I ran. Downstairs; out through the door; along the street. No longer was I in the warm, cosy hypnosis of the indoors, but motivated by a chilling determination. It was like someone had stabbed me in the spine with an icicle: a shock that flung my legs out in front of me. Emma’s parents were standing in their garden, staring down the street, paralysed with horror. I paid them no heed and continued running, slipping every few steps, and forcing down the growing pains in my chest.
I ran. I ran and ran and ran. My heart pounded; the blood pumped through my ears, forming an exhausting percussion with my feet. I believed that, if I tried hard enough, I could catch up with the car. I could stop it. I could rescue Emma. If I just believed hard enough, then all of this would come true. But I gradually came to realise that this was nothing more than a foolish dream, and the pain of the running hit me like a slammed door. I slowed to a jog. I walked. I stopped.
The snow was falling thick and fast, as if someone had upended a huge bowl of porridge. The road had merged with the pavement, and the Christmas lights had become nothing more than a glimmer within the fledgling tundra. Callow would be far off by now. Perhaps he’d travel to the south and cross the border; maybe he’d try to take a flight halfway around the world. It wouldn’t be easy – especially without Emma’s passport – but I knew Callow would find a way. He was that kind of man. Maybe he’d forge documents. Or he could just hide out somewhere within the country, and nobody would ever know; he’d change his name, get a new job. Then he’d be someone else: another bumbling, innocent-looking man.
I looked around, trying to figure out where I’d ended up. The flurries of snow made everything look vaguely similar, hiding cars and giving every garden a small hedgerow. I stumbled over to the nearest structure, eager to get under its porch as soon as possible. I dived through the worsening weather and stared up at the building before me.
It was the library.
I peered inside and, yes, there was the old man sitting at his desk, scribbling away at his piece of paper and utterly disconnected from reality. I quietly opened the door and stepped inside, shaking most of the snow off my shoulders.
“Hello, boy.” he said, without looking up.
“Hello.” I replied.
There was silence for the next few minutes, save for the scrawling noise of the old man’s pen. He seemed to write something, pause, and then sigh angrily before crossing out what he’d just put down. Maybe he was practising his calligraphy. The library itself was much the same as when I had first seen it – piles of books strewn everywhere, teetering dangerously near to candles sitting contentedly on the floor. Most days were probably the same for the librarian, and most days were probably nights, given that he appeared to live nowhere else but in his box.
“Emma’s been abducted.” I said, surprised by the steadiness of my tone.
“Ah, your lady friend. By whom?”
“You don’t know who that is, do you?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” he said flatly, and still not looking up, “but I think I shouldn’t want to know him.”
“I don’t know what to do. He seems to have just driven away into the snowstorm; there’s no chance of catching him now.”
“With Emma in the car?”
“Was she wearing a seatbelt?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then we must set out to rescue her at once.”
“How could we? He’ll be long gone by now.”
“Well,” said the old man, gently laying his pen on the desk, parallel to the paper, “you’re right in that sense: he’d be miles and miles away. That is, if he intended to leave.”
“What do you mean?”
“If this Callow wants to leave the country, then he’ll need your lady friend’s passport, is that not so?”
“…in which case, he shall need to retrieve it. Of course, you could not do such a thing if you were miles and miles away. I think he will return.”
“And what if he moves to a different part of the country? We’ll be sitting here waiting for something that will never come.”
“Which is why, at the same time, we mount a search of the surrounding area, and keep in touch with nearby towns. I have connections.”
It was an odd thing to hear the librarian say: a famous recluse – well, aside from the Vernal Order – had ‘connections’? Maybe he channelled the spirits of his deceased ancestors, or something like that.
“How do you keep in touch with these connections?” I said, looking around at a building straight out of the nineteenth century.
“There’s a cauldron on the roof I use to create fire signals.”
“Of course not,” he snapped, “I use a phone like everyone else.”
Very much put in my place, I waited for the librarian’s plan of action – he had no idea who Callow was, and yet he was coming up with greater ideas than me. But for a while he returned to his piece of paper, scribbling away, with a frightening focus in his eyes, even more frightening considering his snake-fang haircut.
“I will mobilise the Vernal Order,” he said, still scribbling, “I will tell them to search for the car and your lady friend, and for this Callow.”
“And what should I do in the meantime?”
“Can’t you think for yourself, boy?”
He paused in the act of jotting, and looked up at me, occasionally shifting his focus between my eyes.
“No,” he said, returning to his work, “perhaps not.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Talk to the council, and involve the police, obviously. It would be foolish for us to try to tackle this ourselves.”
“And sending some children to investigate a potential dragon nest isn’t foolish?”
“You look perfectly well to me. Besides, if you hadn’t explored that cave you wouldn’t have rescued Councillor Bluck, and then you wouldn’t have had a mayor to help you now. You can thank me later.”
And the conversation was over. The old man took no notice of my protests, and even physically shaking him seemed to have no effect. He was a stubborn old fellow. I left the library, back out into the snowstorm, and I waded through the streets. I had to go to the town hall. As much as I hated the idea, I had to see Bluck. I needed her help.
The town hall seemed to care little for the snow. It almost seemed to lightly brush it off its shoulders every once in a while, even though it had no arms and no mind. But I had certainly seen stranger things. The entrance hall murmured and sweated – it was full of people asking the council what they were going to do about the sudden onslaught of snow. Apparently they had seen no snow ploughs, and one person said that all of the grit bins were still full to the brim: he’d checked every one in Ramsley himself.
Forced to contend with this – the largest case of civil unrest in Ramsley’s history – were the two burly security guards. The expressions they wore said that this sort of thing was not in their contract; all they were getting paid to do was to stand in the doorway all day and block access. Fortunately, the rotundity of their bellies left a considerable gap between their legs, through which I scurried without hesitation. There were advantages and disadvantages of being a child – having to walk under gelatinous flab was certainly in the latter category.
Now where was that conference room? Second door… second door on the left. The door was open again, and all of the councillors – apart from Dad – were already sitting there, as if they’d never left. Really, the only person I knew had left since my last visit was Bluck, who had procured a more elaborate chair, befitting of her position. The current discussion stopped as I walked in. They turned around and regarded me with an air of fascination, frustration and – so it seemed – fear. Bluck must have told them of our encounter, probably quaking with fright.
“Ah, it’s the child again.” she said, toeing the line between cordiality and sneering.
The other councillors seemed to rewind their cassette tapes in an attempt to remember me, but appeared unsuccessful. It must have been difficult to remember everyone, given that they met so many people each day – namely each other.
“How did you get through?” she continued.
“I ran quickly.”
Bluck rolled her eyes, and began to slowly tap the desk with her pen, not-so-subtly indicating that she had much important business to get on with.
“Mayor Bluck,” I said with determination, “I am here to report the kidnapping of my friend, Emma.”
“By dragon, I assume?”
The councillors burst into laughter, which lasted for far longer than the comment deserved. I simply stood there, resolute. I wasn’t going to let them bully me out of finding Emma.
“No, by Mr. Callow.”
A few of the councillors began to laugh again, but quickly trailed off, realising their mistake. Bluck’s brow furrowed. I assumed she was trying to figure out whether I was lying, as the tapping of her pen slowed even further while she stared at me, searching for any nervous twitch or tell-tale shiftiness.
“You aren’t lying.”
“No, Mayor Bluck.”
“That wasn’t a question. Here’s one, though: what happened?”
I told them the full story, right from when I was looking out of the window, to talking to the librarian, and ending here. As I kept talking, the lines on Bluck’s forehead seemed to become more pronounced, and she bit her lip in concentration. There was a silence for a while after I’d finished, presumably time for Bluck to consider what I’d said. She put her pen down and stared at it for a few moments, before looking back up at me.
“We must get to this at once, despite the weather. Nay, the weather should be an advantage: driving in such heavy snow is highly dangerous, if it’s even possible.”
I thought back to Callow’s car: it was a battered old hatchback – certainly no four-wheel-drive, and almost certain to encounter some problems in this kind of weather. The councillors stood as one and marched out of the room. They were immediately heckled by the crowd in the entrance hall, but the protesting residents obediently fell silent when Bluck raised her hand.
“Townspeople of Ramsley, I have been informed that a young girl has been kidnapped by a certain Mr. Callow. For now, we must forget the issue of the heavy snow and focus our efforts on finding Emma. Please search everywhere in the town. Meanwhile, myself, the boy and you two—” here she pointed to the security guards, “—will take the main road out of Ramsley. Hopefully the terrible weather will allow us to catch up.”
I didn’t know whose car it was, but this was certainly better than Callow’s beaten-up hatchback – it had considerable ground clearance, and was apparently fitted with winter tyres. If we couldn’t catch up to Callow in this, then I would eat my hat. If I had one, that is.
The ‘main road’ out of Ramsley wasn’t much of a road – it was, at best, a stereotypical country lane. With all of the snow, it had now become a part of the fields. The snow hadn’t stopped, and nor did it show any sign of slowing down. The windscreen wipers were in overdrive, and as a result the view was like watching a film with every other frame removed. We’d driven through Ramsley Wood, and were now travelling through the white sheet of meadows. Everything looked calm and beautiful, and it was only the purpose of our journey that darkened the atmosphere.
We drove for some miles before entering into another forest, this time far gloomier and quieter – night was setting in, making every shadow contain an ambush, and every tree a criminal.
The headlights shone on a car in front. It was Callow’s hatchback. Peering into the darkness, I could see the man himself hastily shovelling snow away from his car. He must have gotten stuck. I could see nothing of Emma, and my heart began to pound again. What had he done with her? Was she alright?
The tall, wiry frame of Callow stopped mid-shovel and looked up. Seeing the car, he smiled and was about to make way over, probably to ask for help in getting his car moving. Then he saw its passengers, and quickly jumped back, scrambling around in his car, trying to find some kind of weapon. We slowly got out of our vehicle and closed the doors behind us. Callow re-emerged – without so much as a bat of some kind, and smiled at me.
“Ah, hello, Tom.”
“Good evening, Mr. Callow.”
“I appear to have gotten into some trouble with my car. Would you mind giving me a hand?”
He looked around at the people accompanying me.
“Ah, Councillor Bluck and two guests. What a pleasure this is! What brings you out here?”
“Mr. Callow,” I said, trying to stay composed, “we know Emma is in your car. We’ve come to arrest you for kidnapping her.”
“I’ve done no such thing.”
The security guards took a step forward, and Callow darted inside the car. He pulled Emma out as carefully as he’d thrown her in. I caught her eye and immediately regretted doing so: she was as pale as the surrounding snow, and her eyes screamed with a burning fear. Callow held her by the neck and began to take a few paces backwards.
“If you come closer, then bad things will happen.”
He smiled, but not in a deranged way: he was very much in control of his mind, and he was satisfied that he had won this encounter. The night was completely silent out here – there wasn’t a house for miles around, and all that could be heard was the quiet trembling of Emma’s breathing. I stepped forward. Callow stepped back. The security guards stepped forward. Callow took another step back.
Then the night erupted into a cacophony of chanting and wailing and shouting. Callow looked around into the shadows of the trees, trying to find the source of the all-encompassing sound – it was the Vernal Order. The security guards seized their chance and rushed him, pushing him to the ground. I ran over to Emma and flung my arms around her, asking if she was hurt and saying that it was alright now and she just needed to take deep breaths.
Callow struggled and wriggled free of his captors, clawing his way along the ground before standing up and sprinting off into the darkness. The security guards attempted to make chase, but they had not the build of runners. That was the last I would see of Callow: a tall, thin man in shadow, running off into the distance. That was the last anyone would see of him in Ramsley.
I asked no serious questions of Emma – it was clear that she was far too shaken up to say anything, and so we went back to the car, back to Ramsley, and back home.
Emma stayed inside for almost a week. She would see no-one, not even briefly. She accepted meals, and ate most of them, but other than an exchange at her bedroom door she was seldom seen, and said nothing to anyone.
There was a knock on my door. I answered it to find Emma’s father standing on the doorstep, trying to force a smile onto his face. No doubt they felt guilty – they’d been pretty much powerless when Emma had been kidnapped, and so had been forced to wait for news. Every moment since her abduction must have passed as slowly as when I’d confronted Callow in the forest. He gently cleared his throat and breathed deeply.
“Thank you for bringing Emma back. We were so worried. Thank you.”
I nodded in response. I deserved no thanks: I’d been a bystander in every part of the kidnapping. If anything, I might have hindered the rescuing by acting too boldly. He cleared his throat again before continuing.
“She would like to see you.”
“Has she talked to you?”
“No, she just gave me a note saying I should get you.”
I shifted uneasily in the doorway. Surely she’d want to talk to her parents first? But I was glad of any opportunity to see her, so I nodded again and followed him back to his house. I had previously gone no further than her doorstep, on the night of Hallowe’en, but Emma’s house was as I had expected it to be. It was clean and agreeable, but nothing was of particular interest. Her father gestured towards the stairs and I climbed them, trying to be as quiet as possible.
I knocked on her bedroom door, and at first it opened just a fraction, before opening the whole way. Emma was a mess. Her hair was tangled, her eyes were red, and there were bruises on her face. She walked to her bed and sat on it. I shut the door behind me and sat beside her, staring at the wall, unsure of what to say.
“How are you?” I said uncertainly.
“Not bad,” she said, smiling bitterly, “though I’ve been better.”
We sat in further silence. I think she was just glad of the company, having forced herself to be alone for so long.
“Emma,” I began, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand why Callow changed.”
“No, Tom,” she said, shaking her head, “he didn’t change. He was like that all along.”
“But he was so kind and placid until he…”
“It started long before then. A very long time before then.”
My mind was a confusing, swirling mass of thoughts. What was she talking about?
“Tom,” she said, looking directly at me, “Mr. Callow, he… he used to…”
I realised. The thoughts all lined up.
“It started on Hallowe’en night,” she continued, “when I got lost in the corridors. He was there, searching for the source of the disturbance, and he found me. He grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me into a room and he raped me. He raped me, Tom.”
Emma voice was as steady and melodic as ever, but tears were running down her nose and off her chin, and her dress was already damp from the crying.
“Then he manipulated me. He said that if I didn’t come back to him, he’d hurt me. He’d hurt my parents. He’d hurt you and Will. I wasn’t having extra lessons, those were just a façade so he could—so he could use me.”
I put my arm around her and drew her in close. She rested her head against my chest and hers tears dropped onto my shirt. But I didn’t mind.
“Then one day, that day, he knocked at the door, and he took me. I don’t know where we were going to go, but he hit me if I screamed.”
She showed me the bruises on her face.
“You were always obsessed with searching for dragons. I’d already found mine.”
I held her tightly, and she cried more. I took Roo out of my pocket and silently handed him to her to hold. She smiled a little, and sniffed.
“You never let anyone else hold him.”
“You’re an exception.”
She looked up at me and smiled. And there it was. The intensity of her eyes, her jasmine scent, her beautiful smile. She stared at me, and I stared back. I saw the realisation dawn on her face. She leaned in closer, and my heart was bursting in my chest. She tilted her head—
“No,” I whispered, drawing away, “I can’t do this to you.”
I gently took Roo from her hands and left the room, quietly closing the door behind me. There was a time when I would have given anything to kiss Emma.
There was a time that I’d believed in dragons.
Slush coated the ground. Snow never lasted long in Ramsley – it was white and pure at the moment it fell, but within days it had been churned into a muddy brown colour. Ice still clung to the pavements, always in unexpected places, but generally spring was rearing its new-born head and blinking hard at the harsh sunlight of winter. The only tangible effect of this change, however, was that Miss Catherine now spent her days repopulating her garden, rather than grumbling about it being too cold for her flowers. Ramsley seafront was saved from earache, and had the bonus of Miss Catherine’s beautiful garden being just around the corner.
Emma and I were on speaking terms, but on the condition that we blocked that moment out of our minds. Neither of us was successful: the fidgeting fingers and looking at the ground proved that much. At least she was going outside these days. It had been a big step to take, but we’d supported her. Word had gotten out in the entire town about Callow – parents were outraged that he’d been allowed to teach their children, who were in turn quite confused. Apparently Mr. Stevens was on the brink of resigning. I didn’t want him to go, but public pressure was mounting: even though Callow had deceived everyone, someone had to be blamed. Evidently that person was going to be the headmaster.
It was a sad day when Mr. Stevens did resign. There were no huge celebrations of his effort, or lavish leaving gifts, but there had been queues snaking through every corridor to get into his office. I queued too, though it was long after normal school hours had ended before I got to see him. He gestured to the sofa beside his desk, and I sat.
“Mr. Stevens, we’ve had our differences, haven’t we?”
“Naturally, Tom. The headmaster has his differences with most – if not every – student, to some degree. It is a sad and perhaps lonely role.”
“But I want to thank you. For maintaining the school; keeping everything on track, and – most of all –offering me help when I needed it. I didn’t exactly accept it, but your support was important to me.”
“Eloquently put, Tom. And to think that I’ve had concerns with your English ability.”
“Well,” I said, shrugging, “people make mistakes, and they endure the consequences. The bad part is when you’re forced to take the consequences without having made a mistake.”
I looked him straight in the eye, and he stared back, unwavering. He’d always been like that, but this time it was more solemn than disciplinary. Maybe Mr. Stevens would live the rest of his life haunted by Callow. He didn’t deserve such a punishment – he didn’t deserve any punishment. But someone had to be blamed.
“Biscuit?” he said wistfully. I took one without hesitation.
It was late evening before Mr. Stevens packed his leather satchel and left the school building for the final time. We were all waiting at the school gates, and parted like leaves caught in a breeze as he approached. Again, there was no applause or jeering or any noise at all. We stood as silent mourners, watching him walk out through the gate and into Ramsley.
Emma and I were sitting on the beach together, with Will deliberately placed between us. The spring sunshine was trying really, really hard, but winter was by no means ready to relinquish its power just yet. And so the beach was filled with sea fret once more, but at least you could see through this one fairly easily. We were not talking: it was too cold to talk. We were embraced by the fog’s chilling tendrils, and shivered as one. I longed to hold Emma’s body against mine, but – literally – Will had come between us. I’m not sure either of us was comfortable talking to the other, but we had to preserve the friendship. Maybe we’d return to that moment in the future. Maybe not.
“So,” I said, to the world at large, “Mr. Stevens has resigned.”
“Yes.” said Will, “He will be missed.”
“I never thought I would miss him, but I do. It’s a strange feeling.”
“I guess this means that we may never find out what happened on that Hallowe’en.”
“Not unless we investigate it ourselves.”
“Are we going to investigate it ourselves?”
Emma sighed and shuffled her feet. She tried to disguise it. I pretended I hadn’t noticed it.
“We aren’t looking for dragons, are we?”
“No,” I said, “those days are over. There are better explanations than the imaginary – or, at least, there should be.”
I had experienced dark, snow-filled woods; I’d endured caves more dangerous than an angry bear; I’d touched Miss Catherine’s front door, but nothing scared me as much as the imposing face of the school. It had been my source of dread for years, an ever-flowing fountain of ‘F’ grades, and yet here I was again. I had come to unravel its deepest mystery. By which I meant I was going to snoop around a bit and see what happened. At least there wasn’t going to be any major consequence with Mr. Stevens gone – there was no way Mr. Garter could catch me, even if he had a car. He always had to squeeze himself in, and I’d already be away into the alleyways by the time he’d gotten around to starting the engine.
The gates were unlocked, and so were the main doors. Typical – the teachers had left Mr. Stevens’ role to Mr. Stevens, when he wasn’t even getting paid for it any more. At least it was light now, unlike that night back in October. We couldn’t see a thing, and that’s why we lost Emma. Though we probably could have stopped that, if we’d just been more careful. So it was my fault that everything had happened. I stopped for a few moments: the others walked on, not noticing that I was rooted to the spot. I’d never considered it like that. And then she’d put her absolute trust in me, even though I’d indirectly caused the very trauma she described. But you can’t live on the past, blaming yourself for everything. You have to force yourself through. That’s how you succeed in life, I suppose.
I ran to catch up to Emma and Will. They hadn’t even noticed that I’d gone, and jumped a little at the sound of my feet. They seemed very embarrassed.
“What are we even looking for?” said Will, hastily trying to change the subject.
“I don’t know. Some way that this wasn’t caused by a dragon, I guess.”
“So you’re just flipping the October search on its head. You’re just adding a negative.”
“That’s how life works. If something doesn’t go well, do it the other way around.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think of batteries.”
“That’s deep,” he said, as realisation dawned on his face – sincere or insincere, I couldn’t tell, “very deep.”
We clattered into the hall. There was no need to be stealthy now – no-one would be around except the janitor, who’d probably assume we were just some strange after-school club. Detectives’ Club.
“Well,” said Will, “let’s try to re-enact the scene as closely as possible. Everybody get to the positions they were in just as the lights went out.”
Will was intelligent – too intelligent. He must have observed what Emma and I were like usually, and how we were acting around each other now, and figured out the bits in-between. But I stored the black looks away for another time, and watched Emma walk into the middle of the hall.
“Is this really necessary?” I said.
“Of course,” he answered, smiling and subtly raising an eyebrow, “Old Cudgers is at it all the time.”
I joined Emma with such trepidation that I wouldn’t be able to spell trepidation.
“Well?” she said quietly.
“Put your hands around my waist like you did on Hallowe’en.”
I gingerly reached out and touched her hips, at arm’s length. She shuffled closer and smiled. Her scent wafted onto me. I smelled jasmine; I was jasmine.
“Alright,” said Will, folding his arms, “now sway.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“We need to recreate the scene!” he insisted, comically throwing his arms around. He was enjoying this.
“Just do it.” said Emma.
We moved, side to side. There was only the three of us, and it was light outside, and we were in normal clothes, but with every passing beat it felt like we were getting closer to Hallowe’en. Will must have been right: it was working. Any moment now I expected the lights to go out, even though they were already switched off. I expected a crash on the roof, and the sound of talons just above the ceiling.
“Alright, now do it looking at me.”
I obeyed. Her eyes, the same cerulean blue as they always had been, rummaged through my soul like a historian with a filing cabinet. I was getting drawn in again. It was just like that evening, sat on her bed, but it was like Hallowe’en too. It was both, and yet so much more.
“Aha!” Will shouted dramatically, bringing us out of our shared reverie, “I’ve got it!”
“Not at all,” he said, smirking, “let’s keep searching.”
There was little to be found within the school building: even in the teachers’ storeroom, little was left behind. Everything had been re-ordered and tidied; what had been stolen had been considered lost. But there was one thing we hadn’t yet considered.
“The thief presumably entered through the window,” I said, “otherwise we would have seen him.”
“And he definitely left through the window: we saw that much, at least.”
“But there’s no way to get to that window: the cliff raising it above the beach is too high and too crumbling to climb. The building itself cuts off any other path back there.”
“There is a way to get there,” said Emma, slowly.
“Which way is that?”
“Over the roof.”
I stopped mid-breath. That was it. She’d figured it out. That wasn’t a dragon landing on the roof, it was clambering that echoed through the hall, making it sound far louder than it actually was. That accounted for the rasping noises too – it could have been as little as the scuffing of shoes on the roof.
“But what about the lights?” I said, not so much critically as eager to know the answer, “And what about the screeching?”
“I suppose we’ll have to get onto the roof for that.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“Says the person who led us into a tidal cave.”
“Just because I’m crazy it doesn’t mean you should be.”
“It’s more fun that way.”
Will held the window open for us as we climbed out, and we did the same for him. No-one ever came here – the grass had practically become a jungle, and much of the ground was falling away at the cliff edge. How long would it be until the school building became unstable? Was anyone even paying attention to the erosion? You’d think the Geography teachers would know about it, but apparently they didn’t. I peered over the edge, testing the ground beneath my feet before I put any weight on it. The thief had leapt off here and onto the beach. It was certainly a long way down. I hurried back to Emma and Will: sliding off and breaking a leg wouldn’t help the investigation.
If we’d had an audience for climbing onto the roof, then no doubt we’d immediately be spotted by talent scouts and hired as an acrobatic team. Admittedly there were a few shoe-in-face moments, but getting onto the roof was less difficult than I’d imagined. The roof of the school building was unlike your usual building – every room had an individual roof, which together looked like a rippling quilt, but greyer. Every step we took reverberated through the room on which we stood – in fact, I was surprised we didn’t hear more banging and thudding on Hallowe’en night. We climbed up onto the roof of the hall – right above where we had been only a short while. In the middle of the roof was a great tangle of wires and machinery, which seemed more suited to aviation than education.
“Ah,” said Will, “of course.”
“Of course what? Of course what?”
“Solar panels. They’re always rambling on about how ‘green’ the school is—”
“It certainly is. Green with mould.”
“—and it’s because of these things. They store power from the sun, and keep it in this power box overnight.”
He pointed to a large machine in the middle of the electrical spaghetti.
“This wire comes from that panel; this one from that one; that one from the one over there. And this is all collected and sent out through this output, which is then split further down the line.”
“I think the relevant information there is that there’s only one output, right?”
“Yep. This wire here.”
“That looks like it could be very easily cut.”
It seemed that we were following the criminal in reverse order, though we hadn’t jumped up a cliff backwards. All he did was climb up here and cut the power, and in the ensuing panic carried out the deed. Simple, really: no dragons needed. This was a lot more satisfying than dragon-hunting too, since my head hadn’t yet been bitten off. We didn’t even need to find where the thief had climbed up – there were many places an adult could have scaled the wall without trouble, and even stepped onto the roof from some parts of the school building.
“But there’s one more question that needs to be answered.”
“‘Who did it?’” I said, sighing.
I sat in my room, feeling the warmth of the evening sun glance off the top of my head. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, deep in thought. You could almost say I was meditating, though I wasn’t. I was just thinking very hard. I was thinking about dragons. Alright, this wasn’t anything new, but I’d never thought about dragons in this way before. It was only the events of the day that had made me consider them like this. I guess I was more thinking about supernatural things in general.
I’d believed in dragons. This wasn’t a strange, half-hearted belief – I had known that dragons existed. It was just a case of finding one. But now that I knew what was going on around here, I didn’t believe in dragons any more. I was wondering why.
Things had happened in the town. Weird things. Things I couldn’t explain properly: that Hallowe’en night; Bluck disappearing; Bloody Dark burning to the ground. I knew no rational explanation, so I found an irrational one. And I wanted something exciting and magnificent to be out there. I yearned for there to be something powerful out there. So I started to believe in flying lizards that could breathe fire.
I had ‘A History of Dragons’ open in front of me. It had seemed such an informative and rousing book back then, but now it seemed like fiction. I looked at the dedication again.
To all ye dragon believers:
Do not concede.
Ha! And I’d taken comfort in that. Nothing more than an archaic call to the deluded had spurred me on. But that era was over now. I was too old to think that dragons flitted about the skies in search of pure women and golden treasures. The real world had been thrust upon me since Callow was exposed, and I was a detective now. I was going to uncover every secret in Ramsley. In a way, I thought, I’m still a dragon slayer – I’m slowly chipping away at a phantom dragon which, for the sake of metaphor, is blocking my view of something probably quite important.
I closed ‘A History of Dragons’ with an air of solemnity, and then hesitated. I reached under my bed and drew out the tattered old copy of ‘The Bears’. For the first time, I put them on the shelf together, right next to each other. I seemed to be starting a collection of phases of my life, though ‘A History of Dragons’ was a library book.
I’d have to return it; I no longer had a use for it.
I stumbled through the door to find that the librarian was not alone. Black, hooded figures stared at me from somewhere within the shadows of their faces – it was the Vernal Order. I found myself stood in the centre of the circle, book in hand, feeling the tension skulking in the room. It suddenly seemed like a far more typical library.
“Err, I’ve, err, come to return a book.”
“Ah, yes. ‘A History of Dragons’, wasn’t it? A lovely book.”
I walked up to the old man’s box and lay the book on the desk. He began to casually flick through it, nodding every so often, I expected him to make a note of its return, or perhaps stamp it, or something like that. Whatever librarians actually do. But he did not: he skimmed through the pages as I wasn’t there. As if none of us were here.
“You have good timing.” he said, after a while.
“Yes, you certainly do.” he continued, not providing any further explanation.
I glanced around at the Vernal Order. They stared back from under their hoods – their faces consumed by a powerful darkness, which had the power to cut biscuits in half.
“Why do I have good timing?”
“Perhaps you were born with good punctuality; perhaps you were raised that way; perhaps you are simply being manipulated by Fate.”
“No,” I sighed, irritated at his pedantry, “what I mean is: why did you just say that I have good timing?”
“Because I was about to ask for all loaned books to be returned – that is, this one. This library is to close.”
I stood very still. He was joking, wasn’t he? The librarian was always making a joke, or a witty side-comment. Just like when he said… when he… yes, that time. Like that time, and many other times.
“Why would the library close?”
“The mayor would rather like to build some new houses, apparently. She would like them built along the seafront. Apparently this is a great place for those houses.”
“But she can’t do that! How could she force you out of your home?”
“Oh, no, boy. She isn’t forcing me. In fact, she offered quite a generous sum of money. A remarkable sum of money.”
“I don’t remember.”
The librarian had returned to his scribbling, just as he always had done. I was never going to find any more dragon blood for his crimson pen.
“And what about the Vernal Order?”
“They are disbanded after today’s meeting.”
“But why? Why can’t you meet somewhere else?”
“I’m not sure why you care, boy. You don’t even believe in dragons anymore.”
The old man was staring directly at me. If Emma’s gaze had been like a historian searching through a filing cabinet, then the librarian’s was a businessman searching for a cheque in a ball-pit. I felt myself wilting under his glare.
“I do not believe we have any more business to discuss. You shall not see me again. This meeting is concluded.”
I sat outside, quite dejected. Just as everything was becoming clearer and more rational, things I had once known were irreparably falling apart. Maybe the librarian was right, Fate was involved in this. And Fate loved his equilibrium.
I became conscious of someone sitting down next to me. It was one of the Vernal Order. Perhaps they felt even sillier than usual, now that they were wearing a black robe with no purpose. The figure threw off its hood, and I looked up into the eyes of none other than Miss Catherine. In any normal circumstances I would have run away as quickly as possible. Everybody knew about Miss Catherine – she cooked children in the oven, and had a three-and-a-half-headed dog. But I did not feel like running.
“So, you were one of the Vernal Order?”
“Yes, though that group is now consigned to history.”
“Do you believe in dragons?”
Miss Catherine laughed. It wasn’t an unpleasant laugh, not at all. She just seemed like a typical grandmother, albeit with more knowledge of the eleventh century.
“Of course I don’t. I doubt anyone in the Vernal Order did, apart from the librarian.”
“So why did you go? Why did you wear the silly black outfits?”
“I think the reason has become to gorge on my scones, but the original reason was far different. You know the librarian fairly well, don’t you? He’s quite mad.”
“Until recently I believed he was the wisest man in the world.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But perhaps his wisdom is misguided. It was skewed by an event in his life which he has never forgotten. He’s obsessed with it, and he’ll be obsessed until he dies.”
“What event was this?”
“You’ve heard him talk about Eileen, haven’t you?”
I searched the deepest recesses of my mind. Yes. I had heard him mention this Eileen before, but only once. We were leaving Bloody Dark. It was just before I met the Vernal Order for the first time, and at the time when I believed in dragons so hard that I was almost growing scales. Miss Catherine must have noticed my expression of memory, and continued.
“Eileen was his wife. They lived a happy life together – a house, a dog, satisfying and well-paying jobs. Then she fell ill, and soon she was gone. Oh, the librarian was crushed. He went mad, quite mad.”
“And he began to believe in dragons?”
Miss Catherine nodded.
“He spun some tale in his own head about how a dragon had taken her from him, and that he’d slay that dragon as soon as he laid eyes on it. And so the Vernal Order was formed. We were his team of dragon-hunters, back in the day. Obviously we’ve all aged a little since then.”
“Did you go out hunting?”
“Oh, yes. We went into the woods, into caves, everywhere. We found no dragons of course. I think we all eventually reached the conclusion that dragons don’t exist, however hard we tried to find them, but nobody wanted to leave him. We didn’t know what he’d do if he was left alone.”
“And you stayed with him for years. Every week.”
“Absolutely. And as we grew older, we did less and less. The librarian had this fanciful idea of writing a letter for Eileen, so he could give it to her when we rescued her. He wanted it exactly right. I don’t think he has it right even now.”
I realised. That was the scribbling and the scrawling. The letter he had yet to finish. Miss Catherine drew some crumpled pieces of paper from the recesses of her robe and opened them.
“I picked these up recently. He hasn’t made much progress.”
I skimmed through the papers. ‘Dear Ei’ – scribbled out. The next: ‘Dear Ei’. ‘Dear Eil’. ‘Dear Ei’. How long had he been writing? He couldn’t even bring himself to write her name. Miss Catherine sighed beside me.
“And now he’s sent us away. And we won’t see him again: he said so. I don’t know what he’ll do. I hope he doesn’t make any rash decisions.”
“I never knew any of this about him.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said, laughing, “nobody knows much at all.”
“But I thought I knew him fairly well.”
“Child, you don’t even know his name; neither do I, and now we never shall.”