He wasn’t alone in the darkness — they were all around him, pushing and jostling him and so close he could smell their vitriolic breath.
Pallid, judgmental fingers poked his naked body like razor sharp talons, piercing his flesh.
Then came the chanting… a distant whisper at first but slowly building into a fearful crescendo…Guilty!…guil-ty!…GUIL-TY!…GUIL-TY; the faceless voices bellowed their verdict.
Robert McPherson opened his eyes; his face and torso wet with perspiration.
“Guilty,” he repeated, like a broken man confessing. He reached across to Amanda’s side of the bed and swept his hand across the cold cotton sheets, aching to run his fingers through her hair and feel the warmth of her slender body and kiss her lips. It hurt, it hurt like hell.
In Houston, Texas, it was seventy-four degrees, and already the morning air felt heavy and sultry. It would be hotter later, but nothing like the sweltering, humid heat of summer.
Downtown, the towering glass monoliths dominated the skyline, reflecting the fiery morning sun, like huge mirrors, into the easterly suburbs and beyond to the flat featureless horizon.
On floor-forty of the Ellington Building, in a large sun lit conference room, a meeting was about to start.
Seated in anticipation around a long rectangular table were five of the world’s most eminent scientists. Standing facing them with his back to the tinted-glass window was a tall, fair-haired man.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," he said, in a very upbeat manner, not waiting for a response. “It just shows what a bit of presidential pressure can do. I'm glad to announce that Dr Robert McPherson has finally been released from his current duties and will be arriving here shortly.”
The announcement caused a buzz of excitement around the table.
At ten-thirty, Rob McPherson's chauffeur driven limousine arrived at the entrance to the Ellington building, precisely forty-eight-minutes after his flight had touched down at Houston International Airport, to the north of the city.
Quickly, the young chauffeur opened the near side rear door, “I'll take care of your baggage, sir, you just report to the main desk," he said, obligingly.
McPherson thanked him, exited the limousine and strode the short distance to the entrance, briskly walking up the steps leading to the entrance and carefully avoiding four young uniformed men, striding purposefully out of the building, deep in excited conversation.
Inside the entrance, a second set of automatic doors quietly opened, revealing an impressive, cool reception area.
He walked to the desk in front of him. “My name is Rob McPherson; Colin Williams is expecting me." His impassive expression gave no indication of the hurt and despondency he felt within himself.
"Just one moment, sir," she said, casting her eyes down to the discreetly hidden screen illuminating her young face.
“That's confirmed; welcome to Houston, Doctor,” she replied, still smiling widely.
"Can I please have your hand scan?”
McPherson placed his right hand on the glass plate in front of him and waited for the computer clearance. Handing him his printed lapel badge, she said, "Please wear this at all times and take a seat to your right, while I page security for you."
"Thank you," McPherson said, forcing a smile. On the flight to Houston his mind had slowed to a glacier pace, his cognitive thoughts had become fragmented and random. Sitting still was becoming difficult; difficult because the pent-up anger burning inside him felt like it was about to explode out of the top of his head, like an erupting volcano. The unfamiliar feelings of failure and jealousy combined forces to create an almost uncontrollable urge to hit out, at whatever was in his way. Someone, some bastard, had taken his Amanda, his friend, and his lover.
Her words: “It's over… I love another man,” still ringing in his ears.
McPherson's hands were clenched as he fought to control his racing emotions. His mind was spinning and confused. Why did he not sense there was a problem? How could she love someone else? How could she? Why had he not sensed her innermost feelings? Ten years, ten wasted years and for what? To be discarded like an empty Coke can, crushed in the hand and tossed into the garbage. He needed her, for God's sake. She was a part of him, she was his life. Where did it all go wrong?
“Dr McPherson?… Dr McPherson?"
“Yeah — sorry — that's me,” he replied, startled by the sudden interruption. He looked up and was confronted by a giant of a man.
"Follow me please, sir."
He quickly composed himself and tried to forget his problems, at least for a short while. He needed to be rational; he needed time to think things through. Standing up, he inhaled deeply, and fought to clear his tormented mind, as he mechanically followed the obese, security officer into the awaiting lift.
It was necessary for the officer to confirm that Rob McPherson was who he said he was, but ironically, for the first time in his life, McPherson wasn't sure himself.
Minutes later, on the fourth floor, the perspiring officer unlocked a door marked "Security" and invited McPherson to enter the small room. As he entered the smell of stale body odor hit him, and he felt repulsed. The guard gestured to a swivel chair facing his desk. McPherson sat down and looked across at the man responsible for the odor. His large body filled the expanse of his uniform almost to bursting point, and his balloon like face was covered in moist, oily flesh that hung in layers below his chin, diminished only by the mass of his huge lower torso. As he sat down the chair below him groaned, as it took the weight of his enormous bulk.
"May I have your ID card, sir?" he said, struggling for breath.
McPherson reached into his pocket and handed the guard his plastic chip impregnated card.
"Thank you, sir," he said, as he swiped the card into the reader next to the computer on his right.
Reluctantly, he watched the guard struggling to breath whilst he very slowly typed information into the computer on the desk in front of him. McPherson's breathing was deliberately short and shallow and his right hand covered his nose and mouth, in a vain attempt to filter the unwelcome smell.
After what seemed like an eternity, the guard looked up and wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with a damp handkerchief. "I just need your voice and retina sample now, sir," he said. "I can then enter it into the computer and you can be on your way."
"Good, I have an appointment at eleven o'clock on floor twenty," McPherson said, impatiently, eager to clear his nostrils of the pungent stench that had impregnated every part of the room.
“Yes, I know, sir, you'll be there with time to spare,” replied the guard, calmly.
At two minutes to eleven the doors of the elevator opened at the twentieth-floor and McPherson stepped out into a tastefully decorated reception area. On the oatmeal colored walls hung copies of classics by Turner, Van Gogh and Monet. In the corners of the room large leafy plants thrived on the light from the ceiling lamps.
Seconds after the lift doors had silently closed behind him a voice from a hidden speaker, said: "Please use the VRU and enter the door to your left."
He walked to the wall mounted VRU next to the door, leaned towards it and spoke his name, "Dr Robert McPherson." The door opened and there to greet him was a very attractive black American woman.
"Good to meet you, Dr McPherson," she said, with a slight west coast accent and a smile that showed off her perfect teeth.
"My name is Linda, I'm Colin’s personal assistant."
"Good to meet you, Linda," replied McPherson.
"Please follow me, sir, — Mr. Williams is waiting for you in his office." As she walked in front of him he noticed her elegant long legs and the graceful way she moved. It reminded him of Amanda and he felt a sickening depression overwhelm him.
Shortly, they arrived at a plain wooden door that carried no name or title. A single knock by Linda Washington was followed by Hunter's deep voice, saying, "Please come in."
Linda gestured to McPherson.
"Thanks." Entering the office, he watched Colin Williams stand up from behind his desk and enthusiastically move forward to greet him and shake his hand.
"Great to meet you, Rob. My name’s Colin, but please call me Hunter, everyone else does." McPherson smiled and shook his hand warmly.
Hunter pointed to a chair in front of his desk that was covered in luxurious black leather, to match the large desk set at an angle facing away from the window. "Please sit down and make yourself comfortable."
As Hunter returned to his seat McPherson estimated he was in his early fifties, although he looked very fit for his age, with a full head of fair hair and a sporting tan. Six-foot two possibly, McPherson thought.
"I trust you had a pleasant journey this morning, Rob?"
"Very pleasant, thank you," replied McPherson, lying, but showing no outward signs of stress or emotion.
"I guess you're wondering what's going on?” Hunter said, quietly.
"Yeah, in fact I am. Conrad has briefed me about the project, but not in any real detail."
"Well, that's because Conrad doesn’t know the real details," Hunter retorted, with a smug confidence.
"I know there's a requirement for data analysis and that my experience will be of benefit: but that's all I know." McPherson watched and waited while Hunter composed himself.
"This is a top-secret project, Rob, and it has already cost the Government a huge amount of money. The President has been convinced by some very well prepared arguments, that, on balance, it's likely to be very beneficial to America. But: he is aware that there is no guarantee of success."
“I guess you already know my expertise?" Hunter did know and he smiled and nodded in recognition.
“So, what kind of data are we looking at here?”
"All will be revealed, very soon, Rob — I can assure you."
"Conrad indicated that the project would be initially for one year, is that still the case?"
"Possibly; it's too early to tell yet, but whatever happens, Conrad knows your current project will be reopened for you, on your return to Washington."
McPherson thought about Hunter's words for a moment. Last night he was concerned about Amanda and the fact that he might have to work in Houston for a period without her. Now, in a matter of a few hours, it didn't seem relevant anymore, and going back to Washington, without her there, had little appeal to him.
"So when do I get to know what’s going on?" he asked smiling, trying to find some enthusiasm from within himself.
"The first meeting of Project M13 starts at midday, in room B12. I'll get Linda to show you the bathroom. I'm sure you'd like to freshen up before the show gets on the road.”