Jackson was still working, eyes staring at a slide before he slid it under the old fashioned microscope on his table. He leaned forward to examine the results. ‘Hmm…’ a long-drawn out sigh of disappointment before he pulled the slide out and selected another, his fingers quick and assured. He ignored the footsteps behind him and continued turning a dial until the breath on the back of his neck made him sigh.
‘Colonel Freeman? You need something?’
‘Found anything yet?’
‘No.’ But Freeman could hear hesitation in the voice. ‘Not yet. Give me time Colonel, there is no immediate rush is there?’
‘I was wondering, that was all. Straker’s taken a couple of days off so can you let me have your results?’
‘Ah, excellent. I am sure the Commander will benefit from some rest. Recent months have been stressful for everyone.’ Jackson went back to the ‘scope, lifted another slide and gazed at it, before putting it in place. He changed the lens and adjusted the light. ‘I might have my preliminary results ready by tomorrow.’
Freeman’s phone buzzed. He read the message and frowned. ‘Got to go. Problem in Security. Call me if you get anything.’
It took Alec a couple of minutes to drive the short distance to the Security Compound. He locked the car in an eerie silence; no dogs barking, not a whine or a yelp or even a cheerful yap from one of the beagles that were used as sniffer dogs.
Silence. He didn’t like the way it made him feel.
He punched in the door code and, Harris, looking down the aisle between the cages turned with a sigh of relief. ‘Sorry to drag you out Colonel, but there’s a problem.’
‘With the dog?’
‘Not yours, no. The others. Yours has them spooked.’ He waved a hand. ‘Take a look.’
Freeman put his head round the door. That was usually sufficient to have the bigger animals fling themselves at the bars, barking and snarling with a ferocity that chilled him. He was not a dog lover and these brutes were enough to put the fear of god into him, but they were soundless. No growls, no strands of spittle from gaping maws. He could see every dog huddled in its bed, curled up, eyes wide with fear, trembling, few quiet whines, but that was all.
‘They won’t come out of their cages. I have a change of shift in twenty minutes, and these dogs need to be ready to patrol. Can you take your’s home with you? Just for the night? Might give these a chance to settle.’ He waved a hand at the wretched looking animals.
Freeman sighed. Just what he needed tonight. Ed out of action and he was left babysitting a stray dog. He had no choice though. SHADO needed its dogs out on patrol. ‘Okay. Go and get him.’
He scraped at the door until his claws split. His thirst and the ache of hunger in his belly made him growl and in desperation he had gripped the bars with his teeth and pulled, but it had no effect apart from making his mouth hurt. In the rare hush of the dog compound he paced back and forth, the long dark hairs of his guard coat brushing the side of his cage, his claws tapping on the concrete. He prowled the perimeter, head lowered and wide set eyes watching, ears pricked for any familiar footstep or voice. This was all wrong. This could not be. They had to find him soon. Didn’t they? The door opened and he looked up his tail drooping as he saw the handler there with a long pole and rope. He tried stepping back a pace but his joints were awkward and as the lasso fell over his head and tightened he realised with horror that he was going to be taken out. To what, though, he had no idea.
Alec watched Harris enter the isolation pen to the sound of scrabbles, frantic whines and muffled yelps as if the other dogs realised what was about to happen and pushed themselves even further into the far corners of the cages. Claws scraped on the concrete as Harris dragged the reluctant dog out. It stood there, huge, bigger than Alec had remembered, the other dogs small in comparison. Perhaps it was just the fur, or the stance. He called out. ‘He won’t bite will he?’
‘Nah.’ Harris was nonchalant. ‘He’s just frightened. He’ll be fine. Just don’t let him outside without a lead; he might run off.’ He changed the lasso for a heavy choke chain with a short leather handle and handed Alec a few dog chews. ‘Bring him back tomorrow. I’ll micro-chip him if we don’t find his owner, and I’d like to know what breed he is.’ He passed the lead over and ruffled the dog’s neck with rough affection and some relief. ‘See you later fella.’
The dog snarled a quick sneer of contempt at the handler before it walked out, not pulling, not trailing. Walking in step with Alec Freeman and turning its head to look at him with huge blue eyes.
Alec blipped the lock and opened the boot of his hatchback to inspect it. Plenty of room in there. He’d had the car valeted a couple of weeks ago, and it would be the very devil to get dog hairs off the leather not to mention the scuffing from claws. He bent down to lift the dog. A ton weight. It struggled, slipping out of his grasp to run a few paces into the darkness. ‘Shit. Here boy. Come here.’ Alec clicked his fingers in hope. The hound stood there watching, eyes glowing in the lights from the compound. Alec took a step nearer and paused as the dog retreated, just one pace.
Stand off. What next. He took a cautious pace forward. The dog retreated an equal amount, its head tilted as if it was waiting for Alec to submit. He was going to regret this. He opened the back door and tossed a chew onto the seat. ‘Get in.’
He expected the dog to leap forward into the car, but it walked up and peered inside. One spring and it was on the seat, stretching out, nose against the far door, ignoring the rawhide chew. Alec winced as claws snagged on his pristine black leather.
He drove with care, eyes flickering up to the rear-view mirror while he wondered if the dog was asleep. Damn. He would have to sneak it into the apartment complex and hope that no one spotted him. It was just for one night though.
There was a whine from the back seat. The dog had raised its head to stare out of the window. ‘It’s okay boy. I’m taking you home with me.’ He had a sudden thought and looked over his shoulder. ‘You’d better be house-trained.’ The dog huffed and lay down.
Alec kept a well-stocked larder and fridge, but dog food was not something he had ever needed to buy. There was a petrol station and small shop ahead though that sold everyday basics. He could get a couple of cans, some biscuits, or perhaps a box of dried food. He pulled up in the space for shoppers and got out, locked the door and was half way across the forecourt, trying to avoid the drizzling rain when the noise hit him. A long low howl. He could feel it in his bones. He could not leave the dog like that and he hurried back to open the door and look in. A flash of dark grey and cream startled him as the dog swept past in a graceful leap.
But it did not run. It stood there, foursquare and determined and Alec saw the weariness in its stance and in the shifting of feet. The heavy plumed tail hung down not in submission but in exhaustion and its powerful jaws were open in thirst. Poor sod. Alec put his hand out and held the lead in a loose grip. ‘Come on boy. Let’s get you something to eat. Then I can get you home.’
He could almost feel the dog leaning against him as they walked together into the shop, pressed close to him as if it was relying on him for more than company and food. He let his hand rest on the massive head at his waist and the tail swished once against his leg. The shop door opened automatically and the dog preceded him, walking into the shop with confidence.
‘Hey. No dogs. Get it out.’
Alec pulled the dog outside and looped the short strap over a post. ‘Won’t be long,’ he said and winced as he heard himself talking as if the dog was a friend.
Like many small shops this one only carried the bare necessities, but he found a couple of large cans of beef chunks in gravy and a small box of mixer. Cheap food, but it would do and as undernourished as it was the dog would probably wolf it down. He dropped his purchases in the plastic carrier and headed out.
The dog had gone. He looked around for any sign, wondering how it had managed to get the loop of the lead off the post and then saw the animal sitting by his car. He shrugged and opened the back door to let it leap inside. Hairs covered the seat and he could see deep gouges in the leather. He dropped the bag on the floor with a sigh.
His apartment overlooked the early Victorian town gardens that were now a public park. It would be a simple matter to take the dog out on its lead in the dark to ‘do its business’ as his father had called it. He drove in silence, his mind running through the events of the day. He would contact Control later to check whether Ed had called in.
Home at last. Alec lifted his brief case from the seat beside him, stepped out, locked the door, and walked away. He was about to punch the lift button when a bark echoed through the emptiness of the parking space. He spun around, shaking his head at his daydreaming. The dog was sitting on the back seat, nose pressed against the side window, smearing it with saliva and heaven knew what else. He unlocked the door and the dog half-fell onto the oil-stained concrete. He collected the bag, cast one regretful look at the dishevelled and permanently scuffed leather, slammed the door shut and scooped up the lead. ‘Come on.’
The lift was slow tonight. He watched the numbers light up, the smell of wet dog growing ever stronger. The lift doors opened and he stepped forward but the dog pulled back, almost frantic in its determination not to enter the lift. With splayed front feet and hunched shoulders it resisted every attempt to get it to enter. ‘Have it your way.’ Alec growled.
They clattered up the dimly lit stairwell and Alec fumbled for his keys with a tired hand. The dog whined and turned back to the steps with a distinctive and somehow desperate expression on its face.
Oh. Of course. It was going to be a long evening as well. He opened his front door, shoved the bag of dog food inside, pulled off his jacket and grabbed a raincoat before he traipsed down the steps again, the dog alongside him walking with eager, almost urgent paces.
Outside again, onto the broad pathway to the small unlit park, the loop of the choke chain in his fingers. This time of night, in an area well away from the nightlife of the city, the street was quiet and no one noticed the tall man and his companion as they went through the gap in the iron railings and down worn sandstone steps into the park.
‘Go on then.’ Alec held his arm out, giving the dog some room. He turned away, whistling softly in some embarrassment. Out here, in the dark, with a dog. The chain tightened. There was a whine. He sighed. ‘Get on with it. I haven’t got all night.’ He slackened his grip and the dog, sensing the lessening of tension in the lead, gave a sharp tug and was free. Alec tried to put his foot on the lead, and the dog growled, not a threatening noise, but a warning nonetheless. It looked at him, for a moment, its head tilted, before it trotted into the darkness. He swore under his breath. Now he would have to go and search for it.
He set off towards the far end, his head down as he trudged along the path aware of his aching feet and his hunger. There was no point in calling out. He hoped the dog might see sense and return when it was ready. He could see movements in the bushes ahead, could hear the rustles of leaves and the distinctive sound of water spattering on the ground. He chuckled in sympathy then stepped in front of a tree and unzipped.
It was dark, there was no one around and he was desperate for a pee as well. He breathed out with relief and felt some of his tension leave him. He finished, shook himself dry and began to zip. Something cold and wet touched his hand. ‘Shit.’ He spun around. The dog sat there, watching him and he chuckled again. ‘Finished then? Come on. Let’s get inside.’
The dog led the way to the iron railings that bordered the park and along the pavement towards the door. It stopped, raised its hackles and ears, its tail straight out and Alec put a hand on its shoulder. ‘Come on boy’. The dog shook him off and moved forward one pace. Four square on the pavement now. Resolute. Not a snarl this time, but a dark and threatening growl of menace. There was a scuffle in the shadows of the doorway and a vagrant shambled out from where he had been sheltering. He gave one terrified glance at the man and his companion before he scurried away. Alec heard the dog give a final growl and then it settled to walk beside him tail still held out and eyes alert for danger.
Alec splashed fresh water into a wide bowl and put it in the utility room. ‘’You’ll sleep here…’ He paused. ‘Dammit. No idea what to call you.’ The dog lowered its head and began drinking, water slopping onto the floor and dribbling from its mouth as it ignored Freeman to lap with frantic haste. Satiated at last it quivered for a moment then walked into the spacious kitchen and sat there with long strands of saliva hanging from its jaws. Alec opened the can of food, wrinkling his nose at the smell of cheap meat in processed gravy. He added mixer, stirred it in with a grimace, put the bowl down and stood back, expecting the meal to be devoured with relish. After all, it was only a dog.
He was disappointed.
One sniff of the contents and the dog turned away shivering to look up at him, its eyes almost desperate. Alec shrugged. It would eat. If it was hungry.
He forgot the dog while he was busy frying sausages and bacon. He added black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried bread, two eggs. Forget cholesterol levels, he wanted comfort food tonight.
He sat and watched the man, his friend. It was hard to focus with these widespread eyes; the colours were wrong though he could see enough details.
The smells were worse. The scent of crisp bacon and sausages in dripping masked not only the rank stench of the slops in the bowl, but the subtle yet pleasant odour of the man himself. Black pudding. His mouth watered, his stomach growled its own warning, and he fought to keep the animal instinct at bay. Instead, he made himself sit there patient and obedient and biddable. He could feel his alter ego inside his mind waiting for him to relax and let his guard down. Waiting for the chance to take over.
There had been a moment of terror when the beast had shoved his humanity aside and controlled his actions for long enough to let him lap up the water that he craved. He had struggled to regain command afterwards, to force the animal back into the depths of his mind. But it was still there, seeking to conquer him, waiting for the opportunity to fill his mind with rage and savagery and he knew that if that happened then the wolf within him might well rip Freeman to shreds. Freeman, Alec Freeman.
He remembered the name, but his tiredness made it harder for him to recall simple things; what it felt like to stand upright, to have hands, to be able to speak. To be a human. And that frightened him more than anything else. Once his control faltered and he allowed sleep to dull his concentration, he had no idea what would happen to him. Him. Not the animal that he had become; the man that he still was, hidden inside this body. Once he slept it would be free to do as it wished, to overshadow his own identity and leave him lost and ensnared not only in the body but in the mind of a wild creature.
He was hungry. Very hungry now and the thought of tearing meat with his teeth enticed him but he shook himself and concentrated on other sensations. The peculiar feeling of his tail as it swished on the smooth floor despite his attempts to still it, the greys, yellows and blues that were all the colours he could see, the smell and sound of bacon sizzling as the man, his friend, prepared his own meal. Butter on bread. He was drooling. He licked his lips and shuffled his feet. His throat contracted and the whine escaped despite his attempts.
Alec turned round at the soft plea. ‘Look, yours is over there. Go on.’ He slid bacon and sausage onto a plate, added the rest of the meal and carried it to the breakfast bar. The dog padded closer to lean its head on his knee and he could feel the dampness of drool. He pushed the head away and wiped at his stained trousers but the dog refused to move, its nose pushing at his knee with urgent hard nudges.
Alec sighed and picked up a sliver of bacon, holding it out to the dog in an effort to placate it. The jaws opened to reveal a long pink tongue, huge white teeth, and he winced as the teeth moved closer. Strong enough to tear off his fingers if it was so inclined. It was too late to pull back, and he held his breath.
Soft lips touched his flesh, a touch so delicate that it could have been a kiss and the morsel disappeared, a tiny scrap that was hardly noticeable in such a huge mouth. And the dog cocked its head as if to ask for more. The tail thumped, the mouth opened, the tongue licked once around the teeth. One paw lifted, reached out and … retreated as if the dog was reluctant to make contact. Alec patted the head. ‘To be honest I wouldn’t eat that muck either. Hang on.’ He scraped half of his meal onto a spare plate and put it down. ‘I always make too much. Eat that.’ He expected the dog to gulp the food down, but it ate with neat almost fastidious bites. He started on his own meal.
The dog finished and looked up at him then down again at the plate with its smears of grease, crumbs of crisp bacon and scraps of black pudding. It sighed and bent to lick the plate clean with neat swipes of its tongue. Alec held out a slice of bread.
Another gentle nibble. If the bread had been made of spun silk it could not have been handled with more delicacy.
Alec loaded the dishwasher and threw in a tablet. ‘Need to go out?’ He held out the lead and the dog wrinkled its forehead and turned away. ‘What the hell would Ed say if he heard me talking to you?’ The head pushed against him and he let his fingers ruffle through thick fur. The tail thumped his legs; the dog leaned against him and gave a soft woof. The sound was gentle and comforting.
He switched off the light and went through to the lounge while a soft mouth nuzzled his fingers and a tongue licked his palm. . He wiped his hand on his thigh and flopped onto the sofa to scroll through channels. Sports, quiz shows, soap operas, he rejected them all until the nose pressed onto his knee again, and he looked up. The evening news. He shrugged. Why not? And he settled back, one arm behind his head and his legs stretched out as the day’s events were relayed and the dog sat beside him watching the screen.
His hand patted the head, fondling ears and pulling them with gentle tweaks. There was a subdued growl and he found his hand gripped between jaws and sensed teeth on his skin; he could feel the sharpness, the strength, but the contact was light. He held still, aware that any wrong move on his part could be a mistake, but the dog released him with a huff, and lay down to rest its head across Alec’s feet.
Freeman looked at his unmarked hand with not even the slightest indentation from the teeth and yet the dog could have bitten to the bone without any effort. He rubbed saliva off his fingers and looked down again at the animal. ‘Okay. Have it your way.’ He leaned back and concentrated on the screen in the quiet companionable silence broken only by the voices from the corner of the room, and the flickering lights. Tired by the strain of the day he drowsed, his ankles cramped under the weight of the heavy head.
Alec woke as the nose cold-kissed his fingers and a soft tongue curled into his palm. A small whine. He yawned and stretched; well past eleven and late for him. And he had another responsibility as well. He pulled his raincoat on, grabbed the lead and headed out to the main door. The torrential rain would soak him to the skin. He pulled his collar up, but the dog pushed him back with its nose in a definite message for Alec to remain where he was, then, heedless of the downpour, it left him standing there. It gave one look back, a nod of the head, a slight wag of the long plume and then it was gone.
He stepped out but the animal had faded into the darkness. He waited, hoping, unsure, until long past any hope that it would return then he closed the door and went upstairs. He tidied up, threw away the bowl of untouched food and looked at his hand remembering the feel of teeth on his skin touching him with the lightest caress, a strong tongue firm against his palm and a tail brushing his legs. The weight of the head on his knee and on his feet. He hoped the dog would be alright in the dark, in the city. He turned off the hall light and went to bed.
He set off across the dead ground, thankful that the water cascading over him muted any tempting smells. The rain did not bother him, the thick pelt ensured that his skin was bone dry, but he was warm and tired and more than anything he wanted to sleep in that dark room with his head resting on feet that had a familiar scent, that grounded him to his world. He knew that he had to stay awake to retain control but sleep would come and so might the animal within.
He loped along heedless of the rain, striving to stay awake and ignoring discarded burgers and kebabs. The city streets were still lit, a few unshuttered shop fronts blazing lights onto glistening pavements and taxis parked at ranks, their drivers oblivious to the wolf that prowled past them. He did not care where he went; he would keep going until he could go no further. And if he was still here, in the morning, still here in his mind that was, then he would head back to Alec’s and …. However, he had no idea what he would do after that.
He snarled at the driving rain, desperate to slake his growing thirst, but a cracked drainpipe offered him solace and he let the jet of escaping water pour into his open mouth. No need to struggle to drink this time. He shook himself and walked on, refreshed, renewed. Determined. He would stay awake, stay alert, and stay ‘Straker’. For now.
So he moved on, heading for the less popular areas of the centre, away from the crowds with his paws silent on the city slabs his tail down, head down letting the water pouring off his coat. A dark figure in the night, keeping a look out for somewhere that might offer him shelter for a while.
There. A vile place, stinking and unwelcoming, but it would be safe. He knew that late at night a night guard locked the gates to the dank underground basement. He could trap himself inside until early morning. He curled his lip in disgust, but it was his only option and he padded down the steps into the cold bleakness. It was easy to sneak into the cubicle at the far end, but not so easy to ignore the smells. He shivered with revulsion and waited. A voice called down the passageway, checking. The lights went out, iron grated and he heard the sound of a padlock and chain.
He curled up, nose on paws, wrapped his tail round and closed his eyes, hoping that he would wake in the morning.
Alec Freeman thumped the pillow again and turned over. He should be sleeping, but he could not stop his thoughts roller coasting. Ed getting hurt like that and then just going off. It was not like Straker but the man was an enigma and even Alec, who considered himself to be a close friend, didn’t always understand the commander. And there was the dog. Bloody animal. He should never have let it go off like that. Anything might have happened to it. Anything.
He got out of bed and opened the curtains, looking down onto the street, still raining and no dog sitting there. He sighed and went into the bathroom for a leak, came out and peered through the curtains again. Still no dog.
It took him a couple of minutes to dress and get his coat. Water trickled down his neck as he walked to the small park, his whistles piercing the night. Nothing. He hunched his shoulders and walked the perimeter, hoping that he might feel a warm muzzle press into his hand. The streets were empty. He could hear the hiss of the rain and, far-off, police sirens.
‘Here, boy.’ The final call went unanswered and he stood in the downpour unsure what to do until the weather drove him indoors to doze, listening for a bark outside.
He woke and stretched, snarling at the harsh surface that surrounded him. He sniffed the air and howled into the emptiness, his own voice echoing back.
Somewhere far away, four moons shone down on his world. Four perfect circles of gleaming copper, all aligned. He prowled the confines of the cage that trapped him, growling deep in his throat. There was no escape and frustrated, he went back to the small corner and lay there wondering when he would be set free.