CHANGER bonus chapter: Saying Goodbye

Note: this brief piece of fiction contains SPOILERS for my novel CHANGER. It’s a bonus chapter, meant to be read after finishing the story. Be sure to read the book first!

Bright, mid-morning sunlight streamed in through the windows all along one side of the large room, in counterpoint to the solemnity of the service that was underway. The man sitting in an aisle seat in the front row glanced up at the stained glass figures, frowning at the similarity to another place he’d visited almost two months earlier.

But the weather was a lot worse, Aldridge thought.

The crematorium was incongruously new for Oxford, on the outskirts of the city, but it did have a certain tranquility and grace despite the modern building. It was decorated in light colours, with simple lines and plenty of floral arrangements. Parking was unusually ample, though most of the spaces were vacant on this December morning. The turnout for Peter Taylor’s funeral was barely forty people.

Aldridge shifted in his seat as the minister on the raised podium told the assembled mourners about Taylor’s life and accomplishments. It was recognisably a paraphrasing of the summary Aldridge himself had supplied a few days ago. The language was such that the listener could almost believe the minister had known the deceased personally, but that would be true for the next service too.

The official story, universally believed, was that Taylor suffered a stroke while working in Denmark on an important energy research project for the European Defence Agency. His acquaintances here, some close but most not, found it very easy to accept that his tireless passion for physics had eventually killed him.

An image flashed through Aldridge’s mind. The sparsely-lit concrete floor of a multi-storey parking garage, high above the city streets. The night outside filled with fireworks. Something impossible happened. And then a gunshot.

He unconsciously reached up and touched the small scar below his left eye. The gesture was already becoming a habit.

The woman sitting to his left glanced over at him, her green eyes alert and filled with understanding. After a moment, she nudged him with her elbow.

“You alright?” Greenwood asked quietly, and Aldridge nodded.

“Yes, Captain,” he replied in a whisper, seeing her nose wrinkle in annoyance just as he knew it would.

“Call me Claire, like I’ve told you a dozen times,” she said, matching his volume. She didn’t even try to sound irritated, knowing that this was his way of dealing with the situation.

“Yes, Captain Claire,” Aldridge amended, his mouth curling into a faint grin as Greenwood rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the minister’s words.

The sheet of notepaper in the inside pocket of Aldridge’s black suit blazer was creased from repeated unfolding and refolding, but he didn’t think he’d need it. He knew its contents off by heart at this point. He was to deliver a personal eulogy in just a few minutes, and he’d thought of little else for the last several days. He’d taken to pacing up and down in his new lab in Brussels, muttering to himself as he rehearsed the words. Three days before, he’d looked up to see Larry Dowling leaning against the doorframe with his enormous arms crossed over his chest, watching silently. When they made eye contact, Dowling simply said “It’s a good speech, mate,” and then he left.

Aldridge was surprised to find that he wasn’t nervous. He knew almost everyone else in the room, though he hadn’t spoken to most of them in several years. His primary emotion at the moment was guilt, and he now realised that it would never entirely go away. He also felt a deep sense of loss — mostly for Taylor, but also for the ability he himself had briefly wielded, which could have saved his adoptive father’s life, but didn’t.

He shook his head, pushing the thought away. Can’t change the past. At least, not any more.

The minister was reaching the end of his potted biography of Taylor, and Aldridge knew he’d be invited up to speak momentarily. He straightened his blazer, and in his peripheral vision he saw Greenwood look around at him again.

“I’m fine,” he whispered, leaning slightly towards her without meeting her gaze.

“I know,” she replied. “Good luck.”

Now he did glance at her, and saw that she was still looking at him, but her expression was unreadable. He nodded. Then he took a deep breath, and stood up.

The wake was at a restaurant not far from the crematorium, bordered by a country road and a small cobbled square. Just across the way, there was an old church, its modest graveyard immaculately manicured. The scale was much smaller, and the setting was rural rather than urban, but again Aldridge was reminded of another place, in a different country, not so long ago.

A set of French windows from the dining area were open in deference to the cheerful weather, but the temperature was still low enough to require a jacket. Aldridge was standing a short distance away from the building with his hands in his pockets, looking off into the distance.

“Everyone’s saying how moving your speech was,” came Greenwood’s voice from behind him, and he turned towards her. He tilted his head in acknowledgement.

“It was a nice touch, including the quote from his birdwatching book,” she continued. “I’ve almost got it memorised myself, after writing the report for Wuyts. She sends her condolences, by the way.”

“She called me before we left,” he replied, with a small smile, and Greenwood nodded.

Aldridge glanced around at the others who had ventured outside for some air. There was a cluster of five people smoking about twenty feet away, and a couple of groups of two, each chatting quietly. There were some scattered loners too, peering at their phones.

“I didn’t see Julie Hollett in there,” Greenwood said carefully, and Aldridge shook his head.

“She sent her condolences too, via email no less, but she’s tied up with a deadline and couldn’t leave the city.”

His tone was matter-of-fact, and Greenwood decided not to press the issue. Instead, she scrutinised him. He was a little thinner than he’d been when they first met, and his face was more angular. His assorted minor wounds from the Destiny mission had all but healed, and he was three weeks into a daily training programme to bring him up to operational fitness. He’d already told her it was helping with the occasional bout of insomnia he’d had since they returned from Hamburg.

One step at a time, Greenwood thought. His entire life has been turned upside down in the last eight weeks.

She was about to make an idle remark about the weather when someone spoke from nearby.

“Excuse me, Dr. Aldridge?”

Aldridge and Greenwood turned to look at the newcomer. The woman was in her mid-thirties, of average height with a slim build. Her dark blonde hair was demurely tied back. Her blue-grey eyes flicked between the two of them, and she wore a compassionate but tentative smile.

“That’s right, though just plain old Neil is fine,” Aldridge replied, extending a hand which the woman shook briefly.

“I’m Sylvia Holt,” she said. “Peter and I were colleagues at the Rudolf Peierls Centre. Before his secondment, at least. He was… well, truthfully he was my mentor. I’m still having trouble believing it. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” he replied. “It’s been a shock for us all. This is my friend Claire, by the way.”

The two women shook hands, exchanging brief pleasantries, then Holt turned to Aldridge once more.

“He spoke of you often, you know,” she said. “I know that the two of you were… that things had been difficult, but he was always very proud. He talked about your work together. My son this, and my son that.”

Greenwood swallowed, aware of the sudden tension in Aldridge. She smiled at the other woman. “He’ll be dearly missed. I don’t pretend to understand any of it, but I’ve heard that his work was very important, and everyone here has spoken so highly of him.”

Holt nodded. “Physics was his passion and his life,” she replied. “He was the most dedicated but humane scientist I’ve ever known. I met him when he was my thesis advisor years ago, and we’ve been friends ever since. He appreciated the natural beauty of the world around us. That was always what drove him.” She paused for a moment, then sighed. “He made an enormous contribution.”

“He did,” Aldridge said quietly. If you only knew.

There was silence for a long moment, and then Holt adjusted the shoulder-strap of her handbag. “Well, I should be going,” she said. “It was nice to meet you both. I wish it could have been under different circumstances.”

Aldridge nodded, and shook her hand once again. “Nice to meet you too, Dr. Holt. And thank you.”

Holt smiled, first at Aldridge then at Greenwood, then she turned and walked off in the direction of the restaurant’s small gravel car park.

They both stood in silence for a minute before Aldridge spoke again. “I think I’m ready to leave too,” he said, tugging his black tie loose then putting his hands back in his pockets. “I’ve had all the condolences I can handle right now.”

Greenwood considered asking if he was sure, but she’d already learned that he handled his problems by ruminating on them privately, and deflecting any attempts to draw him out. If he wants to talk, he’ll decide where and when, she thought.

“Alright,” she replied, tilting her head in the direction of the car park. Holt had already driven off, and for the moment there was no-one else there. They began walking the short distance towards her rented silver Audi A5.

“At least some good came out of all this,” Aldridge said thoughtfully, causing Greenwood to glance around at him as they walked. When he didn’t say anything else, she nodded.

“His work was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” she replied.

“That too,” Aldridge said.

Greenwood looked around at him again. “And?”

“And,” he replied, “I got to see you in a dress.”

He reached the car and strolled around to the passenger side, leaving Greenwood standing a short distance away, where she had stopped. Aldridge tugged on the door handle, but the car was still locked. He looked over at her, and raised an eyebrow.

Greenwood narrowed her eyes, then just shook her head and retrieved the key fob from her coat pocket. Aldridge gave a small bow of thanks as he heard the characteristic thunk of the car’s central locking mechanism disengaging, then he opened the door and got in, studiously not looking in Greenwood’s direction as she approached the driver’s side. A few moments later, her coat was on the back seat, and she started the engine.

“We’re going to have a conversation soon about respecting the chain of command,” she said, as she manoeuvred the powerful car over the gravel and out onto the road.

Aldridge was looking out the passenger side window and didn’t turn his head, but Greenwood glanced over just in time to catch the first real smile she’d seen from him since he appeared around the blind corner of an alley in Edinburgh, to complicate her life.

We all cope in our own way, she reminded herself.

As the car accelerated, quickly leaving the scene of the wake behind, Aldridge settled back into his seat.

“I’ll look forward to it, Captain,” he said.

CHANGER is available in paperback (including an autographed edition), and in all major ebook formats.