Alpha sent a small probing enquiry out through the barrier of Bruce's mind, too scared of the thing in the courtyard to risk returning to her own body. Slowly information about it filtered through to her. It wasn't a person; it was a mind that had somehow traced her thoughts. It belonged to someone who could read people's thoughts – someone like her – except that there was no one else around.

One thing she knew for sure: it was waiting to pounce on her as soon as she left Bruce's mind. Terrified, she hovered on the edges of Bruce's mind until at last she felt it go.


Back inside her own head, her eyes blurred momentarily, then a wall of dizziness crashed into her and she clutched at the fence for support, drained by her mind-melding.

Lauren Buttel, her fellow inmate at the Willows care home, peered over the gate leading to the patch of weedy grass they called the garden. 'Hey, Poorly Moorly.' She pushed at the gate and spied the open bin. 'What're doing, you psycho.' Her skinny hips wiggled towards Alpha

Alpha peered though her hair at Lauren and seethed. Yeah right, Miss finger-down-your-throat-to-stop-you-getting- fat. And I'm the psycho? Alpha's bones felt like melting chocolate – she could barely stand up, let alone deal with Lauren in a bad mood. So instead she hunched her shoulders, hugged an elbow and avoided eye contact with Lauren. 'Nothing,' she muttered.

This ploy to make herself look small and defenceless had worked before, but it didn't work today. She could sense Lauren's vile thoughts steaming over the boyfriend who'd dumped her. She didn't even need to enter Lauren's mind to gather them - they wove wildly outside Lauren's head, battering at her tired brain.

'Bag lady,' Lauren sneered. 'You smell disgusting.' Her gaze

lingered on Alpha's small, lithe body. 'Freak. I'll teach you not to raid the rubbish for leftovers.' She snuck up behind Alpha and twisted one of her arms up against her back. Her other hand snaked round Alpha's front and pinched hard at her nipple.

Alpha felt a scream rise in her head, bit it back. 'It was B..Bruce,' she stammered.

Lauren laughed disbelievingly, causing drops of spit to fly onto Alpha's cheek. Then she twisted Alpha's arm further. Alpha did scream then and her legs gave way. As she collapsed across the huge wheelie bin she caught sight of Sophie Mitchell from the corner of her eye. For the first time in her life she was glad to see the night carer at the children's home.

Sophie trudged towards them on flat pigeon-toed feet. 'What's going on?'

Alpha sagged with relief, and only the bin prevented her from dropping to the ground.

Unseen by Sophie Mitchell, Lauren's talons sunk into Alpha's behind. Alpha yelped. Only then did Lauren release Alpha. 'Look! She's been raiding the bins. I reckon she's hidden a horde of Skunk in there.'

The carer caught Alpha's eye with a sharp look. 'Are there drugs in that bin?'

'No, I d…don't take d...,' was all Alpha could manage.

'Hmmm,' said Sophie, her nose twitching. She bent over the bin and sniffed. Then her head whipped back and she glared at Alpha. 'I smell accelerant!'

A shudder ran through Alpha's body. She's never going to believe what really happened.

Sophie's gaze swung towards Lauren, who was now smelling the bin herself. 'Get out of here, I want to talk to Alpha. Now girl, now!' As Lauren left Sophie stared at Alpha. 'What's the matter? You look as though a breeze could blow you over.' Sighing, she suddenly took pity on Alpha. 'I suppose tomorrow will be time enough to find out what's been going on.' She herded Alpha inside. 'Go to your room, lie down.'

'Thank you, Sophie,' said Alpha, grateful for the stay in interrogation. Maybe tomorrow she'd feel strong enough to fight off Lauren's accusations without revealing her own part in Bruce's change of heart.

She dragged herself up the stairs to the miniature cubicle that served as her bedroom and shoved a folded piece of paper under the door, jamming it as tight as she could, before undressing. The generosity of social services in giving each child a separate space didn't extend to providing locks for the doors.

On her behind two purplish bruises were blossoming over a ring of sharp punctures. Not bothering with pyjamas she dropped face first onto her bed and punched her pillow. Oh Mum, I'm sorry. I swore I'd never do it again.

Weakness washed through her as images of her mother filled the space in her head like an old movie. She tried throwing them out, but the one mind she couldn't change was her own.

There was Mum, smiling as she watched Alpha blow out the candles on her birthday cake - five candles. That was when Alpha had first known that she was inside another person's head. Her mother was sending rays of love across the room to her father, the person she regarded as her soul mate. The rays were pretty, each a different shade of purple. They looked like searchlights shooting out from her mother towards her father.

After that Alpha investigated the inside of all kinds of heads. She found the design of a new house in her teacher's mind, ticking round so fast it resembled a spinning top, and she was delighted by the man who cleaned the windows, all the while playing out the lead role in Hamlet on an imaginary stage.

Their family pet, a Labrador called Jake, was the first recipient of her mind changes. Staying within his doggy world of smells she persuaded him to leave his dinner and come to her by making him believe she was holding an invisible piece of steak. But whenever her dad returned from one of his flying trips, Jake was single-minded in greeting him with jumps of joy, refusing to turn for even the make-believe smell of raw meat.

Alpha also came across darker minds, like their neighbour's head that was awash with a simmering stew of anger. His thoughts tallied up with the constant battles Alpha could hear through the walls of their semi-detached house. She knew that his fury would soon boil out of his brain into some violent action against his wife.

But things in the Moore family were good, until the day she touched her father's thoughts and found not her mother, but the image of another woman lodged in his mind – one with skin the colour of the small black keys on Mum's piano.

Her mother seemed to shrink into herself from that point, talking less and less, and then one morning Alpha woke up, remembering a strange, sad dream of Dad saying goodbye, over and over. Later that day a policeman came and told Mum that Dad had suffered a fatal heart attack in the plane he was piloting to South Africa.

After that her visits inside her mother's head showed that Mum had forgotten her love of music. There was only grey emptiness as she drank vodka from a crystal glass. Months later Mum drank directly from the bottle, until she passed out again and again. There was the vivid memory of Mum saying they must move into a crummy little flat, not enough money to live on, but plenty of money to buy those bottles of pale poison. Mum's skin turned yellow as the alcohol ate into her liver. And still she drank.

Then came that fateful moment when Alpha decided to change her mother's mind - to stop her drinking forever.

She gave a small cry as her thoughts touched on that terrible time that had ended so horribly she hadn't dared change anyone's mind again – until this evening. She could hold back no longer. She sobbed and sobbed, drenching her pillow with snot and tears, racked with grief and filled with guilt until, drained and exhausted, she fell asleep.

She awoke abruptly. Someone was in the room.

But the door was shut and she could see the wedge of paper still in its place, a mousy shadow against the light from the passage. No sound of breathing, or sense of movement, no change in the air.

This was a mind, not a body. Her thoughts rippled through the room, striving to avoid the presence. Suddenly she recoiled, shrinking back into her bed. There was more than one mind in her bedroom – the space around her was filled with hunters moving in for the kill.