Straker jerked out of the nightmare, his own harsh voice shouting himself awake, his legs scrabbling to get a foothold. He tried to push the sheets away to sit and wipe sweat from his face in an attempt to forget the nightmare but his hands would not obey him. The foul smell in his nostrils made him want to retch and he forced himself to stand….
He remembered everything.
He leaned against the stinking wall, head hanging down until his nose touched the filthy floor, the stench even worse now. His stomach heaved and he vomited, shaking with revulsion, then pawed the door open and dragged himself out, his tail between his legs and ears flattened. Thirst burned his throat and he searched for some clean water, rejecting the puddles on the floor and the more accessible pools in the stained toilet pans. The washbasins had push-down taps and it only took a couple of attempts for him to press down hard enough. Water gushed into his open mouth to wash away the taste, but it was impossible to erase the memory of the nightmare. The reality of what he was, deep inside. But he had returned and the demon had been vanquished. For now.
He heard the rattle of metal, the squeak of heavy iron and then the tread of feet down the tiled steps towards him. He sprang up the tunnel to bound past the startled attendant and out onto the street. It was still dark but he had slept and had been safe and more importantly so had everyone else. It was time to get back to Alec, to the only chance he had. He ran.
The noise woke Freeman and he reached out to stop his alarm clock before registering that the sound was from outside. A bark. A distinct sound and he grinned as he pulled on his dressing gown and hurried down to let the miscreant in.
He opened the door and recoiled. ‘Bloody hell, where’ve you been? The sewers? You stink.’ The dog slunk into the hallway, where it sat, head down like some naughty schoolboy, and refusing to look at the man.
‘There’s no way I’m having you in my car like that.’ Alec sighed. He took hold of the thick scruff but the dog wriggled from his grasp and backed away, staring towards the flight of stairs. Alec closed the front door with a swift kick and turned to face the animal. ‘What’s up boy?’ He reached out and fondled the head. ‘You can’t enjoy smelling like that, surely?’ A soft whine answered him and after a pause the dog led the way up the stairs.
Alec’s bathroom was well organized, masculine and practical. He turned on the shower and adjusted the temperature before pulling down the spray attachment. The dog shivered in the corner but then stepped forward with surprising eagerness. It stood there, letting water pour over its head and back, the fur darkening and parting to reveal an undercoat the colour of vanilla ice cream. Alec discarded his dressing gown, grabbed shower gel and squeezed a generous amount onto the thick fur of the neck, then worked it down the spine with strong swipes of his hands, his fingers massaging the foam into the pelt. He could feel the animal’s unease as he washed, but it remained still, only swinging its head at him in annoyance and shuffling sideways when he lifted the plume of the tail to hose underneath. A final long rinse, the shower spray washing off the bubbles, and it stood there drenched and miserable, water trickling from its muzzle.
Alec stepped back to reach for an old bath towel and realised his mistake as the dog moved out of the shower cubicle into the space of the bathroom itself. He had no chance to stop it, or even to protect himself. Water flew in huge arcs as the dog shook itself with enthusiasm, flinging the water away from its long thick coat to soak Alec to the skin.
And then, Alec swore to himself, the dammed animal laughed at him. He grabbed a towel to rub his face dry just as it pushed past him and walked out leaving huge wet paw prints on the slate floor. He ran after it and one hand just grasped the end of the tail but it leapt out of reach before darting into the bedroom. He was too late.
‘Fuck.’ It was surprising how much mess a wet dog could make on a bed. Especially one that was rolling with all four legs in the air on his clean white covers. Even the pillow was utilised as the dog, with obvious pleasure, dried himself with vigorous wriggles, and by the time Alec had managed to hold it still it was too late. The dog lay there head tilted and watching him with its mouth open and tongue lolling out. The covers were sodden by now and he winced as it rolled over again and scrabbled at the pillow to the sound of cotton tearing.
Alec stripped off his pyjamas and left the dog lying on his bed following his every move with those bright blue eyes, nose resting on huge paws. He needed a shower and then he would have to strip the bed before he went to work. No time for breakfast then. He had a quick shave, the essentials, and went back to see what else had happened.
The dog… was it a dog he wondered? It was bigger than any dog he had known, and looking at it now he could see what Harris had meant. A wolf. Surely not. But there was intelligence in those blue eyes and in the way the animal was watching him.
‘Wolf?’ he ventured.
The animal sat up, ears pricked and eyes even more alert somehow. The tongue came out and licked around the lips once.
‘Wolf.’ Alec confirmed. ‘You seem to like that name. Wolf it is then. Now Wolf, get off my bloody bed.’
The pause lengthened, the wolf regarded him, its tongue hanging out of the side of its open mouth, the tail thumping lightly on the soaked and crumpled bedcovers with their additional covering of long dark hairs. It blinked once and then with elegant grace stepped off the bed and stood there. Yes. It was laughing at him. The tail wagging, the ears pricked up, the eyes watching him strip the bed and toss the filthy linen into a heap ready for the machine though he doubted whether it would ever get rid of the mud and marks left by those long claws. The pillowcase was beyond salvation, as was the pillow.
He’d be late if he didn’t hurry; no time for breakfast, he would pick something up on the way. ‘Come on, Wolf,’ he said and picked up the choke chain. The dog backed away again and Alec sighed with exasperation. ‘Well, stay close to me. Understood?’
He hurried to his car, opened the back door and winced at the sound of leather creaking. Wolf stretched out long legs and let his muzzle rest on crossed paws. Alec heard him snort with what seemed exasperation.
‘Alright. Breakfast when I get to work. But behave yourself.’ Colonel Freeman kept an eye on the rear-view mirror, but there was no disturbance on the journey. He laughed to himself wondering what Ed would say about him taking in a stray dog. Him. Alec Freeman. Easy-going bachelor and connoisseur of the finer things in life, a man whose ordered life was certainly did not include looking after a dog. He had no idea what Ed would say when they met. Probably laugh and pat Wolf on the head. Ed had a strange affinity for dogs.
Alec had seen him with some of the ones in the compound; the beasts had waited for a pat on the head, a quiet word from the commander as he had walked down the aisle between the cages. A pat on the head. If Alec had tried that, he would have lost several fingers. Yet here he was, with a bloody great dog tearing holes in the leather seats and yet somehow it seemed right. As if Wolf had always been there. And dammit, he was … comfortable to have around even after such a short time.
‘God knows what Ed will say.’ He pulled into the studio complex and parked. The engine idled to a halt. He sat there wondering what the day would bring, until Wolf huffed into his ear and he opened the door and waited for the dog to join him. No need for a lead now. Wolf walked beside him with easy strides, head up and watching with alert eyes.
‘Colonel Freeman?’ Straker’s secretary pulled her hand away from the telephone and out of reach of large teeth and wide jaws.
Alec looked embarrassed. He ignored the dog standing there next to him, its nose nudging his hand. ‘Miss Ealand. Has Commander Straker been in touch?’
‘No, he hasn’t, although his car is here. He must have got someone in security to run him home yesterday.’ She followed Alec through to the inner office, avoiding the dog that was shadowing him. She waved a hand at the animal. ‘And this is…?’
There was a pause. ‘Wolf.’ Alec said.
‘Wolf. I see.’ She put the file down on the desk in front of him, stepping cautiously around the dog. ‘These need your signature.’
He signed without reading, handed them back and waited until the door had closed. It was going to be a difficult day. But he had no other option. He couldn’t leave the animal alone at home and Harris would not want it in the kennels. As long as Wolf behaved himself things should be okay. He would have to make proper arrangements if he was going to bring the animal into headquarters. He would need to get a collar, a decent leather one, not just a choke chain.
Alec headed for the canteen. They passed one of the dog handlers and his German Shepherd in the corridor outside the canteen and Alec put his hand onto Wolf’s neck concerned that there might be some trouble but the other dog lowered its tail and slunk past, cowed and submissive.
A fat sausage barmcake eased his pangs of hunger and he carried another one for the dog while Wolf nudged him insistently with a hard nose, swallowing saliva and licking his lips. ‘Not yet. When it’s cool enough.’ There was an insistent growl and Alec sighed. ‘Here.’ He held it out and watched with amusement as the dog bit into it only to yelp and drop it to the floor. ‘Too hot? Serves you right.’
He sat there, looking down at the food, his lips and tongue burning from the unaccustomed heat and his mouth watering as the smells taunted his stomach. It was good to be here, to be somewhere that he knew and where he felt safe. He shuffled his feet…. paws. The tail brushed behind him and he wanted to stop it but it had a life of its own. Embarrassing. He wasn’t used to having his emotions displayed for all to see. His ears twitched at the slightest noise and he was aware of everything happening around him and with horror he realised that he was starting to adapt, was becoming accustomed to this… body. The terror of being trapped was still there and he desperately wanted to tell Alec that he was here, that he was Ed Straker and not Wolf, that he had a mind and intelligence and an existence. But the animal instincts dominated him and he found himself with an urge to follow that tempting smell of fresh meat from the nearby kitchen. Blood.
He shook himself to dismiss the craving and winced with humiliation as he remembered shaking water from his coat in Alec’s bathroom. And then… that joyous and uncontrolled rolling as he dried himself on the bed. Alec would have something to say about that later, when he, Straker, returned. If he returned. He might never emerge from this, might be ensnared here forever. An irrational thought entered his mind. How old was he? How long did dogs, or werewolves, or whatever he was now, live? What would the future hold for him if he could not make Alec understand? A life as Alec’s pet? Even worse; a guard dog, chained and caged and controlled? His sheer size made that a possibility. He had to remain calm, to focus on what was happening around him and search for any opportunity to let them know he was here.
The sausages smelled good. Wolf bent his head and started eating.
The previous day’s reports had been stacked on Straker’s desk for his attention. Alec sat and pulled the first one down to read while Wolf paced the office, nose sniffing at the furniture until he came to sit beside the leather chair and rest his head on a convenient knee. Alec put a hand down and patted him with an absentminded gesture before reaching out for a pen. He signed his name and cursed as the nib snagged on the page. Being left-handed brought its own problems. He put it aside and picked up a ballpoint and the fountain pen, now forgotten, rolled to the edge of the desk. Alec was too late to catch it but there was no need. Wolf sat there, the pen held safely in his mouth.
‘Hell, Ed would have killed me if I’d damaged the nib. That’s his favourite pen.’ He took hold of the pen but the dog growled and backed away and Alec watched as Wolf carried the pen to the shelf behind the desk and placed it there with cautious movements before tilting his head. His blue eyes fixed on Alec with an accusing glare. ‘What the …’ Alec scowled. ‘You’re a strange one. Have it your way then.’ He carried on working, ignoring the dog who now sat by his side, watching intently for a while, the warm breath from its open mouth fluttering loose papers that lay on the desk before it settled to rest at his feet.
The morning proceeded without further interruptions although Alec kept expecting to hear the sound of Straker’s feet coming along the corridor and his distinct voice in the distance with the flash of pale hair in the bright lighting. But nothing, only a soft whine as Wolf yawned and got up followed by the clicking of claws as the dog roamed the office. The dark muzzle pressed against Alec’s leg in entreaty.
He looked at his watch. Mid-morning and he had not realised. He stretched and pushed the chair back and Wolf whined again. ‘Need to get busy?’ Alec lifted his jacket from the corner seat. ‘Come on.’ He led the way out, past operatives who turned and hid secret smiles as the two of them walked out. Paul Foster was just coming in.
‘Alec. Didn’t know you had a pet. Does Straker know?’
‘He’s away for a couple of days. And this is a stray. I’m…’ He paused. ‘It might make a decent guard dog.’
‘Certainly big enough.’ Paul stepped back. ‘So Straker’s taking a break? I heard about the alien. Bad luck.’
The dog whined and pushed Alec in the thigh, hard. ‘Sorry Paul, better go, otherwise I’ll be cleaning up puddles.’ Wolf gave a soft sigh and stalked away down the corridor, his whole demeanour one of disgust. He waited by the entrance to the office, treading restlessly, turning his head as he waited for Alec to catch up.
The door opened as Alec approached and Wolf bounded in, to rest his front paws on the desk. Alec picked up the cigarette box but a loud double bark from Wolf drowned out the sound of his voice. It made no difference though. The VPI, after a somewhat unusual pause, confirmed his identity and there was the familiar sensation of the room rising. Wolf sighed and lay down.
Alec avoided the security compound and took a quiet route to the park. He could have left the dog with Harris for the day but he was enjoying himself although he would not admit that fact. There was no need to be on his best behaviour, no need for pretence. The dog accepted him as he was, warts and all, and not many people did that. Despite Alec’s sociable demeanour he had few real friends; Paul for one, and of course Ed. As always. Ed had always been there, following in the shadow of the outwardly gregarious Alec Freeman.
He laughed to himself. Sociable? If only people knew the reality. He made a good job of hiding his insecurity and his awkwardness, and only Straker had ever come close to the truth. The two of them were more alike than anyone might ever have guessed, both of them isolated and alone and not from choice either. Ed had divorced; Alec had not even come close to marriage, though not from choice. Life and work – and in recent years, SHADO – had got in the way. And yet the stupid thing was that neither of them ever talked about it. About being alone that is.
Perhaps it was time that Alec stopped the pretence. He was lonely. And Wolf made him feel … needed. How stupid, that a bloody stray could do that. He hoped no one claimed the dog. One night. That was all it took for him to accept the animal into his life and the dammed dog hadn’t even been with him for much of the time. He wondered where it had slept. One thing was for certain, he wouldn’t let it run off tonight. It could sleep in the utility room. Wouldn’t matter if it made a mess there.
He’d have to check with Ed about bringing Wolf into work, but Ed wouldn’t mind. He’d probably volunteer to take the dog out as well.
Alec let his hand rest on the head at his side. A hell of a big dog and a good companion for a lonely man with an empty life. He shook his head at the maudlin thoughts. He would wait until the weekend and then buy a bed. And get it registered with the local vet. And get a tag engraved. Until then he would make do with the choke chain, just in case. It wasn’t as if he saw much of his neighbours so they wouldn’t kick up a fuss. He opened the gate to the parkland and Wolf ran forward, bounding towards the nearest bushes.
Alec’s phone rang and he fumbled in his pocket.
‘Jackson? Got the results?’
‘Not yet Colonel. I was just wondering whether you had spoken to the Commander since he left yesterday?’
Alec saw Wolf reappear and stand there, ears alert, eyes watching him, his whole stance urgent. ‘No. He said not to call unless it was an emergency.’
‘No matter, I just wondered whether he was recovered.’
Jackson cut the connection and Alec frowned. ‘Wolf? Come here.’ The dog ran over, panting, expectant and Alec sighed. ‘Okay. You can have a few more minutes.’ He picked up a short branch and flung it away. Wolf jerked once as if about to run after the stick then he stopped and sat, stubborn and unmoving. ‘Go on. Aren’t you supposed to fetch it?’ There was no reaction, apart from a twitch of the ears. ‘You’re an odd one aren’t you?’ Fingers reached down to caress the ears until a low grumble made Alec withdraw. ‘Have it your own way.’ He started walking up the gentle slope, the dog padding behind, not wandering away, staying close to the man.
Alec reached the crest of the knoll and took a deep breath. He didn’t come here often and when he did it was because of some film or other. Never for the simple pleasure of getting away from it all. Damn, it was good to get out. He would have to bring Wolf here for a run each day, if Ed gave him the chance. That was the problem; the last months had been horrendous with no time for anything other than work and even Straker looked tired. Perhaps these couple of days furlough might make Ed realise that there was more to life than work.
Straker sat down and looked up at his friend. And he realised that Alec was looking old and tired. He could see the strain in Alec’s eyes and the weariness in his stance. He had pushed Alec too hard in recent weeks. He pushed everyone too hard. Perhaps it was time to ease up a little and give Alec a chance to relax. It wasn’t as if his friend was lazy; far from it, he worked as hard as Straker and that was the problem. Alec never complained, never talked about work, about life or about needing a break. He just …worked. And so did Straker. They made a fine couple. A pair of workaholics with nothing and nobody waiting at home.
It was pleasant to be out here even in this body and in a rare gesture of companionship, allowed himself to lean against Alec’s legs. The hand touched his head again and fingers fondled his hair, no, his fur. An enjoyable sensation, someone caressing him like that. He let the fingers rub behind his ear and found himself pushing into the touch and unable to stop his reaction. His eyes closed with pleasure and he raised his head as Alec’s hand moved down to massage his throat.
‘Like that don’t you?’ Alec said.
Straker wanted to pull himself free but he was finding it hard to remain detached from what he had become. Wolf or man. Or both. His body refused to move. If anything it leaned closer, pleading with the man to work hands harder against his throat even as a soft whine of pleasure escaped his treacherous jaws. His tail thumped and he growled as Alec’s hand scratched his throat in a rhythm that was hypnotic in its regularity. His legs gave way and he slithered to the ground to lie there on his back, laughing at himself despite his awkwardness.
The look on Alec’s face was worth it though: the smile in the eyes, the laughter on the thin lips, the hands reaching down to stroke and tickle. A release, however temporary, from the constant grind of protecting the world from an unbeatable and unknowable enemy. What did it matter that he was trapped in this body? Deep within his mind, there was an instinctive knowledge that it was only for a short time. He could almost feel the moons as they started diverging in the alien sky; huge copper coloured circles pockmarked with craters as they orbited the world.
Maybe only one more night. The darkness inside him was fading as the moons parted and turned gibbous and he might not have to fight the alien presence much longer. He would be Straker again, soon enough. He sighed to himself. Jackson would have a field day and there would be comments made for sure. Alec would be the worst. He wriggled under fingers that rubbed his chest. A delicious feeling.
Enough. He bounded to his feet and despite his size pranced around the man like a small puppy, nipping at trouser legs and pulling shoelaces with teeth that were careful not to make any contact. He heard Alec laugh. A rare sound. The first time in weeks. There had not been much to smile about had there? Eight deaths, a Skydiver lost and three Interceptors, the ensuing financial wrangle to get replacements, let alone the loss of SHADO personnel. That was the worst part. But he kept that hidden, locked away from view and now he realised that Alec felt the loss as much as he did. How foolish he had been to think that he was the only person who still grieved. Perhaps it was time to let go. His teeth tugged one of the laces loose and he pulled back, growling with pleasure, his feet splayed as he yanked on the strand. A hand grabbed his ruff and the tug-of-war that ensued brought Freeman to his knees as Straker leapt away to stand there, tail wagging, waiting.
Alec sat down and laughed. Finally. He had not felt like this for weeks. Not this release of tension as if the tight spring inside him had uncoiled all at once to leave him limp and unable to move. He let his hands rest on his knees as he watched the dog still play-growling at him with a torn scrap of his shoelace dangling from its mouth like a child’s strand of liquorice.
‘Come here, you daft mutt.’ Affection tinged Freeman’s voice and Wolf edged closer until he was within arms’ reach. Then he lay down alongside the man and let his head rest comfortingly on Alec’s thigh and in reach of the hands. The ground was dry, the sun warm and he closed his eyes and relaxed as a hand smoothed his fur before Alec lay back as well.
‘I don’t do this enough you know, coming out here. Not much point really, by yourself. Ed does, I know that. Walks round, gets outside, tried to escape it all. Don’t know that it helps that much.’ Fingers kneaded behind ears, and Wolf twisted to get closer. ‘Like that do you? I’ll get some decent food tonight. Don’t think dogs should have a fry-up, though you enjoyed it well enough. And another thing…’ Alec sat up and held the head in his two hands, staring into the eyes. ‘Tonight. No running off. Understood? I’m not bathing you again. ’ The eyes blinked at him. Damn big eyes as well. He wondered how much the dog understood. Wolf yawned a reply and lowered his head again.
Alec watched clouds drift across the sky, felt the weight warm on his leg, the smell of grass soothing him. Even the noise of departing planes from Heathrow was not able to drive away the sense of calm that filled him. He would make this a regular thing. He would have to anyway; no dog would thrive without exercise and fresh air and it wasn’t as if many people came here. Perhaps he might persuade Ed to take Wolf for a walk once or twice. He stretched and the dog grunted and snuggled close.
Companionship. Someone there who cared about him, even if it was just a dog. Someone to care for as well, instead of the empty silent rooms of his apartment. His fingers twirled in idle circles, feeling the thickness of fur and he sighed to himself. ‘I wonder what Ed will say about you. Wonder if he ever gets as lonely?’ The massive head lifted under his hand and he felt that long tongue lick his palm. Alec sat up again and wrapped his hands around his knees as if he was a little boy. He concentrated on watching contrails cross the sky until a nose nudged him again.
‘Sorry boy. Getting bored? Come on then.’ He heaved himself to his feet and set off down the hill.
The day continued as normal, the daily grind of protecting an uncaring world, the endless monotony of reports and details and minutiae that kept humanity safe. On any other day he would have walked through the control room, flirting with Lt Johnson or one of the other females, or chatting to Ford about football. Anything to pass the time, to put off that moment when he would walk out and go home, but not today. A quick lunch in the canteen, knowing that Wolf was waiting for him outside. Another romp in the park and a fierce tug-of-war over a discarded piece of rope before he led the dog back to headquarters. By the time he was finished for the day he was tired. A genuine tiredness, not the weariness of being stuck indoors all day.
He yawned. ‘Time to go.’
Wolf was waiting at the door before he even had his jacket on.
It didn’t matter that the back seat was covered in dog hairs, or that he could almost hear the tormented screams of the expensive leather as claws dug in. It was only a car after all. He drove out of his way to find a superstore and pulled in. The car park was busy and he twisted round to address the dog. ‘Stay here?’ The look was sufficient. ‘All right. But you don’t come in and you don’t bark either. Got that?’
He left Wolf waiting outside, the lead looped with casual nonchalance over a post, and the choke chain tied so that it could not tighten beyond its slack loop. He knew that Wolf could get free should he wish and yet it was beyond him to confine the dog more than was necessary. He made a quick dash round to pick up the basics: milk, bread, some cheese, a pizza that would do him for a couple of nights and a large bag of expensive dried dog food. Very expensive. Wolf should like it and even as he was bagging the rest he was grinning to himself. He would go round tomorrow to see Ed and he would take Wolf with him. After all Ed had a pretty decent-sized garden for the dog to play in and it would be good for Ed to meet him outside work and see how well-behaved the animal was.
The scream from outside and the screech of brakes was startling enough but it was the harsh animal cry of pain that made him drop the bag of kibble and run.
‘Fuck.’ The word burst instinctively from his lips and he blushed as he saw the woman standing there with her arms wrapped around a small screaming child and then he spun round to see a large shape lying on the tarmac, the vanilla-blonde undercoat gleaming in the headlights of the car just behind him. Wolf.