Charlie Riley tried to conceal a yawn as he filed into the main hall at Ascot School. The night before, he’d received a cryptic letter from Nathan, mentioning the “Sons of Walpurgis” graffiti that seemed to be popping up everywhere around town all of a sudden, and he felt like he’d stayed up all night trying work out what his friend had meant. ‘Be careful,’ he recalled, sitting down on the end of a row, ignoring the boys next to him. ‘Careful of what…?’ Charlie sighed, rubbing his eyes and struggling to feign interest as the school’s headmaster began speaking.
‘… delighted to welcome a special guest to talk to us today. As we look forward to the end of term and the festive season, we should always remember those that are less fortunate than ourselves,’ the teacher’s words faded into the eleven-year-old’s consciousness. ‘Please welcome Kevin, from the charity Just Like Magic.’
The tiredness faded from Charlie’s expression in an instant, as his eyes locked onto a man with greying, auburn hair, a pointed chin and a sneer across his lined face.
‘I, uh, sir,’ Charlie scrambled half-upright, catching the attention of a young teacher nearby. ‘I’ve got to go to the toilet,’ he hissed, urgently.
‘Can’t it wait?’
Charlie shook his head. ‘I think it might be diarrhoea, sir, my mum said she wasn’t sure if I should come to school but I said I was alright but now I’m bursting…’ He lied, fidgeting frantically and praying that the teacher would give way.
‘Ugh,’ the man winced. ‘Too much information, Riley. Go, if you must…
‘Thank you, sir,’ Charlie hurried to his feet, taking a couple of long strides around another row of older boys, and slipped out a wooden fire exit at the side of the room, before scampering the short distance to the nearest toilet and collapsing on the other side of the door. ‘Fucking hell…’ he breathed. ‘What’s going on? Why are they here?’ A stream of thoughts ran through his mind. ‘Do they know what you’ve seen? They must do…’
Charlie’s head dropped. ‘Oh, shit,’ he swore, burying his face between his knees. ‘What on earth am I going to do?’ He felt his eyes beginning to burn and forced his palms into their closed lids, forcing himself to maintain his composure. ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ He swore again, before letting out a long, solitary breath. ‘Connor. They’ll be after him, too.’ Charlie swallowed, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet. ‘I’ve got to get out,’ he concluded, flushing the toilet to buy himself a moment’s time as a plan began to form in his mind.
Counting down the minutes until the end of Assembly, he leaned over the still-whirling basin and jammed his fingers down his throat, gagging as his breakfast forced its way back past his wrist, splattering the cuffs of his blazer jacket and pebble-dashing the toilet bowl. ‘Ugh,’ he groaned, peering into a mirror above the bathroom sink and smiling, weakly, at his pale reflection.
Charlie checked his watch again, assuring himself that he had enough time to complete his plan, and grabbed the handle of the toilet door before heading across the schoolyard to the secretary’s office. ‘Er, hi,’ he knocked twice, starting to speak before the grey-haired woman could look up. ‘I’ve been sick,’ he began, choosing his words carefully, ‘and I’m meant to go home. I need to ring my mum.’ He took a couple of steps towards the office phone.
‘Oh,’ the woman flustered, ‘well, I suppose you ought to,’ she fussed. ‘Do you know the number?’
Charlie nodded, punching out his own mobile phone number and waiting for the sound of the ringtone. ‘Oh, hi mum,’ he faked as his own answerphone message echoed in his ears. ‘You were right, I was ill.’ He swallowed. ‘See you later. Bye.’ He put down the receiver. ‘Thank you.’ Charlie managed another weak smile, turning round and heading back into the school building, skirting the bike sheds and unfastening the lock around his own bicycle’s front wheels.
The eleven-year-old edged back to the side of the assembly hall, crouching down beside the fire door he’d sneaked out of a few minutes earlier and listening intently through the crack at its edge.
‘Now,’ he heard Kevin intone, ‘Just Like Magic would like to recognise the efforts of one boy, a pupil here at Ascot School…’
‘Not on my watch.’ Charlie took a deep breath. ‘Here goes nothing,’ he whispered, springing to his feet and reaching out to smash the glass cover of a fire alarm opposite the hall doors. In the split second of silence before the ear-splitting din of the bell echoed across the school, Charlie was already halfway to the bike sheds.
Charlie could not remember cycling the short route home more quickly than he did that morning, and he felt his forehead damp with sweat as he stumbled across the threshold of his family’s detached house. ‘Connor…’ He shuddered, kicking his shoes off and throwing his blazer onto the floor, before running up a flight of stairs to his own bedroom, and grabbing his mobile phone. ‘Please answer… please answer… shit!’ Charlie threw the phone down against his bedsheets as the dial tone gave way to an answering machine. ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ He collapsed downwards onto his mattress, feeling the prickle of heat against his shoulder blades, and began to snatch at the buttons of his school shirt.
The eleven-year-old sighed, remembering the last time he had hurriedly ridden home from school, and the awkward memories he had forced himself to confront. ‘I wish Nathan was still here,’ he winced, ‘but he’s not. It’s just you. No one else believes you any more, no one except Connor.’ He took a deep breath, steadying himself. ‘I guess you’ll just have to go to Oxford,’ his mind settled on what began to feel like an unavoidable conclusion.
Charlie pushed himself up, letting his shirt fall from his shoulders, and began to rummage in his wardrobe for a change of clothes. ‘Look normal,’ he whispered, picking out a pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt, before pulling a black-and-yellow rugby shirt from the back of his swivel chair. He changed quickly, glancing into his bedroom mirror before grabbing his open wallet from a bedside table, and heading back for the staircase. ‘Train,’ he muttered to himself. ‘It’s the only way.’
‘We will shortly be arriving at Oxford. Oxford is our next station stop,’ a disembodied voice echoed around the carriage of the inter-city train, and Charlie Riley lifted his forehead from the cold window pane to listen. ‘When leaving the train, please ensure you take all of your personal belongings with you, and take care to mind the gap between the train and the platform edge. Thank you for travelling with First Great Western.’
Charlie stood up, stretching his arms. ‘Excuse me…?’ He asked the person filling the seat beside him. ‘Could I…’
The man grunted, getting to his feet to let Charlie out, and muttering something about children and manners beneath his breath as the boy squeezed past.
Charlie looked back over shoulder, before shaking his head as he edged down the aisle in the centre of the carriage, bracing himself against the handrails in the vestibule as the train shuddered its way into the station. His left hand closed around the mobile phone in the pocket of his jeans, and he forced the train door open, stumbling as he missed his step onto the platform. ‘So that’s what “mind the gap” means…’ he murmured.
‘Hey, kid,’ Charlie tensed as he felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘You want to watch where you’re going. You alright?’
‘Yeah,’ Charlie didn’t look up. ‘I’m fine.’ He tightened his grip on his mobile phone, letting the unfamiliar man walk on past before lifting the device up, convincing himself to try his friend’s number another time before letting out another sigh of frustration as the familiar message played out. Charlie trudged up the metal steps that led to a steel-bottomed footbridge across the station platforms. ‘What now?’ He asked himself, looking out over the circuit of taxis on the other side of a blue iron railing.
Charlie turned, heading back down the staircase onto the opposite platform, passing through the ticket barriers with a wry smile as he remembered Connor’s awkward arrival at Ascot. He glanced around the food stands and vendors in the station concourse, shaking his head again before making his way towards the automatic doors that led into the city centre. ‘Where now?’ He echoed his own question, looking down at the smartphone screen that told him the cold facts that he’d made nine calls to Connor’s number that morning, and none of them had been answered. ‘Where are you, Connor?’ He sighed. ‘I know you take your phone to school with you. Can’t you even text back?’
The eleven-year-old shivered, wondering for a moment if he ought to have brought a coat, and made his mind up to head back to the marketplace where everything had begun a couple of months before.
It took him nearly half an hour to pick his way across the middle of Oxford, dodging students, shoppers, cars and more bicycles than the boy had realised could share a single road, before he came to the southern doors of the covered market. It was the opposite side of the arcade to the place where he had met Connor for the first time, but as he walked inside the building and joined the queue which led to a cookie stall, he quickly realised that the subtle differences wouldn’t be enough to stop the memories of the explosions from flooding back.
‘Just one, please,’ he swallowed, looking up at the girl behind the counter as his turn came. ‘Double chocolate.’
‘Certainly, love,’ the teenager replied, slipping the biscuit into a paper bag. ‘One pound, please.’
Charlie nodded, handing over a single coin.
‘Are you alright, dear?’
‘What?’ Charlie bit his lip, suddenly aware that he might not have controlled his emotions properly as his old memories sprung to mind. He grabbed the end of his sweatshirt, rubbing his eyes with the sleeve. ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ he tried to smile. ‘It’s just the last time I was here was when the bombs went off.’
‘Ohh…’ The girl’s face softened instantly, her hands halting on their way to the cash register. ‘You poor thing.’
Charlie winced. ‘I’m fine, honest,’ he protested, immediately wishing he hadn’t shared the story. ‘I’m alright.’
The teenager shook her head. ‘Have this on us,’ she insisted, pushing the coin back towards Charlie, who knew better than to make a scene.
‘Thanks, miss…’ The boy blushed.
‘Think nothing of it, young man,’ the girl smiled. ‘Have a lovely day.’
‘Thank you.’ Charlie repeated himself, feeling dizzy as he turned away from the counter, wandering back down an alleyway which led onto a wide road that a nearby sign announced was called High Street. ‘What am I doing…?’ His eyes fell upon an unoccupied bench along the road, and his legs, seemingly unbidden, took him towards its wooden slats. ‘I’ve no idea where Connor is...’
The boy slid his still-warm cookie out of its paper bag, lifting it to his mouth and guiltily taking a bite. ‘That’s good,’ he murmured through a mouthful of biscuit, watching a procession of buses follow one another along the High Street. ‘I guess I just keep calling…’ Charlie finished his cookie before picking up his mobile phone for what felt like the hundredth time that morning, and listening wearily to its dial tone. ‘Come on, Connor, please answer,’ he begged. ‘Where are you…?’
‘Hello?’ An unfamiliar voice answered.
Charlie almost dropped the phone. ‘Hello?’ He echoed. ‘Who is this? Is Connor there?’ The line fell quiet, but for a background thrum, and Charlie felt his heart begin to thump against his ribcage. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello,’ the voice answered again. ‘My name is Rebecca, and I’m a nurse at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford…’
The boy’s vision began to blur in front of him. ‘What…?’ He demanded. ‘Where’s Connor? What’s happened to Connor…?’
‘Your friend has been involved in a road accident…’
Charlie felt like he’d just been punched in the stomach. He opened his mouth to reply, only to find that no words would come, and the phone line fell silent again.
‘I’m sorry,’ the nurse’s voice echoed emptily inside Charlie’s mind.
‘Is he… can he… will he…’ Charlie coughed, stumbling over his attempt to answer, his voice rising with every syllable. ‘Is he going to be alright?’
‘Is he going to be alright?’ Charlie’s voice shrilled. ‘He’s got to be…’
‘He’s critical but stable,’ Rebecca replied, and Charlie slumped back down on the bench again, feeling as if he had taken a second punch. ‘I’m sorry, but could you tell us his name?’
‘Connor Norris,’ Charlie answered, quickly, before realising why he had been asked that particular question. ‘How come he couldn’t tell you himself? What’s happened?’ The eleven-year-old swore under his breath, screwing his eyes shut as he fought against a rush of tears. ‘What’s happened to him?’ He repeated, desperately. ‘Can I come and see him?’
‘I have to come and see him!’ Charlie lost control, yelling into his mobile phone. ‘You don’t understand, I have to, I, I… oh, shit…’ he blushed a furious red as a shocked group of passers-by turned to stare in his direction. ‘I’m sorry. Please?’
‘I can’t promise you anything,’ the nurse answered, and Charlie felt a shiver run through his whole body, ‘but I will see what I can do. It seems like you are a very close friend of his.’
Charlie nodded, before remembering that his body language couldn’t travel along the telephone line. ‘Yeah,’ he murmured. ‘I guess so.’
‘Well, come up to the JR, and I’ll try to meet you in the reception… What’s your name?’
‘See you soon, Charlie.’
The phone line went dead, and Charlie’s hand slumped to his side on the bench beside him. ‘Fucking hell,’ he whispered, slipping his phone back into the pocket of his jeans and pushing his hands into the fringe of his brown hair. ‘That’s why he never answered this morning… a road accident…’ He mulled over the nurse’s words. ‘I bet it was that fucking van.’
He took a deep breath, hearing his own bad language echoing inside his head and wondering when it had become so easy for him to utter such coarse words. ‘Belvoir House,’ he murmured, as a flashback of the abuse he’d hurled towards his former best friend played back inside his head again. ‘You just fucked up our whole season, you useless piece of shit!’
Charlie shivered at the memory. ‘I’m not letting anyone fuck things up this time,’ he resolved. He pushed himself to his feet, crossing the pavement to the kerb at the edge of the road, and held his hand out as a black taxi passed. ‘JR Hospital,’ he instructed, doing his best to sound like he knew where he was heading, and dropped down onto the back seat of the cab. The eleven-year-old barely noticed the spires of Oxford’s colleges passing the taxi’s windows, or the way the streets’ architecture faded from classical Gothic frontages into busy, modern terracing as his ride left the city centre on its way to the hospital.
‘Six eighty.’ The boy barely registered the cost of the cab fare, paying without complaint before watching the taxi loop the roundabout at the hospital’s entrance and head away, looking out for the driver’s next job.
‘Here goes,’ Charlie thought to himself, following the short path across a concrete apron up to the hospital’s main doors. ‘Here goes nothing.’ Charlie walked, slowly, up to the reception desk and took a deep breath. ‘Hi,’ he murmured, managing a weak smile. ‘My friend’s here. He was in a road accident this morning.’
The receptionist, a woman in her early twenties with curly blond hair, nodded. ‘His name?’
‘Oh,’ the receptionist responded, flatly, and Charlie noticed her tone of voice instantly.
‘What?’ The boy snapped. ‘I know he’s here, I know he’s hurt. That’s why I want to see him.’
The woman grimaced. ‘Wait here,’ she announced, lifting up a telephone handset. ‘I’ll call the ward.’
‘I spoke to Rebecca,’ Charlie blustered. ‘She said…’
‘I’m told you; I’m calling the ward,’ the receptionist repeated, grimly, and Charlie sighed, resigning himself to waiting whilst the woman spoke.
‘Take a seat,’ the receptionist instructed him, a few moments later. ‘Someone will collect you shortly.’
Charlie took a deep breath. ‘Thank you,’ he grunted, turning his back and settling himself down onto the nearest hard, plastic chair. He didn’t have to wait for too long before a vaguely familiar voice roused him.
‘Charlie?’ A woman asked. ‘Charlie Riley?’
‘Yeah?’ The boy looked up, noticing a young woman standing in front of him. ‘Rebecca?’ His voice softened as the nurse nodded. ‘Hi.’
‘Nice to meet you, Charlie,’ Rebecca greeted him, putting an arm on his shoulder as he stood up.
The boy nodded, awkwardly. ‘You too,’ he mumbled.
‘Your friend’s been seriously hurt, Charlie,’ the nurse began to explain, gently leading him beneath a sign labelled “Intensive Care”. ‘He won’t be able to talk to you. He probably won’t even recognise you.’
Charlie nodded again, unable to think of any other way to reply.
‘Thank you for telling us his name earlier,’ Rebecca continued. ‘We’ve managed to find him on our database now, but we haven’t been able to contact his parents. Do you know…’
‘No,’ Charlie interrupted the nurse’s question. ‘I don’t. I’ve never been to his house,’ he exhaled. ‘I know. It doesn’t make sense. It’s complicated,’ he stared down at his trainers as they continued to follow the nurse’s path across the hospital. ‘I’m sorry.’
Rebecca patted the boy’s shoulder. ‘It’s alright, Charlie. It’s really helped us just knowing who he is.’
‘I could tell you what school he went to if that would help?’
‘We know,’ the nurse assured him. ‘It was all on his file. Do you go to the same school?’
Charlie shook his head. ‘No. I go to a private school; it’s already finished for Christmas.’ This was close enough to the truth not to be a lie, he reasoned to himself, fending off what he thought would have to be the woman’s next question.
‘Almost there now,’ Rebecca seemed to accept his half-truth, changing the subject. ‘Brace yourself, Charlie,’ she warned. ‘This won’t be easy.’
‘I’m ready,’ the boy replied, but the wavering in his voice betrayed his true emotions.
Rebecca pushed open a double-door into a long ward, filled with flashing lights and whirring machines, before guiding Charlie gently in front of herself as she reached to open a privacy screen, revealing a thin, single bed beside a stack of technology and monitors.
‘Oh my God…’ Charlie gasped, his eyes taking in the brace around his friend’s pale neck, strapped beneath a network of tubes and wires that criss-crossed the blond boy’s face and body. A heavy bruise darkened his left eye, matching a patchwork of injuries that decorated his bare chest. ‘Connor…’
Charlie gave up on holding back his tears, and stumbled to his knees beside the other boy’s bed, grabbing hold of his friend’s limp hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ Rebecca soothed.
‘He’s not going to die,’ Charlie shuddered, turning around to look over his shoulder at the nurse. ‘Is he?’
Rebecca took a deep breath. ‘He’s stable at the moment, Charlie,’ she repeated the summary she’d given over the phone. ‘That’s all we can say right now.’
Charlie nodded, tearfully. ‘He’ll be alright,’ the boy insisted, squeezing his friend’s unconscious hand tighter for a brief moment. ‘I know it.’
‘Your first term, almost over,’ Neal Kennedy passed a bottle of butterbeer along the staff table at the head of the Great Hall. ‘Congratulations, mate.’
‘Thanks,’ Greg accepted the drink, gratefully. ‘Almost there.’
Neal grinned. ‘A good start, too,’ he glanced towards the Slytherin House table, ‘for you, and for your boys. They’re a pleasure to teach.’
‘They got there in the end,’ Greg acknowledged. ‘Couldn’t have done it without your lads, though, specially Xan and Toby. Made of sterner stuff than you’d think, those two.’
The Head of Ravenclaw nodded, looking proudly over at his own first-years as they laughed at a joke from inside a Christmas cracker. ‘Any plans for the holidays, then?’
Greg shook his head. ‘Down to Dan, really,’ he concluded. ‘I’m going to stay up here tomorrow, clear things up whilst they all go back on the train, let Theo look after him tonight, and take it from there. I’m sure he’ll want to spend some time with his friends,’ the teacher assumed. ‘What else, though, I don’t know. Play it by ear, I guess.’
Neal smiled. ‘You’re welcome round mine if you can get rid of him for a night,’ he offered. ‘Theo, too… and the others, in fact. Palm Danny off on the Potters for a few days and you’re sorted.’
‘Yeah,’ Greg laughed, ‘maybe,’ he grinned. ‘Wild Hunters reunited.’
Neal rolled his eyes. ‘I’ll get the Firewhisky in,’ he deadpanned, glancing up the table towards Oliver Wood. ‘I know what pro sportsmen are like.’
The Gryffindor looked around sharply. ‘Did someone mention Firewhisky?’
‘Told you,’ Neal laughed aloud, and as the men became distracted by their own banter, none of the teachers noticed a black raven landing on the corner of the Slytherin table, tearing a strip off Nathan’s Christmas turkey before fleeing into the winter night. In its place, the bird left a single side of parchment, covered in torn-off scraps of newspaper headlines that had been arranged into an untidy message.
‘Your friend got lucky today,’ the blond boy read the first line of text slowly aloud. ‘We won’t miss him again.’ Nathan shivered, passing the paper down to his housemates and letting them read its threats for themselves.
‘There’s something on the back,’ Albus looked across to his friend, making eye contact before flipping the parchment over. ‘Just Like Magic.’ He swallowed. ‘Shit.’
‘What do you think it means?’ Daniel turned the letter over twice more, re-reading its coldly menacing words.
‘It’s obvious, isn’t it?’ Nathan shook his head. ‘Just Like Magic,’ he repeated. ‘Like that bloody van that Connor and Charlie saw. They know! They’ve found out about them!’
Louis reached an arm around his friend’s shoulders, trying to comfort the other boy. ‘They didn’t know enough to get him today, though, did they? Not by the sounds of that.’
Nathan struggled to manage a smile. ‘I guess not,’ he stammered. ‘We’ve got to warn him, though,’ he voice turned insistent, ‘and as soon as we can. We can’t wait for normal post.’
‘We could send my owl,’ Albus suggested.
Louis’ eyes widened. ‘Your owl?’ He echoed. ‘But what about the Statute of Secrecy?’
‘I don’t think these guys who are trying to get Charlie care about the Statute of Secrecy,’ his cousin replied, coldly. ‘Nathan,’ he turned, ‘do you think Charlie would freak out if we sent Kjeld?’
Nathan paused for a moment, before shaking his head. ‘He’ll be alright,’ the blond boy took a deep breath. ‘If he outsmarted them today, he’ll be alright.’
‘Right,’ Albus nodded. ‘We’ll go to the owlery before curfew tonight, and tell Kjeld to wait for a reply before coming back to us. Charlie will work that out, right?’
‘Yeah,’ Nathan agreed with his friend, ‘as long as we tell him in our letter,’ he sighed, turning back to poke the remaining meat on his plate with his fork. ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve totally lost my appetite.’
‘Me too,’ Louis added, glancing up to the staff table and then to the doors of the Great Hall. ‘Shall we go now?’
Albus speared the final slice of turkey on his own plate. ‘Fine,’ he stuffed the meat into his mouth, ‘but bring some of your leftovers. Kjeld hates being disturbed…’