The rattle of china startled him from dreams. Blinking, he rubbed his face to stretch and awaken skin dulled by deep sleep, then pushed himself upright before remembering where he was.
‘Morning. You slept well.’
He looked around. Rebecca, hair tousled and still charmingly half-asleep herself was puttering in the kitchen, scooping coffee into mugs while the kettle boiled. He wrapped the throw around his shoulders, and sat back, allowing himself the luxury of waking slowly while she yawned and poured milk into mugs.
‘Here.’ A brief contact of hands as he took the mug and she sat beside him. ‘You were tired.’
‘Sorry,’ but he wasn’t. Not really.
‘I don’t mind. Really.’ She smiled. ‘Go and have a shower before Mr Freeman arrives. He phoned last night and said he’d pick you up first thing.’
Straker grimaced. ‘Alec. Typical.’ He leaned back, sighing. ‘Thank you for last night. It was …. ‘
‘I was glad to be able to help.’ She stood up, ‘Finish your coffee, there’s towels and stuff in the bathroom. I’ll make breakfast when you come down.’ She regarded him for a moment, then reached out to stroke his jaw, ‘There’s a razor as well. Ladies, but it will do.’
He turned away before his expression could betray him. ‘Thank you.’ The mug held tight, he hunched and waited until she had walked away. He concentrated on the aroma, the taste, anything other than watch her as she tidied up and cast glances at him, then he walked upstairs, into the bathroom and turned on the shower. In silence.
Rebecca wrapped her dressing gown around herself, tugged the belt tighter and listened to the sounds from the bathroom above. Water running, faint footsteps, that stillness as he undressed, then more steps across the space. The flow of water interrupted, random splashes, water draining away, down over him, over blond hair and………………
She stood there, her hands fiddling with teaspoons, hearing the unfamiliar noises of someone else in her home.
The cessation of flowing water above. A soft thump as he stepped out to dry himself then a gurgle of water in the pipes as, she realised, he started to shave.
The doorbell rang, wakening her from her reverie.
‘Come on.’ Alec pressed the bell again, his voice a soft hiss as if unwilling to show his concern.
‘Give her a chance Alec.’ Sara pulled him back. ‘It’s early. And ..’ she turned as the door opened. ‘Hi.’ She gave Rebecca a sheepish grin in apology.
Rebecca stood there, barring the way. ‘Sara. Mr Freeman.’
‘Is Ed awake? I want to see him.’ Alec wanted to push past her but held back, aware that Sara was stepping forward now.
‘I’m sorry about this Rebecca, really sorry. We were worried about Mr. Straker when we couldn’t contact him last night and after the last few days .. well you know.’ She shrugged.
Come in.’ Rebecca led the way into the living room, picking up the throw to fold and drape it over the back of the sofa, before tossing the cushions back into place. ‘He’s in the shower.’ She was angry now, although she couldn’t really say why, just that Mr Freeman, and Sara as well, were acting like prison guards, demanding the return of some miscreant. No wonder Ed had wanted a quiet evening away from everything.
Alec sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I’m overreacting. My apologies Miss Steel. I was concerned about Ed even though Sara said he would be safe with you.
Sara frowned at Alec in warning. ‘We wondered if he’d had a relapse. The doctors said it was a possibility.’ There, that should allay any further questions.
Rebecca pulled her dressing gown even tighter around herself and straightened as if coming to a decision, ‘No, he’s fine. I was just about to make breakfast.’
They stood there, Rebecca in the kitchen area, Alec and Sara on the other side of the breakfast bar. The kettle boiled, she went through the simple routine of spooning and pouring, adding milk and stirring before passing the mugs across the barrier, still in silence and she heard the creak of old wood as Ed came out of the bathroom.
Alec put his mug down and hurried across the room, looking up the staircase and as he did so Rebecca turned to Sara. ‘So? What?’
Sara took her mug, sat on the sofa and shook her head almost imperceptibly, her eyes flickering to Alec Freeman. ‘Not now.’ she murmured, and Rebecca nodded at last, aware that Sara relaxed.
Straker walked down the stairs, vigorously rubbing his hair dry with a small towel and brushed past his friend. Frowned. ‘Alec.’
‘You alright Ed?’ Freeman waited.
‘Why shouldn’t I be?’ Fingering his damp hair with abrupt movements, Straker lifted a not too friendly eyebrow. ‘I’m not an infant, dammit.’
‘I was worried,” he started. “Anything could’ve…’
Straker took the mug Rebecca held out to him. ‘But it didn’t. Leave it Alec.’ Visibly pulling himself together he nodded at Sara. ‘Dr. Harper.’ A terse almost rude acknowledgement before he sat on the sofa, reaching down to pick up his discarded shoes and pulling them on.
Rebecca continued in the kitchen, getting butter, knives, plates, putting everything out, in the growing silence.
‘Ed?’ she gestured to him, a wave of her hand and he came and sat at the bar, taking a slice of hot toast, ignoring Alec and Sara as they finished their drinks. Alec stepped forward, putting his mug down, one glance at Rebecca. ‘We’ll wait in the car.’
Sara flashed a quick look at Straker before nodded at Rebecca. ‘I’ll call you later today. Talk to you properly. Lunch this week?’ She followed Freeman out into the cold morning.
Rebecca heard the front door close, turned to Straker. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Alec always was …. protective,’ he grimaced. ‘I should have told him where I was, but…’
She passed him the marmalade, the taste reminding him of another breakfast, another morning.
‘I should go.’ He put the last crust down on the plate, the knife on top, pushed it an inch away. Looked at her. ‘Thank you.’
She heard the lock on the front door click. Footsteps going down. She could see the car outside waiting under a streetlight, and he got in the back, hidden behind the dark glass. It drove away and she stood there for a while, looking up the empty street at the wide tyre tracks on the thin layer of snow that covered the setts, before she went upstairs to shower and dress for work.
Sara stared straight ahead, aware of the tension in the vehicle as Alec drove, his fingers gripping the wheel. He had not spoken since Straker had got in. Neither man had. She tightened her lips and kept her thoughts to herself.
Out of Hounslow, heading along busy roads, the traffic slower than usual on the treacherous roads, Straker rigid with arms folded, Alec glancing up every few moments to check him in the rear-view mirror. Sara sighed and tried to relax. The car picked up speed on the quieter side road to Harlington, Alec’s eyes constantly flicking to the mirror, watching the quiet man in the back seat.
‘Fuck.’ There was a heart-stopping sensation as he looked ahead and realised the car had drifted into the middle of the road, towards oncoming traffic. Alec’s muttered oath broke the silence as he swerved back then eased off the accelerator and held the wheel steady, his fingers white with stress. The car slowed to a halt, he loosened his hold, casting a glance up at the mirror to check his passenger. ‘You okay, Ed?’
’Trying to get rid of me Alec?’ but there was a hint of relief in the voice, as if Straker had been waiting for an opportunity to breach the uncomfortable atmosphere. He unfolded his arms, ‘Sara?’
She twisted round to face him, ‘I’m fine.’ She patted Alec on the knee. ‘Just a little more care if you don’t mind.’
‘Sorry.’ He looked up again. Eyes met, and Straker gave the briefest of nods.
‘Alec, I could do with some stuff. Can you drop me at my place?’ A casual request but Straker hoped his friend wouldn’t put up any objections. He did want some clean clothes but more than that he needed to assure himself that he still had a home, still had somewhere that he could retreat to when he wanted to be alone. A place of his own, not some anonymous basement room with the bare basics.
Another meeting of eyes. ‘Okay.’ Freeman slipped the car into gear and drove on, slower now and with more care. The turning ahead, Straker’s house close by now, and Alec pulled up in the driveway. ‘Damn. Keys. I’ve got them somewhere.’ He started to rummage though his briefcase while Straker waited, standing in front of the neat bungalow.
‘This?’ Sara held up a small keychain she had found in the glove box and when Freeman nodded with a sheepish grin, she got out to take it to Straker.
‘Thank you.’ He took one pace towards the small porch, turned back. ‘Sara. A word with you?’ He stepped closer, turning his face away from the car, from Alec, waiting there. ‘Alone?’ his voice almost a whisper.
Solemn blue eyes, not pleading but earnest, regarded her, and it all fell into place. ‘Rebecca?’ her reply as soft as his question and he nodded once.
‘Alec,’ Sara Harper leaned into the car. ‘I’ll give him a hand,’ her eyebrow lifted in silent entreaty.
‘Okay. I’ll send Keith to pick you up in a while.’ He smiled at her, ‘Look after him,’ and drove off.
Someone had been in while he had been away. The heating was on and the rooms warm without the musty smell of an unaired, uninhabited house. It seemed bigger than he remembered and more welcoming. There was a pile of letters and he picked them up, flicking through them before dropping several back onto the hall table with a grunt of disgust. Without a word he led Sara down the hall to the living room.
Lights clicked on, and he stood there, appreciating being back in his quiet anchorage, this one place where he felt grounded, secure. And yet somehow it all seemed a little unnecessary, all the trappings, the expensive furniture, the paintings, as if all that was needed was a safe place to sleep and someone to talk to and to share a meal. Perhaps it was time he moved on. Away from here.
Sara looked around, getting the feel of the room, a masculine room, unadorned by small intimate items that tell of a woman’s presence, but a ‘handsome’ room all the same. Aesthetically pleasing, although that didn’t surprise her. She had developed a quiet respect for Ed Straker in the short time she had come to know him, and his words to her outside spoke of a thoughtful although diffident man. He turned to her, eyes half hidden as if reluctant to open himself to her scrutiny.
‘Commander? You wanted to speak to me.’ There. Out in the open. It was up to him now.
Straker sighed. ‘Not Commander. Ed. This is a …private matter.’ He sat down, hands clasped, head lowered for a moment and she watched the change in him as he came to his decision, as he straightened, as resolve filled him. One breath, before he stared at her. ‘Rebecca.’
‘I need to know.’ His hands were tight together. ‘What happened.’
Sara looked away from the raw pain in his face. ‘What do you mean?’
He stood up, restlessly pacing across the room before he stopped to straighten the picture hanging above the mantelpiece. ‘You know. Something made her retreat from life. I have my suspicions, but……….’ he made another tiny, insignificant adjustment to the position of the painting, ‘I don’t want her to be hurt. Again.’
Hell. And not a swear word either. That was what had happened to Rebecca. How could she tell this man, this gentle, concerned man who even now was standing there with his back to her, broad shoulders stiff with tension as if anticipating the worst.
‘Sit down Ed. Please.’ She gestured to him. ‘This is going to be hard.’
‘I’m sorry. You don’t need-.’
She interrupted him. ‘No. Hard for you. So …… just listen.’ It was her turn to stand now, to intertwine her fingers, to pace the room, wondering if perhaps she was doing the right thing. She looked down at him, considering how to tell him. Sitting down again, close to him this time, she reached for his hand and remembered him lying there while she examined him, recalled his self-control, his ability to cope with what was, after all an intimate intrusion into his privacy. The answer was there.
Dr Harper took a breath, gripped his hand, and started to talk.
‘Rebecca was engaged. Doesn’t matter who to, or his name, but he was … wealthy, influential, used his position to get what he wanted. You know the sort of person.’
Straker nodded, his fingers still held between hers, not as she had held them before, to examine; this hold was for comfort, and he felt afraid. She carried on talking, her eyes not meeting his now, looking past him into the distance. ‘They had the wedding planned. Big wedding, the works. Church, flowers, reception; everything. Then, …’
His fingers, interlaced with hers, tensed. She swallowed, looked at him. ‘One night he raped her.’ Fingers tightened. She closed her eyes and continued, reciting the details in her professional voice, the only way she could bring herself to tell him without breaking down. ‘He was drunk and – brutal. She suffered serious vaginal damage, torn labia, and bruising to the cervix. Extensive anal tearing.’ Fingers clenched now. ‘He broke her cheekbone and jaw, fractured three ribs, attempted to strangle her. But,’ Sara turned to him, seeing his eyes glisten, ‘she survived.’
He turned away, rigid, short shallow breaths as he processed the information, thought about the facts, and analysed them. Rebecca. A hand stroking his face, copper-red hair lying across her face, her eyes closed in sleep.
‘When did it happen?’
‘Eight years ago. Rebecca recovered, went back to university, got her Masters. Moved on. Except…’
Straker shook his head. ‘No. You don’t move on. You can hide something like that, bury it away but it’s always there.’
‘Thank you. For telling me.’ He let go of her hand. ‘Do you want to make a drink, while I get changed?’
‘Sure.’ Sara reached out and stroked his cheek, wiping away a single tear that had escaped. ‘You go and get sorted. And Commander….?’
He smiled at her, a thin sad smile. ‘Yes, Doctor Harper?’
‘She won’t say it, but you mean a lot to Rebecca. I know you won’t hurt her.’
He didn’t reply, his look was sufficient, and smiling now she went into the kitchen to search for mugs and spoons and coffee.
Keith Ford stood there. Straker’s house. The message had come through and he had followed his instructions. With some reluctance, unwilling to disturb the exquisite peace of the cold winter’s morning, with ice still hanging in the air and the gravel frozen solid underfoot, he walked to the front door.
Straker had changed, his slept-in crumpled suit now hanging ready for the cleaners, and his suitcase open on the bed. With methodical care he folded sweaters, shirts, underwear and placed them in precise order in the case, all the while his mind thinking of her. Pyjamas. And he grinned mirthlessly, recalling the pair he had worn last week. A couple of suits last, on top of the other items and the case closed. He picked it up and walked out, without further thought.
Sara had made coffee, ‘Black, I’m afraid, but sugar in yours.’
‘Thank you.’ He seemed to be saying that a lot recently. They looked at each other, Ed Straker and Sara Harper, a secret now shared between them. He needed to talk, to ask for help, but she was not the right person. He concentrated instead on the drink in his hand. Black coffee. As bitter and dark as his thoughts. The door bell rang and he frowned, troubled by the intrusion.
‘Keith.’ Sara assured him. ‘Alec said he would send Keith to collect us, but,’ she looked at her watch, ‘he’s a bit early.’
‘I’ll get it.’ Straker sighed, with the realisation that he would soon be heading back to Jackson’s rooms, to sit there, no doubt alone while the search continued for any clones in the headquarters. ‘Lt Ford.’ He stepped back, leaving the door open for the man to follow him inside. ‘Come in. I’m nearly ready.’
He heard the footsteps behind him, hesitant and soft. A quiet voice, ‘Straker,’ behind him, too quiet somehow, and he realised with dread that something was wrong. Very wrong. Keith never called him Straker. He spun round.
A figure, stepping out from the gloom, dark-suited, the helmet of pale hair gleaming under subdued lights. And then, the one thing he had forgotten in the horror. The voice. His own voice, soft and full of despair and regret, and yet loathing. ‘Straker’ And looking into his own eyes to see the sadness there. His clone. Sentient and aware. A living being, programmed to do as ordered, yet Straker could see the man’s soul staring back at him.
Straker froze, caught in a long moment of paralysing shock. Unable to move, he looked into Keith’s eyes. Keith Ford. SHADO Communications officer. Yet not Keith. Not the man that Straker had known for years. The difference was there in the eyes. That unmistakable look. A clone, his enemy, and yet…..
But this was his home. His last place of retreat. How dare they intrude on his private life? Rage filled him, and he was about to react when, with astonishing silence and speed, Keith grabbed him by the throat, tightening his fingers as Straker’s own fingers had tightened on Sara’s hand earlier.
Straker reacted instinctively, extending his arms, moving his hands swiftly inside Keith’s locked elbows, his longer reach giving him enough room to grasp the thicker neck of his assailant. The carotids first. Pressing as hard as he could, although his own mind was beginning to blur from the constraint of the hands around his throat, until he felt Keith’s own fingers falter and drop away. Then Straker released his hold, one hand sliding now through Ford’s hair to yank the head back and he clenched his other fist and hit, with all the power and rage and anger that had filled him. He felt the throat crumple under his knuckles, the crunch of bone, the appalling sensation of his knuckles punching almost through to the vertebrae of the neck. The effect was immediate. And horrific.
With his larynx crushed and pulverised Ford writhed, choking and gasping, his bubbling gurgles an indication of his desperate efforts to drag air into his lungs.
Straker turned as Sara’s muffled shout of fear as she came into the hallway. ‘Stay there.’ he ordered her, his voice rough from the constriction of Keith’s fingers. He dropped down to kneel beside the thrashing figure and with callous disregard for the man’s frantic attempts to breathe, flung him face down. One hand pressed against Ford’s cheek, fingers pushing brutally into soft skin of the mouth, holding his attacker hard against the floor, before his free hand parted the hair at the nape of the neck.
A small circular scar. He clamped his hand on the neck, as Keith shuddered one final time, before lying still. Straker pushed himself up. Stood there, eyes hard and distant, until he heard Sara come closer to look over his shoulder.
‘I told you to stay away.’ He took her elbow and moved her away.
‘A clone.’ He rubbed his neck, where strong fingers had bruised soft tissue, ‘Use the phone in the kitchen. Dial seven. It gets straight through to Colonel Freeman. Inform him we have a level three security situation. Tell him to come alone.’ He turned back, to kneel once more beside the prone body, and began the process of stripping the corpse.
Two more scars. He stood up, dusting his hands as if to remove unseen dirt as Sara reappeared.
‘Alec is on his way.’
‘Good,’ his voice was hoarse. ‘Wait outside for him.’
‘Ed…’ She came closer.
He looked at her, frowned. ‘That was an order Dr Harper.’
There was a pause. Sara stared into cold eyes, stepped back. ‘Yes…. Commander.’
Sara opened the front door. ‘Alec’s here.’
Straker looked up at her, and she stepped back, away from the sight of the body. She felt a little sick, which was surprising. The sight of a corpse had never upset her before, but perhaps it was the fact that she had seen something in Straker that she had not anticipated; that cold ruthlessness. Alec got out of the jeep and she waited for him, waited for a look, or even a quick enquiry, but he brushed straight past her, heading for the hallway. She heard him say, ‘Straker,’ before the door closed and she was left outside.
The door opened once more, and she watched them haul the body out, carrying the dead weight in silence, Straker avoiding looking at either of them. He had killed a man, had ended a life. He had seemed so distant, almost callous, in the house, kneeling there stripping the shirt from Keith Ford, his hands moving with deft efficiency. She had seen his strength and she was suddenly afraid, as if his true nature had been revealed. Not a cruel man, she was knew that, but he was someone who would stop at nothing to achieve what he deemed necessary. She wondered if Alec could be merciless and professional, wondered if he had ever killed a man, as Straker had just done.
But then for one moment, as Straker’s hands reached under the body to lift it, his eyes met hers, briefly. And she saw the distress in his face before he averted his gaze as if he knew full well what she had been thinking.
She stood there on the driveway, keeping in the background as much as possible, as they completed the unpleasant and difficult task of getting the limp body bundled into the back of the jeep. Without a word Straker strapped himself in behind Alec and sat there, arms wrapped around as if to shield himself from the outside world. Neither man spoke. Sara climbed in the front, closed the door, fastened the seat belt, all in silence, although she ached to say something to comfort him. But not at the present time. Not right now.
She was edgy, her hands clasped in her lap, as if the reality of the situation was only now beginning to make itself known to her. Clones had infiltrated SHADO, despite all their attempts. She twisted round to look at Straker, sitting in silence behind Alec, eyes half-closed in concentration. And Alec. He was silent as well. Less than five words had passed between the two men. As if they were strangers.
Straker sat there, remembering the feel, the sound of his fist crushing through soft cartilage, destroying tissue, airways; life. Blood on his hands. He unfolded himself, stared at his hands, turning them over. Nothing. Yet he could still feel the blood. He looked up, but his friend was concentrating on the road, not even glancing up to check the mirror. Sara had turned to stare at him, one brief glance before she too ignored him.
Straker grimaced. It was an unpleasant introduction to life in SHADO for the pathologist, and there was going to be worse to come. There was always worse. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathed deeply and brought himself back under control.
‘Use the cargo lift Alec.’ He leaned forward, voice still rasping and sore. Alec nodded, eyes still watching the road ahead. No further talking, no chatting, no idle conversation. Harlington. They turned into the Studio complex, into the secluded warehouse that housed the lift. The body dragged out, heaved onto a stretcher; all without acknowledgement of each other.
Sara, disregarded by both men, hung back as they wheeled their burden along the corridor to Jackson’s rooms, as Straker lifted Ford’s shoulders and eased the body onto the same bench that he had lain on for Sara’s examination. Then he looked down at it and reached for the same sheet, before, with almost tender care, as if covering a child, draped it over the corpse to cover the ruined and distorted throat, Keith’s mouth caught in that last rictus of agony, the sightless staring eyes.
‘I need you to do the autopsy Dr Harper. As soon as possible.’
‘Commander.’ Sara’s first word to him since being ordered to leave his house. A curt word of acknowledgement. He expected nothing else. He had killed this man, killed him with callous efficiency, without recourse to surrender or mercy and he remembered what Sara had told him about Rebecca. Dr Harper must despise him. A brutal, violent man. Straker smoothed the wrinkles out of the sheet and pulled it tighter before turning away, casting one final look at her over his shoulder.
‘I’ll want your report by this evening.’ Damn. His voice sounded harsh and gruff, and she looked at him with some unease. He rubbed his neck, feeling the roughness of bruised tissues, the discomfort as he swallowed, his mind full of thoughts of Keith and unaware of tension in the room, of Alec standing there just watching him.
‘Is your throat sore?’ Professional concern only in her voice. He nodded with reluctance and she turned to Freeman who was standing there watching. ‘Get the Commander some iced water please while I take a look at him.’
She reached out to him as Alec left the room, stepping close enough to place her hands on Straker’s arms. ‘Ed.’ Her voice now dark with worry, with fear. ‘I was hoping I was wrong. But now I don’t think so. That’s not Alec. At least I … in a way, I hope it isn’t.’
The words hung in the air like a death sentence. Straker looked at her. ‘Not Alec?’ And the sudden gut-wrenching sense of loss was nearly his undoing. Not Alec. A clone.
Alec. Taken by aliens. Alec trapped in a transporter capsule, drowning. It all fitted into place. The complete lack of awareness towards Sara, as if she was nothing more than a random person, not the woman that he was sleeping with; the careful journey back to headquarters almost as if he was recalling how to drive; the silence.
There was one chance and Straker pulled away from Sara, to open the cabinets and rifle through the contents before turning back to her. ‘Dr. Harper, we need to take it alive. I have to know where the factory is. A sedative. Anything.’
One glance at his face and she understood what he intended and brusquely pushed him aside, to search through the small bottles and grab one. ‘Find me a syringe, any size, doesn’t matter.’ She heard him tear open a box and then a sealed packet as she pulled out a small bottle.
‘Here.’ The hypodermic in his hand, ready. She filled it, heedless of accuracy, of making sure that air was displaced. They might have only seconds before it reappeared. It. Sara could not think of the man as Colonel Freeman, as Alec.
She looked at Straker. ‘Can you hold it? Just for a moment? That’s all I need.’ He nodded, and then stepped to the side of the door.
The wait seemed endless, and for one moment Straker wondered if perhaps the clone had left and headed for the control room, but the fact that it had come to his house was proof that their intention was to get Straker. And he prayed that Alec was unharmed, and then, with a pang of remorse, he remembered Keith. He might be with Alec. Might be. They had to keep this one alive, had to interrogate it.
The door slid open. Freeman entered and Straker moved to twist the man to the floor as Sara Harper dropped beside the struggling figure and jabbed the needle deep into its neck. She pushed the plunger down and then ….they waited.