‘Where is he?’
‘Commander Straker? I haven’t seen him since he went up top a couple of hours ago.’
‘You mean he hasn’t come back?’ Freeman picked up the phone. ‘Miss Ealand, have you seen Mr Straker?’
‘No, Mr Freeman, I haven’t seen him since this morning. Shall I call him?’
‘No. Leave it with me.’ Freeman dialled another number. ‘Jackson. Any news yet?’ He listened to the reply. ‘Fine. Let me know as soon as you have anything.’ He listened again. ‘No. I’ll tell him. I’ll be sending him home as soon as I find him.’ He put the phone down and checked the gun at his hip.
It was eerie walking through the dark studio grounds at this time of the evening. Alec knew without a doubt that Straker would not have stayed in this concrete harshness; doubtless he would be in the park, sitting on one of the benches and staring up at the stars, unaware of how much time had passed. Alec grinned to himself; he would enjoy ordering the boss around. He would send him home with a flea in his ear and strict orders to stay at home and rest.
Moonlight gleamed on the small ponds that edged the dark lawns. There was no movement, no sound, nevertheless he was sure something was there, watching. He loosened his gun and called out. ‘Ed.’ The beam from his torch lit up branches that were still black from the recent rain.
A louder call this time. ‘Ed.’
He walked under the tree line into the darker shadows of the undergrowth, his steps soft on the thick layer of damp leaf mould. ‘Ed? Stop playing silly buggers.’
There was a rustle from behind him. He turned and the light glinted on a sliver of metal, half-hidden under last autumn’s fallen leaves. He bent down. Straker’s mobile.
Christ. Had they got him? Had the bastards taken Ed? The rustle was closer as if they were coming for him next. He dropped the phone, reached for his gun and spun around, ready to take his vengeance.
Not an alien. A dog – a husky, he thought at first glance. He lowered his gun and shone his torch at the creature as it staggered out from the undergrowth and stood there gaunt and trembling, head and tail hanging down as if it was too weary to do anything more than just breathe. Thick fur and powerful jaws gave it an even bigger appearance. It raised its head to stare at him, took one step forward on long legs that seemed to falter and then sank to the floor to lie there, exhausted.
Alec played the beam of the torch over the beast. It had closed its eyes and he could hear muted whining. He was no expert but it was clear that it was suffering and too weak to stand. He stepped closer, wondering whether someone had abandoned the animal or it had simply run away. No collar or tag. Perhaps he should do the kindest thing and put it out of its misery. A bullet through the skull would be quick and clean. He raised his gun and the animal lifted its head to stare at him for a long moment. Intelligent eyes. Pleading. There was a long-drawn out groan before the head dropped down again.
He kept his eyes on the dog as he pulled out his mobile. ‘Freeman.’ The wolf cocked one ear. ‘Get a team here. Full security. I can’t find the Commander.’ He paused, and looked down at sodden, dark grey fur and the limp body. His eyes tightened. There had been enough death in recent days. He holstered his gun and the tip of the plumed tail flickered once.
Security arrived and Alec Freeman was too busy organising the search to concern himself with one stray dog. They combed the rest of the parkland without success and he was beginning to panic when his phone buzzed.
Miss Ealand sounded breathless. ‘Colonel Freeman, the Commander left a note for you. I’m sorry, but I’ve only just found it. He said he was taking a few days furlough and not to contact him unless it’s an emergency. He must have left it when I was out of the office earlier.’
Safe. Alec heaved a sigh of relief. ‘No worries. I’ll let everyone know. Oh, one thing though. He dropped his phone outside so if he gets in touch will you let him know I have it?’
He spent the next few minutes contacting the security teams and it was only after the last group were packing up he remembered the animal. No one had mentioned it and he was half-hoping it might have crept away to some hidden lair. Let it be someone else’s responsibility. He would have enough to do in the next couple of days. But that single thump of the tail resonated in his mind. He would take it to the Security Compound and let the dog handlers decide what to do with it. That would be the most sensible thing.
He could not see the dog at first. Relief and concern vied in his thoughts; he had better things to do than waste time on a stray, but then he saw it emerge from the brushwood, its steps hesitant and slow as it approached. He extended his hand with some trepidation, knuckles first as his father had once instructed him a long time ago. Quicker to pull back from snapping teeth. Even so he held his breath as the dog – was it a dog, it seemed so much more powerful, so much larger than a mere dog – came close.
Footsore, as if each bone wrenched and every step hurt, the dog limped towards the man. The head drooped as if too heavy, the long tongue flopping out of the open mouth. It ignored the outstretched hand and the quiet voice that attempted to placate. Tail hanging down, it stood beside him and waited.
Alec clicked his finger. ‘Come.’ And it did. It was as simple as that. He purloined a jeep from the last security team and lifted the dog into the cargo space.
The Security Section trained their dogs well. Alec could hear the barks as he entered the compound. Vicious barking. He saw the dogs at work each day and knew how ferocious they were. These German Shepherds were not the friendly pets that some people imagined. SHADO required security at the highest level and trained their dogs to detect aliens and go for the jugular. Literally.
The noise intensified as he entered the office. He could see the dogs in the kennels, flinging themselves at the bars of their enclosures, spittle flying from snarling mouths.
‘Colonel?’ Roy Harris closed the door to the kennel block. The noise lessened somewhat, although the dogs did not stop their growling.
‘Found a dog in the wood, husky or Shepherd maybe. I’d like you to have a look at it it.’ Freeman led the way out to the jeep.
‘Jesus, Colonel. Some dog.’ Harris stood back as Alec eased the husky out. ‘Looks like there’s wolf in its genes.’ He helped Freeman lift the dog onto the table in the office. ‘Okay. Let’s see what we’ve got here.’ Harris was brisk and efficient, a man good at his job and adept at getting dogs to do as he commanded. Alec would have left him to it, but the dog turned its head and he could see fear in its blue eyes as Harris ran the paddle over its neck to check for microchips. There was no answering beep. He forced open the jaws to peer inside the wide mouth and the dog struggled to free its head from the grip.
‘Keep still boy. He won’t hurt you.’ Alec’s efforts to calm the dog had no effect and it wrenched away in an attempt to leap from the table.
He dug his fingers into the thick mane as the dog swung its head back to the handler, its teeth bared in a silent snarl. The pelt was thicker than he had thought and softer as well. He parted the long dark grey hairs of the coarser outer coat to reveal a dense layer of light blond. Harris pulled on his heavy leather gauntlets and with swift movements slipped a muzzle over the dog’s nose. There was a whimper and the dog trembled under Alec’s hand, its tail now tucked between its legs.
He loosened his grip and smoothed the pelt down; let his hand stroke down the broad shoulders and the spine, feeling powerful muscles beneath the fur. The dog trembled again, and again there was that faint whimper of fear.
‘I’d say about five years old. Maybe a bit older. Can’t tell what breed it is though. Looks in reasonable condition although it’s undernourished. Are you thinking of keeping it?’ The handler ran his hands over the body, not stroking, but testing. Fingers digging into muscles, pressing on the hips, feeling the ribcage, squeezing the abdomen. A slight yelp. An efficient and thorough examination. He lifted the tail. ‘Intact. Might want to do something about that. I’ll just take its temperature.’
The dog shuddered and tried to sit, tried to pull free. There was a long whine, a deeper snarl as Harris inserted the thermometer and Alec could feel the animal sag under his hands as if it was too weary to endure more.
‘So. What now?’
‘I’ll give it some shots. Just the basics until I can do more tests. Better safe than sorry.’ He busied himself with syringes and phials as the dog lowered itself down to lie, its head on the table between the huge paws. ‘Hold its head Colonel. Tightly, if you don’t mind.’ Harris lifted the thick mane lifted and inserted the needle without any reaction from the dog. He smoothed the fur down and patted it. ‘Right. I’ll put him away. Give him chance to rest. What do you want me to do with him Colonel?’
‘No idea right now. Whatever you think best. Can you keep him for tonight?’ Freeman helped manhandle the dog onto the floor and remove the muzzle, before they slipped a choke chain and lead around the thick neck. There was no resistance, no snarls, not even a crinkling of lips. He patted it. ‘Good dog.’ The head turned away from him.
Harris opened the door to the kennels. ‘He can go in the isolation pen for now. Come on boy.’
The dogs renewed their assault on his ears as Alec followed Roy Harris through to the dog pens. The barking increased as the animals scented the newcomer, an unknown dog, a threat to their territory. The dog stopped and Alec tugged on the lead. ‘Come on. They can’t hurt you.’
The dog shook itself with contempt. Its hackles rose, and Alec saw it grow in stature. The tail held straight out and the massive head now raised, the blue eyes looking around. It pointed its dark muzzle at the ceiling and gave a long bass howl that died away into an abrupt silence that filled the compound. Not even a whine from the penned dogs. They slunk back, huddling away from the newcomer as it walked down the aisle, turning its head from side to side to look into each cage, lips pulled back to reveal sharp teeth, tail ramrod straight, claws clicking on the concrete floor. It shuddered once as Harris opened the end cage, but there was no escape. Alec slid off the choke chain and helped Roy push the dog into the small enclosure. The access hatch dropped into place and they locked it. The dogs were still silent as they walked back to the office.
‘Bugger. Never known that happen before.’ Roy tidied away the lead and pulled off his gloves. ‘I’ll keep an eye on your dog Colonel. Might make a good recruit for us.
The wolf paced the confines of its cage. A small cage, the steel door with access hatch to allow food to be given, thick steel bars down either side and a door at the far end that opened onto the exercise compound during the daytime. But no escape. A narrow space. And he was a big animal. He turned round to scrabble at the door with his claws, keening with fear, desperate to be free, but also aware that at least here he was safe. For now. The hand that had stroked him had been familiar, the scent of pack, of family, but he was alone here and there was a dark terror in his mind that made him shudder.
There was a bowl of water at one end of the cage. He lipped it. Cold and fresh. He managed to lap enough to alleviate some of his thirst and he turned to the food but the stench of the dried kibble revolted him and he snarled at it although his stomach burned with hunger.
He pressed his nose against the cold steel of the door, hoping for that recognizable voice, hoping that they would release him. The other dogs were still silent as he had commanded but he could not sleep. Could not rest. His claws clicked as he paced, counting the strides, his tail drooping, ears flat against his head now as the fear built up. Then the lights went out and he was left in darkness.
It did not matter that he could still see. In some ways that made the horror even worse. He was trapped, and in more than just a steel cage. He let his anguish out in a final desperate howl and stood there, legs splayed wide and head down, panting. He could see no way out of this. None at all.