The voice was hesitant, and held a dark note of fear but it was enough to make Alec Freeman turn with joy to the man sitting beside him.
Just that one word, that one name was sufficient to crack the shield that had safeguarded Straker from the events that had precipitated his nightmare. He leaned forward, head in his hands as he remembered the underground garage space, and then…
‘It is you, isn’t it Alec?’ he said again, staring at his friend in horror. ‘I tried to get away from them, from what they were going to do. Mason, the aliens…. they wanted……..’ The image of a long grey cylinder invaded his mind and he closed his eyes, wrapping his arms tight around himself.
The flood of memories was too much and Alec pulled him close as Straker broke down, shaking in silent distress. Paul gave an anxious glance in the rear mirror. ‘Alec? What’s happening?’
Freeman cast one worried look at Foster. ‘I don’t know Paul. We need to get him to Mayland. Just drive.’
‘Alec?’ The voice was softer and more fragile if anything this time. Straker was still enveloped in Alec’s arms, his head against his friend’s shoulder. ‘What happened? Where am I?’
Freeman eased him back against the seat, making sure that he was steady and balanced before releasing his hold. ‘What do you remember, Ed? You were saying something about Mason and aliens.’
Straker closed his eyes again and whispered as if afraid that his enemy might still hear him, ‘Aliens. They were waiting for me. And I remember that name, Mason.’ He winced and pressed his hand to his side, before looking up, his expression confused. ‘Where are you taking me?’ There was fear in his voice, and Alec could see terror in his face. This was not Ed Straker, this was someone else, someone hurt and scared and very brittle.
‘You’re safe Ed. Just hang on. We’re taking you to hospital, to -’
‘No, not there, no hospital. Get Rebecca. Please.’ He reached for the door only to have his hand grabbed in a steel-tight hold. Irrational and unrestrained panic flooded through him; they were here, they had found him.
They had the cylinder waiting.
Paul gave one quick glance over his shoulder at the two men. Alec, sitting there, one arm around Straker’s shoulders to prevent him lunging for the door again, Freeman’s hand now gripping fingers that were white under his grasp, and Ed fighting to escape, his eyes unseeing and terrified. There was nothing Paul could do, except get Ed Straker to Mayland as soon as possible.
He concentrated on driving, ignoring the sounds of distress behind him, the quiet pleading reassurances from Freeman, the futile struggling as the Commander tried to free himself.
‘Ed. Stop it, calm down. I don’t want to hurt you.’ Alec was outwardly calm, but Paul could hear the stress in his voice. There was a desperate gasp as Straker fell back, exhausted by the effort, and as his enemy reached for him he gave one last cry of despair and surrendered to the darkness.
The car sped on with Straker now silent and oblivious to everything around him, the phone calls to Mayland, to Miss Ealand, to Henderson, but as Paul braked to a halt outside the hospital Straker opened his eyes and pulled away from Alec, staring at him in mystified recognition.
‘Alec? Why are we here?’ His voice was strained as he sat up, reaching out again for the door but Paul was out of the car and opening it before Straker had a chance.
‘Commander?’ Paul’s smile was genuine, his hand outstretched to help, but the man in the back of the car seemed to shrink away, turning to look at Alec with bewildered eyes.
‘Commander? What does he mean, Alec?’ He flinched and put his hand to his head as if in pain.
Freeman gave Paul a bleak look and shook his head with confusion. ‘Ed, it’s alright, you’re safe now.’ Alec put his hand on Straker’s shoulder and continued, ‘You’ve been hurt. Let Paul help you. Please.’
There was a pause, and Straker, after another glance at his friend sitting behind him, nodded with reluctance and stepped out, Paul’s arms reaching to help him just as Shroeder appeared.
‘What the hell is going on Alec?’ Foster murmured, as the doctor organised his team to take the injured man through to the base medical unit.
‘I don’t know what happened to him, Paul. Whatever it was he’s not over it. Not by a long way from the looks of things. I need you to get a team to Mason’s house and find out what the hell was going on. I’ll get back to HQ as soon as ………………’ Freeman didn’t need to finish. Paul Foster knew what the current SHADO Commander was saying … as soon as he had some idea of whether Ed Straker was going to recover.
Alec followed the wheelchair along the empty echoing corridors, staring with bleak eyes at Straker sitting there hunched, his head down as if fearful of this strange place.
Even once inside in the quiet of the SHADO medical unit, Straker’s haunted eyes looked around for some familiar face, someone who might calm his fears. Confused memories of recent events flickered through his mind and although he recognised his own name now, and was aware that Alec was his friend, he was still utterly bewildered by his surroundings.
Paul. He had recognised Paul but even that was a vague recollection and even Paul was to be feared. He could only trust Alec. And Rebecca.
He wished Rebecca was here.
She had helped him when he had been hurt, he remembered that much. And now he was here with Alec. It was confusing and his head still throbbed. But as they helped him onto the bed he could hear Alec talking to someone nearby. People leaned over him, peering, and he felt the panic begin again, his heart pounding, his eyes seeking a way to escape. Then, fingers entwined his in a firm grip. Twisting his head he scanned the faces and saw him there. Alec. The fear subsided. He would be safe now, Alec would protect him and Ed Straker relaxed, his fingers beginning to loosen their hold as Alec took control.
‘Shroeder, I want this room cleared of everyone who isn’t essential. Everyone.’ He fixed the doctor with the look that he had used before, the icy glare that even Ed Straker found hard to ignore.
Alec Freeman waited, his calm presence comforting his friend as Schroder dismissed all the staff, except for one nurse. before turning back to his patient. With deft movements the doctor slit open the t-shirt, and started.
Straker flinched when fingers skimmed over his ribs before touching his swollen skin, and as an icy spray numbed the wound he gasped and would have resisted any further treatment had Alec not been there to reassure him.
As the razor-sharp pain subsided, the relief spread blissful lethargy through him and although he was aware of the needle and local anaesthetic, and the dull and thick pressure of hands on his skin he allowed himself to drowse as the stitches went in, sealing the gash, but also closing more than just the edges of skin. It was as if it was also the closure of the nightmare that he had undergone, and although he was still bewildered and confused, that irrational terror was beginning to dissipate.
At last it was over and it was with a sense of regret that he stirred himself to wakefulness, ready for whatever he had to face next and he wondered how he was going to get from here back to the safety of the Shelter and his small spartan room.
Alec stepped forward, to put a hand on Straker’s arm. ‘Ed. You need to stay there for a little while longer. I will have to leave now, but I don’t want you to worry. Dr Shroeder is a friend and you can trust him.’ He squeezed Straker’s wrist in an attempt to reassure his friend. ‘How are you feeling now?’
Straker sighed and lay back, ‘My head still hurts.’ He closed his eyes again for a moment as the throbbing in his head made him feel sick. John Shepherd or Ed Straker? Who was he? His mind was unable to focus enough to hold onto the blur of random memories, and although he had been told that Shroeder could be trusted, there was still the fear that he would be left where his enemies would be able to find him.
If only they would let him go home. He would be safe there. He would be able to lock his door and go to bed and listen to the sounds outside as the other men watched television, or argued about football. But they were keeping him here, wherever ‘here’ was, and although he believed that he was safe with Alec, he was very afraid of what would happen after the one person he was able to trust had abandoned him to these strangers.
Alec Freeman pulled the SHADO doctor to one side. ‘Well, doctor? What’s the matter with him? Why is he so confused?’
Shroeder looked back at his patient and frowned, ‘I am concerned about the Commander. This amnesia worries me.’ He stared at Freeman, ‘Do you have any idea what happened to him when he disappeared last week? His loss of memory might be a direct result of some mental trauma.’
‘I have no idea. All I know is that he couldn’t remember anything about his past. But will he recover?’ Freeman persisted, ‘Will Ed Straker return?’
There was dead silence for a moment, as both men contemplated a future where Straker, his memories lost and his past a closed book, was discarded to live his life outside SHADO, cast off and alone, and in that instant Alec Freeman knew that, whatever happened, he would never abandon his Commander, his friend, whatever problems that might cause.
‘I can’t answer that, Commander Freeman,’ Shroeder said in a quiet voice, ‘we will just have to be patient. But, I will look after him. Trust me. Please.’
‘Do whatever it takes Shroeder,’ Freeman murmured and feeling like a traitor he gave one last glance at the man lying there looking lost and abandoned. ‘Call me as soon as there is any change in his condition, and keep this quiet for now,’ he ordered, and then left, closing the door behind him, before leaning against the wall, unseen, to close his eyes and think of his friend.
Rebecca stood on the pavement, Sara beside her as Alec closed the car door and leaned forward to instruct the driver. John, no; not John, he was Ed Straker wasn’t he, Ed was hidden behind the tinted glass of the powerful saloon car, but she could still see him, a darker shape just on the other side of the door, leaning back.
She reached out to put her hand against the window to show him that she was here, but before she could make contact the car moved off, wheels slipping for a second on the icy road before the tyres gripped and it eased away from the small group standing there. Rebecca watched despondently, rubbing her arms in the cold wind, until the car reached the top of the road, turned onto the high street and was lost from view.
She headed back to the doorway of the shelter, where a group had gathered, not bystanders, but stern men with stern faces, waiting there in silence. James was talking to a couple of them and Rebecca was going to speak to him but stopped as she saw Dale sitting in the ambulance, looking lost and alone so she stepped up and perched beside him on the narrow stretcher. She was aware of one of the men moving to stand in the doorway, watching and listening.
‘You okay Dale? What happened down there?’
He grinned at her with a sheepish look, ‘I couldn’t let him kill John. So I stopped him, Miss Steel,’ and he blushed with pleasure at the realisation that he, Dale Atwood, unemployed and homeless though he might be, had saved a man’s life. She returned his smile, squeezed his shoulder with gratitude, and climbed back out, wondering whether she should go down to the basement where the bodies were still lying or stay here in the cold air. The quiet man climbed aboard to sit in silence opposite Dale and then the doors were closed and it drove off, leaving her standing there again. Lost and alone.
There was a flurry of movement and she saw a couple of the men begin to cordon off the immediate area with police tape, the yellow markings a brilliant splash of colour in the drab side street. They moved closer to her, and she was forced to step back, out of their way on the other side of the tape, cut off from everything as if she was a mere bystander and had no part to play in what was happening.
Yet another vehicle had arrived, the sole passenger a thin man, dark-haired and with a narrow face, getting out to survey the whole area. He crooked a finger at James, who hurried to his side and, head down, started to talk, his voice so low that Rebecca was unable to hear anything. She noticed the surreptitious glances that they cast in her direction and she felt exposed and somehow threatened by their interest.
After some minutes the discussion ended and the thin man came over to where she was waiting. ‘Miss Steel? One question. John Shepherd. What room number?’ His accent was Eastern European, not what she had expected, and his eyes stared at her with a cold intensity that she found disconcerting.
‘Twenty. John was in room twenty. Will he be……….’
He cut her off, ‘Thank you for your assistance, Miss Steel. I have arranged for a taxi to collect you.’
‘But…….. what about Barry? And the other man. Surely,’ she faltered, torn between her need to stay here and the necessity to get back to the Studios to check on the guys. And there was John as well. She wanted to see him, to make sure he was alright.
‘It’s my job to deal with everything, Miss Steel.’ He pulled a small leather folder out of his pocket and flashed it at her. She caught a glimpse of a silver badge and an official looking card before he closed it up and slipped it back into his breast pocket with a tight smile. ‘Jackson. Special Investigations Unit. Leave us to sort this out; there isn’t anything you can do right now. Once we’ve finished here you can come back. We should have the Shelter open again for you by late afternoon.’ He tilted his head to look at her, ‘The best thing you can do is to go back to the Studios. I understand that you have a group there at the moment? They will most likely be wondering where you are.’
There was almost a note of insolence in his voice, as if she was unimportant and nothing more than an intruder into his own investigations, but his argument was reasonable. There was nothing she could do here. Not now.
An unmarked and nondescript van was pulling up alongside the remaining car, two uniformed men inside, and she put her hand out to Sara. ‘Can we move away from here? I don’t want to see……’
‘Sure, come on.’ Sara put her arm around her friend as they walked up the road, Rebecca shivering from more than the cold.
The taxi arrived before they had got halfway to the top of the road and there was no chance to look back and see what was going on behind her, not that she wanted to watch when they brought out Barry and the other man. It seemed a long journey back to Harlington after the almost headlong dash in Alec’s car, and she felt exhausted.
‘Rebecca, that man, John Shepherd, he was the one who ……….’ Sara broke the painful silence.
‘The one? Oh, yes. He was the one.’ Rebecca nodded, and turned back to look out of the window. John Shepherd. She smiled to herself as she remembered those insignificant moments. His fingers fastening the bracelet around her wrist, his hand on her head as she cried, watching him help Dale, seeing him there bleeding, hurt, and yet still trusting her as she trusted him.
Rebecca’s finger traced a shape in the condensation on the window before she realised what she was doing and wiped the pattern away with one embarrassed stroke.
Harlington. The signpost warned her that they were approaching their destination and she dabbed at her eyes before the taxi pulled up and the door was opened by an efficient concierge who ushered them into the main building. Rebecca had expected to meet Miss Ealand or even Max and the guys, but no, they were shown into a private dining room where the table was laid with a small buffet, and then left alone. Sara wandered around the room, looking at the Studio posters that were adorned the walls but Rebecca had already helped herself to a sandwich and crisps and was reaching for the sushi when Sara spoke to her.
‘So, how did Straker get that injury, Rebecca? You never explained.’ Sara turned away from examining a poster and tilted her head at her friend in expectation.
Rebecca blushed, remembering. ‘There was an incident late last night. A guy with a knife. John, no, not John,’ and she hesitated, unaware that the door behind her had opened, ‘Ed. He stopped the guy from attacking Sam, but got hurt himself. No one realised what had happened to him.’
The sharp intake of breath was sufficient to make Rebecca turn around, startled to see Miss Ealand standing there her eyes frozen, before the secretary blinked and loosened up enough to move to the table and reach for the coffee pot.
Sara persisted with her questions while Ed Straker’s secretary began pouring with hands that were still a little unsteady, ‘So why hadn’t he gone to hospital? He should have had it stitched Rebecca, you know that.’
Rebecca put down her sandwich and sighed, ‘Yes he should and I wanted him to go, but damn it Sara, you don’t know him. He didn’t even tell anyone he’d been hurt and he just went to his room. He was so stubborn, but really I think he was also frightened.’
‘Frightened?’ Miss Ealand interrupted, her voice concerned, ‘That doesn’t sound like Mr Straker at all.’
Rebecca shrugged her shoulders, ‘Well, he wasn’t, was he? I mean he wasn’t Ed Straker. He was John Shepherd and something had happened to him to make him lose his memory. Something appalling enough to make him shut down and forget everything, even his name.’ She looked down at the plate in her hand, at the crumbs and a smear of mayonnaise and the remnants of crisps, and thought of …… salt on her lips. ‘It didn’t help that he’d had a really bad nightmare earlier and I think he was still scared. I hope he is alright.’ She looked at Sara with worried eyes.