The antique oak door closed behind Rebecca as she stepped out into the street, scarf wrapped around her face against the chill December winds.
A brisk walk to work, crossing the High Street that was heavy with traffic queuing to get into the car parks. There was no real reason for her to go to the shelter today; she was off duty, but there was always that nagging worry at the back of her mind that she would get into town and they would call her back for some trifling issue. Better to get things sorted out before she went shopping. It was always embarrassing to get calls from work while she was standing at a checkout, or in a changing room.
The pavements were busy with office workers and shop assistants all on dinner breaks from their mundane nine to five jobs, heads lowered against the sharp weather, and shoppers were crowding the pavements in the run up to the Christmas holiday.
Nine to five. So tempting, the thought of having regular hours, of being able to plan a weekend away, of not being on call for ten days at a time. Rebecca sighed as she swiped her pass card and pushed open the reinforced door to the Shelter. She closed it behind her and stood for a moment, thinking about the last week.
And about John Shepherd.
She was still no nearer finding out anything about the man, apart from the fact that he was obviously educated and intelligent. There had been no further attempts to intimidate him, in fact he had been accepted into the community as if he just another down and out.
Rebecca pushed the fire-door at the bottom of the stairwell open and stepped into the reception area, nodding to the two project workers sitting there,
‘Morning,’ she yawned unwrapping her scarf as welcome heat embraced her. ‘Anything I need to know? Any problems?’ She waited, expectant.
They looked at her. ‘No. Nothing. Everything is fine. Quiet night, no drunks, no evictions, no referrals.’
‘Oh.’ Rebecca stood there, a little perplexed and unsure. Unneeded. That made a change. ‘Oh, well, I’ll just have a look around then. Before I go.’ She unbuttoned her coat and went through to the common room looking, without actually being aware of it, for that ashen hair that was instantly recognisable .
He was there, at the computer, with Dale sitting next to him. Rebecca frowned, moving closer to overhear the conversation.
‘Right, that’s the basics. Now you try it.’ Shepherd pushed his chair back to allow the other man to squeeze his bulk up to the keyboard. Dale concentrated on the keyboard, his fingers moving with surprising dexterity and guiding the mouse with a deftness that seemed unusual for a man who had only ever displayed his animosity to anything that involved work. John Shepherd, his arms folded and watching with relaxed interest, was silent as Dale worked.
‘Shit,’ Dale tossed the mouse away with a grunt of anger, ‘it’s no bloody good. I can’t do it.’ His fingers clenched in embarrassed frustration and Shepherd moved forward, fingers pointing at the screen, his voice so low that Rebecca could no longer overhear their conversation. Dale relaxed and nodded before giving a quirky apologetic smile to the man now standing beside him.
‘Okay, you’ve got it. I’ll leave you to carry on.’ Shepherd placed a hand on Dale’s shoulder and turned away, frowning as he saw the Shelter manager standing there.
Rebecca waited as he walked across the room to her. ‘Miss Steel? Is everything all right? I thought you were off duty today.’
‘I am, but I just wanted to check on things here before I go into town. So,’ she asked, one eyebrow raised, ‘what is he up to?’
John glanced back at the large figure hunched over the keyboard. ‘Dale? He wanted to try his hand at it. I don’t think he ever used a computer for anything other than playing games, so I just showed him the basics. Easy really. He seems to be enjoying it.’ Shepherd sighed, and looked around the common room. ‘I was going to do some internet research this morning, see if I could find anything that might help me, but I will have to wait now.’
Rebecca looked at him, her fingers playing with the silver charm on her wrist, ‘Well, why don’t you come with me? The library has internet access you can use. Besides, it would do you good to get away from this place. You’ve not been out since you came here have you?’ She paused, unsure of his reaction but hoping that he would not reject her offer. ‘I can show you where it is and leave you to get on.’ She held her breath, hoping with an almost childlike desire that he would say yes.
He seemed to flinch a little, as if the thought of venturing up the stairwell and into the outside world scared him after being tucked safely away underground. Then, with a grimace that was so slight that it was almost unnoticeable, he nodded his agreement. ‘Yes, thank you Miss Steel. I’d like that.’
She went to find him a coat, not a little surprised to find herself smiling.
The wind had eased somewhat and he held the door open as Rebecca stepped out onto the street. Shepherd hunched his shoulders as the icy chill of the December weather made him shiver despite his thick parka. He looked around. He had not seen this street in daylight and it was bleak and decrepit with anonymous doors leading into shabby buildings. He waited for Rebecca to lead the way, not just uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings, but with a sense of fear, of hesitation at going into unknown territory.
The street, off the main shopping area was not frequented by passing shoppers and he felt a jolt of astonishment, when they reached the junction at the top, to find himself surrounded by crowds of people, going about their own business, and ignoring him as he stood there. Rebecca set off, weaving in between the shoppers, avoiding the hawkers and beggars and charity collectors who sought to waylay them both.
Shepherd followed her, his eyes darting from side to side, to see if anything was recognisable. There was nothing familiar, just people, all moving with quick purposeful strides from one shop to another, intent on getting out of the chill wind. They walked on in silence until Rebecca stopped and pointed to an imposing building in the distance. ‘That’s the library. They’ll be able to sort you out with a card and access to the internet.’
He stood there for a moment, looking at it, then turned to her. ‘Thank you. I’ll see you…,’ he began then stepped back, and pressed himself against the smooth granite façade of a shop front, sweat breaking out on his forehead despite the chill.
There was nothing obvious to cause anyone concern, no sirens, no police presence that might have spooked some of her other residents. Just the usual high street shop windows, with their Christmas displays of Santa Claus and snowmen. Silver and red and white decorations everywhere.
‘John?’ she put a hand on his arm, ‘Are you alright?’ Rebecca waited, unsure what to do next. She slipped her arm around him, to support but also to comfort.
He blinked, shook his head, and gave her a thin tight smile, ‘Yes, it’s just,’ he paused, ‘I thought I remembered something, a memory, a sound. Something.’ He flinched as if stabbed by a needle and then gave her a quirky grin. ‘It’s gone now.’ But she could see he was shaken, his face pale and his body shivering slightly as he leaned against her.
‘Perhaps you should go back to the shelter,’ Rebecca offered, her hand on his elbow. She could see that he was tempted, that it had been stressful enough for him just setting foot outside, and he was about to speak when her phone rang. He straightened up, moving away from her. as she pulled off her glove to rummage deep in her pocket. ‘Damn. If this is work….. Oh.’ Her expression changed and she stepped into the lee of the building to answer.
Shepherd looked around, recovering his composure and wondering exactly where he was. A high street, with the usual shops that would be found in any modern shopping area but this was the cheaper end with Poundstretcher and Home Bargains. His eyes roamed across the signs, seeking some address, some indication of this place. There. In the corner of a window nearby, a postal address.
Hounslow. And he wondered why the name sounded familiar.
Rebecca moved to his side, smiling as she replaced her phone. ‘That was a friend of mine. She’s in town right now and wants to meet for lunch. Come with me, please,…. It would do you good.’
He took two paces back, distancing himself, hesitant and wary. ‘No. But, thank you for asking. I’ll go to the library for a couple of hours.’
‘Are you sure? You’re more than welcome you know.’
He simply looked at her, eyes half-hidden behind pale lashes, looking at her with an expression that asked her not to force him, not to make him do this.
‘Okay..’ Rebecca hesitated for a moment, worried but unwilling to embarrass him. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’ And she watched as he walked away before turning and going down one of the small side streets.
The cafe was busy crowded with office workers queuing for sandwiches, but her friend was already sitting there, reading, two mugs of hot chocolate on the table in front of her. Rebecca undid her coat, dropped her bag on the floor and sighed as she sat down, reaching for one of the mugs.
‘Hi Sara,’ she said. ‘It’s been a hell of a week.’
Chapter 5 – Wednesday afternoon.
Dr Harper looked up, smiling, ‘Isn’t it always?’ she said, ‘although, I’ve had a pretty good week so far,’ she smirked knowingly.
‘Oo. Go on. A new man?’ Rebecca leaned across the table, her eyes glinting, ‘Tell me. Everything.’
Sara laughed, a quiet almost reticent sound, ‘Not really. Well,..’ and she paused, blushing, embarrassed, ‘I’m meeting someone….. but..’
‘Come on, who?’ Rebecca grinned. ‘Is he tall dark and handsome?’
‘Well…’ another hesitant pause.
‘Sara, stop saying “well” and tell me about him. Oh come on,’ she pleaded.
‘Well,’ Sara started again, and broke off laughing, ‘Okay. I’m not really seeing him. Just meeting him for a second time today. He’s ……. ‘ she looked serious, ‘he’s nice. Not handsome in that sort of way, but he has a certain something.’ Her eyes met those of her friends, ‘You know what I mean. Not really much to look at on the surface but gorgeous eyes,’ Sara smiled before continuing, ‘and no, no kissing. Yet. It might not go any further anyway. But I hope it does,’ she ended, her voice softer now.
‘Ah. Gorgeous eyes. You always were a sucker for guys with gorgeous eyes. Do you remember Jason?’ and the gentle bustle in the cafe was disturbed by their shared laughter. Rebecca carried on, ‘So. Seeing him today. Must be getting serious. What does he do?’ There was a moment of silence. ‘Sara, he isn’t another pathologist is he? Not after the last one; all that shop talk of bodies and autopsies. I couldn’t go through that again.’
‘Pfff. I don’t talk about bodies and autopsies. Although…………,’ Sara looked pensive and remained silent.
‘What. Although what?’
Sara heaved a sigh. ‘Okay. It’s all to do with a case I had last week. One of those strange ones. That’s how I met this guy. The one with the eyes. He’s a friend of the guy I autopsied.’
‘Eugh. No details please. You know I think it’s gross.’
Sara laughed, ‘No, no details. The guy, the dead one,’ she lowered her voice aware that an elderly lady on the table near to them was listening with rapt interest, ‘he was really really, well,… different.’
Rebecca raised her eyebrows. ‘You mean, he had…. ‘ her hands gesticulated.
‘No!’ more raucous laughter. ‘He was just so innocent. So perfect. Almost too perfect in a way.’
‘Wow. The perfect man. I had no idea one existed.’ Rebecca smiled cynically, ‘So what had happened to this god-like man. And how did you come to meet a friend of his?’
‘That’s the weird thing. I couldn’t find a cause. Nothing. He could have been asleep, except for the fact that he was dead. I went to his funeral on Monday. I know.’ She held up her hand as her friend started to speak, ‘Yes I know, don’t get involved, but honestly Rebecca, haven’t you ever felt as if you wanted to know more about a guy?’
Rebecca Steel looked at her friend. ‘Just, well, just be careful Sara. You know what I mean.’ She reached across the table to rest her fingers briefly on Sara’s slender hand. ‘Don’t get hurt.’ There was concern in her eyes. ‘So, this guy, the one you are meeting? Tell me more about him. And you know what I want to know. The really important stuff. But let me get some pizza first. I’m starving.’
More laughter as Sara signalled to one of the table waiters. ‘My treat today. You paid the last time we managed to meet for lunch. I’ll get it.’
She ordered their pizza with a confidence that Rebecca envied, but, there again, Sara was always self-assured, always poised and in control. Rebecca felt almost clumsy besides her, but she knew that Sara understood, and that their friendship was important to both of them. And anyway, Rebecca was beginning to recover, slowly to be sure, but gradually the pain of that hateful night was beginning to soften.
‘So.’ She breathed deeply, pushing the hateful intrusive memory away. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Alec. Alec Freeman. He’s a film producer.’ Sara grinned at her friend’s wide-eyed response. ‘Not your type at all Rebecca, so you can keep your hands off him. He’s tall, dark and definitely not handsome. And probably not slender enough for you.’ She grinned again. ‘But just my sort.’
‘Meanie. A film producer. Probably rolling in money and talking to famous film stars all day. It’s not fair.’ Rebecca Steel groaned in mock dismay, ‘Whereas I am stuck with a load of men who I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Though there is one….’ she smiled to herself.
‘Oh? Something you are not telling me? Aha. A new arrival eh?’
The pizza arrived and they pulled slices off and started eating with obvious enjoyment, mumbling around hot mouthfuls.
‘Yep. Not the usual either. Police brought him early last Thursday morning after he was found wandering a couple of miles away from here. Has no memory of who he is or how he got here. An American we think. And gorgeous eyes as well.’ The laughter was even louder. ‘Anyway, someone must be searching for him so I expect he will be rescued soon. And then he will be gone.’ She tightened her lips as if in regret.
‘Ah, come on Rebecca, don’t be negative. You never know, he could be around longer than you think. You might just get to know him better; that is, if you want to.’ She looked intently at her friend.
‘I suppose so, I mean, I would like to. He’s certainly different from the other guys. Anyway,’ she changed the subject, ‘Alec. You’re meeting him again today? Your place or his?’ and this time there was a definite glint in her eyes.
‘Err…..well, actually he’s coming here in about ..’ Sara looked at her watch, a slight flush on her face, ‘twenty minutes. He told me he had a couple of hours free, and as I’m off duty for three days, it seemed a good idea to meet up. He’s bringing some photographs.’
‘Photos? From his films?’
‘Err, no. The dead guy. His friend.’ And before Rebecca could interrupt, Sara hurried on, ‘Look, Rebecca, I really need to know about him. Straker. The dead man. I need to understand just what was so different. And Alec,’ and Rebecca noticed her friend’s slight blush as she said the name, ‘said he would bring some photographs of him. So I can see what he was like when he was alive.’ She looked at her friend. ‘I’ll be careful. Really. But Alec,’ and the faint blush was there again, ‘Alec is nice. I like him.’
‘Good. I hope it works out. Because then I might get the chance to meet some drop-dead gorgeous film star who will sweep me off my feet. So don’t forget your poor single best mate when this Alec asks you over to meet his friends.’ Rebecca finished off the last of her pizza and wiped her lips with the napkin. ‘Damn, I needed that. Why we can’t get a chef who can make decent pizza at work I don’t know. No., that’s mean of me. He does his best all things considered.’ She leaned back sighing, her eyes downcast.
‘Bad week?’ there was concern in Sara’s eyes. ‘So, tell me about it? What happened?’ She interlaced her fingers and stared across at her friend. Rebecca suddenly looked tired, her eyes shadowed with dark lines.
Rebecca sighed. ‘Nothing really, just the usual. Awkward staff, awkward guys, and not enough sleep.’ She looked down at her hands.
‘Tell. Go on.’
There was something reassuring about the voice. Not accusing, not judgemental, just ready to listen. But Rebecca was still reluctant to talk, to actually admit that she had made an error letting the stranger in and that she had been so frightened. Then she looked up, into Sara’s eyes, and shook her head in silence.
‘What happened.’ Sara’s voice this time was soft and concerned and she leaned across the table to stare at her, not with a look of intrusion, but as if to reassure herself that Rebecca was unharmed.
So, sitting there, her empty mug on the table in front of her, fingers twisting and tearing at the few remaining scraps of pizza crust, Rebecca Steel told her. In quiet words, no laughter, no smiles, she talked. About the man, about her fears and about John Shepherd. About crying on his shoulder, about his calm reassurance and the way he had so discreetly handed her the repaired bracelet.
‘Ah. The man of mystery to the rescue. I thought there was more to him than just being enigmatic.’ She looked up, and smiled as a figure approached them. ‘Alec, great. Sit down. This is Rebecca Steel, my best friend from school. You don’t mind joining us do you?’
Alec Freeman hesitated then, smiled and pulled a chair across to sit at their table. ‘Miss Steel,’ he nodded at her, ‘Pleasure to meet you. Do you work with Sara?’
Rebecca laughed. ‘Me? No. I was rubbish at science at school. Sara’s the brainy one. I run the local Community housing project.’ She stopped aware that she was talking too much. ‘Sorry, you don’t want to hear about my work.’
‘No, it sounds interesting actually. What sort of community project?’ asked Freeman.
Rebecca looked at him. Yes, beautiful eyes, and an honest face. And also a sense of sadness somehow. She could see the attraction in Alec Freeman. A strong man, intelligent and kind as well. A face like that could not be cruel.
‘Homeless men. Mostly addicts, drugs, alcohol, gambling. That sort of thing. We try to get them clean and fixed up with their own flat and sometimes a job. But that’s the hardest part. No-one wants to even look at a drug addict. Let alone give a job to one.’
He looked at her, considering, ‘I might be able to help you there. We do employ a lot of casual workers, on a daily rate for different types of work. Extras on the film side sometimes, or labourers when we are constructing new sets, that sort of thing. We also have training schemes for suitable applicants. The studios like to get involved in community work. It’s good PR so we would both benefit; we get the recognition and you get job opportunities. What do you think? Interested?’
‘Um, of course. That would be wonderful. I don’t know what to say.’ Rebecca glanced sideways at her friend.
‘Well, here is my phone number. Call tomorrow and my secretary will arrange a suitable time. I can show you around the studios as well if that would help. Sara,’ Alec turned to the other woman, ‘perhaps you might like to look around as well if you are free. By the way, I brought those photographs you wanted to see of Ed.’
He reached into his jacket.