Devlin Taylor is Head of Settlement and Relocation for the British Government’s Ministry of Alien Relations. He’s more used to helping recently arrived aliens find new homes and pay their utility bills than babysitting extraterrestrial socialites, but he’s been assigned to look after Zal Catenmir, son of the Chroalian ambassador, during their diplomatic visit to Earth.
Devlin is the perfect host and tour guide, and Zal loves the fuzziness of human males, while Devlin can’t seem to get enough of Zal’s scales and tail. But with only two weeks together before Zal leaves, they need to make the most of their time.
Zal was just out for a bit of fun, trying to relive his wilder youth after a break-up, but Devlin is wonderful and they both wish they could find a way to stay together. The Earth Ambassador Programme is under development, but it doesn’t look likely Devlin will get the job, and the lovers may need to say their goodbyes forever.
In Devlin Taylor’s opinion, the humble gingernut biscuit was underrated in its ability to restore peace and order to the busy offices of the Ministry. Devlin picked up the last of the sweet miracle workers from the biscuit tin and dunked it into his tea, slopping liquid over the edge of his mug and across the words Keep Calm and Remember Your Th’lian. He clutched the mug tightly. As the sole survivor of the batch created to mark the Th’lian delegation’s successful visit to Earth three summers ago, Devlin had to guard it possessively against potential kidnapping attempts from the office administrator, Marjorie, and her nefarious army of devious interns.
He ate the biscuit whole and moaned happily, enjoying the small respite from the chaos waiting for him. He sighed and picked a manila wallet from the top of the pile on his desk and opened it. Devlin scoffed at the idea of a paperless office. In his experience, the Ministry still wanted most things in dead tree format, but now he had to make electronic copies in addition, in the vain hope the computer system wouldn’t lose them. It was typical of the bureaucracy that came with working for the British Government’s Civil Service and strangely comforting most days.
When he’d been recruited by the Ministry straight out of Oxford, his naivety made him think he’d relish seeing excitement and danger. He’d spent evenings in high-end bars, sipping cocktails with beautiful people, had been on wild chases across continents, and survived encounters with some truly frightening individuals. But truth be known, he was far happier now, sorting out housing and mundane day-to-day issues for those that ended up directed to his department, far from home and needing guidance.
“Oh, you’ve had the last gingernut.”
Devlin looked up to see Marjorie staring into the empty biscuit tin. Her bad perm and miserable pout made her look much older than her mid-forties, as did her unfortunate choice of baggy cardigan and tweed skirt.
The door of the office swung open and Clive slunk in, a coffee in hand and a mouth full of doughnut. By the dark circles under his eyes and his tired expression, Devlin suspected that Clive’s latest case had resulted in another late night, if he’d got to bed at all.
“Afternoon, Clive. Everything okay?” he asked.
Clive waved but didn’t say anything. He drained the paper cup of coffee and sank into his desk chair without taking off his coat.
Devlin chuckled. “That bad?”
Clive exhaled loudly. “I swear she’s nocturnal—and can metabolize alcohol straight to pure energy.”
“Hmm, the notes did say that her species can go several days without sleeping.”
Clive rubbed his eyes. “She’s supposed to get tired though, and last night she got wilder and wilder. I had to stop her from stripping off and dancing on the table at the last club. I’m getting too old for this.”
“You’re twenty-four. Hardly in your dotage.”
“Says Mr Nine-to-Five-at-Thirty Taylor,” groused Clive, resting his head on his crossed arms on the desk in front of them.
“None of us work nine to five, Clive. I still do late nights and early mornings when I’m needed. Let’s not forget, last week I had to balance a new arrival’s hyper-metabolism with an allergy to concrete. When I was promoted to Head of Department, I was told I could reduce my amount of fieldwork to concentrate on looking after you lot and untangling the red tape, so less of the cheek.”
Clive muttered something about promotion not coming soon enough, and Devlin turned to his computer, raising his eyebrows at Marjorie who smirked in response. “I’ll go and see if I can track down some more biscuits,” she said.
“Good idea. I’ve a post-lunch sugar slump building.” Another biscuit would do the trick, or at least mask the lingering remnants of the canteen’s not completely successful attempt at moussaka. “How about a chocolate digestive?”
Marjorie snorted as she walked away. “Unlikely, since you polished off the last packet.”
With the school summer holidays in mid-swing, the office was quieter than usual. Devlin looked over to ask Wendy a question about the new expenses policy and, at the sight of her empty desk, remembered that she was camping somewhere in Wales with her two children and her mother-in-law. Trevor and Simon were also missing, and he couldn’t remember approving their leave, but their absence usually improved office efficiency. Marjorie returned holding aloft a packet of chocolate biscuits.
“Where’s the terrible twosome?” he asked, opening the biscuits and talking to a couple.
“Oh, Trev’s called in sick—he reckons he caught something from his last arrival. Says he’s got a blue rash in delicate places. And Si’s out on a visit for a new potential housing supplier.”
The telephone on his desk rang and, smiling apologetically at Marjorie, Devlin answered it. “Devlin Taylor.”
“Ah, Mr Taylor,” said a woman’s voice. “This is Amanda Foutaine from Detection Monitoring.”
Devlin groaned. “What’s happened?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Taylor, but the automated communication recognition system has just flagged an issue. It appears one of yours has got themselves processed via the normal channels and has been dealt with by Immigration at the Home Office.”
“Oh shit! Which one?”
“I’m on my way.” He replaced the receiver without waiting for further information and jumped to his feet, grabbing a folder from the pile on his desk.
“Can you arrange a greeting room for Case 4412?” he said, handing the folder to Marjorie. “Executive level—we have a bit of an issue.”
“What’s gone wrong?” asked Marjorie, looking at the case file.
“Not sure. I’ll fill you in as soon as I know.”
Trusting Marjorie would do all she could in as short a time as possible, Devlin ran out of the office.
He skidded around the corner of the corridor, his reflexes the only reason he managed not to send a colleague crashing to the floor, but the stack of papers she was carrying was not so lucky. Devlin called out an apology over his shoulder. He couldn’t stop to help her. Time was of the essence, and he needed to get over to the main immigration building without delay if he had any hope of averting a major incident. He didn’t bother with the elevator, instead he took the stairs, his plum tie flying behind him and his shoes slipping on the polished floors as he ran as fast as he dared, not wanting to add a personal injury to the looming disaster that was pending if he didn’t get there in time.
The Ministry’s offices were linked to those of Immigration, and Devlin, for once, thanked the original architect’s forward thinking as he swiped his access card to gain entrance to the basement. The strip lighting glared as it bounced off white walls, making Devlin squint to ward off the headache building behind his right eye. He hated it down here, so much so that when he needed something from the archive housed behind several of the closed doors, he usually bribed Marjorie or an intern with the promises of a large slice of strawberry gâteau to retrieve anything he needed. But this was the quickest route, and that was all that mattered now.
Pushing open the final door at the end of the corridor, Devlin emerged into a stairwell and took the spiral staircase two steps at a time. He reached the top, five flights later, panting slightly. A few deep breaths and a promise to himself to beef up his gym routine, which meant starting to go again, and Devlin straightened his tie and tugged down his suit jacket.
He entered a small lobby and walked over to a black panel situated to the side of another door, and after waving his access card across it, an image of a corridor appeared on the screen. Happy to see the coast was clear, Devlin waved his card again and the door opened into the corridor. The door slid shut behind him, merging back into the décor so any passers-by would have no idea it was there.
With no time to dawdle, he was off again but slower now so he could check who was in the glass-fronted interview rooms. Three doors down, he spotted a man with a hooked nose and high forehead matching the photograph in the file. He also recognised the woman opposite as Mrs Barnes, a senior investigator whom he’d had dealings with before, although her understanding of those dealings had been very different from their reality. By the incredulous expression on her face, it was evident she was having trouble believing what Mr Andrati was saying. Unsurprising, as no doubt she thought her interviewee had read far too many science-fiction novels, and they’d affected his mental capacity.
Devlin knocked on the door but didn’t wait to be invited in. Mrs Barnes glowered at the interruption.
“Do you mind, Mr Stevens?” said Mrs Barnes. “I happen to be conducting an interview.”
Devlin was careful not to react inappropriately to the fake name he went by when dealing with others not in his department. “Yes, I can see that—it’s just Mr Andrati is supposed to be in Sector Seven.”
He raised an eyebrow at Mrs Barnes, knowing full well she would understand the connotation of the code word he’d had put in place for such eventualities. This wasn’t the first time they had a visitor end up in the wrong place, and he doubted, with Ministry’s cumbersome IT systems, it would be the last.
Her eyes widened. “Well, that explains a number of things.”
“I’ll just take him with me.”
“Won’t you need the medical team? Perhaps security? I mean…if he were to get violent,” Mrs Barnes said, eyeing Mr Andrati with concern.
“No need. Mr Andrati is well known to Sector Seven.”
Devlin smiled warmly at Mr Andrati. “If you’d be so kind as to accompany me, Mr Andrati. I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
Devlin held the door open and ushered the confused man out of the interview room. “I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse my tardiness; it appears you were directed to the wrong building and therefore the wrong Ministry. The different sections don’t exactly share information, but I received a message that your form had been scanned incorrectly, and you’d been sent over here, so I came as fast as I could.”
“I…” Mr Andrati began but quickly ran out of words.
“Also, I’m not really Mr Stevens—that’s just for dealing with this lot. They process human immigration into the United Kingdom.” He extended his hand in welcome, realising Mr Andrati hadn’t understood a word he’d said. “Devlin Taylor, Head of Settlement and Relocation for the Ministry of Alien Relations, at your service.”
The relief was clear on Mr Andrati’s face as he grabbed Devlin’s hand and shook it firmly. “Thank Klaxia! I was beginning to think this had all been a terrible mistake.”
“If you’d be so kind as to follow me.”
“To Sector Seven?”
“No, that’s something else I lied about to Mrs Barnes,” Devlin said with a grin. “Sector Seven is code for an escaped patient from a mental health facility. It’s surprising how useful that ruse is.”
Halfway down the corridor, Devlin stopped and waved his pass across a poster of the local safety rules. The sensor beeped, the once-hidden doors slid open to reveal an elevator, and he led Mr Andrati inside before pressing the button to be taken to floor E. Moments later, he was showing Mr Andrati into a set of rooms where the lights were far less harsh than the normal office ones, so Devlin knew they’d be gentler on Mr Andrati’s eyes, and the ambient temperature was slightly cooler, much more like that of Mr Andrati’s home city. Comfortable armchairs were arranged in a cluster around a low table, upon which sat a selection of foodstuffs that wouldn’t be found in a standard London supermarket or even a Kensington high-end deli.
“Welcome to Earth, Marcus Andrati. On behalf of His Majesty’s Government, I wish you a long and pleasant stay. Feel free to make yourself comfortable. I imagine you’re dying to get out of that skin.”
Devlin smiled politely as Mr Andrati shed his clothes, dropping each piece to the floor. Once naked, he rested his right hand at the hollow of his throat and drummed his fingers against his collarbone. A rose-coloured line appeared through the centre of his forehead, running south, down his face and chest before stopping at his groin. The scar-like join split open and Mr Andrati groaned in relief as he pulled away the skin suit. Devlin watched as Mr Andrati’s naturally purple, scaly skin appeared, covered by the crisscross markings of his tribe. There had been a time when he’d been awestruck at the first sight of an alien in their true form, but apart from the rare occasion when an alien was like nothing he’d seen before, he’d lost the sense of wonder it had once brought with it. Intricate patterns adorned Mr Andrati’s cheeks; they ran down his neck and across his shoulders in a mosaic of circular tattoos. He rubbed his hands across his exposed belly, lazily scratching at a patch of dry skin that flaked off and drifted to the floor.
Reaching out to the food that had been provided, Mr Andrati selected a bright orange cube and grinned. “Thank you, Mr Taylor. I’m very happy to be here.”
Devlin glanced around the room, marvelling at how Marjorie had managed another of her minor miracles to make sure everything was ready for their new guest, especially since he’d not arrived via the normal channels.
“Please make yourself comfortable. Your day-to-day liaison will be with you in a moment, then we’ll get you settled into your temporary accommodation and help you find your feet.”
Mr Andrati flopped into a chair, his body rippling on impact. He let out a contented sigh as he popped another orange cube into his mouth and put his feet on the table. “I think I’m going to like it here.”
* * * *
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Meet the Author
Rebecca Cohen spends her days dreaming of living in a Tudor manor house, or a Georgian mansion. Alas, the closest she comes to this is through her characters in her historical romance novels. She also dreams of intergalactic adventures and fantasy realms, but because she’s not yet got her space or dimensional travel plans finalised, she lives happily in leafy Hertfordshire, England, with her husband and young son. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and sloe gin with lemon tonic in the other.
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