DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
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The Dragon Assassin
‘Here’s another one!
‘Another murder! In Brighton!’
‘In that passageway! You know, where we went through, and then we got ambushed by the glove!’
Annie sighed, and stretched, and then got up to look over Simon’s shoulder, at the local paper that he was reading.
“East Sussex police are investigating the death of an unknown man, of no fixed address, the circumstances of which are suspicious. The cause of death is unknown, but it is believed that the man died of a vicious slash wound to the throat. Local police are now conducting house-to-house enquiries, and would be grateful if any member of the public who knew the man, or his identity, would come forward to help them with their investigation. The police are concerned that this may be linked with a previous murder, also of a man, earlier this week”
‘Hmm’. said Annie. ‘That’s really horrible. Why would anyone want to do that?’
“I’ve no idea. There doesn’t seem to be any motive. Are they doing it out of revenge, or just for pleasure? It doesn’t seem right, somehow’.
‘There’s the post’. said Annie, hearing the rattle of the letter-box. ‘I’ll go and get it’.
She picked up the pile of letters inside the front door. ‘As usual, most of them for Mum and Dad’. she called. ‘Oh, there’s one from Aunt Christie, as well. She probably wants to come and stay. How boring. Wait a moment, though’.
She dropped most of the letters on the hall table, and went back into the living-room, where Simon was lying on the sofa.
‘This one’s for us. It’s marked “very urgent”.
‘In your dreams, Simon’. Annie replied, sourly.
She opened the small letter. As she expected, it was from the Four Fingers of the Brotherhood (and Sisterhood). She read it in amazement.
‘Simon, you had better have a look at this’. He came over and, in turn, read it over her shoulder.
Dear Annie and Simon,
We have received an urgent Message from the dragons. It concerns you as well. Please meet at the old hill-fort at midnight tonight. You might have to make a journey. This is at the request of Dabar, the Dragon king. Please report back to us as soon as you can.
The Four Fingers of the Brotherhood (and Sisterhood)
‘Well thanks very much. So we have to get up and go and meet dragons on a Saturday night!’
‘I wonder if it’s anything to do with these murders?’ Annie muttered, thoughtfully.
‘Hey, I just thought. This might mean we get a ride on Dabar’s back again! Back to the dragon kingdom! Whoopee!’
‘Oh no!’ The thought of it made Annie feel rather sick.
‘But,’ said Simon triumphantly, ‘That means you’ll be able to see your dragon-sister again. You know, Dabar’s mate, Leila’.
Annie brightened. ‘That’s true, That’ll be great. Hold on, what do you mean, my dragon-sister?’
‘Well, I’ve already got one, so why shouldn’t she?’
He ducked as Annie threw the hardest cushion she could find at him.
They stood, cold and shivering, on the damp hill-fort. There was still no sign of Dabar in the night sky above. Only a few stars glimmered. The moon was nowhere to be seen. The grass was cold and damp beneath their feet. Around them, there was the occasional ‘plop’ of a dewdrop, falling from the gorse bushes that surrounded them.
‘If he doesn’t come soon, I’m going home’. whispered Simon.
They looked out at the bright lights of Brighton below. The sea was a dark strip below the sky. Their teeth began to chatter, and they folded their arms to keep out the damp chill.
‘Where on earth is he?’ muttered Simon.
‘There he is!’ Annie pointed up towards the east. ‘I knew he would come!’
‘About time, too’.
A dark, long shape, with huge outstretched wings, was gliding slowly towards them, silhouetted in the dark grey sky. It grew larger and larger until it landed near them, with a dull thump, and raised its head.
They ran towards him. His yellow eyes glittered in the darkness, as he opened his jaws to speak.
‘Greetings, dragon friends!’ His voice was a deep rumble. ‘How goes it with you?’
‘Oh, quite well’, Simon replied cheerfully. ‘Just a few little adventures along the way’.
Annie dug him hard in the ribs with her elbow. Dabar gave a low chuckle.
‘Yes, news has reached me of your latest exploits. Concerning a strange acrobat, perhaps?’
‘Oh, that and other things’. Annie sounded uncomfortable.
Dabar looked at her carefully. ‘Perhaps concerning some old enemies?’
Dabar studied her closely for a moment. Then he spoke again. ‘I wish to call on you again, as friends and allies, to ask a favour. I am sorry but I do not wish to speak further here, not in your world. There are too many eyes and ears, not all of them friendly. I need to take you back to our world for a short time. There are those I would like you to meet’.
‘I was afraid you might say that’. said Annie shivering. The thought of a flight on Dabar’s back was not reassuring.
Dabar gave a loud chuckle. ‘Fear not, there will be no need for, what do you humans call it?’
‘Aerobatics. Pity, though’ grinned Simon, rather too cheerfully for Annie’s liking.
‘It will be good for your sister to see Leila, my mate again. She will be delighted to see you’. There was a sparkle of humour in Dabar’s yellow eyes. ‘Will you come?’
up Dabar’s huge tail and sat firmly on his back.
Without another word, he spread his wings and gently rose into the
dark blue sky.
It seemed only a short while when Annie opened her eyes again. There was only the swish and sigh of Dabar’s wings as they slowly descended towards the plateau, surrounded by mountains, pierced by dark caves, that was the land of the dragons. Dabar alighted in the centre of the plateau with only a light thump, for which Annie was very grateful. They slid down his tail to the ground.
They were surrounded by dragons of all shapes and sizes, lining the plateau on all sides. They were crouched together, their long jaw-like heads all fixed on the new arrivals. But as Dabar rose up, he roared. It was deafening, echoing around the hills and the mountains. The dragons roared back in a great torrent of sound. There was a moment of silence, then the dragons lifted their heads and breathed great gouts of yellow flame into the air.
Annie and Simon moved instinctively together, looking nervously at the gathered dragons, green, red, purple and black, all with small yellow eyes, that were fixed on them. Dabar noticed immediately how they felt.
‘Do not fear. This is a traditional dragon welcome. You are our guests and allies. No dragon will harm you. In fact, you have a reputation, as dragon-friends and as warriors. Come, follow me’.
He began to pad steadily towards the largest of the caves.
‘I know what this reminds me of’. whispered Simon in Annie’s ear. It’s as if we were the visiting team on a football cup final, coming into the stadium for the beginning of the game’. He looked uneasily at the dragons. ‘I’ll bet they’re all Liverpool supporters. It feels just like the Kop’.
‘Don’t be so silly, Simon. I bet Chelsea would beat them’.
They stared around them in astonishment. Dabar’s cave was large and luxurious, with brightly coloured Indian and Persian carpets spread across the floor, and hanging down the rough stone walls. There was no furniture, but brass lamps, here and there, elaborately pierced, hung from the ceiling above, lighting the interior with a warm, candle-lit glow. Beyond, the cave spread onwards, but in darkness. Smaller lamps showed the floor in front of them, leading upwards.
‘How do you like our cave?
It was Leila, her long sinuous body, with wings folded behind, glided towards them.
Annie rushed towards her, and embraced Leila’s warm soft neck.
“It is so good to see you again, Annie’. Leila, Dabar’s mate, rubbed her lovely dragon’s face against Annie’s cheek. ‘We have much to tell each other’. Annie knelt next to Leila, who settled down to talk about all the things that had happened, since they first met. Dabar looked at his mate fondly, but then nodded in the direction of the cave. They moved to the entrance. Dabar crouched down more comfortably. Simon sat down beside him, feeling worried.
‘Simon, while my mate and your sister are talking together, I wish to tell you about this matter that is troubling me. It also concerns your world also’.
‘Dabar, has it got something to do with the murders that have been happening in our world?’
‘Yes’. Dabar said simply. ‘It is a dragon who is responsible. He will kill again, unless he is stopped. We have no control over this murderer. This is why I have asked you and your sister to come here and discuss it’.
‘I see’. replied Simon, thinking furiously. ‘But why? What motive would a dragon have for murdering humans? It doesn’t make sense!’
‘It does, if he has been paid or persuaded by someone else’.
‘You mean, he’s a kind of contract killer?’
Dabar nodded his head slowly.
‘So’, Simon tried to remember his detective experience, which, in reality, was not much. But he could begin to put together some pieces of information, and try to link them.
‘This dragon is some sort of paid assassin, isn’t he? Which means, that whoever is employing him has some sort of grudge or vendetta against us humans. Of course! What would be better than to employ a dragon, outside our world, so that no-one can really trace him? But is this dragon some kind of exile, or runaway? Why a dragon?’
‘I do not quite understand your words’. said a puzzled Dabar.
Simon thought again. ‘I mean, a dragon who has disgraced himself, or who no longer has someone he serves? I know! It’s what the Japanese in our world call a ronin! Someone who is now outside the law, an outlaw, with no-one to serve but himself! That must be right!’
‘I understand’. growled Dabar. ‘A dragon who no longer belongs to our code. A dragon who has renounced the law! A dragon who serves only the highest bidder, or who is offered opportunity for revenge, for whatever purpose or reason! Yes, that must be true! But who, or what is paying this ronin?
‘I think I have a very good idea’. replied Simon, and then remembered Annie. ‘I think it would be better to discuss this with my sister’.
‘Of course’. Dabar said gravely. ‘And you must have some refreshment’.
Simon groaned inwardly. He had visions of great lumps of raw meat, dripping with blood. But he followed Dabar back into the cave. Annie and Leila, reclining on silk cushions, looked up.
‘Boys’ talk over, is it?’ sniggered Annie.
‘Food for our guests, please’. called Dabar.
Annie and Simon braced themselves. They were in for a surprise. A small rather fat little dragon, slid in, carrying a large tray in his jaws. It was piled high with small pastries, that smelt utterly delicious. Simon sniffed appreciatively. Nutmeg, he thought, and cinnamon, and figs. The dragon waiter reappeared, carrying another large tray, holding a pitcher and small glasses, that he placed on the ground, next to the pastries.
‘Please eat’. said Leila. ‘These are for you. This is faery food’. They looked at her in surprise. They brought them as a gift, on their last visit’.
‘Simon picked up one of the pastries and bit into it. It was warm and succulent, and filled his mouth with the wonderful flavours of the spices he had recognised. Annie poured out two glasses from the pitcher, and tasted the sweet, honey-coloured liquid. She cried out in amazement. It tasted fragrant and refreshing, as if it was honey itself!
‘When did the faeries come?’ asked Simon, his mouth still full of the sweet pastries.
‘Last month. It was a good meeting. Queen Gloriana will want to speak to you soon. She asked me to tell you’. replied Dabar in his low deep voice. ’How do you like my cave?’ he chuckled again, throatily.
‘It’s wonderful’. said Annie sincerely. ‘But where have all these lovely things come from?’
Leila laughed, a gentle, almost musical dragon laugh.
‘Many years ago, we dragons traded with Arabian merchants, all around the world. Many people seemed to fear us, but we were peace-loving, and simply wanted to exchange our gold, which meant nothing to us, for carpets, cloths, trinkets and ornaments. They meant more to us, because they were exquisite and made by craftsmen, than any base metal. Dabar’s grandfather and father exchanged their gold for these, and we, I think, are the richer for it. How can one think that an ordinary metal, dug from the ground, is more valuable than the talents of those that made these things? If you see the caves of other dragons, you will find the same’.
As Annie looked around, she felt she had to agree.
‘But enough of our history’, Dabar rumbled. ‘Tell your sister, Simon, about our views’.
‘Dabar and I have come to the conclusion that we’re dealing with a dragon assassin. An outlaw, who is happy to kill anyone he finds, so he can cause panic and fear, and who is being led to do it by, I think’, he paused, ‘our old friends’.
‘You mean Doctor Wrist and…Venoma?’
Simon remained silent.
‘That bitch again! I really owe her!’
‘And that filthy scumbag!’
Leila looked at their faces, from one to the other. Even as a dragon who had fought in battle beside her mate, she was taken aback by the sheer fury in them both. Simon’s face was hard, like stone. Annie’s face was pale, her lips compressed in a thin red line. She, even as a dragon, was moved by pity and sadness. What have these two been through, to express such anger? She remembered that Annie had told her, only a few minutes ago, how she and Simon had nearly been killed by these enemies they hated so much. Annie had also spoken of her grief and sadness about the friends that she had lost. These human children had grown old before their time. She slid between them, and rested her head briefly on each of their cheeks in sympathy.
‘This will not be your fight only, Simon and Annie’. said Dabar, looking at each of them. ‘I am sending a dragon with you. He will be responsible for helping to track down this killer, and assist you in any way he can. This is not only a human matter, but also a dragon situation. Come!’. He called. After a few seconds, another, smaller dragon entered the cave and bowed his head formally, waiting to be introduced.
‘Annie and Simon, please meet Smeffit, my cousin’. The dragon bowed again. He was a small dragon no more than six feet long, with a tail that extended his length by another four feet. His front claws were neatly shaped, not unlike that of human hands. His head, though long, as with most dragons, was narrow. His body was dark green, covered in small, closely-fitting scales. He looked at them with small bright dark eyes, and then bowed his head again.
‘Greetings, Annie and Simon. It is a great pleasure. You are famous in our land’.
Annie looked at him carefully. There was something that was familiar.
‘Smeffit’, she said, “Do you, did you, have a relation called Smeffin?’
‘Yes’. Smeffit replied, simply. ‘He was my brother’.
A terrible image flashed into Annie’s mind. A dead Smeffin, his body gently rolling in the ripples of the sea, after the battle on the beaches at Brighton.
‘I am very sorry, Smeffit’. said Annie gently. ‘We knew him. He was a really good dragon’. She closed her eyes in pain.
Simon, too, was staring hard at Smeffit.
‘Is that the reason you want to come with us?’
“Yes. Yes, it is’.
Annie suddenly got to her feet. She turned savagely on Dabar.
‘So you’re sending out one dragon assassin after another dragon assassin! You expect us to help you to do that! Well, forget it! You just stay home, Smeffit! I’m not going to be party to any murder!’
‘Annie!’ Dabar’s sharp roar filled the cave. ‘That is not my intention!’
Annie glared at him.
‘I have trust and faith in both of you, to make sure that justice will be done. If you find this assassin, then it will be my nephew’s responsibility to bring him here, to account for his crimes. He will be brought to trial for the wrong he has done to your human kind! I ask you to assist him in bringing this creature back. It is Smeffit’s task, as a dragon, to do that. He is not an assassin, but he is, as you humans say, a detective. He will find your murderer, and prevent him from committing any more crimes. That is truly what I ask of you’.
‘I see’. Annie sat down again.
‘Do you really think that I would ask you to commit a murder on our behalf!’ Dabar roared, thunderously. ‘ It would be betraying our oath, our alliance, and our friendship! No, I would not do that’. His voice softened. ‘But my nephew will need guidance and support. That is why I came to you’.
Simon and Annie looked at each other.
‘Is that all right, Annie?’
‘Yes, it is’.
‘And you, Simon?’ asked Leila, softly.
‘If it’s fine with Annie, it’s fine with me. All right, Smeffit, we’re in. Though I still don’t know as yet how on earth we are going to capture this assassin. But we’ll work something out’.
Dabar lowered his head with a sigh. ‘Now I know even more why you are so renowned. But we must prepare for the journey home. Leila, will you escort our guests? I have some instructions for my nephew to complete’.
As they walked back out into the centre of the plateau, they noticed many dragons still crouched outside their caves, watching them with their bright yellow eyes.
‘You are well-loved here’, said Leila, unexpectantly, as she glided along beside them. ‘Dragons remember well how you defended your position during the great battle. They have respect for you as warriors and allies’. She lowered her voice. ‘It is a great burden that Dabar has placed upon you. But he knows that you are the two who will always carry out their responsibilities. Also, you need to know that other humans will not see Smeffit. He will be under a spell of invisibility. I think you will find him….amusing’, She gave a low gurgle of laughter. ‘Here is Dabar and Smeffit. Farewell to you both’. She nuzzled Annie gently, and then Simon, who had never been nuzzled by a beautiful dragon before, and found it very pleasurable. ‘Look after your sister’. Leila whispered in his ear. ‘She needs you more than she will admit’.
Their flight back was uneventful. They landed near the hill-fort, Smeffit flying beside them. ‘Farewell’, said Dabar. ‘I will wait to hear from you. Tell the Brotherhood to inform me. Thank you both. Smeffit, remember what I have told you’. Smeffit bowed his head, and Dabar took off, gradually disappearing into the dark sky. Simon looked at his watch. ‘It’s only just after midnight! I must say, I can’t get used to these time zones between dimensions. Come on, Smeffit, let’s go’.
Smeffit followed them back home, slithering and waddling. Dragons were never very good on the ground. His head turned from side to side, looking with great interest at this new human landscape. Simon opened the front door. Smeffit slithered in and gazed at the hallway, with its pictures and hall-stand, where they put their letters, and at the carpet on the floor.
‘Amazing!’ he breathed.
‘You’ve never been to our world before, have you, Smeffit? I was forgetting that you must find this all very strange. Just as we did, coming to your world’.
wonderful! I am in the dwelling of the great warrior- detectives!’
‘I think Simon will have to clear out all his toys, first, to find some space’.
They climbed up the stairs. Smeffit had never climbed stairs before, and he found them quite difficult. But he was still excited. ‘Stairs! Is that what you call them, stairs?’
‘Here we are’.
‘How can this be? You live up in the air? What is this?
‘It’s a door’.
‘You enclose yourselves behind this, this wooden thing?’
It’s so we can be alone from each other, when we don’t want other people to interfere’. Simon said, looking balefully at his sister.
He opened the door, and began to clear a path through the clothes and other scattered objects.
“You have so many possessions!’
‘Just toys and rubbish, in Simon’s case’.
‘What is that? Smeffit asked, gesturing with his claw at the bed.
‘That’s where I sleep’.
‘Why? What is wrong with the ground?’
‘Because he’s lazy, and spends most of his time in it’.
‘Annie, don’t you have better things to do?’
‘Perhaps. Maybe. Oh, I’ll go down and see if I can find today’s paper. There may be a bit more news in it’. She disappeared downstairs.
‘May I have this space? said Smeffit. indicating the far corner of the room.
‘Of course. Do you want any blankets or anything? Or something to sleep on?
‘Oh, no! This is so comfortable for me. No , I need nothing. Please, thank you for this wonderful space. It is just right!
They both turned as Annie reappeared in the doorway, her face grim.
‘There’s been another murder!’
They were still sitting in Simon’ bedroom, Smeffit curled in the corner, his tail around him, but sitting upright. Simon lay on the bed, and Annie, with legs folded, was on what could be seen of the floor. She had just finished reading the newspaper account of the latest victim’s fate to the others.
‘She was only eighteen years old. Living in a squat with other junkies. Just walking home down a side street, and she got her throat slashed, just like all the others. Why should that happen? She might have got away from her drugs, made a new life for herself, and become happy. I feel so angry about it!’
Let’s try to solve the problem first. Why don’t we establish the facts? Smeffit, you’re a detective. What are your ideas?’
Smeffit thought for a moment. ‘This is a dragon killing. It has all the signs. The victims were alone. They were attacked because of that. Which means that the assassin saw them and waited for them. But, I don’t understand why those particular people were attacked. I do not know enough of this world to tell. Dragons only kill in battle, or unless they are enraged or provoked in some way. This would seem to me to be very deliberate, but from what you have both said, those that he killed were not ordinary humans, but people who were not living in your society. Poor humans, who existed as they could. I hope that is right’.
‘Why do you think that it’s a dragon? asked Simon.
‘Because of the terrible wounds that were inflicted, which, I think, could only have been made with a claw. A dragon claw. Rather bigger than mine. As a dragon, these are claws that are shaped and used to kill. I think it would be very difficult for a human to do such a thing.’. He paused. ‘But I do not know your world, and why they should happen here’.
‘There’s more’. suggested Simon, ‘All three victims were murdered in a very small area, around Gloucester Road, and that passage that we know about, Annie. Remember the glove? That seems to suggest that the assassin is around in that area, somewhere. Perhaps we might find him, it, there. But we don’t know whether it is a male or female murderer, do we? It could be both’.
‘No this is a male dragon. No female dragon would do that’.
All three sat silently, thinking hard.
‘Why don’t we try to make a picture of a killer dragon, and what he does?’ Annie finally said. ‘We can build up a profile of this assassin, and then try to guess what he will do next? It might lead us to him. Smeffit, you must help us on this’.
They had both begun to like Smeffit. He seemed to be a very sensible dragon, and interesting. Annie decided to ask him later about his past.
‘Right then’, said Simon decisively. ‘This is a dragon who knows how to kill. He selects his victims who are on their own, in places which are quiet, at night. He doesn’t really care about them at all. In fact he’s quite ruthless and indifferent. But why? Why in our world?’
‘These are helpless victims’. said Smeffit. ‘He would not survive in our dragon land. He would be hunted down. But in your world, it would be much easier, especially if no-one could see him’.
‘He might be a renegade, a ronin’. suggested Annie. ‘Perhaps a criminal, on the run. That could be why he’s here. But what is his motive?’
‘Anybody. Which suggests that he’s here, because someone has given him the opportunity to indulge himself, and create a lot of fear and panic. He wouldn’t be easily traced, at least not by the police. He’s unknown to them. He won’t have any records, or anything. And, nobody knows what he even looks like’.
‘But we can find out’. said Smeffit. ‘If he is a dragon, I can find him. One dragon will always be able to find another. He will leave traces behind, which only another dragon will know’.
‘Find out who is behind this. I don’t believe that he just came to this world for nothing. Someone’s put him up to it, and that is something serious. More serious than a mad dragon assassin roaming around killing innocent people on his own. I can think of someone right away’.
‘Doctor Wrist?’ asked Simon.
‘It’s just his style, isn’t it? To get someone else to do your dirty work. Someone who doesn’t really care, anyway, who he kills. I still think of how he and his grandfather, whoever he was, destroyed that family so long ago!’
‘This is not revenge, Annie. We’re detectives tracking down a murderer. Don’t let yourself be like them’.
Annie took a deep breath. ‘Fine, I know you’re right’.
‘Perhaps, Smeffit suggested mildly, ‘we should sleep now. We can make our plans in the morning’.
‘Of course, Smeffit. I’ll leave you both in the boys’ room’. Annie said, grinning.
But Simon did not sleep much that night. He was reading through the newspaper articles on the murders, and drawing lines and circles on an A-Z map of Brighton. He looked across at Smeffit, who lay curled up in the corner, snoring gently. Sudden doubts had come into his mind. I wonder if you really are what you say you are, he thought. We know very little about you. Do you have a motive? Is that why Dabar sent you here? In the end, he crawled into bed and fell asleep himself, Smeffit’s quiet snores still sounding in his head.
Annie woke up late next morning. She crawled slowly out of bed, and then went downstairs to the kitchen in her dressing-down, hair tousled and face still creased with sleepiness. She pushed the door open, and, to her amazement, found Simon and Smeffit crouching on the floor, peering at various papers and street maps.
‘Simon! Simon, you’re up early! I never thought I would see the day! Oh, good morning, Smeffit. Did you sleep well?’
‘Oh, yes, very well, thank you. Simon and I decided to look at where the crimes were committed, so that we can go to see them later this morning. Then I might be able to find some traces of where the murderer will be’.
What a very polite dragon, she thought, and poured herself a mug of tea. ’What have you found?’
‘All the murders were committed in this area of Brighton, between Trafalgar street on the north, Queens Road on the west, Gloucester Place on the east and obviously, North Road on the north. They’re all small streets of terraced houses and shops, and really quiet at night. It’s just a little district just south-east of Brighton station. It should be easy to walk around, and get as close to the actual crime scenes as we can. Smeffit thinks he can pick up traces fairly well, since it’s so small’.
‘You boys have been busy’, said Annie, feeling rather cross that she had got up so late. ‘Smeffit, have you had anything to eat?’
‘Oh, I don’t really need to eat. I have just had some water. But’, he paused, excitedly, ‘Do you have any of those small round green things? I think they are fruit of some kind’.
Annie and Simon looked at each other.
‘Oh, yes, I love them! Sometimes other dragons will bring them back, out of curiosity’.
‘You’d better go and get some then, Simon. I noticed, on my way down that Mum and Dad have left a note to say that they’ve gone off to London for the day, as usual, but they’ve left our pocket-money’.
‘Why can’t you?’
‘Because, Simon, darling, I’m still in my dressing-gown, and I couldn’t possibly let the neighbours see me in this state, until I’ve put my face on’.
‘Do you have any sisters, Smeffit?’
‘I’m afraid not’.
An hour later, they set off. Smeffit had gobbled up a whole tray of apples that Simon had brought back from the greengrocers, eating them cores, pips and all. He looked quite contented.
‘Remember’, Simon admonished them. ‘We can’t use a bus, and we have to pretend that Smeffit doesn’t exist, because he’s supposed to be invisible. Only talk to each other when there’s nobody around who can hear us. Got it?’
They walked down to the area of investigation, which was in fact, in what was known as the North Laines, passing through small, narrow streets lined with very tiny, well-kept terraced houses with miniature front gardens. They found one scene of crime in Tidy Street, and another in Foundry Street. They were both cordoned off with yellow and black police tape. Smeffit slithered along behind, his nostrils close to the ground, like a bloodhound. They stopped at last in Vine Street, not far from the passageway they both remembered.
Nobody was around. This area was quiet, even in daylight. Simon and Annie kept their eyes on each other, but whispered to Smeffit. ‘Any luck?’
‘He has been here’. Smeffit muttered quietly. ‘I can sense him all around this area’. They moved on to the small mews that led to the passageway, Gloucester Passage, where they had previously been attacked by the glove. It was cordoned off by black and yellow tape again. Annie stopped dead. ‘This is where she was killed. The girl. I can feel it”
They walked on past and turned left, and left again into Gloucester Road, then upwards towards Sydney Street. They stopped at an opening, only five feet wide, and seven feet high, in the solid wall of buildings. It was also covered with black and yellow tape.
‘This is the entrance to the passage”. whispered Simon. ‘From
‘What is above?
They saw two dirty, grey windows, not directly above the passage but to the right and left. Limp, dark curtains hung inside, giving no indication of what was within.
‘I don’t know, Smeffit” Simon still whispered, even though there was no-one around.
‘He is there. I can smell him. I can taste him. He is up there’. They looked up. There was no sign of life.
‘He is there. I know he is there’.
Simon turned back quickly. ‘It’s all right, Terry’, he called. ‘We’re just doing this mad school project for School, where we have to pretend we have an invisible dog with us. It’s a bit of creative writing’.
Terry and his mate, John, both stared at him, and then burst out laughing. ‘So you’ve got an invisible dog called Smelly! How does he smell?’
‘Awful’. said John, sniggering.
‘Oh well, it’s a cross we have to bear’, replied Simon looking hard at his sister. ‘See you, Terry. See you John. Come on. Heel!
The two men watched, chuckling, as they went into their front door.
‘What do they teach the kids in schools these days?’
‘It’s New Labour, isn’t it?’
They went back to work.
‘Well done, Annie!’ Simon snapped, ‘just as I thought we’d got away with it’.
“I’m sorry. I just didn’t think’.
‘No, you didn’t!’
Smeffit watched, full of concern for these two young humans.
‘Please’, he said. ‘It is my fault, though I do not like being called a dog, with the wrong name’.
Simon and Annie looked at him, then burst out laughing.
‘Never mind, Smeffit. But what do we do now?
‘We need to go to that place tonight, to find out if he is there. After that, I do not know’.
‘Neither do we’. said Annie. But I think we have to try to find out.’
It was nearly midnight by the time that they set off to the assassin’s lair, if that was what it was. Their parents had come in, wished them goodnight, and gone to bed, no doubt assuming they would be staying in. Instead, Simon and Annie put on their anoraks, took their large torches with them, quietly opened the front door, and went out, with Smeffit following behind.
This time they were all silent. They walked down the road, and along, past Saint Peter’s Church, until they came to Gloucester Street. All three turned left and then right, until they stood close to the passageway, little more than a rectangular hole, beneath the building above. They looked up. The pub nearby was quiet and dark. There was no-one around. No light showed from either of the two windows, above, and each side of the passage.
‘Let’s have a look at the back.’ suggested Simon.
They looked rather fearfully at the passage, dark, and lit only dimly by a street-light beyond. It was only ten yards long, but it seemed far longer.
‘Can’t we go around the block, and look at the back? Annie said, nervously. ‘I don’t want to get ambushed in there again’.
They looked at the ugly rectangular entrance, both thinking of the murder committed here years ago. Without saying anything, they all turned and walked around, until they were standing a few yards away from the other entrance to the passage. On this side there was a small patio above, and two more windows, also covered with dingy curtains. They could now see that the rooms above extended the whole width of the block, with a small walled courtyard, with two wooden gates. Simon tried them. They were both locked.
‘We’ll have to try the other side again’. complained Simon. The pub behind was still silent and deserted. They walked around. On this side, there was a double door on the right, and a smaller door on the left. Simon cautiously tried the double door first. It was also firmly locked. Then her tried the smaller door. The handle turned. It was open. Simon gently pushed the door a few inches, and cautiously peered inside.
He looked around at them. ‘I can’t see anything. It’s too dark’. They stood there, uncertainly, their hearts thumping. Then with an unexpectedly quick squirm, Smeffit pushed past them and in through the doorway. He disappeared inside. They heard him slithering, and then, silence.
Annie and Simon had automatically flattened themselves against the wall, each side of the doorway. Annie spoke over her left shoulder to Simon.
‘We’ve got to go in after him! We can’t leave him in there on his own!’
‘Wait!’ Simon replied in a loud whisper. ‘Suppose that’s what he wants us to do!’
Annie stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that I’ve had some doubts about our friend Smeffit’.
‘Look, Annie. What do we really know about him? Only that he’s brought us here, to a dark house and a dark place. Ideal for an ambush?’
‘I’m not sure I believe this’.
‘Think about it, Annie. Though he pretends otherwise, he could have been to our world before. On the nights of the murders, for example! How do we know that he’s not waiting inside for us, and do the same to us as he did to his other victims? He lured us here!’
Annie shook her head. ‘There’s one thing you’re forgetting, Simon. Those poor people had their throats slashed open! Smeffit couldn’t do that with his tiny claws!’
‘He could with a weapon’.
‘There’s one of our kitchen knives missing! I checked
this morning! You’ve seen his claws! He could have easily used
something like that!’
‘If you’re right Simon, then we’re walking into a trap. But we just can’t walk away, can we!’
‘Suppose Dabar already knew, and he wanted us to trap him!’
Annie sighed again. She was very afraid of going in through that door.
‘Well then, if that’s true, then we’d better get on with it, hadn’t we?’
Simon groaned. ‘I suppose so’.
Without even thinking they burst in together through the doorway.
‘THUMP! . OWWW!’
They lay together in a heap in the darkness. Annie knelt and began feeling around with her hands. She could see absolutely nothing. Then she felt a step. And another. And a third.
‘Simon, it’s a staircase!’ she said in a loud whisper.
‘Don’t make so much noise!’ Simon whispered back, equally loudly.
Annie was still groping around. ‘I’ve lost my torch!’
‘I’ve just discovered something’.
‘My batteries have run out’.
‘Oh, no! Just what we needed!’
‘I think I’ve got a spare set in my back-pack, though’.
No time! We’ve got to find Smeffit!
They began to grope and crawl their way up the unseen stairs, still blind in the enveloping darkness. It was slow and tedious. Annie’s knees began to hurt. The stairs were wooden, and she knew she was going to have bruises.
‘I think there’s a landing here’. Annie said. It was almost the last thing that she would ever say.
The thing suddenly materialised in front of them, a screaming image of jaws, blood-red, white gleaming teeth and fire!
They rolled aside and crashed backwards down the stairs, a mix of arms and legs, until they hit the ground with a thud. Then there was silence.
‘Are you all right?’
‘I think so. I can’t find anything that’s broken’.
‘Nor me. Was that the assassin?’
‘It must have been’.
They stood up in the darkness, finding a wall to lean against. Annie’s foot kicked against something. It was her torch. She picked it up, and switched it on. It cast a bright beam of light around them. They could see the stairs now, leading upwards, crookedly turning up to the right towards a landing above their heads. The whole place smelt of mildew and damp.
‘I am not happy’. Annie said in a conversational tone.
‘Nor am I’. Simon replied in the same way.
‘I do not like being thrown down stairs by some evil dragon murderer. He is going to pay for that’.
Strangely, Annie now felt angry. She could tell Simon did too. Time to find the assassin, whoever he was. They started up the stairs again. They reached a small landing with several doors opening off from it. But at the end stood another, larger door. It was panelled, but solid. Annie shone her torch over it. They noticed it was not closed, but slightly ajar.
They could hear angry growling noises behind it. They grew louder.
Neither Simon or Annie could understand it. It was in dragon language.
‘Smeffit!’ shouted Annie. Simon kicked the door open. Annie switched on her torch. There caught in the spotlight, was a dragon, but not a dragon they had ever seen before. It was black, standing on its hind-legs, it’s front claws huge, looking more like talons. Its lower jaw had dropped, and the bulging yellow eyes gazed at them, without sight. There were spatters of black dragon blood on the wall behind, and a steady ooze of black blood trickled down from the great slash in its throat.
The dragon slid slowly, very slowly, down the wall, its folded wings scratching and scraping along the painted surface. It slumped, and fell sideways, the head hitting the floor with a dull thud. The eyes were now lifeless.
Annie moved the torch slowly downwards. There was a green still shape lying on the floor, beside the dead body of the dragon. A long carving knife, its blade covered in black blood, lay on the floor.
Simon knelt down and felt the green dragon’s neck.
‘There’s only a faint pulse’. he whispered. ‘He’s still alive, but only just’.
Annie remembered the talisman. It was still on her finger, glowing in agitation. In desperation, she pressed it to Smeffit’s neck. At first, there was no sound. She pressed harder. Smeffit jerked and gasped.
‘His pulse is better now!’ Simon called. ‘He’s coming round!’
They knelt there for a few minutes, listening to Smeffit’s heavy breathing, Annie still pressing hard on his neck. Then he began to move. He gradually slithered to his feet. They could see there were deep gashes along his side, from which black blood was oozing. His wings unfolded, as if to stretch them. Then he sat down hard.
‘What happened, Smeffit?’ asked Annie, still holding the talisman against his neck.
‘I betrayed you!’ He spoke in a harsh whisper.
‘What has happened here, Smeffit?’
‘ I killed the assassin!’
‘Because he would have killed you! That is why I went first, into this place! Dabar told me to protect you, at all costs! Did he attack you!’
‘Nothing that we couldn’t handle’. Simon said brightly.
Annie gave him a look.
Smeffit desperately wanted to talk.
‘I missed him! I went into the other rooms! Through the doors! Then I heard you coming up the stairs. I was afraid! But I came into this room, where he was! I asked him, why are you doing this? He said, because I like killing, and especially humans! I was angry, and I attacked him with your knife! I could not hurt him with my claws! He held his finger-like claws up. ‘How could I?’ He looked at the dragon assassin.
‘He will never kill anyone again’.
‘So you were telling the truth, Smeffit. Tell us, what was his name?’ Simon spoke slowly and carefully.
‘His name was Gytyn. He was an uncle of mine long ago. He became an assassin. He was banished from our land’.
Smeffit sat back, exhausted.
They stared at the dead dragon. To their amazement, he slowly began to fade away. So did the bloodstains on the wall. As they watched, they disappeared altogether.
‘This is in another dimension. No trace of him or you, or us, will remain’.
Annie looked at Simon. ‘We’d better go home. It’s finished’.
Simon got up and stared at Smeffit. He was unsure whether Smeffit was well enough to get back.
‘I’m going to call the Brotherhood. I don’t think Smeffit can walk very far. They can come and pick us up in that car of theirs’. Annie nodded, still clasping the talisman to the dragon’s neck. Simon pulled out his mobile.
The Four Fingers arrived, in what Simon called the Finger-mobile, a large, snorting old car, which looked enormous, and glared at any other car in it’s path. Simon secretly thought that they had to tether it to a post, to prevent it from running away. But it was big enough to push Smeffit into the back, and take them back to their house.
‘By the way’, said Little Finger, sitting next to Index Finger, who was trying to keep the huge car under control. ‘You have an invitation tomorrow’. He passed over a card to Annie. She looked at it, Simon peering over her shoulder.
A Picnic is arranged for tomorrow at seven of the evening.
At the hill-fort. Bring the dragon with you.
‘We don’t know’. shrugged Little Finger. ‘That was the message we received’.
‘Why would Gloriana arrange to have a picnic?’
‘Who knows? She is a faery, after all’.
The car pulled up to their silent house, for which Annie was thankful. Between them, they got Smeffit up the stairs into Simon’s room, where Annie did the best she could to bandage his wounds. Then Smeffit fell into a deep sleep, while Simon carefully washed the kitchen knife, and returned it to its place in the kitchen drawer. There would be no trace left of the dragon assassin.
‘That’s another adventure over with’. He remarked, as he sat down with Annie at the kitchen table. It was almost two o’clock in the morning, Simon yawned.
‘If you don’t mind, Annie, I’m going to go to bed. I’ll keep an eye on Smeffit’.
‘Do you still think he was the assassin?’
‘No, I don’t. Not any more. I’m happy with him now. But what on earth does Gloriana want with a picnic, of all things?’
‘I think she wants to tell us something’.
‘I honestly don’t know’.
‘For being with me tonight. I really appreciate it’.
‘Yes. Go to bed, Simon, and look after Smeffit. He did a lot for us’.
‘I will. Goodnight Annie’.
Annie stayed up for another half an hour, with her thoughts, and then, tired, she also went to bed.
FINAL ACT – THE LAST TURN IN THE TALE
Simon found a way to cheer Smeffit up..Next morning , he bought another case of apples from the greengrocers down the road. Then he sat with Smeffit and threw them one at a time, so Smeffit could catch them in mid-air in his mouth and crunch them up in his jaws. This was how Annie found them later that morning, when she got up.
‘I see. Boys’ games, is it?’
Annie caught the apple expertly in one hand.
‘Actually, Annie, you’re supposed to catch it in your mouth’.
‘Ha-ha. How are you, Smeffit?’
‘I feel much better, thank you. I am so sorry that..’
Annie put up her hand.
‘Enough of that, Smeffit. Let me have a look at your wounds’.
She inspected them carefully. ‘I’m going to change your bandages, just in case. Oh, I phoned the Brotherhood earlier.. They’re going to pick us up in the Finger-mobile, to take us to Gloriana’s picnic. Then Dabar will arrive later, Smeffit. He will take you home’.
‘There you are, Smeffit. All organised. What would we do without the girls?’
Annie sniffed. ‘Boys! Ha!’
Just before seven, the Finger-mobile arrived, snorting and snarling outside their front door, all four fingers assembled inside. They pushed Smeffit in with some difficulty, and set off for the hill-fort, every other car keeping well out of the way. Tethering it firmly to a lamp-post, the company walked across the golf-course to the hill-fort, and set up camp in a small clearing, free of the gorse-bushes that surrounded them. The four fingers threw out a large table-cloth on the grass, and set up plates, cutlery and cups on it, together with cakes, scones and assorted jars of pickles and jams.
‘All our own!’ exclaimed Little Finger, spreading his hand towards the feast. ‘ And here comes Gloriana!’
They saw a horseman cantering towards them, mounted on a white horse, with bells jingling from its harness. The rider stopped and dismounted, tying the reins to the branches of a nearby gorse bush. She turned, and they all stood up.
It was Gloriana, but not the Gloriana they thought they knew. The figure that walked towards them was not that of a cold warrior queen, but a beautiful young girl in a long white dress, belted at the waist, her lovely face laughing and smiling with mischief.
‘Well met, on this evening! she cried gaily. ‘It is good to see you all again!’ She put down the large bag she was carrying and began to unpack it. ‘I have brought faery food for you as well’. Here come more of our friends!’.
There were Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko walking towards the assembled group, who greeted them with delight. A whoosh and a thump heralded Adrian the seagull’s arrival.
‘Come on, move up! Any room for a little one?’
‘He’s in the pub with Pat, ‘aving a drink or two. Said picnics weren’t his style. Cor, look at this grub!’
It was an evening Annie would always remember for the rest of her life. The chatter, the laughter around her, The brotherhood recounting tales of their school-days, the years fallen from their aged figures. The bright eyes of her brother and her friends as they giggled and recalled embarrassing moments. Adrian prowling around on his webbed feet, sometimes snatching at odd plates of food, then flapping away out of reach. The talisman glowing gently on her hand, caught by the gentle glow of the candles they had lit, as the warm evening darkened, and the stars began to gleam in the night sky. And Gloriana, her eyes sparkling, telling of her love of paddling with bare feet in the crystal streams of her land. Smeffit, of the dragons, saying little, but listening excitedly to the talk, his small black eyes glistening.
Annie looked again at Gloriana, who was sitting up with her long slender hands clasped around her knees, listening to a joke that Simon was telling. Their eyes met. Annie suddenly knew why Gloriana had arranged this picnic. It was a gift. A point in time when they could all recall the childhoods they had lost, a battered fragment of the innocence they once had. It was a wonderful gift.
The soft, warm evening drew in around them, like a well-loved blanket. The picnic began to draw to a close. The four fingers left first. They bowed to Gloriana and thanked her, to which, in return, she threw a clod of grass at them, giggling as she did.
‘Thanks, your majesty. ‘Ta’ very much for the food. See you soon everybody’. Adrian soared off into the night.
‘We’ve got to go, Annie. Simon. Thank you so much, Queen Gloriana. It was wonderful’. Gloriana playfully made as if to throw another clod at them, and Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko departed into the gathering twilight. The four that were left, sat staring into the bright candles.
‘Annie. Simon. Please come to look at the sea with me’. It was Gloriana that spoke, quietly. She got up and held out her hands to them. ‘Come’. Smeffit lay down next to the finished picnic, and watched them walk to the edge of the hill-fort mound. He began to nibble at the last of his apples.
They stood together at the edge, looking at the light blue ribbon of the sea, under the dark-blue of the sky, the lights of Brighton glistening like jewels below.
‘ I owe you both a great debt’. said Gloriana, unexpectedly. ‘You have given me back something that is very precious to me. You rescued a young, frightened cold little girl not long ago, and looked after her. It was Princess Jezuban’.
‘Yes, we did’. Simon replied, wondering what was coming next.
‘Princess Jezuban is my daughter’.
Both Simon and Annie were speechless. After a moment, Annie asked, ‘Is that why you fought your sister, Duessa?’
Gloriana’s eyes hardened into the flinty grey of a faery in war.
‘Yes. I did not know then, that she too, had a daughter. The one who is trapped in a crippled body, who my daughter is looking after’.
‘That wasn’t her fault!’ Annie exclaimed.
‘No. It is not. She is beginning to find some speech. Perhaps, one day, we may be able to release her from her crippled body. My daughter is doing her best. The Princess Jezuban sends, to both of you, her best wishes and thanks. She looks forward to seeing you again’.
Gloriana’s eyes had returned to their beautiful brown colour.
She turned to Simon. ‘Is there anything you wish to ask me, concerning a faery queen?’
She smiled mischievously at Simon.
‘Well, yes, there is. About Queen Ragimund?’ Simon stammered.
‘What is it? Yes, I remember. She said tell the little brat I will have his head on a pole next time’.
Simon looked woebegone, and turned away. Gloriana pulled him back, laughing. So was Annie. She had seen the wink that Gloriana had given her.
‘No, Simon, she did not say that. Ragimund said “tell my young warrior to look after himself, and I will see him again soon”’
Simon looked delighted. Annie sniggered.
Gloriana put her arms around each of their shoulders. ‘It is good to see you have lost the lines of worry in your faces. You have been through so much’, As they walked back towards Smeffit, she whispered, ”There will be very hard times ahead. I have a feeling. You must always rely upon your friends. They will help you. Annie do not forget the talisman, and remember that my daughter possesses one also. That will help you in the future. Dabar is here’.
There was a large winged shape ahead, speaking to Smeffit in a low rumbling voice. It raised its head as they approached.
‘Greetings, Queen Gloriana’.
‘Greetings, Lord Dabar. You have to come to rescue your nephew from these evil children?’ she said with a smile.
‘That is so’. said Dabar with a deep chuckle. ‘I fear, from what he has said, that it is I should rescue these children from him, before he does any more mischief’.
‘Not at all!’ said Annie, hotly. ‘He was very brave’.
‘Definitely’. added Simon. ‘He’s also’, glancing at the picnic site, ’cleaned up’.
All Gloriana’s things had been tidied and placed back in her bag. Her horse still stood, placidly, grazing at the grass.
‘I fear I must leave you all now’. Gloriana smiled at them. ‘It has been a great pleasure this evening’. She vaulted onto her horse, pulling the bag behind her. She wheeled her horse around.
‘Farewell, Lord Dabar, and your nephew. Farewell, Annie and Simon. Remember what I have said. Until the next time’. She cantered off and disappeared into the night.
‘Smeffit, you are too unwell to fly. I will carry you back’. Dabar turned his head towards Simon and Annie. ‘I thank you both for your help. There will be no more trouble from dragon assassins on this world. I am truly sorry for the deaths of your people, but we could not prevent it. Now we must go’.
Simon and Annie looked at each other. They had both decided not to say anything about their doubts concerning Smeffit. There was no need.
Smeffit climbed painfully onto Dabar’s back. He looked around at them. Thank you, Simon and Annie. Especially for all the apples!’.
‘Farewell to you both, until the next time’, rumbled Dabar. ‘Ah, I have just remembered. Leila sends her goodwill and best wishes to you both’.
He rose gracefully into the air, and beat his way upwards with a steady thrump, thrump of wings. They watched as he disappeared from sight.
‘Well, we’d better go home’. said Annie at last.
‘We’re always saying that’.
‘We’d better go home’.
‘Can you think of anything else to say?’
‘There must be something, like, we must go on our endless journey’.
‘But we’re not’.
‘I know that! It just seems so, so final’.
‘Simon’, said Annie, practically, ‘we’d better go home’.
There you are, you see’.
‘Can’t we think of anything less boring?’
‘You tell me. I’m open to suggestions’.
‘I don’t know’.
In the end, they went home.
Frank Jackson (10/03/10)