“Oh yes. There have been wizards and the like down through the ages.”
At George University life floated on, oblivious to anything outside the institution’s hallowed walls. The sun was out and the campus was busy, with groups of students sitting on the grassy slopes or wandering along the paths. Some were engaged in lively conversation or debate, but many were silent, engrossed in their laptop, tablet or phone. No one seemed to be in a hurry or have much of a purpose – unless being a student counted as a purpose. As Kane watched them, he felt invisible, like an earthling come to study a strange and pointless alternate reality.
“Here he is,” announced Arika, brightening.
Kane turned. Coming down the steps was an elderly man, very tall and stooped, with a long, thin nose and short white beard. His black suit, rumpled and dusty, just as Kane had imagined it, was a size too small for him. His hairy wrists poked from his sleeves; green plaid socks peeked from the cuffs of his trousers. He was wearing a cream silk scarf, which was looped around his neck and tucked into his coat.
“Professor Orwell,” said Arika, herding Kane towards him, “this is Kane Gates.”
The professor approached them with a smile and an outstretched hand.
Kane took it. The hand felt bony and cold. The handshake was weak and slightly damp.
“Pleased to meet you, son,” said the professor, holding him with a steely blue gaze. His eyelashes were white, as were the hairs sticking out of his nose and growing crookedly from his ears. He slipped his hand away. “Arika told me about your ordeal. Absolutely mesmerising. I was hoping you might give me a first-hand description of everything you saw. A fascinating tale. Unlike anything I’ve heard in all my long years of study.”
“Fascinating is hardly the word I would use, Professor.”
“You would be amazed by the things that fascinate me.”
He was staring at Kane like Kane was one of those things.
“Did you find out anything about the – assailant?”
“Indeed I did.” He smiled down at Arika, who looked like a schoolgirl beside him. “I just got off the phone to my friend in the sheriff’s office.”
Kane’s heart skipped a beat. “It didn’t hurt anyone, did it?”
“No, Mr Gates. Nothing to worry about on that account. You will be pleased to hear it has been put down.”
Kane felt a vague disgust at the professor’s choice of words. “What do you mean ‘put down’?”
The professor nodded. “Apologies. A rather blunt and imprecise way of describing it. The creature was, in fact, shot in the face.”
Kane’s eyes opened wide. “What? How did that happen?”
“Apparently it was peeping through a kitchen window and the homeowner shot it. In the face, as I just said.”
“My God,” breathed Arika, turning to Kane. “Is everyone in Quorn that trigger happy? Straight for the head. Lucky it wasn’t just a regular peeping tom.”
He opened his mouth to remind her that she and Dylan had discussed doing exactly that to the zombie, but then thought better of it.
“Interestingly,” continued the professor, “it ran down the road for some distance with a hole in its head and died in the mud a few minutes later.”
“That’d be right,” Arika said. “Waite made out it was invincible, yet in the end all it takes is a bullet in the brain.”
“So, nothing else happened?”
“No, son. All good on that account.”
“Did they say anything about … like, it’s modifications? How it didn’t look human?”
“I felt it best not to ask. All I said was my research assistant had been in Quorn doing some work for me and I’d heard there was a madman on the rampage. They assumed I read it on Facebook.”
“Well, I think we did well to contain it,” said Arika. “Kane probably weakened it during the fight.”
“Yeah, it must have taken a lot out of it to strangle me like that.”
Arika didn’t seem to pick up on his sarcasm.
The professor waggled a finger at her. “You’re lucky it didn’t bite you, Arika. Or you, Mr Gates. The magic that raised it is almost certainly contagious.”
“How’s that?” asked Kane.
The professor peered down at him. “In the case of the reanimation spell,” he said, adopting the lecturing tone he no doubt used with his students, “the magic injects the cells with a form of mystical energy, which spreads like a virus through the body. Once the brain is affected, it controls the energy throughout the rest of the body. And then, when affected cells enter another body, they spread in much the same way, replacing life as we know it with this … I supposed you’d call it ‘interdimensional energy’.”
“And it’s irreversible?” asked Arika.
“Dead is dead,” said the professor.
“But a shot to the head still kills it,” Kane pointed out. “Dylan was right: it’s just like in the movies.”
“Popular culture usually has its roots in some kind of truth,” commented the professor.
“Well it’s dead now, so that takes care of the immediate problem. What do we do about everything else at the farmhouse?”
The professor stroked his beard. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about that and I know just the people to talk to. Best to place this kind of mess in the hands of the experts. They’ll sort through the details and take care of whomever is responsible.”
Kane felt a blanket of dread fall on him. He’d known all along it would be necessary to call in the police at some point, but a part of him had hoped the professor could simply wave a magic wand and make everything bad disappear.
“Professor,” he said, “I need to make sure my brother isn’t implicated in this. He isn’t responsible for anything – apart from being young and stupid – but he was around when some of the weird stuff happened. If you go to the police, is there any way you can leave us out of it?”
“Oh, it’s not the police, son. It’s specialists in this kind of thing.”
“There’s specialists in this kind of thing?”
“Oh yes. There have been wizards and the like down through the ages.”
“And witches,” added Arika.
“Yes, witches too.”
Kane shook his head. Since his discussion with Arika in the coffee shop, he hadn’t given a thought to whether this kind of thing had happened before – but it made sense that Waite couldn’t be the only sorcerer who’d ever existed in the history of the world. There must be crazies casting spells and raising dead people all over the place. He glanced around at the students, going about their business, worried only about student loans, assignment deadlines and test results, and in that moment longed to join them in the land of the normal, where he wouldn’t have to worry about mystical forces coming after him and Dylan to finish what Waite had started.
“So you’ll leave us out of it?”
“Of course, of course. You have my solemn word. I will tell the authorities the university received an anonymous tip. If things are as bad as you say they are, they will have their hands full containing it. We don’t need them scratching about for innocent scapegoats when the real perpetrators of this evil are still out there.”
“They are; you can be sure of it,” asserted Kane, thinking about Snyder and Gilles and the damage they might still cause if left unchecked. “Now, Sebastian: he’s not in a good way. Someone needs to get him out first.”
“Certainly. I will make sure he is the absolute priority.”
“I’ve drawn up a map. He’s in the study.”
“Excellent. That will come in useful.”
“Or he might be in the thatched hut in the main chamber. Snyder or Gilles might have found him in the study and taken him back.”
“I will direct the unit to both places.”
“If he’s not there, he might be in Gilles’ room. They treat him like some kind of pet.”
“I will make sure they look everywhere.”
‘Thank you, Simon,” said Arika.
“Yes, Professor,” added Kane, feeling the tension drain from his shoulders. The professor seemed to know what he was doing, and importantly, knew the right people to talk to. He was relieved to hear there were experts in this kind of thing: people who’d dealt with wizards, zombies and monsters before. It meant they knew what they were doing and would be unlikely to need his, or Dylan’s, further involvement. “Will you let us know how it goes?”
“Of course, son. Now, shall we go inside? I’d like to hear a fulsome description of your grand adventure.”
“I’ll fill you in on what happened when Waite returned,” said Arika. “There were a few hairy moments there for a while.”
Her words brought back the memory of the time she stopped to interrogate Waite while the zombie hulk was strangling him at her feet. Arika seemed to be driven by an uncontrollable urge to find her father, and he wondered whether there was more to the story about her father’s disappearance than she was saying.
He also had to remind himself how she’d saved him from being eaten by a rabid dog and a homicidal housekeeper; and now she was handing him a solution to the mess they’d left at the farm. So, on balance, it was possible she was more a force for good than for evil.
It suited him to think that way. As he followed Arika and the professor up the steps, he inhaled the fresh scent of her dress and her hair and felt it like something clean and refreshing inside his lungs. Although he’d only known her for a day, she was already like a friend; he felt closer to her than he’d ever felt to January. He’d never met anyone like her, someone so strong and smart, and he was determined to find an excuse to see her again after the Dark farm was contained. Perhaps he should move close to George University – that was as good a reason for choosing a new home as any, wasn’t it? And it wouldn’t be considered stalking, would it? Smiling to himself, he wondered how hard she would hit him if he dared to reach out and touch her.
Read Chapter 35: Going in