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Joe looked rather hurt. Then he laughed.

‘Bit strong for yer, is it?’

Jay nodded, still coughing.

‘Aye, I shoulda known,’ said Joe cheerily, turning back to the pantry. ‘Takes a bit o gettin used to, I reckon. But it’s got art,’ he added fondly, replacing the bottle with care on the shelf. ‘And that’s what matters.’

He turned round, this time with a bottle of Ben Shaw’s Yellow Lemonade in one hand.

‘Reckon this’ll do yer better for now,’ he said, pouring a glassful. ‘And as for the other stuff, you’ll grow into it soon enough.’

He returned the wine bottle to the larder, hesitated, turned.

‘I think I might be able to give you somethin for that other problem, if you’d like, though,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’

Jay was not sure what he expected the old man to give him. Kung-fu lessons, perhaps, or a bazooka left over from some war, grenades, a Zulu spear from his travels, a special invincible drop kick learned from a master in Tibet, guaranteed never to fail. Instead Joe led him to the side of the house, where a small red flannel bag dangled from a nail protruding from the stone. He unhooked the bag, sniffed briefly at the contents and handed it over.

‘Take it,’ he urged. ‘It’ll last a while yet. I’ll make some fresh for us later.’ Jay stared at him.

‘What is it?’ he said at last.

‘Just carry it with you,’ said Joe. ‘In yer pocket, if you like, or on a bitta string. You’ll see. It’ll help.’

‘What’s in it?’ He was staring now, as if the old man were crazy. His suspicions, allayed for a moment, flared anew.

‘Oh, this an that. Sandalwood. Lavender. Bit o High John the Conqueror. Trick I learned off of a lady in Haiti, years back. Works every time.’

That was it, decided Jay. The old boy was definitely crazy. Harmless – he hoped – but crazy. He glanced uneasily at the blind expanse of garden at his back and wondered if he could make it to the wall in time if the old man turned violent. Joe just smiled.

‘Try it,’ he urged. ‘Just carry it in yer pocket. Happen you’ll even forget it’s there.’

Jay decided to humour him.

‘OK. What’s it supposed to do, then?’

Joe smiled again.

‘Praps nothin,’ he said.

‘Well, how will I know if it’s worked?’ insisted Jay.

‘You’ll know,’ said Joe easily. ‘Next time you go down Nether Edge.’

‘There’s no way I’m going down there again,’ said Jay sharply. ‘Not with those boys-’

‘You goin to leave yer treasure chest for em to find, then?’

He had a point. Jay had almost forgotten about the treasure box, still hidden in its secret place beneath the loose stone. His sudden dismay almost overshadowed the certainty that he had never mentioned the treasure box to Joe.

‘Used to go down there when I were a lad,’ said the old man blandly. ‘There were a loose stone at the corner of the lock. Still there, is it?’

Jay stared at him.

‘How did you know?’ he whispered.

‘Know what?’ asked Joe, with exaggerated innocence. ‘What’s tha mean? I’m only a miner’s lad. I don’t know owt.’

Jay didn’t go back to the canal that day. He was too confused by everything, his mind racing with fights and broken radios and Haitian witchcraft and Joe’s bright, laughing eyes. Instead, he took his bike and rode slowly past the railway bridge three or four times, heart pounding, trying to find the courage to climb the banking. Eventually he rode home, depressed and dissatisfied, all his triumph evaporated. He imagined Zeth and his friends going through his treasures, rocking with dirty laughter, scattering comics and books, stuffing sweets and chocolate bars into their mouths, pocketing the money. Worse still, there were his notebooks in there, the stories and poems he’d written. Finally he rode home, jaw aching with rage, watched Saturday Night at the Movies and went to bed to a late, unsatisfying sleep, through which he ran ceaselessly from an unseen enemy while Joe’s laughter rang in his ears.

The next day he decided to stay at home. The red flannel bag sat on his bedside table like a mute challenge. Jay ignored it and tried to read, but all his best comics were still in the treasure box. The absence of the radio filled the air with a hostile silence. Outside the sun shone and there was just enough breeze to stop the air from scorching. It was going to be the most beautiful day of the summer.

He arrived at the railway bridge in a kind of daze. He hadn’t meant to go there; even as he pedalled towards town something inside him knew he was going to turn round, take a different route, leave the canal to Zeth and his gang – their territory now. Perhaps he would go to Joe’s house – he hadn’t asked him to come back, but he hadn’t asked him to keep away, either, as if Jay’s presence was a matter of indifference to him – or maybe drop by at the newsagent’s and buy some smokes. Either way, he certainly wasn’t going to go back to the canal. As he hid his bike in the familiar stand of willowherb, as he climbed the banking, he repeated it to himself. Only an idiot would risk that again. Joe’s red flannel bag was in his jeans pocket. He could feel it, a soft ball no bigger than a rolled-up hanky. He wondered how a bag full of herbs was supposed to help him. He had opened it the previous night, laying the contents out on his bedside table. A few pieces of stick, some brownish powder and some bits of green-grey aromatic stuff filled the bag. A part of him had expected shrunken heads. It was a joke, Jay told himself fiercely. Just an old man having his fun. And yet the stubborn part of him, which wanted desperately to believe, just wouldn’t leave the thing alone. What if there was magic in the bag, after all? Jay imagined himself holding out the charm, incanting a magical spell in a ringing voice, Zeth and his mates cowering… The bag pressed comfortingly against his hip like a steadying hand. With a lurch of the heart, he began to make his way down the banking towards the canal. He probably wouldn’t meet anyone, anyway.

Wrong again. He crept along the bridle path, keeping to the shade of the trees, his sneakers silent against the baked yellow earth. He was shaking with adrenalin, ready to run at the slightest sound. A bird flapped noisily out of its reed bed as he passed, and he froze, certain that an alarm had been given for miles around. Nothing. Jay was almost at the lock now, he could see the place in the banking where the treasure box was hidden. Pieces of broken plastic still littered the stones. He knelt down, removed the piece of turf which concealed the stone and began to work it out.

He’d been imagining them for so long that for a second he was sure the sounds were in his head. But now he could see their dim shapes coming over from the ash-pit side of the canal, shielded by bushes. There was no time to run. Half a minute at most before they broke cover. The bridle path was wide open from here, too far from the railway bridge to be sure. In seconds he would be an open target.

He realized there was only one place to hide. The canal itself. It was mostly dry, except in patches, choked with reeds and litter and a hundred years’ worth of silt. The little jetty stood about four feet above it, and he might be hidden, at least for a while. Of course, as soon as they stepped out onto the jetty, or joined the path, or bent down to examine something on the surface of the greasy water…

But there was no time to think of that now. Jay slid down from his kneeling position into the canal, pushing the treasure box back into place as he did so. For a moment he felt his feet slide into the mud without resistance, then he touched bottom, ankle-deep in the slime. It slid into his sneakers and oozed between his toes. Ignoring it, he crouched low, reeds tickling his face, determined to present as small a target as possible. Instinctively he looked for weapons: stones, cans, things to throw. If they saw him, surprise would be his only advantage.