How long does it take to become comfortable in another man’s skin?
I wish I knew.
Six months had passed since I put the gun to Theodor Crane’s head and became him, but my stolen life hadn’t gotten any easier. In fact it had only become more complex, harder to manage. I wasn’t just Theodor: husband, father, and head of corporate security for Drake Advanced Technologies, my inherited father-in-law’s company. I was also me: infiltrator, spy, murderer, and most importantly, at the moment, it seemed, Jace’s bitch.
The latter role landed me in the middle of nowhere. The hours crawled by while I lurked outside the Rahldun Quay, the local portal that separated the dimension of Aellisar from Earth.
The city of Dallas illuminated the late night skyline with an eerie shimmer. It reminded me just how far from civilization I was. With the rhythmic chirp of crickets to keep me company I’d taken to leaning against the thick growths of creosote bushes in some masochistic attempt to get comfortable. The scent of stale moisture wafted from the plants with my every motion. It tickled my nose, and the leaves made me itch where the breeze brushed them against my skin. Only the balaclava I’d worn kept me from sneezing. It held just enough of the scent at bay. Conversely, it also held the sweltering heat inside.
Sleep blurred the edges of my vision and yawns came in waves, each one forcing me to blink away a waterfall of tears that only added to the moisture soaking the mask. I’d begun to doubt Jace’s intel a few hours before dawn, and had convinced myself it was time to head home when tingles played hopscotch down my spine. The hair at the back of my neck stood at attention while wisps of energy charged the air. I sensed the quay activate and all thoughts of sleep were washed away in a surge of adrenaline.
I rolled to my knees and hunkered down, gripping the stock of my Mossberg while staring through the bushes. A hazy worm of dancing light rent the air over the nearby clearing I’d been watching. It grew brighter as the quay widened, flickers of electricity gnawing at the mystical barrier like a swarm of glowing termites devouring the space between worlds.
After a short moment, my breath held tight in cigarette-deprived lungs—damn Theodor and his lack of good habits—the portal settled into place, a gaping maw of darkness joining two planes of existence. Voices drifted through the opening. Two men appeared from its mouth, backlit by its gleam. They walked as though they were out for a morning stroll rather than sneaking through a secure quay monitored by representatives of a dozen Ael nations, all sworn to protect its integrity. My stomach soured at seeing them so casual.
I hated when Jace was right. It happened too damn often.
“You’ll be on your way soon,” the first man said as he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and initiated a call. The bluish light cast his face in sharp relief.
He was as average as a man can be. Not quite six feet, he had sandy-brown hair that was a little shaggy, and plain features, which appeared to place him in his mid to late thirties. He wore a loose shirt that buttoned up the middle and hid his build. It was the same with his pants: plain blue jeans that bunched at the ankles over a pair of scuffed cowboy boots. Even his voice came across as normal, no hint of an accent or defining characteristic that might offer up a clue as to what nation in Aellisar he called home.
The second guy just nodded to the first, not bothering to say anything as though he knew someone was listening in. A little taller than his companion, his head was shaved bald and he wore his beard cropped close, no shimmer of gray to be seen in the black from where I hunched. He was broader of shoulder than the first, but he wore a dark hoodie that almost swallowed him, making it hard to define his size, just like his pal, giving away no clue as to his true nature. His hands were stuffed deep in his hoodie pockets, his face swallowed in the shadows created by the portal.
Still, for all their commonness, both lit up in my second sight, their auras confirming them as Aels. It was something I was grateful to be able to determine.
Ever since the Aels had lived on Earth, they’d taken to wearing their human forms, finding them more convenient regarding inter-personal interaction. It had even become the common habit in Aellisar to avoid aggression between the various Ael races which, until they’d been forced from Earth, had been far less cooperative with each other.
“They’re on their way,” the first said a moment later, putting his phone away. He didn’t so much as glance over his shoulder at the still open quay, his confidence bordering on arrogance. The guy was certain that whoever had let him cross over wasn’t going to sell him out. Just thinking about how he’d bought that guarantee made my head spin.
Given the friction between certain factions of Aels and humanity at large, no one outside of Aellisarian Intelligence was permitted to cross the barrier between worlds legally without an assigned escort. These guys skipping through a sanctioned quay without resistance meant there were bigger cracks in the Council’s sovereignty than I’d been led to believe.
Before I could wrap my head around that thought I caught the muffled rumble of a vehicle headed our way. This far out the sound echoed all around us, making it hard to pinpoint the direction it was coming from. While I could guess, that’s all it would be. With little more than vague dirt trails leading to and from the quay the vehicle could come from anywhere if it were four-wheel drive. I hunched even lower in hopes of keeping the bushes between me and the new arrivals.
A few minutes later the yellow gleam of headlights scythed through the darkness behind the men, turning them into black blurs. My eyes raced to adjust to the sudden brightness. When they slid back into focus, an old, beat up Ford pickup rolled to a stop a few yards from the men. Its engine sputtered and died with a loud shudder. The headlights dimmed, leaving only the parking lights to illuminate the clearing. The night was silent once more, but it didn’t last.
“Get in.” The guy with the phone waved the other around to the passenger side of the truck.
The dark figure that was the driver leaned over and popped the door open. No inside lamp lit up, leaving the cab bathed in blackness. I memorized the plate numbers—though I assumed they were fake—and the make, model, color, and color of the truck, and whatever details I could make out, so AI could follow up later. Jace had been adamant that I confront the coyote only after he was alone. I’d laughed at her use of the Border Patrol’s colloquialism for the trafficker, but I had to admit it fit as well as any other name we could call him. He was smuggling folks across the border, ephemeral as it was.
The guy in the hoodie clambered into the cab, and I heard the suspension creak at his weight, the truck shifting in the soft sand. He might look human but a scale would rat him out. Still didn’t tell me what race he was, though it certainly narrowed the list of options.
I listened in to see if the coyote said anything while seeing his charge off, but he didn’t bother talking. He just closed the door and waved to the driver. The truck sputtered to life and was rolling off before the headlights even came back on. A few seconds later there was nothing but the red gleam of the taillights as the Ford bounced over some low-lying creosote and shot off the way it had come. The coyote watched until it disappeared into the distance, and then started back toward the open quay.
“Unless you’re looking to sprout an extra hole someplace inconvenient, I suggest you freeze.” I racked the shotgun for emphasis as I waded through the thick bushes for a clearer shot.
The coyote stopped and spread his arms out to his side. He turned about slowly until he faced me. His smile brightened the night, but no hint of its light reached the narrow dots of his eyes. “Freeze? In this weather?”
I grinned at his failed attempt at humor, though the mask muted its impact. “Now reach behind you and yank that pistol out from the small of your back, real casual-like.” I’d spied the subtle hump of his weapon when he’d turned to leave. I was certain he had others but none he could reach before he ate a slug.
He met my gaze for a moment before assenting and reaching for his gun with deliberate slowness. His smile never wavered.
The barrel of the Mossberg led the way as I drew closer. “Just drop it as soon as it’s loose,” I told him. “Your elbow so much as twitches before the pistol’s gone, folks will take to calling you lefty.”
The gun hit the sand with a quiet thump, and he eased his empty hand back out to his side to show it to me. “Is AI so shorthanded it can only afford to send one agent out to investigate a quay violation?”
There wasn’t any point in denying the accusation regarding my calling. He’d nailed it in one. No one else would be lurking outside of the quay in the middle of the fucking night.
“I’m all they need.” I inched forward more while keeping the shotgun aimed center mass. As an Ael he could shed his human cover form in an instant to reveal his true nature, but it didn’t matter if he was a werewolf or a troll, a slug to the guts would slow him down well enough. A few more would shut the lights out.
“I wouldn’t be so certain about that, if I were you.” My heart sank at hearing the challenge that came from the quay. The odds had shifted against me.
I glanced over the coyote’s shoulder to see three men coming through the portal. Two pistols stared me down while the third guy looked ready to bite my ankle, his teeth bared and gnashing as if he were a dog. He laughed, low and amused at my plight.
The coyote winked. “Can’t imagine there’s a happy face under that balaclava.”
The two gunmen circled, each moving toward the opposite flank. The wild looking man hovered behind the coyote, using the man’s bulk to hide his movements.
“Keep walking toward me, gentlemen, and I install a lead pacemaker in your friend’s chest.” Out in the open, no cover within easy reach, we all knew they had the upper hand. My only chance was that the coyote meant something to the others. If he didn’t, I was fucked. I wondered if Jace would spring for flowers for my funeral. Probably not.
“No reason we can’t all walk away from this, mister,” the newcomer said, and I swallowed back a relieved sigh. He wasn’t a big man, but the black hole of his .45, and the steady hand that held it, spoke volumes as to his conviction. If I plugged his friend he’d return the favor without hesitation. He stared at me from under bushy eyebrows that had caught a touch of the gray, much like the beard he wore full across his face. Carved troughs of crow’s feet starred the corner of his eyes.
The other gunman held his ground in patient silence. He’d no more mercy in his eyes than his companion. A little taller and younger than the first, he looked as if he could be a blood relation to the older man, a passing resemblance in their features despite him being clean-shaven.
“That’s right,” the coyote jumped in. “This is clearly a misunderstanding. Ain’t that right, agent? No harm, no foul, I say. How about you?”
I clenched my teeth until my jaw throbbed, never once taking my eyes off the coyote. Jace would have my ass for letting these guys go but I didn’t fancy my head being used for target practice. The choice was obvious. She’d have to get over it.
“Yeah, all a mistake…clearly,” I agreed with a shallow nod.
The wild man let out a loud chuckle that was a cross between a grunt and a snort. His toothy grin grew even wider than I thought possible. He was enjoying himself way too much for my liking. I’d have to keep an eye on him. He didn’t look much like a team player to me.
“I knew there was a reason your agency name ended with intelligence.” The coyote rubbed his hands as if he were dusting them clean of the situation. “We’re just going to leave you to your unsuccessful vigil and be on our way.” He started walking backwards without waiting on a response. I kept the Mossberg trained on him and did the same.
The two gunmen drifted back with him, staying right alongside the coyote while their strange friend lagged behind the slightest bit. He was angling to get between me and the coyote, but I was confident I could punch a hole through him and still put a hurting on the trafficker if it came to that. Just didn’t know if I could do it before the other two filled me with bullets so I sped up, matching the desperate pace of my pulse. There was still too much open space between us.
To my surprise, they returned to the quay without incident, and I felt its energies quaver, signaling its close. That’s when I let out the sigh I’d been holding back. The portal shimmered, washing out my view of the men as it began to stitch the dimensional wall back together. Then, right before it flickered away entirely, I heard howling laughter and a black dot disrupted the plane of whiteness before both disappeared in a flash. Someone had run back through.
I pulled the trigger on instinct. The shotgun roared, filling my ears with thunder, and that’s when I realized my mistake. I’d only deafened myself to the sound of the approaching enemy.
All that registered in my head as the gleam of an aura lit up my peripheral vision. I went to spin away but it was too late. A split-second later I was the undisputed loser in tonight’s surprise demolition derby. Something gave way in my torso with a reverberating crack, something that reminded me of an old tree toppling over, and then I was in the air.
Turned out I flew better than I landed.
Bushes lashed at me as I tumbled back to earth. The butt of the Mossberg dug into the dirt and spun me sideways, and I felt my elbow creak with the pressure before the shotgun was ripped free of my hand. Then the sand abraded my face as all 200 pounds of me came down on my head.
Agony rocketed through my neck and scorched a trail down the length of my right arm. I rolled—well, flopped would be a better descriptor—a few times until the momentum stalled out, and I came to a grinding halt in the accommodating arms of a mesquite bush. I lay there a second, struggling to draw breath and collect my scattered thoughts. My fingers tingled all the while as a horde of bees took umbrage with my spine.
“Not so tough now, are you, Hotshot?”
I looked up to see the wild man looming over me, the one who’d slipped free of the quay before it closed. He’d given up all pretense of humanity, and I had to blink my eyes back into focus to fully appreciate his transformation.
“Seriously?” I sputtered. Jace was going to have a field day with this one.
There in place of the man who’d grinned at me like a psycho on a day pass from the mental ward was a were-ram.
Dark eyes glared at me from narrow slits, the white tip of his muzzle pulled back into a mocking grin. A pair of monstrous horns sprouted from his skull, just above the lumps of his swollen brows, and they curled back around his head in great loops. His neck was as thick as a tree trunk and it fed into a torso built for power.
“Should have brought some backup,” he told me, his voice an odd slurry of growl and bleating vibrato.
I so wanted to laugh, but I didn’t think my ribs were up to the task. Besides, for all the inherent weirdness in facing down a lycanthrope ram, he wasn’t part of a petting zoo. He was there to kill me.
“For what it’s worth, Chuckles,” I started, forcing a smile, my eyes darting past him, “I kind of did.”
His gaze swung about to my disbelief, leaving me for just a moment, but that was all the break I needed. With my left arm I dug my Glock loose of the holster at my back and leveled it at the Ael. He saw me at the last moment and ducked as I tapped the trigger. The 9mm barked and spat fire, but the ram took the shot on his horns. There was a dull crunch as shards of keratin exploded into a slivered rain. His head snapped backwards and he rolled with it, bolting into the bushes as my second shot rang out, hitting nothing but air.
I clawed my way to my feet, unconsciously taking stock of every broken bone and wrenched muscle. Tomorrow would be a motherfucker if I managed to make it that far. Chuckles was betting on the opposite.
He circled in the darkness, letting loose burst of odd laughter now and again. The sound bounced around in the darkness just like he intended, muddling my attempts to pinpoint him. What he didn’t know, though, was that I could see the hazy aura that he and every other Ael gives off. He was like a firefly flittering through the night, nowhere as invisible as he believed.
He burst from behind a bush without a sound, but I tracked him in my peripheral vision. His horns lowered to spear my spine, I waited until the last moment, and then dropped low. His head grazed my back and our hips collided. I dug my feet into the sand and reached back with my still-tingling arm, wrapping it around his neck. Pain burned through my arm as the ram struggled against my hold but there was no stopping now. A quick twist and momentum took over.
He straddled my back, clawing at me to stop himself, but he’d come at me too fast, his feet off the ground. I rolled with him, and he crashed to the dirt with me on top. The air spilled from his lungs with a fetid gasp, a warm rain of spittle pattering my cheek and ear. My limbs trembled as I fought to disengage as soon as we hit. One of my ribs ground against a broken companion, and I bit back a scream as I turned into him. He grunted, realization widening his eyes at his predicament. I’d already decided his fate, and he knew what I was thinking.
There’d be no taking him alive.
I ground my gun into his jaw and emptied the mag. Blood and gore erupted from the top of his head like a grisly volcano, his face obliterated from the inside. He twitched under the force of the bullets, and then went still, his final breath whistling free of his lips. After that there was only the wet seep of his brains leaking from his shattered skull. The smell of ripe death filled my nostrils. Stomach churning I crawled away from the body to keep from vomiting and curled up until the feeling passed.
It was almost dawn before I found the strength to peel myself loose of the sand and get moving again. It would be a long and difficult journey back to where I’d hidden my car. I hoped I could find it.
A doppelganger, Theo is trapped in the role of the man he murdered. Tasked with safeguarding the secrets of his homeland his loyalty is torn between his new life and his mission when an influx of militants stream to Earth. A pawn of both sides, he's given just days to bring the terrorists to heel. Failure means war, but success comes with its own consequences.