“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I stalled out at the Stellar Dust Bin, unsure whether to laugh or leave.
“Is it costume night?” I asked a guy with a protruding forehead and glowing yellow eyes.
“Jeh git lee?” he babbled in some fake alien language.
“Whatever.” I rolled my eyes.
He lumbered away, dragging a ridged tail out the back end of his silver jumpsuit, and joined three other dudes in similar costumes at a far table.
You know the practical joke where everyone in the office tells one person they’re all dressing up for Halloween, and then nobody does except the patsy? This was the reverse. I hadn’t gotten the memo costumes were de rigueur. In my black knit dress and sandals, I stood out as the oddball.
Since this wasn’t a real date, there was no need to get fancy, but I didn’t want to tip off the guy I’d caught onto the scam by underdressing. So, I went with simple date attire. I left my shoulder-length hair loose, brushed on a little mascara and lip gloss, and called it good.
“Sit anywhere you’d like, hon. I’ll be with you in a sec.” A waitress wearing a T-shirt and jeans breezed by with a tray of drinks. At least somebody here is normal.
I found a table where I could keep an eye on the door and watch the nutjobs. I had nothing against cosplay, but this crowd had my warning sensors buzzing. Pretend if you must—as long as everyone knows it’s pretense. But when the line between fantasy and reality blurred—or worse, you tried to smear the line for somebody—you needed to get real.
I’d say one thing for the Intergalactic Dating Agency—they didn’t deviate from their marketing pitch one iota. Consistency was vital to any good scam. I’d checked my contract—nothing in it prohibited clients from talking about the service or their satisfaction, and membership information materials referred clients to certain “references” if they had any uncertainties.
When I contacted those references, they rated the agency highly and raved about their dates—seemingly believing with absolute certainty the men were aliens. I suspected they were part of the front, and they’d been paid to say all the right things.
In questioning the women on the reference list, I worried I might have revealed my hand because three months had passed since I’d met with the coordinator, and no date had been found for me.
If the agency had been a legitimate service, the thundering silence would have stirred my insecurities that nobody wanted to date me. However, I figured the IDA had to come up with somebody just to continue the hoax. But when weeks of waiting melted into months, I’d begun to worry I might have blown my cover.
Then, last Tuesday, an email notified me my alien date had arrived. His name was Krash. For his sake, I hoped his alias didn’t describe his spacecraft landing. Har. Har. Krash came from “Dakon.” Big air quotes. After verifying my availability, the IDA set up a meet and greet over cocktails at the Stellar Dust Bin.
I couldn’t wait to see what the agency had come up with—and hear what the dude had to say. I’d bet he had a real creative story. I planned to grill him until he was well done. I rubbed my thumb over the back of my pendant, verifying the micro spy cam was turned on.
I’d never heard of the Stellar Dust Bin, but then I didn’t hang out in a lot of dive bars in downtown New Los Angeles. I arrived early to scope out the place before my date “krash landed.”
Airports had nothing on this joint for people watching. I spotted green Martian men, women with Tinkerbell wings, and people wearing fur suits. Oversized heads on little bodies. Large bodies, small heads. Porcupine quills, masks with snouts and fangs. Several “aliens” required special breathing apparatuses. One guy’s bodysuit made it appear he had transparent skin allowing you to see his internal organs.
I’d been proud of myself when I put together a Lt. Uhuru costume for Halloween. Compared to these folks, I was a rank amateur.
Gawking at the costumes, I almost missed seeing my cocktail waitress arrive. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a puff of smoke, and then poof! There she was, a regular David Copperfield.
“Cool illusion,” I said, regretting I hadn’t been paying attention. When I went to magic shows, I sat front and center to better figure out the tricks.
“I like to make an entrance.” She winked. “My name is Yvffnkn, but you can call me Betty. I’ll be your server.”
As she’d spoken, I’d gotten a glimpse of her tongue. I’d almost swear it was forked and blue, but the bar was dim so it was probably my imagination. On the other hand, some people got into extreme body modification. If they surgically transformed themselves to resemble cats, elves, lizards, and Barbie dolls, why not aliens?
Betty pulled a cocktail napkin from her apron pocket and slapped it on my table. “What can I get ya?”
I stared at her mouth. “Got any happy hour specials?” I asked to get her talking.
“The Star Flight. It’s out of this world.” She chuckled. “Actually, it contains Jamaican rum and Hawaiian fruit juices, but our intergalactic visitors consider it exotic.”
Yeppers. Her tongue was forked and blue. So much for normal.
“I’ll have one of those.”
“You alone, or are you with somebody?”
“I’m waiting for a gentleman from the Intergalactic Dating Agency.”
“We get a quite a few IDA meet-ups here.” She nodded. “You know anything about him?”
Besides him being a con artist? “Only that he’s Dakonian.” What a coincidence my date and the match coordinator’s “husband” originated from the same “planet” of tall, dark, and handsome men. No doubt the agency’s client base of desperate women would think they’d hit the jackpot when their hunky alien arrived. Wouldn’t work on me though. Good looks couldn’t make me forget I knew what he really was.
“Hubba, hubba,” Betty said. “Never met a Dakonian who wasn’t a hottie.” She nodded toward the bar. “Aton, the bartender, is Dakonian.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, he’s been claimed. You want to order a drink for your Dakonian?”
I wouldn’t exactly call him my Dakonian. “I wouldn’t have a clue what he would like, and it’s still early yet, so no.”
“Fair enough. I’ll be back in a flash with your Star Flight.” She vanished in a cloud of smoke and rematerialized at the bar. She said a few words to the bartender then performed her disappearing act and popped up at another table across the room.
I switched on my phone’s flashlight app and swept the floor where she’d been standing. I didn’t see any trap doors. I scooted my chair over and stomped on the hardwood. Solid, not hollow. Neat trick! I wondered why she’d waste her talent waiting tables at a dive bar when she could get a gig as an illusionist.
While the bartender was shaking up a drink—hopefully mine—I logged onto Spacebook, a social media site for IDA clients. I’d only been granted access today. My profile should have gone active upon approval of my membership, but a “glitch” had occurred. Had it really been an oversight, or did the agency suspect I wasn’t who I claimed to be? If I’d been able to log on to Spacebook sooner, it could have been very helpful in my investigation. People unwittingly revealed too much of themselves on public sites. Hence, you could discover very useful info—such as your marriage being invalid.
I rechecked Krash’s profile for an update. Previously, his page had shown only his picture. Handsome guy if his photo was real. His status still read “pending.” Pending what? The date with me?
Unlike the other aliens, he didn’t look happy. The others smiled; his sexy, full mouth drooped like somebody had stolen his spaceship.
I’d never been attracted to the self-involved brooding type, but I had to admit he was hot, despite the fake horns. He had bronzy milk-chocolate skin, shoulder-length near-black hair, and soulful, if morose, eyes. However, if I’d gone so far as to plant a set of antlers on my skull, I would have chosen bigger ones, like maybe bighorn sheep or longhorn steer. I mean, why bother with leathery nubs? Hell, dude, go for broke!
Out of curiosity, I tapped over to the bartender’s page. Aton. Dakonian. Status: Matched.
I scrolled through his profile, noting his likes and dislikes then widened my eyes as I read who he was paired with—Toni Sutterman. Attorney-at-law Antoinette Gates Sutterman, one of the fiercest lawyers in the city and the younger daughter of Caroline Gates, the doyenne of New Los Angeles society. Old money. Country club. Caroline Gates and her two daughters were charter members of the who’s who of respectability.
It seemed unlikely someone as savvy as Toni Sutterman could be conned. Sharp as a laser, she’d do her due diligence. A shadow of doubt crept in. What if the IDA wasn’t scamming innocent women? What if the organization was legit?
Then Toni Sutterman had married an extraterrestrial, and the IDA had flown in aliens. I surveyed the bar patrons. And ergo, some of these weirdos might be real. I eyed the dude drinking rosé who resembled a life-sized Visible Man toy. Except for him. His body suit didn’t pass the believability test.
I snorted. None of these people passed the believability test.
If the Stellar Dust Bin patrons had arrived from outer space, then government and the military would have been involved. The populace wouldn’t calmly go about their business; the country would be in a state of panic and chaos. People would have loaded up their SUVs with canned goods and bottled water and fled to their mountain cabins. Freeways would have been reduced to gridlock. Doomsday preppers would be Tweeting #IToldYouSo from their bunkers. CNN and Fox News would be duking it out, each reporting their distorted version of the “invasion.”
My flash of doubt illustrated how people could fall prey to hoaxes. Con artists identified an entry point of vulnerability and exploited it. Well, it wouldn’t happen to me. Not again. I pressed my lips together, shored up my bullshit deflector, and closed out of Spacebook.
There was a puff of smoke, and then Betty materialized with two drinks in hand. The one in the hurricane glass with a swizzle stick topped by a tiny flying saucer billowed with vapor. “Your Star Flight.” She placed it in front of me. “And a Dakonian ale for your date.” She set a frosty mug of beer on the table opposite me.
“I didn’t order that.”
“Nope, but all the Dakonian boys ask for it, and, if I’m not mistaken, your date has arrived.”
I twisted in my chair. Krash wended his way toward me. I recognized him from his Spacebook photo. Except he was way more attractive in person. I gulped. Take me, you alien devil. Talk about a photo not doing someone justice.
“Good luck, hon.” Betty vanished in a puff of smoke.
“Cyan Blue?” His baritone was oddly accented, not a language I could place.
I stood up. Tall for a woman, I’m eye level with most men, but I had to crane my neck to meet his gaze. Yowsa. I gaped at the chiseled masculine perfection wrapped in buckskins and tied with a leather cord. My gift from the IDA. Definitely worth the wait. Get a grip, girl. Remember your assignment. “You’re Krash?”
“Yes, I am.” He reached up and rubbed one of his horns.
Were they pulsating? Getting bigger? I squinted. The nubs seemed to be swelling. I riveted on those horns, unable to look away. I didn’t see any wires or tubing, but his glossy hair was thick enough to hide electrical leads, a small pump, and possibly a gerbil. My stomach fluttered in an annoying way, and a rush of heat flooded my face.
“Would you like a cocktail? The waitress brought you a Dakonian ale, but you can order something else.”
“Dakonian ale is perfect.” He pulled his chair out and sat down.
“It’s, uh, nice to finally meet you.”
“Were you waiting long? I didn’t think I was late.”
“Oh. No. You’re not. I arrived early. I meant I’ve waited three months for the IDA to pull your name.” I cringed. Why had I admitted that? It was tantamount to saying I was such a loser even a fraudulent escort agency couldn’t find a man willing to date me. This guy’s opinion didn’t matter. Sure, he was freaking gorgeous, but he was abetting a hoax. I gulped my Star Flight before anything else stupid spilled out of my mouth. Fruity and smooth, the drink went down easy. I eyed him over the rim of my glass. His horns were bigger than they had been a moment ago. And they were throbbing.
“Your horns are twitching,” I said.
“That’s never happened to me before.” Ruddy color swept up his cheeks as if he was embarrassed.
Uh-huh. Yeah, right. But the contrast between his uber masculinity and his discomfiture was oddly charming. I took another drink of my Star Flight to counteract the tug. I did not want to like this guy, to be attracted to him. This is a job. Not a date. A job.
I will not have sex with a suspected conspirator.
Sex? Where the hell had that idea come from? I pressed my thighs together. Focus, Cyan. Focus.
Trouble was, I was focusing. On his linebacker shoulders, his muscular chest and bulging biceps, those full, soft lips, the glossy hair tied back with a strip of animal hide, those sexy, leathery pulsating horns, eyes like two deep, dark pools of—stop it! Remember what he is.
“So…how was your flight to Earth?” I asked with a straight face.
“Long, but interesting. I’d never been on a spaceship before.”
“Few people have.” It was all I could do to not roll my eyes. Did he really think I’d believe this crap?
“I’ve never been away from my planet.”
“Tell me about your planet.” I leaned forward like I was dying to hear his answer. In truth, I was curious to hear what kind of story he would concoct.
“It’s beautiful, pristine, and so very quiet because of the blanket of snow. During winter, everything is covered with a coat of white so bright it’s almost blinding. Ice glistens like crystals on the trees and the eaves of our huts. The air smells fresh and clean. Then comes the Thaw. Snow and ice melt, and the ground softens to mud that will suck the boots right off your feet, but it is a joyous season of celebration because the Thaw brings life. We plant our crops. Baby kel, harebits, and phea are born. Sometimes even kits.” He winked, and his whole face lit up with a panty-dampening smile. My stomach fluttered, and I swear my toes curled.
Does it matter if he pretends to be an alien?
Yes! Yes, it mattered, dammit. Authenticity formed the cornerstone of every relationship. Authenticity was the relationship. Without a foundation grounded in truth, a marriage license wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I grabbed at painful memories and wrapped them around me like a shield. I would not be fooled again.
I hardened my heart and sharpened my tone. “So, how long have you been on planet Earth?”
“I arrived last week.”
“And what do you think of my little planet?” I sipped my Star Flight.
“It is not so little. It is larger than Dakon. Much hotter. Noisier. Crowded. Your cities are enormous. I have gotten lost several times, but they gave me one of your phone devices, and when I can’t find my way, I call an Uber.” He massaged his temples. “Figuring out your technology gives me a headache.”
What freaking nerve! The glowing, almost idyllic way he described his planet contrasted with the way he described Earth. His planet was beautiful, serene, clean. Earth was dirty, overpopulated, and noisy. If he liked Dakon so much, why didn’t he stay there?
Maybe because it didn’t exist?
“Why did you join the Intergalactic Dating Agency?”
“A change in circumstances,” he said. “What I believed to be solid and sure was not.”
That was an evasive answer if I ever heard one. He got tired of running a Nigerian scheme and decided to try a different gig? “What kind of circumstances?”
He took a drink. “I have heard marriages differ from matings. One can have many marriage partners, correct?”
His question hit like a dart, striking a bullseye in a tender area. “One at a time. That’s the law,” I replied.
“Sequentially, you can have many.”
“Have you been married?” he asked.
“Not for real.”
He frowned. “How else is it if not for real?”
Well, it would be like if anyone asked me if I’d ever dated an alien. I would answer, not for real. My marriage had been as pretend as these aliens.
“How ’bout you?” I countered. “Have you been married, mated, whatever you call it?” His left hand was as even-toned as the rest of him, bearing no tattletale white ring around the fourth finger signifying he’d removed a wedding band. But then, aliens don’t wear wedding rings. Har. Har.
“We mate.” He paused. “The female I thought was mine chose someone else instead.”
Was that why he’d joined the IDA? To exact revenge? To make all women pay for the crime of one? Or had he decided love wasn’t worth the pain, and he preferred to play the field? “I wish I’d been jilted,” I said.
“It is not something I would recommend,” he said stiffly.
Without context, honesty sounded flippant, but there were worse things than being dumped, such as finding yourself married to someone who didn’t deserve you. An I-don’t-love-you-I’m-leaving-you breakup would have hurt, but clean wounds healed fast, not like the jagged, messy one that tore up my heart and my life. I would have fared better if Jon had broken up with me.
On the other hand, humiliation had been great for my career. It had given me drive, ambition, and a purpose. No woman should suffer the way I had. I couldn’t help Clarissa. Eyes wide shut, she refused to be helped. However, I could prevent others from being hurt by alerting them to scammers and assholes in all their permutations. I would get to the bottom of this scheme if it was the last thing I did.
An attraction to a suspect complicated, but would not compromise, the investigation. I controlled my hormones; they didn’t control me. I would never act on the urge to ride him like a stripper pole.
But, I could flirt him up a little. If he thought I’d fallen for his cockamamie story, he’d be more apt to spill the deets on the scam. I’d get his confession on vid, pass the evidence to the authorities, and shut down the IDA.
Winding a strand of hair around my index finger, I leaned forward. “How did we get on this topic anyway? Let’s talk about something fun.” I flashed my most beguiling smile.
Get KRASH in the anthology LOVED IN SPACE.
Six BRAND new stories of love and romance among the stars by NYT & USA Today Bestsellers Mina Carter, Eve Langlais, Cara Bristol, Donna McDonald, Susan Hayes and J Thompson.
Woken by a kiss, she didn’t expect her prince to be a handsome alien warrior. Kissed by the Alien Mercenary: Warriors of the Lathar by Mina Carter.
Clarabelle isn’t about to take orders from anyone. Not even the alien hottie who has a disturbing tendency of shifting into a giant lizardman. Mate Abduction by Eve Langlais.
When a dating agency claims to match Earth women with extraterrestrials, fraud investigator Cyan Blue goes undercover as a client to expose the scam. She’s not interested in finding love and certainly not with a pretend alien! KRASH: Dakonian Alien Mail Order Brides by Cara Bristol.
No risk. No reward. When time runs out, she’ll have to make a choice that will change her life forever… Chance of a Lifetime by Susan Hayes.
Bethany Walker lost everything the day she watched her husband die. Trapped in a bitter cycle of loneliness and grief, the arrival of a gorgeous cyborg with a familiar face changes everything. Betraying Ko’ran by J Thompson.
She was searching for her cyborg husband and found an alien instead. Ashland 297 by Donna McDonald.