Warning/Tags: Major Character Death, Death
Mason closed his eyes, but whatever he did, the images were still there, the sounds echoing in his mind despite everything he did. Tired beyond belief he struggled to find some rest, some comfortable position, his pillow hot and lumpy, the duvet too weighty. His head ached with weariness but his restless mind was in mayhem, the memories of his deeds still taunting him in the dark recesses of his mind. But despite his exhaustion he was also terrified of the night and of the encroaching dream that would come while he was asleep, that same dream, unwavering, every time. And so, desperate for respite, yet knowing what he would face when sleep overcame him, he forced himself to remain awake knowing that it was futile, for finally exhaustion claimed him and the nightmare, in all its dark reality, returned to remind him of his treacherous actions.
The underground garage was once more quiet and almost empty, no small huddle of figures clustered near the waiting cars, no unmoving outline of a silent figure on the floor. Mason Rimmer finished picking up the last scraps of debris before scrubbing his bloodied hands clean on a handkerchief. Straker’s handkerchief which Mason had taken, along with the SHADO commander’s watch and the sparse contents of his pockets earlier, before the aliens had hustled the dazed man away from the underground garage.
Grimacing at the sordid stains on the once-clean linen he crumpled it into a tight wad and tossed it with a negligent flick into the open boot of Straker’s car on top of the two bodies that were lying crumpled inside.
Ed Straker was long gone, dragged away, his desperate struggles ineffectual against the strength of his two alien captors. Mason didn’t want to know their plans for the SHADO Commander, didn’t want any details. They had got the man they wanted, thanks to his help, and he knew better than to question them, but even his amoral mind recoiled at the thought of what they had planned for their enemy.
Although he considered them to be his allies, they were unknown, dangerous, foreign. He just went along with them. It was easier than trying to fathom out their almost incomprehensible motives. As long as he got paid, and paid well, he was happy.
He would have to get rid of Straker’s car after he had finished his task. It was another unwanted complication with which he had been encumbered. It would have been so much easier to simply tip the bodies of Locke and Patterson over the embankment into the Thames. A quick heave over the railings, a splash and then …gone. But the Thames had an embarrassing reputation of resurrecting its corpses and he certainly didn’t want these reappearing to disrupt his plans. He swore, realising that there was still a long, hard night ahead of him.
He slammed the boot lid down with an angry hiss of rage and walked over to the silent man who was standing there, oblivious.
‘Come with me, Straker.’ He ordered putting his hand on the tall man’s arm. He half-expected some resistance, but his fears were false. Guiding Straker to the passenger side of his car, he opened the door and sat him down, ensuring that the seatbelt was fastened. Then Mason slid behind the wheel of the Saab, taking deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself.
It had all gone according to plan. Straker was in the hands of the aliens and yet also here in the car with Mason. Waiting to be driven to his final destination in a quiet alley ten miles away. Perfect. Nothing to link Mason with Straker’s death, or with the disappearance of his two agents. All the SIS officer had to do now was finish mopping up.
He hoped the aliens had managed to get back to their craft in time. He knew that they were concerned at the length of time they had been in Earth’s atmosphere, but they had the SHADO Commander. That was all that mattered to them.
He turned to look at his passenger. Unvoiced, unhearing, unmoving. Ed Straker, his face whiter even than the pale roll-neck sweater he was wearing, hands limp in his lap, purloined watch glinting in the random yellow flashes from the sodium street lights. His ashen hair was neat and precise, his eyes unfocused, lips still, in fact the only motion Mason could detect was the slight swaying of his body in response to the movement of the car as it drove through deserted streets to its destination.
The eerie silence in the car unnerved him, and the silent man whose only response, only indication that he was alive was a regular rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, made no sign of hearing as Mason switched on his cd player. Enya. Orinoco Flow. The music wafted through the car, soothing Mason’s ragged thoughts. It would be all right, he convinced himself. No-one would suspect a thing. And after all, Ed Straker was as good as dead now.
The alley that he had selected was even better than he had anticipated. Dark, unlit and deserted. No traffic nearby, no pedestrians. He slowed down to drive over the treacherous damp setts, the car shuddering with rhythmical rumbles across the neatly squared granite stones. Not wanting to alert anyone with a squeal of tyres, he pulled to a smooth halt under one of the few dim lights that illuminated the darkness with its smudgy pools of sullen light and then, leaning over, unfastened Straker’s seat belt. His passenger continued to ignore him and remained in his seat, staring ahead with a expression that was almost child-like in its innocence.
The sound of the engine died away and the click of the car door as he opened it seemed disconcertingly loud in the sudden, thick silence. He stepped out, walked round and opened the passenger door.
‘Get out.’ A curt instruction.
Straker eased himself out of the car, long limbs unfolding with frugal movements until he stood, impassive and emotionless beside the car, hands loose by his side, waiting, fingers still, relaxed, motionless.
Mason looked at him. A tall figure, barely visible in his dark clothes against the gloom of the rain soaked alley. Everything hung on what Straker would do now, how he would react in the next few moments.
The SIS officer took a deep breath. What he was about to do was so utterly bizarre, so absurd that he had to pause, force himself to take a deep breath. He knew what he had to say, but even so he hesitated as he pushed the word out past reluctant lips.
And Ed Straker died.
It was as simple as that. The man who commanded the greatest military force on Earth just looked at Mason in trusting obedience, and complied without any argument, without any hesitation. The piercing blue eyes closed, like those of a child who falls asleep, the chest stopped moving as ribs no longer expanded. The heart beat one final time, a last thump of pulsing blood before it, too, ceased. There was not even a tremble from dying, oxygen-starved muscles. No last desperate clutch at his chest, no distressing contortion of a dying face twisted in agony. Expressionless, impassive, obedient to the very end, Ed Straker crumpled in silence to the wet gleaming stones and lay still.
Mason looked down at the dark figure, then pulled a suitcase from the back seat of his car. It was not going to be needed now. He had brought it along in case of any problems, but his friends had assured him that they did not require it. So. It would be left here. Another puzzle for Alec Freeman to solve later. Mason Rimmer smiled as he drove away, leaving the alley behind him, with its dark secret. There was plenty of time now to dispose of Straker’s Saab, and the two remaining bodies.
In the wake of the traitor a man lay, ignored, discarded like a piece of flotsam on a deserted beach, pale hair glistening in the faint glow of unheeded light, outstretched hands reaching as if for one last touch with someone, anyone. And one single tear lay, unshed, unseen, on corn-coloured eyelashes.
Mason woke with a sob, sweat-soaked and trembling, the image of that body still imprinted on his retina. Dear god, how many times was he going to have to endure that moment again, the way the man looked at him before he fell, that single tear on the eyelashes. Nightmares weren’t supposed to be like this were they? It was as if he was reliving the night over and over, every detail exact and precise, almost as though his brain was replaying it.
Would he ever be free?
The alarm went off each morning at 05.30. No chance for a lie-in. Today would be busy. Just like every other day now. His promotion had changed more than his title, it had changed his life. Alec had always taken pride in his ability to be alert and awake whenever Ed called him, but Ed Straker no longer called Colonel Freeman. Not anymore.
It was time to get up, time to get ready for work, knowing that the absolute responsibility for organising the defence of Earth against the aliens no longer rested on another person’s shoulders.
It was his now. That in itself was sufficient to have him restless throughout the night, his dreams disturbed by visions of aliens, and things far worse than aliens, descending on the Headquarters to plunder and destroy. He sat up, thankful that at least he had managed to get a few hours sleep without being called. How the hell had Straker coped with the invariable night-time calls from HQ. No wonder Ed had always seemed so tired, so….. stripped naked of all energy, all life. Chances are he had never managed to get more than a couple of hours’ uninterrupted sleep at any time. If only Alec had realised and thought to try to alleviate some of that almost intolerable burden. But it was too late. Freeman knew just what was involved, and now was no time to be regretting what went before, to be considering all the things that he should have done in the past. It was up to him to make sure that SHADO carry on with its objective. To ensure that the world was safe. It was his duty. Freeman. Commander-in-Chief SHADO.
Alec rubbed a hand over his stubbled face and stretched, not the luxurious stretch of a man who is ready to get up, who has slept long and well and is ready to rise, but the aching stiffness of a man who is bone-weary. He thought back over the last few days, as he pulled on his dressing gown, tightened the belt and pushing his feet into slippers. It was too cold at this time in the morning to be wandering round semi-naked.
Somehow, in those few days, that blur of activity, of almost frenzied settling-in, he had managed to wrap the command around him like an invisible cloak. Not that it was any protection against the chill wind of bereavement that shivered through him.
But he was doing his best to keep things running along, doing things as Ed would have done them. Getting to work early, well before the last shift had started their hand-over, reading through the logs, inspecting the reports, just as Straker had done every morning.
Alec had not realised until now though, just how isolated. he had become over the last few days. And not only remote, but changed, as if he was a different person. No longer the jovial and approachable second-in-command, but a distant and separated entity, almost as if he had become a clone of Ed, a facsimile of the man who had been in charge for so many years. Commander Alec Freeman didn’t like it. He missed the camaraderie, the smiles, the little touches that had made him feel part of the group. Ayshea, waving shyly as he walked past, Keith passing him a coffee without a word, the chats with Gay Ellis. All in the past.
Since that moment just a few days ago, when he had assumed control, he had become a stranger, an outsider, and he felt they were all watching him to see what his first mistake would be. Even Henderson seemed to be checking up on him at irregular intervals. Phone calls, faxes, quick meetings. A constant stream of messages and queries from the elderly General. Questions that accentuated his own apprehensions.
He could sense disapproving glares as he walked through the control room, monitoring each area, mentally ticking off the various units and staff members, wanting to ensure that everything was in order. Operatives spoke in lowered tones, eyes averted, as if to avoid looking into his face.
Straker’s office was his bolthole. He retreated there and closed the door behind him, shutting out the cameraderie of the control room where he had once belonged. It was neat and tidy, as always. It would always be Straker’s office, always. Ed Straker. His room, his presence, permeating everything. And everything would be in its proper place, all the relevant reports ready and waiting for to be read through and approved. The Commander’s job. His job now.
He settled to work in reluctant silence.
It was some time later that the door opened, unbidden. Alec looked up to see Keith Ford there, stern, unsmiling.
‘Ford?’ Freeman’s tone was guarded and controlled. ‘Is there something you need?’
‘No Commander. I just want to ….’ the communications officer paused, his face reddening with embarrassment, lowering his head as Freeman had done earlier.
Freeman waited, fingers still tapping on his keyboard, face impassive.
Ford took a step closer to the desk that formed the barrier between the two men, halted, turned away as if he had changed his mind and then in one swift move that startled both him and the man sitting down, placed both hands flat on the perspex surface before leaning over.
‘Damn it Alec. Stop trying to be Straker. It’s not right. You can’t be him. He’s gone. Accept it, deal with it. Mourn him, yes, respect him, absolutely, no question of that, but for god’s sake stop trying to do things the way he did them. It’s not working. It’s not you.’
Silence. Freeman was too shocked to do more than stare, his fingers now, still the keyboard forgotten. Ford straightened, wiped his hands together as if clearing them of dust, gave a hesitant and apologetic nod.
Alec, frozen with astonishment was unable to do more than watch as Ford walked out. The door closed. He clenched his hands together. Had he been wrong? Had he been trying too hard to be Ed? He had only wanted to do the job right, to follow the man who had been so successful at running SHADO. And Alec realised there and then that it was foolish to try to do things the way he had done them. Straker was impossible to follow. A leader who had dragged the organisation from a mere hole in the ground into the largest military force in existence. No-one could expect Alec to follow in his footsteps, apart from Alec himself. Foolish man. He needed to step back, to let Straker be remembered with warmth and appreciation, but he needed to run SHADO in his own way, as Commander Alec Freeman, and not as Ed Straker’s clone. Head in hands, he thought about his staff. Could he repair the damage he had done to his relationship with them? He hoped it was not irredeemable, that he had not sunk too far.
‘Coffee…….. Alec?’ Keith placed the mug on the desk, smiled, nodded again. But this time a nod to Alec Freeman, not the SHADO commander before Ford went back to his post in the control room.
And the door stayed open.