Grateful thanks to An Delen Dir for the loan of one of her characters. I will take great care of him. Promise. And to dragon, who not only makes an appearance, but gave me valuable help.Thank you to both of you. This story is set some time after Calan Geaf by An Delen Dir
‘Coming?’ There was no reply, but Straker was used to that. He frowned more in amusement than annoyance and walked on, turning round once to call to his companion. ‘I’m not waiting for you.’
He paused, shrugged his shoulders and opened the outer office door, making sure it remained open behind him. Another scorching day, the sun blazing in a brilliant blue sky and the heat-haze shimmering over the sticky tarmac of the car park. Even the brief walk from his vehicle had made his shirt cling to his back. For once, it would be pleasant to spend the day in the coolness of the underground and air-conditioned workspace. He tugged off his sunglasses with a sigh of relief.
‘Alone, Commander? Is everything all right?’ Miss Ealand gave him a look of concern.
Straker tilted his head and shrugged. ‘He’s flirting with Janice in Reception. Seems to think he stands a chance of getting what he wants from her. He’ll be along soon.’
Miss Ealand held out an envelope. ‘And does he? Stand a chance with Janice?’ She followed Straker through to his office and waited as her boss slit open the envelope and pulled out the contents.
‘No. At least I hope not. I warned her about him, but you know Janice. She’s a soft touch.’ He leafed through the papers and tossed them on his desk. ‘Send him down when he arrives will you? I’ll be waiting.’
The uniform convention and his own unwritten code of behaviour required the wearing of his jacket while in transit from car to office, but today he stripped it off as soon as the door closed and the room descended.
Dog days. That was what they called these hot days in July and August. Evil days some people said, but so far this week the evil he fought every day had not appeared. An idle thought wandered though his mind as he waited for the room to stop moving. Perhaps the aliens also had ‘dog days’ and, like humans, could not be bothered doing anything strenuous during a heat wave such as this.
He stretched, slinging his jacket over his shoulder. Another day. The mundane activities of paperwork and reports and meetings. Straker picked up his briefcase and shook his head with slight irritation. Once, just once, it would be nice to do something different.
He paused for a brief word with Ford before the coolness of his own office welcomed him and he sat with a sigh of relief to begin work.
‘Ah. There you are.’ Miss Ealand smiled at the sound of footsteps. ‘He’s waiting for you. Go right in and I’ll let him know you’re here.’
The office door closed and she flicked the switch connecting her to Straker’s underground office. ‘He’s on his way sir.’
‘Thank you Miss Ealand.’ Straker’s voice was dry and amused. ‘I expect he got what he wanted as well.’
Miss Ealand paused. She’d seen the evidence, but it was best not to say anything incriminating. ‘I really couldn’t say, Commander.’ She closed the intercom and carried on typing.
Lt. Ford, forewarned by Straker, was ready for the new arrival. ‘Morning.’ He smiled and leaned over. ‘Wondered where you’d got to. Go on. He’ll get worried if you don’t get in there pretty sharpish. And I haven’t anything for you right now. Maybe later.’
Straker was sipping his first coffee of the day. There had been no time this morning and anyway it had been too sultry. He settled for a glass of cold milk at home but the air-conditioning was as efficient as usual and he could enjoy a decent drink. He glanced up at a movement in the doorway.
‘Oh. It’s you. Well, come in. I was starting to think Janice had given in and let you have more than just her apple core.’ He waved a hand at the corner seat. ‘Sit there. Where I can keep an eye on you.’ He tried to put the required level of sternness and command into his voice but it was difficult, especially when his companion’s response was to tilt his head and move to sit at Straker’s feet, mouth open in a wide grin, deep brown eyes staring with unashamed adoration. The thin tail swished back and forth.
It was no use. Straker sighed. ‘Very well.’ He shuffled his chair back and the whippet slipped under his desk to lie there, head resting across Straker’s ankles. ‘It gets uncomfortable you know,’ Straker informed him. ‘But you can stay there for now.’
Calan twitched one ear at him, knowing he would not be ousted from here. Not unless it was necessary, and then, when the alarms sounded and the man had to go and work, only then would Calan settle on the blanket on the corner seat, curled up and lying, awake and watchful and waiting for Straker’s return.
Straker left his jacket behind when he went out later but Calan was close on his heels as they left the busy reception area, heading for the woodland bordering the eastern edge of the studio complex. Straker opened the gate and gestured. ‘Go on. Be quick. Just five minutes. I’m busy today.’
The woodland – privately owned by the studios – had few casual visitors other than Straker and his companion, and Calan, long tail thrashing in delight, disappeared into the undergrowth to search for stray rabbits and whatever else might be waiting there. Straker leaned on the gate, pondering the changes this small animal had brought into his life. It was a pity he couldn’t take the dog with him on this trip, but Paris was no place for a whippet. Jackson would be looking after the dog. It would be the first time as well and, with a rueful grin, he wondered if Jackson knew what he was letting himself in for. He walked along the path for a while before returning to the gate, unperturbed by the non-appearance of his companion. He had not seen Calan since the dog had run into the undergrowth, but he could hear the scuffles of the hound trailing in the scrub and bushes, out of sight but always close at hand.
He looked at his watch and gave a piercing whistle. It had been longer than five minutes, more like fifteen, but the dog needed some exercise and it was dark and cool under the trees. And peaceful. The rustles in the undergrowth ceased for a moment and Straker imagined the scene; the small white head lifting, the ears pricked, the head tilting as if to assess the situation. But it was only the first whistle and the man would not leave yet. Calan continued his serious hunt for rabbits, or foxes or badgers, or whatever might be lurking out of sight, waiting to be discovered.
Another whistle, but the dog continued his pursuits, scrabbling for a brief moment at a promising rabbit hole before darting away to chase an even more exciting smell. Straker gave the obligatory final whistle, accompanied by his name, shouting it in the tone indicating slight exasperation.
It was time to go. Calan bounded up, tongue lolling, eyes bright with the excitement of the chase.
‘You’re a stubborn nuisance you know that, don’t you,’ the man said, voice soft with affection as he rubbed his hand over short silky fur and fondled soft ears. ‘But I’ll miss you this weekend.’ It was an admission Straker had never thought to make. A warm tongue licked his knuckles and the two made their way back to the clinical underground headquarters, where there were no interesting smells or rabbits to chase, only the man’s feet to lie beside. It was enough. For both of them.
The rest of the morning dragged on, Straker trapped at his desk by paperwork and the weight of a small head pressing on his foot. He scratched a persistent itch on his ankle. Fleas? Surely not. He was meticulous about regular treatments. It was a necessary part of caring for a puppy, along with the correct food and regular exercise. It hadn’t taken long to train the dog, although Calan was still far too easily distracted by little things: mice, birds, rustling leaves, apple cores proffered by gullible secretaries, but Straker was sure the pup would settle down soon enough. He shifted his feet as much as possible to ease the stiffness, mindful of the sleeping puppy, and then stretched across for the next folder in the never-ending pile.
Then the alarm sounded. A scrabble of claws under the desk, a yawn from the small sighthound as it emerged from the safe confines, Straker wincing and rotating his feet in an attempt to regain some feeling as he reached for the intercom with one hand, the other stretching to massage his ankle. ‘Straker.’
‘Positive sighting Commander.’
Calan was already heading for his corner seat. There was a soft thump as the hound jumped up, shuffling round on the blanket before curling up, his dark eyes watching as the man, all thoughts of itchy ankles and sleepy sighthounds forgotten, walked from the room.
Another busy day, another late evening as well from the looks of it. Straker cast a rueful glance at his office. No chance for one last walk before he left. He hoped Calan would understand.
‘Ready Jackson?’ Straker handed over the lead. ‘You shouldn’t have any problems. I’ve written everything down. And it’s only two nights.’ He bent to pat the small dog, pausing as if to speak but instead he straightened and tugged his jacket into place once more. One brief nod at the doctor and he walked away. There was a faint whine and Jackson looked down. Calan, rigid and obedient, his eyes watching Straker walk away and his expression, if Jackson had ever considered a mere dog could have an expression, one of sheer misery.
‘Come.’ Jackson gave the firm order and started walking, but the dog was rooted to the spot. Straker drove away after giving one last glance at the small dog sitting there, eyebrows furrowed with anxiety. Only when the car had disappeared and the sound of its engine had faded into the distance did the whippet stand up, and, tail tucked between his legs, follow the doctor.
Jackson held the door open, waiting as Calan walked inside and stood there, eyes downcast, looking thoroughly miserable. The dog was a familiar sight in headquarters, trotting alongside Straker and sticking its nose into everything going on. Jackson had not forgotten his somewhat impetuous undertaking to care for the dog whenever Straker was called away on business. This was the first occasion for both of them and Jackson was, for all his seeming confidence, not used to having animals around, especially such wilful ones as this. They disquieted him, they were irrational and emotional. He shook his head in dismay. It promised to be a trying couple of days. But he had given his word to Straker, and Doug Jackson was a man who kept his promises.
19.30 hours: One measure.
Jackson tipped the food into the bowl and placed it on the floor then turned to finish making his own supper. There were several reports still to complete and the analysis of a somewhat fascinating psychometric examination from one of Moonbase’s operatives. He still doubted the advisability of having so many females in such an isolated area, but it had given him the opportunity to conduct a long-running psychological study on the effects of such close confinement in a group of highly educated women. He was hoping to have the fourth part of his paper published later in the year, although it would have to be approved by Straker to ensure there was nothing hinting at the existence of the huge multi-national presence on the Moon.
He settled himself to read, supper beside him on the couch. Pastrami and cream cheese on a plain bagel. Two gherkins on the side of the plate. Jackson had particular tastes.
Calan stared at the bowl. It smelled like his usual food, and the bowl was familiar, as was the water bowl, but the surroundings were not. It worried him slightly, but there were plenty of interesting things to see here: new aromas to sniff, new places to explore, new crannies in which he might find some elusive prey.
He waited until the man had gone out of the room, then nibbled at the food. Yes, the same as usual, but that didn’t matter. He could find ways to supplement his meal.
With fastidious care he nosed out the meaty chunks, devouring them in haste and then began working his way through the remainder: the small cheesy-flavoured pieces followed by harder biscuits, until all that remained were tasteless morsels. He ate those anyway and sat back feeling pleasantly full and wondering what to do next.
He wandered around the room seeking anything else left out for him to investigate. Tantalising smells from one cupboard intrigued him and he pushed his nose into the small space to ease the door open. A neat trick. He was rather proud of this, although his friend at home had put catches on the most accessible doors so they would no longer open with the prod of a nose or the scrabble of a claw.
But this one did. There was a large bucket inside, nearly as large as Calan himself, full of interesting objects and mouth-watering smells. He licked his lips. The slightly burned crust from a piece of toast. A wrapper from a packet of butter. Discarded teabags. He stuck his head into the bucket to reach past the teabags and there, best of all, right at the bottom, several cartons with the remnants of take-away curry.
If there was one taste Calan enjoyed above all others it was curry… and Chinese, and Italian. Or perhaps chicken bones. He didn’t get those at home. Not since the cupboards had been secured anyway, so it was particularly pleasing to find some waiting for him. He set to work.
The crust first. It had the merest scrape of butter and a faint tang of marmalade. He was used to crusts, taking them with delicate care from those familiar fingers offering the scraps each morning, so these crusts were nothing exciting. He preferred the vinegar bite of Marmite, but that was a rare occurrence. He held the butter wrapper under one paw while licking it clean then turned his attention to the tea bags. They were chewy, as usual, but he always hoped they might hold more than just soggy leaves. These didn’t, and he spat them out in disgust before scrabbling at the bucket again, tipping it so its contents tumbled onto the floor allowing him to root through at leisure.
There were no chicken bones. Not a single one. He sighed. But the cartons were not a disappointment. Congealed globules of sauce surrendered to a long pink tongue and even the tiniest morsels of rice were devoured with relish. He started chewing the cartons themselves, although those were somewhat unsatisfying and in the end he contented himself with tearing them to shreds.
He looked around the room. Now what? A couple of minutes spent licking out the bucket and lapping a desultory drink of water, more out of habit than necessity, before he wandered around the room again, claws clicking on the terracotta tiles and studiously ignoring the debris scattered across the floor. The man was nowhere to be seen. Not HIS man, the other one, the one who had the different voice and the thin face. Calan could hear him now, muttering in the other room and rustling through papers. It was not a good idea to disturb them when they were doing that.
The house was waiting to be explored in the hope that his friend might have come back for him, but a tantalising smell distracted him. Was that a chicken bone at the other end? And however satisfied his stomach might feel right now, Calan could always find space for a scrap of chicken.
Jackson had immersed himself in reading, half-forgetting his supper, as he made notes and annotated the report. He ate half the bagel without even realising, then sat idly crunching one of the gherkins before putting the report aside and reaching out to finish his supper. There was nothing on the plate and he became aware of a sudden scurry of movement and a tan and white body slipping out of the room, the long tail wagging with delight. He frowned, annoyed, both at himself and the dog, and put the papers on the sofa in order to check on his forgotten visitor. The kitchen first. He opened the door and sighed.
‘Calan.’ The voice was stern and forbidding, no hint of amusement or resignation, no smile, no laughter. The whippet quivered. ‘Come here.’
Paris. Late Friday night.
The reception was over, the keynote addresses finished and Straker was beginning to feel this trip might not be a waste of time after all. The commercial consortiums had been out in force, and they were passionate and knowledgeable.
The evening ended with an informal meal, and the opportunity to talk to people who were not trying to impress, but had a genuine interest. Straker was, for once, enthusiastic at the prospect of a day listening to lectures and learning more about the future of commercial spaceflight. If SHADO ever succeeded in vanquishing the aliens, they could always venture into the profitable side of space exploration. He suppressed a smile as he imagined Moonbase as the latest holiday destination, and the thought of Lt Ellis as a hotel receptionist was, to say the least, interesting. The only sour point was the requisite glass of champagne which irritated his stomach as usual.
He said goodnight and went to his room, planning an early start for the main day of the conference after a rare night of socialising. He looked at his watch. Damn. After ten and he should really have checked in with Headquarters. It was not essential; they would have contacted him if there had been an emergency, but he always found it difficult to let go of his responsibilities for even this short length of time. Perhaps that was his problem; perhaps deep down he didn’t trust them to do the job properly if he was absent.
It was a foolish thought; he had selected all the staff and knew them well enough. It was too late now, but he had meant to contact Jackson, just to make sure things were okay, and with embarrassment he realised it was not the wellbeing of headquarters that concerned him. In truth, he was missing the dog. He hoped all was well, but Jackson was competent and, anyway, it was only two nights. He would be leaving after the seminar on Cyber security on Sunday morning and back on the Eurostar.
After the heat of the day, and the busy evening, he was more tired than he had thought. He rummaged though his suitcase for the indigestion tablets, packed more in resigned anticipation than as a precaution, chewed a couple while undressing and lay down, expecting to fall asleep once his stomach stopped complaining. The room was quiet and the bed comfortable, but every time he dozed off, something, or perhaps the lack of something, stopped him from drifting into real sleep.
He sat up. The room was too silent, and it was not only the stillness; there was an unexpected coolness behind him, a gap, the lack of warm breath on his neck. He rubbed his face. This was ridiculous. The sheets were cool when he slipped under them and lay on his side. A thump of a pillow, and a few moments of wriggling and shifting position to tuck it behind him, close to his neck. It would do. It was not a small and affectionate body, but it would suffice. He closed his eyes again trying to imagine a cold nose touching his neck and the warmth of Calan pressing against his back.
Damn it. The pillow was too soft. That was why he could not sleep. Or perhaps too hard. The room was … cool? Warm? Whatever, he found it impossible to settle and in the end he admitted defeat, turned on the light and sat there, pillows propping him up and reading handouts from the afternoon, half-hoping his mobile would ring and he would be called back to work. There was nothing to distract him but it was hard to concentrate without a small presence beside him, tail beating a gentle accompaniment on the bedcover and small pink tongue occasionally licking his wrist. He threw the pamphlets aside, thumped the pillow in an effort to make it more comfortable, and lay still, trying to relax. The room was silent. His hand moved almost instinctively, reaching out, searching for short, soft fur. Nothing. He sighed, and, rolling over, pulled the covers around his shoulders and waited. It was going to be a long night.
‘Bed.’ There was a sharpness in the voice but the stern word was studiously ignored and Calan continued his restless sniffing around the house searching for something, or perhaps someone. He had been prowling the house ceaselessly and Jackson was beginning to get just more than a little exasperated. He had done everything Straker’s detailed notes had instructed. Fed the dog at the precise time, made sure it had easy access to the garden when necessary to do its business, prepared the dog bed in one corner of the kitchen and Jackson was tired. It was obvious however, that the whippet had other intentions.
In the end Jackson gave up. If the dog wanted to wander round the house all night, fine. But Jackson was going to bed. He locked up, checking, with his usual methodical precision that everywhere was secure. The dog was skulking somewhere, and would eventually tire.
He could hear claws tapping on the floor as the dog continued to walk round the kitchen, but the waste bin was now empty, washed and disinfected, no delightful smells remaining, and there was nothing else left for the dog to find. The clicking stopped, there was a soft whine and a deep sigh, then the scuffle of material as the small dog settled into bed. The house became still and silent apart from wood creaking as Jackson walked upstairs and the gentle sounds of the night filtering through the open window in his bedroom. He undressed. There was not even a slight breeze to ease the heat. He went into the bathroom to refill his glass of water and leaned over the banister rail to check for sounds downstairs.
The pure cotton sheets welcomed him with their fragrance of hot sun. He selected one of the publications stacked on his bedside table, leafing through the pages as the old-fashioned alarm clock ticked away the unnoticed minutes. There was no disturbance from downstairs, and he relaxed, losing himself in the dry details of advances in stem cell regeneration. It was only when the chimes from the church tower distracted him, he looked at the clock. It was later than he had intended and, putting the journal aside he turned out the light, composed his limbs in his preferred position for rest and closed his eyes. He was asleep within two minutes.
The door to Jackson’s bedroom opened and a small pink nose, all that could be seen of the intruder, sniffed warily. Ears twitched, there was a tentative wag of the tail, a pause and another sniff before the hound eased himself into the room and stood at the side of the bed, head cocked and ears pricked.
The smells in this room were … different. Not unpleasant, just unfamiliar. The sounds differed as well. A higher sound, a slight hiss of air between teeth as the man breathed out in long relaxed sighs. A deep sleep, not the light half-awareness of his friend.
Calan approached, small tentative paces, alert and ready to turn and scuttle away if need be, but there was no movement. Bolder now, he walked around the bed to sit on the floor at the end of the bed, ready to make his move. His tail swished gently but the man slept on.
Jackson was unaware of the soft thump as the whippet jumped onto the end of the bed, or the slow steady movement as the dog, hesitating in this strange place and expecting a shout of disapproval from a stern voice, made his cautious way up the bed to his favourite position. There. His nose reached out, and again there was the hesitation, the wariness, the expectation of a further reprimand in that unfamiliar, stern voice. Closer, sniffing, his whole body now tense and ready to flee. The man was lying flat, neat and composed, his arms by his side.
Calan waited, but there was no movement and in the end the dog leaned forward to touch Jackson’s neck with his nose. A contact so light as to be almost unfelt, but it was enough. Still deeply asleep, the psychologist flinched away from the unusual sensation, murmuring to himself and rolling over onto his side, leaving a space behind his back. Calan slipped down before the gap could close. He breathed a deep sigh before pressing himself up against the warm body of the man to lie there, trembling with anxiety and an inexplicable sense of loss.
The vividness of the dream woke him and it took Jackson a few seconds to re-orientate himself. He was curled on his side, tired and jaded and worried. He never slept on his side. Ever. And it was very rare that he woke during the night, moreover, he never recalled his dreams; to his way of thinking they were nothing more than his psyche emptying the detritus of the previous day. But he had dreamed and the images remained in his thoughts. His childhood. Running through woods. The sounds of laughter. Contentment. Joy. Long forgotten memories of happier times.
Something was wrong and he could not place it.
He rolled over and a frantic flurry of movement under the covers behind him was enough to make him sit up and fling the covers back in child-like terror. Calan made one attempt to dart away, but his scrabbling legs tangled in the sheets and he slipped sideways, whimpering with fear. Jackson grabbed his collar and held him. There was a moment of silence as eyes met; the whippet cowering, ears flat against his head, tail tucked down so tightly it was unseen, Jackson frowning as his dreams faded away and he realised what had happened. He loosened his hold on the collar, stroking his free hand down the dog’s short fur and murmuring soothing words in half-remembered Polish from his childhood, until the trembling ceased and Calan settled.
Jackson lay on his back, the dog now tucked in the crook of his arm. The tiny presence was comforting, and he let his hand trail down the small body as he lay awake, wondering. Was this how Straker felt each night? A sense of being wanted, of being needed by someone so small and vulnerable and trusting. And Jackson fell asleep, fingers resting on his companion.
Croissants instead of toast. Straker dabbed crumbs from his lips with the linen napkin and pushed the plate away before finishing his coffee, for once undisturbed by a hard nose pressing insistently into his thigh, or brown eyes staring in an attempt to persuade him to part with more than a mere crust, or teeth nibbling at his fingertips to take the very last morsel of toast. Time for a brisk walk. But then he remembered; there was no reason to go out. Nothing to do before the first seminar. He checked his mobile once more, wondering if he might have missed a call, but no, and he allowed himself the unaccustomed luxury of reading the morning papers without distraction, although for some reason it was hard to concentrate.
The morning passed in a flurry of discussions and intense rivalry between the different factions, each trying to promote their own commercial space exploration venture. He had no interest in any commercial enterprise, but it was vital to keep up to date on any programs, especially as NASA’s future looked so uncertain. ‘Keeping an eye on the competition’ he had called it, when an old friend, at the leading symposium in the States last year, had expressed surprise at seeing him there. He had not told her the real reason for his attendance was to ensure no alien technology had found its way into the blueprints of the proposed space ships.
Over the years he’d learned that nothing, and no-one, could be trusted and despite SHADO’s best efforts there were times when aliens influenced activities on Earth. Every time he attended one of these conferences he half-anticipated seeing a spinning, cup-shaped spaceship, with 16 fins and faster-than-light speed. So far so good. There was a sense of quiet relief when he saw the models; innovative and well-designed, but nothing resembling a UFO or, what was even more important, any SHADO craft.
The rooms were air-conditioned, the chairs comfortable, the speakers erudite yet entertaining but Straker was restless and ill-at-ease, as if missing some important fact, one tiny and vital detail. He sat there, folding his arms and crossing his legs, shuffling in his seat. Something was missing. If he had been in his Control room he would have known what to do, would have sensed what was wrong. He had an ability, an inexplicable sixth sense, to focus on something no-one else noticed. To put the pieces together to form a picture. But here, today, it was as if he was deaf and blind.
Something was wrong, something was missing. And he had no idea what. He leaned down, giving his ankle a surreptitious scratch.
By mid-day the weather had freshened at last, cotton-wool clouds dotting the sky, flags rippling in a slight breeze, and thankful for a break he headed outside, ignoring the throng of scientists and interested parties queuing for the buffet. A long lunch break, giving him an opportunity to breathe fresh air and find something to eat away from some of the other attendees whom he knew from his time at NASA. It would not do to have them enquire into his presence here. He would find a quiet pavement cafe, away from prying questions. He needed to check in at HQ anyway.
And call Jackson. Just to make sure.
Saturday morning was always the same for Doug Jackson, the routine perfected over the years until he could set his watch by what he was doing. It was the only morning when he permitted himself the luxury of a lie-in. The alarm clock was unnecessary; he woke on the dot at six every morning, regardless of how late he went to bed. At the weekend he allocated himself thirty minutes to whichever romance novel he was currently reading, before getting up to shower. Then, once dressed he took a brisk walk to the local village shop for the newspapers and spent the next hour reading while enjoying breakfast.
The ordered schedule was comforting, allowing him to forget work and organise his life in preparation for the coming week. But not today. He roused to the sensation of a nose, warm this time, pressed into his neck and the thud alerted him to Calan jumping from the bed and pattering towards the door, accompanied by a gentle yet almost desperate whine. Jackson pulled on his dressing gown and followed, disgruntled at the disruption. It promised to be another scorching day with the sky threatening even higher temperatures. He switched on the kettle while the dog roamed the small, enclosed garden and, business done, sauntered back inside to sit by the bowl, looking expectant.
Morning: Half a measure.
The food rattled in the metal bowl and he stepped back as the whippet rushed forward to devour the scant amount of kibble, tail thrashing wildly. Jackson re-read the instructions. Yes. Half a cup. It seemed insufficient, but his instructions were clear. He prepared his own breakfast, pouring skimmed milk onto muesli. A change to the normal Saturday morning, but he was up and awake and he could take the dog with him later to the newsagents. He concentrated on reading the novel instead; a fascinating insight into the world of fiction. There was a quaint charm to these novels and he was beginning to see a distinct pattern in the genre.
He was in the process of collating his ideas prior to writing a novel to validate the theories; once published it would provide the basis for another psychology paper: The assessment of modern romance novels as a valid indicator of the feminine requirement for commitment and protection by a virile and stable male. He read on, making notes, munching cereal and oblivious to the large brown eyes watching, hoping in vain for a well-buttered crust of toast.
The disruption of his calm order was unsettling and Jackson, after loading the dishwasher, let the dog into the garden and left the door open. The day was hot, the neat well-ordered garden secure and enclosed and Calan would be safe for the few minutes Jackson required for showering and such. He looked out of the bedroom window, a faint smile on his lips, then shook his head and went into the bathroom.
Calan sat on the lawn and scratched. There was a particularly itchy spot on his ribs, and another behind his ear, and then, once those had been scratched into submission, the very tip of his tail started. A persistent itch, demanding immediate attention. He stood up and tried to grab the end. It was too quick for him, but if there was one thing Calan had learned, it was never to give up. He tried again, and got within a couple of inches of the elusive tip, before it flickered contemptuously away from his teeth. A sneaky approach next, the stealthy creep around, a slow reach forward. Too slow. The tail snaked away and he gave up all thoughts of a careful offensive and chased it, determined not to let it make a fool of him.
He was forced to stop in the end, not because the tail had eluded him, he was adamant about that, but the itch had subsided and there was no need. It was only a tail anyway. He had better things to do with his time than chase a stupid tail. Besides, there was something far more interesting in the garden. A creature he had never seen before. He sat down, ears cocked, tail – no longer itching- rigid with anticipation as he concentrated on the newcomer.
It leaped at him. Calan flung himself out of harm’s way as the creature approached, then he flopped on his belly to stare at it, panting with excitement and the thrill of the chase. He wondered whether it tasted as good as a chicken bone, not that he had ever managed to get hold of one. They were absolutely forbidden at home, making them even more of a temptation. Even the thought of how they might taste was sufficient to make him drool.
He turned his attention back to the small creature on the grass. Nose to nose. He sniffed. It twitched. He pounced, but it was too agile and his teeth closed on thin air with a snap. A sharp bark of warning, and he sprang to attack.
The interloper dashed for safety, great leaps and bounds taking it away from Calan and towards the long fronds of grass at the edge of the garden. He followed, growling his threats, tail lashing, only to see the trespasser disappear under a smooth surface of bright green.
Jackson rubbed his hair and combed it into its usual neat style, leaning over to check in the mirror that his parting was straight. A movement from outside caught his eye and he spun round to see the whippet leap, with all four feet, into the deep pond at the bottom of the garden. There was a moment of stunned silence and then Jackson ran.
Paris was full of dogs. For some reason Straker had never noticed them before, and it was only his own experiences of Calan that opened his eyes to the hounds pacing elegantly alongside their owners, or dawdling behind to sniff at lampposts. He stood aside to let a borzoi parade along the pavement with an indefinable expression of superiority and utter disdain. A beautiful animal, poised and graceful. And well-behaved. It was tempting to reach out and fondle the silky ears, but he restrained himself. A strange dog might not react in the same way as Calan, though on second thoughts perhaps it might and he did not relish having a borzoi trying to lick his face. Anyway, the lunch break was over and it was time to get back to the hotel.
Jackson held on tight to the wriggling puppy, heedless of the deep scratches now marking his arms. The pup was still covered in a fine blanket of pond weed but the piercing shrieks of terror had subsided to mere whimpers. Jackson grabbed a towel, holding the dog in a firm grip and began rubbing him dry. It took less than a minute to remove water and green scum from the short fur, by which time Calan’s tail was wagging with delight at the vigorous contact. There was a brief tussle over a corner of the towel and the whippet skidded backwards, the towel ripping with a most satisfying sound. Calan froze with fear and Jackson sighed and reached out, tweaking those surprisingly silky ears as the pup whimpered, still unsure of what was happening here today.
Calan was used to spending his days curled up under the desk, and his nights curled up against the man. Him. The one who took him out for walks, and talked to him. Where was he? And, like any toddler who finds himself alone and seemingly abandoned in a supermarket, Calan howled, bereft and desolate.
Jackson sighed. There was nothing he could do now, apart from finish dressing and then take the hound out for a walk to the newsagents. He gave an ineffectual pat on the head, which made no difference to the howls and then hurried upstairs.
The door closed. Calan, realising he was alone, stopped howling. There was no point without an audience to appreciate his efforts. He looked at the towel lying defeated on the floor and pranced around it growling before summoning his courage and tackling the offender. It submitted without protest and, head held high, he carried it outside.
There was a mouse on the lawn. Calan stood rigid, the scrap of towel hanging from his mouth for a moment before he barked and leapt at the creature. It scurried away from him, not towards the treacherous waters of the pond, but to the corner of the garden where Jackson’s compost heap was tucked away behind rows of fading sweet peas. The mouse sat for a moment on the top of the heap, miniscule paws wiping its nose and brushing whiskers back into place. Taunting the dog. It disappeared into a small hole with a final contemptuous twitch of its tail.
Calan followed, pushing his nose deep into the pile, dragging out eggshells – crunched and eaten -, potato peelings – spat out – before he paused for a breath. The mouse was nowhere to be seen, but there was a layer of warm and pungent grass cuttings on the top of the heap and a vigorous roll was just the thing to remove any lingering smells from his immersion in the water.
Then it was back to searching, clods of mulch and disturbed earthworms spattering onto Jackson’s neatly manicured lawn as his long nose scented wonderful things and enticing him to probe even further in hopes of unearthing a rabbit or chicken bone.
Eventually he had to stop. Not because he was tired, but because someone had rudely grabbed hold of his back legs and pulled him away. He sat, head tilted and tongue lolling, tail thrashing with excitement before Jackson carried him back into the house and closed the door into the garden.
It was well after his usual breakfast time before Jackson finished cleaning the puppy and tidying up the garden. He consigned the shredded remains of the towel to the dustbin and confined Calan to the kitchen, the pup sulking in his basket. Jackson read the morning news on the internet for a change.
The phone call, shortly before lunch, was expected. Jackson, keeping a close eye on his visitor, now curled up and asleep, reassured his caller. No, there were no problems in the studio, no there were no unexpected arrivals, and yes, Jackson’s guest was behaving himself. The bland answers seemed to satisfy the caller and Calan had not woken. Had not stirred at all in fact. Jackson bent over and stroked the small head.
Just to make sure the dog was settled.
That was all.
He went back to his computer and carried on his research. Whippets were more … complicated than he had imagined and it behoved him to learn more about them now he was the official SHADO dog sitter.
So, all was well, not that he doubted Jackson’s proficiency. The psychiatrist was competent and reliable, but Calan was … well, unpredictable was the best description. Straker slipped the phone back in his pocket and, reassured that SHADO was surviving without him, headed back to the hotel to focus on the next meeting: Space Transportation and the Expansion of Commercial Human Spaceflight.
After the evening meal, with a touch of regret and wanting an early night, he went to the bar. Perhaps the full two days of the symposium was too long to be away from headquarters. For one moment he thought about leaving tonight. He could catch the last train and be back in London before eleven; too late to collect Calan though. Common sense prevailed. It was only one more night and he was booked on the 10.13 train in the morning. An interminable evening, chatting to business men and entrepreneurs before he made his excuses and headed for his room.
It was after midnight before he fell into a restless doze, his hands reaching out for something that was missing, muscles stiff from the lack of exercise. The noise of door further down the corridor was the catalyst for the nightmare still lurking in his mind.
The door slammed shut behind him, trapping him in total blackness, his hands reaching out and touching, not soft fur and warm body, but lead-lined walls closing in.
The computer caskets. He would run out of air shortly, within minutes in fact. He was already gasping, dragging stale air into lungs that seemed paralysed. They would not find him in time. He would die here alone, no-one to hear his screams, no one to care for him. For this time there was no small tongue licking his face, no tail lashing his chest.
He had failed to save the dog. He saw it lying in the dog pound, the incongruous blue cast on one tiny hind leg, the small body flung heedlessly onto the heap of other unwanted and unloved dogs. All dead. The tongue that would have cleaned the tears and sweat from his face was purpled and swollen and still.
Deep wrenching sobs filled him as he fought to escape from the steel prison. He had let Calan choke to death in a small metal cage, just as he was suffocating now. He flung out his arms in a last desperate attempt to make someone, anyone, know that he was here in this small casket.
And he jerked awake with a soundless shout of despair.
Was it a nightmare? Was he still trapped in the casket? He reached out further, terrified his groping fingers might, even now, come into contact with those impenetrable steel walls. It was pitch black at first, another terrible reminder, but gradually he made out the faint outline of a door, and heard sounds of traffic, faint voices, the gurgle of water from somewhere close by and he remembered. Paris.
He found the light and sat on the edge of the bed, reaching out for his phone, wondering if he should call Jackson to check on how things were going. It was not that late in England. No. He could imagine Jackson’s expression. The tilt of his head, the look of amusement. Nothing said, but the psychiatrist would no doubt make a record of the conversation somewhere in the medical files, maybe even discuss it with Jackson.
Best to keep quiet. After all, it was just a nightmare. Nothing more. Overwork combined with the heat of the day. And anyway, no news was good news. He trusted Jackson; the doctor would have contacted him if there was a problem.
He leaned back on the pillows. Too late to have a bath in an effort to relax, he would disturb other guests and yet he was reluctant to go back to sleep. The nightmare had been too close to the truth. He shivered despite the temperature of the room and picked up his notes, immersing himself in details of astronaut training for commercial spaceflights. SHADO might be able to adapt some of the programs for future use.
The papers slid from his fingers and he fell asleep.
Jackson left the bedroom door open and settled down with his book, his eyes glancing up every few lines to check for movement in the room. Nothing. Calan was asleep in his own basket in the kitchen after a long and busy day chasing balls and playing in the garden. A very satisfying day somehow. He finished the chapter, placing his bookmark in between the pages and then turned off the light. Nothing. No sound of claws clicking, no pleading whine, no nose pushing against his fingers. Jackson lay down and closed his eyes with a sense of regret.
The soft thump at the end of the bed made him smile, and he put one hand out to stroke short fur, before moving over to make room for the whippet.
‘Good night Calan.’
A tongue licked his ear, a nose nudged his hand in acknowledgement, and then there was silence.
Straker hid a yawn as he took his seat. The memory of last night’s dream made him shiver. The incident had been a very close call, and he knew the small whippet had saved him in more ways than one. He scratched at his ankle again. The train picked up speed and he leaned back; not long now. An easy journey as well. Straight through to London and then the Metropolitan line to Uxbridge. He’d left the car at the station so it would be easier to drop into Headquarters first of all, before stopping at Doug’s on the way home. His mobile buzzed. Damn. A possible sighting and he was stuck here, helpless. Nothing he could do about it but wait. He went into the toilet, away from eavesdroppers.
Freeman wasted no time. ‘One got past Moonbase. It’s heading for the Channel. You might be the target, not sure yet.’
‘Slower than expected. Indications are it’s either very large or heavily armed. Waiting for visual confirmation.’
‘Yes. Any minute now. Look Ed…’
‘I know.’ Straker closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I’ll leave you to it. I’ll come straight in but it’ll be at least another couple of hours. Call me once it’s over.’
He put the phone away, trying to retain some semblance of calm though the walls of the tiny cubicle seemed to be closing in on him. The destructive power of some UFOs was immense and he knew they could cause sufficient damage to crack through to the tunnel and either flood it or cause the roof to cave in. Neither prospect was pleasant. He went back to his seat, unable to settle, thinking dark thoughts and wondering if Calan would settle with Doug.
Jackson scooped the dog into his arms and hurried out to his car. Any approaching UFOs warranted his presence in headquarters where possible, and he was unwilling to leave the small hound. After all, these operations could take some hours and it was unfair to leave a dog alone for such a length of time. He drove with his usual efficiency, Calan huddling in the foot well, watching his every move. A short drive to the studios, quiet on Sundays, the stages closed and the offices empty.
Calan pattered alongside him, tail wagging as they entered Reception and headed for the personnel elevator.
His Psychoanalytical Section was already in action, monitoring all aspects of the operation. A complex task, but Jackson found that it paid dividends later when crewmen arrived for de-briefing. Prior awareness of incidents led to better analysis and treatment, and, since implementing the measures, the overall efficiency of his department had increased noticeably, as had the evaluation and management of stress among operatives. Jackson was in the process of writing a thesis on the topic during his lunch breaks. He noted a somewhat unusual air of concern in the room as he entered, and he took a moment to peruse the details before frowning.
UFOs over the English Channel, and Straker in the Eurostar. No wonder the atmosphere was edgy. A UFO of sufficient power and size could submerge itself under the water and then blast through the bedrock. Even if it did not hit the train directly, the consequences would be horrific.
Jackson immersed himself in the activity, allowing his senses to touch on everything that was going on around, becoming aware of subtle changes in the responses to this most serious of incidents. They were fractional differences to be honest, but sufficient to merit an additional chapter in his thesis. Perhaps it was simply a matter of respect, or even deference, or maybe something more. Those little things; the pilot of Sky One handling the task with considerable composure yet determination, the quick and urgent voice of the communication officer, Alec Freeman’s barked orders obeyed in an instant. Interesting and at the same time, predictable.
There was nothing Jackson could do but observe the proceedings and prepare himself for the Commander’s mandatory debriefing later on, although if things… He dismissed the unpleasant thought as both redundant and also most inappropriate. But a recurrence of the Commander’s claustrophobia was a distinct possibility, necessitating further counselling, and bringing Calan along today was proving to be shrewd decision. He would make every effort to ensure Straker spent time with the dog before being debriefed.
Jackson prowled his own control room, attention fixed on the events while Calan, bored with the lack of attention, scratched an itch and then pattered out of the room unnoticed. There was a hint of a familiar smell outside the room and the hound followed it, claws clattering on the hard floor and stopping every so often to sniff. The scent got stronger, and, his tail wagging with anticipation, the little whippet scampered down unfamiliar passageways, unseen, heading for the source.
Another trip to the toilet, other passengers watching him with amused interest, another quiet conversation, and an easing of the tight band clamped around his chest. He could breathe now, and the small cubicle seemed much larger, the train more spacious, his fears irrational.
‘Give Carlin my thanks. Any wreckage left?’ Straker’s voice was clear, no hint of his earlier nervousness.
‘Still searching. No chance of any survivors though.’
‘Pity. Anyway, thanks for letting me know Alec. I’ll be in before you leave today, so we can go though the details together.’
‘Sure. I’ll pass your message on to Peter.’
The rest of the journey was undisturbed by phone messages, or worries. The train emerged into the brightness of the countryside, picking up speed as it headed for London, for home, and Straker relaxed at last.
‘Well where the hell has he got to?’ Freeman’s voice was quiet with anger. ‘Dammit Jackson, how hard is it to look after a dog?’
‘Believe me Colonel, I am aware that I may have been somewhat remiss in my duties, but the dog cannot have got far. I have checked the entire medical area, I now need your authorisation for a more intensive search of headquarters.’
Freeman grimaced. ‘Straker’s on his way. Should arrive in about twenty minutes.’
‘Then I suggest, Colonel, you help me find the dog. And before the Commander gets back.’
Freeman turned round. ‘Ford. Have you seen Calan? Anyone?’ He addressed the Control room staff.
Ford spun round on his chair ‘No Colonel. No sign of him. Didn’t even know he was here today. Do you need me to organise a search?’
‘Better had do. I just hope he hasn’t found his way up top.’ Freeman grimaced. ‘Alert studio security as well. Just in case.’ He looked over at the closed door to Straker’s office. ‘Twenty minutes. Get that dog found.’
Straker pulled up at the gatehouse, frowning. Level three security? He dug his pass out, signed his name, took the retinal scan then waited, fingers tapping on the wheel as the guard scrutinised the results with agonising slowness.
‘Commander.’ The card handed back, a quick nod of acknowledgment, and Straker was free to leave. He could see other security teams patrolling the grounds, an unusual sight during the day. A problem with the studios? He frowned, tempted to stop and investigate, but he would check in with HQ first.
More security in the entrance lobby, opening doors, searching in corners. They paused as he walked in as if he had caught them playing games. ‘Lockhart?’ He spotted the chief.
‘Sir.’ A non-committal response.
‘Sir. No. Colonel Freeman ordered…’ Lockhart paused. ‘… a training drill sir. Search for an escaped alien.’
Straker raised an eyebrow. ‘A very small alien?’ He gestured at the reception desk where one of the team was peering into the footwell.
‘The Colonel said to investigate every eventuality. Sir.’
The silence was uncomfortable. Alec would explain it, later. He looked around, watching the team working with the efficiency he expected from someone of Lockhart’s experience.
‘Carry on then.’
Blue-clad guards moved through the passageways, investigating every area. Alec was making it a serious exercise then. He stood back and let them hurry past before continuing on his way. Jackson was in the Control room, talking to Alec, no doubt discussing efficiency readings
‘Alec. Jackson,’ Straker greeted them. ‘Security drill, Lockhart said. Problems? Anything I should know about?’
‘Not really Commander. We are just…. ’ Jackson looked at Freeman in some desperation.
Alec stepped forward. ‘Nothing to worry about. I’ve got the data reports here.’ Freeman handed over the file. ‘I’ll be through in a minute. Just .. finishing off here. Won’t be a moment.’
There was a moment of tension, as if everyone was waiting for Straker’s response. He took the file, a little bemused by the eyes watching him, the slight tension in the room as if everyone was waiting for him to say something.
Another pause, a quick glance between the other two.
‘All clear. Nothing to report.’ Alec coughed. ‘I’ll bring coffee?’
Straker tossed the file onto a console. ‘So. Time for the truth.’ He looked at Alec. ‘What’s going on? Security drills, guards everywhere. You’d better tell me what’s happened.’
He cancelled the search, calling it a ‘misuse of personnel’ and against regulations. There was no need for it anyway, the dog was sensible enough to find its own way back he assured Jackson, before picking up the folder again and leafing through it, glancing up every so often to see if there was any sign of Calan appearing in the room. Nothing. He gave up trying to make sense of the document. Probably too tired to concentrate, he reasoned to himself. He could see Keith Ford flicking through the security cameras, no doubt doing his own unauthorised searching. As long as it did not intrude on work, he wouldn’t stop Keith. It was a nuisance really. Calan was still unfamiliar with the layout of some areas and perhaps he’d found his way down to the lower levels.
Someone would find him. Soon.
He took the file through to his office, perhaps he could focus better out of the way, somewhere quiet. The door opened as he breached the motion sensor and there was a blur of movement as the folder was knocked out of his hands.
Calan had followed the faint scent, whimpering as he skittered round the final corner. That unmistakable scent. A hand on his back, ruffling through fur, the familiarity of the desk, and somewhere to rest his head. Nearly there. ‘He’ would be waiting behind that desk, and maybe there would be a scrap of toast, and a rub of the ears and soft words. The closed door was no obstruction – he knew the trick by now – and he leapt up, his nose almost touching the panel of the door. It slid open and he ran in to an empty room, the shock enough to make him shiver. He crept round the perimeter, sniffing, jumping up to rest his front paws, a forbidden action, on the chairs. No one. In the end, he crawled under the desk, curling up in silence, ears pricked, listening in vain for a familiar voice.
Then in the distance, he heard familiar footsteps, and with a flash he was at the door, leaping up, heedless of obeying the rules for once, or a stern voice telling him to behave.
‘Ah. That’s where you’d got to. I was…’ Straker didn’t finish the sentence. There was no need. He held the small body as a tongue licked his face and the long tail lashed him as if they had been apart for weeks. It took a few minutes for the small creature to relax, and even then, Straker could feel occasional tremors shaking the little body. He closed the door and sat, the dog on his lap, heedless of the short hairs covering his trousers, of the wet tongue licking his hands now, of the tail still thrashing.
He thought about the nightmare in the hotel and the trepidation of his journey back, of the changes in his life since Calan had been foisted on him. No, not foisted. He could have refused, but Jackson had forced him, or perhaps it was more truthful to say that Jackson had given him a valid reason to take the dog. He leaned forward to the intercom. ‘Ford, tell Dr Jackson that he can stop worrying. The runaway has turned up.’
The door opened. He looked up. ‘Alec.’ Straker continued stroking his companion.
‘You’ve found him? How did he get in? The door was closed.’
‘He must have worked out how to open it. I’ll finish this report and speak to Doug before I go home.’ Straker tweaked one long soft ear and Calan, wriggling with delight, slipped from his lap to lie in his usual place. The tail thumped a couple of times on the floor and Straker smiled as a weight settled on his ankles. It was still early. Jackson could join him for a walk later and de-brief him at the same time.
Straker opened his bedroom window and stretched. The weather had broken in the afternoon with a freshening breeze and the routine walk in the studio grounds had been longer than planned, not that he, or Calan for that matter, were bothered. The debrief was soon over, a few perfunctory questions about the journey and Jackson’s final ‘I am available, as always, should you require assistance.’ Straker had nodded and then whistled for Calan. Claustrophobia was always there, lurking in the darkness and waiting, like the aliens, to catch him at his most vulnerable. Calan was off hunting monsters in the undergrowth and Jackson was watching the small creature and looking somewhat regretful.
Now his bed was waiting. A long weekend and he was glad to be back. He could hear paws pattering up the stairs and he lay down and picked up his book. There was a thump at the end of the bed, a warm nose against his neck, a long huff of contentment and Straker put the book down, unread, settled himself and fell asleep.
Jackson lay in his bed, his evening routine completed, the latest chapter of the publication read. He composed himself for sleep. And sighed.
LtCdr. Dec 2012