The private jet. The private terminal. The trappings of success. Those inconsequential and outward symbols that are so important to the world in which he worked. Not that he cared about this jaunt; it was another distraction in his busy schedule. To the public it was billed as a fund-raising function, but Straker knew it was just an excuse for executives to get together and suss out the opposition, make connections and come to quiet agreements. To be honest, it was something in which he had no interest but the invitation had come from one of the world’s foremost film studios, and as Chief Executive of Harlington Straker, he had his duty to the company. So. Here he was, flying to Washington D.C. in a small private jet.
Straker had been unable to suppress a slight grin. His hosts had been so desperate to have him attend that they had sent a company jet for the most reclusive manager in the film industry. He could have refused, made some excuse or other, but hell he had thought, after a moment’s consideration, a couple of days away would be a relief. Sometimes work was too intense. The studios were doing well, very well in fact, which was the reason he was such a desirable commodity in the world of film making. The head of Harlington Straker knew that there would be plenty of lesser known studio heads picking his brains about productions and contracts and advertising during the evening. Well, he would answer the questions, smile politely, make the contacts and move on. He had other priorities. Serious ones.
He stared out of the small window at the clouds far below. If only they knew. But that was the point. No one did. He had managed to keep it a secret even now in this era of internet and leaks and conspiracies. The information highway, and he had grid-locked it. Hidden in the shadows, all those bases, and depots. All the satellites, the submarines, the whole organisation. SHADO. It was his responsibility.
The steward disturbed his thoughts. ‘Are you sure I can’t get you a drink Mr. Straker?’ The third or perhaps fourth time he had asked. Straker gave in; it was easier to submit than to try to convince the man yet again that he was fine.
‘Very well. Coffee. Cream. Two sugars please.’
An infinitesimal sneer flashed across the steward’s face but he was too well-trained to comment. Cream and sugar. The ‘unhealthy’ option. That was one reason Straker hated travelling to the States. It was political correctness gone berserk. He couldn’t even have his coffee the way he wanted without some do-gooder lecturing him about the dangers of cholesterol and calories.
Coffee arrived. He sipped it. Perfect. His hosts didn’t cut costs when it came to looking after its guests. Especially the guests that it wanted to attract. The fine bone china cup and saucer was whisked away as soon as he had finished, and in an attempt to forestall even more concerned enquiries from the steward hovering around him, Straker opened his laptop and started to read. There was nothing else to do; Alec would contact him if necessary, but Straker had utter confidence in his second-in-command. It was going to be a quick trip out, a long and no doubt expensive evening ahead and he’d be back home tomorrow afternoon. …….
Damn. Why the hell had he agreed to attend? The place was going to be full of sycophantic starlets and agents. He wasn’t anyone important in the film world. Wayne Industries had a Media Division, but it was small fry really compared to some of the other companies invited. Wayne was under no illusions. Money. That was the reason.
Money and his reputation. He grinned to himself as his jet approached Dulles International. His reputation. Playboy, entrepreneur, mogul. Billionaire. He had worked hard to build that smokescreen. Although it had to be said there was a degree of satisfaction in the work. If this was the price that he had to pay to ensure his continued anonymity, then so be it. He would do his part; smile, donate money, lots of money, listen to bland conversations and dull speeches and then he would go back to the real world, to that underground cave where he could monitor the evil that men did and try to thwart them. Albert was in Wayne Manor now, keeping a close watch and would get in touch if he was needed. Reassured, Bruce Wayne leaned back and relaxed. There would be time to get some sleep before his personal jet arrived at Dulles. ………….
The limousines were lining up to collect guests. It had been, as Straker had anticipated, a tedious and expensive evening. But the studio had been recognised, and there had been some serious interest shown in their current projects. It augured well for the future of the company, and that had been Straker’s main objective.
Contracts had been discussed, funding agreed, and all in all it had been a profitable evening. Several interested backers had made discreet approaches, keen to offer money large sums of money for a stake in one of the films currently in pre-production. Though there had been little chance to actually talk to people, to have a dialogue about something other than films and finance and screwing the public out of as much money as possible.
It had all been like those conversations when he went to the barbers. The inane comments and trite pleasantries, the discussions about football teams or cars. Meaningless chatter that had no relevance or depth or purpose. Damn. He ran a hand though his hair, noting that it was getting more than a little shaggy again. No chance to do anything about it now. It could wait.
The limo headed to his hotel and he stared out of the window. One night and he would be heading back to London tomorrow morning. A call to Headquarters to check that all was well, a quick shower and bed but then his stomach gave a rumble of complaint, reminding him that he had rejected most of the exotic and unfathomable delicacies in the evening’s buffet. The hotel bar would still be open. He could get something decent to eat, something recognisable even if it was only a sandwich.
This late at night the lounge area was quiet and pools of light illuminated the random tables and empty chairs. One or two residents sitting alone, finishing a last drink before going off to their solitary rooms, the barman polishing glasses as if he was an extra in a movie. Straker perched on one of the tall stools and out reached a finger to pull the all-night menu nearer, even as the barman flicked the last invisible speck of dust from a glass and turned to his customer.
Straker scanned the list. ‘A sandwich. Roast beef.’ Then he paused. It had been a long evening, he was more tired than he had realised. ‘And brandy.’
‘Good choice. I’ll have the same.’ The voice beside him startled Straker and he turned to see who had disturbed his plans for supper and a quiet drink.
‘Bruce Wayne.’ The handshake was firm, confident, assured. The face familiar. Straker relaxed a little and returned the grip.
‘Ed Straker. Nice to meet you Mr Wayne. I thought we might have had a chance to talk earlier but I think we both got waylaid by, should I say, ‘interested investors’?’ Straker gave an ironic smile.
Wayne sighed. ‘The price we pay for being successful, Mr Straker. How was your evening?’
Straker swirled the brandy glass around, watching the beading ease its way down the sides, his hands cupping the bowl before he took a sip. A pleasing warmth spread around his mouth, tingling on lips and the back of his throat. ‘Tiring, if you want the truth.’ He put the glass down, one finger doodling around the base. ‘And predictable.’
Straker took another sip before answering, ‘Society at its worst. Everyone out to get what they can, without any thought for those who are less fortunate.’ He pushed the glass away. ‘Sorry. I’m tired. Hungry. Makes me …….’
‘Two roast beef.’ The barman slid plates in front of them, passed over cutlery, napkins, condiments, went back to polishing already spotless crystal in front of the brightly lit mirrors of the bar. Straker picked up a sandwich, bit into it, eyes closed for a moment as he savoured the taste.
‘But that’s the world we move in. Greed and money.’ Bruce picked up a neat triangle of beef and bread, inspected it, took a bite. He crooked his arm to look at his watch. ‘Nearly midnight. I’m supposed to fly out at six. Doesn’t give much time for sleep. Although………….’ he looked out of the window into the dark night sky. ‘From the looks of it we might be stuck here.’
Straker turned to follow his gaze. ‘Damn. I hadn’t expected that.’ Snowflakes filled the darkness on the other side of the huge windows. He stood up. ‘Excuse me. I need to make a call.’
Wayne finished his brandy, his eyes watching the reflection of Straker as the slender man, pale suit perfectly matching pale hair, stood by the window and spoke, his words soft and inaudible. An intriguing man. Very intriguing. A film executive.
But Wayne was no fool. There was more than that. Straker had that ‘burned’ look in his eyes. He pulled out his own phone. ‘Albert. I need a run-down on Ed Straker. Harlington Straker. As soon as possible.’ A terse message, but Straker was already coming back to the bar, grimacing.
‘Looks like you’re right Mr Wayne. All flights cancelled until further notice.’ He looked around the bar. ‘At least I have a room for the night.’ He finished a sandwich, reached for another, tilting his head as he perused it. ‘Buffet food. Usually inedible. Give me a decent sandwich any time.’ Last morsel finished, brandy glass tilted for the last drops, he stood up. ‘Goodnight Mr Wayne.’
Wayne put out a hand. ‘Nice meeting you Mr Straker, although I would have liked a chance to talk. Maybe next time?’
Blue eyes, hardened by more than the stress of executive life, narrowed before Straker smiled and eased himself back onto the tall bar stool to rest one foot on the floor. ‘How about now? Neither of us are going anywhere tonight.’ He glanced across at the window. Bad weather always made him edgy. Snowstorms were the perfect cover for UFOs but Alec had assured him that things were quiet so far, although Straker knew that his friend would have alerted all defences in the area. Purely as a matter of routine.
Straker knew better. The SHADO Commander pulled out his phone again as if to check for messages, sweeping it nonchalantly in the direction of Wayne before putting it away again. Headquarters would do a further check, and although he had already seen the dossier on Wayne, a full scan might reveal some important factor.
Security. Always the need for checks and scans and mistrust. One day, he thought, it might be over, he might be able to sit in a bar and talk business without wondering about hidden agendas and ulterior motives. One day, maybe.
‘Sorry?’ Straker realised that the younger man had been speaking to him. ‘Chess?’ He blinked, eyes wide in the dim light.
‘You play, surely?’ Was there a hint of amusement in the brown eyes that were watching him?
Straker looked around the room seeing subdued spotlight illuminating a small table in a quiet corner and scattered chess pieces on a board. ‘Yes. I do.’ Wayne’s unspoken challenge hung in the air. But chess was civilised.
They moved to sit opposite each other, the inlaid squares a neat pattern on the table between them. Straker sat back, listening to the chink of stone as the dark haired man in black separated the jet and alabaster warriors.
‘Competition rules?’ Wayne picked up a black knight, white king, holding them out to the man opposite.
Straker smiled, reached out, ‘White is fine,’ and placed it on the board, before arranging the other pieces around it. ‘Another drink?’ He raised a casual hand to the barman before lifting one piece onto another square. ‘So, Wayne Industries are moving into films. Risky.’
‘We can afford to get our fingers burned, Mr Straker. It’s only a subsidiary company. Nothing too vital.’ One finger touched a bishop then Wayne looked up into Straker’s eyes and lifted his hand. ‘No. I think not.’ A pawn shifted forward under his hand, and he sat back, eyes glinting in amusement.
‘It’s a dangerous world out there, dog eat dog.’ A white knight leaped forward in attack.
‘Harlington Straker is successful. Mind telling me your secret?’ Wayne noticed the slight stiffening of the other man’s shoulders, and pushed on. ‘You managed to weather some rough years. Came through okay. Nice little empire you have there now.’
Straker gave a short laugh. ‘No secret, Mr Wayne. Just hard work.’ Another piece moved in nonchalant indifference. ‘I have good backers.’ His phone buzzed. ‘Excuse me.’ He didn’t move away this time. ‘Straker.’ He listened, his eyes focussing on a point in the distance, though for one split second he glanced at the man across the table before looking away again.
Wayne studied him unobtrusively, noting the lines at the corners of blue eyes, from more than tiredness. He had seen those lines in his own mirror enough times. The evil men do. He wondered what Straker had done to get that look, as if he too was haunted by the past and the present.
Straker put his phone away, and sat there, fingers intertwined, contemplating the board. Bruce Wayne. Billionaire, and all that implied, but there was more to Wayne than appeared. Ford’s quiet phone call had confirmed his suspicions. He wondered what to do. Head bent, studying the chequered grid, the scattered monochrome figures guarding their kings, he considered his options.
‘Yes.’ Straker spoke as if there had been no phone call, no interruption. ‘We had a couple of bad seasons, but so did most companies. What about you?’ This time the blue eyes stared straight at Wayne. ‘Gotham has a … certain reputation.’ Straker moved a pawn in careless disregard.
‘We diversified. Moved into other areas. Paid off in the end.’ It was his turn now to be interrupted by the buzz of his phone. Wayne raised an apologetic eyebrow at Straker and stood up, walking to the window where he turned his back on the room. Straker frowned, mulling over the information in his mind. Ford was unable to be more be specific, but all the pieces were there: Wayne Industries, Gotham City and Batman. It fitted. The money, the access to advanced military technology, the secrecy. Damn. Wayne Industries was financing and supplying Batman.
And Wayne was now here, interrogating Straker. Why? He reached for his brandy, his second glass, untouched until now. One sip as he watched the man over the rim. The merest drop touching his lips, before he put it down. A tall dark figure, who had an envious aura of confidence, of surety in his own strengths. A man who had the power and money to get whatever he wanted. But. There was something more as well. Something that Straker, used to secrets and subterfuge and deception, understood only too well.
Straker perused the chess board, scrutinizing the layout, the moves that both of them had made. He reached out to touch the tip of one finger against the black king. Interesting. Jackson had taught him how to use chess as an analytical tool, not merely as a means to relax and this board revealed a great deal about the enigmatic dark-haired man. Straker gave a wry grimace as he wondered what the game revealed about himself.
From the other side of the room Wayne observed as Straker, a shadowy figure half-hidden in the pool of subdued light, studied the chess board. There had been little information available about the man and that in itself was enough to concern Wayne. Oh, the everyday background details were there, the Air Force history, even the work in Military Intelligence, although you had to search around for that.
But that was it.
Straker. Retired from the USAF some ten years ago to run a film studio. A dead end. Nothing more, apart from glib press releases about Oscars and Baftas and the success of the company. An Air Force Colonel. An astronaut. No one dropped out from that without good reason.
‘Albert. My butler.’ Wayne slid into his seat.
‘Checking up on you?’ Straker gave a slight smile of amusement and yet empathy. ‘Alec does that to me.’
‘My …’ there was a pause. ‘My Vice.’ He straightened his spine and yawned before frowning at the board and then moving his Queen. ‘You have a devious mind Mr. Wayne.’
‘You need to be devious in this business. It’s the only way to survive. Don’t you agree?’
Straker shrugged and waited. There was no point in fencing around the other man. He would finish this game, make his excuses and leave, and if necessary he would requisition transport to get back to London. There was something about Wayne that made him uneasy. Not worried; just more cautious than usual.
The barman came over, offered another drink. ‘On the house, gentlemen.’
Straker gestured at his unfinished brandy. ‘Not for me.’ He looked at Wayne, at the other untouched glass on the table next to the board.
‘Thanks, but, no. I’m fine.’ The dark haired man continued the move he had started. The unrelenting snow muffled the noises from outside until the only sound was the intermittent click of pieces as they were repositioned on the board. Straker slid a piece across and scooped up the black pawn that he had captured. ‘Excuse me.’ He stood up and placed the pawn on the table beside his glass aware that Wayne was watching as he crossed the room to the Gents. He could feel the other man’s eyes following his progress. The door swung open and he stepped into the brightness, looking around to see if there was anyone else there. No one. He made one brief phone call then moved to the urinal.
Wayne steepled his fingers and contemplated the man who was walking away and then the board before he picked up the pawn that Straker had captured and dropped it into his pocket. No one else had gone into the Gents, and he headed across, pushing open the door to take one step in. He let it close behind him and remained there, blocking the exit. Straker was alone, his back to Wayne although the subtle change in his stance told Wayne that his presence had been noticed. The younger man waited. Straker did not turn his head or look up. He finished, zipped up, moved to the handbasin. All without acknowledgment.
‘So. Planned your next moves?’ Straker ran the water over his hands, rubbing his palms together, working soap in between his fingers then rinsing them. He moved to the dryer, still without looking at Wayne.
‘Maybe. Depends on what your strategy is. You play an interesting game Mr Straker.’ Wayne moved aside as Straker approached the door. Just one step. ‘I think you keep your strengths hidden.’ The sardonic grin surprised Wayne. He had not expected Straker to have a sense of humour, certainly such a dry one, but that brief smile was a flash of emotion that surprised him. The Harlington Straker chief had the reputation of being unsociable and distant but this meeting had overturned Wayne’s previous assessment of the man. He wondered what else Straker was hiding. There was certainly something lurking beneath that Film Studio persona. But what?
They sat across from each other once more.
Quiet words, averted eyes as they played. Black against white. Snow continued to fall as the barman finished polishing glassware and retired to one corner of the lounge to read a discarded newspaper. The pieces still in play dwindled, until the game was interrupted by a soft chime from Straker’s phone. He gave it a cursory glance and grinned again, an boyish look this time as if the stress had been wiped away. He reached out to tip the white king over.
‘An enjoyable game, Mr Wayne. Perhaps a rematch when we next meet?’
‘Perhaps.’ Wayne stared at the board and considered. Moves and choices and decisions. Made and unmade. Why had Straker deliberately forsaken the game? Allowed his opponent to win?
‘Goodnight.’ Straker stood up, ignoring the other man as if the last hour had been nothing more than a brief meeting. Four long strides and he was close to the French Doors, putting one hand on the glass to stop the reflection of lights, and staring out at the swirling snow.
‘What’s happening?’ Wayne was suddenly next to him.
Straker twisted the handle and pushed the door open to step into the night, the sudden cold halting his breath. Lights swirled in synchrony with the blizzard and above the deadening sweep of snow he could hear the loud thrum of the approaching helicopter. He headed out into the whiteness, turning back once. Wayne had followed him.
‘Until next time Mr Wayne.’ Straker gave him a last look, and nodded once before he stepped into the snowstorm and it swallowed him from sight.
The snow flurry was blown away by the powerful rotors of the SHADO Aerocopter as it hovered briefly to allow him to climb aboard. He strapped up and touched the pilot on the shoulder. ‘Go.’
As the copter rose, the figure below faded into the swirling snow and Straker leaned back in his seat.
Next time. Maybe.
LtCdr June 2011