Dr Hartley scowled as he flicked through the folder and saw the address. Yet another homeless drunk, no doubt having been in a fight, aggressive, ready to cause trouble and taking up precious time. His precious time. He had been here too many times before to care about yet another waste of space. If the ambulance hadn’t brought this one in then Hartley would have pushed him to the end of the queue and made him wait. He stepped into the cubicle and stopped. The patient was not alone. There was another man there tall, quiet, arms folded, inexpressive yet watchful eyes. Hartley paused, assessing the two men and wondering which one to address, before making his decision and turning to the man sitting on the bench.
‘Atwood. You’ve banged your head I understand?’ The doctor’s dismissive tone made the tall man frown with displeasure, but he remained silent as the questioning continued. ‘When did you last have a drink?’
Dale blushed ‘Last night,’
‘And how many units a week do you drink?’
There was a pause. Dale looked up at the man who had accompanied him, a quick humiliated glance before he clasped his fingers together and muttered an answer under his breath.
There was a curt ‘humph’ as the doctor stepped forward to tilt Dale’s head back and look into his eyes. ‘Well, I suppose I could send you for an x-ray, though it looks like nothing more than a bump. What did you fall over?’ he turned away to start on his notes, only to have his arm gripped.
‘One moment,’ the tall man said, flicking open an identity card, his fingers still tight on Hartley’s upper arm, ‘Mr Atwood didn’t fall over, and neither was he drunk. I expect you to treat him with due consideration and respect. Is that understood?’ The tone was clear and it was Hartley’s turn to blush this time. He busied himself organising an x-ray while Dale looked up with some unease at the stranger who had travelled with him.
‘Thank you,’ he murmured, feeling ill at ease and not understanding why this person was bothered about him.
There was a slight smile. ‘No need Mr Atwood.’ But he would say no more.
There was the usual long queue in the x-ray department, and Dale was weary to the bone by the time he returned to the cubicle to wait once more. He ached from the discomfort of sitting in the wheelchair and sighed with relief as he eased himself onto the examination table. The man waited with him, standing there as if he had all the time in the world to waste here, listening to footsteps and voices, the rattle of machinery, the sounds of ambulances in the distance.
With an increasing sense of fear Dale wondered what he had done to have merited a guard, even such a polite one, and what they expected him to do anyway. He was too far away from the shelter to walk back there, he had no money for a bus and even if he managed to evade this rather intimidating sentry, he would soon be recaptured. There was nothing for it but to wait. He closed his eyes and relaxed. He’d been arrested enough times anyway so once more wouldn’t make much difference and at least the food in the local cells was good.
Alec Freeman shut his eyes for a moment, drowsy in the warmth of the room, despite the bright lights and gentle hum of monitors. The stress of the morning had finally hit home, and despite his efforts sleep was creeping over him. Ed had not stirred, had not moved in fact, even when Shroeder had come in to make a brief check. Alec had managed to send a text to Miss Ealand, that was all, but it was enough. He knew that she would let Paul know what was happening, and also Keith Ford, and if the Control room wanted him, he could make it back there in a few minutes.
He looked at his watch, let his head tilt back against the padded headrest and allowed himself the luxury of rest. Just a few minutes he promised, just enough to dispel the lassitude that was befuddling his mind.
The sound filtered into Straker’s world. A faint slow sigh, a low rumble, a pause, before it started again, rhythmical yet soothing. He was curled up in an uncomfortable position and he stretched his legs out, enjoying the sensation as muscles eased and reawakened and feeling cool linen against his skin. Bare skin.
Where the hell was he? His hand twitched, and there was a sudden snort, a break in the almost hypnotic noise that had disturbed his rest. Curious to know both where he was and the source of the noise, and somehow not afraid any more although he wondered why that thought was in his mind, he opened his eyes.
One sigh, one deep breath of acceptance and relaxation and sheer relief as the contrasting memories coalesced and settled in his mind. The past was over, the fear dissipated, he was safe, he was home. Not ‘home’ as such but he knew where he was, knew who it was sitting beside the bed, fingers just touching his own. Alec, looking drawn and tired, head back in the chair and dozing.
At any other time the man in the bed would have been content to close his eyes again and drift back into the warm cocoon that protected him, but he was no longer John Shepherd, aimless and without responsibilities, he was Ed Straker, SHADO Commander and with that overriding thought he reached out to the hand on his pillow and squeezed the fingers.
Alec jerked, pulling his hand back and gasping as a shiver of wakefulness startled him. ‘What the…. Ed?’ he leaned forward questioning.
‘Hi Alec,’ Straker gave a hesitant smile. ‘I’m awake and I suppose I’d better fill you in on what happened.’ He groaned as he levered himself up to sit, then frowned, ‘I need to get up. Pass me that robe will you?’ He swung his legs out of the bed, wincing at the stiffness in his side, then he looked up, concern in his eyes. ‘Dale. What happened to him? Was he hurt?’
‘Take it easy, Ed. Dale is fine. You need to relax and lie down.’ He put a hand on Straker’s shoulder, but his friend shook his head and reached for the dressing gown on the end of the bed.
‘No Alec, I’m okay, though you look tired.’ He gave Freeman a piercing stare. ‘Give me a few minutes to wake up.’ Straker pulled the gown on over his shoulders and stood up, balancing himself with one hand on the edge of the bed, before straightening up and tying the belt. ‘You’d better see about finding me some clothes as well,’ he grinned with resignation as he made his way with unsteady steps across to the bathroom. Alec followed, ready to grab him should the need arise, but Straker shrugged off the hand and closed the door behind him.
The bathroom was spacious and light, and Straker leaned his head for a moment against the cool tiles in an effort to keep himself awake and upright, then once the mundane necessity of relieving himself had been taken care of, he turned on the taps, splashing warm water over his face, his head, his hair, before reaching for one of the thick towels to rub himself dry.
With both hands holding the edge of the sink he looked at his reflection, remembering his first day in the Shelter, the stranger’s face that stared back out of the mirror and the flash of fear as John Shepherd recalled that man in the darkness, in the garage. And Straker clenched his fingers on this sink, and closed his eyes tight again, not with fear of that stranger, but with the deeper fear that now filled him.
The aliens had the ability to create clones, and he had no idea how to stop them.
Miss Ealand heard the unmistakable tone of her mobile, alerting her and she nodded a quick apology to Rebecca as she read the message from her Commander, her face giving no clue as to the contents of the text. It was clear however, that this was important, not just a memo, or reminder. Her stillness, the tension as she read the communication told Rebecca everything. This was news about John, about Ed.
Rebecca watched, glancing across to Sara with anxious eyes as they waited, and feeling guilty that as she had carried on chatting to Ed Straker’s personal assistant she had relaxed enough to stop thinking about him lying there injured. She wondered if he was scared for he had certainly seemed frightened when they had tried to get him into the ambulance. Sara reached out and squeezed her fingers.
‘He’ll be fine, don’t worry,’ she murmured, and smiled but it was no comfort to Rebecca. She looked at the clock. Was it still only half-past one? It seemed as if years had passed since she had set off this morning to come here with the guys. So much had happened, the frantic drive back, seeing Barry there and Dale and John and the other man, and then John being driven away and Rebecca coming back here and not knowing…
‘That was Mr Freeman. He wants you to know that Mr Straker is asleep right now, but the doctor has said that he should make a full recovery.’ Miss Ealand’s voice interrupted her thoughts and for no reason at all Rebecca wanted to cry.
She dropped her head into her hands as the tears started, as the relief flooded through her and all those tiny memories surfaced from where they had been buried. The unimportant memories, but at the same time the ones that mattered most. Not the way he looked, or how he spoke, not the clothes he wore, as if those mattered anyway. No it was the way he made her feel. That blissful sense that, for the first time since…… since, and as she gulped she felt Sara put a handkerchief in her hand.
John. She would probably not see him again now. But in a way that was to be expected. After all, he was not homeless, not any more; he had a job, a good job, and friends and colleagues who cared about him, and after all she had known him for just one week.
One week. That was all, and yet so much had happened. She would miss him, though, and that realisation was the worst thing. To know that there was someone out there in the world who she could trust, who she wanted to be with, and he would no doubt forget all about her and the Shelter and everything as soon as he was back at work. Drunks and drug addicts. Who would want to be connected to them? Ed Straker would obliterate that week from his memories and carry on. Without her.
She wiped her eyes. She had done it before, had moved on, had started afresh, and she could do it again. She was being silly, and this was just a reaction to everything that had happened today. But it was still hard and she squeezed her eyes tight to force tears back, even as she felt Sara’s hand on her shoulder, comforting and calming. Enough. She straightened her back, mopped the last defiant tear from her eyelashes and shook herself as if to throw off those emotions that were threatening her.
‘I’m fine. Sorry about that,’ she gulped, ‘I was just remembering what happened. It’s seems almost unreal somehow, Barry being killed and that other man, and Mr Straker being hurt,’ she looked at Miss Ealand, ‘I’m glad he will be alright. You must have been very worried about him. I don’t suppose there is any more coffee is there?’
‘I’ll get some sent in, although,’ Ed Straker’s secretary gave Miss Steel a gentle smile, ‘perhaps you’d like to freshen up first? The Ladies is just down the corridor.’
Rebecca blushed, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea, I must look a mess.’ She reached for her bag and went out, her head averted to avoid curious stares at her swollen eyes and smudged make-up. The door closed behind her, leaving the two women alone.
‘Well?’ Miss Ealand looked at Sara Harper.
Sara looked back, into eyes that were not fooled by Rebecca’s statement. It was time to be honest with this professional and above all perceptive woman. She sighed, knowing that Rebecca would hate her for what she was about to say, but that it had to be said.
‘She’s lying. You know that, and so do I. She cares about him, desperately. Look,’ she paused, wondering just how far to go with the truth, ‘Rebecca was hurt by her fiancé a long time ago. She has never really got over it, never really been able to get close to any other man since then. Except for this Ed Straker.’
‘Hurt? Can you tell me more? Or would that be breaking a confidence?’ Miss Ealand asked, her voice gentle and concerned.
Sara paused, ‘I don’t think it would be. And even if it was, I think you should know.’ She took a deep breath, hating the words that she was about to say, and feeling the rage build inside her. ‘Her fiancé got drunk, wanted sex one night. She didn’t. So…….so…..’
‘Do you want to stop?’
‘No. You need to know this. It changes everything about Rebecca. Why she acts the way she does, and why I think that Ed Straker is the best thing that has happened to her in years.’ Sara took a deep breath, ‘Her fiancé raped her. Beat her to a bloody pulp and raped her. She nearly died.’ The pathologist clenched her fingers together, the knuckles white with the ferocious anger that still consumed her every time she recalled seeing Rebecca in the hospital afterwards.
The door opened and Sara jerked, concerned that her friend might have returned, but no, it was the waiter, quiet and discreet, bringing more coffee.
Miss Ealand poured a fresh cup for Sara then sat watching as Dr Harper took deep breaths and recovered her composure. The coffee was hot and fragrant and she sipped it with appreciation, relieved that Rebecca had not returned, and that she had spoken to this quiet and anxious woman who surely understood what Sara had seen. That Rebecca had found a man who she trusted and who would not hurt her.
But that was the problem. Ed Straker wasn’t that man in the shelter, he was different now, very different by all accounts, and Sara knew that Rebecca was trying to distance herself from further hurt.
Perhaps it was the right thing to do. Perhaps Mr Straker would settle back into his comfortable life and forget the past, but Sara had seen how devoted Alec Freeman was to the man and she trusted Alec. He wouldn’t care so much about someone who could be shallow and thoughtless enough to ignore Rebecca. Not after what had happened, not after all that Rebecca had done for him.
‘You know Mr Straker well, don’t you and Alec is very close to him isn’t he?’ and she blushed a little with the memories of the previous night. ‘I just don’t want Rebecca hurt again. That’s all.’
Miss Ealand smiled, ‘I’ve worked for Mr Straker for a long time, and although Miss Steel only knew him as John Shepherd, from what I have heard I would say that John Shepherd wasn’t any different to Ed Straker, just different names, that’s all.’
‘She trusted him… not to…’
‘As I said, not much difference, probably far less than most people would realise.’ Miss Ealand stared, willing Sara to understand what she was saying, and yet also not saying.
They looked at each other, and Sara nodded. ‘Thank you. I’ll talk to Rebecca later.’
Miss Ealand stood up, ‘Now I have to go and make a couple of calls. Do you want to come back to my office when Rebecca is ready?’’
‘Sure, and….. thank you.’ Sara smiled.
‘Paul. Alec has asked me to contact you.’ Miss Ealand said, ‘He wants you to know that Mr Straker has regained consciousness and the doctor says he is recovering well.’ A bland and unemotional statement, but this was the studio office and security was paramount.
Paul gripped the phone as he closed his eyes. ‘Miss Ealand, can you let Alec know I’ll be back as soon as possible. And,’ he paused, thinking about Ed in the car, confused and frightened, before he sighed with relief, ‘thank you.’
Miss Ealand put the phone down. An easy call that one, but Colonel Foster had known about Ed Straker. This next one would be harder.
There was a pause, then. ‘Keith, this is Miss Ealand. I have some information for you. …………’
Keith Ford put the phone down in silence. Bloody hell. He looked around the control room, at everyone focussed on their consoles.
Straker. Ed Straker. Alive. And he grinned almost foolishly, a huge grin that threatened to burst out of him in a crescendo of laughter. Commander Straker. Here in Mayland. He was not a man who resorted to swearing but, bloody hell.
He wanted to shout it out, but his orders had been specific. Commander Freeman’s orders in fact, and so he pulled off his headset, locked the console and went into Alec’s, no, Straker’s office.
He closed the door and stood there, looking at the room, and this time he allowed the sound to escape. ‘Yes!’ he shouted, his voice loud in the soundproofed silence. Then, blushing a little at his own almost childish emotions, he set to work.
Miss Ealand put the phone down and looked with resignation at the work that was waiting on her desk, but as she reached out for a folder one of SHADO’s security members entered, holding the door open to allow another man to come in behind him.
‘Miss Ealand, this is Dale Atwood. He is one of Miss Steel’s group and he’ll be joining them after he’s had some lunch. Can you let her know he’s here and he is fine? I think she was worried about him. And,’ the tall man paused, ‘any news?’
There was no necessity to speak out loud. Miss Ealand smiled and gave a slight nod, but the other man, his clothes a little unkempt and a livid bruise on his face, stepped forward. ‘Mr Shepherd. That’s who you mean? Is he alright? I didn’t see him apart from when they got him in the car.’
The door opened again, and Miss Ealand looked up in some exasperation, only to relax at the sight of Sara and Rebecca.
‘Dale. I am so glad to see you.’ Rebecca gave him a quick hug, no more than a brief contact of her hands on his shoulders before stepping back, embarrassed. She turned to the man who had been with him. ‘Thank you for looking after him, I was worried.’
The man stood there, rigid as if on parade, then he gave a silent salute to Dale, nothing more than a brief nod of his head, but it was recognition of an equal, of a man who had risked his own life to protect another.
‘Nice to have met you, sir.’ He put his hand out and Dale, almost without thinking, responded and found his own thick fingers, nicotine-stained and with begrimed nails, held and shaken in a firm and resolute grip and then the man was gone, walking with brisk confident steps out of the room, leaving Dale standing bewildered and yet honoured by that simple gesture.
He stood there abashed, his face reddening with embarrassment, and no small measure of pride and then turned to Miss Ealand, ‘So, he is going to be alright? John?’
‘Yes, Mr Atwood, Mr Straker will be fine. And thank you as well. Miss Steel told me you had helped him. Now. Lunch. I will get a receptionist to show you to the canteen. The rest of your group are there now if you would like to join them.’ She set about organising matters with her customary efficiency and soon Dale, with a satisfied smile, was being escorted to meet his friends.
Alec watched as Straker, his hair still damp and tousled, stepped out of the bathroom and stood as if wondering what to do, as if he was waiting for directions or instructions. One quick shiver ran through him and he blinked like a man waking up.
‘Shroeder is on his way.’ Alec said, ‘He wants to check you over and I need to find out, first-hand, what happened.’
Straker clenched his fist, half-hidden in the long sleeve of his robe, before he relaxed and eased himself back into bed, sighing as he leaned against the pillows. ‘Okay Alec, I’ll tell you as much as I can, but some of it is pretty hazy.’ He looked down at his intertwined fingers as if wondering where to begin then, with hesitation, started to talk.
It took time even though Straker kept his account as brief as possible. Alec needed to know the full facts about Mason, the aliens and the clones. That was the priority now, and SHADO commander kept the details of his time in the shelter to himself. There was no reason to involve Alec Freeman in irrelevant minutiae, but even as he told Alec about Mason finding him in the Shelter he was remembering Rebecca’s hand on his chest as he awoke, the way she looked at him and the feel of her head against his shoulder.
‘So, where do we go from here Ed? Paul is at Mason’s flat right now, searching for any other links to the aliens and where they manufactured that clone. We might get lucky, but somehow I doubt if there will be anything there that we can use. Mason was SIS after all. He no doubt had more sense than to leave anything that might tie him to aliens.’ Alec frowned, ‘The bastard.’
Straker looked thoughtful, ‘I wonder how the aliens contacted him, and if there was anyone else involved. You know, it’s more than likely that we have a traitor in SHADO. Someone who was working with Mason, passing information about our operations, letting him know what we were doing, even to letting him know my schedule. And it wouldn’t have been Locke or Patterson. They had no access to my data. Mason must have got my medical details from someone. Someone in SHADO. We need to find that person. Talk to Jackson, Alec, he might be able to help.’
The door opened and they looked up. Shroeder. And for a fleeting moment Straker felt a sharp tang of doubt race through him. No. He crushed it down. Shroeder was trustworthy, wasn’t he? He shook his head in disgust at his own thoughts and smiled up at the doctor.
‘So, can I get back to work now?’ There was no hint of suspicion in his voice, just concern at having to stay here while there were vital tasks that needed to be done.
‘I need to do some more tests first Commander,’ Shroeder began then raised his hand as Alec started to protest, ‘no, no scans, just the usual observations. Perhaps Colonel, you could see about getting the commander some clothes? There is no rush, he won’t be ready for a couple of hours at least.’
It was a neat dismissal and Alec knew it but Ed nodded and Freeman had no option but to follow orders. He grunted in reluctant agreement, placed one hand on Straker’s shoulder, then left the room, looking back once as the doctor approached the bed to begin his tests.
Shroeder looked with some hesitation at his patient. ‘Commander, I would like to apologise for –.’
Straker interrupted him. ‘You didn’t do it deliberately. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, waking up like that, but it did have one advantage in that it made me remember. Forget it Doctor, it’s something I can live with. I have to. Now. What tests do you need to do?’ His eyes were calm, but Shroeder could see the fear still hiding there, the cold dread that was just under the surface, waiting to bubble up, and overcome him if Straker was not strong enough.
‘Nothing. I just needed to talk to you alone Commander, without Colonel Freeman being present.’ Shroeder sat on the edge of the bed, reaching for Straker’s wrist with a nonchalant gesture to feel the pulse there. ‘Good. Now, I will be honest Ed. That physical injury is comparatively minor and is no reason to stop you returning to work. I am however concerned about your mental condition. You’ve had a severe shock, not just today, but something happened to cause your amnesia. Wait.’ He stopped as he felt the pulse beneath his fingers begin to race. ‘Listen to me Commander. All I am saying is that I am here, when you need to talk about it, and believe me, you will need to talk to someone at some stage. Colonel Freeman is a good friend, but I doubt if he will be able to help you with your fears.’ He released Straker’s wrist and stood up. ‘Now, I will bring you something to eat, you get some more sleep and when Alec returns later this afternoon you can go.’
Straker was silent for a moment, staring at the white cellular blanket that covered the bed, his fingers tracing the patterns. He looked up, a tight smile on his lips. ‘Thank you Shroeder. I will do that.’
‘Commander, I do insist however that you take things easy for a few days though. Don’t tire yourself out, or you may find that your nightmares are not so easy to keep under control.’ He gave Straker one last look and then left.
Straker lay back, remembering. And despite all his resolve the memory of the metal cocoon shuddered through him and he felt his heart pound once more and sweat break out again.