The Princess and the Tomb Raider
© 2019 CR Britting
Bright sunshine, blue skies and an almost perfect temperature put an accent on the lovely summer morning. The gently rolling hills were dotted with farms and wooded areas and neat, sturdy fences separated the two-lane road from the well-kept fields on either side of it. It would have made a perfect place for an artist to paint a picture of an English countryside.
On this particular morning, a black Bentley touring car crested the top of a hill and started down the other side. Expensive automobiles were rare along this stretch of road. They were beyond the reach of most people and the farmers working in nearby fields gave the car only a cursory glance before returning to more important matters.
The windows of the Bentley were tinted dark, and except for the front windshield, it would be very difficult for anyone to see into the car. which suited the occupants just fine. Slipping undetected past the watchers was almost impossible, but today, with the help of several decoy vehicles, they had been successful.
The man sitting in the front passenger seat, whose job it was to keep an eye on such things, had glanced at the road behind them as they had topped the hill. The road appeared to be deserted.
Before long the Bentley passed a long, high stone wall on the right side of the road, ample evidence that they were almost at their destination. A short time later the car slowed and turned into the entrance of an old, but well kept mansion. A heavy iron gate crossed the driveway and the car stopped just short of it. The man in the front passenger seat got out and crossed to the telephone box.
* * * * *
Lara Croft was far away, in an ancient culture, when the buzz of the intercom dragged her reluctantly from the book she was studying.
"They're here, Lass."
"Thank you, Ian. I'll be right out."
So saying, she hung up the phone and reached for her teacup. A single sip of the liquid was enough to bring a frown to her face. It was cold.
Heading for the door, she stopped for a moment to check her appearance in the mirror. She was dressed casually, in short-sleeve blouse and slacks, but it was a carefully prepared casual look. She wanted everything to be perfect when she greeted her guest.
In a moment, she joined the big man at the bottom of the front steps. Lara Croft was not a small woman by any means, but Ian McPherson towered easily over her. In his early fifties, he was still in excellent condition, and while his times on the assault course were longer than those of his young employer, they were still quite respectable given his age and physical size.
"They're just comin' up the road, Lass."
"It's been a long time, Ian," she replied. "Too long."
"I've never met her. What's she like?"
"I've known her a long time, Ian. She's a good lady. You'll like her."
The black car swung around the circular driveway and came to a stop near them. The front passenger door opened and a man stepped out. He was of medium build with dark hair and his eyes darted quickly around at the surrounding area. He was wearing a sport coat, but it was unbuttoned and his right hand was near his belt buckle.
Apparently satisfied, he swung to face them. He was in his early thirties and was obviously a security officer or bodyguard. "Ms Croft?"
"Yes," she replied and turned to the big man next to her. "And this is Ian McPherson, my gardener." She said it with a straight face, and saw the bodyguard's eyebrows lift a tiny bit.
"Your gardener?" There was just a hint of disbelief in his voice.
She smiled. "But before coming to work for me, he was Sergeant-Major McPherson of the Coldstream Guards." McPherson was tall and in one of those bearskin hats at Buckingham Palace he must have been a sight indeed.
"I retired a bit ago," McPherson explained. "I do like to do some gardening when I have the time and I keep an eye on the place when Miss Lara is away."
A genuine smile came to the bodyguard's face and his hand dropped to his side. "I'm Edward Mason, formerly of The Regiment. Everything secure here?"
"Aye, sir. I even brought in a couple of lads to keep an eye out for any unwanted quests, especially down by the road."
Mason nodded. "Thank you, Sar'n't-Major. Well done." He turned to open the rear passenger door.
"The Regiment?" Lara whispered to the man next to her. She had seen the look of quiet pride on Mason's face.
McPherson glanced down and smiled. "When you care enough to send the very best, Miss Lara. Our Mr. Mason was SAS, probably an officer by the look of him." The Special Air Service enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest special-operations forces in the world, similar to the Delta Force of the American Army. Who better as a bodyguard for someone special?
Mason pulled open the passenger door and Lara couldn't help but grin as the tall passenger stepped from the car.
"Hello, Lara." The blonde woman's smile was just as genuine as that of her bodyguard as she stepped forward, her hands outstretched.
Lara took them in her own. "Diana. It's so great to see you again. And this is my friend, Ian McPherson. Ian, Lady Diana, Princess of Wales."
Diana turned to McPherson and offered her hand. "I am very pleased to meet you, Sergeant-Major. Has she run you through her assault course yet?"
McPherson positively beamed at the courtesy she had shown him in addressing him by his former rank. "Aye, ma'am. That she has."
"He's very good at it, too," Lara added with grin. "For an old guy."
Diana and her bodyguard both laughed as the smile dropped from McPherson's face like a stone from a high cliff. Ian turned to face Lara and his eyes narrowed. She took in his indignant look and smiled innocently.
"Just teasing, sir."
"I wouldn't let her get away with that if I were you," Diana said with a chuckle.
"She won't, ma'am. You can rest assured of it." His words were for Diana, but the expression on his face told Lara she might be made to pay later for her joke at his expense.
"How about showing me around a bit, Sar'n't-Major?" suggested Mason. "If you intend to thrash your employer within an inch of her life, it might be better to wait until after we've gone." He shrugged and his mouth turned up a little. "Fewer witnesses, as it were."
McPherson reluctantly tore his eyes from Lara and nodded. "Aye, Mr. Mason, that's a good idea. Let's take a walk." They turned away, but the women had no trouble hearing his parting words.
"'Afore I beat up on a certain skinny little adventurer girl."
"Where in the world did you find someone like him, Lara?" Diana asked, gazing after them. "He's precious."
"Ian was a old friend of my father. He retired from the military and was looking for a position when father suggested that he call me. I was looking for a major-domo, someone to run the house, so it was perfect. He's only been here a short time, but it's worked out quite nicely."
Lara turned to her friend. "Well, come inside and I'll get us some tea."
"Ah, splendid," Diana replied as they walked up the steps. "Tea would be just the thing right now. And I want to hear all about that adventure of yours in America. I read the article you published, but knowing you it's probably not but half the story."
* * * *
After seating her visitor comfortably in her office, Lara hurried to the kitchen to request a fresh pot of tea. She'd first met Lady Diana Spencer while she was still in school. For some reason, Diana had taken an interest in the young girl six years her junior and they had been friends ever since. At first, Diana had seemed like a favorite aunt, and on those infrequent occasions when they got together she had always had a funny story or something interesting to tell her young friend. Later, as Lara made her own way in the world, their relationship had changed to one of mutual respect.
They were not "best friends", although both might have enjoyed that relationship. It's just that their on-the-go lives kept them from ever having extended time together. A morning once in a while, an evening out perhaps, or a hurriedly arranged luncheon somewhere, it was all they ever had time for.
When her friend had become the fairy tale princess, thirteen-year-old Lara could hardly contain her excitement, and like everyone else, she hoped the dream would last forever. But as time passed it became increasingly clear that Diana's marriage was in trouble. Unable to do anything about Diana's royal difficulties, Lara had nevertheless helped by providing a haven where Diana could come and just relax, without having to put on her "public face."
When Lara had first met her, Diana had laughed a lot and loved to play tricks on people, a practice that had gotten her into trouble on several occasions at the Palace. At Lara's private estate, Diana could do as she wished, and the two women often went horseback riding together, away from the prying eyes of the tabloid press.
When she returned to her office, Lara saw her visitor looking at the photographs on the wall. "The tea will be along in a moment. I told cook to make it especially hot. I know you like it that way."
The blonde woman turned and smiled. "Thank you, Lara. It's kind of you to remember. And it's good to be in your house again."
"Any time, Diana. We're always glad to have you."
The blonde woman swung back to the photographs on the wall. "These are from your trip to America?"
Lara stopped beside her. "Correct. I went to a western theme park called Silverado. It's sort of like the Disney places, except it's done up like the American West of the 1880s."
Diana pointed to a picture showing Lara and a tall man standing next to a big motorcycle. Behind them was a line of towering mountains. "Who is that with you?
"His name is Jim Spade. Like the ace of spades."
"What an interesting name." Diana turned to face her friend. "How did the two of you happen to be up in the mountains? Your article didn't mention anything about that."
Lara blushed, remembering the quiet week that she and Spade had spent together.
Diana's eyebrows lifted. "Yes? Is there something about this man Spade I should know?"
"He wants me to marry him."
Instead of showing surprise, the blonde woman glanced back at the picture and studied it closely. "He looks like he'd suit you, Lara. What did you tell him? Am I going to be a bridesmaid?"
Lara smiled. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have stand with me, Diana, but...I...well, I guess I'm just not ready to give up my freedom. Not yet, anyway."
Diana's smile faded. "A good man is hard to find, Lara. If he's someone special, don't let him get away until you're sure."
"I've thought about it," Lara admitted. "I've thought about it a lot."
Diana looked back at the photograph. "He reminds me of someone. Who is it? Ah, I know, a younger Gene Hackman, perhaps?"
Lara saw the resemblance immediately. "You're right. More rugged than handsome."
"Speaking of actors, it looks like I might be in a movie, too."
Diana grinned. "With Kevin Costner, no less. He's going to make a sequel to 'The Bodyguard' and I'm going play a princess he's assigned to protect. We'll fall in love."
If Lara was surprised before, now she was stunned. "Kevin Costner? How did all that come about?"
"Through a mutual friend. Then I talked to Kevin directly. Someday my life is going be my own, and I'll be free to explore a number of things, like this movie, for example."
"But, an actress...?"
"I was a little unsure at first," Diana admitted. "But you know, I'm going to play a woman who is very much like me, and Kevin thinks I'll be fine with it. They're working on a screenplay and a draft should be ready before too long."
"I think it sounds like a wonderful idea, Diana. Just make sure I get a ticket to the gala premiere."
The blonde woman laughed and turned back to the wall. "Now tell me about the rest of these pictures. Who are all these men?" The framed photograph showed a large group of Wild West cowboys standing in front of an old steam train. The bottom of the picture was covered with signatures.
"They're called 'The Outlaws of Silverado.' They are the villains of the place. Jim is their leader."
"And this one?" Diana asked, pointing to a picture of a blonde cowgirl standing next to a paint horse. "Let me guess. It's 'Little Britches'?"
Lara nodded and smiled fondly. "That's her, all right. Her real name is Julie Darwood. You'd like her."
There were other pictures, too. Matt Branson, Alison Kennedy, Jason Trimble. Lara remembered each. They were special people. All of them. Someday soon she'd have to go back and see everyone again.
Beside her, Diana sighed. "It looks like you had a wonderful time, Lara. I wish I could go to a place like that. Put on one of those big hats. Ha. That would be fun."
"Well, why don't you?"
"The paparazzi. It's difficult to go anywhere without them."
"There aren't any here."
The blonde woman looked perplexed. "I beg pardon? What are you talking about?"
"While I was in America, I had an afternoon free while I was in Denver. So I went to a place called Shepler's. It's one of the largest western clothing stores in the world. It took a couple of large boxes to ship home everything I bought there. So I have enough clothes to outfit a whole theatre company." Lara grinned. "Even a princess."
Diana's mouth dropped open. "You mean...?"
"Why not? It's perfect. I gave most of the staff the day off when I learned you were coming. There's no one here but cook, Ian and Mr. Mason. Plenty of room for two cowgirls to go for a private ride in the sunshine."
A few minutes later Lara's bed was covered with cowboy clothes and the two women giggled like a couple of schoolgirls as they tried on different combinations of garments. Diana finally settled on a long, light brown, suede riding skirt with a pretty blouse. Selecting a hat was more difficult, however, and it took her some minutes to find one that suited her. Lara chose a pair of chocolate brown leather pants and a matching vest, along with a crème color shirt.
Standing together in front of the big mirror, Diana laughed. "Oh, Lara! Don't we look grand?"
Lara smiled. Diana had been through so much in her life, especially with the breakup of her marriage. It was good to see her friend having a good time.
Thirty minutes later, they set out on horseback. Although Lara had offered to have them ride along, McPherson and Mason had declined, opting to follow at a discreet distance in the Land-Rover. In deference to her guest, Lara decided not to take her guns, but a private word with Ian assured her that the two men were well prepared for any trouble that might arise.
After an hour or so of riding, they found a pleasant spot to stop for a picnic. The men joined them for the meal, but afterward, they returned to the Land-Rover--to swap 'war stories' as they put it--leaving Lara and Diana to enjoy the perfect afternoon. They got to talking about Diana's charity work, and Lara sensed some of her friend's interest in several issues, especially land mines.
"Angola was amazing, Lara, and appalling at the same time. It's one thing to sit in your comfortable home and read about the effects of these dreadful weapons. Before the trip, my sponsors gave me an extensive briefing about what to expect once I got to the country." She grimaced. "But in spite of what they told me, I was really shocked at what I saw.
"They've been at war there for over thirty years and someone told me that there is a land mine for every man, woman, and child in the country. Everyplace I went I saw people who had been maimed, people who had nothing to do with the war. It's bad enough that soldiers have to die, but to see the little children...it was dreadful."
"I saw that picture of you with the little girl who'd lost her leg," Lara said.
"Her name was Sandra," Diana replied. "She was out gathering food when she stepped on a mine." Diana shook her head. "Thirteen years old. And she wasn't the only one. They were everywhere. Their lives have been devastated. All they have left is their dignity."
"Do you feel like your trip did any good? Is anyone listening?"
"I hope so, Lara. The press certainly covered my visit extensively. There's talk about a treaty to ban land mines altogether. I hope it's adopted by every country."
"I don't know how you put up with the press. If it were me, I'd shoot the lot of 'em, so to speak."
Diana laughed. "That's what I like about you, Lara. You say just what you think." The blonde woman's smile faded. "But I'll tell you what: If the press is determined to follow me around, then I'm going to use that opportunity."
No hint of humor now, and Lara saw the fierceness in her friend's eyes. "There's so much wrong in the world. If they want to take my picture, they're going to have to go where I go and see what I see. If I rub their faces in it, if it makes people see the horror often enough on the evening news, perhaps something will be done."
A car door opened nearby and Lara glanced around to see Edward Mason getting out of the Land Rover.
"Time to go, ladies," he called.
Diana looked up. "Thank you, Edward, we'll be along in a moment."
The women quickly started gathering up the remains of the picnic.
"So where are you headed next, Diana?"
"Bosnia. They tell me the situation there is almost as bad as Angola. That's hard to believe."
"Take care, Diana. A mortar shell or artillery round won't care that you've come to help."
"Neither do land mines, Lara. That's why I'm going."
On that somewhat somber note, they placed the blankets and picnic baskets back in the Land Rover and returned to their horses.
"Thanks for letting me come to your home like this, Lara. You've been a good friend over the years. I just wish we could spend more time together."
"So do I, Diana. You're always welcome here."
Diana untied her horse's reins from the tree. "It was fun playing cowgirl, too. I don't get a chance to do that sort of thing anymore. I wish I had my camera with me."
"Well, you're in luck. I did bring mine." Lara opened her saddlebag and pulled out a pocket 35mm camera.
Ian McPherson was quite willing to play photographer, and a moment later he had the two women smiling as they stood next to their horses, cowboy hats and all.
* * * * *
The mid-September rain came down in great sheets, driven by the force of the wind. The late afternoon sky was dark from the storm clouds overhead. Trees bent over and only an occasional flash of lighting permitted vision more than a few meters beyond the window. Even the security lights seemed soft and distant in the heavy deluge. It had been raining all day and large pools of water had formed on the front lawn, fed continuously by the downpour.
And yet, not all of the water came from the sky. Just inside the window, a single drop of liquid fell through the air and splashed with a quiet plop on a piece of glass. A close look at the surface of the glass would show that other drops had landed there as well.
The glass itself was set into a beautiful wooden frame and it covered the picture of two smiling friends, one with curly blonde hair, and the other whose hair was dark red. They were standing next to a pair of horses and both were wearing big cowboy hats.
But Lara Croft was not looking at the picture in her hand, nor was she aware of the tear that had slid uninvited down her cheek. Her gaze was outside, into the rain, but she didn't see it or hear the thunder that rumbled softly somewhere in the distance. She was far away, remembering a quiet summer afternoon. A horseback ride. A picnic. And a good friend.
Another tear slid down her cheek and fell away, also unnoticed.
Why? Why Diana of all people? Killed by a drunk driver and money-hungry photographers, when she had so much of life to experience, and so much of herself left to give.
She had called one night just before that fateful trip, Diana talking excitedly about a new man in her life. The two of them were going on vacation together and she had promised to call when she returned. It was the last time Lara talked with her.
They had buried Diana just over a week ago, and the woman standing next to the window was left with a very large hole in her life. How many times had they been together over the years? Lara had lost count, but the memories were still clear in her mind, almost as if they were standing on parade.
And yet, the memories were not enough to fill the hole. Not nearly enough. Not enough to make the pain go away, or the tears stop. Not enough to prevent the sadness than would come unbidden at different times during the day.
It was time to get on with life. She knew it. But the reminders were all around her and difficult to avoid.
There was a knock on the door-frame behind her and Lara turned to see Ian McPherson coming into the room.
"Excuse me, Miss Lara. I..."
He stopped suddenly, seeing her face. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Lass," he mumbled, embarrassed. "I'll come back later." Turning, he headed for the door.
"Wait, Ian," she called after him. "Please."
The big man stopped and swung around. "What's wrong, Miss Lara? Something I can help with?"
She held up the picture frame so he could see it.
The big man nodded and crossed the room. "Lass, you have to let her go."
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "I know, Ian. But it's hard. I can't help but remember all the times we shared and..."
Ian held up his hand. "Miss Lara, I know you're hurting. But you've got to get past it, for your own sake. Lady Diana wouldn't want you to grieve over her all this time. She'd want you to move on with your life. Keep your memories, 'cause they're precious, but don't let 'em overpower you."
"Now you listen to me, Lara Croft." McPherson was the soldier again in an instant. "Snap out of it! Get yourself together. Right now you couldn't beat a four-year-old child on the assault course, much less an old army man. Shape up, or I'm gonna put you over my knee and tan your backside a bit."
It had the desired effect.
"In a pig's eye, Sergeant-Major," she declared, an indignant look on her face. "You couldn't catch me if your life depended on it!"
"Oh, I don’t about that." Ian dropped into a crouch, and his arm span appeared to Lara to be nearly three meters across. He advanced slowly, a devilish grin on his face. Lara, now smiling, had no choice but to retreat, and soon he had her backed into a corner.
"See, Lass?" he growled. "You might be some great adventuress over in Tibet or someplace, but right here, right now, I'm just gonna whip your little rear end."
Suddenly Lara sprang forward, attempting to get past him. But the former soldier had lost little of his reflexes and caught her around the waist, holding her lightly in his powerful grasp. She made a few half-hearted efforts to break free, then stopped abruptly. McPherson released her at once.
She turned to him, a warm smile on her face. "Thank you, Ian. You always cheer me up when I need it."
"You're welcome, lass," he replied, and then, suddenly, the gravel was back in his voice. "But remember this: I may be an old soldier, but a crafty old soldier can still paddle a skinny little adventurer girl when she needs it. And don't you forget it!"
It is, of course, somewhat risky to include a famous person in a work of fiction. You have to be true to what most people believe the person was like. If you put words in the person's mouth, they have to be words the person might really have said or, better yet, words he or she actually said.
A case in point is the land mine issue. Not content to just give her name to the cause like so many celebrities, Diana was quite well informed on the issue, and she was concerned for the people who's lives had been shattered by these remains of war. Most of her comments about the issue in this story are her direct quotes.
I have tried to be true to the Princess...out of respect if nothing else. I believe it is entirely possible that she and Lara Croft could have been friends. Because of their personal relationship, Lara would surely have been deeply saddened by her friend's death.
In doing the research for this story, I was surprised to learn of Diana's involvement in a future movie project with Kevin Costner. At first, I thought it was something dreamed up by one of the tabloids, but then I found articles by CNN and Reuters, which gave the idea credence.
It wasn't until after Diana's death that Costner read the draft of the screenplay. He said he couldn't finish it, it made him cry. You know, I almost hope they go ahead and make the movie...now that an appropriate amount of time has passed...as a tribute to Diana, since she was interested in it and she wanted to do it.
My belief is that Lady Diana was actually a fun-loving person, too. I distinctly remember hearing on several occasions how her playing tricks on people had caused quite a stir at the Palace soon after she and the Prince were married. You sense some of that in this story.
[A further note: When they are in Lara's office, Lara and Diana talk about some pictures on the wall. They are referring to my novel, "A Lara Croft's Silverado Adventure." In it, Lara Croft receives a request to evaluate an old west theme park. At first, she scoffs at the idea, but she is between jobs at the moment and since she has to be in America soon anyway, she decides to go. Arriving at Silverado she enters the park incognito, hoping to receive the same treatment as any other guest. It first it is fun, but soon her young friend, Julie, is kidnapped by real-life bad guys. Lara teams up with a former Navy Seal to get her back. You can find Silverdo Adventure on this site. Enjoy.]