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Eagle Chronicles 12: Sleeper

Title: Sleeper
Series: The Eagle Chronicles.
Word Count 5126
Summary Steven is invited to an engagement party at a country estate but of course, things can't be that simple




12 Sleeper


May 1946

Steven sat back in the passenger seat and yawned. This was certainly not the way he had planned to spend his return visit to England. His "sort-of" girlfriend was in Paris and he was very depressed. A war buddy convinced him that what he needed was a party. "A friend from university is having an engagement party tonight. You'll love it." He let himself be persuaded and now they were in the middle of nowhere.

"We're almost there. Don't go into this with such an attitude. Give it a chance."

"Okay, Ben, for your sake."

"Good. It's just on the other side of the village. It's a big old place and was used in the latter half of the war as officers' barracks. As a matter of fact, the oldest daughter was engaged to a lieutenant."

Steven barely heard the rest of Ben's speech because he was having the strangest sense of deja vu. There were lots of little villages, this may not be the same one, he thought. However, even after six years, he knew that was a weak hope. As Ben turned into the drive, Steven's mind turned back the years and remembered himself trying to find a thief, and, in turn, caught a murderer. He also remembered the two daughters of the house; the older one outwardly flirted with him, and the younger one he might have dated had circumstances been different.

Ben parked the car and they walked up the front steps. "One last piece of advice: Sir Chatterton will try to involve you in war stories. Just nod your head and you'll be fine."

Once inside Ben nodded greetings to a few people as he led Steven to the host. People whispered amongst themselves as they passed, "Isn't that....?"

Steven slipped away from Ben and stepped out onto the verandah. The whole experience was just too weird. He sat on the rail and tried to get his thoughts together. Just when he thought he was ready to face them, she appeared. She noticed him and came over. "I see I'm not the only one who found it stuffy in there." She looked at him closely. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

"You might," he answered, knowing what she was about to say.

"You're Steven Taylor, aren't you?"

He nodded. "That's me."

"You had better stay away from Father. Once he starts on his favorite subject, there's no getting away."

"You know my name but I don't know yours," he lied.

"Ainsley Chatterton. This is my sister Rhiannon's party. We've had three engagement parties since the war."

Strains of The Blue Danube came floating out to them. "Care to dance?"

She blushed. "Thank you, Mr. Taylor." They waltzed across the verandah. "You dance wonderfully."

Steven decided that this was the time to tell her. "Well, you taught me how to waltz to this tune on this very spot." She looked at him. "Six years ago on your twentieth birthday. I gave you a pearl choker."

"Sebastian? Sebastian Talbot? I can't believe it!" She hugged him. "But what are you doing here?"

"I came down with a friend. I had no idea where we were going until I pulled into the drive." She started giggling. "What's so funny?"

"I'm just thinking of Rhi. You were the only guy at the time who didn't fall captive to her charms."

"Is she still the Siren?"

"No. She calmed down after that business with Alex and Robert. Whatever happened to your friend Ian?"

"He died a few months later."

When he didn't elaborate, Ainsley didn't push. "C'mon, I have to 'introduce' you to Rhi. I can't wait to see her face."

"Okay, but if she doesn't recognize me, I want to tell her in my own way," Steven said as he allowed himself to be dragged back into the house.

"She'll recognize you. She never forgets a face. Rhi," she called, "I'd like you to meet someone."

Ainsley's older sister looked up and Steven saw her face as if for the first time. She had black hair and dark eyes. He really hadn't noticed how beautiful she was because he had spent most of the time avoiding her advances. "Hello," she said. "You seem familiar. Have we met before?"

"Steven, there you are." Ben came over. "Where did you disappear to?" He turned to Rhi. "I meant to introduce you to him first thing but he slipped away from me. Lady Rhiannon Chatterton, allow me to introduce you to Steven Taylor."

"Surely not the Steven Taylor? That's why you look so familiar, all those pictures in the papers. Do enjoy yourself, Mr. Taylor. It was a pleasure meeting you." She left to find her fiancé.

Ben also wandered off leaving the two free to talk. "I don't believe it. She didn't recognize you."

"She's got a lot on her mind. Besides, I don't think I made much of an impression to last six years."

"Don't be silly. She talked about you quite often. She also went to London a few times in the hopes of finding you."

"Maybe it was just a reaction to what happened."

"Maybe, but I don't think so," Ainsley said as she led him out onto the dance floor.

Later in the evening, Rhi and her fiancé, Jason Springer, came over. "Mr. Taylor, we've asked a few friends to stay the weekend for the fete in the village and we were wondering if you would like to stay as well."

"I'm not sure."

"Ben has already decided, so you may not have a ride back to London."

Steven looked at Ainsley. "Okay. That would be fine."

Rhi said, "We were thinking of an evening swim. Ainsley can help you find a suit. Meet you out back."

Steven watched them go. "An interesting couple."

"Jason's nice, though not as nice as the lieutenant or the solicitor."

"She doesn't' seem to keep her boyfriends for long, does she?" he said as they walked to the cabana by the pool.

"Not really. Hopefully, something will come of this."

"What about yourself?"

"I've had a few, nothing serious, though." She stopped at the door. "There are suits in the chest. One of them should fit you. I'm going to change. Be back in a few minutes."

Steven went inside the cabana and looked through the drawers until he found a pair of blue bathing trunks that fit. He also took a white towel from the pile before stepping outside. No one else was there so he swam a few laps.

He was doing his leg exercises when Rhiannon arrived. "How's the water?"

"Perfect. Coming in?"

"I'll wait for Jason." She sat on one of the lounges. "What are you doing?"

"Therapeutic exercises. I use them to build up the strength in my leg." He climbed up the steps and began to dry himself off. "I'd like to thank you for asking me to stay. The last time I was in an English country house was a few years ago under very different circumstances." He wrapped the towel around his waist. Rhi looked at him. "Is anything wrong?"

"No. You just remind me of someone, that's all. Someone I knew six years ago."

Paydirt, thought Steven. "If I remember correctly, it happened in the bathroom. You were trying to get him to confess that he stole some jewels."

"How could you..?"

"Quite an interesting form of interrogation. My lips still remember."

"You were Talbot?"

"Yes. That's one of my favorite aliases. Too bad I won't have much of a chance to use it anymore."

"When I first saw you tonight I thought you looked like him, but I put it down to my imagination."

"It's nice to know you're not going crazy." Steven smiled and draped his towel over the back of a deck chair.

"Does Ainsley know?"

"Yes, she does," said Ainsley, joining them. "We thought you recognized him earlier."

"I did, but didn't put two and two together."

Jason and Ben joined them, as well as two other ladies and a young man who were introduced as Amanda, Diana, and Nathan. Ben came up with the idea of having a relay race. "Two guys and two girls on each team."

"And how do you propose we choose sides?" Steven asked.

"Well, Rhi and Jason will definitely be together."

"That's two people who'll know where they'll be," remarked Nathan.

"Steven and I could be on the other team and the rest of you could shoot it out," said Ainsley.

The others agreed and played "Odds or Evens". Ben and Diana became part of Steven and Ainsley's team while Nathan and Amanda joined Rhi and Jason. It was decided that they would alternate male-female, the women starting. Steven and Jason were chosen as anchors and Rhi and Diana started, the latter giving her team an early lead. Ben lost some of that lead on an underwater turn. Ainsley had a slow start, and, by the time Steven hit the water, Jason had the lead. Steven kept his eye on the other end of the pool and gave it all he had. The both reached the end at almost the same time. Jason, however, made a crooked turn and headed towards Steven, who hadn't noticed the change in course.

Steven saw the others shouting and thought they were cheering him on. He was two lengths away when Jason hit him. Concentration lost, he went under and waited for Jason to pass over. He felt hands holding him down; he couldn't get up. He was starting to lose the air in his lungs. Why was Jason doing this? He decided to let himself sink to the bottom, away from those hands. He opened his eyes and saw the wall of the pool. It was time to show Jason who he was dealing with. He pushed off with his feet and reached the edge before Jason, winning the race.

Ben and Nathan help lift him out of the pool. "Are you okay?" asked Ainsley as she wrapped a towel around him.

"Yeah, a bit shaky, that's all. I don't know what happened. Maybe when Jason bumped me, I lost it and sank to the bottom."

"I'm really sorry about that," apologized Jason. "I wanted to help but couldn't think."

"That's all right. I'm fine. Let's just forget about it."

"I think that's enough swimming for tonight," Rhiannon said. "Maybe we should change out of this wet suits then have a nightcap."

"That sounds wonderful," said Amanda.

"This is beginning to resemble the last time I was here," Steven said to Ainsley as he went to change.

"Let's hope there's no robbery or murder."

"You never know," he said with a smile. "The night's still young."

The night passed without any further incident. Over a few drinks, Steven learned that Nathan had served in the Navy in the Pacific and that Jason had been in the RAF. "He was even shot down over Germany," Rhi said, proud of her fiancée.

"Oh, really? Whereabouts?"

"Some little town north of Berlin. At the time, they were more afraid of the Russians than me." He chuckled. "It was some experience."

"You were lucky they didn't get you. They didn't like the RAF much."

"Is this the voice of experience?" Jason asked snidely.

"I survived both Lubyanka and the cellars of Prinz Albrechtstrasse, so I guess you could say it is." He brought his temper under control. "I guess it was circumstance. It could have been you." Jason could think of no suitable retort so stayed quiet.

Steven took his leave early and went upstairs to a quiet bedroom. There was something not quite right with Jason. He seemed to be hiding something. Also, why did he try to drown him in the pool? He knew he had enemies, but what had he done to Jason? He would soon find out the truth.

***********************************************************

The next morning Steven rose early and went to the pool deck to read the paper. Jason was already there. "Good morning," Steven said. "Where are the others?"

"Still sleeping." He didn't look up from his book.

"Ah." Steven stretched out on the lounge next to him. Over the top of the newspaper, Steven read the title of the book: Das Kapital in Russian. "Strange reading for so early in the morning."

"It's the only time I can concentrate."

"True. Being with Rhiannon is a full-time occupation."

Jason looked up from his book. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"I didn't mean anything by it. It was only a joke. I know the Rhiannon of old when she had a roving eye."

"She never talked about you."

"I was one of many and I wasn't using my real name at the time. It was only for a weekend. Besides, she had two other boyfriends at the time."

"The only time she talks about that bears any resemblance to what you've said is when one of her boyfriends killed the other over some stolen jewels. There was also a friend of Ainsley's that she said she felt attracted to; a Sebastian Talbot." Steven smiled. "That was you? What were you doing here? Planning to rob them?"

"Originally, yes, but I never did."

Jason didn't say anything and turned back to Marx and Engels. For a man who had feared capture by the Russians, this was a strange way to act. Granted, there could be reasons for him reading the Communist Manifesto-- political, philosophical--but in Russian? There wasn't much call for that. Maybe he was just reading too much into it, but after everything that he had been through, he had the right to be suspicious.

Everyone else slowly made their way downstairs. Jason hid his book as soon as he heard Rhi's voice. His whole demeanor changed. He became all sweet and lovey, not at all like the jealous fiancé that he had showed Steven. This needed looking into.

Later that day, Ainsley asked Steven to go for a walk. When they were away from the house, she began to talk about Jason. "There's something about him that bothers me. I just don't know what it is."

"And you think I do? I only met him last night."

"I know. That's why I think you can help. You don't have to pretend to like him. You have a fresh perspective."

"If you think it'll help." They stopped at the folly. "Tell me what you know of him and I'll tell you of my observations."

"Remember," she said, "I'm only telling you they way I heard it."

"I understand. Go on."

"Well, he was shot down over Germany in the beginning of '45 and was separated from the rest of his crew. He started rummaging through the countryside at night, taking stores from the farmers. One night he was found by a group of Russian soldiers and they 'adopted' him. He became friends with the lieutenant who was the only one who spoke English."

"How long was he with them?"

"Three months, I think. He met up with a British patrol near Berlin in April."

"Three months? I guess that's long enough to learn Russian. I only know a smattering, but he was reading Marx." Steven became thoughtful.

"What's wrong?"

"I was just thinking about last night." He decided to tell her the truth. "You may think I'm being paranoid, but he held me under on purpose."

"Why would he do that? He's only just met you."

"The Russians have it in for me and, maybe after spending time with them, he became sympathetic. I really don't know why, but that's what happened."

"Now that I think about it, you could be right. He's an excellent swimmer. What do you plan to do?"

"Make a few phone calls." Steven knew it was time to contact MI5 and get some information on Jason.

Ben saw him heading for the stables. "Where are you going?"

"I thought I'd ride into the village and nose around."

"Mind if I join you?"

"I'd like to have some time alone. I've got some thinking to do."

"Okay. See you later."

Steven saddled a bay stallion and trotted down the road to Chatterton Village. It was possible, he mused, that Jason had been converted to Communism during that time he had spent with the Soviet Army. But why was he only now working for them? A sleeper! He made contact with, or was contacted, in the event of something major. That would explain a lot! Reading for political science was a good cover. How else would you explain reading Marx in Russian without raising a few eyebrows?

He tied up the horse outside the police station. While doing so, he glanced across the street and saw Jason in the village's only phone kiosk. He had probably come to town for the same reason as Steven: to make a private phone call that he didn't want anyone at the manor to hear. Steven went inside and the constable rose to help him. "I'd like to use your phone. I have to call London."

"There's a kiosk across the street, sir."

"I'm aware of that, constable, but this is of a delicate nature. I will pay for the call."

"Very well, sir." He pushed the phone across the desk.

"Thank you." Steven dialed. "Sir Hugh, please. Tell him it's Steven."

The call went through. "Steven, great to hear from you. How long will you be in England?"

"Sorry, Hugh, this isn't a personal call. I need some information on Jason Springer."

"Sure. Hold on." Steven heard him call to his secretary for Jason's file. "Wasn't he that fella who spent three months with the Russians?"

"Yeah. I may just be very paranoid, but I think this guy is trouble. He tried to kill me last night."

"What? Really, Steven, the company you keep. Okay, I've got the file right here. Ah, he's been busy. He's taking classes at university."

"Let me guess; Russian, and political science with a concentration on communism."

"He's been to a few rallies and has also been seen in the company of known Soviet agitators."

"A-ha."

"Exactly. We have someone watching him now, a friend of yours as a matter-of-fact."

"Really?"

"Ben Madison. He's at Chatterton Manor right now."

"Yeah, I know. I came down with him. At least I know I'm not the only one with suspicions."

"Take care, Steven. Ben can't watch you all the time."

"Thanks, Hugh. Talk to you later." Steven hung up the phone and looked at the constable. "So you know who I was talking to?"

"Sir Hugh Linley, MI5. Is there a Russian spy at the Manor?"

"Quite possibly, constable. Until this is solved, I'll ask you to forget this conversation." He headed for the door. "Is Sgt. Donnelly still here?"

"He's at the fete, sir."

"Just tell him that the man who helped with the Chatterton robbery is here again." The constable nodded and Steven left.

Feeling light now that he had shared his suspicions with MI5, Steven decided to gallop across the fields to the manor. He knew his "problem" was far from over, but at least he didn't have to worry about bearing the full weight of it. Jumping over a small ditch, Steven felt that the saddle was loose. Almost home, nothing to worry about. Further along, the horse leapt over a small hedgerow and Steven flew into the air along with the saddle. The last thing he remembered was falling, staring up at the sky, hearing a loud crack, then nothing.

*****************************************************

Steven slowly opened his eyes. Even though it was dark, he could see that he was propped up in bed, his bed in Chatterton Manor. There was a reclining shadow in one of the chairs. He tried to talk, but all he seemed to manage was a slight croaking. The figure quickly rose and ran over to the bed. It was Ainsley. "Thank God, you're awake. The doctor said there was a slight chance of a concussion and that he was unsure of how long you'd be unconscious."

"What happened? All I remember is falling off the horse."

"When he came back without you, we immediately feared the worst. Ben organized search parties and we all scoured the fields. Ben found you and saw that you had broken your leg. We put you on a cart and brought you home."

"How long have you been sitting there?"

"I felt that you needed to be watched. Ben checked the saddle girth and found that it had been cut halfway. Riding caused it to tear further."

"How was Jason acting during all of this?"

"He was as warm as an icicle on Christmas in the Yukon. Rhi was upset because she was the one who asked you to stay."

Steven fought to stay awake. "Need to talk to Ben," he mumbled.

"He'll be here when you wake up. Sleep now, you need it." She covered his sleeping form with a light blanket before returning to the chair to keep watch until Ben relieved her.

***************************************************************
With the sun relentlessly beating on his eyelids, Steven woke. Yawning, he turned to see Ben looking at him. "What are you smiling at?"

"You. You have to be the luckiest man alive." He pulled the chair next to the bed. "Ainsley said you asked for me last night."

"I talked to Sir Hugh Linley yesterday. He had some very interesting information."

"I meant to tell you."

"When? On my death-bed? C'mon, you brought me here knowing this maniac was here."

"It had high-level approval, Steven. You know I wouldn't do anything like this on my own."

"You could have told me."

"You wouldn't have reacted the same way. He would have become suspicious and not done a thing."

"And you can prove he did this?"

"No, but I was there when he held you under water."

There was a polite knock on the door. "Come in."

Rhi came in and rushed over to Steven. "How are you feeling? I'm so sorry. You came here for a relaxing weekend and now this!"

"Rhi, it's not your fault. How were you to know the girth was going to wear out? At least this way I can catch up on some sleep, and it's a great excuse for not doing anything."

She smiled. "But we were going to the village fete today."

"Maybe I'll book in advance for another year." Rose the maid entered with Steven's breakfast tray and Ben and Rhi left so he could eat in peace.

Later that afternoon Ben came into Steven's room to check on him before he joined the others going to the fete. "How's your mobility?"

"Pretty good. Ainsley got a wheeled chair from Sir Bertram's office, so I can push myself around in that. Besides, the doctor came by with some crutches. It seems like I just got off them."

Ben laughed. "Be careful. I'll keep my eye on Jason while we're out there, but it'll be easy to lose him in the crowd."

"Yessir! No, I'll watch out. If he tries anything, I'll club him with one of my crutches."

Ben left and Steven used his crutches as poles and pushed himself to the balcony and watched as the others mounted their horses and rode over the fields to the town. Sir Bertram and some of the older guests drove the car. Ainsley looked up and waved. He smiled back and gave her the "thumbs-up" sign in the hopes that she would relax and not worry about him.

When they had gone, he rose slowly from his seat, leaning on the crutches for support, and headed back into the house. He made his way down the hall on his way to Jason's room to give it a quick search while he was out of the house. He saw that the door to Ainsley's room was open and he slowly walked in. He felt like such an intruder, but he couldn't help himself. Sitting on the desk was a scrapbook. He opened it and saw that the first entry was an article from the local paper about the theft six years ago. Most of the articles referred to his alter ego, the Eagle, and the thefts he pulled under that name. He wondered if somehow she had known all along.

He reluctantly left and continued on to Jason's room. His copy of Marx was on the night-table and some of the passages were underlined. It could either be the notes of a student or the code of an agent. Since his Russian wasn't that good, Steven slipped the book into his pocket until someone at MI5 could take a look at it. He expertly went through the drawers to see if Jason had hidden anything among his clothes. He then noticed something poking out from under the bed. He sat down and pulled it out. It was a locked briefcase. He held it in the fingertips of his left hand and headed back to his rooms and his lock-pick.

Steven set the case down on his desk. He walked over to the balcony to make sure no one was coming back. He opened the case with little difficulty. Inside he found a miniature camera, some photographed documents, and, buried near the bottom, a code book and radio. "Quite a catch," he said.

"Too bad you won't be able to reap the praise," said Jason, blocking the doorway.

***********************************************************

When it started to rain, the fair-goers took shelter in the pub. Ben looked around but didn't see Jason anywhere. He made his way to Ainsley. "Do you see Jason?"

"Isn't he with Rhi?"

"I don't see him, but maybe she knows where he is." Ben and Ainsley found Rhi and asked her.

"The last time I saw him was near the puppet show. Why, is something wrong?"

Ben didn't know just yet. "No, I was just wondering."

As they walked away, Ainsley asked, "Do you really think he's gone after Steven?"

"It's the ideal time, he's alone at the house." He went outside and mounted his horse. "I'm going to the house. You go get Sgt. Donnelly."

He started off in the rain. "Ben!" He stopped, the rain plastering his hair about his face. "Be careful!" He smiled and rode off. She ran across the street to the police.

******************************************************************

"Give up on the fair, Comrade Springer?"

"I was hunting, Taylor."

"I thought hunting season was the fall."

He sat down on the edge of the bed. "You've been standing in the way of the new wave of politics. Communism is the future."

"Quit spouting off, you sound like a schoolboy who's memorized his lesson. What did they do to you? What did they promise you?"

"They merely pointed out the futility of democracy and the strengths of communism. Upon returning to university, I met up with some people who trained me. I became a background player, giving information when it came my way."

"And marrying the daughter of a peer of the realm will give you more information which just might mean advancement. Was this their idea or yours?"

"Mine. I heard that she had had bad luck with boyfriends recently, so I thought I'd step in."

"And my presence here was just too hard to pass up. The drowning attempt was a bit too early, though, also too many witnesses. Cutting the saddle girth was a nice touch. You did that while I was with the police, didn't you?"

"The opportunity presented itself and I couldn't pass it up."

"Yeah, it would be quite a feather in your cap. They are obsessed with killing me."

"Well, they'll have to wait a little longer." Ben stood in the doorway, dripping wet. He motioned with his gun for Jason to drop his. Steven pulled it over with one of his crutches. "You okay?"

"Yep. What about you? Go for a swim on the way?"

"Once I found out our friend had left, I came out in the rain to keep him from killing you." He put away his gun and went to cuff Jason.

With one handcuff on, Ben had to stand between Jason and the gun. Jason took advantage of this and quickly pulled the gun out of Ben's holster and pushed him out of the way. "Don't follow me or you'll die regretting it!" He ran out.

"Damn!" Ben stood and ran out the door. Steven used the crutches to make large strides to the top of the stairs. Knowing that taking them one at a time would be too slow and two at a time too dangerous, he decided to take the banister.

The rain had lessened and Steven could make out Ben and Jason fighting halfway down the drive. Jason threw the gun down--no bullets?--then ran off towards the road only to be met by the police. He changed direction and went across the fields. The riders were coming back from the fete and he stopped. One of the riders came forward--Steven assumed it was Rhi--and Jason ran back towards the house. Steven stopped where he was, knowing that everything was going to happen near him.

When Jason came close, Ben picked up the chase again. As they passed in front of him, Steven stuck out one of his crutches and Jason went sprawling. Ben picked him up, fastened the other handcuff, and then handed him over to the police.

Sgt. Donnelly came over and looked at Steven. "It really is you."

"Hello, Sergeant."

"When Constable Harris told me, I couldn't believe it. Then Miss Ainsley comes in dripping wet, talking about a Soviet spy and Steven Taylor." He shook his head. "It seemed too much." He turned to Ben. "We'll hold him at the station for you."

"Thanks, Sergeant. I'll contact London and we'll get him off your hands."

Ainsley got out of the car, came running over, and hugged Steven. "I'm so glad you're all right! I was so worried!"

"Thanks for your help." He looked at Rhi as she watched them take Jason away. "I just don't know what to tell your sister."

He hobbled over to Rhi and stood beside her as the car went down the drive. "You seem to know which guys aren't the right type for me," she said.

"I'm sorry, Rhi, I really am. I had no idea. Ben brought me here."

"Steven, it's okay. You don't have to apologize. I should be thanking you. I would have married a spy." She looked at him. "Why does it always have to happen this way?"

"I don't know, Rhi." He put a comforting arm about her. "I honestly don't know."

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