster, his heart aching at the loss of the man he considered to be his mentor, the man who had risked everything, even his own life to prove that Paul Foster was worth saving, clenched his fist, but worked on, knowing that he was honouring Straker in the only way that the SHADO Commander would have wanted. To carry on regardless of the loss of one man.
He watched anxiously as the file was taken by Ford into the Commander’s office, other operatives following the Communications Officer with quiet, saddened eyes, as if that folder contained the very essence of their missing leader, not merely a mundane and clinical account of the manner of his death. There was silence, stillness in the control room when Ford came out from the Commander’s office and sat at his console, head bowed, eyes closed for a long moment.
There was an air of tension, of waiting. That secret hidden belief that it was all a mistake, that the file, that innocuous beige folder, would somehow provide irrefutable proof that it had all been a cruel and bizarre practical joke.
‘Lieutenant Ford, ask Colonel Foster to come to my office please.’ The voice broke the silence with a suddenness of a sharpened axe. Foster nodded his acknowledgement and headed for the room, not with eager strides, but neither with a hesitant dread. He wanted to know the answer, but at the same time he feared it. The thought of what Ed Straker might have suffered, might have had to endure before his death filled him with horror.
The door was open, Alec Freeman sat, elbows on the desk, chin resting on interlaced fingers, as if he was trying to emulate his friend. He looked up, grim-faced, the file open in front of him. ‘Sit down Paul. I’m afraid it’s bad news.’
Oh God, Ed. What had they done to him? How had he met his death? Paul Foster forced the words out, past his pounding, racing heart, his dry, swollen throat. ‘Ed. How did he die?’
‘They don’t know. There are no explanations. Nothing. No cause of death, no injuries. Nothing that would explain how he died.’ Alec Freeman stared with unseeing eyes at the file. ‘It’s as if he simply…….stopped. That’s all the pathologist could say. As if he switched off. One moment alive, thinking, breathing, and the next; just ….nothing. Gone.’
‘People don’t just die for no reason. There has to be some cause of death.’ Paul Foster picked up the report and leafed through it, his brow furrowed as he too read the details. He threw it down on the table, angered, but in reality more distressed. His mind raced through possibilities.
‘Aliens?’ Foster raised an eyebrow at his commanding officer. ‘Might it be due to alien intervention? We still don’t know what they are capable of doing. Ed could have been captured by aliens and killed, or they may be intending to take him back with them.’
‘I’ve already considered that possibility Paul. I want Moonbase and all tracker Stations on Maximum Alert. If a UFO did get through our defences in the last couple of days then it will have to leave Earth’s atmosphere pretty soon. Get everything we have at full readiness. If there is a UFO on Earth, I don’t want it getting away. Got that?’
‘Yes sir.’ Foster stood to leave, ‘ but, Alec, it won’t bring Ed back will it?’
The answer held an infinity of sadness, ‘No Paul, it won’t but at least the bastards that murdered him won’t get away.’
J. Shepherd. That was now the name on his file. John Shepherd. Age; approx 40yrs. Previous address; Unknown. Relatives; Unknown. National Insurance Number; Unknown. Unknown, unknown, unknown.
He felt as though he should be worried by his lack of memory, by his absence of any past, but in actual fact he was, in a strange and uncomfortable way, at peace with the situation. It was as if he had stepped away from that past life and past experiences. As if he had packaged up the fear of that figure stepping out to face him and had locked it away, to be opened at a later time when he felt able to deal with the consequences. Right now he was happy to deal with this world and leave his sealed past unopened and undisturbed.
He was still sitting in the office, the interview all but over, and no questions answered but he now had a name, and a place to stay, for as long as he needed it.
And with that realisation came acceptance of his situation here, wherever ‘here’ was. The shelter would be his home for the foreseeable future, until he had built up a new life and a new start. But, as the police had, with casual confidence stated that if he had been listed as missing his description would come up on their database. It was just a matter of time. Though suddenly he knew without doubt that he was dead to them. They, whoever ‘they’ were, would not be looking for him. He was on his own. He had been abandoned and no-one would find him here.
How many people had been through this he wondered. To have to start afresh with no hidden past, no ties to anyone or anything. There was an infinitesimal thrill of freedom, of release, though the thought of any family that he might have and who might be mourning him caused him no small pang of regret.
Now he would have to get used to this environment, this alien world in which he had found himself. He still had no idea of where he was. It was somewhat amusing; he could recall places, could visualise and recall the geography of the world, but had no notion of where he had lived before last night. It was of no immediate concern though. He was warm, well-fed and safe. And that was all that he wanted at the moment. To be safe. To be protected. Though from what he needed protecting, he had no idea.
Closing his eyes for one moment, the image flooded his mind again. That tall figure stepping out of shadows, a sudden cold sweat of terror rushing through him, and then, as he tried to grasp the recollection, to hold onto the picture that swirled in his mind, it exploded and was gone, leaving only a faint tenuous trail that faded into the distance It was the same memory replaying itself time and time again, as if his damaged mind was trying to expunge the whole experience. He knew with a shudder of revulsion, that it would keep reoccurring, until…. and the thought of recalling .what had happened, of seeing the face of that spectral figure, made him shiver.
He drew in a deep breath, composed himself, looked across the cheap desk at Rebecca Steel and smiled.
‘So what happens now? What am I supposed to do with myself?’ He leaned forward, hands resting on the edge of the desk, the scuffed edges of his sweatshirt still pushed up to his elbows. He noticed a paler band of skin on his left wrist, from a watch no doubt, and he wondered what had happened to it. Who had taken it from his wrist?
‘Nothing.’ the response startled him. Rebecca Steel smiled at his surprised expression. ‘There’s very little you can do for a few days by which time your family or friends will no doubt have contacted the police. I don’t see you being here for long.’
‘But what happens to me if no-one comes forward?’ He seemed quite calm as if he was prepared to be unclaimed, to be abandoned by those who had once known him.
Rebecca looked at him. ‘In that case, which, as I said is unlikely, we will look at supporting you to become independent. You are lucky the council allocated the bed for you, because without a National Insurance number you can’t get any housing benefit. But we have twenty-eight days to get things sorted, plenty of time. I’ll get a Project Worker to organise hardship benefit for you as soon as possible, then hopefully Big Issue might be able to help.’
His brow furrowed. ‘Big Issue?’ It was obvious that he had no idea what she was talking about. She wondered where he had been living until yesterday. Perhaps he was a tourist, but, even so, his absence would be noticed and reported. It was no matter. He would be claimed soon.
She reached into one drawer of her desk and passed a leaflet over to him. ‘Here, take this, and one of the Project workers will go through it with you to explain everything. Oh,’ she paused, ‘you can read, can’t you? I’m sorry. Very few of our residents are literate, or numerate for that matter, but you seem to be more..’ she broke off, unsure how to continue.
‘Educated?’ he smiled at her, blue eyes amused at her embarrassed look, ‘yes, I can read. Although I am not sure what else I can do yet. Thank you, I’ll look at this. Now. What else do I need to do?’ He seemed more confident, more assured, as if his acquisition of a name had focused his mind, provided him with a grounding, security, a sense of belonging.
‘We need to find you something else to wear, so that you can get those clothes clean. Then, well, just relax. Sit and watch television. Read. That sort of thing. Give yourself time to get to know the set-up here.’ Rebecca led him out to the reception area, ‘Barry,’ she called over to a tall dark-skinned man who was making notes in a folder, ‘this is John Shepherd. New resident. Possibly only for a few days. Here’s his file. He’s yours now. Sort him out with some spare clothes and show him round.’ Her tone was efficient and professional and the older man immediately stood up and took the file she handed to him.
Shepherd watched as Rebecca Steel headed back to her office, then turned with an apprehensive look towards the unfamiliar man behind the desk. He waited there, quiet and patient, not in any hurry, just observing the people in the reception area as the Project Worker leafed through the file, disregarding him as if he did not exist.
It gave Shepherd a chance to study the middle-aged woman who was also sitting behind the desk typing, tapping with painstaking methodical movements as if thinking about each individual letter and wary of making any mistakes. She too, ignored him as if he was of no importance, not worth considering. And, with a pang of dismay he realised that was probably true. He did have no worth, no value. What could he offer anyone right now?
The door buzzed and he turned, intrigued to see who was coming down the stairs. He remembered walking down those same stairs not that many hours ago, accompanied by the police. A frightening experience, entering an unfamiliar and strange world. A place that held unknown terrors. And still held some fear. He had no experience of places like this, no idea of what was expected of him, how he would fit in. For all his loss of memory, his inability to remember his past life, he was sure of one thing. He had never been in a situation such as this before.
‘John.’ Shepherd turned back to face the other man. ‘Miss Steel wants me to find you some spare clothes. You’d better come with me.’ There was a hint of disapproval in the older man’s voice, as if he resented the effort it would take and he didn’t speak again as he led the way through a maze of corridors to yet another small room. A store room this time. Shelves piled with assorted clothes, footwear, towels.
Barry looked him up and down. ‘Hmm. Not an easy size. You’re pretty much taller than most of our regulars. And thinner as well. This might be difficult.’ He rooted through piles of second-hand and donated jeans, one or two pairs falling from the disturbed piles onto the floor disregarded by the older man. Shepherd bent down to pick up the rejected items before folding them and replacing them on the shelves as Barry, heedless, moved on to another pile.
‘Here, you’re in luck. These should fit you. And brand new. Not many guys as tall as you, or if they are they’re heavier.’ The project worker handed over cheap denims, still with price tag attached, then quickly found t-shirts and sweatshirts to add to the pile in Shepherd’s hands. ‘Put these on and I’ll show you the laundry room. You can wash your own stuff and have it dry by tonight.’’
A short time later, wearing new jeans, a cheap, plain t-shirt and a slightly shabby but clean sweatshirt, Shepherd emerged from his room. The clothes fitted well enough. Not exactly ideal, but anything was an improvement on the garments he had been wearing. His soiled clothes had been folded with a neatness and precision that amused the worker who had waited as Shepherd had changed.
Barry had begun to explain, in measured, patient terms, how to do his washing, but Shepherd had assured him that he was familiar with doing the laundry, though he had not realised that fact until he saw the machines. His admission earned him his first nod of approval from the Project worker. ‘I’ll leave you to it then.’ Barry told him, and left, heading back to the indolence of reading the morning’s tabloid newspaper and drinking his coffee.
The room was deserted. There was no need to hurry. John Shepherd placed his stained clothes on one machine, and picked up the jeans. Muddied, bloodstained, scuffed in places but otherwise undamaged and not well-worn. He wondered how the bloodstains had got on his jeans. And expensive jeans as well. He checked the pockets. Empty. Nothing to give him any clue as to who he was, what he was. The sweat shirt, marked across the front with a faint spatter of what looked like blood, was plain, undecorated. He put the socks and underwear from yesterday into the machine, added powder, selected the programme without conscious thought and switched it on.
Almost on instinct he moved to leave the room, as if he had other things to do, as if he had to be somewhere else, the process of washing his clothes just another task to be completed. One more job in a long line of mundane jobs. But he had nothing else to do. Nowhere to go. Yet.
He sat down to wait, wondering what this day would bring.
It was calm in the room, with the rumbling of machinery and swishing of water the only disturbance and the hypnotic sound lulled his mind. It was peaceful and a random spark of déjà vue flared in his memory; that of standing impatiently in a busy room as machinery buzzed and people worked at consoles. But then, as every other recollection, it dissipated into splintered fragments that tantalised his mind and left him wondering, with some degree of inexplicable anxiety, if he was safe.
If they would find him here.
But he had no idea who ‘they’ were.
Mason closed his eyes, but whatever he did, the images were still there, the sounds echoing in his mind despite everything he did. Tired beyond belief he struggled to find some rest, some comfortable position, his pillow hot and lumpy, the duvet too weighty. His head ached with weariness but his restless mind was in mayhem, the memories of his deeds still taunting him in the dark recesses of his mind. But despite his exhaustion he was also terrified of the night and of the encroaching dream that would come while he was asleep, that same dream, unwavering, every time. And so, desperate for respite, yet knowing what he would face when sleep overcame him, he forced himself to remain awake knowing that it was futile, for finally exhaustion claimed him and the nightmare, in all its dark reality, returned to remind him of his treacherous actions.
The underground garage was once more quiet and almost empty, no small huddle of figures clustered near the waiting cars, no unmoving outline of a silent figure on the floor. Mason Rimmer finished picking up the last scraps of debris before scrubbing his bloodied hands clean on a handkerchief. Straker’s handkerchief which Mason had taken, along with the SHADO commander’s watch and the sparse contents of his pockets earlier, before the aliens had hustled the dazed man away from the underground garage. Grimacing at the sordid stains on the once-clean linen he crumpled it into a tight wad and tossed it with a negligent flick into the open boot of Straker’s car on top of the two bodies that were lying crumpled inside.
Ed Straker was long gone, dragged away, his desperate struggles ineffectual against the strength of his two alien captors. Mason didn’t want to know their plans for the SHADO Commander, didn’t want any details. They had got the man they wanted, thanks to his help, and he knew better than to question them, but even his amoral mind recoiled at the thought of what they had planned for their enemy.
Although he considered them to be his allies, they were unknown, dangerous, foreign. He just went along with them. It was easier than trying to fathom out their almost incomprehensible motives. As long as he got paid, and paid well, he was happy.
He would have to get rid of Straker’s car after he had finished his task. It was another unwanted complication with which he had been encumbered. It would have been so much easier to simply tip the bodies of Locke and Patterson over the embankment into the Thames. A quick heave over the railings, a splash and then …gone. But the Thames had an embarrassing reputation of resurrecting its corpses and he certainly didn’t want these reappearing to disrupt his plans. He swore, realising that there was still a long, hard night ahead of him.
He slammed the boot lid down with an angry hiss of rage and walked over to the silent man who was standing there, oblivious.
‘Come with me, Straker.’ He ordered putting his hand on the tall man’s arm. He half-expected some resistance, but his fears were false. Guiding Straker to the passenger side of his car, he opened the door and sat him down, ensuring that the seatbelt was fastened. Then Mason slid behind the wheel of the Saab, taking deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself.
It had all gone according to plan. Straker was in the hands of the aliens and yet also here in the car with Mason. Waiting to be driven to his final destination in a quiet alley ten miles away. Perfect. Nothing to link Mason with Straker’s death, or with the disappearance of his two agents. All the SIS officer had to do now was finish mopping up.
He hoped the aliens had managed to get back to their craft in time. He knew that they were concerned at the length of time they had been in Earth’s atmosphere, but they had the SHADO Commander. That was all that mattered to them.
He turned to look at his passenger. Unvoiced, unhearing, unmoving. Ed Straker, his face whiter even than the pale roll-neck sweater he was wearing, hands limp in his lap, purloined watch glinting in the random yellow flashes from the sodium street lights. His ashen hair was neat and precise, his eyes unfocused, lips still, in fact the only motion Mason could detect was the slight swaying of his body in response to the movement of the car as it drove through deserted streets to its destination.
The eerie silence in the car unnerved him, and the silent man whose only response, only indication that he was alive was a regular rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, made no sign of hearing as Mason switched on his cd player. Enya. Orinoco Flow. The music wafted through the car, soothing Mason’s ragged thoughts. It would be all right, he convinced himself. No-one would suspect a thing. And after all, Ed Straker was as good as dead now.
The alley that he had selected was even better than he had anticipated. Dark, unlit and deserted. No traffic nearby, no pedestrians. He slowed down to drive over the treacherous damp setts, the car shuddering with rhythmical rumbles across the neatly squared granite stones. Not wanting to alert anyone with a squeal of tyres, he pulled to a smooth halt under one of the few dim lights that illuminated the darkness with its smudgy pools of sullen light and then, leaning over, unfastened Straker’s seat belt. His passenger continued to ignore him and remained in his seat, staring ahead with a expression that was almost child-like in its innocence.
The sound of the engine died away and the click of the car door as he opened it seemed disconcertingly loud in the sudden, thick silence. He stepped out, walked round and opened the passenger door.
‘Get out.’ A curt instruction.
Straker eased himself out of the car, long limbs unfolding with frugal movements until he stood, impassive and emotionless beside the car, hands loose by his side, waiting, fingers still, relaxed, motionless.
Mason looked at him. A tall figure, barely visible in his dark clothes against the gloom of the rain soaked alley. Everything hung on what Straker would do now, how he would react in the next few moments.
The SIS officer took a deep breath. What he was about to do was so utterly bizarre, so absurd that he had to pause, force himself to take a deep breath. He knew what he had to say, but even so he hesitated as he pushed the word out past reluctant lips.
And Ed Straker died.
It was as simple as that. The man who commanded the greatest military force on Earth just looked at Mason in trusting obedience, and complied without any argument, without any hesitation. The piercing blue eyes closed, like those of a child who falls asleep, the chest stopped moving as ribs no longer expanded. The heart beat one final time, a last thump of pulsing blood before it, too, ceased. There was not even a tremble from dying, oxygen-starved muscles. No last desperate clutch at his chest, no distressing contortion of a dying face twisted in agony. Expressionless, impassive, obedient to the very end, Ed Straker crumpled in silence to the wet gleaming stones and lay still.
Rimmer smiled as he drove away, leaving the alley behind him, with its dark secret. There was plenty of time now to dispose of Straker’s Saab, and the two remaining bodies.
In the wake of the traitor a man lay, ignored, discarded like a piece of flotsam on a deserted beach, pale hair glistening in the faint glow of unheeded light, outstretched hands reaching as if for one last touch with someone, anyone. And one single tear lay, unshed, unseen, on corn-coloured eyelashes.
He woke with a sob, sweat-soaked and trembling, the image of that body still imprinted on his retina. Dear god, how many times was he going to have to endure that moment again, the way the man looked at him before he fell, that single tear on the eyelashes. Nightmares weren’t supposed to be like this were they? It was as if he was reliving the night over and over, every detail exact and precise, almost as though his brain was replaying it.
Would he ever be free?
The alarm went off each morning at 05.30. No chance for a lie-in. Today would be busy. Just like every other day now. His promotion had changed more than his title, it had changed his life. Alec had always taken pride in his ability to be alert and awake whenever Ed called him, but Ed Straker no longer called Colonel Freeman. Not anymore.
It was time to get up, time to get ready for work, knowing that the absolute responsibility for organising the defence of Earth against the aliens no longer rested on another person’s shoulders.
It was his now. That in itself was sufficient to have him restless throughout the night, his dreams disturbed by visions of aliens, and things far worse than aliens, descending on the Headquarters to plunder and destroy. He sat up, thankful that at least he had managed to get a few hours sleep without being called. How the hell had Straker coped with the invariable night-time calls from HQ. No wonder Ed had always seemed so tired, so….. stripped naked of all energy, all life. Chances are he had never managed to get more than a couple of hours’ uninterrupted sleep at any time. If only Alec had realised and thought to try to alleviate some of that almost intolerable burden. But it was too late. Freeman knew just what was involved, and now was no time to be regretting what went before, to be considering all the things that he should have done in the past. It was up to him to make sure that SHADO carry on with its objective. To ensure that the world was safe. It was his duty. Freeman. Commander-in-Chief SHADO.
Alec rubbed a hand over his stubbled face and stretched, not the luxurious stretch of a man who is ready to get up, who has slept long and well and is ready to rise, but the aching stiffness of a man who is bone-weary. He thought back over the last few days, as he pulled on his dressing gown, tightened the belt and pushing his feet into slippers. It was too cold at this time in the morning to be wandering round semi-naked.
Somehow, in those few days, that blur of activity, of almost frenzied settling-in, he had managed to wrap the command around him like an invisible cloak. Not that it was any protection against the chill wind of bereavement that shivered through him. But he was doing his best to keep things running along, doing things as Ed would have done them. Getting to work early, well before the last shift had started their hand-over, reading through the logs, inspecting the reports, just as Straker had done every morning.
Alec had not realised until now though, just how isolated. he had become over the last few days. And not only remote, but changed, as if he was a different person. No longer the jovial and approachable second-in-command, but a distant and separated entity, almost as if he had become a clone of Ed, a facsimile of the man who had been in charge for so many years. Commander Alec Freeman didn’t like it. He missed the camaraderie, the smiles, the little touches that had made him feel part of the group. Ayshea, waving shyly as he walked past, Keith passing him a coffee without a word, the chats with Gay Ellis. All in the past.
Since that moment just a few days ago, when he had assumed control, he had become a stranger, an outsider, and he felt they were all watching him to see what his first mistake would be. Even Henderson seemed to be checking up on him at irregular intervals. Phone calls, faxes, quick meetings. A constant stream of messages and queries from the elderly General. Questions that accentuated his own apprehensions.
He could sense disapproving glares as he walked through the control room, monitoring each area, mentally ticking off the various units and staff members, wanting to ensure that everything was in order. Operatives spoke in lowered tones, eyes averted, as if to avoid looking into his face.
Straker’s office was his bolthole. He retreated there and closed the door behind him, shutting out the camaraderie of the control room where he had once belonged. It was neat and tidy, as always. It would always be Straker’s office, always. Ed Straker. His room, his presence, permeating everything. And everything would be in its proper place, all the relevant reports ready and waiting for to be read through and approved. The Commander’s job. His job now.
He settled to work in reluctant silence.
It was some time later that the door opened, unbidden. Alec looked up to see Keith Ford there, stern, unsmiling.
‘Ford?’ Freeman’s tone was guarded and controlled. ‘Is there something you need?’
‘No Commander. I just want to ….’ the communications officer paused, his face reddening with embarrassment, lowering his head as Freeman had done earlier.
Freeman waited, fingers still tapping on his keyboard, face impassive.
Ford took a step closer to the desk that formed the barrier between the two men, halted, turned away as if he had changed his mind and then in one swift move that startled both him and the man sitting down, placed both hands flat on the perspex surface before leaning over.
‘Damn it Alec. Stop trying to be Straker. It’s not right. You can’t be him. He’s gone. Accept it, deal with it. Mourn him, yes, respect him, absolutely, no question of that, but for god’s sake stop trying to do things the way he did them. It’s not working. It’s not you.’
Silence. Freeman was too shocked to do more than stare, his fingers now, still the keyboard forgotten. Ford straightened, wiped his hands together as if clearing them of dust, gave a hesitant and apologetic nod.
Alec, frozen with astonishment was unable to do more than watch as Ford walked out. The door closed. He clenched his hands together. Had he been wrong? Had he been trying too hard to be Ed? He had only wanted to do the job right, to follow the man who had been so successful at running SHADO. And Alec realised there and then that it was foolish to try to do things the way he had done them. Straker was impossible to follow. A leader who had dragged the organisation from a mere hole in the ground into the largest military force in existence. No-one could expect Alec to follow in his footsteps, apart from Alec himself. Foolish man. He needed to step back, to let Straker be remembered with warmth and appreciation, but he needed to run SHADO in his own way, as Commander Alec Freeman, and not as Ed Straker’s clone. Head in hands, he thought about his staff. Could he repair the damage he had done to his relationship with them? He hoped it was not irredeemable, that he had not sunk too far.
The door slid open, he looked up, eyes a little fuzzy, clenched hands shaking a little. Who was it this time, coming to berate him for his failure?
‘Coffee…….. Alec?’ Keith placed the mug on the desk, smiled, nodded again. But this time a nod to Alec Freeman, not the SHADO commander before Ford went back to his post in the control room. And the door stayed open.
No alarm, no watch, no sound, but John Shepherd, lying there hands behind his head whilst contemplating the ceiling of his small cell, knew it was time to get up. Not a prison cell; he had complete freedom to go wherever he wanted. No, this small space was a sanctuary, his safe haven, the one place where he was protected from the unknown figure that taunted his fleeting memories.
He eased himself out of the narrow bed, stretching awakening muscles to bring them back to life after his long sleep. And it was a long sleep. Although the past was closed to him, there was still some lingering awareness of previous times, of his now-forgotten past. Undisturbed sleep had always been a rare luxury, he knew that much, and so it was with a sense of contentment that he had awoken refreshed.
The soft silence that pervaded his retreat told him that there was no-one else awake at this early hour. Picking up the clothes he had laid out, he unlocked his door. Pyjamas were sufficient for the brief walk to the sparse bathroom, to ready for whatever the day would bring him. His second here. Another twenty-four hours stretched ahead of him, empty and without direction, without purpose.
He thought back over the previous day, over what had happened after he had finished with the formalities of settling into the routine here.
Once back in the common room area, all necessary tasks completed, he had been on edge and uneasy, trying to find some activity, some simple task, however menial, that would engage him and would allow him some respite from the blankness of his memories. In desperation he had taken refuge in reading. A tabloid newspaper and one or two leaflets were insufficient to calm his anxious need to be occupied before at last he managed to settle down in a quiet corner to read a paperback that had been abandoned on one of the shelves. A cheap airport-style novel involving secret agents and improbable covert operations, its pages creased, the spine broken and whitened. It promised no more than a formulaic plot and clichéd characters, but Shepherd had, in quiet desperation, picked up the novel to help pass the endless minutes and hours.
As expected he had attracted attention from those residents who had been in the shelter for months. There had been a sense of unease and underlying intimidation from one or two of the older men who wanted to prove their status within the community. Shepherd remained quiet and composed. He did not need any confrontation with these men, he simply wanted nothing more than to be left alone, left in peace, unnoticed and undisturbed. To be accepted as yet another misfit, just one more piece of flotsam that had been cast ashore to be salvaged and dried out by the Shelter.
But he knew it was not going to happen. The quiet order had been disturbed and, like a pack of dogs challenging a new arrival with bared teeth and growls, they had waited to make the first move. The tension had built up, with muttered words and shared glances until it spilled over, a ripple of of resentment aimed at the man who had disrupted their comfortable hierarchy.
Shepherd, even whilst skimming through the pages of the novel, was prepared for trouble. Keeping his head down as if to focus on the hackneyed and stale words, he concentrated on the muttered sounds of discontent, and of encouragement from the weaker members of the community. Even the Project workers had slunk into the distance, as if aware of what was going to happen. A right of passage? An accepted induction for newcomers? He was not sure, but he had been aware of one thing only. He would not give them what they wanted. He would not acquiesce to their illicit, self-appointed authority.
He tensed as a figure approached and leaned over him, disrupting his concentration with a drifting odour of alcohol and sweat.
‘What you doing?’’ the voice rough from too much drinking, too much coughing; one hand stretching out to take the book. Shepherd slid it down in the space next to him, out of reach of the nicotine-stained fingers. He looked up.
Atwood was trouble. A big man, though not in height. Shepherd was one of the taller men there, but Dale was fat, grossly fat, and carried his weight as his authority, confident in the knowledge that his sheer size was enough to intimidate the other men.
‘Just catching up on some reading Dale. Fancy a coffee?’ He stood up brushing past the older man with casual nonchalance, avoiding any physical contact, not even the slightest accidental touch. Other residents were clustered together, watching. Waiting. And he knew what was coming.
It happened as he had expected. A hand gripped his elbow, fleshy fingers digging deep into the joint. Not the grasp of a friend, nor for guidance. This was restraint. Control. The hold of someone enforcing his right to rule.
For one brief moment Shepherd froze with unreasoned dread. Then, some innate gut feeling made him relax, loosened his muscles, flooded him with knowledge, with the surety of how to react. It was instinctive. A quick twist of his shoulder, his arm moving up into Dale’s face, the back of his hand pushing him away. The swiftness sufficient to force his assailant to take a step back.
Shepherd held his gaze, ‘Don’t even think it. Walk away Dale. While you can.’ His voice, calm and affable, was no louder than a gentle murmur, but the warning was obvious. They stood there, face to face, until Shepherd’s impassive stare succeeded discomfiting the older man. Dale dropped his glance, muttered, moved away, ponderous steps loud in the expectant silence.
Coffee. John Shepherd made himself a drink adding sugar and milk to the brew, aware that he was the focus of attention, that Dale was, even now muttering about him to the others. He didn’t expect any further action. Dale had been cowed and that was enough. If anyone was foolish enough to persist in the attempt to bully him into capitulation they would fail. He was confident of that now. And that confidence was all he needed. Standing there, facing away from the rest of the men and sipping his coffee, he took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and turned round. Smiling.
It was enough to discomfort them utterly. There was no further aggression. No unspoken threats, no intimidation. He had been left alone for the rest of the day.
So now, his second morning here, he left his room to face whatever the day would bring, unsure of what he was going to do in the long hours that stretched ahead. But he would find something.
Today was going to be different. He was determined not to sit there, passive and out of the way, just waiting for the next meal or another pointless interview with a cynical project worker. Neither did he want to involve himself with the other men. There was nothing he had in common with them, apart from the fact that he was here, and homeless.
He had, during his restless pacing of the common room on the previous day, seen in one corner a single unused and ignored computer. He had given it one glance, shuddering at the sight of the filthy keyboard with its coffee stains and mouldering residue of spilt food. Perhaps that would be a place to start. At least he could get it cleaned up.
Rebecca, walking through the common room mid-morning, noticed Shepherd, his back to the rest of the room, his attention focussed on the small computer screen. She wandered over, intrigued.
He ignored her.
‘John? What are you doing?’ she asked, more than a tinge of annoyance in her voice as she saw the computer tower open, with components and boards and screwdrivers lying on the table beside the open case. The keyboard, spotless, with no trace of grime or detritus marring its surface.
He looked up, startled. ‘Oh. Good morning, Miss Steel. Your computer wasn’t functioning. The system board had a loose circuit but it should be fine now. I’ll just run some tests on it before I close it up.’ He turned back, picking up the parts with a precision and delicacy that she rarely saw in the shelter. Drugs and alcohol had a habit of making people fumble-fingered. She watched intrigued as he replaced each piece, sliding them into small spaces, reconnecting units with a sureness and confidence that spoke of complete familiarity.
‘I’ll install some upgrades as well. Your security isn’t that effective. Anyone could access these passwords.’ He gave her a quirky smile.
‘Is that what you did? Got through the security? So you know about computers then.’ She leaned over him to inspect his work, aware of his nearness, the pleasing smell of soap-clean skin, of fingers unstained by tobacco. Too close. She stepped back, out of contact.
Gazing into the distance, he paused as if trying to tug a recalcitrant memory back into line. ‘I suppose I must do. I hadn’t thought about it. Just that it needed repairing.’ He looked down at his hands, inspecting his fingers as if they could provide the answer to who he was, what he was. ‘I’ll finish up here and return the tools, unless….’ he tilted his head, considering, ‘Do you mind if I borrow them a little longer? The handle on my door to my room needs tightening.’ He took her silence for consent, smiled at her and turned back to start typing.
Rebecca watched as Shepherd continued to work, quick fingers tapping at keys without needing to look, eyes fixed on the monitor as he typed his instructions. With reluctance she headed away to chat to some of the other men as John continued with his task. She had no idea what he was doing now. The black screen was rapidly filling with line after line of small white print in a confusing blur of unreadable symbols and letters. He worked on, not hunched up, not tense, his body language self-assured and relaxed. It was as if this was something that he did every day, like cleaning his teeth. An action that needed no real concentration, no dragging of memories out of the closed recesses of his mind. This was a familiar task, one that he had done hundreds of times before. So, who was he and where had he come from?
He was a mystery. A quiet man, educated, healthy, intelligent. But at the same time ignorant of the world in which he found himself. It was clear to her that he had never been homeless before, had never experienced some of those factors that had influenced her ‘guys’ as she liked to call them. No abusive parents, no physical neglect, not even poverty.
John Shepherd was one of the lucky ones. A good life, a prosperous life, no doubt. But now he was here, in this small community of petty criminals, drug addicts and the outcasts of today’s society. The ones that nobody wanted. She had been surprised how well he had adapted to the strictures of life here, to the necessary but sometimes trifling rules, the occasional contemptuous look or word from one of the older die-hard and cynical staff. It was as if he was on holiday. Enjoying a rest from whatever life he had lived before, happy to be told what to do, where to go, to have his life ordered for him. An uncomplicated life for a complex and enigmatic man.
And, watching him there, competent and assured, she wondered for brief and selfish moment.
She turned away, her thoughts not on the practicalities of rotas and finance and meetings but on short blond hair, blue eyes, and the image of a certain smile on John Shepherd’s lips.
There was a chill wind as the rest of the mourners filed past Alec Freeman, shaking his hand, offering bland words of condolence and sympathy. The coffin had already disappeared through the neat hatch at the front of the bleak crematorium and Straker’s remains would be crumbling to ash in the fierce heat of the furnace even as Alec shivered in the cold outside. But it was over. There had been quiet tears, soft spoken words, some memories, some laughter. Alec blew his nose and wiped his eyes.
Over. Ed had gone, and, hard though it was, he now accepted that fact.
It had been five days since that night in the medical examiner’s room, and more than fifteen years since they had first met, had started to work together, had built SHADO from scratch. The funeral had been arranged in obscene haste in Alec’s opinion. But James Henderson had overruled the medical examiners, had the body released for cremation, and once the legal formalities had been sorted, there had been no justification for any further delay.
In some way, it was a relief. Closure. And Alec knew that, hurtful though it was, it was the right thing. Straker had gone and now it was time for Alec to go, to leave here and move on and do his best for SHADO, and the world. He looked back, once, at the single tribute that he had brought. Yellow and white roses. Straker would have hated the maudlin sentimentality of the symbolism, would have reviled the display of ritual grief. His will had been specific. One short service. No prayers, no flowers, no mourning. Ed Straker had done enough mourning in his own life. But Alec had disobeyed his friend, for one final time.
A friendship that had ended too soon.
He headed down the wide paved walkway to join the small group of staff who were gathered and were waiting for him to join them, but he halted as a figure, wrapped against the cold, approached to intercept him.
‘Mr Freeman?’ She stepped up, her face familiar, and then he remembered.
‘You are the ….’
‘Pathologist. Yes. Sara Harper.’ She held out one hand, a firm grip clasping his hand in sympathy. ‘I was hoping for a chance to talk to you about your friend, Mr. Straker, if you have the time.’
‘I could spare a minute now. What do you want to know about Ed?’
Sara Harper tilted her head to one side and looked up at him. ‘I wasn’t going to come here today. I should really be working, but there was something about Mr Straker that was ….’ she halted, embarrassed.
‘Unique?’ Alec Freeman laughed, ‘Oh yes Ed was one of a kind. No doubt about that. It’s still hard to believe he’s actually gone. I half-expect to hear his voice ordering me around.’ He took a breath before straightening his shoulders as if adjusting a burden. ‘So, it’s more than just professional interest that brings you here?’
She lowered her head, as if embarrassed. ‘Mr Freeman, I deal with death every day. I perform autopsies on people of every age, from every walk of life. And for the first time I want to know more about the person behind the body.’
Alec wiped his face with a hand, ‘I can’t do that in a few minutes.’ A distant smile lit up his face as he recalled past memories. ‘Look, if you seriously want to know more about Ed, I’d be happy to tell you, but not here, not now. It’s too soon. Do you want to meet me later,’ he hesitated, ‘maybe for a drink?’
What the hell. It wasn’t as if he had anything else to do this evening was it? And anyway he would be glad of the chance to talk to someone about Ed. To chat about his friend, to reminisce. To recall the good times.
Sara Harper paused, looked up as if to assess the situation, and to assess him as well. ‘Yes. All right. I’d like that if it’s not going to cause you any problems.’
The SHADO Commander looked over at the men in military uniforms who were standing in a smart cluster at the end of the pathway, and saw James Henderson standing there with another man. The General was watching him, and Alec could see a frown of disapproval on Henderson’s face. ‘I’m sorry Dr. Harper, I have to go now. Here’s my mobile number. Give me a call to let me know where and when is best for you. I’m free after eight tonight. And yes, I would very much like to talk to you.’ He smiled at her and she was surprised at the depth of emotions visible in those narrow blue eyes. A worn, tired face, battered and scarred, a face that many people would disregard, but she had learned over the years to look beyond the outward signs.
She smiled again. A warm smile of understanding. ‘I’ll do that. Thank you Mr Freeman,’ and with a nod she turned and headed for her car.
His phone call to HQ was curt and efficient. Commander Freeman requesting a full G6 on a Doctor Harper. As a matter of urgency. Then he took a deep breath before approaching Henderson.
It was uncanny how those people waiting to speak to him seemed to melt away, dispersing across the barren space of the car park as General Henderson and his companion waited in silence for the SHADO Commander to join them.
There was the polite formality of a nod of his head in recognition, then he glanced at the other man standing there. Freeman waited. Henderson gave a brief cough behind one gloved hand. ‘Commander, I believe you know Rimmer. SIS officer. In charge of Straker’s protection detail. He assisted me with the arrangements for the funeral including the lack of publicity and the somewhat unseemly haste. We didn’t want any information to get out. It might have been embarrassing, especially as we still have no idea how Ed died. Mason feels that we can simply tell the press that Straker has handed the studios over while he concentrates on other projects. It’s not as if they will miss him much, he was always camera-shy anyway.’
Hendersonlooked askance at Freeman, his bushy eyebrows raised in questioning concern. He seemed ill-at-ease and uncomfortable. And Alec Freeman, despite his sadness at losing his friend and colleague, realised that this man too had lost a friend. Oh Straker and Henderson had argued, had bickered and quarrelled numerous times, but there had always been an unspoken respect for each other, regardless of the sharp words and threats.
And now, looking atHenderson, Alec could see in his eyes the regret and the sadness of losing someone who was more than a subordinate.
‘It’s a hard time, General,’ Alec admitted, ‘and hard decisions have to be made. I think Ed Straker would have understood. In fact I am pretty sure he would have approved. He hated fuss of any kind.’
Henderson turned to him with a look of gratitude, ‘Thank you Commander. I was afraid that you might …’ he broke off, and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets in an almost childish gesture of embarrassment.
‘Think you were desperate to get rid of him? No General, I don’t think that.’ Alec Freeman looked back at the low building behind him with its featureless white walls and a total lack of any ornamentation or symbolism. A secretive building, designed to hide its true purpose; that of the eradication of any trace of a human beings existence. All that would remain of Ed Straker would be a neat container filled with grey ash and grit. And, once that was scattered, then ….. nothing. As if he had never existed. Just as SHADO, in its secret world, eliminated all signs of the alien menace that had plagued this world. At least the memories of Ed would be respected.
‘General, I’ll see you to your car.’ The words echoed in Alec Freeman’s ears as he walked beside the elderly man to the waiting limousine.
They shook hands. A formal gesture, but one that sealed their understanding. A promise to work together, to continue Straker’s legacy. And maybe, one day, to bring an end to the alien menace.
Mason Rimmer waited, pulse racing, heart pounding, as they approached. It had not been his decision to meet here again, so soon. Straker had been taken and the funeral of his alter-persona had gone ahead without any problems, so why was he needed?
The car park was as deserted as it had been at their last meeting. The oil stains on the streaked and duty floor camouflaged the squalid splashes of dark burgundy. He stood under the single lamp that cast its pale imitation of light across the concrete. They approached with measured steps, faces hidden in the shadows,
He waited, sweating, hands trembling, fearful.
No words were spoken. No sound passed between them. They stood, implacable, soulless, looking into his eyes.
It was enough.
The mental images, fuelled by implacable rage, seared through his mind like fire and Mason sank to his knees in agony as his very bones seemed to burn. His thoughts filled with horror as the meaning of the vision became clear, and he realised what had happened.
Ed Straker was still alive. Somewhere.
Mason, crouching on the floor waiting for the pain to fade, lifted his tear-streaked face and watched as the red-suited figures walked away in silence to be hidden in the gloom.
This story actual has its basis in a completely different story that I wrote in 2009, called The Present. That was a Thunderbirds story that was based on a character that I knew. A woman who worked in a shelter for homeless men, most of whom are drug addicts or alcoholics. I had been involved in supporting the shelter for a couple of years and when I started tentatively writing Thunderbirds fanfic, I had an image of Virgil in the shelter. The story got some reasonable reviews, but I was too engrossed in writing UFO to think about developing it any further, and when this story was set as a challenge, I remembered that earlier story and thought that I would try to do a better job of it this time!
My thanks to ‘Rebecca’ who very kindly provided me with the floor plan of the Shelter that she runs, and for sparing time to help me with so many little details. Any errors are mine. Rebecca does exist, as does Dale, although neither has the problems that I have given them in Shepherd. Rebecca also indirectly gave me the name ‘Shepherd’ (the real term for a vulnerable homeless youth did not fit in with the story!).
Thanks to my beta-reader who gave Shepherd the name John. Which was perfect!