Alice lifted up her head in some alarm. Her first thought was that she had been dreaming. ‘I do hope it’s my dream, and not the Red King’s! I don’t like belonging to another person’s dream, I’ve a great mind to go and wake him, and see what happens!’

Ten minutes later Ali was pulling the mattress from her bed and dragging it downstairs, ignoring disapproving looks from Waxstaff. She dropped it in a pool of sunlight by the French windows, threw the duvet on top, then scattered it with red and brown cushions from the library chairs. She grinned at the result; a cross between a nest of autumn leaves and the cover of a trashy romance novel.
 ‘Good start,’ she said to the room, ‘now to Feng Shui the crap out of the rest of you,’ and she started dragging the furniture about till the room felt more like a studio apartment. Then she remembered the pool of vomit back in the barn.
Damn it! She’d have to clean that up. But right now the sun was calling, and she needed to get outside.
 The grounds were alive with the heat of summer. Every footstep brought a new scent, a new play of light. Bees and butterflies hovered among the flowers and a line of glittering, metal-green beetles were crossing a flagstone step.
 Ali let it wash over her, and suddenly, with no effort, the chattering debate that usually filled her head fell silent. There was just this, the simple delight of exploring a country garden. She crossed the main lawn, smiled at the ornamen- tal well in the far corner, and set off down a path through the fringe of woodland that encircled the estate.
 Beams of sunlight angled down through the trees, turning patches of ground into pools of green and gold. Then she saw a young man. He was lying in the shade of a cedar, his back resting on its broad trunk, and he was snoring. Ali felt a surge of irritation. She was enjoying how her mind had been cruising on autopilot. Now she would have to re-engage.
 She veered off towards him, making no effort to be quiet. He looked about the same age as her, good-looking in a scrawny, no-muscle kind of way – apart from his school uniform and the snoring.
 ‘Hey! Noise pollution!’ She kicked him, more of a nudge, expecting him to leap to his feet. He didn’t. He opened one eye and raised a lazy arm to block the glare of the sun.
 ‘And hello to you, too,’ he said.
 ‘Private property,’ said Ali. ‘You know that, right?’
 The boy didn’t reply so she aimed for the bony point of his hip. And kicked a little harder.
 ‘Ow! Is this your idea of coming on to me? Needs work.’ He lifted himself onto his elbows and scanned her up and down.
‘Not a local then.’
 ‘Obviously.’ ‘Obvious, how?’
 ‘Small village, you’ve never seen me before. Ipso facto – not local.’
 ‘Latin now. That meant to impress?’ ‘Does it?’
 ‘More than kicking me.’
 Ali started walking away, her default response; trust issues a speciality. But she might need an ally here, and she definitely needed a phone.
 ‘Got a phone on you?’ ‘Sure.’
 ‘Let me use it?’ Ali stretched out a hand. ‘No.’
 ‘I’ll call the police.’ ‘What with?’
 ‘Good point . . .’ She bobbed her head from side to side in a mock display of deep thought. ‘Could you lend me your phone, please.’
 ‘Better.’ He grinned at her, a natural smile with real warmth to it. ‘If you tell me why you need it?’
 ‘It’s private.’
 ‘Not when I’ll be right here listening to you.’ He pulled a mobile from his backpack, unlocked the screen and handed it to her.
 ‘It’s my dad. I’m just leaving a message. He won’t answer.’ She dialled as she talked, hoping she’d be proved wrong, that her dad would be above ground. He wasn’t; the call went straight to voice message.
 ‘Hi Dad, ignore the number, borrowed phone. They took mine – part of this bootcamp crap. Pissed that you never told me about these rellies of Mum’s, they’re kind of sweet. Bored out of my fracking mind but there’s enough crazy shit going down to keep my brain from rotting. Visit when you surface. Don’t like you much right now, but love you. Bye.’
 ‘You always talk to your dad like that?’ ‘Like what?’
 ‘Spoilt-bitch sort of thing.’
 ‘That was the nice me. Can I google some stuff?’ ‘No data credit.’
 ‘What sort of retro plan are you on?’ Ali had a twenty in her pocket, she fished it out and waved it at him. ‘Tomorrow, same time, okay?’
 ‘Have you always been this rude?’
 ‘No, takes practice.’ She was still holding the twenty out. ‘Are you going to take this or what?’
 ‘Depends. Who am I doing this for? Why are you here?’ ‘Suspended.’
 ‘For what?’
 ‘Punched a dipshit in the face and got this whole boot- camp thing.’
 ‘Keep my distance, then.’ He laughed and took the twenty. ‘That would be smart.
 ‘And why here? You know the Greys?’
 ‘They’re family. How about this: I don’t report you for trespassing, and you let me use your phone for an hour every day?’
 ‘Like a regular date?’
 ‘Yes, my foot, your ribs. Tomorrow then. What’s your name?’ ‘Peter. You?’
 ‘Alice. So tomorrow, same time. You and the phone. If you can’t make it, call the Greys. Do you know them?’
 ‘Everyone does. From church.’
 ‘You go to church?’ Ali was surprised, and disappointed.
 ‘Yep, every Sunday.’ He laughed at her expression. ‘And you admit to this?’
 ‘Bless little me. Want to give me the atheist rant now or save it for later?’
 ‘Not worth it, no logic gets through.’
 ‘Tell me, I need the ammo.’ He was still sitting on the ground, grinning up at her, she crouched back down in front of him. Deciding how far to push it.
 ‘You wouldn’t understand. Christians are simple life forms, barely evolved from protozoan bottom feeders.’
 ‘Nice line,’ he laughed, ‘go on.’
 ‘Not mine – Dad’s. He’s a scientist – thinks all religions are small-minded, the universe is too big to package into a mythology. He taught me to challenge everything and everyone; any idea about anything is just a model, it’s not real.’
 ‘This tree’s real, if I bang my head on it the pain will be real.’ ‘Except it’s not there, not down at the quantum level, it’s just lots of little energy fields buzzing round each other.’
 ‘Says you.’
 ‘Says science. Every model of the world is a cardboard box we choose to live in. Science pokes holes in the box to see if there’s more out there – let the light in, then maybe tear up the box completely. Religions own their own boxes, they don’t want holes poked in them. Bad for business.’
 ‘My dad said something like that once. Said smart people realise they don’t know anything for certain. Think our dads might get along?’ He grinned again.
 ‘We’ll never know.’
 ‘Plus, my dad’s the vicar.’ ‘Woah! Strike two.’
 ‘He’s okay. Just an old hippy, hugging trees and voting Green. When I was a kid I played the organ on Sundays to keep him happy and get cash. That’s where I’d see the Greys. They owned half the village back in the day.’
 ‘Happy days,’ Ali got up to leave, ‘so, see you tomorrow, with your phone.’
 ‘Sure, it’s a date,’ he said, laughing. Ali kicked him again and set off.

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