No alarm, no watch, no sound, but John Shepherd, lying there hands behind his head whilst contemplating the ceiling of his small cell, knew it was time to get up. Not a prison cell; he had complete freedom to go wherever he wanted. No, this small space was a sanctuary, his safe haven, the one place where he was protected from the unknown figure that taunted his fleeting memories.
He eased himself out of the narrow bed, stretching awakening muscles to bring them back to life after his long sleep. And it was a long sleep. Although the past was closed to him, there was still some lingering awareness of previous times, of his now-forgotten past. Undisturbed sleep had always been a rare luxury, he knew that much, and so it was with a sense of contentment that he had awoken refreshed.
The soft silence that pervaded his retreat told him that there was no-one else awake at this early hour. Picking up the clothes he had laid out, he unlocked his door. Pyjamas were sufficient for the brief walk to the sparse bathroom, to ready for whatever the day would bring him. His second here. Another twenty-four hours stretched ahead of him, empty and without direction, without purpose.
He thought back over the previous day, over what had happened after he had finished with the formalities of settling into the routine here.
Once back in the common room area, all necessary tasks completed, he had been on edge and uneasy, trying to find some activity, some simple task, however menial, that would engage him and would allow him some respite from the blankness of his memories. In desperation he had taken refuge in reading. A tabloid newspaper and one or two leaflets were insufficient to calm his anxious need to be occupied before at last he managed to settle down in a quiet corner to read a paperback that had been abandoned on one of the shelves. A cheap airport-style novel involving secret agents and improbable covert operations, its pages creased, the spine broken and whitened. It promised no more than a formulaic plot and clichéd characters, but Shepherd had, in quiet desperation, picked up the novel to help pass the endless minutes and hours.
As expected he had attracted attention from those residents who had been in the shelter for months. There had been a sense of unease and underlying intimidation from one or two of the older men who wanted to prove their status within the community. Shepherd remained quiet and composed. He did not need any confrontation with these men, he simply wanted nothing more than to be left alone, left in peace, unnoticed and undisturbed. To be accepted as yet another misfit, just one more piece of flotsam that had been cast ashore to be salvaged and dried out by the Shelter.
But he knew it was not going to happen. The quiet order had been disturbed and, like a pack of dogs challenging a new arrival with bared teeth and growls, they had waited to make the first move. The tension had built up, with muttered words and shared glances until it spilled over, a ripple of of resentment aimed at the man who had disrupted their comfortable hierarchy.
Shepherd, even whilst skimming through the pages of the novel, was prepared for trouble. Keeping his head down as if to focus on the hackneyed and stale words, he concentrated on the muttered sounds of discontent, and of encouragement from the weaker members of the community. Even the Project workers had slunk into the distance, as if aware of what was going to happen. A right of passage? An accepted induction for newcomers? He was not sure, but he had been aware of one thing only. He would not give them what they wanted. He would not acquiesce to their illicit, self-appointed authority.
He tensed as a figure approached and leaned over him, disrupting his concentration with a drifting odour of alcohol and sweat.
‘What you doing?’’ the voice rough from too much drinking, too much coughing; one hand stretching out to take the book. Shepherd slid it down in the space next to him, out of reach of the nicotine-stained fingers. He looked up.
Atwood was trouble. A big man, though not in height. Shepherd was one of the taller men there, but Dale was fat, grossly fat, and carried his weight as his authority, confident in the knowledge that his sheer size was enough to intimidate the other men.
‘Just catching up on some reading Dale. Fancy a coffee?’ He stood up brushing past the older man with casual nonchalance, avoiding any physical contact, not even the slightest accidental touch. Other residents were clustered together, watching. Waiting. And he knew what was coming.
It happened as he had expected. A hand gripped his elbow, fleshy fingers digging deep into the joint. Not the grasp of a friend, nor for guidance. This was restraint. Control. The hold of someone enforcing his right to rule.
For one brief moment Shepherd froze with unreasoned dread. Then, some innate gut feeling made him relax, loosened his muscles, flooded him with knowledge, with the surety of how to react. It was instinctive. A quick twist of his shoulder, his arm moving up into Dale’s face, the back of his hand pushing him away. The swiftness sufficient to force his assailant to take a step back.
Shepherd held his gaze, ‘Don’t even think it. Walk away Dale. While you can.’ His voice, calm and affable, was no louder than a gentle murmur, but the warning was obvious. They stood there, face to face, until Shepherd’s impassive stare succeeded discomfiting the older man. Dale dropped his glance, muttered, moved away, ponderous steps loud in the expectant silence.
Coffee. John Shepherd made himself a drink adding sugar and milk to the brew, aware that he was the focus of attention, that Dale was, even now muttering about him to the others. He didn’t expect any further action. Dale had been cowed and that was enough. If anyone was foolish enough to persist in the attempt to bully him into capitulation they would fail. He was confident of that now. And that confidence was all he needed. Standing there, facing away from the rest of the men and sipping his coffee, he took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and turned round.
It was enough to discomfort them utterly. There was no further aggression. No unspoken threats, no intimidation. He had been left alone for the rest of the day.
So now, his second morning here, he left his room to face whatever the day would bring, unsure of what he was going to do in the long hours that stretched ahead. But he would find something.
Today was going to be different. He was determined not to sit there, passive and out of the way, just waiting for the next meal or another pointless interview with a cynical project worker. Neither did he want to involve himself with the other men. There was nothing he had in common with them, apart from the fact that he was here, and homeless.
He had, during his restless pacing of the common room on the previous day, seen in one corner a single unused and ignored computer. He had given it one glance, shuddering at the sight of the filthy keyboard with its coffee stains and mouldering residue of spilt food. Perhaps that would be a place to start. At least he could get it cleaned up.
Rebecca, walking through the common room mid-morning, noticed Shepherd, his back to the rest of the room, his attention focussed on the small computer screen. She wandered over, intrigued.
He ignored her.
‘John? What are you doing?’ she asked, more than a tinge of annoyance in her voice as she saw the computer tower open, with components and boards and screwdrivers lying on the table beside the open case. The keyboard, spotless, with no trace of grime or detritus marring its surface.
He looked up, startled. ‘Oh. Good morning, Miss Steel. Your computer wasn’t functioning. The system board had a loose circuit but it should be fine now. I’ll just run some tests on it before I close it up.’ He turned back, picking up the parts with a precision and delicacy that she rarely saw in the shelter. Drugs and alcohol had a habit of making people fumble-fingered. She watched intrigued as he replaced each piece, sliding them into small spaces, reconnecting units with a sureness and confidence that spoke of complete familiarity.
‘I’ll install some upgrades as well. Your security isn’t that effective. Anyone could access these passwords.’ He gave her a quirky smile.
‘Is that what you did? Got through the security? So you know about computers then.’ She leaned over him to inspect his work, aware of his nearness, the pleasing smell of soap-clean skin, of fingers unstained by tobacco. Too close. She stepped back, out of contact.
Gazing into the distance, he paused as if trying to tug a recalcitrant memory back into line. ‘I suppose I must do. I hadn’t thought about it. Just that it needed repairing.’ He looked down at his hands, inspecting his fingers as if they could provide the answer to who he was, what he was. ‘I’ll finish up here and return the tools, unless….’ he tilted his head, considering, ‘Do you mind if I borrow them a little longer? The handle on my door to my room needs tightening.’ He took her silence for consent, smiled at her and turned back to start typing.
Rebecca watched as Shepherd continued to work, quick fingers tapping at keys without needing to look, eyes fixed on the monitor as he typed his instructions. With reluctance she headed away to chat to some of the other men as John continued with his task. She had no idea what he was doing now. The black screen was rapidly filling with line after line of small white print in a confusing blur of unreadable symbols and letters. He worked on, not hunched up, not tense, his body language self-assured and relaxed. It was as if this was something that he did every day, like cleaning his teeth. An action that needed no real concentration, no dragging of memories out of the closed recesses of his mind. This was a familiar task, one that he had done hundreds of times before. So, who was he and where had he come from?
He was a mystery. A quiet man, educated, healthy, intelligent. But at the same time ignorant of the world in which he found himself. It was clear to her that he had never been homeless before, had never experienced some of those factors that had influenced her ‘guys’ as she liked to call them. No abusive parents, no physical neglect, not even poverty.
John Shepherd was one of the lucky ones. A good life, a prosperous life, no doubt. But now he was here, in this small community of petty criminals, drug addicts and the outcasts of today’s society. The ones that nobody wanted. She had been surprised how well he had adapted to the strictures of life here, to the necessary but sometimes trifling rules, the occasional contemptuous look or word from one of the older die-hard and cynical staff. It was as if he was on holiday. Enjoying a rest from whatever life he had lived before, happy to be told what to do, where to go, to have his life ordered for him. An uncomplicated life for a complex and enigmatic man.
And, watching him there, competent and assured, she wondered for brief and selfish moment.
She turned away, her thoughts not on the practicalities of rotas and finance and meetings but on short blond hair, blue eyes, and the image of a certain smile on John Shepherd’s lips.
There was a chill wind as the rest of the mourners filed past Alec Freeman, shaking his hand, offering bland words of condolence and sympathy. The coffin had already disappeared through the neat hatch at the front of the bleak crematorium and Straker’s remains would be crumbling to ash in the fierce heat of the furnace even as Alec shivered in the cold outside. But it was over. There had been quiet tears, soft spoken words, some memories, some laughter. Alec blew his nose and wiped his eyes.
Over. Ed had gone, and, hard though it was, he now accepted that fact.
It had been one week, just a mere seven days since that night in the medical examiner’s room, and more than fifteen years since they had first met, had started to work together, had built SHADO from scratch. The funeral had been arranged in obscene haste in Alec’s opinion. But James Henderson had overruled the medical examiners, had the body released for cremation, and once the legal formalities had been sorted, there had been no justification for any further delay.
In some way, it was a relief. Closure. And Alec knew that, hurtful though it was, it was the right thing. Straker had gone and now it was time for Alec to go, to leave here and move on and do his best for SHADO, and the world. He looked back, once, at the single tribute that he had brought. Yellow and white roses. Straker would have hated the maudlin sentimentality of the symbolism, would have reviled the display of ritual grief. His will had been specific. One short service. No prayers, no flowers, no mourning. Ed Straker had done enough mourning in his own life. But Alec had disobeyed his friend, for one final time.
A friendship that had ended too soon.
He headed down the wide paved walkway to join the small group of staff who were gathered and were waiting for him to join them, but he halted as a figure, wrapped against the cold, approached to intercept him.
‘Mr Freeman?’ She stepped up, her face familiar, and then he remembered.
‘You are the ….’
‘Pathologist. Yes. Sara Harper.’ She held out one hand, a firm grip clasping his hand in sympathy. ‘I was hoping for a chance to talk to you about your friend, Mr. Straker, if you have the time.’
‘I could spare a minute now. What do you want to know about Ed?’
Sara Harper tilted her head to one side and looked up at him. ‘I wasn’t going to come here today. I should really be working, but there was something about Mr Straker that was ….’ she halted, embarrassed.
‘Unique?’ Alec Freeman laughed, ‘Oh yes Ed was one of a kind. No doubt about that. It’s still hard to believe he’s actually gone. I half-expect to hear his voice ordering me around.’ He took a breath before straightening his shoulders as if adjusting a burden. ‘So, it’s more than just professional interest that brings you here?’
She lowered her head, as if embarrassed. ‘Mr Freeman, I deal with death every day. I perform autopsies on people of every age, from every walk of life. And for the first time I want to know more about the person behind the body.’
Alec wiped his face with a hand, ‘I can’t do that in a few minutes.’ A distant smile lit up his face as he recalled past memories. ‘Look, if you seriously want to know more about Ed, I’d be happy to tell you, but not here, not now. It’s too soon. Do you want to meet me later,’ he hesitated, ‘maybe for a drink?’
What the hell. It wasn’t as if he had anything else to do this evening was it? And anyway he would be glad of the chance to talk to someone about Ed. To chat about his friend, to reminisce. To recall the good times.
Sara Harper paused, looked up as if to assess the situation, and to assess him as well. ‘Yes. All right. I’d like that if it’s not going to cause you any problems.’
The SHADO Commander looked over at the men in military uniforms who were standing in a smart cluster at the end of the pathway, and saw James Henderson standing there with another man. The General was watching him, and Alec could see a frown of disapproval on the Henderson’s face. ‘I’m sorry Dr. Harper, I have to go now. Here’s my mobile number. Give me a call to let me know where and when is best for you. I’m free after eight tonight. And yes, I would very much like to talk to you.’ He smiled at her and she was surprised at the depth of emotions visible in those narrow blue eyes. A worn, tired face, battered and scarred, a face that many people would disregard, but she had learned over the years to look beyond the outward signs.
She smiled again. A warm smile of understanding. ‘I’ll do that. Thank you Mr Freeman,’ and with a nod she turned and headed for her car.
His phone call to HQ was curt and efficient. Commander Freeman requesting a full G6 on a Doctor Harper. As a matter of urgency.
Then he took a deep breath before approaching Henderson.
It was uncanny how those people waiting to speak to him seemed to melt away, dispersing across the barren space of the car park as General Henderson and his companion waited in silence for the SHADO Commander to join them.
There was the polite formality of a nod of his head in recognition, then he glanced at the other man standing there. Freeman waited. Henderson gave a brief cough behind one gloved hand. ‘Commander, I believe you know Rimmer. SIS officer. In charge of Straker’s protection detail. He assisted me with the arrangements for the funeral including the lack of publicity and the somewhat unseemly haste. We didn’t want any information to get out. It might have been embarrassing, especially as we still have no idea how Ed died. Mason feels that we can simply tell the press that Straker has handed the studios over while he concentrates on other projects. It’s not as if they will miss him much, he was always camera-shy anyway.’
Henderson looked askance at Freeman, his bushy eyebrows raised in questioning concern. He seemed ill-at-ease and uncomfortable and Alec Freeman, despite his sadness at losing his friend and colleague, realised that this man too had lost a friend. Oh Straker and Henderson had argued, had bickered and quarrelled numerous times, but there had always been an unspoken respect for each other, regardless of the sharp words and threats.
And now, looking at Henderson, Alec could see in his eyes the regret and the sadness of losing someone who was more than a subordinate.
‘It’s a hard time, General,’ Alec admitted, ‘and hard decisions have to be made. I think Ed Straker would have understood. In fact I am pretty sure he would have approved. He hated fuss of any kind.’
Henderson turned to him with a look of gratitude, ‘Thank you Commander. I was afraid that you might …’ he broke off, and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets in an almost childish gesture of embarrassment.
‘Think you were desperate to get rid of him? No General, I don’t think that.’ Alec Freeman looked back at the low building behind him with its featureless white walls and a total lack of any ornamentation or symbolism. A secretive building, designed to hide its true purpose; that of the eradication of any trace of a human beings existence. All that would remain of Ed Straker would be a neat container filled with grey ash and grit. And, once that was scattered, then ….. nothing. As if he had never existed. Just as SHADO, in its secret world, eliminated all signs of the alien menace that had plagued this world. At least the memories of Ed would be respected.
‘General, I’ll see you to your car.’ The words echoed in Alec Freeman’s ears as he walked beside the elderly man to the waiting limousine.
They shook hands. A formal gesture, but one that sealed their understanding. A promise to work together, to continue Straker’s legacy. And maybe, one day, to bring an end to the alien menace.
Mason Rimmer waited, pulse racing, heart pounding, as they approached. It had not been his decision to meet here again, so soon. Straker had been taken and the funeral of his alter-persona had gone ahead without any problems, so why was he needed?
The car park was as deserted as it had been at their last meeting. The oil stains on the streaked and duty floor camouflaged the squalid splashes of dark burgundy. He stood under the single lamp that cast its pale imitation of light across the concrete. They
approached with measured steps, faces hidden in the shadows.
He waited, sweating, hands trembling, fearful.
No words were spoken. No sound passed between them. They stood, implacable, soulless, looking into his eyes.
It was enough.
The mental images, fuelled by implacable rage, seared through his mind like fire and Mason sank to his knees in agony as his very bones seemed to burn. His thoughts filled with horror as the meaning of the vision became clear, and he realised what had happened.
Ed Straker was still alive. Somewhere.
Mason, crouching on the floor waiting for the pain to fade, lifted his tear-streaked face and watched as the red-suited figures walked away in silence to be hidden in the gloom.
..to be continued in The Shepherd – Hefted…
Once I got cracking I only intended to do a fairly short story, a more detailed UFO version of ‘The Present’ ( A Thunderbirds fanfic story which I wrote in 2009) which was the original idea for this. (Thank you ‘Rebecca’, for being the one who inspired me to do a story about a homeless shelter!). I got fed up of calling Straker ‘he’ so I needed to give him a name.. hence Shepherd.. (again, thanks to ‘Rebecca’. I couldn’t bring myself to call him Partridge!) and Shepherd seemed to fit so nicely as well as having more than one layer.
Giving him a name (and thanks to my Beta for suggesting John!) spurred me on and the story began to develop. I still struggled with the basic outline.. Mason. The clone, the timing, where the shelter was, how it was all going to be resolved. It is a story that has needed a lot more tweaking than any others, partly because I couldn’t be sure I was staying true to the characters and partly because I realised that the reality of being in a homeless shelter was probably a lot grittier than I had originally depicted it to be.
Once I had settled into the story, had ‘made it mine’ I found it a lot easier to write. And it also helps that occasionally he takes over! (Writers among you will know exactly what I mean!) and when that happens the story takes off.
My style of writing also cause me some …problems. I like writing angst. Really like writing it! And there are reasons for that. But occasionally I am made to feel that my style of writing is.. not acceptable. So I back off and try to do it in someone else’s style… romantic maybe or heavy on the techno side. And it doesn’t work. Because deep down I know that I have to write angst. (so.. yes, Ed will get hurt, mentally and probably ( hell… definitely!) physically, there will be no quick sex..(most certainly not in character!) and it might involve tears.
And I added a chapter.. at the beginning. It just came out of the blue, and forced me to write it. Oh come on..those of you who write fanfic.. will know what I mean. Pow.. there you are, merrily trundling along, following ‘the outline’ when someone else steps in and you find yourself doing something else entirely. It happens!
I found it hard to get inside Alec’s head in this story. Very hard, so I left him for a while to see where he would fit. I wanted to try to get over a feeling that he lacked confidence in himself, and feared that he might not be ‘up to scratch’ as it were and that moment with Ford in the office was in my mind for a long time before I could get the ‘actions’ right.
I had no intention of doing Shepherd as a two-parter, and certainly not doing an ‘adult’ part as well, but I realised that it was developing into a bigger story than I had ever imagined, and as I was having fun writing it, I should simply enjoy myself.
So, thank you for reading so far. I hope you have enjoyed it. The next part is darker and very ‘adult’ in places.