Tags: Horror, Gore, Violence
Chapter 2 – Monday pm
The G6 had come back clean, as Alec had expected. No security problems, no cause for concern. Approval was given. Sara had left a message with Miss Ealand to say that she would be at The Sheepfold at 8.30 and hoped that Mr Freeman would be able to join her there. Alec looked it up to get directions. It was an old pub, now run by a couple looking to make their mark in the gastro-pub world. Eight o’clock and with a sigh of relief he closed down his computer, straightened the few folders that still remained on his desk and left. He felt exhausted and drained by the raw emotion of the funeral, and the temptation to go home and forget about Dr Harper was overwhelming. But then he remembered her voice, on that day as she leaned over and looked at Straker, lying on that table waiting for the gentle caress of her scalpel, recalled her kindness, her compassion. He owed it to Ed to meet her, even if just for a few minutes.
The pub was a welcome oasis in the dark drizzle of the November night. Alec wondered, yet again, if he was doing the right thing, if he wanted to spend an evening talking to a complete stranger. But in a way that was the attraction. She was an outsider. With no preconceptions about Ed, no knowledge of SHADO, no strings. He could chat to her, and maybe even find out what it was that had so intrigued her about Ed. That was all. Nothing else.
Inside the doorway of the unfamiliar building he paused for a moment, taking everything in with eyes that were accustomed to making swift decisions. Random groups of sofas around low tables, high backed leather chairs providing more intimate privacy in corners, modern and discreet decoration. No music, no machines, just clusters of people drinking. Eating. Chatting. The relative quiet of a Monday night after the weekend.
Unbuttoning his heavy overcoat he stepped closer to the bar, wondering if she had already arrived.
Alec spun around, startled at the touch on his shoulder, reflexes on edge in this alien environment. ‘Dr Harper,’ he nodded to her and relaxed, ‘good to see you again. What can I get you?’
She stood next to Freeman, a slight figure with her corn-coloured hair catching the light as the barman served him. Then, with the confidence of someone on their own territory she led the way past other diners to a small alcove, tucked away behind a pillar, a couple of leather armchairs facing each other across a low table.
She sank into one with a grateful sigh. ‘I’ve come straight from work and my feet are killing me,’ she said, then continued in a low tone. ‘Thank you for coming tonight. I felt embarrassed this afternoon when I thought about what I had said to you.’ She dropped her gaze and fiddled with the rim of her glass. ‘To be honest, I was almost hoping you wouldn’t show. It’s not something I do as a rule, get involved with my patients.’ She refused to look at him, her fingertips with their short unvarnished nails still running around the edge of the glass, the slender fingers devoid of jewellery.
‘Well, I’m here. And you wanted to know about Ed, about Mr Straker, didn’t you? So, ask.’ He hadn’t meant it to sound as blunt, as harsh as that and he leaned forward concerned as she looked up in some dismay. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Harper, that sounded rude. I’m just tired. It’s been a … difficult day. Can we start again?’ he smiled across at her, and reached out one hand in reconciliation. ‘I’m hungry and the thought of something decent to eat is tempting. What about you?’
There was slight hesitation before Sara picked up a couple of menus and handed one to him. ‘I haven’t eaten since lunch time, so I’m starving.’ She skimmed though the list the smiled and leaned back. ‘I’ll have the chilli please.’
‘Hmm, steak for me,’ Alec grinned, tossed the menu down on the table and stood up, ‘I’ll order.’
Sara watched him move with self-assurance through the press of bodies around the bar area, then once alone she sat back to relax, enjoying the warmth and noise of the room after her long hours in the cold sterility of the autopsy room.
Alec threaded his way back, sitting down with a contented smile. ‘Nice place this. I’ve never been here before but I can see why it’s so popular. So. Doctor Harper…’
‘Sara, please. Dr Harper makes me feel as if I am still at work.’
‘Very well, Sara, so you were asking about Ed.’ He looked at her, eyes trying to gauge her integrity, if her interest was genuine, or if she had some other motive for her appearance here tonight.
She regarded him with sympathetic blue eyes as if aware of his unease. The noise of the bar filled the space around them and she leaned forward, picked up her glass, sipped, put it down again. Anything to avoid answering, to admit to this stranger what it was that she felt. The silence spread out from the small alcove, until Alec spoke again.
‘Ed and I had been friends for years as well as working together. I would like to talk about him, but what I want to know is why you are so interested in a man you never met, at least while he was alive that is.’
She avoided meeting his eyes, continuing to stare into her glass. ‘As for Mr Straker, what can I say? There was something about him. Some indefinable sense of peace like that of a new-born child,’ her fingers fiddled once more with the rim of her glass, ‘as if the world had never touched him, had left him unmarked.’ Her eyes remained downcast, averted.
‘Ed? I hope he was at peace, that at least he did find that before he died. He’d been working too hard, as usual, and the last time I spoke to him he seemed utterly exhausted and done in.’ Alec picked up his napkin and unfolded it, fingers smoothing across the crisp linen, his mind wandering elsewhere as he thought about that final night and the image of Straker walking weary and despondent to his waiting car.
It was time to be honest with this woman. Maybe talking to her would exorcise his ghosts. He took a deep breath. ‘I was worried about him; we’d been friends for a long time and I couldn’t remember seeing him so depressed ever before. But he was one of those men who wouldn’t talk about his problems, wouldn’t admit that there was anything wrong. I wondered afterwards if there was anything I should have done. Something that might have made a difference.’
He leaned back in the chair, his eyes questioning her. There was a stir of movement across the room as waiters brought their order, interrupting the conversation.
Alec hadn’t eaten a decent meal for a days now; in fact he hadn’t eaten much since Ed had died. There hadn’t been the time or the inclination or even the appetite. But the food was good, very good, and he concentrated on cutting his steak, savouring each mouthful, and aware that Sara Harper was focused on her bowl of chilli.
Companionable silence. Not uncomfortable. Or strained. No need for small talk. He finished his drink, put the last fat chip from his plate in his mouth and, replete, sat back with a sigh of contentment. ‘I needed that. I hadn’t realised just how hungry I was.’
Sara looked up as she chased the last scraps of chilli and rice round her bowl. ‘I often come here. The food is better than anywhere else nearby.’ She, too, drained her glass. ‘Can I get you another, Mr Freeman?’
‘Alec. Call me Alec. And no. I’ll get the drinks, unless you are one of these women who objects to a man paying for everything.’ His voice was serious but she saw the glint of amusement in his eyes and laughed.
‘No, Alec, I’m afraid I am shockingly old-fashioned. Although my colleagues at work would be surprised to hear me say that. They think I’m a cold-hearted autocrat most of the time. Although I don’t try to dissuade them.’ She grinned at the look on his face, ‘It makes them work better if they are under the impression that I am watching every move they make.’
It took longer to get served now that the pub was busy, and Alec had time to think while he waited at the long bar. He turned to look back at her slight figure, half-hidden in the depths of the chair.
It was his turn this time once back at the table, to fiddle with his glass and draw patterns in the circles of liquid that marked the wooden surface. Sara waited for him to speak.
Alec sighed, ‘I still don’t know what really happened to Ed. I wish I did. It might make it easier.’
She looked up at him. ‘I’m sorry I can’t be any help. There was no reason why your friend should have died. If he had been in bed asleep, I would have considered what we call Sudden Unexplained Death. But that didn’t make sense in this situation. And it wasn’t as if his body was moved after death. He died there. In that alleyway. Without any reason.’ Her brow furrowed as she recalled her unsuccessful investigation. ‘Tell me about him Alec. Was he a peaceful man? It’s rare to see a face so unscarred by life.’
He took her hand this time, fingers clasping around hers as if to console her. ‘Ed? Unscarred by life? No Sara,’ he continued, thinking back over those years he had know his friend, ‘life had been cruel to him. He lost his wife when his marriage failed, his young son died a short time ago and work was difficult to say the least.’
‘Can you tell me what he did? I presume it was some important government post with all the fuss that was made about secrecy, and the military presence at his funeral.’
Alec leaned back, to distance himself, aware of the need for security. ‘No Dr Harper, Ed was no high-ranking spy, just a hard-working film producer who was a Colonel in the USAF before retiring. But he worked hard at his job, too hard I think. He was tired of it all and ready for a holiday, I do know that much. He seemed to have lost weight, to have lost his spark as well.’
Sara stifled a yawn behind one hand. ‘I’m sorry, ‘ she apologised, ‘an early start this morning, and I have another one tomorrow.’ She hesitated, ‘I’d like to meet with you again, if you don’t mind. And perhaps you could bring some photographs of Ed with you. I would very much like to see him as he really was. Not as I saw him. Would you mind?’
Would he? The decision was his. Would it help to meet her again, or should he walk away and leave behind his memories of Ed.
One deep breath. One pause. ‘Yes, okay.’ There. Decision made. ‘I’d like that,’ he smiled at Sara.
Chapter 3 – Monday pm
Alec sat in his car, watching as Dr Harper drove away from The Sheepfold. Another quick call to security, one more check to ensure that she was not a risk. His gut instinct was that she was sincere, but Alec Freeman had not survived this long by assuming that people were what they appeared to be. He waited, unwilling to leave until he had received confirmation from SHADO. The beep of his phone sounded loud in the silence and he scanned the incoming message, smiled, then slipped the car into gear before pulling out onto the quiet road, heading for home.
He was more worn-out than he had believed. The events of the day had drained him of emotional and physical strength and the effort needed just to get inside the house and up the stairs was the final straw.
The bed, its burgundy sheets and pillow cases half hidden in the dark, welcomed him with the promise of rest and so, sighing with weariness, he undressed, clothes slipping from clumsy fingers onto the floor. He let them lie there. He wouldn’t want to wear those ever again, not with the memories of Ed’s funeral still clinging to them. And then it was all too much. He slumped sobbing on the edge of the bed, pressing his hands against his face in a futile effort to hold back the wave of despair until, exhausted, he dragged the covers back, lay down and wrapped himself in the duvet.
Even so, it was a long time before sleep soothed his emotions and his eyes closed.
Sara Harper leered with grim delight as her car sped through the night, the gibbous moon enhancing the gleam of her teeth, long fingers clutching, grasping the wheel, short-cropped blonde hair streaked with silver. Each breath a sharp hiss of sensual pleasure, eyes shining with the thrill of excitement, of the chase. She would finish her work on Straker tonight. And then, Alec Freeman was within reach.
The cold blueness of the moonlight tinged her skin with an inhuman colour, or perhaps it was not the moonlight that cast the pale hue on her face and arms. Her car skidded on the thick gravel driveway, before crunching to a halt. She slid out of the seat, her slender legs bare, her unshod feet heedless of the rough stones, of the blood that tracked her footsteps across to the locked and bolted door.
Alec whimpered in fear as his mind sensed her presence, as his body refused to move, refused to obey even the simplest command. He was frozen, not with cold, but with sheer terror. It was almost too much effort to breathe, to force air into his lungs, as if they were wrapped in tight bonds that constricted him, that held him down.
And then she was there. Beside him. Invading his bedroom. Leaning over him, her breath foul on his face. Unable to turn away, unable to evade that stench of death, he closed his eyes, desperate to shut her out, but she was too powerful. He was helpless. And darkness overwhelmed him.
Later, although he had no idea how much later, he found himself standing in a corridor. It was eerily familiar, although he could not recall from where, roughened concrete grey walls, the floor cold to his bare feet, his whole body frozen, shivering yet sweating despite the chill. There was a window in the wall ahead, and he moved towards it, although it seemed to get further and further away despite his efforts. He wanted to cry, to sob deep anguished tears of utter despair. Scraping his fingers against the walls until his nails splintered, he dragged himself to the window, and looked through.
A white room. Pristine and pure, unmarked, untouched. A table, in the centre and on it, covered by a white sheet that draped down to the floor, a body. The outline was unmistakeable.
Then Sara was there, walking across the room, her eyes watching Alec, gloating with delight. Naked now, her bloodied feet marking her passage as she strode to the table. There was nothing sensuous about her. Nothing beautiful. She had brought him here to show him her power. And, as she pulled the sheet off the table and flung it to the floor Alec saw Ed Straker lying there. Cold. Lifeless. Eyes shut, a faint blue tinge on his mouth, enhancing that slight scar on his lower lip.
Alec shouted, thumping his fists against the window. It was useless. As if his voice was muffled, his hands too weak. No sound came from his numb lips, his gaping mouth, though his throat was raw from his futile screams.
Sara tilted her head to observe the body lying there beneath her hands. She leaned over Straker, and began to cut that first incision from the shoulder across to the sternum. The blade touched the pale skin, bit into it. Deeper and deeper she pushed the razor sharp scalpel into unmarked flesh.
And Ed Straker opened his eyes.
Screams filled the room as Sara, with one slow, deliberate stroke, slid the knife down warm, living, bleeding flesh. Skin parted under the caress of the scalpel, blood poured in waves over the edge of the table, down onto the floor, a lifetime of blood, that washed over the floor as Straker’s screams died away into hoarse moans, as the outpouring of blood became a trickle and, finally, stopped.
Sara looked down at the face below her, smoothing his tangled sweat-soaked hair as Straker watched her, terrified eyes following her every move, his body trembling and jerking under her fingers. With a touch as gentle as a kiss she slipped her hand into the deep gash that ran down his torso and then stepped back as flames began to emerge from the opening, wrapping around the body even as Alec, helpless, fought to save his friend.
It was hopeless. The flames grew brighter encasing the writhing form with incandescent brilliance. Alec could not even turn away from the sight, could not close his eyes, as the flames ate away at flesh, at bones, until even the agonised and contorted skeleton was reduced to a neat and tidy pile of grey ash. Sara stepped forward again, scooping the still-warm ash up in her hands, before tossing it into the air. She turned to Alec, beckoning him to come closer.
‘No!’ Alec forced himself to be heard and managed one shriek, a thin eerie sound that startled even himself.
And he woke up, drenched with sweat, trembling, shaking, gasping.
It was some time before he felt able to unwrap his body from its twisted contortions. Every tentative movement was a terror, even though his sense told him that he was now awake, that it had all been a dream. No, not a dream, a nightmare. Hell, what a nightmare. The sheets gripped like ropes to his legs, his back and tangled around his arms. He fought to free himself from their clutches as the nightmare images of Ed screaming while Sara cut deep into his breast, of Ed burning to ash there in front of him, started to dissolve.
But there was something crucial about that dream. Something he had to remember, something that changed everything.
Alec lay still as he tried to recall what it was, but the memory dissipated into wisps of nothingness and he lay there shivering in the damp, clinging sheets, remembering that image of Ed, awake and alive and waiting in vain for Alec to save him.