The Highwayman

Part One

I

THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Ed Straker pulled off his sunglasses to look over the ancient inn. It stood next to a slight dip in the road, the wall around the yard beginning to fall in after years of neglect. The sign over the entrance had fallen off and now sat forlorn leaning against the wall next to the still stout door. With Paul Foster and Keith Ford in tow, Straker walked across the grassy inn yard to knock on the door. It opened before he touched it giving a slightly creepy feel to the endeavor.

An ancient crone dressed in expensive clothes looked out of the shadowy interior, eyebrows raised in inquiry. "Ye be the fools wantin' to film here?" she asked, her voice far more mellifluous than anticipated.

"I'm Ed Straker of Harlington-Straker Studios," he answered her. "I've had a script submitted to us with a request to use this site for part of the filming, yes."

She shook her head but let them into the cool of the taproom. "It's haunted," she continued. "You'll be raising things you'd rather not," she told them earnestly. Her pale eyes wandered over the three of them. If she saw more than they portrayed, she said nothing about it. "Well, ye'd best look the place over before ye make a decision," she finally agreed, leading the way through the place.

"And you are?" Alec prompted.

She turned to face them at that. "Elizabeth Andrews-Bale. I own the Boar's Head Inn and all the land around it. I'm the last of the family." The latter was delivered in a hushed voice, as though she almost didn't wish to add it.

II

He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

Foster Creed sat at his desk staring at the miniature portrait that started the wild ride he found himself taking. It was over two hundred years old, yet the paint was as vibrant as if finished only yesterday. The black-eyed beauty stared out at him, demanding that he help her. How did you help a woman who was dead and buried centuries ago?

He picked up the twin frame, the portrait unfinished, showing a handsome man with a cascade of lace at his throat. Only the face and lace were finished. He bore a striking resemblance to the head of Harlington-Straker Studios, except the hair was dark, curling and fell past where the man's shoulders should have been painted. Jan VanDer Kuik, the actor hired to play the part, came closer in coloring, but not so close on the facial features. It was a toss-up between the two.

He pulled a folder toward him, his hand shaking as he opened it. Dieary Quillen, star of stage, screen and TV, a powerhouse in the industry who had turned down the part of Elizabeth half a dozen times until he showed her the miniature. Dieary who was both intrigued by and frightened of the film they would make: the truth behind the poem; the reality of Bess and her Highwayman.

Creed smiled, his even white teeth a streak in his tanned face. History would be made … or broken with this film. He closed the file, a shiver of anticipation running through him.

III

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Alec Freeman made a face at his coffee, now cold and looked over the script Creed had submitted with such enthusiasm. The Highwayman, A Historical Romance. There was a copy of the poem inside the front of the script. God, he'd always hated that poem since the time he was forced to memorize it as a child. True love was one thing, but that 'ostler should have had his teeth knocked in somewhere along the line.

He looked over the script again. It wasn't a bad romance, as such things went. He turned past the scene where the wench committed suicide and turned back. What? Page 115 was the last page. Surely there were the standard 125 originally. Ten pages missing, ten minutes missing from the shoot. He picked up the phone and dialed Ms. Ealand. "Enchantress," he addressed his favorite secretary.

"Mr. Freeman," came the slightly dry response. "What can I do for you?"

"Have dinner with me," was his immediate response. He waited for the usual denial.

"You do realize I'm married," she answered.

"I won't tell if you won't," he suggested with a hint of laughter.

"Try again."

He did laugh then. "The Highwayman. My copy's missing the last ten pages. Do you have a complete one lurking about your office?"

"Let me look. Ah, I have a stack of them … " There was a short pause. "Odd. I just checked the first four and none of them go beyond 115. I'm sure Mr. Straker has a complete one. I'll check with the copy girls to see what happened to these. As soon as I get a good copy, I'll get one to you."

"Thanks." He rang off looking thoughtful. Why would Creed have left off the last ten pages?

IV

And in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like moldy hay,
But he loved the landlord's daughter,
The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

Ed looked at the other two for their opinion. Foster was semi-enthusiastic. The place was in excellent shape for an unoccupied structure. The timbers were strong, the floors only creaked a little and there weren't pockets of rot to catch at feet and equipment. The rooms upstairs were generous in size which would allow them room to work and position cameras for some good close-ups of the actors. The taproom downstairs was also roomy.

"I'm surprised. I didn't think a place like this would set up well for film. If Creed's set on the place, he picked a good one," Paul offered his opinion.

Ford was more reticent. The place gave him a good old-fashioned case of the creeps. There wasn't much furniture and the portraits were muted in the gloom of the unlit rooms and hallways, yet there was something that made him want to get the hell out of there and do so now. He made non-committal noises that sounded sort of like he agreed with Foster.

Ed sent Paul off to check on exterior locations around the inn, then asked Keith what was bothering him. The look he got was startled, to which he returned a raised eyebrow. Keith relaxed slightly and shrugged his shoulders.

"I … Do you ever get the feeling there's something just around the corner? Or just behind the door? There's nothing there when you look, of course, but …"

"The odd I'm being watched between the shoulder blades feeling?" Straker elucidated for him.

"Yes, sir. The entire building feels like that. Sorry, sir. Probably just letting the emptiness get to me, sir."

"Keith. We're doing movie business. Not so hard on the 'sir'."

"Yes, sir … " Keith took a breath and let out a laugh. "Sorry. This place has me on edge. I'd like to take a look at the outside as well. Security considerations and sound …"

"Go on," Straker agreed.

V

"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."

Ed wandered through the halls and rooms upstairs, ending up in a large room with windows that looked out on the inn yard. The casement was wide enough to sit on comfortably. There were pale ovals and squares on the wall where paintings had been. An old wardrobe canted out from the northern wall, its hinges warped with time, the doors hanging aslant. He looked around the room and could picture the bed with hangings tied back, a dresser on the southern wall to balance the wardrobe and a mirror for the woman who lived here.

He looked out the window again and knew that this was the original Bess's room. He felt chilled by the knowledge. The only names in the original poem were the girl and the 'ostler. The man she loved was nameless, known only as the title of Noyes' work. The swift brushstrokes of the poem came back to him and he grew colder standing at the open window. He frowned as he realized the window had not been open when they arrived and their tour guide had not opened any that he recalled. Faintly, he heard the sound of hooves on stone.

For an instant, the window was sheathed in night, the moon a silent light on the inn yard and a man on horseback regarded the window in which he stood. A breath of frozen air surrounded him as the horse paced forward until rider and steed stood beneath the opening. For just a moment, Ed felt suspended in time, seeing the final meeting of the lovers as it played out time after time. He closed his eyes in sympathy, in sorrow. When he opened them again, Ford was trying to get his attention and the sun was warm on his face, a faint trace of perfume haunting him as the lovers were said to haunt the inn.

VI

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i' the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(Oh, sweet, black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

The drive back to the studio gave Ed time to recover from what he classified as an aberration of thought. There was no way he was going to admit that he'd met a ghost in the inn. At least, not to anyone else.

He nodded to his secretary as he crossed her office to his own and was surprised when she addressed him instead of just nodding in return. "Yes?"

She stepped around her desk and handed him a copy of the script for The Highwayman. "All of the copies are missing the last approximately 10 pages, sir. I've checked every copy we have except yours. Mr. Freeman called it to my attention. Is Mr. Creed withholding the ending?"

He frowned at the copy in her hand and took it, flipping to the back. It wasn't that he didn't believe her; he needed time to think of an explanation. As far as he was aware, the copy in his office had 132 pages. It was a bit long for a normal shooting script, but the ending was well written and the extra pages were worth it. "I'll take a look."

He stepped into his office and went to the desk where the original of the script was locked in his bottom drawer. Out of habit, he kept his desk locked up. The bottom drawer was unlocked. He clicked the intercom on. "Miss Ealand, who has been in my office today?"

"No one, sir." She sounded bemused and concerned at the same time. "Mr. Freeman has been in his office or on the back lots all day. Ms. Lake is in San Francisco until tomorrow and you had Foster and Ford with you. No one else is authorized," she reminded him. There were other entrances to the headquarters that lay below the studio.

"Did you go to lunch?"

"I stepped down to the canteen for about twenty minutes … is there something amiss, sir?"

"Come in here."

"Yes, sir!" She was in the office immediately.

"I left my desk locked."

"That is customary," she agreed.

He pulled out the bottom file drawer. "The script is gone. This drawer was unlocked. Someone gained access to my office." It was obvious but he needed to say it out loud.

"The door was secured when I went to lunch and no one has been in here today." She frowned at the desk drawer. "It has to be someone with a security clearance, but there's no one on base right now who could open the door."

"Jackson?"

"If the elevator had been used, but it … let me check." She stepped out to her desk, drew open the second drawer down on the left side and checked a small electronic recording device. The office/elevator had been activated twice that day. Once when Straker used it in the morning before going out to the shooting site and once later in the day. She reported the usage to Straker.

"Whose code?" he demanded.

"Yours, sir. But that's impossible. You weren't here." She returned his look with an uncomfortable one of her own. "I'll check with Security, sir," she said as she returned to her office. Everything was recorded around here, surely they'd get to the bottom of this easily. Only, why would someone want the last few pages of a script?

PART TWO

I

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o' the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
When the road was a gypsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
Marching—marching—
King George's men came matching, up to the old inn-door.

By midnight, they were no more forward on the mystery of the missing script and the access to Straker's office. The Commander's code was changed to prevent further incursions, but security was at a loss to discover who had used his code, how they had obtained it or why the only thing they had done was remove the completed script to the new movie and take a trip up and down in the office. Ed was angry, but could find no one to fault for the incident. He considered calling Henderson to see if the General had been testing them, but if so and they failed the test, the older man would have been down on HQ by now instead of silent.

If the only access to HQ had been his "stage" office, then there was little Henderson could find to criticize. There was no connection to SHADO in the office aside from the activation for the elevator … and the intruder had activated the elevator, but not left it. Damn. He slammed the side of his fist down on the shimmer cool surface of his desk and went to find Dr. Doug Jackson with no idea exactly what he was going to ask the psychiatrist who was also a part of their security team

The doctor was not surprised to see Commander Straker. He had heard about the intrusion and the lack of evidence as to who had entered the office, removed an essentially worthless document and departed without being caught on any of the security monitoring except Ms. Ealand's elevator monitor. He was not amused by such tricks, but he was intrigued by the smooth operation which had taken place in the approximately 20 minutes that the secretary was gone. He nodded in greeting and gestured for Straker to have a seat.

"We have no more information on your intruder than we did when you reported the issue. So far, we have only the evidence you and Ms. Ealand have presented."

"That's all? No fingerprints, nothing else?"

"Nothing. It is as though a ghost passed through, removed the single item and went on." If the doctor noticed a strained look about his commanding officer, he did not show it.

"I'm not sure I believe in ghosts, Dr."

"Nor am I. Was there anything at the film site that struck you as odd?"

Straker shrugged at that. "It's far better maintained than I was led to expect. We'll have a lot of set dressing to do, and add a coat of paint here and there, other than that, it actually looked like the film crew will be able to get the shots they want without difficulty.

"Excellent. Then we shall concentrate on the incident here and whatever the aliens throw at us until we have answers and a solution. Is there anything else, Commander?"

"No," he admitted with a shake of his head. "Thank you."

II

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

Wheeling through the darkness between worlds, six alien spinners darted unerringly toward the blue and white marble that was Earth. They tested new technology that would turn them invisible to the defenders of that world. Stupid humans, organ growth pods with delusions of intelligence and a stubborn desire to best their betters. Whatever the primitives could invent, the seeders could render useless. They flashed past the outer planets of the system and passed their latest test. SID remained silent as the ships sped toward Earth and a date with destiny.

Foster Creed sat in his trailer on shooting site and let tears run silently down his face. He'd seen the ghosts who so intrigued him, felt their anguish at being so close, yet so far apart. Their plan was now plain to him. To possess the actors and renew their lives. What had he done? What had he agreed to in his headlong rush to help these monsters? He was helpless to move against them. Who would believe him? Who would help him to banish the ghosts who threatened his project, his people?

He considered Straker and tossed the thought away. The disdainful head of Harlington-Straker Studios would laugh at him. No, there had to be a way. He clapped his hands over his ears to shut out the hateful sound of horses hooves clattering over cobblestones long removed from the old inn yard.

God help him. God help them all.

III

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
"Now, keep good watch!" and they kissed her.
She heard the dead man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight;
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

The director shook his head over the next scene. They were shooting everything they could at the old inn. Harlington-Straker's prop masters had outdone themselves on the sets. Between the scene shop work and the old pieces that had been lent to them by a couple of collectors, the place looked much as it must have back in the day.

Still, wrestling the girl into place and not damaging anything would be difficult. Not damaging the actors would be hard as well, considering how sturdy the bed was. He ran them through the rehearsal six times before he was satisfied. Several of the soldiers were bruised by the activity. Even choreographed, the capture and securing of the Innkeeper's Daughter was not an easy scene to work through.

"All right. Fifteen minute break, get water and then we'll start with the arrival of the soldiery."

The soldiers rode up, dismounted, tied off their horses and barged into the inn, noisy and making certain the Innkeeper knew they were there on business.

"Where's the lass?" the Lieutenant in charge demanded.

"Washing up," came the reply.

On cue, Dieary entered, her arms full of mugs. She took in the soldiers with a smile, greeting them as customers, hot and tired; in need of a drink.

"Cut!"

Everyone stopped. The director was shaking his head. "Would she just greet them? Would she suspect something? Yes, she would. Take a break." He conferred with the script supervisor to see if there was something more they could do with the scene.

Dieary leaned against the counter and blew a black curl out of her eyes. "I'd think she'd have more sense than to come in at all and would hare it for the woods to hide, personally."

Poul Grierson, playing the Innkeeper shook his head. "I dunno. The lover's had a charmed life to this point, no need to worry. She'd probably not even give it a thought. Don't know the cur's turned on her, y'know."

"Hmm. True. Asshole 'ostler," she said with a laugh. "Where is Kirby?" she asked as an afterthought.

Kirby was playing the hostler who betrayed the two and had a part in the bit where Dieary was dragged upstairs to her bedroom. Usually he was hovering around, soaking up atmosphere, or so he said. Frankly, she thought he was just getting an eyeful every time she bent over. Aware of the wench's low cut outfit, she made sure she wasn't peeking out unseemly and found a seat to wait for the director to figure out what he was going to add.

Outside, Kirby dropped the end of his cigarette to the dirt and squashed it underfoot. Usually he was a cheery sort, for all his skaggy, unkempt looks. He worked a lot, minor thugs, misunderstood rotters who ended badly; it was a good living. He smiled, which changed his face entirely, then darted a look at the nearby woods. A frown crossed his mobile face. There was something about the place that was spooking him. Fuck, it was a job, that's all. He moved back toward the Inn and the work he had to do.

IV

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

Straker had contacted Creed with reference to the final pages of the script to be told that they were to be a surprise. "I don't like surprises," Straker told him.

"Look, it's a bit of a twist at the end and I don't want it getting out. The pages will be in your hands tomorrow. They should finish shooting the rest of the scenes at the Inn today and I'll deliver the pages to the director tomorrow. I promise."

"Creed … this is foolish. They need the time to rehearse."

But Creed was adamant. "I'll be there in the morning, Straker. First thing. I promise."

With that the studio head had to be content. Being Straker, he wasn't, of course. Something jangled at him, telling him there was trouble coming. Yet trouble on a shoot was of little concern to him. Alec could handle it if Creed became a problem.

Still, he wanted to see the rest of the script and Creed's insistence on secrecy did not explain why someone had entered his office and removed the original script which ended with the Highwayman's death. With a scowl he buzzed his secretary and informed her he would be in late in the morning. The crux of the matter lay at the Inn and he would find out what the problem was.

V

The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love's refrain .

Six spinners sped through the night sky, their shields impenetrable as they headed for the abandoned inn. Behind it, not half a kilometer away, was a deep pond more than large enough to conceal all of the vehicles from the locals. There they would wait. They had their targets. Soon, they would have a major victory.

Down at the Inn, shooting had ended for the day. Equipment put away, the actors had gone home for the night. Tomorrow they would shoot Bess's death and the Highwayman's and they would be done here. Indeed, Dieary would be done for the shoot, the rest of it encompassing the robbery and the Highwayman's ride and reaction to the loss of his lover. Overhead, the moon hung full and round, lighting the ancient building, overlooking the empty rooms.

Inside, a shimmer of pale formed in Bess's room. It moved to the window and looked out, loosening long dark hair. Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, the slow sound of hooves on hard packed dirt. The sound entered the inn yard and stopped beneath the window. Shadowy forms touched and parted. A soft sob broke the silence.

Cord March blinked and rubbed his eyes. Had he just seen what he thought he had? He reached for his cell phone and thought better of it. Nyah. It was all this night duty watching the studio equipment, that was all. There couldn't be anything to the legend in the poem, could there?

He checked his radio and contacted his partner who was walking the back perimeter. "Hey Chuck."

His partner's oddly toned voice came through after a moment. "How many times do I have to remind you my name is Gok Du Chon."

"Probably a million more. All quiet on your end?"

"Yes, it is quiet. The night things make their sounds … No, they do not. Someone is out here," Gok told him. "I will investigate. Keeping radio ..." The sudden silence was unnerving.

"Chuck?" Cord called, but in a quiet voice. Certain there was a problem, he unholstered his gun and headed toward where he thought his partner might be; all thought of calling for help vanished from his mind. How bad could it be?

VI

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!

"Is there anything missing?" both the director and Creed asked.

Ford shook his head. The equipment trailers were locked and nothing inside the Inn had been disturbed. But March and Gok were not the kind of fly-by-night operatives to simply walk away before being relieved of duty. Neither was answering his radio and there was no sign of either man. The only indications of foul play lay in Ford's head and his knowledge that they weren't bargain basement security personnel, but highly trained SHADO security. Jackson would not be pleased.

Creed hand over his final pages of the script to the director who looked it over and gave the producer a "Really?" sort of look. "How …" Was there a polite way to say maudlin? Not that the dialog and actions weren't functionally, but giving the story a happy ending of sorts was just so 1950s.

"Well?"

"You're sure about this? You don't want to just leave it with the ghosts at the end?"

"No, I'm quite sure. I know, it's a bit frothy, but I think it works with the ghosts finally uniting that way. I like happy endings." Creed tried not to sound anxious. It wasn't what he wanted, really, but … what she wanted. Perhaps it was what they wanted. It was all so confusing now that he was here, staring at the inn, at the area. Creed felt lost and nervous. Somehow, this would save them … wouldn't it?

VII

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

Alec glared at the readings Ford had compiled for him. It was too quiet, far too quiet. There hadn't been an alien excursion since they started filming that bloody romance with the missing pages. He went over the readings again and realized he'd overlooked something. Frowning, he asked the computer system for confirmation. Yes, there it was. Some time during the night before the first day of shooting, SID had registered a blip and then lost it. No alert was sent through as SID logged the blip as a malfunction.

"Johnson, get me a print out of the blip," he sent the Ensign scurrying for the printer.

There. Just for a moment. Shadowy shapes against the background of the Crab Nebula, the haze outlining several conical vehicles. Damn!

"Get me Straker!" he ordered as he tried to figure out what trajectory the ships could have taken from the initial siting. Ensign Johnson handed him a radio as he worked. "Ed?"

"What've you got?"

"Where are you?" Alec asked.

"Headed to the shoot. Creed said he would have the final pages on site today. I want to see them before any filming continues," Ed told him.

"We may have aliens on the ground," Alec warned.

"What? When?" Ed pulled over onto the verge to finish the call with Alec.

"Five days ago SID had a blip. It vanished immediately, but we got a picture. They've figured out how to cloak their ships. We got lucky and caught them against a dust cloud in the background. Most probable trajectory from where they were sighted is southern England," Alec quickly filled him in.

"No reports of activity," Ed mused. "They're waiting for something."

"There may be six of them," Alec confirmed.

"Until they move, there's not much we can do, Alec. Keep me posted."

"Will do."

Straker pulled back out onto the deserted road to head for the shoot site.

VIII

He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord's daughter,
The landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Ed pulled into the designated parking area to be met by Ford who was looking concerned. The younger man handed his boss copies of the final pages of the script.

"It's a bit sweet," he gave his opinion, "but it should work. Won't need extra casting."

Ed nodded as he swiftly scanned the sheets, his gaze wandering to the window of the girl's room. He blinked and looked again. No. A trick of the light must have shown him a shadow in the opening, that was all. With a nod he handed the sheets back. "Will it lengthen the shoot?"

"Doubtful … well, not more than a couple of hours. Shoot the scene with street clothes and then with the historical dress. Should wind up here today and move to the other location tomorrow." Ford cast an anxious glance to the inn. "I won't be sorry to see the last of this place, sir."

That got a raised eyebrow. "Uneasy?"

Ford colored slightly and nodded. "It's been that way since we scouted the place, sir. I dealt with a number of reputedly haunted sites before I was … with the studio. There were two that felt like there might be something to the stories. Never saw anything directly at either of them; much like here. Just … a really unsettling feeling most of the time."

Ed nodded again. Yes, there was something here. But was it natural or was it a distraction from something else. Quickly he filled Ford in on Alec's discovery.

"Should we shut down? If they're here … " He shot a quick look around the place, trying to fit half a dozen spinners into the landscape and failing.

"Isn't there a system of ponds near here?" the pale man asked, mentally checking the maps of the area.

Ford nodded and directed a look past the inn. "Back that way. About half a click. Shall I go check it out?"

Straker looked around. "Where's security?"

"Missing when we got here. No sign of foul play, just gone and not answering radio or phone. I was going to set out to check the area, see if a mishap befell them; but if we have … visitors ..." he let the thought continue on its own.

If there were spinners in the area, then the security guards were their first victims; of that both men were certain. "Call in Mobile 1 and get them to scout the waterways. I want you here with the shoot."

"Very good, sir." Ford regarded the inn again. "You might be able to survey the back area from the upper windows on the other side, sir."

"Good thinking." Straker left the man to take care of things while he scouted from the upper story of the inn. It occurred to him that Ford had not suggested he leave as the most obvious target. No, for a single spinner he and Ford might be the target, but not for a half dozen of the ships. There was something else up with the aliens. The film crew might fall victim to them, but they weren't the target. If not, what was?

IX

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

The aliens sat silently in the water. The original plan was to take as many organs as they could, keeping to the water until they had a full load. The shielding canceled their plans, shorting out the underwater opening mechanisms on the craft. It took five days to repair the doors, five days of sitting and and watching while the ships slowly started the process of decay that was always the payment for visiting this world. Desperate measures for desperate times.

Finally, the repairs were complete and the collection could begin. Daylight was not as safe as the dark of night, but there was no choice now and the enemy did not know they were here. There was activity nearby, enough people to fill two ships containers. Not as much as they had hoped, but better than nothing. Better than to go down in flames to the puny defenses of this backwater world.

The ships lifted from the pond slowly, shedding the water as they grouped and moved to the woods where they could hide and move unseen.

At the Inn, Straker called in security, cautioning them to stay hidden and look for the two missing men. He conferred with Creed over the final pages of the script, agreeing that the ending was a traditional, but nice twist on the story, reuniting the lovers and releasing them from the haunting. He shrugged off the feeling of being watched as he went into the Inn and up the stairway.

While the aliens were disembarking, Straker moved quietly along the hallway to a room at the back where he could take a look out over the terrain behind the inn. He was startled to find himself in Bess's room again. What the …? In the inexplicable darkness, he was met with a faint spectral figure leaning against one of the bedposts, positioned to see out the window and down the old road. The figure turned and moved toward him, resolving into a lovely young woman with sad dark eyes.

"I don't believe in ghosts," he said firmly.

The figure stopped before him, arms reaching out to enfold him in an embrace. He braced himself for whatever would follow and felt her lips cool against his. His glance strayed to the mirror and received a shock. Bess and her lover stood there, the faint overlay of the highwayman's coat, hair and hat flowed around him, concealing his identity; or revealing a connection he did not know. Gently, he pulled away from the kiss.

Help us.

The plea was soft in his mind. He shook his head. "How?"

You'll know.

She turned to the window where it was deep midnight lit by a brilliant moon. Tlok-tlok. Tlok-tlok. He was going mad. He could hear the horse coming down the road. Straker tried to focus, to break out of the dream or whatever it was. Had the aliens found another way to get to him? He thought about the incident of the crystal that had yanked him into an alternate world where he was only a studio head.

No, this didn't feel the same. That was oppressive and painful. This was … anguish, from the girl before him; and desperate desire.

X

And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Alec arrived with the security team and Mobile 1. If Ed was in danger, then he would see to it that his boss remained alive and as unhurt as possible. He made contact with Ford and got an update on the missing men. Still nothing. The filming crew was taking a break while an external shot with Jan was being set up.

The actor climbed aboard the high spirited horse he was to ride. Something startled the animal. It wrenched away from the wrangler handing the reins to the rider and took off across country into the woods. The wrangler and his people took off at a run, one of the others throwing herself onto a second horse and riding after them.

Creed followed as did Kirby who'd been grabbing a smoke. They all disappeared into the woods. Dieary, not yet in costume for the day, suppressed a yawn as she stepped out of the inn where she'd been sitting. What in the world? Curious, she followed at a slower pace to see what was up.

A shot rang out followed by a hoarse scream. Silence. Alec and Ford, followed by the crew of the mobile ran for the source. Another shrill scream, female, followed. They entered the wood with caution, but moved swiftly. They found Dieary standing over the body of Kirby. He lay in a pool of blood, his torso opened from throat to crotch, the body cavity empty and a look of pure horror etched on his dead face. The woman collapsed in a dead faint. Twenty feet away, they found Creed in the same condition along with several of the wrangler's crew. The aliens had worked fast, as always.

Keith aimed for a rustling in the undergrowth and narrowly missed shooting Jan as he stumbled out of the woods, clothing stained with blood and splashes of green that still dripped down his costume. The actor's mouth worked for a moment before he spoke. "Not again," he said in a strangled voice before his strength gave out and he started to collapse. Alec caught him before he fell completely; his eyes meeting Ford's over the actor's head as the young man continued a disjointed mumble about aliens and prophecy before passing out entirely.

Alec laid the man on the ground and the they proceeded to follow his trail back to whatever lay in wait in the woods. Whatever Jan had experienced before, he'd made short work of the aliens he'd stumbled upon. The horse stood to one side of the battle ground, shaking but otherwise unharmed. The rest of the clearing looked like something out of an oriental sword fest movie. Jan's sword pinned one body to the ground while the rest lay in broken, disemboweled heaps. The impaled alien looked shocked.

"Ford, get this area cordoned off. You know the drill. These two will have to be dealt with. Get them into the mobile." Alec looked at tracks heading away from the clearing. There were more. Damn.

Ford was on his headset giving orders and requesting air support. Sky One was on its way. They heard the sound of spinners taking to the air as he called in more personnel. Fulling expecting the ships to fire on them, the SHADO personnel headed for what cover there was. Instead, the silver cones whirled across the sky and headed up and out; all of three of them fully visible.

Then Ford heard something odd, the sound of hoof beats on a solid road. They faded as suddenly as he'd heard them. Maybe it was the other horse the wrangler had ridden, yet it didn't sound like a horse on dirt. He dismissed the thoughts and continued to organize the rest of the clean up.

XI

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Back at the Inn, Straker heard the keening whine of a spinner in the air. Still, it was dark in the room and the moon looked down on another time and place entirely. He looked down to see the horseman riding into the yard, the horse taking dainty steps as it neared the wall. The horseman looked up and the face was less of a shock than he'd expected; the face was indeed like his own, dark hair framing the familiar features, the eyes dark and piercing instead of the pale Straker saw in his mirror each day.

Kneeling in the casement, the SHADO Commander reached a hand down to the man on the horse. The ghost looked startled, his eyes darting past the pale man in the window to the dark eyed girl beyond. A brief nod from Bess and he grabbed the proffered hand, scaling the wall as Straker pulled him up. A moment later, the nameless man pulled Bess into his arms as he had so often cursed his inability to do. Their mouths met and light enveloped them, pulling them away from their time trapped here.

Straker felt a sense of satisfaction. Perhaps the lovers were no longer alive, but he had managed to rescue them from the ancient ritual of never quite meeting. It felt good. Sunlight flooded the room reminding him of his original intent. As he crossed to the door, the building gave an ominous creaking; groaning almost as a living thing in difficulty. He frowned as he stepped out onto the internal balcony and the building began to shiver and shake. An earthquake? Unlikely.

He gaped at the walls as they began to sag and deteriorate. This was a bad horror movie. The stairs crumbled and fell as he retreated to the bedroom. Maybe it was just a bad dream … or not. Straker noted that the props supplied by the studio were intact and were not coming apart as the building was. Great. Well, no help for it now. He scrambled across the floor to the window and jumped as the entire upper section collapsed into the ground floor, a cloud of dust rising from the lower level.

The director stood gaping at the destruction of his primary set.

Epilogue

"What was it with the young man?" Alec asked Straker, shaking his head over the report on the incident.

"He's been trained with traditional weapons from a young age. Explains his physique, which is excellent. Ten years ago, his family beat back an alien force. He lost a younger brother, older sister and uncle in the fight. Unfortunately, he's permanently scarred mentally by the incident. We can't recruit him."

Alec looked thoughtful. "Can we … edit things for him?"

Straker shook his head. "He's a resistor. But he understands the need to keep our secrets. Jackson says he will die before revealing what he knows."

"You trust the analysis?"

"I have no reason not to. Diearly has been seen to already, no one else on the site saw anything that can't be explained. The movie is on hold while Creed's estate is sorted out and we have three alien ships slowly decomposing in the pond." It wasn't entirely satisfactory, but it was a loss for the aliens.

Alec nodded and returned the folder to Straker's desk. "There is one thing. Where were you?"

The pale eyes met Alec's gaze. "Inside. I'd gone up to take a look out back for anything unusual. The place collapsed around me. I jumped out a window," he concluded with a faint smile.

"Ah." And that was where they left it. Some day Alec would ask him why he jumped out a window on the other side of the building.