He knelt down and leaned over the dog, one trembling hand reaching out in trepidation. Not Wolf. Please. The tongue lolled out of the open mouth, the brilliant blue eyes were closed, the plumed tail motionless. He did not want to touch, to feel that body still and lifeless; not after a day such as today. He looked back into the brightness of the shop entrance where the bag of kibble had fallen on its side next to the carton of milk. He should have made Wolf stay in the car.
‘Wolf.’ His whisper was unheard by the onlookers.
The woman stepped close, the child in her arms quietly sobbing. ‘It was my fault. Is he all right? I was getting a trolley and my daughter ran in front of the car. He… he pushed her out of the way and the car hit him instead.’ She stroked the child’s forehead and smoothed the blonde hair into place. ‘Is he all right?’
‘I don’t know.’ The words stuck in Alec Freeman’s throat. He stood up and looked around, feeling lost. Ed would know what to do in this situation. Ed always knew.
But he wasn’t here. He hunkered down again and let his hand trace the edge of an ear. He should have tied Wolf up properly. But then… and that would have been worse, far worse. Only a dog. That was all, he told himself, only a dog. He stroked the ruffled pelt to smooth it into place. Wolf.
Straker took a shuddery breath and yelped as the hand found the tender spot on his shoulder where he had been hit. He raised his head and whined before he staggered to his feet and stood there, eyes downcast.
‘Wolf. Thank god.’ A secret whisper in his ear and familiar arms holding him upright, keeping him safe. He leaned against the man and gave a cautious lick to the face that was so close to him. He felt hands run over his body, heard the sigh of relief. ‘Doesn’t seem to have broken anything. I’ll take him home.’ That was Alec’s voice and there in the background he could hear a ripple of pleasure, of voices pleased that he was unharmed. He let his tail wag just once.
Straker limped forward with unsteady steps towards their car, his friend beside him with hands ready if needed. It hurt to climb inside and he was glad of Alec’s clumsy attempts to help. He lay in weary silence on the back seat and even tolerated the brief trip in the lift before he collapsed with a sigh on the thick rug in the lounge. Alec switched on the fire and as the warmth spread through the room Straker put his head on his paws and slept.
His dreams confused him. Images of quadruple moons converging in a dark sky, pain in his body as bones elongated and muscles stretched and contorted. And intertwined with those thoughts were other recollections; of curling up in a stinking and cold place and waking still trapped, of bounding over grass and tugging joyfully on a frayed end of rope. Of the horror of knowing what was going to happen to the child and that frantic lurch to free himself from his chains and take one desperate leap to push her to safety. He had done what he had not managed to do for John. He had saved her. Ed Straker huffed in his sleep, ears twitching, paws scrabbling on the rug and soft whimpers filling the room until Alec stroked him back into slumber.
He stayed with Wolf until he was sure the dog was asleep and settled. On any other night he would have the telly on to catch up on the day’s news and give him something to listen to. After all, there was a world out there beyond SHADO, although there were times when the underworld and secret existence that he had chosen seemed to consume his whole life.
No regrets though. He’d helped save people. He had made a difference and after all wasn’t that the most important thing? Maybe people would never know, but he did, and he wasn’t doing this for the medals or the recognition. But somewhere along the line, life had passed by him. Marriage, children; that had always been his intention when he had been younger, but it had not happened and here he was, like Ed, alone.
Wolf whimpered again and Alec hurried to his side and bent over to lay one hand on the head. How did you know if a dog was injured? Or in pain? Or if it had a temperature? Harris would be off duty now and the night staff in the security compound wouldn’t be able to come out. And he didn’t really want them anyway. Their dogs were working dogs, tools of their trade, not….
He didn’t know any vet in the area, but perhaps there was someone else … Alec pulled out his phone. ‘Doug? Are you busy? I need some advice.’
Jackson promised to come as soon as his latest batch of tests were finished. An hour or so he had said and until then, he had told Freeman, keep the dog warm and quiet. Alec could imagine Jackson’s expression. That quirky lop-sided grin, the raised eyebrows, the folded arms. But he had agreed to come. That was the important thing. Alec poured himself a whisky and sat down to wait. Wolf was sleeping, paws tightening and claws catching in the rug, tail twitching, eyes half-open and ears flickering, soft whiffles and whimpers disturbing the quiet. Alec refilled his drink and lowered himself to sit on the floor, and lean back against the bulk of the sofa with his legs stretched alongside the dog. He kicked his shoes off and relaxed. Jackson would know what to do, and until then Wolf seemed to have settled. His stomach rumbled, but the pizza could wait.
He found himself drowsing with his head lolling down and his snores matching the sounds from the sleeping dog. And then he woke.
Straker had allowed himself to relax as the heat from the fire eased the soreness in his shoulder. It was not a bad bruise, far from it; his thick fur had protected him and the car had not been travelling that fast. Fast enough to harm a child but Wolf was made of sterner stuff. Tough sinew and dense bone, strong muscles and reflexes that were so must better than his own. But even so the impact had stunned him and he was becoming aware of other things: his blood cooling down, his heart rate slowing, muscles aching and tightening. That deep pain as bones began to shift. He whimpered in fear. It was going to happen again, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. And who was to say that he would turn back into the man he had been? He needed to get away from here before he changed, before he became something else.
He wriggled away from the sleeping man then stood and turned to give one last lick of farewell on the fingers. He would be able to get into Alec’s bathroom and push the door closed. That might be sufficient to confine him, to keep Alec safe until …
Then it was too late. His howl of distress woke the sleeping man.
Alec pushed himself away from the couch and grabbed the dog as it writhed in agony on the floor, its teeth bared and its eyes wide with terror. He pulled Wolf close and cradled him, heedless of the snapping teeth and snarls. Claws scratched against his skin and drew blood but he did not care. He knew that he needed to hold the dog, if not to calm it, to prevent it from doing more harm to itself. His phone was out of reach. He could do nothing other than hold, and be there as Wolf, with sharp howls that sounded almost human, fought to free himself.
And then he felt it.
Bones shifted and elongated under his hands, the thick pelt seemed to thin, to lessen as if it was melting away, muscles shifted and grew in size and the claws retracted and softened. He wrapped one arm around Wolf’s massive head as it turned towards him. The skull bent under his touch as if it was made from clay and his reaction was instinctive. With a cry of revulsion he pushed himself away from Wolf and levered himself to his feet, gasping with horror and rubbing his hands on his shirt in an effort to erase that sensation of a body liquefying and reforming.
Wolf gave one last agonised cry. Not a howl from a dog, a man’s scream. There was a thud, a soft moan and then … silence. Alec bent down and reached out in the dimness of the room. ‘Wolf?’
He touched not thick fur as expected, nor the lean muscular body of the dog. Instead his fingers smoothed over skin. Feverishly hot bare skin and he explored further, feeling long arms outstretched in supplication and hands clenched into tight fists.
What the hell? He fumbled to turn on the small table lamp.
It took him a long moment to react. ‘Oh God.’ There was no time to get help, no thought of doing anything other than kneel beside …
‘Ed?’ It couldn’t be. But it was. There was no mistaking that hair that face even though it was contorted with pain and half hidden in the thick rug. ‘Ed? What the hell? Ed?’ Alec knelt on the floor beside the prone figure. He touched one sweat soaked shoulder with a fingertip. ‘Ed? Is it …’
The head moved to one side and Alec could see the profile of his friend but the eyes were closed and the lips clenched tightly together. A soft growl, the teeth bared once before one eye opened to stare at him. Pale lashes blinked, the brow furrowed and the lips moved as if to speak but a tremor wracked the body and Alec heard a deep groan. He could do nothing apart from wrap his arms around the lean torso and lift Straker into his arms and to hold him as he had held Wolf.
He had no idea what had happened; how Ed could be here, how Wolf could have disappeared. Unless… No. the idea was ridiculous, preposterous. He huffed with contempt at his wild imagination. But it was the only explanation. Wasn’t it Sherlock Holmes who said: ‘When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’
And the truth was right here in his arms. Wolf. That beautiful and intelligent animal. But not really Wolf. All along it had been Ed. He let one hand slide down Straker’s back aware of thick downy hair under his fingers, as if the transformation from wolf to man was still incomplete. The skin shivered under his touch and he heard the chink of the chain still around Straker’s neck. He tried to lift it free but his clumsy attempt with shaking fingers only made it tighten.
Straker’s head rolled back, and Alec saw the blue eyes wide with fear as the links dug into his throat. One hand reached up to make contact and a voice rasped inarticulate sounds. He tightened his grip on Straker, afraid that he might try to pull away.
‘Keep still. I have you. It’s all over.’ He eased the chain over Straker’s head and let it clatter to the floor. ‘There. Gone.’ His whisky glass was close at hand and he made Ed drink. Just a few sips, but enough to soothe his throat. Then, turning out the lamp, he leaned back and let his friend rest against him. There would be time for answers later.
Jackson put the next slide under the lens and stretched his shoulders. Another long day, but he was used to that. He had his duty to SHADO and although he knew that more often than not his efforts went unnoticed he still had a sense of satisfaction in his work. He glanced at the slide before he looked away and wiped his eyes then adjusted the focus and peered down once more. No. That was impossible. It had to be a mistake, some dirt on the glass perhaps. But he had prepared these himself. They were spotless. This was not the result of some technician’s careless work. This was …
And Colonel Freeman had found a stray dog.
He pressed the intercom. ‘Security. I need an armed squad. Full protection. Car Park 7. Three minutes. Jackson.’ He did not wait for the reply but busied himself with packing his bag. On his way out of the research labs he stopped to collect one last item. The team were waiting and he slid into the front seat of the lead vehicle and gave the driver the address. There was a pause.
‘Yes. And hurry.’ Jackson strapped up as the Range Rover accelerated along the dark streets. He hoped they would be in time. He hefted the gun in his hand; so rarely used that he could not remember the last time he had fired it in peacetime, let alone anger. He was a doctor not a soldier but who was to say what they would find when they reached their destination.
The cars skidded to a halt and he was out and opening the main door to the apartment block with his security key, then running up the stairs heedless of the team close at his heels. The key opened Freeman’s door and he shouldered it aside and stood there, gun ready, listening. He heard a sound and headed for the noise.
Alec turned his head as the figure appeared in the doorway of his living room. Even in the dark he could see a distinct figure surrounded by armoured security men. He held up one hand and Jackson paused.
‘Colonel? Are you all right? Is that…?’
‘Yes.’ He didn’t want to move. Not yet. ‘I don’t know what happened.’
Jackson dismissed the team before he entered the room to lower himself beside Alec and let his fingers rest on Straker’s wrist. ‘Has he woken?’
‘Briefly, just after he…’
‘Good. I doubt if there is any danger now and it would be best if we let him sleep.’
‘What the hell happened Doug?’ Alec gulped the last of his whisky and put the glass down. Straker moved restlessly in his sleep and Alec stroked his back until he settled again.
Jackson refilled the glass and handed it back before he went out of the room, returning a few minutes later with pillows and the duvet from Alec’s bed, still without its cover. He too, smoothed one hand over that incredible downy fur before he eased Straker away from Alec to lay him on the floor and tuck him in the warmth of the quilt. A gentle touch as if to comfort. That was not something that Alec had ever expected from the quiet doctor, but there were a lot of things that he hadn’t anticipated, least of which was that he would be sitting on the floor next to a sleeping Ed Straker who was covered in soft blond fur.
He began to laugh.
‘It’s not funny Alec.’ Straker growled as he sat in the kitchen. ‘Jackson’s demanding more tests before I can go back to work.’ He spread his hand out and looked at it, the nails short and neat and the fingers as familiar as always but he knew that if he pushed the sleeve of the borrowed dressing gown further up his arm then the past horror would be evident. But at least the baby-soft fur had begun to fall out and in a few days it should have gone for good.
‘Let’s face it Ed, you couldn’t go back looking like that.’
‘Like what?’ Straker’s voice was biting.
‘Tired. That’s all I meant. You look worn out. Not surprising really.’ Freeman put a plate down on the breakfast bar. ‘Here. Full English.’
‘I don’t eat breakfast, least not a fry-up.’ Straker pushed the plate away and reached for his coffee. It tasted different somehow. He would get used to it. He would have to.
A hand rested on his shoulder. ‘Ed. You need to stop fighting us. Please.’ Alec sat down opposite him. ‘Pass the sauce. And don’t tell me you hate black pudding. I know better.’ He looked up at Straker and grinned.
Straker put his head in his hands, the fingers tight against his skull as if he needed to reassure himself of the shape of the bones and the feel of his own short hair. Not fur. Hair. Alec kept quiet and concentrated on eating. He had been warned by Jackson that it would take time and that the alien virus, although it was dying and being eliminated from the Commander’s body would have had a disturbing mental effect. The short-term physical results were best ignored. They would disappear in time.
That was all that Straker needed now; a few days of peace and privacy. And where better to recuperate than here? Alec had the space and the time as well now that Jackson had also signed him off work for the rest of the week. It would be good to have company anyway. He buttered a slice of toast and watched as Straker started eating, listlessly at first but then with a slowly increasing appetite.
It would be fine. But he would miss Wolf.
Straker entered the compound just after the morning shift change and stepped aside to avoid confronting one of the dogs about to leave. He stood there, hands in his pockets and watched as dogs set off on patrol or went out with their handlers for training or exercise. Roy Harris came across. ‘Commander. Good to see you. Anything you need?’
‘Harris.’ Straker shook his hand. In the melee of noise and barking and dogs trying to welcome the newcomer, the dog handler did not notice the brief flush of embarrassment that reddened Straker’s face as he remembered Roy’s examination of Wolf. That was in the past, although the sight of a thermometer and the word ‘intact’ would send shivers down his spine for a long time to come. ‘Just came to see how things are.’ He gestured to the dog pens. ‘Mind if I take a look?’
‘All yours.’ Harris held out a pair of leather gauntlets but Straker smiled and shook his head, as always.
The dogs had finished eating and were now pacing their cages, snarling at each other. Straker opened the door and they turned, ready to repel the intruder but they fell silent as they saw him. Harris stood back, watching as Straker walked the length of the aisle, fingers reaching through the wide bars at the front to make contact with a pleading nose or to fondle a proffered ear. Tails thrashed against the bars and he flinched as he recalled that feeling. He handed out the small biscuits that he always brought with him on these visits. Tiny things, so small that he had to hold them in the tip of his fingers, but he had never been bitten. Not once.
He gave out the last one and retraced his steps again speaking to each occupant as he passed the cages and listening to a pleading whine from a dog that wanted to play. ‘Another time Leo,’ he said and ruffled the muzzle while a long pink tongue sneaked into his palm.
Harris was waiting for him. ‘You should have been a dog trainer Commander,’ he said as he handed over a clipboard. ‘I’d like you to look at one of the new arrivals though.’
‘Problems?’ Straker signed his name. ‘Not like you, Roy.’
‘Nice dog. Too nice in a way. Bit gentle for us and I can’t see him making the grade. Not much call for a reject dog from us, and this one is too …’ He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Nice?’ Straker grinned. ‘Let me have a look. I might be able to help.’
‘He’s a good dog, just wants to be loved and that’s the problem,’ Harris said as he led the way to a smaller compound next door. ‘Here boy,’ he called, keeping his voice calm and friendly. He clicked his fingers and Straker saw the dog appear from the exercise pen at the far end. A big dog. Dark grey and with that unmistakeable look of gangling adolescent immaturity. It bounded towards them and leapt up at the bars, eager to be cosseted.
‘You big wally.’ Harris said with affection as he opened the cage door. ‘Now sit still and behave while the boss takes a look at you.’
The dog skidded to a halt in front of Straker and then sat, quivering, its tail sweeping the floor and its mouth open, panting with excitement and anticipation.
‘Yes. I see what you mean,’ Straker said even as his hand dropped to tickle the broad skull. The undercoat looked pale lemon in the harsh lights. The tail swept back and forth. The tongue lashed his fingers. ‘Which litter?’
‘F.’ Harris shrugged. ‘We call him Fred.’
‘Fred?’ Straker reached out to tweak a single ear. ‘Suits him.’ His fingers were damp with slobber and he rubbed them dry on the thick pelt. ‘Okay Roy. I’ll see what I can do. Can I take him with me?’
Harris grinned. ‘With pleasure, Commander. He’s a great dog. Just not one we can use. I’ll get you a lead.’ He walked away and Straker bent down to hold the head in his two hands. Dark eyes stared back at him and the tongue licked his chin.
‘Fred. Hmm. I can imagine what Alec will say about that. Still, he can always change it.’
Alec Freeman stood in the park, in the rain and whistled. No response. Bugger the bloody dog. What the hell had he done, agreeing to take it? He had only said yes because Ed had pleaded and said the dog would have to be put down. He whistled again and then called.
‘Wulfred… Where are you?’ The bushes rustled and then the dog lolloped across the grass towards him and leapt up to place its paws on his shoulders. ‘You daft muppett,’ he said and tugged the ears with affection. ‘Come on home.’
This story began after a conversation with another Herald writer. Once I had the idea of Straker becoming a werewolf I just sat down and let the words flow. It isn’t always that easy though! The part up to where Straker is alone in the dog pen a delight to write. But then I stalled. I hope Ed forgives me for the things that I did to him… the handler taking his temperature, etc.
I then did the scene with Jackson explaining to Freeman that the dog is Ed but I was advised to make this a pure ‘linear’ story, more about the relationship between Wolf and Alec than about the intricacies of how the alien infected Ed.
I was, at one stage, going to do the story from four points of view. Alec’s, Ed’s, Wolf’s and also the ‘alien werewolf’ but that simply didn’t happen. And some aspects (the alien werewolf in the very back of Straker’s mind) didn’t develop as much as I had intended at the start.
I seem to be doing a lot of stories at the moment that focus on the relationship between people. This is, I think, a natural development in writing, to explore those areas that we have previously ‘shied away from’. Please forgive me if you prefer action-packed UFO stories! ( I do intend to complete ‘Pittencriel’ and several other long stories that have already been started and were put aside while I tried to become a better writer.)
Meanwhile I will try again with a short story that I HAD intended to do instead of this one. A frothy, light story about a dog. It might get finished! Unless something more angsty comes along.
And , just for interest, this part of the story that I deleted, where Jackson works out who Wolf is. It took place just after Alec has got Wolf that sausage butty (sandwich) for breakfast. (Straker is presumed to be missing in this version of the story.)
They reached Jackson’s rooms. The doctor was writing at his desk, his face tired and strained, but he looked up and smiled. ‘Ah. Excellent. Come in Colonel Freeman. This is the stray dog that you discovered yesterday? In the park?’
Wolf nudged Alec again and gave a quick bark.
‘Yes. Give me a minute.’ Alec unwrapped the sandwich and handed it to the dog who ate it with neat bites. ‘So Jackson. What do you want with Wolf? ’
‘Wolf?’ Jackson smiled and dropped an item into Alec’s hand. ‘I have been searching for the Commander. What can you see?’
‘A tooth. Canine isn’t it? What does this have to do with Ed?’
‘Exactly. A canine tooth. I took it from the alien we recovered this morning. Or should I say wolfman.’ Jackson looked abashed. ‘I am not someone who believes in fairytales or monsters or mythical creatures, but the evidence is conclusive.’
Alec turned the tooth over in his hand, trying to make sense of what Jackson was saying. ‘A wolfman? You mean…..’
A werewolf. At least that is what mythology calls them. I prefer to think of it as an ephemeral genetic transmutation. Caused by some external influence.’
‘And what does this have to do with me?’
Jackson smiled. ‘I think I will be able to find a remedy.’ There was a pause. ‘Commander.’
Alec Freeman clenched his fist. ‘That’s going too far Jackson. I am not the Commander. Straker is out there, somewhere and we both know he’ll turn up.’
Jackson stepped closer to the dog. ‘I’m afraid you misunderstood Colonel Freeman. I was not talking to you. I was addressing Commander Straker here.’ He held out his hand and the dog stepped forward to push its huge head under the fingers for a moment, then it sighed and sank to the ground to lie there, tail brushing the floor in gentle sideways sweeps, eyes closed in relief.
‘Oh fuck.’ There was a thump as Alec Freeman sat on the edge of the desk.
One more note. There will be a new UFO story posted here on Christmas Eve – a sort of Christmas present for fans of UFO fanfic. It’s ‘adult’ in its theme so I probably won’t be promoting it much on FB, but I hope readers enjoy it. It’s called ‘Hardwired’ and features the inimitable Ed Straker and Colonel Lake. 😉