Kerry woke to the sound of Jo having a panic. "I really think I should call her parents, tell them what's happened..."
"I'm not sure that's wise," Ranajay was saying.
Kerry reluctantly emerged from beneath her duvet. She saw that somebody had roughly boarded up the window. Through the remaining glass pane, the dim light of early morning crept through.
"Mum and Dad are all the way in Greece," she reminded her aunt. "It would only worry them."
"Yeah, but how am I supposed to tell them when they get back? 'Oh yeah, sorry Cath, we're in a bunker at the moment but you can have your daughter back in a few weeks. Please send her homework to this PO box'."
"We're not going to be hiding in a bunker," Kerry said doubtfully. She sat up. She was wearing her clothes from the night before. As for Ranajay, he sat beside Jo with a pronounced slump and was tiredly pinching his nose.
"You certainly won't be there for more than a few days," he yawned. "Good morning, by the way."
"Morning," Kerry said.
"You two should pack. You'll need enough clothes to keep you going until we've got rid of Douglas. Maybe bring a few books and things, too, although I'm sure you won't be bored at Payton's."
"Am I going to be able to buy fags where we're going?" Auntie Jo said, slipping into her heels.
"Yes, I think so."
"I should hope so."
"Where are we going?" asked Kerry. "I mean whereabouts is it?"
Ranajay looked at her. "In Farcing, about half an hour's drive away. They're practically in the countryside. Listen, we really have to go. I know it's early, but I need to get back for when the circus moves. It's my car that pulls one of the caravans, you see."
"Oh right. Cool. So that's where you live?"
"That's where a few of us live. I share with Olaf, who is a total slob."
Jo stood up. "Yeah? At least he carries fags."
After a quick change, Kerry and Auntie Jo got their bags together and put them in the boot of Ranajay's car - a battered Ford Focus with a roof rack. In the end, Kerry had decided to pack light and carried a few clothes and her hairbrush in a plastic bag. Jo had nicked Kerry's suitcase and filled it with various clothes, shoes and toiletries. She experienced some difficulty dragging it up the drive.
Eventually, though, they all got in and set off down the dual carriageway. Jo sat in the front, pulling the threads out of her shawl. Kerry sat in the back, now wearing a pair of jeans, her red fleece and a shirt bearing the legend, 'I'm out of bed, what more do you want?'.
She wished she had a book. Kerry didn't read as much as she used to, but she still liked a good fantasy. The many stories she'd devoured as a child told of far-off places, where extraordinary things happened to ordinary people just like her. Around the age of thirteen, she realised that no aliens were going to abduct her, that she would never find a strange glowing crystal in the ground, and that an owl would never come flying through the window with a special roll of parchment in its beak. Things like that didn't happen in real life.
Except now, they were happening.
All the windows were rolled up, and Ranajay had the radio on. He turned the volume down as Jo made a call to the pub asking someone to take over her shift for a few days because she wasn't feeling well.
"Which isn't far from the truth," she groaned, turning off her phone again.
Kerry sat back in the seat and watched the trees and bushes blur past as they approached the motorway. Other cars zoomed past on the right side of the car; fields full of cows and horses rolled over the landscape on the left.
"Aha!" Jo exclaimed, pulling a packet of cigarettes from the side pocket. "Fags! Perfect!"
"Those belong to Olaf," Ranajay told her.
"Well, I'm going to nick one. Pull over, Ran, I haven't had one since yesterday."
So Ranajay kindly pulled onto the hard shoulder. Kerry got out to keep Auntie Jo company. It was a bit cold, but she tried her best not to set her teeth chattering.
"One time," Jo said in an odd voice, "I was travelling in a car on the way back to uni from this party. And we were on the motorway. So we stopped on this bit, like we're doing now, for a cigarette and a bit of air, and then the car stalled and wouldn't start again."
"What did you do?"
"I had to humiliate myself by walking around the car with my skirt hitched up, teetering about in heels, trying to look like I don't know which end of the car the engine's in." Auntie Jo demonstrated, mincing around in a comic fashion.
"Ha ha. Did it work?"
"Oh yeah. Two cars pulled over, both men, and one of them got us going again."
"You'd best never end up like me," Jo said, taking another drag. "Your mum was always the smart one. She got a proper degree. I took English Literature and dropped out in the second year to start working in the Blue Elephant."
"Well, at least you're pursuing a dream," Kerry said.
Auntie Jo blinked at her. "Pursuing a dream? I've been working in pubs and clubs since I was twenty-two, Kerry." She sighed. "The oldest of two siblings, and yet the least successful."
"Oh, that's not true."
"Well, your mum's a teacher, your dad's a teacher... that's how they met, you know, through teaching. Nice way to meet. Guess how many nice blokes you get to hook up with at a pub." She stamped out her cigarette. "Not many."
For the first time, it occurred to Kerry how little she really knew about her aunt. Her memories of Jo had always been of a happy and talkative woman someone who was fun to be around. But now... well, maybe Jo wasn't that happy after all.
"Is it weird?" Kerry asked tentatively. "Finding out magic exists?"
Jo turned. "Don't mention magic to me."
"Let's get back in the car then. I'm freezing."
Twenty minutes later, Ranajay finally turned up a long and narrow driveway and stopped the car. He got out first, then dashed round to help Jo. Kerry managed to exit the car without help, and leaned again her closed door, gazing up at the house before her.
The place was roughly three floors, although the windows at the top could have belonged to an attic or some such thing. The bricks were not red, but greyish and covered occasionally with growing green things. There were mullioned windows with brown ledges, the paint peeling off in places. Through one of the windows, Kerry could see a bookcase full of musty old tomes. She grinned excitedly despite herself.
"Well," her aunt said, also looking, "it's big enough."
Ranajay merely nodded and led the way. The front door was big and heavy and grey, with an iron knocker and a similar-looking handle.
"Go on and knock," Ranajay said, giving Kerry a nudge. A flutter arose in her belly at being suddenly charged with such a task, but she took hold of the ring knocker and banged it down three times.
They waited patiently for half a minute, and then the door opened.
Payton was a tall, white-haired old man with bulging blue eyes and very few teeth and what teeth he did have were yellow and crumbling away. Kerry noticed he wore a shirt and bow tie under his dressing gown. He grinned at them.
"Good morning, Payton," Ranajay said. "I'm sorry to bother you this early... This is Kerry Grail and her aunt, Joanna White, remember, from our phone call-
"But of course!" Payton beamed at them. "No problem at all, dear boy, I've been awake for hours, you aren't disturbing me at all. Besides which," he added, "any friend of Ranajay's is a friend of mine! And... wraiths! Yes, of course, well... in that case I suppose you two lovely ladies are in need of some magical training, aren't you?"
Kerry, for her part, was temporarily stunned all over again. She'd never seen anyone with such an enthusiastic manner. Every word out of Payton's mouth came out in a gasp and he was quite a trembly old man, which added to the effect.
"That's right," Ranajay said, relieved.
Kerry stepped forward before she had quite summoned up the courage to do so. "Nice to meet you," she murmured.
"You too, my dear," Payton said, shaking her hand. "Why don't you all come in and have some tea?"
They stepped inside, and Payton let go of Kerry's hand. She reclaimed it gratefully (she didn't like being touched by strangers very much) and examined her surroundings. The wallpaper was nice, and there was a strong smell of soap.
"Claudia!" Payton called through to the other room.
"Put the kettle on, our company has arrived!"
Kerry would have smiled if she hadn't been so nervous. Payton was clearly a well-read and highly educated man. It was hard to know whether to feel reassured or intimidated.
"Ranajay, if you'd like to step into the kitchen while I show our guests around..."
Ranajay hung back at the bottom of the stairs while Payton guided Kerry and Jo. They saw the next floor up, where a ladder poked down from the ceiling into what Kerry supposed was the attic. Dismissing the ladder for the moment, Payton led them on a tour of the three bedrooms.
"One for me and my wife, one for guests, and one which is also for guests, but is primarily where I must retreat when I snore," Payton explained.
They were shown the bathroom, the spare room and even the airing cupboard before Payton waved them towards the ladder.
"You go," said Auntie Jo. "I'm not going up that thing, not in these heels."
So Kerry took the lead, the ladder shaking worryingly as she climbed. The attic space she emerged into was dark and tasted musty, like antiquated paper. Even once she'd cleared the opening and clambered to her feet, it was difficult to see much until Payton came up after her and flicked a light switch.
It was a library.
Bookcases lined all the walls, even blocking some of the dusty old windows, and they were all holding books, from heavy hardback volumes to new and crisp paperbacks. On one shelf was a pile of old newspapers. On another, a stack of loosely bound manuscripts. A stripped pine table, roughly varnished, stood near the attic door. At the far end of the library was an especially tall bookcase that curled into a corner and back out again and had its own sliding ladder.
Kerry forgot her nervousness for the moment. "Wow. This place is brilliant!"
Payton smiled at her. "I've always thought so."
"Where did all these books come from?"
Payton began to stroll around the library, moving past the table with a few spare books lying higgledy-piggledy upon it. "Claudia and I collected them. Right from the off, we knew we wanted a really spectacular collection. We've had years and years to put it together, remember. And hopefully, we've still got a few years in us to enjoy them," he winked.
Kerry was wondering how to respond to this, just as Auntie Jo emerged from the middle of the floor, clutching her shoes in one hand.
"Jesus," she exclaimed, impressed.
"Thank you," Payton smiled, helping her out the rest of the way.
Kerry walked over not too quickly, trying to maintain some dignity towards the bookcase with the sliding ladder.
"Does this work?" she asked.
"It does," their host nodded. "It's very old and it rattles but by all means, use it."
"Wow, thanks," Kerry enthused. Bye-bye Dignity, she thought.
Payton pointed out a few final details, like the comfy sofa and armchair situated in the alcove to the right, and then they all went back downstairs.
In the kitchen, Ranajay and Claudia were drinking tea. Claudia was also silver-haired, was pleasantly plump, and was wearing a long violet flower-print dress. From here, Kerry could see her teeth she had more than Payton did, although several were discoloured.
"Hullo," she greeted them. "Nice tae meet ye. Tea a' roond, is it?"
"Do you have any coffee?" Jo asked. It was Jo's favourite drink of a morning. Kerry knew how she liked it scalding hot and strong enough to stand the spoon in.
Claudia shook her head.
"In that case, OK if I smoke?" Jo tried, rooting through her handbag already.
"Aye, it's fine. I'll hae ane masel," Claudia said. Jo offered her a cigarette, which she accepted. "Need a licht?"
Claudia proffered a lighter and clicked back the mechanism. "Fowk aye talk aboot tha' amiability smokers hae," she muttered.
Jo held her cigarette to the flame. "Yeah, I've heard that."
Kerry was about to comment, but something stopped her. She'd forgotten to ask Ranajay something. Deciding that this state of uncertainty within her had gone on for long enough, she walked straight over to him. It was odd, she thought, how he could fade so easily into the background like that. She was like that herself at school. Maybe that was why she didn't have many friends.
"Ranajay," she said, "what are we going to do about Douglas?"
"Well, he needs to be tracked down first," Ranajay told her gravely. "I've managed to speak to someone I used to know from the Consortium of Silencers, and he's promised to do his best to find Douglas."
Kerry sighed. "That probably won't be easy."
"He has a fairly distinctive appearance," Ranajay considered, "probably lives in Phalscam, almost certainly lives alone and works somewhere that doesn't involve much physical contact. Silencers have their ways. They'll find him."
"And will he kill him?"
This made Ranajay pause. "He'll try," he said. That's what they do. Mind you, not all of them are a match for a wraith. That's why the initiation process is so harsh to prove a person's worth. You need to be tough to be a Silencer, and you also have to be cunning and ninja-quiet. Amongst other things."
"Why did you leave?" Kerry asked.
He looked at her with his dirty dish-water eyes. "Now's not the time," he told her.
The two of them kept quiet for a minute. Over by the back door, Claudia and Jo had retreated for a quick smoke. Kerry had a small view behind them of the garden well kept and stuffed with flowers. Jo was smiling for the first time since yesterday. Kerry was pleased to see that Auntie Jo was getting on so well with Claudia, but it bothered her too. It wasn't fair that Jo had such a wonderful gift for fitting in no matter what was happening, and yet Kerry had fewer friends than fingers. She wondered if Ranajay had any friends.
Payton finished the tea and handed each of them a cup.
"I can't stay, Payton," Ranajay said. "I've got to go."
"Oh, yes, of course."
"But, Kerry," he went on, "don't forget to let me know if anything else happens. Be a considerate and helpful guest and do plenty of training. Can you do that?"
"Sure," Kerry said.
Jo stumbled back into the kitchen. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," she called. "You're leaving? When will you be back?"
Ranajay gave a sigh. "Tomorrow, if I can. Have a good day, everyone." And with that, he left. Auntie Jo half-leaned after him and some ash fell from her cigarette unnoticed.