Harry gritted his teeth as the stitches in his back pulled, but resolutely kept moving at a steady pace through the park. To admit defeat after injury in the field was to welcome retirement. The physiotherapist had suggested gentle exercise, and so exercise he did: walking his elderly neighbour's elderly dog twice around the gravel path at the park, then hobbling home to heat rubs and pain-killers. He would not be put out to pasture yet, by God.
Now, he shifted his weight from foot to foot as the ancient Jack Russell nosed fussily through a pile of old leaves. To distract himself from the pain, he practised taking stock of the people in the park, testing his recall after only a quick glance. Old woman in a green coat hurrying home with dinner wrapped in butchers paper; young girl hunched into a oversized jumper listening to headphones and oblivious to the rest of the world; middle-aged man in a trench coat leaning forward on a park bench, swathed in a cloud of bluish smoke and staring with ferocious intensity at a stand of hazel. Harry's eyes narrowed: there were only two reasons to lurk about a park in a trench coat — spook work or sex, and he was having neither of them in his park. He tugged on the leash, and they both hobbled in the direction of the wooden seats that faced the new trees.
The man didn't look up as, with a sigh of relief that didn't need to be feigned, Harry flopped into the seat beside him. Harry sat in silence for a few moments, rubbing at his hip and examining the man next to him from the corner of his eye: the face wasn't familiar, but Harry would lay money on him being English, just from the set of his stubbled jaw and the way he held his cigarette as he eked out the last possible breath, then threw the butt to the ground, all without breaking his gaze. So, it was sex, then. Harry stood up creakily, then drew himself up into stern Naval posture. "Now, see here. This isn't the kind of park you think it is, so push off. There are plenty of bars for that sort of thing — this isn't the Dark Ages, you know."
The man blinked, and blinked again, then turned to look at Harry with a sneer. "Fuck off, sunshine. Fuck off all the way home, get pissed and forget you ever saw me." So Harry did just that.
It was midnight, and Harry was standing in his kitchen with a glass in his hand. His bare feet were cold, but more importantly, he couldn't remember anything about the evening — not returning the neighbour's dog, nor getting into his pyjamas, or pouring himself what seemed to be one in a long series of whiskey. He took a wobbly step towards the table where the half-empty bottle sat accusingly, surrounded by the plastic seal he'd obviously ripped off the lid. He'd only bought that bottle last week. Harry looked at the glass in his hand, and his heart sunk. This was it. PTSD, or some other kind of trauma, or maybe dementia from repeated blows to the head, or maybe a tumour — God knows what kind of radiation he'd been exposed to in his travels with the Doctor. He took a hefty swig from the glass, swayed on his feet, then gave himself a shake all over. Self pity? Self pity wasn't his thing at all.
"Sit down, Doctor Sullivan, and take stock of events." He spoke sternly to himself, as he always did when he was drunk; and, as he always did when he was drunk, listened to his own advice. He plotted out the events of the day, backwards and forwards. When he had identified the period of missing time, he rocked back in his chair with relief. Externally altered memory — now that was something he had some experience with.
"And you stupid lazy buggers, you always forget that there's more than one type of memory, don't you?" Harry slowed his breathing, and closed his eyes, then thought of the way the setting sun looked through the mist, and the smell of rotting leaves on the path underfoot. There was cold in the mist and it ached in his bones. The ache recalled the roughness of peeling paint against the palm of his hand, the taste of cigarette smoke in the back of his throat, and cascading after those memories was a wave of menace, something lurking in the undergrowth, something watching him with inhuman eyes. Harry put down his glass with a steady hand, and went upstairs to dress and gather his things. There was something alien lurking in the park, and he was the best person to find out what it was.
It was just gone midnight, but the moon was huge, and washed the park silver. Harry picked his way quietly through the trees, avoiding the gravel path to circle across the slick grass to where the silver-green leaves of the hazel hedge gleamed brighter than anything else in the park. He was almost certain he heard a slow drumbeat, and smelled something acrid and volatile in the air.
At the edge of the hazel bushes a man in a trench coat knelt beside a jerry can, cursing as he nursed an open flame with one hand, the other clenched against his stomach. As Harry crept closer, he saw something glossy and black seeping between the man's fingers as they pressed hard against his body. He'd seen enough blood by moonlight to recognise the man as human, even if his choice vernacular hadn't marked his origins as Merseyside.
"Burn! Burn, you arse of a wood." The man's voice was strained as he held the flame close to the thin woody trunk of a hazel bush. The flame licked around the small trunk, but refused to take. Something slithered through the hedge, rattling the slender trees. Harry caught a glimpse of long, silvered hair and an elongated jaw. A snake-like head moved blindly from side to side as if searching out a scent, and Harry felt waves of antipathy wash through the trees. Without a second thought, he snatched up the can of fuel and upended it, shaking petrol out over the leaves of the hazel trees, then snatched the burning book of matched from the injured man's hand and flung it into the foliage.
"Greater surface area, you see?" he said to the man crouching at his feet, "It's counterintuitive to start at the top, but you need to overcome surface moisture, need to saturate the area." These were things one picked up in intelligence work. He watched with satisfaction as the hedge caught in a glorious blaze.
A curse at his feet reminded Harry of his other duties, and he hooked the man by the armpits and pulled him clear of the burning trees, out into the centre of the park where he could make a cursory moonlit examination of his injuries. The man tried to stand, but Harry pushed him back onto the grass. "Stop that. I'm a doctor, let me see." He prised away the man's hands, and tore open the bloodstained shirt: there was a small penetrative wound in the man's abdomen: circular, no tearing, slow but steady blood loss. He probed the area gently — there was a lot of heat coming from the wound already, despite the fact that it was fresh.
"What kind of fucking doctor lurks around parks looking to burn a bush?"
Harry rolled the man onto his side to look for an exit wound. "If you're worried that my intentions may not be entirely pure, I'd like to utilise the rather puerile defence that you were here first." There was no exit wound, which was troubling. "Doctor Sullivan, by the way. I don't suppose you have any idea what calibre they were using?"
"Fucking arseholes. Have to draw it out with cold iron. John. I'm John." The man was pale now, and starting to shake. Shock was setting in.
"Yes," Harry said dubiously, and hoisted the man up off the ground. "Well, I haven't done table-top surgery in quite a while, but I can see you're not the kind who goes to hospital. The heroic ones never do." The muscles in his back, already tense and sore, screamed in protest, but Harry carried the man as gently as he could all the way back to his house.
As it eventuated, the high-grade steel of Harry's surgical forceps contained enough cold iron to pluck elf-shot from John's abdomen. Now, neatly bandaged and nursing the half-empty bottle of whiskey, John was dozing in Harry's favourite armchair, his legs on the footstool while Harry stoked up the fire. Harry looked at the elf-shot or whatever it was lying in the ashtray on the arm of the chair and remembered how the arrow-head had writhed between the tips of his forceps as he pulled it free from John's body.
"You okay?" John's eyes were open again, though barely. "S'a lot to take in, elves and magic and all that."
Harry pressed two fingers against John's jaw line, feeling for his pulse. "Well, I suppose one man's magic is another man's alien technology."
John rolled his eyes. "No such fucking thing, you know. Aliens. Demons, the lot of them. They created the whole abduction scenario to fuck with mortal heads because they think it's funny. Also, because they're obsessed with the human anus."
Harry laughed, and took the opportunity to snatch the whiskey bottle away from his patient, mollifying John's angry glare by taking a nip himself. "Perhaps you've just been meeting the wrong sort of alien. Some of them are worth getting to know."
John gave a rude snort, and reached out for the bottle. Harry put it safely on the mantelpiece. "When you're well enough to stand up and get it, you're welcome to have another drink. Until then, I'm afraid you're on the wagon."
"What are you, then, some kind of abstinent fucking saint ?" John's face belied the mocking tone — this was a question of intent.
"Well," said Harry, cupping his hand against John's jaw again. "I may have the body of an old war dog, but let me assure you that what lies below this creaky old exterior is neither abstinent nor saintly."
John leaned into Harry's hand. "Pity. I've always wanted to defrock a saint."