“Damn that meddling cur! I should have gutted him when I had the chance!”

Pushing open the door, Kane stood aside and waited for his brother to go in. The house looked the way it had when their mother was alive, thanks to an army of cleaners he’d marshalled first thing that morning.

Dylan said nothing.

“Like the house?”

He stared blankly at him.

“It’s clean!”

“Very,” agreed Dylan, stepping forward.

He walked around peering into each room, as if seeing them for the first time. “Nice,” he said.

Kane followed him, worried his brother may have sustained a head injury in addition to the concussion. The doctor had warned him to watch out for short-term memory loss, slurred speech, dizziness, fatigue and confusion; so far it was three out of five.

“Arika stayed last night,” he said, trying to make conversation. “She was worried about you too. She had to go back to work this morning, or else she would have been here. Nothing happened,” he rushed to add. “I don’t think she likes me that way.”

Dylan was frowning at something in the dining room.

“Not to worry. There’s always Janny!” He laughed awkwardly. “Or not. Can I get you anything?”

“No,” sighed Dylan, walking off. “Nothing.” He went to the stairs. “Would you help me to my room?”

“Huh? Oh. Right. You wanna rest?”

“My head is killing me.”

Headache – that was another sign. Four out of six.

“Did you want another pill?”

“A rest is all I need right now.”

Kane placed a hand on his brother’s back and together they made their way up the stairs. At the top, Dylan turned to go the wrong way. “No, this way,” said Kane, and steered him towards his room. He watched at the door as his brother walked to the bed, sat down, then with a soft sigh fell back.

Kane went up, lifted his legs onto the bed, dragged him towards the bedhead and placed the pillow under his head.

“Listen, Dylan, I need to get back to work. Will you be okay for a few hours?

Dylan opened his eyes. “Eh?”

“I need to –”

“– work,” said Dylan. “Of course. Go. I’m not a baby.”

Kane watched him for a few seconds. Yesterday when he’d seen Dylan, outside the station, he’d claimed Waite was trying to get back inside his head. But that was impossible. Not when Waite was dead, and not without the Necromonicon. Dylan was acting strangely, but it was the kind of strangeness the nurse said should be expected after a concussion.

Dylan turned his head. “Is there something more?”

“No.” He stepped back. “I’ll leave your medicines in the bathroom.”

Dylan closed his eyes.

“By the way, I moved the Necromonicon to a new hiding place.”

His eyes sprang open. “What?” He got up on his elbows. “Why?”

“I thought –”

“Where is it?”

“Don’t you worry about that.”

“Why did you move it?”

“When you told me about Waite coming back, it got me thinking about his cronies and how they might come after you. Thought it safer if you didn’t know where it was. There’s only me … until we can decide what to do with it.”

He sat up. “You need to tell me where it is.”

“What did I just tell you? It’s safest if I’m the only one who knows where it is.”

“Don’t you trust me?”                            

“It’s for your own protection.”

“I don’t need your protection. Can you please tell me where it is?”

“We’ll talk about it tonight. I’m thinking of just giving it to the NSO and to hell with it.”

“No, no. Don’t trust anyone. We’re the only ones we can trust.” He leaned forward. “You haven’t spoken with them, have you?”

“Course not.”

“Have you spoken with anyone?”

“No … just Arika.”

“You can’t give the Necromonicon away, not to anyone.”

“We’ll talk about it tonight.” He pointed his finger. “Get some rest.”

Kane turned and went downstairs. The cleaners did a great job, he thought as he looked around. He could almost imagine his mother coming out of the kitchen, having heard his footsteps, a satisfied smile on her face, a packet of her favourite Monte Carlo biscuits in hand – her reward after finishing a spring clean. It was a shame, in a way, they wouldn’t be here to enjoy it. The minute Dylan was able to travel, they’d be leaving Quorn for good.

Pulling his phone from his pants pocket, he rang Arika. The call went to voicemail. “Hey,” he said, “it’s me: Kane. Kane Gates. I … just wanted to talk to you about concussion. It’s Dylan … of course. Just wanted to run a few things past you. Anyhow … call me. Or I’ll call you. I, um … I … er … Speak soon.”

Hanging up, he frowned at the ceiling, frowned at his phone, shoved it back in his pocket, then went to collect his keys.

The kitchen looked like a hurricane had swept through it. All the cupboard doors were open. Pots and pans and cleaning products were strewn across the floor.

Dylan’s head appeared from under the sink. He swore under his breath and glanced around for somewhere he might have neglected to look. “Where would that worm hide it?” he asked himself. “Where, where, where?”

Standing, he moved to the living room, which was in a similar state.

Frustration spewed up inside him. “You stupid, interfering, useless maggot,” he growled, clenching his fists. “Looks like we’ll have to do this the hard way.”

He pictured his array of torture equipment and a thrill passed through him. It was a long time since he’d practised his art of interrogation on a living person, a long time since the blood flowing from the cuts he’d made had run rich and hot. It would be like spending years eating margarine and then tasting real butter again. His mouth watered at the thought.

“I warned you not to cross me,” he muttered, a smile twisting his lips. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Going back to the kitchen, he began replacing pots and pans in the cupboards.

Approaching the end of the drive, he spied an unfamiliar car parked by the farmhouse gate. It was an early sixties’ Bentley, if he wasn’t mistaken. Well maintained, recently polished; it looked like a collector’s car. Parking the Honda beside it, he tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. It was clearly not the car of a police officer or a soldier, he thought with relief. It was an old man’s car. It was empty, so whoever owned it must be inside the house. There was no sight or sound of the dogs, so the owner must have somehow taken care of them.

“Cockroaches,” he muttered. “Dirty, disgusting filth.”

He pulled out Dylan’s phone to ring Snyder, then thought better of it. Snyder was getting too big for his boots. He’d come to his rescue after the incident with the Gates boys; he’d squirrelled him away to the shop, cleaned up Arlene’s mess (or rather, the mess that was Arlene), locked up everything, and since then he’d begun getting airs, as if he was owed something. While Wilfred made preparations to regain possession of his young body, he’d forbidden Snyder from going anywhere near the farm, and it wouldn’t look good to ask for his help at the first sign of trouble.

Replacing the phone in his pocket, he pushed open the door. He was fairly certain his shotgun was still in the chapel; if not, there was the pistol stashed in the sideboard in the dining room. He’d get rid of his visitor the old-fashioned way.

Creeping up to the house like a commando, rifle at the ready, he wondered who the Gates boys had revealed its secrets to. There was no sign of the police or armed forces, so he guessed they’d stayed mum – except, of course, for Kane’s girlfriend and the owner of this car. It was no doubt some relative or friend who was out here pinching stuff while Kane Gates was busy at work. It was just as he’d predicted: the young upstarts were acquiring his treasures, intent on taking his place. They had the Necromonicon, they’d rummaged around in his hidden chambers, and now the power was in their grasp to control everything he’d resurrected, tamed and built. He seethed with rage at the thought of everything he’d gained being stolen by imbeciles.

He went inside, shotgun raised, expecting to find a stranger going through his things. Instead, Simon Orwell was there, lounging in his favourite armchair with the grimoire of Theodosius and a cup of tea.

“Wilfred, you naughty boy!” he cried, looking Dylan’s body up and down. “You found Jonathon Dark’s farmhouse and didn’t tell me!”

Wilfred felt a wave of revulsion pass through him. “Simon,” he groaned, lowering the gun. He glanced around to see if anything was missing. “It’s been … forever.”

“Not quite forever. Just a lifetime.”

“And now you’re back.”

“Yes, Wilfred old man. You too … back from the grave, so to speak. I heard you were dead and buried.”

“Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you hope for.”

“On the contrary, my dear man. I very much hoped young Gates was mistaken. I’ve missed you.”

“Missed thieving from me, you mean.”

“You always did hold a grudge. But I forgive you.”

Wilfred’s body tensed. “It was you who crossed me!”

“Let’s not squibble over old wrongs –”

“You stole my Borellus.”

“Borrowed, dear Wilfred.”

“You’ve had it for sixty years.”

“What’s sixty years between friends? Anyway, if I understand correctly, you don’t need the Borellus anymore. You have the Necromonicon.”

Wilfred stared contemptuously at him.

“Or maybe you don’t,” smiled Simon. He stroked his beard. “I heard the tome has been whisked away by some young rascals who somehow managed to outwit you. Tsk, tsk, old man. You’re losing your touch. Beaten by babies. Who would have thought?”

Wilfred squeezed his fists. “They had a bastardly run of luck! No one outsmarts me!”

“The fact remains, old cock: they have it and you don’t. You should hear them gloat about it. They’re positively gleeful.” Tactfully, he decided to change the subject. Running his eyes over the young body, he said, “Tell me, Wilfred: how did you survive the attack of the killer zombie? Kane Gates was certain you were a goner. I was expecting to come here and find you squashed in a pool of guts on the floor.”

“Hoping, you mean.”

“But no, you managed not only to survive against all the odds, you also regained that delectable body. I’m impressed. Bravo, old man.”

Despite himself, Wilfred felt his face warm at the praise. The competition between them was as strong as ever after all these years, and it was clear, just by looking at the two of them, who was winning.

“It pays to have friends,” he said, raising his chin. “Loyal friends,” he added with a sneer, “not the back-stabbing type.”

“It pays to pay protectors. Was it that Snyder creature I heard about? He sounds like an unpleasant character.”

“They’re the most trustworthy kind.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. But I don’t know him.”

“He worships the ground I walk on. That’s the most precious kind of friend to have.”

Simon had a little laugh. “We have very different interpretations of the word ‘friend’, old man.”

“That we do.”

Simon stared at him with a Mona Lisa smile. He shook his head, dislodging some private thought. “We were such good friends for such a long time, dear Wilfred. I miss those days of gallivanting around, creating mischief.”

“The good times ended a long time ago.”

“More’s the pity.”

“I told you to return my things and you decided to leave the country instead.”

“I had urgent business to take care of.”

“For sixty years?”

“What’s sixty years to an immortal?”

“You stole some of my most precious possessions! It took me years to recover!”

“And look at us now: reunited after all this time. The deadly duo is back in business.”

“What are you doing here, Simon?”

He raised his palms. “I was hoping to find you here and join you in your little excesses.”

“You just said you thought I was dead.”

Simon was nonplussed. “I knew it would take more than a mindless zombie and a rag-tag band of adolescents to end you. I know your talents too well, old man. But … if by some miracle they had achieved the impossible, then in that case I would have continued your work; delivered on your legacy, so to speak. There’s no point in letting all your remarkable work go to waste, especially with the treasures of the Dark farm exposed at long last. And who better to pick it up than little old moi?”

“You’re like a scab in the middle of my back, an itch I can’t seem to get rid of.”

“You found the farm and you found the book. Good for you.”

“I found the book and it’s mine. You won’t get your thieving hands on it.”

“Of course not. Because, alack and alas, you lost it. And now we’re back to wishing and hoping.”

“I’m getting it back. Sooner than you think.”

“Wishing and hoping.”

“It’s only a temporary setback.”

“Wishing and – Oh goody, a plan! I knew you’d have something in the works.” He leaned forward, hands clasped. “What is it?”

Wilfred smirked at him. Typical Simon, trying to pump him for information. It was patently obvious he was here to steal the Necromonicon – or whatever else he could get his hands on. The thought raised a small panic in him that Simon had already appropriated half his things. There was nothing much of value here, but downstairs was a different matter.

“Let me guess … a little torture in the afternoon?”

Wilfred gave him a tight-lipped smile.

“I’m sorry to thwart your little excitement, but that would be the worst thing you can do.”

The smile evaporated. “What do you mean? When is torture not the shortest line between two points?”

“When it would bring the whole security force down on your head.” Simon inspected his fingernails, which he still kept long, no doubt with the sole aim of irritating Wilfred: he knew how much it irked him. “So far I’ve kept them from your door by telling the youngsters I am handling it. If Kane Gates were to go missing, I don’t think I will be able to hold my assistant back from going straight to them.”

“I’ll do both of them then.”

At this, Simon stiffened. “No, no, no. No, you won’t. I’ve already had a visit from the National Security Office, thanks to that errant Messenger of yours. How will it look if my assistant goes missing, along with the brother of the boy who witnessed the murderous creature? No, Wilfred, we can’t risk that.”

“We? There is no ‘we’.”

“Of course there’s a ‘we’. There’s been a ‘we’ for … what is it? – one hundred and sixty – no, seventy years. Since ever since you were my apprentice.”

“Your slave, you mean.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere, old cock. We quickly became friends back then, if you recall. I shared my magics with you, including the magics that have allowed you to stand here today. We had a mutual enemy; we raised some of the most famous and infamous men who have ever lived; the world was at our feet.”

“Strange how things turn around.”

“We had a mix-up. An unfortunate misunderstanding. Let’s let bygones be bygones. There’s so much we can achieve together.”

When Wilfred didn’t respond, Simon picked up a hand mirror from the side table and said, “Have you been staring at yourself much, Wilfred? I certainly would if I looked like you do now.”

“How did you know it was me? When I walked in?”

“Whereas look at poor old Simon. Ghastly. Time may have slowed, but three hundred and thirty years does pile up eventually.”

Wilfred folded his arms. “What do you want, Simon? I have more important things to do than stand around chinwagging with you.”

He laid aside the mirror. His face brightened. “I’m not here because I want something. On the contrary, I can be of assistance to you.”

Wilfred sat on the arm of the chair opposite. “You?” he snorted. “Help me? Don’t be an ass.”

“I’ve been working on the Gates boy. Gaining his trust. I could recover your book.”

Wilfred stopped breathing. He placed his hands on his knees. “And why would you do that?”

Simon raised his bushy eyebrows. “As a goodwill gesture. To earn your forgiveness.” He picked up the mirror again, lifted his chin. “And perhaps there may be some mutual benefits to be had.” He waggled his turkey neck. “What’s it like being young again, old man?”

Simon’s question made it clear what he was after. Not surprising, really: he was looking awful. Wilfred glanced down at his own slender young body. He made the muscles in his legs move, filled his lungs with air, let them deflate until his smooth belly was concave. His body was the perfect vessel in which to deliver on the next stage of his plan. A shot in the dark, the calling spell had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It was more than magic … it was a miracle.

“Does it feel like being reborn?”

Wilfred looked at him. “Rejuvenated is the word I would use.”

“More energy?”

“Definitely. In every part of me,” he added with a leer.

Simon poked out his white-coated tongue in disgust. “Surely it can’t be like being a teenager again. You’ve been alive for more than two hundred years. You’ve seen and learnt and experienced everything there is on this Earth. No teenager has ever experienced that. You’ve been everywhere; tasted everything; nothing is new anymore. Aren’t you still bored by it? – by the sameness, the monotony, of everything? Surely a new, lithe body doesn’t change that.”

“You’d be surprised how a change of curtains brightens up the room.”

Simon leaned his head back. “It all sounds so tremendously exhausting. Starting all over again? I don’t know, Wilfred. Maybe I prefer to be the traveller who’s looking forward to the rest at the end of a very long journey. Not searching for more adventures, just reflecting on the adventures I’ve had. And there are plenty of those. Ah, the men I’ve raised: the famous, the angelic, the demonic; the secrets I’ve prised from them. My head is filled like a helium balloon about to burst with the knowledge gleaned from a thousand lives. I’m one with the Sphinx, replete with the mystery and wisdom of the ages. Nestled in the warm bosom of my hoary university, I am revered by the young and all those who seek to learn, from the master, that which they will never experience for themselves. I’m not so sure being a boy all over again stands up against that.”

Wilfred stared at him with Dylan’s keen eyes. Maybe he was wrong about Simon’s intentions: he didn’t seem envious of his newly-acquired youth at all. Rather than put his mind at ease, his former associate’s disdainful attitude towards immortality antagonised him. That wasn’t the reaction he was after. Simon was supposed to burn with envy.

“You’re a balloon that’s about to deflate and shrivel into a flaccid piece of rubber,” he corrected with a wave of his hand.

Simon laughed. “Ah, Wilfred, old friend, you do have a peculiar view of the world. Then again, you’re more than a century younger than I am. A child of a different world, so to speak.”

“Whatever our differences, I’m not a lousy quitter, sitting here waiting to crumble to dust, like you seem to be. I’m disappointed in you. I thought you were better than that.”

Simon lifted and dropped his shoulders. “Each to his own. I’m winding down gracefully, accepting my fate, not fighting against it with a vain attempt to steal a boy’s life, just so I can keep doing the same old same old for another three hundred years.”

Here Wilfred laughed like a real teenager. He pushed himself off the chair and walked to the window. Though it was filthy and there were dead branches pressed up against it, making it almost impossible to see anything, he pretended he was studying the landscape.

“What makes you think I’m doing the same old same old?”

“What exactly are you doing?”

He turned. “Learning the secrets of the Necromonicon.”

“Don’t we already know those? From the Latvian copy?”

“You know it was only a copy. Nothing in it worked.”

“Some things worked. And I’m not so certain an original version is as powerful as they claim it is. There can’t have been that many copying errors.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Really? Tell me more. What kinds of marvellous things can the real tome do?”

Rocked by a burst of anger, Wilfred grabbed his hair in his fists. He was sick of talking about the book when he should be pulling out fingernails to retrieve it. “No more words! I need my book! This – intercourse – is getting us nowhere!”

“Which brings us back to my offer.”

Wilfred glanced at his gun, which he’d left leaning against the chair. He should have shot the interloper on sight, like he’d planned from the start.

“I don’t need a thieving sewer rat like you to get me my book.”

“Perhaps,” mused Simon, going back to checking out his fingernails; “perhaps not.” He looked up. “But you do need me if you want it by Magacanta.” He pushed himself out of the armchair. “You see, Wilfred, I’ve done a little research and, as I understand it, if you don’t retrieve the Necromonicon by the Feast of Sidusater, you will lose your tenancy over that sweet young body. Pouf! Back into that rotting corpse of yours. And then who’ll be the one sitting around waiting to crumble to dust? – or melt into sludge, in your case.”

Simon’s words made the shadows in the room darken and swell. Wilfred squeezed his eyes shut. Something was wrong. He could smell something rotten, and he knew exactly what it was. Holding onto the window sill, muttering the binding spell, he struggled to stay in control of his body.

When the crisis passed, he opened his eyes to find Simon smiling at him. Fear turning to rage, he leapt at him and pushed him against a bookcase, his forearm held hard against his neck. “I will not lose this body! I’ve worked too hard and too long to let that no-good runt steal it back!”

Simon regarded him placidly. He patted Wilfred’s shoulders like a father reassuring his child. “Calm down, dear friend. Obviously stress is not good for you. I’m saying I’m here to help.”

Wilfred breathed furiously. He was livid, mostly because Simon was right. He was in a race against the clock to recover the Necromonicon and use it to finalise the body swap at the Feast of Sidusater. It’s the one time of the year when the stars and planets come into alignment and the collective power of hundreds of minds converge in a blaze of magical energy. He needed the Necromonicon to pull in all that energy and make the change permanent; otherwise … the alternative was to return to that disgusting decomposing body and melt by slow, painful degrees into a pool of slime.

Releasing his hold on Simon, he stalked to the other side of the room. “What makes you think the Gates boy will hand the book over to you?”

Simon adjusted his collar. “He wants all this nasty occult business to go away. If you could only hear the dreadful things he says about you and this place. Positively blood curling. His dear mother would turn in her grave. She is still in her grave, isn’t she?”

“Unfortunately his elders were cremated. Otherwise I would teach that bastard a lesson he would carry to his own early grave.”

“He’s a strong-minded one, that boy. He won’t crack by force, I can promise you that.”

“Damn that meddling cur! I should have gutted him when I had the chance!” He hugged his body, fighting to control the emotions this new body seemed to amplify. He hadn’t realised the boy’s hormones would make him feel as young as he looked. It was as if Dylan Gates was getting his revenge for the possession spell by turning things around and possessing him.

“Very well, Simon,” he conceded as his rage settled. “Go get me my book.” He jabbed a finger in Simon’s direction. “But mark my words: in the past sixty years I have learnt a thousand and one new ways to make a man suffer. Cross me again and I will make you burn from the inside.”

Simon gave him a pained look. “Dear Wilfred, it cuts me to the bone how you don’t trust me.” He walked to the door, paused and turned back. “By the way, we spent the better part of a century searching for the Dark farm. How on Earth did you find it?”

Wilfred smiled at him. “Google.”

Read Chapter 41: Arika receives a visitor

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