For a second, nobody moved.
"Who's there?" Jo called out.
The pounding increased and culminated in a THUD. Kerry gasped and stepped back. What was happening?
"Douglas," Ranajay said.
"Jesus Christ," said Auntie Jo through gritted teeth.
Kerry did the first thing that came to mind. Moving towards the door leading to the hallway, she gripped one arm of the sofa and dragged it with her. After a few tugs that were getting her nowhere, Jo had stomped over to help. The sofa thudded into place, blocking the door.
"Ran, you do the other one," she ordered. "Kerry, shut that window and close the curtains. I'm calling the police."
"They won't get here in time," Ranajay muttered.
"All right," Jo growled even as Kerry looked at the two of them worriedly, "then we'll just have to make a scene, loads of noise, and that should scare him off."
"Well then, what's your big idea?" Nobody answered. "Kerry! Window!"
Startled, Kerry jumped over to the window. Outside, she could see a shadowy figure. Walking close to its legs was something else. After a few seconds she recognised it as the neighbours' cat, Jammy. Kerry watched as the man outside ripped off both his gloves, picked up the cat and flung it behind him. It landed on the grass, stiff as a board.
Immediately she drew back and yanked the curtains closed.
"I can see him out there," Kerry said. "He's taken his gloves off and I think he killed next door's cat."
"Maniac," Jo rumbled. "OK. Gimmee the phone. Ranajay, that door's blocked now, right?"
"Right," he answered wearily.
"Kerry, is that all shut?"
Was it? Kerry didn't remember checking the windows, but she was sure they were locked. They had to be. Everybody's eyes were on the window now.
Then there was a horrible wrenching noise of scraping metal and falling brick, and Kerry realised that the sash of the front window had been ripped away. For the first time ever, magic was the only explanation nobody else could have found the strength to do that. Outside, Douglas threw away the part he'd torn out and started to climb through the hole. The curtain was in his way, however. Jo screamed and reeled backwards, taking Kerry with her.
Then Douglas was in the house. There was something frightening in his eyes, in the way that he looked at Kerry. The eyes weren't full of fury or revenge, or even filled with the thrill of the moment. Douglas just stared at Kerry, like it was his destiny to kill her.
Auntie Jo clasped her arms tightly around her. Their steps led them slowly backwards into the door with the sofa in front of it. Even as horrified as she was, Kerry was thinking about whether it would be possible to shift the sofa before Douglas got to them. What chance did they really have?
Jo had made up her mind already. She lunged for the closest weapon to hand - the lamp. It wouldn't come loose from its socket no matter how hard she yanked.
Douglas came closer. Jo barked furiously, making Kerry jump.
"Stay back!" Jo warned. "I'll bloody kill you!"
It didn't make any difference. Douglas glanced behind them at Ranajay.
"Why should I leave," he said without emotion, "when the three of you are conspiring behind my back? What are you doing here? Training the girl?"
Ranajay stood perfectly still.
"Get away from us!" Auntie Jo screeched, and barked again.
Then Ranajay lunged. The intruder anticipated the movement and kicked out. Ranajay jumped back in time, but then Douglas's fist followed, thumping into Ranajay's ribs. Ranajay stumbled back, but he wasn't badly hurt. He stepped back into Douglas and jabbed an elbow into his ribs. It had little effect. The intruder reacted by grabbing Ranajay's arm and wrenching, then tossing him away. He hit the floor with a thud. Then Ranajay stuck out a leg and swept it across, knocking Douglas over too.
Kerry watched, engrossed in the fight but also afraid. If Douglas was a wraith, he could drain the life out of Ranajay with a touch. The fight would be over and then what would they do?
Ranajay scrambled back to his feet. This time he moved away from Douglas, joining Kerry and her aunt in the corner.
"What are you doing?" Jo hissed.
Kerry wanted to say it too. They couldn't retreat into a corner or they'd be trapped. And Douglas was on his feet. He was coming towards them. His eyes were staring right into Kerry's.
His hands came out.
Kerry felt a spark ignite somewhere inside her and gasped. Her surroundings spun and loomed up ahead of her, round and round, getting higher and higher. She heard Jo shrieking, but it was distant and there was nothing she could do. Kerry closed her eyes tight. She was dying. It was all over.
After what seemed like five years, her eyes opened again. It was like her frame of vision was wonky. Her left eye was taken up looking at something tall and wooden. She glanced to the right. The carpet stretched on forever, except for a spot somewhere far away where she could see a great monolith of leather - the beginnings of a shoe, she realised in astonishment. Had she shrunk?
Douglas must have been up in the clouds somewhere - somewhere she was no longer capable of even seeing.
Panicked, she tried to take deep breaths, but this was difficult too. This didn't make any sense. It couldn't be explained. Everything about Kerry's small world that had seemed rational and nice and safe had been whisked away. What in God's name had happened to her?
She heard a noise. It was the giant above her saying something, indistinctly but very loud.
A wall of air was approaching. Kerry clenched her muscles. A great force blasted into her. Then it retracted, coming back the way it had come. Amazingly, Kerry hadn't been hurt. She struggled to move in case it came back, but nothing happened.
Another wall of air approached, but this time something closed around Kerry and lifted her up miles and miles into the air.
She screamed. It was a tiny scream.
Then the hand of Douglas, the force from above, let her go.
Kerry came down too fast, hit the ground again. Now it was like she was travelling on wheels, and now rotating faster and faster, round and round. Kerry hung on tight until the spinning slowed down. She met the carpet again and hugged it gratefully.
There was no pain but the experience had been jarring. Her heart was beating - in fact her whole body was. All that felt real to her after a few minutes was the pulsing around her. It was becoming natural... safe. She liked being safe.
Kerry looked anxiously around. She couldn't see the others. But she could see... Something. Something silver and glittering. There was a bright light over there somewhere. Probably the lamp that had been knocked over.
But where was Douglas now?
Thudding footsteps across the carpet told her that the wraith was leaving the room. He was going, just like that. She could have cried with relief, but no tears were coming.
A thought occurred to her. Kerry tried to look down at her own form, but her field of vision didn't allow it. All she saw was more carpet, leading her to think that she was lying flat on the floor and hadn't realised it.
How was she going to get up then?
Kerry tried to lean on an elbow, but she couldn't do that either. In fact, it felt like the elbow was missing entirely. My body's gone, she thought. She tried to say it aloud. "My body's gone!"
From somewhere beside her, a tiny voice said, "Kerry? Where are you?" It was a piteous wail, like a stuck cat. It was Auntie Jo, but Kerry couldn't see her. She couldn't see anything but a glint of silver.
"I'm over here," she replied, trying to enunciate as clearly and loudly as she could.
"Hold on," said an even smaller voice which could only have been Ranajay's. "We're coming back."
The wooden thing beside her was twirling and warping in shape, and getting smaller. And she was getting bigger. She recognised the shape of it it was the one of the feet supporting the sofa. The rest of the sofa blossomed into view. Further-away areas of the room came into focus - she saw her surroundings in detail again, the shoe, the fallen lamp, the missing bit of window. In a few more seconds, everything was back to normal.
"Oh Jesus," she heard Jo gasp, "oh God, oh God, oh God!" Auntie Jo collapsed, splayed out on the sofa like a terrified starfish.
Ranajay approached Kerry. "Are you all right?"
It took a few seconds to summon the power of speech. "I think so," she mumbled. "Bit shaky."
"I should have warned you," he apologised. "But it was sort of an emergency."
Kerry nodded, forcing herself to be calm about the whole thing. She ran through what had just happened again in her mind. "Coin magic?" she guessed.
"NO!" Jo cried out. "No, no, nooooo. Oh God, help me, I'm going mad. I'm hallucinating. The room's spinning, somebody help me!"
Kerry ran to Jo and put one knee on the sofa as she leaned to hug her aunt. "It's OK, Auntie Jo," she said in what she hoped was a soothing voice. "You're going to be fine."
"What-" Jo gulped, "-what just happened?"
"Er... well Douglas came into the house, but Ranajay used magic to save us."
Jo shook her head violently and sat up. "No, no, no, no, no. It can't have happened, it's not possible, I know it's not possible."
"It did happen," Ranajay told her. "Try to accept it."
"I'm hallucinating," Jo repeated. "I, I must be on something, you've slipped me drugs, that's what it is. It's all in my head and in a few hours I'm going to be fine, but for now I just need everyone to go, I want to sit still, I want it to stop!"
"I'm thirty-eight!" she yelled. "It's not magic! It didn't happen!"
"Jo, calm down, please," Ranajay said in a raised voice. "Listen, it's clear that you're upset, but you have to understand that you are in danger and you can't stay here. I need to get you two to a place of safety, where you can learn how to defend yourselves."
"I'm not going anywhere!"
"Jo... the window's off. Look at it."
Slowly, Jo turned her head and gazed at the broken window. A cold wind was playing with the curtain, sweeping it into the room.
"It's... it's you and your friend,' she insisted weakly. "Attacking me... slipped me drugs..."
Kerry looked at her aunt worriedly. She wanted to reassure her, to tell her everything would turn out fine, but she didn't know that for herself. Kerry didn't even know her aunt that well and had no idea what would calm her down.
Ranajay had an idea. "Do you want some coffee?"
For a moment, Jo said nothing. She examined her hands, noticing she had a hangnail and tore it off. She scowled as it started to bleed. "I've got some pear cider in the fridge," she said.
Ranajay went away to get it. Kerry sat with her aunt and watched her bite her nails until Ranajay came back with the cider and a glass. Jo ignored the glass and gulped half the bottle down in one go.
"I'm not going anywhere," Jo said. "I have a job, I have a home. Oh Gawd, I'll need to get that window replaced. This is all your fault, Ran."
Kerry bristled. "He's trying to help."
"Yeah, feeding us some story about magic and, what was it? Wraiths and Silencers and magicians... and then he slips me something that makes my mind go all weird. In my own house."
"I went through all that too. He was just trying to help us, not attack us. That was the other guy."
Jo sniffed. "Where does he think he's going to take us anyway?"
This made Kerry think. Where could they go that was out of Douglas's way? Ranajay's place? No, Ranajay had to be travelling with the circus, so they couldn't be going with him. Kerry briefly imagined the three of them squashed into a trailer in a convoy heading for Birmingham.
Ranajay himself looked unsure. "Well, I have a friend who may be able to help," he said slowly. "He lives somewhere secluded and out of the way, so you'd be safe there. He's also one of the cleverest people I know. Yes, that'd be best. In fact," he said, circling on the carpet, "if he and his wife could teach you both coin magic, I could carry on with the circus as normal, drop in every now and again to see how you were doing..."
Being taught coin magic? Kerry had heard of people pinching themselves in disbelief, but it always sounded silly to her. If there was ever a time for a quick pinch, however, it was now. She tried it; it hurt. She wasn't dreaming.
"Wait, hang on, sorry," Jo said after another slug of cider.
"Who is this bloke again?"
"Professor Payton R. Hunter," he replied. "He used to be a doctor before he discovered magic and started studying wraiths. He's a bit of an expert. You'll be safe with him."
"Look, mate, I've been telling and telling you, Kerry and I are not going anywhere. I've got a job to do, and Kerry... well, my sister's told me to look after her and that means giving her some stability. Now, put that up against what you're suggesting which seems to be, coming into my home, taking us both unawares and then shipping us off to stay with some stranger. What would you do if you were me? And this whole magic thing... I have no idea where you're going with that, but I really don't think it's what's best for Kerry. That's all I want, is to keep her out of harm's way. I want the best for her, and you're not it."
Kerry dithered by the sofa. The encounter with Douglas just now had scared her, but part of it had also been thrilling. She'd experienced magic, real magic. She'd just been introduced to this world; she couldn't let it go that easily.
"Auntie Jo," Kerry suggested carefully, "I think all Ranajay's trying to do is, well, make sure we're out of the way just for a few days while he sorts Douglas out. We can't stay here anyway if the window's off, can we? What if we want to go out and somebody breaks in?"
"So what? I'll get emergency window repair called out."
"But that'll be expensive, won't it? And Douglas might come back and break through again."
"That's a point," Ranajay nodded. "Putting the magic thing aside, Jo, can't you agree to stay with my friend for Kerry's sake?"
Auntie Jo glared at him. "You devious little... all right," she said, putting the bottle down. "Based on the fact that a guy breaks in and tries to whop us and you manage to somehow stop him, I'm going to put you down as a decent, if very weird, bloke. But what about this, er...?"
"Yeah... how do I know we can trust him?"
"He's one of my oldest and most trusted friends," Ranajay explained calmly. "He has a lovely wife, Claudia, and he's seventy-three years old."
Kerry piped up, "Are we going now or in the morning?"
Ranajay looked at her. "What would you prefer?"
Kerry's suitcase was still largely unpacked, so her clothes and possessions were good to go, and she wasn't in the least tired. She was prepared to leave immediately. Her aunt, on the other hand, looked deeply shocked and hadn't yet moved from her spot on the sofa. Kerry turned back to Ranajay. "Are we all right to stay here for the rest of the night?"
He sighed. "Why not? I can keep watch if you like."
With that, Kerry nodded gratefully and went to fetch Jo's duvet from upstairs after unblocking the way out of the room first. Maybe it was best if they all stayed downstairs. It meant that Jo wouldn't have to move and they'd be near a phone.
The duvet cover was pink and clashed horribly with the celery-green walls of Jo's bedroom. Kerry grabbed the thing and went back downstairs. There, she found Ranajay sitting beside Jo, one hand on her shoulder.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he was saying.
"Fan-bloody-tastic," Jo said with something that could have been a snort or a laugh. "I feel a bit strange."
"I am sorry about all this."
"Yeah, well, so am I. Got any cigarettes?"
"I told you, I don't smoke."
"Huh? Oh yeah, that's right. Well, it can keep 'til the morning, I suppose. Let's have the telly on, then; I need something to distract me."
Ranajay went to switch on the TV as Kerry draped her aunt in the duvet.
"I'm not happy about this," Jo told her. "I feel like I'm going mad. It makes literally no sense to me. Does it make sense to you?"
"Er, it is a little unexpected," Kerry offered. "Maybe we should get some sleep."
"As if I'm going to get any sleep now," her aunt sighed.