From Within the Shadows
by David Heulfryn
He stared at the large, white Victorian house. With only the slightest contraction of his eye muscles, he could shift his gaze from the solid front door to the lone guard patrolling the wrought iron gate.
He was Dr David Beck, and his body had not moved for two hours. Only the occasional blink indicated that he was still alive. Beck had rented the non-descript car specifically for this purpose and had parked it beneath a large willow tree that cast its shadow in the evening sun that partially camouflaged the car. The casual glances from the guard at the gate had failed to notice anything out of the ordinary, so he continued with his controlled pacing, attempting to emulate the caged tiger that, if released or challenged, would want blood.
Over the years, Beck had become accustomed to this type of surveillance; rather than being at the mercy of his body, he quickly learned to control his tiredness. The truth was that he could no longer afford to become tired. Tiredness meant a weakness. A tired man has lost control of his senses, and with ever increasing bouts of micro-sleep he would surely miss the face at the window, the old lady walking her dog and casually speaking to the guard, or a man returning to the house from a trip around the gardens. Beck also knew that the human eye readily recognised movement. The fly crossing the room is noticed more than the fly transfixed to the wall; most likely a throwback to an earlier time when the stationary object was not perceived as a threat, whereas motion could indicate the presence of a predator or even our prey.
But who would be the prey? Not even Beck would know this until the end game had begun. At this early stage, he had not yet reached the mid-point where he would be continually balancing on the precipice that could lead to life or death. Predator or prey.
Beck was the fly with his six legs secreting the sticky fluid so that he could remain anchored to the smooth wall, his compound eyes detecting the faintest variation in the light and his olfactory receptors on his two antennae smelling the moment, sensing the mood. Insects are very good at detecting vibration, and this insect was no different. The solitary confinement had made his senses even more acute, and he felt the vibration of an oncoming car before it rounded the corner and came into view. As the old car lumbered past he could smell the soot and nitrogen oxides, which lingered abnormally. When the gasses and particles passed into his lungs, he expelled the unnatural invaders through his mouth with a twitch from his diaphragm so that he could breathe the relatively clean air. The clean air tasted metallic compared to the irregular and gritty nature of the pollutants that left his mouth, feeling like he had eaten sand. To rid himself from the sand his salivary glands had given him sufficient moisture to collect the debris so that he could swallow it.
The house stood alone in the countryside, and its entrance was only a short distance from the main road. Privacy was not a problem for the occupants as six-foot iron railings ran along the entire perimeter, and the side of the house which faced the road was reinforced with a small chain-link fence and a row of trees which towered and stopped at a level where the green roof began. The rest of the house over-looked acres of farmland but all four sides were regularly patrolled by a group of stout, middle-aged men. As far as the local authorities were concerned, this was nothing more than a private residence. He suspected that there was more to the house, which was why he was sent to observe.
Beck considered the security guards.
During his observation, he had only seen seven different men. All of them were fat and middle-aged and wore the same standard dark blue uniform. The buttons on their tunics were metal, but they had not been well polished, the light never reflected from their dull tarnish. Above the left breast pocket was white lettering that he assumed to be their names and at the top of their arms was similar cloth badges with white lettering. This would be the name of the security firm. He was too far away for his eyes to resolve the lettering. If nothing else happened, he wanted that name. It would be a lead, a place to go, something to tell the boss.
He concluded that the low-key security lent the place a certain sobriety. But this was through design, and he began to contemplate just what lay behind this elaborate window dressing. The occupants wanted privacy, and the stout men created an atmosphere of a commercial security firm more concerned with profit than protection. But something was almost certainly behind the pretence, and whatever it was it was in constant contact with the middle-aged eyes. It was true that the house needed guarding, and it was vital for it to appear to be defended.
Beck knew nothing of what awaited any intruder, and he was given no clues as to the purpose of the building.
The guard at the gate had a routine. For ten minutes he would stand near to a wooden hut, Beck assumed that this contained a bare minimum of a telephone so that he could enquire with staff inside the house just in case an unexpected visitor arrived. Next, he would pass the main gate and out of view. Beck followed the guard’s steps for a short distance through the gaps in the trees. He seemed to meet up with a colleague. A brief conversation was entered into, and the guard would return to the main gate. Beck surmised that he would be within eye contact with the gate at all time, or at least he would if he was given the task of gatekeeper.
It was while the guard was out of view that Beck considered retrieving his binoculars from the back seat. He thought better of it. Although the shadows camouflaged the car, sunlight is always unpredictable, and he considered the risk of glare to be too great, although statistically minimal.
Beck’s heart began to pump harder as the adrenaline was quickly distributed throughout his entire body. The large black front door opened slowly. A figure disguised by a shadow cast by a nearby tree stood in the doorway. It was talking to the person who opened the door. Beck heard the muffled voices as the breeze aided the sound waves and brought the noise to him. It was too indistinct.
The figure moved forward and stepped out of the darkness. It was a woman. She walked across the small plateau, down the three steps and waited.
Beck examined the woman.
The first thing he noticed was how slim she was, and he took in her figure. He noted that she had good, wide childbearing hips, and the waist was small, too small in his opinion and considered it to be unnatural. But it must be natural, no one wears the uncomfortable corsets from the fifties that constricted breathing and by many accounts were bloody uncomfortable. She looked out of place with her bright red dress suit and her wide brimmed red hat. She would have fitted in if she were inside a church, waiting for a bride to stumble nervously up the aisle to meet the groom, fidgeting and playing with the ridiculous suit he was made to wear by the overzealous parents.
She seemed to be young, and he thought that he could smell her perfume. She was over fifty feet away, but the smell seemed to be as potent as if he were next to her. It was a horrible perfume that he had always detested. He had always referred to it as ‘Poisson’ due to its strong odour. Once he had a relationship which turned sour with a woman who wore too much of the vile scent and ever since he has regarded every woman who wore it with suspicion.
He could not get a clear view of her face as the hat partially shielded her face. But her posture was confident, and she held a pose that seemed to invite sexual attention. Beck’s mind began to construct her personal life. She was definitely single and was not involved in any serious relationship, but she may have a casual lover, strictly at her disposal. He would work with her or have regular contact with her in his job, and he would be infatuated with her. When he had pleased her, she would call him and tell him to come to her. Only then would she grant him his own ultimate pleasure, and they would have passionate sex. She would be in charge and take the lead, coming down onto him as he lies helpless on a soft mattress and would prolong the session until she felt that she had been sexually gratified. Then she would bring her lover to a climax.
If the circumstances were different, he might have approached her.
Beck’s fiction of this woman’s private life was discarded as a black sports car pulled up in front of her. A man wearing jeans and a white t-shirt stepped out of the driver’s seat and held the door open. The woman slid into the driver’s seat, and the man pushed the door shut. His job was finished; he walked away from the car and disappeared back around the side of the house.
She nodded to the guard at the gate.
The guard acknowledged her signal and flicked a switch on a control panel that activated the automatic gates. With the gates open, the woman thrust the car into gear and gently drove the car through the gates.
She turned right and drove past the tree that shielded Beck.
For the next two hours, the guards continued with their mindless routine.
No one came. No one left.
Beck had been sitting in the same position for over five hours and was beginning to lose concentration. He abandoned his surveillance.
Beck waited for a suitable window in the gate guards activities that would ensure his car would emerge from the shadow and leave with the minimum of notice.
The drive back into the city was slow.
He arrived at his hotel by nine o-clock, parked his car and went to the reception desk to collect his ‘key’.
The woman at the reception desk was young and full of vigour. “Good evening, Sir.”
“Room 4-3-0 please.” Beck thought that she must have only recently come on her shift, as no one is ever as cheerful as that, especially at nine o’clock when you have been working all day.
“There you go, Sir.” She handed over the ‘key’.
Beck took the piece of plastic from her and nodded his appreciation.
His room was on the fourth floor at the end of a corridor right of the lift doors. Beck held the piece of plastic that the receptionist had given him and swiped it aggressively in the electronic locking mechanism. A loud thud was heard, and Beck pushed open the door to reveal a standard hotel room. He circumvented the large double bed, snatched at the telephone and pressed the appropriate button that would connect him with room service. He had not eaten since breakfast, but the intense observation drained him, and he was too tired. His body silently craved food, but his mind was too focussed. As soon as his mind began to relax, he heard the quiet voice telling him that he needed food.
After a short wait, a voice came through the earpiece. “Room service. How may I be of any assistance.”
“Poached Salmon, Jersey Royals, your seasonal vegetables and a Hollandaise sauce. To drink, a half bottle of your dry house white.”
“Your room number, Sir?”
“4-3-0” Beck replaced the handset.
When the meal arrived, Beck ate it with exquisite enjoyment.
Later, after his tray had been collected, he ran himself a scalding hot bath and relaxed further. The heat from the water penetrated his muscles, and gradually the tension began to flow out from his body. He filled his lungs with the aromatic steam that carried the fragrant vapours from the soap and shampoos, this aromatherapy relaxed his mind, and he entered a state of complete relaxation.
Thirty minutes Beck lay submerged, and it was only when he felt the water cooling that he pulled himself to his feet and dried himself.
Once dry, he neatly hung the damp bath-towel over a rail and walked out of the bathroom. He slipped himself between the turned down sheets and rested his head on the feather pillow. Within minutes he was asleep.
The previous day David Beck had been summoned up to his superior’s office.
Mrs Saye was sitting behind her desk in a high-backed leather chair facing the door. The intercom came to life, and a voice penetrated the silence.
“Dr Beck has arrived.” The voice was low and had an inadvertent alluring quality.
“Good. Send him in.” Her voice snapped and almost immediately, the non-descript panelled door swung open, and Beck stepped into this woman’s domain.
“Sit down, Beck. I have had some interesting intelligence come to my attention.”
Beck silently sat in front of the desk, his eyes fixed to Saye’s, waiting for the briefing to begin.
Saye began to explain the strange coincidences that surrounded a man called Professor James Middleton. “He was first noticed when he was dismissed from a research centre in Oxfordshire in 1983. He was only working as a Laboratory Assistant and was dismissed under suspicion of misconduct. Apparently, some important papers had gone missing, and others showed signs of being disturbed. Of course, he should not have had access to them, but his immediate boss did, and it was just a simple case of borrowing his keys for a few minutes.”
“What were the papers about?” Beck spoke, and Saye continued her explanation as if she had not been interrupted.
“His boss was unaware of the theft but duly reprimanded Middleton as there was only circumstantial evidence against him. Now, the interesting point is what the papers were concerned with. The most recent advances in genetic engineering. Specifically concerned with gene transplants and the introduction of a gene into a bacterium’s ring DNA. Today that information would be out-of-date.”
“I can’t think how that would be of use,” Beck interjected.
“It is our belief, substantiated from certain overseas operations, that the research was taken abroad, to the United States. Over there he sold it to a fledgeling company called ‘Genetic Medicine’. Now the company has grown and has centres across the United States, and two years ago it set up its first centre in England. It specialises in gene therapy and does some outstanding research into the alleviation of symptoms due to genetic disorders. The American centres do some low profile, classified research in the alteration of faulty genes with embryos. So far, the United States government has only allowed this to be done on animal embryos but, as far as I know, they have not asked if they can do similar research in this country.”
“Where does James Middleton fit into the company?”
“He is officially one of their project leaders for the centre in California, but he lacks the skills for that post, and we believe that he is some kind administrator.” Saye paused. “Now, James Middleton arrived back in this country six months ago. He privately purchased a derelict Victorian House in the Midland’s countryside. For the past five months, the place has been extensively renovated, and it now looks in perfect condition. All paper-work is in order, and he has stated that the house will only be a residence.”
“So where does the department fit into this?”
“We have intelligence that leads us to believe that the house is being used as a small laboratory. When James Middleton returned to this country, there were several top level scientists on the same flight, and it is not pure coincidence that they are all employed by the same company.” Mrs Saye opened up one of her desk drawers and pulled out a plain brown folder. On the front, stamped in large red ink, were the words ‘Level 3’. Saye handed it over to Beck.
Level 3 was internal jargon for an initial surveillance mission and a general reconnoitres of the suspected premises. It carried some restrictions; everything was to be within the local law. Most operatives felt suppressed, their highly honed talent wasted, when given a Level 3 assignment, it meant a low-key, sedentary operation and it very rarely led to anything more.
Beck left Saye’s office carrying the file, nodded appreciation to her secretary, Miss Allen, and entered a small room that connected with her small, enclosed work area. The room was devoid of windows, and the only light came from a fluorescent tube that Beck turned on when he passed through the doorway. He sat at the separate table and chair and began to read and assimilate the information within the file. This was normal routine when Saye had given an assignment. No documents could ever leave the fifth floor of the government building in Whitehall.
On returning to his apartment, Beck prepared himself for his assignment. He neatly packed a small suitcase with a change of clothes and a few tricks of his trade, should he need them. He took a warm shower before preparing himself a light meal and then settled into his bed and drifted to sleep.
David Beck considered the drive to the Midlands from London to be the most fatuous. Most of the way, he was confined to the M1, and during the long, arduous drive, he began to consider the task ahead. The details of the case rattled inside his skull, his brain tried to formulate an essence of a plan. He had two leads, a name and an address. He knew that the standard observation of the house rarely led to any new information, but it was something that had to be done. Beck considered that the first few days should be enough to take care of it and, in the likely event of not turning up with anything, Beck began to think. A break-in constituted a level 2 assignment and was out of the question. The usual course of action would be to report back to headquarters and try to persuade them to increase to a level 2.
Beck’s concentration began to taper as the perpetual landscape of the high grass verges, and the few randomly planted saplings quickly relinquished him of any free will. He was just another reluctant automaton with eyes ahead, measuring the distance between his bonnet and the car in front.
The sign said that the turn-off was two miles ahead and Beck was jolted out of the state of automatic pilot and began to take more notice of the traffic around him.
Leicester is very near to the M1 with its outlying retail parks within one minute of the turn-off. In good traffic, one could be inside the city centre within ten minutes, but the city’s hotels suffered from the common disease of accessibility. The constant rebuilding and refurbishing of premises meant that any car parking space was built on long ago to cater for a sudden increase of office space that, seemingly, no-one neither wants nor uses.
If Beck needed to be anywhere in a hurry or needed to disappear with haste, he would have to resign himself to an out-of-town business-class hotel; containing irritating sales and business commuters travelling between their many different offices situated throughout the country. In his opinion, Beck made the ultimate sacrifice; he chose practicality over luxury.
The house he was to investigate was north of the city, so Beck chose a hotel in the same area. It was a sizeable eight-story hotel within an easy distance of both the motorway and the city.
“Good afternoon, Sir. How may I help you?” The eager receptionist spoke before Beck had reached her.
“A room, please. For three nights initially but I am likely to stay longer.”
“Certainly, Sir. Your name please?” The receptionist began to ask for some personal details and punched them into her computer.
After three minutes of two-finger typing on the keyboard, she announced, “Room four hundred and thirty.”
“I will pay for the three days now as I may need to leave at short notice.”
“There is no need as the desk is staffed twenty-four hours a day.” The young girl was confused by this strange request.
Beck insisted on paying his bill in advance and hauled his bags over to the lift.
Once inside his room, he heaved a sigh of relief and placed his suitcase on the large double bed and rummaged through it for a change of clothes. He neatly placed his clean clothes on the bed next to the suitcase, undressed and walked through to his standard en suite bathroom. Checking that the hotel had left towels, he stepped into the shower and turned on a ferocious jet of ice cold water and basked in the invigorating experience. As soon as his senses had become accustomed to the cold, he turned up the heat and began to lather his body with the complimentary soap. With all his pores ceremoniously cleaned he washed away the lingering lather with another dose of icy water.
Beck turned off the shower, drew back the curtain, snatched at one of the clinically white towels and began to dry his body. Stepping out the bath he slung the towel over his left shoulder and looked in the mirror on the wall above the hand basin. Beck brushed his hand through his damp hair and stared at his reflection.
The face was alert, but the eyes held a quizzical slant against the neat black outline of his eyebrows. His mouth was thin, with only a slight suggestion of lips. A scar acquired in childhood sat just above his lip and was now almost indistinguishable, the scar tissue mellowing with age. He had a medium build with very little fat, his body was generally well trimmed with a muscle tone that was not obtrusive but good enough for more sustained strain. The protruding muscles of well-trained weight lifters are excellent for short sharp bursts of power but are ineffective when faced with any endurance, for that you require stamina and when you play that game, big is never best.
This assured man was not the one he once was. His life had been changed by The Organisation. Very few people ever turn down one of their requests as they transport you from a life of inconsequential research to one of infinite possibilities. He was given a chance and grabbed it hard with both hands until his fingers throbbed. The thought of ever having to return to some stolid research laboratory with obsequious professors that feigned humanity now filled him with repulsion.
Beck dressed, and his thoughts turned to the assignment and his forthcoming surveillance.
It was now three o’clock in the morning, and Beck was still in his hotel room, asleep. The apparently fruitless surveillance had left him tired as the mental exertion is often more gruelling than any physical exercise. A few decades earlier similar operatives would take drugs to aid their stamina, but it only happens in a few rare cases these days, and when it does it is officially frowned upon.
A deep low hum invaded Beck’s dream. He was in a deep sleep, but the noise caused him to slowly emanate to a state of ‘semi-sleep’, the time where sleep and consciousness mix and the dreams sit longer on the memory when you finally waken. As he approached this intermediate state, the hum in his dream faded and transformed into a dull ring. The ring grew louder in his mind until it grew to be deafening and as Beck began to inch ever closer to consciousness. The deafening noise subsided and levelled until it resembled the quiet sound the telephone made, demanding to be answered.
Beck wrenched his eyes open, tossed the blankets from his body and lifted his back from the bed. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and snatched at the telephone.
“Good morning, Mr Beck.” The pleasant and energetic reply echoed in Beck’s ear. “This is Louise Allen. I have a message from Mrs Saye.”
“Your hotel has satellite television?”
“Switch on to the twenty-four-hour news channel. Something you will be very interested in. She wants your report as soon as possible before there is a change in policy.”
Before she finished the last sentence, Beck had already replaced the telephone receiver and began to fumble with the controls on his television, trying to search out the one channel out of the myriad on offer.
The newscaster spoke with the usual concern when she explained to the few who were watching that ‘Genetic Medicine’ had gone into liquidation. But something was out of the ordinary.
Much of the expensive scientific equipment had disappeared and with it all the managers and scientists. Only an empty building with a discoloured logo betrayed the presence of a company ever having occupied the site. A few minor employees, mainly cleaners and office staff, had turned up for work after the Bank Holiday weekend to find the doors locked. A camera crew waiting to record their reactions when they saw the small notice attached to the main entrance that explained the situation.
The newscasters suggested that the management, knowing of the imminent insolvency, had sold off the equipment to line their own pockets. Beck did not agree with them. If that had happened, the employees would have known and assuming that they did know they would have mentioned it to the television crew.
No. They had definitely moved the equipment. But where? ‘Genetic Medicine’ was situated nearly fifty miles away from the house. The House. It was a possibility as Beck ran the facts through his brain. It was time for a change of plan. He disregarded the level 3 constraint that had been put on him. Only he was in a position to move fast, Head Office would need at least a few days consultation, and as for the report She demanded. She could go to hell.
Beck drove to within a mile of the Victorian house, forced his car off the road and hid it behind the nearest hedge in a fallow field. He decided to walk the short distance to the house. He had dressed in black from head to foot, if any passing motorist had seen him, they would have undoubtedly thought him to be a burglar. But he kept himself off the road and chose to walk in the shallow dyke that trailed the road.
As he walked, his clothes kept rubbing against the overgrown hedge that accompanied the dyke, and he would occasionally stumble as the sporadic bramble ensnared his feet.
When Beck was within a hundred yards of the house, he found a suitable gap in the hedge and thrust himself through into the field. The field offered little cover, but the perimeter fence was not as threatening as the large secure gates that shadowed the road.
Voices invaded the still night air. The coldness of the ether created the illusion that the noise had no point of origin, but it could only have come from the house.
Beck lowered his body on to the soil and crawled away from the blackness that the hedge created. The light, reflected by the moon, shone on the field and was reflected by the dampness in the soil. Out in the open, the moonlight might betray his presence. But he needed to take that risk. He needed to know about the voices.
A group of four men were manoeuvring a sizeable wooden tea chest from the large front door onto the rear lift mechanism of a lorry. One of the men reached out and pressed the sunken green button that caused the machinery to wheeze and hiss as the hydraulics lifted the heavy package. Two of the men then simply slid the tea chest into the main body of the lorry that was already saturated with other boxes. The men then jumped the four-foot from the platform to the ground and landed with a heavy thud. The rear of the lorry was then closed with a hideous rumble, and the lorry’s lift machinery neatly tucked away.
“All done, Professor Middleton.” One of the burly men shouted at the open front door.
James Middleton walked out of the house, slamming the door shut. “Right, you can leave now. You know where to go.”
The four men bundled themselves into the cabin of the lorry while Middleton opened the gates by remote control.
As the lorry passed between the gates, Middleton walked around the side of the house and climbed into his metallic grey Mercedes-Benz. The sound of the constrained powerful engine confidently turned over as it waited for Middleton to get comfortable. Once he was settled, he allowed the engine its freedom as he drove off, closing the gates behind him using his remote control.
With Middleton gone, Beck raised himself to full height and began the trudge to the perimeter fence. His overt presence cried out for a perimeter guard to approach him and force him inside for questioning. Beck wanted a guard to tackle him. A guard would mean that they had not just abandoned the house and Beck’s assignment would still be alive. But there was no guard.
Beck, not even bothering to surreptitiously open the window, grabbed his handgun which was fixed to the small of his back by a leather holster and smashed the large pane with its butt. A quick fondle at the window lock, and he was inside the deserted room. Beck methodically searched the entire house, every cupboard, draw and wardrobe, but found no evidence that the house had been used for anything else other than a simple residence. He decided that he would have to get forensics down to look the place over, the evidence he needed may be microscopic. The dust and air might just contain traces of chemicals that would give his organisation some indisputable evidence against ‘Genetic Medicine’.
The kitchen had not been cleared as thoroughly as the rest of the house. Beck stood in the middle of the room, pondering why they did not take the electrical equipment from the kitchen. Furthermore, the kitchen had rather a lot of discarded newspaper strewn over the floor and on a work-surface was an open bottle of a strong kitchen cleaner.
“A fire. They are going to burn the bloody place down. But how?” Beck grimaced. “A fire-bomb through the window? No, that would be too suspicious. It must be an accident!” Beck looked at the electrical equipment, but before he could begin any examination, the toaster burst into flames. The flames grew and lapped at the cool air, trying to sustain themselves. Beck stood helpless as the flames found a home – the flammable kitchen cleaner. As the fumes caught light, the precarious bottle tumbled and the flammable liquid spilt over the kitchen floor. Beck had no option other than to get out.
If the fire could be stopped, then he may still be able to find some evidence in the rooms unaffected by the blaze. But he doubted it.
Beck stood alone on the gravelled driveway.
“Bastards.” His cry almost curdled the night air.
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