They made muted noises of agreement. Even Mae seemed cowed at this point, though it was Jamie who gave Alan his number. Alan looked a bit crestfallen but accepted it, and at least after that they were finally rid of the interlopers.
Nick left to get the last boxes while Jamie was still writing down his number, and by the time he emerged from the house they were gone. Nick went around the car so he and Mum would not have to come within a yard of each other.
He looked at Alan, who was standing gazing into the open boot of their car, at something in one of the boxes. When he noticed Nick looking, he smiled a small, strained smile.
“I think that’s it,” Alan said. “Come on. Looking forward to London?”
They swung into the car. Nick let Alan have first shift. He was the better driver, but he was only sixteen and it would be a year before it was actually legal for him to drive. It was better to get out of Exeter, where some people knew that, before Nick had his turn.
“Well,” Nick said as Alan gave him a stern look over the top of his glasses and Nick rolled his eyes and buckled his seat belt. “Let’s examine the events of the past twenty-four hours in Exeter. Ravens in the kitchen, snakes in the living room, demon marks on you, magicians sending us stupid messages, and at the end of it all you got the boy’s telephone number.”
Alan tilted his head as he considered this and then laughed. Nick leaned his forehead against the car window, and the engine purred soothingly to him.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Alan suggested.
After an hour on the M5, Alan’s leg started to ache, and they switched places. There was never much conversation while driving because of Mum, so Nick looked straight ahead and Alan stared out at the rolling green ground, going for miles on both sides of the road. Nick glanced over at him a few times, wondering if that message was bothering him or if the demon mark was hurting him.
“You all right?” he said eventually.
Alan took a moment to answer. When he turned, Nick saw that half his wavy hair was sticking up from being pressed against the damp window.
“Yeah,” he said. Nick’s amusement was cut short when Alan went on, “I was thinking about Mae and Jamie. It’s just — they both seem so great, and we know what’s going to happen to them. It’s terrible, that’s all. I hate it.”
Nick frowned out at the road. “Why do you care? You barely know them.”
“I know them well enough to feel sorry for them,” Alan said. “Anyone would. I mean, don’t you feel bad for them? A little?”
He looked at Nick with a testing, expectant air. Nick didn’t know what to say.
He felt angry with them. If it hadn’t been for them, Alan would not be marked. Nick did not think that expressing this would go over well, though.
“I don’t feel anything for them.”
That answer made Alan look so unhappy that Nick almost wished he had told him about the anger. Alan said nothing, though; he only turned back to the window, biting his lip.
Nick glanced in the rearview mirror to check on the distance between them and the car behind, and caught his mother’s reflected eyes. In the mirror they looked even colder than usual, as if she was staring at him from under ice. Her lips were drawn tight over her teeth, giving her beautiful face the appearance of a skull that still had eyes to stare. She looked at him as if she hated him, but she always did that.
Nick bared his teeth at her in a silent snarl and turned away from the mirror.
Alan read out the directions Merris Cromwell had given him as Nick tried to work around the London lunch hour traffic. Nick didn’t like Merris much, but since Alan had helped her at the Goblin Market last October, they’d never had to crash in shelters or hostels while they looked for a place to stay. Nick wasn’t sure if she had contacts everywhere or if problems simply slunk away in the face of her formidable efficiency.
If the Market had been a magicians’ Circle, blasphemous though the idea might be, Merris would have been the Circle’s leader.
She was connected even though nobody knew where she came from, rich even though nobody knew where she got her money. Nick thought she might be the only person in the Market hiding as many secrets as they were.
Nick looked at a map and took a detour by Westminster so Alan could get a preview of the doubtful delights he would soon enjoy. They passed the square-spiked silhouette of Westminster Abbey, and stone saints peered down at them while Alan began to tell himself interesting historical facts, because Nick didn’t care. The spire of Big Ben and the curve of the Circle went by in a smooth line, and as Nick turned the car into less traffic-choked channels, Alan gave a happy sigh and started talking about dinosaur exhibits in the Natural History Museum.
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Nick. “The demons can have you.”
He was glad that Alan seemed so pleased. Nick had not really remembered London, and looking around it now, with old and new buildings jostling each other at every turn and no street empty, he was feeling a distinct sense of foreboding.
Demons liked cities. Cities meant victims, and London was teeming with bodies for the taking. Nick thought he might have made the wrong decision choosing this place, but it was too late now.
Camden town opened up into a broad gray road, with a small cinema on one side, some restaurants and a gray building that said AMERICAN METHODIST CHURCH in large metal letters outside. A fine drizzle started as they drove up one of the narrow side streets and stopped in front of their new home.
The drab brown front of the house made it look as if it had been built from rusty spare parts. Someone always put lace curtains in the windows of dreary houses, and Nick was unsurprised to see the curtains making their attempts in every window of this place. There was a china garden gnome on the doorstep, wearing a desperate, crazy smile.
“It’s not so bad,” Alan said.
“You never take me nice places anymore, baby,” said Nick, and was mildly gratified by Alan’s ring of laughter, like a living bell that had been caught by surprise when it was struck.
When he got out, he opened Mum’s door without thinking, and she shuddered away from Cred
“Olivia,” he coaxed. “We’re here. We’re home.”
“For now,” Nick muttered, going over to the boot and getting out the first box of Alan’s books.
He hefted it in his arms and put the box down only to retrieve the keys. Someone had carelessly put a dark closet where the hall should have been, but the staircase was broad and, more importantly, had a sturdy-looking wooden banister for Alan to lean on. When he got up the stairs he saw there were three bedrooms, which was always good news. Nick allocated the bedroom farthest away from the other two to Mum, and when he went into the other rooms, he saw there was a bookcase built into the wall of one. That room clearly had to be Alan’s. Nick put the box down and palmed the knife from his boot to cut the packing tape. He began to shove books on the shelves. It might be a few minutes before Alan got Mum calmed down.
Nick was putting down the last book in the first row when it fell.
There was a white flutter from the yellowed pages of an old book, and then, on the tired-looking carpet, lay a picture of a girl.
The girl looked older than Nick, in her late teens or perhaps twenties, with curly blond hair and a bright smile. She was wearing a loose, flowing shirt, in the kind of retro style Alan’s girls often affected, and she looked as if someone had just told her a joke.
It occurred to Nick that this picture was what Alan had been thinking of when he was standing gazing into their car boot. As soon as he was alone he’d gone straight to it, as if being near to it — even if he couldn’t see it — was his only possible source of comfort.
He hadn’t come to Nick.
Alan was sentimental enough to keep pictures. The couple of girls who’d actually been his girlfriends had been awarded a place of pride in his wallet. He had a school picture of Nick and the picture of Mum and Dad on their wedding day framed by his bedside.
It was keeping a secret from Nick that was different. He’d kept only one secret from Nick before: the letters he used to rise early for and collect from the postbox. Nick rose even earlier to cut them up, and eventually they had stopped coming.
Nick wondered if this was a picture of the letter girl. He picked it up and looked her over more closely, but he couldn’t see anything special about her. The letters had been more than a year ago. Why should Alan still keep her picture? He flipped it over and looked at the back. TONY’S PHOTOS was printed there in gray, but over that in a black sprawl was the name “Marie.”
Nick heard Alan’s limping step up the stairs in plenty of time to put the photograph back where he had found it, and when his brother came into the room, he saw Alan look at the shelf in alarm.
There was no innocent explanation, then.
Alan had not forgotten that the picture was in the book. He had not bought a book with a picture already inside it. He had deliberately hidden this girl, this Marie, away from him.
Nick remembered the girl’s smiling face and scowled, staring at the floor. He felt intensely uncomfortable. It seemed wrong that this girl should matter to Alan, when Nick didn’t even know who she was. What was so important about her, that he had to hide her from his own brother?
Nick planned to find out.
That night Nick slept on the kitchen floor in their new home. The cork tiles were curling up at the edges like pieces of old bread, rough against his stomach when his T-shirt rode up, and he hadn’t brought down a pillow because he didn’t want to be comfortable. He dozed uneasily, feeling like a guard dog unable to rest because he had to be on the alert for dangers outside.
But it wasn’t anything outside that he was waiting for.
He was in one of the dark places between sleep and simply having your eyes shut when he heard the sound of the front door clicking softly open. His body moved before he thought: He crossed the hall in two swift strides, fast and soft as a predator. He always found it easier to hunt than think.
When he launched himself at Alan, he did think: He remembered to strike on Alan’s left side. They went tumbling into the grass of the front yard, and Nick landed crouched beside his brother. He’d been careful not to hurt Alan’s leg, not to even touch it, and now he felt so angry he wished he’d done it after all.
“You’re not leaving,” he snarled.
Alan lay flat on his back, looking up at the sky. The full moon caught his glasses and made the edges flash brief silver. “If they can track me,” he began, “it’s not safe—”
Nick laughed harshly. “When have we ever been safe?”
How safe would Alan be, he wanted to demand, by himself and with a demon’s mark? Maybe he would be all right; Alan could take care of himself, but Nick wasn’t about to take that chance. Nick wasn’t about to let him go.
Nick was breathing fast and his vision was blurred a little, turning the edges of the night hazy and pale. He felt as if he’d been exercising too hard. He was just angry at the thought that Alan could leave, so easily, for any reason at all.
Alan sighed and sat up, drawing his good leg up to his chest and linking an arm around it. Nick knew this look from the days when Mum had her screaming fits, or when a teacher wanted to talk about Nick’s reading. Alan looked tired and unhappy, and the expression fit on his face too comfortably, as if he was used to feeling that way and didn’t let it affect him too much. He was too busy being concerned about what other people might feel.
“Nick,” he said gently, “it isn’t that I want to go. It wouldn’t be for very long. Just until the next Goblin Market, just so that you and Olivia would be safe.”
Mum was the one the magicians were after, the one they’d always been after. Mum was the one who’d caused all this, and in spite of everything, Mum was the one Alan was worried sick about.