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       The Enemy, p.16

           Charlie Higson
 

  Ollie smiled. This was good. Maxie was doing well. He only hoped that it wasn’t a mistake sending the scouting party into the store. They were some of the best fighters. They couldn’t afford to lose any of them.

  Them? Surely he meant us. Ollie was in on this. It’s funny, he thought as he slipped into the darkness. You always thought it was someone else who was going to die, not you.

  It was dark in the store. There were no windows to the outside world. The flashlights of the scouting party scoured the murk of what used to be the perfume and makeup department. There were broken glass cabinets and display stands everywhere, draped with cobwebs. Some of the signs and logos were still in one piece, but there was a forlorn, deserted feel about the place, and smashed bottles lay all over the floor.

  The lingering smell of perfume hung in the air, sickly and cloying. There was no evidence of any recent human activity, though. It was very still and quiet.

  “If we can’t find any clothes, we can always just swipe some perfume,” said Achilleus. “It’ll hide the stink at least.”

  “Yeah,” said Lewis, sleepily scratching his head. “You can arrive at the palace smelling like a queen.”

  “That’s right.” Achilleus laughed.

  Big Mick had been searching the debris on the floor with his flashlight. “Look,” he said, picking something up. “This

  one ain’t broken.”

  “Show me that,” said Lewis, and Mick passed it to him.

  “Moisturizer,” he said mockingly. “I know a few grown-ups could use some of this. They’ve really let themselves go since the disaster. Their skin care is appalling, bro.”

  “We should keep moving,” said Sophie. “We’ve only got ten minutes. The clothing departments are upstairs, I think.”

  “Sure.”

  Sophie had to be very careful of what she said. She was well aware that at least half the kids hated her for killing Arran, even though it was an accident. She had to do all she could to get on their side.

  They crossed the floor, glass crunching underfoot, and found the escalators. Lewis spotted a store map and ran his flashlight down it.

  “Men’s first floor, women’s second floor.”

  “Let’s quickly go up to the very top,” said Achilleus. “Then work our way down.”

  They climbed the first escalator and found themselves on the men’s fashion floor. There was a moment’s panic as their flashlights settled on what looked like a pack of grown-ups, pale and naked and gray. But the kids laughed when they realized it was only a group of mannequins. It still made them jump, though, every time they came across other ones.

  A quick scan of the area showed them that there were still some clothes here.

  “Looking good,” said Lewis as they walked around to the bottom of the next escalator.

  As they went up, Ollie walked with Sophie.

  “Listen, Sophie,” he said, “I know you didn’t mean to kill Arran. It could have happened anytime. To tell you the truth, he was badly wounded anyway. He got bitten. He was losing it a bit, sick. He’d gone crazy. Even without your arrow he might never have made it to the palace. Maybe you just saved him a lot of pain.”

  “Thank you,” said Sophie. “But I feel awful about it.”

  “Don’t.”

  The next floor was the same. In fact there were probably more clothes here than on the floor below. After a quick look around they continued on up to the top floor. Once again Ollie walked with Sophie.

  “So where’ve you been living all this time?” he said. “Where’ve you been hiding out?”

  “All over,” said Sophie. “We’d find a house with food in it and stay there until it wasn’t safe anymore. Always on the move, never in one place long. We started out in Highgate, came down through Dartmouth Park, tried Hampstead Heath, but it was way too dangerous and there was nothing to eat. Then we came up through Kentish Town and Camden. It was the same everywhere. Fighting just to survive. There were quite a lot of us to start with. We thought we’d be okay— safety in numbers, you know. But one by one they got us. I try to black it all out and just concentrate on getting through each day. That’s why I feel so rotten about Arran. It’s bad enough the adults killing us kids, but . . .”

  Sophie fell silent and Ollie put his hand on her arm.

  From the top they could look all the way down a central well to the basement. Their flashlight beams made tiny pinpricks of light far below on the tables and chairs of the restaurant.

  They poked around. It didn’t look like anyone had been up here in ages. Dust covered everything. There was a bathroom department at the top, and a lot of the stuff was intact. In a time of crisis nobody was going to come all the way up here and loot fancy soap.

  “What do you reckon, then?” said Lewis. His voice quiet and slow as ever.

  “I reckon if there was anyone hiding here ready to jump out on us, they’d have tried it by now,” said Achilleus. “I can sense it when they’re about. When you find a nest of grown-ups, the smell is something else, man.”

  “Don’t I know it, bro,” said Lewis.

  “It’s getting late,” said Ollie. “We should get back to the others.”

  “Yeah,” said Lewis. “Then it’s shopping time!”

  Sam couldn’t tell how long the man had been carrying him through the tunnels. He’d figured out it was a man, after a couple of minutes. Though he wasn’t like any of the other grown-ups he’d seen since the disaster. He was clean shaven and had long hair knotted into untidy dreadlocks. He wore jeans and a baggy sweater under his heavy overcoat.

  And he didn’t smell.

  He carried a flashlight. Not a hand-powered one like the kids had. A big battery-powered thing that cast a strong, wide beam.

  When they had set off he had asked Sam who he was and whether he was alone, and after that he had said very little.

  Sam wondered how it was the man could talk. None of the other grown-ups could say a word. Their brains had been destroyed by the illness. This man could talk and use tools and weapons. How had he avoided catching the illness? What was he doing down here? And where was he taking Sam?

  Sam had so many questions to ask, but the man wasn’t answering any. He hurried on through the tunnels, sure-footed, knowing exactly where he was going.

  They had passed two stations—Angel and Old Street— and the man showed no signs of slowing down. He held Sam firmly under his arm, and it was getting more and more uncomfortable.

  “It’s all right,” Sam said at last, fearing that his brains were going to be shaken loose. “I can walk, you know. You don’t have to carry me.”

  “Quicker this way,” said the man. “Soon be there.”

  “Be where?”

  “You’ll see.”

  The man’s feet sloshed rhythmically through the groundwater, which had grown deeper and deeper after they’d left Angel. He’d had to wade up to his waist through one section. It shallowed a little after that, but when they finally got to the next station there was still about a foot of water along the tracks beneath the platform. They had come to Moorgate. Sam had no idea where that was.

  The man stopped for a rest. Sat Sam on the platform edge.

  “There used to be pumps,” the man said.

  “What?” said Sam, surprised that the man was talking to him.

  “Pumps,” the man repeated. He didn’t have a London accent. It was a soft country accent, like a farmer. “All the tunnels underground used to have pumps in them, to keep the water out. With no one working them, the water’s coming up. City’s drowning, I reckon.”

  “Where are you taking me?” said Sam.

  The man smiled. “You’ll see.”

  He picked Sam up again and trotted off.

  It wasn’t far to the next station, but Sam still felt like he’d had enough. When they got there the man put Sam on the platform and climbed up after him. He took hold of Sam’s hand.

  “Stick with me, kiddo,” he said, leading Sam along the platf
orm. “We don’t want you getting lost.”

  Sam looked at the station name. Bank. The tiles on either side of the sign made a shape of dragons. There were openings through to the platform on the other side, but they were barred by locked barriers. When they came to the last one, the man unlocked it and took Sam through, before locking it carefully behind him. This platform was identical to the other one, except there was a train standing at it. Small candles in glass jars on the ground gave a warm glow. There was the sound of a generator and the smell of gasoline fumes. The exit and way up to the station was at the end on the left, the opening crudely blocked with an old iron bed frame.

  “Home sweet home,” said the man, and he went over to the train and banged on the side of one of the cars.

  Presently the doors slid open and a woman appeared in the doorway. She was round and jolly looking, with a big woolly sweater like the man’s, and a long, wide skirt. She had a bush of graying reddish hair and a kindly face. She beamed at Sam when she saw him.

  “And who have we got here, then?” she said.

  “His name’s Sam,” said the man. “Found him up at King’s Cross, and I reckon he’s probably one hungry lad.”

  “Come on in, come in.” The woman bustled back inside, and Sam followed.

  The car had been fitted out as a living area, and it looked very cozy. There were flickering candles, curtains at the windows, rugs and cushions on the floor, and drapes over the seats. A makeshift double bed filled one part, and in the open area by two of the doors, the couple had even rigged up a stove. Sam noticed that there was a chimney above it that went up into the ventilation ducts in the station ceiling, exactly like the one Ben and Bernie had built at Waitrose.

  “Now you sit yourself down, young man,” said the woman, “and I’ll get you some soup. How about that, eh? I’ll just move Orion.”

  Sam looked. There was a big ginger cat lying on one of the seats. The woman scooped him up and tickled him behind his ear. He purred happily.

  “You have a cat?” Sam said, sitting down. He couldn’t quite believe any of this was really happening.

  “That’s right. Plenty of food for him down in these tunnels,” said the woman. “I’m Rachel, by the way. Old grumpy face there is Nick. He don’t say much, so I’m guessing he’s not introduced himself. Am I right?”

  “He hasn’t,” said Sam.

  “Less of the ‘grumpy face,’ woman,” said Nick.

  “Oh, I know you’re not really grumpy inside; it’s just your manner. But the poor lad’s probably terrified. You need to show him a bit of kindness.”

  “I’m all right,” said Sam. “I’m glad Nick rescued me.”

  “So am I, my love,” said Rachel. “So am I.”

  She tinkered about at the stove, stirring the contents of a pan with a big wooden spoon. The smell was overpowering. Sam’s mouth was filling with saliva, his stomach shouting for food.

  “Be ready in a jiffy.”

  Sam felt warm and safe and sleepy. He was on the verge of crying. He looked across at Nick, who was sitting on the bed. Nick winked and his face creased into a smile. Sam smiled back.

  “So what were you doing, all alone down there?” Nick asked, taking out a tobacco pouch and rolling a cigarette.

  “I’d gone into the station to get away from some grown-ups,” said Sam, yawning. “Then I got stuck down there. Every time I tried to get out, there were more of them.”

  “They’re like big old rats,” said Nick, making a sour face. “The sick ones. We’re pretty safe around these parts, though. They’ve learned to leave us alone. They don’t bother us none.”

  “Why didn’t you two get sick?” asked Sam. “We thought everyone over sixteen got ill.”

  Nick shrugged. “Dunno,” he said. “There’s probably others like us, somewhere. When we’re ready I guess we’ll go looking for answers. For now we’re just glad to be alive and healthy.” He tapped his head. “Knock on wood.”

  “So you were by yourself, young Sam, were you?” Rachel asked.

  “We got split up,” said Sam. “I was trying to find my friends. They were on their way into London to Buckingham Palace.”

  “What on earth for?”

  “It’s safe there.”

  “Yeah?” said Nick. “First I heard about it. Mind you, I ain’t been over that way since this all started.”

  “So, these friends of yours?” said Rachel. “Are there many of them?”

  “About fifty, I think.”

  “Fifty?” said Nick. “You’re joking, aren’t you? We never found that many kids together nowhere.”

  “You’ve found other kids, then?” said Sam. “Alive?”

  “Yes, we have,” said Rachel, bringing a bowl of soup over to Sam. “We look after ’em. We fix ’em up and we feed them and we make sure they’re safe.”

  “So where are they all now?”

  “Safe,” said Rachel. “Now eat.”

  “Why do you stay down here?”

  “We just do. We hid out here to start with and just sort of got stuck. That’s enough questions now; you need some food inside you.”

  Sam scooped up a spoonful of soup and blew on it. It was thin and brown but smelled good.

  “Just vegetables, I’m afraid,” said Rachel, ruffling his hair. “Whatever we can find in cans.”

  Sam tasted the soup, which was watery but delicious. His whole body shuddered with the delight of it, and he instantly felt a warm glow in his stomach.

  “You don’t look too bad,” said Nick, watching him eat. “You’ve been managing to survive all right?”

  As he ate, Sam told them everything that had happened since he’d been captured.

  “Shame you got split up,” said Rachel, sitting down next to Nick and taking his hand.

  “Is the palace a long way from here?” Sam asked, spooning up the last of the soup.

  “Quite a journey,” said Rachel. “All the way across London.”

  “When I’ve had a rest,” said Sam, “will you show me the way?”

  Rachel laughed. “What are you talking about? A little lad like you can’t go traipsing off across London all on his own.”

  “Would you come with me, then?” said Sam. “To the palace?”

  “I don’t know about that,” said Nick. “We’re settled here.”

  “But they’re growing food and everything,” said Sam. “Adults like you would be really useful.”

  “It’s a dangerous journey. I think it’s best you stay here.”

  “Oh,” said Sam, “but I can’t stay. I mean, thanks and everything for the food. It’s very nice, but I can’t stay here. My sister—”

  “We’ll see.” Rachel cut him off. “Don’t you worry about that for now. You just eat your soup, and then you look like you could do with a nice little snooze. Am I right?”

  “Yes,” said Sam. “But I really must find my sister.”

  “All in good time,” said Nick, and he got up to collect the soup bowl that Sam had licked clean.

  Sam sat there, his stomach gurgling happily. His eyelids dropped down then flickered back up again.

  “I’m very sleepy,” he said.

  “Why don’t you lie on the bed?”

  “Yes, I’d like that.”

  Rachel took him to the bed and settled him down, sitting next to him, stroking his hair. Nick stood behind her, smiling. The cat, Orion, sat nearby, also watching him, with black shining eyes.

  “When you wake up,” Nick said, “we’ll have a good old chat, eh? See what’s to be done with you.”

  “Mmm ...”

  “My brave little soldier,” said Rachel.

  Sam was asleep.

  The mannequins freaked Maxie out. She was on edge enough as it was, trying to keep the kids under control inside the store. They needed to stick together. The scouting party had given them the all clear, but she was still frightened. The last couple of days had reminded her that you were never safe; you could never know what was waiting
for you around the corner. And if you let your guard down . . .

  They’d been through the menswear on the floor below and picked it clean. And now as they searched through the women’s casual wear section, there were squeals of delight. Blue had been right. It had certainly lifted everyone’s spirits, but if they were attacked while they were vulnerable, it would soon wipe the smiles off their faces. And Maxie would get the blame for letting them come in here.

  Although most of the stuff was too big for the smaller kids, they still grabbed anything they could. When they came across each fresh batch, the excitement rose as they snatched at the clothes and argued over them, running from one pile to another. Maxie tried to stay on top of things but kept on getting distracted herself when she saw something she liked. At least now the boys had calmed down and were more alert— they had no interest in the women’s clothing. The main problem was that everyone kept ducking behind cabinets and shelves to change in the shadows and dump their old things. As many as stood guard were out of action.

  Maxie found an Agnès b top and some pants that looked like they’d fit her. She slipped them into her backpack. She would change later, when she was sure it was safe. She was too anxious now. The thought of being ambushed when she was half naked didn’t excite her. She pictured herself being chased around Selfridges with her pants around her knees.

  She spotted a black leather jacket and was irresistibly drawn to it. She looked at the label—Belstaff. It was sturdy and well made, had several useful pockets, and would offer some protection. At least, that’s what she told herself. In truth, she just liked the look of it. She put it on and tried to look at herself in a broken mirror. She couldn’t see very well in the half-light. A little big, but it fit okay.

  “That’s nice. It’s like mine.”

  Maxie turned to see Sophie watching her, her bow at the ready in her hands.

  “You think I’m taking it so I can look like you?”

  “That’s not what I meant. I only meant I liked it.”

  “Why should I care whether you like it or not?”

  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

  “Didn’t you? I know what you’re doing. Trying to ingratiate yourself. Trying to make friends. Well, don’t bother. We’ll never be your friends, Sophie. Okay? Not after what you did.”

 
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