© James Phillips
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The woman hurtled downhill from the castle, through the park. Her blonde curls flew; her long skirt billowed like a parachute. She was headed their way.
Pete nudged his sister Mercy. ‘Check it out, Merce, it’s Ms B.’
But something was wrong. Last year – before their entire world blew up – Ms Burgoyne had brightened every school day with her laughter. There were no laughs now, as she thundered down the grassy slope. Her eyes enormous, she shot glances behind her, stumbled, almost fell.
Mercy raced towards her. ‘Are you all right, Ms Burgoyne?’
Pete followed. ‘Whoa, Ms B, steady!’
Ms B was one of those people who always seemed thrilled to see you. Not now. She barely stopped running. ‘I don’t know you,’ she said.
Pete tried to ignore her jagged energy. It spun out of her in all directions, made his insides crawl.
‘But it’s us,’ his sister said, ‘Mercy and Pete.’
‘Please stop bothering me.’
‘Come on, Ms B, you know us,’ Pete said. ‘The Tanglewood twins.’ That ought to jog her memory. Everyone reacted to the twin-thing, since they looked nothing like twins. Mercy had brown skin; Pete was white. But Ms B didn’t blink at the word ‘twins’, and that was how
Pete knew she was lying. That and the way the lie landed, like a dead weight on his heart.
‘I’ve told you I don’t know you.’ She pushed past them.
Mercy started after her. ‘We were in Red Class with you last year.’
Ms B fled.
Splashes erupted from the boating lake and, somewhere, a kid cried for ice-cream like he’d never be happy again.
‘Ms B forgot us?’ Pete said.
It made no sense. One Saturday last year – when she was meant to be off work, doing whatever teachers do at the weekend – she’d swung by his house with books for him on drawing techniques. ‘He’s got a real gift,’ she told Mum and Dad. Another time, she stayed with Pete after school, helping him get his head around algebra. Pete thought his brain would explode, but she said, ‘You can master this, have faith in yourself.’ And she was right: after a load of effort, he got it. And at the end of Year Six, when the idea of secondary school freaked him out, Ms B listened to his fears and helped him feel better.
Could a teacher who showed that kind of interest in you just forget you?
‘She recognised us,’ Mercy said, ‘it was obvious. But her eyes…’
‘They were popping out of her head.’
‘And she kept checking over her shoulder.’
‘Like she was on the run from the zombie apocalypse, or something.’ He shivered. ‘Her energy was all… jangly.’
Mercy gave him side-eye. ‘You have to stop saying “energy” like that. Energy actually means something in physics, you know? It’s not some woo-woo thing.’ She looked back towards the castle, fiddled with the ring on her index finger. She always wore that ring; it was shaped like the DNA double-helix. ‘Terrified,’ she said. ‘That’s what it was: she was terrified.’
‘Terrified of what, though?’
The twins stared off at the spot where Ms B had vanished into the park.
‘Well, I want to find out,’ Mercy said. ‘Come on.’ She marched uphill towards the castle.
Pete followed. ‘I knew something was gonna happen today. I felt a buzz in the air.’
‘Last day of term, dumbnut: everyone felt a buzz.’
‘Come on, Merce, you know I’m a little bit psychic.’
‘You are not psychic.’ Mercy didn’t break her stride. ‘There’s no such thing.’
Pete grinned. It was so easy to wind her up about that stuff.
‘Burgoyne was a total inspiration to me,’ Mercy said. ‘I hope she’s okay.’
The castle loomed dark against the sun. This heatwave was all wrong for April – like an omen.
At the top of the hill, a pink-haired busker strummed her guitar. She sang as though she was being strangled. It was a scary sound, but not enough to set Ms B on the run.
A bunch of tourists huddled by the castle entrance. The tour guide was saying, ‘It’s a Norman castle, built on the foundations of a Roman temple…’
Pete had lived in Whitcroft his whole life; he could give this talk himself. And it wasn’t just dry old facts to Pete; he reckoned he could feel the ghosts of the Romans and the Normans, all around them. He tuned out the tour guide and strolled on.
At the side of the castle, two blokes held a small group mesmerised as they talked. The blokes looked alike, wore matching clothes. They had the same heavy-fringed hairstyle, like that old band, The Beatles.
‘Check out the Creepy Twins over there,’ Pete said.
Slung round each man’s neck – gold glinting in the sun – was a weird symbol: all curves and arrows. The men stabbed the air with their hands as they spoke. Pete struggled to make out everything they said, but a few words wafted over: ‘light’, ‘dark’, ‘power is within you’ and what sounded like ‘raven’.
‘I’ve seen those blokes before,’ he said. ‘Outside the library, shoving leaflets at people...’
‘I’ve seen them too.’ Mercy shrugged. ‘There’s always weirdos in town.’ She crossed her arms. ‘This is no good. If we’re going to find out what scared Burgoyne, we need a proper methodology.’ Mercy used words like ‘methodology’ all the time.
‘Maybe if we scope things out some more…’ But Pete wasn’t sure where to look.
The Castle Park was in its party clothes: bright banners hung from trees and lamp posts, each banner dotted with flowers and bunnies. It was Easter Sunday that weekend, time for the Whitcroft Spring Festival. Dad said it used to be called the Easter Festival, but they changed the name to make it more inclusive. Some of the town had a problem with that – which was beyond stupid, as people had been celebrating spring since ancient times.
A flurry of memories rose up: Mum, Dad, Mercy and him – all together – standing by the castle at sunrise to watch the Spring Parade.
Kids in the parade holding flowers and Easter baskets; Pete on Dad’s shoulders, Dad’s strong hands holding onto him. The memories tore at his heart, made his throat hurt.
‘You reckon we’ll hit the festival at all this year?’ he said.
‘Well, if we do, it won’t be with Mum and Dad.’ Mercy acted so matter-of-fact, like none of it touched her. He wished she’d admit how much she missed Dad. As long as she hid it away, he had to carry the sadness for both of them.
They left the castle by the tree-lined path and crossed the sunken rose garden to the bandstand and playground. The park heaved with people, pulled in by the heat. Workers were building the main stage for the Festival; hammers clinked and clanked on steel. On the far field, already set up, was the funfair. The twins arrived at the park’s iron gates, where they’d chained their bikes to the railings.
‘So… I suppose we just go home, then?’
Mercy hesitated, hand on her saddle. She looked at the castle.
While he waited for her decision, Pete gazed at Castle Curios, the gift shop across the street. Mercy tended to be the decider. Mum’s joke was Mercy had been leader since day one: she was even born two hours ahead of him. Sometimes Pete wondered if he should take charge more, but Mercy was so good at it.
A small choir by the park gate sang Easter hymns, trying to spark up interest in their church: *‘There is a green hill far away…’*
‘Hold on a sec,’ Pete said, ‘I want to get something for Mum.’
*‘…Where the dear Lord was crucified…’*
He crossed the street to the gift shop.
A minute later, he was back, gift clutched in his sweaty hand. ‘It’s a crystal. Smoky quartz. They’ve got all kinds. This one cures depression.’
Mercy snorted. ‘A dumb piece of rock won’t do it.’
‘It might.’ Pete blinked. ‘You don’t know.’
‘Actually, I do know.’
But Pete wasn’t about to give up hope; hope was like magic. If he only hoped hard enough, anything might happen. He slipped the crystal in his pocket.
‘Let’s get some chips.’ Mercy headed for the chip shop next to Castle Curios. ‘Talk things over, come up with a plan.’
‘Yeah, to find out what’s up with Burgoyne.’
Yes, he did want to do that. The truth was, when he’d first spotted Ms B in the park, his heart had done backflips. He’d wanted to run to her, tell her everything that had happened at home; have her listen to him, make him feel better. And if she was in trouble, well… Ms B had always had his back; now he wanted to have hers.
The castle’s crumbling turrets kept watch above the green of the park.
He wondered if Ms B was still running.
Mercy barely noticed her surroundings – the battered cod in the glass display, the sizzle and smell of the deep fryer. She fixed her mind on Burgoyne, pictured her former teacher’s face – white skin, flushed red – as she galloped down the hill. The only other time she’d seen Burgoyne run like that was the afternoon Burgoyne joined Mercy’s rounders team.
*‘Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.’* That’s what the scientist Marie Curie once said, and she was a total genius. She was also Polish – like Mercy’s birth-dad – which was a cool connection.
If Mercy allowed herself, she could feel plenty of fear right now. She could feel afraid for Burgoyne, who seemed to be in trouble. She could feel afraid for herself, since her whole world had crumbled lately.
But she was determined not to feel afraid. She would be like Madame Curie and aim to understand instead. She would use her mind like a microscope, scrutinise the Burgoyne incident till the truth burst out at her.
‘Let’s think about the type of person she is,’ Mercy said. ‘That might give us a clue to what scared her.’
‘She’s beyond kind.’ Pete considered. ‘And clever.’
‘She’s a strong woman,’ Mercy said.
One afternoon, Burgoyne had asked Red Class what jobs they wanted to do when they grew up. ‘Well, I’d like to be a scientist and discover something super important,’ Mercy had said, ‘except all the famous scientists are men.’
The next day, Burgoyne gave Mercy a gift – Women of Science: A Book of Quotations. ‘Open it to where I put the bookmark,’ she said.
Mercy read the words of a biochemist, Gertrude Elion: ‘“Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day, I was told women don’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t.”’
‘That woman won the Nobel prize,’ Burgoyne said. ‘You can be anything you want to be, Mercy.’
Mercy had walked with a straight back, ever since. Burgoyne had that effect. It was hard to imagine her running from anyone.
A Jamaican accent yanked Mercy back to the world of deep-fried potato and fish: ‘What can I get you?’ The woman’s skin was a different shade of brown to Mercy’s, with rich, red tones; her hair was in braids, tied back in a hairnet. She looked like a queen. She took their order and glided into the kitchen. In Whitcroft, other black people were a rare and precious sight. This chip shop used to be run by a white Irish family.
Mercy pulled herself back to the mission. ‘Okay, what are the facts? Burgoyne looked frightened, but we don’t know for sure she was. She could have just been… in a rush to get somewhere. And I suppose it’s possible she didn’t recognise us…’ Even to herself she sounded unconvinced. ‘I mean, we’ve probably changed a lot since Year Six…’
‘I don’t think so,’ a girl behind the counter said. ‘Sounds like you ran into a real-life mystery there.’ She was around twelve, like them, with an English accent. She had bright eyes and the same warm brown skin as the woman who’d served them. Her relaxed hair was tied back. Relaxers were interesting – the way the chemicals worked. Kind of harsh on your hair, though.
‘Kayla, how many times have I told you not to eavesdrop on customers’ chat,’ said the woman. She shovelled chips into cardboard cartons. ‘No one wants you gate-crashing their conversations, girl.’ They looked so alike, they had to be mother and daughter. Mercy’s birth-mum had been African, not Caribbean, but still: what would it be like to have a mum who looked like her?
The girl ignored her mum and thrust out a hand for Mercy to shake. ‘Kayla Dixon,’ she said, ‘at your service. I’ve read a lot of mystery stories, so I know what I’m about. This is the real deal.’
Mercy laughed. ‘Okay.’
Kayla shook Pete’s hand, as Kayla’s mum handed them their fish and chips.
‘Mercy and Pete Tanglewood,’ Pete said. ‘What’s up.’
Mercy turned to Pete and lowered her voice. ‘Anyway, we should find Burgoyne and ask her. Until we do, it’s all just a hypothesis.’ She sized him up. ‘Hypothesis means our best guess until we have evidence.’
‘I know what it means,’ Pete said.
If he did know, she reckoned he’d learned it from her. ‘Yeah, well, first we should go online,’ Mercy said, ‘see if we can track her down.
Except we only know her last name, so there’s that to deal with.’
They pulled out their phones and Pete groaned. ‘Mine’s dead.’
‘I’m on ten-per-cent… Oh wait,’ Mercy said, through a mouthful of salty chips. It was like that eureka moment scientists talked about: they’d puzzle over a problem for ages and the answer would finally click into place. ‘Remember Claire Ross from primary school? She lived near Burgoyne. Used to go on about it all the time, like it was some kind of achievement.’
‘Yes!’ Pete jumped up and down. ‘We can track down Claire, ask her.’
Kayla interrupted again: ‘You don’t need to, Claire Ross goes to my school. Matter of fact, she’s got a thing going with my brother. I walked in on them being all kissy-kissy, the other day.’ She pulled a face like she was going to vomit.
‘Kayla!’ her mum said. ‘No one wants to hear about that.’
‘I’ll call Claire.’ Kayla put her phone on speaker and set it on the counter.
‘Kayla?’ came Claire’s voice, and it was strange to hear it after all this time. ‘What do you want? I’m with your brother.’
‘Spare me,’ Kayla said. ‘Listen, I’ve got people you know here: Mercy and Pete Tangle?
‘Wood,’ Pete said, ‘Tanglewood.’
‘Oh, the twins?’ Claire said.
‘Twins?’ Kayla glanced from Pete to Mercy with a raised eyebrow.
‘We were born on the same day,’ Mercy said. ‘It’s a long story.’ It wasn’t especially, but Mercy didn’t want to get into it, not with a stranger.
‘Yeah, I remember them,’ Claire was saying. ‘Hey, do you two still live in that pink house on Church Road?’ She clearly kept tabs on where everyone lived.
‘Oh, I know that house.’ Kayla gasped. ‘You live there?’
Mercy cringed. They lived in a fifteenth-century house, with a huge back garden. People assumed they were posh when they saw it, but they really weren’t. Mum always told them they were lucky to live there, because she’d grown up in a council flat with nothing. Mercy switched the focus back: ‘Claire, you live near Ms Burgoyne, right? Where’s her place?’
‘Haven’t seen her around for a while, but yeah, she’s on Foxley Close. First house on the street, at the Grange Avenue end. Yellow door. You can’t miss it.’
‘I wish I could come,’ Kayla said. ‘I always wanted to be in a real-life mystery.’
‘You’re not going anywhere, Kayla,’ her mum said. ‘I need you for the evening rush.’
‘How am I ever going to make friends here,’ Kayla muttered, ‘if I’m stuck in this stupid chip shop all the time?’
Pete gave Kayla a sympathetic look. ‘Cheers for the help.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Kayla.’ Mercy wondered if she and Kayla could become friends.
There was no time for that now. Back to the mission: Burgoyne was in trouble and they had to help her.
She led Pete outside to their bikes.
‘Quite a coincidence Kayla knew Claire,’ Mercy said as she pushed Burgoyne’s doorbell. ‘I could almost believe we were meant to meet her…’ She made spooky ghost noises. ‘If I was a delusional dumbnut like you, that is.’
Pete rolled his eyes.
The front door had a window, but the glass was dappled and the view of the hallway distorted, a mess of blurred colours and shapes. The blurs moved: a figure approached.
‘She’s coming,’ Mercy whispered.
‘Is this beyond weird?’ Pete said.
‘Yeah, just turning up at her house like this. She might think we’re hassling her.’
Pete rubbed the scar on his chin, the result of a fall from his scooter, aged four. Mercy still remembered the blood on his face when he’d got up from the pavement. ‘Ms B’ll be cool,’ he said. ‘I’m sure she’ll be cool.’
Cooking smells drifted from inside the house. Somewhere close by, a hedge-trimmer buzzed.
The door swung open, but the woman who stood there was not Burgoyne. She was a white woman like Burgoyne, but other than that, she was everything Burgoyne wasn’t: tall and skinny, with sharp edges and scraped-back hair. Her eyes were dots of disapproval. Did Pete notice she aimed her disapproval mainly at Mercy? Did he ever notice the way people treated them differently?
‘We’re looking for our old teacher, Ms Burgoyne,’ Mercy told the woman. ‘She was going to lend us a book.’
The woman looked them up and down and sniffed. ‘Your teacher doesn’t live here anymore.’ She wiped beads of sweat from her forehead. ‘My word, this heat is oppressive.’
‘Did she maybe give you her new address,’ Pete said, ‘so you could forward her post?’
‘She did. But I’m not about to give it to any child who wanders by.’ The woman narrowed her eyes at Mercy. ‘Now, run along, I have a shepherd’s pie in the oven.’ She shut the door.
Mercy’s jaw clenched.
Pete went to ring the bell again.
‘Don’t bother,’ Mercy said. ‘We’re not getting anything out of her. Let’s try the neighbours. Maybe Burgoyne was friends with them.’
Next door, an old white man who looked exactly like Charles Darwin answered. He was drying his hands on a tea towel. ‘Ah, Sally Burgoyne,’ he said. ‘What a delightful neighbour she was. Unlike some I could mention.’ He tipped his head towards the house next door.
Pete and Mercy exchanged grins.
‘Two seconds.’ The man turned and shuffled down the hall.
‘Sally?’ Pete whispered.
Sally. That one word made the world look different. It was like they’d been living in some grainy old video tape – like from when Mum and Dad were kids – and the picture just switched over to digital high-definition. ‘Sally’ wasn’t only their old teacher; ‘Sally’ was a whole other person with a whole other life. She used to be a kid like them. She had friends and a family and secrets. They didn’t know her at all.
Charles Darwin returned with Burgoyne’s address scrawled on a yellow Post-it. ‘Do give her my regards,’ he said. ‘She’s a lovely person. I do hope she’s well.’
Mercy hoped so too.
Burgoyne had moved to the edge of town. Behind her new street was a scrap of heathland, and beyond that, the motorway to London. There was a background hum of traffic. TVs blared from open windows.
‘Why would she move from there to here?’ Mercy said.
‘Dave Campbell had to move when his dad got fired.’
‘You think she got fired?’
Mercy looked around them. Paintwork peeled; front gardens exploded with weeds and rubbish; bins overflowed and stank in the heat. Next to Burgoyne’s place, a worn-out sofa lay on its side in front of a row of garages.
‘Ann-Marie moved when her parents got divorced.’ Mercy froze as she said it: would that happen to Pete and her?
They dropped their bikes on the front lawn.
‘Upstairs and downstairs are separate flats,’ Pete said. Stairs ran up one side of Ms Burgoyne’s property to someone else’s home; Burgoyne had the ground floor.
‘I think they call that a maisonette,’ Mercy said.
‘I feel like someone’s watching us,’ Pete said.
‘You and your feelings.’ Mercy marched up the path and rang the bell.
Burgoyne must have been right behind the door. It opened at once – but only a crack. Half her face appeared; a single blue eye stared at them. ‘Round the back,’ she whispered. The eye moved to the right. ‘Quick.’ The door clicked shut.
She waited for them at the back door, a turquoise scarf around her neck, her eyes wild. ‘Pete and Mercy.’ She hugged them both.
‘You didn’t forget us,’ Pete said. ‘I knew it.’
‘How could I forget my favourite twins? But I had to pretend. If they saw you with me…’ She shook her head, as if the thought was too much to bear. ‘And I had to get away… But look, it’s not safe for you here. They keep coming back.’
‘They?’ Mercy said. The word hung in the air with question marks all around it.
‘Can’t we help you out, Ms B?’ Pete said.
‘No, no. I don’t want you involved. Raven is dangerous.’
‘Raven?’ Someone else had mentioned ravens that day, Mercy was sure.
‘Oh!’ Burgoyne’s hands flew to her face. ‘But your family might already be…’
‘Might be what?’ Mercy had a queasy feeling in her stomach. ‘What?’
Burgoyne stepped back. ‘Stay away from the festival – especially the parade on Sunday. They’re planning something awful. Tell your family. Tell your friends.’
The growl of an engine broke the silence out front. Burgoyne’s eyes flashed panic. ‘That could be them! Just go. Please.’ She leapt back inside her home and slammed the door.
Unsure what else to do, they sloped back around the side of the building.
‘What was she gonna say about our family?’ Pete said.
‘I think she was going to say we might already be in danger…’
A black van pulled up in front of Burgoyne’s place; two shadows lurked inside.
Mercy tugged Pete’s arm. They vaulted over the low side-fence and crouched behind the row of garages on the other side. It was a graveyard for flattened drink cans back there. Weeds sprung out of cracks in the concrete. Mercy landed in an awkward position, but she didn’t dare move.
The van’s engine died. Doors clunked open and footsteps snapped on the pavement. Whoever these visitors were, they did not speak.
Mercy trained her eyes on Burgoyne’s front step. The only sounds were the sparrows, the televisions and the distant roar of traffic. It was possible the van wasn’t there for Burgoyne. Those shadowy figures could be someone else’s visitors.
A man muttered: ‘Come on, Orin, let’s get on with it.’
‘Patience, Seth. I’m coming.’
Their footsteps drew closer.
Mercy shifted her position and a can crunched under her foot. She stopped breathing.
The van’s occupants stepped into view. Faces white as bone, black outfits, black hair and the same strange symbol around their necks: it was the men they’d spotted earlier by the castle. The Creepy Twins, as Pete had called them. Their styles matched, but up close, their features were different: one face round and doughy, like a baby, the other face long and wrinkled, with sad eyes, like a bloodhound.
Bloodhound rang the bell. Hands on hips, he stood and faced the door.
Babyface turned the other way. ‘Whose bikes are these?’ he said.
They’d left their bikes in full view on the front lawn. Mercy squeezed her eyes shut.
‘Upstairs neighbours?’ suggested Bloodhound.
She dared re-open her eyes.
Bloodhound tried the bell again.
‘Come on, Orin,’ baby-faced Seth said, ‘let’s go around the back.’ They headed off around the side of the house, passed close enough for
Mercy to reach out and touch.
A knock-knock on glass, then silence again.
The back door squeaked open.
Pete gripped her shoulder. ‘What do those blokes want with her? Should we get the police?’
‘And tell them what? A couple of men with funny haircuts knocked on someone’s door? Okay, how about this: we ring her bell again. If she answers, maybe it means she’s okay – or it gives her a chance to escape. Or maybe our ringing will scare off the men.’
Pete hesitated. ‘And if the blokes answer?’
Mercy got to her feet. ‘We’ll think of something.’
They climbed out from behind the garages, slid past the abandoned sofa, found themselves back on the pavement.
‘What’s the deal?’ Pete whispered. ‘Our family… the festival… what was she on about?’
‘That, my dear Pete, is what we need to find out.’
‘“My dear Pete?”’
‘You know, like in Sherlock Holmes? He says “My dear Watson” all the time.’
‘So, hang on, you’re Sherlock Holmes… and what? You’re saying I’m the sidekick?’
She laughed. ‘Exactly.’
As they crept towards Burgoyne’s gate, Orin raced from the side of the property. He scowled, narrowed his eyes at them and dashed to the van. Seconds later, the van roared off, spewing clouds of exhaust fumes.
Mercy grabbed her bike. ‘I’m going to follow him. You stick to the plan.’
But she sped off down the street before he had a chance to protest further. At the end of the road she worried she’d already lost the van, but there it was at the next junction, stopped at a light. That gave her an edge. She checked the van’s indicator, mounted the pavement, got a head start on the left turn.
An engine revved behind her; the black van overtook.
Mercy leaned over the handlebars and gave it everything she had.
No one answered the doorbell. The house was watchful.
Pete dropped to his knees, crawled under the front window. Millimetre by millimetre, he raised his head. There was no sign of anything alive beyond the glass. A sofa, arm chairs, bookshelves, lamps: pieces of lonely furniture, waiting for something to happen.
He slipped around the side of the house to another window. Net curtains kept the room’s secrets, but shampoo bottles stood in a row on the windowsill. He leaped back, as if repelled by invisible forces. If the neighbours saw him peeping in bathroom windows, he’d be major embarrassed.
At the rear of Ms B’s place, the door hung open. There was no sound. He knew what he should do – poke his head around the door, peer in – but fear glued him to the ground. Maybe he should get the police after all, or Mum – or any grownup. But that would waste time, and then it might be too late.
What would Mercy do?
‘Ms B?’ he called. ‘It’s Pete Tanglewood.’ No answer. ‘Just swung by to borrow that book you mentioned.’
Power trickled back into his limbs. At least, if Seth caught him, he had an excuse to be there. And it wasn’t far to run back to the street, dash for a neighbour’s house. He took one step. Another step. He was in front of the open door.
The kitchen beyond was empty.
He couldn’t just roll in, uninvited, could he?
He imagined Mercy giving him a grave look. ‘This is an emergency,’ she would say.
He drew up his courage and stepped over the threshold.
All the heat of the day was trapped in the kitchen. It was hard to breathe. There was a sickly-sweet smell of tomato soup; a saucepan lay in the sink, sides smeared with orange-red. *Orange for warning; red for stop.* Beyond the kitchen, a sun-dazzled hallway beckoned him on.
Every home had an atmosphere. This one was gentle, like its owner, but there was also something off, like a singing group with one voice out of tune.
‘Ms B?’ he called.
Only one of the hallway doors was open, the room he’d seen through the window. It seemed like the safest place to start. Framed photographs lined the living room walls. In one picture, two girls smiled in old-fashioned clothes; in another picture, Ms B sat with a woman who looked like her. Both pictures, he felt, showed Ms B with a sister.
Books stuffed the shelves – novels, biographies, history books, teaching manuals – piled to cram in as many as possible. All those teaching manuals: she obviously worked at being a good teacher, unlike some of them. He spotted stacks of books about astrology, meditation, reincarnation, magic, with great chunks of purple crystal perched on top. Mercy would freak. The books begged to be read, but Pete resisted.
On one shelf, stood the thank-you card he’d made for Ms B at the end of Year Six. He couldn’t believe she still had it. He’d drawn a sketch of Mercy and him on the front, and the two of them had written a message inside. Good times.
Back in the hall, by the front door, sat a half-filled bin-bag. Its mouth gaped. Someone had chucked books inside. Ms B would never treat books like that. His intuition tingled. He reached in, snatched the first book from the top. The cover was a deep blue and the title was something about ‘Light Bringers’. That phrase jiggled a connection in his mind. He stuffed the book in his school bag.
There was a narrow door opposite the living room. He pulled the handle and the door creaked open. All that lurked behind it was a cupboard with some boxes, a vacuum cleaner, some old paint pots.
On to the next closed door, which had to be the bathroom. Maybe Ms B was in there, and that’s why she hadn’t answered; that would beyond embarrass him. He knocked.
The silence suffocated as much as the heat.
He grabbed the handle, heart in throat.
The bathroom felt sad. Mould scarred the ceiling; a whiff of mildew whacked his nostrils. Why had she moved here?
A plastic shower curtain with cartoon frogs shielded the bath. Anyone could be hiding behind that curtain. Every drop of energy in Pete’s soul wanted him to flee, but he watched his hand reach for the curtain’s edge anyway. He held his breath, tore the curtain back. Plastic curtain-rings rattled along the rail.
The bath lay empty; he exhaled.
The last door waited for him: it could only be the bedroom. He knocked. Maybe she was snoozing in there. But that was stupid: was Seth snoozing too?
The door handle was cool in his hand. Get ready to run. He flung the door open.
‘Oh –!’ he said.
The rest of Ms B’s home was calm; her bedroom looked like an end-of-the-world tornado had ripped through. Cupboards and drawers spilled clothes and papers all over the bed and floor.
‘What the–?’ Pete looked around, as if the answer would be written in the carnage. Had they searched through her stuff? The dark space under the bed whispered terrible things: Seth could be hiding under there. He could be ready to reach out and grab Pete’s ankle.
A hand dropped on Pete’s shoulder and he shrieked.
Giggles behind him.
He spun around. ‘Give me a heart attack, why don’t you?’
‘Sorry,’ Mercy said. ‘I lost the van, I came back.’
‘Ms B’s not here. Did Seth kidnap her?’
‘How could he? They’d have gone right past us.’
‘She’s disappeared.’ Pete threw his arms up. ‘Vanished.’
Mercy stared out of the window. ‘Unless he took her that way…’
Pete followed her gaze, across the back garden, to the scrappy wildland beyond.
At the foot of the garden, Mercy pointed to the flower beds. ‘Look how the leaves have been trampled.’
Pete wouldn’t have spotted that. Mercy noticed everything. She probably even knew what those plants were called.
‘And here,’ she said: ‘a bit of a footprint.’
Pete was about to point out a streak of soil on the garden fence, but Mercy got there first.
‘Look at the fence,’ she said. ‘And look – this footprint here’s bigger than the other one.’ She turned to him, triumphant. ‘A man’s footprint. And the other must be Burgoyne’s. They went this way.’ She hauled herself over the fence.
Pete joined her in the tall grass on the other side and they scanned the area. The landscape was more a friend to Seth than to them: its gnarly trees and shrubs offered plenty of hiding places. ‘Where do we start?’
‘Turquoise!’ Mercy pointed downhill.
‘What are you on about?’
‘Her scarf was turquoise. Look.’
Cars flew along the motorway in the distance. ‘What am I supposed to be looking at?’
Mercy headed off down the slope towards the flash of turquoise in the grass by the edge of the road. Pete hurried after her. It turned out to be a silky scarf, just as Mercy had guessed.
‘It’s hers,’ she said.
The ground trembled as cars sped by them.
‘So, he dragged her – or chased her – down here,’ Pete said. ‘And then? They’d be splattered all over, if they tried to cross this road.’
‘My dear Pete, you’re not thinking. What about Orin and the van?’
‘Right. He could have been headed here.’
‘Exactly. He could have pulled onto the side of the road to pick them up.’
Pete imagined Ms B tied up in the back of the van as her captors spirited her away. Cars and lorries raced toward the horizon. So many cars, so many people, so many destinations.
‘She could be anywhere,’ he said.
The world seemed vast, and impossible to handle.
‘My shoelace.’ Pete stooped to tie it, but Mercy didn’t wait. She hurried straight up the steps, into the police station. Pete finished his task, followed her in. The police station smelled of disinfectant. Its walls held a scratchy energy from all the trouble they’d seen over the years.
Mercy waited at the reception desk. Behind the desk, a policeman made a big point of ignoring her. ‘Excuse me,’ Mercy said.
The man stared at his computer as though she wasn’t there.
Pete joined her at the desk. All around him, posters warned against car thieves, mobile thieves, various other thieves. Pete cleared his throat.
The officer shot him a sideways glance. ‘Yes?’
Mercy dived in. ‘We’re here to report a missing person, and a possible incident at the Spring Festival. And our family might be in danger, too.’
The policeman looked up. ‘Word of warning,’ he said: ‘we don’t look too kindly on kids wasting police time.’
A door opened behind him and another policeman entered. The first officer got to his feet. ‘Missing person, Sarge,’ he said, with a nod towards Pete and Mercy, ‘or so they claim.’ He pushed the door and was gone.
The sergeant’s name badge said Clark. He had no chin; his face merged into his neck. He sat with his arms folded and a glazed expression, while Pete and Mercy told their story.
‘So, let me check I’m following this.’ He acted like it was a huge effort to pay them any attention at all. ‘The woman tells you more than once to leave her alone, and instead, you hang about and spy on her.’
It did sound bad.
‘Then she has visitors and goes off with one of them.’
‘Against her will,’ blurted Pete.
‘Well now, son,’ Sergeant Clark said, with a patient smile, ‘you don’t know that, do you? Could be he’s a good friend of hers – or a boyfriend.’
‘Then why not leave through the front door?’ Mercy said.
Sergeant Clark chuckled. ‘Maybe she wants to avoid a couple of nuisance kids – who knows?’
‘And why’d she leave her back door hanging open?’ Pete said.
‘Ah yes, that reminds me,’ the sergeant said. ‘You also took it upon yourself to wander into private property uninvited – in fact, she expressly asked you to leave. That’s called trespassing, son.’
‘But she said something about the festival,’ Mercy said. ‘And our family!’
‘Look, kids, I’m sure you mean well.’ He winked. ‘I’m just saying, we could call this mystery of yours The Case of the Overactive Imaginations.’
This was unbelievable. All Pete’s life, parents and teachers had told him to find a police officer if he was in trouble; would this bloke really not believe them?
‘Your teacher’s a grown woman. She can leave her house whenever she likes, with whomever she likes. Now, why don’t the two of you run along and play, or something. Leave the detective work to the grownups.’
They were almost at the doors when he called after them. ‘Kids, wait.’
The twins turned. Pete knew the policeman wouldn’t let them down.
Sergeant Clark beckoned them back to his desk. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Have some stickers.’
On the stickers was a colourful cartoon policeman, with a speech-bubble: ‘The police are here to help!’
‘Typical,’ Mercy said when they stood on the pavement outside. She grabbed the stickers from Pete, dumped them in a bin. ‘Did you notice the first one wouldn’t even talk to me until you turned up?’
‘I suppose he couldn’t blank both of us.’
‘Hmm.’ Mercy didn’t sound like she thought that was the reason.
‘Anyway, who cares what they say. We know Ms B’s in trouble, and we know there’s something about our family, too. So, if the police won’t find her, it’s up to us, right?’
‘Exactly,’ Mercy said.
‘But how do we find her?’ He really hoped Mercy had a plan.
Mercy turned her DNA ring. ‘Orin and Seth are the key. Who are they and what do they want with her? If we work that out, we’ll be closer to finding her.’ She gave him a thoughtful look. ‘We need some kind of clue. Did you notice anything in her maisonette? Anything strange or…’
He rubbed the scar on his chin. ‘Well, her bedroom was a major mess – like the Creepy Twins searched it.’
‘Hmm… What would they have been looking for?’
‘Oh, there’s this too.’ He rummaged in his schoolbag and pulled out the book he’d taken. The cover design had an amateur look, like something someone had published themselves. It was covered in mystical symbols.
‘What is that?’ Mercy pulled a face.
‘I found it in her house. She has loads of books on mystical stuff – astrology, magic, all that – but this one was in a bin bag.’
‘Best place for it.’ Mercy frowned. ‘I can’t believe she’s into that stuff.’
‘I think it’s cool,’ Pete said.
‘You would.’ Mercy snatched the book, studied the cover. ‘You’re right about one thing.’
‘It’s a clue.’ She pointed at the cover design. There were various symbols, but the one at the centre was familiar.
‘The symbol from the Creepy Twins’ necklaces,’ he said.
‘And the name,’ she said.
‘The Power of the Light-Bringers. Yeah, there’s something about that phrase, “light-bringers”. I don’t know…’
‘The author’s name.’
‘Zachariah Raven,’ Pete read. His eyebrows shot up. ‘Raven.’
‘“Raven is dangerous”,’ Mercy said. ‘That was Burgoyne’s warning.’
‘Right. I thought she meant a bird.’
‘I didn’t know what she was on about.’
‘Me neither, but now we know.’
‘And the Creepy Twins – Orin and Seth – they said something about Raven at the castle.’
‘Right! That’s where I heard it before!’
‘So, Raven’s a bloke and he wrote this book.’
Mercy flipped the book over. ‘And look.’ She pointed at the back cover.
Pete read: ‘Published and Distributed by The Society of Light Bringers.’ His eyes widened. ‘There’s an address – it’s local. I knew this book was important. Told you I was psychic.’
‘Oh, please, hush yourself. You’re about as psychic as that policeman’s butt. Your brain just clocked the symbol without you realising, that’s all.’
‘Not everything in the world can be explained, Mercy.’
‘Actually, yes it can – eventually, anyway. That’s the whole point of science.’
She sounded like Mr Peake, the most patronising teacher in school.
‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘We have our next step. Let’s go.’
‘Looks like a haunted house,’ Pete said.
There was no such thing, of course, but Mercy had to admit it looked the way haunted houses looked in films. ‘It’s called Victorian Gothic, this style of architecture.’ She’d learned that from Mum, who liked to take them on walks and point things out. Or she used to, before everything changed.
The sun was sinking in a red and purple sky. ‘We should probably head home soon,’ Pete said. ‘Mum’ll worry.’
‘Will she? She’s so out of it, she probably won’t notice we’re gone.’
‘Okay, well, maybe we shouldn’t leave her on her own too long, anyway.’
Mercy pulled out her phone to check the time. Her own battery was dead now. ‘We’ll investigate superfast, then go home.’
The tall, grey mansion stood alone at the end of the street. Its nearest neighbours were empty warehouses. Orin and Seth’s black van sat at the curb and beyond it, an overgrown garden surrounded the house. Ivy crawled up the house’s walls, circled its ridges and gargoyles, and its pointy church windows. A sign in the front garden read:
The Society of Light-Bringers
Courses in Spiritual Development
They propped their bikes against the ivy-covered railings. The house was in darkness, except for a single lit window on the top floor.
‘Do you feel like she’s in there?’ Pete whispered.
‘You tell me – you’re the psychic.’