Ranajay finally stopped the car after almost an hour’s drive. He turned the radio off and got out first, then dashed round the car to help Auntie Jo out.
‘Stupid heels,’ Jo remarked, red faced as she got to her feet.
Kerry managed to exit the car without help, and leaned again her closed door, gazing up at the house before her.
The house 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, as is so common with other buildings, but greyish and covered occasionally with growing green things. There were mullioned windows. Through one of them, 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 said nothing and shut Auntie Jo’s door for her.
‘What are their names?’ Kerry asked. ‘These people we’re staying with, I mean.’
‘The man who owns this house goes only by the name Payton,’ Ranajay told her. ‘He practices Coin Magic, as does his wife, Claudia.’
‘They’re interesting names. Payton and Claudia.’
Ranajay merely nodded and led the way. The three of them went up the gravel driveway (causing poor Auntie Jo no small amount of grief in her heels) and approached the door.
It was big and heavy and grey, with an iron knocker and a similar-looking handle.
‘Well, go on,’ Ranajay said, giving Kerry a nudge. She obediently took the ring knocker in her right hand and banged it down three times.
They waited patiently for half a minute, and then a strange little man greeted them.
He was small and slightly bent over. He wore a dark and intricately patterned brown waistcoat, black trousers and a shirt that was faintly blue. He had a bow-tie and glasses.
His face was small and wrinkled. The silver hair on Payton’s head kept going past his ears to form an impressive pair of whiskers. He had hair on the backs on his hands.
Kerry was unsettled at the sight of this man. He seemed friendly and interesting... but there was something about that large bow-tie, and his comic posture, and that wide gap-toothed grin on his face that reminded her of a clown.
She stepped back, reaching for Auntie Jo’s hand.
‘What is it? Kerry?’
Kerry took another look at the little man called Payton. She reassessed. The bow-tie wasn’t that large, it was just that his head was quite small. And he was an old man who couldn’t help his unfortunate hunch, and he was smiling because he was being friendly.
She swallowed and pushed the fear to the back of her mind, and Kerry managed to step forward and shake Payton’s hand.
‘Hello, my dear,’ he grinned. A whistle escaped as he talked. ‘It’s nice to see you, all three of you, come in.’
They stepped inside, and Payton let go of Kerry’s hand. She reclaimed it gratefully and examined her surroundings. The wallpaper was nice, and there was a smell of old books.
‘Claudia!’ Payton called through to the other room.
‘Put the kettle on, our company has arrived!’
Kerry laughed, liking the way Payton embellished his words. She guessed he was a man who read a lot of books or saw a lot of plays.
Jo laughed too. ‘Will you be introducing us to your lady wife?’ she asked, playing along.
‘Soon, Joanna, very soon. But first, I’d like to show you around our humble abode...’
Ranajay hung back at the bottom of the stairs while Payton guided Kerry and Jo. They saw the next floor up, which has three bedrooms, one for Payton and his wife, and two for guests. There was a small bathroom, which had dark blue walls dotted every now and then with silver painted swirls, and a cupboard containing a pile of towels and a laundry basket.
Kerry liked the top floor best. Payton led them up a narrow wooden staircase that shook worryingly as they climbed it. Halfway up, Auntie Jo dropped her cigarettes and had to go back down to get them. So Kerry was the first person to see what was in the attic.
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. There were books everywhere, old and new.
The cases themselves were lovely old wood, adding to that wonderful library smell, and not a single one matched. In the far corner was an especially tall one that curled into a corner and back out again, and (Kerry could have wept) it had a sliding ladder.
‘Wow! This place is brilliant!’
Payton smiled at her. ‘I’m glad you appreciate it.’
‘Where did all these books come from?’
Payton began to stroll around the library, moving past a table with a few spare books lying higgledy-piggledy upon it. ‘Claudia and I collected them. Ranajay must have told you about Coin Magic, yes? Well, when we were younger we decided we wanted a really spectacular collection. And we weren’t sure if we would have time to do it. SO, my dear, we thought ahead.’ He tapped his skull with one finger. ‘We placed ourselves away, in those coins. We saved our time and youth, and stretched it out for even longer.’
‘And now we have enough time to enjoy our lovely books,’ he finished, just as Auntie Jo emerged from the middle of the floor, clutching her fags.
‘Jesus,’ she exclaimed, impressed.
‘Thank you,’ Payton smiled, helping her out the rest of the way.
‘My heels,’ Jo explained, red faced again.
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. ‘You can watch me use it later, or perhaps have a go yourself.’
‘Ooh, OK!’ Kerry responded, feeling her dignity go flying out the window.
Payton pointed out a few final details – like the comfy sofa and armchair situated in the alcove to the right, and the window on the slanted ceiling that could be opened to let in more light. Then the three of them went back downstairs.
In the kitchen, Ranajay and Claudia were drinking tea. Claudia was also silver-haired, and she was wearing a long violet flower-print dress. She smiled at the newcomers. Her gleaming white teeth were a far cry from her husband’s crumbling yellow gnashers. She had a jovial sort of voice that made her sound permanently amused – and, as Kerry reflected, the accent probably helped.
‘Hullo!’ she said. ‘It’s a pleasure tae meet ye! How dae ye dae?’
Auntie Jo stepped forward and said hello. ‘You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?’ she asked, rooting through her handbag already.
‘Aw, s’nae problem. I smoke masel’,’ Claudia said. Jo offered her a cigarette, which she accepted. ‘You and me’re gonna get on a’right, I think!’
Jo nodded, and then coughed. ‘Excuse me.’
‘So,’ Payton said, leaning against the sideboard, where a cup of tea sat waiting for him. ‘I understand you have a penchant for collecting yourself, Ms White.’
Jo nodded. ‘Yes, cacti.’
‘Did Ranajay no’ tell ye we’ve got ane upstairs? We cry it Truman.’
‘Cry, we call it, Truman.’
‘Oh yes! I remember, yes.’
Kerry was about to nod and tell Payton and Claudia about her aunt’s cactus collection, but something stopped her. In the excitement of seeing the library and being introduced to this pair of book-loving sexagenarians, she’d forgotten to ask Ranajay something. She walked over to him. It was odd, she thought, how he could fade so easily into the background like that, as she often did herself.
‘Ranajay,’ she said, ‘how long will we be staying here?’
He looked at her with his dirty dishwater eyes. ‘As long as it takes to get rid of Dorus.’
‘And how long will that be?’
‘I need to track him down first,’ Ranajay told her gravely. ‘Given his current state of mind, that might be difficult. I don’t really know what he’ll do next.’
‘Hs should be easy to spot,’ Kerry said. ‘I mean, the last time we all saw him, he was wearing a red robe thing and had bags under his eyes the size of those beanbag things you sometimes juggle with...’
‘What beanbag things?’
‘Alright, bad example, but you take my point, don’t you?’
Ranajay sighed audibly. ‘I’ll do my best to find him, Kerry. But I have to go now, so...’
‘I travel with the circus. Every day I’ll come back here to search for Dorus, but I need to carry on with my act.’
Kerry nodded. It was understandable.
‘How do we contact you if we need you again?’ she asked, even as Ranajay turned to go.
‘What? Oh, yes.’ He came back, snatching up a stack of sticky notes and a pen from beside the kettle. ‘Here is my mobile number... call me if you think you’ve seen Dorus or if anyone else turns up acting suspiciously. That goes for you too, Jo.’
‘What?’ Auntie Jo said, looking up.
‘You can fill her in,’ he muttered to Kerry, passing her the sticky note with his number on it. ‘If I were you, I’d spend your time here practising Coin Magic, just in case. I can’t be here to protect you all the time.’
Ranajay turned to go, waving to Jo and the others without looking at them. Jo flapped a hand in his direction and the man known as Payton chased him to the door to send him properly on his way.
‘Nice bloke, that,’ Jo remarked. Kerry gave her a look. ‘What?’