Hayden's Realm - Chapter 1
Max Hayden was a smug, self-centred bastard.
As he left the tall office building, he had smugness written all over his face. He was good, and he knew it.
He strolled out to his car, opened the door, tossed his briefcase into the back seat and climbed in.
Taking a smartphone from his inside pocket, he swiped across and brought-up his contact list. Near to the top, his finger stopped at ‘Katie Cowell’. He was about to press ‘Call’ but stopped. He smirked and put the phone away.
Pulling out into the main road, he leaned across slightly and pushed the ‘Play’ button on the in-car entertainment system. He wound Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Back in the USA’ up as loud as he could bear and bowled along the motorway.
Max turned his key in the lock of the solid wooden front door.
His shirt was unbuttoned at the top and his tie half undone. He set down his briefcase just inside and put his suit jacket on top.
A young woman was absorbed in grating carrot into a bowl of salad. He crept up behind her and put both arms around her waist, swung her round and pecked the nape of her neck.
Katie acted a little surprised, although she had heard him come in. She turned and smiled.
“Well, how did it go?” she asked excitedly, nodding her head in encouragement.
Max put on a poker face and looked her straight in the eye.
“You are only…”
He breathed on his right finger tips and stroked his collar lightly.
“…Looking at the new Technical Director of McGregor Aerospace!”
She smiled and nodded deliberately.
“Oh…” she said.
He picked her off the ground again in a tight hug. They jumped up and down in a joyful dance.
“I just knew you would get it,” she whooped.
He stuck out his tongue at her.
“So did I!”
He took the salad bowl from the kitchen worktop, opened the refrigerator door and stowed it inside.
“Tonight, we are celebrating,” he said.
Katie gave him another big hug and kissed him again.
“Where would you like to go?”
“Giovanni’s?” she asked, pausing slightly with a question on her voice. “Can…we afford it?”
“Whatever,” he said. He lifted his briefcase from the hallway, unlocked the catches and removed his laptop. He took out a manilla folder, reconsidered and promptly put the folder and computer back in again. The briefcase was locked and pushed back under the hall table out of sight.
“They put me through three interviews but I had this sneaking suspicion that they’d given me the job already. It was just a matter of getting the head honcho on board,” he continued.
“If we are going to Giovanni’s, you might want to ditch the jeans and sweater.”
Katie liked to dress casually - jeans, white trainers, sloppy jumpers. Her short blonde hair bobbed around her ears. She also liked to wear lipstick. Max hated it.
She knuckled him on the shoulder.
“I’ll go scrub-up,” she mocked, heading out into the hallway and up the stairs.
Max fetched the briefcase, unlocked it and took out the manilla folder. His eyes glazed over as he flicked through the turgid contracts.
His mind wandered.
Max was neither tall nor thin. His scalp was shaved short, a perfect complement to the designer stubble on his face.
He had joined the Royal Navy as a graduate with a good degree from Cambridge at the age of twenty-five. That was eleven years ago. He had stayed in the Navy for five years and was licensed to fly both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Most of his work was in avionics and control systems. When he left the Navy, he went to work for Advanced Aviation and had become a star player in his field. Now he had been headhunted by a major competitor and was about to move on.
Katie was ten years his junior. They had met in a pub where he often had lunch or drinks after work and hit it off right away. Within six months, they were living together.
In her teens, she had planned on becoming a fashion model. She certainly had the looks: tall, long legs, beautiful face. An unfortunate set of circumstances involving bulimia, anorexia and hospital put paid to that.
It was totally by accident that she fell into the antiques business. Her friend Judy asked her to help out at a fair one day. She really enjoyed it and was soon dabbling on her own, making a few quid here and there. It was more of a hobby than an occupation but she bought an old Mini Countryman so that she could lug stuff around.
Katie liked Max because…well, she never really worked that one out.
He loved her just because she was Katie.
Max put a measure of Arabica beans into his hand-cranked coffee grinder. He was a coffee snob, although he preferred the word ‘connoisseur’. He tipped the aromatic grounds into a filter cone lined with unbleached filter paper. The boiled water was allowed to cool for a minute before he poured it over the coffee grounds. Fresh black filter coffee. He couldn’t think of anything better.
Nearly half an hour later, Katie came back downstairs. Max was finishing his coffee in the kitchen.
“Will I do?” she asked.
Max gave a low wolf-whistle.
“Where did that come from?” he asked, nodding at the slinky red satin dress.
“Oh, just a little something I put away for a special occasion,” she teased. “Isn’t this a special occasion?”
“It certainly is,” replied Max.
He put his suit jacket back on and straightened his shirt cuffs.
As they left, he double-locked the front door and opened the door of the black Audi A5 in the driveway.
“Are you sure that you’ll be able to drive home?”
“I don’t intend overdoing it,” Max said, looking down at his watch. “I need to get into work tomorrow early and type-up my resignation letter.”
“Don’t you have to work out three months?” asked Katie.
“Theoretically,” replied Max, “but when they hear that I’m joining McGregor’s, I’ll get the bum’s rush. I’ll be asked to clear my desk right away.”
“So, what are you going to do for three months?”
“I have a few loose ends to tidy up and quite a lot of research to do, but McGregor’s have asked me to go in a couple of weeks to meet the management so that when I do start in October, I can hit the ground running.”
Katie pulled down the vanity mirror and checked her make-up.
They turned into the restaurant car park and found a vacant space between a yellow Porsche and a red Ferrari. The other cars around them were just as grand.
“Mmm,” said, Max tapping his Audi steering wheel, “I feel a tad underdressed in this!”
Max removed his jacket and slung it over his shoulder casually. In a place like this, he didn’t want to look like he worked for a living.
Giovanni’s was right on the shore with a stunning view over the bay. The decor typified Italian chic – an odd mixture of traditional and ultra-modern that just somehow worked.
“Do you have a reservation?” asked the smart waiter as they stood in the foyer.
“Er, no,” stuttered Max, “is that a problem?”
The waiter looked at them for a moment.
“Two?” he asked.
Max glanced around to see if anybody else had followed them in.
“Yes, two.” He added “idiot” silently.
The waiter took menus from a rack and beckoned them to follow.
The restaurant was barely a third full. They were ushered to a table for two by a large panoramic window. The waiter pulled the seat out for Katie and pushed it back in under her. He handed them each a menu folder and tidied-up the cutlery and glasses on the table fussily.
“Would you like to see the wine list?” he asked.
Max took the thick bound drinks menu and pointed to the most expensive bottle of bubbly.
The waiter bowed and walked away.
He returned a few minutes later holding up a bottle of champagne to Max. He nodded. The waiter removed the cork with a twist and poured some into Max’s flute and waited. Max waved has hand in dismissal and pointed to Katie’s glass.
“So, what does the new job involve,” asked Katie. “Is it much different from what you were doing before?”
Max lifted his glass and stared at it thoughtfully.
“They didn’t say very much other than that it will be a ‘little different’ from what I’m used to. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind for me but the ‘remuneration package’, as they call it, is double what I’m on at the minute. Then there’s the Beemer that goes with the job.”
Katie pulled a tight smile.
“I’ll know more about it in a couple of weeks – but I won’t be able to tell you anything,” he smirked dryly. “Not only do I have to sign a watertight non-disclosure contract, there is the Official Secrets Acts too!”
“Ah,” said Katie nodding knowingly, “military stuff?”
“That’s par for the course in this business,” explained Max. “In aerospace, it’s just like that.”
They passed on starters and ordered their main meals. Katie went for the pan-fried mackerel, Max the grilled fillet of beef. Max didn’t want to embarrass himself attempting to pronounce the long Italian names.
Throughout the meal, Katie plied Max with question after question, most of which he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. She gave up.
“How was yours?” asked Max, as she put her knife and fork on the virtually empty plate.
“Absolutely wonderful.” The waiter was already hovering with a dessert menu.
“I’ll just have the amaretto syllabub,” Max indicated and looked across at Katie.
She patted her tummy and shook her head.
“No, full up!”
“Would you care for some coffee?” asked the waiter.
“Could we have two espressos on the veranda?” Max replied.
The waiter nodded graciously and left.
The veranda bathed in the warm glow of a July evening. Seagulls wheeled in the sky as waves lapped softly on the sandy beach, where a few oystercatchers pecked purposefully amongst the seaweed.
“This is so lovely,” sighed Katie. “A perfect end to a perfect day.”
Max put his arm around her and kissed her cheek. He presented her with a white rectangular box, opening it to display the contents. Her eyes widened.
“Maxie, it’s lovely!” she exclaimed, taking the Victorian pendant necklace and holding it up to the light.
“Amethyst, my birthstone!”
“For the luckiest girl in the world.”
She fumbled with the clasp and put it round her neck.
“Thank you, oh thank you,” she said.
Katie looked around to see that no-one was watching and went to sit on Max’s lap. She put her arms around his neck and they kissed deeply.
On the horizon, out over the bay, sails bellowed lazily in the sea breeze.
“Oh, I’d love to have a boat,” sighed Max, “maybe I’ll be able to buy one now. Just imagine, lying back under the stars and drifting off to Nineveh.”
Katie closed her eyes and took Max’s hand.
She gazed out over the bay at the pale orange band of sky that spanned the horizon. Cotton wool clouds caught the last sun rays and were edged in the same soft, fiery glow. She would remember this night.
Max and Katie cuddled on the veranda but straightened-up abruptly when the waiter arrived with the two coffees, each with an amaretto biscuit on the saucer.
“Can I have the bill?” asked Max. The waiter nodded and walked off.
Max started drinking his coffee. Katie leaned back in her chair and drunk in the atmosphere. She could have coffee anytime.
“Oh look, Max. Can you see that cloud shaped like a polar bear?” asked Katie.
“I can’t see any polar bear.”
“There’s its head and there are its front paws.”
“Pareidolia,” said Max.
“You what?” asked Katie.
“Pareidolia. It’s the psychological phenomenon whereby the human brain tries to make sense out of random shapes.”
“Oh, you and your big words,” scowled Katie.
“Some people can use them and some can’t,” said Max, giving Katie a gentle shove.
“Anyway, that’s definitely not a polar bear, looks more like a squirrel to me,” said Max.
Katie tightened her lips and continued to draw the outline in the sky with her finger.
“Aw, it’s changed shape,” she moaned.
She looked for more shapes in the clouds.
“Max, what’s that?” she asked, pointing to a cloud in the distance.
“Look, there. There are three dots sitting just above that cloud.” She moved her fingers in a circular motion.
“I can’t see anything,” said Max, shaking his head.
Then he sprang to his feet, putting his hand across his forehead to cut out the glare.
“Odd,” he said, “I have no idea. Can’t be birds, too far up and they’re not moving. Not planes either, planes can’t stop in mid-air. Too high for helicopters as well. I don’t know,” he shrugged.
“Are they UFOs, perhaps?” smiled Katie.
“Well,” he laughed, “they are flying objects and I can’t identify them so, therefore they are, by definition, UFOs. That doesn’t mean that they are alien flying saucers or anything like that. There will be some perfectly ordinary reason for them being there. Weather balloons, atmospheric distortion…”
He shook his head. “There were reports from China recently of cities apparently floating in the clouds. Just a freak weather condition it turned out. Hell, I don’t know, could be anything. In my business, you see a lot of things in the sky that you don’t understand. You have to learn to live with it or it will drive you mad.”
The three objects began to move off, first in formation and then shifting into line one behind another. For a moment, they were obscured by a fleecy cloud and should have re-emerged from the other side. Only one came out. It accelerated at an impossible rate straight upwards. The other two had just vanished.
Max and Katie stared at one another for an instant, mouths agape.
Max shook his head as if he had awakened from a bad dream.
He took Katie by the hand and led her back into the restaurant. He paid the bill and left a tip on the plate
Back in the car, Max started the engine and turned the radio on. He pushed the pre-set for the news station. After a few minutes of banal jingles, the newsreader spoke.
“Reports have been coming from all along the coast about strange objects in the sky this evening. Let’s go over to our reporter Milly Barnes…”
“Yes, I have here with me, some people who have just witnessed bizarre and unexplained happenings in the sky. Tom, tell me what you saw.”
A man with a thick country accent spoke into the microphone.
“I was just coming down the lane on my tractor when I saw these three…don’t know what you call ‘em…just sitting up there. They didn’t have no lights or anything, they were just grey. Then, all of a sudden, they shoot-off like bullets from a gun. Odd thing is, two of the three just disappeared into thin air. Strangest thing I have ever seen in my whole life, it was.”
“And Tracy, can you tell me what you saw?”
“I was coming home from work and there was a lovely sunset. Three flying saucers came out from behind a cloud – but I don’t believe in those things,” she giggled. “I don’t know what they were. One was a sort of triangular shape and the other two were – oh, maybe they all were. They were a bit hazy, not distinct, like.”
“And what happened to them?”
“Dunno. One minute they were there and the next minute they’re gone,” said Tracy.
“Thank you both. And with that, I’ll hand you back to Carole in the studio,”
“So we weren’t seeing things,” coughed Katie, groping for a handkerchief in her pocket.
“T’would seem not,” said Max, as they sped off home.
The four-armed alien monster reared up and gave a ferocious snarl. Sticky goo drooled from its extended mandibles and its bony arms flailed wildly towards the figure on the ground beneath it. The scantily-clad female screamed and put her arm across her face. The leviathan’s red eyes were aflame with rage as it lifted the girl off the ground and glared. It raised its head to the sky and gave a triumphant roar.
“Oh Maxie, what’s that rubbish you’re watching?” asked Katie, sitting down beside him on the sofa.
Max didn’t answer but pressed the volume up button on the remote.
“Do you want a drink?” she asked.
“On the rocks,” he answered. His eyes didn’t leave the screen.
Katie returned from the kitchen with two glasses. One held Soave, one had just ice cubes. She set the glass of ice beside him on the coffee table.
To the swooshing of plasma cannon fire, Max lifted the glass to his lips and recoiled. Just ice? He took two cubes from the glass and pulled back the neck of Katie’s soft woollen jumper. She squirmed and shouted.
“Max! Don’t you dare. Maxie!”
She clamped her two hands against the back of her neck to block the ice cubes from sliding down inside the back of her jumper. Max moved them round to the front and dropped them in.
“Ahhh!” she screamed as the cold ice slid down into her cleavage. She lifted the front of her jumper and shook the ice cubes out onto the floor. Before Max could get them, Katie picked them up and tried to get them inside Max’s shirt. He was too strong for her and just held her wrists while the ice melted in her hands. He wrestled her down onto the floor rug. They fought some more. Max swept Katie up in his arms and lifted her off the ground. He raised his head to the sky and gave a triumphant roar. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him wildly.
“Take that, space cadet,” she smiled.
Max managed to pick up the remote control and flicked the television off.
“Now look what you’ve done,” he said accusingly.
“What?” she asked.
“Made me miss a classic,” smirked Max as he carried her towards the stairs.
* * * * *
“Who the hell is this guy, Landers?” asked CIA Director Michael Thornton.
Schakowsky, sitting opposite replied, “He’s a maverick. A pain in the ass that heads-up a group out at Groom Lake and has ambitions far beyond his station.”
“What does he want from us?” asked Thornton.
“He’s been requesting intel on encrypted radio signals localised to a small airfield in the East Coast England.”
Thornton rocked back and forth on his chair.
“He contacted GCHQ in England,” said Schakowsky, “and they told him to piss-off.”
Thornton grimaced. “I imagine they did. Under what authority is he making these requests?”
“He told the Brits he was CIA. He’s not. He has only the most tenuous connections with us but he is a master of bluff. He doesn’t come right out and say it, he suggests it and lets the other party reach the wrong conclusion.”
“And, what do we know about these signals?” asked Thornton.
“We know that they are military-grade encrypted. If we had to decrypt them, given enough time and resources, we probably could. We just don’t have any good reason to do that.”
“What do we know about the airfield?”
“Private. Belongs to McGregor Aerospace. They run a couple of Lear Jets from there with avionics test rigs. Mostly Brit MOD stuff. All above board. So, there’s a perfectly good reason for military grade encrypted signals coming from there. It’s not really any of our concern.”
“So, why am I even being bothered with this?” asked Thornton.
“I’m just worried about Landers, Michael. He has history. When somebody like that becomes a liability, they are usually promoted out of harm’s way. He was, but it didn’t work. He’s ended-up in a no-man’s land between CIA and military but it’s one where he gets to call the shots.”
“I don’t understand,” said Thornton. “He must answer to someone?”
“That’s it,” replied Schakowsky, “he is a law unto himself and seems to get off with it.”
“But, he must have some areas of interest,” argued Thornton, “somebody’s paying him.”
“There are budgets allocated to research work that even we don’t know about. People in government with pet projects. They find the money and no questions are asked.”
“Pet projects,” repeated Thornton, “such as?”
“Groom Lake, Area 51. Do I have to draw pictures?” asked Schakowsky.
“Somebody is spending good money on that nonsense? Flying fucking saucers? Are they believing their own mythology?” asked Thornton.
“One man’s mythology is another man’s culture, is another man’s way of life. Who am I to say?” shrugged Schakowsky.
“Look, let me make this clear,” said Thornton. “I’m not wasting CIA resources on this bunch of clowns and their pet projects. If Landers asks for any more intel from us, just tell him to go shove it. He gets zilch. Okay?”
“And if his backers start making waves?”
“Refer them to me,” barked Thornton, tapping his chest.
Hayden’s Realm by Joe Gillespie
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