Bloody hell. What time was it? She reached out for the phone. Did no one understand the meaning of ‘off duty’? Her mobile buzzed again, insisting on an answer. The project worker would continue to pester her with voicemail messages, texts, and calls until she answered.
‘Yes’ she grunted, surrendering to the demands of the small despot now gripped in her hand. Damn the person who invented mobile phones.
‘Sorry to bother you Becky,’ the voice, with just a hint of regret replied, ‘but the police are here wondering if we can take anyone for the night.’
‘Can’t you deal with it?’ After all you are getting paid time and a half to do this job, Rebecca bit down on the curt, unspoken reply.
Sam hesitated, aware that she was disturbing one of the few precious off duty nights that Rebecca had scheduled. ‘Well….. it’s a bit difficult actually. You see…. the police don’t really know what to do with him. He’s not… he’s not ..’ she stuttered to a confused halt.
Rebecca Steel heaved a sigh. Another early night disturbed by interruptions. ‘Give me ten minutes. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Oh, and you’d better have the kettle on.’ she ordered the discomforted worker.
Clothes, shoes, coat, phone, keys. No need for purse. That was the advantage with living so close to work. And the disadvantage as well. Barely five minutes’ walk away. Yes, she lived in a very comfortable apartment, and the hostel was merely a basement that provided basic accommodation and other facilities for drug addicts and alcoholics and other destitute men. They might have been close together in terms of geography, but in reality they were worlds apart.
The shelter was at the bottom of a nearby street and as she walked, her steps brisk and noisy and designed to proclaim to any troublemakers that she was not a person to be trifled with, she could see the marked police car outside the discreet unmarked entrance.
There was a small group of residents outside the building, smoking, bottles in their hands. ‘Guys,’ she acknowledged them, her voice with just that tiny overtone of authority, wanting them to know that she was still in charge, still ready and willing to lay down the law should it be necessary.
There was a chorus of grunted replies as she opened the security door with her passcard. ‘Doors locked at 2.am guys. And no-one is going to come in if they are drunk, or..’ and she turned to glare at them, her eyes stern, ‘drugged up. You know the rules. Finish your cigarettes, and get inside. It’s going to be a cold night.’
‘What do the pigs want then?’ a lone voice asked. ‘Someone in trouble eh?’
‘It will be you in trouble Mike, if you don’t sober up. I’ll be here until lock-out, so …’ the unspoken threat was enough and the small group hastily stubbed out cigarettes, tipped up the bottles to drain the last dregs before shuffling down the stairs, ahead of her. Rebecca could hear their disgruntled comments but she was too tired to bother reprimanding them.
She followed, more concerned about who the police had brought at this late hour than about the petty grumblings of a group of homeless addicts and alcoholics. Perhaps she had been in this job for too long. Perhaps she had ceased, somewhere along the line, to really give a damn about these misfits that society had rejected. Or perhaps she was just too bloody tired.
The interior, a flight of steep stairs leading down to the converted cellars, was well lit, even at this time of night. She could hear voices talking, confident deep voices. Silhouettes of uniformed police formed dark smudges of black behind the frosted glass of the secure inner door.
The presence of the police was sufficient to subdue the small group who preceded her into the Reception area. The men, still reeking of cigarettes and cheap cider, looked around at the police in their stab vests and full street protection and slunk away like hyenas, tails between their legs, all thoughts of defiance banished.
There was immediate sigh from the late-night project worker, a release of tension, of unspoken concerns that hung like a cloud polluting the air in the small reception area.
‘Sorry to have dragged you out, Becky,’ Sam apologized, ‘but I honestly didn’t know what else to do.’
Rebecca bit down on her retort. Becky. Just how many times had she told Samantha that her name was Rebecca. She didn’t allow the guys in the shelter to call her Becky and she was damned if she was going to let Samantha get away with it. But now was neither the time nor place. She looked around the small, enclosed area. Three policemen. One stranger. Quiet, subdued, almost as if he had no idea where he was. Her glance took in his clothes, his appearance, assessing, evaluating. Jeans, dirtied and scuffed at the knees and a sweatshirt, muddied as if he had been in an accident. Hands bloodied and scraped. But not broken from fighting.
A habitual drug user? Unlikely. He was too alert for that, even though he looked ashen and lined and grey with tiredness. She had seen that look too many times before. An intelligent man, recently redundant, unable to pay the mortgage, thrown out of house and home by a demanding and greedy wife. Now reduced to seeking shelter in this place. Another of life’s victims on the scrapheap. It was all too common an occurrence. But there was something else more than tiredness in his hunched stance. There was a look of fear in his eyes, a dread of something more than just the intimidating atmosphere as he stooped, weary and drawn between the police.
But why the police? Why now, this late at night? The Rough Sleeper Squad would have finished their trawl of the local parks and preferred sleeping patches, looking for vulnerable homeless youngsters. The shelter had no spare beds left. Apart from one.
She turned to the Sergeant, a solid old-fashioned policeman who was a very familiar visitor to the shelter, and a man she could rely on.
‘Cup of tea, James?’ Rebecca knew he was always ready for a brew, whatever time of day or night but his response discomfited her.
‘Sorry Miss Steel.’ He had never called her Miss Steel before, she had always been Rebecca. She frowned, puzzled at his unexpected formality, as he continued, ‘I asked Samantha to call you out. This man.’ and he waved his hand at the stranger, without even looking round, ‘he’s been classified as Shepherd .’
‘No. No way.’ Her outrage was evident. ‘Sorry James, but Shepherd is reserved for lads. Not middle aged men. I have one Shepherd bed. And you know the criteria. Homeless and vulnerable and aged between eighteen and twenty-four. That is the stipulation. The council pay for that bed, and I can’t break their conditions.’ Rebecca, her voice cold with anger, turned to the stranger. ‘You certainly don’t look defenceless or vulnerable. Haven’t you got relatives or friends who can take you in. Someone? Anyone?’
He shuffled back one pace under her verbal onslaught. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know much at all in fact.’ He looked down at the blue linoleum tiles on the floor, shy and embarrassed, his face flushing with a brief tinge of colour. His accent was not English. In fact if anything it was an American accent, educated and cultured.
‘Rebecca,’ the police sergeant took her arm and eased her away from the group.’ It’s like this. We found this guy semi-conscious by the roadside. We assumed that he was the usual late-night drunk, until we got him to the station. Then we saw the condition he was in and thought that maybe he’d been in an accident, hit and run, something like that. However, it seems not. No injuries apart from t bruising and abrasions and such, but he can’t remember anything. Has no identification, nothing that tells us who he might be. The hospital checked him over but they can’t keep him, they’re pushed for beds, and he doesn’t need treatment.’
He paused and turned to look at the man waiting there, head lowered as if afraid to see what was going on around him.
The Sergeant shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of resignation before continuing in a low undertone. ‘We can’t keep him either; there is no reason to hold him in a cell but if we let him out on the streets there is no knowing what might happen to him. He is totally vulnerable. The Duty Team at Social Services authorised us to send him to you as Shepherd. They’ll take responsibility for the cost. It should only be for a couple of nights at most. Someone must be looking for him.’
There was no other option. Once a person was formally designated Shepherd by the authorities, she had a duty to provide a bed, if one was available. Damn them. They knew she was holding that spare bed for a really needy case. Not for a middle-aged misfit who could no doubt look after himself and almost certainly had family searching right now for him. But, if it was for one night only, that was different and anyway she would assess him properly in the morning.
‘You owe me James, after this, and don’t think I won’t call in my debts.’ She turned to the tall man who was still standing watching, his eyes dull and listless, his whole demeanour that of someone who is too tired to argue, too worn-down by stress and tiredness and the sheer grinding effort of existing. The exertion needed just to keep breathing throughout each exhausting day.
Sighing, she beckoned him to follow her. ‘Come with me. This way. What’s your name?’
He paused, and his lips curled in a small, lop-sided and sad smile. ‘I don’t know.’ he reiterated again in that soft East coast intonation.
It was Rebecca’s turn to blush this time. ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Perhaps tomorrow you will be able to remember more details, when you have had some sleep.’ She stopped, unlocking a door, the number 20 in cheap plastic stick-on letters decorating the grimy finger-marked surface. The numerals were peeling and uneven at the edges as if prying fingers had tried to remove them without success.
Once inside he looked around without enthusiasm, in fact without much reaction at all. ‘Small’ would be too generous a word to describe the room. A single bed. Unmade, but with sheets, blankets, pillows all stacked in a neat pile on the clean mattress. A set of drawers. Cheap, MDF, basic. A radiator. That was all apart from one light in the centre. Bare walls. Magnolia paintwork that needed renewing. Sufficient room to stand between the bed and the adjoining wall. But it was warm, safe. A much needed retreat on such a cold night out on the streets.
‘Well, here you are. Can you start making the bed? I’ll find you some pyjamas and stuff.’ And she was gone.
He stood there. Questioning his own recollections, wondering if he did know how to make a bed. He really wasn’t sure what he knew. But he picked up the neat stack of bedding and suddenly instinct took over. He folded and tucked the threadbare linen into place almost without realizing what he was doing, folding the worn but scrupulously clean blankets over the thin cotton sheets. He was standing beside it when the door opened again.
She was there. Arms holding a bundle of dark fabric on top of a small pile of assorted items. ‘Here. Baths towel, pyjamas, clean underwear and socks.’ She looked him over, and handed him a small carrier bag, ‘Hope I got the right size.. You are pretty slim. Also, soap, razor, toothbrush and so on. You only get one lot so don’t lose them. You have to take care of your own clothes, but we can find you some more things to wear tomorrow so you can get those…..’ she grimaced at his blood-stained and damaged jeans and sweatshirt, ‘cleaned.’
He nodded and took the items she handed over, holding them for a moment before placing them on the bed. Then he stood there, unsure, waiting for instructions.
‘Do you need anything else?’
He shook his head, his expression a combination of mute misery and anxiety .
‘Okay. Bathroom is across the corridor, third door down. Don’t make a noise or you’ll wake the other men and some of them really don’t like being disturbed. Get some sleep. I start work at seven thirty so I will see you in the morning for your induction. Now. Basic rules. Absolutely no smoking in your room or you will be immediately evicted. You shower every day, and if I find you with any drugs on your person you will be out. Immediately. Understood?’ Tiredness made her more abrupt than she had intended and his face tightened as the harshness of her words cut through his fear, his unease at being in this unknown place, alone.
He waited. His silence apparently enough of an assent for her.
‘You are responsible for your own safety here. Lock your door and keep out of trouble. This is the key to your room. Don’t lose it.’ She looked up at his tired face and smiled a little. ‘Go on… get to bed. Breakfast is at eight. If you aren’t up in time, you don’t get any.’ She closed the door behind her and he stepped forward to lock it securely, before turning back to face his bleak sanctuary.
The room was windowless, and the only noises came from a small air vent in one corner and the quiet ticking of the radiator. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he clasped his hands together until his fingers were white with tension. He had no idea what to do, what the future, or indeed the past, held for him. He was lost. And alone.
He remained there, the shadow from his slender figure spreading like a dark stain across the floor, until sheer exhaustion pushed its way through the turmoil of his thoughts. Sighing with acceptance he bent, stiff and weary, to pull off his trainers and socks. It was an instinctive action to place them together on the floor under the bed, and then, having made that first reluctant move in the process of undressing in such a strange place, he stood up, tugging the sweatshirt over his head, ruffling his short blond hair as the fabric caught at it. The sweat shirt also folded and placed on top of the chest of drawers with as much care as if it were cashmere, instead of a tattered and stained garment.
Twisting and stretching he loosened tired, wrenched muscles and rubbed his hand over several patches of scraped and raw skin. He could not remember getting any of the injuries, the bruises, the numerous small cuts, the abrasions. It didn’t matter though. Nothing mattered right now. He just needed to rest. To lie down. Perhaps when he had had some sleep the memories would return.
Perhaps. But somehow there was the feeling that he didn’t want those memories to return. And a shudder of dread shook him.
He finished undressing, putting the rest of his clothes with the sweatshirt, and with some hesitation picked up the pyjamas, shaking them out to inspect them.
Clean. And they would probably fit him. That was all that could be said about them. He slipped the trousers on, and left the jacket folded on the end of the bed, before pulling back the sheets. Once the light was off the only illumination was a green rectangle of light that filtered through the row of opaque glass blocks above the doorway. It was enough.
Lying down on the firm mattress, with the somewhat thin and inadequate pillow, he tugged sheet and blankets around himself and stared at that rectangle of light, wondering who he was, and what had happened to him, until, eventually, the warmth and monotonous, gentle clicking of the radiator united to calm his thoughts and he slept, knowing one thing. That, whatever had happened to him, he might be, at last, safe.
Alec Freeman had been back in SHADO HQ one long, stressful hour. He had completed the required formalities, he had, in as quiet and composed manner as he could mange, notified the staff that Ed Straker had died. dealt with all the questions as best he could, but he had not entered the office. Had not, until now, considered what Ed Straker’s death would mean for him. Not the loss; he had acknowledged that although he would never be able to accept it, but the fact that he was now in charge until the IAC decided who would replace Ed Straker. And he did not want it. Not like this. Not to have to take over from Ed in these circumstances.
As he stepped towards the door it opened in expectation. And he went inside, half expecting to see that pale blond head bent over a sheaf of papers as usual, hand waving with an impatient gesture to him to take a seat. But the room was bare.
Alec felt as if he had never been in the office before, as if he was a stranger here. And yet the room was so familiar in fact that he could find his way around blindfolded. He closed his eyes. But when he opened them it was the same. Empty. No-one sitting there. He leaned over and with one finger flicked the switch on the desk console. The door slid shut, cutting off even the slightest sounds from the outer control room.
There. Now he might find the courage. He walked round the desk, placing one hand on its unmarked surface, leaning as if to gain some measure of strength or comfort from the contact and then he swung the leather chair around to sit. No. that was …..wrong. He couldn’t sit there, not in that chair, or at Ed’s desk, with all those memories. Not yet, if ever.
He stood, considering, thinking, fingers interlocked and twisted. Then he smiled, although it was not pleasure that caused his face to relax and his tense posture to ease; it was the sudden relief of knowing how he was going to deal with the situation.
When Keith Ford entered the Commander’s office with the daily reports for Freeman to sign, he paused for a split second, taking in the scene. Then as if there was nothing untoward, or out of the ordinary, he walked to to where Colonel Freeman sat, not in Straker’s chair, but in one of the conference seats, behind the Perspex desk that was now devoid of those small personal items that had somehow accumulated over the years. The communications officer cast one brief glance around the office.
There, in the far corner, at the head of the large table was a pale leather seat, and on the shelf behind that chair, a glass sphere, a crystal obelisk and other reminders of a missing presence.
‘Colonel.’ Ford walked round to place the file on the desk in front of his now most senior officer. Two pairs of eyes met in understanding and empathy. There was no need to say anything at all.
Alec worked on, every so often becoming so absorbed in the procedures that his awareness, his acceptance of the recent tragedy was, on occasion obliterated by the mundane task of reading and authorizing the numerous schedules that were necessary. Then it would hit him like a hammer blow, and he would freeze, and shudder and flinch, but, after the cold dread had passed, he would pick up the next file and read on.
Henderson arrived. Alec put down the report that he had been trying, without much success, to focus on; something about Skydiver refuelling times or perhaps it was the Moonbase staffing rota for next month, he wasn’t sure; and went over to the conference table to sit with Henderson.
A relief to move away from that place, Ed’s place. A flash of memory sliced knife-sharp through his mind; the two of them, Ed and Alec, standing here in this office, surrounded by dust and debris, cables hanging from open conduits, the room empty of furniture. Ed’s voice, talking about the thousand details needed to set everything up, the two of them thinking, wondering what the future would hold. But Alec had never envisaged a future such as this.
Freeman shook his head and the image faded.
‘A bad business Colonel. Have we any idea what happened to Straker?’ Henderson, as blunt and concise as ever, came straight to the point.
‘Not yet General. I’m still waiting for the pathologist’s report. In any other circumstances I would have had Ed, sorry, the Commander’s body brought back to Mayland for the autopsy, but SIS are involved and their experts are as good as ours.’
‘I agree, although this puts us in a very difficult position. With Straker’s death under what appear to be suspicious circumstances, I am being pressurized to allow SIS complete access to SHADO.’ Henderson held up one hand as Alec Freeman started to protest. ‘I know, Colonel. So far I have managed to persuade the relevant authorities that SHADO will not allow any outside interference. I will be meeting with other IAC members later this afternoon. I need to be able to assure them that SHADO will continue under your leadership. Can I have your assurance that you are willing to assume command? There will of course be no need to formally ratify your promotion, but I need your verbal acceptance.’
Colonel Freeman paused, swallowed hard and after a long long moment his hushed and forlorn voice broke the silence. ‘Yes General. I am willing to take command. But I wish it had been in different circumstances. Not like this. Never like this.’