Chapter 19 – Friday am
A Studio tour was just setting off from the main reception area as Alec Freeman headed out to meet Sara and Miss Steel, having asked Max to come and show the men some of the work that was done in the construction areas. The group stood aside, watching with some amusement as the coach load of pensioners on a day trip followed their guide like a faithful and devoted puppy.
‘Miss Steel, Dr Harper, gentlemen, thank you for coming today,’ Alec was all charm and smiles, ‘Can I introduce Max, our construction manager. He will be showing you the work he does here and the facilities we have. I’ll meet you later in the canteen at lunch time and I can answer any questions then. Max?’ Alec handed the group over with a nod, before turning to the two women. ‘Miss Steel, would you like to come with me first? I can show you some of the training courses we offer, and then you can see if there is anything that you might want to consider using.’ He paused, and turned to her companion, ‘Sara, do you want to come along as well?’ There was time for one tiny private moment, one quick shared glance and a smile, then he led the way back to Miss Ealand’s office, his mind wanting to focus once more on his abortive search for Ed.
Rebecca noticed the unspoken communication between the two, saw the flash of a smile that passed between them and smiled, even though there was a measure of envy in her thoughts.
Alec ushered them both in to the office at the end of the main reception area. ‘Miss Ealand,’ he acknowledged the elegant woman behind the desk who had been talking on the phone as they arrived, ‘this is Miss Steel from the Hounslow Shelter Project. We’re hoping to work to develop our community links between her organisation and the studio. And this is Doctor Harper, a friend of hers.’
Dr Harper. Miss Ealand remembered reading the G6 report on Sara Harper, the pathologist, and for a single moment her face became unreadable as she thought about what Dr Harper had done and how Alec Freeman had come to meet her, before, once again the efficient secretary, she gave the two women a quick and professional smile. Still holding the phone, she looked at her boss, ‘Mr Freeman, I’ve got Mr Foster on the line. He needs to speak to you as a matter of urgency. I’ll put the call through to your office for you.’ A glance passed between them, and Alec nodded, his face tightening for a moment with concern.
‘Thank you.’ He turned to the two women, ‘Sorry about this, I hope it won’t take long. Miss Ealand will look after you.’ He went into the inner office and the door closed behind him as his secretary waited to transfer the call. She heard him pick up the phone; ‘Freeman. What’s the problem Paul?’ and she put her receiver down and looked up at Rebecca and Sara.
‘I’m sorry about this, but I’m sure Mr Freeman wont be too long. Now, can I get you a cup of tea or coffee while you are waiting?’
Rebecca smiled, ‘Please, that would be lovely. Tea if that is all right.’
Sara Harper perched on the edge of the desk, looking around the office, ‘No I’m fine thank you. I must say you have some wonderful art work on display here. Some very fine pieces.’
‘Yes, Mr Straker appreciated modern art and liked to see it on show.’ Her expression grew sad as she looked around the office, and Rebecca could see the loss in her eyes.
‘Mr Straker? I wondered about the name Harlington Straker.’ Rebecca said.
The secretary smiled at her, ‘Mr Straker was in charge of the studios until his death very recently. We are still…’ she paused, ‘still getting used to the fact that he is no longer here.’ She reached out to touch the photograph frame on her desk with one elegant slender finger.
Rebecca moved closer to look.
‘Dear God’ she gasped. ‘John.’ With hands that were shaking she grabbed the frame and held it, her whole body now trembling, her face white.
‘Rebecca, are you alright? What’s wrong?’ Sara moved to stand beside her friend, one arm protectively around Rebecca’s shoulder, her hand reaching for the photograph. ‘Who is John?’
‘John was Mr Straker’s son.’ Miss Ealand answered, mystified by the reaction of the woman who was even now clinging to the photograph.
‘No. John. This is John.’ Rebecca looked at her, eyes wide with shock. ‘My John. Not the boy. The man in this picture. He’s John Shepherd. He’s been staying in the Shelter.’
Miss Ealand acted instantly, picking up the phone. ‘Ford. Get Mr Freeman here immediately.’ The note of command in her voice was crystal-clear as she stood, staring straight at Rebecca. ‘Are you absolutely sure that this is the same man? John Shepherd? Where is he right now?’
Rebecca looked at the photograph again, ‘Yes, yes it’s John, there can’t be two men with that same scar just there,’ and she touched the profile of Straker where the small imperfection on his lip marked his smile as he stared at his son. ‘John is .. John. That’s all I know about him. He came to us last week; doesn’t remember…..’
She broke off startled and embarrassed as the inner office door opened and Alec Freeman stepped out, frowning.
‘Miss Ealand? What’s happened?’
She turned to him her face glowing, eyes bright. ‘Ed Straker could still be alive Alec. I don’t understand it, but Miss Steel apparently knows him.’
Rebecca took a deep breath and faced Alec Freeman, forcing herself to speak in a calm voice like a child in front of her headteacher, knowing it was important to get all the facts straight. She was aware of his secretary phoning for a car and security, but she focussed on ordering her words and getting the facts over concisely.
‘I know this man as John Shepherd. He came to the shelter last week, very early Thursday morning, suffering from amnesia. He doesn’t remember anything about who he is or his past. We were expecting the police to trace his family but no-one has been in touch.’ She looked at Alec, ‘There’s not much more I can tell you. He’s at the Shelter now.’ She looked at him with scared eyes, as if waiting for him to shout at her, as if it was all her fault.
Alec Freeman gave a huge sigh. ‘I have been searching for Ed since this morning, after Sara told me that the man she had autopsied couldn’t be Ed Straker. I wasn’t able to find any police records at all. Nothing. I can’t believe that he has been with you all this time, Miss Steel. Is Ed alright?’ Alec put his hand out, reaching to her as if to reassure himself that she was not lying, that Ed was alive.
Rebecca paused, ‘He’s fine. I’ll phone the Shelter and you can talk to him.’ She pulled out her mobile and dialled, aware that everyone was watching her and listening, holding their breath in anticipation.
‘Barry? Rebecca here. Good news. I’m here with a friend of John Shepherd, …’ she listened, ‘Oh. Right. Well, hang on a second.’ She looked up at Freeman with a worried expression. ‘Barry has someone at the Shelter right now, claiming to be John’s brother-in-law. Wants to take him home. What should I do?’
‘Let me speak to him.’ Alec took the phone from her hand. ‘Barry, this is Alec Freeman. I don’t know who you have there, claiming to know John Shepherd, but do not let John leave the building. Do you understand? I’ll be there in ten minutes, with Miss Steel. Keep John with you. Don’t let him go with anyone.’ He listened to the puzzled acknowledgement from Barry and handed the phone back to Rebecca. ‘I have to get there. Rebecca, Sara, will you come with me?
Miss Ealand touched his arm. ‘Your car is ready. And security have been notified and are waiting.’ She bit her lip, and in a soft voice whispered ‘bring him back Alec. Bring Ed back.’
Chapter 20 – Friday am
The kitchen was out of bounds to residents, but there was an open loaf as always on the small table where they made tea and coffee, and Dale took two thick slices of the cheap bread and put them in the toaster. It was pleasant, being in the shelter when it was quiet like this; he didn’t often get the chance to relax and be himself instead of constantly trying to lord it over the others. Maybe if Shepherd was up to it, they could work on the next stage of that course that John was helping him to do.
The kettle boiled and he poured the water into two mugs, stirring briskly before squeezing the teabags against the sides and then dropping them into the bin. Sugar. John had sugar in his drinks, Dale remembered, and he added two spoonfuls stirring them in with care and then topping it up with milk. It occurred to him, quite out of the blue, that he never used to make drinks for anyone else. He never used to do anything for other people if it came down to it. He had always expected others to look after themselves, or to make the drinks for him instead. It felt… good, felt somehow right, to be useful, to be taking care of someone who needed help.
He buttered the toast with care, the way he liked it himself, spreading it right to the corners and adding a thick layer of marmalade, again smoothing the orange preserve evenly across the toast, before cutting the slices in two from corner to corner as his dad had done for him so many years ago. Mugs in one hand, plate in the other, he walked down the corridor to the medical room, glad that he was alone, that none of his mates could see him now. They would probably laugh at him, but, Dale realised with a start, he didn’t care anymore.
John was lying down, listless eyes watching as Dale pushed open the door and came in with a hesitant smile as if apologising for the disturbance.
‘Brought you some toast, hope you like marmalade,’ Dale muttered, placing the mugs and plate on the small cabinet before turning back to the man still lying there, ‘Come on. I’ll give you a hand,’ and with a gentle strength that surprised even him, he slipped one arm under John’s shoulders and helped him upright. ‘There,’ he said, ‘how are you feeling now?’
Shepherd leaned against him wearily. ‘Tired, just tired, and yes,’ he gave a short laugh, ‘I like marmalade, although at the moment I’m hungry enough to eat anything.’ He straightened his shoulders and took the mug that Dale handed him. There was silence in the room, Dale sitting now in the easy chair and watching with concern as the simple breakfast was eaten.
It was unusually quiet in the room, no footsteps, no slamming of doors, no gruff muttered voices of men heading for breakfast. There was a soft rumble of traffic on the street outside, and muted voices from an occasional passing pedestrian. Different from the sounds in Dale’s own room where he was used to hearing other residents walking past, doors slamming, or the television if it was particularly loud late at night. There was no conversation between the two men and Dale sat in silence until Shepherd finished the last of his drink and put the mug down on the cabinet with a sigh. ‘I needed that,’ he looked over at the man watching him, ‘Thank you, Dale, but weren’t you meant to be going out to see that company about jobs today?’
Dale frowned, ‘You mean Harlington Straker, the film people? Nah, I don’t think they’d be interested in someone like me working as an extra on one of their sets and I’m useless at construction jobs. Tried it before.’ He averted his eyes as if ashamed of his inability, ‘thought I’d be better staying here and having a go at doing some work on the computer while there’s no one around.’ He stood up and opened the door, ‘Look, I’ll get you some clothes so you can get dressed.’
He felt awkward unlocking Room 20, as if he was intruding on someone’s personal space. He never allowed anyone in his room; it was his sanctuary, and the only privacy Dale could enjoy and where the few reminders of his son were on display, a photograph, a handmade Father’s Day card from some years ago, a small teddy bear that his son had in his cot every night, until he grew up and became embarrassed. Little memories of a family life, before alcohol split them apart.
There was nothing in John Shepherd’s room; no photographs, no personal items, just the bag of cheap toiletries he had been given on the first day and, folded in a neat pile in the top drawer, one spare set of clothes. The bed was still rumpled and unmade from the night before and Dale pulled it into some semblance of order, not really knowing why he was bothering, before he took the clean things back to where Shepherd was waiting.
John had stirred himself and was now sitting on the edge of the bed, head down and shoulders slumped with the effort it had taken to shift even that much. He twisted his head to look at the other man with a wry smile, and the hint of a grimace. The bath towel that Rebecca had wrapped him in the previous night was once more around his hips and his hands were tight on his knees as if trying to prop himself up.
Dale dropped the clothes on the end of the bed and eased his bulk down to sit next to John, not touching, not that close, but close enough to offer support by his very nearness. He waited, patient and uncomplaining without a word, just being there in case he was needed. He was concerned about Shepherd; the man seemed utterly exhausted and yet determined to act as if nothing untoward had happened.
‘You should stay in bed you know. At least until the others get back.’
‘No, I’ll be fine, honestly.’ Shepherd told him, ‘go and start on that program we were looking at yesterday. I’ll get dressed in a while and join you.’ He tightened his grip on his knees to stop his hands betraying him with their trembling.
Dale stood up and looked down at him, frowning. ‘Okay. I’ll go. But I’ll be back shortly to check on you.’ He grunted with disapproval and, picking up the mugs and plate, left, this time heading for the common room.
John Shepherd waited until the door was closed, and Dale’s footsteps had faded into the distance, then he reached out for the little heap of clothing. His own clothes, the ones he had been wearing when he arrived here, the dark sweat shirt, clean but torn in places, the expensive jeans also scuffed and marked by signs of a struggle. He held them, and wondered not for the first time, what exactly had happened to make him lose his memory and end up here of all places, with addicts and misfits and people who were considered the dregs of society.
Although, and he gave a rueful smile, Dale had become a friend in the last few days, for all his bluster and apparent incompetence. Then there was Rebecca…… he pushed the thought away and still sitting there, unwrapped the towel and with slow and cautious movements, started to get dressed.
He was too stiff to bend far enough to get socks on; bare feet would have to suffice for now, and even pulling on his briefs and then the close-fitting jeans was an effort. He stood up, fastening the top button, pulling up the zip, and then running his thumbs around the inside of the waist to ease the fit on his hips before he reached out with some hesitation for the plain white t shirt. It lay there, draping in soft folds over his hands, the cotton fabric clean and undamaged and he tensed, as if suddenly afraid.
Then in a swift and almost determined movement, he tugged it over his head, and, holding his breath, eased his arms through, his face contorting with pain as muscles tautened and skin stretched beneath the stained dressing.
He was shaking by the time he had managed to pull the shirt down and tuck it into the jeans. Bare-footed, he stood up and leaning one hand against the wall for support, opened the door just as he heard…
Dale wandered down to the common room and put the dirty dishes in the sink, before settling down and logging onto the computer. It made a change, being alone with no-one watching him or making snide comments about him playing silly computer games. He could concentrate properly now, and with any luck if John was around later he might help Dale through the next stage. Although from the looks of him, John Shepherd wouldn’t be in much of a state to help anyone today. Dale hadn’t seen anyone look so fragile and stressed for a long time.
He sighed, and stretched his fingers before guiding the mouse with a delicacy and precision that would have astounded his mates. It astounded him as well. Dale Atwood, school misfit, failed husband, alcoholic was actually good at something. He wondered what would happen to him when John left, when someone came to claim the soft-spoken American, and Dale was left to struggle on alone. But deep down he knew what would happen, he would get stuck, he would get frustrated and then .. then he would get drunk. Damn it, he was on the very edge of starting a better life, of finally being able to achieve something, thanks to John Shepherd. He was not going to let it slip out of his fingers this time.
He worked on until the sound of footsteps distracted him. A visitor; Dale could hear the door open and muttered words. Dale stood up and moved across the room between the sofas, curious and intrigued as he heard Barry mention the name ‘Shepherd’, but the conversation was cut short by the phone ringing.
Barry gave an apologetic shrug of his shoulders and picked up the phone with a mouthed ‘sorry’ to Simon Roberts.
‘Hounslow Community Shelter…; he broke off, listening, then continued, after glancing up at the man who had just arrived and was standing there on the other side of the desk. ‘Well actually there’s someone here right now; John’s brother-in-law. Come to collect him.’ He paused again then frowned.
Mason could hear a change in the voice at the other end. A man’s voice, stern and decisive. He slipped his hand into the deep pocket of his coat and gripped his gun. There was nothing he could do now but wait.
Barry replaced the phone and stood there, hand still holding the receiver down in place, as if he was wondering what to say. He lifted embarrassed eyes to stare at the visitor, ‘Um, I’m sorry but apparently someone is on his way to collect John Shepherd. I’ve been told not to let John leave. Do you want to wait here? Mr Freeman said he would only be ten minutes or so. There’s no one in today apart from Shepherd, and he’s in the medical room at the far end of the corridor if you want to go down there, or you could go and sit in the common room and make yourself a brew.’ He indicated the communal area with a sideways jerk of his head.
Freeman. Mason felt sick. God almighty it had all gone horribly wrong. Alec Freeman was coming here and Mason had ten minutes at the most to get to Straker and deal with him. He felt a moment of utter panic, pure terror that grasped his heart in a fist, then the years of training took over. His hand slid inside his coat, fingers wrapping around the grip of the handgun, easing it out to fit snug in his grasp, his index finger moving onto the trigger. It was instinctive, an action that he had practised so many times before, and he was almost surprised at the speed with which he pointed the muzzle at the man standing there and then quite calmly shot him.
It was different to what he had expected though. He’d fired the gun so many times before, pulled the trigger, felt the recoil, smelled the acrid smoke but this was different. This was not a paper target in black and white. This was a real face with eyes that looked at him with hopeless and utter dread before the bullet struck.
The sound of the blast was inconsequential compared to the wet smack as the bullet punched into Barry. Punched into him and through him, splintering ribs, shredding lungs, ripping flesh from his back as it exploded out before slamming into the computer tower behind. Fat sparks erupted as the electricity board short-circuited before shutting down, plunging the building into sudden, unexpected darkness.
The explosive sound, followed by the total blackness as the electricity shut off and darkness filled the room, was enough to panic Dale. He froze, unable to move, waiting desperately for the lights to come back on so he could go and see what had happened. It had sounded far too loud to be the sound of something smashing, or even a door being kicked in which had happened before. Then he heard footsteps across the common room floor at the far end, and, filled with an inexplicable terror he crouched down to hide behind the sofa just as the emergency lighting kicked in.
Mason swore to himself as the lights went out. It would make finding Straker that much more difficult, but, at least he had some idea of where the man was, at the far end of the building. He fumbled his way to the door that led into the common room, just as the emergency lights were activated, their eerie glow casting watery shadows into the dark room.
There was a door ahead of Mason, leading to the far end of the building. Rooms 1 – 20. He stepped quietly across the hard floor, careful to avoid bumping into tables or chairs, eyes scanning the immediate surroundings and oblivious of Dale, crouching half-hidden in the dark.
The door to the corridor swung open on silent hinges and Mason walked down, each step placed to avoid any unnecessary noise, scrutinizing every door in his search for Straker.
Shepherd had just opened the door when the sound thudded through the building. A gunshot. He recognised that distinctive noise, though he had no idea how or from where, and he had a moment of panic. Dale. What had happened to Dale?
There was no other sound, no one calling out, no running feet, no voices. He stepped out into the corridor, looking up towards the common room and seeing the silhouette of a man, not Dale, far too slender for Dale, and not Barry either. This figure was shorter, and as it moved under the pool of green light from the back-up system, Shepherd could see that the man, whoever he was, had something in his hand. A gun. He could see the glint of the metal under the soft glow of the emergency lights, the distinctive shape of the barrel protruding from the man’s grip.
He had to get away from here, from this dead-end where he was trapped with no chance of escape. If the person coming this way along the corridor was looking for him he had to get somewhere safer. A sudden memory flared again, of a man holding a gun and of people, no, not people, things, chasing him.
On silent feet, thankful that he was not wearing shoes which might betray him with a squeak on the uncarpeted floor, he stepped out, pressing himself against the wall in an attempt to avoid being seen. He moved with slow cautious steps, holding his breath, hoping that whoever it was at the far end of the passageway would not catch sight of him here in the shadows in his white t shirt and jeans.
He reached the short stretch of corridor that ran at right angles, and, once out of sight, moved more swiftly, heading away from the figure that had filled him with such dread. He had to find Dale, and see what had happened, had to get away from here, across the grey barriers, away from them and the cylinder that was waiting for him.
Sharp pain lanced through his head and he stumbled, falling to his knees, dizzy with the flashing and confusing images that flooded into his mind. Even though he could hear them behind him…… closer and closer, coming to get him, to enclose him in the grey sarcophagus, he was unable to get up. So he crawled on in desperation, listening for the sound of their footsteps as they approached, waiting for the grip of their gloved hands on his shoulder.
The door ahead was open, a dark and welcoming refuge and he dragged himself into the blackness of the small bathroom, to lie on the cool floor, his eyes shut against the blinding throbbing in his head.