The stifling heat in the old rented Hyundai was becoming unbearable. Not for the first time, Iain Taggart cursed himself for not paying extra to hire something more modern. He liked old cars, vehicles with substance and personality, to be cherished and looked after like a much-loved family member. Souped-up boxes of electronic components that could be discarded like the remains of yesterday’s lunch did not particularly interest him. However, the air-con on this antique had finally given up the ghost several kilometres back and he still had a long way to go before reaching his destination. Driving down the coastal plain towards Haifa was admittedly easier than he had expected. The roads were excellent, a fitting tribute to the superb infrastructure of modern Israel. No dust rising up from the sides of the motorway, just a shimmering heat haze distorting the distance ahead as far as he could see.
Taggart had not spent a great deal of time in the Middle East, or anywhere exceedingly hot, for that matter. He had always had a sneaking suspicion that the visual effects of the sun’s rays, as displayed in old films like “Lawrence of Arabia”, were merely clever tricks by talented lighting technicians. Bit of a change from good old Dunfermline, he thought. It was a long time since he had spent a great deal of time in his home town.
The windscreen was the only really dirty part of the vehicle, although he doubted that the dust had accumulated on this journey alone. The rental company at Tel-AvivAirport did not appear to regard regular cleaning of their cheaper models as a top priority. The windscreen-washer seemed to have gone on strike in sympathy with the air-conditioning and he had to squint hard to ensure he didn’t miss vital road signs. Like the car, the map he had brought with him was old and probably not up to date. Surprisingly, on this stretch of the road, there were relatively few garages with car-washing facilities. His only recourse was to pull over on a periodic basis, get out, and sluice the front of the vehicle with drinking water. He was thankful that he had, at least, had the sense to stash several large containers in the trunk, to ensure that he would not get dehydrated.
Dehydration however, was not a risk, but a daily reality, which had nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with a hell-bent desire for self-destruction. He had only recently begun to see it as such. In fact, even last month, he would have dismissed his ever-increasing alcohol intake as a necessary and perfectly understandable panacea. The barely-concealed hip flask had been his safety valve, providing medicinal anaesthesia to dull, although never to quell the agony in his soul. He had started out with whisky, always the traditional remedy for shock and trauma. His SAS colleagues had been sympathetic to the point of complicity. Dealing with devastation, however it was accomplished, was part of the job.
When the whispers began and his commander-in-chief started asking questions, he had switched to vodka. Eventually, suggestions had been made: take six months off, have a holiday, see a doctor, talk to someone. He hadn’t considered any of it. He knew instinctively, that to confront this particular black hole of despair would destroy whatever vestiges of sanity he had left. Vodka had no smell, left few traces. It became his drug of choice, the invisible armour that allowed him to face the world and get on with what was left of his life. Alcohol became his most popular colleague, the perfect partner – always available, usually reliable and silently efficient. Until the day he lost his job.
“This can’t go on, Iain.” General Collins had laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, as if he thought that physical contact could perform some kind of sensory miracle. “You need help, son. You must realise that.”
Taggart had been so stunned, bluster was the only response he was capable of making. He had gabbled defensively for many minutes before eventually staring into the pitying, yet implacable eyes of his commanding officer. He had lost everything this time. Still, he couldn’t give up.
“It’s been difficult. I know I’m not at my best. I just need to rest, concentrate more, catch up on some sleep…”
“Stop it, Iain!” The general’s voice cut through his excuses with a razor sharp edge. “You need a lot more than that and you know it. You’re making mistakes and that’s dangerous. You’re becoming a liability, and I can’t have that when lives are at stake.”
General Collins paused, in a conscious attempt to soften what he suspected was one blow too many. He was not unkind and found himself deeply sorry for the man he had regarded as the finest operative of his generation.
“I’m not necessarily cutting you loose permanently. I want you to go home, sort yourself out. Do whatever it takes. Then we’ll talk, see whether or not you’re ready to come back.”
The next twenty-four hours were spent in an alcoholic wasteland. He had done as he was told, although not from choice. The final blow had come when, after having been allowed thirty minutes to clear his desk, he had been escorted from a building which was more like home to him than his rented London apartment. In his head, he could hear nothing but the general’s damning indictment. A liability. A danger to his colleagues. Not to be trusted. He had taken a taxi back to Chelsea and downed the best part of a litre of Stolichnaya, so rapidly that he had made himself sick long before he was drunk. Retching over the sink in the sparsely furnished bathroom, he had still not relinquished possession of the glass in his hand. Catching sight of his ravaged reflection in the mirror, he raised it in a mocking toast to the stranger staring back at him.
Way to go, Taggart. One more rung on the ladder of success. How is the list shaping up now? Oh, yeah, that’s right. No job, no friends, no wife, dead daughter. Bloody marvellous.
Lou wouldn’t be surprised at his fall from grace. After all, contempt was why she had left him in the first place. He was too full of self-pity and loathing, to acknowledge the fact that the real reasons were more complex. He watched his shaking, vodka-laden hand work compulsively towards his mouth, in a futile attempt to rid himself of the taste of vomit. Water was not an option. He sat down abruptly on the floor of the little bathroom. It felt safer there, more solid. Not as far to fall when he passed out, which he knew from experience would only be roughly half a bottle away.
He had stopped asking how it had all come down to this. He was thirty-one years old, and no longer cared what happened to him. The thought occurred that if he was sick, while unconscious on the bathroom floor, it was perfectly possible that he would choke on his own vomit. Do everyone a favour. Get the job over with. Clarity could be maudlin, he decided, although maybe it was just whatever was left of his particular brand of Scottish humour.
He heard the phone buzz in the living room and eventually switch to auto, when it was not picked up. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, certainly not his wife. Louise’s hitherto calm voice always seemed to contain a cutting edge these days.
“Iain, if you’re there, pick up. We need to talk and I can’t waste any more time. The estate agent has called three times today. The Richardsons’need to move in two weeks and we have to sign the contracts now. I’m not prepared to lose this sale because you’re dragging your heels.”
There was a pause, as if she knew he was there; giving him an opportunity to make a convenient, if blatantly unbelievable excuse would serve a purpose, however hollow it might be. He didn’t move.
“Well…okay. Get back to me as soon as you hear this. Tomorrow at the latest, please.”
She was admitting defeat. He knew that tone of impatient resignation when he heard it. He also knew she wasn’t quite ready to put the phone down.
“Iain, please.” Her voice was softer now, more hesitant. She was making a deliberate attempt to be conciliatory. “We have to get the house sold. The divorce won’t go through until the lawyers are paid. James is taking a secondment to the Bahamas in October, and I want to go with him. It’ll be a fresh start and we all need that, God knows. I don’t expect you to wish me well, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t stand in my way.”
From his prone position in the bathroom, he spat out his disgust. You and bloody James? Sod off, Lou. He didn’t believe in fresh starts. If there would never again be the possibility of a beginning, how could there ever be a start? She hadn’t mentioned his dismissal, which meant she didn’t yet know. Well, that was something at least, although it would not be long before word got round. Gossip within the armed forces was like bush telegraph.
That was wrong, he thought. She was too young to use a word like ‘understand.’
Darling, it’s all right, I’m coming to look after you. He thought he’d said the words out loud, but he couldn’t be sure.
No, Daddy. She sounded weary, resigned, like a worn-down teacher correcting a particularly obtuse pupil. That’s not how we do it here. I look after you now, but you’re making it hard for me.
Where’s here? He thought he knew, but it seemed important to have it clarified.
Heaven, of course, where do you think? She sounded exasperated. She still looked like a small child, but she was talking to him like the recalcitrant fourteen year old she would never grow up to be. I have friends here, you know. Her little round face, with the china blue eyes – Lou’s eyes – glared at him.
I’ve told them all about you, what a great dad you are, how you took me to ballet lessons, and all, and now just look at you! You’re making me look like a complete idiot.
I miss you, sweetheart. I just miss you so much, all I want to do is be with you. He was in earnest, but to his annoyance, his voice seemed to have taken on a pathetic, whining quality. Their reunion was not going the way he had imagined it would.
Daddy. She gave him that look, the one Louise gave him whenever she was trying to get him to understand something that was so obvious, only the intellectually challenged could miss it. Daddy, I’m the dead one here, not you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Her voice dropped to a melodramatic hiss. Look, to be sad is okay. I know you miss me, that Mummy misses me and I’m glad you do. I mean, there are people here whose folk don’t really care that they’re gone. But you’re taking it too far! How can I get any respect if my wonderful dad is turning into a spineless, drunken wreck?
Taggart was confused. There was something wrong here. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it was not to be accosted by this aggressive, almost hostile, virago. What had happened to the sweet little girl who had clasped his hand so trustingly on that last day? If only she had not let go. Oh, God, Jenny, why? Why did you let go?
Her eyes were fastened to his now, and he felt as if he was drowning in their blueness. The picture had changed, only the blueness existed. It wasn’t your fault, Daddy. Her voice was softer, now, a whisper. It wasn’t your fault. It just happened. Sometimes these things do
You’re only four. When did you get to be so wise? This transformed creature fascinated him. If she had grown up at all, was this how their relationship would have been?
It’s different here. She seemed evasive, even slightly awkward. You wouldn’t understand.
Show me. I want to know. He felt there was some kind of bridge he had to cross and he needed her help to do it. He put his hand out, hoping she would hold on, as she had then, and this time would not let go. The hand stayed outstretched, as her presence seemed to move away.
You can’t. Her voice in his head was calm and unemotional. You don’t belong here, Dad. Not yet. You have to go back. I can’t help you if you don’t do as I tell you. Her face swam into view once more, and on it was a look of such peace and serenity that he felt as if his heart had finally stopped beating in his chest. Life’s precious, you mustn’t waste it. Her voice was firm. I’m still here inside you and I’ll try to watch out for you. I mean, that’s what we do here, we look out for the living. If you aren’t prepared to co-operate, it makes me look really dumb. I want to be proud of you, not to have a total loser as a father.
Taggart was both outraged and contrite. Didn’t she realise the depths of devastation her death had caused? It seemed she did, and that what she was trying to tell him was that it didn’t matter any more.
I love you so much, baby, I’m so sorry about all this.
Yeah, Dad, I know. Love you too. So pull yourself together and make me proud, okay? Her small round face broke into a beatific smile. And make sure you get tickets for this year’s World Cup, because I think Scotland might win.
“You look well, Iain,” he continued warmly, although his voice contained a note of false conviction, which Taggart didn’t miss.
“No, I don’t, I look like hell. You never were a good liar, Bob,” he responded with a grin.
“Yeah, well, you’ve had a tough time, lately, son. Things looking up a bit now, are they?”
“I think so. Just need to get my life back on track, that’s all.” Taggart hedged, unsure just how much Bob Nelson knew about his fall from grace. In his initial phone call to arrange this visit, he had been circumspect about his departure from SAS. Nelson was too good a friend to stand in judgement, but by the same token, Taggart did not want his pity; he had not yet climbed far enough out of his pit of despair and self-loathing to tolerate sympathy.
The older man gave him a shrewd look before clearing his throat to cover the moment of awkwardness. “How about I give you the guided tour, show you what goes on here? I guarantee you’ll be amazed at what the engineers are doing. I didn’t believe technology like this existed until I got here and saw it for myself. Mind you, I can’t pretend to understand how it all works, but the United Nations is paying a fortune to have it protected.”
“And they won’t mind an odd-bod like me taking a look?”
Nelson shook his head. “You’re with me. That’s all the clearance you need.”
Taggart shot him a curious look. “Guess that means you’re pretty important around here,” he said lightly.
His friend gave a brief nod. “I’m one of a handful of people who has unlimited access to every department, even the most classified. I can go anywhere, no questions asked. I believe in being visible, everyone knows who I am.” He flashed the trademark twisted smile. “Of course, what they don’t realise is that I make it my business to know who they are, too. When you work in this part of the world, you fully understand the truth of the saying ‘ Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’. If anyone has designs on blowing this place up, they’ll do it from the inside. The guys you saw back there gazing at the monitors in the control room - they’re watching for any unusual behaviour among the regular workforce, not any passing stranger.” He paused. “Not that it means they don’t see everything else too. If a spider goes walkabout, they’ll spot it.”
They had already left the cool quiet calm of the main building; Nelson moved at breakneck speed and Taggart was struggling to keep up. Definitely need to do something about that gym membership, he thought grimly, as he tried gamely to match the older man’s surprisingly long strides. By the time they reached what Nelson referred to as “the hotbed of activity”, he was feeling quite winded. Fortunately, a cup of strong, steaming coffee was thrust into his hand before the tour continued at a more sedate pace.
And he was impressed. Although, like Bob Nelson, there was much he did not understand about the processes explained to him, he could not fail to be infected by the intensity of the atmosphere. The air was charged with enthusiasm and dedication and he was suddenly filled with the sensation of entering a different world; a world far removed from his dull Scottish roots and pedestrian past. The bright fingers of possibility reached out to him. This was the future; could there be a part for him in this spectacular technological tapestry? As he gazed at the hive of industry around him, Jenny’s childish voice echoed in his head. This is it, Dad. It starts here.
“Gets to you, doesn’t it?” Bob’s amused voice cut through his reverie. “Blows me away, laddie, I have to admit. Every time I wonder why I took the job - apart from the very generous pay package, that is - I have a wander down here and then I know. There’s something almost magical about it.”
“Magical?” Taggart laughed out loud, partly to mask his unease at having his thoughts read so easily. Don’t be a fool. He doesn’t know about the dream of Jenny. “Seems to me you’ve been watching too many re-runs of ‘Brigadoon’.”
Nelson frowned. “What the hell’s Brigadoon?”
Taggart grinned. “Film, 1954. Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse. It was a musical about a Scottish village that only appears once every hundred years. My mother loves it, although it’s hard to get a decent copy these days.”
Bob Nelson shrugged. “Never heard of it. And although this is indeed a village of sorts, there’s nothing imaginary or mythical about it. Runs like clockwork, and it appears every day without fail.”
“Glad to hear it.” Taggart was glad they were moving on.
“You’re interested, though, I can tell,” Nelson continued as they made their way back to the main office block, crossing through well-maintained gardens shaded by leafy palms. “I’m serious about the job offer, Iain. I could use someone of your calibre out here.”
“I have a job, remember?” He was glad the blistering heat and glare necessitated the use of sunglasses. It gave him something to hide behind, at least.
“No, you don’t,” was the blunt reply, as Bob Nelson laid a lightly restraining hand on his arm, forcing their footsteps to a standstill. “You can’t fool me, lad, although you’re doing your best to try. Make no mistake – you’re finished with the Army and the Army has finished with you. They won’t have you back now, no matter what that idiot Collins might tell you. Cut your losses, make a fresh start. Unless Louise has changed her mind about the divorce – and I’m guessing she hasn’t - there’s nothing to keep you in London.”
“I don’t know, Bob.” Taggart could feel all his newly erected defences crumbling. “It seems like I’d be running away and I think I’ve been doing too much of that, lately.”
Nelson paused, as if he was about to light up the pipe Taggart knew he had given up smoking ten years ago.
“There are different kinds of running, son,” he said, after exactly the number of seconds it would have taken him to fill the imaginary pipe with tobacco and light it. “There’s the kind that takes you nowhere – or in your case, straight to the bottom of a bottle – and there’s the kind that takes you some place you need to be. Now, I know you, Iain, probably better than anyone. You don’t need me to tell you how to live your life. You have a fine mind and more courage than anyone I’ve ever met. Your weakness is a tendency to wallow in self-pity. Don’t let that stop you from taking up a challenge.”
Taggart stared at him. “Self-pity? Christ, Bob! You know what happened. My daughter died, my wife left me. I lost my family. I think I’m entitled to a little self-pity, don’t you?”
“Not if it destroys you,” his friend retorted. “What happened to Jenny was a tragedy, I won’t deny it. As for you and Louise – well, that was a car crash waiting to happen. You’re better off apart.”
Taggart’s laugh was in hollow recognition that nothing here was funny. “You don’t change, do you, Bob?” he said, bitterly. “You never did have a sentimental bone in your body. You presume to tell me how I should feel, but what do you know about love or family? As far as I’m aware, you have no experience of either.” This last was a jibe that was both cruel and hurtful, but he couldn’t stop himself.
“Not true, as it happens.” Nelson did not seem offended by the accusation. “I admit I haven’t allowed people, or relationships to get in the way of what I wanted out of life. I know what I am and attractive to either sex is not part of the package. Oh yes, laddie, I’m well aware of what people have always thought about me, and it’s not mattered. With one or two notable exceptions, I’m not interested in other folks’ opinions. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, though. Got myself a girlfriend.”
He paused and turned an unusually happy face towards his friend. “Never thought I’d meet someone out here, but there you go. Her name is Sheina. She’s a woman the company employed to clean my apartment. She’s nice, easy-going, got me sorted. Before you know it, she’d moved in. But that was okay, you know what I mean? It seemed the right thing to do. We rub along well together. She has a young daughter, too. Really bright, is Rachel. She’s doing so well at school. She’ll go places, mark my words. I enjoy having them both here, it’s good to have some life about the place.”
Taggart shook his head in amusement. “You’re full of surprises, Bob. Never thought you’d turn domestic at your age.”
“It’s called contentment, mate. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it and you’d have no difficulty trying it out here. The young women are amazing. Well-educated, confident, they’re all high-flyers and gorgeous into the bargain. Wouldn’t look at an old boy like me, of course, but you’d have no trouble pulling.”
“I’m not divorced yet, remember? Wouldn’t want to give Lou’s lawyer any more ammunition than he’s already got.”
“To hell with that.” Nelson waved an airily dismissive hand. “Never stopped her, did it? You’ll meet Sheina and Rachel when we get to my place. I remembered you like plain home cooking. Told her to do a stew, or hot pot, something like that.”
Taggart was nonplussed. “You’ve got her making old-fashioned British recipes in this heat? Are you mad?”
Nelson shook his head. “She loves cooking, mate, and more than that, she loves to please. Especially me. I’ve told her all about you, she’s dying to meet you. Actually,” he searched the inside pocket of his jacket. “Got a picture of them both, somewhere. Oh yeah, here it is.”
The photo he proudly thrust into Taggart’s hand was of a plump, dark-haired woman, smiling at the photographer in obvious affection. Her arm was around the bony shoulders of a sullen teenager, who glared at the camera in out-of-focus disdain, her heavy fall of brown hair obscuring what might have been a pretty face. Not interested in family photos, then, he thought, wondering fleetingly what it was about her that reminded him of the girl in the elevator. The air of supreme indifference, perhaps? Then again, perhaps that was common in teenagers. If Jenny had grown up, would she have resembled this apparently alienated young woman?
He handed back the picture. “Looking forward to meeting them, too, Bob,” he declared, trying to project an enthusiasm he did not feel. “When do you finish up here for the day?”
“I can leave any time, mate. Although I say it myself, I’ve got this place so it runs in my sleep, security-wise. There won’t be any problems when I’m not here.”
Taggart permitted himself a secret smile. Such a boast was typical, albeit completely correct. Nevertheless, this touch of arrogance was a trait that had not endeared Nelson to some of his former colleagues in the armed forces.
“Bob!” Zita the Receptionist was waving her hand at them, trying to attract attention. “I have a few messages for you. Wait a second till I get the printouts.” She ran her hand smoothly over the papers efficiently filed in a corner of the wide desk, locating what she needed in an instant. “Here you are. Nothing too urgent, I think. Oh, by the way, Miss Book is here. I told her to go up to your office and wait. I didn’t think you’d be too long.”
“Rachel?” Nelson looked surprised. “Och, well, isn’t that nice - not often she comes to meet me. Usually too preoccupied with her pals and her college work.” He grinned at Taggart. “Daresay she’s looking for a loan and she doesn’t want her mother to know. For a kid who doesn’t have much truck with clothes or make-up, money still seems to burn a hole in her pocket.”
“Teenagers – they’re all the same. Or so I’m told,” Taggart added hastily, before the accusation that he didn’t know what he was talking about could be levied.
Nelson turned to face him. “Look, I just need to get my stuff, check on a few things and pick up Rachel. No point in both of us trailing back upstairs. Why don’t you hang around down here and I’ll be back in ten. Okay?”
“Okay.” Since his friend was already heading for the lifts, Taggart realised that any response was probably perfunctory. In any case, he was glad to acquiesce. There were worse places to relax than in this perfumed, sanitised, artificial haven of pleasantness. He settled himself in the soft cream leather of an available sofa and leaned his head back against the fronds of a miniature potted palm.
Behind the tree, an elaborate water feature tinkled soporifically, its aim, no doubt, to encourage the notion that this desert-like environment was in fact a mirage, not reality. He closed his eyes, drowsy with sun, scent and exhaustion. Jet lag, he thought. Never get used to it, even after all these years. He wasn’t sure whether or not he had actually drifted off to sleep, but the next thing he was aware of was the hand of Zita the Receptionist on his shoulder.
“May I get you something? A cool drink, perhaps? Looks as if Mr Bob is going to be longer than he thought.” She gave him a conspiratorial smile, as if to say, this is typical of Mr Bob.
Taggart smiled back, unsure of whether this was typical of Mr Bob, or not – in this environment, at least.
“No, thanks, I’m fine. Maybe I’ll just go find him. At least, that way I might get some proper shut-eye before midnight. Jet-lag, you know?”
Zita the Receptionist nodded politely, although Taggart thought this was probably the usual response given to foreigners who made a habit of falling asleep in a palm tree. Slowly and sinuously, she moved away, leaving the delicately perfumed air to settle in her wake.
Taggart yawned and stood up, stretching his long limbs. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. All right, he thought. Elevators in that direction. He made his tired legs move towards the glass monoliths in front of him. Pressing the call button didn’t seem to work. None of the carriages were moving, no matter what instructions were being electronically relayed.
Maybe I’ll do better to use the stairs, he thought, ruefully. At least I’ll find out how unfit I am. Very unfit indeed, was the conclusion he came to, after reaching the fourth floor and needing a break to ease his screaming thigh muscles. The gym membership was suddenly elevated from an aspiration to a necessity. As he stood, catching his breath and waiting for his heart rate to slow, he was suddenly aware of the quiet around him. The air was still, unusually so. There was something vaguely familiar about this disquieting silence and he picked at the edges of his memory, trying to pinpoint what it was.
The unnatural quiet was suddenly replaced by an eerie whistling noise and then he knew. A second before the bomb exploded, he flung himself to the ground, shielding his head with his hands. For what seemed like an eternity, he could hear nothing. A silent wind beat at his clothes and skin, lifting him up to pitch him forwards once more.
When the noise came, he was still face down on the floor of the stair well. Dust and rubble rained down on his back and legs. Somewhere above him, glass was smashing and his ears were filled with the terrifying roar and screech of cracking girders and masonry. He stayed still, knowing that to move until it had stopped, before it finally came to an end, would be disastrous. Assuming, of course, that he could move. Gingerly, when everything had gone quiet again, he tried to raise one arm. Carefully. Okay, so far, so good. No pain, nothing broken. He kicked out his right leg and was relieved to discover nothing impeding the movement. The left leg was a different matter. It didn’t hurt, but he couldn’t move it. The words spinal injury entered his head unbidden, and nausea rose up in his mouth like a wave.
He tried to raise his upper body by placing his palms on the floor and pushing upwards, twisting his torso round as he did so. To his relief, the only thing impeding his movement was the edge of a huge gilt picture frame, which had crashed down from the wall behind him. Amazingly, although the glass had shattered into a million tiny shards, none of them seemed to have torn his clothes and embedded in his flesh. With a superhuman effort, he turned his body so that he was mostly on his back, although at a painfully awkward angle. Sitting up was nigh on impossible with the weight on his left leg, but he knew he would need his arms to lift up the picture. After much twisting and squirming, he eventually managed to pull his leg under and away from the frame, to wriggle free.
His concentration had been such that he hadn’t heard the screaming. Not till now. The air was filled with cries and terrified pleas for help. He looked around him, and up. The floor on which he was lying seemed solid, as did the stairs themselves. The damage appeared to have been done above, not below, the floor he was on. There was a gaping hole in the ceiling, over the edge of which hung a lifeless arm. Man or woman, he couldn’t tell. He stood up and shook himself down, wiping away the grime and dust from his lips. Blood smeared the back of his hand and he realised that one corner of his mouth was clogged with brackish-tasting moisture. Well, if that was his only injury….he stared down at his hand, as the significance became apparent. He could see. The stairwell was not in darkness, as he might have expected.
Think, Iain, think. He could see light below him, but not above. This meant two things; one, that each of the floors in this building was designed as a self-contained unit in the event of an emergency and two, that the bomb had exploded on the floor above. The fifth floor, nerve-centre of IDEI’s security operations. Bob. Oh God. He looked up. The stairs upwards seemed secure, although it was hard to tell for the smoke and dust now swirling in a thick mist around him. In the distance he could hear the sirens of the emergency services. They sounded a long way off. They’ll be too late. Too late to save anyone here. That certainty spurred him to move towards the stairs. The need to run, to race towards the epicentre of the storm was overwhelming, but the pain in his left leg hindered him. He realised he hadn’t got off scot-free when the huge picture had crashed down on top of him. Just bruised, he thought grimly, nothing to worry about. He pressed on upwards, picking his way carefully through the bits of plaster and rubble still raining down. By the time he reached the floor above, he was immersed in almost total darkness. The only source of light was one wall light, flickering weakly; emergency power, he guessed. It was just enough for him to make out that the wall on the right of the corridor was still standing. The left wall, on the inside of which had been security control, was a pile of mangled steel and plaster rubble. The acrid stench of smoke mingled with ripped flesh was overpowering. He tried to stop himself from choking as he pressed on into the dimness.
The cries for help had died away. He knew only too well what that meant. The people in that room were probably no more than lifeless husks now - what was left of their bodies. Still…..
“Where the hell are you, Bob?”
Taggart hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud until the whisper came out of the gloom.
He thought the faint voice was in front of him, so he moved forward gingerly, hands outstretched, as if to scythe his way through this choking hell. His foot kicked something and elicited a soft moan.
“Bob?” He crouched down to bend over the dark shape blocking his path, fearful of the injuries he might find.
“B..b..bastards managed it after all,” his friend’s voice rasped painfully into the darkness. “Such a bloody fool to let this happen. Jesus, what were they paying me for?”
“That’s not important now.” Taggart managed to get his arm around Nelson’s shoulder. “Tell me where you’re hurt.”
“Everywhere, nowhere. It doesn’t matter. My legs are gone, I think. Not sure about my arm. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Of course it matters!” Taggart knew his voice was sharper than it should be. “I’ll get you out of here. The ambulances are on their way, you can hear the sirens. Hold on, Bob, it’ll be okay.”
“No. Listen.” A vice- like arm shot up and around his neck, drawing him down towards Nelson’s torn and bloodied ear. “You have to listen. The women, it’s always the women, laddie. Never be taken in.”
The words were slurred by now and Taggart was nonplussed. “Women? What women? You’re not making sense, Bob. For God’s sake, just tell me where you’re hurt, I’ll do what I can. You need to hold on till help gets here.” Taggart was filled with impotent desperation, mingled with the knowledge that all efforts now were probably futile.
“Listen! Just bloody listen for once in your goddamned life!” Nelson was wheezing now, struggling to breathe. “No time, lad, there’s no time left. I need to tell you… Rachel. It was Rachel. She was the one and I didn’t know, didn’t realise.” He sighed and there was sudden silence in the darkness. Taggart was alarmed.
“I’m still here.” Nelson’s voice was soft, amused almost. “You know what they say; no fool like an old fool. Guess it’s true.”
His attempt at a laugh turned into a coughing fit. He turned his head and spat copious amounts of blood-soaked phlegm over Taggart’s arm. “Sorry, lad. Made a bit of a mess, I’m afraid.”
“No worries.” Taggart was cradling his friend’s head against his shoulder, doing his best to sound light-hearted. “I’ll bill you for the dry-cleaning when we get home. You don’t get out of this scot-free.”
Nelson chuckled. “Spoken like a true Glaswegian.”
“Don’t insult me. I come from Fife, remember?”
“Do you? I don’t remember. Funny, that. Never mattered, though. We were always mates.”
“It’s all right, laddie.” Nelson’s voice rang out, unexpectedly strong. “It doesn’t hurt any more. Just do something for me, will you?”
“Anything, you know that.” Taggart felt his throat close up at what he knew was coming.
“Don’t let the bitches do this – don’t let them get away with it. They must have been… I didn’t see it, didn’t realise…” Nelson’s voice, initially urgent, trailed away and Taggart felt the weight of his head slump over on his arm. He stretched his fingertips over his friend’s eyes. They were open and although Taggart couldn’t tell in the darkness, he knew they were now unseeing.
He sat, cradling Nelson’s body against him, trying in vain to suppress the rush of tears. Too late, he thought. It’s always too late. He crouched in the ruins of devastation for what seemed like a long time, lost in heartbreak. Eventually, the need to move his frozen muscles overtook all other emotions. Nothing more could be done here. He had to get out, hopefully before another explosion took place. The soldier in him suddenly came to the fore. Start thinking like a professional. There could be other devices planted all over IDEI. He had been lucky so far, but getting out of this hellhole unscathed might be a different matter. Let him go. You have to let him go. He did, releasing what was left of Bob Nelson as gently as he could.
Straightening up was awkward and painful. He did it slowly, waiting for the pins and needles to subside and the blood to start flowing freely in his veins. A sudden movement in the corner of his eye made him glance round. He was staring directly into the barrel of an automatic pistol. His brain registered the fact that it was a new model, one that the British Army had been coveting for some time without the necessary funds to purchase in bulk.
His gaze travelled upwards, past the vaguely familiar dirty t-shirt until his eyes locked once again on warm chocolate. Melted Maltesers, he thought, suddenly recalling the sweets of his childhood. That’s what her eyes look like. He was about to say, “Help me,” when she screamed something at him. It sounded as if she was shouting from a long way away, in a language he didn’t fully understand. He thought it was Arabic, but he wasn’t sure. If it was, he guessed he was in trouble. She was not here to rescue anybody. He tried to struggle to his feet, wondering how to say ‘Don’t shoot’ in Arabic. As he moved towards her, she barked what sounded like a command. The gun was now waving around wildly. As he took a step closer, he thought he saw panic in her face and something else – terror. For a second he was puzzled. Most religious or political fanatics engaged in the business of murder were completely insulated against the normal range of human emotions. He dredged up the little Arabic he knew and yelled. He hadn’t a clue what he was saying. He just hoped it would be enough to throw her off balance, so he could make a grab for the gun. He thought for a split second that he might get away with it. He had moved just that inch closer, when there was a loud noise, and an explosion of pain in his side. He didn’t remember falling. All that was in his head was the word ‘don’t’.
Skybase, five and a half years later
“We’re a little more subtle about it, is all,” drawled Harmony Angel from her prone position on one of the window seats. She was draped gracefully across the couch, idly but elegantly thumbing through a fashion magazine. Rebecca Drake had not been back to her native Georgia in at least ten years, but her baroque Southern accent could have been lifted straight from ‘Gone with the Wind’. Despite her cranberry coloured hair and edgy fashion sense, she still managed, paradoxically and usually deliberately, to project an air of Southern Belle delicacy. It was an artifice that had proved extremely useful in her short, but illustrious, career.
“And this is the Observation Deck,” Lieutenant Green was saying, as she opened the door to usher in Destiny Angel and her companion. “Things have been a little quiet of late, so there are more of us around than usual, but it does mean you’re getting the chance to meet many of your colleagues all at once.”
Destiny stepped forward, to introduce a slim, dark-haired young woman, already clad in the regulation Angel uniform.
“Everyone, this is Esther Jackson. Her code name will be Melody Angel.”
She paused, glancing round the room and then back at her companion. “I know you’ve met the other Angels. The colour-coded officers are kind of self-explanatory, I guess. Maybe I should leave it to them to tell you their real names and backgrounds.”
“May I ask a favour?” The new Angel exuded a coquettish insouciance as her sweeping gaze took in the room and its occupants. “I prefer my code name to the real thing. I’d really appreciate it if you’d call me Melody all the time.”
“Not a problem. The fewer names I need to remember, the better.” Captain Scarlet, always the unacknowledged leader, stood up and proffered his hand. “For what it’s worth, I think Melody suits you more than Esther. I’m Paul, by the way.”
“Yes, I know. I did my homework before I got here. I think I know who you all are; the fun part will be in seeing if I match up all your bios correctly!” She flashed an impish grin, her eyes dancing in amusement, as if she found the entire vagaries of life vastly entertaining. Scarlet smiled back, as did almost everyone else in the room. There was something utterly engaging about this young woman, with her elfin face and slightly too-wide mouth. She radiated confidence, without a trace of shyness. Quite the opposite, in fact. There was a boldness in her stance which suggested that not only did she welcome life’s challenges, but she was more than capable of meeting them.
Captain Grey looked at her with interest, but little curiosity. Not that is, until she turned towards him and their eyes met. Melted Maltesers. He had never forgotten those eyes. Five years rolled back in the space of seconds, as he struggled to comprehend the sheer impossibility of it. The new Angel was the street urchin. This young woman who had undoubtedly murdered Bob Nelson and his staff, whose bullet had almost ended his own life, now stood before him with her hand outstretched. Blood pounded through the veins in his head, while the injured back, which had not bothered him in years, started to throb in sympathy. He knew he had to stand, had to hold those slim, deadly fingers and return the age-old gesture of introduction. He struggled to his feet, wondering briefly what her reaction would be when she realised that the man she thought she had left for dead was alive and standing in front of her.
“Great to meet you, Iain,” she said, pumping his hand in the polite, but fairly enthusiastic way people do when they wish to make a positive impression. “Serena tells me you’ve been here from the get-go. I guess that means you’ve got loads of experience in fieldwork. I haven’t done much apart from fly planes, so I’ll be glad of any help you’re able to give me.”
Her eyes were wide open and completely innocent. Grey was stunned. She didn’t know, hadn’t recognised him. The realisation hit home like a jet of cold water. He heard his voice stammering some sort of reply, a platitude to get him through the moments until he could breath properly again. Then hopefully, she would turn away, move on to someone else and he would be able to think what to do. His prayer was answered as she allowed herself to be led away, all the while throwing a casually apologetic smile at him. He sat back down heavily in his chair, realising that his response had probably been rude. No doubt she thought him taciturn, if not downright boorish. He wondered, irritably, why what the little bitch thought of him should be of any consequence whatsoever.
The shock was wearing off and his brain began to work properly once more. He dismissed the impossible coincidence of her turning up on Skybase. The important question was, why? She was not who she said she was, that much was obvious. He didn’t know how she had managed to fool a Spectrum selection committee; the vetting process was brutal and no stone would be left unturned in the examination of an applicant’s past. While certain transgressions might be accepted – his own history was testament to this – being an active member of a terrorist organisation with links to Hamas, would certainly not be.
Then there was motive. Captain Grey had enough experience to know that militant extremism was not something easily set aside. Most Islamic fundamentalists with a history of violence would never renounce those beliefs. So what was she doing joining an organisation whose primary objective was to crush behaviour which threatened the safety and prosperity of the free world? Infiltration seemed the most likely reason. But for whom was she really working?
“Are you okay, Iain? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” Ochre’s concerned voice brought him back to the present with a jolt, as he realised that Lieutenant Green and Melody Angel had left the room to continue their tour of the base. Destiny remained behind, leaning over Black’s shoulder in an attempt to solve her boyfriend’s computer puzzle before he did. This happened regularly, to her immense satisfaction and his obvious annoyance. He did not like reminders that her academic achievements, particularly in the field of mathematics, far outstripped his own.
“So, now we have six Angels,” Blue said cheerfully, picking up his coffee cup. “Anyone want more coffee?”
“Yes, please.” Ochre held out her mug to him, seemingly unaware that Captain Grey had not answered her question. Taggart was just relieved that the moment had passed. He needed to marshal his thoughts before he could speak to his colleagues.
“Actually, no.” Destiny looked up absently, in response to Blue. Her attention was still firmly fixed on Black’s puzzle. “We’re still five. Gabriella is leaving.”
“The Italian girl?” Blue seemed startled. “She’s only just got here! What happened there?”
“Unimpressed with your chat-up lines, I bet. Probably thinks there are better fish to fry elsewhere,” quipped Captain Magenta, who, somewhat surprisingly, had taken little part in the discussion around him.
“Well, it looks like they’re not in your pond, either, pal,” Blue shot back immediately. Captain Black sniggered while Ochre sighed heavily. This was a sparring contest that took place on a regular and sometimes tedious basis. There were times when she wondered if some of her male colleagues had ever left kindergarten. Usually Grey or Scarlet stepped in to draw a line under some of the more ribald conversations when they looked like they might get out of hand. Today, however, neither of them said a word.
“She’s pregnant.” Destiny said flatly. “Impending bambinos and Falcon Interceptors do not make a good combination.”
“Pregnant? I didn’t think she was married.” Blue looked puzzled.
“She’s not,” Destiny replied, giving him a look of amusement. Adam Svenson’s freewheeling attitude to life masked a surprisingly conventional streak.
Scarlet, always attuned to her thoughts, flashed a quick grin at her. “You know what they say,” he murmured. “You can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy.”
Blue flushed. “Yeah, well, I just thought….” His muttered response trailed off. He decided to concentrate on his coffee and not allow his colleagues any more opportunities to embarrass him.
“Actually, she’s done me a favour,” Destiny said thoughtfully. “The Angels need to be a solid tightly-knit team, and to be frank, Gabi wasn’t fitting in as well as I would have liked. I just didn’t have a good enough reason to do anything about it till now. I know Colonel White wants a larger front line squad, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s less important than getting the mix right.”
“So what’s Melody’s background, then?” Scarlet asked. “Military, I presume?”
Destiny nodded. “She comes highly recommended. She’s spent over four years in the Israeli Air Force, and before that, I understand there was a brief spell with Mossad. Amazing, considering she’s only just turned twenty-five.”
“Israeli Air Force? I thought she was American.”
“Her father is, but her mother comes from Jerusalem. She was brought up mainly in the States but she went to school in Israel for a few years. From what she’s told me, I got the impression she felt more at home there. I guess with dual nationality, she was eligible to join whichever air force she preferred.”
“Beauty and brains, then,” Black said cheerfully. “Adam was right, for once. She certainly is pretty.”
He reached an arm behind him to grab Destiny round the waist and spin her down onto his knee, nuzzling her neck. He eyed her in mock speculation.
She leaned against him, running slim fingers through his dark hair. “Luckily for you, no,” she murmured, with a sweetness of tone reserved only for him. Across the room, Captain Grey stared at them. He didn’t much care for Conrad Lefkon. He had met the type before; a smart-ass, loaded with money and ambition, aiming for the top. There was something inherently dangerous beneath the American’s carefully cultivated urbane exterior. He had a keen, fierce intelligence and an instinct for deception in others. He was inordinately brave and, Grey thought, quite without scruple. His track record as a soldier was impressive, but in Iain Taggart’s opinion, he was a wild card, a maverick, and not to be trusted. He didn’t understand Scarlet’s complete faith in him.
Grey liked and respected Paul Metcalfe. He was affable and easy-going, fair-minded and generous to a fault, a man for whom the word “nice” was entirely appropriate. He possessed a quiet authority, which marked him out as a natural leader, despite having only just passed his thirtieth birthday. The “niceness” could be deceptive – within his character lay a single-minded ruthlessness, which had served him well over the years. There had been friends as well as enemies who had learned not to underestimate him. He was an excellent judge of character and that, if for no other reason, was why Grey couldn’t understand his friendship with Black. He had to acknowledge they made a superb team; they had been partners in U.S. Special Forces for a few years before Spectrum was formed and their results in the field of conflict had been spectacular. Despite all of that, Grey wished that Scarlet did not trust Black so implicitly.
As for Destiny - he was completely at a loss to see what a sweet girl like Simone Giraudoux saw in him. She was clever, quick on the uptake and certainly the most naturally gifted pilot that Grey had ever encountered. Despite her youth, she commanded a respect from her colleagues which would have befitted a woman twenty years her senior. He was aware of the reckless streak in her nature, and hoped that it would not get her killed one day. He wondered if this appetite for danger was what attracted her to Captain Black. Grey knew that some women were excited by the rough and unpredictable, although he suspected that he would never attract such a woman himself. Dull and boring were not the most desirable of attributes, he thought bleakly.
As he gazed at her blonde head bent over Black’s dark one, he saw their lips touch in casual, familiar intimacy. It was a scene he had witnessed many times – their affair had been going on a long time and neither of them seemed to see a problem in public displays of affection. It was a kiss, nothing more. Yet there was something profoundly, disturbingly, erotic about the scene and it sickened him. His nerves were jangled and he couldn’t stop himself exploding.
“For God’s sake!” The words burst out of his mouth with a force he couldn’t control. “Can you two not keep your hands off each other for five minutes!”
Startled, Destiny looked round, her face the colour of Scarlet’s tunic. She got up immediately, smoothing down her uniform. “I’m sorry, Iain,” she said quietly. “We didn’t mean to embarrass anyone.” She bent to touch her fingers to Black’s mouth to prevent him from speaking. “I should catch up with Melody and Serena. I’ll see you later, honey.”
As the door closed softly behind her, Black’s expression was thunderous. He looked as though he couldn’t decide whether to speak or simply throw a punch. The atmosphere was tense, as the other occupants of the room fell silent in expectation of an eruption.
“Leave it.” Scarlet’s quiet command came from behind the pages of the book he had picked up once more. He didn’t look up, or give any indication he had realised what was about to happen. Black’s mouth opened in protest, then, amazingly, he closed it again and sat back, staring sullenly at the floor.
The awkward silence was broken only by Blue hastily clearing his throat. “Come on, leprechaun,” he said, extending his hand to haul Captain Ochre to her feet. “Let’s hit the Sports Hall. I feel a sudden need to thrash you at badminton.”
“In your dreams!” was the retort, although she willingly allowed herself to be propelled towards the door.
“We’ll join you, make it mixed doubles,” Harmony announced, her meaningful look at Magenta intended to convey the words please get me out of here. He was likely to misinterpret such an expression, but right now she didn’t care. “You can play with me for once, Mario.”
“Now that is a sentence I never thought I would hear.” Magenta responded playfully, as the four of them left the room, giggling.
Scarlet waited till the door had shut behind them before closing his book. He leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. The eyes he turned to Captain Grey were full of concern. “What’s going on, Iain? This isn’t like you. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m feeling fine!” Taggart snapped back, although in truth, he was anything but. His mind was still on the street urchin. He could not bring himself to think of her as Melody Angel. How had she not known? Then again, maybe she had, and was gambling on the possibility that he would not recognise her. Certainly, she had changed a great deal in the intervening years. Maybe she had “re-invented herself”, or whatever ridiculous phrase was used in the tabloid press to describe cosmetic surgery. The dancing eyes and coquettish sparkle bore no comparison to the sullen, morose creature he had encountered five years ago, yet he had no doubts about her identity.
“That wee lassie, the new Angel – she’s all wrong, Paul!” He blurted the words out.
“All wrong? What are you talking about?” Scarlet sounded perplexed.
“She’s not who she says she is. Her name isn’t Esther Jackson, its Rachel Book. She may have been in the Israeli Air Force, but her background isn’t Mossad. It’s Hamas.”
They stared at him as if he had suddenly grown two heads.
“Jesus, you’ve finally flipped,” Black said with a derisive snort. He was still smarting from Grey’s rebuke. “Too many wee drams finally pickled your brains? The only organisation you should have joined is Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“Shut up, Con,” Scarlet snapped. He looked searchingly at Grey. “What’s this about, Iain? I didn’t get the impression you’d met before. What makes you think she’s not on the level?”
“The fact that five years ago, she put a bullet in my back, not to mention murdering my best friend and several other people into the bargain,” Grey retorted. “So you see, I have met her, Paul, in a peculiarly twisted way.”
There was complete silence. Even Black seemed lost for words. Scarlet got to his feet and poured a cup of black coffee, ladling it heavily with sugar. He handed it to Grey and then resumed his position in the adjoining armchair.
“I think you’d better tell us what happened,” he said quietly. “Start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out.”
Taggart didn’t. He recounted the tale of his visit to IDEI and the tragic twist that had cost Bob Nelson and his colleagues their lives. They listened intently without interruption, until after half an hour, he finally fell silent.
“Let me get this straight,” Scarlet said slowly. “You’re convinced that Nelson’s girlfriend, and her daughter, were responsible for planting that bomb? And that the daughter then shot you?” He looked doubtful. “I don’t know, Iain. It doesn’t really add up.”
“In the hospital, they wouldn’t tell me anything. Not at first, anyway.” Grey sounded as if he could have been talking to himself. He had ignored Scarlet’s comment. “By the time I was well enough to ask questions, it was all over. They didn’t even let me know about Bob’s funeral – not that I could have gone, the state I was in.” His face twisted. “All that – all because of that little bitch and her murderous pals.”
“Maybe,” Scarlet replied gently. “But you haven’t explained why you think this girl, this Rachel, is masquerading as our new Angel.”
“Because he’s stark raving mad, that’s why,” Black said shortly.
Scarlet ignored him and concentrated his attention on Grey. “Come on, Iain. You’ve got to admit this is strong stuff. Help me out here.”
“All right.” Grey roused himself from his torpor. He gazed directly at them. “When I started to get my wits back, I naturally asked questions – lots of them. As I said before, I didn’t get any answers at first – at least, not the ones I wanted. I kept at it, though. I thought if I made a complete nuisance of myself, the nut would crack. Eventually, it did. They sent someone from MI6 to see me. That was after I’d been transferred to a hospital in London. I was given the same information I could have got from Mossad, had any of their people got off their arses long enough to talk to me.”
“Probably thought you were a security risk.” Black said. “I assume it was classified?” His tone was neutral, but the words still sounded insulting. Grey refused to be riled a second time.
“It was. And yes, they probably did,” he replied evenly. “I struck lucky. My boss in the SAS had influence and he believed I had a right to know who was responsible for almost killing me. He did me a favour in getting someone to talk to me. Not such a huge favour, as it turned out; by the time I got any information, the world’s press had worked it out for themselves, anyway.”
“But you got names - they wouldn’t have got that, right?” Scarlet gazed at him through shrewd eyes. “MI6 confirmed that Sheina Book and her daughter were directly responsible for the attack on IDEI?”
“More or less.” Grey shifted irritably in his seat. His hip was still aching and he couldn’t get comfortable. He felt a sudden need for a cigarette, which was bizarre, considering he’d never smoked. “They were confirmed as members of a breakaway segment of Hamas - radical even by Middle Eastern standards. No one actually claimed responsibility for the bomb, but United Nations Intelligence had had them in their sights for a long time. They were ninety-nine per cent certain it was that group. When I heard that, I realised Bob had been set up. Sheina took the job as his housekeeper. She set her cap at him, got him to fall for her and then moved all the chess pieces into position. It was the only way the organisation could ever infiltrate that security fortress he’d built up. Bob knew how to make places impregnable to any threat on earth; he just didn’t realise the biggest threat would be from a downtrodden Israeli housewife and her teenage brat.”
He paused. “It’s true what they say, isn’t it? ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. Poor Bob. The worst part was that he knew. At the end, when he was dying, he realised what they’d done. He tried to tell me and I didn’t know what he was talking about. He’d waited all his life to find love. He should have died believing he’d found it.” He took another slug of coffee and set the mug down carefully on the table. “That was the least he deserved.”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure it was.” Scarlet murmured absently, his face screwed in concentration. Grey knew the look; his friend was not being dismissive, simply thinking fast. He could be incisive, discarding possibilities and scenarios like playing cards. “What was the point of the attack, anyway? Just to slow down the progress of Skybase?”
“Seems like it. They knew if they took out the security side of things, even temporarily, they could do untold damage to the rest of IDEI while the organisation was still trying to work out what had gone wrong. Fortunately, they never got that far. Mossad had been expecting an attack for some time. They moved in immediately and captured the ringleaders, including Sheina Book.” Grey paused. “They didn’t have to do a lot to her to get her to confess. They never found her daughter, though. She disappeared into thin air.”
“Until now. Or so you seem to think.” Black was watching him carefully, taking the situation more seriously. Grey doubted he was convinced, but he was at least listening. He pressed his case.
“Sheina Book was soft,” he said deliberately, fastening his gaze on Black’s hard brown eyes. “No-one imagined she would hold out under even minimal torture and basically, she didn’t. She’d have told them anything, even after an hour. Except the whereabouts of her daughter.”
“What happened to her? The mother, I mean.” Scarlet got up to refill his own coffee cup. He felt chilled to the bone, even in the carefully controlled temperature of the Observation Lounge. Torture. Even the word itself was loathsome. It was, of course, a realistic aspect of the job and he understood it perfectly. He had suffered it himself, had always known it was an unavoidable risk of the profession. He had witnessed it done to others, occasionally with his own tacit consent, if there had been no other option. The practice repulsed him, however. He had never ever given a direct order to torture another human being and he hoped fervently that he would never need to.
“She went crazy,” Grey said flatly. “Maybe the electrodes fried her brains, I don’t know. Anyway, she’s in a mental hospital – a secure environment, I believe. I understand she’s catatonic. I doubt she’s regarded as a problem now.”
“And we still don’t know where the daughter is?” Black asked.
“Yes, we do. She’s here, isn’t she?” Grey glared at him defiantly.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Black threw back his arm in a gesture of frustration. “Would you listen to yourself? This is a complete fairytale! You see a girl in an elevator. For some weird reason, she makes an impression on you. A few hours later, amidst lots of dust and rubble, not to mention semi-darkness, you get accosted by a terrorist, who then proceeds to shoot you. You think you recognise her as Elevator Girl, but by now are convinced that she’s also your friend’s soon-to-be stepdaughter. Who of course, just happens to be a terrorist. Now, as far-fetched as that may be, I’m prepared to go along with it to that point. But not the rest of it. Maybe the girl in the elevator was Rachel Book, maybe she was also the person who shot you. But to insinuate that she could be the same person as our new recruit, is utter madness. For a start, there’s the age difference. You said Sheina’s daughter was seventeen. That would make her no more than twenty-two now. Esther Jackson is twenty-five, and I doubt if she could have lied about that to a Spectrum Selection Committee.”
“Why not? She’s lied about everything else!” Grey shot back.
Scarlet frowned. “Calm down, both of you,” he said. “Getting steamed up like this isn’t going to help.”
He looked searchingly at Captain Grey. “Iain, how certain are you about this?”
“I’d stake my life on it,” was the reply.
Scarlet nodded, as Black curled his lip. “All right, that’s good enough for me. Got any ideas as to what we do about it?”
“She has to be flushed out, but carefully. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do that.”
Scarlet took careful note of the word ‘I’. Grey saw this as his own personal vendetta. He didn’t want interference.
“Okay,” he said calmly. “I don’t suppose twenty-four hours will make a difference. Think you can come up with something in that time?”
“I’d better,” Grey replied grimly. “We may not have more time than that.”
He got to his feet, leaning a little awkwardly over his colleague. “Thanks, Paul. I appreciate this.”
Scarlet nodded, as Grey left the room. He understood what he was being thanked for.
It was only a matter of seconds before Black exploded. “Are you nuts? Don’t tell me you actually believe this nonsense!”
Scarlet hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he said at last. “It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit. The thing is, Con, if he’s right, we’re all in big trouble. We can’t afford to ignore it.”
Well, I intend to do just that,” Black said shortly. “As far as I’m concerned, the man’s delusional. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
Scarlet looked irritated. “Iain is far from delusional. He may be wrong about this - and I sincerely hope he is – but that doesn’t alter the fact that he’s probably the most sensible, level-headed person I know. He wouldn’t say something like this if he wasn’t one hundred per cent convinced, in his own mind, at least. We owe it to him to take this seriously.”
Black scowled. “He should think twice before flinging accusations about.”
“Oh, I see,” Scarlet said softly. “So that’s what this is about. You’re still sulking. Well, for what it’s worth, he was right about that, too. I would have said it if he hadn’t.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Black’s voice was menacingly quiet.
Scarlet sighed and leaned back in his chair. “You and Sim need to grow up, Con, and stop behaving like lovesick teenagers. If Colonel White had walked in on that little scene, I doubt he would have been impressed. I know you basically live together, but Skybase is not your home and the Observation Deck isn’t your living room. The people here are friends and colleagues, but they’re not family – not yet, anyway. We’re all learning how best to get along. I’ve known you both for a long time and I’m used to the way you are with each other. I don’t have a problem with it, but you can’t assume other people will feel the same way. You need to be a bit more considerate.”
Black’s mood had suddenly become ugly. He hated criticism and it was unheard of for his best friend to round on him in this manner. “Well, well, pots and kettles are being rattled around here, aren’t they?” he snarled. “Whatever it was you and the latest peccadillo were doing the other night hardly makes you a contender for the title of Saint of Skybase! And don’t bother to deny it, because my quarters are right next to yours, and the walls are thinner than they should be!”
Scarlet had gone white with anger. “I wouldn’t dream of denying anything, certainly not to you,” he said icily. “I think you’ll find, however, that the key words here, are ‘in our quarters’ and ‘in private’. Unlike the two of you, we are not out to smash the world record for the most public displays of unbridled lust!” This last comment was both unfair and exaggerated, but right now, he was too irritated to care.
Surprisingly, Black looked sheepish. “God, Paul, is that really what it looks like?” he muttered.
“Yeah. Yeah, sometimes it does.” Scarlet felt his temper abate, although he had no intention of letting his friend off the hook. “The ‘peccadillo’, as you so crudely put it, is a technician from Engineering. Her name is Joanna and I happen to like her. A lot. So you might start showing some respect for once in your life.”
He picked up his book once more and buried his face in it, a clear indication that as far as he was concerned, the conversation was closed.
Black got up with a sigh and retrieved his uniform cap from the base of the computer console.
“Well,” he said with a twisted smile, “better go and flagellate myself with a horse-whip, I suppose. Unless, of course you have more interesting punishments in mind.”
He reached the door and paused, without turning. The invitation was casual, as always.
“You and Jo want to have dinner with us tonight? Kind of a double date? Assuming, of course that Iain is wrong and the new Angel hasn’t executed a cunning plan to blow us all to smithereens by then.”
Behind his book, Scarlet smothered a grin. This was the closest Black would come to an apology, he knew.
“Sure,” he responded lightly. “That sounds great. I’ll check with Joanna, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Don’t call her Jo, by the way, she hates it. Seems to think it compromises her femininity, makes the guys in Engineering forget that she’s not. A guy, I mean. Can’t say it makes much sense to me, but there you are.
Black nodded. “I’ll try to remember. I certainly wouldn’t want to find my head in my hands for a second time, now would I?”
The door closed softly behind him, leaving Scarlet alone in the silence of a suddenly empty room.
When Taggart left the Observation Lounge, he had no clear idea of what should happen next. He was angry, with himself, with Captain Black and most of all, with the impostor calling herself Esther Jackson. The very thought of those warm brown eyes and the coquettish smile made him clench his fists tight, as if to rail against the absurd impossibility of it all.
He forced himself to calm down. The situation needed careful handling and this time, he had to get it right. Black had not believed his story, but Scarlet did. He had tacitly consented to give him a free hand, but it would only be for so long. If he didn’t, or couldn’t, deal with it himself, his colleague would step in. This would probably mean taking the matter straight to Colonel White. Grey didn’t want that – this was so personal, he couldn’t bear the thought that she could be exposed as a traitor and jettisoned from Spectrum without ever knowing how and by whom she had been found out.
He had not imagined he would ever get a chance to avenge Bob Nelson, or the others who had died; the people Iain Taggart hadn’t known, but whose families suffered in grief as he had done. Now, incredibly, he was staring such an opportunity in the face, much as he had stared down the barrel of Rachel Book’s revolver, five and a half years earlier.
By now he had reached his living quarters. He needed to be alone to think. If he lay quietly on his bed, he could decide the best approach to take. Facing her head on with a handful of accusations could be disastrous. She had fooled a Spectrum selection committee and God knew who else. She would not crack easily. If he left it too long, though, he ran the risk of her carrying out whatever plan she was here to execute. And of course, that was what he didn’t know. Why she was here, who she was working for, what the plan was. Blowing up Skybase? Well, they had tried it before, nothing to stop them trying again.
Instinct told him it had to be more sophisticated than that. A spell with Mossad – he wasn’t sure how much of that was a carefully orchestrated fabrication. Four years with the Israeli Air Force had to be fact, however. Apart from anything else, her flying skills were self-evident. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that Israeli Rachel Book could pass herself off as American Esther Jackson with no questions asked. He felt quite chilled, although the heating controls in all the living quarters were set at a pleasantly ambient temperature. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he knew what that meant. A chill in the presence of malevolence was an instinct no soldier ignored.
Still. He was no nearer reaching a decision on how to proceed as he had been on first encountering her again. Do something. Don’t just lie here. Physical activity had always carried him through. He loved swimming. He was a strong, if not particularly stylish swimmer. As a young teenager, he had been selected for Scotland’s junior team in national competition. He had not been gifted, or dedicated enough to progress beyond a single bronze medal in the 200 metres breaststroke, much to his parents’ unspoken relief. They did not have the money to pay for advanced coaching, even if they had known the people who should be approached to provide it. He had not lost the love of the sport, though. He was himself in the water, thinking great thoughts as he ploughed through the lukewarm chlorinated water of the Skybase pool. Or, better still, on holiday in the Mediterranean, with the sun beating a cadence on the artificial blue of a hotel pool.
Swimming, that was what he needed. Fifty laps of the pool was surely the key to providing answers to his dilemma. In minutes, he was dressed in the regulation Spectum costume and preparing to dive in. It both amused and irritated him in equal measure that uniforms were de rigueur for almost any situation. He didn’t really see the point, other than to distinguish the senior colour coded personnel from Skybase’s other employees. As far as a swimming pool was concerned, it was ridiculous. Water was a great leveller, Grey believed. Stripped down and wet, most people looked the same. He was almost annoyed to have to don the uniform black lycra shorts and vest with the Spectrum logo. He wanted to wear something of his own, something that would not identify him while he swam privately in this most public of places. But he put them on anyway, as he knew he would. Inner rebellion was one thing – outer rebellion was what other people did.
There were a few other swimmers in the pool, although not as many as he might have expected. It was usually quiet, but the recent long lay-offs from active duty had produced a resurgence of enthusiasm hitherto unknown in Spectrum’s short history. He ploughed up and down the lanes, trying for once to concentrate on his technique, making sure his arms and legs were pulling in symmetry and the line of his neck and shoulders was correct.
Eventually, out of breath, he checked his watch. He had accomplished fifty laps in just under twenty minutes. Not bad, he thought, for an ex-army veteran on the wrong side of thirty-five. He paused to take a breather at the shallow end of the pool. The exercise had refreshed his body, but had done little to provide a solution to his dilemma. The pool was empty now and the surface of the water had stilled. Shafts of sunlight from the high windows cast sparkling beams, spilling diamonds of light as they fell. Taggart was suddenly at peace, although he was well aware it wasn’t a luxury he could afford himself right now. Neither was time. Something had to be done about Esther bloody Jackson and it had to be done quickly.
As he gazed bleakly down into the blue-tiled floor of the pool, a movement caught his eye. He glanced up as the young woman came out of the changing rooms, towel slung casually over her shoulders. She was dressed in the regulation ‘Angel’ swimsuit, a silver, high-necked one piece similar to those worn by the male personnel. Taggart thought the design was ugly, although he couldn’t fault its functionality.
He caught a glimpse of dark hair as she pulled on her swim cap and smiled to himself. Harmony had obviously got bored playing badminton with Magenta. He didn’t blame her. Any kind of sparring with the Italian-American captain always involved much verbal as well as physical ping-pong. Mario Moro was attractive and likeable, but he could be exhausting.
“Hey, Rebecca!” he shouted. “How about a race? Best of ten laps – whoever comes out ahead buys pizza tonight!”
He loved swimming with Harmony. In the pool, she abandoned her air of languid boredom. She was strong and lithe and, although his breaststroke was better, her freestyle displayed an attack and ferocity which never failed to impress him. She was good company, too. Warm, funny and self-deprecating, she had a line in dirty jokes that reminded him of some of the Glaswegian girls he had known in his youth. Her language could be choice, although some of the expressions uttered in that delicate ‘fiddle-de-dee’ accent reduced him instantly to gales of laughter. The American south, he decided, produced two types of women; the ones who said things like “Oh, fudge!” and those like Rebecca Drake.
He was not surprised when he didn’t get an answer. He expected her to do what she usually did, dive straight in and swim over to him; sometimes, if she thought she could get away with it, she would try to catch him unawares and drag him under. When he didn’t hear a splash, he looked properly. The young woman simply stood gazing at him with a look of vague uncertainty on her face. Now he realised she was smaller than Harmony, slender with olive skin, her shoulders displaying an angularity he recognised. She looked self-conscious, which was natural, he supposed, in donning a Spectrum swimsuit for the first time.
His heart hammered in his chest. He hadn’t expected this, not before he had decided what to do. It appeared the opportunity was being presented whether he liked it or not. He doubted that she had recognised him; above the Spectrum logo on his chest was a grey flash, but that would hardly be visible in the water. What was she doing in the pool on her first day, anyway? Taking a dip was not usually top of the agenda, even if you were taking up residence in a metaphorical goldfish bowl.
She dived in gracefully and reached him in seconds, cutting through the water with a simple, sparing style that earned his grudging admiration. Where had she learned to swim like that? Not in the back streets of Tel-Aviv, that was for sure
“Hi!” She surfaced through a glinting prism of sunlight, her slim fingers flicking water from her eyelashes. “It is Iain, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure till I spotted the grey flash. People look different without clothes, don’t they?” She tilted her head with a smile that he assumed was meant to be flirtatious. He ignored her clumsy attempt at familiarity. He wasn’t sure he could even bring himself to be pleasant to her. Consumed by cold hatred, all he could think about was his hands round her neck, squeezing the life-blood out of her. It wouldn’t even take that. The slightest pressure on her carotid artery would cause her to black out. Unconscious, she would drown in seconds. The pool was deserted, no one would know; it would look like a tragic accident.
“What are you doing here?” he managed at last. “Fed up with the guided tour? But then, I guess there are only certain parts of Skybase that will be of any interest to you.”
She looked puzzled, as if she had not expected such a rude response. “It is a bit overwhelming, more so than I expected,” she replied slowly. “It’s so huge, so many people. It’s a lot to take in. My quarters are still being sorted, so I thought I’d take a dip in the meantime. Swimming gets life in perspective, makes sense of stuff, I think.”
“I agree,” he said coldly. His eyes had not left her face. “Strips away the layers, makes it hard to hide, doesn’t it? Exposes people for what they really are.”
The words were icily contemptuous and Esther Jackson didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. She trod water in a sea of uncertainty, wondering why this angry man with eyes that matched his uniform should detest her so much.
“Iain, have I done something to you?” she asked at last. “Something to upset you? Whatever it is, I didn’t mean…”
The sentence went unfinished as he moved towards her, placed his hands on her shoulders and pushed her down. He held her under the water for several seconds before allowing her to surface, gasping and choking for air.
“Just so you know,” he said softly, his mouth close to her ear. “I can drown you in a heartbeat and there won’t be a thing you can do about it.”
The mixture of confusion and panic in her eyes told him she believed it.
“You – you’re crazy!” she gasped. “You’re stark raving mad! Take your hands off me right now!”
“Not until we’ve had a little chat,” he replied grimly. He was almost at the steps of the shallow end of the pool, forcibly dragging her along with him. She didn’t struggle again until they were on dry land once more; then she tried to wriggle free of his iron grip on her.
“Let go of me right now, or I’ll call security!” she hissed at him. “You’re a complete maniac, what the hell do you think you’re playing at? Let go of me!”
Her voice rose to a shriek at the same moment she managed to free one of her arms. The slap she gave him was instinctive; there was no thought behind it, or she would not have dared to hit him. But her hand came up and struck him hard across the face. The crack rang out in a loud echo.
It wasn’t the slap that pushed him over the edge – he would have let her get away with that. After all, he expected her to put up some sort of resistance. It was the cry of fear, tinged with revulsion that tore up his jagged nerves and sent his temper rocketing to explosion point.
He caught her arms and twisted them behind her back, pulling them upwards; he bent her against his braced body and forced her head back. Her mouth was near and open with the pain of his hold; when he kissed her, she tried to shut it, her head jerking in a hopeless effort to get free.
He hurt her deliberately to begin with. He wanted to teach her a lesson, make sure she understood what and with whom she was dealing. He didn’t care how much he humiliated her. It took longer than he thought for her to surrender; she kicked and clawed at him, making noises under his lips. Eventually, she became quiet and he opened her mouth again.
It was as if they were suspended in time, which had ceased to run. Nothing was real but the pressure of his body against hers. He had let go of her arms and they hung down, limp and useless; his fingers were in her hair, holding her head in position for his next assault on her unprotected mouth. The senses of sight and sound had deserted them both. She hung in his arms, rising and sinking under the rhythm of his kisses, eventually moving her arms upwards to slide them around his neck, as if controlled by an unseen force.
It was Grey who stopped. He put her away from him and held her wrists. Her face was deathly, tears seeping under her lids and smudging down her cheeks. All her defences were gone, obliterated by one basic, primeval instinct. Another moment and he would have stripped off her swimsuit and thrown her down on the floor of the changing room. Something in her eyes told him that not only would she have let him, she would have welcomed it.
“I think we know where we stand,” he said quietly. “I can take you any time I want. And I do want, so be very careful. Now we need to talk. I suggest we go to my quarters. Don’t worry about changing, it’s not far.”
She nodded mutely, as if the experience of the last few minutes had rendered her far beyond question or argument. He put a hand under her elbow and guided her out into the corridor. She moved dutifully, mechanically, so he did not need to use pressure. It wasn’t far to the nearest elevator and the only person they encountered was a member of the cleaning staff, who nodded at them in polite deference. If she thought it odd that two of Skybase’s senior personnel should be barefoot and dripping water over her newly vacuumed floor, she wasn’t about to say so.
Grey was right – his quarters were not far; probably, Melody realised, directly above the swimming pool. She stood, dazed and acquiescent, as he held up the wrist of his free hand to allow his watch to pass over the electronic pad on the wall. The door slid open effortlessly, closing in the same manner after he had pushed her inside sharply.
He pushed her roughly into the armchair opposite his bed and leaned over her. His body seemed crushing and unassailable. She couldn’t move.
“This is what’s going to happen,” he said softly. “I’m going to ask some questions and you’re going to answer them – correctly. The right answers are the truthful ones and believe me, I will know the difference. Get them wrong and I’ll break your neck. Understand?”
The fear in her eyes confirmed that she did. She might doubt his sanity, but not his strength. The poolside episode had demonstrated that. Physically, she was no match for him.
“May I have a towel?” She straightened up as she asked the question, meeting his gaze with a hint of defiance. She was trying to regain some last remnants of self-possession, trying to show him that she was not as thrown by recent events as he thought. For a second, he wondered if it was a ruse; she would wait until he had moved out of sight and then make a run for it. Then he remembered he had locked the door from the inside. She could not possibly know the code that would open it.
He went into the bathroom and returned with a hand towel. It was barely big enough to dry her hair, but he was disinclined to look for a clean bath sheet.
“Thank you,” she said politely, her face impassive. He admired her courage; he had wanted to hurt her, to scare her witless and he had succeeded. But she had pride and she was refusing to visibly acknowledge her vulnerability.
As she held out her hand for the towel, he noticed her arms. They were thin, brown and covered in red marks. Some of the weals were already discolouring, turning black and blue.She would be a mass of bruises tomorrow, testament to his appalling lack of self-control.
He hadn’t meant to kiss her, only to shut her up, stop her from screaming out loud for help. But something had happened between them, something so unexpected and shocking that it had left them both badly shaken.
This is a story that has been a struggle to complete, during a year in which I have had very little time to write. There were many occasions where I almost abandoned it. I am very grateful for the friendship of Marion Woods, Hazel Kohler and Caroline Smith, who provided strong shoulders to cry on during some dark moments.
Special thanks go to the Beta Queen, who worked her particular magic on the text, in order to make it fit for submission. Many thanks, as always, to Chris Bishop for her patience and generosity, as well as the privilege of allowing me to post my work on her site.
I do not own the rights to any of the NCS characters, although I wish I did! They are the property of Gerry Anderson and Anderson Productions. I hope that in exercising my imagination to write about their possible lives and loves, I have done them some measure of justice.
6th November 2008.