Chapter 16 – Friday early am
‘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.
Chapter 17 – Friday am
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 long 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.