A New Assignment
December 24th, 2012
The evening frost had settled on the pavements of Baker Street, London. Being Christmas Eve, everybody had gone home early to celebrate Christmas with their families, so, aside from the London buses that drove by every few minutes, the street was deserted, save for a tall figure in a hooded winter coat walking alone along the sidewalk, towards a shabby-looking coffee shop opposite the closed Holmes Museum. The figure glanced briefly through the shop window, before pushing the door open and entering.
He took a seat at a table in a secluded corner of the room, opposite a rather burly-looking man with ginger hair and a matching beard, who was sipping a beer, expecting him. The two men stared at each other for a few seconds before the burly man put aside his pint, crossed his hands and spoke in a rather nervous voice.
"About bloody time Al; I thought you’d never come…"
"Good evening to you too, Dr Shaw", replied the newcomer in a cold voice as he removed his snow-flaked hood, revealing a pale, well-built man in his mid-thirties, with unkempt black hair and an unshaven face with a thin toothbrush-like moustache. The only impairment visible was the horn-rimmed glasses on his nose, which, ironically, also gave him the impression of a person with a cultivated mind. From afar, he’d give the impression of a fellow accustomed to intense physical activity, with his broad shoulders and developed muscles. His dark hazel eyes however, hidden behind his spectacles, seemed to have a haunted look in them, almost as if he was being tormented by some inner demons, as he continued avoiding his friend's deep brown eyes.
"Since when am I Dr Shaw to you?" replied the man called Shaw, struggling to get his friend Alan's full attention. Dr Alan Johnson, a withdrawn marine of the Royal Navy, was an associate professor at the Royal University of London. A keen adventurer and dedicated conservationist at heart, he taught zoology and botany at the university, focusing on teaching his students into realising the importance and value of nature, now under grave threat from human overpopulation and exploitation.
His friend and colleague Dr Derek Shaw, an Irish-born immigrant from Belfast, was a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the same university. A skilled engineer, he specialised in engine and propulsion systems design. Alan and Derek were childhood friends, having met as orphans and built their future together; Alan had even married and started a family, until a little over a year ago, when his life had suddenly taken an unsuspected turn for the worst.
"Look Deke, I am not here to play childish games," snapped the raven haired man in frustration, "Now, will you please be so kind as to get straight to the point and tell me, why the hell did you drag me down here from Chelsea? I have much more important things to do at home, you know!" He continued avoiding his friend's eyes, instead staring absentmindedly out the shop window. Derek Shaw sighed in silent pity at his friend's depression, one he had been desperately trying to help Alan overcome throughout the past year, but without success.
"Al, will you quit acting like a fruitcake and look at me, please? For the past year you have become more paranoid than a bloody hermit! You take that bastard Rector’s ‘advice’ and quit your job, literally throwing your hard-earned career out the window without protest, only to reduce yourself to an isolated drunk, on the verge of bankruptcy!"
"That was my decision Derek, not yours," replied Alan coldly as he struck a match on the underside of the table and lit a crumpled cigarette he had taken out of his pocket, even though it was a non-smoking area. He inhaled several deep puffs as if the nicotine was a calming medication, "Ever since the funeral, I just couldn't keep up any more, not with the memory of Mary and Lucy tormenting me without end…"
March 14th, 2011
A jeep drove down the country lane towards the village of Sydmonton; the Johnson family was on a daytrip, on their way to visit Alan’s friend and colleague Dr Cole Drake in his country home. Derek, little Lucy’s godfather, was also along for the ride.
It had been a little over three months since the war between the East and West had finally come to an end; after two years of bloodshed and hostilities, China and Russia had finally abandoned their plans of constructing nuclear missile launch stations on the moon and declared peace with the United States and its European allies. World War III, ας the first nuclear war of the 21st century was known, had claimed the lives of nearly a billion people worldwide, including more than half of the British population, was over, leaving behind a ravaged world with a ruined global economy to recover.
Alan had returned from China, where he had served as an enlisted marine, after having spent many months as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp, overjoyed to find his family had survived the war. After being granted a discharge from the army, having refused a preposition for an officer’s rank because of his courage on the front, he had returned to civilian life, intent on remaining close to his family from there on.
A little raven-haired girl of around with hazel eyes, identical to her father’s, shook Alan’s sleeve, pointing up at Watership Down, "Daddy, isn't Hazel-rah's warren up there?"
"Certainly is, Squirt," replied a then happy Alan, ruffling his daughter Lucy’s hair with one hand, keeping the other firmly clutched on the wheel. "Tell you what," he said, having come up with a sudden idea to give his family a treat, "After we pick up Cole from Nuthanger Farm, maybe we can climb the Down and have our picnic there. What do you think, honey?" He looked at his wife who smiled.
"We'd love to, darling."
As they approached the rendezvous place – the edge of the footpath that led to Nuthanger Farm – they noticed Drake was nowhere to be seen. Derek rolled his eyes, “Late as usual. Probably holed up in his lab again…”
Suddenly, something strange caught their attention: in the distance were the ruins of Nuthanger Farm, which was supposedly deserted for years. Yet, now, they could see smoke coming from behind the trees where the farmhouse stood.
"That's odd Deke," said Alan to his friend, pointing at the mysterious smoke coming from the farm, "Who on earth would want to buy that dump, with all those new condominiums sold for heypennies back in Newbury?" Derek shrugged his shoulders.
"Beats me, Al. Ιt could be another group of homeless folk using the old place as a dormitory, just like that old warehouse back in town. Hell, with half the country bombed to the ground, I wouldn't be surprised if we keep finding transients huddled up in every rat hole still standing for the next ten years…" But Alan, always a man of his instincts, felt suspicious and swung the jeep round, heading down the footpath towards the farm.
“There's something fishy going on in there, Deke,” he said, as they caught sight of the farm, the outbuildings all boarded-up, seemingly deserted, save for the smoke coming from the old farmhouse chimney, “It looks almost as if whoever is in there, doesn't want to be seen or heard… What if it's another gang of guerrillas using the place as a hideout?"
True, there had been many incidents with Chinese suicide bombers following the war, renegades determined on making a last stand, including one particularly nasty one involving an MP’s car being blown up in Trafalgar Square only a few days ago, killing a dozen people. As a result, police and military alike had tightened up security around the country, urging any suspicious activity to be reported at once to law enforcement.
"Well, I guess there is only one way to find out for certain…"
They drove down the winding footpath and stopped just beyond the closed garden gate. From there they had an excellent view of the farm. The place gave every impression of being abandoned; the farmhouse was coated in weeds and ivy, just like the overgrown garden and plantation site, with a sign on the rusting fence, warning trespassers to keep out. The only sign of life was the smoke coming from the chimney of the old house. If there was someone inside, they’d soon find out.
Alan got out of the car and Derek followed suit, "All right, love, Deke and I are going to get a closer look. Most likely, it’s nothing; but if you hear trouble, get out of here as fast as you can and send for the police," he said, tossing his wife the keys.
"Please be careful Alan."
“We will, don't worry.”
Wading through the overgrown field that had once been the farm's plantation site, they found a hole in the fence and managed to climb into the overgrown farmyard. Alan chanced a peak through one of the boarded-up windows but saw nothing but darkness inside. The place looked completely deserted, and no one answered their knock. Then, suddenly, Derek, who had gone to inspect the ruined barns beside the farmhouse, came running up to Alan.
"Come and look at this. It’s a bloody slaughter house in there!"
He led Alan to the open door of the decaying barn and they peered inside at a terrible sight: standing in rows, were a large number of bamboo frames, where the skins of wildlife, mostly red foxes, were nailed up to dry. Several tubs of water that was coloured with blood as well as piles of discarded animal bones and entrails lay in corners. The slaughterhouse was thick with flies and maggots. Gagging at the unbearable smell, they ran outside to throw up.
"Poachers Deke," muttered Alan to Derek, who had turned a shade of green, as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, "Looks like the black market is booming already with all this post-war chaos."
"Yes, lets get the hell out of here! We don't want to be found nosing around here," said Derek in an urgent whisper, "Let’s get on a phone and send for the police…" They hadn't a single step, however, when a voice suddenly rang out across the garden.
"TRESPASSERS! SHOOT THEM!"
Three hooded men armed with shotguns had appeared on the scene, springing at them. Alan, who had had plenty of training in martial arts, didn’t hesitate. Picking up a rusted pitchfork, he threw it like a spear in the direction of the first henchman, as he raised his gun at him. The weapon found its mark straight into both of the man's kneecaps and he fell, howling in agony. Springing at his fallen opponent, he kicked the gun out of his hands, before knocking him unconscious with another powerful kick in the face.
Derek, although not a martial artist, wasn't doing too badly either. As the second henchman took aim, he seized a log from a rotting pile of firewood beside the barn and flung it at his opponent’s face before he could open fire. The man fell to the ground, choking up several loose teeth.
As the pair turned their attention back to the third poacher who had sounded the alarm, they saw that he had slipped away in the fight, running for the road. Suddenly, a scream was heard from the direction of the jeep, followed by two gunshots in rapid succession. The poached was attacking Mary and Lucy!
They rushed back to the gate, just in time to see the jeep speeding off into the distance, the escaping poacher at the wheel. Suddenly, an explosive device lying on the footpath, detonated, unleashing a geyser of blood and human flesh, which were the bodies of Mary and Lucy. Alan, drenched in the ghastly mess, which, until a minute ago, had been his wife and daughter, sunk to his knees, about to be sick again. Derek put a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder, "I am sorry, Alan. I’m so sorry…"
A few days later, after the investigations were over and the coroner had confirmed that the recovered fragments brought to him in rubbish bags, were all that was left of Mary and Lucy, Alan and Derek attended the funeral. The police had found Alan's abandoned jeep outside Overton, but no trace of the killer. All the evidence recovered from the farm showed it was simply an amateur poaching ring, a very common occurrence in these troubled times, and with no leads on the third poacher, the search was soon called off. The other two poachers had been arrested but had mysteriously died in prison shortly thereafter, apparently from suicide. After the trial, Alan began a new life of solitary confinement, overwhelmed by guilt.
Derek looked up at his friend with sympathy and said in a low, yet firm voice, "Alan, I am telling you for the last time, what happened wasn't your fault! There was nothing you could have done to save them; neither of us could. You must face facts: what is done is done. It is time you got over it and started anew."
"What is your point, Derek?" asked Alan coldly, "Surely you didn't drag me all the way down here just to give me another of your confounded lectures on how to get on with my bloody life? Like you haven't been doing that enough for the past year…"
"No, it is mostly about this," Derek said, tossing a sealed envelope across the table to Alan, "It was posted to me with instructions to deliver it to you in person. I suppose because you won't open your mail or answer phone calls any more…" Fuming at his friend's disapproval, but, on the other hand, intrigued by all this secrecy, Alan opened it and read aloud. His pale face instantly turned from greyish white to a furious red.
"WHAT! An application for a documentary consultant? Some sick moron thinks he can pay me so he can exploit the deaths of my wife and daughter for a publicity stunt, huh? No bloody way! You tell the sender to find another drama boy to promote his show. Merry Christmas, Deke." He got up to leave but Derek grabbed his arm, pulling him back into his seat.
"Al, wait! Listen to me. You can't go on like this forever. Just look at yourself, mate! You are wasting away, both physically and mentally. If you continue leading this wretched way of life, in another year you'll be living in a pauper's dormitory, or a mental institution. You need a way out, Alan, and I am offering it to you as a friend. If you can't do it for me, then do it for them." He gave Alan a pleading look, much like a dog comforting its distraught master.
"You never give up do you Deke?” asked Alan, finally giving in at the mention of his late family, but only half-heartedly, “Fine, I accept the job. However, I will make myself clear on one thing right now: The deaths of my family are not to be exploited in any way whatsoever for publicity. They are not even to be mentioned on camera. Understood?"
"Okay, I’ll make sure of that. Besides, I will also be coming with you. They’ve asked for an engineering consultant familiar with the bombs dropped over New Forest, so I volunteered." During the war, New Forest National Park had been rezoned for military use, serving as the secret location of Station Omega, the key satellite intercept and radio decipher station in the country. When word had reached enemy Intelligence, the Chinese had launched a pre-emptive strike, using their prototype TACO missiles, levelling everything from Totton to Ringwood and leaving the area infested with fallout, not unlike Chernobyl.
“The contract says we will be doing the observation by air, since New Forest is still a restricted zone,” Derek explained, “The documentarian has also hired a plane and pilot to fly us over the area. All expenses are covered, plus we each get a £1,500 cheque. That should help you make a start… We’ll be meeting them in Newbury this coming Thursday. I’ll email him tonight and tell him you’ve accepted. All right, come on let's get cracking. I will call by your apartment tomorrow to help you pack. Goodnight Al, and a Merry Christmas to you."
"You too, Deke," Alan replied grimly, fighting the urge to yell at his friend to give him a break with his sympathy. Derek raised an eyebrow, "What happened to the Alan Johnson I once knew?" Before his friend could retort, however, a fat man in a mechanic's uniform, who had been eavesdropping from the table next to theirs, interrupted.
"Dr Alan Johnson? My, my, folks, Dr Psycho has come calling!" he chanted rudely, chewing at his motor-oil stained fingernails, "So what's the true story behind your late wife? She wasn't good enough for you or did she have a boyfriend?" Alan's eyes flashed with fury. Although he had been cleared of all manslaughter charges at the trial - mostly thanks to Derek’s testimony - the newspapers had continued printing hideous articles about him, ruthlessly running his name through the mud. Many had even accused him of being an accessory to the murders, prompting the Rector to pushing him into resigning, to avoid a scandal, further smearing his name in the process.
Derek, always defensive of his friend, stood up, furious. "You shut your pie hole or I’ll ram my fist down your gob, you hear?" he growled in a dangerous voice, but the grease monkey, either too full of drink or simply too dumb to get the message, took no notice.
"Hey, wait a minute, let me guess,” he chuckled, “You got some hooker pregnant and didn't want to break her heart, huh?" He roared with laughter, clutching his hairy stomach. Something inside Alan snapped and he lunged at the man with the wildness of a deranged bull.
With a swift kick, he broke the leg off the fat man’s chair, sending him crashing to the floor. In another instant, he had him pinned down, with his foot pressed hard over the man's throat, nearly chocking him.
"Get this into your skull, meatball," he hissed in a deadly voice at the now terrified grease monkey, who was struggling to breathe, "Never…talk…about…my…family…like…that!" Finally, he released his grip on the man’s throat, before he could choke him to death, but not before turning round and giving him one final kick direct in the groin. Behind the counter, the bartender went for the phone, to ring the police. Furious, but not willing to land them both in police custody for assault, Alan turned and hurried out the door with Derek, the fat man’s agonizing screams ringing in their ears.
Later, at Drayton Court, Chelsea
After disembarking at Earl's Court Station, Alan made his way home alone. His residence was a Victorian-era apartment on the first floor of a restored block of flats, inherited from his late parents. The street was completely deserted and he heard only his own footsteps as he walked along the icy sidewalk to number 31. Shredded war posters still hung in tatters from the lampposts and shop windows, giving the neighbourhood an air of abandonment. Grimly, Alan mounted the stairs to the porch.
As he whipped out a key to unlock the door, his eyes fell on the glass of the window in the door. He could see his own reflection staring back at him; but it wasn't the only one. Beside him stood a human-sized rabbit, smiling back at him… Alarmed, he spun round, brandishing a Commando knife, a gift from his late father, which he always carried around with him, illegal or not. His eyes scanned every inch of the street, but there was nobody in sight; just a deserted street with snow starting to accumulate all over the concrete pavements. Sighing, he put his knife back in its holster and turned back to the door.
"Too much alcohol…" he muttered grimly to himself, "Or maybe I do need a psychiatrist after all…" Swiftly, he entered, slamming the door behind him in frustration. The hallway was dark and silent, all of the apartments deserted, their owners having died in the war or moved away. His only remaining neighbour was Mrs Hanson, his old housekeeper and concierge of the building, who occupied the basement apartment.
Without bothering to even flick on the light, Alan blindly climbed the stairs to the door on the first landing. His apartment was the largest in the building, taking up most of the first floor, with views on either side of the block. Unlocking the shabby door, he entered, locking it behind him.
Although his apartment was gloomy and melancholy, its large empty rooms still had the air of a place that held many memories. He strode through the high-ceiling parlour, down a carpet-strewn corridor, to his study, where he had spent most of the past year, drowning away his sorrows in privacy.
A large 18th century Chippendale desk stood in the centre of the room, surrounded by tall bookcases lining the walls. Their shelves housed a vast library, as well as an impressive collection of biological and mineralogical samples, sitting on display in sealed glass jars and beakers. The tops of the bookcases were also decorated with replicas or collectable scientific instruments of all ages. A pair of French glass-windows behind the desk led to a balcony that had been converted into a greenhouse by a transparent, thermal tent hanging from the railing of the overhead balcony. This was Alan’s home laboratory, where he’d test growing plants under different experimental conditions for his private research. However, the place had been left unattended for months now, following his resignation, the plants all having since rotted away into a foul-smelling mess.
Alan sat down at his messy desk, looking down at an open photo album, where his grim life’s story was recorded in the form of photographs: himself in 1988, aged ten, with his father Jack and his estranged older brother Royce (their mother had died giving birth to Alan); on their family safari trip in Kenya in 1989, where their father had died of malaria; himself as a teenager in 1996 alongside Derek Shaw and two other friends from the orphanage where he had grown up, posing together for a photo. Later photos of his older self in a tuxedo with his wife beside him at their wedding in 2002; a photo of him with Mary in 2004, their infant daughter in his wife's arms; himself as an enlisted man in 2009, and finally, a photograph of their family reunion in 2011. Then followed by a large number of empty pages from when he had stopped keeping photographs.
In spite of his painful memories, his friend’s words kept repeating themselves over and over in his head: Get on with your life. But what was the point, when he had nothing left to live for? Feeling pissed off with his own misery, he slammed the album shut, and went to the kitchen, to pour himself some cold tinned broth from a saucepan sitting on the hob. Picking up a beer from the fridge on his way out, he went into the lounge, making himself comfortable on the sofa, to eat his supper.
As he looked around for the remote to switch on the news, he noticed his favourite book, Watership Down by Richard Adams, lying on the messy coffee table. A faint smile formed across Alan’s face remembering how many times his daughter, a fan of the story like her father, would ask him to read it to her before bedtime when she was alive. Picking it up, he walked into his daughter’s bedroom and placed it onto her empty bed, a tear rolling down his face. As he walked back to the lounge, he heard the newsman speaking.
"…The mysterious weather phenomenon that has being observed in the sky over the former New Forest National Park for the past three days still persists. Starting on the evening of the 21st, this magnificent sight, resembling an Aurora Borealis, has been observed in the skies over the restricted zone every night. Its origin remains uncertain, although there are a few theories that it may be the result of the radioactive fallout still present in the area, as well as several whispered rumours associating it with the foretold unknown 2012 event. This is the BBC News Home Service…"
Feeling exhausted, Alan switched off the television and dragged himself to bed, for his nighttime hell. His usual nightmares, haunting him every night since the murder of his family, paid him their usual visit; only, this time, as he stares at the ground where the bodies of Mary and Lucy should be, he sees they have been replaced with some giant, humanoid rabbits, lying mutilated in a pool of their blood. One stretches out its paw in his direction as if begging him for help. He tries to reach out to them only to find he is frozen stiff as a board, unable to do anything other than continue watching this scene of slaughter. In the background, he hears a sinister voice roaring with malicious laughter, tormenting him. Unable to bear it anymore, he screams…
Alan sat up in bed, drenched in cold sweat and shaking violently. Nightmares had been his frequent night companions since the deaths of his family, but they had never been this bad before. Maybe his decision to go on this trip would do him more harm than good?
Unable to get back to sleep, he got out of bed and went back to the kitchen, seeking his finest remedy: alcohol. Rumbling through the nearly empty drinks cupboard, he found a bottle of Jack Daniels. Grabbing a can of soda and a glass from the sink, he returned to the lounge. Making himself comfortable on the sofa putting on a movie, he turned to his drink, draining it in large gulps, like water through a sieve.
Soon the alcohol started making him feel drowsy, with the bottle of whiskey quickly dwindling. His vision swam, as he stared at the pictures of his dead relatives that decorated the walls of the living room: his parents Jack and Susan, and his brother Royce, who had always felt bitterness towards him because it had been his birth that had taken their mother away from them. He had perished at sea during the war, without ever making amends with his brother. Also, there was his brother-in-law Miles, a chronic drinker and drug addict, who had also died from a heart attack last year, and finally, his wife and daughter.
In his drunken state, he saw the people in the pictures suddenly start coming to life, bursting out of their glass frames, as if intending to grab him. He screamed, throwing his hands in front of his face, trying to defend himself, but then realised he was only brushing away thin air…
He looked around again and realised it was morning at last; another long night of nightmares and mental torment was over. Then he suddenly became aware that he wasn't alone; Derek was standing beside him, the waste bin in his hand, with the empty whiskey bottle smashed inside it where he had thrown it. A perfect wake up call.
"Bloody hell, Deke, what are you trying to do, give me a heart attack? Alan groaned, sitting up and rubbing his sore temples, fighting the urge to be sick from the hangover, “How did you get in?”
"Mrs Hanson let me in,” Derek said, holding up the bin that contained the pieces of the broken bottle in disapproval, “Gee, Al, did you have to hit them booze again?" The old housekeeper had become so upset with Alan getting dangerously drunk all the time that she had entrusted Derek with the spare key to the apartment, for whenever he didn't answer the door, firmly refusing to go in herself. Alan sat up.
"I just wanted to get a buzz, so kill me," he groaned, as he walked over to the kettle and put some water on to boil for a coffee. If his friend was going into another of his lectures so early in the morning, he could take it and shove it. Then, feeling the contents of his stomach about to spill, he rushed to the bathroom and threw up. Derek shook his head.
"No, thank you, Al. Τhe police are already on their toes with a case of disappearance, to be wasting their time hunting me down for doing your sorry arse in.” Alan, the alcohol flushed out of his system, reappeared with a box of antidepressants, prescribed to him by his psychiatrist.
"Huh, what disappearance? Who?"
"Your old boss’s family, Dr Drake’s. Like they just vanished into thin air," Derek replied, tossing Alan a copy of the Times. The headline read:
'SCIENTIST'S FAMILY MISSING
WIFE AND SON OF DR COLE DRAKE VANISH WITHOUT A TRACE. KIDNAPPING SUSPECTED.'
Dr Cole Drake, a famous British scientist, of Russian ancestry, was another of Alan's old university colleagues, head of their department. A Nobel-awarded lead expert in bioengineering, as well as another keen conservationist, with whom Alan had formed a close partnership. His research focused on cloning of genetically enhanced species, in response to the rapidly crumpling environment, with Alan combining his own ecological research to the project. The outbreak of the war had forced them to postpone work some years ago; after the war, Alan had been about to resume his work with Drake, when the deaths of his wife and daughter had forced him to withdraw altogether, and they had since lost touch.
"Drake gave a statement to the police, that they left home yesterday to go to a concert at the Albert Hall and never came back. Some suspect it might be a case of kidnapping, although nobody has made any demands so far. Weird, huh? Why would Drake's wife and son just take off like that? Although, knowing how he was always more attached to his work than to them…”
Alan looked up from the newspaper, "Who cares, Deke? Look, lets just forget it and get down to business. The sooner this crap is over, the happier I'll be," Indeed, he wasn’t in the mood to discuss Drake. That man was no longer his concern; he had disappeared from his life the day his wife and daughter had died, along with all their research together.
They spent the rest of the morning putting Alan’s neglected apartment in a little order, and packing. After lunch, Derek returned to his own home in Hammersmith, to do his own packing, returning to Alan's apartment in the evening, who had agreed to put him up for the night. After ordering in pizza for dinner, they settled down to watch a movie, enjoying their evening.
That night, with Derek snoring like a foghorn in the guest room, without a care in the world, Alan drifted off to sleep, his usual nightmares returning to torment him, as they had done every night for the past miserable year…