Valorie had left the computer an hour ago, and was feeling rather bored. Dinner was going to be pasta – the kind that looked like snail shells, served in tomato sauce, with bits of pepperoni. Valorie liked pasta. It wasn’t her favourite food – her favourite food had to be battered chicken dipped in barbeque sauce – but pasta was definitely in the Top 5. Or was it on the Top 5? Why was she even thinking about this?
Valorie curled up on the sofa and rested her head on the armrest. She tucked her feet under a cushion on the other side of the sofa, and her eyes glazed over as she watched some guy on TV tell you how light bulbs were made. Was there anything good on TV? Valorie didn’t know.
The remote was over near the TV. Valorie couldn’t get it now; she was too comfortable to get it. Why was it over by the TV anyway? What a silly place to put the remote. The whole point of a remote control was to stop people walking over to the TV every time they wanted the channel changed.
Valorie thought about going to get the remote, but flopped down on the sofa again. Let the programme finish. Something good might be on afterwards. She couldn’t be much bothered anyway.
Valorie didn’t like admitting to her parents that she was bored. If she did, her mother would moan about how her generation had to amuse themselves seven days a week and never complained of being bored, and her father would go and get out stacks of board games for them to play together. This would have been a novel idea when she was ten, but not so much now.
Valorie continued to lie on the sofa, feeling bored, until the doorbell rang.
Mrs Morse shouted from the kitchen.
‘Val, can you get that? I’m busy with the oven.’
‘OK,’ Valorie replied, and dragged her feet over to the front door.
She opened it, and her jaw fell open in surprise.
Sure enough, there stood Charley. Underneath his overcoat, he wore a baggy jumper with orange, green and blue triangles all over it. Eddie stood just behind him, wearing jeans and an ordinary blue blouse – the same one Valorie had seen her wearing on their first meeting. She had her hair tied back.
‘Hi Valorie,’ Eddie said, waving.
‘What are you two doing here?’ Valorie whispered anxiously. ‘My parents don’t know about you yet!’
‘Really?’ Charley said sarcastically. ‘Well, goodness me, I hadn’t thought about that. Are we too late for dinner?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Valorie hissed, half-shutting the door to stop her Mum seeing them.
‘Valorie, we know this is probably a bad time, what with your parents being here,’ Eddie said delicately, ‘but it’s sort of an emergency.’
‘Adam Quinn was in my house. He upset my insects, he looked through my books and he’s used my computer.’
‘Oh, that,’ Valorie said, and then covered her mouth.
‘What do you mean, oh that?’ Charley asked, trying to push his way in.
‘This really isn’t a good time, guys.’ Valorie tried to wedge the door closed, but Charley was stronger, and he shoved the door wide enough to slip inside.
‘Oh no, guys, please…’
Eddie stood just outside the door. She was shivering a bit, but didn’t come inside; just looked apologetically at her.
‘Nice hallway you have here,’ he said brightly, taking off his coat.
Valorie bit her lip. She saw her mother peering through the kitchen door into the hallway.
‘What the hell?’ she said, and put the dish she was holding down. ‘Valorie, who are these people?’
‘Carl! Were you expecting anyone round, or…?’
Then her dad came through and stood next to her mum. He had a cheese grater in one hand, and a tea towel in the other. Valorie frowned for the barest second, wondering why she hadn’t offered to wash or dry the dishes, but then turned her attention back to Charley, who was hanging his coat up in the hallway.
‘Er, Mum, Dad, this is, er…’ Valorie felt her ears burning. Eddie grimaced from just outside the door. ‘This is Charley and Eddie… Eddie’s the girl, by the way… and, er, well, they’re my friends – I mean they’re people I know.’
Mr and Mrs Morse just stared at the strangers.
Charley stepped forward and offered both of them his hand to shake.
‘Hello. You must be Carl and Meg. I’ve heard so much about you.’
Mrs made an extraordinary gobbling noise as she backed towards the fridge. Mr Morse, on the other hand, left towards the cutlery drawer and pulled out a blunt fork.
‘OK, dude -’ he said shakily ‘- or whatever it is you call yourself. I want to know who you are, and what you’re doing in my house, or you'll regret it.'
‘Dad!’ Valorie said, outraged, but her dad was already advancing on the two strangers.
Charley flicked the fork out of Mr Morse’s hand, who then screamed and tried to reach into the drawer again. Eddie dashed forward and stopped him, grabbing his wrists and locking them behind his back.
‘We don’t want to hurt you,’ Eddie said to him. ‘We just need to talk to you about something.’
‘They’re right, Dad,’ Valorie said. ‘Please calm down.’
‘Calm down? Two complete strangers enter my house and try to attack me, and you’re telling me to calm down?’
‘’We’re not attacking you!’ Eddie said, tightening her grip on Mr Morse’s wrists as he struggled.
‘Please, Mr Morse. Carl,’ Charley said warmly. ‘Please calm down. I just wanted a peaceful conference with your family. We’ll be barely thirty minutes. So can we talk?’
Up until now, Valorie’s mother had managed to slip unnoticed into the background. Now that she’d heard enough, she stepped forward again.
‘Carl,’ she said. ‘I think we should listen to them. I think I know what this is about.’
Mr Morse craned his neck to look at her. ‘What?’
‘Are you going to behave?’
‘Of course I’m going to ruddy behave,’ he said.
Valorie watched, astonished, as her mother nodded to Eddie. Eddie let her father go. He stepped forward, massaging his wrists. He looked at Eddie, at his wife, and then stared Charley in the face.
‘Alright,’ he said, standing as straight as he could. ‘Let’s talk.’
‘After you,’ Charley said, waving a hand. Mr Morse thrust his chin in the direction of the living room and stepped smartly through the hallway. Charley strode in after him
The women lingered in the kitchen.
‘That Carl,’ Mr Morse said, tutting, and Valorie looked at her curiously. ‘Two minutes in the same room with a bloke he doesn’t know, and he becomes Mr Testosterone himself.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Eddie said. ‘Charley’s the same. Very territorial.’
‘Was that Charley then?’ Valorie’s mother asked, turning towards Eddie.
‘Oh yeah. Friend of mine. All blokes are the same, really, aren’t they?’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that.’
‘You should meet my other friends. Completely mental. My friend Simon gets PMT, I swear.’
Valorie’s mother laughed. Valorie just stood there, stunned. Here was her mother talking to somebody she’d never met, chatting as if they were old friends. She never knew her mother could be this calm and collected.
‘Shall we go through?’ Mrs Morse said.
‘I think so. Don’t want to leave those two alone all evening, do we?’
‘No, suppose not! Val, you come with, we need to talk.’
Valorie followed. When she entered the living room, Charley and her father were sitting opposite each other, trying to take up as much space as possible, whilst Eddie and her mum were wedged comfortably on the remaining sofa.
‘So, your name’s Eddie, is it?’
‘It’s short for Edina. And you’re Meg, is that right?’
Mr Morse coughed, and the two women stopped talking.
‘Alright. Now, to start off. Who are you exactly?’ He pointed at Charley, who straightened up and interlocked his fingers. ‘My name is Charley Aether. I’ve been giving your daughter magical training.’
Valorie’s mother straightened up too. ‘I knew it.'
Mrs Morse turned to Valorie. 'I had a hunch. The skiving, the secrecy... I thought you were acting a bit strange. And your father has been hinting at the possibility that you were magic, sweetheart.' She paused. 'You know, I’m not really mad that your father’s a Wizard; it was just a shock to me. I’m proud of him, and I just knew that you’d be one too; you always took after your dad.’
Valorie’s eyebrows raised. There was a pause as she tried to take this in, but it was getting muddled with everything else.
‘So… you don’t mind?’
‘I don’t mind that you’re a Wizard, Val, but… I mean, why are these people training you? Who are they?’
Both Mr and Mrs Morse looked at Valorie.
‘I met Charley outside a fish and chip shop one day,’ Valorie told them. ‘I didn’t have enough money, so Charley gave me some change. We got talking, and… well. I don’t know.’
‘Well, he told me he was a Wizard, ands so since we were on that subject, I told him about, well, you know, what I’d been finding out I could do, and whether that made me magic or not. After that he offered to teach me.’
Valorie’s father rubbed his face with his hands. ‘OK, well… where’s he been teaching you, exactly?’
Valorie paused. Eddie answered the question for her.
‘Charley began teaching her in public places, but as that was inconvenient, he started teaching her at his house…’
Both parents instantly leapt up.
‘Val!’ her mother cried. ‘Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? He could have been anyone – a druggie, a rapist… God knows! You can’t just meet people like that, in strange houses -’
‘Mum, it was OK! I knew him for months before I -’
‘Makes no difference! How could you even think of meeting up with a strange man, on your own, no mention of it to either of us… who knows what could have happened?’
Frustrated tears appeared in the corner of her mother;s eyes. 'Don’t you understand how much we worry, Val? Sweetheart, I would be devastated if anything happened to you.’
'Mum, I'm sorry. But please can we talk about this another time?'
Charley looked faintly nauseous.
Eddie butted in. 'Charley's someone you can trust. Don't worry.'
‘I’m sorry, Val,’ her mother said. She wiped her eyes. ‘Oh dear, I am a mess today, aren’t I?’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Valorie said as she returned to her seat.
‘So…’ Mr Morse said. ‘This man Charley has been teaching you at his home. We can talk about that later. And who’s this woman here?’
‘Friend of Charley’s. She’s being taught by him as well.’
‘’And here’s me thinking I was Mortal all these years!’ Eddie said. ‘Now I’m walking through walls! Just goes to show you how little people really know themselves.’
‘What can you do, dear?’ Mrs Morse asked.
‘Teleportation, and etheric projection.’
‘Er… it’s sort of… I’ll show you later.’
‘So now for my next question,’ her father said, staring pointedly at Charley. ‘Why are you here today? Why not last week or even months ago?’
Charley took a deep breath. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve heard of a man called Adam Quinn. He was an old student of mine, but he was arrogant, selfish and angry. I couldn’t teach him anymore.’
‘With you so far.’
‘Recently, the Government mentioned a Wizard Watch List -’
‘Damned fools,’ her father responded, and Charley managed a weak smile.
‘Well, at least we agree on something. Now, whilst Eddie, Valorie and myself had limited our protest against this move to an internet campaign group -’
‘I helped make that!’
‘I know you did, and we’re very grateful. But Adam Quinn knows no such restrictions, and he plans to overthrow the Government by more violent means.’
‘OK, like what?’
‘We don’t know yet. But he seems very interested in contacting me, and especially Valorie here, so perhaps he wants a hostage. Perhaps he simply wants my help to get to O’Hanlon – he’s a member of the Department of Magical Management.’
‘They’re the ones responsible for the Wizard Watch List,’ Eddie explained. Valorie watched a vein suddenly appear on her father’s temple.
‘Damn them. Completely unnecessary.’
‘Indeed,’ Charley said with a raised eyebrow. ‘The point is, if Adam gains control over the Government he could wreak his power over the entire country if he wanted to. And, sooner or later, he may want to. After all, he has a lot of power, and a lot of anger. Maybe he wasn’t cuddled enough as a child. I have no idea.’
‘Right. So, what has this to do with Val?’ Mrs Morse asked worriedly.
‘Adam is already looking for me. He broke into my house this afternoon.’
‘Erm…’ Valorie said, cheeks burning now. Charley looked at her.
‘What? What is it?’
‘There’s something I should probably mention,’ she said. ‘Adam found me on Thoughts.com… you know, on the group thing? I don’t know how he did it, but…’
Charley’s hands tightened into fists.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,’ she said hurriedly. ‘It’s just that, well, he said some stuff.’
‘He said some… stuff?’ Charley repeated slowly.
‘Yeah. He said that, um… he wanted to talk to you, and it was important… he knew I knew you, and he sort of guessed who I was.’
Charley sighed heavily. ‘This is all I need.’
Charley dug an elbow into the cushion next to him. ‘We can’t let him find us, Valorie. Did you tell him anything, anything at all, that might allow him to find us?’
‘He’s been to your house and found it empty. That’s all I know. I didn’t tell him anything.’ Charley still didn’t relax.
‘It’s important that your daughter remains safe until this whole ordeal is over, and for this reason, I’m going to stop training her.’
Valorie opened her mouth to protest, but Charley silenced her with an outstretched hand. He continued quietly, and everyone leaned in to hear what he said next.
‘Before I go, I need access to the Thoughts.com account that you and Valorie created. I need to contact all the group members I can find, so we can go against Adam Quinn together.’