“Why are they called Messengers? What’s their message?”
Professor Simon Orwell scratched his fingernail at the hole in his desk. He was having a flashback to the day the hole was made. Three years ago, a bearded student in a beanie, angry at his grade on an exam paper, grabbed the professor’s favourite letter opener and tried to stab his hand. People assume history students are bookworms – weak-kneed and indifferent to things that happen in the present – but history, like every other subject, has its share of lunatics.
The professor returned his attention to the newspaper that lay open in front of him. He pushed his reading glasses up his nose.
“You were looking for me, Simon?”
He glanced up. “Arika! Quelle surprise! Mrs Nakajima told me you weren’t in today.”
Arika was wearing what his students referred to as ‘shabby chic’: a white lace dress dotted with red flowers and what he referred to as her ‘pixie boots’. With her mahogany hair swept back and her dark olive complexion glowing with youthful vitality, she looked like a study for a painting by Rosetti.
The professor’s eyes softened. He was a self-confessed ‘crusty old fogey’ who was fond of saying he wished the world had stayed in the eighteenth century, before the industrial revolution came along and messed everything up. He had snow-white hair, a long, deeply-lined face, sharp features and heavy-lidded blue eyes that seemed to rebuke everyone and everything around him, but each time his research assistant entered the room, a spark lit up his face and he radiated the warm blush of youth. In the professor’s eyes, Arika Livingston represented the best the twenty-first century had to offer.
“My dear girl,” he said, taking off his glasses, “you look ravishing. Come on in, before I have all the boys at my door.”
Arika, smiling, shook her head at him. He knew she thought him misogynistic, his manners outdated, but he also knew she allowed him his quirks on the basis of his advanced age and burning intellect. Arika was smart, insightful, loyal and driven – exactly the type of daughter he would have hoped for, had he been prone to procreation during his younger years.
“How are you, Arika? Have you seen today’s news?”
“No, I –”
“Perhaps you might close the door.”
Simon spun the newspaper around and pushed it towards her. He’d circled the article titled, ‘Dragon Claim in Car Accident’. Arika bent over the desk. As she read the story, she slid into a seat. The professor sat quietly watching her face.
When she’d finished, he leaned back in his chair. “Exciting, no?”
“A dragon with tentacles around its mouth.”
“Grave robbings, a Messenger no less –”
“A possible Messenger. Maybe a disoriented bat and a few lost sheep.”
Simon frowned. He was rarely excited over anything and wanted desperately for Arika to share his enthusiasm. “We ignore the signs at our peril,” he stated, glancing at his watch.
“Hmmm, the car was crushed. Maybe it rolled.”
“It happened outside of Quorn. What do you make of that?”
“Coincidence?” Seeing his earnest face, Arika had a sudden change of mind. “You’re right,” she said, getting up. “No such thing as a coincidence. I better go check it out.”
Simon held out a business card. “I have a good feeling about this one, Arika. It’s our first real clue.”
She took the card.
“The Gates boy. The witness. His address. I couldn’t find the address of the couple who were attacked, but I’m sure you will find someone out there to direct you.”
“Quorn. That’s quite a drive.”
“Would you like company?”
“No, you’ve got far too much on. I’ll be fine. I’ll head out there now.”
“Are you certain? I could reschedule a few classes.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Simon. I can catch up on my podcasts on the way.”
The professor pushed himself to his feet. His arthritis was playing up, but he tried not to show it. There’s nothing the young hate more than old people whingeing about their aches and pains. “Be careful, won’t you Arika? The boy’s story seems to contradict what the occupants of the car claimed. If it was a Messenger, he might have been involved in its conjuring.”
She gave the professor an evil smile. “Then my thesis will come in handy.”
Simon had a moment of confusion.
“You haven’t forgotten what my thesis was on?”
He raised a finger in the air. “Ah yes, of course: Truth, Lies and the Inquisition.”
She went to the door. “The trick,” she said, “is not to leave any marks.”
Smiling, the professor collected his glasses and followed Arika out of the office.
Standing at his secretary’s desk were a man and a woman, both wearing dark blue suits. Simon watched them as they watched Arika walk down the hallway.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.
His words startled them. The man spun around, arm outstretched. “Don’t mention it,” he said. “I’m Sam Morgan. This is my colleague, Cleo Grieves.”
Simon took the man’s hand and looked him up and down. “National Security Office, was it?”
Morgan nodded. “I’m Director of Strategic Capability. Ms Grieves is my lead principal investigations officer.”
“Pleased to meet you, Professor,” said Grieves.
Simon shook her hand, noting her grip was stronger than the director’s. “That accent,” he said; “let me guess. I’ve been to most places on this planet and I rarely get it wrong.” He thought for a moment. “Caribbean … of course. The island … would be … Jamaica.”
Cleo smiled at him. “Very good, Professor. Dat’s where me roots be.”
He turned back to Morgan. “Strategic Capability, did you say? I’m not familiar with that directorate.”
“You know about the NSO?”
“I make a point of keeping up with matters of national interest. The public policy of today is the history of tomorrow, I always like to say.”
“It’s fairly new.”
“I don’t recall reading about it in the annual report.”
“Wow, you really are up to speed, aren’t you?”
“What is your reporting line? I’d like to look you up.”
Morgan seemed to stare right through him. “I’m sorry, Professor, we don’t have much time. Can we …?” He gestured towards the professor’s office.
Simon looked at him. Something didn’t feel right. The story in the papers didn’t warrant a national security agency sending two senior officers to investigate. A phone call was the usual response to unexplained phenomena, and even then the caller invariably sounded embarrassed and was quick to apologise for wasting his time.
“I understand you’re after information regarding the so-called dragon that terrorised two unfortunates the other night.”
“I know it’s an unlikely story –” began Morgan.
“That it is.”
“– but NSO policy is to follow up anything that might involve even the slightest threat to national security.”
“Strategic Capability was your directorate?”
“Capability in what, may I ask?”
“The capability to keep our country secure – from any threat, real or perceived.”
“Of course. I presume this story fits within the ‘perceived threat’ category?”
“At this stage.”
“So – excuse me for sounding dense – but remind me why you’re here?”
“I’m told George University has a world-class reputation in matters of myth and superstition.”
“No, you misunderstand. I meant, why you’re here in person.”
Morgan glanced at Grieves, who had a small smirk on her face. “We were down this way on another call, thought we’d pop in and meet you in person. Always helps to put a name to a face.”
“Would you care to follow me? I have a class to take, but we can talk on the way.”
The officers followed the professor down the hall.
The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies was housed in the oldest part of George University and the wing was in a state of near dilapidation, university funds being reserved for the more popular and contemporary courses of study. The rooms were poky, the parquet floors scuffed, the plaster walls cracked and peeling in places, but this didn’t worry Simon Orwell. He was passionate about anything pre-twentieth century and never felt more at home than when he was wandering these musty, hallowed halls.
“What was it you thought I might be able to help you with?” he asked as they passed a group of students in vigorous debate over a map of Europe in the Middle Ages.
“Well,” Morgan began, “I understand you’re an expert in ancient rites and religions.”
“I do profess to know a little on the topic.”
“As I understand it, you specialise in little-known cults.”
“Like you, Mr Morgan, I enjoy playing detective. Popular history makes me yawn. The challenge for me is making known the unknown. So yes, ‘little-know cults’ as you call them are my specialty.”
“I don’t see how this is connected with the incident the other night. Surely that was all a misunderstanding? – concussion, perhaps? Mental disturbance explains a lot of cultish behaviour.”
“You would think so. But the couple involved are – for want of a better word – yokels. Limited intelligence. Living on welfare in the boondocks. Their description showed an unusually vivid imagination if it wasn’t based on something they witnessed. Strange, I know. We did a search on the net and they ID’d a couple of things they thought might be the culprit. And then we came across your name. One of the things they pointed to was a winged creature that was supposed to have been summoned in ancient rites to clear the land in preparation for the coming of some kind of supernatural deity.”
The professor stopped. “A Messenger.”
“Why would you suppose it’s a Messenger rather than a more garden-variety dragon?”
Morgan smiled. “I’m not supposing it’s anything at all.”
“If that were true, you would not be here.”
Morgan peered up at him like a penitent child. Professor Orwell stood at almost six foot four, and though bent with age, still towered over his two companions.
“You’re right, Professor: there are other factors in this case. But I’m not authorised to discuss them.”
Simon’s ears pricked up. The officer was probably referring to the recent grave robbings, but he suspected there was more to their investigation than that.
“If you can’t be completely forthcoming with me, Mr Morgan, then I don’t know how I can be of assistance.”
“We just need to know more about Messengers.”
“You’re not prepared to reveal the other facts that brought you here?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Messengers are fictitious creatures,” stated the professor, walking on, disinclined to be of any greater assistance.
The officers followed. “Why are they called Messengers? What’s their message?”
Simon stopped again. “The term is a little misleading. As you said, they are called to clear the way for the arrival of a deity.” When the officers said nothing, he added, “Their role is to kill any living thing in the vicinity that may pose a threat to their god, or the emissaries of the god.”
“What would a god need with that kind of protection?” asked Grieves. “I mean, if they’re a god …”
The professor turned to her and adopted the tone he used for especially dumb students. “My dear, the gods the ancients worshipped are not gods in the sense you may be familiar with. Some are immortal, but even they can be hurt with the right kinds of rites and implements. The Messengers are their insurance policy.” He started off again. “And a test. Only a true follower can summon them. The gods will not present for every trumped-up egomaniac who attempts a summoning spell.”
“You talk as if all this is real,” commented Morgan.
“Who’s to say it isn’t?”
“Does that mean you think a Messenger might have attacked the car last night?”
“No, I don’t. If there was ever such a creature, there is no verifiable record of one. Nothing that stands the test of scientific rigour.”
“So,” said Morgan, “if it wasn’t a Messenger, is there anything else it could have been?”
Simon was wearying of the interrogation. He opened his mouth to suggest the officers go back to trawling the net for their intelligence, but instead said, “There are any number of gigantic bat-like creatures or dragons in ancient lore, but again, pure myth I’m afraid. If such a creature does exist, ‘Where has it been hiding all these centuries?’ would be my first question.”
“Outer space?” suggested Grieves behind them.
Simon smiled at her over his shoulder. “Actually, there is an ancient legend about winged creatures flying to Earth from the stars. But I am fairly certain that legend is myth too.”
He halted outside a classroom. Inside, a dozen or so young people were sitting at desks, looking bored. Why does every new generation of young people slump more than the last? he asked himself with a shudder of annoyance.
“Well, here we are,” he announced, trying not to let his frustrations show. “I’m afraid I haven’t been of much use.”
“Not at all, Professor,” said Morgan. “You’ve been most helpful in closing the book on this case.”
“Hallucinatory mushrooms was it then?”
The officer nodded absently. He didn’t seem to get that the professor’s question was a joke. He handed him a business card and waved his partner toward the stairs.
“Goodbye, Professor Orwell. And please: if you think of anything more, no matter how outlandish, ring me on that number.”
The professor tapped the business card on his thumb as he watched their departing backs.
The two officers stopped on the pavement outside the university. Morgan pulled out his car keys.
“What do you think, Sam?”
Morgan turned to his friend. “He’s very convincing.” He glanced up at the brownstone building. The clouds were reflecting off the windows, but he had a feeling the professor was standing at one of them watching them. “And a good liar. Step up the surveillance.”