“It’s good knowing there might be some kind of scientific explanation to all this mumbo-jumbo. Dealing with magic is doing my head in.”

The old truck was parked near the summit of Big Martha, the last of the Six Hills, at a low stone wall that marked the boundary of an ancient, forgotten estate. The words ‘Sunny Morning Eggs’ were painted in an arc on the truck’s side, below a bright yellow sun rising over puffy white clouds. It was the only trace of sun evident, the dome of the sky being blanketed with thick grey cloud that hadn’t moved all day.

Inside the truck, Sam Morgan watched the distant farmhouse in a monitor. He was slumped in the driver’s seat, wearing brown overalls and a blue baseball cap with the initials FSC embroidered on the front in white. Stretching his bad leg, he shook out the pins-and-needles, then reached over and wiped a speck of dirt off the screen. It was getting hard to see anything; he’d soon have to turn on the night vision.

When he heard footsteps approaching the truck, he pushed himself up in the seat.

“Took your time,” he said as the passenger door opened. “You and your Chinese bladder.”

Cleo Grieves climbed in and pulled the door shut. She was dressed the same as Morgan, in brown overalls and a blue baseball cap. “Jamaican bladder,” she corrected as she finished keying a message into her phone. Job done, she dropped the phone in her lap, punched his shoulder and said, “Cheeky so-and-so. I went for a walk, stretched me legs, did a few push-ups, then made a few calls is all.”

“Nice afternoon for a workout. Getting back into training?”

“Trying. Wife said the hips are gettin’ fatter than hers. Them’s fighting words.”

Morgan laughed. “Truth hurts much?”

“Hey, I still fit into the same pants I had when I was twenty-five!”

“Whatever gets you through the day.” Turning back to the monitor, he adjusted the brightness. “Nothing happening here.”

“He’s on his way.”

“Orwell?”

“Yep”

“How far?”

“Bout ten mins.”

“Was it Jana?”

Grieves nodded.

“Did she say anything about the Gates boys?”

“The report just came in. Parents beaten and killed four weeks ago by assailants unknown. There’s –”

“Is that right?” interrupted Morgan. “Coincidence?”

“I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Well I must say, your gut instinct’s never been wrong. Anything else?”

“Elder boy a fireman – trainee. Younger one unemployed. A third boy died seven years ago.”

“How?”

“Fell from a tree. Broken neck.”

“Fair share of tragedy there. Any family connections to the supernatural?”

“Not that we can find. Family moved to Quorn after inheriting the house from the paternal grandfather of the boys. Father, Mike, was a draftsman. Set up his own business operating from Quorn. Mother, Lauren, worked for Sotheby’s in London; seems to have tried to set up an online auction house from Quorn, but the youngest boy’s accident put an end to that. Grandparents on both sides were in trade: butcher, carpenter – after some time in the army – seamstress, housewife.”

“Sounds pretty pedestrian. That all?”

“For now.”

“Any priors anywhere?”

“Totally clean.”

“What’s the connection to Orwell?”

“Appears the elder boy, Kane, is involved with Arika Livingston. We’re still not sure why they met up with Orwell or what they were doing together all that time.”

“So, Arika. What have you got on her?”

“Twenty-two. Orwell’s research assistant for almost a year. Studied under him before that. Grew up in London with a relative on her father’s side, Beatrice Carlyle, since age seven, after her mother took off. Mother, Gabriela, whereabouts currently unknown. Father, Corbin, ex-Royal Navy, now a private detective. Interestingly he seems to have disappeared as well –”

“Disappeared?”

“Hold on, there’s more. He was implicated in the death of two men in London. No one’s sure what happened. They were Japanese businessmen, in the arts business, and he was caught on CCTV leaving the hotel the night they were shot.”

“That all?”

“Whoever did it cleaned up the scene like a pro. CCTV is all they got.”

“He a serious suspect, you think?”

“Ooh yeah.”

“What’s your gut say?”

She patted her stomach. “Guilty.”

Morgan blew out his cheeks. “Both parents gone, huh? And now she’s seeing a man with two dead parents. And affiliated with a man with no past. There’s definitely something fishy in all that.” He stared into space for a while, then turned his vacant eyes to Cleo. “Anything more on the good professor prior to his appointment to George University?”

“He was curator at a museum in Prague for five years. Erm, what’s the name? … Have? Have-it? No, gone. Before that he seems to have been in Bulgaria – at least that’s the story he told around town, according to our Czech contacts – but the trail there is cold.”

“So there’s unlikely any prior connection to the Gates.” Morgan pulled at his lower lip, trying to connect the dots: three bizarre humanoid mutants found wandering the Six Hills; a dragon monster terrorising people around the corner from where those things had been found; the younger Gates boy witnessed it; the professor with the dodgy past was visiting an isolated farm near where a dead hoodlum had turned zombie and was shot in the face; the older Gates boy, whose parents were both murdered, dating the professor’s assistant, whose parents have disappeared. Most of the action seemed to revolve in or around the farmhouse, but that didn’t explain the relationship between the professor, his assistant and the Gates boys.

“Cleo, explain to me: Why would Orwell pay the boys a visit? By himself. So soon after Kane Gates spent all that time with him at the uni. That’s the connection I can’t figure.”

Grieves shrugged. “Bizarre love triangle?”

“Perhaps it’s innocent. The younger Gates boy witnessed the Messenger thing; Arika Livingston went to find out more and fell for the older Gates boy. Love at first sight – he’s a strapping young fellow and she’s a definite looker. Professor goes to visit as a substitute parent to ascertain the boy’s intentions with his substitute daughter.” He pulled a face at her. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Not so sure about that last bit, boss.”

“What?”

“The guy’s five seconds away from death. A long way to drive to protect a young girl’s honour.”

Morgan raised an eyebrow. “There goes that gut instinct again.”

“I’m starting to wonder whether there’s something behind your continual references to my gut.”

Morgan laughed. “I’m sure Liv thinks the more of you there is, the better.”

“Ha, ha. The correct response was: ‘Cleo, you’re not fat’.”

He thought it best not to respond to that one. Instead, he scratched his chin and stared at the monitor. He wished the professor would hurry up and arrive. He always hated these long, boring stake-outs. Adrenaline was more his thing.

“Hey, Cleo, I’ve got some news of my own.”

“Hit me.”

“The DNA typing has come back on the mutants.”

“Don’t tell me: Russian.”

“One of them is.”

She punched him again. “Bingo!”

“The other two are local.”

“I was only putting money on the woman. You don’t find many giant Russian bodies going missing not long before a giant female monster turns up.”

“The DNA of all three is really degraded. Might explain their abnormalities.”

“Being resurrected after you’ve been buried for years might explain that too.”

“It’s good knowing there might be some kind of scientific explanation to all this mumbo-jumbo. Dealing with magic is doing my head in.”

“Whereas I’m perfectly at home with it. Must be all those episodes of Bewitched I used to watch. I always wanted to be Endora.”

He laughed. “The evil one?”

“She’s not evil. Just protective and a strong woman.”

“She scared the hell out of me. I think I identified with Darren –”

“Derwood.”

“See: even that sends a shiver down my poor old spine. I did think she was evil. I was scared one day she’d turn Darren into a pile of ashes, rather than a goat or a dog. Gone for good. Dead.”

“You were a serious youngun, weren’t you? It’s interesting how you’re hunting the Endoras and her brood now.”

He smiled at her. “I never thought of it like that.”

“Subliminal it was. I went into weight training and you turned witch hunter.”

“I really hope there’s no witches involved in all this. Zombies and dragons I can handle, but the thought of going up against Endora does my head in.”

Grieves glanced at her watch. “He’ll be here soon.”

Morgan’s eyes went back to the monitor. Besides Orwell, they hadn’t seen any activity at the farm; no comings or goings; no lights, movement or noises. The farm was owned by a holding company, its owners nameless and faceless (for now). Morgan had a suspicion it was acquired for some kind of illegal activity. Yesterday, under cover of darkness, he led a covert search of the property. Though the house proved to be lived in, there was no trace of any occupants. It looked like everything you’d expect a dump out here in the middle of nowhere to look like.

Grieves’ phone started vibrating. It was Liv, asking if she’d be home for dinner. Grieves put her on hold. “Sam, I can see what’s bouncing around in that over-sized head of yours. But we’re stretched too thin to put a tag on the Gates boys and Miss Livingston too.”

He screwed up his face. “Fine. But if anything turns up in the surveillance record, you call me straight away.”

Read Chapter 38: The return

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