or get it from your preferred ebook vendor:
The Alien Immigration and Integration Department monitors activities of aliens living on Earth while hiding their presence among us.
Junior A.I.I.D. agent Lauren Sage is unexpectedly thrust into the biggest case the Department’s had in years. She’s sent to work undercover as the assistant on Kerr Dracos’s stage act. He’s created a home for displaced aliens from all over the galaxy, recreating an old-fashioned sideshow in the Grotesquerie. Humans think it’s an illusion, remaining unaware the “freaks” in the show are actually aliens living among them. But someone is using the show as a way to sell illegal and dangerous alien technology. Kerr’s brother has been implicated, and he wants the truth to clear Kex. She wants to solve the case and stop dangerous weapons from getting into the hands of amoral thugs. They have a common goal, but that isn’t their only connection. Their chemistry is scorching, and his nightly fire performances aren’t the only thing heating up between them.
Lauren’s nerves hummed with anxiety as she awaited the signal from her senior partner, Felix, who would indicate when it was time to act. This was the most exciting thing to happen to her since she had become a full agent six months ago after graduation, but it was also nerve-racking to wait, unsure of the outcome. This was the third attempt by the Alien Immigration and Integration Department to bust the exchange of illegal alien technology with Earth gangs and other criminals. During the previous two busts, when agents had managed to learn the location in advance, the first one had never taken place, and during the second, everyone had escaped.
“We’re going to get them this time,” said Felix Renton, the senior agent in charge. His words were quiet in her ear, since he had whispered into his mouthpiece. He was crouched beside her, so she simply nodded to indicate she agreed.
She certainly hoped they caught the aliens responsible this time, because local and federal law enforcement officers were becoming overrun and outgunned with the extra advantage the criminals received from the unapproved and unauthorized alien technology they were buying on the black market. The Alien Immigration and Integration Department occasionally authorized the slow release of alien technology masqueraded as a human breakthrough, but they were cautious about such things.
Apparently, someone wanted to circumvent official channels and cash in on the massive profits awaiting, and they didn’t care to whom they sold their potentially dangerous technology. They had to be stopped, and the aliens responsible would be banished from Earth, either deported back to their home planets, or in the case where there was no home planet remaining, to Taria Seven, an inhospitable planet the Tarians leased to Earth for just such a purpose.
Realizing her thoughts were distracting her from the mission at hand, Lauren cleared her mind and focused, waiting for the signal. From her nook, she observed the arrival of two groups. One was clearly human, dressed in leather and carrying guns she knew were already illegal, and they were simply human weapons. The thought of such a group coming into possession of the type of alien technology that had been flooding the market was chilling.
The second group wore heavy robes that obscured their faces, and they were of disparate sizes. Some were smaller—far shorter than the average human—or around human height. She thought she recognized a Enuliar when one of the group’s hoods shifted, since its bulbous head and protruding eyes affixed to stalks were distinctive to that race.
Two of the group were hulking behemoths standing close to eight feet tall. She couldn’t be certain with the robes obscuring them, but judging from their build, she thought they were Tartos. She shuddered at the thought of facing one. Not only were they massively built and incredibly strong, but they had a thick exoskeleton with a composition roughly equivalent to cement. Their main weakness was sound, so she was certain the Department would have brought at least a few ultra-low frequency weapons. They would need the ULF guns if they turned out to be Tartos and did not surrender. And when did a Tartos ever surrender?
The agents observing from the shadows waited until three of the aliens, if they were aliens, dragged forth a huge crate. Two of the humans from the buyers’ group stepped forward to meet them in the middle, and they seemed pleased by whatever the lid moving off the crate revealed. There was some discussion, and what appeared to be some bartering, but eventually the humans handed over a heavy bag.
“Now,” said Felix, which was the signal for all the agents to come out of their hiding places and surround the aliens.
Lauren’s training, simulations, and mental practicing hadn’t prepared her for the reality of a sting operation. It was literal chaos for a few moments, despite the team moving as one coordinated, well-oiled machine. Aliens and humans fled, with agents in pursuit.
In the scuffle, at least none of the humans had managed to acquire the crate they had purchased, though she saw no evidence that any of the humans had been apprehended. It was far more likely the agents would have focused on the aliens anyway and left the humans to the FBI. The Department often worked in cooperation with other human-focused agencies when alien matters touched upon human criminal activity.
As things calmed down, she was disappointed to discover most of the aliens, including the Tartos, had escaped. Everything had happened so quickly that she hadn’t even had a chance to identify a target to pursue.
“We have one,” said Felix.
Lauren joined the exodus of agents that surrounded Felix and another agent, where they knelt on the ground by an injured alien. She tentatively identified it as a Shiboar, but it was smaller than she would have expected for that species. That indicated it was a little more than an adolescent, and her anger stirred at the aliens who had dragged a child into the seedy underworld.
The Shiboar was clearly fatally injured, but his lips were moving. Felix and Agent Wilkes bent closer, getting nearer to the adolescent’s mouth. Felix’s lips tightened a moment later. When he lifted his head, the Shiboar drew its last breath.
“What did he say?” asked Agent Turner, his gaze on Felix instead of Agent Wilkes.
“He gave me a name. Kex Dracos.”
Lauren jerked with surprise. Even though she’d only been a full agent for six months, she recognized the Dracos name. Kerr Dracos was almost a legend among the agents. She had never met him, but she knew he was in good standing with the Department, and he wielded a fair amount of power in his own right. If this Kex was related to the Dracos family in some fashion, it could be a scandal, and a real embarrassment to the family. They would have to approach the Dracos family with sensitivity and care.
Or they could burst into the Grotesquerie, which was the traveling show the Dracos family owned, and how they earned their money on Earth. It wasn’t Lauren’s call, but she certainly wouldn’t have made such a big production of it by storming the Grotesquerie and hauling out the brother of one of the most influential aliens on Earth in handcuffs for everyone to see.
Despite her disapproval of the operation, she was temporarily sidetracked by her fascination at her first in-person glimpse of a Dragoran. That wasn’t their actual name, since it was unpronounceable to humans, but it was the species name the Department had assigned them when the first refugee ship came to Earth. It was easy to see where the inspiration for the name had come from.
Kex was about six feet tall, with a lean physique, though his shoulders suggested those muscles received a lot of exercise. No doubt, that came from when he used the wings currently folded neatly against his back. Only the clawed extensions rising from the midpoint to rest above his shoulders really showed from her vantage point. Those extrusions couldn’t be tucked away.
His body was faintly purple, and his hair was a dark purple color, so deep as to be almost black. His wings were also that deep purple color, but other than a slight leathery look to them, his skin was smooth everywhere. During her training, she’d seen a variety of aliens, some with tentacles, and some with scales, but few had perfectly uniform-colored, smooth skin like the Dragorans. They had the kind of complexion teenage girls would kill for.
All in all, he was a striking specimen, even subdued in handcuffs and looking bewildered by what was unfolding. He was clearly saying something to the agents pulling him toward the van assigned for his arrest, but she was too far away to hear what he was saying.
“No wonder the Dracos family is so wealthy,” said Felix with a hint of bitterness as he came up to stand beside her. “If they’ve been selling illegal technology, it all makes sense.”
“They’re wealthy?” She looked around her, surprised by that information. Granted, they had interrupted the set-up of the Grotesquerie’s latest show, which involved unfolding tents and other structures. They had tracked the show from the last location before Felix made the decision to enter SWAT-style. Half-assembled, it didn’t look all that impressive, though from careful observation, all the equipment seemed to be in good repair.
Felix nodded. “They barely escaped the comet that destroyed their planet. I think a total of four transport ships made it off, which meant approximately ten thousand Dragorans needed new homes. I suppose they went in separate directions, but the Dracos’ ship was the only one to reach Earth. They basically had nothing, but then their wealth grew. They’re required to file annual taxes with both the IRS and with us, and it’s astounding how quickly they’ve gained a sizable fortune. The Dragorans and the Dracos family have been on my radar for a long time, Agent Sage.”
She nodded, but didn’t have time to make a reply, because an angry roar filled the air. She looked up, because that was where the sound had originated from, and her mouth dropped open as she saw a Dragoran materializing in the air above them, appearing completely visible by the time he touched ground. She’d forgotten they could camouflage themselves.
Her mouth went dry, and she forgot all about why she was there for a moment. If Kex had been an interesting representative of his species, this one was surely the epitome. He was at least a half foot taller than his brother, and far broader, with thick muscles and an impressive wingspan. He hadn’t folded away his wings neatly like Kex had. They sprouted behind him, giving him a royal plumage that was both intimidating and oddly attractive.
She blinked at the thought, struggling to wrench her gaze away from his striking purple eyes and look anywhere but at his bare chest and flat stomach, which was proving so distracting.
Felix moved forward as the new alien reached the van where agents had been loading Kex. Lauren followed behind, since Felix was her partner along with being the SAC. When they reached the alien, she was certain he was angry. It wasn’t just his expression, or even the way he held his wings. It seemed to emanate off of him in waves. She had no latent empathic abilities of which she was aware, but she could suddenly pick up on his emotions as though he had handed her a card with them written plainly on it.
“What’s going on here?” His voice was a delicious rumble that seemed to reverberate through her chest and spread outward. He had a low, rough note to it that was sexy. What was wrong with her? She shouldn’t be thinking that way about any alien, but especially one who was embroiled in their investigation, even peripherally.
“Your brother has been identified as a member of a group selling unauthorized alien technology to Earth criminals. He’s under arrest and faces interrogation.”
Lauren frowned, realizing Felix had known Kex was this one’s brother, but hadn’t revealed it to any of the agents. She supposed it didn’t matter, but it felt like a gap in information, and it was an oversight she wouldn’t have expected from her mentor.
With a growling sound, the alien who had captured her attention turned to Kex. “Have you done this crime?”
“I haven’t, Kerr. I wouldn’t do that. I know I’ve had some scrapes with the Department, and I’ve done some things of which you don’t approve, but I promise you I haven’t been selling alien technology.” He hung his head. “I know the Shiboar who identified me, but I don’t know why he claimed I was involved. He was a good kid, despite some scrapes, and he worked as my assistant sometimes.”
Kerr, as his brother had identified him, turned back to face them. His gaze remained locked on Felix. “My brother had nothing to do with it.”
Felix arched a brow. “You’ll understand why I can’t just take his word for it. He’s been identified as involved, and he’s currently an alien of interest. He has to come with us.”
Kerr crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine, but I’m coming too.”
Lauren wasn’t certain about his stance on the matter. It wasn’t standard operating procedure to allow a family member to accompany another alien for interrogation, though of course they were entitled to a representative, but when no one made any effort to argue with Kerr Dracos’s dictate, she realized not all the rules applied to this family. It was an unsettling epiphany, but she certainly wasn’t going to challenge him either.
As a relatively new agent, Lauren wasn’t involved with the interrogation. Instead, she stood quietly outside the room, observing through the two-way glass. She wasn’t alone in the hallway though. Kerr was beside her, a silent, but unnerving, companion as they observed the exchange between Felix and Kex.
“You don’t find it at all coincidental that the Grotesquerie has been in every city where we’ve tracked the influx of weapons? In fact, your show was in Philadelphia last night. I find it too neat to be coincidental.”
Kex looked worried. “I don’t know anything about it, Agent Renton. I’m telling you the truth. I don’t know why Shvox said my name, but I had nothing to do with it.”
“You’re facing banishment to Taria Seven. Is that really what you want? If you identify the others involved, we might be able to work on an arrangement where you’re chipped and subject to continuous monitoring, but won’t be taken off-world. Do you really want to give up your fancy life you have here to protect a bunch of alien scum with no regard for any life in the galaxies?”
Kerr rumbled softly beside her, and she turned her head to look at him. It was like a fist through the solar plexus when his gaze met hers, and she was instantly drawn into the deep depths of his purple eyes. She shook her head, trying to dispel the reaction.
“There’s not enough proof to banish my brother.”
Lauren licked her lips, finding them suddenly dry. “That’s for the Tribunal to decide.”
His shoulders stiffened. “My brother’s being set up by someone, and your system is running roughshod over him. I thought you agents were tasked with actually investigating, rather than simply accusing and acting with no regard for the truth.”
“We are, and we’re trying, but we’re also desperate to stop the flood of alien technology into the market. If you have a better idea, I’d like to hear it, because it’s obvious the Grotesquerie is somehow involved, even if Kex isn’t.”
He let out that growling sound again. “It isn’t obvious to me, but if you’re so convinced it’s the Grotesquerie, then you should investigate the show, not just my brother.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” said a soft voice behind them.
Kerr and Lauren turned from each other to face the source. Lauren managed what she hoped was a professional smile as she nodded her head respectfully. “Director Simmons, I didn’t realize you were directly involved with the investigation.”
The director, despite her diminutive size and standing on more than five feet, was imposing in her own right. There was something about the way she held herself, along with her sharp eyes, that spoke of her authority. “It doesn’t look much like an investigation to me at the moment, Agent Sage.” She waved toward the glass, were Felix was leaning over Kex, who was sweating and looking close to breaking. “That looks like browbeating to me. Go tell Agent Renton to stand down, Agent Sage.”
Lauren swallowed the lump in her throat, not looking forward to that task. Felix could be like a bulldog when he focused on a goal, and he wouldn’t appreciate his junior agent and partner telling him to rein it in. At least she had the authority of the director behind her. As she moved to the interrogation room, she was vaguely aware of the director moving closer to Kerr, and the two of them whispering in low tones.
With a deep breath, she opened the door to the interrogation room and stepped inside. She cleared her throat. “Agent Renton?”
He looked up at her from where he was perched over Kex, invading the alien’s personal space. “You aren’t authorized to be in here, Lauren.”
“I know, but—”
“Get out. You’re interrupting the interrogation.”
She cleared her throat, making her voice firm. “Felix, the director has requested you to stand down and exit the room.”
He stiffened, and his anger was obvious when he slowly pulled away from looming over Kex to follow her. “Since when did you become her messenger boy?” He hissed the question as he walked past her, almost hitting her with the door.
She glared at him. For the most part, she got along well with Felix, but he could be a real bastard when he was sidetracked or requested to do something he didn’t think was the right course.
Felix looked like he wanted to blast the director, but he drew to an abrupt halt when he realized she was still in conversation with Kerr. He muttered something under his breath, but she couldn’t catch the words.
The director looked up, waving them both forward. “Let’s talk in my office.”
As they started to walk away, Lauren hung back. Felix was her partner, but she wasn’t anywhere near the level necessary to being invited to a meeting with the Director.
“Come along, Agent Sage. This affects you too.”
At the director’s words, and completely puzzled by them, she followed the group down the hallway and into the director’s spacious office. It certainly didn’t look like the typical bureaucratic space. There was a desk and chair, along with the usual office accoutrements, but there was also a comfortable sitting area in one corner, and a profusion of plant life. As she walked by, an orange plant caressed her cheek with a tendril, and she paused to look at it. She didn’t know what it was, since she hadn’t focused on alien botany as her specialty while training for a position as an agent, but it was clearly alien.
“That’s an Anjovian fern,” said Kerr from behind her. His voice was as soft as she’d heard it since he had arrived in the middle of the chaos of arresting his brother. “It can detect pheromones from other life forms, and it responds to kindness and compassion. The plant thinks highly of you.”
She blushed, uncertain if she was receiving a compliment from him or the plant, or if it was simply an observation. “Oh.” It wasn’t the most eloquent response she could have given, but she really didn’t know how to respond.
He moved past her, and she realized she was holding up the group. She moved away from the plant and over to the last remaining seat. Felix and Director Simmons had both taken the armchairs, so the only spot left was on the sofa. There was almost a cushion between herself and Kerr, but she was still strangely aware of his presence, almost feeling his skin against hers despite the space between them.
“What’s this about, Director? I was close to a breakthrough. He was about to confess.”
The Director nodded. “I believe you might be right, but the question is if he was confessing to a crime of which he was guilty, or if he simply felt it was the only way to escape that room? I know everyone is desperate to solve this mystery, Agent Renton, but bending the rules and cutting corners isn’t the way to do it. I want a solid foundation and real proof before I turn over anyone to the Tribunal to face banishment or exportation.”
“I suppose it has nothing to do with the fact that the Dracos have way too much power and influence with the Department?” Felix phrased the question bitterly as he cast a scathing glance at Kerr before looking back at the director.
Director Simmons’s mouth pursed. “That’s an unfair accusation. I conduct all investigations with a fair and balanced hand, and I require proof from everyone.”
“That alien’s name on the lips of a dying kid caught up in something bigger than him wasn’t enough proof for you?”
The director took a deep breath. “I suggest reining in your tone, Agent Renton. You’re good at getting results, and you’re a fine agent, but you’re skirting perilously close to insubordination right now. Calm down and listen.”
Lauren was surprised when Felix slumped back against the chair, his mouth closed even though his expression was still angry. She’d never seen anyone handle Felix that way before, and her esteem of the director rose another notch, even though she was chewing out Lauren’s partner.
“Of course a dying confession carries a lot of weight, but he simply said Kex’s name. There could be more at play than we’re aware. You were the one who was privy to his dying declaration—”
“Are you calling me a liar? Because Tom Wilkes was right there with me.”
She frowned, her annoyance clear. “No, I’m not, Agent Renton. I’m simply saying he whispered a name to you with no other information. For all you know, it could have been a dying request for a friend. We don’t have enough evidence to act on his confession. You know eighty percent of the time, the Tribunal deports or banishes aliens brought before them, and it’s always the right call, but it’s also based on strong evidence submitted by the Department. That’s what we require in this case before we can move forward.”
“We’ve been digging at this for months, Director Simmons. What do you suggest?”
“I think it’s somehow tied to the Grotesquerie. There’s enough evidence to support that supposition, but it’s also a tightknit community of hundreds of aliens. They won’t talk to us, but Lord Dracos has a suggestion, and I have endorsed it.”
“What kind of suggestion?” asked Felix with obvious suspicion.
“He suggests the two of you go undercover as part of the show, which will allow you access to investigate the parts we can’t officially. It might also earn you some trust among the people, and they might open up to you.”
“Undercover? In the Grotesquerie?” Felix shook his head, looking disgusted. “How are we supposed to do that? Radical surgery to become mutants?”
Kerr stiffened. “My people aren’t mutants. They’re simply aliens from various planets around the galaxies. We make a living the best way we can, and humans see what they want to see. When they view our shows, they think we’re simply diseased or mutated humans with horrible disfigurements. They don’t suspect we’re aliens, because they don’t want to know. As it turns out though, you wouldn’t be going into the show in any performance capacity, Agent Renton.”
“Then what am I supposed to do there? It’s not like you employ humans.”
“You’ll be acting as Agent Sage’s father, and she’ll be undercover as the Fire Lord’s assistant.”
Lauren froze in shock, her gaze darting between the director and Kerr for a minute before she shook her head. “I… What?”
“No one noticed you this morning, because you were on the fringes of the arrest,” said the director. “Most of the members of the show weren’t up yet, or hadn’t rendezvoused with the advance group that sets up the buildings and prepares for the shows while in town. You’re an unknown face. According to your employment records, you’ve studied gymnastics for years, so you should be capable of the maneuvers required. Felix will be there to watch your back, though he’ll be disguised. He’ll have to alter his appearance somewhat, because some might remember him after this morning’s spectacular arrests.”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to have a different agent acting as her father?” asked Kerr.
Lauren felt like she was on the verge of hysteria. It was an overwhelming assignment for someone who was just gaining her feet in the field. Something about Kerr himself made her reluctant to take the job as well. It wasn’t because he frightened her exactly. It was more that he intrigued her in a way strictly beyond professional. Working closely with him seemed like a recipe for disaster.
“Perhaps it would be safer, but I feel Felix is the best person for the job, Lord Dracos. He’s been in charge of this investigation from the beginning, and he’s one of our best agents. He’s also Lauren’s partner, and he’ll look out for her.”
Kerr seemed satisfied, and he nodded. Felix also nodded grudgingly, though he was clearly annoyed by the whole idea. Lauren herself was just terrified, both of failing at the assignment and at spending so much time working closely with the alien beside her. She swallowed the lump in her throat and said, “I’m ready for this, Director Simmons.” She sounded far more confident than she felt when she gave the assurance.