“This is a highly secretive affair. The Home Secretary wants to keep it that way.”
Arika yawned and stretched her legs. Her head fell back against the wall. Since escaping the farmhouse almost a week ago, she’d hardly slept. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw dead things: dead fields, dead trees, dead dogs, dead people coming back to life. She knew with time the images would fade and lose their potency, but she also knew she needed a few nights of solid sleep before that process could begin. And that meant not waking at four o’clock every morning and staring at the ceiling until the sun rose.
A car with a noisy exhaust sped past the apartments, the roar fading quickly to a dull rumble. The sound stroked the inside of her head, as if the car were driving over the surface of her brain rather than the street below. The feeling was hypnotic. As the background hum of traffic returned, she felt herself slipping into sleep.
A knock sounded at the door.
Arika raised her head, momentarily confused. Blinking away the light, she pushed herself off the couch, stumbled to the door and peered through the peephole.
It was Simon.
“Hey there, Professor,” she yawned as the door opened.
Simon looked tired too. The bags under his eyes, his mouth, his jowls: they all sagged like melted cheese. He didn’t look happy. She worried the events at the Dark farm were taking their toll on his health, and then wondered what would bring him all the way out to her apartment on a Sunday.
He shook his head a little.
“Come in.” Pulling the door open wider, she stepped aside and let him pass. Her heart was racing at the thought that something had gone wrong. It had to be big. The only thing she could think that would bring Simon to her door was something involving Kane or Dylan.
“Apologies for disturbing you at home, Arika,” he said at last, glancing around the apartment. “I didn’t feel comfortable discussing this at the university – national security and all.”
“Of course.” She breathed a little easier knowing it was national security he was here to discuss, not some disaster involving the Gates boys. Simon hadn’t been updating her on events at the Dark farm and her heart leapt at the hope he was here to bring her back into the fold.
She motioned him to a chair, and at the same time saw the dirty laundry she’d dropped there last night. As he moved towards it, she rushed over and gathered the clothes in her arms. Just her luck the professor would visit in a week when everything had gone to hell – including her housework.
“The job at the farmhouse is not going well, I’m afraid,” Simon began, taking a seat, conveniently looking the other way as she threw her clothes into the bedroom and closed the door. “Not well at all.”
Arika came back and fell into the couch. She pulled her legs up.
“The magics are extremely complex and I’m worried that without the Necromonicon we’ll be unable to put the horrors to rest.”
“The copy isn’t working?”
“It’s a poor transcript. And incomplete. Useless in a situation like this.”
“You think the one Kane has is an original?”
“I’m certain of it.”
His sureness surprised her, considering he’d never set eyes on it. “What makes you so sure?”
He smiled at her, though only with his mouth. His blue eyes were veiled; at that moment, she hardly recognised him.
“Only that Mr Waite used it to conjure up all those evil things you and the brothers saw. A cornucopia of horrors like we’ve never before encountered. It’s not something one can do with any other text I know of. And as we’ve learnt, a copy is next to useless. Like a copy of a key that only works if you know exactly how to manipulate it. And we don’t. We have no frame of reference. We need that book. The one Mr Gates has. It’s the only one.”
Arika pressed her hands between her knees. “I can’t see how I can help you, Simon. If you want Kane’s book, you’ll need to ask him.”
“I was hoping you might do that, Arika. Use your feminine wiles? Tempt the red-blooded beast, so to speak?”
She shook her head at him. Same old misogynistic Simon: thinking he was complimenting her when he was doing the opposite.
His mouth turned down at the corners. “As you will recall, the first time I asked I was told in no uncertain terms I couldn’t have it. I hoped with time the elder boy would be able to convince the younger to change his mind, but the reverse happened. Now they’ve both dug their feet in.”
Arika felt a jab of betrayal. Simon wasn’t here for advice or to offer her a role in the security or study of the farm; he was here to use her. Was it because she was so tired she felt so annoyed? With an effort, she said, “They both saw what the book can do and they don’t think they can trust anyone else. In a way, I think they’re right.”
“What on Earth could you mean by that?”
“Kane is strong and decent, and if anyone can hide the Necromonicon and not be corrupted by it, it’s him.”
“I trust you have the same faith in me?”
His question was juvenile and only annoyed her more. “Of course, Simon. But as you said, Kane has it and he doesn’t want to hand it over.”
“That boy is in above his head.”
“If it’s that important, why doesn’t NSO get a warrant?”
Simon tapped his forefinger on the arm of the chair. It seemed like all his frustration was concentrated in that one small action. “This is a highly secretive affair. The Home Secretary wants to keep it that way.”
“I’m sure there’s more to it than that.”
Simon sighed. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, Arika, because I know you’re feeling rather … protective of the boys; but they’ve done something very stupid. They’ve left notes with their friends that will be released to the media if anything happens to them. We can’t afford to let that happen. It would cause widespread panic and all kinds of crazies to descend on the farm. So we’re left with polite cajoling. For the time being, at least.”
Arika suppressed a smile. What Simon was telling her sounded like something from a B-grade movie. Were Kane and Dylan really that tactical, or were they bluffing? She didn’t know them well enough to know, but either way it was a smart move.
“Kane is as stubborn as a mule,” she said. “I doubt he’ll give you the book.”
“Which is why you, my dear, are our only hope.”
Arika scanned his face. A forced smile was stretching his mouth; beads of sweat were standing out on his brow; his finger was still tapping on the arm of the chair. Something didn’t feel right. Why would NSO send an ageing professor on such an important mission, when it had trained officers who could put real pressure on Kane? It was hard to believe the NSO would be scared off by the old I’ve-left-notes-with-four-of-my-close-friends trick.
“I’ll ask him,” she conceded. “But I can’t promise anything. Maybe the Home Secretary would have more luck.”
Simon frowned, the sarcasm going over his head. “It’s best left with us. The Gates boy was right in one respect: the government can’t be trusted. Who knows what they might do if they got their hands on that much power? Militarising magic would make the atomic age seem like the bronze age.” His face adopted a smug expression. “I let the NSO know the book is like a highly sensitive explosive: it needs to be handled by an expert. A.k.a. me. I suspect they’re scared stiff of it – as well they should be.” He fixed her with a stern gaze. “You should be aware, my dear, that in time the book will corrupt that boy.”
“I’ll be sure to mention that to him.”
She stifled a yawn, but by this time she was energised by her new mission. It gave her an active role in events at the farm – not as active as she would prefer, but it was like opening a door a crack before pushing her whole body into the room. And perhaps this time she could get a real look inside the Necromonicon
“I might go out there tomorrow, if you can spare me.”
“No time like the present,” countered the professor, pushing himself to his feet.
“You mean today?”
“Time is of the essence.”
Arika wondered whether it was sensible going back so soon. She’d left Quorn only yesterday morning. Kane might get suspicious. Even worse, he might think she was interested in him for more than just the book.
“When you gain possession of the Necromonicon, be sure to bring it straight to me, Arika.” He pointed a finger at her. “Don’t be tempted to read it yourself.”
Simon knew her too well. He also knew she had a stubborn streak and would do whatever she felt like doing, regardless of his warning. But what choice did he have? Arika smiled at him, not bothering to lie and tell him she wouldn’t read it.
“I’ll ring you one way or the other,” she promised as she led him to the door.
“Thank you so much for doing this, Arika.” Simon took her warm, soft hands in his cold, damp, bony ones. “I realise it’s an imposition.”
“Not at all, Professor. It’s a lovely day for a drive.”
She slipped her hands away from his and opened the door. “We’ll talk later.”
“That we will.”
The professor left. Closing the door, Arika returned to the couch.
A jumble of thoughts and images was running through her mind: things she’d seen at the farmhouse; Kane; her father; the near-miss with the Messenger; the unimaginable secrets in the Necromonicon. They were all associated one way or another with Quorn. Legend has it the land surrounding Quorn radiates mystical energy, and its reputation attracts all sorts of wanna-be witches, warlocks, ghost hunters and new-age loonies. The events of the past week suggested the energy level was rising, and it was hard to imagine the death of Wilfred Waite being the end of it. This had to be bigger than one man.
She went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. After drying her face on a towel, she applied concealer to a couple of spots on her cheek, brushed her hair, checked herself in the mirror. Arika had never thought of herself as attractive. Her face was too wide. Her eyes bulged a little. She was the product of too many genes – from Norway, Morocco, the South Seas and a few countries in-between. The mixture was too crazy to make sense; at least in her eyes. Her best asset was her brain, though she guessed men like Kane were hardly likely to have that at the top of their list of desirable attributes in a woman.
Kane. It was funny how he kept popping into her mind. She’d known him less than a week, and in that time she’d thought about him more than she’d thought about any other man in her lifetime (besides, of course, her father). Frowning, she reminded herself their shared experiences had forged a bond between them, a connection bound by family, history, danger, death and magic – a potent combination. It was hardly surprising he was always on her mind.
Still, she didn’t think of Dylan that way.
Shrugging at herself in the mirror, she said, “It is what it is,” and turned and left the apartment.