Lachlan Williams believed in the cover of darkness and stealth. He also believed in silence, efficiency, and getting a damn move on when you were doing something which could attract really nasty forms of punishment, was probably illegal in four different realms, morally dubious, or all three of the above.
Which explained why his foot was tapping the ground with increasing speed and urgency, a scowl marring his handsome features, as the container literally passed through the glimmering portal at the speed of a crawl and all the ogres pulling the goods through were grunting and cursing loud enough to wake half the neighbourhood.
His dark elf client stood nearby, arms crossed, a displeased expression to mirror Lachlan’s own on his face.
“I thought you said the gateway would be wide enough for my goods to pass,” he commented archly, flicking back a ponytail of bone white hair.
Lachlan bristled at the insult. His fingers itched to curl into a fist and punch the arrogant elf in the mouth, but instead, he schooled his emotions and smiled, bright and pleasant. Don’t fuck with me. I’ll fuck you twice over.
“Ceroden,” he said using that infuriatingly reasonable tone which drove people mad, “I recalled the agreement was for a gateway large enough to pass through a shipment two by two by three meters long. I don’t know about you, but your container is at least three meters tall and two and a half meters wide. For the additional energy I’m now going to have to expend in order to allow your container to pass through, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for an additional twenty percent to my commission.”
The dark elf spun on him, ebony, pupiless eyes dark and despairing like the abyss where nightmares were born, darker than the starless night sky above. His wine coloured lips curled, revealing sharp, pointy teeth. “The container is the size we agreed!” he hissed.
“Yeah, and your bum doesn’t look fat in those leggings,” Lachlan scoffed as Ceroden’s eyes flickered down and he stole a nervous glance at his behind. “I can get a tape and do some measurements, but you are way behind schedule, and who knows when those pesky Midgardians will hear this racket, wake up and call police. Or else let me put it this way: do you really want to risk SHIELD showing up to seize your goods and make you provide answers to a bunch of highly self-incriminating questions? It’s up to you.”
For all that Lachlan was lean and tall and towered over his client, the elf still tried to physically intimidate him, deliberately stepping into his personal space. Lachlan held his ground, maintained his smile, but there was no longer any humour left in the expression, only a cold, disturbing, vicious and murderous edge. He kept smiling that smile until Ceroden was the first to look away.
It also helped that Lachlan had an oversized, starved and feral looking wolf by his side who slavered and licked his chops as if the dark elf was going to be the first decent meal he’d had in a decade.
“You play a dangerous game, wizard,” Ceroden said lowly.
“Of course I do,” Lachlan laughed. “Otherwise where would be the fun if the game was safe and we played by the rules? Now, we are agreed on the twenty percent surcharge?”
The elf shot Lachlan a look of disgust but nevertheless nodded. They each reached into their pockets for their smartphones, Lachlan making a mental note that Ceroden was in fact a closet Apple fanboi, and a few clicks later, the bank transfer had been effected.
Smug with satisfaction, Lachlan hefted his ornamental cane, stroked the platinum reptilian figurehead with its glittering emerald eyes, and whispered a few Words of power which tore the fabric of reality and perception wide open.
The ogres gave a small cheer, and with one last heave, the container passed through into Midgard.
Pleased with his work and his substantially bloated bank account, Lachlan felt generous enough to throw in an invisibility charm over the goods and the couriers. “That’ll take you off anybody’s radar for a good six hours. Use it wisely.”
Ceroden nodded, cautious, if not bewildered by the sudden change in Lachlan’s mood from downright bloodthirsty mere moments ago, to the jovial and magnanimous spirit he now felt. “It would seem Malvavan was correct. You do fulfil your end of your bargain and you don’t ask unnecessary questions.”
Lachlan shrugged, long and slender fingers idly running through his pet wolf’s mane. “I just open doors,” he said airily. “Who goes through, and what they bring with them, is entirely not my damn business. Keep your presence and activity discrete and don’t rock the boat. We all have a good thing going on here. As long as the Midgardians remains ignorant of who we are and what we’re doing, then we’ll all be doing just fine. Capiche?”
The dark elf frowned, unfamiliar with the Midgardian colloquialisms, but inclined his head in the barest form of a nod and motioned for his crew to depart.
Lachlan stayed behind, lingering in the shadows of the containers at the docks just long enough to stitch up the portal and dispel any traces of magical residue. The thought of sealing another big deal, the fifth that fortnight, made him cackle and he wondered how he could blow all his earnings in one appalling go. His wolf grunted.
“That sounded almost like highway robbery there,” his pet remarked dourly in a smooth baritone bass, baleful blood red eyes boring into his own.
“Ah, Fenrir, a deal is a deal, and I placated him in the end, did I not?”
The wolf rolled his eyes. “Not without a little help from me, you didn’t. I always have to act like I’ve got rabies. Why can’t I be the cute, adorable and sympathetic animal that doesn’t give your clients four types of panic attacks and stomach ulcers?”
“Because you are neither cute, adorable nor sympathetic,” Lachlan said without much sympathy. “Ever since you ate Grandma, you’ve been typecast as the big bad wolf, and it’s not going to go away.”
“I never ate anybody’s grandma,” Fenrir grumbled.
Lachlan petted him on the head and unhooked the leash from his spiked collar. “Well, you look like him, so you ate Grandma. Nothing I can do about that for you, pal.”
“Real pal you are,” Fenrir grumbled some more and deliberately stepped on Lachlan’s foot, chuckling at his startled yelp of pain.
“Do that again and I’ll twist your ear!”
Fenrir stuck out his tongue and lopped off ahead into the silent night leaving Lachlan to scramble in an undignified fashion in pursuit.
Arrelorna clung to her husband, fingers like talons digging into his arm. She bit her lips and restlessly cast her gaze around the café.
Gareth sighed at her jumpiness even though he was no less nervous than his wife. This was going to end badly. He could already taste the failure bitter and sour in his mouth and it made him nauseous.
When your wife is royalty of an alien species and she gave it all up to be with a mortal who still had a mortgage to pay off on his modest suburban townhouse with a middle manager’s pay cheque, and the alien royalty had now sent someone to hunt them down, who’re you gonna call?
Not ghost busters, that’s for sure. And they didn’t have some extra-terrestrial equivalent, unless Tommy Lee Jones was really Agent K and the MIB already had tabs on their relationship and were watching his back.
So Arrelona, being the one with experience in all things alien and extra-dimensional, suggested they take a trip down Brighton Beach, which was disconcerting at first because eating a hot dog and sun baking wasn’t exactly how Gareth thought they would get out of this mess. But Arrelona had made a few hushed phone calls beforehand, and after they climbed out of the subway station, they took a turn from the beachfront, deliberately headed into parts of town which silently shouted ‘locals only!’ until they came upon a shabby looking family owned café that had never seen a tourist in its life.
The chairs and tables were sanitary but run down, and the few locals there enjoying their morning coffee, who all could have been cast as extras in a movie about Russian gangsters, ignored them and buried their faces in the daily newspaper.
“So this…Boris guy? He like…an old friend of yours?” Because despite being on the run from possible alien royal family assassins, a husband still had the right to feel jealous when his wife called on an old flame to get them out of a fix.
Arrelona’s alabaster complexion impossibly paled and her mouth pressed into a tight line. “Boris is not a friend.”
A derisive snort made Gareth jump in his seat, and he instantly regretted it. How the giant of a man some two meters tall managed to sneak up on him from behind without making a single damn sound or shaking the earth as he walked was a mystery. But now that this stranger had smelled his fear, a sick, demented smile splayed across his face and Gareth, against his primal instincts for survival, tried to bodily shield his wife from the homicidal thug.
“You’re Boris Andropov?” he managed weakly.
The Russian ignored him and laid unsettling ice blue gaze on Arrelona. “And you are elf princess.”
Arrelona sat up a little straighter and shifted in her seat as Boris took up the chair opposite to them uninvited. Underneath the table, she reached for Gareth’s hand and squeezed it. Hers was slick with cold sweat and he realised he was shuddering from the chill as well.
“Let’s get down to business. You have problem. I fix problems.”
“How exactly are you going to fix our problem?” Gareth asked, hoping he didn’t sound as meek as he felt.
Boris shook his head and tsked. “We talk price first.”
Gareth shared a look with the love of his life and steeled his resolve. He took a deep breath. “We are just working class people. We can’t pay much. Why don’t you tell us how much you want and we tell you whether we can pay it or not.”
“Depends on what you need done,” Boris shrugged. “A kill is usually fifteen thousand. An unusual kill might cost twenty five – ”
“No killing!” Gareth immediately objected, choking on a wave of revulsion. “I don’t want bloodshed.”
Both Boris and his wife looked at him as if he had just proposed a hot and steamy threesome in a downtown cheap motel. “My love,” Arrelona began, stroking his arm. “My father is an unforgiving man, and he has not forgiven our elopement. Whoever he has sent, you should do well not to expect mercy.”
He gaped at her, astounded. “You can’t be serious. What we’re doing would be no different than hiring a hitman.” Then it suddenly dawned on him. “Oh my god, we are hiring a hitman!”
“Keep your voice down!” Arrelona hissed, jerking him by the sleeve closer back to her. “Why else do you think we’re here?”
“To find a proper solution,” he replied, stressing the word to show how utterly serious he was. “Your father can’t just send an assassin to Earth and think he can kill as he pleases.”
Boris chuckled. It was an ugly sound. “You need more time to think?”
“No! I require your services. It will be an unusual kill.”
“The quote is twenty five to thirty five thousand. Fifty percent deposit up front, and extra ten percent for contingencies. Who is the target?”
“Hang on! Just hang on a minute here!” Gareth hammered his fist on the table, anger making him forget his fear of the Russian hitman sitting opposite him. He glowered at the giant man. “You,” he said, accusation in his voice, “You came to Earth through the Gatekeeper as well, didn’t you?”
The smile fled from Boris’ face. His ice blue eyes narrowed and his shoulders hunched forward. “You threaten me with the Gatekeeper?”
“The Gatekeeper threatens us all,” Gareth corrected, determined not to lose his nerve. He recalled the Gatekeeper’s words as he cast a permanent glamour over Arrelona, transforming her into a human woman to allow her to blend flawlessly into humanity. He cautioned them to be discreet and not to rock the boat. Gareth left with the distinct impression that if he or Lona caused any waves, the Gatekeeper would hunt them down and scrub their very existence from the universe. By speaking to Boris, had their already attracted the wrath of the Gatekeeper?
“Whoever Lona’s father sends will be an alien. You’re probably an alien. And if we start an alien blood feud on earth, humans, like the Avengers, are going to start to notice. I think that’s going to rock the boat. Do you want the Gatekeeper coming after you?”
The temperature around them plummeted. Boris’ upper lip peeled back and he emitted a growl that raised the hairs on the back of Gareth’s arms and neck and froze the blood in his veins. He cried out, breath condensing in the air, and almost fell out of his chair when the ice-blue in Boris’ eyes blinkered into a laser red that could cut him down where he stood.
“Gatekeeper will know nothing,” Boris hissed. “We keep this quiet. I make clean kill. Then you and I never see each other again. Deal?”
“The deal is you hold your hands up where I can see them and make no sudden moves.”
Without warning, a dozen men in balaclavas and full body armour imprinted with the distinctive black and red SHIELD insignia stormed into the café, overturning tables and chairs as they made a beeline towards them, levelling huge guns that Gareth didn’t believe existed or could only appear in science fiction movies.
Commanding the operation was a woman with flaming crimson hair, two giant handguns holstered on either side of her hip, and at ease in a black leather cat suit. She coolly met Boris’ hateful glare which promised violence and suffering as if she had seen a lot worse in her lifetime and gestured for the agents to close in on the Russian hitman with a set of customised cuffs.
Unfortunately for the agents, Boris was in no mood to co-operate and they couldn’t lever his hands close enough for the cuffs to fit. His malevolent red eyes settled on Gareth and Arrelona, speaking of betrayal, and Gareth was quick to launch into denials.
“You got slack, Andropov,” the red-haired agent said, casually covering him with her hand-cannon. “We’ve got you on security camera for half a dozen hits, and now we’ve just caught you in the act.”
Two agents became four, and four became six, with three men literally hugging each of Boris’ arm and trying to pull them together until they were all red in the face.
A dull sense of fear rippled through Gareth, and he openly backed away, dragging Arrelona with him until their backs were pressed against the counter bench and there was an overturned table they could duck behind when everything went to hell in a hand basket. Because everything was about to go downhill so fast they were all about to get whiplash, only SHIELD were unable to see it or unable to accept it.
Gareth didn’t know who Boris was, what Boris was, but whatever he was, he seemed damn confident in overpowering the small, armed-to-the-teeth platoon that SHIELD had dispatched to bring him in. Gareth didn’t like the way Boris grinned calmly at his would-be captors, and the way those muscles began to surge beneath tautening pale skin made Gareth’s stomach flip three times over.
Boris abruptly stood up. He swung his left arm forward and sent three agents flying into the far wall. He swung his right arm and the remaining agents were bowled out the front door, taking the rest of the agents through the front window with them.
The red-haired agent reached up to her ear and spoke into mic stitched into her sleeve. “Hawkeye, Code Red. Fire at will.”
No sooner had she finished giving the order, she dived behind the same table that Gareth and his wife were huddled behind.
Gareth heard the faint ‘whoosh’ of something flying through the air at high speed, followed by three soft thuds leading to Boris’ ear-splitting scream of pain. Strobe light effects flooded the room. Gareth dared a peek over the rim of the table and saw what could only be described as the big Russian being electrocuted by something that looked like an…arrow jutting from his shoulder.
The electrical charge eventually faded and there was an indistinct smell of burnt meat even though Boris’ skin remained unmarked. The next arrow that zipped in (from god knows where) broke apart just before impact and spread into a metal net that collapsed over Boris.
Gareth’s insides shrivelled to nothing as Boris laughed briefly, an utterly inhuman sound. An artic gust of wind with the fury of a tornado rolled into the room, whipping up plates, cups, cutlery, anything that was not hammered down. Cold bit into Gareth’s skin, sunk through his flesh and settled deep like death into the marrow of his bones. White hoarfrost coated the metal net and with a shrug, the net burst apart into a million shards of ice.
Freed, Boris advanced towards them. The red-haired agent made a suicidal dive to another overturned table some two meters away, managing to fire her hand-cannons and fluidly somersault out of the dive so she was back on her feet in an instant.
Boris was thrown back a good meter by the successive blasts of energy, but apart from his singed clothing he was unharmed. Water then flowed from his hands, but before the liquid dripped to the floor, it solidified into long translucent blades.
“Hawkeye, going to need more backup. He’s resistant to electrostatic discharge. I have civilians with me and can’t use my grenades.”
The next two arrows that flew in to respond landed at Boris’ feet and splattered into a yellow sticky residue. Gareth fanned a small flame of hope that it could slow the Russian down so he and Lona could escape, and just as they prepared to make their dash to the exit, the yellow adhesive crystalised into ice and met a similar fate to the metal net from before.
“Hawkeye…” the red-haired agent said testily into her communicator and firing more shots over her shoulder. “Your party tricks aren’t working.”
The ground began to tremble and a great and terrible animalist roar rent the air. The last thing Gareth saw before he passed out from fear was a glimpse of radioactive green, a fist punching through the air with the force of a nuclear warhead, and two giants clashing against each other, engaged in colossal battle that happened only in myths.