Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
The old grandfather clock had stood in the corner of her aunt's antique shop for as long as Allie Castiel could remember, methodically counting off the seconds, never too fast or too slow. Time was funny like that, she thought. It still kept on counting, whether you were aware of it or not. It didn't matter whether she was in the room to listen to the clock, or if she was anywhere else in the world, time would still keep on ticking and no amount of railing against it could stop it happening.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
The sound of the clock was almost comforting, almost lulling. She was sitting in her usual place, behind the high sales counter on a stool, her legs dangling like a child. Listening to the steady ticking, she laid her head down beside the old-fashioned cash register, feeling the granite counter-top cooling her heated cheek. Tears ran silently from her eyes and pooled unheeded on the smooth stone surface.
All at once, the bells over the door jangled wildly. Quickly wiping away her tears, Allie raised her head in a weary fashion, and ran her fingers through her short, blonde bob, annoyed at the interruption. In hindsight, she supposed she should have placed a "Closed" sign on the door, but she hadn't really been expecting any customers on such a wet, blustery morning. They usually got few enough when it was fine and sunny.
The newcomer was a tall, thin man with a shock of spiky, dark brown hair and long side-burns, dressed in a long tan-coloured coat, over a brown suit with blue pinstripes. On his feet were a pair of cream-coloured Converse trainers that looked like they had seen better days. He was staring down at some sort of device in his hand that was blinking on and off with a red light. Hovering on the threshold for a second, he thrust the small object deep into his coat pocket, before bouncing into the room. Allie could think of no other description. He didn't walk, he didn't stroll, he literally bounced, his face alight with enthusiasm.
"A little shop!" he exclaimed, glancing around, as if it was the last place he expected to find himself. "Brilliant! I love a little shop, don't you?"
A bit taken aback by his apparent delight, Allie wasn't quite sure what to say to this, so she settled for, "Hello, can I help you with something?"
"I hope so," he said. "I'm the Doctor. Are you the proprietor of this fine establishment?"
"No," she said automatically. But then she bit her lip and amended, "Well...actually...yes, I suppose I am."
He gave her a steady, penetrating look. Somewhere in the back of her head, Allie found herself thinking that she had never seen a warmer, more gorgeous, more intelligent pair of brown eyes. Her cheeks coloured a little as she hurriedly thrust the thought away.
"Well, which is it?" he asked, not unkindly. "Either you are or you aren't."
"It belonged to my aunt and I used to run it for her," she explained. "But she died last week. Nothing's been properly settled yet, but she left everything to me, so I guess that makes me the new proprietor."
"I see." A solemn, almost sad look descended over his face. "I'm sorry. About your aunt, I mean. It's never easy to lose people you care about."
His voice held a wealth of understanding, and Allie found herself immediately warming to him. She was usually pretty good at reading people and something in his expression told her that he was no stranger to loneliness. She couldn't help wondering if he had also lost someone recently. "No, it isn't," she agreed. "So...what was it you wanted?"
"I need to see your back room," he said briskly, his tone completely business-like now.
She blinked in astonishment. "I beg your pardon?"
"Your back room," he repeated, holding out a small leather wallet. "I'm from the Council. I'm inspecting all the back rooms in the area."
Allie frowned, staring at the credentials he was proferring. From what she could see, they all appeared to be in order. Doctor John Smith, licensed Council Inspector, from the Department of Health Services, Housing and Sanitation. However, he didn't look like any sort of inspector she had ever seen before.
"Why? What's going on?"
"Oh, you know what back rooms are like," he replied vaguely. "You never know what might be going on in a back room. All sorts of back-roomy...stuff. Could be quite dangerous, if it's not sorted out promptly. No need to worry though. That's what I'm here for. Through here, is it?"
Without waiting for permission, he slipped behind the counter and opened up the door leading into the back areas of the shop. There wasn't much in the room beyond. Just a small kitchenette with a sink and a microwave and a large table that was currently littered with several large cardboard boxes, containing the stock consignment which had been delivered the day before and which she hadn't yet had the heart to unpack. Two other doors led to an adjoining toilet and a storeroom respectively, while a third opened out on to a narrow back alley, which ran behind the strip of shops.
However, the unusual council inspector didn't bother even glancing towards the other exits. Instead, he appeared to be vitally interested in the boxes on the table. He hurried forward and, much to her alarm, drew the small blinking device out of his pocket again. The red light was flashing more frantically now, accompanied by a low, bleeping sound.
"Now, just a minute, Doctor Smith," she protested, following behind him and belatedly trying to assert herself. Everything seemed to be happening too quickly; it was like a whirlwind had suddenly blown into her quiet shop. "You haven't said..."
"Doctor," he interrupted.
"It's just 'the Doctor', not Doctor Smith."
Trying to keep her exasperation under control, she said through gritted teeth, "Very well, then...Doctor...can you please tell me exactly what you're looking for?"
"Can't," he responded cheerfully, waving the bleeping device over one box after another. "I won't know until I find it. What's in these boxes?"
"I...I'm not exactly sure. It's a stock consignment from Africa. My aunt ordered it before she died," Allie said in bewilderment, wondering if he could possibly be suspecting her of illegal smuggling of artefacts. Was he scanning for some kind of hidden barcode? But the Council didn't deal with that sort of thing, did they? Wasn't that Customs and Excise? Nevertheless, just in case, she hurried to add, "It's all perfectly legal, I assure you. I have all the appropriate paperwork."
Even as she spoke, his hand passed over the largest box of all and the bleeping from his little device went absolutely crazy. "Whatever's in here, it came from further away than Africa," the Doctor said grimly. He slipped the device back into his pocket and gingerly began to open the flaps on the box.
"Further away than Africa?" she echoed. Surely he had to be joking. What could be further away than Africa? Australia? Antarctica?
Poking around in the mass of styrofoam packing peanuts, he gently began to pull out item after item, examining each one closely, and then discarding it on the table. There were several small, woven baskets; a carved wooden mask on a stick; a small, circular organic looking object that looked like a piece of pure, white coral; various peculiar sculptures of polished stone with embarrassingly large genitals; a painting of a dancing monkey; some large wooden bangles; and a set of three stone plates. But none of these seemed to be what the Doctor was looking for and they all got laid aside.
But then, with a flourish like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he reached deep into the box and drew out a smooth, glossy object shaped like a bullet. It was about the same size as the palm of his hand and appeared to be made from gleaming copper. "Oh yes!" He gave her a victorious grin. "A lot further away, I'd say!"
Allie stared at the strange, metallic cylinder. "What is that thing?"
"It's a lure," he said. "For hunting. They use them on the planet Xbek. Once it's activated, it emits a mating call. Kind of like a duck caller...you know..." He put his fist up to his mouth and blew through it, making a comical quacking noise.
Allie couldn't help laughing. However crazy this guy was, at least he wasn't boring, unlike most of the Council Inspectors she had met previously. "I know what a duck caller is, thank you very much. But are you seriously trying to tell me that thing is from outer space?"
"Ye-p!" he replied, popping the 'p' with peculiar emphasis. He put his hand back in his pocket and pulled out a pair of dark-rimmed glasses and perched them on the end of his nose. It should have made him look ridiculous, but somehow it didn't. In Allie's opinion, it merely added to his eccentric appeal. She had to admit, for a weird sci-fi geek, he was incredibly attractive.
Suddenly, he was holding another device, quite different to the little bleeping one he had been using before. This one was long and silver, with a blue light in the end, and it made a high-pitched buzzing noise as he waved it over the copper object in his palm. "And it's been activated, probably from jouncing around in that box during transit. Which must be why my timey-wimey detector picked it up. That signal's strong enough to be heard galaxies away. I'm guessing we don't have much time."
A frisson of apprehension trickled up Allie's spine. "Much time for what?"
He didn't answer. In fact, Allie wasn't sure he had even heard. He was busy pulling all sorts of strange things out of his pockets. She watched in amazement, unable to work out where it was all coming from. His pockets had to be a whole lot bigger than they looked!
"Where's that lead to?" he asked urgently, indicating the large, double back door.
"Out into the alley behind the shops," she shrugged.
"Brilliant! That's perfect, just what we need!" With quick, jerky movements, he started unrolling some wire, pulling at it with his teeth. Then he dodged around the table and began using his silver wand-thing to fasten it around the door frame. "Right, you'd better come and stand over here. You've just been promoted to my official look-out girl."
For want of anything better to do, and held fast in the grip of her own curiosity, Allie joined him at the door. He flung both sides of the entranceway wide and she could see the raindrops pattering down on the cobblestones outside. Then he crouched down and began connecting his wire to some other unfamiliar bits and pieces. She watched him for a few moments, but eventually had to concede that she had absolutely no idea what he was doing.
"So," she ventured, unsure exactly what was required of an official look-out girl. "I'm supposed to stand here and warn you when I see a big crowd of ducks coming down the alleyway, is that the gist of it? At least it's the right weather for them." The joke sounded lame even in her own ears, and she fully expected him to tell her so.
Instead, his head shot up, his forehead wrinkled into a confused frown. "Ducks? Who said anything about ducks?"
"You did. You said that copper thing was some sort of weird alien duck caller."
"No, I didn't. I said it was like a duck caller, I didn't say it was one."
Allie held her breath and counted to ten, trying to rein in her temper. He might be the best-looking guy she had met for a very long time, but he was also the most infuriating. Why did she always attract the nutcases? "Then what exactly am I supposed to be watching out for?"
"A Calliphorid," he replied. "Sort of like a really big blowfly. Imagine one of those really fat, black, buzzy flies you get in your house in summer and then magnify it about a million times. Don't worry, when it comes, you won't miss it."
Allie felt an overwhelming desire to burst into hysterical giggles. She couldn't decide who was crazier, him with his wild stories, or her for standing here listening to him so calmly. "So...that copper thing is sending out a mating call to a giant, alien blowfly, which is about to drop in from outer space and come buzzing along the back alleyway, through my back door and into my shop?"
He nodded in a preoccupied way, still fiddling about with whatever it was he was putting together. "That's about the size of it."
"OK, stop now!" she snapped, her mounting irritation finally getting the better of her. Whirling on the spot, she looked all around her, carefully searching every one of the familiar dusty corners of the room. "Just stop. This isn't funny. Where's the camera?"
"Well, there has to be one, doesn't there? Because this whole thing is so ridiculous, it just has to be one of those stupid candid camera reality TV shows that try to make people look like idiots. Any moment now, Ashton Kutcher is going to pop out and yell out, 'You're punk'd!' at the top of his voice, right?"
"Ashton Kutcher? Nah, I don't think so!" the Doctor replied placidly. "I've met a lot of people on the Earth, but never him. Not sure I want to, really. Plenty more cooler people than him to meet. Take William Shakespeare, for instance. He was brilliant. Or Harry Houdini – now that bloke could tell ghost stories that would curl your toes. Or even Marie Antoinette. Lovely girl. I don't mean to boast, but she lost her head over me a bit."
Allie threw her hands up in the air in sheer frustration. "You are totally insane, you know that, right?"
"We-ell, you're actually not the first to say that," he grinned. "All that aside though, can I just suggest that the whole point of being a look-out girl, is actually to do some looking out?"
Allie turned her back on him and stalked back over to the open door. Maybe if she ignored him for long enough, he would get sick of whatever game he was playing and go away. If it went on for too much longer, she supposed she would have to call the police. But for some reason, even though it was definitely the easiest way out of this, that solution didn't appeal to her. After all, it wasn't as if he had threatened her in any way. He was just completely delusional.
She gazed out at the rain-washed alley way, exaggeratedly looking back and forth, pretending to play along, in case he was watching her. Look to the left. Look to the right. Look to the left again...she hummed mockingly to herself.
And that was when she heard it, coming from her left – a low, insistent buzzing sound, gradually getting louder. And louder. And louder.
No, she thought, her eyes widening in horror, no, no, no, that's not possible.
But then the creature came into sight and she could no longer deny it. It was flying low, following the twists and turns of the alleyway with perfect precision. It had delicate, gossamer, black-veined wings; six jointed legs; a metallic-sheened, blue-green carapace; and two huge eyes, like enormous bronze mirrors. Most notable of all, it was also the size of a small helicopter.
Allie felt all the colour draining out of her face. "Oh. My. God," she croaked, her throat suddenly dry and tight with fear.
"I take it that means it's coming!" the Doctor said, flipping his silver wand into the air and returning it to his pocket. Reaching out, he grabbed her hand and yanked her backwards with him, until they were both behind the table. "Looks like I finished just in time."
Allie was trembling from head to toe with shock. "Oh god, I'm so sorry I didn't believe you!" she gasped.
"Never mind that now! Just keep down!" he instructed.
This time, she was only too pleased to listen to him, peeking anxiously out between two of the cardboard boxes. She tightened her fingers convulsively on his, only to feel him squeeze back. His hand was cool in hers, his grasp strong and reassuring. A faint thought came to her that she should be running like hell - but for some reason, being with the Doctor suddenly seemed a whole lot safer than anywhere else she could think of. The buzzing noise was so loud by now that it seemed almost to vibrate the thin walls of the shop. The pressure on Allie's ears was so intense that she was afraid her eardrums were about to burst. There was a heavy thump on the wall outside and an enormous head came into view, dominated by those two spine-chilling eyes and sporting a pair of bristling antennae. Allie clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling her instinctive scream.
The Doctor leapt to his feet, holding out the metal cylinder that had caused all the problems in the first place. "This is what you want, isn't it?" he yelled, waving the thing above his head. "Come on, Fly-Guy, come and get it then!"
The enormous fly hesitated, its antennae twitched back and forth, as if scenting the air for danger. But in the end, the lure of the cylinder was too strong and the thin, loathsome legs appeared around the side of the door as it began to crawl purposefully inside.
The Doctor popped back down again and pulled Allie's face against his chest. "Shield your eyes!" he commanded, ducking his own head down. All at once, there was a fierce, hissing sound and, even with her eyes closed, Allie caught a flash of bright white light, searing through the thin membrane of her eyelids. The terrible buzzing stopped abruptly, as if someone had cut the thick, obnoxious sound with a knife.
The only thing she could hear in the remaining silence was the pounding of the Doctor's heart, under the soft, warm cotton of his shirt. It was odd, she thought dazedly, it seemed to be beating much too fast, almost as though it was going double time. Almost as though he had two hearts, which was utterly impossible.
"You can look now," he said. "It's all over."
Reluctantly, she pulled away from the comforting shelter of his arms and peered between the boxes again. The gigantic fly was flying on its back on the floor. Its bronze, mirror-like eyes were now cloudy and opaque, while its legs quivered periodically, before finally falling still.
"Is it dead?" she whispered.
"Yes," he said curtly. To her surprise, there was an expression very like regret on his face. "I'm afraid so."
She didn't understand why he seemed so upset. "But...that's good, isn't it?"
He dragged in a deep, heavy breath that sounded like a sigh. "No, it's not 'good'. I don't like to kill things. But, in this case, I had no choice. If that thing was allowed to breed on the Earth, it would have wiped out the entire human population within three months."
Personally, Allie couldn't see the problem. She couldn't be happier that the thing was dead. Killing flies was just what you did – even bizarrely enormous ones like this. But she could see he was completely serious and so she didn't like to argue, especially since he had probably just saved her life. She shuddered to think what would have happened if that thing had turned up and he hadn't been there.
"What...happened to it?"
He shrugged, rising to his feet and stepping out from behind the table, staring moodily down at the creature, his hands in his coat pockets. Allie followed more slowly, still watching the dead fly warily for signs of movement.
"Magnesium flares rigged to a simple sensor. Calliphorids are extremely photosensitive. The ultra-bright light overloaded its neuron network. Killed it instantly."
Allie glanced at him sideways. "And...you just happened to have some magnesium flares in your pockets?"
His brooding expression melted into an amused smile, his brown eyes losing their distant look and suddenly twinkling as he focused on her. "Never know when you might need 'em."
Despite everything that had just happened, she still felt her heart skipping a beat at that smile.
"So...what should we do now? Call the authorities? The police? Someone in the government?"
He raised his eyebrows. "What for?"
"Well...to report it!" she blurted out incredulously. "Surely I have to tell someone!"
He removed his glasses and put them away. "I wouldn't," he advised. "The authorities tend to be very boring about this sort of thing, I've always found. Apart from a few notable exceptions, like Torchwood or UNIT, that is."
"B...but..." she stammered. "I have an enormous dead blowfly corpse lying in my back room! How the hell am I supposed to explain that?"
"You won't have to." He pointed down at the Calliphorid. "It's disintegrating already. See?"
Sure enough, the fly was slowly collapsing into dust in front of their eyes, its shining, jewel-like carapace and glittering wings crumbling into ugly black smears on the wooden floor. To Allie's surprise, watching the creature fall so ignominiously apart, she felt an unexpected pang of sympathy. Just a few minutes ago, it had been so alive. She would never forget her first sight of it, zooming so skilfully and terribly down the narrow alleyway. In its own abhorrent way, it had been rather magnificent. Suddenly, dimly, she began to see where the Doctor was coming from in his regret for the creature's death.
"Here," he said, taking a brush and broom from the corner. "I'll help you clear up."
They worked silently together, scooping up the pile of black dust and transferring it out to the dustbin in the alley, until the floor was clean again. With the evidence gone, it was as if the whole thing had never happened. If it wasn't for the Doctor still standing beside her, Allie could almost believe it had all been some kind of weird dream.
The Doctor gathered up his equipment and put it back into his strangely capacious pockets, together with the innocuous-looking copper cylinder that had started it all. "I'll keep this, if you don't mind," he said. "Get rid of it, before it does any more damage."
Allie didn't mind at all. She didn't want the thing anywhere near her. It gave her the creeps.
"You're not really from the Council, are you, Doctor?" she challenged softly.
He grinned guiltily, reminding her strongly of a school boy caught doing something naughty. "Not...as such," he admitted.
"Who are you then?"
"Just a traveller." Hesitantly, he reached out and stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. They'd only just met - with most people she hardly knew, she would have recoiled, finding the gesture intrusive. But with him, it just seemed natural and right. "I just realised," he continued. "I never even asked your name."
"It's Allison. Allison Castiel," she replied, a little shakily. "But I usually get called Allie."
"Allison Castiel," he repeated, his brown eyes serious, as if he was committing the name to memory. "Nice to meet you, Allie."
Again, she caught that elusive hint of loneliness in his face. Where would he go now, this strange, mysterious man? she wondered. Did he have people waiting for him who loved him? Or was he, like her, all alone?
"Would you like...a cup of tea or something?"
She knew the question sounded ridiculous, after everything they'd just been through – the old British cliché that everything could be fixed with a cup of hot, sweet tea. But she had to say something to make him realise he was welcome to stay if he wanted to.
He gave her a lop-sided smile and shook his head. Her heart sank like a lead weight.
"Thanks, but I'd better get on. Maybe another time."
"Sure," she said brightly, trying not to show how disappointed she was. "Whenever you're in the neighbourhood! The offer still stands."
He walked towards the still-open door leading into the alley, before looking back over his shoulder at her. "I have a feeling we'll be seeing each other again, Allie Castiel."
And, before she could reply, the doorway was empty and he was gone.
"I hope so, Doctor," she murmured. "I truly hope so."