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       The Enemy, p.18

           Charlie Higson
 

  Maybe Godzilla would try to chase them.

  No. They’d keep him on a leash.

  “You all right?” Whitney looked up and squeezed Ella’s knee.

  “I think so.”

  Maxie left her team on the flank and moved among the kids, making sure they were okay. Joking about their clothes. She saw Ella on Whitney’s shoulders, the two of them chatting away. Whitney was wearing a new white tracksuit that was slightly tight on her big body.

  Ella looked like she’d been crying. Maxie asked if she was all right.

  “She’s okay,” said Whitney. “She was just thinking about her brother, Sam. I told her he’s gone to heaven, where he’ll be happy.”

  “Yeah.” Maxie patted Ella’s leg. “Don’t fret about him. He’s gone somewhere where he can’t be hurt anymore.”

  “I miss him.”

  “We all miss him. But when we get to the palace we can make new friends, meet new people. They’ll never replace Sam, I know, but it’ll be a new start for us.”

  “Will there be princesses at the palace?”

  Maxie laughed. “I don’t think so, darling. Just ordinary kids like us. So you stop your crying, okay? Just think happy thoughts.”

  “What about you?” said Whitney, fixing Maxie with a stare. “You thinking happy thoughts?”

  “Trying to. Trying to keep busy.”

  “So, you’re good?”

  “I’m good,” said Maxie.

  Whitney studied her. “If you’re lying I’ll know.”

  “As good as can be expected,” said Maxie.

  “That’s right,” said Whitney. “Reckon that’s the best any of us can say. Is that boy Blue behaving himself?”

  Maxie nodded. “I guess so. We’re sorting it out between us.”

  “He’s cool, you know,” said Whitney. “He helped all of us in Morrisons through some hard times, some really hard times, you better believe it. That’s why he’s in charge.”

  “I was wondering about that,” said Maxie. “In the meeting, back at Waitrose, you seemed to be the one that everyone listened to.”

  “Blue runs around and shouts and waves his spear, but it’s us sisters who really rule the roost. The kids, though, they felt safer with a man . . . well, a boy, in charge. A fighter. There was a lot of fighting in them days.”

  “You needed a wartime leader,” said Maxie.

  “War is right. And speaking of war, you should be out on the flank with your team. I can look after the little ones.”

  “Sure.” Maxie smiled and rejoined her unit.

  Lewis, on the other flank, was entertaining his team with a long story about a soccer match he’d played in where three kids had broken their legs. They were all laughing but keeping a watchful eye out at the same time.

  “By the end of the game,” said Lewis, “everyone was like, walking around wide-eyed and shivering, too scared to run. Nobody would tackle anyone, they was too scared to even like, kick the ball, man. I was the goalie, so I wasn’t too bothered, and in the end they had to call the match off. Can you imagine. Three people! It was carnage, man.”

  This part of London couldn’t have been more different from Holloway, where they had started their journey. There were expensive apartment buildings and houses, antique shops, art galleries, a Porsche dealership still with some cars in the showroom.

  “Do you think there’ll be a better class of zombies around here?” said Ollie.

  Sophie was walking with him. Ollie was the Holloway kid who had shown her the most kindness. She noticed that he kept himself to himself. Didn’t cozy up with any one particular group of kids. He was quiet and thoughtful, something of an outsider. Perhaps that was what he saw in her. She was an outsider too.

  “They’re not technically zombies, are they?” said Sophie.

  “No,” said Ollie. “They’re not the living dead, as such. Thank God they can’t come back to life after you whack them.”

  Ollie was almost walking backward, so often was he turning around to check behind. Sophie was seeing more of the back of his red head than of his face.

  “You’re making me nervous,” she said.

  “It’s good to be nervous,” said Ollie. “We don’t want to end up as well-dressed corpses.”

  “You saw the grown-ups back at Selfridges,” said Sophie. “I think you’re right. The ones around here are different.”

  “Yeah, well, I’ll bet you we have another fight on our hands before we get to the palace.”

  “You’re on,” said Sophie. “How much d’you want to put on it?”

  “A million.”

  “A million? You haven’t got a million.”

  “What if I did?” said Ollie. “What use would it be to me? There’s nothing to spend it on. Money doesn’t mean anything anymore. What if we were to break into one of these fancy banks around here? Get into the vault and take all the cash out. What would we ever use it for? Lighting fires?”

  “Actually, I don’t think bank notes burn that well,” said Sophie. “But I take your point. So what do you want to bet with? How about my bow against your slingshot?”

  “Are you serious?”

  “No,” said Sophie. “My bow is just about the most important thing in the world right now.”

  “Same goes for my slingshot.”

  “So the bet’s off?”

  “I’ve got a package of cookies,” said Ollie. “You got any food?”

  “Can of carrots.”

  “Okay—I’ll bet my cookies against your carrots.”

  “These cookies?” said Sophie. “Are they stale?”

  “What do you think?”

  Sophie thought about it. “Okay,” she said at last. “You’re on.”

  They shook on it.

  Ollie won his bet sooner than he expected. As the main body of kids was crossing Berkeley Square, Achilleus and Big Mick, who had been scouting ahead, came running back, out of breath.

  “There’s grown-ups. Up ahead,” Achilleus panted.

  “Can we go around them?” Maxie asked.

  “They’re attacking some kids,” said Mick. “It don’t look good.”

  “How many are there?” said Blue.

  “About fifteen or twenty.”

  “Can we take them?”

  “Yeah,” said Achilleus. “We can take them.”

  “Okay,” said Maxie. “I’ll stay here with my squad. We’ll guard the little kids and the non-fighters. Blue, you take everyone else down. Once it’s safe, send someone back for us.”

  “You got it.”

  In less than a minute Maxie had the little kids safely in the center of the square, and Blue was hurrying off with Jester and the fighters. They turned a corner into a short straight street that ran down toward Green Park.

  “They’re just up ahead!” Achilleus yelled, and Blue slowed down.

  “Lewis, take the left flank,” he shouted. “Ollie and Sophie, keep your group on the right. Fire as soon as you can. The rest of us, wait for the missiles, then we go in hard and fast.”

  The street opened out on to the top of Piccadilly. Ahead was a wide four-lane highway, with the trees of Green Park on the far side. To the left was the Green Park tube station and the Ritz Hotel.

  A bloody battle was taking place in the middle of the road between five kids and a much larger group of grown-ups. This was a mean-looking bunch, very different from the ones in Selfridges. They were half naked, lean and battle-hardened. Twelve fathers with no shirts, and five mothers in vests. They all looked like they’d been regulars at the gym before the disaster, and they’d somehow kept fit since. Fit but not healthy. They were studded with boils and sores and festering, weeping wounds. They were massacring the kids—three of whom were already down. The two kids left standing were a boy and a girl. The girl’s face was covered in blood, but she was supporting the boy, who was on his last legs and clutching a sword. A ring of grown-ups was circling them, ready to finish them off.

  So far they hadn’t no
ticed the Holloway kids’ arrival.

  “Leave the ones in the circle,” said Ollie, fitting a shot to his sling. “We might hit the kids. Take the others out first.”

  As he spoke, the grown-ups realized that they had company, and they turned almost as one, fresh bloodlust lighting up their faces, and charged across the road.

  If they thought they were going to have an easy time of it, they were sadly mistaken. The battle was over almost before it began.

  Ollie’s team let loose a deadly volley. Six grown-ups went down straight away. Now Blue and Achilleus led the central group forward as Ollie’s team fell back. The surviving grown-ups carried on, too stupid to pull out of their assault. They were met by the fighters, who punched into them, weapons held high. Most grown-ups fell to the asphalt, but three escaped and ran off to the sides. Lewis’s team took down two. Ollie and Sophie got the other one. An arrow thudded into his back at the exact same moment a round from a slingshot got him in the head.

  Achilleus and Mick finished off the wounded.

  In a few seconds every one of the grown-ups lay dead on the ground.

  Jester whistled. “That was well done,” he said. “Very well done.”

  Ollie turned to Sophie. “You owe me some carrots,” he said, but there was no joy in it. The sight of the dead kids was too upsetting.

  Blue called Lewis’s team over. “Go back for Maeve,” he said. “Looks like we’ll need her. Tell them it’s all clear, but hold the others back out of the way until we’ve gotten rid of the bodies. I don’t want the small ones to see this.”

  While Achilleus and Mick organized the removal of the dead grown-ups, dragging them across the road and dumping them down the steps to the tube, Blue checked the kids.

  The three lying down were well dead.

  “Better get these out of the way as well,” said Blue. “No time for any fancy funerals.”

  The bloodied girl was sitting on the ground now, cradling the boy in her lap. She was staring into the distance, her eyes empty. Blue spoke to her, but she didn’t respond. Her face was slashed, a flap of skin hanging down from her forehead.

  “You’ll be all right,” said Blue. “You’re safe now.”

  Again she didn’t respond.

  Jester’s shadow fell across Blue.

  Blue squinted up at him. “I thought you said there were no grown-ups around here.”

  Jester shrugged. “This isn’t normal,” he said.

  “If you’ve been lying to us . . .” said Blue.

  “This isn’t normal,” Jester repeated, and bent to pick up the sword that the boy had dropped.

  Maeve arrived, her medical kit already out. She knelt down and checked the girl over.

  “I’ll need to disinfect that and put a bandage on it,” she said, unscrewing a glass bottle. “What about the boy?”

  Blue looked at the boy. He was lying very still. He tried to find his pulse. Shook his head. Gently he pried the girl’s fingers apart where they were gripping her friend’s jacket, and moved the body away.

  Ollie and Sophie had broken into a nearby shop and quickly built a makeshift stretcher out of some clothes racks and a curtain. They came over and settled the wounded girl onto it. When the rest of the group finally emerged on the main road, there was little sign that any fight had ever taken place here. It was quiet and peaceful, apart from the flies that were already gathering by the tube station steps.

  Maxie led the small kids across the road and into Green Park. The sunlight was dancing in the trees, birds were singing, but everyone was remembering the attack in Regent’s Park and looking nervously around. So it was a shock when they realized they’d come to the edge of the park, and they glanced up to see Canada Gate, and there, beyond it, the great ugly bulk of Buckingham Palace.

  They approached the building slowly, hardly able to believe that they’d arrived, let alone that they might spend their lives here. It was one of the most famous buildings in the world, and yet they were seeing it properly for the first time. Taking it in as a place to live rather than just another of London’s many tourist attractions. In front of it was a massive expanse of pink-colored circular drive, on an island in the center of which sat the white marble block of the Victoria Memorial, with Queen Victoria herself sitting on her throne, looking off down the Mall. The still-gleaming gold statue of winged Victory stood over her.

  Separating the palace from the public were tall black iron railings topped with gold spikes, and behind the railings was the parade ground where the famous Changing of the Guard used to take place. And then there was the building itself. This was no fairy-tale palace. It was a solid gray lump. Even though it was a good five stories high, its immense width made it look quite low and unimposing. The front was made up of three huge rectangular blocks linked by long sweeps of flat-fronted wall. Rows of neatly ordered windows ran from side to side with dull mathematical precision. The central block had an entrance at the base through an archway, above which sat the famous balcony where the Royal Family used to appear to cheering crowds on special occasions. Four pillars ran up from the balcony to the top of the building, supporting a wide triangle that could have come from a Greek temple.

  In the dead center of the roof was a flagpole, from which a ragged Union Jack hung limply against the windless sky.

  As the kids got nearer they saw that there were sentries in the sentry boxes. They hadn’t been expecting this. They had presumed there would be kids keeping watch, but not in the sentry boxes where the soldiers in their bearskin hats had once stood. These sentries were only kids, but they were still in uniform. Red school blazers with black trousers and black baseball caps. They had rifles and had even been standing stiffly at attention. As they saw the war party approaching, however, they came alive. A couple ran back through the archway, the rest walked toward the railings, guns at the ready. Somebody on the balcony shouted something, and the next moment there were faces at the windows. Soon more kids began to trickle out through the arch onto the parade ground. They came over to the railings and peered out, just as tourists in the past had peered in from the other side.

  They watched in silence. Hands up on the railings. Curious but watchful. There must have been about twenty of them, kids of all ages, clean and well dressed.

  Jester waved and called out, “Hey. It’s me. The Magic Man has returned. And look who I’ve brought with me!”

  Some of the kids’faces lit up, and they smiled. They peeled away from the railings and followed the group as they walked along to one of the ornate gateways.

  “Open up!” Jester called out, and a small boy ran from the archway, carrying a big set of keys. He rattled them in the lock and eventually the gates were opened. The war party trooped in, flanked by two lines of silent palace kids.

  Lewis looked around at the staring faces. It reminded him of visiting another school for a soccer match. Everyone was checking everyone else out. Suspicious. Who were these strange new kids? Who were the ones to look out for? Who could be safely ignored? Who might be a friend? Who was a potential enemy?

  More important: were there any nice-looking girls around?

  There was a shout from the balcony, and everyone looked up. A boy who looked to be about seventeen was standing there, with six more of the kids in uniform on either side of him. He was tall and very pale-skinned, with a spray of freckles over his face and neat curly black hair. He was wearing a suit and tie, and he was beaming down at them, his arms spread wide.

  “Magic Man!” he yelled. “Well done, Jester. We didn’t think we were ever going to see you again.”

  “You didn’t doubt me, did you, David?”

  “Never! But where are the others?”

  “They didn’t make it,” said Jester, and there were gasps and groans from the assembled palace kids. “But these guys,” Jester went on, trying to lighten the mood. “You should see them in action. They’re skilled fighters, David. They’re going to really make a difference.”

  David smiled. “
Well, come on in!”

  They passed through the archway into a large inner quadrangle. The newly arrived kids looked around, awed—they had never realized quite how big the palace was. It seemed to go on forever. Jester led them to a doorway on the far side of the quadrangle.

  Inside they passed through a grand stateroom into a wide, glass-roofed corridor lined with old paintings. From there they entered another large room that overlooked the gardens. There were more kids outside, tending crops. It was just how it had looked in Jester’s photographs, except the scale of it was more obvious. This wasn’t a garden so much as a small park.

  Maeve had a word with Jester, and he rounded up two boys. They took the stretcher with the wounded girl on it away. Maeve followed.

  In a few minutes David appeared with his escort. He beamed at the newcomers and went around shaking hands and being introduced. He had a confident, friendly, but slightly aloof air about him, and had obviously been to a good private school. When he’d said hello to everyone, he took them all outside and showed them around the gardens. They were growing potatoes and carrots, cabbages, beans, onions, squash. You name it, they had planted it. The crops were laid out in neat rows and were well tended. There were also two enclosures, one for pigs and one for chickens.

  They came across a serious-looking girl with glasses who was on her knees, weeding a patch of spinach.

  “This is Franny,” said David. “Our head gardener. Any questions about all this, she’s the person to ask.”

  Franny got up. She rubbed her hands clean on her apron and said hello. A little shy. A little awkward around David.

  As Franny chatted with the others, Maxie wandered away from the group and laughed, turning full circle on the lawn, trying to take it all in. The little kids were already running around and playing, all their cares forgotten.

  Godzilla was gamboling on the grass while his little group of caretakers ran with him. Shouting happily.

  Maxie closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. When she opened them again she saw David strolling back toward the house, talking to a group of kids.

 
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