Today, Auntie Jo was going to be home at seven. She was one of the bar staff at the Goat's Head and often worked late shifts.
"Going to be late home again," she'd said, juggling her coat and bag and gripping a set of house keys between her teeth. "Watch a vid, make yourself at home, OK?"
So that's what Kerry was doing sprawling out on the sofa, watching TV and making herself at home. The problem was, it was difficult to relax here. She had none of her own books or films - all her stuff was at home where she'd left it. There were only so many times Kerry could read 'Chin Up' in a day, even if it was her aunt's favourite weekly magazine. And of course, there was the worrying thought that she wasn't safe anymore... that something had been switched on in her brain and now everyone in Phalscam was after her.
Kerry was no closer to solving the mystery of her being attacked at the circus. Whoever Douglas was, he was pretty powerful. And for some reason, he'd sensed something in Kerry and been ready to kill her. Maybe he would have, if Ranajay hadn't turned up.
But what was real and what had she imagined? The red eyes, the fight, collapsing into the mud... and then that bizarre cover-up story from Ranajay. He really expected her to believe that nothing out the ordinary was taking place when she'd seen it with her own eyes?
What had Ranajay called himself anyway? A 'Silencer'? Kerry tried looking the word up but found nothing useful. Well, a Silencer was a gaming character, apparently. Kerry didn't know what to believe.
Maybe Douglas had been right. Maybe she shouldn't trust Ranajay.
Food, that was what she needed. Food always took her mind off whatever was troubling her. There was a fish and chip shop up the road. In fact, now was a good time for a chip binge just after the midday rush, when it would be quieter.
Flicking off the TV for now, Kerry got off the sofa and grabbed the spare set of keys.
The chip shop down the road was empty, as it turned out. In fact, the only person in there was one surly-looking server with a stubbly chin. To Kerry, though, it didn't matter how surly he was. The sharp smell of vinegar had pulled her all the way up the road and she was suddenly starving.
"Hello," she addressed the server, "could I have a small portion of chips, please?"
The man looked at her. "There's summit wrong with you," he remarked with simple directness.
He leaned over the counter and pointed one finger of his gloved hand at her. "You're not normal. But then I'm not normal either. I can't work out what it is that's different."
Kerry stepped back. "What are you talking about? I'm just an ordinary person."
The server laughed falsely and stepped over to the fryer. "I used to think I was normal, but be honest right, how many people get a look at you and treat you like some sort of monster?"
Kerry couldn't answer, but his words were starting to worry her all over again. She looked more closely at him. He couldn't have been more than thirty; he was thin and wore gloves. Gloves that came up to his elbows for no practical reason that Kerry could see. His eyes, when she checked, were reddish-brown.
Maybe it was her imagination.
"This might sound crazy," Kerry said cautiously, "but you're not going to kill me, are you?"
The server blinked. "I dunno. Tell us what you are, and I'll have a better idea."
"I don't want my chips anymore, sorry," Kerry garbled, and bolted out of the shop.
Back in Jo's house, she threw herself onto the sofa and tried to get her breathing back to normal. He wouldn't have followed her home. No, jumping the counter would have slowed him down for a start. She was safe. For now.
Something was definitely up.
Slowly, Kerry wandered into the kitchen. The house phone was on the side, next to the whiteboard. Jo had been careful to transfer Ranajay's number onto it.
"OK... Call him... No..."
She couldn't call Ranajay just because some guy at the chippy was trying to freak her out.
Still, that was two people so far who'd thought there was something strange about her. And they both wanted to kill her. And she'd never seen them before, which ruled out the possibility of Jo and her friends playing some mean trick on her.
Maybe she should call Auntie Jo first.
But Ranajay had specifically asked her to call if weird things started to happen. He seemed to know something she didn't.
Kerry called him.
It rang out. She tried again and he picked up.
"Hiya," Kerry said. "It's me."
There was a sigh at the other end. "I'm sorry, Jo. You're very nice, but you're not my type."
"This is Kerry. You said to ring if anything happened."
Ranajay's tone changed immediately. "Oh! Sorry, Kerry. You sound exactly like your aunt. What's happened, then?"
So she relayed her worries about Douglas and her encounter with the server in the chippy. "So I'm confused. What's everyone sensing in me that's not normal?"
"Kerry, Kerry. Calm down. Listen, I'm coming round. You deserve a proper explanation. Is your aunt there?"
"Right. Well, when will she be back?"
There was a noise outside. Kerry froze, but all was still. She replied, "About seven."
"OK. In that case I'll have to visit you later this evening, after I've done my Drill of Death. I think I can be there by nine. What's your address?"
Kerry paused. Well, Auntie Jo might not mind, seeing as it was Ranajay, but she wasn't so sure herself. "How do I know I can trust you?" she challenged.
"You trusted me enough to call, didn't you? It has to be your house. It's not safe out in the open, otherwise I'd suggest it. Please can I have your address?"
She considered her other options, then sighed, realising she didn't really have any. "10 Wudston Road in Phalscam. It's quite close to the Common."
"OK," Ranajay said. "I'd advise you to lock the doors and windows for now. Stay inside. Don't let anyone in but me or your aunt. OK? And don't be scared, Kerry. We're going to sort this out." He hung up.
First things first, lock the doors, Kerry thought. As she turned the key in the front door, she mulled over the situation. Not only was she as clueless as ever for the next few hours, but she was grounded too.
Jo finally got in at seven o'clock. Kerry went to join her in the kitchen, where her aunt was already rummaging in the cereal cupboard. "Busy day?" Kerry asked.
"God, yeah," Jo said, flicking on the kettle (which was nearly empty as usual). "There were a load of rugby players in at eleven, all having pints. Then later on, a whole crowd of women wanting cocktails, like I've got time to be messing around doing a Southern-Comfort-with-lime-and-lemonade and then running all their loyalty vouchers through the till. There was one woman who got redder and redder in the face as she kept having her berry ciders, then she switched to Archers and lemonade, and I had to explain to her about five times that you couldn't use the loyalty card to get money off an Archers and lemonade because we already did them cheaper than any other blooming pub in the area."
"Didn't I try one of those once?"
"Probably, but don't mention it to your mother or she'll kill me."
Kerry always enjoyed hearing about other people's exploits at the Goat's Head and besides, it was taking her mind off her own bad day. "Did anyone start a fight?" she asked.
Jo pulled a pack of biscuits from the cereal cupboard.
"Hmmm? Oh, not today, it was fine. The rugger players were noisy, but Oh Jesus, the kettle's burning dry!" She rushed forward to take the kettle off the boil. "Put some water in this, Kerry. What should we have for dinner, then? Fancy some chips?"
"Shame, I've got the money for them. All right, well, we've got some soup in, we'll have that. I'd say go out for some bread to go with it, but it's dark out."
There was a lull in conversation as Auntie Jo pulled out a saucepan for the soup. Kerry knew she had to mention that Ranajay was visiting... or did she? Telling Jo why he was coming would probably take longer for Kerry to explain that it would for Ranajay.
At quarter past nine, Jo was suggesting a film they could watch when there was a knock at the door. Kerry went to answer it and, sure enough, there stood the Amazing Ranajay. Tonight he wore a grey shirt under an old leather jacket.
Jo appeared. "Well," she smiled, leaning on the doorframe, "look who's changed his mind at last. Wait, how did you find us?"
Ranajay cleared his throat. "I'm here because Kerry called me."
This made Jo take her arm off the doorframe and place it on her hip instead. "Kerry? What do you want with Kerry?"
"There's something I need to tell you both about my... friend, and why Kerry was in a scuffle with him on Saturday. I just thought you should know."
"Oh right. Well, entrare, cara mia... which is Italian for, 'Come on in, sweetpea!' Ha ha."
Oh dear, Kerry thought.
"Do you want coffee, Ran?"
"No, thank you," Ranajay said, stepping into the hall. He followed them into the living room and sat when they did. Jo's living room was all green walls and brown carpet. The electric heater next to the TV wasn't doing a good job of warming the place yet, but thanks to the incense burner on the windowsill, there was a relaxing scent of sandalwood in the air. Ranajay didn't look relaxed.
"OK," Jo said, "what did you want to tell us?"
There was a pause. Ranajay looked around the living room, picked some grit out of his eye and began.
"All right. Now it's important we realise that nobody is in danger, and nobody needs to be once I've finished talking. But you might be shocked by what I have to tell you.
"First of all," he sighed, "...magic exists."
Kerry's heart jumped in her chest. No way. Beside her, Auntie Jo laughed in disbelief. Her laugh always reminded Kerry of a duck trying to use a pneumatic drill.
"No, it doesn't!'"
"You're not serious, are you?"
"I'm afraid I am serious. Magic exists. Not a lot of people know that though, not even people that can do magic, sometimes. When magic is used, it's kept secret from normal people."
Of all the things Kerry had been expecting to hear, it wasn't this. Magic, real magic. She knew there was something strange going on. She was being brought into a secret, magical world, like the children she'd read about in countless fantasy books. Kerry wasn't too old. It could still happen.
But while Kerry was rooting for it all to be real, her aunt was sceptical. "All right, Ran, how does this magic work?"
"Well, there are two types of mage ones that use wands and ones that use coins. The wand mages you probably already know about the history's been kind of skewed, but it's out there. Wands can be used to do almost anything hurl energy at someone, make them stronger or weaker, make them forget, even kill them. But they're too conspicuous for most mages. It is possible to wipe the memories of anyone who happens to see, but even so it's very risky to use a wand."
Jo laughed outright at this. Kerry sat further forward on the sofa, nodding at Ranajay. "What about the other one?" she asked, trying not to sound too excited.
At this, Ranajay sat up straighter. "Coin magic is the less flashy practice, I suppose, but it can protect you and possibly save your life. Coin mages can traject place their physical selves into an inanimate object. They can hide there until it is destroyed, which is why most mages use these special coins, which are much stronger." He dug in his pocket and pulled out three silver coins. "They're made of a metal that can conduct magical energy. It's used in wands, too. So another thing you can use these coins for is storing magical energy up for when you might need it. It's kind of the opposite of what wands do, which is explode the energy out of the person holding it."
Kerry nodded again. "So, if you're in danger, you can transmit yourself into those coins?"
"Traject. And yes, that's pretty much the idea."
"You're mad," Jo snorted. "Absolutely barking."
"Coin magic is very reliable once you've mastered it," Ranajay pressed on, ignoring Jo, "but again, it's rather conspicuous. To a non-magic person watching a coin mage, it looks as though they're being sucked into the ground leaving only a handful of change. Can you imagine how frightening that would be? That's why I didn't use trajection to protect you at the circus. You didn't know. It could have scared you half to death, not to mention worried your aunt."
Kerry wondered briefly how things might have gone if Ranajay hadn't turned up. Just her, Douglas, and the metal pipe. It wouldn't have gone very well.
"Is that what Douglas was?" Kerry wanted to know. "A coin mage, wand mage, whatever?"
"Of course he bloody wasn't," Jo scoffed.
"He wasn't," Ranajay agreed. "And I've never seen him before in my life, but I could tell what he was. He was a wraith."
Ranajay clasped his hands before him as he went on. "A wraith is a kind of creature. They're born human, I believe, but then quickly change into something emotionless and empty. They can kill human beings with a single touch. The technical term for it is a tactile drain it's not something they can switch off, which is why 'Douglas' was wearing those gloves."
"Like the server at the chip shop," Kerry realised.
"Oh for God's sake," Jo groaned. "Kerry, don't listen to him. He's trying to mess with you. It's not unusual for fish and chippers to wear gloves when they're preparing food."
"But he had red eyes!" Kerry insisted.
Ranajay nodded. "That happens when the urge to kill strikes them, and it's something to look out for."
"For God's sake," Jo said again.
"Now, there's another group called the Consortium of Silencers. Silencers are trained assassins who try to track down and kill wraiths. Wraiths are very powerful and can endure a lot, and I mean a lot, of damage. But the Silencers have a wand-like weapon that can eradicate them altogether. The weapons work on humans too, but Silencers never target humans. Is all that fairly understandable?"
Kerry nodded slowly.
"It's ridiculous is what it is," said Jo. She took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one. "I don't believe a word of it and frankly, mate," she pointed the fag at Ranajay, "it's unfair of you to be planting a story like this in Kerry's head when she's young and impressionable. Think it's funny, do you, if she's impressed by this magical fantasy world you've made up and goes out and gets herself killed? You've got some nerve."
"I'm not making it up. Listen, even if you don't believe in the magic part, the danger Kerry was in was quite real."
"Really? Who was it again? Oh yeah, your mate Douglas. Someone else you've got in on this. What did he do to you, Kerry, this Douglas? Did he hit you, stab you, pull your hair?"
"Well, no," Kerry mumbled to her shoes. "He said, 'tell me what you are or you're going to die'."
Jo turned her head incredulously to Ranajay. "Seriously, Ran? What the hell do you think you're doing, getting him to threaten her like that? She's only a kid! That is disgusting!"
Ranajay had stood up, one hand covering his face. "Jo, if that man had touched Kerry she'd be dead. I came here to tell you what happened. I'm not saying it's going to happen again-"
Jo got to her feet. "It'd better not!"
"Well, the least you can do is let me try to teach Kerry how to defend herself in case a situation like that ever comes up again. She'll tell you herself, it wasn't a pleasant experience."
"Don't you tell me what Kerry will or won't do," Auntie Jo exploded. "Why are you here? Why not go and pick on some other kid, or better yet, just bog off back to the circus where you belong?"
The fierceness of Jo's words sucked all the noise from the room, leaving the three of them in silence. It was awful. Kerry couldn't bear the look of hurt on Ranajay's face. Eventually, he spoke again.
"I want you both to be safe."
"Yeah, well," Jo asserted, "we're quite capable of looking after ourselves."
At that moment, the doorbell rang.
"I wouldn't answer that," Ranajay warned.
"It's my house and I can answer my own bloody door," Jo thundered. She was already halfway across the living room.
Kerry stood. "Don't, Jo, please leave it."
"It's too late. It's nearly half nine. Can't we do as he says?"
But Jo wasn't to be swayed. "It's fine Kerry. Believe me, nothing bad is going to happen."
Then they heard a loud pounding on the front door.