“Dylan. Man … you look like shit!”
Kane parked his truck at the farmhouse gate. Dylan’s car was nowhere in sight.
“It’s just how I imagined it,” breathed Arika, opening the door, unable to pull her eyes away from the dirty, broken house.
“Where could he have gone?” murmured Kane, thumping the steering wheel.
“The car might be hidden,” she suggested. “There: in the barn.”
“It’s not a barn … Hey, wait,” he cried as she swung her legs out. He gestured at the rifle.
Reluctantly, she handed it to him. “You sure you don’t want me to do it?”
“He’s my brother.”
“I’m a better shot than you.”
“You’d be surprised at the number of savage animals we have to control here in Quorn.”
“Three a year, is it?”
Kane got out of the truck. “At least double that.”
He checked the rifle, then went up to the gate. He could hear the dogs barking behind the house and guessed from their savage excitement that they’d heard the truck as it drove up the road. Figuring they must be chained or locked up, he climbed over.
Arika came up behind him. She had her bag looped over her neck and was waving his wrench in the air.
“Don’t forget to put that back when you’re finished with it.”
She followed him over the gate and into the yard. It was getting late and the light was fading, the shadows lengthening. A mist of rain was in the air; probably more would come later, judging by the clouds. Not the best time of day to be entering a spooky old farmhouse to do battle with an evil wizard.
They’d only walked a few paces when the two dogs came racing around the corner of the house.
“Goddamnit!” yelled Kane. “Where did they come from? Quick! Back to the gate!”
He raised the rifle to his shoulder, aimed at the lead dog and fired.
The dart hit the Rottweiler in the nose, and it yelped, crumpled to the ground and somersaulted through the mud. Bounding to its feet, it ran in a circle, howling like a devil, then, with a pathetic whimper, took off back to the house.
The other dog wasn’t deterred. Before Kane could re-load, it launched itself at him. As he watched in horror, its black body rocketed through the air, soared towards him and slammed into his chest. The rifle went flying away; he threw out his arms and fell backwards into the mud.
The dog jumped up and was on him in an instant. He got his hands on its neck and pushed it back, then lay staring in terror as it snarled into his face. Its yellow teeth snapped at his nose. Its breath smelt like a sewer. Brown froth dripped from its jaws, splashed on his cheeks and ran into his mouth.
“Gaaahhhh!” he cried as the dog scratched its claws at his body, trying to propel itself forward. Its muscles were like steel; his arms were weakening.
As the dog’s teeth made contact with the skin of his nose, he was startled by the sound of a rifle shot. The dog stopped its onslaught, turned its head and snapped at the dart in its flank. Arika appeared in Kane’s line of vision and slammed the rifle butt into the side of the dog’s head, and Kane took the opportunity to heave the monster off him. It rolled along the ground, scrambled up, glanced around in confusion, then took off after the other one.
Kane got to his knees and spat into the mud, trying to get the disgusting taste of dog spit out of his mouth. Arika was standing over him, the rifle held army-style against her chest.
“That,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, “is a sight for redneck eyes.” Pushing himself to his feet, he held out his hand. “Doesn’t mean you get to keep it.”
Arika gave the rifle to him. “Seems to have scared them more than anything,” she said, pulling the wrench out of her bag.
“It’ll take a while for the drug to work.”
“Maybe it doesn’t work on the undead.”
He looked at her. “You think they’re zombie dogs? They sure do smell dead.”
She shrugged. “We should get to the house. If they aren’t asleep by now, they’ll be back.”
Kane put in another dart. “Come on then, Rambo.”
As they passed the chapel, Kane pointed out the hole in the wall and explained that that was where the Messenger had clawed its way out. There were deep claw marks going up the wall, the roof was broken and there was a smattering of tiles on the ground, indicating the place it lost its footing and fell. It was the first time Kane had seen it, and it brought to vivid life the horror his brother had helped unleash on the world.
He went over and had a quick look inside. It was pretty much as Dylan had described it. No one had bothered cleaning up the mess.
“Nothing here,” he remarked as Arika joined him.
She leaned into the hole in the wall, checking out the steel table, red wax candles and broken coffins. “Phew, it stinks in there! Hey, what’s that?” she asked, pointing at a leathery white-and-black sack on the floor. It looked to be spattered with blood and gobs of dried entrails, which reminded Kane of sun-dried tomatoes.
He pulled her away. He knew what it was, but didn’t want her getting distracted. Though he’d told her about the raising of the Messenger, his explanation hadn’t extended to the fate of the dead itinerant who birthed the monstrosity.
On they went past the well and the twisted piece of farm machinery. In the distance were the huts Dylan had described. It was hard to imagine this place as a thriving farming community. The place was like a giant mud pit, most of the vegetation dead, the bushes and trees leafless, their branches twisted as if writhing in pain. It was clear Wilfred Waite had chosen this spot for its isolation, and Kane wondered again what horrors the wizard had raised here, far away from the eyes and ears of interfering neighbours.
At the farmhouse porch, he placed his ear against the door. The house was silent, though he thought he heard a low droning noise that might have been caused by a generator.
Standing back, he knocked.
They waited a few seconds. No one answered. Kane knocked again, louder this time.
“What now?” asked Arika.
He put his ear to the door.
“Is it true firemen have special keys that open any door?” she asked as she tried to see through the dirt-caked window.
“We do,” answered Kane, straightening. Raising a leg, he slammed his heel against the door. The ancient wood splintered and the door flew open, making a house-shaking bang as it hit the wall.
“They’re called fire boots.”
Stepping over the threshold, he found himself in a gloomy antechamber. A dark hall ran down the centre of the house, ending at a door that looked like it opened to the back yard. To his left was a small parlour, set up with old-fashioned furniture: fat armchairs, two small tables and an ugly floor lamp on a red-and-black rug. Shelves on either side of a central fireplace held dozens of books. Going to investigate, he found they were mostly medical texts, history books and travel guides.
Leaving Arika pulling out books, he returned to the foyer. Beyond the parlour was a staircase, the banister worn and shiny from the rubbing of countless hands over untold years. The wooden stairs were scuffed and split and chipped from age and neglect. Dark wood panelling followed the stairs to the second floor and attached to the panels was a series of oil paintings, each in an ornate gilded frame.
Kane went to check them out. The painting at the foot of the staircase depicted a sallow, long-faced man with red cheeks and wavy grey hair, parted in the middle. He was sitting in a shadowed room, wearing a black collarless coat and white ruffled cravat. The nameplate was inscribed: ‘Jonathon Dark, Salem Village, 1688’.
The next painting depicted an older man – probably in his seventies – with the same long, humourless face and receding grey hair. He was wearing a maroon coat and mustard waistcoat, and was sitting in a wooden chair overlooking a sickly rural landscape. The nameplate on this one announced the man to be ‘James Dark, London, 1761’. Probably one of the first dude’s descendants, thought Kane. The stairwell was too dark to see much else, but Kane guessed the paintings were further portraits of the Dark clan, becoming more recent as they ascended the stairs.
“Oh my God!” hissed Arika, who’d crept up behind him.
“What?” cried Kane, heart leaping into his mouth.
“This is it.”
“The Dark farm.”
He glanced at the paintings. “I don’t –”
“Jonathon Dark,” explained Arika, “is the name of the wizard my father was hunting.”
Kane was confused. It didn’t make sense that someone would be looking for a man who’d probably been dead for over three hundred years; until he remembered it was the library Arika’s father had been searching for, not the wizard. No wonder she’d been so interested in the books in the parlour.
“Not that Jonathon Dark,” Arika added, nodding at the first painting.
“His great great great great grandson?”
“This is his farm. His farm.” She glanced around in awe. “We found his farm.” She pulled out her phone and took pictures of the Jonathon Dark painting.
“I probably missed a ‘great’ or two.”
“After all this time. I’m –”
The floorboards overhead creaked. They both froze and raised their eyes to the ceiling. The house stayed silent, as if it were holding its breath.
“You heard that?”
She nodded slowly.
“Maybe we should call the police,” he said. “If this is the place your father went missing … Waite could have had something to do with it. He might … we might …”
“No way,” countered Arika, brushing past him to the room on their right. “No police. If something happened to him here, I need to know now, not wait for search warrants and all that crap. They’ll just get in the way.”
Shrugging, he followed her.
The room Arika had entered was set up for formal dining. A sideboard, stacked with china, stretched the length of one wall. The table was long and narrow, the chairs gothic. Two tarnished candelabras, their candles burnt to stubs, were home to spiders and dirt. Judging by the cobwebs everywhere and the dust lying thick on every surface, this room hadn’t been used in decades.
“Let’s check out back,” she said.
Kane followed Arika down the hall. He was starting to think he’d made a mistake letting her come with him. The search had suddenly become about her father. And she was a loose cannon who seemed to do whatever she wanted regardless of what anyone else thought.
At the back of the house was the living room. This room looked more lived in and less dusty than the others they’d seen. There were brown velvet sofas, brown bookcases, brown paintings on the walls and bric-a-brac everywhere. A huge crystal chandelier dominated the room, and the owner had a fetish for taxidermy judging by the stuffed animals all over the place: a moose head on the wall, an eagle hanging from the ceiling, other birds and small mammals eyeing each other across the room. The place reminded Kane of Waite’s shop: a warehouse for household junk. There was an air of the nineteenth century about it.
“Simon will have a field day in this place,” Arika declared, going inside. She stroked a stuffed mongoose that was frozen in time in a fight with a snake. “More books!” she cried, spotting two bookcases, and hurried over to investigate.
Kane left her and opened the door on the other side of the hall. It led to the kitchen. This was the cleanest room so far. A fat black pot sat on the stove, wisps of steam floating to the ceiling. There was a pie dish on the table, a cook book open. There’s someone home, Kane thought, and his scalp tingled at the realisation someone had heard them enter; someone who’d let the dogs loose; someone who was no longer here.
Stepping quietly through the room, he paused at the stove, a heavy, ancient thing, fired by coals that radiated a fierce heat. Using a pot holder, he removed the lid and peered inside. It was some kind of stew, with meat and root vegetables bubbling in a reddish-brown gravy. He released his breath. For a moment, before lifting the lid, he’d worried there would be a human head or some other body part cooking away. He wouldn’t put it past the lunatic who lived here.
Crossing to the window, he checked out the back yard. There was an empty washing line, a broken outhouse, a bank of pine trees; no sign of life.
To his right was another closed door. Opening it carefully, steeling himself for anything that might come bursting out, he discovered the door led to a small laundry. Plaster was peeling off the wall; paint was peeling off the ceiling; a stack of unwashed clothes sat on a sorting table, some of them stained with blood.
Leaving the door open, Kane turned. Arika was standing at the door to the kitchen. He shook his head, moved towards her.
As he crossed the cracked linoleum, he saw her face change. Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, her arm rose and she pointed at something over his shoulder.
He spun around at the same time the pantry door banged open.
Out flew a woman with wild orange hair and bulging eyes. She was wearing a stained green housecoat, with one purple slipper on her stockinged foot. Her grey face was twisted in rage, a huge butcher’s knife raised above her head. As she came at him, she released a succession of weird shrieks, like she was the one about to be chopped into small pieces.
Instinctively, Kane blocked the knife with his rifle and it flew from her grasp and clattered to the floor. Without hesitating, the woman took hold of the barrel, ripped the rifle from his hands and threw it across the room. Her fingers reached for his face. Kane grabbed her wrists. Her black fingernails were sharp like talons and they were locked on his eyes. With surprising strength, she pushed him back and he tripped over his own foot and they fell to the floor.
The woman was now on top of him, howling and drooling yellow spit over his face.
“Christ!” yelled Kane. “Not again!”
Grabbing her collar, Arika tried to drag her off him. The woman turned her head and snarled and snapped at her like a rabid animal. Her leathery lips pulled back, revealing two rows of pointed teeth. When Arika leapt away, she went back to snapping at Kane.
“Get it off me!” he howled.
Arika retrieved the rifle, aimed it at the woman’s back and fired. The dart hit her. Nothing happened.
“Useless crap,” she murmured, slamming it down on the counter.
“It doesn’t work straight away,” Kane reminded her through gritted teeth.
“Oh yeah, course.”
Going back to the doorway, she pulled the wrench from her bag and weighed it in her hand. It was a hefty piece of metal, probably lethal if used with enough force.
The woman’s face was bearing down on Kane, her teeth almost close enough to take off his nose.
Arika ran back, lifted the wrench over her head with both hands and brought it down between the woman’s shoulder blades. The momentum pushed her nose into Kane’s face. Fortunately, at that moment she had her mouth shut, and their lips met in a weird kind of kiss.
Kane sputtered and pushed her scaly face back. “What the hell are you doing?” he cried.
Realising more desperate measures were needed, Arika raised the wrench over her shoulder and swung it like a tennis racket. It slammed into the woman’s arm. There was no discernible reaction. As well as having supernatural strength, the housekeeper seemed impervious to pain.
“Sorry, ma’am,” she said as she raised the wrench again. “This will hurt me more than it hurts you.”
This time she aimed at the side of the woman’s head. The wrench made contact with an audible crack; her hair flew off and skidded across the floor. Arika gasped. The orange hair was a wig. Apart from a few patches of grey hair, the housekeeper was completely bald. Her head was an unnatural shape – like a distorted pear. A bony ridge ran from the top of her head to her spine.
Arika gaped. As before, the woman hardly blinked; she only had eyes for Kane.
Shaking the disbelief from her mind, Arika snarled, “To hell with this,” and swung the wrench for the fourth and last time. This time she didn’t hold back. She put her shoulder into it, the wrench collided with the woman’s head with a sickening crunch and she fell like a bag of potatoes on the kitchen floor.
Kane sprang up and backed away. He stared at the housekeeper’s motionless body, then turned to Arika. “You okay? Arika? Hey, Arika.”
She was staring in shock at the woman, at her neck, which was bent at an impossible angle. “I think – I think I killed her.”
Kane leaned closer. The woman (if that’s what it was) didn’t appear to be breathing.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You did what you had to. We’ll work something out.”
When she said nothing, he added, “Dylan told me about her. I think she’s the housekeeper. He doesn’t think she’s human.”
“Does that make a difference?”
“It’s self-defence, whichever way you look at it. She’d have had you next. After eating my face.”
Saying the words out loud made Kane’s head spin. He’d been too charged with adrenaline to think about it while he was fighting for his life, but eating his face is precisely what the homicidal housekeeper had in mind.
Unable to hold himself back, he hugged Arika hard. “You saved my life,” he murmured, tears blurring his eyes. He wasn’t exaggerating. If Arika hadn’t come with him – hadn’t been waiting on his doorstop earlier today – he’d most likely be dead now; either eaten by the demon dogs or ripped apart by the demon housekeeper. He tightened his hold. For the first time in their short acquaintance, Arika didn’t resist him.
He felt her body go rigid. “What in hell –?” she cried.
Kane pulled back. Arika was staring in terror at the dead housekeeper.
He whirled around.
Behind him, the woman’s fingers were creeping towards the butcher’s knife. As Kane watched, they closed over the handle. She lifted her arm and slammed the blade into the floor, then rolled over, held onto the handle with both hands and pushed herself to her knees.
Kane and Arika backed away. The woman’s head was hanging to one side, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. Her eyes bulged like they were about to pop; her lips pulled away from her pointed teeth; three slits on either side of her neck opened and closed as if they were pulling in air.
Climbing to her feet, she jerked the knife out of the floor, raised it high and charged again at Kane.
He ducked. The knife came down and nicked his ear, drawing blood. Before the woman could raise it again, he placed one hand on the small of her back and the other on the back of her scaly head and shoved her hard towards the refrigerator. Her face slammed into the metal door and she fell to the floor, dropping the knife once again.
Rushing over, Kane took hold of the refrigerator with both hands and pulled at it with all his might. An ancient, heavy thing, it took a while to begin moving: sliding away from the wall, starting slowly to topple over.
The housekeeper grabbed his ankle with a grip of steel and he yelped in surprise and tried to shake her off. With her left hand she was reaching blindly for the knife.
Arika was on the other side of the refrigerator in a flash. She kicked away the knife, and together, with a strength born of desperation, they pulled the huge metal box over. It tottered for second, seemed about to fall back, then fell on the housekeeper with a horrible crunch.
The weight of it pinned her to the floor, but that didn’t stop her struggle. Her arms and legs pushed and shoved at the metal and bashed against the floor as she fought to get the thing off her and resume her attack.
“How can it still be moving?” breathed Arika.
A pool of greenish-black liquid was starting to spread out from under the housekeeper’s body. With that, her movements slowed, her arms twitched, her body went limp. Then came an awful stench – like the smell of something dead a long time, a smell you would normally expect from rotting seaweed and maggots bloated from feeding on washed-up fish.
Staring at the growing pool of putrescence, Kane knew Dylan was right. This – thing – wasn’t human. He doubted whether it had even been alive – not in the conventional sense.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said.
“I’m guessing,” said Arika, wrinkling her nose at the stinking greenish-black puddle on the floor, “the hell is here to stay.”
Back at the staircase, Kane stopped and opened a small door. As he’d guessed, the door concealed wooden stairs that led down through darkness to the basement. He was fumbling around for a light switch when he heard the floorboards creak overhead.
This time they knew it wasn’t just the settling of an old house.
Arika pulled her gun from her bag, held it under her chin and crept to the bottom of the stairs.
“Where’d you get that?” Kane whispered loudly.
She didn’t answer him. Shaking his head, he followed her up the stairs, reloading his rifle as he went. If it was Waite up there, he was determined to shoot him on sight; in fact, he’d do the same to Dylan if it meant he could just throw him over his shoulder and carry him out of here.
Despite their best efforts, the ancient wood creaked with every step; but after all the noise they’d made doing battle with the housekeeper, whoever or whatever was upstairs had probably already figured out something violent had taken place downstairs, and would have had plenty of time to prepare an offence, if that was their intention. On the bright side, no one had come to the housekeeper’s rescue, so there was a small comfort that they probably weren’t headed towards another lethal assassin.
There were five doors on the second floor, four of them wide open. First they checked the four rooms, opening the closets and looking under the beds and behind the shower curtain and anywhere else a crazed person or thing might be hiding with knife raised. Finally they stopped outside the final room. Kane listened at the keyhole. The room was silent. He tried the handle. It was locked.
He stood back, pondered a moment whether to call out to whoever or whatever was inside, then decided they needed whatever element of surprise they had left.
“Get ready,” he said to Arika, lifting his boot.
On the other side of the door, Dylan was holding the brass lamp shakily above his head. He’d heard the commotion below, the footsteps mounting the stairs, and knew this could be his last chance to escape. Perhaps if he hit Wilfred hard enough, he would shock him out of his body, and then the tables would be turned and he’d be the one standing on the outside of the room, safe inside his own skin. He’d tie Wilfred up, lock him in this room, go find the Necromonicon, and end this madness once and for all.
The door flying open took him by surprise. He staggered back, his legs gave way, the lamp slipped from his hands and crashed to the floor behind him.
He looked up to see his brother standing over him. “Kane!” he cried, tears welling in his eyes. “How did you –? What are you doing here?”
Kane, his face twisted with hate, bent down and grabbed him by the collar. He lifted him from the floor.
“Where’s my brother?” he demanded.
“Kane,” Dylan croaked, “it’s me.”
Shaking him, Kane lifted him higher. “Listen, you freak, you tell me where Dylan is or I won’t be responsible for your welfare. I know he’s here. Tell me now.”
Dylan gurgled. “Sme, sme … gane … sme …”
Arika touched his arm. “Kane. That’s enough. Put him down.”
“I will, when he tells me where Dylan is.”
She moved her face into his line of vision. “He already has.”
Kane stared in confusion. He must have seen something of Dylan in the black-rimmed eyes, as a tremor passed through his arms and he lowered Wilfred’s body to the floor.
“No way,” he said, struggling to breathe. “It’s a trick.”
“No trick,” gasped Dylan, rubbing his throat. He looked up at him. “Where’s my Mars Bar?”
It was the punch line to their favourite joke when they were kids: something so stupid and juvenile, only his brother would know it.
Kane dropped to his knees. He couldn’t take his eyes off the squat, wrinkled, badly-dressed man who was talking as if he knew him. He felt woozy, like he’d drunken a pint of beer on an empty stomach.
“Dylan,” he groaned, shaking his head. “Man … you look like shit!”