Where had it gone wrong? How had Straker escaped from his captors? As Mason hunched there on the greasy oil-stained concrete floor, yet another question burned into his mind. Where was Straker now? If he was out there, alive, he should have emerged.
Hope flared in Mason’s breast. There might still be a chance.
‘No, I’m sorry. We can’t take you.’
‘Why not?’ the voice was dark, with undertones of hidden aggression. He stood there, refusing to move, arms folded. Lips sneering with contempt. A woman. She was not going to order him around.
Rebecca looked at the closed door. She had been a fool to let him in the building let alone into the office, but he had asked for a meal and a chance to shower and get cleaned up. A reasonable request. And then, cleaned and fed, and utterly polite and compliant, he had asked for a room.
She had gone through the usual interview; after all, it was to be expected that John Shepherd would soon be reunited with any family that must be searching for him. Over the weekend the local police would have been too busy dealing with drunks and trouble-makers to concern themselves with one solitary man. But today was Monday. They would be starting their enquiries, asking questions, looking on the national databases and this new arrival fitted all the requirements for the Shepherd bed. So, like a stupid fool she had gone into her office to get the necessary paperwork and he had followed her and closed the door. And then told her.
She could feel the slow panic rising inside, the sick feeling, the desperate need to get out, to push past him and escape. He was between her and the door.
‘We can’t take anyone with your background. It’s not possible. I’m sorry,’ she told him, trying to stay calm, to stop her hands from trembling. There had been no-one on the Reception desk either, Barry having gone for his coffee while the building was quiet, and no-one close at hand. The place was deserted, a typical Monday morning with the drunks recovering from their weekend binges and the addicts all out at the drug clinic getting their supply of fresh needles and Methadone prescriptions.
He was young. Young and strong and cocky and a Schedule 1 offender. Christ. What had she been thinking about? Just letting him in had put her, and the other women, even the older ones, at risk. And the worst thing was that he was blatantly open about it, as if it was a badge of honour.
Alone. Trapped. It was going to happen to her again, and her face must have signalled her fears because he stepped forward to invade her space, close and threatening.
‘I want a room.’ Each word was enunciated with precision as, leering, his hand moved to hold her arm in a grip that terrified her. It was as if she was carved from marble, unable to move, to look away from eyes that menaced her, the sneering mouth that breathed into her face with such absolute arrogance. Too scared to even call out for help.
Forcing herself to remain calm, she stood there, his fingers tight over her bracelet, its fine silver chain with the single precious charm digging into her wrist, knowing that if she tried to remove his hand he would just grin before tightening his grip.
He pulled her closer, wrenching her arm up and behind her in a hold that was even stronger now. His other hand now on her jaw, twisting until she was forced to look up at him, to stare at those thin lips, the heavy-lidded dark eyes that flickered with casual contempt at her. And he kissed her.
Not a kiss. Never a kiss. A kiss should be tender, passionate, shared.
He raped her mouth with his tongue. Forcing himself deep inside her, and she was powerless. Yet again.
She had no idea how long they stood there, his hand imprisoning her, his breath, his touch foul in her mouth like vomit. She was frozen, waiting for that moment when he would…..
‘Rebecca? Can you….’ the door opened, Barry standing there, his bulk filling the frame, his presence offering her salvation. Her wrist, released as she was pushed away, the pain of her bruised lips, the worse pain of her fear. She fell back against her desk, to stumble, twisting away from him as he ran out, up the stair well and onto the street. Away.
Despite all her resolve and the armour of professional detachment that she had fostered over the past years, she found tears filling her eyes. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, to take away his last touch, she pressed her lips as if to stop herself sobbing. She wanted to cry as she had cried that time before. But she would not.
‘What the hell was all that?’ Barry’s voice accused her, blamed her, just as she had been blamed once before.
She turned away, her voice cold, hard, controlled. ‘Nothing. A Schedule 1 guy wanting a room. You know how it is. They can get a bit awkward.’ Palms flat on the desk so he would not see her shaking, she waited until, with a snort of disbelief he left her alone, closing the door. She looked down at her hands pressed hard on the oak veneered surface. Her bracelet. Where was it?
It had been on her wrist for so long that she had almost forgotten it was there. One of the last things she had been given by her mother, on her graduation day. She had hardly taken it off since. Her mother had been so proud of her. That simple piece of jewellery had been a reminder of a world of parties and friends and innocence.
And it had been taken from her.
She sat down, put her head in her hands and wept.
John Shepherd noticed the two gossiping project workers in the Reception area as he came to do the security upgrades that he had promised Miss Steel. The outer door was open as residents returned, traipsing with heavy footsteps down into the basement to head for the warmth of the common room. There was a glint of metal on the floor and he bent to pick up the thin chain with its small charm, dangling it over his fingers as he looking at it with interest. He had seen it before somewhere. Not a valuable piece of jewellery, but obviously a treasured one. The chain was worn thin in places, and had snapped. Not doubt it had not been missed as it fell. A small scrap of silver, frayed and abandoned.
Barry was still talking, his voice low and scornful. ‘You know what she’s like. Cold as a fish. She got what she deserved letting a Schedule 1 offender in her office, if you ask me.’ He looked up frowning as Shepherd stepped forward, the chain now hidden in his closed fist.
‘Miss Steel? What happened to her?’ he tried to keep the concern from his voice, to ask in as natural a tone as possible, but he had heard the contempt in Barry’s voice and he had a sudden recollection of that thin silver chain around Rebecca’s wrist.
‘Her? Nothing.’ Barry turned away as if the question was irrelevant but Shepherd persisted with a growing sense of unease,
‘Schedule 1? What does that mean?’
There was a bark of laughter, cut short, abrupt. ‘That? That’s someone who has a conviction for rape or child abuse. Depends on the charge.’ He looked up at Shepherd. ‘The guy in her office obviously preferred women.’ Barry gave a knowing smirk and for one irrational moment John Shepherd wanted to hit him, hard, but he controlled himself, fists clenching, the small heart-shaped charm digging into the pads of his fingers, before he turned away and walked with brisk steps back to the common room.
She was sitting behind her desk, head in her hands, trying to stop the trembling, the sheer panic, the desperate need to hide somewhere, anywhere. The door opened, she heard footsteps, across the carpet, the clink of a mug on the desk. She didn’t look up. Couldn’t bear to see the derision in Barry’s face, to have to admit that she had been terrified.
The voice startled her. ‘Are you alright? Did he hurt you in any way?’ and it was close to her. Not so close that she felt threatened, but close enough that it was soft and anxious and discreet. Rebecca looked up, wiping her eyes. Shepherd, hunkered there, beside her, eyes full of concern, hands nowhere near her. An unthreatening presence. She sniffed, reaching out for a tissue with a still trembling hand.
‘Here.’ The box under her groping fingers. She blew her nose, grateful for his silence, his tacit understanding.
Then, despite all her resolve, all her determination, she started to cry again, deep racking sobs this time. He hesitated, unsure and unwilling to subject her to any unwanted physical contact, but her distress was apparent. So, with shy diffidence, he placed one gentle hand on her shoulder, a delicate touch, just sufficient to signal his willingness to be there for her. And she turned to him, arms reaching out.
He was still as she clung to him, her head on his chest, her sobs gradually easing as he smoothed her hair away from her face and then held her. She leaned into the embrace, despite her initial reluctance, her distress overcoming older fears, and he felt her tears lessen as he comforted her, his hand soothing her.
It was some time before she lifted her head away from him and he released her instantly, stepping back to perch on the edge of the desk before handing her the mug of tea he had made and brought through.
Later, when she was calm and the worst had passed, he stood up, looking down at her. ‘Will you be alright?’ She nodded, unwilling to risk further tears, and watched as he left the room, closing the door to shield her.
The small toolkit appropriated on the second day in the shelter, was tucked away in his room, away from prying eyes, or inquisitive hands. He pulled it open, selecting tools and placing them on the surface of the chest of drawers in a regimented order. Then with meticulous care he stretched out the broken length of chain and examined it. With a slight smile he set to work.
Rebecca finished her report for the monthly committee meeting. One hour of solid work had been sufficient to recover her sense of calm and, picking up the mug that Shepherd had brought in earlier, she headed out to the common room to get a fresh brew. He looked up as she entered, and smiled at her, before coming over.
‘This is yours, I think.’ His fingers trickled a waterfall of silver chain onto her palm before he turned away, leaving her standing there, her fingers closing around the neat links and the heart-shaped charm.
She watched him for a moment, watched as he moved across the room to make himself a drink before she took her own mug over there to rinse and refill, standing close to him, not speaking. While the kettle boiled she tried to fasten the chain on her wrist, but the clasp was tiny, and stiff with disuse and it slipped from her fumbling fingers. But not onto the floor this time. His hand was there again, catching it, holding it out to her. Without a word she held out her arm, and he looped the chain around her wrist, bending close to her as he fastened the catch. Nothing was said, but she waited while he spooned coffee into clean mugs, and then poured the water in and added milk. ‘You don’t take sugar do you?’ he said, passing one to her, before adding sugar to his own.
‘No, and….’ she paused, ‘thank you.’
‘My pleasure,’ and he nodded at her before heading away to sit at the computer.
The G6 had come back clean, as Alec had expected. No security problems, no cause for concern. Approval was given. Sara had left a message with Miss Ealand to say that she would be at The Sheepfold at 8.30 and hoped that Mr Freeman would be able to join her there. Alec looked it up to get directions. It was an old pub, now run by a couple looking to make their mark in the gastro-pub world. Eight o’clock and with a sigh of relief he closed down his computer, straightened the few folders that still remained on his desk and left. He felt exhausted and drained by the raw emotion of the funeral, and the temptation to go home and forget about Dr Harper was overwhelming. But then he remembered her voice, on that day as she leaned over and looked at Straker, lying on that table waiting for the gentle caress of her scalpel, recalled her kindness, her compassion. He owed it to Ed to meet her, even if just for a few minutes.
The pub was a welcome oasis in the dark drizzle of the November night. Alec wondered, yet again, if he was doing the right thing, if he wanted to spend an evening talking to a complete stranger. But in a way that was the attraction. She was an outsider. With no preconceptions about Ed, no knowledge of SHADO, no strings. He could chat to her, and maybe even find out what it was that had so intrigued her about Ed. That was all. Nothing else.
Inside the doorway of the unfamiliar building he paused for a moment, taking everything in with eyes that were accustomed to making swift decisions. Random groups of sofas around low tables, high backed leather chairs providing more intimate privacy in corners, modern and discreet decoration. No music, no machines, just clusters of people drinking. Eating. Chatting. The relative quiet of a Monday night after the weekend.
Unbuttoning his heavy overcoat he stepped closer to the bar, wondering if she had already arrived.
Alec spun around, startled at the touch on his shoulder, reflexes on edge in this alien environment. ‘Dr Harper,’ he nodded to her and relaxed, ‘good to see you again. What can I get you?’
She stood next to Freeman, a slight figure with her corn-coloured hair catching the light as the barman served him. Then, with the confidence of someone on their own territory she led the way past other diners to a small alcove, tucked away behind a pillar, a couple of leather armchairs facing each other across a low table.
She sank into one with a grateful sigh. ‘I’ve come straight from work and my feet are killing me,’ she said, then continued in a low tone. ‘Thank you for coming tonight. I felt embarrassed this afternoon when I thought about what I had said to you.’ She dropped her gaze and fiddled with the rim of her glass. ‘To be honest, I was almost hoping you wouldn’t show. It’s not something I do as a rule, get involved with my patients.’ She refused to look at him, her fingertips with their short unvarnished nails still running around the edge of the glass, the slender fingers devoid of jewellery.
‘Well, I’m here. And you wanted to know about Ed, about Mr Straker, didn’t you? So, ask.’ He hadn’t meant it to sound as blunt, as harsh as that and he leaned forward concerned as she looked up in some dismay. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Harper, that sounded rude. I’m just tired. It’s been a … difficult day. Can we start again?’ he smiled across at her, and reached out one hand in reconciliation. ‘I’m hungry and the thought of something decent to eat is tempting. What about you?’
There was slight hesitation before Sara picked up a couple of menus and handed one to him. ‘I haven’t eaten since lunch time, so I’m starving.’ She skimmed though the list the smiled and leaned back. ‘I’ll have the chilli please.’
‘Hmm, steak for me,’ Alec grinned, tossed the menu down on the table and stood up, ‘I’ll order.’
Sara watched him move with self-assurance through the press of bodies around the bar area, then once alone she sat back to relax, enjoying the warmth and noise of the room after her long hours in the cold sterility of the autopsy room.
Alec threaded his way back, sitting down with a contented smile. ‘Nice place this. I’ve never been here before but I can see why it’s so popular. So. Doctor Harper…’
‘Sara, please. Dr Harper makes me feel as if I am still at work.’
A waiter brought napkins and cutlery, putting them on the table with neat precision. Alec, waiting until they were alone, watched his deft movements.
‘Very well, Sara, so you were asking about Ed.’ He looked at her, eyes trying to gauge her integrity, if her interest was genuine, or if she had some other motive for her appearance here tonight.
She regarded him with sympathetic blue eyes as if aware of his unease. The noise of the bar filled the space around them and she leaned forward, picked up her glass, sipped, put it down again. Anything to avoid answering, to admit to this stranger what it was that she felt. The silence spread out from the small alcove, until Alec spoke again.
‘Ed and I had been friends for years as well as working together. I would like to talk about him, but what I want to know is why you are so interested in a man you never met, at least while he was alive that is.’
She avoided meeting his eyes, continuing to stare into her glass. ‘As for Mr Straker, what can I say? There was something about him. Some indefinable sense of peace like that of a new-born child,’ her fingers fiddled once more with the rim of her glass, ‘as if the world had never touched him, had left him unmarked.’ Her eyes remained downcast, averted.
‘Ed? I hope he was at peace, that at least he did find that before he died. He’d been working too hard, as usual, and the last time I spoke to him he seemed utterly exhausted and done in.’ Alec picked up his napkin and unfolded it, fingers smoothing across the crisp linen, his mind wandering elsewhere as he thought about that final night and the image of Straker walking weary and despondent to his waiting car.
It was time to be honest with this woman. Maybe talking to her would exorcise his ghosts. He took a deep breath. ‘I was worried about him; we’d been friends for a long time and I couldn’t remember seeing him so depressed ever before. But he was one of those men who wouldn’t talk about his problems, wouldn’t admit that there was anything wrong. I wondered afterwards if there was anything I should have done. Something that might have made a difference.’
He leaned back in the chair, his eyes questioning her. There was a stir of movement across the room as waiters brought their order, interrupting the conversation.
Alec hadn’t eaten a decent meal for a days now; in fact he hadn’t eaten much since Ed had died. There hadn’t been the time or the inclination or even the appetite. But the food was good, very good, and he concentrated on cutting his steak, savouring each mouthful, and aware that Sara Harper was focused on her bowl of chilli.
Companionable silence. Not uncomfortable. Or strained. No need for small talk. He finished his drink, put the last fat chip from his plate in his mouth and, replete, sat back with a sigh of contentment. ‘I needed that. I hadn’t realised just how hungry I was.’
Sara looked up as she chased the last scraps of chilli and rice round her bowl. ‘I often come here. The food is better than anywhere else nearby.’ She, too, drained her glass. ‘Can I get you another, Mr Freeman?’
‘Alec. Call me Alec. And no. I’ll get the drinks, unless you are one of these women who objects to a man paying for everything.’ His voice was serious but she saw the glint of amusement in his eyes and laughed.
‘No, Alec, I’m afraid I am shockingly old-fashioned. Although my colleagues at work would be surprised to hear me say that. They think I’m a cold-hearted autocrat most of the time. Although I don’t try to dissuade them.’ She grinned at the look on his face, ‘It makes them work better if they are under the impression that I am watching every move they make.’
It took longer to get served now that the pub was busy, and Alec had time to think while he waited at the long bar. He turned to look back at her slight figure, half-hidden in the depths of the chair.
It was his turn this time once back at the table, to fiddle with his glass and draw patterns in the circles of liquid that marked the wooden surface. Sara waited for him to speak.
Alec sighed, ‘I still don’t know what really happened to Ed. I wish I did. It might make it easier.’
She looked up at him. ‘I’m sorry I can’t be any help. There was no reason why your friend should have died. If he had been in bed asleep, I would have considered what we call Sudden Unexplained Death. But that didn’t make sense in this situation. And it wasn’t as if his body was moved after death. He died there. In that alleyway. Without any reason.’ Her brow furrowed as she recalled her unsuccessful investigation. ‘Tell me about him Alec. Was he a peaceful man? It’s rare to see a face so unscarred by life.’
He took her hand this time, fingers clasping around hers as if to console her. ‘Ed? Unscarred by life? No Sara,’ he continued, thinking back over those years he had know his friend, ‘life had been cruel to him. He lost his wife when his marriage failed, his young son died a short time ago and work was difficult to say the least.’
‘Can you tell me what he did? I presume it was some important government post with all the fuss that was made about secrecy, and the military presence at his funeral.’
Alec leaned back, to distance himself, aware of the need for security. ‘No Dr Harper, Ed was no high-ranking spy, just a hard-working film producer who was a Colonel in the USAF before retiring. But he worked hard at his job, too hard I think. He was tired of it all and ready for a holiday, I do know that much. He seemed to have lost weight, to have lost his spark as well.’
Sara stifled a yawn behind one hand. ‘I’m sorry, ‘ she apologised, ‘an early start this morning, and I have another one tomorrow.’ She hesitated, ‘I’d like to meet with you again, if you don’t mind. And perhaps you could bring some photographs of Ed with you. I would very much like to see him as he really was. Not as I saw him. Would you mind?’
Would he? The decision was his. Would it help to meet her again, or should he walk away and leave behind his memories of Ed.
One deep breath. One pause. ‘Yes, okay.’ There. Decision made. ‘I’d like that,’ he smiled at Sara.
Alec sat in his car, watching as Dr Harper drove away from The Sheepfold. Another quick call to security, one more check to ensure that she was not a risk. His gut instinct was that she was sincere, but Alec Freeman had not survived this long by assuming that people were what they appeared to be. He waited, unwilling to leave until he had received confirmation from SHADO. The beep of his phone sounded loud in the silence and he scanned the incoming message, smiled, then slipped the car into gear before pulling out onto the quiet road, heading for home.
He was more worn-out than he had believed. The events of the day had drained him of emotional and physical strength and the effort needed just to get inside the house and up the stairs was the final straw.
The bed, its burgundy sheets and pillow cases half hidden in the dark, welcomed him with the promise of rest and so, sighing with weariness, he undressed, clothes slipping from clumsy fingers onto the floor. He let them lie there. He wouldn’t want to wear those ever again, not with the memories of Ed’s funeral still clinging to them. And then it was all too much. He slumped sobbing on the edge of the bed, pressing his hands against his face in a futile effort to hold back the wave of despair until, exhausted, he dragged the covers back, lay down and wrapped himself in the duvet.
Even so, it was a long time before sleep soothed his emotions and his eyes closed.
Sara Harper leered with grim delight as her car sped through the night, the gibbous moon enhancing the gleam of her teeth, long fingers clutching, grasping the wheel, short-cropped blonde hair streaked with silver. Each breath a sharp hiss of sensual pleasure, eyes shining with the thrill of excitement, of the chase. She would finish her work on Straker tonight. And then, Alec Freeman was within reach.
The cold blueness of the moonlight tinged her skin with an inhuman colour, or perhaps it was not the moonlight that cast the pale hue on her face and arms. Her car skidded on the thick gravel driveway, before crunching to a halt. She slid out of the seat, her slender legs bare, her unshod feet heedless of the rough stones, of the blood that tracked her footsteps across to the locked and bolted door.
Alec whimpered in fear as his mind sensed her presence, as his body refused to move, refused to obey even the simplest command. He was frozen, not with cold, but with sheer terror. It was almost too much effort to breathe, to force air into his lungs, as if they were wrapped in tight bonds that constricted him, that held him down.
And then she was there. Beside him. Invading his bedroom. Leaning over him, her breath foul on his face. Unable to turn away, unable to evade that stench of death, he closed his eyes, desperate to shut her out, but she was too powerful. He was helpless. And darkness overwhelmed him.
Later, although he had no idea how much later, he found himself standing in a corridor. It was eerily familiar, although he could not recall from where, roughened concrete grey walls, the floor cold to his bare feet, his whole body frozen, shivering yet sweating despite the chill. There was a window in the wall ahead, and he moved towards it, although it seemed to get further and further away despite his efforts. He wanted to cry, to sob deep anguished tears of utter despair. Scraping his fingers against the walls until his nails splintered, he dragged himself to the window, and looked through.
A white room. Pristine and pure, unmarked, untouched. A table, in the centre and on it, covered by a white sheet that draped down to the floor, a body. The outline was unmistakeable.
Then Sara was there, walking across the room, her eyes watching Alec, gloating with delight. Naked now, her bloodied feet marking her passage as she strode to the table. There was nothing sensuous about her. Nothing beautiful. She had brought him here to show him her power. And, as she pulled the sheet off the table and flung it to the floor Alec saw Ed Straker lying there. Cold. Lifeless. Eyes shut, a faint blue tinge on his mouth, enhancing that slight scar on his lower lip.
Alec shouted, thumping his fists against the window. It was useless. As if his voice was muffled, his hands too weak. No sound came from his numb lips, his gaping mouth, though his throat was raw from his futile screams.
Sara tilted her head to observe the body lying there beneath her hands. She leaned over Straker, and began to cut that first incision from the shoulder across to the sternum. The blade touched the pale skin, bit into it. Deeper and deeper she pushed the razor sharp scalpel into unmarked flesh.
And Ed Straker opened his eyes.
Screams filled the room as Sara, with one slow, deliberate stroke, slid the knife down warm, living, bleeding flesh. Skin parted under the caress of the scalpel, blood poured in waves over the edge of the table, down onto the floor, a lifetime of blood, that washed over the floor as Straker’s screams died away into hoarse moans, as the outpouring of blood became a trickle and, finally, stopped.
Sara looked down at the face below her, smoothing his tangled sweat-soaked hair as Straker watched her, terrified eyes following her every move, his body trembling and jerking under her fingers. With a touch as gentle as a kiss she slipped her hand into the deep gash that ran down his torso and then stepped back as flames began to emerge from the opening, wrapping around the body even as Alec, helpless, fought to save his friend.
It was hopeless. The flames grew brighter encasing the writhing form with incandescent brilliance. Alec could not even turn away from the sight, could not close his eyes, as the flames ate away at flesh, at bones, until even the agonised and contorted skeleton was reduced to a neat and tidy pile of grey ash. Sara stepped forward again, scooping the still-warm ash up in her hands, before tossing it into the air. She turned to Alec, beckoning him to come closer.
‘No!’ Alec forced himself to be heard and managed one shriek, a thin eerie sound that startled even himself.
And he woke up, drenched with sweat, trembling, shaking, gasping.
It was some time before he felt able to unwrap his body from its twisted contortions. Every tentative movement was a terror, even though his sense told him that he was now awake, that it had all been a dream. No, not a dream, a nightmare. Hell, what a nightmare. The sheets gripped like ropes to his legs, his back and tangled around his arms. He fought to free himself from their clutches as the nightmare images of Ed screaming while Sara cut deep into his breast, of Ed burning to ash there in front of him, started to dissolve.
But there was something crucial about that dream. Something he had to remember, something that changed everything.
Alec lay still as he tried to recall what it was, but the memory dissipated into wisps of nothingness and he lay there shivering in the damp, clinging sheets, remembering that image of Ed, awake and alive and waiting in vain for Alec to save him.
The antique oak door closed behind Rebecca as she stepped out into the street, scarf wrapped around her face against the chill December winds. A brisk walk to work, crossing the High Street that was heavy with traffic queuing to get into the car parks. There was no real reason for her to go to the shelter today; she was off duty, but there was always that nagging worry at the back of her mind that she would get into town and they would call her back for some trifling issue. Better to get things sorted out before she went shopping. It was always embarrassing to get calls from work while she was standing at a checkout, or in a changing room.
The pavements were busy with office workers and shop assistants all on dinner breaks from their mundane nine to five jobs, heads lowered against the sharp weather, and shoppers were crowding the pavements in the run up to the Christmas holiday.
Nine to five. So tempting, the thought of having regular hours, of being able to plan a weekend away, of not being on call for ten days at a time. Rebecca sighed as she swiped her pass card and pushed open the reinforced door to the Shelter. She closed it behind her and stood for a moment, thinking about the last week. And about John Shepherd.
She was still no nearer finding out anything about the man, apart from the fact that he was obviously educated and intelligent. There had been no further attempts to intimidate him, in fact he had been accepted into the community as if he just another down and out.
Rebecca pushed the fire-door at the bottom of the stairwell open and stepped into the reception area, nodding to the two project workers sitting there,
‘Morning,’ she yawned unwrapping her scarf as welcome heat embraced her. ‘Anything I need to know? Any problems?’ She waited, expectant.
They looked at her. ‘No. Nothing. Everything is fine. Quiet night, no drunks, no evictions, no referrals.’
‘Oh.’ Rebecca stood there, a little perplexed and unsure. Unneeded. That made a change. ‘Oh, well, I’ll just have a look around then. Before I go.’ She unbuttoned her coat and went through to the common room looking, without actually being aware of it, for that ashen hair that was instantly recognisable .
He was there, at the computer, with Dale sitting next to him. Rebecca frowned, moving closer to overhear the conversation.
‘Right, that’s the basics. Now you try it.’ Shepherd pushed his chair back to allow the other man to squeeze his bulk up to the keyboard. Dale concentrated on the keyboard, his fingers moving with surprising dexterity and guiding the mouse with a deftness that seemed unusual for a man who had only ever displayed his animosity to anything that involved work. John Shepherd, his arms folded and watching with relaxed interest, was silent as Dale worked.
‘Shit,’ Dale tossed the mouse away with a grunt of anger, ‘it’s no bloody good. I can’t do it.’ His fingers clenched in embarrassed frustration and Shepherd moved forward, fingers pointing at the screen, his voice so low that Rebecca could no longer overhear their conversation. Dale relaxed and nodded before giving a quirky apologetic smile to the man now standing beside him.
‘Okay, you’ve got it. I’ll leave you to carry on.’ Shepherd placed a hand on Dale’s shoulder and turned away, frowning as he saw the Shelter manager standing there.
Rebecca waited as he walked across the room to her. ‘Miss Steel? Is everything all right? I thought you were off duty today.’
‘I am, but I just wanted to check on things here before I go into town. So,’ she asked, one eyebrow raised, ‘what is he up to?’
John glanced back at the large figure hunched over the keyboard. ‘Dale? He wanted to try his hand at it. I don’t think he ever used a computer for anything other than playing games, so I just showed him the basics. Easy really. He seems to be enjoying it.’ Shepherd sighed, and looked around the common room. ‘I was going to do some internet research this morning, see if I could find anything that might help me, but I will have to wait now.’
Rebecca looked at him, her fingers playing with the silver charm on her wrist, ‘Well, why don’t you come with me? The library has internet access you can use. Besides, it would do you good to get away from this place. You’ve not been out since you came here have you?’ She paused, unsure of his reaction but hoping that he would not reject her offer. ‘I can show you where it is and leave you to get on.’ She held her breath, hoping with an almost childlike desire that he would say yes.
He seemed to flinch a little, as if the thought of venturing up the stairwell and into the outside world scared him after being tucked safely away underground. Then, with a grimace that was so slight that it was almost unnoticeable, he nodded his agreement. ‘Yes, thank you Miss Steel. I’d like that.’
She went to find him a coat, not a little surprised to find herself smiling.
The wind had eased somewhat and he held the door open as Rebecca stepped out onto the street. Shepherd hunched his shoulders as the icy chill of the December weather made him shiver despite his thick parka. He looked around. He had not seen this street in daylight and it was bleak and decrepit with anonymous doors leading into shabby buildings. He waited for Rebecca to lead the way, not just uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings, but with a sense of fear, of hesitation at going into unknown territory.
The street, off the main shopping area was not frequented by passing shoppers and he felt a jolt of astonishment, when they reached the junction at the top, to find himself surrounded by crowds of people, going about their own business, and ignoring him as he stood there. Rebecca set off, weaving in between the shoppers, avoiding the hawkers and beggars and charity collectors who sought to waylay them both.
Shepherd followed her, his eyes darting from side to side, to see if anything was recognisable. There was nothing familiar, just people, all moving with quick purposeful strides from one shop to another, intent on getting out of the chill wind. They walked on in silence until Rebecca stopped and pointed to an imposing building in the distance. ‘That’s the library. They’ll be able to sort you out with a card and access to the internet.’
He stood there for a moment, looking at it, then turned to her. ‘Thank you. I’ll see you…,’ he began then stepped back, and pressed himself against the smooth granite façade of a shop front, sweat breaking out on his forehead despite the chill.
There was nothing obvious to cause anyone concern, no sirens, no police presence that might have spooked some of her other residents. Just the usual high street shop windows, with their Christmas displays of Santa Claus and snowmen. Silver and red and white decorations everywhere.
‘John?’ she put a hand on his arm, ‘Are you alright?’ Rebecca waited, unsure what to do next. She slipped her arm around him, to support but also to comfort.
He blinked, shook his head, and gave her a thin tight smile, ‘Yes, it’s just,’ he paused, ‘I thought I remembered something, a memory, a sound. Something.’ He flinched as if stabbed by a needle and then gave her a quirky grin. ‘It’s gone now.’ But she could see he was shaken, his face pale and his body shivering slightly as he leaned against her.
‘Perhaps you should go back to the shelter,’ Rebecca offered, her hand on his elbow. She could see that he was tempted, that it had been stressful enough for him just setting foot outside, and he was about to speak when her phone rang. He straightened up, moving away from her. as she pulled off her glove to rummage deep in her pocket,
‘Damn. If this is work….. Oh.’ Her expression changed and she stepped into the lee of the building to answer.
Shepherd looked around, recovering his composure and wondering exactly where he was. A high street, with the usual shops that would be found in any modern shopping area but this was the cheaper end with Poundstretcher and Home Bargains. His eyes roamed across the signs, seeking some address, some indication of this place. There. In the corner of a window nearby, a postal address.
Hounslow. And he wondered why the name sounded familiar.
Rebecca moved to his side, smiling as she replaced her phone. ‘That was a friend of mine. She’s in town right now and wants to meet for lunch. Come with me, please,…. It would do you good’
He took two paces back, distancing himself, hesitant and wary. ‘No. But, thank you for asking. I’ll go to the library for a couple of hours.’
‘Are you sure? You’re more than welcome you know.’
He simply looked at her, eyes half-hidden behind pale lashes, looking at her with an expression that asked her not to force him, not to make him do this.
‘Okay..’ Rebecca hesitated for a moment, worried but unwilling to embarrass him. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’ And she watched as he walked away before turning and going down one of the small side streets.
The cafe was busy crowded with office workers queuing for sandwiches, but her friend was already sitting there, reading, two mugs of hot chocolate on the table in front of her. Rebecca undid her coat, dropped her bag on the floor and sighed as she sat down, reaching for one of the mugs.
‘Hi Sara,’ she said. ‘It’s been a hell of a week.’
Dr Harper looked up, smiling, ‘Isn’t it always?’ she said, ‘although, I’ve had a pretty good week so far,’ she smirked knowingly.
‘Oo. Go on. A new man?’ Rebecca leaned across the table, her eyes glinting, ‘Tell me. Everything.’
Sara laughed, a quiet almost reticent sound, ‘Not really. Well,..’ and she paused, blushing, embarrassed, ‘I’m meeting someone….. but..’
‘Come on, who?’ Rebecca grinned. ‘Is he tall dark and handsome?’
‘Well…’ another hesitant pause.
‘Sara, stop saying “well” and tell me about him. Oh come on,’ she pleaded.
‘Well,’ Sara started again, and broke off laughing, ‘Okay. I’m not really seeing him. Just meeting him for a second time today. He’s ……. ‘ she looked serious, ‘he’s nice. Not handsome in that sort of way, but he has a certain something.’ Her eyes met those of her friends, ‘You know what I mean. Not really much to look at on the surface but gorgeous eyes,’ Sara smiled before continuing, ‘and no, no kissing. Yet. It might not go any further anyway. But I hope it does,’ she ended, her voice softer now.
‘Ah. Gorgeous eyes. You always were a sucker for guys with gorgeous eyes. Do you remember Jason?’ and the gentle bustle in the cafe was disturbed by their shared laughter. Rebecca carried on, ‘So. Seeing him today. Must be getting serious. What does he do?’ There was a moment of silence. ‘Sara, he isn’t another pathologist is he? Not after the last one; all that shop talk of bodies and autopsies. I couldn’t go through that again.’
‘Pfff. I don’t talk about bodies and autopsies. Although…………,’ Sara looked pensive and remained silent.
‘What. Although what?’
Sara heaved a sigh. ‘Okay. It’s all to do with a case I had last week. One of those strange ones. That’s how I met this guy. The one with the eyes. He’s a friend of the guy I autopsied.’
‘Eugh. No details please. You know I think it’s gross.’
Sara laughed, ‘No, no details. The guy, the dead one,’ she lowered her voice aware that an elderly lady on the table near to them was listening with rapt interest, ‘he was really really, well,… different.’
Rebecca raised her eyebrows. ‘You mean, he had…. ‘ her hands gesticulated.
‘No!’ more raucous laughter. ‘He was just so innocent. So perfect. Almost too perfect in a way.’
‘Wow. The perfect man. I had no idea one existed.’ Rebecca smiled cynically, ‘So what had happened to this god-like man. And how did you come to meet a friend of his?’
‘That’s the weird thing. I couldn’t find a cause. Nothing. He could have been asleep, except for the fact that he was dead. I went to his funeral on Monday. I know.’ She held up her hand as her friend started to speak, ‘Yes I know, don’t get involved, but honestly Rebecca, haven’t you ever felt as if you wanted to know more about a guy?’
Rebecca Steel looked at her friend. ‘Just, well, just be careful Sara. You know what I mean.’ She reached across the table to rest her fingers briefly on Sara’s slender hand. ‘Don’t get hurt.’ There was concern in her eyes. ‘So, this guy, the one you are meeting? Tell me more about him. And you know what I want to know. The really important stuff. But let me get some pizza first. I’m starving.’
More laughter as Sara signalled to one of the table waiters. ‘My treat today. You paid the last time we managed to meet for lunch. I’ll get it.’
She ordered their pizza with a confidence that Rebecca envied, but, there again, Sara was always self-assured, always poised and in control. Rebecca felt almost clumsy besides her, but she knew that Sara understood, and that their friendship was important to both of them. And anyway, Rebecca was beginning to recover, slowly to be sure, but gradually the pain of that hateful night was beginning to soften.
‘So.’ She breathed deeply, pushing the hateful intrusive memory away. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Alec. Alec Freeman. He’s a film producer.’ Sara grinned at her friend’s wide-eyed response. ‘Not your type at all Rebecca, so you can keep your hands off him. He’s tall, dark and definitely not handsome. And probably not slender enough for you.’ She grinned again. ‘But just my sort.’
‘Meanie. A film producer. Probably rolling in money and talking to famous film stars all day. It’s not fair.’ Rebecca Steel groaned in mock dismay, ‘Whereas I am stuck with a load of men who I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Though there is one….’ she smiled to herself.
‘Oh? Something you are not telling me? Aha. A new arrival eh?’
The pizza arrived and they pulled slices off and started eating with obvious enjoyment, mumbling around hot mouthfuls.
‘Yep. Not the usual either. Police brought him early last Thursday morning after he was found wandering a couple of miles away from here. Has no memory of who he is or how he got here. An American we think. And gorgeous eyes as well.’ The laughter was even louder. ‘Anyway, someone must be searching for him so I expect he will be rescued soon. And then he will be gone.’ She tightened her lips as if in regret.
‘Ah, come on Rebecca, don’t be negative. You never know, he could be around longer than you think. You might just get to know him better; that is, if you want to.’ She looked intently at her friend.
‘I suppose so, I mean, I would like to. He’s certainly different from the other guys. Anyway,’ she changed the subject, ‘Alec. You’re meeting him again today? Your place or his?’ and this time there was a definite glint in her eyes.
‘Err…..well, actually he’s coming here in about ..’ Sara looked at her watch, a slight flush on her face, ‘twenty minutes. He told me he had a couple of hours free, and as I’m off duty for three days, it seemed a good idea to meet up. He’s bringing some photographs.’
‘Photos? From his films?’
‘Err, no. The dead guy. His friend.’ And before Rebecca could interrupt, Sara hurried on, ‘Look, Rebecca, I really need to know about him. Straker. The dead man. I need to understand just what was so different. And Alec,’ and Rebecca noticed her friend’s slight blush as she said the name, ‘said he would bring some photographs of him. So I can see what he was like when he was alive.’ She looked at her friend. ‘I’ll be careful. Really. But Alec,’ and the faint blush was there again, ‘Alec is nice. I like him.’
‘Good. I hope it works out. Because then I might get the chance to meet some drop-dead gorgeous film star who will sweep me off my feet. So don’t forget your poor single best mate when this Alec asks you over to meet his friends.’ Rebecca finished off the last of her pizza and wiped her lips with the napkin. ‘Damn, I needed that. Why we can’t get a chef who can make decent pizza at work I don’t know. No., that’s mean of me. He does his best all things considered.’ She leaned back sighing, her eyes downcast.
‘Bad week?’ there was concern in Sara’s eyes. ‘So, tell me about it? What happened?’ She interlaced her fingers and stared across at her friend. Rebecca suddenly looked tired, her eyes shadowed with dark lines.
Rebecca sighed. ‘Nothing really, just the usual. Awkward staff, awkward guys, and not enough sleep.’ She looked down at her hands.
‘Tell. Go on.’
There was something reassuring about the voice. Not accusing, not judgemental, just ready to listen. But Rebecca was still reluctant to talk, to actually admit that she had made an error letting the stranger in and that she had been so frightened. Then she looked up, into Sara’s eyes, and shook her head in silence.
‘What happened.’ Sara’s voice this time was soft and concerned and she leaned across the table to stare at her, not with a look of intrusion, but as if to reassure herself that Rebecca was unharmed.
So, sitting there, her empty mug on the table in front of her, fingers twisting and tearing at the few remaining scraps of pizza crust, Rebecca Steel told her. In quiet words, no laughter, no smiles, she talked. About the man, about her fears and about John Shepherd. About crying on his shoulder, about his calm reassurance and the way he had so discreetly handed her the repaired bracelet.
‘Ah. The man of mystery to the rescue. I thought there was more to him than just being enigmatic.’ She looked up, and smiled as a figure approached them. ‘Alec, great. Sit down. This is Rebecca Steel, my best friend from school. You don’t mind joining us do you?’
Alec Freeman hesitated then, smiled and pulled a chair across to sit at their table. ‘Miss Steel,’ he nodded at her, ‘Pleasure to meet you. Do you work with Sara?’
Rebecca laughed. ‘Me? No. I was rubbish at science at school. Sara’s the brainy one. I run the local Community housing project.’ She stopped aware that she was talking too much. ‘Sorry, you don’t want to hear about my work.’
‘No, it sounds interesting actually. What sort of community project?’ asked Freeman.
Rebecca looked at him. Yes, beautiful eyes, and an honest face. And also a sense of sadness somehow. She could see the attraction in Alec Freeman. A strong man, intelligent and kind as well. A face like that could not be cruel.
‘Homeless men. Mostly addicts, drugs, alcohol, gambling. That sort of thing. We try to get them clean and fixed up with their own flat and sometimes a job. But that’s the hardest part. No-one wants to even look at a drug addict. Let alone give a job to one.’
He looked at her, considering, ‘I might be able to help you there. We do employ a lot of casual workers, on a daily rate for different types of work. Extras on the film side sometimes, or labourers when we are constructing new sets, that sort of thing. We also have training schemes for suitable applicants. The studios like to get involved in community work. It’s good PR so we would both benefit; we get the recognition and you get job opportunities. What do you think? Interested?’
‘Um, of course. That would be wonderful. I don’t know what to say.’ Rebecca glanced sideways at her friend.
‘Well, here is my phone number. Call tomorrow and my secretary will arrange a suitable time. I can show you around the studios as well if that would help. Sara,’ Alec turned to the other woman, ‘perhaps you might like to look around as well if you are free. By the way, I brought those photographs you wanted to see of Ed.’
He reached into his jacket.
‘Call the commander.’ Paul Foster leaned over Keith Ford’s console. ‘He needs to get back here, as soon as possible.’
The Chief Communications Officer didn’t even acknowledge the order, his fingers even as Foster spoke activating the emergency call signal to Alec Freeman’s mobile.
‘Damn.’ Alec, his fingers on the neat package of photographs in his jacket pocket, pulled his hand free and grabbed his mobile from his hip pouch. He flicked it open with an apologetic grimace at the two women. ‘Freeman.’
Sara and Rebecca exchanged glances as he spoke, his voice quiet yet urgent, before closing the phone and standing.
‘I’m sorry, I have to go. There’s an emergency at the studios. Sara. I’ll call you later, and Miss Steel?’ he held out his hand to shake hers. A firm handshake, confident and assured, ‘Get in touch. I am serious about wanting to help you.’ And then he was walking away, out of the cafe onto the pavement where a car was pulling up alongside, the door opening even as it slowed down. As soon as he was inside and the door closed, it drove off at speed, dark tinted windows hiding him from view.
‘Report.’ His voice was curt, and with more than a hint of concern. It was not like Paul to call him in for a simple incursion. There must be a problem. And Alec wondered exactly what else he was going to have to deal with now. It had been two days since Ed’s funeral and the memory was still a raw open wound, catching sharp edges on his consciousness when he least expected. And he knew that even after the scab had formed, even then, that deep pain would never really heal, never close over.
‘One UFO sir, detected by scanners. The location is somewhat close to home which is why headquarters wanted you back as soon as possible,’ his driver said, passing a computer pad over. It took just a couple of seconds for the SHADO Commander to orientate himself.
‘Bloody hell.Thames estuary. And this has just been picked up by our scanners?’ Alec grabbed the carphone. ‘Paul. What’s the situation?’
‘It’s been motionless since it registered on our monitors Commander. Sky One will be in position soon and all available ground forces are moving into position as we speak. From the data we have available it looks as if this UFO has been hiding in the area for well over a week.’
‘Explain.’ This was no time for politeness.
There have been no sightings for at least five days and the last was over the mid Pacific and was destroyed. Prior to that there were several incursions over Western Europe in the three days before .. before…’ Foster stopped speaking.
Alec sighed, ‘Yes, before Ed died. Yes. Thank you Paul. So, we are presuming that this UFO evaded our defences and has been hiding in theNorth Sea?’
‘We think possibly with the intention of capturing Straker. Something must have gone wrong and they can’t leave. Why else would they still be here? I’ve given Sky One instructions to destroy it, unless you think we should wait?’
‘No, go ahead Colonel. I’ll be there in about ten minutes. Tell Waterman to seek and destroy. You’d better get the Prime Minister on the phone. He will need to be informed about this. Oh and Paul?’
‘Good call.’ And Commander Alec Freeman put the phone down, with a sigh of regret tinged with relief. At least they didn’t get you Ed. At least you died quickly. He flicked through the constantly updating reports as the car drove on, his mind filled with the image of Ed walking to his own car on that last night, with the two guards waiting for him and Straker’s despondency at the constrictions on his freedom. And for what. Two highly trained agents and still the enemy managed to get their target.
The car pulled under the portico of Harlington Straker Studios and stopped. He sighed, opened the door and stepped out into the real world.
The executive office was unchanged, Straker’s presence everywhere, his favourite pen on the desk, his choice of art work on the walls. Alec Freeman looked around the room. It was a museum, a shrine to the former studio head and he shivered with apprehension. He still had all those mundane yet unpleasant tasks that needed to be done; clearing Straker’s life from the isolated and austere house where he had lived since his divorce, the practicalities of sorting through his friend’s cupboards, disposing of those few personal items that Ed had accumulated, had treasured. This office was another room that needed to be cleansed. To have those painful reminders taken away. Not that Alec Freeman wanted to remove the memories, it was simply more than he could bear, seeing the constant shadowy presence there, in the corner of his eye.
‘Voice Print Identification Positive. Commander Freeman,’
He walked through to the Control Room. Paul was standing by the computer console and overseeing the operation , following the readouts with eagle-sharp eyes. Alec cast a quick eye over the data; Sky One in position and coming in to attack. There was no point in disrupting the intense silence with questions, it was better to let them get on with it, let them blast the damned invaders to hell. He stood, arms folded and not intruding, appreciative of the calm efficiency of the staff. Damn. Ed had taught them well.
Alec was just now beginning to appreciate how hard Straker had worked to get SHADO to this level, and at what cost. Today was just another day in SHADO, regardless of any disruption in his own life. Leaning back against the cold concrete walls, he waited, his mind relaxed as the team in the control room acted like a well-trained synchronised ballet, their actions choreographed to perfection.
Sara. He must remember to contact her after this was all over. It had been a mistake meeting her in a cafe. He wanted to talk to her about Ed, to show her the photographs and try to explain to her exactly what his friend was like. Not the computer driven machine that so many people saw, no, he wanted to show her the human Ed, the man who cared about his staff, who grieved in silence when any of them died. And so many of them had died over the long years. Ed Straker cold and heartless? Never.
Fragments of memories sparkled in Alec Freeman’s mind as he waited, patient and calm, while the control room staff, his staff now, plotted the track of the UFO, and calculated its destruction with an implacable hatred that he could almost smell. They too, had cared for their former commander, and they too wanted their revenge.
As for Sara, well, he would ask her to come to his house. Tomorrow night maybe. After this was all over and he had wreaked his revenge on the aliens. So he waited, in the background, visualising that tall figure walking through the room, pale hair glinting under the fierce lighting.
‘UFO destroyed, Commander.’ A quiet congratulatory voice.
‘Good. Send in the clearance teams. Tell them I want a detailed report as soon as possible and give everyone my thanks for a job well done.’ Alec nodded to Paul before heading for his office, one hand checking to ensure that the package of photographs were still tucked safely away in his pocket.
The aliens had not contacted Mason since that second meeting. He had spent two terrified days waiting for their next communication, trembling with sweat-cold fear whenever he picked up his house phone, expecting to hear another warbled and distorted message instructing him to appear at the rendezvous point. He had no idea how the messages arrived, or how they were in English; fragmented, almost schoolboy English to be sure. But still his own language. Spoken in an alien accent, in an alien voice. And that in itself was sufficient to scare him. The hissed sibilants, the elongated vowels, all in that monotone sound that made his very skin crawl.
They had never spoken directly to Mason, had never even acknowledged his presence and his investigations into those aliens that had been captured alive by SHADO revealed that none had never uttered any sound other than a death scream. His mind recoiled from the thought of what they had taken from humans in order to create the ability to speak, even with such mispronounced vocalisations. Or even worse, what they had done to the victims that they had taken alive.
But the aliens had not contacted him, had not been seen since. And now Mason had received word from his contact in SHADO that the organisation had destroyed a UFO. What the hell had happened? Straker was at large but his whereabouts unknown, his situation unknown and his condition unknown. The UFO, and its entire crew no doubt had been blasted into pieces and was probably already being picked over by scavengers from SHADO.
So, all he had to do now was to find Straker before the supposedly dead man reappeared and pointed the finger of blame squarely in Mason Rimmer’s direction. It was going to be hard, but not impossible. A career in SIS had ensured that Mason had access to all the most vital databases, apart from SHADOs records. But that didn’t matter, Mason had already gathered all the necessary data on the SHADO commander, from medical records to his biometric passport details, all legally and above board. After all, it had been the SIS officer’s role to organise the protection team for Straker.
Mason laughed, but there was no mirth in the sound, just mockery. He would start with the hospital and police records beginning from that night. He would find Straker and do what the aliens had failed to do.
Switching on his laptop, he linked into the secure SIS line and started work.
It took longer than he had thought. It would have been easier had Ed Straker been a terrorist or a wanted criminal. His name and description would have been on every database, on every police list. SHADO hadn’t been looking for their Commander; Straker was to all intents and purposes dead. And they had moved on.
But Straker was not dead, he was missing. If the real Ed Straker had died as well, and his also discovered, then all hell would have broken out. His DNA, his profile, his fingerprints, everything about the man was on the main Alert Status database.
So Straker had to still be alive. For now. Somewhere out there, just one man among many. London was swamped with those who had left their humdrum lives and escaped to the capital, hoping to find a fresh start, or a new identity. Perhaps Straker was hiding among the dregs of society. If so, why? Why had he not come back to SHADO? What was he waiting for?
It was going to take time to find him though. Damn.
He would have to trawl through police records and hospital records, and that was not as simple as it seemed. With a silent prayer to whichever gods might be listening, Mason hacked into the City of London police files and began the task. If Straker had been picked up in the immediate area then the records would be there.
File after file, record after record. His eyes burned with the monotony of the endless pages of minute details; stopped, searched, arrested. No one by the name of Straker and no one answering his description either.
Mason moved on, dredging the reports from Transport police, then the Metropolitan Police. He paused to refill his coffee, to rub tired bleary eyes, to take a leak, but the computer called him back like a siren, dragging him to his seat, to fumble with tired fingers on the sticky mouse, the pages scrolling down like a waterfall of words.
He almost missed it. That single phrase: Male, age approx 40, height 6ft, distinctive features: light blond hair. Identity: unknown. Found Hounslow.
Mason read on. Straker. It had to be him. It all fitted. The date, the time, the description, the fact that the man was suffering from amnesia…. he didn’t bother reading on, there was no point. Amnesia. Straker would have been taken to the nearest casualty department.
He sat back, shaking with relief. Now it was just a case of phoning the hospital in Hounslow to get the details and then a quick visit to ‘collect’ his missing friend and it would all be over. He could dump Straker’s body in the same place as Locke and Patterson. Easy. He wiped his hands on his thighs to still their trembling and to dry them, before he began the task of deleting all the data from the police records. He certainly didn’t want anyone else find Straker by accident or even by design. He set to work, ensuring that all the files were wiped, all references and links were obliterated, even the ones relating to the discovery of Straker’s body in the alleyway. There, done. Straker was now his for the taking.
It was time for another drink. An alcoholic one this time, then tomorrow, after some sleep, he would phone the hospital, and for the first time in several days Mason Rimmer smiled with relief.
Alec Freeman was smiling as well. A successful attack on the UFO, with no witnesses. Waterman had used his discretion, allowing the craft to get into the cloud layer and over the sea before he got missile lock and obliterated the spinning invader. The only disadvantage was that the debris was scattered and probably too small to be of any use. Still, the important thing was that it had been destroyed. The first analysis from the clean-up team would be here soon, and Freeman was hoping that there wouldn’t be any indication of human remains in the craft. It was bad enough that the UFO had managed to remain hidden for so long. If the aliens had taken any captives, well, at least they were dead now.
‘Sir.’ Ford interrupted his thoughts. ‘The report.’ The communications officer handed Freeman a slim folder and waited.
Freeman leafed through, scanning the pages. One deep breath of regret. ‘David Locke’s DNA. Poor bastard. At least Ed didn’t die like that, ripped apart in agony.’ He looked up, eyes dark with sadness. ‘Thank you Keith, I think I’ll get off home shortly. It’s been a long day.’
Once Keith had gone back to the control room Alec Freeman picked up the phone, dialled and waited, his fingers even now reaching to touch that small packet of photographs safe inside his jacket.
‘Sara? Alec here. Sorry about this afternoon.’ He paused, considering, then smiled again, ‘Look, would you like to come to my place tomorrow evening? I can show you the photographs, talk about Ed if you are still interested and we can get a take-away.’
There was silence. He tightened his lips. Then, sounding a little breathless, she answered.
The library had been warm. That was about all John Shepherd could say. The computers so slow and inefficient that it was not worth even attempting to get into the police files that he hoped might hold some clues to his situation. He had spent a couple of hours reading newspapers and journals, enjoying the silence and the peace, but, eventually hunger and unease drove him back to the security of the world that he had known for the past few days.
He felt his heart beating faster, felt the anxiety mount as he walked back, past the crowded shops with their Christmas displays that filled him with such apprehension. He kept his head down, staring at the pavement, careful to avoid looking up in case he caught a glimpse of whatever it was that had spooked him earlier. At last he reached the shabby side street and, with a sigh of relief and glad to leave the noise and bustle, he headed for the security of the underground Shelter.
He spent the rest of the day in quiet yet busy activities, doing the numerous yet minor repair jobs that had been allowed to accumulate, before helping the middle-aged, and slightly inexpert, receptionist set up record systems on the staff computer. Then he talked Dale and a couple of younger men through the intricacies of computer languages.
Rebecca did not reappear that day. He had not expected her to, but he missed her.
Late that night, feeling chilled, he left the solitude of his room to get a hot drink. The common room was deserted, although the television was still switched on, its screen illuminating the empty room with flickering images of wars and terrorists, and gratuitous photographs of corpses and bloodstained earth. Perhaps it was the unexpected chill of the room that made him shiver. Whatever it was, Shepherd watched a few minutes with a faint grimace of anguish before stepping forward to turn it off. The silence and darkness embraced him, and he stood there, unseen, a mysterious shape in the shadows of the room, listening to the hum of the ventilation and the occasional gurgle of water moving through the radiators.
Enough. He was tired; it had been a long day. Time to sleep and maybe he would remember something else tomorrow. Maybe, if he was lucky. Or; and the thought was deeply frightening, if he was unlucky.
In the quiet of his room he undressed, pulling back the covers and lying down before cocooning himself in the thin blankets against the coldness that seemed to be leeching body heat from him. Eyes closed, he forced himself to relax as warmth began to spread through tired limbs until sleep overtook him.
Their hands were tight on his arms. Digging in, crushing flesh against bone. He knew he would have bruises there later, if there was a later. And despite all his struggles, all his desperate attempts, they were too strong, too determined. There was no point in crying out for help, the silence around him spoke volumes. He was alone.
They hauled him up the ramp, the greasy oil-stained surface slippery under scrabbling feet. A single irrational thought flooded his mind, even as he fought to free himself.
How were they going to get him to their craft?
And then he saw it. And he wanted to scream until his throat was raw, to scream until his heart burst, until his lungs died. Anything other than the horror, the utter and absolute nightmare that loomed ahead. That lay there, gaping open, waiting to accept his body.
A steel-grey cylinder. Its dull surface gleaming under the dim lights. A metal coffin; his coffin. But he was not dead. Would not be dead within it either. He would be alive. Breathing, unmoving, trapped, but all the time aware. Until they got him back to wherever they had come from. And then?
With one burst of frantic energy, dragged from resisting muscles that burned and screamed with the effort, he wrenched himself free of their clawing fingers and fled.
The outside world loomed dark and threatening ahead, but the blackness behind held far greater gut-twisting terror and so he ran, on legs that refused to move fast enough, as if they were no longer under his control. Out into the light with the sinister maw that led to the underground carpark now behind him, his lungs burning with the effort needed to breathe.
A noise behind. He turned to see them, and froze. Closer and closer while his treacherous body ignored the command to move again, to flee. They paused as they reached the light, as if the dull sodium glow was harmful, and in that second of respite, he forced his feet to move, to shuffle one tiny inch. It was enough, as if he had been released from captivity. And he ran, again, across the lanes, to scramble over the barrier that split the dual carriageway, dodging a lone vehicle speeding towards him, before slithering down the slope at the other side, out of sight, away from them, bending over, hands on his knees gasping for air. Surely he was safe now. They would not follow him.
But they did.
Hands fluttering with anxiety, taking hesitant steps into the sickly yellow flush of street lighting, they trailed him. Over the grey tarmac, over the grey metal barrier, moving with a determination that shook him to his core. Sobbing with despair he turned, heedless of where he was, desperate to escape from the two silent predators that moved with such ruthless purpose. The cylinder was waiting for him, waiting to wrap him in its cold, suffocating embrace.
And so he ran.
The tunnel, under the railway that ran alongside the road, was dark and held its own terrors but any fear, any invisible threat, was preferable to what was behind him. A headlong dash into the black stench-filled interior, then he slipped, stumbled and fell, cutting hands and knees on the rough pot-holed pathway. He forced himself to stand on numb feet, his palms stinging, and leaned, for a brief respite, against the slime-covered surface of the wall. The opening of the tunnel was a faint arch of light in the distance behind him, and as he looked, their silhouettes appeared, nightmare figures getting larger as they moved closer and closer. His scream choked in his throat, he could not whimper let alone call out for help. But there was no help. No one there to protect him. He was alone.
Darkness and unseen horrors ahead, but behind, the cylinder waited. Trailing one hand along the wall on his left he headed deeper into the unknown, heart pounding, struggling to fill his lungs with air, trying to move sluggish legs that threatened to betray him.
‘Damn.’ Rebecca swore as she opened the outer door and headed down the stairwell to the basement. Yet another late night call. But she had some sympathy for the Night Worker this time. Having to call out an emergency plumber at this time of night was no easy thing to do and the cost would be prohibitive. So it was her responsibility to authorise the work. Great, she grimaced.
The reception area was cold. Very cold. Sam was wrapped in a coat, shivering. She looked up, grimacing as the door opened. ‘Sorry Rebecca, the damned heating has gone on the fritz. And it’s going to be minus 6 tonight. Too cold, especially down here. I’m bloody freezing already. Everyone’s in for the night and all in bed, tucked up safe and sound, lucky things. ’
Rebecca looked at Sam, concerned, ‘You look awful. Go home and get warm. I’ll stay here tonight.’ There was no argument from Sam, the chill in the building had sapped her of the energy to make even the most feeble and unconvincing protest.
Rebecca waited until the engineer, surly at being called out so late, had repaired the fault. Then once alone, the bone-numbing chill fading as radiators at last began pumping heat through the basement, she made herself a coffee in an attempt to stay awake, wrapping stiff fingers around the thick mug. She would do a quick check in a while, just to make sure that there were no problems.
Thursday early am
However fast he tried to run, he could still hear their footsteps behind him, gaining on him, and he could sense those hands clawing out. How could they move with such speed? Then he was out of the tunnel into fresher air but still in darkness, unlit by streetlights, but out of the suffocating gloom of the tunnel.
A choice to be made, which way to run? Ahead there was wasteland; open spaces where he would find nowhere to hide, but the wall of the railway embankment ran to either side behind him. Left or right? He panicked, unsure, hesitating in his fear. A fatal move. They were there, a hand touching his shoulder, digging deep to restrain him. A silent scream from his stifled choking throat. He lashed out, wild blows without reason, without control and they fell back.
Left. He ran to his left, bumping and bruising his shoulder against the brickwork as he raced, his steps slipping and scrabbling in the frantic struggle to get away.
One hand against the wall pressing him onwards, until he came to another opening, his hand reaching out and finding nothing. He nearly fell again but the thought of them close behind him gave him the strength to twist his body upright, to turn inwards once more into yet another tunnel, heading back, back to the road, to what was there. In an agony of indecision he stopped.
Ahead. The cylinder, open….
Behind him an even greater dread. Once they had seized him, he would be powerless. No choice. He ran into the tunnel.
He was close to exhaustion by now, too tired to move yet too frightened to stop although his body screamed for relief. It seemed to take forever to get back to the roadway, and with every step he expected to feel those gloved hands touch him, pull him back, lift him into the steel casket, and close the lid while he screamed, unheard.
The brightness of the street lights made him blink. Back where he started. Well, not quite, the dark opening of the underground car park was over the road, to his left, maybe a hundred yards away. But there, ahead, was safety. A petrol station. If he could reach it. Across the road, running with some caution now, aware that any slip, any fall might bring him within their reach. Onto the forecourt, heading towards the welcoming brightness of the all-night shop. The door ahead opened and he saw a red jacket, a face hidden by darkness. His enemy. Coming for him, even here.
Sobbing with utter despair he hid in the shadows beside a truck. They were here. They were everywhere. There was no escape.
He was dead.
And he staggered, leaning against the side of the open pick-up as his adversary walked towards him…….
One chance, only one chance. Hauling himself over the lip of the truck he huddled in one corner, curled up as small and as silent as possible, waiting, listening, heart pounding so loud that they must surely hear it, hear his stifled breaths. Rigid with terror, just waiting for the hand to paw at him, and drag him back. Back to ..it….a slow suffocating death in a steel tomb, unable even to see to hear or be heard however much he screamed until blood filled his mouth and throat and he drowned in his own fluid. Images of red suits, of grasping greedy hands, of grey metal. Of a still, silent man stepping out of the shadows. His head hurt, pain stabbing through like a knife as the vehicle moved off, jolting over speed bumps.
Coiled up, child-like, in the sheets, he whimpered as his body tried to waken, tried to free itself but the nightmare was deep within him, mastering his thoughts, and despite his efforts he was trapped by the pervading memories of that night.
Panic filled him when the vehicle finally stopped after an age of bouncing and shuddering. Were they here as well? He flung himself over the edge, falling heavily onto the pavement, crawling into the scrubby undergrowth that crowded the edges. And he hid, sweating, trembling, the pain in his head almost unbearable, until strong hands grabbed him. They were all around him, restraining, holding, dragging. He couldn’t move, couldn’t free himself, couldn’t breathe. The cylinder open, its cold metal waiting to encase him. He managed one anguished scream before they lifted him into……
The warmth made her eyes tired, made her head weighty, her limbs relaxed. The mug, slipping from her fingers, fell, bounced twice on the carpet and woke her. Shit.
She stretched, yawned, stood and picked up the mug, scuffing the spilled dregs of coffee into the stained carpet with her toe. It was time for a quick look though the building.
The muffled shout startled her into action. Pulling the master key from her pocket she hurried down the corridor listening, trying to work out from where the sound had come.
Again, that desperate yet muted cry, as if a person was trapped underground, or was stifled by hands across their mouth.
Fingers fumbling with tiredness she unlocked the door to John Shepherd’s room and went in.
The dim light from the corridor was insufficient to disturb the man asleep. Yet she could see he was not sleeping, restless and twisting in his bed. His hands were reaching out as if to push away unseen forces, his face contorted with fear, sheets tangled around him.
He was silent now, as if the horror that was filling his dreams had muffled him, but she could see his mouth open as if to scream, his back arching as if in agony.
She had no idea what to do, apart from close the door so that he did not disturb any other sleepers.
The room was chilly. A deep bone-numbing chill that made her shiver. She rubbed her arms, more in trepidation than from the cold, fearful of what might happen if she tried to wake him. Stepping forward she leaned over, daring, her heart pounding, her breath now gasping with his breaths, her hands trembling. He wasn’t aware of her.
She took off her coat, shivering in the chill of the room, and perched, uneasy, on the edge of the bed. She had no wish to wake him, to distress him further with awareness of what was happening, besides, she had been here herself, been in this situation before and she knew what was needed. Not an abrupt awakening, but a slow gentle return to warmth and wakefulness and the feeling of security, safety. Reaching out she touched his shoulder with her fingertips. Cold. Far colder than he should be. His body shuddering. She held her breath, knowing what she had to do, and despite her fear and her reluctance, wanting that contact again. To trust someone. To be so close to them.
A memory returned; of his hand, gentle on her face, holding her, making her safe and she acted instinctively, slipping off her shoes and then tugging the damp and twisted sheets away from him. She waited until he moved again in his nightmare distress to roll away from her, his back exposed, pale skin glistening with a sheen of sweat despite the pervading chill in the room. She lay down behind him, daring, holding her breath against that panic that she was expecting to flood through her. But it was not there. With a shiver of hesitation she moved closer, one arm reaching over to clasp him to her, his shoulders his back pressed against her, cold skin against warm material, her hand over his arm, her questing fingers feeling the clammy sweat on his breastbone, his muscles quivering beneath her tentative contact.
The cold surface was hard against his flesh as he lay shivering in darkness, awaiting that silent airless death.
Then, slow warmth spread through his numb limbs, softness replaced the harsh touch of unyielding alien metal. A breath of air on the nape of his neck, a welcome touch on his shoulder blades, just the slightest caress. The terror subsided, leaving a memory of red and silver and white in sinister dark shadows.
He stirred, shivering still, but more from uncertainty than cold now, and his awakened senses probed and questioned and sorted their findings.
He was not alone. He could sense soft breaths behind him, ever-so-slightly cool on his neck, an arm around him, over his chest but not restraining him, just holding him against soft fabric, and a warmth that smelled not of perfume or scent, but an inexplicable yet familiar fragrance; a scent that filled him with comfort and consolation and the feeling of shelter and protection. A body that was embracing him, and shielding him from the horrors of his nightmare as that deathly cylinder was, even now, fading into obscurity. No longer cold or shivering from fear, he knew without doubt that someone was protecting him and in those safe hands he slept.
Rebecca loosened her hold as he relaxed. He was no longer shuddering with cold and terror, his breathing now slow and regular, and he was once more comfortable and deeply asleep. She had wondered what he might do when he awoke to find her so close, but she was reluctant to disturb the warmth and stillness that surrounded him. With a rush of affection that surprised her she leaned to kiss his shoulder, his sweat deliciously sharp on her lips and she snuggled a little closer, her cheek against his skin, one hand still on his chest, still touching those few sparse hairs. There was a sense of reassurance in being so near to him, and the growing awareness, that here with this man she would not be hurt.
And she too, closed her eyes.
Mason woke up with a vile taste in his mouth, his eyes bleary and stomach churning. Too much alcohol last night, far too much, and his stomach rebelled as he remembered draining the last desperate dregs from a bottle of Bourbon. The unmistakeable sensation filled his cheeks and he stumbled from bed to fall on his knees and throw up, retching and spitting as chills shook his body.
He managed to get upright for a change, and staggered back to his bed, falling onto the stained and sweat soaked bedding before closing his eyes in a vain attempt to still the whirling unfocussed world. Eventually the nausea subsided enough for him to doze, mouth open on the pillow, head pounding, skin stinking. There was something he should have been doing this morning, something important, but right now he just wanted to sleep. Whatever it was, it could wait. It would have to wait.
John Shepherd drifted slow and feather-light up from the depths of sleep, his thoughts coming together to form tangible and coherent memories. There was warmth behind him, a weight on his ribs, a touch on his breast. A hand. Soft and relaxed and gentle. Not confining or restraining. He lay there, enjoying the sensation of such intimate contact, though not sure why. His first instinctive reaction was to shy away from the touch, to get away from whoever was holding him with such trust, such tenderness, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to retreat. Moving back against her, he deepened the contact, and felt the arm, that weight on his ribs, tighten against him. And a sigh tickled soft against his neck. Soporific with warmth, he allowed himself to fall, still weightless and drowsy, back into those easy dreams that wrapped around him.
Something disturbed her, a movement, or perhaps a snore. Whatever, she was awake. What the hell. She gasped, flinched and pulled away just a mere fraction, the sudden motion, the unexpected chill waking the man who had been sleeping under her sheltering arm. Shepherd , his face to the wall, lay still, as if waiting for permission to move. Her arm was still over his, her hand on his chest, but her fingers had moved away from his skin, leaving him bereft and abandoned.
Slowly the arm retreated, sliding back over his own, the hand stroking his shoulder lightly before continuing an ordered retreat to its own space. He smiled as he recalled the night. The chill in the small room, that bitter cold that had eaten into his bones, and then the nightmare, although he could not remember much of that horror. Then, the first touch, warm, comforting, caressing, as she lay down with him, her hands so gentle, so soothing. He knew who she was now, and he wondered even more at her daring. To be here with him, alone.
Rebecca slid out from under the covers and scrabbled with quiet care for her discarded trainers and coat, before padding in her socks to the door. The dim light from the corridor framed her silhouette as she turned to look back at the bed, at the man lying there, silent and unmoving.
The door closed. Her discarded mug was still there in the common room, where she had dropped it the second time. How long had she been asleep anyway? She pulled on her shoes, her face flushed with embarrassment. Sleeping like that. She grimaced at the implications, thankful that nothing had happened in the Centre while she was asleep. Night staff had to stay awake at all times.
With quiet steps she patrolled the subterranean complex; the maze of corridors lit only by the intermittent muted lights. Nothing. All quiet and peaceful. The early shift would be arriving shortly, and then she could go home and get a few hours sleep. She walked back, to begin the mundane task of emptying the dishwasher.
John Shepherd listened to Rebecca’s soft footsteps as she headed back to the common room. The sensation of her hands was fading even now, and yet he didn’t want to break the spell, to lose that blissful reassurance that still filled him. But in the end, with reluctance, he rolled over, relishing those last remnants of her warmth against him, and wondering about his future. What hope had he of ever being able to lead a normal life, confined as he was in this underground habitat? Oh, he was able to leave it, to go outside into the upper world, but that was a alien environment. He did not fit in there, but, neither did he belong here, and if he did not regain his memories, what would happen to him then? He would be rootless, aimless. Searching for a way to survive.
He wrapped the blankets tighter around himself, missing the comfort that brought him back from the nightmare. And so he slept again, to be roused later by the clatter of feet, the sounds of voices as the others woke and hustled to bathrooms and to breakfast.
‘Thank you Mr Freeman, I’ll let everyone know and I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Rebecca Steel put the phone down, smiling. The film studio boss had been as good as his word and had organised a tour of the studios for anyone who was interested in the prospect of casual work or even training in the construction side of the studio. Transport provided, even lunch in the studio canteen. It seemed too good to be true.
Later that evening the shelter was, as usual, quiet. Only an hour until everyone would be back from the pubs again. She had stayed late to speak to Sam, to make sure that she was alright, and now it was time to head off home again. It was a bloody joke at times, this job. The problem was that she was damned good at it and too committed to walk away, despite the long hours and the lack of any social life.
Rebecca walked round the building, a habit that was ingrained into her after five years of working here. All quiet, no problems. Then she saw a figure in the common room, sitting in one of the armchairs, pale features lit by the flickering screen. He was watching television. The news. It was about the only thing she had seen him watch while he was here. Unwilling to disturb him she walked through, tired and jaded and thinking only about getting home, and, unnoticed, his eyes followed as she moved through the dimness of the unlit room on her way out and home.
John Shepherd returned his gaze to the television, not really seeing the images, or listening to the reports. It was merely a distraction, something to keep his mind occupied. Dale had said that he would be welcome to join them at the pub to watch live football on the big screen, but Shepherd had declined with an apologetic smile and settled to watch, and think. Rebecca. He stared into the darkness. Tired but not willing to sleep. Not yet.
The main street shadowed now with shutters pulled down to protect the shops and the pavements were dark and empty, any stars in the night sky unseen through the haze of pollution from the street lights. Rebecca, her coat collar turned up against the chill, didn’t look up, didn’t look around, just pulled her bag a little closer and walked with brisk steps away from the entrance, her door key already in her fingers.
Behind her, a man watched, scowling as the woman who had turned him away on Monday left the shelter of the building.
Sara Harper smiled with pleasure as her car drove through the night, the gibbous moon enhancing her short-cropped blonde hair with silver, her eyes bright with expectancy. She would be able to put her mind at ease about Straker tonight and move on, and Alec Freeman was a very attractive man. The cold blueness of the moonlight tinged the thick gravel driveway as she pulled to a halt. She slid out of the seat, just as Freeman appeared in the doorway to welcome her.
Inside, sitting together on one of his sofas, Alec passed her the photographs, one by one. Mostly studio photographs, showing Ed as the calm film executive, with a tight smile for the camera before he left for more important business. Good photographs. There were very few informal ones though. Few of Straker as Alec had known him, joking and laughing or concerned and caring. The Ed Straker that had been hidden behind the facade of both Studio boss and SHADO Commander. Very few photos. A slightly battered one from the wedding; Straker looking at Mary with an expression of amazement. Another one of him on one of the location shots, smiling to himself as he walked on a beach. So very few really. A sad collection that summed up a life of duty and service.
He spread them out on the coffee table and looked at them. Sara, her shoulders close to his, picked one of them up, a puzzled expression on her face.
‘This is an old picture?’
‘Yes. A couple of years old. Ed hated that one. Said it made him look like some James Bond sort of character.’ He took the photograph from her hand and smiled. ‘Ed could be very serious at times..’
Sara pulled the photograph back in silence, stood up and walked across the room to study it under the table light. He watched her, perplexed.
‘There’s something wrong. Something very wrong.’ She turned to him, her eyes worried. ‘I need to get my briefcase.’ And she was gone, hurrying out of the room without explanation.
Her face was flushed when she returned, carrying a neat leather case. She scooped up the photographs that were scattered on the table and handed the messy heap to Alec. ‘Find every photograph with his profile from the left hand side.’ It was an order, a command, and he set to, flicking through the haphazard pile, dropping discarded photos onto the floor.
‘These. Are these what you want?’ He handed them to her, and she took them, scrutinizing each one with meticulous care.
‘Damn. I need better light. And a table.’ She didn’t even look at Alec.
‘My office. This way.’ Her abruptness was infectious, and yet he knew that it was not rudeness, it was something serious, something that disturbed her. He led her upstairs to his workspace, the office with its wide desk and bright lighting and stood back, watching, as she spread the photographs across its glass surface. Switching on the desk light she picked through them, sliding rejected ones to the side .
‘His medical record. Have you got Straker’s personal file, with any medical data?’ she demanded.
‘Not here, but I can download it.’
‘Get it.’ Again that focussed voice, her authority, the head not even turning towards him.
It took Alec several minutes to access the SHADO file from his secure system. She grabbed the papers as they emerged from the printer, placing them flat on the desk before spreading them out, her fingers running down the details, as if mentally ticking them off. Her brief case was open, papers in disarray inside, and on the desk a thin plastic folder so similar to the ones he used every day, but the legend on the front was not the SHADO logo, but a name. E. Straker.
He could hear her muttering to herself, as she compared pictures and details, grumbling as she peered at the photographs and he waited, unsure, almost forgotten.
‘Yes.’ A shout almost of triumph as she turned to face him. ‘Alec, your friend. Straker. He had a small scar on his lip? His lower lip, left side?’
‘Yes… ‘ Alec frowned, ‘he got it in military training. Why?’ his voice sounded tremulous in his ears.
She beckoned him closer. ‘Look here.’
It was Ed. Ashen, eyes closed, lips bloodless and blue, grey death already tainting his skin.
Alec wanted to close his own eyes, but her finger was pointing. ‘There. See?’ She picked up the photograph from the autopsy report. ‘What do you see? Look.’
He took the glossy photograph from her and stared at it with the same concentration that he gave to satellite images and gradually it filtered into his mind. What he was actually seeing and not what he expected.
‘Fucking hell,’ he blushed, embarrassed by his outburst.
She grinned at him, ‘Yes Mr Freeman. Fucking hell indeed. Exactly my thoughts. Whoever that man is; that,’ she took the photograph from his now shaking hand, ‘is not your friend. That is not Ed Straker.’
Ed. It was not Ed. He might still be alive. That UFO had not captured him. He could be, must be out there, still waiting to be rescued.
He spun round to lift her in a bear hug, grinning wildly, wanting to laugh out loud, but instead he kissed her, hard, his lips finding hers and meeting a welcome response. Sara clung to him, arms around his shoulders, feeling his strength, his delight as he crushed his mouth to hers. Opening her lips to his touch, gasping as he swept her up into his arms. Lips biting lips, hands reaching, holding, fingers digging deep, with senses and hearts thumping.
He kicked the door to his bedroom open and carried her through, her feet catching on the frame. One shoe clattered to the floor, unnoticed. His tongue traced hers; enticing, entwining still locked in that sensuous intimate contact of moist softness.
Muffled curses and smothered chuckles as hands fumbled to pull her jumper over her head and she fought with buttons that refused to submit. With a growl of impatience her hands tugged at his shirt. Hands now on newly exposed skin, fondling, caressing, until with growing impatience she undid his belt, his zip, her fingers now stroking the silky skin of his erection. His hands too, were busy, roaming within her briefs, touching and tantalising. Lips and tongues still straining for contact, they shed remaining clothes, returning to taste each other, to run hands over skin that shivered with anticipation. He lifted her again, hands tight into her buttocks, and stepped towards the bed, before dropping her onto the silken cover and falling, laughing, beside her.
‘Damn.’ He pulled away from her, reached out to his bedside table and pulled open the drawer. With distracted fingers he reached for the condoms inside. Sara giggled, her lips now tickling his nipples, tongue licking, teeth nibbling, hands seemingly everywhere. Alec opened the packet and she looked up, grinning, to take it from him. Her head moved down his body until her lips were kissing and sucking his hard member, the warmth and wetness of her mouth unbearably intense. One last lick, her tongue reaching down, then fingers clasped, stroking and squeezing as she began to roll his foreskin up and down, her eyes watching his face as he groaned with pleasure.
She unfurled the condom onto him and then there was no time for thought, as he rolled over, and with firm hands pushed her down beneath him; one hand now moving to caress her thighs, pushing them apart to reach inside her hot wetness with sensitive fingers, tormenting her with gentle touches.
‘Now, she pleaded and her hand held his cock guiding him into her before she moaned with satisfaction. He began to thrust, hard, powerful movements that she echoed as she too moved beneath him, her legs wrapped around his thighs.
He held on, until the sudden thrill jolted through him and he could no longer hold back. Shuddering with him, pushing her hips she let him spear himself deep inside her. Harder and faster, until she felt the sensation start to build deep within her. He cried out in release, shuddering above her, sudden sweat under her hands and then he held himself still, as she too gasped and her very skin shrieked with pure physical pleasure.
Later, under the covers, entangled and sticky and satisfied, running her fingers over his chest she murmured, Nice, very nice.’
He laughed, ‘Yes. It was. Very nice indeed.’
John Shepherd. Rebecca thought about him as she headed for home and bed, unaware that she was being observed by a man who was tensing himself ready to move as soon as she was clear of the cameras that monitored the entrance. She walked away, her back to him, the sharp night air stinging her eyes, the frosty chill clouding her breath and as she passed by one of the narrow ginnels between the buildings there was a movement from inside. Her hands tightened for an instant, the keys digging into her palm. She scanned the darkness and sighed, loosening her grip on the bunch of keys as a large shape stepped out to stand under the street light.
‘On your way home?’ Dale dropped his cigarette end to the ground and crushed it beneath his heel. ‘Bit late isn’t it, Miss Steel? Sorry,’ he paused, ‘Hope I didn’t startle you. Just not used to seeing you going home at this hour,’ he said, his voice soft and apologetic.
She laughed, ‘Hello Dale. Yes it’s late, but I just wanted to check that things were okay.’ She turned to leave just as the other men shuffled out of the alley, intent on getting back into the warmth and comfort of the Shelter,. They greeted her, offered her a cigarette, a beer, all their usual little gestures of camaraderie. In an obscure way they were a band of brothers, drunks, and addicts and homeless, but Rebecca knew that she was safe with them. She chatted, warned them not to get too drunk, and said goodnight. They stood there, drinking their last dregs and dragging on butt ends and watched her go up to the high street at the top then turn out of sight.
‘Right, let’s get inside. It’s too cold out here,’ Dale ordered, and headed back to the Shelter door a few yards away. He pressed the intercom. ‘Dale. And mates.’
A loud buzz signalled the unlocking of the door and he led the way inside.
The man waiting out there on the street, still concealed from sight, swore under his breath as Rebecca disappeared from view. On an impulse he hurried towards the knot of men pushing and jostling to get inside the entrance. It was easy to join them, to step quickly aside onto the shadowed landing once he was behind the secure door and let them all traipse down the stairs. He stood there, in silence, unseen by anyone, rubbing his bare arms to get warm. Then, once his shivering had ceased, he pulled out a knife from his pocket, hefting it loosely in the palm of his hand as if to familiarize himself with its weight. Breath smelling of whisky, thoughts dark with the memory of being turned away from here without any consideration. No woman did that to him.
The common room was by now crowded, with loud voices arguing over football, and the pungent smell of beery breath and cigarette smoke heavy on clothes. Shepherd stood up, unobserved and unnoticed, desperate for fresh air.
The reception area was as he remembered it from his first night. Brightly lit, just the one person on duty; Sam, standing by the desk, reading the day’s briefing notes. He was tempted to go outside, to feel a cold breeze on his face, anything to keep him awake rather than face the possibility of yet another nightmare. He hesitated, and just at that moment, as he stood there about to speak, the inner door at the bottom of the stairwell slammed open. He spun around.
The stranger’s eyes flickered once over John, casually dismissing him as yet another incompetent and drunken misfit who was not worth a second glance. Instead the intruder lunged at Sam, his eyes cold with malice, his mind set on revenge.
A sharp blade. The knife was razor-sharp. Shepherd could tell by the way it shone, by its thin appearance and the way it was held with such contemptuous confidence. He took it all in with that single glance before pushing Sam to one side and safely out of the way then reaching for the intruder’s arm as the night worker yelled in horror.
Too slow. The blade flashed as it stabbed at him, ripping through the cheap fabric of his dark sweatshirt, slicing through cotton and skin with ease. Fight or flight. Adrenaline numbed the sharp pain, helped him to reach out, grabbing the hand with its fingers clasped around the blade. His other hand fastened on the intruder’s elbow and then John Shepherd slammed the forearm down across the edge of the desk.
The crack of bones snapping echoed in the confined space, followed by a shriek of agony, both sounds blotting out the clatter as the knife fell, and was kicked out of reach.
Sam’s yell broke through the noisy chatter in the common room, and in that second of absolute stillness, before anyone had time to even think of reacting, more sounds filled the silence. A thump as if somebody had fallen heavily or had been pushed to the ground, then harsh screams of pain and Sam’s voice again, crying for help.
Dale, for all his bulk, was first to get there. Sam had taken refuge behind the desk, shaking, while Shepherd, with an expression of utter intensity, was crouching, both knees on the back of a man lying face down on the floor, hands pressing down on the shoulders of the intruder. Both of them spattered with blood. Dale looked, saw bone protruding from the ruin of the stranger’s arm, turned away and noisily vomited.
Rebecca had made it back home, but hadn’t even managed to unfasten her coat before the urgent buzz of her phone interrupted her. Enough. She had had enough. This was the last bloody straw. ‘Yes.’ She waited. If this was another stupid waste of time she would rota Sam on duty for New Year’s Eve. That would teach her.
‘Rebecca,’ Sam sounded shaken, her voice trembling, ‘There’s been an incident. Everyone’s fine and the police are here now, but I think you should come back.’ She sounded breathless, as if she had been running.
‘On my way.’ She was moving for the door even as she closed the phone, clattering down the stairs to the lobby of the apartment block, not bothering with handbag, gloves, scarf. Thank god she was still wearing her flat shoes. She could run in those. And she did.
The side street, usually dark in the late evening, was a carnival of glittering primary colours. Blue emergency, red police warning, yellow hazard. The street was sealed off further down by two police cars and an ambulance was outside the entrance to the shelter. Fuck.
She pushed past the small crowd of onlookers, and hurried down the steps. Familiar faces clustered in a group around the desk, Sam, sitting there, pale and shaking. Blood drying in dark stains on the desk and spattered on the floor and the wall.
‘Who’s been hurt?’
Shepherd had spoken to the police, a brief exchange of information just enough to satisfy them for the night, and had then gone to his room. No questions asked by the residents, no curious glances as he walked carefully away from the reception area, his hands still spattered with blood, his fingers clenched as if remembering that moment when he smashed the man’s arm. Head down as if he was embarrassed, he walked with precisely measured steps to his room, unlocking the door and then locking it again behind him before lowering himself to the bed to sit there, stiff and rigid as if afraid to move.
It took him a few minutes to summon up the courage to strip off his sweat shirt. The cheap fabric had no stretch, and caught mercilessly on his ribs as he eased it up. It was simpler to take the t-shirt off with it, at least that way he didn’t have to reach up more than once. Hissing and clenching his teeth against the sharp pain, he pulled them off with slow caution. He gave the sweat shirt a cursory look before dropping it onto the floor, seeing the dark wetness under the sleeve, the extent of the long gash in the cotton evidence of his failure to avoid the intruder’s knife.
There was nothing he could do yet, not until the police had finished and everyone had gone to bed. Not yet. Once the building settled down and it was quiet again, he could go across to the bathroom and clean himself up, get out of his stained jeans, have a shower, wash away the cloying blood that clung to him, sticky on his hands and body. Until then he would have to sit there and be patient.
He leaned forward to reach for the small scrubby hand towel he had been given on his first night here and even that small movement was sufficient to make him dizzy, to make him nearly cry out with the burning flash of pain that tore through his skin. He pressed the towel against the wound, hoping that the damage was not too severe, that he would not need stitches. It was just a case of waiting now.
It took time for Rebecca to get all the facts straight. Sam was beginning to recover from the shock, Dale standing solicitous in the background, offering coffee and tea to all and sundry, the police finishing their initial interviews, the assailant under arrest and on his way to hospital. John Shepherd was nowhere to be seen. Dale told Rebecca that Shepherd had spoken to the police, had explained what had happened and had then gone to his room. No one had seen him since. But that was not her concern right now. She ushered Sam home in a taxi, sent the men to their rooms with half-joking threats of eviction if they didn’t comply, and then started. She would be able to get the incident typed up before Sam’s replacement arrived. And then, well there was a bed in the medical room; she would kip down there for the remainder of the night. It was simply too much effort to contemplate going home again.
Sitting there, alone in the dimness of his solitary room, John Shepherd listened to the sounds outside. The hand towel was beginning to feel warm and wet under his hand, the cherry-red stain slowly spreading. It had to stop soon. Surely. Bending his head he forced himself to relax as he heard the others go by, tried to breath shallow even breaths, to will his body to heal itself, to push the pain away. Despite the warmth in the small room he was beginning to shiver and he tugged one of his blankets up and around his shoulders, even that movement enough to make him stifle a gasp. The sounds outside as the other men headed for their rooms and beds made him sigh with relief. It would not belong now, and then maybe he too could sleep when he had cleaned himself up.
The buzz of the intercom roused Rebecca out of her doze, her computer screen still lit in front of her, the report waiting to be finished, saved, filed, and probably forgotten in a few weeks. She let the night worker in before going back to typing, her fingers stiff and clumsy. It had to be done though, before the facts all merged into a blur, before details were forgotten and while she could still recall what had been said.
A toilet flushed, voices growled and muttered and the last footsteps echoed down the corridor, while John Shepherd waited there, alone, trembling with the cold that had pervaded his body. The soft noises died away, feet shuffling, doors slamming in the distance as he sat hunched on the bed rocking ever-so-slightly backwards and forwards to try to ease the throbbing discomfort that seemed to have taken over one side of his chest. He did not dare to move the sodden hand towel yet. Not yet.
Silence at last. Cautiously he stood, flinching as the blanket slid off his shoulders, his left arm still across his body, hand pressed against his ribs with fingers splayed in an attempt to keep the slash from gaping. His bath towel was on the hook behind the door and he dragged it down to let it fall over his shoulder rather than try to carry it. It was difficult lifting his right hand to reach for the door lock; that simple movement was painful enough for him to be aware of sweat breaking out as he forced his reluctant fingers to twist the catch. Pulling the door closed behind him, he leaned against the wall, summoning the strength to take the first steps across the corridor. It would be easier once he had got warmer, had loosened up maybe.
Once inside the tiny bathroom, behind the safety of the locked door, he relaxed. The light was brighter in here, and he carefully eased the temporary bandage away, wincing as dried blood caught and tugged. Even turning the shower on was painful. The room was filling with steam by the time he had struggled out of his remaining clothes and shivering almost uncontrollably, stepped under the torrent of water.
Rebecca sighed, clicked ‘save’, and logged off before she stretched and stood up. Aching with tiredness she walked into the common room, to head for the sanctuary of the medical room at the far end of the corridor.
There was something on the common room floor; she could see it dark and shining on the pale background. Flicking on the light she winced in the sudden bright illumination, the sharp shadows.
Blood. Spattered in small drips. A faint and unobtrusive trail that led to the further corridor and then puddled in neat blotches on the floor outside room 20, John Shepherd’s room. She stared, and tried the door. It was locked and her fingers on the handle felt not smooth metal, but a cloying, tacky sensation. Without pausing to think, she pulled out her pass key and opened the door.
The room was in darkness and she flicked on the light switch without thinking, only just realising as she did so that he might be asleep. Too late; but the room was empty. She took it all in with a single glance, the bed, sheets rumpled where he had sat down, one blanket tangled and twisted, a small heap of discarded clothes on the floor as if dropped in haste, smudges of blood on the floor.
Rebecca picked up the sweatshirt, the t-shirt still inside it as if he had stripped both off together, and held them, the dark material cold and wet in one place. She stretched the fabric out, seeing the crimson stain that surrounded the slit in the fabric. A narrow slash that had gone through both garments. She dropped them back to the floor and, heart pounding, began to search for John Shepherd.
It was easier than she had thought. The small splashes of blood might have gone unnoticed but she knew what to look for now and she followed the trail that led from his room across the corridor and down to the nearest bathroom.
She stood outside, listening to the sound of running water, and, angered and yet also concerned, twisted the catch to open the door, before marching in ready to vent her wrath.
Steam billowed out as the door opened. He was not at the basin as she had supposed, and she froze on seeing the tall figure standing there, his back to her, one hand on the wall as water poured over him, pooling palest brown in the cheap white shower tray. The knowledge that he must have been hurt in the attack, as well as the sudden realisation that he was in fact naked, made her reach for the thin and somewhat inadequate bath towel that was draped over the sink before she pulled open the shower door.
‘Just what the hell do you think you are doing?’ Concern made her voice harsher and louder than she had intended, and startled, John turned. He stumbled against the side of the cubicle, one hand reaching out again for support, the other clasped against his side, too exhausted to even be embarrassed at being found there. Without a word Rebecca held out the threadbare towel and when he made no move to take it, she leaned forward, wrapping it around his hips, her eyes watching his face as he stepped out, weary and hesitant.
She put the lid down on the toilet. ‘Here. Sit down and don’t move.’ He obeyed her numbly, eyes half-hooded and averted, water streaming from him to lie in neat pools on the linoleum floor while she turned off the shower. Head down and shoulders hunched he waited, as she crouched beside him, and with careful fingers prised his hand away from where it had been pressing against his side.
‘Jesus. What happened to you? Why the hell didn’t you say something?’ She looked up at his face, the eyes now closed, lips tight as if to suppress any sound of pain that he might inadvertently utter.
Shepherd took a deep breath and winced, ‘I’m fine, really. Just leave me alone.’ He leaned back against the cistern as her fingers continued to probe the edges of the deep slash that ran parallel to his ribs. She ignored him, her fingertips continuing to skim over the rapidly swelling wound while blood and water tracked down his skin and soaked into the towel she had wrapped around his hips. He put one hand on top of hers, fingers clasping, and opened his eyes to stare at her, ‘Please, leave it.’
‘Don’t be a fool, you’re bleeding like a stuck pig.’ she growled, pulling her hand free of his grasp and returning to investigate his injury. ‘This needs stitching.’ She stood up and stared down at him seeing his skin begin to quiver as he sat there, still wet from the shower and now getting cold once more.
There were other scars on his body, more than she had expected, more than she had seen before; old scars that rippled his skin, silvered and faded. She stepped back and folded her arms. ‘Stay there. I’ll call for an ambulance and bring some clean clothes from your room.’
‘No, really.’ his voice was quiet, pleading, ‘I’d rather not. And there’s no need. It will stop shortly, I’m sure it will,’ he grimaced up at her, with a wry smile. ‘If you can bring me a first-aid kit that will do.’ He looked back down at his thigh, one finger tracing a narrow silver scar that extended from under the scrubby towel for several inches, a perplexed expression on his face as if he had not been aware of it before.
‘It won’t hurt, you know,’ she started to argue, but he stood up holding the meagre towel in place with one hand, the other on the wall for support.
‘No, not hospital, not there. They…..’ He didn’t carry on, didn’t need to. She knew how they regarded homeless patients at the local A and E, and he’d been a patient there recently enough. No wonder he wanted to avoid a repeat of that experience.
John Shepherd, one hand pressed again the wall in a desperate attempt to keep himself upright, stared at Rebecca, willing her not to force him, not to insist on taking him to Casualty. There was something lurking at the back of his mind, the mere thought of returning to the hospital filled him with dread. ‘Rebecca, please, don’t make me.’ His eyes were shadowed with fear of more than just the thought of callous unconcerned doctors. A memory again, of being hunted, of strangers wanting to harm him. He only knew that he was safe here, safer than anywhere else and that Rebecca would help him.
It was obvious that he was not going to comply, that even if she called an ambulance he would refuse to go. There was nothing for it but to deal with it herself. ‘Okay, I won’t, but you need to get a dressing on that cut. At least let me do that? Yes?’ It was her turn to plead this time, as she stepped forward and took his arm. ‘Come on. There’s a medical room just down the corridor. I can patch you up, at least for the time being.’
Without giving him a chance to argue she opened the door and, guiding him out onto the corridor, headed for the room almost hidden away at the other end. It was identical in size to his and as austere and functional with a bed, easy chair, cupboards and a neat but functional sink. He stood in the doorway, hesitant and unsure of what she expected from him.
‘Sit down on the bed. No, on second thoughts, John, lie down.’ She eased him back, until he was lying flat and staring at the ceiling, his face impassive, as if all thoughts of arguing had fled. He listened to the sounds of doors opening, material slurring, small rustles and the clink of metal. He was cold. The warmth from the shower had gone, his skin was still damp, and the sharp sting and burn of the slash was beginning to overrun his senses, making him unable to concentrate on the things around him. It filled his mind and flooded his nerves until he wanted to clutch at his ribs in a vain attempt to stop the onslaught.
‘There.’ Her voice was closer than he had thought and he flinched as something heavy fell over his lower body. It took a moment for him to recognise the feel of a blanket, thick and soft as she tucked it around his hips and legs, the weight and warmth making his shivering lessen and finally fade. Her hand tightened on his wrist, and he cringed again as she moved his elbow away from his body. ‘I can’t see it clearly; just raise your arm will you?’ and he obeyed in silence, lifting it to rest across his body, his hand now on his shoulder, his eyes still focussed on the ceiling, on the strip light, not wanting to look at her. Even that small movement hurt now, as abused and swollen skin complained.
‘No,’ she murmured to herself, and took his wrist again, lifting his arm up and over his head, bending it so that his head was nestled in the crook of his elbow. Skin gaped and he gritted his teeth, biting his lips to stop himself from calling out.
‘I’m sorry,’ she put her hand on his shoulder in apology, a warm and comforting contact, ‘but I need to be able to get at it. I’ll clean it now. This will sting, but it has to be done.’
The light was hurting his eyes and he closed them as she moved nearer to him, her breath soft on his skin now as she examined the wound, her fingers moving with delicate care as they traced the boundaries. He kept himself still, unwilling to speak, his breathing shallow and faint as he waited, as she moved away leaving a cold space next to him. Water running, a cloth moistened and wrung out, liquid dripping into a bowl, the familiar sounds soothed him as he lay there, the blanket cocooning him in security.
Her breath again, on his chest this time, and with his senses now honed to sharpness by pain he caught the tang of antiseptic solution close to him.
That initial touch of deep warmth was comforting, but he knew what was going to come next and turned his head away from Rebecca as she pressed the cloth harder against his side. There was no time to do more than gasp in one deep breath and hold it as rigidly as he held his body. The antiseptic burned through raw flesh, stinging without mercy. Shepherd, for all his resolve, clenched his fists and teeth in a futile attempt to prevent the stifled cry that escaped his lips. There was no escape from this, no way of relieving the pain which had to be endured, and so he lay there, crushing his shoulders and his heels down, his muscles cramped with the strain of fighting the burning that seemed to consume him.
Rebecca concentrated on flushing the wound with the solution, paying no attention to the muted sounds of distress from the man lying there as she continued to probe and wipe and dab at the bloody slash. He was pale and sweating by the time she finished and squeezed the cloth out one last time and she put her hand once more on his chest, as if to try to ease his frantic gasps.
‘Done,’ she sighed, ‘Lie still. I need to close it up now.’ She felt the tension in his body gradually slacken until his breathing was less ragged, his fingers loose and his eyes open once more. He turned to stare at her, a thin look, dull and listless, his clammy skin still trembling under her hands.
It took time for Rebecca to close the wound with steri-strips, and then dress it. Shepherd was silent throughout, watching her through eyes half-closed in the aftermath, not seeming to notice as she moved his arm back against his side before tucking more blankets over and around him. She smoothed his hair into its usual neat style before her hand moved down the side of his face to caress his cheek. ‘Okay?’ Warm enough?’ and when he replied with a mute and exhausted blink of assent, she smiled, ’Good, get some sleep and try not to move too much. I’ll take another look at it in the morning.’
She dimmed the light to a soft glow and he allowed himself to fall asleep, aware that she was still there, wrapping herself in a blanket as well before she settled down in the big easy chair to watch over him.
She sat there, listening to the sounds of life, the occasional breath held against the continued pain that invaded his sleep, the slight stir against thick material as he moved. The blanket that enveloped her was warm, and so was the room but even so she felt cold, not that coolness of lowering temperatures, but a deeper chill that seemed to fill her with dread.
Where would this lead to? What was going to happen? Her heart constricted as she contemplated the future, and the past. The hurts, the treachery, the pain that she had suffered and was still enduring. Thirty-five, single, alone. She had never planned for this, had confidently expected that by now she would be settled, secure, loved. And look what had happened. Life had betrayed her, abandoned her to an empty sterile existence where even fellow workers looked at her with something akin to contempt. She knew what Barry thought of her.
He stirred again, muttering as if speaking to someone, and she unwrapped herself to go and stand beside him seeing his eyes closed, lips moving, soft sounds. ‘Shh,’ she whispered, before pulling the covers back with delicate caution. Good. The dressing looked clean; bloodstained but not overly. She tucked the blanket back around his shoulders and stared down at his face, as if she had not really seen it before.
Clean skin, unmarked and untainted by drugs or the redness of alcoholism, a handsome face. Well no, not really handsome. She’d always considered handsome to be more rugged somehow, that certain indefinable appearance that she had associated with the heroes of her teenage years. Dark-haired, square-jawed, a body with muscle and power; that had always been her ideal image. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, the images came to mind, charismatic men of action. Every woman’s dream. Someone to sweep them off their feet, to transport them to wondrous destinations, to treasure them, to protect them.
But she hadn’t been protected had she? He hadn’t done that. HE. The man she had entrusted with her life. The man with whom she had planned a future. The one who should have cherished her, supported her, shared her life. And he had betrayed her. Utterly.
She shuddered as the memory swept over her again. She had thought it was over, that it was finally in the past, that it had been entombed deep within her, under the rubble of the last long years of mundane work and study and boredom. Dear lord she had tried hard enough to bury it. What had this man, sleeping here in front of her, done to bring it up to the surface again? How dare he come here and disturb her ordered existence, her dry and unthreatening plans for a future of dreary work and duty.
Or was it him?
She lowered herself onto the edge of the bed, not wanting to disturb his sleep, but needing to be close. Hands clasped together, she held herself rigid, looking down at the man there. The first time in so many years that she had felt so close to a man. To have touched him, as she did the night before, to have dared slip into his bed, to hold him with such a sense of safety and, yes, a sense of desire.
Desire. She hadn’t desired a man since. Since. She took a deep gasping breath, and exhaled slowly. So why this man? What hold did he have over her after such a short time? She hadn’t intended to sleep with him, and she laughed softly. Sleep with a man….the euphemism for sex, and yet those few brief hours she had spent curled close to him as he slept were more sensuous, more intense than any encounter she could remember.
Her fingers were stiff with tension, her shoulders tight, as she sat there, her eyes filling with tears of regret. Regret for the mistakes of her past, for her lost future, the chances that passed her by. And this man was the catalyst. If he had not arrived on that night just one week ago, she would still be here, still be working, still be alone at night in her beautiful apartment that was the symbol of her hollow success and her failure, and mocked by those who thought of her as incapable of any emotional involvement. She would still be imprisoned inside that fortress that she had so carefully constructed around herself, distanced from the slightest emotional contact, protected from the possibility of any further hurt, but his arrival had brought those memories up to the surface again.
She reached out one tentative hand, her fingers trembling with anticipation. She had touched him before, touched his face, his skin. His body. She had even seen him naked, but this was different. This was.. secret. This was… she pulled back, clasping her hands together in uncertainty. He would not be aware of her touch, and it was not a touch of need, he didn’t need her hand now to calm him, or quieten the nightmare, or to cleanse his skin. Not even a touch to sooth him after she had hurt him. No, this would be … theft. She would be stealing from him. Stealing something that she had never thought she could ever want again. She eased the cover back, down past the broad shoulders, past the stained dressing on his ribs. He did not stir; the room was warm enough for him not to be aware of the change.
The feel of his skin under her hands. His body there for her, not to abuse, not to treat with contempt or to mock. The pulse of his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his chest as he slept, that soft touch of his breath, even the roughness of the beard on his jaw, all these were there, waiting for her, as if in anticipation of her need.
He slept on, as if spellbound by the silence in the small room. She had no fears that he would wake if she placed her hand on his chest, on the sprinkling of pale hair that grew on his breastbone, no fears that his eyes would open and he would stare at her, with blue eyes anxious and full of distrust.
She wiped the treacherous tears away, and leaned forward, feeling the warmth of his body rising to meet her hand as she gently touched him with just her fingertips, so lightly at first that she was almost unsure that she had actually made contact, then with growing confidence and wonder lowered her hand to let it lie flat on his breast, delighting at the beat of his pulse, at the feel of surprisingly firm muscles lying there under pale skin.
The only sound she could hear now was her own breathing, loud in the stillness, as she sat there, poised to jerk back, to break that contact, should he stir. And deep within she knew that she wanted him to wake, wanted him to open those eyes. She wanted him to see her, to know that she was here. That she existed. That she was a person, real, alive.
But he was still. The only movement that of his chest, slow regular breathing and her hand rising and falling with him. For these few minutes she was at peace, safe and trusted, no-one judging her, or condemning her. A chance to think about her life and what was to be.
He moved his head, as if aware that she was sitting looking down at him, and she tensed. But her hand stayed firm, betraying her instinct to abandon him and move back to the safety of the easy chair that was waiting for her. She knew that once she stood up she would never again have the courage to return to sit so close to him. To touch, to watch and maybe to dream of what might have been. He didn’t wake, just murmured about a shadow and settled once again into his dreams.
In the muted light she sat there, as silver-bright memories darted through her mind. Silly fleeting thoughts. His hand on her head, holding her gently as she cried, the smell of soap, his heart beating as she clung to him, the glint of light on pale hair, his fingers as they trickled her bracelet into the palm of her hand, the taste of his skin on her lips. Small precious moments. And, tired, she lay down next to him, not as before, close and comforting; she did not need that now, and neither did he. It was enough to lie there, separated by the blankets, her hand still light on his body but knowing that, whatever happened to John Shepherd, whoever he was, whatever future he had waiting for him, he had released her from her self-imposed isolation and she would never be the same again.
Hell, it hurt. More than he had expected, much more. He hardly dared to move he was so sore and he lay there trying to summon up enough courage to turn over while his ribs throbbed and burned. It didn’t help that there was something heavy on the bed next to him. He cursed himself for his foolishness in getting injured, but he could not have stood by while Sam was threatened. He might not know his name but he knew that whoever he was, whatever he did, he would never have allowed any man to slash a woman open as the attacker had intended doing.
Rolling his shoulders he loosened the stiffened and tight muscles but even that simple movement tugged at the swollen skin making him gasp sharply as the dressing snagged on the blanket. He lay still, waiting for the stinging to lessen and slowly eased his left hand up to ……..
Fingers. A hand light and soft on his chest. And he felt the fingers clench and slide across his skin as if reluctant to lose contact.
She was here, with him, but not to reassure him or dispel his nightmares this time. He had anticipated that she would have been watching over him; over the last few days he had come to know her well enough to be aware that she took her responsibilities seriously. Too seriously at times. But he had not expected her to be here now, on his bed. Shepherd turned his head with care, unwilling to disturb her sleep.
She was awake, her eyes watching his face with wonder, as if she had never seen him before, her hand slowly retreating from his body.
‘Hello.’ his voice was quiet, hesitant, as if he was scared to break the spell that seemed to have pervaded the small room.
‘How are you feeling?’ her voice was as tentative, as soft.
He didn’t answer. What was there to say? The truth? That he felt lost and afraid and scared? That he ached and hurt and throbbed. But that, at the same time, she made him feel wanted and accepted. Did he have the right to do that to her? To put that responsibility on her? To make her aware just how lonely he felt? It was not fair. To her, or to any family that he might have out there waiting for his return. Though somehow John Shepherd knew that he had no-one, knew that he was alone and that this woman had shown him more tenderness in this last week than he had experienced for a long time.
He lifted one hand, and laid it against the side of her face. ‘It’s early; go back to sleep.’ And he closed his eyes and sighed. Regret or relief? He wasn’t sure. The only thing he knew was that he wanted her to stay.
Friday early am
‘So, tell me,’ Sara murmured drowsy with sleep, her head on Alec’s shoulder, her short hair tickling his shoulder and neck, ‘could your friend have had a twin brother?’
‘Twin? I don’t think so, why?’ Alec pulled her closer, the fingers of one hand exploring her spine, intent on distracting her.
‘Hmm….’ she sighed with pleasure as his other hand cupped her breast, finger and thumb gently fondling with almost absent-minded caresses. ‘Yes a twin. That would explain the likeness and the scars.’
His lips nuzzled her ear, ‘Scars?’ he murmured, his mouth now exploring her jaw, kissing, moving closer to her open lips. He closed his mouth on her lower lip, sucking and licking, before his tongue slowly breached the gap and she answered him in kind, exploring with her own lips and tongue until they paused to take breath.
‘Scars,’ she muttered in his ear, as her fingers played on his chest, circling, tantalising, ‘Twins who live apart tend to have similar accidents and wounds… would explain the scars. Studies show……’
His kiss silenced her quite thoroughly this time, making her forget about studies and scars, until eventually they both fell asleep, arms and legs still entangled, bodies exhausted by spent passion.
‘Alec, wake up,’ an amused voice said in his ear. ‘Don’t you have a job to go to?’ and he felt a cold chill on his shoulders as she pulled the covers away .
‘Hell. What time is it?’ He sat up, aware that he had, for the first time in over a week, slept properly. A sleep free of nightmares, and now, on waking he felt as if the world had changed. That wrenching despondency that had sat like a cold weight in his belly was gone. There was hope now. Slight hope, but at least that was better than none at all.
She grinned down at him. ‘Gone six. Here. Coffee. I’m off now. And,’ she paused, blushing, ‘last night was, …well you know.’
‘Nice?’ and they both laughed. He reached out for the drink, ‘I’ll call you today, let you know how I get on looking for Ed.’ He waited, wondering what she would say, hoping that she would avoid any difficult question.
‘If I were you, I’d start by looking in the city centre. You said he was tired and stressed. It’s quite possible that he simply wanted to walk away from everything.’ Sara sat on the edge of the bed. ‘It happens more than you think, worn-out business men just disappearing like that. They turn up eventually, when being homeless gets too difficult. It’s just interesting that his mirror image was found dead at the same time. Still, life is full of strange coincidences isn’t it?’ and she stared at him before bending to kiss him soundly on the lips. He was not quick enough to grab her before she was up and off the bed, out of reach. ‘No need to call me. Rebecca told me that she was coming to see you today with her guys, and as I’m off work I’m taking you up on your offer to join her. So I will see you in a few hours.’ and she was gone.
After he heard her car drive away he stared at the ceiling and organised the confusion of his thoughts and the chaotic memories of what he had learned last night. And he realised what had happened; SHADO was, even now, doing its own research into clones and genetic copies and human facsimiles.
That what they had done, the bastards, they’d cloned Ed. They’d somehow got hold of his genome and built a copy. Any distinctive scars would have been added later, except for that one slight, almost unseen, imperfection on Ed’s lower lip. That was not in the medical records, not on the databases; too insignificant to actually be worth mentioning. Thank God.
And Sara’s ‘long-lost twin’ theory was sufficiently plausible so that SHADO wouldn’t have to administer the amnesia drug. If she had even considered that the body might have been a genetic copy then the situation could have become very complicated. Cloning at that level meant scientific advances beyond the current level of human capability. Awkward questions might have been asked and he would have needed to silence her. Alec sighed with relief. After last night there was the promise of something more than just friendship between them.
It was early, but not too early to get to work and start searching. The only problem was that it needed to be done covertly without anyone else finding out what he was up to because someone close to Ed, possibly even someone in SHADO, had betrayed him to the enemy. Perhaps they had him held prisoner even now, in some unlit basement, waiting to be taken to the alien homeworld. One thing was certain though; Alec Freeman could not let this information go any further. There were only two people he could trust right now; himself and Straker. Even Paul Foster was not beyond suspicion, hateful though that was.
He pushed back the covers and headed for the bathroom and a quick shower, invigorated by the knowledge that there was now a chance that Ed Straker might be found.
The studio was beginning to buzz with activity as he entered the reception area, but it was too early for Miss Ealand to have arrived. He put his briefcase down on her desk and opened the inner office door with a flick of the switch. Not his office, Ed’s office, still. And he was glad that he hadn’t actually cleared anything away, that he had left it as it was. Perhaps Ed would return to sit behind his desk and scowl at the insistent demands of actors and producers. Time would tell.
Once inside the other office, the one hidden away underground, the real one as he had always thought of it, he started work, pulling up databases, hacking into triple-locked security systems, looking for any information. Search words were easy. Straker, male, blond, blue-eyed, American accent, height six foot. Any and all combinations through the police and missing person networks. He even sidestepped SIS and logged into their local intelligence accounts. A time-consuming task, as he had to stop work every time he was interrupted by a call or a visitor. He simply did not dare tell anyone else what he was doing. Too much was at stake here. He trawled on, getting deeper and deeper into confidential records and covert operations.
Nothing. Nothing at all. A clean slate. No-one by that description. And then it hit him. Fuck, how had he missed it? There were no records of the body either. The one that was Straker and yet not. So where the bloody hell were they? There must be records, there had to be records, so why could he not find them?
They must have been deleted. That was the only thing explanation. Someone had got there before Alec and had removed all references to Ed Straker, dead or alive.
Alec put his head in his hands. It was hopeless. If, as he suspected, a traitor was responsible for Ed’s disappearance, then it was unlikely that anyone would be able to trace him now that the police records had been wiped clean. All he could do was to hope that Sara’s suggestion was right and that Ed had somehow escaped from whoever had captured him and was now, for whatever reason, hiding out until he could get in touch with SHADO.
Unless he couldn’t for some reason or other. Perhaps he had been hurt. Of course.
Alec swore to himself as he pulled up the map and started locating A and E units closest to where the body of the clone had been found. It was a somewhat desperate course of action, but at least it was better than doing nothing. He was just dialling the first number when his intercom interrupted him. He swallowed angry thoughts at being disturbed yet again, reached across the desk and pressed the button, composing himself. ‘Freeman.’
‘I’m sorry to trouble you Mr Freeman, but Miss Rebecca Steel has arrived.’ There was an unspoken question in the calm efficient secretary’s voice. Alec could see Miss Ealand, sitting there, her head tilted in that fetching way as she wondered whether this was just another waste of his precious time.
Miss Steel; and then he remembered; Sara’s friend, and a quick smile flashed over his face as he also recalled that warm enticing hand on his body last night. ‘I’ll be right up Miss Ealand.’ With any luck he could say hello to Rebecca Steel, have a quick word with Sara, and then hand the whole group over to Max who could take charge. He needed to carry on searching. Hang on Ed, he thought to himself. I will find you.
Miss Ealand read through the brief security details that Commander Freeman had requested as a matter of course. Rebecca Steel; age 35, manager of a shelter for homeless men in Hounslow. No criminal record, no husband, no current partner even. The photograph that accompanied the dossier revealed a face that was not exactly beautiful, certainly not a film starlet with the china-doll prettiness, but she had a nice smile.
The secretary closed the folder and placed it on the top of a pile of other ones. As she picked them up to take through to Commander Freeman’s outer office, the edge of the stack caught against a photograph frame on her desk and knocked it over with a clatter. A picture of a man and a boy, smiling at each other, both blond haired and blue-eyed. She gave a small cry of concern and picked up the frame, replacing it on her desk with gentle care.
John Shepherd had not woken when Rebecca eased herself off the bed and tucked the blankets around him before leaving as quietly as possible. The medical room was well out of the way and he had not even been disturbed by the other men getting ready to leave. She gave firm instructions to the Project workers about letting him sleep and then she walked home, through streets empty of all except early office workers. It seemed to take longer than usual, or perhaps she was simply more tired, it was hard to say, but she was bone-weary and close to tears and another long day stretched ahead of her.
She opened the door to her own apartment and stood there in the small entrance hall looking round at the neat space. Her coat hanging there, her spare shoes underneath, her bag where she always left it. Everything in its proper place just as she liked it. An ordered existence and one that was full of the trappings of success, but an empty one for all that. She trudged upstairs and ran the shower.
A change of clothes, the barest application of make-up, shoulder length copper-red hair brushed and tied back, a glass of orange juice gulped down with haste while she poured water on the desiccated plant on her kitchen windowsill, one final look in the mirror to check that she was presentable, and she was back out again, buttoning her jacket and with her bag slung over one shoulder.
She could have handed over responsibility to Barry, or another senior worker, but this was too important to delegate to someone else, and after all she had nothing better to do had she? Alec Freeman’s offer of work and training for some of the men was one of the best things to happen to the shelter in months and she owed it to the men to try to help them sort out their lives, to get them into some work, some decent housing. What was that quote? ‘He who saves one life saves the world entire?’ Well, she was doing her best, but somehow it seemed an endless and thankless task.
John Shepherd. She hadn’t exactly saved his life, but, perhaps she had made it a bit more bearable for him. Sometimes that was all one could do.
The coach was already there, parked outside the drab building and Dale was waiting for her in reception, embarrassed and somewhat diffident. Rebecca paused, unsure.
‘Miss Steel,’ he hesitated, ‘Shepherd, is he okay? I didn’t realise last night that he’d been hurt. It all happened so fast, the police and everything.’
Dale. Of all people, Dale was concerned. She wondered why, what had happened between Shepherd and Dale, why this sudden concern. ‘He is……. fine Dale. Just sleeping now I hope. Why?’ The harsh note to her voice surprised the man standing there, and he stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets and shuffled back.
‘Well, I was hoping, ….. ‘ he paused, head down, ‘ he promised…’
‘Dale, what? What did he promise?’ Rebecca had a moment of sickening horror at the thought that maybe she had been completely and utterly wrong about Shepherd. He was a dealer. He had promised Dale drugs. She had trusted him. She had been betrayed. Again. ‘Drugs?’ her voice cracked with the strain.
‘No. No Miss Steel, nothing like that.’ Dale hurried to reassure her, before explaining uncomfortably, ‘he was going to show me some good internet sites to help build my computer skills. I… well…….’ he lowered his voice, ‘I want to learn to use computers properly. So I can make a website for my son when the wife lets me see him. John has been helping me with a lot of things, stuff like learning computer programming and looking for courses that would help me.’
She had never seen Dale so anxious, and yet so determined. ‘I think he will be awake later, but he won’t be coming to the studio today, he needs to rest. You should get ready Dale, we’re leaving shortly.’
‘I’ll stay here if that’s alright with you Miss, I can keep an eye on Shepherd for you and besides, I don’t really think a film studio would employ someone like me.’ He spread his hands wide and she looked at him, at his thick fingers, his bulk, all those outward and yet irrelevant signs that made him ‘invisible’ to a judgemental world.
Rebecca put her hand on his arm and smiled with sympathy, ‘Thank you Dale. I appreciate it. Barry will be here anyway, so you don’t have to worry. Get on with your computer work, and if you make a list of courses that you might find useful, I’ll do my best to get some funding for you. Now, I need to get going. See you later, and Dale…….?’ she smiled at him with a wry grin, ‘don’t get drunk just because I’m not here.’
He had the good grace to blush a little, ‘I won’t. Have a good day and I’ll check on Shepherd for you, don’t worry.’
It was time to go, and although she felt uneasy at leaving she had no other option. Sara was waiting at the entrance to the shelter. ‘I hope this is going to be worth it, Sara,’ Rebecca sighed as she sat down in the coach, ‘your Alec Freeman had better not be wasting my time today.’
‘Rough day yesterday?’
‘As always.’ Rebecca lowered her voice and turned away from her friend, ‘Sometimes I could give it all up, hand in my notice, and join the great mass of unemployed.’ She bit her lips, staring with bright eyes out of the side window, watching the landscape, fiddling with her bracelet and thinking.
The door to the medical room opened, and Dale poked his head in, unwilling to disturb the occupant, but also concerned about his mentor. Shepherd had been the first person in a long time to look beyond the outer skin of Dale, to see the man inside, the one who was so introverted and unsure of himself. Years of abuse had turned Dale into a bully himself, simply as a means to ensure his survival, and yet Shepherd had not retaliated, had not openly humiliated Dale on that first day as he so easily could have done.
The memory of Shepherd’s hand pushing him away in that one authoritative yet discreet motion was enough to make Dale blush, but, since that moment there had been a tacit understanding between them and Shepherd had acted afterwards as if nothing had happened. He had even gone out of his way to encourage Dale’s efforts to learn basic computer programming. No one had ever really bothered before, no doubt thinking he wasn’t worth the effort; certainly the project workers at the Shelter seemed to regard him with contempt. One more fat and useless addict. That was how they saw him; a total waste of space.
Dale remembered standing there glowering with envy as Shepherd, confident and sure of what he was doing, had started tinkering with the computer on his second day in the shelter. Shepherd must have been aware of the other man’s feigned disinterest, because sometime later he had asked Dale to give him some help with a relatively simple task and that action had been sufficient to get the two working together. The newcomer had been observant enough to see past the blustering and bullying that was Dale’s armour, and now Dale was trying to repay that small kindness in the only way that he knew.
It was strange being here, watching someone sleeping and wondering what to do, whether he should make sure Shepherd was alright or simply leave him to sleep. He had a recollection of standing and watching his son sleep, the dark eyelashes on pale cheeks, one thumb tucked into his small mouth, a time of happiness that had long since faded. Dale stepped into the room to check and leaned over the man as he had leaned over his sleeping child so many times to tickle his son’s small hand and feel the fingers lightly grasp his own.
He reached out lightly to Shepherd’s hand as if to reassure himself that the man was merely sleeping. Fingers made contact, and with a startled gasp of horror Shepherd sat upright, a sudden sharp movement, his eyes still unseeing, hands reaching under the pillow as if to search for something. Then he groaned and leaned forward, breath ragged.
‘Hell, that hurts.’ He looked up briefly, his eyes perplexed, ‘Dale?’
Atwood was standing there, hands raised as if to defend himself, his eyes wide with fear. ‘Bloody hell, John, you look like fucking death. I didn’t mean to wake you, really. Just came in to see if you were all right.’ He paused…. ‘You are all right aren’t you?’
The pale head nodded in assent, Shepherd’s lips pressed tightly together as if he was holding back the truth. ‘What time is it?’ He sat, knees drawn up and head bowed with tiredness.
‘Just after ten. Everyone else has gone out but Miss Steel asked me to keep an eye on you. Do you want a drink now you’re awake?’ The bed creaked as Dale perched uneasily on the edge, ‘I can get you some clean things from your room if you want. Barry has your key. Miss Steel gave it to him.’ There was a note of childish pleading in Dale’s voice and it was that which made John Shepherd lift his head to look at the man sitting there, hands clasped together in concern.
‘Yes, if you don’t mind, thank you,’ Shepherd gave a thin smile, ‘it’s about time I got up anyway.’ He waited until the door had closed behind Dale and then clenched his fists as sharp pain flared through his side again. He lay down again knowing that he would have to take it very easy today
Mason Rimmer had spent Thursday in a sickening haze of sobering-up. By the time he had sweated out the last of the alcoholic poison in a vinegar-sharp stink and had managed to rehydrate himself, a whole day had slid by in a blur of vomiting and blinding excruciating headaches.
But, he was close to getting Straker. That was all that mattered. With any luck it would take one phone call to check, and then he could go and collect his ‘friend’. Then maybe they, the ones who came at night into his dreams with their faces hidden behind swirls of green fluid and their minds screaming at him in his thoughts, maybe then they would keep their promise. He hoped that they would, but in reality Mason Rimmer knew that he was theirs, that he had sold his soul to the devil and he would never be released. Who would they want next he wondered? Alec Freeman? And after that? Would it ever end? He pushed himself upright and leaned against the bedroom wall to steady himself. A shower. That was the first thing; the search would have to wait a little longer. After all, no-one else was looking for Ed Straker, were they? He had waited long enough, he could wait a little while more to get her back.
It was well after nine before he finally felt human enough to start phoning, his stomach still protesting at the mere thought of coping with anything other than tepid water, his head still aching despite the painkillers.
It seemed to take forever to get through to anyone in the right department. Mason was weary of repeating the same lies; his brother-in-law from America, touring the UK, hasn’t been in contact for over a week… easy phrases that would allay any suspicions. It sounded plausible and it obviously was, because in the end, after being transferred to yet another anonymous receptionist in yet another obscure department he managed to get an answer.
‘Yes, we had a patient admitted last Thursday morning, very early. No name, but he fits the description of your brother-in-law. We got in touch with Social Services as he had no idea who he was, couldn’t remember anything at all in fact. They organised a place for him to stay until the police had contacted his relatives. I can give you their phone number if you want?’
He scribbled the number down with shaking hands, wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs and dialled. Not long now he reassured himself.
It didn’t take much time to get the information he needed. Of all places to end up in; a refuge for homeless men. It was ironic really, Ed Straker living among those useless reprobates. He gave a cynical laugh as he pictured the commander standing there directing a bunch of addicts and alcoholics.
Mason punched in the postcode for the Shelter, and set off, one-handedly opening a packet of mints and crunching a couple to freshen his breath. The last thing he needed now was to be stopped by the police and breathalysed. Even his SIS security wouldn’t protect him from that, and so he drove with caution, watching the road and the other drivers, acutely conscious that he was not as alert as he needed to be.
His innocuous looking briefcase lay on the seat next to him, a slightly battered and rather old-fashioned case, but it served its purpose. Its disreputable appearance had the advantage of helping to conceal the fact that it contained, among other useful tools of his trade, his handgun. He hoped he would not have to use it; it wasn’t that he was apprehensive about killing anyone, far from it, it was just the fact that he was a little out of practice and he had never been a really accurate marksman. Mason preferred to leave the grubby work of murder to someone else. Clean hands. He liked to keep himself separate from the dirty side of the business; it was unpleasant enough having to dispose of bodies, the thought of actually having to take responsibility for killing a man was……… not something that he wanted to think about, even though he had trained for just such an eventuality.
But he would have to dispose of Straker at some point. That much was now quite clear. He swallowed acid bile and wondered exactly how he was going to deal with that.
Mason drove on, clammy hands on the steering wheel, casting a glance at the briefcase from time to time, and listening to the dry monotonous sat-nav that was guiding him inexorably to Straker.
Hounslow’s main street was crowded with shoppers, and it took him longer than he had thought to get to the side street where the shelter was situated but finally he saw it. Nearly there, he thought to himself with relief.
The street was quiet, and he had no problems parking in the restricted zone close to the shabby and almost unnoticeable door. His government credentials would ensure that he was not booked, and as he locked the car he scanned the immediate area. Nothing. No-one watching. No lurkers, no casual shoppers. Perfect. He unlocked the briefcase and slipped his handgun into his shoulder holster. The door to the basement refuge was in the direct line of a security camera and he averted his face, unwilling to have any record of his presence here.
He took a deep breath, slipped fine leather gloves on his hands to avoid leaving any unnecessary fingerprints, and pressed the buzzer.
The blurred voice over the intercom was hardly audible. A muttered syllable distorted by static.
Mason leaned closer and spoke. ‘I’m looking for my brother-in-law. I was told he might be here. Came in last week possibly. Tall, American accent. Blond hair. The hospital said he was suffering from amnesia.’ He stepped back, still keeping his head down. There was a buzz and a click.
The voice spoke again, more distinctly, ‘Door’s open, come down.’
Simple as that. So far so good. Mason tensed as he walked down the stairs, unsure of what he was going to meet. Would he be able to get Straker out of the building without any problems or would the commander recognise him? He hoped not, but he would deal with that situation if it arose.
He pushed open the heavy fire door at the bottom of the stairs and entered a wide reception area, with just one man sitting behind the desk. Mason paused, cast a swift glance around to get his bearings and then stepped forward, hand outstretched.
‘Simon Roberts,’ Mason introduced himself with one of his familiar work aliases, ‘I do hope you can help me. My brother-in-law has been missing for over a week now.’ He looked around, wondering why the place seemed so quiet. ‘This is Ed.’ He held out a photograph, passing it over the desk to the man.
Barry gave it one cursory glance and handed it back. ‘Yep. He’s here. Came in last Thursday morning. You’re in luck. Everyone else has gone off today but Shepherd is still here.’
‘Shepherd?’ Mason looked perplexed and Barry laughed.
‘Yep, John Shepherd, that’s how he’s listed on our books. So, what’s his real name?’
Mason hesitated, his mind suddenly a blank. ‘Ed. Ed… Rimmer.’ Damn why had he given that name. He was uneasy, that was the problem. There was so much that could still go wrong. ‘Can I take him home now? We’ve been worried about him, wondered what had happened.’
He waited, expectant, a look of caring concern on his face.
‘Sure thing,’ Barry said, ‘I’ll go and see if he’s dressed yet. He’ll probably be glad to see a familiar face anyway. It might be enough to jolt his memory.’
He pushed his chair back and stood up, just as the telephone rang.
A Studio tour was just setting off from the main reception area as Alec Freeman headed out to meet Sara and Miss Steel, having asked Max to come and show the men some of the work that was done in the construction areas. The group stood aside, watching with some amusement as the coach load of pensioners on a day trip followed their guide like a faithful and devoted puppy.
‘Miss Steel, Dr Harper, gentlemen, thank you for coming today,’ Alec was all charm and smiles, ‘Can I introduce Max, our construction manager. He will be showing you the work he does here and the facilities we have. I’ll meet you later in the canteen at lunch time and I can answer any questions then. Max?’ Alec handed the group over with a nod, before turning to the two women. ‘Miss Steel, would you like to come with me first? I can show you some of the training courses we offer, and then you can see if there is anything that you might want to consider using.’ He paused, and turned to her companion, ‘Sara, do you want to come along as well?’ There was time for one tiny private moment, one quick shared glance and a smile, then he led the way back to Miss Ealand’s office, his mind wanting to focus once more on his abortive search for Ed.
Rebecca noticed the unspoken communication between the two, saw the flash of a smile that passed between them and smiled, even though there was a measure of envy in her thoughts.
Alec ushered them both in to the office at the end of the main reception area. ‘Miss Ealand,’ he acknowledged the elegant woman behind the desk who had been talking on the phone as they arrived, ‘this is Miss Steel from the Hounslow Shelter Project. We’re hoping to work to develop our community links between her organisation and the studio. And this is Doctor Harper, a friend of hers.’
Dr Harper. Miss Ealand remembered reading the G6 report on Sara Harper, the pathologist, and for a single moment her face became unreadable as she thought about what Dr Harper had done and how Alec Freeman had come to meet her, before, once again the efficient secretary, she gave the two women a quick and professional smile. Still holding the phone, she looked at her boss, ‘Mr Freeman, I’ve got Mr Foster on the line. He needs to speak to you as a matter of urgency. I’ll put the call through to your office for you.’ A glance passed between them, and Alec nodded, his face tightening for a moment with concern.
‘Thank you.’ He turned to the two women, ‘Sorry about this, I hope it won’t take long. Miss Ealand will look after you.’ He went into the inner office and the door closed behind him as his secretary waited to transfer the call. She heard him pick up the phone; ‘Freeman. What’s the problem Paul?’ and she put her receiver down and looked up at Rebecca and Sara.
‘I’m sorry about this, but I’m sure Mr Freeman wont be too long. Now, can I get you a cup of tea or coffee while you are waiting?’
Rebecca smiled, ‘Please, that would be lovely. Tea if that is all right.’
Sara Harper perched on the edge of the desk, looking around the office, ‘No I’m fine thank you. I must say you have some wonderful art work on display here. Some very fine pieces.’
‘Yes, Mr Straker appreciated modern art and liked to see it on show.’ Her expression grew sad as she looked around the office, and Rebecca could see the loss in her eyes.
‘Mr Straker? I wondered about the name Harlington Straker.’ Rebecca said.
The secretary smiled at her, ‘Mr Straker was in charge of the studios until his death very recently. We are still…’ she paused, ‘still getting used to the fact that he is no longer here.’ She reached out to touch the photograph frame on her desk with one elegant slender finger. Rebecca moved closer to look.
‘Dear God’ she said. ‘John.’ She grabbed the frame and held it.
‘Rebecca, are you alright? What’s wrong?’ Sara moved to stand beside her friend, one arm protectively around Rebecca’s shoulder, her hand reaching for the photograph. ‘Who is John?’
‘John was Mr Straker’s son.’ Miss Ealand answered, mystified by the reaction of the woman who was even now clinging to the photograph.
‘No. John. This is John.’ Rebecca looked at her, eyes wide. ‘My John. Not the boy. The man in this picture. He’s John Shepherd. He’s been staying in the Shelter.’
Miss Ealand acted instantly, picking up the phone. ‘Ford. Get Mr Freeman here immediately.’ The note of command in her voice was crystal-clear as she stood, staring straight at Rebecca. ‘Are you absolutely sure that this is the same man? John Shepherd? Where is he right now?’
Rebecca looked at the photograph again, ‘Yes, yes it’s John, there can’t be two men with that same scar just there,’ and she touched the profile of Straker where the small imperfection on his lip marked his smile as he stared at his son. ‘John is .. John. That’s all I know about him. He came to us last week; doesn’t remember…..’
She broke off startled and embarrassed as the inner office door opened and Alec Freeman stepped out, frowning.
‘Miss Ealand? What’s happened?’
She turned to him her face glowing, eyes bright. ‘Ed Straker could still be alive Alec. I don’t understand it, but Miss Steel apparently knows him.’
Rebecca took a deep breath and faced Alec Freeman, forcing herself to speak in a clear and calm voice like a child in front of her headteacher, knowing it was important to get all the facts straight. She was aware of his secretary phoning for a car and security, but she focussed on ordering her words and getting the facts over concisely. ‘I know this man as John Shepherd. He came to the shelter last week, very early Thursday morning, suffering from amnesia. He doesn’t remember anything about who he is or his past. We were expecting the police to trace his family but no-one has been in touch.’ She looked at Alec, ‘There’s not much more I can tell you. He’s at the Shelter now.’ She looked at him with scared eyes, as if waiting for him to shout at her, as if it was all her fault.
Alec Freeman gave a huge sigh. ‘I have been searching for Ed since this morning, after Sara told me that the man she had autopsied couldn’t be Ed Straker. I wasn’t able to find any police records at all. Nothing. I can’t believe that he has been with you all this time, Miss Steel. Is Ed alright?’ Alec put his hand out, reaching to her as if to reassure himself that she was not lying, that Ed was alive.
Rebecca paused, ‘He’s fine. I’ll phone the Shelter and you can talk to him.’ She pulled out her mobile and dialled, aware that everyone was watching her and listening, holding their breath in anticipation.
‘Barry? Rebecca here. Good news. I’m here with a friend of John Shepherd, …’ she listened, ‘Oh. Right. Well, hang on a second.’ She looked up at Freeman with a worried expression. ‘Barry has someone at the Shelter right now, claiming to be John’s brother-in-law. Wants to take him home. What should I do?’
‘Let me speak to him.’ Alec took the phone from her hand. ‘Barry, this is Alec Freeman. I don’t know who you have there, claiming to know John Shepherd, but do not let John leave the building. Do you understand? I’ll be there in ten minutes, with Miss Steel. Keep John with you. Don’t let him go with anyone.’ He listened to the puzzled acknowledgement from Barry and handed the phone back to Rebecca. ‘I have to get there. Rebecca, Sara, will you come with me?
Miss Ealand touched his arm. ‘Your car is ready. And security have been notified and are waiting.’ She bit her lip, and in a soft voice whispered ‘bring him back Alec. Bring Ed back.’
The kitchen was out of bounds to residents, but there was an open loaf as always on the small table where they made tea and coffee, and Dale took two thick slices of the cheap bread and put them in the toaster. It was pleasant, being in the shelter when it was quiet like this; he didn’t often get the chance to relax and be himself instead of constantly trying to lord it over the others. Maybe if Shepherd was up to it, they could work on the next stage of that course that John was helping him to do.
The kettle boiled and he poured the water into two mugs, stirring briskly before squeezing the teabags against the sides and then dropping them into the bin. Sugar. John had sugar in his drinks, Dale remembered, and he added two spoonfuls stirring them in with care and then topping it up with milk. It occurred to him, quite out of the blue, that he never used to make drinks for anyone else. He never used to do anything for other people if it came down to it. He had always expected others to look after themselves, or to make the drinks for him instead. It felt… good, felt somehow right, to be useful, to be taking care of someone who needed help.
He buttered the toast with care, the way he liked it himself, spreading it right to the corners and adding a thick layer of marmalade, again smoothing the orange preserve evenly across the toast, before cutting the slices in two from corner to corner as his dad had done for him so many years ago. Mugs in one hand, plate in the other, he walked down the corridor to the medical room, glad that he was alone, that none of his mates could see him now. They would probably laugh at him, but, Dale realised with a start, he didn’t care anymore.
John was lying down, listless eyes watching as Dale pushed open the door and came in with a hesitant smile as if apologising for the disturbance.
‘Brought you some toast, hope you like marmalade,’ Dale muttered, placing the mugs and plate on the small cabinet before turning back to the man still lying there, ‘Come on. I’ll give you a hand,’ and with a gentle strength that surprised even him, he slipped one arm under John’s shoulders and helped him upright. ‘There,’ he said, ‘how are you feeling now?’
Shepherd leaned against him wearily. ‘Tired, just tired, and yes,’ he gave a short laugh, ‘I like marmalade, although at the moment I’m hungry enough to eat anything.’ He straightened his shoulders and took the mug that Dale handed him. There was silence in the room, Dale sitting now in the easy chair and watching with concern as the simple breakfast was eaten.
It was unusually quiet in the room, no footsteps, no slamming of doors, no gruff muttered voices of men heading for breakfast. There was a soft rumble of traffic on the street outside, and muted voices from an occasional passing pedestrian. Different from the sounds in Dale’s own room where he was used to hearing other residents walking past, doors slamming, or the television if it was particularly loud late at night. There was no conversation between the two men and Dale sat in silence until Shepherd finished the last of his drink and put the mug down on the cabinet with a sigh. ‘I needed that,’ he looked over at the man watching him, ‘thank you, Dale, but weren’t you meant to be going out to see that company about jobs today?’
Dale frowned, ‘You mean Harlington Straker, the film people? Nah, I don’t think they’d be interested in someone like me working as an extra on one of their sets and I’m useless at construction jobs. Tried it before.’ He averted his eyes as if ashamed of his inability, ‘thought I’d be better staying here and having a go at doing some work on the computer while there’s no one around.’ He stood up and opened the door, ‘Look, I’ll get you some clothes so you can get dressed.’
He felt awkward unlocking Room 20, as if he was intruding on someone’s personal space. He never allowed anyone in his room; it was his sanctuary, and the only privacy Dale could enjoy and where the few reminders of his son were on display, a photograph, a handmade Father’s Day card from some years ago, a small teddy bear that his son had in his cot every night, until he grew up and became embarrassed. Little memories of a family life, before alcohol split them apart.
There was nothing in John Shepherd’s room; no photographs, no personal items, just the bag of cheap toiletries he had been given on the first day and, folded in a neat pile in the top drawer, one spare set of clothes. The bed was still rumpled and unmade from the night before and Dale pulled it into some semblance of order, not really knowing why he was bothering, before he took the clean things back to where Shepherd was waiting.
John had stirred himself and was now sitting on the edge of the bed, head down and shoulders slumped with the effort it had taken to shift even that much. He twisted his head to look at the other man with a wry smile, and the hint of a grimace. The bath towel that Rebecca had wrapped him in the previous night was once more around his hips and his hands were tight on his knees as if trying to prop himself up.
Dale dropped the clothes on the end of the bed and eased his bulk down to sit next to John, not touching, not that close, but close enough to offer support by his very nearness. He waited, patient and uncomplaining without a word, just being there in case he was needed. He was concerned about Shepherd; the man seemed utterly exhausted and yet determined to act as if nothing untoward had happened.
‘You should stay in bed you know. At least until the others get back.’
‘No, I’ll be fine, honestly.’ Shepherd told him, ‘go and start on that program we were looking at yesterday. I’ll get dressed in a while and join you.’ He tightened his grip on his knees to stop his hands betraying him with their trembling.
Dale stood up and looked down at him, frowning. ‘Okay. I’ll go. But I’ll be back shortly to check on you.’ He grunted with disapproval and, picking up the mugs and plate, left, this time heading for the common room.
John Shepherd waited until the door was closed, and Dale’s footsteps had faded into the distance, then he reached out for the little heap of clothing. His own clothes, the ones he had been wearing when he arrived here, the dark sweat shirt, clean but torn in places, the expensive jeans also scuffed and marked by signs of a struggle. He held them, and wondered not for the first time, what exactly had happened to make him lose his memory and end up here of all places, with addicts and misfits and people who were considered the dregs of society.
Although, and he gave a rueful smile, Dale had become a friend in the last few days, for all his bluster and apparent incompetence. Then there was Rebecca…… he pushed the thought away and still sitting there, unwrapped the towel and with slow and cautious movements, started to get dressed.
He was too stiff to bend far enough to get socks on; bare feet would have to suffice for now, and even pulling on his briefs and then the close-fitting jeans was an effort. He stood up, fastening the top button, pulling up the zip, and then running his thumbs around the inside of the waist to ease the fit on his hips before he reached out with some hesitation for the plain white t shirt. It lay there, draping in soft folds over his hands, the cotton fabric clean and undamaged and he tensed, as if suddenly afraid. Then in a swift and almost determined movement, he tugged it over his head, and, holding his breath, eased his arms through, his face contorting with pain as muscles tautened and skin stretched beneath the stained dressing.
He was shaking by the time he had managed to pull the shirt down and tuck it into the jeans. Bare-footed, he stood up and leaning one hand against the wall for support, opened the door just as he heard……………………………….
Dale wandered down to the common room and put the dirty dishes in the sink, before settling down and logging onto the computer. It made a change, being alone with no-one watching him or making snide comments about him playing silly computer games. He could concentrate properly now, and with any luck if John was around later he might help Dale through the next stage. Although from the looks of him, John Shepherd wouldn’t be in much of a state to help anyone today. Dale hadn’t seen anyone look so fragile and stressed for a long time. He sighed, and stretched his fingers before guiding the mouse with a delicacy and precision that would have astounded his mates. It astounded him as well. Dale Atwood, school misfit, failed husband, alcoholic was actually good at something. He wondered what would happen to him when John left, when someone came to claim the soft-spoken American, and Dale was left to struggle on alone. But deep down he knew what would happen, he would get stuck, he would get frustrated and then .. then he would get drunk. Damn it, he was on the very edge of starting a better life, of finally being able to achieve something, thanks to John Shepherd. He was not going to let it slip out of his fingers this time.
He worked on until the sound of footsteps distracted him. A visitor; Dale could hear the door open and muttered words. Dale stood up and moved across the room between the sofas, curious and intrigued as he heard Barry mention the name ‘Shepherd’, but the conversation was cut short by the phone ringing.
Barry gave an apologetic shrug of his shoulders and picked up the phone with a mouthed ‘sorry’ to Simon Roberts.
‘Hounslow Community Shelter…; he broke off, listening, then continued, after glancing up at the man who had just arrived and was standing there on the other side of the desk. ‘Well actually there’s someone here right now; John’s brother-in-law. Come to collect him.’ He paused again then frowned. Mason could hear a change in the voice at the other end. A man’s voice, stern and decisive. He slipped his hand into the deep pocket of his coat and gripped his gun. There was nothing he could do now but wait.
Barry replaced the phone and stood there, hand still holding the receiver down in place, as if he was wondering what to say. He lifted embarrassed eyes to stare at the visitor, ‘Um, I’m sorry but apparently someone is on his way to collect John Shepherd. I’ve been told not to let John leave. Do you want to wait here? Mr Freeman said he would only be ten minutes or so. There’s no one in today apart from Shepherd, and he’s in the medical room at the far end of the corridor if you want to go down there, or you could go and sit in the common room and make yourself a brew.’ He indicated the communal area with a sideways jerk of his head.
Freeman. Mason felt sick. God almighty it had all gone horribly wrong. Alec Freeman was coming here and Mason had ten minutes at the most to get to Straker and deal with him. He felt a moment of utter panic, pure terror that grasped his heart in a fist, then the years of training took over. His hand slid inside his coat, fingers wrapping around the grip of the handgun, easing it out to fit snug in his grasp, his index finger moving onto the trigger. It was instinctive, an action that he had practised so many times before, and he was almost surprised at the speed with which he pointed the muzzle at the man standing there and then quite calmly shot him.
It was different to what he had expected though. He’d fired the gun so many times before, pulled the trigger, felt the recoil, smelled the acrid smoke but this was different. This was not a paper target in black and white. This was a real face with eyes that looked at him with hopeless and utter dread before the bullet struck.
The sound of the blast was inconsequential compared to the wet smack as the bullet punched into Barry. Punched into him and through him, splintering ribs, shredding lungs, ripping flesh from his back as it exploded out before slamming into the computer tower behind. Fat sparks erupted as the electricity board short-circuited before shutting down, plunging the building into sudden, unexpected darkness.
The explosive sound, followed by the total blackness as the electricity shut off and darkness filled the room, was enough to panic Dale. He froze, unable to move, waiting desperately for the lights to come back on so he could go and see what had happened. It had sounded far too loud to be the sound of something smashing, or even a door being kicked in which had happened before. Then he heard footsteps across the common room floor at the far end, and, filled with an inexplicable terror he crouched down to hide behind the sofa just as the emergency lighting kicked in.
Mason swore to himself as the lights went out. It would make finding Straker that much more difficult, but, at least he had some idea of where the man was, at the far end of the building. He fumbled his way to the door that led into the common room, just as the emergency lights were activated, their eerie glow casting watery shadows into the dark room.
There was a door ahead of Mason, leading to the far end of the building. Rooms 1 – 20. He stepped quietly across the hard floor, careful to avoid bumping into tables or chairs, eyes scanning the immediate surroundings and oblivious of Dale, crouching half-hidden in the dark.
The door to the corridor swung open on silent hinges and Mason walked down, each step placed to avoid any unnecessary noise, scrutinizing every door in his search for Straker.
Shepherd had just opened the door when the sound thudded through the building. A gunshot. He recognised that distinctive noise, though he had no idea how or from where, and he had a moment of panic. Dale. What had happened to Dale?
There was no other sound, no one calling out, no running feet, no voices. He stepped out into the corridor, looking up towards the common room and seeing the silhouette of a man, not Dale, far too slender for Dale, and not Barry either. This figure was shorter, and as it moved under the pool of green light from the back-up system, Shepherd could see that the man, whoever he was, had something in his hand. A gun. He could see the glint of the metal under the soft glow of the emergency lights, the distinctive shape of the barrel protruding from the man’s grip.
He had to get away from here, from this dead-end where he was trapped with no chance of escape. If the person coming this way along the corridor was looking for him he had to get somewhere safer. A sudden memory flared again, of a man holding a gun and of people, no, not people, things, chasing him.
On silent feet, thankful that he was not wearing shoes which might betray him with a squeak on the uncarpeted floor, he stepped out, pressing himself against the wall in an attempt to avoid being seen. He moved with slow cautious steps, holding his breath, hoping that whoever it was at the far end of the passageway would not catch sight of him here in the shadows in his white t shirt and jeans.
He reached the short stretch of corridor that ran at right angles, and, once out of sight, moved more swiftly, heading away from the figure that had filled him with such dread. He had to find Dale, and see what had happened, had to get away from here, across the grey barriers, away from them and the cylinder that was waiting for him.
Sharp pain lanced through his head and he stumbled, falling to his knees, dizzy with the flashing and confusing images that flooded into his mind. Even though he could hear them behind him…… closer and closer, coming to get him, to enclose him in the grey sarcophagus, he was unable to get up. So he crawled on in desperation, listening for the sound of their footsteps as they approached, waiting for the grip of their gloved hands on his shoulder.
The door ahead was open, a dark and welcoming refuge and he dragged himself into the blackness of the small bathroom, to lie on the cool floor, his eyes shut against the blinding throbbing in his head.
‘TW3 1QL’ Rebecca called to the driver of the big saloon car as she slid into the rear seat beside Sara. Alec Freeman was strapping himself into the front seat even as the car set off, wheels skidding on the loose gravel of the executives parking area. The driver punched the postcode into the satnav even as he was pushing the car through its gears, forcing it into a narrow gap between other vehicles on the main road that gave access to Harlington Straker. Horns blared, cars braked, but he was oblivious, concentrating on getting the car up to speed while following instructions that were guiding them to the Shelter and Straker.
There was another vehicle close behind theirs, tight on their tail. Rebecca twisted in her seat to look back at them before turning to Sara with an expression that verged on disbelief. Alec spoke, curt and efficient. ‘Miss Steel, please phone the Shelter again. I want to speak to John Shepherd if possible.’ The driver gave Freeman one puzzled glance before returning his eyes to concentrate on the road, the car speeding now as it overtook slower vehicles with ease.
Rebecca pulled out her phone and speed dialled the Shelter, then waited, frowning ‘No answer,’ she said, looking at the screen, ‘but Barry always …’ A hand came round from the seat in front and took the phone from her.
Alec Freeman looked at it, listened, grimaced. ‘Something’s wrong. Push it Paul. Best possible speed.’ He handed the phone back before resting his hand on the arm rest, his fingers drumming impatiently as the car seemed to surge forward.
Rebecca had no idea what was going on now apart from the fact that something had happened. This was quite outside her purview, and she was confused by the apparent seriousness of the situation. This was not what she had been anticipating today; the planned day out with the guys at the film studios, instead she was in the back of a speeding car, driving back to Hounslow and John Shepherd. But he wasn’t John Shepherd was he…. he was called Straker, Ed Straker, and Alec Freeman was on a headlong dash to get to the Shelter to meet him. But why the urgency and the car behind them?
‘Mr Freeman,’ she leaned forward, ‘what’s wrong? Is John in danger? You seem desperate to get there as quickly as possible.’
Alec Freeman twisted around to look over his shoulder at the two women. He gave Sara a quick, tight smile before turning to Rebecca. ‘Don’t worry. Paul is one of the best drivers we have. Trust me.’ It was not the answer she had expected, and she knew that the man in the passenger seat was trying to forestall any further questions about John Shepherd. She settled back in her seat, knowing that there was nothing she could do until the car ceased its headlong dash and they arrived at the Shelter.
The driver was silent, as was Alec Freeman, apart from the rhythmical thudding of his fingers on the armrest, not in synchrony with any music, but an indication of his concern. The car rushed on, ignoring speed restrictions, barely slowing down at junctions or roundabouts, the driver at the edge of his limits as she could tell by his intense concentration. Rebecca looked at Sara again, and shrugged her shoulders. They would have to be patient.
Shepherd was sprawled on the floor, fists clenched, eyes screwed shut, aware only of the pounding in his head that made any thought of movement impossible. His mind was a confusion of sounds and recollections that made him dizzy and nauseous. Red and silver and white. A man stepping out of the shadows, others in silver banded red suits that gleamed under muted lights, their faces watching him with implacable hatred or fear. And running. He remembered running, and falling and running again. Anything to get away.
‘Straker.’ The voice filtered through his feverish thoughts, the word slicing into him like the knife last night. No blood though, just more pain. One word. Straker. And John Shepherd clutched his head and screamed once as his brain exploded with agony.
Mason looked down at the man he had been searching for. ‘Straker,’ he said again, his voice loud in the small room as John Shepherd fell silent, ‘get up. Or I will shoot you right where you are, on the floor.’ An empty threat and Mason knew it. The necessity of having to kill the man in the reception area had forced Mason to change his plans for Straker; instead of taking the commander away he would kill him in the same place and make it look as if Straker had shot the receptionist before committing suicide. It would be a neat solution, eliminating Straker and also discrediting him at the same time. And SHADO would be thoroughly embarrassed. It might be sufficient to appease the aliens.
He scowled with annoyance, before slipping his gun back into its holster and reaching down to grab Straker roughly by the shoulders and haul him up to sit leaning against the wall before slapping him across the face. ‘Get up, I said, or I’ll……’ What would he do, he thought with grim cynicism. It was clear that Straker was still either suffering from amnesia or else was too terrified to obey. He had to get him out of here… back to the entrance, and time was running out. Freeman might arrive in the next few minutes.
Bending down he grabbed a double handful of Straker’s t-shirt, dragging the man to his feet and propping him against the wall while he pulled his pistol out once more, and with callous indifference rammed the muzzle into his prisoner’s jaw under his ear.
‘Now move.’ Mason ordered, his left arm across Straker’s back, his hand gripping tight on the man’s shoulder. He guided him out of the room, forcing him forward by the gun pushed hard up into the soft tissues of his neck, and his own body close against that of his prisoner. There was no resistance; Shepherd, still dazed and confused by the pain and terror that had surged through him, staggered along the corridor towards the common room, his steps faltering and hesitant as if moving in total blackness, his left arm across his body pressing his hand against his ribs, his other hand reaching out to the wall for support. They reached the door into the common room, and Mason leaned past Straker to push the heavy fire door open with his left hand, the other still pushing the gun up into his neck. Mason could see the pulse in Straker’s throat, a fast throbbing beat, under the rough bristles of his unshaven skin.
Shepherd stepped unseeing into the common room, oblivious to his surroundings. Dark shadows patched the floor in random shapes, and the scattered sofas and easy chairs added to the gloom. Mason pushed Straker across the room, heedless now of any noise that they might make. Nearly there, and all Mason had to do now was kill him and make it look like suicide.
‘Keep moving, Commander.’ Mason growled. There was a note of contempt in his voice and with clenched knuckles he prodded Straker between his shoulder blades. Shepherd jerked and took another pace forward, his breath rasping in the silence, his head tilted backwards under the pressure of the gun still pushing into the underside of his jaw, one more step, and another, and yet another across the room, weaving an unsteady path between the random furniture.
The reception area was there, ahead, and Mason shoved harder in a desperate attempt to get the man moving. It was a mistake. Shepherd stumbled then tripped, before falling onto one of the sofas where he lay crumpled and still.
Mason leaned over and shook him, ‘Damn you, get up Straker. There’s no one here to save you, no escape this time.’ He sighed with exasperation, and straightened up. ‘You know I’m going to kill you, so why don’t you face it like a man.’
The voice from behind Mason Rimmer was soft and almost apologetic in its sincerity. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do that.’
Mason had no time to anything else other than spin round in shock, his gun still in his hand, but now pointing at the dark shape that had loomed up behind him.
It was usually a fifteen minute drive to Hounslow, on quiet roads, with traffic lights in their favour but just seven minutes after pulling out of the Harlington Straker entrance, the two vehicles were turning into the small side road that housed the Shelter. Rebecca leaned forward, ‘There, just by the railings, that door,’ and Paul slewed the car to a sudden halt, half blocking the road. Alec had already unfastened his seat belt and was opening the door even before it had come to a dead stop.
He waited impatiently, until Rebecca had opened the door and then gestured to the driver, ‘Paul, with me. James; stay with the women. The rest of you; follow us.’’
Rebecca hurried to join him, opening the outer door with her pass and stepping back as Alec Freeman, together with Paul and three men from the other car that had followed them, ran down the steps to the basement.
Blood. That was Alec’s first thought. Blood spattered on the walls behind the desk and the sharp acrid stench of burnt electrical circuits. The dim lighting cast subdued shadows and Alec Freeman realised that the main circuit had to be down and the building was on emergency lighting. In a split second of pure panic as he saw the huddled shape on the floor behind the desk, he thought it was Ed. But no, the colouring was wrong and he turned an anxious face to Foster.
‘Bloody hell, Paul. Where is he?’ but Paul was already moving towards the nearest open door, into the common room. Alec gestured to the security guards, ‘Start searching, but be careful. We don’t know what’s happened here, and there may still be …………….’
The sound of a shot obliterated his next words, and as the echoes died away, Paul shouted.
‘Alec, get in here. NOW.’
Dale had flung himself at Mason, unaware of the danger, or else heedless, it didn’t matter. What was important was that he had to protect John Shepherd, had to stop whoever it was standing there threatening to kill him. Mason was too startled to react in time, as the heavy-set man thudded into him, knocking him to the ground. The gun clattered away, sliding across the floor into the darkness, as Dale struggled to contain Mason. It was futile; the SIS officer was not only well-trained in self-defence, he was still reasonably agile and fit and it was a matter of moments before he managed to disable Dale with a violent kick to his head, before he slithered on hands and knees across the floor, his hands sweeping over the hard surface in the hunt for his gun.
There. Searching fingers touched the cold metal of the muzzle and he clawed it towards him, scooping it up again, his palm tight against the grip, index finger slipping easily inside the guard, and curling around the smooth arc of the trigger. Still on the floor and now aware that time was running out, he swivelled onto his buttocks, and balanced himself. The man he had kicked was still down on the floor, sprawled near the sofa where Straker had collapsed. Straker. He was Mason’s priority now. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. The muzzle pointed, moved a fraction, steadied, his finger starting to tighten even as he heard the sounds outside the room.
Paul Foster stepped towards the room aware that the darkness was his enemy, but that Ed Straker might be here, alive and waiting for help. Gun in hand, he eased himself around the doorframe, eyes still adjusting to the gloom. He was aware of Alec, ordering the security men to search but his concern was getting to Straker, and making sure that he was alive.
Shit. The silhouette against the subdued gleam of lighting was not Straker, not slender enough, but it was holding a gun and it was pointed at ……….
Blond hair shining in the light, long slender fingers trailing onto the floor….. Ed.
It was so easy to raise his gun, to look briefly down the sights, to aim with the same care that he used on the firing range, to forget that he was aiming at a living man and to pull back on the trigger, his actions mirroring those of Mason Rimmer. Paul did it all in one split second, without forethought, his mind solely focussed on that still pale figure lying so lifeless and silent just a few yards away. Dear God, was he too late?
He fell on his knees beside Ed, reaching out….
‘Alec, get in here. NOW.’
His fingers came away dark and wet with the blood that stained Ed’s t-shirt and was seeping onto the leather cover of the sofa. ‘Ed,’ he whispered, ‘Ed, it’s Paul. Can you hear me?’ Eyes closed, hand limp and cold over the edge of the seat, Straker was barely breathing.
There was a bustle of noise behind Foster as Alec and the others ran in, and he moved back from where he had been kneeling to let Alec get closer to Straker. ‘Paul, get Dr Harper down here right now,’ Freeman ordered, his eyes fixed on the man lying there; the friend that he thought he had buried just a few days earlier. Foster stood up, reluctant to leave, but after one last backward look hurried out. Alec heard his footsteps as he ran up to street level, where James was still waiting with the two women, shivering in the cold December wind.
‘Dr. Harper? Can you come with me please?’ Paul turned to go back down and Sara, after a worried glance at her friend, followed him, and after a moment’s pause Rebecca joined them, the man who had been ordered to stay with them taking one look around before going after them, looking around for Barry as she entered the reception room. There was a man behind the desk, bending over something on the ground. Not Barry; one of Alec Freeman’s men, and as he straightened up and faced her she saw Barry, behind, on the floor, huddled in a broken heap, bloodied and obviously dead. She gasped and nearly cried out with the horror, but James put one hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the sight. ‘Don’t look, there’s nothing you can do here.’
Barry. Arrogant, insensitive Barry, who had worked here longer than she had, who had resented the fact that she was in charge, who had bought her a card on her birthday and a chocolate cupcake as well. James held her for a moment, as she shuddered, then she stepped out of his arms and turned her back on the desk, on the silent man standing there watching her. On Barry.
‘Sara, I need your help.’ Alec looked up at the doctor as she entered the room, his eyes dark with concern and she knelt beside the sofa, her medical training taking over as she examined the man whom she thought had died and whose corpse she had sliced open. But this man was warm and breathing. And alive. With calm efficiency she examined him, his pulse ragged and fast, his pupils responsive, but blood had soaked his t-shirt. She eased it up to reveal a sodden dressing over his ribs.
‘Shit.’ Alec bent over her. ‘What happened?’
Dale was stirring now, feebly trying to get himself off the floor, his head aching and his stomach churning. His soft moans caught Paul’s attention and the young colonel went to his side. With help from the guards he heaved Dale up and into one of the easy chairs, where the stunned man sat, watching Sara as she worked.
The common room was a large open space, but to Rebecca, as she stood there taking in the whole scene, it seemed full of people. Dale, in the easy chair, looking pale and sick, even in the dim emergency lighting; Paul leaning over him with a couple of the anonymous men clustered around. Alec Freeman, standing by a sofa and staring down intently, his face worried, and Sara; she was kneeling next to John, her hands moving over him.
‘Ed,’ Sara smoothed his hair, as she had done before, when he lay on her mortuary table. No, not him, not this man, she had to convince herself; his double, his twin. It was eerie, seeing him here like this, so similar and yet so different. This was a man whose face was lined with the stress of living, with the pain of existing from day to day, a man who had experienced life, lived it and endured it, and it had etched itself deep into his very being. A face that was nothing like the bland and soulless expression that had been on that other body. She shook her head in disbelief at her own foolish thoughts. That ‘other’ Ed Straker was a mere copy of this man, a thin and false replica, without heart or emotions.
‘Ed,’ she persisted, even as she was pulling the soaked dressing away from his side. ‘Fuck,’ she muttered and dropped it onto the floor before looking around. ‘Alec? No. Rebecca. Get me a first aid kit, and someone call an ambulance.’ She turned back to Straker, her fingers feeling for any other injuries as she waited and all the while her soft voice talking, encouraging, reassuring.
Shepherd groaned as her hands slid under his skull, probing for damage, before she lowered his head carefully back down onto the cushions of the sofa, his eyelids fluttering and hands beginning to twitch as her voice filtered through his mind.
Sara rooted through the contents of the first aid box, discarding items until she found what she had been searching for. ‘There, that will do for now, Ed. Just lie still now,’ she told Shepherd as she pressed a thick sterile pad against the reopened slash in his side. His eyes seemed to be watching her, but she had no idea whether he was aware of her, or even able to understand. His lips started to move but any words he said were mere inaudible whispers.
Minutes ticked by, the time defined by small events as they waited for the ambulance; Paul organising the re-setting of the fuse box so that normal lighting was restored, Dale being helped out of the common room and up the stairs, first pausing to look down in concern at John Shepherd, and Straker falling silent once again, his ashen hair glinting under the bright lights, his face pale with bloodless lips.
They ignored the third player in the tragedy, the man who had set in motion the chain of events that had led to this meeting here, in a basement refuge. Mason, sprawled in careless abandon, was past caring whether anyone noticed him or not.
The siren of the ambulance echoed through the room and Sara looked up at the men standing close to her. ‘Right, let’s get him outside. Be careful, I don’t want that wound opening any further.’
Rebecca could do nothing to help; she stood back and watched with a feeling of helplessness as Alec and Paul lifted John. He roused slightly as they got him to his feet; she saw his head move and he looked around with a dazed expression even while blinking in the bright lights.
‘I’ll take him, Paul.’ Alec murmured as he lifted Straker’s arm around his own shoulders, before putting his left hand around his friend’s waist to support him. Straker’s head felt heavy on Alec’s shoulder, his legs seemed too weak to support his weight, but Alec held him close in a strong embrace. ‘Come on, Ed. Let’s get you out of here, let’s get you home.’ he muttered, and half-carried his commander, his friend, out of the room. Sara followed, concerned that Straker might require her help, but also aware that Alec Freeman wanted, no, needed to do this himself. Rebecca looked around the common room, at the body lying there as if a mere heap of rubbish, at the stern men waiting and watching as John Shepherd was taken out, and then she shook her head and hurried to follow Sara.
Paul watched them for a moment then once the room was clear, spoke. ‘James. You know what to do. Clean up here, and leave no evidence of the Commander. The evidence will show that Mason killed Barry and then himself. Okay? No need for further action at this moment. Jackson and a support team are on the way.’ The two men exchanged looks, and James nodded, before Paul continued, ‘And make sure Miss Steel and Dr Harper get back to the studios as soon as possible.’ Then he hurried away, running up the stairs and reaching the top just in time to help Alec half-lift Straker over the threshold and out into the chill winter air.
Alec swore as Straker began to shiver in the cold, but he felt his friend begin to awaken and raise his head as if to look around. The ambulance was ahead, its doors open and the ambulance men standing there, waiting for him. Dale was already inside, wrapped in a blanket and anxiously looking out for Shepherd.
‘No.’ Shepherd pulled away, starting to panic, fighting to get away from the hands that were holding him, taking him towards the waiting figures in their dark uniforms, towards open doors…….. ‘please, don’t….’
His desperate struggles pulled him away from Alec’s embrace, and he staggered against the car that was still slewed across the road. He stood there, leaning against the vehicle, head down on the cold metal, gasping with the terrible realisation that they had found him at last. There was a hand on his shoulder, warm, comforting, like Rebecca’s hand when he had relived his nightmare escape. He fell back, surrendering to the embrace of the touch and felt strong hands hold him again, but not the hands of his enemy. These arms were wrapped around him to protect not to harm.
‘Paul, we’ll take him in the car. Help me.’ Alec could feel Straker’s anguish and fear though he had no idea why his friend was so distressed. It would be easier to get him in the car rather than try to disturb him even more by forcing him into the ambulance, and Paul would be driving. The man wrapped in Alec Freeman’s arms was shaking with the cold now, his bare feet numb and his body chilled. The car door opened, and Shepherd felt himself lifted like a child into the interior, those strong safe hands easing him onto the soft seat. He leaned back as the same hands fastened straps around him, and then he felt a presence beside him. The sense of someone next to him, warmth from a body, but he was not trapped, not confined. And he sighed at the realisation that he was, at last, safe.
‘Okay Paul. Let’s go.’ Alec slid across the seat to sit close to Ed. He could see Sara and Rebecca on the pavement watching with anxious eyes as Straker stirred and began to respond to the heat in the car. Paul slipped the heavy saloon into gear and pulled smoothly away as Alec took hold of Straker’s hand in his own. He tightened his grip around Ed’s fingers, aware that even now Straker was too confused to be aware of his surroundings, but hoping that this simple contact might be enough to comfort him.
Straker turned to look at him, his eyes bewildered but as if finally seeing his friend. In a quiet voice he said one word.
It was all that needed to be said.
Shepherd part 2 Hefted (a sheep that is ‘hefted’ is one that knows its own territory and doesn’t stray far from home. Particularly applied to sheep on rough fell-land pasture)
This story morphed into a 2 parter simply because it got a bit too unwieldy to manage as one long story.. I had settled down with a load of post-it notes and planned out a rough outline for the second part and it just seemed the best thing to start this second part with Alec meeting Sara on the evening of the funeral, although I hadn’t originally intended to do that.
If I was to write full notes about the process of writing ‘Hefted’ it would add another 15,000 words or more, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that I struggled nearly all the way through. I thought of Straker as ‘Shepherd’ all the way through, knowing that if I began to think of him as ‘Straker’, it would skew my writing. And at one stage it did. I was chatting to my beta-reader about ‘ Straker’ and the next thing I knew I had written a section where ‘John Shepherd’ had Straker’s memories..very confusing. Fortunately my beta spotted it!
I had, all along, planned the ending to this story., with that final word ‘Alec’ and I was merrily working towards that when I was stopped in my tracks. Dale. He stepped in and demanded to be developed.
Dale is, like Rebecca, based on a real person. A person in the homeless shelter that I support, and have supported for the last six years. But the real Dale (not his name) isn’t clever or brave. But he is kind, and has ‘looked out’ for ‘Rebecca’ on occasions, when things got difficult. And ‘Rebecca’? She started out as a fairly minor character in a way, just as a foil for Shepherd, but again., she developed, thanks to my Beta… who described her as a po-faced prig. I LOVE the fact that my Beta is honest! So, back to the drawing board with Rebecca. I think she turned out as a believable person in the end.
It was my Beta who kept pulling me back into line when I strayed…. the conversation between Sara and Rebecca in the cafe, for example, was stilted and false, until I took her advice and let myself go! and the scene in Alec’s bedroom was rewritten several times.. Whoever said writing angst was hard. …writing believable sex is much harder. (parody is dead easy though!)
So. After six months I have finished. But yet I haven’t. I had always intended to end the story with Ed being rescued and recognising Alec.. the reader could fill in the details themselves … how he recovered, how his first day back at HQ went, how Alec dealt with Straker’s return. But Rebecca and Straker had other plans. And I have plans for them.
So. Shepherd. Part 3 ‘Drafted’ is in the process of being written. (‘Drafted.. a sheep that has been brought down from rough pasture to spend time on the richer better grazing closer to the farm.)
Best parts to write?
Both nightmares… Alec’s was pure fun..I simply let my imagination run riot. Whereas Shepherd’s escape from the aliens had been planned with care and I stuck to it rigidly.
The scene in the cafe.. with Rebecca and Sara ….once I had stopped trying so hard!
All the scenes with Shepherd and Rebecca. Such a joy to do.
And of course the last scene.. everyone together in the shelter.. it took me six months of writing to get to that point.
Poor Ed Straker. But… this story isn’t finished ..yet.
So. Thanks to ‘Rebecca’, who gave me permission to use her and her Shelter, and also gave me the floor plan of the building. Most thanks though to my Beta-reader who nagged at me to get on and WRITE.
And I hope that Ed Bishop, and the directors and writers would be pleased with my interpretation of ‘Straker’. I have tried to write Straker as true to the series as possible, because otherwise I am cheating you, the reader. UFO is a rare fandom. If we want to keep it thriving, we need to try to retain the spirit and character of the series, otherwise we might as well all just give up right now.