Authors: V.K. Forrest
Books by V.K. Forrest
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
e stood beneath the lengthening shadows of the Acropolis, high on the hilltop over the city of Athens, and watched as the last rays of sunlight faded. With the coming of darkness, he could feel the evil of the night slither in on its belly, much like the quarry he sought tonight.
Arlan walked quickly through the Agora, keeping his head down, leaving behind the noisy tourists boarding their tour buses.
Two weeks ago, thousands of miles away in the little U.S. town of Clare Point, the vote had gone against a human by the name of Robert Romano. With the plunging of twelve daggers into an ancient oak table, the man’s fate had been sealed. For more than a decade, the pedophile, a monster who dealt in the underground sale of child sex slaves, had been pursued across several continents by law enforcement. Robert Romano, known by multiple aliases, had recently made the FBI’s most wanted list after the abduction of a five-year-old from a grocery store in the suburbs of Detroit. At the present time, the FBI did not know his whereabouts. Romano was careful, and he was clever.
Not clever enough.
In twenty minutes, forty-six-year-old Romano would be waiting at a designated spot on the southern end of the Agora, a spot that came to life after dark, both with ghosts of the past and the haunts of the present. The human would be there to accept a cash payment for the delivery of two male children, ages six and nine, who were currently being held in an apartment two blocks away. Delivery of the children was to be made once Romano received his cash in small currency euros. The unfortunate buyer would not receive his merchandise because Arlan would be waiting. A clean-up crew would rescue the children and see that the buyer was arrested by local police. Romano would no longer be the authorities’ concern.
Now almost dark, the warm evening air had grown thick with the sounds and scents of the ancient city. It was funny how cities all smelled the same, sounded the same, when Arlan closed his eyes. This could have been any street in any city in the world in the last thousand years.
He inhaled deeply, lifting his chin, flaring his nostrils. Someone was roasting meat in one of the nearby restaurants that catered to the tourists…lamb. Elsewhere, sewage overflowed. He caught the hint of a woman’s cheap perfume on the air, although he walked alone in the twilight. Embedded in the night air was also the sour scent of human body odor. The fetid bouquet of fleas feasting on rodents.
In the distance, beyond the ruins, Arlan heard doors opening and closing. Footsteps, both heavy and light, echoed through the gathering fog. Over time, the sputter of car and motorbike engines had replaced the rhythm of wooden cart and carriage wheels, but in his mind, they were still somehow the same.
These were the sounds and smells of humanity. For better. For worse. Despite the ugliness of much of it, Arlan longed to be a part of this world. He was jealous of the man roasting lamb for gyros on the street corner, the woman slamming the window to muffle the harsh words she flung at her cheating lover. Arlan would never know the mundane life of a mortal.
At the sound of shrill laughter, he tensed. Despite the cover of darkness, standing here in human form, he was vulnerable. He gazed intently in the direction of the noisier, busier Plaka, blocks away, where tourists flooded the streets eager to sample the moussaka and ouzo. Eager to buy their trinkets to mark their journey, they had no idea of the evil that lurked in the shadows or the salvation about to descend on two helpless children.
Arlan’s partner was late. He checked his cell phone, noting the time. No call and Regan was twenty minutes late.
Arlan worked his jaw in indecision.
The plan had been for Regan, pretending to be the “customer,” to meet Romano at the Areopagus. Arlan would serve as the lookout. Regan was to lure Romano into a secluded area amid the ruins and there, the execution would be carried out as ordered by the High Council. Arlan and Regan would carry it out together. Two daggers. Two were required by primordial sept law.
But Regan wasn’t here and time was running out. If Romano slipped out of their hands, there was no way to say when the planets and moons would align again. There was no way to know when the opportunity to catch him would offer itself again, or how many more children would lose their innocence in the intervening time.
The coarse laughter of the woman grew louder, closer. Arlan heard a second woman’s voice. They were speaking Greek. Both were drunk, or high, or both. He caught a flash of short skirt and long bare legs. Prostitutes. After dark, when the museums closed and tour groups were led to the safe streets of the Plaka, the Athens underworld came to life here. From the shadowy Areopagus situated beneath the lights of the Acropolis, one could see the whole city. In this place, one could buy drugs, sex…and even children.
Arlan made the decision. There was no time to call the council. No time to await further instructions. The sept had been watching this bastard for eighteen months. They couldn’t afford to let him go. The Kahill sept’s duty to God would not allow it.
One moment Arlan was a thirty-something guy in jeans and a black leather jacket and the next he transformed into a hundred-pound canine with a mangy spotted coat and yellow eyes. The physical morph came easily to him, like slipping on a worn leather glove.
The moment the morph was complete, Arlan felt the change in his psyche. Judgment grew hazier. In this animal body, he lived for the moment. Surrounded by the scent of dangers, he had to force his man-brain to remain in control of the beast. He could feel that control stretched taut, thin and tight as a wire.
Arlan slinked behind a rock and darted across the footpath, behind the women, his tail brushing a skirt. One of the prostitutes cursed him, first in Greek, then Italian, but they continued walking. Hundreds of packs of wild dogs roamed the streets of Athens. The locals gave them no notice. Arlan knew he could blend in with the others.
Knowing he had a few minutes before Romano would appear, Arlan had time to assess the area and determine how he could fulfill the mission alone. He wondered if it would be safer to appear as a man or as he was now, a four-footed predator. He trotted lightly up a slight, rocky incline, skirting the silvery light cast from the Acropolis, blending into the shadows of the olive trees.
It was fully dark now and while Arlan was not a superstitious man, mentally, he crossed himself. At night, in ancient places like these, the haunts came out. A man or beast could do his best to ignore them, but there was no denying their presence. The coarse yellow hair along his spine bristled and he caught a whiff of something that was not living, but not quite dead. Out of the corner of one rheumy eye he saw a misty human form floating just above the pathway.
Some said ghosts held no real presence, that they were only impressions left from the past. Arlan didn’t know what they were; he only knew that he did not like this feeling of being watched. He had experienced similar encounters in several places in recent months; the Coliseum in Rome, Stonehenge in England, and the blood-soaked battlefield of Culloden in the Highlands of Scotland.
Bypassing the wispy spook, Arlan kept his head down, letting his long tongue loll. His yellow eyes took in his surroundings. With his long muzzle and enhanced sense of smell, he observed as only God’s four-footed creatures could observe.
Stones pinched the pads of his feet as he followed a path tread heavily by tourists in the daytime. The Agora had once been a marketplace, a public area that served as an integral part of the ancient Greek city-state. It had not only offered a place to trade, but it also served as a forum to its citizens. Here, men once gathered to buy and sell commodities and also to discuss business, politics, and current events. Here was where Greek democracy first came to light, setting an example to other great cities in the ancient world.
At the far end, the rocky hill overlooking the Agora was where Arlan would meet Romano. The area of the Agora known as the Areopagus had been the sacred meeting place of the Greek prime council, which had once combined judicial and legislative functions in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Much later, the apostle Paul was said to have stood on the same rocky hill and preached to early Christians.
A holy place. A haunted place.
Arlan caught the scent of another dog on the night air and thrust out his muzzle. He twitched his black nose. Two dogs, three. More. A pack.
The muscles in Arlan’s rear haunches tightened as the dogs approached. Arlan could become any of God’s creatures, although he was better at some manifestations than others, and some were much more difficult to keep in check. Despite his experience, there was always a moment of panic when he encountered a creature of the species he’d manifested into. There was the chance they would know him for the charlatan that he was and attack him. It would be impossible for them to kill him because he had to be beheaded to die, but dog bites could lay a man up for weeks.
A whine and then a growl halted him. Out of a grove of stunted olive trees came three, four, five dogs, all his size or larger. A big gray with the pelt of a wolf led the pack of three females and a sullen young male. Animals did not speak, but they communicated. Members of the Kahill clan had some form of extrasensory perception; they could all, on some level, communicate with each other without speaking. Arlan’s accompanying gift was the ability to communicate with animals.
The dogs’ thoughts floated around him. They were simple. Primal.
Fear. Distrust. Hunger.
But there was also an inquisitiveness, particularly from the young male who hung back, guarding the rear.
The big gray parted from the pack, leaving the others behind to wait for his command. If he so ordered it, they would all attack at once. Arlan would not have the opportunity to morph back into a man before he was seriously injured.
The gray approached.
Arlan’s hackles rose. He froze, eyes downcast. His breath came in short pants as he attempted to stifle the twinge of fear he felt deep in his canine bones.
One of the others, a black bitch with a torn ear, whined. She seemed to be the first to understand he meant them no harm. That he had no intention of usurping the pack leader’s authority or taking his females.
The gray bared his teeth but made no sound. He wondered what Arlan was doing there. He recognized the stranger as one of them…and yet not one of them.
Arlan communicated that the pack had nothing to fear from him. That he was merely a traveler. He attempted to seem casual although he wasn’t quite sure how that translated in dog language.
The gray met Arlan muzzle to muzzle and sniffed. Arlan kept his gaze downcast. To look into the leader’s eyes would be a direct challenge.
I mean no harm
, Arlan communicated firmly. While he had to make it clear he had no intention of taking the gray’s place, he could not cower. To cower would show weakness, and the way of God’s creatures is to kill the weakest. A form of natural selection, he supposed.
I simply wish to pass.
Our territory. Why are you here? What do you want? Barely enough food for us.
On a journey. A mission. Passing through. I do not take what is not mine.
The gray looked Arlan directly in the face. Arlan slowly lifted his gaze. The powerful male’s nose twitched. He was still attempting to assess Arlan, but he seemed to sense that Arlan was no threat to his pack.
I only wish to pass,
Arlan repeated, lifting his gaze slightly. He still wasn’t making direct eye contact, but now he was studying the gray in the same way that the dog was studying him.
The alpha male continued to stare, reminding Arlan of a game he used to play with other boys in the sept during mass or at a particularly boring family dinner. A version of Chicken. They would stare at each other until someone broke the spell; the first to look away was the loser and would later be subjected to juvenile name-calling and a healthy dose of shoving.
Pass, but continue on your way,
the gray warned.
I see you again and I’ll rip your throat out. My bitches will eat your innards.
Arlan choked down the growl that rose in his throat and remained where he stood until the pack leader walked away. The other dogs slowly turned and loped after him.
Arlan exhaled heavily, his hot breath stinking in his nostrils. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He waited until he saw the last swish of tail disappear into the olive grove and then continued in the direction he had originally set out. His tongue lolled, testing the night air.
He only had time to circumnavigate the meeting place once before he had to get into place prior to Romano’s arrival. As he peered over a rock, taking care with his footing, he silently cursed Regan. His partner had not been himself for the last year. This was not the first time he had not shown up at an appointed time and place on sept business. Arlan had been trying to cover for him longer than he knew he should because he was Fia’s brother.
Thoughts of Fia made him smile. At least on the inside. He didn’t think dogs could really smile.
Arlan loved Fia Kahill. He had been in love with her for at least a thousand years, but it was unrequited love. Or so she said. Right now she had a boyfriend. A
boyfriend. She told Arlan that although she and Arlan were occasionally lovers, she wasn’t interested in a relationship with him. With any man in the sept. But Arlan was sure he was slowly working a chink in her iron resolve, had been for at least a century. Fia loved him. She just didn’t know it yet.