website design software
Story 3

David Gray

David is a native of Memphis, Tennessee who now resides in Texas. By day he is a technical writer in the Aerospace Industry. After a day of writing technical documentation, David likes to relax by writing Science Fiction stories and plays.
This tale of unspeakable creatures from unknown dimensions and strange, alien technologies takes place on a hot, humid summer night. Kinda like tonight…. We hope you enjoy it.

4 Star Stories is pleased to present "Strawman at the Door.”


Strawman at the Door

By David L. Gray


Mark Jacobs materialized in the dark alley, stumbled hard, then had to twist 180 degrees to break his fall with his left buttock against the side of an empty dumpster. It produced a low, metallic booming sound and a throbbing pain in his left hip.

"Damn it," he muttered under his breath while rubbing his butt with his left hand, "I really hate these rough landings."

Jacobs painfully regained his footing, rose to his full six-foot-two-inch height and paused, listening.

He heard only the usual big-city night sounds – traffic noises, sirens, loud neighbors and a rustling sound that might be a rat sniffing around his worn trouser leg. He waited, but nothing happened. In spite of his noisy entrance, he had apparently arrived unnoticed.

Attempting to get comfortable in the clinging heat, Jacobs shrugged his broad shoulders inside his ill-fitting sports jacket and pulled at the knit shirt, which was too tight in the neck. He readjusted the canvas bag slung across his body, the heavy object inside shifting with the motion.

Despite the arrival of darkness some hours before, the semi-liquid garbage overflowing several open drums had cooled only slightly, making. the smell surrounding him not quite overwhelming. In the low light from the street, rusty fire escapes cast faint, skeleton-like shadows on the cracked, overgrown pavement under his feet, becoming more distinct as his eyes adjusted to the dark.

Jacobs was starting to wonder what he was doing there when a breath of wind caressed his face, cool in the stifling heat. Next a greenish glow appeared from behind a jumble of crates, as if someone had cracked a door. Jacobs was out of direct line-of-sight, but a momentary blocking of the light by a large shadow told him that someone or something had slipped through the portal and into the alley.

Then he heard a faint rustling sound in front of him, like wind-blown leaves on an autumn day. The hairs on the back of Jacobs’ neck began to rise. He couldn’t smell it yet, but he knew what it was, what had arrived.

No wonder they transported me here, Jacobs thought to himself. This thing has to be stopped.

The Company calls them fugitives, never mind their real name. They are outlaw predators of the worst kind, alien and ruthless, and we are the prey.

They want to pass for human, these fugitives from… not ours but an alternate, non-parallel space-time, but they can’t, not close up. It's the smell. You've never smelled anything like it, but if you ever do, you won’t like it. And if you are ever so unlucky as to touch one, your hand comes away greasy.

Jacobs decided to get it over with. Grabbing the strap with his right hand, he moved the canvas bag to a more out-of-the-way position over his right buttock and stepped from the shadows into the center of the alley, becoming plainly visible in the unnatural, green glow.

Jacobs could see it now, silhouetted in the glare of the open portal. It was a fugitive alright. It was as big as a large man, with comparable reach and strength, but it massed less. The fugitive stopped, startled. It hadn’t counted on being discovered so soon. A low, guttural sound issued from somewhere inside it, and the thing began to move toward him. Scrawny hands like dried twigs compulsively reached towards Jacobs’ face. Jacobs stood fast.

Sensing easy prey, the fugitive lunged. At the last moment, Jacobs blocked the grasping hands with his right arm, half turned to the right, and stepped out of the way with a fluid Aikido-like martial-arts move. As it brushed past, Jacobs, still turning, grabbed a greasy handful of arm with his right hand, extended his arm to take its balance and karate chopped the fugitive in the back of its head with his left. They were vulnerable there, like humans. It spasmed once and collapsed in a heap at his feet. It seemed to shrink into itself at first, then started to liquefy, the smell turning to something like day-old urine as decomposition continued.

Blends right in, thought Jacobs, no one will notice a thing.

Jacobs wiped his greasy right hand on his pants leg, paused, then straightened up. He thought he had heard something. The fugitive he had just killed hadn’t made that sound. It was busy draining into the sewer. The new sound was… behind him. It was the rustling again. It was a trap.

The voice from behind him was a hoarse whisper, not recognizably human, but clearly audible in the sudden silence. "Jacobs, you whore spawn. I saw you dead!"

Jacobs whirled around. Before he could get out of the way, the fugitive hit Jacobs with stunning force, dropping him to his knees and knocking the wind out of him. This one was different. It was super strong and knew Jacobs by name. Gasping for breath, Jacobs reached up, grabbing coarse, cloth-like material on either side of the greasy torso. He pulled with the right hand, pushed with the left while pivoting to the right on his left knee, taking its balance. It went crashing down to the pavement with a flailing of appendages. Moving quickly, Jacobs half rose and planted his right knee in the middle of the fugitive’s chest. He felt more than heard the thing crunch as it gave under his weight.

Jacobs straddled the body, pinning the thing’s shoulders to the pavement with his hands.

"You did see me dead," he growled through the pain in his ribs. "They brought me back… to finish off trash like you."

Jacobs sensed rather than saw surprise in the thing’s face, then something else – rage. It broke an arm free, shoved it against Jacobs’s throat and pushed, making him gag. Jacobs was forced back, then scraped against a rough brick wall that tore at the clothes on his back.

"I’m… not… finished… yet." Shifting his grip to Jacobs’ arms, the fugitive slammed Jacobs against the wall again and again in time with his words. During the struggle, Jacobs felt the canvas bag brush his hand. What he needed to kill the fugitive was in the bag – if only he could reach it. He pushed back hard with both hands, broke his right hand free and plunged it into the bag. He could feel the weapon: smooth, but with bumps for gripping, cool and hard, and perfectly balanced. Non-human technology? Most certainly. Only appearing to be in this universe while really existing in another? Probably. Grasping it, Jacobs felt strength pour out of it into his body, as if a power switch had been turned on.

Shoving hard, he wrestled the fugitive to the ground, pinned it by its throat with his left hand, drew his right hand out of the bag and raised it over his head. Almost invisible in the green glow of the portal, a blue aura appeared around Jacobs' clinched hand, accompanied by a faint crackling sound. He plunged the now-activated weapon into the thing’s chest, encountering surprising little resistance. It jerked once, then was still. Jacobs thought he heard a faint gurgling sound as he withdrew his right hand, still holding the weapon, and let go of the thing’s neck with his left.

The fugitive deflated like a punctured air cushion. Jacobs pushed himself to his feet using his left hand. His right hand dripped putrid goo, appearing black in the green light. Jacobs opened the bag with his left hand, thrust the right hand in it and tried to wipe off the mess. In the process, the weapon slipped out of his hand and dropped to the bottom of the bag. Jacobs staggered backwards as the superhuman strength melted away, leaving him drained and limp.

Jacobs looked up as the green glow dimmed, then went out, leaving a faint afterimage that he tried to blink away. The portal had closed. The alley was dark again; normalcy was restored, at least for now.

Jacobs turned away from the scene, trying to catch his breath. He took a step, paused. He was a mess. His clothes were torn. His right arm halfway to his elbow was covered with goo, and he smelled like an incontinent homeless man who hadn't showered in a month. He needed to clean up in the worst way.

The fact was he had no ID and no money. This was Standard Operating Procedure for a mission. His trouser packets were empty, and the knit shirt had no pocket at all. Even the canvas bag was empty with the exception of the now inert alien gizmo.

After a last look around, Jacobs walked out of the alley toward the nearest streetlight, stopping just outside the circle of light to stand while he took stock. He didn't want to attract attention. Fortunately, there wasn't much foot traffic at this hour. At his back was a convenient doorway, dark enough to keep him out of sight if someone started taking too much of an interest. The good news was that the garbage smell and the lingering heat were left behind in the alley. Out in the open, he even felt a slight breeze.

Lacking a better idea, he started walking. It was less conspicuous than standing around. At least the shoes fit, unlike the shirt and sports jacket.

Wait a minute, he thought as he continued walking down the street. He felt something in the right side pocket of the sports jacket. He reached his hand in and fingered it without removing it from his pocket. The characteristic diamond shape of the plastic tag and the key shape of the metal told him it was a hotel room key. He stopped at the next streetlight and pulled his hand out of his pocket. He peered down at what he held in his hand. It was a key alright. He read the hotel name and address in gold lettering on the maroon tag. He looked up and saw a red neon sign down the street. It had several letters burned out and several others flickered, but he could make out the name. It was the same. He had a key to a room in a hotel less than two blocks away! At the corner, he swung the canvas bag out of the way and looked down both sides of the street. The street was deserted. He stepped off the curb.

Jacobs hadn't gone half a block when he passed another alley. A blue flash reflected in a storefront widow caught his eye. A thump and the sound of falling debris indicated something large and clumsy was in there, probably a drunk. He kept going. Then Jacobs heard a sound that made him stop in his tracks – the distinctive Plop! sound of a human body materializing and instantaneously displacing an equal volume of air. No other sound was quite like it. Curious, Jacobs quietly retraced his steps and took a careful peek into the alley. What he saw astonished him. Illuminated by a blue glow from the end of the alley, a slim, above average height woman dressed in military-style fatigues was confronting two wolf-like creatures that stood on their hind legs like men. The low, menacing growls indicated this was no friendly encounter. Jacobs slowly crept into the alley to get a better view. He moved as quietly as he could, but a slight noise gave him away. Both creatures turned toward the sound. The long-legged woman took advantage of the momentary distraction and attacked the closer of the two creatures. A stunning roundhouse kick to the left side of the head dropped the one, but the other, sensing an opening, attacked her with razor-sharp claws, raking the woman diagonally, high across her back. She cried out in surprise and pain. Turning her full attention to the threat, she used a karate kick between the legs to take him down, then delivered a blindingly fast one-two punch to the midsection for good measure.

The first creature, shaking its head to clear it, had already retreated behind a large crate and disappeared into the blue glow. The second followed him, limping badly. The blue glow vanished as the portal closed behind the departing creatures.

The woman relaxed from her defensive crouch and turned, looking for the source of the distraction that had helped her turn the tables on the animals.

Jacobs stepped into a patch of light from the street. He stood still, with his hands open and relaxed at his side. He was silhouetted in the light and hoped to appear non-threatening until her adrenaline rush subsided. He really didn't want to fight her. Breathing hard, she nailed him with a cold stare that was clearly visible in the light from the street.

"Are you part of that?" she said, low and threatening, motioning over her shoulder with her head.

"No," Jacobs answered softly. "I was just passing by, saw the blue flash and heard you materialize."

"The hell you say." Jacobs had no answer for that, but he could tell from her face that she was surprised that he knew how she had arrived.

Jacobs had a bunch of questions about what he had just seen, but he decided to go for an obvious statement of fact instead. "You're hurt."

"I'm OK," she replied, rather defensively he thought, but Jacobs wasn't convinced. He had seen blood welling out of the wounds on her back

"You’re bleeding, and if those slashes across your back are infected with alien bugs, then you aren't OK."

"You're right," she said, "they probably are infected. In a few minutes, they are going to hurt like a son of a bitch, but I have a salve that will take care of the infection, and the pain. I just need to clean the wounds and put the salve on."

"Well," observed Jacobs, not without irony, "unless you're a contortionist in addition to being a martial artist, you're not going to be able to put that salve on yourself."

Who is this guy and how does he know where I came from? she thought, but her face betrayed nothing.

"And you, kind person that you are, would be willing to help me?" she said suspiciously. In spite of himself, Jacobs started to like her.

"Look, I have a room in that hotel over there," he pointed toward the broken sign, "I'll dress your wounds, and you're welcome to clean up if you want."

Every instinct told her this was a bad idea, but perhaps the shock from her wounds and the alien infection were already affecting her judgment. She resigned herself to letting him help her. To Jacobs she seemed to sag into herself. Her reply was quieter this time. "You're right. I can't take care of this myself. I'll be lucky to make it to your hotel room."

"That settles it then. Let's go." Jacobs turned to leave the alley. After a few steps, he had to stop and wait for her to catch up. She was already getting weaker.

"What were those things?" he said, trying to engage her attention. "They looked like wolves, but they stood on two legs like men."

"They're not wolves. They don't belong here, but their ecological niche is under pressure. They come here every chance they get, though it is unusual for them to appear in urban areas. Most of the portals they can use are located in the wilderness."

"But you stopped them."

"Those two were lucky. Usually we kill them when they try to slip through."


"Alien Animal Control. Well, alien lifeform control. Sometimes we don’t know what they are."

"Don't people notice they aren't from here?"

"They would if they dissected one, but who bothers to dissect a dead wolf in the wild?"

The claw wounds were serious. Every step she took made her weaker. She was visibly weaving as they walked. Jacobs put his arm around her waist and swayed in unison with her. To anyone who bothered to look, they appeared to be a drunk couple trying to make it back to their hotel.

"Hang on, we're almost there," he whispered, trying to be encouraging. He only received a weak grunt in reply. He tried to hurry.

By the time they reached the hotel, she was almost all in. Jacobs shifted his position to take more of her weight. They entered the dimly lit lobby and headed for the elevator opposite the front door. The desk clerk didn't even look up from the TV.

The elevator opened into a corridor that smelled of stale cigarette smoke, cheap wine and hopelessness. A long walk down the corridor and they were facing the room door. Jacobs shifted her weight against him, dug the room key out of his pocket and slid it into the lock. He prayed that it would be better inside and turned the key. The door opened into a small room overlooking the street. A double bed, desk and chair were crammed into a woefully small space, leaving hardly enough room for two people to stand up. The bathroom was visible through an open door to the right. An ancient air conditioning unit sat in the window, clicking and groaning to itself. The cool breeze it produced felt good after the stuffy corridor. The room was surprisingly clean. Jacobs eased her onto the bed, resting a hand on her shoulder to keep her upright while he leaned over to close the door. He let out a sigh of relief.

This is better than I hoped, he thought and turned toward her. "What’s your name?"

"Jo," she answered. Her reply was almost inaudible.

"Jo," he said firmly, "take off your shirt."

"What?" she said. "What do you mean, take off my shirt." She managed to sound indignant, even in her condition.

"Take off your shirt, and give me that salve you were talking about. I need to take care of those scratches."

On autopilot now, she crossed her arms, grabbed her shirt at the waist with both hands and painfully raised her arms over her head. The ripped and bloody shirt slowly peeled off her body, revealing muscular arms and shoulders and her black sports bra, also torn. Other than her wounds, she was obviously in very good physical condition. Jacobs knew from what he saw her do in the alley that whatever other training she had had, she was certainly proficient in Karate. She handed him a tube she took from a pouch attached to her belt.

With the shirt off, Jacobs could see the damage clearly. Three angry gouges slanted across her upper back. The infection was far advanced, with red streaks radiating away from the wounds. Working carefully, Jacobs washed out the wounds with soap and water from the bathroom and then began to apply the salve she had given him. Although it came in an ordinary-looking tube, when he applied it to her skin, it was anything but ordinary. In the dim light of the room, the bead he squeezed from the tube began to glow where it touched the infected wounds.

"Have you used this stuff before?" he asked.

"What?" She turned slightly toward him.

"Don't move! You'll mess up my aim. I wanted to know if you ever used this stuff before."

"Yeah, I have. It takes a little getting used to...."

"I'll say," Jacob s muttered to himself. As he watched, the glow slowly faded, and so did the redness and swelling.

"Is the glow fading?" she asked.


"It'll be fine now. Just put a dressing on it. Here." She pulled a plastic packet out of one of her military-style pants pockets and gave it to him.

"I don't mean to be nosy, but are you carrying anything else as spectacular as that salve?"

She sighed – a very endearing sigh, he thought.

"No, most of my other equipment is pretty ordinary. Sometimes I'm on a mission for days at a time, so I carry dehydrated food, a first aid kit, compass, and fire-making materials – plus whatever specialized tools or weapons I need to carry out the mission."

"Do you ever wonder where this stuff comes from?" he asked.

"Are you kidding me?" she answered. "Do you think materializing a human body in an alley in the middle of the night is something they teach in college physics?"

She had him there. He looked critically at the fresh dressing and pronounced it finished.

"You’ll live," he said. She managed a weak smile.

"Thanks," she said and then wrinkled her nose. "What’s that smell?"

"That’s the reason we're here. The whole idea of the hotel room was so I could clean up before pick-up."

"Whoops. I guess I threw a monkey wrench into those plans."

"Not really. You appear to be stable now. It won’t take me a minute to clean up."

Jacobs squeezed past her knees on the way to the bathroom. Five minutes later he was out again and feeling a lot cleaner. Now he was wearing only the knit shirt on top and carrying the ragged sports jacket folded neatly across his arm.

Even after such a short time, Jo was looking a lot perkier. This time he could see her from the front. He noted in a detached, unemotional way that her well-proportioned breasts were adequately restrained by her sports bra, even though it had been damaged by the attack. Her nipples made demure little bumps against the stretched fabric. But as he eased past her, his eyes were drawn to her cleavage. He had no explanation other than reflex because the view produced no reaction.

"You're looking a lot better," he said, hoping she hadn't noticed where he was looking.

"Yeah, thanks to you," she said. Her voice was more relaxed, and he thought he detected a fleeting smile as she spoke. Even with the infection gone, she was still very tired.

"Have you given any thought to your wardrobe?" Jacobs asked, "I don't think you're going to be able to go out the way you are."

"I'll put the shirt back on. At least from the front I'll look normal." She sounded hopeful, but Jacobs wasn't buying it.

"I don't think that's going to work, but I've got an idea. I'm not going to need the sports jacket. It's too small for me, and I think it might fit you well enough to pass muster in the dark."

She frowned. "I'm grateful, but why won't you be needing it?"

"I'm not leaving this room. They're going to retrieve me from here. You, on the other hand, are out of your area. You aren't supposed to be here at all."

"You're right, of course," she said, "I have to be in my pick-up zone before dawn. I can't risk being seen during daylight. Thanks for the offer."

Jacobs had taken the sports jacket off while he was cleaning up in the bathroom. The right sleeve near the cuff was soiled from the goo, and the back was frayed and abraded from his encounter with the brick wall. He couldn't do anything about the smell. Maybe she would get used to it. He grabbed it under the fold with his right hand and gave it to her. She took it, stood up and tried it on. It hung loose on her, but the shirt would help bulk her up some. She quickly took it off and laid it on the bed.

"I want to thank you for helping me," she said and reached out to touch his bare arm. Too late Jacobs released what she was trying to do and jerked his arm back. Unfortunately he wasn't fast enough. When she touched his bare arm, her face registered surprise, then all the color drained from her face. She instantly pulled back her hand.

"What the hell?!" she exclaimed. "What are you?" She had expected the warmth of a human being. Instead, his skin was cool and distinctly un-human feeling to the touch.

"Wait! I can explain." Jacobs raised both hands in a stopping gesture. She, on the other hand, panicking, leapt off the bed and stood with her back to the wall. To increase the distance between them, she slid sideways along the wall until the only empty corner in the room stopped her. She assumed a defensive posture.

"Explain?" Her eyes were wide with fear, and her voice increased in pitch. "Explain why you don't feel human?"

"I used to be," Jacobs pleaded. "You have to believe me. The people I work for brought me back from the dead to complete my mission."

"Back from the dead? You expect me to believe that? I may be wounded, but I'm not stupid."

She had him there.

"Well, I admit it does sound unlikely…."

"Unlikely? Unlikely is hardly the word I would use."

"Well, OK, but if you'll listen for a minute, I'll try to explain."

Jo didn't say anything, but she did seem to relax her stance a little. Jacobs took a deep breath and began.

"I wasn't just passing by. I materialized in an alley like you did. I killed two fugitives that tried to ambush me. We call them that, never mind what they're really called; they needed killing. Anyway, afterward I was a mess. I found the hotel key in my pocket, and I was on the way here to clean up when I saw you fighting those wolf things."

"That all sounds plausible, considering where I came from, but you left out the most important point – why you aren't human."

"I'm one of a group of mercenaries for a race of aliens that are fighting the fugitives. We've been fighting the fugitives a long time. We fight them when they come to Earth and other places too. They aren't even from this universe, that's how alien they are. Because we do all the fighting, the aliens we work for can claim that they aren't involved. Everyone knows what's really going on, of course. The pay, cool toys and the alien technology that we use make the job worthwhile."

"During a raid into the Fugitive universe, my strike team was hit, and I was killed. My bosses could not afford to lose me, so, using their technology, they brought me back to life, sort of. I don't know how they did it, but the fact that I am here proves that they can. Now I'm stuck between life and death, alive when they want me to go on a mission, in stasis somewhere when they don't need me."

Jacobs expected disbelief, but the look on her face was more like – sympathy. Incredible as it sounded, she did believe his story, and as much as it didn't affect him emotionally, it affected her.

Jo became quiet, trying to put what Jacobs was telling her into context. Her career in Alien Animal Control, the thing she had devoted her whole life to, paled in comparison to what Jacobs had described. Particularly troublesome was the fact that his career hadn't ended with his death. Apparently, when necessary, a dead agent could be brought back to life in order to complete his mission.

Jo seldom thought of retiring, never thought of being killed in the line of duty, but being brought back from the dead seemed particularly monstrous. Still, it fascinated her.

"So what's it like, being dead?" The question was only partly facetious. She dreaded what he might say, but knew she had to ask.

"I'm only conscious when I'm on a mission. As a result, my sense of time is completely disjointed. I have all my memories, but I'm totally detached. I have no emotions at all, just the drive to do what has to be done.

A thought occurred to her. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Maybe I thought I owed you an explanation. It doesn't matter. Besides, who would you tell? I don't think this is something you'll want to discuss in your debriefing."

Jo shook her head. "No, it isn't."

Jacobs changed the subject. "Come on now. Let's get you dressed. I'm going to be gone in a few minutes, and you have to get to your pick-up zone."

Jacobs helped her get dressed – not having any emotions helped with that – by carefully pulling her torn shirt down over the dressing and then helping her on with the sports jacket.

He looked her over critically.

"There," he announced, "good as new." She forced a smile.

"Got the key?"

She put her hand in the right-hand jacket pocket. The key was there. She nodded her head.

"If this were a movie, I would start to shimmer and then disappear, right on cue."

Jo couldn't suppress a grin. "I hate to disappoint you, but you still look solid to me."

Jacobs looked disappointed. "So they're late. Wouldn't be the first time."

"According to you, when you leave here, you cease to exist, so what's the hurry?"

"Have you looked out the window lately?" Jo stole a glance at the unobstructed part of the window above the air conditioner, frowned and sighed.

"What time is it?"

"You know I' m the wrong person to ask that question."

"It doesn't matter. You're right; I have to go."

Something in her expression made him ask, "Are you OK?"

"I'm sorry," she started, "I didn't understand." Jacobs could see something like pity in her eyes. She looked away, unable to face him. When she looked back, she had tears in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said again and shook her head. Jacobs looked at her and said nothing.

She tried again. "Look, take care of yourself."

"I don't have a choice. You be careful too…."

As he spoke, Jacobs began to appear fuzzy around the edges. Jo reached out to touch him, but in another instant he shimmered, faded and was gone.

"I will," she said, but it was too late.

There was no longer any reason to stay. Jo took the hotel key out of her pocket, laid it on the desk, walked to the door and opened it. She turned and took a last look around the hotel room before stepping into the hall and closing the door.

"Damn!" she whispered quietly to herself.

What Jacobs told her about himself shook her to her core. Some of the animals she had taken down were at least as gross as what Jacobs had killed, judging from the smell. That wasn't what shook her. No, it was being brought back from the dead by an alien to complete some mission. That was the scariest thing of all. She swore to herself that would never happen to her.

She looked down. Her hand was still on the doorknob. She let go of the knob, turned toward the elevator at the far end of the corridor and started walking. But she wasn't going to the pick-up zone. Not just yet. She had some heavy thinking to do.


[Index] [About Us] [Stories] [Story 1] [Story 2] [Story 3] [Story 4] [Guest Art] [Editors Write] [Archives] [Contact Us] [Links]