Author's note. These stories were written before I had got a serious grasp of the complexities of the character of Ed Straker. Please forgive me. Archived here after reconsideration. All stories/art work etc available on my website: Lightcudder's World
The restaurant, off the beaten track and advertised only by word of mouth, was small and exclusive, and the majority of the tables already occupied. It felt strange going in by herself, even though her driver was waiting to ensure that she was inside. It was strange as well, having to be driven; she didn't like the feeling of not being in control of her own life. Straker almost certainly felt the same way, which was probably why he refused to have a driver or protection detail. Still, she mused, he would have had to be driven here tonight. He had finally been released from the hospital this afternoon and with broken fingers he would not be in any fit state to drive; besides which, his much-loved Saab was neatly parked under a pile of rubble at the ruins. She knew that he had, as soon as possible, gone to HQ to catch up on recent reports and events before meeting her here.
She hoped he had arrived before her. They had both agreed that it would be easier and more circumspect, if they met at the restaurant. The manager approached. 'Ah, Miss Rachel? It is a pleasure to meet you. Please come this way. Mr Straker has telephoned to apologise that he will be delayed and he will be with you as soon as possible. May I show you to your table?'
She was a little thrown by the message, but was determined not to let it show. The manager seated her at a quiet table away from prying eyes, brought her a glass of wine, and left her alone.
The small restaurant was full of wealthy people. She recognised more than a few well-known actors from the studio and one or two wealthy businessmen from the city.
She sat fiddling with the cutlery, and thinking. At least he had phoned and not left her abandoned to suffer pitying looks from waiters. And they seemed to recognise his name. Perhaps he came here with all his women…. no, that was unfair. Straker was never seen dating. SHADO security would soon know if he had been having liaisons with any of the studio starlets, and he never involved himself with any of the operatives either. Was she just fortunate or perhaps he was simply being kind to her, repaying her for helping him?
Doodling with fingertips on the cloth, sipping her wine, turning towards the entrance so that she would be able to see him when he arrived, simply being patient, she marked time until he arrived.
And then the door opened and he entered, confident, poised, nodding a casual greeting to the manager; Alec Freeman close behind him. So that was how it was going to be. He didn't want to be alone with her after all. She was not surprised; she had half-expected this all along, but it was a blow to her pride.
They moved easily across the crowded room, Freeman smiling self-assuredly at those diners who obviously recognised the two men. It was clear that both were well-known here, and she was puzzled that he would ask her to meet him somewhere so public if he was going to embarrass her by inviting Colonel Freeman along as well. She could see the bruises on his face, faded somewhat, but still distorting the fine bone structure. She had not had the opportunity to see him since arranging this evening, and he still looked tired. His hands, half hidden under the cuffs of his jacket, were partially bandaged, with a couple of fingers strapped together.
Straker walked directly across to her, ignoring everyone else in the room, smiled contritely and sat down opposite. Alec stood behind him, still with a grin on his face, in bodyguard pose.
'Rachel, I am so sorry, we had some incoming earlier and I wanted to check the clear-up operation before I left.' Straker apologised immediately, then turned around and frowned. 'Are you going to stand there all evening, Alec? I asked you to drive me here, not play chaperone. You have my permission to go.' His voice was dry and sarcastic, but there was an undercurrent of humour.
'Just thought I'd make sure the two of you were alright.' Freeman laughed. 'Now remember what the doctor said, no strenuous…..'
'Alec, shut up and go home. Please.' Straker stared at him, a piercing look that made Freeman blush with embarrassment.
'Sorry.' the older man muttered. 'The car's waiting whenever you need it. Just call. I presume you are both going back to base later?'
Straker looked ruefully at Rachel. 'Seeing as everything I own is now under about ten feet of rubble, including my bed and practically all my personal belongings, I don't have much alternative. My quarters at HQ will have to do for now, at least until I get something else organised.'
He tugged at the sleeve of his cream jacket, sorrowfully. 'I don't even have much left in the way of clothes any more. If it hadn't been for my spare wardrobe at the base I would probably be wearing scrubs tonight.' The image of the usually impeccably dressed Commander coming to the restaurant in green surgical scrubs was so ludicrous that Rachel burst out laughing, and after a moment he joined in with her. She knew then that it would be alright, that she could begin to relax and enjoy the evening, however it ended.
Alec Freeman, ignored by both, quietly left and, outside, approached a nondescript car parked nearby. The driver's window opened. 'Hello Colonel, is there a problem?' one of the security team asked.
'No, everything's fine James. Just checking who's on protection detail tonight. There's a driver on call for later. I expect that the Commander and Colonel Philips will travel back to base together. Just keep out of sight.' Alec Freeman knew that Straker would deeply resent the intrusion into his privacy if he was aware of the watching security teams. However, after recent events, General Henderson had directed Freeman to put Straker under protective watch. Alec Freeman dreaded the moment when the Commander realised what was happening; it was only that Straker just been discharged from Mayland and had not caught up on all the reports and day to day minutiae, that Alec felt he was able to get away with tonight's subterfuge.
Freeman drove himself home, pleased with the way things were looking. He was cautiously optimistic that Ed and Rachel would be able to work something out. It was about time that Ed had something good in his life, and, just possibly, Rachel Philips was the one to give it to him.
Rachel sat back in her chair and looked at her companion. 'You were right about the food. This is the best I've had since I visitedItaly. How long have you been coming here?' she nearly said 'Commander' but just managed to avoid it.
He smiled across at her. 'Oh, for about three years now. Believe it or not, I met the owner when his family were involved in a UFO incident. Their daughter had been abducted and we were fortunate enough to be able to retrieve her before it was too late. We gave them the amnesia drug, but ever since then I've never had any problems getting a reservation here, despite this place being so popular. I think he must remember something about the whole episode, but I really don't want to investigate. I enjoy coming here too much and so does Alec.'
'So he knows you fairly well then?' she queried, 'I thought it might be because of the studio connection'
'Ah well, there is that aspect,' Straker replied, sipped his iced water, 'but I seriously doubt whether my being an executive film producer would get me a table here whenever I wanted it. The owner has been known to turn away politicians and minor royalty.'
The conversation continued, relaxed and comfortable. She was still finding it difficult not to refer to him by his title; it seemed presumptuous to just call him Ed, but, as the other diners left and the restaurant gradually emptied, he leaned across to her and quietly asked, 'I think it's time we should go. I would very much like to do this again, soon, but only if you can summon up the courage to call me by my name. It's going to be a little difficult if you keep nearly calling me Commander.' He grinned at her, a slight, crooked smile that lit up his eyes.
'I have had a wonderful evening….Ed. Thank you. I would certainly love to do this again.' she looked at him thoughtfully, 'but I do know that you have other responsibilities. I won't be one of those women who insist on you always being on time and keeping your promises. Because I know it can't happen.' she told him gently. 'SHADO has to come first.'
He gazed at her appreciatively and reached across the table to take her hand, 'I won't be able to see much of you in HQ for the next couple of days. I am going to be very busy trying to put my life back into some semblance of order, but may I see you again as soon as possible? Your next off-duty day is Tuesday. I really have to get a new car. Perhaps you'd like to help me? And I want a piano.' he said ruefully, thinking of his 1910 Steinway crushed under the weight of the debris. Although the salvage team sent to clear any signs of SHADO operations from the site had managed to retrieve some of his personal belongings, his piano had been a total loss.
He paid the bill, helped into her coat, and escorted her out past the only other couple, a young man and woman, still in the dining area. Straker stopped as he reached the occupied table and stared contemptuously at the man.
'So who organised this? General Henderson or Colonel Freeman?' he interrogated them quietly. 'Please don't take me for a fool. I marked both of you immediately. Is it not enough that there is a detail outside as well? In future I want to be kept informed of any surveillance operation before it starts. Is that understood?'
The couple looked embarrassed. 'My apologies Commander,' the woman stood up, respectfully. 'we were told that you were to be under close watch after the recent events. Colonel Freeman knew nothing about this, it was authorised and arranged by General Buckley.' Her tone was deferential and subdued. Her partner, a man with the build of a security agent, heavy-set and strong, stayed in his seat, refusing to meet Straker's glare.
'Very well.' Straker was ice cold and quietly furious. 'You can tell Buckley that if he, or anyone in the IAC, continues to interfere in my private life GeneralHendersonwill have my resignation immediately. I also suggest that you refrain from talking about tonight with anyone, including the General. If I hear that you have been discussing Colonel Philips you will answer to me.'
Straker took Rachel's arm and moved away from the occupied table, 'I am sorry to have involved you in that,' he said contritely, stepping outside as the car pulled up alongside them. 'It's an unpleasant way to have had to end the evening.'
She smiled up at him and shook her head, reluctant to speak openly in the presence of the driver, but it was clear that he was troubled at the intrusion.
They did not speak much on the journey back, but once at the studios he took her into his studio office and activated the elevator. She wondered what would happen next; going through HQ could be potentially embarrassing for both of them, but he had obviously considered that, because he stepped up to her, took her in his arms and kissed her firmly and with assurance, then letting her go before the doors had time to open.
'I'll follow you shortly,' he said, and she walked out, looking back at him with a sigh, before heading for her own rooms. Reluctantly he watched her go, waited for a minute or two, and then walked to his office. Unfortunately, he still had to catch up on essential paperwork, whatever the time of night, however much he wanted to relax. The evening had been enjoyable, no, far more than enjoyable. He wished that he had been able to spend longer with her, to have been able to really talk with her. It was impossible to unwind properly knowing that one's every move was being scrutinised by security. If this relationship was to have a chance, he would have to sort out appropriate protection for the both of them.
Much later that night he finally left the office, automatically heading for the studio exit, before recalling that the only place he had to go to was his bleak suite of rooms in the secondary basement section of HQ. He hated the rooms; soulless and box-like, they merely provided a place to sleep, to get showered and changed, not a much-needed haven to escape from the stresses of work. He couldn't ease his tension with music either, now that his Steinway was ruined. He could, of course, have played on the small grand in the Staff Lounge, but he chose to leave that to other people. He hadn't played in public for more years than he could remember, and although he felt that he was still a very competent player, he preferred to keep his music skills, like much of his life, private.
He keyed in the code to his suite, noticing that the light was on; someone had been in the room. Probably Alec he mused, then he saw the neat package on the desk. Curiously he picked it up and examined it. It looked harmless, and he knew that it would have passed security to have got this far. Still, it was puzzling. He sat on the edge of the bed and carefully unwrapped it, not sure what it contained.
It was a photograph. The photograph of John. The photograph that had been on the table at his house. He had never thought to see it again. He had been convinced that it had been lost along with everything else of personal value. It was unframed, and, as he examined it closely, he saw that it had been damaged and then painstakingly and professionally repaired. There was a note with it. He recognised the writing.
'Ed, thank you for a wonderful evening. This was recovered from your house and I had it restored. It was delivered to Security tonight and I thought you would want it as soon as possible. See you on Tuesday for car hunting! Rachel'
Smiling, he placed the photograph carefully back on the desk. Later, in bed, tired and on edge with the thousand niggling worries that constantly gnawed at him, he remembered the warm contact of Rachel's lips on his, her hand in his, and he breathed deeply, calmly, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The car salesman, obsequiously reminiscent of a young Dr Jackson, watched as Straker and Rachel Philips wandered around the showroom. Straker, dressed, for him exceedingly casually, in black jeans, dark grey sweatshirt and trainers, was making sardonic comments about the various vehicles on show, and Rachel was playing along with him.
'I'm not sure about this one, Rachel.' He sat behind the wheel of a stunning, violently-red Saab 93 convertible, Rachel in the passenger seat. 'I don't like red cars, they remind me of Porsches – all flash and no substance. Besides, red stands out too much.'
'Oh honestly Ed,' she chuckled 'you're worried about standing out in a crowd? You are the head of the biggest film studio inEurope. Of course you're going to stand out, even if you drove a ten year old Fiesta.'
They burst out laughing, and, suitably chastised, he got out to speak to the waiting rep.
'Does this come in dark grey?' Straker had a particular liking for dark cars; he had found they provided excellent camouflage when trying to evade non-humans at night.
'It comes in Carbon Grey, available in metallic for an additional cost. Our wide range of pre-owned vehicles are on the forecourt if sir would like to go outside.' the deliberately derisive tone spoke volumes. Oops, thought Rachel, bad move.
Straker smiled the predatory smile of a tiger that had just spotted its prey and was waiting to pounce. 'I think not. I'm actually looking for a 95 saloon, charcoal grey, metallic finish. How soon can you get one for me?' he asked nonchalantly, an undercurrent of seriousness in his voice.
The salesman, hisEssexdialect scornful, posed the question, 'And what finance package would you be interested in… sir.'
'Oh I don't know. I think I might use some of my loose change, and I have a couple of piggy banks that are getting a bit full.' Ed was beginning to enjoy himself. He didn't like to see people judged solely on their appearance; true he was casually attired, but out of necessity. His few remaining suits were needed for the studio, and he had resorted to wearing informal outfits until he had a chance to visit his tailor. Actually he was pleasantly surprised how relaxing it was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He had discovered that, dressed as he was, he tended to be disregarded by the paparazzi and film starlets who did not instantly recognise him without his trademark high-collared suits. In fact Rachel and he had had a very agreeable afternoon without being hassled by potential film makers and news hounds.
Rachel turned round and saw the manager approaching. 'Oh oh, trouble,' she warned Ed, giggling. 'I think we may have to leave.'
'Come on Rachel, let's go.' Straker handed one of his studio business cards to the salesman and introduced himself. 'Ed Straker, Harlington Straker Studios. Get your manager to give me a call; if that is, he wants to sell me a car. Charcoal, or Lava, I'm not fussy.' His dry, sarcastic voice echoed through the showroom as he opened the door for Rachel, leaving the startled youth lost for words.
They drove back to HQ in one of the company cars, followed at a discrete distance by the ubiquitous protection detail. 'I quite enjoyed that.' Straker admitted to his companion. 'Would you mind helping me find a piano before I take you out for dinner?'
'That could be fun,' Rachel wondered if she would ever get to hear him play. 'Where do you go to buy a piano? It's not something I usually put on my shopping list.'
'No,' he replied thoughtfully with a grin, 'you simply can't get them delivered with the groceries nowadays. It's something I have really missed though; playing. It's a great stress reliever.'
'I've never heard you perform though. How good are you? Or is that cheeky?'
'Well, all I can say is that I enjoy it. I can play most classical sonatas, and some of the more intricate modern pieces. I don't ever consider whether I'm any good, I just find it immensely relaxing. However I've never played for anyone else, just myself. I don't think even Alec has ever heard me. Certainly I've never touched the baby grand in the Staff Lounge. I leave that to other people.'
He turned and smiled at her, somewhat reluctant to continue a conversation that touched on such a private area of his life. 'Tell you what, let's forget about pianos and go for a walk. The weather is great and I have been stuck indoors for too long. How about it? SHADO can do without us for an afternoon I'm sure.' He indicated the two agents assigned as protection detail, 'Besides, if there are any problems Tweedledum and Tweedledee can get us back to base quickly.'