This story continues the events in ‘Breathless’. Readers may also wish to read One Red Square by AnDelenDir as a prelude to this story.
‘So, we are in agreement then? You will have to move to England for a few months to familiarise yourself with our…. organisation.’ Straker looked across the table at Dimitri. ‘But then you will reassigned back here, all being well.’
‘Yes, that is no problem. I rent an apartment here, and have friends who will look after it for me. What about finding a place to live near the studios? Will that be difficult?’ The soft spoken Russian clasped his hands together as if still unsure, wary of this quiet man opposite him.
‘We’ll arrange that for you. Just bring your personal things. The jet will be arriving early next week to transport you, and my secretary will contact you with details later.’ Straker stood, then almost hesitantly held out one slender hand. The cuff of his expensive black cashmere sweater pulled back under the equally expensive black tailored jacket and Dimitri saw, even in the hazy light of the dingy bar, a network of silver scars crisscrossing and encircling the wrist. He looked up into blue eyes that stared back without expression.
Then, Dimitro Leonov stood and grasped the hand that was extended in friendship. Straker smiled, a thin, tight smile, before reaching down to pick up the glass of vodka that he had not even sipped. He contemplated the silky, slightly viscous liquid for a long moment, then, looking at the newest recruit to SHADO, with slow and deliberate movements he tilted the glass to allow the vodka to pour in a thin stream out onto the floor where it soaked unseen into the stained carpet. He put the glass down with a gentle click onto the metal topped table, nodded once in acknowledgement at the man standing opposite him, and walked away.
It was later than he had thought, the streets were deserted now and the cold weather had eased somewhat. Hands deep in the pockets of his overcoat he walked, shoulders hunched against the imminent rain, head down, thinking.
Leonov. Hearing the man’s voice again had startled him, even though Straker had expected that. He had not spoken to Leonov since that day ten years ago, but the meeting tonight had stirred his recollections. He shivered, from more than the cold, and increased his stride.
Once back in the hotel encased in the warmth, the soft glow of lamps, the quiet peace of the a deserted lobby, he paused, wondering if he should have that drink that he had promised her, the woman that he had met earlier in the evening. The woman who had started the whole of this saga. But no. He would make do with coffee, in his room. Not with thick whipped cream, but it would suffice to warm him and with any luck would chase away those unwanted and intrusive thoughts that had crawled like scorpions out of the dark recess of his memories.
The coffee was …warming, that was all he could say about it. And it kept him awake. As SHADO commander, he had more than enough to do without wasting time in pointless sleep when he could do that later, on the jet home. He opened his sealed case and took out his laptop to organise the transfer of Leonov to SHADO HQ.
The voice echoed in his ears. ‘Commander Straker..’ that cool, slightly accented sound and suddenly, his stomach roiled, saliva filled his mouth and he hurried into the bathroom to retch painfully, as his mind betrayed him with the sound of water gurgling, the taste of stale vodka and the feel of material clinging and thick over his face.
He leaned against the cool marble tiles, clammy and sweating, unable to face moving. Reaching for a hand towel he began to wipe his mouth, but the mere touch of the material on his lips made him retch again and again, until he was exhausted, until his stomach cramped in emptiness. Eventually, it was over, and shaking and chilled, he stood up to turn on the shower, before going back into the bedroom to undress.
Steam had filled the bathroom by the time he was ready. Picking up the handtowel from where he had left it on the sink, he flung it into the corner and stepped under the spray, hoping that the water would heat his body. He felt frozen to his core, unable to stop shaking, whether from cold or from some other reason, he was not sure.
Hot water on skin almost blue with cold. It felt good, and the tension drained away, as heat pulsed through him flowing down over stiff tired shoulders, pouring over muscles no longer trembling from some unknown reaction. He reached for the gel, and tipped his head under the spray to wash his hair. Water ran down his face, over his eyes, his lips and he froze, feeling the sudden rise of nausea, the shaking, a desperate need to get out of the downpour, to get away, to be free…..
Stepping out of the shower, he stumbled, heedless of the splashes on the marble tiled floor or the rivulets of water that drained from him and soaked the carpet of the bedroom. He was simply too desperate to get away from the touch, the feel of water trickling, flooding, engulfing him,
Once out of the bathroom, away from the gurgling of water, he calmly rationalised the situation. Sleep. That was the problem. Once he had slept he would feel better. It had been a tough week, tiptoeing around the military bosses here inMoscow, trying to finalise the meeting with Leonov. And always, at the back of his mind had been that lurking fear, the memories which he had thought restrained, controlled, and locked away where they could not harm him.
Not bothering to dry himself with care, he pulled back the bedclothes and lay down under crisp cotton and heavy blankets, appreciating the weight of wool, the way the sheets and thick covers wrapped around him, encased him in comfort and security. It took longer than he had thought to get warm but, eventually, his inexplicable shivering ceased and he fell asleep.
‘Colonel Leonov, welcome to SHADO. I’ll take you through to the office.’ Keith Ford smiled at the stern looking Russian who was standing in the control room looking somewhat bemused, dark eyes half hidden behind tinted steel rimmed glasses. Dimitri brushed a weary hand through long dark hair. His short neatly trimmed beard and moustache were unusual to see in SHADO thought Ford. A decidedly different character, Keith mused, a little perplexed about this latest recruit. Straker had said very little about Leonov, had not mentioned the man after the initial briefing he had given to the other members of staff earlier in the week.
‘Thank you….. Lieutenant, is it?’
‘Lieutenant Ford. Communications Officer.’ Ford held out a hand to the new arrival. ‘Commander Straker sends his apologies and hopes to meet you at some stage before you are assigned to your new post. He is currently monitoring the Delta watch so he isn’t on duty now. He asked me to make sure that you have everything you need.’
Dimitri paused, his brow furrowed with slight confusion. ‘When will I be able to meet the Commander? There are several things I would like to discuss with him.’
There was silence. ‘I’m sorry sir, I really couldn’t say. He was quite specific with his instructions. You are to work under Colonel Freeman for the immediate future, and then you will be posted to Moonbase for the next stage of your training. That will be in about four weeks I believe. Colonel Freeman will be able to provide you with a full schedule.’ Keith Ford led the way to Straker’s office, now occupied by Colonel Freeman.
‘Colonel Leonov.’ Alec Freeman stood up and proffered a hand to the slender Russian, ‘please take a seat.’ Leonov had a firm grip for such a short man, Freeman noted, reckoning that the newcomer was only about five foot seven. Shorter than most of the operatives here. But, size was not that important. If Ed Straker had approved this Russian’s enrolment, then who was Alec Freeman to argue and from all accounts Leonov was more than qualified for SHADO. A former Colonel in the SVR, trained in Arctic and mountain warfare, the man had all the necessary skills. That was what really mattered.
And now it was Alec’s job to bring him up to speed on all the procedures and details involved in running the SHADO tracking station out in the wilds ofSiberia. Ed Straker had been specific in his instructions to his second-in-command regarding Leonov.
‘He has all the necessary skills, Alec, just needs to see how we operate and get updated on the technology. Four weeks in headquarters should be long enough before he moves to Moonbase. If he can’t get up to speed in that time then he isn’t the man for the job. But I don’t have any doubts about his abilities.’ Straker had told Freeman some three days earlier, while finalising the arrangements for Leonov. ‘Keep an eye on him and let me have regular reports. I won’t be around much for the next month.’
‘Oh? Something I should know? Going away on holiday at last?’ Alec queried, half amused at the concept of Ed Straker taking a relaxing holiday and half-perplexed at the thought of the Commander not being around to oversee the induction of Dimitri.
Straker grimaced with annoyance. ‘I was checking the Watch reports for the last few months. There are a couple of things I want to monitor, nothing important, but with solar disruption at a minimum right now, I think our friends might leave us alone for a while. It’s a good opportunity for me to do a full inspection of the other shifts.’ And Straker was gone.
Alec had not seen him since then. Oh he had spoken to Straker, and had received emails; curt, brief messages, as if Straker was too busy to be chatty, but not a single sight of the tall slender man in charge. Well, Freeman thought, perhaps Ed was, actually, taking some leave time. He certainly needed it judging from the way he had appeared last time they met. His friend had looked more tired than Alec had seen for a very long time.
Computer interfaces, programs, security, codewords.
Administration procedures, records, reports.
Defence systems, tactics, strategies.
Headquarters, SkyDiver Moonbase, personnel.
After three days of intensive training Dimitri Leonov’s mind was reeling. But he had noted the slight quirky smile on Alec Freeman’s face and was reassured by the Executive Officer’s approving comments on his progress.
‘Will it be possible to see Commander Straker?’ Leonov asked, yet again, only to be told that the Commander was receiving regular updates and would, no doubt, be in contact with the new Colonel before Leonov’s scheduled Moonbase rotation.
Dimitri seethed with anger. It was as if Straker, having managed to get him here in the headquarters, was making a point to ignore him. And Dimitri Andreyevich Leonov, now a Colonel in SHADO and former Colonel in the SVR was not a man who liked to be ignored.
With careful discretion he used his recently acquired knowledge to get Straker’s address from the personnel database. He could have asked Freeman for it, but then questions might have been asked. And he wanted to keep his intentions secret. Then it was just a matter of checking the security systems before he left HQ.
The Commander was at home. He punched Straker’s postcode into the satnav in the car and following the bland instructions.
The house was in darkness when Colonel Leonov arrived. A security light on the wall lit up the driveway as he approached. Discreet protection, he noted. A gravel path, remote lights, a clear and unmistakeable burglar alarm, but there would be more safeguarding measures hidden in and around the bungalow with its wide driveway, he felt sure. He rang the doorbell, well aware that his presence here was being watched on a monitor somewhere in the maze of small, anonymous rooms at SHADO HQ. He stared up at where the hidden camera had to be, his face bland, expressionless. And waited.
Nothing. But Straker was at home. He knew that. Knew that the SHADO Commander had been avoiding meeting Dimitri, and he had a very good idea of the reason. Well, he had had enough of being avoided. Leonov was resolute in his determination to speak to Straker whether Ed Straker wanted to talk to him or not. There were…. issues… that needed to be resolved. He rang the bell again, insistent on being acknowledged.
There was a faint sound of measured footsteps, a brief pause in the pattern of paces, and he visualised Straker pulling out his Glock and holding it loose in one hand before answering the door.
The door opened. Not much. Just enough for him to be seen and for him to see as well. Straker, in dark and sombre clothes, standing there, his right hand hidden behind the bulk of the heavy door.
‘Colonel. Is there a problem?’
‘No Commander, at least not at HQ. May I come in?’ The dark-haired Russian stepped forward in anticipation.
For one moment, it seemed that the door would close on him, but, after an infinitesimal hesitation, Straker stepped back, slipping his Glock back into its holster and without saying a word led the way through a dim hallway and into an equally shadowy living room. French windows opened onto a patio area and Dimitri followed the silent man out into the unlit garden.
There was a wide teak bench some distance from the actual house. Straker went and sat down, making it clear that he was ignoring the younger man, as if Leonov was merely a minor annoyance. It was as if there was nothing, nobody in the garden, just Straker and the wooden seat. As if nothing else mattered.
Dimitri sat down, wondering how to broach the silence that hung like thick fog over the two men.
‘Colonel Leonov.’ The voice was…. pale, thin, as if all the energy had drained away, all the vibrancy, all the power had been sucked out, leaving a mere husk.
‘I was hoping to speak to you Commander, when I arrived. I was expecting to talk to you about my appointment.’
‘Yes. I suppose you would have. I have been occupied with other matters though.’ Straker didn’t even look at Leonov. ‘I’ll get Miss Ealand to make an appointment for next week. Will that suffice?’
‘But I am here. Can we not speak now?’ Dimitri queried softly.
Straker turned away, almost invisible in the darkness, only pale hair, pale skin illuminated in the moonlight.
‘Well what Colonel? I do not want to speak to you tonight. Are you just going to sit here and annoy me all evening? I’m sure you have things that need to be done. Perhaps you would be kind enough to go now. I will arrange that meeting and we can discuss your progress then.’
Straker turned to him, blue eyes glaring.
‘No? Perhaps I made a mistake in appointing you. I am not used to having my orders ignored, especially by a new recruit. Even one as competent as you.’
‘It wasn’t an order Commander. It was a request. You asked me to leave. I refused.’
There was silence. It was cold outside, the clear sky brilliant with stars, moonlight etching the black bark of the oak tree at the end of the ordered and landscaped plot. A very neat and well thought-out garden, Leonov realised. Security fences hidden by sympathetic planting of more shrubs to supplement the more established trees that edged the extensive boundary. Dimitri leaned back on the hard teak bench and looked up. Orion was huge in the sky, looming over them like a guardian, hand ready to reach for his sword should the need arise.
‘I always like looking at Orion,’ he said, his soft voice making Straker flinch unseen in the darkness, ‘and I feel as if I am at home whenever I see him. Especially in weather like this. A crisp, clear, Russian evening.’ He turned to Straker. ‘Why are you sitting out here Commander? On a night as cold as this? Not to look at the stars, surely?’
Straker turned to him, eyes hard with anger; mouth a thin slash in the pallor of his face. ‘This is my home. I can sit where I like.’ His hands were clasped tightly together, but Leonov could see the shivering, the tenseness. ‘Please, Dimitri, go home. Leave me alone. I just want some peace.’ He bent his head to stare down at the ground, at the fine sward of grass that was sparkling with frost like countless tiny soldiers armed with steel blades.
He waited, expecting movement, the sound of the man rising, walking away, the crisp rustle of shoes on frosty turf. But nothing.
Leonov sighed. ‘No Commander, I am not going. Not until you tell me.’
‘Tell you what?’ Straker’s voice was sharp and angry, as cold as the ice that was encroaching on the very edge of the pebble fountain.
‘What is wrong? That is all I want to know.’
Silence crept across the garden, an angry, bitter silence. Straker sat, palest blond hair glinting in the light, head still lowered, eyes hidden. Tight. On edge, almost. Leonov could felt the anger, and something other than anger, that poured from the silent man.
‘I can wait you know. I am a patient man. I have all night Commander, all night to sit here and look at the stars and stare at the moon. And to know that I will be there in a few weeks. Actually on the moon, looking up at this Earth. It is incredible to think that I, Dimitri Leonov, will go somewhere that no other Russian has ever been. Will be the first Russian to step onto that alien surface. Did you not feel the same Commander, the first time you set foot there?’
Straker leaned back to stare at the half-moon through half-open eyes rimmed with tiredness.
‘What do you want from me Dimitri? Have you come to gloat? To remind me of the first time we met?’ He stood up and walked across the patio to the edge of the lawn, staring out over the darkness, arms folded, his back straight and unbending.
Leonov sighed. ‘Commander, the past is just that. The past. What happened then – happened. I regret it. Regret that I ……..’
‘I don’t need your apology Dimitri. I need you to go. I understood the necessity of what you did then. I accept it. I have always accepted it. But .. now. Please go.’
‘I can’t, Commander. I can’t leave you here, not like this. You look… exhausted. Why don’t you go to bed?’
Straker turned to face the man still sitting there in the shadowy darkness of his secluded garden. He laughed, but it was a grim quiet sound without mirth. A sound of contemptuous mockery. ‘Sleep? If only it was that simple. No Colonel. I am not going to bed, not tonight at any rate. I will stay out here and watch Orion as he hunts across the sky. And watch the moon. And think. Alone, if you don’t mind.’
Straker paced across the grass into the dark shadows under the skeletal bare branches of the oak tree. When he turned back to look at the bench, Leonov had gone.
Stillness enveloped him like a cloak, wrapping around him, no sounds of water, or strangely accented voices to disturb his thoughts. As the soundless minutes drifted away he began to relax, to feel tension drain away. Perhaps, he thought to himself, perhaps tonight…..
‘You have a well stocked kitchen Commander.’ The voice startled him and he spun around, heart pounding suddenly, breath caught in his throat.
‘I thought you’d left.’ Straker snapped at the Russian who was standing by the bench, a tray in his hands. He had been so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he had failed to notice the lights in the house behind him, had not heard the noises as Leonov explored the cupboards in his kitchen. Angered by his own lack of awareness he walked back to the patio, to where Leonov stood.
‘I couldn’t find a samovar, but, you have a surprisingly eclectic range of different beverages Commander. I chose Lapsang Souchong. I hope that will be satisfactory.’ Dimitri placed the tray with care on the small table next to the bench and sat there, waiting. ‘Lemon or honey? Which do you prefer? I have brought milk as well. Of course, the tradition is that you would pour your own tea from the zarvaka and then add water to make it as strong or as weak as you desire. However,’ and he smiled ruefully, ‘I have had to compromise.’
With efficient dexterity he poured tea out into a slender tall bone china mug and passed it across to Straker, before pouring his own tea. Straker stood there, mug in hand, having taken it almost mechanically, without thinking, from the Russian’s hand.
There was nothing else to do but participate in what ever game the Russian was playing. He was not in any danger, that was obvious, but it was also obvious that Dimitri Leonov was not going to go. At least not yet. So he stood. And waited.
Dimitri watched. Straker lifted the mug as if to sip the hot fragrant tea, then, his face twisted as if in discomfort and he put the mug back on the tray.
‘Too strong, Commander? Perhaps you would prefer some honey in it. I always drink my tea with honey and a little lemon. Refreshing and light. Here.’ And Leonov stirred a spoonful of honey into the discarded drink before adding a squeeze of lemon. ‘Your kitchen surprises me Commander. So little used I think. At least it seems so, recently. And yet you do not strike me as someone who enjoys takeaway food. So, you have been eating out at local restaurants each evening? Perhaps you can recommend some to me. I enjoy trying different cuisines.’
Straker picked up the mug almost in a daze, as if the non-stop torrent of words from Leonov had overwhelmed his ability to make independent decisions. Without consciously thinking he took a drink of the tea. And then, suddenly, the mug was flung into the darkness of the garden to smash on the frosted lawn.
Straker crumpled onto the bench, hunched up, hands clenched together, shaking almost uncontrollably. It was as if the mere act of sipping the tea had broken something within him. Head down, knuckles white with tension he sat, ignoring the man sat next to him. Dimitri sipped his tea, and waited, relaxed and patient.
Time passed. Orion hung over them and the silent Colonel watched with concern as Straker composed himself, until he was once more able to take even, deep breaths and lean back to look up at the sky, his face haggard and drawn.
‘Can we talk now Commander. Please?’ Dimitri broke the calm. ‘I want to know what happened to you after. I was…. concerned about you and although I made enquiries, I never found out the whole story. Please. Let me pour you another drink. Sip it, slowly, while we talk.’
The tea was still hot, not quite as hot as Straker liked, but he sipped it, just a tiny drop, enough to taste the sharp tang of lemon balanced against the soothing honey. It slipped down his parched throat with ease. He took another tentative swallow, hesitant at first then with increasing relief. There was no need to concentrate on forcing the drink down, no fear this time that the feel of the liquid in his throat would make him retch and gag. He held the empty mug with a sigh of relief and turned to Dimitri.
‘Very well Colonel, I will answer your questions. Some of them at any rate.’ There was a faint smile on his lips, ‘If you will pour me another drink.’
Holding the mug in both hands, comforted by its fading warmth, he leaned back. ‘What do you want to know Dimitri? I may not have all the answers you want though.’
‘What happened to you after? I wondered how you were, whether you had recovered fully? But there was no sign of you, no mention of you in the newspapers, at least not for a long time after.’
The SHADO Commander put the empty mug on the table in front of him, fingertips circling over the rim with elegant deliberation. ‘I don’t remember that much. I was asleep when the retrieval team turned up. I suppose General Henderson must have managed to get in touch with your government. And then they contacted you and persuaded you to let me go.’ He tilted his head to look at the other man. ‘You were working forSVRat the time weren’t you?’
Leonov nodded, ‘Yes, our organisation had been monitoring suspect satellite activity and when that one crashed I knew that someone would be on their way to get it. It was simply a matter of being in the area and waiting. And so I found you. It was easy really.’
Straker thought back to the HALO drop, the coldness of the terrain, the search for the information. ‘At least the rest of the drop team got away. I only found out later that you hadn’t taken them.’
‘There was no need Commander. They were merely foot soldiers. I saw no need to kill them or even to take them prisoner. They were just following orders. Like good soldiers everywhere. Besides, I had you. I did not need any one else.’
The moonlight glinted on Straker’s head as he lowered it in thought. ‘Yes. You had me.’ He shuddered and looked up again at Leonov. ‘So what happened?’
‘You bought yourself some much needed time when you tried to kill yourself. We hadn’t expected you to do that and our doctor had difficulty resuscitating you. It took longer than she thought and fortunately for you while she was doing that, I got orders from our President to say that we had to release you and demanding details of where you could be found.’
‘Ah,’ Straker smiled, a little more openly. ‘SHADO had friends in high places even then, Dimitri. What did you do after you left me?’
‘I was worried about leaving you alone, but it was the only option we had. We were told to get out and not be seen.’ Leonov grimaced, ‘Our government did not want us involved in what could have been a very damaging diplomatic situation. My organisation was working alone at the time. A strictly unauthorised operation. We thought that the satellite you had been sent to destroy had been used to transmit details of our overseas agents. We were wrong.’
‘I wish you’d known that before you started questioning me.’ There was a slight hint of humour in Straker’s voice. He carried on, his fingertips still running round the edge of the mug, ‘I woke up some time later in hospital. Told my wife that I had been in a car crash, although that didn’t explain the scars.’
He pulled one sleeve up to inspect the fine criss-crossing lines that encircled his wrist. ‘They are fading now. Although at the time they were quite noticeable. Anyway, I returned toEngland, and eventually started my new career as a film producer. And tried to forget about Russia and satellites.’
‘Until you met me again? Why, Commander, did you offer me a job with SHADO. You must have known, surely, that meeting me would bring back the memories.’
‘Oh that is easy Dimitri.’ Straker said with a wry smile that somehow avoided his eyes. ‘You are the best person for the job. SHADO can’t afford to pass up the chance to recruit someone with your talents. Even if it means that I had to deal with unpleasant memories. The safety of the world is more important than one man’s little peculiarities. I would have been able to deal with the recollections, in due course. Your presence here tonight just brought matters to a head rather more speedily than I had anticipated.’ There was something distant about his tone, something that Dimitri was not able to recognise.
He stood up, shivering. ‘It’s cold out here. Why don’t we go inside and continue this conversation where it is warm.’
‘How are you finding SHADO anyway, Dimitri?’ Straker asked, his back to the Colonel as he bent to light the fire in the living room. ‘Alec tells me you have no problems with settling in. But I didn’t think you would have.’
‘I’m not here to talk about me, Commander, I want to talk about you. About why you have been avoiding me.’
‘I haven’t been avoiding you Colonel, I have just been… otherwise engaged. I do have other responsibilities.’ It was as if the act of coming into the house, of lighting the fire, sitting down on the leather sofa had drawn a line across the events in the garden.
‘Come now Commander. I know better. As do you. You may have fooled your staff, but I know just how determined, how tenacious you can be, remember.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ Straker’s subdued voice was barely audible.
‘You have been avoiding me. Not because you detest me for what I did all those years ago. You are too strong a character to have to resort to such primitive tactics. Mere hatred would not have stopped you meeting me, working with me. It would have been uncomfortable, doubtless, but your determination would have carried you through. We both know that.’ Leonov stood up and looked around the room, as if searching for something.
‘How long did we spend together? A few hours? And on the basis of that meeting you think that you know how I feel right now, how I am likely to react?’ The SHADO commander watched, frowning, as the Russian smiled and went over to lift the lid of a small upright elegant inlaid yew and rosewood cabinet.
‘An exquisite piece of furniture Commander. Antique and beautifully cared for. I admire your taste and envy you owning something as lovely as this.’ He pulled out a bottle, frowned and slid it back. ‘No, not port, although I do enjoy a fine aged port. I think something more appropriate is called for at this time.’ He lifted and replaced several bottles from their niches in the case, before pulling out a half-empty bottle of clear liquid. ‘Ah. Perfect.’
Still carrying the bottle, he went into the kitchen. Straker could hear cupboard doors opening and closing. Then, a gentle clink of glass and Dimitri reappeared carrying the bottle in one hand and two small but heavy tumblers in the other.
He placed the bottle on the coffee table and the glasses next to it almost with the flourish and elegance of a wine sommelier. ‘There. We should have a drink together Commander. Vodka. Quite appropriate in the circumstances.’
‘I would rather not, thank you.’ The words were cold. Distant. ‘I don’t drink, and even if I did, vodka would not …………………….’
‘But you have a bottle, in your ‘cellaret’ I think it is called.’ He lifted the bottle to inspect it. ‘Oh. I see. At least I think I see.’ Leonov turned to Straker, a look of disbelief, of incredulity, on his youthful face. ‘Tell me Commander, if I searched in your bookcases, would I find, by any chance a rather old and well-read copy of The Brothers Karamazov? With one corner turned down?’
Straker turned away from him, hands clasped around his knees, staring in to the flames that flickered between the pebbles of the inset fire. His mouth tightened as if he was ashamed to have been caught out in some act of disobedience or wrong-doing. A slight flush suffused his pale skin and the Colonel saw hands clench yet even tighter.
There was more to this enigma than met the eye, Dimitri Leonov realised. Something more than the reawakened memories of an event that was a nightmare beyond endurance, something well beyond the understanding of anyone who had not also endured that terror, that hideous experience.
Why had the SHADO Commander kept those reminders, those tangible objects that would, surely, by their mere presence, make him flinch every time he saw them, touched them.
‘Tell me. Commander. Ed. Please. Talk to me.’
Straker did not move, just stared at the half-empty litre bottle of decent Russian vodka. He had insisted on taking it with him when the retrieval team arrived in their helicopter to rescue him. He remembered them coming into the room, trying to get him to leave, his desperate almost delirious struggles to hold the carton in his arms until they finally gave in and grabbed both him and the box with its contents. The bottle of vodka and the book. Which was now, he knew full well, in the bookcase here in this room. Untouched vodka and unread book, but he could not bring himself to get rid of either of them. They were a permanent reminder of………. He shuddered as if frozen.
Perhaps it was time, time to confess. To tell this quiet and concerned Russian exactly what he, Ed Straker was feeling. Why the thought of hearing Dimitri’s voice, the taste of alcohol, not just vodka, but any alcohol made him sick with nausea, with the realisation that he…
In a quiet and hesitant voice as he stared into the flames he whispered to his tormentor. ‘I haven’t slept for days. At least it seems like that. Not proper sleep. A few minutes dozing, a few restless minutes before the nightmares begin. And always the same nightmare.’ Straker stopped as if even talking about it was nightmare enough.
‘Water? On your face, in your throat, drowning you, choking you?’ Dimitri moved a little closer on the settee. As if to offer support by his presence, by his understanding.
Straker turned, appalled, horrified, as if a sudden thought had struck him. ‘You? As well? When ?’
‘Oh, it was before I met you Commander, some months before. I was taken prisoner by the Afghans. You know what barbarians some of them are. They wanted information.’
‘And?’ Straker picked up the bottle of vodka, in one hand, inspected it with care and then, as if it were a bottle of the finest crusted port, unscrewed the top and poured a generous measure into one glass. He held it out to Leonov. ‘Well?’
‘It’s not really something I want to talk about, yet. The memories are, as you well know, not….pleasant.’ Colonel Dimitri Leonov drank the clear liquid down in one rapid gulp, then handed the glass back to Straker to be refilled.
The liquid sloshed into the tumbler and he drank the second glass almost as quickly before running a hand through his long hair and rolling his shoulders in an effort to relax the tight muscles. ‘I understand Commander. I really do. Why do you think I was so keen to talk to you all those years ago? And to get you to talk. I still have nightmares, even now.’
The flames shimmered in between the granite pebbles. The room was warm; the only light the soft flames illuminating the carefully furnished room. A clock ticked in the background, the uneven disjointed tick of a real clockwork mechanism, its gears slightly worn and out-of-kilter. Dimitri wondered if the clock would chime when the hour was reached.
A quiet, companionable silence. Two men with a common experience, sharing the warmth, the memories, the knowledge that they were not alone.
The clock chimed. Rich, resonant, perfect notes filled the room. Midnight. Late enough. Dimitri poured himself another vodka. ‘Ed?’ he proffered the bottle to his .. friend. Surely they could call themselves friends now. Shared drinks, shared experiences. Those must count for something.
Straker regarded the bottle. ‘No, but thank you Dimitri. It would bring back too many unwanted thoughts. Too many ..’ he stopped, wondering if he should be honest with this man, who must surely understand what he feared, ‘too many of my inadequacies. That is the worst part. The knowledge that I failed. That I was not strong enough. That despite all my resolve to hold fast they broke me. They broke me so easily.’ He held his head, fingers clenched in fists in the short blond hair.
Dimitri sipped his drink. ‘Is that what bothers you so much? That is the reason for avoiding me?’ His quiet voice was perplexed.
‘Is that not enough Colonel? I am the person in charge of one of the most clandestine organisations in operation anywhere in the world. Can you imagine the responsibility I have? To make sure that I am fit enough to do the job? And I failed. Ten years ago I failed, utterly. And if your government had not stepped in then I would have told you everything.’ He looked at Leonov with eyes haunted by shame and self-loathing. ‘Since meeting you again I have done nothing but relive that failure, that insufficiency. And I have realised that I can no longer carry on. I will have to resign.’
Dimitri looked at Straker, and laughed. A flush of red crossed the older man’s face and he stood, anger racing through him at the perceived mockery. Stood and faced the window that looked out onto the dark garden with its slivery moonlight stippling the frosted lawn. String out into the darkness that had sheltered him earlier.
‘No. No, Commander, I was not in any way mocking you.’ Dimitri joined him, standing close to the furious man. Rage had wrapped itself round Straker like a heavy blanket, enveloping him in tight bands of disgrace and dishonour. ‘Commander, listen to me. Whatever you feel, whatever happened. It doesn’t matter, it never mattered. Don’t you see. You could never have held out. No one has. Ever. No-one.’ He placed a hand on Straker’s shoulder and forced the man to turn round. ‘Ed. Fifty seconds. You lasted that long. I still remember.’
‘Fifty seconds,’ Straker grimaced with disgust, ‘not even one minute. I couldn’t even last one minute.’
‘Longer than I lasted, longer than anyone else I know.’ Dimitri stared into surprised eyes. ‘Yes, I failed, as you call it. Failed and broke down. Told them everything. Anything rather than have it continue. And that was after about twenty seconds. I didn’t even try to kill myself.’
The fire flickered shadows around the room, casting glittering lights in Straker’s suspiciously bright eyes.
He lowered his head as if to hide his sudden realisation from Leonov.
‘Commander, everyone breaks. Everyone. That’s why they use that method. The minute they put that cloth over your face you were broken. Only it took you a little longer to realise. Sit down, have a drink. And forget any thoughts of resignation. If you resign then I will have to as well and that will be most inconvenient.’
In a daze Straker went back to sit, hands clasped together, mind racing, wondering.
‘When did you last eat?’
‘Eat, you know, food. When did you last have something?’ Dimitri was business-like, professional. ‘There is very little food in your fridge, but I went shopping earlier for myself and the groceries are in the boot of my car. Stay there. I will be but a moment.’
Straker heard the front door open but not lock shut again. Anyone could have come in, aliens, Henderson, anyone, but he was too tired to care, the release of emotions having exhausted him. The soft hiss of the fire was hypnotic, the warmth adding to his sleepiness.
‘Fortunately the weather is cold. I had forgotten about the caviar I purchased. It should have been refrigerated. Do you enjoy sea bass, Commander?’ The voice from behind startled him out of a light drowse.
‘I suppose so. I don’t really know.’ Straker pushed himself out of the comfort of the sofa and stumbled almost half-asleep into his well-lit kitchen. Dimitri was busy placing fillets in a large shallow pan and pouring white wine over them.
Straker leaned against the worktop, arms folded, watching with interest and more than a little bemusement as the Russian added fish stock and herbs to the now simmering wine before dicing a small block of hard butter. Dimitri pulled out a small pan and poured thick cream into it, working with the confident and assured movements of a man who is at home in a kitchen. The neat and even cubes of butter were whisked with brisk movements into the hot cream, cutlery set in orderly positions on the small breakfast bar, glasses and the open bottle of white wine placed there as well, the fish removed and placed with care on two heated plates, lemon juice and salt added to the sauce and as a final flourish, a generous serving of black caviar stirred in. All in silence and with utter concentration.
Dimitri poured the sauce over the fish and handed a plate to Straker. ‘Here. Sit. Eat.’
He concentrated on the food, on the easing of his previously ignored hunger pangs. A simple meal, sitting there in the cheerful kitchen. And he sipped the wine that Dimitri poured, only a small glass, but enough to loosen the tension that had held him so rigid, so restrained. He put down his knife and fork with a final sigh of contentment, and finished the last dregs of wine.
Dimitri smiled at him. ‘Better? I think you needed that Commander. Pour another glass and go and sit down while I tidy up here.’
‘I can do that later Dimitri. Leave it.’ Straker picked up the bottle of wine and read the label before pouring some into his glass. He sipped it, as if only just tasting it for the first time, and then closed his eyes and seemed to shrink slightly, as if the anxiety that had bound him in its grasping hold for the last few days had finally dissipated, leaving him almost too tired to move. He leaned forward on the seat, head drooping.
A hand touched his shoulder, for the second time that evening and he straightened up, turning on the stool to peer at Leonov.
‘Enough. You should be asleep. But, one last question,’ Dimitri hesitated, unsure of how to continue.
‘I think I owe you one more answer,’ Straker smiled wearily, ‘so ask.’
Leonov paused, thinking, ‘Commander,’ he asked, ‘in the bar, in Moscow, you had a glass of vodka. I had thought it was yours, and then tonight you told me that you don’t drink vodka. So why? Why did you have it there? Was it for me? And if so, why did you pour it away?’
Straker smiled, a wide, open smile that lit up his tired eyes. ‘It was for you, Dimitri. The vodka. I intended giving it to you. But only if our meeting had not gone as planned. It was laced with the amnesia drug, which is why I poured it away. I didn’t want to risk you drinking it after I had left.’ He stifled a yawn behind one hand. ‘It’s late. You should really be getting away now. I will tidy up here.’
Straker stood, reluctant to admit more failings to this visitor. It was enough that Leonov had seen into the Commander’s soul, had been a witness to his confession, it was surely asking too much now to admit to Dimitri exactly how tired he really was. But his words were cut short.
‘Commander. I will be staying here tonight. I have had too much to drink to risk the drive back to my apartment. So. I will sleep on your sofa, and you will sleep in your bed. Now, do I actually have to take you to your bedroom and make sure you get some rest?’ The voice was humorous and gently teasing, but Straker could hear the unspoken threat behind the words. And suddenly exhaustion flooded through him. The idea of lying between cool sheets, of simply being able to calm down and let the concerns and worries of his world fade away for once as he slept, was the only thought in his mind.
In silence, ignoring the Russian, not from deliberate rudeness or discourtesy, but simply from the need to focus his entire being on the effort needed, he stumbled half-asleep from the warm kitchen to his darkened bedroom.
The silence of the house enveloped him in peace as he undressed with slow fumbling care, leaving clothes discarded on the chair. He ached with tiredness, with the strain of simply existing over the past days and nights of nightmares and despair and dishonour. But it was over. He had not failed. And as the clock chimed the half-hour he fell asleep, hands loose on the pillow, eyes closed, not in fear or vain attempts to encourage rest, but true sleep, deep and restful.
Dimitri Leonov slowly opened the door. The bedside light cast a soft glow across the bed, glinting on pale hair on white covers, dark clothes were tossed almost heedlessly on the deeply upholstered chair in the corner of the large room. Straker was still, with that stillness that signifies total fatigue. Dimitri sighed. With care he removed the clothes from the chair, and sat down, leaving the gentle glow of the light to illuminate the scene. He closed his eyes and leaned back to get some rest.
The chiming of the clock disturbed him, or was it something else? He had been dozing in the chair, content to simply sit in the room and watch over the sleeping man. But his own tiredness had somehow overcome him and he had fallen asleep.
He opened his eyes and stretched to ease stiffness. The sound, a mere rustle of material, a faint thin murmur of anguish, brought him to wakefulness. Straker was restless, twitching under the sheets, head turning on the pillow, eyes still closed, but not relaxed now. Closed as if to hide from some encroaching terror, hands clenched in tight fists in his attempt to ward off danger.
The Russian had expected this, had anticipated the nightmare. Leonov stood and moved closer, looking down at the restless figure. Unwilling to waken Straker, he leaned over the bed and just as he had done all those years ago, in that small damp room so far away, Dimitri placed one cool hand on the other man’s forehead and spoke, not with a hint of annoyance this time, but with insight and empathy.
‘Be still, Commander Straker. It is over. There is no need to distress yourself further. Go back to sleep. You are safe.’
He waited for a few moments, until he was sure that the sleeping man was now relaxed, that the nightmare had been subdued and dismissed. He turned off the light and left the room.
The fragrance, enticing and persuasive, tempted him out of sleep. It was an effort to open his eyes, to even think of moving, but that gentle lure tugged his senses awake. Lying there, still and infinitely comfortable, as if he had been swaddled in softest, warmest wrappings, he forced his reluctant mind to focus until still dazed with returning wakefulness, he managed to sit up, pushing the sanctuary of the bedsheets away.
He stared at it, perplexed and at a loss to understand how coffee, freshly made, hot, and, he sipped it tentatively, sweet, had appeared here in his room.
Shit. Last night. He had…… he had opened his soul to a virtual stranger, had told Dimitri Leonov those murky secrets that he thought crushed and incarcerated inside his consciousness years ago. And Dimitri was still here.
There was a noise. The front door. Footsteps, a car, starting and then driving away. And the still feel of emptiness in the house. Dimitri, leaving.
Straker recalled that cool hand on his forehead, that hand that accompanied that voice. That calm reassuring voice that had soothed his fears, that had locked the terror back in its cage. Forever.
He leaned back on the pillow, thinking. Ten years. He had spent ten years trying to exorcise that memory, that humiliation that he felt whenever he recalled trying to scream, to speak, to submit. Although the, and even after all these years he could still not bring himself to name it, ‘interrogation technique’ was well-known, he had never felt able to research it, to learn about the experiences that other prisoners had endured.
He had been so sure, so convinced that he had been the only one to ever have tried to capitulate, that the thought of reading the accounts of those who had endured, was more than he could bear. So he had kept his thoughts, and his shame, hidden.
Until now. And now he knew the truth. He could feel his body relax, could feel the apprehension finally fade away. He had not failed. After so long to be free of the slow-burning ember of shame that was banked deep inside him, just waiting for one breath, one memory to bring it blazing back to life. That spark of dishonour that would have consumed him to the core, had it been allowed to ignite. And Dimitri’s words had extinguished it. Like a thick blanket of foam Dimitri had smothered the shame and had brushed away the ashes, leaving no taint.
Wrapping his dressing gown around him against the sharp chill and dampness of the November morning, he carried the empty coffee mug through to his kitchen.
The room was spotless, nothing out of place. No sign of Colonel Leonov. As if last night had never happened.
And, Straker knew that it would never be mentioned again.
Late that evening, after a busy day working with the new SHADO recruit, Colonel Leonov, Ed Straker drove home, tired but content. The retail park was open late for pre-Christmas shopping and on an impulse he stopped and went into a couple of the smaller specialist shops.
At home, after a solitary meal, he sat on the leather sofa with his television, unwatched, providing background noise. Pouring himself a brandy from the new bottle bought that evening, he opened his other purchase and began to read.
Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”- for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate- was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else.
October 5th 2010
Damn. I wish I hadn’t finished this story. It all started when I wrote that epilogue for Breathless; Ed Straker sitting there with a glass of vodka on the table and saying, ‘Yes Dimitri Leonov, I am Commander Straker.’
The thought came in to my head; why would Straker have a glass of vodka? It wasn’t as if he was seen to drink on the series (only once as I recall in his office). So why was the vodka there? And then I thought about the amnesia drug and realised that the vodka was laced with it, so Ed would have to pour it away if Dimitri was going to be accepted into SHADO.
So, that was going to be at the end of Breathless, but it seemed wrong to carry on after Straker spoke to Leonov. THAT was the crunch line after all, that was the point where the reader should have gone.. ‘oh shit!’ and to go beyond that would have ruined the ending.
So Leonov had to come back. And in a flash I saw how that would happen. I based the story on Straker avoiding Leonov and Leonov trying to get to meet him to talk about SHADO. Then the whole ‘backstory’ would come into play. The torture, the memories and the fact that it wasn’t the recollections that had disturbed Straker, it was the belief that he had been a failure all those years ago.
It was a very intense story, going deep into a man’s personal thoughts about himself and his perceptions of his failings. I didn’t want Straker’s ‘fears’ to be the memories of the torture, but to be his nightmares about not being good enough to run SHADO. And I hope that came across. I hope I did a reasonable job of the psychological viewpoint!
It also gave me a chance to add some minor details; what happened to the drop team? What did Straker tell Mary? How did Dimitri feel about the whole episode? I wanted to know those details myself!
I had the image of the two men talking in the garden, Straker struggling with his memories unable to sleep, and the other points, the meal, Straker going to bed etc, appeared later.
The part with Dimitri finding the bottle of vodka and asking about the book was also an addition. But I thought it was the sort of thing Straker would do… keep reminders of his failings. One of the hardest parts to do was the meal! Trying to find a simple Russian meal that was very quick to prepare! Blinis take too long, and I didn’t want to have Dimitri buying ready made ones! So I went with the sea bass and caviar.
The end of the story, where Ed wakes and finds the coffee, was going to be longer. Dimitri would have been in the kitchen making blinis then! But Guina persuaded me to end it where it ended. And she was right.
So I put the explanation about why Ed poured the vodka away, in the question at the end of the meal. It fitted better there anyway!
And Dimitri leaves, and Ed gets up, and goes to work. Life as usual. I tried to get a feel of ‘normality’ at the end. A man alone, as before , but able to cope with his life now, knowing that he was not, as he had thought, a failure. Going back to work, the professional attitude to Colonel Leonov, even though we know that they have shared the same experiences and have an appreciation of each other.
And then he goes and buys a bottle of brandy to drink. (Vodka would have been too ‘twee’). And a copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
As for Colonel Dimitri Leonov. Well, isn’t there an old saying? Something about ‘if you save a man’s life you have responsibility for that man?’ I think Dimitri Leonov is not yet finished saving Ed Straker.
LtCdr. Oct.6th 2010