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"Good morning, Miss Ealand," Freeman said. "You're early! Is Ed in?"
"Not yet, sir, no. I believe he left shortly before you did, around 1am. I haven't seen him since." She pressed the button to open the door to the inner office, that doubled as a lift to 'below stairs'.
"Probably still home getting some sleep," Freeman commented. "Anyway, thanks."
He closed the door, and said hello to the voiceprint check. The room started to slide down behind its concealing sheet of mirror-glass. Outside, the sun was just rising. He yawned. This was far too early, but he had been too restless after last night’s UFO incursion to sleep, and had given up trying after only a few hours.
Freeman had to admit that he was more than a little worried about the Commander. Ed's mood yesterday evening had been subdued to begin with, and it had steadily deteriorated as the night wore on, until the UFO response had been terminated, when he had left Control like Sky 1 launching. In fact, at one point Freeman had been almost sure that Straker had been about to land a punch on him, but for the desk in the way; but the Commander had visibly taken control of himself.
Perhaps, Freeman thought, he hadn't been feeling well. Certainly he had seemed to have lost his appetite.
Freeman knew how much Ed hated being baby-sat. He decided that he would give the Commander a few hours to gather himself from whatever had been biting him, say until about lunchtime, and then call him if he hadn't turned up.
The room stopped at the bottom of its shaft, and Freeman went out of it into the long corridor leading to Mission Control. The night shift was just coming off-duty. Foster was there, talking to Anderson, Ford's second at the comms console. Ford himself had gone home - or rather, been ordered home by Freeman - when Foster had arrived to take over the cleanup after the night's events.
"Morning, Paul, James," he said. "Anything new?"
"It's been very quiet," Foster said. "I've sent out a team to talk to that lady and take a look around, we should hear from them in a couple of hours."
"Good, thanks. No word from the Commander, I suppose?"
"No. If he's got any sense, he'll be sleeping."
Freeman snorted softly, in some amusement. "You are kidding, of course - "
He broke off. A light was flashing on the comms desk. Anderson looked up, and reached for the handset to pass it to Freeman. "That's the Commander's car, sir."
"Thanks Ed! Hello, how's - "
But the voice on the other end was not Commander Straker's. "Alec? This is Keith Ford."
Ford was in 'informal' mode, Freeman noted. "Keith? Is everyone up with the lark today? Is something wrong? Are you with Ed?"
"Not exactly, I'm with his car… It's parked by the side of the road, miles from anywhere. Well, I say 'parked' - it's been rammed half into a hedge."
"Crashed?" Freeman said, sharply. At this, Foster and Anderson looked up, in alarm.
"More as if he took the corner too wide. It's upright, no sign of damage, though the paintwork may have taken a few scratches. But what's weird is, the engine is still running, and the lights are on. And the driver's door is wide open. No sign of Ed himself."
"What do you bet it's a kidnap?" Foster muttered grimly, when Freeman passed this on.
"Certainly looks like one… OK, Keith. I'll come out with someone from studio security. Stay with the car, could you? Leave it running until we arrive. What's your location?"
While Keith was replying, Anderson was bringing up a map with the car's location pinpointed on it. Freeman checked it against Ford's information as Anderson handed him a printout. "OK, Keith, we're on our way. Are you on your own?"
"No, I'm with Jean." She was his fiancée, Freeman recalled.
"Keith, would she stay with the car while you have a look round?"
"She says yes."
"Good. We'll be about twenty minutes." Freeman replaced the handset. Turning to Foster, he said: "Paul, put out a K2 on him, would you?"
"Only a two?"
"We don't know yet whether it is actually a kidnap."
"Noted. I'll deal with it, Alec, don't worry."
"Right." Freeman hurried out of Mission Control.
A 'kidnap alert' of any grade was rare enough that Foster had to consult the checklist. First item was to notify Security, both SHADO and studio. Then a bleep had to be sent to the apparent victim's pager, and a priority call signal over the comms channels in case they were anywhere within reach of a receiver. Both of these went out at irregular intervals, the theory being that this would be more likely to get the attention of a possibly preoccupied listener than a constant or regular tone. Finally, a check was to be run on places that the person frequented or vehicles that they used regularly.
As this was a K2, the police did not have to be called. Yet.
* * *
Ford replaced the handset, and pushed himself back down the car's rear deck, where he had climbed - much to Jean's amusement - so as not to disturb the ground by the car doorway. "Look, you can sit in our car, at least you'll be comfortable. I must go and see what I can find."
"Fine," Jean smiled. "Hey, your boss has a great taste in cars!"
"Certainly does! He used to run a Jensen Interceptor, I believe." And didn't that call to mind a terrible pun, Ford thought.
Ford smiled, and began to walk slowly round the vehicle, checking the verges and the ditch, though he had already had a quick look as he ran up to the car. He also examined the hedge with great care; but there was no sign of anyone having tried to push their way through, and it was too high to be comfortably climbed.
He checked the muddy area by the side of the road, but the only tracks were those of Straker's car, and a few footprints, such as would be made by a person clambering out of the driving seat. And he could only detect one kind of print; so it looked as though the Commander had not been hauled bodily from the vehicle.
He walked down the road for a few yards in each direction, looking for more footprints, and found some along the car's heading.
"This is screwy," he muttered. "He misses the turn, then gets out and starts walking. Doesn't shut off the engine or lights, doesn't close the door. Was he half asleep?"
Of course, there was that other possibility… But Freeman would have said, or at least implied, if they had had more 'visitors'.
There were more prints ahead, and the road began to curve once more to the left: but the prints went straight on, into the wooded area beyond. Ford did not like that at all. The Commander, or whoever was making the tracks, seemed to be intent on heading in a straight line, regardless of what might be in the way.
Behind him, Ford could hear vehicles approaching. With not a little relief, he left a small tower of stones and two crossed twigs, boy-scout style, to mark the spot where the walker had left the road and the direction they had apparently taken. He hurried back the way he had come.
* * *
Alec Freeman had reached the car by the time Ford made it back. With him were three people dressed in studio security fatigues, minus their SHADO badges. Jean left her own car, and walked over to join them.
"Ah, Keith," Freeman greeted him. "Is this Jean?… good to meet you. I'm Alec Freeman. Thanks for holding the fort, by the way."
"It's a pleasure, sir," Jean smiled. "Sorry to hear you've mislaid one of your execs."
"It's not something that happens often," Freeman said. "Keith, have you found anything at all?"
Ford explained about the trail he had followed. Freeman gave a nod, and sent two of his security guards to investigate. "Look, Keith," he said, "I don't want to delay you two any further… Why don't you take Jean wherever it was she was going, and then go on to the studio? I'll call you there when we find something."
"I'll do that. Thanks, Alec."
They said their goodbyes. Ford escorted Jean back to his own car, settled her in, then slid into the driving seat. As he started the engine, Jean said: "What was all that about?"
"Damned if I know," Ford muttered. "It's almost as though Mr Straker fell asleep at the wheel."
"Works long hours, does he?"
"Habitually. But it doesn't usually seem to affect him much. I've known him do a thirty-hour stint, and be as fresh as a daisy at the end of it." But not this time, Ford thought. Last night he'd looked as though he was the one who had been dragged through that hedge, not the car.
"You're worried about him," Jean observed.
"Yes, I am," Ford admitted. "There have been kidnap attempts in the past. There doesn't seem to have been any violence here, though. And I didn't find any other tracks. But he didn't call in to report a problem."
"Why would he have left the engine running? And the lights on?"
"Possibly," Ford answered, "because he was being chased and lost control, and it was quicker to get out and run. A pursuing car couldn't follow him into the woods." He thought, but did not say: the Commander has never lost control of a car in all the years I've known him.
They had arrived at Jean's office. Ford pulled up, and gave her a quick kiss.
"Will you let me know what happens?" she asked.
"Yes - but you may hear anyway," Ford told her. "It's possible the police may want to interview us as witnesses."
"Yes, I suppose so… anyway, see you tonight?"
* * *
As soon as Ford's car had disappeared around the curve of the road, Freeman turned to the third security officer, a man named McIlroy. "OK, let's have a look at the car."
They checked it over thoroughly, but found nothing untoward. At length McIlroy said: "Shall I shut it down, sir?"
"See what it drives like," Freeman suggested.
"OK." McIlroy settled himself into the driving seat and pulled the gullwing door down. He engaged reverse, and cautiously backed the car out onto the metalled road. He stopped the engine, killed the lights, and pushed the door open once more. "No problems at all, sir."
"Curiouser and curiouser," Freeman murmured. That quote seemed more appropriate than ever… "So he could have done that himself… but didn't."
Privately, he was beginning to wonder about talking to Doug Jackson. He put the thought aside… for now. "Try the radio again. It's odd that he didn't call in, if he was having any kind of problem. And it apparently didn't trigger the automatic alert."
McIlroy lifted the handset, called Control. "McIlroy here… Full comms check… Thank you." Looking up at Freeman, he said: "All OK, sir."
"Thanks," Freeman said, his worry increasing. "So… The car's fully functioning, so is the radio. Yet he abandons it and doesn't call."
"Maybe he stopped to help someone," McIlroy suggested. "OK, we can't see any tracks, but the road surface is dry and clear."
Freeman's own comms unit sounded, and he answered it. "Freeman."
"Foster here… I sent a crew over to check his house. He's not there. Should I authorise entry?"
"…No, not yet. Tell the crew not to hang around, in case they put any visitors off. Have them recheck at intervals."
"Will do." Foster signed off.
Freeman turned his attention back to McIlroy. "OK, let's look at the map… here's the road we're on. Tracing backwards… nothing much there. This road goes back a few miles, past the hospital, then for a further couple of miles, forks. He could have come either way. Forwards from here would take him to the coast."
"There are some houses here," McIlroy pointed out.
"Mmm. And beyond them, nothing much else. Anyway, what would bring him out here? It's nowhere near his place."
"Anyone else and I'd have said he was meeting a friend," McIlroy said.
Freeman considered. "You might have something there."
"The Commander?" McIlroy said, with a grin.
"I was thinking about Jo Fraser." Freeman knew that McIlroy would recognise the name.
"I see… You're thinking some kind of blackmail scam?"
"We can't rule it out," Freeman answered. "We'll certainly add it to the list of possibilities."
"What's his mood been like lately, sir?" McIlroy asked.
"Well… up until yesterday, pretty much normal. For him… But then his mood seemed to change. I'd have said he was very worried indeed about something… but of course there was that incursion."
"Yes… Sir, you don't suppose that - "
"That it's getting to him?" Freeman supplied. "No, I don't. The change was too sudden. He was ok yesterday morning, even cheerful. In the evening he had the cares of the world on his shoulders."
"Bad news from somewhere," McIlroy said, positively.
"Agreed - "
McIlroy's comm chirped, and he answered it. "It's Lieutenant Mitchell, sir. He says they've found the Commander's pager, in the bushes."
"Let me talk to him!" Freeman snapped. He grabbed the comm. "Confirm… Where? OK. We'll be right there. Search around - but carefully!"
They set off at a run. Freeman used his own comms unit, and called Foster. "Paul? Seems Ed threw his pager away… Yes. We're checking now… Upgrade to K1."
"You think he has been kidnapped?" McIlroy panted, as he ran.
"What else would make him throw his pager away?"
Freeman was thinking as he ran. It all fitted. Ed could have had bad news, a demand for a meeting. Perhaps with Mary… perhaps she was being held hostage, to compel Ed to come. He had gone to the rendezvous alone… and was taken. His pager was discarded. He would have been disarmed.
But surely, however bad it was, he would have warned Security before leaving -
"There they are." McIlroy pointed.
Ahead, the two SHADO security men were poking through the bushes, carefully. Mitchell looked up, saw them. "Over here, sir."
"Anything?" Freeman asked.
"Here's where we found it, sir. It was bleeping." The security man pointed. "The undergrowth isn't trodden down at all. I think it was simply thrown here."
"Just the one set that we can find, sir."
"Are we sure they're his?"
"Not certain, no, sir. If you're wondering was he carried, I'd have to say it's possible."
"Ed is lightly built," Freeman agreed. "Is there much depth to the prints?"
"Difficult to tell on leafmould, sir."
The other security man, a young officer by the name of Williams and with a Welsh accent to match, called to them to come over. "I think someone pushed through here, sir."
Sure enough, several branches had been bent aside. Hoping to find torn strands of cloth, Freeman looked at them closely, but without reward. "Let's go through."
He pushed his way through the bushes onto open ground. "Let's keep going, along his heading," he said. "For some reason, he did seem to be holding a straight course." Privately, he thought: as though he were running on automatic.
They walked slowly onward, for what Freeman estimated was a good couple of miles. The three security men spread out on either side of him, checking for further clues; but the course, shown by occasional footprints and bent twigs, did not seem to deviate at all.
They came to the edge of this open area. Ahead the ground fell away in a steep slope. There was a smell of salt in the air.
His heart in his mouth, Freeman walked forward cautiously, followed by Williams. He stopped a few feet short of the cliff edge, and went down on his hands and knees, crawling onwards.
Far below, something glittered metallically. "Binoculars," Freeman ordered, hoarsely, and Williams pressed a set into his fingers. He looked.
It was a gun.
Wordlessly, Freeman handed the binoculars back to Williams, and pointed. The security man looked, and swore, softly. "It… it might not be his, sir."
"Yeah." Freeman keyed his comm. "Paul?"
"You've found something?" Foster's voice was sharp.
"Possibly… We need sea rescue, Paul. Co-ordinates follow."
* * *
It was well into the afternoon, and the search was continuing. The gun had been retrieved, and confirmed to be the one issued to Commander Straker. Henderson had been informed, but had not so far appeared on the scene, for which both Freeman and Foster were grateful.
The coastguards had set up a search along the coast, following the prevailing currents, but had found nothing. Two mobiles had been airlifted in to survey the land area near the cliff edge, again without success.
The day lengthened into night, and the search widened into a full manhunt. The police were notified of a missing person, in a possible kidnapping. Freeman ran a check on Mary's whereabouts. It transpired that she and a man who turned out to be her recent new husband had left their house that morning and gone away. The police had located them, interviewed the husband, and had seen Mary - who appeared angry and distressed - and talked briefly with her. The husband had stated that Straker had visited, but had departed last evening following a summons on his pager, fit and well, and not under duress. He had explained that Mary's mood was due to an argument she had had with her 'ex', but he wanted to keep the details confidential. The police took note, but warned they would return if anything developed.
General Henderson arrived at SHADO Control, but stayed mostly in the background, observing. Freeman sent up a helicopter with a thermal camera. Foster called on Straker's housekeeper, a widow in her early sixties named June Baines, who lived a couple of miles down the road, and was a fencing enthusiast and a martial-arts black belt; she had seen nothing of her employer for two days - though, she said, that was not unusual. Foster had his crew check inside Straker's house, using the priority entry code on the digital lock, but fruitlessly; the place was empty, and the bed had not been used. He told them to resume an external watch, and returned to the studio.
As Foster's crew were leaving the house by the front door, the back door opened.
* * *
The sun was rising. Its rosy glow streamed in through the rear windows, lighting a trail of muddy footprints leading from the back door to the bedroom.
The man sprawled across the bed, deep in exhausted sleep, his face half buried in the fur throw, stirred a little. His eyes opened, and he blinked, unseeingly.
An urge was growing within him. He pushed himself shakily to his feet, and tottered on unsteady feet into the bathroom.
Somewhat relieved, he looked up, saw himself in the mirror, and grimaced. "What a mess," he muttered. He turned on the shower, setting it to hot, and stripped himself of his clothes, letting them lie in a muddy, grass-stained heap on the floor. He stepped into the shower basin, and gasped at the heat of the water, but let it flow. It brought him quickly to full wakefulness.
Feeling slightly more human, Straker towelled himself off, shaved, and wrapped a bathrobe around himself. He picked up the pile of muddy clothes, and sorted through them for pocket contents.
He stopped, abruptly. How had his clothes got so dirty? And where was his pager? And his gun?
Memory of that terrible evening hit him in the face. His hands clenched into fists on the clothes. He sagged back against the wall, his eyes squeezed shut, tears oozing out between the lids.
Much of it was blank. Not so that dreadful moment when he knew he had failed, failed those he loved. He remembered having to go from that place, it mattered not where. He had driven out into the night, at a suicidal speed. He had encountered a barrier. The car would go no further, so he had abandoned it and walked. His pager had chirped at him, and he threw the hated thing from him as hard as he could. He had walked on. He had arrived at a different barrier, an edge. Far below, there was the shifting moonlit gleam of water.
He had knelt, sitting back on his heels, and reached into his shoulder holster for his gun. He had gazed down at it, for an endless time, yearning for an end to his pain.
But he did not deserve that.
He had shamed them too much already. He should not make that shame worse. He would not deprive that death of the little meaning it had. He had thrown the gun far over the rocky edge, watched it bounce down towards the water.
He took a deep breath. No reparation he could make could ever be enough, he knew, but that did not mean he should not try.
Wearily he had pushed hmself to his feet, and started the long walk home.
* * *
Calmer now, he opened his eyes, blinking away the tears. He stood up, shakily. Opening the laundry basket, he dropped the muddy clothing into it. He wiped his face, went into his bedroom, frowning at the trail of footprints, and dressed, then collected a mop. He really should call security, he thought, have them retrieve his gun, and the car - he hadn't even thought about going back to find it - but he needed a little time, to pull himself together.
Unexpectedly, he was hungry, and very thirsty. He went into the kitchen, drank two glasses of water straight down, and set up the percolator for coffee. As he loaded the toaster, he heard an urgent call tone from the comms unit in the hallway. He walked to it, slid aside the concealing picture, and lifted the handset.
* * *
Deep beneath the studios in SHADO Control, Paul Foster was checking again through the local maps. "The police did a house-to-house, didn't they? Do we know who owns these houses?" he asked Ford.
"Yes, sir. This one's a retired couple, named Hamilton. And this one belongs to a young family, but they're away at the moment - "
Ford broke off. The comms signal was flashing. Foster grabbed the handset. "Foster here… Thank god! Commander! Where are you? Are you all right?… No, stay right where you are, Colonel Freeman will come over… No. that's all right, we've got them… And your car… Don't go anywhere, please, Ed. Wait for Alec."
Foster clicked the cutoff, and called Freeman. "Alec? Yes, we have… He's just called. Says he's at home… Stay on K1, yes, sir. Yes, I'll send Jackson over."
"Phew," Ford said, smiling. "How did he sound?"
"Tired," Foster admitted. "And a bit confused… Where's Doug Jackson?"
"On line one, sir."
"Thanks… Dr Jackson? Would you get over to Commander Straker's house, please? He's just called in… Seems ok, but tired, and doesn't recall where he left his things, or his car… Colonel Freeman's on his way there."
* * *
Straker shrugged, and put down the handset. He returned to the kitchen and put a slice of bread in the toaster. When it popped, he poured coffee, buttered the slice of toast, then picked up the tray with his breakfast, and carried it into the living area. He turned on the TV. Listening to it with half an ear, he took a sip of his coffee, and then a gulp.
"…the search has so far proved fruitless. The possibility of a kidnapping has not been ruled out, though no ransom demand has been received…"
He gazed unseeingly out of the window at the bright morning. Bright for some… Savagely, he stamped on that thought. It would do no good at all to let himself drown in self-pity.
There was a chime from the front door. He rose to his feet, and checked the entry monitor. It was Freeman, with his left hand in his pocket, and behind him Straker could see Doug Jackson. Eyebrows raised, he turned down the sound on the TV, and went to let them in.
"Alec, Doug, good to see you… Please, come in."
Freeman stepped inside, grabbed his friend by the shoulder. "For god's sake, Ed, are you all right? What the hell happened?"
"Of course I'm all right! What d'you mean?"
Behind Freeman, Jackson had closed the door, and was using his comm. "Colonel Foster? You may stand down from K1… Yes, he seems to be OK, mostly."
"K1?" Straker said sharply, as Freeman half led, half dragged him back into the living area, and urged him to sit down. "I haven't been kidnapped - "
"Are you sure?" Freeman demanded.
"Yes of course I'm sure, I guess I'd have noticed - "
"Ed, you've been missing for more than 30 hours!"
Straker stared at him. "I've… lost a day?"
Jackson said: "You have not been seen since you left Mission Control at 01:03 yesterday. It is now 07:47, a day later. Do you recall where you were in the interval?"
"I…" Straker rubbed his eyes. "I'm not exactly sure… I was in the car… then I went for a walk… I must have wandered around for a bit… I woke up here."
Jackson and Freeman exchanged glances. "I'll go and make fresh coffee," Freeman said. He returned his gun to its holster, and went into the kitchen, closing the door.
"Commander," Jackson said, gently for him, "this may seem an insensitive question, but bear with me… Had something happened, to upset you?"
Straker looked away. "Upset me," he whispered. "Yes, it had…"
"Do you feel able to tell me what it was? Forgive me, but when the C-in-C of SHADO Operations goes AWOL for more than a day and remembers little about it, that is cause for some concern, you must agree?"
"Yes…" Straker's voice was barely audible. He lifted haunted eyes to Jackson's face. "You see… My son is dead. And it's my fault. I killed him as surely as if I had run him down myself. I had to choose… contacting the aliens or getting Johnny's medicine through… I chose the aliens… Alec didn't know. It wasn't his fault. He did what he had to… But we lost the alien. And I lost my son…"
He sank his face in his hands, and wept. Jackson turned away, looking out of the window. He spoke quietly into his comm, and nodded at the response. He waited. At length, when the storm seemed to have blown itself out, he called: "Alec? Where is that coffee?"
"On its way," Freeman answered. He piled three mugs onto a tray, filled them from the percolator, and added a jug of cream from the fridge. On an afterthought he looked through the medicine cabinet, found a carton of moist-wipes, and placed them on the tray also.
Jackson opened the connecting door for him. "Come through, Alec."
By this time Straker was sitting up on the couch, leaning back with eyes closed. He opened them on hearing Freeman's approach.
"That coffee's cold," Freeman said, setting down his tray. "Have a fresh one… And you may find these useful," he added, holding out the wipes.
"Thanks, Alec," Straker answered, gratefully. He took a couple of the small moist tissues, and mopped his face.
"Colonel Freeman," Jackson said, "the Commander has told me what happened to him. He experienced a severe shock of a personal nature. I shall not explain what that was, and you may not ask. However, there are some things I can confirm. He was not kidnapped or drugged; his physical integrity was not in any way compromised. The aliens may have been involved, I am not sure; but if so, they were unsuccessful."
Straker gave him a doubtful glance. Jackson smiled a little. "You discarded your gun, Commander."
The lost, bruised expression on Straker's face changed to one of startled, angry understanding. He swore explosively, for possibly the first time in Freeman's recollection.
"That's better," Freeman said, with a grin at his friend. "Your vocabulary's improved, by the way… Is there any way at all I can help, Doug?"
"Yes, I am glad you ask," Jackson replied. "Commander, I am ordering you to take a week's sick leave… no, no arguments," he added, as Straker made to protest. "But I do not think you should be on your own… Alec, I would appreciate it if you would provide Ed with your company. I shall put you on compassionate leave."
"Of course, no problem… Well, Ed? Your place or mine?" he enquired.
"I'd be glad to have you," Straker admitted. "Only thing is, I doubt whether I'll be good company."
"Don't worry. With what I've got in mind, you won't have the time to mope. Or the energy."
Straker smiled wanly. "Well, if you're sure… I'll call Mrs Baines, have her make sure the spare room is ready."
"Fine, you do that. Hang on, I'd better let Paul know."
He walked to the comm panel and lifted the handset, pressing the red button. "Paul? Alec here… It's your turn for the responsibility seat, old son… Get Ginny to help out. Doug will explain. Ed and I are going hiking… be back in about a week!"
Straker reached the top of the hill, looked down the slope at the small house there. It was old, and very pretty. The garden was full of flowers, roses and other sweet-scented blooms. Their perfume was heavy on the noonday air.
Someone was out in the garden. A lady in perhaps her early seventies, she was giving directions to a rather younger man, who was performing minor surgery on a luxuriant rosebush. The two were being watched by a large parrot on a perch in the shade of an apple tree.
"Lovely place," he commented.
"If you say so," panted Freeman, as he staggered up the last few yards of the slope. He gave his friend a mock glare. "How come you aren't sweating?"
"Oh, I am, just not as much… Haven't you been keeping up with your fitness régime?"
"I keep fit enough trying to stay out of Jackson's way."
Straker had to smile a little at that. Freeman and Jackson had never really got along. Neither, he had to admit, did Straker himself. In fact, had he had the choice, Straker would never have employed the psychiatrist, undeniably competent though he was; the man was simply not a 'people person'. But Henderson had insisted; he was concerned about some encounters with the aliens, and the apparent vulnerability to them showed by some SHADO personnel, and he had assigned to the psychiatrist the task of devising ways to resist. Jackson himself was quite aware of the friction, and tended to treat it with tolerant disregard. Freeman, of course, found that patronising.
At last, Freeman puffed to a halt beside him. "Whose idea was this, anyway?" he grumbled, semi-seriously.
"Oh yes, so it was… Well, that's the place, all right. Shall we wander down and say hello?"
The pair walked on down the slope towards the cottage. It had indeed been Freeman's idea, to spend their hiking holiday in Ireland, and visit the 'scene of the crime'. His intention had been twofold: firstly, despite being on sick leave, Straker would not fully relax until he had tied up the loose ends; and secondly, to annoy Jackson. Although Freeman did respect his friend's desire and need for privacy in this mystery, the opportunity to tweak the psychiatrist's nose was too appealing to miss.
For a moment, though, when he had mentioned their destination, he had wondered whether he had been wise. At the mention of Ireland, Straker had stiffened in what seemed momentary pain, and had visibly made himself relax as Freeman had explained. After that initial hesitation, though, he had put the matter aside. Whatever it was.
Freeman instructed himself to do the same. It would not help either of them for him to try to pursue a subject so clearly closed.
They strolled down the path to the gate, where they stopped. Before Freeman could speak, Mrs O'Connor had straightened up from where she had been running her hands through the lavender, and turned her face towards them. "It's a hot day," she said. "And you're tired… Would the two of you like some iced lemon?"
Managing to conceal his surprise - he hoped - Freeman smiled. "That would be very kind, thank you."
"It does sound great," Straker agreed.
"Then please, come in. Sit by the table. Pat, would you fetch some more chairs?"
"I'll do that." The young man disappeared into the rear garden. He came back with two lightweight plastic chairs, and set them by the table. He went back into the house. Gratefully, the SHADO men seated themselves. Mrs O'Connor reached unerringly down into an insulated box and drew out a lidded jug of cloudy squash with slices of lemon and some ice cubes, and placed it on the table. She sat down beside them.
"Pat is a local handyman and gardener. He's very good… You know my name, I think?" she asked. Freeman blinked a little, and she smiled. "Young man, I may be blind, but as you may know we often perceive things others don't… I've had an unusual number and type of visitors in the past few days. You two are friends with that nice Mr Carlin, you walk the same way, your voices have the same inflections… I would say - " she turned her blind eyes towards Straker - "that you are his boss."
"I am," Straker admitted. "Were you expecting us today?"
"Not today in particular - thank you, Pat," she added, as her gardener placed some glasses on the table, and returned to the cottage. She located the jug and glasses by touch, and poured three lemonades, unerringly. "But I was expecting someone to call. Mr Carlin was - well, not uncertain exactly, but needed to take time and advice. About my first visitor."
There was a screech from the bird on the perch.
"Yes, Billy. That's right… The young man Mr Carlin was asking about. The young man who was so afraid."
Straker and Freeman exchanged glances. "Yes, Mrs O'Connor, that is why we are here," Straker admitted. "Forgive me, but I cannot tell you who we are, exactly. I can give you our names - " He did so. "But I must ask you not to mention us to anyone, please."
"Of course, Mr Straker."
"We've come to ask you what you can tell us of this 'first visitor'. You said he was afraid?"
"Yes," she mused. "He didn't speak, not at all. That was not the strangest thing about him… His movements were very quiet but not silent, his clothes rustled a little, but they weren't cloth, they were more like plastic, with a faint rattle as though he wore something made of metal. He had a very faint aroma about him, not offensive, not fragrant, just unusual… I spoke to him, tried to reassure him. Although he did not speak, I could hear his breathing. I think he had been weeping."
"That's very odd," Straker said, slowly. He took a mouthful of the lemonade; it was delicious.
"And there was something else. His walk was familiar… Not as yours is," she added, as Freeman took a startled breath. "More as though we had met before, years ago. But since then, he had been walking in strange places, with people he did not like, and who did not like him."
"Would you tell us what he did, please?" Straker asked.
"I heard movement outside. Then the door opened, and he walked in. Billy was nervous, but he would have attacked if he had felt threatened… The man moved around the room, touching things. He walked like someone who had just climbed out of the water after a long swim, when your arms and legs feel too heavy… He touched me on the arm; his fingers were slightly moist, almost oily, and he was trembling, just a little. I tried to feel his face, but he moved my hand away. I went to use the phone, but he took it from me. He was firm about it, but he was very gentle, he did not hurt me, at all. He was carrying something, he put it down on the table. I heard the click of plastic on wood, but the click had odd echoes, as though the thing was made up from several pieces. There was a strange noise, a little like a motor running. He let it run for some time; then he turned it off, and went outside. He was very hesitant, very scared. There was a flash like lightning outside - I didn't see it, but I felt its heat on my face. Then I heard an aircraft fly overhead. I went outside, listened for him, but he had gone. There was another flash, a different one, and a noise like an explosion. Not thunder. Here in Ireland we are all too familiar with explosions."
Very carefully, Straker said: "You say you had met him before?"
"That is the feeling I had, yes." Mrs O'Connor leaned back in the chair and gazed upwards, her sightless eyes searching the heavens. "I can hear that this is important to you, that it is unexpected…"
She paused, turned towards Freeman. "I am really sorry, but… would you mind, withdrawing a little? You see - "
"No problem at all. Goodbye, Mrs O'Connor, thank you for the drink. I'll wait for you outside the gate, Ed."
"Thank you. You are a very nice man."
Mrs O'Connor waited until the gate had clicked shut. Straker said: "He is out of earshot to me, ma'am."
"And to me also," she said. "Mr Straker - Forgive me, but I perceive that you have recently suffered great grief."
Straker swallowed. "I… I have."
"I suffered such grief, many years ago," Mrs O'Connor went on, softly. She fingered a medallion on a chain round her neck; it was lozenge-shaped, oval with pointed ends, and bore the image of the Madonna. "I ask you to keep this to yourself, and your friend. Tell no-one else, please. My grandson… He disappeared, suddenly and strangely… but a few days ago, he came back."
"Yes. I knew him by his walk, by his sound… Can you tell me anything about him?"
Straker took a deep breath. "He was taken by an enemy, who we are fighting. He tried to escape, came to this place. The enemy killed him. That was the flash you felt."
She bowed her head. "I thought it was so."
"Can you… tell me of his disappearance? You called it 'sudden and strange'?"
"Yes… I have spoken of this to no-one, not a living soul, not even your friend Mr Carlin. But I can speak of it to you… David was barely six years old." Straker tensed, and she gave a small nod. "He was playing, in the garden. I was looking after him while his parents were away. In those days, I still had my sight… There was a strange sound, not like the one I heard the other night. There was a very bright flash, it dazzled me. I heard David cry out, I tried to run to him, but I couldn't see properly. I shouted to him, but he didn't answer. The sound got louder… And then I think I fainted. When I woke up, the police were there… I could hear them talking… but my sight was gone. It has never returned, not with the best efforts of the doctors. And neither did David… until a few days ago."
She covered her face with her hands. Straker put his arm round her shoulders, and said: "I am sorry… But perhaps you may take comfort from the knowledge that, by telling me this, you have done a great service."
"That's good to know." She lifted her head, and Straker saw that she was weeping. "At least… he remembered me. He came back to me."
"Yes. He did."
Straker squeezed her shoulder. She gave a nod, took a deep breath. "Mr Straker?"
"Thank you… My grief has ended. Yours will, also, though it will not seem so, perhaps for many years. Remember that you are a good man… as was he."
Touched beyond words, Straker stood up. He made his goodbyes, and went to join Freeman. Carefully, he closed the gate, and they walked on down the lane.
"If it's private," Freeman said softly, "I quite understand."
"Yes, it's private… It's for you and me only. The 'alien'… his name was David."
"Mrs O'Connor recognised him as her grandson… who disappeared many years ago. He was only six years old."
Freeman took a breath. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised… Shocked, yes. Angry, you bet! When we get back, I'll look through our archives. See how many more kids they took. And we have to wonder, why would they take young children… Their organs would be no use to adults."
"Research. Perhaps preliminary to invasion. And, as in this case, to let them grow to adulthood, and control their actions, to become extra personnel. Only, obviously, that doesn't always work." Straker stopped. "Alec, I'm done. I have to get back… and to hell with Jackson and his 'sick leave'."
"I'm with you," Freeman agreed. "Let's get back to the hostel. We'll arrange a pickup from there."
On the way home, Straker was thinking, about his own son. He was thankful, though not a little guiltily, that Johnny was forever out of the grasp of the aliens…
On his return, Straker had been summoned to Henderson's office. As he had expected, the General was not pleased at Straker's use of official resources for his own purposes.
"I should have you court-martialled," he growled. "However, under the circumstances, I'll let it pass with a reprimand."
They both knew that a prosecution would require witnesses… and that this would inevitably draw attention to the rather less conventional activities at the studio. Even using the amnesia drug on the witnesses would not solve that problem completely; their families and friends would notice that something was out of kilter, and they would wonder about it, ask awkward questions. The whole thing would snowball. Straker accepted the reprimand, offered no explanation or defence.
Freeman knew nothing of this, and in any case was deep in his own research into SHADO archives, a process that would probably take weeks if not months.
A few days later, Straker attended the funeral. It had been delayed, while the police completed their enquiries - the driver of that car had willingly given himself up and been interviewed, at length, with Straker himself giving a statement; but no charges were brought. After ten days of investigations, the police had finally released the body.
Naturally, Straker stayed at the back of the church, well out of view. It had been less of a problem than he had thought to find out where and when the burial service would be held. As he had expected, it was at Johnny's school chapel. He had asked the priest, who had understood some of the situation; and on receiving Straker's assurance that there would be no trouble, that he would stay well out of the way and not approach the boy's mother, the priest had agreed to give the details.
The tiny coffin was lowered into the ground. Straker turned away, and blindly stumbled into the bushes. It was some hours before he could bring himself to leave. Freeman's relief on seeing him return to his house was palpable; but he asked no questions.
Straker did not know, however, that he had been noticed.
Dr Segal had asked to attend, and Mary had made no objections. The doctor had seen the boy's father standing in the shadows, but had made no comment. He had watched Straker follow them out to the graveside, keeping well out of view. He himself had left early, not attending the reception; he had tasks to complete.
He returned, not to the hospital, but to a small unremarkable building - little more than a shed - a few miles down the road. His van was parked nearby, in a layby off the main road. He walked up to the shed, and it opened at his approach. He walked in, the door closed behind him, and the lights went on, revealing a small chamber stacked from floor to ceiling with metallic cylinders of various sizes. The largest would have accommodated a grown man; the smallest, a boy of pubertal age.
One of these smaller cylinders was open on a bench. The nurse was standing beside it, attending to its contents. Segal walked forward, looked down. The child seemed to be in peaceful sleep. The graze on its cheek, from that impact with his agent's car, was healing well, as were the minor bruises to its body. Gimen had been extremely skilful, doing just enough damage to knock the boy out, but not so much as to endanger its integrity. That was good; the child's genetic type promised to be suitable for his Users' needs. As his own had been.
Segal then moved to the second phase of his strategy, claiming an infection had set in, the more dangerous because of the boy's known allergy to antibiotics. He told the family of the new drug, but said there would not be time to obtain it. As he had expected, Straker had insisted on sending for the drug. Pleased that events were proceeding as he had intended, the doctor alerted his contact Outside and activated his diversion. There were one or two, he knew, who wished to make friendly contact with these terrans; the terrans would be eager to respond. That gave them an interesting choice…
And so he had the boy, whom the terrans thought dead, so they would not be searching. And the boy's father had been damaged severely, hopefully beyond repair, even though he had not self-destructed. A satisfying double-strike.
And they had just performed their funeral rites on a dummy.
"It is ready for transport," the nurse said. "The vessel awaits."
"Close the pod."
The nurse complied. Segal touched his communicator. A few moments later, the van drew up outside, and the door opened once more. The agents transferred the pod aboard, closed up, and drove off, on their way to the coastal rendezvous with the submarine, to begin the long journey to the research station they were constructing in Antarctica, the station where they had begun the process of adapting their people to this world.
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance