“I’m Arika Livingston. Research assistant at George University.”

Their names were written on the letterbox: Michael and Lauren Gates. So quaint, Arika thought with a smile. Only in small towns like Quorn did people still put their names on their letterbox.

She climbed the steps and knocked on the door. No answer. Placing her ear against the door, she knocked again. Clearly no one was home.

She glanced around. The house stood in a typical northern village street. The gardens and lawns were well-tended, the road and paths buried beneath autumn leaves. Kids’ bikes lay discarded in driveways. Dogs were yapping at each other. It was a far cry from her own childhood, growing up in Aunt Beatrice’s tiny flat in a grubby East End lane. Probably the most dangerous thing to happen around here was a stubbed toe.

Arika went back down the steps. Though she’d been sceptical in Simon’s office about the sense of making this trip, on the way down, with time to think, she had a change of heart. The eyewitnesses were clear and unwavering about what they’d seen. Their descriptions were consistent, and though they maintained their attacker was a dragon, they said its face looked like an octopus. That wasn’t something you’d expect small town simpletons to make up. All the local authorities knew was that the damage to the car was atypical of a collision with an animal or a common rollover. Arika was certain something supernatural had visited Quorn, and she was determined to find out what it was and how she could track it down.

Slipping through an open gateway at the side of the property, she closed the gate behind her and made her way to the first window. The blind was down; from its position she guessed it was a living or dining room. The next window along opened into the kitchen. Arika placed a hand against the glass and looked around. The place was a mess. There were dishes, plates, cups and glasses piled in the sink and on the countertops; more on the table. Pizza boxes. Styrofoam cartons. Cereal boxes. Beer bottles. An overflowing bin. The floor was filthy. She looked down the path towards the back yard. The gardens were neat and green, so why didn’t the state of the kitchen match the outside of the house? Something didn’t feel right.

Returning her attention to the kitchen, she noticed half a dozen cards on the fridge and the shelf above it. Squinting, she could make out some of the words. With deepest sympathy. Sharing in your sorrow. Thinking of you. A death in the family, it appeared. A likely explanation for the mess.

Voices came from the direction of the street. Creeping back to the gate, Arika peered through the slats. Two boys were walking up the middle of the road, wheeling bicycles. They were talking in loud voices about a school football match, dissecting the game like they’d probably heard their fathers do about grown-up matches. They were too young to be Dylan Gates, Arika thought; the Gates boy had been driving at the time of the attack. These kids’ voices hadn’t even broken yet.

She was right: the boys passed the driveway and kept on walking, their voices fading as they turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

Returning to the kitchen window, Arika opened her bag. “This may be it,” she said to her Mini Glock, lifting it out. She pointed it at the kitchen, tapping the trigger. “Was he in Quorn, do you think? Maybe he was following the trail of the Messenger, just like us.” She lowered the gun. “I’d be surprised,” she said, stroking its barrel. “Still, there must be some connection between the Messenger, Quorn and Dark. It’s too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence. You think?”

Talking to her gun made Arika feel better. Her father had always talked to his gun, and when young Arika giggled about it, he told her the best marksman has to have a close relationship with his weapon. They need to be like siblings, looking out for each other, knowing each other’s strengths and limitations so they can act in a split second when the rubber hits the road. It was a story designed to amuse a child, but she’d grown up believing it.

“Glad to see we’re on the same page,” Arika said, returning the Glock to her bag.

Convinced the Gates’ house was hiding secrets, she headed into the back yard.

Kane drove his pickup truck into Wilfred Waite’s farmyard and parked behind his father’s Honda Civic. He was pretty sure his brother hadn’t seen him. Not only was Dylan generally oblivious to things happening around him, he would have been waiting with his usual pouty face and childish tantrums if he knew Kane had followed him here with the intent of confronting Waite.

He climbed down from his truck and went up to the gate. There was no one about, so he jumped over it and strode through the mud. The house loomed before him like a prop in a post-apocalyptic movie set. If the Honda hadn’t been outside the gate, he wouldn’t have believed a business owner and alleged immortal sorcerer could live in such a dump.

Frowning at the broken roof, he heard what sounded like galloping horses. The next moment, two monstrous Rottweilers came hurtling around the corner of the house. Snarling like hounds from hell, they were black and hairless, with ropey muscles, long yellow fangs and bloodshot eyes that seethed with rage.

“Shit!” cried Kane.

For a long moment he stood paralysed with fear, watching the beasts as they advanced on him with murderous intent. When his muscles finally kicked into gear, he turned tail and ran away faster than he would ever have thought possible. This time when he jumped the gate, he barely touched it.

The two dogs slammed into the railings as if they thought they could run right through them. They rolled over each other, scrambled in the mud, sprang up and leapt at the gate, barking and snarling in fury.

Kane stared at them, his heart pounding in his ears. Were they … dead? He crouched for a closer look. Enraged by his lack of fear, the dogs threw themselves against the gate. Yellowish froth flew from their jaws and splattered on his jeans. Their breath smelt like maggoty fish heads.

He got up, thinking: Damn fool brother, putting crazy notions in my head.

“You’ve got some damn ugly pets!” he yelled at the house as he pulled out his phone. Then, to himself: “Should get animal control out here before they kill someone.” He pressed Dylan’s number and paced from the gate to the truck and back as he waited for the number to connect. The phone went straight to voicemail.

“Damn you, Dylan,” he cursed, glaring at the farmhouse. “Dylan,” he said, “it’s me. I’m out front. Tell Waite to come out. I need to talk to him.”

Hanging up, he stood staring at the farmhouse door. The dogs went on leaping and barking. Nothing else stirred in the cold morning air. He could feel the seconds ticking by on his wrist watch. When it was clear neither Waite nor Dylan was coming out, he went back to his truck.

He checked his phone for messages. Nothing. Dylan spent all day on his phone, so it wasn’t hard to work out when he was being ignored.

“Freaks,” he muttered, getting in his truck.

Shoving the gear into reverse, he spun the wheels in the mud and backed up at speed. The dogs were still leaping and barking, their rage and determination undimmed. Kane had no doubt that, had they breached the gate, they would have chased him all the way back to Quorn.

Parking in his driveway, he jumped from the truck, slammed the door and walked towards the house. He was still fuming at Dylan’s behaviour. It was one more nail in the coffin of their fractured relationship, and he really wasn’t sure what to do next. Give up? Leave Dylan to fend for himself? Live his own life as best he could? Someone at the funeral had given him that advice, and a second funeral is what this situation with Dylan felt like.

As he bounded up the steps, a young woman rose from the seat near the door.

“Ah – hi – who?” he sputtered, thinking at first it was January.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t scare me,” Kane answered with a smile. “I just … I thought you were someone else.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Arika Livingston. Research assistant at George University.”

Kane took her warm hand in his and inhaled her heady perfume as he gazed into her soft brown eyes. It was obvious she wasn’t from around here. Her accent was too refined, and her lacy, flowery top over designer jeans wasn’t the kind of outfit the daughters of goat and sheep farmers generally wore. She reminded him of a Spanish exchange student he once had a crush on at school.

“I – er – are you lost?”

“I hope not. Are you Dylan Gates?”

“Dylan?” Kane was confused. Girls never came around asking for Dylan.

“So you’re not Dylan.” She gestured at the house. “Do the Gates still live here?”

“They do. At least Dylan and me do. I’m Kane.”

“Brother?”

“I’m the handsome one.”

She folded her arms and stared at him. Kane held her gaze. She refused to look away, as if she were waiting for a more suitable answer.

I’ve got a live one here, Kane thought, energised by the challenge he read in her eyes. And a real looker. Time to turn on the old Gates’ charm.

“How long you been waiting here?”

Arika glanced at her watch. “An hour. Give or take.” She tossed her head at the seat, where she’d left her tablet. “The tethers of technology. You can work anywhere.”

“Tethers?”

She smiled as if he’d just confirmed something.

Kane smiled back. “Did you … want to get a drink or something?” As he said it, he felt his face go warm. It sounded like a cheap pick-up line – which in essence it was.

Arika nodded at the seat, at the bottle of water next to her tablet. “I’m good, thanks. I came to see your brother. Do you know where he is?”

“You’re here about the dragon thing?”

“How’d you guess?”

He shrugged. “ESP. Plus there’s no other reason someone who looks like you would want to see my wimpy brother. It is about the dragon thing, isn’t it?”

“Whatever it was those two people saw.”

“Are you doing an assignment on whack jobs? Country cretins? The Barrys are all related … inbred, y’know. They probably see pixies and leprechauns and –”

“I’m not a student.”

Kane bit his thumb. He eyed Arika suspiciously. A person doesn’t wait around an hour to question an eyewitness about yesterday’s crazy news story. Unless she believes it. He was hoping the story would have faded into obscurity by now, yet here was someone about to dredge it all up again.

“I work in the history department. We’re doing research into old religions and cults.”

He nodded. That kind of made sense. “You believe in monsters then?”

She raised her shoulders. “Call me open-minded. The stories are interesting from a cultural and sociological perspective, whether they’re true or not.”

“You’ve looked into a lot of these … stories?”

She glanced at her watch again. “Quite a lot.”

“What’s your make on it?”

“Look – Kane, is it?” Arika frowned. “I’m enjoying our little chat, but I’d prefer to speak with Dylan.”

“He’s not here. I was looking for him myself.”

“Where is he?”

“Maybe I can fill you in on what happened.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“What doesn’t?”

“Research.”

“What? Is there a rule book?”

She half closed her eyes.

“Dylan told me all about it. A few times. Interesting story. Let me buy you a coffee and I’ll tell you what he said.”

Her face brightened. “What did he see?”

Kane stood smirking at her.

“Was there anything more than what he told the reporters?”

He shrugged.

“Well?”

“I’m dying for a cuppa. Been driving around for hours. You wouldn’t want me sitting in a cafe all by myself, like some kind of inbred loser, would you?” He smiled disarmingly.

“Look, I don’t have time for this.”

“You’ve been sitting on my porch for an hour. Doesn’t sound to me like you’re in a hurry to be anywhere else.”

“I need to get back to the university, if it’s any of your business.”

Kane frowned at her. This wasn’t going well. He wasn’t used to girls resisting him. It only drove him to work harder to win Arika over, particularly with their common interest in Dylan. If he could quiz her over the Messenger thing, he’d be able to assess her threat level and take necessary precautions to make sure no mud ended up on his brother. A feeling of desperation washed over him. He struggled to mask it, but he had one of those faces that can be read like a comic. “Just half an hour? I’ll make it worth your while. Quorn coffee is as legendary as its dragons.”

“Is there more to the story than what he told the reporters?” Arika asked again, this time in a no-nonsense voice.

“Mmn, could be.”

Her face hardened. “I don’t have time to play games.”

“Aw, come on. Don’t be so uptight. You’re on Quorn time now. Just one drink for the road and I can let you know what Dylan told me.”

“Tell me now, or I’m off. I’ll come back when your brother is home.”

“He’s not around much these days.”

“Then it seems I’m wasting my time.”

“You seem pretty pushy for … what was it? – a research assistant?”

“And you’re pretty stubborn for a …. What is it you do?”

“Fireman,” Kane replied, his voice quavering with pride. It felt like he’d pulled back a curtain on a dating game show to reveal the grand prize. His occupation always impressed the ladies. He was impressed himself, considering how much he’d achieved since starting the training program.

“Ah, of course.” She nodded at his body. “I bet the girls around here go wild for the big, strong fireman with the cheeky grin, hey?”

He folded his arms, pushed out his biceps, smirked a little more. “Don’t get no complaints.”

Turning on her heel, Arika went to collect her tablet and the bottle of water. “I would appreciate it if you would please tell your brother I called and ask him to phone me.” She lodged the bottle under her arm. “Here’s my card.”

He took it from her. ‘Arika Livingston, Research Assistant, Brown University’ it said, followed by a phone number and email address.

By the time he looked up, Arika was at the bottom of the steps and starting down the path.

“Hey!” he yelled at the back of her head, not really sure what just happened.

She ignored him.

“Arika!”

She turned. It was clear from the look on her face that she wasn’t happy.

Kane stared at her in confusion. He had no more tricks up his sleeve, but he knew he couldn’t let her leave. It was more than a desire to pump her for information – more than a boy-meets-girl thing – more than the fact he hated the thought of skulking inside and spending another afternoon alone in an empty house. His desperation was centred on his life, on the question of how to fight Wilfred Waite’s influence over his idiot brother. Arika obviously knew something about freaks and magical monsters – he needed her help.

“Dylan did tell me stuff,” he conceded. “Really weird stuff. And … I think he might be in trouble.”

Arika didn’t respond, but at least she wasn’t frowning now. She took a step towards him.

“I could really do with some advice.”

Read Chapter 18: All about Dylan

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