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       The Enemy, p.20

           Charlie Higson
 

  The newcomers had spent the night in their sleeping bags on cots in the ballroom, which had been made up as a huge dormitory. Most had slept well. Feeling secure and safe for the first time in a long while. They’d woken feeling excited, and eager to explore more of their new home.

  Freak had announced that he was organizing a soccer match. He’d found a silver cup in a trophy cabinet and had renamed it the “Arran Memorial Cup.” Now most of the kids were outside playing, but not this six. From Waitrose there were Maxie, Ollie, and Achilleus. From Morrisons, Blue, Whitney, and Lewis. They were alone except for two of the uniformed boys, who were standing guard on either side of the door through to the next room.

  Blue was itchy about the whole thing. Convinced that David was trying to keep him down. He’d been wanting to talk to Jester about it since dinner last night, but hadn’t seen anything of him. Now the six of them had been left standing around like fools for the better part of an hour. There had been rain in the night, but the day was fine and bright, and the thought of just sitting out in the sun unwinding was very enticing.

  The Holloway kids were bored and restless and didn’t like being made to feel second best, but Ollie was urging them to be cautious, and tried to calm them down, even though he knew all too well that David wasn’t telling them the whole truth. Ollie wanted David to play all his cards before he played any of his own. He’d long ago learned that it was best to work behind the scenes. A quiet word here, a suggestion there, was always better than blundering in with all guns blazing. He recognized Jester as someone very similar to himself. Which was probably why he’d never trusted him.

  “If nothing happens in the next five minutes, I’m outta here,” said Blue. “They’re pulling our chains.”

  “Yeah,” drawled Lewis. “We don’t want them to think we’ll do whatever they say. We don’t want to look like wusses.”

  “All the same,” said Ollie, “don’t you want to see what this is all about?”

  “I’ll tell you what it’s all about,” said Blue. “Respect.”

  “Blue’s right,” said Maxie. “I’ve had enough of this. Let’s go.”

  “Remember, we’re guests here,” said Ollie. “They can kick us all out if they want.”

  “Why go to all the trouble of sending Jester to find other kids if they’re just going to kick us out?” said Achilleus. “They want something from us. That’s for sure.”

  “There’s a couple of sweet-looking girls who want my body,” said Lewis sleepily.

  “Who’d want your scraggly body?” said Whitney. “There’s some buff guys here. Guys that don’t reek.”

  Some of the kids had had baths last night, but there hadn’t been enough hot water for everyone, so they were using the bathroom on a rotating basis. They’d made up a schedule and the girls were going first.

  “Come on,” said Achilleus. “Nothing’s happening here. Let’s go.”

  “Yeah.”

  Just as they were turning to leave, the doors to the next room opened a crack and a boy came through.

  “I’m really sorry, guys,” he said. “Didn’t mean to leave you hanging around so long. I’m Pod, by the way.”

  Pod was big and handsome with a thick thatch of fair hair streaked with blond highlights. He wore jeans with a rugby shirt, the collar turned up. He seemed like the type who went skiing and played rugby and met up with his friends in Cornwall every year to party and go surfing.

  The others grumbled hellos, making sure he noticed how pissed off they all were.

  “We wanted everything to be ready for you, yeah,” said Pod. “It’s taken us a smidgen longer than we thought. Our fault. Sorry, guys. Now, I didn’t get the chance to say hello last night. I was out on patrol with the lads. I’m sort of in charge of security. Though I gather from my friend Jester that you lot could show me a thing or two about fighting. I’m really looking forward to working with you.”

  “What exactly are you getting ready in there?” Whitney asked. “You baking a cake or something?”

  “You’ll see. We wanted it to be a surprise.”

  “I don’t like surprises,” said Blue.

  “It’ll be worth it,” said Pod. “Trust me.”

  “Don’t know you,” said Blue. “So don’t trust you.”

  “Fair enough,” said Pod. “Yeah, good philosophy, I like it. Now, listen, I know you’ve all been through a lot. But just remember—we’re the good guys, yeah?”

  The door opened again. This time it was Jester.

  “Do you want to come on through?” he said, standing aside to clear the way.

  “Why not?” said Achilleus.

  None of them had known what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this.

  The next room was long and red, with several massive chandeliers, though the only light was coming through floor-to-ceiling windows down one side. At the far end was a row of thrones set out on a dais beneath a long plush red drape that hung from a gold canopy.

  Seated on the thrones were seven people in various stages of decay. The youngest looked to be about sixteen, the oldest at least sixty. They were dressed in formal clothing that included robes and sashes, tiaras and medals. Diamond jewelry sparkled on the women, while the men feebly held on to ceremonial swords. They looked like they didn’t have a clue what was going on, and were very sick indeed. Their clothes hung loosely on them, and their scrawny necks poked out of their tops like vultures. They had sunken cheeks and waxy, sweaty skin marred by spreading sores and boils. But they were quiet; just sitting, staring with big blank, uncomprehending eyes.

  Four boys in uniform stood near the thrones, rifles at their sides. David was standing off to one side with Franny and another girl in a white nurse’s uniform. Maxie assumed this must be the Rose Maeve had told her about. Two more girls in nurse’s uniforms stood a little behind her. Jester and Pod went over to join them.

  “Welcome to the Throne Room,” said David.

  Maxie was staring at the grown-ups. “Who are they?” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

  “They’re all that’s left of the Royal Family,” said Jester. “We found them here when we arrived. Hiding. None of the big names. Not the Queen or anything. But they’re still royal.”

  “They’re a mess,” said Lewis.

  “Well, they’re sick, but not too sick,” said David. “Who knows, maybe it’s their royal blood, their blue blood. Maybe it’s protected them from the worst.”

  An old lady lifted her hand; on it was a grubby white glove. She seemed to be trying to say something. She gave up.

  “At first they weren’t so bad,” said Jester. “They could talk and move about. I must admit they’ve gotten worse, though. Now they just sit there, slowly rotting. Two of them have died. I guess this bunch won’t live much longer.”

  “That’s why we need to move quickly,” said David. “We need to set ourselves up in London before it’s too late. If I can say I’m putting the Royal Family back on the throne, it’ll make everything easier.”

  “Whoa, hang on,” said Maxie. “What are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about sorting London out. Putting everything right. We need to take control, and people will be much more likely to look up to us, to follow us, if we have some sort of authority.”

  “What people?” said Maxie. “I still don’t get you.”

  “Ordinary people. They need things like this, things from the past, to reassure them.”

  “This lot wouldn’t reassure anyone,” said Whitney.

  “This is the Royal Family,” said David importantly. “Legitimate rulers of England.”

  “No way, man,” said Blue. “It’s a joke.”

  “The kids out there don’t have to know how bad off they are.”

  “They’re grown-ups,” said Lewis. “Everyone knows how bad grown-ups are.”

  “We’ll lie. Say they’re special. Show them on the balcony now and then. From a distance they’ll look fine.”

&nb
sp; A man flopped to the floor and started to crawl off the dais toward the kids, saliva dripping from his open mouth. Two of the guards picked him up and put him back on his throne.

  “Don’t worry, they’re completely harmless,” said David. “But in the right hands they could be a powerful weapon. Other children out there will—”

  “Wait a minute,” said Achilleus. “You keep talking about other kids. What other kids? I thought this was it.”

  “There are children all over the place,” said David. “Children like you. We just have to find them. That’s what Jester was trying to do. Our plan is to organize the whole of London.”

  “By organize, you mean rule?” said Blue.

  “Call it what you like,” said David. “But if we’re to stand any chance of creating a secure and prosperous new world to live in, we all have to work together. And for that we need a figurehead.”

  “That lot of zombies?” said Blue scornfully, pointing to the grown-ups on the dais. “They’re gonna look great on the stamps.”

  “They’re a symbol,” said David. “That’s all. Before, when we had a queen on the throne, she had no real power.”

  “At least she could walk and talk,” said Blue.

  “As I say,” David went on, “nobody needs to know just how sick they are.”

  “So if they’re like, the Royal Family, what does that make you, then?” asked Whitney. “The prime minister?”

  “I am a sort of lord chamberlain,” said David.

  “A lord what?”

  “The person who puts the king’s will into practice. When the king is weak, the chamberlain has the power. In times of crisis you need a strong person in control. But the Royal Family can unite everyone and provide a link to the past.”

  “We don’t want no link to the past,” said Whitney. “We don’t want no new royal family. You think this is going to make things easier? This bunch of idiots on the throne? You’re crazy.”

  At this, David stormed over to Whitney and shouted into her face.

  “I am not crazy! I am the only person who can pull this country back together. I am your only hope for a secure future.”

  Whitney grabbed David by the throat and put her face very close to his.

  “Don’t you ever shout at me again, boy,” she said, her voice cold and calm. David’s face went scarlet.

  The four guards leveled their guns at Whitney. She gave them a look of utter scorn.

  “Do you even know how to use those things?”

  “Do you want to risk finding out?” said David, his voice tight and high.

  Whitney let him go.

  “What you gonna do with us if we don’t want to go along with this?” she said. “Execute us?”

  “Wait, wait, wait,” said Jester, putting up his hands. “Hold on a minute. This hasn’t gotten off to a good start. We didn’t expect you to get so upset about all this.”

  “Then why didn’t you tell us about it before?” said Blue.

  “The time wasn’t right. We wanted to show you the palace first. All we’ve achieved.”

  “This is too weird,” Maxie muttered.

  “Look,” said David, rubbing his throat, “all this arguing is getting us nowhere.”

  “I don’t want no one telling me what to do,” said Blue.

  “Fine,” said David. “Nobody’s going to tell you what to do. If you’d only listen.”

  “I’m listening.”

  “Good. Okay. This is how it works. I don’t order anyone about. I just organize things. Everyone has their own job. Franny’s in charge of growing food, for instance, Rose is in charge of the medical facilities, and so on. What I’m proposing is that you, Blue, would be our commander in chief, our general. You would train the troops and lead them. Everyone else here would keep the job they have now. You’d still be in charge of your own people. Things wouldn’t really be that different.”

  Blue grinned. “General Blue?” he said. “I like the sound of that.”

  “One thing?” said Ollie, who up until now had been silent.

  “What?”

  “This army? What’s it for?”

  “To fight grown-ups, of course,” said Blue.

  “Jester told us the grown-ups had all been driven out of the area.”

  “It’s true,” said David. “But there are other problems.”

  “Like what?” said Ollie.

  “Like St. James’s Park,” said David.

  “Where’s that?” asked Achilleus.

  “Just over the road,” said Maxie. “It runs all the way down to Trafalgar Square.”

  “So what about it?”

  “We want to expand our farming activities,” said Jester, “and turn the whole of St. James’s into fields. But there’s a group of squatters who’ve set up a sort of camp there, and they don’t want anything to do with us. We need to sort them out.”

  “These are kids, right?” said Maxie. “Like us?”

  “Kids, yes, but not like us. They’re not organized. They just run wild. They’re a real threat. If we can sort them out—”

  “Sort them out?” Maxie interrupted. “What does that mean? You want us to attack them?”

  “I don’t think it’ll come to that. I think a show of strength would be enough.”

  “We don’t want to fight no other kids,” said Whitney.

  “We might have to,” said David. “If we want to control all of London.”

  “No way,” said Whitney.

  “You should see them,” said Franny angrily. “We had amazing stuff planted there, they just ripped it all up and then attacked us when we went to try and fix things. We’re stuck here in the palace gardens now. And with all these extra mouths to feed . . .”

  “You got us here as mercenaries, didn’t you?” said Maxie, giving David a withering look.

  “Jester tells me you’re really good fighters.”

  “Yeah, what’s the problem?” said Achilleus. “We’ve had to fight to survive. If these other kids are causing problems, we sort them out. It’s what we do. I’m with you, David.”

  “What about the rest of you?” said David.

  “I need to think,” said Blue. “Maybe see these kids for myself. It’s a lot to take in, man.”

  “We are not fighting other kids,” said Whitney. “I’ll decide,” Blue snapped. Jester suppressed a smile. Maxie turned to Ollie. “What do you think?” “We need to talk.”

  Sam had had a bad time, slipping in and out of sleep and troubled by half-waking dreams. It didn’t make it any easier having his hands locked together. Although he could just lie down on the seats, the handcuffs bit into him and rubbed his skin.

  He was woken by a sound from outside. Something scraping along the roof of the car. It moved, and stopped and waited, then moved again. Little cautious movements like an animal would make. The car creaked slightly. Sam stared up with gritty, sore eyes. They were playing tricks on him in the half-light, and he kept thinking he could see something coming through the roof. Some dark and twisted animal unfolding out of the shadows. Then he would blink and it was gone.

  He felt groggy and confused. Cold. Helpless.

  After a while he became aware of another sound. Like some small creature whimpering. He eventually realized it was one of the twins crying.

  It was the boy. Sam talked to him and tried to comfort him. His name was Jason. He was very weak and wanted his mom and dad. Sam didn’t really know what to say. He wished he had someone to comfort him, but at least it took his mind off his own troubles for a moment.

  Suddenly there was a roar and a thud, and Sam nearly jumped out of his skin as the door slid open. Nick came in, carrying a plastic basin. In the permanent nighttime world of the tube station, Sam had no idea what time it was.

  Nick looked around at the four kids.

  “Who needs the john?” he asked. Jason said very quietly that he did. Nick unlocked the end of his chain from the handrail above and led him to the bucket at the other end. Jaso
n could hardly walk; his legs were flabby and weak. Nick almost had to carry him.

  Nick stood over Jason as he went to the toilet. Sam didn’t think he could go with someone watching him, and was determined to hold it as long as he could.

  Afterward Nick slopped some food from the basin into four plastic bowls. It was porridge. Made with salt and water. Sam put his to the side to eat later.

  “Best eat it now, kiddo,” Nick commanded. “I need the bowls back.”

  Sam reluctantly did as he was told, shoveling the gloopy porridge into his dry mouth. When they finished eating, Nick passed around a bottle of water for them to drink and cleaned out some of the dirty straw where one of the twins had had an accident in the night.

  Sam plucked up the courage to speak. “Why are you keeping us prisoner?”

  “Prisoner? We’re not keeping you prisoner, kiddo,” Nick said, not unkindly.

  “Then why are we chained up in here?”

  “For your own safety. Don’t want you wandering off out there and getting lost. Or caught by no nasties.”

  “You’re lying.”

  “Listen,” said Nick, ruffling Sam’s hair, “we just want you to get fit and well and eat properly, then we’ll see about what we’re going to do with you. Now don’t go worrying yourself. You need to rest.”

  He tidied the carriage, tested all the chains, and went out before closing the door behind him and wedging it fast. There were candles still burning on the platform, but inside the car it was dark. Sam sat there miserably, trying to keep bleak thoughts from his mind. Once again he heard the thing on the roof. Shuffling, scraping, sliding.

  “What’s that noise?” he said.

  “Rats, probably,” said Rhiannon. “Or the cat looking for rats.”

  “Do rats ever get in here?”

  “No. Nothing gets in here except Nick and Rachel.”

  The shuffling noise seemed to shift to the side of the roof.

  “I don’t think it’s rats,” said Sam.

  “Forget it,” said Rhiannon. “You hear all sorts of things down here.”

 
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