A UFO Story
By Lightcudder ©Feb 2012
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners.The original characters and plot are the property of the author of this story.The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any previously copyrighted material. No copyright infringement intended.
‘We have a live one Commander. Bringing him in now.’
Straker did not need the signs to guide him as he walked the corridors. The underground base had continued to develop over the years, adding new walkways, new sections, even lower levels, but the SHADO Commander knew every part and his mind was fixed on other things besides the layout of the base.
A live one. The first for over a year. Maybe this time they might have a chance. It was about time they got a break. He paused to let Alec catch up.
‘Think we might be lucky with this one?’
Straker shrugged. ‘It’s time things went our way. The last couple of months…’ Lost in thought he walked on, shoulders hunched.
The last couple of months. Skydiver 5 lost, three interceptors destroyed, and more than a dozen successful attacks by the enemy despite SHADO’s best efforts. It happened. Alec was enough of a pragmatist to know that they could not always win, but somehow Straker took it personally. Maybe this capture would make a difference. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and strode on.
He reached the observation window and stood there wanting to step inside but forcing himself to wait for the doctors to finish.
Time passed. He ignored Alec and paced the bleak corridor, listening for the door opening, thinking about the alien and wondering if this time they might get some answers.
‘Commander? You can come in now.’
He gave Alec a wry grin. Maybe. Just maybe. ‘What have you got for us, Jackson?’
‘The usual Commander. He fits most of the normal physiological profiles of all the other subjects that we have examined so far.’
‘A healthy male with the characteristic green skin-tone and scars which might indicate heart and lung transplants. However…’ Jackson paused, tapping his lips with one finger.
The doctor took a deep breath. ‘There are some unusual features to this particular alien. It could be that he is from a different sub-culture to any previous subject, but I am undecided so far. ‘
‘Unusual features?’ Freeman stepped forward.
‘Yes.’ Jackson drew the syllable out as if reluctant to admit he was baffled. ‘More hirsute, and with some anatomical differences to the bones in his arms and legs. We are in the process of making a full examination. But we will not get final results until we have completed an MRI scan later. Full gowns and masks please, if you are going in to see him.’
How many times had he stood here, face hidden behind the mask, gloved hands holding the bars as he peered down at an alien face. And still no response. This one was like all the others, silent and unresponsive, eyes closed, hair still plastered to its skull. He had to stop his interrogation in the end, not because he’d given up any hope of getting a response, but because Jackson was ready to move the patient to the scanner. There was no point in following them. He perched on a stool and folded his arms. Patient.
‘They’ll be a while yet. Why don’t you get a coffee?’
Straker looked up, startled. ‘What? Sorry, I was miles away.’
‘Have a break. Stretch your legs, get a coffee.’ Freeman held the door open. ‘You can bring me one as well.’
‘Giving orders now Colonel?’ Straker grinned. ‘Black, no sugar?’ He pulled off mask and gloves and gown, bundling them all in the disposal chute. ‘Five minutes.’
The nearest drinks dispenser was at the far end of the corridor and he lengthened his stride, enjoying even that brief exercise. He punched buttons, grinning at the thought of Alec ordering him about for once, took a quick gulp of his own coffee while he waited for the machine to dispense the second mug, and then began the walk back. The medical team were coming out with the alien at the precise moment he passed the door to the Scanning Department.
He stepped back to give them space but as the trolley swung around the alien opened its eyes and stared at him. Dark eyes. Feral eyes. Straker had no chance to respond before the alien lunged, mouth open in a silent snarl of hatred. There was just enough time to see long white teeth and claw-like fingers reaching out for his throat before…
‘Ed. How are you feeling?’ The voice came from far away. He opened his eyes for a moment but the light was too bright. His throat hurt and he put his hand up to touch the sore spot, but someone took hold of his fingers in a tight grip.
‘Don’t touch. Give it chance to stop bleeding.’
He lay still while his mind sorted out what had happened: the alien springing at him, fingers scratching his face and throat as it leapt from the trolley and pushed him to the floor, coffee spattering the walls and sharp teeth reaching for his neck. He shivered in horror at the memory and tried to sit up.
‘No. Keep still. Jackson’s just about finished.’
That was Alec’s voice. He recognised it. Alec. He would do what Alec said. He lay still and waited, feeling the delicate contact of fingers fluttering around his throat. Not like the… He shuddered. ‘The alien?’ His own voice was unrecognisable, rough and grating.
‘Dead. Not sure why.’ The hand let go of his. Alec’s hand. Alec’s voice. ‘You’ll be fine. Jackson wants you to stay here for a while. Until you’ve woken up properly.’ A strong hand touched his shoulder. ‘I’ll be back later.’
Freeman left the room and he lay still as Jackson’s fingers – he could tell by the touch – wiped away blood then soothed over the scratches and the swollen bite marks before covering them with a dressing. He was tired. He could hear every tiny sound in the room: the slight asthmatic breathing of the nurse by the door, the faint thud of cotton swabs as they dropped into the dish, the intermittent drip of the tap in the far corner. Jackson was wearing a fresh cologne, sharp and tangy. It irritated his nose and made him want to sneeze. He could smell antiseptic and his own sweat, even the alcohol from the hand rub. He felt sick.
‘Can I have a drink?’ His voice rasped.
Jackson slipped an arm under his shoulders to raise him up and he was aware of a straw against his lips. The water was tepid and tasteless but he swallowed a few mouthfuls and leaned back.
‘What time is it? And when can I leave?’
‘Fourteen thirty-seven, Commander. I would like you to have a couple of hours sleep first. Your heart rate became very erratic at one stage and your temperature is somewhat elevated. I would like to make sure that you are fully recovered before I release you.’
Straker opened his eyes just enough to see the face close to his. He had an irrational desire to push the man away, to exert his authority over Jackson, but wisdom prevailed. He let his hand touch the dressing on his neck, the skin felt raw and hot and he flinched away from further exploration. He knew he was safe here and that nothing could harm him and so he curled onto his side and fell asleep.
Jackson watched the sleeping man for a few minutes before raising the bars at the sides and dimming the lights. He looked back once with a frown on his face before he closed the door. He had an alien to examine and questions that needed answering.
‘Move the light closer.’ Jackson peered at the body through his visor. ‘Interesting. See how the canine teeth are elongated? Upper jaw and lower? Pliers.’ He held out a hand. The implement slapped into his palm and he bent to his task. There was a crack and the clatter of something hard dropping into a dish. ‘I want a full report.’ He carried on working while his mind ran over possibilities. Outrageous possibilities. He cast the ridiculous thoughts aside and reached for the saw.
Straker stretched and yawned, alert and uncomfortably aware of the stench of blood in the distance. Not his blood. This was strange blood and yet somehow familiar as if he knew the smell, could even taste it on his tongue. He opened his eyes and blinked. The lights were dim yet he could see everything with utter clarity. He found his clothes and dressed with haste, telling himself that he had done as ordered, and Jackson would get in touch with him if necessary.
On the way he stopped to get a brew, two sugars, extra cream, in an attempt to eradicate the stale taste of tepid water in his mouth but the smell of the coffee was overpowering and almost nauseating. He put the cup down and walked away, shaking his head in confusion before standing at the entrance to his Control room to watch and check that all was as it should be. He did not want to intrude, just needed to make sure. He heard soft footsteps behind. Alec.
‘You okay?’ The loud voice startled him and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He straightened his shoulders and turned.
‘Yes. I’m fine.’ His throat itched. A good sign; it was already healing. He resisted the temptation to scratch it.
‘Get some fresh air. I’m on duty for a while.’
Fresh air. The thought was tempting, a breeze on his face and a smell of grass and damp earth instead of this scentless and sterile underground. He gave a curt nod and strode away as Alec called after him. ‘I’ll let you know if Jackson finds anything.’
It was a relief to get inside his ‘outer’ office and flick open the cigarette box. His voice was rough and rasping but it was enough to identify him and he paced the perimeter growing more impatient with each step. When the room came to a halt he fumbled the switch, pressing two buttons instead of just the one but he corrected the mistake; tiredness, that was all. The door opened and he was free.
Miss Ealand was not there, no doubt taking some files to the archives or perhaps getting some fresh air herself. She had not been gone for long. He could smell a different perfume to her usual soft fragrance and she had eaten curry the previous night. He wrinkled his nose in slight disdain and opened the window to clear the lingering smell. Then he scrawled a brief note on a piece of paper and walked out. The scrap of paper fluttered to the floor, unseen.
It had rained while he had been underground and he stood there, taking deep breaths and inhaling the scent of clean-washed air. A studio car drove past on its way to the exit, and he curled his lip in disgust at the fumes then set off walking past closed sound stages and empty parking lots. The parkland was not far away, and at this time of day it would be deserted.
Once under the shade of the trees, Straker removed his sunglasses with a sigh of relief and stood there, rubbing the bridge of his nose to ease the headache lurking there. The park was quiet, the only disturbance the rustle of small animals in the thick undergrowth and the soft calls of birds as they found a roost among the old oaks. A grey squirrel scrabbled up a tree trunk, barking at him in annoyance and he scowled at its impudence and walked on, running a hand through his hair and rubbing the back of his neck to ease the stiffness there. His hair needed cutting. It was getting shaggy, and … he rubbed his jaw; perhaps he needed a new razor. The current one must be blunt even though he had replaced it a couple of days ago.
Shadows lengthened as the sun set although he was not perturbed about the coming dusk. He yawned again, stretching his arms out and rolling his head. The birds fell silent. He took another step forward and stopped at the sharp pain across his shoulders, and the sound of material giving way, ripping under strain. Damn. What the hell?
He stripped off his jacket, wondering if he had caught it on a stray branch and held it up for inspection. The squirrel barked a warning and he spun around only to fall as pain lanced through his body. There was no opportunity for thought or sensible and rational decisions. Instinct drove him into action and he managed one harsh scream before his throat refused to obey his commands.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.