SKIN SHIFTERS

Prologue

Tango Key
February 6, 2017

Luke Pierce drove like a madman through the Tango Key hills, his heart hammering, his hands gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white. The back road twisted and curved through ceiba trees so massive and lush that the branches weaved together overhead, blocking the view of his destination. The lighthouse. Old Post Road was the faster route, but not during the morning rush hour at the height of the tourist season.

“C’mon, c’mon,” he muttered and floored the accelerator. The speedometer needle swung toward 100 and he entered a sharp turn, tires screeching. His cell rang, the call went straight to Bluetooth, and Josh McMullen’s name popped up on the navigation screen. “Luke, shit, you nearly here? We’ve got to move the body before the lighthouse opens at ten. I got a tarp we can wrap it in.”

It was 9:09 right now. “I’m a minute away. Had to dig my rappelling equipment out of the garage, lost some time. Any change in the ET?”

“It’s dead, Luke. It hasn’t moved since I first spotted it. I’m at the edge of the cliff now, staring at the damn thing down there, sprawled on that jut of rock. I took some pics, like you suggested. It’s… it’s grotesque. I don’t know how you’re going to be able to haul it up.”
“How far down the cliff is it?”

“Midway. Too far for me to reach.”“Okay, nearly there.”

“Just pull into the vacant lot next to the lighthouse. That’s where I am.”

The car screeched out of the turn, the overhang of trees ended, and there it was, the lighthouse perched on a cliff, the tallest and oldest structure on the island, rising against the clear blue February sky, an icon of an earlier time. Excitement and a terrible urgency surged through him. He’d been waiting for something like this his entire life. And how fitting that an alien body had been found this close to the lighthouse.

For the dozen years he’d been investigating sightings, the lighthouse and the northwestern part of the island had been a focal point. But all the questions he had—how, where, when, and WTF—would have to wait. Right now, the most important thing was retrieving the body, then hiding it some place safe until he could notify his boss, Ted Fisher, and they could figure out what to do with it. No way would he allow this to go the way of Roswell, with the government and the military moving in and whisking the body away, then denying anything had happened.

Pierce swung into the vacant lot, past half a dozen palm trees, and saw McMullen crouched at the open gate of the metal fence that ran along the edge of the cliff. Pierce honked and McMullen bolted up and gestured for Pierce to drive in closer. He brought the car right up to the fence, parked parallel to it, leaped out. McMullen, wearing his brown custodian uniform, hurried over, looking deeply shaken. “We gotta hurry, Luke. It’s nine-thirteen now.”

“Need to get my gear.” His voice sounded calm, but his hands shook when he opened the hatch and grabbed the canvas bag that held his equipment. Yeah, he was rattled. “Those trees give us some protection from being seen by anyone driving past on Old Post. Any idea where we can hide it?”

“Yeah.” McMullen moved alongside him to the gate. “Old freezer in the shed out back. We can keep it there till Wednesday, when the lighthouse is closed, then move it somewhere else. But fuck, Luke, this is… my God…”

Pierce dropped his gear to the right of the gate, on top of the tarp McMullen had mentioned, and peered over the side. His breath exploded out of him and he nearly passed out. He rocked quickly back on his heels, eyes squeezed shut, hands gripping his thighs, shock shuddering through him. It’s real, don’t blow this. Get down there, retrieve it, hide it.

He pushed his shock into a back room in his head, slammed and locked the door, then peered over the side again. He forced himself to notice the details. The body, which looked to be all bones, was about thirty feet below him, sprawled face-down on a jut of rock just like McMullen had said. It had a sprig of blue hair sprouting from the top of its head, super long legs. There was something odd about the backs of the knees, but he was too far away to be able to tell what it was.

Its right foot was webbed, he could see that clearly, and its hands were thrust out in front of it. The left hand was webbed and it, like the right, featured four fingers and two thumbs. The skin was pale, like that of someone who had spent years underground. Pierce didn’t think this being was a Grey, the most commonly reported alien, the one whose terrifying face had graced the cover of Whitley Strieber’s book, Communion, years ago. Beyond that, he knew nothing.

“Can you get down there?” McMullen asked anxiously.“Yeah. It shouldn’t be a problem.” Except it’s an alien. And he would have to touch it. Suppose it was still alive? “You’re sure it hasn’t moved? Or breathed?”

“Not that I’ve seen.”

Pierce unzipped his bag, pulled on his chest harness, a rappel belt, rigged the anchors, ropes. He kicked off his sandals, put on his climbing shoes, slipped on his helmet, gloves. He decided to take a second harness with him to put on the body so that he and McMullen could pull it up. But a lot could go wrong with that plan. A rope might get caught on rock, the body might swing, and slip out. And that would be it. Proof of alien life would plummet a hundred feet to the rocky beach below and that bony body would break apart. Just the same, he brought it along as a backup.

“Keep your phone handy, Josh, in case you can’t hear me shouting. We may try to pull it up separately. I’ll have to, uh, see what the situation is.”

The situation. He had never been in this situation. Never imagined it. Omega didn’t have a protocol for it in their handbook. But their primary directive was to get the body some place where it wouldn’t be found by those people who would take it away and deny its existence.

“Hurry, Luke. We’ve got forty minutes till the lighthouse opens.”

Pierce glanced out at the gulf and was relieved that he didn’t see any boats in the immediate vicinity. No telling what some fisherman might think if he saw someone rappelling down the face of the cliff. “Here goes.”

He started down, eyes pinned on the being below him. The closer he got, the more freaked out and alarmed he felt. Where the hell had it come from? Given that one hand and one foot were webbed, it seemed reasonable to assume it had come out of the Gulf of Mexico. But how did it end up on this jut of rock seventy feet above the beach? Had there been a sighting this morning that he’d missed? Had the damn thing been dropped out of a craft?
Stay focused.

Despite the cool weather, he was sweating.

Questions stumbled around inside him, screaming for answers.

Right now, he and McMullen were the only people in the world who knew about this alien body. Once they hid it in the shed freezer, he would notify Fisher and his wife, Carmen. That would bring the count to four. And beyond that, he thought, he would have to get in touch with Sofia Lopez and somehow convince her to come back to work for Omega. She’d spent eight years working side by side with him and was the only psychic he knew or trusted who might be able to read an alien. But she hadn’t spoken to him since she’d ended their relationship a year ago and resigned from Omega.

His feet touched the jut of rock, his heart pounded in his ears, the inside of his mouth flashed dry. Fuck, it’s two feet from me. “Easy, easy,” he murmured, and moved closer.
He came along its right side, crouched, stared. No sign of clothing. But maybe the skin was the clothing, a body suit or something. Or maybe he’d watched too much Star Trek. He brought out his phone and snapped a dozen photos. Proof, these pictures were proof that he wasn’t hallucinating, that he was crouched next to an alien body. He removed his gloves, reached out to touch its back, but everything inside him recoiled and he jerked his hand back.

You can’t move it without touching it.

Slowly, he would do it slowly. Fingertips first. The alien’s skin felt cool, like the air. And smooth, almost silken, like a baby’s skin. Pierce trailed his fingertips up the back, to the tuft of blue hair. It felt strange to the touch, some strands like wire, others soft and pliant, others sort of oily.

“Hey, Luke, you okay?” McMullen hollered.

“Yeah. I’m…” Freaking the fuck out. “Just trying to figure out how to get it up there.”

Pulse? Did it have a pulse?

His fingers went to the alien’s neck. Nothing.

Was is breathing? He pressed his ear to the alien’s back. Nothing.

Did it have organs? A heart? Blood? He didn’t have any idea how he might determine whether it was unconscious or dead, so he touched the shoulder to turn it over. He did so carefully, afraid he might break one of its bones. Then it was on its back and everything inside of him went utterly still. It seemed his heart no longer beat, that he no longer breathed, that he’d flat-lined but was still conscious. If his body had been working the way it was supposed to, he would have leaped to his feet and scrambled up the side of the cliff. The only thing he could do was stare, then he remembered to breathe, and the scientist in him snapped to attention.

The alien’s eyes, closed now, looked slightly larger than human eyes, but weren’t the huge almond-shaped horrors depicted on Greys. Its face was almost human except it had only a single nostril. Its long legs had dual knee joints, which was why they had looked so strange while it was sprawled face downward. Only one foot and hand were webbed. At its throat was an extra flap of skin, which also appeared on its right side. Amphibian? The only visible body hair was on its head, that odd blue tuft. Gender: unknown. No breasts, smooth skin between the legs, no genitals.

Horror, then awe washed through him. He snapped two photos, zipped his phone into the back pocket of his jeans, then brought out the extra harness and tried to fit it on the alien’s body. But he couldn’t adjust it to fit. The being was too skinny.

“Luke!” McMullen shouted. “Twenty minutes and counting till the lighthouse opens and this place is flooded with tourists.”

Shit. Twenty minutes. Forget the harness. The best he could do with the time he had was to rig a rope around the alien’s waist, hope it didn’t slice the body in half, and connect it tightly to his harness. The body felt light enough so that he probably could drape it around his shoulders. As long as he didn’t screw up in his ascent and make any jarring moves, he could get to the top with the alien and himself intact.

Maybe.

“Luke, you okay?” McMullen yelled.

“Yeah, nearly ready to come up,” he called back.

He slipped his arms under the body’s back and slowly lifted it and draped it around his shoulders. It weighed—what? Sixty or seventy pounds? He could do this. He had to do it. But he couldn’t climb with just one hand, so he couldn’t hold on to its hand while he climbed. If the body fell back, away from him, or hit the rock, it might break apart.
If, if, if. Just climb, he thought. Climb.

He made the first ten feet without any problem. But the body shifted on his shoulders and he had to pause to adjust it. That sixty or seventy pounds started feeling excessive during the next ten feet and by now, perspiration poured off him and oozed into his eyes. He paused to wipe his arm across his forehead and eyes, then started up the final ten feet. He could see McMullen leaning over the edge of the cliff, hands extended for help if Pierce needed it.

When he got to within a foot of the top, he realized the body had shifted too far to the right and he had to stop again to reposition it. McMullen shouted, “Grab my hand, Luke! I can help you up the rest of the way!”

“Don’t want to let go of the rope.”

He strained to make it another half foot, then McMullen took hold of the rope and pulled him up and over the lip of the cliff with surprising strength for a guy in his seventies. Pierce collapsed against the ground, gasping for breath, and McMullen moved the alien body off his shoulders and onto the tarp he’d spread out against the grass.

Pierce lay there for a few moments, catching his breath, then ripped off the helmet, gloves, and unhooked himself from his gear. He left everything on the ground and hurried over to the tarp, where McMullen was removing the rope from the body. The old man looked up at him, shook his head. “I… damn… I never thought… what the fuck, Luke. Once we get it into the freezer, we’ve got to wait until the day after tomorrow to move it.”

“Unless we move it tonight.”

“Move it where?”

“I don’t know.”

Stretched out against the tarp, the body looked to be at least seven feet long, maybe longer. No telling what those double-jointed knees or dual knees or whatever they were could do. Jump great distances? Extreme heights? They rolled the body up inside the tarp, Pierce picked up one end, McMullen picked up the other, and they moved quickly toward the gate in the fence that surrounded the lighthouse. “Quickest way to the shed is across the back lawn,” McMullen said. “You reckon it’s alive in some way we don’t understand?”

“No idea. Right now, this can’t go any farther than the two of us.”

“Damn straight. We’d have the feds all over us.”

“Or worse. Josh, was there a sighting earlier today that I didn’t hear about?”

McMullen glanced back at him, surprised. “I thought you’d heard. I was on my way back from Key West when you called.”

“I haven’t heard anything.”

“Around eight-thirty, I was cleaning up the telescopes out on the porch and I saw this…ball of fire, that’s what I thought it was, plunging out of the clouds. Then I realized it was sunlight hitting what might’ve been a jet in big trouble, spiraling downward. It slammed into the gulf several miles offshore. I ran back inside to grab my phone and called 911. But the number was busy, so I’m guessing other people saw it hit the water.”

That meant cops and paramedics were going to be combing the gulf in boats and walking the beaches on the western side of Tango, searching for survivors. “What time did you first see the body?”

“A few minutes before I called you.”

“Who else has access to the shed?”

“No one. I’ve got the only key. I’m the lighthouse museum custodian. Technically, the mayor is my boss and has access to it, but he doesn’t give a shit about the museum.”
They reached the shed, McMullen slipped a key into the padlock, and they walked into a surprisingly cavernous room. Air-conditioned, no windows, jammed with boxes and shelves filled with museum stuff—old maps, books, telescopes, ship logbooks. McMullen flipped on the lights, Pierce shut the door, and they moved the body over to the long freezer against the wall, set it down.

It required a combination to open, McMullen keyed it in, and raised the lid. Not much food in here, but it was deep and they could arrange the several dozens bags of ice around the body and cover it with the tarp. “This will do, Josh. It’s long enough if we bend its knees.”

“Let’s do it. We’ve got eleven minutes.”

Tick-tock.

Once the body was encased in bags of ice, knees bent, and covered by a tarp, Pierce shut the lid, McMullen keyed in the code, and on their way out, Pierce killed the lights. A car had pulled up to the front gate. “Who’s that?”

“One of the clerks. She sells tickets. The guide should be showing up shortly.”

“I’d better move my gear back into the car.”

“And then?”

“I have to make some calls. Let’s meet here early Wednesday morning.”

“Six? It’ll still be dark then. We can move the body into the freezer in the employee kitchen in the lighthouse. It’s long and deep enough.”

“Six it is.” Pierce slung his arm around the old man’s shoulders. “I’m going to see if I can get Ted Fisher to give the governor a call. He’s a big donor. They’re friends. Shut the lighthouse down for renovations or something.”

“Good idea. Yeah, that’ll work.”

“Now you’re part of Omega, Josh. I can’t thank you enough for everything.”

“You kidding, Luke? This is the most awesome thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m thrilled to be a part of this.”

He hoped that McMullen still felt that way if and when this whole thing slammed into a high strangeness that none of them had ever encountered.

Print edition available now at Amazon.

Ebook available October 23. You  can pre-order from Amazon 

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