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       The Enemy, p.19

           Charlie Higson
 

  “The kitchens here were designed for feeding lots of people,” he was explaining. “We’ve rigged up some of the stoves to work with wood. We can cook hot food. We even bake our own bread. We’ll prepare a welcoming feast. We’ve plenty of food stored up.”

  Maxie marveled at how organized everything was, and how relaxed everybody appeared to be. It was such a different feeling from being cooped up in Waitrose, surrounded by grown-ups. To think that all this time these kids had been living this easy life when she’d had to spend every other day fighting to stay in one piece.

  Arran would have been impressed with this.

  Arran ...

  Maxie was overcome with a bittersweet feeling. Like when a small cloud drifts over the sun on a summer’s day. She knew that elsewhere in London terrible scenes were being acted out. Kids were lost in a world of pain and misery. She wasn’t sure she deserved this level of peace and contentment. She sat down on the grass and let herself go. Tears pouring down her face. She looked around. She wasn’t alone. Other kids were sitting there, overwhelmed by it all. All the tension and fear of the last two days was coming out. Kids were hugging each other or sitting alone with their thoughts. Like her, many were crying.

  She also spotted some of the palace kids in little teary huddles. They had lost friends too, from Jester’s scouting party.

  Maeve came out of the building. She saw Maxie and sat down next to her, putting her arms around her.

  “Is this really happening?” she whispered.

  “I hope so,” said Maxie, and they laughed through their tears.

  “I’ve just been upstairs, speaking to a girl called Rose,” said Maeve. “They’ve got a proper sick bay and a sort of clinic. She’s been telling me about the medicines they’ve got. She even wears a nurse’s uniform. You should have seen how well they dealt with that poor girl we rescued. Oh, Maxie. It’s amazing. I never thought I’d see anything like this ever again. For the first time since the disaster I really feel like we might have a future.”

  “I know,” said Maxie. “And after what we’ve been through, I reckon we can cope with anything. We’re going to survive, Maeve.”

  Ollie was walking alone by the lake. There were ducks on it, probably fish swimming down below. He felt neither happy nor sad. He was thoughtful. This all looked fantastic on the surface.

  Franny had given him a small piece of lettuce to try. It had tasted delicious, but when he had pulled off one of the leaves he’d found a small slug on it.

  There was always a slug on the lettuce.

  This was too good to be true.

  He had never trusted Jester, and he didn’t trust David.

  He wasn’t going to let his guard down just yet.

  Being careful had kept him alive this far.

  There was no reason to stop being careful now.

  David was true to his word. That evening the kids sat down to a five-star meal in the state dining room. The newcomers couldn’t get over how fancy the room was, and how weird it was eating in here, like being in a lush film. The room, which was painted a deep red, was lit by countless candles in silver candlesticks. Along one side, tall glass doors looked out over the garden, and the wall opposite was hung with paintings of British monarchs. The kids sat around a massive polished wooden table piled with food. Three giant mirrors at one end of the room reflected the whole surreal scene.

  The kids expected that at any moment a furious adult would come in and tell them they didn’t belong here, and to get lost.

  The food was simple but good, with a choice for everyone. Spaghetti, steamed vegetables, baked potatoes, and omelettes, with warm crusty bread. All washed down with jugs of cool, clear water. The bread was slightly heavy, but it was the first bread any of the Holloway crew had tasted in over a year.

  They were all starting to relax and get to know each other. There was a noisy level of chatter around the long table.

  Maxie found herself sitting with Franny, the gardener. She was very thin and jolly and well spoken. Rattling away between mouthfuls.

  “I can honestly say I’m happier now than I have ever been in my life. I mean, of course I miss my family, but I’d been at boarding school so I hadn’t seen that much of them lately anyway, no, that’s not fair, I loved them dearly and I do miss them, but David’s got everything so well organized here, he really is a genius, we worship him.”

  “Worship him?”

  “It’s just a figure of speech, I don’t mean to say we throw ourselves to the ground in front of him and offer up thanks, though I think some of the younger children would like to, but he really is clever, things are a lot better all around than they were before.”

  “Are you joking, Franny?” said Maxie. “The world’s fallen apart.”

  “No, I’m quite serious,” said Franny. “Think about it, Maxine.”

  “It’s Maxie.”

  “Sorry, yes.” Franny giggled. “I used to know a Maxine at school, it’s sort of stuck in my head, she was really into horses, she’s probably dead now, poor girl, but what was I saying? Oh yes. The world. Think about it. The oceans are no longer being polluted, the fish aren’t being wiped out, they’re breeding now, multiplying like mad, in a couple of years there’ll be more fish in the seas than there have been for centuries, and it’s not just fish, there’s whales, dolphins, turtles, wild animals everywhere. Think of the forests growing, the trees no longer being cut down. The world is going back to how it should be.”

  “But I’ll never see any of those fish,” said Maxie. “Or those whales. Or any lions or tigers. I’m never going to set foot in a rain forest now, am I? I won’t even be able to watch any old DVDs of them without electricity. What does the future hold? It’s like going back to the Middle Ages. Nobody knowing what was going on beyond their front doorsteps. All I’ll ever know is this. This little bit of London.”

  “So?” said Franny. “As long as you are happy. And if the world is happy, we can be happy. The world will heal itself, the damage that man did will be repaired, future generations will maybe look after it better.”

  “Future generations?”

  “Of course.”

  Ollie leaned over. “How do you know when we get old we won’t all get the sickness?”

  Franny made a face and shrugged. “David will think of something,” she said.

  “You reckon?”

  “Let’s not talk about gloomy things like that,” said Franny. “Not tonight.”

  “Whatever.”

  Ollie looked around the room. He noticed that not every palace kid was eating with them. Some of the boys in uniform were sitting by the doors, still clutching their rifles. He didn’t like the atmosphere it created. As if David and his friends were trying to recreate the days of royalty. The enemy was outside roaming the streets, not in here. What were they trying to prove with this display?

  He could understand it if they were patroling the grounds—which he had no doubt they were, given the level of David’s organization—it just about made sense to have sentries on duty out front, though even that had looked a bit much to him. They would have been a lot more useful watching from the roof. Whatever. They certainly didn’t need these poor sad sacks in uniform watching them eat.

  There was something military about the boys’ behavior. They didn’t speak. They stayed very still. It was creepy.

  Ollie got up from the table and slipped out of the room. Kids had been coming and going all the time. Some using the toilet, some bringing in food or clearing away dirty dishes. Nobody noticed him leave.

  He walked down the corridor as if he were heading for the toilet, checked that no one was looking, and kept on walking.

  It was time for a little snooping.

  Blue was at one end of the table with Jester and David. He was quizzing David. Anxious to find out how everything worked at the palace. “So are you in charge, then, Dave?” he asked, shoveling food into his mouth.

  “He doesn’t like ‘Dave,’” said Jester. “He lik
es to be called David.”

  “Sorry. David.” Blue took a sip of water. “David what?”

  “Actually my name is David King.”

  Blue spluttered, spitting water onto his plate. “You are not serious, man?”

  “I am.”

  “Well, remember. Just because you live in a palace it don’t make you a real king.”

  “No?” David smiled.

  “No way, man. We all used to live in a shop; didn’t make me a shopkeeper.”

  “I never said I was a king anyway. It’s just my name.”

  “Well, you certainly act like you’re the big cheese.”

  “When we first got here it was chaos,” said Jester. “We were all over the place. But if you want to survive you have to be organized. If you want to grow food, to drink clean water, to stay warm, to defend yourselves, all those things need organization. David arrived a little after the rest of us. He pulled us all together. He organized us.”

  Blue glanced at Jester. “Things are going to be very different from now on, man. Very different.”

  “How so?” said David.

  “How so? Well, for one, you ain’t gonna be organizing me, pal. Right? Ain’t nobody gonna be organizing me. And that’s a fact. You ain’t my king. I never voted for you.”

  “You don’t vote for a king.”

  “Listen—”

  “We’ll talk about it later,” said David, smiling. “It’s no big deal. We’ll work out a way that we can all get along.”

  “Why can’t we talk about it now?”

  “Let’s enjoy the food. You all need to settle in and find your feet. In the morning everything will seem so much simpler.”

  Ollie followed his nose toward the kitchens, making sure that he wasn’t being followed. Most of the palace was eerily dark and empty, but it made it easy to stay hidden. A staircase near the state dining room led down to the service level. There was a lot of noise coming from the kitchen, and Ollie approached cautiously. Standing in the corridor was a large plastic bin on wheels. He looked inside. Empty tins of dog food.

  That explained the spaghetti with meat sauce.

  Oh well, he’d eaten worse.

  He continued and found a spot where he could see into the kitchen without being seen. The room was packed. One group of kids was sweating away at the stoves, another clattering dishes at the sinks, immersed in clouds of steam and smoke. Yet more kids were crowded around a scrubbed wooden table. There looked to be about twenty of them, some in uniform, some still grubby from working in the garden. They weren’t eating anything like what was being served upstairs. They had bowls of some kind of thin stew or soup. As Ollie watched, a boy stood up and shouted over to the cooks.

  “Hey! Is there any bread to go with this?”

  “You’re joking, aren’t you?” one of the cooks shouted back. “They’re scarfing next month’s supply upstairs.”

  “They’re scarfing everything upstairs. We’ll starve.”

  “We’ll make do.”

  Ollie had seen enough. He slipped away. So David was lying to them, pretending they had more food than they really did. What was he up to? Showing off, probably. For now they would have to sit tight and see what happened. Ollie knew that he ought to be angry, but he was actually quite impressed. David was a clever boy, devious. He knew a bit of psychology. He understood about politics. About spin. He had achieved a hell of a lot here, obviously not quite as much as he was pretending, but it was still remarkable. Ollie would need to be very careful—they all would—but David was a good person to be on the right side of.

  Ella was eating her dinner slowly and quietly. Godzilla was under the table chewing on a piece of leather. Occasionally she would feel him bump reassuringly against her leg. She was thinking about Sam. He’d have liked it here. He’d have liked playing in the garden and running around the palace, looking at all the nice things. She’d seen a painting of a man in armor. Sam would have really liked that. He liked knights. He always loved dressing up in his play armor. She’d tried to play with him, as a princess, but he didn’t like princesses. He only wanted other knights to fight with. She wasn’t very good at fighting and always ended up getting hurt and crying.

  Was he really in heaven like Whitney had said? Ella didn’t exactly know what heaven was. She’d always imagined it looked a bit like this. A nice clean palace with pictures and a garden to play in and a nice man looking after you. And nice food.

  She’d never liked vegetables before, but now they tasted lovely. So many things had changed. Too many. She’d always thought Sam would be there to look after her, even though he was only small. She was nearly as big as him.

  Now he was gone.

  She said a silent prayer. Sent it up to heaven.

  Sam, if you can hear me, I hope you’ve got nice food where you are. Some vegetables like these. They’re meant to be good for you. So eat them all up, like I’m doing. When I die I’ll come and see you, and we’ll be together again. But for now I’m going to think of you safe and happy and playing knights with a friend.

  Love from Ella. Your sister.

  P.S. I got a good long turn with Godzilla today after we got here. Godzilla is very happy.

  P.P.S. I forgot, you never met Godzilla. He is a puppy and is very cute. He belonged to a boy called Joel who got killed by monkeys. I think the monkeys were sick. Monkeys are usually nice. At least in stories.

  P.P.P.S. Maybe you’ll meet Joel where you are. Say hello. He is nice.

  P.P.P.P.S. Good night, Sam. The others call you Small Sam. To me you’re just Sam—my brother.

  I miss you. I wish I was with you.

  They put something in the soup to make you sleep.”

  “What do you mean? Why would they do that?”

  “Why do you think? They needed to chain you up. They’re keeping us prisoner.”

  Sam had woken up in a different train car. There was no fancy furniture in here, no curtains or carpets. There was straw on the floor, a bucket at one end to use as a toilet, and the doors were jammed shut. Otherwise it was a normal car.

  There were handcuffs around his wrists. A thin chain led from them up to the ceiling, where it was attached to the handrail. He had room to move around, but not far.

  There were three other kids in here. Two were asleep. Twins. A boy and a girl, about Sam’s age. They looked clean and well fed, but a little feeble, and their skin was very pale. The third kid was a girl, older than Sam, quite fat, but with withered, skinny legs. She sat on one of the seats and seemed to have some trouble breathing. Maybe it was asthma?

  Her name was Rhiannon. She said she’d been here about three weeks. As far as she could tell.

  “Why would they keep us prisoner?” said Sam. “They seemed nice.”

  “When I first came here,” said Rhiannon, “there was another boy. His name was Mark Watkins. He’d been here a long time. He could hardly stand up. His muscles was all wasted away. They’d been feeding him canned vegetables and dog biscuits. Then one morning he wasn’t here. I never saw him again. But I saw Rachel and Nick. They was stuffing their faces with meat. I saw them taking away garbage bags after. They’re keeping us like cattle.”

  “They can’t,” Sam protested. “They’re not like the other grown-ups. They’re not diseased. They’re not crazy.”

  “They still need to eat.”

  “They can scavenge . . .”

  “They want meat,” said Rhiannon. “I’ve asked them about it. They deny it. But why else would we be here? People will do anything to survive. I’ve read stories. People stranded at sea, or in plane crashes. They end up eating each other. Just to live.”

  “You’re wrong,” said Sam. “You’ve got no proof.”

  Rhiannon nodded at his handcuffs. “Ain’t that proof enough for you?”

  “But Nick saved my life,” said Sam, close to tears.

  “If a wolf attacks his sheep, the shepherd kills the wolf,” said Rhiannon. “But he still eats the sheep when he’s hu
ngry.”

  “I’m not a sheep,” said Sam. “I’m a boy.”

  “To them you’re a sheep. Or a pig,” said Rhiannon. “They feed us. They give us water. They check we’re not sick. They won’t eat us if we’re sick. That’s why I’m still alive, I reckon. They’re waiting to see if my chest infection is serious. There was another kid, a girl, never even got to know her name. She kept throwing up. Was too ill even to speak. They took her out. Don’t know what they did to her. Maybe they fed her to the rats or to their horrible fat cat. I call them Spiderman and Spiderwoman. It’s like we’re bugs caught in their web. They’ll keep us here until we’re ready to be eaten.”

  “We’ve got to escape,” said Sam, jumping up and pulling at his chain.

  Rhiannon snorted.

  “I did it before,” said Sam. “I escaped from a nest of grown-ups at Arsenal stadium. I’m Sam the Giant Slayer. I’ve come all the way here from Holloway by myself. I’m not going to let these buggers hurt me. We’ll all get out.”

  “Don’t you think I’ve tried?” said Rhiannon, shaking her head. “I’ve thought and I’ve thought, I’ve looked and looked, but there’s no way out of here.”

  Sam sat down miserably. To have come all this way and end up like this was terrible, just terrible.

  But he was Sam the Giant Slayer.

  And he wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

  This is ridiculous.”

  “Let’s just go with the flow, yeah? We’re their guests at the moment. If we want to live here permanently, we’re going to have to learn to get along.”

  It was ten in the morning. The most senior kids from the Holloway crew had been brought to somewhere called the Green Drawing Room and were standing around on the plush carpet, waiting. It was a ridiculously ornate room with patterned green wallpaper and a huge crystal chandelier dangling from the middle of the over-decorated ceiling. Apparently the palace kids were organizing some kind of ceremony for them. But it was taking forever.

 
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