Alan pushed him gently; he still apparently hadn’t absorbed the fact that Nick was twice as broad across the shoulders as he was, and that Alan would really have to try to hurt him. “Well, I caught you young too. Anyway, I think a raven might’ve been easier—”
There was a noise outside.
Nick placed his hand over Alan’s mouth, cutting off all that fond reminiscing nonsense, and slid off the kitchen counter. He pushed Alan aside, put a finger to his lips, and bent to scoop up his sword in one swift motion.
Then he walked quietly to the back door. Alan could not follow him. Alan was not very good at stealth, because of his leg, but Nick glanced behind him before he nudged the door open with his sword point. Alan had drawn his gun.
The door swung all the way open, and there was a sharp movement in the darkness. Nick lunged.
“Don’t hurt her!” yelped a boy’s voice, and Nick caught himself just as Alan flipped a switch and light flooded the little garden.
Nick stopped with his sword poised against a girl’s throat.
She and her friend had obviously been hiding under the kitchen window. Chances were good they’d seen everything.
To her credit, the girl did not draw back from the blade. She did not even flinch. She just looked at Nick, her dark eyes large and calm in the sudden light, and Nick realized how all this must seem to her: the window frame with only jagged edges of glass left in it, the ravens winging through the air around them, the dead body on the floor. The boy with the sword to her throat.
All she did was swallow very gently against the blade and say, “I heard this was the place to come if you had a problem that was…out of the ordinary.”
She looked familiar.
“Obviously that wasn’t true,” said the boy standing at her shoulder, taking a nervous step away and then back to her. “Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics. Um — we’re sorry to have bothered you! Is there any chance we could just leave?”
There was something a whole lot more familiar about his voice, which was light but wavered at crucial points where it was meant to be lightest and airiest. He was standing in the girl’s shadow, but the light caught his earring.
Nick recognized that before he recognized the boy’s worried face, the spiky blond hair that the darkness had turned into a pale crown.
“Wait,” Nick said.
“O-okay. Is there any chance we could get off with a flesh wound?”
Nick shifted his stance so he could look back at Alan, and saw the girl brace herself and the boy grasp her shoulder, fingers going white. Alan was standing in the doorway with his gun drawn.
“I know this guy,” Nick said. “He’s harmless.”
“Sure?” Alan asked, squinting behind his glasses.
“Sure,” Nick said. “James Crawford. Trust me, if he was a magician, he’d be able to defend himself at school. He’s harmless. He’s useless.”
“He’s not—” the girl began furiously.
“Let’s not argue with the crazy person holding the enormous sword!” James Crawford said. “And — did you say school?” He stepped away from the girl to look at Nick properly. “Oh my God, Nick Ryves.”
Nick still hadn’t lowered his sword. He was a little bit intrigued by the fact that the girl hadn’t moved away either. She was still looking up at him, still determinedly calm.
He knew her now. She was the weird girl in the class above him, who dyed her hair pink and always wore a lot of pentagrams and crystals. Right now she was also wearing giant chandelier earrings and a violently pink T-shirt that bore the words ROMEO AND JULIET WOULDN’T HAVE LASTED.
He avoided people like her. He avoided anyone who tried to be noticed. That had been one of Dad’s first lessons: Try to act just like everyone else. If you failed to blend in, the magicians would find you.
“You know him?” she asked James.
“Well, yes,” said James. “He hangs around with a pretty rough crowd at school, Seb McFarlane and that lot, but they’re smoking-behind-the-bike-shed rough. This is different, there were gunshots. My life was going to flash before my eyes, but it decided to hide behind my eyes and quake with terror instead. I think we should just go.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the girl said. “I saw that bird turn into a man! You saw it too, Jamie. You must have.”
“I don’t know what I saw. It could’ve been a hallucination. You get those from sniffing glue.”
“You’ve never sniffed glue!”
“I’ve smelled glue,” Jamie said after a pause. “In art class.”
Nick was about to tell them exactly what he thought of their babbling and exactly what he would do to them if they didn’t go away at once and never breathe a word of what they’d seen, when Alan moved from the doorway into the light.
“Mae?” he said, his voice incredulous, and then quickly, “Nick, put that sword down!”
Mae said, “Bookshop Guy?”
Nick looked at her, tilting his head and recalling Alan’s wistful speeches on the subject of the pink-haired girl who liked the Beat generation. He put two and two together and came up with the fact that this entire situation was ridiculous.
This was Alan’s latest crush, then.
Nick drew the sword slowly away from the girl’s throat and lowered it until the tip almost but not quite touched the ground, holding himself ready just in case. He let his gaze follow the blade, toward the ground and away from Mae.
“Whatever you want,” he said softly.
Jamie was staring at Alan. “You helped me find Catcher in the Rye today and now you shoot people?”
“He only shot one person,” Nick remarked. “But the night is young.”
Alan glanced at him reproachfully, then turned back to Jamie and smiled his slow smile. He’d tucked the gun away under his buttoned-up shirt, along with his talisman, and all trace of the boy who fired to kill and never missed was gone.
The smile spread just a little bit at a time, coaxing and sweet, persuading Jamie to smile with him. Jamie was wearing a shy, crooked grin before Alan was done.
“Forgive him, he has no manners.”
“I get by on good looks,” Nick said.
“I know all of this is pretty strange,” Alan continued, “but you came here for a reason, didn’t you?”
“We came here because — something really strange has been happening to Jamie,” said Mae, her voice hard. “I was expecting someone who could give us real occult help, though, not a guy who works in my bookshop and a school thug younger than I am. I wasn’t expecting birds that turned into men and weapons and weird necklaces. I don’t know what the hell is going on!”
“If you’re so disappointed,” Nick said, “get lost. We’re busy.”
The evening was getting colder and colder, as was Nick’s dinner, and he had to board up the window and call the garage to tell them he was quitting. He did not care what these people wanted, or what was going on with them, or why anyone would use the word occult when they didn’t have to.
He just wanted them to go away.
“No, no,” Alan said at once. “I know all this must look strange, but we can help you. We want to help you.”
Nick felt himself bound to correct this misapprehension. “I don’t. And we’ve talked about this, Alan. Don’t you think we have enough going on without opening up a charity shop for people who think they need occult”—he let his lip curl—“help?”
“Dad would have wanted us to help people,” Alan told him, and then addressed the others. “Look, please come in. I can explain everything.”
It was a testament to Alan’s powers of persuasion that they did not laugh in his face. It was a testament to Alan’s powers of looking nonthreatening that he could manage it with the door open on their destroyed kitchen, with a corpse on the floor. He rumpled his red hair and adjusted his glasses in an anxious sort of way, and he took a couple of steps back to the kitchen. He let them see the limp: He used that, the same way he used everything.
Mae and Jamie visibly relaxed.
Nick gave up, shaking his head and following his brother inside. Mae squared her shoulders resolutely and crossed the threshold into their home. Nick was standing in the doorway and stepped back about an inch, so she had to brush by him. She looked irritated and uncomfortable doing it, and he smirked at her. He saw her hesitate, as if she was about to turn and run, but Alan stood before her looking honest and inviting.
She stopped, reached up, and tapped the talisman lying against Nick’s chest.
“What’s this?” she asked, her voice a little softer.
“It’s a talisman,” Alan answered gently. “It warns him when magic is being used nearby, and it protects him from smaller spells.”
“Protects him,” Mae repeated. “So you’re talking about black magic, then? The kind that hurts people — that causes trouble.”
Nick laughed, looking at the broken glass and black feathers around them.
“There isn’t any other kind.”
“I have a feeling this is going to be one hell of an explanation,” Mae said, and walked into the kitchen and toward Alan.
Jamie still looked wide-eyed and extremely doubtful about what he was doing, but he dashed in after her.
Nick closed the door and found himself wondering what had brought this pair to their house. You had to be desperate to come to them.
OF COURSE NICK WAS EXPECTED TO GET RID OF THE BODY.
He always did it, since Alan couldn’t be expected to haul corpses about the place with his leg, but he seldom found it this irritating. He could’ve had his dinner first, if Alan hadn’t been worried about what the guests would think.
He twisted the steering wheel more viciously than he should have, since making sharp turns in the narrow roads around Exeter was not exactly advisable.
His foul mood might have something to do with the fact that these two freaks were from his school. People from his school had seen the way he lived, with the sword and the gun and with ravens and demons. It didn’t seem to bother Alan, but it should have. There were a lot of things about their life that should have bothered Alan.
He drove along the river Exe for a while, the low-lying city lost behind the car, the faint shapes of buildings in the distance looking like no more than the shadows of a larger city he could not see. He waited until there had been nobody else on the road for ten minutes, then pulled the car over to the side of the road and climbed out.
Nick bundled the body out of the boot. The man had been tall, he noticed idly, and he wondered if he should check his sigil to see what Circle he belonged to.
He decided not to. Anyone could come by while he was doing it, and besides, it didn’t matter which Circle had found them this time. All the Circles were after them. It would be a different one next time.
The presence of sigils on the bodies was good for only one thing. It meant that the Circle would check for the tattoos and take back their own, and the police would not come to Alan and Nick’s asking questions about discovered bodies and shots fired.
All the same, it was usually a good idea to remove the corpse from their actual property.
Nick looked into the man’s slack face. It was also a good idea to get the body into running water as soon as possible. Otherwise the Circle might give their fallen comrade to the demons. A demon could use a dead body for a few days.
The body was easy enough to haul up onto the parapet, and Nick balanced it there for a moment, looking down at the river. The waters were black and quiet before he dropped the man into them, hoisting the flopping legs over the side as he went. The body hit the water with a splash, sinking almost entirely under, dragged down by the weight of a heavy leather coat and innumerable charms and talismans. Nick watched a pale hand bob at the surface, buffeted by the current so it looked alive.