PROLOGUE
 

Monday 30th January 1865.

Slime oozed from the thick black stones of the crypt. Vaulted ceilings were held aloft by twisted columns, crowned by the tormented visages of gargoyles; leering at any who dared to enter. Ebony candles cast from human fat and as thick as gallows’ poles spat and sputtered, offering an anti-light of creeping shadows. A solitary Death’s Head Hawk moth fluttered through the stagnant air, leaving a trail of tiny dust motes in its wake. And then in mid-flight; it stopped, hanging, suspended in the air...

    ‘Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatooooof!’

    ‘I say!’ shouted Major Flintstaff-Membrayne as he suddenly appeared where the moth had just been. In one hand was a leather travelling case and in the other a stocky man with side-burns you could hide a badger in.

    ‘Pie and chips please, Luv,’ said Sergeant Cramp staggering sideways before collapsing. He shook his head, straightened his bowler hat and struggled to rise. He wasn’t very good on a steam locomotive, let alone travelling through the ether.

    Major Flintstaff-Membrayne spun to his left and right, gave the sergeant an encouraging tap with his toe, and stepped back until his shoulders touched the frigid wall. Flags of long-dead nations hung limply along the walls above moth-eaten tapestries. Husks of armour stood at attention beneath each pillar, dented and rust-reddened. The slowly decaying remnants of a thousand years of slaughter drifted to the floor. Sergeant Cramp looked around, gulped, and scrabbled after his colleague. A million tiny feet scuttled towards them in agitation. The floor moved. Seethed.

    ‘That coffin,’ said Flintstaff pointing to the southern end of the crypt where a blackened altar held an ivory inlaid coffin, ‘can only be one man’s, Sergeant. Count Strigoi. One of the most feared Shadows of the Void. And those rats...  all of those rats coming toward us, would be...’

    ‘Rattus rattus?’ answered Cramp, unconsciously trying to climb the sheer wall.

    ‘Close, Cramp, close. This ‘mischief’ of rats is in fact the deadly Rattus Vampiricus.’

    ‘You mentioned the word ‘deadly’, sir. Will we be needing the case?’ asked Cramp.

    ‘Most certainly.’

    With a small hiss of compressed air the major opened his case. The horde of rats scuttled closer, razor-teeth bared.

    ‘Ah, here we are,’ said the major extracting an enormous V-shaped contraption. He smiled as he depressed a brass lever. ‘Never leave home without one: The Cat-o-Vault 3,000 (Patent:7648264)!’

    ‘Weeeeeeeeoooooooooow!’ Flew an outraged feline.

    ‘And again, sir!’

    ‘Meeeeooooooooooooow!’ screeched a particularly irate tortoise-shell tomcat.

    ‘Your eleven o’clock, sir.’

    ‘Weeeeeeeeoooooooooow!’

    ‘Nothing tougher than a street cat from the London Wharf, Cramp,’ shouted Flintstaff over the terrible noise of shredding flesh.

    ‘Twelve stitches on my left arm to prove that, sir,’ Cramp shouted back.

    The sounds of terrified rats being flensed by London’s meanest street cats were music to their ears. Major Flintstaff was about to deposit the Cat-o-Vault in the case when Sergeant Cramp barrelled into him. A dislodged gargoyle came crashing to the floor, narrowly missing the two gentlemen. A figure swept into the air upon translucent, blue-veined wings. Its body was the colour of ash with a scrunched, bat-like face of terrible cruelty. Screeching its displeasure, it hurtled towards them.

    ‘Mind out, Cramp,’ warned Major Flintstaff as he rolled to one side firing cats as he went.

    The Shadow swept down upon the semi-supine sergeant wrestling him back to the ground. Cramp grappled with the winged beast, using all his skill as a champion wrestler in the Grenadier Guards to stay alive. However, the Shadow had a thousand years of playing dirty and Cramp looked as if he were getting the worst of it. Flintstaff returned the ‘Cat-o-Vault’ to the case and rummaged within for something of use.

    ‘Could use some help, Major!’ Cramp yelled.

    ‘On its way, Sergeant... a towel? No. Box of frogs? No. Ah, a billiards cue! That should do. Hold him, man. I just have to whittle a point on this here stick.’

    ‘Not the cue you thrashed the Earl of Derby with, sir? Surely?’ said Cramp – needle-sharp fangs bare inches from his neck.

    ‘Needs must, Sergeant. Needs must,’ said Major Flintstaff whistling a ditty as he whittled.

    ‘Awfully kind, sir,’ mumbled Cramp as he bit into a leathery wing.

    Satisfied with his handiwork, Flintstaff thrust the makeshift stake with an expert accuracy that had won him a hundred sovereigns off the Earl. The vampire, impaled, squealed once, ignited, and vaporized all in an instant. An epoch of evil disposed of – leaving as little ash as a Cuban cigar. Cramp got to his feet and dusted himself off.

    ‘’Fraid to say that wasn’t Count Strigoi, Major.’

    ‘No,’ agreed Flintstaff as he wrote comments in his journal ‘A bit too easy, wasn’t it?’

    ‘Well, I don’t know about that...’ said Cramp puffing his chest out like an angry robin.

    ‘I wonder where he is, Sergeant... I don’t like it. Best we get back to the house. I don’t want it happening again. Leave the cats. The London Docks are teaming with them.’

    ‘Yes, but they’re much easier to catch once they’ve eaten, sir... less vicious,’ answered Cramp, instinctively rubbing the stitches on his left arm.

    ‘Exactly my point,’ said the major as he pulled a finger-length piece of crystal from the spine of the journal and wrote out five glowing glyphs at his feet. ‘Now, come on. Hold onto my hand. Off we go,’ he said.

    Cramp held the major’s hand and smiled at a moggy sat nearby. It was chewing a mouthful of rats’ tails and its ginger hair was matted with the blood of a hundred rodents and one careless sergeant. The cat gazed back with feral eyes as the two men and their luggage vanished into the ether. It purred, choked on a rat’s tail, threw-up on the floor – and continued purring.

You can read the first chapters for free here. Enjoy!

Duncan Howard

                                                                                      CHAPTERONE

 

Friday 30th January 2015.

The pale blue demon was three headed. It was a terror to behold and almost indestructible. Almost. Using his special ability he warped time to slow down the high speed attacks from the demon’s two-handed sword. Praying his shield would hold long enough, he ran towards his foe. Just as he reached within striking distance he skidded beneath his enemy’s swinging blade and sliced his assassin’s dagger through the demon’s ankle. The demon roared in agony and collapsed onto one knee. With no time to think he whirled around and plunged the dagger into its heart. The demon wailed as it turned to dust. All that remained was a pale blue stone... he’d be needing that.

    ‘Charlie! What are you doing up there?’

    ‘Damn it,’ said Charlie as he quickly saved the game. He shut his PC down and grabbed his school bag. ‘Just finishing off some homework, Dad.  I’ll be right down.’

    Charlie checked the clock, hoping he’d only have to sit at the breakfast table for as short a time as possible. His father would be reading the Financial Times as always, trying to find another “sure thing” to lose all his money on while his mum would be rushing around humming to herself. Charlie would skip breakfast altogether if he could but he was expected to have a proper meal before school to help him concentrate, apparently.

    ‘Do hurry up, Charlie,’ said his mum as she stuck the dishwasher on. ‘And remember to wrap up out there. Jack Frost was out and about last night.’

    ‘Jack Frost. Honestly, Sarah,’ grumbled his dad. ‘You talk to the boy as if he were a child.’ He turned another page awkwardly, sighing and grunting behind the pink pages.

    Charlie looked down at the congealed bacon and eggs and shook his head. He pushed the plate to one side and spread honey across two pieces of toast. Was it worth mentioning again? For the fiftieth time?

    ‘Mum, I’m vegetarian. I don’t want to eat bacon. Have you seen what they do to pigs? Look on YouTube.’

    ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said his dad. ‘You should be grateful for what you get. When you’re old enough to leave this house then you can make those sorts of decisions.’

    ‘One minute you say I’m not a child and the next you say I’m not old enough to make decisions for myself... I’m nearly sixteen for god’s sake...’ and as soon as he said it he knew he’d made a mistake.

    The pink paper opposite him was lowered to the table and his father’s bald head came into view. Charlie felt the colour coming to his cheeks.

    ‘Do not blaspheme, Charles,’ said his dad quietly. ‘There are countries in this world where you could be put to death for saying such a thing. Show some respect.’

    ‘Sorry, Dad,’ mumbled Charlie. But inside he was fuming. How was that a defence against blaspheming? All it showed was that there were a whole lot of idiotic people out there prepared to kill people for nothing. The news was full of it every day. If anything was proof against the existence of a god it was by looking at the sort of people who worshipped them. Charlie bit into his cold toast as the newspaper was raised again, crumbs exploding everywhere.  He didn’t care if he made a mess and then he felt guilty because it wasn’t his dad who was going to clear up the table but his mum. Charlie swept the crumbs into the palm of his hand and brushed them onto his plate. From behind him, his mother gently looped her arm around his neck and kissed the top of his head.

    ‘You’re a good boy, cleaning up after yourself,’ said his mum. She sniffed and then added, ‘hair-washing night tonight. Oh, and that reminds me. Remember to pack an overnight bag for the weekend.’

    ‘Please, Mum,’ begged Charlie. ‘Don’t make me go. I can look after myself, honestly.’

    ‘You’re not old enough, Charles,’ said his father. ‘Believe me, if I could find anyone else to look after you while we’re away I would. The last thing I want is for you to go and stay with that lunatic of a woman.’

    ‘I wish you wouldn’t speak about Aunt Maud like that. It’s very mean,’ said Charlie’s mum.

    ‘Nothing compared to what she’s said about me...’

    For the next five minutes Charlie ate his toast with the sound of two adults arguing in the background. He relived the last level of his computer game. He didn’t even want to imagine what it was going to be like away from his PC for the whole weekend. He glanced up at the clock in the kitchen and got up from the table.

    ‘Have a nice day at school, Charlie-Farley,’ said his mum hauling laundry from the washing machine.

    ‘Mum. How many times have I told you to stop using all these rhyming words with my name? It was okay when I was a kid, but if anyone finds out at school, I’m dead meat. What if I started calling you Mumsy-wumsy, or something daft like that?’

    ‘Don’t be silly,’ laughed his mother.

    ‘Girls are silly, boys are stupid,’ came his dad from behind the newspaper.

    ‘Thanks, Dad,’ moaned Charlie. ‘I’m outta here before I get any more motivation to ride my bike off the railway bridge.’

    ‘Don’t be facetious,’ warned his father.

    Charlie stepped out into a frigid winter’s morning. When he breathed through his scarf a great fog of condensation obscured his view. He could just see the orange glow of the sun rising behind the hills overlooking the river valley. Charlie walked over to the garden shed, the sound of hundreds of frozen blades of grass crunched beneath his shoes. For some reason he loved that sound. The shed door opened with a screech of protest. The whole thing leant slightly to the left after a storm at Christmas. His dad certainly wouldn’t bother to fix it. He always joked that he was a white collar worker not a blue collar worker. Charlie didn’t even know what that meant but his dad thought it was hilarious. He wished he had a father like his mate, Tom. His dad was amazing with electrics and mechanics and wood and welding.

    There were only two places Charlie felt comfortable; the shed and his bedroom. In his bedroom he could lose himself in other worlds playing computer games and in the shed he could mess about fixing broken stuff. He pulled his old bike out and checked the tyres. Amazingly, both were still hard to the touch, meaning that his last puncture repair had been a success. Just as he was pushing off down the drive his pocket beeped twice. Cycling with no hands, Charlie managed to pull off one of his gloves with his teeth, unzip his coat and extricate his ancient mobile. He checked the screen and groaned. A message read:

Picture message received. Unable to open file. Please contact your provider.

    It was then that the front wheel of his bike hit the frozen pothole and slipped from beneath him. Without a second to react Charlie slipped and cracked his head against the ground.

    Charlie was standing in the centre of a deserted plaza. The cloudless sky was a stunning blue. The sun beat down upon his head with such force that he could actually feel it burning his scalp. It was even hotter than his one holiday in Cyprus. Scrunching his eyes against the glare, he looked around the empty square. Minute dust-devils chased each other around. At one end of the plaza rose what looked to be a kind of temple. The building was whitewashed and shone brilliantly in the sun. It hurt his eyes to look at it. The temple rose up and up into the blue. It must have been ten storeys high, at least, with each level slightly smaller than the one before, giving it a pyramidal shape. On all the other sides of the plaza were huge rust-coloured boulders. Some were perfectly round and as big as a house, others rose in disordered stacks, and some had huge rocks balancing precariously one on top of the other. It looked as if you could prod them with a finger to topple a thousand tons. Charlie lowered his head from the glare and the heat. At his feet were six glowing blue symbols. He’d never seen anything like them. They looked as if...

    ‘Charlie? Charlie, are you okay?’

    ‘Huh?’ said Charlie opening his eyes.

    ‘You alright, son?’ said the voice again shaking him gently.

    Charlie wanted to speak but he could hardly breathe and his head pounded. He gasped some air into his lungs and held down the urge to be sick. What had happened? It was like a dream and he was already losing it. The more he tried to remember the more it slipped from his memory. As his eyes focussed he realised that his rescuer was the postman. He took a hand for support and slowly got to his feet. He was still bent double because if he tried to stand upright he thought he would fall over again. The postman picked up the bike and handed it to him.

    ‘Thanks,’ Charlie managed.

    ‘Wanna go back to the house? Get that bump on yer ‘ead looked at?’ the postman asked.

    ‘No, I’m okay,’ Charlie replied, gingerly prodding the bruise on his forehead.

    ‘If yer sure? Then I better get on with me round,’ said the postman getting back on his own bicycle. ‘Watch out for the black ice on the railway bridge. Bloody nearly had me off just now.’

    Charlie checked his bike, and then looked down onto the rutted drive. His phone was blinking. And the glass was cracked. As he picked it up and brushed off the dirt he could just see the time through the broken screen. He frowned. It must be broken because if it was the right time then he had been on the ground for over ten minutes. He put the phone away and jumped back on his bike. He pedalled past the gates of the church and up the lane past a herd of White Park cattle as they munched on stinky silage either side of the lane. Charlie arrived at the school gates just as the bell went. There was the usual anarchy of a hundred 4x4’s reversing, honking, parking, double parking and generally getting in the way, as he swerved past them. Out of all those off-road vehicles, only about four belonged to people who actually needed them.

    His mate, Tom, was one of them. He was every bit a farmer’s son and was his only neighbour and only friend. His dad had actually picked him up from school in a combine harvester once and it was Tom’s cattle that Charlie rode past every day on the way to school. Charlie slid the back wheel of his bike to a stop beside a battered, mud-spattered pick-up just as Tom was getting out.

    ‘Oi, watch it!’ said Tom hopping out of the way.

    ‘Morning, Mr. Cramp,’ said Charlie as he poked his head through the pick-up’s window.

    ‘Morning, Charlie,’ replied Tom’s dad. ‘What happened to your head?’

    ‘I hit some ice and fell off my bike.’

    ‘I’m not trying to be funny, Charlie, but you need some ice on that. You still coming over to help me fix the Wheelhorse after school? I could do with a hand.’

    ‘Sure thing, Mr. Cramp. See you this afternoon.’

    ‘So you fell off that girl’s bike then?’ taunted Tom as they watched his dad drive off.

    ‘It’s not a girl’s bike, you idiot,’ said Charlie going red. 

    ‘No, I suppose you’re right. Whichever girl owned that would be a grandmother by now!’ said Tom, dodging a friendly punch.

    ‘Very funny,’ said Charlie and sniffed around Tom. ‘Cor, wot be that smell? Smells like someone’s been sleeping with them goats again.’

    ‘Hang on,’ said Tom stopping abruptly. ‘Check that out.’

    One of the last cars to pull up in the now emptying school car par was a brand new Aston Martin. It was spotless and gleamed in the wintry sun. The windows were slightly tinted leaving anyone inside invisible. The passenger door opened. And two immaculate shoes touched the tarmac. As the door swung shut a girl stood upright and looked around. She waved once to the departing car and then turned and glanced over at Charlie and Tom. Charlie felt dizzy again as Tom stood gawping at the departing sports car. The girl walked directly towards them. As Charlie glanced in the girl’s direction again there were features that set her apart from anyone else at school. Her waist-length hair was jet black and shone with an almost ethereal light against her chocolate-coloured skin. And she had eyes like emeralds.

    ‘Excuse me,’ she said walking straight up to them. ‘Could you tell me where I might find the principal’s office?’

    ‘Urgh,’ said Tom.

    ‘There... office... teacher’s,’ mumbled Charlie pointing randomly.

    ‘Right,’ said the girl slowly. ‘Perhaps it would be better if you could show me. English obviously isn’t your first language.’

    Charlie leant his bicycle against the nearest wall and led the way – ignoring the crashing sound as his bike fell over – he pushed open the double doors and walked inside. The corridors seethed with children of all ages rushing this way and that. The teachers’ tea room and offices were near the entrance, so it didn’t take long to squeeze through to the door of the Head Teacher’s office.

    ‘Come on in,’ said Mrs. Graham as she organised great piles of files strewn across her desk.

    Charlie caught the scent from the new girl as she walked past him into the office; it made his stomach flip. Tom was already grabbing him to leave but Mrs. Graham waved them all inside. Charlie glanced around the room. It was too familiar. There was no worse place for him to be than in the Head Teacher’s office. He found everything about it alien and threatening. All six of his detentions had come from here. The fight he’d soundly lost in defence of his dad’s stupid job had ended here, with him taking most of the blame. Mrs. Graham was probably in her fifties and never seemed to wear anything other than gray which matched her stern features. Charlie felt the bump on his head throbbing beneath his woolly hat. Pulsating. Like the heat of the sun upon his head... Charlie froze as wisps of images flashed before his eyes.

    ‘So, let’s see now,’ said Mrs. Graham as she flicked through some files. ‘You are...?’

    ‘Aghanashini Nair,’ said the girl in her immaculate new uniform.

    ‘And you’ve come from our neighbouring private school, have you not?’ asked Mrs. Graham frowning slightly as she scanned a document.

    ‘That’s correct, Mrs. Graham. I was expelled.’

    ‘Well,’ replied Mrs. Graham crisply. ‘I believe in giving everyone a second chance, Miss Nair. I realize there is little time left of term three but I thought it better for you to join us now. At least you can familiarize yourself. You will have to knuckle down to get the grades you’ll need for Sixth Form College. I’m expecting good things from you, young lady.’

    ‘Afghan... Angan... Astini...?’ tried Tom.

    ‘A-ghan-a-shini,’ said Aghanashini very slowly and deliberately.

    ‘That’s quite a mouthful to remember,’ said Tom in his defence.

    Aghanashini looked down at the old army bag Tom used to carry his books in. It was covered in graffiti.

    ‘I would assume the band name: ‘Puke-Demo Destroy-Boy’ is also difficult to remember, yet you do? Don’t you?’ asked Aghanashini with one eyebrow arched. She sighed. ‘You can call me Shini.’

    ‘Well, my name is Tom. T-o-m. And this is Charlie. Charlie?’

    ‘Charlie? Are you alright?’ asked Mrs. Graham.

    ‘Gnnn,’ moaned Charlie with eyes wide and unfocussed.

    ‘Oi, Charlie!’ shouted Tom and slapped his friend on the back.

    ‘What? Where?’ said Charlie. ‘Oh. Yes, I’m fine. Just felt a bit dizzy. It must be coming in from the cold or something.’

    ‘You look well weird, mate,’ said Tom grinning.

    ‘Are you sure you’re alright?’ asked Mrs. Graham and when Charlie nodded she continued. ‘Well, you two boys look like you’ve already volunteered to look after Shini. She’s in the same class, so show her around and introduce her to people.’   

    Charlie led the way down the empty corridors towards their classroom. They were late but at least they had an excuse this time. Although Charlie and Tom had groaned at the prospect of baby-sitting a new-girl, Charlie was neither blind nor stupid. He wanted to know this mysterious, confident girl but she was way out of his league. And he wanted to know why every time he managed to sneak a look at her he felt sick. But sick in a good way.


 
 
                                                                                 CHAPTER TWO

 

Charlie sat through the class in a daze. His head throbbed with a heavy repetitive thud. He spent the whole lesson tenderly poking the bruise beneath his hair with his fingers. If he wasn’t prodding his egg-shaped wound then he was trying to stretch his eyeballs into looking ninety degrees to the way his face was pointing. Shini was sitting beside him at the next table. He could only just see her with his right eyeball. His left eyeball was firmly staring at the side of his own nose. There was a definite problem in facing the teacher, looking to his right and probing his wound all at the same time. As if this were not enough, he had the odd feeling of having been caught in a dream that was not even of his own making. When he’d fallen off his bike something had happened. It was like someone had picked him up and dumped him in the middle of a weird landscape. What it was, he couldn’t figure out. The place had been hot. Of that he was sure. But what else?

    And then he glanced over at Shini and completely forgot about what he had been thinking of. This new girl had stepped out of an Aston Martin and happily admitted in front of Mrs. Graham to being thrown out of her last school. How could she do that? There wasn’t a single girl here who had that kind of front. Sure, there were girls with a lot of attitude, and Charlie avoided them at all costs, but he always thought that was more of an act. And it wasn’t just confidence, it was something else. Charlie couldn’t even find a word in English to describe it. He wanted to say she had ‘balls’ – but it felt wrong. All he was sure about was that she was unique.  Her family must have originated from India or someplace similar. The way she looked only guaranteed one thing; Charlie and Tom’s time with her was limited. From the various glances and whispers of the boys around the class; the sharks were already beginning to circle. Charlie felt the usual trickle of dejection slip down his spine and end up in the pit of his stomach. He was broke and totally out of fashion, lived outside the village and was picked on because of his dad’s job. Charlie slipped his phone out of his pocket and checked it under the table. Now it was not only old but cracked. Charlie sighed and placed it back in his pocket wishing he had more money. Couldn’t his mum and dad understand what it was like for him? He didn’t want to resent them. It was an ugly feeling but they treated him like a kid. Charlie just couldn’t understand why everyone else in the school had smart phones while his was about as smart as a brick. Even Tom had the new Strawberry Krush – and he was a farmer.

    The class erupted in chatter and the sound of chairs scraping against the floor as everyone made for the door. Charlie shook his head. He had to stop all this day-dreaming. What class had he just sat through? Maths? Geography? He couldn’t even remember. Tom slapped him on the back.

    ‘So?’ asked Tom.

    ‘So what?’ replied Charlie.

    ‘So, are you going to show me round this place?’ said Shini standing next to him.

    ‘Alright,’ agreed Tom. ‘But try not to cramp our style, okay? We have ‘respect’ round this hood.’

    ‘Tom, you sound like Farmer Giles, the Monster G,’ said Charlie. He turned towards Shini. ‘Look, Shini. We understand if you want to hang out with other people here. It’s no problem, right?’

    ‘We’ll see,’ said Shini showing a perfect row of teeth. ‘Now, are we going to stay in the class all day, or are you going to show me outside?’

    Charlie led the way until they reached the door, where Tom pushed him sideways and strutted through. Charlie sighed and shrugged at Shini. He was just about to walk through the door when he was pushed sideways again. Charlie spun around.

    ‘Ladies first,’ said Shini as she dashed after Tom down the corridor.

    ‘Bloody hell!’ said Charlie. He ran after them, knocking some year sevens aside as he went. Once outside, the chill of winter struck them. They pulled on hats and shoved hands deep into pockets. They found an empty bench looking over the recreation ground where people were booting footballs to and fro.

    ‘So?’ asked Tom, annoyingly vague as ever.

    ‘What’s the set-up?’ asked Shini as she surveyed her surroundings.

    ‘Well,’ began Charlie. ‘That lot over there are the ones to watch. They think they’re hard-core gangsters. They hassle everyone and are cowards when it comes to a fight. They’ll never go one on one.’

    ‘Jack Marvin is the worst of the lot,’ said Tom. ‘We steer clear of them most of the time but we have to watch out for them in the village.’

‘The Emo’s are over there,’ said Charlie pointing towards a group, ‘and for some reason they seem to annoy everybody, although they never do anything to deserve it...’

    ‘So, what d’you get kicked out for?’ asked Tom.

    ‘Subtle, Tom. Really subtle.’

    ‘What? She was the one that mentioned it.’

    ‘You really want to know?’ asked Shini pulling her hair away from her face. The two boys nodded. Shini sighed and smiled. ‘I was kicked out for doing a Ouija board with three other girls…’

    ‘A who-gee board?’ said Tom frowning.

    ‘A Ouija board,’ explained Charlie. There’d been one in a computer game he’d played last year. ‘It’s a board with letters and numbers on it and you summon up spirits and ask them questions. Doesn’t it spell out the answers with a glass or something?’

    ‘It speaks through a glass?’

    ‘Well, before we all freeze to death,’ interrupted Shini, ‘let’s just say that I called up a spirit and the school were pretty pissed off with what happened next.’

    ‘Yeah, right,’ said Tom. ‘You really expect us to believe that? You might sucker your posh friends with that kind of story...’

    ‘Hang on, mate. Let her speak,’ said Charlie. ‘Why were you using one in the first place?’

    ‘Ah. The reason I used one was to teach some girls a lesson. They ganged up on me. They never said anything outwardly. It was notes and texts, Facebook and Twitter; every way they could think of to make my life miserable. They wrote mostly about my mother...’

    ‘What about your mother?’ asked Charlie.

    ‘That’s none of your business, alright?’ said Shini glaring at Charlie. ‘She went missing, okay. When I was a kid. I don’t want to talk about it.’ Shini took a deep breath before continuing. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. Back to the story... They made a mistake. One of the notes they left was written in biro and it was really mean. I could’ve gone to a teacher but I decided to deal with it myself. It took a while, but I convinced them that it’d be fun to make our own Ouija board. I told them it could answer anything they wanted to know. We waited up one night and then we went to an empty classroom. I rigged the whole thing. They asked stupid questions like lottery numbers and who fancied them etc. When it came to my turn I asked who of us would be the first to die. Then I moved the glass to spell out the name of the ringleader. Her name was Samantha. I can tell you we only got to the letter ‘m’ before she screamed and ran out the door. The other two girls were terrified. They looked at me for help and all I could say was that as the circle had been broken without sending the spirit back it was now trapped in the school. We were cursed.’

    ‘Bloody hell,’ whispered Tom. ‘You did that?’

    ‘What happened after that?’ asked Charlie.

    ‘Samantha became the school pariah. No one went near her. The other two stopped eating and eventually Samantha went to the school chaplain and asked him to exorcise her. She told him the whole story and I ended up at the Head’s study. I didn’t deny it, but I never told him why I did it either. So I got expelled.’

    ‘Why didn’t you tell the Head that they were teasing you?’

    ‘I wasn’t brought up that way. My mum always told me to stick up for myself and not rely on others…’

    A football suddenly whizzed through the air, narrowly missing Charlie. It bounced once on the frozen grass before hitting the steel security fence with a rattle. Charlie looked up and groaned. Sauntering towards them with an exaggerated limp, hands stuffed deep into his hoodie, was Jack Marvin. Tom stood up slowly. Charlie stayed where he was with his head down. Shini sat calmly and watched the approaching boy. Charlie glanced up as Jack swaggered towards him. His trousers were slung low in an attempt to look like the prisoners on American reality shows. Walking a few metres behind him were four other boys and two girls.

    ‘Oi, preacher-boy. Gis da ball,’ he said to Charlie.

    ‘Why should he?’ said Tom. He was the same height as Jack Marvin and he took a step to block him.

    ‘Coz I said so.’

    ‘And who made you the main playa?’ asked Tom.

    ‘Look, farmer. You want your dad’s barn to catch fire one night then you carry on mouthing me off.’

    ‘Just try it, Jack. My dad’ll blow your head off with his shotgun.’

    ‘Excuse me,’ said Shini quietly.

    ‘I’ll get the ball, Jack,’ said Charlie rising.

    ‘Excuse me,’ said Shini again.

    ‘Wot you want? Curry or sumfing?’ taunted Jack as he faced Shini. He glanced behind him to make sure his followers were laughing at his joke.

    ‘I thought you might like to know that I can see your underwear.’

    ‘Thas right, girl,’ replied Jack as he moved in close and loomed over Shini. ‘An behind these ‘Calvins’ is sumfing you can only dream of, innit? I like my bitches white or black but I ‘int never gonnna do no Taliban rag-head.’

    What happened next seemed to occur in slow motion. Tom and Charlie gaped as Shini moved with the speed of a striking cobra. With both hands she grabbed Jack’s trousers that were being lewdly thrust into her face as she sat on the bench. With one mighty jerk she pulled them and his underwear down to his knees and then shoved him backwards. Jack Marvin stumbled and toppled backwards onto the frozen grass. Unable to free his hands from his hoodie he writhed on the ground, exposed to the world. Whether it was due to the freezing January morning or not made no difference to those that witnessed the scene. Jack Marvin had the private parts of a gerbil.

    ‘And by the way, bitch,’ said Shini calmly standing over him. ‘Those are not real Calvin Klein. They’re fake. Like you.’

    No one stopped them as Charlie followed Shini and Tom back to the classroom. The event sped through the school faster than a hurricane. Mobiles vibrated silently, others beeped. Nothing was secret at school. By lunchtime it had appeared on YouTube. Neither Charlie nor Tom knew what to say or do. Never in their time at school had anyone taken on Jack Marvin. The boy had used his size to push people around for as long as anyone could remember. Now it was his lack of size that no one would forget.

    After class Charlie and Tom spent lunch alone. Shini had some forms to fill in with Mrs. Graham in her office. Tom couldn’t get over what had happened. He went over it again and again. Charlie wasn’t so sure it would end there.

    ‘Jack worries me,’ he said. ‘He’s a coward, which means he’ll wait till he gets his revenge. And who’ll he take his revenge out on? Me? You? Shini? All of us?’

    ‘Look, don’t worry about it so much. How many days have we suffered because of that dick-head? Let’s enjoy the one day where we’re the winners, alright?’

    ‘Okay,’ agreed Charlie and then spluttered as he waggled his little finger. ‘D’you see the size of it?’

    With the final bell the normal chaos resumed as three hundred kids tried to get out of school as fast as they could. The three friends walked down the corridor and out into the cold. Tom’s dad sat waiting in his battered pick-up. Three cars down crouched the black Aston Martin; Shini’s dad talking on his mobile. Clouds of condensation encircled the car as the engine purred.

    ‘By the way,’ said Shini, ‘Why did that idiot call you preacher-boy?’

    ‘Oh,’ grunted Charlie. ‘My dad’s a vicar.’

    ‘Ouch,’ said Shini. ‘I bet that hurts.’

    ‘You don’t know how much,’ said Charlie. ‘See you tomorrow then.’

    ‘Uh-huh.’

    Charlie picked up his bicycle and cursed. The front wheel had been bent in. It looked like someone had jumped up and down on it and it was pretty obvious who. The spokes were mangled, as was the brake. He picked it up and dragged it over to Mr. Cramp’s pick-up and hefted it into the back amongst loops of bailer twine and animal feed. Just as Tom was getting into the front seat he hopped out again and called across to Shini.

    ‘Hey, Shini, you told us how you got kicked out of your posh school – but what happened to Samantha?’

    Shini turned. Both the boys were looking at her, waiting for an answer. She looked at them both with her eyes wide and even in the dull winter day they seemed to sparkle.

    ‘She’s dead.’